Hello and welcome to our sixth and likely final video dump. This one covers our time in Southeast Asia: Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Enjoy!
First, here are two more videos of the election night celebration in Mandalay, Myanmar:
Next, a Thingyan (New Years celebration / water fight) stage in Yangon:
And now, a "graduation" party we came across where some novice Buddhist monks were celebrating finishing their time at the monastery:
A few seconds of peace with a butterfly patch in a field in northern Laos:
The Vietnamese love their caged birds, and here's one with a unique skill:
Finally, here's some fodder for the pub quiz: Hanoi has the world's largest ceramic mosaic. Here's a section of it (with bonus motorbikes and assorted street traffic):
We'd been tipped off to bia hoi well before we arrived in Hanoi by our friend Alexis, who spent two weeks there a couple years ago and loved the city, partially because of her time spent at various bia hoi joints. Bia hoi means "draught beer", but unlike the food in Hanoi, it's not something worth mentioning because of its flavor; it's more of an activity. Bia hoi joints are Hanoi's answer to the corner pub or neighborhood bar. They are divey, often large establishments that spill over onto the sidewalks with small plastic tables and chairs full of patrons drinking extremely light keg beer (only one type available) for under $0.50 a cup. They open in the morning and are generally busy all day; it almost seems as though a beer or two during the day is a habit similar to having a coffee in the morning.
If you're looking for a microbrew or a cocktail, then it's not the place for you, but if you like meeting the locals, enjoying a few beers, and watching the motorbikes whiz by, then you'll probably enjoy this scene. The patrons are mostly older Vietnamese men, but the atmosphere is almost always friendly, and nothing beats a cheap refreshment coupled with prime people-watching real estate. The only hard part is not falling off your six-inch stool after a few too many!
Bia Hoi joints are all over the city (just look for the huge signs), but two popular intersections are Luong Ngoc Quyen & Ta Hien and Duong Thanh & Bat Dan.
Oh boy, where do I begin? Northern Vietnam had hands down my favorite cuisine of the 20+ countries we visited over the past year (note: I do not feel it would be fair to include Italy in the running for this title). While we've loved a lot of the Southeast Asian foods we've sampled, Vietnam's was so consistently delicious that all we really wanted to do while we were there was eat. And then eat some more. In fact, on our last full day in Hanoi we had a meal on the way from breakfast to lunch, just so that we could fit in all the food we wanted to try before we left. Most street food vendors in Hanoi are one-dish wonders, meaning that the stand (or hole-in-the-wall restaurant) only serves one thing, and they do it well. The ingredients -- whether it be noodles, veggies, or meat-- are fresh, often cooked before your eyes, many dishes are served with piles of fresh herbs, and most dishes have a great balance between salty, sweet, and sour. Textures were widely varied as well. And the best part? It's not heavy like many other Asian foods can be. So, sit back, grab a snack if you're already hungry, and read on. We've described some of our favorites here and included the name and/or address where we ate them in case you ever find yourself in Hanoi (pro tip: pack fat pants).
This might have been my favorite: grilled pork patties and slices of pork belly in a bowl of smoky, slightly sour broth that surely took hours to simmer to perfection, served with a pile of vermicelli noodles (conveniently cut for you at your table with a pair of scissors), a larger pile of fresh herbs such as basil and mint, chopped garlic and chilies, and crab spring rolls (we weren't sure if we should dip these in the soup or eat them separately, so we did both). Add the ingredients as you make room in your bowl and boom: one of the tastiest pork dishes I've ever eaten. We went back to this place for a repeat.
Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim, 67 Duong Thanh
Bun Bo Nam Bo
Another dish composed of the winning combination (noodles, freshly cooked meat and herbs). This salad starts with thinly sliced beef that is stir-fried fresh to order, to which noodles, bean sprouts, carrots, fried shallots, lemongrass, garlic, green mango, fresh herbs, and a tangy dressing are added.
Bun Bo Nam Bo, 67 Hang Dieu
We quickly realized eating the free breakfast in our hotel was a major mistake as soon as we discovered banh cuon, a thin, freshly made rice pancake filled with minced pork, shrimp, and mushrooms, and only served in the morning. One serving contains about 10 of these darling crepes, which we found to taste more like dumplings. They're topped with fried shallots and basil, and served with a dipping sauce. If the filling isn't breakfasty enough for you, you can ask for one to be made with an egg inside instead of the traditional filling.
