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A taste of Vienna (from our kitchen)

I studied Spanish in middle school, high school, and college, which came in handy for the time we were in South America.  But until recently, the only German I knew came from the basic phrases I had learned from my parents or general osmosis (“gute nacht”, “danke schön”,…) or phrases from things I’ve sung in choir (“Freund, ich bitte hüte dich, Scorpionen schleichen sich unter jeden Stein”).  Recently, I started learning German more formally with Rosetta Stone, a computer program that tries to teach language in an immersion style.  Of course, being here in Vienna has provided its own opportunities for language immersion.  All of that was a long-winded way of getting me to the word of the day: “Hundertjahrflut”, meaning “hundred year flood”.  Yes, Austria is having its second hundred year flood in eleven years, and it happens to coincide with us being here.  So we have been a bit stir crazy the last few days. (The flooding isn’t causing any problems in Vienna at this point, just in other places.)

So, in honor of terrible weather driving us inside, here is a visual tour of some of the great things we’ve been cooking.  Vienna is a city with great food, and over the past few weeks, we’ve certainly been contributing in our own small way.

Be sure to check out more great stuff on Bowen’s blog, both from our time here and from before.

A delicious salad with yogurt dressing

A delicious salad with yogurt dressing

Risotto with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and bacon

Risotto with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and bacon

Pork chops with sauteed onions and roasted scallions

Pork chops with sauteed onions and roasted scallions

Polenta with chicken and yogurt sauce

Polenta with chicken and yogurt sauce

Polenta with sauteed veggies and a poached egg

Polenta with sauteed veggies and a poached egg

Caramelized onion, potato, thyme, and gruyere pizza

Caramelized onion, potato, thyme, and gruyere pizza

Pizza Margherita

Pizza Margherita

Lentils

Lentils

Lentils with feta and tomatoes

Lentils with feta, fennel, and tomatoes

Chicken, avocado and radish salad with creamy dressing

Chicken, avocado and radish salad with creamy dressing

Beans with Chicken

Beans with chicken and fresh bread

Vienna – The first half

We’re just over half way through out time in Vienna.  And it has been magnificent.  We’ve been able to see and do some of the wonderful tourist activities such as museums, but for us, that is not the main draw of Vienna.  Those things are all great, but what makes us love Vienna so much is simply the way life feels here.  The city is set up for Gemütlichkeit.  You may recognize that word from the title of our blog, A World and Gemütlichkeit, and it was being here two years ago that (re)introduced us to the term and reminded us of the importance of the concept.  Gemütlichkeit doesn’t have a direct translation but means, roughly, comfortableness or friendlyness or unhurriedness.  To me, it means enjoyment of life, taking time to enjoy the good things that we always have available to us but that we often neglect.  So while we’ve been here we’ve been going often to cafes, taking lovely hikes through the forested hills that surround the city, drinking incredible and cheap wine, and generally enjoying life.

Most days we spend the morning in our apartment, working, reading, or studying, and then head out after lunch for some adventure.  Sometime just a lovely cafe, sometime the opera, sometimes a museum or a hike.

Our time here started with a wander from our apartment into the center to enjoy one of our favorite Austrian treats, prosecco mit Aperol, at the Kunsthallencafe.  (For more on Aperol, see Bowen’s blog here and here.)  I had set a goal for us not to use any public transportation until after our first weekend so that we would have to get out and walk the streets.  So our second day we walked the nearly three miles up to the Brunnenmarkt market in the 16th district, which was lovely. And we bought a lot of cheap and delicious produce, cheese, dry goods and chicken and walked it back.  Which was … uncomfortable.  I didn’t get sensation back on the tip of one of my fingers for about two days after carrying heavy plastic bags.

Prosecco aperol at Kunsthallencafe

Prosecco aperol at Kunsthallencafe

Chicken for sale in the Brunnenmarkt

Chicken for sale in the Brunnenmarkt

The first weekend we spent wandering and sampling some classics, including our first of many visits to Aida Cafe for Sachertorte and a visit to Zwölfapostelkeller for wine and liptauerbrot.  On the first Monday we explored the city a bit on the free (for the first hour) City Bikes that are stationed all over the city.

Zwölfapostelkeller

Zwölfapostelkeller

The next day we went on our first hike, Stadtwanderweg 3.  The city has a set of 15 hikes in and around the city, 11 of which are short hikes in scenic areas, two of which traverse the city and two of which are 5-6 days trips around the city (seriously).  Each of course is well maintained and has lovely cafes along it to refuel weary walkers.  And each is served by public transit.  Gemütlichkeit!!  This hike took us through the western hills through a couple of vineyards, but mostly through forests and meadows.

