Thessaloniki, Greece

Like most of my trip, my itinerary has been dictated by price. The cheapest way to get from Italy to Greece was by flying from Naples to Thessaloniki.

I had never heard of Thessaloniki before, but I knew I wanted to see a different part of Greece before meeting my mom in Athens and seeing Santorini and Mykonos with her. I debated going to another island, but the island ferries are even more expensive than some mainland flights and take much, much longer.

As I researched the city leading up to my arrival, I got pretty excited. This city in Northern Greece has consistently been ranked as one of the best vacation destinations for young people. In 1997 it was nominated as the Cultural Capital of Europe and in 2014, it was named the European Youth Capital. Thessaloniki is known for its modern cafes, unique pastries, and vibrant nightlife. It’s also one of the most historical cities in the region. It was a major hub connecting Europe to Asia. During the Roman and Greek empires, it was a capital city and then became the second largest city behind Constantinople during the Byzantine era. Even though a fire destroyed the city in 1917, it was rebuilt and even though the city now has modern high rises, there are still ruins scattered between the streets!

I had a Couchsurfing host lined up who had great reviews. Apparently he picks up visitors directly from the airport and his mom makes them home cooked meals! How could I pass that up? Unfortunately a week before I was due to arrive, my host cancelled. Luckily Thessaloniki has plenty of young people who are active hosts on Couchsurfing. I messaged a woman my age named Katrina. She immediately replied saying she was out of town during that time, but I was more than welcome to use her empty apartment for free!

It sounded too good to be true. Who would let a total stranger into their home unattended? I decided to see how far this would go! Katrina explained that she would leave the keys with the cashier at the 24-hour store downstairs.

My flight was uneventful and I arrived in Thessaloniki around 9pm. I caught the bus from the airport and immediately fell in love with the city. The streets were so alive! Even though it was late on a Thursday, people were out enjoying coffee with friends. Everyone was dressed up with their makeup done perfectly. There were modern cafes with creative branding and design everywhere! It felt like I was back in Auckland where the vibe of the city was upscale and posh.

I was still weary about the apartment situation. I didn’t have a backup plan! But I easily got the keys and discovered that I was staying in a 5th floor unit overlooking a busy street near the university. It was in the heart of the city!

In the morning, I enjoyed some coffee on the balcony before heading to join the free walking tour. Since I didn’t know much about Thessaloniki, I figured it was a great way to find out. The tour group had several others from Europe and Cyprus, but I was the only American.

Our guide, Yannis, told us stories about the haunted buildings and showed us the old Roman agora. I’m not the biggest history buff, but I loved hearing about the urban development of the city. I had been wondering why there wasn’t a metro system for such a modern city. Apparently officials keep trying to get one built, but each time they start digging, they find ruins or run out of money! Yannis joked about how mismanaging money is in Greek DNA.

He also explained why the city is made of ugly apartment buildings with no design aesthetic. Back in the day, the city was desperate for land. They agreed to give free housing to anyone who would sell them land. As a result, numerous apartment buildings had to be constructed quickly and cheaply.

During the tour, we went inside the Church of Saint Demetrios. As legend goes, he was a Christian who was imprisoned for preaching his religion during a time when Thessaloniki was ruled by pagans. They kept him in an old Roman bathhouse. During the gladiatorial games, a young warrior beat all of the more experienced gladiators and credited his victory to the Christian teachings of Demetrios. The king had no choice but to execute them both. After Demetrios’ death, they realized his body didn’t emit a foul odor like other humans, but it smelled like flowers. They created an elixir from his remains that healed the sick and wounded. As a result, they hailed him as a saint and many worshippers come to the church (located above the bath house in which Demetrios was imprisoned) to pay their respects.

After the walking tour, I went to the grocery to get food to meal prep. Eating out used to be my favorite part of traveling, but it’s not as much fun when you’re alone! And the language barrier makes the process very exhausting. I’ve mistakenly ordered the wrong thing more than once! Plus it saves money. Unless I only ate street food (yummy but unhealthy!) then I’d be spending 20-30€ per day on food. Instead, I got four days worth of food for 17€!

Usually grocery shopping is my favorite activity. Sometimes I explore supermarkets in foreign countries even if I don’t buy something. It’s so interesting and there are always new and unique foods. But there’s definitely a learning curve. In Italy, I had to get used to printing off produce codes myself instead of having the cashier do it like in America. But Greece has definitely been the toughest country to shop in. Nothing was in English! Usually labels at least have a brief English description… but not in Greece! And there was no pre-packaged meat. I’m not talking about hot dogs or lunchmeat. There’s no ground beef or chicken breasts to pick from. You have to order from the butcher directly. I love this concept, but it’s hard when the butcher doesn’t speak English and I can’t point and grunt.

I ended up buying frozen meatballs to make a Greek vegetable soup. For lunch, I got smoked sardines to eat with eggs (unrefrigerated of course!) and steamed broccoli. I made it work without fresh meat!

The next day, I wanted to see the waterfront. Our tour had covered the interior of the city, but Greece is known for being on water! The entire city is shaped like a horseshoe around the bay. There’s a long seaside sidewalk that runs the entire distance and it seemed to be a popular activity to take a stroll. It was only 75 degrees, but the sun was STRONG. I was sweating just walking!

I stopped by a cafe to get a coffee and people watch. It was hard to find a spot! The restaurants and cafes had people packed in like sardines. The drink of choice in Greece is a “Freddo espresso.” It is essentially black espresso that is shaken with ice, creating a foam on top. You can also get a “Freddo cappuccino” that has milk and a much thicker layer of foam. I tried both and preferred the espresso.

See the ruins in the background? It used to be the palace of Emperor Galerius. My favorite cafe overlooks this historical site and and really makes you think about how even the powerful fall someday.

The majority of my trip was spent cafe hopping! The weather was gorgeous and, unlike Italy, it is Greek custom to spend hours relaxing at a cafe. I even verified with Yannis and he said Greeks are much more leisurely than Italians. I also used cafes for their WiFi! The only downside of my free apartment was that it doesn’t have any. I ended up downloading episodes from the Netflix app and watching them on my phone in the apartment during downtime.

The only confusing part of cafe culture is how they deliver the bill. Usually coffee is served with a cookie (all cafes use the same cookie company so they’re bland and prepackaged, unlike in Amsterdam where you get freshly baked cookies) and a glass of water. This seems like an invitation to enjoy a leisurely snack, but the bill is also given at the same time as the coffee! I suppose it is so you can pay whenever you’re ready, but it also prohibits ordering anything else. I also had a bad experience at a cafe where the waitress (after only 15 mins) asked if I was ready to pay. I said I wasn’t finished and she said, “Ok well you pay now anyway?” Maybe she was getting off of her shift, but I felt rushed and not at all welcomed!

During one afternoon at a cafe, my host texted me. She said she realized she had forgotten to return a library book and asked if I could please drop it off. I wasn’t doing anything else so I said sure! It was a fun adventure to go to the local library. There should be a website or app that lets travelers run errands for locals. It’s a great way to see the city! Otherwise, I loved wandering through the waterfront parks. There are so many! My favorite was the area around the White Tower – perhaps Thessaloniki’s most iconic landmark. The Ottomans constructed it as a fortress to protect the harbor but it was also used as a place for executions.

In true Katie fashion, I scheduled myself too much time in Thessaloniki. It’s known for being a party city, but since partying isn’t a priority on this trip, there wasn’t much to do once I had seen all of the historical sights and tried the local coffee. I tried to connect with other travelers, but there weren’t any Couchsurfing meetups. Thessaloniki reminds me a lot of Portland – it’s a vibrant, youthful city with a great quality of life and amazing restaurants and bars, but otherwise not a whole lot to see or do.

