Air Batang: A Tioman Tale Part Two

Michael CarterRead about Michael’s arrival to Pulau Tioman in his last article.

Air Batang, Pulau Tioman, Malaysia

After spending a couple of days in Salang, I caught a water taxi a short distance south along the coast to Air Batang, Pulau Toman, Malaysia. I stayed in a bungalow by the shore at Nazri’s. It had a fantastic sea view and sounds of the surf to lull me to sleep at night. I was a 10-minute walk from the Air Batang jetty and a 50-minute walk to the largest village on the island, Kampang Tekek. Like Salang, there were no roads, only pathways. After just a 3-minute walk from my bungalow, I found Ray’s Dive Adventure. Ray’s became my closest depot for beer, sunsets, and star-gazing at night.

My bungalow at Nazri's in Air Batang.I started suffering from a chronic condition known as IPI (Island Pace Inertia). No matter which island in the world one travels to, that traveler eventually succumbs to IPI. In my case, it took about five minutes for the condition to afflict me.

As I was still on the northwest side of the island, I had come to accept that I wouldn’t have time to see nearly as much of the island as I originally thought. Wanting to explore a bit more, I considered taking a day-trip out of Tekek. I thought about going on a 4-wheel drive tour for a day. As the largest city on the island, Tekek actually does have a road. There’s one leading to the east side of the island. Alas, the tour required a minimum of four passengers, and no one else had signed up. I decided to rent a bicycle instead, and pedal my butt around Air Batang and into Tekek. This turned out to be a great decision.

Mother NatureOther than by foot, my primary mode of transportation.

I cycled along the coast and made numerous stops to gaze into the crystal clear water below. I saw plenty of marine life species without donning a mask and snorkel, which thrilled me I managed to rip off a large toenail earlier in the trip and water activities would have only aggravated it. 

Tioman seemed to have more cats than people, but for lovers of slightly wilder life, there was a plethora of free-roaming creatures. Countless colourful birds, butterflies, and playful monkeys. Lovers of lizards and things that slither would be in heaven here. Monitor lizards ambled along the pathways everywhere. It seemed like every time I glanced up into the tree branches, I caught a glimpse of a python lazing away.

The Tiong,  a reddish-orange bird with a bright yellow beak and white trim on its wing, has become a symbol of Tioman. So much so, that a large statue of a Tiong is erected in a Tekek park.

The Tiong Statue in Tekek.

Last Hurrah in Tekek

Air Batang was my comfort zone, but I cycled in all directions daily. I happened upon a place near the end of the marine park jetty called Go Deeper. It had a modernistic, yet funky, decor. The food was crap but the beer was ice cold, and the cheapest I had come across on the island. I sort of liked the place and decided to move from my bungalow in Air Batang to Go Deeper for my last night. The lodgings were more expensive than Nazri’s, but they offered me a free bicycle to use and free transportation in a sidecar to the early-morning ferry at the jetty in Tekek, which was four kilometers away. 

The beach at Air Batang

The rooms were refurbished cylindrical-drainage-pipes-turned-hotel-rooms with air-conditioning, plus a private bathroom behind. It seemed ideal for a final night.

I had neglected to bring a travel alarm with me, so I was at the mercy of the Go Deeper staff to wake me up at 6:00am, so I could shower and leave by sidecar to the jetty in time to catch the 7:00am ferry. I had already purchased an open ticket, but still needed to arrive in time to exchange it for a boarding pass.

A picture of the refurbished cylindrical rooms at Go Deeper in Air Batang.

An Early Morning

Tioman is a duty-free zone. Notably, I still had one bottle of wine left from my purchase at the Tekek Duty-Free Centre. For my final Tioman night, I cocooned myself into my cozy drainage pipe and liberated the cork from my last bottle of wine. Fond memories of the island flashed back through my mind, but I was afraid to fall asleep. Past experience taught me never to rely on ‘wake-up’ calls or services.

The Go Deeper Hotel, at the foot of the Marine Park jetty.

Nonetheless, the wine gods insisted otherwise, and I was lights out before even finishing the bottle.

The call of nature woke me up at some unknown time. After peering outside and seeing black, I had no real idea of the time. It could have been 2:00am or 6:00am. I remembered that the bar/reception area had a large-faced clock, which was easily visible because three sides of the eating area were open-air. I figured it made sense to leave my room and make the 45-second walk to check the time. It was pitch black all around, with a tiny sliver of a moon barely illuminating my path. There was just enough natural starlight to make out the time. Although looking at the clock almost seemed like looking through a pair of eyeglasses made of bubble wrap, I hazily deciphered the time. It was 4:30am.

Nightfall in Air Batang

Trust the Wake-Up Call

With just an hour-and-a-half left, I felt too afraid to go back to sleep and risk not getting up in time. I still didn’t have faith in receiving the wake-up knock-knock. Besides, I had about a third of a bottle of wine to polish off before departure anyway. Ahhh — I had ninety minutes or so to relax and sip on some coffee. Elysium.

