40 years old and Tulum

Birthdays are odds days.  

Especially a birthday that ends in 0. I turned 40 years old last week. It seems unbelievable to me. I don’t feel like I’m 40, but who really knew what that was supposed to feel like. We decided to celebrate my birthday by going to Tulum, Mexico, for a week. I was in Tulum in 2006, which was 15 years ago, and it was very different. Much of what you read about Tulum these days include the atrocious adjective “instagrammable.” Though I refuse to say that, it is nearly impossible to capture a poor photo. It was beautiful in 2006, and it continues to be stunning in 2021.

When I visited 15 years ago, both Tulum and I were very different. Unfortunately, I do not have many great memories from that trip. I was in an unhealthy relationship with a woman who invited me on a journey that I couldn’t afford with her friend and the friend’s NYC finance boyfriend. I was resentful of needing to be frugal, embarrassingly out of shape, and kind of a jerk to the couple who invited us. It was not a great time for me.

In 2006, Tulum was a small town along highway 307 with a few roadside restaurants. The beaches had a handful of eco-chic yoga retreats. There was not much to say about it, other than it had Mayan ruins. I didn’t even stay in Tulum. I stayed in Blue Sky hotel, which I am told has changed its name to Mereva since. Still, I am glad to say that I visited Tulum 4 years before Instagram was invented. 

Today, Tulum hosts an international coterie of the bourgeoisie, bachelor/bachelorette parties, hippie yoga types, and those looking for a club closer than Ibiza. It’s a scene I didn’t expect. Yet, the jungle, the local Mexicans, western retirees, and real adventurers protect some sense of authenticity. I thoroughly enjoyed Tulum last week.   

Visitors to Tulum are young, hip, tan, and gorgeous. So here starts my birthday adventure. A 40-year-old man in a sea of youth, constantly assaulted by thoughts of the past 15 years. But, discomfort is key to learning, and this trip was about me learning from the road I’ve been down and what route I want to continue on.

Saturday

For better or for worse, I woke up at 5:30 am on my birthday in Philadelphia. This was my first flight since COVID-19 grounded me and most of the world. The airport was a bit more full and chaotic than I expected. People were banging about in fluorescent-lit hallways with neck pillows positioned like neckbraces, wearing complete pajama sets, and towing carryons edging on max capacity. I wondered how I suffered this for so many years; it was all anxiety-inducing. Finally, we took a walk away from the crowds to kill time and avoid the masses.

 We flew business/first (yay for birthday treats), and the meal was disgusting. Sam napped during the flight, and I started thinking about turning 40. Typically, getting older is not a big deal for me, but this one is hitting me harder than I anticipated. Likely, I’m past the halfway mark in my life (mortality is indeed a vicious authority). I have little to say about the previous 40 years other than any milestones are personal and not for the history books.

Turkey croissant on American Airlines.
This is the current business/first class meal on an international flight with American Airlines.

How did I bury this melancholy? With a canned Bloody Mary and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, of course. A joyful movie about senior citizens making meaning in their life today and acknowledging the years of missed opportunities that lead up to the moment they are in. I’m still deciding if it was a good choice. 

Scene from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Once we got to Tulum (I’m skipping over the nightmare of a time at Avis. Terrible!), the birthday festivities began. We checked into our Airbnb a went to a private rooftop area where I was surprised with a singer, balloons, and champagne. SURPRISE! Samer arranged for the singer to be there when we arrived. A serenade of Las Mañanitas and a couple of glasses of Moët & Chandon was not what I expected. And it brought a much-appreciated smile to my face.

One of the things I’ve asked myself in the last month is, “what did I accomplish in the last decade?” Do you know what? I only have one answer, and it’s “I met and fell in love with Samer.” There is nothing professional, creative, athletic, or productive about my achievements. Admittedly I am struggling with my most noteworthy accomplishment being defined by my relation to someone else. That doesn’t feel like it should be the case for someone whose independence is a point of pride. However, it is the absolute and simple truth. Although, maybe, that pride of independence started as an asset once, but is no longer; perhaps the most extraordinary achievement one (I) can achieve is a full relationship with someone.

