From 1969 to 1970, Mike Close served a year-long tour of duty in Vietnam. Five months ago, he revisited the country for the first time since the war, in a trip that turned out to be as much about change as it was about memories.
When Mike and his wife Chris decided to make the trip together with a friend from Mike's unit, John Berend, and his wife Marjorie, they turned to Myths and Mountains, with whom the Closes had previously traveled to Peru. "If I'm going to do a trip to an out-of-the-way place, I'm not even going to talk to anyone besides Myths and Mountains," Mike says. "They really do this out-of-the-way stuff well."
Mike and John had both served as pilots in Vietnam's Central Highlands and wanted to revisit the places they had flown in and out of every day. For logistical reasons they decided to do the trip by car, so Myths and Mountains President Toni Neubauer - whom Mike calls "basically a walking encyclopedia of Vietnam" - laid out a clockwise itinerary starting in Saigon. She also booked one of Vietnam's best guides, Le Van Cuong, to accompany the group.
Unfortunately John and Marjorie had to cancel at the last minute, so Mike and Chris ended up making the trip alone. Early on, it became clear that Vietnam in 2012 was very different from 40 years ago. Dalat, part of the no-fire zone during the war, was "one of the prettiest cities I've ever seen," Mike says. Further north, Buon Ma Thuot saw some of the heaviest American bombing in the country. Now, "it's a thriving little city. There's not a sign of the war left."
The town of Pleiku, site of an American base during the war, had grown beyond recognition. "I lived in Pleiku for seven months and couldn't even find within a half a mile where I lived, it's changed so much," Mike says.
Money often presents one of the biggest challenges in preparing for an international trip. Will your credit card work overseas? Can you use your ATM card? Should you carry lots of cash? It's always best to be prepared, so that you don't find yourself in a foreign country without the financial resources you need. You can count on Myths and Mountains to make sure you have all the information you need before you go.
In Bhutan and other Asian countries, things operate very differently than in North America. Just because the ATM in your bank at home works, does not mean that the ATM in Bhutan will accept your card. In fact, it won't. Just because you have a platinum American Express Card does not mean that the antique store in Thimphu will allow you to buy that beautiful basket. In fact, it won't. Bhutan will sometimes accept Visa, but no other credit cards, and travelers cannot use local ATMs. Myanmar does not accept any credit cards and has no ATMs at all. In other countries such as Nepal sometimes the ATM works - but invariably, when you need it most, it doesn't!
For countries such as these, the best thing to do is to bring dollars in cash and change them into the local currency. If you are nervous about carrying a lot of money, break it into two packets and put them in separate parts of your travel gear. Then hope you remember where you put everything!
Ethical Traveler's 13 Tips for the Accidental Ambassador
Travel is most meaningful - and least intrusive - when you approach your destination with openness, respect, and a willingness to adapt and learn. If you behave in an informed, culturally sensitive manner, you'll not only come away with truly memorable people-to-people experiences, but you'll also leave behind a positive impression with your hosts. As guidelines, we present these 13 tips from our friends at Ethical Traveler (www.ethicaltraveler.org).
Be aware of where your money is going. Patronize locally owned inns, restaurants, and shops. Try to keep your cash within the local economy, so the people you are visiting benefit directly from your stay.
Avoid giving gifts directly to children. Give instead to their parents or teachers. When giving gifts- everything from pens to pharmaceuticals - first ask what's needed, and who can best distribute these items in the community.
Learn basic greetings. Learn to say "please," "thank you," and as many numbers as you can. It's astonishing how far a little language goes toward creating a feeling of goodwill
Remember the economic realities of your new currency. A few rupees one way or another is not going to ruin you. Don't get upset if a visitor who earns 100 times a local salary is expected to pay a few cents more for a ferry ride or an egg.
Bargain fairly and respectfully. The final transaction should leave both buyer and seller satisfied and pleased. Haggling is part of many cultures, but it's not a bargain if either person feels exploited or ripped-off.
Learn and respect the traditions and taboos of your host country. Never, for example, pat a Thai child on the head, enter a traditional Brahmin's kitchen, or open an umbrella in a Nepali home!
Curb your anger, and cultivate your sense of humor. Travel can present obstacles and frustrations, but anger is never a good solution. It's perversely satisfying, but won't win respect or defuse a bad situation. A light touch, and a sense of humor, are infinitely more useful.
