Hoi An

Of all the places we visited in Vietnam, it’s probably safe to say Hoi An was my favorite. Remember when I said that Luang Prabang was surprisingly my favorite part of our last SE Asia trip? Well in the same way, Hoi An is the city that wasn’t as famous as Hanoi or Saigon and that I knew the least about (like Luang Prabang), yet its small village, relaxing atmosphere made it the best part of the trip.

Where To Stay

La Residencia
35 Đào Duy Từ, Cẩm Phô
Tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam

I really liked this hotel. The location is perfect because it’s right outside of Old Town on the west side, so it’s closest to all the street food and the Night Market. The room we had was large and comfortable enough for three people, had a balcony, and the hotel provides a really good breakfast buffet. The employees were also very friendly and helpful and the price, unsurprisingly, was great ($53/night). It’s a bit of a walk to get into town, but it’s not overly exerting. And it’s much quieter at night because it’s not in the center of everything.

What To Do

The best way to take in Hoi An is to just walk around and get lost with all the other backpackers. Hoi An isn’t as remote as Luang Prabang, which makes it a bit more manageable in terms of getting around (there are no rickety old bridges that you have to cross over and over again to get into town). But it’s also not as touristy as Siem Reap, so it’s not overwhelmingly in your face like that city.

In order to see most of the historical sights within Old Town like the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation you need to buy a 120 dong ticket. You’re forced to purchase one at ticket booths on the outskirts of Old Town. Do not lose the ticket because they will check to see if you have one every time you walk in and out of Old Town.

Hoi An’s architecture was able to survive a lot of the 20th century wars, so strolling through town is like walking through a time capsule. In the evening, the Night Market bustles with pedestrians under the hundreds of colorful lanterns and, like the market in Luang Prabang, is filled with vendors where you can get souvenirs.

Get suited up.  They may as well call Hoi An “Tailor Town” because there are dozens of tailoring shops that line the streets of this small town. Some are obviously better than others, but in general I think you’ll find a deal on clothes no matter where you go. My buddy and I ultimately ended up getting suits made at Kimmy Tailor (which is a top rated store in both Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor). For $420 I bought 2 tailored suits and a tie. The process took three trips over the course of our stay there, but they can do it in fewer if you’re pressed for time (they just won’t be able to make small adjustments).

As of this writing, the suits have held together well and are still top notch. A competing store that we considered, Bebe Tailor, offered 2 suits for $385, and while that price is lower, Kimmy’s employees seemed a bit more on top of their work and the material was a little bit better. But if you’re a woman, Bebe does offer far more women’s options (my sister ended up getting a tailored suit from Bebe for $150).

Eat all the cheap food.  Specifically, eat Cao Lau. This is a dish you’re only going to find in Hoi An, and it was probably one of my favorite meals of the trip. The noodle dish is the perfect mix of pasta-y, salty, veggie, meaty, crunchy deliciousness with just the right amount of broth–all for $1. Also, go to Banh Mi Phuong and get a banh mi sandwich. Look for the place with a picture of Anthony Bourdain proudly displayed. Order the #9 (Pork, Ham, and Pate) for one of the best sandwiches you’ll get for 75 cents. If you go at lunch, expect a line.

Take a ride in a Basket Boat. In all honesty, we kind of ran into this activity by accident on our hike out of Hoi An to find Pho Dua Coconut City. On our way, we saw the Le Ha Basket Boat outfit and decided on a whim to give a go. For 100K dong, you can paddle your way through the coconut fields in a bamboo fishing basket. It makes for a fun, really unique experience. Our guide also provided us with Asian conical hats which made for some pretty ridiculously hilarious pictures. Note: I couldn’t find a website for the company; it was a pretty local outfit. At the end, our boat guide actually guided us back to her own house along the river where we disembarked.

Light a candle and put the lantern into the Thu Bồn River. Hoi An is the most tranquil at night, and the hundreds of candles floating down the river are a huge part of giving it that serene evening atmosphere. There are several meanings behind the floating candles, but I think it’s best to take the beauty of the tradition and interpret it however you’d like that’s personal to you.

Take a Jeep tour.  More to come in the next post.