A broad boulevard near the beginning of Stadtwanderweg 3

A broad boulevard near the beginning of Stadtwanderweg 3

One of the many signs pointing the way

One of the many signs pointing the way

Another lovely scene in the Wienerwald

Another lovely scene in the Wienerwald

The next day I went to the Opera.  Opera is a big deal in Vienna.  In fact, my understanding is that there is a general belief that every Wiener (person from Vienna, or Wien in German) has a certain right to access opera and other elements of culture.  Thus, while there are fancy seats that cost 185 euro, there are are seats for about 11 euro, and perhaps most impressively, standing tickets (stehplatz) for 3-4 euro.  That’s right, anyone with 3 euro and some extra time to wait in line at the Stehplatzkasse can see the some of the world’s best opera.  By comparison, the New York Met has standing tickets as well, but they cost $17-40.  So to finish out our first week in Vienna, I waited in line for an hour and a half, paid 3 euro and then stood through four and a half hours of Wagner’s Die Walküre.  And it was awesome.  I don’t generally like opera all that much, but this was fantastic.

On the one weekaversary of being in Vienna we headed to see the Klimt and other great art at the Belvedere.  The Belvedere not only has great art, it has lovely gardens and is only about a half mile from our apartment, and recently we’ve been joining the locals on morning jogs through the gardens.  I can guarantee the scenery is much nicer than looking at a TV screen or out the window at the gym.  We started the weekend with dinner at Esterhazy Keller, a local institution with great wine, and then found a lovely little festival at the foot of Stephansdom (St. Stephens Cathedral) where we drank fresh raspberry wine and admired beautiful local crafts.  The next day we wander through the Prater, the very large park in the city and home to the Reisenrad (a giant Ferris wheel) and the Liliputbahn (a tiny train about which my sister and I made up many songs when we were children) in the Wurstelprater amusement park.  The day was intermittently quite rainy, so we escaped into Cafe Prückel, which has become our favorite cafe in the city.

The gardens at the Belvedere

The gardens at the Belvedere

Würst in the Wurstelprater

Würst in the Wurstelprater

A bit of class at Cafe Prückel

A bit of class at Cafe Prückel

On our second Monday in town Bowen came with me to the Opera, and we saw Carmen stehplatz.  This was fun, and the stage direction by Franco Zefirrelli (seriously) was great, but it was much more of a standard opera experience in which the characters sing five times about what they are going to tell you, then sing what they are telling you, and then remind you five times what they just told you, when all they are telling you is that the sun is out today.  The next day we headed in the afternoon out to Nußdorf, an area at the edge of town that has many vineyards and heurigen, small and often informal places to drink new wine and eat simple food.

A whole roast pig at a heuriger

A whole roast pig at a heuriger

In the remainder of the first half of our time here, we went for a walk at Schloss Schunbrunn, I went back to the Opera for more Wagner (Götterdamerung, even longer than Die Walküre), we headed back to Prückel, we wandered through the second district of the city and we took two more great hikes, one up near the northern vineyards and one across the Danube (and also near vineyards; there are lots of vineyards here).

Vineyards along Stadtwanderweg 2

Vineyards along Stadtwanderweg 2

The view from Häuserl am Stoan, on of the Gasthäuser along the hiking paths around Vienna

The view from Häuserl am Stoan, on of the Gasthäuser along the hiking paths around Vienna

Another lovely spot to refuel

Another lovely spot to refuel

Vineyards along Stadtwanderweg 5

Vineyards along Stadtwanderweg 5

So in a word… gemütlichkeit.  Life is good.  The weather has taken a turn for the worse (as I learned yesterday from Rosetta Stone, “Dieses Wetter ist am schlechtesten.”), but we’re still finding ways to enjoy life every day.  Stay tuned for more.

Goats on Stadtwanderweg 5!

Goats on Stadtwanderweg 5!

The Czech Republic

The first part of the European leg of our year was in the Czech Republic.  The main portion of this trip is a five-week stay in Vienna, but we wanted to add on a bit of other travel before and after, and Prague seemed like a great place to start.  Not only is it a great travel destination and much cheaper than Western Europe, some of Bowen’s ancestors came from the Czech Republic, so it was an opportunity to visit “her people”.

We arrived in Prague after a grueling 20 hours of travel from Portland via Dallas and London, and caught a bus to a subway to a bus, which was quite easy and cost us less than $2 per person.  We had found a hotel about 3 miles south of the center in a lovely little residential neighborhood.  We got settled in our hotel, rested a bit and then took the tram into the center to wander a bit.

