1 week in North Vietnam – travel itinerary

Vietnam Layout

North Vietnam is a treasure trove of picturesque locations and a must visit for nature lovers. A lovely blend of rural living and tourism friendliness can lead to a nice trip – one that is not heavy on pockets either. And, if you are a non-vegetarian, then you would love the cheap street food as well!

I was traveling with my cousins and it is amazing how much we were able to cover in a short six-day trip. The variety of topography and things you can do is exhilarating. There is a lot to see and experience and it is all close by.

North and South Vietnam have ample tourist destinations of their own. If you are on a short trip, I would say just do one or the other. Covering both Hanoi (North) and HoChiMinh (South) in one single short trip means wasting time in air traveling. Why do that when you can cover enough exciting things in either part! So, I recommend making either of these cities as your base and then travel around. Since this post is covering tourism worthy destinations (not same as solo travel of wanderlust), I am not covering places like Da-Nang which is the most preferred place for Digital Nomads.

So, we chose North Vietnam for our sojourn, made Hanoi as our base and covered three major sites:

  1. Sapa Valley – one night
  2. Halong Bay – one night on cruise
  3. Ninh Binh – day trip

One Week Itinerary

  • Day 1: Fly into Hanoi airport. Catch an overnight train to Sapa Valley. Why? Because train experience was pretty nice and saves traveling time. There are good luxury coaches available in <40 USD one way. Book on https://www.traintosapa.com/ We took the Chapa express and it was pretty good and clean.
  • Day 2: Reach Sapa (Lao Cai station) early morning and check into your hotel by 10 am. Take the Fansipan cable car ride to see the real beauty of Sapa valley. It has a vast expanse of gorgeous rice fields and only can be appreciated from the top of Mt. Fansipan (3000m elevation).
  • Day 3: Day trek of Muong Hoa valley (excruciating but full of postcard views). Can check out from the hotel before leaving for the trek. You will be back in the evening, can take a quick shower and head back to the train station. Catch another overnight train back to Hanoi.
  • Day 4: Reach Hanoi early morning. Go to the pickup location for Halong Bay one night cruise tour. The tour bus will take you to Halong Bay point from where you will take your cruise. Stay overnight on the ship and marvel at the beauty of the towering rocks around you.
  • Day 5: Leave the cruise after the lunch and get back to Hanoi by the night. Check into your hotel. Can watch the water puppet show and visit the famous night market.
  • Day 6: Take a day tour to Ninh Binh valley and return to Hanoi hotel by the night.
  • Day 7: Last morning to shop around bargain deals in Hanoi and fly back in the evening.

Since each place we visited was so worth the time, I have a ton of pictures and information to share. So, I will detail that in the following posts. This is a good starter for someone who is contemplating a visit to Vietnam. I wholeheartedly recommend it and especially this itinerary if you are short on time.

Travel Tips for first timers

Traveling in a group can get you discount on tours. We got discounts on Sapa treks and Ninh Binh tours. Taxi rides also became cheaper. Hard core vegetarians may get fed up of eating fried rice, doing a little research on different kind of local cuisine by name may save your day since all shop owners are not very fluent in English. We traveled in first week of September and Sapa was very rainy. It was gorgeous even in the rains but its better to check the weather predictions beforehand. The humidity and heat level in Vietnam is not to be taken lightly. You will sweat continuously. Pack cotton clothes, ample sunscreen, hats, shades and umbrellas if you don’t want burns and tans!

PS. Most of the research was done by my cousin Ashutosh and I’m just stealing his plans for your benefit! So, let’s thank him for doing such an awesome job 😀

TMJ 4: Observing your thoughts

This is the fifth post in The Meditation Journal series. You can read previous posts here.

The last post of TMJ appeared almost 2.5 years ago when I attended Vipassana at Dharamsala. The gap in between gave me a good time to actually practice what I had theorized or read. My understanding also has evolved and I see meditation as not a ten-minute exercise but a way of being. As you advance in your practice, you may not even need to sit in silence, focus on breath etc. – you can just do it seamlessly as you are doing whatever you are doing.

