Prambanan and nearby temples

Remember how we said we were templed out when we left Siem Reap?  Fortunately, its been a few months, as we spent another day in Yogyakarta temple hopping.  We booked a private car (and completely overpaid given we only wanted it for half a day) and wandered around to several different temples.

We started our day at Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia.  It was built back during the 9th century.  It is another Unesco World Heritage site and, in some ways, I liked it even better than Borobudur.  While the carvings weren’t as intricate, it was much easier to get a view of the entire temple complex.  Most people visit Prambanan at sunset, but we arrived at 6:30 a.m. and were one of only a handful of people there so we pretty much had the temples to ourselves for awhile.  Plus, there were beautiful views of Mount Merapi at that time (the view was pretty much all clouds by 7:30 am) and we were able to see the volcano smoking from multiple vents.  So cool!


A wide shot of Prambanan.


Robert at Prambanan.


Prambanan statue.


A carving at Prambanan.

Included in the Prabanan ticket price (350K IDR or about 25 USD) are three other temples.  They have a little shuttle train that will take you to the other temples (for a small price), but we walked as it was only a couple of kilometers to the furthest one.

We started at the furthest away temple, which is Sewu Temple, and the one of the three we found most impressive.  Sewu Temple is a Buddhist temple from the 8th century.  Much of it was in ruins, but there were still some impressive towers.


The entrance to Sewu Temple.


Me sweating like a pig at Sewu Temple.


A statue at Sewu Temple that I’m guessing is not an original but is still pretty interesting.

We also visited Bubrah Temple.  This is a Buddhist temple from the 9th century and is just a single tower and not that impressive.  Nonetheless, we walked right by it so there was no reason not to visit.  (We didn’t visit the third temple as it was mostly ruins and closed for renovations)


Bubrah Temple.

As you leave the Prambanan grounds, be sure to stop at the cafe.  There is a guy on the side selling “serabi solo” which are pancakes made of coconut milk and rice flour.  The outside is crunchy, the inside is creamy and you can get them with chocolate added.  Yum!

(Note you can get a combo ticket to Borobudur and Prambanan which saves you some cash but it is only good for two days.  You can also get a combo ticket to Prambanan and Ratu Boko.  We had intended to visit Ratu Boko but, for reasons completely unknown to us, the combo ticket didn’t go on sale at Prambanan until 8 am — given the ordinary price of Ratu Boko is also 350K IDR we decided to skip it).

Next stop on our temple tour was Plaosan Temple, a Buddhist temple built in the 9th century.  This temple is surrounded by rice fields, homes, and shops.  It is next to impossible to get a shot of the entire temple which mainly consists of two large towers.  Nonetheless, t is worth a few minutes if you are in the neighborhood (especially as the entrance fee was only 3000 IDR (about 21 U.S. cents).


One of the towers at Plaosan Temple.


Plaosan Temple.


The two of us at Plaosan Temple.

Our last stop of the day was Ijo Temple, a Hindu temple built in the 10th and 11th centuries.  Ijo Temple is located high in on a hill and is apparently best visited at sunset, but we didn’t feel like heading back out to the area late in the afternoon.  Ijo Temple is one large tower and several smaller towers.  Unfortunately, the day we visited the large tower was full of men climbing all over it and removing moss so we didn’t get very good photos, but it is worth a short visit if you are nearby.


Ijo Temple.

All-in-all, it was a lovely day in the countryside around Yogyakarta.



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Taman Sari — A swing and a miss in Yogyakarta

Some days, sightseeing isn’t all it is cracked up to be.  And, I think it is important to be honest about what sights are worth seeing and which sights simply aren’t worth seeing.  So, here goes….

One of the alleged highlights of Yogyakarta is Taman Sari, otherwise known as the water temple.  It was constructed back in the 1700’s and was used for, among other things, bathing and relaxing and, according to at least some websites, wife hunting.  Back in the day, it spread over 12,000 acres (I know that seems like a really high number, but I got it from the World Monument’s Fund website which I think is pretty reputable but perhaps not because 12,000 acres seems huge).  Now, however, other than a couple of pools, some abandoned buildings, and the underground mosque, it is pretty much gone.


