We are one month in and both in good spirits! Here’s the rundown on what we got up to last month, as well as what we’re planning to do in February.
Places We Visited
- Taiwan: Taipei, Hualien (Taroko National Park), Taichung, Tainan, Meinong, Kaohsiung, Hengchun (Kenting National Park)
- Cambodia: Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (Angkor)
- Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Hoi An, Phong Nha (Phong Nha- Ke Bang National Park)
- Taipei: We both loved exploring this city, which has amazing public transit, food, and fun things to do!
- Taroko National Park: Taroko Gorge is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been, and we had an unforgettable time driving and hiking around the area! (blog post here)
- Siem Reap & the Temples of Angkor: We got into a great groove over our 5 days in Siem Reap, feasting on excellent vegetarian food and wandering through seemingly endless temples. (blog post still forthcoming…)
- Phong Nha: We immediately felt at home in this scenic area in central Vietnam. The landscapes are stunning, life feels relaxed, and the caves are epic. (blog post here)
Hands down, the worst part of last month was dealing with Chiara’s infected leg wound. We had to go to a doctor to have it drained, which was stressful, because we were in a new place and didn’t know what to expect. It has also taken a lot of maintenance by Tarick over the last couple weeks, because he’s been cleaning it and changing the bandages once or twice a day (with varying levels of restraint in talking about how gross it is while he does it). The wound was also limiting Chiara’s mobility for a while, and she can’t go swimming for a couple more weeks. On the plus side, it’s finally looking better, and we have a renewed appreciation for antibiotics.
Big shout out to Sophie and Adam, our siblings-in-law, MD, for reviewing a lot of gross photos over WhatsApp with patience and interest and providing excellent medical care remotely.
We both agree that our biggest mistake was not going to the Duck Stop in Phong Nha. While driving around, we passed (on the side of the road) a ton of ducks surrounding a couple tourists who were laughing like crazy. We thought, “oh wow, whatever they’re doing looks stupid!” Apparently we are the stupid ones — everyone who goes there has a blast and says it’s an unforgettable experience.
One part of your visit involves getting a “duck massage”. Searching on YouTube, we found this video of someone cracking up while having ducks nibble at their feet — the laughing is infectious! Check it out below.
Most Delicious Meal
Chiara: My favorite meal this month was a lunch of bún thịt nướng in Phong Nha. The dish consists of rice noodles mixed with fresh papaya salad and peanut sauce, topped with thin slices of grilled pork. Divine!
Tarick: Hard to pick just one because we ate a lot of great food. I really enjoyed the vegetarian Khmer Curry at Yuan Sheng Vegetable Restaurant in Siem Reap. The spices were perfectly balanced and the assortment of fresh herbs put it over the top.
One thing I’ve been seeing a lot as we eat our way through Asia is mixing salad greens and fresh herbs together with soups and noodle dishes. This is something that is rarely done in the US (we like our salads “on the side”) but something I would like to start experimenting more with in my own cooking. The added crunch of the greens and the spicy freshness of the herbs can enhance the texture and flavor of a dish.
Also, special shout out to Hot Star Fried Chicken in Taipei. Best fried chicken I’ve had yet and it comes with a deep fried sprig of basil in the bag, genius! Why don’t more people do that?
Books We Read
Chiara won the reading competition for January, having bookwormed herself through 5 books, despite a valiant attempt from Tarick who read 4 books. Here’s more about what we read last month.
Chiara: I am planning to read one book connected to each country we go. I’m selecting books that provide historical and cultural context for a place, while also doing my best to avoid “travel” books. This month I succeeded in reading a book related to each country we visited and found it be a very valuable experience. I also read two additional books. If you have any recommendations, please don’t hesitate to share them with us.
- Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan: [TAIWAN] A historical fiction novel telling the story of a Taiwanese family, starting with the night of the February 28, 1947 massacre and leading up to almost present-day. I thought it was an excellent book, and it helped me better understand recent historical events in Taiwan.
- First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung: [CAMBODIA] A nonfiction autobiography by a woman who was a child at the time of Khmer Rouge. It was gripping, depressing, and very haunting.
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen: [VIETNAM] A historical fiction novel that takes place in the final years of the Vietnam War and in the years following it. It is narrated by an undercover communist agent acting as a captain in the Southern Vietnamese Army. That short description doesn’t really do it justice, as there are a lot of really interesting themes explored in the book.
- The Big Ones by Lucy Jones: This nonfiction book by a celebrity seismologist (yes — I said “celebrity seismologist”) explores how major natural disasters have affected culture and society throughout documented history. In the book, she describes 11 different events which include floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. Each event she selected has a takeaway specific to it, but common themes emerge between them as well. As an earthquake engineer who loves history, I’m sure that I’m the dream audience for this book, and it did not disappoint. Every page was full of fascinating facts and insights, and I was constantly taking notes down in my notebook.
- Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo: This novel is about a Nigerian couple who — after experiencing several years of fertility issues — each act in desperate ways to conceive a baby. The storytelling of the book is one of its strengths, so I don’t want to say much more about the plot here, in case you want to read the book (which I do recommend). The book explores societal expectations on both women and men with regards to having children, as well as the powerful effects these expectations can have on people.
