Hanoi, Halong Bay, and Beyond: 10 Days in Northern Vietnam

Hordes of motorbikes sped by as my taxi wove through the tight streets of Hanoi, Vietnam. Signs and billboards flashed at me. Vietnamese words were scrawled across them—but at least this time, I thought, the alphabet was Romanized.

I’d been on the road for about six months, had traveled to Japan, South Korea, India, Nepal, and Myanmar. Donald Trump had just won the U.S. presidency, and I’d slept off my post-election depression and fatigue in Yangon, Myanmar, like a champ.

Here I was, another new country, another new city, another new language—starting over yet again, unsure of myself and harboring lingering doubts about having sold all my things to take this yearlong journey through Asia and maybe beyond.

I listened to the motorbikes hum and purr. The taxi entered Hanoi’s Old Quarter and pulled to a stop near my hostel. The staff was waiting to meet us. I paid the driver. I pulled my pack onto my shoulders. I took a deep breath. I started again.

*

In Hanoi’s Old Quarter, three-tiered cafes look out onto the busy streets, with locals and tourists alike sipping on cold Vietnamese coffees (strong iced coffee with condensed milk) and eyeing the passersby outside. The place hums with conversation, the crackle of caffeine, and the buzzing of motorbikes. People spill out from open-fronted restaurants, sitting on small, colorful stools in front of bowls of steaming noodles and rice bowls topped with fresh herbs and leafy greens.

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Though I didn’t speak Vietnamese, I was grateful for the Romanized alphabet, the consonants and vowels that looked familiar even if I couldn’t pronounce them right. I at least could have an idea what dish a restaurant might sell (as they often specialized in just a dish or two) or could pick something off of a menu.

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At each hostel and hotel I stayed at (see my recommendations below), the concierge handed me a tidy map of the area and penned in his own recommendations. Best bún chả–grilled pork and rice noodles. Best traditional puppet show—there are two around Hoan Kiem Lake, which is the centerpiece of the Old Quarter. Hanoi’s bia hơi corner—a street of local bars serving light, fresh draft beer (a.k.a., bia hơi) at about 20 cents per cup. I followed the lines like they would lead to buried treasure. I was grateful to have something so solid in my hand. To wander but know where I was going.

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I slurped down the noodles and let the salty-sweet soup broth rush over my tongue. I scooped up sticky rice into my mouth with barbecued chunks of pork and washed it down Bia Hà Nội (Hanoi Beer—unsurprisingly, a beer that is ubiquitous in Hanoi). I drank thick coffee and walked around Hoan Kiem Lake. I watched the streets wind their way jaggedly off from the lake’s corners, spindly and twisting, a wild maze. But I always found my way back.

I’d thought perhaps it was a mistake. All of these new places, country after country. The way it wore me down. The way I’d only really recovered from my breakneck tour of India a couple months before.

But there was something in the frenetic hurry of Hanoi that calmed me. Maybe it was that I could read the signs and menus and felt empowered to act accordingly (instead of blindly pointing to things, as was my previous custom). Maybe it was the highly developed tourism industry that made a weary traveler feel welcome. Or maybe it was the creative buzz that pervaded the place, and the ways that the realms of the tourists and locals seemed to blend into one another—like they did in the French Quarter in New Orleans or among the numbered streets of New York. Maybe it was the way that people saw me and didn’t bat an eye—my foreignness, my gender non-conformity.

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Or maybe it was Jill, my childhood friend who met with me there, who flew from the U.S. to share with me in this journey, even if only for a little over a week.

The days lightened. I began to feel refilled. I looked forward to what new things the next day would bring.

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At Hoan Kiem Lake at night

*

When Jill arrived, I introduced her to all the good things I’d found in my first two days in Hanoi—the bánh mì restaurant on the corner that sold well-spiced sandwiches on French bread that practically melted in your mouth, the light and refreshing bia hơi, the coffeeshops that gave us a chance to people watch while the motorbikes sped by. We wandered the crooked streets (and snagged a cab or two), visiting the Temple of Literature (site of Vietnam’s first university in 1076 A.D., see photos below), drinking the infamous egg coffee, finally checking out one of those water puppet shows.

