HIGHLIGHTS | HANOI, VIETNAM | DECEMBER 2013
While we are not Hanoi locals nor did we stay in the city for very long, we feel that there were places (mostly restaurants and cafés) that we went to that should be a not-to-miss if you’re ever in this corner of Vietnam.
These select places are to compliment your usual tourist fanfare. If you fancy yourself a citizen of the world, one struck with wanderlust, a person who absorbs culture and different social interactions, or some pretentious shit like that, you’d love these places. You can go home and tell everyone, “Yeah. We went to Hanoi, but we didn’t see the tourist attractions. We really got into the heart of the city.” Fuckin’ hipsters.
Seriously though. These places are great. Most, if not all, are cheap; and all are within walking distance if you’re staying in the Old Quarter or the Cathedral District. If you’re a poor 20-something year old, check these places out.
For you travelers who can’t navigate their way out of a paper bag, we created a Google map document doodad to mark where everything is. SEE IT HERE.
Sidestreet eatery, Dong Xuan Market
We don’t know where this place is exactly. We blindly followed our friend Ha (we’ll talk about him a lot more later) through markets and side streets and alleyways and rotundas to get to this place.
We checked Google maps as savvy travelers are wont to do, and we deduced where it might be. We got so fuckin’ Sherlock up in here. It may be there. Or not.
Don’t worry though—there should be loads of these side street eateries all over Hanoi. We just don’t know if they serve the same amazing dry pho that we had. Check out our last post where we talk about this perfect dry pho dish.
Minh Thuy’s Family Restaurant
You know how sometimes you and your friends argue because no one can decide where to eat so you just eat at the cheapest place you know even though it’s shit?
Minh Thuy’s is like that except it isn’t shitty. It’s amazing. They serve a lot of Vietnamese food, but they also serve some international cuisine for those tourists looking for a taste of home. Minh Thuy’s is comfortable. This is where you go when you reckon you’re done adventurin’ today, pardner. You sit down, order some beer, and get some pho or spring rolls or goulash. Minh Thuy’s is probably our favorite because, here, no one will judge you for wanting to eat with a spoon and fork.
May we also add that the head chef of Minh Thuy’s came in 7th place in Masterchef Vietnam? Yeah. And she’s not a head “chef” either, like those types that just make sure all their employees are cooking. Nope; here, the head chef actually cooks. She’s a very nice lady.
Say hi to Stefan, the owner, when you go to Minh Thuy’s. He’s a very kind man.
Cha Ca La Vong
This next place is so good, the street it’s on is named after it! Well, it’s named after the dish, to be more accurate.
Since 1870, the restaurant Cha Ca La Vong has been serving this special fish noodle dish.
If you look it up online, you’ll find that there are mixed reviews about this restaurant. Many people complain that the food here is pricey (and certainly it is if you’re comparing it to a lot of the other restaurants in Hanoi) and that the service isn’t exceptional either. However, if you’re looking for a traditional Vietnamese meal, Cha Ca La Vong is probably the closest you can get.
When we went, it was packed with Hanoi locals eating here during their lunch breaks. It’s always a good sign when you’re eating where and what the locals are.
Forest talks more about the cha ca dish itself in the last post, if you want to know more about it.
It looks nice, and the food is great. We included this restaurant because you might be a filthy vegetarian. Which we are too, from time to time. The food wasn’t so amazing that we had to write about it in a separate post, but it’s place to visit. It’s an option. A good option. Seriously, check out Tamarind Café.
With the popularity of speakeasies and the feeling like a café or bar is “yours” and is a best-kept-secret, we know you people are going to love Nola Café.
So, you walk down Ma May Street, expecting to see it bright as day because, come on, it’s on most “Top Ten Cafés in Hanoi” lists on the Internet. (In Forest’s shame he actually googled “Best cafés in Hanoi.”) But you ain’t gon’ find it. They have a small sign pointing into an alleyway that looks like it’s where most drug deals are conducted; but just keep walking further in and—hot damn, Alice, you’re in Wonderland!
This café has several stories. And despite its small entrance, the place itself is anything but small. It’s basically a house (one with an elegant French and Asian mix, we might add) that someone converted into a café and bar.
It’s cozy and eclectic. It’s a good place to catch up with friends, write in your diary, have a jamming session (they have a piano!), or, if you’re feeling social, meet new people.
We mostly stuck to coffees and beers while at Nola; but they also serve comfort foods.
This café was definitely our favorite find in Hanoi. Come here for the ambiance.
Hibiscus Hotel is in the Cathedral District, two blocks away from St. Joseph’s Cathedral. It’s surrounded by other small hotels and hostels.
Down the road is a backpacker’s hostel, so you’ll be around tourists. Even further down is Minh Thuy’s, so you will never starve.
We could go on about the facilities and the cleanliness of the place and all that; but in short, for 30 US dollars a night, you have an air-conditioned room with a bed and a hot shower. You even get breakfast. You could complain, but then we’d expect you to go and stay at the Ritz Carlton. That, or we get to call you a cheap muhhfucka.
The best thing about Hibiscus Hotel though—and we must warn you that we are now entering best-kept-secret-of-Hanoi territory—is this guy:
This is Ha; and Ha is everything you could ever need in Hanoi. He was the receptionist, bellboy, waiter, and night-watch of the hotel. Those were his jobs. Ha is the kind of kind soul that makes you want to travel more. He makes you want to talk to strangers on trains and people alone in cafés.
