From Goa to Delhi (India part 5)

I’ve been in LA for a week now– guess it’s more than time to finally conclude the very long India post!

We stay at the Park Hyatt in Goa, and unlike in Mumbai, I don’t find myself wishing we’d stayed in a simpler, more affordable place instead. I love the huge room with sea view. And the outdoor style indoor shower! Who’d have thought nice hotels would turn out to be my thing!

View from our window. Goan fusion has adopted the garlands in its catholic folklore. View of churches.

Goa is famed for fusion cuisine so that’s what we go for the two days we are there, mainly Portuguese, and while it is perfectly OK, I just can’t get that excited about this food. Turns out, I get scared by the sight of me in a bikini post two weeks of South India so that’s probably a good thing. I don’t have anyone to impress though so the beach is a lot of fun. Some of my travel mates were reluctant to visit yet more churches, but I’m really glad I visit the pretty old town.

Whenever I hear Goa, I think “hippies, yoga, drugs”. I oversleep for yoga and don’t do any of the other two (paying for a drum circle is not hippie enough. To qualify, I’d have to run into a random (and high) dude playing his drum at the beach). I’m unsure if I’ll have to come back to check the box (or for my a wedding at the Park Hyatt? There were two and they looked beautiful and a lot of fun!)

We are headed to Jaipur next, and the girls are all excited about shopping prospects – I have read it is one of the best places in India to shop, which has been confirmed by our guide. Architecture in North India has been more influenced by Arabs, and the architecture is distinctly different here, and probably what most Westerners who haven’t experienced India have in mind when they think of the country.

We start the day at Amber Palace, which is the perfect palace: beautiful, great views, full of history and legends. (What is a little more concerning is that our guide sold us some legends as facts, e.g. the story of how workers at the Taj Mahal had their hands cut post-completion. Hoping he doesn’t know the word for legend…) We have good fusion lunch at the Tatri café rooftop, and kick off the shopping (ok, actually there was an earlier stop at a handcraft traditional store earlier) in the same building at one of my favorite Indian chains, Fabindia. The girls are more excited but do minimal shopping, the men complain, and end up all buying outfits. Typical. The group reluctantly agrees to make one more cultural stop at the Jantar Mantar, an astronomy site. Maharaja Jaj Singh II (early 18th century) had this and four other similar structures built. He was really into science, as well as astrology – crucial for auspicious matches and wedding dates, and more generally life decisions. After this, we shop for good, and are all quite successful (I have gifts for female relatives for the next year or so). We all haggle, obviously, but mostly end up unsure if we pushed too hard or not enough.

IMG_0938View of Amber Palace

For dinner, we head to another fort and it’s a really great setting for dinner. It is so close to a perfect evening – I just wish I’d worn another sweater.

Of course, our itinerary includes a stop at India’s most famous attraction, the Taj Mahal. No one is disappointed by the grandiose complex. As a group capstone (some of us are leaving tonight), the group has planned to perform and film their Bollywood routine in front of the Taj. It is probably not surprising that the guards do not think playing loud music and filming a video is appropriate behavior – they confiscate the guilty phone, but somehow we get the phone and video back. Psst.

IMG_0943View of the Taj Mahal.

We have dinner at Sheroes café: it has gotten a lot of coverage for employing acid burn victims. The food is great and in our discussions with these women, and the café manager (a gay Indian man who decided to leave his corporate job where he was getting bullied to do something else). Most of us live such a sheltered life and while we know that domestic violence is a huge issue in India (and in general), it is saddening and humbling to witness these women’s experience. We are all so touched and impressed by how brave they have been.

The next day, on our way to Delhi, we stop at one of the organizer’s house. Her mother welcomes us warmly with delicious food. She beams with pride over her daughter. We have had breakfast not too long ago so no one is actually hungry but after a first bite, we quickly forget our reservations.

We thought we’d have time to do a few attractions once we arrive in Delhi but in the end, we can only squeeze in a quick stop at Humayun’s Tomb. Some people dismiss it as unimpressive compared to the Taj Mahal, but I find the structure interesting and beautiful in its own right (it did inspire the Taj Mahal). We go cosmopolitan in the evening, with cocktails and dinner at a wonderful Tibetan restaurant. I’ve never had Tibetan food before, but immediately fall in love and can’t wait for my next Momos. To remind us we’re in India, the street gets blocked for military practice and we are actually stuck in the restaurant for over an hour…

Qutb Minar. Suleyman’s Tumb. Bird hospital. 

The next day, I stuff myself with a huge Indian breakfast – it’s our last day and I want to make the most of it. We visit Qutub Minar and Old Delhi. I get promoted to assistant guide as I get to pick the lunch restaurant (Karim’s – great but not recommended for non-vegetarians) and place the collective order. Maybe my friends can give me a tip? Only one friend and I are left with post-midnight flights, so we spend some more time in Old Delhi, visiting the Jama Masjid and bird hospital (within a Jain temple complex). India drinks chai all day, but doesn’t really have a tea appreciation culture – Sancha tea is starting to change that, and we get educated and do a long tea-tasting at the store. It’s the perfect afternoon to end my trip in India.

