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To seek is to suffer.  To seek nothing is bliss.  ~ Bodhidharma

Kitulgala, Sri Lanka

December 27 – 29, 2014

Breathtaking views found on the drive from Colombo to Kitugala

Breathtaking views found on the drive from Colombo to Kitulgala

A light mist dances all around.  A soothing waterfall ebbs gently from the mountain creating a hypnotic sound, mother natures own therapeutic drug.  Perched on a branch six feet away, a kingfisher stands entranced by the tranquility of Kitulgala.  I, too, sit motionless.  Here, even the most turbulent mind will succumb to peace.

Getting There

We left Colombo early morning on the 27th.  Our plan was to head inward towards the hill country.  Our first stop outside the capital, Kitulgala, was a bit off the beaten path.  Tucked away into the low mountains, Kitulgala is an unlikely destination and usually just a passageway for travelers making their way from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya.  In the most recent years, this town has grown more popular as a white water rafting and jungle trekking destination.  Maps can be deceiving considering the roads to hill country are not flat nor straight.  What seemed like it should take an hour ended up being a four hour drive.  Luckily, the views were jaw dropping and made time pass by quickly.

Lodging & Food:  Royal River Resort

Exploring:  white water rafting

Royal River Resort

If you are looking for a serious escape and don’t mind a 30 minute, 6km drive deep into the jungle and away from everything else then you will be in heaven at Royal River Resort.  This four room resort is situated (literally built into) a waterfall that cascades across every view from any one of the rooms, pool, or dining area.  Each room has a fireplace and a balcony.  Other than swimming, reading, and dining at this resort, there’s not much else to do and you have to account for a long semi-scary drive to the main road.  That being said, you can arrange any excursions with the staff or your driver if you hired one.  This was the perfect place to decompress, adjust to the time change and recharge for the rest of our journey through Sri Lanka.

Royal River Resort:  Kitulgala, Sri Lanka

Royal River Resort: Kitulgala, Sri Lanka

Inside views at Royal River Resort

Inside views at Royal River Resort; the fireplace was my favorite feature, especially on our first cool, rainy night.

Authentic rice and curry meal at the resort; not on the menu but you can request it (make sure to do so about 6 hours in advance)

Authentic rice and curry meal at the resort; not on the menu but you can request it (make sure to do so about 6 hours in advance).  This was for two people!

White Water Rafting on the Kelani River

On our second day, we decided to request a white water rafting trip (through our driver) and were connected with the company, White Water Rafting 99 (no website).  I grew up near great rafting in southern WV so in comparison, this was more like a lazy river ride with a few class 3 or 4 rapids.  That being said, this is so worth your trip just for the views.  I did not have my camera with me so I didn’t get to capture any of it.  To give you an idea of how beautiful this area is, watch The Bridge on the River Kwai.  It was filmed on the Kelani River and your rafting experience will take you past where the bridge was destroyed.  One tip if you go rafting: DON’T SWALLOW THE WATER.

Going to Sri Lanka?

I highly recommend staying a night or two in Kitulgala, mainly to stay at the Royal River Resort. As long as you aren’t afraid of long, narrow roads leading you away from civilization you will be in heaven!  My suggestion is to plan this stop on your way to Nuwara Eliya or Ella from Colombo or reverse.

After we left Kitulgala, we headed further east towards Nuwara Eliya to visit a tea plantation. To read more about our Sri Lankan itinerary, click here. For more about our previous stop in Colombo, click here.

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The traveler sees what he sees, the tourists sees what he has come to see.  ~ Gilbert K. Chesterton

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA

December 26 & January 3, 2015

Manning Market

Manning Market

Colombo was a starting and ending point for our road trip around hill country and the south of Sri Lanka.  I arrived with very little expectations.  What I had read about Colombo left me unimpressed.  Sometimes this is a great thing because you can be easily surprised and delighted by the unexpected.  After a full day of wondering the city in search of good eats and interesting places I was left feeling confident that we made the best decision to stay only one night in Colombo.  My lens is very narrow and I am sure I missed a lot of what Colombo has to offer but if one place doesn’t have an initial draw, why wait to be convinced?  Life is short.  Move on.

Colombo (The Beginning)

Lodging: Decoco Guest House

Food:  Pilawoos (Hotel de), Sponge Bakery, Arpico

Drink:  Castle Hotel 

Explore:  Manning Market, sunset at Galle Face Green

Lodging

Guest houses are a dime a dozen in Sri Lanka.  Decoco Guest House was a nice place to stay for a night.  Was it fantastic? No…but it was certainly fine.  The owners were very accommodating and helped us with a few unusually difficult situations that we’ve never had to handle in another country.  Other than that I would say this guest house was quite average.  The location is hard to find on your own and also hard for drivers to find; if you are choosing a place based on location, I would suggest you skip Decoco.

