Thursday, March 26, 2015

travel tips & ho chi minh city, vietnam

rcg and i like to pretend that we're pretty well traveled. between the two of us, we've visited almost all of the lower 48, a good deal of europe, and most of mexico, with a smattering of places in africa and asia thrown in for good measure. but like everyone, we still have a lot to learn. especially since 1-this was the first big trip we'd taken together, 2- we didn't want to bring too much stuff and have to haul it all over southeast asia for three weeks, and 3- because traveling to southeast asia was going to be such a new experience. all in all, i think we did pretty well, we perfected our packing system after all, but obviously, we learned some things along the way too. i hope you can learn something from our mistakes and our research.

  • pack headlamps! (and extra batteries!) we never leave home without these, often bringing them with us when we go out for a night on the town in tucson. you never know when they'll come in handy, and i promise you, they will come in handy. what we wish we'd also brought: red bike lights. 
  • bring a watch! when traveling internationally, your phone is not a great resource to rely on; you will have to find wifi before your phone's clock will update, so unless you want to do math every time you need to know what time it is, pack a watch. 
  • pack a sarong or other light fabric -- it has a million uses: blanket, towel, knapsack, pillow, sunshade, etc. if you don't pack one, you may be able to pick one up on a long haul flight -- our flight to/from LA and tokyo had great, light weight blankets that you could take. 
  • bring a sleep mask and neck pillow! (and ear plugs if you're a light sleeper.) you may be sleeping on the floor of an airport but at least with these things you have a better chance of actually sleeping. 
  • bring extra passport photos. if you've already applied for your visa before you left, you shouldn't need these, but it's better to have some on hand in case you need them.  
  • pack a first aid kit and medicine. this is one of those things that if you don't bring it, you'll regret it. and if you do bring it, you may never need it. but it's better to be safe than sorry.  
  • bring a water bottle with duct tape wrapped around the outside. carrying around the water bottle will help you stay hydrated and the duct tape can come in handy for a number of different things: blisters, fixing things, plugging a hole in a bag, etc.
  • travel with carabiners!! these little devices are so incredibly useful we always travel with two or three each. they don't have to be the fancy locking carabiners, but i promise you will use them if you bring them.
super important:
  • stash copies of both your passport and visas and those of your travel companions in a couple of different places in your luggage. also, email a copy of these documents to yourself, your travel companions, and someone reliable back home. make sure you email your itinerary & flight information to friends and family as well; it never hurts to have too many backups. 
  • carry prescriptions medicines, contacts, and glasses with you onto the plane; never check them. (it doesn't hurt to travel with an extra pair of underwear in your carry on as well.)
planning & travel:
  • have all of your reservations (plane, hotel, etc.) printed out for easy reference. you can have them saved on your phone, but you want to have a back up in case your phone dies/breaks/is stolen. 
  • find all of your hotels on google maps (or whatever map app you use) and take a screen shot. when you don't speak the same language as your taxi driver, these photos will come in really handy to make sure you know where you're going. plus, it's harder to scam you if you're prepared. 
  • learn how to say thank you in each country you visit; it will go a long way when communicating with locals. 
  • to find hotels, use agoda in conjunction with a guidebook. the guidebook will have better descriptions of your choices, but agoda will have reviews and more up to date information. 
  • pick one city to fly into and out of for your journey to and from the united states. it may be a pain to make your way backwards, but it'll be way cheaper than buying a multi-city ticket. (we recommend using kayakbut just recently found out about air treks, a website that can help you find affordable around the world tickets.)
  • ask around for recommendations on places to stay and eat, things to see and do. we got advice from friends, friends of friends, and blogs, all of which we found helpful, even if we didn't use all of the information. 
  • bring tons of cash with you and hide a wad of "in an absolute emergency" money in the bottom of your bag. we got ourselves in a bit of a pickle when we traveled to koh rong, an island off of the coast of cambodia, because we didn't bring a lot of cash and thought there would be atms. there weren't, and we ended up having less cash than we thought. we survived it, obviously, but we didn't eat a whole lot for a week. 
  • find a credit card that has no fees for international use. we use the chase united credit card; it gives us points for travel and has no international fees. another option is the chase sapphire card, but it has an annual fee after the first year. 
  • atms have the best exchange rate. 
  • your hotel can be a good source for maps and toiletries. each of our hotels/hostels had free soap, toothbrushes & toothpaste, and great maps. 
  • drink as much water as you can on the long haul flights; dehydration will be your biggest enemy when trying to overcome jet lag.  
  • if you want to access documents in dropbox from your phone, be sure to favorite them before you leave for your trip, otherwise you'll need wifi to see them. we had scanned copies of our birth certificates, passports, visas, marriage certificate, and drivers licenses favorited just in case we needed them. 
  • bring paper & a pen/sharpie. we used ours to write about our day and how much money we spent on everything, but you may need it for notes or sharing contact information.  

a super super quick guide to ho chi minh city -- 

eat: our trip to ho chi minh city was nothing more than a 12 hour layover, so we didn't get to explore this wonderful city as much we would have liked. but we met up with some friends who'd been living here and got the inside track on the best banh mis in the city: banh mi nhu lan. we also heard about, but didn't get a chance to visit, an amazing little restaurant with a lot of history that comes highly recommended.