I am on my way to Athens to meet my mom. We have about two days to explore the city. It’ll be interesting to see if that is the perfect amount of time. It doesn’t seem like much, but you can do a lot in 48 hours!

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Pompeii & Ercolano, Italy

I ended my trip in Italy the same way it began: battling sickness. Luckily this time it was only a minor cold instead of food poisoning, but I still felt terrible. Spending all day exploring a new city isn’t as much fun when I constantly have to cough and blow my nose!

I checked into my hostel midday and spent the rest of the day getting settled. One thing that always makes me feel at home is meal prepping. If I have healthy food in the fridge, I can relax. There was another female traveler hanging out in the hostel lounge, so I chatted with her and asked where the best grocery store was. Google maps is basically useless when it comes to Italy.

She told me there were several “Mom and pop” stores that had the basics, but the closest real supermarket was in the next town over. I ventured out and saw the small shops she mentioned, but they didn’t have the specific ingredients I needed like butter lettuce, green onions, and avocados. Instead I kept walking. Ercolano wasn’t very pretty. None of southern Italy was pretty except Positano!

I ended up walking 3 miles round trip to the store, but it was worth it! Something about the fluorescent lights and ample choices makes me feel relieved. Maybe I’m getting a bit homesick so I’m looking for places that remind me of America. Luckily this place exists:

I returned to the hostel and began cooking in the kitchen. Most hostel kitchens are massive to accommodate the number of guests, but this kitchen could barely fit 3 people at once. As I was cooking, an American woman came in and said “I need to cook. Are you done??” I explained that I had just started and it likely would be awhile since I was meal prepping, but I could make room for her. She said, “I am hypoglycemic and I need to cook now.” I repeated, “There’s plenty of room for us to share.” She was not happy and stormed out. I had specifically picked a time when most people were gone from the hostel so I wouldn’t hog the kitchen. I guess you can’t please everyone!

That evening, I discovered that my dorm had two snorers, so I fished my ear plugs out of my bag and put them to use. I can’t believe I suffered so many years in vain. Ear plugs totally work! Sure, it’s not 100% silence, but it muffles the deafening snores to a quiet hum.

The next day, I woke up early to explore Pompeii. The Airbnb listing had said the hostel provided free breakfast, but the owner was charging everyone 3€ for it. I know that’s a cheap price, but a lot of travelers specifically pick hostels based on breakfast availability, so to lie about it seems shady! I skipped it anyway and had my meal prepped “Southwestern Hash” with steak, potatoes, peppers, and egg on top.

I took the train to Pompeii, paid the 15€ admission, and set off. They had several options available for tourists ranging from free maps to 8€ audio guides to 50€ tour guides. I picked the cheapest option, naturally. A map is all I need!

The map also had a few interesting facts that I had forgotten since high school history and Latin class. After Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79AD and covered Pompeii in ash, the city wasn’t discovered until 1748! I didn’t realize it was buried for so long!

Mt. Vesuvius is the only active volcano on the European mainland. There are a few more in Italy, but there all on islands. Throughout the recent centuries, it has regularly erupted every 20 years, but it hasn’t since 1944!

Pompeii has a large amphitheater and Pink Floyd once performed inside it!

The #1 aspect of Pompeii that surprised me is it’s vast size. I had expected it to feel like a museum and be shuffled down a few streets and see a couple ruins of houses. No. It is an entire CITY! Walking around the entire thing would take more than 5 hours, according to the map. There’s street after street of homes, businesses, parks, and temples – and once you get away from the major intersections where tourists loiter – it is eerily silent.

It’s sobering to have spent the last few months exploring major cities and then realize that any of them could face the same fate as Pompeii. Natural disasters happen all the time. Even if they aren’t destroyed by fire or flooding, they’ll be gone someday. Nothing lasts forever. Cities are conquered and bombed and rebuilt. Even Europe’s oldest cities are still only a blip on the timeline of Earth.

When I was staying in Soccavo outside of Naples, my Dutch roommates spent Easter at Pompeii. Our host laughed and said, “Why there?!” and they explained that it was relaxing. I completely agree. Once you get away from the tourist clusters, it is a wonderful place to relax and think about life.

I returned to Ercolano from Pompeii and was craving familiar comfort. You know how you feel after a long vacation when all you want is your own bed and surroundings? I’ve been feeling that lately. I think I’m just severely disappointed in Italy and want to leave ASAP! Life here is difficult – walking down the street is a constant barrage of harassment, ordering at restaurants is impossible due to the language barrier so I don’t do it, and even trying to relax at a cafe isn’t culturally accepted, so I am forced to spend all my downtime at home like a hermit! Luckily I’ll be seeing my mom soon, so that should cheer me up.

On my last day in Italy, my head cold was in full swing. I also had run out of things to do! What was the point of wandering around town like a zombie? Instead, I took a relaxation day and watched Netflix on my phone. Other travelers also seemed to have the same idea, since they didn’t leave the hostel either! Remember the Italian pastry called sfogliatelle I was disappointed in? I tried it from another bakery and it was MUCH better! I’ll definitely miss it when I’m back home.

As I write this, I’m in the Naples airport getting ready to head to Thessaloniki, Greece. I didn’t know much about it, but I spent some time reading up on it this morning and it sounds incredible! Basically it’s the cultural (aka hipster) capital of Greece!

The Amalfi Coast, Italy

The sudden change of accommodation was actually a blessing in disguise! I had always planned to spend one day exploring the Amalfi Coast, but the location of my new host’s apartment in Meta allowed me to see more of it. I would have never set foot in Sorrento or gotten the change to sail the waters if I had stayed in Soccavo the entire time.

The Amalfi Coast is the name given to the collection of towns located on the along the rocky mountainside. You’ve probably seen photos of the colorful towns that look like they’re about to fall straight into the water! Each town has its own character, but most have become quite touristy. Getting to the heart of the coast from Naples takes an hour train ride plus an hour bus ride, so most people choose to stay directly on the coast, making it an expensive destination!

I was staying in Meta, a small village near the first major Amalfi town of Sorrento. I met my host, Armedeo, and he showed me my private room. He has a penthouse apartment with several rooms that he rents out on Airbnb and uses for Couchsurfing. He said he had a full house, but I only ever saw one other person.

My bedroom had a beautiful balcony overlooking the mountains and coast. I spent as much time out there as possible! The only downside was my host. As he was showing me my room, he said, “I hope you understand, but the sheets have not been washed from the last two guests. It is expensive to wash these sheets so if you want fresh sheets, you will have to pay me and it will take a day.” I wasn’t looking to spend additional money or sleep on a bare mattress for a night, so I said it was fine, but made sure my disgust was obvious. I asked for additional towels to lay down first. What kind of host doesn’t wash sheets between guests?!

On my first full day, I planned to take the bus to the famous coastal towns of Amalfi and Positano. But first, I wanted to try the famous Italian pastry – sfogliatelle. I had seen them everywhere and they looked delicious. So I woke up early and headed to the best rated bakery in Meta.

To be honest, I was disappointed. The pastry was bland and the filling was like gel instead of a fluffy cream. It did not live up to expectations!

After waiting 45 minutes for a ridiculously late bus, I was on my way to Amalfi. The ride was gorgeous, but it was hard to enjoy when the bus kept almost hitting other cars! The roads along the coast are so narrow that often only one vehicle can fit at a time. The bus would keep honking to let oncoming traffic know to stop, but they never did. The journey took much longer than an hour because we had to keep stopping to reverse because there was gridlock!

