Posts Tagged 'trip planning'

Things To Consider Before Trekking Fancy Pants Mountain

1. It is not actually called Fancy Pants Mountain. If you are unable to stop calling it Fancy Pants, because you cannot either remember or pronounce its real name, take this a sign.

2. Fansipan Mountain is the highest peak in Indochina (which sounds totally colonialist, but what the hell do you call the Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos region: “the region formerly known as Indochina”? RFKAI?) As such, you’ll be trekking up. As in, UP UP. It’s only a 15km trek up and you’ll probably think, “I’m back to jogging 10km a few times a week, I can toooootally handle it.” Kilometers are for suckers anyway.

It may be worthwhile to listen to your own bullshit detector.

3. Everything you read prior to the trek will use grandiose-sounding verbiage such as “conquering Fansipan Mountain.” You’ll think this is an overly zealous translation. You’ll also read that at the trek’s completion, you’ll receive a certificate verifying that you’ve “conquered Fansipan Mountain.” You’ll think this is a product of the Vietnamese affection for paperwork.

But consider this. Really consider this.

Fool’s Journey

4. As the highest peak in RFKAI, Fancy Pants Mountain will be cold. They’ll tell you this: “It’s cold up there.” Remember you haven’t been in anything close to “cold” in a nearly two years. Briefly consider the fruitless time and effort you’ve invested in finding clothing that fits you in this country. Decide not to bother trying to get real hiking boots or weather-resistant clothing. Borrow some long pants from your roommate, and put on your three-year-old trainers and a pair of leggings and DO THIS SHIT.

5. Consider the fact that you are not a good trekker. You don’t even really enjoy trekking. Remember La Ciudad Perdida? Yosemite’s Half-Dome? All those Muir Woods day hikes your parents took you on as a kid? You have never for one second liked trekking, or been any good at it.

Despite this, “getting out of the city” will seem like a good idea. Consider briefly of the itinerary: an overnight train; arrival at 6am; trek beginning at 9am; the trek; sleeping in a “longhouse”; trekking back; overnight train back to Hanoi at 7pm.

Consider that this is your weekend.

Or don’t. Buy some bottled water and a granola bar, put on your three-year-old trainers and a pair of leggings and DO THIS SHIT.

Comfy on the train

6. Dream about Roberto Bolano on the overnight train. Dream you’re sitting around a table at a youth hostel, freestyling short stories; dream that he is staring at you across the table.

Wake up giddy and in a puddle of your own drool. Consider how many times people must have woken up in puddles of their own drool ON THIS VERY PILLOW, whether or not they were dreaming of Roberto Bolano. Rinse your face; chug from the plastic bottle; swish the water in your mouth and spit it out; look at yourself in the foggy scratched mirror, your reflection foggy and scratched.

Think: “Let’s Do This Shit.”

7. Doing This Shit:

i. The trail will be muddy. Like, mad muddy. Shlup, shloop, gloop, glup, ankle-deep and sliding around, falling-in-the-shrubbery muddy. The porters will hand you a walking stick; this stick will become your best friend, despite the little blisters your own clutching causes.

ii. The trail will be foggy. You won’t be able to see shit, not more than a few meters in front of you or behind you.

iii. The trail will be rocky. It will not really be a trail so much as a series of rocks to climb up. Really, it should be called The Fancy Pants Mountain Rock-Climb, not a trek because you don’t actually get a good stride going very often.

iv. Your feet will get wet and muddy. It’s better to just accept it and slosh through than try and fight it. It’s faster too.

On the mountain with my “waa” face

v. The porters won’t speak English, so it’ll be best to go with a group of people who speak Vietnamese. Though Vietnamese won’t be the native language of the porters; they’ll speak Hmong. The porters will speak Hmong because they’ll be Hmong, and it’ll be the only trek you’ve been on with a female porter.

She will be a bad ass. Like, the definition of a bad ass: big phat tribal earrings the kids in SF would pay $300 for; knee-high rubber rain boots; skirt tied with a sash; sturdy-ass legs from doing this trek a minimum of TEN TIMES A MONTH, your friends will translate. All your food and gear will be stowed in a whisker basket she totes on her back. She’ll smile and have three gold teeth; you’ll think about how you miss gold teeth, seeing just a few as opposed to a whole goddamn grill the kids are sporting these days. Her fingers will be stained, black-rimmed nails, and she’ll never be out of breath.

Consider that she will be the coolest part of the trek.

Girl crush

vii. After seven hours you’ll arrive at the 2800 meter point. Consider you won’t know what this translates to in feet; consider that you won’t care.

