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SE Asia Trip Part 4: Getting Fitted in Hoi An and Da Nang

With a promise never to fall into another tourist trap for the rest of our trip, Zach and I arrived back in Hanoi to rest up and prepare for the beginning of our road trip through Vietnam. Our original plan was to ride the A1 down to Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, continue south to Nha Trang and then cut west inland through De Lat and ending our trip in Ho Chi Minh City.  After riding for nearly 5 days in absolutely miserable weather and stopping in a few towns off the A1 highway (the road trip summary and video can be found here), we eventually found ourselves biking through Hue.

We meant to push through Hue to Da Nang to save time, but after a random encounter and a day of partying with the locals, we holed up for a day there. We woke up refreshed–albeit a bit hungover–and continued onwards to Da Nang and Hoi An, Vietnam.  We trekked the mountain motorbike trails on the east coast to come up Da Nang seated in a sparkling blue bay surrounded by the mountains that we still had to descend.  After almost a week of rainy weather, no sun, and impatience, we were finally glimpsing the beauty of the Vietnamese coastline.

Top of the switchbacks.  Cruise down to Da Nang.
Top of the switchbacks. Cruise down to Da Nang.

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As far as my travel through were, Vietnam, Da Nang and Hoi An were my absolute favorite places to visit.  Da Nang is a vibrant city with an entertaining nightlife that I didn’t really get to experience due to illness, but from my bed I could hear a few venues with patrons belting out karaoke, loud laughter, and the city pulsating; we weren’t even in the heart of it either.  Hoi An is a different kind of liveliness that sits just a 30-minute motorbike ride outside of Da Nang and although it is much, much smaller, it felt like there was so much more to do.  Hoi An is a more pleasant, peaceful cultural hub that contrasts Da Nang’s city life.

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I must’ve been too enamored with both Da Nang and Hoi An because I filmed very little and I have almost no video or film of the latter.

En route to Hoi An from Da Nang, we decided to stop and check out a temple that resided on a random chunk of rock that towered over the roadway off to the side.  I have no recollection on what it was called or what its importance was, but it was still cool to wander around.

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Although my experience in the world is very little compared to many others, I still proclaim Hoi An as the tailor capital of the world; it didn’t matter what you wanted, you could buy it at a cheap price (after haggling) and get it tailored very cheaply. Sneakers, dress shoes, sports shoes, winter coats, suits, Hawaiian shirts, jeans, sweats, summer dresses, skirts, tanks, gloves, winter hats, snapbacks, dress shirts, socks, and even custom-made underwear were all available in wooden shops lining the market street; I couldn’t believe it and I probably didn’t cover everything that you could get. The men’s suits shops were more of an episode than a minute shopping experience.  You get to flip through a catalog highlighting styles from Hugo Boss to Ralph Lauren to Versace; if I could guess there were more than 60 styles.  Next they bring you through the material and color options depending on your price range (I was originally only going to spend $200, but ended up purchasing 2 three-piece suits for $480. Damn those adorable Vietnamese women with their flattering salesmanship).  After a detailed sizing measuring every nook and cranny of your body, they set 2-3 fitting appointments to make sure your suits are to your liking and they fix every single one of your concerns.  You choose your jacket-lining, fit, color, style, etc…everything.  I was overwhelmed and mesmerized at the same time.  Whether you are male or female, I suggest going to Kimmy’s Tailors; they specialize suits but also sell dresses, Hawaiian shirts, winter jackets, and a few other things.  Their packaging is travel-friendly–small and not to bulky–or you can have it air-mailed/ship-mailed back to your home with the price depending on where you live.

The Hoi An night life includes peaceful house bars that allow you to people-watch the inebriated tourists from afar.  We talked up a older British man who just happened to be a SE Asia veteran with his own travel company.  For about 3 hours he gave us hints and tips about traveling through Cambodia and Thailand as he chain-smoked and enjoyed his beer; it was a great time.

Motorbiking through the cramped streets of Hoi An at night, during a full moon, while the orange and red paper lanterns beamed overhead made for a great experience as well.

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Although I find it as an odd descriptor for me to use, I would probably label Da Nang and Hoi An as delightful.  Apart from a small amount of rain, these two places are sunny and very friendly towards travelers.  I want to think that they enjoy travelers because of our personalities, but it’s most likely due to the fact we spend so much money. All of those $5 purchases really add up.

Due to time constraints with our schedule, we decided to ship our bikes by train to Ho Chi Minh City and fly.  If the weather wouldn’t have ruined 3 days of riding through Vietnam, we could’ve complete the entire Hanoi-Ho Chi Minh City extravaganza.  Maybe another time…

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My “Rent-a-Foreigner” Experience

One particularly interesting business tactic that has fascinated me during my time in China is the “Rent-a-Foreigner” strategy.  In order to appear more international and exotic, some Chinese companies—ranging from real estate to engineering—will hire foreigners to give their companies an international face to appear more high-end.  The entertaining consideration is you don’t need any knowledge or education to do this; you just play the role you are assigned.  The greatest part?  You can make some good money as well.

Here is the Weixin commentary based on the BusinessInsider article.  It’s a short, interesting read that provides a little more information on why the Chinese perceive the foreign face to be advantageous during events and other business-related happenings.  I mean, it’s a running joke here that you can buy anything off of TaoBao (think Chinese Amazon and Ebay on steroids), but I didn’t realize that you can really buy anything, even foreigners.  Shoutout to Shelby Tuseth for sending this article to me.

I told myself that if the opportunity presented itself, I would at least interview and try to be that foreign face just to experience it.  I would be able to meet new people and possibly have some fun while earning that sweet Mao money so why not?  On April 4th and 5th, experience it I did.