I arrived in Amalfi and there were swarms of tourists. It isn’t even high tourism season yet! I immediately escaped the busy plaza and found quieter alleys to explore. There were so many stairs! It makes sense since the town is built vertically on a mountain, but it’s hard to believe until you have to climb them all!

Amalfi is known for its beautiful lemon trees that grow everywhere. The entire town smells like fresh lemon and there are tourist stores dedicated to lemon oil, candles, and candy! The lemons are massive and I saw some the size of a football!

Amalfi was interesting, but the views weren’t that great and there wasn’t much to do other than go shopping or eat. I took the bus to the second famous town of Positano. I had never heard of it before, but all the online recommendations said it was a must-see. I am so glad I went because it was a million times better than Amalfi!

There weren’t as many tourists and the views were indescribably better. I spent hours wandering through the streets and hanging out on the beach. If I ever return to the Amalfi Coast, I am definitely staying in Positano.

I had walked 10 miles and I was starving. For the first time during my time in Italy, pizza sounded good. I never eat pizza in America. It just isn’t a food I enjoy. When I do eat it, I prefer deep dish with lots of toppings. Basically the exact opposite of the thin, simple Napoli pizza!

But still, I sought out the best pizza in Sorrento and kept an open mind. I ordered the simple Margherita with ricotta stuffed crust. It is impossible to order a single slice. You have to get an entire pie! And you’re expected to eat it all! They brought it to my table and it looked unappetizing. The cheese and sauce were complete liquid on top of the crust. It looked more like soup.

The proper way to eat pizza in Napoli is to cut it with a knife and fork. Picking it up is impossible since it is so watery. I took a few bites and it was… disgusting. The cheese was so oily and congealed. The crust was so thin I couldn’t taste it. It felt like I was eating pure cheese and olive oil. The crust was perfectly fluffy and tasty, so I just ate that part.

When I returned home, my host said he needed to speak with me. He said he rented out my bedroom on Airbnb so I could only stay one more night. I explained that he had accepted my Couchsurfing request and knew I needed a room until the 12th. He offered for me to rent the room at half price and he would deny the Airbnb guests. This felt like a scam, so I said I didn’t want to stay there. Why do I keep running into flaky Italian hosts?!

Perhaps to make up for his inconsiderate actions, my host invited me on his boat the following day. He owns a sailboat and operates small group tours. Instead of being hospitable and letting me go for free, he said it would be 30€ or half price. I didn’t want to give him any money since I felt he was trying to nickel and dime me at every turn, but other boat tours were expensive and I figured I wouldn’t get another chance to go on the water. I agreed.

His elementary aged daughter joined us along with three other tourists – one Italian and two polish. The tour wasn’t much of a “tour” as it was a boat ride. He didn’t give information and mostly spent the 3 hours talking to the other Italian in Italian. His daughter was a complete brat and kept interrupting him by screaming “PAPA!!” repeatedly and slamming her hands on the boat controls. At one point, she stole my sandals and taunted me by pretending to throw them overboard. Her father did nothing.

Aside from the unpleasant company, the boat ride was enjoyable! It was so relaxing to be on the water and see the towns from a different perspective. I even got a chance to steer the sailboat!

That evening, I headed to my next accommodation. I gave up on Couchsurfing in Italy and chose to rent a hostel room through Airbnb. I had enough Airbnb credit to cover the five night stay. The hostel was located near Mt. Vesuvius, which was perfect because Pompeii is the last spot on my list of places I want to see!

Naples, Italy

My journey from Venice to Naples was my worst nightmare. Whenever I have to travel by train or bus, I get anxious about buying the right ticket, getting on the right platform, and finding the right seat. This trip showed me that even if everything goes wrong, I can still survive!

The adventure started off easily. I got on the right train at Mestre station and began the 5 hour ride to Naples. However, with each passing hour, the railcar began to get hotter and hotter. I thought it was due to the body heat of new passengers filling the car, but soon it was unbearable. The temperature outside was 60 degrees, but the inside temperature on the information board was almost 90! I never figured out what was wrong, but I assume something was broken. Employees were offering passengers ice cold water to help, but we were all pouring sweat. It was very uncomfortable.

I arrived at the central Naples station. It was… eye opening. I had gotten used to the clean, well designed terminals in Milan and Venice. The Naples Garibaldi terminal resembled an abandoned warehouse.

I immediately thought of the Anthony Bourdain “No Reservations” episode about Naples. He boasts that the food is fresh and delicious, but the city is hard to love due to its chaos, crime, dirt, and tough love locals. There is a scene where Bourdain crashes a wedding and everyone is dressed in tacky 90s fashion you’d expect to see in Kazakhstan. Everyone I saw at the train station fit that exact stereotype. It was a far cry from the fashionable people of Milan.

My host had told me to catch the metro to Montesanto and then catch a different train to Soccavo. I typically use Google Maps to navigate, but they do not have data on the private train company that operates the second line to Soccavo, so I had to travel with blind faith to my host’s instructions.

The ride to Montesanto was rough. The train was PACKED and I had my giant 40lb backpack. I could barely move. When the train arrived at my stop, I had to fight my way to disembark because bodies were blocking the aisle. It was chaos.

I stood in the lobby of the Montesanto station, looking around for the “Circumflegrea” line to Soccavo. I saw nothing. To call it a “station” is generous. It was more like two sets of stairs leading underground with one automated ticket machine. The only other train didn’t have Soccavo listed as a stop. There wasn’t anyone there I could ask. I felt helpless. Finally, two women my age walked by and I asked them for directions. They barely spoke English, but I could understand “Train not here. Train there…” followed by pointing down an alley. I followed the directions and came upon a bigger station, also called Montesanto. My host failed to tell me that I had to CHANGE STATIONS!

I managed to get to Soccavo and messaged my host telling him I’d arrived. He said he would pick me up in 10 minutes. I sat outside the station and wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into. There were no tourists in sight and all of the locals were wearing leather jackets and chain smoking. The streets were lined with identical retro apartment buildings and dumpsters. Soccavo was not pretty!

Finally my host arrived 30 minutes late. He was with his girlfriend and they were both very friendly! We all got back to the apartment and shared a big bottle of beer while talking about travel.

His English wasn’t very good, but I could understand most of it until he said “Ok, here is the program. You sleep on couch tonight because all bedrooms are full. Then my friend of friend comes and you can sleep in bed with him.” I said “No, I would rather keep sleeping on the couch.” He was surprised and said, “Why? This make uncomfortable?” I said “Yes, I do not want to sleep in the same bed as a stranger. I prefer to have my own bed.” He said “ok ok.”

His Couchsurfing profile clearly stated I would have my own room! He lives with his girlfriend and I assumed they would be my only roommates, but apparently they host several couchsurfers AND Airbnb guests, so new people were coming and going all of the time. It was chaos, but as long as I could crash on the couch, I was happy.

They asked if I wanted to go out for dinner and I said sure! “Perfecto! First we rest and then we eat,” said my host. Then, he laid down on the couch and turned off the lights and took a nap. Since I didn’t have a private bedroom to relax in, I laid down on the other couch and fell asleep. They woke up at midnight and said “OK, time to eat! You ready?” I knew Europeans ate dinner later than Americans, but midnight?! No way. I am not a night owl.

The next morning, my host gave me keys to the apartment and said I could move into an open room. Then, he left and never came back. I only saw the other guests (who weren’t very chatty) but never saw him or his girlfriend again. I assume they stayed at her place so I could have a bed, but I have no clue! They went from being very friendly on the first day and inviting me to parties and Easter lunch… to never talking to me again. So bizarre!

