Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Otres Beach, Cambodia

It doesn’t get much closer to the beach than this.


Indigo Bungalows on Otres Beach. Just one of the dozens of simple, thatched roof bungalows that line this stretch of fine white sand on Cambodia’s southern coast. It’s a place where you go to watch the sunset over the Gulf of Thailand. To stroll from one beach bar to the next. To disconnect from the rest of the planet. We stayed here for just a few nights before the Angkor Wat itch called us to Siem Reap. And we were painfully negligent in our photo-taking. Nevertheless, for a few pics of our time in Otres, click HERE.


Friday, March 27, 2015

Kampot, Cambodia

Kampot is an oh-so-quiet riverside town in southern Cambodia, just two hours from the Vietnamese border. It’s a perfect place to transition into a new country – slow and peaceful and welcoming. A two-block town center hosts about a dozen bars and restaurants, mostly run by checked-out expats. The majority of visitors stay just outside of town, in one of the handful of extraordinarily chilled out, rustic riverfront accommodations.

We stayed in a bamboo hut at Samon Village, mainly because their large wooden deck offered no shortage of lounge chairs and hammocks from which to soak up the area’s relaxed vibe. Motorbike adventures and rock climbing offered a few good reasons to tear ourselves away, as long as we came back in time for a sunset kayak.

For photos of our visit to Kampot, click HERE.






Sunday, March 22, 2015

First Impressions: Cambodia

It is chill here. The streets are dusty and quiet. Tuk tuk drivers are napping in hammocks that they've hung in the back of their vehicles. Dogs snooze in the shade, unmoved by occasional fly pestering them. A tumbleweed rolling across town would not feel out of place. It's probably because we've arrived via a fairly remote border crossing, beneath the maze of the Mekong Delta, into the tiny riverside village of Kampot. I'm sure the more common arrival city of Phnom Penh is a chaotic mess of a place. But here, life is reeeeal slow.

The travelers here are cool. Way cooler than us. Their beards have seen more than we have in the 10 months since we left home. Ambling around town in their loose fitting layers, leaving a trail of hash smoke in their wake, they are the detached calm that most travelers merely pretend to be. But not in an obnoxious way. They exude good vibes, and we're meeting some great folks.

It's a little bit lawless. You get the sense you can do anything you want here, and no one will bat an eye. It feels both liberating, and a little dangerous. Bartenders openly rolling joints on the bar. Businesses opening and closing on a whim. The ability to borrow a motorbike from just about anybody. The lack of shoes on, well, anyone. Folks sleeping, well, everywhere. Do what you want, when you want, cause nobody cares.

The people are extraordinarily friendly. We thought the folks in Vietnam were nice. We'd been told they just get better and better as you make your way through Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar. And we can already see what they mean. Every person we pass greets us with a genuine smile. We are bombarded with enthusiastic hellos from every kid we see. People are warm and kind and we feel really welcome. They are happy to joke around with us, which is a rare thing when language and culture pose a barrier. 


So far, Cambodia gets a thumbs up. And we're curious to see how the rest of the country will shape our impression of it.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Goodbye Vietnam!

When we arrived in Ha Tien, a small border town on the southern coast of Vietnam, I'd figured we'd stick around for a few days. But with not much to do, and Cambodia beckoning to us from just 7km away, we decided to spend just one night and be on our way. Suddenly I was filled with anxiety... Do we have the right currency? Were there any souvenirs we needed to buy?? Did we sample all of the foods we wanted to try??? Were we ready to bid farewell to Vietnam?!

When you're in a country for two months, it seems like you have all the time in the world. The to-do list in the back of our mind stays just there, without any real urgency to check anything off. Our last minute decision to leave caught me off guard and made me immediately miss a country we hadn't even yet said goodbye to.


It's an interesting thing I've noticed on this trip - I've begun to really mourn the loss of the places we leave behind. With so much of this world left to see, it's highly unlikely that we'll ever revisit a country we've already been to. So I find myself walking away thinking "This is the last time I'll see this place" or "I'll never walk down this street again". It's a heavy feeling and I don't know why it brings me sadness - rather I should just be happy and grateful that I ever got to visit here at all. And I am! More than any other feeling, I am.

I think that perhaps for all the incredible gifts each country gives me, there is also a tiny part of me that I leave behind. A part that I'll never be reunited with, as the rest of the world calls. I remember being young and first hearing the quote "You can never step in the same river twice." You can return to a place you love, but the seasons will have changed, the river will have continued to flow. And even in the exact spot, nothing will still be as it once was. Traveling is the same. Even if we did make it back to Vietnam, the country would be different. The people, not the same. We, too, will have changed.

