Road trip! What’s life on the road like?

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Ahh. Road trip.. life on the road, filled with new experiences, spontaneity, getting lost, and finding your way back, its very exciting! The romantic feeling of rolling down your window, one hand on the wheel, the other holding the hand of your amazing partner (if available), or if not, a can of Coke  (bullshit let’s admit it, its beer!). Wind and dust blowing while you cruise along a road framed by mountains, fields of corn, the occasional adobe farm house, it stretches until the very end of the horizon.

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On the road, when the journey is just as fun as the destination, it does feel nice to just sit and watch the world go by as if it were some silent movie directed by God. 

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Road trip! It’s the epitome of adventure and discovery. We’ve all had this. When you went for camping, after prom, towards the end of your senior high school year, cutting afternoon classes in college, or just time off work. Regardless of time and age, on the road, you are young and free!

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Recently catching up with a couple of lifelong friends sealed by road trips, we relive exactly what elements make life on the road unforgettable and legendary.

The classic road trip characters

The designated official driver, the music director, the accountant, and the sleeping beauty.

Road trips are volatile

It can easily go wrong from the smallest of mistakes, such as missing the last gas station, dropping a nuclear fart, or breakdowns of either car or people. It is important to establish rules. Who gets to ride shotgun, how much toilet stops, or the right to vote to leave someone behind.

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The soundtrack

I read somewhere that the only fault in the creation is that someone forgot to add background music to fit special moments in life. You can easily mend this tragic flaw by making a trip defning playlist for every beautiful moment you will have on the road. Trust me, you will have many. Moments looking out the window, moving your head about to the rhythm of music, as if you were part of a B roll of some catchy One Direction music video.

Road trips give a really strong bond to a group

Its spending hours talking, laughing, and singing in chorus to the Beatles and Bob Marley, or simply looking out into the clouds while finding comfort in everyone’s silence. But more than those moments of wonderful shared sunsets or the unnerving sight of hundred foot drops, its about having someone to reminisce and relive that bygone era of excitement. When no one was having a better time than we did, because during those rare moments, we were truly part of something greater than ourselves. 

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Road trips can be memorable for all the good things, but the bad things make it more interesting.

You will get lost, figure out how to ask directions in different dialects, or that world-falling-apart moment of being left behind when you took so long to pee. It could also be that life threatening moment when you turned on the ignition and the engine took a longer time to start, or when someone opened the window that doesn’t close, they all make the best stories years after, or at least once you’ve forgiven each other. 

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Road trip as summed up by Tiffanie DeBartolo from How to Kill a Rock Star,

“The concept of time, as it’s commonly understood by normal people with normal jobs and normal goddamn lives, doesn’t exist on the road. The nights spread out like the dark, godforsaken highways that distinguish them, and the days run together like Thanksgiving dinner smothered in gravy. You never really know where you are or what time it is, and the outside world starts to fade away. Its cool.”

So find the perfect destination, take the funniest combination of characters, play all the right music, buckle up and drive slow homie!

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How to travel the world without seeing the rest of the world.

Beyond time and money, it takes an obsessive level of interest in the world to want to see all of it. Sure, there’s Maldives, Paris, Sydney, Napa, etc. But the world is not exclusively Mai Tais in beaches, or cigarettes and a magazine in a cafe. There are places such as Bolivia, India, Somalia, and the rest of those countries which to describe as severe is an understatement.

Unfortunately, I have a very poor imagination for a person who loves and enjoys reading and writing as much as I enjoy wine, food, music and sex, not necessarily in any particular order. 

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In order to complete the equation of fully getting lost in the orgasmic pleasure I get from reading and writing, it becomes an imperative for me to experience and collect stimulus from different landscapes and people.

Take sentences such as;

“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…”  from the The Prince by A. de Saint-Exupery

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“Anyone who is observant, who discovers the person they have always dreamed of, knows that sexual energy comes into play before sex even takes place. The greatest pleasure isn’t sex, but the passion with which it is practiced. When the passion is intense, then sex joins in to complete the dance, but it is never the principal aim.” from P. Coelho.

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For me, lines like those are as usefully descriptive as a limbless person playing charades, or a mute explaining the beauty of poetry.

In short, it becomes necessary for me to see and experience the world, which isn’t always a bad thing if you only read about wineries and brothels, but I’m also interested in Hinduism, the Bolivian alitplano, German Christmas, touring endless Moroccan highways and bullfighting.

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So in order to have more time for books and notebooks, I made a list of guidelines that will give me a general idea of what the world looks like without having to see the rest of it.

1. My best tip is to divide the world in terms of religion. 

Religion has the biggest influence and impact on culture and lifestyle. And why not, after the crusades, burnings at the stake, warring prophets with their delivering words.

It may not always be the same for each country. For Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur in particular has Islam-lite compared to Saudi Arabia and other middle eastern nations. But monks are never balder than the next Buddhist nation.

Religion may not have dibs on food selection, but next to terroir, they have the biggest say on it.

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2. Visiting neighboring countries tend to look similar, be it in people, architecture and culture. 

Because most borders are relatively new compared to human civilizations, we don’t always have to see the world through countries, instead, divide the world in parts. While some countries are sandwiched, like the Basque country between France and Spain, most tend to be drawn from the same pepperoni pizza. Take for example Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, they are like different versions of a curry that is India. Hong Kong and Macau, tearing themselves from China, for better or worse. Or Yugoslavia, broken down into a couple of super nationalistic eastern European countries, but visit each one and you’ll probably see more castles than you ought too. As much as the Germans and Austrians like to differentiate themselves from each other, they speak the same language for chrissake. And don’t even get me started between Spain and Portugal.