Hanoi: What to Eat

Like I said in my previous post, Singapore gets all the good press for excellent food in Southeast Asia. But in my humble opinion Vietnam takes top billing.  Honestly, you can go to any street or alley and find something that delicious and cheap. Generally, throughout the trip, we found that actual restaurant food was never really as good as the random street food we’d find.

I’m so glad that this is a written blog and not a video blog otherwise I would have inevitably butchered the names of all the random food places we dined in. With that, here are a few eating spots I can point to that are worth trying out if you’re in that area (again, regardless of where you go to eat, it’ll probably be good).

Phở

Phở is the quintessential Vietnamese dish.  You can get it everywhere in the country and regardless of one’s social status, you’ll see all types of people sitting on the little plastic stools enjoying a bowl.  It’s made up of some type of meat (usually chicken or pork), herbs, noodles, with sides of vegetables, peppers, and garlic that you can add in. I generally eat phở in the U.S. for dinner, but I was surprised to learn that in Vietnam it’s actually a popular breakfast dish (the phở joint across from where I live isn’t even open for breakfast). So when in Vietnam, eat phở in the morning–which is what we did. It’ll only cost you around $1-$2 for a bowl. As we ate, it was relatively amusing to see the faces of the locals watching me take pictures of the food and venue. I’m sure it’s what I would look like if I saw a tourist taking a picture of a doughnut at Dunkin’ Donuts.

Here are two of the phở places we had breakfast that stood out.

Quán phở Sướng
24B Ngõ Trung Yên, Hàng Bạc, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

This place was recommended by the hotel and it hit the spot.  The phở was fresh tasting, hot, cheap, and delicious.

Bun Rieu Cua
40 Hàng Tre, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

This is a popular local spot to try bun rieu cua, which is a phở cooked in a with spicy crab broth.  Lonely Planet said they only serve it for a few hours in the morning. And we could tell because there were several locals ready to sit when the place opened.  It wasn’t quite as good as Quán phở Sướng because I found the crab broth to be a bit too seafoody, but it’s still very good.

Vietnamese Coffee

Cafe 39 Tạ Hiện
Tạ Hiện, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

The Vietnamese love their coffee, and we, like the locals, drank this stuff pretty much every day (usually Iced to combat the heat). What sets Vietnamese coffee apart is the sweetened condensed milk they add in, giving it a uniquely sweet dairy flavor. I wouldn’t recommend ordering Vietnamese coffee without the milk because it is incredibly bitter on its own. While there are coffee chains all over, such as Highlands Coffee, those locations tend to overdo the sweetened condensed milk, so it becomes more like a frappuccino (though we did figure out that you can ask for half the amount of milk to make it less sweet). The best places to get coffee are just the random local cafes where you sit on the sidewalk, like Cafe 39 Tạ Hiện.

Cafe 39 Tạ Hiện

This no nonsense, no frills cafe always seemed to have people on little plastics stools spilling out of it into the street. As far as we could tell they only really sold coffee, which is fine because it’s not the most comfortable place to lounge around for a long period of time. But their coffee was the best we had in Hanoi.

Bun Cha

Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim
67 Đường Thành, SHàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

Yes, the name of the place is a mouthful. But on the flip side, because the name is so long it’s very easy to spot the sign on the crazy street it’s on. Very similar to phở, but much heartier and less brothy, bun cha is another noodle bowl that’s main ingredient is barbecue roast pork with thinner vermicelli noodles. Served separated, you mix together the chunks of pork, noodles, and vegetables together as you’d like it. Obviously order the bun cha, but I’d also recommend getting a side order of nem cua be (spring rolls) to share.  Not everyone needs to get the spring rolls; one side order is enough for two people.  The price is around $4 for bun cha and spring rolls.

Banh Goi

Quán gốc Đa
52 Lý Quốc Sư, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

Banh Goi are essentially Vietnamese empanadas and they make the perfect to-go food if you’re walking around Hanoi. There are different types, which I’m sure have specific names, but I ended up just pointing at different shaped ones and rolling with it. Most should have some sort of pork in them. You’ll see these everywhere, but Lonely Planet suggested this one stall near St. Joseph’s Cathedral that had some of the most dynamite finger food ever (you can get 3 for like $1).