Over time, a few friends I’ve made over here would post in their WeChat feed (think Facebook, but more mobile-oriented) that they knew of a company looking for a “white male, 6’0″ or taller, aged 21-25.”  A few of the times that I applied for the position, I was turned down with the reason being that I wasn’t skinny enough.  Maybe to some that would be upsetting, but you also have to understand the expectation of skinny here in China. I’m a 33″ waist which is pretty common for men my age in the U.S.  The first position I applied to was looking for someone “lankier than me.”  It was just funny having that explained by my friend who originally asked if I was interested.  After a few more attempts, I was finally accepted to help a kitchen appliances company, Robam, advertise during a shopping holiday at the beginning of April 2015 here in Nanjing.  Little did I know, I signed up for something a little more intensive than handing out coupon fliers.

That weekend, I met up with a group who were also in consideration for this event and I quickly realized that I was the only male among about eight Asian women who were around my age.  We get to Robam’s meeting room where we were told to wait.  The leader of this Robam promotional event has the girls stand up, show her how they look with different hair styles, and a few other things to ensure their qualifications and they wrap up after about 20 minutes.  Meanwhile I’m just twiddling my thumbs wondering what they will require from me.  After the girls are ok’ed, we’re told that all of us can leave.  I’m a bit puzzled so I ask one of the girls why the Robam woman didn’t even talk to me.  The woman heard me and told the girl to ask me if I can dance… which I said yes to.  Apparently, with that sole question, I was hired.  Did I just accept a role in an advertising dance promotion?  Yes.  Yes I did.

We were going to be working Saturday and Sunday doing choreographed dance promotions at 4 different Robam store locations in downtown Nanjing.  They would pay me 2,000RMB (~$330) for the whole weekend and while it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, I went with it.

All of us met again Friday night April 3rd, to finalize the full dance and I was fitted for the outfit that I would rock as the front man of my troupe: a pretty snazzy chef uniform. I just remember thinking to myself what is going on?

IMG_2765 Throughout Saturday and Sunday, we were led around various Robam locations within a shopping mall center and put on a 3 minute show starring Jack the Weigouren Chef and his Chinese French Maids. In total we probably did about 8-10 dances each day and we even got to cruise on Segways a couple of times.  While walking–sometimes Segwaying(?)–between locations, we would carry signs with the girls chanting a slogan in Chinese.  Meanwhile, I would just lead the girls in a line from location to location with the camera crew and assistants directing me.  I have never been stared at so much in my life. IMG_2746 IMG_2747 Every time the music would start, shoppers and passersby would look to the source of the upbeat tempo, see our costumes, and realize that some white guy is making an ass of himself for the sake of commercialism.  We would start dancing in front of maybe 10 people and by the end of our routine, there would be 70+ people recording us on their phones; at other locations, it was much more people.

So without further ado, here is the entertaining video of our dance with the laughing of my friend Tony (the person filming) included.  Sorry it’s not in 4K and surround sound.

Although it was a little odd at first, the whole weekend was fun.  The entire job turned out drastically different from what I imagined and I was paid for something I thought I would never get paid to do.  Sounds like the embodiment of a perfect foreign experience in China to me.

SE Asia Trip Part 3: The Tourist Trap in Ha Long Bay

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Just to the east of Hanoi resides the pristine waters of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Maneuvering through hundreds of colossal rock islands, numerous small cruise ships jet through these waters giving tourists a look at Vietnamese floating fish villages, island-top views spanning overlooking miles of the bay, and a chance to hang around some monkeys.

The rock formations in Ha Long Bay were incredibly diverse.
The rock formations in Ha Long Bay were incredibly diverse.

Before arriving in Hanoi, I’d already booked a 3-day cruise in Ha Long Bay and was looking forward to kayaking, fishing, biking, cave-walking, and hiking throughout this UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the first day walking the streets of Hanoi, I found out that you can buy various cruise packages, in the 1,000s of travel agencies scattered throughout the backpacking area,  exploring these waters for much, much cheaper than what I purchased online, but oh well; I was still anticipating a great time.

In the morning, we were picked up from our hotel and on our way. Think of every terrible “Dad joke” you’ve ever heard.  Not the “it’s so bad, it’s good” kind.  I’m talking about the “I’m cringing because I can’t handle how awkwardly bad that joke was and now it’s really silent on the bus” jokes that you see in family vacation movies.  We endured that for 1-2 hours before arriving at the embarking location for our ship.

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Now, I cannot remember where we booked our cruise from or what company it was, but I do remember specifically reading that we would be welcomed with a free beverage upon boarding. We were greeted with a 1/4 coffee cup of something that tasted pretty familiar, but I couldn’t quite identify what it was; more on that later.

After boarding the ship with 10 other unknowing travelers (4 of them turned out to be a family from Minnesota; small world) and finding that Zach and I had a pretty cool cabin for the night, the ship set sail for the first stop of the day.

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We arrived at a smallish island that held a beach and a stairway, leading you up to a beautiful top view of the surrounding area. Immediately upon disembarking, our crew was greeted with a sign warning about getting too close to the monkeys who had decided to come out to the area in a large group.  The group of monkeys postured on the main rock face and we just chalked it up as them being conditioned to sit there for food.  As we headed towards the beach and stairway, we looked towards the rock face from a different angle and I kid you not, there were manmade shoots leading out from cages planted in the back of the rock.  Zach and I began to have an inkling that we may have signed up for a tourist trap.

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The first destination did provide a fantastic view, a beach restaurant where everything was extremely overpriced, the chance to swim in the waters of Ha Long Bay, and I actually had a monkey jump onto my backpack and jump back up into a tree when I was trying to take a selfie with it.  I even captured the thrilling moment on film as it is in my Ha Long Bay video if you haven’t taken a look.

View from the top of the first island.
View from the top of the first island.
One of these dudes probably could have bit me if they wanted to.
One of these dudes probably could have bit me if they wanted to.

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The second destination was a visit to Surprise cave where there were hoards of other tourists to welcome our arrival.  While the cave itself was pretty cool, the walkway moved at a sluggish pace as it was pretty overcrowded.  Once you moved through the cave, you end up at an outlook point with a view of the entire bay harboring the cave.  Guess what was at the top as well… Another over-priced tourist stand with some lackluster handmade jewelry and a few souvenirs to commemorate your visit to Surprise Cave.

