We are not blog worthy

So…things have been a bit quiet around here.  You know why that is?  Well, let me tell you.

After Hoi An, we flew to Saigon to celebrate Christmas.  Where it rained, or threatened to rain, every single day.  So, we did nothing.  OK, that isn’t entirely true, we saw Aquaman and BumbleBee, but nobody wants to hear about that (well, you might want to know the two of us can see a first run movie — sometimes even before it comes out in the U.S. — in a modern movie theater in Vietnam for between $4-10, depending on the theater).  And, we had an amazing brunch on Christmas day where we both ate far too much (Robert focused on the seafood while I devoured the desserts).  And, we spent far too much time in the executive lounge of our hotel snacking while watching it rain.  But, we didn’t do anything blog worthy.

Then we flew to Nha Trang for some serious beach time.  Nha Trang has a beautiful beach (which is about all the city has to offer other than some Cham towers we didn’t get to see).  But, it was raining when we arrived.  And, then it rained some more.  A deluge some days, but rain every single day.  It got so bad and we were so bored that we very nearly did a side-by-side taste test of the chicken at KFC and Texas Chicken & Burgers (which happened to be right next door to each other and right next door to the coffee shop we spent hours at in a futile attempt to feel like we were doing something other than watching it rain).  I. Am. Not. Kidding.  We. Were. That. Bored.  The only thing that saved us from that disaster was the fact that the KFC didn’t serve chicken tenders or any other white meat and Texas Chicken said it would take 12 minutes for tenders that weren’t super spicy.  Bottom line, we did nothing in Nha Trang that was blog worthy.

After eight long days of rain, we transferred to Mui Ne.  Now, Mui Ne is not exactly a traditional part of Vietnam.  It is basically just one road along a rapidly eroding beach and the road is filled with shops, restaurants, and cafes trying to separate tourists from their Vietnamese Dong.  Pretty much anyone white is assumed to be Russian, as Russians seem to make up about 95% of the tourist population.  But, you know what we found in Mui Ne?  WE FOUND THE SUN!!!!!  So, we spent day after day on the loungers at our hotel pool enjoying the glorious weather.  Enjoyable, but again, nothing blog worthy.

And, then we made our way to Vung Tau for a week.  Our hotel had an infinity pool overlooking the ocean.  And, we spent every single day lounging around the pool.  Once again, nothing blog worthy.

We head to Saigon tomorrow.  Hopefully we will have more to say from there.

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Final Thoughts on 2018

Wow, where did 2018 go?  We can’t believe both of us have been officially retired for a year (although Robert continues to say he will never be retired, because he has to take care of me).  In some ways, it feels like we have been retired for much longer, but in some ways it feels like it was only yesterday that we were stressed out basket cases (ok, fine, that was just me) — believe it or not, I still occasionally have work nightmares (almost always about some task that didn’t get done in time for a deadline).

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A snowy day in Chicago.  We sure don’t miss this….

So, let’s start this post by answering some questions, and we will start with the million dollar question first:

Do we regret chucking everything to travel the world?  Nope, not even one little bit.  We are happier and healthier than we ever were while working.  We are living the dream.  Although we still have bad days (and, recently, days we can’t even look at the balance in our investment accounts without cringing), the bad days are few and far between and generally are caused by nothing but our own stupidity when we do things like book an early morning flight.  Overall, we couldn’t be happier.

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Joshua Tree National Park in California.  We enjoyed our visit (the stars were amazing), but we just aren’t desert people.

Did we manage to stay on budget this year?  The short answer is yes.  The long answer is that we were pretty worried that the budget would be completely out of whack after spending the first four months of the year in expensive Chicago.  We spent 13% of our annual budget in the month of February and 16% of our annual budget in March.  We had spent nearly 50% of our budget when we got to the end of April.  How on earth were we going to get back on track after that?  Well, the answer is simple:  SE Asia.  We’ve been in SE Asia since May and our spending has plummeted.  No more $100 plus dollar dinners.  No more $20 cocktails.  It is actually downright easy to stay on budget here, even with some “splurges” on nice hotels, the all-important pedicures, and scuba diving trips.  We even managed to end the year with a little bit of money left over, and that is going right into a cd to save for some expensive travel in the future (e.g., the Galapagos, Antarctica, or maybe a safari).  The only downside is we are often visiting places we have been before, so things can sometimes be a bit boring.  But, then again, this is retirement, not a 365 day vacation, right?

