On the Road: Part II

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We arrived with empty stomachs in Thakhek and stopped for Laos BBQ, one of the best traditional dishes of Laos and a slight variation on the Vietnamese hot pots we had become accustomed to.

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In Laos – instead of a full pot of boiling water as in the Vietnamese hot pot above – a small, circular grill (resembling a bunt pan) is brought to the table and placed on top of an open coal clay pot. Boiling water is poured into the base of the grill, which is used to cook the wide variety of raw greens that come with the dish, including cabbage, lettuce, basil, Lao mints, and enochi mushrooms. Many restaurants also provide glass noodles and an egg for cooking. The menu had a variety of meats to choose from, including our beloved chicken hearts. Since we just had our fill, we chose beef instead, a safe choice when we were spending the next few days living out of our car. The meat is brought to the table raw, and the conical, “bunt” part of the grill is used for cooking it. After basting with the cubes of fat provided, you stick the thinly sliced meat on the grill. Both the greens and the meat cook quickly, and a good variety goes in your bowl. Each Lao BBQ restaurant makes their own special sauce to top the dish off, which can be doctored with extra chillies, lime, and garlic. Of course, a few Beer Laos were also necessary after a long day on the road.

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We slept in our car that night, as finding a decently clean place to stay came at too much of a price. The rising sun woke me from my surprisingly good sleep, and we continued our journey south in the early morning. I drove for many hours through mountainous terrain, open rice fields, and tiny, one road villages. Following our not so trusty map, we took a route of dirt, muddy roads that even Ginger had trouble getting down. It would have been hard to navigate regardless of the map, since there were no road signs or highway markers.

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Searching for the Tad Lor waterfalls (pronounced Tad Lo), we hit a road made exclusively of rocks and realized, an hour later, that it had not yet been completed. We stared at the broken bridge, while a group of locals stared after us, amused. Further down the river, there was a running ferry for motorbikes, supported merely by three canoes. Pointing to our car, we asked if there was any way to get it across. The ferry operators laughed, pointing across the river to a car dock that was still being built. Turning around became the only option, but it meant we would not get to Tad Lor before sundown. Instead, we drove straight on to Paksong, a town a bit south of the waterfalls and high in the mountains. With the altitude change, I had my first taste of cold weather in nearly five months, such a shock to my system that I wore a sweatshirt and pants at the open air restaurant of our guesthouse. We stayed at a haunted house on a hill with a steep winding driveway, which turned out to actually be a nice hotel called Phuthaveda. Though we did not plan any accommodation ahead of time, the entire south was so empty that this was never a problem. Paksong was a charming mountain town compared to the filth of Thakhek, and having a taste of fall was a pleasant surprise.

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Before bed, I went to ask the owner about the roads on our map to ensure we would not get stuck again the following day. He could not speak English, but called to a man staying there who, I found out, was to become a monk in the morning. He was born and raised in Laos, but had spent many years studying in Chicago. From him, I heard of the terrible Pakse plane crash that had flown right over our heads without us realizing – we had been out of wifi for many days and so were completely disconnected from the world outside of our car. The monk also helped me understand our map, pointing out which roads we could actually drive down, and I felt confident in reaching the waterfalls in the morning. We went to bed in sweatshirts and socks, ready for another early morning drive.

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Americans Never Forget the Vietnamese in their Hearts

Here’s the next installment from the Gold Coast Gazette!

We did not intend to stop in Da Lat. As the bus rounded a final hill on a long and winding road, I looked down upon the town centre in the valley below. A city founded as a resort town by the French, the European architectural influence remains today; the city resembles the Swiss Alps more than the South Central Highlands. 1,500m above sea level, we blissfully found autumn in Vietnam.

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While Da Lat centre may seem western, the surrounding hillsides are home to some of the oldest minority cultures in Vietnam. This is the part of the city really worth seeing, and there is no one better guide than the locals. We embarked early in the morning with Quy and Duc, two of the original Easy Riders of Da Lat. The town is famous for these motorbike tours, which take foreigners around the city sites and up into the mountains. These men grew up in Da Lat and spent over twenty years as Easy Riders. They put serious thought into giving us an authentic and personalized experience, showing us the places they grew up and love, as if we were all friends on a journey. Throughout the day, we were the only tourists among locals.

