Grannies and Greeks

We’re a bit delayed with this last post, due to the … unpleasantness. But, better late than never!

Although technically our flight home was on Monday, it was very early in the morning, so Sunday was our last real day in Italy. We knew we had to be in Rome around 10pm to return the rental car, but the rest of the day was up for grabs.

Atrani has a couple different bars, which we’d been working our way through the previous mornings. The first bar we visited had excellent pastries, but a barista who wasn’t too interested in chatting. The second bar had so-so pastries, but a very friendly barista who told us all about town. For our last morning in Atrani, we did the obvious thing: went to both of them. Fully caffeinated and pastryified, we cleaned up our apartment and said goodbye. We put our bags in the rental, and then set out for a hike.

Our destination was Ravello, a hilltop town about 1000 feet above Atrani. Ravello has long been a destination for artists and musicians, and is a popular tourist stop. Kat had been there with her sister Caroline on their previous visit, and we wanted to return.

The hike involved a steady climb out of Atrani on a very nice path. We got to watch the goings-on of the valley – some men coaxing a three wheeled Piaggio Ape up a very steep incline, people tending to their gardens and checking their lemon trees, and sheep and horses clinging to very steep hillsides.

We made it to Ravello right as church was letting out, and the town was congregating in the main piazza. We had a coffee and a zeppole with the rest of the crowd. Fun fact, which we learned later in the day: zeppole are specifically made for St. Joseph’s Day, which is March 19th.

Our true goal in Ravello was to find the restaurant Kat ate at on her last visit. She had a vague memory of the interior, but no real sense of where it was in town. We wandered for a while, before turning to technology to study interior photos on tripadvisor. That helped us narrow it down, and when we finally poked a head in, Kat instantly knew we were at the right place. It’s a small restaurant run by a grandmother, her son, and a variety of other family members. We arrived right as some members of the extended family were arriving for their Sunday lunch. Because if grandma runs a restaurant, you go to grandma’s restaurant for lunch instead of grandma’s house.

We were handed some menus (handwritten of course) but then granny came out to say “If you’d like, I can just make you some plates of the things I made today for us.” So uhh, yeah. We did that. She brought us some prosciutto and homemade bread, and then some lasagna, cannelloni, and some other delicious-but-unknown item. When we’d cleaned our plates, she was concerned and asked if she could get us seconds. Completely stuffed, we didn’t have room for dessert, but she made us eat another zeppole anyways. In short, this was a pretty awesome meal.

Waddling out, we made our way down the hill and back to Atrani. With so-so weather, and a number of hours to kill, we decided to hop in the car for an excursion before heading back to Rome. Our destination was Paestum, a Roman/Greek city on the coast.

Paestum was founded by the Greeks about 2500 years ago, and then taken over by the Romans a few hundred years later. The Romans left the Greek temples and tombs untouched. It’s a really large site, in amazing condition. Visitors are free to just wander. For the locals, it’s a place to come for a picnic and a gelato, and to relax on a sunny Sunday. It’s basically the way the we treat Fort Snelling, except instead of a 1970s recreation of an 1820s fort, it’s a complete 2500 year old city.

Because it was a Sunday (we presume) there were also historical reenactors on site. We watched a gladiator battle, and then got to walk through the forum and visit the different shops. A nice Italian teenager helped translate for us, so that we could learn about the Roman medical instruments and games.

With one final gelato under our bulging belts, we hopped in the car and headed back to Rome, for a near-perfect* end to a completely wonderful trip.


Like unbelievable. But with Napoli in the middle. Get it? ‘Cause today we went to Napoli? Get it?

Today we went to Napoli! The city gets a bad rap, but it was hard to see anything negative about it – it’s got just the right amount of chaos and grit to make it lovable.

Our primary reason for going to Naples was to see all of the stuff that was removed from Pompeii by various Kings and nobility. Everything from the mosaics and frescoes, to the random household goods recovered during the excavation can now be found in the National Archaeological Museum.

We parked our car in the outskirts of town, and then walked to the museum. En route, we picked up a couple locally-famous pastries – a Zeppole and a “biscotti” (more of a brownie). We also stumbled on a big street market, so we diverted to explore that a bit more. While we chose not to load up our pockets with snails, we were in love with the huge amount of items on offer, from clams and squid to iPhone cases and jean jackets. One stop shopping.

