Walk this way

We believe that one of the best ways to explore a big city is by walking it. During this adventure, N and I have tackled Kyoto, Tokyo, Auckland and Wellington, plus numerous small towns and villages. Never before, however, have we encountered as much danger as we did when exploring Ho Chi Minh City (formerly and still sometimes Saigon) and Hanoi in Vietnam.

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It’s every man (or woman) for themselves out here.

Imagine the biggest non-motorway road you can. Now envision it filled entirely with cars, and fill in the empty spaces with thousands of motorbikes. Add more motorbikes. Throw in pedestrians, elderly women on bicycles, wheeled carts filled with vegetables, tuk-tuks, and a few more motorbikes, just for good measure. Feel free to paint in lane lines and dividers on your imaginary road, but don’t worry too much as everyone will assiduously ignore these. Now imagine that everyone who has access to a horn or a bell or any other noisemaking device is using it – at the same time. Oh, and don’t forget to let everyone text while they’re driving. Now you might just barely have the tiniest inkling of the risk involved in walking Vietnamese city streets.

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Southeast Asia is absolutely overrun with motorbikes. Tourists can rent them, but do so at your own risk; serious accidents are common.

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We love walking (maybe me just a touch more than N, especially in the southeast Asian heat) but never before has it been quite so difficult. Even on the sidewalk – ostensibly a safe haven – we faced myriad obstacles.

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Sidewalks in Vietnam aren’t so much for walking as they are for sitting down to catch up with friends.

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If the road traffic is too much, the motorbikes will join the pedestrians on the sidewalks. Also, feel free to park your car wherever you’d like, as demonstrated on left.

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Pop-up meat markets, like this one, also make navigating sidewalks in Hanoi somewhat challenging.

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Oranges, anyone?

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We regularly saw bicycles and motorbikes loaded with two, three or four family members. Child safety seats? Not so much.

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The kid sandwiched on the motorbike in the foreground apparently doesn’t need a helmet.

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Even when the crosswalk light says it’s the pedestrians’ turn, this is typically the gauntlet you face. Beware.

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No, that isn’t a crashproof bike helmet.

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We saw motorbikes carrying all manner of goods, from extension ladders to mini fridges to lengths of steel pipe to balloon bouquets.

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The bicycle on the right is loaded with ceramics for sale. Imagine how heavy and unwieldy it must be to ride.

We learned quickly that the only way to make progress was to take a deep breath and step out into traffic. No one is actually driving all that fast, and the motorbikes will elegantly navigate around pedestrians like a shoal of fish. As long as you move smoothly and consistently – and don’t stop in the middle – the system actually works, surprisingly. It defies all Western conventions. Numerous times, we saw panicked tourists frozen on the side (or the middle!) of the big roads. Know that a good degree of faith is required.

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Apprentice monks have places to go, too.

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Yes, N was crossing the road when he snapped the shot. Risky job, this.

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Drivers wait for a fare…these carts only seat one passenger, so they’re not practical unless you’re traveling solo.

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Notice here that lane lines and directional traffic are merely a suggestion.

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We read a helpful travel trip: “If taking a motorbike taxi, ensure your driver is sober and lucid.” Honestly, how would you know? Our airport shuttle bus driver fell asleep with alarming regularity along the journey.

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4AM and we can finally use the pedestrian crosswalk safely.

Navigating Vietnamese cities on foot has been one of the trickiest and most tiring parts of our travel thus far, but it certainly qualifies as an adventure!

 

A walk in the woods

Any time we stop at a campground or visitor information booth in New Zealand, we face brochure racks stocked with dozens of flashy, full-color advertising cards for every adventure imaginable. Sky diving! Bungee jumping! River rafting! This country’s tourism industry caters heavily to the adrenaline junkie, and many of the young backpackers we’ve encountered seem more than happy to shell out hundreds of dollars pursuing their long-held dreams of jumping into, and out of, various modes of vaguely dangerous transport.

