In the spring of 2018 I had the good fortune to visit Japan with a group of students from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Led by Japanese students who came to Luskin to study, we had a whirlwind week visiting government officers, cultural landmarks, and other sites. Here are some of my favorite photos from the week (including a couple images from a long layover in Hong Kong).
Life happened, and I realized it’s been over a year since I last updated the blog. That’s especially egregious because I still have a few photos from Asia to share. After leaving Cambodia Sam and I embarked on what was probably the highlight of the trip: a motorbike adventure through northern Vietnam. This was one of our boldest moves – neither of us were comfortable on the bikes and we rode to places much less developed than where we spent most of the trip – but we were rewarded with truly breathtaking scenery. Photos can’t do it justice, but I’ll try anyways.
Thanks so much to Tom at Vietnam Coracle for the route – this never would have happened without him.
As a bonus, here are a few photos from our last days in Hanoi, where we ate more bun cha and took in some traditional Vietnamese music (by which I mean Japanese punk).
You know the chao ga (chicken porridge) will be good when the ground looks like this.
The bun cha at Bun Cha 34 – maybe one of the single best dishes on the planet.
It’s been another long break. After moving out to California, school started and life got busy again. New Year’s Day is putting me in the mood to create, so let’s get back into things. I don’t have a lot to say about Angkor Wat. It’s big, hot, and as impressive as people say it is. If you can visit someday I’d recommend it, but try to get to Phnom Penh too. If you’re going to enjoy the wonder of Angkor Wat, you owe it to the country to educate yourself on the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.
Sam and I didn’t have a particularly good first impression of Cambodia. We got off our boat in the heart of Phnom Penh and were greeted by scorching heat and pushy tuk-tuk drivers. We had trouble finding a place to stay and were underwhelmed by the food. But after a few days, things changed. It’s not that we grew to like Phnom Penh. Rather, we realized why the city didn’t match up to others we had visited.
Modern Cambodia is, in a sense, less than 40 years old. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975 to 1979, and in those four years they destroyed the country. One out of every four Cambodians was murdered during the genocide, with special attention paid to city dwellers, the educated, and ethnic minorities. In his quest to create an agrarian utopia, Pol Pot killed 2,000,000 people.
After we left Saigon, we had one last stop before moving into Cambodia: The Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is a huge network of waterways and islands that makes up the agricultural center of Vietnam. Much of the country’s produce is grown in the area surrounding the river.
The Delta can also be a huge tourist trap. Every guesthouse and travel agency in Saigon offers dirt-cheap tours of the region – you’re bused up to the river, walk around an island, get pushed to buy tacky souvenirs, and can make it back to Saigon with plenty of time to get drunk on beer street.
Sam and I are back in the States and getting settled in Los Angeles, so I suppose now is as good a time as any to get back to sorting through photos from the Asia trip. I’m going to start making these more brief, or else I’ll never finish. Today: Saigon.
After leaving Hoi An, we made our way down to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City; the two names are more-or-less interchangeable). Our initial impressions of the city were very good. Saigon feels a lot like NYC in size, scale, and energy. Our guesthouse was in a great location – just far enough from backpacker central to not be obnoxious, and just off a street with a market in the morning and wonderful street food in the evenings.
After leaving the beach, we made our way into Hoi An proper. Our three nights in the city were a wonderful break – we stayed in the nicest hotel of the trip and ate well. Hoi An feels somewhat like the Epcot version of Vietnam. The center of town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as such the architecture has been preserved and the streets are closed to motor vehicles throughout much of the day. It’s incredibly touristy, but Sam and I couldn’t help but be charmed. I don’t actually have much to say about Hoi An (besides some controversial opinions on famous banh mi that I might share later), so for now here are some photos.
Sam and I didn’t actually go straight to Hoi An after leaving Hue; we stopped at the beach. Hoi An is a river town, but it’s just a couple minutes from the ocean by car. Tourists often stay at An Bang Beach, but we found a little guesthouse a mile up the coast on Ha My Beach. It was one of the more bizarre places we stayed in Vietnam. Sandwiched between two fancy resorts, Minh and Nhat had trouble finding it. Once we got there, we found the owner, his mother, a manager, and an aging Long Beach surfer who had lived in the hotel for the past year.
We loved and hated the guesthouse, which is called Ha My TT. It was very cheap compared to other options around Hoi An, and was on the beach. Not close to the beach, but directly on it – if you stepped out of the lobby you were on the sand. The water was a little chilly, but I had some fun playing in the waves. The beach itself was a great place to lie around. The guesthouse was virtually empty, which was both peaceful and slightly eerie.
What kept us from really enjoying Ha My was food, or the lack thereof. We had read that the guesthouse was flanked by cheap seafood restaurants, but these seem to have been razed to make room for new development. We were left with little more than one noodle soup vendor in the morning and a mediocre rice joint. The low point came one desperate evening when we finally found one woman selling hard-boiled eggs that ended up being fertilized eggs. We ate potato chips for dinner.
If there were more to eat, I think we could have been very happy at Ha My TT. If I could do it over again, I would go into Hoi An first, rent a motorbike, and take it to the hotel – with a bike, the area isn’t at all isolated. But the way the area is being cleared for development, I don’t know that I will have another chance to stay at this strange little guesthouse.
There are a couple ways to get between the towns of Hue and Hoi An. You could take a scenic train ride, or crowd into a bus. But there’s a third option, one popularized by the show Top Gear: riding a motorcycle over the Hai Van Pass. I’ve never watched Top Gear, but I discovered these tours while researching Hue. Sam and I immediately knew this was something we had to do, so I shot off an email to Anh at Hue Motorbike Tours.
After leaving Cat Ba Island, we made our way back to Hanoi to catch a night train to Hue. The train was a lovely experience that I may return to, but let’s move straight to Hue. We spent four nights there, which most people will tell you is a lot of time for the city. They aren’t exactly wrong.
Tourists generally come to Hue for history. The city was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945. The centerpiece of Hue is the large Imperial City, and many royal tombs sit on the outskirts of town. We didn’t make it to any tombs this trip, but we did spend a morning in the Imperial City. The complex was heavily damaged by US bombing during the Tet Offensive, and the government is actively working to rebuild. As a result, the Imperial City is a strange mix of old buildings, construction, and new buildings made to look old. It’s tough to fully appreciate, especially without a guide.