The view from the front of my bungalow at Air Batang

It seemed like only a few minutes — and it was — had gone by when I heard a tap-tap on my glass door. My 6:00am wake-up call had arrived, along with my sidecar driver waiting for me when I was ready. My clock-reading skills must have failed me. More than likely, I had woken up around 5:30 instead of the perceived 4:30.

I forfeited my morning shower in order to finish the wine at a respectable pace and made it to the jetty on time.

by Michael Carter

A Tioman Tale

A Bit About Pulau Tioman, Malaysia

Pulau Tioman is a member of the Seribuat island group. It is about 20 kilometers by 12 kilometers in size and lies off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia in the South China Sea, 51 kilometers northeast of the city of Mersing. Designated as a marine park, it has a no-fishing zone that surrounds it and thus, an abundance of sea life. Because of this, it attracts many scuba divers from Malaysia and Singapore.

Salang is on the northwest coast of the island, which was also my first port of call.

Diving is the big draw for Salang Tioman
Diving is the big draw for Salang.

First Impressions

Jetty at Salang
The jetty at Salang

My day started with a six-hour bus ride from Kuala Lumpur to Mersing, followed by three hours of hanging out in Mersing, waiting for the ferry. Followed by the additional three-hour ferry ride itself, I arrived in Salang around 9:00 p.m. burnt out and exhausted.

I disembarked and walked down the jetty, which jutted well out past the shallow waters of Salang’s beach. When I reached land, I faced the proverbial fork in the road dilemma. Do I go right and check out the short string of lights down the coast? Or do I go left, which had a larger light show?

Arriving this time of night always poses some risks of encountering ‘no vacancy’ signs on potential places for lodging. The first couple of places I walked by were full. The third place had but one room left — a slightly expensive triple room. I took it, figuring I could look for other options in the morning.

An Eight-Legged Surprise

SalangI got the key and decided to take a shower before registering. I immediately spotted a voyeur. Eight legs and two big eyes were watching me. This arachnid was the size of the palm of my hand. It could have as easily embraced a hockey puck. It was a strange pewter-grey colour. Plus, it was a species I had never seen before. It nimbly darted to and fro along the wall, quickly evading the bullets of water from the shower head.

I grabbed the plastic water pressure knob – SNAP! The plastic broke off in my hand. There was now water spraying in all directions with no visible way to stop it, much to the spider’s chagrin, I am sure. I checked under the sink, behind the toilet, virtually everywhere searching in vain to locate the master valve to cut off the water supply. No luck.

My next step was to get dressed and drop the water bomb on the receptionist.

Chaos prevailed as the manager tried to desperately dig into his Plumbing 101 arsenal of tricks. He eventually found a master valve outside the room. The idea of staying in a slightly expensive triple room with no water no longer appealed to this tired traveler. Without having registered or paid for the room, my quest for lodgings continued.

What now?

Harbour Centre in Mersing to purchase ferry tickets
Harbour Centre in Mersing to purchase ferry tickets.

I went back toward the jetty and must have tried seven or eight places, which were all either full or had darkened reception areas. It was now past 10 p.m. and things in laid-back Salang had closed and went quite early. I decided to go back to the scene of the broken shower as I had noticed they had a couple of hammocks slung under the trees by their restaurant area. This also seemed to be one of only two places in Salang that sold beer. I figured I could at least drink a few beers until they closed, then order half a dozen more and curl up in the hammock for the night. 

But before I made it back there, I noticed a small series of lights leading away from the shoreline. I deviated from my hammock plan and came across a group of posh-looking cabins. I decided to give it a try. They had one cabin left, which was cheaper than the triple room at the other place. The owner knocked a further 40 RM (about $10 US) off the price due to my late arrival. He was going to close reception ten minutes after I’d arrived and go to bed, now that the last available space had been booked. I didn’t even register it. He just said, “You can pay me in the morning”.

Salang Tioman by Day

North of the jetty was a picturesque stony beach, and to the south, a beach bum’s delight. Despite its pretty beaches, Salang attracts many more divers than beach enthusiasts. There aren’t many roads at all on the island. Walking and bicycle paths lead the way for exploration. There is also the sidecar — these are primarily used to load and unload goods from boats. This includes shipping all plastic and other rubbish off of the island. When not busy, a sidecar can be hired for transportation as well. Notably, renting a bicycle was the best mode of long-distance transportation.

Sidecars used for loading or unloading provisions
Sidecars used for loading or unloading provisions


The highlight of each night along Salang’s beach was selecting fresh seafood offerings. Everything had been caught just beyond the shores of the marine park’s protected area of Pulau Tioman. I only stayed in Salang for two nights before venturing south on the island.

If you like seafood, you won’t go hungry here.


Join me for part two where I’ll talk about some other places on Palau Tioman. 