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Although sometimes, similar neighboring countries are on your side too. I wanted to see Tibet, but for now, Nepal will do because the Chinese government took over and imposed ridiculous rules for visiting.

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My tip is to visit those old superpowers where civilizations centered themselves during the time when they used animals, precious metals and stones to trade for commodities. They would usually be a few countries per continent. They would tend to be where architecture and culture are grand, such as Rome, Peru, India, China, Russia etc.

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Or if you want to have a view of Mediterranean life and architecture, skip between 3 countries, they are not exclusively Spain, France and Italy. Check out Slovenia, Bosnia or Croatia too and you would be surprised to see that its not always comfortable and sexy. And still, there’s Greece and Turkey (again, choose one) for Europe meets Asia. Also Tunisia, Libya or Algeria for the African continent. Israel, Lebanon, etc. for the Asian side. They mostly form the Mediterranean sea and you wonder why they sell kebabs in different names from all those countries.

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3. Nature will always be nature. 

If I dropped you in the middle of a tropical forest, would you be able to tell if you were in Brazil or South East Asia? Or if, like Leonardo Di Caprio from Inception, you wake up/arrive from/in a dream/real life (only Christopher Nolan knows) and find yourself randomly beached, could you even tell which continent you are in? The Philippines have 7107 islands, sounds intimidating. But visit a a really nice beach, maybe two, same for mountains, do it good and you’re done.

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When I was seriously contemplating about taking a $400 90 minute mountain flight over the Himalayas, some European guy from trip advisor wrote “If you’ve flown over the Alps on a nothing special commercial flight, its not gonna be very different.” That was a really lame thing to say but I realized after that he wasn’t completely wrong and $400 poorer.

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Between deserts and snow, they’re always hot and cold, sandy and wet. The Sahara transcends from a lot of African nations, some are at war with each other. Choose one and save yourself from the risk of being caught in the crossfire. 

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4. Food

When it comes to food just as in wine, “terroir”, or land, is king. Before immigration, refrigeration and shipping, if a couple of countries reside on the same valley, coast or mountain, don’t expect the vegetation and animal protein to be different. Don’t believe what the Portuguese say that they have completely different cuisine from the Spanish, you are probably talking to a person named Ego. Or land locked nations, again, like Germany and Austria, sausage anyone?

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5. Colonies

When it comes to colonization, I have a very mixed feelings about it. Its a two faced coin. Producing mixed cuisines and beautiful people (mestizas, creole, etc), but it made the world so much smaller by erasing cultures and wiping out the indigenous people. I have a big reservation when it comes to visiting South Africa for the people because I find it decidedly English in so many ways. Even parts of Australia. Maybe because they mostly came from England anyway.

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Borders give us a challenge but we don’t always have to see the world through countries. The idea is to spread up that map, take a ruler and lay it on the map, stick pins between countries maintaining 2-3 inches of space in between. Divide the world in maybe 8-10 trips, do it well by completely immersing yourself in each one and you will get a sense of what the world looks like without having to see the rest of it.

Seryna, a Japanese love affair.

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I’ve been hearing from my foodie friends that Seryna is not somewhere us regular earning people come to eat every weekend, or whenever we impulsively crave for sushi, but what made me decide to go was when a Japanese friend of mine mentioned this place to me. Japanese people understand quality, and they would pay for it too. So albeit pricey, I’m extremely excited yet a little apprehensive for the experience.

So I arrived in Little Tokyo, a small neighborhood in Makati, rightfully named for ubiquitous Japanese restaurants that surround it. Outside the restaurant, I noticed a significant number of chain-smoking skimpily clad women, always a sign of a good Japanese meal to come. Ethics has nothing to do with food, you connect the dots.

Once inside, being a solo diner, I thought of them generous to offer me a table as it is a packed tuesday night, but I asked to be seated by the bar, as I would like to watch well trained hands prepare my meal. I order an imperative beer before anything else, crucial element to having a better observation of the place. Halfway into it, I am starting to be in unison with the rest of the happy diners, I am ready to order. A confident server arrives, hands me a hot towel, opens the menu to me as I asked to have the food explained to me. I ask for their Omakase, specialty in Nihongo, which she understands, plus 1000 points. I told her I wanted to try their sushi and she recommended I get the special platter called Matsu. Its not the most expensive platter they offer, which is good, because I hate it when a server instantly points to the most expensive dish in the menu. And for the astounding price Seryna charges for each piece, I would rather get the platter and save myself from having to know the price of every bite.

I smile as I observe the hands of the person making my meal, every rolling, slicing, pouring, and patting, the usual hand movements in making a sushi. I look around the place, appreciating the modern Japanese interiors. I eavesdrop on Japanese conversations that I would never understand but they sounded pleasantly drunk anyway and that I understand. I also noticed they have private tatami rooms for bigger groups who want privacy within those Japanese paper like walls, expecting some one will just accidentally roll away tearing down those paper doors laughing. Ahh.. God believes in my undying pursuit of happiness.

