All posts by Anita

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A few different ways to enjoy Switzerland

It’s difficult not to enjoy Switzerland. Not only is it picture perfect, it is one of the safest countries in the world. Where you can go off on a trek into the mountains pretty much by yourself. Or travel from one part of the country to another without too many worries about your safety.

Lake view
A view of the lake on my first trip in 2005

Geneva and Zurich happen to ranked among the top cities with the highest quality of life in the world. (And as a result, Switzerland also happens to be the most expensive country in the world to live in).

I’ve been in Switzerland since the first week of August and I must say that I’m enjoying it more than my first time. For one, I have more days in hand. And rather than rushing around, I’ve had the opportunity to soak in some cultural experiences, walk around some amazingly scenic trails in the Swiss mountains, experienced living in a small village and devoured inordinately large amounts of cheese and wine. My quota for the year, is definitely over.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
A traditional dish called raclette. Among other things, it has a lot of cheese.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
Enjoying the beautiful green mountains

But what better way to enjoy a country? Here are a few…

Trekking around the mountains

They’re almost painfully beautiful. Well, the pain is partly because the climbs are tough in parts. But the views more than make up for all the effort and hard work. In my first week, I got whisked away to the mountains and I wasn’t going to complain. Though I was informed this has been a really dismal summer by Swiss standards, we were lucky enough to get a few days of sunshine and clear weather.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
Views from the chalet we stayed in

We stayed in a cosy chalet up in the village of Gryon, a town located around an hour’s drive from the city of Lausanne. From there, it was a matter of planning where to start the trek from, where to end, pack our picnic lunches and then set off. We did 3 treks into the mountains and each one was memorable in it’s own way.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
The village of Gryon is the perfect place to base yourself for treks around the area

To be able to walk out into the mountains without a care in the world is a feeling unmatched. The routes are really well marked and it’s unlikely you’ll get lost unless you’re really bad with directions. Someone commented how it seemed so safe – just both of us traipsing through the countryside. And yes, it is actually. At no point did we feel unsafe. With a walking map in hand, and an excellent guide in Stephanie, who was brought up climbing the mountains around the area, I couldn’t have been in better hands.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
Gushing alpine streams accompany you on many portions of your walks

Enjoying a Swiss summer
Nothing like a dose of fresh mountain air

The three treks we did:
1) Pont-de-Nant

Enjoying a Swiss summer
The approximately 8km trek begins with a gradual climb and then gets slightly steeper, goes up to a view point and then descends through some tall trees on the other side

2) La Croix des Chaux-Bretaye

Enjoying a Swiss summer
Around 15 kms, we hiked to a peak called La Croix des Chaux at 2012 metres. From there, we hiked through some narrow paths and valleys to the village of Taveyanne, climbed to Ensex and ended the trek in a small picturesque village called Bretaye.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
Don’t miss a walk around the lake in the village of Bretaye

3) Javerne-La Tourche

Enjoying a Swiss summer
View from the top of the climb at a point called La Tourche, and we did around 8 kms to and from a high altitude pasture called Javerne.

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A couple enjoying the view from the top

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Stephanie and I enjoying the trek to La Tourche

Switzerland’s walking and trekking routes are really well marked and you can check out these websites for more information.
My Switzerland
Wandersite
Walking Switzerland

Enjoying a Swiss summer Enjoying a Swiss summer

Biking on beautiful scenic roads

It’s almost a sin not to be able to ride on these roads. I look with a certain amount of envy at cyclists enjoying the beautiful countryside roads, with hardly any traffic. Also, most cars give a wide berth here and besides there aren’t too many of them on the back roads. I’ve encountered quite a few cycle friendly trails. One particular one I’d like to do one day is the Vallee de Joux area. With some nice climbs, scenic routes and amazing views, I’ve marked this area for future reference! Otherwise too, summer is a great time for cycling with the weather just right. Not too warm and not too cold. I almost regret not getting my folding cycle along with me.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
Cyclist enjoying a perfect day

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Mountain bike land

Of bovine pleasures: visiting a dairy farm

I am loving the cows here. Not to take away from our beautiful specimens back home in India. But they’re extra large in size.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
A good looking specimen, if you ask me!