He just walked us to the sidestreet eatery on Dong Xuan with the perfect dry pho during his lunch break. Being the wary travelers that we are, we were like, “Awww shit, holmes, we bein’ scammed,”—because that’s how things go on the Discovery Channel. We figured he owned the eatery or something, or that maybe they were going to overcharge us. But while we were eating, we found out that he had actually already paid for our meal. That’s seven peoples’ meals! (Forest: I wouldn’t even pay for seven friends’ meals, much less those of strangers!) By then we were sure he was scamming us. But no; he walked us around the market to look for cheap shoes and jackets, walked back to the hotel, and made no mention of it. Shit was crazy.
Like good tourists who are interested in history and that shit, we decide to go museum-hopping. The morning of our flight back to Manila, we asked Ha to get us a cab. He did; he also offered to come with us so that no one would try to take advantage of us. So he came along. And Scam Central Alert Code Black: he paid for our cab fares. To every museum. And he paid for our museum entrance fees. This shit was unbelievable. We were worried.
On our last day in Hanoi, Ha insisted that we try this duck place. Have you ever heard of a duck place? Do you know where your local duck restaurant is? We don’t even know if those exist here in Manila. Ha knew a place though. The food was great. See our last post to hear Forest rave about it.
The five days we were there, we were careful. Wary. But Ha never scammed us. He was just a genuine person. He loves Filipinos—he’s a fan of Manny Pacquiao. He loves meeting new people. He is the epitome of hospitality. Even though at times we had misunderstandings because of the language barrier, Ha was patient and always eager to help.
He works in Hibiscus right now, and he seems to be having fun. If you stay at the Hibiscus Hotel, say hi to Ha, and engage with him. He will tell you a lot of things you need to know if you want to survive in Vietnam.
Before we left, we paid Ha back for everything he had paid for. It took a lot of persuading, but we got him to take our money. Not before he tried to pay for our cab to the airport though.
A word of warning: if we hear of any of you mothafuckas try to take advantage of our man Ha, we will beat yo ass. We will beat yo ass so bad, you’ll feel like Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys. Ha shouldn’t have to pay for non’a’ya shit.
Thanks to the manong guard who took this lovely, albeit blurry, photo of all of us with Ha!
Hanoi isn’t some secret getaway. No matter when you go, you’re bound to meet other travelers. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet locals who will be willing to tour you around or give you the address to their favorite spots in the city. So talk to people.
We want to give a shout out to the people we met during our trip:
Thomas from Switzerland! Hope your vacation goes well! (How bad ass are the Swiss, really? This dude was standing outside our hotel at 11 PM at like 2 degrees Celsius wearing shorts and flip flops. That’s cray.
Jay and Duc, two locals we met at Nola Café! It was nice talking to you guys.The locals’ points of view is always appreciated when you’re travelling. Hit us up when you’re in the Philippines!
Rachel from New York, whom we also met at Nola Café! She runs a blog called I Like Your Tee Shirt and she travels, just like us. This girl was also in the cold without a coat on. Them New Yorkers can stand the cold of winter, and probably the cold hearts of New Yorkers. Just kidding. If New Yorkers are anything like Rachel, they are very warm people. Check out her blog!
Well. That’s it for Hanoi, for now. We definitely want to go back someday. Hanoi, and the rest of the lovely country of Vietnam.
HANOI | DECEMBER 2013
The currency used in Vietnam is called Dong… So before we start, we would like to get all the dong jokes out of the way (Forest would like to get all his dong jokes out of the way).
- 1000 dong is about two Philippine pesos, so a thousand Vietnamese dong is worth two Filipino ones;
- Show me the dong!
- I got so much dong in my pants right now!
- At some point, we had more than a million dong in our wallets. You could say we were rolling in dong;
- In Vietnam, you don’t put your money where you mouth is. You put your dong where your mouth is;
- Haha. Dong is slang for penis.
I’m over it. We can move on.
The start of our trip was actually quite bumpy. We won’t talk about it in great detail because we don’t want to relive what we had to face, but let us give you this protip: It isn’t enough to check if your passport hasn’t expired. Keep in mind the six-month validity rule applicable to most countries. (Alyanna had to deal with it. Forest be prepared yo.)
But at least Alyanna made it to Hanoi in time for Christmas—our first, very merry Christmas together!
As Filipinos who celebrate Christmas, Hanoi was great. Our colonial mentality-ridden asses are so fond of the idea of white Christmases and Jack Frost nipping at our noses. Well, it didn’t snow in Hanoi, but IT WAS COLD AS BALLS. And they really were roasting chestnuts! In open fires! (They do this in the Philippines too though. Yes, castañas are chestnuts.)
It was so cold. We were all wrapped up in our coats and sweaters and layers and layers of #ootd potential. We looked so good in that fall/winter wear!
We made it a point to walk around the city at night when it was coldest. Most shops were closed by then, so it was quiet; and we would just bury our hands in our pockets and shuffle through the empty streets. The nights in Hanoi were blue. The nights in the Philippines are red or orange, but Hanoi was blue at night. Only imaginative kids will get this.
One of the first things any foreigner will notice upon arrival is the insane motorcycle traffic. Road rules aren’t quite rules here. They’re more of a suggestion. Red light? What’s that? Some motorcyclists might stop when these hanging machines turn red, but others will disregard them completely and go on weaving through the crowd of pedestrians/jaywalkers and/or vehicles.
As pedestrians, it’s important to know when it’s safe to cross: there is no such time. You have two choices, really.
- Just go ahead and cross; or
- Stand and wait there all day because the number of motorcycles on any given street in Hanoi is infinite and none of them will stop for you.
We recommend option 1; but be sure to make eye contact with the motorcyclists. Otherwise, they might not recognize you as a living thing and run you over (or at least that’s what it feels like).
