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Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

1/19/10: Hanoi, Vietnam

With every end there is a new beginning and with every new beginning something is bound to go wrong. Today marked both an end and a beginning, both of which deserve a mention in the blog.

The end was that of Southeast Asia (“Region in Review” coming tomorrow). It was an area of the world that wasn’t included at all in our original world trip itinerary, but wound up lasting 44 days. During this time we went to perhaps the world’s best zoo in Singapore, we saw the filming of The Amazing Race in Malaysia, we overdosed on delicious fruit shakes in Thailand, we toured some of the world’s most fascinating temples in Cambodia, and we rode motorbikes through gorgeous countryside in Vietnam. We discovered so many incredible places, yet left behind years of further exploring in the region. We met lots of interesting people, yet we finally learned to be self-sufficient in our travels.

As sad as I am to say goodbye though, I’m also ready to leave. The congestion in the big cities is far worse than anywhere in America, and there’s only so many times you can get honked at before you want to punch someone in the face. Thankfully we weren’t here long enough to make this a reality. That being said, there are too many missed experiences to count, and someday we will definitely have to come back.

The beginning was that of my stint as majority planner of the world trip. Although we had agreed to switch roles several days ago, getting ourselves to the airport in Hanoi was my first big task. Fortunately Zhou had already started looking into it and had found an easy, cheap route to take. Instead of paying $15 for a taxi, we’d head to the Kim Ma bus station three kilometers from our hotel and then catch the local bus to the airport for 25 cents each.

From there I was ready. I had written down walking directions to the bus stop and found out that we would need to get on the number 7 bus to get to the airport. In case we overshot one of our streets, I had even scribbled some backup directions as a contingency. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

After 40 minutes of walking through the heat with our heavy packs on, we arrived at the Kim Ma station just as planned. There was only one problem: I had taken us to the wrong place! This station was where the buses parked when off duty, and there was no place to pick passengers up.

Reinventing an impromptu backup plan, I used a combination of sign language and facial expressions to tell three non-English speaking locals what we wanted to do, and they pointed us down the street. We headed that direction for a little while before playing charades again with another couple locals who pointed us back to where we came from. As if almost expecting us again, the first three guys offered to take us on their motorbikes for a small fee. This would have been perfect, expect I started second-guessing if we were all on the same page. What if they were mistakenly going to take us somewhere that would make us even more lost? We absolutely couldn’t miss our flight because it was the first of three separately booked segments in the next 24 hours.

I pondered and wandered around as the time ticked away. Zhou completely gave up on the situation by plopping her butt down on the curb and putting her hands on her head. I finally decided we should catch a taxi back into the city where all the tourist-friendly places were, but just then another man walked up and knew enough English to hold a conversation with me. Although he quoted a higher price than the others, we knew for sure he understood what we wanted to do and we hopped on a pair of motorbikes to the actual bus station. (Somewhat funny side story: the man offered me a helmet, but I was leery of putting it on after hearing horror stories of what’s in some Vietnamese hair. I was also afraid of crashing in the chaotic traffic, so I compromised by putting the helmet on my head but not strapping it to my chin, thus relieving neither of my fears.)

Upon arrival at the bus station, the quasi-English speaking man showed us exactly what to do to catch the right bus and then waited for it to come to make sure we got on safely. After a minute we scrambled onto the number 7 bus along with what seemed like the rest of Hanoi, and eventually made it to the airport.

The saving grace in all this? I knew my planning abilities and guessed that something may go wrong, so I had us leave our hotel over 4.5 hours before our flight. Despite the long detour, we easily made it to the airport in time. China, here we come! Wait – Singapore then Hong Kong then China, here we come!
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Picture of the Day: Today was a NPD (No Picture Day), so enjoy this artsy parting shot from Ha Long Bay.

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1/18/10: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

We were awoken from our sweet, sweet slumber on our beloved Marguerite by the crackling of the intercom followed by Son’s voice. “It is now 7:30 and time for breakfast. We are waiting for you upstairs.” Then came a slight pause and some more crackling, followed by Son again: “It is now half past seven and time for breakfast. We are waiting for you upstairs.” I suppose this second announcement was for those of us who prefer to be told the time in fractions instead of whole numbers. A truly cosmopolitan boat, the Marguerite caters to all kinds.

