This is Saigon

It’s always hard to know where to start back after a break…

We had an amazing time in Vietnam; it felt so good to be back in a place I loved so much the first time around! We had 2 weeks over there, with our time split between Saigon, Hoi An and Hanoi. I have plenty to write about, and lots of gorgeous shots to show you.

For now, though, I wanted to just share this one image. One of my favourites from the trip. The one that sums up Saigon perfectly for me. It’s a city that’s both laid back and lazy, and frenetic and fast paced. People seem to be either rushing around, hellbent on getting to wherever they’re going right now, or sitting back and watching the world go by without a care in the world. One of the many reasons why I love this city ever so much…

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Eat here: the little pink Pad Thai cart on Patong Beach, Phuket

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So this is a ridiculous story. I went to Thailand for the first time a few years ago with my best friend, E (who I had lunch with on the weekend at Sookie La La, which I’ll write about a little later this week when my motivation levels are low and brunch cravings are high). Our accommodation was down the south end of Patong Beach, and on our first day there, we walked along the street parallel with the beach for a while to get our bearings. We found this little, bright pink food cart around lunch time, with a pair silently firing out the most incredible smelling dishes. Stomachs grumbling, we stopped to check out the menu, and decided to order ourselves a seafood pad thai each. It was probably the best pad thai I’ve ever eaten – fresh like you wouldn’t believe, cooked up right under our noses, under a flurry of hands and sauce bottles and woks and noodles. It was a very fond food memory from our time there…

When I went back to visit Phuket again early last year with husband, I told him all about this fantastic little food cart that we ate at numerous times during my last trip. We walked up the beach to the spot I thought I remembered it being, on a snowball’s chance in hell it might still be around. No such luck 😦 We walked a little further, until the sun started to get a bit too strong, and decided to double back and find a spot on the beach to leave our stuff so we could go for a swim. What happened next, I still don’t believe, and if husband hadn’t been there as my witness, no one else would either… Dead set, as we walked back past the spot where I remembered the food cart being parked, it drove up onto the side walk, turned around into the same spot, and officially opened for lunchtime business!!!! I actually literally stopped in my tracks and sat down on the nearest block of concrete to make sure it wasn’t just a heat and hunger induced hallucination… Husband didn’t waste any time – he ran straight over and ordered 2 serves of pad thai (good man).

While a little spicier than last time I had it, it was every bit still as delicious, and I do believe it was the same people working the wok, much to my disbelief! I was beyond stoked to have been able to find and repeat this food experience, and even happier to find it was still as delicious as I’d remembered it! That meal, to me, is perfect, and what travel is all about – cheap and delicious food ordered off a menu by pointing to pictures in lieu of English descriptions, served by real people and being eaten by locals as well as tourists, on the side of a road with my feet in the sand. That’s what travel and experiencing it all is about. That’s real. Has anyone else been to Phuket’s Patong Beach and seen these guys??!

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Photo Journal: New Orleans, 10 years post-Katrina…

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It’s hard to believe it was 10 years ago to the day that Hurricane Katrina tore apart New Orleans; 10 years ago I was half way through my university degree, still living at home, in a relatively new relationship with the guy that would become my husband. When we first started dating, we spent a lot of time talking about all the places we wanted to travel to (and it was a bloody long list), the places we wanted to see and, more importantly, experience. New Orleans was a city pretty high up on both our lists, and we were both equally surprised at the others’ desire to visit. New Orleans, pre-Katrina, wasn’t exactly a big ticket city; at least not for 2 Aussie uni students. It wasn’t a Paris or a London or  a New York. But we both wanted to go. He wanted to go for the music, the night life, the care-free atmosphere in a city that seemed to be built on fun. I couldn’t actually put into words why I wanted to go; it was one of those bizarre, inexplicable, “I don’t know why, but I know I belong in that city” things. Something about the music, the art, the voodoo, the cemeteries, the literature, the food – I just knew that any place there was a coalescence of all those things was a place I needed to be.

But we were still kids. We were both full time uni students. We had big dreams, but no money to fund them. When Katrina hit the city, we were both devastated; for some still unknown reason, we felt a strange connection to this mysterious city on the other side of the world. We debated over and over again whether it’d still be a city we’d want to visit post-Katrina. Would it be somehow tainted? Would the recovery effort have taken away all of the magic and the charm we wanted to visit for? Would they, a people so fiercely proud and protective of their city, still accept visitors as openly? We weren’t sure, but we were both determined to visit anyway and find out for ourselves.

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Ten and a half years after we started dating, and nine and a half long years after Katrina hit, we finally made it. We finally visited this city we were both so strangely drawn to. And while the spirit of the people was so strong, the physical effects of Katrina were still so punishingly visible.

This storm caused damage on a scale that can’t be accurately understood through words. We’ve all read the numbers, the statistics, but even they seem completely unreal.
80% of the city under water.
Almost 2000 lives lost.
Close to $110 billion in damage.