We finally made it to the museum around 11, and followed the Rick Steves tour. While it’s a shame that the Pompeii artifacts can’t be seen in situ, it’s fantastic to be able to get your face right up against them. Kat was blown away by the intricacy of the mosaics, with their impossibly tiny tiles. Standing face-to-face with life-size bronze statues with inlaid eyes is a bit chilling. And the “Secret Cabinet” (the room of sexy stuff) was full of things that you can’t show on TV (but which, apparently, doesn’t disqualify one from being president).

By the time we were finished with the tour, we were pretty hungry. Given that this was our only meal in Naples, pizza was in order. We walked a few blocks to Starita, which came highly recommended (by the internet). We weren’t disappointed – we had an artichoke pizza (artichoke cream and whole pieces) and a margherita with prosciutto and fungi. The dough was just amazing – so chewy and full of flavor at the edges, impossibly thin in the middle. We devoured our pizzas in the blink of an eye.

Feeling contended (and a bit round), some walking was in order. We followed the Rick Steves walking tour of Naples, which bounces through the main shopping district, the Spanish quarter, the harbor front, and the oldest streets in town. Naples has one of the most intact Roman street plans of city in Europe, which means lots of delightful, winding, tiny lanes. It was a gorgeous Saturday, so the whole city was out shopping, running errands, and showing off.

Along the walk, we were entertained by copious amounts of street art. While plenty of it is just tags, there are some really great pieces mixed in. We even found the work of one of our favorite street artists we discovered in Florence, Exit Enter.

At one point, walking down Spaccanapoli, we saw a sign advertising metalwork. We followed the sign, and came upon a jewelry studio with the artist working inside. Kat found a volcano ring that she couldn’t resist. The artist was thrilled to meet us, and was very impressed that we decided to come to Naples on such a short trip.

We made the necessary stops for a hot sfogliatella, some gelato, and numerous coffees. As the afternoon drew to a close, we returned to the car for the trip to Atrani. While we knew Naples would be fun, we were surprised by just how much we liked it. It’s a city we’d like to spend a lot more time in.

Our drive home included some gorgeous views of a cloud-ringed Vesuvius. We hit the southern side of the mountains as the sun was setting, and found ourselves encased in a cloud of our own. It was spooky and a little treacherous. We made it home safe and sound though. For dinner, we popped over to Amalfi and wandered up a back alley for some delightful pasta and anchovies at a tiny restaurant.

Tomorrow is our last day in Italy, and ends with us in Rome. What happens in between is yet to be determined – we’ll see where the day takes us!

Pompeii and Circumstances

We seem to have found ourselves in Italy. An absurdly cheap airfare deal got us to Rome. From there, a google search result for “cutest villages on the Amalfi coast” got us to Atrani, admittedly a very cute village indeed. We’re staying in a rather over-specced Airbnb, which is spread over multiple levels, including three different rooftop terraces. One imagines that in the high season, this place is pretty spendy. Fortunately, it’s the off-season, and everything is absurdly cheap.

We arrived in Atrani Thursday afternoon, and spent the afternoon and evening wandering around the beachfront, fighting jetlag. Atrani is a short walk from Amalfi Town, which is larger and more feature-rich. En route to finding overnight parking, we discovered the large impressive modern pedestrian tunnel that connects the towns. We wandered over to Amalfi and poked around the town.

We walked “up” (away from the sea) until we came upon the Museo della Carta (the paper museum). The paper museum is on the site of the (claimed) oldest paper mill in Europe, which was founded in the 13th century. It’s entirely underground, and powered by water running down the valley. Our tour guide (we were the only visitors) showed us how the original paper-making process worked, using knives that pounded and smashed cloth to make a pulp. Kat made some paper out of recycled cotton fibers. We also saw later paper-making technologies, imported from elsewhere in Europe. Amazingly, this mill was in operation through the 1960s. We were surprised by how much of the centuries-old equipment still runs.