So with that, we bid a forever farewell to Vietnam. Thanks for the amazing two months.


Ha Tien, Vietnam

Shellfish. Trannies. Karaoke. Warm beers. New friends. A million birds.

This is Ha Tien.

video

For photos of our final stop before departing Vietnam, click HERE!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Who Needs Tonight?

*written a month prior to when we went ahead and booked all of our onward travel ;-)

The five days we meant to stay in Nha Trang turned into two weeks. Our two-day stopover in Mui Ne lasted eight. And the three nights we meant to spend in Saigon resulted in nine. I’m starting to notice a trend here. We are SLOW.

Between the people we’ve met, our always-exceeded expectations of places, and the few freelance gigs Reece has gotten, our stride has dropped considerably. Days are broken up with work. Social engagements keep us sticking around. Researching our next destination and onward travel logistics falls further on our priority list each day. On the one hand we feel like we’ve lost our travel momentum. On the other, we feel exceedingly comfortable in this relaxed pace. It feels less and less like a “trip” and more like, well, just “life”. A nomadic one. That costs a whole lot less than living at home.

It’s an interesting notion not having a general schedule to adhere to. When time is no longer a finite currency to be prioritized on one place over another, the pressure to squeeze it all in is eliminated. My favorite of Reece’s misquoted song lyrics - “Who needs tonight, we’ve got tomorrow” – has jokingly become our new motto. It makes the question of when we’ll end this particular journey increasingly difficult to answer (especially if the work keeps coming in). And it’s allowing us to get to know people and places and cultures in a way we have never been able to before.

We don’t know where we will head after Cambodia. We’ve heard amazing things about Laos. We’d love to revisit Thailand. We’re dying to go to Myanmar. We’ve got some pretty exciting and compelling reasons to head back to the US, too. On the way home, should we stop in Japan? Australia?? The Philippines??? When I think about it too much I start to panic and want to pack my bag up and get this train moving. But probably not tonight. Maybe tomorrow.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

First Stop Last Stop


Saigon is an interesting place for a traveler. Cause it's where everybody either starts or ends their visit to Vietnam. The majority of folks in the Southeast Asia circuit either fly into Hanoi (up north) and work their way to Saigon (down south), or vice versa. We didn't notice it when we arrived, fresh-faced, in Hanoi. But now that we've been getting to know this country for two months, we can easily spot the people who've just arrived, and those who are getting ready to leave.


Thus one of our favorite games was born: First Stop Last Stop. The rules are: You must sit on a tiny stool at a grubby sidewalk bar. You must have a beer in your hand. You must guess if this is the first or last stop in Vietnam for the travelers passing by. And, most importantly, you must explain why.

The biggest giveaway is in the walk. When you first arrive in Vietnam, you are convinced you WILL get run over. And you're probably right. You walk down the street the anxious urgency, hopping over puddles and teetering on the edge of sidewalks and jumping every time a motor vehicle misses you by a whisper. After being here a while, you stroll through town with the confidence of a high school senior on the last day of class. You've navigated enough crosswalk-less highways to have faith in the "going with the flow" survival tactic. Cause usually, it works.

Other dead giveaways include how much one is carrying to a bar (a fistful of cash vs a backpack of supplies), how dirty one's shirt and/or shoes are (pit stains darker than their 10 o'clock shadow), the presence of a camera around one's neck, the amount of make-up and/or jewelry on, the telltale flowy pants sold in every shop here, and the girth of one's man bun.

We've completed our transformation into the confident, dirty, un-accesorized, flowing, man-bunned Last Stoppers. Just in time to begin our First Stop in a new country!

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, previously known as (and what I still like to call) Saigon, came as a real surprise to us. We expected a chaotic, dirty, overcrowded Asian mega-city. What we found was a remarkably pleasant and livable place. Yes it's hot. And incredibly crowded. But it's also very metropolitan. You are spoiled for choice of hip restaurants and delicious street eats. The main tourist drag is bustling day and night. It boasts a fascinating mix of historical interest and modern innovation. Rooftop happy hours offer no shortage of incredible views across the colorful skyline. And once the subway is completed, it will be super easy to get around. Like many places in Vietnam, we ended up staying here several days longer than we had planned.

We hear people debating the preference of Hanoi versus HCMC, and for us it was no contest. Saigon, hands down.

