3 Breathtaking Countries That Changed My Perspective

Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
On May 24, 2014, my fiancé, Andy, and I got married in New York City. A week later, we hopped on a plane with two carry-on suitcases and two one-way tickets to Paris. We had just pressed pause on our careers, sublet our apartment, and moved all of our things into storage. The only plan was to have no plans at all — and we ended up traveling for 394 days through 25 countries, stopping in nearly 100 destinations. Over the next few weeks, come along on this crazy journey to learn more about how we did it — packing, plotting, budgeting — and see some of the tens of thousands of photos we took along the way.
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After two-and-a-half weeks in Myanmar, we had only skimmed the surface of Southeast Asia. We began a tour through the neighboring countries of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. They proved to be so much more than what we'd heard — pretty beaches, cheap accommodations, and great food.
Thailand dazzles with its azure waters, deserted-island paradises, golden temples, and buzzing cities. Everything was colorful, exotic, and alive. Cambodia transports you to a jungle kingdom with endless temples — one of the most impressive collections in the world. The Cambodian people have faced immense hardship, but everyone we met was optimistic, fun-loving, and warm. Vietnam is a country with an abundance of natural beauty, from limestone islands to paddy fields to sprawling, mountainous terrain. Its cities have a mix of French, Japanese, and Chinese influences, and are both ancient and progressive. After 40 years of horrific war, this country is moving full steam ahead with confidence and its eyes fixed on the future.

What moved me the most was seeing the history of these recent wars through the eyes of the locals. To get a true understanding of how our own country's involvement in their affairs has shaped the people and its landscapes — from the lasting effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese to the bombs we dropped on Cambodia. In Vietnam, we had one of our most memorable experiences by getting off the tourist path, ditching over crowded attractions like Ha Long Bay, and catching a glimpse of the authentic way people lived in very rural parts of the country, like the Ha Giang province.

It all amounts to perspective, perspective, perspective. Seeing beautiful things is nice. Taking photos of yourself in beautiful places is a nice. But the destinations and experiences that resonated with me the most, throughout all of our travels, were the ones that gave me perspective on another country’s history, culture, lifestyle, religions, hardships, and successes. It breeds understanding, empathy, openness, acceptance, and curiosity. That’s travel at its finest.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The ubiquitous long-tail boat on Thailand’s Koh Ngai island.

We got a pretty rocky start to our Thailand adventures. After a quick two days in Phuket, we took a ferry to the Phi Phi Islands. Our very first night in town, I was struck with the worst food poisoning of our entire trip. Not only was I confined to my bed for the duration of our stay, but our beach bungalow shook to the vibrations of the house music blaring from the nearby clubs every single night. I spent that first night crawling in and out of the giant mosquito net that surrounded our bed and to the outdoor bathroom to tend to my food poisoning. Gah.

Since Phi Phi was a bust for us, we had higher hopes for our next stop, Koh Ngai. We hopped (I really stumbled along like a little, barely recovered Bambi) onto the ferry and set off. It wasn’t until two hours in that one of the crew members asked us if we needed a bus connection when we got back to Phuket. Wait, PHUKET?! We were heading back to where we had just came from. Even after checking our tickets and destination with a few of the crew, we were placed on the wrong ferry boat. We ended up having to sail to Phuket, turn around, sail back to Phi Phi, and spend an additional night on the island. We adjusted our hotel reservations in Koh Ngai and were ready the next morning for our speedboat transfer the ferry company had arranged.