You’ll go into the longhouse where you’ll be sleeping and it will no shit be one of the most squalid places you’ve ever seen. Consider that you’ve slept in some squalid situations, both urban and rural; consider that an old boyfriend lived in a West Oakland punk house called Dead Rat Beach. Consider that this longhouse will be worse than that.

Consider: the walls made of aluminum, a material that traps and magnifies the cold; the gaping hole in the door of the aluminum, through which a howling wind straight from the cold chest of China enters; the muddy-ass walkway; the raised wooden sleeping platform, damp from the cold; the trash beneath the sleeping platform; the scurry of the rats beneath the sleeping platform; the thin sleeping bags they’ll give you; the fact that the sleeping bags don’t zip; the fact that this trek has become mega popular with Vietnamese young people and that a group of sixteen with enter the house a couple hours after you do and that they will, in full Vietnamese fashion, talk and point and shout at each other for 6 of the 8 hours you attempt to sleep, and that this will annoy even the Vietnamese people you’ve come with.

In the longhouse with my cold face

Consider that the dinner will be nice, quite tasty really, more Chinese than Vietnamese, and that you’ll gorge yourself by the candlelight and that one of your trekking mates will have brought a bar of Toblerone and that he’ll break you off a chunk and HOLY SHIT that’ll be the best piece of Toblerone you’ve ever tasted.

Consider that you don’t even really like Toblerone. Consider that.

viii. Consider that the toughness-to-reward ratio of the trek will be low enough to inspire you skip the “conquering” bit. You will not get up at 5am will the others in your group and carry on to the top, but cuddle up and clench your eyes against the swimming of the flashlights, clamp your ears against the shouting of the other trekkers, and shiver inside your unzipped sleeping back, inside your roommate’s pants and the leggings you haven’t changed out of.

Your trek-mates who made it

You’ll head down the mountain around 8am with another girl in your group who has also bailed. Only now will you consider that the whole “I did it!” thing has never been a motivation for you. Only now consider that on the treks you’ve done in that past, you’ve never felt the swoon of accomplishment, victory over a physical challenge, but more of a “Now why did I put myself through THAT?”

Consider that you’ve always felt life was hard enough without CLIMBING A FRIGGIN MOUNTAIN on your weekend. Consider that the real “I did it!” for you is and always had been the everyday survival—the existing in the world—not this outdoor mountain shit. Consider that the real victory for you is the fact that you’ve damn near made it to 30 without killing yourself.

Consider that as you slip and slide and crawl on your ass back down the mountain.

Consider that the way down is always harder than the way up. Consider how that’s a metaphor. For all of it.

8. The best part of the trek will be when it’s over. You’ll get back to Sapa, a lovely little town you wish you had the energy to explore, and you’ll feel like you’ve been gone longer than 30-some hours. Since your friend arranged the whole thing through a tour agency, you’ll have access to a hotel room with a shower. It’ll be a dingy little hotel room with the same faded pink paint as your apartment in Phnom Penh, but the water pressure will be strong and the water will be hot and HOLY SHIT it’ll be the best shower you think you’ve ever taken. Consider that you like hot, strong showers, and have taken a lot of them.

Stagger across the road to a touristy cafe and order a burger, fries and a chocolate shake. Consider the last time you indulged in this trifecta; consider that you won’t be able to remember and that you won’t care. Consider that the shake will be a literal interpretation of a shake—milk and chocolate powder that were seemingly stirred together—and that it’ll still taste goddamn amazing.

9. Consider the train ride back. Despite the fact that the AC in your cabin won’t be working, you’ll konk out at 8pm. You will not dream about Roberto Bolano, and you will feel slightly ripped off by that.

You’ll arrive back in Hanoi at 5am, all matted hair and lip crust, everyone in your group too tired and sore to give proper goodbyes. You’ll hop on the back of a xe om, whiz through the sleepy pre-dawn streets.

You won’t have conquered Fancy Pants.

You won’t have conquered shit.

But goddammit, you’ll be on your way to conquer your own friggin bed.

You’ll pay the dude, slither down the alley, yank open the gate, crawl up the stairs and HOLY SHIT you will.


If you’ve considered all this and still want to do the trek, check out Mien’s much more informative and much less whiny post on the expedition.

One-Night Travel Stands and The End of Next Trip-itis


People have been asking me.

You know someone long enough, you know their patterns. And people who know me—for example, my dad, this morning, leaning back in a chair and giving me that long-view, that what-are-you-doing-with-your-life look—will ask me, “So, where’s the next trip?”

And god-damn if I don’t shock us both by shrugging my shoulders and replying, “I don’t know.”

