If you’re wondering if I’m still alive, I’ve been traveling through Southeast Asia for the past few weeks, and seemed to have lost track of time. What day is it again? After some social media check-ins, I’ve caught up on a couple of events that have gone down back home: New York City had an electrical problem which made it look like aliens had taken over, Instagram tried but failed to pilot horizontal swiping, and the US government shutdown is still going strong.
Anyway, I am saying hi after a long-overdue hiatus. So, hi!
I’ve been slam-posting stories on Instagram, but since people seem really interested in this trip, here’s a mini-recap on what we’ve been up to so far. We visited four cities in Southeast Asia, with a final leg in Tokyo.
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With its cafe culture and French-inspired streets, Hanoi to me is like the Paris of Southeast Asia. I’ve found that whenever I feel obligated to spend time at temples or museums, I almost never remember what I did. But I always remember people and scenes from daily life. So we said screw it, we’re not visiting a single museum or historical sight this time. Our version of “sights” was sitting at a corner cafe on a tiny plastic stool, enjoying more Vietnamese coffees than is humanly possible, mesmerized by all the motorbikes whizzing by.
Everybody tells you to go to Banh Mi 25 for the best Vietnamese sandwiches, but we preferred Banh Mi PaTé right around the corner, which we ate at twice! It’s a little bit cheaper, much more flavorful, and has more of a local vibe. Before the trip I had researched a bunch of spots to eat at, but I eventually ignored that list in favor of going with my intuition. We walked around, looked for menus that specialized in only one or two dishes, and checked to see if locals were eating there. If so, it was probably a good bet. That MO hasn’t failed me yet.
For a change of pace, we did a tour of Ninh Binh, the verdant countryside a few hours outside of Hanoi. I’m a landscapes person, and was so excited to see the place where King Kong: Skull Island was filmed. But while the scenery itself was beautiful, the overall experience was marred by the fact that we were on an a mega-organized tour. Tours are great for people who don’t have a lot of time, or who don’t like planning, but for us, sitting in a buffet hall with six other tour groups on the same exact schedule made the whole experience feel a little bit less special.
Luang Prabang, Laos
When I first arrived in Luang Prabang and saw more tourists than locals, I thought I’d made a huge mistake. Did I fly halfway across the world to just hang around people who were just like us? We also bought food out in Hanoi six times a day and spent only $18 total, but on our first meal in Luang Prabang we easily trumped that amount. First impression? Expensive, manufactured…but also serene. Our first night standing on the road, we marveled at how quiet it was. At least in comparison to the motorbike frenzy of Hanoi.
Nestled between two rivers, and with the main spots mostly within a mile-long peninsula, Luang Prabang is easily explored on foot or bicycle, which I appreciated. Some destinations are so big you don’t even know where to start. And eventually the laid-back pace, the brightly-shuttered antique houses, and river views won me over. By the end of the trip, I wished we’d had another day to relax.
Oh my god, the lime-basil shakes from the Viewpoint Cafe were so good, we came back three times just to have them.
Strolling through the night market, we found mini coconut pancakes that melted in your mouth. Cost? $0.60. They even ended up being dinner once, because the town vibe was so chill, we fell asleep at around 8pm here.
I loved the colonial details of one our hotels, the Mekong Riverview. 10/10 would go back to Luang Prabang just to stay here again.
As I mentioned, I was surprised at how expensive Luang Prabang was. The prices of some of our meals weren’t that far off from what we pay at home, but I get that it’s because Luang Prabang is a smaller town with fewer options. It was also difficult to find food that had enough heat!
Pakse was a last-minute itinerary change. We were supposed to go to Chiang Mai, but after I saw pictures of green mountains and waterfalls in southern Laos, we pushed aside the dread of sunk costs and booked the new flights and hotels. When I walked up to the 40-person propeller plane and saw it was just us and a bunch of French tourists, I knew we’d made the right choice.
In Luang Prabang I felt insulated. But I like a little bit of an edge. In Pakse, which isn’t a super well-known tourist hot spot, I knew our experience would be less glamorous, but that also meant we’d have a better chance at seeing how the majority of the local people live.
Pakse made me feel crummy, uncomfortable things, but in a good way. Unlike the other places we visited, there’s less tourist infrastructure, so we were curiously regarded wherever we went. I cursed myself for parading around in a pair of branded Nike sneakers, and felt self-conscious every time I took out my iPhone to take pictures.
After visiting one of the villages, I left Pakse feeling a little bit sad, but also incredibly lucky that I get to live the life that I have. Even having the amount of vacation time that I do to even take a trip like this is an immense privilege.
I wasn’t sure which waterfall to visit first, but we chose Tad Yuang because it was close by. We didn’t expect much from the first waterfall we saw that was easy to get to. I guess the low expectations worked, because with the picturesque cows drinking water at the top, and the lush green valley surroundings, the waterfall looked straight out of a stock photo. We got close enough to feel the mist, which was refreshing on a hot day.
Accidentally eating goat for the first time. We stopped by a place for dinner where nothing was in English, so we pointed at what we wanted on the menu. Later on we drove by the same spot again, except this time I noticed all the restaurants around the one we ate it had ‘goat’ in the English name. That’s when I realized what we had eaten wasn’t a “chewier pork” at all.
Visiting a local village and seeing how some people care about creating beauty, even when they have almost nothing.