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I read the full rundown of our Ha Long Bay cruise before the trip so I was excited about the third item on the list: kayaking.  We stopped at the location and everyone hopped into their two-person kayaks.  All of us were a little surprised to find out that we were being given only 45 minutes to traverse the waters of Ha Long Bay; oh, and we couldn’t leave the kayaking bay. I understand that they have liability issues and there is safety hoopla, but from the description that I read on the website, it was going to be a much more exciting experience and we would get the opportunity to explore the surrounding area, but no.  We were able to aimlessly paddle in a small bay with the only semi-exciting aspect being drifting near the shores of the rock spires surrounding us.  I will admit that this cruise began to sour for me at this point and we were only on day 1 of 3. I guess we still had the night in the bay and the next day to look forward to.

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Once we were shuttled back to our ship, we were treated to a dinner of fried foods.  We were offered the opportunity to make our own Vietnamese spring rolls, which were delicious, but apparently the money all 12 of us on the ship had used to pay for this cruise only bought us enough meat to satisfy a goldfish; this was split among everyone.  Hooray. With the oily, fried food and one spring roll in my stomach, it was time to endure some more “Dad jokes” as our dinner entertainment.  They offered everyone the option for karaoke, but everyone single traveler chose to enjoy the mini-bar and enjoy the peacefulness of the night anchored in Ha Long Bay.

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Now it was time for another one of the things I’d been looking forward to: some squid fishin’.  Now anyone back home that fishes with me can tell you that I am not the most capable of fishermen (See: does not understand line allowance and rapola depths so his lure just drags off the bottom until it inevitably snags a rock and snaps off).  Thankfully this squid fishing was just bobbing a tri-hook and waiting for the squid to see it flash and attack it.  I bobbed for about an hour before I saw my first squid, but missed it. After about another hour–and 4 drinks later–I managed to snag one of those bastards.  With an excited whooping yell, I ripped that thing out of the water and onto the deck with ink flying everywhere.  I was also the only one to catch anything.  The crew said they would make calamari for me in the morning for breakfast, but I never saw my catch again.

I never said it was huge...
I never said it was huge…

After that, Zach and I talked with two Australian backpackers we befriende–Jack and Shanae(?)–to the tune of the ship crew belting out karaoke while we enjoyed a couple more drinks.  The wind blew both Zach’s and my empty glasses off where they were sitting and shattered them on the deck.  The crew must have thought we were pretty loaded although we really weren’t, but they didn’t believe us and just thought we dropped both of them.  Ok then.  After hanging out a little bit longer, we decided to hit the sack.

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The next morning, we were treated to a basic breakfast with no sign of my calamari (the crew never answered what they did with it) and we transferred ships to begin day two of the Ha Long Bay cruise. Little did we know that those broken glasses were $3 each (price gouging intensifies) and that Zach and I had spent about $30 a piece on drinks the night before.  Although I was told a different price at the time, the 2-fingers of Johnny Walker Red Label I enjoyed at dinner ended up being $8 and my White Russians $6 each.  These may not sound expensive, but for Vietnam this is highway robbery. We couldn’t transfer ships without paying the tab so we begrudgingly did so.  Twas’ not a great start to the morning.

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We were offered coffee on the next ship only later to find out it was $2 a cup although there was no mention of this when it was given to us and after paying that and the bar tab, we were on the spectrum between irritated and furious; the cruise had basically cost us $300 at this point.

The ship journeyed to our next location: a dingy oyster farm.  This stop showed us bags of oysters in bags floating in the water and a showing of how these farmers begin the pearl-making process (this was actually pretty cool, but very brief).  Our group was then led to a big display room featuring…and you guessed it, a bunch of overpriced “pearl” jewelry with prices being cheap at $100 and reaching upwards of $1,000s.  This had to be some type of joke.  This cruise was not what we had read about or even slightly anticipated. There were a few good things, but oh man.  I don’t even know how to describe our feelings at this point.  We still had two more things to do that day before reaching the hotel at Cat Ba Island.

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The next activity was a bike ride around one of the bigger islands in the Ha Long Bay area.  Ok this could have some potential.  I remember sitting on top of the deck cruising towards the bike ride just laughing about the past 24 hours.  How could it get any worse?

The bike ride redeemed a large portion of the experience for me. It was a neat ride through mountain terrain (still on a paved path though), areas with dense vegetation, and a remote village surrounded by large mountains.  We cycled for a few hours through the island before heading back to the boat.  The bike ride had actually made me feel a lot better and calmed me a bit and I even got to witness the after party of a Vietnamese wedding at the village.  This was a taste of the scenic and cultural adventure I’d signed up for.

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We then meandered to our 2nd to last destination at Monkey Island. About 8 monkeys hung around the beach area as we walked onto the beach.  Some were looking at us for food while others were play-fighting.  I witnessed a monkey snag a whole bag of fruit from a tourist’s hand and scurry away.  I even had a monkey hiss at me as I was climbing the rock trail that spilled over onto the hiking trails, but I wasn’t given much time to explore the forest areas of the island. Our group stayed here for about an hour before disembarking to end of the cruise experience and head to our hotel on Cat Ba Island.

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Top of Cat Ba Island
Top of Cat Ba Island

The past two days had deterred Zach and I from even thinking about partaking in something remotely similar to that tourist trap the rest of the trip.  When we arrived at Cat Ba Island, we asked our guide about night buses back to Hanoi because we just wanted to start our road trip down to Ho Chi Minh City.  The company was really concerned about us asking for a refund and didn’t care about our feedback about how disappointed we were with the cruise.  We just said screw it and bought bus tickets back to Hanoi for $20 each.  Six hour later, we were back Hanoi preparing for our road trip.

Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island

Overall, it was a pretty fun time being within touching proximity to monkeys, biking through a tranquil Vietnamese village, and catching a squid for the first time of my life.  Unfortunately it was the tourist-heavy events that sucked the soul out of the experience.  It just felt very generic, but I would still recommend visiting Ha Long Bay; just don’t buy the tickets online and don’t go into it with high expectations.  The views are incredible and it is a peaceful place to relax.