For photos of the fun times we had there, click HERE.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Vietnamese Eats


I’ve realized that one thing I’ve completely forgotten to document on this trip is the FOOD. On our round-the-world trip in 2010, I was diligent about recording our culinary adventures. Steak heaven and the cochina debacle in Brazil. The best street food in Egypt and a round-up of some other African mainstays. The spiciest soup and most scrumptious snacks in Singapore. Cause who doesn’t love to talk about delicious things?!

In an attempt to make up for my gross negligence, here is a recap of some of our favorite eats in Vietnam. 

Bun Thit Nuong

Literally, “noodles with grilled meat”, this was quite possibly my favorite thing to eat in Vietnam. A mountain of fresh herbs and cold rice noodles topped with sumptuous grilled pork. Garnished with bean sprouts and pickled veggies and roasted peanuts. Dressed in a fish sauce and red chili concoction that was delightfully non-fishy. All for about $2. Take this already perfect dish to varsity level by ordering bun thit nuong cha gio – With the addition of a crunchy spring roll on top. Cause everything is better when you add deep fried.

Yes please.
If you insist.

DIY Pork Spring Rolls

Where there’s bun thit nuong cha gio, there’s… whatever this dish is called (I can’t for the life of me find the name of it). It’s essentially a deconstructed version of bun thit nuong, using many of the same ingredients to make your own fresh spring rolls. I take back what I said before. THIS was my favorite thing to eat in Vietnam. And with enough to feed two for $4, why not.

Rice paper. Rice noodle-y stuff. Lettuce. Fresh, fragrant herbs. Pickled carrots and radish. Cucumber and starfruit. Crushed red chilies. Fish sauce. PORK. Mouth watering, fresh-off-the-grill, perfectly seasoned pork. Topped with sweet, salty, succulent, crunchy, fatty, caramelized pork crackling (don't knock it till you try it). And peanuts and stuff. Oh lord I think I just booked a flight back to Vietnam. GIMME SOME.

Party on a plate.
Mint-y, BBQ-y, peanut-y goodness.
My favorite place in Saigon to eat both of the above dishes.

Bo Ne

Sitting on a shared bench at a local restaurant in Nha Trang, I was struck by order envy by the guy next to me. He ended up being our best friend in town and the dish, Vietnamese steak & eggs, became my go-to breakfast every single morning of our stay. 

A perfectly tender little piece of steak. Onions. And a fried egg. Sizzling harmoniously in a cow shaped skillet, and topped with a peppery tomato sauce. Served with a fresh, airy, flaky Vietnamese baguette. All for about $1.70. It's specific to this region, so sadly I never found it anywhere else. And I mourned the loss painfully.

Moo.

Com Tam Suon Nuong

While I wallowed in my bo ne bliss, Reece found his own happy place in a plate of com tam soon nuong. A Vietnamese pork chop and broken rice, preferably topped with a fried egg. And, at the good places, served with some spicy sauce and pickled veggies. This hearty meal is an even bigger steal at about $1.25. Reece is so hooked, he plans to take this breakfast tradition home with us.

I'm currently googling "vietnamese bbq pork chop recipes"
This lady knows a think or two about grilling pork.

Banh Trang Nuong

Let's call these "rice paper egg tacos". They are WAY more addicting than they sound. If you pass a lady on the sidewalk fanning the flames of some charcoal in a tin bucket… Stop! Give her 50 cents!! Eat one!!! Order it without shrimp if you, like me, don't want crunchy fishy bits in your taco. What you will get is ground pork, chives, quail eggs, and butter. All scrambled up inside and crispy and golden and delicious. I made Reece walk back here the following day so I could get more. 

Tiny eggs!
Step into my sidewalk kitchen.
CRUNCH.

Pho

If you've ever eaten Vietnamese food, I'm pretty positive you've eaten pho. Long before Vietnam was a blip on my traveling radar, I knew of the noodle soup that introduced this country's eats to the masses. Honestly, I was never that interested in it. I had no idea what I was missing. Rich broth, warm noodles, tender meat (usually beef or chicken), and - the best part - a heaping pile of lime and chili and fresh herbs alongside for you to customize to your heart's content. All for about a buck fifty. We ate it so often I never even thought to take a photo of it, so I had to borrow from google.


It's like a warm hug for your stomach.
I'm gonna need more chili.