Food

After settling our things at the guesthouse we headed out to explore for the day.  When staying in a city for as little as 24 hours, you have to decide wisely on how to spend your time.  Food was our number one must do, especially after so many endless hours in flight and in airports.  One of my favorite ways to experience food, culture, and the people of a new place is to visit the city’s markets.  We started our journey by heading to Manning Market.  It’s Colombo’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market.  It is cheap, if that is what you are looking for.  After roaming for nearly 45 minutes, everything seemed unappealing.  We left hungry but I knew just the place to brighten our spirits…

Hotel de Pilawoos…not a hotel but a 24/7 joint that serves the city’s best short eats.  We sat down and devoured two huge plates of kotthu roti.  This is hangover food at its best and is the meal everyone should have after a long flight.  Get the kotthu with cheese, I promise you, you will like it.  Spicy, with loads of texture from the chopped roti and a bit of creaminess from the cheese.  Dig in!

Kotthu Roti at Hotel de Pilawoos: 417 Galle Road

Kotthu Roti at Hotel de Pilawoos: 417 Galle Roada

Although we had plenty to eat, Jonathan always manages to find room for something sweet.  A short walk down the street from Pilawoos and we find ourselves in Sponge bakery.  Another miss.  But that doesn’t stop him from finishing his plate.

Passion fruit and yogurt cake at Sponge

Passion fruit and yogurt cake at Sponge

We had plans to meet up with some friends who were having an unfortunate stay at the hospital so for dinner we headed to a grocery store with the hopes of finding some easily transportable edibles.  We went to Arpico which reminded me of a super Walmart with more interesting groceries.  I mention this because if you find yourself in need of anything from snacking cheese to perfume…you will find it at Arpico.

Exploring

With a little guidance from Lonely Planet, we decided to walk toward Galle Face Green.  It’s recommended as a fantastic spot to indulge in some treats from street vendors and to watch the sunset. Jonathan and I have fun just about anywhere and Galle Face Green was no exception but I wouldn’t recommend it as a place for street food or to see the sunset (unless it’s an unusually clear day).  However, it was nice for people watching and there’s something worthy of your time if you take in a bit of the culture here.  After an hour of lounging on the wall by the beach, I began to gather how connected Sri Lankan families are.  There were so many families walking or playing together.  Everyone seemed happy and enjoying their time connecting with each other and the outdoors. This seemed to me like a daily pleasure rather than a family vacationing together.  A lesson our society could stand to learn, where the couch and television are too often the centerpiece of the evening.

Galle Face Green

Galle Face Green

Drinks

Intrigued by Lonely Planet’s description of Castle Hotel (a misnomer at best) as a “timeless boozer offering up cheap drafts” and located in “once-posh surroundings”, we headed that way; other options were nearly all overpriced cocktails in locales swimming with tourists.  Upon arriving, I sensed this moment was going to be a game changer for me. Something about the looks I received upon entering, the dim lighting and lack of any appeal to the interior had me on guard.

Priding ourselves on our ability to face discomfort in the eye, we proceeded to find a table and order some drafts. It was quickly evident, a female in this bar was not a typical or likely occurrence. We were offered a seat in a different section of the bar when we entered but turned it down to be in the main area where it seemed more lively.  I think that was the first hint we overlooked, the second came when our table was approached by a man who took our order without ever looking at me.  He would only address Jonathan until I finally spoke up on our second or third round. He wasn’t unfriendly by any means and eventually gave me a kind smile. Uncomfortable as I was, the cold drafts were quite welcoming. I always hope to be considerate of others’ beliefs and customs yet never apologetic for being a female.  So I sat with a bit of uncertainty.  At the end, I withstood the initial desire to leave and rather enjoyed the hour or so at Castle Hotel.  I would return again…next time, without any trepidation.  In fact, I highly recommend it.  From this post, it appears that it may not exist much longer.

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Castle Hotel

Colombo (The Ending)

Lodging: Cinnamon Grand Hotel 

Food:  Beach Wadiya

I have to say, by the time we were headed back to Colombo I was very sad, and not because I didn’t fully enjoy it the first time.  I was sad to come to the realization that our travels were quickly coming to an end and we were also having to part ways with two of our best friends.  The country blew my expectations out of the water.  It was absolutely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.  I would go back in a heartbeat to experience the rest of the country we were unable to see.  I look forward to sharing the next steps in our Sri Lankan journey.  Up next, two nights in Kitugala. Stay tuned!

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As with any journey, who you travel with can be more important than your destination. – Unknown

TAIWAN

July 31 – August 10, 2013

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It’s been over a year since I traveled to Taiwan and with that much time between, my retelling is not as acute as I would like. One thing is for sure; traveling with truly smart, interesting and adventurous people will leave an ever-lasting etch in one’s memory.

