GP goes on location for our first travel gear review
9 Days in Vietnam, 9 Gear Essentials
Want to be taken away? Well, you must consider Vietnam. Take everything you’ve come to know or partially understand about the country as you’ve seen through the mass media and turn it all on its collective head. This picturesque sliver of a country is a true escape from some of what we’ve come to know in the west, and, in many ways, the country is better for it. People and community are everything here, and the crazy consumer mentality, though present in areas like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, takes a back seat to a quieter and more peaceful way of life in most other areas, especially in the countryside. The culture, the food, the majestic scenery and the vast range of climates all make for a trip that will surpass your expectations. Vietnam welcomed us with open arms and we felt right at home.
We tend to think of Vietnam based on our memories of movies like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and The Quiet American. Present day Vietnam could not be further from the truth. We traveled for two incredible weeks through Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the grand limestone rockscape of Halong Bay, the misty valleys and high mountain roads of Sapa, the motorbike riddled streets of Hanoi and the quiet warmth of Phu Quoc Island. A country that is communist and still harbors the relics of a bygone era, from the tomb of Ho Chi Minh himself, to aircraft shot down during the war, Vietnam is both bustling like a frenzy of bees and as calm as the quiet hours of the morning. One consistent theme throughout the entire trip was the gentle and seemingly never ending hospitality of everyone with whom we came in contact. The Vietnamese have mastered the art of serving westerners with a smile without becoming overly influenced by our manic culture. We were met by waves and smiles along our extensive motorbike tour of Sapa. Curious villagers welcomed us as they would their own. We’d occasionally see some older men still donning the Communist regime’s military uniform. Though naturally somewhat shy, the vast majority of Vietnamese always met us with kind eyes.
Vietnam’s scenery is nothing less than breathtaking. We were overcome by Halong Bay, with hundreds of foliage-laden limestone outcroppings along the northern coast of Vietnam. We sailed for three days and witnessed the life of the fisherman who live right on the ocean, enjoyed evening kayaking and calm nights on the boat with good Vietnamese Tiger Beer and imported Cuban cigars. The mountain village of Sapa proved to be one of our favorites. After overcoming a bit of fear being taxied on the narrow mountain roads in a Ford Transit van, we fell in love with the rich culture and the overwhelming amount of inexpensive Vietnamese food. We were not, however, misled by the copious amounts of bootleg “North Face” gear for sale at nearly every souvenir shop. Motorbiking proved to be one of the most interesting aspects of Sapa mountain travel. It is the primary mode of transportation and everything is moved on these 120cc mini-motorcycles, from entire families of four, to chickens, to furniture. Makeshift fairings are made of clear garbage bags, or rain ponchos, and gas stations are typically single hand pumps that are used to fill old Lipton tea bottles that then refuel your two-wheeler
Our favorite locale was the warm and wonderful Phu Quoc Island, where we relaxed at Chen La Resort, a bastion of western tourists who spoil themselves with private huts, the most amazing deep tissue massages, warm water scuba diving, and the country’s best seafood. We drank it all in, literally and figuratively, and sad to say goodbye. We will surely return someday.
Vietnam is both bustling like a frenzy of bees and as calm as the quiet hours of the morning.
On the practical, business-end of things, we strategically planned this trip with all the right gear. Traveling for two weeks with a great degree of intra-country travel, we knew we’d have to travel light but also well-prepared. International travel has its benefits and drawbacks. You need to pack enough to be versatile and light enough to be quickly mobile. We were able to do both.
Our breakdown begins on the next page:
Keen Targhee II
I was initially a bit skeptical about the Keen Targhee II’s ($115), but they proved to be the gear surprise of the entire trip. Rather than being stiff and blocky (which was my initial impression when putting them on for the first time), they fit like a glove in less than a day. From the crowded streets of Hanoi to the muddy mountain hikes in Sapa, the Targhee IIs were essentially flawless and very comfortable over many miles of walking and hiking. With better breathability than many Gore-Tex lined shoes I’ve owned, the KeenDry system didn’t let a single drop of water in. Plus, with the excellent protective design in the toe, the Targhee IIs withstood a constant barrage of frontal contact with rocks and sharp thorns. And just when they became cruelly encrusted with clay, mud and some Water Buffalo, shall we say “fallout,” a good rinse rendered them as good as new. The aggressive but not overly chunky tread pattern gripped well on slick rocks, gritty mud and loose gravel. On a purely aesthetic note, they looked quite good paired with just about anything casual, from cargo pants to shorts, jeans and travel slacks. So, if you’re searching for a versatile light hiking shoe to perform during travel, urban expeditions and the great outdoors, the Keen Targhee IIs will leave a lasting impression and some very pleased feet.
