Hello Uncle Foreigner

Jun 14, 2015

Goodbye to Vietnam, back in China in time for the New Year

After all this time, finally leaving Baiyun International Airport

Some delicious noodle soup in a Guangzhou alleyway was just what my cold wanted.
The view from the Lazy Gaga hostel in the center of Guangzhou city
Check out the view from our hostel window. We stayed at the Lazy Gaga, mostly because it was called Lazy Gaga. But it turned out to be a great place to stay, right in the city center. The staff, in particular, was super friendly and helpful.
Canton TowerThere are crazy rides at the top of the Canton Tower.
The Canton Tower — at 600 meters tall, the fifth tallest freestanding structure in the world — was one of the few local attractions that was open during the holiday. Also, we had seen it on a recent season of “The Amazing Race,” so we had to check it out. At the top, there are some crazy rides.
Our international New Year's Eve dinner
Our brand new Chinese friends, from far-flung corners of the country, treated us to a New Year’s Eve BBQ feast.

Guangzhou, in southeast China, was the last stop on our trip, between Vietnam and home. It’s the vibrant capital city of Guangdong (formerly romanized as Canton) Province, world famous for it’s cuisine. For us, this was an exciting chance to leave the somewhat terrible Baiyun International Airport — a place we’ve layed-over about half a dozen times in the past few years. Though, after 16 days on the road and a contracting mild colds, we were determined to take it easy.

Guangzhou was happy to cooperate. We landed a few days before Chinese New Year, and the city had that the-extended-family’s-home-and-a-lot-of-stuff-is-closed feeling that you find in America in the run up to Thanksgiving. A kind of relaxed frenzy; the streets were busy with happy relatives trying to find something to do. We took in the sights and snacked our way through the city center.

New Year’s Eve was a beautiful, clear night, and Guangzhou is far enough south that the weather was quite warm in February. Walking by the Pearl River, we fell in with a group of young Chinese travelers who invited us to dinner. Traditionally in China, Spring Festival is a time for family, but in recent years, more and more young people are using the time off to explore their country, and abroad.

Over BBQ, we shared our stories, making quick friends of strangers in the manner of the Canterbury Tales. We had all been brought together that day by Luo Ao from Xi’an, who had left his phone number at reception, looking for someone to have tea with. Our ringleader was a soft-spoken young man, pale with boyishly chubby cheeks. He told us that he was studying technology at university in Chengdu, but that his dream was to transfer to school in Leicester, England. It was a dream deferred, however, as he recently failed the IELTS. But he is determined to try again.

Sheng Gaole — “Call me Lawrence,” he said — from the eastern city of Hefei in Anhui province, had been the first to answer Luo Ao’s invitation. He was a tall and angular fellow whose whose calm demeanor belied a rebellious streak; traveling alone in Guangzhou against strict orders from his father, he was making plans to go and visit a friend in Ohio. His father was ready for Lawrence to settle down and get married, but Lawrence wasn’t having it. “You are so free,” he told us wistfully, as we shared our own stories.

By coincidence, Kevin Lee and Quan Hui were originally from the same small city in inner Mongolia, though they had only just met tonight. Quan Hui, by far, was the quietest of the bunch. She said that she had studied English in university, but after a few years, it was starting to fade. She was happy just to soak up the conversation, I think. Kevin, on the other hand, was quite confident in his speaking ability. Another recent graduate, he works as an engineer at a firm in Shenzhen with many international connections. He may even get sent abroad, a possibility that really seemed to excite him.

The night was festive but not too wild. We toasted the holiday and each other, and ordered more and more food until everyone was very full. We talked about our jobs, our lives, and our dreams. “When do you stop getting the hong bao?” I asked, referring to the traditional red envelope full of cash given to children at this time of year. “When you get married,” said Quan Hui. “When you get a job,” said Lawrence.

When the meal was over, our four companions consulted over the check with our waitress. At the conclusion, they informed us that it was their treat, and that they got a bargain, too! It was a Happy New Year all around. They bundled us into a cab, and we were home in time for midnight. A group of travelers crowded the couch in our hostel lobby, watching the annual CCTV New Year spectacular. We, however, headed up to bed and listened for the illegal fireworks that never came; because Guangzhou is far enough east that rules are followed.

May 10, 2015

Meeting the highlands villagers

A somewhat subversive sidetrip

The Koho people are one of Vietnam’s 54 different ethnic minorities, and they mostly live in tribal villages in the highlands outside of Đà lạt. Many Koho fought alongside U.S. troops in the American War — as it’s locally known — and to this day the tribes have an uneasy relationship with the central government. We visited one such village one afternoon, with a guide/translator, but we were asked to refrain from taking photos — so, you’re just going to have to take my word for it. It was a fascinating trip.

