We love our hutong house. What is a hutong, you ask? Well, it’s the old name for an alley between the courtyard residences, but nowadays, “hutong” is used to refer to a type of neighborhood or house in the old hutong alleys north of the Forbidden City. We live on JiaoDaoKou Bei Tou Tiao (JiaoDaoKou North First Street), just east of Andingmen Nei Dajie (Andingmen Inner big street).
We’ll talk more about hutongs later because they define Beijing as a unique world city. But, in the meantime, here is a video walk to our front door from the main street.
And now we enter our “hutong” courtyard to get to our front door. This was my mom’s favorite part.
Lastly, a view from the roof deck looking over the old courtyard.
These were taken in the winter, so no leaves, and it’s a bit bleak. It’s taken me a bit to figure out how to deal with the GoPro. Sorry about the finger in the videos.
Why yes, I am arbitrarily changing the rules of this countdown in the middle (at the beginning) of it, and expanding it out to broader China. For one thing, I can do what I want. For another, I have not written a single thing about the places we’ve been in China, and now we’re riding the psychotic horse of time toward the burning stable of leaving this place, and only by fitting these journeys into this construct will I actually get around to telling you about them.
So this week, our friends Jeff and Allison were in town from New York, and in addition to showing them around Beijing and taking Jeff to every Mexican restaurant in Shanghai, we made a side trip to Hunan province. What do you know about Hunan? Anything? Perhaps just that the food is supposed to be spicy? Well, Hunan is Mao’s home province. It is also home to the Zhangjiajie park, which looks like the landscape in the movie Avatar, because the movie Avatar’s landscape was actually inspired by this park. (Was that sentence English?)
Were we to do this trip over, we would probably skip Changsha and head straight for Zhangjiajie, but that thought did not occur to us until long after we’d booked our tickets. Not that Changsha is a bad city. In fact, if you want a taste of a second-tier Chinese city, where millions of people in China live and work, Changsha is as good a place as any to experience. Possibly even better, because the food is quite strong, which we learned when we accidentally ordered an $80 lunchtime feast for three at the Fire Palace (Huo Guo Dian). The staff told each other to avoid our table so that we couldn’t order any more. I blame the dim sum-style service: I am unable to control myself when a woman with a cart is pushing spareribs and bacon on me.
Anyway, Changsha has an embroidery museum (where all the work is for sale, so I’m unclear on whether museum is the correct translation) and, probably more importantly, a giant statue of young Mao’s head. Because Mao was from Hunan. To get to young Mao’s head, you have to first go to the river island and then either take a tram or walk to the southern end of it. We are vital youngish adults, and the park is quite nice, so we chose to walk, which took about two hours. We all complained a lot about that, though — so this is my way of telling you it’s better to take the tram. On the plus side, we got to experience the three-star bathroom en route. I think that rating was a bit optimistic.
Anyway, look at those majestic flowing locks! Also, the super to-scale chin mole. Think he was mad about that? I think I might have told my sculpting team to photoshop that out. Young Mao’s Head is number 95 in this countdown.
We trammed out of the park, thankfully, and at the entrance to the subway, I finally seized my opportunity to try a snack that I’ve spied around Beijing a few times. Basically, these dudes drive little flatbed go-carts, onto which they strap humongous wheels of what looks like fruitcake. In Changsha, I learned that when you buy some of this fruitcake, the vendor makes you use a trowel to cut your
own slice, and then charges you by weight. Which is how I ended up with a $25 birthday cake-sized granola bar. Because that’s what this snack is. A glorified granola bar. (Lesson here: I have no spatial awareness, and, as my friends pointed when I failed to give a reasonable counter-offer to a swindling cab driver, I have the bargaining skills of Barack Obama.)
The good news is, the granola bar was delicious, and it fueled our hiking adventure in Zhangjiajie, so I’m giving the snack its own place on this countdown. Consider that number 94, just above Changsha itself.
Okay! Zhangjiajie! Number 93!
You’ve seen Avatar, right? Well, its scenery is based on Zhangjiajie, which looks to me like another planet, because I have no frame of reference for topography like this. Words don’t fail me often, but I think instead of me trying to describe the expanse of sandstone karsts that comprises this place, you should just look at a photo or several:
Because this is China, park-keepers have really capitalized on that Avatar connection, and you can have your photo taken with massive plastic statues of the Avatar aliens all over the place.
Also because this is China, you can ride up one of the karsts in a glass elevator.
When we rode it, a bunch of people complained that the foreigners were too tall (which is to say, us) and should have to move to the back. But before we could offer to switch, they said, “They don’t understand.” And so I pretended like that was true and enjoyed my window view in the front. (We weren’t actually blocking anyone’s view, which became evident when everyone collectively said, “oooooh” when we broke into daylight.)
The power move was to do some hiking, because most people bus around the park and never get too deep out onto the trails. The first day, we hiked up the mountain to Huangshi Village, arriving just as the fog settled so densely into the forest that we could see approximately nothing (a real shame, since signs all over the park proclaimed that he who goes to Zhangjiajie and does not see Huangshi Village may as well not have come at all.) The second (much more clear) day we took the bus up to the top of one of the mountains and hiked down, which was considerably less difficult.
I think the only thing to do here is add in some nature-porn, because I could write a lot of words about this spectacular place and never really capture it. Before that though, I’ll mention for fellow travel planners that we stayed at a place called Taitian Hotel, and while I have no basis for comparison, I think you’re kind of messing up if you don’t do the same.
A of all, it was quite nice, quite reasonably priced, and run by the nicest people in the world. B of all, it was situated about a five-minute walk from the least crowded entrance of the park, from which you could hop on a bus and cruise around for free all day. And C of all, it made some excellent food, which was lucky, because there was not one other restaurant located nearby. This was probably the best food we ate in Hunan, though — strips of salty bacon with green chilies, savory and substantial pork broth, crisp-edged soft potatoes, and fried kudzu root, which was like super savory gelatin.
It had a decidedly home-cooked flavor to it, which is a common thread in a lot of the best dishes we’ve had here.
Okay, you guys, it turns out I do feel a little guilty for writing about a burger before writing about Chinese food, because the Chinese food here is a) damn good and b) totally different from what you can find in the States. You know why Calvin Trillin’s poem about running out of Chinese provinces from which to eat was so terrible? (In addition to being hideously offensive to Chinese people, I mean.) Because the US hasn’t even scratched the SURFACE on regional Chinese cuisine. When is the last time you had Yunnan pineapple rice or potatoes? Xinjiang naan and lamb? Guizhou noodles? That’s what I thought. SIT DOWN.