As we sat down to breakfast, Son announced that he would be taking those of our group that had booked the three-day tour for a full day of kayaking and that Tony would be the tour guide for the rest of us for the day. Tony was a very lovely man, but just as Son had his own peculiar traits (love of mediocre jokes and making the same announcement twice but in two slightly different manners being among them), Tony also had his own strange tendencies – the most obvious of which was saying everyone’s name in the group at the end of every speech he gave us.

We first noticed this when he introduced himself to us, saying that he hoped we had so far enjoyed our stay on the boat and then immediately proceeding to ask the five of us our names. “Monica,” Monica said. “Monica,” Tony repeated gravely. He then asked her to write her name down on a piece of paper, and when she handed it back to him, he studied it very carefully and softly repeated to himself, “Monica,” committing her name to memory. This same solemn process happened with “Kavi,” “Chris,” and “Kevin” until it came to be the moment I was dreading – my turn.

I have to explain here that all my life I’ve had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with my name. I love my name, but I’m also sort of tired of explaining to people how to say it. This could be partly because I have never really decided exactly how I should say my full name. In the past, I would introduce myself and pronounce my name “Jo Jang,” but then when these same people saw my name spelled, they would say, as if suddenly the fog had been lifted and everything was clear, “Ooooh, so ‘zh’ in Chinese is like a ‘j’ sound in English!” And I’m not sure why, but then I would nod and agree even though nothing – and I mean nothing! – of the sort is true. So then to avoid that particular discussion altogether I started saying my name was pronounced like “Jo Zang” but that didn’t sound quite as good as the alliterative “Jo Jang,” plus I had gone around for the last 10+ years saying my name was pronounced “Jo Jang” so it was a rather tough switch. Also, on an only somewhat related note, I hate giving my name when I go to Starbucks or any other place that is trying to be more personable, you know, like they know me and I’m their friend or something, and they ask me for my name at the register so they can announce it later, and then when I get my drink or meal or receipt or whatever, it inevitably has “JOE” written on it in big red marker. This always throws me off, but I have to say the irony is pretty delicious.

Right – so I sort of have this – not exactly fear – but fatigue when it comes to explaining how to spell my name versus how to say it. So when Tony got to my turn and asked for my name, I said “JO” very clearly and loudly. I was still debating whether I should spell my name correctly for him on his piece of paper or just write “Jo” for the sake of clarity, a discussion I have had with myself at least a million times and have never fully resolved. Luckily I was spared from making this decision, because Tony never asked for me to write my name down, I guess because “Jo” is only spelled one way. Tony then told us the schedule for the rest of the day, ending by looking at each one of us in turn and saying our names. “Monica. Kavi. Chris. Kevin. Rho.” Then he walked back to the lower level of the boat. The five of us then exchanged confused looks. After a few minutes of serious discussion, we eventually collectively agreed that he thought my name was “Rose” and that there was no point in correcting him since over the course of the day he would probably say my name, at most, only once more.

Boy did we underestimate Tony’s love of saying people’s names. The rest of the group thought the whole situation quite funny and only escalated the matter throughout the day by loudly saying things like, “Come on, Rose!” or “Let’s go, Rose!” when Tony was in earshot. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back on it, I’m now fairly certain Tony went the whole day not entirely sure whether my name was “Jo” or “Rose.” Rather than avoiding saying my name, he still ended every speech he gave by saying all of our names in turn, ending with me and alternating between calling me “Rho” and “Rose.” All told, he probably said our names at least five times each. I think he also tried to figure out what my name really was by calling me, in turn, “Rho” and “Rose” and seeing which name I responded to, but I just responded to both because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, which I think greatly frustrated Tony’s efforts.

At the end of the day, after we had packed ourselves back into our minibus and were almost back in Hanoi, Tony gave his last speech, saying goodbye to us and of course, ended by gravely saying each of our names one last time. “Monica. Kavi. Chris. Kevin.” Then there was a pause as he looked at me. “Rose,” he said, and I smiled and nodded encouragingly. “Rose… Rose,” he repeated to himself.

