Traveler’s Tales: Hanoi*

 

Yes, it’s true: Hanoi is marked by the chaos of motorcycles and pedestrians. But while it may seem life-threatening to cross the streets of Hanoi with a horde of motorcycles approaching you, there is actually a technique in making it to the other side in one piece. Our guide revealed that you should not wait for the motorcycle drivers to stop–because they won’t. Walk slowly, steadily, and without hesitation. The motorcycles will simply swerve to avoid you. Trust me, it does work. I was able to make it back to the Philippines without any injuries.

Hanoi is also known as the “City of Lakes” for the obvious reason that the city is speckled with many lakes. In contrast to the chaos of the streets, the waters are serene and scenic settings for rest, recreation, or sightseeing.

But aside from the lakes, there is so much to see and do in Hanoi. During the trip, we traversed the Old Quarter, strolled the French Quarter, visited Ho Cho Minh’s mausoleum, shopped for local products and branded overruns, oriented with Vietnamese culture, and indulged in the Vietnamese food and coffee. We even made a side trip to Ha Long Bay, the recently declared new wonder of the world. The jump-off point to Halong Bay is a mere three-hour drive from Hanoi.

The visit was short but long enough to be captivated by the charm of Hanoi’s beautiful chaos. Scroll through the gallery for a glimpse of Hanoi’s charms. Click here  for photos and reasons why you should immerse in the beautiful chaos of Vietnam’s capital city.

 

*As published in Female Network.com.

Reasons why I let my kids climb mountains

“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.” ~ John Muir

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“Why do you let your kids climb mountains?” A friend asked me this while I was preparing to bring my kids to Mount Sirao. It was yet the second time I was set to bring them mountain climbing. The first time we climbed a mountain, we went to Osmeña Peak, the famed highest peak of the entire Cebu province, standing at slightly over 1, 000 meters above sea level. My kids, aged 14 years old and 9 years old then, along with other kids, climbed the mountain with the speed and dexterity inherent in youth. When their threshold for a rustic experience was further challenged by camping overnight at the peak, my kids survived and thrived.  I knew I could bring them to another one, without having to contend with a long whining or worse, resorting to a sweet bribery, when my son concluded at the end of the journey that it was a life-changing experience, coupled with an enthusiastic “Where to next?” question.

On the second time, we went trekking on a much longer trail, which traversed from the rivers and falls of Budlaan to the peaks of Mount Sirao, noted to be the highest of Cebu City. It took us more than 4, 000 steps in close to 7 hours to complete the trail. It was not a walk in the park, so to speak.

So why do I let my kids climb mountains? It turns out nature rewards the persistent not only with breathtaking views, but also with excitement, fulfillment and even life skills and lessons. The prospect of these kids realizing and acquiring the skills and lessons offered in every stride and climb makes the ascent to the peak worthwhile.

For the fun of it. Despite the heat, sweat, difficulty, and fatigue, it truly is a fun physical activity. The mountain trails are actually gigantic playgrounds with surprising twists and turns. The Budlaan-Sirao trail in particular holds exhilarating exploits from clambering up and down boulders to sliding down through a muddy hill, frolicking under the crashing falls, walking on a sloping cliff, scaling steep inclines, and traversing through the dark wilderness.

While the kids can do this in a virtual world at a push of a button or view it endlessly on television, doing it for real elicits tremendous fun and excitement and keeps the kids physically active.

For the love and appreciation of the outdoors. The trail from Budlaan to Sirao Peak is a surprising showcase of scenic diversity. It stretches from intricate piles of boulders to a flowing river along a rock-strewn trail, scenic falls and pool nestled in a rocky wall, vast plains of green and mountainous peaks of varying heights.

Pauses were made not only to rest and to catch breaths, but also to take in the splendor of the landscape. We took our lunch by the pretty waterfalls, where we also spent some time wading and dipping in the cold waters. And further up, just before we commenced our assault to the peak, the wide plains dotted with serrated black rocks, offered an idyllic place to rest, to have some fresh coconuts, and to appreciate the three-tiered peaks looming before us.

