Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Tailor-Made

If walking into a tailor, picking out your favorite cashmere/wool blend, having all of your measurements taken, attending three fittings, and strolling away 24 hours later with a bespoke suit doesn't make you feel like a baller, then you must be crazy.

If all of the above only cost you $79, then you must be in Vietnam.








Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Phong Nha, Vietnam


Phong Nha isn't even IN our Lonely Planet guidebook (which is just one edition old). That's how new it is on the tourist trail.

2.5 million year old Son Doong, the world's largest cave, was just discovered there five years ago. Shortly after, National Geographic Magazine did a spread on the magnificent wonder, and then a few hundred intrepid folks from around the globe came running to see it for themselves. There is only one tour company allowed to operate the trip, and they charge a hefty premium of $3,000 per person for the privilege of being one of the first to step foot in it (after a 260 foot rappel into it). Last year, this included just 214 lucky folks. It was slightly out of our budget, so we toured nearby Hang En (which was featured in the same National Geographic spread) instead.

If you open it, they will come. The modest town of Phong Nha is a'changing in the face of all this attention, fast. Two hotels and a few restaurants dot the one-block tourist strip. Which, according to the owner of the only hostel in town, have been built within the past few months. An ATM machine recently arrived in town, and while we were there they were adding a second. A "tourist center" sparkles on a broad corner, in stark contrast to the undeveloped land that surrounds. It's the kind of place where kids still still marvel at the sight of a foreigner, running out into the streets screaming "Hello!!!!" for the chance at some attention. A welcome change from places where the only thing kids want from us is money. And you can actually bike to the cafe owned by the guy who discovered Son Doong. His wife makes an amazing iced chocolate coffee.

We felt lucky to have the opportunity to witness a place like this before tourism completely transforms it. And a little sad for the locals who likely don't know what's coming. We stayed longer than expected, cause we really enjoyed its beautiful, peaceful vibe. We just hope it manages to hang onto it.

For photos of what Phong Nha may not look like for long, click HERE.


Monday, February 2, 2015

The Journey to Hang En

We almost didn’t come to Phong Na National Park. The trip would be difficult, physically and logistically. The weather could be uncooperative. The thing we most wanted to do there, an overnight trek into the third largest cave in the world, was both expensive and daunting. I’d read tales of thigh-deep river crossings. Leeches. Rain and mud and impenetrable jungle. So clearly, we decided to do it. I mean, how many times in our life would we have the opportunity to sleep in a cave?!

And you know what? There were in fact several river crossings (41 each way, to be exact). I did encounter leeches (3 of them). There was rain. There was mud (oh so much mud). There was jungle like I’d never seen. Twelve combined hours of trekking, in soaking wet socks. And it was one of the coolest experiences of my entire life.

The day didn’t begin well. We were running late (as usual). We scarfed down a frantic breakfast with eight minutes to spare before our pick-up. Then we waited. And waited. Anxious. Jittery. Doubtful. Maybe we got left behind. Maybe it’s a sign we shouldn’t go. We haven’t paid anything yet. We could easily go back to bed right now.

We finally inquired with the hostel staff and, sure enough, the tour company had forgotten us. They sent a driver over to pick us up. We were those people strolling into the tour office a half hour late. Great. Now we missed the safety briefing, and our group hates us.

After signing our life away we were transported about an hour into the jungle, which is very newly open to the public. The area played a huge part in the Vietnam war, and has one of the highest concentrations of unexploded bombs in the world. In other words, not the kind of place you want to go roaming around without a licensed guide. Many of the caves here were only discovered recently, including the largest cave in the world – Hang Son Doong – which received its first visitors in 2013. For $3,000 each, we too could have witnessed its splendor! Maybe next time.

After being outfitted with “Vietnamese Chuck Taylors” (perfect for navigating slippery terrain and quickly draining river water), gloves and helmets, we were on our way.



A steep and treacherous decent to the valley below. Our first river crossing. Then another. And another. A picnic lunch of fresh bread, Laughing Cow cheese wedges, tomato, cucumber, bananas and dragon fruit. Oreo cookies. A pee stop in the dense foliage, careful to avoid poison ivy. Walking walking walking. The blessing of beautiful weather. Good conversation. High spirits. Wet legs and wetter feet. Rivers with such a strong current, we’d form a human chain to help one another across. Jaw-dropping landscape. A remote minority village. The village chief. Children. Puppies. Monkeys. A lady bug. Blistered toes. Sore backs. Six harrowing hours later, we reached the entrance to our destination. And that’s when the fun really began.










The entrance to the cave was accessible, of course, by water. Upon reaching the rocky beach inside and switching on our headlamps, we were met by a wall of boulders we must tediously climb before catching a glimpse of where we would sleep for the night. And when we did, it was magic. 




Two perfect rows of tents, dwarfed by the magnitude of the cave enveloping them. A sandy beach dipping into powder blue water. INSIDE A CAVE. Unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere else before. After everyone collected their photos, an equally strenuous decent would take us to our home for the night.


