Bangkok for me was about what I anticipated: loud, wild, crazy and crowded. Thankfully, I met up with my friend Indianapolis, and his girlfriend. Meeting people that I knew from back home brought a sense of calm and normalcy to my travels. It also provided friendly faces with whom to share the amazing memories.
Being that Tony has spent time in Bangkok multiple times before, he knew exactly where to begin our journey — a longtail boat tour of Chao Phraya River. This waterway cuts right through the heart of Bangkok, so we had a chance to get a glimpse of many sights and scenes surrounding the city.
These long-tail boats are equipped with incredibly powerful former car engines. While puttering down the canal, another long-tail boat pulled beside us. With a nod of the head, the two captains engaged in a thrilling drag race. The engines roared; neck and neck we raced, with our boat taking a slight lead. By the end, we had our competitor beaten by a few feet, but it was surely a photo finish. Just to hear the power of the engines is a memory I will not soon forget.
During our river tour, we drove by many housing zones similar to the one below. Life on the side of the Chao Phraya is a mixture between luxury and destituteness.
I’m not sure how many of these malted-shell taco-like things I ate in Bangkok, though I’d wager it was somewhere above 30. This was the first round of delectable goodness. As time passes, I can distinctively tell the two food ingredients I miss most from back home: butter and flour. The crunch present reminded me of a hard-shell taco, and the malted quality left a rich, buttery flavor in my mouth. Yum yum.
The Grand Palace is just that - grand. Built in the 1700s, it still acts as the official grounds of ceremony for the King and his court. The Bangkok heat, in combination with the compulsory wearing of pants, made the viewing experience an oppressively hot one.
The Golden Buddha is the world’s largest statue crafted from gold. The sheer magnitude is impressive. For those who have a relationship to Buddhism, this spectacle is of great significance. For me, the excitement was over in less than a minute.
While attempting to make it to lunch before our designated restaurant closed, we raced onto the Bangkok freeway in a tuk-tuk. Here we are, just about to merge. As our speed increased, Miriam’s Indianapolis Pacer’s hat, which had been all over the world with her, flew off of her head and found its final resting home in the middle of a Bangkokian freeway. After spending nearly 1 hour and 20 minutes in the motorized rickshaw, we just missed eating at our chosen restaurant. But as they say, as one door closes another one opens, and so it happened that we were directly next to an enormous mall filled with a diverse assortment of wonderful food. This shopping center would rival, or surpass anything we have in the States.
Shark fin soup is all over Chinatown in Thailand. Being that it is one of the least ethical foods to consume, I resisted the temptation. But in a way, I wish I had tried it, just to confirm what many food critics report — in addition to being mindlessly sourced, shark fin does not possess any notable flavors or textures.
Tony, Miriam, and I went on a Chinatown food tour. I think that we all were rather disappointed with the tour; we had fun anyhow. In this photo, our tour guide is insisting that we put a coin in a soothsaying machine to determine our future fortune. He proceeded to then read our horrific forecasts aloud, first in Thai, and then in broken English. Half the night I needed a translator to understand what he was saying.
McDonald’s became my home away from home in Bangkok. Most places, including Starbucks, charge a fee for Internet usage. I had quite a few Skype conversations I wanted to make, so my 12 person hostel room was not a viable command center. Thankfully, McDonald’s came to the rescue. With the purchase of any item, including the Spicy Chicken Burger, one hour of Internet time was given. In a single day, I ended up making 5 separate purchases. That was my day of dedication to McDonald’s. In total I had 3 spicy chicken burgers, 1 cheeseburger, 3 orders of fries, and 1 chicken and rice wrap. For those of you who wondered, with the exception of slight variations to the menu, McDonald’s has remained consistent in Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand; it’s winning formula? Loads of fat and oodles of sugar.
Thip Samai is considered the top pad thai restaurant in Bangkok. I’m not veteran in the world of pad thai, but the flavors were amazing. Adding to my level of enjoyment was the fact that I marched 6 kilometers there and 6 kilometers back with my full pack. Food always tastes better after a period of exercise.
I’ll start by saying that this story lacks associated pictures, not because I didn’t take any, but because a cab driver in Cambodia is the proud owner of a 4s iPhone. While rushing out of taxi, I failed to do a safety check for the only two items that are of major consequence: cell phone and passport. Thankfully, my passport was lodged inside of my front pocket. After much groundwork, I tracked down the cab driver’s phone number. Even offering a hefty reward didn’t entice him; he was quite certain that the phone was not in his car. I don’t fault him for keeping it; though old and worn, its aftermarket resale value was probably commensurate to a week of his pay. Instead of getting angry about my daft move, I took solace in knowing that he can use its value much more than me.