At the airport, I don’t want to leave. Maybe India will stay with me a little bit longer if I buy this book called Maharani? Oh, and the pashminas here are so soft (much softer than what I got at the market!), can I get a dozen or so?

I guess I’d better board.

IMG_0948Detail of Taj Mahal door. 

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Going mainstream in Mumbai (India part 4)

January 13: Kochi to Mumbai

Reluctantly (1), I get into the taxi that will get Jenny and me to Kochin airport. I’m domestic, she’s international, so we don’t even get to spend our last Kerala minutes together and have to do with a big hug instead. My spirits are lifted after I treat myself to a lunch of lassi and a cookie. They call me the lassi princess (2).

I am completely overwhelmed when I reach Mumbai. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, even the best English we heard was rudimentary. People hardly spoke Hindi! Our first driver speaks four regional languages, Hindi is not one them. Later, I learn that North Indian languages are derived from are Indo-Aryan, while South Indian languages are Dravidian, which explains why Hindi is more difficult to learn for people in the South. But I digress – here, my driver makes conversation the whole drive. In really good English! People wear mostly Western clothes. I’m not in Kerala anymore.

January 14: Mumbai

The trek (3) that I signed up for doesn’t start until 2 pm and I’ve made grand plans for this morning. I e-mailed three companies for tour advice, but ultimately decide to visit Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City museum, make a stop at Haji Ali Dargah, take a stroll down Marine Drive, and get lunch at Britannia Cafe. (No, I’m not overly ambitious or anything). I get out of bed, and aw, crap, no, my foot is killing me. I have to hop from my bed to the bathroom on one foot. Merde. I have rheumatoid arthritis, and I guess it’s official, this is a bad day. I take painkillers and make a few minor revisions to my plan: I could just stay in this morning. (but my original plan is truly super cool and someone else should definitely do it).

By the time we all meet in the hotel lobby, I’m feeling a bit better, and, not to worry, we’ve got a bus anyway. Being with so many of my classmates is fun but it also makes me feel closer to real life – less fun. We have lunch at fancy Bombay Gymkhana and we have… more dosa! Ok, I’ve had better dosa my two weeks of daily dosa, but I guess the plate is a novelty factor? The place itself is pretty cool. We look onto a cricket field, which seems like the thing to do here. We discuss Mumbai vs Bombay: I get that many locals still call it Bombay, but will it be seen as neo-colonialist coming from me? Apparently not, but I still can’t decide how to call it and alternate back and forth.

Next up: shopping. It’s the usual market stuff, and I haggle for some cheap jewelry (though Colaba also has some outlet-like stores where you can find good stuff if you are willing to spend time). More serious tourism follows with a ferry ride at the Gateway to India (right next to the Taj Mahal Palace). I can’t believe it is already time to eat again when we have North Indian food on the great rooftop at Koyla (4). We lose a few jet-lagged people when we decide to conclude the evening with (bad!) chai on Marine drive.

January 15: Mumbai

We are doing an old city tour this morning, with a wonderful guide navigating us across monuments’ history (the most famous: Mumbai University, High Court, Victoria Station). The downside? We are still on the bus and this is all starting to feel too mainstream for me. Truth is, this is totally working out because my foot still hurts pretty bad, but I’m just being my old snobbish French self. Ideology trumps physical pain.

I am thrilled to learn we’ll stop back at Victoria station to catch the Dabba-Wallahs (they deliver home-cooked meals to office-workers on bikes and only exist in Mumbai. Apparently many are illiterate but they have a complex color-coding system which allows them to reach six sigma error rates. I remembered the system from watching the Lunch Box (a very cute movie that made me feel very hungry). In the mean time, we continue driving, now through Malabar Hill. As usual after I’ve spent two days in a new place, I imagine what it would be like to live here. I could get staffed on a project, maybe? Or take a month off, rent this cute vintage apartment like the one my friend has in Istanbul, and explore neighborhoods one after the other, and sit and read in Parsi cafés all day. Speaking of Parsi, we stop next to the Towers of Silence, a site where the Zoroastrian sky burial takes place (4) (where vultures dispose of the humans remains. I am reminded of Chang’s attempt to witness a sky burial on a Tibetan mountain).

Side note: Parsi culture and Zoroastrianism in Mumbai

Zoroastrians fled from Iran around 900 AD to protect their religion from emerging Islam, most of them ended up in India. Today they are mainly concentrated in Mumbai (~45,000 of the estimated 61,000 in India), where they have become a wealthy and well-respected community that plays an important role in local culture, holding leadership positions in business, running schools, and owning much of the city’s real estate. After first hearing about Parsi cafés in London and reading more about them online, I am now really keen to café-hop and am recruiting allies from our travel group.

