The Queenstown region is hard to beat any time of year, but in autumn, it is sublime. It didn’t hurt that it was our first (and practically only) sunny AND warm day in New Zealand. Well, maybe not warm to anyone but the Kiwis, who walk around in bare feet and (short) shorts all the time, but not cold. The yellow trees pop against the rugged mountains and blue skies, and who needs ocean when you’ve got long lakes in between mountains? In a country crazy about adventure, they’re craziest in Queenstown. Although we had no plans to do any adventure activities, we somehow found ourselves on a jetboat whizzing through the Shotover River canyon. It was fun, but not extreme; the thrill was equivalent to a roller coaster, which is much, much cheaper. We probably should have hurled ourselves off a bridge or out of a plane or something, but we were entertained just watching people bungy jump off the first bridge in the world where commercial bungy jumping occurred. The autumn splendor continued in Arrowtown and Wanaka; the perfect backdrop for lazy afternoons.
If there’s one thing I could say about our month in Vietnam, it’s that it was one tasty month. While we normally grow weary of a country’s cuisine by the end of our time there, I could have kept eating Vietnamese even after we left, and mentioned to Sean I had a hankering for spring rolls after we passed a Vietnamese restaurant in a Bangkok mall.
Thanks to Tram’s Kitchen in Bloomfield at home, we’d already sampled Vietnamese food before this trip, so we were eagerly awaiting to try some tasty eats in Vietnam itself (on eight inch stools, of course). Beginning meals in the Mekong Delta were disappointing – here’s a tip; don’t order Pho All because the all is quite scary, indeed – but things improved quickly. Each region has its specialties, so there’s more nuanced variety than you first realize. Here’s some of our favorites (not to mention the runners up of stir-fried cactus at fresh veggie-centric and beautiful Cuc Gach Quan in Saigon; cao lau noodles and white rose dumplings in Hoi An; any of the delicious things My and Mr. Pepperman had us try in the Central Highlands; any sort of street-made dumpling or bun cha in Hanoi; and the many tastings of chicken stir-fried with chili and lemongrass countrywide):
Fresh spring rolls
Without a doubt, our favorite meals are fresh spring rolls. Surprisingly, these can be hard to find – probably because I wanted them with every meal. The pre-rolled ones were tasty – especially if they are being rolled right next to you seconds before you eat them, like ones we had at a market in Saigon – but there’s something about rolling them yourself. Our first encounter was at the market in Dalat. (Are you noticing a theme? The best food is at Vietnamese markets.) We hovered near a food stall, trying to figure out what the heck they were serving as everything was in Vietnamese. A kind woman took pity on us and come over from where she was sitting at a different restaurant. She suggested that we try the spring rolls being served at the stall in which we were standing by since they were the best in town. With that ringing endorsement, we gratefully let her run interference between us and the women behind the stall, who only spoke Vietnamese. When you’re at a make your own spring roll place, you receive rice paper for rolling, spicy peanut sauce for dipping, and lots of fixins’ for stuffing: rice noodles; pork prepared multiple ways; lettuce; mounds of fresh mint, basil, and other herbs; and raw banana, starfruit, cucumbers, and fried rice paper for crunch. Words can’t describe how fresh, how tasty, how crunchy, how tangy fresh spring rolls are in Vietnam. When our Easy Rider guides took us to a fresh spring roll restaurant on our second night at Buon Mi Thiout, I nearly died of happiness.
Fried spring rolls
While the fresh ones beat the fried ones by a landslide, I was a fan of the fried ones as well, especially those fried with a light touch, like the ones at Madame Foung’s place in Hoi An. Madame’s restaurant is called the Light Candle. If she’s not in the back cooking, she’ll call out to you like all of the other vendors in Hoi An. But if you come in, unlike some others, she’s be really, truly glad you came. We half-ignored Madame Fuong one afternoon as she was one of many voices calling out for us to buy something or come inside. But then when we couldn’t find the restaurant we were looking for, we turned around and decided to try the Light Candle. Madame came rushing over to us, and exclaimed, with genuine joy and enthusiasm, Oh! You came back! You came back! We would have returned just for Madame’s cheerful demeanor (even though she only speaks a few words of English), but her food matched her attitude. The Candle Light spring rolls, as she calls them, are sublime. If you go, try them; she’ll make you order them anyway. You’ll be glad you did.
