Vietnam – a cultural wonderland

Travel

I had this preconceived notion, having just spent a week in Bangkok, of what awaited as I made my final descent into Vietnam, Thailand’s more regimented and orderly neighbour.

My presumptions, I thought as we queued for hours to get our pre-approved visas checked and re-checked, were right on the money.

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Initially it felt like my every move was being monitored by numerous guards, whose stoic, uncompromising demeanours matched their stiff, over-starched uniforms.

After escaping the restrictive confines of Tan Son Nhat Airport and subsequently haggled with numerous taxi drivers, most of whom resembled ravenous lions in search of their next unwitting prey, Vietnam served up an enriching cultural and unrivalled spiritual journey, dispelling all preconceptions.

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From Ho Chi Minh – formerly Saigon – to Hanoi, Vietnam is home to cities abuzz with life, metropolitans that never sleep and, at times, are unnervingly chaotic. But that’s precisely what makes them so enigmatically charming. Locals, even with a lack of material goods westerners hold to such high acclaim, are genuinely happy and welcoming.

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And unlike Thailand, its loud, obnoxious neighbour whose incessant house parties cater to every tourist whim, Vietnam extracts you from your comfort zone, challenging you to adapt and break completely free of routine. While at times frustrating – especially when attempting to communicate with locals who don’t know a word of English or very nearly being run over by countless scooters moving at breakneck speeds – you’ll be hard pressed to rival the enhanced sense of reward and accomplishment you feel at the end of every day.

And if you’re not a fan of the hustle and bustle, have no fear because Vietnam has some of the most majestic and picturesque rural and island retreats across the globe. Whether it’s Con Dao, a pristine, tranquil island 45 miles off the coast of Ho Chi Minh barely touched by the tourist foot, or the central highlands – the capital of which is Buon Ma Thuot – you’ll be able see a side of life intrinsically connected with nature’s raw beauty, enabling precious time to reflect, decompress and unwind.

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I’d be remiss not to mention Vietnamese cuisine. I’d suggest, if you’re an adventurous sort, to try anything locals eat as if you venture off the beaten track – which I highly recommend – menus will be as foreign a concept as you are.

Pho – pronounced fuh – is far and away the most popular dish. Eaten at all conceivable times, this filling, aromatic and nutritious soup-like concoction consists of herbs, chilli paste and fish sauce. It brims with lean meats and fresh ingredients, the infused spice perfect for sweating out a hangover and, like pretty much everything else on offer, costs less than a smile on a rainy day.

So if you fancy an incessant house party similar to the one’s Zac Efron hosts in the film Bad Neighbours, dance to Thailand and join the throngs of other party-goers, but if your keen on an unworldly and culturally superior sojourn venture to Vietnam.

They’re, however, neighbours – and not of the bad variety – so if both destinations tickle your fancy then jump to and fro and experience the best of both worlds.

Now excuse me while I devour a spicy bowl of pho.

Stradbroke Island, an escape from reality

Travel

Tree branches, like two extended arms reaching for each other’s outstretched fingertips, form an archway leading to a place unlike any other, a world where time has no bearing.

One wave after another caresses Stradbroke Island’s sedate shoreline, our feet sinking into the soft, silky sand. It’s the type of satisfaction reminiscent of resting your head on a goose down pillow after an exhausting day.

The beach, barring a flock of seagulls circling above like starving vultures, was completely ours. I felt like Tom Hanks from Castaway, but unlike him, hoped there was no way off this peaceful paradise.

Everyone experiences a day they hope lasts forever, a perpetual escape from reality. This was one of those days.

As I chased the seagulls like an exuberant youngster without a care in the world and sauntered across the untrodden, unblemished sand, I peered out onto the vast expanse of the deep blue, the magnitude of which would leave even the most experienced seafarer speechless.

Shining and glimmering bright, the sun did its utmost to fight off the cloud’s menacing advances. Time was of the essence as the sun, with all of its energy, power and might, would remain uninhibited for only so long.

Dashing toward the Pacific Ocean’s wide open, gaping mouth with pace and intent I dove under a wave, my head popping up like an otter coming up to draw breath. I quickly realised how startlingly cold and refreshing the water is on Australia’s eastern coast in late autumn.

Wide-eyed and alert, I exited the frigid water before the sun became completely blanketed by cloud cover. As temperamental as a baby’s emotions, the skies opened up, battering the ocean and shoreline indiscriminately, with conviction and fury.

There was something ironically calming about the volatility with which the sky pelted the otherwise tranquil shoreline.

I would have stood up to Mother Nature’s wrath had it not been for the expensive electronic items I was compelled to protect, or so I tell myself. Invigorated, refreshed and full of life, I headed for shelter.

Almost as quickly as it began the violent storm subsided, calm once again prevailing across the island. The sun poked its head out once more as I sipped my perfectly made flat white.