The entrance to Taman Sari.

We decided to get up early and walk to Taman Sari from our hotel.  Along the way, we picked up an English teacher here in Yogyakarta who wanted to walk with us and practice his English.  We learned all about weddings in Java (guests are expected to stay no more than 20 minutes or so — they congratulate the couple, drop off a gift, eat a small snack, and go) and teacher salaries (he said that teachers at government schools make 4 million IDR — or about 285 USD — per month, which based on my research appears to be just over the minimum wage in Indonesia).  It was fun chatting with him, and that turned out to be the highlight of our visit to Taman Sari.


The pools at Taman Sari.

By the time we arrived at Taman Sari, we were disgustingly hot and sweaty and already in need of a shower.  Nonetheless, we plunged onward.  We quickly learned that the pools were quite small.  Most of the rooms were abandoned, and there were no signs explaining anything anywhere (in either Indonesian or English, so I’m not just bitching about the lack of foreign language signs).  Apparently, if you don’t hire a local guide (and plenty hang out just inside the entrance), you don’t get any information at all.


A carving on the wall at Taman Sari.

After wandering around for about 15 minutes, and getting yelled at for going the wrong way, we decided to try to find the underground mosque.  Of course, there are no signs for that either.  Thankfully, after Robert and I nearly came to blows about which direction to walk, some woman took pity on us and pointed us in the right direction.  Off we went, wandering through narrow alleys and trying to navigate with Google maps.  When we finally found the underground mosque, we weren’t that impressed.   There were people everywhere, all waiting their turn to get a photo on these steps.


In the underground mosque.  Sorry about the overexposure but it was impossible to take a good photo here between the sunlight, the shadows, and the people everywhere (can you see them lining up to dash up the stairs?).

Bottom line, if you are in Yogyakarta, I think you can give Taman Sari a pass.  If you do go, you might want to try going as soon as they open and hitting the mosque first before the masses of people arrive.

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Borobudur, the chicken church, and Mount Merapi

Whooo hooo!  We are in a brand new to us city (Yogyakarta, which is actually pronounced like jogjakarta by some people, apparently because the Dutch colonizers couldn’t pronounce Y or so one of our guides told us) and you know what that means?  Sightseeing!  It is about time.  We were both getting pretty tired of sitting by the pool all day.  (OK, fine, we will probably never get tired of that, but we are both eager to get out and do some sightseeing before our next two months of sitting by pools in Thailand).


Borobudur from a distance.

Borobudur is THE “must see” in Yogyakarta.  In fact, we’ve read that it is the most visited site in all of Indonesia.  Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple and a UNESCO world heritage site (and you know how we love those).  It was built in the 9th century, abandoned sometime around the 14th century, and “discovered” (yeah, right) by Sir Raffles buried under ash and jungle in the 19th century.  So we booked a car and driver to take us to Borobudur our first full day in Yogyakarta.


A closer view of the temple.

Most people seem to visit Borobudur at sunrise, which means leaving town no later than 4 am.  If you know anything about us, you know we were not down for that.  But, it is brutally hot here and visiting in the middle of the day just wasn’t an option.  So, we sucked it up and our car picked us up at 5 am.  We arrived at Borobudur just as they opened up for those people that had not paid extra for the sunrise.  There were very few people there, which was lovely.  And, we finished up our sightseeing just as the day really started to get warm.


One of the more than 500 Buddhas at Borobudur.

There are several levels to Borobudur and you can walk 360 degrees around each level.  They are covered with various statues.


Statue at the base of the steps.


Statue on the walls.

And, the lower levels were absolutely covered with intricate carvings, some of which had nice pops of bright green moss growing on them.


A close-up of one of the many carvings.


A wider shot of the carvings.  I love the elephants.

At the top, there are over 70 stupas, each of which contains a Buddha.