A $20 sushi platter

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My plate comes and it looked like an asian renaissance artwork. I ordered a hot sake which I think is a perfect accompaniment to the cold food I’m about to cure my hunger with. Each bite was a revelry, lightly damped with sauce and maybe a little more wasabi here and there. The best part was that having been seated at the bar, I can easily ask the person responsible for my meal things about my food, like types of fish used, a hint of spring roll perhaps? Or the origin and freshness of my uni, which made my meal quite educational. What a way to learn! If only academics can always be this pleasant.

Reasonably sized and priced hot sake

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Things worth mentioning about my food, tamago/egg sushi was sweet and delightful. Maguro/tuna and salmon were average, the habachi (the palest one) was my favorite among the three. The ama ebi/shrimp was glorious, it felt like cream as it went through my mouth. The only disappointing part of my plate was the uni/sea urchin, already having seen what a freshly opened urchin looked like, I knew this creamy melting brie-like uni (a fresh uni is soft and solid) has been standing here for some time.

Over all, it was a pleasant experience. Its a fun place to be in, people talk and laugh loud enough but not raucous. The owner seemed to be having just as much fun, at times I caught him leaning to the right while walking. Oh how I love an owner representing what it means to be professional (he sometimes went to the kitchen and fiddled with his staff) but not hesitant to join in with his happy drunk diners. The damage? Well its definitely not cheap but my curiosity paid me well. Kanpai!

My top 25 at 25.

Being 25 is fun. You are independent enough to do what’s wrong but you’re mature enough to know consequences. So you weight down which highs you want to chase, and when it comes to chasing the next high, travel is my choice of drug. At 25, I may not always know what I want to do in life, but at least I know where I want to go.

25. Dubai (U.A.E.)

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Perverse and boastful show of wealth and a nightmare for eco-tourism advocates, with its indoor ski park, one of the world’s largest indoor aquarium, etc., Dubai has it all. From a simple fishing community, it has emerged as one of the richest oil producing middle eastern countries. You are never far away from a Lamborghini or a Rolls Royce wherever you are in this city. Go to any hotel and surely there’s a Porsche (cheapskate) parked somewhere.

Glitz and glamour aside, there’s one road called Al Dhiyafha where a melting pot of blue collars, the backbone of any society, gather and exhibit specialty cuisines from their respective home countries. If you want real food in Dubai, its the place to be.

24. Seoul (South Korea)

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Already having lots of Koreans in the Philippines, its a wonder why I even went here. But to my surprise, Seoul turns out to be a one stop shop of Korean culture which I never really was curious back at home. Amidst skyscrapers, suit clad businessmen and efficient modern public transportation that smells of kimchi during the day and soju at night, massive shrines and temples located on prime real estate locations have been left untouched by city developers. A visit to these shrines automatically and surprisingly drown out the usual city sounds, a place to slow down your pace.

23. Bruges (Belgium)

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Old town Brugge gives you what most European old town squares offer. Everything is built around the town’s main church, where Jesus christ torned blood stained cloth is purportedly stored. Specific shops selling different things are organized and concentrated on their respective places, bierhaus (if you need translation for this, I am not talking to you) being the most popular of course. Equally famous for their chocolates, expect to find lots of overpriced chocolates here.

22. Nuremberg (Bavaria)

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Nuremberg is located in Bavaria, which is a part of Germany, but when I was here, everyone bragged about being Bavarian first, only then they are Germans. Proud people, these Bavarians are. Nuremberg is most famous for its Christmas market, or Christkindlemarkt in German, it is outlandishly cute. Although it may feel like you’ve just missed the party if you visit outside the Yule season, but this city is alive, thriving with history and students alike. Hungry? Try those tasty little Nurnberger sausages.

21. Hallstatt (Austria)

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A short train ride from Salzburg, Hallstatt is a small town that became opulent once from the salt trade, now, its nothing more than a postcard town. Although residents still cling to the narrow strip of land between the mountain and the lake, I actually don’t remember meeting any local in my short time there. The most interesting part of my visit is that since real estate is remarkably scarce, there is a limit of 50-year lease for a spot in the minuscule but quaint grave yard. After your golden death anniversary, some family member gets to write your name on what used to be your forehead and stacked up among the rest of the oldies.

20. Venice (Italy)

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Venice, a once powerful kingdom and a symbol of opulence just a few centuries ago, now suffering from the negative aspects of tourism, is sinking from its fame. There is no shortage of tourist influx here, rain or shine, for better or worse. But I can hardly blame anyone who goes to visit Venice, even if they make the place sink deeper from junk, waves coming from wakes of tourist boats and cruise ships. You have to see it at least once. Oh the grandeur and renaissance. Interestingly, Marco Polo, probably the worlds most famous traveler (not just a chain of hotels), was a Venetian. He somehow made it to China through the silk road, rubbed shoulders with Kublai Khan, and made it back to tell the story.

19. Jungfraujoch (Switzerland)

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I started my journey to the top of Europe from the small, cliche of a German speaking Swiss town in Grindelwald. Jungfraujoch is the highest point in the Alps, hence, the rest of Europe, with an elevation of 3,471 meters above sea level. Beyond the prized title of being the roof of the continent, it is also really expensive to get here. But the fun really is in getting here. You take a really cute train that gives you a view of the quintessential Swiss country side, slowly making elevation, change trains a few times, until you get a peek of the snoq capped mountains. Bring sunscreen as UV rays get really harmful with the elevation. When it gets too cold, you can always have the most expensive lackluster cheese fondue you’ll have in Switzerland at the restaurant on top.

