Saigon

Monday, May 26th, 2014

Our flight from Hue to Saigon was rescheduled from 2:30 p.m. to 5:50 p.m., so by the time we finally landed in the former capital of South Vietnam it was already dark.

While waiting in baggage claim we met a Vietnamese woman who offered to “split” a taxi with us to the backpacker district of Saigon near Pham Ngu Lao Street.

We dropped her off outside the ice cream shop she owned, before continuing in the taxi to our hotel, Beautiful Saigon 3 where the driver told us she paid for our whole fare.

The hotel is positioned in the heart of the backpacker district in walking distance to a number of restaurants, bars and coffee shops – including a Starbucks and McDonald’s.

Since it was already late, we decided to eat in the restaurant at our hotel before heading out to explore the streets of Saigon. After roaming around and checking out a bunch of different restaurants and bars, we decided to set up shop among the crowds of backpackers sitting street-side on bamboo mats drinking dollar beers.

We spent the rest of the night sitting on the side of the road, drinking, talking and people watching.

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Having already been to Saigon back in 2011 with @THE_REAL_JW, I helped lead Tarynne on a whirlwind tour of the best sights in the city.

Our first stop was the Independence Palace, the home of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. At 10:45 a.m. on April 30, 1975 it was the site of the end of the Vietnam War when tanks from the North Vietnamese Army came crashing through the gates. The building is now known as Reunification Palace, and serves as a museum celebrating North Vietnamese Army’s victory.

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After touring around the palace, we made our way to the War Remnants Museum. The museum contains a variety of different exhibits that show the tragedies of war. The exhibits are clearly one-sided and put together from the perspective of the North Vietnamese, but it’s definitely eye-opening seeing the war depicted from the other side.

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Oh yeah – of all the interesting memorabilia for sale – Tarynne gets Despicable Me, Monsters Inc and Up coasters…for the glasses and house we don’t even have. Hey, it was a good purchase. 

We ended up closing down the War Remnants Museum, and it was already beginning to get dark as we made our way home. On the way back to the hotel Tarynne made us stop at a gym to see if they offered yoga classes – they did, but Tarynne determined it was so expensive the zen benefit wasn’t worth it.

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Once we made it back to our room we cleaned up and set out for dinner. We decided to eat at a place @THE_REAL_LW and I frequented during our past visit to Saigon. The restaurant is located at the end of one of the backpacker alleys and made up of a couple of plastic tables and chairs.

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We sat back and relaxed under the lights of the city, sipping on Saigon beers and enjoying yummy, cheap Vietnamese food. Eventually we decided it was time to head back to the street-side bamboo mats for some night cap drinks and quality people watching.

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

During the night a massive rain storm rolled in and from the moment we woke up until late afternoon it poured rain. We took refuge for most of the day in a Starbucks and I worked while Tarynne researched our next few destinations.

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(T: The streets all flooded which translates to a no-go with citywide plumbing. Our hotel smelled like a septic tank so we played musical rooms a handful of times before deciding our only option was to burn enough incense until a thick heavy scented smoke distracted our noses). When the rain stopped we went back to the hotel and booked our trip for the next day to the Mekong Delta and subsequent boat and bus ride to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

With our trip booked for the following day, we decided to take one last stroll around the city. Dark clouds loomed on the horizon behind the Saigon skyline, but directly above us the rain held off.

We set out in the evening light to take a look at the famous Saigon Post Office and nearby cathedral. Unfortunately we weren’t able to bring the camera due to the imminent threat of a torrential downpour.

Thankfully, after seeing the post office and cathedral we were able to make it back to Pham Ngu Lao Street without getting caught in a rainstorm.

We ate dinner at the restaurant in our hotel before returning to our drinking and people watching perch on the bamboo mats on the side of the road. We ended up sitting roadside late into the night, chatting with the people around us.

With a large number of Saigon Beers in our bellies and an early start the next morning we finally determined it was time to go home, but not before we made a quick detour to the neighborhood McDonald’s for a late night snack.

 “Boo, we hit McDougs hard last night.”