Robert with the stupas.  It was a very foggy morning.

By around 8:30, as we were wrapping up our visit, the school field trips were in full swing.  Oddly, many of the school girls wanted to take photos with me — I’m guessing I posed with 10-15 different groups of girls and we finally just had to walk away.  Some wanted to practice their English, but most just wanted the photo.  One group of school boys also wanted to pose with Robert.  I have no idea why they wanted photos with us, but apparently it is quite common.  A local we spoke to said that most of the school kids are from small villages, that they rarely see Caucasians, and they take the photos so they can say they “met” a tourist.


Posing with the school girls.  How they could wear long pants, and long sleeves, and head scarves in that weather, I have no idea…..  And how they make me look so huge I have no idea….

We finally rolled out of Borobudur around 9:15 and made our way to Gereja Ayam (the Chicken Church).  The story is that a Christian named Daniel Alamsjah was working in Jakarta when he had a vision to build a prayer house (he claims it wasn’t intended to be a church, but a prayer house for all faiths).  In 1989, he was walking near his wife’s family’s home, and realized the land looked just like the land he had seen in his vision.  So, he started building the prayer house.  He wanted to build something that looked like a dove but, as you can see, it didn’t quite work out that way.


Sure looks like a chicken to me.

The prayer house was open from about 1990-2000, but then closed.  The rumor is that the place was eventually abandoned because of lack of funding and because of conflict with the locals (who were not Christian).  But, the enterprising locals have now turned it into a tourist destination and it is open again.  I’m not sure how much praying actually happens here.  There are private prayer rooms and a main room, but there is also a cafe and weird “just say no to drugs” type artwork.


“Life or death”

After our visit to the Chicken Church, we were off to Mount Merapi, an active volcano.  Merapi erupts frequently (every 5-10 years) and the last big eruption was in 2010 (so, yes, it is about due for another one) killing over 300 people (mostly those who had not heeded the evacuation warnings or so we were told). Our guide claimed lava was being expelled 2 km down the mountain while we were visiting, but the volcano was covered in clouds so we can neither confirm nor deny that report.

We jumped into a jeep to tour the area.  This was, unfortunately, the low light of the day and a real waste of money.  The tour stopped at three places.  First up was a “museum” which was basically just a house that had been destroyed when the volcano last erupted and filled with ruined household objects.


Posing in our jeep.

The next stop was the “alien stone.”  This is a large stone that was expelled by the volcano.  It traveled something like 7 km, and wound up in a field.  Then, it was off to a bunker where some people had died — the bunker was built to withstand hot smoke but two people got trapped in the bunker as lava flowed by and, as I understand it, basically baked to death inside the bunker.


The alien stone.  It took Robert forever to see the face….And he thinks it looks more like a storm trooper from Star Wars.

The Merapi tour might have been a good tour if the weather was better and we had seen views of the volcano, but we both think you can pass on this if you visit Yogyakarta.

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Brunching in Bali

Robert and I love brunch.  It doesn’t matter whether it is an all-you-can eat and all-you-can drink brunch or just an order off the menu type of thing.  It doesn’t matter if it is some big and fancy buffet in Las Vegas or just a casual restaurant in Chicago.  It doesn’t matter if it is just the two of us or if we are with a group of people.  Brunch, my friends, is one of life’s little (or not so little) pleasures.  There is quite simply nothing better than pigging out on Sunday morning/afternoon with a glass of bubbles (and, yes, brunch does require bubbles — I stand firm on the idea that brunch without bubbles isn’t really brunch).

And Bali has the brunch scene down — we were spoiled for choice.  Thankfully, we were staying at a hotel that has one of the best brunches in Bali — the all-you-can eat brunch at Cucina restaurant at the Sofitel in Nusa Dua.  (You can pay extra and get free flow — we went for the bubbles, wine and soft drink option).

This brunch had a little bit of something for everyone.  Most importantly from my perspective, there was pizza!  It is the rare Sunday brunch that includes pizza.  And, not only did they have pizza, but they had french fries that weren’t soggy.  I was in heaven and could have filled most of my tummy space on these two items alone.  But, that would have been silly.


