Sunday, January 31, 2010

Saigon – family, dong, food and war

We left winter in China for heat and humidity in Vietnam. Feels good to be “on vacation” again. My brother Jay and sister-in-law Tonia joined us from Seattle for the second time on the trip (they’re both working on negative vacation days this year), and our cousins Pooja and Tina from Chicago joined us as well for ten days in Vietnam and Cambodia. It’s been a treat to meet up with our siblings, friends and extended family in far-flung places!

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon) and at the airport learned that the Vietnamese currency is called the dong and the exchange rate is US$1 = ~18,500d. We wanted to withdraw around $100 and calculated that should equal approximately 2,000,000 dong, but as I typed in the zeroes I became nervous that we had miscalculated and added an extra zero or two and that we would have $10,000 in dong instead of $100. Could that be right? 2,000,000 dong? Talk about hyperinflation. I canceled the transaction, recalculated a few times, and finally withdrew two million dong. Here’s comedian Russell Peters on the Vietnamese dong.

Food in Vietnam has been a highlight. My favorites have been the spicy vermicelli with grilled pork & fried spring rolls (Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio) at Quan An Ngon and the sweet, condensed milk-laden Vietnamese ice coffee ca phe sua da at Café Givral (Kruti and I were planning to share one but it was so good that I slurped it all up before she could even try it and we had to order another one). Definitely going back for more.

The two sights we visited in Saigon were both related to the Vietnam War; it was fascinating to learn about the war from the other perspective. The War Remnants Museum, documents the atrocities of the war and displays brutal photographs of some of the war victims – those who suffered torture as well as those who were born with birth defects caused by the use of defoliants (Agent Orange). Sure it’s a bit propagandist in tone but it’s stuff I didn’t read much about in U.S. history books, what exactly is true I have to do more research on.

The Cu Chi tunnels were even more instructive. The people of Cu Chi (a small village 30km from Saigon) began digging the network of tunnels in the 1940s, during the French occupation; during the Vietnam War it became a Viet Cong stronghold, and by 1965 they had burrowed more than 200km of tunnels. During raids or when Americans were nearby, everyone would scramble belowground through concealed entrances, while above, enemy soldiers would find themselves in a suddenly abandoned jungle. The ones that did discover the tunnels almost certainly died either because they couldn’t find their way out or at the hands of the Cu Chi warriors hiding underground. The tunnels are extremely claustrophobic (some only 30 inches wide) and it’s amazing how anyone could endure living in those tunnels sometimes for days waiting for an all-clear signal. The most enlightening facet of our visit was learning about the ingenuity of the farmers and peasants of Cu Chi – they designed and laid painful-looking homemade booby traps fashioned from bamboo and the recycled iron of U.S. artillery pieces, they made shoes from the used tires of U.S. army vehicles and shaped the heels larger than the toes so that their footprints made it look like they were going in the opposite direction than they actually were, and many other tactics. The people of Cu Chi were scrappy. Startup scrappy. It began to make more sense how the Viet Cong guerillas were able to match up to the U.S. armed forces and defense budget.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Hong Kong, Part II

Upon returning to Hong Kong the contrast to mainland China was especially striking. The first thing I noticed was how English-friendly Hong Kong is, from the signs at the train station to the street names, which shouldn’t be surprising given HK’s British colonial past. Aside from language, there are significant differences economically (different currency) and politically (open internet), which China refers to as "one country, two systems" because of the terms of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong by Britain.

On this visit we were fortunate to stay with our friends from business school, Nirav and Juhi. It was so wonderful to catch up with them, have home cooked food again, and watch some good old American Idol on TV. And we had the greatest time playing with their adorable children Rohit and Jaya who reminded me a ton of my own nephew and niece.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Vegetarian travel

A few people have asked about my food experience traveling as a vegetarian. After visiting China, which is a notoriously difficult travel destination for vegetarians, I thought it was time to address this question. Though I’ve always been able to find something to eat everywhere we’ve traveled so far, it has been admittedly difficult to explore the culture of some of these places through the food because so many of the cuisines are so meat-centric.

