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Archive for July, 2012

We bet you’ve seen Indiana Jones or maybe Tomb Raider if you are from a younger generation.  What is it about exploring ancient ruins that captivates the mind and conjures up a deep sense of adventure?  Some of the world’s most well know ruins can be seen at Angkor Wat. It is the single most popular tourist attraction in Cambodia, but for many travelers the question remains, what’s up with Angkor Wat? Last week we visited this mystical city, and through our pictures and story hope to share its wonder.  (NOTE: there are many photos in this post, therefore it may take some time to load!)

Our favorite view of Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng, the famous hill from which sunset and sunrise are watched by tourists each day.

While this temple complex bears the name of its most famous structure, Angkor Wat, it actually contains over 1,000 temple ruins which were the center of the Khmer Empire. It is an awesome place (truly “awe” inspiring, as the word was intended) that all travel lovers should add to their bucket list.

Tickets are required for entry into the Angkor Archaeological Park: 1-day, 3-day or 1-week passes are available. We opted for three days and made it to over 20 of the ruin sites. This amount of time was perfect for us, but if you fancy yourself an amateur archeologist, you may want to go with the 1-week pass.

Day 1

We started our first day early and full of energy and excitement to see Angkor Wat. We had been looking forward to visiting for many years. We found a tuk-tuk to drive us 6km north from Siem Reap to the entry point of the Angkor complex. Despite fellow travelers advising us to hire the tuk-tuk for the entire day, we decided to do things our own way (sound familiar?) and walk between the temples. Our first stop was the granddaddy of them all: Angkor Wat. From there, we set off on a trek through jungle roads and crumbling monuments. When the day was done, we had visited Angkor Wat, Prasat Kravan, Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, Ta Keo and Bayon.

Ta Prohm is commonly referred to as “The Tree Temple” because of the numerous roots that have grown into and around the ancient ruins.

Bayon, the main temple within the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom

Bayon is filled with massive stone faces, one of which can be seen in the background here.

Day 2

After a very hot, sweaty and exercise-filled day, we came to our senses and opted to hire a tuk-tuk driver for our second day. It ended up being a great decision. We were able to cover more ground and see some of the further out temples that simply would not be walkable (unless you’re a crazed exercise fanatic that gets off on speed walking marathons).  Our first stop was Phnom Bakheng, a pyramidal temple atop a hill from which you can take in an aerial view of Angkor Wat (as pictured in the very first photo of this post). After viewing Angkor Wat from above, we visited Baphuon, the Royal Palace, Preah Khan, Neak Poan, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup.

These detailed faces carved out of stone stretched on for hundreds of feet just outside of the Royal Palace within Angkor Thom.

Preah Khan was one of the largest temples we visited in terms of area and also the least restored. The sheer amount of stone used to construct this building blew our minds.

By the time we reached East Mebon in the late afternoon, we were glad that we had hired a tuk-tuk. We likely would not have made it this far without a vehicle.

Day 3

After two days at the Angkor complex, we took a day off to relax and rest our sore mussels.  At only $5 USD per hour, a massage seemed like a pretty good way to spend the afternoon.  We had no idea what we were in for…we endured one of the roughest and painful, yet most effective massages we have ever experienced. Definitely one of those “hurts so good” moments.  We had planned on returning to the ruins the next day, but Amy awoke to a bout of food poisoning (and all that entails) so we took another day off.

The next day her situation had improved. We hired a tuk-tuk once again and this time set our sights on the temples located even further away from Siem Reap.  As would be expected, the more remote the temple the fewer the tourists. It was nice to escape the crowds as we enjoyed more of these magnificent ruins, including Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre, Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei.

Banteay Srei is one of the furthest out temples from the heart of the Angkor complex. It has the most detailed stone carvings of any of the temples we visited, making it well worth the long journey.

While visiting Banteay Samre, we came across a Buddhist Monk preforming a rain prayer over local villagers. Although many of these temples are ancient, some are still used for religious ceremonies.

Beautiful Sanskrit carvings lined the door frames of Preah Ko

The main tower of Bakong was built to represent the mythical Mount Meru, also symbolized by the central structure of Angkor Wat.

Too often during our travels we visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites that have been spoiled rather than preserved by being added to this list; many of the sites feel more like Disneyland than places of great historic and cultural relevance.  This was not the case with Angkor Wat.  Despite the millions of visitors annually, the temple complex retains a great deal of authenticity and truly deserves its reputation as a world wonder.  To put it plainly, no matter who you are, Angkor Wat will not disappoint.

