life is what happens while you’re making plans (or how I learned to trust the process and appreciate the journey as the destination)

I’m a planner. Whether or not I want to be (or choose to be), I’m a slave to my ambitions and their arbitrary timetables. What that comes with, then, is a certain amount of pressure to achieve said plans and even more stress when they’re not yet reached. Like most college-educated millennials, I’ve spent the past decade in a competitive, relentless bubble surrounded by Type-A colleagues and stubborn perfectionism. I would ask if it’s the life I’ve chosen but the answer is far too deep for my comprehension and we’ve been bred since childhood contrarily.

In response, a gentleman and a scholar recently gave me the following advice: At the end of the day, aren’t you really just working on building the foundation for a fulfilling life and family and career? Your end-goal isn’t an amazing 26th or 27th year of life but a complete, holistic existence spanning over decades.

Hear me out for a minute. The move is setting systems instead of goals. Imagine you could take the pressure off of yourself to improve/climb/develop and use that energy instead to actually improve/climb/develop. Crazy, huh?

As opposed to setting vague, overly-ambitious positions you want to reach in the next week/month/year (professionally, monetarily, etc.), try telling yourself that you’re heading in the right direction for where you want to be at 30 or 40. Instead of creating unnecessary stress from lofty goals, the result might allow you to simply live your life while simultaneously keeping that same intensity that helped you set those goals in the first place. It would be like shooting a free throw to win a championship but mentally putting yourself in a quiet gym; the shot counts for just as much but you cut out the insanity and pressure surrounding it. We’ve all seen you go 9/9 at practice, so why not make it an even 10? Focus on doing everything you can and making the right decisions to be the best 30-something-year-old you can be, and then celebrate that success while working to be the best 40-something-year-old you can be, and so on. Instead of fretting the little things, if you can keep the consistent mindset each day or week or month that you’re building yourself toward something greater, who cares if a task or step takes an extra six months, year, or more.

The issue is by putting stress on yourself to have something by a certain time (this title by this age, this amount of money by this year), you discredit the present you’re living in – you put off your happiness now by convincing yourself you’ll be happy in the future. What that turns into though is waking up five or ten years later and realizing you didn’t enjoy the the past decade because you were so focused on pursuing something you probably/realistically don’t even want anymore. We’ve all had those moments of looking back on college and thinking, “Man life was so simple, why did I ever stress?” You thought the same about high school while in college, and I guarantee you in ten or so years when you have children and a mortgage you’ll think the same thing about right now.

For you finance folks out there, there’s a reason you tell clients not to look at their portfolio every day; the dips shouldn’t faze you because you’re betting on the market long-term, and as long as the graph keeps moving up and to the right it doesn’t really matter how it gets there. Now visualize that system, but with you actually in control of the end result. Of course there’ll be dips, but if you have the confidence to get there, you’ll get there.

Let me make it clear that I’m not saying flail around wildly. It’s impossible to achieve greatness without putting in the time, work, and sweat. I’m proposing that there are infinite paths toward that same achievement and neglecting the journey may dampen the destination; it coincides with the notion that when you’re not looking for something, you find it. The journey almost has to be everything – the accolades and rewards come along the way when you’re confident in yourself and where you’re headed. Didn’t make 30 Under 30? Your options are either feeling dejected or realizing that you’re right on track for the nonexistent 31 Under 31 and the result you’ve been working toward will be just as sweet with or without the plaudits. At the end of the day the age itself is just an arbitrary beacon based on our love of even numbers. After all, how many nominees’ primary motivation to go out and accomplish such incredible things was for an award? How many recipients thought to themselves, “Well, I guess now that I made the list it’s time to hang up the boots because I’ve done what I set out to do.”

None. That’s the entire point. The award isn’t a recognition of the destination, but of an extraordinary point reached while on the journey. In appreciating the journey there’s no moment that can truly sink you because, like an investment, it’s about the bigger picture. You may only ever enjoy a transient happiness if all you do is work toward a goal because you know that lurking in the back of your mind is that next goal right around the corner to replace it.

Think of it like riding a roller-coaster to an ice-cream shop on your way to a beach full of puppies – each step is an important (and enjoyable) destination in itself and you STILL get to end with puppies.

backpacking the empire hotel in brunei

Though not quite rags to riches, after spending my first two nights in Brunei at what felt more like a hovel than a hostel I decided to go out with a bang. Given it’s impossible to find a clean/decent/humane room in Bandar Seri Begawan for less than $25-30, Jae (hostel buddy) and I decided to throw down $100 each for none other than the self-proclaimed 7-star Empire Hotel. 

