4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the category “Southeast Asia”

A New Year’s Eve in Hanoi (by Nathan)

Hanoi night lights

Hanoi night lights

It is difficult to plan these long-term trips so that the right celebrations land in the right places.  Our Thanksgiving in Bangkok satisfied many of our Thai cravings, Carmen’s birthday in Koh Tao provided a much needed beach to relax and Christmas in Hoi An was spent with friends and gifts to ourselves from the tailor.  A New Year’s party in Hanoi just kind of fell in to place, and, how could we complain when draught beer is served on the sidewalk for 25 cents a glass!  So we pulled up a tiny stool, we pulled our jackets tight and enjoyed this wonderful historic city.

40 years since the bombings of Hanoi

40 years since the bombings of Hanoi

Immediately we noticed banners around town that celebrated the end of the war between the U.S. and Vietnam and most specifically to remember those that died when downtown Hanoi was partially destroyed during the “Christmas bombings” forty years ago.  Despite this history, the people throughout our journey in Vietnam have been welcoming and kind everywhere, including Hanoi.

Sidewalk bún óc stall

Sidewalk bún óc stall

Snail soup called bún óc

Snail soup called bún óc

Our first morning was bitterly cold and all that we wanted was some noodle soup.  We settled on a Hanoi speciality of bún óc, snail soup.  We watched as a woman picked out some 100 steamed snails for each bowl, then she topped it with a tomato broth, some green onions, cilantro, cooked mushrooms and some sliced tomatoes.  A bowl of mint and basil promptly landed on the center of the table with another bowl of roasted chillies in oil.  I have not had snails but a few times in my life, and these were delicious, a little chewy and holding the spicy flavor of the broth.

Scooters whizzing past intersection

Scooters whizzing past an Old Town intersection

We quickly realized that there is a deeper history in Hanoi than some of the other cities we have visited in Vietnam.  The architecture, the sights and the planning show evidence of centuries of development to become the big city that it is today.  We stayed in the old quarter that is vibrant with shops, street food and out-of-control scooters.  Crossing the road has been a bit tricky, but we are getting the hang of the “slow moving rock in the river of vehicles” strategy.  We all sighed with relief when we made it to Hoam Kiem Lake with its pedestrian walkway.

Legendary turtle at the Ngoc Son Temple

Legendary turtle at the Ngoc Son Temple

Julia, Jonathan and Nathan enjoying a temple conversation

Julia, Jonathan and Nathan enjoying a temple conversation

We walked around the lake, but unfortunately did not spot the 400lb tortoise that supposedly lives in it.  We did enjoy the Ngoc Son Temple that is ornamented with turtles that symbolize wisdom and longevity.  We toured the Women’s Museum that highlighted the female role in the development and sustenance of Vietnam.

Spring rolls at Quan Ngon

Spring rolls at Quan Ngon

If you want to be overcome with choices of things to eat, then try Quan Ngon.  There are about thirty kitchens in tiny stalls that surround this one restaurant.  The menu was enormous, but we went for some of the basics:fresh spring rolls, savory rice cakes, barbecued spare ribs and sweet jelly soup.

Temple of Literature gateway

Temple of Literature gateway

Temple of Literature guard dogs

Temple of Literature guard dogs

Then we explored the Temple of Literature dedicated to several Confucius disciples.  Each gate brought us closer to the inner sanctum of holy carvings.  I particularly liked these dogs that were cast in in the courtyard.

Ho Chi Minh's body is embalmed here

Ho Chi Minh’s body is embalmed here

As evening approached we made our way to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  We did not go inside, but the outdoor plaza was vibrant with activity with hundreds of power-walking Vietnamese.

Carmen rolling pork spring rolls

Carmen rolling pork spring rolls

New Year’s Eve approached quickly and we had little planned.  We began the day with a cooking class taught by Anh Tuyet.  We learned how to make a Vietnamese-style papaya salad, fried pork spring rolls and a baked “no-stir” fish.  All of it was amazing.  Anh even snuck in some of her famous honey chicken and fried bananas leaving us enormously full and happy.

New Year's Eve feast of French-Vietnamese fusion

New Year’s Eve feast of French-Vietnamese fusion

Just as I was hoping to go crazy on the last night of 2012, I contracted a cold. Sickness is never fun while traveling.  I struggled to get through the cooking class and I ended up having to miss the day’s activities to sleep off the sickness.  I was able to get it together for a feast at a fusion restaurant.  The place made all types of pâtés and cold cut meats and served them with warm baguettes and a light salad.  The four of us, Carmen, Jonathan, Julia and I, chowed down and continued the celebration walking around the lake to people watch and enjoy the performance stages setup around the city.  All the biggest names of Hanoi Hip Hop were probably there, but we enjoyed some of the big-screens showing pop ballads, acrobatics and synchronized dance sequences.  The night ended with a few drinks a classy tiny bar in old quarter.  We rushed to see the Ho Chi Minh City ball drop on the television at the hotel, cheers to friends, cheers to the last night of 2012, and cheers to our last night in Vietnam.

Bún Châ

Bún Châ

I woke up feeling like crap; drinking and being sick equals more sick.  Our friends were gone and we would be leaving Vietnam soon too.  It was difficult to stay positive when there was a 26 hour bus journey looming in front of us to Laos.  All this made me sad and frustrated, I really enjoyed everything about Vietnam, the variety of sights, terrain and cities.  The absolutely fabulous food is enough to visit Vietnam again soon.  Everyday we had phenomenal dishes and it was difficult to go wrong, everything we ate was delicious. Soups, sandwiches, noodles and barbecue, the Vietnamese make it all and make it better than most.  I wanted comfort food, and bún châ was it.  The little man outside was surrounded by smoke as he pounded and grilled pork in thin baskets. They sliced it up, added some rice noodles and some broth and served them to our table.  Instantly Carmen and I were feeling better. I’m going to miss Vietnam!

Enchanting Halong Bay (by Carmen)

Lone fishing boat in Halong Bay

Lone fishing boat in Halong Bay

The extreme heat of Saigon had started to cool off a bit by the time we reached Dalat and Hoi An.  Now that we were in northern Vietnam it was actually cold.  A thick fog covered the horizon upon our arrival at Halong Bay.  This was not a good thing. We were here for the famous views of limestone islands jutting out of the bright blue water.  If we wanted fog Julia, Jonathan, Nathan and I could have stayed in SF where it is plentiful.  But we had no choice but to go with the flow as our tour guide ushered us to the port.

Our Halong Bay boat for sleeping, eating and sightseeing

Our Halong Bay boat for sleeping, eating and sightseeing

Choosing a tour operator was tricky since each one seems to have just as many bad reviews as they do good ones.  We finally opted for Ethnic Travels and hoped for the best.  I breathed a sigh of relief when our little white boat pulled up to the port. It had a spacious deck above and a cosy dining space below.  Our rooms were clean and comfortable and even had private bathrooms!  It was better than plenty of hotels we’ve stayed in.

Layers of islands

Layers of islands

Small limestone island

Small limestone island

As we embarked on our journey the islands were still shrouded in a thick mist.  But towards the end of the day the sun began to break out, illuminating the beautiful islands that surrounded us.