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A beautiful hike in Green Valley, Arizona while visiting Robert’s parents.

Where did our money go this year?  Well, an insanely huge chunk of it (24%) went to food and beverages — this includes groceries, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, street food, ice cream treats, etc.  I guess we eat and drink a lot (you think?), but eating is one of our favorite ways to explore a country.  And, in our defense, nearly half of the food and beverage spend was incurred in the first four months of the year when we lived in Chicago.  I don’t even want to think about how much of the food and beverage budget went to beer, gin and wine, but I’m quite sure it is an embarrassingly excessive amount…. Another insanely large chunk of our money (~20%) went to health insurance.  You know, the policy we maintain just in case of an emergency that doesn’t even cover anything while we travel.  You know, the policy that won’t even cover anything in the U.S. until we have paid thousands of additional dollars in deductibles.  Do not even get me started on the state of health care in the United States.  It is absurd.  And, that 20% spent on health insurance doesn’t even cover the travel insurance policy we purchased in case there is an emergency while we are abroad.  Arghhhhh!   Another 20% or so of our budget was spent on rent while in Chicago and hotel rooms while traveling — we are hoping this number goes down in 2019 as we won’t have to pay Chicago rent for four months like we did in 2018.  And, the remainder was spent on everything else, including over $100 in foreign ATM fees for the privilege of withdrawing our own money and a whopping 75 cents for the privilege of using some public bathrooms.

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A cool bird we spotted in Florida while visiting my parents.

What did we miss this year?  We actually missed very little.  I thought I would miss peanut butter.  But, you know what?  We found quite a bit of it this year so I don’t miss it (although I do often carry a jar of it in my suitcase).  Robert thought he was going to miss a really good hamburger, but has been shocked to find out that he doesn’t miss burgers at all.  We really only missed four things.  The first and most important thing is our family and friends — we have managed to stay in touch with some people via email and Facebook and video calls, but some people we have barely spoken to since leaving Chicago and we have definitely missed out on some major life moments (both good and bad) experienced by our friends.  Robert has missed cooking, and I have missed eating his cooking (and the plain pasta he used to make me on a regular basis).  On a lighter note, we both really miss our electric toothbrush.  And, finally, we both missed watching the World Cup at A.J. Hudson’s.  I’m telling you, next World Cup we have to be somewhere in a time zone closer to the one where the matches are being played.

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A water monitor swimming in Lumpini Park in Bangkok.

What is on tap for 2019?  Well, current plans have us in SE Asia until June, although other than our remaining time in Vietnam, a short visit to Bali in February and then some time spent in Thailand to visit dear friends, we haven’t fleshed out those travels at all yet.  Then, we are off to New Zealand for six weeks.  (Yes, we know June is not the ideal time to visit New Zealand but we are celebrating a major life milestone that month and that is where we wanted to go).  Then, we will probably head back to SE Asia for another month or so, although we have just recently been toying with the idea of heading to Kazakhstan to ride horses instead.  In August, we plan to head back to the U.S. to visit friends and family.  After that, we have no idea, but we will most likely head to South America, although we have also recently been toying with the idea of spending a few months in Europe first since we didn’t make it there in 2018.  If you want to meet up somewhere, just let us know!

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A rice terrace in Bali.

With that out of the way, let’s turn to our final thoughts on 2018.

Although our minds tell us we are still in our 20’s (I wish!), our bodies feel way older than they did in 2015.  We get tired out much easier.  We seek out more air conditioning.  We get grumpy faster if the hotel room isn’t comfortable (and don’t even get us started on the evil of wet rooms).  But the absolute worst part is our appetites have decreased.  Long gone are the days of first and second dinner.  There is amazing food all around us and we just can’t eat it all like we used to….

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A brilliant starfish Robert saw while diving in Flores.

In spite of our bodies feeling old, we aren’t treated that way.  Instead, we are basically ignored.  We are no longer young enough and not yet old enough to be considered interesting.  It is a weird place to be.

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A beautiful flower at the Singapore Botanical Gardens.