Oh and the welcome drink we were offered when we first boarded? Zach came to the conclusion that we had been given orange pop as the welcome drink and after reflecting on the taste, I realized it was most likely Fanta. We couldn’t help but laugh hard at this realization. What an experience.

SE Asia Pt. 2: Hanoi, Vietnam

My main goal of teaching in China right out of graduation was to use my holiday time to travel SE Asia.  An incredibly generous 5-week holiday—January 25th-March 1st—was given to me by the Nanjing No. 5 High School and I took full advantage of it.  After saving 70% of my paycheck every month for 5 months and a couple of unforeseen expenses, I had about $2,500 in my pocket and a rough itinerary of what I wanted to experience.  

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I paired up with a buddy who was also teaching English here in Nanjing at the time, planned to meet up with two other friends during the trip, and we headed out from the Nanjing train station with just our backpacks and a sense of adventure. After an hour train ride to Shanghai, another hour ride on the subway, a 20 minute lift on the Maglev train (a 186 mph heightened subway that rollercoasters through Shanghai), and a 3-4 1/2 hour flight from Shanghai to Hanoi, we had arrived.

Shanghai Maglev speed
Shanghai Maglev speed

Funny thing about Vietnam is only one type of visa available for tourists who do not live by a Vietnam consulate: visa on arrival.  The nearest Vietnam consulate to Nanjing is either Hong Kong or Beijing and we weren’t going to spend the money to travel there and back, so we opted for the visa on arrival which you can obtain online and only if you fly into Vietnam.  Unfortunate thing is that as soon as you land, you have to bring the visa approval letter, $45, and your passport to the processing area and wait until they call your name.  There is no method to the madness.  

The officials just hold up a processed passport and you collect it. The order and time you gave them your passport doesn’t matter.  I received my visa after an hour of waiting, receiving it before others who had definitely been there longer than me.

Just make sure you bring cash to pay the processing fee.  I ended up giving an Israeli guy $50 because his bank accounts were frozen and he had been at the visa processing center for about 2 hours and no one would help him, which was disheartening to see.  I don’t believe someone should be prevented from traveling for a minor reason like a visa fee and although he wanted my address to send the money back, I just told him to make the most out of the his trip. Maybe good karma for the trip (?), but it seriously pissed me off that no one would help him.

We paired up with a brother and sister (let’s name them Brian and Lily, both in their 30s) we had met in the visa processing line—Brian had travelled Vietnam numerous times—and hopped into a taxi from the airport.  The funny thing is that the tax driver wouldn’t reset the mileage ticker no matter how many times Brian yelled at him, and while this was our first red flag with the taxi, Brian just told us not to worry about it.

We finally arrived to the Hanoi city center except there was another problem that sprung red flag #2: the taxi driver kept driving.  The travel application I have on my phone showed that the taxi driver decided he was taking us north to drive around all of West Lake just to squeeze some more Vietnamese dong out of us (it’s the currency, get your mind out of the gutter). After some more awkward shouting from Brian, and me showing the taxi driver that I was tracking his route in relation to where our hostel was, he played dumb while bringing us back to the city center.

Traveling from the airport.
Traveling from the airport.

We arrived near our hostel and Brian told us to get our stuff out of the trunk and that he would pay for the taxi ride since he wasn’t going to give more than 200k dong (10$) compared to the 500k dong the taxi driver wanted. After an exhausting 13 hours of travel to start off the holiday, we were finally settled at our hotel in Hanoi.  Hoofta.

First night out wandering Hanoi
First night out wandering Hanoi

Besides the chaotic traffic (seriously, Vietnam traffic makes China’s traffic look organized), Hanoi is an old and pleasant city with a history that resonates through the neighborhoods you visit.  The smell of Phở wafts from local restaurants and whether we were in the backpacker’s area, the Old Quarter, or north of West Lake, Vietnamese coffee was a prevailing temptation. I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but during our time here I swear I was drinking 3-5 cups of this heaven each day.  Now whenever I do go for coffee, I’m disappointed it isn’t drip coffee with chocolate mixed-in; this caffeinated heaven in a cup was our fuel to ingest on every stop during our road-trip and I am fully convinced I’ll never have better coffee.

Dat Pho doh
Zach and Dat Pho doh
Vietnamese coffee, ain't nothin' better.
Vietnamese coffee, ain’t nothin’ better.

Hanoi has everything to offer travelers.  From lush, green parks to historic attractions to unique Vietnamese food, Hanoi is a large city with much to explore.  

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Fried spring rolls, roasted duck, and glass noodles
Fried spring rolls, roasted duck, and glass noodles
Sweet and sour chicken
Sweet and sour chicken

One of the most popular attractions harbored in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature.  I thought of this place as taking an ancient Vietnamese college campus tour and the design of the place really sends you back a few centuries. The entire compound is ripe with historical information.  I personally found the old, scholarly tablets sitting upon awkwardly smiling turtles to be the coolest part of the visit and if the University of Minnesota hadn’t already stolen my heart, I totally would’ve enrolled here.  

Entrance to the Temple of Literature
Entrance to the Temple of Literature
Temple of Literature garden
Temple of Literature garden
Just past the first area
Just past the first area
2nd main area
2nd main area
Those smiles...
Those smiles…

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We also dropped by the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the location where Ho Chi Minh read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  I was a little uncomfortable walking around so many soldiers carrying AK-47’sI would hold and shoot one of these badboys later in my travels—but walking behind the monument in the gardens eased my mind. Besides the heavy military presence, it really is a tranquil area separated from the busy Hanoi streets.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

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Mausoleum Gardens
Mausoleum Gardens

Our visit to the Hoa Lo Prison was a more solemn experience. I found it appalling how many pro-Communist Vietnamese prisoners were held hear during their fight for independence and what they had to endure.  I actually didn’t know this prior to my visit, but learning about its use as an American POW camp was pretty brutal.  Sadness aside, as someone who enjoys learning about history, it was a great place to visit.

