I spent two weeks in Southeast Asia with my good friend Maddie in late August, early September, expanding my world and taking a break from the New York hustle and bustle. Here are some snippets from letters I wrote and sent back home while I was away.
Our hotel in Hanoi was in the heart of the Old Quarter, the section of the city that has existed since Imperial times. Maddie and I knew we’d be staying in the center of town, but we weren’t really sure what that would look like. After over 24 hours of travel and a moment freshening up at the hotel, we set out to find out. What we discovered outside was the busiest city I’ve ever set foot in. In the Old Quarter, streets are small and sidewalks are merely entrances to shopping and food stalls, restaurants, or hotels. Motorcycles dominate the streets–they’re even parked all along the nonexistent sidewalk–and scoot around pedestrians crossing the street without missing a beat. Our adventure on Sunday afternoon gave us a full picture of Hanoians doing their weekend thing, with families out and shop owners keeping their kids busy since it wasn’t a school day. After some time in the hustle and bustle of the main streets, we wandered over to the lake closest to the Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake, home to the Ngom Son Temple. Here we found some respite from the overwhelming nature of the Old Quarter and a broader picture of locals relaxing on the weekend. We saw children play in the blocked off streets, driving around electric cars and catching bubbles created by an older woman wearing a traditional Vietnamese hat, a conical hat (or “non la”). One woman in a grey ballgown passed by. Couples held hands and snacked on ice cream and fruit from street vendors.
After our Sunday excursion and a lot of rest, we felt much more prepared for a day around town on Monday. Our hotel was full of kind, helpful people who gave us amazing recommendations for food and activities. We set off after a large breakfast of local fruit, dim sum, fried rice, and the most delicious coffee, to explore the French Quarter. This area of town (also known as the Ba Dinh District) is the political center of Vietnam. It also boasts larger streets and more room for people to walk and explore. We absolutely loved it. The streets were quieter and much easier to navigate. Here we found St Joseph’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Hanoi; the Hoa Lo Prison, where McCain spent part of his time as a POW; and various embassies. We also ate the best pho either of us have ever had.
I was lucky enough to experience a bit of everyday life in Hanoi when my shoe split open halfway through the day. My Tevas are worn to death, and the at-home show glue repair job I conducted before leaving New York failed me. Before our evening activities, I asked some folks at our hotel where I might be able to repair it. She referenced “a guy or girl on the street” and circled an intersection on our map. We headed over, looking for some obvious cobbler. Having trouble, we asked another woman who was sewing a dress by showing her my split shoe. She pointed across the street, where we found an old man sitting on a stool on the street corner with tools next to him. A woman negotiated a price with me while I watched him tear off the sole of my shoe and begin working with it. “One hour,” she said. Sure enough, a little over an hour later, my shoe was ready. And it was a better repair job than anything I’ve seen my Brooklyn cobbler do on my winter shoes–& he’s good!
We ended the night talking, laughing, and drinking wine at a lovely restaurant overlooking Hanoi, both feeling like we picked the perfect city to launch our trip in Southeast Asia.
Next stop: Ha Long Bay. During our cave tour of the “Surprising Cave” in the bay, our guide pointed out dragons on the ceiling and shared a bit of history — though Maddie and I were mostly focused on navigating around the large groups and staying with our guide. The hour-long excursion, which was part of our cruise to Ha Long Bay, became a sort of comedic adventure. Aside from the many animals in the cave walls and ceilings, we were constantly moving aside for tourist groups to bustle by. At one point we were grabbed by several different members of a large Vietnamese tour group so they could try to take selfies with us. As we exited we felt that we had just been led through a bit of a circus and were ready to get back on our boat.
The boat itself was a dream, and since it currently isn’t high tourist season it was also relatively empty. The Bay itself has almost 2,000 small floating islands, all a lush dark evergreen color and varying in size. Our room had a small balcony, so we could watch the scenery from the comfort of our room. We learned out to do tai chi on Wednesday morning on the top deck, just after it rained and the sky cleared enough for us to be able to take in a spectacular view.
Everything from the trip back to Hanoi from Ha Long Bay to the customs process at the Luang Prabang airport went smoothly. We continued our tradition of eating pho as much as possible by getting a bowl of fast food pho before our flight to Laos (as I sit here in Bangkok writing this, waiting for our transfer to Phuket, I anticipate the next leg of our trip being “how much pad thai can we eat”).
Our first day in Laos was pure magic. We arranged a trip to Kuang Si waterfall, a waterfall nestled in the mountains about 45 minutes away, and while we waited for our bus we wandered into downtown. What we found was akin to a small town in the mountains — Gatlinburg was my immediate comparison. UNESCO keeps up the city, so all the buildings but one have a two-story height limit. (The exception has only three stories). We fell in love immediately. Buildings in Luang Prabang are old but preserved beautifully, and at every turn there was a Buddhist temple that took our breath away.