We circled Hoan Kiem Lake at night. The roads around the lake had been closed off, and vendors selling neon, light-up toys shot them up into the sky and bounced them off the asphalt. Kids rode by on scooters, and musicians played tunes with lyrics I sometimes understood, their music ringing into the night.

As much as Hanoi enticed us, though, Jill and I explored the world outside of the city as well. On our first day together, we found our way to a row of travel agencies that lined the streets of the Old Quarter. We’d done our research beforehand and decided to take a tour to Halong Bay/Bai Tu Long Bay and then to Sapa with Ethnic Travel, a company that bills itself as locally owned and operated, off-the-beaten path, and socially/environmentally responsible. (It is certainly off-the-beaten path, but the rest was a little unverifiable.)

Early one morning, we hopped on one of their large vans, which picked us up at our hotel, and took the 3.5- to 4-hour drive north to Halong Bay.

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The view from our cruise of Halong Bay

As we boarded the boat at the cruise terminal, the waters glistened around us, sparkling with sunlight, and we pushed off the dock amid lines of other boats—these small and large cruise ships taking tourists on day tours or overnight cruises like ours. The famed islets and rocks of Halong Bay shot up out of the water around us, punching to the sky—a “submerged dragon” made of limestone. Hardscrabble plants clung to the islets’ sheer sides, and scrappy trees poked out from the crevices of the geological formations.

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Once we got away from the crowd of other boats, we went swimming and kayaking to get a closer look. The water was a cool welcome after the heat of the sun on deck.

Up close so close in a kayak so small, the walls of rock looked monstrous but awesome, their small alcoves calling us to investigate. As we weaved our way among the rock formations, our kayaking group turned into a game of hide and seek. We disappeared around corners, into shadows. We emerged again.

Laughter pealed around us—the echoes of others on our tour.

We let the sun and water find us.

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*

That night, we dropped anchor and slept with the rocking surety of the boat, the water slapping gently at its sides, squid fishermen shining bright lights off the ends of fishing boats nearby.

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The next evening, though, we found ourselves on an empty beach at sunset on Quan Lan Island nearby. We stopped on the island for our second night’s rest after taking a boat ride through Bai Tu Long Bay and kayaking around oyster farms and more craggy islets. Back on solid ground, we bicycled across the flat countryside in the late afternoon sun, following our leader to this quiet spot by the sea.

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And soon we were there, this empty beach, the sun setting, and something about it.

There was something about it, up to my knees in the water, deciding whether to go all the way in, deciding it was maybe warm enough, or maybe it was too cool—what did I decide? Did I go all the way in? Did I let myself soak in the chill of it?

I don’t remember.

But what I see is this: just us, just us and no one for miles. The night falling. Not knowing where we’d sleep that night—someone knew, but it wasn’t me—not knowing if it was getting too late to get there (we wended the last few curves and turns in the near-dark dark, local folks pointing us down the right way, this troupe of foreigners wobbling by on our bicycles).

But now, here, the sun was dipping lower—that’s what I saw, that’s what I remember—and it was painting the sky these brilliant colors, the way that the best sunsets do, and there I was breathing it in, alongside these others who were breathing with me, who were sharing in that beauty.

Did they know what it meant? Did they realize? How precious that breath? The gift of that moment, of the quiet. That moment together. That moment that would be so hard to recall but impossible to forget.

*

The oil was hot on my fingers later that night, the spring roll burning my tongue. I washed it down with Bia Hà Nội.

We made the spring rolls ourselves at the lodge we stayed at on the island. We took turns chopping heaps of vegetables, wearing silly, branded “Ethnic Travel” cooking caps and aprons. Jill and I laughed at the branding—it was everywhere, as we’d seen, from seat cushions to cabin curtains to the comforters on our beds.

Still, we chopped the vegetables into thin, thin pieces. And then, we took turns wetting rice paper and placing the assorted goodies on top and rolling the new creations into being. The lodge’s host fried them up for us and brought them to our dinner tables where more food awaited.

We popped open beers and drank to the day and to the night and to the good food and to the water and to the sun and to the laughter that alighted from us. We talked about the places we’d been and the ones we wanted to go to and how any of us could ever get there.