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Unlike Tom Hanks’ perilous plight on Castaway, Straddie unfortunately does offer a way off of the island. A bus – although running less frequently than Rosie O’Donnell – transported me to a ferry for the final connection to mainland Australia.

The day, like every moment I hope lasts forever, felt as though it had evaporated in a flash.

Every moment, however, from my Straddie retreat, like the cave inscriptions of Ashoka, is forever etched and indelibly inscribed. I even had the pleasure of running into a lonesome – and more surprisingly awake koala – and a wandering kangaroo, underlining the already quintessentially Australian day on the island.

If ever entrenched in inconsolable despair, or asked to think of a happy place, my mind will immediately refer back to this day on serene Straddie, my Neverland and euphoric escape from reality.

Windsor Castle: Fairytales and a fiendish ogre

Travel

It’s an autumn weekend, although the gorgeous summer-like conditions indicate otherwise, and the royal town of Windsor is packed to the brim, almost bursting at the seams.

Town roads resemble parking lots, sidewalks bustle with life and people queue as far as the eye can see to enter Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world.

Tourists by the hundreds queue for an opportunity to enter Windsor Castle.

Overran by tourists, one can expect to wait at least an hour before entering a castle renowned for its grandeur and opulence in a royal town richly steeped in history.

Planes descend overtop of Windsor Castle at regular intervals on their final approach to London’s Heathrow airport, their engines emit a constant hum adding to the quaint and idyllic town’s bustling aura.

Some families are clearly put off by the mere sight of the never ending line, turning around and going back from whence they came. Nevertheless, most tourists and locals display sunny dispositions reflecting the perfect weather and are unfazed by the queue resembling a Disney Land attraction.

The same, however, cannot be said for one particular shopkeeper, whose uncompromising and devilish stare is only matched by his dour and gloomy personality.

An ominous cloud coincidentally encroaches overhead with an eerie darkness, blanketing the sun and erasing a near-perfect autumn afternoon.

Locating an ideal spot to capture an image, I rested my laptop and camera bag against a pole metres from the vendor’s souvenir stall. Bending down to retrieve my camera, the stoic character asked if he could help me with anything.

I thanked him for his concern and, thinking nothing of it, returned to my principle concern. I switched my camera on and focussed in on the subject at hand.

The fiendish oaf demanded I leave the area and remove my gear if I had no intention of making a purchase at his makeshift stall. His ramblings continued like a madman who was long off his meds. I half expected froth to form and saliva to spray.

Making a mountain of a molehill, this irascible tyrant accused me of loitering and threatened to call the police, trying his utmost to impress upon me his inherently bullish nature.

How can one loiter, I pondered, while trying to take a photograph of an iconic castle on public property in one England’s most renowned tourist areas? If I was loitering, so were hundreds of other passers by. In fact, anyone holding a camera must be engaged in some sort of criminal activity.

I couldn’t help but laugh at his outrageous behaviour. Eventually I took the photograph I would have captured five minutes earlier had he not made a scene that quite obviously dissuaded numerous other tourists from shopping at his souvenir stand.

The fiendish ogre had quite clearly become his own worst nightmare, estranging many potential customers.

And in this case, as frowned upon and misguided as it usually is, one would have been right in this situation to judge the book by its overtly ugly outer exterior.

A happy hour deserving of its title

Photography
The sun's rays reflect off or the Andaman Sea, highlighting a path to one of Koh Lanta's numerous peaceful watering-hole retreats. A happy hour hour truly deserving of its title.

The sun’s rays reflect off or the Andaman Sea, highlighting a path to one of Koh Lanta’s numerous peaceful watering-hole retreats. A happy hour hour truly deserving of its title, tourists and locals alike enjoy the day’s waning light. 

There is something incredibly soothing and peaceful about travelling on a train. And, no, I’m not referring to a city’s crammed subway or unventilated underground. Those types of trains are merely a means to an end, a necessary and unavoidable evil.

I’m talking about commuter trains that connect the world and, with the slightest gaze out onto the horizon, stimulate your mind and open your imagination.

Even though fully aware of the final destination, unless inadvertently hopping aboard the wrong train in a foreign land or finding yourself incapacitated by a drug stupor, you are forced to surrender control and let the tracks lead the way.

You  find yourself slipping into a state of comfortable helplessness. The tracks, as they cross bridges, slide alongside lakes and swerve ever so slightly into the distance, cannot be dictated to. The rhythmic pace at which trains zip down the track tends to settle even the most nervous traveller.

Powerlessness pervades while  barrelling down the tracks. Once you realise fate is out of your hands, sit back, relax and truly appreciate the undulating hills, meandering rivers, quaint towns, imperious peaks and memorising skylines that so often pass us by.

Photography