In that sense, the meaning of meditation has evolved from ‘focus‘ to ‘observation‘ for me. And this is a practice that came recommended by Partho and Sameer (both have been previously mentioned on this blog and can be called my mentors/friends). The idea is that we are now going to observe our thoughts. Take yourself out of your body and observe yourself and the thoughts that are entering into your brain. Yes, that sounds weird when you read it the first time. It did to me too, but that is what it boils down to. This detaching yourself from the body and watching from afar is symbolic of recognizing your true ‘self’ which is not equivalent to your body. What is ‘I’? Body, soul, mind, ego? What do you identify yourself with? But that is a far bigger metaphysical question that I am not ready to explore in this post. So, lets get back to the process of ‘observing our mind’ for now.

This is how I was able to start it initially myself-

    • I sit for the breath meditation process as discussed in TMJ3.
    • I close my eyes, literally visualize a room and a glass jar. This jar is my mind. As thoughts occur to me, I visualize a wave trying to enter this jar.
    • As I begin counting breaths, soon a distracting thought will come. It is bound to come soon since we are beginners.

1…2…3…. ‘Oh God, will I be able to observe my thought?

This ‘Oh God, will I be able to observe my thought?‘ itself is an external thought!

  • So, in my visualization, I (who is me, the external watcher now) am holding a wand and shoo’ing this wave away. Squashing it away, like a fly! I am not letting it enter into the jar. As more thoughts come to you, keep doing this. You will feel like Harry Potter or Gandalf or Luke Skywalker – so far so good. Keep observing and discarding them away. This way, we are not letting our mind process these thoughts. We keep returning to our breaths after squashing any thought.

1…2…3…. ‘Oh God, will I be able to observe my thought?’…squash…1…2….3…….4….5….’This is stupid’…..squash….1….2..

Want to try this for 5 mins right now? Great, do it 🙂

Ok, you will observe that this exercise needs immense focus. You will feel drained doing this even for 5 minutes. You will need your full attention to observe every minor thought but you can do it.

To understand it further, observing is what the word suggests – simply observing. This is also meditation because we are freeing ourselves from the cyclical thought processes. You might say that we are not freeing ourselves from those because they are still coming. And my answer is, “not really!”

You see, this act of observing is quite powerful. It defeats the negative impact of these thoughts. Even when a sad thought (e.g. I did not get the job) occurs to you and if you simply observe it – i.e. you are seeing that this sad thought is trying to enter your mind – you are not ‘feeling sad’ i.e. you have actually disabled its potency. Earlier, it would enter your conscious being, parts of your brain will process it, trigger an emotional reaction (I am worthless, feeling of insecurity) through hormones or whatever and you will see the physical reaction (anxiety, nervousness). But observing it this way keeps it at the fact/information stage. You have caught it before it creates this ruckus inside you. You have seen it for what it is – an objective statement – ‘I did not get a job’. Okay!

Notice that only when you process an information (received by your senses), that your brain creates the corresponding emotional and physical reaction. So, ‘I am sad/happy’ is never the information. It is always a reaction/outcome to some information. If we observe the thought at information level, it is caught before creating this reaction. Instead of we using our mind, it is the mind that uses us! It keeps processing information, converting it to counterproductive/unnecessary reactions and keep us juggling those all through our lives. We began the whole meditation exercise because we wanted to get back our control. And this is the first step towards it – to debilitate this act of mind.

This simple process of observation is no less than nirvana 🙂 Why and how – I will discuss it next time. But I will implore that you try to observe yourself for 5 minutes today. See what happens.

P.S. A good book to read on the related matter is Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

I fu** up all the time!

I am a compulsive reader and thinker. I read a ton of books and articles. Self-help is a genre I have been bumping into fairly frequently over last four years. I noticed that all those articles mention how the authors had a terrible life long time ago and now they are all zen. (What’s up with that shapely girl doing yoga on a mountaintop?! ) Yes, some of those articles and books are written so well that you feel like pumping your fist in the air – “Yes, I can do it too!” But after a while, it gets annoying.

Has everyone figured their life out already? Is everyone out there so normal and happy now? Why doesn’t anyone write about the fuck-ups they are making or the struggles they are facing right now?

Then, I looked at my own writings and I figured that I am guilty of the same. I also talk about past hiccups, what I have learned from those and how I am applying it now. So far so good but there is a lot that I don’t talk about – I don’t talk that it is always not hunky dory. There are a lot of moments when I feel confused. Moments when I feel very very down. Till this date.

Notice that I am not even talking about facebook and the posts by your friends that make you think – ‘Yeah sure, that is all you do in life – visiting Bali and eating organic food!’ Sigh, that is what I posted but anyway, you get the point! Has going to Bali made me the zen queen? Haha, far from it.