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In the exhilaration of the morning’s ride, I had nearly forgotten our real goal for the day: to meet the hillside minority groups of Da Lat. Our first stop at the local farms revealed transcendent views of the city. Da Lat’s temperate climate not only offers visitors a sense of fall in overwhelmingly humid tropics, but also allows for the growth of produce year round. As we walked through strawberry fields, which seemed to stretch on forever, we received gifts of fruit from the family of farmers. The people we met throughout the day were truly welcoming and gracious; their clear hardship had not damaged their beautiful hearts.

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Similarly, at the plantation where we drank Weasel Coffee (description in mleaciampi.wordpress.com), we met another minority culture of weavers that the plantation owners had taken in. I watched as one woman wove an intricate tablecloth of symbols for fish and rice. For authentic souvenirs, these are the places worth spending money at. The nearby silk factory was also solely operated by women; Duc explained the entire process, from live silk worms and dead larvae (battered, fried, and resold later) to the spinning and carbon screen printing press. The carbon machines were ancient and fascinating, outdated but very smart technology. The fabrics were truly gorgeous, much more so than any we’ve seen in stores, and the prices are wholesale. Again, it is worth giving to such hardworking, lovely people.

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The generosity of the Vietnamese consistently exuded from Quy and Duc. Their intimate knowledge of the land and the beauty they shared with us is beyond simple kindness. The most impressive site of the day was on the grounds of the Linh An Tu Pagoda. If Quy had not directed me to the right corner of the garden, I would have miraculously missed the “Merciful Charity Smiling Bô Dåi” (Vietnamese name for the “Laughing Buddha”). The shock of suddenly seeing such a large and ancient figure left me in complete awe. I dropped my raincoat and stood at the base of the steps, completely alone with this massive Bô Dåi. A very powerful sense of the long tradition of Buddhism came over me and reminded me why I ventured so far from home.

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Quy and Duc shared such breathtaking sites and showed us the true camaraderie of the Vietnamese people. Over lunch – whole fish and lemongrass chicken with vegetable rice and cabbage soup – Quy said “here, we sit together as friends and family”. He spoke about the Vietnam War, and though his father died at the battle of Hamburger Hill, Quy did not feel that Vietnamese and Americans harbor any ill will toward each other. The Americans, he said, just wanted the Vietnamese to be free, but that is not the way it can be in his country. He put it very eloquently: “the Americans gave up the war, and forgot the Vietnamese on the mouth, but they never forget in their hearts; the Americans love the Vietnamese”. After a history of such devastation and struggle, the beauty of the Vietnamese people is truly ineffable.

Descending Dragon

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A trip to Ha Long Bay seemed to be a quintessential part of a journey in Vietnam. On hearsay alone we were also duped into an overpriced, touristy trip to this UNESCO protected group of islands. The area is protected for good reason; the limestone formations are truly spectacular, but the beauty loses it’s place with the hoards of tourists herding around the bay. It is packed with identical tour boats, each as rickety as the next, revealing the obvious sameness to all of the companies that promise a unique experience.

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Luckily, there is another option to seeing this old world site: Bäi Tú Long Bay, the larger surrounding area, contains the same karsts and isles but is overwhelmingly overlooked by most tourists. This means the water is still clean, swimmable and sparkling. Visiting Bäi Tú Long Bay is the last way to truly see this world wonder without all of the overpriced traps. Apart from the requisite kayaking, swimming, and village visits, experienced with more locals than tourists, the bay is home to the National Park, which contains five ecosystems and hundreds of different animal species. Sure, the meaning of Bäi Tú Long Bay , “dragon parts the offspring”, is not as sentimental as “descending dragon”, but words are certainly more deceiving than looks in this case.

