The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Tag: Travel Planning (page 1 of 2)

Adventure in Dalat

If you had told me that I’d be caving, trekking, and rappelling down waterfalls during my travels, I would have believed you. I would have said, “Oh yeah, definitely in New Zealand, or maybe even Montenegro.”

If you had said I’d be doing all these things in Vietnam? I would have scoffed.

And yet there I was, in Dalat, dangling over a churning channel of water that promised to chew me up and spit me out if I let go of the rope. Above me, our guide was shouting “Let go!” The whole point was to get chewed up and spit out.

How did I get here?

You want me to do WHAT?!

You want me to do WHAT?!

I had loosely plotted my time in time in Vietnam — I knew I wanted to work my way north to south, and that I wanted to see the best of the best in the three+ weeks I had allotted myself in the country. Dalat was a question mark to me. I was interested in visiting, and the more I heard about the amazing adventures that were possible in this mountain town, the more it appealed.

Irene and I had no idea that we had timed our arrival in Dalat perfectly with one of the biggest holidays in Vietnam: Independence Day. Since Dalat is in close proximity to Saigon, many city dwellers head to the mountain town to get a break from the humidity and heat of the city. As such, we managed to snag one of the very last rooms at Dalat Family Hostel, and we were very lucky we did. The next morning, there were two girls sleeping in the hallway, and SIX people sleeping in the ‘lobby’ living room on the ground floor.

Sometimes, not planning ahead doesn’t go your way. We were just lucky we got in early enough!

We met several other travelers in our Hostel area through our friendly hostesses. One thing is clear: Dalat is absolutely an up-and-coming destination for young travelers. New hostels are opening, old ones are being renovated, and the town is gearing itself toward Western tourism more than ever before.

With our new group of friends, we went to the town center. At the top of the steps that lead down to the fountain and traffic circle, I was gobsmacked by the sheer volume of human beings that swarmed the area.

I also discovered what Independence Day meant in Vietnam: It was the day American soldiers left the country. 

This means different things, depending on where you are in Vietnam. In the north, it was freedom from tyrannical Western forces trying to impose their ideology on a sovereign nation. In the south, it was the day America abandoned them. Either way, it’s an odd time to be an American in the country. Not that any locals made me feel badly. Quite the contrary, I was always treated kindly and with respect. One old man even stopped me while I was drinking a coffee and starting chatting away about his family in California. But knowing that everyone is in the streets to celebrate the day your country lost a war is an odd feeling, nonetheless. Must be how Brits feel at their first Fourth of July!

We joined in the festivities, trying out Vietnamese pizza (more on that in another post) and mingling with the festivities that crowded the city.

Vietnamese Pizza!

Vietnamese Pizza!

The next day was our canyoning tour!

As I write this, I’ve just heard the news of three young travelers who lost their lives while participating in a tour very much like the one I took. Unfortunately, Vietnam’s tourism isn’t heavily regulated, and many people will take advantage of unknowing travelers to try to make a buck. Which is why this cardinal rule of travel is so important:

Always do your research before participating in anything remotely dangerous.

This is especially true in less-developed nations. I consulted TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet, plus did additional research by reading my favorite bloggers and googling the names of companies that offered the tours. I booked directly with the company rather than go through an agent or our hostel hosts. It just isn’t worth the risk.

Irene and I settled on Groovy Gecko, not because it was the cheapest, but because it was the most heavily vetted. When it comes to safety, you get what you pay for. An extra $10 is well worth coming out the other end alive.

There were several other companies operating alongside us as we meandered our way down the Dasar River to the Dantala Waterfalls, and a look at the equipment and group-to-guide ratio assured me that we had made a good choice.

Confident in our safety, there was nothing left to do but have fun and push the limits of our comfort zone! The photos can tell the story better than I can, but we abseiled a total of four times. The first was a ‘practice run’ down a dry canyon, then we floated for a while toward the Big Mama Jama, the Dantala Fall. In addition to the waterfalls, we got to slide down an all natural ‘rock slide’ and cliff jump. It was an exhilarating, full day of adventure, and one I won’t soon forget.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Til next time, xoxoxo

The Wizardess

A Guide to Custom Clothing in Hoi An

So you’re ready for some made-to-measure clothes? Sweet! Here are some tips to make the most of your tailoring experience, based on what I would do if I could do it all over again.

I visited Sang and Tam, the sisters who run Tu Nhi at 35 Hoang Dieu in the middle of town. I recommend them!

PREPARE

Before you arrive at the shop of your choosing, have a series of photos or a Pinterest board at the ready that outlines what you want. Even better? Bring the garment you want copied with you to the shop. Since I had very little crammed into a backpack, I relied on a Pinterest board to show my tailors what I was interested in.

But you’ll want more than just a photo – do your research into the garment and find out what material it is made from. I made the mistake of choosing a heavier cotton blend for a shirt that probably should have been silk. For an extra $40, I could have had a garment I’d actually wear instead of something stiff. You can’t rely on the tailors to perfectly understand your expectations if you’re only showing them a photo.