The nights were full of dreams.

*

Of course, I don’t know that this is true, or whose dreams they were, or what stories I’m leaving out. Certainly, there must be many. And there is always a before and after.

But what I’m trying to say is this: I had been living for months in multiple places. I had been reaching for a future while being dragged back to a past.

My life had quieted just enough for my mind to spill over. I had been unsure how to scoop it up. All the bits that had overflowed. That had washed over me in Pokhara or pressed down on me in Yangon.

There was a gift there, in that moment, with my old, old friend and these fellow journeyfolks.

After months on the road, perhaps it was the first time that I allowed myself to be present.

*

After our trip up to Halong Bay, Jill and I headed back to Hanoi and caught an overnight train to Sapa, where we trekked through the misty mountains near the northern border near China. Rain soaked us through to our socks, and warm fires dried us out at night. I was grateful for the fire and the warmth of our conversations and for WiFi to call our families on Thanksgiving—one morning when we woke up extra early to make sure we didn’t miss them.

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Hiking in Sapa
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Rice fields of Sapa

Later, after Jill left, I returned to Hanoi for a few days before heading further south. I found a small studio apartment in the Old Quarter where I wrote for a few days and walked the city streets at night, visiting more cafes and eating bowls and bowls of bún riêu cua (my favorite culinary find–a tomato and crab noodle soup special to the north).

During the day, I searched for the things I would need for the rest of my month-long stay—a SIM card for my phone, a notebook to start journaling again.

At night, as darkness fell and the city began to quiet, I found that I had music in my head. I found that I could breathe.

I found that things were possible.