They also are quite curious. And they are adorned with these beautiful bells. When you’re walking in the countryside, it’s not unusual to hear their synchronised ringing from a long distance, the sound echoing through the countryside.

High on alpine pastures, are these charming dairy farms that look inaccessible and remote. And they probably are, by Swiss standards. We passed by quite a few on some of our treks.

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Grazing their hearts out. And enjoying their daily dose of fresh air and grass

On another occasion, we dropped in at one of the farms and got a glimpse of the mechanised “milking”, and a taste of the excellent cheese with a glass of wine. As we settled into the bench outside, sipping on wine and nibbling on cheese, I looked out into the sun dappled valley, with the cows letting out an occasional moo, the bells ringing and just nothing else in sight but the green mountains beyond. What an idyllic place to be.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
The cows looking a bit curious at the human intruder on their blissful chewing

Gruyere is a famous brand in these parts

Life in a Swiss village

With their community centres, their churches, and pretty wooden houses, it was a delight to experience life in a small Swiss village called Le Vaud. I have to go back to the hustle bustle and chaos of Silk Board and Bangalore after this is over, so I’m determined to relish every moment.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
Life in the cosy village of Le Vaud proved to be a far cry from the chaotic Silk Board. And no, not complaining! It was much welcome relief for a weary “honked out” Bangalorean

I discovered some inside roads ideal for running and walking. You hardly bump into a soul. In the centre, there’s a grocery shop, a boulangerie and an auberge communal for those looking to rest for a night or two.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
I welcomed these empty roads like a fish takes to water! And no, I am not missing our honking drivers

A really nice feature in these towns are communal “basins” or water fountains where you can go and refill your water. They seem to be always running and are probably fed by underground streams. The next village, around 2-3 kms down the road is called Bassins and has around 6-7 of these basins or fountains. With pretty flower pots adorning these spaces, they make for a nice sight.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
The communal fountain, served by an underground stream I suspect

I walked, ran, watched the hills and the snow capped peaks on a clear day, across the lake. Said “bonjour” to dozens of people on the road. Ate some really delicious food, thanks to my lovely hosts. And enjoyed walking up the hills in the evening, watching the skies change colour over the lake. Back in chaotic Bangalore crossing Madivala market, I’ll remember these moments.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
A beautiful summer’s day in Le Vaud

Tasting the local wine and cheese

Happy cows seem to make for delicious cheese. And of course, what better drink to wash it down than some local wine. Whether it’s a rosé, a white or a red, make sure you’re not empty handed when eating your cheese and bread. My bread intake has gone up drastically over the last couple of weeks, something I don’t much care for back home. At the dairy farm we visited, there’s a room where the cheese is made and another where it’s stored. I take a glimpse inside this room and it’s like a vaulted chamber with a very precious commodity – cheese.

Enjoying a Swiss summer
The cheese chamber – here is where it all comes from

Wine is more popular than water. I think. And I’m not complaining since it’s my drink of choice.

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My love for wine only got stronger

Enjoying a Swiss summer
The fondue has more cheese than I eat in a year. But I finished it at one go. You have to give me points for assimilating.

So the Swiss summer is turning out nicely. The doses of cheese and wine have done wonders to my now forgotten diet, which I was asked to chuck out the minute I landed in Switzerland. Right now, I’m doing what I would advise all of you to do – give in and enjoy the summer!

The Swiss Summer album

(NOTE: Cover photo courtesy: Stephanie Booth)

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My favourite portraits from Vietnam

I’m a little scared of street photography. Timid actually. In fact, I think a lot about taking pictures of people. (Unless, it’s for a assignment, which is a totally different matter).