As the singer sang and I took a moment to enjoy a life of live music, love, and joy, I thought, “He’s wonderful, I love him, and he is the best part of the past ten years.” 

We had dinner in the beach area of Tulum at Hartwood. It’s a 10 km drive and takes about 45 minutes. This was not just a great meal. It is probably one of the best meals of my life. Fire-roasted seafood is the best of everything I love. Here is a rundown of what we ate.

  • Jicama salad: I needed some sort of vegetable. Simple and wonderful.  
  • Grouper ceviche: This was nice and had some serrano chiles in it. I like my ceviche spicy, and this was perfect.
  • Prawns: These prawns were giant, stuffed, and in a red sauce. By every measure, they were good, but I think they may have been the least exciting dish. I found the texture slightly mealy, but Samer disagreed.
  • Snook Filete aka robalo: Great. Not just great, but fucking fantastic. This was the most delicious piece of fish I have eaten. It was served with roasted cauliflower, nuts, and puree that was delectable. This dish was light and creamy and full of subtle flavors. Perfect.
  • Snapper filet: Good. Classic snapper filet served in a pepper sauce with chaya and roasted peppers. The fish was firmer, and the flavors were very forward.   
  • Dessert: We shared corn ice cream and a honey cake. The honey cake may be the best restaurant dessert I’ve ever had in my life. It was so good, and I am drooling while I type this. It was sweet about being cloying; the bottom had a snap without being hard. Wonderful.

My 40th birthday made for a long day and progressively became more and more magical. After we got home, we took a dip in the private pool and enjoyed the Tulum night sky.

Sunday

We had breakfast at a great place called La Babieca. It is simple in its presentation but has a very extensive menu. It’s operated by Mexicans and feels Mexican, which is not always the case in a place like Tulum. I had a dish of eggs and chaya. Chaya is something called Mayan spinach. It’s sturdier than the spinach you are likely familiar with, and it is terrific. It’s all over Tulum. It was in a dish at Hartwood as well. It reminded me of malabar spinach.

The beaches in Tulum are a bit complicated. There is a vast beach zone that’s a couple of kilometers from town. It’s dominated by huge beach hotels. The beach is public, but access to it can be difficult. We decided to splurge and get a beach bed at the Hip Hotel beach club. I read it was not an EDM party haven, and there was no fee, just a minimum purchase. I assumed if we were going to be there all day, it would not be a problem.

It was a pleasant beach club with great staff. We made camp in a bed and enjoyed the day with drinks and lunch. The worst part of the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula is the sargassum. There is a scourge of seaweed everywhere you look. I’ve read mixed reports about it being seasonal, random, and/or inevitable, but it is gross and a real turnoff. The beaches are overrun by algae floating to the shore and piling up. I read a bit about it, but the algae bloom is likely a fixture moving forward. A combination of warmer oceans due to global warming and industrial fertilizer runoff made the algae bigger than ever.   

Samer swam in the water twice, but I only went once. I hated the feeling of it. As it washes on the shore, it starts to decompose, giving off a particular heinous smell. Sitting on the beach and enjoying the view of the ocean and the club service was excellent, but swimming was off the table. Eventually, after a few drinks, you start to get used to the smell of it.

When we got back to our Airbnb, we decided to enjoy the community infinity pool at the building our Airbnb was in. It was a fantastic way to enjoy the sunset. Unfortunately, the day’s sun made us both a little sleepy, and the sunscreen had become inert hours ago, so we were both sunburnt. I took the remaining part of the night to have a snack at our place and enjoy my book until I fell asleep.

Monday

Samer arranged for us to take a bike tour to 2 cenotes through an Airbnb guide named Marcella. I really enjoyed our outing with her, even if the bikes were slightly rickety. We met at the French baker, La Fournée Panaderia & Pastelería, where I loaded up on quite a few unnecessary calories. Next, we rode with Marcella and a couple from DC through the streets of Tulum to cenotes Cristal & Escondido.  