We have found it much harder, although not impossible, to meet people this year.  Some of that is our age — we don’t fit either the typical backpacker demographic or the typical retiree demographic.  Some of that is the fact that we have noticed some people from outside the U.S. are really afraid that we might have voted for Trump and dance around on eggshells a bit when first chatting with us while they feel us out.  (Newsflash, we didn’t and wouldn’t and couldn’t and don’t understand anyone who did or would or could — but we won’t be surprised if he gets another term). And, some of that is no doubt us — the political situation in the U.S. has left us angry and depressed and I’m sure it shows at times.  That said, we have met some really fun people and hope to meet more as we continue our travels.

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A strange sculpture in Singapore.

We are feeling guilty about how much plastic we have consumed this year.  Almost none of our hotels had water refilling stations.  Instead, they just give every single guest a bottle of water every single day and do not have any recycling facilities.  A big shout out to the Ibis in Singapore that provided both still and sparkling water in reusable metal bottles — sure wish more hotels would do that or at least have a refill station for those of that carry our own metal bottles.  Also, I can’t tell you how many times we got straws even after saying “no straw.”  More and more restaurants are going straw-free or have straws made of bamboo or metal, but straws are still added to nearly every beverage in Asia.  I really don’t need (or want) a straw to drink a can of soda water… especially if I also have a glass.  And, the number of plastic bags used here is unreal.  Everything is put in a plastic bag (even food that is going to be eaten immediately), and then all the little plastic bags are put in a big plastic bag.  It can be infuriating.

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An orangutan eating a snack in Borneo.

The only people that walk in SE Asia are tourists.  Nearly everyone else has a scooter or an e bike.  Walkers like us are at the complete bottom of the pecking order in SE Asia (although I’m not sure if it is because we are walking or because we are tourists or the combination of the two).  Robert keeps threatening to buy a scooter so we go one step up.  I have to keep reminding him that we can’t ride a scooter from Vietnam to Bali….

Speaking of scooters, the scooters and their riders are a piece of work.  I love that helmets have a cut-out for pony tails and that parents sometimes have booster seats for babies (they go in the foot well).  Robert loves that the tarps placed over the riders and scooters during rainstorms have a clear area for the headlight to shine through.  We both find it interesting that kids almost never wear helmets, even though more and more adults do.

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A bird at the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park.

Grab (like Uber) taxis have changed everything wherever they are available.  No more worrying about being scammed on the price and/or the route.  No more looking for the so-called “reputable” cab companies.  Just get on the phone, order a Grab, and be done with it.

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A monkey begging for treats at Bayon Temple in Cambodia.

You know how Mr. Rogers used to say “always look for the helpers.”  Well, in SE Asia, we have a different saying:  “always looks for upscale Western chain hotels.”  Not to stay in.  No, that would be silly and expensive and boring (except when it is time for a splurge).  But for clean bathrooms (guaranteed to have Western style toilets and toilet paper and soap) and decent wine.

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Robert and I at Angkor Wat.

The music has been beyond bad here this year.  We hear Hotel California nearly every day.  We hear Shape of You by Ed Sheeran multiple times a day (almost always a bad cover version), and Robert says he “never needs to hear that f*cking song again.”  We hear Country Roads by John Denver at least once a week.  (Oddly, our 2015 song of the year, “Africa,” hasn’t been nearly as popular in 2018).  I’m dying to hear some new music.

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Hanging with the elephants in Laos.

You want some advice?  Have your kids learn Mandarin.  Seriously.  The Chinese have already taken over parts of Cambodia and Laos and are seriously going to take over the rest of the world.  They are investing heavily in infrastructure (dams, trains, harbors, high rises, you name it), uprooting thousands of people from their homes, and completely changing some towns (and not for the better from what we hear).  But almost everyone we have spoken to over here universally hates the Chinese.  Seriously, hates them.  We’ve heard stories about how the Chinese refuse to work with local tourist agencies.  About how they refuse to stay in anything but Chinese-owned hotels and eat at Chinese-owned restaurants.  About how all their tourist money goes right back to China.  About how entire towns are now unlivable (I’m talking about you, Sihanoukville).  And, about how they cook instant noodles in the hot water pot at the hotels, which infuriates the cleaning staff.  The hatred is definitely palpable.

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More elephant love in Laos.

Boy, do we wish we were the couples holding conversations in three different languages simultaneously.  Seriously, we have overheard so many people effortlessly transitioning from one language to the next in the same conversation.  If only we could do that.  (Although Robert has used his Italian on more than one occasion to convince a scammer to go away and he recently ordered a dinner for us entirely in Spanish — why he needed to use his Spanish in Vietnam is a whole other story).