I’ve seen street and candid photographers at work and I’m really impressed. I’ve seen those who go up right upto a person and start clicking immediately. I’ve seen others who have no fear and just shoot anyone and anything.

For me, I always try and ensure my “subject” doesn’t mind. Or is not offended. However, the problem in this case is that in the process, the “moment” is often lost. Or the shot is not right anymore since I’ve been doing too much thinking.

On my recent trip to Vietnam, I decided that I was going to do more portraits. At least attempt to.

The lenses I used were: 70-300 mm (courtesy Bookmylens.com) and the 24-70 mm, a great lens from my own collection. These were the only two lenses I relied on. The 24-70 mm is definitely one of my favourites. The 70-300 mm helps when you want to shoot from a distance. The only disadvantage is that it doesn’t do well in low light situations. But otherwise, quite useful for street photography.

Here are some of my favourites.

1. Black Hmong tribal lady with a baby

She walked with us the entire duration of the Sapa trek with her baby on her back. Not once did the baby complain (nor did she). This was during a trek we did from Sapa town, down into the valley to a home stay.

Mother and baby

2. Lady with the fan

When we visited the Ethnology Museum in Hanoi, we were walking around with our guide looking around at the different dwellings of the indigenous tribals of the country when we met a big group of visitors. They were all from a neighbouring village and it seems like their day out in town!

Lady with the fan

3. Cat at the temple

This rather cool cat was lounging around at the Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi. With my special affinity for the feline species, I get easily distracted when I see a gorgeous specimen like this one. And he (she?) was happy with all the attention. Soon, some kids also noticed the cat and we had a bit of a cat appreciation party right there.

The cat at the temple

4. Lady making rice paper

It’s a fine and delicate art, this one. Imagine making paper thin wisps (so thin, you can barely see it) over a hot griddle and then taking them out carefully and drying them. If it was me, I’d have lumps of rice all over and no paper, that’s for sure. This was taken during our trip to the Mekong Delta, where as a part of the package you get to see a coconut (sweet) production facility, buy some candies and also watch the making of rice paper.

The lady making the rice paper

5. Lady on the motorbike with the hat

Everyone wears it. Especially in the smaller villages and towns. It’s made out of bamboo or palm and is incredibly light. Which was surprising since I actually perceived it to be much heavier. It’s not only a style statement, it also keep out the sun, which the Vietnamese are extremely sensitive to (as I discovered; they wear face masks all the time).

The lady on the motorbike

6. Friends on the river

During our trip on the Mekong Delta, at some point of time our boat stopped. Stalled. In the middle of the water. So while our captain (or driver?) made arrangements for another boat to bring in a replacement engine, everyone relaxed and sat around waiting. I noticed this bunch of 3 friends, obviously enjoying themselves at one end of the boat.

Hanging out: Friends enjoying themselves

7. The lady who rowed our boat

While on the Mekong, after lunch we were transferred to those smaller row boats with around 2-3 passengers each, so we could negotiate the narrower streams that flow into the delta. This was an enjoyable part of the trip and we were in the capable hands of this quite frail looking lady. However, she managed the 3 of us large (compared to Vietnamese standards) Indian women rather well!

The lady who rowed our boat

8. The lady who didn’t

This was a lady who rowed another group. She was extremely thrilled since she seemed to have been tipped in dollars. So afterwards, she sat on the shore, smiling broadly at her tips for the day and showing it off.

The lady who didn't!

9. The girl on the unusual ride

Well, definitely not your usual ride to school. Or to the supermarket. But this little girl seemed really comfortable on the back of this rather large bullock. Probably something she does everyday.

A nice ride, wouldn't you agree?

10. The girl playing with water

After a rather tough and long trek through some mushy parts and ups and down, in Sapa, we stopped at this rather gorgeous waterfalls. Where everyone relaxed, enjoyed the view and took a long break. One of the girls accompanying us was happily playing in the water with her friend.