I fuck things up all the time. I do question what I am doing fairly often.

So, I talked to friends and asked them if they go through the same and guess what – 100% of them go through the same up and downs. They are not feeling like their facebook profile picture all the time. I knew it! And I have interviewed successful entrepreneurs (for another book) and almost everyone told me about their fuck-ups (which makes me wonder if this is what they are ready to confess, then what is the one they are not even telling me about!). These are people revered for their business execution and intelligence and they fucked up many things. Of course, those fuck-ups don’t get posted on the facebook.

src: siliconvalleydebug.org

And I can bet that all the inspiring people, those self-help authors go through these swings as well. Just like our life is comprised of bigger ups and downs (a sine wave instead of a straight line), if we zoom into a specific period, that is also comprised of smaller ups and downs – such that even within a minute, our emotions are constantly fluctuating. Don’t worry, that is all the math for now.

Fuck-ups are a part of life and, I think, very real ones. Everyone has their share of fuck-ups. Ok, maybe not Dalai Lama. While it would be very good for the world if we all lessened our frequency of fuck-ups (I mean electing Trump is more than fuck-up – it is a crime, so don’t get me started on that), let us not go into depression over those fuck-ups. Did you date with a poor sense of judgment? Alright. Did you take up a horrible job? Haha. Did you eat so many candies you need to go to the ER? Jeez. Did you take a gym’s annual membership and never went there? Lazy ass. But then, so what? Get over it! Be mentally ready for the next fuck-up.

While I am all supportive of fuck-ups, the problem happens when they get all cascading. Like one fuck-up leading to another, making you feel so shitty, you do another fuck-up. Let us not do that, ok? Let us keep it reasonable – how about one career fuck-up a year, a relationship fuck-up in 3 years, a Trump fuck-up in a lifetime? If you are doing more, then I have bad news for you – you might have problems. And if any fuck-up makes you feel depressive or suicidal, then quit listening to me and go visit a therapist! Right now.

Feeling down today? Great! The wait for next feeling-up day is half done. You know nothing can last forever – neither your ice cream nor your heartbreak. Either you will run out of money or one day you will pick your lazy ass to the gym. You will be alright. We will all be alright.

So, yes, I am doing my share of fuck-ups and I sincerely hope you are doing yours. Don’t disappoint me. Love.

Uttarakhand Solo Journal 2: Communities and Connections

It rained almost the whole of third day. Not wild like a torrent but more musical and drizzling. Water drops all around, ones stringing down the slanted roof, those lining outside and few trickling around the balcony. The forest was washed away of the dust and the smell that arose was more earthy. It was chilly and I sat on the balcony wearing my cardigan. It was hard to take my eyes off of this view, trying to spot the Himalayan peaks behind the clearing haze.

How quickly the weather changes in the mountains, next two days were bright and sunny. I caught up with other folks living in neighboring cottages (there are 4-5 in total around here), most of them are the Doctors associated with Aarohi including Himanshu, a young doctor, dedicating his service to the community. His guitar notes float off in the air in the evening and provide a perfect backdrop to the forest. He is practicing well and the notes are melodious – which is all a music illiterate like me can say. Jamaal lives close by and runs the dairy here. Yes, they have cows and fresh milk. An Iranian couple lives in the big white cottage that I just love looking at. They help the Rama Chandra Mission ashram in Satkhol and their children are adorable. Overall, there are 3 cats, 3 dogs and 2-3 cows. Cats and dogs visit me frequently with Appu (the fatter red cat) often sneaking off to my cane chair in the balcony. The people were kind enough to supply me with missing grocery items, inviting for green tea and asking for my well being.

My stay here makes me muse over the social connections between the people living in villages, and forests in this area of Uttarakhand. After all, human beings need society and companionship. There is as much solitude as you can handle in this place but closer knitted community as well. People help each other with open arms, share their resources and celebrations. How in this remote part of the hill, can someone build a life is a question worth pondering upon. It is a testament to the human will. Looking at the families here, I can say that real communities grown with a common vision and brotherhood can be quite wonderful. It is all about having a sense of belonging and shared purpose. Closer proximity to the nature and such deep human connection can make up for the loss of convenience or facilities that are available in cities. I would say the urban neighbors living next doors might seem more disconnected and lonely in comparison.