What I’ve read about China, and I believe is true of many of the countries we have visited, is that consumption of meat is a cultural symbol of wealth and status. Since the majority of the population is relatively poor, meat has historically been considered a luxury. As a result, most food found in restaurants, and even street food, is heavily meat-oriented (including chicken, fish and seafood) and vegetables are also often cooked in animal fat. Many vegetarian restaurants even have “mock meat” on their menus and use tofu/gluten to mimic the look, texture and taste of meat dishes (which I’m personally not a fan of). In China and West Africa in particular, the idea of being vegetarian was usually met with confusing looks because people can’t understand why any foreign visitor (viewed as rich) would not eat meat. As our guidebook warned us about China, “sensitivity to vegetarians is generally low.”

So what I found is that the more tourist-oriented places like hostels and guesthouses have been where I’ve had some of my best meals (since they’re accustomed to the vegetarian backpacker crowd), though they often certainly lack much of the authenticity of local cuisine you’d find elsewhere.

In China we were lucky to stay with friends who spoke Mandarin and could take the guesswork out of ordering food so it wasn’t until we reached Chengdu that we faced the challenges and pitfalls of finding food on our own. For our first meal there, we ordered a tofu dish after confirming it had no meat (with the help of a few phrases our friends armed us with) but upon examination, found ground pork or beef in it. Then there was the amazing dumpling place Vipin discovered where we unsuccessfully tried to order off-menu vegetable dumplings.

One notable exception in China was going out for street food in Xian’s Muslim Quarter where Ravi was with us and helped me navigate the options. I had these amazing fried sandwiches with greens and eggs inside as well as some tasty mini-pancakes made of rice flower with red bean jelly and crushed peanuts on top. Emboldened by this experience, we had some street food again in Lijiang where we tried a sandwich with spicy noodles and greens in something like a pita pocket and another sandwich on traditional fried Naxi bread with fried eggs, tomato and goat cheese inside. The food we had at the guesthouses along our hike at Tiger Leaping Gorge was outstanding as well. Since they’re used to vegetarian travelers they all had extensive veggie options on their menus.

Outside of China, India was by far the best place we’ve been for vegetarians. Since much of the population is vegetarian India is a dream for vegetarians with tons of flavorful options at almost every restaurant, including sushi restaurants and McDonald's! My experiences elsewhere:
- In the Middle East and North Africa I found a world of delicious vegetarian salads and dips beyond hummus and baba ganoush but main dishes almost always featured meat.
- In Morocco I could usually find a vegetarian tagine or couscous but the quality fluctuated wildly across restaurants.
- In East Africa I was surprised by how often we found Indian-inspired vegetarian dishes everywhere we went, including at safari lodges, probably because of the large Indian population there.

Luckily, I could almost always find some pizza whenever I needed a little bit of comfort food and an escape from the food jungle while traveling.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rain, rain go away

We were reflecting recently on what a tremendous effect the weather has had on our enjoyment in the places we’ve visited so far. It may seem obvious but it really hit home for us when we reached Guilin a few nights ago in the pouring rain. Similarly to Beijing, the cold weather made us want to curl up inside, but even worse it was rainy and foggy for the few days we were there, making it difficult to appreciate the dramatic landscapes Guilin and Yangshuo are known for.

First, we took a day trip to the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces (also one of the top trekking destinations in China according to Lonely Planet) where we enjoyed hiking but couldn’t see much because everything was shrouded in fog. The next day we headed to Yanghsuo where the landscapes are dominated by amazing karst peaks formed by enormous caves whose tops have collapsed leaving the massive sides standing looking like unnaturally tall, skinny mountains. We really enjoyed seeing the cool landscapes of Yangshuo though they were tough to capture in photos; we went cycling through some of the villages nearby to get a better look at the countryside. It was definitely an adventure trying to navigate our way on the unmarked path, asking directions of villagers who spoke no English, getting lost on a farm, riding along narrow, muddy paths and getting a flat tire all before heading back to Guilin to catch an overnight train back to Hong Kong!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge was one of the highlights of our time in China. It's one of the deepest gorges in the world, measuring 16km long and 3,900m deep from the Yangtze River below to the snow-capped mountain peaks to the east and west. Prior to getting started Kruti was a little bit nervous because we had read that a handful of foreign travelers had died trekking in the gorge, but once on the trail it actually felt completely safe to us. We left Lijiang for two days, hiked 5-6 hours a day, spent the night at a friendly little guesthouse on the trail, and even got to attend a Naxi wedding celebration along the way. The photos attempt to do justice to some of the most dramatic and memorable landscapes we've experienced.

