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 😀

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’.

Imperfect guide of spiritual and conscious travels in India

India has, for long, stood the onus of being the spiritual darling of the world. The lost, suffering, restless masses have often sought refuge in the chaos, and hospitable arms of Mother India. The destitute finding a corner in pravachan sabhaas and the affluent a villa in high-end ashrams of Osho, Ravishankar and Sadhguru. But there is more to India, much more when it comes to offering the spiritual experience – not in a secret Sanskrit code but in the very humdrum of life. You do not need a spiritual guru to decipher it, you just need your eyes and an open heart.

This entry is a scrapbook, more like randomly chosen pages from an encyclopedia, rather than a carefully written guide. I am not going to try to give it a fanciful name but these are some places that touched me or made my inner sense of wonder come out more strongly. I hail from a religious brahmin family and had finished my chaar dhaam in early teens. I wish I was old enough to know what any of that was about.

Coming back from USA is when I really started exploring India mythology, spirituality (I hate how cliched this word is becoming, I wish there was a better synonym). Because let’s face it, consciousness does not appeal to you when you are sitting lavishly in a comfortable home with a PS3 and iPad lying around you. Or when you have kids or partners keeping you busy.At that time, it is a leisure read and a thing to show off at your social gatherings. It really seems important when life throws you a curve ball and the shit hits the fan. Then, my friend, consciousness looks very appealing. As they say, “you dont know how strong you are, until being strong is the only option you have.” This ‘being strong’ is a very spiritual characteristic. So, that is the consciousness that came gliding into my life in my late twenties.

Why is Ramayana so touching and purifying? Why is Ram called Purushottam? Why is the character of Krishn so complex? What is the moral basis of Mahabharata? Can there even be a moral basis of historical and mythical things? Why are we here? What happens when we die? Why do we suffer? By the way, if you are feeling sad or hopeless for whatever reason, just read Tulsidas’s Ramacharitmanas – open it anywhere and start reading it with translation. Read it for ten days, I can bet 200% you will feel better. And if you are feeling lost and restless, read Gita (or Seven Conversations :D).

Next phase of my exploration happened over last two years when unknowingly I touched upon some of India’s conscious kernels. So, I am compiling a list of my spiritual places and experiences in India. These are not made to go into LonelyPlanet guide as they are not at all famous but they were significant in my journey. Plus, I felt many people long to experience these understated experiences and don’t know where to start. If you cannot find anything else, my dear reader, please feel free to visit these (of course at your own risk)-

Experiencing Auroville over longer periods of time

A town or colony of 20 sq km near Pondicherry stands obscure from most of the popular tourist itineraries. Relatively less known even to Indians, the place is nothing like anything you will experience elsewhere. A meager population of 2000, less than 10 dusty roads, a handful of buildings, hardly any cars except that of visitors and a throng of white and local population on bicycles and bikes. It is sometimes so futuristic that it seems ancient. a I remember a distinct moment in the Matrimandir amphitheater when I could feel the presence very strongly. Of what? Of something that I cannot verbalize very well – an awareness of the grandness of it all.  Do not make the mistake of doing a day tour of Auroville. You need to stay there at least for a week, roam around, watch the sunset on Thursdays in Matrimandir with the background Savitri music. You need to walk around and hug the banyan tree. You need to visit Savitri bhavan and watch SA’s statue against the moonlight. You need to meet strangers from everywhere and have a filter coffee in the visitor center. You need to see the units run by foreigners and locals. You need to see Sadhana forest. You need to eat the red rice dosa and hibiscus syrup. You need to bike back in pitch dark on the dust road. You need to hear the crickets and watch the world around you falling quiet to zero. You need to just be. It has become my yearly retreat.

Attending Jeevan Vidya

A very unassuming teacher, a very simple setting often chosen in conscious institutes and places, locally sourced organic simple meals and deceptively simple yet profound discussions over 9 days. A free workshop, run by one of the best teachers I have come across – Vinish ji. A man who evokes deep respect and awe, talks about basics of life and casts a surprisingly wide net that covers everything from relationships to food to body to mind. And he famously says, “there is no going back from here”. I wonder if the Matrix scene of ‘choosing the pills’ was inspired from him. The difference is he smiles a wry smile after making u take the pill. He announces – you have been transformed. Welcome to this new thinking and being. Nothing ever will meet your eyes in an uninspired way again.

Vipassana at Dharamsala

Vipassana has become a synonym of cool Buddhist meditation retreats. Vipassana is a well-established meditation practice in more than 150 centers worldwide. I happened to experience it amidst the beautiful center at Dharamkot. With mist, rains, mountain, pine smell and yes, the monkeys! – it was a memorable and transformative experience. It is not about any religion and the recorded evening sermons provide a good mental cleansing after long hours of meditation everyday. I enjoyed the cerebral discourses, they made a lot of sense. They tell you why they are making you follow these weird rules such as no dinners, no fee, no yoga etc during those 10 days. I developed a good respect for S N Goenka and the practice itself. The crux is to realize how impermanent things are. Although I could not assimilate much during one year after the course, I find threads tying up with my other experiences and I am able to do Vipassana meditation more sincerely now (although not too frequently). But this was the place that spurred me on to reading more about meditation, buddhism, mindfulness and I am glad I did. Some of the beautiful books I recommend highly-



Watching Himalayas

Be it Sikkim, Kashmir or Himachal, if there is one thing that can make you realize the vastness of universe and your physical insignificance, it is the Himalayas. And if there is anything that can make you realize that you are the part of the same vastness and hence infinity packed in a small body, that is the Himalayas 🙂 Go, watch them stand there mighty and towering. They have seen more than you will ever see.