It was hours later, when Kevin and I were discussing how my name got turned into “Rose” when suddenly it became clear to Kevin. “Tony couldn’t say the ‘j’ sound! Remember how he called the boat the Marguerite Runk?” And then the fog was lifted, and everything was clear to me. Tony, I’m sorry I doubted you. I know now that you knew my name was “Jo” from the very beginning. I’m sorry that we confused you. But if you want, you can still call me Rose.
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Pictures of the Day: The “logo” of Ha Long Bay: the kissing (or fighting) cocks.

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1/17/10: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Today we woke up early to go look at rocks on a boat whose name ended in “Junk,” with the knowledge that there was a very good chance we would get scammed.

Today was one of the best days of our entire trip.

Our destination was Ha Long Bay, an area off the east coast of Vietnam that consists of 1,969 rock formations peaking out of the water. In online reviews of the excursion into the “bay of the descending dragon” it was clear that the odds of choosing an enjoyable budget-friendly cruise were about the same as the odds a Jamaican bobsled team would make the 1988 Olympics (a foreboding metaphor). Unfortunately our budget wouldn’t allow for anything more than a lower end option. If we wound up on a cockroach infested boat with no real beds and a captain out of Pirates of the Caribbean we’d just have to make the most of it.

The 11 of us risk-takers arrived at the harbor just before noon and were shuffled into a boat the size of my bathroom while our guide, Son, asked us what we thought of the Marguerite Junk. Fortunately it didn’t take long to realize Son enjoyed a mediocre joke from time to time. (His favorite: when the sun disappeared behind the rocks he would ask anyone in earshot, “Where did the sun go?” After a few seconds he get a big smile on his face and point to himself laughing, “I’m right here!”) We were simply being shuttled to the majestic Marguerite Junk, perhaps the best-looking boat in entire bay.

We were greeted by warm towels, a clean room (complete with hot shower, DVD player, A/C and decorative pillows) and then a lunch fit for a lesser-known king. I would have said a regular king, but the nine or so courses of this meal paled in comparison to the upcoming dinner.

After a bit of relaxing, we then explored Sung Sot cave (“Surprising cave” in English), a massive hollow discovered by the French in 1923 (I was paying attention Son!). Although we’re still not sure what was so surprising about it (other than the group of cool American 20-somethings ignoring all signs and climbing over whatever rocks and crevices they could get their hands on – wait, that’s not surprising at all), it was quite impressive.

Although I hate doing play-by-plays of our day, this post has entered that realm and there’s no turning back now. From the cave we went kayaking through the rocks. Because we looked so powerful, Zhou and I were given paddles with massive chunks missing and a boat with a hole in the front. Despite this disadvantage and the fact that I refused to paddle most of the time while I took pictures, Zhou kept us within shouting distance of the group the entire time.

She's heading for the impending tunnel so quickly that she lost her neck!

I only pretended to paddle for this action shot.

Our muscles aching from the kayaking and picture-taking, we gorged on the aforementioned dinner that included the best crab cakes I have ever eaten. (Two notes: (1) I have never had crab cakes before but Zhou won’t allow them as a new food since supposedly “they’re just made of crab” and (2) I know that fact ruins the the earlier superlative, so I’ll go as far to say they were probably the best seafood I have ever tasted.)

The night was capped off by perhaps the most enjoyable activity of the day: squishing! For those of you unfamiliar with this made-up term, squishing is the act of fishing for squid. Under the starry sky, we sat on the bow of the boat with our three new friends from the day and dropped four strings attached to unnecessarily long bamboo poles into the water. Three of the strings had lures attached, but I was determined to use the hook of the unbaited fourth string to jab a squid in the stomach and pull it up to the boat. However, when we finally caught our first and only squid it wasn’t attached to my hook.

The eerie green glow of professional squishers.

Pete, just seconds after his capture.

Pete, just seconds after inking himself for the second time.

We all called it a night after we determined Pete would no longer ink himself whenever we touched him, but before we did I took a minute to look around at the ominous shadows of all the rocks around us. I doubt that even Robert Frost was talented enough to put the beauty of Ha Long Bay into words, so who am I to try? Suffice it to say that I doubt there’s anything quite like it in the world and even Mick Jagger would have to admit that this place rocks.
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Picture of the Day: I thought peddling wares on land was tough, but there’s a small floating village of people who hawk to the large cruise boats selling food and drinks.

