Thursday, July 30, 2015

Visiting Hanoi: The Sofitel Metropole

On our trip to Hanoi, besides the food we were most excited about was staying at The Sofitel Metropole Hotel. The Metropole is an extremely glamorous hotel with a really fascinating history, and I think we enjoyed the historical aspects just as much as we enjoyed the luxury of the place.

The hotel was opened in 1901, and every inch of it is gorgeous. I'm still sorry that John had food poisoning, but this was definitely the ideal location to recover in. Just lounging around the hotel is an experience. The four of us spent a lot of time hanging out in our rooms and at the pool playing cards, and even though not everyone was feeling great I think we all really enjoyed the time. The hotel puts so much attention into every detail and it really shows in the overall experience. Every evening for turn down service they leave individually wrapped macarons! John and I saved ours each night to have as a tiny but indulgent start to the mornings.

Besides being a gorgeous hotel, The Metropole has a really intersting history. It has housed the embassies for a number of countries over the years, Graham Green wrote The Quiet American while living in the hotel, and Joan Baez wrote the song Where Are You Now My Son about her experience of the bombings in Hanoi during the Vietnam War and recorded it from her balcony of her room at the hotel.

Once everyone was feeling better we signed up for a tour of the hotel that is led every evening. On the tour we learned a lot about Hanoi during the Vietnam War. During the war small holes were dug in the ground to create individual bomb shelters for people to hide in. A picture of these holes directly in front of the Metropole appeared on the cover of Life magazine. Since then they've been filled in and had trees planted in them. We also went into the bomb shelter that was built for guests and learned that they (usually press writers and politicians) were often herded into the shelter several times a night. Staff would lock the guests in the shelter for their safety, and then they had to use the little man hole shelters! While we were all gathered in the shelter our guide played the song Joan Baez wrote about her experience of the bombings. It was a quite haunting.

Before going on the trip I felt a little strange about the history The United States has with Vietnam, and both of our mothers commented on how the locations we mentioned in terms of vacation were locations they had heard during war reports on the news as children. In retrospect I'm really glad that we took the opportunity to learn a little bit about the history rather than just completely ignoring it.

The Metropole Hotel
Macarons for Turn Down Service!
I've never seen so many orchids all at once
Personal bomb shelters on the sidewalk in front of the hotel
Today trees grow in the spaces
The entrance into the bomb shelter is right beside the pool
Our tour guide, Mr. Duc, inside the bomb shelter
Read About The Rest of Our Trip:
Visiting Cambodia: Angkor Wat
Visiting Cambodia: Siem Reap
Visiting Hanoi: The City
Visiting Hanoi: The Food
Afternoon Tea at The Metropole

Monday, July 27, 2015

Visiting Hanoi: The Food

Before going to Hanoi I had only eating Vietnamese food once, but the food was definitely one of the biggest things John and I were looking forward to, and looking back eating is the majority of what we did on the trip.

Our very first morning in Hanoi we took a street food tour with Mark from Hanoi Street Food Tours, and it was such an incredible experience! I'll be honest, I had a lot of reservations about doing the tour. The tour cost $75 per person, which, in my world, is just a lot to spend for a meal no matter what and street food is just so cheap! I really struggled to see how it could be worth the money. And we were setting out at 8:00 am, who spends $75 on breakfast I wondered? Would I even be hungry at that time of day? Raku and her husband had done the tour before and tried to assure me that it really would be worth it, but I couldn't let go of my skepticism. Piece of advice: don't be as skeptical as me, if you have the chance LEAP at it! This tour made the trip for me, and when you think about the price of hotels and flights, $75 is not so much to pay to ensure an incredible experience with delicious memories.