The views from the mountain peaks never fail to soothe the wounds, aches and pains in climbing it. Mount Sirao is no exception. The hills, plains, city views, and the seas below weaved a breathtaking panorama for us seated on the rocky edge of the peak. And yet, from another angle, the peak presented a wide vista of the setting sun. The pain, and even the occasional regret, nagging during the brutal climb, inexplicably dissipated at the peak.

And it is only in being immersed outdoors will the kids love and appreciate it more, despite the hurdles, which are but only fleeting, temporary, and easily forgotten upon conquering the mountain.

For the passion to explore, dream, and discover. There are numerous settings to slowly infuse Mark Twain’s philosophy and mountain trails are one of them. Far from being monotonous, the Budlaan-Sirao trail is one of the best trails to ignite one’s adventure cravings. It is not a flat and boring trail of barren land, but it is actually a path of varying slopes, inclines, and descents leading to surprisingly divergent natural sceneries. Although still deficient in mountain climbing skills, our adventurous spirits propelled our feet forward and upward.

There are rocks and boulders to scale before the picturesque Kabang Falls comes in sight. While a steep uphill climb from the Kabang Falls is tackled to reach the lush hills and plains of Kan-Irag. It is marked by a contrasting presence of black rocks, a beautiful alignment of trees, and a wonderful view of the peaks. Then the assault to Sirao Peak is made through a vertical hike in the wilderness.

Along the way, our guide introduced the kids to the wild plant which causes sensations similar to electrical shocks when touched or the mimosa plant (locally known as “makahiya”) which, akin to a shy being, folds inward and closes, when stroked. And for the first time, the kids discovered a source basin for spring water, where they refilled their water bottles.

The early exposure to mountain trails has kindled the kids’ sense of adventure and exploration. They now continuously look forward to venture beyond the doorstep and explore the next mountain destination.

            For the will to endure and persevere. While it is cliche, but it is an unarguable fact, that life is not easy for anyone.

It is a personal opinion that mountain climbing is one of the best experiences to learn and develop the capacity to endure and persist in tough times. Most often, to one’s astonishment, it can ignite a once unknown potential and power to persevere and to thrive in the most difficult situations.

While the Budlaan-Sirao trail was daunting for our neophyte standards, the kids endured the arduous trek through the different terrains. When we made the choice to ascend the peak and go beyond the point of no return, a potent determination to scale the peak was formed, fueling the need to persist and persevere. I have to say our guide’s cheer and understatement of the remaining distance ahead helped in pushing ourselves to reach the third and final peak.

The trail was also a window to reality for the kids when they were told that kids their ages or even younger had to traverse the grueling path every day to and from school.

Experiences like this serve as a resource, a memory which the kids can choose to tap into when facing life’s challenges, one where they can extract the great power to endure, to persist, to cope.

For the euphoric sense of fulfillment and achievement. Reaching a goal, overcoming a challenge, surmounting a difficulty. These are experiences common in mountain climbing.

Aside from the big boulders and rough terrains, there are three peaks to scale in the Sirao trail, each progressing with a certain degree of difficulty. The first two are hikes through open plains, gentle slopes and steady inclines. The third, however, tested one’s mettle to endure with a climb through a thick wilderness and a steeper ascent.

Upon reaching the peak after the tough climb, one of the kids with us, the youngest of our group, declared with pride and certainty, “I am so proud of myself!”

We learned that the worst was actually not over when we started our descent. Not only did we have to contend with the dimming light as the sun had already begun to set, but the exceptionally muddy terrain caused by a downpour on the mountains earlier that afternoon presented an added challenge. The descent was tough and seemingly endless, but the kids persisted and prevailed.

             The grueling trek did not dampen their spirits nor did it dissuade them from climbing more mountains. The successful climb remarkably boosted their morale, they are counting the days until the next one.

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Postscript: The trek would not have been possible without our very good-natured and well-informed guide, Ruel Olaso. Unmarked photos are courtesy of Ruel.

