Turkey: The Highs and Lows of our Ottoman Odyssey

Good thing kebabs are delicious: They are on nearly every menu in Turkey.

We entered Turkey after a relaxing month in Greece. Our first impression? Wealth. The minute we stepped off the boat in Kusadasi (from Samos, Greece) we were entranced by the relatively modern buildings, the fancy cars, and glitzy signage. Immediately, we were hounded by taxi drivers cleverly vying for our lira — a hustling spirit (for better or worse) we hardly found in Greece. In our ride to the hotel, our cab driver pointed out a state-of-the-art hospital, an American-looking amusement park, and new housing developments: We finally had a tangible understanding of its neighbor’s “economic crisis.”

We were joined here by our two good friends, Amelia and Davin, who only had 10 days to spare in the country. We’d decided to visit Ephesus and Pamukkale first, then fly up to Istanbul for a relaxing 5 days in the city. (Istanbul was not relaxing or particularly enjoyable — in fact, we were really disappointed in the place — but we’ll get to that later). We left conflicted about Turkey. The summary:

The HIGHS

Ephesus
Going to Rome? Add Ephesus on your itinerary. It’s a few thousand kilometers out of the way, but it offers a more complete Roman ruin experience than anything we saw in Italy. Once the third largest Roman city, Ephesus is now famous for its Library of Celsus — one of the most beautiful building facades ever. It’s incredible, but we were even more wowed by the Terrace Houses, a new archaeological dig that’s uncovering the terrace homes of Ephesus’s once rich and famous occupants. The detailing of the mosaic floors and painted walls is kind of breathtaking. Please cough up the extra few bucks to enter; it’s more than worth it.

The grand facade of the Library of Celsus

Inside the Terrace Homes dig. Look at the detail on the walls and floors!

Aerial view of Ephesus around noon. Try to arrive before the cruise ship passengers flood the place around 10:30 am.

*****

Lokum a.k.a. Turkish Delight
A precursor to the jelly bean, these nut-wrapped gummy chews became a favorite snack of ours during the trip.

Our favorite lokum flavor: Pistachio.

*****

Travertine Terraces in Pamukkale
We were wooed by the pics in our guidebook: nature’s version of a tiered wedding cake oozing with calcified frosting and brilliant blue pools. So we hopped aboard a two-hour pleasant train ride inland from Ephesus to Denizli, from where we caught a 45-minute bus to the tiny town of Pamukkale. The Sunrise Aya Hotel was basic, but super clean and cheap: Why can’t there be more $35/night hotels in Europe! There’s really nothing to do in the town, so play it like we did: Arrive late in the evening, sleep in, soak in the sun over a long breakfast (with plenty of Turkish coffee), then spend a few hours in the late afternoon traipsing barefoot through the travertines and roaming the ruins above them.

No shoes allowed, but these water-covered terraces are surprisingly not slippery.

Tweens in Travertine: These giggling kids flopping through the water made the experience even more fun.

The star of the show: Pristine terraces filled with blue water (and this adorable couple).

Head up in the late afternoon, and down during sunset. The colors are magical.

Hierapolis
The travertine terraces are fun; the ruins above these terraces are truly spectacular, and better yet, deserted. Again, here are some of the best Roman ruins I’ve seen… not anywhere near Rome. We spent the golden hour wandering in and among sarcophagi, temples, a gorgeous theater, and the bathhouses of ancient Hierapolis.

Don’t miss the ruins high above Pamukkale. Most people come for the travertines and completely ignore what we thought were some of the best Roman ruins on our trip.

This was the prettiest theater we saw on our ZINK Year — and absolutely no one was there.

Walking alone with through this once-bustling city. Wow, this makes me miss traveling. Can we go back?

*****

Manti
The world’s perfect dish may be Turkish. Want to make this girl happy? Give her a bowl of manti, tiny meat ravioli smothered in a tomato yogurt sauce. The texture (creamy and chewy) mixed with the acidity (tangy yogurt, tomato paste, red-pepper oil) of this dish work perfectly together. You can get a decent version at Agora in DC; the best is at No. 19 in Beyoglu, Istanbul.

manti

Manti: The world’s perfect dish?

Ayasofya, or Hagia Sofia
To continue the hyperbolic theme here, I can comfortably say this is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen. From basilica to mosque to museum, Ayasofya’s history is overwhelming; its looks — jaw-dropping. Soak in the immensity of the nave, then head to the upper gallery for what I consider to be the most impressive piece of Byzantine art: the Deësis mosaic.

A spiritual melting pot. Beautiful despite all that temporary scaffolding.

The highlight of the Deësis mosaic: Christ’s unbelievably soft, detailed, and glowing face. Crafted in 1261, the mosaic was covered in plaster in the 15th century when Ayasofya was converted to a mosque.

*****

The LOWS:

Istanbul
Was it too much hype? The weather? The floods of tourists? We were all a little disappointed in Istanbul. With the exception of the locals-only neighborhood we stayed in with its börek shops and lahmacun takeout counters (north Beyoglu; near Osmanbey metro), the city felt too clean, bland, perfectly packaged for mass consumption. It clearly once had a magical, gritty feel that travelers fell in love with, but have years of media hype and cruise-ship dockings sucked dry its intrigue? We were only there for 5 days, so my lukewarm impression may be unfair — plus, we really only spent time in the Beyoglu and Sultanahmet districts, which are the modern and tourist districts respectively. Plus it rained everyday. Plus the beer is expensive and not-so delicious. Plus we found ourselves in the middle of a riot… though, despite being listed as a “low” below, at least it provided some grit.