After catching the Dabba-Wallahs, we have a break at the hotel where the group learns a (simple) Bollywood routine. I sit and sulk (the foot). We get rolls and fusion sweets on the bus, on the way to the Dharavi slum tour (55% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums), and even take the public train to get there, which is faster and fun. I’ve asked two of my Indian friends for restaurant recommendations and they recommended Reality’s tour instead, so my expectations are high (still, a slum tour is not a food tour, guys). I can understand a lot of the ambivalence around slum tourism and I definitely can’t claim to have a solid answer, but I do think this particular tour was educational, helpful for developing empathy, and always respectful.


I’ve managed to convince two other girls to check out Parsi cafés with me, and we start at the must-see Leopold Café. I’m not sure exactly why the place is so famous, probably due to some celebrity guests, because the café itself is rather blah and doesn’t seem to justify the hype. Oh well, I have good company, and now that I checked the box , let’s finish our drinks and continue on. I’m out of luck, next one is closed and we are out of time, so it’s back to the hotel. I guess next time.

Our guide has planned dinner at Café Zoe, which is a nice place to sit and have a drink. The food is okay, in the way that European inspired diner food is. I’ve been requesting kulfi (and just a few other things) for the past two days, and since we don’t seem to pass any kulfi vendor we are forced to crash a wedding we pass. Logical? Not at all. But so much fun! My friend E is highly uncomfortable, but he still manages to eat the most. I think the other car is missing out. Next, I meet a classmate for a drink at the Intercontinental’s rooftop bar, Dome.  The place is swanky, the views are amazing and my friend looks like a Bombay princess. Why am I not wearing eight inch heels? With my Etam dress and sandals, I feel like I should go back to my goats.

Bombay, I guess I’m not cool enough for you (yet?). But I can still enjoy the view.

(1)  But not without flipping through the timeless resorts book at reception, picking my top 10 next destinations (can someone please double my salary and vacation time?)

(2) My friends, not the staff.

(3) In the business school jargon treks refer to travel tours organized by students with a usually packed agenda that may or may not include meeting with local political, cultural, or business figures or organizations. This one is pure tourism.

(4) They’ve been facing real problems with the decline in vulture population (due to the drug diclofenac!).


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Crossing to Kerala (India part 3)

January 8: en route to Munnar (Kerala)

Last semester, I took a class called ‘authentic leadership development’. Among other things, the class includes meeting up with a small group for deep life conversations (kind of like group therapy, but not exactly). What does this have to do with a road trip? Well, my friends didn’t take this class and suggest I moderate a few ALD sessions on the long drives. Oh, and Jenny should run some mediation session. This is about to become a very healthy trip.

Surprisingly, we follow through with the plan and share our life stories (in line with class syllabus…), and honestly, we’re all so touched and amazed by each other’s experiences. When the drive starts getting too bumpy for philosophical life conversations, we go back to more down to earth subjects – finding me a man. I’m one of two singles on the trip, and the girls have started looking at every man as a potential candidate for me. They crack me up. Qing would get the same treatment except she knows better and just gives them stern looks when they start on that route (I really should practice those stern looks). Oh phew, this is only fun for five minutes, are we there yet?

Our resort in Munnar is cute and after the heat in the South, the crisp air is just perfect, but there’s not exactly much to do here. We asked hotel reception if they can recommend a restaurant and they literally said there’s nothing special. Naturally, this means we end up at Saravana Bhavan.

January 9: Munnar

Munnar is the most famous tea plantation in South India, so we head out to the tea museum, and hope we can take a walk in or around a tea plantation on the way. The lighting is very good and my friends decide to do a photo op in the tea fields. So much for the walk. The tea museum is a bit blah, though you should still check it out if you are going, and the tea shopping is pretty good.

We’ve signed up for a cooking class with inspirational cook and businesswoman Nimi. An engineer raised in Abu Dhabi, she married into a more conservative Keralan family and moved to Munnar. Soon after her move, she decided to live her passion for food through a blog, which eventually led her to cooking classes, and three award winning cook books! On top of having an amazing life story, Nimi is a funny and warm teacher – we’re charmed! (and we wish she’d apply to our business school).

January 10: Kochi / Aleppey

We spend the night at a Kochi airport hotel (where Chang’s boyfriend meets us), so we can have an early start to Aleppey, where we’ve booked a massage, and where our Kerala backwaters tour starts from.