Girls rule!

Coming from a family of three sisters and no brothers, I’m always excited to find cultures in which a strong respect for women is core to the social fabric since we’re so often reminded that we live in “a man’s world.” The Naxi people are an ethnic minority in China originating from Tibet and based in Lijiang for the past 1,400 years, who traditionally have a matriarchal family structure. Women are the heads of family and the primary breadwinners, inheritance of property is matrilineal, and disputes are adjudicated by female elders in the community. One of my favorite tidbits from our guidebook about how the Naxi language reflects the culture -- the words for female and male are used to modify nouns to show more or less importance, so a “female stone” signifies a boulder and a “male store” represents the idea of a pebble.

Though the culture has changed over time, the traditional culture is still evident in everyday life. Guesthouses are run primarily by Naxi women while their husbands serve in support roles, waitresses at restaurants address the women at a table first, and the majority of taxi drivers we saw were female. What a refreshing change after seeing the challenges that women face in other cultures around the world.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Our favorite place in China

We traveled to the southwest province of Yunnan on Andrew's recommendation. It's his favorite place in China and it quickly became ours as well. We fell in love with Lijiang's old town, the cobblestone streets, wooden houses, tiny alleys, and easy-flowing canals. The climate was ideal with clean skies and springlike temperatures in January, a pleasant change from the smog and cold we experienced in Xi'an and Chengdu. Time seemed to slow to a standstill for a few days.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Giant Pandas

Besides being famous for spicy Sichuan food, Chengdu is also known for its panda bear population so I was excited to visit to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, home to almost 50 giant and red pandas (of only 1,000 pandas in the world). The research base is one of eleven panda reserves in the country dedicated to the survival and breeding of the panda population. We even paid a hefty sum so that I could actually hug a panda (in a protective gown and face mask of course, given the H1N1 flu season), which felt like a giant, cuddly teddy bear!

Fiery Sichuan Dumplings

Chengdu wasn't on our initial itinerary but the flights from Xi'an to Lijiang on (China’s version of were cheapest via the capital of Sichuan so we decided to stop there for a day to taste some spicy Sichuan food in the province itself and visit the giant pandas. My taste buds were thanking us. Sichuan peppercorn is the predominant flavor in Sichuanese cuisine; it has a tingly, numbing effect (in contrast with chili pepper spice) that remains with you long after eating. The night we arrived I went straight to the nearest little snack shop for some fiery Sichuan dumplings – hot and spicy and mouth-numbingly delightful. And you can't go wrong for US$0.60! They were so good I went back for another bowl before our flight the next evening.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Terracotta Army and Hua Shan

We persuaded Ravi to fly from Shanghai and meet us in Xi’an for the weekend, which gave us a couple more days of quality time with him and extended our ability to get by in China without having to put our limited Mandarin vocabulary to use.

Xi'an was an ancient Chinese capital at the end of the Silk Road. Today people go to Xi’an to see the Army of Terracotta Warriors, one of the most famous archeological finds in the world. It’s a life-size army of thousands of terracotta soldiers and horses in battle formation that was created to “guard” the tomb of the emperor who first unified China, Qin Shi Huang, more than 2,000 years ago. The Army was discovered in 1974 when peasants drilling a well uncovered one of the underground vaults.