A standard ski boat pulled up with only one other couple in it. We were excited about the more streamlined transfer, but couldn’t help but notice the strange look of fear on the couple’s faces. They quickly confessed that they had already been on the ride for over 3 hours — and it had been a bit...bumpy. Now sooner did they say that, when our driver floored it.We basically went from zero to 60 and were hitting waves so hard that I thought our little fiberglass boat was going to shred in half. The bumps literally sent us flying off of our seats and gave us both a nice dose of whiplash. It was so bad that I actually started crying and begged the drivers to slow down, but they didn’t seem concerned at all. We bumped along for the next hour, until we reached this scene. After the drivers pulled in as close as they could, we jumped into the water and carried our suitcases over our heads until we reached the shore. And then, we fell onto the picture-perfect beach. Paradise reached.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We had only planned to stay a few days, but we were so blown away by Koh Ngai’s beauty that we ended up staying put for a whole week. It felt more secluded and calm than our first two stops — which were crawling with backpackers and all-night dance parties. And I’ve never seen water so crystal clear in my life. One morning, we watched a school of fish circle our hotel's pier.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Dragonfruit. So styling. I think we need more black-and-white fruit in the U.S.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Our little bungalow, nestled in the foliage. After our rough start, we treated ourselves to a stay at Thanya Resort on Koh Ngai. We got massages next to the ocean waves, drank damn good $4 cocktails on the beach, floated in the crystal clear water, and ate exquisite Thai cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Only in Thailand...
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
One day, we took a day trip to kayak and snorkel around the small islands surrounding Koh Ngai.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Sunset views from the hotel’s infinity pool.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We loved Koh Ngai so much that even after a full week there, we almost considered skipping Bangkok to stay longer. In the end, we decided to say goodbye to paradise and hopped on a flight to Thailand’s capital and most populous city.

Bangkok exceeded my expectations. It’s a mashup of East and West, old and new. We stayed at the raddest little B & B called Kama Bangkok, run by a one-time New Yorker with a background in web design. The vibe was Brooklyn meets Bangkok. We so enjoyed our mornings drinking French press coffee, meeting like-minded international tourists, and having quick design jam sessions on our laptops before heading out to see the sights. The owner, Chris, was the man — so outgoing, thoughtful, passionate, and just a normal guy. It was refreshing to chat with a New Yorker, nerd out on design, and get the insider scoop on the city. It felt we were staying with a friend.

On Chris’ recommendation, one of the first things we did was take a boat down Chao Phraya River. We decided to head towards the Grand Palace, have lunch on the river, and check out the surrounding sites.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The tuk-tuk. The most iconic mode of transport in Southeast Asia.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Mangos on ice!
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We had no idea what to expect from the Grand Palace, but it was something to behold. The complex of buildings which make up the Grand Palace has been home to the Kings of Siam since 1782.