For the past six years, I’ve been constantly planning The Next Trip. I’ve heard other chronic travelers say that they’ve caught themselves planning their next trip while on a trip. I’m afraid I’m one step worse: I plan trips before I even take the next trip: the Next Next Trip, and the one after that. My brain is like a Netflix cue of destinations: a constant adding, shuffling and reordering of an insurmountable list one will never actually make it through, but will happily spend their lives trying to.

But since returning home from my last trip, I haven’t been experiencing the same hamster-wheeling of obsessive planning/flight-price checking/guidebook-browsing/logistic-izing. The thought of another trip is, admittedly, exhausting. I’d have to get shifts covered at work. I’d have to scrimp and save. Sure, I’d get those exhilarating moments of wonder and awe and newness, the head-rush of travel addicts, and I love that, will always love that, I think.

But somewhere underneath that, it feels like it’d be more of the same, the travel equivalent of a one-night stand. Sure, it’d have its exciting moments, but in the end it’d be just another go-round: see some shit, learn some new phrases, reaffirm how bizarre and beautiful the world is and how little I can ever really know of it. And come home. Broke.

I’ve realized: I want something deeper.

It’s startling, something like a die-hard bachelor suddenly discovering that he wants a relationship. Where the hell is this coming from? I ask. Am I getting soft in my old age? And more importantly, more deeply unsettling: Why isn’t this thing that I always chased, that I based my life around chasing, suddenly so much less appealing?—as though the things that fulfill us are static, never change, don’t evolve the way we do.

I don’t have answers to these questions. Just to the one, the “where’s next?”, and my answer is “I don’t know.”

I suppose it’s symptomatic of the whole late-20s, Saturn-return thing (don’t laugh, that shit is no joke): the end of one phase, the beginning of another, the looking for What’s Next. But it’s shaken my whole idea of myself, the identity I’ve constructed over the last few years. Who would I be if I wasn’t The Traveler? What would I do with my brain if I wasn’t constantly chewing on the Next Trip?

Sometimes I meditate. (Don’t laugh, that shit is no joke.) I’m crummy at it: I set my timer for 10 minutes and try to listen to my breath, but mostly I just chase the chatter of my thoughts; I’m lucky if I get 20 solid seconds of thoughtlessness.

Mostly I ask for guidance (from what?), then try to just listen (to what?). They say the answers come. They say that if we feel an urgency to act, it’s our will, and that if we feel a calm certainty, it’s our Higher Power’s (fine, laugh).

I don’t have answers to any questions. Just a big giant “I don’t know.”

Vietnam, Look For Me Cause Here I Come: How to Get A Visa

Yes, travel is exotic and life-altering and profoundly moving. Yes, you encounter new environments, new people, new customs, and in that way, also encounter some new piece of yourself. Yes, you become more cultured, more able to pepper cocktail conversations with ledes like, “Well, when I was learning tango in Buenos Aires…,” and “There’s really no comparison to actual Italian gelato…”

But there’s also the nitty-gritty, the laborious and unglamorous, the tedium of trip planning. It’s not fun, there’s no scene cred, and no one likes to talk about it.

So, with twelve days left until my departure to Southeast Asia, I’m taking a pause in the string of earth-shattering lyrical narratives to discuss the oh-so boring details necessary to Vietnam travel: visas.

The first step to any obligatory activity, whether it’s commuting or house cleaning, is to get yourself a killer soundtrack to lessen the annoyance. For this, I suggest listening to Abner Jay on repeat.

Having to obtain a visa before visiting a country is a strange and confusing process to those of us native to countries of privilege. As an American, you’re more or less used to waltzing up to a customs window, flashing a smile that gleams of tourist dollars, and getting your stamp. Some countries, like Chile and Brazil, charge you of reciprocal entry fee, a kind of fuck-you I can appreciate. But needing to arrange a visa prior to arrival? What kind of criminal do you think I am?

Once you get over the indignity that the majority of the world’s other citizens are subjected to, you’ll need to actually procure the said visa. Here’s what I learned, thanks to research and Thorn Tree, one of my all-time favorite travel resources.

There are no “visas on arrival” for Vietnam.

Other countries in Southeast Asia, yes. Vietnam, no. It’s pretty simple.

There are different types of visas.

For your basic Vietnam tourist visa, there’s a few options. You can go for a one- or three-month visa; you can also opt for single- or multiple-entry. There are no longer six-month tourist or business visas. This means that, if like me, you’re planning on cruising in and out of Vietnam for a period longer than three months, you’ll need to get a visa extension while you’re there. That’s a beast I’ll tackle when the time comes…

Visa costs aren’t fixed.