IMG_20150426_123923 (1)

CHOOSE WISELY

The most important thing I learned from my tailor experience? Choose structured pieces.

Many of the tailors in Vietnam work on suiting separates day in and day out. While they have the skill to deviate from this, I found that the moment Irene or I tried to go for something flowy and light, things got lost in translation. A Burberry-inspired rain jacket? Perfect on the first fitting. A blazer? Same. A figure-hugging red dress? Also good, though it needed downsizing.

But the James Perse button-up knock off, a flowy, lightweight number, just didn’t come through. I chose the wrong fabric, but I also found that the style seemed to be out of their grasp. They kept trying to make a business shirt, and I was looking for a casual Saturday brunch vibe. Rather than struggle through several fittings to try to fit a square peg into a round hole, I’ll focus on pieces that have structure the next time I visit. Besides, who needs something loose-fitting to be bespoke anyway?

Not loving this one -- many changes were made!

Not loving this one — many changes were made!

GIVE YOURSELF TIME

I had two garments that were slam dunks: they fit me to a “T” the first time I tried them on. But a pair of slacks, a dress, and a shirt all needed changes to fit my body better. In total, I went through four rounds of fittings, but if I had given up on the shirt sooner it would have only been three. The changes that come from these fittings generally take about 24 hours to complete, though most Hoianese tailors will work hard to get your clothing to you sooner if travel plans require it.

That said, you don’t want to be stressed that you might not have a garment built exactly to your tastes by the time you leave. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? So give yourself at least three days from initial measurement and fabric selection appointment to the time you plan to take off, and you should be fine.

SPEAK UP!

Don’t like the fit? Don’t love the buttons? Tell the tailor! Be firm with any changes you want made — the salesmen and women are there to ensure you are happy, and they want that five-star review. Their business livelihood thrives on word-of-mouth in a town where tailor shop scams leave some tourists leery. They will work hard to make you happy, and they expect to make changes two, three, or even four times. If they do, return the favor by giving them good reviews and referring other travelers to their shop.

So take your time when you try something on. How does it feel? Hug yourself, lift up your arms, move. Does it still feel right? If anything is off, don’t hesitate to ask for it to be fixed, even if it’s been fixed twice before already. One of the dresses Irene had made needed the collar adjusted three times before she was happy with it. Sang and Tam were happy to do it!

IMG_20150428_141937 (1)

HAVE FUN

You are getting the five-star treatment here, so enjoy it! There’s something relaxing about getting measured every which way at your first fitting or puzzling out exactly what changes will create the perfect fit with your tailors. For a moment, you can almost fancy yourself on Savile Row. But then the breeze carries the fragrant scent of pork pancakes and raw fish, and you realize you’re somewhere even better. You’re in Hoi An, and dozens of adventures await just outside those tailorshop doors.

A perfect fit, first time!

A perfect fit, first time!

So what does a typical transaction look like?

Day 1: Choose the tailor shop & get measured

Traveler recommendations, blogs, and Trip Advisor are great ways to narrow down your list of reputable shops. Go to a few, check out their fabrics, talk to the salespeople about what you’re looking for. Discuss price for future negotiation. If they are too pushy, walk away. They will probably try to upsell into something you don’t want. Once you’ve chosen your shop, get measured for the garments you want created and choose your fabrics.

Now is the time to haggle the price. Use the prices of competitors, the fabric, and bulk discount (e.g., if I get six garments, can you bring the price down 20%). Once you’ve agreed on price, you will pay a deposit while the clothing is completed. 50% is usually what’s asked.

Day 2: Initial Fitting

Before you leave on Day 1, the salesperson will let you know what time to come back for your first fitting. These are almost always the next day. At this fitting, you will try everything on and determine what changes need to be made to each garment to better fit you. Take your time with this fitting and try to get all your feedback into one session. This will cut down on the time it takes to make changes at future fittings, if you need them at all.

You may want to write down the changes you requested so you can refer back to them at the next fitting.

Day 3: Second Fitting

If all went well and you took my advice, this might be the end of it! Everything will fit like a glove, you will pay the second half of the negotiated price, and you will leave with your new wardrobe a happy camper. However, usually there are still a few small changes that need to be addressed. Maybe a seam change makes the neckline lie weird, or the hem was too short. Address these updates now and hope that the third time is a charm.

Day 4: Final Fitting

At this point, any changes should be small and most tailors will do their best to get niggling changes fixed within a few hours. As soon as the garments are as close to perfect as you can get them, pay your balance and pack up your things. You can opt to have your garments shipped (I did), just be aware that they may arrive wrinkled or smelling like a pack of cigarettes and could require dry cleaning.

And there you are! You’re well on your way to getting your own set of custom-made clothing from some of the best tailors in Vietnam.

Til Next Time, xoxoxo

The Wizardess

With our new friends!

With our new friends!