Just inside the entrance.  Broken glass is cemented into the top of the walls
Just inside the entrance. Broken glass is cemented into the top of the walls
Prison cells
Prison cells
Hoa Lo Prison Memorial
Hoa Lo Prison Memorial

My absolute favorite place here is the Botanical Gardens located just behind the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  The park is a peaceful oasis from the city where many of the Vietnamese locals go to workout, play a variety of sports, and enjoy the beautiful weather.  The serene pond is surrounded by walking paths that take you through the profuse vegetation.  We talked with a few locals, strolled the park, and enjoyed watching a game of shuttlecock.

Shuttlecock.  Awesome to watch two really good players go at it
Shuttlecock. Awesome to watch two really good players go at it
Botanical Gardens Park center
Botanical Gardens Park center

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Zach and I decided to buy two motorbikes off two British travelers, in the Hanoi backpackers area, who just ended their road trip from Vietnam and the next day we decided to take our new bikes out for a ride through the city.  Cruising around the West Lake was an impressive trip that gave us even more views of Hanoi.  We also learned that if we can handle the traffic hell that is Hanoi, we would be just fine for the rest of the trip.  

North part of West Lake
North part of West Lake

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The Hanoi ultimate street shopping experience resides in the Old Quarter near Turtle Tower Park. Numerous times, random guys on bikes would pull up next to us wondering if we wanted prostitutes or drugs (I found this common in almost every place I visited during my SE Asia trip so you just get used to it), but thankfully once you tell them no, they don’t hassle you.  Otherwise you can find a great deal on shoes, trinkets, yummy food, and many other items in this area. There is a great bar scene as well and apparently the Vietnamese really like roller-blading in this area at night.

Red bridge to enter the Jade Museum at Turtle Tower Park
Red bridge to enter the Jade Museum at Turtle Tower Park

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Red Bridge at night
Red Bridge at night
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Turtle Tower beginning to light up
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Turtle Tower Park at night

I found the nightlife of Hanoi to be a bit tricky.  Due to government regulations, most places have to “close” at around 10.  Usually alcohol serving businesses just close their front shutter, but they won’t kick people out. Unfortunately, government officials and police came in and shut down a foreigner bar around 11:30pm when we had only been there for 15 min. The entire city turns into a borderline ghost town after 11pm.

Roller blading party before bedtime
Roller blading party before bedtime

Hanoi was my 2nd favorite place that I visited during my time in Vietnam. The city is exotic and the people are extremely friendly.  We kept busy for 3 packed days of exploring what Hanoi had to offer and I wouldn’t have minded staying a whole week if we had the time.  Day and night, the city and its people had me loving my vacation, and it had only just begun…

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Locations visited: Temple of Literature, Turtle Tower Park, Old Quarter, Botanical Gardens, West Lake, Hoa Lo Prison, Lenin Park, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Highlights: Motorbiking around West Lake was an awesome experience although Zach got in a minor accident during our roll.  I thought I saw his leg go under the bike of the person he collided with and proceeded to freak out, but he just yelled “GET THE F@%& OUT OF HERE,” and we peeled out.  An extreme adrenaline rush, a few scrapes and bruises on him were, a broken mirror, and some cosmetic damage to his bike were (thankfully) all that happened.

Favorite Food: Phở.  More Phở.  And Phở.  By the end of the first week, I was sick of eating it.

Snake wine.  Also saw scorpion, bee, worm, and a few other less than appetizing additions.  Needless to say I didn't try it.
Snake wine. Also saw scorpion, bee, worm, and a few other less than appetizing additions. Needless to say I didn’t try it.

What I want to do and where I want to visit when I return:

  • Get out of the Hanoi city center and explore the north area and east of area of the Hong River.

Total money spent: $200 ($400 including the bikes)

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum area at dusk
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum area at dusk

Post-Grad Eurotrip Pt. 8: Vatican City

As if there are not enough churches and holy sites strewn about the stone streets of Rome, Vatican City is just a stone’s throw across the Tiber from the Roman city centre where you can enjoy enough Italian history, statues/busts, and religious museums that will last you a lifetime.

View from the Tevere
View from the Tevere

I took a break from venturing Rome to breach the capital domain of Roman Catholicism for a day.  Immediately upon arriving I understood how this small, independent state can support itself economically solely through tourism; there are so many freakin’ people that come from around the world to visit.  Call me naive, but I did not know the level of popularity Vatican City held—on the tourism level—until I experienced it myself. My Vatican City reel. St. Peter’s Plaza marks the entrance of this stark white enclave and if the summer sun isn’t beating down on you, it’s a great place to relax…mainly because it will likely take you at least an hour before setting foot past the plaza walls towards the Vatican Museums or St. Peter’s Basilica, so you might as well enjoy it!  The line I was in stretched all the way past the rounding pillars of St. Peter’s Plaza and it took me about an hour and a half to get through the security lines and into the Basilica.  I may or may not have heard “Hallelujah” and an angelic chorus once I  was cleared through the security lines.

The plaza in its entirety.  The line to get in is over to the right.
The plaza in its entirety. The line to get in is over to the right.
Center of St. Peter's Plaza.
Center of St. Peter’s Plaza.
Posted on the side exit from the Basilica.
Posted on the side exit from the Basilica.

The Vatican Museums tested my patience further than any other place, person, or thing I’ve ever come across in my entire life. You think, “I’m just going to pop over to the Sistine Chapel for a quick visit before I climb the Basilica.” Wrong. Dead wrong.  Welcome to the next 3 hours of your life where closing your eyes and counting to 10 is a necessity just to calm down. Envision the Vatican Museums in the dead of summer and tourist season.  The hallways and routes through the museums are not exactly wide enough to accommodate the amount of visitors so it feels like a cattle drive.  The people around you are trying to get into position for a photo with the same ferocity and respect of a mother of five at a Walmart on Black Friday.  The mix of English, American, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, European, and any other non-Italian visitors renders the words “please” and “excuse me” completely useless.  Group tours become the bane of your existence.  Selfie sticks hold immense power as they double for a quick picture taking device and a great tool for edging people—those who stop in the middle of the cattle drive to pull their camera/phone out of their fanny pack BECAUSE IT TOTALLY WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN EASIER TO DO THAT AT THE BEGINNING—out of the way when your elbows become too sore.  Put all of this together with a dash of limited water refill stations and you have a great formula for higher blood pressure, headaches, and the potential to never want to be around a populous area for at least a week.  