Side note on ayurvedic massages

So, ayurvedic massages are really pretty good but if like me, you have never had one, just be warned they include more oil and less (no) clothes, and more body parts touched. I got a male masseuse and while he was very professional, well, it was still quite uncomfortable (you know how you’re supposed to be more relaxed and not more tense when you get a massage?) (even if I pretended it wasn’t). If you do sirodhara (warm oil dripping on your forehead for 45 minutes. Sounds odd, but quite relaxing), you’ll also have to wash your hair about three times to get the oil out. So, be aware.

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A week in Tamil Nadu (India part 2)

January 3: Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry

Today, the hotel personnel wonders how we grew from 2 to 5 people and can’t tell us apart (ok, I’m the only non-Asian so maybe I look different enough). We are spoiled with a last breakfast of dosa and masala chai to go (yes, I brought a thermos on my India trip), and we head out to Mahabalipuram, where more temples await. The city is famous for its Pallava period (7th century) five rathas carved out of stone. In Hindu mythology, gods have an associated vehicle (chariot / ratha) to travel on (e.g. the bull Nandi is Shiva’s vehicle), and the site depicts both vehicles and gods. Like for many big projects, the commissioners eventually ran out of money, so the site is not finished – which also provides a convenient answer to possible tough questions: “It’s unfinished” (convenient answer number two: “That’s the way it is. Indian culture.”) We continue on to more Mahabalipuram sites: Arjuna’s penance, and the shore temple.

Turns out, there is more to see than what we expected, and we accelerate so we can continue on to Pondicherry after lunch at another non-descript “hotel” – Non-descript hotels do the best food (and long live Gobi 65). We reach Pondicherry around evening, and head out for a walk and dinner. It feels like being in an entirely different country, and with Pondy’s French heritage visible everywhere in the old city, in a way, we are. I don’t usually embrace (or encourage) eating French food outside France, but here, I feel like I must, and I’m not disappointed at Villa Shanti. Just stay away from the crêpes.

January 4: Pondicherry

The yoga festival that is about to start already gave Pondy away as a hippie city, and today, we visit the famous experimental town of Auroville. The town was founded in 1968 by the French born ‘Mother’ and aspires to be a universal town whose residents have to commit to pursue the divine consciousness, realize human unity and pursue constant learning (the actual charter). The project hasn’t been a complete success and the town built to accommodate a population of 50,000 only houses 2,500 people today, and the community has also had its fair share of controversies.  Still, it is interesting to think about the possibility of choosing a completely different life and to see an attempt to realize such a vision. Our guide claims Indians aren’t allowed in the community – we know this is not true but aren’t sure if it is ignorance, ideology or just him being tired of us.

We all have a lunch of ratatouille at Satsanga and too much chocolate at ZÜKÀ before we leave the city (also a small shopping interlude). Seriously, you’d think they don’t have food in the rest of Tamil Nadu by the way we are eating before we have to leave for Thanjavur.

January 5: Thanjavur

Over the next few days, we visit many temples, and to be completely honest, it is a bit of a blur in my mind right now. The one in Thanjavur is the 11th century Brihadeeswarar Temple. We learn that temple architecture typically follows the structure of the human body:

Temple architecture

Thanjavur is also known for its school of painting that includes vivid colors and gold foil. We see a few such paintings in the temple and in the Royal Palace (turned museum), but decide against purchasing any paintings or other art. If you’re in the market to shop for art / arts & craft, this is a good place though. (Skip the guide and just cross the street from the Royal Palace). But given it’s quite hot and we’ll have to wear kurtas every day, like a true selfless leader, I inspire the group to do more clothes purchasing. After sharing my deep fashion insights and making a really complicated choice between two shades of mustard for my dupatta (scarf) to match my leggings, I feel a sense of accomplishment. My work for the day is done.

January 6: Tiruchirapalli (Trichy)

Trichy is only a short drive from Thanjavur but as soon as we sit in the car, Lan puts on her car gear: sunglasses, neck pillow, shawl. We’ve baptized her the princess and soon end up fighting to also be granted a title. Jenny asks for snacks. Yep, we’ve turned into a little family.

Trichy has several colossal temples, but we are faster than expected and are able to see them all in one (long) day. We are all wearing our kurtas but hadn’t expected leggings to not be acceptable at Ranganathaswamy Temple (reading would have helped, I guess. We are ok at Rockfort Temple though). And the dupatta is not optional. I’m typically never against buying stuff, but really, emergency shopping is stupid: you waste time, overpay for something you don’t even want and subsequently just wait for the first opportunity to finally dump the ugly useless purchase. No fun. At least, with my crimson salwar, dupatta covering all exposed skin and hair tied together they let me in. And I’m still matching – phew, I can breathe.

January 7: Madurai

Before we drive off to Madurai, we want to make a quick stop to check out Lourdes Church, next to the Rock fort temple. Now try explaining that to the guide. “Next” for him, means only “after”. Somehow, we navigate him to the church, but, that’s it, Chang has made it her life’s day’s mission to teach him the expression “next to”. To no one’s surprise, she fails. He really wants to learn English though – yesterday, I had to smile as I overheard him practicing saying “awesome, awesome” to himself.

