To Asia, With Love (and Other Emotions)

Shelley with Ultadanga kids

My time in Asia challenged me, rewarded me, made my heart ache and churned out a stronger person. I learned more in the last 11 months than I have in the last 11 years, and that’s no hyperbole. I became more familiar with the world and with myself. As it turns out, I’m a nomadic homebody. My style is to hunker down in a city and get the lay of the land instead of moving every three days. Maybe when in a state of constant change, it’s comforting to know where you can go for a reliable bowl of pho or a cup of REAL coffee.

Surprisingly I did make it to 12 countries (if you count Tibet and Hong Kong as separate from mainland China, which I do). I’ve had 7 telephone numbers, taken 13 flights, crossed 2 borders overland, added 31 stamps to my passport, secured 10 visas and spent about $24,000. Below is a snapshot of my feelings about each country: what I liked, what I didn’t and how I sum them each up. India is longer than the rest because I spent the most time there and it had such a profound effect. Ladies and gentlemen, I present my view of Asia in 2,000 words or less… Continue reading

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Two-wheeling in Vietnam

Sheila taking photo on motorbikeMany have said exploring Vietnam on a motorbike is the best way to see the country. While I certainly didn’t travel the whole country on two wheels, I managed to fit in three separate motorbike day tours. With the wind in your hair (or through the helmet, rather) and the scenery unobstructed by windows, it really is a heightened experience. Sounds and smells surround you as you connect with each dip and bump on the ground below. It has become my favorite way to explore Southeast Asia… for the most part. Continue reading

Eating Marathon in Hanoi and Trip to Halong Bay

Bun rieu cua stall

You can tell a Southerner from a Northerner by the way they eat their pho. Vietnam’s most well-known noodle soup dish was born near Hanoi, and northerners can be quite particular about how it’s served. Here, it’s all about simplicity. Pho bo is beef noodle soup (as opposed to pho ga, which uses chicken). In the south you’ll find a heaping plate of bean sprouts and fresh herbs served with your soup, along with fresh chilies, lime, chili sauce and sometimes hoisin. This is blasphemy to a northerner as they prefer the stripped-down version of lime, fresh chili, chili sauce and vinegar as accompaniments. No abundance of greenery or sweet sauces here to disguise the true flavor. I personally LIKE the accoutrement provided with southern pho, and most of all I like meatballs in my soup (pho bo vien), which I couldn’t find in Hanoi. Again they keep it simple with rare steak and brisket as the typical meat inclusions. But to put the true north/south food differences to the test, we took another street food tour. All in the name of research, of course. Continue reading

Saigon, I barely recognize you! You too, Hoi An

Mangosteen vendor- Saigon

I spent a month in Vietnam almost exactly 13 years ago. It was one of the great experiences of my life, and I fell in love with the country. A bowl of noodle soup was $.25, Western fast food hadn’t quite invaded, I don’t recall many traffic lights and there were hardly any tourists. In fact, I only saw one other American the entire month I was there. Now you can dine at McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr, Subway, Starbucks and probably many others. There’s a backpacker district with bars lining Bui Vien street and travel agencies strewn across Pham Ngu Lao. There’s a helmet law (not that this is a bad thing) and you can shop at Marc Jacobs, Chanel or the Gap. I feel very nostalgic for the good ole days, but I try to embrace this new Vietnam and see what she has to offer. Continue reading