Anyhow, the night before leaving Siem Reap, I signed up for an sunset evening tour of the outskirt villages surrounding the town’s center. During registration, all the participants were told that we would be put through a series of tests to determine our varying driving skill level. My test comprised of placing the key in the ignition, starting the engine, pointing to the gas pedal, and driving in one circle around the parking lot. I received the highest proficiency rating. Some of the people weren’t so lucky. One girl in particular was made to drive in reverse, and then go out on the main road. When I asked my tour guide why this was the case, he told me that people from Singapore can’t drive, and she was Singaporean. He bluntly told me that women tend to bad drivers too, so she had two strikes against her. His candor was unique, but something to which I’ve grown accustom. Back in the States, we would never make a broad-sweeping claim like that in front of a practical stranger. In SEA, this is the norm. Another example occurred in Vietnam, when my hostel manager pointed at an overweight traveler and said, “now he is fat.” In any event, we took off in three separate groups. I was the only person to be alone with a guide, and one of two people allowed to drive the vehicle without a guide on the back. As my leader peeled out onto the main street, his dirt bike kicking up mud and dust, I had a feeling I might be in for more than I bargained. The dust and debris began making the already unmarked road even less navigable. Neither my glasses nor the shield on my helmet seemed to make a difference. I followed as swiftly as I possibly could, but had to pull over after only a few minutes. With the visual barriers wiped away by a handkerchief I happened to leave in my backpack, we trekked on. That handkerchief proved to be invaluable, being that I used it every few miles to wipe away the accumulated dirt on my helmet mask. After breaking away from the “main” street, we raced towards backroads. The pace quickened even more, and the ground became less and less stable. At this point, I began to panic. We whizzed through small village towns and farms, weaving in and out of water buffalo herds and chicken families. The longer we traveled, the more comfortable I became with handling the ATV, but I still felt quite apprehensive about where we were, and the terrain ahead. Once situated at our most remote area, my guide, who was no older that twenty, told me that we’d reached the sunset viewing area, which is literally in the middle large rice paddy field that acts a grazing grounds for a local cattle herd (I took a picture of this space, with my guide and I surrounded by cattle, sitting on our ATVs. I’d hoped to share that photo).
Being that it was a cloud-filled evening, my guide gave me two options: 1) we could sit in the pasture, and watch the sun, which wasn’t visible, set, or 2) we could “go fast.” This is a phrase he seemed to really enjoy saying. I asked which he recommended, and with a big grin on his face, he said, “we go fast.” In that moment, I knew that I trip was about to get much more adventurous. At full speed, we took off, ripping up the rice paddies, hitting dirt mounds with reckless abandon. As someone who has never been on an ATV, the exhilaration was tremendous. I thought to myself, “imagine this Chris, you are twenty miles outside of Siem Reap, in a rice paddy, driving like a maniac on an ATV with some local kid you don’t know; what the hell are you doing?” But, as my answer so often has been in situations similar to this, embrace the moment. I took in as much scenery as possible, and held as tightly onto my handle bars as my poorly conditioned arms could. By the end, my tail bone felt like it’d be hit by bat, my arms trembled from fatigue, and neck felt as though I’d slept improperly on it for a month straight. In the end, we made it safely back to our point of origin. When I got off of my ATV, all of the other tourists who had arrived back were smiling at me. That’s when I realized my entire body was covered in mud, and none of them appeared to have even a smudge of dirt visible. In that moment I knew that they had not been presented with the option to “go fast.”
The famed Angkor Wat. At 4:30 am, my tuk-tuk driver took me to the legendary temple to see the sun rise. As luck would have it, the prediction for daybreak was for clouds and rain. When 6:00 am rolled around, this is what I saw — the beautiful rays of glory.
Imagining the skill necessary to carve this statue nearly 1000 years ago is awe-inspiring. Having seen Rome and Athens, it is hard to put Angkor Wat, or any temple for that matter, on the level of the Colliseum, Pantheon, or Parthenon, but still, the viewing was spectacular.
Of all the etchings remaining at Angkor Wat, this is one of the most well-preserved. Originally built in a Hindu context, Buddhism became the prominent religion only a couple hundred years after its construction, so so the temple reflects input from both religions. Below are important female deities in Hinduism.