The above is really advice coming from Alyanna though. This girl is used to crossing roads in the U.S. Where they have rules. Crossing roads in Vietnam requires making everyone aware of your intentions. And it requires commitment. Look that motorcycle driver in the eye and send him this message with your eyes: “I am going to cross this road whether you like it or not. If you don’t stop, I will; but I really hope you stop because I don’t want to die. Or go around me.” All this only with your eyes. Doubt you, our reader, can speak Vietnamese anyway.
It’s a magical thing though. There’s an understanding in the few seconds of crossing a street, an understanding you share with 20 or so other motorcycle drivers and only five or so other pedestrians. We think Vietnam’s figured out telepathy, guys.
What’s nice about Hanoi is that most of its streets have wide sidewalks. Unfortunately for pedestrians, most of the sidewalks are turned into parking lots for bikes. So if you find yourself in Hanoi, be ready to walk on the road alongside speeding vehicles.
Aside from their love for motorcycles, we found that the Vietnamese are a very proud people. Just look at how much they value their culture and history!
Shop full of propaganda posters, one of many in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and Cathedral District
While touring the more posh French Quarter, we dropped by the Vietnamese National Museum of History (Bao Tang Lich Quoc Gia). It’s a good place to learn about the Vietnam War from the non-American/non-Western point of view.
Putting up a barricade, channeling their inner Enjolras, Marius, et al. ~Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?~
The museum that we really recommend for travelers to visit is the Museum of Ethnology (Bao Tang Dan Toc Hoc). A bit far from the touristy area, we had to take a cab to get here. We don’t have any pictures of the place aside from the photo above (no picture-taking allowed here), but trust us. It’s an interactive crash-course into the 50+ ethnic groups that make up Vietnam.
We didn’t get to go to as many landmarks as we wanted. But we are glad that we were able to visit the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), the first national university of Vietnam. It was built in 1070—just a few years older than your mom!
Courtyards within courtyards within courtyards.
Notice the huge walls of stones to the right of the picture above? On them are engraved the names of the scholars who exceeded in their academics way back when the temple was still a university! These stone walls are perched on top of turtles also made of stone (like the one below).
We tried to look for your mom’s name among the list of exceptional students, but then we remembered that this was a list of people who could actually make it through university.
Part of the bird—especially its chest, tail, and feet—are discolored from all the visitors touching it for good luck.
And yes, like the stone walls, the crane is also perched on top of a turtle. Poor turtles.
That guy in the picture is Ha, by the way. He is awesome. We will talk about him in a future post. Wait for it!
Of course, we have to talk about our Christmas spent in a non-Christmas-celebrating country.
We attended the Christmas eve mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral. The mass was in French—one of the few instances we saw French influence, aside from architecture.
More interesting than that, however, were the locals who clearly weren’t Catholic but were going into the church and hearing mass. Well. They entered the church, looked around, and, after about ten minutes, left. Many of them took group photos and selfies, all while the mass was ongoing. During the Eucharist, Hanoi locals also lined up to receive the body of Christ, mimicking whatever the mass-goers (the Catholic ones) were doing. It got to the point that the priest had to ask if the people in line were Catholic or not before giving the bread.
While we personally found it funny, we can imagine other, more devout Catholics/Christians taking offense. But let’s put it into perspective: it’s about as disrespectful as us, tourists, going into their temples (often in what they consider improper attire, by the way) and taking photos.
Our Christmas was interesting, to say the least.
You know Hanoi’s an interesting city when every day life of its inhabitants is worthy of attention. The people here are fond of making their history and culture a practical part of their lives: people actually eat pho every day for breakfast; most buildings clearly show the influence of the French occupation; they offer beer and cigarettes to their Buddhist deities. You can’t get more down to earth than offering your divine being a cig. I, Forest, like to imagine that Jesus liked to take a cigarette break when he was stressed out by all the salvating. (Salvating. The act of bringing salvation. You can look it up. You won’t find it, but you can look it up.)
We don’t know how else to describe it. Hanoi is a charming city. Quaint and full of character. People ride around in bikes. Street food here isn’t a novelty. It’s honest in that food stalls that tourists shouldn’t miss are food stalls that locals eat at everyday. It doesn’t pretend to be what Hanoi is about for the benefit of tourists.
Hanoi is just what Hanoi is about.
Oh. Don’t worry. We didn’t forget about the food in Hanoi. Food is very important to us. We have a separate post for that. See it here.
FOOD TRIP | HANOI | DECEMBER 2013
Hanoi was the best place to be for the holidays. As is typical during this season, we ate so much food in our short stay in the city. But considering how healthy and fresh the food is here, we didn’t put too much on weight during our vacation! Or at least we don’t feel like we did.
Order anything in Hanoi and it will come with the freshest ingredients. We ordered a pot of ginger tea, and it came with whole, crushed ginger!
I, Forest, enjoyed Vietnamese food a lot. Vietnamese food is always so light. Julienned vegetables in rice paper wrapping with ground beef. (For you plebes out there, Julienne means that it’s cut into long, thin strips.) Their vinegar has a subtle sourness. They have soup that is refreshing, which is weird—when is soup ever refreshing?
I found it odd that, as a former colony of France, the Vietnamese don’t incorporate the richness of French cuisine into their own food. Rather, they stick to their own light, cilantro-ey, fresh-vegetable taste. No dousing of butter or oil. It’s a treat when you come from the Philippines, land of fat-soup-adobo, fat-soup-bulalo, and fat-on-fat-on-fat-crispy pata. Everything I ate in Vietnam made my mouth feel like a warm summer day with a cool breeze.
Spring rolls. Yum.
The thing about Vietnamese food, though, is that everything is subtle. Now, you could say that’s me being nice about bland food; but a little research (WIKIPEDIA. I USED WIKIPEDIA. HERE’S THE LINK.) will show you that an important philosophy in Vietnamese cuisine is the importance of balance. The concept of yin and yang, although cliché and almost comical in modern times, is still alive in Vietnamese food.