The textures and colors of our row boat

The textures and colors of our row boat

A floating village home

A floating village home

After cruising a couple hours we made a stop for a floating village.  I expected this to be a sort of tourist trap in which you float around a bit then spend most of the visit at a shop.  But I was surprised instead by an actual, functioning floating village.  It was kind of like a squatter settlement where people do not have to pay any rents.  They just build their little abode and anchor down.  Simple bridges connected the structures, which are more like floating houses than boats.  I liked that the convenience store was a boat filled to the brim, carrying toiletries and snacks, was making its rounds as we rowed by.

Sunset Halong Bay

Sunset Halong Bay

Nathan leaps into still waters

Nathan leaps into still waters

By sunset, we pulled into a protected cove.  I had expected many other boats to surround us since Halong Bay has a reputation for being crowded.  But we were the only ones.  I saw a few boat clusters in the distance but I think our captain was taking us off the beaten track a bit, which I appreciated.  Fewer boats also meant it was easier for Nathan, Jonathan and some of the other hearty souls on the boat to jump off the deck into the water 15 feet below.

Fried fish dinner

Fried fish dinner

Julia, Jonathan and Carmen post-feast

Julia, Jonathan and Carmen post-feast

The food was surprisingly good.  There was generally a fried fish, meat dish, and a couple veggie stir fries at every meal. Dessert consisted of cut bananas, pomelo, pineapple and/or watermelon.

Carmen impersonating a professional kayaker

Carmen impersonating a professional kayaker

In the morning we had the opportunity to kayak around the cove and explore two caves.  Both caves were large and actually went all the way through the island.  In one, they had built a type of banquet hall with chairs and tables ready to be set out.  It would be so awesome to have a party there!

The port at Bai Tu Long Bay

The port at Bai Tu Long Bay

Walking the plank

Walking the plank

Before we knew it our time in Halong was up and we were headed to our next destination, Bai Tu Long Bay.  This is a much less visited area and the simple harbor was much smaller than that of Halong.  This time we boarded a smaller boat because we were on our way to a small island to stay the night.  This boat crew was not exactly as experienced as the first one.  For one, they all looked to be under 25.  And as we pulled up to the island they managed to get stuck on a mud bank. After waiting for the water level to rise a bit we did make it to the harbor, but promptly crashed into a sitting boat.  From there, we walked a series of narrow planks hopping between boats to make it to the dock.  Did I mention that it was dark and we all had our backpacks on? I would not say it was particularly safe but all of us did make it.  We piled into tuk tuks for the bumpy ride to our lodgings. That night the group toasted our successful and safe arrival with beers and rice liquor.

Village market

Village market

By morning only Nathan rose early enough to catch the morning market.  He reported that people sold very small quantities compared to the markets we’ve been to in towns and cities.  For example, a woman might only be selling a bowl full of clams or bag full of shucked oysters or bunches of lettuce greens.  He indulged in s couple corn filled dough nuts and brought me back a peanut bun. What a sweetie.

Horseshoe Crab

Horseshoe Crab

Bai Tu Long beach

Bai Tu Long beach

Shells and sand in close up

Shells and sand in close up

Instead of taking a tuk tuk back to the harbor we took a leisurely bike ride.  We stopped for a walk on a deserted feeling beach.  Now I was really wishing for the heat of Saigon.  As we walked along the shore we found a funky looking horseshoe crab and a series of beautiful shells.

Biking our way to the boat

Biking our way to the boat

All hands on deck

All hands on deck

For only lasting three days we fit a lot into our tour.  Thankfully, the sun came out for us at just the right times.  The limestone islands were as enchanting as I’d hoped.  And as always, it was great to share the experience with friends.

Limestone cliff close up

Limestone cliff close up

Christmas in Hoi An (by Carmen)

Street vendors in Hoi An

Street vendors in Hoi An

Lanterns in the night

Lanterns in the night

Hoi An is one extremely adorable town. Once an important port, it now contains enough 18th and 19th century architecture that one can easily imagine life a couple hundred years ago. These days, Chinese and Japanese tradesmen have been replaced with tourists, ships have been replaced by motor boats offering tours and tailor shops have proliferated.

New tailored clothes and our new friend Ha

New tailored clothes and our new friend Ha

Yes, tailoring. In addition to the historic atmosphere it has become Hoi An’s claim to fame. In fact, it was a major reason for our visit. A friend of a friend had her wedding dress made here for less than $100. In the wedding world, that’s the stuff of legend since dresses can easily go for thousands of dollars. I hoped to get my own wedding dress made but my prospects weren’t promising at first. I wasn’t liking the fabric choices nor the prices, which were well above $100 for a rather simple dress. Finally, we found Kimmy’s who made me a beautiful lace dress for a very reasonable sum. Score! Nathan and I soon discovered that getting custom clothing is addicting. In the end we each got a suit and some dress shirts. I also got a skirt and a trench coat. All in the span of 4 days!

Streetside coffee with friends Julia and Jonathan

Streetside coffee with friends Julia and Jonathan

Carmen, Jonathan and Julia in front of the Japanee bridge

Carmen, Jonathan and Julia in front of the Japanee bridge

Incense at a Chinese temple

Incense at a Chinese temple

Besides getting our wedding attire made, we had been looking forward to Hoi An for another reason. Our friends Julia and Jonathan were taking an extended honeymoon in southeast Asia and invited us to join them for part of it. It was so great to see old friends, especially since we would be spending Christmas and new year together. We started our first day together with some thick Vietnamese coffee at a sidewalk stall, catching up on life. Thoroughly energized, we wandered around the Old Town sights.

Hoi An roof tiles

Hoi An roof tiles

Caged rooster

Caged rooster

Hoi An old town has a charmingly weathered look to it. We popped in and out of old merchant homes turned into museums and shops. Eventually, the old town bleeds into the vibrant market area where all manner of fruit, veg and meat are sold.

Banh bao vac (Hoi An's white rose)

Banh bao vac (Hoi An’s white rose)

Mì quang lunch

Mì quảng lunch

Like us, Julia and Jonathan love to eat well and were just as eager as we were to sample the local specialties on offer. One, elegantly called white rose, is a delicate shrimp dumpling topped with lots of fried garlic. Another was mì quảng, a noodle dish using turmeric, pork broth and herbs topped with peanuts and a savory rice cracker.

Bún chá at market

Bún chá at market

Bún thịt nướng rice cakes with quail eggs

Bún thịt nướng rice cakes with quail eggs

Another street eat was a delicious bún cha, egg cups we had already tasted in a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh. I liked them even more streetside as you could see and smell the wood fire used to cook them. In the market we waited for a spot to eat bún thịt nướng, rice noodles with herbs, chili and roasted pork on top. It hit all the right salty, sweet, spicy and sour notes.

Three piggies on a scooter

Three piggies on a scooter

A curious water buffalo

A curious water buffalo

Hoi An canal and jungle

Hoi An canal and jungle

After one of our bigger meals, we rented bikes and rode out to the surrounding countryside. This is where you get to see everyday Vietnamese life. For example, how do you transport your three live pigs on one scooter? As we pedaled further out of town we found ourselves surrounded by canals and rice paddies. In the middle of one set of paddies we noticed a cemetery that we simply had to go check out. As we explored the tombstones we discovered a water buffalo surprised by our presence. Fortunately, he stood perfectly still for his photo opp.

Basket of crabs at market

Basket of crabs at market

Traditional row boat

Traditional row boat

Front of our row boat

Front of our row boat

When cycling became too much we let someone else do the work by boarding a motorboat for a leisurely one hour ride. We passed stilted riverside homes, row boats and the lively fish market.