If you followed my previous post, you already know that prior to meeting up with two of our great friends, we spent about a week in Vietnam.  We had an amazing time but the best was yet to come. Unfortunately, Jonathan and I became quite ill on our way from one country to the next.  In a matter of 24 hours we went from energetic, giddy travelers to ones on a hunt for a true medicine man to cure our ailments.  We had no real luck and were both probably the sickest we have ever been but that didn’t stop us from making the most of our adventure.

Two Couples

We are quite lucky to have such amazing friends. It would take a whole other blog to explain how we have met some of the finest people around but to make it simple, the four of us met over a decade ago while living in Washington, DC.  One thing for sure is that distance never breaks up a true friendship.  Jonathan and I now reside in New York City while Dave and Alex are living in another great city, Singapore.  That hasn’t stopped us from getting together.  We’ve made a point to make the globe our playground….and who do you want to go out and see at the playground??? Your friends!

Miranda & Jonathan

Miranda & Jonathan; living in New York City

Alexandra & David

Alexandra & David; living in Singapore

The Adventurers

The Adventurers

One Car

If you really want to explore and don’t mind getting lost (come on, that’s how you find the best places), you should rent a car while traveling.  Terrible at working that GPS?  Try figuring it out in Mandarin!  Bonus – you will actually get to know your travel companions even better.  Who knew Alex had the uncanny ability to tell you the release year of just about any song she hears?  It’s a rare gift, especially when she has never heard the song before…crazy talent I would have never discovered had the four of us not been squeezed into a little vehicle packed with over flowing suitcases, 7eleven snacks, and a never-ending supply of tissue boxes.

The Island of Taiwan

Our Itinerary:

  • Taipei:
  • Kenting
  • Taitung
  • Haulien
  • Yuanshan
  • Taipei

Taipei (The Beginning)

Lodging: Muzik Hotel

Food:  James Kitchen, Old Wang’s Beef Noodle Soup, Din Tai Fung

Drink:  Wistaria Tea House, Revolver

Explore:  Keelung Temple Night Market, Shilin Night Market, Longshan Temple

James Kitchen

James Kitchen, Da’an District

Din Tai Fung, Da'an District

Din Tai Fung, Da’an District

Wistaria Tea House, Da'an District

Wistaria Tea House, Da’an District

Keelung Temple Night Market, Keelung

Keelung Temple Night Market, Keelung

Old Wang's Beef Noodle Soup, Jhong Jheng District

Old Wang’s Beef Noodle Soup, Jhong Jheng District

Shilin Night Market, Shilin District

Shilin Night Market, Shilin District

 Kenting

Lodging:  Uni Resort

Food & Drink:  Kenting Street Night Market

Explore: Hiking in Kenting National Park, Eluanbi Lighthouse

Kenting National Park

Kenting National Park

Eluanbi Lighthouse

Eluanbi Lighthouse

Kenting Street Night Market

Kenting Street Night Market

 Taitung

Explore: Hiking in Jhihben National Forest

Jhihben National Forest Recreation Area

Jhihben National Forest Recreation Area

Hualien

Lodging:  Silks Place,  Tienhsiang Youth Activity Center

Food & Drink:  Mei Yuan, The Wellesley

Explore: Baiyang Waterfall Trail,  Swallow Grotto Trail, Lianhua Pond Trail

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Baiyang Waterfall Trail

Swollow Grotto Trail

Swallow Grotto Trail

Lianhua Pond Trail

Lianhua Pond Trail

Yuanshan

Explore:  Kavalan Distillery

Kavalan Whiskey Distillery

Kavalan Whiskey Distillery

Taipei (The Ending)

Food:  Shao Shao Ke

Drinks & Entertainment:  Sublime, Brown Sugar, inHouse, KTV @ Party World

Shao Shao Ke, Zhōngzhèng District

Shao Shao Ke, Zhōngzhèng District

The Grand Finale

The Grand Finale

Verdict ~ Make your own road trip in Taiwan.  You will not be disappointed.  Vibrant, bustling cities full of culture, some of the most interesting and delicious street food in the world, breathtaking mountains, and gorgeous beaches…how could you go wrong? 

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Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer. – Unknown

HANOI & HA LONG BAY, VIETNAM

July 25 – 31, 2013

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A few years ago I came across a friend’s photograph on Facebook.  I typically take a quick look at photos in the news feed, sometimes I comment, but mostly I just move on down the feed.  This particular photo entranced me.  It awakened my desire to see and explore more than any other photo that I can remember.  It was magical.  It was breathtaking.  It simply blew my mind.  The photo was a scenic view of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.  I knew from that moment I would have to travel there one day.