These 2 cenotes were a 10-minute walk apart. The first was Cenote Cristal. It’s deep and clear, with partially submerged ropes to hang out on. I entered the cold cenote by jumping from a 15-foot platform into the water. This is completely atypical for me. In life, I never start with the plunge. I’ve become a gradualist, and even when we first walked up to the cenote, and I saw the platform, I said to Samer, “jumping off that is a nightmare.” And then, as I was stripping down to my trunks, I thought, “I’m going to do it. I’m going off that platform.”

I didn’t announce it to our group; I climbed the steps, made a joke to the hunky Portuguese-German attorney who was also on the platform, and jumped off. (marginalia: if you need an attorney in Portugal, contact Alexander Dumont Dos Santos, he gave me his business card) Samer was surprised because I was out of character, and just minutes before, I was clearly not planning on this jump. Why did I do it? I don’t know, but I’m hoping for a bit more spontaneity and quite a lot less of weighing every consideration I can imagine.

The second cenote was different. Cenote Escondido is long and skinny, with more marine wildlife. There are more fish than Cristal, and it is fringed with a lot of plant life. There is a great rope swing attached to a tree on the edge of a small 12-foot ledge. You can grab the rope and launch yourself into the clear blue water.

Afterwards we had lunch in Tulum at El Rincón Chiapaneco. I had a great chili relleno and hibiscus drink. This is a casual Mexican restaurant that is simple, excellent, and quick. The family is originally from Chiapas. I was hungry for non-fancy Mexican food, and it was even better than I dreamed of it.   

That night we decided to explore Tulum town. We had nothing in mind but to meander. On a side street, we discovered grilled tamales from a place called La Bonita Tamales. They were grilled in banana leaf and were crispy to eat. This is the first time I had a tamale like this. I always know them to be steamed. The tamale had a smoky flavor from the charcoal. Although it was delicious, the plastic fork she gave us to eat with was useless, and I burned my lip because I couldn’t wait for it to cool for the next bite.

After drinks in a few different places, we found El Grifo, which specialized in Mezcal and craft beers. We went back there a few days later as well. It had a relaxed vibe, good music, a great selection of mezcal. Total recommendation. On our way home, we grabbed a few al pastor tacos from a place called El Carboncito on the main street. Again, a perfect nightcap of al pastor tacos freshly sawed off the vertical spit. The char gave them a crunchiness, the sauce they offered us was spicy, and each taco had a sliver of pineapple for sweetness.

At 40, I am happy to admit, a late-night taco is much more desirable than one last drink.

Tuesday

I won’t get deep into Tuesday, but we spent a lot of time with a real estate agent. I’m interested in buying a vacation home, and we’ve considered Tulum. We saw many excellent properties, but I would say that we are not entirely sold on Tulum. The sargassum on the beaches, plus the vibe that you are not quite in a Mexican town, is kind of disconcerting. I’ll report back if we decide to buy something. If you are looking for an agent, I recommend Nolan Clark. He was informative, friendly, and generous with his time.

Samer wanted to treat me to a Tulum “fancy” moment, so we decided to check out the Azulik Sunset Experience. Where do I begin? Azulik is a very high-end resort directly on the Tulum. To get an idea of how expensive it is, lunch costs USD 200 per person. The Azulik Sunset Experience is access to a treehouse deck overlooking the jungle at sunset. It’s limited to 25 people, it costs USD 50, and you get 1 drink. It is hard to state how expensive that is for Mexico. It’s the price of a high end NYC drink. Luckily, there were some unexpected appetizers.

Sunset from Azulik.

This is not typically our scene, but it had been highly recommended to us. The sunset was beautiful, and the drinks were delicious. Unfortunately, what we assume was a bachelorette party arrived at one point. Skinny, rich, wearing all-white women taking selfies and complaining they didn’t have a private booth. Were they wretched? Sure. But as soon as I saw them, I thought, “none of these bitches are going to have the appetizer; excellent, there will be leftovers.” I was 100% right. They didn’t touch one, and I swooped in for a second. In your 40s, appetizers always win.

Tuesday evening became a stretched-out taco tour. We at a total of 10 tacos over a few hours.

