Highlights: Vietnam


The first cup of coffee in Pleiku: We already mentioned this one, but it was a highlight so it's here. It was our introduction to Vietnamese coffee - robusta beans brewed almost like an espresso, so strong it leaves a yellow glaze on the cup, topped with sweetened condensed milk. "Chut-Chut" is key when ordering, as it means you'll only get a thin layer of sweet on the bottom of the glass, not the standard OD amount. Cooler weather and grey skies: Call us crazy but we're both more cold weather types than warm so stepping out of the Thai and Cambodian heat for a bit was a welcome relief. By the time we reached New Year's in no-heaters-Hanoi we were well chilled (stupidly having left our jackets in Bangkok) and realized that it was actually warmer outside than in. Perhaps just because of the exhaust fumes?

The rolling hills around Pleiku: Beautiful lush countryside. Who could complain?

Kayaking around Cat Ba: Beautiful unique sea mountain terrain. Who could complain?

Walking in Hanoi: We're walking explorers to the core and Hanoi's dense center brought us back into our element. It's just impossible to get the same experience in any kind of vehicle as on foot.

20 minutes on a moto to the bus station in Hanoi: ...and similarly, it's impossible to get this particular kind of experience any other way. (Moms and Pops, stop reading) We and our baggage clinging to the back of two motos through evening rush hour: navigating either or both sides of the road, around trucks, against on-coming traffic, stuck in packs of hundreds of other motos, red lights, green lights, 40kmh, 10kmh, 60kmh, brake, accelerate, arrive. Amazing.

Ban Beo in Quy Nhon and Hoi An: Technically this is a specialty dish from Hue but our experiences not only in its presentation and taste made the Quy Nhon and Hoi An versions far more memorable. Almost more importantly than the taste, even, were our surroundings for these two - wonderful people serving and, in Hoi An at least, great company taking us to the best local haunt and sharing dinner with us.

Custom tailored clothes: Take out the awesome ladies we went to to have the clothes made and it's still a highlight. Getting measured, going back for a fitting and coming out the other side with exactly what we wanted (yes, I really DO want orange thread as a highlight in the lining of my suit) was an experience we've never had, nor are likely to have again anytime soon.


Vietnam Women's Museum & Vietnam Fine Arts Museum: We covered this in the Hanoi post, but both were certainly highlights.

All of the food in Hanoi: Covered in full.

Good humor: We heard all sorts of mixed reports (from home, from other travelers, and even from our Cambodian guesthouse owner) about the Vietnamese demeanor. Everyone (read: the overwhelming minority) that said we would find smiles, a good sense of humor, and a warm, friendly welcome was completely right on.

Our Pho friend in Dien Bien Phu: Have we mentioned the smiles and good sense of humor yet?

Cong Cafe: Vietnam started with coffee in Pleiku and ended with coffee in Hanoi. For a former tea shop and self professed "not really a coffee drinker" to be writing this with excitement is a bit of a statement in itself. The coffee at Cong was excellent though the reason it gets mention here is for its ambience - i.e. it had one AND it was excellently designed - and their version of Vietnamese coffee with slightly sweetened yogurt. We failed at acquiring the name of this strange sounding (though delicious) beverage but will be eager to recreate it in the future.

Highlights: Cambodia

Siem Reap Angkor Wat: It'd be hard/ridiculous not to include this as it really is fantastic. While Angkor Wat was spectacular, and well worth a pre-dawn bike ride, our favorites were some of the smaller, older and less peopled ruins. With our three day ticket, we decided to navigate as close to chronological order as possible and that seemed to pay off in regard to the architecture and grandiosity.

Nom Gua Chay: This is probably spelled completely incorrectly, but it's more about the experience than the food itself right now. We saw the guy with his wood fired food cart after lunch one day and made a mental note to get back to try them. It was four days of searching before he reappeared and we got to sample the little round rice patties with a chopped scallions and greens filling, bathed in garlic fish sauce with a dollop of chili paste on top. Delicious.*

Walkability: The core of Siem Reap is pretty walkable which makes it that much more fun to explore bit by bit, without the feeling of being stranded in one area.

1961: A good marker of some of the developments and changes that are taking place in Siem Reap. Part gallery, part shop, part cafe, part education space, part hotel - all of it executed with individuality and a keen, hip aesthetic. An interesting contrast for us was its location along the river next to one of the most local (read: not affluent, not touristy) areas of Siem Reap we found. Interesting to the point of confusing. Our hope is that there is conversation and crossover between these two worlds, as the potential is certainly there.

Smateria: Another of the development changes, and one of a few locally made options in the recycled product category (bags, wallets, etc). While many of the recycled products on offer are made from the cement and rice bags, Smateria devised ways to reuse mosquito nets and crochet minutely thin plastic bags.

