Friday, July 5, 2013

By the time we finished our three-month adventure in Southeast Asia, we had seen some shit. And if this trip has taught us anything at all, it's that North Americans are puritanical maniacs. I mean, we already knew this, but each day was a reminder that we're doing it all wrong. Throughout Asia (and most places which don't originally include uptight white people) it seems there are no rules whatsoever. It takes a moment to get used to, but changes the way you see things forever. North Americans are shackled by twice-daily flossing and relentless sunblocking, restrictive infant car seats and pesky helmets. We lose ourselves to quiet conversation and thoughtful water treatment programs. I say we take a cue from our living-on-the-edge cousins to the east and let loose! Personal space is overrated!

Children stay up until two in the morning. 
But here's what: They sleep all day. It's remarkably, agonizingly hot in these countries, meaning most people wake at dawn and then sleep at the height of the day's heat. Then they're up again to utilize the more-comfortable nighttime hours. It just makes sense. What the hell is wrong with us? I went to bed when it was still light out, for Christ's sake so my parents could watch Dallas.

Picking your teeth in public - even while sitting in a restaurant - is acceptable social behaviour.
There are toothpicks everywhere in Asia. Everybody else is doing it. Get that shit outta there, why let it fester? Because of decorum? Fuck that.

7-year olds sell sunglasses at 11pm. 
They're very charming and it's quite difficult to say no to an adorable 7-year old. Strong business plan! Used-car salesmen at home could learn something from their artfully-crafted puppy dog eyes. There are millions of children working at a variety of ages all over the world and I tend to think they're learning more-tangible life skills in their parents' restaurant than they would be at a Spelling Bee.

Live poultry can be transported in a DIY cage on the back of a moped.
All I can say is that we didn't get poisoned. Not this time, anyway.

People drink, unadulterated, all day and long into the night. Booze is available everywhere, for next-to-no money. 
And yet the world keeps spinning. In Canada our liquor laws are tougher than breaking into Hitler's clique, and we'll remain lame and boring until they change. The fact that we can't pick up a bottle of wine at 10pm on a Sunday is ridiculous. In Cambodia you can get your 6-year old to grab one on his way home from the late shift!

Stairs are never even, walkways are never stable. If lawsuits were a thing here, everybody'd be F'd.
Take care of your damn self. A lesson for life.

A moped is totally built for a family of 4 or 5, right?
Ehhhhh, they'll be fiiiiiine. And while you're at it, please deliver this refrigerator through the middle of the city at rush hour on the back of your scooter, would you?

Saigon: In a city of 10 million people, there are 5 million motorbikes on the roads. It's intense.

Saigon: A man transports live chickens in a makeshift cage on his motorbike. 

As noted, these bullets are specific to each of three regions we visited: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Hoi An, and Hanoi. 

1) Taxis are remarkably cheap throughout Vietnam. Don't be startled if a cab appears to be taking the long way in Saigon - Traffic and one-way streets make journeys seem roundabout, but they're above board and the meter creeps up slowly. And unlike Thailand, cab companies are really controlled in Ho Chi Minh with staff randomly placed on streets throughout the city acting as liaisons. They will happily hail you a cab and translate to the driver.

2) We found that airport transfers arranged by the hotel were easiest in Southeast Asia. After a flight and the chaos of an Asian airport, it's nice to simply look for your name on a sign, get in the car, and arrive at your hotel, without having to say a word about it. Language barriers can be thick, and it's nice to start in a new city by skipping that stress.

3) Vietnam was the first place we encountered scooter drivers reaching out for a high-five as they passed on the road. It was adorable.

4) Hoi An: If you head north of the "main beach area" you'll find fewer people. Sunbeds and umbrellas are available free of charge at several restaurants along the way. If you have lunch, they are happy to host you all day long. 

5) Saigon: In a city of 10 million people, there are 5 million mopeds on the roadways. It's absolutely the most-insane thing I've ever witnessed, yet somehow seems to work. Bikes move effortlessly around each other, though rely heavily on their horns, 24 hours a day. You get used to the noise.

6) When crossing the street in all parts of Vietnam, you must do it swiftly and calmly. A steady pace is critical so that motorists can anticipate your movement. No starts-and-stops. Once you step into traffic, move to the other side of the street. They will expertly dodge you.

7) Shopping in Vietnam is more Thai-style. A heavy-hand with bartering is required to get an appropriate price. 

8) The War Remnants Museum in Saigon is tough, but important to visit. As Canadians, we didn't learn very much about the Vietnam War, so this was really fascinating and awful. It's not a fun thing, but it's worthwhile.

9) Saigon: We enjoyed a daytrip to the Mekong River Delta. Thankfully there were two other couples on the bus who were our age and we hit it off immediately. The trip itself was just fine, but these people made it super fun. We all had dinner and drinks after the tour and partied like we were 19. (In bed by 2am, of course.)

LOCATION: Istanbul, Turkey
DATE AND TIME: Friday, July 5, 2013 8:30PM Turkish Standard Time/Friday, July 5, 2013 1:30PM EST


These reviews are a little bit more food-heavy. Much to my surprise, we enjoyed Vietnamese food more than any other on our Southeast Asian leg. While I loved a green curry in Thailand or an amok in Cambodia, there was something so refreshing about the food in Vietnam. It was nice to bite through something cold and crunchy after all the hot noodles and soupier dishes. Indulge a few specifics in the Eating sections below, and take note of our favourites if you're planning a trip. It should be noted that on this whole trip we've never spent more than $70USD (combined, with wine) on a restaurant-dinner, with 99% well-below that. Eating is cheap in Vietnam, so take good advantage.

Location: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
Accommodation: Hai Long 5 
The rooms at the Hai Long 5 are remarkably small, but well-appointed. After one night in their standard room, we requested an upgrade to a larger suite. For very little money, we got much more space and a better view. I'd definitely recommend it. (NOTE: Generally speaking, we found that when in urban centres, we like to have a bit more space. Because cities can be more draining, it's nice to spend a tiny bit more money to ensure more quiet space for downtime. Conversely, in more-rural areas, we found we could happily survive in a shoebox as time spent outdoors was less chaotic.) The service was really great and the neighbourhood cannot be beat. It's extremely close to the day and night markets, the high-end shopping district, bars, clubs and dozens of really terrific restaurants. 

Eating:  There are scads of restaurants in this neighbourhood and throughout Saigon. Most-notably:
> Inexplicably good Spanish tapas just a few doors from our hotel. Pacharan offered great service, terrific wine (which we'd been missing at this point) and really excellent food. We ordered a few dishes to share, then went back for more. Highlights: their meatballs, the bean stew with chorizo and and serrano ham, and the deep-fried potato croquettes.

Dong Pho came recommended by an Instagram follower and offers super fresh, mid-level Hue cuisine in a fairly formal environment. Well-worth a visit. We went for lunch, though I imagine a nice dinner would be full-on and even more enjoyable. 

> Right down the street from our hotel was a cool neighbourhood called The Refinery (a collection of old factories that have been refurbished into restaurants and bars). Hoa Tuc is the best-known in the smattering and lives up to its very good reputation. While more expensive than most other meals we ate in Asia, it was still ridiculously affordable and quite impeccable. Their springroll tasting was the best I've ever had and inspired me to take their cooking class the very next morning. If you're in Saigon for more than a day, definitely eat here and look into the class. It was such a great experience and changed the way I look at Asian cuisine in general. I find that breaking down a recipe (in any culture) is the key to enjoying the food. Understanding what's in it makes it less scary. See: terrifying dim sum. I'm wary of hidden foods. This was a great first-step in unleashing my Asian culinary mastery.

> In both Saigon and Hanoi we ate at a chain restaurant a few times called Wrap and Roll. It's cheap and reputable, a great spot to hit when we weren't in the mood to risk the unknown. Their bún thịt nướng chả giò (rice noodles with grilled pork + spring rolls) was my go-to and such a perfect light-lunch. They also offer really tasty dumplings (Jeff's favourite) and smoothies. Quick and dependable.

Location: Hoi An, Vietnam
Accommodation: Earth Villa 
We loved our time in Hoi An (a great beach town in the middle of Vietnam) and even extended it a few days. The Earth Villa is newly-opened (February 2013) and looks it. The rooms are lovely with tons of light and high ceilings. The place is family-operated and the staff is charming and helpful. It's extremely small with only 9 rooms, so feels more like a bed and breakfast than a hotel, though it's extremely private. It has a beautiful pool and offers a great breakfast. We made friends with two other 30-something couples (this seemed to be the demographic for this particular hotel, which was great) and the value was outstanding. Because it was still the off-season, prices were slashed by 50%. It's located equidistant from the beach and the town centre, which is perfect. We rented a moped and made quick work of both directions. Bicycles are available at the hotel as well and are a great, cheaper option. As usual, we wanted to poke around the surrounding rural areas and needed a moped for that.

Eating:  Aside from custom clothing and shoes, Hoi An seems to have a lock on great food, too. 
Viet Hue was a total mom-and-pop a few doors down from our hotel. We weren't expecting a whole lot, but arrived late and just needed to eat. A tiny old woman handles the kitchen and surprised us with a great stewed white fish with saffron and chillis. I still think about it. The link will get you there if you find yourself in Hoi An. (Which you must if you're in Vietnam!)

> Morning Glory is a major hit in Hoi An. With a constant line-up and impressive Trip Advisor ranking, we had pretty high expectations. For whatever reason, the service really lagged the night we were there, but as restaurant-savvy people, we could tell something else was going on. They were definitely in the weeds, but we couldn't hold it against the very excellent food. Their claypot beef curry was major. Outrageously affordable. A must-visit.

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
Accommodation: Silvermoon Lake View Hotel 
Our stay in Hanoi was similar to Saigon - Urban hotels in the centre of cities like this are all quite similar: tall and skinny and jammed between 300 other buildings. They are often small with only two or three rooms on each floor. Again, we switched from a standard room to a larger one (this time on the house!) and were much happier. When it's less than $10 a night, I definitely recommend saving somewhere else and splurging on a little more space. Wifi was only okay.

Eating:  There are an obscene number of restaurants in Hanoi and a really vibrant nightlife. Street food and night markets are everywhere. A quick recommendation: The City View Cafe in the Old Quarter is a must for a quick drink and a bird's eye view of the traffic-madness. Add it to your list for sure. Food-wise:
> Green Mango came recommended by a couple we met in Hoi An. While the interior is a bit dated (oddly, in 1993) the food was really great. We had the 6 course tasting (which was so ridiculously priced at $15/person) and loved every bit of it, from the watermelon soup to banana fritters. 

> The Rising Dragon was a Trip Advisor find (we often check for highly-rated, yet low-priced, listings) and was really good. It's located on the hotel's rooftop in Hanoi's Old Quarter and had a great view of the city. Service was excellent and the food was well-prepared. While I'm a bit foggy on specifics, the sense-memory is good and I recommend it.