Banh Cuon vendors: 14 Hang Ga; also in alley off of Au Trieu (next to St Joseph's Cathedral)
This is the one Vietnamese dish that is well-known around the world, but not surprisingly, it tastes best in Vietnam. It seems that pho joints take up almost every other hole-in-the-wall storefront or alleyway. Pho is served with either chicken or beef most of the time, and we definitely preferred the beef variety (pho bo). We soon learned that we had always eaten southern Vietnamese pho in the US, which is served with bean sprouts and piles of herbs on the side, and also with a thinner, rounder noodle than in the north. But both varieties start with a delicious beef broth that takes at least eight hours to make, to which soft, fresh noodles, thinly sliced onions, herbs, and tender slices of beef are added just before serving. Pho is usually eaten for breakfast, but can often be found later on in the day too since it's such a popular meal.
Pho Bo vendor, alley off the east side of Ly Quoc Su, near intersection of Ngo Huyen
These Vietnamese sandwiches are probably the second most famous Vietnamese street food (after pho). However, we had assumed that banh my referred to a sandwich with specific fillings (thinly sliced red roasted pork, mayo, lettuce, carrots and cucumbers), since that is the only Vietnamese sandwich I've ever seen on a menu in the U.S. Turns out banh my is actually just a term for the French-style baguette so ubiquitous in Vietnam, and it can be served with numerous fillings. Old habits die hard though, and the pork variety is still our favorite.
Banh My stand, on Hang Ga just north of the intersection with Hang Phen
I wish I could tell you what was in these savory fried snacks, but I have no idea. What I do know is that you cannot go wrong with one of these tasty treats. Vietnam's version of the Indian samosa is served with plenty of fresh herbs and a tangy dip made with fish sauce and pickled veggies.
Ban Ghoi vendor, 52 Ly Quoc Su
Xoi is sticky rice, and a popular way to fill up on the cheap. Many fast food xoi joints can be found in Hanoi where you pick a kind of xoi (plain, with corn, etc.), and then choose from a list of meat and veggie toppings. We tried plain sticky rice with cinnamon pork, plain sticky rice with corn and chinese braised pork, and sticky rice with corn, chicken, and mushrooms. The third bowl was probably excessive, but we indulged nevertheless because it was too delicious!
Xoi Yen, 35b Nguyen Huu Huan
Although it's not a street food, cha ca deserves a mention here because it's such a typical Hanoi dish. There are a couple very old cha ca institutions in Hanoi, and they serve only that. The morsels of turmeric-dusted juicy catfish are cooked at your table with fresh dill and green onions, and are served with noodles, more fresh herbs, fish sauce, peanuts, and chilies. At first we didn't get what the big deal was, but as soon as we bit into the fish, we understood this dish's popularity: the fish was some of the most tender and flavorful that we've ever had. I know I won't be able to re-create this dish at home, so I guess we'll just have to return to Hanoi if we ever want to taste it again!
Cha Ca, 21 Duong Thanh
Some like it sweet: the Vietnamese certainly do. They make their coffee strong and mix it with almost an equal amount of condensed milk (they call it "sweet milk"), which is sinful but addictive. Caphe trung takes this to the next level: condensed milk is whipped with an egg white until it reaches a consistency nearing mousse, and this is poured on top of strong iced coffee. You eat it with a spoon, because let's be honest: this drink is not coffee, it's a decadent dessert. I'm shocked Starbucks hasn't hopped on this train ("Vietccino" doesn't have the best ring to it though).
Cafe Pho Co, 11 Hang Gai
Hanoi simply buzzes with life. At almost any time of day, you can walk outside, watch various types of delicious street food being made (more on that later), find a place to sit down on a toddler-sized stool on the sidewalk to enjoy a coffee, lemon tea, or draught beer, purchase almost anything you can think of from specific streets dedicated to selling specific goods (e.g. "silk street"), or try your luck at crossing a multi-lane avenue while dodging the motorbikes. Everywhere you look, a different aspect of everyday life is unfolding on the sidewalk and spilling out onto the streets.
