Thursday, March 31, 2011


My initial days back in Los Angeles, post my month long jaunt to Southeast Asia, I can only see the excess in America.  Waste seems to be everywhere, not like in the streets of Vietnam where trash was strewn on the road, but in how much money is squandered.  Last night I met a friend for dinner at a casual neighborhood restaurant and ordered a bowl of lentil soup.  The portion size was humongous.  Seriously, six people could have been served a normal portion from my dish and there still would have been some left over.  After two spoonfuls, I was disappointed.  It was tasty, but lukewarm so I asked the waiter to reheat it.   Instead of taking my massive bowl and nuking it, he brought me a new entree.  As if I was still in a country where English wasn't the primary language I tried to explain that I didn't want a new serving, just a hotter one, but it was too late. The bowls were switched, my first one most likely headed for the garbage disposal.  I flashed on a particular afternoon in Cambodia.  After shopping in the Russian market, LN ordered banh xeo, a savory pork and shrimp pancake, from an outdoor street stall.  We were about to leave the table, her unfinished portion barely out of her hands, when a guy scooped in to eat the leftovers before they landed in the trash receptacle.  I was both repulsed and in awe as I watched his dirty, bony fingers dip the omelet in nuoc cham and savor his first bite.  The lentil soup episode was followed by going to see one of my favorite bands, The Kin, at a showcase in West Hollywood.  We were only in the parking structure of Soho House, a members only club, and I already felt like a foreigner among the throngs of girls in impossibly high heals and guys trying to look cool in black jackets and sneakers.  We were escorted to the penthouse by a guy from the record label, and then led down several long, narrow hallways painted the color of the sea on a moody overcast morning.  Finally, a door opened and we were led into a large chic room with a thirty foot wooden bar on one side, and expansive floor to ceiling windows with views of the twinkling city on the other.  The bar was open, the crowd young and hip.  Luxurious, understated comfort dripping from every corner.  Waldo Fernandez, the interior designer, has described the hangout as old Hollywood glamour with allusions to an English gentleman's club.  At 11:30 we were escorted, again, into a state of the art screening room, with plush red velvet chairs and ottomans.  Driving home, passing expensive, shiny cars I thought, what an odd looking recession.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


For those traveling to Southeast Asia in the near future, a list of hotels and restaurants I loved.

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

The Best of Both

The first half of my trip to Southeast Asia was spent with six curious, intelligent, adventurous friends.   Initially we had to get used to the lack of wireless devices for communication, but within a few days we adjusted to showing up in the lobby at a designated time.  I benefited from the groups exponential exploration and enjoyed the inquisitive conversation that ensued at our lively meals.  We laughed as we walked the steamy streets shaking our heads, sharing many "we're not in Kansas" moments.  I delighted in going with the flow of decision making, and letting others try to explain to the tuk tuk driver where we were trying to go.

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


I documented my thirty days on the road, traveling to three distinctive countries in Southeast Asia, with my camera.  But there were experiences, excursions for the other senses which photos could not transmit, like being greeted in Bangkok by familiar acrid fumes and sticky morning heat.  Noise was everywhere, and difficult to escape, especially in the cities where the cacophony from the traffic became a soundtrack.  Popular modes of transportation varied -- bicycles and tuk tuks common in Cambodia, whereas Vietnam was all about the motorcycle and cyclo -- as did the sound of their tooting bells.  I was partial to the echoing horns in Hanoi, a much more pleasant, less abrasive sound.  I loved the deafening buzz of cicadas on the roads of Angkor Wat, monks chanting in Cambodia, gongs ringing in Vietnam.  Although I preferred to travel in silence with a good book, bus drivers in Vietnam liked to play indistinguishable pop ballads.  In Cambodia, the streets were fragrant from freshly cut pineapples at vendors' stalls, bouquets of plumeria and frangipani, and burning incense honoring Buddha and Vishna in makeshift wire holders hugging tree trunks.  One turn down a street with dried, salted fish for sale and the perfumed scent was replaced with a repugnant odor.  In Vietnam, the aroma from cauldrons of pho and pots of deep fried dough tricked my stomach into thinking it was lunchtime, 24/7.  Laws containing smokers to designated areas have not yet reached this part of the globe, thus cigarette fumes were everywhere -- expensive restaurants, buses, trains, hotel corridors, bars. Mixed with the traffic pollution the air often burned my lungs.  Prior to this trip I thought face masks were an accessory in Asia. I now comprehend they're a necessity.  I couldn't shake the minor cold I caught in Cambodia until I escaped to the clean mountains in Vietnam.  This region is plagued with respiratory disorders evident from the prevalent sound of bronchial coughs, sneezing and phlegm spitting.   I did my best to ignore the filth on the street -- a combination of daily life mixed with scraps from a food stall, hair trimmings from a barber, piss from grown men and little boys, sludge from greasy dishes, and bones from a devoured pig.  As the days from my trip recede I will always remember the Thais for their massages and tom yum goong, the Cambodians for their smiles and generosity, and the Vietnamese for their glorious fields and coastline.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Let It Be

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. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hanoi Extremes

Hanoi is chaotic, noisy and dirty, yet hidden in the litter strewn streets are boutiques, sophisticated restaurants and remnants of French colonialism infusing the ancient city with large doses of charm.