18. Vienna (Austria)

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They say Vienna is for old people, I don’t always disagree, especially if you’re young with hormones running wild. But I enjoyed Vienna. I spent Christmas here, away from my family who were comfortably warm at our home in the Philippines. I loved Vienna for probably the most different reason why people come here. I came here for my favorite philosophically romantic couple, Jesse and Celine of the Before Sunrise series. I walked their walks, rode the creaking ferris wheel where they first kissed, because Jesse was too shy to do it on the booth at the record store, the cafes and the rest of it.

17. Bratislava (Slovakia)

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It does sound familiar, heard it somewhere once, where the hell is Bratislava? In the film Eurotrip, Bratislava is presented as a drab communist dead end town. Sure it does, once you cross the bridge with a weird looking UFO bar in the middle, it is the epitome of communism with its tenement housing, much like SMDC really. But if you arrive here by train, you’ll see that it must have been habituated by rich, cultured people once. The old town is just as beautiful as any other Eastern European old towns, with an overlooking upturned table-like castle. Its mystical and almost deserted in winter, but that’s where the charm comes from perhaps?

16. Pokhara (Nepal)

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Kathmandu can make you crazy after staying there for too long, and that’s what Pokhara is for. Get away from the city, take the nerve racking highway that falls a few hundred meters into a river that’s dotted with, wait for it, ill-fated buses. I personally just closed my eyes, prayed to the universe that should my time come, please please let me see the Himalayas first. The mountain gods must have heard my appeal and I was able to reach Pokhara, white knuckled, but safely. The city has a picturesque lake, and hordes of hippies that comes with a super laid back place. From here, I rented a plane to see the Himalayas, the rooftop of the world. Let’s just say I would more likely forget my first sex, god knows how bitter sweet that was, than my face to face experience with the Himalayas.

15. Krakow (Poland)

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Schindler’s list anyone? Save one life, save the world? Yes, Schindler’s enamel factory is located in Krakow, a 15 minute walk from the main square, Europe’s biggest square. And where else better to spend New Year’s eve than Europe’s biggest square? Yup. Spent NYE here and was rewarded threefold. Different stages for different bands of different genres, an intoxicated, super charged hormones of a crowd and you get the picture. To equalize the fun, a visit to Auschwitz concentration camp, around an hour by local bus from the square, is a never fail depressant.

14. Oxford vs Cambridge (U.K.)

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Let me tell something personal to you, sure, I like beautiful and intelligent students, but I like beautiful schools more. Professor Charles Xavier graduated here, prince Charles, also that egotistic physical theoreticist (clue, not Sheldon Cooper) named Stephen Hawking aka wheelz, and the infamous philanderer, Lord Byron, to name a few of my favorite, albeit one is fictional, alumni. In my next life, I only want to study here, graduate and become a fellow and tenured professor in either Universities.

13. New York (U.S.A)

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From JFK airport, I took the train to Bronx where I was staying with a friend in his flat. On the way, I had to transfer overland from one station to another, it was just before mid town, around the 30s when I got overland, luggage rolling and bouncing on rough and uneven pavement, Jay Z and A. Keys, as my friend, Angela, who, mind you, is personal friends with, even followed her back on Twitter, started playing in my head “Neeew yooooooork”. I love New York. There’s America and there’s New York. Its a city that’s got something going on at some place at any time of the day, and night. People from all over the world, with different ethnicities, from all walks of life, they’re all here, trying to make it big. As a result, really damn good food, cheap and expensive, so many interesting people, so much quirks.

12. Amsterdam (Netherlands)

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Amsterdam has an unfair reputation of a place where people go to for legal dosage of drugs and lenient bureaucracy. Sure, you get taxed for prostitution and marijuana, but the city itself is gorgeous on its own. With canals that smell so much better than those of Venice, low rise buildings with curious ground floor life size windows (wink) and the only place I’ve seen that’s got more bikes than people. Park your black, nondescript bike in some corner, when you come back, its impossible to tell which one is yours, hopefully not the one floating along the canal. I’ve never felt so short in my life than when I was here. The Dutch have the award for being the tallest people on Earth. It must be the cheese, that world famous Edam cheese. Spent two nights here, watched a sex show, got drunk, smoked a joint, passed out, magically woke up in my room, with pictures to show for. On the second night, got a tattoo. The following morning, really glad to have left.

11. Siem Reap (Cambodia)

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I’ve never been more humbled by this feat of mankind. The Khmers built something so vast and grand in the far east, that until now, the very basic maintaining of upkeep still puzzles the best archaeologists. Such colossal strongholds and places for worships, mysteriously abandoned, reclaimed by the forest, lost for generations until a French explorer chanced upon it. Wow is definitely an understatement. I don’t think there can be any superlative adjective used that will ever be an overstatement when describing Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Bayon, and the rest of the structures that dot the rest of the once powerful kingdom.

10. Edinburgh (Scotland)

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Before becoming part of Great Britain, Scotland was a mysterious land of rolling hills, foul weather and inhabited by fierce mythical creatures and hell of a tough Scottish folks. Now, Edinburgh, its capital, is truly one of my favorite cities. The only reason its in number ten is because I didn’t like the food here that much. It still retains its foul weather, tough folks with very weird accent, hence, do not ever get into a bar fight in Scotland. Like the rest of my favorite cities, literature is always an inspiration to visit. For Edinburgh, there’s Trainspotting (“it sucks being Ska-ish”) and The Da Vinci code (Rosslyn chapel). Regardless of inspirations, it is a must visit city for any self respecting traveler. To see the old town from the Edinburgh castle, walk the Royal Mile, and a real Scottish pub crawl are experiences that are truly YOLO-ing.