The tours last three hours, and are so much fun. What you're paying for is, without question, Mark or Tu's personal expertise. They know where the most delicious food is, they know how to give you a broad overview of Vietnamese food, and they are sure of the cleanliness. It was so much fun to sit down on little plastic stools on the side of the street or is busy alleys and dig into all sorts of dishes. If we had been on our own I wouldn't have had the slightest idea where to start, I would have probably been to scared to eat in any of these places, and I certainly wouldn't have known what to order. Instead, I never felt a moment's hesitation, I'm happy to report that none of us had any upset stomaches afterwards, and my only regret is that John wasn't able to come because he was stuck in the hotel with food poisoning. The tour gives you a chance to try tons of dishes, you're never expected to finish anything because you're basically grazing for three hours straight. This is great because if you end up not liking a particular dish, it's absolutely a non-issue, though often I had the opposite problem and had to make myself stop eating to save room for additional stops. If you're looking for more information, this article from the New York Times is where Raku first learned about the tours.

Besides the food, we were really excited for Vietnamese coffee. Vietnamese coffee is usually served with a thick layer of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom of the cup, whether it's hot or iced. I think this is because for so long it was hard to keep fresh milk on hand, but cans of condensed milk can just sit out at room temperature until they've been opened. And more importantly, it's delicious! We also tried a couple of more unique vietnamese coffees. One was sort of like afogato - coffee served on top of frozen yogurt, so delicious and very refreshing in the heat. We had this at Cong Caphe which is a chain of coffee shops that are communist themed, but I think a number of places serve it. We also had egg coffees at Giang Cafe. When I first heard the name I didn't know what to expect, but this is not a scrambled egg on top of your coffee, it's a thick zabaglione style custard cream served on top of coffee. Yum!

Bun Ca - noodle soup with fried fish and dill - my favorite dish of the tour!

Pho - the slices of beef were so big and SO tender

There's always a bowl of mixed herbs on the table to eat with your food
Pho Tiu 

Pork and noodles stall

Coconut frozen yogurt coffee at Cong Caphe

Egg coffee at Giang Cafe
Giang Cafe - so beautiful!
Read About The Rest of Our Trip:

Places We Enjoyed:

Pho Tu Lun
23 Hai Bà Trưng, Hàng Bài, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

Friday, July 24, 2015

Visiting Hanoi: The City

After our time in Cambodia we headed to Hanoi for three days. Our friends had been once previously, but this was the first time visiting Vietnam for both me and John. I mentioned in a previous post that I had a lot of concerns when planning our trip, and to be honest, most of them were about Hanoi. I'd read that taxi drivers would be likely to rip us off, that crossing the street would be a harrowing experience, and that street vendors would approach us constantly. I didn't find any of that to be the case. It was a beautiful friendly city, and I would definitely go back.

Hanoi in June is really hot. Probably even hotter than Angkor Wat, though we weren't entirely sure if that was because of the actual weather or because cities absorb heat so much more than rural areas. Our friends had been before in November and remembered being comfortable in jeans, which is completely out of the question in June, but Raku said she felt like the city had been missing something before, and that somehow it just felt right for it to be so hot and tropical.

I'm not sure if it was because of the time of year, or just a fluke, but there weren't too many scooters either. If you read anything about Hanoi you will learn how the streets are flooded with scooters and that traffic never stops. In order to cross the street you just walk very slowly and steadily across the street and traffic will avoid you. It's supposed to be a terrifying experience. But lucky for us the traffic was much thinner than we had expected. Crossing the street wasn't exactly relaxing, and we still needed to be vigilant, but it was nothing like what I had feared.

Unfortunately, the one thing I worried about that did happen was food poisoning. It didn't happen to me, but our first night in Hanoi John woke up very sick. The culprit: airline food. How annoying! It's scary to be sick in another country, so what do you do when you have food poisoning in Vietnam? I thought he might need to see a doctor, but our hotel concierge told us that it would actually be much easier to just go straight to a pharmacy and buy an antibiotic. This was surprising to me, but seems to be standard. We went to a Hapharco, which is a common pharmacy in the Old Quarter, and were able to speak with the pharmacist in English. After hearing what was wrong she sold us three days worth of antibiotics for about $3 and sent us on our way. I hate to say this, but neither of us can remember its name. Before taking it, John googled the medicine because neither of us had ever heard of it before, but it's a French drug that seems to be very common in Southeast Asia for food poisoning. Of course, if you're traveling it's a good idea to bring some over the counter stomach medicine for mild cases, but because John ran a fever for more than a day I was very grateful that we could deal with the problem so easily. 

