one, two, three, pho

Two backpackers, one map

Chasing waterfalls

by Laura

This is a little late, but ten days ago Matt and I got to repel down a waterfall.

Here’s a video of the exact trip we got to do. It’s probably better if you watch it than if we try to describe

http://seeyousoon.ca/adventure-travel-canyoning-part-2/.

Our namesake

by Laura

Matt and I love pho (pronounced fuh in vietnamese but foh by all westerners). We even have a faux pho recipe that we eat almost once a week in Canada.

For those of you who’ve never had the stuff, here’s a breakdown:

Steaming, fresh, fragrant beef broth is poured over a bowl of fresh rice noodles, bean sprouts, onions, green onions, and thinly sliced raw beef. As the broth slowly trickles over it all, the beef cooks to a perfect medium rare.

One of the best bowls of pho we've had...In Laos of all places.

One of the best bowls of pho we’ve had…In Laos of all places.

It’s the typical breakfast of the vietnamese and probably the best morning meal in the world.

There are differences between pho in every city. Some bowls are sweet, some spicy, some you add tons of extras, while some you eat exactly the way they put it in front of you. There is a constant though, the people.

And the slurping.

Matt and I ate some great bowls of pho. Soup that made us moan after the first mouthful just like Anthony Bourdain.

But these aren’t the bowls of soup that I remember, it’s the locals that make a meal memorable.

Pho restaurants are normally just stands on the side of the street, made up of child-sized plastic tables and chairs, with a jar of chopsticks and some small bowls or bottles of condiments. The condiments vary from kumquats, to hot sauce, to hoisin, to fresh chilis depending on the location.

Sometimes there’s an actual restaurant. Really just a glorified garage with normal sized tables and stools but otherwise the same.

And there’s always people, lots of people.

A motley crew that rarely varies: the younger crowd on their way to work, their middle-aged bosses who are in no rush and stay to talk, the head chef, the server, and the older retired people.

Oh, and us. The token white people.

Most travelers, for whatever reason, can’t get over this soup for breakfast thing. It’s lunch or dinner, but never breakfast. So, when two white kids walk in early(ish) in the morning everyone is skeptical.

The young Vietnamese look at you without emotion, the middle-aged men don’t acknowledge you, the chef and server are skeptical, and the old people scowl.

Then you say fuh boh instead of foh boh, wipe down your chopsticks, and start drinking the complimentary tea or iced tea on the table.

The first clue: these white people aren’t total idiots. They drink our drinks.

As the stony-faced server puts down the bowls, Matt and I pick up our spoons to test the broth. We both smile, it tastes awesome. Then we pick up the bowl of chilis, jar of homemade hot stuff (“for man” one old woman informed me as I spooned the eye-watering concoction into my bowl), or hot sauce and get mixing.

Then, in the Vietnamese tradition, we load up our chopsticks and start slurping. Sucking broth off of the spoon with mouths still full of noodles.

None of this Canadian politeness that calls for pulling noodles up gently with our chopsticks and placing them on our spoon, careful not to have any over the edge, gently dipping the spoon in the broth without losing any of the food, then popping the whole thing in your mouth.

No, that’s for suckers. We hunker down and get to making a mess.

This is the moment when the suspicion vanishes and curiosity sets in, the moment when Matt and I change from obnoxious twenty-something backpackers to performing monkeys.

Smiles spring up and the teaching begins. Vietnamese words, the best way to slurp rice noodles, and the best order for the condiments to enter the soup.

One old man, in Hanoi, who scowled at us from the second he saw us sitting there (in a restaurant where everyone looked at us like we had three heads) watched us as we prepared our pho. Watched us as his and his wife’s bowl were placed in front of them, watched as I took my first bite and smiled at Matt. It was wicked good.

Face first in my bowl slurping, I take a breather and come up smiling. The old man stares at me for second and he bursts into smile, his whole face changing, and suddenly we’re both giggling like school children.

Matt and the old man’s wife smile at each other and start chuckling, telepathically saying “I know what you’re stuck with, mine freaks strangers out too.”

Within minutes the old man is teaching me to say ‘number one in Vietnam’ and ‘great’ (at least I think it was great, we were both giving the thumbs up, but he could have just as easily been teaching me super dirty words).

That’s when we broke the divide. The whole restaurant laughing; the uninterested young people, the ignoring middle-aged men, the skeptical servers, and, of course, the old people.

As we left the server smiled and patted our back, the old man shook my hand, and many people called out tips, pointing in different directions, trying to help us.

It was all in Vietnamese so I have no idea what they were trying to tell us, but it’s the thought that counts. Right?

Merry Christmas!

by Laura

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A subdued and classy example of the decorations favoured in Vietnam. Seriously, this was nice for around here.

