After ripping over the surface of Langjökull with our snowmobiles, we slowed it way down for our ice cave hiking tour on Vatnajökull Glacier.
Our tour (again affiliated with Guide to Iceland for $200) began in the city of Vik, a small town located about 2-3 hours east of Reykjavik, where another over-sized Land Rover collected us. Much like the snowmobiling tour, it takes a good hour of seriously bumpy, off-roading to get to the starting point where we can start hiking to the caves. And again, like the snowmobiling tour, pee before you go. Keep in mind that this tour is only available November-March otherwise be prepared to be on a waterfall tour.
The winds on the way to the ice caves were the strongest we battled all trip (in fact we did this tour in lieu of a glacier hike option that was cancelled due to the dangerous wind speeds). Even if it’s not sunny out, I recommend bringing your sunglasses to cover your eyes from the blowing dust and ice. The tour company provides crampons and helmuts–both of which you are required to wear.
As we hiked our way towards the ice caves, which takes approximately 10 minutes, it’s an astonishing sight to see the black sand volcanic landscape all around. Our guide told us that they filmed parts of Interstellar there. Once you get to the ice caves, it’s not the immense caverns that will astonish you. It’s the fact that what you’re seeing isn’t stone–it’s incredibly polished ice. It was almost like we were inside a giant, textured glass vase.
After the ice cave tour, we grabbed lunch back in Vik at Suður-Vík. This cute little lodge had an excellent seafood soup and fried camembert.
But the real highlight (if you would consider this a highlight) was randomly seeing the Bachelor Arie and his new, second(?) fiancé Lauren. When they walked in, I at first thought I recognized them because they were on a previous tour with us or something like that. But when I leaned over to the only female in our group and asked, “Is that man the Bachelor?”, her eyes lit up, and she gave 100% confirmation that it was indeed the reality show stars. I’m not sure what was more bizarre–seeing the pair in Iceland, or recognizing them in the first place.
I recently traveled to a friend’s beach house in Puerto Peñasco/Rocky Point, Mexico and discovered (but not at all surprised) that while you can get into Mexico really easily, getting back into the U.S.? Not so much.
This is a just a quick tip for those of you who are driving into Mexico and planning on driving back into the U.S. Pack a cooler–a big one.
The traffic jam we hit trying to cross the border added about 3 hours to our drive, and most of that 3 hours was spent sitting in the 100 degree sun baking our van. Despite the A/C being on full blast, only hot air was filling up the van because we were moving an inch every 5 minutes. We did not prepare for such a wait, and I’ve never experienced as much jealousy as when I could see folks in the cars around us popping open their coolers and drinking ice cold waters and beers.
While there were a few folks on the road selling drinks, tamales (yes, we bought some and they were delicious), souvenirs, and use of their toilets, even for Mexico the prices were a rip off, so you may as well get that cooler filled up yourself.
I’m not sure if all the border crossings are like this (we were crossing into Arizona), but I would suspect that they are. And it probably should have been an obvious thing to prepare for; it was just an oversight on our part–one that you should make sure not to make.
But of course it was all worth it because for 4 days I got to see this…
While I’ll get to the rest of what to do in Hanoi later, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum deserves it’s own post. Ho Chi Minh is considered the father of Vietnam and is commonly referred to as Bac Ho (Uncle Ho) to the Vietnamese. His name and image are everywhere; even Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Vietnam War. So a trip to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex is a must-do when you’re in Hanoi.
The complex is a massive memorial the holds the mausoleum itself, where you can view the body of Ho Chi Minh, along with other memorials, the Presidential Palace, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, and his Stilt House. It’s important to make sure that you make the mausoleum the first part of your trip to the complex (don’t confuse the museum with the mausoleum). It’s only open from 8 am–11 am on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (last entry is at 10:15 am) and is closed from September 4th–November 4th when the body is sent to Russia for maintenance.
When we showed up to the complex at 8 am, it was absolute chaos. Hundreds, possibly even thousands of people were everywhere. Soldiers lined the streets, directing different groups to different areas. The main square was an intimidatingly open space with lots of granite and Vietnamese and Soviet flags piercing the cloudy sky. In the middle was the mausoleum in all of its glory, standing tall and ominously with giant a red HO CHI MINH branded on it. It has the looks of a communist Lincoln Memorial. Hundreds of schoolchildren, all with the same adorable uniforms, stood in random lines at different points in the square. They all (and literally ALL the children) would charmingly wave and shout “HELLO!” to any person who remotely looked like a tourist. It was a strange contrast to the intimidating scene of Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place.