Once through the entrance, we were immediately guided to an area to rent pants, long skirts, and tops. Understandably, the dress code is strict and bare shoulders and legs have to be covered. Andy was given what appeared to be hospital scrubs for pants and I was handed a lovely fuschia wrap skirt. We turned the corner and were greeted by glittering, golden temples and some of the most elaborately decorated buildings I’ve ever seen.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
In awe of the details...
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Our next stop was Wat Pho, the oldest and largest Buddhist temple in Bangkok. Built in 1788, Wat Pho has more than 1,000 Buddha images — the largest collection in Thailand.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
It’s also home to the largest reclining Buddha in Bangkok. At over 150 feet long, the Buddha barely fits inside the room that houses him (and is quite tricky to fit into one photo). His body is covered in gold plating decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay, seen here on his feet.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Solids and stripes.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
More intricate mother-of-pearl inlay, with the reflection of the traditional Thai temple roof and spires.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Monks in prayer in Wat Pho.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
After two weeks in Thailand, we flew to Cambodia and spent five days exploring the endless temples of Siem Reap. Our first move was heading over to Angkor Wat in the dead of night to watch the sunrise over the temple complex...
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
...and so did every other tourist in Cambodia. This is the scene from the other side of the lens. Angkor Wat is truly unreal, but there’s no doubt that some of the magic is taken away when you find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder in a death match for the best picture. This was a common scene across the complex. And don’t even get me started on selfie sticks. Just don’t...
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Bayon temple was one of the most unique and spectacular sights we saw in Cambodia. Built around 1199 CE by King Jayavarman VII, it is covered in over 200 massive stone faces — which are believed to be a combination of Buddha and the king himself.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
A detail of some of the bas-relief scenes carved on the exterior walls of Bayon Temple. There are more than 11,000 carved figures covering nearly a mile of wall, depicting historical events as well as daily life.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Faces at Bayon.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
While many temples were packed with tourists, a handful were refreshingly peaceful. We climbed over crumbling ruins, scaled steep staircases, and pored over the intricate carvings and embellishments.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The Buddhist temple Ta Prohm was built in 1186 and dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII. The large trees growing out of and intertwining with the ruins have made it one of the most recognizable and famous temples in Angkor. The atmosphere is so scenic and surreal, you can’t help but feel as if you’re on a Hollywood set. In fact, Ta Prohm has been used as a location for action movies such as Tomb Raider.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
On our final night in Siem Reap, we took a tuk-tuk to see Phare, the Cambodian Circus. Phare puts a modern spin on a traditional circus — blending contortion, juggling, acrobatics, and aerial arts with theater, music, and dance. More than that, the Cambodian performers come from difficult social and economic backgrounds. Through Phare, they’re given a chance to express themselves creatively and transform their lives through art. We were blown away by the talent, energy, and enthusiasm of the performers. It was an unexpected highlight of our time in Cambodia.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
From Cambodia, we flew to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Also known as Saigon, HCMC was electric with sights, sounds, and energy from the minute we arrived. On leaving the airport, we found our cab in a sea of motorbikes — bumper-to-bumper, weaving in and out of each other, and moving in a completely organic, yet somehow, orchestrated way across every inch of road. (Crossing the street in the cities of Vietnam is not something for the faint of heart.) HCMC is a mashup of French colonial architecture and modern skyscrapers. You can walk through a 21st century mall or a traditional market. There are brand-new high-rises and people living nearly on top of each other in narrow alleyways.

Our hotel was in the midst of this labyrinth of alleyways. Harsh fluorescent lights illuminated little door-to-door shops, pop-up restaurants, and cramped living quarters.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
And so it began...the great pho tour of Vietnam. Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, noodles, herbs, and meat (usually beef or chicken.) It’s one of the most popular dishes in Vietnam and is best eaten like this: on the side of the street. Luckily for us, pho is a go-to dish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner across the country.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
After visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh on the first day, I became very aware of my American-ness. It was fascinating to see the story of this controversial war told from the other side. The museum is small, but thorough, moving, and sometimes brutally informative. We saw examples of war crimes committed against the Vietnamese people and the effects of Agent Orange on its communities to this day. It made you question who the bad guys were in that complicated affair. One thing was very clear — there are no winners in war.

The next day, we traveled out to the Cu Chi district to see the underground tunnels dug by the Communist guerrilla troops, the Viet Cong. This network of tunnels, spanning over 155 miles, was dug by hand. In heavily bombed areas, people fled to these underground shelters, which had living quarters, kitchens, and medical facilities. They also played a huge role in combat. The Viet Cong soldiers hid in the tunnels, most of which are barely the width of a man, and planted traps throughout the jungle for the U.S. soldiers. As we walked through the jungle, gunshots rang out from the firing range in the distance. We saw an old, burnt-out American tank and examples of the VC’s trap doors and trip-wire defenses. It all felt a little too eerily real. We were given the opportunity to crawl through one section of tunnel, but my claustrophobia froze me in my tracks.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
One of our favorite activities in Vietnam was going on a "foodie tour" with XO Tours, an all-female motorbike tour company. I can’t recommend it enough! We were each paired up with a guide who drove the bike as we rode on the back seat. It was amazing how quickly the atmosphere of Ho Chi Minh City changed the minute we got on the bike. We were no longer observing the city from the outside, in danger of being squashed at any given intersection, but became part of it’s flow. We zipped from one neighborhood to another, stopping each time to try a new set of dishes. From the back of the bike, I had long chats with my guide about everything from school to family to the grossest things we’ve each eaten as we cruised along the streets with the crisp, nighttime breeze on our faces.