Multiple types of pizza (and quiche) and they even had my second favorite pizza flavor — margherita. 

So, it was on to grilled meats.  They had salt crusted barramundi and roasted chicken and steak and lamb and schwarma and a bunch of other things that I am forgetting now.


Salt crusted barramundi. 

Oh, and you can’t forget the breads — they had croissants and baguettes and a ton of other things.  Good bread in Asia is relatively rare and always something to gobble up.

I was pretty much happy at this point, but Robert is all about the seafood.  And, there was plenty of seafood.  There were grilled anchovies.


Looked disgusting to me (although the presentation was quite pretty), but Robert loved them.

And multiple types of sushi.


Sushi rolls.

And the raw bar was pretty insane.  There were green mussels and clams and prawns and crabs and oysters.


Just when our bellies were ready to explode, the waitress reminded us that they also had a la carte choices too.  We were pretty boring and just got a Spanish omelette and some croquettes, but they even had fois gras and steak as options.

And can we talk about desserts?  There was an entire room devoted to desserts.  I just might have wandered into that room on more than one occasion….


Fruit isn’t a dessert, but meringues are….


These chocolates were amazing.


Sadly, we didn’t have room for these beauties.

Brunch at the Sofitel doesn’t come cheap, but it was worth every penny.  Especially knowing that we just had to roll ourselves to the pool loungers for a nice nap once we were done filling our faces.

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Final Thoughts on Vietnam (2019)

After our second three month visit, Robert and I left Vietnam last week feeling very, very conflicted.  Don’t get me wrong, we still adore Vietnam.  But it is changing so quickly.  It is getting harder and harder to feel like we have any opportunity at all to see the “real” Vietnam — instead tourists are shuttled off to tourist towns (Mui Ne, I’m talking about you) and tourist districts (Hue, I’m talking about you) and tourist restaurants.  So, if you have any desire to go, we say go now before it changes any further.


Tet decorations in Saigon.

In spite of visiting Vietnam four previous times and eating a ton of Vietnamese food in Chicago, we were pleasantly surprised at how much new food we tried on this trip.  I absolutely loved the beef stew served everywhere in Hoi An.  (That might have something to do with the yummy baguette served with the stew).  Robert fell in love in Hanoi with Bun Thit Nuong’s cousin Bun Cha (grilled ground pork patties with noodles).  And, I have no idea how on earth we had previously missed the fried bread served with the pho in Hanoi.  All excellent dishes.

We were also pleasantly reminded of the “anything goes” attitude at breakfast.  Breakfast isn’t ruled by Kellogg’s and Quaker Oats.  No, in Vietnam, if you want corn on the cob for breakfast (and, oh, do I), it is available.  If you want chicken curry for breakfast, it is available.  And, if you want beef noodle soup for breakfast, it is absolutely everywhere. 


Vendor taking a break in Saigon.

I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to find body lotion that didn’t have a whitening agent in it.  We went to store after store in a nearly futile attempt to find it.  And, what we finally found was so heavily perfumed I left it behind when we flew to Bali.  I guess that explains how the Vietnamese women can have skin whiter than mine at the end of a Chicago winter….


On a break in Saigon.

We were both astounded at how frequently we were given incorrect change, and that it was almost always in our favor.  And, when we told shopkeepers and waitresses that they had given us too much change, they always looked at us like we were crazy.  It wasn’t until the end of our visit that we realized we might have been inadvertently shaming them rather than just doing the honest thing.  Oops!


At the bolt market in Saigon.

The ATMs in Vietnam are awful.  Oftentimes, they only let you take out 1-2 million Vietnamese Dong.  Sounds like quite a bit of money, right?  Well, guess again.  That is roughly 42-85 USD.  And, most of the ATMs charge huge fees — on average they were probably 2% but some were even higher.  So, the first order of business in every new town was to find a high limit ATM with low fees.  (Hint:  Military Bank seems to fit the bill most places).