  • Tapatia Vegan tacos: Our tour guide recommended this place to us. She thought it was unique, tasty, and it felt like an authentic taco. I thought it was OK. They had a faux-carnita that was made with seasoned hibiscus flower that I thought was delicious. The other tacos were good, but nothing to write home about. They put beans on everything, which did little but make everything sloppy.
  • La Babieca: This is the place we had breakfast the day before. It was great. Samer had the pork tacos. Technically, I had the steak alambre, but I wrapped them in tortillas, so it felt like tacos.
  • Pepe Best Tacos in Tulum: OK, this guy sets up a cart on the street down the road from our hotel. Did we need these tacos? Absolutely not, but why miss an opportunity like this one? We each had mushroom mole taco and vegetables in cream sauce taco. The mushroom mole taco was the best vegetarian taco I had in Tulum.

It was sometime on Tuesday when I actually stopped fretting about turning 40. It certainly wasn’t a conscious move, but I simply did not think about it. My medicine has always been traveling. I love it so much, and when I am on the road, experiencing the world and learning every second of the day, I am truly home. I think it was on that day that I was truly back to be a traveler. Whether it was the birthday funk or the COVID-19 trapped at stress, the first few days hadn’t produced that mix of adrenaline + joie de vivre that I usually get from traveling. At some point, I realized I didn’t worry once about my everyday life, and I was beyond happy.

Wednesday

On Wednesday, we decided to get out of town and drive to Akumal. This is a resort community between Playa del Carmen in Tulum. It’s a beautiful and strange town. When you enter from the highway, people stop you as if they were police or authorities. They are not, just tour operators trying to talk. It’s weird and a bit intimidating.

We drove through the town and north on the beach road to Yal-Ku lagoon, a cenote where freshwater and seawater mix. We paid admission at Yal-Ku Akumal Lagoon & Snorkel. The operator seemed chill, and did not require us to have a life jacket and rented us gear.

It’s lovely. We hopped in, and the second you start to snorkel, you realize that the fish are surrounding you; they are blue, yellow, and silver. The entire scene is gorgeous. Then, of course, some annoying tour groups snorkeling in the bright orange vest cruise past you, but it was peaceful for the most part. We explored for an hour, and when we were returning to our dock, a tropical storm rolled in, and it was spectacular.

Storms often feel dangerous with howling windows and darkened skies, but this didn’t. The air dropped a few degrees; the sun was out of sight, and rain came down straight and constant. Below the water, everything was utterly unphased, no matter how agitated the tympanic surface of the lagoon seemed.   

It was beautiful, and I took a moment to simply enjoy it. I stopped hearing the shrieks of the snorkeling tourists getting wetter from rain. I reveled in nature. I found some footing on a rock below the surface and stood up into the shower. I find it difficult to explain myself, but the only thing that felt unnatural in this break between aquatic calm and atmospheric bustle was me. Here stands this human, entirely outside the rhythm of mother nature, standing in awe of its majesty.   

However, it didn’t feel unnatural because a human was where a human should not tread. No, it felt like I naturally belonged there but had been made to no longer fit in. Have we been so warped and molded into a creature designed for modernity that would feel uncomfortable? For a brief moment, I felt connected and aware of how far I was from nature.

Likely, this is all a reaction to turning 40 and my inability to free myself from thinking about what was and wasn’t. It’s true, my natural self-reflection has probably become a bit of a quagmire the last week, but it seems par for the course at an age like 40. 

We dried off in the car, and when the rain subsided, we had a seaside lunch at a place called La Buena Vida. The view was better than the food. The best thing I ate was the lime soup, but to sit by the sea and enjoy the breeze was delightful. The storm we were in moved north, and we could see it on the horizon flecked with the occasional bolt of lightning.

We spent a second night exploring Tulum. We had dinner at El Takazo Jr and found some live music at a bar. There was s singer and an excellent Spanish guitarist. On our way home, the guy at Pepe Best Tacos in Tulum was back. We bought a torta mixta from him. It mainly was chopped spices pork. This was basically a Mexican Philly cheesesteak. I do not say the following sentence lightly, but I think it was better than most cheesesteaks in Philly. It was so good.

