Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My Top 7 Vietnamese Food Favorites


We are all very familiar with the Vietnamese beef noodle soup called Pho (pronounced fah, not foe). We've all had it. It is one of the Vietnam's more popular dishes and naturally one of Vietnam's more well-known exports. So let's set that aside for a moment. When I went back to Vietnam last month, I knew that Vietnamese food was one of the things I need to preoccupy myself with. I need to dig deeper than Pho or any of their noodle soups and spring rolls, for that matter. There has got to be a reason why Vietnamese cuisine has been gaining popularity over the recent years.

Just like that, I found a very good excuse to eat. And eat, I did. Some of these dishes I discovered myself by closing my eyes and pointing at the restaurant menus. Some of them, I was introduced to by the wonderful people I met there. Having traveled through the country south to north, I have sampled a bit of what Vietnamese cuisine had to offer and I have narrowed down my seven favorite dishes. Here we go.

Com Tam Bi Suon

Pork with Pork Skin Shavings, Saigon, Vietnam

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal: Preparations


Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal

Introduction. What's where and where's what.
Teahouse Trekking. What makes trekking in Nepal a cheap and easy activity to organize.
Preparations. Organizing the trek: permits, transpo, guides and/or porters, etc.
Things to Bring. Gear, clothes, meds, water, etc.
The Trek: Part 1, Part 2. Tackles the trek, all the highs and lows, literally and figuratively.
Budget. Trekking doesn't have to costs that much.
The Take Away. Lessons learned and what not.
Now that you have been given an introduction to the Himalayas and Nepal as well as to the wonderful concept known as Teahouse Trekking, it's time then that you begin organizing your trek. And by that, I mean organizing your independent trek. Do it your own. No trekking or outdoor agencies involved (essentially, of course). Otherwise, this will be a very short post. The details here will be specific to the Annapurna Himalayas (the trek that we did) and maybe a bit on the Everest Region as well.

This post will deal with five topics in relation to preparing and organizing your trek: securing your permits, booking your transportation, hiring guides and porters, health and conditioning, and a note on responsible trekking. Let's begin.

Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal
Thamel, where all your travel and trekking needs are met

Monday, February 20, 2012

Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal: Teahouse Trekking


Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal

Introduction. What's where and where's what.
Teahouse Trekking. What makes trekking in Nepal a cheap and easy activity to organize.
Preparations. Organizing the trek: permits, transpo, guides and/or porters, etc.
Things to Bring. Gear, clothes, meds, water, etc.
The Trek: Part 1, Part 2. Tackles the trek, all the highs and lows, literally and figuratively.
Budget. Trekking doesn't have to costs that much.
The Take Away. Lessons learned and what not.
What makes trekking in Nepal such an easy and relatively cheap thing to do is a concept known as Teahouse Trekking. Basically, along the more popular trekking trails, such as those in the Everest region or the Annapurna Conservation Area, you will see small villages every hour or so, villages often as old as the trails themselves. Within these villages, there will be number of teahouses, or more accurately, mountain lodges, that offer room and board.

These teahouses are run by local cooperatives, so room rates and food menu options in all the villages in the entire trek are very much a fixed thing. No kidding! They basically photocopy the menu and distribute them in all the lodges in the trail. That is why they discourage bargaining with these kinds of services. You are not getting ripped off because everybody will have the same prices. One thing to note though is that the higher or deeper you go into the trek, prices go up in these lodges, which is understandable, of course. The only way they get all their supplies is through the backs of human porters. Give them their due, I beg of you.

Annapurna Himalayas, Nepal

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Trek to the Annapurna Himalayas in Nepal: Introduction


If somebody were to ask me what would be the highlight of my trip thus far, I would be able to give an answer easy. Our 10 days in the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek was the most grueling, most difficult yet the most enjoyable and most rewarding experience of my life. I would do it again and again and yes, again in a heartbeat. Hell, if you give me enough resources now, I'd hop on the next flight to Kathmandu and return to the country I left my heart in.

Machhapuchhre Base Camp, Nepal
Breathless scenery at the base camp
of Macchhapuchhre (Fishtail Mountain), Nepal

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

That Long-lost Newbie Backpacker Feeling

That day I arrived in Hanoi wasn't my best of days. It was a combination of a lousy hostel experience in Hue, another grueling sleeper bus ride, and a stomach needing regular doses of gastroenteritis meds. It did not help that Hanoi was cold, cloudy and drizzly. I admit. I felt down the next few days. Travel was not exciting anymore. That is one of the effects of long-term travel, I think. Because you are traveling all the time, you lose sense of what is normal and what is usual. And when you lose that sense, nothing is new and exciting anymore. You don't know what's "old," so how do you know what's "new?" I used to relish that feeling, that feeling of being away from your city, your everyday, that fascination for the new place you just arrived into. Now it's gone. Add the fact that I was feeling trapped by my own very well laid-out plans for the next few months and you have yourself a veritable dose of travel fatigue.

Hanoi Old Quarter
Cloud and gloom over Hanoi's Old Quarter

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

India's Monument to Love: The Taj Mahal


It's Valentine's Day today and I thought it appropriate that I time this post today. It was a chilly, smoggy autumn morning in Agra that day. But it did not matter. That's because that day, we were seeing the greatest monument to love ever built by man—the Taj Mahal.

Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Monday, February 6, 2012

How to Prepare Traditional Vietnamese Coffee


It's probably no secret that I love Vietnamese coffee. I think I have written about it at least two times on this blog. I love its very sweet, very bitter and very strong taste. Add the fact that they almost always drink it with ice, then I'm fully and hopelessly sold.

The traditional preparation of Vietnamese coffee, or ca phe sua da (iced milk coffee), is a bit unique. Like everything else in this country, they have their own way of getting things done. An uninitiated foreigner may not know what to do when served with it. I have noted the few steps. Here we go.

Vietnamese Coffee

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Photos from the Holiest of Holiest Places in India: Varanasi


If there was one place in India where spirituality and religion take center stage, it would be Varanasi. Varanasi is a city in northern India that sits right on the banks of the most sacred river in all of Hinduism, the River Ganges. On this river, they bathe, they wash their clothes, they go about their daily lives, including performing the last rites for their dearly departed. For Hindus, to be cremated on the banks of the Ganga, their charred remains allowed to flow on the water, is to attain moksha and break the unending cycle of reincarnation and rebirth.

I learned in my very first day in this holy city how things are done here. What is shocking and rattling about India is magnified ten times in Varanasi. The foul smells, the filth, the abject poverty, the congestion. This is not to say that I hate Varanasi. I travel not to see what I set out to see but rather see what is there. And you sort of have to be ready for that sort of experience when you go to Varansi.

Clearly, I wasn't. But I had to be. I was not able to take a lot of photos for this leg of my journey. It was too hard to even get out of the hotel room. But the few photos I took, I consider them some of my best from India.

Varanasi, India
Quintessential Varanasi. One of the high walls flanking the river.