One of my very first trips, straight out of college, was a group tour around Europe with my best friends.  We were completely inexperienced in international travel, the Internet wasn’t really as useful back then as it is now, and we had no idea how to even start planning something like this.  One of my friends found a bus tour around multiple countries – the UK, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, all within a scope of 16 days, and off we went.  Despite the airline losing my checked-in luggage with all my clothes, and me forgetting my wallet in the very first hotel in London, the trip was a smashing success… until we got to the Netherlands.  The weather wasn’t cooperating, with dreary grey skies and incessant drizzling rain, the buildings on the main square where our bus dropped us off for some free time were under construction, covered in protective canvas and scaffolding, and our first impressions of the city were further tainted by what looked like a barely conscious tourist crawling out of a weed Coffee shop.  I was not impressed.  By the end of the trip, while discussing the various cities we visited on the plane ride home, Amsterdam won a solid last place from me.  And so it remained in my mind, as I started to travel more and more each year, that Amsterdam and Netherlands in general were not worth my time.  When in 2011 Victor informed me that we had almost a ten-hour stopover in Amsterdam on our way to Egypt, I wrinkled my nose.  Amsterdam, I explained to him, was the worst of all European cities I had visited, a bleak, unoriginal, overly touristy destination, with nothing of interest to offer.  But Victor was not deterred.  A master itinerary architect, he immediately started researching and investigating Amsterdam and presented me with a solid idea – we would spend the day in world-renowned museums, rather than the bleak and ugly city itself.  Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum did both look interesting, and I readily agreed.

We arrived in Amsterdam early in the morning and walked out, bleary-eyed, to see the sun just rising over the city.  Even on the way to the first museum, I already felt that something was different.  The air was fresh, and the sun was warm, a cleaning crew was cheerfully sweeping away all garbage from what looked like the last night all city party, while the smell of freshly baked bread was calling to us from an open door of a tiny cafe.  I was surprised to see how charming and curious most buildings looked, with their narrow tall facades and ornamented roofs.  Rijksmuseum lived up to its superb reputation and we walked out three hours later, overwhelmed at having seen some of the Dutch masters’ best masterpieces.  We bought some cheese, cold cuts, fresh bread, pudding, and fruits at a local supermarket, sat on the tall curb in the museum square, enjoying the food and the sunshine.  Rijksmuseum's red brick façade looked magnificent in the afternoon sun and children were climbing all over the large “I Amsterdam” sign, giggling and posing for photographs.  Even a random pigeon tearing a piece of cheese right out of my hands and leaving its dirty bird footprint on the rest of our cheese brick didn’t ruin our mood.  If anything, it made us laugh for the next five minutes, as we were shooing the rest of the pigeon flock away.  It was right there that I knew for sure how absolutely wrong I was about Amsterdam.  I remembered, cringing, how I helped friends with their Europe itineraries and self-assuredly recommended leaving the Netherlands off the trip.  Van Gogh Museum only further solidified my newly found love for everything Dutch.  Already fans of Van Gogh’s art, we spent way too much time in every room and were ushered out as the museum was locking its doors.

“I wish we had time for Anne Frank’s Museum!” I told Victor as we were heading back to the airport, “I want to see the tulip fields.  I want to… I want to come back…-

And come back we did in 2018 and had a great time in Amsterdam, The Hague, Leiden, Delft, Rotterdam, and Haarlem.  Every new beautiful sight we saw, every delicious meal we ate, every fascinating museum we visited, I was silently apologizing to the Netherlands and hoping I have been forgiven.

In 2012, we had a complicated itinerary in Argentina all planned out.  We had 5 internal flights, days exploring cities and villages, hiking in El Chalten and glacier climbing in El Calafate, a boat ride in the Beagle Channel, two days marveling at Iguazu Falls, and a day riding horses and milking cows on a real farm in Patagonia.  We had to pack for both hot and cold weather, for milonga dancing in the city and strenuous hiking in the mountains.  We spent over a year planning and figuring out every itinerary caveat, from transportation to living arrangements to picking only the best places to visit.  Argentina is a huge country and we only had two weeks to fit in everything we wanted to do.  We were halfway through the trip, on our second day in Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire, whose motto is “End of the World, Beginning of Everything”, when I suddenly thought, “We made a mistake.  We shouldn’t have come here.”