Thursday 

Thursday was a little complicated. We did not have anything planned, so I thought that we could drive to the town of Punta Allen. It’s the last town on the road that cuts through Tulum’s beach zone, and it is about 2 hours away. So I made ar reservation with a woman to give us a boat tour of the area when we got there.

However, this plan didn’t materialize. A personal matter arose back home, so we cut our vacation short by a day and flew home. This was disappointing, but it had to be done.  On our way out of town, we stopped by a great restaurant called Cetli for breakfast. I had one of the most unique dishes of my life. They called it tlaxkalpocholi. It was an egg omelet stuffed with shrimp in a peanut sauce, and it was served with toast. Next, we shared a bowl of fresh fruit in lime juice with some basil on top. It was a great way to leave Tulum.

The flight home was not that interesting. The business lounge in terminal 3 of the Cancun Airport is pretty bad. Compared to my breakfast, the food was down right terrible. Still, a drunk middle-aged American woman lounging on a public couch like Goya’s The Clothed Maja, who yelled at Samer in Spanish, was almost worth it. “HOLA SENIOR. HOLA. HOLA. YOUR PASAPORTE IS ON THE GROUND.”

Conclusion

And that is the end of my vacation and my first trip abroad in ages. How do I feel about my age? A bit more indifferent today than I did a week ago. This trip reminded me that I do not simply like to travel, but I actually need it. I’m sad and upset when I do not travel. It’s like oxygen to me, and when I don’t travel, I devolve into something I do not like. I loved going to Tulum. I am a bit disappointed that we are steering away from buying in Tulum, but I think it’s better in the long room. It’s a big world, and I need to hit the road to see more of it.

So, what’s the path at 40 looks like? Who really knows, but travel and adventure will abound. I tend to not worry when I travel but worry in my everyday life. During the next 10 years, I hope to bring that traveler’s sensibility to my life when I am not on the road. Using more and more moments to learn new things, experience wonders never imagined, and approach each day like an adventure and not a task. If I learned anything in Tulum, I realized that is possible because I have a husband that loves me, and I just started to know the best things about myself.

One last day in Italy

We woke up in Sorrento to enjoy the view and start packing our bags. Then terror struck. When we arrived home the night before, I put my camera bag down on the ground while I opened the gate. Can you guess what I did not do? Answer: I did not pick my camera bag up. I rushed to the entrance, but my camera bag was not there. I tore through the house looking for it, but it was nowhere to be found. I was sure that I forgot it outside. Genarro was at the house gardening, so I told him what I thought happened. The old coot, asked me if I had been drinking the night before. (Answer: No)

There’s one road that leads to the beach, so I thought I would jog down to see if anyone had picked it up. No luck. Of the few places that were open, none had seen my bag. As I started to jog back up the hill I remembered the keys to our rental car were in that bag.

The oncoming logistics nightmare came into realization and all I could do was run faster up the old cobblestone roman road. When I got back to Casa Peach, Genarro greeted me with wonderful news. The neighbor found my camera! He returned home around midnight and spotted my bag outside the gate. They grabbed it for safe keeping and returned while I was out looking. Crisis averted.

While we were leaving, we met the tenants who moved into the second house (Puolo Relax House). They were an Italian couple with their daughter vacationing for a week. The little girl spoke perfect English that she learned it all from Youtube! The parents are  attorneys in Naples, but the husband is a DJ on the side. This is a video he produced. His wife is the lead actress in the video.

We said good-bye to the new family and Genarro. I drove us out of Sorrento until we got to a highway and from there Cathy took over on the highway. We dropped our rental car off at the Rome airport and took a taxi into Rome. When we got to Rome, Cathy went to talk to a guide about the remainder of her trip, and Glenda and I got a hop-on hop-off bus. We only had a few good hours in Rome, so this seemed like the smartest way to give Glenda a taste of Rome.

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Cathy, Genarro, and Glenda.

We hit many of the major places. The Colosseum, St. Peter’s square, Trevi fountain, the Imperial Forum, and finally the Spanish Steps. Glenda loved the Trevi fountain. This is also the spot we got gelato our first taste of gelato in Rome. I had hazelnut and it was delicious. We arrived at the top of the steps and met Cathy at the Barcaccia fountain at the base.