I tried to avoid having any sort of human presence in my Vatican photos.
I tried to avoid having any sort of human presence in my Vatican photos.
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Trekking through the museum. Detailed doorways similar to this on are everywhere.

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Putting on my Pope face right before entering the Sistine Chapel.  Needed a little comical relief.
Putting on my Pope face right before entering the Sistine Chapel. Needed a little comical relief.

Psychopathic inducing conditions aside, you will get to learn a lot from the museums and if you are lucky, you may even be able to sneak a photo of the Sistine Chapel (no photos allowed).  I personally found it hilarious that the employees within the Sistine Chapel would start screaming, “NO TALKING.  SILENCE!” whenever anyone would utter a peep.  I don’t exactly know how effectively they themselves were contributing to that goal.

After watching someone get their phone taken away, I decided it was now or never.
After watching someone get their phone taken away, I decided it was now or never. Worth.

My main goal of visiting Vatican City was to capture the breathtaking view from atop St. Peter’s Basilica.  The climb itself isn’t too difficult and luckily I’m not claustrophobic. The stairway walls become more enclosed the farther up you climb and at a couple of points I had to turn a little sideways as my shoulders would rub against the walls. It didn’t really feel like my ascension brought me to a much higher elevation—insert Stairway to Heaven joke here— but St. Peter’s Basilica is taller than it looks.  Making it to the top gives you that stunning 360° view overlooking Vatican City and the city of Rome that surrounds it.

I believe this was the very first set of stairs that got you to the beginning of climbing the Basilica but my memory is a little hazy.
I believe this was the very first set of stairs that got you to the beginning of climbing the Basilica but my memory is a little hazy.
The infamous picture from atop St. Peter's Basilica.
The infamous picture from atop St. Peter’s Basilica.
I can't exactly remember if this was looking over the Vatican Gardens or not...
I can’t exactly remember if this was looking over the Vatican Gardens or not…

After admiring the view, I headed back down the spiral stairs that spit you out right inside the Basilica.  There are side hallways and so much to take in here that seeing St. Peter’s resting place is only the tip of the iceberg.  I don’t really know how to explain it in further detail other than numerous amounts of paintings, prayer areas, statues, Catholic history, and the like. IMG_2440

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The dome of the Basilica from the view of St. Peter’s resting place.
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The tomb of St. Peter.
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Inside the main Basilica area. The lighting of the entire area was pretty damn cool.

Besides the frustration that most heavily toured areas hold, Vatican City was a great day visit.  I do not identify myself as a religious person, so that was far from my motivation to visit this state.  The architecture, informative history, paintings, ancient sculptures, and the view from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica were enough to make this an extremely worthy place to check off of my traveling list.   IMG_2363 Locations visited: St. Peter’s Plaza, Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica IMG_2365 Highlights: Snagging a picture of the Sistine Chapel.  It wasn’t easy. Favorite food: I did not eat in Vatican City.  Any food I found was a little to expensive for me. What I want to do and where I want to visit when I return:

  • Not go during peak tourist season
  • Vatican Gardens
  • Experience the food around Vatican City, but I don’t think it could be much different than the food in Rome (?)

Total money spent: €25.  Not too shabby for a full day in Vatican City.

Looking northwest towards the Basilica and the Vatican Gardens from the Vatican Museums.
Looking northwest towards the Basilica and the Vatican Gardens from the Vatican Museums.

Eurotrip Part 7: Rome, Italy

After a 27-hour ferry ride skimming across the Balearic and Tyrrhenian Sea, a hectic late night sprint for the last night train from the Civitavecchia port, and a 2-hour walk through the city at night, I finally settled into my hotel at 2 a.m. on July 23rd, 2014 and stayed in Rome until July 26th.  Veni Vidi Vici.  

One of the first pictures I took during my night walk through Rome.
One of the first pictures I took during my night walk through Rome.

The next morning would mark the beginning of my four day exploration through the sprawling, historic city of Rome. In such an ancient city, there is way too much to see and it isn’t possible to pack it into a four day visit, but I tried my best.

Water fountains/refill stations are scattered around the city.  Unfortunately, not all of them hold this beautiful face.
Water fountains/refill stations are scattered around the city. Unfortunately, not all of them hold this beautiful face.

Obviously when you visualize touring Rome, you think of the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, and the Vatican City (saving for a whole other post).  There are a few other sites that many hotel concierges and locals will point you to that are well worth it and even more enjoyable than any of the aforementioned.

Insert generic joke about generic tourist picture
Insert generic joke about generic tourist picture
Walking around the ground level of the Coliseum
Walking around the ground level of the Coliseum
Inside on the lower level of the Coliseum.  Unfortunately only group tours can go into the underlying structure.
Inside on the lower level of the Coliseum. Unfortunately only group tours can go into the underlying structure.
View from the top level of the Coliseum
View from the top level of the Coliseum
Temple of Saturn at the Roman Forum
Temple of Saturn at the Roman Forum
Walking towards the back of the Roman Forum.
Walking towards the back of the Roman Forum.
Backside of the Roman Forum.  An enjoyable walk away from the political center.
Backside of the Roman Forum. An enjoyable walk away from the political center.
View from the back of the Roman Forum.  Gorgeous.
View from the back of the Roman Forum. Gorgeous.
Roman Forum
Roman Forum
Le Pantheon in its architectural splendor.
Le Pantheon in its architectural splendor.
The Pantheon Oculus from the door.
The Pantheon oculus from the door.

