Travel in Vietnam

During a nighttime stroll, we had become lost in the dimly lit, maze-like streets of old Saigon. A series of turns led us into a narrow alley whose sole purpose seemed to be connecting to other alleys. The winding streets felt as though laid out by a two-year-old chasing a kitten.

Locals, cooking their dinner on sidewalk grills, looked at us with amusement, while children stopped their games for a moment to point at us and giggle; obviously, we were well off the tourist path. One elderly man, sporting a wispy Ho Chi Minh beard, waved us away from one alley and pointed to another. We followed his advice, but ended up at a brick wall. Now what?

From an open-air building off to the side, a slight woman in her twenties, head shaved clean and clad in a plain gray robe, approached us and calmly said, “Come in.” Because we had no idea where we were, and only a vague idea of how to get back, we took her up on the offer.

Chaum Lam Pagoda altar (575x477)

Somehow, we had stumbled into the Châu Lâm Pagoda, a Buddhist convent, on the busiest day of the year – the Tet holiday. Sister Huê Chi led us inside to meet the Master of the convent, an elderly woman whose commanding presence belied her short stature. In the background, a nun struck a gong at regular intervals as the others chanted prayers to Buddha. Fragrant sandalwood incense from burning joss sticks wafted over us.

The Master led us by the hand to a table, where other nuns scurried to present us with traditional Tet dishes of sticky rice and bright orange mangoes. After finishing our impromptu dinner, we were led into the sanctuary.

saigon tet buddhist temple hands

Saffron-robed nuns bowed in rows behind small silver tables bearing prayer books. Their hands remained clasped together and their heads lowered as they shot curious sideways glances at us; the only Westerners there. Whenever we made eye contact we were met with a soothing smile. A few minutes later, we joined them in kneeling in front of a yellow-and-red altar dedicated to Buddha.

saigon ho chi minh city tet holiday

This magical event hadn’t been planned; in fact, we had gotten quite disoriented that evening. Though instead of pulling out a map or checking our GPS position on a cell phone, we decided to roll with it. It’s fun to plan your vacation ahead of time, but we find it’s best to just have a broad outline of what you want to see or do. Leave time for those serendipitous events that pop up out of nowhere and are impossible to schedule. Sometimes, to find the most interesting things, you just have to get lost.

We’re your average middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

Tet, the Lunar New Year in Vietnam, is the most important holiday of the year. For me it is also the prettiest. There are displays of blossoms throughout the city, along with fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve. In Ho Chi Minh City the crowning glory of events is the Tet Flower Festival right in the center of town.

Tet Flower Festival-Ho Chi Minh City

Every year during Tet, Nguyen Hue, the main street in the central business district is transformed for one week into Nguyen Hue Flower Street. During this time traffic is banned on the wide boulevard and the central islands are decorated with magnificent floral displays. Throughout the week Vietnamese of all ages stroll through the impromptu park snapping photos and having fun.

Nguyen Hue Flower Street-Ho Chi Minh City

“Eternal Spring” was the theme of the festival for 2012, also the Year of the Dragon. All along Nguyen Hue the eponymous dragon was displayed, in both floral and paper mache versions.Nguyen Hue Flower Street-Ho Chi Minh City-Dragon

At the head of Nguyen Flower Street the statue of a benevolent “Uncle Ho” floating among lotus blossoms presides over the festival.Nguyen Hue Flower Street- Uncle Ho

Family photos are a popular souvenir with the beautiful floral displays as a background. Here one of the official event photographers organizes a family for their portrait by the dragons.Nguyen Hue Flower Street-Ho Chi Minh City-Family

Hotels enter a competition for best flower arrangement, interpreting the theme of “Eternal Spring”. This entry from the New World Saigon Hotel features anthuriums, pussy willow, orchids, roses, lilies and an unusual accent of winter cabbage.Nguyen Hue Flower Street-Ho Chi Minh City- Hotel Arrangement

