Going to Vietnam changed my life. Before our taxi blasted its way through the traffic-clogged streets of Ho Chi Minh City, my sensory perception of the universe was on a muted wavelength. Much like doing psilocybin mushrooms (I can only imagine), Vietnam heightened my senses: colors were brighter, noises louder, smells and tastes more pungent. It sounds cliche, but the country was on a wavelength completely different to the chilled-out vibes of the California coast I've lived on for the last twelve years.
I love me some lists. Color coding, numbers, Excel spreadsheets, bullet points, to-do lists, I love them all. The following is my 2016 list of numbers, best moments, highlights, and challenges from my year of travel and working remotely in 2016. Life changed dramatically from living in San Jose and moving to Ventura. I switched from teaching to working for a tech company. I started working remotely in October and I am still figuring that whole thing out. I wrote an article on sexual harassment in the national parks that I am so very proud of. I traveled more than I ever have before, and I'm hoping 2017 will bring even more adventures.
Paint the Numbers
Miles flown: Approximately 32,000 (counting my upcoming trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan)
Number of Flights: 19
Countries Visited: 4 (Vietnam, Iceland, China, and Sweden)
US States Visited: 2 (Michigan-soon and Nevada)
National Parks Visited: 6 (Pinnacles National Park (2 times), Pt. Reyes National Seashore, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Thingvellir National Park, Vatnajokull National Park, and Phong Nha-ke Bang)
State Parks: 10 (Henry Coe, Henry Cowell, McArthur Burney Falls, Weaverville Joss House, Tomales, McNee Ranch State Park, Mendocino Headlands, New Brighton State Beach, Natural Bridges State Beach, Ventura State Beach)
Glaciers Hiked On: 1 Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland
Times I Saw the Northern Lights: 1 in Iceland
Caves Visited: 2 (Bear Gulch Cave at Pinnacles National Park and Phong Nha Cave in Vietnam)
Waterfalls Visited: 5 (Elephant Falls in Vietnam; Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Skogafoss in Iceland; and McArthur-Burney Falls in California)
Museums: 9 (Joss House and Rosicrucian Museum in California; Phallological Museum, Viking World, and Reykjavik 871+/- 2 in Iceland; Vasa Museum and Royal Palace in Sweden; and War Remnants Museum and Vinh Long Museum in Vietnam)
Rivers: (3) Trinity, Mekong, and Sacramento
Camping Trips: 1 (New Brighton State Beach)
Disc Golf Courses: 5
Road Trips: 2
Best of the Best
Best Meal: dumplings on the side of the road with Jeff in HCMC
Best Coffee: Vietnam
Best Road Trip: Northern California
Best View: Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland
Best Hike: Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland
Best Domestic Destination: Trinity National Forest
Best City: Ho Chi Minh City
Best Airport: Las Vegas, Nevada. The design of the Las Vegas airport is light years ahead of most airports I've been to. They have different levels for which type of vehicle you are: one level for cars, another for buses, and another for taxis and Uber. So efficient! Plus, security takes no time at all to get through and the food is cheap compared to other airports.
Best Hot Dog: Tunnbrodsrulle from Stockholm, Sweden
Da Lat, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
McArthur-Burney Falls State Park
Traveling to Asia for the first time and hanging out with my cousin Jeff in Ho Chi Minh City. I fell in love hard with Ho Chi Minh City. The sights, sounds, smells completely engulfed me. The food was spectacular, which is not to say we did not have bad meals in Vietnam, but there’s an enormous gulf between the Vietnamese food in Vietnam and the Vietnamese food in the United States. Vietnamese food in Vietnam layers flavors and textures with fresh ingredients; the garnishes, the sauces, the broths, and the interplay of textures within one dish is like nothing you can get in the United States. The variety of street food, it’s quality, and the price made it so much fun to go out and eat our way through the evening. The coffee alone would be enough to get me to move there. Oh, the coffee, I feel nostalgia already...Should I book a ticket?
Getting to explore the caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang was truly something else, the train ride from Hue had some of the best views I’ve ever seen in my life, and chilling out in Da Lat was a perfect way to end the trip.
Don’t be fooled, Vietnam is not an easy destination by any stretch of the imagination, but the people are friendly if reserved, the tourist infrastructure is getting better than it was before, and it’s quite safe for tourists.
Also, I turned thirty years old, I traveled to mainland Europe for the first time, and I got to eat so many hot dogs. Seeing a rainbow ending at a glacier next to a waterfall with ponies in the foreground. Yeah, that was pretty fucking spectacular.