Banh Mi

Confession. I never actually had a banh mi in Vietnam that I liked. But, like pho, if I omitted it from this post I'm sure all you Vietnamese food lovers would be like WTF. So, here it is. In theory, a fresh baguette stuffed with meat and herbs and spices (upon other things) would be right up my alley. But the meat always seemed a bit 'mystery' and pâté that's been sitting in the sun all day just didn't strike my fancy. The few I tried were either under-stuffed, had an off-putting texture or too much fishy sauce. I'm certain that there are delicious ones to be had and that I was just unlucky. But I am also willing to admit that a 'westernized' banh mi is probably more my speed. Which is a shame, cause I'd much rather spend $2 on one than $12. (Again, pics compliments of google.)

 The banh mi I want.

The banh mi I got.

Street BBQ

There are few experiences more quintessentially Vietnam than sitting on a tiny plastic stool on the sidewalk, sipping cold draft beer, nibbling on street food, watching the world go by. On the main backpacker road of Saigon, several BBQ joints compete for customers with a plethora of meats on sticks and just the right amount of billowing smoke and flowing draft to keep you coming back for more. Priced around $1 each, you might as well try them all.

This was a slow night. On a weekend, those stools are full and spilling into the street.
Sizzle sizzle slurp slurp.

Bo La Lot

Another popular grilled item, this one is ground beef wrapped in a betel leaf and grilled. Often sharing the coals with some tender little sausages. It wasn't my favorite dish, but it was a popular one and worth a mention.

Meat master.
Follow the smoke. And your nose.

Bun Cha

If you haven't already gathered that pork is the best meat in Vietnam (or anywhere, for that matter), this might help spell it out for you. Another rice noodle and herb based dish, this time with mini ground pork patties swimming in a sweet and spicy broth. Each element is served individually so you can mix and prepare to your liking. We ate this in a pretty nice little restaurant, and it was still only about $1.65. I'm salivating right now thinking about it.

The four food groups: Juicy, sweet, spicy and porky.
YUM.

Salad

If you think all we do in Vietnam is walk around and drink beer and eat pork and noodles every day, you'd be wrong. Sometimes, we walk around and drink beer and eat salads too. Cause Vietnamese salads are AMAZING. I've realized that all of the creamy dressings and savory toppings I admittedly love on a salad back home (hello cheese. oh hi bacon.) wouldn't be necessary if I knew how to use deliciously fresh herbs the way they do here. Papaya salads. Banana flower salads. Mango salads. Full of ingredients and flavors I don't even recognize. And absolutely delicious.

So fresh and so clean clean.
Banana flower porn.
Herb gardens. Where the magic happens.

Banh Xeo

An entry about the food here wouldn't be complete without a mention of banh xeo. Like a Vietnamese crepe, it's a sizzling rice flour pancake stuffed with fatty pork and shrimp, folded over a handful of bean sprouts, and consumed wrapped in mustard leaves and herbs. A little too fishy, heavy and greasy for my tastes, especially amongst all of the light fresh fare on offer here. But we photographed the experience (and went to the same place Anthony Bourdain did!), so I may as well include it, right?

If it's good enough for Anthony, it's good enough for me.
Fry it.
Fill it.
Fold it.

Spit Roast Pork

I don't know what the Vietnamese name is for this, cause the restaurant's only sign merely stated "The best spit roast pork & noodle shop in the world (probably)." Who am I to argue with a superlative like that?? Pork that was both crunchy and tender. Broth that was spicy and salty. Herbs that were fresh and fragrant. It's a dish we only came across once during our two months in Vietnam, but it will not soon be forgotten.

Agreed. 
Roast little piggy, roast.
YES.

Ba Le Well

This isn't a dish, but rather a restaurant. A restaurant that is so f*cking delicious, that it deserves its very own category. Just outside of the central tourist area in Hoi An, this outdoor BBQ joint serves up the most delicious grilled pork skewers with all the usual DIY spring roll suspects, PLUS cha gio, banh xeo, fiery chili sauce, savory peanut sauce, AND dessert. It's all you can eat for $5 per person, and the food just keeps on coming until you beg them to stop. Seriously, this place is worth a flight to Asia.

We thought this was everything. And then the dishes just kept on coming...

Destroyed.

If you're going to eat your way across the country, you're going to need something to wash it down with. Ideally…

Ca Phe Nong

33 years on this planet, and it took Vietnamese coffee to turn me into a caffeine drinker. Strong and rich and a little sweet, it's an addicting way to start your day. Each cup is brewed individually, oh so slowly, via a small gravity filter above your mug. If you're really looking for a treat, go for ca phe sua nong, and sweet condensed milk will greet your dripping coffee at the bottom of your mug. Or on a hot day (i.e. every day), get yourself a ca phe sua da, over ice. YUM.