Notice how the dad in this family is wearing a “Florida” shirt while his family mugs for the camera. . .Nguyen Hue Flower Street, Ho Chi Minh City-family with Florida shirt

Of course, a big event like this brings out all the celebrities, including this uber-chic little miss in her sassy pink dress!Nguyen Hue Flower Street-Ho Chi Minh City-Sassy little girl

For 2013 the Nguyen Hue Flower Street Festival will run from February 11-16, celebrating the Year of the Snake.  Anyone who will be in Vietnam on those dates should plan to visit Ho Chi Minh City to see this beautiful exhibit. And as the Vietnamese say:

Chúc mừng năm mới! (Happy New Year)

Nguyen Hue Flower Street-Ho Chi Minh City-pretty little girls

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On a gray, overcast day I was driving by endless miles of verdant green rice paddies to the central Vietnamese hamlet of Son My. In 1968 this was the site of the notorious incident known as the My Lai Massacre; when American soldiers killed over five-hundred civilians, mostly old men, women and children and then torched the buildings. The hamlet has since been reconstructed to look as it did after the carnage.

My Lai massacre memorial site

The village today displays rice paddies and the burned out foundations of homes.

I was only seven years old when the My Lai massacre occurred, but I still remember seeing disturbing photos of it in Life magazine. Now I was standing at the irrigation ditch where over one hundred of the bodies were found. My Lai is an emotionally tough place for anyone to visit, let alone an American.

Standing there I tried to contemplate the madness that occurred on this peaceful spot. Roosters crowed in the distance and the pungent smell of burning brush wafted over the village. It was an ordinary day, just like the one when the massacre occurred. Then I looked down and noticed hundreds of bare footprints along the path, many of them the tiny footprints of young children. They were interspersed randomly with imprints of army boots.

When the memorial was built the muddy pathways among the rice paddies were recreated out of brown concrete. Before it hardened they placed random imprints of army boots and bare feet to represent the killing frenzy that took place here. Boot prints lead up to individual houses and then build to a crescendo at the ditch.

My Lai massacre memorial site

A toddler at My Lai today.

The effect is that of the Guernica painting come to life on the ground. The imprints reflect the slaughter that took place that day; barefoot civilians being led to their death by booted soldiers. It’s a thought-provoking touch that effectively takes a visitor back to what happened here.

My Lai massacre memorial site

Uncle Do alongside the irrigation ditch.

A small Vietnamese man tugged at my elbow as I was trying to absorb it all. He started pantomiming what happened on that fateful day, making shooting and stabbing motions. Then he pointed to the ditch and demonstrated how all the bodies were laying there. He stood behind the trunk of a palm tree, as if demonstrating hiding behind it. It occurred to me that he was about my age, was he demonstrating something that happened to him?

The man’s extended family of about twelve people walked over to us. I had been speaking to Uncle Do, the head of the clan. The family ranged in age from about six to seventy-six: children, parents, grandparents.  Their age range approximated those of the victims.

His fifteen-year-old niece Mong spoke some English and asked where I was from. I hesitated. Considering where I was standing it was the first time I was tempted to say I was Canadian, but I said “US.” What happened next surprised me. The family surrounded me, shaking my hand and asking to take photos together. We were standing at the site of the worst American massacre of the war and they were greeting me like a long-lost friend.

My Lai massacre memorial site

Meeting Uncle Do's family.

Uncle Do took my arm and we spent the next half hour wandering about the preserved remains of the destroyed hamlet, somber Pied Pipers for the rest of the family tailing along behind us. He pointed out various points of significance along the way, even leading me inside one of the homemade bomb shelters where many of the villagers had been hiding before they were forced out by the troops. When our trek was finished each of the family members shook my hand and, through our ad hoc interpreter Mong, wished me well on the rest of my journey.

My Lai massacre memorial site

Standing astride the footprints are a proud father and grandmother.

It was an experience that would be repeated throughout Vietnam. A few days later Larissa and I were deep in the jungle climbing around the ruins of My Son, a 10th-century temple complex. Parts of the temple are still standing but one area is a pile of flattened rubble due to an errant US Air Force bombing run. In halting English a local visitor asked where we were from. Upon hearing my response he stopped and said, “US-Vietnam friends” before going on his way.