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After nearly a month of traveling Vietnam from north to south, we were eager to depart Saigon and make the journey across the border into Cambodia. Land crossings in this area of the world are notorious for being unorganized and prone to inflated fees, and our crossing fit the bill exactly. We managed to pay less than others on our bus, but were still forced to fork over an “express visa fee” that went straight into immigration officials’ pockets. Gotta love land borders!

After forking over some extra cash, we had  Cambodian visas in our passports

Once across the border, however, all the tension faded away. Cambodia is home to large, flat expanses of sparsely populated countryside, which can really make you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. Even as we approached the capital city of Phnom Penh, it became clear that Cambodians take life a little bit slower than their Vietnamese neighbors. Buddhist monks stroll through the streets, the sound of car horns is much less prevalent and the locals seem to have smiles permanently glued to their faces.

A monk catching a ride down a Phnom Penh street

For many travelers, Phnom Penh is merely a stop-over on the way to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. For us, spending a few days in the capital allowed us to learn more about the country’s unstable and tragic political history in the last century. We decided to make an early start one morning and set off for an all-day power tour of the city. Our first stop was the Royal Palace.  There are no official bus routes in Phnom Penh; we hopped aboard a tuk-tuk to get there. These motor carriages serve as the city’s public transit system.

Cruising in a tuk-tuk

We took our time exploring the Royal Palace and admiring the colorful layered roofs and traditional Khmer architecture. The well-manicured grounds and stunning buildings offer a glimpse back into the early 20th century, before Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

Throne Hall in the Royal Palace

Courtyard of the Silver Pagoda

Following the palace we grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed back along the river to see where the city of Phnom Penh gets its name. The city existed for centuries before becoming the capital and the story goes that an old lady named Penh found four Buddha statues floating on a log during a massive flood. She had a temple built upon the tallest hill in the area to house the Buddhas. “Phnom” means hill in Khmer, and since the temple was constructed under the orders of Penh, the city became known as Phnom Penh, or Penh’s hill.

Wat Phnom

After a brief stop at the Central Market, we hoped on a tuk-tuk toward Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Formerly S-21 prison, and a primary school before that, the Khmer Rouge used this complex to detain, torture and execute Cambodians during their horrific reign in the 1970s.

One of the four buildings that make up S-21 Prison, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Sadly, one of Phnom Penh’s major tourist draws is an area outside the city known as “The Killing Fields.”  This area contains the largest mass graves from the Khmer Rouge era. Despite frequent offers from tuk-tuk drivers to take us there, we made a conscious choice not to visit.

By the end of the day, we felt that we had received a pretty good crash course in recent Cambodian history. We had come to Phnom Penh with a brief background after reading First They Killed my Father, but touring the city made what we had learned that much more impactful. As though in line with our somber afternoon, a wall of rain poured down from the skies that evening.

The next day we awoke to a sunny morning and prepared to explore a brighter time in Cambodia’s history, the age of the Angkor people. Despite the seven hour ride ahead of us, we happily boarded our bus and took off for Siem Reap.

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Hello father time, can you please slow down a bit? Why are you always flying by so quickly? The other day while sipping a beverage at a stall on the streets of Saigon, we realized that we were just a few days away from our 6 month anniversary of traveling around the world. The past half-year has gone by so fast, yet thinking back on it, we have done and seen so much! To celebrate our 6 month mark, we decided to document some of the highlights of our trip with a list from A to Z. It took a while to cover the whole alphabet, so if you aren’t in the mood for 15 minutes of reading, pick your favorite letter(s) and go from there.

Alhambra. A spectacular display of Moorish architecture and symbol of history. It was our favorite palace in Spain, favorite in Europe, and we dare say, our favorite palace during our entire trip thus far. (Read our post on the Alhambra here)

Being together 24/7. We get a lot of comments and questions about this. “So you really still like each other?” “Do you run out of things to talk about?” People tend to assume that if you spend enough time with someone that you’ll eventually end up disliking them. We disagree. We went from working opposite schedules and not seeing each other but a few hours per week, to spending all day, every day together doing what we love most, traveling. What’s not to like?