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Glenda is checking out ancient Rome.

As soon as we arrived it started to rain pretty hard, which cut into the plan to wander the streets looking for that perfect final meal. We popped into Ristorante Piazza Italian Bistrot Roma that was near the steps. There was nothing fabulous about it, but I ordered the cacio e pepe and it was wonderful. My mom had the carbonara rigotoni and Cathy has a lasagna. We had a smoked salmon and arugula salad that was really good.
It was a long day and we quickly fell asleep in Bettoja Hotel Mediterraneo.

Conclusion: Thelma and Louise made it.

Did you buy your ticket to Vietnam yet?

Vietnam is a must visit country for any traveler. It’s beautiful, diverse, and full of great people. Even with our bad experience in HCMC, we all loved this trip. There is a little bit of everything in Vietnam. You can have outdoor adventures, urban shopping, or lose hours in a museum. If you are a budget traveler than Vietnam will be a very good fit for you. It’s cheap to travel there (so be generous with your tips).

Obviously, Vietnam makes any American quite reflective. We forced a war on this country and by almost any vantage point played the role of villains. What we did was wrong, hell even McNamara admitted to that obvious fact! The war with the United States came up in conversation a few times. People acknowledge it but did not focus on it. They delight knowing that an American is enjoying Vietnam today. The war is in the past and introducing Vietnam to the world is for today.

I am surprised by the number of Americans who still refer to North and South Vietnam. Vietnam unified in 1976. That is 42 years ago! How poorly my fellow Americans are with history should not shock me, but this fact is astounding. I do get the feeling that we Americans are living in the past and stewing on a lost a war. While, the Vietnamese will never forget it, but focus on living in the present. I don’t have evidence for that, but it feels real.

I was very glad that we watched The Vietnam War by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick before we left for the trip. Go and buy your ticket now. Use this blog as a guide. Email me with questions and start watching this documentary to get ready.

I love Hanoi.

I loved Hanoi. I like the speed, the weather, and the coffee culture. I thought it was a great town. We stayed at a nice hotel called O’Gallery Premier Hotel on Hang Bong Street. When we got to Hanoi we dropped off our laundry and decided to take a walk through the city. We ended up on something referred to as Beer Street. It is a small street with tons of bars and people sitting outside. We sat down at table to have a beer, and the waiter said, “you will need to go inside in 10 minutes.” We didn’t realize what he meant. There was no space inside and there were tons of people hanging out in the street. Ten minutes later a cop walked through beer street and EVERYONE picked up their tables and chair and went inside. The cop saw everyone outside, but while he was there no drinking or eating happened on the street. It was weird. We finished our beers and the entire street returned to normal about 20 minutes later.

On our second day in Hanoi we visited the Temple of Literature. This is a very old Confucius Temple in the middle of the city. While we were there a lot of elementary school kids were having a graduation ceremony on the grounds. The kids were so cute. The temple is beautiful and hosts Vietnam’s first university (built in 1076). I liked the grounds and the second floor of the last building. On that floor there are statues dedicated to the three rulers who built the Temple of Literature.

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Afterwards we walked to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. We were unable to go inside which means I have now stood in front of the Lenin and the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum without going in, but I was able to enter Che’s mausoleum in Santa Clara. My communist leader bingo card is nearing completion.

On our last night, we met a friend from Philadelphia who was doing some work in Hanoi. We ended up eating Bbq on the street at a place called Thai Dat. It was chaotic and they forgot some things, but it was a fun way to kick back on our last night. They serve Czech beer and let you pick out raw meat that they then grill. There was nothing fantastic, nor anything terrible about the food. I’d recommend anyone trying it out.

Holly and Spencer left very early on the last day, so Samer and I were on our own. We walked through the french district. We stopped for coffee and walked past the Hỏa Lò Prison (ie Hanoi Hilton). The bookseller street that runs next to it was far more interesting. Our one destination that day was the Vietnamese Women’s museum. The stated mission of the museum is “to enhance public knowledge and understanding of history and cultural heritage of Vietnamese women… thus contributing to promoting gender equality.” It is wonderful and I’ll recommend it to everyone. I learned a lot about different cultural and historical roles women have been a part of in Vietnam. Each floor has a theme: Family, History, and Fashion. I particularly liked the history floor. No shocker, but some bad ass women fought in the war with America.