Anyway, the first few months here, I basically just went to restaurants and marveled at how little I actually knew about Chinese food, despite the fact that Chinese food was possibly my second most consumed cuisine in New York City. (The first was Mexican. The first is always Mexican.) Once that shock had subsided, and sometime after I learned that you never eat rice and noodles in the same meal, I began to wonder why, oh why, certain Chinese dishes haven’t gone super viral in my trend-obsessed home country. One of these dishes (or, rather, group of dishes) is Chongqing noodles. These noodles obliterate ramen in terms of deliciousness and therefore are ripe to command a similar cultish following that propels a boom of Chongqing noodle restaurants, from basic to fancy, in every city across America, preferably before I return to the States. (HINT HINT, capable chefs.)
Chongqing noodles follow the pattern of a lot of Chinese noodles, which is to say they’re wheat noodles in sauce and/or soup, possibly gussied up with some meat or vegetables (I mean, I guess you could say this about literally any wheat noodle in the world, so this is entirely unhelpful). Most regions of China have their own take on niuroumian (beef noodle soup), and Chongqing is no exception — the version here is flooded with chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns, which give it a distinctive tingly heat that basically lights your face on fire. Rob is so addicted to the Chongqing niuroumian that he has been steadily eating his way across all of the Chongqing noodle joints in the land in an effort to try every bowl. I’m partial to a different Chongqing specialty, wanza mian, which combines starchy yellow peas with ground pork in oil that’s more ma (tingly) than la (spicy). Most Chongqing noodle joints add broth to this combo, but our favorite place, Pang Mei (which actually translates to Fat Sister, although I think someone has changed the English name to Decent Sister), gives you the option to eat these without soup, which is definitely the way to go. I’m a soup person, but the broth just dilutes the pepper hit.
Ah, Pang Mei. Every time we go there, which is at least twice per week, Rob says, “I’m not kidding, I think this is the best restaurant in the world” as if he is observing this for the first time. Sometimes he follows it up with, “I’m not kidding, these are the best dumplings I’ve ever had,” referring to the chao shou, or pork-stuffed wontons in spicy soup, that we occasionally order alongside our noodles when we’re feeling extra fat and sassy. Other than that, we don’t really deviate, or at least we didn’t until the other day, when I got up the nerve (okay, Rob forced me) to forgo the wanza and try the shuang jiao ban mian, which is a tangy and spicy dry noodle with green and red peppers. Also quite strong.
When we first came to Beijing, Pang Mei was a closet-sized cubby off of Xiang’er hutong — the kitchen was actually in a glorified closet. Unlike most restaurants here, there was no picture menu, so it took a lot of trial and error (and finally help from a Chinese-speaking friend) to nail down the things we like. (In this period, we also learned that lung is just a casual thing on the menu at most corner restaurants here.) And then it took even longer to realize that the kitchen was giving us foreigner-level spice (which is not very much spice) and learn the vocabulary to insist upon a very spicy bowl of noodles.
About the time we finally conquered our orders, Pang Mei closed its doors to “remodel,” which we learned when we tried to go one night and found ourselves gaping at a demolition zone behind a tarp. “It’s gone FOREVER!” we wept, because that is usually what “remodel” means in America, and frequently in China, too. Luckily, this is a happy story. It turns out Pang Mei was just expanding — it usurped the space next door and built a real kitchen, which caught on fire shortly after the restaurant reopened, and forced it to close again for a week (this was also upsetting).
Anyway, around the same time the place reopened, it must have done a TV show, because now Pang Mei is packed every time we go there, even if we go there at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday like jobless hobos. It also has photos of its eight most popular dishes hanging on the wall, which is a sure sign that it’s moving up its attempts to cater to foreigners (although, people still snap surreptitious cell phone photos of us every time we go, so apparently not a lot of foreigners have caught on).
Unfortunately, I think this onslaught of business has foiled our plan to hang out in the kitchen and learn how to make these noodles, so my new life goal is to make enough money to bankroll an outlet (or chain of outlets) of Fat Sister in America. Want to invest? Email me. I’m poor.
Why yes, it DOES feel a little wrong to write about a cheeseburger before writing about Chinese food in this countdown, now that you mention it. Be cool and roll with it. There is plenty of Chinese food to come. And I told you in the last post that the order here is arbitrary.
We didn’t even try to imagine how China would feel before we came to Beijing, but we would never have guessed that had we wanted to, we could have basically just lived our American lives here, but with more Chinese food. In fact, people who visit us keep asking us what we miss from home (presumably so they can bring us that thing as a gift), and other than reasonably priced Champagne and better coffee, I can’t think of a damn thing. And Beijing even has one American thing that’s better than that thing in America: the Great Leap cheeseburger.
Whoa, I realize those are Fighting Words, because how could China do a cheeseburger, the very essence of America, better than America? Well, gauntlet thrown, I guess: I was worried we had China goggles (i.e., this burger seems better because the competition is scrappy), but every time Rob is in the States, he says he thinks about this cheeseburger. (Also, true fact, I’ve eaten this burger twice this week.) (Also also, I think the owner of this place is from the US, so that helps.) Crucially, Great Leap is not trying to do a fancy burger — which is good, because I’m a sell on the hideously fancy burgers that have proliferated on American menus over the last decade — so no prime cuts of beef, expensive cheeses, caramelized onions, or whack-job ingredients go into the making of this thing. Rather, this is the platonic ideal of the classic (and I am a strong buy on the classic): Two thin, griddled patties, crisp-edged and juicy, are paved with gooey American cheese, stacked with crunchy dill pickles that cover the circumference of the burger, drizzled with a tangy special sauce, and served between toasted halves of a sesame seed bun. A friend insists that the power move here is to add bacon, but I fear modifications, because what if it isn’t as good?! I would be DEVASTATED. Because the effect of the original combo is so good, I always eat the thing as if I’m a snake — basically, I just shove it all in my mouth at once and swallow, and then it chills like a lump in my esophagus until I can wash it down with enough Cinnamon Rock Ale. (So graphic! If I still had an editor, they would tell me not to tell you that! But I write this blog and can do what I want!)
Great Leap Brewing gets a separate entry on this list for a trio of reasons: the first is because that cheeseburger is only available at the Xingfu San Cun location (Great Leap #12), and if we’re just going for beers, we like the original hutong location (Great Leap #6), because that place feels like a light-strung backyard, an ideal place for sitting around and philosophizing wildly over too many brewskis. (The burger Great Leap, and the third sibling — pizza Great Leap #45 — feel more like typical American brewpubs, which is to say they’re decorated with exposed cement/brick walls, shiny tap fixtures, and a lot of dark wood.) (Also, I just learned, in the course of writing this blog post and having Rob edit it, why the Great Leaps are numbered so weirdly — it has to do with their street address! Of course! Numbering them according to some bizarre expansion plan obviously makes no sense!) (Just adding another parenthetical here for good measure.)
Second, Great Leap was the first craft brewery in Beijing, and it ushered in a brewery boom, the fruits of which we have been enjoying all year. Actually, we basically only drink at craft breweries at this point, which, to my earlier point about the not-foreign life that is possible here, is a lot like what we used to do in Colorado. I’m a lazy journalist these days, so I’m not going to write all about the history of Great Leap, but if you’re at all interested, I highly recommend this podcast with Great Leap owner Carl Setzer — it’s also an interesting look into doing business in China, which sounds hard.