The girl playing with water

11. The lady who embroiders

At the same point, higher up on one of the rocks was this lady who was seemingly quite focused on her work for the day. Embroidery. It’s something tribal women do even while walking, sitting and possibly even in their sleep – they are so good at it!

The lady who embroidered

12. The baby with the cute hat

Now isn’t that the loveliest cap? Spotted these few kids playing around at our lunch stop while on our Sapa trek. This little kid was one amongst them. He was happily playing and looked up for a while. And then his hand went into a sign. Was he sending his blessings? :-)

The boy with the lovely cap

13. The lady who sews

Yes, did I mention it already? The women love to sew and do it all the time. It’s rarely that they sit idle. Most of their attire is all sewn by themselves and the work is gorgeous. I mean, I can’t sew to save my life so I think it’s really beautiful. This lady is wearing a really nice shirt (overcoat?) and even the bag on her side is extremely pretty. And of course, she’s still busy sewing – her next new coat perhaps?

The lady intent on sewing

These portraits are from a June 2014 trip to Vietnam where I covered Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon), Mekong Delta, Hanoi, Sapa Valley and Halong Bay.

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Savouring the world, one dish a time!

My first taste of Portuguese food was in Goa. The owners of the now restored 213 year old mansion Palácio do Deão, built by a Portuguese nobleman, had opened their doors to visitors for a taste of the traditional cuisine. I don’t remember the names of the dishes now but our hosts Rubem and Celia Vasco da Gama had gone to great lengths to lay out a memorable spread. I do remember the fish cooked to perfection. And the calamari flavored to bring any foodie to raptures.

Dining area
This old but restored Portuguese mansion made the ideal setting for a traditional meal

A taste of Portugal Main course

I’m glad I captured some of these culinary delights on camera so when I sit back and think of the delicious food, I can supplement my memories with photographs. Of course, the images don’t do justice to the actual taste of the mouth-watering delicacies served, but they only increased my curiosity about the cuisine and food of Portugal.

Goa was a Portuguese colony till as late as 1954 and the influences on the food and culture are indelible.

The Portuguese are said to have brought in potatoes, tomatoes, guavas and even cashews from Brazil to Goa and many of these ingredients today, find their way into Goan dishes, especially the Christian fare.

In my mind, there is no better way to explore a place than through it’s food and cuisine. And as cliched as it might sounds, I do actually live to eat so it seems but a natural way for me to explore a new place. I look forward to my next meal with anticipation, especially when I am travelling. I usually go armed with a list of recommended dishes and make sure I try at least a few of them.

Noodles
When in South East Asia, it’s difficult to resist a meal without noodles

Not only is exploring local cuisine interesting, but eating as the locals do adds to the whole experience.

I was recently in Vietnam, when I got to sample some really scrumptious local fare. From the traditional pho, to fresh and fried spring rolls, to the gorgeous (and tummy filling) pancakes filled with shrimp and rice, it was definitely a trip to remember for me. I even have memories of what I ate and at which particular place. The little non-assuming roadside eatery in Saigon where we sampled fresh spring rolls for the first time.

Making of the spring roll
A lady cooking fresh spring rolls; this has been her livelihood her whole life is what we’re told

The fish at a homestay in Mekong Delta, served like I’ve never fried seen before. The spring rolls we first learnt to make on a cruise ship and then relished. And the list goes on…

Pho in Vietnam
You can’t leave Vietnam without tasting the pho

Lots of seafood!
Streets are lined with sellers who pile up their stock and wait for buyers

Ingredients for the spring roll
The fresh spring roll is both delicious and healthy

I’ll have what he’s having!”

In March of this year, during a trip to Kerala I met with food and travel blogger, photographer Nelson Carvalheiro (and belatedly also found out how famous he really is!). Nelson in fact, through his amazing food pictures and experiences has the ability to bring about the above reaction from any onlooker.