We kept wandering up the valley, and eventually ran out of town. A set of stairs kept going up though, so we followed. In town, you can hear water running below the street. Leaving town, you can see the stream running above ground. Further up the valley, we came upon the ruins of an old paper mill, which straddled the stream to drive the machinery. The ruins were ghostly and scenic but eventually, the path became impassable, so we turned around.

We made our way back to Atrani via the original set of tunneled staircases, and stopped into a small restaurant for some local fish and pasta. By this point, we were both quite loopy, having been up for roughly 40 hours. We wanted to stay for a more extensive meal, but we were barely staying awake, so we cut dinner short and plopped into bed.

Friday morning, well rested, we woke up ready to seize the day. A few espressos and pastries, some fruit from the fruit and vegetable truck, and then it was into the car for the drive to Pompeii. Any trip in or out of Atrani involves an hour long (but only ~15km) drive through the mountains, consisting of constant switchbacks on very narrow roads. Perfect roads for an Alfa Romeo, but also pretty intense. In the morning light the landslide deposits and lemon tree terraces were much more visible than they had been the day before.

At Pompeii, we basically had the place to ourselves. Another benefit of low-season travel. We followed the tour from our Rick Steves book, poking into houses and wandering the empty streets. Kat had visited a few years ago with the family in the high heat of the summer. Today it was sunny and cool – absolutely perfect.

A highlight of the visit was the opening of the House of Vettii. This home contains some of the best preserved frescoes in Pompeii. Yet again, we had the place to ourselves and the art was stunning. Kat was equally intrigued by the building materials of the walls. A mix of volcanic rocks and ‘limestone’ which appear to include fossilized marsh reeds. Colin admired the lead pipe plumbing and the intricate architecture of the bath systems around the city.

We took advantage of the on-site cafeteria for a morning coffee and again for a quick lunch. There were a few tour groups wandering around – some older Germans, some young Italians, and a couple Chinese groups. But just to reiterate: a 60 degree spring day appears to be about the best possible case for visiting Pompeii.

After leaving Pompeii, we drove to Vesuvius. Our guidebook claimed we could drive to a parking lot near the top, and then walk from there. Reality was a bit different – the parking was a further 1 or 1.5km down the mountain, so we had quite a climb. The tour busses can drive up, but folks in cars can’t. The payoff was reaching the top though, and getting to see into the crater. Thankfully lava tubes and other interesting formations dot the mountainside along the climb up. It doesn’t hurt to grab a walking ice cream either.

The steep walls of the crater of the volcano allow you to peer through time into the long history of volcanism at Vesuvius. The only remnants of the 79 AD eruption that buried Pompeii is some light dusting on the north rim across from the pedestrian path. Most of the remaining structure that survived the famous eruption consists of much older deposits. Geologic monitoring stations dot the crater rim and are clustered around the active fumaroles on the south slope.

The journey down Vesuvius was much quicker than the journey up. We were not tempted to stop at the lines of stands selling fake ‘lava’ rocks. We tried our best to make it to Herculaneum after Vesuvius, but we were too late – even though the site is open until 5, they don’t allow new visitors in after 3:30. Bummer. We drove back to Atrani, chasing an enthusiastic Lancia Delta up the mountain. A highlight of the drive was rounding a corner to discover a herd of goats, with their corgi sheep dog and shepards. We let them pass, then continued on our way. Dinner was another local restaurant – just a few tables, and one very friendly waiter.

Tomorrow: Napoli!

Dodging Mario on the way to a date with some owls

Today was our chance to get a quick glimpse of Tokyo before heading home to Minnesota. Tokyo being impossibly overwhelming, we chose to focus on what is, perhaps, its core feature: animal cafes.

After a perfectly pleasant night at our hotel, and a delightfully random breakfast (we didn’t wear our PJs), we set out for the Akihabara district. For Colin, this was a walk down memory lane. In the 1990s, Akihabara was synonymous with all the most exciting things happening in the hardcore PC nerd space. Whenever a new Intel chip or graphics card would ship, it’d show up first in a bin in Akihabara – often before it was even officially available. Nowadays, the markets in Shenzhen have largely supplanted that, but Akihabara retains the technology-focus.

Our walk to Akihabara took us past Yasukuni Jinja Shinto shrine and the Kitanomaru National Garden. We walked down alleys and big streets, and enjoyed the quiet, calm, and cleanliness of Tokyo.