Windows of the World

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

Adventure on Ice

I live in the tropics and I thrive in hot and humid weathers. The sun, sand, and sea are common sights, and the seasons are just dry and rainy, in my part of the world. So for one of my recent travels, I purposefully chose to venture into the world of ice, a new and uncharted territory in my personal map.

I took the Haast Pass of Strays Journeys. Its first big stop of the 10-day journey around the South Island was Franz Josef, a town in New Zealand where the Franz Josef glacier is located.  There were several options for activities in and around the town. But even before I bought my plane tickets, I already knew I wanted to do the Ice Explorer trip, a four-hour glacier exploration.

This was outside of my hot and humid comfort zone and beyond my world of sand and sea. But this was definitely within the realm of the cliche “once in a lifetime experience.” So I resolved to take it. I powered up Google for articles and images about trips to Franz Josef glacier well before I set foot on this glacier land. There was no problem ticking off the list of suggested things to bring, from 2-4 layers of warm clothing, quick-drying trousers, snacks for the day, sunscreen, sunglasses, to camera. But I was stumped when I read that it was one of the steepest, if not the steepest, glacier in the world. Its height drops from 2, 700 meters above sea level to 240 meters in only just 11 kilometers. I was close to panic when the images of the steep glacier made the facts real and concrete. While the trip was graded as moderate in difficulty, I took this with much considerable doubt because this was New Zealand,  after all. Their senior citizens still climb high mountains and bike long trails.

Reeling between anxious and excited, I signed up for the Ice Explorer trip with the Franz Josef Glacier Guides. I learned that there can be one major setback in this trip – the weather. Because this includes a helicopter transfer to and from the glacier’s pinnacles, they cancel trips when there are heavy rains, high winds, or low clouds. So I relied heavily on prayers and partly on my lucky streak in bringing sunshine where I go.

On the morning of my scheduled trip, the sky was indeed clear and the helicopters were whirring up on the air. After a briefing with the guide, gearing up with the jacket, over-trousers, boots, and packing crampons (metal spikes for the shoes) and snacks inside the bag, I was good to go.

While we were in small groups of ten, we were transferred in smaller groups of five on the helicopter. The ride was short but spectacular, offering incredible views of the glacier, mountains, and ground landscape. Then we were dropped on the edge of cold reality. Before us was the steep incline of the glacier. We stationed shortly on the rocky portion of the mountain, lacing up our crampons and waiting for the second batch to be transported by the helicopter. The guide climbed first and always stayed in front of the group, slicing and breaking the ice with his axe to make a path for us. There are no permanent paths on glaciers. Like rivers of ice, it moves and flows, creating new forms and breaking the old.

The climb culminated somewhere around 2,500 meters above sea level. We passed incredible ice formations akin to an artist’s sculptures. Then we explored and squeezed our way into caves and tunnels, where we were enveloped in the awesome blue ice.

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Our guide wore shorts for the duration of the hike. While it was comforting to know the temperature was shorts-worthy, his endurance to bare his muscular legs was definitely not a realistic gauge of the temperature on the glacier. The temperature changed drastically. It was warmer in areas where the sun shone brightly.  But it was icy cold in the caves. Generally, the temperature was surprisingly tolerable for someone from the tropics like me. I even had to take off my outer jacket at some points of the hike.

While the walk was a slow and careful tread on the ice, I was challenged by conditions completely new and foreign to me. For one, I had to get used to walking with the crampons on. Then there were steep icy inclines and descents, deep crevasses, tight spaces and narrow paths.

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I may have slipped two or three times and mired with a bit difficulty on the steep paths, but I tremendously enjoyed the experience. It will be one of those trips I will look back with an “adrenaline-rush” kind of exhilaration and regard it as one of the greatest trips in my lifetime. Am I willing to do it again? Definitely. But before I breach the “once in a lifetime” cliche, I will hibernate in my tropical comfort zone.