Just as with my first trip to Amsterdam, the weather wasn’t cooperating.   It kept drizzling on and off and bone-chilling gusts of wind rose giant waves in the Beagle channel.  The day before, the boat captain of the day cruise we wanted to book, shook his head, “This is not sailing weather.  Come back tomorrow.”  We have been looking to sailing “off the edge of the world”, among the islands where Ferdinand Magellan saw the huge bonfires lit by the native Yaghan tribes and named this land “Tierra del Fuego” or “Land of Fire” in English.  We wanted to see the snow-capped Andes, forests, glaciers, and islands overran with penguins, all from the natural splendor of the channel.  We ended up bundling up in our warmest clothes and jog-walked from touristy store to store in the tiny town, beset from all sides by freezing rain, gusting wind, and crashing waves.  Without much enthusiasm, we bought colorful fridge magnets “Tierra Del Fuego” and “End of the World!” and prayed that tomorrow the weather would be better.

Next day, the captain begrudgingly nodded at us.  “We’ll sail.” He said, “But we won’t go far.  Not far enough to see the penguin islands.”  Hiding my disappointment, I handed over the money.  The most attractive part of this trip was being able to disembark on one of the penguin islands and see the penguins up close. Trying to maintain being cheerful in this cold, desolate, penguin-less place was becoming harder and harder.  The ship rocked on the waves, and I spent the whole ride hoping the Dramamine I took for motion sickness would hold me through the ride.  The sky was grey and the islands we did see were covered in fog.  We did see some “penguin-like” birds and I took way too many pictures of them, trying to pretend this was a viable substitution for the Magellanic, Gentoo, and King penguins we would never get to see.

Once we got off the boat and I realized that the entire reason for flying to and from Ushuaia has been completely ruined by the weather, I allowed myself to sulk for a minute.  “We shouldn’t have come here.” I thought. “We could have spent more time somewhere else or added a different place to the itinerary.  We have so few travel days and we just squandered two of them.”

Then, I remembered the stop in Amsterdam the year before.  I imagined coming back here in a few years, the sun shining, the waters of the Beagle Channel calm and glittering in the sun.   The boat trip taking us all the way to penguin islands and allowing us to disembark among the black and white seabirds, sauntering around and sleeping on the warm rocks.  We did have a well-planned itinerary and there is no way we could have predicted the weather, outside of picking the best month to travel here.  It would not be fair to leave Ushuaia off future trips or recommendations.  It didn’t work out for us, but it does for thousands of other travelers every year.

And so, this year as we were planning Vietnam, we tried to remember all the lessons we learned earlier and take negative reviews of places with a grain of salt.  Figuring out the Vietnam itinerary was turning out to be quite an arduous undertaking.  A long thin strip of a country, it had to be explored either from North to South or from South to North.   Do we try to incorporate the entire country into one two-week trip or do we leave off the South and just do Center and the North?  Ho Chi Minh City in the South was “too hectic”, “not enough sights”, “dirty”, and “easily skippable” according to many reviewers on TripAdvisor.  On top of that, one of our friends recommended we skip Hue, a city in the center of the country, where she did not find much to do.  Bloggers and reviewers were not of much help either, their opinions varying from “spend at least four days here” to “take it off your itinerary”.  In the end, we had to go with our guts.  We wanted to learn more about the Vietnam War and Ho Chi Minh City had museums and sights where we could accomplish just that.  We were also interested in exploring royal tombs of the Nguyễn dynasty and that meant allowing at least two days for Hue.  In the end, we decided that both Ho Chi Minh City and Hue earned their places in itineraries in Lonely Planet and Frommer’s books for a good reason and we would make time for them.

Next Posts “How Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City and How Ho Chi Minh City almost killed us” and “The Unplanned Detour – From Two Days in Hue to Two Days in the Jungle on Motorbikes” are coming soon!

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