V5 snacking

We decided to spend the sunniest day in the area around West Lake, the largest lake in Hanoi. We walked north and stopped for our first coffee. Fortuitously, a banh mi lady set up shop on the corner in front of us. These ladies carry around little stoves and all their ingredients and wander around until someone asks for a sandwich. Colin ordered two banh mi for us and we watched her scramble eggs with herbs and grill the bread. Breakfast banh mi is, as far as we know, unavailable back home. But it should be.

We continued our wander north until Colin got a bloody nose – we took a break on a stoop and watched some dogs play on the sidewalk. There are a lot of dogs in Hanoi and many of them wear little sweaters. Most of the pets are mixes of toy breeds but we have also run into a dalmatian and a few huskies. Eventually we continued our wander north until we reached the lake.

Our first stop was Quan Thanh Temple, an ideal place to take some quiet time. Colin read while Kat sketched and painted. After a while, we headed across the causeway to the Tran Quoc Pagoda, which dates to the 6th century, at least symbolically (neither the current buildings, nor the current location date to the 6th century). As Americans, we tend to be impressed by age and fixate on it, but in places where templates are made of wood and constantly rebuilt for hundreds or thousands of years, dates become somewhat more fluid.

Feeling snackish, we walked a block to a fancy coffee shop and had some frappucino-type iced beverages on the rooftop overlooking the lake. After a good long bask in the sun, reading and painting, we were ready to continue on. We got some lunch – no idea what the dish was: lots of vegetables sautéed with some beef, served on some sort of seasoned rice – and then headed to Vietclimb, Hanoi’s premiere (only) climbing gym. Colin wanted to stop in, having been there on the last trip. And, after a week without climbing, he was itching for some bouldering. There were a few other climbers there – not a lot of english spoken, but beta is a universal language.

An hour of climbing meant we could reward ourselves with some iced coffee and a leisurely stroll to the Temple of Literature. Unlike most of our other destinations, this one is definitely on the tour trail – lots of tour busses unloading, groups following flags, and so on. The complex itself isn’t particularly jaw-dropping, having been blown up in various wars (mostly by the French, for what it’s worth). We were interested in the carved stele, recognizing doctors for having completed their exams and embracing study and wisdom. Maybe this is a practice we should bring back.

By late afternoon, we were ready for a rest. We had another coffee, and then stopped back home. Colin got another nosebleed (don’t worry mom) which took ages to stop. We ventured out for some chicken pho (Pho Ga) but we’ve mostly stayed in tonight. Tomorrow, we head to Ha Long Bay bright and early.

One of us, and I’m not saying who, has got rocks in her head

Today started, much like yesterday, with noodley soup. Here’s some sacrilege: noodley soup that may be even better than Pho. Bun Bo Hue. And not just any Bun Bo Hue, but the best kind: the kind eaten while watching a man repair the exhaust on a scooter.

Walking the city in the morning allows you to see all the children beginning school for the day. You can hear (and occasionally catch a glimpse) as they do their choreographed morning routines in courtyards throughout the city.

Our first stop, after bun bo hue and coffee, was the Geological Museum. It’s a neat space – samples from all over Vietnam, which some good insight into the history of the country along the way. You can see the sample collection happening in fits and starts over the 20th century, with a mix of French and Russian equipment. We were the only tourists there – the only other visitors were a group of Vietnamese students. There were a few cases on gem resources in Vietnam and Kat was itching to buy some local stones to set herself – unfortunately we had not done our homework for this trip on where to buy stones.

From the Geological Museum, we went around the corner to the National Museum, which is in the midst of some renovation for a new exhibit. This Museum mostly focuses on the early history of Vietnam, with many artifacts dating from pre-history through the 18th century. Kat had her museum exhibit design hat on – most of the exhibits are old, and reflect an earlier approach to conversation. But one exhibit was much newer and was put together beautifully. There were some gorgeous wooden Buddhas as well, dating to the 4th – 6th century.

Sufficiently cultured, we set out for Dong Xuan market. En route, our wanderings then brought us past a storefront selling sesame balls – a favorite from the Hmong Market back in Saint Paul. Of course we had to partake.