Flowers for Tet in Saigon.

It doesn’t matter how “nice” a hotel is, there is always something “off” in Vietnam.  For example, the Pullman hotel in Saigon has the bathtub in the middle of the room and only glass doors that don’t even go all the way to the ceiling to separate the toilet from the bedroom.  I certainly prefer a bit more privacy than that….  Leman Cap Resort in Vung Tau thoughtfully gave us reusable fabric bags as a parting gift — which they then put into a very heavy plastic bag.  It is always something….


A sleepy dog in Hoi An.

Wow, do the Vietnamese turn the volume up to 11.  Everything is so loud.  Karaoke bars blare music into the streets at all hours.  People scream when a normal speaking voice would suffice.  Radios blare out music on the sidewalk.  It does really get to be a bit much.


Lanterns in Hoi An.

The Vietnamese really love their football (soccer) team.  We were lucky enough to be there for two big tournaments, one of which Vietnam won.  After every winning game, the parties started.  In Hanoi, people set off glitter bombs in the streets and the party lasted all night.  In Hoi An, people called in sick for work the next day as they nursed their hangovers.  And, in Vung Tau, there was an impromptu scooter parade with guys carrying flares in their bare hands.  It was crazy.


Bitter melon at the market in Hoi An.

Children are treated so differently here.  They are encouraged to pose for photos for complete strangers.  They are encouraged to practice English with complete strangers.  So, certain things we as Americans would consider completely unsafe or inappropriate are no problem here.  Yet, they aren’t required to wear helmets on scooters until age six.  Go figure.


Market vendor in Hoi An.

There is sugar everywhere.  Order a black coffee, expect it to be full of sugar.  Order a lemonade, expect an inch of granulated sugar at the bottom of the glass.  Order popcorn at the movie theater, expect it to be candied.  Vietnam apparently has the highest and fastest growing rate of diabetes in SE Asia.  Coincidence?


Mural on the streets of Hanoi.

The Vietnamese men can nurse a cup of coffee for an entire afternoon.  Seriously, we have watched them do it.  But they can drink beer faster than the boys at a midwestern fraternity party.  Again, we have watched them do it (and I went to my fair share of fraternity parties in college).


Robert at the beach in Vung Tau.

So few tourists even try to speak Vietnamese.  We learned a few words and it was amazing how happy it made the Vietnamese people.  Robert learned how to ask for his coffee in Vietnamese and, wow, did it make people smile.  We both learned how to ask for the check in Vietnamese — again, it made everyone smile.   You cannot believe the amount of attention you get when you yell “em oi, tinh tien,” which more or less means “hey, the bill” across a crowded restaurant — heads literally whip around (and, yes, we had two different Vietnamese people in two different cities teach us how to say this properly plus we heard plenty of locals say it so we know we were doing it correctly).  People’s eyes lit up when we wished them Happy New Year in Vietnamese.  Unfortunately, neither one of us think we could ever truly learn the language.  (As evidenced by how frequently I said beef (bo) when I meant to say three (ba)….)


Stuffed animals for sale in Vung Tau.

There is a serious lack of birds in Vietnam.  You would think in a country so green and so full of rice that there would be birds everywhere.  But, there really weren’t.  And, the birds we did see were mainly of the boring pigeon and chickadee varieties.  I wonder if it is a long term side effect of Agent Orange or something else?


Fishing boats in Vung Tau.

In Chicago, we always looked for the tamale guy to show up at night.  In Vietnam, we saw spring roll ladies.  I really kind of miss the tamale guy…


Craft beer in Saigon.

There are security guys everywhere.  But, as best we can tell, none of them are actually protecting stores or shops.  They are all protecting scooters.


The most famous bridge in Hoi An.

Give beer street in Hanoi a pass.  It used to be a great place to spend an evening.  No so anymore.  Now, the touts will actually grab you in an attempt to pull you into their establishment.  And, they will refuse to sell you anything other than their sponsor beer.  Even if you don’t drink beer.  And, even if the menu lists plenty of other beverages.


