Dinh Hang, travel blogger

I cut the banh chung rice cake from a Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco and celebrated another Tet holiday far from home. As gloomy as it may sound, the many Lunar New Years I spent overseas on my journeys to discover distant continents have been full of lovely memories.

A big mural in San Francisco- USA

San Francisco, a shimmering city behind a veil of fog

The sun was setting and it was misty over the Golden Gate Bridge. I was standing on the Presidio side, my hair tousled by gusts of wind blowing in from the bay. I often drove in the fast-moving traffic and felt the bridge’s vibrations every time cars passed mine. This time, I wanted to stroll the length of this bridge, as that may be the best way to connect with it. I set off, walking on what was once the longest suspension bridge in the world.

Past the Golden Gate Bridge, I reached Marin County, where several viewpoints, such as Vista Point, offer panoramic views of the entire bridge. With its last glorious rays, the sun dressed the bridge in its crimson color, setting it apart from the deep blue sea below and the vivid tint of blue sky above. On the distant horizon, layers of cottony fog started to roll in over the city.

 “I left my heart in San Francisco.” I often said this, even before I came to know of the titular song by Tony Bennett. His lyrics spoke to me, with the same sentiment I had harbored for years. His warm baritone evokes the most genuine and passionate feelings in those who love San Francisco.

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco- USA

Despite being a frequent visitor, I always wonder the same thing: What makes me so obsessed with San Francisco? Ah, I can think of thousands of reasons to fall for this city. There are the alleys where a world of colorful murals await discovery. There are the vibrant and glittering piers where parties never end. There is the sun’s brilliant light upon the Golden Gate Bridge that stole my heart on an afternoon walk across the bridge.

After all, these are just excuses for me to miss and love San Francisco. I miss my joyous afternoon walks around city blocks lined with classic row houses. I long for the serenity of looking up at the blue sky with wisps of fog still hanging around the bridge’s towers in windy weather. And I love the tinkling sound of the cable car running up California Hill, carrying my thoughts to imaginary lands.

A vast sea of clouds in Borobudur, Indonesia

From Jakarta, I took an 8-hour train ride to Yogyakarta – the cultural hub of Java Island. The weather was freezing at 2:30 am. Amber streetlights seemed to stretch the asphalt road to infinity. After getting off the train, I hopped into a car and began my cloud-hunting trip before sunrise. At the foot of Punthuk Setumbu Hill, I turned on my headlamp and followed a track uphill. It was 4:30 am, and the sun hadn’t risen. The weather was still frigid, and sleepiness started to catch up with me.

Then the sun began to rise. Glowing lilac, she inched upward from the mountain ranges against the clear, cerulean horizon. The scenery was both clear and blurry. Not long after that, the sun finally revealed herself, illuminating a dreamy sea of clouds. Drifting around the mountain ridges and high above the forest were thick clouds. They seemed to be everywhere. Layers of clouds joined together, spreading far into the horizon. Waves of clouds gently rushed over the treetops. Billowing clouds floated around the sky, fuzzy here and there in the morning light.

There was a time when I wished to sail along the boundless sea of clouds washed in the sun’s radiant color and let myself be carried away forever. From afar, Borobudur – the biggest Buddhist temple in the world – appears to sleep soundly in the early morning mist.

At Borobudur, I climbed five square terraces and three circular platforms to reach the top, home to a large stupa. Standing at the top, I immersed myself in the serenity of the ancient temple. It is astonishing that this 1,200-year-old temple, built from two million stones, was buried under volcanic remnants before it was re-discovered and preserved. Surrounded by 3,000 reliefs and sculptures, every step I took at the sacred Borobudur monument reminded me of the spiritual journeys of Buddhist devotees.

It was around noon when I reached the top of the temple. The sun reached its peak, heating the stone floor beneath my feet. Looking at the stupas on the three upper terraces converging around the central stupa where I was standing, I suddenly realized that maybe, the architects of Borobudur were trying to communicate to me about the reincarnation of everything in the infinite universe.

Springtime in Hokkaido during Japan’s summer

The trail leading to Biei Lake (Hokkaido) wove through two rows of silver birch, which stood in striking contrast to the muddy soil after the rain. Under the grey sky, the lake was quiet and calm, resembling an enormous mirror set on the ground. I burst into tears in front of that natural oil painting with bare larches and silver birches casting their shadows on the blue water. Around the lake, small shrubs were living their first lives in the heyday of spring.

It was a pleasant surprise to know that the lake is a man-made water feature. In 1988, a dike was built to prevent possible impact from volcanic Mount Tokachi, inadvertently creating a flowing stream of water from the Biei River to lowland areas, including Biei Lake.

The magical blue color of the lake changes depending on the sunlight, seasons, and position of the beholders. Sometimes it is an icy cobalt blue. At  other times it is a stunning turquoise. Even on cloudy days, the vibrant blue color remains, the result of aluminum, sulfur, and lime traces that stream into the lake from nearby hot springs.

Flower Hill in Hokkaido - Japan

In May, when summer is at its peak in other places, spring only starts to visit Hokkaido, giving life to magenta cherry blossoms against the clear blue sky.

From Biei Lake, I travelled about 1,000km to Ozora as the temperature gradually dropped to 3-4 degrees Celsius along the way. I couldn’t help but exclaim, “Oh, it must be a dream!” upon first catching sight of  Higashimokoto Shibazakura Park, covered in carpets of moss phlox flowers, called “Shibazakura” in Japan. Some 400,000 plants in colors ranging from pink and purple to white fluttered in the wind before my eyes. Flowers covered the trail, bloomed along the wooden bridge, and spread all over the hillside.

I strolled around the meandering tracks on the hill and arrived at the observation deck, from where I could see the entire park. In the numbing cold, spring raindrops dripped from the edge of my umbrella and rested on the fresh petals, full of the essence of spring.