And finally (and perhaps most obviously), Great Leap makes really good beer. We’re suckers for the aforementioned Cinnamon Rock, the Honey Ma Gold, the Dan Cong Dark, and the Liu the Brave Chai Stout, but we’ll also order whatever’s on the Sunday or Tuesday special, when pints are just 25 RMB.
Over the weekend, one of our best friends here said, “For a blog about China you sure haven’t written much about China.” OKAY I KNOW. The truth is, I have been paralyzed with indecision about how to start, because we’ve lived here kind of a long time now, and a lot of things have happened, and it just seems sort of overwhelming to write 2,000 word blog posts about every single one of those things, you know? Thanks for being my therapist. I feel better.
In order to overcome my psychological issues, I’m gonna employ an old lifestyle journalism trick I like to call the countdown series. That is, I’m gonna write about my 100 favorite things in Beijing, counting down from 100 to 1. (These are actually in arbitrary order, listed as I think of them, as are all countdowns in lifestyle journalism. DO NOT tell anyone I let you in on that secret.)
Anyway. Number 100: The Muxiyuan fabric market and Number 99: Fei Fei Tailor
Our friend Ami (who deserves her very own entry in this countdown because she has been integral in my enjoyment of life here) first took us to Muxiyuan last summer when she was looking to have a pair of shorts copied. As happens to me at all wholesale markets, I felt immediately overwhelmed to the point of despair: basically, Muxiyuan refers to at least a couple of disparate markets, each of which has rows and rows of stalls where people hawk all kinds of fabric, from boring old men’s shirt patterns to pettably soft jersey to brain vomit-y silks. I cannot discern a logic to where things are located in the market — it’s sort of just all mixed together — which means if you don’t buy a fabric when you first seize upon it, good luck ever finding it again. I have horrible commitment-phobia when it comes to picking out a bolt of material for a dress I will then have to conceptualize and describe to a tailor, so shopping like this sort of made me want to take an entire bottle of Xanax and then maybe lie down on the dusty, dusty cement for awhile. Luckily, Ami is an old pro who has a can-do attitude and a slate of favorite vendors, and she was nice enough to show us a jersey shop for tee-shirting needs, the best silk outlet, and a couple of places for wild prints (at one of those, we bought three meters of fabric that is covered in turtles that have burgers for shells). Then we walked through rows of buttons that were so sparkling I wanted to eat them (I don’t know), and petted all of the furs, which were hanging menacingly from racks, swinging in the wind.
A few months later (yes, months, I am that slow), I actually took some of my fabric to Fei Fei Tailor and had some bespoke dresses made. Fei Fei has been around for like three decades, and you can tell she is good because she is surrounded by a bunch of other shops that are also called Fei Fei and trying to profit off of her name. How does that old saying go? Blatant plagiarism is the highest form of flattery? (Actually, it’s entirely possible that she owns all of the shops, but I like to believe that I am going to the OG Fei Fei, who is superior to her imitators.) The important thing here is that she can turn out a brand new wardrobe for you, with some seriously nice stitching, in a matter of days.
I’d never had bespoke clothing made before, and so I cannot explain what happened in my brain when I slipped on my perfectly fitted royal blue silk shift, but it was a terrifying and electrifying sense of power and self-worth that I am somewhat ashamed and horrified to admit came from an article of clothing. But that’s what happened, and this year is all about soul-searching and self-discovery, and I have discovered that my soul is actually that simple.
Anyway, the fabric market-tailor one-two punch has become a full-blown addiction, despite the fact that the market is located about 100 years from the nearest subway. I no longer feel anything but true excitement about the idea of wandering the Muxiyuan labyrinth and looking for hot deals, which is a really surprising turnaround in attitude that I think underscores my personal growth here. Also, the vendors are great: They climb all over stuff and rip the fabric away from the bolts and occasionally ask you for extremely granular details about your height that turn out to have nothing to do with your purchase. One measured out shirt fabric for Rob and then turned to me and said, “This isn’t enough. He’s too tall and too fat.” Rob didn’t think that was very funny.
Pro tip for actual Beijingers or tourists that might want to give this place a shot but, like me, feel sort of overwhelmed: I have discovered that the best way to shop here is to think about a specific thing you might want to have made (I’m no designer, so usually I find a photo of a thing I like, or pattern something off of an article of clothing I already own) and then wander the rows looking for the right fabric for that thing. Buy when you see it, because unless you’re a diligent note taker, you’re possibly never going to see it again. Also, the turtle burger fabric shop is in the western market, along the western wall.
About a week ago, I told you about our trip to Yangon. In absolute record timing for an update on www.christenhunks.com, I’m now ready to tell you about Bagan. A day after landing in Myanmar, Rob, fellow Lucer Diana, and I went back to the airport to board our plane for Bagan. The domestic side of the Myanmar airport is significantly more…lax…than the international side. For example, this is what our ticket looked like:
And we did not have to show ID of any form to retrieve it. We just gave a lady our name, and she gave us a sticker and checked us off on a list, as if we were attending a neighborhood luncheon. Security was like old-school security — the kind where you leave your shoes on and your laptop secured in its bag, and you just walk through the possibly-not-on metal detector. Boarding the plane entailed some random dude shouting into the plastic seat-lined waiting room that anyone on Golden Myanmar that was going to Bagan should saddle up and ride (okay, he did not say saddle up and ride, but you get the idea). I am 78 percent sure that a couple of dudes snuck on our plane by loitering around the runway and waiting to see if there were any empty seats. There were empty seats, so they went to Bagan, because no one stopped them. (Excuse me, sir! Let me see your official sticker!)
All that aside, I recommend Golden Myanmar if you are flying around this country — the planes were brand new and felt like corporate jets, which allayed my fears of perishing in a fiery crash in a country that clearly does not take flight safety quite as seriously as I’m used to. Because everyone knows you can’t die in a corporate jet.
We booked a hotel in New Bagan called Thumbula, which is not notable in any way except as context for a story I’ll tell you in a little bit. Basically, the three of us crammed into a fluorescent-lit and linoleum-floored room that resembled a college dorm — Rob and me on the full-size, Diana on a little cot near the door. I heard a crash and a scream when I was in the bathroom, and I was legitimately worried that Rob had fallen off the tiny and probably-not-to-code balcony that was outside of our window. Turns out Diana’s bed had just collapsed.
That hotel did help us procure ebikes for the next day, which were to be our noble steeds for seeing the magnificent pagodas. For that is why you go to Bagan — to see pagodas.
Circa the 11th century, back in one of Myanmar’s many heydays, Bagan was a magnificent and massive city of wood structures that housed like a million people. Those people erected a bunch of pagodas from brick, which were basically neighborhood churches, probably jazzed up with a white or golden paint job. The wooden houses are long gone, but those pagodas still exist and are now just the faded color of earthenware. (Ah, yes, the classic earthenware comparison.)