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Travel Tips

  • Hanoi’s Hostels and Hotels: There is an abundance of good, affordable places to stay in Hanoi’s old quarter. Here are the places I stayed that I’d recommend:
    • Hanoi Massive Hostel: Super affordable, friendly staff, secure, great location, and you get a free beer every night (at least, that was the deal they had when I was there)
    • Hanoi Capella Hotel: A beautiful, small (and affordable) boutique hotel just off of Hoan Kiem Lake and close to restaurants, cafes, and bars. Perfect location, clean and well-appointed rooms. The staff was friendly and helpful and gave great recommendations for places to eat and things to do. And the rooms were clean, bigger than I’d expected, and bright/comfy.
    • Airbnb: If you’re looking for a more “local” experience or, like me, just wanted a quiet, private place to write once I’d done some traveling, Airbnb might be a good place to search for an apartment or room to rent. I stayed at a studio listed by this Airbnb host in the Old Quarter. I think she might’ve since updated the apartment (and done a lot of expanding in terms of her properties), but I had a great experience renting from her (and paid about $22USD per night and had an apartment all to myself). I think this might be the apartment post-renovation (it’s the one that loads when I click through my old reservation), but no promises. 🙂
  • Eating and Drinking
    • Cafes. Are. Everywhere. Find one. Order coffee like a pro. Two of my favorite cafes were Aha Cafe (multiple locations) and Old Town Cafe, famous for its egg coffee and with views overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake.
    • Beer is Cheap and Delicious. Find yourself some at the bia hơi corner or order yourself a bottle or can of Bia Ha Noi at your local eatery–and get used to putting ice in your cup to keep your beer cool. There are also a few craft beer places popping up in the Old Quarter, if that suits your fancy better. Check out this extensive Hanoi beer guide to find your brew.
    • Food. Is. Everywhere. And folks in the hospitality industry (i.e., hotel staff) seemed happy to recommend their favorites. Try some pho (beef and noodle soup) at the famous Phở 10 Lý Quốc Sư. Try some bún bò nam bộ (grilled beef with noodles, veggies, and a yummy sauce) at the aptly named Bún Bò Nam Bộ. It might be a hike, but you should definitely track down some bun cha (grilled pork with noodles and veg) at Bún chả 34 Hàng Than. And of course, after you’ve had your fill of bia hoi, find yourself some banh mi from the myriad of vendors and gulp that sandwich down (we tried this one and another one right across from this cafe, and both were delicious). The list literally goes on and on–spring rolls and bún riêu cua and more and more. So have a feast and don’t break the bank while doing so.
    • Hanoi Social Club: On the edge of the Old Quarter, Hanoi Social Club is a local cafe and restaurant that caters to international customers and has a range of vegan and vegetarian options. This is a great place to get a coffee and get some work done–or get that brunch fix if you’ve been missing it. Food’s a little on the expensive side (compared to restaurants serving more local fare), but it’s good. As an added bonus, they’re LGBTQ-friendly and frequently host live music on nights and weekends. Just a cool place to check out in general, and a nice space for co-working.
    • Hanoi Street Food Tour: Intimidated by your options? Join a food tour with Hanoi Street Food Tour, and enjoy 3 hours of a guided walk around Old Quarter eateries. For $20USD, we ate so much and learned so much about the different kinds of food the city had to offer. I highly, highly, highly recommend it. (It introduced to me to my favorite dish, bún riêu cua.)
  • Touring Halong Bay/Bai Tu Long Bay and Sapa
    • As mentioned, we used Ethnic Travel for our excursions to Halong Bay/Bai Tu Long Bay and Sapa. I wholeheartedly recommend the Halong Bay/Bai Tu Long Bay tour–it was one of the best parts of my travels in northern Vietnam. Reasonably priced, great food, well organized, beautiful sights, great staff. Sapa was good, too, but it was foggy and rainy and maybe a little tougher of a trek than we’d expected. But if you’re looking to get outdoors, it’s not a bad trek to take. In total, I think Jill and I paid around $300-350 each for the combined tours, which included transportation, food, lodging, and a lot of good times (beer and other treats are extra–but not expensive). Ethnic Travel’s office is easy to get to in Hanoi’s Old Quarter (35 Hang Giây Street, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, Vietnam), and you can make reservations there or, I believe, by phone or online. (We did it in person.)
  • Getting Around
    • Taxis and Motorbikes: Taxis and motorbike taxis are everywhere. While I’ve read about folks getting scammed by taxi drivers in Hanoi, I had no problems. We hailed a couple taxis and made sure they had metered fare (I believe all the legit ones do), and they were totally above board. Know that many taxi drivers might not speak/read English (or your terrible accent when trying to speak Vietnamese), so it’s good to have the proper Vietnamese spelling of addresses and locations when taking a taxi (you can ask your hotel to help you out with this). Most hostels/hotels can arrange pickup for you at the airport for an additional fee (maybe like $15-20USD). Find out more about Hanoi’s taxis here.
    • Grab and Uber: These two ridesharing services are now available in Hanoi. Just download the appropriate app from your phone’s app store, make sure your phone is connected to the internet, turn on your location (or write in your starting location), type in where you’re headed, and then they’ll match you with a driver. You’ll know in advance how much your ride will cost, you’ll be able to pay through the app, and you’ll have an exact map of the route your driver will (most likely) take (might vary based on traffic, etc.). Best of all, you’ll make sure your driver knows the exact address you’re going to (which will be confirmed on a map for you and the driver) without having to worry about language barriers getting in the way (and you ending up in the middle of no where). In our experience, you can even get a motorbike taxi on Uber, if you’re feeling adventurous.
  • Staying Connected
    • WiFi: All the hostels and hotels I stayed at throughout Hanoi had excellent WiFi. Most restaurants won’t, but you can find your fair share of cafes and coffeeshops that do.
    • SIM Cards: SIM cards are readily available at from registered vendors. The two companies I saw recommended most were Viettel and Vinaphone. I bought a Vinaphone SIM card and had a fine experience throughout my travels in Vietnam. For around $5, I got 5gb of data for 30 days. Viettel and Vinaphone both have stores in/around the Old Quarter (and elsewhere). For more info on buying a SIM card, topping up, etc., check out this useful post from Too Many Adapters.
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The Traveling Bookshelf: Five Books on Leaving and Returning

 

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Photo Credit: © Mo Riza. Used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-2.0) license.

 

This summer has been for me a time of leaving and returning, going home and leaving homes behind. Much of my now year-plus journey has been an exploration of what “home” is–how to feel at home where you are, what it means to have multiple homes, how to process conflicting feelings about “home,” feelings of simultaneous belonging and unbelonging.