The market is a fun experience, as long as you don’t think about what would happen in a fire. There are hundreds of vendors for any given item – fabric, toys, hats, and so on. Many of the vendors were asleep on their piles of goods. Often they have to climb on top of the stacks to maneuver through the narrow slits. Kat decided that buying some fabric would be a good adventure, so we explored the various silks and silk-like-items, before settling on one. Being unskilled at things like bargaining, we definitely paid too much, but it was more about the experience.

We had a long walk to our last cultural stop for the day so we decided to grab a quick coffee. Unfortunately this turned out to be our only poor choice of the trip thus far – an exceedingly loud karaoke cafe across the street from the Japanese Embassy. We downed our caffeine quickly and headed back out into the sea of scooters.

Finally we arrived at the Museum of Ethnology, which has just opened a large new building dedicated to Southeast Asian culture. We ran into our second group of art students who were scattered around drawing the exhibits (the first group had been outside practicing their perspective drawing). The real highlight of the museum is all of the traditional buildings which have been built in the space, and which are open for exploration. It’s a place that would be really great with a super well informed guide – it’s hard to wrap your head around why some of the buildings are designed the way they are, without the context of their natural surroundings.

We were dragging by this point. The walk to the Museum of Ethnology was about 5 miles, and along some very noisy streets. Rather than repeat the journey back, we caught an Uber, which also provided a chance to experience riding in rush hour traffic.
Kat took some great video, which we’ll post at some point. At one point, we got pulled over – maybe for turning down a street we weren’t supposed to be on? It’s not clear exactly what was the cause, or what ended up resolving it, but eventually we were back on our way.

After a rest, a snack, and a shower, we left for dinner and the Water Puppet Theater. We found a place that looked heavily populated with locals and sat down to order “what they’re having”. This turned out to be a plate of rice with assorted veggies and proteins and a small bowl of broth – both of which were very satisfying.

Fueled up, we wandered around the lake until it was time for the puppet show. Before the puppets made an appearance, there was a performance by a woman playing a single stringed instrument that sounded very much like a theramin. It was mesmerizing to both see and hear. The puppets were delightful and explored typical scenes related to life in rural Vietnam: fishing, planting and harvesting rice, festivals, etc.. The puppets themselves were fascinating – especially the movements of the dragons and fish.

After the show we grabbed “sticky ice cream” (popsicles) and watched the lake for a while before heading back home to bed.

Haircuts and Hotpots

Hanoi at 72 degrees and sunny is a far more enjoyable place than Hanoi at 115 degrees and chewy. Today was a near perfect day to wander the city and get the lay of the land. We started things off, as one must, with some breakfast pho. Oh, and a pug, in a sweater, sitting in a window. Then we went to the Viettel store to get ourselves some sim cards. Then it was really time to start our day.


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Our intention was to visit the National Museum of Vietnam. On the walk there, we passed a man cutting a child’s hair on the street corner. He asked if Colin wanted a haircut. He’d meant to get a haircut before leaving on this trip, and ran out of time, so hey, why not?

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While waiting our turn, we got to chat with the child who’s hair was being cut. His name was James, and he spoke excellent English. He told us about his favorite foods, and was very interested in hearing our opinions of Hanoi. We also chatted with some young Malaysian men who strolled past. James was very interested in Kat’s blond hair, and wanted to know about her family. He was a perfectly charming young man.

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The National Museum turned out to be closed today (the first Monday of the month) as was the nearby Geology Museum. Working our way down our todo list, we hit upon the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, which chronicles both the traditional role of women in Vietnamese culture, as well as their role in the fight against the French and the Americans. We read about many incredible women, fighting for the liberation of Vietnam (there’s always some cognitive dissonance reading accounts of the war from the Vietnamese perspective).

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By the time we were finished at the Women’s museum, we were ready for some lunch. We stopped at a hot pot restaurant – they provide a bowl of deliciousness over a chafing candle. Through some magical process, as the bowl heats, soup appears in it. It doesn’t make a ton of sense. But it’s delicious!

After lunch we passed a woman frying corn cakes. We purchased something from her basked and bit inside only to find a fried banana (Kat’s favorite). We enjoyed our happy surprise en route to the Hoa Lo Prison (the “Hanoi Hilton”). The exhibit is mostly focused on the way in which the Vietnamese prisoners stayed strong in their communist ideals despite the horrible cruelty of the French. The brief touch on the history of American imprisonment leads one to believe the prison was more like a hotel where the Americans pilots hung out and played basketball until the end of the war when they were sent happily home.