We got off at the Charles Bridge (Karluv Most), walked out along the bridge a bit to get the lay of the land, and wandered through the old town, into the new town, soaking up the sights and architecture.  We decided to have dinner back in our neighborhood, but stopped into a pub for our first Czech beers.

The Vltava River, with the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle

The Vltava River, with the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle

A few words about Czech beer.  Delicious.  Cheap.  Light yet flavorful.  In a word, awesome.  In a year of lots of beer that was big on refreshment, but not on taste, Czech beer was a wonderful return to quality.  And very different than high quality American beers, which all seem to be about out-hopping the next beer.  (We went to a bar recently that had a full page of beers on tap and about three quarters were either IPA, Double IPA or Triple IPA, and the balance were mostly Imperial Stouts or Belgians, leaving approximately two that weren’t intended as flavor bombs.)  These beers were all about being delicious and reasonable and balanced and drinkable.  I love fizzy refreshing beer, and I love hoppy, flavor-intense beer, but the beer we drank in the Czech Republic was a welcome middle ground.

Our first Czech beer.

Our first Czech beer…

...auspiciously overseen by Emperor Charles V.

…auspiciously overseen by Emperor Charles V.

Our first full day in Prague we headed after breakfast to the Little Quarter (Mala Strana) and the Castle Quarter, wandering up the hill past the beautiful old buildings and an old walled vineyard to great views of the city.  We visited St. Vitus cathedral and wandered a bit.  Then we walked back down again and through the Wallenstein Garden.  We stopped for a lunch of wine, cheese, sausage and bread at a little festival we found on Kampa Island.  We wandered the island a bit, and visited the Infant Jesus of Prague in the Carmelite Church, a major focus of pilgrims and recipient of fancy clothes from all over the world.  Then we walked through the town back to the tram and headed back to our hotel.

Stained glass by Alphonse Mucha in St. Vitus Cathedral

Stained glass by Alphonse Mucha in St. Vitus Cathedral

Spires in Prague Castle from the Wallenstein Gardens

Spires in Prague Castle from the Wallenstein Gardens

A street fair on Kampa Island

A street fair on Kampa Island

Creepy public baby art by David Cerny, the guy who did the creepy baby public art on the huge telecommunications tower in Prage

Creepy public baby art by David Cerny, the guy who did the creepy baby public art on the huge telecommunications tower in Prague.

On our second full day we spent our time in the Old and New Towns.  We started by wandering around Wenceslas Square (Vaclav Namesti), enjoying the beautiful architecture and pondering the historical events that occurred there over the past decades.  Then we headed to the Mucha Museum for some really incredible art.  After lunch we wandered through to the gorgeous Municipal Hall, past the Powder Tower and over to Old Town Square, where we watched the Astronomical Clock chime.  We were so taken by the art at the Mucha Museum and the discussion of the Slav Epic, that we hopped a tram out to the National Gallery to see the full Slav Epic in person.  The Slav Epic is a series of 20 gigantic canvases (the smallest are about 13’x16’ and the largest are about 26’x20’) showing key moments in Slavic history.  Seeing it was one of the best art experiences I have ever had, although I really wish I had a pamphlet or something to help explain each of the canvases.  Then we stopped briefly through the Jewish Quarter and hopped on a nail-biting tram ride as our 90-minute transit tickets expired (we didn’t get caught).

Wenceslas Square

Wenceslas Square

Much less creepy public art by David Cerny, featuring King Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse.

Much less creepy public art by David Cerny, featuring King Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse.

The beautiful entrance to the Municipal Hall

The beautiful entrance to the Municipal Hall

The Powder Tower

The Powder Tower

Prague Astronomical Clock

Prague Astronomical Clock

The next day we headed out to Kutna Hora ,about an hour outside of Prague.  The main attraction is the Bone Church (the Sedlec Ossuary).  In the 13th century the abbot of the local monastery was sent on a trip to the Holy Land and brought back some soil, which he scattered around the cemetery.  Thereafter, people from all over Central Europe wanted to be buried in the cemetery.  Then the Plague and various wars came through, providing many more skeletons for the cemetery.  A few hundred years later, a church was built on the site, and they built an ossuary underneath to house the exhumed bones.  For whatever reason, they decided to decorate the ossuary with the bones, rather than simply stack them all together.  There were bone pyramids, a bone chandelier, a coat of arms of the local noble family made of bone, and even a signature by the architect made in bone.

The bone chandelier

The bone chandelier

A bone coat of arms

A bone coat of arms.  Yes those are all actual human bones.