The square was so big that we had no idea where to go; there were lines everywhere. We first walked through a metal detector that we assumed lead to the right place, but each time we stepped in one direction, a soldier or guard would ferry us a different way. After thirty minutes of just walking with random groups around the mausoleum, we finally made it to what we thought was a ticket booth for the body viewing. We were wrong. It was a ticket booth for the museum complex. The person who worked in the booth spoke relatively good English and told us that it was free to view the body in the mausoleum, but we needed to get in line (obviously…).
So we walked back to where we started and just started to randomly ask every soldier if they could tell us where we needed to go. Finally, we found a sentry in a pearly white uniform who spoke English. He told us that we needed to walk down the street and find the end of a specific line, which he pointed us to. It was at this point that we picked up a lone Dutch backpacker who was also wandering around having the same issues as us. She had overheard our conversation with the English speaking soldier and that we actually made progress figuring out what the hell to do. So she tagged along with us as we walked, and walked, and walked until we found the end of the line.
From there, the hour and a half wait began. But it was not without it’s entertaining parts. Much like lines at Disney World, the line to get into the mausoleum wrapped in and out of random courtyards and gardens. We spent the wait time getting to know our new Dutch friend. She told us she was doing a three month solo backpacking trip throughout Southeast Asia because she just graduated from law school (jealous much?). And because she was a tall, blond, European, who stuck out like a sore thumb in the mass of shorter Vietnamese schoolchildren, she couldn’t go a hundred feet without being stopped by a random kid and asked to take a selfie. I’m not exaggerating–dozens of girls would stop her, ask for her to pose with them, and then walk away before the day was done. It was one of the more amusing things I’ve ever seen in my travels. But that’s what makes traveling great: the people you meet. Our new friend would eventually end up spending the rest of the day and night with us.
As you get closer to the entrance of the mausoleum to see Ho Chi Minh’s body, there are multiple signs with rules to follow. No pictures. No shorts. No bags. No chewing gum. No hands in pockets. No talking. On and on… You can tell that they take the body viewing extremely seriously, which is understandable considering that Ho Chi Minh is the biggest figure in Vietnamese history. As you walk up the stairs into the massive gray structure the decibel level of voices creepily gets lower and lower.
When you turn the corner to walk into the chamber, the lighting is a dark glowing red, and in the middle of the room, to my great shock, is the body Ho Chi Minh. It’s just there. Out in the open. I figured we’d see a coffin or sarcophagus, but no, he’s on fully display. Ho Chi Minh is dressed in a black robe with giant Vietnamese and Soviet flags hanging above and behind his body (think the Smithsonian Star-Spangled Banner sized flags). The body itself is in incredibly good condition, which makes sense considering that they send it to Russia every year for two months for ‘maintenance.’ It is an absolutely surreal, creepy scene.
As the soldiers move the visitors along, one of the most flabbergasting experiences I’ve ever had happened in my travels occurred. My buddy whom I frequently go on trips with is a great travel companion. I value his company whenever I’m off in some exotic land because he keeps his a good head on his shoulders and is always willing to experience new things. But there are times, such as this one, where I go…
So he’s in front of me in line, and we’re right at the spot where the body is directly facing us. He turns around, looks me in the eye, and laughingly asks “Dude, who is that?”
I see the Dutch backpacker and my sister, who are in front of him, turn their heads, completely dumbfounded. Under the watchful stare of the soldiers that fill the room, I tell my buddy (keeping my mouth shut to try and be subtle), “Duuuddddeeee, shut up and keep walking,” as I stare daggers at him.
When we leave the chamber (you only really stay in there for about thirty seconds), I ask him what the hell he was thinking and if he wanted us to get shot. I’m all for being a smart-ass and joking around every once in a while, but I could not believe he would make a joke right at that moment. However, what came out of his mouth next was even more bewildering.
“No, seriously…who was that?”
So after taking a cab to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, looking for how to get in for thirty minutes, waiting in line for an hour and a half, walking into the massive Lincoln Memorial type building with the giant words HO CHI MINH written on it, to see, without question, the biggest historical figure in Vietnam’s history, my buddy still brain farted the shit out of the experience and wasn’t sure who we were looking at…
When all is said and done, we had a good laugh about it. I handed him my Lonely Planet with the history of Vietnam earmarked for him to read while the Dutch backpacker retrieved her bag. Believe me, it will be a story I will be telling at his wedding, funeral, and many other events for years to come.
