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Interrupting my unplanned summer blogging break (welp, sorry!) to share with you a fantastic blog by two lovely Brits. Scott and I met Jamie and Joe while hiking in Sapa. They were 4 months into a 9-month trip, and between their travel stories and their happily shared knowledge of photography, they made for interesting companions on long hikes through rocky terrain. Our photos got drastically better after spending time with them, but our shots still don’t hold a candle to the ones they just posted over at OddJam. They truly captured the essence of those teeny hill villages.


I’m a sunshine girl. I grew up by the beach and nothing makes me happier than a bright and sunny, 85-degree day. Show me a rainy morning and I’ll duck back under the covers and tell you to wake me up tomorrow.

But in Halong Bay, even I can’t deny the beauty of the fog. Because while the bright green karsts and the deep turquoise sea sparkle in the sun, it’s when they’re clouded in the fog that they truly shine. There’s something about the eery iridescence that makes every view feel like a scene; every vision a painting. And then when the fog goes away, the karsts and the sea seem lonely.

You go to Halong Bay for the islands the sea; but it’s the fog that captures you.

This is our Sapa guide Chi and her son Jahn. She is five feet tall and made of muscle. She  eats bamboo and dandelion greens from the side of the road, gave birth in her thatched-roof home, and has never heard of mail. She is a proud guide when there’s tourists and a happy rice farmer when there’s not. She never went to a day of school in her life.

In two days, Chi taught me more about Vietnamese culture and life in general than I learned on the rest of the trip combined, and I developed a deep affinity for her unassuming nature and no-nonsense style. Ten thousand miles from home she made me feel welcome and safe, and her easy manner made me smile for hours of hard trekking.

This is Chi, the only woman who ever has, and who ever will, get me to ride on a motorbike.

This lady was not our guide in Sapa, but she followed us through 5 hours of strenuous hiking anyway. She followed us for miles of ascents and descents. She held my hand as I struggled to balance on steep, rocky slopes in my expensive sneakers, while she climbed easily in flimsy plastic sandals with a baby on her back. She followed us for 5 hours; all with the hope of selling us $5 worth of embroidery at the end. And then she went home to stitch more embroidery for the next day.

She smiled the whole time.

Read Hanoi, part I here.

We take a cab to the train station in Hanoi and it’s like we’ve entered a different world. A third world. Shanghai was bright lights, pristine streets, street signs with English translations underneath. Here it is nighttime, and the roads—when paved—are padded with a thick layer of dust. The swarms of motorbike riders wear bandannas and masks to keep from swallowing it. Whole families pile onto a bike, Dad driving, mom behind him, baby in between them, and any older children standing up front in between Dad and the handlebars. Helmets are a rarity.

Through this dark, dusty mist, we see signs in another language. It’s desolate. It’s dirty. I feel we could be anywhere—Haiti, Iran, a border town in Mexico. We pass lots of roadside stands and open air shanty restaurants where the only seating is plastic children’s stools. We see open fires on the side of the road.

We get to the train station and no one’s there. Yet somehow, I refuse to believe we’ve gotten had. Through the grace of God Scott learns we’re at the wrong train station—apparently there are A and B stations with the same name. Our train leaves in 15 minutes but the taxi driver we find says we’re close. It doesn’t seem close enough. The traffic here is as maddening as it is confusing.

We make it to the proper train station and see a person out front holding a sign with our name. Sweet relief! He rushes us through the station, across the tracks (no platform here) and into our sleeper cabin. Seconds later the train takes off.

When you leave a city like Shanghai, where you drive thirty minutes to the airport and never once lose sight of skyscrapers in any direction, any city would seem meager in comparison. But when you go from a city like Shanghai to a city like Hanoi, where the buildings lean precariously onto one another and everything from homes to street signs to people are clouded in a thick cake of dust, it feels like you went back in time. And when we landed in Hanoi we were feeling even more lost in time—or maybe in translation—because we were in one of those inevitable travel situations where you feel like the fate of your trip is hanging by a thread. Our thread was dangling precariously by the hand of a swindling  Vietnamese desk attendant at the Hanoi airport’s tiny travel information booth. Here’s what I wrote in my travel journal the following day:

Off the plane and the journey begins. What a difference a few hours make. Compared to the pristine goliath of PuDong Airport, Hanoi is the stinky small town bus stop. We have to deplane (my new favorite travel word) on the tarmac and then take a crowded bus to get to the airport. Scott waits for baggage as I find an ATM, where I get $1 million dong, thinking it’s $500 and will last me almost to the end of our trip. Later I realize it’s $50. Doh! There’s just too many zeros.