While a team of porters prepared dinner, we navigated the length of the cave to its grand exit, a 400-foot high arch perfectly framing the lush surrounding landscape. It’s scale impossible to capture on camera, if not for those teeny, tiny little specs of people on the ground, right in the center of the opening.


Perhaps my favorite part were these incredible little sand formations, created by water dripping from the cave’s roof far above, eroding the sand everywhere that isn’t protected by a stick or rock. It’s like a mini, accelerated version of earth’s erosion! How cool is that?!


The evening progressed with a BBQ feast, seated together on a large mat while the sliver of daylight above us slipped away. Rice wine flowed and music played and thousand of swallows chirped overhead while our intimate group shared their favorite travel tales.



I’d love to say that we enjoyed the deep slumber of hibernating bears in our cave, but we actually tossed and turned all night on the thin mats beneath us. Nevertheless, we awoke with the suns rays shining brilliantly into the cavern, ready to take on the day. Coffee. Breakfast of spring rolls and banana crepes. Packing up and putting on our cold, wet gear from the day before. And we traipsed into the water for the first of many times that day.



Day #2 introduced us to a jungle downpour, and the leeches that come along with it. They were tinier and much more harmless than I envisioned, but no less creepy. At lunchtime we crouched on a tarp over steaming noodles as rainwater poured down our faces and into our bowls. The final two hours – ascending the vertical path that had brought us in. Fighting our way uphill through slick mud, clinging to roots and vines, sometimes on our hands and knees as we painstakingly made our way back to the start. Huffing. Puffing. Sweating. Swearing. Until… SUCCESS!

Ice cold beers at the top never tasted so good. Dry feet never felt so good. And few experiences of our lives have ever been so good. Cheers!


If you are willing to eat it, you should be willing to kill it.

Or, able to convince your husband to kill it for you.


I want to be able to say it was the best chicken I’ve ever had. After biking two hours through intermittent rain, navigating the maze of back roads with a hand drawn map. Having to get off our bikes and walk them through ankle-deep sludge when the tracks became too treacherous. Moaning in exasperation every time we saw another sign saying our destination was just "200 meters" ahead. Getting so much mud crammed in the wheels that they stopped spinning entirely and needing to drag our bikes the rest of the way to the farm we’d heard so much about. Arriving, picking out an unsuspecting chicken, and unceremoniously spilling its blood with a dull blade. Plucking its feathers and watching its swift, expert deconstruction. Waiting an hour while drinking beer and playing pool and being offered rice wine and chicken feet by the local patrons (one of which, we enjoyed).

When the heaping tray of grilled chicken finally arrived, served with a generous bowl of freshly-ground peanut sauce and just-picked garlicky greens and rice, I wish I could say it was the best meal we’ve ever eaten. Cause a chicken died for it. And we were muddy and hungry and exhausted and anxious and it doesn’t get more farm-to-table than this.













But, I can’t. It was kind of tough and a little chewy didn’t have much good meat on it. Maybe that’s how real farm-fresh, hormone-free chickens taste. Maybe it just wasn’t fully grown yet (oh, great, we murdered a teenage chicken?!). Oh, and it was really expensive (by Vietnamese standards). I walked away feeling disappointed. And a little guilty. Confused as to why I’d feel that way, after freely consuming hundreds of chickens (and cows and pigs) in my lifetime. Likely raised in far worse conditions than this, killed en masse and perfectly butchered and packaged for my convenience. Here I was, supporting a farming family directly. Taking full responsibility for the life sacrificed for our meal. It’s an experience that every meat-eater should probably have once in their life. I should embrace it, I think. My feelings were mixed, to say the least.

Sorry veggie friends. It didn't make me want to give up meat or anything crazy like that. Cause it's tasty and the circle of life and all that jazz. But it was an impactful and unforgettable experience, nevertheless. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Ninh Binh, Vietnam


Ninh Binh is a small village a few hours south of Hanoi. It’s often called “Halong Bay on rice paddies”, with huge karst mountains erupting out of serene, green flatlands. The common thing to do there is take a boat ride through the most pristine stretch of scenery, through caves and, at this time of year, past hundreds of farming families planting their rice crops. There are also some historic pagodas scattered about, and a really scenic viewpoint reached via a 500-stair climb. While it’s a popular daytrip from Hanoi, we decided to venture there by bus and stay a few days to take it all in (and not have to backtrack back to Hanoi before our continued journey south).

I knew we’d encounter a sleepy, very rarely tourist-ed town. I knew we’d hire a guide to take us around to the best sites. What I didn’t know, is that we’d decide to do it by bicycle. And that the ride itself would be my very favorite part of the whole experience.

Through herds of buffalo. Down silent country roads. Along narrow crests jutting from rice fields. It was an incredible day, with a lovely and knowledgeable guide. Totally exceeded our expectations.

For photos of the unexpected delights in Ninh Binh, click HERE.