Vote for Aki Ra for CNN Hero

Visitors to our site might remember Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier turned landmine activist, whom we wrote about when we visited the Landmine Museum outside of Angkor Wat earlier this year. Aki Ra has been nominated as one of CNN’s Heroes for 2010 for his campaign to clear Cambodia’s landmines. As if that were not enough, Aki Ra’s Landmine Museum helps educate people on the landmine plague while earning money to support an orphanage for local children.

Since 1993, Aki Ra and his team have cleared around 50,000 landmines and unexploded ordnance. His dedication to this important cause should definitely earn him this title.

Please vote for Aki Ra to make him CNN’s Hero for 2010. Voting is open through November 18. The results will be aired on Thanksgiving night, November 25.

Vietnamese Hot Pot

Who would have thought that Sapa, a small highland town near the border with China, could boast such a fantastic, cosmopolitan selection of international cuisines. From Italian to Indian to French and back to Italian, Sapa seems to offer all of the classics and anything in between. Interestingly, we didn’t fancy any of the “foreign” foods. Our eyes went straight to a row of restaurants serving Vietnamese hot pot.

Up until now, we have passed up on this wintry dish because Continue…

Dinner or Science Experiment?

It turns out that those ubiquitous Vietnamese BBQ places might be harboring a couple of major scientific finds. While checking out the local restaurants, researchers in the Mekong delta discovered that a few of the barbecued snacks were in fact an unknown species of all-female, self-cloning lizard. What sounds like a bizarre science fiction story is in fact an example of parthenogenesis, a process by which animals confronted with extreme environmental conditions learn to self-fertilize.

Wow, that’s a trick.

But the funniest part of the story is that the researchers asked the restaurant owner to set aside some of the lizards until an expert herpetologist could be called in to examine them. After flying in from California and spending two days on a motorcycle to reach the village, the expert discovered that the restaurant owner had gotten drunk and fried up all the lizards for his patrons. Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Fact is indeed stranger than fiction. Read more about the discovery for yourself at CNN.

The Flower Hmong Pictorial

We’ve moved up into the incredibly picturesque northern highlands of Vietnam to visit the hill tribe markets in Can Cau and Bac Ha. Our motorbike trip out to Can Cau through the fantasy karst scenery was a bit of a muddy mess due to recent landslides and ongoing road construction. But in the end, the markets were well worth the effort as you can see in our most recent pictorial on the extraordinary Flower Hmong, one of the most colorful tribes in Asia.

South and Central Vietnam

A few weeks into our trip, we’ve enticed you with photo after photo of life in Vietnam. But still images of a country as lively as this only make up half the story. To get the full (motion) picture, follow us as we travel from vibrant Ho Chi Minh City through the fun beachside town of Nha Trang to trendy and traditional Hoi An and, finally, to monumental Hue.

For those of you who don’t recognize the voice during the footage of the War Remnants Museum, it is an original recording of Hanoi Hannah (Trinh Thi Ngo), a famous northern Vietnamese radio announcer who used to direct propaganda broadcasts at U.S. troops during the American War.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

It is about time that goi cuon, one of the true staples of Vietnam, receives an honorable mention. Fresh Vietnamese spring rolls, also called salad or summer rolls, can be found on pretty much every menu throughout the country. I’ve completely lost track of how many times we’ve had them since we got here (we’ve probably surpassed our spring-roll-count from Berlin where Tony used to make them quite frequently).

What totally perplexes me, again and again, is how foreign travelers avoid them like the plague. What’s wrong with fresh herbs, vermicelli and shrimp rolled up in moistened rice paper? How about variations with grilled pork, beef, chicken or fish? Doesn’t that sound delicious? Well, apparently not. Rather than choosing this healthy snack, many tourists go for the Chinese-style fried spring rolls. Greasy spring rolls dripping in oil. Yuck! Needless to say, I’m not a fan.

Perhaps, they haven’t tasted any of the dipping sauces that accompany the fresh rolls. The choices are between hoisin sauce, peanut sauce, or nuoc cham, my favorite dip made of lime juice, water, sugar and fish sauce, which takes the dish to another level.

My advice: move out of your comfort zone and cut down on fat. You’re welcome. 😉

Trapped

When we first came to Vietnam, we had committed ourselves to a relatively low-maintenance trip focused on food and fun. Somehow, the adventure just seems to find us. Mere hours into our overnight trip from Hue to Hanoi, the train unexpectedly stopped on the tracks outside Donghoi. For hours, no movement. Although the train was full of foreigners, no announcements in English, no helpful conductors, nothing. Just rumors.

Eight hours later, no announcements, no official statements, but through cellphones and mobile Internet access, passengers had determined that all of central Vietnam seemed to be under water. Stories circulated that flood waters had covered not only the tracks, but also roads leading onward to Hanoi as well as back to Hue – evidently, we were trapped. Still, no official information. I have to admit that, at the beginning, I found the situation rather amusing because it recalled my early travel days in bureaucratically mind-locked China.

After 11 hours, my humor started to fade. Rumors started to circulate that we would be on the tracks for an additional day. After 13 hours, those rumors suggested we might be there for three days Continue…

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

“What was that sound?” I asked Thomas as I took another serving of caramelized pork.

Thomas reflected and savored his last bite of river eel with green banana, “I think the electric fan is rusty. It’s just squeaking.”

“Oh, OK.” I responded.

I was eying the last bit of mustard leaves sauteed with garlic when a thump, thump, thump announced our guest’s arrival Continue…

Meet Mr. Cu

During a Hue evening stroll, we happened to walk by Mandarin Cafe near the Google Hotel and were immediately invited in by Mr. Cu, the friendly owner. As soon as we entered, we realized this was no ordinary cafe.

Mandarin is a restaurant and photo gallery rolled into one. Dozens of photographs adorn the walls giving visitors an intimate look into everyday Vietnamese life. There was a hilarious photo of old twin sisters clad in polka-dot outfits and conical hats squatting side by side. Their facial expressions and even the way they positioned their feet were exactly the same. Colorful landscapes and black-and-white portraits told the story of Hue as we made your way to the table. As we sat down, a wrinkled face flashed a toothless smile.

A few of the photos looked as though they were decades old. But it turned out, Mr. Cu started photographing only 15 years ago. Being a local photographer with personal access to the people, he’s been very successful in capturing intimate, honest moments like the one of two crying women clinging to each other. He definitely holds an advantage over any outside photographer, and it shows.

Proud of his accomplishments, he presented us with several bound volumes of beautiful photography. We sat for over an hour looking at each and every photo which provided us with much inspiration for our own photography. At the end, Mr. Cu handed us some postcards as a thank you for simply being interested in his work. Great photography AND great banana pancakes – it can’t get better than that.

Make sure to visit Mandarin Cafe or check out Mr. Cu’s amazing photo gallery of life in and around Hue.