My Son temple Vietnam

Amid the rubble of the 10th-century My Son temple these men welcomed us.

Vietnam is a country that is poised between a violent history and a potentially bright future. While they remember the past they don’t dwell on it and, if our experience is any indication, they certainly don’t hold a grudge. We left Vietnam with warm feelings for all the people we met. They have replaced the pain of the past with hope for the future. In a sense they are forging new footprints.

My Lai massacre memorial site

The statue at My Lai represents the unbending will of the Vietnamese people.

Click the link to read more about our travel to Vietnam.

The echoes of war have gradually faded in Vietnam as the country has rebounded from decades of conflict to create a thriving modern economy; one sign of the forward looking times, former adversaries are now welcomed. Visiting Vietnam today is an eye-opening experience, particularly for an American visitor. Read more

Sandwiches are one of the universal foods, they’re cheap and convenient. We ate way too many of them on our trip and offer up the 11 best sandwiches in the world.

1) Shawarma in Jerusalem

Shawarma Jerusalem

A shawarma is a Middle Eastern sandwich made from meats (often lamb or chicken) that are cooked while rotating on a vertical spit. While it may look like a human leg spinning around, the spiced meat is delicious. It is shaved off and placed in a pita bread with a choice of toppings; usually hummus, tahini, tabbouleh, cucumbers and pickled vegetables. The flavors meld together into an incredibly tasty combination. The shawarmas pictured above come from side by side stands in Jerusalem.

2) Ham sandwich in Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland French Market ham sandwich

At the Saturday-only French Market in Auckland, you can try one of the great Kiwi bargains; $4.25 USD gets you a freshly carved ham sandwich on a crispy French baguette with lettuce and dressing. 

Auckland French Market Ham sandwich

3) Chopped rib on weck in Saratoga Springs, New York

BBQsa Saratoga rib sandwich weck

PJ’s BAR-B-QSA is one of our favorite barbecue joints. It’s a road trip of American barbecue offering regional specialties from all over the country. The rib sandwich is served on a weck roll, a western upstate New York specialty that is topped with kosher salt and caraway seeds. 

4) Kapana in Namibia

men eating kapana in Namibia

Part of the fun of kapana, the popular street food of Namibia, is how it’s eaten. You tell the vendor how much you want to spend and he pushes that amount over on the grill with his knife. You then grab it with your fingers and dip it into a communal box full of salt and spices. Tasty yes but not a sandwich. To make it a sandwich do what we did. Walk over to one the vendors selling fresh Portugeuse rolls, split it open and stuff the bread with the kapana. Now that’s a sandwich. It might have been donkey meat, we’re still not quite sure, but it sure tasted good.

5) Pastrami sandwich in New York

Katzs deli pastrami best sandwiches in the world

We both grew up in New York where the love of pastrami was drilled into us at an early age. Our favorite is still the classic with pickles and an egg cream at Katz’s Deli in Lower Manhattan. It’s where Meg Ryan loved the food in a famous scene from “When Harry Met Sally,” or maybe she was just faking it.

6) Pulled pork sandwich in Cincinnati, Ohio

Findlay market best sandwiches in the world

The award-winning barbecue team from Velvet Smoke plies its trade at the historic Findlay Market in Cincinnati. The pulled pork offers the right combination of tenderness, flavor and bite.

7) Bahn Mi in Hue, Vietnam (Winner: Best value)

Banh Mi sandwich

The sandwich is called banh mi but that is just Vietnamese for bread, in this case, a delicious crusty French baguette. The stuffing is typically grilled pork, perhaps compressed pig ears, liver pate, cucumber, cilantro, pickled carrots and a spread such as mayonnaise or spicy chili sauce. These bahn mi were 35 cents each, feeding us a delicious lunch for two for only 70 cents. The baguettes alone were worth more than that.