On the road to Air Batang
Batang — also known as ABC. See you there in part two.

by Michael Carter

Five Reasons to Visit Angkor Wat


edmond gagnonI hate it when someone asks me to name the one favorite place I’ve visited. It’s one of my personal quirks: I don’t do favorites, whether it’s colors, cars, or cartoons. That’s just me. Having said that, it doesn’t mean I don’t have a list of favorite places. The ruin sites at Angkor Wat, for example, will always have a front-row seat in my memory bank. 

Anger What? You ask. It’s a place that many have never heard of, most likely because it’s in Cambodia, a country that’s mostly ignored by the average tourist. As it happens, I have a friend who moved there to teach English, and knowing that we share an affliction of wanderlust, he suggested that I come to visit his side of the world. 

Largest Religious Monument in the World

If you enjoy seeing ancient ruins sites as much as I do, then you must visit Angkor Wat. The Buddhist temple complex is the largest religious monument in the world. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the God Vishnu, it was built for Khmer King Suryavarman early in the 12th century.  The modern name, Angkor Wat, means Temple City. Or, if broken down, Capitol City and Temple Grounds.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat


The name Angkor Wat is used to describe the largest and best-preserved temple but it can also include Angkor Thom and Bayon, which are equally impressive sites. Too numerous to mention, there are several more temples in the area. Each successive king took it upon himself to outdo his predecessors by going bigger and better. The three major sites can be taken over a two-day leisurely tour. It can be done in one day if you want a kamikaze experience.

Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom

Cambodia is Cheap

Thailand and Vietnam may see more tourists than neighboring Cambodia, but it is by far the cheapest of the three Southeast Asian countries. Beers can still be found for a buck and meals for under five. Despite it being cheap, don’t fear the cuisine. Meats and vegetables are always fresh and flavored with an amazing array of spices. It was there that I learned about all the different colors and varieties of curry. 

Tarantula Appetizer
Tarantula Appetizer


Accommodations in the capital city of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap,  the nearest city to the ruins, can be found at a fraction of the cost of any American city’s best nightly price. The bus fare from the capital to Siem Reap was a pittance, and a tuk-tuk driver for the day is $15 to $20. To understand and appreciate the ruins, a good tour guide costs about $60 for the day. Some drivers and guides will negotiate their prices if things are slow. 

Religion and History of Angkor Wat

I don’t follow any particular religion, but I was intrigued by how the Hindus converted to Buddhism. Like other Muslim/Christian sites around the world, the conversion is evident in the artwork and facades of their temples and buildings. The three-mile perimeter and sheer size of the monument is mind-boggling. The whole site is surrounded by a moat, making it seem even cooler. Modern-day Khmer Monks in orange robes can be seen wandering or praying within the temple walls. 

Aerial View of the temple

A Unique Ruin Site

Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm

I’ve visited the pyramids and temples in Egypt and ruin sites in Mexico and Guatemala, but the ancient temples at Angkor Wat are truly unique. Khmer architects used sandstone to cover the facades of their temples, a material that they masterfully carved. At Angkor Thom and Bayon, giant faces adorn the entrance to the temples. 

Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, scenes depicting important events or everyday life are carved into virtually every surface throughout the complex. The massive blocks that form the walls in the structure are so tightly fitted that some seams are difficult to locate. The ravages of time, jungle, earthquakes, and war took their toll on the Angkor ruin sites, but meticulous restoration has brought them back to life. 

Angkor Wat is Incredibly Cool

If you haven’t seen Angelina Jolie’s movie, Tomb Raider, give it a watch. Much of it was filmed in and around the jungles and ruin sites at Angkor Wat, and more specifically at Ta Prohm. There is no other place like it on earth. Giant silk-cotton trees have rooted themselves between the giant building blocks, giving the temple an eerie appearance. In some cases, tree roots look like giant hands grasping stones the size of small cars. 

Jolie’s film crew frequented a restaurant called The Red Piano while they filmed on location. When I visited the eatery, they had her table roped off as a tourist attraction. The walls surrounding the booth were lined with autographed photos of her and the locals. She took a shine to the poor and orphaned children while she was there. There is nothing else to really see in the city, as it is basically a bedroom community for the ruins. 

Like many other touristy sites, it is best to get there early. My guide suggested using the rear exit to start my tour. It was a great move; I got excellent unobstructed photographs and didn’t bump into other tourists until later in the day. For an overall and excellent view of Angkor Wat, try going up in the hot air balloon. It sounds tacky but you won’t be disappointed. I certainly wasn’t. 

If you want to read about any of my southeast Asian adventures take a look at the travel section of my website at

Sandstone Carvings
Sandstone Carvings


by Edmond Gagnon           





Hiking the Iztaccihuatl Volcano in Mexico

Since arriving in Mexico City, I’d practically hit the ground running. I got a little personalized tour of the historic district, rode the hop-on/hop-off bus around the whole city, and took a day tour to Teotihuacan. To say I was having the time of my life would be a complete understatement. Check out parts one, two, and three to read more about those experiences.