Hoi An: Love at First Sight

I was warned that it might happen , and sure enough, it happened. I fell in love while traveling, hard. And fast. Love-at-first-sight fast.

At first it was a superficial love, an attractive exterior that mesmerized and enchanted. But it quickly went deeper, and I found that everything that lay beneath the surface was just as beautiful as what lay without.

What was the name of my new paramour? Hoi An.

In a country of either gritty and wild cities or sleepy and simple villages, Hoi An stands apart from the rest. Secret laneways, terraces draped in bougainvillea, cobbled streets, and ornate bridges make up the exterior of this charming town. Savvy saleswomen, friendly locals, and sinfully delicious food make up it’s personality. It’s not a sprawling metropolis like Saigon or Hanoi, nor is it the tiny village of Son Trach, with the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “main town.” It’s Asia with a French flair, where food and fashion are religion.

So what should you do in this beautiful town? The options are limitless, but after I spent a week here, I can point you in the right direction.

  1. Dine Like a Royal
    Food is serious business in Hoi An, and Central Vietnam has several famous dishes that don’t always feature prominently in the West. But holy hell, are they delicious. Some of my favorite culinary discoveries in Hoi An?
    Cao Lao, a beef and wheat noodle dish that curled around your tastebuds like a warm blanket
    White Rose, a delicate shrimp dumpling that felt like eating a savory cloud
    Banh Xeo, my favorite, a crunchy, savory, heavenly pork pancake that will have you coming back for more
    I also tried the famous Bahn Mi shop that Anthony Bourdain made famous, but I still didn’t think it beat out my favorite, Banh Mi 25 in Hanoi.

    IMG_20150425_204451

    Yummy White Rose dumplings

  2. Get Bespoke Clothing
    Made-to-measure suits, dresses, and jeans? For a fifth of the price of mid-range duds in the States? COUNT ME IN! We met the sisters who run Tu Nhi Clothing on Hoang Dieu in the middle of town on a recommendation from my traveling companion, Irene. The ladies made us feel right at home, and in no time we were measuring every inch of my body for all sorts of new garments! It’s a process that takes a few days, but you won’t want to leave Hoi An anyway, so go for it!

    IMG_20150428_142013

    Discussing the finer points of tailoring

  3.  Explore Ancient Town
    The road shuts down to motorbike and vehicle traffic, and pedestrians cram the cobbled streets of Ancient Town, a relic from the 15th century and a fusion of culture. From the wooden Japanese bridge to distinctly French architectural flourishes,  Ancient Town is unlike any other. At night, you can spend a buck or two and light a paper lantern to float down the river with a wish. The twinkling lights floating away create a magical atmosphere in the warm night air, and for a moment you might think you’ve entered a Disney movie.

    IMG_20150426_094146

    Ancient Town Japanese Bridge

  4. Take a Road Trip to Ancient Temples
    Vietnam’s Hindu history comes to life at the ancient temple complex of My Son, about a 90-minute motorbike drive away from Hoi An. Hopping on a scooter and zipping through small towns and rice fields is half the adventure. The staggeringly old temples, built from the 4th to 14th century (!!) is the other half. Getting a first-hand look at the destruction wreaked by American bombing in Central Vietnam is a sobering dose of reality, the crumbled brick laid by ancient hands lying in piles next to the once-grand edifice.

    IMG_20150428_105012 (1)

    One of the temples at My Son

  5. Learn to Cook Vietnamese Food
    The much-disputed culinary capital of Vietnam (though many will argue a case for Hanoi or Saigon), there are cooking classes aplenty in Hoi An. Highly recommended is Grandma’s Home Cooking Class, which includes a trip to the market and instruction on Vietnamese-style haggling techniques. We were invited into the home of our new friends, the ladies who run Tu Nhi, and we cooked a feast! Homemade spring rolls, banh xeo, cao lao, steamed fish with prawns, and more, all in the comfort of our new friend’s home. Hoianese hospitality knows no limits.

    IMG_20150427_115010

    Our Feast! Made by an American, a Dutch, and a Vietnamese

  6. Go to the Beach!
    Hoi An is one of the few cities in Vietnam that has a beach within it’s limits. The shoreline is crammed with cafes and restaurants, and there are few salesman slinging their wares, but the water is nice, the sand is clean, and you mix with locals as well as tourists as you laze in the sunshine.
IMG_20150427_154624

The Beach at Hoi An

Hoi An will captivate you from the moment you arrive. Whether you stumble upon temples tucked down back roads, stroll the night markets ablaze with colored lanterns, or linger over Tigers with friends at the restaurants that line the waterfront, you will be sad when it is time to say goodbye.

IMG_20150426_133040
IMG_20150426_224929

IMG_20150426_113110

Phong Nha: Vietnam’s Best-Kept Secret

I’ll be the first to admit: Sometimes I can get a little claustrophobic. I blame this (as always) on my childhood, where my older brother liked to play “let’s see how many tiny spaces I can trap my sister.” As an adult, I can mostly force myself to put mind over matter, unless I’m so confined I can’t stretch out my body. Then I panic.

So I felt a tiny twinge of trepidation as the bus pulled into Son Trach village in central Vietnam. I was about to spend the next two days exploring the caves that had recently been discovered in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park just a few miles away. After hearing about the intensity of exploring the Viet Cong tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City, I was little concerned about the Vietnamese definition of “cave.”

IMG_20150424_180339

Son Trach is a sleepy little town with only a few accommodation options. Most backpackers opt for the social and fun Easy Tiger Hostel, but we chose to stay just across the street at the Thien Thanh Guesthouse. For two people to share a private room it cost the same per-person as a dorm across the street (about $12 USD). A chance to avoid midnight snoring, farting and potential sexual hijinks? Count me in! Besides, the dining room and bar were open to everyone, so we could still spend most of our time over there anyway.

Our bus arrived from Hanoi painfully early in the morning — about 4 a.m. Fortunately, the Guesthouse was open shortly after the kitchen at Easy Tiger served us breakfast, and we were able to take a quick nap to recharge. The weather wasn’t cooperating when we awoke — the first rain I had seen since Otres Beach in Cambodia was refreshing, but not ideal conditions to be motorbiking through a national forest. Undaunted, we donned the full-body waterproof rain slickers our guesthouse owner provided to us and jumped aboard the motorbike anyway. I let my new friend and travel companion, Irene, do the driving.

IMG_20150424_113504

The grey sky threw all color on the ground in sharp relief, and we whizzed past chartreuse fields of rice and young corn for a few miles until we reached the entrance of the park. Once inside, karst formations jutted dramatically from flat earth into the misty heavens, their sheer walls a cacophony of salmon, magenta, moss green and charcoal streaks.

IMG_20150424_130742

We made for Paradise Cave — the most famous of the caves within the park grounds, but one of the easiest to access. Phong Nha only came onto the tourist scene when the park was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003, and development has been slow. But the signs of it are afoot at the entrance to Paradise Cave. A newly-built ticketing kiosk and visitor center stands a few steps away from the gravel parking lot. Carefully laid wooden planks pave the way to the mouth of the cave. The cave itself is lit like a movie set, with several sets of stairs and boardwalks ensuring even elderly visitors can make the most of the cave experience.

IMG_20150424_123532

Once I stepped inside the well-lit cavern, any fears of claustrophobia were chased away immediately. The roof of the cave soared overhead over 300 feet high. Does that even qualify as a cave anymore? The entire length of this cavern is just over 19 miles (sheesh!), but only the first kilometer is accessible via the boardwalks and stairs. There is a tour option to explore the first seven kilometers, if you’re so inclined. Because our time in Phong Nha was short, we opted to stick to the footpaths and spend more time exploring the Dark Cave.

IMG_20150424_122956

Alas! I was having far too much fun exploring the Dark Cave to take any pictures to prove it. But rest assured, from ziplining across the river, kayaking to the cave entrance, hiking through narrow passageways (not a jot of concern about any claustrophobia!), it was worth every penny.

After shutting off our headlamps at the underground lake to truly experience the darkness this cavern is named for, we squished our way through a narrow, mud-laden channel to an antechamber that was made entirely of mud! It came up to our waists, and it took a while to get past the ‘ick’ factor. Once we did, we found that we floated in the gooey mess if we sat cross-legged. To clean up, a dip in the underground lake just outside the ‘mud room’ did the trick. Our group decided to switch off our headlamps and swim as far out as we could, much to the dismay of our guide.

Phong Nha was a last-minute addition to my itinerary — I decided to go because the Dutch girls I had met in Halong were all heading that way, and I love hiking and trekking. I figured, why not? I ended up discovering one of my favorite places in Asia, if not the world.  I have every intention of going back and spending a lot more time in Son Trach and Phong Nha.

My plans for the return trip? The 4 Day/3 Night Tu Lan Cave Expedition with Oxalis. Let’s go!

Til next time, xoxoxo

The Wizardess

Bucket List Check: Halong Bay

It’s a mystical place where the mountains meet the sea. As we bounced over the highway toward Hai Phong, I met the people I was to spend the next few days with: Two Dutch cousins, a Dutch solo traveler, a German couple living in Kuala Lumpur, and a solo Italian girl who was living in London. In no time, we were all best buds, and I knew the next few days were going to be good ones.

I signed up for the Real Halong Bay Experience at the suggestion of my ever-handy Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. What sold me on it?

  1. The price was right – with so many Halong Tours being hawked in every corner of Hanoi at varying prices, it can be very difficult to know what’s worth the money and what isn’t. This was ‘mid-range,’ which gave me confidence that I wouldn’t be shoved into roach-infested accommodation nor would I be ripped off.
  2. It was recommended by several reputable travel authorities. In addition to the Lonely Planet, this tour also ranked highly on TripAdvisor, and was mentioned in a blog or two. More than one source in agreement? I’m sold!
  3. It covered a lot. Not only would we cruise Halong Bay, which had been reported to be busy and dirty, we were also exploring lesser-traveled Lan Ha Bay. Two for the price of one!

IMG_20150421_141540

 

We managed to fit the best of the best into a full day, and rarely ran into any other boats on the water. We docked to kayak the lagoons, which was an incredible experience.

IMG_20150421_135656

IMG_20150421_141813

Then we stopped off to swim in the clear waters of Lan Ha Bay for a while. I managed to jump from the second-level deck of the boat into the water with my favorite sunglasses on my head, losing them forever to the turquoise depths of the Bay.

IMG_20150421_152335

We finally docked an hour before sunset at the private Cat Ong Island, where our ‘dorm’ accommodation was actually just a private bungalow with four of us in there! We shared two to a room, and I ended up in a bungalow with the three Dutchies, who were fun girls.

IMG_20150421_164602

We hiked to the top of the mountain as a group to catch the sunset. I was the only silly one who decided my flip-flops would make appropriate hiking shoes. Fortunately, I was able to power up the hill leading the pack, in spite of my poor choice of footwear! Coming down? I had to do most of it barefoot. We were treated with an incredible view of the sunset from the highest peak on Cat Ong Island.

After we descended for dinner, we soon found ourselves a couple of bottles of wine deep. We began playing drinking games, and I learned the Dutch version of King’s Cup (it’s WAY more fun than our American version!) and I taught the group the merits of playing flip cup. I must say, the Dutch girls caught on quickly! We pitted boys vs. girls, and the girls won the day!

In no time Diep, our tour guide, was slumped against the wall with drunk eyes, refusing to go to bed until the last of us had finished. We finally retired around 3 a.m., better friends than we had been that morning and making plans to meet up with each other at different points on our journey south through Vietnam.IMG_20150421_173758

Things to See and Do in Hanoi

 

 

Get Bia Hoi in Beer Corner:

It’s a budget traveler’s dream: beer for $0.25? YUP!

Bia hoi is beer that is brewed in the morning, and is meant to be consumed within 24 hours. It’s yeasty and feels homemade, but it’s the same vibe that so many fancy craft Belgians strive for with their expensive ‘unfiltered, organic’ brews. For a quarter!

The glasses aren’t huge, but for a couple of bucks you can easily get a solid buzz under the twinkly lights that are stretched across the streets in the center of Old Quarter. Hundreds of travelers sit on tiny plastic chairs as glass after glass of the good stuff disappears until it’s sold out.

Want to cheers your new Vietnamese friends? Here’s how: Hold your glass up and say: Mot Hai Ba Zo!

Get the Best Sandwich You’ll Ever Have:

On a narrow side street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, a cart stands on the sidewalk. Low plastic chairs are scattered casually around the cart, and tables are nothing more than planks of wood on plastic crates. A young Vietnamese man with a kind face, or his pretty wife will be standing at the cart, asking which Bahn Mi you would like to have. The menu is limited, there are maybe five options. But each one is a revelation of flavor.

I opted for the traditional Bahn Mi: Pork and Pate, with chili (you’ve got to have chili). And everything about it was perfection.

Light, fluffy bread with a crunchy crust. Creamy, savory pate (family secret recipe, the man tells me), beautifully seasoned pork, some daikon, carrots and cilantro for crunch, and just enough spice to keep things interesting.

Banh Mi 25 (this is the name of this ‘restaurant’) is a must-do if you visit Hanoi. Go for the food. Stay for the people.

My first evening in Hanoi, I ended up sitting around one of those tables with two Brits, a Welsh guy, and a newly-married Aussie couple for hours, downing Tigers and swapping travel stories until my train to SaPa was about to depart.

I brought my Dutch friends to try the sandwiches, and we spent time playing with the couple’s adorable son and daughter for an hour.

And when we made a final sandwich run before our bus departed for points south, the grandfather pushed glasses of tea into our hands with smiles and nods in place of words he didn’t know how to speak in English.

IMG_20150417_174927

The History: It’s More Than the War

Many American visitors to Vietnam visit the war museum in Saigon, and I understand the reasons why. But I’m generally more interested in a country in it’s own context, rather than only learning how one nation’s history relates to my own country.

So we visited the National History Museum in Hanoi, which tells the story of Vietnam from the times of Feudal Tribes thousands of years B.C. all the way through to modern times. In this context, the war with America is but a blip in a long, storied history. As if sensing that Saigon has it covered, the National History Museum makes but a passing reference to the conflict with the West, and focuses on the art and artifacts from ancient times.

National History Museum

National History Museum

Try the Food: 

I came to Vietnam to eat. I already knew I loved Vietnamese food, and I was excited to get to tasting the real deal. Rather than wade through dozens of conflicting reviews on the various travel sites to find the best restaurants, I simply booked a highly-recommended street food walking tour. There was a daytime and nighttime option, and since I was on my own I figured night would be better, because nightlife.