After a quick stop at the apartment, we set out for Huu Tiep Lake, with the remains of a downed B52. Along the way, we passed the Vietnam Military History museum, which was supposedly closed today. It was not, so we stopped in. The exhibits are older, and mostly directed at a Vietnamese audience, with a large focus on the French occupation. The Vietnamese have a long history of invasion by outside powers dating back thousands of years. The final room of the museum was filled with examples of international support for the north Vietnamese against the U.S. invasion. Looking at these photos and documents, you could learn a lot about the geopolitics of the 1960s and 1970s. Children in Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) holding signs supporting the North Vietnamese, etc.

Continuing our walk towards Huu Tiep Lake, we weaved in and out of the alley ways of the city, running into dead ends, friendly dogs, and lots of scooters. The lake itself isn’t particularly impressive – it’s more of a “see it to say you saw it” sort of destination. To prove that point, there was a group of young English-speaking women there checking it off for a scavenger hunt. But it was a good chance to explore. Somewhere along the path of this walk, both of our phones stopped working, which indicated that perhaps all was not right with our new sims. A stop back at the Viettel store, wherein an employee did something magical, resolved the issue.

Since we were already in the Old Quarter, we decided to stick around for dinner. We got some bahn mi’s at a place recommended by our AirBnB host. On our walk, we passed “Obama’s restaurant.” Sadly, based on the dearth of customers, Obama’s restaurant seems unlikely to last much longer than his legislative achievements.

We ended the night with a chocolate coffee pocket and a stroll around Hoan Kiem lake, watching people of all ages enjoying the mild weather. As we wound our way around the lake we passed through a gauntlet of bride and grooms having their ‘night lake’ photo shoots.

Hope the rest of 2017 is like this

No matter which way you slice it, getting from Minnesota to Southeast Asia is a time consuming exercise. Because this trip involves some intentional layovers, and was a bargain-basement fare, our travel day was a bit longer than usual. Fortunately, it was highly uneventful as well. The long flight, from Seattle to Hong Kong, consisted of movies, snoozing, and work. The Hong Kong airport is delightful, and after a slightly delayed departure, we made it to Kuala Lumpur around 1am. Thankfully, our accommodation for the night was an in-terminal hotel – no need to go through customs or anything. We basically walked right from the plane into bed. A relief.

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After a rest, we got up with a day to kill in KL. First things first, we went through customs, and then left our bags with the luggage storage folks. They must not see a ton of business, as they walked us all around the airport to have our bags X-rayed, and then brought us into the employees-only area to lock them up. Then, as most conversations in Malaysia do, we turned to food – they were excited to offer ideas for where we should get breakfast.

We jumped in an Uber, with a vague destination in the city. Our driver was amused that we had no actual plan for the day (or destination for drop off) so he offered to take us to a favorite of his for some roti canai, and we happily agreed. The three of us shared kopi and tea while we devoured our roti. In fact, ever meal we ate today ended up being based on his recommendations.

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Last time we were in Malaysia, we only had a brief stay in Kuala Lumpur, right at the start of the trip. We hadn’t yet settled into Malaysian culture, and didn’t really get the city – it seemed mostly like a big, modern city. This time, we understood KL a bit better, and had a great day poking around.

We took a leisurely stroll through colorful Little India, grabbing a street donut and some snacks at a market that was just starting up for the day. Kat was drooling over the gorgeous silks pouring out of every storefront. Malaysian women’s fashion is conservative but extremely expressive and feminine. We ended up at the Islamic Art museum, which we were unable to visit last time.

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The Islamic Art museum is a stunner – a gorgeous space, with well designed exhibits, and thankfully, english signage written with a non-Islamic audience in mind. Kat tried her best to photograph everything in the the museum and Colin was exceedingly patient. We started in the illuminated manuscripts, wound our way through the Quran gallery, into the architecture room. This gallery housed tiny versions of famous mosques around the world and highlighted the wonderful diversity of architectural traditions. Next we passed through the India and China galleries and moved on to textiles, jewelry, weaponry, furniture, metalwork, ceramics and glass. The textures and colors were breathtaking.

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After a coffee at the museum we took a “just looking” visit to the gift shop – though the extensive book selection was extremely tempting. We stepped outside and caught an Uber back north for lunch. Another great Uber driver – today was his third day driving, on a break from his studies. We were his first Americans. He was sad that our new president means he probably won’t be able to visit the US any time soon.

