Pumpkin Soup and Hoi An’s many other beauties

Time, and the way we talk about time, is funny. All my fellow travelers said to me when I told them that I was going to Hoi An was that I was going to love the ancient city. And I did love it, but it was not what I had expected. Because the word ancient was emphasized so much I had pictured a place frozen in time. I had pictured a place where I would be able to feel the history with every step and imagined I would be surrounded by secrets which I would never be able to understand. But time does not freeze. Places change and grow just like people do. Many people were there to visit the ancient city, and so the ancient city changed in order to please them. There were many shops and restaurants with big open windows to let the breeze in, but none of them seemed to be for the locals. It seemed that now everything was there for us, and it was a little hard to see the ancient behind all the souvenirs.

But despite all of that, Hoi An was incredibly beautiful. The air was warm and the sun sparkled off the water and all the people around us seemed happy. There were flowers and brightly coloured fabrics on every corner and I really enjoyed poking around and looking at all the pretty things. It was quite a change from what we had been experiencing before. One evening as we made our way to the night market, we stopped for Piña Coladas on a boat bar on the river. It certainly wasn’t an “authentically Vietnamese” activity, but it was a wonderful place to watch the sun go down. Plus, after trekking for three days it felt good to treat ourselves to some summery drinks on a wooden boat.

But don’t get me wrong, the ancient city was there, you just had to look for it. Izzi and I bought a pass so we could see a collection of the preserved ancient houses and temples. I learned a lot from all of them. Many of the temples are actually Chinese temples. In the mid 17th century the Qing dynasty took power from the Ming Dynasty and many people who were not willing to obey the new regime took refuge in Vietnam. The Nguyen Lord welcomed them and gave them Vietnamese citizenship. Although the Chinese settled in many areas, Hoi An was the most popular. This migration influenced much of Hoi An’s architecture in a Chinese style.

The temples were very beautiful, but my favourite heritage site was the Duc An Bookstore, which was also highly influenced by the Chinese. It was built at the end of the 19th century and held books by many Chinese authors and philosophers including Khang Huu Vi and Luong Khai Sieu. Many early anti-French revolutionaries came to this bookstore to meet and discuss the progressive ideas from the Chinese authors. The book store was an important site for Vietnamese independence.

Hoi An was also full of little gems that, although not necessarily ancient, were wonderful all the same. Of course, we drank a lot of coffee and visited a lot of cafes but our absolute favourite was Reaching Out—a tea house built around a philosophy of silence. The point was to be at peace, enjoying the subtleties in the taste of the tea and the beauty around us. The spot was incredibly beautiful. Izzi and I fell in love with our surroundings and both felt like we could have stayed there forever. The silence was emphasized by the fact that all the servers were deaf so we weren’t able to communicate with them vocally. Instead they provided us with little wooden signs so we could ask for what we needed.

Reaching Out’s mission is to give jobs to individuals in the community who are disabled. Vietnam is not an easy place to live, and especially not with a disability, so Reaching Out gives those who need it a good, stable place to work where their rights are protected. All the servers at the tea house were deaf, but they have jobs for all sorts of differently abled people. Not far from the tea house they also have a workshop where they make beautiful gifts. The work shop is right behind the store so you can go in and see the craftspeople making everything. It was very hard for me to choose, but eventually I bought a couple beautiful little tea cups, a tea strainer, and some fair trade tea and coffee. If we hadn’t been backpacking and I didn’t have to worry about everything breaking I would have bought an entire tea set.

The Central Market was definitely the place to go for lunch. There were a lot of tourists, of course, but we found a stand that seemed to be popular with the locals called Mrs Hien’s, and waited for a spot there. It was definitely worth a bit of a wait. Izzi got a Cao Lao (noodles, broth, and beef) and I got a Bahn Mi and a pumpkin soup. I have to say that the Bahn Mi wasn’t as good as the one I had gotten in Hanoi, but the pumpkin soup was unbelievable. It was like no other pumpkin soup I had ever eaten before and it was definitely one of the most memorable meals I had during my time in Vietnam. When we finished eating, we went out the back instead of the way we came in and that’s where we found the real market. There were vegetables everywhere and live crabs with their claws tied up with twine. I strolled happily along the water taking in all the smells and sounds and feeling like I had really found Hoi An.

One of the main things to do in the little city is to take a cooking class. There are tons of options everywhere you go, but we decided on Vy’s Market after passing by on our first night there. When we signed up they told us not to eat for three hours before the class, but they really should have told us not to eat all day. When we arrived we met our guide, Cherry, who was wonderful. I say guide because the evening really felt like a tour. The place was set up with tables in the middle and then different stations dedicated to different types of food all along the edges. We started at the noodle making station, although we weren’t allowed to actually know the recipe for the dough since, apparently, it was a family secret of the chef’s. There we tried our best to cut the dough into noodle strips, which I failed miserably at. When I tried to go anywhere close to the speed of the chef the noodles came out way too thick, but if I slowed down to get them the right size I realized it was definitely not a sustainable pace. I was much better at the dumplings. First we got the dough to the right consistency using rice flour, then shaped it before wrapping it in a banana leaf. It was sticky and wonderful and I was really excited to add the filling later on.

We also made spring rolls, which were awesome, but my favourite thing to make was the Vietnamese pancakes. This was the most fun because I felt like I was actually doing everything myself and it turned out really well! I hadn’t tried that dish yet so it was cool trying something traditional that I had made myself.

And then there was the”Weird and Wonderful” station where we didn’t cook anything but had the chance to try some of Vietnam’s strangest and least tourist-friendly dishes. I liked the beef tongue best and the frogs were also great, but I just could not handle the duck fetus. I am a really adventurous eater and it takes a lot to pass my limit, but a duck that has been allowed to develop about half way inside its egg and then boiled and eaten… that was too much for me. At the end of the evening, when Izzi and I were both so full that we almost couldn’t eat the dumplings we had prepared at the beginning of the night, Cherry gave us a booklet of all the recipes we had tried out. I’m hoping to put some of them up here soon!

The cooking class was a Hoi An must-do, but we also couldn’t visit and not get some clothes made. Hoi An has been a tailor city for thousands of years. The ancient emperors used to have all of their clothes made by tailors from there and the tradition has lived on. Bing, our host at Cloudy Homestay, told us not to go to a place in the ancient city because they would surely overcharge us. Instead she sent us to Bao Diep tailer. I promise I really meant to just get one thing. All I wanted was a silk dressing gown, but they were too good. Kim, the lady helping me, knew exactly what she was doing. As soon as I sat down with her she handed me an iPad which already had the Pinterest app open. She told me to just look through everything for a while. “I can make anything you find on here,” she told me. After I picked the designs I wanted, we picked out the fabrics (I fell in love with linen that day) and then Kim took my measurements. I’ve never felt more like royalty. We went back the next day to try on the clothes and then after they made a few alterations they all ended up perfect. Needless to say, I got more than a dressing gown. I also got a dress, a skirt/shirt combo, a blazer, a white linen shirt, and some silk slippers. I’ve never had clothes that fit me so well, made specifically for my body’s individual shape. I spent much more than I had planned, but there is no way I would have ever been able to do that at home and the experience was amazing.

I felt very pampered by Hoi An. The way we treated ourselves there was definitely not how I’m accustomed to traveling, but it was definitely the best way to experience the city. Plus, some luxury was needed after our days in Sapa and before we made the trip to Saigon.

Rice Paddies, Buffalo, and the sad fate of the Cardamom Trees

Apparently Sapa Town is pretty beautiful. All the pictures of hostels we looked at on Hostel World had amazing views of lush green mountains. But alas, we were not meant to see them just yet. The town was so foggy when we got there that we couldn’t even see from one side of the street to the other and to make matters worse, it was cold. After being soaked to the bone for three days in Hanoi, we were not happy about the circumstances here. We tried to explore the town a bit and went in search for a good jacket for Izzi, but with the fog being what it was we soon decided just to head back to the hostel. The hostel served hot food, at least, so we treated ourselves to rice and veggies and sat as close as we could to the fire. We struck up conversation with a Canadian couple playing cards at the table next to us. They had just finished their trek and we were interested to hear their thoughts. Unfortunately, it turned out that they hadn’t been able to see anything for their whole trek because of the fog. One of them said that all she had wanted out of her trip there was to see a rice paddy and not even that had been possible. Izzi and I finished our meal glumly and then, downtrodden, took to our beds to rest up for what were pretty sure would be a disappointment. Looking back on it now, our mood seems pretty funny. We sulked all day in our beds, ready for the worst, when what actually lay ahead was the most amazing three days of our whole trip.