The problem arises when Vietnamese cooks try to cook non-Vietnamese food. I found that burgers were under-seasoned, cauliflower mash was bland, and, generally, there was an avoidance of a single strong taste. For Vietnamese food, like the duck noodles we had on a side street (which I’ll talk about later), it’s amazing. There’s balance and there is enough of everything.
Basically, when you’re in Vietnam, eat Vietnamese food. It’s what they do best.
We realized on the way home that this may have been the first time we’ve gone out of the country without eating at a single fast food place during our stay. This feat was to be fully achieved until we ate Burger King at the airport. The fries were unsalted.
This was definitely the best thing I ate in Hanoi. Even I was surprised.
I talked about subtle earlier. This is the perfect example.
It’s literally every basic taste coming together so well. There was a nice, citrusy sour and a little sweet that came with it. There was salty, umami-filled duck that rounded the whole dish out so that you didn’t feel like some herbivore. And lastly, there were the bitter herbs from the toasted garlic.
This was perplexing to me. Each basic taste was so well-represented, but none were overpowering. You put some in your mouth and you could taste the sweet-sour citrus sauce-soup that just barely stuck to the fibers; it was the first thing you tasted. But when you started chewing, you released the juices from the duck, giving you the salty-umami that fills the gaps that only meat can fill (this is an accurate description of the taste, but also a sex joke that took a life of it’s own). Then you have the bitter garlic and bitter herbs—I want to say it was cilantro but I don’t like pulling vegetables out of my ass, so I’ll say it was like cilantro. (It was probably cilantro. I know my shit.) And the bitterness was essential. It cleaned your palate so you could forget the sour-sweet and the salty-umami. Taste-wise it was complete. And I say this with around 20 years of eating experience under my belt and also because I’ve watched a lot of Masterchef. Again, I know my shit.
But flavor wasn’t the only aspect that made this meal whole. It also had all the textures you could want. Your first bite would probably be the mixture of vermicelli rice noodles and mung bean sprouts (toge, in Filipino). They are both white and look like noodles, but they provide two different sensations. The rice noodles give you the soft, slippery texture. You don’t really have to chew it, and you can make that kissy face and it will slide in between your lips into your gullet. The mung bean sprouts break under your teeth. They send tiny vibrations up your jaw to your ear with every munch. Rounding everything out again is the roast duck: tender meat that’s there because, really, the texture of proteins gives food the feeling that you’re actually eating something nourishing. Proteins satiate you better than most other things.
So if you’re in Hanoi, check out the dry roasted duck pho. I don’t actually know what it’s called because our Vietnamese friend, Ha, ordered it for us, but you should look for it.
Contextually, the dish was interesting to me because it was an every day food. We ate this on a side street near the market. There were locals everywhere and they were eating dry pho. This masterpiece was 30,000 Dong. That’s 60 Philippine pesos. A dollar fifty American. This is the kind of food that should be featured in cooking shows and cookbooks: Every day gourmet, great food for the common man.
This dish is so good, they named the street after it. That’s like Fried Chicken Road or Hamburger Street, which, come to think of it, may very well be the names of some streets in the U.S.
Back to cha ca.
Imagine curry. Now imagine curry without the signature curry smell and the spiciness. That’s what cha ca is like. It’s that curry smell that reaches your nose last. It’s subtle too. It’s…it’s…it’s turmeric. I don’t know how to explain turmeric except that it’s the taste of curry without the taste of cumin and the spiciness.
As with most Vietnamese foods, cha ca has a very subdued flavor. This just goes back to talking about curry. It’s hard not to. It’s really the best way to explain the taste of turmeric. It’s like if you asked Indian food to not be so loud during sex. That’s a bad analogy. Anyway.
The fish they used in the dish was cod—or I think it was cod. It’s hard to ask about ingredients when you don’t speak the language. But it’s a nice, firm, but springy fish covered in turmeric and doused in oil. They just plop the frying pan on your table in front of you so that you can add the vegetables after. Medium high heat so that you get a nice, firm outer layer, but a moist inside for the fish. Again, the mixture of textures is present with the mixing of lettuce and spring onions to add the crunch.
Being that the food is subtle in Vietnam, they provide two choices to add a more intense, attention-grabbing flavor:
- Their vinegar. Being a Cebuano, I have to say that their vinegar is weak shit. Or if I’m nice about it, it’s subtle. I liked how it was kind of citrusy though. I don’t know. It was different. Not as sour as I would have liked though. I have really high standards for sour. Hence my girlfriend. Or;
- Bagoong. Your second choice for flavor was something similar to bagoong, but closer to the Visayan ginamus. It’s fermented and salted baby shrimp, but with a closer texture to ginamus because it was wetter and much saltier.
If you’re in Hanoi, you have to try cha ca. It is unique in its combination of flavors. It gives you another point of view on a flavor that you would really only find in curry. The difference is that cha ca is not heavy. In fact, it is quite light, as with a lot og Vietnamese food. You don’t feel like a slob after eating; and you don’t worry about diarrhea after either.
DUCK IN FIVE WAYS
This was the last meal we had in Hanoi.
What they do is take a whole duck, kill it, cut it up, and cook everything except the beak and feet. It’s a practical meal; one of those waste-nots. It’s like being in a relationship. If you really love your significant other, you wouldn’t want to waste a single piece of their body if you had to eat them.
To start, we were served popped rice. Popped rice follows the same concept as those Japanese rice cakes. I don’t actually know how it’s made, but it’s like eating a really big piece of popcorn, but crunchier. This served as our main carbohydrate. This was the foundation of our meal. It was hard, crunchy, and it was something to munch on while we waited.