In spite of the food poisoning we managed to eat some really fantastic food and drink some great coffee, which deserve their own post. We took the rest of our time pretty easy, which I think is necessary in a city that is so chaotic and bustling. But with so much beautiful scenery it was always interesting to stop and sit at a cafe.

I wonder how old this truck is?

Look at all those chicken parts!
West Lake
The One Pillar Pagoda
The architecture is so French
St. Joseph's Cathedral

Everything in Hanoi was bursting with colors

Sunset from the Sofitel Plaza Hotel
Hoan Kiem Lake
Read About The Rest of Our Trip:

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Visiting Cambodia: Siem Reap

I can be a more than a little neurotic when planning trips, and I was definitely worried about a few things when we started planning our trip to Cambodia and Vietnam. Was it insane to go at the hottest time of year? Would we get food poisoning? Would the crowds be unbearable? Would we constantly be hassled to buy things? Raku and I did extensive research beforehand, and to be honest a lot of the reviews and blogs I read made me more nervous than excited, at some points I started to question the entire trip. How wrong I was! Like all trips, there were things that went wrong, but in spite everything I'm so glad we did it.

Siem Reap is the town just outside of Angkor Wat Archeological Park where we stayed for the first three nights of our trip. Siem Reap is a really cute small town with a friendly, tourist sort of atmosphere. English is widely usable - there were always English menus and it was never a problem to speak to tuku-tuk drivers, shop keepers, or restaurant servers in English. (In fact, it was sort of a shock to come back to Tokyo afterwards.) Most people in Siem Reap are either travelers or work in the tourism industry, so it's easy to strike up conversations or make friends if you'd like to.

As I mentioned before, I had worried about food poisoning because of a bad experience on a trip several years ago. But I'm happy to report we had no such incidents, and that Cambodia food is delicious! There are lots of curries and noodle dishes that are similar to Thai food, though less spicy, and one of our favorites was a dish called Lok Lak which is sauteed beef with peppercorns. I never even knew you could eat peppercorns whole, but they were crunch and delicious. Another thing I fell in love with was the freshly squeezed juices in all the restaurants. The first time I saw it on a menu, I wondered who would order lemon juice, but then I realized it was a huge glass of lemonade. I got lemon or lime everyday, but I'm sure all the juices are fantastic. Below the photos I've listed the restaurants and bars we enjoyed and made notes of anything we especially liked.

In Siem Reap you can find guest houses for as little as $6 per night, but there is a pretty big range in the accommodations available. We ended up staying at the Sarai Hotel, which is a five star hotel that had only opened a couple months before, because we found an unbeatable deal for our rooms. Because they were so new they were working really hard to get good reviews online, and while I sometimes admired that forthrightness it also became tiresome. That said, I imagine this is not an ongoing issue. The staff was extremely helpful and friendly, assisting us with everything from making dinner reservations to helping when an ATM card was taken by a machine. The rooms were very comfortable, and the pool was the best part. The high walls around the pool guaranteed plenty of warm but shady areas, allowing us to hang out at the pool all afternoon without needing to apply sunscreen or getting sweaty (quite a relief after our intense morning excursions). They serve cocktails poolside with the most amazing mixed nuts seasoned with salt, sugar, and kaffir lime leaves. (I seriously can't stop thinking about them!) Breakfast is included everyday, and was quite generous with fresh juice, coffee or tea, a selection of breads followed by a main meal, and then fresh fruit and yogurt. We ate dinner there one night, but didn't find it to be anything special. If you don't mind spending the money (admittedly you can find comfortable accommodations for much less) it was really nice and much less than you'd pay for a similar hotel in another country.