Cappadocia. Since one of our favorite pastimes is hiking, it is not surprising that Cappadocia found a place close to our hearts. The stunning rock formations, canyons and cave dwellings make it one of the most spectacular places that we have ever hiked. Not to mention, we stayed in a cave hotel!  (Read our post on Cappadocia here)

Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. This region of southern Croatia may very well be Europe’s most under-appreciated destination. Breathtaking best describes the rocky coastline that gives way to crystal clear waters and secluded islands. Despite our encounter with the world’s worst hotel, saying goodbye to Croatia was tough to do. (Read our posts about the Dalamatian Coast here)

Eating. If you’re a dedicated reader of our blog, you know that we love food. There are too many to mention, but here are some of our favorite eats from the past 6 months: tostada de tomate, Jamón ibérico, tagines, Wednesday snails, frikadelle, pork knuckle, ćevapi, burek, çiğ köfte, baozi, Guilin rice noodles, poor man’s Peking duck, Korean BBQ, kimchi dumplings, sushi, bánh xèo and phở.

Fútbol en Barcelona. One of the very first things we did on our RTW trip, and still one of our fondest memories, was watching a FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid match. We watched the game on a giant screen with hundreds of Spaniards, and we were electrified by their energy and passion. BARCA, BARCA, BAAAARCA!

Great Wall of China. No RTW trip would be complete without visiting this world wonder. The Great Wall is possibly the most iconic tourist attraction out there and lived up to its reputation. Reliving our four hour hike along the wall will keep our travel bug alive for decades to come. The excursion also provided us with one of the most hilarious photos of our trip, but sorry that one is for the private archives only. (See our photos from the Great Wall here)

Hockey playoffs in the Czech Republic. If you happen to be in the CZ during hockey season, you must attend a game at all costs, even if you have a fever of 103 degrees. Mike was terribly sick with the flu in České Budějovice, but we ventured to a playoff match-up nonetheless. And it was awesome.

Istanbul. Straddling two continents, Istanbul will forever be one of our favorite cities. Visiting mosques and learning more about Islamic art and culture has been an incredibly enriching part of our expedition, and Istanbul serves as an outstanding example of a city that is proud of its roots and culture, but also embraces the modern, globalized world.   (Read our posts about Istanbul here)

Jade. We’ve seen a ton of jade artwork while traveling through Asia, but in this case we are talking about the Norwegian Jade cruise ship. The nine days we spent at sea sailing to the Madeira Islands and Canary Islands gave us the opportunity see the homeland of Mike’s ancestors and to soak up our last bit of luxury before months of budget travel. (Read our post on our cruise here)

Krumlov. Český Krumlov to be exact. This medieval town transported us back in time. The three days we spent lounging along the river and walking through the cobblestone streets was our favorite time in the Czech Republic.

Language. It is a constant struggle and reward to stay on top of the native tongues of the places we visit. We make it a goal to learn how to say, at the very least, “hello,” “thank you” and “goodbye” in every language. We’ve encountered 17 foreign languages so far, not counting the variances in dialects. It is both a blessing and a curse that English is our mother tongue; we never take it for granted and often think how much more difficult travel would be without our fluent English.

Madrid Barajas Airport. Somehow we have flown through/stopped over at this airport more than any other airport in the world. We even had one crazy overnight adventure here en route to Morocco: each other, our sleeping bags and vino tinto were all that we needed.

Nha Trang SCUBA Diving. Our SCUBA diving certification course was awesome. Enough said. (Read our post on Nha Trang here)

OMG, we just got henna tattooed by force! In a matter of minutes, we both had been taken hostage in Marrakech’s Djemaa el Fna square, resulting in very poorly done henna tattoos on both of our hands. We tried to refuse this service many times, but the joke was on the tattoo artist because she only got a single Euro for them, rather than the 30 Euros she was demanding.