Once we recovered from the Pho All debacle, we become pho addicts. Not all phos are created equal; some are just too rich for our liking, but most have a delightful blend of meat stock (created by bubbling overnight in a giant pot), tender beef or chicken, long skinny white noodles, savory spices like cinnamon, star anise, cloves and cardamom, fresh bean sprouts, chili peppers, and lime. The best phos are served at non-descript roadside restaurants doubling as the family’s home or from big vats on sidewalks, eaten on tiny chairs while the city hustles by. Pho is typically eaten for breakfast, although you can find pho at all times of the day. I have strict notions of what is breakfast food and what is not, and soup is the last thing I thought I’d want for breakfast. But we quickly realized the $1.25 steaming bowl of soup was a much tastier alternative than the Vietnamese adaptation of plain egg omelets for Westerners, so we started eating pho whenever we could get our hands on it.
We only got to try this heavenly dish once, in Hanoi. If we’d had it sooner, surely we would have been searching for it high and low. Bun bo (the Vietnamese words for noodles and beef) has, well, bun and bo, along with fresh lettuce, coriander, basil, beansprouts, and crushed peanuts. Then’s there’s some sort of delectable sweet sauce to top it all off. Yum.
Out of all of the Southeast Asian countries, we found the tropical fruit to be the freshest and tastiest in Vietnam, especially in the Mekong Delta. There was such variety, and we tried as much as we could. Our favorites were the juicy pomelos; ordinary watermelons that taste like summer in every bite; and the exotic dragonfruit.
When I decided to intersperse posts about the rest of our Southeast Asian travels with our current escapades in New Zealand, I didn’t plan to have back to back posts about Halong Bay and Milford Sound. But considering that Milford Sound reminds me of Halong Bay in many ways (minus the shoddy safety and karaoke), it is fitting.
Milford Sound is really a fiord carved out many years ago by glaciers. Fiordland National Park is widely considered the most beautiful area in New Zealand. As with Halong Bay, we experienced Milford Sound on a day that was cold and rainy and thick with fog. Considering it rains 200 days out of the year, with an annual rainfall of just shy of 300 inches, the weather we experienced was not a shock, but we were a little disappointed because we suspected the fog masked some of the area’s grandeur and scale. We made the most of it though, and ponied up for a cruise through the Sound to the Tasman Sea and back. On the 2 1/2 hour drive through Fiordlands National Park back to Te Anau from the Sound, we dragged ourselves out of the campervan into the rain at every viewpoint and short hike we could bear. It’s a beautiful area, even when it is ensconced in opaque whiteness.
Our last stop in Vietnam was at the moody, mystical Halong Bay. Halong Bay gets a bad rap because it is one of the top tourist spots in Vietnam and it is difficult to see it without going along with a pre-arranged tour. Some tour operators are honest, but many others cut corners. With tours ranging from luxury to bottom of the barrel, it is hard to trust that you will get your money’s worth.
Because of all of the horror stories, I was apprehensive about going to see Halong Bay. Then, just a few days before we planned to visit Halong Bay, something far worse than shoddy service or overcrowding happened. One of the junk boats used for tours of the bay sunk in the early morning hours as people were in their cabins sleeping, killing 12 tourists and crew, including two college-aged American girls. By all accounts, the tour was one of the cheap budget tours, but it still doesn’t make you feel confident about your safety.
We thought about not going, but considering Vietnamese officials were inspecting every boat rigorously in the aftermath of the sinking, we decided to book a one night, two day mid-priced tour through our hotel with Amigo Cruises. The boat was relatively new, with all important safety features like life jackets. I’m not going to lie; I slept a lot easier because our room was on the upper deck. While our tour wasn’t without issues (average food, gas smell in an otherwise nice cabin room, rushed kayaking in the Bay), the tour allowed us to experience beautiful Halong Bay safely.
Despite all of the tourists, there’s a stillness and quietness in Halong Bay. I’m sure this feeling was exacerbated by the somberness of what had transpired only days before, as well as the thick fog that hung heavy in the air, especially on our first day. With limestone karsts jutting up from the waters all around you, it is a beautiful place worth visiting, as long as you can do it safely. I hope that this latest accident causes safety standards to increase; unfortunately, I don’t have high hopes as this is the first fatal boating accident in Halong Bay.
- Even though our guidebook tells me New Zealanders are not that religious, they have some seriously strict laws about Easter. The government prohibits most businesses from trading on Good Friday and Easter, dashing many of our plans. Also, and most importantly, you can only buy alcohol in restaurants and only if you have the intention of eating. Thus, the true story of how the NZ government forced us to eat a scrumptious $28 NZD pizza on Good Friday.
- Kids from New Zealand get two! weeks! off from school for Easter.
- It is weird to eat chocolate eggs wrapped in pastel colored foils while the leaves outside are the deep colors of autumn.
That is all. May your Easter be filled with lots of chocolatey goodness.