Buy Now: $115
GoLite Odyssey Backpacks
Choosing the proper backpack for international travel is a daunting task. You want to choose one large enough to carry your belongings, but you don’t want to look like a pregnant camel. You also want a decent number of compartments to quickly access without having too many straps and zippers. Lightness and strength are also key requirements. The GoLite Odyssey Series ($200) for men fulfill all of these needs, and then some. In stealthy black and gray, the Odyssey Medium and Large packs held approximately 30 and 45 pounds of gear and clothing, respectively. The high-quality seams and fabric held up through rough baggage handling, as well as treks throughout Vietnam. The Odyssey is remarkably comfortable and more versatile than most full-sized packs. We were even able to nestle a delicate bottle of Vietnamese Ruron (rice liquor with a full-sized cobra coiled inside) in one of the packs on the way home. Now, talk about useful.
Buy Now: $200
Crumpler Six Million Dollar Home Camera Bag
Deciding which camera bag to bring on our two-week trip was not easy. We chose the Crumpler Six Million Dollar Home ($112) due to size and versatility, and the well suited design for our amateur photographer needs. Comfortable and easy to handle, as well as providing internally adjustable compartments, the SMDH is a medium sized camera bag that held our Canon DSLR, two lenses, compact video camera, Gorillapod tripod, extra batteries and two chargers with ease. The grasshopper green / red color scheme made the bag very easy to spot, and the sturdy shoulder strap and solid workmanship ensured that the bag held up through nearly hourly usage. The multiple pockets were perfect for securing extra SD cards, manuals and even our passports when required. Crumpler is certainly worth looking into.
Buy Now: $112
Tom Bihn Aeronaut Carry-On Luggage
Anyone who’s ever heard of Tom Bihn knows that they specialize in “thinking man’s” luggage. The Aeronaut ($220) is no exception. It’s meant to be used as maximum stowable carryon, which means that it doesn’t mess around with space-wasting handles and wheels that just add to weight and prevent you from hauling ass through the airport when needed. The optional (and very comfortable) shoulder strap is detachable, and you can deploy the padded backpack straps to make like Carl Lewis through Heathrow if you’re running late. With two convenient end compartments and a cavernous main compartment, we were able to hold a week’s clothing and shoes. We also utilized a few of Tom Bihn packing cubes, which make folding and neatly arranging your clothes a breeze. One of the cubes even has backpack straps, providing double-duty. Built in Seattle, WA, the Aeronaut proved to be the perfect size. After watching traveler upon traveler attempt to ram their wheeled luggage into the overhead compartment, I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that my Aeronaut had greater capacity and slid into the space with ease. The Aeronaut is a seriously well-made piece that will make your traveling life that much easier. Goodbye wheels, hello rapid transit.
Buy Now: $220
Let’s get this out of the way. The LUM-TEC 500M-3 is an absolute beast of a watch, not unlike a hockey puck on a strap. I took it out of the box and was immediately stunned by its heft. After the first day, it morphed into one of the most comfortable watches I’ve worn. Throughout the entire trip, this Abrams tank of a chronometer, wore quite well. The black rubber strap and PVD coating give the watch a stealthy “black ops” look, while the thick domed sapphire crystal lends to excellent underwater visibility, even in the murky waters of the southern coast. The contrasting orange lume on the black face adds to the great legibility. Through numerous hikes, a full day of scuba diving and constant movement throughout Vietnam, the 500M-3 performed wonderfully, still looking brand new as if fresh out of the box. Hard to find because it’s sold out on their website, but worth if you can track it down, the LUM-TEC 500M-3 is made in America but designed for the world’s best dives.
