Now that more countries are opening back up for travel and fun, it is time to start planning your next vacation. There is no shortage of amazing queer travel destinations, all packed with a welcoming vibe and loads of exciting activities to keep you busy during your stay. Here are six of the best queer travel destinations to consider for your adventure.
Explore the Birthplace of a Nation in Boston
As the capital of the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage, it is no surprise that Boston is an exceptionally queer-friendly travel location. Immerse yourself in the rich history of the country bytraversing the 2.5-mile Freedom Trail, featuring 16 historical sites that shaped the character of this nation. Boston also boasts an eclectic dining scene, great shopping opportunities, and charming neighborhoods that are begging to be explored. Bean Town is also known for being the birthplace of GLAD, affirming its spot as a city that is exceptionally friendly to queers.
Set Sail on a Cruise
Hit the high seas on a cruise for the ultimate balance of relaxation and exciting outdoor recreational opportunities. One of the best things about a cruise is that you can choose your itinerary and duration to fit your specific needs and preferences. For example, a Mediterranean cruise is perfect for those travelers who want to experience some of the most historically significant sites on the planet while also soaking up the warm sun any time of the year. Many cruise lines also offer specific sailings dedicated to the queer crowd, making it easy for you to connect with like-minded travelers and meet new friends.
Adventure of a Lifetime in Cape Town, South Africa
If you want something truly exotic, consider a trip to Cape Town, South Africa. This multicultural destination is a favorite for the queer population. The high-energy nightclubs, diverse cuisine, and stunning arts and cultural scene make this city a winner. This cosmopolitan city is the second-largest metropolitan area in Africa. Cape Town is also one of the best cities in the world to partake in Pride Week events, offering a variety of parades and festivals. After you have had enough of the city vibe, you can escape to the savannah for an African safari. There is nothing quite like Cape Town.
Immerse Yourself in the Cultural Melting Pot of Miami
You will not be disappointed in a trip to the gem of South Florida. Miami’s famous gay scene makes it a natural choice for your next queer-friendly vacation. Relax on South Beach during the day and then head to the sizzling nightclubs that line Collins Avenue at night. The city even boasts its own gay beach. Be sure to leave time to indulge in the authentic Cuban food and fresh seafood.
Soak Up the Sun and the Surf in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
This Mexican seaside resort town boasts stunning beaches, a lively nightlife scene, and color around every corner. Located along the Pacific Coast, you will enjoy endless sunshine and a host of outdoor recreational opportunities. Puerto Vallarta is distinguished as being one of the most gay-friendly resort towns in the world. The city has won multiple awards for its status as being a destination that is incredibly welcoming to the queer population. You will find accommodations in a variety of price points, making it easy to find a place to fit your budget and your personal tastes.
Leave Your Heart in San Francisco
No list of queer travel destinations is complete without mentioning San Francisco. This iconic city by the bay proudly boasts its status as America’s first gay headquarters. Take a spin on a trolley car, shop the stores along Fisherman’s Wharf, and nosh on clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls. For the ultimate queer experience, make your headquarters thefamed Castro District. Here you will find the legendary Castro Theatre, regularly featuring shows that cater to a gay and queer audience. You will never feel more affirmed than when visiting San Francisco.
Stoke the fires of your wanderlust by choosing one of these six fabulous travel destinations. You owe it to yourself to choose a destination that will allow you to embrace and celebrate your queerness.
Bali is a classic gay travel destination in Southeast Asia. You might be aware that Indonesia is not the most gay-friendly country, however Bali is quite the exception! The island has a special religious openness that has allowed them to welcome millions of gay tourists over the years.
Why Do Gay Men Love Bali?
Many gay holiday destinations attract travelers for specific reasons. Some examples are a vibrant gay culture, gay neighborhoods, popular gay beaches or exciting gay nightlife. Bali is unique in that this little slice of paradise offers tranquility for LGBTQ people, especially in a relatively inexpensive and gay-friendly atmosphere.
Gay travelers don’t tend to have huge dance parties or nude beaches in mind for their gay Bali experiences. There aren’t necessarily giant gay meetups. Instead, gay tourists seek private, luxurious accommodations and experiences, comfortable with the notion that other gay travelers will be nearby. This affords the a peaceful LGBTQ travel experience, obviously in addition to the lush tropical landscapes and friendly locals.
Where to Stay in Bali
Bali is a large island, and the southern half is quite heavily treaded. While you can find secluded enclaves all over, there are some general trends to keep in mind before you set out on your gay Bali adventure.
The airport is in the south in Denpasar. Staying in the south part of the island is easiest in terms of quick transport to your hotel. This is best if you’re short on time. A couple hours north is the famous town of Ubud, which is more peaceful. However with Bali’s exploding popularity, Ubud is also quite busy. In the very north of the island, you’ll find increasing numbers of truly secluded places to stay. This is to be expected however, since it takes quite a long time to reach there by car!
Options for Bali hotels, resorts and home stays are truly endless. Whether you’re looking for a tropical forest bungalow or a standard five star hotel, you’ll certainly have plenty to choose from. I’ll let you know about some of my favorite spots in the full wolfyy travel guide!
From afar, we spotted the glitter of the Royal Monastery of Brou’s glazed patterned roof tiles. Its burgundy, terracotta and emerald mosaic gleaming in the July sunshine.
I pulled over at the next intersection and found an empty spot under a sycamore. – Here we are! Mei shot me a smile, then grabbed her mask and climbed out of the car. We crossed a huge lawn towards the transept, then walked down to the apse to circle the church, marveling at the building’s sumptuous details. Only now did I notice the vastness of the nave. And only now did we realize the extent of the monastery.
A sign replete with Covid-19 recommendations lead us to the entrance of the monastic buildings, adjacent to the portal of the church. Wow! This is really a flamboyant Gothic masterpiece! Mei stepped back a few meters to catch a better view of the whole façade.
When we entered the church, it was empty. Not a soul lingered in the aisles nor in the choir. The rhythmic succession of pointed arches led us past fluted pilasters and profusely decorated stained glass windows. I suddenly stopped in my tracks. The iconography I was looking at seemed familiar and a bit void of religious essence. A couple was kneeling and facing each other. On the inscription on the banderol, I read: “Fortune infortune fort une”. “Both fortune and misfortune make a woman stronger”.
Now my interest was sparked, for this was not a typical monastery! Clearly, a story was lurking behind these stones; and a woman played a role in it. I walked to the choir and couldn’t find a display of an Ecce homo nor of a sculpture of Christ bleeding on the cross. But there were three tombs.
Protected in a niche, a recumbent statue of Margaret of Bourbon was tilting her head to the right, towards the center. I found this quite intriguing. Who was the subject of her eternal adoration? I moved closer to the central tomb, where I found two recumbent statues, one above the other. The upper one seemed almost alive, dressed in ceremonial attire with a sword, a feathered helmet and a discreet crown delicately placed on his head. I read the inscription: Philibert II, Duke of Savoy, also known as Philibert le Beau.
The name unlocked a treasure hidden deep inside my brain. I searched and searched… and history lessons from the past slowly unfolded in my mind: the siècle d’or – the Golden Age, the rivalry between Spain and France… I looked at the lower statue of the central tomb. There, the duke was clearly dead, stripped of all its glory and almost naked. Just like on the upper statue, Philibert’s eyes were turning towards the third tomb. There were also two recumbent statues displayed on two levels. However, those are female effigies.
Mei whispered in my ear: – that is Margaret of Austria, Philibert le Beau’s wife. – So, wait! Then who was Margaret of Bourbon, the one who’s looking at Philibert? – His mother! – So, the mother is looking at her son, who has been contemplating his wife for five hundred years!? This representation of conjugal love moved me. Mei gifted me with a smile, her way of showing me her bemusement of my lurking but secret romanticism.