Amigo Tours

Day Four – Hiking the Iztaccihuatl Volcano

Iztaccihuatl Volcano

I woke up on my fourth day in Mexico City not realizing it was going to be one of the most exhausting, yet exhilarating days of my life. Just like the day before, I had to be at Hostal Amigo bright and early to catch my tour to the Iztaccihuatl Volcano with Amigo Tours once again. Like I mentioned in my previous article, I highly recommend Amigo Tours for any excursions based out of Mexico City. They are prompt, organized, and run things safely and smoothly.

This time, only Tito was our guide. His eccentric attitude kept everyone in the group eager and motivated to begin the trek. Unlike the previous tour to Teotihuacan where everyone was packed like sardines on a tour bus, this time only a handful of us were loaded into a rather large van. It was certainly a more comfortable experience. As we set off, Tito went over some of the ground rules and what to expect during the hike.

Since I had previously hiked for four days to Machu Picchu a little more than a year prior, I only half-listened to Tito’s speech. I mean, I was practically a pro at hiking, right? The answer is no. I was a damned fool. In less than a few hours, Iztaccihuatl would make me its b****. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t try this excursion if you’re not in the best of shape. Just know that it isn’t for the faint of heart. I would definitely train for it a little bit for it a few months beforehand. 

Approaching Iztaccihuatl Volcano

As we approached Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park, we had a clear view of Iztaccihuatl. Although the Iztaccihuatl volcano is dormant, I was still expecting to see that classic cone shape that every volcano has. Iztaccihuatl is more of a very rocky mountain. However, Tito explained to us that the volcanic mountain is Nahautl (the Aztecan language) for “White Woman” because it resembles a woman sleeping on her side. Once I noticed that, it totally blew my mind and took away any sliver of disappointment I had. Don’t worry, I’d actually get to see an active, cone-shaped volcano very shortly.


We pulled into the visitor’s center for a bathroom break and to get a rundown of the park and the trail we’d be taking. As I hopped out of the van, I kept staring at Iztaccihuatl, fascinated by the silhouette of the sleeping woman and also eager to begin our hike. But when I turned around, my jaw hit the floor. Towering over us was Popocatepetl, an active volcano and the second highest peak in Mexico. It had that classic cone shape and even a slight haze of smoke billowing from the top. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of it. Funny enough, the volcano erupted less than two months after this hike.

Searching for Views of Popocatepetl

I was now more excited than ever to begin the hike because I knew that the higher we got on Iztaccihuatl, the better the views would be of Popocatepetl. And so, after a short drive from the visitor’s center, we arrived at the base of Iztaccihuatl. The bright blue sky made the snow-capped volcano mountain pop. Where my hike to Machu Picchu was more slow-paced and rhythmic, Tito started flying up the mountain like a bat out of hell. 15 minutes into the climb, I was gasping for air and my legs were burning. Not once did I want to give up, though. I pressed on with the group.

As the hike continued, the views became increasingly picturesque. Tito luckily gave us some time to rest a little and take some photos of Popocatepetl in the distance. He also explained to us that the saddle between Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl was known as the Paso de Cortes. It’s where the Conquistador Hernan Cortes and his army passed through on their way to the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City).

Volcano in Mexico

As we trudged on, the trail began getting steeper and rockier, and I started falling behind in the pack. Man, this hike was a lot tougher than I had imagined. I had to stop a few times to collect myself before carrying on. After about an hour of this we started nearing our endpoint. Thank God, too, because I was afraid that if we went on any longer, my legs would give out. And before anyone makes fun of me, I was not the last person to reach the top! Nonetheless, I did have to sit on a rock for a while to catch my breath before enjoying the majestic view of the valley and Popocatepetl.

Back Down the Volcano

Hiking the Iztaccihuatl Volcano in Mexico

We stayed up there for about thirty or forty minutes chatting and getting to know one another. We had a very diverse group of people from all over the world. I wished we could have hung out at the top longer, but Tito was pushing for us to head back down Iztaccihuatl so we could enjoy a nice surprise lunch he had planned for us. Luckily, going down was a whole lot easier. Despite that, though, I slipped on a rock and jammed my big toe. It still hurts to this day but it makes for a good story, no?

mexican food tour

After taking one last gaze at Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, we piled back into our van and exited the national park. We stopped at a small hut just outside the park where a family was waiting for us. They were preparing all kinds of traditional Mexican food: tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc. I tried as much of it as I could along with a variety of different types of hot sauces. It was really delicious and a great way to end the day after an exhilarating experience. 

The excursion to the volcanos was an exciting one even though I didn’t expect to struggle as much as I did. The best part of adventures is pushing your body and mind and getting out of your comfort zone. It may suck in the process, but you will leave a much better person. You’ll be filled with motivation and confidence in yourself that you can’t get by playing things safe.

Thank you for taking the time to read this part of my trip hiking the Iztaccihuatl volcano in Mexico! Stay tuned for next time where I enjoy a night out courtesy of Casa Pepe and a wonderful food tour!

by Tyler Black


Touring Rome Like a Roman

by Cassidy Kearney

Check out my last article about our big day in Venice!