The Verdict? It was amazing!

A group of six other really awesome people? Check.

The coolest, nicest, most fun tour guide, Johnny? Check.

A night of stuffing my face with half a dozen Vietnamese delicacies until I looked pregnant and vaguely hated myself? Double check.

We tried pho, we tried spring rolls, we tried bahn xeo (hold the freaking phone, that stuff is delicious), we tried duck, we tried bahn mi, we tried everything you can think that’s traditional Vietnamese yummy. And it was all yummy.  Our guide took us to all the hole-in-the-wall spots I never would have found on my own, down narrow alleys and even through the setup of a wedding! He let nothing stop him from giving us the best of the best.

If you want to do the same tour, look for Awesome Travel’s Street Food on Foot Tour (and try to haggle them down a few bucks by booking in person). If he still works there, ask for Johnny. He is awesome!

Cheers! On Beer Corner

Here’s Johnny! On Beer Corner

Culinary Explorations

Bahn Xeo: My New Fave Vietnamese Dish

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum:

One of the more macabre things to do in Hanoi (at least to us Westerners), is to view the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh (yes, the actual HCM) at his imposing Mausoleum in Hanoi.

The body of Ho Chi Minh is sent to Russia once per year to be re-embalmed, and many Northern Vietnamese visit the Mausoleum to show their respect for their former leader.

I stood in the line with my tall, blonde and blue-eyed Dutch friends, sticking out like sore thumbs amidst the nicely-dressed Vietnamese that surrounded us. Signs posted warned us not to speak or take photos of the body, as this is a sign of great disrespect. Thus, I cannot share with you what HCM looked like in visual form.

But the vision of that small, unassuming, waxy figure lying in repose, his hands folded over his belly and his eyes closed as if in sleep, that vision will probably stay in mind’s eye forever, anyway.

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

Bac Ha Market

The only things brighter than the beating sun are the garments of the Hmong.

Wade into the bustle and brightness to watch and participate in the weekly trade. Part shopping center for the village tribespeople, part tourist attraction, nothing will make you feel so foreign as a morning at the Bac Ha Sunday Market.

IMG_20150419_112455 (1) IMG_20150419_112103 (1) IMG_20150419_110010 (1)

Reeling in tourists with the beautiful colors of their dress, tribeswomen do their best to sell a little piece of the color that makes them so unique.

IMG_20150419_105808 (1)

Puppies, chickens, pigs, even water buffalo — Nothing is off limits when it comes to making some money at the markets.

IMG_20150419_122957

Babies strapped to the backs of their impossibly small, impossibly young mothers sleep serenely through the fevered negotiations, the shouts of merchants, the screech of chickens.

IMG_20150419_113047Richly-colored thread — now made in China — is sold to the locals so they can embroider their intricate designs.

How to Visit:

When: The Bac Ha market is only on Sundays, so plan your Northern Mountains Travel accordingly.

How: There are plenty of bus and tour connections available from SaPa. Booking a day in advance is best, since the market is a good 90+ minutes from SaPa town.

Cost: It will vary, but about $19 should get you a day tour to the Bac Ha Market.

Living the High Life in Saigon

If it hadn’t been for the Vietnamese on the signs that lined the frenetic streets, I could have mistaken it for New York. High rises towered above, streets clogged with motor and foot traffic, men in business suits bustled down sidewalks, and neon signs advertised everything from Coca Cola to the evening news.

Sure, there were still the markers of a large Asian city: Banh Mi and Pho street carts, alleyways full of stalls bursting with fresh produce, live poultry and very dead, yet-to-be-butchered pigs.

But Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), was a mad mix of it’s Vietnamese roots and it’s love affair with the West. Perhaps because it was home to many American soldiers during the Vietnam War, perhaps because of it’s proximity to economic giant China, or perhaps because Westerners are flocking toward the opportunity in Asia, Saigon was a surprise.

I was lucky to have a host for my time the city, a friend I had worked with in Seattle who had moved here to continue his career in advertising. After two months in Asia, I decided to take a (little) break from Asian food, and so we set out to eat and drink our way through this glittering metropolis.

Where We Ate: 

Saffron
Cuisine: Mediterranean
Price: $20 – $35 USD for appetizer, main, and wine.
Walk into this cozy, tasteful little bistro, and expect an immediate and effusive greeting from either the lovely staff or the French-Vietnamese owner. Upon sitting, you’ll be brought a glass of champagne (gratis!) and an overview of the specials for the day. They take their food very seriously, and have a menu that will leave you struggling to make a decision. I dined entirely off the specials menu, which consisted of a baked brie appetizer (I hadn’t had cheese in ages!) and a seafood paella that was very delicious. I also was finally able to indulge in red wine! To end the meal, a limoncello shot and a fragrant flower bracelet. By Vietnamese standards, it was a ‘splash out’ meal, but for less than $40 USD I was stuffed, tipsy, and definitely happy.