After the mausoleum visit, the rest of the complex is relatively anti-climactic. I’d say you don’t necessarily need to do it, but if you have time, since you’re there, you may as well. For $1, you can see his Stilt House, the Presidential Palace, and the museum. We didn’t actually go into the museum because it’s closed for two hours at lunch, so I can’t really give you a review of that. But the viewing of Ho Chi Minh’s body in the mausoleum itself is definitely something worth waiting around for and experiencing.
I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my time and I have to say that Red Rocks is arguably one of the best places to see a show. Before going, I had heard from several people that it was an amazing place, so the hype level was already high going into it.
For those of you that don’t want to drive to get there, a $35 train that leaves from Union Station in downtown Denver is available. When you arrive, the first thing you should be prepared for is a bit of a steep hike up to the amphitheatre. Give yourself a little time to do that, especially if you decide to tailgate beforehand. Since I still wasn’t fully acclimated to the thin air, by the time I made it to the top I was wheezing like an old man.
You’re allowed to bring in food, but no drinks (including water). And obviously weed isn’t allowed, but I’m more than certain that most people brought that in. One other tip: Make sure to pack in layers. This actually applies to everywhere in the Denver area. I haven’t been to a city where the temperature varies as much as it does from minute to minute as it does in Denver. It could be 75 degrees and pleasant one minute and then a cloud covers the sun and it becomes bone chillingly cold the next.
Most of the amphitheatre seating is general admission so if you really care about the band you’re seeing you should show up early. That being said, there’s not really a bad seat in the house. The incline of the seats is steep enough and there’s a ton of room between your feet and the seat in front of you. You can easily stretch your legs forward and not even come close to hitting the head of the person in front of you. This not only gives you an unobstructed view of the stage, but it also gives you a lot of room to dance and allows beer sellers easy access to get through (they serve beer pretty late into the night, 10:30 seemed like the cutoff time).
But the real star of the amphitheatre is the sound. The sound goes right through you. It’s incredible. We went to see the Thievery Corporation and they were great to watch there. Even if you’re not familiar with them, you probably know their song Lebanese Blonde from the Garden State soundtrack. Because they have such an eclectic sound, it’s hard to describe how your body gets so enveloped in the music. As the sun goes down and the stars come out, the rocks that make up the ampitheatre illuminate and it really feels like you’re in a time machine that’s stuck between today and the ancient Roman times. If you’re in Denver and a fan of music, my recommendation is to try and plan a night out at Red Rocks regardless of who is playing. The venue also shows movies and offers yoga as well, but getting there for music should be the top option.
As many of you are aware, the state of Colorado legalized the sale of cannabis in 2014. Since then marijuana dispensaries have popped up all over Denver for both medicinal and recreational purposes. I’m personally not a pot smoker, but seeing as I was in Colorado I was interested in seeing what the scene was all about.
From what I could tell, there are dispensaries scattered throughout the city and no matter where you are you’re probably within striking distance of one. The one my friend and I popped into was called LivWell, which is well-known for their partnership with rapper Snoop Dogg.
I’m not sure why, but when I imagined going into a dispensary, I sort of pictured someone’s old living room with all the plants in their backyard. My beliefs were quickly quashed the second we stepped inside. LivWell was extremely clean and put together. The moment you walk in, you get your I.D. checked by the front desk/security and they give you a number (it has a very DMV like feeling). You wait in the Apple store looking waiting area until they call your number and take you in one of two storerooms.
The storerooms again are incredibly put together and look like something out of a store at the mall. Because of their 3:1 customer to “budtender” policy, the storerooms aren’t too crowded. Our budtender was extremely knowledgable — it felt like we were talking to a chemist more than a legal drug dealer as she educated us on all the science behind each item/bud. She showed us all the offerings, which ranged from candies to drinks, brownies to patches. And of course there were jars and jars of different marijuana strains. Prices obviously vary depending on the product, but to give you an idea: a single cookie is $3, a three pack of mini-brownies is $12, patches that you place on your arm or ankle like nicotine patches are $10, and a bag of about ten sour patches gummies is $24.99 to name just a few of the prices. Again, I never get high (Getting drunk? Well, that’s a different story), but I figured, “When in Rome…”, so I purchased a small edible for myself.
Pictures weren’t allowed, but I managed to sneak a few in.
Fresh off the Supreme Court ruling in support of same-sex marriage, the annual Pride Parade in San Francisco just so happened to be slated the same weekend that we were there. Needless to say it was a huge celebration; I really don’t think I’ve been around so many happy people (straight, gay, and whatever the person wearing the giant penis was) in one mass grouping like that before.