One of the delicacies at one stop was balut, which is a developing duck embryo. I watched as they cracked the shell of an egg, pulled out a little duck...and well...gulp! I stuck to scallops on the half shell and frog legs. That’s as brave as I get.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We took an overnight train from Ho Chi Minh City to the central coastal city of Hoi An, which has managed to retain its 19th-century charm and remain mostly intact. In 1999, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Here, a local floats near the famous Japanese Covered Bridge, first constructed in the 1590s.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Paper lanterns line the streets of the city and illuminate the walkways at night.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
A local woman rides her bike past Chua Ong Pagoda, a 17th-century temple with Chinese architecture.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Since our hotel was located a little over a mile from the center of town, we borrowed bikes from the B & B every day and set out to explore Hoi An. We rode out to the beach, through the rice fields, and wove between the busy streets of the town. On this day, we caught the early morning market. It’s no wonder the food is so spectacular in these countries. They’re still farming the land using centuries-old techniques and providing the freshest, purest produce to the community every day.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
This traditional shoulder pole is made out of a bamboo rod and two baskets. It’s a device still commonly used across Vietnam. Because Hoi An is such a popular tourist destination and has been commercialized to a degree, the streets and scenes can feel often feel like a stage set. The perfectly preserved buildings have been turned into tourist shops, restaurants, and museums. But among this spectacle, there is still very much a layer of authenticity in daily life of the locals. The real magic is observing the farmers working in the rice fields, the women in their beautiful dress and traditional hats, and the fisherman making the daily catch.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Bánh mì sandwich...the love child of the perfect French baguette and the very best Vietnamese goodies.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
I love this photo. It perfectly captures a local night scene in Hoi An — the colors, the light, the mood, the simple curbside dining.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
I must say, few cities look this stunning by night.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
After four days in Hoi An, we flew to the capital city of Hanoi. Hanoi was certainly more metropolitan than Hoi An and we felt that it had much more character and charm than bustling Ho Chi Minh City. In particular, we fell in love with the city’s Old Quarter — the oldest continuously developed area of Vietnam with a history that spans 2,000 years. The network of narrow back lanes are lined with old brick house, cafés, and shops that nearly spill out into the street. And packing these streets, from edge-to-edge, is the ever-present army of motorcyclists.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
A veggie pho break...in every shade of green!
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We made a visit to Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi and located on a small island in West Lake.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Incense burning at the temple.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Outside of Tran Quoc Pagoda, I saw two women sitting on the end of the footbridge with a tub full of water and little turtles. I watched them sell a plastic cup full of the little guys to an elderly woman. Totally lost, I figure the woman just bought some pets off the street. Not the weirdest thing I had seen in our travel...The next second, she turned and chucked the contents of the cup into the lake, showering the air with turtles. Huh? I ran back to the saleswoman and she explained that this was considered good luck after visiting the temple.

So, what the heck, why not make a wish and free a little turtle from captivity?
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Put down your Starbucks, back away from the Blue Bottle...the best iced coffee in the world is in Vietnam. Ca phe sua da is not only delicious, but charmingly brewed with a small, metal drip filter into a cup filled with ice. The secret ingredient is sweetened condensed milk, which gives the coffee a rich, syrupy (in the most amazing way) texture. I was in good company, since the Vietnamese are as in love with their coffee breaks as I am. Ca phe sua da was available everywhere and it was consistently delicious. Cong Caphe, in the Old Quarter, put a little coconut spin on its version. It became our evening ritual to sit outside on the tiny street side stools and watch the world go by as we sipped our iced coconut coffee.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
A curious, street-side scene.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Exploring the Old Quarter by night.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
After Hanoi and seeing the major cities of Vietnam, we were eager to get off the beaten path and explore some of the rural parts of the country. I had read amazing things about the town of Sa Pa and its terraced rice fields in the northwest, but I had also read that it was slightly overrun with tourists. After much research, we settled on the northernmost province of Ha Giang. I hired a car, driver, and guide to take us on five-day road trip through the region. It was a slight splurge for us, but necessary if we wanted to explore the area, because there’s little public transportation and the drive through the mountainous landscape is quite dangerous.

