Truth by Travel

Apr 15

What I would do for a size 12……4/15

I never thought that this day would come, but it did; I begged the god of shoes for mercy — for anything in size 12. Here is the story:

After walking countless miles in my cross-trainer/hiking shoes in Hong Kong, which I wrongly predicted would be ideal for my trip, I developed quarter-sized blisters on both of my heels. Before leaving for Vietnam, I researched where the best shoe store/cobbler was located. In addition to my primary shoes, I brought a cheap pair of thong sandals to be used as the weather permitted. Anyone who knows me knows that I have sensitive feet; for that reason, I will almost never be seen without socks. The day came for me to attempt venturing out in the world minus my beloved foot shields. The first half of a mile went off without a hitch, but after a mile, I noticed that the space between my big toe and second toe was beginning to feel a bit raw. By the time I got to the shoe cobbler, which was about two miles from my hostel, I had developed small cuts between my toes. Enough blood accumulated to allow for a stained toe print to be made when I took off my sandal in the shoe store. The cobbler handed me some toilet paper to clean the mess, and then measured my foot. His verdict — no size available. My single hope in Saigon was dashed. Seeing the dismay on my face in combination with the blood on my feet, he offered to quickly assemble a pair in the back. Because the quality of the floor models looked so high and I was in such pain, I agreed. Usually previous to consenting, a price should be established. I was so discombobulated I failed to ask the cost. Ten minutes later, he produced a makeshift pair of sandals and demanded 1.5 million dong, which is about 75 USD. The sandals fit my feet, but the stitching didn’t look at all like the model he showed me, and the sole felt flimsy. We argued vehemently, with me having to communicate using mainly hand signals (many hours of charades would be great practice for visiting Asia). In walking out without shoes or sandals, I knew that I may be making a painful mistake. Upon leaving, I decided I’d be damned if I didn’t find a pair of size 12 sandals in HCM (Ho Chi Minh). And, two hours later, I was damned. Back at my room, I bathed my feet, applied antibiotic cream, bandage, and tape. My feet looked like they’d been through a paper mill - cuts, blisters, scrapes. Undeterred, I stumbled back out in search of sandals. Now that my heels were bubble-wrapped, I was able to wear my shoes again, so long as I bore most my weight on my toes. An hour into my hunt, I found what may be the only size 11.5 sandals in HCM. They are ugly with velcro straps — probably a perfect model for geriatric patient, but I was ecstatic. For a mere 12 USD, my feet were experiencing a never before felt euphoria. In my journal, I wrote, “this is the greatest relief of my life.” In hindsight, that may be an exaggeration, but it gives you an idea as to how much my feet hurt. The story ends with me going back to the cobbler the next day only to find out that size 12 shoes require a build process wherein two soles are glued together. It sounded shoddy to me. I opted to order a pair of shoes on Amazon; of course it takes an act of Congress to get something shipped to Vietnam, so I’m having my parents send them via Fed-Ex. These will be the most expensive, but worthwhile, shoes I have ever owned. 

You may ask why I didn’t take a cab back to my hostel. I’m stubborn and stupid. Also, I make it a rule to walk whenever possible. This is a time when I regret abiding by my policy. 

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I took part in a half-day culinary class at Saigon Cooking School. We made a traditional Vietnamese four course meal following the instruction of the head chef. At the end, he used the freshly made spring rolls to judge the class. Mine took home first place out of the thirteen contestants :)

Prior to frying:

Finished product:

Being that I’m in a distant place, it is easy to romanticize about foods, sights, and the rest, but I legitimately believe that this was the best sushi I have had in my life. Every detail imaginable is followed during the creation process. The owner sat by me while I ate. He worked at HP for 20 years in California prior to moving to Ho Chi Minh to open a sushi joint with his brother (Ichiban Sushi).image

Those green objects that look like caterpillar/worms on the left side of the picture are one of more intriguing foods I have ever eaten. According to the owner, it’s a form of seaweed that only grows in only a few oceans in the world. It has to be consumed the day it is sourced. Apparently no sushi place in the US offers it. The texture was firm, but after take a bite, each small sac bursts, leaving a salty taste reminiscent of caviar. image