The next part was a basket of greens: herbs like basil leaves, cilantro, and lemongrass stalks. Apparently, for some people, duck is really hard to digest. Duck is naturally tougher than chicken meat, so this is understandable. The herbs are said to help with the digestion. Makes sense, as fibers really do help with digestion.
The first duck meal was duck cold cuts. Seasoned duck, refrigerated, and sliced into thin slices. If you’ve had a sandwich, you’re probably familiar with this concept. An interesting take on cold cuts is their dip. You dip the cold cuts in fermented, salted baby shrimp paste. This just exemplifies the concept of Yin and Yang in Vietnamese cooking: cold duck cold cuts, in a warm, salty shrimp paste.
The second dish was lung, apparently. I don’t know. Didn’t feel like lung. Based on my experience, lung is soft and not chewy at all. Maybe this wasn’t lung. This dish was meat. Lean, chewy meat. It was good though. Very filling.
Third was the meat of the duck. Dark meat. “Like chicken” would be a phrase you could use, but that’s unfair to duck. Duck is fattier and gamier. It has an earthier taste. The fat makes duck very rich, so you feel like a fat fuck eating it, that’s why they grated some ginger to cut the richness. Ginger has that ability. Again, yin and yang. Nothing overpowers any other thing.
Fourth was my personal favorite. The fourth dish was duck intestine stuffed with more intestine and other innards. It was deep fried giving you a nice crispy intestine wrap with soft, chewy intestine stuffing. It was meta as fuck. Intestines in intestines. And I ate that! Which means they went into my intestines!
The last dish was blood soup. Soup or stew. We Filipinos have this (dinuguan) but we use pig blood instead of duck blood.
When you cook blood, it turns black, and gains a gritty texture. It tastes a little bit like metal, but only in the slightest. It is rich and thick. To chew on, they cut pieces of other innards, the heart, the lungs, and they just throw it in there. It’s salty, but not really; it has an umami flavor that is subtle, but the taste that stands out the most is the satisfaction that you are drinking the blood of your enemies because fuck ducks.
It was certainly an experience. It wasn’t spectacular in the way it was cooked, there were no special ingredients. It was run of the mill, but it was real. It’s a practical way of eating duck. You don’t waste anything, which is of greater value when you’re having a hard time financially. I’m not saying it wasn’t good. It was great. You orient yourself with duck. You learn its tastes and its textures. You gain an appreciation for the concept of palate cleansers. You find yourself learning how to distinguish the differences between different ways of cooking. It’s an essential part of immersing yourself in this culture.
I could eat Vietnamese food my whole life, and as a result, I’ll probably have a lot more life to live. This shit is healthy. But I feel like Vietnamese food, aside from pho, is under-appreciated. We are such suckers for salty and sour and sweet, but we don’t really appreciate balance as much. The Vietnamese have that locked down, sun. I suggest doing a little reading before partaking in Vietnamese food. As in other forms of art, context is important in cuisine.
Be sensitive when eating Vietnamese food. The flavors don’t jump out at you, they waft.
WHITEWATER RAFTING | CAGAYAN DE ORO | OCTOBER 2013
This October, we got to live out our Meryl-Streep-in-River-Wild fantasies (Alyanna’s fantasy, really. Forest doesn’t even get this reference. Is this that movie with Kevin Bacon? We’re supposed to reference POP culture, Alyanna. Popular! Not your little niche movies. Also, it’s amazing how Meryl Streep’s hair in that movie didn’t suck in all that river. The 90s, man) and got a chance to go whitewater rafting.
ANYWAY. From the Cagayan de Oro City center, it was a forty-five minute ride to the river.
The company we booked with, The Red Rafts, gave a quick introduction and taught us how to handle the oar, how to paddle properly, what to do should the raft capsize, etc. before we embarked the rafts.
Here’s our summary of the instructions:
1. Don’t so stupid shit.
We thought it would be pretty obvious how one should row, but our boatmates proved us wrong. Jesus.
Protip: When rowing, you want the paddle IN the water.
Like the bad asses we are, we signed up for Advanced Course I. We were hoping that the raft would capsize or that, at the very least, one of us would fall into the water; but neither of those things happened. You cannot imagine our disappointment.
If for Alyanna it was River Wild, for Forest it was Pocahontas all the way. There were so many times throughout the ride that he would just start singing, “just around the river beeeeend”—but that’s as far as he ever got, because he doesn’t know the rest of the lyrics. (No one really knows the lyrics, really. Experts say the words have been lost for hundreds of years.)
The tour took us about four and a half hours. That’s four and a half hours under the sun. The occasional dip in the cold river really helped.
We faced a total of twenty rapids. It was amazing! Moments after the picture above was taken, we literally swallowed a gallon of river water! (Alyanna swallowed a gallon of water. We say “we” just so the embarrassment is dispersed, but it was all Alyanna. Cagayan River was 3 feet shallower after Alyanna.)
But of course, in between rapids, we were just floating around and enjoying the view. We don’t have too many photos—we didn’t risk bringing the DSLR and we don’t have a GoPro (yet)—but it is quite picturesque.
We will come back for more whitewater rafting. If not in CDO, then somewhere else. But for now, we are content with checking this off our bucket list.
✓ WHITEWATER RAFTING
*Photos of the actual whitewater rafting by Red Rafts
We just wanted to finish this Cebu adventure with a few photos we took of Cebu. We feel like we’ve said too much, so we’ll let the photos speak for themselves. But visit our more talky blog posts about lechon and whalesharks if you haven’t already.
