Tuesday, January 28, 2014

6 Ways To Make The Most Of Traveling To Southeast Asia (And The Rest Of The World, Too)

I wrote this article that was published on a great website called Thought Catalog. You can find it here, I've also posted it below.

I’ve had the pleasure of traveling throughout most of Southeast Asia. A vibrant and diverse land of friendly people, delicious cuisine, beautiful temples, and dizzying markets, it has been much exoticized yet still feels strikingly familiar at moments. After much reflection, I want to share the main lessons that I’ve learned from my explorations, because approaching any new culture with an open mind will make your travels infinitely more rewarding.
1. When bargaining in markets, always do so with a smile and a light heart. While you may be asked to pay twice the actual price of the product, step back and remember that the difference between 20,000 dong and 10,000 dong is actually only 50 cents, and isn’t it better to leave the vendor with a feeling of having had a good human interaction, than change in your pocket worth 1/10 of a Starbucks latte?
2. Museums may be lovely, but sometimes in order to really get to know the culture and the people, you should ditch the official government-promoted tourist stops and instead simply wander the streets, taking in the local smells, sounds, and sights with your own senses. How else would you find that roadside vendor selling steaming bowls of pho in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, or stumbled across a cafĂ© in a floating village on Bintan island, outside of the resorts area?
3. Talk to all sorts of people. Young, old, foreign, local. The bookshop owner in Yangon who has been in business for 37 years, selling books that used to be banned in Myanmar. The Cambodian tuk tuk driver whose parents were murdered in the genocide under the Pol Pot regime. The intrepid Burmese woman who moved to the city to start a guesthouse and now has a world of friends. Everyone has a life that twists and turns, made up of the most incredible stories, yet somehow grounded on a familiar basis.
4. Try foods at local and unpretentious places, not only the dressed up and gaudy establishments that cater to tourists. When I went to Hanoi, we followed our eyes and noses, plopping down at crowded roadside congregations of stools, slurping down steaming bowls of pho with thin slices of fatty beef in a fragrant clear broth. Some of the most delicious food ends up being the simplest and cheapest. One caveat – always be aware of food hygiene concerns in the country.
5. It’s a trite but true saying: the best-laid plans go to waste. I find myself learning this over and over again. As much as you want to plan out your days perfectly so you can see everything and do everything, life will get in the way. Sometimes, it is for the worst: missing out on the last day in Yangon due to a sudden and severe case of food poisoning. Sometimes, it can be for the better: a traffic jam alongside the river in Phnom Penh leads to a perfect view of the fireworks celebrating Independence Day. Be flexible, be spontaneous, and always look on the bright side.
6. In sum, be humble. Don’t be that tourist that barges in and assumes knowledge of the history and culture of the place. Don’t expect people to all exist to be at your service. Go in with an open mind, understanding that we all carry the biases and peculiarities of our nations and their histories. Let go of your expectations each bright morning as you enter the streets, and watch the day unfold in the most unexpected ways.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

And In Between the Eating...

Besides eating and walking around the Old Quarter, we also saw some of the sights in Hanoi. One morning we walked to the Temple of Literature, a Confucian Temple that used to hold the most ancient university in Vietnam. It's about a ten minute walk from the Old Quarter, and one of the most popular tourist sites in Hanoi. 

The beautiful grounds are within an enclosed stone wall, and you only have to pay $1 for an entrance fee. It was lovely to stroll around on a crisp and bright morning. 

I really love visiting used bookstores wherever I go travel. Most of the well-maintained ones are treasure troves of history - and not just books of history of the country, but the histories of the books themselves, of how they ended up sitting on a shelf in that bookstore of that particular country. In Hanoi, I went to Bookworm, located near West Lake in an area about a 30 minute walk north of the Old Quarter.

After browsing for a long while at Bookworm, which has an extensive selection of books, we walked along the lake area where we found nice seats and tables near the shore. At first, I was pleasantly surprised to see such nice public seating. Of course, as we sat down, we were immediately approached by a waiter - the seats belong to a lakefront cafe across the street. However, $1 for tea and a plate of sunflower seeds was a low price to pay for the relaxation and the view.