I also watched all of Ken Burns’ insanely long documentary The Vietnam War, which has been helpful in getting me up to speed on a time in history I should definitely have known more about.
Tarick: I’ve been reading my usual array of sci-fi and fantasy books. Nothing blew my mind this month but there were a couple of interesting stories. The best one I read was probably The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The plot itself was not super compelling but it gets points for pure imagination. You feel as though you are whisked away to the ethereal world of Le Cirque des Reves (The Circus of Dreams), a magical circus decorated in stark black-and-white with a mysterious origin and a sinister purpose.
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
- The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
- The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts
- Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Most valued item: The charge cube. How can something so visually pleasing and small be so useful? Where would we be without this thing? Possibly divorced after fighting over the single working outlet in a room. Amazon link.
Number of Times Chiara Used Her JMT Mug: 2
Well, we can’t say it has earned it’s keep quite yet, but Holly and Dana will still be proud.
- Slow down – As you’ve probably noticed, we moved around a lot last month. As exciting and fun as it was to see so much, we both felt like we were pushing ourselves too quickly through a lot of amazing places without enough time to fully absorb them. Further, it strained our budget to move around so much, because we were spending more money on transportation. After discussing this, we came to the conclusion that after we leave Nepal (where we’ll be for two months), we would like to slow down our travel speed, especially in places where we are able to live significantly below our budget.
- Fast transport is expensive, slow transport is cheap – This one now seems obvious, but took some adjustment, because when we were both working full-time, we often prioritized our time over money while travelling. When we first arrived in Taiwan, we bought high speed rail tickets without researching what other options we had. Later we realized that the high speed rail ticket was more than twice as expensive as the slow train, and we balked at how much street food we could have eaten for the difference. Before we left the US, we purchased a domestic flight in Vietnam, only to realize upon arrival that there was a sleeper bus for the same journey at a fraction of the cost. We’ve started making an effort to research transportation costs more closely and only take flights and high speed rail when they are cheap and/or necessary. Transportation is a huge chunk of our budget and cutting down those expenses makes a big difference.
- SIM cards are cheap, easy, and useful – In all three countries we visited, we were able to pick up a 4G SIM card at the airport for between $5-$10 (USD), and we haven’t come close to hitting the data limit yet. Often times, the internet connection on our phone is faster than WiFi at a hotel. We use the internet a lot while on the road to access Google Maps, which can be life-saver. Most SIM cards also come with a handful of voice calling minutes which is useful if you need to phone a business.
- We don’t love backpacker party hostels – As much as we love cheap beer and meeting fellow travelers, we don’t really enjoy staying in “backpacker” hostels. They can feel a bit detached from reality, plus they make us feel old! However, they are often the best sources of local information for foreign tourists so its good to stay nearby where you can take advantage of their free travel agent services.
- Planning ahead is good, but also dumb – Let’s face it, we love to plan things. We often get looks of astonishment from other travelers when we tell them we have our transport and lodging booked a week out. For the most part, our tendency to meticulously plan things is a boon while traveling, as we are well prepared for most circumstances. But sometimes it can be a constraint, like if we are really enjoying a place and want to stay a few more days, but we already have lodging booked for the next night and can’t cancel. We are learning to be a bit more flexible and keep the bookings limited to a few days out.
Looking Ahead to February
- Vietnam (Northern): After spending Tet in Hanoi, we’re planning to visit Cat Ba Island near Halong Bay. Then, we’ll head north to Sapa, a mountain town near the border with China. We may also fit in a trip to Ninh Binh (described often as “Halong Bay with rice paddies”) if we can do it without feeling rushed.
- China (Yunnan Province): We are planning to cross overland from Vietnam to China at the border crossing near Sapa, and then spend about 9 days exploring Yunnan province. This was a recent addition to our trip (see explanation below), but we’re really excited to have our first glimpse of China. (We’re still planning to spend a longer period of time in China over the summer and possibly take Mandarin language classes.) This month we will take the train from Hekou (Chinese town at the border) to Kunming (capital of the province), and then take the high speed rail to visit Lijiang and Dali from there. We’re also planning to spend 3 days hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, a stunning canyon that is one of China’s most famous natural attractions.
- Thailand (Bangkok): At the end of the month, we’ll be stopping in Bangkok for a few days before we fly to Kathmandu on the 28th. We’ll be staying with two of Chiara’s old friends while we’re there, who Chiara hasn’t seen in almost 10 years! We are beyond excited to stuff our faces with Thai food and catch up with Meghan and Stefan.
- A Note on Laos: We were originally planning to visit Laos in mid-February, but when we went to finalize the logistics, it turned out to be more complicated and expensive than we had expected, even though we are physically very close to Laos. The type of Vietnamese visa we have (“e-visa”) is not accepted at the overland border crossing we were hoping to use, which means we would have had to backtrack from Sapa to Hanoi and take a flight to Laos that costs more than our budget permits. However, Sapa is only about an hour from the Chinese border, and the overland crossing there (Lao Cai) does accept our e-visas. So, we figured we’d make use of our 10 year multi-entry Chinese visas, and check out Yunnan instead of going to Laos. We are disappointed to miss Laos, which we’re sure we would have loved, but the wind just didn’t blow us that way this time.