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’twas a Dream for Peanut Butter at Breakfast

I would like to give an uncharacteristic shout out to the Dreams Hotel of Da Lat. While the town is filled with many lovely and charming hotels, there is absolutely no better place to stay – I’d even venture to say in all of Vietnam – than Dreams. The hotel has two locations on Phan Dinh Phung, but be sure to stay at the ‘151’ location (now 141 as recently changed by the government). This is where Mrs. Dung resides with her lovely family. The hotel, part guesthouse, part home stay, and part B&B, offers chic, clean rooms with multi-pressure showers. Mama Dung, as Julia and I took to calling her, knew everything about Da Lat and set us up with the best locals for all of our needs. Her kind sons and adorable grandchildren were always running around, making us feel at home. The legendary breakfast was what first drew us in; served round table style and catered to Mrs. Dung’s primarily Australian and American guests, so Vegemite and peanut butter were staples at the table. The most unique part of a stay at Dreams, though, is the rooftop jacuzzi and sauna, which Mrs. Dung offers to her guest as part of their stay from 4-7pm daily, all year round. Being able to overlook the city, feeling its cool climate in a nice, warm jacuzzi is a stunning and special site.

The hotel is also around the corner from the Windmill Hotel, which houses the best milkshake of all time, made from my favorite new fruit. It is titled “Passion smoothie” but is made with dragon fruit and fresh whipped cream. We have searched all of Vietnam and cannot find anything like it!

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Is That Poop You’re Holding?

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We came here searching for it – the strange and unfamiliar; the food that would confuse our senses, feel dangerous, and leave us wanting more. We had heard about the still beating snake heart shooters in Hanoi, but so far, nothing so adventurous had crossed our paths. In the South Central Highland city of Da Lat, or luck began to change (or run out, depending on how you look at it).

The grandmotherly Mrs. Dung from Dreams Hotel (rave review to come) organized our tour with the original Da Lat Easy Rider Group . Our guides, Quy and Duc, spent 20 years as Easy Riders and treated us as friends they were sharing their hometown with. To avoid the many tourist traps of Vietnam, it is important to look for the small, locally run operations that will be sure to deliver an authentic, personalized tour. Quy and Duc took turns introducing us to local farms, plantations, shops and roadside eats/hangouts located throughout the hillside. The men would teach us about the places we were seeing, then give us the freedom to explore on our own, so each new experience was completely individualized.

As we weaved through traffic, out of the city and high up into the mountains, a light rain descended. In the exhilaration of the morning’s ride, I had nearly forgotten our real goal for the day was to meet the hillside minority groups. Our first stop at the local farms revealed transcendent views of the city. We met families of farmers who let us picked passion fruit and strawberries, warm from the sun, which we ate despite the doctor’s warnings. Throughout the day, we met so many lovely people whose struggles did not deter them from sincere kindness.

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It was at the coffee plantation, though, where we got our first real taste of the exotic. Duc showed us the growing moka bean plants and educated us on Vietnam’s most expensive caffeinated delicacy – Weasel Coffee. Weasel coffee, made from a variety of beans grown in Vietnam, is all produced using the furry, beady eyed creatures we met caged alongside the fields. This wild specie of weasels, Asian Palm Civet, love to eat the coffee fruits but cannot digest the actual bean. In the 1800s, farmers began to collect the droppings and salvage the beans, eventually caging and feeding the animals to industrialize the process. Only the female civet is used, as they give off a special, delicate aroma that attaches to the beans during digestion. Though a rigorous washing process is a necessity, the casing surrounding the bean is never completely digested by the animal, so the actual bean does not come in contact with much bacteria. Have I made your mouth water yet?! While poop coffee certainly does not sound appealing, there is a reason it is the most expensive in Vietnam ($18 USD for 100 grams-less than a pound!). Julia and I both agreed it was the best cup of coffee we’ve ever tasted; it was served black and strong, but with none of the buttery taste present in most Vietnamese coffee. The moka bean added a unique richness and smoothness. We couldn’t resist buying some fresh beans as a gift for future unsuspecting tasters.

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Later, we held silk worms and watched the larvae be boiled out of cocoon’s, later battered and fried as a delicacy. To read more on my motorbike trip around Da Lat, check out this week’s Gold Coast Gazette!

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Freedom Angels at the Floating Markets

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Check out my article that appeared in the most recent issue of the Gold Coast Gazette !