Interestingly, in Siem Reap US dollars are the currency that everyone uses. The ATMs all dispense USD and you even have to pay for your visa in USD. Coming from Japan this meant that we had to change some yen in Narita airport because we weren't sure if there would be an ATM in the Siem Reap airport (there was, but it was out of order.) The Cambodian Riel is really only used for amounts less than one dollar. At roughly 4000 to the dollar a 1000 Riel bill is basically a quarter, so you might buy something and get change back in two different currencies. While this might sound strange it actually didn't turn out to be complicated at all, and no one ever tried to trick us or cheat us.

If you're even considering going to Angkor Wat, I can't recommend it enough. The park is incredible, and the town is so friendly and fun.

Breakfast at the Sarai Hotel
Refreshment and souvenir shops in Angkor Wat
Downtown Siem Reap
Afternoon drinks at the Red Piano
Tuk-tuks are everywhere, it's so convenient!

Relaxing at the Sarai Hotel Pool - these mixed nuts are soooo good!
Isn't the pool gorgeous?

Miss Wong's Cocktail Bar
The Night Market
Fresh juice and shakes are available all day and even late at night

Read About The Rest of Our Trip:
Visiting Cambodia: Angkor Wat
Visiting Hanoi: The City
Visiting Hanoi: The Food
Visiting Hanoi: The Sofitel Metropole
Afternoon Tea at The Metropole

Places We Enjoyed:
The Blue Pumpkin
One of the few places with air conditioning! Great lemon juice (lemonade), yellow curry, bakery items and ice cream.
Hours: 6:00 am - 11:00 pm
Phone: 063-963-575
Location: Sivatha Road, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Good for lunch or dinner. The best Lok Lak we had in Siem Reap.
Hours: 12:00-2:00, 5:30-9:30, Closed Sunday
Phone: 081-410-783
Location: Sok San Road, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Haven Restaurant
If you can't get reservations for dinner it's easy to walk in for lunch.
Hours: 11:30-3:00, last order 2:30, 5:30-10:00, last order 9:30, Closed: Wed lunch, all day Sunday
Phone: 078-342-404
Location: Sok San Street, Siem Reap, Cambodia

The Red Piano
Beautiful outdoor seating.
Hours: 7:30 am - 12:30 am
Phone: 092-477-730
Location: Street 8, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Miss Wong's Cocktail Bar
Really creative and tasty cocktails made with interesting local ingredients.
Hours: 6:00 pm - 1:00 am
Phone: 092-428-332
Location: Miss Wong, The Lane, Siem Reap Cambodia

The Sarai Hotel
Phone: +855 (0) 65-962-200

Friday, July 10, 2015

Visiting Cambodia: Angkor Wat

At the end of May and beginning of June John and I took a week long trip with our friends, split between Cambodia (Angkor Wat) and Vietnam (Hanoi). It was an absolutely magical experience, and I'm so glad we went!

If you've never heard of it before, Angkor Wat is a huge temple complex (more than 400 sq kilometers!) in Cambodia that was built by the Khmer Empire in the 12th Century. Angkor Wat is technically the name of the main temple, but the entire archaeological park is also known by the same name. The nearby town where we stayed is named Siem Reap.

If you're just here for the pictures please feel free to skip the rest and enjoy the photos - it was so hard to narrow it down to even this many, and I've still dumped a ton. But if you're planning a trip yourself, or you like reading intricate travel details I've tried to include all the information I would have found the most useful.

We spent three nights in Siem Reap, with two days dedicated to Angkor Wat and a final day spent in Siem Reap before an evening flight to Hanoi. June is the beginning of rainy season in Cambodia while March through May are the hottest months of the year. We were lucky to not see any rain, but wow was it hot! The benefit though, was that we were traveling during the low season so prices were lower, reservations were easier to get, and everything was much less crowded. If you're thinking about going at this time of year but worried about the heat, I  highly recommend it. It's definitely hot, and you'll be sweating most of the day, but the temples are so amazing you'll be distracted a lot of the time. I think I'm a wimp when it comes to heat: I start sweating pretty quickly, get grumpy about it, and I definitely had the fairest skin among our group, but honestly, it was pretty manageable. With hats and a couple sunscreen applications a day none of us burned - in fact I didn't even get the slightest tan. We also tried stay hydrated, luckily our driver always had bottles of water in the car, and it's easily purchased just about everywhere.