Hue

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

We left Hoi An in early afternoon. It was sad to say goodbye to the Sunshine Hotel, our clean, cozy and comfortable home for the previous five days. We would miss the spacious room, palm tree surrounded pool and extravagant buffet breakfast, but were excited to continue our adventure on to the next destination: Hue.

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Hue is the capital city of Thừa Thiên–Huế Province, and between 1802 and 1945, it was the imperial capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty. Our bus rolled into central Hue in the early evening and we were already hungry by the time we checked in to Hue Backpackers Hostel. While not quite as impressive as Sunshine Hotel, Hue Backpackers has a sweet bar, fun vibe and is in a great location for exploring the city.

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With only a limited time to explore the former imperial capital, we set out for a stroll around the neighborhood under the evening light in search of food and a cold drink. We eventually stumbled across a Gecko Restaurant and decided we better eat there, before we got too hungry and ill-tempered. After dinner we made our way to DMZ Bar, an old ex-pat and backpacker’s institution where we had some beers, vodka diets and chatted the night away.

Monday, May 26th, 2014

We woke up on Monday morning to find that our early afternoon flight to Saigon had been delayed until 6 p.m. With almost a full day ahead of us, we rented a scooter and set out to explore the city. After filling up with fuel at a gas station dangerously positioned on the perimeter of a massive roundabout, we whipped across the Perfume River and headed west toward the Thien Mu Pagoda.

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The pagoda itself is fairly underwhelming, but it’s located on well-kept grounds and the gardens boast nice views of the surrounding lush green jungle spilling into the deep murky river that winds in and out of Hue.

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Having enjoyed a quiet walk around the pagoda and through the grounds we climbed back on our scooter and cruised back into the city to visit the old, crumbling Imperial City of the Nguyễn Dynasty.

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The Imperial City is made up of a large walled area on the north side of the Perfume River. Back in its hay-day, inside the great walls was a forbidden city where only the emperors and those close enough to them were granted access. Today, mostly what remains of the forbidden city are a few structural walls and various building foundations. Although, significant renovations are underway and the city is once again beginning to come to life.

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The ancient city is not only in ruins because of its age, but also because of excessive damage from air strikes during the Tet Offensive. In early 1968, Hue was seized by the Viet Cong and the entire city, along with the ancient imperial city was subject to extensive bombings by the U.S. and South Vietnamese. Bullet holes from the fighting can be found in the stone walls and remaining metal artifacts.

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After walking around and exploring the massive, maze like imperial city, we hopped back on our scooter and headed back across the river for a late lunch at Mandarin Cafe.

Mandarin Cafe is a must visit restaurant for anyone staying in Hue and is owned by local photographer Mr. Pham Cu. While we were eating, we had the privilege of meeting Mr. Cu and he showed us some of his fantastic photos of Hue and the surrounding landscapes. His photos have been taken over decades and clearly show how much the city as changed and evolved.

Having gotten wrapped up in conversation with Mr. Cu we lost track of time and had to race back to the hostel in time to catch our bus to the airport.

Thankfully, we made it back in time for the quick 30 minute ride to the airport. Our flight left about two hours later, just before 6 p.m., and we were on our way to Saigon.

Hoi An

Wednesday, May 21 ,2014

The brilliant amber sun rose with us, shining more light than just creating soft golden shadows across the city. Settled into the taxi, the three of us made our way to the airport. My mom pointed out the cyclist, mopeds, spider web traffic streams and intimate morning rituals like that first cup of thick coffee that were forced to be displayed publicly.

It was refreshing to have adopted the new traveler this past week. Her curiosity, think-out-loud fascination, challenges, revelations…all of if seemed to assist us in renewing those same qualities in ourselves.

14 months into “travel” your senses get lazy if you allow them to.

Colors fade, you selectively ignore smells, sounds and tighten your depth of field just to preserve some energy for higher functioning rather than entertaining survival.

So ya’ know- If you have friends that are out there, gift them with your wanderlust presence and watch them recycle their own. This world needs more of it.

Once at the airport, my mom was off first and I couldn’t help but feel like the overly-efficient routine she temporarily ignored at home was stealing her back a bit too quickly from the playful lands we were childishly enjoying.

She walked away and those feelings of joy and abundance were taken with her and that space was immediately filled with that heavy hollow mud you get when you say goodbye before you would otherwise choose to.

We boarded our flight to Hoi An and with an empty seat in the middle of us, were again reminded of the third musketeer we just lost.

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We arrived in Hoi An, proud of our savvy decision to fly vs bus it as we preserved an entire day. Anthony was headed with his parents to a luxury hotel in the central part of town so we hopped in his cab. We tumbled out with them and he generously offered to pay for the entire fare. It’s amazing how these “small” acts mean the world to us when we are getting closer and closer to running low on just about everything (money, energy, faith). Deciding the place Anthony was staying was well above our budget, we clipped into our packs and played rock-paper-scissors for which direction to head next.

We ended up finding the shade of a fancy boutique hotel. I dropped my pack and pretended I could realistically afford a room as I daydreamed while receiving a tour of the place. I managed to steal the password for wi-fi and James and I sweat on the sidewalk while stealing internet to find a realistic place to stay. We ended up in a cab headed further outside of town to a little gem tucked into TripAdvisor.

Appropriately named Sunshine Hotel, it was just that. Well, the first room was more like a storage closet and James actually wouldn’t have been able to stand up straight thanks to the loft-style ceiling, so I asked for another room. We ended up happily calling a spacious room on the fourth floor home for 4 nights of pure luxury.

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A palm and bamboo lined and generously sized pool deck, anything you can dream of buffet breakfast, bicycles for free and our own private balcony had us convinced we were in heaven. For $20 each per night we were pretty excited to not be further contributing too significantly to our expanding debt.

After checking in and swapping rooms, we immediately went swimming and explored the poolside restaurant menu. When in Hoi An, cao lau is a must as an introductory dish.

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That night we borrowed some bicycles and headed out to explore the culinary mecca, trying out banh xeo (vietnamese shrimp filled crepes with bean sprouts and scallions) while enjoying the lantern lit streets of hanoi.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

To sum up our time in Hoi An – mornings were spent people watching at the Sunshine Hotel buffet (particularly watching out for the guy that ate his entire five course meal while still in line), riding bikes to town, eating, shopping, seeing how long James lasted at markets, and wandering around all day until my SD card was full.

Oh wait, that basically sums up our entire trip.

Where do you eat in culinary mecca?

Hai Café. They have the best beef salad and take Hoi An pancakes to a gourmet level. Hai Café is in the heart of Hoi An Old Town and housed in a 200 year old classic building. It has a large open air courtyard and is absolutely magical.

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Want to be treated like royalty while sporting flip-flops? That’s your spot. White silk napkins will be placed on your sun kissed legs and you’ll need to recall which of your three forks you should use first.

I loved this city. I keep saying EVERY city/country/day is my favorite but this one takes the cake…or pancake.

That night we headed to the most popular restaurant in Hoi An, Morning Glory for dinner. Like Americans in a sushi restaurant at home, we ordered everything off the menu and stacked plates until they threatened to skate over the balcony onto innocent lovers mid-honeymoon buzzing on the streets below.  Beef tenderloin papaya salad, white rose (delicate shrimp dumplings), Hoi An pancakes and garlic kissed morning glory disappeared from our wooden table without a trace of evidence they ever once existed. IMG_4373

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Ms. Tinh Diem Vy is an internationally recognized chef and restaurateur from Vietnam. She has spent a good thirty-plus years in the kitchen, and it shows.  She first opened Mermaid Restaurant, and after its success has opened Cargo Club (a patisserie, café, bakery), White Lantern, Market Restaurant and Morning Glory. She is the author of the fabulous cookbook, Taste Vietnam (The Morning Glory Cookbook) which I still to this day regret not sacrificing daily essentials from my pack to accommodate the book home.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

My favorite day of my whole life. 

I dove head first in the silky refreshing pool as the smell of cao lau snuck out from the breakfast buffet. I collected my bike, filled my basket with my camera and headed off to LifeStart Foundation.

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Lifestart Foundation is a grassroots, non-profit charity helping disadvantaged Vietnamese people and their families to become self-sufficient. The founder, Karen Leonard created the organization after visiting Vietnam on holiday from Australia. The foundation now offers a free school, educational scholarships, disability Centre and workshop. The workshop was an incredible idea, designed as an outlet for fine arts and crafts. Members of the workshop can earn a living and sense of independence through their work. Several women and young girls were in the workshop while I visited. Each woman specializes in one or two particular crafts, from sock puppets, stuffed animals, newspaper coasters, lanterns, or zodiac charms, each one works on and then sells their crafts in the shop. They earn 100% of the profits from their work and the whole operation is genius.

I enrolled in a half-day course to learn about Lifestart Foundation and to (attempt to) learn how to paint and create a silk lantern. I started my morning at the center and was greeted by the founder and the charming young women working there. Then we jumped in a small boat and were taken to Cam Nam Island to the Lighthouse, which is where local artist Sinh Trong attempted to teach us how to paint. We created a hand painted card within the hour and learned about traditional life on a Vietnamese bamboo boat.

Afterward we were taken back to the workshop. For an hour we learned about lantern making. The lanterns come from the Chinese, obviously. Traditionally two lanterns adorned the front entrance or veranda of each home to bring good luck. Today, the entire town of Hoi An is decorated with vibrant fabric lanterns that hang in every shop, café, restaurant, and tailor.

Want to get connected or donate? Get ahold of Karen:
Lifestart Foundation, INC
182 Buckley Street, Essedon 3040 Victoria AU
lifestartfoundation@mail.com
http://www.lifestartfoundation.org.au

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After I got my craft fix, I cruised over the bridge with my new lantern and painting in my basket toward The Morning Glory Market Restaurant to meet James.  The cooking class at the Market Restaurant was my favorite cooking class to this day. The Market Restaurant and Cooking School opened in 2012.

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The tour as advertised is supposed to be one hour and serves as an eventful 6o minutes of a fun and interesting way to learn about Hoi An’s famous street food. Well, the one hour session we booked was just James and me, and our guide, Lu, was a sweetheart and was equally excited to teach as I was to learn.

So, needless to say, the one hour class ended up being nearly three.

Let me expand: The Market Restaurant is an interactive market-dining venue that is an absolutely genius designed layout. It is as if Whole Foods Market salad bars and prepared foods section has come to Vietnam, brought prices back to reality and created a Disneyland of street food stalls.

The mock street food stalls have boutique façades, the entire place is clean, upscale, pleasantly quiet, airy, refreshing and absolute luxury. It is street food in an authentic, ‘this is the real Hoi An street food’ sort of way, but that makes you feel like you needn’t have to sit on a crate curbside to enjoy it.

The entire class was $22, and the amount of food we ate far exceeded that. The class started with learning about a double sided knife, which is used to cut banana flower and papaya for salads. Then we learned about Banh Mi, or Vietnamese sandwiches. These tasty guys are created using freshly baked baguettes (you’ll appreciate the French influence here) mixed with barbecued pork, fresh veggies and spicy chili sauce. We then made Banh Xeo, Hoi An’s signature dish. The crispy pancake is filled with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts and then wrapped in rice paper to create the fanciest finger food you’ve ever imagined.
Next up we learned how to barbecue, Vietnamese style. We made barbecued pork on a chopstick skewer.

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We then moved onto learning about rice and rice noodle making. Two gentleman showed us how to make rice noodles and cao lau noodles. Cao lau noodles are made by hand using special water from Hoi An and then they are cut and steamed over an open fire. We got to make rice noodles and then rice paper and rice crackers. We made rice crepes, filled with bean sprouts and mushrooms.

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We then made White Rose, delicate and adorable mini shrimp dumplings pressed carefully between skilled hands to form the fine rice paper into the shape of a rose.

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Saturday, May 24, 2014

When in Hoi An, eat, paint and design clothes. Photograph everything.

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Our morning was spent shopping around for fabrics to design my own dress and James’ suit. We snuck into Old Town, enjoyed dinner at Hai Cafe (a valid competitor to Morning Glory, associated with Red Bridge Cooking School) munching on lotus flower salads. All excited about our overly successful stint in Hoi An, we stopped off at Cargo Club for cheesecake and passionfruit sorbet.

I might put in a little more effort this lifetime on planet earth if heaven is a fraction as blissful as Hoi An.

We carried on with our predictable routine until our afternoon bus to Hue the next day.