Kilometers away from the smog of Saigon and my jet lag finally receding, I reached the Mekong Delta’s city of Cân Thó. My travel companion, Julia, and I met a local woman named Hà who agreed to take us, along with a newlywed Israeli couple, to the floating markets the following day. The city is famous for them: around 6am every morning, merchants meet on the river (large boats for selling, small for buying) to bargain on goods, namely fruits and vegetables. The experience is worth hiring a boat for, and Hà and her sisters have been guiding tourists through the river for years. Their boats fit up to four people, so the tours are intimate and authentic; the women are proud to share their vast knowledge of the city’s markets, waterways, factories, and produce with travelers.

At 5am, we walked along the river with Hà’s sister, Rose, our guide for the day’s journey. Our group followed her down an alleyway in the dark, where the strong, buttery aroma of Vietnamese coffee woke us from our predawn daze. The Vietnamese begin their day early; from my guesthouse balcony, I saw groups of locals exercising around the Ho Chi Minh Statue as early as 4am. For the markets, it is necessary to begin early for the top choice produce (and for us to beat the tourist crowds).

The four travelers were seated in a simple boat with a three blade, coconut sized propeller connected to a wooden paddle. As the sun rose over the Mekong, Rose pointed out the different types of boats that passed by and made us jewelry out of freshly cut bamboo – a lovely gimmick of the sisters’ tours. Rose asked about New York and the “Freedom Angel” (Statue of Liberty), while telling us all about the culture and superstitions on the river. The many boats with painted red eyes were an old tool used to fool the crocodiles that once inhabited the waters. Upon seeing an owl just before sunrise, Julia’s hoots were scolded by Rose. “That is very bad luck, you cannot make the sound of the owl!” she said. The fisherman believe that if the owl hoots at them, they will have an unlucky catch. Thankfully, our day continued on without a hitch.

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After a quick stop for fuel (Rose called it the boat’s beer), we were at the city’s largest market, Cá Rêin, by 6am. Truly, we were alone among locals, acting as on lookers apart from a few pineapples the Israeli’s purchased for 10,000 VND (about 50 cents). The hoard of boats was unlike anything I’d seen, a site so unexpected and warming that it was hard to do anything but sit in awe. The peaceful way the Vietnamese exchanged goods was reminiscent of old friends meeting over a (very early) morning coffee.

Rose had much more planned for us, as we had paid $15 USD each for seven hours with her as our guide. The driver expertly navigated through thick jungle full of tiny river pathways which our boat could barely fit down. Apart from a local who drove by with three spotted pigs in the bow of his ship, we were utterly alone. With the motor cut, the
silence within the sounds of the swamp hummed our insignificance. We pulled up to the dock of a family owned noodle and rice factory around 7am, where production had been in full swing for hours. The rice patties drying in the rising sun fulfilled a quintessential image I’ve always held of Vietnam, and to have it validated was comforting so far from home.

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As the morning progressed, we disembarked from the boat and walked through jungle and rice fields. To shade my face, the driver gave me his conical hat, made from the leaves of the coconut trees that surrounded us. Our late breakfast was served at a family home deep within the jungle, where Julia and I ordered coconuts to drink. After sharing shrimp rolls wrapped in rice paper and fried tofu with sliced cucumbers, we all napped in hammocks before returning to our boat for the hour long return.

Back on shore, we settled up with Rose and our fantastical morning came to an end just before noon. On the walk back to our guesthouse, a small child ran after me, asking for the bamboo cricket Rose had made for us, a token he seemed used to receiving from Hà’s guests. To find Hà and her sisters, visit the Tây Hô guesthouse, where they are well known.

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These Boots Were Made For…..

These Boots Were Made For.....

In less than a week, I will head to Vietnam and begin a four month long journey through Southeast Asia. Accompanied by my childhood friend, Julia, and these Lara Croft boots, I will hike through the region’s amazing sites and devour its incredible, exotic food, reporting here to share my growing knowledge and recommendations for a trip to the East. I know getting acquainted with this new culture will at least require me to cover my knees, shoulders, and aggressive attitude. One other thing I know for certain: I’ll be barbecuing in these Asos backpackers the entire Labor Day weekend to break them in for the ever-changing road ahead!