2016 was the year of challenges and tragedy, as many of us have observed. My father passed away in February, and I am still grieving his loss. America saw the largest mass shooting in its history. The people of America voted in a racist, hateful Krampus Cheeto into the highest office in the land. Countless celebrities died including the extremely talented Prince, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie. And just a week ago, my previous home of Oakland witnessed the largest and most devastating fire in its history.
I experienced my second bout ever of waterborne illnesses in Vietnam; the previous time was over ten years ago on my study abroad trip to Costa Rica. Vietnam was also the trip of the bus breakdown and consequent bumpiest bus drive ever; my boyfriend describes this as the most physically uncomfortable as he’s ever been in his life.
Then, there was traveling through the airport at Guangzhou. Traveling through Guangzhou when sleep deprived, and later suffering from food poisoning (not me, boyfriend), requires a level of patience and pushiness that I’ve never had to deal with at an airport before. Do you like being herded like cattle with thousands of other people into a dimly lit unventilated hallway only to have people in uniforms scream at you in a language you don’t know? Do you like it when they cut randomly into the crowd and separate groups with a rope? Then, Guangzhou airport is for you. This was not the case with Wuhan Airport, so I consider this issue to be a Guangzhou airport thing, not an all Chinese airports thing.
Working remotely! Fuck, I never thought it would be that hard to find wireless internet in Western Europe, even the very much still developing socialist republic of Vietnam has better wireless internet than Sweden. Trying to work on trains in the United States, apparently not possible even with the advanced technology of hot-spotting and tethering. I'm still figuring out this working from home, working on the go, spending hours of my life on a computer instead of teaching children thing; it's definitely going to continue to be a challenge and you will hear more about the challenges in upcoming blog posts.
Coming up in 2017
- San Juan, Puerto Rico
- Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- Berlin, Germany
After ten days of unrelenting heat, the seventy-degree weather and rain of mountainous Da Lat were a relief. We arrived at Da Lat’s regional airport from DaNang in a late afternoon drizzle. Our hostel, Happy Homestay, arranged the taxi for us and about fifteen minutes later we were in Da Lat. Walking into the lobby of the homestay, we were confused by the blasting television and the young man playing World of Warcraft on his laptop. A middle-aged woman smiled at us and greeted us in Vietnamese. I asked for Binh, the young man who I had been in contact with over AirBnB. I really thought were in the wrong place. I had heard multiple stories online of tourists being dropped off at a different place than what they told the cab driver. Turns out, this was not the case. Binh, in his puffy parka, runs into the lobby a minute or two we arrive.
We drop our bags off upstairs. There’s some kind of construction and the noise is relentless. Pounding, drilling, sawing nonstop. We hoped this was just going on during the daylight hours and things would quiet down by the time we were going to sleep. We were all really hungry at this point and asked Binh where we should go a meal. He pointed out a couple places including a chicken and rice place just across the street.
We headed over and were greeted by the female proprietor with a smile, almost all the people running restaurants in Vietnam are women. Her infant daughter toddled around in a fur-lined parka. Apparently, seventy degrees is cold in Vietnam. I found it refreshing in my shorts and tank top. She hands us a couple of menus and we have a seat.
Three of us ordered chicken with rice and cabbage and one person ordered fried fish, I think (it’s been six months since the trip and I can’t remember the exact details). The chicken was very similar to a lightly fried chicken you would have in the United States. The rice was lightly flavoured with vinegar and the cabbage was a lot like the greens you would get in the south. It was so unlike any of the other food we had in Vietnam: heavier, which made sense with the climate, and it felt like I could be eating this anywhere. It was really, really good. It was the perfect departure from the ubiquitous rice noodles, which while delicious I was getting a little tired of after ten days.
After our meal, we headed down to the local market. The road is quite empty for Vietnam and passes by a school, a public park where we saw a woman defecating out in the open, and the numerous small shops that are so common. Because of the rain, few people were out cooking on the sidewalk or napping on their motorbikes, which had so often been the background of our trip.
The local market is surrounded by hills covered with narrow, French-style buildings that you find throughout most of Vietnam. It reminded so much of San Francisco: the tall narrow buildings, the steep hills, and the cool, crisp air. The market features foods reminiscent of west coast farmer’s markets: mulberries, strawberries, and avocados. Da Lat is also known for its mushrooms, flowers, and coffee.
We retired early to the hotel because we would have an early morning start on our tour of the area surrounding Da Lat. Sleep was not something that came easily at the Happy Homestay. They were undergoing massive construction and the bed was possibly one of the worst we stayed in, though the worst really goes to the one with blood stains on it in the Mekong.