I was so tired and stressed from travel that I spent the whole first day in Naples in Soccavo. I went to the grocery and bought plenty of food to meal prep. I finally had a kitchen again! And for two whole weeks! I spent hours in the kitchen prepping food for the week.

The following day, I woke up refreshed. Sometimes I just need a chill day to recharge my batteries. It was easter, so I headed out to explore the city. I ended up walking 10 miles that day! I saw the historical center and then walked along the waterfront and enjoyed people watching. I had heard about a beautiful cemetery that was two miles away. I decided to walk there and enjoy some green space. Most of Naples is very old and dusty, so I wanted to see some nature!

The walk there turned out to be pretty tough! I had to climb endless flights of stairs to make my way up the mountainside that surrounds Naples. It provided some great views!

Once I reached the cemetery, I realized it was an underground burial ground! Not at all like American cemeteries. All of the descriptions were in Italian, but I think each section is owned by a family and they put all of the skulls on display. Then, family members can come and pay their respects by placing coins and candy around the skulls. It was such an interesting thing to stumble upon!

I headed back to Montesanto station to go back to Soccavo. I had taken that train in the morning, so I assumed it would still be running. It wasn’t! Apparently everything closes down at noon on easter. No one told me this! The walk to Soccavo would have been 2 hours and I was already exhausted from walking all day. And my old knee injury was starting to flare up.

I desperately messaged my host and explained the situation. I asked if he knew of any other ways to get back. I know he isn’t my chauffeur, but I hoped he would offer to to pick me up. One of his Couchsurfing reviews even said, “Claudio is the type of person to rescue you when you’re lost in the middle of the city!”

His response was, “You can take the bus or walk.” I asked if the busses were operating due to easter and he replied, “I don’t know.” Thanks a lot! I couldn’t find any answers on the transit website because it was all in Italian! I ended up going to a bus stop and waiting to see if it would arrive. Thankfully it did, but I didn’t have a bus ticket because you have to buy them at pharmacies – which were all closed due to easter! I snuck on and didn’t get caught.

I had to transfer busses halfway through the ride, but the second bus never came. I guess it wasn’t running. I tried walking, but google maps told me to walk on the freeway. No way! I ended up spending an hour on the side of the road until I found a taxi. I arrived back home very annoyed to find my host sitting on the couch, watching TV. If only he would have offered to pick me up, I could have saved so much time and anxiety!

The next day, it was Easter Monday, an even bigger holiday where everything was closed the entire day. I stayed in Soccavo out of fear of repeating the same transit mistake. I explored the town and found there wasn’t much to see – many sports gambling stores, bakeries, and apartments with either loud TVs or loud family arguments. Soccavo definitely isn’t scenic, but it has some pretty mountains nearby!

That evening, I received a message from my host. He said, “Kate, I am sorry for he inconvenience but I must ask you to leave my apartment on April 5th. I will be leaving town and need it to be empty. Thanks.”

WHAT?! He had offered to host me until the 12th, so I rearranged my entire itinerary to make it happen since I hate hopping from couch to couch every day. I panicked for a few seconds before I realized it wasn’t the end of the world. I went into problem solving mode and started messaging other hosts in Naples. I was surprised how little I let the bad news affect me. Before, I would have cried about how unfair it was. But now, I can accept it and move on without being so reactive. It’s amazing how much the ups and downs of this trip have changed me!

The next morning, I had confirmation from a host in Amalfi. It is an hour away from Naples, but I didn’t mind. I wanted to see the Amalfi Coast anyway, so this was the perfect excuse. Plus, I was eager to get out of dirty Naples!

I returned to the city center the next day, but found myself with nothing to do. I had already explored the city by foot the first day. The only other popular tourist activities were museums and pizzas! I decided to use a different feature of Couchsurfing called “Hangouts.” This feature of the app lets you post whenever you’re bored and find fellow travelers to explore with. I ended up meeting an Argentinian named Martin. We walked around the city and got coffee. He is an active Couchsurfing host in Buenos Aires, so it was interesting to hear his side of the website. We stopped by a little market selling so many candies and pastries. I didn’t buy anything, but I took photos!

My last day in Naples was spent seeing the museums. I went to the famous statue museum to see the “Veiled Jesus.” It is famous because the rock is carved to make it look like a thin veil is covering Jesus. That takes a lot of talent! It was impressive, but I preferred a different statue where the body was covered in fish netting. That level of detail seemed even more complicated!

I also went to MADRE – the contemporary art museum. I usually love contemporary art because it is so colorful and unexpected, but this museum sucked. I only saw one piece that was relatively interesting. The rest were bizarre. One was just blank canvases hung to fill an entire room.

My last stop was the Toledo metro stop. It is rated as one of the best in the world due to the creative laser art inside! It was cool, but ultimately it’s still a metro stop!

On my way back home, I came across the pizzeria I had been debating going to. Pizza in Naples is a big deal. It was created here! There’s even a governmental board that sets standards for the ingredients and techniques used to make authentic Neapolitan pizza. It felt like something I should try… but I hate pizza! I never crave it. Wheat makes me bloated and dairy makes me feel gross, so combining the two is never a good idea.

Neopolitan pizza is known for being thin. The sauce and cheese create a soupy mixture that requires you to eat it with a fork. If you try to pick it up, everything just falls off! And restaurants don’t serve it by the slice. If you want to try the pizza, you have to get an entire 8 inch pie! None of these aspects sounded appealing to me. My ideal pizza is a thick, pan crust with lots of toppings. Not the simple Margherita kind in Napoli!

But then again, when will I ever be able to try authentic Italian pizza again in my life? Plus, they are famous for their ricotta stuffed crust. Ricotta is my favorite cheese, so it sounded tempting. I decided to bite and bullet and go inside. Unfortunately, they were closing for their midday rest. A lot of restaurants will close around 1-3pm and reopen at 7pm. I took it as a sign from the universe. I didn’t even want it to begin with!

I returned to the empty apartment and made my last meal prepped dinner of meatballs and sauce served over spinach, eggplant, and broccoli. So much healthier and tastier!

The next morning, I woke up, packed, and started my journey to the Amalfi Coast. I am writing this on the two hour train ride. Technically I am only going to Sorrento, but it’s a great gateway to the coast. And close to Pompeii! I am excited to be leaving Naples. All of the stereotypes are true. It is very dirty, unpleasant, and totally worth skipping. I’m not sure why it has so many UNESCO heritage sites. Nothing was interesting! Here’s to hoping Amalfi is much more beautiful!

Venice, Italy

Venice has always been somewhere I’ve wanted to visit before I die. The concept of an entire island with canals instead of roads seemed so crazy! I also felt a sense of urgency to go, since Venice is directly threatened by arctic melt and sea level rise. They already have to assemble platforms for people to walk on during high tide at certain times of the year! It’s scary to think that the city might not exist in a few generations.

I arrived in Venice and checked into my Airbnb. Since there aren’t many locals, it was hard to find a Couchsurfing host. Eventually I gave up and paid for an Airbnb located in Mestre, a short 10 minute bus ride over the bridge connecting Venice to the mainland. After so many nights in hostels, it was nice to have my own room!

As soon as I set down my bag, I bought a bus ticket and headed into Venice. It was around 4pm, but I had a few hours of daylight left. We crossed the bridge and drove past the massive parking structure on the edge of the island. Since cars aren’t allowed, everyone must park there and either walk or catch a water taxi.