Lunch was nasi kandar, the “pile random things on a plate and somehow it becomes magic” dish that we can’t get enough of. Basically a lot of pointing and smiling gets you a plate of heaven that is different every time but always mind blowing. Someday, someone will start a fast casual Malaysian chain in the US and folks will fall in love.

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Meal number two out of the way, we wandered north, vaguely towards meal number three. We stumbled upon a massive indoor and outdoor market – wet market, fruits and vegetables, dry goods, fabric, etc. Colin spent some time fantasizing about all the meals he could cook if we lived here. As a pedantic cook, there’s ongoing frustration over ingredient sourcing back home, even with some great Asian groceries.

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Our wandering took us through a massive hospital complex (fun fact: Malaysia is in the top 10 for medical tourism destinations). We ended up, unintentionally, in a construction zone with no obvious way through, but a construction worker waved us towards a break in a fence, which took us on a short wooded path, over a stream, and into another neighborhood.

We ended up at Titiwangsa park. On a bright clear Sunday the park was bustling with happy families enjoying the numerous vehicular options – squeaky tandem bikes, four person pedal carts, tiny electric cars for the kids – you name it, it was available. So of course, we rented ourselves a ridiculously rusty, flat-tired, two person bicycle cart and set off around the lake. Trying to remember to keep to the left (ex-British colony after all), we explored the park in our creaky trolley. The park boasts an extensive network of wide paved pathways explicitly for this reason and we had a fabulous time zooming over bridges and around playgrounds and snack stalls.

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We finished our ride around the lake and attempted to return our trusty vehicle, however the man refused to accept it back because we hadn’t used our full hour. So off we went again, past the helicopter rides, inflatable human sized hamster balls, rental boats, and kids selling homemade brownies until we reached a drink stand where we bought a mango lassi. Another pass through the playground and it was time to return our adventure mobile. We walked a bit further around the lake, found a nice bench and sat for a while. Kat painted a tree covered in vines and ferns and Colin read a bit.

After a while we headed across the street for our third meal of the day – Char kway teow. We soon realized that 4 pm opening means “we might start to get things together around 4..ish… maybe”. Luckily after a brief of a procrastination wander, we followed some locals and headed in for a quick plate of noodles. Though tasty, it was not quite the same as the char kway teow in penang.

Another uber to the airport and a check in with our friends at the left baggage counter had us on our way to our next flight. Next stop Hanoi.

The Itinerary Post

Tomorrow morning, we’re heading to the airport, on our way (eventually) to Vietnam. This is the usual “here’s where we’re planning to be, in case something goes very wrong” post. This trip has a lot of air travel (9 flights), and crosses many, many timezones. All times given are local. Here’s hoping we’ve scheduled everything on the right days.

My phone (612-702-0779) should be reachable at all times, assuming T-Mobile’s new “Digits” app works. If not, email is probably the most reliable way to reach us.

Fri, Dec 30 – MSP to SEA – Delta Air Lines 2193

Fri, Dec 30 – SEA to HKG – Delta Air Lines 39

Sat, Dec 31 – HKG to KUL – Cathay Pacific 791

Sun, Jan 1 – KUL to HAN – Vietnam Airlines 680

Sat, Jan 7 – HAN to HUI – Vietnam Airlines 1543

Mon, Jan 9 – HUI to SGN – Vietnam Airlines 1371

Mon, Jan 9 – SGN to KUL – Vietnam Airlines 675

Tue, Jan 10 – KUL to HND – ANA 886

Wed, Jan 11 – HND to MSP – Delta Air Lines 120

We’re home at 12:30pm on Wednesday, January 11th. Look for more witty, sarcastic, and poorly spelled blog posts in the near future.

Iceland Photo Dump

Traveling Iceland in a Campervan

We’re back, the lawn is mowed, and the dog is back to being her typical depressed self (having been briefly, ever so briefly, happy about being home). Before the trip fades, we wanted to share some of our notes on exploring Iceland in a campervan.