We had booked our trek with a company called Sapa Sisters. There are many tour groups to book with in Sapa, but most of them are owned by foreign operators or hotels and don’t actually do much to benefit the local people. Sapa sisters is run entirely by local Hmong women, so they benefit directly from the tours instead of working through a middle-man. In addition to truly supporting local tribes, since it’s run by women of the Hmong tribe, it gives them an opportunity to make their own living and to be independent from their fathers and husbands. I felt really good about our decision to book through them. The day after arriving we made our way to their office where we met with our guide, Cho. She explained the different routes to us and the different levels of difficulty —we decided on medium difficulty, although it was tempting to choose the highest level. Then we left our big bags in their storage room and rented some boots. They were thin rubber rain boots which looked like the kind of thing a little kid might wear while gardening with Mum. I was skeptical and was sure that I would be better off in my sneakers. But, Cho strongly recommended that I rent the boots which, of course, turned out to be the right decision.

Once we were all booted up and ready to go, we set off through the town behind Cho. Two Hmong women followed us out of the town and at first it made me a bit uncomfortable, since I had no idea why they would be following us. But, since Cho didn’t say anything I relaxed. I ended up being very happy to have them. Once we reached the hills it got very slippery on account of all the rain (this is the part where I was thankful for my boots). Going up the hills was easy enough, but once we started going down it was downright scary. One of the ladies grabbed my hand each time it looked like I was going to fall to steady me. Although I appreciated her intention, at first I was determined to do it all by myself. I had been hiking in Patagonia, for goodness sakes. I could do this! But then I fell… twice, and after that I accepted her help. Eventually I think she realized I was a somewhat capable hiker and we came to an unspoken understanding. She only offered her hand to me when she thought I would really need it and I learned to trust her definition of a tough spot. They stayed with us until we reached the town where we would be eating lunch. When we thankfully sat down at our table, very ready to eat, they unveiled what had been hidden the whole time in their beautifully woven baskets and it all made more sense to me. It was time for us to buy some of their crafts to thank them for their help. At first I was disappointed. I had naively thought that they were really just there to help us. But I was genuinely grateful for their help and the crafts were beautiful, so I bought a couple woven pouches. Over the next few days countless women and children would offer us help along our trek, obviously expecting us to buy from them afterwards. Cho explained to me that she couldn’t tell the other women to go away. If she did, she said, the community would say that she was bad and didn’t want to share her fortune with the rest of the tribe. But she also told me that it was absolutely fine for me to deny their help. I was very grateful for her explanation and afterwards I learned to say a polite but firm no thank you. 

Izzi and I both absolutely loved Cho. We had all been a little quiet at the start, but as we hiked and got to know each other better we began to joke and laugh quite a lot. She also taught us so much about our surroundings. Once, when we were walking through a more forested area she pointed out some trees which she said were Cardamom trees. She told us that the trees were becoming quite rare because of how the weather was changing. She said that before, it never never snowed in Sapa, but now it was snowing sometimes and the young Cardamom trees couldn’t survive it. She told us that the Hmong people say the tourists bring the snow because before the tourists came there was never any snow.

A Cardamom Tree

It was depressing to realize that there was a fair amount of truth in what they said. Perhaps the tourists didn’t directly bring the snow with them, but tourism means airplanes and airplanes mean carbon emissions and  carbon emissions mean climate change and climate change means strange weather patterns and strange weather patterns mean snow in Sapa. It was a very confusing mix of emotions, feeling very lucky to be there learning this from Cho but also knowing that I was at the very centre of the problem.

Indigo plants

Cho also pointed Indigo plants out to us. She told us to rub the leaves very fast in between our hands without warning us that it would turn our hands well… indigo. Maybe I should have thought about that myself, but I didn’t mind anyway. She told us that she is part of the Hmong Black people which have that name because they use Indigo to dye all their traditional clothing, which turns it all black. I was beyond happy to be learning all this. I really wished I could be writing it all down in my notebook, but that would have slowed down our trek significantly so I concentrated hard on remembering every fascinating tidbit that Cho shared with me.

I tried equally as hard to remember the sights, although taking a photo is a more socially acceptable form of delay than writing down notes. The fog turned out not to be a problem in the slightest for us and the entire trek we had perfect views of everything. Although visually they couldn’t have been more different, Sapa gave me a similar feeling to being in Patagonia. All the space around me seemed to have an extra dimension, as if the 3D world I was used to was actually very flat and I had just never noticed. As I looked around everything continuously seemed to be folding in and out of itself, looking very much alive. At times it would seem unbelievable that I was in the middle of all this beauty. The mountains made me feel very small. It’s a feeling I get often when I’m traveling and which I absolutely adore. I love feeling small because it reminds me that I am a part of something much bigger.

There were rice paddies all over the place and we hiked along thin paths which wound their way between them. I was actually surprised how much I liked the paddies. Usually I’m not a big fan of visible human impact on the land, but the rice paddies certainly felt like they had more of a right to be there than I did. They were carved so perfectly into the mountains and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how long they’d been there. Water buffalo roamed through them, grazing on the shoots in the water and I realized that the paddies were a part of humans and buffalo and rice living together in this place. Sapa wouldn’t be Sapa without them and they were spectacular.

I also grew quite fond of the bamboo. On our second day we hiked through a bamboo forest and the shoots grew tall and thick around us with only a tiny footpath to follow. It was dark in there, but the trunks were narrow, letting just enough light filter through them to give a mystical feeling. In other places, away from the forest, the trees clumped together in little patches, bending from the weight of their leaves which sat in tufts like a bad hair day and made them look like something from the world of Doctor Seuss.

After our long days of hiking it was always nice to arrive at our stopping points. On the first day we had stopped at a restaurant made for trekkers for lunch, which was fine. But that night we stopped at a homestay which we shared with two other small groups of travelers and which was infinitely better. We were given rice wine and amazing food and our hosts were so welcoming. Although we were tired, we stayed up chatting and drinking with the others, our goal being to finish our bottle of rice wine. Cho told us that in their culture, odd numbers were unlucky. So, for example, if you wanted a scoop of rice you had to take two and if you wanted three scoops of rice you’d have to take four. It turns out that the same goes for shots. Needless to say it was not difficult to finish the bottle.

Since Cho was good friends with the guide of one of the other groups we had lodged with, named Pen, we all continued the trek together the next day. For lunch we stopped at Pen’s mother’s house which I was naturally very excited about. It was wonderful to be inside a real home. Since the Chinese New Year was on its way everyone was in the middle of preparations, making traditional celebratory clothing.

They also served us the best rice dish Izzi and I would eat during our entire stay in Vietnam. I learned that nearly all the families there grow their own rice in their paddies and have their own vegetable gardens. Coming from where I come from, this seemed absolutely dreamy. Don’t I wish that everyone back home had the space and the time to grow their own food? Don’t I wish that everyone grew just enough to feed themselves and share with their neighbours? But, of course, Cho and many others don’t really feel the same way. Many people feel stuck in their lives, unable to do anything but grow rice for their families. It’s important to remember that the beautiful life of a small farm is only ideal if you have chosen it for yourself.

On the last of our three-day trek, Cho gave us the option of taking it easy and spending the day at a nearby waterfall, an offer we eagerly accepted. When leaving Sapa Town in the fog we had been so convinced the weather was going to be horrible that we almost spitefully left our bathing suites behind. Now, of course, we were irritated with ourselves, but we decided there was nothing wrong with swimming in our undies. When we got to the waterfall there was a bit of a chill in the air and getting into the water took some courage. But there are only so many opportunities to swim in a waterfall in Vietnam, so we stripped down and dove in. Yes, it was cold. There was a definite moment of shock that required some deep breathing, but it certainly wasn’t as bad as the salt lake in Chile. This time, Izzi lasted longer, too. The waterfall wasn’t very big but it was beautiful. The sound was gentle and calming and made me want to spend the whole day floating on my back with my face pointed up towards the sun. Every few minutes I would dive down into the river as deep as I could. It felt amazing to let the water run passed me and wash off all that travel. It made me feel more clean than even our nicest hostel shower had. When I came back up for air I settled again, half in the water and half in the sun. To my right there was an ancient looking tree which had grown out of the side of a small cliff. It grew low and twisted towards the sun, and its roots wrapped around a huge grey stone as they made their way down towards the river. Just next to it  two water buffalo, a mother and a calf, grazed in the rich green grass, not at all concerned with our splashing. Beyond them I could see the rice paddies carved endlessly into the mountain sides and I was glad that the cold water had turned my skin numb so that I could concentrate all my focus onto what I was seeing.