9. Bled (Slovenia)

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I arrived in Bled when it was winter, dark, and empty. Its a sleepy lake town and the fog that blanketed the whole place didn’t afford me to see beyond a few meters from me. Its the perfect setting for Silent Hill. Upon checking in at my hostel, the receptionist informed me that I was the only guest and that she was glad that I have finally arrived so that she can finally go home and leave the whole 3 floors of that damned building all to myself. Needless to say, I did not sleep well. Making it alive and unscathed come morning, I am a different man after that. Anyway, the only exciting thing about this place, is not the church planted on a small island inside the big lake, but the Vintgar gorge. A 1600 meter walkway made of sleet covered broken wood planks on top of a gushing river and in between wet mountains. I was the only traveler in town and had I fallen into the river, at least I meant that goodbye hug to my parents when they dropped me at the airport.

8. Tokyo (Japan)

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Tokyo, its easily the most shocking place I’ve ever been in my life. There seem to be an electric current running from the buildings to the neon signs to the people and food. Everything is alive, even the food you’re about to eat was surely living just a few moments back. You only have to see the famous Shibuya crossing and the morning auction in Tsukiji market to know what sort of energy and pace I’m talking about. During the day, everyone’s busy with work, the ideal Japanese salary man, at night, all fetishes are catered for. From Pachinko parlors (casinos), Purikura machines (a photobooth that’s girlishly blown out of proportion) to dive bars that fit 3 people the most. Food? Its all about sushi. Tuna is king and O-toro is gold.

7. Hong Kong (Hong Kong)

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Upfront, I would tell you that what moves people here is money, it is the catalyst in this city. People are flashy, Rolex stores are as abundant as 7elevens, but they are hard working people who know exactly what they want in life, except maybe that they have really really small expensive hotel rooms, but the rest, they’ve figured out perfectly. Duck rice, that’s what I go to Hong Kong for, that meal I cry myself to sleep at night when I want it and can’t have it. The Avenue of The Stars, the Victoria Harbour, the skyline from the opposite side of the river, shopping, nope, I’m skipping all that for all the Duck rice in Hong Kong.

6. The Sahara Desert (Disputed between neighboring North African countries)

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The Sahara, extends from Morocco to Egypt, Tunisia to Sudan. In English, its vast. Caravans of the past crossed this arid, uninhabitable, interminable landscape after landscape to do trade from Asia to Africa. Even Islam crossed this desert from the Middle East to reach Africa. Spending a night here will make even Bear Grylls humble about his self preservation instincts. Between the punishing mid day heat and chaffing camel ride to the campsite where we’d spend the bone chilling night is a moment spent siting down on top of a really tall dune, watching the most glorious sunset that nothing will ever compare to, slowly giving way into the moon and the stars to paint the sand silver and the make the rest of the desert seem like a violent ocean frozen mid wave.

5. Varanasi (India)

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Basically, Hindus go here to die. If you don’t get an instantaneous heavy dosage of culture shock with that, you are one tough bastard. You are in the holiest city in India. Expect to hear chanting everywhere, poor people resigned to their fates and get cremated and the remains thrown away in the Ganges river, where supposedly, the act of reincarnation will end and your samsara, over. Literally, where fire wood are stacked, you will see dead bodies being burned open air by the river. If that’s not enough, the Ganges is popular, aside from being one of the holiest rivers, but also the dirtiest. It makes Pasig river look like Evian. But in Hindu belief, a dip here will clean up all your karma, a sort of soul cleansing, and as weird as I am, I took a not so refreshing but inner cleansing morning dip.

4. Marrakech (Morocco)

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Dictators, colonialists, and governments may change with time but Marrakech will always be what it is, a hub of trade, culture and energy. Marrakech is damn sexy. A veiled woman walks by, taking with her the mystery of whats hiding underneath her perfect form, the way her hips sway when she walks, intrigues you like a mad lover. The constant sound of pounding metals, shaping them, gilding them to become something so exquisite, be it a lamp, a figurine, or any other Islamic art. The curious looking conical shaped pottery from which they stew their food, when opened, explodes different aromas of cinnamon, to olives, dried citrusy fruits and animal protein. Mud brick kasbahs, riads (guesthouses) mosques and shops form the labyrinthine medina. Come night time, a visit to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square is like an assault on the senses. Everything moves, some things bite, some dance, some sing, but mostly, they cook. Its the biggest open air stage I’ve ever seen in my life.

3. Penang (Malaysia)

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From Indonesia to Singapore, there is a general consensus that Penang is the food capital of the Straits. It used to be frequented by the British colonialist for Penang Hill which offers refuge from the damning heat, overlooking the sea. I’ll give it to Penang, the island is beautiful, but nothing of the landscape and the sea can beat what the island offers when it comes to food. Let me tell you straight, you need a local friend here to know which places to visit, and how to get there. The best Nasi Kandar, Nasi Lemak, oh and the Laksa! I’ve tried them all here. This place is second only to, you guessed it, San Sebastian in Spain, when it comes to concentration of so many good food in one place.