I’ve also been learning how “home” often consists so much more of the feeling I get with certain people than it does with any particular place. Yet, at the same time, I know there are distinct places that resonate with me, places where I feel in step with the world somehow, sometimes for unknown reasons. And then there are homes I’ve left behind, thinking they weren’t mine, and upon returning, I have been surprised to find that “homeness” intact, and I have been left thinking, Yes, this is my place.

My reading list over the last few months has, without intention, reflected many of these ruminations and complications. And in some ways, the ways I found these books reflect my own wandering: I picked up two of them after hearing the authors speak at the Adelaide Writers’ Week in Australia last spring. Another I’d intended to read for a long time, but this summer I found it on the shelf of an English professor friend who I was housesitting for in South Carolina. Another was left for me in the car I borrowed from a dear friend in South Carolina this summer when she moved back to South Korea. Still another, I simply stumbled across.

These are stories of returning to homes and seeing them in new lights, of being exiled from the people and places we call home, of having a home but not feeling at home in it, and stories of having your home destroyed and changed by forces beyond your control–and making due as you can. I hope these books might give you glimpses into other worlds and perhaps help you along your own journeys to and from home.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien

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While I learned about the Tiananmen Square massacre in middle school (we read a novel set there when I was in seventh grade), I knew very little about China’s Cultural Revolution. So when I heard Madeleine Thien, who was at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival, talk about how almost all music was outlawed in China during that time (except for a handful of government-approved songs), I was both horrified and intrigued, particularly as one of her characters is a composer. As a musician myself, I wondered how I would cope in a world without music, what I would do if something that enriched my life so much was taken away. I wondered how a government could manage it–that erasure of culture, of music, of art, of literature–and what vast effects such a move must’ve had on the generations that followed.

Thien’s book is an exploration of just that. Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, Do Not Say We Have Nothing follows the journeys of its characters through love and loss during China’s Cultural Revolution and its far-reaching aftermath. From a Chinese defector who flees to Canada after the massacres near Tiananmen Square in 1989 to young composers and musicians forced to abandon music during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, readers are drawn into shifting and intersecting worlds of danger, loss, coming, and going amid the love, friendship, and family bonds that hold people together. With beautifully drawn characters and a compelling narrative that delves both into the personal and political, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is one of the best books I read this year, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

How I Became a North Korean, Krys Lee

 

512bl60xkyylI’d been eyeing this book for a while, but after I saw Krys Lee speak at Adelaide Writers’ Festival in Australia and livetweeted about everything she said, I decided to track it down. Largely set in China near the North Korean border, How I Became a North Korean follows multiple characters on their journeys of exile from North Korea and their attempts to escape the regime, including Jangmi, a pregnant defector who is forced into sex work, and Yongju, a young man whose family was once in the upper echelons of North Korean society and politics. Most interesting and accessible, though, is Danny, a Bible-toting young man who is an ethnic Korean from China but grew up in California. Through a series of misadventures, Danny ends up in China without a passport and offers an outsider’s look into the world of the North Korean migrants as he navigates his own struggles with faith, sexuality, and identity.

How I Became a North Korean offers insight into the struggles of defectors from this regime, but importantly, it’s not just about how awful North Korea is. In the end, as characters make and remake themselves and their relationships with one another and the places they live, we find that North Korea isn’t the only villain and sometimes our heroes aren’t who we expect them to be.

The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros

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Narrated through the lens of the youthful Esperanza, The House on Mango Street tells the story of a young Latina girl who comes of age in a house and neighborhood she only dreams of escaping. Told in a series of short chapters that act as vignettes, we get both a sense of Esperanza’s desire to leave the low-income, predominantly Latinx neighborhood in Chicago where she lives as well as the connections she forms to it. We also get a sense of the worlds that Esperanza straddles and the borders she continually crosses as she moves deftly from Spanish to English, her neighborhood to the school, the world outside to the world within.