My body felt tired as I pulled myself out of the water and I loved it. I sat and warmed myself in the sun with the others and it was impossible to imagine a more perfect way to end the most glorious three days. We still had most of our trip to go, but even then I knew that our trek in Sapa would be very difficult to beat.

Cat Ba Island: A breath of fresh air

Izzi and I really did mean to visit Ha Long Bay. In fact, it was one of the things I was most excited about after looking up pictures on the internet pre-trip. To me, it was the perfect Asian water landscape and I couldn’t wait to see it. Unfortunately, we did not make it to Ha Long Bay. When buying our train and bus tickets in Hanoi we got some dates mixed up and in the end we had a grand total of only 24 hours on Cat Ba Island.

Getting there was an adventure in itself. First we took a five hour bus ride from Hanoi and then a 45 minute ferry to the island. The bus was a hilarious nightmare. The length wasn’t so bad, five hours is nothing when you’re traveling, but for some reason the driver decided that it would be appropriate to blast horrible dub step the entire way. Nobody on the bus wanted to say anything to him, so we sat with our own music turned up as loud as it could possibly go, trying our best to get some sleep. Part of me thinks that he really just liked that kind of music and wanted to play it, but it was so bad and so loud that another part of me thinks he just wanted to torture the tourists. When we got off the bus and looked around, I was a little confused. We were at a rather shabby dock with rusty fishing boats sitting in water that looked less than pristine. This wasn’t exactly the paradise I had pictured, but we were hurried onto the ferry and my mood lifted as we started off across the water.

I dozed in an out of the sleep, soothed by the rocking of the boat, and when I opened my eyes I spotted an island shrouded with mist and mystery in the distance. Land ho. When we arrived on land we got on yet another bus and then finally, we arrived in town. The company we had booked the bus/ferry through also owned a hostel in town called Full Moon Hostel, and that’s where we disembarked. I was not thrilled about the hostel and the town in general gave me a weird feeling. It seemed almost ghostly, as if it no longer had any purpose but to feed and house the tourists coming through. At least, that was the impression from the centre of town. But as it turns out, the hostel Izzi had booked was about half an hour away from town. After such a long trip to get there I wasn’t looking forward to another drive, and the taxi wasn’t cheap, but man was it worth it.

The hostel was called Woodstock Beach Camp and it was located at the tip of a little cove. The air immediately felt better when I got out of the taxi and I filled my lungs with the wind coming off of the water. The beach was literally steps from the front of the hostel and there were no other houses or lodgings anywhere I could see. After the chaos of Hanoi the calm and quiet was very welcome. It was our own little paradise—our own miniature Ha Long Bay. The stone mountains stuck out of the water in rounded points that reminded me of hands emerging from the deep.

Photo credit: Izzi McDonnell

After walking up and down the beach a couple of times, our toes digging into the sand, we decided to stay put, right where we were. Getting to Ha Long Bay would have meant getting in another taxi and another bus to take us there. We had less than 24 hours to enjoy the island and, although it meant missing the main attraction, we decided to relax and enjoy.

The hostel was an absolute dream. It was hard to tell who worked there and who was a guest because everyone hung out all together. Izzi and I joined in for a game of cards and then some pirate dice game that I don’t remember the name of, let alone the rules. The cans of cheap Hanoi beer were distributed through a tab system, so they were plentiful and we had soon made friends with the others. The hostel was home to a litter of puppies who loved to snuggle, the cherry on top of this perfectly comfortable place.

Photo credit: Izzi McDonnell

We lounged for a while in the pillows and tapestries, but after a while Izzi and I decided to explore a bit more. Woodstock actually had a kayak of its own named Simon (Garfunkel had recently been lost in the high tide) so after less than gracefully pulling it through the mud, we slid the boat and ourselves into the water. We spent a few hours pushing ourselves silently through the cove. Although it wasn’t raining (thank goodness) the sky was grey and the reflection of the clouds turned the water into melted silver.

One of the guys who worked at the hostel had told us about an old bunker left over from the war so, naturally, we went off in search of it. We managed to find it—it was the only metal door in the side of the rock—but after clambering up towards it and pulling hard on the handle, I realized it was locked. It wouldn’t budge a bit. I called down to Izzi to tell her that it was sealed shut, and I could hear my voice echo from inside the bunker. It sounded like a real adventure inside and all I wanted was to follow the sound of my voice into the tunnel. But it was not to be, so we continued our adventure on the water, stopping in the middle of the cove and sitting in silence.

That night we played more cards and drank more beer and eventually ended up in the middle of a big game of twister. I ended up winning, to my enormous surprise, and my prize was a shot of rice wine. It was my first one of the trip, but it certainly wouldn’t be my last. Not long after the shot I decided it was time for me to go to bed. The next day we were starting out journey towards Sapa so I climbed into my top bunk and fell soundly asleep, exhausted from the rejuvenating day.

Of course, seeing Halong Bay would have been amazing and we wouldn’t have missed it if we had just one more day. But sometimes you need moments like our day in Cat Ba while you’re traveling. You need to allow yourself a few opportunities to ignore the “must sees” and just be. Enjoy where you are, because even if it’s not on the TripAdvisor Top 10, it’s the first time you’ve ever been there, and will probably be the last. Plus, at least this way we weren’t contributing to the pollution caused by the tour boats in the water… right?

 

Note:

Have you noticed that some of the best pictures on this blog are credited to Izzi? She’s an absolutely amazing photographer. Do yourself a favour and follow her on Instagram! @izzixmcdn

Hello, Hanoi

My memories of Hanoi will always be very wet. No, January is not rainy season in Vietnam, but for some reason the weather decided to rebel (let’s continue to deny climate change, shall we?). The result of this rebellious weather was that I probably have a very different perception of Hanoi than I would have had in the sun. In the rain, Old Hanoi reminded me of an intricate network of canals instead of roads. The trees hung low over the streets and the old houses seemed to cling to them like cliffs along a river. The cars and motorcycles moved incessantly through the streets with the fluidity of running water and the bikers with their brightly coloured ponchos all clumped together felt like waves. Maybe in dryer circumstances my brain would have made other connections. But it is as it was.

Izzi finds shelter

Izzi and I spent a lot of time dodging these motorcycle waves. We would often spend several minutes watching traffic pass only to look up and realize that there was a walk sign lit and we actually had the right of way. It seemed that red lights only apply to cars, and motorbikes would move along as they wished. Since there are way more motorcycles than cars, this didn’t make the traffic lights particularly helpful. Not that the cross walks were plentiful, even if they had helped. There were many moments when in order to get from point A to point B we simply had to cross without help from any signage. While crossing one particularly scary rotary I found myself clutching Izzi’s hand and whispering to myself “I am with the force, the force is with me, I am with the force”. However by the end of our trip, if not by the end of our stay in Hanoi, we understood the art of crossing the road. The key is to cross with confidence — slowly enough that the bikes see you approaching, but never stopping so that you don’t confuse anybody.

Izzi get stuck

Since Izzi and I both love to wander the streets when when we travel, a large portion of our time was spent cafes. This is not a problem in Vietnam, since the country is famous for its coffee, which I didn’t actually know until we started planning our trip. There are many types of coffee which are famously Vietnamese. Perhaps the most well known is the weasel coffee. This strange coffee is made by feeding coffee cherries to civets, or weasels, and the beans are fermented while traveling through the digestive track. Originally, this was done with wild civets. The animals would pick the quality coffee cherries from the ground and then the digested beans would be collected. Now, however, most of the weasel coffee in circulation is produced in farms. This method has raised many ethical concerns because the weasels are force fed the cherries and there have been many reports of them being kept in horrible conditions. For this reason, Izzi and I didn’t buy any while we were there. If you can be sure that the weasel coffee you’re buying is from wild civets then by all means, buy some. But this is a difficult thing to be sure of as a tourist. Otherwise, weasel coffee is an industry that I strongly discourage supporting.