People. Interactions and conversations with people are one of the most difficult things to convey in our blog posts. It’s crazy how randomly and quickly someone can enter and exit your life, while still leaving a lasting impression. In an attempt to give thanks to all of these wonderful people, we have created a Shout Outs page on our blog. (Check out our Shout Outs here)

Quan Lan Island. The most remote and relaxing place we visited during our month stay in Vietnam. We had no idea what we were after when we arrived, and ended up learning how to drive a motorbike, seeing the largest spiders of our life, and meeting some great friends on the beach. (Read our post on Quan Lan Island here)

Rice Terraces. Trekking through the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces in China was surreal. The misty fog flowed in and out of the hills, we were staying in a rustic lodge with no electricity, and the trails we hiked wove along the contours of the rice paddies.  (Read our post on the rice terraces here)

Sevilla. We felt at home in Sevilla the minute we arrived and were sad to leave. It was the first city to make our “we could live here” list and still tops that list. (Read our post on Sevilla here)

Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. We will never look at a piece of sushi the same. Glad we made the 5am wake-up call to visit this place. (Read our post about Tsukiji Fish Market here)

Unpredictable weather. Just like the US Postal Service, rain or shine, snow or sleet, the Chamborres Expedition continues! We have sustained typhoons, dust storms, monsoons, extreme heat and humidity, and the bitter cold. Who knows what’s next?

Vienna. We never intended to visit this marvelous city, mostly because it seemed too expensive. While we kept our visit very brief, we are glad Vienna made its way into our itinerary. We have never seen such a well-kept city nor a better public transit system. (Read our post about Vienna here)

Wine Tasting in Porto & Eger. While very different experiences, wine tasting in these two regions was equally enjoyable. The portwine cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia in Porto, Portugal were very ritzy and commercialized, but they offered sublimely delicious port. Eger, Hungary on the other hand was well off the beaten path; 50 cent glasses of Bull’s Blood Cuvée and plastic jugs of house blends make visiting wine country possible for even the most budget traveler. (Read our post on Porto here and our post on Eger here)

Xi’an. Home of the Terracotta Warriors. We didn’t actually end up visiting Xi’an, but that’s the whole point of this section. It was part of our original China travel plan, but got “X”ed off the list. This change in itinerary reminds us that we can’t see and do everything, and reducing the number of stops can be a blessing in disguise.

Yangshuo. Cruising the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo was one of the highlights of our time in China. The karst mountains that create the landscape of this region are beyond picturesque, they are something out of a fantasy novel. (Read our post on Yangshuo here)

Zipping around on all types of transport. Traveling the world boils down to figuring out how to get from A to Z. At this point, we consider ourselves transportation experts. We have yet to encounter a public transit system we can’t handle. We enjoy mixing up our means of transportation; we haven’t ridden on elephants (yet), but our adventures on subways, bullet trains, motorbikes, regular bikes, ships, boats, buses, taxis, planes and the like give us memories that rival our destinations themselves.

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When most people think of world class SCUBA diving, places like the Caribbean, Indonesia, the Maldives or Australia come to mind. Vietnam doesn’t make many top 10 or even top 100 lists; however, we heard that Nha Trang offers the best diving in the country, so we set our course for this coastal city in central Vietnam.

Nha Trang Beach

When we arrived in Nha Trang, we set up our home base in a small hotel just a block from the beach with dive shops all around. Becoming certified SCUBA divers was one of our many goals for this trip, as we both love outdoor sports and the ocean.  After some searching, we found a shop we liked and decided to take the plunge. We signed up for a three-day, six-dive, SSI Open Water Diver certification course. It was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding activities of our RTW trip thus far!

Heading out for our first day of diving

Most of the diving in the area takes place in the Mun Island Marine Park, which consists of more than a dozen different dive sites.  The water in this area ranges quite a bit in depth making it an ideal place for new divers to learn underwater skills and become comfortable exploring the reef.  Much of our first day was spent in shallower water (5-10 meters), where we learned the fundamentals before heading out on some “discovery dives” with our instructor, Kim.

Just need some fins and we’re ready to dive

While Nha Trang isn’t the Great Barrier Reef or Blue Hole, the marine life was still impressive.  The good visibility combined with the diverse aquatic creates  made it an amazing dive location.

Nudibranch

 

Scorpion fish

Blue sea star

School of recently hatched catfish – they moved like a swarm of bees.

Our next two days of diving included additional underwater skills training and diving at deeper depths (up to 18 meters). We even got to explore a few small caves!

Working on our buoyancy

While the majority of our time in Nha Trang was dedicated to diving, we were able to enjoy the beach and town as well. The seafood was fresh and delicious, we enjoyed some tasty pale and golden ales from a local microbrewery, and walked the 6km stretch of beach from end to end.

View of Nha Trang from the 28th floor of the Sheridan Hotel

We had a blast getting SCUBA certified and hanging out in Nha Trang for five days. It is the perfect place to relax on the beach or head out on the water for snorkeling, diving, parasailing or just cruising around. Oddly enough, it was a bit of a downer to complete our SSI course because we wanted to keep diving, but we had to keep moving south on our road to Ho Chi Minh City. We are counting the days until we can put our new SCUBA skills to use again and can’t wait to explore the seas of SE Asia and Oceania.

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Any traveler in Vietnam will undoubtedly be told to visit the scenic area of Ha Long Bay. For decades, the limestone peaks of this coastal region in northern Vietnam have attracted tourists from far and wide.  Sadly, its popularity and designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site have turned this natural wonder into an absolute zoo.

For us, there was nothing peaceful about the place; dozens of tour boats crowd the bay, tour operators aggressively try to fill their trips, and the water has become polluted from the thousands of people who visit each week. But don’t despair, another option still exists for those willing to put in a little extra effort. Adjacent to Ha Long is the area known as Bai Tu Long Bay. Like its neighbor, Bai Tu Long is home to countless limestone islands that rise sharply out of the turquoise waters and is relatively unaffected by the tourism industry.

Why is Bai Tu Long better than Ha Long? The same beautiful views without the masses of tourist boats!

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, we don’t like tour groups. Several people in Hanoi tried to convince us that exploring Bai Tu Long on our own was impossible, but we took some advice from one of Amy’s brothers, did a little research and found a public ferry. We boarded a small wooden boat with locals that live on islands in the bay and set off into the landscape of towering peaks.

The public ferry that runs between Hon Gai and Quan Lan Island

View after incredible view of the limestone peaks in Bai Tu Long Bay

Hanging out on the roof of our boat as it slowly puttered through Bai Tu Long Bay

Because we are constantly moving, it can be easy to lose sight of the amazing expedition that we are on. Ironically, the same thing happens to travelers that happens to people at work…days blend into weeks and weeks into months. However, being out on the waters of Bai Tu Long brought back our sense of adventure. The thrill of being on a rickety boat headed to a sparsely populated island with no idea of where we were going to sleep reminded us why we left home in the first place. Watch our video from the ferry ride through Bai Tu Long Bay here or by clicking on the image below.

After a four hour boat journey, we docked at Quan Lan Island (pronounced Gwan-ah). This island is so remote that we were unable to find a map online prior to leaving the mainland, so we arrived with no idea of the layout of the land. Not surprisingly, there were numerous tuk-tuks waiting at the pier, so we jumped aboard and attempted to communicate that we wanted to go to a hotel, any hotel. The driver spoke zero English and gave us a blank look. He showed us 30,000 Dong and pointed to some small buildings in the distance. Having no other choice, we agreed to the price and were on our way.

Tuk-tuks and motorbikes are the only method of transport on Quan Lan.

Turns out there is no real town on the island, but there is one street that is home to a few mini-hotels, ALL of which double as restaurants, convenient stores and motorbike rental shops. They are very entrepreneurial people. It was quickly apparent that aside from the limited lodging, there is little to no tourist infrastructure in Quan Lan, a refreshing change from Hanoi and Ha Long.

In the morning, we rented a motorbike from our hotel (we are pretty sure that it was the owner’s personal motorbike) and took off down the road. While we would never have attempted driving on the crazy streets of Hanoi, riding on Quan Lan was a piece of cake. Little to no traffic helped put us at ease, and having only one main road made getting lost on the island nearly impossible. Peaceful is the best word to describe this place; water buffalo roam the fields, rice paddies glisten in the sun, and waves crash onto white sand beaches.

Nothing but calm

Mike mastering the motorbike

Our trip to this island can be summarized as a relaxing time on the beach. We didn’t do much else. The people of Quan Lan were some of the most friendly that we have encountered in Vietnam. Even though most do not speak a lick of English, we managed to have full conversations with people using impromptu sign language, and we were even invited into a family’s home for a crab dinner one night. It is clear that the influence of tourism has not yet ravaged this island, and we hope it stays this way. However, we weren’t the only tourists there, and we know that more will make the journey with each passing year. If you find yourself amongst them, please tread lightly.

Minh Chau Beach, on the northeast side of Quan Lan

The public ferry from Hon Gai, through Bai Tu Long Bay, to Quan Lan Island was spectacularly beautiful. When combined with the laid back atmosphere and friendly people of the island, we found it to be a worthwhile alternative to Ha Long Bay.