Some older women let us visit with them in their one-room home. They had a pot hanging over a fire at one end, the kitchen, and small chickens wandered in and out through the gap between the walls and the ground. Until recently, they told us, ten people slept in this small space on mats rolled out over the packed earth floor. But the local government had just built them new and modern communal bedroom.

Upon our arrival, the woman were a little shy, as were we. Our guide did most of the talking. Explaining them to us and us to them. But over time they loosened up and became a loud and animated chorus to our guide’s questions. Other women from the village popped their heads in to see what the ruckus was about. “What happened in here?!?” one woman said, surprised to find a room full of “Americans” — all foreigners were American to them, our guide said. He told the women that some of us were French and German. “They all look the same to me,” one of the neighbor women replied.

We talked about life in the village. By Vietnamese standards, the Koho were quite poor and life was hard work. They live an agricultural economy, so fat and lean times come and go with the harvest. Our guide showed us some of the food that this family had on hand, including dried bush rat (which he only revealed to us after we had eaten some; first he told us it was ginger) and fermented rice gruel. There were a few fat pigs, however, wandering the village’s shared gardens.

Traditional marriages were still a big deal. In some cases, the women told us, “voodoo” (our guide’s word) was practiced to snare a mate, or smite a rival … but they may have been pulling our legs on this one. More believably, they said that the custom is for the bride’s family to pay the groom’s family a large dowry — heirloom jewelry or generations-old pottery. This particular family was too poor to afford a husband, so the daughter, now in her sixties, remained single.

Men were primarily responsible for the farming, and in this village, women’s work was handmade textiles. They gave us a short demonstration of cotton spinning and weaving. “If you go to the museum in the city, you’ll see these tools there,” our guide told us. It was pretty amazing. To do the weaving, the daughter sat on the floor and wrapped an elaborate loom around her body. She rocked back and forth to shift the threads, and passed the shuttle from hand to hand quite quickly. The resulting cloths were made into wedding costumes, though they had some “throwaway” pieces that weren’t up to snuff to the occasion for sale to outsiders.

These women were characters. Once they found their voices, they were raucous and loud, and wanted to explain everything to us. They were particularly piqued about the villagers across the river, who had stolen their land, they said. One rugged neighbor, with a pipe clenched in her teeth, told us about meeting a tiger in the nearby jungle last year. They won’t hurt with you if you don’t bother them, or run, she told us through the guide. When one of our number assured her that he had read that wild tigers were extinct in this part of the world, the women invited him to come with them and see for himself. I … would not mess with these ladies.

Things are changing in the village, however. The current generation of children go to school in the city, and they are learning Vietnamese. (The villagers speak a local dialect.) These Koho people face a challenging road, one familiar to many peoples throughout the world: Assimilation will surely mean a more comfortable life for the next generation, but how can they ensure that their communities culture and customs aren’t lost in the shuffle? This is a large part of their ongoing friction with the central government.

Before we left, the mother of the house — 82 years young — sang for us. “It’s a sad song,” said our guide. But he didn’t need to translate. Her voice keened and her body trembled as she sang, and the emotion was powerful in that small room containing many cultures. We thanked them and said goodbye. But you have to stay, said one of the women, our husbands will never believe you were here!

May 10, 2015

Real-deal Đà lat, with Rot

Out into the countryside on a guided tour for non-tourists

Rot, the Dalat tour guide who will show you all the secrets
Tour guide Rot will whisk you through the countryside on a cloud of jokes and charm.
In the courtyard at the Pink House, getting ready for the tour
We gathered for the tour early in the morning in the Pink House courtyard.
The cricket farmToasted crickets with chili sauceThe cricket farm pig
As we learned at the cricket farm, these insects are one of the world’s most efficient sources of protein. I’ll still take the pork.
A house out in the countrysideSilkworms at the roadside silkworm farm
Left: A house out in the country; Right: SILKWORMS!
Rot explains the countryside market
A large majority of Vietnamese are Buddhist, and Rot explained to us that for them the death day is the most important day in one’s life. Even more important than a birthday. Each year, to commemorate the occasion, your relatives will burn paper representations of the things you might need in the afterlife; some solemn, some not so much. Here, Rot shows us a full package including glasses, slippers, a credit card, cigarettes and an iPhone. That should please the spirit of Great-great Grand Uncle.
Elephant Falls
While Peter’s seen it all, Emily thought that the Elephant Falls were quite impressive.
Rot's cousin explains some aspects of Vietnamese life
Rot’s cousin was part of the tag team that helped us hit the Đà lạt countryside.
Rot's sister's home
The home of Rot’s sister

Wherever you have a thriving tourist industry, usually at least one enterprising soul will come up with some sort of “not-for-tourists,” “real-deal” experience. Which still, of course, is patronized exclusively by tourists — but, you know, tourists who don’t want to be considered tourists. The cool ones. And sometimes, you just need a guide.