No two soldiers’ faces are alike and the level of detail is extraordinary, but frankly we were a little bit disappointed by the Terracotta Army. Most of the warriors are still buried and there are signs showing where they are located underground, but it felt like we were looking at three large excavation sites prior to 80% of the excavation. And you can't get that close to the soldiers that have been dug up. Anyway, we stared at the motionless ranks of warriors for a couple hours and went on our way.

That evening we hit the Muslim Quarter for some fine dining. The backstreets were colorful and lively and the narrow lanes full of sweet-smelling stalls. We must have tried every type of Islamic food in the market…chili-rubbed mutton kebabs, fried beef in pita break with green peppers and cumin, peanut cakes on a stick…absolutely delicious!

The next day we took a day trip to climb Hua Shan, one of Taoism’s five sacred mountains. Granite domes, narrow ridges, and sheer cliffs. Ascending the mountain took us above the gray smog in Xi’an and allowed us to soak up some sun (you can see the gray smog-line stretching across the horizon in some of our photos). After the climb we had to race back to Xi’an and got to the airport just in time to check in for our next flight.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Small World, Part IV

Seven sections of the Great Wall are profiled in Lonely Planet and more than 55 million foreign tourists visit China annually. So what are the chances of running into my friend and classmate from business school, Shailendra, on the Great Wall?! We had met up with him and his wife in Mumbai and knew he would be in Beijing for some meetings but hadn’t connected since we reached China. As we were laughing about the coincidence and catching up, he received a call unexpectedly from another classmate, Dylan, who lives in L.A.!

Hiking the Great Wall

We convinced Andrew to ditch work Friday and join us for an epic hike on the Great Wall of China. There are several sections of the wall that can be visited, each with its own unique advantages. We chose to go to a section called Mutianyu which is relatively close to Beijing and where the wall has largely been restored, but because we’re here during low travel season (and because of the cold) there were very few other visitors so it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves for most of the day. We were also incredibly lucky with the weather – we had a bright, sunny, wind-free day – so instead of a quick half-hour on the wall as we expected, we spent six hours hiking, and made it out past the restored sections of the wall where we saw it in its original, crumbling state, covered with snow and with trees growing out of the cracks. The views were incredible and the hike was one of the highlights of our trip to date.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Beijing reunion

One of the best aspects of our trip has been the opportunity to reconnect with friends we haven’t seen in many years. The week before we arrived in China I discovered that one of my friends from high school, Andrew, now lives in Beijing. We traded a bunch of email and he invited Kruti and me to crash with him and we did. Andrew and I had only seen each other once since high school at our ten-year reunion more than five years ago and had pretty much lost touch outside of the occasional Facebook stalking, so we were getting to know each other all over again. What an awesome guy. Dynamic, extremely generous, spirited, thought-provoking, and very warm. He’s a scholar of East Asian Studies, fluent in Mandarin, and working in investment management in Beijing. And he’s the consummate host. The three of us stayed up late catching up and telling stories every night and poor Andrew had to go to work in the morning while Kruti and I slept in; when we woke up maps were laid out, itineraries drawn up, and snacks left on the table to get us through the cold winter days walking around Beijing. Kruti and I are big fans of Andrew and I’m really happy this trip got us back in touch.

Another good friend from high school, Bob, the one who put me back in touch with Andrew, was in town from NYC for a conference that week and it was great to see his familiar mug on the other side of the world as well. We all went out to dinner a couple evenings and even caught a Chinese acrobatics performance. It was a fantastic reunion.

Other than catching up with friends, we attempted to see Beijing’s sights but the cold weather made it difficult to enjoy. We spent the first day exploring the imperial grandeur of the Forbidden City (so called because it was off limits for 500 years, home to two dynasties of emperors) and Tiananmen Square (the world’s largest public square) until our toes almost froze off. The second day we wandered around the 798 Art District (disused, sprawling electronics factory workshops converted into galleries) admiring the latest in Chinese art. And the third day we journeyed into the hutong, the city’s warren of ancient, narrow alleyways and one-storey dwellings that were part of the original heart and fabric of Beijing. Check out the photos.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hello Winter!