Sticky Rice

Xôi Yến
35B Nguyễn Hữu Huân, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

Rice is unsurprisingly a staple Asian food, but I always thought sticky rice was more of a Laos, Chinese, Sushi type food and never really thought of it when thinking of Vietnamese cuisine. Most of the guidebooks say, like phở, sticky rice is generally eaten for breakfast in Vietnam. The Chinese in me wasn’t feeling that. I’m sure the locals do it, but where I come from, sticky rice is served with dinner and, unlike the phở, we weren’t really budging from that stance.  Sticky rice is just too damn heavy for breakfast.

Xôi Yến is open all day and night, so people do eat it around the clock, and when we showed up at dinner time it was busy as ever. The sticky rice comes with your choice of two toppings. The choices vary from every type of meat to vegetarian options like dried mung beans.  Again, it’s a cheap, quick option if you’re tired of noodle bowls and what something a little heavier.

So much Sticky Rice

I’d avoid…

Lonely Planet in general is a good guidebook, but there are some misses.  Two in particular.  The first one is Minh Thuy’s.  It wasn’t even there.  They said it’s a must-try and it doesn’t even exist anymore (I emailed Lonely Planet to tell them to update their guidebook for the next edition).  The second place is Koto Restaurant near the Temple of Literature.  This place wasn’t bad; generally it’s always nice to be able to get off the streets and sit down in a nice, air conditioned restaurant with tablecloths every once in a while.  But the food was as “meh” as I can describe, and pricier than what you’d find on the street. The only reason I’d say it’s okay to go is because Koto operates as a hospitality training school for some of Vietnam’s most disadvantaged young people.  So while their food might be pedestrian, and cost a little high, at least it’s going to a good cause.

Hanoi: Where to Stay

Back in 2015, I went to Southeast Asia (which is documented on this blog) and the country we had to leave out of that trip was Vietnam. We told ourselves that one day we’d dedicate an entire vacation to explore the whole country. I didn’t think it would be a short 2 years later.

Of all the Southeast Asian countries I’ve visited so far in my life, Vietnam is now at the top of the list. It’s in the perfect middle ground of development where the cities aren’t so urbanized that you have all the seedy things like prostitution everywhere, but it’s developed enough that the water is relatively clean (don’t drink it, but brushing is okay), there’s Wifi everywhere, and the people are still very friendly (and not in the they’re trying to sell you something kind of way).

And it’s still really, really cheap.  $1 = 22,600 Dong (VND).

Now that all the “dong” jokes are out of the way (trust me, I made my fair share)…

Aside from some tailored suits that I bought in Hoi An, which I’ll cover later, $124/a person (U.S.) lasted the entire 2 week trip. Seriously, it covered pretty much all the food and museums. You can easily get by on eating 3 meals a day for $5 and drinking 25 cent beer the entire time since bottles of water are given to you by the hotels.  The museums cost somewhere between 50 cents to $5 in most cases (if you have a student ID, that’s gold for discounts).  And souvenirs? You almost feel bad paying as little as you do for gifts.  So has much as you’ll cringe throwing down inevitably four figures to get to and stay in Vietnam, all the expenses while in country will be minimal.

The food in Vietnam is also easily the best of all the Southeast Asian countries. Before my trip, I kept hearing about how good the food in Singapore was, but in my opinion the food I had in Vietnam was FAR better.  Although there were some culinary gems in Laos that are tough to beat, on the whole the food in Vietnam was superior because it just tasted fresher and you got more for the money.  Even the chicken in our $1 noodle soup bowls (Phở) on the street tasted better than any gourmet chicken I’ve had at a U.S. restaurant. I’m guessing it’s because everything in Vietnam is as organic/free range/whatever else roaming animals do to be tasty as it gets. And my companions went absolutely fruit juice crazy with every possible fresh squeezed juice available for them to drink at a fraction of the Whole Foods price. (“Where to Eat” will be posted next.)

The ultimate cheap, fresh, delicious eats. Everything in this picture probably cost a total of $4.