After the church, we visited the nearby cathedral and then walked into the center of town, getting incredibly lost in our extreme hunger.  We eventually found our way in, got lunch and then visited the beautiful Church of St. Barbara, dedicated to the patron saint of miners, and paid for by the vast wealth coming out of Kutna Hora’s silver mine, the largest in Central Europe.

Probably the best word fro ice cream.  Also a great new word to indicate getting ice cream all over one's face and similar situations of personal challenge.

Probably the best word fro ice cream. Also a great new word to indicate getting ice cream all over one’s face and similar situations of personal challenge.

Church of St. Barbara with Charles Bridge-style statues

Church of St. Barbara with Charles Bridge-style statues

The next day we headed to Cesky Krumlov (prounounced chesky kroom-loff), a lovely little medieval town set in a crook in the Vltava River a few hours south of Prague.  It was raining when we arrived, but the rain eventually cleared and we walked through the town a bit, enjoying the narrow, winding stone streets and views of the beautiful castle.

Cesky Krumlov town square

Cesky Krumlov town square

A bit of Czech springtime

A bit of Czech springtime

A view of the town with the castle

A view of the town with the castle

We had only one full day in Cesky Krumlov, and it ended up being beautiful.  We wandered back to the castle in the morning to book a tour, and stopped into a few shops before going on a tour of the local Eggenberg brewery.  The tour finished with half liters of Eggenberg beer with our tour mates.  After the tour we ate lunch at the Tavern of the Two Marys, which focused on historically typical Bohemian food like barley, millet, buckwheat and herbs.  Then we headed to the castle gardens where we walked for a while, and then napped under a big oak tree with bright green new leaves.  Our dinner reservation at Krcma v Satlaske (Satlavske Tavern) wasn’t until 8, we think because the guy taking our reservation was just a jerk, so we sat by the river enjoying the evening.  When we arrived at the restaurant, they had no record of our reservation, but lots of empty tables, so we settled in for a delicious medieval meal of half a roast chicken and a roast pork knee.

Bears in the castle moat

Bears in the castle moat

Brewing equipment at Eggenberg Brewery

Brewing equipment at Eggenberg Brewery

A view along the river

A view along the river

A view of the town from the castle

A view of the town from the castle

The castle gardens

The castle gardens

Getting my feet wet in the Vltava

Getting my feet wet in the Vltava

Now that is a meal.

Now that is a meal.

The next morning we toured the castle.  The only way to see the interior of the castle is on a tour and the tour in Czech was a lot cheaper, so we took that one and got an English information sheet.  The castle was very cool, with lovely old rooms and paintings, a large gilded chariot that the family used while in Rome, and a ballroom painted with commedia dell’arte characters.  (Unfortunately, no cameras allowed.)  Then we headed back to our hostel and caught our shuttle through the Bohemian and Austrian countryside to Vienna.

Hallo aus Wien!

Just a quick note to say that after 10 months (to the day!) of moving quite quickly (see the sidebar for evidence), we have arrived in Vienna, Austria.  This will be our home for the next five weeks, minus a possible overnight excursion or two.  We’re staying in the same excellent apartment where we stayed two years ago.  More to come…

Photo on 5-9-13 at 3.40 PM #2

It feels good to be home!

Update!

Almost everything on this blog is a bit behind.  Or way behind.  But just for posterity’s sake, it’s time for a bit of an update.

IMG_3180

We’re moving to Madison this fall so Brett can start a PhD in Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin!  Brett applied to schools in November before we left for South America, and starting during our time in Colombia was receiving responses and scheduling phone calls with potential future advisors and trying to navigate the details of various offers. Over the last three weeks we’ve been wandering the country to visit schools and see friends, and after visiting the top three options, we decided Madison in the place for us. We rented an apartment (a “flat,” technically, since it’s the first floor of a house) and are looking forward to moving at the beginning of August. Come visit!

Vietnam

Here is my recommendation: go to Vietnam.  Ideally you will (finish reading this post and then) drop whatever else you have to do and start getting the details together for you trip.  Yes, it is that good.  The food is incredible, the people are friendly, the cities are nice, the landscape is beautiful, and it is very cheap.  In fact, it is the cheapest place we’ve been all year in addition to being the best.