After walking around for a few days in Hanoi, I ended up with a few favourite coffee spots (CaPhes, as they’re called there). The one that sticks out best in my memory is Wi Vity Young on Hang Dâu street. We had originally sat down there because it had seats outside on the sidewalk which were covered by a little overhang from the roof. Since the rain wasn’t too heavy at that moment, we took the opportunity to rest and people-watch for a while. It was the perfect place to do that. The cafe was right on a very busy corner where we could watch women bicycle by with their bamboo hats and huge baskets of fruit hanging from rods balanced across their shoulders. It was there that I tried Vietnamese iced yogurt coffee for the first time. At first the taste was very surprising. It was an odd combination of sweet and sour from the yogurt and also a bit bitter from the espresso. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first, but it ended up being my absolute favourite by the end of the trip. As soon as I got back to Montreal I managed to recreate it which is great because it is the ultimate breakfast.

Right around the corner from Wi Vity Young was another cute little place which, unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of. Here I tried egg coffee — another typical one in Vietnam.  The drink seemed to consist of a frothed egg on top of an espresso shot with sugar. I don’t think I could recreate this one at home since I’m not sure exactly what they did to the egg, but I’m not sure I would want to anyway. It wasn’t bad, definitely worth a try considering how famous it is. But for me the egg was just too heavy, regardless of the frothiness, and it was difficult to get it all down.

Finally, there’s Cong CaPhe. This place is actually a chain, which we realized after traveling a bit more around the country. It doesn’t feel like it, though. When Izzi told me she was taking me to a communist themed cafe, I had sort of pictured communist-commercial. You know, a big place with posters of famous communist leaders on the walls and fake propaganda everywhere. However, this was certainly not the case. Instead each Cong was a tiny little cafe with simple green walls with almost no decoration. We sat on tiny wooden stools at tiny wooden tables. Stepping in there felt like stepping back in time, which was really cool. They also had an amazing coconut iced coffee which was another of my go-tos throughout the trip.

But in between all of our coffee stops, we did manage to see some sights. One of the most striking spots we visited which was a little off the beaten path, was the old train tracks. It took us a long time to find them. We stopped to check our map and turned around more times than I could count, but for a romantic like me it was worth it. The tracks were lined so closely with houses that I could stand with one foot on the rails and reach out to touch the façades with my finger tips. The houses were each uniquely pretty with plants and laundry breathing life into each of them. They seemed to curve and move along with the tracks like I imagine the houses do in Venice along the canals (more water imagery for you). I thought the tracks would be abandoned, but they weren’t. We didn’t see any while we were there, but trains still use the tracks and it was shocking to imagine the rumble they must make through the closely stuck houses.

That same day we visited Hoå Lo Prison, a somber must-see. The prison was originally built by the French to hold Vietnamese resisters to colonization. Puppets are now used to recreate the conditions of those inside, and it was really astounding to see. Prisoners would be chained by their feet and legs so that they had to go to the bathroom right where they were sitting. In the cells that held multiple people there was often not enough air and prisoners would take turns in spots where the air moved more freely so they could take full breaths. Since much of the resistance was made up of women, many babies ended up being born in Hoå Lo and were kept prisoners with their mothers. According to the information available inside, some of the prisoners over the years managed to escape. We saw the entrance to a tunnel they used and read about how they chiseled their way out, but I still don’t completely understand. How did they get out of their cells in the first place in order to get to the tunnel? How did the guards not find the tunnel entrance? It remains a mystery to me and I can’t believe how strong these prisoners must have been to manage to escape even after being abused and malnourished for so long. Years later, Håo Lo was used by the North Vietnamese to imprison American soldiers. It turns out that this is actually where John McCain was held. The videos we watched told us that the prison was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton because of how well the prisoners there were treated. However, I’m not sure I really believe them. The videos were extremely propagandic. I mean, really, these were prisoners of war. There’s no way they were treated as well as they showed in the videos every single day. Although I certainly don’t trust the US government on what exactly was going on during the Vietnam War, I don’t trust the Vietnamese government either.

On the day we went to see the Temple of Literature, we decided to go by one of those push bikes with the carriages (I’m not exactly sure what they’re called). It was something we felt we had to do at least once while we were in Hanoi and it was fun, but I felt a little bit guilty for the whole ride. Our chauffeur was just one guy pushing both me and Izzi and  the cart. I know it’s his job and he would rather we gave him business than not, but it felt elitist and made me uncomfortable. At one point he slowed down so much that I was sure he had run out of steam, but it turns out we had just arrived at our destination. When I heard “Temple of Literature”, I had pictured a sort of library, but that it was not. It was a very classic looking temple with statues of old teachers with incense and offerings of fruit and money everywhere. I prayed for success in grad school, although I didn’t leave an offering so I hope that doesn’t come back to bite me. The coolest part was the names of all the graduates that were etched into stone turtles. They were so old that they were written in Chinese characters. I hadn’t realized that before French colonization these were the characters used in Vietnam. It was the French who westernized Vietnamese writing. I also learned that there are three sacred creatures in Vietnamese culture — the Unicorn, the Phoenix, and the Turtle. It makes sense that the names of all the doctors who graduated from this Temple of Literature would have their names immortalized on the backs of the turtles. Turtles live such long lives and with their medical degrees the graduates were to lengthen the lives of their fellow humans. This is pure speculation of course, don’t quote me on it, but it makes sense in my head.

Of course, we absolutely had to see the shrine of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s communist revolutionary leader and president. Walking towards it I could only think that the architecture was just as I had imagined communist built structures to be. It was simple and imposing, built with huge slabs of black stone and grey concrete. It was solid, strong, and intimidating, and reinforced most of the assumptions my only partly educated imagination had made about what something like this would look like. There were guards everywhere, pointing seriously in the direction we were expected to walk and shooing us away when we misstepped. Not one for uniformity and homogenization, Izzi seemed to get more rambunctious the more serious the guards were. As we got close to Ho Chi Minh’s body and the guards demanded silence she let out a laugh. I shiver at the thought of what would happen to her under such strict rule, but I was glad for her joyous company. My mood is very easily influenced by my surroundings. Although, they didn’t give us much time to really take in the experience. As soon as we got inside the stone cube that is his shrine, we were ordered to keep moving as we walked in a surprisingly fast-paced circle around his embalmed body. It wasn’t even really enough time to understand that I was in the presence of a dead body, let alone the significance of that particular body. It was a strange experience. I kept thinking about the massive structure we were inside with the undoubtably expensive upkeep that goes along with it. I might be mistaken, I haven’t yet read Marx, but isn’t communism about redistribution and equality? Yet there we were worshiping this one man as if he were a god. Our trip to the shrine wasn’t really the most fun we had in Hanoi, but it was really important to see. It’s important to remember that behind all the cute little coffee shops, beautiful ceramic, and delicious Pho there is a very complicated political history that played an enormous part in shaping Vietnam. Not everything is lovely.

The water-puppet show we saw at the Thang Long Puppet Theatre, however, was. Water puppetry is an old folk tradition which was started in ancient rice paddies during the rainy season when all the paddies were flooded. Of course the art form has developed immensely and the shows are much more intricate now, but they still tell the same classic stories of village life and feature key characters like the dragon, the unicorn, and the turtle. The puppets were amazing to see as they glided through the water telling their tales. The puppeteers were hidden behind a curtain and made the characters dance with long poles. There was also live music and actors who gave the characters voices. Although we couldn’t understand a word they were saying, they gave the story so much life and it was fun to watch. My favourite one was the dragon because as it came out into the stage it brought fire and smoke along with it. I absolutely loved the contrast between the smoke and the water. The effect was absolutely dreamlike.

On our last day in Hanoi we visited the Ethnology Museum. It was well curated and we walked around for hours drawn in by each beautiful artifact. I love objects — I love the stories they tell about how life was lived through them. They show us ways that we are different from one another as well as similar. It was exciting learning about Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups since soon we would be heading for Sapa, a region that is home to many minority cultures. I tried to take in as much as the information as I could, but there was so much that there was no way I was going to retain it all, or even most of it. Later in Sapa, though, Izzi tapped me on my shoulder and pointed to an interesting basket a passing woman was carrying. She reminded me that we had seen that type of basket in the ethnology museum and I was happy that we got to see the object in action. You see, I have complicated feelings towards museums of this kind. It seems a shame to me to put these objects behind glass. They’re not fine art; they’re things that are meant to be touched, to be used, to be interacted with. It is impossible to understand them with only your eyes. To connect with them you have to physically connect with them. I was particularly frustrated while reading about one of the culture’s animist beliefs. They believe that everything, every object, has a soul. Everything has meaning and life inside of it, regardless of whether or not it is actually alive. Reading this and then looking at this same culture’s objects behind glass seemed totally wrong. From their perspective we had caged spirits, trapped them forever in a zoo of objects where they would never be handled the way they were meant to be again. That being said, I understand the importance of conservation. I didn’t boycott the museum; I wanted to learn about the objects like everyone else. These parts of culture and history are so important. We want to understand people and these things are a wonderful way to begin to do that. Like most things, it’s a topic I find immensely complicated.