Santa balloons galore

Santa balloons galore

Then it was Christmas! So far away from home and family, it didn’t feel quite like Christmas was actually happening. Having Julia and Jonathan there helped and together we decided to make a special night of it. That’s how we ended up at Mermaid Restaurant for a thoroughly enjoyable meal. After some white roses, hot pot and a few strong cocktails we were definitely feeling merry and bright.

Vietnamese omelette

Vietnamese omelette

Our last morning in Hoi An we headed to our favorite street food street, Tran Cao Van. We ate some fantastic fried eggs topped with tomatoes, a bit of pork broth and cilantro alongside a roll of fluffy bread.

Pho restaurant

Pho restaurant

My Son Champa ruins

My Son Champa ruins

My Son in the rain

My Son in the rain

A quick pho for lunch and we then embarked on yet another scooter adventure, this time to the ruins of My Son. These ruins were supposedly once as grand as those at Angkor Wat but were heavily damaged in war bombings. During our ride there it began to rain, then it began to pour. Of course, just as we were leaving the rain softened up a bit and the as we scooted back to Hoi An we air dried. But before we made it to town we were held up by thousands of school children on bikes, making their way home. It was an incredible sight.

Delicate flower

Delicate flower

I’m so happy I was able to spend Christmas in Hoi An with people I cared about. And I have to say, trying on my wedding dress and loving it instantly was the best Christmas present I could hope for on this trip. Until next time, Hoi An. I’ve got a good feeling we will see you again some day.

Finding Our Viet Moms and Waterfalls in Dalat (by Nathan)

Pongour Waterfall

Pongour Waterfall

Our travel thus far in Southeast Asia has been stifling hot.  Supposedly this has been the cool season, but the sweat constantly dripping from my forehead says otherwise.  We needed a change of pace, somewhere cool, somewhere with forests and waterfalls and clean air; that place was the mountain town in central Vietnam named Dalat.  To our surprise we found welcoming people and a sincere hospitality in the form of several Viet moms that made it difficult to leave.  The city appears more at home in the Swiss alps than it does in Vietnam, but with bowls of pho and numerous scooter cyclists we were easily reminded of our whereabouts.

Dalat breakfast pho

Dalat breakfast pho

Our overnight bus from Ho Chi Minh City crawled and jolted up the mountainside.  We were dropped off a few kilometers outside of town where we grabbed a taxi to bring us to the center.  We settled into our $10 hotel and went in search of some pho for breakfast.  We found a little shop serving steaming bowls that cut through the brisk cool mountain air warming us from the inside.

Drying coffee beans

Drying coffee beans

Cafe Nôi

Cafe Nôi

Our thick coffee and tea

Our thick coffee and tea

The mountainsides surrounding Dalat are covered in coffee plantations.  The red berries are picked and spread onto the concrete surfaces of driveways and plazas.  The berries turn brown and flaky and are then broken and sifted to retrieve the actual green coffee bean.  This bean is then roasted and ground to make coffee.  The Vietnamese make serious coffee, more or less like jet fuel with the consistency of syrup.  We found this wonderful cafe, named Cafe Nôi that was crowded with people gambling over a board game.  Our two coffees were stronger than any espresso I have drank and they were served with a pot of tea as a chaser or more subtle accompanying drink.

Trays of silk worm cocoons

Trays of silk worm cocoons

Rendering the silk threads onto spools

Rendering the silk threads onto spools

Amped up on coffee, it was difficult for me to sit still.  I wanted to explore and see the town and mountains.  We rented a scooter and in no time the wind was in our hair once again.  Our scooter putted through the pine forests and around the coffee plantations until we reached our first destination: a silk factory.  We were both oblivious to the processes of rendering this soft fabric.  Silk worms create these dense cocoons.  These cocoons are collected and soaked in hot water.  A thread is grabbed from the cocoon and spun onto a wheel.  We watched as fifteen women each maintained eighteen spools of thread on an enormous machine.  We bought a scarf for Carmen and a tie for me to use during our future wedding and we hopped back on the scooter.

My silhouette beneath Elephant Falls

My silhouette beneath Elephant Falls

Elephant Waterfall

Elephant Waterfall

A little further down the road was the access road to our intended destination, Elephant Waterfalls.  We climbed down the adjacent slope and through a small cavern get a closer look.  In seconds I was drenched, but it was hot out.  We wrapped around the base of the waterfall to get a better view.  The water thundered down over the rocks and moss.  We admired the scenery for a few minutes and we continued our exploration of the area.

Temple dragon

Temple dragon

One big and happy Buddha

One big and happy Buddha

We crossed a rickety bridge where all the planks were rotted through, but the main steel girders were stable and in good shape.  We discovered a tranquil temple with chanting monks, dragon statues and an enormous 9m (30ft) statue of a happy Buddha.  We wondered through the peaceful gardens and wooden buildings before returning to the main city of Dalat.

Carmen on Crazy House stairway

Carmen on Crazy House stairway

The craziest house in Vietnam

The craziest house in Vietnam

We had a beautiful ride through the mountains back into Dalat.  As the sun began to set we visited the Crazy House.  This radical design of one Vietnamese architect is Gaudiesque and combines free-form architecture with dripping and flowing three-dimensional art.  On one growing stairway we found ourselves flying between and around buildings admiring the boganvilla flowers and recreated stalactites.  The buildings have rooms for lodging making this one exceptionally cool guesthouse.

Night market dessert

Night market dessert

Baked goods and a carton of Dalat milk

Baked goods and a carton of Dalat milk

We returned the scooter and walked around the small downtown.  Dalat was frigid like we wanted. The nights dropped below 10C (50F), but everyone still roamed the streets slurping noodles and soups.  We sat down at a small table with hot soy milk and Vietnamese cookies.  Later we discovered that the best sweet breads and cakes are better washed own with Dalat’s local sweetened fresh milk.

Bún Cha

Bún Cha

Pork noodle breakfast

Pork noodle breakfast

In the morning we found the local market and made a B-line for the food court.  Carmen ordered bun cha, BBQ pork and vegetables over cold rice noodles and I pointed at something orange with pork and peanuts that was being eaten on the table next to ours.  The flavors of Vietnam are immensely rich: sweet and savory with a blast of fresh mint, basil and chili.

Pongour waterfalls from below

Pongour waterfalls from below

We were enjoying this cute mountain town so much that we extended our stay one night.  With an open day we thought about relaxing, catching up on trip planning or the blog, but what fun would that be?  We hopped on our trusty scooter and we were off to search for the Pongour waterfalls.  The route to get there was surprisingly easy, south on 120 towards HCMC about 40km where we took a marked right turn.  The access road traversed banana groves and sugarcane alongside a wide river.  We hiked down to the base to find a 300ft wide cascading waterfall.  The water gently splashed along steps in the cliff face creating a misty wall of white and blue.  We explored the waterfall and pools, but we paused to sit and take in the extravagant scenery.