Patience is a virtue.
Why stop at condensed milk when you can also add chocolate?! 

Tra Da

Pronounced "cha da", this iced green tea quenched my thirst unlike anything else in the world when sweat was dripping down my face just standing still under the Vietnamese sun. Thank goodness, because it comes for free at many places while you wait for your food or coffee to arrive. I became so obsessed with it - and had no idea what it was called - that I'd patrol the streets looking for people drinking it to try to hunt down where it came from. It's nearly impossible to find unsweetened iced tea outside of the US, which made this little discovery all the more exciting.

Ahhhhh.

Cocktail Buckets

Honorable mention for the Vietnamese obsession with buckets o' booze. We did not partake in this sugary hangover-fest, but it was fun to watch other people do it!

Cheers!!

If you find yourself in Vietnam and are curious where to find any of the dishes pictured above, here's a MAP for your dining pleasure.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Remnants of War

If you are looking for a good cry, get yourself over to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, stat. Formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, it has a reputation of being - how shall I say - one sided? I, however, didn’t find it to be unfairly biased. Nothing on display there is false, or exaggerated. Rather, I found it to be a shockingly uncensored display of the absolutely horrible, brutal truth of war. Upsetting, gut wrenching, horrifying… Yes. Showing things you’d rather not see? Things that make it difficult to go about your day? Things that make you feel uncomfortable to be associated in any way whatsoever with what happened here? Yes, yes and yes.

Look, I’m no historian. I knew zero about the Vietnam War before stepping foot in this country two months ago. I have the utmost respect for those who were involved in it, and I know horrible things were done on both sides. I will not attempt to form an opinion on something I am completely ignorant about. For me, looking back upon something I am lucky to have no personal connection to whatsoever, it’s not the sides that matter. It’s the lives. And I was absolutely shattered by the atrocities that happened to people here. Vietnamese people and American people and – who cares – people. From anywhere. Everywhere. Who weren’t in control of the politics behind it. Who didn’t choose this.

One particularly powerful exhibition was a collection of images from journalists and photographers who were killed or went missing here. Often, the last shot in their roll of film. Moments before some took their very last breath. I can’t even begin to describe the haunting power of these photos. Another section was dedicated to the victims of Agent Orange. Not just 40 years ago, but today. Generations later. Deformations like you could not even fathom in your wildest nightmares. Some things that were so hard to look at, I had to leave.

I sobbed my way through most of the museum. So much pain, so much loss, and for what? When I analyze it too long, I feel I might drown under the weight of it. We walked out feeling shaken, humbled, and a little nauseous. Into a humid afternoon to the waiting carts of street vendors, taxi drivers, sunglass salesmen. How have these people moved forward? Past the unfathomable destruction and devastation? Beyond the tragedies that have lingered for decades? I suppose it’s cause they are focused on today. Making a living, cherishing their loved ones, getting by in the present. It really puts our trivial problems and worries into perspective. And I suppose that all we can do, is the same.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Breakfast

I've started to realize that quite possibly my favorite thing about traveling - adventures and friends and freedom aside - is breakfast. Our morning routine. The unhurried start of our day.

I love waking up slowly, catching up on social media in bed while Reece showers. I love finding our favorite local breakfast spot in each city, taking the guesswork out of where we start our day. I love when the cook grows to recognize us, and knows what we plan to order. I love sitting on tiny plastic stools sipping strong iced coffee (oh yeah, I've become a coffee drinker in Vietnam). I love lingering at our roadside table long after we've finished our meal. Most of all, I love being a quiet observer of local life, absorbing it in a way you can only do when no obligations pull you away.

Yesterday, I was so filled with joy and gratitude for moments like these that I was brought to tears over our shared dish of pork and eggs and rice. Watching women selling produce on the sidewalk, feeling the rush of motorbikes whizzing by, squinting my eyes from the smoke of the street-side grill, playing with passing puppies, pondering where the afternoon might take us. Many a breakfast has turned into a lunch this way, as we eat and drink and talk and savor this life we're living. And what better time to pause, take it all in and appreciate it, than over breakfast.




Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Mui Ne, Vietnam

Sand dunes.
Seafood. 
Sunsets. 
And Sandra (The retired Aussie who spends 8 months a year at the hotel we stayed in. And shared her cheese with us!) 

There's not a lot to do in Mui Ne, and we loved every minute of it. For pics of the eight lazy days we spent there, click HERE.