The Beaches of Vietnam

Greetings from the future!

After exploring the caves of Phong Nha, Chris and I were looking to do a bit of relaxing above ground. For this we headed to our next two destinations where some of the best beaches in Vietnam awaited: Hue and Hoi An.

The city of Hue (pronounced Hway) holds great historical significance in Vietnam. It served as the former capital under the Nguyen Dynasty Empire, the last dynasty in Vietnam, from 1802-1945. This time period overlapped with the French occupation of Vietnam (1858-1954). Though the French retained the Nguyen Empire, the French controlled the throne during this time. This changed in 1945 when Ho Chi Minh and his nationalist movement declared Vietnam’s independence and the last emperor abdicated the throne. This marked the beginning of Vietnam’s war with France, which lasted from 1945-1954.

The French pulled out of Vietnam in 1954 and the war came to an end with the signing of a peace treaty, called the Geneva Accord, the terms of which divided the country into two: North and South. The peacetime didn’t last long for Vietnam, as fighting between the South and North soon broke out. The U.S. sent advisors to aid the anti-communist South in their fight against the communist North, and this then segued into sending U.S. troops beginning in 1964, which marked the start of what is called the American War here in Vietnam as opposed to what we refer to as the Vietnam War back home. Hue’s location in the middle of Vietnam, between North and South, made it the city closest to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) during the war.

Those last two paragraphs allude to a dense and complicated period of history, which, quite obviously, very much involved the U.S. Being of the post-Vietnam war generation, my schooling didn’t cover this piece of U.S. history in great detail. Most of my generation’s understanding of the Vietnam War likely either comes from family members that were involved or movies, e.g. Forrest Gump, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Good Morning Vietnam, etc. I believe Chris aims to unpack this history in a later post, but for now if you want to read more about key events in Vietnam’s modern history, I’ll refer you to this simplified timeline from the BBC.

Bottom line, there is a lot of historical sight seeing to be done in Hue. Chris and I planned on partaking in extensive historical tourism while in Ho Chi Minh City, so we focused our stay in Hue more on leisure. After all, we’d been traveling for a month and a half and had yet to hit a beach. I was craving some serious beach time, and for that, Hue delivered.

The beach is about 10 miles from downtown Hue, where we were staying. In fact, many backpackers don’t even realize there is a beach in Hue and wrongly deem Hue a rather dull town. We had been advised by travelers we met in Phong Nha that Hue had a beautiful beach, and we are grateful for the tip.

We arrived to our hotel in Hue in the morning. We ate a quick breakfast and set about figuring out how to traverse these 10 miles. First, we attempted to make the trip on bicycles, but the bicycles available to rent were too small for Chris, a re-occurring problem for him in this part of the world. At this point, we decided to do it the Southeast Asia way: by motorbike.

This marked the first time we rented a motorbike on our trip. It’s a common affair for backpackers in Southeast Asia. You need only do a quick survey of backpackers to notice the distinguishing mark of a muffler burn on the calves of many (get off the bike from the left side!). There are both manual and automatic bikes available; we opted for an automatic. With helmets fastened and fuel in the tank — fuel is obtained from roadside stands where gasoline is stored in soda bottles — we embarked for the beach!

After two wrong turns and several attempts to ask for directions to the beach — picture Chris and me wildly gesticulating different swimming strokes — we got set on the right path. [Side note: when Vietnamese people don’t know how to help you or don’t know what you’re talking about, they do this hand gesture where they shake their extended and open hand from side to side, somewhat like the hand gesture we would use to indicate if something was just “so so.” From our interpretation this gesture can mean either simply “I don’t know” or “I can’t help” or when paired with an expression of irritation verging on anger, “Leave me the hell alone,” and “Why are you addressing me in English, we speak Vietnamese here, idiot.”]

After about 20 minutes, we arrived to a private beach called, “Beach Bar Hue,” which was associated with a hotel and bar with the same name. [Another side note: On our way to the beach, we passed by a cemetery, which at first I didn’t recognize as a cemetery because of the brightly colored temple-like shrines that serve as grave markers — much different from the muted gray and black gravestones that fill our cemeteries back home.] We had to pay the equivalent of $5 to access the beach, for which we received a voucher for the same amount, which could be used for food or drink; it was a good deal and permitted entrance to a beautiful and quiet beach without too many people. We spent two days at the beach and would return to the city in the evening where we had the option of quaint cafes, a single late-night bar called “Brown Eyes” and ample street food options.

It was while in Hue that we gradually noticed the celebratory decorations adorning the city center and growing crowds of domestic tourists. Even more apparent to us were the rise in prices of accommodations and motorbike rentals. Our hotel staff alerted us that a holiday was approaching; it would last a week. What was the holiday celebrating, we asked in ignorance. The staff awkwardly danced around this question …

As it turned out, we unknowingly stumbled upon the 40th anniversary of the defeat of the Americans, the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam … oh that holiday.