8 ) Hog roast and haggis sandwich in Edinburgh, Scotland

Hog roast haggis sandwich Edinburgh

Nothing like slapping on some haggis before the roasted hog. Haggis, the national food of Scotland and something they are oddly proud of, is sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, oatmeal, onion, oatmeal, suet and spices wrapped in a sheep’s stomach. Seriously. When combined with roasted hog it is pretty intense.

Pork and haggis sandwich castle terrace market edinburgh

Hard to beat the setting just below Edinburgh Castle. For a video of our haggis taste test check out “A Fistful of Haggis.”

9) Porchetta in  Assisi, Italy

Assisi porchetta best sandwiches in the world

You know your sandwich is going to be fresh when the head is staring at you. We have to admit though, it did make us feel a bit guilty.

10) Philly cheesesteak in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Philly cheesesteak Cambodia

Yo, we’re from Philly so we had to include at least one cheesesteak. After a tiring day touring Angkor Wat, Little Rocky approved of this one at the Warehouse in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Gotta love that French baguette.

11) Kokorec in Istanbul (Winner: The best sandwich in the world)

Kokorec best sandwich turkey

And the winner is, the kokorec sandwich in Turkey. It’s so delicious it even earned its own blog post: Damn, that’s good sheep intestine The title sort of gives away one of the main ingredients.

The world’s worst sandwich: Vegemite sandwich in Australia

Vegemite sandwich

Men At Work made it famous, but the world’s worst sandwich is the Vegemite sandwich. For those who haven’t tried it, Vegemite tastes like salty, fermented toe snarf. Straight from Australia’s Bush country, here’s a video of our official vegemite taste test. Watch it at your own peril.

What is your favorite sandwich?

Here’s our review of pizza on 6 continents: The best pizza in the world, it’s not in Italy

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From Hoi An, Vietnam ~ One of the reasons to travel the world is to taste the wide varieties of food out there. Vietnamese food is one of my favorites and the best examples are often sold by street vendors.

However, before leaving on our journey we met with our family doctor, who also specializes in travel medicine.  She pumped us full of vaccines (who knew they still had yellow fever?) and loaded us up with prescriptions to combat potential bugs.  Her last words of advice as she handed us a scrip for Cipro were “do NOT eat street food.”

Vietnamese street food

This lady is known as the “Queen of Banh Mi,” it’s a sort of Vietnamese hoagie.

But when you go to Vietnam, what’s a food lover to do?  Street food is as much a part of the Vietnamese culture as Ho Chi Minh.  In the cities, where living space is tight, locals eat their meals out on the sidewalk in front of their home.  Throughout the day little stands pop up out of nowhere and suddenly there are clusters of people perched on tiny stools slurping pho or munching banh mi.

Hoi An Vietnamese food tofu custard lady

The tofu custard lady is a regular stop on the market circuit.

Despite the fantastic aromas and gorgeous displays of ingredients, my doctor’s warning kept echoing in my head.  Should I miss out on this vital part of Vietnamese life, or forge ahead and risk earning a first-class ticket on the Immodium Express?

I finally found a solution when we got to the town of Hoi An, the culinary capital of central Vietnam.  During our Hoi An Itinerary, I signed up for “A Taste of Hoi An,” a combination food-tasting and walking tour around the town.  It’s run by a displaced Aussie and self-proclaimed foodie named Neville Dean.  A few years ago he found himself in a similar situation and set out to do something about it.

Hoi An vietnam food

Neville, the Aussie Dean of Vietnamese street food.

Neville’s solution is to take up to six guests for a stroll through the back streets of Hoi An. Working with a nutritionist he has personally inspected all stops to ensure they use sanitary cooking practices and fresh ingredients.  For about four hours (or more if he gets really chatty) Neville will guide, educate, and share anecdotes about Vietnamese food, street food in particular.

Through the course of the morning we stopped at local fresh markets, small “one dish” restaurants, and many of those street stalls that are so intimidating to a newcomer.  We sipped fresh fruit shakes, nibbled smoked sausages with local chili sauce and slurped the ubiquitous pho bo just like the locals.

