Halong Bay Cruise

A cruise through Halong Bay is certainly the highlight of any visit to northern Vietnam. The phenomenal string of jungle-covered karst islands rivals the surreal beauty of similar landscapes in Thailand, Laos, China and the Philippines. To the south of Halong, stunning Cat Ba Island beckons travelers with limitless possibilities for kayaking, hiking, or lounging on white-sand beaches.

Thomas and I had the extraordinary luck to share our amazing Halong experience with a fantastic group of fellow travelers on the Imperial Deluxe Junk. Beautiful suites, excellent food, and great company, what more could we ask for? Our three day trip through Halong Bay and neighboring Lan Ha Bay featured stops at the Hang Sung Sot caves and the national park on Cat Ba Island as well as an overnight stay on the idyllic hideaway of Monkey Island. Our experience was superb.

But don’t plan that trip without seriously doing your homework. Halong is certainly one of Southeast Asia’s most amazing natural attractions, but there’s one major caveat. Vietnam’s most beloved destination is also Continue…

Funky Foods

We didn’t want you to think that a Vietnam Food-Venture comes without its challenges. Sometimes, the deep-fried frog isn’t quite up to your expectations or the stir-fried rabbit seems a little uninspired. Was that freshwater eel nothing but bones? Bummer. Those trapped in a train for 24 hours might survive on fried guppy and white rice. Escargot fans will discover that Vietnamese snails are a bit flavorless – there’s a reason the French drown them in garlic butter. And that chicken head in black sauce tasted a little like run off from a Chinese herbal shop. Oh well – no pain, no gain.

Chu, Powerfrau

For many visitors, beautiful Sapa can be a little annoying with all the tribal women accosting you in the streets to buy souvenirs. But behind the sales pitch are real people struggling to make a living in a world that offers little opportunity for tribal communities. Chu, a feisty little Black Hmong woman, followed us through the streets trying to sell us bracelets, postcards, whatever. She tried all her cleverly designed sales pitches and edgy one-liners without any success. Somehow, our resistance to her spiel seemed to intrigue her. She even labeled me “Mr. No.” Over the course of the day, we encountered her several times and eventually spent some time talking to her.

What struck me most was how intelligent and witty she was. Her English language skills were exceptional and, in another world, she would have been a high-powered business woman, a politician, or a scientist. Instead, she travels the long distance from her village to Sapa every day to stalk tourists and earn a little money to help maintain her family. Good for you, Chu.

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…