Photo gallery of the Ice Explorer trip:

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Traversing Tongariro

New Zealand is a place of superlatives – the most, the best, the greatest. Choosing a favorite in New Zealand is a difficult task for one whose senses have been overloaded with so much splendor and grandeur.

But if I were to choose one from among the few places I visited in the North island of New Zealand, it would be Tongariro National Park. It is one of the limited number of places listed as a dual World Heritage Site for natural and cultural significance. The three imposing volcanic mountains of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe,  and Ruapeho located in the park are not only natural wonders, the mountain of Tongariro bears cultural significance as well for being regarded as a sacred area by the Maoris.

The most popular activity in the park is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, ranked as one of the best single-day treks in the world. The added attraction to this crossing is the fact that this was the location of Mordor and Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Dream big, they say. So that was the dream when I first planned the travel to New Zealand – to trek the 19.4 kilometer crossing, which passes between Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe. With an estimated 9-hour journey of steep tracks and unpredictable weather conditions, I declared a cessation on sedentariness.

However, when my friend and I reached the park, we were short in both time and physical preparation to do the alpine crossing. Reality bites, but we took it in stride. We did not have the time, not to mention the physical capability to endure the difficult graded tracks. But, the park offers a variety of other walks, for free,  from a short 10 minutes to a long 6 hours. We kid each other that we were in full gear from head to foot, but we will end up having the time to only do a five-minute walk!

After a brief consultation with the staff at the park’s I-site (Visitor Information Centre), we head to the Taranaki Falls track in the Northern Circuit. The promise of excellent views of two volcanic mountains, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu, sans the steep tracks and 9 hour trek of the crossing, sounded good enough for the time-challenged and underprepared.

At the start of the Norther Circuit, we stand before a vast stretch of dry wilderness, with a view of Mount Tongariro in the background. It is true, what they say, the mountains do call. We move forth at 11:18 a.m., eager to get a clearer view of the mountain. The walk is a revelation of Tongariro to be a land of great contrasts, making it a magnet for those seeking the unusual panorama. The brown landscape changes to verdant scenery upon nearing the river banks and to harsh barren land at the edge of the lava flow area. With its varied typography, the winds are cold and chilly in the areas close to the ice-capped Mount Ruapehu and warm when away from it.

The walk is long and scenic, but relatively easy, with only short portions of steep steps. The clearly defined paths unravel with no confusion, requiring no map, compass, or even an inherent sense of direction. And with the diverse landscapes and temperatures, the walk is surely far from dull and monotonous. It elicits very striking and lasting impressions of how there is extraordinary wonder in walking through contrasting sceneries and even in the unadorned landscapes. For us, the place is seemingly mysterious and unearthly, like Frodo’s long journey in the Lord of the Rings movie.

The views of Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu, as promised, are excellent in this path. Mount Ngauruhoe, the real Mount Doom, is an impressive sight, towering over the flat wilderness lands. Its snow-capped edges, remnants of winter past, softens the stern mountain. Mount Ruapehu, on the other side, is resplendent, emerging from the horizon and  beautifully blanketed with snow.

But, as it turns out, the unexpected never fails to kindle an exhilarating surprise, like how the Taranaki Falls, after a lengthy scenery in brown, suddenly presents itself thundering down from a stunning rugged ridge. Like any other travel moment, it is best experienced, not merely admired from afar. We clamber down the slopes and over the boulders to get a closer feel of the cool mist and the resounding splash of water. Having been warned of icy cold waters at this time of the year, we did not prepare to dip in the pool.

The 6-kilometer loop is estimated to be a two-hour walk. We disregard the two-hour estimate and our own personal time constraints, as we wandered in our languid time, immersing in the scenery and taking more than several photographs. We allow ourselves to lose track of time in the vast wilderness, rocky river, thundering falls, lava rocks, and majestic mountains.

We finally reach the end of the loop at 2:43 p.m., happy but with an eager sense of wanting to do more. We look back at the mountains with a staunch promise to return soon. Next time for the epic alpine crossing.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

A photo gallery of the Northern Circuit:

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*Most photos by Lilibeth Po.