Now Rome has what seems like thousands of churches and after you have traveled through Paris and Brussels,  you start to pick and choose which ones to visit because every church starts to look the same.  My absolute favorite place—surprisingly it was a religious site— that I visited during my visit to Rome was the Capuchin Crypt.  Nestled just north of the Coliseum, the Capuchin Crypt is not heavily advertised and the building is not that noticeable unless you are looking for it.  The entrance fee is cheap although I can’t exactly remember what it is, but inside there is a wealth of interesting information concerning the Order of the Capuchin Friars.  Below the museum portion is the best part: an odd, artistic arrangement comprising of the bones from deceased Capuchin Friars.  There are 3-4 rooms in total with different arrangements.

One of the bone arrangements in the Capuchin Crypt.  IT'S SO FREAKING COOL.
One of the bone arrangements in the Capuchin Crypt. IT’S SO FREAKING COOL.
Another of the Capuchin Crypt bone arrangements.  They have staff watching to see if you take pictures so I guess I was luck to get these pictures.
Another of the Capuchin Crypt bone arrangements. They have staff watching to see if you take pictures so I guess I was luck to get these pictures.

Photography is strictly prohibited and I do not endorse you photographing in the bone area as it is disrespectful.  I am not exactly proud that I did it, but the bones were so cool I couldn’t resist.  Just don’t be the freakin’ goober that has their camera flash enabled; you are the bane of the tourist industry.

Doing my best impression of the Triton Fountain
Doing my best impression of the Triton Fountain

You also need to scale the Spanish Steps.  This 135-step “workout” (seriously its not bad) takes you up to a large, balcony that gives you a rooftop display overlooking a good portion of Rome’s city center.  The stair-master portion isn’t exactly strenuous, but if you bring your significant other, you may get a good upper body burn swatting away the rose and marital gift peddlers who will not stop pestering you; they are relentless.  Even with me being alone, the sales pitches were endless.  Once you are allowed the peace and quiet you deserve, the Spanish Steps are a great visit.

View from the bottom of the Spanish steps.  No construction at the top to see here...
View from the bottom of the Spanish steps. No construction at the top to see here…
View from the top of the Spanish Steps.  "Go away, I'm not buying any roses."
View from the top of the Spanish Steps. “Go away, I’m not buying any roses.”

If you haven’t visited Rome or are not to familiar with it’s attractions, then you need to look into Pincian Hill located northeast from the city center.  Overlooking the People’s Plaza and more importantly, the entire city of Rome, this large balcony-like structure is the absolute perfect spot to watch the sunset transcend Rome into darkness.  Grab a beer or two, spoil yourself with a heaping pile of gelato, and enjoy the serene, rich sunset as it descends behind the Riserva Nationale di Monte Mario and the Parco Regionale Urbano Pineto as the city lights up.  You won’t be disappointed.

Beginning the descent...
Beginning the descent…
The sunset view from the Pincian Hill.  Rivaled by the sunset view in Florence.
The sunset view from the Pincian Hill. Rivaled by the sunset view in Florence.

Of course you have to experience the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, and Vatican City, but these are also a couple of options I highly suggest you keep in mind as you wander the vast, ruined metropolis that is Rome.  

Locations visited: Capuchin Crypt, the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, Leonardo DaVinci Museum, Pincian Hill, People’s Plaza, Vatican City (Sistine Chapel, Piazza di San Pietro, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, the Roman Forum, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Trevi Fountain, Triton Fountain, Piazza Navona, Église San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini, Campo dei Fiori di Varese, and the Castle of the Holy Angel.  Probably a few other places I forgot to mark down.

Vittorio Emanuele II Monument
Vittorio Emanuele II Monument
Vittorio Emanuele II Monument lit up at night.
Vittorio Emanuele II Monument lit up at night.

Highlights: I cannot stress enough how cool the Capuchin Crypt is.  The arrangements of the monk’s bones are something you just have to see in person.  Walking around the city of Rome is an experience in itself.  The atmosphere is lively and while you are there, you can just feel the city pulsate and it doesn’t matter whether you are in a residential district or at a marketplace teeming with locals and tourist alike.  Anyone could argue that most cities have this feeling, but I guess I can only say that Rome holds a certain je ne sais quoi. I witnessed a marriage, watched a street artist fully paint a mural on the side of a building, and drank beer during the sunset with a guy who claimed to be a gypsy.  It was great.

Favorite food: Italian gelato and pizza.  Ice cream and pizza just taste better when you are in Italy.  For the gelato, I highly recommend “La Gelateria Frigidarium.”

Italian gelato in all of its brain freezing, mouth-watering glory.
Italian gelato in all of its brain freezing, mouth-watering glory.
It wouldn't be the true Italian experience without Italian pizza.  Scrumptious deep dish.
It wouldn’t be the true Italian experience without Italian pizza. Scrumptious deep dish.

What I want to do and where I want to visit when I return:

  • Explore more of the northwestern Roman countryside
  • Pinciano Gardens(?)
  • Experience Roman fine dining

Total money spent: €150 (€400 with lodging.  This was when the exchange rate was €1=$1.4)

Post-Grad Eurotrip Part 5: Barcelona, Spain

After a jam-packed and busy three days of sightseeing and exploring while being surrounded by two great friends, I slung my backpack over my shoulder and walked to the eastern Gare de Lyon SNCF Paris train station in the early morning to board my 10-hour train to Barcelona, Spain.

Hands down, Barcelona is one of my favorite cities that I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit; I was sad that I only had 1 1/2 days—July 20th (arrived at midnight)-July 22nd, 2014—in this sunny, animated city.  The weather is hot, but comfortable and I found the vibe of the city to be similar to that of Hawaii’s.

Port la Barceloneta.  Nice marina to walk through on the way to the beaches.
Port la Barceloneta. Nice marina to walk through on the way to the beaches.

If you are only able to do three things in Barcelona, the first thing you should do is stroll on over to La Boqueria: an affordable, unique, and a energetic market area that will satisfy both your tastebuds, and your curiosity.  100% real fruit smoothies, freshly caught seafood, sit-down bar and restaurants, hand-made stuffed crêpes, candies of all shapes and colors, and local meats are just a few of the many wares you will find lining the stalls. 

Entrance to La Boqueria.  Check the video for a look inside (apparently I was too distracted to take photos).
Entrance to La Boqueria. Check the video for a look inside (apparently I was too distracted to take photos).