Carmen and some Viet moms

Carmen and some Viet moms

Our little picnic with new friends

Our little picnic with new friends

We were not the only group enjoying the waterfalls; there were a handful of tourists that would trickle about and there was one particularly joyous family enjoying a picnic on the rocks.  A rather scrawny man stood up from this group and walked over to us carrying big wedges of watermelon.  We took a few bites, waved at the family and we yelled “Com ermn!” (thank you).  They grinned at us and emphatically began waving for us to come and join them.  They widened their circle and we sat down facing them.  We gnawed on our melon with all of them watching, and then we realized that this was not no ordinary picnic.  The most friendly woman had a slender and slightly gaunt face that she counteracted with almost constant laughter and cheeky banter.  She enticed me to dip my watermelon into a spicy salt mixture, I gained approval, then she leaned over once more and dipped a tiny glass into a 2 liter bottle turned into make-shift container and passed me the glass.  I took the shot and everyone cheered.  Then Carmen and there were more cheers, then me, then Carmen, then each of them, then me and then Carmen.

The watermelon was actually just a prop, a chaser, for the already smooth rice moonshine liquor that they bought in plastic bags.  With absolutely no shared language we communicated with this group of people and any anomaly was circumstance for another shot.  They made me severely pay for not wearing a ring, but a few shots were enough to justify my love for Carmen.  We ate hard-boiled eggs and shrimp-flavored potato chips alongside more watermelon.  The ten of us seemed to be in constant laughter and everyone’s face began to take on a reddish hue.  The women of the group particularly liked Carmen and each insisted on an individual photo alongside her.  In a couple hours we had found a Vietnamese family, our “Viet moms,” who cared for us, entertained us and welcomed us to their local hangout.

Nathan walking across waterfall

Nathan walking across waterfall

Flowers blooming in the park above the waterfall

Flowers blooming in the park above the waterfall

We had to excuse ourselves,  it is so difficult to remove yourself from fun, but with another hour drinking we would have been crawling into their huts to share another meal and some blankets on the floor.  We parted ways with many hugs and scribbling of phone numbers on napkins.  They watched as I climbed up to the waterfall ledge and inched my way across.  The water was cool and refreshing. I dunked my head under the falling torrent, we waved goodbye and we hiked out out of the small canyon.  After a small pause in the colorful park we gained our wits and began the journey back to Dalat.

Cute Dalat canal

Cute Dalat canal

Breakfast stall

Breakfast stall

Bún rieu breakfast

Bún rieu breakfast

In the morning we explored more of the town.  We stopped for another coffee at Cafe Nôi and then set out for local street cuisine.  There was cute European looking canal and across the street groups of people hoarding around a pot of bun rieu.  Two bowls of rice noodle and beef stew landed in front of us and we began chowing down.   We picked the leaves from another bowl filled with several Vietnamese herbs, we twisted and pinched off the torn leaves into our bowl and the savory aroma hot soup, mint and basil was at our nostrils once again.

Overnight bus from the inside

Overnight bus from the inside

That afternoon we boarded a 14 hour bus to Hoi An.  We crawled onto our upper cots, our shoes were carefully tied into a plastic bag and our feet tucked into a cubby beneath the seat in front of ours.  The night was bumpy, but our dreams were pleasant with memories of scootering through mountain roads, market noodles, waterfalls, and the rice liquor shots and laughs with our Viet moms.

Goodbye Dalat

Goodbye Dalat

Num Num ‘Nam in Saigon (by Carmen)

Sidewalk vendor in cone hat

Sidewalk vendor in cone hat

We were especially excited for our first visit to Vietnam.  I have always enjoyed the fresh flavors of Vietnamese cuisine.  Crunchy herbs are a staple added to soups, noodles, eggs, sandwiches…everything really.  Overall, what we read and heard about Vietnam indicated that it was a country full of people who love to eat well.  And Vietnam is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that has an abundance of locally brewed beer.  In short, our kind of place.  Armed with recommendations from our friend Tran and the Gastronomy blog, we were ready to take on Ho Chi Minh City (aka HCMC or Saigon).

A beautiful bahn mi sandwich

A beautiful bành mí sandwich

Bahn mi essentials: crowded place, various meats and enjoyment.

Bành mí essentials: crowded place, various meats and enjoyment.

On our first afternoon we wound through the park outside of our hotel. They happened to be holding a culinary festival, complete with wok masters dancing to some club beats while stir frying away.  We only paused to look because we were on a mission to get the best bành mí in the city.  We found it at Bành Mí Huynh Hoa, a well known and consistently crowded storefront.  Imagine six people stationed around a table rapidly chopping veggies and peppers while four others are assembling sandwiches at light speed.  There is no counter to queue at.  You simply nudge your way through the crowds towards one of the sandwich makers and get your order in.  You then hungrily watch them make your sandwich, wrap it a piece of paper, place it in a bag and finally hand it over.  And it was awesome.  The pickled cucumber and carrot blended perfectly with the mix of pâtés and meat, all on a fresh hot bread roll and with just the right amount of hot pepper slices.  Our first taste of Vietnam was already winning us over.

Hot steaming bowl of pho

Hot steaming bowl of pho

Next up on our list of Vietnamese favorites was phở, a comforting and delicious soup.  We selected Phở Hoa on Pasteur to do the honors. My beef pho came ready to be dressed up with basil, mint, bean sprouts and lots of lime, all of which are placed on the table for me.  The springy rice noodles were perfect.  We didn’t talk much as we enjoyed our soup among the many other patrons.

Fried chicken and garlic rice

Fried chicken and garlic rice

The perfect spring roll

The perfect spring roll

Over the days we followed the recommendations to more great eats.  This included an excellent fried chicken with garlic rice at Xoi Che. Then there was the fried spring roll which you wrap with herbs and lettuce and dip in a spicy sweet sauce at Banh Xeo 46A.  We even found the no name food stand with a blue awning that served rice and banana steamed in banana leaves and topped with coconut milk.  It was all just so good!

Chinese statue at Jade Emporer Pagoda

Chinese statue at Jade Emperer Pagoda

Amid the snacks, we pagoda hopped around the city.  Our favorite was the Jade Emperor Pagoda built in 1909.  It was small and intimate and loaded with various statues representing demons and spirits.  I watched quietly as people prayed with their incense.  One man was even using oracle sticks to get some answers.  We had a prayer too – to find delicious seafood.  Fortunately, it was answered.

Soft shell crab in tamarind sauce at Quan 94

Soft shell crab in tamarind sauce at Quan 94

At Quan 94, we tucked into a delicious soft shell crab in tamarind sauce.  This place smelled wonderfully of garlic such that my mouth watered as soon as I walked in.

Spicy pepper crab

Spicy pepper crab

Blood cockle in tamarind sauce

Blood cockle in tamarind sauce

More seafood was to be had a little further out from the city center where we found a collection of street cafes specializing in shell fish.  This time we got crab claws in a spicy pepper rub accompanied by blood cockles covered in tamarind and mussels with green garlic. Everything was amazing and well worth the trip to Saigon’s district four

Banh beo hue breakfast

Banh beo hue breakfast

Back in the city center for breakfast, at Thai Binh Market, we were aggressively accosted by the food vendors.  We finally settled on one with a large crowd around it. The stall happened to be selling banh beo hue, a variety of small rice dumplings and cakes doused with more spicy sweet sauce.

Street coffee, note the pajamas as street wear look

Street coffee, note the pajamas as street wear look

Breakfast was complete with streetside coffee.  As we sipped our brews sweetened with condensed milk, we watched the owner and his friend attempting to revive their prehistoric scooter.  They pushed each other up and down the sidewalk and we sat laughing with their wives each time they almost swerved into a tree or hole in the sidewalk.