In Đà lạt, this venture is run by one Mr. Rot. And Rot is quite a character. Over the course of his “Secret Tour,” as it’s called, he filled us in on his life story: Born one of 12 children to a poor, village family, he was adopted by the family that owns the Pink House. They sent him to university, where he studied tourism. And now Rot gives tours to visiting foreigners, and does charity work and political activism for his birth village. And sings regularly at a night club in the city. He’s a charismatic showman, and somewhat of a trickster.

The tour is an all-day motorbike excursion out into the countryside. (With the option to ride along in a comfy Toyota Fortuner, which is what we did.) These days, Rot’s cousin handles the actual motorbike journey. Rot does not himself ride anymore, owing to a drunk driving accident a year ago. Among the many things he is, he isn’t a saint.

The tour encompassed a cricket farm, a silk worm farm, a coffee farm, and a curry farm. We stopped at the wet market in the small town of Nam Ban, where Rot goofed with the vendors and compared various vegetables to genitalia.

The Elephant Falls, outside of Nam Ban, was “the only place you’ll see other tourists on my trip,” promised Rot. But he insisted it was worth the stop. Both he and his cousin cautioned against buying anything at the falls’ souvenir shop; all trinkets were marked up to 3-5 times the nominal price.

There were tons of tourists there, all scrambling down the precarious rocky path to the bottom. But I thought the falls were quite beautiful. It was jungle-y and amazing. Peter and our fellow car passenger — an older European woman on a weeks-long ramble through Southeast Asia — were not quite as impressed. They’d seen better and more striking waterfalls elsewhere. We could all agree, however, that the phenomenon of young Asian women hiking these types of dangerous natural wonders in dresses and heels was pretty strange.

Lunch was at the countryside house of Rot’s sister. A Buddhist nun — Sister sister, if you will — she prepared us a simple vegetarian meal of tofu and choko over rice noodles with a soy chili sauce. We played drinking games with soda (though on past tours, I think this was done with actual alcohol). Rot and his cousin explained local customs. Crossing your fingers, a gesture of luck in North America, is a rude expression; the Vietnamese like big noses and big bellies. That kind of thing.

While at the house, we were lucky enough to meet some of Rot’s sister’s neighbors. A group of women in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Rot jokingly married them off to some of the guys in our group. He also got us all to say some inappropriate things in one another’s languages. Exasperated affection was pretty much the order of the day.

As we prepared for the return trip to the city, Rot nipped across the road for a quick volleyball game with some guys he knew. We were giving him a ride back in the Fortuner, so we waited while he finished up. To be honest, Peter and I were a little worried about sharing so much private time with such an energetic guy, but it turned out that Rot seemed as tired as we were, after a full day of being “on.” We rode back to the city in near silence, reflecting on the world we had just seen.

Apr 29, 2015

Taking it easy further north

The relaxed, international flavor of Đà Lat

Peter, eating "bird" at Chu Quán.
Peter, eating “bird” at Korean-Vietnamese BBQ place Chu Quán.
Delicious tom yam soup and dill chicken at Góc Hà Thành.
It was a bit touristy, but we had delicious tom yam and dill chicken at Góc Hà Thành.

In contrast to Phạm Ngũ Lão, Đà Lạt’s backpacker scene was much more relaxed and integrated with the city around it. There was still a small neighborhood glutted with western bars, hostels, and restaurants — down Trương Công Định street, if you’re looking — but the gravity of the area was not so strong. We kind of spent our time in the city traversing between International World and Localville. We watched live one night — in a bar full of Russians — as CNN reacted to Jon Stewart’s departure from “The Daily Show.” But we also successfully stumbled through the all-Vietnamese menu at an up-and-coming BBQ joint.

Given Đà Lạt’s size — small — we did wander down Trương Công Định at some point just about every day. And our usual destination was The Hangout, a bar billed as the homebase of the local Easy Riders. In actuality, its clientele consists mostly of the enthusiastic, but inexpert young travelers who’d spent the day touring the countryside with the motorbike guides; their ripped up legs told the story of a lot of falling down. But it was a chill place for a beer or two. Decidedly less shady than the backpacker bars of HCMC.

Another regular stop, a few streets over, was the Liên Hoa Bakery. They offered a wide range of French-style pastries. Fruit tarts, fresh donuts, croissants, cookies, cakes … I had to limit myself to two per day. Mostly because I wanted to save some room for the bakery’s made-to-order bánh mì. Peter would go with paté and vegetables, while my favorite was the BBQ pork. They buttered their bread as well, which was a fantastic touch. Guys, I just love sandwiches.