The best advice I have for Angkor Wat is to hire a car to drive you around. We found that a car would cost $34-$45 per day while a tuk-tuk (basically a covered cart attached to a motorcycle) would cost $12 per day. With four people it was especially practical because we figured we could all fit in one car or we could pay for two tuk-tuks. And you better believe it was worth the extra money to be in an enclosed air conditioned space to catch our breathes between temples. Besides the air conditioning, Angkor Wat is a pretty dusty place - at least during the dry season, and I can imagine it would be a lot less pleasant to be breathing in all that dust. Additionally, if you're interested in going to any of the more remote temples this will save you tons of time. We went to Beng Mealea, which took about 45 minutes in the car while our driver said it would take closer to two hours in a tuk-tuk!

When we hired our driver (I did this about three weeks in advance) he offered us two of his most popular routes, though he was very flexible and open to any other ideas we had. We chose one of his itineraries which included a first day seeing most of the "must do" sights in Angkor Wat and then the second day spent going to three outlying temples. In hindsight I think this was the better option for several reasons, first of all the outlying temples are absolutely stunning and far less crowded - Beng Mealea in particular was everyone's favorite. Second of all, we simply didn't have the stamina on the second day to do as much as we did on the first. By going to fewer sights further out on the second day we had more time resting in an air conditioned car, putting all of us in a better mood. 

Our exact itinerary was: Day 1: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom City (Bayon, Phimean Akas, Baphoun, Elephant Terrace, Terrace of the Leper King), Ta Prohm. (Note: we ended up getting a little off track in Angkor Thom and seeing more temples than we meant to. To compensate for time and energy we skipped Banteay Kdey and Sras Srong which our driver had initially planned to take us to.) Day 2: Preah Khan, Banteay Srey, Beng Mealea. 

It's hard to rank the places we saw, but Beng Mealea, Ta Prohm, and Preah Khan were my personal favorites because they were so wild feeling. Ta Prohm is the temple where Tomb Raider was filmed, and Beng Mealea is a completely unrestored temple in the jungle where local guides will help you pick your way through and over the crumbling stones. In terms of sheer size Angkor Wat and Bayon are absolutely stunning. It's amazing to imagine these enormous places being built by hand so long ago! And Banteay Srey is interesting because it was built separately two centuries earlier and with a red stone that looked different from any of the other temples. I didn't actually love it, but when my friend Sarah went it was her favorite.

Everyone recommends that you start your days early in Angkor Wat, and I completely agree. We headed out each morning at 8:00, which really helped with both the heat and the crowding. By starting so early we were finished by lunchtime, when we would have our driver drop us off in town. After eating lunch we'd take tuk-tuks back to the hotel, shower, and then lounge by the pool until the evening when it was cool enough to go back out for dinner and drinks.

A final note, Raku and I wondered about the bathroom situation in Angkor Wat before we went and couldn't find much online, so we made a point to go before leaving each morning, brought tissues with us and prepared for the worst. But on the first day we sweated so much that it wasn't even an issue. The second day we did ask our driver for a bathroom break, and it was not trouble at all. There was a bathroom less than five minutes away that was free to anyone with the Angkor Wat Pass to get into the park. The bathroom was a little rustic but clean, with sinks, western style toilets and toilet paper! 

First stop of the morning: Angkor Wat

Preah Khan

Resting in the shade at Angkor Wat

View from Angkor Wat

These intricate carvings are everywhere, they must have taken so long to do!

Chicken snacking on someone's coconut

The giant faces at Bayon

Temple Kitties

Strangle Fig Tree at Ta Prohm

Some of the roots are so heavy that supports have been installed at Ta Prohm

The red sandstone at Banteay Srey
A crumbling courtyard at Beng Mealea
Read About the Rest of Our Trip:
Visting Cambodia: Siem Reap
Visiting Hanoi: The City
Visiting Hanoi: The Food
Visiting Hanoi: The Sofitel Metropole
Afternoon Tea at The Metropole