Another must-mention couple is Ashish-Deepa who run the more famous HimalayanVillage homestay in Sonapani. Visiting them for lunch one day (a good break to my fried rice, noodles, soup and sandwich meals), I heard their story. They were also tired of fast life in Delhi and wanted to come back closer to their hometowns. That they managed to create such a nice place to stay and run it at their terms has been a fifteen year journey. They looked happy and I did not need to ask how has this transition been. They raised two young kids here (one born here only), so all of us who keep looking for sophisticated international boards for our children and use it as an excuse for our tiring lifestyles, we might have to think of a new excuse next time. And those looking for more reasons, a study pointed out that nature makes you live longer.

Anyway, I don’t think the place changes anyone, it is likely to attract those who anyway wanted to pursue an offbeat track in the first place. So, such hamlets have become a congregation of people treading these alternate lifestyles. They are proving that living like this is sustainable which, if nothing else, is heartening to know 🙂

Uttarakhand Solo Journal 1: A Night in Jungle

It was 3 pm at Aarohi office in Satoli, Uttarakhand. It is a NGO office run by Dr. Sushil Kumar. Dhanram picked up my suitcase and I followed suit with a heavy backpack on my shoulders and two grocery bags in my hands. I had booked one week solo stay at Sukoon, a cottage run by Dr. Sushil himself. The idea was to have a quiet place to work on my book and the AirBnB reviews had mentioned ‘go only if you are looking for solitude and wilderness’. I was to soon find out how literally true that was!

I thought it would be a 5-10 minute walk to the cottage but hold on, we had been climbing steep up the hill for 15 minutes and I was huffing and puffing already. ‘Aur kitna dur hai bhaiya?’ ‘Bas thoda aur’. After hearing the same answer everytime, I was now annoyed. The bag was killing me and I could only marvel at the petite but sturdy frame of Dhanram who by the way was also leading a big black furry dog. I decided to sit down for a minute before we started our second leg of the trek. ‘Iska naam kya hai?’ I ask. Dhanram who refuses to let any expression come to his face and is gracefully and superhumanly carrying the luggage replies, ‘Maanshu’. At least that’s what I heard. I frown what kind of a name that is and why would anyone name a dog Himanshu.

We now climb up to a more flatter part of the hill and another fifteen minutes brought us to the first house in sight which looked awesome. Two other dogs came running and I somehow managed to suppress my screams. Then another cottage and then a brown one standing by itself came into view. Dhanram climbed the stairs of this earthy cottage and a fifteen-minute search for the key began. I tried calling Dr. Sushil but the network was weak at his and my end. I settled down on the stone staircase and took out my Kindle. It is better to read than getting irritated over something I cannot control. Dhanram finally managed to find the key and I eagerly entered in the cottage to crash down. I had taken the top room of this cottage and it had a small but cute kitchen and bathroom attached to it. Sukoon is such an apt name for this place.

Lying on the mattress, I saw a small glass opening in the wooden roof. If the trek had made me want to cry, this place gave me a tremendous sense of wonder. I am really in a place that so few people can manage in life (more than financially, due to lack of time and will). I am in middle of the jungle with only trees, birds and insect sounds. After resting, I check out the balcony and god, is it beautiful or what! A chair and folding up table served my purpose perfectly. I settled down with my laptop – the book work needs to begin. With a very tiring internet connection, I crave for coffee now only to find that the gas pipe is broken! Alas, more test for my patience.

In the evening, Dr. Sushil comes since his cottage is next to mine. He fixes up the pipe and graciously lets me pick few vegetables from his fridge. As I am leaving, he asks me, ‘Do you like avocados?’ ‘I love avocados! I never find them in Indore.’ He gives me a ripe one, plucked from his own tree. Yes, this place has avocados trees growing. On my way out, he tells me, ‘this is my dog Doraemon. You will see him around.’ Yes, it is the same black husky dog. I take a deep breath and smile. I make coffee, soup and avocado sandwich for dinner.

I have a week to stay at this place. It is very solitary but made of dreams. The mud wall and stones, wood and forest foliage seem so alien to my urban hands. I can see why Dr. Sushil left behind his urban medical career to settle down here. I don’t know if I can live here forever but there is a pull in these trees and earth. I admit I’m a bit scared but I’m also feeling more alive. One who has seen the starry sky in a pitch dark jungle refuses to believe that possibilities are limited and that suffering be the end of life. We are human beings and not human doings. If we forget how to ‘be’, it would be meaningless to ‘do’.