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Gnarled old trees on the walk to “The Snout” in Picton.

N and I, however, are sage and sensible in our advanced years, and we choose quieter, calmer, less aggressive activities. Like walking, for example. For all its jumping and rafting and diving, New Zealand really is perfect for people who just want to put on a pair of sturdy shoes (and perhaps lug thirty pounds of camera gear) and walk.

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Boardwalk into the bush near Tongariro National Park.

The country is absolutely overrun with well-maintained tracks, perfect for a few hours or for multi-day treks. While we’ve only ever gone out for day trips, all of our walks have been more than worth the time and effort, and a great way to see the country slowly. The photos collected here truly emphasize New Zealand’s incredible natural diversity.

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The Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park.

All of New Zealand is volcanic, but thermal activity is highly concentrated around Rotorua, roughly in the center of the North Island. The Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park allows visitors to see volcanic activity in a close and colorful manner.

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Wai-O-Tapu’s famous Boiling Mud Pool in action.

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This is not Colorado’s EPA-poisoned Animas River; rather, it’s a sulfur pool at Wai-O-Tapu. 

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Abel Tasman National Park, on the northern edge of the South Island, is rightfully famous for both its kayaking and its extensive coast track. We only spent a couple of days here but loved its beachy-desert feel.

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View from the Abel Tasman coast track.

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Tropical waterfall in Abel Tasman National Park.

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Lumberyard and harbor near Picton. Timber is New Zealand’s most important agricultural export.

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Pro tip: while foraging may be all the rage, don’t ever, ever eat mushrooms you find while hiking unless a mycologist can confidently identify them.

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On the way to Picton’s “Snout.” Most of the walking tracks we encountered varied between open country and tropical forest.

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Huka Falls, near Great Lake Taupo.

Huka Falls is apparently New Zealand’s most-visited natural attraction. We’re convinced this is because it’s located about ten feet from the parking lot.

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New Zealand has a wealth of diverse plant life, but ferns are ubiquitous.

Kiwis are rightfully very proud of their country, and the fern emblem is seen everywhere, most notably on the All-Blacks’ uniform. Recently, the country even tried to change its flag to incorporate the iconic fern image, though the referendum failed.

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Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua.

Like many island nations, New Zealand has fought for hundreds of years against invasive non-native species. The most destructive example is the possum, introduced in 1837 in an attempt to start a fur trade. Now there are thought to be more than 30 million – and they eat more than 20,000 tons of vegetation every night. The Redwood Forest pictured above, however, is an example of a non-native species that hasn’t spread ferociously. These trees, native to California, were planted in Rotorua in 1901 in the hopes of expanding the country’s timber industry. Unfortunately (for the timber industry) but fortunately (for the island’s native trees), only six hectares of the original twelve hectares survived, and the wood produced is far too soft for use in construction. They love the rich volcanic soils in this sheltered grove, but they can’t grow beyond this particular area.

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The hardest hike we did by far was the legendary Tongariro Alpine Crossing, considered New Zealand’s best one-day hike and also one of the best in the world. It’s only about twelve miles from start to finish, but it ascends more than 2,000 feet and descends more than 3,000, and it’s tough, even for these Colorado hikers. We started before dawn – both to beat the crowds and the midday sun – and completed it in about six hours.

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The beginnings of sunrise on the Tongariro Crossing.

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Looking west at the ominous shadow of Mount Ngaurahoe, more famously known as Mount Doom.

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This photo of Mount Ngaurahoe emphasizes the area’s stark volcanic landscape.

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The weather shifted frequently while we hiked the Crossing, from bright sun to low enveloping clouds. It’s easy to see why Tolkien’s books were filmed here!

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The Emerald Lakes of the Tongariro Crossing.

Thank you, New Zealand, for your beauty and your hospitality. We’ve loved our time here and look forward to returning. Onwards to Cambodia!