Sky deck view of Saigon looking west

Sky deck view of Saigon looking west

While we walked around the city, we kept spotting a tall skyscraper in the distance. It was the Bitexco Financial Tower, Saigon’s tallest building at 68 stories.  We paid for tickets to the glamorous sky deck for vast views over the sprawling city.  While I was up there I kept thinking about the fact that this was a war zone 40 years ago.  Now, I was looking down at the busy city streets from an ultra-modern air conditioned perch high in the sky.  It amazes me how resilient cities and people are.

Banh can

Banh can

Salad with raw fish and crisp garlic

Salad with raw fish and crisp garlic

Our glamorous sky deck had to be followed up by a swanky restaurant, which we were treated to by our friend’s relative.  It was our first taste of banh can, which are little egg cups cooked over a fire.  But the star of the show was a salad plate lined with slivers of a small silvery fish lining the edge, all topped with crisp garlic.  All the sauces and herbs that accompanied our dishes delivered all the fresh flavors we love about vietnamese food.  We were also very grateful that we were able to meet up with a local for an insiders perspective.

Broken rice with pork pie

Broken rice with pork pie

Ok, one more breakfast. This one was called com tam, or broken rice.  I believe they grind the rice until it is a very short grain.  This makes the texture a little more like couscous.  Served with a slice of pork casserole, we found it to be very comforting.

Street scene in the Pham Ngu Lao

Street scene in the Pham Ngu Lao

Street scene with the ubiquitous hanging wires

Street scene with the ubiquitous hanging wires

Wow, this post was a little hard to write!  There was so many good eats it turned into more of a food diary than travelogue.  But I suppose that was our true experience of Saigon.  A sort of city wide restaurant hop where we would order small dishes to save room for the next great find around the corner.  Amid the tangle of traffic and electricity towers there are some great opportunities to find quiet pagodas, savory street snacks and boisterous beer halls.  And the snowmen, snow flakes and santas around town reminded us the Christmas was just around the corner, even if it was 30C outside.  The heat was intense and we were craving some cooler mountain air so we bid adieu to Saigon and wound our way into the mountains in Dalat.

Ho Chi Minh City snowmen

Ho Chi Minh City snowmen

Eating Like a Local In Phnom Penh (by Nathan)

Bus ride snack of fried crickets

Bus ride snack of fried crickets

Nothing demonstrates local culture more than the food people eat.  Yes, there is dance, language and tradition, but the day-to-day survival of humans depends on the consumption of local cuisine.  The food of a region shows the struggle and the progress of the people.  So when our bus stopped at a roadside stand and every Cambodian huddled around one stall I decided to get whatever the woman was selling. It turns out she was selling crickets, freshly fried and crispy crickets.  I watched as little girls shared giggles of delight with their grandmas.  My turn came and I was suddenly confronted with a choice: sesame seed or green onion and diced chilies.  I sampled each with everyone staring and I ordered the spicier one.  Imagine the best barbecue potato chip you have ever had, I’m talking caramelized onion, sweet potatoes; these were better!  Excuse me, a leg just got caught in my teeth.

Sunset Phnom Penh

Sunset Phnom Penh

Our bus bounced along and the rice fields disappeared with the growth of a denser city and crowded streets.  We arrived in Phnom Penh, we checked into our hotel and started walking.  There is a nice and peaceful riverside sidewalk that is wonderful for sunset walks.  We passed by the elaborate palace with its spectacular silhouette.  We ended the night with a rooftop cocktail, a great start to a new city.

Central market soup

Central market soup

Sticky rice snacks

Sticky rice snacks

I think my favorite part of every city is the market.  Every village or metropolis has some way for farmers, butchers and cooks to sell their life’s work.  Our first destination was Phsar Thmei, the central market.  After some confused meandering through stall after stall of clothing, watches, beauty products and mobile phones we finally found the hawker center.  We sat down at two stools and two heaping steamy bowls were placed in front of us.  We then mimed our way into getting extra limes and some iced tea.  It was a breakfast for travel champions.  Our savory soup lady shared her stall with a sweet soup lady.  We ordered some rice, mung beans and red beans doused with coconut and condensed milks.  Another woman was wrapping sweet fillings with sticky rice and banana leaves.  Too full, we ordered some to snack on later.

Cambodian National Museum garden

Cambodian National Museum garden

The National Museum of Cambodia has beautiful traditional architecture surrounding  a well-kept garden.  The artifacts are mostly from Angkor temples and show a subtle progression of Buddha statues over time.  The brief video that recreated ancient Angkor was excellent, but the explanations of the rest of the museum was rather poor.  We really wanted to visit the palace, but the gates were locked shut as the country mourns the death (from old age) of their leader.

S-21 Concentration Camp

S-21 Concentration Camp

Cambodia has had a tumultuous and horrendous history.  When they finally gained independence from France in the 1950’s the country was still led my a monarchy.  This lasted until 1970 when a coup overthrew the king, but set off a civil war across the country.  A handful of Paris educated men were excited for communism and they created the Khmer Rouge.  They took control with promises of equality and better living for all.  The Khmer rouge insisted that the country cease all outside influence and return to agrarian means of living.  Thousands were forced to leave the cities and the educated were decimated.

One of the more sad experiences of this entire trip was that we visited Toul Sleng, a former school tuned into the S-21 concentration camp and the gateway for over 15,000 murders.  The barbed wire, tiny cells, torturing devices and meticulous photo documentation are all in tact and graphically showing one of the low points in human existence.  It was the North Vietnamese that eventually stopped this monstrosity.  These were the same Vietnamese that the U.S. was fighting.  And since the enemies of our enemies are…um…friends, the Khmer Rouge went into hiding with their warfare being supplied and funded by the U.S.  Millions of American mines were placed into Cambodian soil.  Two million mines still exist in Cambodia, they are armed and sensitive to the unlucky farmer, kid or animal that stumbles upon one.  There is some amazing and brave work being done out there to identify and disarm these minefields.  I encourage any visitor to Cambodia to visit the mining museum in Siem Reap and S-21 in Phnom Penh to gain perspective on modern warfare.

Russian market butcher

Russian market butcher

It is not surprising that after all this turmoil, that Cambodian cuisine remains quite simple compared to their neighbors.  The extremism of the Khmer Rouge appears to have had had an affect of diluting and censoring the food as well.  The flavors of Cambodian cuisine are rustic with a focus on fresh, and sometimes raw vegetables with a nuance of influence from Vietnam, Thailand and China.  We went to the Russian Market for another, but different noodle breakfast.  This market was less organized under rickety wood construction with mounds of vegetables next to cleavers slamming down through bone and flesh of fresh meat.  The market was hot and hazy with humidity; we hovered over our noodles and we were already sweating at 9am.

Skewered delights, note the "Angry Bird" kebab

Skewered delights, note the “Angry Bird” kebab

Night market dessert

Night market dessert

We attempted to stay cool with some 50cent draft beers, but the heat was persistent.  We ventured back onto the streets in search of the night market.  We found twenty stalls selling the same barbecued and fried skewers.  Why don’t they diversify? We sat cross-legged on a central mat with some bitter melon, chicken, short-ribs and sugar cane juice.  Although tempted, we did not try the “angry bird” meat skewers.  For dessert Carmen had banana and coconut pudding and I had shaved ice over various jellies and egg yolk dumplings with condensed milk over the top.