2 San Sebastian/Donostia (Spain/Basque)

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San Sebastian is the food capital of Spain, there is no contest. And if Spain is, arguably the food capital of the world, then logic follows that San Sebastian serves the best food in the world. Its got more than 3 michelin star restaurants concentrated for its small size than any other place in the world. But food doesn’t have to be expensive here. Nightlife here is a system of Pintxo (tapas) bar hop. You go to one bar, order the best Pintxo (normally advertised), drink just enough wine or Txakoli (sparkling dry white wine), then move to the next one. That sounds good enough on its own right? But did I tell you the buildings have very alluring old world appeal, the people are so beautiful and there’s a long stretch of beach, actually, two or three coves that stretches long enough to cover so many good looking people.

1. Hanoi (Viet Nam)

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Of all the places in the world, this is where I had the most fun. I found the perfect ratio of strangeness and familiarity in Hanoi. From the moment you wake up in the morning to eat Banh Mi (French baguette with fillings) while you sip that strong dark and gooey Vietnamese coffee, and then you head to watch people from all walks of life and generations exercise around Hoan Kiem lake to make room for all the delicious food to be had. Then you start looking for lunch and of course, its going to be Pho (rice noodle), the only choice really is if you’ll have it with beef or chicken. Alternatively, you can dine on some authentic French cuisine, but I’d rather explore more from Vietnamese cuisine like the Bun Cha, Cha Ca La Vong, and etc. up until you walk along the old quarter to look around old French colonial architecture, while somewhere in the corner, propagandas blast from a speaker on top of an electric post.

The rice terraces of Ifugao

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I have always had an interest in quaint villages perched on high lands. Regardless of border, they all seem to share an identity of mysticism and spirituality. People who live in such communities seem to have a better understanding of the nature that surrounds them, like a secret has been passed on from past generations that they can easily trace. The simplicity of their cold bitten faces, their skin, tanned, wrinkled and hard from agricultural labor, in contrast with their enigmatic animist beliefs . What lies underneath that simplicity, there seem to be mystery. Like that universal image of a wrinkled old woman, sitting by the window overlooking the street, staring blankly ahead while smoking a tobacco as her lips move as if in chant or giving a curse.

So when I was bound for the mystical rice terraces of Ifugao, I was determined to ride on my idea of simplicity while giving respect to the spirit of nature that surrounded us. We all know what it looks like, we grew up with that image from our history books, always from that angle which is even printed in our recently replaced 1000 peso bill. So upon ascending the road to Ifugao province, every turn is a hope that the outing would be those green auditorium like rice terraces. And every time it isn’t, disappointment is instantly replaced by awe for those valleys between mountains, the steep drop it would make for a small miscalculation. Driving here, you know you do not get the slightest margin for error.

The road to Banaue

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Roadside view

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A miserable attempt at trying to piece them together

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After a few small villages and many blind corners later, we arrived at Banaue, a thriving town funded by tourism from its world famous two thousand year old rice terraces. Albeit a little commercialized for mountain standards, it still gives a quaint feeling, with a few homestays, some restaurants catering for tourists from most parts of the world, and a very helpful tourist information center from which all travelers must register upon arrival. Its the sort of town where you pick up most of what you need, from food and water, to hiking shoes and transportation, before you delve deeper into the region. Staying in Banaue View Inn for a night, nobly located at the top of the town, we had an overlooking view of the happenings down below. The unofficial bus station occupying half of the street, blocking the occasional flow of traffic, while their waiting passengers have only road railings to lean on for comfort, and those last minute shoppers from the busy town square, with everyone seem to be moving about in all directions, we watched over them until everything slowed down as the sun set, giving way to the slowly glowing moon. At night, the town gives a totally different atmosphere. With hushed conversations from obscure faces overcast by dim light, tracing distant foot steps, the feral barking of a dog, it feels like something straight from a Scorsese movie.

The town of Banaue from our balcony
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Lording over Banaue from Banaue View Inn

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An hour drive deeper into the province is Batad saddle, the end of one of the toughest roads ever. The strenuous incline to this point is still under construction, but its muddy and rocky tracks are open for vehicles who dare. While other travelers have no choice but to rent a jeep with fortified suspension, luckily, our vehicle, a Toyota Land Cruiser from the 1990’s, with its tall vertical clearance and armed to the teeth, is hungry for such a terrain. My driving partner offered to take the wheel, while my girlfriend and I dared to top load. White knuckled from our industrial grade grip on the railings, we were definitely rewarded with spectacular views that will haunt our memories for a lifetime. Upon arrival to the saddle, we gladly parked our tank and refused every offer of a guide for the single track human pathway down to the terraces.

Meet Elsie, our tank

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The road going up to Batad saddle

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Top loading going up to the saddle

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Risking it for views like these

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View of a lifetime

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Single track from the saddle all the way to Batad

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Unlike Banaue, Batad rice terraces is smaller in scale but offers more interaction by being able to hike around its amphitheater like terraces that is individually riprapped with rocks and cement. You can circumnavigate as you watch the locals tilling parches of land. We were advised to hire a guide to take us around the area. He was a short, thin and single middle aged man who lived in one of the few houses that stand on the terraces itself. Needless to say, he outpaced us in our desk job trained mid 20s bodies. Much to our desire to do this on our own, the guide proved to be very essential. With every information he disposed, we gained a better appreciation of the land. He told us that the communal process of planting starts by everyone working on the chief’s land, afterwards, they proceed to the second biggest owner of land and so on until everyone’s land is tilled and planted. It is then time for an end of plantation festival which includes a flooding of rice wine and ill fated live stock. Against common belief, whatever rice that is harvested here almost never gets out, its made for local consumption, and some that do are for souvenir material only. For entertainment, he explained to us that his reason for being a bachelor at his 50s is because in a small community such as this, the slightest imbalance of men to women ratio is a real problem.