Later in the morning we piled into a minivan filled with other tourists to head to the Kuang Si Falls. (So filled, in fact, that some people were practically if not actually sitting on laps). When we got to the Falls, we were happily surprised to find out that a bear sanctuary existed in the same area, and we stopped in to see some moon bears before heading to the Falls. The Falls themselves were breathtaking. We hiked up further to the very top and swam a bit, enjoying the water and the view. According to legend, a wise old man dug deep into the Earth to uncover the waters of the Nam Si, creating the Kuang Si Falls. They say that a golden deer came to live under a big rock that protruded from the falls, and the beautiful echo the water made from falling on it could be heard all the way in neighboring China. In Laotian, “Kuang” means deer and “Si” means dig.
When we were back in the city, we visited the Night Market, which spans the length of the main street every evening and features local artisans, vendors, and street food. I loved this market — we found such amazing treasures — but I mostly loved it for the people-watching and the vibrancy it gave to an already alluring town. On Friday we headed to the Elephant Village, a sanctuary and rescue organization that saves endangered Asian elephants from the logging industry. We spent a day learning how to be “mahouts,” or elephant trainers. The village itself was beautifully laid out, with seating overlooking the Nan River and the majestic Luang Prabang mountains in the background. The elephants spend most of their time in those mountains, and the mahouts go out to the forest every morning to bring them back to the village, have the vet make sure they’re healing properly, and let us hang out with them. They head back to the forest in the early afternoon.
After acquainting ourselves with some elephants and learning a bit about them (Asian elephants weigh 3-5 tons, eat 150 kg of plants per day, and drink 200 liters of water), we rode bareback through the river with a couple of them, which was an unbelievable experience. The elephants are kind and gentle, and the mahout who rode with me sang gorgeous Laotian songs the entire trip. I thought riding an elephant would be somewhat similar to riding a horse — and in some respects it was — but since you sit on the elephant’s neck, it feels quite safe, since the ears are lightly holding your legs in place. The whole experience was so calming and pleasant.
In the afternoon, we got in the river with the elephants again — but this time, for bath time. My elephant used her trunk to splash me, which was playful and fun, but Maddie’s elephant just stuck his head straight in the water and started rolling around. Her mahout just laughed as she tried to hold on and not just fall over straight into the water.
As I said to Maddie as we were in a tuk tuk on the way to the airport today, Laos was our place. We ate the best food we’ve had on this trip, met the most warm, helpful people, and had unforgettable experiences. We already can’t wait to go back.
We were off to Phuket next. If you’re wondering what we ate in Thailand, I had a variety of curry and noodle dishes and Maddie ate pad thai four days in a row (and sometimes for breakfast). It would probably also not shock you to hear that, since our main activity in Phuket was Sit Calmly By The Beach, that eating was almost the most exciting thing we did, behind our kayak tour on our last day. Maddie even noticed that we logged more steps in the Phuket airport at 4:30 in the morning on Wednesday than our three days in Phuket combined. Relaxation acheived. Here is a photo of me in my natural Thai state:
After two days hibernating in our oasis, we ventured out to check out some other Thai islands. This turned out to be a richly rewarding part of our trip, as we got to kayak in caves (laying down on our backs so we could fit) to see lagoons in the middle of islands and even spent some time with some wild monkeys.
The final leg of the trip, to Siem Reap and Saigon, might have possibly been the most compelling. I knew I would like Angkor Wat, and I suspected I would like Cambodia. But I didn’t anticipate how much I would love it. Despite the 105 degree heat (with humidity like nobody’s business) and the exhaustion that culminated from traveling for so long, Angkor Wat and the ruins of the Angkor empire astounded me. I’ve always loved ruins—I remember being blown away by Roman ruins and can’t wait to visit them again—but there was something so unique about the temples we saw just outside of Siem Reap. Perhaps it was also such a memorable experience because I was learning so much, so quickly. Maybe it was also the dramatically different architecture and details we saw in the brick and stone. The history of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Brahmanism and the architecture and temples of the Khmer people weren’t covered in the basic World History curriculum, and if they were, it certainly wasn’t the focus. So my world expanded in Cambodia, and that’s why I count my time at Angkor as the most affecting experience I had.
Cambodia was good to us in other ways, too. Our hotel staff treated us with kindness and provided guidance whenever we needed it. Every local we met was so genuine, one of them even inviting us to their home in the country for dinner! And when we left our hotel, we received a parting gift of a traditional Cambodian scarf for good luck.
It was hard going back to Vietnam after being on such a high in Cambodia, especially because Saigon wasn’t as interesting as the other places we had visited. This isn’t to say that Saigon wasn’t an impressive place, but I think we had become so accustomed to small, walkable towns that a large city on the scale of New York gave us a bit of a shock. This, on top of really using the last of our energy in Siem Reap and having to dodge a taxi scam immediately upon arrival, sort of sapped us of our will to explore Saigon to its fullest. But we did end up seeing a good amount of the city in two days, finding some decent Vietnamese food, and practicing a little bit of self-care in anticipation of our 30-hour trip home. On Saturday, we spent the entire afternoon at a tea shop reading and consuming cup after cup of tea, after going to the Vietnam War museum (from the Vietnamese perspective, of course) in the morning. We ended the day before going to the airport by eating some delicious Indonesian food and lingering in the restaurant for as long as possible.