My go-to restaurant in Vietnam has been an Indian restaurant called Baba’s; the only place I have frequented more times is a small street vendor which acts as my fourth, sometimes fifth, meal. The same person at Baba’s has served me on each visit, and I always ask him how spicy the entree is that says “Danger: eat at your own risk.” He gives me a big smile and says “SPICY. Too spicy.” Tonight, the manager came out, and I asked him the same question — his response, “you eat, I pay.” Well I ate, but I think I paid too. The curry left an inferno brewing in my mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines for a solid 12 hours.

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Favorite street vendor

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These pictures were taken at the War Remnants museum. No matter how horrible you think the Vietnam war was, this is the most propagandized place of biased historical reference that I have ever seen — outlandish, but interesting. 

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Apr 10

Bob and weave…….4/10

My first days in Vietnam did not disappoint. Filled with cab driver crookery, the loss of power in my hostel, a titty-twister from an seven year old girl, bedtime tuck-in from a gigantic cockroach, and near misses by passing motorcycle kamikazes, I’d chalk it up a success through and through. As an FYI, the titty-twister is an accepted methodology of sales solicitation in HCM (Ho Chi Minh).

This is me in the middle of a busy street conducting what probably ranks as the most dangerous photo op of my life. It was taken at 5 pm, during the height of traffic. No exaggeration, these bikes whiz by at incredible speeds, not stopping for anyone or anything. It’s reckless, disorganized, and chaotic, but surprisingly effective. Of all the experiences thus far, this is the one I’d most like transport back to the States for each of you to try. Welcome to the belly of the beast.

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Ok ladies. I know I bashed HK and Macau for being overgrown shopping malls, which they are, but Vietnam has something that both you and I can enjoy — cheap manicures and massages. After surveying prices and cleanliness of facilities at a dozen or so spas, I found a place that performed a manicure, hair cut, and head/neck massage for…….14 USD. The treatment lasted nearly two hours, with service being on par with that of what we expect in USA; however, the attitude of the employees was completely different. Optimism and smiles pervaded the room. Communication was a breeze too, as the owner spoke English. The head stylist insisted that I get a Vietnamese haircut. In his words, my current hair style made me look old and unattractive. Once he finished, he told me that I would now blend in with the locals. And the Michigan shirt I’m wearing in the photo, that got me three Go Blues in a single day. 

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Street food lines the roads in HCM. This enormous deep friend shrimp was one of the best flavors I’ve experienced thus far. Imagine a hush puppy meeting a fried prawn. An average meal runs somewhere between 2 and 5 USD.

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Here is a classic pho dish. It astonishes me how the locals seem to drink the liquid when it is piping hot. To make it bearable, I have reduce the temperature by adding water. This bowl costs 2.75 USD.

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No, I didn’t miraculously become nine feet tall. This photo was taken of me entering a live music club. One of the owners of the hostel I’m staying at invited me to a attend the crowded event. I had an absolute blast, as most of the music performed came from 80s groups such as Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, and Journey. Though the singers were talented, the Vietnamese accents had me chuckling to myself. The only downside to the evening was when I received my bill, and realized I’d been charged “Western” prices. Being that I was miles outside of the city and the only foreigner in the building, I decided not to fuss too much. This door was the single entrance in or out — no windows or fire escapes, which is slightly scary in hindsight. 

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Learning to barter with the locals has been a unique challenge for me. In case you ever travel to a place like Vietnam, here is what I’ve learned:

1) Determine if the price is negotiable.

As a general rule, if the price is listed on an item, it is not negotiable. Knowing this, sometimes price tags are placed on good to create this illusion, so do not be afraid to inquire. The majority of the time, bartering is expected. 

2) Gather as much information as you can about prices before entering serious negotiations.

If you really want a belt from a certain shop, go to a few other vendors and determine approximately where your starting bid should be. Without some knowledge as to a fair price, your very likely to get hosed. Asking people what they paid for an item is a good technique for level-setting price. 