But because there were so many pagodas, and because the topography of Bagan is fairly flat, you can look across the scrub brush-dotted plains and see dozens and dozens of little conical temple ruins. The quantity and scale is mind-boggling. So is the fact that you can interact with these thousands-of-years-old architectural wonders by climbing all over them. (Side note: that is changing. Rob says Myanmar closed a bunch of them to foot traffic like the week after we left.)
If you are fairly wealthy, or into blowing a lot of money on one morning, or possibly are about to propose to your significant other, I think the highlight of your trip is seeing this landscape from a hot air balloon, which lifts off at sunrise and gives you a stunning (I am guessing, because we did not go) and comprehensive aerial view of things. If you are kind of poor, or sort of frugal, then you are still doing something wrong if you do not go catch the sunrise, but you take it in from one of the larger temples instead.
After Diana and I went to bed, Rob apparently stayed up for a lot of hours and did a lot of research on which temple to go to for the best sunrise viewing, but I did not know this, so the next morning, when sunrise time was bearing down on us like a relentless herd of angry buffaloes, I panicked and asked the front desk woman for her recommendation, and then insisted to Rob that we should just go there.
“I mean, I did hours of research on this, and that one’s going to be packed with tourists, but that’s fine,” he said cheerfully. But it was late, and we needed to get somewhere quickly, so that became the plan, and the three of us rode there in silent rage, which distracted me from the fact that my ebike had no headlight and I was not wearing a helmet (“Sorry,” the renter had offered halfheartedly, while handing over my keys).
The temple was packed, but not so packed that we couldn’t find a peaceful spot and enjoy it. We camped out, took some photos of the luminescent landscape, oohed and ahhed about the hot air balloons bobbing serenely over the scene, and generally marveled about how awesome our lives are. And then Rob pulled me in for a kiss and whispered softly into my ear, “I should’ve come alone.”
And then Rob laughed and laughed.
We spent the rest of the morning cruising around to different temples on our bikes before having a lazy breakfast at our hotel and then a lazy lunch at a really great restaurant called Star Beam. It was here that I first discovered the simple Burmese salad that combines tomatoes, peanuts, and shredded chicken beneath cilantro, lime, and maybe a little sesame oil, but I hope to eat this combination many more times in my life.
Most of the rest of the day was about waiting around for sunset, so in between wandering around the ruins, we had a couple of beers overlooking the banks of the Irrawaddy River.
Because Rob is constantly vigilant about skin health, we picked up some thanaka, which is what everyone in Myanmar (well, all the women and children), from Yangon to the most rural areas, wears as sunscreen and bug repellent. It’s made from a tree and you’re supposed to dampen it and then apply it like cream, forming two thick clown-like patches on your cheeks into which you can etch designs. (This is also how I apply blush. Am I doing it right?) A nice lady put some on us at one of the temples, and then because I’m a sucker, I forced Rob to buy it. We have a tub of it, untouched, if anyone wants a souvenir.
We also checked out a little lacquerware, fondling bowls admiringly while pretending like we knew what we were looking for in lacquerware.
Too soon, it was time to cruise to our sunset viewing location, which was as far away from New Bagan as we could go. This was inconvenient because post-sunset, we planned to have dinner with a couple from San Francisco who we’d met in an airport lounge, and we’d given ourselves just 45 minutes from dusk to get home, shower, and link up with them. It became especially inconvenient, though, when Rob’s ecycle battery died in the sandy back trails of our last temple.
We parked the bikes, saw the sunset with a giant French tourist group that was real possessive of the view, and then got to the task of solving the problem. After some panicked threats of poor decision-making — “Okay, we’ll just split up, and leave Rob here in this dark shady lot to wait for the new battery, while the others try to find their way home without navigational tools or a headlight” — we decided to just be late to dinner, which our new friends George and Marsha were extremely gracious about. In fact, they invited us to come to their hotel for drinks and dinner instead of bothering with trying to venue-hop in town.
Plan shored up, a very nice Burmese man helped us negotiate a new battery from our rental shop, and once that was replaced, 45 minutes later, we just had to make the treacherous journey home, made more difficult by blind rage associated with not being able to see the road (oh, that was just me — did I mention my broken headlight?).
All’s well that ends well, though, and things ended well. From our dorm room, we hitched a “cab” (read: ride in the back of a pick-up truck) to George and Marsha’s hotel, which we knew was going to be a little different from our hotel the moment we turned down a quiet lane lined with street lights. (There were no other street lights in Bagan that I can remember.) After a few minutes, security checked us out suspiciously, possibly because of our mode of transportation, and then the road opened up into a massive compound filled with resort-y bungalows AND PRIVATE PAGODAS AND A TOWER. So basically the same as our hotel.
George and Marsha were having Manhattans poolside, because what else could you possibly do when your resort has private pagodas, and so we all had Manhattans poolside, and admired the private pagodas. (I know. I sound like a simple idiot. I really could not get over the private pagodas.) And then because they are the nicest people in the world, George and Marsha bought us dinner, including the round of Manhattans I tried to pay for, and gave us a tour of the tower, which probably had a better view than the hot air balloons, frankly, although I think it was sort of a controversial construction project because it is so not part of the historical feel of the rest of the landscape. Then they tucked us into a private car home. Which I tried to haggle over, because I’d had a couple of Manhattans and I was LIVID that the private car was going to charge us TWICE what the flatbed truck had (approximately $11, if you must know).
I guess if I want you to take anything away from this rambling story it’s that despite the emotional tumult of our day, Bagan is a stone-cold stunner (actually, it’s quite hot there — this is probably a poor descriptor), and you should go there immediately. But stay where George and Marsha stayed, which is called the Aureum. Or try to befriend your own George and Marsha in an airport lounge on the way to Myanmar. And save up for those hot air balloons. I’ll bet they’re worth it.
In our next episode: Inle Lake.
BONUS! A quick little pronunciation lesson, because basically the whole time we were in Myanmar, I felt like we were shamefully butchering words and mildly offending our hosts.
When I wrote about Yangon (the emPHAsis goes on the second syLABble, which is sort of in between a hard o and a not hard o — I think? I don’t know, I just watched a 15 second ad and then a six second clip on YouTube, and I’m still confused), I told you that Rob never really figured out how to say Schwedagon Pagoda, which everyone found entertaining enough to basically never help a brother out.
Here’s how you pronounce it: SHWEH-deh-gahn
The rest of the trip took us to Bagan, Inle Lake, Hpa-An, and Malawmyine. I know. Gazundheit.
Bagan: Buh-GAHN (as opposed to Bilbo Baggins or Pagan witches; the second is confusing because sometimes you see Bagan spelled Pagan)
Inle Lake: IN-lay (I still say this IN-luh all the time and feel mildly embarrassed, like when I realize I’ve had food in my teeth for four hours and no one has said anything because you’re all terrible people)
Hpa-An: Pah-AHN. You can sort of breathe that silent H at the beginning, or make the p a little softer.
