Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Four Points Sheraton (Bangkok, Thailand) – great location, a stone’s throw from the Asok Sky Train Station on Sukhumvit. Newly opened, clean, spacious, comfortable rooms. Great rooftop bar and pool.
Karavansara (Siem Reap, Cambodia) – fantastic boutique hotel in Siem Reap across the bridge from the heart of town. Quiet, stylish, two rooftop pools, fresh juices, good restaurant, happy hour, comfy rooms and service with a smile.
Ha An Hotel (Hoi An, Vietnam) – charming, French colonial boutique hotel off the main drag. Large courtyard with pool table and hammocks. Free bikes, okay food.
La Residence (Hue, Vietnam) – old French Governor’s mansion. Elegant, art deco interior, luxurious rooms, two pools, fantastic restaurant.
Conifer Hotel (Hanoi, Vietnam) – in the shadow of the Opera House on a quiet side street. Small, charming, extremely comfortable beds
Maison D'hanoi Hanova Hotel (Hanoi, Vietnam) – Conifer’s sister hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter. Slightly more expensive, slightly more stylish. Finally a down pillow! Great rooms, but ventilation was lacking. I’d still stay there again.
Sapa Rooms (Sapa, Vietnam) – My favorite place I didn’t stay. Hotel was booked, but I ate three meals in the restaurant, and chatted with the owner who was kind enough to store my suitcase when I went trekking. Hotel/restaurant employs street kids. Owner has set up several charities committed to educating and employing locals from the village tribes. The hotel oozes style, comfort, and indigenous flavor.
Bo.lan (Bangkok, Thailand) – one of the most memorable dining experiences in my life. Nine of us feasted on the tasting menu. Ohs and ahs all night. Food was inventive, inspiring, thoughtful. Worth every baht. Wish it wasn’t so far away. (first and fourth photos)
Le Malraux (Siem Reap, Cambodia) - French/Khmer fusion. So good we dined there two nights in a row. Loved the amok, gazpacho and mango/shrimp salad.
Romdeng (Phnom Penh, Cambodia) A Friends International restaurant where all employees are street kids. This gem, housed in a French colonial oasis with a wonderful outdoor courtyard, serves fresh Khmer dishes. Service was impeccable.
Friends International (Phnom Penh, Cambodia) – Romdeng’s sister restaurant. Food just as wonderful, atmosphere more casual.
Chinese House (Phnom Penh, Cambodia) – Art gallery/lounge recently transformed into a restaurant in an original historic house in the French quarter. Sophisticated dining experience, wonderful space, quality food.
Temple Club (Saigon, Vietnam) – Old Chinese temple converted into a traditional Vietnamese restaurant. Hip atmosphere, yummy food.
Mango Rooms (Hoi An, Vietnam) – Vietnamese with a California twist. Inventive menu, surprising combinations, delicious results. Bright, cheery restaurant on the waterfront.
Minh Vinh (Khoi Phuoc Trach – Phuong Cua Dai, Hoi An, Vietnam) – Fresh, fresh seafood served in this back alley, local restaurant. Not a tourist in site. I dined like a queen on clams, prawns, snapper and squid for $12. Fantastic!
Madame Hien (Hanoi, Vietnam) – I stumbled upon this restaurant simply seeking shelter from the rain and was immediately charmed. Designed by the same architect as the Hanoi Opera house and once the location of the Spanish Embassy the restaurant’s beauty was on par with the excellent food. Celebrated French chef Didier Corlou has won awards and accolades for this traditional Vietnamese restaurant, an homage to his wife's grandmother. I went back three times to sample more of the menu. Loved the local specialty grilled fish cha ca, banana flower salad, prawn soup, and heavenly fresh egg noodles. (second and third photos)
Sapa Rooms (Sapa, Vietnam) – the restaurant in the lobby of this boutique hotel serves local, whole, organic Vietnamese and fusion dishes. Employees are all street kids. Warm and cozy environment, delicious food (ate three meals here), fresh juices and mouth watering fresh baked breads, muffins and cakes
Monday, March 28, 2011
An added bonus was sharing this experience with my cousin LN, and getting to know her as an adult. We come from a small east coast Italian family and share a deep familial connection, but have not spent a lot of time together. In January, over dinner in Hoboken I told her about the trip my brother and I were taking, her eyes lit up, and within days she had purchased a round trip ticket to Bangkok. Although just beginning to explore the world beyond her backyard, LN was a fearless, easy going, competent traveler. Her sense of adventure enhanced the group dynamic, as did her ability to divide the dinner bill each evening. And her adeptness at taming wild curls in high humidity, invaluable! While we were at the genocide museum in Cambodia I split my big toenail on a metal divider. I completed the exhibit, but knew I needed some first aid. On our way back to the hotel LN said she wanted to stay with Mr. Jed, our tuk tuk driver, and go to the firing range outside of town. "Have fun", I said only later contemplating what I would tell her parents if something went awry. A few hours later LN came back, lit up like a Christmas tree, sharing video of her and Mr. Jed shooting AK47s. Mr. Jed, whom she treated to the experience, said it was the best day of his life.
The second half of my trip was spent alone, traveling the length of Vietnam from the Mekong to the mountains of Sapa. Being solo made it easier to engage with others, and my trip was greatly enhanced by the conversations I had with locals and foreigners. At the temple My Son outside of Hoi An, I met an Israeli couple. The woman, whose name currently escapes me, and I were living parallel lives. We were both a year and half into a hiatus from the corporate world. Our desire for something different and our philosophical outlook were so similar it was eerie. In airport lounges, on buses, and in restaurants I never longed for companionship. It was always there if I wanted it. I value my independence, and my ability to navigate foreign lands with comfort and proficiency. This experience gives me more conviction and strength to stay on the path when I return home.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Friday, March 25, 2011
Notions of life back in Los Angeles crept into my though patterns as I cruised Ha Long Bay in a wooden junk with eight other tourists. We left misty Hanoi early to travel four hours to the World Heritage site. We set sail in the bay in the South China Sea, immediately surrounded by thousands of limestone islands. Very few are inhabited, but all are majestic. I imagined them bathed in light like the many photos I saw in guidebooks. I imagined being warm as I sat on the soggy chaise on the upper deck. We docked to explore a cave, climbed cliffs to view a lagoon, and wandered through a garden of lychees and pineapples. I chatted with two friends from Devon and a couple from Belgium. The brother and sister and couple from Paris were more difficult to engage. Back on board we sought heat in our individual cabins. No sunset, no moon. We passed the evening hours in layers of fleece, dining and sharing travel stories. We rose to another gray day, breakfast followed by kayaking in the nearby inlets. We paddled to a quiet cove. Our guide fiddled with his smart phone and broke the silence with The Beatles LET IT BE. We sang. I laughed. The rest of the day was spent en route, to the dock, to the bus, to the rest stop, to Hanoi. I felt like one of the herd, on the beaten track, escorted to the natural wonder for a brief glimpse. A lot of traveling and sitting for a very brief encounter with a must see attraction.