Suddenly, the foggy curtain of my academic studies lifted. It all came back at once. Of course! How could I have forgotten about this? I ignored the anger that was stirring up inside me and turned to the last tomb, where Margaret of Austria was locking eyes with her lost love. She was a young widow and could not forget the three years of marriage she shared with Philibert. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she did not choose to share a tomb with her husband, but instead opted for this display of eternal longing. I could not help but admire her subtlety.
She had wanted all effigies to be depicted as life-size statues. And surrounded by lovers’ knots binding Margaret and Philibert’s monograms together. She herself was portraited as a regal duchess on the upper level. But very simple on the lower one, with her hair untied and loosely draped around her shoulders. Her head was gently inclined toward Philibert’s tomb.
In the first part of the monastery, we learned more about the fascinating project of this monument. The Royal Monastery of Brou was in fact commissioned by Margaret of Austria. Born in 1480, she was the only daughter of Maximilian of Austria, also known as the Holy Roman Emperor. Margaret was first engaged to Charles, the son of King Louis XI of France, when she was only three years old (!). Her whole education was refined, polished and oriented to prepare her for her future role as Queen of France. But her fiancé chose a different wife eleven years after the engagement. So, Margaret was left hurt and mocked.
Her father then started negotiating with Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. Their only son John should be wed to Margaret. She embarked on a ship to reach Spain in 1496, but it went all wrong. During the crossing, the ship hit a storm. In a hurry, facing death, Margaret drafted her own epitaph:
“Here lies Margaret, the willing bride, Twice married – but a virgin when she died.”
Margaret of Austria survived the storm and married prince John a year later. The marriage however lasted only about six months, as her husband suddenly died of fever. She was pregnant but gave birth to a stillborn daughter shortly afterwards. Without a husband and an heir, her role was once again threatened.
In 1501, she finally married Philibert II, Duke of Savoy. This time, everything seemed to work well: the newly wedded couple immediately fell in love with each other. And it was the happiest time of Margaret’s life, as she would point out in her later correspondence with the great minds of the European courts. But Philibert died of pleurisy in 1504, only three years after their wedding. At that time, Margaret of Austria was only 24 years old. Widowed and heartbroken, she tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a window but was saved. She then considered taking religious vows for a while, but finally ended up with another – much better idea. She decided to build a monastery on the outskirts of Bourg-en-Bresse as the final resting place for Philibert and herself. The construction project of the Royal Monastery of Brou was thus launched in 1505.
During the construction works of the monastery, Margaret kept working. She became regent of the Netherlands in 1506. And took care of the education of her nephew Charles, who later became the great emperor Charles V. Margaret was known as a patron of the arts and appointed the best architects and artists of her time to build the Royal Monastery of Brou. She also possessed an impressive library with books ranging from ethical treaties to poetry. Her court was visited by many renowned humanists such as Erasmus, Adrian of Utrecht and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa.
When we crossed the second cloister of the monastery towards the first floor, which now hosts a museum of fine and decorative art of Bourg-en-Bresse, we both had to agree that Margaret of Austria’s reign was one that was marked by love. Love for her family, love for her nephew and nieces which she helped raise. And above all, love for her husband Philibert. She dressed as a widow for half of her life and categorically refused to remarry after Philibert’s death. In the end, the lovers reunited in death inside the sumptuous Royal Monastery of Brou. More than a simple monastery, it’s a temple of eternal love.
I guess, no quote is better fitted than Henry Van Dyke’s: “Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.”
First of all: get to a hospital and take all your legal documents with you. Make sure to have your passport and if you have it: your travel insurance card.
Then, make sure to let the doctor or nurse know about your insurance policy. The sooner they can connect you to your policy, the better.
In some cases, you’ll have to pay the cost of everything out of your pocket before filling in a claim. Make sure to have a decent travel card to pay for everything you need.
In other cases, your insurance company will take care of everything. Depending on the policy you have or the company you’re with, they will have guidelines to follow.
But always: the patient or victim needs to get help first. Payments and insurance come later.
Take pictures of all receipts you have during the time in and around the hospital. Those are not only hospital ills, but also bills for meals, drinks, transportation, and of course medical bills. Quite a few insurance providers will reimburse expenses you make at the hospital.
LGBT or gay travel is different from normal travel. I wish it weren’t but sadly that’s the reality we live with. Your sexuality, appearance and mannerism can have a significant impact on your experience. Travelling becomes especially tricky if you are from a minority group. It gets even harder if you are ‘visibly’ LGBTQ+ and harder still if you’re part of the ethnic minorities or BAME group.
I wanted to share my take on the idea of gay travel or LGBT travel and things I do to stay safe with a fulfilling experience while travelling.
What is Queer Travel?
Gay travel or LGBT travel is the experience gay or LGBT people have while travelling. It is not about heading to gay exclusive resorts or gay-only cruises nor is it about heading to the gay bars, clubs and saunas in any location only. It is about culture, thrill, excitement, learning but also about exposure to other countries, places and people. The challenge comes from other people mostly not from the LGBT community.
Personally, I’m not a club or bar person and prefer sitting quietly next to the rivers with a drink than the loudness of bars. I prefer meeting local guys over apps like Grindr and Scruff. I love my sunrise and sunset experiences than hungover mornings in bed.
I have divided this article into four sections; research, safety, local LGBT support and exposure.
Should I Travel to Countries Where It’s Illegal to Be Gay?
Yes, yes and yes! I have heard it countless times that we must save our rainbow dollars and not head to any country where homosexuality is illegal. I understand there is a lot of anger and trauma behind this reason but the reason I am so passionately in favour of this idea is that it helps the local LGBT communities. Most of the times, governments in strictest of countries do not touch tourists on such issues to avoid losing tourism income. We must use this opportunity to support local LGBT population, bring them to exposure and help their fight against repression BUT safely. Your safety is the most important thing and you should avoid unnecessary risks for this cause. I have added some resources at the end which you can provide to locals for help and support.
What Research Should I Do?
Every country you are headed to has two things that need to be researched; legality of homosexuality which is easy and the social attitudes to it, which is wayyyy harder. Countries like Georgia and Armenia have legalised homosexuality but it is still a taboo topic with hostile attitude from locals. Reception to gay travel/LGBT travel also varies within bigger countries like the USA. Luckily the internet is my friend and I have some great resources when it comes to doing this research.
Disclaimer: I do acknowledge that I am a masculine-ish tall, athletic white-passing guy with privilege so my experience is not going to be the same as others but I still find these resources to be a good starting point. The rest you can only find when you arrive.
Legality of Homosexuality
I found some very useful sources which provide free information on LGBT rights, criminalisation and discrimination. My favourite most is Equaldex. Just click on any country on the map and it will show you the details of various aspects including the age of consent and prison sentence if applicable. It is a handy guide and regularly updated.
Like I mentioned before, it is difficult to gauge the attitude of locals unless you get there. A good starting point is Global Divide on Homosexuality from the Pew Research Centre. It has data from 39 countries that provide a general guide.
Blogs like mine are also a great source of information and you can get a firsthand account of gay travellers. There’s quite a variety of gay travel bloggers so you are bound to get some good information. I mostly post about the safety and attitudes as part of my city and country guides including my experience. An example is here for Ukraine.
Another great source is the Venture feature on Scruff App. It is useful to connect with locals and you can see who else is heading to the destination in the same dates. The Explore option lets you choose to interact with local guys on Scruff but limited to a few profiles, Grindr has this feature only for Premium customers and it also excludes countries where homosexuality is illegal from Explore feature (like Iran, Pakistan, Uganda etc.).