Yoga poses with Nelson
Nelson indulging in a spot of yoga to get rid of all those calories piled up during our Kerala trip

During the trip, our meals were memorable, not only because of the varied spread but because of the fact that it would bring us together to discuss more about our cuisine and influences. We enjoyed authentic Kerala cuisine, the rice delicacies, the avial and stew, the fish cooked in different styles and best of all, the famous Kerala sadya (a multi-spread vegetarian meal) served during festivals but where everyone got a lesson on how to eat with their hands. It was an experience like no other. I was so taken in by the meal served on the houseboat while cruising the backwaters (probably our best!) that I even wrote about the experience.

Traditional fare from Kerala - appam with egg stew
Yummy egg stew served with fluffy appams in Kerala, India

Putta and kadlakai curry
Another delicacy called putta, with coconut and rice, along with kadla curry

As I head to Europe next in August visiting friends from various regions for the next couple of months, I am definitely looking forward to the more attractive aspect – sampling local fare. From the seafood paella and sangria of Spain to the variety of cheese in France, to the famed seafood and other delicacies of Portugal (if I am given a chance!), I’m surely looking forward to this trip already.

I definitely wouldn’t mind a “foodgasm”. I can’t think of a better way to experience Portugal!

(NOTE: This is an entry for the 16 day food tour of Portugal being conducted by APTECE. More details are here on Nelson’s blog. The last day is July 31.)

The greenery awaits you as you make your way through the forest

Forays into the forest: Here’s why I love it!

I look forward to opportunities to travel to the different jungles and reserves in India whenever I can. We don’t realise it but we’re really lucky – there are so many (still) to choose from. Most states boast of such rich flora, fauna and reserved forests and I am still discovering many of them. I’ve written about my experience in Kaziranga, the amazingly beautiful sanctuary in Assam and home to the endangered rhino.

safari

Last December, I travelled into the dense and magical jungles of Kanha and came back mesmerised. What variety and beauty around every corner. Every trip into the forest was filled with surprises and delightful encounters. So what if I didn’t spot the elusive cat (well, that’s another story, for another day!) but I’ve loved every adventure into the forest.

Male spotted deer

This time, it was an opportunity to visit the Kali Adventure Camp, thanks to Jungle Lodges, and though the monsoons have set in, I still thought it would be a good experience. I was also lucky to be in the company of Supriya Sehgal, who blogs at Teafortravel and is a well-known author of several Lonely Planet guides. So I was in good company!

The green view from the cottage of the Kali River Camp, Dandeli

Here’s why I love my adventures into the forest…

A chance to take in the peace and quiet

I frankly much prefer the chirping of birds, the cacophony of cicadas or the call of a deer. We easily call it noise, but it’s more like sounds of the jungle. And I would rather listen to these sounds than the constant honking of vehicles in the city, where people are in a mad rush to reach Lord only knows where and create such a ruckus in the process.

Into the forest

The jungle on the other hand is the last refuge of a different kind of quietude. Some people call it “dull”. Some people don’t actually know what to do with themselves in a forest. There’s a stillness that can be a balm in our hurried lives. I think if you want to just step back for a while, and let a different kind of peace wash over you, the forest is the place to head to.

The anticipation of what’s to come

Arjun our guide on this trip has his ears and eyes attuned to everything; even the slightest movement catches his eye. It’s interesting to watch naturalists in their habitat and at work. They are extremely sharp and develop an innate sense of knowing when an animal is nearby. Their ears alert to even the smallest of sounds. I remember a time in Kanha, when we sighted a dead sambar on the roadside. It was definitely a tiger kill, and we thought he would come back for his lunch. So we waited there for nearly an hour.

Tiger kill

There’s nothing much you can do really but hope during this period. And anticipate. And try and predict which way the animal might appear from. Sadly, it was not to be. The tiger was in no mood to appease our hunger for a sighting. But a lot of the fun was in the anticipation.

You’re alert, you know there are many eyes watching you from behind the tall bushes and grasses. But whether you get to see them is a matter of your luck and chance! The animals are not going to give you anything on a platter for sure.