Malawmyine: Mah-LAH-mee-eye-n (I just learned that one second ago — I avoided saying it for the entirety of our trip because I didn’t want to embarrass myself).
Alright, people. Here’s a recommendation for you: go to Myanmar. Like, for your next trip. Scrap whatever you were planning to do and book your tickets. It might be significantly more complicated than hopping over to a Mexican beach, but holy [emphatic expletive], it is worth the long flights, the logistical difficulty, and the potential gastrointestinal discomfort (we actually had very little of the latter, because thank you Pepto, but we hear ours is an uncommon experience).
Myanmar was highest on our list of places we wanted to visit this year (along with Mongolia, which, hopefully, we’ll still have opportunity to cross off, once it’s not, uh, frozen tundra), and it’s the only place we’ve been so far where I’ve had real, true, actual placement envy. I’m still pretty into China (someday, perhaps, you’ll hear all about why), but I experienced some fleeting but real jealousy toward the scholars who are spending their year in Yangon. Generally, this is because Myanmar is in the midst of a pretty fascinating historical moment — after decades of reclusive, autocratic rule, Myanmar is opening up to outside investment and influence. Like, there’s a super trendy Mexican restaurant there now. And also one of our cab drivers treated us to a windows-down ride while bumping some early 90s hip hop.
More monumentally than those developments, the opposition under Aung San Suu Kyi (who won a Nobel Peace Prize and endured house arrest for a long ass time) gained control of government via elections last year, and the civil war that has been more or less raging since the fifties (or sixties? or earlier if you count all the warring under the Brits?) is abating, and a lot of the political exiles are finally getting the chance to return. The Luce scholars there have gotten to witness the resulting changes firsthand, and they say it’s been nuts — the city of Yangon, they say, has changed significantly, even in the few months they’ve been living there.
Aside from all that key moment junk, the country also has a fascinating history that’s developed over a couple of thousand years, and a wide diversity of climates and cultures that feel totally distinct from one another (this is also the crux of a lot of the internal strife). On a much more personal level, Burmese food is THE BEST. Fragrant curries, tart and bitter salads, beautifully crisped fish — we ate well, and on a cuisine that’s pretty unfamiliar in the States.
A week really isn’t enough to see Myanmar, even if you’re only doing the typical tourist circuit of Yangon – Bagan – Inle Lake. Our pace was even more psychotic because we did those things and then also glommed on to our friends’ excursion to Hpa-An at the end of the week. I could probably write 20,000 words about what we saw. Ain’t nobody got time for that. I’m gonna attempt to break this up into smaller posts, because I just really loved that trip so much, so right now, I’m just gonna cover Yangon.
Man, I wasn’t expecting Yangon to be such a CITY. I thought it would feel more like Phnom Penh — i.e., basically an overgrown village. NOPE. It has skyscrapers, decrepit colonial architecture, shiny new malls, a couple of lakes where the rich people live and do leisure activities (they’re pretty nice — the lakes, I mean, though I’m sure the people are alright, too), and the particular brand of ferocious traffic that is particular to southeast Asia. Public transportation, though, is mostly limited to the slow but charming (if you’re not running late to something, Rob) circular train where women sell pineapples to passengers, and some dilapidated buses that, from what we hear, were shipped in from Japan and Korea and bought up by private operators, who just yell the general direction they’re going when they pick people up. Helpful.
Our main sight highlight was the Shwedagon Pagoda (which Rob still hasn’t learned how to pronounce – schweaty dragon? Shweee diggony?), a gleaming golden temple that’s hard to look at in the direct sunlight (seriously, I think you could probably go blind).
I liked the sassy haloed deities and the birthday corners, where I think you’re supposed to wash some stuff to bring yourself luck. I’m sorry that this is the most technical explanation I can provide of a key religious site. Anyway, the day of the week on which you’re born is very important in Myanmar — our friends Paul and Lanier said their Burmese teachers were horrified when one of them didn’t know their day. I was born on a Tuesday and so was, fun fact, Aung San Suu Kyi. So my birthday corner has a video camera so that the nation can watch her do her ritual thingies when she visits.
Also: Rob wore his turtle burger shirt to this key religious monument, and learned how to tie a longyi, which is basically a long skirt that everyone hangs out in. He wore it for the rest of the trip, and the Myanmar people we encountered thought that was pretty rad.
Paul gave us a tour of some of the old streets, which are lined with colorful colonial apartment buildings, and walked us by the old Secretariat building, which is this grand structure that once housed the colonial government. It was the center of official business in Myanmar, too, but then Aung San (father of the current leader and a key figure in Myanmar politics) was assassinated there, so it’s been empty and closed for years. Tragic.
Other than that, we mostly had fun hanging out with Paul, Lanier, Diana (another Lucer who joined us on this trip), and Sandy, one of my old friends from Claremont. Sandy now has arguably the most interesting job of everyone we went to school with, which is to introduce the people of Myanmar to Coca-Cola, which wasn’t there until about three years ago. Now you can buy even a Coke Zero, which Rob fiends after in China, in the most remote corners of the country. I find this incredible. They took us to a really happening party at the French Alliance, where we all stood around in a courtyard drinking beer while a DJ tried to make us dance. This is like everywhere we go in Brooklyn.
Oh, also, we ate. Did I mention the food is incredible? Oh, yes? Okay. Night one, we hit a Kachin restaurant called Jinghpaw Myay. Kachin is the northernmost part of Myanmar, and it’s a part of the country still embroiled in fighting. The people there are from a different ethnic group, and they’re mostly Christian. Highlights included a pounded beef with some ginger and chilies, rice with chicken (apparently, this is called shat jam, a name that makes me giggle like a ten-year-old boy), and mashed potatoes. THOSE POTATOES, THOUGH. I don’t know exactly what the kitchen was putting IN the mashed potatoes, but I do know there were crispy shallots on top, and that they tasted like happiness and food comas. We ordered five platters for like eight people. I was gunning for a sixth, but someone else, thankfully, took the wheel away from me. The server at this restaurant also taught us an incredibly valuable life lesson, which is that beer bottles have a handy little lip on the mouth, and if you place that lip on the rim of the glass and pour slowly, you get a perfect, head-less pour of beer. I mean, a decade in the restaurant industry, and I feel like my world was turned upside down with that knowledge drop.
A little gun shy about the most popular Burmese restaurant in town (the Rangoon Teahouse), Lanier took us to a bomb-ass alternative, a Burmese joint called Khaing Khaing Kyaw, where you walked around what looked to me like basically a buffet and ordered the highlight tour of dishes. Which is to say, tea leaf salad, bean salad, about a half dozen other seriously excellent salads, rich beef curry, fish curry, griddled prawns, sautéed veggies, a impulse-purchase bowl of mohinga (more on mohinga in a second), and then some sugary treats.