Through her childlike narration, we get glimpses of her family’s joys and struggles, her neighbors’ day-to-day lives, and her own movement from childhood into adulthood. And “glimpses” are perhaps an appropriate word for these stories–most of them are brief, and yet taken together, they offer a full picture of the protagonist, her fears, and her dreams.

Published in the 1980s, The House on Mango Street is considered a classic and taught throughout a number of schools throughout the U.S. Yet, it’s still very relevant to today’s discussions on Latinx and Mexican-American culture, feminism(s), and intersectionality. So if you’re looking for an engaging narrator, fiction about Latinx culture, or a book on home, this one’s for you.

The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit

51qu2bhnxwalOriginally, I was searching my library’s electronic books section for Men Explain Things to Me, Solnit’s feminist treatise that has been all the rage among my feminist friends. On the way, I found this and decided to give it a read.

The Faraway Nearby is a book of lyrical essays that traverse space, place, and time. Interweaving history, mythology, and story with her own struggles with a mother who has dementia, Solnit draws us into those moments of emotion that make human experience via her circling of the philosophical, wondering about nature, and examining her own lived existence. It’s a lovely, evocative portrayal of the complicated nature of our most intimate relationships made only more meaningful by her opening of the narrative to examine the broader world.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini

51jvfsiv8alHonestly, this novel made me really sad, but I think it offered me an important, if fictionalized, glimpse into everyday life in Afghanistan and the twists and turns the country has taken over the previous decades.

Told from the perspectives of two Afghan women, we follow our two protagonists from childhood into young adulthood as their paths move ever-closer to convergence. The novel opens on Mariam, a young Afghan teenage girl born out of wedlock who is trying to form a relationship with her father, who is married and has wives and kids of his own, and to escape the small, impoverished home of her mother. Her attempt to escape leads her down innumerable difficult paths that continute to confine her to a life she dreams of escaping, including an abusive husband in Kabul, a city far from the small village where she grew up. Laila grows up down the street from Mariam in Kabul and receives many of the things Mariam has not–a loving family, an education, a chance at love. Yet, escalating violence during the Afghani war with the Soviets brings her world crashing around her and draws her into Mariam’s world in ways neither had ever expected.

A story of exile, of entrapment, and of making homes where there are none, A Thousand Splendid Suns ultimately is about the connections we make with one another and with various places and people we call home, and how those connections make (and break) our world.

 

Stay tuned for the next installation of “The Traveling Bookshelf,” featuring five more books to add to your to-read list!

What are your favorite books on leaving and returning, on home and exile? Let me know in the comments!

What’s in the Bag?: Everything I Packed for My Year of Travel

I spent a long time last year trying to figure out what to pack after I decided to go on a yearlong journey around the world. There’s already a lot of advice out there, and while that’s great, the more I read, the more confused I got.

As with anyone who takes a trip like this, what goes in your pack and what gets left out is an ongoing process. I overpacked to start with, but within a few months, my pack was down to a better fighting weight, and I’ve been rolling with the same svelte existence since.

So, here’s what’s in my bag as almost 12 months in—along with some tips and tricks I learned along the way. Continue reading “What’s in the Bag?: Everything I Packed for My Year of Travel”

10 Most Useful Things I Packed for My ‘Round-the-World Journey and a Few I Wish I Had

Not all packing lists are created equal, and there will always be things you wish you’d brought and others you wish you’d left behind. And some things you won’t even know you need until you’re on the road.

So here are the 10 most useful things that I brought with me on my ‘round-the-world journey, and a few I’d wish I’d thought of before I left. Continue reading “10 Most Useful Things I Packed for My ‘Round-the-World Journey and a Few I Wish I Had”

Five Asian Escapes for Writers, Artists, and Quiet Types

As a writer and introvert, one of my greatest quests over this year of travel is to find quiet places to get away to where I can write, read, and be—without breaking the bank. Here are five places I found during my time in Asia that gave me the space I needed to write, seek silence, and find inspiration.

Jirye Art Village (Andong, South Korea)

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I stayed at Jirye Art Village outside of Andong, South Korea, for over a week last summer, and it was just the quiet getaway I needed after weeks in the bustling metropolis of Seoul.