I was surprised by the volume of people! I thought the Duomo plaza in Milan was crowded, but at least that was a concentrated area. Every walkway leading into Venice was that crowded! I didn’t have a destination in mind, so I quickly took side streets to get away from the crowd. The streets were more like cobblestone alleys. Occasionally I could glance into a window and see someone watching TV or cooking dinner. It blew my mind that people actually live on the island and their daily commute is by alley walking and water taxi!

Venice exceeded my expectations. I had a similar emotion as to when I first arrived in Amsterdam. I enjoyed the calming silence that fell over the city and how the only sound I could hear were my footsteps echoing around me. Eventually I came across a cafe with outdoor seating overlooking the water. I grabbed a table and ordered an Americano. Everyone around me was drinking an Aperol Spritz – the signature cocktail of Venice.

Evening was blowing in a storm, so I hightailed it back to the bus. It was easy to wander the alleys, but much harder when I was trying to navigate to a specific destination. Venice is the opposite of a grid system! Often you have to take 13 left turns just to head right!

I enjoyed a quiet evening, excited for a night of uninterrupted sleep. But that dream quickly ended when I realized the walls were paper thin and I could hear the other guests in the B&B. They were watching a movie and the wife’s laugh was like nails on a chalkboard. Finally, the movie ended, but then the snoring began. Why can’t I escape snoring people?! I managed to tune it out until the early morning when their alarm kept going off and they repeatedly hit snooze. Finally, after it went off for the 4th time in 20 minutes, I banged on the wall and they got the hint.

I had signed up for an 11am free walking tour of Venice. I typically don’t like tours, but I didn’t have anything else to do! I got dressed and headed to the bus stop to catch the 10:00 bus. I thought an hour would be plenty of time for the 10 minute bus ride and then the 30 minute walk across the island. Well, the bus never came. I waited until 10:30 before I realized there was no way I could make the 11AM tour. I headed to a cafe instead.

I usually have no issue ordering an Americano, since it’s already in Italian, but today I had the additional challenge of asking for it “take away” so I could go back to my room and journal while drinking it. I struggled to explain what I wanted to the barista. She had no clue what my hand gestures for “to go” meant. Luckily, since the Italian cafe culture means standing at the counter while drinking your espresso, there were several Italians who wanted to help translate. Eventually it took 3 people to help the barista understand! I think Italy might be ranked as high as Russia on my list of “Countries that Don’t Speak English.”

After my morning coffee, I waited for the bus again. This time it arrived and whisked me away to Venice. Instead of blindly wandering, I had a destination in mind: St Mark’s Basilica. It is the most famous spot on the island and often ranked as one of the most beautiful churches in the world. Many travel guides say to buy tickets in advance or be prepared to wait 2 hours in line, but I figured I’d try my luck.

The Venice I saw on my way to the basilica was MUCH different than the Venice I had seen the evening before. Instead of the relaxing, quiet alleys, I found streets clogged with people. It was impossible to walk. Instead, I was herded in the crowd like a sheep. Souvenir stalls were on every corner selling cheap China goods. It felt like Disneyland and I hated it! No wonder so many people say Venice is overrated. If this is the only part I saw, I’d hate it too.

I made it to St Mark’s Square and it was a sea of bodies. It felt like Times Square. I quickly took my photos of the basilica and then got in line. It moved pretty fast and within 10 minutes I was inside!

Photography isn’t allowed inside, but it was gorgeous. The entire ceiling was a mosaic of gold tiles. Here are a few photos from online:

After touring the basilica, I wanted to get away from the crowds, so I started wandering. It is easy to walk for hours on Venice. Each day I was there, I walked 5-8 miles, which is a lot for a tiny island! It shows how winding all the alleys are. Eventually I got hungry so I decided to stop for gelato.

Suso gelato is ranked as the best in Venice. I’m a big fan of ice cream, so I thought I’d like gelato since it is known to be creamier and smoother. I ordered a scoop of their famous “Manet” flavor that has hazelnut gelato with a salted pistachio swirl.

It was so disappointing! The hazelnut part was flavorless and the pistachio swirl had a gooey gel consistency. Not appealing at all! I ended up throwing away most of it.

I didn’t want to give up, so I headed to the other well known Gelateria – Alaska. Their prices were much cheaper and the portions were smaller, so I got three scoops: pear, cinnamon, and tamarind. The gentleman handed me my cone but it had a bright orange flavor on it. He had given me turmeric by mistake. I tried to tell him but he kept insisting I had ordered turmeric. I did not! Finally he agreed to fix it. But instead of making me a new cone, he wiped off the turmeric flavor and put it back in the tub with the fresh gelato! He planned on serving it to someone else! I’m all for reducing food waste, but it seems unhygienic to serve someone gelato that has been in the hands of someone else.

The yellow in the photo above is the leftover turmeric – which ironically was the best flavor! Gelato is supposed to be thick and creamy. As you can see in the photo, this gelato had a lot of air and was very fluffy. That’s a sign of bad gelato! It was also very melty – a definite no no. The flavors were terrible and Alaska gelato managed to be worse than Suso. I’m not sure how these are the top rated gelato places in Venice!

After my gelato fiasco, I was still hungry, so I headed back to my neighborhood of Mestre. My Airbnb host told me never to eat a meal in Venice because the prices are so exorbitant. I definitely saw that in the coffee. My americano in Venice was 3.50€ but when I ordered an americano AND biscotti in Mestre, it was only 1€ total.

I didn’t feel like having a restaurant meal, but I didn’t have a kitchen to cook in. I went to the grocery store to see what they had. Luckily I got there an hour before closing so they had all of their hot bar food on sale. I picked up an eggplant dish for only 3€ and it was DELICIOUS! It was just roasted eggplant and sauce, but it blew my mind. I went back the following night to get more, but they didn’t have any.

On my third day in Venice, I woke up and was at a loss for what to do. I had already seen everything Venice was famous for… and I had already spent hours wandering the allies. The weather was rainy and cold so I didn’t feel like being outside much, anyway. I decided to stay in Mestre and go to a coffee shop to read.

As I walked into town, I found myself really enjoying the neighborhood. There was a little walkway lined with trees and apartment buildings. The sky was foggy and the air was brisk – it felt like fall despite being the start of spring. I really enjoyed walking around, wrapped up in my scarf. I spent a couple hours reading at the coffee shop and watching daily life go by.

People always glamorize travel as hopping from city to city, walking for hours, and seeing world famous landmarks – but my favorite part of travel is sitting in a cafe halfway around the world and being completely relaxed. It’s hard not to feel like I’m “wasting time,” but my goal in traveling is to get a glimpse of life through the local lens. People who live in Venice aren’t visiting the Basilica or taking gondola rides ($100 for 30 mins!!) every day. They’re going to the coffee shop with friends or stopping by the local patisserie to get an Easter cake for their family. I like to check off the bucket list items in each city… but also slow down and see the ordinary side of it all.

That’s why I’m excited to be staying with a local in Naples. My original plan was to slowly head south through Bologna and Florence and Rome, but that would have required finding a host in each city or paying for a hostel. It’s hard enough to find hosts in Italy, but now it’s Easter weekend! Since most people go out of town for the holiday, it would be nearly impossible to find a host.

Luckily I came across Claudio and Francesca. They live in a suburb of Naples and host several couchsurfers in their large apartment. They’ve agreed to host me from March 30th until I leave Italy on April 12! I’m excited to have a permanent home-base and take day trips to see Rome and Pompeii and Amalfi. Hopefully they give me tips on the famous sights and invite me to some local Easter parties!