But we found a lot of good meals, all around town. On the suggestion of our hostel owners, we had lunch one afternoon at Vinh Loi, a folding table and plastic chairs kind of place that specializes in doing the basics well. Back on Trương Công Định, we had dinner at Góc Hà Thành, a restaurant that trumpeted its Lonely Planet endorsement on a large banner out front. Locals do not come here anymore, if they ever did. But the food was really good. Peter and I shared a dill lemon chicken dish and a tom yam shrimp soup — which is actually a Thai dish, but whatever. It was super sweet and delicious.

Our favorite meal — one so nice, we ate it twice — was at Chu Quán, the aforementioned BBQ establishment. The owner, we read, was going for a Korean-Vietnamese fusion, and I’ll tell you, it worked for us. The showstopper there was the Bò Sặc, a spicy beef dish cooked on a hot stone at the table. Each time a party ordered one, the whole room filled with choking, acrid smoke. (In a fun way!) That was a little too intense for us, though, so we went with a dish our waiter translated into English as “bird.” The table next to us had one, and it looked good.

“Bird” is probably squab, and it was served in a caramelized spice rub. We cut it up ourselves with large kitchen shears, which was a little discomfiting. The meat was tender for such a little guy, but that spice really packed a punch. The dish came with soy and chili dipping sauces, and side of mint and cucumber as a palate refresher. “Every bite has a strategy,” Peter said.

Rounding out the meal was a noodle and vegetable dish that was pretty good, but was definitely overshadowed by “bird,” and some just-perfect French fries, Vietnamese style, with an orange chili sauce and mayonnaise. I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention our starter: a black sesame rice cake with green chili sauce. Maybe one of Peter’s favorite discoveries of the whole trip. (Can you guess what mine was? I’ll give you a hint: It starts with bánh and ends with mì.)

We were truly sad to leave Đà Lạt. It’s just a really friendly, charming place. On our last full day, another Easy Rider chatted us up. When we told him that we were leaving, he joked-not-joked that a motorbike ride back down to Saigon would be way more fun that flying. He was probably right, but “not with my back,” Peter said. The Easy Rider laughed, mounted his bike, and zoomed off down the road.

Apr 29, 2015

The grime of Saigon’s backpacker streets

Chucking it in and embracing the cheesiness

We were happiest when we were literally above it all on Phạm Ngũ Lão
We were happiest when we were literally above it all on Phạm Ngũ Lão.
The backpacker nightlifeNeed some diabetes?We need a lot of electricityBeers on the streetOut front at the New Saigon Hotel
The New Saigon Hotel was an oasis of calm.
Our room at New SaigonStreet eats!

“The bar is open until 3 am. That’s all we need.”
— American tourist in Pham Ngu Lão

Phạm Ngũ Lão is Saigon’s backpacker area, and it’s pretty much as seedy as they come. It plays host to an extra-concentrated version of all the bad behaviors of comparatively wealthy, entitled first-worlders exploiting their status in a developing country. Like, I don’t want to buy drugs on my way to dinner, some stranger on the street. And, you’re not fooling anyone, Harold Ramis-looking dude at the Crazy Baby bar; those four young Vietnamese women aren’t your friends for free. Also, restaurants? Why so much crappy western food?

Some of this is on me: I should have done my research better. There are plenty of places to stay in Saigon that aren’t in the middle of a giant vice bubble for young and aging partiers. Were we to do it over again, we definitely would have stayed somewhere else. (Although our hostel was great. If any of this sounds appealing to you, New Saigon has comfortable rooms and a friendly, helpful staff.)

So, it was what it was. And as difficult a time as we had, there was at least one moment of every day that felt worth it. We were within walking distance of much nicer and more interesting neighborhoods, and within Phạm Ngũ Lão itself we learned to sit back with a coffee or beer and embrace the chaos. The second-floor balcony of this bar on Bùi Viện Street made a particularly nice perch. And for every vagabond Boris Johnson stumbling home at 9 am, we saw a Gentle Giant who was genuine friends with the waitstaff at his local. Especially in the mornings, we could watch families and workers getting ready for the day. Motorbikes with high chairs zipped babies to their baby appointments. Locals and tourists gathered together for coffee at legit establishments.

We also found better food. Down the side streets, there were the cơm tấm carts serving sweetly grilled meats over broken rice. Close to our hostel, there was Sozo the bakery that offers work to young Vietnamese people living with disabilities. And just down the way from Sozo, there was Baba’s Kitchen.