Hiking Batad rice terraces

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Interaction with the village

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Smiles of achievement

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After a short swim on the extremely cold water around the mighty waterfalls, we headed back to our home stay. To say that our room in Batad Homestay is simple is definitely an overstatement. There is nothing in that spartan room that you do not need. There’s the luxury of a ceiling lamp, two beds, 4 pillows and a cozy Ifugao made blanket. There are no 20th century power outlets. You stay in Batad for a couple of nights, and it is impossible not to find yourself regardless if you are lost or not.

Ice cold gush of water

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That humbling feeling

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Spartan room from Batad Homestay

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Do you really need anything more than this?

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Waking up to a morning covered with fog offering zero visibility, we opted to let it clear out by having breakfast on the restaurant balcony that should be over looking the terraces on a clear day. After all,  our jelly legs were not in a hurry knowing that the 30 minute strut going down here converts to a 90 minute tongue-sticking-out trudge going up. After filling up our tanks with our hefty breakfast, we packed our bags and bid farewell to our reserved but generous host, and to those foreigners who we shared this home with. As hard as we tried to speak French, German and Spanish, a wave of hand was all we could muster. Laughing in our doomed attempt, it was the last thing we had to smile about as we made our ascend, barely making it to the top.

Fundacion Pacita: A home at the end of the world

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One trademark of the Philippines is the fact that we have 7,107 islands. Expectedly, it offers varied landscapes and scenery. A quick observation is that it has a lot of tropical beaches with pristine shores and challenging mountains, but it is puzzling and quite surprising that it has Batanes, a group of northernmost islands.

Somehow, it feels like a lost paradise, a piece of land shipped from the Scottish Isles with all its cliffs, rolling hills, the capricious forces of nature, and violent waters. Not to mention a slumbering volcano towering one of its islands. Batanes, to me, is the definition of diversity in terms of Philippine geography.

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Travel quirks

Getting a window seat for your flight to Batanes, you get  hint of what’s to come. Prior to landing, you see its exciting topography and its not unusual for lucky passengers to gasp in awe. I wasn’t so blessed to get a window seat but I think I made the passenger next to me quite uncomfortable for trying my best to share his view as we prepared for a shaky, nerve rattling landing on a narrow strip of inclined runway. Suddenly, nobody’s talking, everyone tightens their seat belt as we gripped on to our arm rests. Very unstable, the plane hits the ground. As it breaks to a halt harder than usual, white knuckled, and with a sigh of relief, we let go.

Getting out of the airport, I greet a wide smiled man holding a board with our names on it waiting to take us to our hotel. First impression of Ivatan hospitality. The Ivatans are the tribe who settled, stayed and now form the community here. Even the conquering and evangelizing Spaniards noticed how different they were from other the rest of their conquest in what would be the Philippines, most noticeably in their amiable nature and receptiveness to the religion.

Fundacion Pacita: A home at the end of the world

Perched on the edge of a cliff, in an island caught between two vast oceans, with strong, unrelenting, gusty winds, and an erratic changing of weather in minutes, it can feel like doomsday. But what a divine way it is to feel so powerless in a place so bewitching such as this. Welcome to the home of Pacita Abad, a national artist, traveler, a volunteer, political activist, a dreamer, just to name a few things from her myriad life that I have discovered in my short sojourn at her home.

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A person who once hitchhiked from Turkey to the Philippines for a year, have worked and lived in 80 countries, is bound to have all the quirkiness in every nook and corner of her home. Every detail is a reflection of her colorful life and paintings, somehow, a stay here feels like a personal and intimate introduction. Its the feeling Owen Wilson had whenever the clock strikes midnight and he finds himself in the setting of his literary idols in Midnight in Paris.

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It is a haven for the creative types in seek of inspiration. For every dull gray stone, there’s a splash of bright cheerful color. There’s not a chair, a bench that you wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon on while looking out to the unobstructed view of the ocean, the drama that rolling hills unfold, or simply watching strong waves constantly crash into tall cliffs making permanent white washed water, an ideal contrast to the resplendent blue sea. It is forgivable to stay here and not to see what other things Batanes has to offer.

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Its easy to admit that staying at Fundacion Pacita made all the difference in our trip to these northern most islands of the country. A love at first sight upon arrival and a heart break to depart from. It may have cost an arm and a leg, but every waking moment I spent here made me realize I would have been willing to give up more.

The northern road to Hanoi

We were staying in Hue for a night to trim the train hours to Hanoi. Hue, pronounced as huwey, was once the capital of Vietnam, and a center of power for the French. It gives an air of imperialism with its mighty and historical citadel, with its forbidden city, meditative gardens and lakes fit for kings, it was a staging ground, a rallying point, a witness, and unfortunately, a casualty of many battles. There are also those larger than life tombs of proud feudal lords of the past.  Arriving here just after dusk, the city seems to be brimming with activities. There are night markets not unlike those we have at home. The riverside is lined up with expensive hotels, entertainment centers with bright neon lights, even one of the bridges here are colorfully lit and quite famous for young lovers. There are also some exquisite street food action, making this lane bright, safe, and fun to explore come night time.