Angkor Thom, the largest of temples in Siem Reap, was the last and most notable capital of Khmer Empire. The buildings are enormous, spanning throughout a 9 square kilometer area. At one point in time, this may have been the most populated city in the world. Very little is known about the civilization, but much of the speculation about the complexity and sophistication of the Khmer people is intriguing.
I think that this passage way was made with me in mind. It was the perfect height so at to allow passage without cracking my head or elbows, while leaving zero wasted space on any side of my body.
One of the locals boys was proud to show me his pigs. They acted more like pets than farm animals, wanting to be scratched and rubbed.
Ta Prohm was probably my least favorite of the temples I saw. It is known for having been the filming site of Tomb Raider. Many of the trees have intertwined themselves into the decrepit structures, creating artful scenery. To exemplify the magnitude of the root system on these trees, I placed a 32 oz water bottle at the base of the tree in this picture. It’s hard to comprehend the size without in-person perspective.
Beng Melea is the least disturbed of all the temples in Siem Reap. Instead of striving to maintain temple’s original appearance, nature has been allowed to take its course. It might not be quite as imposing as Angkor Wat, but seeing what the a temple would appear like if it weren’t for intervention is a worthwhile expenditure of time.
Mango salads are king in SEA. Being that I hardly ever eat a vegetable or fruit here, this salad was a welcomed change of pace.
Traveling to SEA and not eating weird foods would be a crime in my eyes. The first few weeks of this trip only gave me a handful of options to get into the bizarre cuisine zone. Thankfully, Siem Reap offered a plethora of options. How about a little snake, giant cricket, and cockroach? None of the creatures were overly offensive.
When I first walked a “Fish Spa,” I had a the distinct feeling that putting my feet one of the tanks along tourist row would be a bad idea. In keeping my adventurous spirit alive, and disposition for risk aversion at bay, I decided to give it a go. The fish absolutely devoured my feet. All of the walking and misfitting shoes over the past month resulted in numerous blisters on my feet which were just beginning to peel. The fish were like pigs in poop. When someone sat next to me in the tank, my feet were so alluring that the person had only but a few fish on her feet. Mine were literally covered by little monsters. One in particular, an odd looking black fish, would not leave my heal alone. Yet another experience that I only need to do but once in a lifetime, both because I did not enjoy the sensation and the lack of sanitary risks. Not surprisingly, I had, and still have, a nice rash on my left foot.
With only one full day to spend in Phnom Penh, I put the peddle to the metal and burnt my way through the Capital of Cambodia. Phnom Penh was the center of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Unfortunate vestiges of the Khmer Rouge’s control remain visible. Many of the places I visited wouldn’t be considered pleasant or enjoyable to see, but I wanted to gain a better understanding of the history of Cambodia from the local perspective. Consistent with the rest of SEA, Phnom Penh is filled will trash, peddlers, and good street food (though it was no one near as good as HCM). A few deep breaths driving down the road guarantees the production of an uncontrollable coughing spell. My hospital mask slightly reduced the accumulation of dust in my lungs, but I still felt like I’d been living in chimney by the time I left Phnom Penh.
I’m not sure why I agreed, but my tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) driver convinced me that going to a back-country shooting range would be a good idea. Upon arrival, I was given a “menu” of gun options with associated prices. Choices ranged in scale from a Colt 45 handgun to a Soviet RPG. My tuk-tuk driver and I walked through the gates and were greeted by armed guards. In an attempt to measure how comfortable my driver was the situation, I continually looked over at him. He appeared slightly shaken, but not enough to make me alarmed. The Cambodians took me into an old warehouse and showed me the menu of options again, only this time all of the prices mysteriously had doubled. I tried bartering a bit, but this was no ordinary peddler on the street of Asia. A common theme in my writings has been the quick cost/benefit analysis needed when dealing with people in a very foreign country. In this example, I decided that any amount of money I was about to dish out was worth getting out of the warehouse in one piece. I fired 100 rounds of an AK-47 and then 100 rounds of an M-16. For a treat, the swindlers, knowing that they’d cheated me, threw in a hand grenade. There was not a chance in the hell that I was going to touch an antiquated Chinese explosive. Thankfully, it wasn’t too difficult for me to convince my tuk-tuk driver to toss the grenade. Concerned that there might be a mishap with the grenade, I high-tailed it as quickly as I could for the rickshaw. The entire event was over in 10 minutes.