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1/16/10: Hanoi, Vietnam

For those of you who didn’t read Kevin’s last post, this title has nothing to do with what this post is going to be about. It’s merely a statement of fact. The fact that no matter what crazy things he chooses to write on the blog, I am NOT going skydiving. I hope that’s all cleared up.

We arrived in Hanoi this morning at 6:30 after yet another overnight bus (shudder) ride. Since we were only planning on spending two days in Hanoi and wanted to use our time efficiently, we signed up for a tour with Hanoikids.

We were met at our hotel at 10am by two lovely girls from Hanoikids. First, they took us to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.

The HCM mausoleum.

I don’t want to ruin it for any of you who are planning on visiting the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but… HO CHI MINH IS IN THERE! I guess this might seem obvious to you, like, why else would you visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum except to SEE Ho Chi Minh, but it obviously was not clear enough for me. I was expecting a closed coffin or maybe even an urn with his ashes, but nope. He’s there. Right there. He’s in a clear coffin and has somehow been kept preserved for the last 60 years. He looks like either a) he’s been sleeping peacefully and will wake up any moment and yell at the guards to let him out of that place cause, whew, that air is really rank or b) Madame Tussaud has replaced the real Ho Chi Minh with a benevolent-looking Ho Chi Minh wax likeness. Either way, very strange and a little bit creepy.

Ho Chi Minh lived simply, but he had THREE cars.

The One Pillar Pagoda, where couples come to pray for babies. Kevin wouldn't go inside with me, I don't know why.

Then the girls took us to the Temple of Literature. And I don’t want to ruin it for those of you who are planning on going to the Temple of Literature, but… THERE ARE NO BOOKS IN THERE. I had imagined that it would be a big pagoda filled with lots of sacred and ancient Vietnamese tomes, sort of like the Beast’s library in Beauty and the Beast, only a bit darker and mustier and all the books would be in Vietnamese, but nope. No books! Just a big temple. Really, after the Ho Chi Minh debacle, I should have just thrown all expectations for the day out the window. Anyway, the Temple of Literature is one of the most famous Confucian temples in Vietnam. It originally served as a university, but now it serves as a place for students to come and pray for good luck in their studies.

Kevin gingerly touches the turtle's head for good luck in his studies.

Good thing he only used on finger, because I'm going to need the rest of that luck for grad school.

Soon-to-be university graduates (and a few random tourists) posing for pictures.

They then took us to have lunch at one of the street markets, where we ordered noodles. With snails! Kevin ate his snails without a murmur but left the tomatoes in his bowl. I guess everyone has their limits.

Our tour guides and us. I like traveling in Asia because I'm a normal-sized person here.

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Picture of the Day: Kevin is this bell’s dangle (my word)/donger (Kevin’s word).

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A New World Order

1/15/10: Vietnam

Just about everything so far on our trip has gone off without a hitch. We’ve never missed a plane, a bus, a meal or any chance to have a good time. Today I sat down to ponder our good luck. I didn’t have to ponder long, as it took about half a second to figure out why things have gone so smoothly: Zhou. Ever since last January when we began planning the trip, she’s been on top of every little detail. Even the things that we leave open-ended have a backstop. For example, last night we decided we’d find dinner on the fly, but we couldn’t settle on a place that looked good. Worry not, Zhou had a list of three restaurants that received good reviews in a brochure she read, so we ended up having a delicious meal at one of them.

However, one thing has been missing from our journey: missing things! And who can turn our trip into a clueless, bumbling mess? Me!

Believe it or not, Zhou and I talked this over after our first truly “local” lunch – you know, the kind where no one speaks English and all you can do is point to the guy’s food next to you and smile. When I pointed to the guy’s food that I wanted, the lady looked confused and then handed me his bowl. We eventually communicated that I did not want to actually eat his food, and I wound up with the same tofu dish Zhou had. Oh well.

Anyway, we decided that it would actually be good not only for the trip, but also for our relationship if I plan things for the next month. The thought being that we both need to learn how to lead and how to follow. So far Zhou’s never really needed to adapt to my schedule, and I’ve never really needed to worry about what’s going to happen next.

In honor of the changing of the guard until we get to South America (we’ve picked an easy part of the trip for me to screw up), I’ve created the KTCP – Kevin’s Ten Commandments of Planning.