Vietnamese food

These vendors specialize in varieties of bean sprouts.

We also learned how to pick out the good markets and street stalls.  Markets with no smell (and no flies) have fresh food.  The vendors bring fresh foods daily and close when they sell out.

For street stalls, ironically, the key is to find a place with lots of trash around it.  The Vietnamese keep their streets scrupulously clean, sweeping in front of their shops and stalls constantly.  Diners drop their order chits on the ground, where the stall owner will sweep them up at the end of the day.  A good stall is one where there are many chits on the ground—a sign that it is has constant traffic—and therefore good food.

Hoi An vietnamese food
All those pieces of paper on the ground are receipts from prior customers. If a stand has many that means the food is good.

In total we sampled almost 40 (yes 40!) different items The key here is sampled, so we always had room for just a little more.

By the way, the food must be healthy. The woman selling ginger in the picture at the top of this post is ninety-six years old.

For more information:  www.tasteofhoian.com

I’m usually not much of a nature boy, saving the passion of the outdoors for my forester brother. But in the Southern Hemisphere I couldn’t help take pictures of trees that are really different from the ones at home.

The tree picture above is planted near One Tree Hill in Auckland, New Zealand, the site made famous in the U2 song. Ironically, the actual One Tree Hill is treeless due to a dispute between the native Maori and the later arriving Kiwis about what type of tree should be planted there, a native one or a colonizing intruder.

Here are a few photos of some other unusual trees we’ve seen along the way:

Pictures of trees

Alongside the road in the Australian Outback people place bottles on this tree, probably to relieve boredom.

tree pictures

These trees at Angkor Wat reminded us of heart-shaped lollipops.

Pictures of trees

We try to make like Lara Croft and climb this tree at the Ta Prohm temple.

Pictures of trees at Ta Prohm Angkor Wat Lara Croft (444x525)

At the Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat the trees have sort of taken over.

Pictures of trees at Ta Prohm hidden statue (422x525)

The only remaining Buddha statue face at Ta Prohm barely peeks through an overgrown trunk.

The Buddha statue pictured above is the only one at the Ta Prohm temple of Angkor Wat that still has its head.  Through decades of political turmoil and strife, including most recently the Khmer Rouge regime, the tree has protected the little Buddha.

Tree pictures Ta Prohm Angkor Wat

Imagine planting this tree next to your house?

My Lai tree

This tangled tree at My Lai reflects the area's tortured history.

Tree picutres

Wispy branches reach for the sky in Australia.

Pictures of trees

The trees in Auckland are huge and gnarly. Larissa makes like a Keebler elf in this one.

Pictures of trees

Thailand suffered from huge floods last year. This tree soaking in the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok shows the waters have not fully receded.

Picutres of trees

A 750-year old Boab in Perth, Australia.

Pictures of trees Clare Valley sunset (439x525)

Sunset filtering through branches in the Clare Valley of Australia.

This is our very first black-and-white photo essay. We’re curious, what do you think about it? 

 

Communist governments feel compelled to preserve the corpses of their founders and keep them on display for public viewing. It’s their way of sustaining the cult of personality that keeps the current regimes in place. In the past few months we hit the trifecta of embalmed communist Asian leaders: Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung and Kim Il-Sung.

The Ho Chi Minh Tale

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh, the man whose efforts eventually unified Vietnam, was apparently a simple man. He requested to be cremated and have his ashes spread over north and south Vietnam. However his successors ignored his request, resulting in a foreboding Stalinist pile that goes against his wishes.

Due to its heavy-handed architectural style, the mausoleum actually appears larger in photos than in person where it’s easier to determine its scale. Army honor guards wearing white dress uniforms surround the entrance. They appear to be selected based on height because they were all taller than Michael, a rarity in Vietnam.