3) Start low, very low.

These merchants are seasoned professionals. When erring on a bid, err too low. You’re not going to offend the merchants; they have far more more experience than you do.

4) Smile, laugh, remain playful, and act confidently.

At the end of the day, these are people just like you and me. Everyone enjoys interacting with those who are friendly and positive, so don’t grimace and act upset if the negotiations aren’t going your way. In the event the vendor opens with what appears to be an unreasonably price, crack a laugh and tell him “no way.” Remember, you are in control stand your ground.

5) Pick your battles.

When traveling for an extended period of time, maintaing a budget is vital. But it is important to keep in mind that the person selling you an item probably makes less in a year than you do in a month, maybe even week. Losing a dollar or two a day won’t be strain you unduly, yet it probably makes the seller’s life much easier, especially when you consider marginal utility. Additionally, being in a foreign country that isn’t next to kin with the US, there is no point in starting an altercation. As a rule, conduct a quick cost/benefit analysis before engaging in any confrontation.

6) Be prepared to walk away

Deciding against a purchase is always a reasonable option. If you feel as though you’re being taken advantage of, move on; there will be plenty more of whatever it is you are looking to purchase. Before walking away, let the merchant know that you are departing from the negotiations. Many times, you’ll get an immediate offer that is lower than the one you originally received. 

Apr 08

HK in closing 4/7

My last day in HK was go, go, go. I moved constantly; from when I awoke at 5 am until 2 am the following day I nearly never left my feet. First on the docket was a visit to Victoria Peak. According to TripAdvisor, it is the number one attraction in HK. To my ever decreasing surprise, once at the top, I was greeted by a six floor shopping mall. In any event, atop the shopping mall is one of the best views in all of HK. 

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After taking the funicular down from Victoria Peak, I headed to Ferry Building to catch a TurboJet boat to Macau. One hour later, I arrived to the peninsula accompanied by hundreds of exuberant gamblers, nearly all of whom were Asian in descent. Being that Macau is a separate territory, I had to pass through customs an each leg of the trip. For me, Macau was a gigantic disappointment. It is similar to Hong Kong in that the sale of a variety goods pervades the streets, but the quality looked much dingier, and the stands/shops are interspersed between obnoxiously enormous casinos. Macau has the highest population density in the world. Here is the main drag at 2 pm — a motionless log jam. As was mentioned in an earlier post, if you dislike shoulder-to-shoulder congestion, this would not be a place to put on your to-travel-to list.

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A positive image of Macau that I will never forget is of Senado Square, located in the heart of downtown. Built during Portugal’s colonial rule, it holds the beautiful characteristics of 18th century Portuguese architecture.image

In summation

The good:

1) HK has a fantastic subway system; this cannot be stressed enough. I’ve been to quite few big cities, be it Athens, DC, Rome or NYC, and none has more efficient form of public transit. From the city’s center, you can make it to any other part of town in under 30 minutes.

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2) The food is outstanding. Finding a great meal for under 10 USD is simple. East meets West creates a melting pot of diverse cuisines. Seeing a traditional Cantonese restaurant on the same block as a Mandarin, Thai, or French restaurant is not uncommon. image

3) Shopping. If you love to shop, this has to be your Mecca. The constant bombardment by peddlers, blinding lights from watch stores advertisements, and the blaring noise from cell phone demonstration stands began to overwhelm me. It’s a part of the culture, and the Asian people appear thrilled about it. As best as I could tell, the prices were reasonable and the quality high. 

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The bad:

1) The people of HK show a deep affinity for designer clothes, cigarettes, and spitting, one which is only surpassed by their love, and constant attention toward, cellphones. No exaggeration, at any point in time on a metro, nine out of ten riders will be nose-to-screen buried into their cell phones. And when I say buried, I mean it. There were times when I bumped into someone expecting to receive a nasty glare or at least some form of acknowledgement. The only response was the bumped individual’s neck acting like bobble head, never once loosing sight of the cell phone screen. We complain in the States about our youth being overly consumed with electronics. If we have an outbreak, HK has a pandemic.