But intertwined with all of this — the museums, the politics, the history — is food. You cannot talk about Hanoi without talking about food. One of my favourite spots was the Hanoi Social Club, which Izzi found. I had the best jasmine green tea I’ve ever had. The food was amazing too. It tasted like Vietnam, but with a twist. The cooks there used local flavours and ingredients but in a very contemporary way. They were clearly experimenting, creating, and having fun. Although we went for lunch both times we went there, they hold poetry readings and have live music at night which I’m sure must be a blast. It also turns out that it’s a place you can feel good about eating at. All the cooks who work there are a part of a program that teaches quality hospitality skills to impoverished youth. Each bite of their spectacular food convinced me that the program must be working and that they definitely have a solid food career ahead of them.

We ate a lot of classic Vietnamese food, too. The main event, of course, was Pho. Pho is the type of thing best eaten on the street. This may seem like risky business, but the key is to find a place with lots of locals eating. This not only ensures that the food is good, but that the ingredients are fresh since the turnover is faster. Also, if you can see the food (which you often can in a street food situation) check to see if the soups and broths are boiling. Boiling liquids kill off any bacteria. We ended up sitting down at a place called Pho Keu (we couldn’t help but be amused by the name) and it was great. We sat down on the classic tiny plastic stools under the familiar drizzle. Since this was my first street food experience in Vietnam I opted for beef Pho since I was unsure about the safety of eating chicken. Looking back now I laugh at my cautious, naive self considering how much street chicken I would end up eating by the end of our trip. The Pho we got was about $2, huge, and amazing. It was pure and simple, perfect for my first real Pho experience.

But the dish I find myself craving now that I’m back in Montreal is not Pho, but Bahn Mi. I don’t think I’ll ever eat a better Bahn Mi than the one I had at Moto Bar in the French Quarter. The pork was tender and the juices, combined with just the right amount of chili, seeped into the baguette and gave it flavour, too. The baguette itself was also amazing, crisp on the outside and unbelievably soft on the inside. As I sat there munching I was reminded of the French. It’s amazing how occupation manifests itself in such interesting places in a culture — like the perfect baguette in the middle of Asia.

Hanoi was, to put it lightly, a lot. It is an undeniably overwhelming city where at any moment you could get hit by a motorbike or, in our case, drowned by the incessant rain. But I truly loved it. All this craziness and chaos was just a manifestation of a place full of life.

New Perspectives in San Antonio

I had imagined San Antonio as smaller than Austin. I don’t know why— I had never looked up the populations of either city or even really seen comparable pictures. It was just a feeling I had stored away in my head under the label of “fact” when, it turns out, it’s not true at all. Austin has a population of about 931,800 people while San Antonio is home to 1,437,000. So yeah, I was very wrong. Perhaps it was the size, but I found San Antonio a little harder to get a feel for than Austin. It was more difficult to just happen upon things to do, although we did plenty.

Every blog will tell you to do the Riverwalk and mine is no exception. It really is amazing how much your world changes just by walking down a flight of stairs. The Riverwalk feels like a jungle — a literal urban jungle — with green river-water winding through leafy green trees. The atmosphere is misty and wild and it feels extremely different to the dry Texas air of the streets above. Before going, I had pictured it as more of a park, like Montreal’s Lachine Canal. But the Riverwalk is very active! We passed by countless restaurants while we strolled. Most of them are actually accessible from the street as well, but using the Riverwalk entrances made it seem like two totally different places. It reminded me of a strange sort of parallel universe. We decided to do a boat tour down the river, which is the kind of thing my family doesn’t usually do. To be honest, as our tour guide told us to wave at the pedestrians diners on the shore I did feel a little embarrassed, but I got over it. The tour gave a really cool view of the city. It’s not often that you can look up at the street — at the bottom of buildings all the way to the top. It’s a feature that really makes San Antonio a unique city, one with something I had never experienced before.

I found the Riverwalk at night very beautiful. The trees were all lit up with fairy lights, and I mean all lit up. I couldn’t help but be impressed by whoever’s job it was to climb up into the trees to string those lights. The effect was dazzling. It would have even been magical if it weren’t for the countless drunk partiers all over the place. I’m not against a good time and I can appreciate the fun of a good night out. However, with so many people so wasted, it did make it a little difficult to enjoy the stroll down the walk. Plus, since I guess drinking is the main focus of the nighttime Riverwalk, past 11:00 it was impossible to find anything that wasn’t alcohol. All we wanted was to sit by the water and have a little coffee before heading back home, but no place had it. I guess that’s not so strange for nighttime, but with so many places open, it was surprising that none of them could offer anything but alcohol. Maybe my reaction would have been more positive if I had been there with friends and had been in the mood for partying. But with my family and in the mood for a nice stroll, it seemed a shame. It’s also possible that we were simply at the wrong part of the walk. Maybe along other parts of the river things are quieter, even at night.

And then, of course, there’s the Alamo. The Alamo is one of those big parts of American history that I vaguely remember learning about in high school enough to know that it’s important, but not enough to have a real understanding of what happened. I approached our visit there ready to learn, and I promise that I really really wanted to enjoy it. I consider myself a historical traveler. I think spending time learning about the history of the place you’re in is important, so I tried hard not to be bored. I didn’t want to be one of those people bored by a historical monument, but I was. First of all, we waited for ages to get in. The line literally wound around the street corner although, to be fair, it did move relatively quickly. Once we got in there were so many people I could barely see the place. I wanted to appreciate the architecture but there was too much jostling. There was quite a bit of history in the barracks section, but it focused exclusively on military history (not surprising) and I found it quite difficult to engage with it.

But as it turns out, the Alamo is only one of four historical missions in the San Antonio area. There’s actually a bike route that you can take to each of them. We didn’t know about it ahead of time so we didn’t have time to do it, but it sounds like it would have been really nice. If you’re visiting, definitely check it out. Biking always adds an extra element to any activity. The only other mission we had time to see was Mission San Jose and I was very pleasantly surprised. After the Alamo I had slightly lost interest in the missions, but as soon as we got to San Jose I was reminded why I love visiting historical places so much. The church itself is big, but not too imposing. The dusty colour of the stone and its rounded top almost made it look like a hill in the distance while we were walking towards it. It reminded me of a church you would find in an old Spanish pueblo, which of course is exactly what it would have been modelled  after.

The church was at the end of a long grassy space enclosed by a rectangular of tiny houses which were home to the Native Americans who lived at the mission. The whole thing was very well restored. By that I mean that while the buildings had been fixed up to be in perfect condition, I could still feel the history. I wandered into one of the casitas by myself and just stood in the middle of the floor taking it in. There was one small rectangular window which let in just enough light to get my imagination really moving. I felt like I could really picture life there. I pictured small children growing up in this beautiful mission, in its shadow. Of course it’s not a happy history to imagine. Missionary work in what is now the United States was often bloody and cruel. I couldn’t help but wonder about the things the people who lived in this little house had seen. How many brothers, mothers, or children had they lost? Were they happy? Could they be happy as their world was being forcefully changed and ripped apart? It was a strange feeling because while I was surrounded by such a beautiful place, it was also so sad thinking about what had happened there. But I like that dissonance. I think it’s important to be able to appreciate the beauty that comes from history while still being critical of the history itself.

San Antonio also has a lot of great museums of which we saw two, by mistake. I say by mistake because once we were all in the San Antonio Museum of Art with our tickets bought, we realized we hadn’t meant to go there. We had meant to go to the Briscoe Western Art Museum to experience something more local. But since we were there at the Museum of Art, we decided to check it out. I really enjoyed the collection and thought it was very well curated. Each piece was placed in an extremely well thought out spot with much attention given to the pieces around it. I especially liked the collection of South American art, José Luis Rivera Barrera in particular.

I love how well the horizontal movement of the sculpture pairs with the painting behind it.

Afterwards we did end up going to the Briscoe Museum. It had a lot of really cool old artifacts. I especially liked the saddles. I learned how to ride on an English saddle, and it was fun seeing how intricate and particular the Western saddles could be. My favourite part was looking at the old carriages, though. In the entrance of the museum there was an old stage coach which I couldn’t even begin to imagine traveling across the country in. But even more interesting to me was the chuckwagon. It’s a type of wagon designed specifically for feeding ranchers while they’re out with the cattle or doing whatever it is exactly that ranchers do. I had never really thought about the need for a specific way to feed ranch workers before. It had a lot of different compartments for keeping food, medicine, tools, and first aid things. Apparently the cook pretty much took care of all the ranchers’ vital needs. I learned that some chuckwagons are still in use today, but most ranches have switched to using pickup trucks. Thinking about it now, I can’t help but laugh at how even in a museum I’m immediately attracted to whatever has to do with food.