  1. We will fulfill our tourist duties to the fullest and see everything a city has to offer.
  2. Both the price and quality of our hostels will be lower than they have been recently.
  3. We will walk much more and sleep a bit less.
  4. Zhou will go skydiving with me.
  5. We will eat at McDonald’s.
  6. No complaining if I’m not planning the way someone else would.
  7. I will at some point forget to book something and we will have to adapt our schedule accordingly.
  8. We will have fun.

Ok, so that’s not quite ten and I threw that last one in there to mock the rules at Laser Tag places. But I think eight’s enough. The reason I wanted to write about this is because of our long-standing rule: Once it’s printed in the blog, there’s no room for leapfrog. (That second part is a phrase I stole from Confucius that means we cannot deviate from the plan.) And since Zhou hasn’t read this yet, boy will she be in for a surprise when she has to jump out of a rickety old plane in New Zealand. Wish her luck!
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Puzzles for Postcards

Where Am I? Name the landmark or the nearby city.

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Picture of the Day: Our bus made a short stop at Marble Mountain, a giant system of caves and crazy figures carved into a mountain made of marble. Most were too morbid for the blog (beheadings, skeletons, torture, fish eating people), but this one was just weird-looking.

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Chicken Chicken

1/14/10: Hoi An, Vietnam

Though we woke up at 8:30 today, we didn’t step foot outside of our hotel until after two. This wasn’t completely our fault – when the hotel’s free breakfast policy is “Eat until you’re full. Then you’re done,” well, it makes for some long breakfasts. The other problem (besides the problem of the absurdly full stomachs) was that we got caught up in figuring out what we’re going to do with our 12 days in Australia. Since our cheap/free housing fell through in Sydney, we found ourselves trying to decide if we wanted to travel a bit within Australia and go to Fraser Island or maybe Melbourne. Correction: when I say we were trying to decide if we wanted to travel within Australia, I perhaps should have said we were trying to decide if we would have enough money to travel up to Fraser Island or down to Melbourne. Conclusion: we’ll see when we get there, and if anyone wants to let us borrow a camper for free in Sydney, we’ll love you forever.

When we finally did get around to leaving our hotel this afternoon, it was too late to think about renting a motorbike and going out to My Son, which are some ruins about an hour away from Hoi An. And to be honest, after going to Angkor, I’m not so big on seeing other temple ruins. It just seems a bit – well, purposeless. Also, I think I’m still suffering a bit from Mui and Duc withdrawal. Plus it was raining. Fine, it was sprinkling. Take any of the excuses above, and please don’t let my guilty feelings reach you across your screen. So instead of doing anything cultural or enlightening, like good travelers would do, we went shopping! Less morally satisfying maybe, but more fun.

This set of three plates cost about $9.

Closeup of the adorable chicks.

We also bought two yellow matching wine holders for about $6.

Pretend this bottle of water is a cheap bottle of wine from Trader Joe's and you'll know exactly what the holders will look like when we get home.

When we got back to our hotel room, I unwrapped all of our carefully wrapped purchases so I could look at them. [Here’s where I have to confess that I am one of those people who compulsively unwraps new purchases to look at and admire them even if I just have to wrap them up again. I also always wear my new clothes as soon as I can – I’ve seen people’s closets where they have clothes hanging in them with the tags still on them! That would NEVER happen in my closet. It blows my mind that people choose to live like that.] As I unwrapped the second wine holder and pulled it out, I realized that the lady at the store had given us the wrong thing! This one was yellow – but instead of cute little chicks, it had Chinese characters on it! Now, I don’t have anything against Chinese characters, being Chinese and all, but I do have this thing about matching. As in – things must match. So we went back to the store we bought them from and politely explained to the woman what had happened. She looked at the newspaper wrapping, which said “gang va” and explained, “Outside it says chicken. But inside no chicken chicken.” And with that profound pronouncement, she went into the back of the storeroom and brought us the correct wine holder, the one with the chicken chicken on it. I would say that the the way she said “no chicken chicken” made my day, but that would just be a complete understatement.
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Picture of the Day: Lanterns make everything look nicer.