Traveling in Vietnam as an American brings with it some mixed feelings … a heightened sense of national awareness, remorse for something that happened before I was born, and admiration for hardships overcome. Tourism is the backbone of Vietnam’s economy, and people are nothing but nice and accommodating to American tourists. Still, it’s hard to overlook the myriad reasons the Vietnamese have to be less than welcoming to us Americans. Sure, the war is in past … but is it? Landmines and unexploded ordinances (UXOs) continue to kill and injure people everyday — not just in Vietnam, but in Cambodia and Laos as well. The aftermath of Agent Orange continues to plague the Southern Vietnamese. I’ll write more on this when we get to Ho Chi Minh City, but for now I’ll say that traveling during the anniversary heightened this awareness.

On the practical side of things, it made booking travel and accommodations extremely challenging. For instance, twice we showed up to a hotel where we had a reservation and they had just simply given our room away, no problem. As was the case when we arrived in Hoi An. This was a low point.

We arrived to our guesthouse to find two British couples already in a heated argument with the staff, and soon discovered we’d all suffered the same fate: reservations but no rooms. Luckily, all six of us were able to find lodging at a brand new hotel with rates way cheaper than they could have charged since they had just opened for business that very day, so things worked out in the end.

It’s worth noting that the garment industry is a big tourist draw in Hoi An. For a comparatively cheap price to what you’d pay back home, you can choose your own fabric and materials and get suits, dresses, shoes and accessories made. Though we thought about doing this, we ultimately decided we didn’t want to get something nice made only to stuff it in our packs and travel with it for the next two months. You can also ship things home, but it sounded like too much of a hassle. It should also be noted that there are other great beach spots in Vietnam, including Nha Trang and Phu Quoc Island, but we skipped out on those because there is only so much you can see and do when traveling. Besides, other great beaches in Cambodia and Thailand still await, so all in good time!

One last thing before I go for now — I want to sing the praises of a cafe called Fusion in Hoi An. It featured a menu that seemed made for me. I had a green juice (cucumber, celery, ginger, spinach and cayenne pepper) and a watercress salad with buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto and mango. I felt right at home.

Here are our photos from Hue and Hoi An:


Rice Paddies in the Mountains and Dragons in the Sea

Greetings from the future!

This dispatch comes to you from two popular Vietnam tourist destinations: Sapa and Halong Bay.

First, Sapa:

After two days in Hanoi, we set off for the mountain town of Sapa in northwestern Vietnam near the Chinese border. A very comfortable overnight train — quite contrary to our Shanghai to Hong Kong experience — took us from Hanoi to the town of Lao Cai, from which we took an hour shuttle bus to Sapa. The town of Sapa is quite small and tourism is hyper focused on appealing to Western travelers, as we will come to learn is the case for most travel destinations in Vietnam where the tourism industry is a well-oiled machine. The main street is lined with restaurants offering Western food, including an abundance of Italian pizzerias each with drool-inducing photos of pizzas on the menu and signs professing “the best pizza in Sapa,” one after another, but don’t be surprised when what arrives at your table doesn’t look like the photo. Western food is tricky in the East. You try to avoid the temptation because you know 9 times out of 10 you’ll be disappointed, but sometimes you want pizza so freaking bad, you make the leap of faith. In Sapa our pizza attempt left a lot to be desired.

So my point, stick to the Vietnamese cuisine in smaller towns. In big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, it’s a different story. Speaking of Vietnamese food, it was a welcome change from Chinese food. Don’t get me wrong, there were many Chinese dishes that delighted my palate, but if I had one request of Chinese food in general, it would be, “easy on the grease.” Everything is deep-fried, stir-fried, double-fried … the amount of cooking oil used in the country could fill an ocean. So, Vietnam’s fresh, light, seemingly healthy approach to cooking was refreshing. Ingredients like lemon grass, chili peppers and fish sauce are incorporated into many dishes. And pho, the most popular Vietnamese dish stateside, is actually consumed at breakfast in Vietnam. You can purchase a bowl from any street food vendor for about 15,000 to 30,000 Vietnamese Dong, approximately $0.50 to $1.50. Additionally, bánh mì just means bread, specifically baguettes, and can indicate any type of sandwich. As Chris mentioned in his introductory post, Vietnam was ruled by the French for a century, and the French influence today is still recognizable in the country’s cuisine and coffee culture.

Now back to Sapa …

Sapa is a top tourist attraction in Vietnam with sought after treks to the top of Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam and all of Indochina at 10,312 ft., or through rice paddies and into local villages, where you can stay with a family from the village for the night. Vietnam is home to about 54 ethnic groups — the large majority, more than 86%, being ethnic Viet or Kihn. The majority of the remaining ethic groups live in the interior mountainous highlands.