The thrill of the sighting

While most people think they’ll see a tiger the first time they go out into the forest, the chances are actually quite low. Arjun tells us that there are around 15 tigers in this massive Dandeli-Anshi stretch. Imagine the possibility of a tiger in your path just as you happen to be on a safari. You can just calculate and imagine the chance. It’s rather low. But there are so many other animals in the forest, that while you’re possibly looking to sight a tiger, it’s really interesting to see other animals in their natural habitat. Many endangered, rare and quite shy of any thing that resembles a human being. Arjun spots a pack of wild jackals in a far away bush. Something we would never have seen without his help. Jackals are shy (like most other animals) and we are lucky to sight 3 of them in a pack. They look at us too for a moment. It must be a better sighting for them I’m thinking. There are 4 of us.

Then there are the spotted deer who stare at us when we are quite a distance away. Or dash across the road trying to avoid us. But as soon as we approach, they skitter away.

The shy spotted deer looking at us before disappearing into the bushes

High up on a tree is the serpent eagle, regal and patient, waiting to spot his prey on the ground. Once he catches sight, he will swoop down and catch it, leaving his prey very little chance to escape. On another branch is the pretty peacock, exhibiting his feathers in a downward swoop and letting us admire him from afar. When he’s had enough, he disappears into the wild.

The thrill of a sighting can keep a wildlife lover in raptures for hours, days and even years!

It’s a lush, human free zone

There’s something I really like about the fact that the forest is lush, green and also an area where there are very few humans. The forest is one last refuge that we must guard strongly. Especially, in a country teeming with a billion and a half people, it’s absolutely refreshing to not sight another human. Though I was deeply disappointed when at the end of our safari, we encountered a jeep filled with loud tourists, whose group contained two women wearing yellow neon-coloured clothing and a few guys wearing the shiny multi-coloured sunglasses.

So, yes – there are those who have absolutely no idea about the rules of the forest and it’s sad that people carry their city behaviour and bad habits back to the forest. I wish there was a way in which such people could be banned from entering. They deserve to live only in the cities and not be let out.

But otherwise, the monsoons are a low peak season so not too many people venture to these parts. I’m glad we did though. Despite the showers, we did sight animals and enjoyed the lushness that the forest offers during this season. An an interesting fact to know: Karnataka’s forests are open throughout the year, unlike many others which close down during the rains.

The forest is lush and green and so beautiful during the rains

Just as we were exiting the reserve, we catch a glimpse of this beautiful guy with rippling muscles. The Indian gaur, in case you were thinking of a Bollywood actor. The gaur is a rather huge creature and with his impressive horns; you don’t want to be too close. He looked up for a bit to give us a pointed stare and then went back to his busy work task of chomping on something green. Was he scaring us off to say don’t come back too often?
Just after he went back to his meal of the day!
But, despite his word of warning, I know I’ll be back.

About Jungle Lodges
Jungle Lodges operates 16 resorts spread all across Karnataka including Bheemeshwari, Dandeli, Devbagh, Bandipur, Kabini, Bidar amongst many others. Accommodations varies from tents to rooms to independent cottages. Besides, there are 3 resorts operated on management contract. The company promotes eco-tourism, wildlife tourism, adventure tourism and various outdoor activities like trekking, camping, white water rafting, fishing etc., that are non consumptive components of eco-tourism and in general help in environment conservation.

Visit:
Jungle Lodges | Facebook | JLR Explore

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Vietnam: A few first impressions

This was a different kind of trip. I didn’t do much research since my fellow traveller and photographer Hema took control of everything including the planning and organising (which I usually enjoy doing for my trips). For a change, I took a backseat as I was already busy planning an all girl’s trip to Wayanad. So I didn’t really have any notions/impressions except a guide book that I’d borrowed from a friend.