A Journey to (Nearly) the End of the World

The privilege of solace comes in long and distant journeys. Literally. Aside from the plane rides from the Philippines, I had to travel through towns, a lake, an alpine pass, and a fiord.

I journeyed via a 3-4 hour bus ride from Queenstown, my last home base, to Manapouri; an hour or so boat ride in Lake Manapouri; another hour and a half bus ride in Wilmot Pass; and an overnight boat cruise in Doubtful Sound. While it may seem forever, the path in both land and water were scenic contrasts of serene and astonishing, I somehow wished it was indeed forever.

“Welcome to (Nearly) the End of the World,” the sign read.

Doubtful Sound is the second largest fiordland situated in the declared World Heritage Area of Fiordland National Park in the deep south west of New Zealand. While its Maori name is Te Wahiponamou, or “the place of greenstone,” its name “Doubtful” was said to have been coined after Captain James Cook, the explorer who circumnavigated New Zealand, doubted if they would be able to navigate through the very long and narrow inlet.

Because it is unoccupied by civilization, it is an unspoiled place of nature. Doubtful Sound is a spectacular sight of a long, narrow, and traversing body of water completely surrounded by lush green mountains, some of it snow-capped, dramatic valleys, and sporadic waterfalls. It is home to dolphins, seals, penguins, and on certain seasons, humpback whales. And due to its remote location, there are less visitors in this place compared to another smaller-sized fiordland, the Milford Sound.

While the distance, landscape, and seascape made it an amazing and tranquil journey, there was no time and space for boredom to set in. The boat crew provided  settings for swimming, boating, kayaking, and even dolphin, seal, penguin, and whale watching. I chose the kayak activity, which lasted for about an hour across the waters of Doubtful Sound, because I revel in the solace and scenery it brings. More, the stars aligned during the cruise as the weather was perfect for all the activities and the dolphins, seals,penguins, and as a perk, humpback whales appeared.

The cruise was fittingly capped by a pass in the epic Hall Arm of Doubtful Sound. The boat slowed upon entering this cove and eventually stopped its motors. The captain and cruise moderator urged the passengers to find a space on the deck, to be silent, to be still, and to simply take in the immense beauty and power of the natural scenery. And as soon as the passengers started to find their space, the water became completely tranquil and revealed a crystal clear reflection of the looming mountains and glacier. And then only the sound of absolute silence…an occurrence close to extinct in this day and age. It was a surreal culmination of the journey to this distant part of the world.

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For more photos, click the gallery below:

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Postscript: My awesome journey was made via Stray Journeys (http://straytravel.com), a New Zealand bus tour company which takes you off the beaten track in New Zealand. Stray partnered with Real Journeys (http://realjourneys.co.nz) for the trip to Doubtful Sound.

Traveler’s Tales: Cruising Ha Long Bay*

The appeal of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay is magnanimous. Its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, along with its proclamation as one of the new natural wonders of the world in 2012, were compelling enough reasons for me to put this place in my life list and to journey there—and journey there, I did.

Ha Long Bay, translated as the “Bay of the Descending Dragon,” is a wide expanse of water with thousands of limestone karsts and islands. It is located in Vietnam’s Quang Ninh Province, and the jump-off point to the bay is easily accessible via a comfortable three-hour bus ride from Hanoi, the country’s capital.

The package for an overnight cruise is reasonably priced, filled with gustatory delights and fun-filled activities, and it includes the bus ride to and from Hanoi. In my opinion, the breathtaking scenery and the experience we had were definitely worth more than the cost.

Ha Long Bay can be a romantic setting for couples, a fun excursion for the family, or an exciting getaway for friends. It’s best to see this natural wonder for yourself because the consummate beauty and splendor of the place cannot be fully appreciated through words and photos, but only by being in the midst of it. If you can’t visit Ha Long Bay soon, though, the gallery might be enough of an incentive for you to add this marvel to your travel bucket list.

*As published in Female Network.com. Click here for photos and reasons why you should have a life-list worthy moment in this wonder of the world.