By the time we got to Hanoi, we were officially uninterested in sight-seeing. We did not visit a single museum or the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. What we did was spend hours walking around various neighborhoods and trying to live like a local. We took a seat at sidewalk food stalls and ordered two of what everyone else was eating.
We started our mornings with a Vietnamese coffee, took a break in the afternoons with a tra chanh, a sweet lemon tea drink taken as a snack along with sunflower seeds, and ended our evenings with a $0.25 bia hoi, or draught beer. We walked down the street where buttons and zippers are sold, the pvc piping block, the kitchenware streets, and the Made in China clothing avenue.
We dodged saleswomen aggressively pushing vegetables and fruits from their fully loaded bicycles. We sat by the lake and watched the endless stream of motorbikes zip along the road, convinced that some of them must just be riding around in circles for fun, because this many people couldn't possibly always have to go somewhere.
In short, we didn't visit any "sights" but instead enjoyed all the everyday scenes and smells of Vietnamese life, and we loved every minute of our eight days in Hanoi.
With our time in Vietnam running a bit short, and having gotten our exposure to the countryside and mountains on our motorbiking trip, and to city life with a few days in Hanoi, we decided what was missing was some time on the coast, so we headed to Cat Ba Island, home to a large national park, some stunning limestone islands dotting an expansive bay, and of course plentiful and delicious seafood of all kinds.
The highlight of our time there was a day-long tour of the bay, which started with some time cruising by the many floating fishing villages: ramshackle huts built on large floats where whole families live (including small children and dogs who are often afraid of water). Then we jumped into a kayak to explore the otherworldly scenery of sheer cliffs, enclosed lagoons, and deserted beaches. Next came the day's main attraction: a few hours of "deep water soloing", rock climbing off small boats without any protective gear. Here's how it works:
You take the motorboat up to the base of a sheer cliff and the guide points to where to put your hands and feet. You time the swells of the waves so that you can jump off the boat's deck and onto the route's first holds, then the boat putters away and you're left clinging to the side of the cliff. You work your way up the rock, usually climbing for about five or ten meters, or a bit more if your vertigo hasn't gotten to you yet.
Then you find a secure spot, look below you to make sure there aren't any boats, people, or fish, and jump towards the plane of water below...
Standing on the side of the cliff and looking down, you're full of anxiety, you kick yourself for having climbed so high, and don't think you'll be able to jump, then you tell yourself it's the only way down. You muster up your courage, take a few deep breaths, count to three, and let go. The anxiety is followed by a moment of fear and excitement of falling through the air, then a moment of complete calm and silence as everything around you freezes in place before the impact. Before you know it, the water has arrested your fall and everything around you is blue and light. You float to the surface, blow out the few gallons of water that seem to have gotten forced up your nose and into your ears, swim back to the boat and get ready to do it all again.
In my 15 or so years of climbing, this experience was the purest and most exhilarating way to practice the sport I've tried yet. When climbing this way you're unencumbered by worry about the gear, the ground below you, the next few moves, or whether your partner is paying adequate attention. It's just you, the rock, and the sound of the waves beneath you. The downsides are waiting for the boat to drop you off at the right spot, then being forced to jump on the wall quickly; and the fact that if you have trouble with a move or get tired out, there's really no second chance.
It's a different challenge and a different reward from other types of climbing, but a truly wonderful experience.
Before visiting Southeast Asia, we weren't big motorbiking enthusiasts; in fact, Claudia's motorbiking experience consisted entirely of a few anxiety-ridden hours in Europe many years ago, and mine consisted of crashing a small toy bike into a fence in Portland, Oregon in 2009. However, taking a multi-day motorbiking trip in the north of Vietnam is somewhat de rigeur, so we always had the idea that we might take such a trip. As we got closer, we began to hear more and more buzz, and we warmed up to the idea. We're sure glad we did: our six-day trip through far northern Vietnam was more than a good introduction to the country, its people, food, language, and dress, it was also jaw-droppingly beautiful and a thrilling adventure for our introduction to the pastime. When we talked to people in Hanoi, the trip's jumping-off point, and to the few other tourists we came across along our route, we realized that we lucked out with our choice for our first motorbiking trip: many people said that it was the best loop in southeast Asia, and one group of seasoned Australian bikers, who had ridden all over the world, said it was the best trip they had ever been on.