Which brings me to food. We at ate some great places in San Antonio, but the two highlights were Boiler House and The Luxury. The Boiler House is located in the Old Pearl Brewery, an industrial building which (just a wild guess here) used to be a brewery. It’s been renovated and now is home to lots of little shops and trendy restaurants. We went for dinner and it was very pretty in the night. Like the Riverwalk, it was all lit up with fairy lights but without all the drunk people. There were many places to sit near a fountain and around the square. It seemed like an absolutely perfect date spot — very romantic. There were many restaurants to choose from, but we had a reservation at Boiler House. The food was flavourful and we all really enjoyed our meals, but the atmosphere was definitely the best part. We sat outside, which was really nice, but when I wandered inside to use the bathroom I noticed that they had done a really good job at maintaining the original integrity of the building. It had a real industrial feel to it, which I love. It reminded me of a lot of places in the South West of Montreal.

My favourite was The Luxury, though. We found this place towards the end of the Riverwalk right next to the San Antonio Museum of Art. It’s a totally outdoor spot with a counter to order food and another to order drinks. It had a wonderfully laid back and chill attitude about it with many people sitting at either picnic tables or swinging chairs looking out over the river. The aesthetic was amazing too — I thought my sister was going to explode with happiness. They had a great collection of local beers and ciders which I always like to see. I believe I ordered a fish burger because I was feeling bad about the number of hamburgers I had eaten so far on this trip, but I later suffered from some serious food envy. My dad and Monica both ordered hamburgers and they insisted that I try a bit, so I did. It was seriously the best burger I had ever eaten. I’m not a huge burger person so maybe that isn’t saying much, but I couldn’t believe what I was tasting. If you make it to The Luxury and aren’t a vegetarian, the burger is a must. The only thing I didn’t like about the place was the fact that they don’t recycle. I was really disappointed when the bartender told me. Usually cool places like that at least follow the basics of sustainability. If they changed that one factor, the place would be absolutely perfect.

The award for our strangest meal, goes to the Alamo Drafthouse. This is not a purely Texas thing, but it was something this New England girl had never experienced before. For others who have never had an Alamo Drafthouse experience, it’s a movie theatre that serves you dinner and drinks while you watch. At later showings no one under the age of 18 (or something like that) is allowed in. It gives you absolutely everything a childish quasi grownup like me could ever want out of a movie theatre. We had such a great time! Although, especially watching the wildly inappropriate and hilarious adds before the movie, it was quite surreal. We went to see Why Him? with James Franco which was actually really funny and way better than any of us had expected. The food was also really good, which surprised me. Maybe I’m a snob but I had not expected a movie theatre meal to be of particular quality. They totally won me over with their adult milkshakes. Being a true lover of mint chocolate chip ice cream, I got the Grasshopper milkshake and it was to die for. I can’t wait to make it myself at home. It was our last night in San Antonio, and a really fun one. It felt like real, modern Americana.

If I’m being honest, I think Austin was more my style than San Antonio. If I were to do the trip again, I’d probably spend one more day in Austin. This is mostly because I felt the presence of other tourists more in San Antonio and I don’t like that. I like feeling like I’m really getting a feeling of the city, and the things we did in San Antonio were a bit more touristy. That being said, I had a lot of fun in San Antonio too. Plus, I was only there for a few days! There’s no way to really judge a place after such a short visit. In general, our trip to Texas was wonderful. We had fun, saw a very new kind of beauty, and were able to open up our minds and think differently about a part of the world we had never seen before. It was everything a good trip should be.

Keep Austin Weird

I have been very lucky in my life. So many of the places I’ve traveled to I’ve gone with my family, and even as my sister and I grow older, my dad still offers us so many new experiences. Just last year he took us to the Dominican Republic and then this year, he took us to Texas. At first, I was surprised by that choice, but the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea. My family has travelled a lot outside of the USA, but not much inside. I’m familiar with California and the North East, but everything below and in between seemed more foreign than, well, the foreign. I looked at middle America as an estranged family member or distant cousin. But travel is about breaking down boundaries and getting rid of misconceptions, is it not? Well, in December, just one month after the 2016 presidential election, I was feeling very estranged from the States (I still am). A lot of that frustration and fear was channeled into anger and looking back on it now, some boundary breaking was just what I needed. So all of a sudden I found myself in Texas. Austin, especially, changed so much of what I’ll freely admit was judgemental thinking on my part.

Some things, though, were just how I imagined them. We arrived in Austin on Christmas night and as we drove in from the airport, starving, we were sure we wouldn’t be able to find anything to eat. As we searched for something, a Subway or whatever, we happened upon Haymaker. The very first thing I noticed as we walked in were the cowboy hats and boots. I guess I thought their popularity might have been exaggerated by the media, but no. They are very much real and, even more surprisingly to me, they really look good! (More on this topic later). Haymaker was great – certainly better than anything we had hoped to find open on Christmas. The first thing I noticed on the menu was poutine, which I thought was strange since I had just come a very long way from Montreal. But although I was tempted to test what a Texas poutine would taste like, I went for the burger and I would absolutely suggest doing the same. Their burgers were served on toast instead of buns, which apparently is the true Texas way.

The next day we truly started our Americana visit by learning about an American president and Austin local at the Lindon B Johnson Memorial Library. I’m not going to lie, I’m always very skeptical about this sort of thing. I truly believe that the worship of politicians and blind patriotism are extremely dangerous, but I quickly learned that that is not what the LBJ Library is all about. Besides LBJ being an interesting man and leader, he was president at an interesting time. The Sixties were a time of change. It was a decade where people started to think differently about race, about gender roles, about people’s rights to be themselves. I actually see a lot of what was going on reflected in today’s popular human rights movements.

LBJ Memorial Library

The visit began with a timeline of LBJ’s life. But what made it interesting was that along side what was happening in his life, there was a description of what was going on in the country at the time. It was great because we got to understand a little better where he was coming from as a person and how what was happening in the United States throughout his life had shaped him into the man and president he would become. I think it’s important to try to look at everyone this way, as impossible as that might seem. Understanding where a person comes from — the context in which they became who they are — does so much to help us understand why they do what they do and where they might be dangerously biased.

I knew extremely little about LBJ before visiting the library. I associated him with the Vietnam War, but I honestly doubt if I could have even told you with confidence whether he was a Republican or a Democrat. It turns out, though, that he did some really amazing things for the US. He created the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which finally made basic education accessible to all American children. He also signed the Civil Rights Act into law and worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr on civil rights issues. As I walked around the library reading about all these things that he had done, I couldn’t help but think that as far as American presidents go, he was kind of a progressive dream! Considering some of the presidents that came after him, it almost feels like he was well ahead of his time. He could have been the perfect president, but there is no such thing. There’s always something, and LBJ’s something was a very big one.

“Hey! Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

This was a popular chant during anti Vietnam War protests. It’s a chant that I could see myself partaking in if I had been alive at that time. There is no denying that the Vietnam War was a mistake. It wasn’t only a pointless endeavour based on the irrational fear of communism, it also caused such an immense amount of harm in Vietnam that the effects are still being felt today. It made me very confused. How could a president who had done so much good make such a horrible judgement? And then I played a game. The library is really interactive and has a lot of activities which is exactly the way I like to learn. During the game, I was given all the information LBJ would have been given by his advisors about Vietnam and then I was supposed to decide for myself whether or not we should go to war. At first I said that they shouldn’t in my “hindsight is 20/20” position of privilege. But if I only knew what these advisors were telling me, only received their biased, one-sided, incomplete recommendations, I probably would have been scared shitless of Vietnam. Scared enough to start a war? Maybe. I’m not saying that LBJ was blameless. He was a grown man and should have been able to see through this absurdity. But it’s so important to remember that the president trusts, has to trust, their advisors. Those advisors hold an immense amount of power and influence and so it is just as important to know about them and their pasts as it is to know about the president because they play just as important a role in making decisions.