Milan & Como, Italy

My business class flight from Hanoi to Milan wasn’t as magical as anticipated. The seats were decked out with large TVs and the ability to lay completely flat into a bed, but I didn’t get much use out of it because I became violently ill an hour after getting on the plane. I think it might have been something I ate in the lounge or during the flight meal. As a result, I spent most of the flight running to the bathroom and unsuccessfully trying to sleep. The seats were very nice, though!

I arrived in Milan and felt very weak. Luckily immigration was a breeze since it was 5am and the airport was empty. I waited for my checked luggage at the carousel, but it never came. Soon, a bag came along with a sign taped to it that read “Passenger COLLINS please see baggage claim lost and found.” I knew it was because my bag didn’t make my connection in Singapore. It was only 30 minutes and I barely made it because my incoming flight was late.

As I walked down the long hallway to the lost and found office, I felt woozy. I was simultaneously freezing cold and sweaty. The airport employee explained that my bag was still in Singapore but they would deliver it to my hostel the following day. I usually prepare for lost luggage by packing extra clothes in my carry on, but I didn’t. All I had were my sweatpants, sandals, and a tank top and flannel pullover. They were kind enough to give me an overnight kit with toiletries and $100 to buy new clothes. It was 30 degrees in Milan, so I definitely needed to find warmer clothes!

I left the airport and just wanted to sleep. Even though I couldn’t check into my hostel until 2pm, I figured there would be a common room where I could rest. I checked Uber and a direct ride would have cost $150!! Instead, I braved the cold and waited at the train station.

I spent the entire day at the hostel, Ostello Bello Grande. I watched Netflix in the common room until 2pm when I checked into my room and slept straight until 8am the next morning. Even though I was assigned the middle bunk in a stack of three, I didn’t mind. I didn’t eat anything the entire day since I was still so nauseous. I was bummed to waste a day of travel, but it certainly wasn’t by choice!

The next day, I helped myself to the hostel breakfast. I could only stomach dry toast, but they had a great spread of cereals, eggs, sausage, fruit, and yogurt. The hostel also provided dinner each night and unlimited snacks in the kitchen. Definitely one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at. In fact, I booked my night in Como at their second location there!

After breakfast, I headed to the shopping area. I didn’t want to spend a fortune, so I went to H&M where I knew my size. Unfortunately it’s already the Spring shopping season, so finding a coat was impossible. I settled for jeans, a sweater, scarf, and walking sneakers.

I didn’t have any real direction, so I walked to the main attraction in Milan: the Duomo. It is the largest church in Italy (St. Peters Basilica is larger but it’s in Vatican City!) and took over 300 years to complete! It wasn’t fully finished until 1965. The area was packed with tourists taking photos. I wanted to take mine and get out as fast as possible!

I ended up wandering the quieter surrounding streets for a few hours. I came across the Castle and it was impressive, but the tour busses parked outside made me decide not to go inside. I’m not a big fan of Italian history or art. It all blends together after awhile.

As I walked, I often got very nauseous from the odors of Italy. Everyone smokes, so it’s common to get stuck walking behind someone who is and having to inhale their smoke. This is a minor annoyance normally, but when my body is already feeling unsettled, the scent makes me immediately nauseous. Italians also wear WAY too much cologne and perfume. Imagine walking through the fragrance section of Macy’s if all the employees were actively smoking. That’s what Italy smells like.

It was already evening and I was feeling exhausted. I hadn’t eaten much, but I walked 7 miles! I headed back to the hostel to check out the nightly dinner spread. It was also impressive – lots of pasta, couscous, bread, and cheese. I had a tiny bit of the healthier salad options but immediately my stomach started to churn. I went to bed early, hoping to sleep off the discomfort.

Without the aid of NyQuil to knock me out, I realized just how difficult it was to sleep in the dorm. Not only was I was in a room filled with snorers, but also two extremely drunk and loud Scottish girls who were the most inconsiderate people I’ve ever encountered. After a rough night of poor sleep, I woke up and tried to plan my day. It was tough because there wasn’t much I wanted to see! Milan is a business center with lots of fancy shopping and museums – so basically nothing I am interested in.

However, after some googling, I did find that Milan is home to a cafe designed by the one and only Wes Anderson. I believe it’s the only one he’s designed in the world, so I knew I had to go.

I had planned to at least get coffee, but it was so crowded that people were eating outside. I snapped a few photos of the interior and then wandered down the road to Navigli Grande – the canal streets. Unlike Venice which has a million, Milan only has two canals. Again, I planned on getting coffee in view of the canal, but there was a big art fair going on, so the streets were packed with tents and people. I kept wandering a bit farther until I found a quiet cafe with prime people watching.

One thing I’ve noticed in Italy is that no one shares the sidewalk. If I am walking on the right half of the sidewalk and I approach a group of 2-3 people who are taking up the entire thing, no one scoots over as we pass. I guess they expect me to step into the street or just stop completely? It baffles me. They clearly see me as we are heading straight toward each other. I’ve finally started bracing my shoulder and firmly running into people who don’t move. It usually sends them stumbling back a few feet. It sounds rude, but I’m tired of being forced off of the sidewalk into oncoming car traffic because no one can share!

The next day, I checked out of my hostel and headed to the train station. I bought a ticket to Como, a resort town near the border of Switzerland. It was only an hour train ride away, so I arrived with plenty of time to explore.

I had planned to take the ferry to Bellagio and see the fancy resort homes, but when I arrived in Como, I was a little disappointed. The air was hazy and the gorgeous green trees and mountains were all a dull brown. Even the water looked gray. I checked the ferry schedule and it would be almost $40 for a round trip just to see Bellagio. I asked a few other tourists if it was worth it and they said it was extremely touristy and didn’t feel quaint or relaxing at all. I decided to stay in Como and avoid the hassle.

As I walked along the water, I found it to be quite peaceful. There weren’t any crowds since it was the off season. Instead of dodging people on the sidewalk, I could stroll and enjoy the lake breeze.

Como is the home of Alexander Volta, the inventor of the electric battery. There are several statues and monuments dedicated to him.

After seeing the waterfront, I let my curiosity lead me. Instead of following a map, I took any street that looked interesting. Soon, I was walking alone down the most picturesque alleys I’ve ever seen. Each building is so different from the next. I stopped at a small bakery and got an entire americano for 1€ compared to $4 in NZ!

As I sat and sipped my coffee, I felt so at peace. The last several days had been so stressful due to travel complications and illness. It felt nice to have a moment to rediscover the appreciation for my journey – even the hard times!

Como also has a large funicular railcar that takes you to the top of the mountain to overlook the city. I debated doing it, but everything was so brown and anti-scenic. I bet it would be gorgeous when all of the trees are in bloom and it’s a sunny day!

I returned to the hostel for dinner and enjoyed a meal with a few fellow travelers. One guy was on break from school in California and was visiting his girlfriend who was studying in Switzerland. Another couple were from Italy and just traveling through Como with their toddler daughter. It’s always interesting to see how people’s lives cross paths!

That night, I had requested ear plugs from the front desk. I’ve tried wearing them before but found them too uncomfortable. However, upon realizing the most of my roommates were overweight men (most likely to snore), I decided to try earplugs again. Luckily, they worked like a charm! I slept the best I ever have in a hostel. In the morning when I woke up and took them out, I could hear 3 of my bunkmates snoring like jackhammers. I definitely underestimated ear plugs!

The goal for the day was to catch the train to Venice. I wanted to arrive as early as possible (but after 2pm due to my Airbnb rules) but with as few train transfers as possible. I went to the train kiosk and got my ticket. It was a whopping 45€!! For that price, I could get a flight to Venice! I’m not sure why it was so expensive. Online, the prices were much more reasonable. I’m going to experiment with buying my tickets in advance rather than day-of. Maybe it’s cheaper.