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2) Shopping. Goodness. I don’t think I can stress this enough. Walking more than 30 seconds without running into some form of shopping is nearly impossible in HK.

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3) Coldness of people. While polite and helpful towards me, the overall vibe among the locals is one of cold distance. My guess is that it is a result of having so many people packed into such a small land mass, combined with the ever increasing consumption of distractive input, the choice for many being cellphone games. Another strange observation I made was the lack of pets. During four days of careful watching, I saw a total of six dogs. In a city like Washington, D.C., I might see 6 dogs in one glance down the street.

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To close, I’m happy and thankful that I began my trip in HK. The transition from East to West was made easy. Had I jumped right into Vietnam or Thailand, I think that the assimilation process would have proved more challenging. HK has wonderful food, polite inhabitants, a great metro system, and ideal weather. Having said that, I believe that one visit in a lifetime will be enough for me. 

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Apr 06

Sacrificial cuisine……4/6

HK has been a whirlwind experience. It’s hard to imagine that just five days ago I was across the globe, 7,000 miles from the ground on which I stand - incredible! Yesterday, I had my most memorable meal thus far. It was comprised of hand-rolled noodles, lightly fried shrimp wantons, egg, and bean shoots. The noodles are what make this establishment special. Formed usual traditional methods of noodle creation, it is a culinary spectacle to watch. Why you may ask? It’s a dying practice, with only a few men in the city left willing to deform their genitals during the process. It’s something that has to be seen to be fully appreciated, but basically, the noodle roller puts a gigantic bamboo rod between his legs and bounces up and down on it to roll out the dough. It’s a labor of love. For details, click this link (being watching at 1:45 and end at 5:40). The noodles themselves are chewy. Al dente does not describe them because in my mind that constitutes a level of firmness. These were downright rubbery. Even so, in combination with a beautifully made broth, which is oftentimes the pride and joy of Asian restaurants, it was the most enjoyable noodles dish I’ve had thus far.

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Food prices vary drastically in Hong Kong, an extent to which I have never seen anywhere else. On the high end, prices can hit 200-300 USD per head, just like in NYC or SF. But on the other end of spectrum, amazing multiple course meals can be had for less than the price of a combo meal at McDonald’s (not that that isn’t amazing too). This little gem has served as bed time snack for me three times. A food stand operated by a family of four has them available daily. Made fresh every 30 minutes, these dumplings only cost 1 USD.image

In hopes of stretching my legs and capturing a beautiful picture simultaneously, I hiked to the top of the Pok Fu Lam Christian Cemetery. Being that I only went to the “picture zone,” the travel time was 45 mins each way. Surrounding the area are countless christian burial sites embedded into the side of the hill. The second picture displays only a fractional sliver of the tombstones.

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I hiked back up in the afternoon after the fog had lifted and took these photos from a slightly different angle.

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For dinner, I broke down and visited the number one ranked restaurant in HK on TripAdvisor. My initial plan was to stay off the beaten path as much as possible, but I underestimated how difficult it would be to communicate with the vendors. Even when eating delectable food, not knowing what it is can take away from the experience. Having the waitress be able to make suggestions allowed to pick the most “traditional” dishes on the menu. These wontons from Din Tai Fung were outstanding. The outside is a standard doughy wanton, but upon biting into it, a warm, beefy stock shoots into your mouth, and then you get the true prize - deep fried pork belly. image

Eating these left in a state of wonderment; how could a chef architecture such a symmetrical and beautiful work of art? The waitress brought me to the kitchen and let me view a part of the process. Before being allowed to make wantons, each cook has to spend at least two years rolling dough (not with a bamboo rod).

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In my next post, I’ll sum up my overall thoughts regarding Hong Kong, as well what occurred on my final day in the “Pearl of the East.”

If you have any suggestions for how this blog could be made more interesting, please let me know

Thanks for reading,
Chris

Apr 03

Leading up to Asia….

