Archive for May, 2012

Thousands of tourists visit the Cu Chi Tunnels everyday, an immense network of connecting underground passageways just outside of Ho Chi Minh City.

The 121 km-long complex of tunnels is where thousands of Vietnamese soldiers supporting the north hid out during the Vietnam War. Even though the tubes have been enlarged to accommodate visitors, they are still extremely claustrophobic — just wide and tall enough to walk through stooped over. They are dark. And ventilation in them is poor.

To tour the tunnels, visitors need not get down and dirty or be ready to overcome fears. Experienced guides are there to tell stories and answer questions about what happened in various ‘rooms’ underfoot.

Saigon Profile: Meet ‘Uncle Nam’, a Cu Chi Expert
Uncle Nam is one such guide. He was born in the district of Cu Chi and lived in the tunnels as a soldier and vegetable grower from 1963-1975.

For more than a decade, he called the subterranean labyrinth home. He even met his better half down there.

Uncle Nam made lots of friends in the tunnels, as well. He realized just how many friends he had when he was injured by a U.S. bomb; his comrades gave him the best seat in the house — “near the vent, where there was much more air to breathe,” he remembers.

Nowadays, the 66-year-old draws energy from the people visiting the tunnels in hopes of learning more about Vietnamese culture. He enjoys leading tours because it keeps him active and bolsters his self-worth.

“I am proud of where I come from,” says Uncle Nam. “It makes me happy to be able to contribute to my hometown.”

If visiting Cu Chi, ask for Uncle Nam. He is a delightful guide, and more than happy to show you around a place he knows well.

View of Vang Vieng, Laos

View of Vang Vieng, Laos

“I was born to Laotian parents, so I grew up hearing the language and listening to stories of the culture,” says Nouane Vorachak, a tour specialist in Laos. Six years ago she moved to Laos from France and says it was one of her best decisions ever.

Nouane now knows Laos like the back of her hand.

“I now get to introduce my beautiful country to travelers and to organize the perfect trip is my way of making dreams come true,” she reveals.

Nouane has experienced some splendid moments in this Indochina country. Her most unforgettable one was watching the sun set on the river in Vang Vieng after a long day of kayaking.

Nouane says she would next like to “cruise the majestic waters of the Malay archipelago,” Nouane says. “It’s the largest group of islands in the world and I know touring Indonesia by boat would be wonderful to see.”

Nouane is content to explore more of Laos until she is able to check that Indonesian journey off the list. She loves talking to others about what makes her home country so great.

“I always try to make the floating restaurant in Tha Ngone near Vientiane part of the itinerary,” Nouane adds. “There’s no better way to enjoy lunch than on a big raft cruising up the river.”

In addition to Vientiane, there are other stunning destinations to explore in Laos, such as Luang Prabang, widely considered the nation’s spiritual capital.

Cruising on Halong Bay, Vietnam

Ask Tran Minh Trung what his most amazing travel experience has been so far and there is no hesitation.

“Kayaking in Bai Thu Long Bay, which is just north of the more popular Halong Bay,” says the Vietnamese tour specialist. “Residents of the area’s floating villages welcome visits from kayakers, and we were invited into the home of a fishing family. The bay itself was so breathtakingly beautiful, I never wanted to leave.”

Like all Vietnamese, Trung goes by his last name, which is actually his first. (Confusing? Rather. But you get used to it.)

Trung’s passion for paddling is new, but his affection for travel can be traced to his university days, when the Ho Chi Minh City native developed an interest in assisting visitors to Vietnam’s commercial capital.

He has since traveled around the world to discover “how tourism can connect people and make life more beautiful,” he says.

Despite all that he has seen so far, Trung still has a lot on his bucket list, including the pinnacle of Vietnam’s trekking destinations.

“I would definitely love to climb Mount Fansipan, in Vietnam’s north,” Trung says. “At more than 10,000 feet above sea level, it’s Indochina’s highest peak. I think going all the way to the top would be incredible.”

Until then, Trung aims to provide travellers with highs that come with experiencing Vietnam on a level most tourists never see it from. It’s his home, and he knows it well, especially Saigon.

“Even to those who have grown up in Ho Chi Minh, like myself, it’s an endlessly fun and fascinating city,” Trung says. “And of course the food is phenomenal. I especially like BBQ Garden Restaurant. It’s a great place to mingle with the local Saigonese people.”

Why Asia’s Food Scene Rules

Sweets sold in a local Vietnamese market

Sweets sold in a local Vietnamese market

Look back to a recent trip you took and chances are your memories involve something you ate. It’s easy to understand why they say food is the spice of life. We all eat, and when we travel, the dining experience is amplified. I see and try things you may not normally. And for that reason alone, an impression is left.

In Asia, the stamp can be huge. For many, it’s the place to go on a culinary adventure. Countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Japan are renowned for their cuisine. And in most cases, the best spots don’t cost an arm and a leg. They’re family-run joints that have been around for eons. Or street vendors. Or institutions that simply take pride in doing one dish extremely well.

Take Hanoi, for instance. You can’t go wrong at Pho Lam Nam Ngu, where Mrs. Huong doled out her first bowl of out-of-this-world pho ga (traditional Vietnamese chicken noodle soup) in the 1950s. The shop is now run by her two daughters, who swear by the virtues of northern pho, which has a distinctly different taste to the pho made in the south.

In Bangkok, I love Soi Polo, which has been serving up some of the best grub in Thailand’s capital for more than 40 years.

As one might expect, it’s a little off the beaten track — down a lane that leads to the exclusive, members-only Royal Bangkok Polo Club, to be exact. The restaurant does a lot of items well, but you can’t leave without trying its signature dish: the fried chicken. It’s legendary, thanks in part to a New York Times article.

In Tokyo, some of the best haunts are izakayas, popular for their made-to-share dishes. I recommend trying Gonpachi, rumored to have inspired a scene in the movie Kill Bill.

And in Phnom Penh, head down Street 136 and look for the guy in the vest and tie selling papaya salad. Or just listen for him. Mao Bora has made singing to customers part of his program, and even recently released his first single — perhaps the first street vendor to do so!