We met our charming guide, Hoa, who outfitted us in biking jackets, gloves, and helmets, and introduced us to our bikes, then it was off through Hanoi's crowded streets and into the country. Throughout the trip, Hoa was a capable and friendly guide, perfectly gauging our comfort and choosing our route and speed accordingly, and doing a wonderful job of understanding our interests, and translating for us so that we could have short conversations with the local people we came across.
Our first two days involved straight and easy roads through the verdant farmland outside Hanoi up to the northern hub of Ha Giang. We saw a small pond full to the brim with white ducks, many people wearing the iconic rice hat and working in endless fields of rice paddy, and many fellow motorbikers transporting produce: cages precariously placed on the back of the bikes, containing enormous (live) pigs, ducks, and even dogs. But most memorable was the bright green color of the rice paddies, a green that is so vibrant it's hard to believe it's natural.
We also stayed in two charming homestays where we were given spartan accommodation of thin mattresses in a large shared room, but our best memories of these days are of the huge communal dinners shared with the friendly and outgoing families. We shared heaping bowls of rice, fresh grilled fish, savory-sweet pork in at least two or three styles per meal, delicious stewed bitter greens, and an omelet for good measure, all dipped in pungent and delicious fish sauce, the Vietnamese national condiment. Add to all that a local, homebrewed rice wine of which everyone in the family insists on sharing a shot (and one more...and one more...and this is the last one...and one more "last one"), and these two meals were certainly some of our favorites from all year.
Day 3 was the real show-stopper: 200km of thin and windy mountain roads with sheer drops that look out on endless valleys full of terraced farmland in various shades of green, red, and beige. We even made it all the way to the small town of Lung Cu, just a few kilometers from the Chinese border, and boasting a hill bearing a Vietnamese flag from which you can see clear to China. Unfortunately we didn't have time for the climb...
The last three days saw us attending a lively and colorful Hmong market, seeing even more breathtaking scenery, and making a half-dozen thrilling and precarious crossings of streams by rickety bamboo bridges. We also took a leisurely boat ride on Ba Be Lake, Vietnam's biggest lake and the center of a popular national park.
While the scenery was incredible, as usual for our trip, it was the interactions with people that we'll remember the longest. Every day we took two or three breaks during the ride for a cup of tea, Vietnamese coffee, and a puff from the traditional bamboo water pipe (yes, it's just tobacco!), often sharing a table with a group of older Vietnamese men, and invariably surrounded by many sonorous caged birds.
If we were hesitant motorbiking novices before, you can fully induct us into the sport now. We loved the feeling of the wind in our faces, and the connection to our surroundings: not being enclosed in a car, bus, train, or plane means that we could look at the scenery all around us (at least while keeping one eye on the road). I think that a bicycle is the perfect way to see a city, allowing you to move quickly through it, but affording you the opportunity to stop, linger, take pictures, and to experience the city on a human scale and pace. If that's true, then motorbiking must be the perfect way to experience the countryside: it's more open and adventurous than a car or bus, making you feel much more connected to and integrated into your surroundings, but you can cover much more ground in a day than if you were bicycling or hiking.
This oversized grenade of a fruit is a love/hate affair. It has a nasty reputation for smelling like trash, but durian fans are willing to overlook its scent's peculiar similarity to dumpster air in order to enjoy the sweet, rich, custard-like meat.
Our introduction to the fruit was in ice cream format in Myanmar, where we concluded that it tasted and smelled like onions, and was not exactly the after-lunch sweet treat we were looking for. But we gave it another shot in its unprocessed form and ended up really liking and even craving it. It can be found at most markets where other fruit is sold throughout southeast Asia, and can often be bought in sections since it can be quite a large fruit and has a heftier price tag than most other fruits. The taste is sweet and floral, not unlike the mighty jackfruit, but the consistency is what really got us hooked: it's creamy, almost like souffle or pudding, and the sections are big enough that you can take huge bites of it at once, without pesky skin or pits getting in your way. Just don't leave it in your room like we did once for a few hours...afterward the whole place smelled of restaurant trash!