We came into Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, on a bus from Phnom Penh that traversed the upper portion of the Mekong Delta.  It was already evening when we arrived and we walked from the bus company office to our hotel through the neon-lit dark along the busy and crowded sidewalks.  The next day we headed out to walk the streets of HCMC.  Our first stop was the Ben Tanh Market, full of restaurant stalls, tourist knickknacks, coffee, and clothing.  From there we headed up toward the War Remnants Museum but happened upon a café in a park along the way and stopped for our first ca phe sua da, iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk.  HCMC had many such lovely parks and green spaces with lots of public art.  After the café we headed up to the museum to find it closed for lunch, so we wandered to find some food of our own and had our first banh mi and banh xeo.  For a lot more about Vietnamese food see Bowen’s blog, but here are a couple of thought from me: there are lots of lots of things called banh, which supposedly means something like cake, and they don’t seem to have much in common (but they’re all Vietnamese food, so they’re pretty much all delicious); we ate a lot of banh mi our first week but, while they were mostly pretty good, none were quite as good as the ones we used to have in Rosemead.  After lunch we returned to the War Remnants Museum, which featured US armaments left at the end of the war, models of the French and American prisons where Vietnamese were held, and lots of photos and exhibits.  Much of it had a strong propaganda slant, but it was none-the-less heartbreaking to be reminded of the huge cost of the war on both sides.  We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets and relaxing.  In the evening we sat drinking beer in a café on the street and then had incredible pho for dinner.

A cafe in the park

A cafe in the park

War remnants at the War Remnants Museum

War remnants at the War Remnants Museum

Our second and final day in HCMC was a day of wandering.  We saw the river front, the opera house, the post office, the cathedral and many other lovely sites.  If I needed any more evidence that the Vietnam War wasn’t a good use of resources, we sat on a bench in front of the Opera House, about two blocks from the People’s Committee Hall looking at posters celebrating the recent awards for small businesses; to my right was a Louis Vuitton store, and to my left was a restaurant called, I kid you not, Le Bourgeois.

The Saigon Cathedral

The Saigon Cathedral

The HCMC post office

The HCMC post office

Capitalism lives!

Capitalism lives!

That evening we took an overnight bus to Nha Trang, a beach town up the coast.  Many of the overnight buses in Vietnam, unlike the buses in other countries, we set up with reclining bunk bed-style seats.

Traveling in style

Traveling in style

Nha Trang was a great place to spend a few days relaxing.  We spent one whole day relaxing at the beach in front of the Louisiane Brewing Company (celebrating International Women’s Day, which is a significant holiday in Vietnam), and another day on a snorkeling trip in the bay.  We also at the best Pho of our trip.  The strangest thing about Nha Trang is that is appears to be the Russian equivalent of Cabo or Cancún.  Unlike the rest of the country, we saw loads of Russians all over town and almost all the signage was in Russian.  This made for an extra interesting day at the beach surrounded by burly Russian men pounding liters of beer at 10 a.m., and even one doing pull-ups on the support beam of his palapa.

Nha Trang beach

Nha Trang beach

Nha Trang bay

Nha Trang bay

After Nha Trang we took another night bus up to Hoi An.  Hoi An is a lovely little town that was a major trading port until the river silted up in the mid 19th century.  It’s kept its small-town charm, but become a major tourist destination in the past decade.  During much of the day parts of the old town are closed to motor vehicles so that biking and walking are more convenient.  At night many businesses light beautiful silk lanterns out on the street, and tourists buy candles in little paper boats to float on the river.  Hoi An is also a major center for custom clothes production and has hundreds of small tailor and cobbler shops.  We had some of the best looking and cheapest clothes we’ve ever owned made for us while we were there.  We had a wonderful time roaming the town, biking around the countryside to a village that grows herbs using seaweed for fertilizer, and eating fantastic food.

A bridge at night in Hoi An

A bridge at night in Hoi An

Silk lantenrs

Silk lanterns

A quiet street in Hoi An

A quiet street in Hoi An

Herbs growing in the "Vegetable Village"

Herbs growing in the “Vegetable Village”

Seaweed harvested for fertilizer

Seaweed harvested for fertilizer

We took the bus from Hoi An up to Danang, and then the train from there to Hue.  The train trip was an interesting experience in its own right, and much less cushy than we had expected.  It was crowded, and pretty run down, but took us through a really beautiful stretch of country.

The bus to Hue

The bus to Hue

Bowen had come down with a cold, so her time in Hue was mostly spent recovering.  But I got out and saw some more of the neat sights.  Hue was the capitol city of the Nguyen Emperors, and so has many great historical sites.  I biked around to a couple of really beautiful pagodas, and on our last day Bowen and I explored the old Citadel.

