4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the category “Vietnam”

Past, Present and Future (by Carmen)

PAST
Looking back on our trip is an adventure unto itself as it provides me a rapidfire onslaught of memories and emotions.
 We had such a variety of experiences this past 14 months, how do I begin to summarize it all?  Fortunately, we have done a couple summary posts already.  Therefore, I’m going to pick up where we left off.  Here is a selection of favorite memories from the last part of our trip, Cambodia through to Hong Kong:

Clockwise from left: cooking amok, hanging out with Dalat locals, banh mi

Clockwise from left: cooking amok, hanging out with Dalat locals, banh mi

  • Squeezing fresh coconuts for milk and adding it to my fish curry in ultra laid back Battambang
  • That first bite of banh mi in Saigon – crispy, crunchy, sour, sweet, creamy, savory goodness
  • Being invited by locals for watermelon and rice liquor next to Pongour Waterfall near Dalat
Clockwise from left: Halong Bay, Thai stewed pork, mushroom bun, Laotian jungle

Clockwise from left: Halong Bay, Thai stewed pork, mushroom bun, Laotian jungle

  • Chilling on the deck of our boat with Julia and Jonathan in Halong Bay
  • Observing a simpler way of life in the jungle villages of Luang Namtha
  • Being served delicious stewed pork by a street vendor in a cowboy hat in Chiang Mai
  • Sampling Yunnan’s famous mushrooms in steamed bun form at the early morning market in Kunming
Clockwise from left: monastary in Zhongdian, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, stinky tofu, rice terraces

Clockwise from left: monastary in Zhongdian, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, stinky tofu, rice terraces

  • Getting up close and personal with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the intense rapids at its base within Tiger Leaping Gorge
  • Devouring dumplings then getting a taste of Tibetan spirituality at Ganden Sumtseling Gompa monastery in Zhongdian
  • Trying to get my head around the incredible rice terraces of Yuanyang while making new friends Michael and Albert
  • Eating the infamous black stinky tofu of Changsha and actually enjoying it
Clockwise from left: hot pot, hong kong high rises, tied tofu skins in Chengdu, tea house in Zigong in Sichuan province

Clockwise from left: hot pot, hong kong high rises, tied tofu skins in Chengdu, tea house in Zigong in Sichuan province

  • Dipping fresh tofu in a bubbling red hot pot while sitting in a converted bomb shelter in Chongqing
  • Hanging out in the convivial tea houses of Sichuan
  • Finding my food mecca in Chengdu – mapo tofu, gong bao chicken, twice cooked pork, fish fragrant eggplant how I miss you so
  • Absorbing the vivacious energy of Hong Kong in its streets, dim sum halls, hidden bars and Michelin starred hole in the walls
"This food will change your lifestyle" from a 2009 trip to Malaysia

“This food will change your lifestyle” from a 2009 trip to Malaysia

Many of my memories have to do with food because I don’t eat to live, I live to eat. Throughout our travels I was struck by how much difference it made to eat a cuisine in the place it had originated. And it’s not just because things taste fresher. It is a about the environment and the people too. Take dosa for example.  I had eaten dosa, the Indian roll stuffed with potatoes and veggies and served with daal and chutney dipping sauces, in Berkeley.  But it wasn’t until I was in India – eating my dosa at breakfast on a metal plate with a metal cup of chai tea, breathing in the thick humid air, watching other groups chatting happily in their sing song accent – that I really got it.  Dosa is filling but not heavy.  Basically, it is a damn good way to start the day.  In each country, I learned more about foods that I thought I had known with the result being that I now have a greater appreciation for these cuisines.

Of course, travel is about more than food.  Travel changes you but not necessarily in a dramatic way.  I had experiences that caused me to do some thinking, yes, but no light bulb epiphanies that changed my life. When confronted with so many new or unique experiences each day it’s hard to gauge change within yourself. Perhaps a better way to put it is a better sense of self.  Because the saying is true – “wherever you go, there you are.”

Sleeper bus to Yuanyang

Sleeper bus to Yuanyang

And we went a lot of places.  Over the past 14 months I have ridden high speed trains, a 27 hour sleeper bus, overnight ferries, small vans overburdened with 22 people, and what I like to call the rickshaw roller coaster. Powered by my own two feet I weaved through traffic packed streets on a bicycle and walked 500 mile across Spain.  My career is in transportation and I can’t help but feel that these experiences brought greater insight to my work.