Welcome to Beijing and winter! We’ve been following summer around the globe but the ride came to an abrupt end once we reached China. Winter slapped us in the face and our toes almost froze off as we attempted to explore the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. The reinforcements we purchased in Shanghai (hats, scarves, gloves, boots) were no match for the bitter, biting cold here. Apparently it’s the coldest winter in Beijing in the last 35+ years (perhaps the unanticipated result of the Chinese government’s weather manipulation).

We only lasted for about two hours walking around the Forbidden City, which felt like a giant wind tunnel, before being forced to take refuge indoors to warm up for an hour, then we braved the cold again to see Tiananmen Square by night. The intense security around the square and sheer number of police (both in uniform and plain-clothes) was on a scale I’ve never seen before. Obviously the Square is an incredibly important and symbolic place for the Chinese – it was where Chairman Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic in 1949 as well as the site of the tragic pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989.

The cold was so intense we actually discussed hightailing it out of China earlier than planned to go somewhere warm like Bali! But in the end, we decided to persevere and just keep buying warmer hats along the way (first hat purchased in India in anticipation of cold weather in China, second in Shanghai, third in Beijing, fourth at the Great Wall).

But the bright (and warm) spot of our time in Beijing has been staying with Vipin’s friend, Andrew, who took great care of us and was a wonderful host.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Shanghai, the first stop on our Chinese odyssey

We began our Chinese odyssey in Shanghai. It's a massive, vibrant city, and we loved it. One thing is certain – Shanghai looks much more developed than any city in India, particularly with respect to roads, buildings, and infrastructure in general. It actually looks more similar to the U.S. or Europe than India. Prior to visiting I had the perception that Shanghai would be an ultramodern concrete jungle based on what I had heard but actually we were pleasantly surprised by how charming the neighborhoods in western Shanghai are, particularly the French Concession area. It's a little piece of Europe in China.

We went to Shanghai mostly to hang out with my college roommate Ravi, who's been living there for the past three years and working for Frog Design. He has a lovely home and a fantastic group of friends. We spent five days in Shanghai and Ravi did what he does best – he showed us the pulse of the city after dusk. Ravi and his friends took us to some of the best of Shanghai's restaurants, bars and clubs. We know several people who haven't enjoyed food in China but we ate extremely well. Taiwanese noodles at Noodle Bull, Japanese Yakitori, Shanghainese dumplings at Din Tai Fung, and the best of Shanghainese cuisine at Jesse. We also partied at a "Chinese" club called No. 88 drinking bottles of Chivas Regal mixed with green tea (quite tasty actually) one night, and listened to Ravi's friend Nat spin at a live music venue called Shelter the next night.

The other thing we did in Shanghai was shop. We were shocked at just how conspicuous the markets that sell fake knockoffs and pirated goods are. You hear about China taking a stronger stand against piracy...doesn't look like it. A four-floor mall selling fake branded bags, shoes, clothing and Rolexes and a DVD store sprawling with pirated movies and TV show box sets right on the main shopping streets in the center of town. Unbelievable. But yes, good deals.

Ravi also introduced us to his tailor, Tony the Tailor, a Sindhi guy from India who worked in Hong Kong for more than 20 years before moving to Shanghai five years ago because that's where the action in Asia is these days. Entrepreneurial. I got two suits made and Kruti got a cashmere coat. Apparently Tony's father tailored suits for former President Reagan, and Tony himself was summoned to measure President Obama when he was in Shanghai a couple months ago. Bizarre that Obama would get suits made by an Indian guy in China, and that this type of news wouldn't lead to more bad press, but who knows, Tony has the photos to prove it, and we decided we can't go wrong with that company.

