Hello to my handful of readers, and sorry for the lack of blog posts. Mr.YemenEm and I were on our delayed honeymoon in SE Asia which didn’t leave much time for blogging. A summary of the highlights of the trip before I return to my regular Yemen-themed postings:
Thailand: First stop on the vacay of a lifetime was Bangkok. We luxuriated in being in a big city once again. Sana’a might be a large city, but in many aspects, it’s like stepping back in time. So to be in a city where the food options are literally hitting you in the face (at least, their aromas are) and where you can buy clothes, get a haircut, and see a movie, ahh, we loved it. Highlights were getting our hair did in a trendy Thai salon, and as I mentioned in my last post, seeing Cloud Atlas in a movie theater (I know this movie has its share of critics, but I thought it was pretty awesome). Next, we flew to Koh Samui, a touristy island in southern Thailand. While we found the island a bit overrun with shirtless Australians and hippies who think those ubiquitous elastic-waisted patterned pajama pants are appropriate to wear in public, our resort was calming and lovely and we basked in the sea views and cushy bed. We also went on a fun boat ride near the beach where they filmed The Beach, but it merely looked like A Beach, not The Beach. Beautiful though. We also randomly ran in to real people we knew from DC at our hotel and ended up hanging out with them on rainy New Years Eve at a beach bar and sharing a drink in a bucket. You can imagine how this night ended (how do most nights where one drinks from a bucket end?) We also ate an Italian meal that knocked our socks off. Actually, a more accurate hyperbole would be “knocked our pants’ buttons off,” which wouldn’t really be much of a hyperbole at all because we both needed some extra belly room after eating pasta, pizza, tiramisu, and sharing a bottle of wine. Some might hate on us for eating Italian in Thailand, but I’d remind those haters that we live in Yemen and it’s been a very long time since I’ve had cannelloni with a gorgonzola cream sauce and a perfectly crispy pesto pizza.
Laos: After five calming and fun nights in Koh Samui, we took a short plane ride to Luang Prabang, Laos. This stop was kind of the wildcard on the trip. Guidebooks and TripAdvisor posts raved about this UNESCO World Heritage town, calling it charming and not too overrun with tourists. Since “charming” is the attribute I hold in the highest esteem, I booked us at a guest house. And man, YemenEm shoots and scores, because we adored Luang Prabang. We loved its sunny colonial streets, its quiet charm, its golden red sunsets over the Mekong River, its monks who dot the streets in their robes, which are the most beautiful hue of orange. We also loved that there wasn’t a touristy area and then a separate area where Laos people live. Rather, the guest houses are nestled in between homes so every morning we could sit on our balcony and first watch the monks walk by and collect food from the residents and tourists (this is called “giving alms”) and then watch the lady across the street cook her breakfast as her kids and roosters sauntered by. We ate some really good meals, but the standouts were the two consecutive nights we ate at a French restaurant (Laos was colonized by the French) called L’Elephant. A nice French red, brie, creamy pasta (duck for Mr.YemenEm) and crème brulee. Oh man. We also rode elephants at a rescued elephant sanctuary and did an amazing boat trip up the Mekong with stops at a deep cave, a quiet, rustic temple, and a breathtaking waterfall and swimming area where I flung off a rope swing into some of the clearest blue water I’ve ever seen. We also took a cooking class that began with a visit to a local market, which was a blast to the senses. The colors of the produce, the lemongrassy smells of cooking soups, the piles and piles of fresh and fragrant food, it was all amazing and even put the fanciest Whole Foods to shame. I bought more dried mushrooms that I should have. Sana’a is too dry to grow mushrooms so I’ve only had canned since I’ve been here and mushrooms are probably my third favorite food. I had flashes of getting locked up in Yemen jail for trying to bring what authorities incorrectly deemed to be magic mushrooms in to the country. But I also had flashes of making delicious soups and sauces with my bounty. So alas, a quarter of my suitcase was mushrooms. The cooking class was very fun. We stuffed a lemongrass. You know, the skinny stalky herb? How do you stuff that? You score it and then push it open like a basket and stuff a mixture of tofu (or chicken), eggs, garlic, shallots, cilantro, chilies, and lime inside it. Not really worth the effort, but it sure looked pretty.