Women skillfully carrying their goods

Women skillfully carrying their goods in Hubli, India

To remember all these places, experiences and transport modes gives me an immense sense of gratitude.  I know how fortunate I am for the health and resources to do this trip.  As a woman, I’m also grateful for the fact that I was born in the West.  Sexism is alive and well in the USA but I’m happy we got past the women as second class citizens thing.  Not so in many other parts of the world.  It was annoying to see groups of men and women working in China because often the men were sitting around while the women were shoveling or raking or doing whatever job had to be done.  Of course in Turkey there is gender separation as a result of religious norms, though as a tourist I personally did not feel any discrimination. The country we visited where I felt it most was India.  The culture is positively obsessed with gender and the idea that men absolutely can’t control themselves in the presence of a woman.  Women must cover, must hide away, must have their own train car in order to not be groped.  It wasn’t until I arrived in Thailand just after India that I realized how oppressing it all was.  I could finally wear a tank top to deal with the heat and nobody looked twice!  There were more women walking the sidewalks, women riding scooters, women sitting next to the men they didn’t know on transit (gasp!) and life went on.  I do hope that India finds a better balance of equality in the years that come.

This tower of dolma was one of the few things we got to "cook" during our travels

This tower of dolma was one of the few things we got to “cook” during our travels

PRESENT
Given my tales of culture shock and exhausting bus rides, it’s no wonder people often ask if I’m tired of travel. I think I surprise them when I say not really. If someone offered me a ticket to Italy leaving tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate to pack my bags.

That said, I am excited to resume some of my hobbies that I haven’t been able to do because of my travels. Cooking and having my own kitchen is a big one. I’m looking forward to have those lazy Sundays when I get to dedicate my day to making a delicious bolognaise. Also, learning about some many cultural histories has me thinking about my own familial one. I’ve always wanted to make a family tree and now I’m more inspired than ever.

Therefore, we are now in the process of settling down. At least for a short while. The big question is where. Part of the impetus of this trip was an was a desire to move from the San Francisco area, where we had spent nearly 10 years. We are looking for a new place to call home. Our main desire is a big city that supports our lifestyle of exploring by foot and eating good food. Will it be New York? London? Hong Kong? I wish I knew! But the main determinant will be where we can land jobs.

In the immediate future, there is our wedding to plan which is both exciting and anxiety-inducing. Meanwhile, we will be posting on some of our local travels to see friends and family as well as advice on how to plan your own trip.

Clockwise from left: the Camino, Hong Kong clay pot restaurant, baklava in Turkey, Santorini, Chengdu delicacies, sunset on the beach in Koh Tao, spring rolls in Saigon

Clockwise from left: the Camino, Hong Kong clay pot restaurant, baklava in Turkey, Santorini, Chengdu delicacies, sunset on the beach in Koh Tao, spring rolls in Saigon

FUTURE
But just because we are staying in one place doesn’t mean I can’t already plan my future travel adventures. Taking a year off just opens your eyes to more places to visit and explore.

My dad asked me where would I return of all the international places I’d been this year, which is much better than asking what my favorite place is (impossible to answer!).  For some places, one visit is enough.  But it’s the ones that call you back that indicate that there’s something special there. Here is a list of places I would return (* means I visited pre-blog):

  • The Camino
  • Greek islands
  • Istanbul, Turkey
  • Southern Vietnam
  • Thailand beaches
  • Sichuan
  • Hong Kong
  • Japan*
  • Anywhere in Europe*
I want to have a wall map in my apartment (photo credit: Urban Outfitters)

I will definitely have a wall map in my apartment! (photo credit: Urban Outfitters)

And then of course there are the places you hear about and see tantalizing pictures of.  A list of countries I have never been but want to explore:

  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Korea
  • Western China
  • Nepal
  • The “stans” in Central Asia
  • Russia
  • Croatia
  • Lebanon
  • Jordan
  • Egypt
  • Morocco
  • Botswana
  • Northern Brazil
  • Southern Argentina

It’s time for us to put down some roots and have a bit more routine in our life. But wherever we end up one thing is for sure. A map will be posted on the wall. Pins will be pushed in to the countries we’ve been to, the ones we need to go back to, and the ones we’ve yet to explore. It will serve as a reminder of fortunate we are to have seen all that have as well as an indicator that the next adventure just around the corner.

But this is not the end!  Stay tuned for Nathan’s thoughts on the trip coming up next.

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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

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