A majestic view from above Sung Sôt (Surprise Grotto)

A majestic view from above Sung Sôt (Surprise Grotto)

Day Four

  • Leave Hanoi by van to Ha Long Bay
  • Over night Paradise Luxury Cruise with stops at Sung Sôt and Đảo Ti Tốp

From Hanoi to Ha Long Bay

By staying at the Hanoi Elegance Ruby, we were able to easily book our trip to Ha Long Bay.  The hotel arranged our pick-up, held our bags overnight, discounted our stay since we were not staying one night out of our planned stay with them, and booked us a new (and even nicer) room for the evening when we returned.  Amazing service.

After looking at several options, we choose to book our overnight cruise to Ha Long Bay through Paradise Cruises.  This company was one of the few that had spacious rooms with balconies as an option.  We booked and were very happy with our room.  The energy on the boat was quite low from most passengers.  This did put a bit of a damper on our stay since we like to eat, drink and be merry.  We still did…just by ourselves!  Towards midnight, we heard a boat that appeared to be having way more fun – great music, cheering and excitement echoed from their boat.  Ours was quiet and dim by that time.  So warning – if you are looking for a party boat or want to socialize and meet new people, then you should try a different boat.

Paradise Luxury & Cabin

Paradise Luxury & Cabin

 

Enjoying everything there is to offer...

Enjoying everything there is to offer…

 

FYI, there's no shop for miscellaneous items on the boat...  We were hanging out on our balcony when we heard voices down below.  We looked down and saw a small raft approaching with goods for purchase.  These ladies had everything from chips, candy bars, water, fresh coconuts and more.  We turned them away as we didn't expect we would need anything.  A few minutes later another lady came by and it occurred to me that we might need a bottle of wine for the room.  What are my chances?  Sure enough, she had a bottle of Vietnamese wine for sale.  Then I thought, is she going to throw it up to us?  Then, how I am going to pay her?  My thinking didn't last long...she had a net to make exchanges.  Awesome!  What's not so awesome...hot wine that has spoiled.  Oh well!  It was a fun purchase.

FYI, there’s no shop for miscellaneous items on the boat… We were hanging out on our balcony when we heard voices down below. We looked down and saw a small raft approaching with goods for purchase. These ladies had everything from chips, candy bars, water, fresh coconuts and more. We turned them away as we didn’t expect we would need anything. A few minutes later another lady came by and it occurred to me that we might need a bottle of wine for the room. What are my chances? Sure enough, she had a bottle of Vietnamese wine for sale. Then I thought, is she going to throw it up to us? Then, how I am going to pay her? My thinking didn’t last long…she had a net to make exchanges. Awesome! What’s not so awesome…hot wine that has spoiled. Oh well! It was a fun purchase.

 

As part of the cruise, the ship stops at several places to give you an option of hiking, kayaking, swimming or visiting a cave.  Here we are at Dao Ti Top.  We were able to climb to the highest for a scenic overlook and then hang out on the beach to relax.  It rained when we were climbing but cleared up just as we were heading to the beach.

As part of the cruise, the ship stops at several places to give you an option of hiking, kayaking, swimming or visiting a cave. Here we are at Dao Ti Top. We were able to climb to the highest point for a scenic overlook and then hang out on the beach to relax. It rained when we were climbing but cleared up just as we were heading to the beach.

 

Ha Long Bay - Bay of the Descending Dragon; a UNESCO-declared World Heritage area

Ha Long Bay – Bay of the Descending Dragon; a UNESCO-declared World Heritage area

Day Five

  • Return to Hanoi from Ha Long Bay
  • Dong Xuan Market
  • Dinner at Pho 10

After a wonderful night of dining, gazing at the stars, playing games on our balcony, we slept like babies.  The next morning our boat headed back to the port where our van was waiting to take us back to Hanoi.  My last thoughts on Ha Long Bay…simply majestic!

Our return trip took a few hours.  Along the way we planned out how we wanted to spend our last night in Vietnam.  There was one restaurant we had yet to try…but we had one very important stop to make before dinner.  After learning how to make traditional northern-style pho, we knew we would want to recreate it at home.  That meant we needed the secret ingredient since we were told it would be quite difficult to find it in the states…back to the market we went!

Sa sung; dried sea worms for pho from Dong Xuan market. They add a wonderful savory sweetness to the broth...all natural umami!

Sa sung; dried sea worms for pho from Dong Xuan market. They add a wonderful savory sweetness to the broth…all natural umami!

Dinner at Pho 10

A wonderful friend bought me the book, Where Chef’s Eat – A Guide to Chefs’ Favorite Restaurants.  I made a point to look up if there were any chef recommendations before heading to Hanoi.  Sure enough, I found one!  Pho 10 was recommended by Chef Neal Fraser as being a restaurant worthy of traveling out of your way to enjoy.  He was right on point!

A must try in Hanoi!  Delicious, inexpensive, packed with locals, and great service.  Don't expect to hang out...this is an in and out stop.  The servers are quick so that everyone can eat without a long wait.

