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Picture Perfect Vietnam

Close your eyes and imagine Vietnam… Do you see an endless green landscape of stepped rice terraces? Do you picture a vivid pink and orange sky and the sun dipping below turquoise waters? Or, do you envision smiling locals with conical hats offering their wares of snacks and souvenirs at bustling markets? This incredible destination offers all of that and more.

We’ve rounded up 10 of the most photo-worthy spots in this magical corner of Southeast Asia, as seen by the lenses of some of our team members, so get your camera ready for an unforgettable adventure!

1. Vietnam’s Verdant Countryside.

Left: A woman plants rice in a field in Vietnam | Right: photo by Peggy Goldman

“You’ll see seemingly endless rice paddies with whole families tending to the magic grain that feeds the nation, plus green tea plants in the highlands and lush forests in the lowlands. At times, the country seems like nothing but an emerald blanket draped over the contours of a sleeping giant.”  —Peggy, President & CEO

Most of the people in Vietnam live in a rural setting. The rice paddies, vividly green, seem to go on uninterrupted as far as the eye can see! Life is slower in the country side, without the demands and bustle of city life. Religion is very important to the country’s rural communities, who still practice their faith the way their ancestors did, sometimes at the very same ancient temple or pagoda. As you travel the winding roads, keep an eye out for farmers (and water buffaloes!) among the rows of growing rice.

Photo Tips: Getting the best shot of this beautiful aspect of Vietnam is all about composition. Try to include as much of the landscape as you can in your shots so that viewers will get a sense of the size and vastness of the rice terraces. For an extra challenge, try to focus your shot on some of the local farmers in the field, donning their iconic non la hats.

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Imperial Cities, a peaceful people… and mint tea!

Beneath the hot, North African sun ancient metropolises bloomed from the desert among the diverse landscape of jagged mountains, lush valleys, and pristine coastline. Over the centuries, political powers and empires from Europe created fluidity among the people and borders, and Morocco first entered the scene in 225 BC as the Berber Kingdom of Mauretania. Since then, the country has seen many changes—from the formation of its imperial cities (Marrakesh, Fez, Meknes, and Rabat) to the development of a complex culture with fascinating cuisine and focus on peace and knowledge. And together, along with the stunning diversity of landscapes that make up this incredible country, each of these elements is a beautiful thread in the intricate tapestry of present day Morocco and worth taking the time to explore when you visit!

Old Rabat Morocco by xiquinhosilva Flickr

Morocco’s history is a sharp contrast to its neighbors. While nearby countries boast a past of victory through war, much of Morocco’s history is a story of peaceful unity, a theme reflected in the Moroccan people today. According to legend, the territory became an independent country when Idris ibn Abdallah, seeking sanctuary from violence in Iraq, persuaded local tribes to break their allegiances to Baghdad. He formed the Idrisi dynasty in 788 AD and named Fez as Morocco’s first capital city. Under his leadership Morocco became the center of learning and discovery of the region. The University of Al Quaraouiyine was established in Fez in 859 AD and is still open today, outstripping Oxford University by more than two centuries!

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Top 6 Exciting Egyptian Experiences

Civilization first dawned in Egypt over five millennia ago when Narmer, first pharaoh of the First Dynasty, unified Upper and Lower Egypt. But Egypt’s history is even older, with human settlements dating back to 4,000 BC. In all that time, Egypt has grown and developed into one of the most exciting, richly cultured places in the world. Here’s just a taste of the exciting things awaiting you when you take a trip to this timeless destination!

River Nile ©Michael Gwyther-Jones/Flickr

1. Cruising the Nile

With over 4,000 miles of waterway coursing through 11 countries, the Nile River is considered to be the longest in the world, and Egypt its gift to Earth. Ancient Egyptians revered it as the source of all life, and with a riverfront view of the bustling ports and trading posts like Luxor, Esna and Edfu that blossomed all along its shores, you’ll see why. Stop off to visit the Valley of the Kings along the West Bank of the Nile and tour Edfu and the Temple of Horus! In addition to its ancient treasures, the Nile’s banks are home to a wide assortment of Egypt’s most iconic animals from its storied history, including hippopotamuses and the legendary Nile crocodiles. If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse (from the safety of your boat!) and you’ll understand why ancient Egyptians believed them to be gods.

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The Legends of Lakes, Mountains & More in the Adriatic

Across Croatia, Slovenia and Austria, massive crystal-clear lakes are tucked beneath white-crested peaks, their banks framed by timeless evergreens and ornamented by centuries old castles and cathedrals. The lakes’ blue-green hue reflects the sun’s rays and the verdant valleys surrounding them bloom with a rainbow of wildflowers in the spring. For generations these lakes and mountains have drawn visitors in search of rest, relaxation and rejuvenation. But… is something else drawing people to these geological masterpieces? Something a little less… of this world?