Upon arriving in Sapa I stopped at a storefront advertising guided tours to the local villages. I booked a two day trek, leaving the following morning with a homestay in Lao Chai village.  The details, where we going, how many miles we were trekking, and how many others were in the group, were murky, but I was unconcerned.  The urban centers intrigue me, but it's the mountainous regions, fertile from the rivers that weave through their basins, that make my heart flutter.  I crave being lost on a trail, in the middle of nowhere, as far from modern life as possible.  Given the recent unseasonal snow and rain in Sapa, we were fortunate with a warm, sunny day.  Terraced fields carved into the hillside were dotted with men, women and children hoeing the land planting corn, cabbage, and roses.  Rice will be planted in May and harvested in August.   Words, nor photos, can express the natural splendor of this region.  I had found my bliss.  Our group was small, three in total,  Chatelle, from New Zealand and Nicolas from Singapore, the latter along for only the day trek.  In the late afternoon we stopped in Lao Chai for the night.  We meandered down a path through the rice paddies to the river, and sat on the banks aware of our good fortune.  From the fields we heard children playing, and soon lanky adolescent bodies covered in mud were squealing towards the water.  A class of eighth graders from a private school in Seattle were traveling in Vietnam for the month.  Their task on this leg of the trip, to help the locals turn over the soil, turned into a zealous mud fight.  I admired their spirit and wondered about the impact this experience would have on their lives.  One boy, Jimmy, was in the midst of deciding where to attend high school in the fall.  He said the trip to Vietnam had changed, made him more independent, and consequently made him think differently about his future education.  Back at the homestay, Chatelle and I drank local fruit wine reminiscent of cheap port and played pool.  We were joined by four girls from Hong Kong and a couple from Isreal, Noa and Ami, whom I had encountered twice before in Sapa.  They were looking for a place for the night, and I recommended our accommodations.  We all crowded into the kitchen to help our hosts make spring rolls for dinner.  The meal was a feast -- fried potatoes, soup, sauteed greens and cabbage, spring rolls, pork and beef.  We devoured every morsel.  The four of us remained on the porch talking about our various transitional situations -- Chatelle is embarking on a year in Nepal teaching English.  Ami and Noa, recently married will soon complete their five month trip and return to Isreal.  Having completed nine years in the army Ami will begin looking for a job in the civil work force.  As the orange super moon rose in the east, we discussed many topics -- the purpose of American war in Vietnam, day to day life in Israel, career choices, Purim, travel, and relationships.  The conversation was easy, convivial as if we were old friends.  It's this interaction with people from so many diverse backgrounds that makes me love to travel.  My exposure to the world isn't just through the prism of the country I'm visiting, but through the myriad life experiences of those I meet along the way.  By 10pm we were asleep.  Morning came early when the roosters started to crow and we prepared for our trek to Ta Van village.  Another perfect day.

The Children of Vietnam

Monday, March 21, 2011


Arriving in the Northern Vietnamese mountain town Sapa I'm swarmed by women in traditional black leggings, cloth shirt dresses, brightly colored scarves wrapped around their heads and heavy silver hoops in their ears.  A girl of 23 who looked closer to 13 with a baby, her baby, swathed to her back pleasantly asked me "What's your name, where are from, are you married, do you have children?"  A run on list of rote questions.  The H'mong women are industrious and engage tourists for one purpose, to sell them hand woven belts, bags, and pillow covers stored in the baskets they wear like backpacks.  In town, they followed me through out the day, waiting as I shopped or dined and then went in for the sell, "Buy something from me, my friend. I like this, I made this, buy from me."  They even trekked with us offering a hand down the the muddy terrain, to the nearby village.  Unfortunately, their companionship came with an awkward price.  In the end, they expected us to buy their wares, and strutted away annoyed if we didn't.  The H'mong girls are encouraged to marry at fifteen, as soon as they've completed secondary school, and start having children soon after.  In conversation I learned their husbands tend to be farmers, harvesting crops for them to eat, not sell, or unemployed.  The women are often the breadwinners, dependent on the money earned from hassling tourists.  I was sympathetic, yet quickly grew weary of their tactics especially when "no, thank you" had no impact on their relentless badgering.  I found myself disengaging and wishing they wouldn't walk with me on the trails.  I turned my eyes away when they started to pull items out of their baskets.   I commend their desire to make money and support their families, but I wonder if there's a better way for them to sustain an income.