A must try in Hanoi! Delicious, inexpensive, packed with locals, and great service. Don’t expect to hang out…this is an in and out stop. The servers are quick so that everyone can eat without a long wait.

Day six (really day seven but the first day was cut short) was spent eating a quick breakfast and heading to the airport.  We were sad to leave as we could have used a little extra time to travel to other cities in Vietnam but we had other plans… off to Taiwan for a road trip with friends!

Verdict ~ Visit Vietnam!  If you are in Hanoi, stay in the Old Quarter, be careful crossing the road, drink Vietnamese coffee like an addict, and take in the all the pleasures the city has to offer…great people, even better food, history, markets, street food, and more.  Whether you are in Hanoi or another city in Vietnam – make it a point to travel to Ha Long Bay and be prepared to revel in the beauty our planet has to offer. 

For more on this journey – check out Part One and Part Two

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 Little by little, one travels far. –  J.R.R. Tolkien

HANOI, VIETNAM

July 25 – 31, 2013

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Day Three

  • Orchid Cooking Class with Chef Tien
  • Dinner at Nha Hang Ngon
orchid7.jpg

Chef Tien

 

Orchid Cooking Class with Chef Tien

One of the best ways to learn about a culture is through their cuisine.  On our third day, we signed up to take a traditional northern Vietnamese cooking class at Orchid Restaurant (25 Hang Bac Str, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, Vietnam) with owner, chef, and local food expert, Chef Tien.

The class begins with a basic introduction into traditional foods and a quick review of the menu you will be preparing.  After that, Chef Tien takes you on an adventure to the local food market to shop for main ingredients.  Next you are back in the kitchen to learn, cook, taste, share, and experience great food from start to finish.

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Orchid Restaurant & Cooking School

 

At Dong Xuan market shopping for ingredients we needed for the class.  Chef Tien steers us towards a lady selling balut and encouraged us to try it.  Jonathan takes him up on the offer and is quite surprised that it was better than his last balut experience...

At Dong Xuan market shopping for ingredients we needed for the class. Chef Tien steers us towards a lady selling balut (duck embryo) and encouraged us to try it. Jonathan takes him up on the offer and is quite surprised that it was better than his last balut experience…

 

Trying out chả quế; a delicious meat pate flavored with cinnamon, star anis and other spices.

Trying out chả quế; a delicious meat pate flavored with cinnamon, star anise and other spices.

 

Pho Bo: basically a whole day of work goes into making this delicious bowl of heaven...this particular bowl was the best I've tried and yep, I helped make it!  Secret ingredient...sea worms.  Look no further, these add a depth to the broth that is hard to substitute (that's why we smuggled into the US...shhhhh).

Making phở tái; basically a whole day of work goes into making this delicious bowl of heaven…this particular bowl (with cooked beef and then topped with rare beef) was the best I’ve tried and yep, I helped make it! Secret ingredient…sea worms. Look no further, these add a depth to the broth that is hard to substitute (that’s why we smuggled some into the US…shhhhh).

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Hanoi style Vietnamese spring roll and a seafood salad

Here we are making cha ca (pan fried fish with turmeric and lots of dill); this is a famous dish in the area and we made it with a twist...rapped up with romaine and rice paper..

Here we are making cha ca (pan fried fish with turmeric and lots of dill); this is a famous dish in the area and we made it with a twist…rapped up with romaine and rice paper.

I highly recommend this class.  Just the trip to the market with a local chef was worth the experience; learning to make all these wonderful dishes…was the cherry on top.  No, wait, eating them was the best part!  So what do you do after about 8 hours of cooking and eating.  Nap.  Guess what happened after that…  Yes, I was hungry again.

Dinner at Nha Hang Ngon

I don’t know how we actually do it.  Jonathan and I don’t eat like ravenous animals at every meal when we are at home but somehow we easily fit in enough food for a family of four at almost every meal when we travel.  I would be ashamed or embarrassed but I’m not…because we eat it all (or nearly so) every time.  There’s always this looming feeling that if we don’t try ‘it’ now we may never have the chance to…so we order and we order and we order.  Needless to say, I was not hungry the next morning.

When you encounter a menu the size of a novela, you get one of everything that is most appealing...and if you're indecisive, just order it.

When you encounter a menu the size of a novela, you get one of everything that is most appealing…and if you’re indecisive, just order it.

What a day!  We learned so much and enjoyed every waking moment.  Vietnam has so much to offer and if you aren’t convinced yet…stay tuned for part three, coming soon!  A little teaser… on day four we head off on an overnight trip to Ha Long Bay.

 

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A soup like this is not the work of one man.  It is the result of a constantly refined tradition.  There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.  – Willa Cather

HANOI, VIETNAM

July 25 – 31, 2013

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Thank Goodness for Smart Phones & A Little Faith

Jonathan and I have found ourselves in some funny, albeit stressful, traveling situations.  For example, showing up very late to the wrong airport to board a flight to Singapore was about the worst prior to our most recent trip. So what takes the cake?  Trying to get your boarding pass two hours before your flight without a visa to the country you are flying to.  Yes, that’s us, standing at the United check-in line looking dumbfounded when the receptionist told us we weren’t able to get on our flight without our visa documents.