Trevi Fountain

In the late afternoon Italian sun, we arrived at our monastery-turned-luxe-hotel somewhere in the suburbs of Rome. With some time to kill, Dounia and I walked to a nearby park that reminded me of NYC’s Central Park. After walking through an unquestionably picturesque field of flowers, across a local creek, and to a small pond filled with turtles, we decided to head back for the walking tour.

Hello, Rome

We took a bus into the city center, where Nikos began the traditional introductory walking tour. He pointed out major sites and gave tips on how to get around. He led us through narrow alleys filled with restaurant tables and souvenir tables. We visited the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and even the Piazza Navona! They all seemed jammed packed with sweaty tourists just like me, desperate for a picture. After splitting up for dinner, we made our own ways back to the hotel for yet another early morning.




We woke up bright and early for a continental breakfast, one of my favorite parts of my days abroad (no joke, I have paragraphs upon paragraphs dedicated to the breakfast quality of each place we stayed). After breakfast, we followed Nikos to a traditional market square where we met an Australian woman and another tour group. We had all signed up for a pasta-making excursion. We were led through a winding apartment building. After so, so, so many stairs, we emerged onto a covered rooftop terrace with an undeniably great view of Rome’s skyline and a few chefs.

A Lesson in Italian Cuisine

After a lesson in the many distinct variations of olive oil (one that leaves me an olive oil prude to this day), we sipped on some white wine and began working on our pasta. We mixed the egg and flour together to create our pasta dough. With a dash of olive oil, we began kneading. I had used too little flour initially and wound up getting dough all over my hands – a trend that continues to this day in all my bread-making endeavors. Nobody heard my cries for flour until a chef spotted me and teased me.

handmade pasta

After rolling them into balls, we wrapped them in saran wrap and allowed them to cool. We watched the chefs make traditional marinara sauce in the meantime. Once we received our dough once more, we flattened it out and put them through the pasta maker to make fettuccine. After boiling everyone’s pasta, voila! Lunch was served!

Newsflash: Italy Is Just As Hot As Florida

After lunch, we made our way to the Roman Colosseum. We had to hurry, because we planned to meet the rest of our group there. The pasta excursion had taken longer than expected. We finally arrived out of breath and dripping with sweat. One of the most unexpected things about Europe was that its heat index matched Florida’s. I had always assumed the entirety of Europe was this pristine 70°F garden.



After meeting the group, we waited in one of the Colosseum’s many tunnels, which funneled a very welcome breeze. We met up with a tour guide, who began to talk about the undeniably rich history of this infamous arena. He explained that the reason why the Rome Colosseum was pock-marked was because over the centuries, people had come to steal the valuable metals that were encased in the stone. He also explained that the Colosseum was made of travertine that had been stacked onto itself, held together only by gravity. This explained why the bottom of the Colosseum looked like a maze of ruins: they had been a series of tunnels underneath the floor of the arena to get from side to side.

After noticing a few sun burns (i.e., me), our guide let us put some sunscreen on before we headed to the Rome Forum, which I’ll talk about in my next post!

Roman Colosseum
Roman Colosseum’s Tunnels.


Colosseum tour



Spending a Month Wandering Vietnam

After living abroad in Thailand for a year, teaching English, I took a three-month trip to travel around southeast Asia. I spent the first three weeks of that journey in Vietnam. Going into the trip, I didn’t feel incredibly excited about Vietnam — not that I was bummed, but I just didn’t have high expectations. Looking back, though, it was probably one of my favorite countries.

I was in Vietnam from mid-September to mid-October, and I personally think it was a great time to go. It was hot — but Vietnam will always be hot. I visited right on the brink of tourist season. It wasn’t too crowded yet, and it also wasn’t monsooning anymore.

I didn’t go into Vietnam with a set plan at all. I had a plane ticket into the country and a plane ticket out three weeks later. My “plan” included traveling to a city, hanging out for a couple of days, then figuring out where to go next and how to get there. At times, it was stressful, but it was ultimately a great decision. I’m really glad I did it that way. It allowed for a lot of flexibility and exploration.

Good Eats All Around Vietnam

My plan was to start in Hanoi, Vietnam (north) and work my way down through the country, ending in Ho Chi Minh City. On my first day, I got into Hanoi around 7 pm after a long travel day. I was starving and exhausted. Luckily, I was staying right in the middle of Old Town and there was food — literally — on every corner. I sat down at the first street stall I could find and ate a life-changing bowl of chicken noodle soup. 

Bowl of chicken noodle soup

Vietnamese food is amazing and I’m sure most people have enjoyed a westernized version of it at home. But the thing that makes Vietnamese food great is the simplicity of it. My chicken noodle soup was literally chicken broth, chicken, noodles, and herbs, made right there on the sidewalk. And it was spectacular. Vietnamese cuisine is founded on the ideas of fresh and easy, and since the cuisine’s main ingredients are water and rice, it’s one of the healthiest in the world.