I usually talk to locals and it has helped me immensely not only to get a sense of what to expect but also to make great friends and travel companions. These apps do have a useful part of play in gay travel/LGBT travel indeed.
Another useful place to check with people who have already been to your destination is the LGBTQ Travel Group on Facebook. It gives a fairly good idea of others’ experiences.
If you are looking for more details, you can find the Harvard Guide for gay travel/LGBT travel here, it is primarily for their staff and students but it is very helpful if you are looking for more resources.
Safety and LGBTQ+ Travel
Safety is the most important aspect while travelling. It is sometimes irrelevant how exotic or amazing a place is if you aren’t feeling safe. Gay travel/LGBT travel is an amazing and rewarding experience when you know your rights. It helps you choose if you’d like to come out or be diplomatic about your sexuality or just straight away deny it.
I wrote an article that details all precautions including apps, you can use to stay safe. I follow some of these precautions religiously to ensure I have a safe trip, you can find the details here along with a youtube video. While it is for solo travellers, it is equally relevant to LGBT travel.
I also found an amazing in-depth guide from ManAboutTheWorld, it is very detailed and covers many topics including Trans Travel which is a very interesting read. It made me appreciate the courage of our trans friends who still face enormous challenges for simple things in life like travelling.
Support Local Queer Community & Businesss
Gay Travel/LGBT travel is a huge industry and we must use it to support our own community around the world. Most of these communities live underground and you can only be part of the scene if you know someone local. While planning a trip, I try my best to spend money at LGBT venues, book tours with LGBT friendly or LGBT owned businesses. BUT…
Say No to Rainbow Capitalism
Not every company with a pride flag sticker at the door is an ally. Most big chains use it as part of corporate diversity agendas with no actual support for LGBT employees. Another type is the set of companies which exploit the LGBT community to bring in business.
A good example is Misterbnb. As much as I loved the idea, it has been executed pretty badly. The rental prices for literally the same listings on Airbnb are cheaper. They also have horrible customer service (personal experience first hand during a trip) and the worst part was when they decided to keep the service charges for all cancelled bookings due to COVID 19 crisis. All these things point out to rainbow capitalism and a company exploiting LGBT community by throwing a rainbow flag in our faces. My recommendation is to stay away.
Supporting LGBTQ Businesses
LGBT communities around the world are small parts of a bigger network and we must support them. This is especially essential for underground communities where LGBT activist or members are shunned by their families and/or the society in general. I love exploring local spaces, especially in marginalised communities because this interaction is really beneficial both ways. I get to count my blessings for the freedom and the realisation that the fight is not over yet and they get a ray of hope and some support needed. Gay travel/LGBT travel is the perfect way to support multiple industries.
If you are an LGBT business and want to add your link below please contact me.
If you are not comfortable where you’re staying, it can be a big strain on your trip and the annoying part is, it doesn’t go away until you leave. Luckily help is at hand in terms of platforms that provide listings that are with gay or LGBT friendly or establishments that are run by LGBT owners. Is there a better way to feel better than getting the security AND supporting LGBT hotel industry as well!
I really like PurpleRoofs, it is a great platform where you can check places and most of them come with a discount as well. It is especially great for the Americas.
Out Adventures is an LGBT company for tours. You can find more details on their website here.
Another great source is Go Overseas the LGBT section, more details here.
I am not a cruise person but a google search reveals plenty of LGBT cruises. The one that stood out is Atlantis Cruises, they seem to be the pioneers of LGBT cruises.
LGBT Hospitality, Bars & Clubs
Travel Gay publishes a list of all LGBT venues in a city including restaurants, bars and clubs and it is regularly updated. You can check it here.
Blogs are also very helpful in providing details of LGBT venues and events especially their experience.
Exposure and Ambassadorship
Gay travel/LGBT travel is an opportunity to increase exposure to LGBT lives but we must do this safely. There is something very liberating about changing people’s minds about their ideas of LGBT people. This is particularly important for countries where homosexuality is a taboo subject.
If I feel comfortable, I mention it to people I meet but only in a safe way after winning their trust, if I don’t feel comfortable I have a conversation after my return. It has worked really well a lot of the time and I have won some great friends who were happy to know a gay person. The Middle East responds very well to this methodology especially.
The second part of this is to help the local community by providing them exposure to mental and sexual health resources. My favourite website that provides good information is Hard Cell. it explores and provides information on most sexual behaviours including fetishes. It also provides information on sexual health and use of drugs. It is a great one-stop-shop for gay sex information.
I also found that people are very shy about these things so I’d always recommend using condoms with you. Please remember a lot of these people have no access to sexual health screening and you could be giving them a lot of trouble for a hookup. Prep DOES NOT prevent other STI’s and a lot of countries in the Middle East do full health screens including checks for STI’s before employment. If caught punishments are severe. Very important for Syphilis especially.
For mental health, I have struggled to find anything that is free but this is a good starting guide from Mind.
Being able to travel freely, without prejudice and all this work is a dream of mine one day, I hope it comes true soon but until then the fight must continue. A safe gay travel trip is an amazing thing that will win you many friends, just be yourself, relax and enjoy.
This article was written by Usman at Brown Boy Travels. All views expressed in this article are the author’s.
I am a hippie in a suit essentially. I have made it my mission to see every country in the world balancing it with a full time banking job. I practice Ashtanga yoga with passion and don’t believe in borders. I mostly travel solo and encourage it as well because it helped me immensely with my mental health. Obsessed with history, architecture, food, yoga, sunsets, beaches, local traditions & festivals, I love exploring every place like a local while making friends in every corner of the world. Join me on the journey one beautiful place at a time…
Oh no! Nooooo! I can’t believe I just said “Venice”! Noooo!!! Never had I wished so hard to be able to turn back time! Just one minute. Or maybe even 2 seconds would have been enough. Suddenly, tears rolled down my cheeks and I felt like jumping into a hole in the ground and bury myself alive.
Next to me, Kerstin couldn’t stop laughing. The more she laughed, the more I cried. We were both sitting in her car. Queuing. Waiting to pick up our order in a Mc Donald’s Drive-in. Next to our car, stood a gigantic blue bin… which stank of oily burgers and fries. There couldn’t possibly be a less romantic spot on Earth. And I could not possibly have found a worse place and a worse moment to reveal to my wife where I was going to “kidnap” her after Christmas Day. The location where we were going to spend the romantic Twixmas week that I had been planning in secret for months!
No, the stupid me could not have kept my mouth shut for once. No, I had to talk like a waterfall after a long stressful and tiring week at work… and then make that stupid mistake by saying something as meaningless as “yeah… I didn’t have time to get a Christmas present for that colleague, you know, but I thought I could just buy her something when we’re in Venice…”
Venice… Venice! Yes, Venice! One single innocent word. But the ONLY word I was not supposed to pronounce until Christmas Eve! Until the moment Kerstin opened my Christmas present.
Now thinking back, I know that it was funny. Ridiculously funny. That’s why Kerstin kept laughing so loud. And I know that I overreacted. But it was way beyond my control. And to be honest, I’m still angry with myself. And disappointed.
For years, I had planned many surprise trips for Kerstin. I loved the secrecy of the planning, and I had always managed to keep the secret alive, up till the very last moment. For Bergamo, she didn’t find out until we arrived at the airport. And when we road tripped through Burgundy from Tanlay to Vézelay, the destinations were revealed to her upon each stop on the road.
Planning surprise trips for my wife was somehow my hidden talent. And I was proud of it… until the moment I failed. Boom! Big time.