The guidebook indicated there were a few scams in some parts of Vietnam. But we didn’t come across any such unpleasant experiences. However, another group we met did tell us that cab drivers purposely take long routes even if the places are close by, just to make an extra buck. But after dealing with auto drivers in Bangalore, I think one is armed to take on a few greedy errant taxi drivers.

At no point during our trip did we actually feel threatened or unsafe in Vietnam. (In fact, I have at time felt more unsafe in some parts of India). The people are quite stoic but once you converse with them (or try as their English is very limited), they are quite friendly. Except for one very surly cab driver (he was definitely unhappy with his life) people were generally quite nice. English is not their strong point, but with a lot of effort (and gestures) usually we got our message across. Sometimes not successfully. But no matter. We managed to navigate despite all of these issues.

Streets of Hanoi

We walked out of our hotel located in District 1, Saigon on our last night and there were people everywhere. This was at 1130 pm at night. There were people singing, eating, drinking, chatting and generally lounging around till 3 am in the morning. Unlike Bangalore, where you feel like a criminal at 11 pm, this was place was just the opposite. Many street side pubs were also cashing in on football fever.

Night life in Hanoi

There are millions of motorbikes in the cities, especially Hanoi and HCM which we visited. Interesting though the fact that even despite heavy traffic, there is lesser (noticeable) aggression. In India, we’d be punching one another and bringing our dear departed generations into our brawls. However, the Vietnamese all congregate in the center of the road, at the same time, and then make their way around each other. Magically, everyone finds a way. In the few times we went out, we didn’t see too many folks lose their temper. The honking is relatively lesser too.

Two wheelers rule the streets

And then there are cyclists. Even in the middle of this chaos, cyclists of all ages made their way on two wheels. And they didn’t seem to be bullied into corners or edges of the street, unlike what happens in India. They were very much a part of the ecosystem, demanding an equal share of the road. No one was treated as a lesser mortal on the road because they happened to be on a cycle. And there were so many women, girls, older folks cycling even in peak hour that I was quite amazed. I even saw a dad with two of his young sons cycling on a busy road (a sight that you’ll be hard pressed to see here).

Everyone cycles - old and young

Everyone is a moving market!

Masks are a fashion statement. And supposedly keep pollution at bay. I’m not sure about the efficacy of these masks, which mostly women wear. They adorn every second face. A young university student called Ly I met on a bus said women are very beauty conscious and basically do it to protect their skin from the sun and pollution. I was tempted to buy one for myself, but couldn’t find a mask with cats on it.

Street corners and roads are relatively clean. I saw a lot of sweeping going on in the mornings. This might also be due to the fact that the Vietnamese eat on the streets all the time so they probably want to keep it clean. Except some parts where there was littering (like the China town area in HCM), largely the garbage disposal system seems to be working. And people seem to be a bit more conscious of littering than us Indians.

Street food is a way of life

There is excessive use of thin plastic bags everywhere. They possibly don’t know how much harm all this will do to their environment (yet), but shopkeepers are only too eager to flash out the bags even for the smallest purchase. Whether it’s water, chips, biscuits or anything you buy, the first thing you get is this flimsy plastic bag. And tourists are equally responsible for accepting these despite the fact that everyone is carrying a rucksack or a bag they can carry the stuff in.

Packing it in

Clean rest rooms (and no smell!). What a boon. Especially coming from a country like India where the level of sanitation can drop to dismal lows, I was really thrilled to find clean loos. And most of them didn’t smell. I’m not sure how or what they did, but they didn’t announce their presence the way Indian loos did. Even in remote villages and towns, we were quite pleasantly surprised with the cleanliness and accessibility of restrooms, a major concern for travellers in India. And hardly anyone pees on the road (if it’s practiced, it wasn’t as noticeable as in our country).

Connected everywhere!. This was surprising as we were gearing up to be off the network for a few days. In fact, my fellow travellers armed themselves with local SIMs, which I decided not to go in for. And there was connectivity everywhere – whether it was the hotels, cafes, restaurants, a rustic home stay in a remote village or even our cruise boat on Halong Bay. Wi-Fi is a given and most places will let you use it for free. We actually weren’t off the network anywhere at all!