And finally, on our last day in town, Paul took us to get some street samosas and then a bowl of mohinga, which is like a fish noodle soup that everyone eats for breakfast. I’m a strong buy on the morning time noodle soups, so I thought mohinga was genius. My favorite line about it, though, comes from another Lucer, Lauren, who apparently took one bite and then said, “I’m sorry, but I really hate this.” A polarizing food stuff, to be sure, but the restaurant selling it was a gem: the whole neighborhood was sitting around, watching each other’s kids run around, yelling for more mohinga and tea, and reading the papers.
And we ate Mexican food, hoping it would be hilarious, but it was actually good. Good Mexican food is everywhere, you guys, everywhere. Place was called Tin Tin, if you need a fix when you’re in Yangon, and they make some decent margaritas and nachos. Think we missed the boat, though, on not going to a place called Sai’s, which apparently does Mexican and Shan (another Myanmar cuisine) FUSION. Reason to go back to Myanmar, I say.
Okay, over and out on this missive. I’ll get to Bagan, Inle, and Hpa-An soon!
True fact: I got horrendous food poisoning and/or the stomach flu on my 30th birthday, and in addition to being brutally ill on the night I entered this new and exciting decade, I couldn’t get out of bed for any festivities for the next five days, which means I missed my birthday weekend. It’s like my body was like, THINK I’LL JUST STAY 29, THANKS. Anyway, no big, because a friend and I’d already planned a joint 30th birthday shindig in Singapore in late January, when the majority of this year’s Luce class descended on that city for a music festival. So I just decided to wait to turn 30 until that weekend.
To make the occasion really super special, Rob gifted me enough airline miles that we could both fly the Singapore Suites to the party. If you want a really good synopsis of what it’s like to fly the Suites, you should read this dude’s hilarious account of his long journey in the Singapore Airline’s version of first class. Basically, instead of a measly seat, you get your own cabin. If you’re a couple (or I guess good friends), you can book cabins next to each other, and then sit together in one mega cabin. This is especially fun if you ever want to lie down in the bed your seat converts to, because adjoining seats can convert into a double bed. Where you can, you know, cuddle. And really only cuddle. Because despite the Do Not Disturb sign you can illuminate, the suites don’t actually fully close — there’s a gap at the top.
None of that really matters, because despite the fact that our flight was seven hours long, I never actually made it to a point when we could lay our seats down flat and cuddle. We boarded the plane accompanied by a handler, who delivered us to flight attendants who knew our names without looking at our boarding passes (like, did they google us?). When we sat down, they handed us a wine list that started with Dom Perignon and ended with a very old Port. Casual. I’ll start with the Dom, I said, trying to act like that was a thing I often say. My plan was to pivot into a glass of Riesling, coast into a little Premier Cru Burgundy, and then land in Singapore the tune of that aforementioned Port. My plan was foiled when they kept refilling my glass of Champagne. At least a bottle deep and no dinner later, I was holding onto my armrest, “reading” my Kindle through my one open eye, and thinking, WHAT IS REALITY. In other words, I flew too close the sun, like the high school kid discovering peach schnapps for the first time.
Next it was time for a seven course meal, for which my inhibitions were loosened enough to greedily ask for the Asian celebrity chef menu but still also have the cheese and dessert from the western menu. As the plates rolled out, I managed to shift into the Pinot, but then, as soon as the dishes were cleared, I passed out on my non-converted-to-a-bed seat and slept like a baby for two hours, only to awaken when we were descending. I figure I consumed about $500 worth of wine, but I still lament all the value lost on my one brush with a lifestyle I’m not likely to revisit anytime soon.
Only stressful thing about flying in that cabin: the flight attendants freshen up the bathroom right after you use it. I know this because the toilet paper was always refolded into a neat triangle when I went in, and it smelled like heaven and orchids. A pleasing experience for the occupant, but it caused me undue anguish and performance anxiety. Like, what if I need to, you know, USE the bathroom? Could you not go in there the SECOND I leave? Then there’s no way to shift blame to the group.
Anyway, we met up with the crew the next day and got down to business exploring restaurants. I’m sure there are other lovely things to do in Singapore, but I did basically none of those things, with the exception of going to the zoo at night, a highly recommended activity if you believe the guidebooks. I would also highly recommend it if you need something to do that’s not just stuffing your face all day erryday for like five days. The animals are more active at night, and, so long as you are not prone to panic, you can walk through a flying fox cage where dog-sized bats chill like seven inches from your head and eat fruit. Sometimes they fly, and then you want to scream and run, but you have to control yourself and walk quietly to an exit, trying not to throw up. Pretty fun. Our friend Christian gave the zoo a six out of ten, but the flying fox cage a nine or ten. After reflecting on the experience for a few weeks, I think that’s pretty accurate.
Back to the food. Here’s a fairly complete list of the things we ate and drank in Singapore: fancy coffee, fancy kefir soda, raw vegetables in trendy combinations, vegetarian Indian food from the best restaurant in Little India, fish curry soup called laksa from a Hawker market (supposedly the best laksa in Singapore), roasted suckling pig at a music festival, frozen margaritas, terrible nachos, fries topped with salty egg, more frozen margaritas, killer huevos rancheros, an acai bowl, more fancy coffee, a fancy ice cream bar, gummy mochi filled with chocolate, fried bits and bobs acquired from the street, burgers, fried crab sandwiches, wings, more frozen drinks, achingly good dim sum at 1 a.m., and custard buns, which a couple members of our group spent basically all of their free time trying to hunt down. The ones we found were so good, we ordered like four rounds of them. And we ate that Indian food at East Coast Park, which hugs the waterfront — that’s where we celebrated our birthdays, welcoming in a new year as the sun set. Surreal.
And then I got food poisoning. Along with half of our group. In Singapore, which is so clean you can basically eat off the bathroom floor. Because apparently this is how my 30th year is going to go.
But let’s not dwell on that! In the middle of all of this, we went to a music festival at a park that overlooks the wackily shaped Marina Bay Sands where we danced our little hearts out and got sparkly temporary tattoos (a nice complement to the sparkly temporary tattoos we applied by our ownselves before the show). Rob had a euphoric moment seeing CHVRCHES. I thought it was pretty good, but was busy raging at the girl next to me, whose backpack was jammed into some rather intimate areas of my torso. GET OFF MY LAWN I’M OLD NOW.
Reflection time: Singapore was SIGNIFICANTLY more charming than I expected. You hear a lot of people in this part of the world calling Singapore “Asia Light” — it’s full of expats, clean, and incredibly functional, and the language of business is English. I thought, therefore, that it was going to feel a little soulless and strip-mally, or super futuristic, like the skyscraper part of Pudong in Shanghai. Not so. It’s colorful and diverse, and a lot of colonial architecture is slipped amid more modern buildings. The city is legitimately pretty. There are food markets everywhere, and there’s plenty of green space for recreation. The frozen drinks are on point, too. I think it was a nice break for our buds who’ve spent their year in less developed parts of Asia — you can get all the creature comforts of the west in Singapore, and it seems like you don’t have to work to do basic things (cabs are metered, prices are set, pharmacies are stocked with familiar brands, you can get passport photos taken in the subway station). We heard a lot of Mandarin spoken around town, too, which was kind of fun. Downside is that it’s expensive, but not so much more expensive than Beijing in a lot of ways. Probably the best indication of how we felt about it: we kept our metro cards instead of cashing them in for our deposit, reasoning we’d likely be back in time to use them before they expired.