The Jirye Art Village is comprised of a series of historical buildings that were rescued from demolition by Korean poet Kim Won-gil. The buildings, built circa 1660, belonged to his family, and in 1990, when they were threatened by a dam being built nearby, Kim managed to get permission to move 10 buildings 200 meters up the mountains to their current position.

The poet envisioned turning the buildings into an artist’s colony, but in recent years, the property has become more of a place for visitors, including retreatants, artists, and travelers. Continue reading “Five Asian Escapes for Writers, Artists, and Quiet Types”

The Traveling Bookshelf: Five Books to Make You Feel

It’s been a hard month-plus for a lot of us since Trump was inaugurated, and as my friend Joanna jokes, whenever I run into trouble, I turn to books. In my last reading list, which I posted shortly after the U.S. election, I suggested five books to read on race. This time, I’m focusing on feelings.

One of the best things stories offer us is a chance to walk around in someone else’s skin. As President Obama so rightly noted when describing the importance of reading in his life and presidency, books allow us “the ability to slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in someone else’s shoes”—and if we need nothing else at this time, it’s certainly more empathy. (The full transcript of Obama’s interview with the New York Times about books and reading is beautiful and available here.)

So here are some of the things I’ve read recently that have given me feels and made me feel more human. I hope you might be moved by them, too.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

5941033I’m gonna be honest—this is my second time reading this book, and I read it before the election results were announced. I’d filled out my absentee ballot. I’d scanned and sent it from the lovely Airbnb home I was staying at in Pokhara, Nepal. Trump wasn’t even on my radar.

But Nepal was a weird time for me. I was overwhelmed by Kathmandu, unsure about how to face the legacy of colonialism in the Indian subcontinent that I’d just traveled through, confused about how to deal with my economic privilege in the midst of a lot of poverty, and had been on the road for almost six months.

I’d retreated to Pokhara for a couple weeks, to a lovely rustic property up the hill from Phewa Lake, to write and regroup. As much as I needed the quiet time, I was simultaneously struck by a feeling of aloneness (with the good and bad that goes with it) and self-defeating doubt.

I hadn’t felt invested in my fiction writing in a long time. I doubted the usefulness of stories. I didn’t know where my voice had gone, or why.

So, I turned to Let the Great World Spin, a book that I’ve counted as one of my favorites since I first read it a few years ago. So often, I’ve viewed literary fiction as a place of sadness; so infrequently have I found literary fiction that puts some hope in the bottom of the box.

Let the Great World Spin is an aching, dizzying, resonating piece that does just that—while sorting through realms of grief, longing, loneliness, and connection. Told through multiple viewpoints, McCann takes the reader deep into the lives a series of narrators who are connected by a thin thread (thicker for some than others) via the moment in 1974 when a man strung a tightrope across the World Trade Center towers in New York and walked across it. Each voice layers on top of the other, giving each greater meaning, and pulling the reader across space and time, into living rooms and antique cars and subway tunnels and the tops of towers, inviting us in for coffee, inviting us to share in one another’s grief and, in the end, to land on love.

Let the Great World Spin reminds me of how intimately we are connected, how deeply grief and loss can affect us, and how love and empathy can draw us through the even darkest of times. Continue reading “The Traveling Bookshelf: Five Books to Make You Feel”

The Traveling Bookshelf: Five Books to Read on Race

As a writer, one of my favorite things to do is to read. All throughout my journey, and especially after the election, I’ve been trying to pull together books that will help me see the world in a broader light and make me a more empathetic human and effective advocate.

Here are five books that have been on my shelf the last couple months. Hope you might enjoy (and learn from) them as much as I did!

Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: An Organizing Guide (Daniel Hunter)

njc-coverAfter the election, I felt pretty powerless in terms of how to respond and also realized I needed to learn more about engaging with the racial justice movement and integrating anti-racism work into my other advocacy. This book was a great primer for me regarding work being done to end the prison industrial complex (and its inherent racism) as well as an awesome guide for movement-building in general. I recommend it for anyone working in advocacy and activism and for all my non-profit sector friends. Find out more online here. (Available on Kindle for only $0.99USD!) Continue reading “The Traveling Bookshelf: Five Books to Read on Race”