September 7, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Travel

In reviewing the thousands, yes thousands, of photos we took on our trip to Indochina, I find myself re-pondering and marveling at the infinite uses of the motorbikes in Vietnam. I think I should let the pictures do most of the talking this time around, so to that end, may I share with you below just a glimpse of the endless potential of this peculiar vehicle. I can’t help but imagine all the fanciful things I’d strap onto the back of my bike…jamones, blocks of manchego cheese, maybe some pineapples, bars of chocolate and several bottles of wine. What would you use your Vietnamese motorbike for?

Not a motorbike, but worth honorable mention

The helmetless texter deserved a photo

August 26, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Asia

You thought my honeymoon was over, didn’t you? So did I. Well, the luna de miel gods must have been feeling generous as we were given the gift of one extra quick stop on our trip – Bangkok. In the original itinerary for our trip, we were supposed to start in Bangkok for several days before resuming the rest of our journey. Although, given the political unrest at the time in Bangkok, we (and by we, I mean Jacobo) decided to go with a country that wasn’t having any anarchist uprisings, which took us to Vietnam instead. Unfortunately, three layovers in Bangkok was leaving me a little bummed (and maybe a little whiny) that we knew its airport inside and out, but nothing more. Somewhere between drinking pineapple smoothies and laying on the beach in Koh Phangan, however, we discovered that we would have a seven-hour layover in Bangkok. Even better, if we left from the islands earlier in the day, we could potentially have as much as 12 free hours there! So with the help of our travel agency we shuffled our flight and boat rides around and scrambled to figure out what we would do with several free hours in Thailand’s big city.

After taking our twelfth flight in three weeks, we arrived at the Bangkok Airport, fluttering through its terminal, practically throw our bags at the folks at “Left Luggage.” Moments later, we were in a cab battling traffic before arriving at one of the piers along the murky, choppy, water-hyacinth-filled Chao Phraya River. Trembling with excitement, and perhaps exhaustion, we boarded our own private long-tail boat named “Obama.”

Elated to have had the opportunity to even step foot outside the airport, we were only minimally disappointed when our boat driver told us that the famous Grand Palace had already closed for the day and we could only see it from the river. We would have been happy just sitting on the boat for five minutes and then heading back to the airport to be quite honest. So, when we had the opportunity to stop for 15 minutes at our first and only Thai Temple, Wat Arun, we did so with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning (or me as a full grown adult on Christmas morning).

The temple was so colorful and ornate compared to the other temples we’d seen on the trip – a mosaic of glass and stones that came together to make flowers, landscapes and other peculiar figures. The steps climbing to the stupa rivaled those of Siem Reap’s temples. I recalled conversations with my father of Half Dome in Yosemite, where you need to clutch on to a cable to scale the rock or fear rolling down the side of its steep incline (a vision I played over and over again in my head as a child after my dad told me we would climb it. Needless to say, I never did attempt it). From the top was a 360 degree view of the city. In the distance you could see the lights starting to twinkle on the sky scrapers of the big city, and in the foreground, the menacing (that day, anyway) Chao Phraya River. We could have absorbed every colorful glass tile of that temple, but with only 15 minutes, it was time to quickly and carefully temple-climb our way back down to the riverfront.

Returning to our Thai-style gondola, we began our journey through the klongs. Like the canals of Venice, the klongs seem to serve as roads that weave between the city’s ancient neighborhoods. We were struck by how just off the large commerce-filled river, you could find such antiquated neighborhoods. Small dilapidated homes that seemed to be one wave away from washing into the river, children swimming, jumping and playing in the water, men fishing, woman hanging clothes. All along the river, people graciously and enthusiastically waved at us as though we weren’t the millionth boat of tourists that had disturbed their daily routine, taking pictures, staring wide-eyed with goofy grins. I felt like I was on a ride at Disneyland, seeing a microcosm of Thai life, fast-forwarded and from the safety of a wildly colored boat (the only thing missing was the “It’s a small world” song looping in the background).

After an hour or so of getting lost in the back rivers of Bangkok, we arrived once again at the Chao Phraya. From there, we would be taken to dinner at a restaurant brilliantly recommended to me – Baan Klang Nam. Sitting right on the river, we were able to climb up to the pier from our boat and promptly be seated just ten feet away with a full view of the sun setting on the water around us. We ordered curry and bass, anticipating a light Thai meal, until out came our fish – our entire fish (reminding me of that time I ordered two pieces of fish at the market in Spain and, rather than getting two pieces, I got one giant fish, cut in to two pieces…thanks for the heads up on that one Jacobo). After one bite though, we attacked it like the mosquitos were attacking us. How could this fish be so fresh and delicious? The Chao Phraya was pretty and all, but surely it wasn’t the source of this happy bass – and it wasn’t. When we departed the restaurant later that night, we saw the pool full of live bass in the entryway of the restaurant (along with cages filled with other strange creatures like a monkey and squirrels – I’m glad I saw these after dinner).

For dessert we decided to treat ourselves to one last plate of one of Thailand’s famous desserts – mango and sticky rice. We need to talk about this actually. I am becoming particularly fascinated by all the wonderful things that can be done with rice. A self-proclaimed arroz-con-leche-aholic, the idea of mango and sticky rice, or even coconut and sticky rice, is a mind-blowing concept. Before this trip, I thought I didn’t even like mango, and my love of coconut was minimal. But now, I’m clamoring to find mango, and oh my lord, some sticky rice (what are the odds that I will actually find it here in Madrid??).

Finally yes, the honeymoon is over, really over. After three weeks of eating my way through South East Asia, I’ve returned to Madrid to pick up some sort of food poisoning or stomach bug. This inevitably means that the universe is laughing at me because now I am stuck eating rice. Lots of really boring rice. Repeated pleas to Jacobo to at least hunt down sticky rice have gone unfulfilled. After this, I might be taking a break from rice for awhile, at which point I will resume my intense diet of jamón, manchego, gazpacho and croquetas.

August 23, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Asia

Sure, right, Cambodia you’ve been in Cambodia, but why have I not heard more about you? How come questions like “have you seen the Coliseum and eaten pasta in Italy?” aren’t followed up by “or have you seen the temples and stuffed your face silly in Siem Reap?” Why aren’t Cambodian restaurants (serving what is called Khmer cuisine) as ubiquitous as Chinese, or even Thai?? I feel like I’ve been deceived. I suppose I should snap out of my Cambodian-cuisine-coma though and first take you all back to the other stops on my trip. While I sit here on the beach of Koh Phangan Island in Thailand (translation: paradise), however, I find that my mind is a mush of sticky rice and curry after the last couple of weeks in Laos, Cambodia, and now my latest stop here In the Gulf of Thailand.

There was our first stop after visiting Vietnam – Laos. Outside of knowing that Laos was tragically labeled as being the most bombed country in the world (more bombs were dropped there during the Vietnam-US war than all those dropped in World War II – this was largely as a result of its location on the Ho Chi Minh trail), I admittedly didn’t really know what to expect. So when we arrived in the small mountain town of Luang Prabang, with my senses buzzing and my ears still ringing from all the horn honking, I was pleasantly surprised by the what a tranquil and humble place it was and by the sudden change of pace. With one small main drag lined with charming buildings frozen in time, the town was simple but welcoming. It reminded me of a Country Western town, except instead of cowboys roaming the streets you had monks, instead of cacti there were palm trees, instead of carriages you had tuk tuks, and instead of chickens running around everywhere you had….well, chickens actually. Our days there were filled with far more tranquil activities than in Vietnam – a long boat ride on the Mekong River, walks through small villages, bike rides through the town, early morning rice offerings to monks, and visits to chant-filled temples. The highlight was actually our visit to the Museum of Ethnology, a little gem of a museum housed in a small old French colonial home nestled in one of the village’s neighborhoods. Not only was the visit incredibly insightful in terms of understanding the complex heritage and origins of the Lao people, but the building and location lent itself to what felt like an entirely authentic experience. The small cafe on the house’s patio provided us a front row seat to the backstreets of the town. We found ourselves sipping on our coffee as we played games of hide-and-go-seek with the local kids all while enjoying the view of the city just beyond the roof tops.

Laos definitely proved to be a good mental and physical break between Vietnam and Cambodia. Arriving in Cambodia, I was enthused to see the famous Angkor Wat temple, but had little idea of the what other surprises were in store for me. Before my love affair with Cambodia began, however, we were taken to our peculiar little hotel outside the main city center, where we gave each other sideways looks pondering how we ended up in such odd lodging (which shall remain nameless, but let’s just say I felt like I was in an oriental furniture warehouse that had been taken over by a jungle). When we discovered that we were in no way centrally located, we decided to seek out other accommodations. By some stroke of luck we ended up in the city center at the Hotel de la Paix and were upgraded to a junior suite where they treated us like Cambodian kings and queens. The trip took a decidedly fantastic turn back in the awesome direction that it was already going.

That day we were met by our guide Pol, who I’m now certain is one of the smartest people on the planet, and potentially equally as hilarious. While I only probably understood some 50% of what he said, that half of the information was probably all that my brain was capable of absorbing anyway. I spent my days there seesawing between being completely hypnotized by the ethereal stone temples, and tearful laughter at Pol’s jokes about five star bathrooms, stories about his dogs Angelina Jolie and Coca Cola, and various cross-the-road-jokes about monkeys and millipedes.

Then there was the food…oh the food! From hole in the wall restaurants to fancy modern cuisine, it just didn’t seem possible to eat something that wasn’t orgasmic! The food has the curry flavors of Thai food, but is a bit more mild and sweet such that your mouth doesn’t get a full workout just trying to manage the spice. Our particular favorite dish was the amok, which can be served with fish, or meat, or shoot why not ice cream…just a suggestion.

Our journey has come to its final stop here in Thailand on the island of Koh Phangnan, near Koh Samui (which, relative to Koh Phangan, is all hustle and bustle). We’ve spent the last days kayaking, wake boarding and scuba diving…oh, and just doing nothing while soaking up the sun by the pool, on the beach, or in our own little private pool area. The island here is spectacular – secluded enough that the beaches aren’t blanketed with boatloads of people, and populated enough such that you actually have something to do during a several day stay. The Rasananda Resort, where we’ve been staying, has been phenomenal and is a place I absolutely recommend if you are looking for a top notch trip to paradise, and who isn’t?

Apparently all good things must come to an end though (why? WHY!?!???). Now it’s back to reality where I will brainstorm ways to recreate Cambodian food and pineapple smoothies, which I can enjoy at our imaginary beach lounge (our balcony). I do hope Jacobo won’t mind being the towel boy.

August 11, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Asia

I am not the same person that I was before leaving on this trip (and not just because I am now officially tied down), which I suppose could have been expected, but I never really imagined that just a single day could have changed me so much. After two unimaginable days cruising, dining and kayaking in what must be the most beautiful place on earth, Halong Bay, I was certain that Vietnam couldn’t impress me any further. But then one day came along in which Jacobo and I were given the unique opportunity to experience the country NOT as tourists. This is something we relish in doing for guests to Spain and an experience we’d only dreamt we could have in Vietnam, but never imagined would come true considering that we did not know a soul here. I suppose the universe decided to give back a little, though, because not only has this wish come true, but we are walking away from this country feeling so fulfilled and so in love with it.

When we arrived in Hoi An, an hour plane ride south of Hanoi, we were immediately greeted at the airport by our guide, Thuong, who enthusiastically welcomed us to his town and country. He may have been short in stature, but his personality was bigger than life and his energy infectious. Our itinerary was open for the coming few days, so he was explaining to us all the wonderful things we could do in Hoi An (an absolutely charming town by the way), but provided the disclaimer that you couldn’t really know the culture by hanging around in the city. We nodded in complete agreement, knowing all too well how true this was, and as both of us were thinking in our heads how we wished there were a way to experience something else, Thuong proposed a tour to his village about an hour outside of Hoi An. He explained to us that he was starting his own travel business and that a part of his services included a tour to his hometown where he would take guests to the local market, and then to his family’s home to learn how to cook, followed by lunch. This opportunity seemed too good to be true. A completely authentic Vietnamese experience?? Could we really be so lucky, or was this guy taking us for a ride? We both agreed to take him up on his offer, deciding simultaneously without words that the risk was worth taking.

Two days later, we met Thuong at our hotel where he lead us to a big rented van outside meanwhile explaining that we’d be taking his mother back with us from his village (she was to take her first plane flight ever in order to travel north to see one of her sons). We set off, still a little nervous not knowing what to expect, but excited nonetheless. At the beginning of our drive, the streets were lined by tourists, as usual, but slowly the tourists faded, and about 20 minutes later our van stopped in the village of Ha Lam.

We hopped out of the car and followed Thuong faithfully to the market where we would select food for the day’s lunch. Before I even had time to process that there wasn’t another Westerner in site, people were approaching me from all sides with huge grins and saying “Hello! Hello!” Had I met them before? These people were so friendly and excited to see me, surely I must know them! Thuong explained to us that they had never seen anyone like us before – caucasian, tall, or blond. To them we were celebrities – they just wanted to be close to us, see us, take pictures with us. It was overwhelming and humbling at the same time. Standing in the open market we were surrounded by the day’s fresh catches, tons of different kinds of rice, live ducks, every type of produce both imaginable and unimaginable, and what felt like a million eyes looking at us eagerly, hopefully. I could feel the weight of the experience bubbling up from my heart and seeping out my eyes in small tears. It was hard for me to understand that so many people could become so overwhelmed with happiness to see silly old us, and yet there I was doing the very same thing. I knew it was something special to be there with those people, special and exciting for all of us. Walking through the market, I had a permanent grin plastered on my face, and did my best to greet every warm smile with an equally warm smile along with a “hello” and “xin chao.”

We left there with several live fish, some sting rays, cow stomach (which Thuong, bless his heart, knew we would not likely be eating), fresh produce, noodles, and our jaws on the floor. What a tremendously cool and distinctly un-touristy experience we had – an absolute gift and surely the highlight of the trip thus far. Jacobo and I sat in amazement in the back of the van just pondering what might be coming up next, both of us too saturated with emotion to really say anything at all other than shared looks of astonishment.

15 minutes later, the van stopped on a narrow road in La Nga, Thuong’s village, in front of several small little shops and homes. In Vietnam, people’s homes are their shops – business in the front, house in the back (kind of like the mullet of houses, if you will. Sorry, I had to…I’m still working through the mullet I had as a child and it resurfaces in peculiar ways). This was Thuong’s brother’s tailor shop. Thuong explained to us that his brother made some of the best suits around – taking his time (several days versus just one) to make his creations. Inside we were greeted by his brother who graciously served us some tea while we sat down on small little chairs and took in the calm village surroundings. No Westerners in those parts, that was for sure…just a taste of what was still to come, I suppose.

A few short moments later, we were back in the van. Just down the road a bit, we turned off onto an even narrower path that zigged and zagged through overgrown country foliage and up and around the low lying hills. The road finally ended revealing Thuong’s colorful home where we were greeted like family by his darling little father, his mother and moments later by his nieces, nephews, chickens, puppies, kittens and even a baby pet monkey. Touring the house we saw their beds, the kitchen, the well, the fire pit – a home so completely different than anything I had ever seen in my life, and yet every corner was filled with love.

As we absorbed our entirely foreign surroundings, Thuong summoned us to mount a couple of motorbikes with him and his uncle so that we could head to the nearby reservoir. Only just up the road, the small reservoir, with cattle grazing at its banks, hovered above the lush rice fields below. Thuong explained to us that this location was where a battle between US and Vietnamese troops took place and that in fact land mines could still be found in the hillsides. A sobering thought. Such a beautiful, peaceful place, with such happy, hospitable people, had a battleground for a backyard – literally. My mind still can’t wrap itself around what life must have been like for his family living in that home decades ago. I had to shake those thoughts away though as Thuong instructed Jacobo and me to navigate our way back to his house by foot while he and his uncle returned by bike. So Jacobo and I descended the damn toward the rice fields where along the way we were met by one of his darling nephews who never seemed to wipe the affable grin off his face nor the sense of awe from his big puppy dog eyes. I think he and I became good friends, even though the most I could say in Vietnamese were the few things Thuong had taught and quizzed us on in the car (I’m 28, I’m American and I don’t have children – an important fact in Vietnamese culture, and probably not of too much concern to this little boy, but oh well). I think smiles and hand gestures alone were enough for us both to do some serious bonding.

Arriving back at the house, the men (Thuong’s brother, brother-in-law and his father, among several others) had speared the live fish vertically to a brick and were nestling it in a pile of shrubbery from the rice fields. Slowly, as they covered the fish, they began lighting the whole thing on fire. The heat from the blaze was intense given the already grossly hot and humid weather. Meanwhile, the boys gathered large banana leaves which they laid out on mats under the surrounding trees. Moments later we were all sitting down on those same mats, toasting with our homemade rice wine, sharing bites of the cooked fish and sting ray, and then noshing on spring rolls, Vietnamese pancakes and noodle soup. Perhaps the best meal of my life. I felt like an outsider getting the most exclusive peek at this special world, not just because I wasn’t Vietnamese, but because I was a woman – apparently this wasn’t something the women would typically join in on. Usually they would occupy themselves in the kitchen, preparing the food, and drinking soda (they do not drink alcohol). But there I was with a group of Vietnamese men who were toasting and refilling my shot glass one right after the other. Jacobo and I couldn’t understand a thing they said, but at the same time, strangely enough, we understood everything. We laughed, we ate, we drank, and somehow I felt as though I was right back in Spain having a nice long meal, sharing tapas, drinking chupitos (shots) and just chatting away with friends. It’s amazing how friendly gatherings have no cultural barriers – it’s pretty much the same wherever you go…family, friends and good food made with lots of love.

After finishing our lunch I think we all needed a Vietnamese siesta, so it was time to hit the small windy, bumpy, motorbike-filled road and head back to Hoi An. We said our good-byes to Thuong’s family as warmly and graciously as we could without using words. My heart was exploding with gratitude and no way to really communicate it other than holding my hands to my heart, smiling and saying “Cam on, Cam on” (thank you).

We are so grateful to Thuong and his family for the once in a life time experience. They are truly incredible people with so much spirit and such big hearts. If you ever plan to go to Vietnam (which you should) please visit Thuong’s site and don’t hesitate to contact him. Not only is his pride for his country contagious, but he’s got big dreams (he would love to someday create a small resort by his parents’ house). I am certain that if he can continue to share Vietnam with people the way he did with us, that both his future and Vietnam’s will be brighter than ever. What a special place.

Please pardon the poor quality of my photos – I’m not using my own computer, so I’ve had some file issues!

August 5, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Traditions, Travel, Travels in Asia

The horn honking seems to have followed me from the World Cup hysteria in Spain to Vietnam where the sound dominates silence every minute of the day. What’s strange is that upon arriving here I might have thought that they put Spain’s chaotic rules of the road to shame, when in reality there is bizarre organization to this apparent disorder. Somehow, this country challenges your imagination at every turn.

Driving into Hanoi’s downtown our first night, we quickly realized that traffic laws were irrelevant and that roads were owned by scooters and motorbikes (in fact there are 3.5 million of them in Hanoi, which has a population of 7 million). When pedestrians just meandered out in the middle of traffic I gasped, at which point our guide began to explain to us the unspoken rules of the Vietnam streets. First, honking doesn’t mean get out of my way, but rather “FYI, here I am, just so you know.” Whether you’re traveling by bike, car or foot, you can pretty much do anything you want – cross a jam packed street, make a turn, even head in the opposite direction as long as you do so slowly and predictably. This definitely took some getting used to as pedestrians (ok, I’m lying, I’m in no way used to it). Walking through Hanoi’s historic quarter, our guide slowly lead us across insanely busy streets as motorbikes filled with up to four people, carrying everything from sofas to produce, went zinging by us. Each time I crossed, I found myself holding my breath and saying silent prayers, even contemplating just closing my eyes – after all, it would hardly make a difference. “How many of your guests have you had end up in the hospital from crossing these streets?” I cautiously asked Duc, our guide. “None,” he replied with a little chuckle (I’m convinced he thinks I’m nuts). I’m still having a hard time believing this, however, with each passing day I have more confidence in the rules of this madness (although, I’m still not sure that texting, helmet-less, with a child clutching onto your back is really all that super safe).

Growing up in the Bay Area, having had many Vietnamese friends, and being a self proclaimed expert on fresh spring rolls (a quick shout out to Tour Eiffel Vietnamese Restaurant in Los Altos – still the best spring rolls in the world), I thought I might be somewhat familiar with the Vietnamese culture, or perhaps at least more or less what I might expect here. To some extent this is true – super friendly, hard working, humble people, with a great pride in their heritage and an eagerness to shed an ear-to-ear grin. I suppose I never realized or comtemplated to any great extent the complexity of where this came from though. Being here and walking the streets I’m in awe of how everyone seems to have their trade – people huddled on a street corner making a food delicacy, women balancing baskets of bananas and looking at me hopefully as though a banana might be exactly what I’m looking for, men shining shoes and giving hair cuts in whatever free space they can find. Then there’s the countryside where you can see rice farmers working the fields for as far as the eye can see – no surprise, really, considering that apparently 70% of the country dedicates itself to rice farming (according to Duc).

Then there’s this outdoor lifestyle akin to the Spanish terraza. Groups of people crouched down on small little chairs in just about any open area possible (sides of roads, in front of houses, medians in between streets) chatting, drinking, eating, fanning themselves, or just sitting and passing time. Often you will see some random fellow who’s managed to hang a hammock from the most peculiar locations, just taking a nap on the sidewalk.

At first site, things seem so backwards here and so beyond comprehension, but then the more you observe, you realize that everyone is a part of the same dance, with coordinated moves that all magically fall into place. Getting used to this rhythm does not come naturally to me, but admittedly, as it inevitably becomes more predictable, I’m finding comfort slipping into the Vietnamese way of life. Oh and I’m just loving overdosing on Vietnamese food – living in Spain has left an open hole in my heart for one of my favorite cuisines!

Beyond the typical tourist stops in Hanoi, our time here has been filled with adventure. We headed out to the village of Hoa Lu, the Vietnam capital in the 10th century, where we visited the temples of the Le and Dinh Dynasties, followed by the most tranquil bike ride through the Vietnamese countryside. We weaved our way through a narrow path surrounded by lotus flowers, craggy rock mountains, rice fields, bamboo forests and small village houses. It was remarkably beautiful taking in the scenery slowly from our bikes while I honed my biking-while-taking-pictures skills. After that, we got into a small boat steered by two miniature little women that took us down a narrow delta of Inland Halong Bay, which was lined with the occasional farm hut, banana trees and then ultimately ended in a dark limestone cave filled with low hanging rocks, stalactites and bats.

My original plan was to write one blog per country, but I’ve quickly realized that this would be virtually impossible considering that each day here in just Vietnam alone has topped the one before. After visiting Hanoi (where we stayed at the Metropole, which was phenomenal), we headed off to Halong Bay and are now in Hoi An – both places that have exceeded my expectations in every way possible and left me completely in love with this country. I can’t wait to share the rest of these adventures so far, but alas I must pace myself. More to come very soon!