But perhaps one needs to fail at a particular incident every now and then. So that this specific situation can be followed by a series of perfect events. This is exactly what happened with our trip to Venice. For our whole trip was so perfect that sometimes I still wonder if Venice was not merely a dream…
Venice from the sky
It started with that aerial view from my window seat on a December 26. We were gazing at the majestic Alps, trying to figure out whether we were flying over France or Switzerland.
For a moment, our minds had wandered off to old travel memories and we had talked about Chamonix and Lake Annecy. But all of a sudden, the rugged mountain range was replaced by a cityscape. Not a mass of grey buildings and matchbox cars like in Paris. Nor an overwhelming grid city like Los Angeles. Unlike any place we have flown into, Venice from the sky seemed like a blurry dream.
A diffuse morning haze lingering above Venice drew us into the city. Water was stretching as far as the eye could see and it was hard to distinguish between the water- and the skyline. A lagoon was glistening in the early sunlight. Like a snake, Venice’s Grand Canal slithered through the city, dividing it into two. Among the maze of red rooftops, we spotted a few white domes, and the iconic Campanile di San Marco. But when our plane started to land, little did we know about these majestic Venetian buildings…
Venice from the Grand Canal
The first impression of a person, a book or a place matters a lot to me. Because no matter how much time passes, the first impression will stay with me forever. Most of the times, I cannot control the first perception. But when a possibility presents itself to make our entrance into a place memorable and worthwhile, I choose that option. Even if it means that we would have to pay a bit more.
When we walked out of Marco Polo airport, most people headed to the bus or train station. Traveling to the city center by road is the less expensive option. But we chose to take a water bus. For Venice is a water city. And the arrival scene of Angelina Jolie in The Tourist had convinced me that we should enter Venice on a boat.
Watching the waves crashing against our Alilaguna boat, as it moved forward towards Venice’s cityline, stirred up our enthusiasm. Like two little schoolgirls, we sat next to each other, holding tightly on our luggage, smiling at each other while looking out of the boat’s windows.
When we reached the Grand Canal, the boat slowly moved forward along majestic Venetian Renaissance and Baroque palaces. One next to another, the historic monuments blossomed in the morning sunlight. When I spotted the red façade of the 17th century Palazzo Fontana Rezzonico, my heart started to pound, while Kerstin couldn’t take her eyes off of the 15th century Ca’ d’Oro. By the time we reached the Rialto Bridge, I still couldn’t believe we were finally in Venice.
Venice from the Ego Boutique Hotel The Silk Road
Oh, you must be Mei and Kerstin! Welcome to our hotel! Never had we been greeted more warmheartedly than at the Ego Boutique Hotel The Silk Road.
I had booked a hotel about three months prior to our trip. But one week before we left Luxembourg, I stumbled on the Ego Boutique Hotel while looking for places in Venice related to Marco Polo and the Silk Road. The few photos of this hotel that I found made me dream… So, I contacted Ekaterina, the hotel owner, who explained to me that their hotel was brand new. It opened only a week before Venice was hit by one of the worst acqua alta in the 20th century. Due to the high waters, they had to close down the hotel for a while. So, we would be among their first customers, and she was happy to offer us a good deal.
I didn’t hesitate long to accept her kind offer and canceled the hotel I had booked before.
When Ekaterina personally led us into the Imperial Suite, all the decor and furniture down the smallest detail left us speechless. That night, we stayed for hours in our private jacuzzi, relishing the Venetian dream we had been living from the moment we spotted the city from the plane.
And that dream continued the next morning, as we savored the view of the Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge right from our king size bed.
Venice from the Basilica di San Marco
Three hours later and a tasty gourmet breakfast in our stomach, we finally managed to leave our hotel. Venice was void of crowds. Stores were opened, restaurants were being delivered their daily fresh ingredients, and here and there we came across a few tourists strolling around with their smartphones.
When a narrow street led us to the Piazza San Marco, we stood aghast in front of the iconic plaza. No tourists. Hmm. Where is everyone? Acqua alta had clearly scared away many people.
Both the Campanile and the Basilica di San Marco drew us towards them. We couldn’t find a line to queue, since there was no line. As we entered into the Basilica, I told Kerstin that no one would ever believe us when we’d tell them how empty Venice was…
Known by the nickname Chiesa d’Oro (Church of gold), the Basilica di San Marco in Venice dates back to the 11th century. The floor, pillars and lower parts of the interior walls are entirely in polychrome marble, whereas the upper levels and ceilings are covered with dazzling gold ground mosaic (about 8000 square meters!).
With a distinctly Byzantine design and a Venetian style of the Renaissance art, the Basilica kept us inside longer than we had expected. We were mesmerized by its opulence and couldn’t stop looking up at all the details. And once again, we were caught in another Venetian dream…
Venice from the Doge’s Palace
We didn’t see the Palazzo Ducale (or Doge’s Palace) immediately when we walked across the famous Piazza San Marco. Perhaps, we were too focused on the Campanile and the Basilica next door. But once we laid our eyes on the Doge’s Palace, we couldn’t take them off of its facade built in Venetian Gothic style.
Founded in 1340, the Doge’s Palace served as the residence of the Doge of Venice (the chief magistrate and leader of the former Republic of Venice). But it was also the seat of the government until 1797 when the City fell at the hands of Napoleon. In 1923, the palace was transformed into a museum.
The weekend tourists arrived in bunches, when we were ready to enter the Doge’s Palace on the third day of our trip. Thanks to the 3-in-1 museum ticket that we bought the day before, we accessed the museum without queuing.
From the palace’s apartments to the institutional chambers, the whole building is profusely decorated. We spent almost half a day inside the Doge’s Palace to examine all the architectural details. And let the historical paintings on the walls and ceilings guide us through Venice’s past and make us dream away…
Venice from the Bridge of Sighs
There are more than 400 foot bridges in Venice. The Ponte dei Sospiri, or Bridge of Sighs, is one of the top tourist spots in Venice. From the outside, this enclosed arched bridge that passes over the Rio di Palazzo doesn’t really look interesting. But what’s interesting is the reason it is called the Bridge of Sighs, as well as the view of Venice from the inside…
Built in 1614 to link the city’s (new) prison to the interrogation rooms in Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs was the last corridor that the convicts passed through before imprisonment. Legend has it that prisoners sighed while crossing this bridge as it was their last chance to look at freedom through the bridge’s small windows.
When we stood inside this enclosed bridge, peeking out at the crowds standing on the Ponte della Paglia who were looking back at us, we imagined what the convicts must have felt back then…
The Venice of Marco Polo
About a year before our trip to Venice, we started to read the Travel memoirs of Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant and explorer who traveled from Venice to Xian along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295. That’s when we decided to follow Polo’s footsteps and to explore the Ancient Silk Road in China in the summer of 2019. Spending our Twixmas trip in Venice, where Polo was born and grew up, was therefore the perfect way to end our year.
However, to our surprise, it wasn’t easy to find any historical place related to Marco Polo in Venice! After spending a whole morning strolling around every little corner of the city, through narrow streets and along quiet canals, all we could find was Marco Polo’s house.
The house cannot be visited, and the only noticeable element is a small and discreet plaque on its facade, on which it is written that Marco Polo lived here. Standing two meters below that plaque, we both scrutinized it for a minute. Behind us, a gondola made its way under the Calle Scaleta. All of a sudden, the gondolier’s singing voice disrupted the utter silence and propelled us back into the 13th century. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I caught a glimpse of Marco Polo behind the window… or was I just dreaming?
Venice at sunset
Some say that sunsets are always the same, wherever you go. I like to think that whoever says this has never really experienced a sunset with his or her full senses. For us, sunsets are linked to memories. And to feelings of specific moments, as the ones you remember because you held hands, or kissed.