Our love of Indian food is well documented. And despite our mission to eat as many bánh mì as we could, we had dinner at Baba’s twice during our stay. We can’t say no to a curry. (Or an aloo chat. Or garlic nan. I just really love bread.) Thanks to a kitchen mixup, we even got a bonus fish masala curry on the house!

All that being said, we spent the last morning of our stay in Phạm Ngũ Lão watching “Finding Nemo” in our hostel. (New Saigon has international cable!) I hate to admit defeat, but it just wasn’t our scene.

Apr 19, 2015

With some help, we go off the map in Đà Lat

Learning the language makes getting lost fun

Nem nướng -- hand-rolled spring rolls
Sausages and crunchy bits
Top: The components of nem nuong; Above: The sausage and the crunchy bits
A friend shows Peter how to roll the nem nuongDip it and it's delicious
A passing delivery woman saw us struggling and helped us roll our nem nuong.
The Crazy HouseThe Crazy House
The Crazy House was just as advertised.
One of the rooms available at the Crazy House
You could stay in a crazy room at the Crazy House.
Ongoing construction at the Crazy House
The Crazy House is under perpetual expansion.

“There’s a stairway back there. It may take you where you’ve already been, though.”
— A visitor to Đà Lat’s Crazy House

To prepare for our trip, I spent about a month and a half taking Vietnamese lessons and listening to Voice of Vietnam radio to accustom my ear to the language. I really like the way it sounds. Vietnamese comes from the back of the throat, giving it a guttural, staccato quality. Consonants are much softer than they are in English. There are six tones, both rising and falling. When spoken, the sounds tumble jauntily around.

Now, I knew going in that this would be of limited use. Six weeks is hardly enough time to become conversational, let alone fluent, and English is pretty much the de facto language of tourism in Vietnam. We overheard travelers from all over the world speak among themselves in Mandarin, Russian, German, etc., and then turn around and do business with the Vietnamese proprietor in English. (What happened to French? This generation studies it in school, but your man on the street doesn’t speak it any more. I was proud to serve as a French/English translator at a food stall one afternoon. ‘Cause I speak at least six weeks’ worth of ALL THE LANGUAGES!)

But being able to communicate in Mandarin has made our Chinese travels so much richer, and I didn’t want to go back to an all-English experience in Vietnam. And so armed with pleasantries and question words, we were able to ramble in the haphazard manner that has become our specialty.

One sunny Đà Lạt afternoon, our mission was nem nướng and the Crazy House. Nem nướng are those roll-your-own spring rolls I mentioned in our earlier discussion of the genre, and they’re particularly a favorite in Đà Lạt. Restaurant Nem Nướng Dũng Lộc is around the corner from a much bigger and flashier place, but the internet said to go there, and so we did. Dũng Lộc is a small, six-table affair, and there’s only one thing one the menu. The question is, how much do you want. The answer: all of it!

We were slightly daunted by what we were served: three plates, one with pickled vegetables, another with a pile of green herbs and leaves, and a third with crunchy fried things and barbecued pork sausage. So we spied on the table next to us, and were caught by a delivery woman who had just popped in. She cheerfully showed us the order of things and how to roll it all up, while laughing at our cluelessness. Cảm ơn, lady! Thanks!

From here, I knew the Crazy House was close, though we were literally on the edge of our map. But it’s quanh đây somewhere. So we wandered, asked for directions, stopped for drinks, asked for directions. Xin lỗi, tôi ở đâu trên bản đồ? Excuse me, where am I on the map?

The Crazy House is a local architect’s vision of a Burger King Play Place for adults. A wonder in poured concrete, the house has ribbons of stairways and paths for visitors to explore. And it’s under active expansion. Crazy House is not really safety proofed for young children, so it was mostly grownups poking their heads through the Hobbit-y doorways, and picking their way up and down the steep steps. I love this kind of thing. What’s the reason behind this building? There is none! (Nominally, the Crazy House is also a hotel, but it doesn’t seem like a very restful place to stay with all that spectacle going on.)

After we’d had our fill of crazy, we were back out on the street. It was 5 o’clock, time for the home-from-school rush. Kids in matching uniforms burned off the last of their energy: chatting, running, pushing, lugging home as-big-as-me portfolios and instruments, negotiating for snacks. We joined the throng surging towards the center of the city until we were back in a neighborhood that we recognized. And then it was our snack time.

Just down the hill from the Central Market, facing the river, there’s a row of food stalls with a beautiful garden of purple flowers serving as a buffer between the eats and the road. At a small soup place, I tried out some more Vietnamese. Tôi muốn [pointing]. I want this. Cô có bán bia, không? Do you sell beer? I’d like to think the saleswoman appreciated my effort, although she did fine with the Chinese couple who spoke to her in English.