We arrive in Madurai ahead of schedule and visit the Nayak palace before dinner.

Dinner plan is a street food tour with foodies day out and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The food is amazing and we wouldn’t have found any of the places by ourselves, Pandyan is knowledgeable and speaks good English, which means for the first time we know what we’re eating (that was his incentive to start the company: he had no idea what he was eating in Guangzhou!) After spending no more than $2 per meal we hesitated to do this tour that seemed a bit expensive, but really, zero regrets! Also, don’t be worried about street food please! Without a guide it’s a bit tough but good street food places have fresher food and faster turns and you see it prepared. And it’s so good! We’ve all been healthy food-wise so far and well, ok, with 26 dishes we may have slightly overdone it but that’s just because of quantity and spices…

January 8: Madurai 

This is it: our last South Indian temple. Meenakshi is another name for Parvati before she married Shiva. She was born with three breasts, with the superfluous one supposed to disappear by the time she met her future husband. Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai is dedicated to her and really quite impressive. We may have been a bit too ‘templed out’ to fully appreciate it, but luckily, there’s always pictures.

Ok, off to Kerala and Munnar now. Maha-princess puts on her car outfit – it’s going to be a long drive.

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Meet-up in Chennai (India part 1/5)

January 1 : Chennai

I have been wanting to travel to India for… maybe 10 years now (1) and couldn’t be happier to be starting the new year on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Chennai. I’ll be here for almost a month! I meet my friend Chang at Chennai airport, and we are greeted by our first experience with Indian inefficiency (2) – getting our fingerprints taken takes us about 30 minutes each. Chang has set us up with a driver and guide, which makes for a relaxed day:  we stop by our first temple, have a red coconut, and have both lunch and dinner at Hotel Saravana Bhavan (yes! They’re in NYC too!) (hotel means restaurant, how confusing!).

Three minutes in, we have figured out neither driver nor guide really speaks English, but we learn broken English fast and somehow work it out. At night, another friend, Lan, joins us – she’s highly proficient in broken English. Chang dreams of learning 10 Tamil (Tamil = the official language in Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu = the state that we are in) words per day – though all the Tamil vocabulary we will ever acquire, we learn on that first day. Chang’s favorite word is Nandri (thank you) (ok, it is also the only one I can clearly remember right now) and to the great entertainment of our hotel staff (3) and pretty much everyone we meet she has decided she’ll master it even if it means she won’t say anything else all week. Did I forget to bring earplugs? (love you, Chang!)

January 2 : Chennai

On our second day, our friend’s dad joins us in our exploration of the city. We start the day with a primer on Hindu gods at the good Chennai museum. Several sections are dedicated to religious art, and in true nerd fashion, we take notes and draw family trees in our little notebooks (4). Looks like we will be the perfect travel buddies. (and by now, I’ve probably lost 50% of potential other future travel buddies).

We later visit San Thome, a basilica built over the remains of disciple Saint Thomas (they are mostly in the Vatican now). I was raised Catholic, so my friends bombard me with questions. I dodge most of them and wonder whether it is possible that I learned more about Hinduism over a morning at the museum than I did over 10+ years of Catholic education. (No, I’m probably just ignorant in both).

The state of Tamil Nadu just passed a law requiring visitors to wear traditional outfits to Hindu temples.

The male traditional outfit? Pants and a shirt will do.
For females? Kurta or Saree please.

Wait, pants and a fake Ralph Lauren shirt are traditional Indian? Oh well, never mind, I’ll take the excuse to go shopping (or purchasing, as our guide calls it). When he suggests to drop us at the Big Bazaar we expect a messy open air market and don’t imagine we’ll end up at a major Indian supermarket chain! An hour or so later we emerge victorious with new snacks to try, kurtas, and pink pants. After the emotional ups-and-downs of purchasing and street-crossing (life savers, our guides – they stopped traffic for us!) we feel like a break and send the guides to pick up two more of our friends while we rest and indulge in our first self-ordered banana leaf dinner (we walk there, so brave!) In a few hours, our group will be complete. Next stop on our itinerary: Pondicherry.

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After Thailand, I join my Indian friends S and T (I will also refer to them as Indian princes because I am cheaper than them) in Hanoi for a short week traveling together in Vietnam. We will split after Hoi An, and I will continue and spend some days in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and the Mekong delta area by myself, while they will continue on to Singapore.

Aug. 5 – Hanoi

I meet my new travel buddies at Hanoi airport, where our respective flights land at more or less the same time. Immigration is so slow, by the time we reach the luggage belt, I know all about them and their earlier stop in Hong Kong.