Unsurprisingly, the parade was loud, colorful, “fabulous”, hopeful…you name it, and that’s what the parade was. And it was long too — it started at 10:30 in the morning and wrapped up at 5:00. We only had so much energy for a few hours of the spectacle, but it was more than enough to get me exhausted. By the end I was covered in Mardi Gras beads and had about 6 different rainbow colored “Livestrong” wristbands on my arms. It was a sight to see and I’m really glad I got to experience it.
The Pride Parade has to be seen more than told so please enjoy some of the videos and pictures from the event.
After a busy, busy day in Bangkok we headed out to see the nightlife by starting at a bar we found through Lonely Planet called WTF Bangkok. WTF is located on Soi 51, down a relatively dead alleyway. When you walk in, it’s your typical hipster dive bar with an art gallery on the second floor (which was unfortunately closed). The mainly expat staff was friendly and our bartender Kris made us feel right at home recommending her favorite Thai beers and a great eggplant/eel sauce(?) dish (and I don’t even like eggplant) from the Japanese restaurant next door that caters to the WTF patrons.
As the night wore on, and the drinks kept flowing, we began to get really friendly with all the staff working that night, including the friends of the staff who were at the bar, and the chefs from across the street who were regular customers as well. Thus began our one night in Bangkok (cue the Murray Head).
Needless to say, a massive amount of libations were consumed, so the memory on this one is spotty at best. As WTF was coming to a close, one of the chef’s, Sam, made the suggestion to all go to a lady-boy bar. This wouldn’t typically be the destination of choice for myself in any normal situation. But this wasn’t a normal situation. This was Bangkok. So hell yes we were gonna go along to a lady-boy bar with the locals.
Before you get any thoughts in your head, I’m putting this out there: nothing happened with any lady-boys to me or anyone in the group. Needless to say, the lady-boy bar was very bizarre. The actual place wasn’t anything special; you could swap out the people in any dive bar with a pool table with lady-boys and that would be the scene. And to be honest, the lady-boys who ended up hanging out with us were actually pretty friendly. Even though they were likely soliciting for sex, which we weren’t going to give them, they were still fun to be around. One of the girls in our group told us that the proper etiquette is to at the very least buy one of the lady-boys a beer, which is what each of us did.
Now I’m completely comfortable with that scene, but I would not have gone to a lady-boy bar had it not been with a group of locals. I suspect that many of you reading will never end up there. But I’m glad I did because Bangkok is a city where the societal lines of normality are placed differently than in other parts of the world and it’s something that was worth experiencing.
The lady-boy bar did not consist of the entire night. We also went and got fried chicken/fried beef from bartender Brian’s favorite street cart, ended up at some random outdoor bar that literally consisted of a bar table and bar stools in a random dark alley, and went dancing again in some random night club down another random alley. Yes, there was a lot of random in the night. And because of that, the night ended at 6-6:30 AM. Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention that we had to be up at 8 AM for the Bangkok Food Tour. My review of that on the next post.
A popular mode of transportation in SE Asia is the Tuk Tuk (pronounced “Duk Duk”), which is an auto rickshaw. Generally cheaper than cabs if you can negotiate correctly, the Tuk Tuk is a fun way to get around. But know that your heart rate will be accelerated as you ride on them. Think of it like taking an amusement park ride without the benefit of a safety bar. And again my mantra for SE Asia — Keep Your Elbows In!
My New Orleans post is on its way, I’ve just been a little caught up with work this month. But I did want to take a moment to talk about something really quick.
Most people have experienced, at one point or another, the holiday travel rush. It’s just madness, madness, madness on either the roads, airport, bus depot, or train station. One of the most notorious times has historically been the day before Thanksgiving. But something’s happened in the past few years that I’ve noticed, and I’d love to find out if anyone else feels the same way. I took a flight back to Boston right after work on Wednesday night and not only was the airport practically empty, my flight was like half full.
I think that it might almost make sense (and this goes against everything that seems logical) to actually travel on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. I think the new trend is for people to leave work early during the day Wednesday or even Tuesday night and travel then, thinking that they’ll beat the rush and instead join the millions of people who also seem to think that they’re smarter than everyone else. I did ask a few people what their travel experiences were Wednesday night as well, just to see if I wasn’t the only one, and I had one girl drive up to New Jersey with zero traffic and one guy driving up to Philly with no problems.
Call me crazy, but that’s my quick tip of the month.