A bunch of you have sent concerned messages about Beijing’s recent pollution struggles, and others have asked what it’s like to live under a red alert. So six months into our China journey, Imma take a break from posting only about our vacation lifestyle and talk a little about the pollution here.
Let’s set the stage for a sec first: We touched down in Beijing in a thick cloud of haze, and that haze didn’t abate for four days. At the time, we were wide-eyed with trepidation about that, but people told us that this was unusually bad. A bartender we met, in fact, asked us on our third day in town, “Don’t you think the pollution talk is all pretty overblown?” We were a bit taken aback, given we had to prance (or walk slowly, so as to not inhale too much air) around outdoors in our face masks, but the cloud blew off the next day, and we had a couple of weeks of glorious blue sky. Then the haze returned for a couple of days, and blew off for a couple weeks. Rinse, repeat, with an extended period of beautiful blue skies thanks to the military parade, until last week, when the worst pollution of the year descended on the city: the sky turned a murky yellow color, and it was hard to make out buildings across the street.
This state lasted approximately three days, and then a cold Mongolian wind blew it out. It’s a super odd feeling to go to bed in a toxic cloud and wake up in what is basically equivalent to crisp mountain air, but that’s exactly what happened. (Side note: another time, a few days’ worth of bad smog blew off during our dinner – we emerged from a restaurant to star-studded skies that had only two hours earlier been completely hidden by thick haze. What a trip.) The pollution count on that blissful reprieve of a morning was about 10, which is pretty much pristine. During the dark days of last week, the pollution count passed 600 (or higher, no real idea, since the scale basically maxes out at 500; most of the U.S., for comparison, rarely tops 50). Not great timing, since Paris was hosting global climate talks rightthatverysecond. Also, the public was so rattled about the pollution that when another polluted period was approaching earlier this week, the government declared a red alert — the first ever. This shut down schools, banned outdoor cooking (lots of restaurants roast lamb on the streets here), and required cars to drive on alternating days. The air never got as bad as last week, but it was bad enough that most people wore masks when they were outside, and you definitely wouldn’t want to do much more than walk from your house to the subway, for instance. No jogging. No running for the bus.
So what is it like to live in this cycle, and what is it like to function when the air is that bad?
Well, for one thing, everyone here, or at least everyone that I interact with, thinks about the air on a daily basis. All of the foreigners and most of the Chinese people I know have air filters in their homes. Most people have apps on their phones that tell them what the pollution count is, and they’ll frequently comment on the state of the air. They’ll say this year is less bad than years past, or talk about what the air was like here when they were young. Talking about the air, at least with us foreigners, is smalltalk fodder. I never thought much about how odd that is, but today I remembered that despite living there for three years, I had no idea what the New York City air pollution was like until I moved to China and looked it up for comparison with Beijing. Pollution went from being a thing that never really crossed my mind to something almost always on my mind. And that goes for when the air is good, too — the mood lifts visibly in this city on blue sky days, and people carpe the effing diem. Beijing is one of the best cities in the world when the air is nice. It feels effervescent.
More personally, for the first couple of months here, my mood was directly correlated with the pollution. If the sky was blue, I felt like my life was together, my future was bright, and the songbirds were basically gonna come over and do my laundry while whistling zippity doo dah. Levity, in other words. No task too hard, no obstacle too great. When the smog hit, everything was terrible — I hated the crowds, I hated riding my bike, I hated that I dropped a chopstick and didn’t know how to ask for a new one, I hated that my future plans are nebulous at best, I hated that I couldn’t find a damn smoothie bowl in the whole city of Beijing, because HOW WILL I EVER BE HEALTHY AGAIN. I was basically an adult version of Reasons My Son Is Crying.
I was eager to break that cycle, and Rob was eager for me to stop bitching about the smog all the time, so he did a bunch of research on how bad breathing the air actually is. Some story he dug up said being outside all day on bad days is sort of the equivalent of smoking half a cigarette a day. That helped. I don’t want to smoke half a cigarette a day forever, but I’m probably not gonna die if someone forces me to do so for the next year or five. It allayed my fears enough to brazenly ride my bike in 200 pollution weather, thinking, “bad air, don’t care.”
Then airpocalypse hit, and The Economist posted a story about how breathing Beijing’s air is actually like smoking 40 cigarettes a day, and I promptly lost my mind. “THIS IS A PROBLEM,” I declared to my Chinese teachers. They were like, yeah, duh, but what do you want us to do about it? I was like, “I’M NOT LEAVING MY HOUSE.” And they were like, enjoy dying alone. Anyway, since Rob is a much more skeptical internet user than I am, he did some research on that figure and learned that it’s way off, sort of — air pollution does not actually compare well with smoking cigarettes, it’s just that if you live forever in Beijing’s air, you can expect to die three years early, which is how early you’d die if you smoked 40 cigarettes a day. Not sure that makes me feel better, but it does make me feel like I overreacted a little by posting that questionable article on Facebook in a woe is me moment. Beijing air: somewhere between half a cigarette and 40 cigarettes. In real life absent of hypothetical analogies, I hyperventilated every time I climbed a staircase from the subway to the outdoors, and I was convinced that I actually got winded quicker. Also, my face mask turned gray, which is gross. I got a new one.
As for the red alert, living through airpocalypse made the red alert feel relatively mild. Because the government pulled a bunch of cars off the road, the pollution hit the high 300s, but not for long. Probably for the best that delicate-lunged children were more or less required to stay inside, though.
For all the pollution awareness in Beijing, though, my biggest and most depressing revelation this year has been how pervasive this problem is — this is not just about Beijing, or any given city in China. This first dawned on me when we drove from Beijing to Inner Mongolia — and never broke free of the haze (although it thinned out). Same went for taking a high speed train from Beijing to Shanghai. But this is also not just about China. With the exception of Taipei and Chiang Mai, every city we’ve been in so far this year — and this includes cities outside of China, like Seoul, Bangkok, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City — has suffered at least one bad pollution day when we were there (and I’m inclined to think we just got lucky on Taipei). Even Krabi was soaked in a cloud of fumes for the first several days we were there, because the Indonesian fires were raging, and the blow-off was seeping waaaaay beyond its borders. One of the bleak factoids we all traded last week to get through our funk was that Dehli’s scale had topped out at 999 — which means the pollution was likely much higher. That is hard to fathom.