Another very popular sightseeing spot is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh's body is embalmed and on display, similar to Mao's body in China's Tiananmen Square. The Mausoleum is only open until 11:30am every morning, and apparently there is a very long line of people wanting to catch a glimpse of his body. We skipped the viewing, choosing instead to explore the grounds behind the mausoleum, where we saw the presidential palace and other historic sights like Ho Chi Minh's old residence and the One Pillar Pagoda.

St. Joseph's Cathedral is another point on the map that was marked for sightseeing. When we walked over one Monday morning it appeared that the building was closed, though when we walked over to one side we found an open door and got to peek inside. 

The neighborhood surrounding the cathedral is quite nice, with lots of little cafes and shops. I found this place called Joma Bakery Cafe that I immediately fell in love with and went back 3 separate times! They make their own bread and it's divine. 

Hoa Lo Prison has an interesting history. The French used the prison to detain Vietnamese political prisoners during their era of rule, and then Hoa Lo was used for captured American POWs during the Vietnam War. Only part of the building is still intact, and preserved as a historical site; sadly, much of the space has been taken over to build new high-rise buildings. 

The prison tour was quite an interesting experience, seeing how the government presents its historical perspectives. For one, it focuses mostly on the French brutal treatment of Vietnamese prisoners, and only dedicates the last part of the tour to the American experience. Additionally, it tries to claim that the Americans experienced benevolent treatment in the prison, showing videos of POWs laughing, playing games, eating good meals, and even celebrating Christmas. You would think from their claims that the Americans were honored guests rather than enemy soldiers.

Indeed, there is a bit of irony in the nickname "Hanoi Hilton," created by the Americans. They chose this nickname ironically, yet the description in the prison uses this American nickname as literal proof of the fine experience that the Americans received.

Yet I'm sure there must be some grain of truth to their claims. There always exist multiple histories amongst all the sides of any conflict, and I'm aware that I've only grown up with the American one.

Several times during our trip we visited Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter. There are a lot of nice cafes overlooking the water, and it's a nice walk around the shores as well, during the day or night. Many locals come here to exercise and do calisthenics - I frequently saw people, especially older folks, strolling around while swinging their arms and pumping their legs vigorously. There is a pagoda in the middle of the lake that can't be reached, as well as a temple that one can get to by crossing a bridge. 

We didn't visit any museums on the trip, which is a change for me, but I think in Hanoi there are many more ways to experience the culture and the history. Additionally, my friend told me that the museums are not very well curated. If I ever go back perhaps I will check out the exhibits but for now I am content with how much I saw and learned on my trip.  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Bountiful Tastes

If you've ever been curious about Vietnamese food outside of pho and spring rolls, this is the photo-heavy post will hopefully prove helpful! Warning - it is quite long, as it documents nearly everything that we ate over our five day trip.

Throughout the trip, we mostly ate at little hole-in-the-wall places or roadside stalls, trying to get a better perspective of authentic cuisine. We looked for where plenty of locals were eating, and we followed our noses. This meant lots of "no frills" dining - cheap food, limited selection, fast but minimal service, questionable hygiene - but it probably also meant trying the best tasting food! 

Our first meal was a delicious plate of stir-fried noodles in a thick gravy, topped with plenty of tender slices of beef, called pho xao bo. "Bo," as we quickly learned, means beef. 

We also had to try pho, the most widely known Vietnamese dish, noodles in a clear and fragrant broth topped with chicken or beef. The chicken version (pho ga) is usually lighter, while the beef creates a heartier broth.  

The food is ridiculously cheap, even assuming that vendors hike up prices for tourists. A big bowl of noodles costs around $2-3. The beer (bia) is also famously affordable, anywhere from 25 cents to $1 for a big mug or bottle. 

We found lots of finger foods and snacks available at the large night market, open on weekend nights. I'm not sure how Vietnamese this is, but I found a stall with a guy flipping chocolate pancakes and waffles, and topping them off with chocolate syrup and fruit. I tried a chocolate pancake, which tasted as expected. Other vendors at the night market sold various fried items like potato slices on a stick, and fruit drinks. 

