Pic du Jour: Pineapple Vendor, Hanoi

Pineapple vendor Hanoi

Today’s Pic du Jour –the 75th(!) straight since this project was re-inaugurated– features a woman prepping for her morning pineapple sales route, snapped just a few minutes before she sold me my breakfast baggie.

This is for this week’s WordPress Photo Challenge which asked for illustrations of Street Life. In Hanoi it starts humming at about 6 am.

Hanoi, Vietnam, 24-Oct-2010
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Rower on the Ngô Đồng River, northern Vietnam

International Women’s Day 2014

Rower on the Ngô Đồng River, near the city on Nihn Binh in northern Vietnam. This was taken during an excursion on the  Tam Cốc, or three caves, portion of a popular day trip excursion from Hanoi. Hers was and remains one of the most unforgettable faces and smiles from my visit to Vietnam three-and-a-half years ago.

Like Earth Day, International Women’s Day is every day. Let’s work on that.

Snapped on 25-Oct-2010
Nanning, China at night

Nanning Nightscape (Pic du Jour)

Nanning is the capital of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China along the border with Vietnam. With a population of 6.6 million, it’s probably one of the biggest cities you’ve never heard of. It was also, by far, the least smoggy city I’ve visited in China.

Snapped in October 2010

Previous posts about Nanning:

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Five Ways to Find Authenticity on the Road

Vietnam 111

Note: For the next few months, I’ll be occasionally posting short ‘Travel Notebook’ pieces, just 500-600 words each, on travel themes I’ve chosen to either incorporate, explore or expand upon in my upcoming book.

To make the final product as useful to as many as possible, I’d love to get feedback from readers, travelers and bloggers alike. Your opinions, thoughts, examples, vignettes and links to other posts exploring the themes are quite welcome and indeed encouraged –many will find their way into the manuscript. Thanks!

On Seeking and Finding Authenticity While Traveling

In the travel industry sense, ‘authentic’ has devolved into just another empty buzz word, rendered almost meaningless in a world where the lines between authenticity –by definition simply something that is genuine– and modernity have become impossibly blurred by the expectations marketers thrust our way. The examples are numerous and I won’t spell them out here. Let’s just get to the list.

No. 1. Leave your expectations and stereotypes at the unclaimed baggage counter.

Vietnam 109Better yet, dump them in the non-recyclables bin before passing through security. Because if you arrive at a destination with some vague notion of authenticity in mind, it’s quite likely that your entire journey will be shrouded by a dark cloud of disappointment.

Unfulfilled expectations always suck, but they can be painfully brutal when you’re traveling. One brief vignette from a visit to Sapa, Vietnam, a few years ago as a case in point:

I was sitting at a restaurant waiting for a glass of a local wine described as ‘Good for Men’ when a group of half a dozen twenty-something American English-speaking travelers entered. They hastily claimed two tables, spread out and sat down.

“Sapa is bullshit, man,” one said as he leafed through the extensive wine list. “This isn’t Vietnam. There’s nothing authentic about this place. What a freakin’ joke.”

Sapa is northern Vietnam’s thriving gateway town for day trips and overnight treks into the area’s highlands and visits to its remote mountain ethnic communities. They had just returned from a trek to the summit of the 3,148m high Phang Xi Pang, the country’s highest mountain, and were clearly disappointed that Sapa fell short of their preconceived notions of precisely what a 21st century Vietnamese highland tourist town should be.

A friend agreed. “Yeah, this just isn’t real,” he said. “Totally sucks.” A few moments later he connected to the restaurant’s free wifi and began tapping on his iPhone in search of a proxy server so he could break through Vietnam’s Facebook block and tell his friends just how unreal and sucky Sapa was.

Just as his medium rare Australian strip steak and small Chef’s salad –light dressing on the side—arrived so did success. “Ha! I got through.”

So by allowing themselves to confuse modernity with their personal notions of what was authentic, they contributed to the ruin of what should have simply been a memorable once-in-a-lifetime experience in a strikingly beautiful corner of the planet. I can only hope that broadcasting his disappointment via Facebook helped him reach some closure.

No. 1 above is the only one that really matters, but since blog readers like lists –and I like providing them!– here are four more ways –plus a bonus!– to help you have an authentic experience, in no particular order:

  • In cities, check out immigrant neighborhoods. The best meal I ever had in Brussels was at a modest family-run west African place with the finest juke box on the planet. Brussels is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. That meal was a helluva lot more authentic than the dime-a-dozen over-priced mussels joints near the Grand Place.
  • Go to a local dive bar. The kind you wouldn’t go to at home and preferably one that doesn’t sell t-shirts. Although those are authentic, too.
  • Don’t go to malls. Not because they’re not authentic (they are). Just because you shouldn’t.
  • Sharpen your senses. Free them to work over-time. Taste the dust. Smell the diesel.

In short: Ignore the marketing hype. In one way or another, it’s all authentic. Let your mind be blown.

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