The chaos of Vrindavan

It is messy and dirty and yet, there is nothing like it. With history so intertwined with the presence of one of the most fascinating deities, Krishn, Vrindavan reeks of Hindu faith. During the bhakti era, many saints have taken their inspiration in the holy land, including Mirabai, Surdas, and Tulsidas. Immerse yourself in a morning darshan of Baanke Bihari and an evening bhajan at Iskcon. Who knows what you may find? Or what might find you?

 

Please share your favorite spiritual places in India in the comments 🙂

Best books presented in Jaipur Literature Festival 2017

When a book lover and writer wanders off into India’s biggest Literature Festival, words are going to fly out. JaipurLitFest (JLF) had been on my mind for some time but 2017 was the year to be when JLF itself turned 10 years old. I have a bitter sweet relationship with books. They kept me awake at ungodly hours in early school days and I took my revenge by writing one years later. I thought the patience required to have a comprehensible story reveal itself in my words will teach me a lesson strong enough to not attempt it ever again but alas! The writer’s demons would not leave me alone and the addiction ran deeper than any booze or weed can induce. I worked on more books and articles including this one right after attending the ending ceremony of JLF.

To walk into Diggi Palace, the famed venue of JLF (described as ‘nashediyon ka adda that ye pehle’ by my auto rickshaw driver – that does make it perfect, doesn’t it?) is like walking into a cerebral riot. The festival when calling in stalwarts of Art/Lit fraternity such as Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Shashi Tharoor, Richard Flanagan, Nicholas Nassim Taleb, Prasoon Joshi, Devdutt Patnaik, Vikram Chandra, Sadhguru and so on, has to rise itself to meet the standards of its guests. Teamwork team led by Sunjoy Roy, did exactly this by making the festival itself a piece of art. Be it a funky decorated scooter or tuk-tuk providing intravenue commute or the elegant tent designs or the kulhad chai, the festival radiates Rajasthan, Indian culture, art and more art. So that when the literary youths wearing a turban with boots enter the ground, they mingle in rather than standing at odds. The aesthetics not only spoke and listened to the crowd in its own language, inspired it to funk up its crazy quotient.
Here’s a roundup of my favorite moments and reading lists for you lazy fellows out there!

1. Gulzar sahab opening the JLF in his trademark graceful yet cynical note – ‘Don’t make me sit on that high Guest of Honor chair in which my feet are left hanging off the ground. When feet don’t touch the soil, pen stops respecting the ink.’

Gulzar at JLF

Reading List: He is a living poetry himself. His latest launch is Suspected Poems

2. Sadhguru: Watching the famed guru for first time on stage, expectations were high. This comment of his stayed with me ever since – ‘Our souls are constantly trying to expand so as to increase our capacity to experience the cosmos – be it through arts, creation, power or sex. It is just our deepest desire to expand our being.’

Reading List: Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy

3. When I casually strolled into the Mughal Tent session by Vikram Chandra on visual poetry of medieval Sanskrit times, I was just trying to escape the crowd thronging the front lawn where Rishi Kapoor was launching his book. But in hindsight, that was the hand of destiny shepherding me towards the genius of this talk. In this nerdy talk, it became clear that he has embraced the formal logic of computing as much as his comfort with ambiguities of literary narrative. Effortlessly weaving the narrative between seemingly disjoint worlds of sanskrit grammar, and geometrical structures, Chandra never lost the grip on his subject or the audience. He gave vivid examples of medieval sanskrit poetry which when written formed interesting geometrical shapes such as matrix, spokes of a wheel and so on. I felt compelled to read him end to end after this talk.

Reading List: Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code

4. Neil McGregor, a name I had not heard of before. The British historian’s talk on Shakespeare’s Restless World covered themes and the times in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. It was reliving the moments of Elizabethan era – what people were like, what they felt, ate or saw. The fantastic execution ceremonies of law breakers, conspiracy of murdering the kings and disguises were Shakespearean themes picked from the very streets of London life! This was the first generation that had house clocks – that heard the ticking of a minute in their households. This was the generation that read Bible in English but whose grandparents were still reading in Latin – a theme observed in Hamlet where old people use Latin terms more commonly. If someone can make art history as interesting as this person (who headed London National Gallery, refused Knighthood, presented Art series on BBC and so on), then that someone has to be an extraordinary orator and presenter of facts. The talk was one of the most thought provoking and enchanting sessions of the festival.

Reading List: Shakespeare’s Restless World

5. Shashi Tharoor received raucous applause every time I heard him speak in 3 different sessions. After his viral Oxford Debate, Penguin was savvy enough to ask him to write a full book on British oppression. And being the walking historical encyclopedia that he is, he did it with flair! His speeches/arguments are music to one’s ears – the clarity of thought, articulation and relevance to the point with pleasurable succinct is a deadly combination. Although it was mostly rehashing of the Oxford speech, that takes little away from his oratory or the ability to get the audience going. No wonder, he was the part of panel for closing debate moderated by Barkha Dutt.

Tharoor at JLF

Reading List: An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India

6. Luke Harding is a journalist at The Guardian, who was contacted by Edward Snowden. He had the unenviable opportunity to sift through the cryptic, intricate documents from NSA sent by Snowden and received multiple threats from intelligence agencies in USA and UK alike. In his talk, he repeated what we have been hearing about how nothing we do on Internet is private. But perhaps it was listening to his own story of being spied upon in Russia or the fact that it was a real person talking about it in front of you live – he was able to generate that sense of creep in the public. According to him we are living in an era which has crossed Orwellian fantasies in 1984. Thankfully, he ended up on a not so glum note, giving us tips on how to stay more secure – use paper for writing important mails and switch your phones off in any important meeting. Ha! Interestingly, while Harding sympathizes with Snowden, he has a much less forgiving take on Julian Assange.

Reading List: The Snowden Files

So, that was the JLF special for me. And here are some memories