I was asked what I did during the 3 weeks leading up to my trip. I spent time in Michigan, Indiana, California, and Washington DC. Below are a few pictures from my travels. 

Big Sur, California (Home of the remarkable Esalen Institute) 

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Big Sur, CA (Pfeifer Beach)image

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San Francisco, CA image

Tahoe, CA

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Washington, DC

(Capitol)image

(Supreme Court)

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Stay on the metro…..

Yesterday was a long and eventful exploration of Hong Kong. Below are pictures from Nan Lian Garden and Chi Lin Nunnery. The garden is a replica of one built during the Tang dynasty sometime around 800 AD. Pictures were not allowed in the Nunnery, so I only took one. The Nunnery is a Buddhist sanctuary that still functions as a retreat center for monks. Both structures are positioned directly in the middle of the city. This creates a serene oasis between high-rises and speeding buses. Quiet chants from monks inside of the temple reverberate throughout the grounds. It’s a wonderful place to take a deep breath and spend a moment in peaceful contemplation (**Note: the picture that includes me was taken by a local lady. She snapped, in total, 17 photos of me from that exact position. Each time I walked toward her to recoup my phone, she game me the universal pushing-away motion to instruct that the photo op was not yet over.)

Hong Kong is crowded, and I mean, SUPER CROWDED. If you are an agoraphobic, this is your hell. Sardines packed in a tin can tight is an understatement. I know that some places, for instance Manilla, are far more crowded. That said, this is my first experience with a city as crammed as this one. The photos below were taken during the late morning once the work rush had quelled. When I first hopped on the metro at around 8 am, the space was so stuffed that I had to ram myself onto the cart, only to be rammed in the back by the little Asian man behind me attempting to accomplish the same feat. 

Here is a picture of my breakfast from yesterday. I grabbed it at a local market where not a person understood an ounce of English. After motioning to the waitress that I wanted whatever my neighbor had, she promptly placed my order and had it on my miniature table in minutes. I attempted to ask her what was in it, but that was futile. As I was finishing, my waitress saw a passer-by who must have been one her customers; she knew that he spoke a little English and grabbed him to talk with me. Our conversation turned into a game of charades, ending only when he pulled up picture on his phone of what I was eating — Spam.

I stopped by the Tai Cheong Bakery, which Andrew Zimmern raved about during his HK episode. According to him, the two items to try were the red pean pastry and the egg tart. If you’ve ever eaten with me, you know that I always clean my plate, and possibly yours too. Also, I’ll eat just about anything. These “desserts” were so bad, in my opinion, that I did not finish either. I’ll the start with the better of the two. The red bean pastry, which was palatable but was not dessert worthy, is basically smashed beans mixed with honey and something a bit rich — maybe butter. More sugar, honey, butter, or something unhealthy would have been needed to cover up the red bean flavor. I did enjoy the pastry crust. Now, the egg tart was a great disappointment, mainly because my expectations were well off. Looking at it, I hoped for a creamy, sugar-filled inside, with a crunchy exterior. The crunch was there, but the filling was basically a liquified egg, heated to make the taste even worse. As I said, these are only my opinions, and based on the line of people, seem to be in contradiction with most of HK.

One final note. Hong Kong has a vast, efficient metro system. It’s probably been my favorite component of the city thus far. Traveling from Kowloon, which is known as “New Hong Kong” and lies just to north of Hong Kong proper, is a breeze. The metro has multiple lines that run under Victoria Harbor — the waterway that separates the two land areas. Having just made my way back from Hong Kong to Kowloon, I decided it would be interesting to get off of metro one stop prior to the one I usually take when going to my hotel. Being that most of the system is above ground, how hard could it be to just walk alongside the overhead tracks? Well, after over 2 hours of walking on a narrow sidewalk beside the highway, trekking through hilly, mountainous terrain, and then walking alongside more highway, a HK police officer stopped me. At this point, I had just walked down a gigantic hill where five lanes of traffic run in both direction. There was a sign that read restricted area at the base of the hill, but I figured that was meant for motor traffic. Apparently, I was wrong.  As the motorbike cop pulled beside me, I quickly opened my map as if to give off the I’m lost vibe. Without any expression at all, he pointed back up what seemed like a mountain at this point, and off I went in the direction from which I’d come. Once at the top of hill, I convinced a local to assist me in finding the nearest metro stop on my map. This took about ten requests before someone could help. All in all, just over three hours were spent lost and wandering, I have one large blister on my heal, and I’m not in jail — a success all the way around. 