Buying the exact woven bamboo coasters we mooned over at the Mekong Riverview hotel from a random woven handicrafts stand on the side of the road. And for way cheaper than in Luang Prabang, too!
We didn’t have enough time to explore more waterfalls. That just means we’ll need to visit again 🙂
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
This was my second time in Ho Chi Minh City, and I’m still only scratching the surface. You come to Ho Chi Minh City because you want a little bit of culture shock, cosmopolitan food options, and better value than you’d get in other Asian mega-cities. Ho Chi Minh City feels less developed than other cities, like Bangkok, but to me that’s not a detriment, that’s the charm. In terms of the skyline, you’ve got a wonderful mishmash of old cafe-apartments next to a skyscraper that’s next to a French colonial building.
We spent our days exploring all the cool stuff hidden behind dark alleyways, enjoying more upscale, creative takes on traditional cuisine, and thanking god every time we managed to end a day not run over by a motorbike.
My solo quest to have crab noodle soup from Banh Canh Cua 87, which was a meal I remembered from four years ago (and could never replicate here in NYC). And the thrill of weaving through traffic on the back of a motorbike to get to and from the restaurant.
Our stay at the Park Hyatt Saigon. I’m selectively luxurious, and this was our one $$$ hotel. Considering how hot it was outside, it was a nice break to stay at a place with a pool. My husband also fell sick while we were here, and I was at least glad we were at a more service-oriented hotel, because they sent up ginger tea when they found out he wasn’t feeling well.
I got ripped off! A cab driver took his chance to steal $25 from me, because I wasn’t paying attention to the bills I was handing over. Note to self: make sure you count out the money in front of the driver, so they can’t pull any funny stuff on you.
What I Wished I’d Brought
I only packed a carry-on. Inside I brought two pairs of sandals: a pair of flip flops and a leather pair for walking around. Every hotel we’ve been in so far, even mid-range ones, have offered some sort of slippers or flip flops, so the flip flops I brought are taking up precious space in my suitcase. If I had to do it all over again, I think the perfect sandal option for Southeast Asia is one pair that doubles for both, like rubber Birkenstocks. They’re lightweight, look more refined than a flip flop, and if they get wet or dirty you can easily wipe them down. Plus, they’re $40, so if something bad happens to them you won’t get that mad.
I also found myself looking at my naked wrist, wishing I had a cheap waterproof watch to check the time. I miss the routine of adjusting my watch for each city I visit. Using a phone to check the time just isn’t the same.
The Item That We’re Super Glad We Brought
Antibacterial hand wipes. This was a last-minute purchase I sent my husband to buy right before the trip, and in situations where we couldn’t wash our hands with soap (frequently), it was nice to have these as an extra precaution.
I started getting sick on the plane over and subsequently plowed through my personal pack of tissues, a half-used pack I found at the bottom of my bag, the tissues I packed in my husband’s bag, and a roll of toilet paper from the hotel. On our tour to Ninh Binh, the guide must have seen me blowing my nose a lot, because he came up to me and said, “Are you sick? You don’t look good,” which I thought was a funny comment since he’d never seen me before and had no idea how I look on a regular basis! Five days later, now my husband’s sick, but at least it’s a cold/short fever versus being stomach sick.
And finally, we made a bunch of mistakes so you don’t have to:
ATM Card Forgetfulness X 2
We made two mistakes when it came to our ATM cards:
- My husband left his ATM card in one of the machines in Luang Prabang, so for a few days, we only had about $40 of local money on us, with no way of getting more money, because…
- My own ATM card didn’t work. I tried to get money from two different ATMs and got vague error messages each time, which was weird, because I’ve used my debit card overseas before just fine. Then I remembered, duh, I forgot to call in a travel notification before I left. I eventually called, and can report we’re back in business.
Thankfully, my husband had put a few hundred dollars in his wallet before we left and we could at least exchange those bills for local money, and we got lucky that many of the restaurants took credit cards. Moral of the story is: Always bring extra money with you and make sure you notify your bank you’re traveling before your trip.
Photos That Wouldn’t Save
This is the saddest one of all. We lost about 30 pictures that we can’t recreate at all, including some we promised to take for people back home. At one point my husband looked at me sheepishly and said there was something wrong with his phone, because some of the pics he recently took had disappeared. He said he noticed a popup notification that said his phone was restoring, but wasn’t sure what the message was about, so shrugged it off. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I’ll guess that during that restoration process none of the photos he took had saved to the camera roll.
If certain photos are really important to you, after you snap them, take a second to make sure they’re saving to the camera roll in the first place.
General Missing Stuff
A couple things we’ve lost along the way: my husband’s phone USB cable and two missing socks. We do extra sweeps of the hotel rooms to make sure nothing’s missing, but hey, no one’s perfect. And I bet the socks went missing when one of the hotels did our laundry. It’s worth doing an inventory check when you get laundry back, just to be sure everything’s there. Our hotel let us borrow an extra USB cable, but at some point, we’re going to have to buy a new one.
Well, in true Luxe fashion, somehow this “postcard” is now over 2000 words, so I’m gonna wrap this up. I’ll write a more detailed report when I’m back, and if you want to browse through my trip so far (we’re currently in Tokyo), all my pictures are in the Instagram Highlights.
Hope you had a wonderful New Year, and see you when I’m back!
PS. I’ve gotten sick in Asia every time I’ve traveled there, because I knowingly ate things I knew I shouldn’t have been eating, so cross your fingers this is my first time I make it out intact.