Hanoi itself is quite intimidating when you first get in. It’s communist government is on full display during customs check at the airport. And once you get into Hanoi proper, it’s like walking into a frenzy of Evel Knievel wannabes. Remember my mantra when going to countries such as this: Elbows in!  And that certainly applies here with all the scooters, cars, and people zig zagging each and every way.  It’ll take you a day or two to acclimate to the streets and get to that point where you become calm enough to be a what I call a “precision walker” and just walk across the street with no fear as traffic flies around you (you will literally have scooters and cars come within inches of you).



The cab from the airport to a hotel in the Old Quarter, which is where you’ll want to stay while in Hanoi, should be about $20 or 450,000 VND (it really will take you a while to get used to paying for things in the thousands).

Essence Hanoi Hotel & Spa
22A Tạ Hiện, Hàng Buồm, Hoàn Kiếm
Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam

Located perfectly in the Old Quarter, a quick walk from Hoàn Kiếm Lake, most of what you’ll want to see in Hanoi is within walking distance or a short cab ride away from Essence. Like a lot of Southeast Asian countries, the hotel hospitality is top notch.  As you check-in you’re offered tea and a hot towel. But unlike the hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the staff here isn’t overbearing in their want to please you; they’ll give you the space you need after a long trip to get there. The rooms are not the biggest in the world, but they’re clean, and each has a laptop for guest use.  The hotel also has a spa that, when we were there, has a two for one massage deal.  Ultimately, two of us would each get a massage for $15.

 

Singapore: Where to Stay and Eat

Singapore is the perfect Asia layover.  It’s what I would call “Asia for the non-ambitious traveler.” What I mean by that is Singapore is incredibly comfortable, making it also incredibly standard.  It’s a very, very easy city to negotiate; it’s super clean, modern, and everyone speaks English.  The tap water is potable, and you really don’t need to worry about the food at all.  The money is in Singapore dollars (SGD) and the exchange is an easy 1 SGD for every 75 U.S. cents (essentially making everything there a tad cheaper).  Also, the subway is the most user friendly public system I’ve ever been on; it puts the subways in the U.S. to shame.

So would I go to Asia to visit Singapore specifically?  No.  But I would definitely use it as a jumping off point for the rest of the continent as it’ll help ease you into the area while you recover from jet lag.  Which is what we did for a weekend before heading off to Vietnam for 2 weeks.

Where to stay

The Quincy Hotel
22 Mount Elizabeth, Singapore 228517

I would highly recommend the Quincy Hotel, but only if you don’t mind walking about 20-30 minutes to get to the historical sights.  Keep in mind, it can get really hot in Singapore, so that 30 minutes walk gets pretty long. If you’re okay with that walk every day, then stay here.  Also, it’s located just off of Orchard Road, the main boulevard with dozens of shopping malls (literally dozens of 9 level shopping malls), so if shopping is your thing you’re right where you need to be.

This surprisingly chic hotel has super modern rooms with some perks I’ve never really seen at any other hotel I’ve stayed at. The first big perk is this: free minibar access in your room.  Yes, free. Every day they restock it with a few sodas, juices, and a couple beers that you can dive into without costing you extra.

Free minibar, restocked daily.
(If you don’t watch “Fresh Off the Boat”, you should. It’s funny as hell.)

The second perk is they’ll wash 2 pieces of laundry a day for you. Again, because you’re in a country that’s right on the equator, you’ll want to take advantage of cleaning up some of your sweaty garb. The breakfast buffet is excellent and the gym and pool are extremely nice.  The pool in particular is outdoor, but covered, and the water runs to the edge giving it an infinity pool feel right into the Singapore skyline. And the hotel is relatively affordable; it only cost us a reasonable $150 U.S. a night (through Expedia).

Where to eat

Singapore is world-renowned for having amazing food.  I don’t see why.  I don’t mean to sound snobby, but the reality, in my opinion, doesn’t live up to the hype. I’m not saying the food was horrible; quite the opposite, the food was actually very good. It all tasted very fresh, and was super cheap (most entrées are under $5 SGD).  And the Kopi coffee is delicious. But is it deserving of this whole, “Oh my god, Singapore has the best food in the world” reputation?  Nope, not in this travelers opinion.  But I’m fully willing to admit that maybe I didn’t go to the right places or maybe I am just a snobby dick. Who knows? But anywhoo…

Hawker Centers & Food Courts

These bad boys are where the local folks, tourists, pretty much everyone goes to get their grub. Many locals told me they rarely cook because it’s just cheaper to eat out. The Food Courts are usually located in the giant malls that I mentioned before on Orchard Road and other areas.  They are a step above Hawker Centers which are their own standalone collection of food stalls.  Both offer the same types of food, it’s just that the Food Courts are a little cleaner and a bit more expensive.  We went to both, and both had very good fare at a very cheap price. But again, a lot of the food that you find in the Hawker Centers and Food Courts you can easily find in an American Super 88 Asian market. People would rather travel 10,000 miles to get the “real thing” than go probably 30 minutes down the highway for the same thing in the U.S.…

Keep in mind, not all Hawker Centers are 24 hours (a mistake we realized after going to one and finding it closed for lunch), so check the times. Also, for some reason Singaporean food centers seem to hate napkins.  I don’t know why, but there were no napkins anywhere.  So either bring your own or I hope you like having food grease on your pants (thank god for the free laundry service at the Quincy…).

The Hawker Center we ended up going to is the popular Lau Pa Sat, which is open 24 hours, and got a slew of entrees including Char Sew Noodles, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Basil Chicken (from a Thai stall), and Fried Kway Theo (essentially chow fun noodles).

We also stopped into a Food Court chain called Food Republic and had their version of Hainanese Chicken Rice, and a roasted duck dish.

Din Tai Fung

Din Tai Fungs are located throughout Singapore, and I later realized when we got there that it’s actually an international chain that we’ve been to! We went to the location in Sydney in 2015 (I clearly need to read my own blog more often…). So it’s not exactly a local spot, but the locals themselves seem to love it as the location we were at inside the Wisma Atria on Orchard Road was packed. As with most of the locations, the Din Tai Fung kitchen is open for all the customers to see the dumpling chefs hard at work.

Just like in Sydney, I wasn’t blown away by the good, yet unspectacular food. However, their claim to fame in Singapore is the Truffle & Pork Xiao Long Bao, a steamed truffle/pork soup dumpling (I legitimately don’t remember this offering being in the Sydney location, and looking through the Aussie menu now I don’t see it). It ain’t cheap, even in American dollars. One dumpling is $5 SGD (to give you a reference, 6 of the regular pork dumplings is $8 SGD).  But that one dumpling…ooh boy…it was damn good.  It’s a delicious mix of truffle mushroomy, earthy, salty pork meaty, brothy, explosive flavor–all packed into one little bite.  I chewed very, very slowly and let the flavors just marinate on my tongue.

Truffle & Pork Xiao Long Bao

Bangkok Food Tour, our own Hangover @ Sky Bar, and Chinatown

After getting about an hour of sleep, we somehow miraculously got ourselves up and headed out the door for the Bangkok Food Tour.  If we had known that we’d be out until sunrise the night before, we would never have signed up for it, but since it was already paid for, we just sucked it up and marched on over.  I can’t imagine what the other folks on the tour thought of us at first when we showed up looking obviously like we’d clearly been partying hard just a few short hours earlier.  But we did end up enjoying ourselves quite a bit and despite being aggressively hungover it was real nice having some great conversations and getting to know everyone else on the tour.

However, my review of the Bangkok Food Tour is this: if you’re already typically an adventurous eater, I wouldn’t bother.  This is not a criticism of the tour itself.  Our guide was great, and like I said, it was actually amazing that we were able to get along and have fun with all the other tourists in our condition.  But for my buddy and I who are already always trying exotic foods on the menu, the food at the stops that we made didn’t really live up to what we already do on a regular basis.  But I’ll give you an overview of the tour anyways and you can decide for yourself whether or not it’s worth the 1200 baht.

The tour stops at 5 local spots and here’s the food that each offered:

  • Pig leg at a Chinese restaurant.
  • Rice Noodle in Yellow Curry with Egg, Coconut, Milk, Peanut, and Beef along with a Chicken pastry at a Middle Eastern/SE Asian fusion place.
  • Thai Salad (very spicy), Deep Fried Chicken with Lemongrass, Pork and Mushrooms at a very local, alleyway place.  This was probably the best of the stops in terms of food and getting to go to a real “local” eatery.
  • Green Custard Buns and Thai Iced Tea at a Chinese bakery.
  • Green Curry Chicken w/ Roti and Coconut Sorbet at an Indian/SE Asian fusion restaurant owned by a member of the Thai royal family who has an affinity for Indian food.

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So like I said, it was a perfectly fine tour, but not worth it if those food options don’t “excite” you.

After that, we napped for a good while and then headed to the Sky Bar at the Lebua Hotel.  If you’ve ever seen the Hangover II (ironically, we went hungover as well), this was the bar featured prominently in that movie and in turn posters of the movie are featured prominently in the hotel’s lobby.  It is easy to see why the movie producers chose this for the film.  Bangkok is known for its multitude of rooftop bars, but I can’t imagine one with a view more spectacular than the one at Sky Bar.  From the bar you can see a solid 270 degrees over Bangkok.  We showed up at sunset and had a perfect view of the sun coming down in the West.  The drink prices are expensive, probably even a little expensive for Western standards, but this is to be expected because the clientele are all wealthier tourists.  But a drink or two is a small price to pay for the relaxing atmosphere, great view, and surprisingly not too packed bar area.  There is a smart casual dress code, so make sure to shower and change before you go.

From Sky Bar we made our way to Chinatown for dinner.  It’s here that you can really find street food central.  The chaos isn’t all that much different from a lot of other Chinatowns around the world, but the difference here is that the sidewalks aren’t for walkers – it’s for all the tables set up for the street food carts.   So essentially the road is full of cars, cabs, Tuk Tuks, and pedestrians (Keep Your Elbows In!).  I can’t honestly say for sure I knew what some of the food was that we saw, but we kept it relatively safe and tried a bunch of different carts featuring food I recognized including:

  • Roast BBQ Pork noodles.
  • Shrimp at this one cart where the cook was putting on a ridiculous fire show with his wok.
  • Pad Thai — the best Pad Thai we had on the trip.  Word of advice: look for the Pad Thai carts that throw a whole fried egg on top of the noodles.

 

All of this food cost 300 baht per person ($1 = 30 baht).

A couple of other quick places we stopped in on our way back to the Landmark on Soi 11.

  • Oskar Bistro: Typical expat bar with a good amount of porch seating to watch the party scene on the streets of Soi 11.
  • Levels Club:  We came in here to see what the club scene is like and this place is the place to go if you want to dance.  You take an elevator up to the second floor club consists of two floors.  Go-Go dancers perform at the front by the DJ and there are multiple bars making the wait for a drink very short.  There’s also a large outdoor porch area if you want to get away from the loud music for a bit.  Folks keep in mind, there are prostitutes lined up along the edges of the dance floor ready to pounce.

Bangkok, Thailand

I’ve been pretty blessed so far to have started 2015 with trips to Australia (I’m still working on those Great Barrier Reef pics, more to come on that) and now — Southeast Asia.  The 12-day trip of the region consisted of Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.  Starting off in Bangkok, which is essentially the international hub of SE Asia, was the natural choice for the first part of our trek.

The flight over is long and arduous, so if you can afford it, I would highly recommend choosing an airline carrier that is on the higher end.  We flew over, with a stop in Dubai, on Emirates Airlines.  Despite the long travel, that flight was easily the most comfortable flight I’ve ever been on.  I fully admit that it helped that I had an entire row to myself for the 14-hour leg, but on top of that the flight attendants treat you like you are in First Class, the TVs have every imaginable movie (I pretty much watched all the Oscar nominees) and outside the plane camera views. The more bizarre, yet cool part was when they dimmed down the light to let people sleep, the ceiling of the cabin illuminates like a starry night.

I do have one gripe that’s not on the airline. And it’s a tip to you all: Don’t push on the TV monitor buttons so hard.  It’s not your iPad, it’s the back of someone’s seat.

Now that that’s out of the way, we landed in Bangkok in the late afternoon and it was the typical chaos in the Bangkok airport.  Getting a cab was far less of a pain than we anticipated, as they have a cab stand with an organizer directing passengers into cabs.  The cabs should cost around 300-400 baht ($1 = 30 baht) for the 30-minute ride into the city, but our cab told us 500 baht flat rate.  At this point we were too tired to care about arguing and paid the extra $3.  This will be a trend throughout.  SE Asia is ridiculously inexpensive once you get there.  Food, taxis, bars, whatever — it’s all really cheap.

After an interesting cab ride where the driver told us about some good lady-boy bars, we arrived at our hotel, The Landmark Bangkok.  Though the Landmark isn’t anything special, a good solid western hotel (we will eventually stay at cheaper, more native lodging in Laos and Cambodia), what is an advantage of staying there is its close proximity to Soi 11, the popular going out street in Bangkok, and it’s a block away from the Nana train stop.

The trains in Bangkok, by the way, are really modern (just built in 2008), are cheap, and are super easy to use in Bangkok.  This is key because you’ll want to use the trains especially during rush hour.  Cabs at those times will be charging high flat rates because rush hour traffic is so bad that what typically would be a 15-minute drive could turn into an hour or two.  The train will be faster and cheaper.

After we checked in and cleaned up a bit, we went out to explore the area.  The streets are packed with vendors and the hustle and bustle that goes with that.  Right on the first night, I learned the #1 survival tip of Southeast Asia: Keep Your Elbows In!   At all times.  If you don’t, you’re likely to get the hit by a Tuk Tuk, or you might hit some person enjoying their street food on the sidewalk, or any number of things.  Keep them in.  I know doubt will be saying this again in the next few posts; it’s easily the mantra of the trip.

Walking around the streets of Bangkok, I immediately noticed something.  While the noise and energy of the streets was no different than the vibe in say for instance Cairo or Lima, there was an added element of dirtiness to Bangkok.  I don’t mean it physically had more trash.  I mean the sex industry is much more in your face than those other more conservative Third World cities.  There are a ton of “massage parlors” everywhere and lady-boys walking up and down the street.  The vendors on the sidewalk amusingly sell boxes of Viagra and Cialis next to the souvenir trinkets and t-shirts.  It’s a very unique experience walking around that for that for the first time.  But you do get used it.

Since we had no dinner plans, we did what the locals do and grabbed $1 soup noodles from a food cart on the street, which was delicious, and grabbed a 75 cent chicken skewer at a different cart.  We also grabbed a few beers at a dive bar on Soi 11 called The Alchemist (a good place to go if you want a chill vibe and some live music).

The night didn’t last long.  Jet-lag won and we passed out.  More to come on the sights and sounds of Bangkok.

Quick Hits – Toki Underground, Washington, D.C.

I’m not usually the biggest noodle soup fan, and that applies to Pho, Ramen, whatever.  It tends to never give me that satisfying full feeling after I’m done.  Toki Underground changed that.

Located on the growing H Street corridor in Washington, D.C., Toki Underground’s entrance is kind of hidden.  Look for The Pug dive bar and the door to Toki Undergound will be on the left.  Despite the name, the restaurant is located upstairs.  It’s not large so there will be a wait; leave them your cell number and they’ll send a text when your seat is ready while you wait with a hipster beer downstairs in The Pug.

When we were seated, our waiter thoroughly explained all the items on the menu and gave us an overview of how each ramen was different (along with his personal favorites).  I went for the Taipei Curry Chicken Ramen, and my friend got the Red Miso Ramen.  Both were excellent.  I preferred the broth in my Taipei Curry Chicken as it was a bit creamier than her Red Miso, which was a little saltier with that miso taste.  The pork belly however in hers was a little better than the chicken (though the chicken was still very good and I devoured it happily).

As for the cocktails, you gotta try the Toki Monster if you’re a whiskey person.  It’s essentially their version of an Old Fashioned, however they give you a little pork belly skewer to pair the libation with and it is a banging combination of delicious.  I definitely plan on going back to try the other items on their menu.  Toki Underground — well worth a visit.

Taipei Curry Chicken Ramen
Taipei Curry Chicken Ramen