Dragon boats on the Perfume River

Dragon boats on the Perfume River

Thien Mu pagoda

Thien Mu pagoda

A small pagoda in the back of Thien Mu

A small pagoda in the back of Thien Mu

Bao Quoc pagoda

Bao Quoc pagoda

The walls of the Citadel

The walls of the Citadel

Inside the Citadel

Inside the Citadel

Riding a cyclo back from the Citadel, and feeling a bit imperialist

Riding a cyclo back from the Citadel, and feeling a bit imperialist

Our trip up to Hanoi was another overnight bus trip, and got us into the capitol early in the morning.  We promptly got scammed by two different cabs that had meters running fast (but we were only out about 3 extra dollars).  Hanoi is a great city for wandering, eating, and drinking.  We spent much of our first day setting up a tour of Halong Bay, and wandering the town.  We checked out the Ngoc Son temple, and drank delicious coffee on the smallest balcony I’ve ever seen.  In the evening we had our first experience with Bia Hoi, fresh beer (I had had some in Hoi An, but this was our first together).  Bia Hoi is supposedly made fresh every day, is very refreshing, quite tasty, and dirt cheap.  We sat in little plastic chairs along the edge of bustling intersection and drank it for 25-30 cents while watching the world go by.  This was a ritual we continued each night in Hanoi.  Our second day we visited the Cathedral, the Hanoi Hilton prison museum, and had our first taste of Bun Cha, a heavenly mix of grilled pork patties, pork belly, and green papaya in a soup of sweetened fish sauce, served with vermicelli noodles, lettuce, and herbs.  For dinner, we had our first taste of Bun Bo Nam Bo, fried beef and bean sprouts over vermicelli with green papaya, noodles, roasted peanuts, and fish sauce.

The bridge to the

The bridge to the Ngoc Song Temple

A gigantic stuffed turtle from the lake

A gigantic stuffed turtle from the lake

Delicious beer!  For 25 cents!

Delicious beer! For 25 cents!

A sewer duct through which Vietnamese prisoners used to escape from the Hanoi Hilton

A sewer duct through which Vietnamese prisoners used to escape from the Hanoi Hilton

Why am I not eating Bun Bo Nam Bo right now?

Why am I not eating Bun Bo Nam Bo right now?

The next morning we headed by bus to Halong Bay for a two-day excursion.  Halong Bay is an incredibly scenic area with limestone karsts rising out of the bay.  On the first day we kayaked around a small floating village and through sea caves, and had a cooking demonstration in which we made the spring rolls for dinner.  In the evening, we watched the sunset over the karsts and were bombarded by local women in large floating baskets trying to sell us beer and snacks.  I took a lovely swim in the bay.

A floating village in Halong Bay

A floating village in Halong Bay

Sunset over Halong Bay

Sunset over Halong Bay

The next day we hiked to the top of one of the islands, named after a Russian cosmonaut who visited the area with Ho Chi Minh, for great views of the surrounding areas.  There are about 2000 islands in Halong Bay, most of them tiny, and about half of them named.  After our climb, we visited the Amazing Cave, which was pretty neat and much less hokey than we expected.  Then it was time to return to Hanoi.  Where we had Bun Bo Nam Bo for dinner again.

A misty morning in Halong Bay

A misty morning in Halong Bay

Formations in the Amazing Cave

Formations in the Amazing Cave

Our last day in Vietnam we visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.  We arrived about 15 minutes before it opened to a line that was roughly a kilometer long. His body, embalmed and on display against his previously-declared wishes, is on display nine months a year, but takes a three month trip to Russia each year for maintenance.  As we shuffled by through the eerie crypt, many of the old women were crying quietly. The man has been dead for over 50 years, but still draws a major crowd and endears a very emotional response on an average day.   We also viewed the homes he lived in during his presidency and the One Lotus Pagoda.  Then we visited the Temple of Literature.  The temple is over 900 years old, and housed the country’s first university to train men for the imperial public service exams.  We then had Bun Cha for lunch, wandered the city some more, had Bun Bo Nam Bo for dinner, and went out for Bia Hoi (are you sensing a pattern here?).

A video playing as we waited in line for Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum showing war protesters in the US, as well as the current air quality conditions

A video playing as we waited in line for Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum showing war protesters in the US, as well as the current air quality conditions

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

The gate at the Temple of Literature

The gate at the Temple of Literature

As I said at the outset, Vietnam is incredible.  My main disappointment was that the security guard at the airport confiscated my fork.  We can’t wait to go back.  Maybe we can meet you there.

Cambodia

After Bangladesh we had a night near the Bangkok airport, and then headed on to Cambodia.  The Poipet border crossing sounded pretty intense from our guide book and various websites, with fake visa offices and swindlers galore, but we had no problems.  The bus we took from the airport transit center brought us to within two blocks of the border, we went through Thai immigration, got our Cambodian visas (we had brought passport photos and declined to pay extra to the immigration officer standing around) and were through in about an hour.  We had met an American couple waiting in line and walked with them past the free bus to the expensive transit center out of town and hired a cab to take us to Siem Reap for cheaper than the tourist bus would have been.  We were pretty tired, so we stayed near our hotel for dinner and made a Cambodian family very happy by coming into their restaurant.