Breakfast pork, egg and rice

Breakfast pork, egg and rice

Our final morning in Phnom Penh was rushed as we embarked on a bus to Vietnam.  With five minutes to spare, we squeezed between the tuk tuk drivers and sat on the tiny stool that rested a mere eight inches above the ground.  We ordered the only thing she was serving- a plate of rice with some dried and re-grilled pork and a fried egg.  A couple spoonfuls of diced chillies and they all smiled at us in astonishment.  We are getting used to this whole eating like a local thing.

Badda Bing Battambang (by Carmen)

Market veggies

Market veggies

The only reason I had heard of Battambang is that a restaurant of the same name was near my office. I thought the name sounded exotic but was completely ignorant to the fact that it was an actual place. As I glanced through the guidebook to plan our Cambodia itinerary I had hoped to find a laid back town to break up our visits to the more tourist-ready Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Battambang (BB) seemed like just the ticket so off we went!

Vegetarian rice soup

Vegetarian rice soup

Rice with savory "meats"

Rice with savory “meats”

At a whopping 140,000 residents, BB is Cambodia’s 2nd largest city. But really it’s more of a town, easily traversed by foot or bike. One of the first places we walked was Vegetarian Foods. In meat crazy Asia even the veg restaurant specialized in imitation meats. They were indeed delicious, served over steamed rice or in a bowl of savory congee.

Bao-licious

Bao-licious

Later, we were walking around the town soaking in the French colonial architecture. But of course we kept an eye open for good street eats and luckily we spied two. One was a huge steamed bun filled with peppery pork.

Nom krok

Nom krok

The other was nom krok, a type of gooey rice ebelskiver. As we walked past this one, I wasn’t entirely sure if the cakes the old woman was cooking were for sale or just for her family. Fortunately, the woman’s granddaughter, who was visiting from the US, was sitting nearby and helped us out. Soon enough we were sitting on our little plastic stools munching away happily. The cakes are a simple mixture of rice flour, coconut milk and green onions. They were served in a broth of more coconut milk, vinegar, fish sauce, and sweet chilies. The sweet savory combo was supremely satisfying. We waved goodbye to the grandma and her family and continued our walk with a big smile.

Sorry, I just had to share this temple statue

Sorry, I just had to share this temple statue

Along the way we stepped into a temple and encountered this. I’m not exactly sure what to say. It no doubt represents an important Buddhist story…in an extremely graphic way. But really, I guess it’s not too different from some Catholic paintings I’ve encountered that depict how the saints were martyred through decapitation, being prodded with hot irons, etc.

BB circus

Battambang circus

That night we did something unexpected – we went to the circus. The Phare Ponleu Selpak group trains impoverished kids to become acrobatic performers good enough to tour the world. I liked the fact that this venue provided opportunities for children to have better futures. In fact many shops, and even cafes in Cambodia seem to be connected to an NGO that somehow assists the disadvantaged. As we sat waiting for the show to start, staff members of some of these NGOs sat behind us chatting about their everyday lives. It was nice to see so many people who were actively trying to improve other communities. As for the show itself, it was greatly entertaining with all the flips and feats of strength one could hope for.

Spring rolls with noodles

Spring rolls with noodles

For an after circus snack we enjoyed a fried spring roll served over rice noodles. It was a little taste of the vietnamese flavors soon to come our way.

Central market building

Central market building

Fish vendors

Fish vendors

In the morning it was back to Cambodian cuisine, not just eating it but cooking it. We chose a cooking class at the Smokin’ Pot restaurant. Because of this Nathan insisted on calling the post “We (Went To) Bought-A-Bong and Spent Time (at) Smoking Pot,” but I thought badda bing came with more bang. Anyway, the classes have been taught for 12 years by the very knowledgeable and insightful owner. The first step was a visit to the market housed in an art deco creation left by the French. Our instructor pointed out what to look for in coconut, lemongrass, long beans, banana flowers and more.

Me cooking up some amok

Me cooking up some amok

Loklak close up

Loklak close up

Back at the kitchen we sliced and diced garlic, lemongrass, chilies, and galangal to make a tasty paste. We squeezed fresh shaved coconut with water to make our very own coconut milk. Then we mixed these flavors with fish sauce, salt, sugar and chunks of fish to make amok, the national dish of Cambodia. It was delightfully rich and definitely tasted better since I made it myself. We went on to cook loklak, a simple peppery stir fry, and sautéed morning glory. I was very happy to get back in the kitchen after months of eating out.

Wat Ek Phnom

Wat Ek Phnom

Buddhas Buddhas everywhere

Buddhas Buddhas everywhere

With some extra time we decided to rent some bikes and cruise over to Wat Ek Phnom. It was built in a similar timeframe as Angkor Wat but was definitely left in a more rustic setting. I wonder if the cow appreciates the significance of the ruins it grazes on :) Nearby was a giant Buddha with a set of smaller Buddhas housed within its base.

BBQ'd eggs

BBQ’d eggs

We cycled over to the night market because we had to try something crazy we had seen – barbecued eggs! They were literally skewered and placed over hot coals. Once we cracked them open it seemed like they had been shaken since the yolk and whites had combined into a single delicious mass. I wondered why I had never thought of this before. Nathan ordered four brown eggs and one white egg from a different stack. It turns out the white one was very special, containing a partially formed chick inside. This delicacy is fairly common in Asian cuisines so we half expected it. But that night I wasn’t up for tasting it. Nathan reported that it was a mix of textures, a sort of soft and hard boiled egg rolled into one. But no strange tastes, just egg flavor.

Old window with scooter

Old window with scooter

I truly enjoyed Battambang . Our stopover provided insight into a less visited Cambodia. One where you can still bike past stilted houses and people wave hello. Yet, in the center, the colonial legacy and expat community results in cozy cafes and creative art galleries. It is the kind of place to spend an afternoon on a cafe patio watching the world go by. Battambang is a place to linger.

An Adventure In Siem Reap & Angkor (by Nathan)

Sunrise Angkor Wat

Sunrise Angkor Wat

Does it get more beautiful than that? A visit to Angkor Wat requires a journey, a good story to tell and some real adventure. We tried our best and this is what happened:

Here I am in my upper berth bed on the way to Bangkok

Here I am in my upper berth bed on the way to Bangkok

Crossing borders into developing countries is always an adventure.   We had expected something along the lines of the Bolivian guns and egos that we experienced in April, but crossing into Cambodia was surprisingly smooth and safe.  Go us!  The challenge was that we decided to take transit from the middle of Thailand to the middle of Cambodia.  And thirty hours later with six modes of transit, the trip was a success.  Starting on Koh Tao Island we hopped in the back of a truck to taxi to the port, then a ferry boat to the mainland, then we took a regional bus to Chumphon and, crap, a three hour delay of our overnight train.  Eventually we climbed onto our tiny upper bunks and we slept until morning when we arrived in Bangkok.  We grabbed a local city bus to the edge of town, then a regional bus to the Cambodian border.  With luck we could walk to the border, acquire visas and cross where we bargained for six of us (we met 3 new friends) to pile into a 90’s Honda accord. Another two and a half hours and we arrived in Siem Reap with spending only $46 each for 650 miles (1040km) of travel.