What’s more, it’s likely going to get worse elsewhere — China’s economy is evolving, and it’s getting richer, which means manufacturing is moving to cheaper countries. And with it, so moves the pollution. And in case I need to spell it out for you, that implicates all of us in this problem — we don’t have the pollution problem in the U.S. in part because our manufacturing sector is relatively small. We have, effectively, exported our pollution.
In my opinion, that makes China the least of our worries. China is actually working on this problem, and it’s cleaning up its air faster than the west did when the west was the manufacturing center of the world — the country improves each year. This is likely why we’re all fixated on China — because China can and appears to be actually dealing with this. India, on the other hand, seems kind of hopeless — a decentralized government and miles of bureaucratic red tape make a policy-based solution all but impossible.
I guess the too long didn’t read version of this rambling post is that living in Asia has made my environmental convictions less theoretical and more of the we-need-to-act-now variety: we’re destroying the planet, y’all, and I see it, in real time, every day. We gotta knock it off. ASAP. And it’s gonna take regional and global cooperation, and large-scale clean energy innovation, to do it.
In Vietnam part one, we told you about Hanoi, which is vibrant, full of history and architecture, and generally worthy of a considerable amount of time
stay-wise. Sadly, we had only a couple of days before we took a $30 flight to Hoi An (yes, $30, and here is where I tell you I’m insanely jealous of our fellowship counterparts in southeast Asia, who can jet around the region for almost nothing).
We decided to go to Hoi An almost exclusively based on the fact that our friend Sarah went there five years ago and loved it. We remembered almost nothing about why she loved it, but I’m happy to report that she did not lead us astray. Hoi An is in the center of the country (Hanoi is in the north), situated on a delta that abuts the East Vietnam/South China Sea. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means that its old town is protected goods, and a number of old buildings have been preserved. Hanoi has Indochinese architecture, but it’s unabashedly layered into a modern hive of activity, so that sometimes you have to squint to see the bones of a particular building. Hoi An, on the other hand, has had its look totally preserved. Old houses along winding alleys are now home to restaurants and shops, which sell everything from tourist kitsch to art to bespoke clothing to fair-trade handiwork. Probably goes without saying that it’s a tourist mecca. Imagine the well-preserved little villages of, say, Italy or France, and you have some idea what Hoi An is like. SUPES CHARMING, is what I’m trying to say, if a little overrun.
Hoi An was an excellent place to relax, so our activities included poolside coconuts, a bike ride to the beach, and eating at some fantastic restaurants (Hoi An is known, in particular, for its food). Best meals were at Phuong, a just-outside-of-Old-Town banh mi shop made famous by Anthony Bourdain (Tony got this one right — damn good banh mi — although I liked the bread at Banh Mi 25 in Hanoi a bit better) and Morning Glory, a stalwart of the dining scene here that turns out upmarket versions of Vietnamese street food. The cao lau, a Hoi An specialty of fat noodles and tender pork, was particularly good here — it was studded with crackling pork skin and sown with cinnamon.
I (Laura) also had a massage that bruised both my back and my ego: I went post-workout (but also post-bathing because I’m not an animal), and was still sweaty, so the nice lady at the front asked timidly if I’d like to have a shower before I got started. Somewhat baffling, given I’d paid extra to sweat in the sauna pre-massage (turned out that was money down the drain — almost passed out from the extra heat…delicate workout flower).
We had to buy a ticket to get into old town (I think? Possibly just to walk down one street? Unclear), which included entrance into some of the old temples, houses, and the assembly hall. Those were cool glimpses inside some of the buildings, but the thing that really stuck with me was at one old house, the guide told us every year the delta floods and the entire bottom floor of this building is under water. Nothing they can do about it; they just move the furniture upstairs when it’s been raining really hard for a couple of days. Then I noticed the dates of the annual floods pretty much aligned with the dates we were in Hoi An.
So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when the next night, we were caught in an unbelievable downpour — I swear the river rose like six feet in basically seconds, but I am a terrible judge of things like that, and Rob gently scoffed at that analysis. We were attempting to check out the night market when the sky opened up, and we suddenly found ourselves standing in inches of water. Sadly, the rain also meant we couldn’t bike to the surrounding villages, which are known for things like pottery. A future trip.
Onto Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) (on another $30 flight). What a contrast! You can still certainly see some remnants of French influence in HCMC, but this is really a city — vibrant, growing, modernizing quickly. We had a lot of people tell us HCMC is the least interesting place in Vietnam, so that’s what we’d axed, and while I don’t totally regret our choice given our insane time constraints, I certainly think that’s an unfair categorization. Hanoi and Hoi An definitely have more sites to see, but HCMC strikes me as a place you want to try on for a while.
So how did we deal with our unfortunate lack of time? We ate, of course. First order of business was a beer at Pasteur Street Brewing Company, whose brewers came from Colorado’s Upslope. Really one of the only craft brewers in the country, I think — we looked for craft beer in Hanoi, but didn’t really find it. Solid suds, and a nice pairing menu that included a good crispy fried chicken.
Then we attempted to hit Cho Lon, Saigon’s Chinese market, for lunch, only to find, sadly, that the food stalls had pretty much shut down for the afternoon. Cue another downpour. We wandered through the massive labyrinth of the market, exploring spices and nuts, shoes and kitchenwares, for a little while before bailing into a cab and making good on our goal to eat Mexican food in every country we visit.
Scouring the internet for a promising spot led us to La Fiesta, a Tex-Mex joint that, it turns out, is owned by a native Texan and his Vietnamese wife. Dish authenticity, therefore, was both completely on point yet totally Vietnamified — for example, because it’s hard to get tortilla chips in Saigon, I imagine, La Fiesta made its own, I’m assuming right down to grinding the corn into masa, because the chips in the nachos were oddly thick. The queso, too, had clearly been made not by melting Velveeta, as I’m sure it is in much of Texas, but by making an approximately correct homemade molten cheese sauce. We found this oddly charming — somehow better than if the restaurant had been a by-the-book authentic Tex-Mex experience. Helped that its frozen strawberry margaritas were 100 percent money and on happy hour. I wanted a pitcher — Rob said no because marathon, not sprint.
Our gastro-tour concluded with dinner at Cuc Gach Quan, an appropriate finale. This restaurant is tucked into a colonial mansion, which has been romantically reimagined into a maze of low-lit rooms that look like they walked out of an Anthropologie catalog (and if that means nothing to you, imagine a space built with wall-to-wall lovingly collected artifacts, some creatively repurposed into chandeliers, table dividers, or wallhangings; also, the dishes do not match, and everyone dining there looks like they walked off a movie set — including the French people next to us, some of whom were actually in tuxes and ball gowns). The massive menu offered refined takes on Vietnamese home-cooking, so we dipped into clay pot pork, sautéed morning glory, and fish with lemongrass.
Then we rolled home to our windowless hotel room (last time Rob gets to book the hotel for us — we saved, like, $7 by not having a window) and out to Thailand the next day. More on Thailand in another post or two. I leave you with this photo of Rob in a sweet hat, which, regrettably, he did not buy.