The next day we hired a tuk-tuk to take us around some of the Angkor temples.  Most people know the area as Angkor Wat, but really Angkor Wat is just one of many temples in close proximity built during the Angkor period.  Entrance to the temples comes in the form of 1, 3, and 7 day passes, and we opted for 3 days. (We probably could have done it in 2 if we busted our butts and didn’t bike, but 1 day would definitely not be enough).  We started with the Grand Circuit, checking out Preah Khan, a temple fusing Buddhist and Hindu worship.  Next was Neak Pean (there does not seem to be standardize spelling for some of the monuments’ names), a water temple that looked pretty cool, but you couldn’t get close enough to see much.  Next we visited Ta Sohm, with its smiling faces above the gates, West Mebon with its elephants gazing out from the corners, and then Pre Rup, towering above the landscape.  Then it was time for lunch.

A carved timpanum at Preah Khan

A carved timpanum at Preah Khan

Wall carvings at Preah Khan,

Wall carvings at Preah Khan,

A gateway overgrown by a tree at Ta Som

A gateway overgrown by a tree at Ta Som

Me with a carved elephant at Eastern Mebon

Me with a carved elephant at Eastern Mebon

After lunch we headed out to the Roluos group, an older set of temples set away from the others, where we visited Bakong and Prea Ko.  Exhausted from our day climbing temples in the heat, we headed back to the swimming pool at our hotel and then into town for the evening.

Bakong in the Roluos Group

Bakong in the Roluos Group

Carved text on a library door at Preah Ko

Carved text on a library door at Preah Ko

I thought Siem Reap was really lovely.  Pretty touristy, but also pretty nice with good cheap food and lots of places sit with a beer and people-watch while getting a foot massage ($3 for half an hour, beer included).  The Angkor temples thus are not only one of the greatest archeological sites to visit, they’re also the only great ones I can think of that have a nice town to stay in (Aguas Calientes?  Flores?…)  The highlight of the evening was a giant puppet parade that happens once a year.  The local school children make gigantic puppets and parade them through the streets, lit from the inside.  (Unfortunately, we had forgotten our camera at the hotel, so the only pictures we got were on my cell phone.)

A slow lorris puppet

A slow lorris puppet

The next day we rented bikes and headed back for more temples, this time hitting up the lesser circuit.  We started at the old monastery of Banteay Kdei with its bas-relief carvings of heavenly maidens, and then took a gaze at Sra Srang, the lake-sized bathing pool.  Next, we visited Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider temple because of the extent to which the jungle has reclaimed it with towering trees.  Then we climbed the very steep steps of Ta Keo.  One of the really interesting things was the extent to which the crowds varied by site.  Ta Keo was nearly deserted (probably because of its steepness), where Ta Prohm has been packed.  Next we rode into the Angkor Thom complex and had lunch.

A heavenly maiden at Banteay Kdey.  I don't think I've ever seen a carving like that at a monastery.

A heavenly maiden at Banteay Kdey. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a carving like that at a monastery before.

A huge tree in Ta Prohm

A huge tree in Ta Prohm

Another example of nature reclaiming the temple

Another example of nature reclaiming the temple

The steps up to the top at Ta Keo

The steps up to the top at Ta Keo

After lunch we visited the Terrace of the Lepper King (likely actually dedicated to the god of death), Phimeakas, Baphuon, and the Terrace of elephants.  All were incredible in their own ways with wall carvings, a wall designed to look like a reclining Buddha, a causeway, and carved elephant supports.  Finally, we stopped into Bayon, our favorite of all the sites at Angkor.  Built as a state temple, each of the towers features four smiling faces that make the area quite stunning.  We rode out through the gate and across the bridge with its hulking stone figures back to town.

The causeway from the top of Baphuon

The causeway from the top of Baphuon

A bas relief elephant at the Terrace of Elephants

A bas relief elephant at the Terrace of Elephants

Carvings along the Terrace of the Leper King

Carvings along the Terrace of the Leper King

Smiling faces at Bayon

Smiling faces at Bayon

The gate to Angor Thom

The gate to Angor Thom

Stone figures guarding the gate

Stone figures guarding the gate

The next day we headed back for the main event, Angkor Wat.  Considered the largest religious complex in the world (not sure what that means exactly), this grand temple includes incredible quality in addition to its quality.  The stupa towers seemed more beautiful to me than those of the other temples and the walls were covered with bas-relief epic tales.  Next we took the long tuk-tuk ride out to Banteay Srey, the citadel of ladies, so called because of the delicacy of the carvings.  Though it took an hour by tuk-tuk, the site did not disappoint.  The carvings were quite fantastic and detailed.  The Angkor temples were truly amazing; they were probably my favorite such site I’ve ever been to.  Throughout our three days, it seemed like each temple was better than the last.Templed-out for the time being after Banteay Srey, we had a relaxed afternoon.