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The Van

As a reminder, we rented from Happy Campers. We got a “Happy 1,” their smallest vehicle. Ours was a Ford Transit. First off – pretty much all the rentals you’ll find will have manual transmissions. The fellow from Happy Campers said that sometimes ends up being a deal breaker for Americans who show up expecting an automatic. Ours was a diesel, and got perfectly decent mileage. In the back, they have a bench which converts into a bed, along with a kitchen area containing a fridge, sink, and a camping stove. There’s also cutlery, plates, a pot and a pan. Pretty much everything you would need. The fridge runs off its own battery, recharged by the van and the solar panel on the roof, so there’s no problem with keeping things cool all the time. In fact, we had ours set too cold initially, and froze some items. The van also has an auxiliary heater, which burns a little diesel, which can warm the space up before bed. It’s very effective.

Skip the Extras

We also rented camping chairs, a small grill, and a camping table. We wouldn’t do that again. The grill wasn’t particularly effective by ‘merican standards. We found that most of the time, it was either too windy, too cold, or too buggy to want to sit outside and lounge around at the campsite. And, because the sun never sets, we often didn’t pull into our camping site until 10 or 11 at night, at which point we just wanted to eat and get to bed.

Always Be Charging

We were traveling with a fair amount of technology – two phones, a laptop, a camera, a drone, and an Apple watch. The van has a single 12v port. We rented an inverter from Happy Campers, which allowed us to charge the laptop and drone batteries, and also brought a dual port 12v USB charger. We also had a small USB solar panel and a large usb battery.

Because the van had a single port, and it was only powered when the van was running, there was a need to be strategic about charging. On sunny days, we used the solar panel to top up the USB battery, which could be used to charge our phones overnight. We weren’t using the laptop much, so it only needed to be charged every couple days. We also took advantage of any cafe or campsite hangouts to top up batteries when we could.

The drone batteries were the biggest hassle, since they take ages to charge and don’t love running off the inverter, but we had enough batteries that we could make it work.

Food

We brought a bunch of food from the states, having heard about the high prices and limited selection. In reality, that was overblown a bit, but it was still nice to have a starter kit. We brought just under 7lbs of food total (Kat weighed it), including a variety of ramen, velveeta mac and cheese (no milk needed), pasta, and granola bars. One of the best things we brought was a bag full of hot drink options – tea, starbucks instant coffee packets, hot chocolate, and some Malaysian white coffee. It was great to be able to have a hot cup of tea in the van after a hike in blowing rain.

We made an initial stop at Kronan to get fruits, vegetables, pasta sauce, yogurt, hotdogs, eggs and cheese, and did a few more stops along the way. Prices aren’t crazy, though it’s definitely not cheap. Icelandic dairy products are really excellent – we loved the yogurt, butter, and the local cheeses (nice stinky blues and camemberts). Don’t miss them! We kept a supply of hardboiled eggs for hiking snacks. And of course, we bought lots of Icelandic snacks – paprika chips, various cookies and candies – all the requirements of travel abroad.

The van holds enough water for a couple days, and it’s easy to refill (there’s a hose behind every gas station). Many of our dishes just involved boiling water, though we did occasionally use both the pot and the pan – fancy!

Camping

If you research a trip to Iceland, you’ll hear a lot about the shelter law which says you’re allowed to camp for a night on any land. That law made a lot of sense at one point, but it wasn’t taking into account 1.2 million tourists per year. Even though you can legally camp almost anywhere, especially in your camper van, please don’t.

Iceland is fully of great campsites, which are very affordable – around $15/night total. They’ll have showers and bathrooms, and many will have kitchens and cafes. Almost every town has nice public baths as well, if the campsite shower isn’t to your liking.

As we noted a few times when traveling the country, Iceland doesn’t have the infrastructure for the number of tourists it’s now seeing. This is especially noticeable when it comes to bathrooms. You see a lot of toilet paper when hiking. From reading online, it sounds like some of the more popular campervan parking spots are similarly overrun. Now, if Iceland wants to continue with this type of tourism, they’ll need to build up some of this infrastructure at the popular sites. But that doesn’t give a traveller an excuse to litter – you carried the toilet paper in, carry it out (see the note on plastic bags a little further down).

Weather

As Minnesotans, we’re used to spending a lot of time talking about weather. And quite honestly, none of the weather Iceland could throw at us was worse than what we’re used to in Minnesota. However, it changes with a striking amount of frequency. Days routinely went from bright and sunny and calm, to storming and gale force winds, and back to sunny. Sometimes in a matter of an hour or two. Up in the mountains, it got chilly, but not February-in-Minnesota chilly. Gloves and a hat, a decent raincoat, and a layer or two of clothes was all it took. A fancy wool sweater completes the look.