The next morning my boyfriend and I woke early to get coffee. The coffee in Vietnam is so good, especially for people who love strong coffee that gives you a kick in the ass in the morning. I like mine with condensed milk and iced. On our way back from the coffee shop, I spotted a woman making the delightful banh can. These are delicious pockets of rice dough cooked in a skillet similar looking to an aebelskiver pan with a quail egg cracked on top. They’re almost like the Vietnamese version of the best Egg McMuffin you’ve ever had. They serve it with chilli sauce and a fish sauce with green onions. We ate ours from a plastic bag on the curb outside the Happy Homestay.
Headed by Binh, the young man who runs Happy Homestay, our tour took us to the countryside around Da Lat. Covered with evergreens, this area is so unlike the rest of the places we went to in Vietnam. It reminded me of the countryside in the Sierra foothills. Our first stop was a coffee plantation where they make the famous “weasel coffee.” The weasels are actually civets who are captured from the forest and brought to the coffee plantation. The civets are very picky eaters and only eat the best coffee beans. These beans are then crapped out by the civets and roasted for your coffee drinking pleasure. The coffee is smooth and has a distinct caramel flavour. My friends, who are not coffee drinkers, enjoyed it, but I didn’t like the flavour. Plus, civet poop.
On our way to Elephant Falls, we stopped at a flower plantation, a strawberry farm, and what is called a “minority village.” The people who live here are from one of the multiple native ethnic groups of Vietnam. Most of Vietnam’s nearly 86 million people are from the Kinh ethnic group, which were originally from northern Vietnam and southern China. The houses are traditionally made from wood and differ in their architectural style from other Vietnamese houses.
A number of blogs claim Elephant Falls is difficult to find, but it had clear signage from what I could see. Yes, you will be charged a fee to enter. No, the walk down is not safe by American standards, but it’s not particularly dangerous either. I had a challenging time because the rocks were very high and I am very short. The rocks on the way down are also incredibly slippery and some of the time the only thing you have to hold onto is a vine or a rusty piece of rebar. However, the waterfall is large and the water plentiful. There are rocks you can go out to see the falls clearer, but I am a huge scaredy cat and I refused to go out to them. Off to the left is a pathway that goes under the falls. This, I really enjoyed, but be aware you will get filthy and soaked.
As we washed the mud off and dried in the sun, I watched a woman make traditional woven goods. The scarves around her were beautifully colorful and I would have loved to buy one, but they were a little out of my budget.
After the waterfall, we visited the Buddhist temple up the street then we got a lackluster lunch in a village restaurant. Our last stop of the tour was a silkworm factory. The factory’s air was fetid and stifling. The women worked for a piece work wage, a certain amount of money per kilo of processed silkworms. The women had to be careful working with the lye used to process the silkworms. Outside the factory were enormous piles of silkworm cocoons. It felt wrong going here as if this were a tourist attraction, and it felt like poverty voyeurism.
When we got back to Da Lat, we took short naps then my boyfriend and I headed out to see Crazy House. Crazy House is one of the top attractions in Da Lat. Designed by the daughter of a former president, the house is an ongoing architectural project and is unlike anything else in Vietnam. Part Alice in Wonderland, part jungle, and part Swiss chalet. I’ve never seen anything else like it. It was really fun to explore the different areas and enjoy the shade.
In the evening, Binh took us out for a food tour to some of his favourite street food places. We got what is called Da Lat pizza, banh trang nuong, which is made from a sheet of rice paper, Laughing Cow cheese, shredded jerky, spicy sausage, green onion, egg, chili sauce, and fish sauce. It was crispy, creamy, salty, and smoky charcoal grill. It was absolutely delicious and the best item of street food we had outside of HCMC. Other street food we had included bo la lat (a type of ground meat skewer wrapped betel leaf), bacon wrapped okra and a type of ice cream.
Da Lat was one of my favourite cities in Vietnam. It was relaxed, the weather was perfect, and food, especially the fresh produce, was spot on. I highly recommend adding it to any trip to central or southern Vietnam. It makes for a nice break from the unrelenting heat and traffic of the rest of the country.
Pho: it is what comes to mind when talking to many Americans about Vietnamese food. Banh mi and fresh spring rolls might also come into the conversation. While these foods are tasty, though personally, I find pho a bit on the boring side, they are just the beginning of a deep culinary tradition. In Vietnam, I felt I only got to Viet Nam Food 101: The Basics. So much food, so little time.