After finishing at the gun range, I visited the appropriately named Killing Fields (Choeng Ek). This is the place where Pol Pot executed anyone that might be of threat to his power in Cambodia. In four years, approximately 18,000 people were killed here. This room houses thousands of skulls found at Cheong Ek, and acts as a memorial to those those who died on the property.
Because the regime was too poor/cheap to expend resources on bullets needed for executions, prisoners were killed using farm equipment or the stem of a sugar palm tree. The stem, which supports large fan-like leaves, is razor sharp, and according to the tour notes, were harvested from this exact sugar palm.
This tree was designated as the killing place for children. Executioners would throw babies against the trunk causing their deaths. When the Vietnamese invaded Phnom Penh in 1979, the skull and brain remains were found stuck to the bark.
These two photos are from Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21. Interrogation and torture were central to the Khmer Rouge’s operations, and this building served as their headquarters for these practices. Each room contains an incredibly graphic picture displaying the death of an alleged dissident. All of the torture devices, ranging from electrical chairs to finger hatchets, are located in an exhibition. Paintings created by one of the survivors hang on the walls of the museum hall, and depict how each torture practice unfolded. Of the approximately 15,000 prisoners to come through the doors at Tuol Sleng, only twelve are known to have survived. Today, only three victims are alive.
Wat Phnom is an enormous Buddhist temple built directly in the middle of the city. The building is over 800 years old, but has be renovated numerous times due to destruction from siege and weather.
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh serves as home to the King of Cambodia. Overall, I found the structures to be underwhelming, but I did enjoy the pomp and circumstance of being on the royal grounds.
To my surprise, Cambodia has two stout beers available at nearly every bar. The abv is an impressive 9%, which is high for a mass-produced beer.
Ho Chi Minh City is now in the rearview mirror. A city rich in culture, activities, and character, its people brim with enthusiasm and positivity. When I contemplated the idea of going to Asia, HCM is very near to what I hoped to visit. Without question I experienced culture shock, which has altered my perspective about the East and made me more aware of what life is like on the other side of globe. I spent sixteen nights in HCM. By backpacker standards, this is a very long time. Most people who wander the SEA trail will spend a maximum of three to four nights in a city. HCM provided a comfortable discomfort; this feeling compelled me to stay longer than originally anticipated.
Here is a brief summary followed by a few pictures from my favorite activity while in HCM — a guided street food tour.
1) People: Overall, the locals in HCM were warm and welcoming. English proficiency was low, but that is to be expected. Finding a willing person to assist with questions about directions or the history of the city is a breeze. The only variable is whether or not the person will be comprehendible.
2) Food: Good, cheap street food lines the streets. In addition to this, a diverse selection of reasonably priced restaurants are within walking distance of the backpacker area. If you are like me, and grow tired of the Vietnamese choices, a diverse selection of cuisines are on offer.
3) Value: Depending on the level of thrift maintained, it is conceivable to live on $40 per day. This would include lodging, food, and entertainment.
4) Authenticity: As an outsider, the city maintains a cultural identity that doesn’t feel as impacted by the West as that of Hong Kong.
5) Variety: Whether it’s a food tour, dance performance, shopping, cooking class, or museum tour, the list of available activities goes on and on.
1) Peddlers: Being a Westerner in SEA presumes you’ve come prepared to be constantly hassled by street vendors and peddlers. I accepted this before arriving. What I did not anticipate was the level of hustling that would occur. Scams, tricks, and setups are around every corner. My level of paranoia for this is higher than that of most, but much of it was warranted.
2) Trash and pollution: This certainly isn’t unique to HCM; it actually is one of the lesser polluted major cities in Asia. Still, having had little exposure to the East, it can be shocking. In place of trash cans, garbage is thrown into piles on the street. Smog and dust consume the air, and any visible body of water is filled with trash and neon-green toxins.
3) Traffic: Crossing the street is a legitimate safety hazard. I ended up finding some strange pleasure in the challenge of not getting hit by speeding bikes, but in the long run, I’d prefer the controlled atmosphere of the traffic laws we abide by back in the West.
No longer could I resist the scent of the pizza place near my hostel. According to a few locals, this is best pie in HCM. Although the cheese, sauce, and meat hit the spot, had I eaten it back home, I would have been overwhelmingly disappointed.
