Travel blogger Tran Dang Dang Khoa
How quickly time passes. It’s already been six months since the day I returned to my beloved Vietnam from Johannesburg, South Africa on a repatriation flight to Noi Bai, Hanoi, putting an end to my three-year long journey around the world. I traveled mainly by motorbike but also by planes and rented cars. Never would I have thought that a virus could interrupt my journey. The arrival of spring outside my window reminds me of the three Tet holidays I spent across the globe, from exotic South America
One cozy spring in South America
My first Tet away from home was spent in South America, traveling from Chile to Bolivia and Peru. The starting point was Chile, the “country of poets”, located halfway around the world from Vietnam. New Year is actually summertime in the Southern hemisphere with pleasant warm weather, a complete contrast to the cold in the Northern hemisphere. Entry into Chile was quite straightforward as visas can be obtained free of charge on arrival for 90 days.
Being a fan of cold weather, I headed straight for the base of the Andes – the mountain range that forms the backbone of the South American continent and has an average height of 4,000m. The town of Farellones lies only 40km from Santiago, making it a hub for backpackers and easy to reach by bus or taxi. At that time, the snow had already melted. Tourists could hike on some relaxing trails around the area. Afterwards, I returned to Santiago for Christmas and New Year. This capital city is vibrant day and night, especially during the year-end holiday season.
From Santiago, I started a trip with my motobike along the northern Pacific Ocean, coasting along the legendary Pan-American Highway to marvel at the drastic changes in climate and topography. This magnificent drive led me through various seaside cities such as Los Vilos, La Serena, Copiapo, Taltal, and finally to Antofagasta, which is also known as La Portada, a distinctive natural arch formed by volcanic rocks.
Like most tourists starting from Antofagasta, I traversed the slopes of the Andes range to reach Calama city, home to the world’s largest open-cast copper mine, then San Pedro de Atacama, sitting at the heart of the Atacama desert, and joined a tour to the Geiser de Tatio natural springs, where local volcanoes remain active and there are many whimsical rock formations. The Martianlike scenery in Atacama captured my heart. Heading toward Bolivia, I was hypnotized by the landscape and fell in love with the reflections of exquisite pink flamingos on emerald ponds near Bolivian border.
Vietnamese visitors to Bolivia can apply for a VOA (Visa On Arrival at the Port of Entry), then head for the city of Uyuni, globally famous for its giant, bewitching salt fields – the Salar de Uyuni. Leaving Uyuni, I marched on to Oruno, which charmed me with its colorful Carnival, and headed for Lapaz, Bolivia’s Capital. If you’re a daredevil who prefers a bold adventure for a truly unforgettable end of the year, conquer the North Yungas route, which lies 60km from the capital. This dangerous zigzagging road has been dubbed the “Death Road”, or the “Most Treacherous Road In The World.”
After Lapaz, your South American spring journey can continue with another flight to Cusco or Lima, the capital of Peru, but you must apply for a visa from Vietnam beforehand, or from the Peru Embassy in Chile or Bolivia. Sick of flying? Choose to drive from Lapaz to the Peruvian border, right next to beautiful Titicaca. Exploring Peru without visiting magnificent Machu Picchu – a once-in-a-lifetime dream for many tourists – would be a great missed opporturnity. Traveling to Machu Picchu is quite easy, with an Internet search yielding a flood of information, but the heart of this place is actually its starting point – Cusco. This dreamy little town is a plate full of nostalgia about the ancient past with time-worn roofs and charming stone-paved streets, encircled by countless archeological sites dating back to the Inca empire. There’s also delicious food suitable for Asian tastes. What is more, the cost of accommodation and food were fairly resonable for a touristy place.
This South American spring journey can stretch further to the capital Lima and past the history-rich town of Quito to Ecuador where you can stand on the equator, then continue to Colombia if you have time.
Winter wonderland in Europe
On the second year of Christmas and Tet far from home, I wandered alone through many Northern European countries and regions, including Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, along the Balkan Peninsula, and through Poland, Germany, and France. I began my New Year’s trip in Western Europe, starting from Iceland and the Nordic countries. You could also begin in Paris, the City of Lights. Take a walk in old towns, listen to romantic French love songs, enjoy the monumental atmosphere, and escape reality for a moment. Only a few places can evoke such a feeling! The Year’s Eve countdown at the foot of the Eiffel Tower is a unique moment for a traveler far from home.
If you want, take the express train from the Gare du Nord to reach neighboring German cities like historic Berlin, windy Hamburg, or baroque Dresden. This route extends all the way to Poland, the Czech Republic, and other small Balkan countries like Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. From the capital Tallinn, hop on a fast ferry to Helsinki – Finland’s famous port capital. Don’t hesitate to continue to Rovaniemi, the famous “Home of Santa Claus”, where both children and adults wish to travel at least once, especially over Christmas and New Year. Be prepared for the extreme cold at the end of the year and bring proper warm clothes. If time permits, you can proceed to Sweden and Norway, down to Denmark or even Iceland and Greenland to witness a spectacular Winter Wonderland, where everything is covered inthick white snow and ice. A single Schengen visa allows you to easily visit all the above-mentioned countries except for Greenland, which requires a special Visa.
Mysterious islands of the dark continent
Spending Christmas and New Year in North or South America, Europe, etc. is a popular trend. Why don’t you follow in my footsteps and spend this holiday in Africa? In particular, East Africa and the islands in the Indian Ocean offer mild weather and many interesting things to do. Transportation is convenient and all visas can be requested at the Port of Entry, or on driving routes. Your itinerary can start in Kenya, where you could visit Nairobi National Park next to the capital Nairobi, passing through Maasai villages to experience the local culture.
Your next destination should be neighboring Tanzania, where you must explore their prominent national parks, which cost a premium but are definitely worth the hype, or attempt to conquer the famed Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest mountain peak – and celebrate New Year up there. Do you love the big blue? Join a tour to the utopian Zanzibar archipelago, or the little pearl of the Seychelles, with dozens of beaches with crystal clear aquamarine water. Mauritius should be next on your list, offering a fusion of cultures from all over the globe, or fly to Madagascar to admire the gigantic baobab trees discussed in folktales.
As my hands typed, my mind was taken back to my days roaming around Comoros Island. The local people were struggling to make ends meet yet remained kind-hearted. Their gentle looks will stay in my heart forever. Spending New Year on the Dark Continent is such an indescribable experience for the lucky few who can get there.
Welcoming a new year in a far-off place not only allows us to explore new lands and understand more about this great big world, but also encourages us to discover new yet familiar inspiration within ourselves.