The chamber housing Ho is fairly austere; the only decorations are two large reddish floor-to-ceiling marble panels behind him, one decorated by a yellow hammer-and-sickle and the other the gold star of the Vietnam flag. The body is remarkably well-preserved, even down to Ho’s signature wispy beard. As we gaped at his body lying under the exposed glare of spotlights we couldn’t help thinking that this was the exact opposite of what he requested.

We were in and out in less than a minute and on to the rest of the complex, which includes his small house built on stilts and the requisite Presidential automobiles.

The Chairman’s Mao-soleum

Mao Tse-Tung Mausoleum, Beijing, China

Mao mausoleum Beijing

 

The line to visit Chairman Mao wraps around Tiananmen Square but moves quickly and is well organized, one of the few places in Beijing where people queue in an orderly fashion. Mao’s tomb is strikingly similar to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, right down to the seated larger-than-life statue of him staring benevolently down on the masses teeming by.

We filed quietly past the raised casket. His body is covered by a large Communist flag leaving only his waxen face visible. We could easily have been viewing a likeness of Chairman Mao made by an artist surreptitiously hired away from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.  We were in the room with Mao for about twenty seconds and then shunted on.

Outside the mausoleum vendors sell trinkets bearing Mao’s image. For a system that renounces religion, they have an amazing capability of suborning such symbols to glorify their own leaders. The baubles for sale included  gilded images, similar to religious icons, that the faithful could hang on their walls. It reminded us of the shrine-like gifts for sale upon leaving the Vatican.

The “Greatest” of them all: Kim Il Sung

Kim Il Sung mausoleum, Pyongyang, North Korea

Kim Il Sung Mausoleum

The mausoleum housing Kim Il Sung, forever known as The Great Leader, is a massive marble building that is all out of proportion to the tiny country. It overlooks a vast windswept square that is large enough to hold military parades or possibly land a small jet. In a country of such wretched poverty the contrast is astonishing.

We waited outside the entrance next to two lines of North Koreans from the countryside. The women were mostly under five feet tall, partly a product of heredity and likely a product of malnourishment. They wore the choson-ot , the traditional dress brought out for special occasions. For them it was the trip of a lifetime, probably the only time they would pay their respects to Kim Il Sung. For us it was just another stop on a tour.

Kim Il Sung mausoleum Pyongyang

North Korean women wearing the traditional “choson ot” prepare for a group photo.

In one room large bronze bas-relief murals depicted people of various races in agony: African farmers in their fields crying, Asian factory workers doubled over in pain. We were given headsets with an English language description of Kim Il-Sung’s death. The hyperbolic announcer, who sounded like a Korean Alistair Cooke hepped up on meth intoned, “All over the world, people beat their breasts in agony over the loss of the Great Leader!!!” 

Before entering the viewing area we walked across a contraption with rollers that cleaned the bottoms of our shoes. Then we entered another vestibule and went through an airlock type device; cold air was blasted at us from high-speed blowers to remove any stray particles of dust. The women in dresses looked like they were replicating Marilyn Monroe’s famous stop over the subway vent in The Seven Year Itch.

Suitably cleansed we finally entered the room where the Great Leader lay in repose. We marched around the body in groups of four, with a curt bow required at the feet and two sides of the casket.

We then entered a museum honoring Kim Il Sung. Along the walls, in a literal rogue’s gallery, hang large framed pictures of him shaking hands with notorious world leaders; some of whom, Hosni Mubarek and Muammar Gadhafi, had only recently been deposed by their own people. It makes one wonder what fate awaits the current leader of the DPRK.

Grave doubts

It struck us that the North Korean leader presided over the smallest of the three countries in Asia with embalmed leaders but had the gaudiest display devoted to him. It makes sense though. China and Vietnam are moving forward on a business-oriented track that engages the world, while North Korea is still mired in an isolated cult of personality to keep its current citizens in their place.

Other than the overblown architecture designed to make the common man feel, well, common, you will notice another similarity in these photos, they’re not very clear. This is the result of the horrible air pollution in Beijing, Hanoi and Pyongyang. Just another thing that totalitarian regimes unconcerned about their citizens can get away with.