The return ferry ride couldn’t last long enough

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We have finally arrived in SE Asia! While we always strive to live in the moment, we have secretly been longing to get to this part of the world since we left home. Stories of the region’s hectic streets, friendly people and incredible street food make it a legend in hostels around the world. These tales of a backpacker’s paradise sparked our interest long ago.

Our first stop in SE Asia was Hanoi, Vietnam. Our first impression? Holy motorbikes Batman! When we went to Marrakech, we thought the traffic was crazy. Then, we came to know the streets of China, but neither prepared us for the motorbike madness that exists in Hanoi. We have heard that cities like Bangkok and Singapore make maneuvering Hanoi look like child’s play, but our first thought when we gazed upon the raging river of motorbikes was, “WTF, how are we ever supposed to cross the street?!”

Quintessential Hanoi

After a few days, we became accustomed to walking in the street (the sidewalks are too cluttered to actually walk on) and weaving our way between bikes and cars. Our heart rates gradually lowered, and we started soaking up the good vibes that flow through this city.

The word sidewalk shouldn’t be used in Hanoi. They are all unofficial parking lots, shops, or restaurants.

Before arriving in Vietnam, we had heard stories from other travelers about tourists getting fleeced right and left. More than one person told us that they will never return to Vietnam; it made the Vietnamese sound very unwelcoming and unfriendly. We found it to be the exact opposite. Every local we met in Hanoi said hello with a smile, and not one person tried to overcharge us, much less steal from us. It is the people of Hanoi that create the positive and upbeat vibe that we mentioned above.

There is no doubt that Hanoi is an epicenter of history, and although the city has a handful of tourist sights, we most enjoyed simply walking around the old town and seeing how the city works. It is really quite fascinating to see the systems that exist below the layers or chaos. We didn’t want to spend our whole time there just lounging around, so we dedicated about two half days to sightseeing at the following places.

Hỏa Lò Prison, called the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs. Built by the French and used to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries. Its most famous American prisoner? John McCain.

Offering of incense in front of the Temple of Literature.

Tran Quoc Pagoda in West Lake. The oldest pagoda in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum has strict visitor policies, similar to that of Chairman Mao. After having visited Mao’s Mausoleum in Beijing we chose to forgo looking at another wax-covered corpse.

The One Pillar Pagoda, a Buddhist temple.

Sightseeing in Hanoi will really take it out of you. With the temperature over 30˚C and humidity close to 100%, we could only handle walking around town for a few hours at a time. Multiple showers per day, constant hydration and brief visits to buildings with air con helped us beat the heat. Many people cautioned us to not visit SE Asia in the summer because it is the hottest time of year and the rainy season, but to us, the frequent afternoon downpours are always a welcomed occurrence.

One of our favorite mid-day activities in Hanoi was stopping for some “bia hoi.” Bia hoi is Vietnamese for “fresh beer” and is quite possibly the cheapest draft beer in the world at 5,000 Dong (25 cents) per glass. It is not the most flavorful drink around, but in the sweltering heat it really makes you smack your lips and say “ahhhhhh” as your body temperature drops a couple degrees.

Our favorite bia hoi

There are many places around the city to quench your thirst, but on our first day in Hanoi we found a spot that we liked and kept coming back. We spent many hours there chatting with the owner, playing with her son and drinking with the locals. After a few days, we felt like part of a small community there and were sad to say goodbye.

Never drink a bia hoi without a snack. Shrimp chips, peanuts, and pork in banana leaves seem to be the munchies of choice.

Can you find Mike?

One of the things that we liked most about Hanoi is that it is easy to distinguish the tourist traps from the genuinely local places. We have learned that the backpacker trail through Vietnam is well defined, with Hanoi being a hub for nearly all tourists that visit the country; therefore, Western-oriented establishments are ubiquitous. Ones that consist of very small plastic stools and tables on the sidewalk are a good indication that you are in for the real deal. These types of restaurants are the definition of hole in the wall. Sometimes they have a small portable cooking station on site, other times your order is relayed via cell phone to a kitchen down the street, and 10 minutes later someone comes walking down the block with your meal in hand.

Check out this kitchen. The health department in Hanoi must have very strict standards.