I got my printed tickets and one of them didn’t have any train information on it. It simply said “Como to Menza” without even a train number or terminus on it! I asked an employee and she simply said “Platform 2, 11:30.” Okay. I went to the platform and got on the train that was there at 11:30. Soon, I realized it might be the wrong train as all the information onboard said the train was headed to Milan. I started worrying that I would miss my connection and waste my expensive ticket. I was seriously stressing out. Luckily, the train stopped in Menza and I was able to get everything sorted, but it reaffirmed why I hate traveling by train in Europe. None of the information is ever clear! Most of the connections are only 5 minutes or less, so if your first train is late, you’re out of luck!

I can’t wait to get settled in Venice and enjoy a nice Americano while overlooking the canals. Hopefully it will bring back my relaxing state of gratitude. Milan and Como were nice, but I know Italy can be much better. Every local I’ve talked to says “Why did you stay in Milan? You should fly in and leave immediately!” Lesson learned!

Hanoi, Vietnam

SE Asia is one of the few regions of the world I’ve yet to discover. I originally wasn’t planning on including it in this trip, but the timing was too good to pass up. My brother and SIL planned to be in Hanoi exactly when I was going to be leaving New Zealand.

I only know a few people who have been to Hanoi and they all have stories of how crazy it is. I had expectations of dangerous motorbikes, scamming thieves, and dilapidated buildings. However, I had just left Singapore where I was shocked by how modern it was, so I was expecting more of the same. Hanoi is a capital city – it has to be somewhat modern and international, right?

I knew I’d be getting into Hanoi in the evening and I didn’t want to fuss with their public transportation system. Thankfully I organized a ride from the airport directly to my hotel ahead of time, because after waiting in line for an hour at immigration, I didn’t have the energy to find the right bus. I was worried my driver would have left since I was so late, but he was still there holding a sign with my name on it!

We started the 45 minute drive to Hanoi. As we got closer to the city, I realized I’d be in for an adventure. All of the buildings had paint peeling and were missing bricks. There was mud and exposed rebar littered all over the streets. People were sitting on foot stools on the sidewalk, drinking tea and beer under the streetlights. This definitely wasn’t Singapore.

To make my culture shock worse, the traffic was so bad that I couldn’t watch. Motorbikes swerve between cars and no one obeys painted street lines. Trucks were passing in the shoulder and even using the oncoming lane – on the expressway! I thought traffic in Amman was bad, but this was next level. My taxi would tailgate trucks and start honking and flashing his brights until the truck moved out of the way. It was wild.

I arrived at my hotel and was greeted by the receptionist. All I wanted was a hot shower and relaxation, but she asked me to sit down to review my reservation. I thought I’d just have to sign a few things and then get my room key. But suddenly, she serves me juice, a fruit platter, and crunchy snacks! I was not hungry at all so I felt bad barely eating it – but it was late! This hospitality was definitely excessive in comparison to living in hostels and on couches for the past two months.

As I relaxed in my room, I was impressed by the free laptop they gave me to use during my stay, but I was surprised by the complete lack of English channels on TV! I don’t expect Vietnam to cater to tourists, but American media is so popular, I expected them to at least have a few. I ended up watching the Vietnamese version of American Idol and going to bed early.

The next morning, I met up with my brother, SIL, and their friend from Australia who also came to Hanoi to meet up. Our first mission was to find the famous egg coffee.

I have no idea how they make this sweet and creamy concoction, but there’s no way it’s healthy for you. It tastes so decadent! After some trial and error, we learned that you have to mix it up to avoid drinking only egg foam.

Afterward, we explored the city on foot. We saw the iconic Ho Hoan Kiem Lake and walked by the only McDonalds in the city. Eventually we made it to Bun Cha Obama – the restaurant made famous by Obama and Anthony Bourdain’s visit a couple years ago. We all ordered the “Obama Special” – a bowl of bun cha soup, a seafood roll, and a Hanoi beer.

It was by far the best meal I had in Hanoi! I especially loved that it came with an entire basket of fresh herbs that you could add if you wanted. It made the soup taste so fresh!

The hotel my brother was staying at had an attached spa, so we decided to indulge. My SIL got an entire package with massage, facial, and jacuzzi and it was less than $50 and lasted 3 hours! I got a similar combo but I was worried about the pain in my lower back after my accident in Hawaii, so only got a head and shoulder massage. It was a relaxing experience at the time, but the next day, my shoulders were sore! It felt like I had been in a boxing match. I’m not sure if that means it was a good or bad massage!

For dinner, we wanted hot pot. Where we were staying in The Old Quarter had thousands of restaurants, but it was overwhelming to simply walk down the street and choose one. Especially with so many pushy employees trying to show you the menu. I found a highly recommended hot pot restaurant on TripAdvisor called Don Duck. We went and it turned out to be a duck themed restaurant with only one hot pot option. I guess TripAdvisor isn’t as reliable as it is in America! I ordered a duck salad and margarita. It was alright, but nothing spectacular. We all decided we were exhausted and wanted to call it an early night.

The following day, we woke up bright and early to catch our bus to Tam Coc. My brother had booked us all on a day tour to “Ha Long Bay on Land.” The actual Ha Long Bay is a popular tourist destination, but it’s 4 hours outside of the city and way too far for a day trip. This was a much better option! Our tour included a visit to the original capital of Vietnam and temples, a boat ride in Tam Coc, and a fun bike ride around the rice paddies.

The drive was another nail biter, but it was worth it to see the gorgeous landscape. This region has karst mountains which form when softer limestone erodes around the harder limestone to reveal the individual mountains. A similar phenomenon occurs in Guilin, China.

Our boat ride was much longer than I expected. I was in a boat with Jamie and we had one Vietnamese man paddling our boat. The entire ride took around an hour and he never stopped paddling. Sometimes he alternated between using his hands and feet, but he never gave up. He certainly complained about how tired he was, but I don’t blame him!

After sitting for so long on the bus and then boat, I was excited to bike. We got to choose our own rusty, rickety bike out of a random garage and then set off on the streets. I was worried about traffic but we went far enough away from the city that it wasn’t a big deal. The real obstacle was the uneven rocky surface of the roads that made me hang on for dear life!

We returned to Hanoi and were starving. Since it was Friday night, we wandered through the crowded streets until we saw a sign for Pho. An aggressive elderly lady took us by the arm and placed us at a table. After a menu-pointing incident in Moscow, I was extra careful to point specifically to the photo of “Eel Vermicelli Bowl” and she nodded and pointed at the same one.

A few minutes later, she tried to serve me fried rice. I kept refusing but she said “Thank you, it’s ok!” and insisting I eat it. I don’t like rice! I put it on the empty table behind us and eventually she took it away. Everyone else was served their bowls of pho out of a rusty, dark garage, but my food was still missing. Eventually, she returned from down the street with my bowl of noodles. I suspect she ordered it from a different restaurant, but whatever! We also learned that Pho means “street” and the noodle soup is spelled the same but with a comma over the o. So the restaurant we went to didn’t even specialize in Pho!

The next day, we went on a morning motorbike tour. When my brother told us he organized it, I was worried I’d be responsible for driving an entire motorbike through the insane streets of Hanoi. I could barely steer the bicycle in a straight line, how would I drive without hitting someone/thing?!

Luckily the tour included a driver for each of us, so my only responsibility was to hang on! For 4 hours, they drove us around the city and we stopped to get egg coffee, lunch, and to see the Hanoi Hilton prison and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

The guides were in their early 20s and loved joking around. It was fun to interact with locals who weren’t so professional and jaded by the hospitality industry. Most of the interactions I had with locals felt so fake and forced, especially at my hotel where they seemed desperate to impress me and force feed me breakfast!