Click the link to view more about our visit to North Korea.

Have you visited any of these sights?

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Our hotel in Hanoi was in the Old Quarter, a frenzied and chaotic labyrinth of streets that rambled like they had been laid out by a toddler chasing a rabbit. Each street specializes in selling a certain product. Apparently our block was the bootleg DVD retail section, whenever we walked out of our hotel we were offered the latest Hollywood fare at 75 cents a pop. We’ve been gone from home for so long on this journey that we hadn’t even heard of most of the new releases.

A few streets over from us was the street devoted to the coffin sellers, the one place we could walk without someone asking us to come in and browse their fine selection. We felt fortunate that we didn’t appear to be in the market for a new coffin.

The sidewalks in Hanoi are an extension of the interior spaces. Anything that can be done inside is available for all to witness on the sidewalk: stir-frying dinner, cutting hair, chopping poultry, boiling water for tea, arranging flowers. The locals make such good use of the public space we half expected to see a baby delivered right out in the open. That is of course where the sidewalk isn’t being used as an open-air moped parking garage.

Oddly enough, one thing that doesn’t take place on the sidewalk is actually walking on them. So everyone crowds into the street: pedestrians, mopeds, bicycles, cars, rickshaws and ladies wearing conical straw hats balancing produce for sale on bamboo poles, all somehow manage to make way for each other in the daily ritual of Hanoi life.

Hanoi street barber (515x446)

The sidewalk provides a convenient open-air spot for a barber shop.

Amid all the gray a TV delivery provides a much needed dose of nature.

We loved the look on this kid’s face as he got ready for a ride in a sidecar.

These young boys were making furniture.

These girls rode around Hanoi all day advertising something.

A woman getting her hair done for Valentine’s Day weekend.

Rickshaws are Hanoi’s pickup trucks.

Hanoi street head pivot (515x467)

Larissa demonstrates the art of rapid head-spinning necessary to cross the street in Hanoi. Check out the little kid all bundled up sitting on the front of the motorcycle heading towards her.

Hanoi streets bread sellers (508x515)

Bread sellers wait outside the main train station with baskets of bread balanced on their head.

Hanoi street produce vendor tarp (515x460)

Sidewalk vegetable vendor.

Hanoi street yellow french building (515x442)

The French influence is visible in the architecture.

Hanoi street younger vendor yellow wall (515x438)

The streets are chock full of women selling items from bamboo poles slung over their shoulder. We tried it. Those things are heavy!

Hanoi sandals

One area had over fifty shoe stores, from flip-flops to high leather boots.

Hanoi street casket seller (515x461)

A quiet day on the street of the casket sellers. THE END

Click the link to read more about our trip to Vietnam.

Cheap travel is often a challenge, but how would you like to live in a land of 35 cent hoagies, $25 gourmet meals for two and beers for a buck? A place where the dollar stretches so far it could cover the entire country. That’s daily life for visitors to Southeast Asia. In expensive places like Europe it’s difficult to budget a vacation at a reasonable cost. In Southeast Asia it’s difficult not to.

We’ve learned that to travel cheaply, go where it’s cheap. That advice seems obvious but is often ignored. We picked it up from Tim Leffel in The World’s Cheapest Destinations. We read the book before embarking on our journey and were a bit skeptical about his stories of $25 hotel rooms and $5 restaurant meals. But we’ve been in this part of the world for three months now and have become true believers.

The picture below is of our $22 hotel room in Hue, Vietnam. The price included a buffet breakfast, Wifi and taxes. It also had a large flat-screen TV, comfortable bed and great shower. It was as nice as any Marriott Courtyard we’ve stayed. We were not giving up anything in the way of amenities that we would have at a Western hotel.

Vietnam hotel room

All yours for $22 per night, including breakfast and WiFi.

We polished off a delicious gourmet meal at Confetti, a high-end restaurant in Hue. Larissa had the full five-course spread, which included barbecued duck, while Michael settled on a mere three courses. Add in two glasses of wine and a bottle of water and we were stunned that the tab, including tax and tip, came to only $26. We were actually embarrassed.