Shared dinner at Angkor Thom: Casey got invited (Eli was still a bit knackered with dysentery) to partake in dinner with the family that runs our guesthouse, Angkor Thom. Thi had small fried fish with a salted chili sauce which was an excellent grounds for one of the few really personal interactions we were able to find in a town so otherwise built around tourism.

The sparkling facilities at the hospital: In addition to the facilities being on par with (or better than? At least to our laypeople eyes...) any we've been to at home, the doctor at the Royal Angkor International Hospital ran some tests and in the most calming and clear way, delivered the results within the hour. Far from our worst nightmares of a hospital visit in a strange foreign land.

Phnom Penh Tat Guesthouse: It wasn't so much the actual room at this small, family-run space as it was certainly not near the nicest we have stayed. However, the willingness to help us out with mini Khmer lessons, introducing us to the beauty of jackfruit, and generally making us a wee (albeit fleeting) part of the crew for our six days with them. The young men and women essentially running the ship slept in the corner of the main roofgarden or above the kitchen, between the metal roof and raw framed ceiling...and everyday they were awake before us, asleep after us, and truly smiling or goofing around in the middle of it all.

Russian Market: Somehow we managed to explore this market twice without running into the souvenir section. It is three stories, all rabbit warren pathways and endless goods from glittering fabrics to shrimp paste to cell phones to fishing nets. A claustrophobic and beautiful maze to wind around for a few hours, we skipped almost all of the many photographic and audio recording rich moments in favor of just being there.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: Not something that is in any way a true highlight, we list our visit here because it is necessary. Something about the simplicity of displaying the photographs of each prisoner kept here during the Khmer Rouge rule of the late 70s is most striking. The space itself is in disrepair and not exceptionally informative, yet it remains incredibly moving. The sheer weight of the realization that the entire city of Phnom Penh was emptied, this school cruelly transformed and such detailed documentation maintained by the Khmer Rouge is crushing...and worth the time.

Romdeng: This restaurant is one of various projects by the Friends International group aimed at helping street kids make choices and obtain skills that lead to a more fulfilling and sustainable life. It was here that our epic tarantula chomping experience occurred and there was no better place for it. It stands boldly as a moment where we really pushed our comfort levels out of the way and jumped in, gastronomically speaking. Though it wasn't a dish we will make for anyone upon return, we are more than glad to have it in our back pockets.

Knowing there is more to explore and more to return to: Though not a thriving metropolis, there is a lot going on in Phnom Penh. While we were there we managed to catch parts of a city-wide documentary photography exhibit and a film at Meta House, and read about a boatload of other things we would be missing out on. Leaving a place with loose ends can be exciting - it teases you to return and explore anew, and we look forward to that happening some day.

Ban Lung The tall woman at the market: We were directed to this market stand by a few girls working in a nearby village as teachers - they described a tall Cambodian woman who (gasp!) sometimes bared her shoulders. This is how we found her - smiling and incredibly helpful through the language barrier, she is hopefully an inspiration to other vendors. The iced coffee* we sipped was liquid mocha, minus the fancy price tag. Additionally, her morning phó left Casey's belly happier than any other meal in the country. Go figure.

Walking around the lake: Nothing particularly stunning, just a simplified peek at the life that goes on just outside the town center ... Accompanied by the quiet that comes when the motos are not revving around you.

Riding on the back of a moto with less traffic around: Speaking of motos. Our favorite rides yet brought us to waterfalls and a lake down bumpy, red dirt roads at a quickened (heart and rpm) pace. High fiving the beaming kiddies on the back of the water truck while riding by brought the ride to the next level.

Tree Top: The view from this guesthouse/restaurant deck brought on daydreaming and allowed us to get a glimpse at the back of a few homes sitting on the opposite ridge. Cashew nut trees surround the perimeter and a small gorge bursts with green everywhere. We didn't sleep here, but were lucky to have several mornings to chat with the owners, watch a hawk circle and cry, and see Ban Lung from a different perspective.

Having seats on the bus: A simple pleasure. Since we boarded first thing in the morning, our seats were just that - true bus seats, and two to boot. Others who boarded along the way were not so lucky, as more than six precariously balanced in the center aisle in mini plastic chairs for the ten hour trip.


* For those interested, we're keeping notes for a Southest Asia Food Porn post to add in all the loose (but tasty/weird/amazing/crazy) ends.

Location:Thái Phiên, Hội An, Vietnam

Highlights: Nepal

Kathmandu Dosas (at Pilgrim's): Even though the bookstore staff was rather grumpy, we have to hand it to the cafe in the back for serving up, on multiple occasions, some mighty fine Dosas.

A real shave: This would be Eli and I'm speaking about my first real straight razor barber shave, complete with multiple aftershave creams, a head massage, a $1.50 price tag, and absolutely zero nicks or cuts.