Riverside bazaar

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Plan of attack

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Mighty gate to the citadel

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Imperial garden

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Lake fit for kings

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Tallest flag pole in Vietnam

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     The following day, our train wasn’t departing until later that afternoon. In preparation for our impending doom, we rented bicycles, explored the city on our own, tiring ourselves in hopes of sleeping out the whole train ride. Just as Hue was a staging ground for many battles of the past, it felt like one for us too. Come afternoon, we checked out of our hotel, had our last supper, drank minimal amounts of liquid, and headed for the station. The familiar sound of train coming in, we searched for our car amidst chickens running loose, and unreserved ticket holders elbowing each other for pole position when the train comes to a halt. Thankfully, we booked one of the best cabins you can get, a couchette of four. Upon finding our car and cabin, as expected, bed linens and pillows were not for the faint hearted, its exactly what my dorm bed looked like back in college after a whole semester has gone by and linens still unwashed. We were sharing this cabin with an old, friendly Vietnamese couple who looked like they started the trip from Saigon, you know what I mean. The toilets, sad to say, for 14 hours, we never ventured into the deep unknown. When the train started moving, we wore our rain coats for protection, like lab gowns are for laboratories, our packs for pillows, as we began our descent onto our beds. There was no standing up, no moving, no talking, no nothing. From my understanding of Einstein’s theory of relativity, time gets slower when a person is in motion, for those who disprove it, they have yet to try this 14 hour train ride for an experiment! Innumerable hours later, I woke up to the sound of our train breaking into a halt, to me, it might have been the sound angels singing. It was then that our friendly old Vietnamese cabin mates animately informed us we can now get off the train. Some ways of saying things are just universal. We have arrived in Hanoi.

Impending doom

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Rocky is not impressed

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Reminiscent of my unwashed dorm bed linen after a whole semster back in college

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     Getting off the train station, you get a different feel from all the other capital cities you’ve ever been, but you do get a feel that you arrived at the center of culture. Its not a backwards society, but its not over commercialized, pushed to its maximum potential. Instead, in the old quarter, you get streets of colonial style two story houses, its no surprise because it used to be the capital of French Indochina. The usual tells are the wrought iron balcony railings, and those chic French windows, and more architectural flourishes that contrast the later communist ideology.  Stores that are properly categorized according to their merchandise, as it has been hundreds of years ago. Brave a dark and narrow alley, if you’re lucky you can get to see functional communal houses. Loud PA devices installed on electricity posts from almost every corner of the old quarter, making announcements. Its early in the morning and there’s a community of joggers, and Tai Chi practitioners around Hoan Kiem lake, while close to it, shop keepers are dutifully opening shops, not without having that sweet but strong Vietnamese coffee or perhaps a Banh Mi, a sliced baguette with meat, greens and sauce inside, the inevitable child of French colonialism and Vietnamese resilience.

French colonial architecture in a photogenic state of disrepair

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Ladies getting in shape

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My company doing yoga around Hoan Kiem lake

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Barber street

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     After walking around the old quarter guidebook, in hand, visiting those historical sites, giving respect to one of the good hearted communists by visiting Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the opera house, and more museums, we’ve had enough history, propagandas and  boring bureaucracy. By now, we were starving. In Hanoi and much like the rest of Vietnam, the food they eat reflects their culture and their lifestyle. You will notice that there are thriving street peddlers selling food from a cart served on children’s tables and foot stools. Mainly because Vietnamese people have a dining culture. My theory is because the working population, including women,  doesn’t have much time left beyond their working hours to cook at home, its just more practical to eat out. And with a wealth distribution that doesn’t always equate dining out with eating in western style restaurants, or fast food chains, alas, street peddlers thrive.

Street peddler

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Street food action

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My company getting lost in the goodness of her pho from a street peddler

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      With fairly equal opportunities, making for a tough competition, only  quality street peddlers survive. The best guide will always be the number of locals who dine, or even queue. If street peddlers aren’t your thing, there are some long standing restaurants, barely meeting our ideology of what a restaurant should be, that serve some of the best meals I’ve had in the whole trip. Cha Ca La Vong at Cha Ca Street, serves only one dish for decades now, you simply walk in and order how many orders you want. The best bun cha, a perfectly grilled meat eaten with rice noodles, mixed with some fish sauce and light greens, served from an institution of a place aptly called Bun Cha at 1 Hang Manh Street. Glorious meat filled rice paper by Miss Ann from 72 Hang Bo. Although in general, you would be hard-pressed to settle for a bad meal in Hanoi. After our long and arduous journey through Vietnam, it taught us that food is better from carts than those cooked with roof above their heads.

Reusable wooden chopsticks. Yum!

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Bun Cha from 1 Hang Manh Street

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Meat filled rice paper by Miss Ann from 72 Hang Bo Street

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72 Hang Bo Street

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Street party in Hanoi

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We found Bobby Chinn

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      After a much deserved overnight cruise to the mystical Ha Long bay, we bid Vietnam farewell. When it was time to catch our flight bound for Manila, I reminded myself that just as all good things come to an end, the most underrated thing about traveling is coming home.

Ha Long Bay

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Ha Long Bay from our junk boat

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