Bantaray Srei

Bantaray Srei

Carving at Bantaray Srei

Carving at Bantaray Srei

Bantaray Srei reflection pool

Bantaray Srei reflection pool

Siem Reap is the adjacent city to one of the most renown collection of temples and relics of an ancient empire.  The historic city of Angkor was huge in the 1100’s with over one million people.  Today all that remains are the temples and palaces that were built from stone.  The most known building, Angkor Wat, is just one of twenty ornately carved and grandly built structures.  On our first day we decided to ease into Angkor so we visited a temple further out called Banteay Srei.  We walked in and out of doorways and around domed temples admiring the detailed carvings.  Many of the figures address Hindu gods and stories as well as Buddhist elements because the king that built much of Angkor liked aspects of both religions.

Scootering family

Scootering family

Rice noodles, curries and coconut

Rice noodles, curries and coconut

Our mode of transit was a tuk tuk because some of the temples are 20 miles from Siem Reap.  We hired a friendly man that carted us around for the day. Families would pass us on their scooters and the standing toddlers would wave to us shouting “hallo!”. For lunch we had to repeatedly tell “Smee,” our drivers name, to not take us to one of the tour bus restaurants.  He undoubtedly wanted a commission, but we insisted on a little village center that had a few stands.  We found a place that piled a heap of rice noodles onto a plate and scooped intense curry over the top of it.  A basket filled with local greens sat on the table for us to add as we wished.  We washed it down with a fresh coconut and we were off to see more temples.

Banteay Samré

Banteay Samré

Banteay Samré doorway

Banteay Samré doorway

Banteay Samré was another beautiful temple.  This one sits a little off the beaten tourist track, but we enjoyed exploring the nearly vacant complex imagining thousands of people living around and using this building daily.

Ta Som temple

Ta Som temple

Neak Pean walkway

Neak Pean walkway

Mid-way along our tuk tuk ride we decided that we should organize the places to visit a little better.  We have to admit that we like to be better planned when we travel, but constant movement has made it difficult to know what we want to even do each day.  Most of the Angkor sights are divided among a big circuit and a small circuit.  We talked it over with Smee and then we were chugging along the road to more ancient ruins along the big circuit.  Ta Som had a beautiful tree that took over a wall and Neak Pean was difficult to see because it was fenced off.  The walk to Neak Pean was really special; wood planks along an elaborate man-made moat and a traditional band playing music made visiting the sacred pool feel pleasantly tranquil.

Carmen and the march of rainbow umbrellas

Carmen and the march of rainbow umbrellas

It is possible to feel both overcrowded and alone in these temples. Travelers riding bicycles and tuk tuks intermix with the busses of tour groups.  We were amused, and originally frustrated, but eventually delighted when a group of Chinese women took over our photo with their umbrellas.  In the end I liked the photo with the variety of color more than the one without the bus group.

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan carved wall

Preah Khan carved wall

Preah Khan is one of the most beautiful and elaborate of the temples.  Many of the walls and domes have collapsed, but it is possible to meander and weave around the rubble to find beautiful splashes of red and green on the black stone.  A security guard even showed us a place where we could climb to the top of the wall to admire the buildings.

Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng

Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng

Angkor Wat from west

Angkor Wat from west

The main attraction is Angkor Wat, and let’s face it, few know more about Cambodia other than Angkor Wat.  We were still building up the suspense, so we climbed up the small mountain to reach Phnom Bakheng and view the setting sun on Angkor Wat.  At the top we then waited an hour to be able to climb to the top of temple.  There were several hundred people already there, but not looking at Angkor Wat, they were freaking out at the rather plain and hazy sunset.  I love sunsets, but this one was meh, and did not deserve the intense shoulder bumping and screams of delight when it hit the horizon.  A little disappointed, we returned to Siem Reap to ready ourselves for another temple day.

Wall frieze at Angkor Wat

Wall frieze at Angkor Wat

The temple is dedicated to Vishnu

The temple is dedicated to Vishnu

Carved window pillars

Carved window pillars

Exploring Angkor Wat takes several hours.  The approach is a wide bridge that crosses a moat that is a big as a small lake.  Through the main gate we have our first view of the temple from the ground.  Huge fields flank the walkway with two smaller temples at about midway.  Beyond the temples the elevated walkway sits above two large ponds that are used for the notorious reflection shots of Angkor Wat.  We then entered the main gate and were memorized by the elaborate carvings.  It appears that the temple was etched throughout.  Room after room were carved stories of Brama, or the monkey king, or battles long since forgotten.

Angkor Wat East

Angkor Wat East

Angkor Wat South

Angkor Wat South

The Wat sits in its own shadow for most of the day, so we walked around the back and the side to get a better look enormous building  There is a mountainous hierarchy of domes that symmetrically towers overhead.  This a truly magnificent 800 year old building.

Angkor Thom South Gate

Angkor Thom South Gate

The faces of Bayon

The faces of Bayon

We had rented some ancient bikes that appeared to have been operational for the last fifty years. But they worked great and we explored big portions of the Angkor small circuit.  Angkor Thom is a huge walled complex that housed the palace buildings of the former king.  At each entrance there is a huge gate with the carved face of King Jayavarman VII, look closely and you can see Carmen on a bike.  One of our favorite temples was Bayon.  This elaborate building contains 216 carved faces.  The beautiful carved contours of each has stood the weathering of time, but like real humans each has aged uniquely.

The elephant terraces

The elephant terraces

The Leper King Terrace carved wall

The Leper King Terrace carved wall

A huge field in Angkor Thom has elaborately carved elephants into the retaining walls.  This elephant terrace allowed for the king and companions to board their elephants when traveling throughout the region.  The terrace of the Leper King also has an elaborate retaining wall with detailed carvings that meander around the hillside.

Carmen Croft, Tomb Raider

Carmen Croft, Tomb Raider

Thom Prohm dome

Thom Prohm dome

Thom Prohm tree take over

Thom Prohm tree take over

Thom Prohm is most known for being highlighted on Tombraider.  Carmen showed us her guns.  The abundance of trees that have taken over and destroyed Thom Prohm is amazing.  Huge 80ft trees tower above while wrapping themselves around a wall or small dome.  Streams of people and tour groups admire the beauty these ancient buildings being intertwined with a forest of trees.

Crazy sunrise photographers

Crazy sunrise photographers

The sun rises over Angkor Wat

The sun rises over Angkor Wat

I did not realize the hoards of people that were possible at a sight until I went to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.  We have seen crazy tourists wielding cameras at the Cristo,   Iguazú, and Taj Mahal, but this was all out war of photography. On the third day I woke in the dark and I left Carmen sleeping to begin my bicycle ride to the temple.  The 12km seemed endless as a pumped the peddles to get there before sunrise.  When I arrived, the scene was horrendous- thousands of people all trying to get the perfect shot.  I believe in “camera karma,” but I had finding trouble peaking over the ten person deep crowd.  Eventually after wading into the slimy muck I waited patiently.  I watched a Chinese man take his 200th photo and I asked if I could squeeze it.  The look I received from him and his wife was as if I was asking to go in on a threesome, cameras left aside, unfortunately they did not budge.  The colors faded from reds to pinks and surprisingly all the tour groups deserted the banks. Apparently tour groups have a schedule because I remained, now with elbow room to admire the oranges and yellows and the sun cresting over the top of the temple.  For a micro-moment I felt alone and peace with this beautiful sight. Angkor Wat is stunningly magnificent.