After the tour, Jamie had to go to the airport to catch her flight, so the rest of us took some time to relax before dinner. We walked around for a bit before stumbling upon Avalon. It was a Vietnamese restaurant with balcony seating overlooking the lake. I ordered the snake head fish vermicelli bowl. It was delicious! Afterward we headed to the French Quarter to get drinks at a recommended bar called Le Plume. Most cocktails in Vietnam cost $3 or less. At my brothers fancy hotel, they’re $7. At Le Plume, they had normal American prices of $10 per cocktail. At that rate, I had high expectations.

My brother ordered the Pho cocktail and we were invited to watch how it’s made. It infuses the alcohol with fresh spices using fire! The cocktail was created by the best bartender in Vietnam and is supposedly the 5th best cocktail in the world.

After Le Plume, we walked back through the chaos of the Old Quarter. My hotel is right around the corner from Bia Hoa where you can get a bottle of beer for 25 cents. The area is flooded by people sitting on tiny stools and drinking. I hated walking through it each time I wanted to get to my hotel!

The next day was the final day in Hanoi for my brother and SIL. In the morning, we got coffee at their favorite spot and I learned just how strong Vietnamese black coffee is! It lives up to its nickname of “diesel!” Then we went to the Temple of Literature that was created to honor Confucius and other scholars.

For lunch, we found another restaurant with a lake view. I ordered the lotus root salad and it was delicious, but my SIL got the glass noodles and they were over cooked and slimy. My brother ordered beef ravioli. This was a very Asian version of it! Instead of regular pasta, they used compacted, gelatinous rice pasta that was translucent and looked like raw fish. It was not tasty.

We realized we had basically run out of things to do in Hanoi other than the touristy museums. I decided to plan the next leg of my trip while they had another spa visit. I was still sore from my last one! We met up for dinner and finally found a hot pot restaurant. I’ve never eaten hot pot before, despite my friends loving it in Portland. It’s basically meat fondue! We got the Thai version and, once we figured it out, it was tasty. Definitely requires a lot of work to cook it yourself!

We grabbed a few nightcaps and finally gave in to the local woman who beg you to buy their street donuts. Whenever we were on the street, we were approached relentlessly by them. My brother decided it was finally time to try these mystery donuts. They looked like regular donut holes, but they tasted like gooey, cold, chewy deep fried rice balls. The real win was finding out that they stopped approaching us when we had a bag of donuts on the table. Pro tip for my next visit to Hanoi!

We said our goodbyes since they had a morning flight to catch and I had booked a trip to Sa Pa. I still had two days in Vietnam and I had no clue what else to see in Hanoi. I booked a cheap last minute overnight hiking tour to Sa Pa. It is a village located 4 hours west of Hanoi and it famous for its picturesque rice paddies and local tribal women who sell their handicrafts (relentlessly!)

I woke up at 6am to catch the bus. My hotel offered to take my breakfast order the night before and have it ready in a take away container for me to eat on the bus. That definitely helped to fix my annoyance with them!

This bus ride was much better than the last. It had WiFi and leather seats! The highway was much newer and there was no swerving traffic. It was a breeze! The only people on the tour with me were an older Australian couple, a middle aged Korean couple, one young Vietnamese guy, and our young tour guide. We had the option of staying in a hotel or Homestay. I typically would have picked hotel, but it was $40 more expensive and I wanted to challenge myself by getting a more authentic experience.

Both couples chose the hotel option, so they were dropped off in Sa Pa. The rest of us hiked through rice paddies to get to our Homestay, which is basically a bunk room in someone’s home. It is located overlooking the valley and is simply stunning. It has modest accommodations, but that’s all I need!

During the hike, I talked to our guide who explained to me that the local women are the breadwinners. Their main source of income is making and selling their crafts. That explains why a group of 5 of them swarmed is after we got out of our tour van and followed us along the entire hike. When we stopped for coffee, my tour-mate bought two couch cushions for $15 USD and they finally left us alone. I refuse to buy anything. Not only do I not want anything, but once you purchase one item, the rest of the women expect you to buy from them, too, and won’t take no for an answer. It’s sad that such an interesting culture has turned into a tourist trap.

In the evening, our Homestay owner, Hoa, made us dinner. I am the only only who does not speak Vietnamese since the two older couples are staying at the hotel. It is a little awkward when they’re all in conversation and I’m just sitting there, but our guide does his best to translate. Apparently in Vietnamese, instead of saying “you,” they say “big/little brother/sister” depending on age and gender. So if I was asking my younger friend if she ate lunch, I’d actually say “Did little sister eat lunch yet?” I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s definitely interesting!

For dinner, the Homestay mother made us a giant spread of roast duck, vegetable soup, spring rolls, bamboo salad, and a mysterious red paste in a bowl. Our group of 3 were the only tourists staying at the Homestay, so we ate at the table with the family that included grandparents, cousins, and a cute kindergartener. I thought the red paste was a spicy sambal sauce, so I was confused when I saw the cousins eating it by the spoonful with peanuts and lime juice. They offered me some and it was sweet, not spicy. None of the family spoke English, but everyone except me spoke Vietnamese, so I spent the entire meal listening to them chat in Vietnamese without a clue what was going on. It was an experience!

The next day, I asked our guide what the bowl of red paste was. At first I thought he was joking when he said it was the coagulated blood from the duck, but he wasn’t! I had multiple servings of duck blood! I was a little grossed out at first, but I enjoyed it, so that’s all that matters. I would definitely eat it again! Hopefully it helped raise my chronically low iron levels.

In the morning, the mother made us vegetable pho for breakfast. I’m not a big fan of pho and I rarely eat breakfast, so I ate as much as I could. Hopefully she didn’t think I was rude for not finishing it!

Our guide took us to Cat Cat village, the home of the Hmong tribe. It was built entirely on a steep hill, so walking through the village was actually just walking down 134 flights of stairs (according to my phone!) The weather was very foggy and rainy, so the stairs were slippery. It was scary and I spent more time watching my footing than enjoying the village!

In the afternoon, we returned to Hanoi. Over the past 48 hours, my body had started exhibiting symptoms of a cold – sore throat, runny and stuffed up nose, and a sinus headache. I felt miserable on the bus and the trip took forever. As soon as I got to my hotel, I took a NyQuil and passed out.

Luckily I woke up feeling a million times better. Since I was flying business class to Milan, I wanted to get to the airport early to enjoy the lounge access. I was a little too eager and got to the airport 6 hours before my flight. I expected it to be the same as in America – each airline has a ticketing station and you can check in whenever. Nope! There are communal ticketing booths and specific flights set up shop only 3 hours before the flight. I had to wait in the pre-security area for 3 hours. Luckily there was free WiFi!

Visiting Vietnam was definitely an experience. My expectations of SE Asia were pretty spot on: delicious food, chaos in the streets, and a lot of things getting lost in translation. A week was just long enough to get a taste of the country without going insane from frustration. I feel pretty relieved to be heading to Europe where life will be a bit easier. When I was younger, I loved the challenge of travel. I lived in Amman for Pete’s sake! But as I get older, I can see the appeal of comfort and no longer judge elderly travelers who opt for luxury hotels over hostels and guided tours over random exploration. I think there’s a time and place for both types of travel. Taking a week long vacation from American life to “rough it” is new and exciting… but spending 6 months hostel jumping is exhausting. I’m glad I can have a mix of both during my trip.

Look forward to my next post where I write about my trip to Milan in Singapore Airlines’ business class!