From Malta to San Francisco, from Santorini to Halong Bay, each of the sunsets we laid eyes on and felt have burnt their last violet sunray in our heart. But when the Venetian sky started to blush and slowly turned into crimson, we had to hold our breath. And make space in our heart for this specific sunset.
Standing at the bay, we looked out into the open lagoon. The tower of Palladio’s church in the distance invited us over to the island. But we felt good where we were, in front of the ebony gondolas, lined up between wooden poles and gurgling wavelets.
“In the end, there’s always this city. As long as it exists, I don’t believe that I, or for that matter, anyone, can be mesmerized or blinded by romantic tragedy.” – Joseph Brodsky
What exactly is Vietnamese food? It seems like all the Vietnamese dishes are similar! I looked at my friend in disbelief. My facial expression was probably as shocking to him, as what he said was to me. So, I told him about what happened to us on the first day we arrived in Hanoi:
Sitting on a pink plastic stool, I waited impatiently for my bowl of Pho. When we were finally served, I looked at my dish, at Kerstin, and then at the waiter. Why does my Pho look like this? Where are the fresh white onions, cilantro, lime, bean sprouts, and all other “green” stuff? Where are the beef meatballs? And where are all the side sauces?
Our local guide in Hanoi giggled. I can see that you are from Southern Vietnam…. I explained to him that I was born and grew up in Luxembourg. Only my family is from Vietnam. But yes, they used to live in Saigon. Ah, yes, I see! Well, only Southern Vietnamese people eat Pho with so many different toppings. Maybe because they can’t prepare a sophisticated Pho? Our guide giggled again. I could sense an air of mockery…
I must admit that before visiting Vietnam, I had no idea that Pho or any other Vietnamese food is prepared differently depending on the region. Now to my friend, who thought that all Vietnamese dishes taste the same, I urged him to visit Vietnam. Then he’ll perceive the differences, not only in the variety of Vietnamese dishes, but also in regional flavors.
From appetizers to desserts, let me take you on this journey through Vietnamese cuisine… and introduce you to our 20 favorite Vietnamese dishes.
1. GOI CUON
Goi Cuon is my absolute favourite Vietnamese appetizer. Sometimes called spring roll, summer roll, cold roll or rice paper roll, Goi Cuon is believed to be introduced to Vietnam by Chinese immigrants. In Northern Vietnam, they call it Nem Cuon. This is probably the reason why I couldn’t find any Goi Cuon when we visited Hanoi and Halong Bay. The locals couldn’t or didn’t want to understand what I wanted to order…
But it didn’t matter, for I know how to prepare Goi Cuon myself. It is actually one of the rare (only?) Vietnamese dishes that I can prepare, because it its quite easy. Goi Cuon are served cold or at room temperature. So there is no need to cook nor deep-fry the rolls. All you need are cooked prawns, slivers of pork, fresh vegetables, and bun (rice vermicelli). Then wrap a bit of everything in a banh trang (rice paper), before dipping the rolls in a Hoisin sauce, to which you can add a few fresh chili and crumbles of nuts.
2. CHA GIO
I grew up with the smell of Cha Gio. Every morning at 4am my mother prepared hundreds of Cha Gio filled with ground meat – may it be pork, beef, or chicken -, and diced vegetables such as carrots, kohlrabi, bean sprouts and jicama. When I brushed my teeth, she was deep frying the rolls. By the time I finished my breakfast, she was ready to take the bus to Luxembourg City, where the warm crispy and golden rolls would be sold within hours.
It’s not easy to obtain a perfect Cha Gio: the way the ingredients are prepared and mixed, the quantity of ingredients to be wrapped, the degree of moisture of the rice papers, the way the Cha Gio are rolled, the temperature of the oil in which the rolls should be fried, the way they’re being put into the boiled oil, the amount of time they’re inside, AND the way you take them out… every little detail matters! Even the way you stack the rolls once they’re done matters! But if a Cha Gio is well made, you’ll love it! You wouldn’t even need to dip it into Nuoc Nam fish sauce!
3. BANH CUON
Originally from Northern Vietnam, Banh Cuon is a made from steamed fermented rice batter, shaped as thin delicate sheets. These rice sheets are then filled with minced mushrooms, shallots, and seasoned ground pork. Once they’re steamed, you taste them with slices of Cha (pork or chicken saussage), topped with fried shallots, sliced cucumber and lots of Nuoc Nam fish sauce. There is also a variant of Banh Cuon in Thai cuisine, called khao phan.
4. NEM CHUA
Nem Chua is a fermented pork dish. It’s sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Since they’re usually served or sold in bite sizes, you can put them in a salad, or eat them as a snack. When I was a kid, I loved devouring a nem cha after school, while all my friends ate chocolates or cookies.
5. BANH XEO
Literally “sizzling cake”, Banh Xeo is a fried pancake made of rice flour. Stuffed with shrimps, lots of soja bean sprouts, onions and fatty pork, Banh Xeo is actually not eaten like a crepe, although that’s how most Westerners eat it. You cut it and wrap it either in a banh trang (rice paper) or huge lettuce leaves, along with a few mint leaves and basil. Then you dip it in Nuoc Nam fish sauce.
For those who don’t like to eat with your hands, stay away from Banh Xeo, or eat it like Westerners do with a fork and a knife. The best Banh Xeo I have ever had was at the local market in Hoi An. They even topped the ones my mother cooked!
6. BUN BO HUE
The name of this dish says it all: it’s a bun (rice vermicelli) with bo (beef) from Hue (former capital located in Central Vietnam). The broth of Bun Bo Hue is cooked with beef bones, beef shank, onions, coriander and lots of lemongrass.
Some people add pig’s knuckles and cubes of coagulated pig blood. I know this sounds weird and perhaps even disgusting to some people. But keep in mind that pig blood curd is in fact a popular delicacy in Vietnam, as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Bun Bo Hue tastes best if you add a spoonful fermented shrimp paste, fresh mint and basil.
7. NEM NUONG
If you love barbecued meat, then you will love Nem Nuong. This Vietnamese dish from Nha Trang consists of chargrilled pork meatballs, infused with shallots, black pepper, and Nuoc Nam fish sauce. Nem Nuong is served with fresh vegetables, such as lettuce, carrots and mint leaves. It is accompanied either with rice noodles or rice. And of course topped with lots of Nuoc Nam fish sauce, like most Vietnamese dishes!
I suppose that by now, I don’t need to explain what Pho is. Let’s just say that if there is one Vietnamese dish that you need to know and taste, it would be Pho, because it’s considered as Vietnam’s national dish.
Today, it is savoured during lunchtime or dinnertime. But originally, Pho is sold at dawn and dusk by roaming street vendors. My father always says that pho is not a “real” meal. It’s a noodle soup meant to be slurped quickly in the street, sometimes still sitting on your motorbike. The broth is prepared in huge cauldrons hours in advance. And the noodles can be cooked in boiled water within a minute or two. So Pho can almost be considered as a type of junk food. But the healthy kind of junk food…
The interesting thing is that Pho exists only since the beginning of the 20th century! It became popular throughout the world thanks to Vietnamese refugees who fled the war. And in 2007, the word Pho was even added to the Oxford English Dictionary.
9. BANH MI
Literally, Banh Mi means bread. All kinds of bread. But since the French introduced the baguette in Vietnam, the term is now commonly used to designate a “Vietnamese sandwich”. Less crusty than the Parisian baguette, the Vietnamese baguette is still much better than a zillion other kinds of breads around the world. But unlike the French sandwiches, Banh Mi also have typical Vietnamese ingredients, such as Nuoc Nam fish sauce, pickled carrots, and cilantro.