Fishing outside of Hoi An.

We got so sick and tired of being asked if we wanted to buy drugs.  In every single town, we were approached to buy drugs.  Oftentimes, by the same guy on the same motorcycle on the same street corner every single night.  It got very old, very fast.


Butterfly in Mai Chau.

You know your standards have completely changed when you walk into a bathroom at a highway rest stop, see there is no seat on the toilet but that everything is dry and there is toilet paper, and think “hmm, this is a really nice bathroom…..”


Hats for sale in Hanoi.

Robert and I have always disagreed as to whether Northern Vietnam or Southern Vietnam is the best.  As in the past, I continue to think Hanoi is the best part of Vietnam.  It was the rare place where it was still really easy to eat at local restaurants that didn’t cater to tourists, especially if you walked just a few minutes out of the old town area, and the food was amazingly good.  Robert grudgingly admitted to me Hanoi was his favorite city this time, but he also still really likes Saigon and, I have to admit, once you get out of District 1 there is quite a bit to like about Saigon.


Robert on train street in Hanoi.

We will be back to Vietnam someday.  But next time, I think we will give places like Mui Ne a miss and focus more on the small towns in the North.

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A Week in Saigon

We just spent a week in Saigon.  Quite a few people, when they heard we were visiting Saigon for an entire week, said “oh, I’m sorry.”  And, in all honesty, I really wouldn’t recommend any tourist spend an entire week in Saigon.  It is a big, bustling, loud city without much to do in the way of sightseeing.  But we managed to really enjoy ourselves.  Guess how?  We made it all  about the food and the beverages, of course.


Orange trees were for sale for Tet just like we sell Christmas trees.

Robert pretty much drank his weight in coffee and beer.  He loves his Cà phê Đen Đá  (iced black coffee) and he made sure to get some every single day.  And the baristas love him for asking for his coffee in Vietnamese.  Seriously, we got some of the biggest smiles when he ordered coffee.

Robert also really likes his craft beer.  Saigon is having a craft beer explosion and our next destination — Indonesia — most certainly isn’t.  Facing two weeks of Bintang in Bali and a week in primarily Muslim Java where he may just have to forego alcohol altogether, Robert thought our time in Saigon would be best spent hitting brew pub after brew pub after brew pub.

Robert’s favorite brew pub was East West Brewing Co., where Robert sampled five different beers and I had a really good (gasp, I can’t believe I’m saying this) chardonnay.  We liked East West so much we returned for a second visit.  Robert says it must be noted that he did not care for the Saison, which is very strange for him.


Tet decorations at East West.

Robert’s second favorite brew pub was Pasteur Street Brewing.  We had been there in 2015 right after they opened and, back then, Robert thought it was the best beer in Vietnam.  So, of course we had to return this time.  No self-respecting beer drinker can visit Saigon without visiting Pasteur, as it really is the granddaddy of craft brews in Saigon.  Unfortunately for me, the stools aren’t very comfortable and the wine is just so-so.

Robert’s third favorite brew pub was Heart of Darkness, where Robert sampled six beers.  This bar was probably the most “us” — it was dark and the music was a bit more to our style (oh hello Rage Against the Machine….).  And, they had really good fries.  But, according to Robert, one of the beers was downright bad.  And, once again, the wine was just so-so.


Tasting flight at Heart of Darkness.  One beer was missing because they had to change the keg.

Robert’s fourth favorite was a place called Belgo.  Robert was fairly unimpressed with the beer, but the Belgian frites were pretty good.  It was really quiet when we were there and, I have to say, the staff was not very friendly (although certainly not rude either).  If you go, I dare you to order the Antigone, which is a 2.4 Liter glass of beer….


Art at Belgo.

We also hit Bia Craft.  The people watching was excellent there because it was right on a busy corner and we had stools overlooking the street.  Robert tried four beers there and says the beer was fine but not memorable (except for one which was really bad).  We also hit a place called Winking Seal.  Sadly, Robert only got to try one beer there because I was hungry and the kitchen was closed and neither one of us wanted to risk an episode of hangry, or even worse, hitchy.  But, I got to try a ginger apple cider that was quite good.