For one of my final meals in HCM I tried a highly acclaimed vegetarian restaurant. The food was good, but it reminded me why I gave up on being a vegetarian/pescatarian. Whether it is good, bad, or otherwise to consume meat, you can’t deny its delicious flavor.
Of all the experiences I had in HCM, eating strange foods in the poorest districts of the city was by far the most memorable. Without having had a guide, many of the locations we visited on this tour would not have been accessible to a touristy-looking white person. Our group was comprised of 12 people — 6 Australians, 3 Brits, 2 Canadians, and me. This seems to be a consistent ratio here. Most of the travelers are Australian, followed by people from the UK and Canadian. A surprisingly minuscule number of travelers are from the United States.
It’s hard to tell from this picture, but two of the people in my group were over 6’6” tall, and two other guys were over 220 lbs. In the background, you’ll see a man standing, wearing a white shirt. Being that we were visiting potentially dangerous zones of the city, the tour package included five body guards. The gigantic guys in my group made me feel safer than the body guards did.
My tour guide was absolutely hilarious. She found amusement in my ability to eat so much. The food tour’s policy was this: eat and drink as much as you can. If you get too drunk or full, we will tie you to the a motorbike and drag you home. To encourage me to eat my 100th scallop, my guide hand-fed me the final few.
And this brings back a painful, but noteworthy memory. As I’ve mentioned in the past, motorbikes completely flood the streets. Imagine watching an ant colony devour an apple. That’s what an aerial view of the HCM streets would look like. In the midst of this mayhem, my driver came to a halt at a stoplight, which, based on her previous few choices, seemed to be an arbitrary decision. In an attempt to get us to the front of the line, she began weaving in and out of traffic. Half-way through the demonstration, the light changed, and off we sped. In threading the needle between two bikes, my foot drilled into the exhaust of the bike to our left. As I glanced down at the damaged bike, I noticed that the exhaust was dangling by a few pieces of metal. My driver, clearly having heard the incident, didn’t take a moment to acknowledge what occurred. Instead, our speed increased, and the collision was left to history. In the end, I had a bruise on my foot and a funny story to tell. When I brought it up later in the evening, she acted baffled, but I know that she was aware something had happened.
The beloved Balut of Vietnam. It’s not hard to make; boil a developing duck embryo and serve — no sauce, no accoutrement. In getting to the bottom of the egg, I could see the eyes and mouth of the fetus. Not a pleasant eating experience, but one that I will not soon forget.
Here are the miniature scallops basking in a sweet and spicy chili sauce. Almost all of the dipping sauces and broths in Vietnam contain the same ingredients: fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, garlic, and chili peppers. Simple, yet delicious. The 100th tasted just as good as the 1st.
Open-faced bean and crab fritter. Another wonderful Vietnamese inspired dish.
While innocently strolling through the park two nights ago, I had my first encounter with ladyboys. In case you have never heard the term ladyboy before, it refers to a man who is extremely effeminate, or a transgender woman. Either way, the difference between a ladyboy and regular female in SEA (South East Asia) is nearly impossible to detect. Thankfully, in the past few weeks, I’ve done much homework regarding scams and dangers prevalent in this part of the world. As I walked through dark park, three ladyboys popped out from behind a tree and swiftly approached me. Their technique, or so I had read, was to grope the crotch of the would be victim in a seductive way in hopes of ripping items from his pockets. Sure enough, the three ladyboys aggressively approached me and began grabbing at my crotch. My fight-or-flight response kicked in as flailed to get away without loosing any items. Thankfully, I had my wallet buried deep within my front pocket, and my laptop was in backpack which I had over my chest. The amount of force the ladyboys used was surprising. Two of them tried to hold me in place, squeezing my arms, while the third attacked at my pockets. After I got away, I watched to see if the attackers would disperse. Nope. The three returned to their original positions and attempted the plot on the next passer-by. So is the life in SEA.
To give you a better sense of what it is like to be in Vietnam, here is a list of my observations (Disclaimer: these are my opinionated and biased observations, so take them with a grain of salt)
General deference: the Vietnamese have an unquestioned respect for perceived authority. Even at my hostel, all of the workers call me Mr. Chris. It’s an odd, and seemingly dangerous form of blind belief, but it is so deeply embedded in the culture.