And one of the first language lessons we’ve learned in our travels still holds true: a smile and some friendliness can take you pretty far. At the same soup stall, a granny and baby stopped in to say hello. Not to us, of course, but when baby took a second to check us out, we waved and made silly faces. He was into it, and Peter sealed the deal by sharing a piece of his rice cake with the little guy. Shortly thereafter, granny and baby left, now including us in their goodbyes. It was a small thing, but moments like this are grounding, and help us to feel connected to the community around us when our own home and friends and family are so far away.

Vietnamese is difficult. Mandarin is difficult. For our students, English is difficult. But just to try and communicate — even if you get it wrong — is so worth it. And so I’ll leave you with this, from one of my last Vietnamese lessons: Xin lỗi. Cửa hàng tạp hóa ở đâu? Tôi muốn mua nước suối.

Apr 8, 2015

Living the life at the Villa Pinkhouse

The people in our (temporary) neighborhood

The cutest little VWbug of course belongs to the cutest hostel in Dalat
The cutest VW bug, of course, belongs to the cutest hostel in Đà Lat. Pinkhouse forever!
Our accommodationsThis is how to do a coffee break
The neighborhood coffee shop was adjacent to the Easy Rider office, offering convenient parking for all.
We had a sweet little balcony in our roomOur view from the balcony
Our room at the Villa Pinkhouse had a sweet little balcony, left, overlooking a quiet neighborhood, right.
Meatball banh mi
Eat bánh mì every day!

The Villa Pinkhouse, our hotel in Đà Lạt, is down a small alley at the top of a hill in the northwest of the city. Its neighbors are another hotel, a primary school, an outpost of the Easy Riders motorbike touring company, and a small coffee shop. It’s run by a lovely family in which all of the young men speak fairly fluent English, and the older members smile and speak happy Vietnamese. We loved all of Đà Lạt, but this area especially spoke to us.

The coffee shop just across the way from the hotel. This was not one of your grab-and-go affairs, but a French-y kind of cafe, where one sits and chats for hours. We spent a crisp, cool morning there at one of the low tables out front, watching the neighborhood wander by. Delivery people, children and parents, tourist arrivals, fellow coffee drinkers, friends.

Vietnam is big time about the coffee. It’s the number two exporter in the world, behind Brazil, we were told many times. At home, coffee is brewed strong — with or without a stripe of sweetened condensed milk — through a three-part tin contraption that sits on top of your tiny glass. At the coffee shop, another patron showed us how to stop from making a wet, brown mess by resting the finished filter in its own lid, rather than directly on the table. It’s satisfying to both the gadget- and caffeine-loving parts of my brain.

We met a lot of friendly folks down that alley, despite its small size. There was that Easy Rider who gave us the world’s softest sell on a trip out into the countryside. “Sorry. We already have plans.” “Oh well. Have fun with your other tour guide!” Consistently those guys — who are an institution in Đà Lạt, as are their copycats — were super nice the many times we met them around the city, but also super relaxed about not making a sale.

And then there was the lady selling bánh mì from a cart at the mouth of the alley. She spoke no English, but we had a good chat anyway as she prepared for us a wonderful pork meatball sandwich. She and Peter had similar beaded bracelets, so they were instant friends. And I managed to put together the right words in Vietnamese to explain that we wanted one sandwich and one plain baguette. Oh, and how much is that? Language success!

Down the hill a bit was another hostel — Đà Lạt actually hosts a lot of visitors, but don’t call it a tourist trap. We’re all living like locals. Locals with a lot of free time, that is. Anyway … This place had an open-air cafe, and it was a great place to sit with a glass of Đà Lạt wine. We went with the red: extremely light-bodied with a mild fruity taste. As we sat, we could watch across the street as the children of those business played. One afternoon, someone received a delivery of wooden planks with which the kids barely resisted whacking each other. They watched us, too, and eventually built up the courage to start yelling hello.

Our little slice of the city was good to us. Good food, good drinks, good people. A perfect home away from home.

Apr 6, 2015

The abundance of Đà Lat

To market, to market

Dalat from the river
Beautiful buildings in DalatAt the central market
The central market saw a lot of action, from both tourists and locals alike.
Looking down on the market from the hillPotted plants at Dalat's flower gardenIt's avocados!
The flower garden was pretty and green, but not more so than the city that surrounds it.
Greenery around the cityA side street with brightly colored buildingsThis was our backyard!A little coffee shop where we stopped for a drink
As a city, Đà Lat is just so cute!

Vietnam is like an elongated S that snakes its way up the east side of the Indochina Peninsula. Saigon is near the bottom, and the city of Đà Lạt is a few inches north on the map, which represents about an eight-hour bus ride or an hour-long plane ride.