We had a fantastic time in Shanghai and even think it's a place we could live someday (once we learn Mandarin, and find some interesting work to do). Ravi was the perfect host and we can't wait to come back and visit him again.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Language issues

China is the first place we've been on this trip where we can't speak the language at all and where English doesn't get us anywhere. For some reason I expected that more Chinese would speak a little bit of broken English. Not our experience. From the moment we sat in a taxi from the airport in Shanghai, our ability to communicate ceased completely. Made it difficult to convey that Kruti is vegetarian, to find specific addresses, and even to get to the bus station (which we thought everyone would understand). It's unquestionably not as much fun to explore a country when you can't speak the language and talk to the people; luckily we have friends in Shanghai and Beijing who can. Kruti and I want to start learning Mandarin when we're finished with this trip. Even if that doesn't happen, we're definitely going to make sure our kids learn Mandarin!

Thursday, January 7, 2010


China still has a poor record when it comes to censorship and free speech. Blogging platforms remain blocked so that the common man can't challenge the official views views on Tibet, Taiwan, or the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) in general, and more journalists are imprisoned in China than anywhere else in the world (29 journalists and 50 cyber-dissidents were in jail in 2009 according to Reporters Without Borders). Unfortunately, for us, even our blog is blocked by the government's "great firewall of China" and we won't be able to post anything while we're here over the next few weeks. Facebook is blocked too. How do people survive?!?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hong Kong, Part I

We arrived in Hong Kong to overcast skies and drizzle after being spoiled by the sun and warm weather in Mumbai for the past few weeks. Though we’ve heard the views from Victoria Peak can be amazing and there are terrific hiking opportunities around the island, we decided to hold off on both until returning to Hong Kong after traveling in China in hopes that we’d meet with better weather. Instead we spent a lot of time indoors hanging out with Stella, a close friend and classmate of Vipin’s from high school, her husband Guy, and their adorable newborn Max, who were kind enough to let us stay with them.

We also spent some time exploring one of HK’s most famous attractions, its many shopping malls, which was a perfect escape from the weather and a good introduction to the city which boasts more shopping malls per square foot than any other city (or so we’re told). We did manage to explore a few other neighborhoods despite the weather. The first evening we walked around Lan Kwai Fong, known for its buzzing nightlife scene and ended the evening at a club called dragon-i that Vipin remembered from his last visit, which was hopping, especially for a Monday night. The following day we took the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour from which you can really appreciate the beauty of the HK skyline and walked around Kowloon and the Temple Street Night Market before meeting back up with Stella and Guy in Soho.

Aside from sharing hip neighborhoods named Soho, tons of high-end shopping and sky-high real estate prices, HK reminded me most of NYC for its incredible energy and vibrance. I’m excited to see more when we return!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Back on the road

We're sitting at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai waiting for our flight to Hong Kong. We've spent the past seven weeks in India and the time has just flown. It's also felt like a bit of a break from the rest of our trip because our time in India has been much more about catching up with family and friends in familiar places than exploring places we've never been. We haven't had to book many flights or hotels over the past two months and it's been a valuable respite, but I'm excited to get back on the road.

Our next destination is China, another country to which neither Kruti nor I have been. I'm extremely excited to see China's tremendous development and growth for myself. The world compares China and India, but all of the Indians I know who have actually been to China say it's not much of a competition. China is in a separate league. Our plan is to travel to Shanghai, Beijing, Xi'an to ogle the Army of Terracotta Warriors, Guilin to explore the Li River and countryside, and hopefully Yunnan to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge before returning to Hong Kong. Goodbye India, hello China.

Farah & Rob's wedding

We had an amazing time at Farah and Rob’s wedding! Well, technically it was their third wedding, but the first one in Mumbai where Farah’s family lives, and they did it up in style. The party started on December 30th with the Mehndi at their lovely weekend home in Alibaug, followed by a rocking New Year’s Eve party at their Mumbai home and continued with the Sangeet and Wedding / Reception the following two evenings. It was great to see so many friends from business school, and especially to hang out with Hiran and Nidhi again. Everything about the wedding was absolutely beautiful, particularly the bride, and the hospitality of the Nathani family was beyond compare. We particularly enjoyed how much the wedding reflected the personalities of Farah and Rob - elegant and impeccable yet fun and light-hearted throughout, from the welcome letter to the final champagne toast. After all the partying we did over the past four days, I need a holiday!