Favorite Dishes

Some other amazing dishes I had in northern Vietnam were beef pho with chili (pho bo), fish soup with lemon and dill (bun cha), spring rolls, and banh mi (Vietnamese sandwich on baguette). Probably my favorite meal I had was a meal called banh xeo. Banh xeo is a rice flour and egg pancake, stuffed with meat and vegetables. My personal favorite is shrimp, diced onion, bean sprouts, topped with a little sweet chili sauce. It’s like an egg taco and it’s fantastic.

Banh xeo vegetables

Hanoi was probably my favorite city in Vietnam, and I just got lucky that it was also my first. Hanoi is the epitome of Vietnam, with absurd traffic, coffee shops everywhere, and life happening outside and all at once. It’s loud, chaotic, and charming. Moving south through the country, the lifestyle might relax a little, but the Vietnamese chaos never disappears.

The Gorgeous Sides of Vietnam

The next two cities on the itinerary were Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh. They’re both very similar, geographically, except there’s an inland one and an island one surrounded by water. Otherwise, the mountains and limestone features of both cities are the same. The food, the people, and the culture are also very similar. And while these cities are much smaller and less crowded than Hanoi, they have so much to see.

Vietnam Ha Long Bay

Halong is famous. If you’ve ever looked into traveling to Vietnam you’ve probably seen boat tours around the bay. People know it for its beautiful and plentiful limestone islands that pop up in the water. Some are small islands while others are big mountains where you can dock and look around. During the boat tour, I saw a beautiful cave and got to lounge on a gorgeous beach. Just simply sailing through the bay was spectacular.

Ninh Binh

A little to the south, Ninh Binh also has the beautiful limestone hills and mountains – they’re just on land. The city is really cool to drive through because while the ground is very flat, everywhere you look there are rows and rows of mountains. I hiked up one of the mountains, Mua Cave, and it was amazing. It was so cool to see all of the peaks and valleys from so high up. More than just mountains, Ninh Binh also has rivers and beautiful lotus gardens.

Scratch the Surface

Vietnam doesn’t only offer natural beauty, though. Hue was my next stop, a city located in central Vietnam. Hue is an ancient, imperial city, and one that has been around since at least 1789. The city’s citadel is now preserved and considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Literally worlds of history attached themselves to this beautiful town.

Hue Vietnam

Some people don’t know that Hue and Vietnam have a very artistic culture as well. An old, abandoned water park turned tourist must-see and a local hang out became one of the coolest things I saw the whole trip. Over the years, graffiti and age caught up to it a little. Nonetheless, it seemed like a great representation of the art and history that many know Vietnam for. It was beautiful, secular, and bursting with history. And Hue is like that everywhere — even coffee shops and bike taxis are creative and fun to look at.

Vietnam coffee shop

The thing that stands out most to me about Hue, though, is the culture. Yes, Vietnam can be loud and chaotic, but at its heart is compassion and kindness. The host I had for my Airbnb in Hue was one of the nicest people I have ever met. He showed me around the city, cooked for me, and offered tons of help. I wouldn’t have gotten half the experience I did without him. And this is just how Vietnamese people are: helpful and warm-hearted.

Getting Around 

From Hue, I made the journey to Da Nang. When I bought the bus ticket, someone told me it would be about a three-and-a-half-hour journey. But, it ended up being much longer than that — a common theme among my entire trip. What was supposed to be an easy and fun bus ride, became a full-day event. We would make stops often — to pick up people, to pick up packages, once to even pick up a motorbike. And this is just how it works in Vietnam. Nobody is in a rush, and nobody is bothered with efficiency.  

Da Nang is Vietnam’s third-biggest city and is very similar to any metropolitan area. It has a lot of cool attractions, like the city, a beach, and a few mountains. So maybe a lot cooler than your average city. Very close by was Hoi An, another ancient city preserved. To get to Hoi An, you could either take an expensive taxi or drive motorbikes. After living in Thailand for a year, I felt confident in my moped-driving skills and made the hour’s journey to Hoi An. Motorbike riding is very common in Asia, and you can rent a motorbike in most cities. I could write a whole article about motorbikes and parking, but to keep from boring you I’ll sum it up: be careful.

After getting too close for comfort in traffic and almost getting scammed for parking in Hoi An, I finally made it to the ancient city. I grabbed coconut coffee and walked around a bit. These cities have really become gentrified and a lot of the culture has been replaced by tourist stops and shops. Most old buildings now sell counterfeit purses or the same “authentic” souvenir magnets. My favorite tourist scams include the completely overpriced tours of rice paddy fields.

Bang for Your Buck. . . or Dong

One of the biggest draws to SEAsia, for a lot of people, is the cost. SEAsia, and Vietnam particularly, is crazy cheap. If you’ve heard anything about Vietnam it’s probably about the 5 cent beers and 50cent banh mis. And it’s true — everything is ridiculously cheap. And that is especially apparent in a city like Ho Chi Minh. The conversion rate in Vietnam is 1USD to about 23,000 Vietnamese dong, so math could get a little tricky at times. It was absolutely worth it, though!