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After waiting thirty minutes for the #57 bus, it showed up at 11:30 AM and informed us it wouldn’t be leaving until 2:30 PM. Only in Brunei does a public bus show up to the station and sit for three hours. A $14 taxi split with a lovely couple later, we arrived. 

Walking up to the front door we were greeted by a bellman as two other staff members opened both doors like it was straight out of a movie. To spare you the details, the lobby is grand, the eight pools are lovely, and there’s a movie theater, bowling alley, and not one but two badminton courts (the racquets and courts are free to use, but you have to purchase your own shuttlecock for $20…).  

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Our room itself was a bit of a letdown compared to the splendor of the rest of the hotel, but after our spot the night before there were no complaints to be made. Shoutout to the complementary mini-bar of sodas and a low fat milk juicebox (?). As it was Ramadan in a dry country, I appreciated the pool bar that served neither food nor drinks. 

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Overall was it worth it? Depends who you ask. Solely due to the fact that the options around town are as expensive and terrible as they are, I was quite content with the cost to benefit. It’s peaceful, opulent, and a nice break from the rest of my least favorite country in Southeast Asia. 

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cheap eats through vietnam

 

Vietnam is the food capital of Southeast Asia. Period. The street food is king and the prices are unbeatable.  Here are a few highlights of different places that’ll fill the belly without breaking the bank.

Ho Chi Minh City

Cô Giang Street Food

The road is lined with carts serving all the street food you could possibly desire at prices that might be the cheapest in the area. A personal favorite is bo la lot, the charcoal-grilled leaf-wrapped beef meatballs served with a tray of vegetables, rice paper, dips, and occasionally noodles.

Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa

Not a clue what went into this banh mi but I enjoyed every second of it. Makes perfect sense why there’s a line of locals out the door. Don’t think, just order one and dive in.

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Đà Lạt

Quán cơm chay Âu Lạc 2

Inexpensive, enjoyable vegetarian food; the joys of going to a Vietnamese buffet-style restaurant without having to worry about what part of what animal you’re eating. Looks interesting? Throw it on there.

Hội An

Madam Khanh – “Banh Mi Queen”

Oh Madam Khanh, how I wish you were my grandmother so you could cook for me all the time. Without trying to hype anything up, this was my favorite thing I’ve eaten in four months of traveling Southeast Asia. Only went twice, but had to actively stop myself from going more. Will leave it at that. 

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Rosie’s Cafe

With overpriced coffee galore in the Ancient Town, Rosie’s was a nice change of pace on a side street away from the madness. 

Huế

Dong Ba Market Street Food

As a rule of thumb when you see a street food setup with a crowd around it, you know it’s going to be good. This was no exception. One of the best meals I’ve had in Vietnam, for 50k vnd I was given lemongrass pork skewers, bbq pork, greens, and rice paper to make the best fresh spring rolls I’ve had in the country yet (and not because of my expert rolling skills). Still rocking around 7 PM, I can’t tell you exactly what hours they’re around.

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Cà Phê Muối

Not entirely sure what salt coffee is, but what I can tell you is that it was the best cup of coffee I’ve had in Vietnam. Reminiscent of caramel, I had no choice but to order a second cup after. The spot has a local feel and the prices match, so it’s a great stop after you’ve checked out the Imperial City.

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Phong Nha

Thang Nhung

The self-proclaimed “Best Spit Roast Pork & Noodle Shop in the World (probably…)” might be able to lay claim to that title in Phong Nha at the very least. Though the pork is a bit fatty, the prices are fair.

Tuan Ngoc Restaurant

Without too many other options in town, the portion size was generous for the prices. 

Ninh Bình

Trung Tuyết Restaurant

The portion size to cost ratio at this restaurant might be the craziest I’ve seen in Asia. A “small” plate of whatever you order could feed a family of four, pets included. 

Binh Tay Restaurant

A few doors down from the above, the omelette was one of the best I ate in the region and at a similarly laughable price.

Cat Ba Island

Buddha Belly Restaurant

Though the variety plate they advertise ended up tasting like a giant plate of mushy vegetables, the price for the amount of food is good for the area. They don’t play around when it comes to vegetarian options though. 

Yummy Restaurant

The prices are a bit higher now than they would’ve been thanks to all the attention the place has gotten, but the food is still good quality.