Đà Lạt is up in the central highlands, so despite its southern latitude, it’s temperate all year round. They get a lot of rain in the summer and blue-sky days in the winter. And all this geography adds up to an incredibly fertile plain, which means fresh produce is king here. (The people at our hostel in Saigon, when they found out we were coming here, really talked up Đà Lạt’s flowers, but you can’t eat flowers. Usually.)

This is why we’re here,” I wrote in my day-one Đà Lạt notes. A French baguette with butter and local strawberry jam. Simple, but perfect, and my breakfast every day we were there.

The Central Market also featured heavily in our time there. It was your traditional Asian wet market — fresh fruits and veg, straight-from-the-farm herbs, slaughtered-that-day meats. Peter went wild for the gigantic artichokes, and I drooled over the healthy green avocados. There were ripe strawberries with which you could have started a really messy food fight. Oh, and so much dill! We have none of these things at home.

We passed through the market just about every day — sometimes for just a look, other times to pick up a snack or to sit for a bite at one of many prepared-food stalls on the periphery. Vendors there, well accustomed to foreign tourists, ranged from friendly to indifferent — much more laid-back than their wheeler-dealer Saigon counterparts. When we stopped to buy some dried fruits and vegetables, the woman kept giving us free samples as she filled our bag; try the durian, the sweet potato, the dragon fruit.

Outside the market, the city itself was quite green. Đà Lạt’s winding roads were lined with lush lawns, gardens, and trees. Then there was the spot on our map just marked “flowers.” It turned out to be a kind of botanical garden, but all of the vegetation was potted plants. It was pretty, but given the quality of the municipal landscaping outside, it also seemed a little unnecessary. We later advised a fellow traveler that she could skip it. I guess we’re giving the same advice to you, should you find yourself in this part of the world.

But, in all, we were completely charmed by Đà Lạt. Shortly after we arrived, we made plans to extend our stay by another three days, giving us a full week there. Some magazine said that Đà Lạt is Vietnam’s premiere local honeymoon destination, and it’s easy to see why. We were in love with it, anyway.

You've got to come out to the lake

Apr 5, 2015

Adventuring in Vietnam

Moments good, bad, and delicious

The motorbikes of Vietnam are plentiful and fast
Backpacker street in SaigonSaigon from the rooftop
Views of Saigon’s backpacker area from above and below.

Our time in Vietnam was amazing. Exhilarating, confusing, overwhelming, rich and amazing. We visited two cities in a little under two weeks (plus a little bit of countryside), and on the back of our Chinese travel experience, we may have been a little cocky. The ferocity of the tourist-facing sales people was particularly unsettling, and we learned some expensive lessons. But we also met some wonderful people, ate some fantastic food, and had some awesome experiences. Let us take you through some of the moments, people and places that made our trip.

For reference, we started out in Ho Chi Mihh City, went north to the city of Đà Lạt for a few days, fell in love with Đà Lạt and stayed a few days more, and then returned to HCMC to finish out the trip. Also, Ho Chi Minh City is still interchangeably referred to as Saigon.


Spring rolls and noodle soups

Fried spring rolls
Hey, everyone! Serve everything with fresh mint and chili sauce, ok?

We never had a day that was typical, but this one afternoon is representative of our experiences in Vietnam so here’s where I’ll start: On a tip from a local HCMC dining website, we were up in the northern district of Phú Nhuận looking for some Vietnamese tapas. We would never find those tapas; the Saigon restaurant scene moves quickly and this was not the first time we were on the hunt for something that was long gone. The neighbors let us know with a particular Vietnamese gesture, waggling their upturned palm from side to side as if unscrewing a lightbulb: “Nope, sorry.”

But, no matter. We were stranded by the beautiful Nhiêu Lộc canal, the sky was blue and the sun was dappling through the trees. You couldn’t ask for more on a warm February afternoon. There was a cafe with a squat set of table and chairs facing the water, and we made our own tapas.

Because we were out of the main tourist area, the menu was only in Vietnamese. I had cribbed a list of dishes from Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen’s website, but functionally that meant I could only say, “well, this is something with chicken, and that’s probably pork.” So I pointed at a picture of spring rolls, and the die was cast.

We had spring rolls a lot on our trip. We had them with soft shell crab at Chill, a swank bar at the top of one of Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest buildings. We had crap ones at a Western dive in the heart of HCMC’s backpacker district. We even had roll-your-ownies at a small establishment in Đà Lạt. (More on those in a future entry.)

Spring rolls are such a basic idea of what Vietnamese food is … like, everyone knows a spring roll. But they’re such a good crystallization of what makes the cuisine so special.