When we lived in Paris, I used to eat a banh mi during lunchtime instead of any other types of sandwiches. Sometimes, I wondered if my mouth smelled of Nuoc Nam fish sauce during classes? But then, my professors and classmates didn’t seem to have noticed it…
10. BUN RIEU
Bun Rieu is a specialty from the Mekong Delta. It’s a rice vermicelli soup with fresh tomatoes, eggs, crab and shrimp paste. As many other Southern Vietnamese soups, Bun Rieu is of course also topped with lots of fresh vegetables, such as green onions, cilantro, bean sprouts, and Vietnamese water spinach stems (called rau muong).
11. BANH CANH
When I was a kid, I used to hate Banh Canh, because the thick noodles made of tapioca and rice flour reminded me of worms. Now I love Banh Canh, especially when I’m cold but don’t want to gain more weight. They are often compared to Japanese Udon, but these Vietnamese noodles taste less sweet.
Banh Canh from Southern Vietnam includes fish balls, pork and herbs. But in other Vietnamese regions, the broth can be shrimp-flavoured, crab-flavoured, and sometimes includes pork knuckles.
12. CHAO TÔM
Chao Thom is another traditional dish from Hue in Central Vietnam. As the name says it, this dish is made of shrimp (tôm). It’s actually shrimp surimi grilled on a sugar cane stick. Honestly, it’s the shrimp’s flavour on the sugar cane that is delicious, not really the grilled shrimp itself. Chao Tôm is often served as an appetizer. In North American and Europe, it is sometimes served as a meal with bun (vermicelli), mint, carrot, lettuce, and crushed peanuts.
13. HU TIEU
Very similar to Pho, Hu Tieu is a noodle soup originated from the Chinese Teo-chew ethnic (my ancestor’s origin!), who settled in Southeast Asia. In Teo-chew dialect, it is called koe-tiau. Usually eaten at breakfast, Hu Tieu is also a famous dish in Thailand, Cambodia (called kuy teav), Singapore, and other Southeast Asian countries.
Compared to Pho, the rice noodles of Hu Tieu are square-formed. And unlike Pho, you have to dress the quickly boiled noodles with garlic oil, sugar, oyster sauce and soy sauce, before adding the broth made of pork or chicken bones. Other ingredients include seafood, chicken, and pig’s blood jelly. Hu Tieu can also be tasted as a dry noodle dish. In this version, instead of adding the broth to the seasoned noodles, just serve the soup in a seperate bowl.
14. COM TAM (+ BI CHA TET NUONG)
Literally “broken rice”, Com Tam is a rice dish from Saigon made of fractured rice grains. It is served with grilled pork, bi (thinly shredded pork skin), steamed egg, and fresh sliced cucumber. This dish is usually topped with Nuoc Nam fish sauce, but I personally prefer the grilled pork’s sauce, mixed with caramelized onions. Since Com Tam is a rather dry meal, you usually “cleanse your throat” with a bowl of broth on the side.
15. BO LUC LAC
This cubed beef sauteed dish is a French-inspired Vietnamese dish. My father used to tell me that this is what they ate when they went to a “European” restaurant in Vietnam. But except for lettuce, the fresh sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, nothing in this dish is European.
The name of this dish derives from the shape of the beef: “Luc Lac” literally means small cubes the size of a dice. Why is the meat cut like that? Well, it is an Asian custom to cut meats in small pieces before cooking them, and not on your plate. Firstly because it’s easier to eat with chopsticks, and secondly because using a knife on the table was considered as rude. Bo Luc Lac is not just served with fresh vegetables and slices of onions, but the beef cubes are to be dipped in a sauce made of salt, pepper and lime juice.
16. CANH CHUA
Canh Chua is Kerstin’s absolute favourite soup. Originated from the Mekong Delta, this sweet and sour soup is made of tamarind-flavoured broth with fish (from the Mekong River), tomatoes, coriander, basil, lemony-scented herbs, bean sprouts and pineapples. Canh Chua is usually served with white rice, which is then a side dish for the fish. A little tip: always take the fish out of the pot, before serving the soup.
17. CA KHO TO
Ca Kho To is another Vietnamese dish made of fish. But this time it’s catfish, cooked in a clay pot with caramelized sauce (nuoc mau), shallots, and tons of Nuoc Nam fish sauce. If you don’t like fish, you can also get the same dish with beef (called Bo Kho), or with porc, eggs and coconut juice (Thit Kho). But either way, you’ll love the sauce of this Southern Vietnamese comfort dish!
Traditional Vietnamese desserts, mostly consisting of sweet drinks or sweet soups, are usually called Chè. There are a lot of varieties, both hot and cold. The most famous chè is certainly Chè Ba Mau. It contains “three colours”: green beans, red beans, and yellow beans, mixed in coconut milk and lots of crushed ice.
Our favourite version of Vietnamese sweet drink is however Chè Dau Do. It contains red beans, tapioca and coconut milk.
19. STICKY RICE DESSERTS
There are also many Vietnamese desserts which are made with glutinous rice. One of my favorite steamed sticky rice dessert is with bananas, packed in banana leaves. But I also love sticky rice with fresh mango and topped with warm coconut sauce.
20. BANH LA DUA
Originally from Indonesia, pandan cake is popular in many Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In Vietnamese, pandan leaves are called la dua. So the cake is called Banh La Dua. And yes, it really is green. But no, it is not weird. It’s light, fluffly, spongy, and simply yummy! Some bakeries sell pandan cakes filled with strawberries or whipped cream. While others top it with shredded coconuts. Kerstin like the one with whipped cream, whereas I prefer the simple chiffon cake, savored with a glass of cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee).
What about you? Which is your favourite Vietnamese dish?
Travel is a way to connect with the world. And travel the world with your life partner is a way to get closer to each other, to connect with each other, and to tigthen the bond so much that you feel like nothing bad in the world could ever harm you. Because you have each other, know each other, love each other… This is what we feel about traveling the world together. But we’re sure that we are not the only couple on the planet who thinks that.
Not so long ago, we stumbled on the Instagram account of Chelsea and Ash, a queer couple from Minneapolis. After reading their story, we found out that travel matters to them as a couple as much as it does to us. So, we decided to ask them to share their story with us – and with you – and to all the LGBTQ+ community.
Meet the girls behind “En Route with Love”!
I’d always held the belief that I needed to be able to travel with my partner before making any life-changing commitments because there are so many intense moments that happen en route. Beautiful moments. Scary moments. Difficult moments. Memorable moments. You really get to know the person you are with when you’re spending two or more weeks together in a new country. Lucky for me, Ash was that perfect travel companion, and that perfect partner.
When explaining how we met, my wife tells the same story every time. It varies slightly from mine in that Ash loves sharing how instantly passionate I became around the topic of travel. It was a Saturday night at a local Minneapolis queer bar when I first saw Ash. After some prodding from my friend, and a little liquid courage, I made my way over to them. We struck up a conversation in which I dove into a long, detailed explanation of my last trip abroad. I told them how traveling held an incredibly special place in my heart. And I enthusiastically pressed upon them the necessity of taking a trip overseas. Looking back, it could have been my charm (cough) or the vibrant description of my trip. But ultimately something must have worked because three months later we were planning our first vacation abroad together.
It was April 2017, and two of my friends and I were making arrangements for a trip to Europe that summer. We decided that we would start in Iceland and hop over to Norway altogether. And then I would split from them to explore England on my own. I explained these plans to Ash one morning while walking from their house in South Minneapolis to a local breakfast diner, when they proposed the idea of flying out to meet me in London. I will never forget the moment of complete joy I felt at the thought that my partner… of only a couple months… Who had never been overseas before, but wanted to fly across the Atlantic ocean just to spend time with me. I was ecstatic and began counting down the days to our big trip.
