Mekong

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

After staying out late the night before, the early morning bus trip into the Mekong Delta came far too early.

We were on the bus and ready to go at 7 a.m. When we got on the bus we realized we were part of a large tour group that would likely result in a highly regimented and overly touristy trip through the Mekong Delta and into Cambodia. While this was exactly what it turned out to be, there probably isn’t a better option to travel from Saigon to Phnom Penh via the Mekong Delta without a lot of additional transportation planning.

Our guide had terrible jokes, many if which he repeated over and over again throughout the journey.

One the first day we traveled from Saigon to Can Tho with stops along the way for short boat rides through narrow creeks, lunch on a small island and a short trek through a fruit plantation.

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Our day ended in the town of Can Tho, where we were left to our own devices to explore and find a place for dinner.

After dinner we browsed through a few of the town’s underwhelming markets, which we stocked full of cheaply made clothes and trinkets, before making our way back to the hotel excited to see the Mekong’s largest floating market the next morning.

Friday, May 30th, 2014

Once again our day started bright and early with breakfast at the hotel before we set out with the group for the river dock in the center of Can Tho. Our entire group quickly boarded into a long narrow boat and we set off down the river toward the much anticipated market.

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The market was promised as a significant part of the tour and we were expecting to spend quite some time cruising back and forth between the many boat stalls purchasing fruit and veggie snacks. Of course, like many of these organized tours we only took one quick lap around the market before they quickly hustled us on to the next scheduled group toilet break.

From the market our boat headed deeper into the delta and we stopped at two more destinations nestled back in some of the small canals connected to the larger river.

The first stop was at a small family workshop that produced rice paper. We were able to spend about 15 minutes watching this local family work during the mid-day heat over burning ovens. It was actually a really cool process to see in action.

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Our second, and last stop, before returning to tour buses was at a small riverside village. Upon arrival we were able to rent pedal bikes and take a quick ride along the banks of the various canals, peaking into the lives of small homes and shops lining the water’s edge.

At the conclusion of the bike ride, we all piled back into the boat and set our course back to Can Tho and the awaiting tour buses.

The early afternoon was spent sitting on the bus as we made our way toward Chau Doc near the Vietnam-Cambodia boarder. En route we stopped at Tra Chu Bird Sanctuary, a flooded forest and swampland that is home to a wide variety of birds and other wildlife.

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We toured the mangrove forest in a bunch of small row boats and saw countless storksand other birds as our boats slid through the still, quiet waters.

By the time we returned to the bus from the sanctuary dusk was already beginning to set in. It wasn’t too long before our bus pulled up to our hotel in Chau Doc for our last night in Vietnam.

It took us quite a while to find somewhere to eat, but we finally found somewhere amenable and then finished the evening walking along the river bank.

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

We woke up on Saturday morning ready for our slow boat ride to Phnom Penh.

The day started as expected. We boarded a boat and visited a small fishing village before heading up river toward to Cambodian boarder.

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It was when we arrived at the boarder control after only 30 minutes in the boat that things took a turn for the worst. After passing through immigration we learned despite the fact we purchased a “slow boat” ride from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh, the “slow boat” portion of the trip was only from Chau Doc to the boarder. From the boarder we were expected to ride in a tiny minivan the rest of the way to Phnom Penh.

Although the boat was not supposed to take us all the way to Phnom Penh, it was supposed to take us to Neak Leung, with a mini van ride the rest of the way.

After a massive argument with the captain of the boat and a phone call to TNK Travel, we were unable to resolve the issue.

“It’s not a slow boat then, is it? It’s more like a slow bus.”

Frustrated and annoyed we piled into the minivan and drove the rest of the way to Phnom Penh and the Funky Monkey Hostel.

 

 

To Brazil

Thursday, Feb 19th, 2015

 

You know how it goes. The trip that seems so far away one day seems entirely too close, closing in on the possibility of getting what you dreamed of done before walking out the door.

Well, the blog isn’t caught up. We are theoretically stuck somewhere in Cambodia.

It will be. One day. But definitely not today or the next two weeks.

Why? Because we are getting the hell out of Seattle and back on the road and I can’t be bothered to dig through terabytes of images.

How did we decide on Brazil? We didn’t. The dice did.

James was pushing for the Middle East. While I agree with him that it’s one of the most interesting parts of the world and it’s entirely easy to surrender to that curiosity and our absolute favorite cuisine (hello falafel), I wasn’t interested in being beheaded on the beach. I was pushing for green hikes, palm fringed beaches, and anywhere with the opportunity to pretend our first adventure never paused.

With a few and too many other destinations pulling at our interests, we decided to narrow it down to the number of faces on the dice.

1. Cuba

2. Brazil

3. Peru

4. Middle East

5. Think about it one more day, shared with diving in Carribbean (because realistically there needs to be another face on the dice)

6. Nowhere- save money and be boring

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I rolled a 2; James rolled a 5.

So we slept on it, thought about it and the following day booked flights to Rio.

Getting a visa costs more than we were previously comfortable spending in 3 weeks. I ordered it through Travel Visa Pro and now that my feet are beyond immigration I can say with confidence they are a legitimate company that can decrease the pain-in-the-ass process of obtaining a Brazilian visa.

Judith donated her morning off to taking our butts to the airport. Our plane departed at 12:20 p.m. and we were in Houston 4 hours later. We decided to change over some money, but realized it would cost $25 to change $100 US to Brazilian Reals (R$). We passed on the exchange and instead opted for a quick stop at Ruby’s Diner before jumping on the long haul to Rio.

Our flight was delayed because the toilets on the plane weren’t working. Luckily the United Airlines moron behind the counter decided to announce to everyone that we would be flying at “60,000 feet” to makeup time and to encourage the shitter to work. I’m no flying genius, but isn’t that nearly double the average flying altitude? Sure hope their oxygen masks work if their toilets don’t.

After checking on Seat Guru and James memorizing the interior of every Boeing plane ever assembled, we were a bit surprised when our seats were crammed into a corner, non-reclinable and smashed up against the toilet. The stinky non-working toilet that would magically return to working order upon reaching those magical 60k feet.

“Oh boy, we are definitely tapping into that free alcohol so we can sleep on this thing” announced James.

No, actually we wouldn’t be drinking at all. United charges for booze on international flights.  They also only allow one cup of water for your 10 hour flight.

Just like the smell of the plane the entire ride, their onboard entertainment is pretty crap. They brag about their extensive selection of 109 movies, but it’s actually 11 movies in 10 different languages.

At least I managed to find something half-funny.

Each time the attendant passed we begged for water. She hesitantly poured an inch, rolled her eyes and announced each time that she wouldn’t have enough for other passengers. Those inches eventually made a full cup.

At one point I think we may have actually been at 60k feet because it was freezing. The woman next to us pulled out a down jacket and a beanie. To say it was a crap start to a good vacay is pretty accurate. Thanks United. We will definitely not be flying the sober, water-rationed “friendly skies” with you any century soon.

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.