Sunset Angkor Wat moat

Sunset Angkor Wat moat

Pond lily

Pond lily

Some of the most beautiful and wonderful aspects of Siem Reap were not even the temples.  A sunset on a reflection pool or the lily flowers blooming in the pond at Ankor Wat were as amazing as all the beautiful temples.  I biked back to the hotel after the sunrise, but I decided to stop at a small market for breakfast.  I pointed my way to get a bowl of rice porridge and a glass of iced coffee.  We packed our bags and scheduled a regional bus.  Siem Reap was short and eventful, but something was missing from the experience- good Cambodian food.  Battambang here we come, and we’re hungry.

Making The Most Of 100 Posts! (by N&C)

100 Posts!

100 Posts!

We made it to 100 posts!  The genesis of this blog was simple.  The initial conversation went something like this:

Carmen: Hey, why don’t we start a blog? That way we won’t have to write all those emails to family and friends letting them know what we are up to.
Nathan: OK (with approving shoulder shrug)

What began as an easy method to update loved ones quickly morphed into a full on photo and text journalist exercise.  Neither of us realized the amount of work we would end up putting into the blog, but as we put pen to paper we became enthusiastic to share our stories.  With over 100,000 words and 1,300 images the blog has become a medium for us to relive, share and promote our exploration of the world.  Our efforts felt particularly recognized when our blog was featured on the WordPress Freshly Pressed site, which highlights top blog posts..

4feet2mouths is Freshly Pressed!

4feet2mouths is Freshly Pressed!

Beyond journaling, the blog has even become a way to connect with other travelers and travel fantasizers.  The feedback we received through your comments is much appreciated. (A special shout out to our most frequent commenter, Manish!) On our 100th post, we would like to simply say thank you to all our readers for joining this exciting journey with us.

Machu Picchu friends

Machu Picchu friends

Looking back at the past 10 months it’s hard to believe the incredible journey we’ve had.  As we reviewed pictures for this post we kept thinking,”Wow, did we really get to do all that? Did that really taste as good as I remember?” People often ask us what our favorite places have been but honestly we’ve enjoyed pretty much all of it.  Perhaps we can describe a few favorite moments, though.

And that is truly just a handful.  We are incredibly excited for what is to come – more great memories and mouth-watering food.  Our journey continues through Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand as we make a counter-clockwise loop through southeast Asia. From Bangkok we fly to China where we will spend the last part of our trip.

Two hikers

Two hikers

The next biggest question we receive is how we can afford to travel for over a year. This is a challenging to answer simply and we will be writing a series of blog articles to encourage and mobilize the average traveler into the world.  The key reality is that vacation and long-term budget travel are very different activities.  Negotiating with a taxi driver to save $1 or finding a $6 room because it is without air conditioning, hot water or windows or eating food from street carts are daily activities for us.  There is an art to traveling the world, it is a frugal expression, but it is possible.  We have no bills, no mortgage, no car and only one mobile phone.  Simple world travel is cheaper than when we lived in Berkeley!  Most of all we had friends and family that supported us.  We had the great fortune to gain college degrees with stable salary.  After saving for several years, we took a leap of faith to sell everything and travel the world.

Buenos Aires Food

Buenos Aires Food

“Why are you not fat?” Well, our families tell us in amazement that we are looking thin.  We eat a light breakfast and simple lunches and dinners.  We search out great food and when it is good, we photograph it and put it on the blog.  When it is bad, you don’t hear about it.   Ten months of eating is a large number of meals, and we only have the best for you.  Tasting the world is part of our journey and our passions, so if you are hungry when you finish reading- good.  We also only choose the most slimming of photos of course!

Thank you for hopping on our Rickshaw Roller Coaster to see Camino Miracles and Carved Canyons.  We hope you will be able to join us for the next few months as we trek across Southern Asia, return to the U.S. and search for jobs in Europe.  Cheers to more great adventures!

Koh Tao-ism (by Carmen)

Beach view on Koh Tao

Beach view on Koh Tao

We disembarked from our overnight ferry and stepped onto the shores of Koh Tao (Turtle Island) off the east coast of Thailand. Despite the lush hills and palm tree lined shores I was seeing, I was slightly disappointed. There was more rocky cove and less sandy beach than I had been hoping for. We decided to walk north to see what we found. Three kilometers later we winded our way down the path to Bow Thong Resort and found what I was looking for: a little slice of paradise.

Our bungalow

Our bungalow

After quickly settling into our little bungalow, we threw on our swim suits and hopped into a lounge chair. Given the beach bumming in Phuket in the days previous, our trip was feeling more like a vacation than a travel adventure. It’s good to take a break sometimes.

The beach at Bow Thong Resort

The beach at Bow Thong Resort

We spent the day alternating between dipping into the cool, clear waters and hiding from the scorching sun under our umbrella. Since there was wifi on the beach we took the opportunity to call our families and gloat, I mean, let them know we were safe.

Sunset joy

Sunset joy

Fiery sunset

Fiery sunset

The sunset was brilliant and beautiful. The colors merged between sky and sea in a fiery glow. As the day closed it also marked a transition for me. The next morning I woke up and was officially one year older.

Pork noodles

Pork noodles

Duck noodles

Duck noodles

I’m not going to lie. Spending you birthday in paradise is a wonderful thing. I started the day out right with brunch at the oddly named 995 Duck. The pork and duck noodles were the best meal we had on the island.

Koh Nang Yuan

Koh Nang Yuan

Next we boarded a bright orange, blue and green taxi boat for the 10 minute ride to a little strip of sand called Koh Nang Yuan. The coral-strewn sand bar separates two crystal bays punctuated by small, lush hills.

Overprotective snorkeling

Overprotective snorkeling

From our staked out square of sand we watched diving classes, which is the reason most people come to Koh Tao. But today we were part of the snorkeling crowd. This group was entertaining to watch, especially the Chinese mom almost drowning her son with so much floating gear he could hardly move.

Snorkeling bay called the Japanese Garden

Snorkeling bay called the Japanese Garden

When we made it into the water with our masks I was awestruck. The fish were yellow backed with little neon strips of warpaint under their eyes. Black with orange stripes. Bright blue. Neon yellow, green and pink. But the real show stopper was the plant and reef life. The variety of coral from leaf like shapes to stalagmite growths to flat geometric patterns covering rocks. We even saw brilliant purple anemones as big as basketballs. I really wish I had Nalat’s underwater camera to capture it all!

Enjoying the strip of beach

Enjoying the strip of beach

Blooming coconut on a bed of coral

Blooming coconut on a bed of coral

After a short hike, we boarded the taxi back to Koh Tao. I will not soon forget this picture perfect birthday.

Eating carrot cake

Eating carrot cake

But what is a birthday without cake? Fortunately a British expat opened a shop to ensure that anyone requiring baked sweets was not left behind. I enjoyed a very satisfying carrot cake, making me a very happy birthday girl.

Just another beautiful sunset

Just another beautiful sunset

How does it get any better? Another glorious sunset, mango cocktails on a candlelit beach…let’s just say Koh Tao was everything I’d hoped for and more. It was the perfect place to celebrate my birthday as well as the big 3-0 (that’s the number of countries we have visited in our lives – not the number of years quite yet!) Already, country number 31 is in our sights as the temples of Angkor beckon.

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