see: unfortunately, we were only able to spend the morning in ho chi minh city, but i definitely recommend walking around the neighborhood that hosts the reunification palace, the central post office, the hotel continental, and the caravelle hotel -- besides being a beautiful neighborhood, there is an immense amount of history in these couple of blocks.

do: read -- our friend works here and it's a great resource for all things saigon. also, make sure you ride a motorbike before you leave vietnam. we both squeezed onto a motorbike taxi and it was pure joy.

sleep: ngoc minh hotel

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

cooking in hoi an, vietnam

if i can recommend one thing to do or see when traveling to vietnam, it would be to take a cooking class. we took one in hoi an, and it was amazing. the cooking class itself was phenomenal, i mean, who knew it was so easy to make rice paper? but the best part was the tour of the local market. they had everything: fruit, vegetables, meat, noodles, fish, and snacks. we learned about all of the strange new fruit we'd been eating -- the milk apple is amazing -- and saw the cleanest meat market ever. the tour of the market was followed by a quick boat ride to the school where we were greeted with a delicious glass of ginger tea. in addition to learning how to cook new dishes, we also learned some useful cooking tricks, like put a little bit of fish sauce in everything and stir fry vegetables in sesame or soy oil to keep them crisp. the whole experience was a fatty's dream and i'd do it again in a heart beat!






a quick guide to hoi an -- 

eat: vietnam is a super long country at over 2000 miles in length, so each part of the country has a distinct culinary style. in the north, noodle soups reign, and in the south it's all about the banh mi, but in the middle, in hoi an, their specialties are the banh bao (aka. white rose, steamed dumpling stuffed with shrimp), cao lau (flat noodles with pork slices in a broth), and banh xeo (fried pancakes rolled in rice paper). also, i recommend trying the very intriguing snow fungus with aloe vera sweet soup; the texture is weird as hell, but it's also weirdly delicious.

see: hoi an old town is a mix of modern and ancient, with over 15 different temples, assembly halls, old houses, and museums to visit. buy a ticket (120.000dong) at one of the information booths scattered throughout and choose 5 different venues to visit. we recommend walking around and checking out the options before diving in, but definitely check out the phuc kien assembly hall (or assembly hall of the fujian chinese congregation) and the japanese covered bridge.
(here are scanned copies of the three different maps we used: hoi an old quarter, around hoi an, & hoi an highlights.)

do: take a cooking class with red bridge cooking school! also, be sure to ride bikes through the rice fields to an bang beach and around the hoi an peninsula.

sleep: phuoc an hotel (they have bikes you can borrow!)

- you can't fly into hoi an, instead fly into danang and take a bus or a taxi to hoi an.
- if you visit during a full moon, the an hoi peninsula is lit up with gorgeous paper lanterns.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

first stop on the southeast asia tour: hanoi, vietnam

the narrow streets of hanoi, vietnam's capital city, are filled to the brim with motorbikes. everyone seems to own one, ride on one, or expect to ride one later in the day. as a result, crossing the street is a bit intense, but walking is an amazing way to get around this beautiful city. otherwise you might miss seeing the 36 little merchant neighborhoods that make up hanoi or the small temples tucked away behind tall walls. both are so characteristically hanoi, so bring your walking shoes and come ready to explore! another reason to walk? street food! hanoi has some of the best street food of any place i've ever been; for less than $10 a day, you can eat like a king!





a quick guide to hanoi -- 

eat: street food!! in particular try: banh ghoi (deep fried pastries filled with shrimp or pork), bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup), bun cha nem cua be dac kim (pork patties, vermicelli noodles, and crab spring rolls), & pho!

- ho chi minh's mausoleum: the hours are ridiculous, you can only see ho chi minh's body for 3 hours a day, five days a week, nine months of the year, but this was, hands-down, the coolest thing we saw in hanoi. the mausoleum itself is impressive, giant marble tombs tend to be, but the real gem is ho chi minh himself. (free: open from 8-11am, tues-thurs, sat, & sun, from december to september; no photos allowed)
- temple of literature: between the 82 stelae on the backs of tortoises and the stunning architecture, the temple of literature is fantastic. plus, it's dedicated to confucius, so it's a nice switch from the buddhist temples that you'll normally find in vietnam. (20.000dong)
- hoa lo prison museum: known as the hanoi hilton by US POWs from the vietnam war, the hoa lo prison museum chronicles the site's use as a prison both before and during the vietnam war. it's very informative and thought provoking, and definitely worth a visit. (20.000dong)
- hoan kiem lake: if you're looking for a nice stroll to enjoy the beautiful vietnamese weather, this lake hits the spot. the ngoc son temple, located on a small island on the northern edge of the lake, is pleasant, but not a must-see.
- bach ma temple: a small temple located in the old quarter, it's rumored to be the city's oldest. it's off of the beaten path, as are many other temples hidden throughout the city, but beautiful and peaceful. (free)

do: eat street food! and explore the city and see how many different neighborhoods you can find!

sleep: may de ville backpackers hostel

- if you're a student, be sure to bring your student id. it's a 50% discount at some of the main attractions.
- make sure you have good maps; it's the only way you'll find some of the amazing street food vendors the book mentions. (here's a bad scanned copy of the map we used.)