Arrive with a sense of your host country's social and environmental concerns. Our site will direct you to good profiles of many popular travel destinations. It's also very useful to read the political background section in your guidebook, and the local English-language papers.
Learn to listen. People in other nations often feel underestimated or patronized by travelers from the developed world. This fosters anger and resentment. Be aware that good listening skills and respect help shape the world's view of your country.
Practice conservation. Never be wasteful of local resources - especially food and water. Your efforts at conservation will be noted and respected by your hosts, and will set a good example for your fellow travelers.
"Can you please help me?" This is the most useful phrase travelers can learn. Rarely will another human being refuse a direct request for help. Being of service, and inviting others to express their kindness, is what the phrase "global community" is all about.
Leave your preconceptions about the world at home. The inhabitants of planet Earth will continually amaze you with their generosity, hospitality, and wisdom. Be open to their friendship, and aware of our common humanity, delights, and hardships.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s best line is worth remembering. "Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." Go with the flow, and give free reign to your sense of adventure!
Some brides-to-be dream of walking down the aisle in a white dress, but not Randi Lass. For years she had dreamed of visiting Bhutan, and when she and her fiancé, Patrick Reyes, decided to make the trip, Randi had an idea. Why not make the experience even more memorable by celebrating their wedding in Bhutan? With Patrick's enthusiastic agreement, Randi contacted Myths and Mountains to see if it would be possible to arrange a traditional Bhutanese wedding celebration during a READ Global program in November 2011. The answer was a resounding yes.
The wedding was held at a 350-year-old farmhouse owned by the family of one of Myths and Mountains' Bhutanese partners. In a Bhutanese wedding, the man comes to the woman, so Randi was picked up early in the morning and brought to the farmhouse, where the hosts helped her dress in a kira, the traditional women's garment. The wedding guests, who included Myths and Mountains President Toni Neubauer, fellow trip participants, staff from Myths' Bhutanese partner companies, and relatives of the farmhouse owners, arrived later in a procession with the groom, who was wearing the traditional men's garment known as a gho. After traditional celebrations in the courtyard, the actual marriage ceremony was held in a special prayer room, with lamas conducting the rites in the ancient formal manner. Afterward there was traditional entertainment and lunch at the farmhouse.
Sangay Wangchuk, the general manager of our Bhutan office, is full of useful insights for visitors to his country. Here are his thoughts and advice for anyone traveling to Bhutan.
Bhutanese time is not like Western time. When watches first came to Bhutan, the gadget was more jewelry than timepiece. Even today the Bhutanese relationship with time is an issue. For a Bhutanese it is always acceptable when someone walks in late. In fact, the Bhutanese joke that "Bhutan Standard Time" should really be called "Bhutan Stretchable Time." People working in tourism are trying their best to be punctual, but it is always wise to be aware of the country's stretchable time.
Responsible travelers are more appreciated than misguidedly generous ones. The Bhutanese treat tourists as guests and would lay down their lives to protect them. Yet this custom can become diluted over time unless tourists take care to act responsibly. Being a responsible tourist is not difficult. Small acts and thoughts can help preserve Bhutanese culture. For example, it is wise not to flaunt wealth by giving items or money publicly. It is always better to have travelers as guests rather than as walking - albeit compassionate - banks.
Gross National Happiness is at the core of Bhutanese development. Gross National Happiness is the development philosophy coined by the fourth King of Bhutan, H.M. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1980s. To create happiness one must first create a good environment. Creating a good environment requires good policies that create equal socioeconomic opportunities and safeguard citizens' cultural heritage and rights. Finally, it means taking good care of our natural heritage and using it sustainably. That's Gross National Happiness in a nutshell.
Personal relationships are more important than money. For most Bhutanese interpersonal connections are more important than money. Using the power of money to get things done in Bhutan is the wrong idea. People are willing to offer services to travelers because they are guests of the country. There is no expectation of remuneration attached.
An open, inquiring mind is key to understanding Bhutan. Bhutan is still an unexplored destination. There are many new discoveries in this small kingdom, and you need to ask questions to explore it. Bhutanese guides tend to be quite reticient and generally do not volunteer answers unbidden, but this is simply a matter of culture. If you have a question, please ask, and your guides will always do their best to answer.