Chris and I decided to do the two-day/one-night trek taking us through rice paddies and three villages, a H’mong, Red Dao and Tay village in that order, which included spending the night in the home of a Red Dao family. A distinguishing fashion of the Red Dao women is their red head scarves and shaven eyebrows. This is a photo of the family that we stayed with — the woman on the far right is in traditional dress and the baby girl is wearing a traditional hat made by her mother:

Joining us on our trek was an all-star backpacker group, including a soldier in the British Army, A Muay Thai boxer from Seattle, an Italian, a Spaniard and a Frenchman. Chris and I had a blast with our five new friends, and the family that we stayed with was extremely kind. They prepared a delicious and elaborate meal for us and generously indulged us in their homemade rice wine, which made day two of the hike extremely difficult for all of us in the group.

Here are some photos from our trek:

Next, Halong Bay:

After our trek in Sapa, we headed back to Hanoi, and then from Hanoi we organized a three-day/two-night trip to Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin. Halong translates as “descending dragon”, and refers to a legend claiming that during ancient times, when Vietnam was newly formed, dragons descended from the heavens to help the Vietnamese people fight invaders from the North. This legend accounts for the mythical origin of the nearly 2,000 islands in Halong Bay. According to the legend:

“While the mighty enemies were attacking the main land, The Mother Dragon and her children suddenly appeared and incinerated the enemies with their divine fire and giant emeralds. The emeralds from the dragon’s mouth were scattered around the battlefield on the sea and formed an invincible defensive wall that left the enemy battleship fleet sinking. Thanks to the dragons, the Northern invaders were finally swept away and the peace finally came back to the South East Asian country once again. After thousands of years, the wall of emeralds turned into islands and islets of different sizes and shapes.”

The limestone rock formations pierce through the sea’s aqua blue surface making for a dramatic landscape of seemingly mythical quality. Our tour included one night on a boat and one night in a bungalow on Cat Ba Island. We also visited a pearl farm where we learned that a single plastic sphere is inserted into each clam to increase the production of viable pearls and accelerate their formation. The pearl develops around the artificial center.

Its unparalleled natural beauty made Halong Bay an unforgettable experience. Here are some photos from our trip:

Stay tuned for more from Vietnam!

Goodbye China, Hello Vietnam!

One month after arriving in China, Chris and I prepared for the next leg of our journey. A two hour flight would take us from Hong Kong to Hanoi, Vietnam. But first, before we close the chapter on China for now, here is a video Chris put together featuring highlights from our travels in the Middle Kingdom and a sneak peak into our first few stops in Vietnam. Also, note the HD (hand drawn) map feature, courtesy of Chris.

Stay tuned for more tales of tomorrow coming soon from Vietnam!


One Country, Two Systems

Greetings from the future!

This dispatch comes to you from the financial hub of Asia — Hong Kong. There is so much to say about Hong Kong … where do I start? I know, with the 18-hour train ride from Shanghai that got us here. Up to this point, we’ve been spoiled by China’s high-speed train system — the G-train. It’s super clean, super smooth and super fast, averaging speeds of 124 mph. Sometimes, I found myself even wishing the train ride was a bit longer, like the 32 minute train ride from Suzhou to Shanghai.

Well, not this time. Anticipating the rise in prices that Hong Kong would bring and compensating for big spending nights in Shanghai, Chris and I decided to save a buck and take the slow train …

And boy-oh-boy was it slow … and smoky … and bumpy … and crowded, like six-person sleeper car crowded with entire elaborate family meals taking place on the bottom bunks. I was still recovering from a bad sheng jian bao incident in Shanghai (If you recall the doughy fried dumplings I raved about from Suzhou, I did not have the same love affair with Shanghai’s version, being that they made me violently ill.), so I quietly read my book from the top bunk whereas Chris joined in the festivities down below, feasting on duck, pickled vegetables and soybeans and downing bijou (rice wine). “Ganbei!” was shouted repeatedly, a cheers invoking you to empty your glass. Not surprisingly, the combination of pungent foods, rice wine and dozens of men smoking is not the best thing for a girl who recently reconfigured her digestive track.

Did I mention there was a fight? Before you start to worry, let me assure you we were in no danger. The fight was more theatre than legitimate threat; chest pounding of drunk, middle-aged men, and high pitched yelling from their wives. What went down exactly, we have no idea, but Chris and I, as well as the two American teachers we met (presently teaching in Abu Dhabi), tried our best to hide our laughter. It was a ridiculous and raucous scene.

But enough about the train, let’s talk about Hong Kong!

It’s impossible to describe Hong Kong without incorporating a bit of history. This is usually Chris’ area of expertise, but here’s my brief summary:

You probably know that the Brits ruled Hong Kong for a while, actually 156 years from 1841 – 1997. In 1841, China ceded Hong Kong, a sparsely populated island at the time, to Britain as a means of ending the first Opium War. The conflict had begun in 1839 when the British invaded China after China had attempted to suppress Britain’s opium trade (see Chris’ Shanghai post for more on opium’s influence in China). The British took over Hong Kong as a part of the Treaty of Nanjing, marking the beginning of the era of unequal treaties, a period in the 19th and 20th century where China was forced to handover control of many key territories (Chris wrote about this history previously in the post about Qingdao). As a British colony, Hong Kong thrived as an East-West trade point and epicenter of Western industry in Asia.

In 1898, China leased Hong Kong to the UK for an additional 99 years, and in 1997 rule over Hong Kong was peaceably transferred back to China on the condition that the Chinese communist party would maintain Hong Kong’s capitalist system, allowing Hong Kong to remain the financial center of Asia and thus creating the present status quo between China and Hong Kong as “one country, two systems.”

In short, Hong Kong is a lot like London but with much better weather.

So what does all this mean for our visit to Hong Kong? Western food at its finest! Pizza, pasta, tacos, burgers, fine dining or the best of comfort foods; it’s all here, it’s all good, and it’s all expensive. Our first night out, we gorged ourselves on gourmet pizza and red wine at an Italian restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong, a part of town celebrated for its culinary variety and nightlife. It was delicious and budget-wise comparable to a dinner out on 14th Street in D.C.

The most remarkable thing about Hong Kong is perhaps the very existence of this giant, lit-up metropolis, set smack dab in the middle of a wild, mountainous jungle. There is no other place like it that I’ve seen. We spent our days hiking on miles and miles of trails, and our nights out on the town, underdressed, weaving in and out of crowds of people from all over the world.

You want a suit? Ten men will offer to sell you one within 10 paces. You want a place to stay, this guy over here already has a room for you! Need to exchange money? Of course it’s not counterfeit! How about a watch? It’s fake, and that’s actually a selling point. Bottom line, there isn’t much you’ll want for in Hong Kong. Additionally, it’s a great place to load up on beauty products and over-the-counter medicine, being that they have an English-language pharmacy chain, Watson’s. [Note to female readers: much of the skin products (moisturizer, soap, sun tan lotion, etc.) in China and elsewhere in Asia have whitening agents in them, so this can make shopping for such things difficult if you are unable to read the labels.]

I’ve talked a lot about the Western food available in Hong Kong, but Eastern food shines here as well. Hong Kong is located across from mainland China’s Guangdong province, which was formally known as Canton. The people here speak Cantonese, not Mandarin like most of mainland China. Here is and interesting fact about Cantonese that I learned from Chris’ friend Chi-Kit, Hong Kong native currently living in Guangdong: The Cantonese language has nine tones whereas Mandarin only has five, making Cantonese the more complicated of the two. Chi-Kit took us to dinner one night (Thank you, Chi-Kit!), and he explained some of the nuances of the Cantonese language.

Now, back on the subject of food, Cantonese cuisine is the typical food in Hong Kong and the whole of Guangdong province. The most famous of Cantonese foods, at least in the West, is dim sum. This is China’s answer to Sunday brunch. Swap out eggs benedict for BBQ pork buns and mimosas for hot tea, and you have the same meal of friends and/or family getting together and stuffing their faces early in the day. [Some traditional places actually open as early as 5 a.m. and you can expect an elderly crowd at that hour.] We researched the best dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong and settled upon the restaurant crowned as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, Tim Ho Wan. A crowd of people were already waiting outside when we arrived but our wait only lasted a few minutes and soon after being seated the feasting began.

Here are some other interesting things about Hong Kong:

  • Both Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee were born in Hong Kong. Kung Fu is a big deal. There is a statue of Bruce Lee on Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars, which is comparable to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. [Side note: We stayed at a hotel called Kung Fu Garden. There was a Kung Fu center on the main floor — no garden, however. Accommodations were not the best — did I mention how expensive Hong Kong is?]
  • Hong Kong is made up of 235 islands. Hong Kong Island is the main one. We stayed on Kowloon, which was just a five-minute ferry ride away. The ferry is cheap and it runs back and forth, non-stop, for most of the day, so you never have to wait long. The ride at night with the lit-up city skyline is magical.
  • There is a famous snake restaurant called She Wong Lam. At Chris’ charge, we set out for this restaurant. When we arrived, a live, caged snake greeted us at the door. Much to Chris’ dismay and my relief, we discovered that the place only serves food in the fall and winter seasons. Right now they just sell snake products purporting a range of medicinal qualities, with a heavy focus on virility. We were in it for the eats, so we left empty handed. I dodged snake for now, but there’s no shortage of snake eating in Southeast Asia, so I’m likely to be faced with this Fear Factor-esque meal again.
  • Hiking and biking is great in Hong Kong. We spent a day hiking the Dragon’s Back trail on Hong Kong Island, ending the hike at Big Wave Bay, where we watched people surf as we rested on the beach.  We spent another day hiking on Lantau Island.
  • You don’t want to miss the view from Victoria Peak. The tram (like an incline) is a fun way to get up to the top but can entail brutal lines, especially on the weekend. You can also take a bus or just hoof it like Chris and I did. We then hiked from the top along the Hong Kong Trail. With all the great trails available, we ended up getting quite a bit of exercise during our stay. Hopefully that will help counteract all the pizza, wine and dim sum!

Check out our photos from Hong Kong:


Springtime in Suzhou

Greetings from the future!

This dispatch comes to you from the ancient Chinese city of Suzhou, first built in 514 B.C.

An ancient Chinese proverb proclaims, “In heaven there is paradise, on earth there are Hangzhou and Suzhou.” I have not been to Hangzhou, but I can attest that Suzhou does indeed possess the makings of a heaven on earth.

Marco Polo was the first westerner to sing Suzhou’s praises. It’s no wonder the Venetian traveler found this Chinese city to his liking considering Suzhou, with its intricate canal system, is called the Venice of the East.

Venice is one of my favorite cities, so its eastern counterpart had a lot to live up to.

Suzhou did not disappoint. To the contrary, this Sino-paradise earned its way into a top slot on my list of favorite places.

The ancient canal system, still intact, serves as the foundation for Suzhou’s alluring charm. Throw in verdant city gardens pregnant with spring’s blossoms and you have enough to inspire millennia of poets, artists … and two humble tourists.

As described by a friend we met in Nanjing, “Nanjing is like a man; Suzhou is like a woman.” I didn’t quite know what she meant at the time, but after just one day in this eastern Eden, I get it. Permitting gender stereotypes, Suzhou shows a softer side of a nation increasingly identified as an industrial powerhouse. An underlying echo of romanticism pervaded as we leisurely admired the city’s finely manicured gardens, bonsai groves and canals.

There are plenty of sights to keep your itinerary full for 3-4 days in Suzhou. Here are some highlights from our stay:

Tiger Hill Pagoda under construction.

Tiger Hill Pagoda under construction.

Tiger Hill: A quick bus ride from our hostel, Tiger Hill is a hillside area replete with gardens, canal bridges, lazy waterways, women picking tea leaves, temples and historical sights that date back to the city’s founding. The most famous monument, the Tiger Hill Pagoda (Yunyan Pagoda), was built between the years 959-961 during the Northern Song Dynasty. Like Suzhou, the Tiger Hill pagoda too has an Italian twin, in this case, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The pagoda’s lean — about 3.5 degrees to the north — is very apparent, but unfortunately while we visited, the pagoda was under construction and scaffolding obstructed our entry and photos. Still, Chris and I spent the afternoon strolling around Tiger Hill’s beautiful and expansive grounds, fully taken with the beauty all around us.



A pagoda in the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

Humble Administrator’s Garden: This was my favorite of the city gardens we visited. I dragged Chris around every nook and cranny of this place.  I loved it. We didn’t leave until the garden closed and they kicked us out.


White porcelain pillow  Song Dynasty (960-1279) Doesn't look very comfy!

White porcelain pillow – Song Dynasty (960-1279)
Doesn’t look very comfy!

Suzhou Museum: Chris loved this place. He dragged me to every nook and cranny … and it was free! It offers a great collection of Chinese artifacts and artistry chronologically organized telling the story of Chinese history, and highlights the artistic and philosophical Chinese literati tradition, which apparently had a strong foothold here in Suzhou.


Chris sitting along the canal in the Pingjiang District.

Chris sitting along the canal in the Pingjiang District.

Pingjiang District: Specifically, Taijian Long Lane — an area of Suzhou that is still reminiscent of its ancient architecture and structure. Narrow passages packed with tourists and the occasional motorbike make for a busy scene along the canal, but respite awaits at the many mellow bars, cafes and restaurants lining the water. Chris and I sipped on a beer at a cafe along the canal and watched as boats slowly paddled by. It was lovely.


Fried soft shell crab? Not exactly.

Guanqian Street: Goodbye ancient China, hello ultra commercialism! Gucci, Prada, Hermès, oh my! This place was bright lights, big city central. Chris and I ducked down a side street and were pleased to find the China we could afford. Street food and local restaurants full to the brim. We sized up the many foods on offer, and the first to move me to pull out my wallet was fried soft shell crab on a stick … or so I thought. Those three fried crabs impaled along a stick were, in fact, not soft after all. Just regular ol’ crabs. So … I guess we eat the shells? I made one hearty attempt at chomping into a claw and bowed out. Chris took down all three, spitting out only the big claw shells. He’s so hardcore.


Three course meal and two big beers at Lao Shi To a for 50  yuan ... about 8 US dollars.

A three course meal and two big beers at Lao Shi Tou restaurant costed us 50 yuan … about 8 U.S. dollars.

Lao Shi Tou (Old Stone) Restaurant: This restaurant was right down the street from our hostel, and I suspect was owned by the mother or aunt of the guy running our hostel since he was very persuasive in his pitch. We dined there on our first night and loved it so much it became our go-to lunch spot. It was authentic, no other tourists in sight. Only downside, lots of men smoking cigarettes. Ah well.


Sheng jian bao at Yabba Shengjian restaurant.

Sheng jian bao at Yaba Shengjian restaurant.

Yaba Shengjian Restaurant: Famous in Suzhou and beyond, this place has a reputation for having the best sheng jian bao around (delicious fried pork dumplings). Our friend Brett recommended it to us (Thank you, Brett!). He said that we’d recognize the place by the line spilling out the restaurant’s door and around the corner. Sure enough, the line was long but it moved fast and the lady at the counter was helpful in picking out our order when we fumbled to know what to do.

Suzhou, like Nanjing, is located in the Jiangsu Province, which has its own style of cooking. Jiangsu cuisine or Su cuisine for short, makes up one of the eight culinary traditions of China. One thing I noticed while dining out in Nanjing is that the typical dishes seem to have a subtle sweetness. The presence of cloves and star anise could be detected but didn’t overwhelm. This subtly sweet flavor profile was true of sheng jian bao as well. This culinary masterpiece combines elements of a sesame seed bagel, savory doughnut and pork stew — did I mention there’s both meat and broth inside? It’s like bitesize soup in a bread bowl. So delicious!

Come take a stroll through Suzhou with Chris and me in this video (you may need to allow some time for the video to buffer):

And here are some more photos from our stay in Suzhou:




The Poodles of Nanjing

Greetings from the future!

Our next series of tales of tomorrow come to you from Nanjing in the Jiangsu province in eastern China. Chris is preparing our substantive dispatch from this future outpost. In the meantime, I wanted to share a short piece reporting on a furry phenomena here in China.

In the future, people love their pets just as much as we do back home in the present. At all times of day, you’re likely to see dogs being walked and caged birds being fed. Look around and you’ll see pampered pups on every street, strutting along in the height of doggie fashion. Sometimes, owner and pet may even be donning matching outfits. Now that’s love.

From our observance, the most popular breed by far is the poodle. We noticed this soon upon arriving in the future, but poodles are turning out in unparalled numbers in our current locale, Nanjing.

An animal photographer, I am not. Those curlycued canines move too fast for my iPhone shutter. I assure you, for every poodle depicted below there were 10 more that escaped my lens. When close enough to the dog owner to ask permission, Chris would politely express our request in Chinese. I took a simpler approach of pointing at my camera and smiling and nodding frenetically at the owners until they indicated consent. My interest in their dogs seemed to please most.

This goes out to our animal lovers back home. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you, the poodles of Nanjing!



Mount Tai: Religious Pilgrimage and Ultimate Glutes Workout in One

Greetings from the future!

Let me start by saying, if I never see a staircase again, it’ll be too soon. If ice were available to me, which it is not, and a bath tub, also not available to me, I’d make an ice bath and immerse me my lower body in it.

This is the aftermath of ascending the estimated 6,660 steps to the top of Mount Tai (Taishan), located in Tai’an city in Shandong province. I learned that “shan” means mountain, so though it’s more commonly called Mount Taishan in English, that’s redundant, like saying Mount Tai mountain.

Travel writing is awash with superlatives. Every site you visit will be either the biggest, oldest, longest, deepest, highest or most something. It’s these qualifications that make places worth visiting, after all. When it comes to Mount Tai, it is the most sacred and most famous of the sacred mountains in China. Here is a description containing another “most” from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization:

Settled by humans as early as the Neolithic (a Dawenkou site is nearby), the mountain has been worshipped continuously throughout the last three millennia. The mountain was an important object of the cult worship of mountains even before 219 BCE, when the Qin Emperor, Huang Di, paid tribute to the mountain in the Fengshan sacrifices to inform the gods of his success in unifying all of China. On the mountain there are 12 historically recorded imperial ceremonies in homage to Heaven and Earth, about 1,800 stone tablets and inscriptions, and 22 temples, which together make Mount Taishan the most important monument in China, a world-renowned treasure house of history and culture.

I’ll add another superlative to the commentary: Mount Tai stands out as the religious pilgrimage with the most butt-kicking lower body workout.

Sure, it’s a tough climb up those nearly 7,000 stairs, but we weren’t in it alone. We struggled along with hundreds of other pilgrims, mostly Chinese, to reach the temples at the top. As I climbed step after step, I marveled at the sights around me: forests thick with evergreens, hawks soaring overhead, tree branches adorned with red ribbons, and perhaps most notably … the startling footwear selection of my fellow climbers.

What are some of these people thinking? Chris and I, like typical American tourists, are fully outfitted in athletic apparel. And I might add, appropriately so. This is no stroll around the block. Yet, many around me are dressed like they came directly from the office and, in some cases, like they’re planning on hitting the dance floor directly after their climb. Maybe they know something about what awaits us at the top that I don’t?

Let’s just say, it’s a humbling experience. Here I am, sucking wind and dripping in sweat, and just then a teenage girl saunters by, perfect hair and heeled boots clicking, as if she could have just as easily been on her way to H&M at the mall but instead decided to make the 3-4 hour climb up Mount Tai. And don’t even get me started on the little old ladies and men out here with us. Whatever their secret is to longevity, we need to figure it out in the West.

I will say that everyone was using walking canes. Chris and I could have purchased a cane or picked one up for free at the hostel, but we didn’t think they would be that helpful. I guess we were wrong.

All said, it took Chris and me nearly three hours to climb up the mountain, which includes time spent checking out the many temples lining the mountainside along our ascent. Once on top, the views were breathtaking and the temples awe-inspiring. We watched as women chanted and people lofted joss sticks and other offerings into a blazing fire pit.


Though my legs are still in pain, and I have to walk down stairs backwards for the time being, the reward of the view from the top was well worth the climb. My favorite moment of the day occurred on top of Mount Tai while Chris and I gnawed on a cob of corn on a stick … an elderly man approached us, and as we prepared to be asked to pose in a photo with him, as is a common occurrence for laowai (foreigners), he surprised us by saying, “Hello, I am from Taiwan. I am a foreigner too. Here we are brothers.”

Here are our photos from Mount Tai:


Tales of Tomorrow, Today: Beijing Wrap Up

Greetings from the future!

Oh what marvelous adventures we have had in Beijing, our first stop in this future world where our today is your tomorrow. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes, once foreign to us, are becoming more familiar but our journey has only just begun and many destinations still await our arrival.

If only we had the time, and you the interest, for individual blog posts on each fantastical vision we encounter on our travels, but we must keep moving forward and our time in Beijing is over. We have actually moved on to our second, third and fourth destinations, but before we update you with dispatches from these newest eastern outposts, here is a look back at our adventures in Beijing.

The Summer Palace

On our third day in Beijing, we somewhat casually decided to take the subway out to the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace is perhaps most closely associated with the empress dowager Cixi, a controversial figure in Chinese history. It’s not that we didn’t think it would be a worthwhile sight to see, we just underestimated how taken we would be with its confluence of architecture and landscape design.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Summer Palace boasts an abundance of pavilions, temples, shrines, halls and bridges all set amidst a natural setting of incredible beauty.

I present to you the Summer Palace:

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Lama Temple and Temple of Confucius 

What cathedrals are to Europe and ancient ruins to South America, so are pavilions to China. Pavilions seem to be the mainstay for every site of historical importance: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and so it is the case with these two impressive religious sites of worship.

The Lama Temple is said to be the most renowned Buddhist temple outside of Tibet and is still an active site of worship. Chris and I respectfully lit three joss (incense) sticks and presented them before the Hall of Boundless Happiness, which contains the largest wood carved Buddha in the world.

The Temple of Confucius, where people worshipped Confucius during the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, was initially built in 1303, according to signage contained within the Temple. Confucius is enshrined in the main structure, Da Cheng Hall.

Photography wasn’t permitted at the Lama Temple, so these are just from the Temple of Confucius:

The 798

Many tourists are drawn to China because of its offerings of antiquity. The Great Wall, centuries old temples, shrines and artifacts dating back to pre-BCE —  touring China provides a passport to the ancient world. That said, part of what makes China so compelling is the juxtaposition of the old with the new. Modernity abounds in China, especially in its urban areas. The country is seemingly on the cutting edge of most things, and the 798 Art District, made famous by artists like Ai Weiwei, is a perfect example of this contrast.

Here is a description from

798 stands for much more than a three digit number: in Beijing these numbers symbolize the country’s cutting edge art movement led by the Chinese vanguard, unchained artistic personalities with alternative life goals. The largest, most influential art district in China – the 798 – hosts world-class international and Chinese exhibitions in the midst of former weapons factories.

And here are our photos from the 798:

Some of the photos (Nikon camera) from the 798 were contributed by guest photographer, Leviathon Murphy.

Enjoy and we’ll talk again soon. Next stop, Qingdao!


The Soup Incident

Air quality be damned! Here in the future, exercise is just as valued as in the world we left behind. Despite varying levels of pollution, Chris and I have been starting off our days with a morning run. It’s a great way to cover a lot of ground, sight seeing while getting our heart rates going.

The mornings are great for people watching too. From what we observed, the people of Beijing lead very active lives and enjoy physical activity. Many are out running and walking, swimming in the city lakes, and doing exercises and playing ping pong in public parks.

As an added bonus, running in the morning gives me the opportunity to practice my Chinese, “Zao sheng hao (good morning)!” is warmly received and returned by most, along with the occasional laughter (which can be attributed to Chris’ short running shorts and/or my running tights).

On our runs we also observe the morning commuters making their way to work or school on foot, bicycle, motorbike and car. It’s a busy time of day but not as chaotic as I had expected a city of more than 21 million to be come rush hour. That is because Beijing is an extremely vast city, geographically. Beijing’s population of 21+ million is spread out over 6,487 square miles, making for an estimated population density of about 3,300 people per square mile. Whereas New York City, for example, has more than 8.4 million packed into just 302 square miles, amounting to a population density of more than 27,000 people per square mile according to the United States Census Bureau.

On one morning run, we popped into a local eatery buzzing with morning commuters, mostly solo, quickly grabbing breakfast and heading on their way. The interactions were short and meals were efficiently consumed with little time wasted. No morning papers being read or chit chat exchanged; just order, eat, leave is the way of a busy Beijing commuter.

Undoubtedly, Chris and I were unexpected patrons for this restaurant — foreigners, red faced and sweaty and sporting running clothes — and we bumbled through our exchange with the woman dishing out the food. Chris wanted baozi (steamed buns and a safe bet when it comes to eating local food), but I wanted to try something new.

Along with baozi, soup is a common breakfast food in China. There were a few different options, and I chose one with a hearty looking redish brown broth. We attempted to ask what it was, and the woman said doufu, which means tofu and sounds pretty much the same as it does in English. I’m fond enough of tofu, so I gave the thumbs up. (Note: when you find yourself in a country where you don’t speak the language, you end up giving the thumbs up a lot. This is likely where the perception that Americans are constantly giving the thumbs up comes from.)

I wish I could report that my exploratory order was happily received by yours truly, but I must confess I had my first food regret leading to a mild crisis of weighing rudeness and embarrassment against my distaste for what turned out to be a thick, gelatinous stew of brown syrupy broth and mushy tofu. The white soft tofu was recognizable enough, but the texture of the broth, unnoticeable in its pot prior to being ladled into my bowl, gave me some alarm.

What could this strange dish be?

My mind immediately leapt to my guidebook’s mention of blood soup. Though uncommon in the U.S., many countries’ cuisines use blood as an ingredient in different foods. The Irish and British have their blood (black) pudding and the Chinese have duck blood soup. And now I was concerned I was eating it.

Chris astutely pointed out that there were no ducks in sight so my fear was highly unfounded. Still my mind had made a leap of logic and the irrationality proved hard to dispel.

I turned to my neighbor who was eating the same soup and gestured toward the soup and said the word, jiurou (pork), trying to guess at what this could be. She laughed and said no. I didn’t know the word for blood and even if I had, pointing at soup and uttering, “blood?” to a stranger, if in fact it wasn’t blood, I realized could understandably frighten said stranger. Furthermore, knowing that an open ended question of, “What is this?” would only get me an answer too complicated for either Chris or me to understand, I gave up trying to figure out what it was that my bowl contained and set about finishing as much of it as I could. With Chris’ help, we ate more than half of it. Since we also finished up all 12 or so baozi, we figured this effort would satisfy the restaurant owners and not offend too greatly.

Upon arriving back to the hostel, I promptly showed the English speaking staff a photo of the soup and to my great relief, they told me it was bean curd soup — also called tofu jelly (hence the texture).


So, no blood. Phew.

Since this incident, I have done a little research into duck blood soup and found that it is a signature street food of the city of Nanjing and is listed as #4 on a list of iconic Nanjing foods to try. Chris and I will be visiting Nanjing in a few weeks and now that I know what goes into the soup, I may be up to trying this local staple. I just wasn’t mentally prepared for spoonfuls of blood quite yet, especially first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. Of course, traveling is all about trying new things, so bring on the duck blood soup please!



So Ducking Good (Thanks Autocorrect!)

Greetings from the future!

Hello dear readers! It’s just past 11:30 p.m., and I am sleepily writing this dispatch with a belly full of Peking duck. I’ve had Peking duck before in the U.S., but experiencing this famous dish in its namesake city (Beijing used to be called Peking in English before the modern pinyin transliteration) was an unforgettable food-life moment.

From preparation to table side presentation and demonstration, the Peking duck makes for a collaborative and hands-on affair — more than just a meal, it’s an occasion. Here are five steps to ordering and eating Peking duck based on our experience tonight.

1.  Order a whole duck. I don’t care if you’re dining alone. The presentation is lost on a half order, so bring a friend to dinner or make room in your stomach because it’s worth it.


2.  Not too long after putting in  the order, the chef and his carving station rolled up to our table to deliver the whole, crispy and beautifully browned duck, and without a word he began carving away.


3.  Once a plate full of meat was ready (there will be several total), the waitress began her demonstration of how to assemble the meal. Peking duck is served with paper thin pancakes to wrap the duck and its fixings. From what I could discern, the fixings included cucumber, pickled radish, scallion, finely minced garlic and the critical fermented bean sauce (like hoisin sauce). Additionally, there were two condiments that I couldn’t identify, but one tasted sweet like a firm piece of strawberry jam and the other was possibly a mushroom type of relish. The waitress wore a clear mouth shield to presumably prevent her from spitting or breathing on our food during the presentation, which was interestingly considerate.


4.  Chris and I struggled to mimic the waitresses’ graceful finesse but ultimately had to resort to using our hands to get a pancake rolled up and from plate to mouth.


5.  And don’t forget to try a piece of duck skin dipped in sugar! It’s a flavor combination that pushes the savory/sweet envelope.


That’s Peking duck in five steps. Oh, and lastly step six: find a bed and give into your duck fat induced coma.

Good night!