Funny sayings: 1) I would like instead of I will. Again, I think that this goes back general respect for anyone or anything seen in a sanctimonious light. When speaking factually, we (Westerns) use commands; they (Vietnamese) use suggestive language. 2) May I know your name instead of what is your name? Again, a less presumptive way of asking a person for his name. 3) That’s all. Once a Vietnamese person is done speaking, it is very common to hear this phrase. On the whole, those who speak English are highly fluent, and relish in the opportunity to talk to a Westerner.
High prices for Westerners: if chicken and rice dish costs a local 1.25 USD, it costs me 2.00 USD. Usually, I don’t put up a fight about the price discrimination; although, one time, I checked out simultaneous to a local, and refused the food on account of the rip-job. It goes back to the cost/benefit I mentioned in an earlier post. How much conflict are you willing to introduce for .75 USD?
Lack of touch/affection: almost no public displays of intimacy are accepted. Even holding hands with one’s girlfriend is seen in a poor light. Compare this with a place like South America, where touchy-feeliness is omnipresent; quite the chasm exists between the two cultures.
Few cops: seeing a police office is a rare occurrence. The cops here do not carry guns. With the exception of petty theft, I’ve heard of and seen surprisingly little crime for a relatively poor metropolitan city.
Skinny: practically no one here is overweight. The food tends to be light, with only a handful of dishes that enter the class of caloric density prevalent in Italian and French food (both of which I miss dearly). In place of eating, people tend to smoke and drink.
No public bathrooms: I drink many liquids, and prefer having a bathroom accessible. Outside of coffee shops and two bathrooms in the park, the bushes or your hostel appear to be the only viable options.
Littering and pollution: littering seems like a national past time in Vietnam. It is commonplace to see someone finish a beverage and toss the empty container into the street. The level of pollution feels quite high. I haven’t researched it, but being that it is a big, developing city, I doubt I’d be any happier knowing the reality of the situation.
Hovering restaurant staff: as you prepare to order at a restaurant, multiple staff members will stand directly over your shoulder. It took me a few days to become comfortable ordering under pressure. When shushed away, the waiters and waitresses act baffled.
General happiness: overall, the people of HCMC appear relatively happy. Cell phone usage is much lower, and interpersonal contact appears much higher than in Hong Kong.
Desire to learn: students attending University line the park hoping for an opportunity to hone their English skills with a native speaker. I’ve stopped and chatted a few times. Once hooked, a group of 20-30 students will gather around and sit cross-legged. It is a simple way of making yourself of service to the locals.
Opportunist merchants: peddlers must be treated with cold indifference. The minute someone appears weak or vulnerable to a sale, the peddler will lock on the target, and not back down until the swindling is over. A stern “no” is important to prevent being hounded.
General lack of awareness: when talking to the local students about existential threats, such as global war or climate change, the students have zero awareness. Even the well-educated seem unconcerned with long-term issues.
Men and women spit: it is a constant practice. I guess I am accustomed to it now, but the first time I saw a young girl hawk a huge lugee, it grossed me out.
Misogynistic tendencies: American and European men are sought after through much of Asia, including in Hong Kong. Yes, it perceived that Westerns have more money, but they are also seen as treating women with more respect and fairness.
The local market here is incredible. All sorts of fish, from Salmon to Grouper to Wahoo, are available on a daily basis. Because all prices are established via negotiations, as an outsider, it is almost impossible to strike a deal.
After completing a march through District 4, which is a part of HCMC that Westerners are advised not to walk through, I basked in the glory of making it back across the bridge into District 1. The river to my left is the Saigon River. Of all the streams, creeks, rivers, and so on that I’ve ever seen, this is the single most disgusting. Trash and toxins are so thick that the water appears viscous.
Standard mode of transportation. Apparently it is illegal, though the rules appear to be followed rarely.
This is the first “backpacker” I hung out with in Vietnam. He is from Cleveland, OH, and is first generation Vietnamese. Wanting to give me an authentic experience, he took me out a local restaurant with his cousin and friends. Only having one person in the entire establishment know you and your language is a strange but valuable experience.
I’m not an electrician, but this strikes me as unsafe. Most place in HCMC having wiring similar to this.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
Favorite street vendor
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I hiked back up in the afternoon after the fog had lifted and took these photos from a slightly different angle.
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.
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).
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,
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)
Big Sur, CA (Pfeifer Beach)
San Francisco, CA
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.
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.
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.
Final goodbye before taking off.
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.
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.
More to come tomorrow!
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.
All the best, and again, thank you for checking out my blog.