We didn’t know a whole lot about Vietnamese cuisine before arriving, and while we don’t have a firm grasp on the regional specialties just yet, we certainly got our fill of phở while in Hanoi. We were on a mission, just like Anthony Bourdain, to find the best bowl of phở around. We ate it every day for at least one meal, and came across a wide variety of styles. There is no way to decide on the best bowl of phở in Hanoi, but there are a few indicators that will let you know you’ve found a great phở spot, which Bourdain’s video explains in hilarious detail (watch it here). We couldn’t have said it better ourselves!

Phở, phở, glorious phở.

Hanoi electrified us, kept us on our toes and eventually made us feel at home. While getting advice from fellow travelers can be an incredible resource, the moral of the story here is that you shouldn’t always believe what you hear. The only way to know for sure whether or not you are going to like a city is to experience it for yourself.

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A friend recently asked us, “What’s your perception on America after being away?”  Truth be told, we don’t spend a whole lot of time pondering this type of question. Maybe we should, but for the most part we are simply trying to enjoy the world and soak up every moment. Nonetheless, her question was a good one and did get us thinking about America. In honor of the 4th of July, we wrote this post to share some of our reflections about our home country after being away for the past half year. This is by no means a full summary of everything that’s going on in our heads, but is simply some food for thought. To all Americans at home and abroad, happy Independence Day!

Close your eyes and picture “an American.”  We’ll wait………..What does he or she look like?

The words “melting pot” are regularly used to describe the United States. Since the founding of our country, people from all over the world have made their way to the U.S. in search of their dreams. If there is one question that we have been asked more than any other during our trip it is, “Where are you from?” Surprisingly, many people look at Mike and say, “You don’t look American. Where are you really from?” As one man in Turkey put it, “Americans look like her” (as he pointed to Amy).  At first we didn’t know how to respond, but now whenever a conversation arises about what Americans are supposed to look like, we respond by saying that in our eyes, they too look like an American.

Early on in our trip we noticed that despite what you hear on the news, most people do not harbor anti-American sentiment. On rare occasion, some people that we’ve met have expressed frustration about our country’s foreign policies, but for the most part Americans are still well-liked, and the U.S.A. ranks high as a country that people would like to visit.  This positive attitude towards Americans is different than what we expected to encounter. A common joke we heard before leaving was, “If you get into trouble, just tell them you’re Canadian.” At the six month mark of our trip, we are happy to report that we haven’t claimed to be anything but American. Traveling has emphasized to us the importance of separating individuals from politics, and the value in engaging in dialogue with foreigners.  Like it or not, every traveler is an ambassador for their country.

More and more, we have come to realize that Americans do not travel internationally as much as our world neighbors. For that reason, we are often received with surprise and curiosity by locals and other travelers. “Why don’t other Americans take long trips?” people often ask. Travel is so engrained in the lifestyle of people in other developed countries, but not so much in the United States. For instance, many Australians and Kiwis travel during their gap year between high school and university. Europeans take summer holiday for months at a time. We have been pondering this trend, and it seems that Americans don’t travel abroad as frequently because they simply do not have the time. What do you think prevents Americans from traveling abroad?

Due to the fact that we generally stay in hostels, we are constantly engaging in conversation with other travelers. As we mentioned previously, many people view Americans in a positive light and want to visit the U.S., however, a lot of would-be tourists are not able to get permission. This trip has made us realize how difficult our country makes it for foreigners to visit. Tourist visas, work visas and green cards are incredibly difficult to get. Not to mention, the system for acquiring access to the United States is not created with equality in mind; the level of difficulty has a great deal to do with one’s country of origin. We think that allowing more people to visit and work in our country would be a great way to share our culture with the world.

Some of our perceptions of America have changed during our RTW trip, others have not, and our views will further evolve as we continue to make our way around the world. On this 4th of July, we are particularly cognizant of how grateful we are to have been born in the U.S.A. We don’t know when we will be returning stateside, but we will always be happy to know that it is our home.

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While sometimes it may seem that we are obsessed with food, eating isn’t the only thing we do when traveling. We swear. Yes, Part I of this blog series was all about food, but we actually did a lot of non-food related sightseeing in Tokyo as well. In between meals, our favorite way to explore a city is to simply walk around and see where the day takes us. Many travelers we meet spend all day zipping around in taxis, trying to see everything. That’s not our style. Sometimes we take off in the morning with a specific destination in mind, but more often than not we just head out with a map in our pocket and wing it.