On the way back from the night market to our hotel, I came across banh bao! There are vendors parked around various corners with a big pot full of these steaming goodies. Very reminiscent of the Chinese bao, these are steamed buns filled with various meats. The outer dough was slightly sweeter than the Chinese version, and the cute shapes are different than the standard Chinese bao. 

There's a quite famous beef pho place on 49 Bat Dan, just one block over from our hotel! Pho is commonly eaten for breakfast, and the good places can easily run out of food before 10am. When we hurried over one morning, we found ourselves waiting in a long line with locals.  

Aren't these prices amazing? $1 is about 20,000 dong. 

The line moves rather quickly, as people eat hurriedly before rushing off to the day's work. This is not a place to linger over your meal - you pick any open spot among the cramped tables, and gulp down your steaming bowl of noodles alongside strangers. There's a pleasant communal energy of people just enjoying the food, so it doesn't feel awkward. 

Banh mi is another famous Vietnamese dish - a French baguette stuffed with various fillings such as egg or meat, vegetables, mayonnaise or pate. Little roadside operations, like in the below photo, can quickly put together a delicious sandwich for a hungry passerby. 

We ordered a banh mi pate to share. First, the guy fried up an egg into an omelette. Then he stuffed a fat and crispy baguette with the egg, some cilantro leaves, and a thin smear of pate. The combination of flavors and textures was quite delicious - I burnt my fingers and tongue shoving down the banh mi!

Still curious to try more Vietnamese foods, and eager to have some local opinion on the matter, we booked a food tour with an organization called Hanoi Kids. We met two fantastic college students who took us around to their favorite places and taught us more about Vietnamese cuisine. 

Some of the things we tried included fermented pork, which sounds a lot more intimidating that it actually is! Out came a plate of fried pork pieces, crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. I can only liken it to a chicken nugget.

My favorite dish of the whole trip must have been this beef salad, called nom bo. Fresh vegetables, marinated in some sort of sweet and sour dressing, are topped with slices of beef and jerky, and the whole thing is sprinkled with herbs and a handful of roasted peanuts. 

We also tried a unique dish called bun cha. Each customer gets a bowl of soup with pickles and pork patty pieces, as well as a plate of rice noodles. You mix a bit of the noodles at a time with the soup and eat.  

The tour brought us to a hidden cafe along the eastern edge of the Old Quarter. In order to get to the cafe, we entered a narrow doorway from the street and walked along a dimly lit alley. The cafe serves a Hanoi specialty, egg coffee. An egg is beaten into a sweet, whipped concoction, and poured over strong black coffee. Though it sounds weird, it tastes rather like eggnog! There was also an egg beer, which replaced the coffee with beer - changing the drink to a nightcap rather than a wake-up call, I suppose.

One last notable food adventure - on a street known as BBQ Chicken Street. Along this street, located a bit further west from the Old Quarter, various vendors grill chicken on large grills and baste them with a sweet and sticky sauce. There is only chicken, but so much chicken! Chicken feet, chicken wings, chicken thighs, etc. 

On the side, they served a grilled and honey-coated banh mi! Deliciously sticky and messy. 

So we definitely ate our fill in Hanoi. It's a great environment to try lots of different foods because of the density and proximity of all the options. Hygiene for street food isn't the best if you have a sensitive stomach, but I was fine, despite trying salads and fruit. I hope to remake the beef salad here if I can find the ingredients.

Watching the World Go By

Hanoi is such as marvelous place. I spent five days there, and most of the time I roamed around the busy streets and hidden alleyways of the Old Quarter. I didn't plan out an itinerary full of museums to visit or shows to see; instead, I sat in cafes looking out at the traffic, ate sitting on plastic stools by the roadside, and walked rather aimlessly around, poking about and stopping at whatever interested me. 

And there was so much that was interesting to see, just in the daily rhythms of the city and routines of the people. The streets in the Old Quarter are named after the trade that the street used to be known for, so you'll find rows of shops all selling toys, or hardware, or wooden frames, or even coffins. One particular street was all decked out for Tet, the Lunar New Year, and the shops were festooned with glowing red lanterns and shiny gold envelopes. 