We head out to explore the city and get some dinner but our plans are disrupted by the increasing rain intensity, so we have the first of many beers instead. When it gets dry again, we walk around Hoan Kiem Lake and go for dinner and mojitos1.

Aug. 6 – Hanoi 

I’ve had Ho Chi Minh’s (HCM) mausoleum on my to-visit list forever but hadn’t realized the last entry is at 10.152. We only reach the complex at 10.30 and visit the interesting (especially if you read French) HCM museum instead. I make plans to visit the mausoleum early on the morning of Aug. 9, where we have a pick-up scheduled at 9 AM. The boys smile. They know this will never happen.

This is our one full day in Hanoi and we want to visit as many cultural attractions as we can, so when the heavy rain shows no sign of stopping we decide to go through with our Temple of Literature visit anyway and buy stylish rain-ponchos.

IMG_0469 IMG_0482

We have a late lunch at nearby Koto (slightly expensive, but very nice) and continue on to the Hoa Lo Prison. While I partly agree with critics who question the objectivity of the museum, I really do enjoy the visit and think it is a worthwhile stop in our tour of Hanoi.


After the prison, we close the cultural chapter of the day and move on to food & drink. The early drinks at the Metropole hotel are pricey but the trip’s best, and the setting manages to be both relaxed and imposing3. The coffee and views at speakeasy-ish Cafe Pho Co do not disappoint, but dinner at highly celebrated (by Lonely Planet) Ly Cafe is a letdown. Oh well.

Aug. 7 – Hanoi and Halong Bay

We wait for our pick-up while enjoying Paradise Boutique’s amazing breakfast4, so we don’t mind that the pick-up bus is late.

Halong Bay is indeed beautiful but while I’d been warned about it, the dirty water and 50 boats doing exactly the same tour around us make me feel a bit disappointed. I wonder if Bai Tu Long Bay, which is supposedly less developed, would be a good alternative to recommend to other travelers, but I guess you can’t visit Vietnam without going to Halong Bay. We follow a semi-strict schedule to visit a cave and go for some light kayaking in the afternoon; and at dinner, the other cruise guests buy into the boys’ likening the cruise to a bootcamp. We are a bit younger than the rest of the guests, and the evening is quiet; we get bored pretty quickly and have an early night5.

IMG_0501 IMG_0514 IMG_0515 IMG_0536

Aug. 8 – Halong Bay and Hanoi

On day 2 of the cruise, the agenda is less packed – probably because we skip the 6:30 AM tai chi class with the master6.

We have just one stop that includes a mini-hike to some viewing point, but we are still drenched because it is HOT. The water may not be pristine, but all I want is the feel of some fresh water so I get in. It’s not like we’re not all constantly exposed to pollution, but T snobs the water and S hesitates before getting in, so it all makes me feel pretty hardcore, which I love7.

Back in Hanoi, we are a bit under the weather, and T and I head out for manicures / massages while S takes a nap. After the spa session, I am already hungry, but we walk around the night market first. I buy five souvenirs in the first five minutes and provide fashion advice (or let’s say commentary) to the boys after that.

It wasn’t planned at all but tonight is the first evening that we all feel pretty energetic until late, and after dinner we bar-hop from place to place and end up at Tom’s bar, one of the few places in Hanoi open after midnight. We walk home in the rain, giggling (me), and have to wake someone at the hotel when we reach there – a Vietnam classic, it appears.

Aug. 9 – Hanoi and Hoi An

As was to be expected, I get up with a bit of a headache. In the morning, we have booked a walking tour8 with Hanoikids to visit the Museum of Ethnology. The museum features some very good reconstructions of traditional homes of some of Vietnam’s ethnic groups (outdoors), as well an interesting indoors exhibit. We are all a bit de-energized after last night so we are done with the tour in about 2 hours, and not the scheduled 3-4 hours9. We head out for some shopping in our area – the princes have to get gifts for their entourage, I just buy a bracelet for myself to kill time10. We can’t seem to find a place for lunch, so T and I get Banh Mi from a street vendor, and think we find a suitable place for S at aubergine cafe, which is a vegetarian place that is best avoided.

We waste a lot of time on our way to Hoi An due to unexpected changes. When we are finally picked up in Danang and are en route to Hoi An, we are impressed by how modern the city is (especially the princes, for obvious reasons). We have dinner at some place on the way into the old town, and the cheapest Mojitos ever at a bar by the river. We are lucky because it is some full moon festival which means the place is pretty lively, and, well, we get the full moon. We walk by the river, cross the bridge and see Hoi An’s emblematic lanterns everywhere. The boys are swooning. I like it too but am much less expansive11.