Apr 02

We are not in Kansas anymore….

After a fun-filled 14 hour flight, I made it to Hong Kong in one piece. Due to extreme turbulence about half-way through the trip, the man sitting to my right hurled multiple times. This only exacerbated the already foul stench emanating from his body, so I was quite happy to exit the plane. My first legit Chinese meal was a this sweet dumpling stuffed with bbq pork. I grabbed it from a street vendor at about 1 am local time. The vendors appear to be open 24/7. It cost 8 HKD, which is about 1 USD.

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The weather in Hong Kong was wet, wet, wet today. Thankfully, I brought a rain jacket, Gor-Tex shoes, and a waterproof daypack. I’ve been asked by a few people what I packed for my trip. Below is everything in my 40 liter Osprey bag, which, like any newbie backpacker, is stuffed to the brim. Anyone who remotely knows me has witnessed my affinity for a few specific supplements. You will see six pill bottles in the upper right corner of the picture below. Those buggers take up an absurd amount of space, but I was too stubborn to leave home without them.

I will wait to go into detail about what I decided to pack until bit more time has passed. That way, I can cover not only what I brought, but what I wish would have brought, and what I wish I would have left at home.

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Final goodbye before taking off.

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Today, I ate lunch at the the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. The total ticket ended up being just under 7 USD. Tim Ho Wan is a dim sum eatery located inside of a giant shopping mall. If you’ve been to Hong Kong, this doesn’t give you much direction, as approximately three quarters of the city is a shopping mall. The food at Tim Ho Wan was outstanding. Below are two pictures of the glutinous rice dumpling. I don’t think that they could have come up with a more accurate word to describe the dish than glutinous. Imagine dipping sticky rice in Elmer’s glue. In Hong Kong, open seats are fair game at restaurants, no matter how many people are already at a table. I was flanked by locals at my seat, who laughed at me as I tried to get the rice off of the giant cabbage leaf. Nonetheless, the fried chicken’s feet and pork intestine inside the roll had a wonderful crunch and a salty, sesame taste.

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This is their famed bbq pork dumpling. Andrew Zimmern called it one of his favorite foods on earth. It lived up to the hype. The outside was crispy and sweet, as if it had been covered in sugar and then quickly hit with a blow torch. On the inside, the dough was light and fluffy, with a bit less sweetness. The pork bbq itself is incredibly unique, and certainly not comparable to anything I’ve had in the states. Rich is the main descriptive word that comes to mind. 

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More to come tomorrow!

Mar 30

And it begins….

Let me start by first saying “thank you” for viewing my blog. If you are reading this now, you’ve been involved in making this trip possible. Whether it be my friends who have pushed me to try something entirely new, my former work compadres who created an environment ripe for personal change, or my family and girlfriend who have been in full support of my alternative choice, I am grateful.

I go into this trek expecting very little. My only goal is to grow positively as a person. This evolution, I hope, will be guided by the various cultures, experiences, and people I interact with on the road. I have been asked many times how long this trip will last. To be honest, I have no good answer. As I go, I will remain contemplative about the impacts of the journey, and based on those assessments, determine if long-term travel is right for me.

The purpose of this tumblr is chronicle my travels via pictures, stories, and reflections. Please post replies and responses as frequently as you wish. Your input will keep me motivated :)

I’ll start by posting a picture of my family. Many of my friends and former colleagues outside of Michigan have not met my parents, sister, and brother-in-law, but have heard me speak frequently of them. Here we are, all cleaned up, at my sister’s wedding this past fall. image

All the best, and again, thank you for checking out my blog. 

Sincerely,

Chris