Bakery Family

This one is a bit of a mixed bag. The baked goods are cheap and delicious, but the cup of coffee I had was stale. Normally that wouldn’t bother me too much, but in a country like Vietnam where the coffee is nothing but delicious, it hurt my soul a little.

Hanoi

Bún Bò Nam Bộ

A bit pricier than standard street food, but very enjoyable. Not entirely sure whether it’s a salad or a soup or a bowl of noodles so when you try it let me know. 

Phở Gia Truyền

Arguably the best pho in Vietnam with a line out the door of locals who will confirm it. The meat is cooked in the broth and melts in your mouth, reminiscent of a delicious pastrami. If you enjoy noodle soup don’t miss this spot.

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Bánh Mỳ Đức Long

Because sometimes in life you just want a kebab. For me, that’s always. This place does it right with chicken and pork options and a few different types of bread.

Bánh cuốn Gia truyền Thanh Vân

If you haven’t had banh cuon, or steamed rice rolls, this is a great place to start. Though a tiny bit pricier than what you’ll find on the street, they’re delicious.

King Roti

Four options for dessert. Get one and you might end up getting all of them.

Cafe Giang 39 Nguyen Huu Huan

If you’re in Hanoi you need to try a cup of egg coffee. If you’re going to try a cup of egg coffee, you might as well try it at the spot that invented it.  I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the combination, but I enjoyed the experience.

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diy travel from vientiane to pai

Trying to get from Vientiane to Pai without paying a fortune for an organized tour? Here’s how I did it in less than 20 hours for about $20 USD.

 

1. Public Bus 14 to Friendship Bridge (6000 kip, 45 minutes): Using the same bus you might’ve taken to Buddha Park, you just hop on the 14 from the central bus station and ride it for about thirty minutes until most of it clears at the bridge.

 

2. Bus Across Bridge (4000 kip, 20 minutes): After heading through the immigration checkpoint and probably paying one last fee for whatever absurd reason they propose, you just hop on the fully organized bus that takes you the few km across the bridge. Be sure to exchange whatever kip you have left before you cross the border, as it’s not widely taken in Thailand.

 

3. Bus from Nong Khai to Udon Thani (50 baht, 1 hour): Getting cash from the conveniently located 7/11 next door, hop on the hourly bus from Nong Khai to Udon Thani that someone on the street will surely offer you after you reject a few touts and tuk tuk drivers. There’s no need to walk all the way to the bus station, as it picks up right close by.

 

4. Bus from Udon Thani to Chiang Mai (545 baht, 12 hours): After being dropped off outside CentralPlaza Mall, head to the small gazebo selling bus tickets directly outside. Buses leave multiple times throughout the day, with 5:45 PM and 8:45 PM the two late afternoon/evening options, most likely giving you the chance to re-familiarize yourself with the gargantuan nature of Thai malls after spending however long in Laos.

 

5. Bus from Chiang Mai to Pai (150 baht, 3 hours): Landing in Chiang Mai around 5:30 AM, the first bus to Pai leaves an hour later at 6:30 AM and every half hour after if you’re ready to continue on immediately. Or you can book the 7:30 AM and go sit at one of the coffee shops in the area to collect your mind and charge your phone like I may have done.

 

Simple, easy, and an adventurous five buses later you’ll find yourself smack in the heart of Pai, Thailand ready for breakfast, coffee, and a nap in that order.

the perfect pair of travel pants

Going on a trip for a few days/weeks/months with a backpack? Packing light is key and a big part of that is minimizing your wardrobe. No one is going to know you wear the same blank every three days because you’re never in the same place for that long.

The solution? One pair of pants.

Enter the Nike Bonded Jogger.

Lightweight, quick-drying, stylish, and comfortable. I wore them on a 65 km trek in Myanmar and to a wedding in Cambodia. The major key though? Two zippered pockets, with the one on the side spacious enough to house a small animal.

And no, I’m unfortunately not getting compensated by Nike in any way to share these thoughts. Though if you know somebody who knows somebody who works there, tell them I say what’s up.

the one-day hà giang loop ride from hell

The Hà Giang Loop is a scenic three-day motorcycle ride through the northern mountains of Vietnam that touches waterfalls, remote villages, and even China.

What I experienced was far from that.

The day started off as well as any other with an hour of riding through small towns and villages emerging into a beautiful stretch of mountains and winding roads before the weather decided not to participate and the rain started to pour. Not dismayed (I did have a thin rain jacket to protect me after all), I continued to toot along at my favorite speed of 30km/h, though what I didn’t see coming was the cold of the mountains coupled with said rain. Within minutes I went from being a bit chilly to being cold to shivering uncontrollably to being convinced I was going to catch pneumonia.