Aug. 10 – Hoi An 

On our second day in Hoi An, we set out in the late morning after having decided we’d visit the city in the AM and head out to the beach for lunch at fancy La Plage12 and swimming. It is a bit too hot but the sky is an impressive bright blue and I am reminded of Dali (China). The boys turn out to be unstoppable shopaholics and I tag along, and buy another bracelet while they negotiate. I wonder if I should feel guilty for not buying more gifts. Somehow, we manage to stop shopping, and start doing the cultural attractions. Hoi An is known for the covered Japanese bridge and the river, but there are also a number of small temples and historic buildings. The town used to be a large commercial port, explaining the Chinese and Japanese influence, with the French influence related to Vietnam’s colonial past.

I mistake the souvenir store in museum #1 for a continuation of the cultural part and am hypnotized into buying some old coins to be worn as a (tacky tourist) necklace. I don’t even realize you can negotiate at the museum store. Oops.

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By the time we reach a restaurant we find appealing we are starved and dehydrated and it is close to 3 pm. While the fish in banana leaves tastes fantastic, service is a bit slow. We finally reach the beach around 4 pm and get in. We are also lucky to have stayed in town, because when we check out La Plage it is a big letdown – not to be confused with the one in Goa, it seems. But An Bang is a picture-perfect beach, with just enough people13 blue skies and mountains in the horizon. I also like the fishing baskets, and only wish the swimming area was not so small14.

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The evening, like all others, ends with beers and mojitos, and since it is our last we also revisit the highs and lows of the Vietnam trip. We also try out the highly recommended Cargo Club, but are not too impressed.

Aug. 11 – Hoi An and HCMC 

This is a travel day again – too many of those. S and T have a transit in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), which is were we separate. When picking hotels in Vietnam, I compromised on price with the princes but went back to cheaper options for HCMC. As I reach Lucy Hotel, where I booked a room with fan only15. I regret my choice and think I am too old and rich for that. After taking a short nap, I feel dizzy and dehydrated. Luckily, I realize there is AC in the room but they just took the remote away. I climb on the bed and turn it on. I am tired today and am getting picked up at 8 tomorrow morning, so I don’t venture too far. I get Pho at a recommended place near the hotel, and do some shopping at the market. I know I have no space in my backpack but can’t resist acquiring a teapot with matching cups.


Aug. 12 – HCMC and Mekong delta 

I have booked a 2 day / 1 night tour of the Mekong delta area, and really enjoy the scenery in the Mekong. The tour itself is a bit mainstream (though not quite as touristy as Halong Bay Tour) with a bunch of tourist buses following the same itinerary. I start feeling a bit tired from all the travel, and miss having company. My travel-mates are quite sociable, and I also chat with them, though my anti-social side doesn’t see the point in chatting for hours with people I’m never going to see again. I picked the homestay over the regular hotel for overnight accommodation, and while I am happy to be directly by the river rather than in an average hotel in an ugly street in the not so special city of Can Tho, I dearly miss modern amenities. I am also a mildly annoyed when I get shoved into a room to share with a stranger, after I’d been given my own room. I did get lucky because my roomie was the nicest girl, and we teamed up to tackle the huge spider on our wall. That is, we gave up and called for help together.

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Aug. 13 – Mekong delta and HCMC 

The Mekong tour continues with the best part in the early morning, i.e. going to the Cai Rang floating market.

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The rest of the morning is the usual tourist traps, and then it’s already back to HCMC. About midway, I reach for the cookies and realize that they have been partly bitten off. And then I realize that the inside of my backpack has been partly bitten off. Which means that in addition to my friends the mosquitoes and the friend the spider, I had a rat or a strong mouse as an additional roomie. I decide that yeah, the scenery is nice, but I’m taking up glamping.

Influenced by the Indian princes, I’ve overestimated my cash needs for HCMC and have a bunch of cash to spend. The people on the bus think I also work at the major bank that S works for when I say that. I’m only talking about 50$.

My first impression of HCMC was that it is spread-out and chaotic with limited or no urban planning – what you’d expect a large Asian city that’s experienced rapid uncontrolled growth to be. But I should see a bit more of the city, and while it’s hot and I’m tired, I am glad I made the extra effort as I walk by cute boutiques and cafes inside the HCMC jungle. I go to a beauty salon close to my hotel that I had spotted earlier, and three beauticians take care of my feet, hands and hair. The haircut is better than the mani/pedi, which is fortunate, but all together cost me about 12.5$ so I consider it all a great success.

Aug. 14 – HCMC and travel

On my last day in HCMC and Asia for this trip, I really only have time for goodbye Pho, coffee and cheesecake (probably not the healthiest combo but I am going to be traveling for 30+ hours).

Before I leave, the hotel manager, in her well-meaning bossy Mamma way, asks me why I’m traveling alone. I tell her my friends continued to Singapore but I really wanted to see the Mekong and traveled on. Somehow, she assumes I was with one friend who was a girl and went back home. When I correct her mistake, she really gets going:

‘WHAT! You were with two boys and they traveled on somewhere else WITHOUT YOU!? AND you visited Vietnam for only ONE WEEK!!!??” (as in, what an insult to my country, you might as well not come at all)

I tell her it was all planned and they didn’t abandon me and if I had wanted to join them in Singy I could have done so but I wanted to see Mekong.

