One neat feature of human memory is that we tend to remember unique experiences more clearly than repetitive daily routines. It's just short of two years since Kelsi and I set off on our adventure, but I can still remember each hostel and home we stayed in, in order. (I used to be able to recall each meal we ate as well, but I have to go back to my notes or pictures to remember them all now.)
Our last full day in Vietnam was spent at the Hidden Hanoi cooking center. We took a "street food" cooking class in a small group; just us and another couple from Singapore. When we arrived, we were greeted with fragrant Jasmine tea and a short introductory lecture about Japanese cuisine.
Tet is the celebration of Vietnamese New Year, the biggest holiday of the year in all of Vietnam. The date is based off of a variation of the Chinese lunisolar calendar and usually occurs sometime in January or February, lasting a few days in urban areas and up to two weeks in rural towns. Our visit to Vietnam fell right in the middle of the holiday, which meant that while many attractions were closed, we got to share in the celebrations first hand. This post is all about the Vietnamese customs that we observed during our time in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
Just outside of Ho Chi Minh City lies the Cu Chi Tunnels. During the Vietnam War, the Cu Chi Tunnels were part of an enormous tunnel network connecting much of the country. Viet Cong soldier would use the tunnels to hide from American troops, sometimes for days or weeks at a time. These same tunnels were used to great effect in the Tet Offensive.
After spending our days wandering the streets of Ho Chi Minh City to scout out various porky and desert-oriented street foods, we decided it was time to take it to the next level on the third night of our stay with a visit to Snail Street.
Street food tours in Vietnam are listed among the top highlights for visitors to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. I was sorely tempted to book one, as all the major companies got rave reviews and shuttled their guests around on motorbikes. At $50-70 a pop though, we made the prudent, though slightly disappointing decision to try to explore the food scene on our own with the Internet as our guide. Could some travel blog research, a good map, and a lot of patience sufficiently reward our labors?
Toward the end of our visit in Cambodia, Andrew and I spent three days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's bustling, dusty capital, to learn about the Cambodian genocide and visit the country's more famous memorial sites.
For our final day in Kep, Andrew and I decided to rent a driver for the day to check out a local pepper farm, as well as the beach, a cave, and various sites through the local villages. This wise decision afforded us a full day with no crowds, gorgeous weather, low prices, and the elusive "authentic" feeling of being in a place that feels shaped more by the Cambodians that live there than the foreigners who pass through. The day was perhaps our most enjoyable in all of Cambodia as we got to sit back, relax, and enjoy rural Cambodia in the cushioned back of our own chariot.
The southeast Cambodian town of Kep was our next destination after Angkor. A small, seaside town about 30 km from Vietnam, it was known as the holiday playground of the Cambodian elite. The area is known for two things: Kampot peppercorns (in a future post) and pepper crab. We had heard that it would be a beautiful and relaxing alternative to the party-outpost beach town of Sihanoukville. After a 5 hour bus ride from the dusty capital of Phnom Penh, we arrived for our 3 day "vacation within a vacation" at a French-run bungalow guest house. Turns out, we couldn't have made a better decision!
After our ten days in Nepal, we were ready to head back to Southeast Asia. Our first stop? Visiting the ancient city of Angkor. Stepping off the plane and back into Southeast Asia after two months in India and Nepal felt in many ways like a return to comfort and happiness: It's not cold anymore! Hey the tuk tuks look like chariots! The streets have closed sewage systems! No power cuts! No cow poo! They sell FRUIT SHAKES HERE!!!
Our third and final destination in Nepal was the gorgeous mountain town of Pokhara, about a 5 hour bus ride through lush valleys, river, and farmland outside of Kathmandu. It was a relaxed and romantic four day trip. After having spent the last month or so in crowded, dirty cities in India (plus Kathmandu, which though calmer was along the same lines), a sunny mountain retreat was the perfect anecdote to the pollution, hassles, and crowds. We spent most of our days walking through the downtown area, taking a boat ride on the lake, hitting up backpacker bar happy hours and taking in as much mountain air as we could.
Even though Nepal is currently going through the aftermath of the earthquake, a topic I discussed in the last post, we had more adventures in the country we want to share. After spending time in Kathmandu we left for the nearby town of Bhaktapur, a city filled with as many important temples as Kathmandu with it's own local specialty dish to try.
Nepal was struck by a massive earthquake last week, the second in less than a month. While we were in Nepal months ago, our first post about our adventures published the same day as the first earthquake. We have many more tales to share about our time in Nepal - about the people we met, the stories they told us, and the culture and landscapes we witnessed. It seemed inappropriate, however, to post more blogs about our adventures in the darkest period immediately after the earthquake. We will return to those stories, but first I want to share a few thoughts about travel and forming emotional connections to other people and places.