The approach to Angkor Wat

The approach to Angkor Wat

Bas-relief depicting the Ramayana

Bas-relief depicting the Ramayana

One of the towers at Angkor Wat

One of the towers at Angkor Wat

Intricate and delicate carving at Banteay Srey

Intricate and delicate carving at Banteay Srey

I particularly like this scene

I particularly like this scene

The next day we headed by bus to Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, but pretty small with only 140,000 people.  We spent two relaxed days here, getting our visas for Vietnam with minimal hassle (the whole process took 30 minutes, compared to a day in Phnom Penh, 3 in Bangkok and who knows how long elsewhere).  Bowen took a cooking class, and we enjoyed wandering the streets of a non-touristy town.  And ate great food, including the best spring rolls either of us has ever had.

The riverside in Battambang

The riverside in Battambang

Not sure what's going on here, but it doesn't look happy

Not sure what’s going on here, but it doesn’t look happy

We finished our time in Cambodia in Phnom Penh, the capital.  Our hotel was right across the street from a site that we discovered had been built for the old king’s memorial and began to be torn down the day after we arrived.  Our first day we took it pretty easy, wandering around to the main market, which was very cool, and checking out a mall.

The late king's funeral park

The late king’s funeral park

The funeral park at night

The funeral park at night

These clams, which I like to refer to as "the shits in a shell" sit out in the sun all day and are sold all over Cambodia.  We did not try them.

These clams, which I like to refer to as “the shits in a shell” sit out in the sun all day and are sold all over Cambodia. We did not try them.

The next day we walked over to Tuol Sleng Prison. Now a museum, it had originally been a high school and then when the Khmer Rouge closed schools, it became a prison where Cambodians were tortured until they confessed to bogus crimes before being executed.  The site has a very intense feel to it, enhanced by photographs of all the victims, as well as a few grainy ones taken of the corpses found when the site was liberated (with only 7 remaining inmates).

The exterior hallways at Tuol Sleng.  The extent to which this place really looks like a school only heightens the sense of dread about the place

The exterior hallways at Tuol Sleng. The extent to which this place really looks like a school only heightens the sense of dread about the place

Photos of the victims, taken was they entered

Photos of the victims, taken was they entered

An interior hallway

An interior hallway

After the prison museum we visited the Royal Palace.  Unfortunately much of it was under construction or off limits, but we did see some lovely temples, the throne room, and the king’s elephant mount.

The Royal Palace

The Throne Room at the Royal Palace

The next day we got a tuk-tuk out to Choeng Ek, better known as the Killing Fields.  This is the site where the Khmer Rouge executed “enemies of the state”, mainly ordinary folks who had done nothing worse than get on someone else’s bad side, and then buried then in shallow graves.  Bones and bits of clothing still come to the surface during the rainy season.  It was a very peaceful site, and hard to reconcile with the horrors that had occurred there.  The excellent audio guide explained many of the areas and gave the history of the site, but the memorial stupa, with level upon level of skulls, really showed the immensity of this particular element of the Khmer Rouges crimes (but doesn’t tell of the many other horrible things this group did).

Choeng Ek, the Killing Fields

Choeng Ek, the Killing Fields

Bracelets left along the edge of a shallow grave

Bracelets left along the edge of a shallow grave

The Memorial Stupa, filled with skulls of the victims

The Memorial Stupa, filled with skulls of the victims

The next day we visited the National Museum and saw more of the excellent stonework and other art of the premodern Cambodians.  Then we took a break and spent the afternoon sitting in a cafe.  Phnom Penh is a lovely city, fun and relaxed with a vibrant feeling in the streets and along the river, and nice cafes.  In the evening we treated ourselves to a happy hour cocktail at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club along the river before heading to the night market for a cheap and delicious dinner.

The riverfront from the Foreign Correspondents' Club

The riverfront from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club

Cambodia was wonderful.  It offers one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions in the Angkor Temples, but also good (if not very varied) food, low prices, friendly people, and a nice and manageable capital city.  The more recent history is truly heartbreaking, but also provides important sites to visit to help remind us of what can happen when governments care more about abstract ideas than about their own people.