Is this not the most adorable beer pull?

Finally, the last place on the list is Hen House, which served Rooster beer.  We were both disappointed with this place.  Robert says the beer was “better than a Bud” but that is about all.  The music was annoying and loud and the bathrooms were kind of gross (even by Vietnamese standards).

While Robert was busy drinking his weight in beer, I was busy eating my weight in pizza and Vietnamese food.

Our first night we hit Pizza 4 P’s.  I still can’t believe that some of the best Italian style pizza in the world can be found in Vietnam but, trust me, it can.  I literally cannot go to Saigon ever again without getting a pizza here.  But, once the pizza was out of the way, it was time to focus on Vietnamese food.  We had pretty much eaten nothing but tourist junk for weeks, and we wanted to cleanse our palate with yummy local food before leaving the country.  (Fine, fine, confession time, we went to 4 P’s for our last lunch in Saigon too….).

One of the highlights was Banh Xeo 46A.  The banh xeo were out of this world — the pancake was so light and airy.  And, three ladies were juggling 14 pans of banh xeo at the same time.  And, locals kept pulling up on their scooters ordering banh xeo to go, plus Anthony Bourdain recommended it, so you know this is some good stuff.


Bahn xeo cooking over charcoal.

Another highlight was bun thit nuong cha gio.  We wandered out one day looking for a place called Chi Thong which had come highly recommended by Jodi at Legal Nomads as well as a couple of other blogs.  However, we somehow ended up instead at a place called Bún Thịt Nướng Chị Tuyền at 175C Co Giang.  No matter.  It was delicious and loaded with two different styles of pork!  The fish sauce was a bit more oily than we were used to, but it really made the dish.


Bun thit nuong cha gio.

And, we absolutely had to have some cơm tấm, which is a dish made with broken rice and protein.  We hit up a tiny little roadside stand called Cơm tấm Trần Quý Cáp at 260 Võ Văn Tần.  It was excellent.  In fact, Robert said it was the best broken rice he had ever had and that is saying something given it is one of his all time favorite Vietnamese meals.  His came with a pork chop, a steamed egg meatloaf, and a fried egg — I was boring and just had the pork.


Broken rice with pork.

But just hitting up a few street food stalls wasn’t going to cut it.  We also joined in “The Foodie” Tour with XO Tours.  In other words, we allowed young (e.g., about 20 years old) Vietnamese women to hold our lives in their hands.  We jumped on the backs of their scooters and rode all around the city.  Watching the traffic in Saigon is one thing — being immersed in the traffic is something else altogether.  I can’t believe how close the scooters actually are to one another.  Robert even got run into by the tire and fender of another scooter while stopped at a red light.  (Don’t worry, he is fine).  The good news is we lived to tell the tale and the food was delicious.


On the scooters with the girls.

The tour made five stops.  First was at a small little restaurant that specialized in Bun Bo Hue, a soup with round rice vermicelli noodles and beef and lots of lemongrass flavor.  Thankfully, this version did not have cubes of blood in it!  We both devoured that soup.  Next stop was Chinatown where we wandered around a wet market.  That was a little bit boring for us, as we have seen so many markets.  But, I will say the deskinned frogs that were still alive and kicking were a bit distressing….


Scallops with peanuts and green onions.