After leaving Da Nang, I made my way south to the capital city. Ho Chi Minh is the biggest city in Vietnam, with more than a million people. It’s also huge and has many different neighborhoods like most large cities. And like most cities, each neighborhood has its own personality and signature. There is District 1 for backpackers, Little India, Phu Nhuan, Chinatown — and so many more. The best thing about each of these is that they are all different versions of Vietnam. And even though Saigon is a huge city, you can get all of these perspectives of the country at really cheap prices. You get a modern-city-feel for a fraction of a modern-city-price.

Ho Chi Minh

Staying in Ho Chi Minh

I stayed in an Airbnb in between the Japanese district and business district. I was walking distance to all of the tourist stops, right next to tons of restaurants, but still right in the heart of a local neighborhood. It was $12 a night (Twelve). All of my meals were cheap and delicious. And while you usually expect to see tourist spots with outrageous prices, places like the War Remnants Museum and the Independence Palace were fairly reasonable. They were well worth it, too. It was really cool to learn about the Vietnam/American War from Vietnam’s point of view.

Independence Palace

By this point in my trip, I had two and a half weeks of laundry to do. So after some searching, I found a place doing a kilogram of laundry for 75 cents (USD) — washed, folded, delivered. Sounded fantastic to me! I dropped off a huge backpack of laundry. It was returned the next day for less than $5. These hard-to-believe costs are all over Asia and especially apparent in a city like Ho Chi Minh. It’s one of the reasons I recommend Vietnam to anyone who asks. Not only is a great city — but it’s a great city for a great price.

A Month in Vietnam

Vietnam is one of the coolest countries I’ve ever visited. Even a month might not be enough to fully take advantage of just how awesome it is. You’ll eat some of the best food you’ve ever eaten, while bouncing around to any landscape or city imaginable. There’s plenty of history and culture to see. You’ll get all kinds of comfort-zone-pushing experiences, while being able to stay under budget. Vietnam is truly a fantastic place and I can’t recommend it enough.


I have written a lot more about my trip to Vietnam and Asia on my own personal blog. If traveling to Asia is something you’re interested in, or if you just like to read about other cultures I’d love for you to check it out!


experience vietnam

by Emma Higgins

A Day in Venice, Italy


Cassidy Kearney in VeniceIf you haven’t read my last article about Verona and our first night in Venice, catch up here!

We started the day bright and early. After a speedy breakfast, I flew down the hostel steps to meet the rest of the group. We were taking a water taxi over to the island. We met our tour guide at the pier near Piazza San Marco, who led us to the two pillars that guarded St. Mark’s Square. It is said to be bad luck to walk through the two pillars because that was where they used to hold executions. 

St. Mark’s Basilica 

The square was surrounded by buildings on all four sides, with side entrances on either side of St. Mark’s Basilica. This is also where the Doge’s Palace was, which served more as a political hub for Venice rather than a palace. The story goes that the Doge ordered for the retrieval of the body of St. Mark from Constantinople so that he could rest in the church. This is how St. Mark became the patron saint of Venice. 

St. Mark’s Basilica

The church’s age was easy to note. Stained glass and 24-karat-gold-leaf depicted the life of Jesus on the archways of the church. To make it that much more culturally rich, artisans hand-crafted the marble floor centuries ago. The floor buckled over time and became wavy because Venice is actively sinking into the sea! The church often has a platform that extends into the square because Piazza San Marco floods regularly. In fact, many of the Venetian locals make a day of it. They bring inner-tubes and floaties out to the square to hang out in the water before the tide returns.  

Glass Blowing and a Gondola Ride

Our guide showed us the bell tower in the square. He then pointed out the place where it is believed that the Leonardo Da Vinci, tasked by the Doge to construct a submarine, stayed while in Venice. Afterward, he led us to a local glassblower so we could see a demonstration. Over the centuries, glassblowers made Venetian glass very special and unique. The glassblowing was mesmerizing to watch and I appreciated the amount of skill that went into the craft. 

From there, our group split up. I went with Rachel, Sara, Maria, Aryana, and Dounia for lunch. We got traditional margherita pizza (which is very different from American-style pizza!) and then headed out to search for a gondola. It was initially rather challenging, as most of the gondoliers were out having lunch! Finally, we got someone’s attention who then led us to a different spot where there were available gondoliers. 

A Day in Venice Italy

traveling by boat

boat ride

The gondola was very rocky to get into, and reminded me of a longer, shallower canoe. The gondolier instructed us to sit on one side of the gondola so that he would be able to stand and steer on the other. He took us through the many canals, giving us fun facts about Venice while we took pictures of everything. He finally took us to the Grand Canal, where we saw many different types of boats (traghettos, gondolas, vaporettos, and more). Once we had finished the boat ride, we all split the fare of €80 to a simple €13. Although €80 is a bit steep, splitting the fare with someone else absolutely makes the ride worth it. It was one of the highlights of my entire trip. 