The Iceland weather app is helpful for knowing what to expect. It seems like common sense, but be sure to pack smart for any extended hike. We saw hikers setting out on lengthy walks ill-prepared for a sudden change. Water is drinkable everywhere, but you should still carry enough food and water to stay safe if you need to hunker down. Most long hikes will have emergency shelter huts as well. Install the Iceland 112 app as well, which can help with requesting emergency aid.

Money

Credit cards are accepted literally everywhere (except the ghost tour – that was the only exception). Make sure you’ve got a card with a chip (you should by now). AMEX is a bit less accepted, though still probably more accepted than it is in the US. Gas pumps want to know your PIN and none of them do AMEX, so be sure you know it – for some banks, the PIN for your chip will be different from the PIN you normally use at an ATM.

It’s actually kind of strange – the whole country runs on credit cards, even for small transactions. It seems like that would mean some crazy proportion of GDP goes to VISA?

Data

There are three cellular networks in Iceland – Siminn, Nova, and vodafone. T-Mobile customers will be able to roam freely on all of them. Other folks should consider getting a sim. Siminn has the best coverage, and sells a data-only 4g sim with 1gig of data for around $18. The convenience store outside baggage claim (not the duty free store) at KEF sells them. Most of the places in the countryside that claim wifi have that infuriating sort of wifi that works just enough to make you think it might be working, but isn’t actual usable.

Other Stuff To Pack

We were very happy to have an assortment of ziplock bags, from small to large. Also, dog poop bags (or a similarly compact roll of plastic bags) make for great van trash and hiking trash collectors.

So long, and thanks for all the rocks

For our last day in Iceland we booked an Inside the Volcano Tour. Since we had to return the Happy Camper first, we pushed our tour back to 1 pm. This turned out to be an extremely good move since our morning did not go as planned.

The night before, we had taken all the dishes inside to be washed and cleaned out the van to get it all ready to go. However when we arrived at Happy Camper (45 minutes away), we realized we had forgotten the rented inverter back at the apartment. We drove back to Reykjavik, Kat jumped out and handed off the inverter, then Colin continued back to Happy Camper. Our paths diverged.

Kat was given the more enjoyable task of procuring baked goods, sandwiches and doing a load of laundry while Colin had to return the van, catch a shuttle to the airport, and a bus back to the apartment. Kat enjoyed a nice stroll around town, a visit to two bakeries, a sit with a dog while waiting for the grocery store to open, and an organ concert at Hallgrímskirkja.

Fortunately, plans from here went better. Colin made it back around 11:45, with some time to spare before our 12:15 pickup for the tour. The sandwiches and baked goods were delightful, and the clothes smelled modestly better.

The tour involved a mini-bus pickup at our apartment, with a transfer to a larger bus at the bus depot, then a 30 minute ride out of the city to a ski lodge. From there, it was a two or three kilometer walk to “base camp,” at the volcano. It was a very well built trail over lava flows and gorgeous mosses and lichen.

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Base camp turned out to be a pretty swanky place – a few very nicely built-out shipping containers. Kat made the first exciting discovery when she went to pick up what she thought was a dog toy near the entrance. A little creature moved a bit – it turned out to be a baby arctic fox that lives there. Apparently the arctic fox population is big enough that it is periodically culled, and this one had lost its mom and moved in with the guides. It was very snuggly, and let Kat give it a pet, which was a bit of a highlight.

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The trip into the volcano itself is done in groups of 6 or 7 at a time. They’ve modified a window washing elevator over the rim of the volcano, so you clip in with a safety harness and then drop the 150 meters down into the collapsed chamber. It’s a massive space, beautifully lit. We were expecting a tour, but instead we were given some brief safety tips and an introduction, and then let free to wander for around half an hour.

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The Thrihnukagigur volcano erupted 4,500 years ago and sits on a fissure in line with two other large vents that date back to 50,000 years ago. This younger splatter/scoria cone was fed by a dyke that is amazingly visible as a large black arch that extends from both sides of the cave, and meet up at the top where the lava actually poured out of the vent. The chamber we were exploring was formed by the partial collapse of the walls of the vent. Usually this collapse is fatal to the internal structure and we had already explored many scoria cones in Iceland with large sloping central craters. In this case, just the inside had collapsed and we were climbing around on blocks that had fallen from the walls and ceiling after the eruption had ceased.