In fact, these fairy tale landscapes and pristine natural wonders are an integral part of a rich oral folklore tradition. Fancifully woven stories passed down over the years teach us about the spirits of the lakes and mountains and how they came to be. Before heading off to explore the wild and rugged Adriatic on one of our tours, step back in time and learn how fairies, dragons, and supernatural folk made this region truly magical!

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Lake Bled and the Legend of the Sunken Bell

Hidden among the Julian Alps’ jagged peaks, and just 22 miles from Slovenia’s capital city of Ljubljana, is Lake Bled. Visitors from around the world head to the lake’s picturesque shores to take in the gorgeous surrounding mountains and forests, and to take a trip out to little Bled Island! The legend goes that once upon a time a young widow lived in the castle on the island. Her husband had died many years prior, a victim of highway thieves who threw his body into the waters. Her sadness was so great that she gathered all of the gold and silver she had and commissioned a beautiful bell to be placed in the chapel on the island in his memory. But a great and terrible storm sank the boatmen and the bell on their way to the island. Overcome with grief, she sold all of her belongings, offered the proceeds to build a new church on the island and left Slovenia for Rome to live out her days as a nun. After her death, the Pope who had heard of her misfortunes and her good deeds sent a new bell to Bled Island in her name. He declared that anyone who believes in God and rings the bell three times will have their wishes come true. Today, the little church still stands on the island—a popular place for weddings. Be sure to ring the bell for yourself when you visit!

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#FriendlyFiles: Surprising Singapore!

Recently Danielle, a member of Friendly Planet’s Sales Team, set off on an adventure to Singapore. Our independent adventures to this amazing destination offer plenty of opportunity to explore at your own pace—so check out some of her favorite experiences before you book your own getaway to the Lion City!

Time and time again, I heard Singapore described as a “sterile city.” People who had never visited the Lion City told me to make sure I followed the rules – do not chew gum, do not jay walk, do not, do not. Instead of listening to naysayers, I like to push stereotypes aside when I travel, and to dig deep into the culture, the people, and the new adventures. I departed for my vacation with an open mind, and I came home with a fuller heart and a new-found appreciation for all of the surprises Singapore had to share!

An evening walk along Kampong Glam ©Erwin Soo/Flickr

The Many Sounds of Singapore

I believe a city can be measured by the music you hear in it, but I was surprised to learn that the music of Singapore is jazz! On any given night, music lovers can explore Kampong Glam and listen to the sultry singers inside and outside the various bars. If jazz is not your style, this hip neighborhood had everything from oldies to reggae. Kampong Glam is a destination in its own right in Singapore. The streets are lined with colorful art (and tourists lining up to get a selfie!) as well as small boutiques that are a shopper’s dream. It’s also a great place to grab a bite and watch the world go by! On one of my favorite nights in Kampong Glam, I found myself sitting outside a Turkish restaurant, people-watching and listening to the chatter of a multitude of languages around me as a soulful singer played a beautiful background soundtrack.

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Through Your Eyes: a Kenya Safari Experience

One of our travelers, Deborah, recently went on our Kenya Safari Express small group tour. When she returned, she shared with us her incredible story–along with some awesome photos! Africa had been on her bucket list for decades and we are so humbled to play a small role in her unforgettable experience in this amazing country!

It’s 6 am three days before Thanksgiving, and my husband and I are sitting in a small airport café in Frankfurt, Germany sipping coffee while we wait for our next flight. While there, a couple from Texas sat down next to us to chat. As with any airport conversation, the ‘where are you going’ question popped up, and I excitedly said – Kenya on safari! After a split second of stunned silence, the woman said “I wasn’t expecting that”…to be quite frank, I wasn’t expecting it either.

Africa has been at the top of my bucket list for over 30 years. My master bedroom has an African theme, and I always watch NatGeo hoping to see another lion, cheetah, leopard — you name it, I want to see it. I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with Africa, but I know one thing, I was not going to leave this life without stepping foot on the vast African savannah and seeing these incredible creatures with my own eyes. It was time to scratch this off my bucket list.

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10 Temptingly Tasty Thai Dishes

The sound of bustling market places—fruit vendors, hawker stalls, chatty diners and shoppers interacting. The smell of sweet and spicy, lemongrass and lime, intermingling like a perfume on the air. The taste of a new dish, something you’ve never tried before, hitting your tastebuds for the first time. For travelers, food is always a part of experiencing someplace new and no where is it more intricately woven into the everyday experience than in Thailand. For those visiting the “Land of Smiles” here are 10 tempting Thai dishes that will have all five of your senses singing a culinary symphony!

Pad Thai ©Michael Saechang

Pad thai ©Michael Saechang/Flickr

1. ผัดไทย – Pad Thai – Thai Fried Noodles

Immensely popular well beyond the borders of Thailand, pad thai is probably the country’s most iconic dish. So popular in fact that in 2011 pad thai was ranked number 5 on CNN Go‘s World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods readers’ poll. And it’s no surprise why! This flavorful dish is a staple at casual dining joints and street vendors. At it’s core, this quick-to-cook dish is made of rice noodles stir-fried with eggs and firm tofu and seasoned with tamarind pulp, fish sauce, garlic, and served with lime wedges. It could also include fresh shrimp, chicken, squid or other proteins.