My friends and I left for Iceland and Norway mid-July 2017. We spent 10 days exploring Reykjavik, Oslo, Bergen, and a few places in between before I got on a plane to meet Ash in London. Ash’s plane was scheduled to arrive at Heathrow airport prior to mine. So by the time I got through customs they were already there waiting for me. To this day, Ash still says that I never looked queerer: hiking boots, flannel shirt, backpack… They loved it (and so did I!). It was so good to see their face and wrap my arms around them. We grabbed two coffees and got on the train towards London to begin our adventure.
Our vacation started and ended in the capital city, but we also spent some time driving around the south of England. During our trip we made sure to visit historical sites like Hastings Castle, Bodiam Castle, Arundel Castle, and Stonehenge. But also made it a priority to explore queer-friendly spots. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stay near Brighton, one of the biggest LGBTQA+ cities in England and only an hour and forty minutes south of London.
We rented a mother-in-law suite from a queer couple just blocks from incredible white cliffs overlooking the English Channel. Brighton was preparing for its big pride celebration. So many of the bars that lined the beach were decorated with rainbow colors and promoting various pride events. Although we were bummed to miss what we could only imagine as one of the best pride celebrations in the country, we were happy we got to see the city preparing for it.
London’s Soho district was probably our favorite queer area. Ash and I ended our night atShe Soho, a nightclub catering to women and gender queer folks. Entering through the front door and immediately walking down into a basement, we found ourselves in a small, dome-shaped room lined with corrugated metal. A DJ took up a fifth of the floor, while the bar took up another. The remaining space was filled with dancing people, fitting in where they could.
We grabbed a couple of drinks, and made our way to the front of the DJ booth. It felt great to be out in a new place, experiencing a new style of social life, with my best friend and partner. Ash and I had a great time and danced for a couple of hours before calling it a night. The club may have been small, but it welcomed us into its space and provided all the key ingredients to having a fantastic night.
As queer travelers, our trip to England was primarily positive. Folks responded well to us holding hands in public. AirBnb hosts didn’t bat an eye when they learned we were together. And other than one or two ‘looks’ in the smaller towns, most people enjoyed seeing us in love. I could go on forever with all of the amazing things we experienced together in this country. But this specific blog post is not the place for that (you can visit our website for the full details!).
Ultimately, what our first trip abroad together did was prove to us that we were ready for the next step in our relationship. So it was during our last night in England that we made plans to move in with one another. Travel has a way of providing clarity, growth, and assurance. Our vacation to England was so important for us in these ways that I wanted to capture it; to have it forever. I began a website and blog called En Route -with- Love, with a goal to have every single trip that Ash and I take together on record, describing both the physical adventure and emotional experience. It has not only provided us with a way to relive important parts of our past. But it has also become a creative outlet for myself and a space for information sharing from fellow LGBTQA+ travelers.
Ash has embraced my passion for travel, jumping in head first to plan and execute adventures with me. We’ve traveled overseas three times, been out of the country with one another a total of four. And continue to create and update our 15-year plan of new places to visit. I couldn’t imagine going on these adventures with anyone else. Travel is, and forever will be, a special way to connect with my love.
It was raining cats and dogs when we arrived in Halong Bay. When we left Hanoi earlier that day, I had no idea we would need 4 hours to reach the Gulf of Tonkin. In Europe, we would have needed only 2 hours to reach a destination of 170 kilometers. But in Vietnam, things were a bit different, especially back in 2014.
Are we on a highway? Oh yes, of course this is one of the most popular highways in Northern Vietnam. Our guide Than sounded proud to be a Hanoi native. So, you cannot drive faster than 65-70 kilometers per hour on this highway? No, no. Not faster! The road is in a bad condition, there are too many motorbikes. And lots of holes. Look, look, here! As our guide pointed at a pothole, our driver suddenly hit the brake. And then accelerated again after bypassing the depression and a few motorbikes hunting from right and left.
You see over there? Now Than was pointing at roadworks in the distance. In a few years, there will be a new highway. Maybe in 2018, you can drive to Halong Bay in only 2 hours. Imagine, you will win 2 hours for one way! You won’t have to sleep in Halong Bay, when you visit us again in a few years. You can make a quick day trip to Halong and come back to Hanoi in the evening. You will save a lot of money and see more of Hanoi!
I looked at Kerstin and we both shot our guide a polite smile. I resisted the urge to explain that we wanted to stay a night in Halong Bay. That we didn’t like to rush when traveling. But I decided to change the subject and ask him about Hanoi’s architecture…
It is still raining, please wait in the “waiting room”. What waiting room, we asked. Oh, the room where you wait for me! I go get the tickets for your boat trip. And you wait here in the room, OK? When we walked into the “waiting room”, a brouhaha of dozens of different languages filled our ears. Hundreds of tourists were sitting and standing in the hall. Americans, French, Brits, Russians, Chinese, Germans… Despite the rain, the heat was still palpable. And in this jam-packed hall, sweat was running down everyone’s neck.
Do you think we’ll be on the same boat as all the tourists here? I sensed Kerstin’s worried tone and didn’t know what to answer. Well, I hope it will stop raining soon. Or what view of Halong Bay will we get?
I wasn’t done worrying when Than’s smiling face popped up behind our shoulders. Here, look, I have your tickets! We can go now. He pushed open the misted glass door and held up a rainbow colored umbrella over us. For a moment, I wondered if the travel agency revealed to all our private guides that we’re a lesbian couple. Clutched to our rainbow umbrella, we followed Than down to the dock. As we boarded the Victory Star Junk Boat, I swiftly heard my father’s voice in my head: never sleep on a boat! Never go on a cruise!
When my family fled Vietnam in December 1978, they became boat people. For eight months, they were “prisoners at sea”, sitting like sardines on the Tung An freighter, off the coast of Manila. Before being moved to Tara Island for four more months, waiting to be resettled overseas.
I was not on that ship. I was not part of the boat people. I was not a Vietnamese refugee, for I was born in Luxembourg a few years later. But growing up, I kept hearing my family’s creepy stories on the sea. My fear of the ocean could never be compared to that of my family’s, nor other Vietnamese boat people’s thalassophobia. However, the terror of a possible death in an ocean was great enough to make me swear I would never get on a cruise.
But then, the idea of spending a night on a boat, feasting on the spectacular seascape of limestone pillars, really tickled me. After all, it was just one night. Aboard a luxurious five-star junk, with only 32 cabins… absolutely human-scale and safe. And it’s not in a big scary ocean, but in a bay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site to be exact.
Are you OK? Kerstin shot me a worried look, snapping me out of my daydream. I grinned bravely and we entered our cabin. Our luggage was already waiting for us, next to an ebony bed. The sea breeze waltzed with the gilded curtains and uncovered a private balcony. I walked over to close the window and caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a sunbeam, fighting its way through the dissipating grey clouds.
When you come from a country as Lilliputian as Luxembourg, chances are that you get to hear welcoming words followed by an exclamation mark. Sometimes by a question mark. But usually an exclamation mark: Oh, you’re from Luxembourg! That’s unusual! How rare to meet someone from such a tiny country! But then, when you really come from a country as small as Luxembourg, you’re probably used to these exclamation marks. We usually simper, nod our head and say nothing more. That’s exactly what we did when the waiter of the restaurant onboard led us to our table.