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Wat Sa Si in Thailand.

We should consider changing the name of our blog to “seriously seeking shade.”  When it isn’t raining (like it has been for the entire last month….), the sun is intense over here.

We stocked up on entirely the wrong stuff when packing.  Depending on which country we are in, we can buy almost every type of cosmetic/health and beauty product for less (and sometimes significantly less) than the price in the U.S.  The only exceptions we have found are J&J brand Q-tips (haven’t seen these anywhere) and Band-Aid brand bandages (saw these only once for about the same price as in the U.S.).  Instead of taking up space in our bags with contact lens solution and shampoo, we should have packed spare sandals and waterproof wallets and Q-tips and massive quantities of Band-Aids.  But packing a snorkel and mask was a genius decision (thanks Robert).

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Wat Mahathat in Thailand.

I love that we can pay someone to do our laundry.  It is usually about $1 per kilogram, takes less than a day, and is worth every penny.

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Hats for sale in Hanoi.

The hardest part of going to any new country is figuring out what to tip.  I spend hours and hours researching how much to tip and who to tip in each country and I feel like we still get it wrong 90% of the time.  And, I hate that, even in countries with no tipping culture, everyone expects the Americans to tip.  I wish tipping would go the way of the dinosaurs.

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Ducks in Mai Chau.

We really need to stop playing Candy Crush and reading Reddit and reading about politics in 2019…..here is to focusing on learning foreign languages instead.

 

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Shopping in Hoi An

Many people come to Hoi An specifically to shop for custom made clothes or shoes.  Others have no intention of shopping, but quickly become enthralled by the 100’s of tailors and leather shops and soon enough find themselves getting measured for a suit or a dress or shoes.  But, let’s be honest, finding a good shop is no easy task.  The streets are lined with shops, ladies will come up to you on bikes and beg you to visit their shop, TripAdvisor is filled with reviews by people who have only written one review their entire life (which I pretty much always assume are fake), most of the shops pay out commissions so you can never be sure if a personal recommendation is real or just a ploy to make some extra cash, and what you see isn’t always what you get.  So, let me tell you about where we went.

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Mr. Xe’s tailor shop.

Robert wanted some linen shirts so the first place we stopped was Mr. Xe.  We first visited Mr. Xe on our very first trip to Vietnam back around 2005 or so.  Mr. Xe made me a couple of skirts that I wore until a year or so ago when they finally gave out.  He made Robert a suit — the only suit Robert has worn since then (he even wore it to our wedding) — and several button down shirts with French cuffs.  Although his storefront doesn’t look that impressive, going back to Mr. Xe was a no-brainer.  Robert got three linen shirts made ($25 each) and couldn’t be happier with two of the three — the third seems to fit a bit wonky now that he has worn it, but it isn’t terrible.  If you want shirts or suits or work dresses made, this is your shop.

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Robert in one of his shirts from Mr. Xe.

My task was a little bit harder.  You see, I wanted skorts.  I absolutely live in skorts.  All the benefits of a skirt, but with the modesty of shorts — you get to look like a girl and play like a boy.  Mr. Xe doesn’t make skorts (or, at least he didn’t in 2015, I completely forgot to ask this time but I’m assuming the answer would be the same).  But, try as I might, I could not find any reviews of any tailors that had made skorts.  And, the tailor we used back in 2015 was no longer around.  And, some tailors I spoke to didn’t even know what a skort was — I sure wasn’t going to ask them to make something.  So, initially I went to a tailor recommended by the guy that ran the food tour we took.  She seemed promising.  She knew what a skort was at least.  But, um, wow, the final products were a mess.  They both looked like burlap sacks.  The shorts were inside out.  The front was longer than the back and she told me it was because of my “bum.”  Well, anyone who has met me knows that my belly is far larger than my “bum” — if any side is going to be short it is the front — so that explanation didn’t fly.  And, when I put one on to take a photo of a “bad” skort, the zipper ripped out.  To her credit, she did refund me half the cost so I’m not going to name names here (I am being way too nice, as her quality was abysmal and the skorts saw the inside of a garbage can instead of the inside of my suitcase).

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Two Ladies tailor shop.

Thankfully, a friend of ours came to the rescue.  She had used Two Ladies Tailor Shop to have dresses made a few years ago.  We walked in and instantly got a good vibe.  Two Ladies understood exactly what I wanted.  They charged less than the first tailor I tried ($35 per skort).  They truly seemed grateful for the business.  And, they knocked it out of the park — the skorts fit perfectly on the very first fitting with zero adjustments needed.  I instantly ordered two more skorts from them, and those likewise fit perfectly.  And then, after wearing my new skorts, I went back and bought two more!  I couldn’t be happier with my skorts and I would recommend Two Ladies for casual skirts or skorts.  I’m guessing they are good at other things as well (some of the clothes in the shop were beautiful and I saw a customer who seemed very happy with her dress), but I don’t have first hand experience.

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One of my skorts from Two Ladies.

Once the clothes were out of the way, we started thinking about shoes.  One thing that never lasts when you are traveling non-stop is shoes.  And, we both desperately needed new good sandals.

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One of the three branches of Friendly.

We were immediately impressed when we walked into Friendly III.  We met the owner, who described their satisfaction guaranteed policy — you don’t pay if you don’t like the finished product and the product is guaranteed for 6 months after purchase — they claim they will even reimburse repairs made in the U.S.  Friendly makes a ton of gorgeous sandals, and I wanted to buy about 10 pairs, but most of them have hard soles without arch support — great for a few hours when you want to look good but not at all conducive to long-term sightseeing.  But, they also make Birkenstock knock-offs with softer soles and decent arch support, so that is the route we went.  After the debacle with our first skorts tailor, we decided Robert would order a pair of sandals first.  If he liked them, then I would order a pair.  Robert quickly got to work looking for a sample sandal he liked — once that was decided he got to pick the leather, the lining for the shoe bed, and the buckle color from a ton of samples.  Not surprisingly, he went for black, black and silver.  A day later, his sandals were done and he loved them.  So, then it was my turn.  I didn’t like any of the sample sandals so just showed the shop an on-line photo and away they went.  And, as it turns out, when we ordered my pair, we got a $10 discount.  So, two pairs of custom-made sandals for $80.  It is going to take me awhile to get use to such clunky sandals….getting old and needing comfortable shoes sucks!  (Edited to add:  We were ultimately very disappointed with these shoes.  Mine turned my feet black every time I wore them.  Both pairs quickly became uncomfortable as the cork sole hardened.  And, they are now falling apart.  The soles of both pairs are already shredding and the cork sole on my pair is cracking.  We would not recommend getting shoes made at Friendly anymore).

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Our new shoes.  Not sure why this photo made our feet look so fat!

If you visit Hoi An, have some fun, find a tailor, find a shoe shop, and have some items made.  Just don’t go hog wild until the shop proves they can make something to your liking.

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Banh Mi Sandwiches in Hoi An

(Other than this introductory paragraph, this post has been ghost written by Lisa on behalf of Robert.  First, because Robert by all accounts has never been much of a writer, even though he is a great talker.  But, more importantly, because Lisa doesn’t eat banh mi sandwiches and really doesn’t know anything about banh mi sandwiches except for the fact that they have too many “icky” things on them.  Well, except for the peanut butter banh mi (according to our guest expert, Robert, not really a banh mi sandwich) she found in Hanoi.  OK, now that that is out, read this in Robert’s voice for a change).

When one thinks of Hoi An, the first thing that comes to mind is tailoring.  And, then perhaps custom made shoes.  Maybe cao lau.  And, definitely the old buildings and lanterns.  This post isn’t about any of those things.  This post is about the absolute best part of Hoi An — the banh mi sandwiches.

What is a banh mi you might ask?  Well, the first thing to know is that, technically, “banh mi” (sometimes spelled “banh my”) is just bread.  But, when most people hear “banh mi,” they think of it as the number one sandwich in the entire world combining both French and Vietnamese influences.  The best ones start with a crunchy baguette (you know, the kind that will rip the roof of your mouth apart if you aren’t careful).  Then, you add pate, grilled pork, ground pork, shredded pickled papaya and carrot, lettuce, cucumber, some meat juices (the more the better!), hot sauce, and maybe an egg or some cheese.  You can sometimes get vegetarian versions, but why would you?

Where can you find a banh mi in Hoi An?  Well, pretty much everywhere.  But, here are the best ones.  Every single one of these sandwiches was better that any sandwich I ate in Hanoi and any banh mi sandwich I have ever eaten in Chicago.

Tam Hoa Banh Mi.  I went here on our food tour of Hoi An.  I’m pretty sure this is the best banh mi I’ve ever had in my entire life.  Every single component — from the bread, to the grilled pork, to the au jus, was top notch.  Tam Hoa is just a little cart located at the corner of Tran Cao Van and Tai Phien.  It is only there until 10:30 am, so get there early.  (No idea what time it opens, but the earliest I was there was around 6:45 or so — I’m still mad at Lisa for making me get up that early for the photo tour).

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At Tam Hoa.  Doesn’t look like much, does it?  But looks are deceiving.

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Tam Hoa banh mi.

Phi Banh Mi.  This stand is just down the street from Tam Hoa.  Yes, I did go to both places within the span of 15 minutes one day.  No, I don’t feel one bit guilty about it.  The sandwich here had all the usual ingredients, but this place also adds mint to the sandwich.  It was a great addition.  Phi Banh Mi can be found at 88 Thái Phiên.  They have seating if you want to eat in.

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Phi Banh Mi.  Look at how neatly this sandwich was put together.

Mrs. Hoa.  This stand sets up most late afternoons/evenings and seems to do a brisk business with locals who pull up on their motorbikes and get a sandwich to go.   This banh mi was juicy and saucy and porky and eggie goodness.  A fantastic late-night snack.  Mrs. Hoa can be found right by the bridge over to Cam Nam Island and, if you are staying on Cam Nam Island like we were, I guarantee you will have devoured the sandwich before you finish crossing the bridge.

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Banh Mi from Mrs. Hoa.  Can you see all that greasy, juicy deliciousness?

Madame Khanh — The Banh Mi Queen.  Affectionately known as “Queen,” this place is always on the “best of” lists.  Unfortunately, on my first visit, the bread was stale and the pate and ground pork were not evenly distributed across the sandwich.  That said, it was still really good.  And, the on the second visit, the entire sandwich was much better, although still not good enough to make it rise up any further on my list.  Queen can be found at 115 Trần Cao Vân.  They have seating too if you want to eat in.

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Queen Banh Mi.  Check out how messy this one is.

Banh My Xuan Cam Nam.  This is a little stand right across the Cam Nam bridge (on the island side).  She sets up most days around mid-afternoon.  She was grilling her bread to get the moisture out and her sandwich was layered with different juices.  Yum!

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Banh My Xuan Cam Nam.

Banh Mi Phoung.  This is the place Anthony Bourdain recommended, and his photo is even on the paper the sandwich is wrapped in.  The shop is completely disorganized with no clear method to the madness, and it is pretty much always crowded, and the hassle of trying to figure out how to order here diminishes the tastiness of the sandwich.  And, there was a small bone in my sandwich.  But, again, it is still one of the best I’ve ever had.  Banh Mi Phoung can be found at 2b Phan Chu Trinh.  Even better, just down the street is a place called Tap House that will let you eat your banh mi there while you drink a Vietnamese craft beer.  And, for those of you with a picky wife like me who doesn’t understand the beauty of a craft beer, Tap House has wine too.  (Note from Lisa:  Looks like the Anthony Bourdain curse struck again — a place that was once probably the best but has been a victim of its own success).

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A sandwich endorsed by Bourdain and a beer.  What is not to love?

Bahn Mi Pho Co.  I had high hopes for this little stand, as day after day we saw taxi drivers stopping in and grabbing a sandwich.  Maybe they get a better sandwich than I got, or maybe I was just annoyed because the lady tried to shortchange me (there is no way this was worth double all the other sandwiches I had….), but it certainly wasn’t my favorite.  Still, it was quite good (even in spite of the strange yellow color) so it seemed worth putting on the list.  This stand is on a corner around 2 Le Loi street.

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Bahn Mi Pho Co.

Ahh….Hoi An, I’m going to remember your sandwiches for a very long time.

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The best cao lau in Hoi An

Cao lau (the first word is pronounced like “cow” and the second word is kind of like “how” only with an “L” although, apparently, they pronounce it “cow low” in Hanoi even though they don’t make it there) is a dish you can only find in Hoi An.  It is made with firm and chewy rice noodles that legend says must be pre-soaked with water from one particular well in Hoi An and lye made from ash from trees grown on one of the Cham Islands.  (I’m calling BS on the idea that all the cao lau noodles in town are still made this way….I’m pretty sure the well would have run dry and there wouldn’t be a single tree left on any of the islands otherwise.  But, who knows?).  In addition to the noodles, the dish includes grilled pork, lots of local greens (which are supposed to come from one particular village), bean sprouts, a small amount of a light broth, and crispy crackers made from rice flour (my favorite part).

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Crispy crackers drying in the sun in a random alley.

I used to LOVE cao lau.  I used to dream about cao lau when I wasn’t in Hoi An.  Last time we were in Hoi An, I ate cao lau for nearly every meal.  We decided to visit Hoi An yet again (I think this is our 4th visit) largely so I could eat more cao lau (Robert doesn’t mind the return visit because Anthony Bourdain says that the best banh mi in Vietnam is here — more on that in a future post).  I even made a list of restaurants that were supposed to have the best cao lau in town and planned to eat at all of them.  But, you know what?  My first few bowls of cao lau sucked.  Like “why am I wasting stomach space on this” sucked.  Like “why did I ever think this was good” sucked.   Can you believe one restaurant didn’t even include the crispy crackers?  That is sacrilege!  And, for awhile, I thought that I was no longer in love with cao lau.  I though perhaps khao soi had completely stolen my heart and that cao lau just couldn’t compete.   And, then I stopped into Cao Lau Khong Gian Xang and my taste buds sang.  And, I realized something:  cao lau is still a special dish, but now that nearly every single restaurant in town sells it, you have to really look long and hard for a good bowl of cao lau.  Because the vast, vast majority of them aren’t even worth eating.

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Fresh cao lau oodles for sale at the market.

But you know what?  Finding a good bowl is worth the search.  Because a good bowl of cao lau is one of the best foods on earth (OK, maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but still, it is worth it).  So, here is where I think you should go.

Cao Lau Thanh at 26 Thai Phien.  This is just a tiny little stand with a few small tables and chairs behind the stand, and I’m pretty sure the only dish they serve is cao lau.  The locals flock here (both to eat in and to take away on their scooters) and for good reason.  This bowl of cao lau was delicious.  The pork was sweet and meaty and chewy and downright amazing.  And, they put just a tiny little dab of hot sauce on top, which makes the whole dish sing.  They are only open for lunch and close when they run out, but they are 100% worth visiting.  If you only eat cao lau once, eat it here.  Trust me on this.  We paid 30K Dong a bowl, and I’m pretty sure we paid the “tourist” tax — it looked like others paid 20K Dong — but I don’t begrudge that extra 10K even one teeny, tiny bit.

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Cao Lau Thanh

Cao Lau Khong Gian Xang at 687 Hai Ba Trung.  You are going to look at this restaurant and think “it is dark, it is dirty, there is trash on the floor, they only have six things on the menu, the lady looks annoyed that we walked in, I don’t want to eat there.”  Ignore all of those thoughts.  Sit down and order a bowl.  Look at how that pork glistened.  Look at all those crunchy crackers.  This is what a bowl of cao lau should be.  And, at only 30K Dong a bowl right in the Ancient Town, it is a bargain.

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Golden Lotus Cooking School.  OK, this one comes a bit out of left field, but the cao lau we made at the Golden Lotus cooking class was actually really good (although the photo doesn’t make it look that way due to my awful knife skills on the pork and the fact that the noodles aren’t visible because there was so much pork).  Other than the noodles, which were purchased fresh at the market, everything was made from scratch.  The broth and pork were by far the most flavorful we have had.  And, I even got to fry up the crispy crackers.

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Morning Glory.  Are you feeling shy about eating on a stool or at a place where napkins litter the floor?  Do you need a large menu with choices for a host of picky eaters?  Do you have to have wine with your meal?  (I feel you on that one).  But you really want to try cao lau?  Then, I would hesitantly recommend Morning Glory, which is a relatively famous restaurant right in the heart of the Ancient Town.  The cao lau here wasn’t life-changing, but it was solid and the best we had at a “fancy” restaurant (“fancy” being a highly relative term in Vietnam).  The pork in the cao lau was very good and there were not one but two types of crispy crackers.  The main thing letting this dish down was that there was very little broth.  If you do go to Morning Glory, I highly recommend trying the chicken rice as well — it was amazing (by far the best we had in Hoi An).

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Cao lau at Morning Glory.

I’m sure there are other places with good cao lau and we didn’t make it to all of the places I had on my list.  But, try one of these places first so you have a good basis to judge what cao lau SHOULD taste like.  And, if I missed your favorite, please be sure to tell me so I can try it next time.

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Morning in the Alleys

After trying for nearly two weeks and after being repeatedly washed out by rain, we finally took the Morning in the Alleys tour with Hoi An Photo Walks.  It was a great way to spend a morning in Hoi An.

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This lady posed for us.  So photogenic.  Not shown in this photo is the hair that went down past her waist.

The day started with a mini lecture from our guide Pieter on camera settings such as aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  In spite of the fact that I pretty much never take my camera off of the auto settings (sacrilege to a professional photographer, and something I need to change, I know), I learned a lot.  And, Robert didn’t mind the refresher — besides it reinforced his view that he is always right.

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I’m pretty sure this guy was just pretending not to notice us.

Then, it was off into the alleys to explore and learn about composition and more about camera settings.   This is where the day really shined.

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We both think this is just about the perfect shot.  Color, composition, and action all in the same frame.

First, although this has nothing to do with photography per se, we got to see a side of Hoi An that we hadn’t previously seen, even though we had repeatedly walked within a few feet of these alleys.  Sadly, with the recent proliferation of guest houses, I fear this side of Hoi An may soon disappear.  But it was wonderful to walk through the alleys and see how people really live.  Everyone has their doors and windows wide open — just a tiny bit different than in Chicago!

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Sewing some of the clothes that make Hoi An famous.

Second, Pieter helped us get up close and personal with a variety of people in the alleys — hopefully we will both be a bit more confident about doing this in the future (note to self:  Vietnamese really don’t mind if you photograph children — in fact, sometimes like today an entire family will help make sure you get the perfect outfit and the perfect pose of their little one and sometimes like today little kids will run right into your shot to make sure you get their photo while their mom watches from the sidelines).

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Look at that smile….

Pieter also spoke to us in the alleys about things such as how to tell a story and how to evoke feelings in your photos, and explained it with photos he took on the spot.  Now, if I could just manage to see the things he sees….

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Butchering meat right on the street.

And, he also taught Robert numerous technical things, such as exposure compensation.

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A little blurry, but so much fun. 

All in all, we both felt like we learned quite a bit and got some fun photos to boot.

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This little kid literally ran into the scene to ensure we got his photo.

(P.S., in spite of insisting on using auto settings, half these photos are mine…..).

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Hoi An Lantern Festival

Fair warning….this is going to be a Debbie Downer post…

So, one of the many things Hoi An is famous for is the Lantern Festival held on each full moon.  We were so excited (ok, I was so excited and Robert was only mildly enthused) when we realized we would be in Hoi An for a Lantern Festival.  And, it turned out to be a complete dud.

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Lantern on a boat in Hoi An.

As I understand it (and, admittedly, my understanding on this point is not solid), the full moon is one of the most sacred times in the Buddhist calendar.  Accordingly, the full moon is celebrated by, among other things, burning incense and paper offerings and putting offerings out in front of store fronts and homes.  And, in Hoi An, the full moon is celebrated by sending colorful lanterns lit with a candle down the river.  Apparently, the lantern tradition started in the 16th or 17th century and is said to be (depending on what you read) an offering to gods or ancestors or to bring good luck or love or health or happiness or all of the above.

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Lanterns and boats on the river.

But, you know what?  While the local Vietnamese people did put out offerings and burn incense, I’m pretty sure the only people floating lanterns down the river were tourists.  And, many of the tourists were downright rude.  One lady literally ducked in front of Robert’s tripod and put her head right in front of his camera lens so she could get the shot he was trying to get.  And, you know what else?  Because you can buy the lanterns and float them down the river every single night, the Lantern Festival wasn’t much different than any other night of the year (except for the fact that the town shuts off most of the electric lights along the river during the Festival).  And, you know what else?  All we could wonder was:  what happens to all the paper and candle wax being put in the river every single night?  What kind of ecological disaster is it creating?  (We did not buy a lantern).

So, bottom line, while it is pretty to see the lanterns floating down the river, you can see that pretty much every day in Hoi An and we wouldn’t put the Lantern Festival on the list of “must sees” in Vietnam.

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