Figuring out exactly how much a Vietnam visa will cost is an adventure in obscurity. The Embassy and Consulate websites conveniently don’t tell you how much visas cost. Through poking around, I discovered that if you go directly through official channels—that is, the Embassy or Consulate—you can expect to pay anything from $70 for a one-month single-entry, to $150 for a three-month multiple-entry.

There are several companies (like this one) that facilitate visas, and their prices are far from fixed. Discounts apply for groups; the larger the group, the deeper the discount. Prices for these service range from a $20-$50 discount from official prices.

Going through the Embassy or Consulate is expensive, time-consuming and worrisome.

In most situations like this, I’m skeptical of companies with cheesy websites that offer deeply discounted prices on official services. So I’d decided to stick with getting a visa from the Consulate. But this meant handing over my passport. I’d either have to mail my passport to the Embassy and wait for it to be returned (hello anxiety), or get up early one morning and head out to the Vietnam Consulate in San Francisco. Here, I was told I’d need to give them my passport for processing, which would take around 5 days, and then come pick it up again. It sounded like a pain, but preferable to mailing my most sacred of travel possessions.

The night before I was to roust myself and cram onto the train with all the suit-and-ties, I discovered that…

There’s a way around all this. Kind of.

So, you can actually negate the visa process, in a way. You can get what’s called a Visa Approval Letter, an official document that allows you to get what is essentially a visa on arrival. The pluses are that it’s much cheaper, your passport doesn’t have to leave your possession, and you can do it from your computer. The two big catches are that you need to be arriving into one of the international airports (Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh), and you need to be ready to pay a $25-$50 “stamping” fee.

I used Vietnam Visa Pro, and while the actual entry into Vietnam remains to be experienced, I’m so far super happy with them. I paid $30 for an approval letter for a three-month multiple-entry. I paid via Paypal, which I liked since I’ve heard horror stories about stolen credit card numbers from shady foreign websites (incidentally, just had my credit card number stolen, but that’s another story). I heard back from the company promptly, and had my approval letter emailed to me in 2 business days. Printed it out, made copies of my passport photo, and am ready to roll!

Now all I’ve got to focus on is amassing some more exotic-sounding stories.

Into The Blank Space

So I bought plane tickets to Southeast Asia. With a knot in my stomach.

It was the first time I didn’t get that rush, that tingle at the tangibility of travel plans—didn’t jump up and do a hop-skip happy dance across my bedroom floor. This is because, I realized, I’m scared shitless.

I figured as much, as I’d been balking on buying the tickets for no discernible reason. I couldn’t really tell you what it was. Yes, it’s gonna be one of the longer trips I’ve been on, just over three months, and it’ll be on a continent I’ve never been to, where my chances of muddling through the local language are next to nil. It’ll be humid as hell and the buses will suck and the roads will be shitty and the mosquitoes will buzz and I won’t be able to drink the water and I’ll have to negotiate the fabled squat toilet again and most likely I’ll get one of the gnarly stomach flus that turns me into a gasping, pale, dehydrated, crusty-lipped caricature of myself.

But I can tell you right away that that wasn’t all that made my stomach clench like a white-knuckled fist.

It’s gonna be a different kind of trip for me, more of a personal journey, a pilgrimage, in the Phil Cousineau sense of the term. It’s a trip I’ve wanted to do for a long time; ever since I started traveling, I knew I wanted to go to Cambodia. My childhood best friend’s parents had escaped and I’d always heard about it—this place and this person, Pol Pot—a presence I felt but didn’t understand. We didn’t learn about Cambodia in school, I didn’t hear about it on TV or in books, and Pol Pot became just another person around her house, like a dead uncle no one dared talk about, except in passing.

I couldn’t tell you exactly why I wanted to go, though, just that I felt this draw, this pull—the difference between a trip you want to take and a trip you need to take. The closest I could come was to say that I wanted to actually see this place I’d felt, to experience it for what it was—a place that, to me, was kind of like Jacob in Jacob’s Room: this big howling empty in the middle of the everything, that everything circled around but no one ever got close to, in to, inside of—like flies around a lightbulb.

“Can I write about it?” I asked Lynda. I was scared then too.

“My life is an open book,” she told me. “You can write about anything.”

“Can we get together and talk sometime, about what you remember?”

She sighed. “Yeah, of course, but to be honest, there’s so much I don’t remember. There’s a lot of blank spaces, you know.”