SWIMMING WITH THE WHALE SHARKS
OSLOB, CEBU, PHILIPPINES
Whale sharks are known as the Cows of the Sea, and by that logic, we can call them the Your Mother of the Sea. (False. Dugongs are attributed that nickname. Again, Forest doesn’t like to do his research.)
Whale sharks, locally called the butanding, are the largest of the sharks, and also the nicest. They invite you over for dinner and don’t fuss if you don’t bring wine, but then you have to eat algae and krill because that’s all they eat. They’re practically the vegetarians of the shark world. Other sharks probably sneer at them and call them dirty hippies. Most whale sharks own iPhones and Macs. Those dirty hippies.
We had so much fun swimming with the whale sharks. As did that little boy in the corner of the picture.
Before the trip though, we had to take care of a couple of things:
1. We had to find an underwater camera case so that we could take selfies with the whale sharks and Instagram that shit; and
2. We had to learn how to swim. Or Alyanna did, because it’s pretty much impossible for a kid to learn how to swim in the block of ice that she grew up in. Trying to teach her was futile, but, thankfully, life vests exist. (You know how Alyanna is graceful and perfect and glides through life like a leaf on a windy day? Not when she’s swimming, man. She ain’t gon’ be paddling around singing Part of Your World to nobody.)
Oslob is in the southern part of the island of Cebu. Google it and the Internet will tell you that it’s less than two hours away from Cebu City; but the Internet doesn’t consider the worsening traffic conditions of the island or the many pedestrians that pop out of nowhere and cross the country roads. Or maybe we were just so excited for our adventure that those two hours felt like an eternity.
The reason it took so long though was because, instead of cutting through Cebu crosswise, we drove around, valuing the journey and blah blah blah.
Once in Oslob, we rode a small banca to the orientation place, where they explained to us the proper etiquette to be observed when meeting the whale sharks. After heavy criticism from dirty hippies and concerned environmentalists alike, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Tourism have taken more steps to ensure the welfare of these beautiful creatures. Take care of your moms, guys. There are marine biologists everywhere to keep an eye on the tourists to make sure they don’t do anything stupid. Protip: if you’re going to swim with the whale sharks, you can’t put on sunblock because the chemicals will harm their food supply. And because whale sharks like to get a good tan.
We kid. Photography and videography, be they underwater or not, are not easy; we know we’re amateurs.
At the orientation, they tell you to stay at least 4 meters away from the butanding, but there were a few times when we were a lot closer to them than we would have liked. Forest was hit by the tail of one whale shark AND WE CAUGHT IT ON TAPE. Watch it here. (Alyanna, being older than me, Forest, still refers to videos as “tape.”)
Forest is alright though. It was just a little nudge. He’s starting to get used to wearing the neck brace by now. (The whale shark actually bumped into me with its… snout? Nose? Schnoz? Like those people on the LRT who are obviously more important than you, and show you. But yeah, the neck brace is great for handicap seating on the LRT.)
Nerdy trivia: Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world. And yes, they are sharks, not whales. They are actually one of the only three shark species that are filter feeders. Like Bruce, Anchor, and Chum, fish are the butanding's friends, not food.
While we find them cool for not wanting to eat us, that’s not going to stop us from making fun of how silly they look when feeding.
Here, we put on our best whale shark faces.
And, no, we were not kidding about taking #selfies with these giant fish.
Swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob — definitely the most breathtaking part of our Cebu trip.
Check out our other adventure from Cebu coming up, and also check out our past post about LELELECHON.
Lechon from Cebu, henceforth to be referred to as “Lechon” — with the capital “L” — and not “Cebu Lechon” like the heathens say, is extremely different from Luzon Lechon. For one, it does not taste anything like cardboard! Not even a little bit!
Lechon is flavorful. Subtle tastes ride the meat’s juices into your mouth and land on your tongue. Lechon is not bland — it is not like your humor or your girlfriend’s personality. Lechon is a reminder of why we season. Something the Tagalogs obviously forgot. Bless their hearts.
The secret lies in the panakot, a concoction of herbs and spices every lechonero should perfect. It starts out with onions and garlic, and if I told you what else, I’d have to kill you. But the panakot is then inserted into an incision down the stomach of the pig. He was going to die anyway; at least we gave him a last supper. Straight through the hole in his belly, the pig is then penetrated, from mouth hole to the other hole at the other end of his body (the butt. Hehehe) and roasted for hours and hours. The flavors from the panakot slowly seep into the meat of the pig, entering every empty crevice of its cells and adding flavor to the pig’s life (and death).
If all lechon were made in Cebu, Mang Tomas would go out of business. Mang Tomas is like when you’re on a date and it’s really hot so you start to sweat, so you put a jacket on to hide your armpit hose, but then it’s really hot so you sweat even more. Essentially, you’re just fucking yourself. Mang Tomas “saves” Luzon lechon. Like how Jack saved Rose in Titanic. Yeah, you can sit on the piece of wood. IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FREEZING OCEAN.
I could go on and on about Lechon just like I can go on and on eating Lechon, but it’s really something you have to experience yourself. You’re supposed to eat Lechon right off the roasting pit. You don’t need to dip it in anything; you don’t need to sprinkle anything on it. You take your rice, fight for your piece of Lechon, and you eat it. If you’re eating lechon that needs to be dipped in any sauce, you’re still in the Matrix. Answer the phone call. Go to Cebu. Eat real Lechon.
PHNOM PENH + SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA | APRIL 2012
Because we are a couple of questionable morals and views about what a couple should be, we plan to wait the longest time we can before having any kids. But our deep longing for children overpowered us so we decided to put up a travel blog! It has been incubating for a while now, and it will be full of horrible metaphors. It’s a travel blog. We take pictures of stuff. We tell you about places. We’re very hedonistic. (Note: All this talk of children is all for comedic effect. Alyanna doesn’t want kids and Forest can’t have kids due to his experiences in an all-boys high school. The status of his testicles is currently hypothetical.)