Vietnam:I fancy myself a pretty good trip planner, but Vietnam was probably the most poorly planned portion of the trip. If I had known it would be cold in Vietnam, I probably would have switched it out for Cambodia. Our first stop was Hanoi, a city I likened to New York City, until someone pointed out that Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon) is actually more like NYC, while Hanoi is more like DC. Regardless, we had another great pizza meal (I swear we did ate Asian food on this trip) before we were picked up and taken to Halong Bay for a two-night cruise on a six-cabin “junk” boat. The cruise was pretty awesome, and Halong Bay is gorgeous. Although, after you’ve seen one hulking limestone rock formation, you’ve kind of seen them all, as Mr.YemenEm pointed out. Also, a cruise along emerald green waters is infinitely more nice when it isn’t cold and drizzly, amiright? We enjoyed getting to know our fellow passengers (mostly Australians) and the highlight of the trip was that we all had a gourmet dinner in a beautiful cave, with twinkling candles. I made the mistake of telling the crew it was our honeymoon and we were a bit embarrassed when a cake was presented to us and our guide sang a 1990s American love song to us in his heavily-accented English. Then, the crew asked the Australians to sing a song that is representative of their country so they did “Waltzing Matilda” and then the six Americans sang a really off-key rendition of “My Girl,” which was my selection, and I’m not really sure why. All in all, one of the more memorable dinners of my lifetime.
After the boat trip we arrived back in a rainy Hanoi with enough time to tour around a bit and then catch a night train to Sapa, a mountain town on the border of Vietnam and China. We had a whole sleeping car to ourselves and it was all very Murder on the Orient Express without the murder, but I was starting to come down with something, so I couldn’t fully enjoy the journey. We arrived in Sapa and drove up to our resort which was located in the clouds and was cold and damp. You could only see about six feet in front of you at any time. We warmed ourselves by the fire at the resort, but were still pretty much freezing the entire time which necessitated the copious amount of mulled wine that I drank. Sapa attracts tourists in large part because it’s home to the Hmong people, who farm and live their lives in the crisp green mountains. The town offers a ton of “treks” where people can walk around in mountain villages to see how the Hmong people live, and some tourists even do a “home stay” where you sleep and eat in the home of Hmong family. Mr.YemenEm and I left Sapa after two days feeling a little uneasy about the whole thing. Parts of it felt very intrusive – like when our guide marched us in to the home of a Hmong family and said “It’s fine, I’m Hmong; they’re Hmong.” We stood on the dirt floor of a home while two little kids ignored us and watched what appeared to be the Vietnamese version of Price is Right. It felt like we were gawking at their spartan conditions and were supposed to be like “Ooh, look a thin mattress and no chairs and no running water! How very different than our lives.” Maybe it’s because I am living in a third world country, but something seemed weird that this would be a tourist attraction, although I suppose it is always interesting to see how other people live? Mr.YemenEm and I joked that we could offer a “home stay” adventure in some of the rougher areas of Baltimore (we’re watching The Wire right now) where, for a fee, tourists are thrust in to the lives of inner city drug dealing families, stand on the corner with them, and share a meal. Anyways, I’m pretty sure I’m being too cynical about the whole thing. We also hired a guide to drive us out a few hours to go to what is billed as the most “authentic” market in the area. As in the Hmong sell to other Hmong, and it’s not aimed at tourists. It did indeed seem authentic, but at that point in the trip, Mr.YemenEm wouldn’t let me buy anymore bamboo placemats and stuffed elephants. On the drive back, we stopped and took a picture at the border to China. By this time, I had a full-blown cold and some stomach issue that made me hesitant to do any trek that didn’t have us within five minutes of a toilet.
Once back in Hanoi, we checked out the so-called Hanoi Hilton, which is not a Hilton at all, but a former prison. Imagine our embarrassment when we tried to use our HHonors points for a room upgrade and they were all like “Um, this is prison museum.” Still, we got a very interesting, propaganda-rich tour from an earnest guide who appeared to believe everything he was saying. Did you know that while the French colonialists tortured and abused Vietnamese prisoners, when the Vietnamese held captive American prisoners of war (including John McCain), the POWs were treated delightfully, fed well, exercised and generally enjoyed a great life, which is why they nicknamed it the Hanoi Hilton, because it was just like staying at a Hilton. Mr.YemenEm and I politely scoffed and were like “Um, wasn’t John McCain held in solitary and didn’t his other arm get broken here?” Guide was all “No, I’ve never heard that.” We had some more great French meals, but honestly, I was a bump on a log and actually spent one whole day sick in bed. But we were staying in the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, a historic, stately, and gorgeous place, and it was a really great bed, with a really great room service French cheese plate and crème brulee.
After three-weeks of sun, rain, Asian food, French food, relaxing, and adventure, we were back on a plane en route to Yemen. When we returned to the perfect Sana’a weather, and our cozy hotelpartment, and our friends here, it actually felt a little like home, which caught me off guard. I didn’t think a run down hotel in a Middle Eastern country could feel so homey, but it’s actually – oddly – nice to be back. Still, it’s also nice to think we’re on to a new adventure in 3.5 months.
With my feet back on the dusty ground,
*Note: I updated this blog on Jan. 7, 2018 to include photos. There were no photos back when I posted this in 2013. What was I thinking?