Wrapping up the Day in Venice

canalsAfter we finished up, we hit up some of the local souvenir shops. I remember being too afraid of getting lost again, and we all decided to head back towards the port where we all bought gelato and people watched. Aryana needed to pee, so we all followed signs for a water closet for 20 minutes only to find that it cost €1,50 to use. We went back to Piazza San Marco to find a cheaper bathroom. While everyone rested in the shade, I decided to do a little bit of exploring on my own. Instead of heading back towards the port out of the square, I went the opposite direction and found a nice park and many local vendors. I sat and enjoyed the sun for a few minutes before heading back towards the group.

We took the water taxi back to the mainland, and many of us bought food at the grocery store next to our hostel. Sara and I picked up a bottle of wine each, which we both finished before Nikos enticed the group to a stroll in a nearby square. In my travel journal I wrote, “I don’t remember much of the square itself, but I do remember telling Nikos and a few other friends about Florida cockroaches and the anhinga.” One of my friends told me I was like a “walking National Geographic… I learned so much!” On our way home, Nikos stopped everyone (“Wait, wait – we must stop – we have to,”) for ice cream. 

The next day, we all woke up early again so we could start our journey to Rome. Make sure to stay tuned to read all about the many historical sites we saw as we visited one of Italy’s largest and oldest cities!

Gondola Ride with friends

building in venice

by Cassidy Kearney

Going Back to Spain as a Tourist: Hot Chocolate


emma schultzEarlier this month, I went back to Madrid, Spain — but just as a tourist this time. I was able to structure my break between semesters of graduate school to spend ten wonderful days there. I was so excited to get back to one of my favorite cities and the first place I called home as an adult. Mostly, I was excited to spend time in my old neighborhood, visit one of my favorite art museums in the world, frequent restaurants and cafes I’d visited often in my time living in Madrid, and see close friends and colleagues.


Shopping, Food, and Friends

I prepared myself for shopping in my favorite boutiques and Spanish chain stores, lots of tapas and churros, and afternoons spent catching up with friends. Fortunately, I did all of those things. But what I didn’t prepare for was how it would feel going back to Spain as a tourist to visit a place I had once called home. To be a tourist in a place I hadn’t been before is one thing. To be a tourist somewhere where I lived for years was another.


I had a bit of a sneak peek of what this would feel like when I went back to Denmark for the first time since studying there for an academic year. It was a wonderful and strange experience to walk the streets I did as a student. However, going back to Madrid where I lived and worked for so long felt even more like a shock. I found myself not wanting to be perceived as “just a tourist.”

I offered up to shop attendants and waiters that I had, in fact, lived in Madrid for three years in the past. Sometimes this made sense in context, but often I volunteered the information with little prompting. Why did I feel the need to prove myself? My Spanish is good, I know the city, and I know the culture. But I still felt a certain pressure to re-prove to people there that I, too, belonged.

Emma Schultz

Forgetting Things That Were Second-Nature

el Roscón de ReyesIn addition to this reaction, I also realized that over time I had forgotten some small things that used to be second-nature, things that had been automatic knowledge for me. One of my first days back in Madrid, I went to a cafe with a friend. We went specifically for a seasonal Christmas cake, el Roscón de Reyes. She ordered coffee with hers, so I decided to get something warm as well.

I’m not a big fan of coffee or tea. So, I decided to let my child-at-heart out to play and ordered hot chocolate. However, I translated literally and didn’t give it a second thought. When the cup of melted chocolate showed up at my table, I remembered that hot chocolate in Spain isn’t the same as the U.S. I knew this very well from living there. In Spain, locals dip churros in the hot chocolate while having it as a winter drink. However, instead of a liquid drink, locals fill the mug with melted chocolate, literally. If I had wanted American-style hot chocolate, I would have needed to order ColaCao, the Spanish equivalent of Nesquik. Fortunately, I didn’t repeat the mistake the rest of the trip. Nonetheless, I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t remembered this detail of custom and translation.

Of course, it didn’t present any real issue for me that I mistranslated what I was trying to order. Fortunately, none of my mistakes while visiting Madrid created big problems for me. It was more of an internal reflection process for me. I realized that I didn’t remember how to do everything I had once done out of habit.

Going Back to Spain as a Tourist

What I realized from my hot chocolate gaff and a couple of others was that we forget over time. We forget how to live in the places we’ve been when they are very different from one another (and maybe even if they aren’t). The day-to-day starts to slip away. We forget some of the cultural or linguistic knowledge we attained when living in that place. And that was difficult for me to come face to face with going back to Spain as a tourist this past month. But I realized something else, too: whatever we forget we can remember. It’s not as if I hadn’t ever learned those things. Even being back in Madrid for ten days helped me remember some of what I hadn’t realized I’d forgotten. And that gives me hope about staying in touch with the places I’ve left, because the ability to reconnect is definitely there.


by Emma Schultz