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This truly is an amazing site. The walls are beautifully colored by iron, sulfur, copper and calcite. A small magma body is visible in cross sections as the ‘black rose’ high on the chamber wall. The original ground surface created by the older 50,000 year old volcano is also visible along the base of one of the sides. Colin touched it only to find it crumble beneath his hand. The older volcano was formed under a glacier by the explosive interaction between water and magma. This creates hyaloclastite, a fine powder-like material that then gets glued together into a very soft crumbly rock.

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Geology aside, the space is simply beautiful. Water droplets steadily drip down into the cave. One of the men who runs the site is a photographer who has lit the internal features so you can really see the lovely colors on the walls. And the mouth of the vent is covered in lavacicles, where the hot lava ran back down into the mouth of the volcano after it was finished erupting. An exceptional place.

After our dip down into the chamber, we had to wait for the next two groups to finish their explorations. We were greeted at base camp by hot lamb soup and the curious arctic fox pup. There is also a path out of the back of base camp that leads to some interesting lava bubble formations.

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We were back in Reykjavik by 6:30pm, and after a shower (unlimited, guilt free hot water is amazing), we went back out on the town. Iceland is competing in the Euro 2016 soccer tournament at the moment, and there’s a large screen setup in the town square so people can watch. We watched for a bit (Iceland doesn’t play next until Monday, but there was still a big crowd) and grabbed a hotdog. Then we met up with the Haunted Reykjavik tour, which we’d seen a sign for the night before.

We figured a ghost tour would be a fun way to get a guided walk around the city. Our guide was a lot of fun – she’d spent some time living in the US, and our whole group turned out to be Americans. We walked around town, learning about the folklore, ghost stories, and general Icelandic history and culture. Iceland elected a new President on Saturday, so we got to look in on a polling place as well. Elections on a weekend, imagine that.

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The tour wrapped up around 10:00, leaving enough time to get some ice cream cones (this time, dipped with candy toppings). Then it was back to the apartment to pack and get to bed.

Our airport transfer bus came at 5:00am, and after a bit of a zoo at the Reykjavik airport, we made it to our flight. Now we’re somewhere over Canada.

It’s been a fantastic trip, and gave us a taste of many things we’d like to explore more deeply on a future visit. There are huge parts of the country we haven’t seen (or have barely seen), not to mention outlying islands. And we are still deeply uninformed about the Icelandic culture. We’ll just have to return!

Iceland: “We were cold, rainy, and not part of the EU before it was cool”

Iceland is not an early morning country. At least, not in the public sphere. We woke up early(ish) today to make it out the Snaefellsnes peninsula on our last day with the van. We woke up to wind and clouds, then continued on through the foggy rain, passing many a closed gas station. Although we had made coffee in the van, we were really itching for another cup.

We accidentally turned north over the peninsula before reaching the national park, and ended up on a dirt road. We came down to the other side into rainbow and sunshine. It was delightful. We found a bakery in the town of Olasvik that was open and nommed some baked goods over coffee while flipping through the news about Brexit.

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Quite honestly, the Snaefellsnes was a bit of a snooze (that’s funnier if you mispronounce it the way we have been). The rain and fog made it hard to see Snaefellsjokull, the towering stratovolcano that is the crowning jewel of the park. After a week of dramatic country, the soggy lava fields were not holding our attention. We poked around a bit, before heading for Stykkishólmur, a picturesque fishing town on the north side of the peninsula.

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Stykkishólmur was on our “must-visit” list because it’s home to Eldfjallasafn, a volcano art museum. The museum is an homage to how humans depict and understand volcanic eruptions and was created by Haraldur Sigurdsson, the advisor of Kat’s advisor back in Rhode Island. Haraldur himself was in and out but appeared to be very busy so we did not get the opportunity to say hello.

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At the recommendation of the Czech museum docent (he fell in love with an Icelandic girl), we had a lovely fish lunch overlooking the harbor. This was our first and only fancy meal of the trip and it was money well spent. Then it was back in the van for the push to Reykjavik. We had to be in town mid-afternoon to visit the geothermal power plant, another must-see location.

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On the drive, we got to take the tunnel under the fjord leading to Reykjavik. It’s pretty impressive – over 6km long, and dropping almost 200 meters, before climbing back up.