But not as much as we were at lunchtime when we bought two Banh Mi, the Vietnamese equivalent of a hoagie, and paid 35 cents each. (As a point of comparison, in pricey Australia a packet of ketchup at a sandwich shop costs 50 cents.) A few weeks later Michael got a $1.50 haircut in Bangkok. He hasn’t paid so little since he was in short pants.

Vietnamese Banh Mi

Banh Mi, a Vietnamese hoagie on a French baguette, were only 35 cents each.

The biggest challenge  is finding out that others got a better deal. We were pretty smug about scoring a $35 room at a resort in Siem Reap, Cambodia; that is until our friends Doz and Amanda told us they were staying up the street for $16.

For cash-strapped Americans whose currency is weak, locales that value the dollar are great tourist destinations. There is one glitch though: getting there. But we looked up round-trip flights from New York to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur (cheap hubs for travel throughout Asia) for April and found some for about $1,100; only a few hundred dollars more than flying to Paris. You’ll more than make up the difference once you get to Asia.

However a location shouldn’t be judged only on price. The old adage that you get what you pay for is always ringing in the back of our heads. But that just hasn’t been the case here. Paying 1960s prices for 2012 amenities, beautiful countryside, dynamic cities and meeting gracious people seems like a winning combination. We highly recommend placing Southeast Asia on your “To Go” list.

From Michael ~ Yesterday, on our last day in Saigon, I strolled around the city streets for one final look. I miss Saigon already. Its current name is Ho Chi Minh City, but it was in the news a lot when I was a kid and it will always be Saigon to me. Apparently to the locals as well, they wear the old name like a comfortable sweater.

We arrived in the middle of the week-long Tet Lunar New Year. For four days the city, usually known for its vitality and chaotic streets, was practically deserted as shops and restaurants were closed. Most residents went to the countryside for the week. Picture an empty beach town in the winter and you get the idea. Each day as more people returned we were introduced to the city gradually as it awoke from its holiday induced slumber.

It’s the city where we got lost one sticky night on a meandering back alley and ended up at a Buddhist convent. The nuns acted as if they cater to befuddled tourists all the time, taking us in, feeding us and even giving us a bag of fruit for our journey. If they were Italian they could have been my grandmother. (There’ll be more on this in a future story.)

Buddhist nuns Vietnam

Little Rocky enjoyed his evening and meal at the Buddhist convent.

It’s the city where we learned how to navigate our way through the four million mopeds that seemed to all be on whatever street we were trying to cross. The first few days we were tentative about leaving the relative safety of the curb. Our experience in Beijing had taught us that pedestrians are moving targets, like ducks in a shooting gallery waiting to be picked off.

But we watched the nightly ballet of riders as they approached major intersections that lacked traffic lights. With the tight choreography of the USC marching band they managed to intertwine their routes and avoid a collision. So we stepped off the curb, a moving rock in a river as the riders streamed around us. We learned to go with the flow, advice that has stood us well on our year-long journey.

It’s the city where a new friend had me jump on his motorbike to give me a ride for a quick errand. Never mind that I was more petrified flitting through traffic on the back of his motorbike than walking, it’s the thought that counts.

Saigon motorbike

A new friend in Saigon.

Surprisingly, it’s also a city that loves Americans, despite a history that gives them more reasons than most to be bitter. Maybe it’s because every other person we met has a relative that lives in California. I think it’s because unlike many parts of the world that are stuck in reverse as they dwell on past wrongs, Vietnam is forward-looking as it eagerly strives for its place on the world stage.

If you’re intrigued, now is the time to visit. In a few years those four million motorbikes will start to become cars. Then the traffic will probably be more like the death match of Beijing. When that day comes I fear Saigon will lose a bit of its innocence.

The following video shows rush-hour traffic at the main intersection in front of the Rex Hotel. If you tried to choreograph this scene with stunt drivers for a movie it would take weeks: