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.

 

 

Sapa

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

The trains in Vietnam can’t even compete with those in India. Four beds are safely enclosed with a locking door, thus eliminating the need to zip-tie and lock yourself and your belongings to anything fixed to the steaming pile of metal.

IMG_0181It doesn’t smell of urine, but is quite inviting with comfy beds, clean sheets, cute reading lamps and bottles of water making for the most comfortable overnight transit we’ve ever had. Nine hours passed almost too quickly. Fortunately, accepting these comforts didn’t mean sacrificing the “sleepover on a train” preboarding excitement by travelers just trying to get cheaply from A to B. James was also guilty of catching this contagious feeling, so of course disappeared and minutes later returned proudly passing out his beer purchase from the petite woman working the platform.

We settled in and ended up cheersing on the bottom bunks before a friendly American turned Australian joined us. Anthony was a chef living in Australia, on holiday in Asia with his parents.

The first third of the train ride was spent dissecting “travel” and further inflating our excitement about every day we would see the sun rise over an unfamiliar skyline.

By 7 a.m. we arrived on the platform Lao Cai. We sardine packed ourselves and other stinky, beer smelling tourists into a shuttle where we would all enjoy playing corners for the winding 25 mile, 60 minute drive up the curvy roads to Sapa Town.

Sapa.

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This 100 year old hill station still shines with French undertones, which is probably why I think it’s breathtaking and like a dozen other places, could gladly call it home. Cafes and baskets overflowing with unfamiliar and curious fruit spill onto invisible sidewalks.

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IMG_3576We checked into Elysian Hotel. This hotel is a sweet find. It’s situated in a perfect location, with the dining room opening up right out onto a little side road off the main center of town. For about $32 for a room per night, this is easily a deal. The kind receptionist offered us warm tea and a shower before dropping our things and heading back out to explore our new destination.

The overwhelming smell of thick dark Vietnamese coffee had us perched on an adorable cafe rooftop within minutes of arrival.

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With the coffee shakes setting in, we were ready to explore.

The rest of the day was spent wandering curiously through the rice fields.

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That night we walked around town, explored the market (of course!) and ended up at a fun cafe for some pho and drinks while enjoying the setting sun and resting our tired, happy feet.

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Monday,  May 19th, 2014

We were up early and made sure to tap into the complimentary breakfast offer. America’s Continental Breakfast just doesn’t have game. We were served up piping hot spicy chicken and beef pho, with a side of dangerous caffeinated vietnamese syrup (coffee).

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IMG_3797 Yup. This is paradise.

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Our day started out in the opposite direction from the day prior. We were quickly met by a group of H’mong women and girls.

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Young women half my age (hey- I’m not that old…yet) had sleeping babies strapped to their backs, while woman more than twice my age were still breastfeeding.

IMG_3825Despite that it was hot as hell, they were covered in heavy hemp cloth dyed intricately with indigo blue, neon threads decorated fringes and hems, and silver’s cousin made an appearance on about every accessorize-able surface on a human body.

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We invited the woman we liked most to join us for the day.IMG_3866

It was an incredible day, with our eyes treated to green rice terraces, picturesque mountains serving as the backdrop, the joy of not knowing or caring where we were being led, and the opportunity to laugh and learn from these beautiful people from a hill tribe we would never be able to discover on our own.

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All was well until we departed from our ladies and we were left to find our way home. We were pretty thirsty, sweaty and a little pressed for time to make our return overnight train back to Hanoi.

We hiked around up and down, forwards, backwards and in circles. My Mom thought we brought her out there to kill her, and while James loves to make public transportation wait for his tardy arrival, I wanted to make sure we were onboard the train that evening.

I attempted to flag down a motorcycle, but the driver looked at me like he didn’t understand and disappeared around the bend in the road. While the three of us sat delusional, dehydrated and arguing with one another on the best plan for action, my motorcycle man returned, with his plus one.

James saddled up next to this dude and Mom and I tres packed the motorcycle for the return journey home. All was well in Vietnam again.

We retuned home and Elysian staff made us the strongest most dangerously refreshing mojitos this cocktail chick has ever dreamed of. The evening was spent sitting alongside my adventurous mother, sipping mojitos and watching the hill town settle down as the sun cast its giddy pink glow across the mountains.

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It was a perfect night filled with disgusting rice wine (I think they meant to call it rubbing alcohol), incredible Vietnamese food, market runs and impulse purchases of the soon be disappearing indigo goods.

We eventually made the trip back down the hill and boarded our cozy train for the overnight trip back to Hanoi.

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

Happy Birthday to me!!!!!!!

There is absolutely nowhere in the world I would rather be than with my two favorite people. Unfortunately I was little miss grumpy thanks to a surprisingly crappy night of sleep. So we returned to the all-too-familiar Serendipity Hotel, performed our predictable shower-pho-coffee routine and then set out. We cruised around, shopped and purchased a few dozen chopsticks, buttons, amazing printed tanks, pants and headbands. That bad mood quickly turned good.

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James then treated me to an amazing spa treatment. IMG_4248

We walked into SF Spa and were served tea while excitedly waited for an hour plus of indulgence. We all received the most incredible spa back massages, enjoyed a lemongrass steam and waterfall showers. It was absolutely unbelievable and made the day precisely perfect!!!!

We decided to carryon the celebration by heading to the famous Hanoi beer corner. Prime people watching, endless beers and lots of inflatables made for a wild and crazy night in Hanoi.

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With too much to drink and having forgotten to eat, we of course ended up at our favorite place, Gecko. We spent hours sitting on the intimate little balcony overlooking the hundreds of motorcycles, pedestrians, pedal bikes, cars all zipping around creating what looked like a long exposure on an American Fourth of July.

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Being with Mom and James was an amazingly perfect way to welcome age 28!!!!!

Vang Vieng Laos

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Thanks to my Skype interview with a job back in Seattle, we were both up at about 4 a.m. I was done just by 6 a.m. and went to find James pacing around the streets. I grabbed him so I could excitedly introduce him to the morning market before treating him to his beloved omelet at JoMas Bakery and Café in exchange for serving as my official tech support throughout the interview process.

At 9 a.m. a tuk tuk shuttled us and a dozen other backpackers to a bus station where we transferred to a mini bus. James had a panic attack in the far back corner of the over-capacity minivan, which proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to have a fellow passenger volunteer to swap; so with some very vocal hyperventilation, we started the 8-9 hour journey.

If we ever had multiple lives, they are officially exhausted during that van trip.

We arrived into Vang Vieng after 5 p.m. We found the first place we spotted to call home and dropped our stuff and headed out to explore before darkness set.

I think Spielberg envisioned this as the set for Jurassic Park (sorry Hawaii).

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Vang Vieng is a tiny place dropped into an overflowing, abundant green landscape. It’s as if someone oil-painted the whole scene but was only given pastel hues to chose from. The emerald mountains stretch their necks into the oceanlike sky and your busy eyes must shift down to view the glasslike pebbles that decorate the Palisade-like river.

This painting was once smeared with a dark and distracting period. In the town’s hayday, over 170,000 drunk, high, overly excited backpackers and in-their-element hippie crazies came tumbling into town every year, transforming the small dot on the map into a wild party town with a reputation to please all brave enough to head there. Dozens of tourists were killed after participating in drunk/high tubing/ziplining and rock jumping. The place was absolutely out of control, and despite the need for tourism, in 2012, the Laos government stepped in an cracked down. Hundreds of bars/clubs were shut down, crowds disappeared and the place cleaned up a bit.

If nobody told me this I would still be able to smell the spilt vodka lingering in the soggy floorboards. The hint of fear and anticipation for mass untamable crowds definitely exists, but I’d like to say all guests remain relatively well behaved. Warm faces are happy to see you, but worry clouds their eyes, wondering if you might bring back the chaos that they so gladly are beginning to finally forget.

We checked the town out (it’s tiny) and ended up at OtherSide Bar cheersing to a successful Skype interview that morning. The green cliffs served as a dramatic backdrop as brightly colored balloons peacefully glided by, and with dollar drinks and Laotian grub, we found ourselves sitting in an absolutely perfect evening.

 

Wednesday-Saturday, May 7-10, 2014

Our days were perfect and always started with enjoying morning Friends reruns on cushions, pad thai and spring rolls and then an afternoon filled with whatever Vang Vieng had to offer. We rented mountain bikes and cruised to the Blue Lagoon and Tham Phu Kham caves.

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We went tubing, twice.

Off the government record, tubing is still insane. Despite claiming to have settled down, at about 1 p.m. about a hundred people come out of the woodwork, rent tubes, go in a tuk tuk and get dropped at the starting bar (point). Free shots of some home distilled rubbing alcohol are generously served paired with “good luck” bracelets. Word of advice – take the bracelet. You are going to need it for this trip. If anything it’s new jewelry and a dependable reminder of how much you’ve had to drink. Eventually before about 3 p.m. incredibly drunk people throw their overly tanned butts into tire tubes in the Nam Song.

The first bar is about 200 meters and you hardly have time to settle into the tube before some boy is throwing you a string with a water bottle attached to reel you in. The first bar is sweet – there is a sand volleyball court, basketball and soccer fields and plenty of beer pong tables to serve the masses.

There are a few more bars, some more fun than others and the last ones too incredible to remember. Two days of tubing was plenty and we had our share of fun both times.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Ironically, the same day there was a balloon crash in Virginia, we jumped into a basket attached to a balloon at 6 a.m. that morning. I thought it would a romantic, peaceful relaxing morning cruise over the green rice paddies with the beautiful mountains comforting me in the distance as I watched the river snake its way around the mountains.

Well, not exactly. The balloon was a bit worn and our pilot was likely about 15 years old. At one point we came about a feet from a cell tower (wait those have those in Laos?), and if I were to stick my arm out the balloon I could have easily grabbed it.

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I don’t think either of us realized you don’t have much control of anything up there, and neither does your teenage pilot. It’s not exactly as tranquil as any scene from UP, and James may have had to change his pants when we landed.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

We made our way to Vientienne – the capitol of Laos via bus.

We both hated Vientienne and feel it doesn’t actually deserve to be mentioned and the camera had no attraction to the grey shipping-yard looking place. Luckily we only spent one night there, which was enough for James to Skype his parents and me to unload my fat backpack that previously gained some Asian pounds.

We walked in the steam-room like weather to the post-office. The post office was massive and despite the hundreds of workers bustling around, nobody spoke a word of English (understandable since we were in the middle of Laos). I felt like I was at elementary school winter wonderland where you walk up to a bunch of tables, hand them some colorful currency and they give you a brightly colored box in exchange. After several sign language exchanges I got my package back and passed it off to the final window.

$150.

I quickly snatched it back and mentally totaled up the dozen items. Let’s see – chopsticks, canvas bags, maps, paintings all worth maybe $12. And I was paying $150 to ship it via rowboat home. James convinced me to hand it back over since he didn’t want to deal with it and I said farewell to my favorite Asian souveniers. Little did I know I had another surprise in store for me that day.

Lao Airlines, an airline with one of the worst safety records on the planet and a fatal crash within the past year, took us from Vientienne to Hanoi. Although James promised it would be an A320, I stepped onto the runway and did a 180* when I noticed the A320 looked more like an AT7.

I think I blacked out in panic. The plane definitely shouldn’t have been in the air and James only reassuring words mentioned that if the plane killed us I wouldn’t be able to get pissed he booked this flight.

But, we made it to Hanoi and excitedly settled in while we waited for my Mom to arrive from Seattle!