Buy Now: $825
Mountain Hardware Mesa Pant
Convertible cargo pants are a must for any traveler going through varying climates. And make no mistake, they are not all created equal. They should be breathable but also thick enough for cooler weather, and they must be easy to covert to shorts and back, meaning the zipper should be easy to use. Mountain Hardware’s Mesa Pant ($65) fills the role perfectly. The fit is extremely comfortable, with no excess fabric to bunch up on long flights and a built-in nylon belt that is easily adjustable. We went with the charcoal grey color which did well holding up to stains, so you don’t look like a dirty hippie. Plus, it dried remarkably quickly after washing, which made traveling a breeze. The cargo pockets were big enough to hold maps and my HTC Evo 4G phone but not so large that it made me look like an aspiring jockey. I wore these pants on the entire trip and they look just as good today as they did when I purchased them.
Buy Now: $65
Icebreaker Hopper Merino Wool T-Shirt
When I first donned this merino wool t-shirt, it felt a bit itchy, so I was a tad reluctant to wear it in Vietnam. I envisioned myself wearing it on a long excursion, feeling like I was trapped in steel wool and wanting to rip it off my body, a la the Incredible Hulk. I could not have been more wrong. After one brief handwashing in my Sapa hotel room, the IceBreaker Hopper ($75) was as soft as a baby’s butt, and true to Icebreaker’s claims, it was comfortably cool in warm weather treks and acted as a great insulation piece in cooler temperatures while cruising in Halong Bay. The New Zealand merino wool is exquisite, as is the depth of the dyeing. It simply looks great and unlike fleece, it does not retain odors nearly as much. The baseball jersey style contrasting sleeves and body add a bit of flair. It is easily now my favorite t-shirt. You’d be surprised how good this high-quality merino wool feels against your skin. The Icebreaker is both sumptuous and simple.
Buy Now: $75
Humangear GoToobs Travel Containers
If you’ve ever tried getting that last bit of shampoo out of a cheap, hard plastic travel container, you know how frustrating it can be. Along comes Humangear’s GoToobs ($5-$45), which are flexible silicone travel tubes that come in varying colors and sizes. But they’re more than just containers for your toiletries. They have a unique labeling system that indicates whether the gel you put in is shampoo, conditioner or “other.” Plus, since they’re flexible, they easily release that last drop of precious face wash out so you can cleanse the grime from your mug after a long motorcycle ride. They worked marvelously each and every day and never spilled a drop thanks to the pressure-sensitive x-shaped aperture. From hotel room, to overnight train, to restrooms along the way, GoToobs certainly made grooming less than a chore while on the road. Resilient and a cinch to use, these will replace your old Nalgene toiletry bottles and you’ll never look back.
Buy Now: $5-45
Gorillapod SLR-ZOOM Tripod
Your basic tripod is so passe. Joby has infused the photography market with their versatile series of Gorillapods. The new SLR-ZOOM ($50) ups the ante by providing stronger grip for bigger cameras. We employed this new model and added the ballhead joint to make attachment and detachment simpler. The SLR-ZOOM was the perfect tool for gripping rock faces, railings and lampposts throughout our trip. Joby’s line of Gorillapods make you wonder what you ever did without them. Standard tripods simply don’t have the versatility and strength to perform in the same way. Frankly, the sheer number of photos we took were increased by the use of the SLR-ZOOM. It’s light enough to carry everywhere and strong enough to take on your DSLR and telephoto lens. Plus, like something out of the movie “War of the Worlds,” it’s just about other-worldly and turns plenty of heads.
Buy Now: $50
Gear certainly can’t make a bad trip good, but it can make a good trip even better. These 9 product choices easily proved that in droves. They made our travel far easier and definitely more enjoyable, allowing us to focus on the beauty of this remarkable country. From its China border to its southernmost island, Vietnam was so memorable we’re already daydreaming about going back. It’s the kind of place that makes the world a more fascinating planet, and this is just the start of our travels. It is what Gear Patrol is all about, fueling our many passions with some of the best stuff available to men.