Each couple had a dedicated table. Each table showcased the national flag of the guests’ country. All the other couples had a flag made of fabric. Ours was made of paper. Clearly it had just been printed less than an hour ago. I hope this is the right flag? The waiter asked nervously, before pulling out another red-white-blue flag from his pocket. Kerstin laughed out loud and said: No worries! This is the right flag. The one you’re holding in your hand is that of the Netherlands. They’re similar, but the blue stripe on the flag of Luxembourg is lighter. Oh yes, I see now! The waiter giggled, nodded his head a few times and finally withdrew to the kitchen.
The rain stopped after lunch. When we were getting ready to visit Vung Vieng fishing village, the sky was clearing up. The sunbeam that I’d seen earlier finally managed to find its way through the clouds.
From our junk boat, we climbed into a speedboat which brought us to a floating platform in the middle of Halong Bay. There, four by four we climbed into a bamboo boat, welcomed by a slender lady in a conical hat. When a couple of baby-boomers settled down behind us, the boat started to sway.
The noise of their orange life jackets squeezed between each other and against the vessel’s rim made us edgy. Is the lady strong enough to row our boat? Kerstin whispered in my ear that perhaps we should help her. What? To row? As I turned around, I was even more worried to see the face of an elderly lady hidden under the hat. But when our bamboo boat started to glide on Halong Bay’s emerald waters, she rowed faster and faster, overtaking the other boats.
None of us spoke. We were all savoring the sound of the wavelets pushing against our tiny boat. And marveling at numerous caves inside conical peaks, arches between towers made of limestone and hundreds of virgin islets and uninhabited islands…
The peace and quiet of Halong Bay ceased as soon as our boat approached the Hang Sung Sot caves. Hundreds of tourists were lining up at the grotto’s entrance. We were told to queue up behind them. The family of four in front of us were too polite to not let a group of French students jump the queue. Kerstin and I both agreed that they must be British. Or Buddhists. Or perhaps they didn’t want to offend any representative of France, since it was the French who discovered this cave in 1901?
Our British friends seemed to be familiar with speleology. Since Kerstin is a big fan of grottoes and caves, we decided to follow them for a while, listening to the father as he explained to his teenage son how the karst features were formed. We stopped more often than the other visitors but moved past those who were taking selfies with a massive rock formed as a phallus and lit by a pink spotlight.
The trip back to the Victoria Star Junk took place on a motorboat. It was shorter and faster. Still, I missed our lady friend who brought us to the cave. And regretted that we had not given her more tips for her hard work. A few hours later, we kept talking about her when we settled down on the upper deck. We guessed about her age, her name, the number of hours she had to row in a day, the number of passengers she had carried on her boat…
Slowly, the sun was setting across Halong Bay. Soft pink clouds settled above the faint outline of the limestone islets.
When I woke up at 5am the next morning, the pastel colored sky from the previous evening was replaced by hues of midnight blue. But on the horizon, I spotted a hint of orange. Catching a sunrise has always been a challenge for me. As a night owl, I get creative when the world goes to sleep. Kerstin always says that I write the best stories when the clock strikes midnight. So, I get to watch a sunrise only once in a blue moon.
Standing on our private balcony, I kept my eyes on the orange tinge, which soon turned into flaming red. It slowly stretched across Halong Bay, revealing one by one the many limestone pinnacles, looming out of the water. Fog patches began to dissolve. But the world remained bathed in silence. Kerstin discreetly joined me on the balcony. Together, we were glued to this blissful spectacle. A daily spectacle that is often overlooked…
Mei turned down the volume when we almost reached the Arcachon Bay. I was going to make a right turn to head towards the town of Arcachon, when I suddenly spotted the road sign “Dune du Pilat”. I hit the break. A dune? What could that be? Mei quickly unfolded the paper map on her lap. Her index finger moved feverishly across the map. Dune, Dune, Dune… I can’t find a Dune on this frigging map!
Mei was getting impatient… and so was I, as I kept checking in the rear-view mirror whether a car was approaching or not. Suddenly, she looked at me. You know what? Let’s just check it out! She turned up the volume, I hit the gas, and off we drove towards the mysterious dune.
A couple of kilometers further, another road sign led us to an outdoor parking hidden in the pine forest. A few remote cars seemed stranded on the deserted parking lot.
Should we bring a bottle of water? I knew that Mei usually gets thirsty out of the blue, at the most unexpected place and time. So, I always carry a bottle of water wherever we go. Nah! We probably won’t stay long… Our tiny purses slung across the shoulders, we walked down a narrow cobblestone path through the forest.
From afar, a tetchy metallic sound filled the air. The dissonant jingle reminded me of my childhood and yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on it… The further we trekked, the louder the clapper. When we caught sight of a row of wooden cabins, I finally recognized the sound. Mei looked at me and said: those are wind chimes, right?
Set at the brink of the pine forest, the wooden cabins were actually souvenir shops lining up like solitary sentinels. Most of them were closed. Bonjour! A lady, dressed like a gypsy, came out of nowhere and invited us to take a look at her store. We suddenly felt transported to an eerie parallel world. Or maybe it was the clatter of the dozens of wind chimes hanging outside her storefront. On vend aussi des boissons si vous voulez. Parce que là-haut vous ne trouverez pas grand-chose à boire.
I looked at Mei. Oops! Now that she knew there was no water “up there” (wherever that was?), I was sure she was going to say that she suddenly got very thirsty! In fact, I didn’t even wait until she uttered the desire to hand the lady 1€ for the bottle of water. Mei shot me a huge smile, followed by a shy kiss on my cheek…
We continued our trek, which now pointed uphill. All of a sudden, we both came to a standstill. My jaw dropped as we stood in front of a giant dune. Imagine a wall made of sand reaching for the sky… 50m, 80m, perhaps even 100m high? Oh my goodness, what is that? I turned over to Mei and saw that she was as startled as I was. Well, I guess that’s the Dune du Pilat. And just like that, we both burst out laughing. Out of surprise and out of joy to have followed our guts…
We needed a few minutes to grasp the reality and size of what we were marveling at. We finally advanced to a wooden staircase embedded in the dune. A couple with a toddler also reached the stairs. The husband soon started to breathe heavily and cursed about how steep and strenuous the climb was. Do you think they serve beer up there? His wife didn’t seem happy about the question: How would I know! I told you to bring that stupid cooling box! And did you get the diapers for Marie? Mei and I exchanged meaningful glances but kept our mouths shut.
Next thing we knew, we arrived at the top of the dune and… stopped dead in our tracks. WOW! Someone led out a cry. It took me a moment to realize that it came from me. We were both so caught off balance that we dropped on the sand.
Sitting on top of the tallest sand dune in Europe, a gigantic yellow bosom nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and an enormous pine forest, I felt like I had reached a milestone in my life.
I had just turned 19 and Mei 20. Adult life had just started for us. We were in love with each other. As I breathed in the salty Atlantic air, I felt a liberating sensation, like a rock falling off my chest. The weight I had been lugging around as a teenager. My own ball and chain filled with guilt, shame and regret. I was the serpent that bursts out of its old skin…
I took Mei’s hand. We went rolling down the sandy slope of the Dune du Pilat towards the ocean. Sky and earth were upside down. Sand was embracing every inch of our skin. I remember us laughing, screaming, maybe trying to sing…
When we reached the beach, I ripped off my shirt and raced to the ocean. I felt the crunching wet sand between my toes, a new energy flowing upward through my legs. Still I ran, throwing myself into the water, into the new blue freedom of being a woman.
As I write these lines looking back at what freedom felt like 17 years ago, I see how corny our story sounds. Like a soap opera from the 1990s. But our discovery of the Dune du Pilat was one of the truthful moments that defined us. This truth set us free.