What happens when a pothead, a preacher and a veteran walk into Ha Long Bay?

Although I’m a journalist – a social career if there ever was one – I don’t particularly like, at first anyway, to meet new people. I don’t want to make small talk or try to make this conversation less awkward. That is, until, you turn out to actually be pretty cool.

On every trip I’ve ever been on, it starts the same way – I meet our fellow travelers and do my usual hide. But I soon remember, every time, that travelers are a different kind of breed – one that is full of the curious, the adventurous, and the interesting – despite what first glances may suggest.

When we first arrived in Vietnam, I initially felt the same way as I always do. I was surrounded by two older couples, a lone Asian dad-looking guy and a dreadlocked millennial. Looks like I’ll be spending the trip palling around with Mike, I thought.

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On our Bhaya cruise through Ha Long Bay.

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Roadside stands top Michelin stars in Hanoi, Vietnam

As a food writer, I relish in the luxurious routine that goes into preparing for an upscale meal out.

I like poring over the menu at lunchtime; choosing the most interesting entrée and the most calculatingly-paired appetizer. I like taking my search to the internet and digging up photos of intriguing dishes. I like drinking just a tad too much wine and feeling courageous enough to say things I normally wouldn’t. I especially like coming home just exhausted enough that I don’t feel the need to put my purse away and instead, know I’m in for a solid night’s sleep.

When I travel, this becomes much more fun. I can check out restaurants I’ve only read about, try foods I can barely pronounce and delve far beyond my usual 20-mile dining radius.

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Finding a new home in Denver

I still remember that drive to Philadelphia when Monika told me from my passenger’s seat that she was moving to Denver, Colorado. I was trying really hard to not make my crying too obvious as she told me the fateful story.

For years, as Monika lived in her mom’s apartment in New Jersey and worked at a public relations job she hated, she told us how she was going to move out West, which seemed to be a fitting spot for someone who loved hiking and running so much. However, Monika’s immediate family, her entire network of friends, her boyfriend and her best friend and sister all lived here.

It seemed like a pipe dream and selfishly, I was glad – I didn’t want to be left alone without one of my best friends, who could always make a lame Saturday night into a memorable one and, with her questions, curiosity and great listening, always made me feel like my life and problems mattered to someone else, too. She was, and still is, simultaneously one of my favorite people to stay out until 2 a.m. with and also one of my favorite people to vent to, a combination you don’t find often.

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There’s a place on Ocean Avenue

My time at Monmouth University as an undergrad was nothing short of a blast.

I lived in rental with my pals that was so close to the ocean that we fell asleep every night to the sound of the roaring waves. At least three times a week, we went out on the town and we were rarely disappointed with the characters we would meet, the bars we would stumble upon and the shenanigans that would ensue. I attended classes taught by thoughtful professors with big personalities on a stunning campus that’s regularly named as one of the most beautiful in the world.

However, of course, it could also be stressful. I’ve always kept busy, and I certainly did so during my time at Monmouth – I was an editor at the school newspaper, the editor of our honors program newsletter, a supervisor at the honors school mentoring program, a supervisor at my job at the university calling center, a member of the honors student council, a personal assistant to a local woman and a member of several clubs, including an outdoors club and a philosophy club. And did I mention I loved to go out?

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An unlikely Lidia Bastianich meeting in Hunterdon County

Growing up in a town with literally one traffic light and a rambunctious herd of cows at a neighboring farm which often made me late for work, I was always itching to escape the no-man’s-land that is western New Jersey.

About one year after I graduated college, I finally escaped for good – I got an apartment in a small city about 45 minutes away and a few years after that, I moved again to central Jersey, where I live now. Five years later, I still feel grateful every time I only have to drive five minutes to go to the grocery store or the mall, and a quick 30-minute Uber to the airport.

Yesterday, Mike and I made a visit to another where the heck am I region in Jersey – Hunterdon County, which may only be about 30 minutes from home but as we wound through back roads (I think they are main roads here????) surrounded by farms, open fields and not an itch of traffic in sight, it felt much further away.

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The same dog days of New Hope, Penn., four years later

Before I started dating Mike about four years ago, I had never dated anyone who I really went on any dates with.

Sure, I had boyfriends, some serious, some not-so-serious, but for the most part, they all fell into the same (trash) basket – we hung around the house with most planned outings organized by me, while these boys seemed pretty content to hang out on the couch. Day trips often seemed like an impossible, enormous endeavor.

However, it quickly became evident to me during my rampant succession of dates with Mike after we met in 2015 that this was not normal. Every time we went out, it was to a place that was new! exciting! different! (Cringeworthy, right?)

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Are we too old for this trip?

The sun is shining, lost tourists are breezing around on bicycles and seagulls are chirping as we finally pull into the Quarterdeck Motel in Wildwood, New Jersey for the almost-seventh year in a row (one year skipped). However, even after the fitting relief that comes from arriving from your destination after a three-hour drive, something is definitively different.

For all of these years, Sandra and I have been coming to Wildwood for two or three nights in the summertime. It began as a couples’ trip with our then-boyfriends – two breakups later, we now do the same itinerary, minus two people, despite both of our new ‘taken’ statuses.

There’s something incredibly comforting about this trip. Usually, I spend the before-days of my other vacations reading guidebooks, planning restaurant outings and checking out reviews online. But when we go to Wildwood, our itinerary remains pretty much the same, with a few safe detours.

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Down with foofy food

As a food writer, the restaurants I hear about most are the ones with dedicated PR teams, high-resolution press photos and a constant barrage of events that make for quick and easy stories for our news site – the most expensive and upscale restaurants that the Garden State can offer.

To not much surprise, then, I’ve always been a little infatuated with these five-star eateries that, as a teen living with my single mom, I could only drive by. Hell, I didn’t even have something to wear to these types of places even if I could go.

Objects in photo may be smaller than they appear.

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Saying goodbye to Eastern Europe

I’m much less excited to get up for our morning tour now that I feel I have already given myself a pretty good Prague tour thanks to my Lonely Planet guidebook, plus I’m exhausted and it’s about 20 degrees colder than it was during our wandering yesterday. Luckily, the rain holds off for our two-hour tour, which also shows us the Municipal House, Powder Tower and the Jewish Quarter.

Wandering through Prague.

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Prague, a labyrinth of cobblestone and chimney cakes

After a pretty pleasant six-hour bus ride from Vienna, we have arrived in Prague, which is bittersweet since this will mark the last destination of our Eastern European journey. However, it’s hard to still not be excited when driving into a city marked by centuries-old cobblestone streets, sky-scraping cathedrals and rolling hills.

The Old Town Square in Prague.

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