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1/13/10: Hoi An, Vietnam

I’ve been suffering from a big ol’ chunk of writer’s block recently, and as if I’ve been playing that Rush Hour game where you have to move the other cars to get your own out of the grid, I’ve struggled mightily trying to think of methods to rid myself of the block. Last night Zhou played a word association game with me. This morning I ate breakfast while doing a handstand. This afternoon I ran naked through the streets of Hoi An looking for a KFC. Nothing.

My last ditch effort to get back in the frame of mind that made our blog world famous in the first place – write a gimmick post. So in a tribute to another movie I haven’t seen, Memento, I’ll try to do you proud.

Our stomachs bursting, we walked out of the dark alley completely disoriented. My discombobulation was so bad that my inner man compass snapped in two, and I lost a bet with Zhou that we were traveling north towards our hostel. And my man compass has never failed me before. How in the world did we end up in this state?

A few minutes earlier, an old man patted me on the stomach as I hunched over my last overstuffed rice paper roll and, although he didn’t speak English, it was clear that he finally decided I had eaten enough. The myriad of waiters and waitresses stopped piling food onto our piles of food and let us relax our jaws. I could barely see Zhou over the mounds of vegetables, and barely see my toes past my now rotund midsection. We tipped healthily (at least for our standards in Vietnam) and practiced our new Vietnamese well-wishes to the friendly staff: “Tuk se kwa han phuc.” We stood up and headed back into the darkness.

The lady politely grabbed the rice paper from my hands and let the fillings I had so carefully piled into it fall onto the plate. Despite my obvious earlier lack of attention, she looked at me with the patient eyes of my second grade teacher and slowly walked me through the correct method of stuffing the roll. However, with her lack of knowledge of my eating habits she added some pickled relish. I smiled at her and ate the roll anyway. After all, it was my sixth new food of the day. The old man then walked up to the table and gave my stomach another pat. In as direct of translation as I can fake, he shouted to the staff, “bring this skinny boy some more meat! His stomach is hollower than Kendra Wilkinson’s skull!” (Side note: Kendra, remember the old man sort of said this, I didn’t.)

We began to get anxious. We had walked through many a dark alley to find this place, and now no one was paying attention to us. A sign reading “Ponly Planet” hung above our heads, as in a misguided attempt to increase business the owners had misspelled the travelers’ Bible. It had now been three minutes and we had yet to receive even a menu. Then the food came, and came in bunches. Lacking any ability to communicate with anyone, we couldn’t politely tell them they had the wrong table. We hadn’t even ordered. It soon became apparent that they didn’t have the wrong table – there was no need to order. This place served one thing and one thing only: delicious goodness. When the food had been piled so high and wide that the plates were dangerously teetering like late-game Jenga blocks, a lady came to our table and showed us how to roll our food and dip it into the sauce. We began to eat.

We finally found the Bale Well restaurant at the end of the third dark alley we had explored. This place better be good.

It had already been a memorable day of food, so we decided to press our luck. “The Bale Well restaurant is located near a creepy, perhaps haunted old well in a dark, unnamed alley in Hoi An.” We read the words over and over, and immediately knew that this place was for us. (Somewhat pertinent side note: after a delicious meal of Nem Nuong, a popular dish in the Central Highlands, we had been actively seeking Nem Nuong restaurants and Bale Well happened to be one.) There was one problem: we had no address to work with, just a nearby intersection. We mustered all our courage tonight and began walking up and down the deepest and darkest alleys near this intersection.

Several hours earlier, I quickly chugged the remains of my cold chocolate drink, ridding my mouth of the lingering taste.

We thought our brunch was over, but then our waiter delivered a gigantic plate of awful-looking fruit: pomelo, papaya, grapes, clementines, dragonfruit and banana. Something about this plate, this day, this setting gave off a slightly odd vibe. I wasn’t repulsed by the food. In fact, I was intrigued. Perhaps it was all the blog contest doubters laughing at me in my head, perhaps it was my new-found inability to say no to an offering from a friendly person – whatever it was, I knew that I was going to try this food. Before I knew it, some pomelo, papaya, clementine and dragonfruit was sitting in my stomach, and their remains were doing battle on my tongue.

Once upon a time, we woke up and made our way to our hostel’s complimentary brunch.
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Picture of the Day: Sometimes I’m in the mood for pictures of kitties and puppies.

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