She pauses. She looks sad, angry, confused. Then she concludes:

“But you are cute, so that’s ok. Your taxi is here. “

1 also the first of many, and I mean many over the trip, not the evening. Though S and I are heading to b-school, neither of us is really that bad

2 shocking for someone who has an Excel spreadsheet of the entire itinerary

3 sitting on a terrace facing the Opera House is all it takes

4 just stay away from the pancakes

5 Later, a 19-year old Dutch backpacker told me he went on a 3 days / 2 nights party cruise, so maybe that’s what we should have done. Though we may be too old for that (at least I am).

6 who doubles as chef and barman, which may explain why the cocktails were terrible. Stick with beer.

7 but know is not true

8 free, and no hidden costs, e.g. suggesting an amount to tip – I recommend it

9 but seriously, 4 hours!?

10 loving that excuse

11 it’s not a boy / girl thing, it’s an Indian / German thing, I think

12 btw, the boys find everything I say in French amazing. Man, I’m gonna be a goddess next year.

13 it’d be awkward on an empty beach with these two guys, no?

14 but then, I am blasée, see Barcelona

15 to save 4$!!!

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Thailand (Bangkok & Chiang Mai) 

After traveling on my own in China for 10 days, I look forward to meeting up with others in Thailand. I am especially excited about meeting some of the people that I will be going to school with1.

Jul. 31-Aug. 3: Bangkok 

What we see: 
*The grandiose Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace. We spend a good two hours taking pictures of gold upon gold from every possible angle, and when we exit it is late and we are starved. Because we are in the main tourist area, we cannot escape eating in a touristy cafe / restaurant, but the food turns out to be quite ok and the AC is pure bliss.

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*Wat Pho, where the country’s largest reclining buddha is (46 m x 15 m). Wat Pho is from the 16th century, making it Bangkok’s oldest temple. We walk around the temple complex and when the afternoon rains start, we cover ourselves in the temple.


*Wat Arun: we are too late for visiting times. But (belated birthday) caipirinhas and view on the 82m-tall temple work for me.


What we eat:
Mostly bad food in tourist trap areas (why on earth does Lonely Planet recommend Th Khao San?) or more commercial areas (Siam). But we have a lovely dinner with a local who’s a friend-of-friend kind of connection and incredibly nice, and finally have proper Thai food. Later, he takes us for a (chill) drink at some place in the red light district (which just happens to be the closest we could go for a drink from where we were).
But all in all, the breakfast at Wendy House was probably the best food we had.

Thai pampering: 
I get a mani, pedi and a massage. which is really enough in 2 days. The place across the hotel is surprisingly good.

Bangkok-style shopping:
Well, not so much. I do get a pair of nice sandals. And Chatuchack market on week-ends is definitely worth a visit, even without intensive shopping.

Funniest moment: 
A bunch of hysterical 16-year olds idolizing Matt (tall white man) and using his picture as phone background. A star is born.

Aug. 3-5: Chiang Mai

Due travel time and logistical complications (hotel forgot about me and shipped me off somewhere else), the week-end night market is already up by the time I reach Ching Mai’s city center. I check out some temples from the outside but mostly walk around the market and go crazy on juices and shopping.

My second day is busier, with an elephant tour in the morning, and cooking class in the late afternoon.

The elephant tour is fun – at first I am slightly nervous and am scared to even pass a banana over to an elephant,  but I relax after a bit. It is pretty impressive to be so close to them.


The cooking class with Basil Cookery School and my classmate Anna is also a lot of fun, though there is definitely a lot of help provided (how else would 8 random people be able to prepare 6 dishes in a couple of hours?). E.g. the chicken is always already cut, the ingredients in the right quantity provided, and we have only to chop, mix, fold, stir-fry and deep-fry. It is ideal as a primer on Thai cuisine, and also a fun activity to do with a friend as it leaves enough time for chatting (and so much picture-taking). Funnily, this may the best food I’ve had in Thailand (just because of poor restaurant choices in Bangkok and street-food / tour-food only in Chiang Mai).

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We have both heard good things about the lady-show at Cabaret so we go there after the class. It is a fun show (tame and kids-friendly) with shemales lip-syncing and dancing in extravagant costumes.

It’s not that I disliked Thailand, but as I head towards the airport. The next morning, I feel like I might have expected too much. I may have to come again. Either way, I mainly enjoyed the experience and feel like it was worth the effort to synchronize my schedule to that of my fellow classmates and now new friends.


1 because 1) I expect they’ll be great and 2) 940 strangers is less intimidating than 950 strangers. Right?

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