Upon reaching Akihabara two go karts drove by – one driven by Mario, one by Pikachu. Just a normal morning in Akihabara. We popped into Mister Donut to test out Japanese donuts – almost funnel-cake like. We explored some of the multistory department stores of the neighborhood, overwhelmed with the audio and visual experience. Then it was time for our appointment at the Owl Cafe.

The Owl Cafe is not a typical Cafe, insofar as it doesn’t serve food or beverages. But, “Expensive room full of owls” wouldn’t have the same ring. After some instruction about keeping quiet and moving slowly, we were let in, along with 3 other couples. Apparently one doesn’t go to the owl cafe solo. During our allotted hour, we were allowed to (very very gently) pet owls, look at owls, hold owls, and have our photo taken with owls. This was a substantially more exciting hour for one member of our pair than the other.

The owls are gorgeous. Each sits in front of a card with his or her name and species. They range from cute little baseball-sized guys up through “hey, has anyone seen the dog?” sized. The owls are handled by professional handlers who seat you quietly and then bring you an owl of your choice – provided that the owl isn’t having ‘sleepy time’ marked by a pink sticker above their name tag. Kat was nervous that this experience would feel uncomfortably unethical but the professionalism of the operation was impressive. One does not simply run into the room full of owls and start poking them. We were each allowed to interact with two owls over the period of an hour. Colin picked an extremely active owl who was feeling adventurous, so after his first owl-on-head experience, opted to photograph Kat’s owl snuggling session. Both of Kat’s owls were relaxed and snoozy. The second one, a juvenile spotted wood owl was comfortable enough to stand on one leg and preen himself while she watched. The handler was pleased with how comfortable the owl was, so he gently rubbed the owl’s wings on kat’s nose before he took him away squee

After our hour at the owl cafe, we walked around the corner to the rabbit cafe. No reservation needed there (rabbits are far less sensitive than owls) – just decide how long you want to stay, and then hang out with some bunnies and feed them snacks. The bunnies are in play enclosures with their bond mates – usually sisters. Most of them were holland lops (like Toba) with one lion head. They were young rabbits, probably all less than a year and were all extremely active and comfortable with people. Spoiled rotten actually. They immediately jumped into our laps and climbed all over us looking for treats.

Having accomplished our two primary missions for the day, there was only one thing left to do – eat some ramen. We plotted a course for a well reviewed shop in the neighborhood, and were not disappointed. Once we figured out the system – buy a ticket for the type of ramen you want from a machine, then sit at the counter with your ticket – we dove in. It was exactly what you’d want for ramen experience – one counter, people slurping silently, delicious food, no nonsense. We were in and out in fifteen minutes, and on our way to the airport. We managed to have perfect timing – there was a line of businessmen waiting outside when we left.

So that’s the trip. We’re a few minutes from Minneapolis now, beginning our descent. Our return home was delayed a bit by a volcanic eruption in the Aleutian Islands – a new reason for a delay for us. Our flight plan was diverted south and Kat thinks it might have been due to a volcano called Bogoslof.

We’ll have some bigger thoughts about the trip in a future post. For now, we just want to bail the dog out of jail and catch up on life.

Early Morning Plans: 0, Comfy Bed: 1

Today was another travel day. We woke up in Kuala Lumpur and ended the day in Tokyo.

We had intended to rise early and explore the city but ended up getting a late start on account of our fancy bed and gorgeous view. We caught an Uber to a breakfast spot in one of the oldest apartment buildings in KL. We were not sure we were at the correct spot, but after a walk around the block we figured it out. Colin ordered us the special – eggs over roti canai with some chili sauce. We washed it down with some hot tea tarik, then headed out over a footbridge covered in pigeons to explore the neighborhood en route to our next meal.

Determined to try new things, we set off for ICC Pudu , a newly built indoor market that offered some food we hadn’t had before. The complex is still under construction and everything is well lit and clean. We headed to the back of the space to find chee cheong fun, which is a mix of many delicious things served over big rice noodles with mystery sauces.

Bursting from breakfast and brunch, we called an Uber to take us back to the airport. The highlight of the next flight was getting to try a 787 for the first time. We dutifully dimmed and undimmed the magic windows and ooo’d and aaa’d at the quiet and comfort. As an added bonus, we got to Tokyo about half an hour early. We slimmed down our bags and left most of our luggage at the airport. Our Uber driver took us on the scenic route over the rainbow bridge so Kat could get a nice view of the Tokyo tower at night.

After checking in, we went upstairs to our room to begin the fun adventure of “what does this button do?”. Japanese technology is delightful and we both enjoyed figuring out the ins and outs of our tiny room. The hotel provides one size fits all PJs as well as all toiletries for the travel-light business-types. There is a box in the lobby full of little lotions, hairbands, brushes, loofas, hair clips and fancy shampoos. Women are invited to pick 5 items for themselves (sorry guys, no goodies for you). Since one does not wear shoes into the sleeping part of the room, slippers are provided as well. In the elevator it is noted that slippers and PJs are not appropriate attire for the breakfast room.

Exploration complete, we headed out to the local corner store to pick up some snacks before bed. Now it’s time to sleep so we can get up early (for real this time!) and check out Tokyo.

3 cities, 2 countries, 1 sadness

Today was mostly a travel day, but not entirely. We got moving very early and were out of the hotel by 6. The very kind hotel staff packed us a breakfast to eat in the car. The Hue airport is a very low-key place, so we settled in to wait for our flight.

Originally, we’d been planning to just stay at the Ho Chi Minh airport during our roughly 6 hour layover. But, we weren’t quite done with Vietnam, so we dropped our bigger bags at left luggage and took an Uber in to the city. More specifically, we took the Uber to the War Remnants Museum. It seemed like the right place to start for Kat, on her first visit to HCMC.

We got a snack banh mi outside, took a few deep breaths and then went in. The museum is a low tech affair – mostly photographs and captions covering the walls. The galleries have names like “the truth”, “war crimes”, and “agent orange”. It’s a powerful and emotional reminder about what can happen when our leaders systematically dehumanize entire populations in the name of personal gain. Its a heartbreaking experience.

After stepping out of the museum into the sunshine, we found our footing and one last bowl of noodle soup at the side of the road. Then we took an Uber back to the airport.

Landing in Kuala Lumpur, the world was instantly less chaotic and more comfortable. The noise and excitement of Vietnam is exhilarating but fatiguing. KL is “Asia light” – easy, calm, modern. We again left our big bags at the airport, and took a car into the city. We’re staying in the heart of the city – the same place we were last year. We have a habit of gushing about our love of Malaysia to anyone who asks. This time, our gushing about our favorite foods resulted in a fancy room upgrade on the top floor of the hotel.

We dropped our bags, and set out for dinner. We were determined to try somewhere new, so we went to Wai Sec Kai, a two block food street about 2 kilometers south of our hotel. As is typical of our time in Malaysia, we had an extended conversation about whether we really had to stick to just one dinner each – in the end, we settled on Tai Bu Mee, Char Kuay Kak, and an amazing samosa bursting with tamarind.

Tomorrow, we’ll get up early to maximize our limited time in the city, before we head on to Tokyo and then home.

Paws and Pagodas

Last night we scoped out some breakfast options down the street from the hotel. We woke up ready for some Bun Bo Hue. The spot was packed with locals and the soup did not disappoint. Fueled up, we headed back to our hotel for coffee, fruit and day planning.

Unfortunately, Kat sat on her glasses, so we had a new pre-site seeing mission. Our hotel gave us directions to an optical shop a few blocks away. The owner had apparently stepped out for the day, leaving the young sales girl with no technician. We were off again. We walked another mile, then decided to check in with a different hotel receptionist. Highlighted map in hand, we continued our quest. Finally we arrived at our destination. The man behind the counter took the broken glasses to his bench while we watched his toddler slowly transfer toothpicks from one container to another. He was adorable and full of giggles. All fixed and polished up, the glasses were handed back with no charge!

Buzzing from the kind generosity, we hailed a cab to head south along the Perfume River to check out the imperial mausoleums – Hue’s big attractions. Emperors has the mausoleums built to their particular tastes and styles. Some served as country palaces while the emperors were alive. The sites are also reflections of both the wars, and the climate – nature is trying hard to reclaim these buildings, despite them being little more than 100 years old.

Our first stop was Minh Manu’s Mausoleum on the north side of the river. Our taxi driver waited for us in the lot while we wound our way up a path toward the site. There were marvelous chickens parading around the path and Kat desperately wanted to pet them. This first site was fairly empty of tourists and we enjoyed some biscuits, painting, and reading overlooking the complex. When we arrived back at the lot, our napping taxi driver was ready to take us to the next site.

Khai Dinh’s Mausoleum was inspired by a European castle and the emperor’s infatuation with the French is palpable. Most of the site is built from cement rather than carved stone which has turned black with age and is covered with delightful neon moss. The inside of the mausoleum itself is ornately decorated in tile relief. We enjoyed a view overlooking the grounds while it quietly rained outside. Hungry, we decided to drive back into town for lunch and an ATM.

Lunch was banh khoai, a deep fried pancake with bean sprouts, pate and shrimp. After lunch we found a sunny coffee shop to enjoy milkshakes and some more painting/reading.

Afterward, we hailed a cab south again to Tu Duc’s Mausoleum, the last of our old-dead-king sites for the day. This emperor had reigned the longest, therefore his complex is the most well planned and cohesive. We enjoyed wandering around the secondary tombs and poking around the gardens. The complex has been renovated, and this work continues. The tiles for the courtyards were apparently supplied by canine artisans whose signatures can be seen throughout the site.

From Tu Duc’s Mausoleum we headed north, this time on foot. We wandered down dirt roads and around rice paddies and fancy houses. The back lanes were quite and pleasant. It appears as though some large public works have required the rearrangement of roads since our map was not exactly accurate. Regardless, we enjoyed the wander. It turned out that the road on which we were walking was new – and the cement ahead had just been laid. Thankfully, an elderly gentleman waived us on and indicated that it was set enough for us to walk on.

Our goal was Tu Hieu Pagoda, a site a little off the beaten path that houses an active community of Buddhist monks. We found the graveyard behind the pagoda before we found the site itself. Eventually we wound our way around to the entrance of a park where ponds full of dragonfish happily swarmed for food from local children. We climbed the steps to the temple and enjoyed the quiet gardens.

Eventually we wandered back onto larger streets and hailed a cab to Thien Mu Pagoda on the north shore of the Perfume River. We stopped for a long cargo train to pass and arrived at the pagoda at dusk, just in time for the bats to start swooping. Around the back of the pagoda, young monks were playing a lively game of soccer and a local girl was having an intense selfie session. Super intense.

Drained, we took a cab back toward the city and started looking for dinner. We happened upon a large street market for clothes – and the associated snack stalls. We gobbled up some Korean-style noodles and a fish-shaped waffle before looking for quieter streets and a full meal. A couple blocks away, we found a banh canh stall. It was similar to our dinner from last night, with freshly made noodles, but with an awesome assortment of flavors and textures. There was some pate, some fish, some quail eggs, and pork cracklins, all floating in a bowl of a spicy, herby goodness. It was a great final dinner in Vietnam.

Our last stop for the night was the Big C, a supermarket and department store complex. It was … overwhelming. The first floor is mall-like, with small shops, but the upper floors are all Big C. We only made it through floor 2, the grocery section. It was completely packed, loud organized chaos, like the rest of Vietnam. We got some candy and snacks to bring home, along with a passionfruit, then we were on our way.

We’re all packed up to begin our meandering trek home tomorrow. We’ll spend a chunk of tomorrow in Ho Chi Minh City, and end the day in Kuala Lumpur.

No Hue!

(’cause it’s pronounced “way”. Get it? Super witty)

Catching up on our blog a day late, on account of being dead tired yesterday.

Yesterday morning, we flew from Hanoi to Hue, the old capital of Vietnam, and the scene of multiple intense battles in the war. Hue is about 40 miles south of the DMZ, so we’ve crossed over into “south” Vietnam.

We’re staying at an actual hotel – it’s a nice place with a very friendly staff and a fancy veneer (we can see the sky through holes in the ceiling of the room, which does slightly ruin the effect). After check in, we set out for a wander. The city is dominated by the Citadel which is surrounded by a moat and thick walls and sits on the north side of the Perfume River. Inside the Citadel is both the Imperial City, as well as just normal neighborhoods.

We went north across the river and visited Dong Ba market which spills out onto the riverfront. It’s a large, crowded market, and the stall holders are more aggressive than in Hanoi. We wandered around, but didn’t linger too long.

From the market, we crossed a canal into a smaller residential area, bounded by a curve in the river. We were looking for lunch, but found that we were mostly in among houses. Since Hue doesn’t have the density of Hanoi, there’s not as much (as we would say) mixed retail and residential. This neighborhood was once home to Hue’s Chinese community and there are a number of assembly halls that greatly resemble those we saw in Penang.

By this point, we were eager for lunch, so we crossed back to the market, where we’d seen food stalls. We settled on a busy stall selling bun bo hue. It was very different from other versions of the soup – far fishier and honestly not that great. We later found out it was a stall that Bourdain had eaten at on his recent Parts Unknown episode. I think that marks the third time we’ve accidentally eaten the same place as Bourdain.

After lunch, we loaded up on mixed candy at the market, and then went to the Imperial City. The Imperial City was more or less totally flattened between the wars with the French and the Americans. Walking around, it has the vibe of visiting an ancient archaeological site, with fragments of walls poking out of the ground. Then you realize that just 70 years ago, this was a functioning, gorgeous palace compound.

A few buildings have been rebuilt, many housing coffee shops or gift stores. The few buildings that were left standing are pocked by bullet holes. The narrative content is all pretty rundown and hard to follow, but the site itself is perfect for sitting, watching, and reflecting. Bullet holes are sprayed across walls and craters cover the landscape – all softened by grass and punctuated by arched tiled gateways. Kat did a painting while Colin read, catching fragments of conversations from tourists wandering by.

By mid-afternoon, we were feeling some travel fatigue (it was a very early start in Hanoi). We went to the fancy Highlands Coffee across the street for a fancy iced coffee and a chance to regroup. We’d been a little disappointed about struggling to find an awesome lunch stop, so we turned to the blogosphere for help. Thankfully, we found a great post from Legal Nomads which pointed us in the right direction. We went to Le Thanh Ton Street, not far from the Imperial City (still inside the citadel) and hit the jackpot.

We walked the length of the street, taking in our options. Banh ep and Banh trang trung, both mentioned in the Legal Nomads post, seemed like excellent starter snacks. Banh trang trung is a pizza-like dish made of rice paper grilled over coals with pork, shallots, and a squirt of eggs. Banh ep is cassava flour with filling, sandwiched between iron plates and heated over the coals. It’s got a gummier consistency. We were thrilled.

Our next stop was a stall making some sort of fish-based noodle soup. We had walked past this spot before and made a mental note when we saw the man making rice noodles to order – throwing them right into the bowls. We definitely hit the jackpot on that one – salty, savory, spicy, all perfectly balanced.

We took a slow wander back through the city, along the river, and eventually back to our hotel. We settled down early, and watched the Parts Unknown Hue episode (where we discovered that we’d just shared a meal with Tony) and relaxed for a bit before an early bedtime.

City-wide Pajama Party

Perhaps the best reason to do a boat trip in Ha Long Bay is to get to wake up in Ha Long Bay. It’s a truly magical place. We slept incredibly well and woke up to a gorgeous view.

After breakfast (meh), we spent some time lounging on the rooftop deck watching the tourists do tai chi on the boats around us, before taking the launch to Ti Top island (named after Soviet astronaut Gherman Titov). We hiked to the top of the island for great views all around. There are obviously complicated logistics in Ha Long bay, with agreements about which tour companies can be at a given place at a given time. That means that tourists come in waves. When we got to the top of the island, it was packed with tourists. Kat sat down and started painting, and ten minutes later we nearly had the entire top to ourselves.

We lingered on the island as long as we could, but with the aforementioned schedules, it was quickly time to get back on the boat. We spent the rest of the morning reading and painting on the boat, before having a light lunch (meh) and motoring back to port.

The bus ride back to Hanoi was uneventful, with another stop at the disabled persons handicraft rest stop. Kat watched the men carving the giant sculptures outside and snagged a piece of scrap from the ground that she might someday poke with tools. Back on the bus, we had a good time chatting with our Australian and British bus-mates.

Hanoi has a night market every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. When Colin was here in 2013, the night market was mostly market stalls selling clothing and electronics. It’s changed dramatically since then, and has become much more of a community-focused street festival. Most of the streets around Hoam Kiem become pedestrian only, and the whole community spills into the streets.

We found some noodles for dinner, then wandered happily, watching kids playing, riding hoverboards, dancing, and playing music. Different community groups were running games and other activities. We were able to resist the stalls of cheap clothes and electronics… until we found bookstore street. Kat bought a beautifully painted picture book about space (?) and we continued to wander and watch performances and pedestrians.

The best part is that lots of people, from kids to the elderly, show up wearing their pajamas. If only we had known!

In a city as hectic and dynamic as Hanoi, the respite of a pedestrian-only area is particularly welcomed. It’s a chance for everyone to relax a little bit and let their guard down. Perhaps in a few more years, this part of the city will be pedestrian-only full time, like much of Florence.

Tomorrow we head to Hue. Our time in Hanoi has been wonderful – it’s a loud, chaotic, dynamic, friendly, delicious place, and it gives you a little bit of hope for humanity.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Karstmas

Last night ended up having a surprise twist ending, when Colin drank a glass full of tap water without thinking. He was able to spend the rest of the evening, through morning, contemplating his stupidity. Everyone appreciates an opportunity for reflection and self critique.

Fortunately, through a combination of immodium and not-having-anything-left-inside, we were able to board our bus to Ha Long Bay as planned, around 7:15. The bus wove its way throughout Hanoi picking up the other members of our group – as you’d expect, mostly Australians, with a couple surprise Canadians thrown in.

The ride to Ha Long takes about 4 hours, though it’s only around 80 miles. Traffic and an underdeveloped road network means there’s a lot of poking through towns and stopping to let larger vehicles pass. We made our obligatory stop at the giant souvenir shop. As an added bonus, the shop has a series of long tables set up for embroiders who work while tourists snap photos. The artisans are all disabled in some way, and notionally the sales go to support those communities.

We made it to Ha Long around noon, and boarded our boat, the L’Azalée. The boat has been renovated sometime in the recent past, though it’d be fascinating to know the history of the hull, which is much older. The tour we’re on is pretty structured, but more or less aligned with our interests.

Because everyone getting on a boat is coming from Hanoi, all the boats end up leaving the harbor at about the same time. It’s fun to watch – boats of all shapes and sizes head out into the bay – some just for the day, some for a longer cruise. Once underway, we had lunch (meh) and then had some time to relax.

Mid-afternoon, we took our small launch to one of the islands in the bay to explore the largest cave in the bay. The cave has been extensively modified for tourists – a paved path leads visitors into the smallest of three chambers, then winds its way into the second chamber before reaching the big reveal – the third and largest chamber. The geologic formations are lit up with bright colors for emphasis. Some of the formations are still growing and it would be nice to see the cave during the wet season. The path winds its way up and out of the third chamber and across a newly renovated walkway to our waiting launch.

Our next stop was a floating pearl farm, where we got to see the various steps of commercial oyster farming, as well as (conveniently) shop for pearl jewelry. They showed us the three species of oyster from the farm. The smallest takes 3 years to produce an oyster but the largest can take up to 8-10 years. We were then able to watch a technician implanting live oysters with seeds made from oyster shells and a tiny piece of membrane dissected from another oyster. After that our guide opened an oyster and pulled out a new pearl. At this stop, we also had the chance to do some kayaking, which was a lot of fun. We poked around the nearby low tide rock walls, visited some of the floating pearl farms, and enjoyed the quiet away from the cruise ships.

Returning from the pearl farm, we had time to get cleaned up and relax on the ship. Dinner was a bit comical – somehow, in a country with such an amazing food heritage, they managed to make a dinner straight out of 1960s middle America. It’s not a foodie cruise though, so we’ll just focus on the amazing surroundings!

We didn’t get much sleep last night, due to Colin’s aforementioned bought of self-reflection, so tonight we’ll be turning in early and looking forward to another lovely day on the bay.