After pulling off into the first town to try and dry off/warm up/eat lunch, I realized I wasn’t enjoying myself enough to continue riding for three days in thunderstorms. Instead of backtracking the road I took, Google Maps (up until that point one of my best friends in Southeast Asia) presented me an alternative that would only take “38 minutes longer.”

Lesson: However long Google Maps tells you it’s going to take, double it. At least.  

Why not right? It’s 2 PM, so I can’t possibly get back later than 5 PM this evening.

Wrong.

After a beautiful first 45 minutes driving through empty roads past quiet villages and beautiful nature, my trusty navigation told me to turn onto a rock and mud path. As I was too far to turn back and there was no possible way to cut across the river, I began to climb switchbacks buoyed by a local kid on a motorbike nodding his head when I pointed and mentioned Hà Giang. Following me for a kilometer or two, our last point of contact was when he shouted and I turned around to see my bag being dragged in the mud.

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At this point still relatively confident I would make it back, I continued climbing up roads that to be called hiking trails would even be generous. Large boulders and tracks of mud abound, I saw no other people for about an hour and a half. That’s when things got a bit wild.

The sun was slowly creeping away, my bike ran out of fuel, and the phrase “are we there yet?” was in full swing. Every time I looked at my map it was as if I’d made no progress, and the reality kicked in that I was in the middle of the mountains about 30km from society with no emergency exit: there were no side roads to cut through, no food or water, no small villages, no abort button. Even if I had a working cell phone, there was no possible way anyone would be able reach me except climb said path in the dark, which wasn’t going to happen.

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Note the distance left at 5 PM after a 2 PM start.

The range of thoughts included:

“Am I going to have to sleep in the bushes somewhere?”

“There’s no way I make it down in time, and when the sun goes down I’ll just have to push the bike 20 miles home.”

“Google Maps is trying to fucking kill me what was it thinking sending me here.”

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When the road finally began to improve.

To spare you all the details, after five hours of riding down hills with the engine off and up hills with the engine on to conserve what little fuel I had left and falling over and losing a bike mirror in the process, I managed to find a hut that sold me enough fuel to make it back in the darkness. Six godforsaken hours later I made it back.

Ride safe y’all.

Tl;dr It started raining while riding through the mountains and I got too cold and wet so had I to take a detour and get lost in the middle of the mountains about 20 miles off the path with no gas and the sun going down.

the da lat weasel coffee farm

“That’s that shit I do like”

Coffee (cà phê) in Vietnam is great. It’s strong, inexpensive, and delicious. Drink it with condensed milk, yogurt, even a raw egg if you live that masochistic brotein lifestyle. There is one kind of coffee that shits on the competition though.

Literally.

Straight out of a National Geographic/Bizarre Foods collaboration, the most expensive cup of coffee in the world is roasted from beans eaten, digested, and passed by a civet (Asian weasel creature). Selling for $1000/kg, the beans are grown and “amplified” on a small handful of farms found in Vietnam and Indonesia.

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In brief, their diet consists of bananas, coffee beans, and chicken soup, and each civet “works” for 4-5 seasons and then retires with a great pension. The coffee season only lasts from October to January, so the rest of the year the civets Netflix and chill.

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While in Da Lat, Vietnam, you can check out the OG weasel farm Cà Phê Chồn Trại Hầm and see it all for yourself. As we were there out of season we weren’t able to witness the process itself but we had the chance to see/taste/experience what a $50 cup of coffee tastes like. There were also puppies. Who doesn’t love puppies? Overall, it was a unique and easy way to spend an hour or two seeing something I guarantee you won’t see elsewhere (unless you head down to Indonesia).

Cost: The tour was free, and a cup of coffee is either 100k or 200k vnd depending on how strong you want it. If you’d like to purchase a 10g bag as a souvenir, it’ll run you another 200k vnd.

How To Get There: A metered taxi (we went with Mai Linh, the green one) each way will cost you about 75k vnd and take 15 minutes from the city center, so don’t feel pressured into taking some full-day tour. Our driver didn’t even know the place existed and stayed to check out the tour with us. An easy solution was loading up Google Maps directions and letting your driver just follow them. You’ll see signs as you get closer. 

WARNING: I would avoid visiting and experiencing the farm before a long bus ride or physical activity. Take that as you will.