There are no overweight/obese people in Vietnam. This is actually true. In all our travels there, we didn’t come across one overweight person. Everyone seems to come out of the same sized mould! Despite the fact that their portions are generous and everyone is eating all the time. They’re doing something very right. I want their secret!

Enjoyed the trip immensely and wouldn’t mind returning to see parts of the country, which we missed out this time around.

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Why buy when you can try? Camera Equipment from Bookmylens.com

I’m super thrilled to announce my photography gear/equipment partner, Bookmylens.com, a camera and lens rental service based in Bangalore. They also offer additional services like photo editing, and monitor calibrating services.

FACEBOOK: BookMyLens | TWITTER: @bookmylens

On my Wayanad trip earlier in the month, I tried out a Canon 500D and a 17-85 mm lens and most of the photos from my earlier post was taken by this camera.

For me, photography is a way in which I can bring my stories alive. And it makes sense therefore to take updated gear and lenses when on a trip. But I discovered that you don’t really need to buy so much equipment, when you can easily just try it out for affordable prices instead. That way, depending on the kind of trip you’re going on and what you’re planning to do – you can decide on the equipment you want to carry. It’s a much better deal according to me, rather than accumulating a lot of equipment, which you might use only sporadically. Not to mention the fact that equipment can get frightfully expensive.

Goutham Shankar, who is the founder of BookMyLens (with a lot of support from his friends, family and customers, he says) answered a few questions I had of their service and I am sure you’ll find them useful too.

Q1. When did you start off and how did it happen?

BookMyLens is a photography equipment rental service company. We provide an easy and quick service for photography enthusiasts to experience all kinds of photography related equipments.

We have wide range of equipment covering entry level DSLRs, Pro-DSLRs, and Lenses ranging from 50mm to 600mm, video equipment (including our newly acquired cinema cameras like Black Magic), support rigs, audio equipment used for video shooting etc. which are used by budding photographers, wildlife photographers, wedding photographers, short filmmakers alike.

I started testing the waters sometime early 2011 and within a period of 5-6 months I was convinced with the business model, which I had in mind. By Sep 2012, I quit my IT job and started full time.

First and foremost reason for me to start this venture was my passion for photography. Having started as an amateur photographer in early 2005, which slowly turned out to be serious hobby over a period of time. That’s when I realized that not everyone could afford to buy photography related equipment owing to the huge cost and hassles involved in procuring them here, also felt the need for have different equipments under one roof.

I could figure out a huge potential in the market with just not hobbyist photographers but also for ad agencies, event companies, short filmmakers, wedding photographers etc., the demand is going to increase in the future.

I realized a rental service providing high quality gear at affordable prices was essential.

Q2. How has the scene changed over the years?

There has been a fantastic response (+ve). Lot of people want to try their hands on photography without the need of spending huge amount on buying these expensive equipments. On the other hand, there are lot of other rental companys which have come up in recent times which has lead to price wars.

Q3. Any bad experience or learnings in the last few years – things you hadn’t accounted for?

Lot of learnings, everyday there is a learning as in when we meet different customers. Lot of things we learnt and implemented it in a jiffy to make the entire business model stronger.

Q4. So who is your typical customer?

It’s a mixture of professional / amateurs. Apart from that we have lot of companys who rent our equipments for their in-house shoots.

Q5. What would you say your USP is? Why should someone come to you?

The market for photography is growing day by day exponentially. People have started to realise the ability to rent any kind of equipment without spending huge amounts.

There is a high demand for the same and so are the services available. One has to take care of all aspects including providing high quality gear, delivery/pick up and guiding people for picking the right equipment.

Our aim is to provide the best in class lenses, DSLRs, video equipments and accessories at affordable rentals and we believe that our service and range speaks for itself.

If you want to try out their services, head across to BookMyLens.com