Baked Brie

Finally… CHEESE!

IMG_20150416_201849

The roof inside Saffron – clay pots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Urban Kitchen + Bar
Cuisine: Vietnamese-Western Fusion
Price: $12 – $18 for brunch
The interior of this industrial space made me feel tres chic as I sipped my Vietnamese coffee in a desperate attempt to rid myself of a hangover. We had come for their weekend brunch, and I dug into my baked eggs and bacon hash with gusto as coffee after coffee disappeared. This was a locals place if ever there was one – in the heart of Japan Town, surrounded by upper-class Vietnamese and other expats, with a menu to match. It apparently also does a good business as a late-night cocktail and snacks bar, too.

YUMMY Hangover Brunch @ Urban Kitchen

YUMMY Hangover Brunch @ Urban Kitchen

L’Usine
Cuisine: French Bistro
Price: $7 – 14 for lunch
The hipster movement hasn’t left Vietnam untouched, if this boutique/home goods shop/bistro is any indication. It’s the sort of place I’d park with my laptop all day, ordering Croque Madames and coffees and pretending I was penning the next great American (Vietnamese?) novel. The shop has all sorts of interesting and adorable trinkets that would make very unique souvenirs or gifts for friends and family back home. Just beware, the price of goods within the shop match American prices – no deals here!

So French! So Creative!

So French! So Creative!

Secret Garden
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Price: $10 – $12 for dinner
I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one Vietnamese restaurant in my culinary tour of HCMC. Set in a pretty courtyard on the top floor of an easily-missed building in a laneway, this one is worth seeking out. It’s authentic, it’s not flashy, and the food is delicious. And it’s cheap! Maybe not street-cart cheap, but inexpensive enough to miss on your credit statement.

secret-garden-home-cooked

Where We Drank:

Glow Skybar
What’s a big weekend out without an evening on a rooftop? Here I started off with a (strong) martini, and the rest of night got fuzzy pretty soon thereafter. If you want to avoid the backpacker scene and see what a weekend out would look like if you lived and worked here, this is place to go. It’s a see-and-be-seen sort of spot where the locals always seem to run into a friend or two.

Just getting the night started...

Just getting the night started…

Chill
Another rooftop bar? These seem to be the the thing to do for the business crowd of this city. This one is a little flashier, and little more colorful, but also with good cocktails and service.

chill-skybar-saigon

Lush
I’ll be honest: My memory of this place is pretty fuzzy. I recall a huge bar in the middle of the place, a luxe VIP area and bottle service with some heavy-hitters in the Saigon advertising scene, dancing in a cage for a few minutes, and little else. But I’m assured by my guide that it is indeed one of the more fun places to visit, if you aren’t white girl wasted like I was.

It's a cage. But it's fuzzy, like we were by this point in the night...

It’s a cage. But it’s fuzzy, like we were by this point in the night…

After only a few days in the city, I could almost see myself living there. With so much influence from the US and Europe, many of the creature comforts of home are readily catered to, and with a booming economy, opportunity abounds. Don’t be surprised if Ho Chi Minh City is the next ‘it’ place for city-lovers to live in Southeast Asia.

The Gift

The little girl clung to her father’s leg as he tried to disengage her, tears sprouting from her eyes and rolling down her face instantaneously. He looked over at me with a heartbroken expression. Though we didn’t share a language, words weren’t necessary in this moment. He looked a little embarrassed as he held his daughter far enough away that she couldn’t grasp him again, and I swooped the sobbing little girl into my arms.

As he walked across a hot, dusty courtyard to the gate that led to the street, the girl started screaming and writhing in my arms. I turned my back to the gate, both so the girl could catch a last glimpse of her father as he left, and to hide the tears that were streaming down my own face from the rest of the children at my feet.

My fellow volunteer looked at me with sympathy, and I bit my lip to keep myself from breaking into sobs. I busied myself with murmuring calming things in a language this girl didn’t understand, kissing the top of her head and rubbing her back in a vain attempt to console her.

It was my second to last day volunteering at the Missionaries of Charity, a place where nuns ministered to the poorest and most needy in Siem Reap. Part of that ministry involved taking in children who couldn’t be cared for by their families. This four-year-old girl had just lost her mother to untreated cancer, and her father had to go to Thailand. The work was in Thailand. Better money was in Thailand. He had two daughters to provide for: the four-year-old he’s just said goodbye to and an eight-month-old who was so malnourished she couldn’t sit up on her own. But there was no room for them in Thailand. So they were here.

I only spent a week with the children at the Missionaries of Charity, but the profound impact that week had on my life will be reverberating through my soul for the rest of my life.

It was more than learning to tie cloth diapers, battling a stuffy nose and eye infection from the myriad illnesses circulating the children, and finding the odd poo on the floor throughout the facility.

It was teaching bright brown eyes how to count in English, singing the alphabet song with my friend and fellow volunteer (though it turns out Australians and Americans end that song quite differently), giving hugs and cuddles on the bad days, chasing squealing kids around on the good days.