Patan and Bodhnath: Both of these are tourist and guidebook staples, but they both served well at giving us a little more of a complete perspective on Kathmandu and the Kathmandu valley. Plus, Patan's Durbar (Palace) Square is more impressive (and better maintained) than Kathmandu's, and Bodhnath's Stupa is just completely impressive.

Chitwan Pramila's Dal Bhat: Simply the best. Twice a day for two weeks and we still looked forward to more.

Traditional Songs: This one is two fold. The first part contains the ones we learned from Pramila around the farm, in the bamboo tower and in car rides. The second part contains those (some overlapping) that we learned from Jhalak on the trek. While we could theoretically hum some of the melodies, the words are almost completely lost on us. If you can ignore the intro to this video, the rest of it is a pretty good example of one of our favorites.

Pokhara Asian Tea House: Cheap and delicious home cooked fare by the most cheerful guy in town. There are only about 10 seats in this back-alley corner so you have to arrive a little early, but it's well worth it.

Mardi Himal Trek: Spectacular. Enough said.

The Atmosphere: While the craziness of Kathmandu is intoxicating in small doses, Pokhara's more relaxed version of the same (with farm more natural beauty surrounding it) make for an easy place to spend a little longer.

And a few last observations... • A buyer's paradise for knockoff everything and anything: trekking gear by the truckload, guide books that look so real you can barely tell they're not and store names (Wal-Mart, a small shop that sells yak wool pashminas, Fedup Express cargo shipping, and M.C. Donald "Nepalese fast food").

• Mopeds and motorcycles: a helmet seemingly only for the driver but none of the 2-3 passengers.

• No diapers for the babies (that we saw), only fleece/terry-cloth lined pants that get washed out and thrown on the roof to dry.

• The rumored Indian head-wobble-of-agreement tends to be more a head tilt and shrug in Nepal. Yes? No? Unclear.

• Nepalese Smokers: prevalent, but somehow nowhere near as intrusive as their western counterparts.

• Some of the hardest working people (especially the women) we've ever seen.

• Where else can you find a village where the adults and children are all equally excited about playing on a giant swing?

Location:Bangkok, Thailand

Highlights: Turkey (Istanbul)

Aya Sofya: Or Hagia Sophia, depending. It's a museum, now, but in its 1500 year history has been an Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic cathedral as well as an imperial Mosque. The main dome is amazing and huge but almost more real seeming is the way the marble doorways have been worn from use. It remains the fourth largest cathedral in the world.

Süleymaniye Mosque: The relatively young, almost 500 year old mosque built by master architect of the time, Mimar Sinan. Huge and gorgeous and immaculately kept up.

Spice Bazaar: Or Mısır Çarşısı, it is, as its English name implies, a market primarily for spices, though you can get an awful lot of Turkish Delight and textiles here as well. Amazing to walk through and gawk at the perfectly piled spices, walnut stuffed figs, and dried apricots, even if it is jam packed with people. Plus, it smells great.

Ayran: An incredibly refreshing, salted, watered down yogurt drink. Especially good when fresh from the machine that aerates and froths it.

Peaches: It's hard to beat perfect peaches. Especially when they're from a fruit cart on the corner.

Balat: The aforementioned neighborhood where we found not only beautiful views of the Golden Horn, but also got to meet some wonderfully friendly people. One of these, Sebastian, took us into the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols - another 1000+ year old church that we didn't even know we were standing next to. In addition to the amazing artwork and architecture inside, there are a few small steps that lead down to a still un-excavated tunnel that is said to lead all the way to the Aya Sofya...5km away.

Fresh Pomegranate Juice: All over the place and crazy delicious. Ingredients? Pomegranate. Or your fruit of choice...

Boat rides on the Bosphorus: Especially awesome with good friends and weather. Plus, they're cheap! Head to Ortaköy for the docks surrounded by a cool little neighborhood.

Mor Takı: Unique and original handmade jewelry - this place came to us on the hot tip of one of our co-workawayers in the Czech Republic.

Lokanta Helvetia: An excellent and affordable example of the cafeteria style lokanta eateries around town where you pick five dishes for your plate from those available for a fixed price. We went twice and left both times filled to the gills.

Tilework: It's in so many places around the city that it is nearly impossible to miss, but there are particularly outstanding examples of the color and pattern variations throughout Topkapı Palace.

Uncontainable: This was part of the ISEA and had some amazing interactive work from around the world. A particular highlight being the hanging plants that were somehow rigged (magic?) to produce sound art by the slightest touch. No wires could be seen...just plants.

Rakı lesson from Herman: Rakı, an anise spirit, is the national drink of Turkey. Being as such, there are of course certain ways to drink it, made all the more interesting learning from someone who not only knows the ways, but has the traditional glass chilling apparatus already in the freezer.

Location:Dubai,United Arab Emirates