We plan on going to Cebu on the fifth of September, but we couldn’t wait that long to post content. And we have a lot of content. So we decided to share what you young’uns might call a “throwback.” On Sunday. Sentimental Sunday. Somewhere in the Past Sunday. Such Things Were Meant To Be Forgotten Sunday. We went to Cambodia in April 2012, but this blog just opened and we have a lot of pictures nobody noticed on Facebook, so we’re posting them now. It’s a thing. #ThrowbackSunday #TBS
Cambodia has a lot of markets. It’s not a big deal. Most places have lots of markets. It’s not a Cambodian thing or anything. It’s just cool.
We’ve always believed that in order to know a place, you go to their markets. There, you will find what the locals eat, what they wear, what they think is cheap, and what they think is expensive. You see what the local people are like in that country, and you see what they eat (food is very important to us).
For example, in the Russian Market (locals call it Psar Toul Tom Poung) near our apartment, there were a lot of shops selling motorcycle parts and helmets. Cambodia has a ton of bikes. There’s something about former French colonies in Indochina that makes them so into bikes. (See: Vietnam. We will. In December. Watch out for that.) Understandable when you realize that they have a huge working class who can’t afford cars yet, and the nature of their narrow roads and small parking areas. I guess it all fits.
They had pretty cool bikes too. Imitation Vespas. Old military bikes. The ones that you legally need a beard to own. It’s a diverse culture of bikes. Kind of like how jeepneys in the Philippines have all the avant-garde paintings of their children. But not really.
But yeah. Markets. If you’re in a foreign country, check out markets. Flea markets in Eastern Europe. Morning markets in the South of France. Night markets in Chiang Mai. Walmart. Immerse yourself in the culture.
Wedding celebration. It’s not uncommon for wedding receptions to take uphalf or whole streets.
Look at all the motorcycles! Cars to the side. In Cambodia, cars are the bitches.The picture above was actually taken in Vietnam, on our way to Phnom Penh. But you get the point.
The thing we liked a lot about Campbodia was the widespread usage of bikes. No fossil fuels, no greenhouse gas emissions and the like. They somehow figured out that, if it isn’t an hour-long car ride, they can bike to their destination. Of course, it helps that they keep trees around. So unlike Manila. Ugh. “Cut those trees down! They’re in the way of my progress! BUILDINGS! BUILDINGS!”
And bikes make you happier. Look at these folk riding bikes. They are happy as hell. Look at them!
As a tourist, though, the tuktuk is probably the best, most convenient means of getting around. Much bigger than the trikes we have in Manila, the tuktuk can comfortably sit six people, but it’s not uncommon to see ten or more passengers sharing one ride.
Ready a dollar or two for a ride, depending on how far you’re going. Haggling here is also allowed, but be sure to haggle before you get on to save you the hassle of getting scammed.
Now, no one actually rides elephants as a practical option in Cambodia. They don’t go, “Aww man, is that the new Mazda 3lephant? YOU GOT THE SPOILERS AND EVERYTHING!” because Mazda doesn’t produce elephants. Elephants eat a lot and, well, they produce a lot of waste, if you know what we mean. Not something you’d like to keep in your garage.
But in some areas, elephants become the best choice to get around, especially to temples. Phnom Bakheng, a temple in Siem Reap, for example, gives you the choice between walking a thousand or so steps to get to the temple or RIDING AN ELEPHANT to get there. All your Jungle Book dreams come true! We rode our elephant so hard. (Not really. They go, like, a kilometer per hour.) Swerving and all. (Again, not really. They turn very slowly.) Bouncing our elephant hydraulics up and down. (This is partly true. It’s a rough ride, minus the hydraulics. Just rocks and elephant knees.) It was pretty exhilarating. (Not really, but still pretty cool.)
At night, stalls are set up outside the Russian Market and turned into a food market.
Food in Cambodia is pretty similar to the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia in terms of ingredients — cabbages and varieties of pechay, — so it isn’t such a stretch to eat in Cambodia if you’re from Southeast Asia. In fact, if you check out the night food market photo, you’d think it was in the Philippines. Cuts of pork, sayote, pretty sure there are Baguio beans somewhere in there too. Don’t think they call them Baguio beans though.
We make such a big deal out of them, but bugs are eaten everywhere. You’re probably eating some now. Ketchup has bugs. Pasta uses crushed bug abdomen to make the flour particles harden. Your tea most likely has crushed bugs together with the tea leaves. We eat bugs all the time. Not really. We were lying. Ketchup, pasta and tea don’t have bugs. But still, bugs are ayt. They’re crunchy and are full of protein. They sell a lot of bugs to eat in Cambodia because CAMBODIANS AIN’T NUTHIN’ TO MESS WITH.
We were lucky enough to try homemade Cambodian food, courtesy of Forest’s mom’s coworker at the time, Ms. Sun Lina.
The meal consisted of toge(bean sprouts), pechay (bokchoy), carrots, ground beef, and a sour soup; almost like sinigang but with a more subdued sourness. There was also something like kare-kare. It was an interesting meal. The serving was quite theatrical. Arrange your vegetables and noodles in the center of the bowl. Pour a ladle of soup on top of it. Enjoy.
Now, we digress. The coolest part of the dinner was the lady who prepared it. Ms. Sun Lina was a little girl during the Pol “My Mom Didn’t Love Me” Pot regime. She told us the story about how she and her family (she came from an educated, middle class family) were forced out of the city by the Khmer Rouge to work in the fields as farmers. She told us about her youth spent cultivating rice, eating nasty porridge that was barely enough to satisfy anyone’s hunger. All this labor to keep the fat iron fist of Pol Pot fat (we don’t actually know if he’s fat, but his name lends itself to that conclusion).