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Our Christmas Eve meal was also the best meal we’ve had in Vietnam. Fresh prawns, blue pincers, seafood spring rolls, and two LARGE beers. All for less than $15.

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Enjoying seafood on the side of the road.

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Part way through demolition.

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Christmas morning spoils, can you tell the gift theme?

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We went Western on Christmas lunch: quiche. Light on the egg, heavy on the cheese…

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…a chocolate peppermint Christmas tree cupcake for dessert.

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Christmas dinner at a fancy restaurant. It’s housed in french colonial building, and all he staff are former street kids or orphans. It was amazing.

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Buying Christmas gifts for ourselves in Asia is very different. I could get used to Hermes for Christmas.

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Enjoying our delicious, fancy dark chocolate.

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Merry Christmas to all our friends and family!! We love and miss you!!

I have curly hair, my hair is curly

by Laura

I love getting my hair cut.

Seriously, love it. But I’m a hairdresser’s dream and worst nightmare.

I tend to walk into my hairdresser’s and say something like “I want to look glamorous, but not too serious.” I’ll let Sam know if I’m wearing it straight more often or curly, and if I’m feeling long or short. It’s rare I bring a picture and, if I do, it’s normally to let her know that I like something similar. I trust hairdressers and, for the most part, give them carte blanche.

All in all, I’m a pretty good candidate for a haircut in a country where I don’t speak the language, they don’t speak much of mine, and where the potential for an incurable hair disaster is high.

Hence, I was nervous but not terrified when I walked into the ‘salon’ in Dalat, Vietnam.

You may be asking yourself, or me, this question about now: “Laura D’Angelo, what the hell is wrong with you?! Your hair is curly…you’re going to look like a freaking gerbil!” It’s probably a question I should have asked myself.

What can I say folks, all the water snakes and panic attacks have made me brave.

As I saw it, these were the potential results:

1) An afro. Plain and simple, a crazy, frizzy, white-girl fro.
2) A Christmas tree. A blunt, bottom-heavy cut where my own curls weigh down my hair giving me a triangular do.
3) Stregga hair. One of my dad’s charming nicknames for me, meaning witch. My bedhead makes me look like I’m going to hex you.
4) Good. By some twist of fate my head could be spared and I could look normal.

I weighed the pros and cons but after six and a half months of growing, five and a half of which involved spending a lot of time in the sun, my hair was fried. Dry enough to be a broom. There wasn’t much of an option.

Matt was more afraid than I was, but mostly because he knew if it was terrible he would be hearing about it every day until it grew out and got a new cut (i.e. – months).

The first thing I did was ask if they had ever cut curly hair. “I have curly hair, my hair is curly. Have you ever cut that? Do you know curly hair.”

“Yes. You want haircut?”

“Yes, just one or two centimetres. It’s curly, very curly.” I felt like a recording.

Matt asked me if I felt okay, if they understood. I didn’t know, but they seemed sort of confident.

One person in the place spoke English. Her job was hair washing. In retrospect, this should have been a warning sign.

When the actual hair dresser came over I, again, tried to explain curly hair. My hair had been up all day and wasn’t very curly, just messy.

She just nodded, “one or two centimetres?”

I nodded, “just a little”.

I wish that I could give a description of the actual process but my glasses were off and I decided it would be less traumatic if I didn’t watch. At some point she used what sounded like those craft scissors that make the edges of paper all jagged and fancy, but who knows.

I realized very quickly that she hadn’t mangled my hair. In fact, there were decent layers, it wasn’t too short, and it would probably curl okay.

But she still had to style it, and that’s when I realized just how lucky I’d gotten.

Every time I said “I have curly hair, my hair is curly,” they heard “Please, when you’re done cutting my hair, make my hair curly.”

At first, when I realized what was about to happen, I panicked, “if they try to perm my hair” I thought “I’m making a break for it and whoever I take down in the process is collateral damage.”

But they didn’t. Instead two people attacked my head with hair straighteners, while one other employee watched, to give me a 1950s short curly bob.

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Seriously, I looked like Betty Draper with curls. Except that the haircut didn’t result in me magically getting January Jones’s body.

After my Betty Draper do had flattened

After my Betty Draper do had flattened

And the back

And the back

All in all, it was hilarious. We couldn’t communicate, I looked like a 1950s housewife, and I’ve never had so many people touch my hair in one salon.

The post-first-wash world isn’t terrible either (trust me boys, it’s a thing). My hair is curly with a vengeance, the layers worked, and I don’t look like a total freak.

The downside? It’s pretty similar to the short haircuts I had in high school: BIG. Huge, in fact. And mega-curly.