The geothermal plant is brand new (opened in 2006, fully online in 2010) and has a really well done exhibit about geothermal power. The plant provides electricity, hot water, and heating for all of Reykjavik. The exhibit itself explained the science, the environmental impact, and the way in which Iceland tries to act as a promoter of geothermal power around the world. The plant itself was surrounded by low clouds, so we didn’t get any great views, though given the amount of steam it puts out, it’s probably pretty cloudy all the time.

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We took a walk around Reykjavik while waiting for our checkin time. We poked in some shops, and visited an ice cream shop, which turned out to be fancy hipster ice-cream (unacceptable), so we visited another ice cream shop (proper). We’ll save the rest of our thoughts on the city until we’ve had some more time, but so far so good.

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Hammer down, rabbit ears

Today was mostly about driving back towards Reykjavik, but we managed to sneak in some exploration as well. We woke up and flopped around a bit, before getting it together to make breakfast. We got fancy and fried some eggs, and toasted some of the local rye bread, which is actually baked underground in the geothermal heat.

After breakfast, we broke camp (you know, took off the handbrake) and set out for Dimmuborgir, a labyrinth of pilar-like structures formed after a temporary lava pond drained. It’s actually a very well developed site, with a nice cafe building and a paved parking lot. There are trails crisscrossing the site, including both easy and more rugged options. We wandered around a bit, and got some great drone footage. It was really fun to get lost in the maze, and climb up, around, and under different structures. Seen from above, you get a sense of how big the site is, which makes one feel very small.

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After exploring for a while, we’d worked up an appetite for second breakfast, so we popped down the road to the cow shed cafe. It’s a dairy farm and guesthouse with an onsite restaurant. You can actually sit at a window and look into the eyes of a cow being milked, as you eat your food. Which is an experience one rarely gets. We had coffees and cakes, and enjoyed the view of the lake.

From the cowshed, we went back down the road to Hverfjall, a massive tephra cone (over 1km in diameter) that erupted under the lake around 2800 years ago. We didn’t actually hike up to the top, but took some drone footage (and got a chance to show some curious kids in the parking lot how the drone works).

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From Hverfjall, we hiked through the scrubland to Grjotagja, a lava tube with a hot pot in it. I gather it was featured in an episode of Game of Thrones. I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, but from what I know of it, I’m guessing the scene involved either sex, violence, or some combination of both. (Cue The Exploited).

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It’s a very fun spot, though visitors are no longer allowed to swim in the water. It’s got a magical quality to it – the long exposure shots capture the blue of the water, with steam rising off of it.

Back to the car, we hit the road for the Snaefellsnes peninsula. Along the way, we had plenty of sites to check out though! We stopped at Akureyri for an ice cream and a hot dog. It turns out it’s the second largest city in Iceland – 18,000 residents! It’s a big cruiseship stop though, so it’s very well developed with cute cafes and restaurants. Our ice creams were a bit disappointing (imagine a Dairy Queen blizzard, but made by someone who’s only read about the Blizzard via machine translated websites) but the hot dogs were up to standard.

Our first nerd stop after lunch was to take a photo of a cutaway through a caldera. Kat was thrilled because our photo is just like the one in the book – it actually matched!

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Our next stop was a little more perplexing. We were hunting for a particular gorge with a stream running through it. GPS got us close, but it still involved some poking through fields. This gorge is special, because the lava cross-section reveals tree moulds – areas where tree trunks and branches were enveloped. One lava flow killed the tree, and before it could decay, a second flow came through and preserved it. Think Pompeii, but with trees. After some scrambling, we found them .. we think. We found tree root looking holes in lava.

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From there, we hit a bit of site fatigue, and just wanted to get some euromiles (kilometers) behind us. We rolled into Borgarbyggd around 8, and got ourselves dipped ice cream cones (to make up for our earlier disappointment) and then visited the town bath. This isn’t a fancy hot spring, but more of a community rec center. It was delightful – the baths are still plenty hot (geothermally heated) and it was a bargain. Our campsite doesn’t have showers, so it was a great chance to get cleaned up and relax a bit after sitting in the van for many hours.

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Tomorrow, we’re going to try to squeeze in a lot into a limited amount of time. We need to be back in Reykjavik in the evening, so we’re going to get a very early start to explore the Snaefellsnes. It’s odd to be back into an area that feels more modern – where paved roads intersect other paved roads. We’re not sure how we feel about that.