The third stop was a very busy BBQ restaurant — the grills are on the table and our scooter drivers grilled everything up for us.  And we ate and ate and ate some more.  We started with okra dipped in a fermented soy paste.  Let’s just say I didn’t enjoy that dish one bit.  In fact, the face I made eating the okra was apparently so funny that a guy from Sweden nearly fell out of his chair laughing at me.  Robert, on the other hand, liked it.  Why, I can’t imagine, as it was slimy and gross and disgusting.  While we ate the okra, the girls driving the scooters were busy cooking goat breast which was then dipped in the same fermented soy paste.  I’ve had goat before and didn’t care for it, but I figured it was worth another try.  I like chicken breast, right?  Um, really bad idea.  The flavor wasn’t awful, but the texture was something else.  I’ve never had a meat kind of “snap” in my mouth before as I tried to eat it, but that is what the goat breast did.  I can’t even describe it, but it was kind of crunchy in a very bad way.  (In retrospect and after doing some research, I’m pretty sure goat breast is just a fancy name for goat udder.  Disgusting!)  Robert, of course, thought the goat was fantastic.  Thankfully, the scooter drivers followed up the goat with grilled beef.  Finally!  Something I could really enjoy.  The beef was dipped in a paste made of salt, chili and kumquat juice and it was delicious.  You would think after that we would be stuffed, but no.  The next dish was grilled prawn.  The women did a very nice job of grilling it.  Then, we had banh khot.  It was like a banh xeo, but smaller and thicker.  It was filled with mung bean and carrots, the scooter drivers wrapped it up in greens for us, and it was surprising good.  Finally, it was time to wash everything down with a shot of rice wine.  Then, it was back on the scooters to visit the new, rich neighborhood in Saigon.  Some expats live in the neighborhood, but apparently a ton of foreigners buy condos (~200K USD for a fully furnished one bedroom) and let them sit empty, hoping they are a good investment.  It seemed like an odd stop to me, but it was weird to see such a quiet part of Saigon.


Chili crab claws.

Our last stop was a seafood restaurant in a very poor neighborhood in Saigon.  Once again, there was far too much food.  When we arrived, there was roasted quail waiting for us at the table.  Then, they brought out “balut,” which is a boiled duck egg with a developing embryo inside.  No, I didn’t try that one.  Robert had a tiny taste and wasn’t a fan.  Next up was a scallop dish.  Once again, Robert was a fan.  I didn’t try it.  We also had chili crab legs.  Yum!  After that was clams in a lemongrass sauce.  The sauce was amazing, but I’m not a fan of claims.  Finally, it was time for dessert — soya pudding (actually pretty darn good) and cream puffs.  The girls got us safely home and we passed out in a food coma!

We also got to enjoy the Tet decorations (but are glad we are leaving town before Tet begins….).


Chúc mừng năm mới! (Happy Tet!)


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Saigon Photo Tour

As we continue our travels, one of our primary goals is to learn to take better photographs.  So, while in Saigon, we booked the Scoot N’ Shoot tour with Vietnam Photo Adventures.  Arnaud met us at our hotel, chatted with us a bit about photography, and then we hopped on scooters and drove to an area of town filled with apartment buildings and small shops.  (As an aside here, I would like to note that, after riding on the back of a scooter, Robert now has much more respect for my scooter riding skills….).


Old man in the corridor of his apartment.

We started the day at a coffee shop, where Arnaud spent quite a bit of time talking to us about how to take better photos.  Then, we were off to find our willing subjects.


Little kid playing with a box.


Unfortunately, we didn’t find very many photogenic opportunities in our first location so, after a bit, we hopped back on the scooters and headed to Chinatown where we stopped at the bolt market.  Seriously, a bolt market.  We NEVER would have gone there on our own.  But, we found some amazing photography subjects there.


Food vendor at the bolt market.  Do you have any idea how difficult it is to photography these ladies with their hats????

The best part about the market was how friendly nearly everyone was.  Some people even asked to have their photos taken.


Man who had recently been cupped.

Kids followed us around and practiced their English.


Guy lounging on a scooter.

Absolutely nobody seemed annoyed to see us there (although some hid their faces and didn’t want their photos taken, they did so with a smile).


Orange juice vendor.

And, Arnaud was quite helpful.  For Robert, he really brought home the need to take a bunch of shots to ensure the moment is captured.  For me, he really helped with composition — it was amazing to see his photos and how he framed things completely differently (and better) than me.  Bottom line, it was a wonderful way to spend the day.


Just hanging out in the alley.

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