The area was quite packed when I visited, but it doesn’t detract from the experience.  I actually preferred walking this expansive bazaar at a slower pace as it allows you to soak in the food and its scrum-diddly-umptious smells.

I personally purchased a chicken, pepper, cheese, and spinach crêpe and I am thoroughly convinced that I’ll never come across one that could match its price (~5-7) and finger-licking goodness.

Oh the crêpes you can get in La Boqueria.  This was pretty basic compared to others that I saw made.
Oh the crêpes you can get in La Boqueria. This was pretty basic compared to others that I saw made.

Secondly, you need to purchase a ticket for a time slot and enter the famous and yet to be completed, La Sagrada Familia. This remarkably detailed church is the most beautiful building I have set foot-in; it is the first building I have stepped into and stood there peering up, my mouth agape, just soaking it all in because that’s the thing; there is so much to appreciate about this building both inside and outside.

The entrance.  The detail of the facade is impressive.
The entrance. The detail of the facade is impressive.
Closer look at the entrance
Closer look at the entrance

WARNING: YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO ENTER THE BUILDING IMMEDIATELY AFTER PURCHASING YOUR TICKET UNLESS IT IS AN EXTREMELY SLOW DAY.  YOUR TIME SLOT WILL LIKELY BE 1-3 HOURS AFTER YOUR PURCHASE. Save yourself hours of insanity, dehydration, and patience waiting in line(my video shows how long the line is to just get a time slot ticket) and just purchase your ticket/time slot online like I did.

The inside is furnished beautifully with scaling pillars that place you in a giant stone forest (this was the feeling that Gaudí-its architect-aimed for).  Thankfully, most visitors appreciate the serenity of the inside and try to remain quiet.  The pew section is a no talking zone and the staff will not hesitate to remove you from the this area if you are being disruptive as there are many people who use this area to pray.  I myself am not religious, but no matter your beliefs, appreciate its religious impact and respect those who are praying.

Colors produced from the stained-glass windows on the SE wall.
Colors produced from the stained-glass windows on the SE wall.
Spiral staircases.
Spiral staircases.
Ceiling. The forest-y feeling was profound.
Ceiling. The forest-y feeling was profound.
North sub-corner.
North sub-corner.
View from the pews.  Beautiful.
View from the pews. Beautiful.
Sky-window above Jesus.
Sky-window above Jesus.

Take your time and walk around the inside of La Sagrada Familia; you are doing yourself a disservice by rushing through it.

Exit of La Sagrada Familia
Exit of La Sagrada Familia

The third thing on your must-do list is just go lay on the beach all day.  Make a few sandwiches, buy some cheap wine, purchase some extremely powerful sunscreen, and just go lay in the sand.  The sun feels amazing and the water is a soothing temperature in the summer.   If you don’t leave the beach completely bronze, you are a walking enigma.

Beach at sunset from the walkway.
Beach at sunset from the walkway.

Here is a quick rundown for the Barcelona beaches:

  • Beware of the scam artists trying to sell 10 euro little to no alcohol mojitos, other alcohol, and cheap knick-knacks with jacked up prices. 
  • Make sure your valuables are close by and safe.  My friend Chandler (one of my friends that I met up with in France) had her phone stolen by one of these alcohol selling dill-weeds.
  • Post-up by some trustworthy looking people.  I laid down next to some young German travelers and two older British women; both I talked with for a bit.  Whenever I needed to take a quick dip, I just asked them to watch my things.  Again, this isn’t full-proof, but you have to a do a quick judge of character so your things don’t get stolen.  I typically try to lay down by those who have a lot of things with them (so they can’t just grab your valuables and run without taking the time to grab all of their things), travelers who are in the same boat of trying to trust others in a foreign place, or older folks who don’t need to steal from you…or you could just bury your stuff under your towel in a bag, which I also did.

Along the beaches there are piers with cube rocks that jut out from the ends.  These rocks are a lot of fun for climbing on and it was pretty relaxing sitting on them while watching the sunset.  It may not have been the smartest thing to do considering I was only 6 months off from my ACL surgery, but whatever; I consider it physical therapy… yea I’ll go with that.

Climbing rocks just off the pier. I went out farther on other piers.
Climbing rocks just off the pier. I went out farther out on other piers.

Barcelona is the city that I want to return to the most out of any European city I visited on this entire trip.  The locals are extremely friendly, the food and street entertainment enhances the city’s charm, and the nature of the city is relaxed.  No matter what you have scheduled for your visit, you will enjoy the city.

Locations visited: La Rambla, La Boqueria, La Sagrada Familia, Casa Amatiler, Casa Batlló, Casa Milà, Plaça de Catalunya, Palau Reial Major, Columbus Monument, la Barceloneta, and Palau Güell.

Plaça de Catalunya

Palau Reial Major.
Palau Reial Major.
Columbus Monument.
Columbus Monument.

Barcelona streets

Highlights: Laying on the Barcelona beaches; pure and simple.  Also standing in La Sagrada Familia.  It may not be a big deal to some, but this imposing edifice is an incredible experience that empowers visitors from all over the world.

Favorite memory: Climbing around the rocks off the piers at the beaches.  Again, may not have been the smartest thing—and the pictures don’t show how far out I went—but it was still awesome.  I blame 6 months of not being able to use the rock climbing wall at my university.  Staring into the Barcelona sunset with the wind blowing across my skin, perched on the rocks made me appreciate the city even more.

Favorite food: As I touched on above, the crêpes at La Boqueria are incredibly delicious.  If you are a bigger guy like me, it may not be the most filling thing in the world; that is why you buy two or three.

What I want to do and where I want to visit when I return: 

  • Walk through Parc de la Ciutadella
  • Aquarium Barcelona
  • Difficult hike through Montserrat Mountain
  • Visit Parc Natural de la Serra de Collserola
  • Castell de Montjuïc
  • Parc de la Serralada Litoral
  • Turó de Castellruf
  • Mercat de Santa Caterina

Total money spent: €30 (~€80 including lodging)