After the LBJ Library we headed to South Congress Ave for lunch. We had planned on wandering beforehand and picking the best looking option, but once we figured out that South Congress Ave and Congress Street are not the same thing we were starving. So we pretty much picked the first place we saw and that was Güeros. The place was actually amazing — a super lucky pick. The food was rich, flavourful, and spicy and felt very authentic, at least compared to most Mexican food in the North East. Monica told us that in South America Güeros actually means “white people”. I found this very clever and could just imagine the owners saying to each other “Open a good Mexican restaurant and the white people will come”. And, well, there we were. The tacos were great, there was a full salsa bar, and the margaritas were the best I’ve had in a while. All in all a good lunch.

With full bellies we were much better prepared to enjoy the charm of South Congress. There were lots of shops to poke around in and each one was super cute. My favourite was a huge curio shop filled with things nobody needs but that I absolutely wanted.  I think what did it was the way the shop was organized. Each little section, or alcove, had a coloured theme. One part would be all cream and sea foam green while the next would be different shades of pink and yellow. The continuity made it seem like each individual object would be beautiful all on it’s own, although I suspect most of the things would look quite out of place in my actual apartment.

From there we went to Allen’s Boot Shop where I learned what a $6000 pair of boots looks like. Before leaving Montreal I had joked with my partner, John, about bringing back a pair of bright red cowboy boots. He was horrified by the idea and told me to promise not to get any, which I would not. But being there, staring at the rows and rows of boots, I realized that these were not a joking matter. One does not simply buy a pair of cowboy boots as a funny souvenir. These boots are serious business. I was tempted by the Cowboy hats since I have a weakness for hats in general, but the boots had made me realize that this was a style I did not understand and to which I had no right.

For dinner (what is life if not the journey from one meal to the next?) we went to the Roaring Fork. At the start of the meal there was a bit of tension because it was immediately obvious that it was not really the ambience we were looking for. The restaurant was quite nice but very big and the AC was up high. It lacked the cosiness and homeyness that my family likes in a restaurant and, besides the antler chandeliers, it was difficult to tell that we were in a different place at all. That is, until the food got there. It was good southern food. I was so engrossed in my own meal that I quite forget what the rest of the family ordered, but I simply could not get over my chicken. “Chicken?” you say, “It’s just chicken”. But it wasn’t, though. It came with a corn bread stuffing — the best idea in the entire world. It was sweet, as corn bread generally is, and paired so nicely with the peppery chicken. This was just the second time that I really got to see why people are so passionate about southern food. (The first time was on a trip to the Outer Banks with a friend who introduced me to North Carolina BBQ). So any doubts about the restaurant disappeared after each of us took our first bites of food, and afterwards we were happy and ready for a nighttime stroll.

The Congress building was beautiful at night. It was lit up dramatically to highlight the best of the architecture. I find that so many capital buildings in the United States look pretty much the same, but I definitely do not mean this as an insult. I find the style very beautiful. It seems sophisticated in a tasteful way, grand in a modest way. The differences are in the details. This one, for example, was made of a light brown stone (granite?) that seems quite common here. The building was massive and we had a lot of fun working our way around it as we walked off our dinner.

But of course, my favourite after-dinner activity is a drink, and there is no better place to do that in Austin than 6th Street. Besides the good bars, I absolutely loved the feel of being on 6th Street. The vibe was laid back and everyone seemed happy, but I don’t think it was just due to the alcohol. I think part of it was the open doors. It’s a special thing to be in a place where all the doors can be wide open in late December. It meant that we were invited inside by the live music playing in almost every spot. We ended up at Friends bar for a free show and some good G&Ts. The band was great — some really good Southern Rock — and I’m very annoyed with myself that I forgot to write down their name. I do wish we had had the chance to see some Blues while we were there, though. Apparently Austin is famous for its Blues and its a shame that I didn’t get to experience it. Next time, I guess.

Day two began at UT Austin, which has a beautiful campus. I realized as I was walking around that if I had visited there while I was looking at schools, I would have fallen instantly in love. It’s an easy place to picture yourself in. The layout is well designed and I loved all the little alcoves and courtyards where students can sit in the grass and study. It’s an interesting combination of cozy and outdoors which I don’t often see. While there, we visited a free gallery which was holding an exhibit of Elliot Erwin. Being the photographer of the group, Sofie was able to appreciate it best — especially since Erwin mostly took portraits, which is her forte as well. Well all enjoyed it, though. I’m always amazed at how well good photographs can capture a person, how they seem to tell their subject’s whole story with one shot.

My pick for the day was the Baylor Street Art Wall, also known as Hope Outdoor Gallery. Since I’m used to Montreal street art, I had imagined it would be a collection of murals. Instead, anyone was invited to spray paint. That meant that the aesthetic was much less refined, but it was cool and different. It was inclusive — even non artists could participate and feel like they were really a part of something in Austin. Since we didn’t realize this was what it was all about we didn’t bring any paint, and if you go you definitely should. Still, I had a lot of fun walking around looking at things people had painted and written and climbing around on the walls. It didn’t compare to Valparaíso, but nothing ever really could.

At the Baylor Street Art Wall

For lunch we went to The Picnic food truck park which was, quite simply, awesome. There are many food truck parks in Austin and and I can’t say how this one compares to the others, but we had an amazing time. It was so fun be outside in the sunshine watching people, really feeling like we were in the middle of everything. All of us decided to eat from The Mighty Cone truck where everything was served in … a cone. Even the picnic tables in front of the truck had little holes so that you could put your cone down. I had the shrimp and avocado cone covered in sour kraut, which it turns out I love. To be honest, the paper cones weren’t really necessary — the food would have been exactly the same served on a plate, but I approached it from an “art for arts sake perspective” and concluded that it was fun.

Photo cred Sofie Melian-Morse

After lunch Sof brought us to East Austin Succulents. This was honestly probably the best thing we did the whole trip, or at least in the top three. The whole greenhouse was filled with succulents and cacti and in the dry Austin sun everything felt exactly right. It was impossible not to fall in love with every single one. My dad said that we could each pick one to take home, which quickly evolved into me deciding to pick two cheap ones which then further evolved into Sofie deciding to pick two not so cheap ones. C’est la vie, Papa. We spent hours in there just walking around and enjoying the particular beauty of each succulent that caught our eye. The air just feels good in a greenhouse. It seems healthy and green and you can feel the energy of all those plants growing. Especially since I had just come from the middle of a Canadian winter, it was energizing to be around the plants.

That night we had steak for dinner since we absolutely couldn’t leave Austin without eating one. I had seen good things about the Hoffbrau Steak House so that’s where we went. We all started off with the “love it or leave it” salad which is really just lettuce, onions, tomato, and olives served with a garlic dressing but for some reason it absolutely hit the spot. I couldn’t believe how good it was. I guess I fall into the “love it” category. And then, of course, the steak. I don’t know anything about steak but I do know that I ordered a ribeye. It was spectacular. We all got large ones and while everyone else was regretting the decision I was secretly very glad I had gone big. It was the best steak I’d had since I was in Argentina. I had forgotten what good, quality steak actually means. It was also really cool that we were eating in a place that had been around since the 1930s. There were other customers sitting by us who seemed like they had been eating there every day for thirty years. It made me feel like we were experiencing real Austin. I know, I know, I found the restaurant on Trip Advisor, but even so the restaurant really felt authentic and I could almost imagine what Austin might have been like in the 30s while I was eating there.

I fell in love with Austin. I loved the art, the music, the food, and the cowboy boots. We were there for such a short time and I left feeling like there were so many corners of the city that I still needed to uncover. But that’s a good thing! I want to leave a city wishing I had more time there. It’s the same deliciously unsatisfying feeling as finishing a good book you wished would never end. I never thought I would feel so at home, so comfortable, in a Texas city. Austin changed my perspective and opened my mind up to a part of the world that I was, honestly, very closed minded about. At all the souvenir shops I saw stickers and t-shirts that read “keep Austin weird”. Let’s hope they do because it is a strange and special place and I want it just like that when I inevitably find my way back.

Loose Ends

I can’t believe this is my last Buenos Aires post. I do plan on continuing with this blog; I’ve really enjoyed sharing my experiences and don’t want to stop. So, this isn’t goodbye, however I will miss writing about this beautiful city, country, and continent (not that it will be my last time here).