The flight landed late, so we now have just over an hour to make the overnight train we need, and the station is 40 minutes away. We don’t have a ticket and I’m nervous.  I go to the travel information desk to see if I can call the office of the train rep I’d been emailing with. Instead they try to sell me a ticket themselves. I’m skeptical; I know these people are hustlers. They’re selling “taxi vouchers” into Hanoi at twice the rate my guidebook says and they’re giving the hard sell on everything to anyone who will listen. Nothing seems legit.

He makes a call and says there are only 2 tickets left on the train we want. I’m sure he’s lying but buy the tickets anyway. It’s not worth the risk—or the time—to try to figure out the purchase on our own. Better to get where we need to go, even if it means getting taken for a ride.

Of course there’s a catch. The attendant wants us to pick up the tickets at an office in town but I refuse—there’s no time! He finally promises to have someone meet us with the tickets at the station. We leave the airport with nothing but this promise and a handwritten receipt.

To be continued…

Shanghai’s Maglev system uses magnetic levitation to propel trains 270 miles per hour into the heart of Shanghai. Scott almost peed himself with excitement; the lady on the right put her bags down and promptly fell asleep.

In Shanghai the parks are their own ecosystem, their own city. You almost need a map to read them. Dancing lessons are in one corner, with couples in neat rows showing off their carefully practiced steps. In a nearby field adults determinedly practice spinning metal wheels on string, using two handles to maintain a precarious balance. Near the entrance is the gambling—men crowded tightly around each other, whispering bets in serious tones—and along the walkways are karaoke stands, where groups of 10-12 sing loud and proud as they read lyrics off of scrolls hanging from clotheslines.

Everywhere in between there’s Tai Chi and endless varieties of exercise; whether it’s sword fighting or walking backwards or just standing in place doing high kicks.

The park by my house is lucky to see a few dog walkers on a sunny Saturday; on an average Tuesday the parks in Shanghai look like full-blown gym meets.


You know that feeling when you’re staring at the ocean and you suddenly feel so small? Standing in Shanghai is exactly like that, except the peacefulness that you might get from staring at the waves is replaced by a heart-thumping, hair-raising symphony of car horns beeping, motorbikes revving and people hocking massive loogies (a popular pastime, apparently). Shanghai is a city of hustlers, a city where the skyscrapers come by the dozen and yet people are still bursting out onto the street and into the parks, restaurants and shopping centers. Everything is always busy. There is sure to be a line at the ATM, predictably a crowd in the restaurants, constantly a throng of traffic on the streets. It all feels impossibly modern.

And then you take a step in, and you notice the wiggling fish in a basket on the street, where an old lady sits waiting to make a sale. You see the twisted palm fronds that have been fashioned into a streetsweepers’ broom. You pass a pharmacy where seahorses and ginger root are sold as remedies. You walk into a temple where incense is burning.


If China is a study of contradictions, of the pull between old and new, then Shanghai is the Cliff’s Notes.

As if Bon Iver’s haunting falsetto and spellbinding production prowess weren’t cool enough, his new video for Holocene—which debuted on National Geographic, of all things—was filmed in Iceland. I dare you to watch it without getting seriously lusty for the place. I double-dog dare you.

A photo of me.

About me

Hi, I'm Pam. I'm a runner, reader and recent MBA grad living in Baltimore with my husband. I work in PR, but I spend my off-hours writing here about my life, which mostly revolves around family, friends, fashion and fitness. Sometimes I throw in the occasional food photo just to make sure you're paying attention.


For questions or freelance opportunities, contact me at theinspirationfiles {at} gmail {dot} com. I'd love to hear from you!

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