The streets of Hanoi are quite chaotic, full of honking motorists carrying everything from cartons of eggs to tourists, lumbering cars and trucks, bikes, and pedestrians who stroll confidently through the melee. It's quite hard to get used to walking around without feeling like you will get run over at any second, but I've learned it's all about being aware of the flow of traffic, and stepping in with composure and assurance. Motorists will avoid you, as long as you keep moving forward at a steady pace. 

At nights the streets grow even livelier. People gather in large groups to dine communally at large eateries, where the stools spill out onto the sidewalks. Offering no frills at all, each eating hub serves a few special dishes. Rarely is one presented with some sort of menu; for outsiders such as myself, the best strategy is to watch what the locals are eating and point. 

At other street corners, groups of people hunch over hot lemon tea, cheap beer, and munch sunflower seeds, holding lively conversations and watching interesting happenings on the streets. 

It's amazing how much life is contained in the city and its streets. The Old Quarter, especially, is dense; perhaps that is why it is so popular with tourists. You can't go two blocks without seeing a pho place, or a massage parlor, or a hostel. However, I also enjoyed seeing many Vietnamese locals sharing the space, sometimes frequenting the same restaurants and businesses. 

Through my five days of wandering, I saw many interesting and quirky aspects of life in the Old Quarter. For example, a bike saddled with wooden lanterns and handwoven baskets for sale (who knows how the owner maneuvers it!)... 

... a shop stuffed deeply with all manner of stuffed toys...

...balloon vendors near Hoan Kiem Lake...

Pico Iyer, the famous travel writer, said that "nothing is uninteresting to the interested eye." I readily agree with his statement, but must add that it is not difficult at all to find things to perk your interest in Hanoi, where the whole world can pass by you on the street.  

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Some Constants

Some aspects of China have not changed much since my last trip. Streets in older neighborhoods still have the same gritty atmosphere and characters; toddling babies, elderly men spitting upon the asphalt, motorbikes swerving around pedestrians, delicious smells of fried food and steamed buns wafting from food stalls...

My aunt and uncle work at a university in Changsha and live in housing on campus. Their apartment is right next to one of the canteens, and one chilly morning we headed down to eat some hearty and simple food. The canteen is exactly as it was before, no frills, just cheap and good food. Why change what works, right?

They sell some of my favorite breakfast foods, including all manner of steamed breads, including mantou (steamed bread), baozi (steamed bun stuffed with meat or a sweet filling), and zhuanzhi (steamed dough twisted into a roll and seasoned with sugar or onions). I've tried making these before, but for some reason the homemade ones are never as soft and fluffy. 

Right across the way is the faculty canteen, where the food is supposedly a bit better than the student side. They were serving noodles that morning as well as dim sum.

There is no heat in the eating area, so everyone bundles up in their winter coats and drinks steaming soy milk to warm up. Though Starbucks and other cafes have opened up plenty of outlets, the coffee culture hasn't quite permeated the Chinese market to the same extent as it has in the U.S. People do enjoy drinking it from time to time, but coffee has not yet become a daily ritual for the average person. Hence why you most likely won't find it sold in canteens. Coffee drinks are relatively pricey, and probably are consumed mostly by young people out with friends or by young professionals. 

There are many large, new malls in Changsha that sell both upscale Chinese and western labels. However, we decided to go to Gao Qiao, an older wholesale district that offers many traditional foods and knickknacks. The area is packed with small stores, and we walked through an area with lots of dried goods such as dates, nuts, and goji berries. There is a lot of selection, so buyers go along and try bits of the product before haggling the price with the vendor. 

I think this is some kind of squid?

Below is a photo of dried wood ear mushrooms, the same as what I ate in Hong Kong.

And of course one thing that hasn't changed yet is the pleasure of eating a large meal surrounded with family. We went to visit relatives who own their own small restaurant, and they were kind enough to cook our whole family a big meal full of fresh ingredients. In the photo below are my two grandmothers!

Large meals out with family are always great raucous fun, with people pushing each other to eat more and drink more, followed by the inevitable fight for the bill at the end. I'm glad these social customs still remain.

Tomorrow I'm leaving for my last trip of the winter break, to Hanoi in Vietnam. I hope that it's not as cold there as it is in China, and when I'm back in six days I'll be sure to post photos and updates!