These particular rolls were simple and fried, with a savory pork mixture inside. You wrapped your roll in a mint leaf and then dipped it in two chili sauces — one slightly sweet and one that was a pure, clear spicy wallop. The layered flavored each took their turn in your mouth, none too overpowering and all equally delightful. Each individual component is so simple and fresh, but they combine into a complex and amazing taste experience.

As we ate, we watched a parade of motorbike commuters zip down Trường Sa street, carrying families, couches, fridges, cases of beer, TVs. The oft cited statistic is that HCMC has 9 million residents and 3.5 million motorbikes. It truly is a sight to see. On foot, grandparents and babies, and dogs and their walkers took in the same panorama that we were enjoying. It was both frantic and peaceful, relaxing and stimulating.

At another cafe a few doors down, the view was the same, but the food was something new! All we asked for was “a snack” — one of the workers spoke a little English — and what we got was a confection of spicy beef floss. Imagine a Twizzler made out of steak, and that you love it. It’s something we never would have ordered on our own, but it was really, really good. It had that spicy-sweet-tangy addictive quality of a good barbecue sauce. We sat and chewed and sipped our Heinekens. More bikes, carrying more improbably large loads, whizzed by.

Peter eating at a roadside cafe
When you’re eating on the street, motorbike parking is never far away.

Since our dinner plan no longer existed, after this we decided to take a wander. Something we both really enjoyed about Saigon was its walk-ability. Unlike a typical Chinese city with its monstrous, sprawling ring roads and skyscrapers, Saigon is divided into human-sized neighborhoods each with a vibrant local street life. Buildings are narrow, short, and brightly colored; cute boutiques are packed in next to ramshackle mom-and-pops; and food/coffee carts with plastic stools and tiny tables spill out all over the street and sidewalks (where they exist). There are, too, your Startbucks and KFCs — Ho Chi Minh City is a growing, cosmopolitan entity on the world scene. But there are also beautifully landscaped public parks every few blocks.

At a busy open street market, we stopped for some phở. If you know about Vietnamese food, you know about phở — a meaty noodle soup with fresh leafy vegetables. And as with spring rolls, noodle soups were a staple of our trip. (As this blogger grouchily explains, to say phở is like bún bò is as if “someone described fettuccine alfredo as ‘like spaghetti’.” But as is my habit, I’m going to group them all together anyway.) Something I’ve figured out about street food is that, despite its humble surroundings, it is crazy complex. In the case of the soups, the broth needs to be boiled for hours and spiced just so. To get the meat the right flavor and texture takes a whole day. And you’ve got a dozen ingredients to chop and prepare just to be a garnish. This all results in a dish that costs approximately 50¢. It’s work that only makes sense to do if you’re serving hundreds.

But I’m glad someone does it. The noodle soups we ate were usually found at market stalls. There’s a noodle and there’s a meat. The broth is clear and packed with flavor. To this, you can add vinegar, fresh-squeezed lime, and chilies to taste. It’s served with a plate including fresh cabbage, coriander, mint, and anise leaves. When you throw this into your steaming broth, the leaves wilt beautifully and start infusing the whole dish with bright flavor. Especially the anise. I do not hesitate to say that this is the best “simple” street food on the planet.

And that’s how it was done. All afternoon, we were kind of lost but not really. There was a plan and it failed. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? If we knew exactly what was going to happen every moment, there wouldn’t really be a point in leaving the hotel room. And so, we amble on …

Saigon from above, again

Feb 25, 2015

Celebrating the brand spanking Year of the Sheep

Happy Chinese New Year!

Some delicious ducks hanging in an apartment window in Chengdu.
Ducks drying in the window of a Chengdu apartment for a tasty meal

This year, we took our winter vacation a little later than usual, which meant that we were on the road for the start of Chinese New Year. And preparations for the two-week long holiday began before we left, in early February. Restaurants rolled out spiffy new dishes and menus, families brought home nice fat chickens and ducks, and the city hung red lanterns all over everything. Because Spring Festival, as it’s also called, is a big deal.

A significant percentage of China’s population is on the move at this time of year — and the same is true in Vietnam, where the related Tết festival is celebrated. At the start of our journey, when we stopped in at the Pug in Chengdu (where we were greeted like the regulars that we bizarrely are), the staffers were excited about their upcoming 11-day vacation. It’s a working holiday, they told us, at the owners’ new outpost in Bangkok. “It’s nice that everyone can have more than one day off at a time,” the bartender said.

As we continued our travels, the most significant signs of the holiday were the crowded airports and the fact that a lot of stuff was closed. But it was a lot of fun to be a part of the bustle. More and more young people are using the holiday as a chance to travel, not just home but also around, so we made some cool road friends along the way. And now, back at home, we’ve been the surprise guest stars at three different nights out so far. (Watch me kind of speak Chinese in the video above!)

新年快乐, everybody!