The most striking story Ms. Sun Lina told was about the day they saw a tiger. In the wild. A motherfuckin’ tiger. In the wild.
It was a foggy morning down in #3 Middle-Of-The-Jungle St. when a tiger just pranced into their field. Ms. Lina said it was beautiful, but scary as hell. She and the other villagers slow-motioned into their little wooden house because, apparently, tigers are like the Jurassic Park dinosaurs; as long as you move slowly they won’t get you. It went away after deciding that it didn’t want a salad, and never came back. As she told the story, we realized how boring our lives were.
That’s not the scariest part of her childhood though. The Khmer Rouge soldiers were. They didn’t like shenanigans, like freedom, basic human rights, and human dignity. That Pol Pot guy was not a cool guy, and we probably would not have liked to hang out with him and his posse if given the chance.
Back to food.
Here’s a photo of Café Yejj. We frequented this restaurant because it was relatively cheap and had free WiFi. Nothing Cambodian about it though. They served quesadillas. They didn’t even have tiger meat ceviche. But they had WiFi.
Café Yejj is pretty cool because of the people they hire. Cambodia has been a hotbed for human trafficking for years. If you just bought a human, there’s a large chance that he or she is Cambodian. But the fight against human trafficking has been getting better. International groups have paid more attention to Cambodia’s rampant human trafficking problem. Café Yejj is nice in that all its employees are former victims of human trafficking. Cooks, waiters and waitresses — all former modern slaves, and some of the warmest people we’ve ever met.
S21 AND THE KHMER ROUGE
Probably not the best topic to bring up after discussing food, but here it is: S21 or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It might not be the ideal place for those on vacation-mode, but it’s a not-to-miss if you’re ever in Phnom Penh.
S21 was a high school-turned-prison camp/execution center set up by the Khmer Rouge. Here, any one considered an enemy of the regime was imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Out of around 20,000 prisoners that walked through the walls of S21, only a dozen survived.
"Enemy of the regime” was a loose term. It could have been your brother, or your cousin, or your teacher, or your brother’s friend’s cousin’s teacher who took part in “rebellious” activities. Any affiliation with people or organizations that were anti-Khmer Rouge could land you in jail.
Whole walls of the museum are covered with photos of men, women, and children — even babies — who were imprisoned and executed in S21.
You could also visit the killing fields outside the capital. We didn’t get to go though because we didn’t have the time — or the stomach — for it.
You can’t go to Cambodia without visiting the temples. “Cambodia” literally means “Come See the Temples” in Khmer. (It doesn’t. Forest doesn’t like to do his part of the research.)
The first temple we visited was Banteay Srei, the citadel of women.
Now, we hate people. We hate crowds, we hate people. We hate it when we’re jogging and we pass by some old lady. Which is why the temples scattered around Siem Reap are perfect for us. The whole temple compound is huge, and the are, like, a gazillion temples in there. So despite the millions of tourists that flock to Siem Reap every year, people are a rarity in the less popular temples. And if you get a cool tuktuk driver, he will show you the best ones. Get a cool tuktuk driver. He will be your mode of transportation and your guide. And you practically have free reign of the temples. Like you own them. Except Angkor Wat. Everyone’s there. It’s Temple Facebook.
One thing we really appreciate is that locals get to go into the compound for free. Locals get in for free. That is such an amazing concept. Why should anyone pay to see their own heritage? It’s your right as a descendant of the people who built these amazing structures to see these amazing structures. Right?
Back to the lack of people. To be fair, it would be incredibly hard to appreciate the serenity of the temples if there were flocks of people around you, so the design of the temple compound favors the persistent. Some temples are two hours away from the city center, and they are the quietest and offer the most authentic temple experience. You don’t know when the temples end and when nature starts. The ones that are still ripe with magic, those temples you have to travel a couple of hours, hike, and maybe even swim to get to. We didn’t get to see them though. Maybe next time. The temples we visited were still enchanting though.
Felt like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider as we explored Ta Prohm.
One of the little things we really find beautiful is when nature breaks through concrete or when vines break down walls. All the temples had exactly that: Nature taking back what’s hers.
For the history geeks like us (and by “us,” we mean Alyanna), it was fun to walk around temples and imagine what they were like when they were first built. The saying “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” doesn’t apply to these temples. They were built from the years 700 to 1200 A.D., commissioned by different kings, and built by people who practiced different religions. Each temple has its own story.
Of course, we didn’t miss Angkor Wat, the most popular of the temples. Unfortunately, there were renovations being done to the place while we were there, and so this is the best shot ofits facade that we have.
We love Cambodia. The people are warm, just like the weather. It has a great blend of blooming metropolis and strong history, what with the temples in the city and monks walking around with cellphones. The architecture is beautiful, the food is rich, and every step feels like a discovery.
There are many things we weren’t able to do in Cambodia: explore the countryside, visit the killing fields, cobra vodka, eating scorpions, and seeing the now-endangered river dolphins in Kratie. Because of that, we’re going to go back. Some day. Maybe live there for a while. Alyanna likes the French influences, and Forest likes the small-town vibe. Cambodia, man.
Follow us on Twitter, put us on your RSS feed, and follow our Tumblr! We will be talking about travelling around the world and how much fun we have everywhere.
For our first adventure, we’ll be going to Cebu… and we’ll let you figure the rest out! September 2013!
We’ll be having fun for sure. Tell your friends!
Forest also tried his hand at designing a teaser. Suffice to say, he will keep on trying, but we will never be happy.