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#FriendlyFiles: Hungry in Hong Kong

Recently Amanda, a member of Friendly Planet’s Marketing Team, traveled to Hong Kong to try some of the culinary wonders that the city has to offer.  Check out some of her favorite foods and dining experience below! 

A few months ago, I traveled to Hong Kong for the first time. It was interesting in that it was so familiar and so different at the same time. The high-rises and modernity of this world class city took me right back to when I visited Manhattan as a high school kid. The hurried crowds and bustling streets, the veritable maze of roads and alleys, the way the buildings soared overhead into the clouds—making you dizzy if you stared up too long! English is even widely spoken there because it’s a former British colony. But having never been to China, there was a cultural element buzzing beneath the light shows and skyscrapers that I wasn’t expecting. And nowhere did that perfect blend of ancient culture and today’s fast-paced world come to life more vividly than the food.

Hong Kong's neon skyline

Hong Kong’s neon skyline (Photo by Hong Kong Tourism)

And let’s be honest: I LOVED the food. Each dish masterfully blended thousands of years of Chinese history with the modern setting it was being served in. Food that had comforted diners and impressed royalty for centuries was served daily—from food carts amid bustling night markets and in 5-Star restaurants overlooking the postcard perfect Victoria Harbor. We ate so much that it would be impossible to narrow it down to a single favorite. So here are five delicious things I indulged in—and that you shouldn’t skip!—when visiting Hong Kong.

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Etiquette in Japan: don’t freak out!

From groundbreaking technological innovation to stunning natural vistas to traditional Shinto shrines and Zen rock gardens, Japan has intrigued generations of visitors who come from near and far to experience the island-nation. While some aspects of Japanese culture have made dramatic and lasting breakthroughs into our global consciousness (think sushi, anime, video games, and movies), some things remain a mystery to those hailing from the west. And nothing can be more confusing than navigating Japan’s centuries-old tradition of social etiquette, which is both complicated and important.

But don’t let that scare you away! Like most places you visit on your travels, making an attempt to understand and take part in their traditions and culture is more than enough of a signal that you are trying to be a good guest in their country. But if you’re still worried, don’t be! We’re here to shed some light on the dos & don’ts before you take your next trip to the “Land of the Rising Sun.”

Women dressed in traditional attire greet one another with a bow.

Women dressed in traditional attire greet one another with a bow.

Take a bow.

Probably the most iconic Japanese custom, bowing is also one of the easiest to be unsure about! This greeting takes a lot of different forms, but generally speaking, it is divided into three categories: informal, formal, and very formal. The formality of the bow is determined by the relationship between the two individuals that are greeting one another. Young people bow longer and deeper when greeting elders and employees do the same when greeting the CEO. As a foreigner, a bow of the head is probably all you need to do as most Japanese don’t expect visitors to know all the rules!

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#FriendlyFiles: Scenes of a Dubai Landscape

Recently Danielle, a member of Friendly Planet’s Sales Team, traveled to Dubai on our Dazzling Dubai package! Check out her 5 favorite experiences!

What does Dubai look like? Now that’s a tough question to answer. It’s a remote desert and a field of flowers, an incredible sunset and a metal jungle, a shopkeeper peddling his traditional wares, a delicious meal influenced by five different cultures, and the tallest building in the world. Dubai is often described as a city of paradoxes. Walk a few blocks and you’ll understand why. You will hear about twenty languages in a span of several minutes. You will see business workers in suits, a curious tourist staring up in awe, and locals dressed in traditional white robes all in one city block. But the multitude of cultures, foods and experiences coalesce into a fascinating array of different scenes forming one incredible city. Paradox or not, there were 5 experiences that stood out to me, and here they are.

Spice Markets (by Elroy Serrao/Flickr), Trinket Souk (by Sirah Quyyom/Flickr), Gold Market (by Binder Donedat/Flickr)

1. Gold and Spices
The Gold and Spice Souks are the most visible link to the past of the United Arab Emirates, and they are a shopper’s dream (as long as you aren’t afraid to haggle). Shopkeepers line the corridors presenting their wares, like cashmere scarfs, purses, gold jewelry, gilded-everything and colorful barrels of spices. It’s the perfect place to aimlessly wander and imagine you are in another time in the Middle East. It’s also the perfect place to buy souvenirs!

If you’re nervous about haggling, or just looking for a more modern market of sort, Dubai’s multitude of malls will not disappoint. The ultra-modern Dubai Mall has every store imaginable, and is a tourist destination in its own right, and if you haven’t had your fill of jewelry shopping at the souks, there are certainly enough gemstones to go around.

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