Going back to the city and waiting a few days to head to the embassy in order to apply was not an option.  All it took was a few reassuring looks between the two of us, a quick Google search…and poof!  We were ready to outsmart the system.  For about $40 dollars a person you can apply online for an express Visa.  In one day, you can receive a PDF document allowing you into the country.  It took some convincing, but we were able to get United to send us to Thailand (our last layover city before Hanoi) with the hopes that by the time we arrive, our visa documents would be ready.  United cancelled our flight from Bangkok to Hanoi and made it clear that if we were unable to get into Vietnam or happened to be stuck in Thailand it was all on us.  We didn’t flinch.  We boarded our flight with good faith that our online application would go through before landing.

For anyone who travels, not quite fully prepared (like us), then it may be good to know that Vietnam does require a Visa for entry.  Also good to note, the Bangkok airport has a printing station and passport photo booth to complete any Visa requirements.   Thailand saved us…as if we needed another reason to love that country!

19 Hours…

Our plan for Vietnam was to indulge in great food and overcome serious jet lag before heading to Taiwan.  Although the beginning of our trip was not going as planned, we finally landed in Vietnam and were back on track.

It took everything out of me to not check in the hotel and go right to sleep.  It was roughly 6pm and I knew that if I wanted to get over the eleven hour time difference I would have to keep myself awake until an appropriate time to sleep…and then I remembered how amazing Vietnamese coffee is.  What better way to keep myself up than a cup of cool, sweet addicting goodness!

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Vietnamese coffee at the ever relaxing and air conditioned, Align 3D Café.

There simply wasn’t enough caffeine in the whole café to supply me with enough energy for the evening but I only had one choice.  Power through it.  Next up, dinner.  Anything would do after two days of in-flight meals but we were lucky to find ourselves near the famous Bat Dan Street.  It is rumored that Hanoi’s best pho can be found here on this street.  After strolling along for several blocks we settled down for dinner at the only place with a line of families and couples waiting for a seat.  Score.  When in doubt, look to the locals for clues on where to find the best food. Finally, a decent hour to catch some sleep.  We headed back to the hotel (Hanoi Elegance Ruby) and collapsed…  The next thing I know, Jonathan is waking me up from a lovely, deep sleep.  Whatever he wanted I imagined would go away if I just ignored his calling my name but suddenly it hit me like an amplifying echo…wake up, wake up – it’s 4:30 in the afternoon….wake up, wake up, it’s….  WHAT?  I was baffled; where was I?  And how on earth did I just sleep – wait let me count…19 HOURS!  That, my friend, is what they call jet lag.  Avoid at all costs.

Pho on Bat Dan Street.  More subtle and less fragrant than other places but certainly fulfills any need for a comforting bowl of beefy goodness.

Pho on Bat Dan Street. More subtle and less fragrant than other places but certainly fulfills any need for a comforting bowl of beefy goodness.

Day One

  • Sleep until an ungodly hour
  • Dinner at Highway 4
  • Night Market
  • Drinks

Sleeping 19 hours straight only leads to one thing…a ravenous belly.  No, two things…a ravenous belly and severe grogginess.  It was dinner time when we finally left the hotel and entered the world of the living.

Highway 4:  Get the catfish rolls!

Bo Tieu Den:  Beef sautéed in black pepper sauce

Bo Tieu Den: Beef sautéed in black pepper sauce

Nem Ca Xa:  Catfish spring rolls

Nem Ca Xa: Catfish spring rolls

Feast for two!

Feast for two!

An Evening Out:  Night Market and Drinks

The local night market is a great place to roam and purchase souvenirs.  The market basically had the same items found in the shops around town during the day but the draw to this market is not what it has to offer you but the energy it encompasses.  We were only a few among the tourists.  This market seemed to draw the locals out to pick up essentials, mingle with friends and to grab a bite to eat.  For a city that has little to offer for night life, I thought this market was an enjoyable way to walk off dinner and spend the evening.

Nothing like a beefy after dinner treat...

Nothing like a beefy after dinner treat…

...sweet and savory treats.

…sweet and savory treats.

Late night beers...

Late night beers

Just as we were beginning to relax and take it all in with a few beers we were ran off by the police.  After living in NYC for a few years, it is quite normal for us to eat dinner at 9pm and then head out for a drink.  Not quite possible in Hanoi.  The police rolled up in a truck and banged their long clubs on the bar’s awning.  We were quite surprised but quickly realized we were expected to leave and the bar owner needed to close down quickly for the curfew.  Plan according if you are used to late nights!