And it was like a little click. Blank spaces: the things we darken and blur and don’t let ourselves look at—that we push down, down, so far down, but still carry with us, the stories murmuring in our blood. Because I do that too, in my own way, in the way I think we all do—black out the things we can’t bear. But goddamnit if it isn’t all still in there, always; goddamnit if we don’t spend our lives circling around it, crashing our heads into the glowing glass of it.

I never cried when Lynda’s parents died, ten years ago. I realized this just after I’d bought my plane tickets. I was tired and irritated and, like a two year old, had decided to put myself down for a nap. But I didn’t really sleep, just laid there floating in the numb in-between space, a vagrant twitch here and there.

And I thought about the reality of going there, being there, a place that had become tragically mythic in my own mind, but also blurry, unreal—the face of that dead uncle you never met, but reconstructed, from photographs and passing stories, in your own mind. And it wasn’t like I’d finally be looking at that face, seeing it in real life, because it was gone and buried—but, I don’t know, like digging up the bones of what was left? No, that isn’t quite right either.

I had this dim notion that, to me, traveling to Cambodia was akin to traveling into some place inside myself, a blank place where there was nothing but a thick silence, a deathly silence; where everything was white, or maybe black, but in any case obscure; a place that looked empty, but really was full, pregnant with some sort of strange energy I didn’t understand but was somehow scared of.

That place wasn’t necessarily Cambodia, or really Cambodia at all, but a place inside myself. And I was fucking terrified of what I’d find.

I didn’t cry then, not exactly, but I teared up. Which is the closest I’ve come to letting myself really feel any of it—to looking at it and letting it become real.

Traveling Itinerary-less

I have a confession: I love planning.

I love itineraries, I love train schedules, I love booking reservations. I love figuring out exactly how much I can cram into a trip, how many overnight buses I can take, how much ground I can cover in how much time. I love scheduling in “cushion” days—two or three, no more—for rest, buffer days, and I love burning through them by packing in more shit to see. And I really love guidebooks.

This, I’ve been assured, excludes me from the illustrious elite of Real Travelers. “Ditch the itinerary!” “Slow Travel!” “Forget the Guidebook!” (words I’ve actually written for jokey articles I didn’t really believe in). You get this vision of Real Travelers: soulful types who tote around their ludicrously light backpacks, free of weathered books and long hours in internet cafes, guided by some impeccable instinct that brings them to the Right Place at the Right Time. Their buses depart whenever they happen to show up at the station; they meet kindly strangers who led them through dark streets; they happen upon “undiscovered gems” and spend weeks lazing with locals, learning their ways, nursing their orphaned children.

But most of all, I imagine these Real Travelers as open to the whims of the road. They don’t lock themselves down to itineraries, don’t construct little prisons of time constraints and force themselves to rush! rush! keep up! with some sort of idea they’ve forced upon themselves, an artificial timeframe not too dissimilar from the things we lock ourselves into at home. I imagine them listening—ears like stethoscopes to some pulse, some rhythm of the world that I can’t even feel, am only vaguely aware is even there—listening and hearing and heeding.

And I imagine, or rather I see, myself, scrambling and rushing and running myself ragged. And needing a vacation after my vacation.

I was revving up to do my upcoming trip in much the same fashion: after FAME Festival, I’d have two weeks. Two weeks! I’d cruise over to Croatia, work my way down through Montenegro and Albania, cut across Northern Greece, hightail it all the way to Istanbul, soak in the city in a furious two/three days before flying back into Rome. I was checking bus routes, maps and schedules; I was calculating days. I was getting exhausted.

I finally said fuck it. In five years of traveling, I’ve finally learned to say fuck it. True, I have no idea when I’ll be back in that part of the world, and true, there’s a lot I want to see. But when I tie myself down to self-constructed itineraries, I end up seeing everything and nothing. I’m tired. I get sick. “Oh, I’d really like to go to the Sahara, but I just don’t know if I’ll have time.” Time, time, always time.

I’m ditching the itinerary. Kind of. I’m going to Grottaglie, yes, but for the two weeks after that, I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going. I don’t know. I’ve been relishing in those words, smiling when I get to say them (“Where all are you going?”), feeling them warm me up, a hot sun on a languid beach.

Maybe I’ll end up “wasting” days doing nothing, swimming and eating and strolling around tangled old streets of torn-up cobblestone. (When you’ve got nowhere to be, you can’t be late.) Maybe I’ll just go to one other place, or maybe I won’t leave Italy at all; maybe I’ll go back to Rome and spend days wandering into dank old churches and eating too much gelato. Maybe I’ll listen really really hard and get some sort of answer, not in words, but in impulse—“go here, do this.” Or maybe I’ll just fucking relax and enjoy myself.

And you never know, maybe I’ll become a Real Traveler.

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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