It was hearing two adorable twin boys, who otherwise didn’t know a word of English, parrot “Okay! Okay!” after hearing me say it five-hundred times per day.

It was the joy on the face of mentally impaired boy, which could dissolve into tears without any reason or notice.

It was the bashful smile of a child with cerebral palsy as he was cheered for walking on his own with a walker, relishing the attention he rarely got.

It was feeding a little girl who hadn’t had enough to eat for months, and didn’t really know how to feed herself.

It was watching a five year old girl touch the polish on my toes, then touch her own unpolished toes. Or sitting very still while I applied lip balm to her lips, then touching them with a smile once I had finished.

It was spending the morning with a normally-rambunctious three-year-old clinging to me for cuddles, because it was just one of those days when he needed to be held.

It was the unceasing cry of “Sistah! Sistah!” (which the volunteers were called) whenever we wheeled our bikes into the courtyard.

It wasn’t all moments of joy, but the painful moments that were so common throughout the day made those bright spots that much brighter and more beautiful. Often, my heart contracted, closing in on itself as I witnessed lack, pain, and sadness. But even more often, it was expanding, swelling to proportions that threatened to crack my ribs. It was here, in a hot courtyard on a back road in Siem Reap, where I realized that my body was a poor vessel to contain all the love I could feel, and I was certain I would explode from the pressure of it trying to pour from my body.

On my last day at the house, I brought some necessities for the Sisters: formula, diapers, clothing. But I also brought along a play tool set, because the kids had been chirping and pointing at a man hammering away at the roof next door all morning. The squeals of excitement and complete absorption of playing with a new toy filled the yard for the rest of day.

And though I may have been the one bringing gifts that day, I received far more than I gave.

 

The Start of the Solo Travels in Pai, Thailand

IMG_20150328_163901

I bid my sister adieu in Chiang Mai with a little trepidation – we’d been on the road for the better part of three months together, and now the next five months yawned ahead of me, only a rough sketch of plans in place, and no one to ask, “Is this a good idea?”

I’d already been in Chiang Mai for a few days longer than I felt I needed to be, so I packed up, headed to the bus station, and jumped on the next minivan for a small town called Pai. The ride to town was a nausea-inducing three hours hurtling through forests and winding mountain roads, upon which we were unceremoniously dumped in the town center.

My arrival in a new place was enough to keep me busy for the first few hours – find a place to stay, get myself situated, peruse the Lonely Planet and a few blogs for things to do here, and check out the map to situate myself. And then it was time to go out on my own.

There are a lot of blogs that extol the virtues of solo travel, and all the things they post are true. But maybe a lot of them don’t remember that traveling solo for the first time requires a little warming up. I felt weird wandering around a town with no real destination and no one to mark my observations to. I felt like people were staring at me  wandering the streets alone (they weren’t, I’m just paranoid and always think people are staring at me), I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands while I wandered the roads with no real destination, I felt like I should be making friends but it would have been so weird to just walk up to someone and introduce myself. So I parked in a little hippy cafe, ordered a stunningly delicious chai tea latte, and caught up on my travel journal like a recluse. Some things take easing into.

I did sign up for a trip to Pai Canyon to watch the sunset, and was able to chat with a group of girls from the UK on the way up and the way back, so my social interaction wasn’t exactly zero for Day 1 solo on the roads.

IMG_20150327_181424

Since my time in Pai was limited to a couple of days, I signed up for a ‘Pai Sights’ Tour, one of these package deals where they pack you into a van and take you around the various sights for a fee. It was about $18, and I figured it was better than trying to figure out how to get everywhere on my own. And then my decision to do this crazy traveling thing alone was fully validated by discovering that every person on the tour was a solo female traveler! There were five of us in total, we all came from different places, were different ages, and we all got along great.  All my doubts from the day before were put to rest.

IMG_20150328_100732

Swinging at the Treehouse in Pai

IMG_20150328_104939

Pai Natural Hot Springs… No Egg Boiling Allowed

IMG_20150328_105432

Natural Hot Springs That Actually Felt Natural!

IMG_20150328_131025

A Casual Barefoot Hike, As You Do

IMG_20150328_141624

I LOVE Pai!

IMG_20150328_092450

No Visit Is Complete Without Buddha

Pai is a place that seems to encourage becoming one with the earth. There are plenty of dreadlocks, Bob Marley decor, incense and other hippy-esque details about the place that give it this vibe. So naturally part of the day included taking a dip in the natural hot springs and choosing to climb the sandstone rocks of Pai Canyon barefoot, just to get into the spirit of the place.

Pai is what the rest of Thailand probably was 15 years ago: still a little undeveloped, a little off the radar, but beautiful in it’s own rough, earthy, unapologetic way. What a fabulous place to start traveling alone.

Til next time, xoxoxo!

Older posts

© 2017 The Wizardess of Oz

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