Our first few hours in Tokyo began as a quest towards the Sensō-ji Temple Complex, which we heard is the temple to visit if you time in Tokyo is short. It was a nice temple, but surrounded by hordes of tourists and neighbored by a small amusement park. It definitely was not the highlight of our trek through the Asakusa neighborhood.

Offerings at a Buddhist altar within the Sensō-ji Temple Complex

The Pagoda of Sensō-ji

Incense smoke engulfing Sensō-ji Temple

Along the way to Sensō-ji we caught our first glimpse of the brand new Tokyo Skytree. This building is all the rage in Japan at the moment; you can’t possibly walk one block without seeing a corny Skytree souvenir stand. The Skytree opened in May 2012 and is now the tallest structure in the country and the second tallest in the world. People sign up months in advance to go the top. We of course had not planned that far in advance, but had a photo shoot along the Sumida River.

The Skytree is so tall that it didn’t fit in the frame.

The Skytree in its evening-ware

When we had finished admiring the Skytree, we didn’t really know what to do next. So we just picked a direction and started walking. Fortunately, our choice was a good one, and we stumbled upon a fascinating shopping district. We are not talking about a cutesy outdoor mall with clothing boutiques. You see, we have come to realize that most cities in the world have entire streets, sometimes even whole neighborhoods dedicated to selling a specific grouping of products or services. We don’t know how so many competitors manage to survive in such a small geographic space, but somehow they do. Often we find ourselves walking down the street saying something along the lines of, “Oh, this must be the diapers and toilet paper section of Hanoi” or “Here is the power tools block in Istanbul” or “Man, this wedding invitation street runs half way across Prague.” Well, this particular shopping area of Tokyo was solely dedicated to selling kitchen gadgets and restaurant supplies.

We spent hours exploring this part of town. We know it sounds strange and you are probably thinking, “They went all the way to Tokyo to visit a Williams-Sonoma?” After reading-up on it when we got back to our hostel, we learned this area of town is called Kappabashi, and Kappabashi is a crazy place. In this neighborhood, you will find entire shops that sell only plastic food for restaurant window displays. Others manufacture and sell hundreds of the most incredible chef’s knifes we’ve ever seen. There are stores that sell only antique items, while their neighbor specializes in the most cutting edge culinary equipment.

Even though it looks real, these are actually made of plastic. All of which can be purchased at Kappabashi

Amazed and over stimulated from our thorough exploration of Kappabashi, we journeyed off to find some…yes, you guessed it…food. Lucky for us, we happened upon a parade that led us straight to a festival where tasty street food was being served. After a few minutes on this street, we noticed that all of the men were wearing waist length robes, many of which exposed areas where the sun doesn’t shine. We still aren’t sure what the festival was all about, but snapped a short video of it that you can watch here or by clicking on the image below.

On our second day in Tokyo, we took a tip from our hostel and hopped on the subway towards the Imperial Palace. We were forewarned that many tourists do not find the palace interesting since you cannot enter the gates, but we went anyway. Determined to get a good view over the palace walls, we began to circumnavigate it in hopes of finding a good vantage point, but after 30 minutes it just didn’t seem possible. That’s when we pulled out a wild card and went with a move that has worked well for us in the past. Other budget travelers will want to write this one down as many places (the Skytree for instance) charge a pretty penny for a nice view. We hate paying for views. We located a tall hotel that bordered the palace, walked confidently into the lobby, found the elevator and pushed the button for “club level.” Once at the top, we put on our best smiles and talked our way into the club member lounge on the top floor of the Imperial Palace Hotel. There we found the view we were looking for!

Excited to be seeing it from the top

View down on the Imperial Palace and Gardens

Next, we hopped on a subway and got off at a random stop called Shibuya. This is where we found the stereotypical Tokyo that we were looking for: crowded streets, flashing lights, crazy fashion, and surprises around every corner. Respect and honor may mean a lot in Japan, but they still have their seedy parts of town.

One of the calmest and least bright streets in Shibuya

Shibuya is home to many adult activities – case in point, love hotels. 3 hours seems like enough for a “rest,” don’t you think?

Our visit to Tokyo was full of unexpected twists, and our departure was no different. A typhoon rolled into town on our last night there, which not only made for a soaking and umbrella-breaking journey to dinner that night, but also a deviation from our original flight plan. We can’t say that we were upset about the detour (the airlines can’t control the weather after all), but after 24 hours of travel and one unplanned night in a sketchy hotel in Guangzhou, we were happy to arrive in Hanoi.

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