Springtime in Kyoto

Kyoto.  A week too late for the cherry blossoms, a week too early for the azaleas.  It didn’t matter. Kyoto was magical even without the blooms. From the mystical geishas tiptoeing off to entertain the evening’s guests, to magnificent temples, shrines and palaces – and magical alleyways filled with hidden restaurants waiting to be discovered – Kyoto is a truly special place. We weren’t meant to go to Kyoto.  Japan wasn’t part of our itinerary.  But between Hanoi and Honolulu lies Japan, and no flight would get us from one to the other without a stop in Osaka.  Rather than […]

Off track Vietnam: Mai Chau

The air is still.  It is steaming under the shade of the stilt house where we slept last night in a room filled with mattresses on a shining teak floor, protected by mosquito nets billowing under the fans. Our village, a traditional ethnic Thai village 150 km northeast of Hanoi, is a little island of wooden stilt houses, nestled in a valley of rice paddies.  The mountains around us are higher than any others we’ve seen in Vietnam, and they close in around this sea of green, transporting you to another world, another time.   It’s peaceful, calm, and a […]

Hanoi, I did not like you

Hanoi was busy, dirty, loud and crowded.  We had been dropped right into the old town, which in every other city would have been full of charming architecture, tourist conveniences and a touch of culture.   In Hanoi, it’s not. Instead, we found ourselves right in the middle of a busy market selling every disposable plastic product imaginable, from rope and cord to food packaging and rolls and rolls of plastic sheeting.  This wasn’t a market for the neighbourhood – it was a wholesalers market, selling in big bulk quantities, to be piled high onto the backs of motorbikes, and […]

Quintessential Vietnam: Ninh Binh Province

Close your eyes.  Imagine Vietnnam. No, not the images of bombs exploding over rural villages.  Open your eyes and close them again. Picture vibrant green rice paddies, farmers in conical straw hats, bent over tending their rice with wooden tools.  Picture water buffaloes refreshing themselves in a muddy winding river, with karst limestone mounts rising straight up from the flat fields, and towering over the pastoral scene.   This is the Vietnam of coffee table books.  This is the Vietnam of the Ninh Binh province, and truly one of the most stunningly beatiful natural landscapes I’ve ever stood within.   […]

Cooking with my family in Vietnam

We arrived at the little organic farm that housed the open air bamboo cooking school laden down with all of our stuff.  A big backpack and day pack each, plus a rugged little rolling suitcase.  They looked at us as though we were insanity itself, but were polite enough not to say anything.  We were headed out of town on a bus later that day, and didn’t see any point in backtracking to our hotel after our class.  As we unloaded our things they eventually got the courage to ask “why did you bring your luggage?” It was clear they […]

Central Vietnam: Hue

Hue is a popular spot in the tourist guidebooks. They’ve all been here. Frommers, TripAdvisor, and of course Lonely Planet. How do I know? Every restaurant and guest house in town has their @mentions printed on a sign out front. That’s all well and good, especially if Hue delivered the goods. But in my mind, it just didn’t. Tourists have been coming here for a long time, and the local hawkers are skilled at drawing you in, monopolising your attention, and conning you into paying way too much for whatever it is they’re selling. Motorbike ride, taxi, pedalo, sunglasses, silk […]

Vietnam: Hoi An and An Bang

Hoi An was one of the “bucket list” stops on our travels through Vietnam. A busy trading port until the 19th century when the river silted up, the old town is a colourful warren of wooden trading houses whose designs were heavily influenced by the Chinese and Japanese merchants that set up shop here for centuries. Hoi An is a UNESCO heritage site for good reason. Brightly coloured lanterns are strung across every narrow lane, connecting saffron coloured buildings accented with the deep patina of centuries old teak wood. The ceilings in the old merchant houses are supported by enormous […]

Vietnam’s Central Highlands: Da Lat

Da Lat is a gorgeous highland town in central Vietnam, with a distinctly European feel. The climate stays a steady 23*C (74*F) year round, and gorgeous pink bougainvillea spill out over French Colonial buildings that stretch up onto the hills overlooking a tranquil town lake. In short, it’s utopia. It began life as a spa town for the French who wanted to escape the heat of Saigon, and quickly became popular with the Vietnamese as well. Adored across the country, it was pretty much spared from destruction during the civil war in an unspoken agreement between the North and South […]

A new way to travel: the Vietnam sleeper bus

And now, for an entirely new way to travel. We boarded the “sleeper bus” at 8:40 am for our seven hour trip to Da Lat in the central highlands of Vietnam. After the intensity of Saigon, I was desperate for somewhere less masochistic, and so we escaped to the mountains. Shortly out of town, we crossed the mighty Mekong river as it widened into its famous delta that has made this land fertile and productive for millennia. The river starts somewhere in Tibet, and crosses through six countries to end up here, in the East Vietnam sea (also known to […]