It ended up being one of the most authentic experiences we had in the country. Our guide was a wonderful, young Vietnamese man who welcomed us with open arms, took care of us, taught us, drank rice wine with us, and whose friendship we valued dearly after our five short days. We discovered some of the most breathtaking landscapes we had seen on our entire trip, the traditional and quite hard way of life for the local hill tribes, and a world we barely knew existed.

Upon entering the region, we were greeted by the sight of farmers working their land with a traditional wooden plow and water buffalo.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
When we stopped for lunch, there were no "tourist-friendly" restaurants with watered-down menus and Coca-Cola. We ate what the locals ate. I’ll have the wad of bloody frogs on the left, please!
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
This particular spot had a variety of animals fermenting in wine — lizard wine, bee wine, bird wine — your choice! The idea is that different animals provide different health benefits. Our guide told us that he’d tried them all, but it’s an old-school concept and drinking animal-infused wine is mostly popular among men of an older generation.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The terrain of the Ha Giang province is mountainous, steep, and often rocky. There were many winding, cliff-edge roads and even more times when there was nothing but a couple feet of asphalt road between my car window and a straight drop. Our guide explained that the government gave the people the land for free because it was in such a remote area and so difficult to farm. They actually carry buckets of soil up this vertical landscape to pour over the rocky parts and create farmable patches.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The local ethnic minority group, the Hmong, wash their clothing in a river. Their famously bright colored textiles punctuate the monochromatic landscape.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
In the rural district of Meo Vac, we stayed in an early 20th-century Yunnan-style, mud brick farmhouse which once belonged to a Hmong trader. After strolling through the streets of the little town (and stopping some little ones in their tracks), we had a great dinner in the house courtyard and then fell asleep to the sound of a local radio briefing blasting on loudspeakers throughout the entire region. We were roused from our sleep around 4 a.m. by the sound of the entire animal kingdom waking up — cows, dogs, pigs, and roosters all up and at it. We definitely weren’t in New York City anymore...
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The next day, we set off with our guide for a hike to the villages of the local Tay people. In our three-mile journey, we passed women working the land, children making the two-hour walk to and from school, and more than a handful of dangerously intoxicated characters. (Our guide explained that there was a real problem with alcoholism in the area because of the difficult lifestyle and isolation.) We captured this local family taking a break from farming the near-vertical landscape. We were so far north that the border of China was visible in the distance.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
When we finally reached the village of the Tay people, our guide explained that we would be stopping for lunch at a local home. He told us to hold back while he knocked on the door of this man’s mud brick home. Moments later, we were welcomed in, guided to some chairs, and handed a glass of water (that someone else was just drinking out of...hey, it’s the thought that counts!). Our host didn’t speak English, so through our guide, we learned that he was busy preparing to have 360 guests in his home for his daughter’s wedding in two days. I was amazed that he stopped everything to cook total strangers lunch in his home, with his own food. He kicked up the fire pit and grabbed some unidentified dried meat hanging from the wall.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The result was a feast of mystery meat, smoked pork, sausages, pickled mustard greens, bamboo shoots, a few flies in the rice, and copious amounts of home-brewed rice wine! He even showed us the two industrial sized vats of wine he was brewing for the wedding.

Here, his wife organizes the plates as I try to condense my lanky frame for the dining setting. They were both beyond hospitable. I tried to explain to our guide that, sadly, in America, you may have the cops called on you before a stranger would blindly welcome you into their home. We thanked them profusely, insisted on leaving a "tip" for their time and effort, and did one more rice wine shot for the long walk home.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
A shy grin from a woman working the fields.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We admired the colorful and electric dress of the Hmong women at the market in Dong Van.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
View of the rice terraces from the Lung Cu flagpole, in Dong Van.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
A group of children, eager to sell us flowers and sweets, chased after our car. Most children we met were amused, curious, and excited about our presence, while many were completely mystified at our existence. It was the kind of reaction you hope for when searching for lands less traveled.
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