It’s been a little over a week since I got back from Chile – a very strange, melancholy week. I’ve pretty much spent this time eating my feelings with the excuse that it’s the last time I’ll be able to eat at these amazing places. Izzi and I started out by trying something new and visiting Don Julio. Don Julio is considered the best steak house in Buenos Aires, which is saying a lot. It’s an absolute MUST when visiting, and since neither of us had been yet and our time was running out (sob), it seemed like a good idea. It turned out to be a very good idea. Many people talk about Don Julio as a quite expensive restaurant but, while I wouldn’t go there every week, I didn’t think it was expensive at all for the experience we had. First of all, they treated us like royalty, which is an enormous plus for my shameless ego. The wait staff was funny and sociable while still letting us enjoy our meal in peace. When it came time to pick which cut of meat we wanted and it became clear to them that neither of us had the slightest idea what we were talking about, they actually brought us back to see all the different cuts raw and explain the difference to us. Izzi and I both ended up getting flank steaks which was an amazing decision, though I’m sure all the cuts would have been amazing. I’ve noticed that in Buenos Aires they really tend to overcook their meat, which is surprising to me since the meat is such high quality. Usually when I’m in a restaurant I have to emphasize three times to the waitress/waiter that I want it rare…bloody…still mooing please. Here, when I asked for rare it came rare – a juicy, tender rare that made me think I was eating an animal I had never eaten before. I couldn’t believe what I was tasting. At the end of the meal we were able to write on the label of our wine bottle and add it to the hundreds lining the walls of Don Julio – a little mark left by us at a Buenos Aires institution.

Izzi left Buenos Aires before me, just a couple days ago, and while her last day was very sad, it was also exceptionally lovely. We started by meeting up with Louis and Pierre, who had recently gotten back to Buenos Aires, for lunch and spent a long time chatting with them and hearing about the rest of their adventures in Bolivia before it was time to say goodbye. Although goodbyes are always rough, I was glad we got one last chance to see each other. Travel friendships are always so intense and wonderful, and the fact that you have to say goodbye so suddenly has always been rough for me. So, one extra meal all together seemed like such a gift. After we ate, though, the boys had to leave so we said goodbye for real and headed to Galería Patio del Liceo to make ourselves feel better. We had discovered this place through an Underart Tour, which brings you around the city to see underground art galleries and artist collectives. This had been our absolute favourite from the tour. Tucked away off Calle Santa Fe, this creative centre is filled with galleries and studios from all different types of designers and artists.

This gorgeous indoor/outdoor space couldn't be inhabited by anyone other than designers
Gorgeous indoor/outdoor space 

 

I gifted myself a napkin holder shaped like a sailboat (the napkins are the sail!) and we spent a lot of time gushing over all the beautiful prints, photos, and paintings in each shop.

Afterwards we decided to walk back to Palermo. It was a bit far but it was a beautiful day. As we were walking the sun was shining perfectly through the leaves and I remembered my first week here. I had been walking by myself, not having made any friends yet, and I had been smiling widely from ear to ear because I couldn’t believe how beautiful the trees were in this city. It had been a while since I had really noticed them, so Izzi and I walked in silence for a bit, just taking in the magic that they were brining to the streets. As we were walking, a bright blue bookstore caught our eye and we just had to go in.

La libreria Librosref
La libreria Librosref

The place had such a warm glow radiating out of it. As it turns out, that didn’t just have to do with the flawless lighting and interior design, but also the staff. The man who greeted us seemed absolutely delighted that we had entered his store. He asked us all about ourselves, and told us all about his store. He was truly passionate about the books that he had in stock. When I told him I study anthropology he was excited to show me his ethnography collection. He even gave Izzi a free book because it was her last day in the city. I am truly going to miss how open and cariñoso people here are. Librosref was amazing, but I’m not going to say that the way he treated us was rare. I find that people here really care about the other human beings they happen upon. When we left the shop it was time for Izzi and me to say goodbye. I knew it was going to be sad, but as she walked away I was truly heart broken. We had gotten to know each other so well so quickly, and I felt I had really found a friend that understood me. We had discovered so much that we had in common, it seemed unfair that we didn’t have more time to discover more.

Izzi and me featured in the worst selfie ever taken with our matching hats.
Izzi and me in “the worst selfie ever taken” featuring our matching hats.

I’ve also spent this week scouring the city for souvenirs and gifts to bring back with me. The best place to do that, of course, is Mercado San Telmo. Since I’m running a little low on friends still in the city I went alone. I was actually quite glad I did because it meant I could spend as much time as I wanted just wandering the streets doing what I do best – people watching. I watched old men drinking coffee in comfortable silence, I watched young Argentinian couples be very publicly in love, I watched amazing tango street shows, and of course, lots of dogs and babies. The little snapshot memories I tucked away for myself that day are worth a whole lot more than the nicknacks I picked up, though those are fun too.

However, the best souvenir I’ll be taking home with me from Buenos Aires is my new tattoo. I decided to get it done at Iris Tattoo because many of the artists there specialize in watercolour tattoos, which is the style I wanted. I made the appointment before leaving for my trip with Izzi and had decided on getting a crescent moon. While in Chile and Bolivia I fell in love with the idea even more as I watched the moon rise into the most beautiful night skies I’ve ever seen, linger into the sunrise, and smile at me from that upside-down type of angle it has down here. So, when I got back to Buenos Aires I was so in love that I knew I had made a very good decision as to what I wanted. It turned out perfectly, exactly as I had pictured it in my head, and I am thrilled that I will always have this reminder of the amazing things I have seen here.

My beautiful crescent moon
My beautiful crescent moon

Of course, I couldn’t leave Buenos Aires without giving myself one last art day. Unbelievably, I had yet to visit the MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires) and I just had to before I left. I am so glad I did. They have amazing pieces by Diego Rivera, Frida, and even Nora Borges, Jorge Louis’ little sister. It was also so much fun to see many of the pieces we had discussed in my Contemporary Argentinian Art class.

Alejandro Puentes
Alejandro Puentes

I was astounded when I saw a Berni piece in person. He’s an artist famous for the way he painted eyes, and they were just so much more powerful in person on that enormous canvas. Although he’s not quite as well known, I was excited to see an Alejandro Puentes, mostly because he’s inspired some of the ideas I have down in my sketchpad. It was really exciting to be able to recognize so many pieces and artist from memory and to really understand the value of what I was looking at and how much these physical objects in front of me had influenced Argentinian history.

My favourite, though, was an artist I had never heard of, since she is not Argentinian. Theresa Burga is a contemporary Peruvian artist who has two pieces in the MALBA I absolutely adored. The first one was called “Estructuras de Aire”(Structures of Aire). This was exactly the type of piece that I’m most into. I walked into a pitch black room… and I mean PITCH black. I couldn’t see a thing and spent the entire time walking around with my hands out in front of me so I wouldn’t run into any walls. At one point my eyes started playing tricks on me and I thought I would be walking towards a wall when in fact I wasn’t even close. The things I saw in the total dark could have been the piece itself, but there was another dimension. Out of nowhere bursts of air would shoot out of the ground or the walls or the ceiling at me. This was amazing because since I was so deprived of visual stimuli I felt the coolness of the air much more than I otherwise would have and it felt absolutely beautiful. I could have stayed in there forever except some genius came in with their cell phone flashlight on so I decided to leave.

Her second piece was called “obra que desaparece cuando el espectador trata de acercarse” (piece that disappears as the spectator tries to get closer) which is exactly what it sounds like.

Piece by Theresa Burga
Piece by Theresa Burga

I had to wait for the people who were in the room to leave before I was allowed to go in. When I did, I was confronted by a brilliant piece made of neon lights. I loved being in there by myself with the lights; it was quite surreal. As I walked towards it, censors in the walls made each ring of colour disappear one at a time until by the time I reached the line in front of the piece, there was no piece left. I had a lot of fun walking backwards watching the piece light up then forwards again watching it disappear. Honestly, though, just standing there looking at the glowing colours was beautiful as well.

And now, well, now it’s my last day. My bags are all packed and I’m sitting in a very empty room typing out my goodbye message. It’s actually quite a sad image. Tonight, though, I get the perfect Argentinian goodbye. River is playing so the friends still around are coming over to watch the fútbol game, and then we’re making a big Asado. I couldn’t ask for a better last Argentinian supper.

What will I miss the most about being here? I’ll miss the way the sunlight shines off of the church in Plaza Maya very early in the morning. I’ll miss being in a place where everyone is always willing to talk, to share their story and to hear yours. I’ll miss the lively Palermo bars and watching the sun come up as I walk home from them. I’ll miss this house, especially the cat. This time has gone by so fast. At least I know that I’ve filled it with amazing adventures, seen things I never imagined could be so wonderful, and met people who have changed the way I see the world, definitely for the better.

Ciao Buenos Aires, querido.