Not the worst, but let’s be honest, who wants the hair that they had in high school?

You buy from me

by mattchesser

I’ve spent half my time in Asia feeling like an asshole.

“You buy from me?” is an intercontinental refrain, heard dozens of times per day by the Western traveller. Hawkers approach you everywhere: in the streets, at the beach, even at your table inside a restaurant. “No” becomes the most overused word in your vocabulary.

It was worst in a small H’mong village in Northern Vietnam. Laura and I parked our motorbike by the side of the road and were met immediately by three young girls, who walked us to their village. As we walked, our group grew, one woman joining us at a time.

Pretty soon we were leading a Pied Piper procession of nine women down the muddy roads.

We knew it was coming. The hard sell. We were surrounded.

We were happy to buy from some: the girls we met originally, the woman who talked to us about life in the village as we walked. But there were several conversations with women who hadn’t previously said a word that went something like this:

“I gave you tour, you buy from me.”

“No thanks,” I responded, hesitant.

“Yes thanks,” insistent.

These women had babies strapped to their backs. They live in a village where a nice toilet is a shack built over a river in which the centre floorboard has been removed (kind of awesome to use just once, actually). They’re married to men who do little other than drink and smoke. My guilt was overwhelming.

But you can’t buy from everyone. You make your excuses and head for the motorbike, weighed down by five or six useless trinkets, feeling like an asshole.

I spend the other half of my time feeling like I’ve been taken advantage of.

I’m awful at bargaining. “White person prices” are everywhere – most stores, stalls, and many restaurants don’t list prices anywhere, so you know you’re being charged twice as much as the Vietnamese guy next to you. Despite how cheap everything is relative to Canada, it’s hard not to feel like I’m getting a raw deal when the salesperson is doubling her usual profit.

I love Asia. I’ve gotten used to most of the above. But when I get homesick it’s not for Western food or culture, it’s for the civility of telemarketers and the predictability of used car salesmen.

It’s for knowing when I’m getting ripped off and when I’m actually being an asshole.

Suit up

by Laura

Whoever said that getting custom clothes made is easier than buying off the rack has never had it done in Vietnam.

Hoi An is the custom everything capital of Vietnam. They’re most famous for suits, dresses, and coats. But you can also get custom jewelry, custom purses and leather bags, and custom shoes. Yes, shoes.

Sales girls and tailors yell at you to ‘buy from me’ from their store fronts, if you touch fabric or one of the samples you’ve as good as bought it, and once you finally decide to get something made then the real fun begins.

They rush you, they try to convince you that the only fabric they have is the most expensive, they push you to buy more, and if you’re worried that something might not turn out right they don’t say “if it isn’t right we’ll go from there”. No, they say “well, maybe you order another one” with a little smirk.

That said, you also get amazing clothes and the women know exactly what will work for your body and which fabrics look the best. They cut deals and give you free items to get you to make purchases, and they are really friendly.

Teaching the sales girls how to french braid

Teaching the sales girls how to french braid

Matt and I blew wayyyy too much money in Hoi An at just one of these shops.

We spent an exhausting three hours with our sales girls on the first day choosing styles, fabric, and saying no to more clothing.

All in an effort to turn Matt into Don Draper and me into Jenna Lyons.

Within four hours of ordering half of our clothing was done.

Matt would only need one more fitting, jerkface has the perfect body for suits. But I’d need two, the little vietnamese aren’t used to sewing for someone with t and a.

Within 72 hours Matt and I had new work wardrobes.

Here’s just a sampling of it all…

Matt's sexy new peacoat

Matt’s sexy new peacoat

My J.Crew inspired schoolboy blazer

My J.Crew inspired schoolboy blazer

Matt trying to look like a ballerina in his new sport coat. The swim trunks aren't really helping...

Matt trying to look like a baller in his new sport coat. The swim trunks aren’t really helping…

I think I'm going to go as a highlighter next Halloween, no American Apparel required

I think I’m going to go as a highlighter next Halloween, no American Apparel required

…seriously, that’s only a fraction of our order.

It was an absolutely exhausting few days. Back and forth to the tailor, arguing and convincing them that we really did want the alterations we were requesting, worrying that things wouldn’t turn out the way we wanted them to, and then realizing that it would cost close to the price of our clothes to send them by airmail.

Let’s all hope that the pirates don’t decide to raid the mail ship that our clothes are on…

Sitting on a boat by the bay

by Laura

Matt and I spent three days on board a gorgeous five-star floating hotel. I swear, we’re sticking to our budget!

There aren’t really any words to Halong Bay, so we’ll just leave you with this…

View from our cabin

View from our cabin

Halong Bay at sunset

Halong Bay at sunset