Day Two

  • Morning run around Hoan Kiem Lake
  • Bảo Tàng Dân Tộc Học Việt Nam (Vietnam Museum of Ethnology)
  • Don’s Tây Hồ (A Chef’s Bistro)
  • Hỏa Lò (Hoa Lo Prison or “Hanoi Hilton”)
  • Dinner at Essence Café and Restaurant
Jog around the lake...

Jog around the lake…

Our epic night of sleep apparently didn’t do us any good – jet lag still had it’s hold on us.  So…after lying wide awake in the wee hours of the morning, Jonathan and I decided to go for a run.  Since we were staying in the old quarter we decided to head out towards Hoan Kiem Lake.  We may have been the only ones up due to jet lag but definitely not the only ones who happened to be out exercising.  In the early hazy hours of the morning, you will find crowds of people at the lake.  Some doing yoga, some Tai Chi, and others jogging along beside us.

Vietnamese coffee post run.  Our only defense against the 12 hour time zone difference...and well, it's simply addicting.

Vietnamese coffee post run. Our only defense against the 12 hour time zone difference…and well, it’s simply addicting.

Bảo Tàng Dân Tộc Học Việt Nam (Vietnam Museum of Ethnology)

The great thing about being on vacation means that you don’t have to follow a schedule.  The downfall is without proper planning and scheduling you just might miss some things.  We had planned to start out our day at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  Despite our early morning run, we took our time getting ready and enjoying breakfast.  By the time we arrived, the line was epic and it was raining.  We didn’t come all this way to spend an afternoon soaked and waiting in line…so we improvised.

We hopped in a cab and headed to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology.  Glad we did!  The museum, although small, had much to offer in the way of learning about the culture and makeup of the Vietnamese people.  The museum highlights the tremendous amount of ethnic groups the are the backbone of the country.  I learned so much and it was a great way to escape the nonstop drizzle.

Don’s Tây Hồ (A Chef’s Bistro)

Oyster bar and views of the lake.  Yes please.  For lunch, we headed away from old quarter and towards West Lake.  Here you will find a less populated and more relaxing area to unwind.  Don’s Tay Ho has an eclectic mix of modern and traditional Vietnamese food as well as some international dishes that draw in an array of locals and tourists alike.  We sat down and devoured a lunch that would have probably fed a group of four.

Lunch overlooking West Lake

Lunch overlooking West Lake

 

Hỏa Lò (Hoa Lo Prison or “Hanoi Hilton”)

I was intrigued by this place…any prison that has Hilton in it’s nickname seems worthy of a visit.  Maybe that’s just me; I do love sarcasm.  This prison was a bit creepy but didn’t leave you with the skin-crawling sensation you can get from such sites (I happen to like that). However, it was interesting to learn about the history of the museum and the people that were once imprisoned there.  As we walked through and I was taking it all in, it became very clear that much of the information presented to the visitors appeared biased.  Bothersome but still worthwhile.  I was quite excited to see the guillotine room.  I can’t really explain why this was appealing but it was…I also found the artifacts and media covering John McCain’s imprisonment interesting (he was held as a POW at Hỏa Lò Prison in 1967).

Hỏa Lò Prison

Hỏa Lò Prison

 

Dinner at Essence Café and Restaurant

Surprisingly enough, we were able to muster up more energy to shower and head out to dinner.  Glad we did too because we had a fantastic dinner.  Essence Restaurant is ranked number two on Trip Advisor for restaurants in Hanoi.  You can expect great service and authentic Vietnamese food… and a long wait time if you don’t make a reservation.

Essence Restaurant in Old Quarter

Essence Restaurant in Old Quarter

Want to read more about this trip, check out Part Two

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Cooking done with passion is an act of love. – Tammy Mollai

TROGIR, CROATIA

July 2012

Chef Tatjana Ciciliani in her kitchen

Chef Tatjana Ciciliani in her kitchen

Last year, during our honeymoon in Eastern Europe, Jonathan and I got the pleasure of spending a day of shopping, cooking, and dining with the passionate chef, Tatjana Ciciliani. Of all of our adventures on this trip, this is the one that we will cherish and remember forever. For more details on how we found Tatjana check out my post, The Secret to Traveling in Croatia.

The Kitchen. The heart and soul of a home.

Deep within the walls of a 13 century palace, lies a kitchen. Not just any ordinary kitchen but one that is so full of love and passion that this incredible warmth spills out into the streets and entrances passersby. This kitchen, unlike any kitchen I have ever had the pleasure of entering, has its own pulse. It beats with energy yet is soothing and slows time which can easily make you forget that hours have passed and you’ve created enough food to feed a village. This kitchen belongs to Tatjana Ciciliani. A brilliant chef, a culinary artist, a mother, a wife, a friend to everyone. A passionate, loving, and joyful woman whom has changed the way I will forever view cooking and whose influence I will never be able to fully capture in words.

