Lets face it. We can’t sit still! We have to move about, it’s in our ancestral nature. Well, maybe not? Most of my friends already know that we’ve spent lots of time in Europe, either traveling to and through it or living there. We know London very well and comfortable in Florence and Paris. During our 3 years in London we traveled to 13 different countries! AND the furthest we flew was a 2 hour flight to Istanbul. Yes, Europe is very accessible when you live in one of the major capitals.
This time we wanted to do something completely different. We wanted to test ourselves and go out of our comfort zone by exploring SE Asia. We figured it could be challenging to eat but once you accept that eating every part of the animal is normal then you won’t go hungry. We’ve watched dozens of travel shows over the years and as time went by the desire to travel to Asia grew. It wasn’t just for the sake of trying Bun Cha or dried squid it was to dive into what we’re not familiar with. The lifestyle, the culture, the sites and smells. These things are what drove us there. After all, we do lead a very sheltered life here in the US. The majority of Americans fear what is uncommon or unknown. We don’t like to be tested. How did we loose that need to explore and have adventures? I suppose with Globalization and being able to go down to the mega mart where you can get most everything you need from different cultures like Naan bread or Chinese cabbage has clipped our wings a little.
We started out in Hong Kong. We figured this would be an easy way to slide into the region as it was once held by the British only to be given up about 20 years ago. It would have some familiarity to it as we lived in London we thought it could be easily understood. Wrong! While they do drive on the right and 95% of all signage is in English as well as Cantonese people aren’t British. Yes there are tons of expats from all over the world living in a high density area but it’s no where near London.
But I love Hong Kong. The energy is amazing! Albeit we stayed mostly on the main area of Nathan only to go over to Hong Kong Island a couple times. I just wish we had spent a little more time there to explore the ‘locals’ areas and see how everyone else lives in their 40 story apartments.
Next up was Hanoi Vietnam. Again we opt’d for an easier path into Vietnam by selecting one of the larger cities to explore. If you’re afraid of noise and grit then I wouldn’t recommend going. But if you’re willing to forgive those kamikaze scooters and the dusty streets along with the high humidity then go! This place is magical. The food was such a surprise. We thought that we’d probably eat the commonly known items like Pho and Spring Rolls and Bánh mì but there’s so much more! Thankfully we had the suggestion from our hotel to sign up for a Street Food Tour lead by a very knowledge guide. Yes, he prep’d all the vendors before hand that if they were serving anything that was washed with water to use mineral water instead. We didn’t get sick. I can’t began to explain all the dishes we had, after the first 6 I lost track of what they were called and stopped taking photos. Food Heaven! Oh and the coffee! The people are extremely polite, always smiling. Yes there are places where it’s ‘locals’ only and we did find them to be a little unnerving. Its not everyday here in the US where you see a half of a pig being chopped up on a table out on the sidewalk. Or bowls and pots being washed from a hose on the same sidewalk as the butchering. After a while you become numb to it all but on occasion you do see some things that shock you. It’s their everyday life. They have no shame about it and that’s what makes it amazing. I had some of the best meals in my life in Hanoi and a few of those were on a little plastic stool on the sidewalk. I want to explore more of Vietnam!
We then went on to Siem Reap Cambodia. We had expectations of everything looking the same, they’re neighbors after all. We were wrong and happy to see the difference. While both Vietnam and Cambodia were once colonized by the French they’ve maintained their individuality very well. Khmer was their way of life in Cambodia, their lives changed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Everything they knew was stripped away, even their way of cooking. Thankfully it’s making a come back and in a big way. While the look of the food is similar to Vietnamese the flavors are very different. I think it’s the spices used in Khmer style cooking that changes the flavors of the spring rolls or the broths in their soups. Rice is a main ingredient as is with all Asian foods but it seems like the dishes in Cambodia and especially in the Siem Reap region they use lots of coconut milk in their rice. This makes it slightly sweeter. They have lots of fish dishes as well as pork and chicken. I did have a beef dish that was amazing but I didn’t see many beef options on their menus. We hired a guide for the 3 days we were there, he brought us to all the main temples as well as places for lunch. We even got a tour of the locals market. If you can bare the smell of fresh raw meat and pungent seafood then I would recommend checking it out, it’s on the main street from the airport into the center of town. You can get everything there! Live or freshly butchered anything you can think of. Also they have home goods, clothing, toys, spices, beds, ….you name it, you’ll find it there. One of the things I’ll remember most about Siem Reap is how inexpensive the food is. Beer was $1 for 2 bottles! Dinner for 2 with 3 dishes to share, 2 glasses of good wine, dessert – $40! We were told we could live like kings there on our retirement. But the humidity would be a factor.
I have a new appreciation for SE Asian cuisine. I will have to scope out here in Los Angeles what I can find that will bring me back to those great memories of my trip to the East.
I’m in the middle, Kevin Hudson is on my right and John Rheault is on my left. What an amazing adventure!