There have been hundreds of articles written about it all, and nothing I write will be as meaningful as some of the first-hand accounts written by the residents and survivors (I’d especially recommend watching  HBO’s Treme and reading Nine Lives by Dan Baum). What I can say, as a complete foreigner and outsider, is that New Orleans changed the trajectory of my life. Even post-Katrina, it was still magic. All of the imperfections made it so perfect. My soul was different for having visited. And all of our reservations were completely unfounded; the charm was still there, the recovery effort was incredible, and the people couldn’t have been more kind and welcoming. Instead of writing about the recovery ten years on, because (let’s be honest) I really don’t have the insight into it like the locals will, let me show you New Orleans through my eyes almost 10 years on. And I’m not talking the pretty touristy sights. Let me show you some of the more real, less brochure-worthy, genuine places and things I saw.

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Eat here: Ben’s Chili Bowl, Washington, D.C.

Ben’s Chili Bowl
1213 U St NW, Washington, DC
http://benschilibowl.com

I know I said I was gonna suspend regular posting until I got home, but some of this stuff is too good to wait, and I was missing regularly posting and yeah.. So here’s another one!

We’re big fans of shows like Man V Food and all things Bourdain, so we’d seen and heard a bit about Ben’s Chili Bowl in the lead up to this trip, and we were keen on trying it.

Our second day in D.C. proved to be just as wet as the first, but we still managed to have walked around 12km around the city before lunch time, so we decided to visit Ben’s to load those burnt calories back on again. Great choice.

We turned up to the U street location around 12.30 today (Sunday) to find a line out the door, which kept up for the duration of our visit. We ordered the original chili half-smoke and tucked ourselves into a booth to get stuck into it – we turned around and noticed the table beside us was the one that President Obama infamously sat at when he visited.

The dogs were fantastic, more of a sausage than a frank, absolutely delicious. The chili was great too, a little bit of a kick, heaps of flavour, and plenty of it; surprisingly it actually didn’t make the bun soggy which was good news. We also found we had a side of chips thrown in!

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So yeah, great food. What was even better was the gentleman pictured above in the bottom left corner; he came over to our table to say hi, welcome to Ben’s, and asked how the meal was. Amazing, we said, worth the trip from Australia. Well, that did it; we became celebrities! He insisted on taking our photo for us, obliged most happily when I asked if we could get a photo with him – he asked another diner to please take our picture, informing him that we were Australian and he was so happy to have us with him. He also insisted on introducing us to the lovely lady in the photo top right, one of the owners and family members of Ben.

The hot dog was fantastic, but my goodness the people just made it! It was the best experience, we felt super important being taken around the restaurant with other diners staring at us, shaking hands and chatting happily.. If you’re visiting, go for the hot dog and stay for the gorgeous people 🙂 it’s a DC institution for a reason!!

Ben's Chili Bowl on Urbanspoon

The Hong Ngoc Humanity Centre for victims of Agent Orange

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So, it’s a bloody long drive from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. Around 3 – 4 hours, traffic dependent. With both my sister and I having a history of car sickness, we weren’t particularly looking forward to spending upwards of 6 hours in a mini-van, but kept telling ourselves it’d be worth it to see Ha Long Bay. Clearly, it was worth it. BUT the drive honest to God was NOT THAT BAD! It helped that we had an absolute star of a guide who kept us informed and entertained for the most part, but taking a break half way was a fantastic too. As we were pulling in, he explained that the place we were visiting was an a centre that specialised in some beautiful art work; paintings and photographs were recreated by the resident artists, copying them from an original print onto a canvas by way of embroidery. The results were stunning, we were told. He then told us that the resident artists were also survivors/victims (I guess it depended on how you wanted to look at it) of the Agent Orange chemical used in the Vietnam War.

Basically, in an attempt to deny food, water and cover to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, the United States used a herbicide called Agent Orange to defoliate large chunks of jungle. An unfathomable approximate of 3 – 5 million people were affected by the herbicide (it’s hard to find legitimate numbers on this with claims from the US that the Vietnamese purposely made the numbers higher than they were..); countless deaths, cases of cancer, still births, mental and physical disabilities, nervous system disorders and babies born with horrible deformities was the result. As a result, that leaves a lot of now adults without the ability to work and earn a living, often classed as “burdens” on their families. This centre is a place for them to go to, where they are taught this art. They can also live there, and earn a modest wage; ironically enough, that sees these “burdens” becoming the main bread-winners for their families.

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We walked through the centre, silently, reverently I guess. I didn’t want them to feel like circus animals with my camera pointed at them, but a few seemed quite happy to have their pictures taken. I didn’t take many; it didn’t feel right. We watched them work away, some silently, others chatting and laughing amongst themselves. It seemed like a good environment; safe, productive, uniting. The work was beautiful, and I purchased a small picture of my own to take home. There were other items for sale as well – carved wooden goods, statues, scarves, knick knacks.

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Suddenly our huffing and puffing over a long car ride seemed not only insignificant, but incredibly selfish and bratty. This stop was not only to recharge our batteries for the next hour and a half in the car, but it recharged my heart as well. It gave some phenomenal perspective, which is absolutely necessary, particularly when you are travelling.

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