Tatjana is the type of person you meet for the first time and you immediately wish you had known forever. Her kindness and joy of life is simply contagious. After spending a day with her, you will not only be incredibly inspired but you will also feel as if you just traveled deep into the core of Croatia. I learned more about the Croatian culture in this single experience than I could have ever imagined.

Lessons Learned. More than a recipe.

Rather than write the specifics of our trip to the markets, what we bought and what we cooked, I feel drawn to share our experience through the lessons I learned while cooking with Tatjana.

  • Make use of all your senses. Taste is only one aspect of selecting ingredients to cook. Investigate everything, pick things up, feel them, smell them, listen and talk to the vendors. Buying quality, in-season and local ingredients will not only yield a better dish but will also bring you closer to your land and your community.
  • Waste nothing. Unless it’s an old cucumber…it goes in the stock! Or somewhere else equally important like infusing salt! I can’t remember how many times I almost discarded what seemed like a useless peel or the top of an onion and was caught by Tatjana. It was like she had eyes in the back of her head! I had no idea how easy it was to make use of every single bit. Why have I been so wasteful? I was astonished by how many items seemed disposable moments before suddenly transformed into something totally new and delicious. Fish bones, onion tops, stems of herbs, soggy old vegetables, extra flour from bread making…
  • Don’t rush. Be patient. Slow down and enjoy the process. I don’t remember one timer being set. We cooked for hours, yet somehow the morning and afternoon blended into one magnificent experience. We had pots and pots of items boiling away, bread rising, fish waiting to be descaled while out in the blazing sun…and not once did we ever rush or worry about time. I’ve never felt so nourished physically and mentally after a meal.
  • Buy wholesome food to feed the people you love. Not one item we used was from a can or a box. Every item was traceable to the earth or the sea…not a factory.
  • Make what you love and love what you make. Everything tastes better when you’ve created it from your heart.

The Gallery. From market to belly.

Learning how to select the freshest fish at the market in Trogir

Learning how to select the freshest fish at the market in Trogir

Farmers market in Trogir

Farmers market in Trogir

After hearing me rave about cheese, Tatjana selects some cheese for an appetizer

After hearing me rave about cheese, Tatjana selects some cheese for us to try

Tatjana whips up a delicious cheese plate with honey and figs

Tatjana whips up a delicious cheese plate with honey and figs

The final cheese plate

You know you want a bite, don’t you!?

Getting ready!

Getting ready!

Loving the denim apron!

Loving the denim apron!

Gutting the fish

Gutting the fish

Tatjana giving all the hard work to Jonathan...haha!

Tatjana giving all the hard work to Jonathan…haha!

Breading the sardines after descaling them

Breading the sardines after descaling them

Happily chopping along...

Happily chopping along…

Teamwork in the kitchen!

Teamwork in the kitchen!

We got all this going on and more...risotto, fish stock, fried sardines and bread rising

We got all this going on and more…risotto, fish stock, fried sardines and bread rising

Tatjana teaching me how to make a delicious cheese and olive loaf

Tatjana teaching me how to make a delicious cheese and olive loaf

My turn!

My turn!

Working with the cuttlefish...

Working with the cuttlefish…

Ready to fry!

Ready to fry!

Frying sardines

Frying sardines

Final product!! So delicious and crispy

Final product!! So delicious and crispy

Such a fresh and simple salad, straight from the market!

Such a fresh and simple salad, straight from the market!

My favorite dish - cuttlefish risotto!  And not just because I got to watch Jonathan burst all the ink sacs...

My favorite dish – cuttlefish risotto! And not just because I got to watch Jonathan cut all the ink sacs…

Jonathan making a creamy dressing for the sardines

Jonathan making a creamy dressing for the sardines

Setting the table...notice those cucumber skins I was about to throw away...they found a home in the water pitcher

Setting the table…notice those cucumber skins I was about to throw away…they found a home in the water pitcher

Packages!  Filled with fish, veggies, herbs and olive oil

Packages! Filled with fish, veggies, herbs and olive oil

Dessert!  I wish I could remember what was in this - Tatjana whipped it up in seconds flat and it was an delicious and sweet way to end of day of cooking with an very talented and charming woman!

Dessert! I wish I could remember what was in this – Tatjana whipped it up in seconds flat and it was a delicious and sweet way to end of day of cooking with a very talented and charming woman!

Jonathan and I learned so much in such a short amount of time. We have a better understanding of Croatian cuisine and of the wonderful people we met along the way. I no longer waste so much food and have jars upon jars of herb-infused salts for cooking, my freezer is full of homemade veggie and chicken stock, and my enthusiasm in the kitchen grows with every meal I prepare with Jonathan. We are forever grateful for this one-of-a-kind experience.

Much love to Tatjana and her family for welcoming us into their home.

xoxo, Miranda

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