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Afterwards we meandered past the opera house and around the Hoàn Kiếm Lake toward lunch. Our last meal in Hanoi was fried foods near the Cathedral at a place called Quán gốc Đa. Then we had some delicious bun cha at a street vendor. It was delicious and a perfect last meal.

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Was my culinary favorite bun cha? Nope, it was Ca Phe Sua Chua, which is yogurt coffee. That’s it. Yogurt served with ice and super strong coffee. I loved it. I want it right now. It was amazing. The coffee with condensed milk is too sweet. One of the stranger things we had to eat was che thap cam. We found it an alley full of stalls. I didn’t love it for texture reasons, but it was surprisingly good. I discovered these sesame donuts called banh tieu being sold by the old east gate and immediately ordered a second bag once we finished the first. I loved them and would be 500 lbs if I lived near someone who sold them.

Next: Did you buy your ticket to Vietnam yet?

Kayaking and Relaxing in Ha Long Bay

We went to Halong bay with a company called Eco Friendly Vietnam. They picked us up at the train station in Hanoi and got us all the way to our boat. The type of boat is a junk. It’s not a piece of junk, it’s just some boat name that boat people would understand.  We had the entire boat to ourselves. We had a captain, a cook, and an English speaking guide. We spent 2 nights on the boat and the food was very good. March is the off season for visiting Halong bay, so the water was chilly. Most of the time we did not see other tourists. Cold water for more quiet time was a good trade in my opinion. I am no fan of kayaking and there was a lot of kayaking, but by the end of the second day I actually started to enjoy it.

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Photo Credit: E. Spencer McGee

Other moments of our trip included: a bike ride to the village of Viet Hai; a swim from monkey Island to the boat; and the very gay chef slapping my ass. Let’s start from the top. On our second day we were able to stop by the remote village of Viet Hai. We rented bicycles and road about a 1 KM into town. We did a little shopping and then went on a small hike, that included another cave. This was a poor and remote town that figured out the power of the tourist’s dollar. Now, there is a toll to get into town and lots of people pay it.  Shacks were replaced with nice stone homes.

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On our last day we went to an island called Monkey Island. Our guide told us about a summit we could climb to, but did a poor job describing the difficulty of the climb. It was a lot of shear rock edges, without many foot holds. We did not have gloves and the guide stayed on the beach. Arguably, the guide was irresponsible by sending us up without any preparation. When the hike was over, Samer and I swam from the beach to the boat.

Picture this scene. Me in my speedos, jumping into chilly water near a small taxi boat of senior citizen Chinese tourists. I was freezing and they were laughing and waving at me as I swam away. I was the first to the boat. While I stood on the deck shivering, I put my cold hand on the chef’s neck to give him a chill. I was being playful. He thought this gave him license to then slap me on the ass. It was a bit forward, but all in good fun. Also, it’s a nice reminder my ass looks good in swimwear.

The main town in Ha Long bay is Cat Ba, and outside of the town is a fishing village. There are hundreds of homes that float on the water. People raise fish in the submerged pens for their income. It’s like a normal town. Their are dogs hanging out on the planks that would be equivalent to a yard. There are kids rolling around in bouncy chairs. It was a incredible and quite foreign scene for me.

Ha Long Bay is one of the most breathtaking places in the world and it has a litter problem. It’s not as noticeable when you get away from Cat Ba town, but there is always litter. There are beautiful turquoise lagoons with plastic bags and beers cans floating. Why is there a litter problem? Well here is a story. To get to our boat, we first had to take a high speed boat from the port of Hai Phong to Cat Ba. While we were waiting on the dock, Samer was holding an empty coffee cup. He was waiting to use the trash can on the boat. An old woman walked up to him and offered to take the cup. Before he realized what was happening, she snatched the plastic cup and tossed it into the water. She smiled and carried on with her day.  That’s why there is a litter problem.

Next: I love Hanoi.