For all you Istanbul lovers out there: Have you visited recently? Do you still love it? If so, what did we miss?

Sure, Istanbul is lovely. It’s also packed with tourists and by extension, a bit flavorless. Sadly, we just didn’t love this city.

The bustling Istiklal street in Istanbul. Worth a visit, but expect to find tons of American chains. (Need jeans? Mavi is 100% a Turkish brand).

The Spice Market is probably worth a stop if you can stomach that sea of tourists.

The Spice Market is probably worth a stop if you can stomach that sea of tourists.

For more authenticity, head north. Here’s a typical scene from our neighborhood in north Beyoglu, near the Osmanbey metro stop.

*****

The Grand Bazaar

Oh, how I wanted this to be magical. In fact, after our incredibly disappointing first visit, we returned the next day just to make sure we hadn’t missed the Grand features. The structure of the Grand Bazaar is gorgeous — and worth a wander to gaze at the hand-painted walls and ceilings. But tacky trinkets outweigh treasures, and your fellow shoppers will all be tourists. Argh. This list pointed us to some interesting shops. Any other tips? For an authentic market experience, where should we have gone?

Inside the very Westernized Grand Bazaar. Expect to find a lot of tourists.

*****

The Riot

We unintentionally planned our visit over May Day. Like years in the past, anti-government protesters took to the streets and the police chased them away with tear gas. See here. We thought we’d be far away from the ruckus in our neighborhood, but soon enough, crowds of masked protesters sprinted down our street with policeman chasing after them with tear-gas guns. Our friends got caught in the middle of it, ducking inside a glassed-in bakery shop as the torrent rushed down the streets; we watched the action from our basement window. Remnants of the tear gas made our eyes water and throats itch. Good times. I’m rarely excited to leave a place, but I was giddy to board our flight to Rome the next day.

The scene from our basement apartment in Istanbul during the riots.

The scene from our basement apartment in Istanbul during the riots.

******

Almost everyone I’ve met has absolutely adored Istanbul. We didn’t and that’s okay. I will certainly go back one day and work harder to try to find the magical nooks and neighborhoods. If you have tips for readers (or us!) on what those magical places are, please leave them here.

As for Turkey, we barely scraped the surface: No hot-air ballooning in Cappadocia. No whirling dirvishes in Konya. No hiking along the Lycian Way on the Southern coast. We know we missed a lot in a country with many diverse experiences — and if there was any tip we’d give to future travelers, it’d be to give it more time. Ten days was not enough to fully understand the culture, the people, and the history, or to experience much of the country.

For more pictures, check out our Flickr albums of Ephesus, Pamukkale, and Istanbul.

 

 

 

ZINK Year Gear: Around the World Packing Guide

We spent a month preparing for our trip. Most of that time was spent on prepping our gear – reading blog posts like this one, making spreadsheets of what we needed vs. wanted, taking various trips to REI and other outdoor shops, ordering socks from dodgy online sites, packing our bags, weighing our bags, repacking our bags, etc. On October 30, 2013, we headed to the airport with the 55 pounds of gear that would keep us clothed, entertained, and healthy for the next eight months.

Of the nearly 200 items we packed, a few exceeded our expectations – these I talk about in depth in this post. If you’re the nitty-gritty-details type and would like to see the entire list of items we took, have a look at our Google Spreadsheet Packing List (feel free to download, edit, and make it your own). And if you’d like additional info on any of the products, give me a shout at patten@zinkyear.com.

Osprey Meridian 22 Suitcase – Emily and I went back andScreen Shot 2014-06-27 at 3.49.32 PM forth before leaving the States: Should we strap on Winnebago-sized backpacks, so popular with long-term travelers, or go the roller-bag route? The good folks at Arty Dubs tipped us off to Osprey’s best-of-both-worlds Meridian 22 (and its wheel-and-back/waist-strap combo), and we really can’t say enough good things about it. Tough as nails, lightweight, and compact was our pre-purchase criteria, and that’s exactly what we got.

While you can use the Meridian 22 as a backpack, we never did. The wheels are so large and sturdy you can truck them over gravel, cobblestones, dirt roads, and down stairs with ease. If you’re like us, most of the time, you’ll be pulling them over smooth concrete and tiled airport floors. So, unless you plan to do a lot of overnight hiking (and you’ll be carrying a sleeping bag and a tent), bring a bag with wheels. Your back will thank you. That said, if given the chance, I’d still opt for the back/waist-straps, simply for “you never know when you’re going to need it” peace of mind. If you find yourself in a situation when you know you won’t need the straps, simply unsnap them and use the extra space for storage.

Added bonus: the Meridian 22 includes a detachable daypack (Meridian Day) that is equally comfortable in the city as it is on the trail. I’d recommend a good day pack to anyone planning a long-term trip, but I’m especially fond of this one given its size (big enough for the essentials and small enough not to be overloaded) and features (padded back, backpanel sleeve, inner computer sleeve, internal organizer).

Others have pointed this out, but just to to reiterate, the Meridian 22 will fit in overhead compartments on domestic flights within the U.S. Outside of the U.S. – especially on budget airlines – you’ll have to check the bag. We were able to carry on our Meridian 22’s on our initial flight from LA to Tokyo on Delta, but then we hit the 15-pound carry-on restrictions that plagued our every step thereafter.

Icebreaker Tech T –  After eight months on the road, I can say Icebreaker_Tech_T_Lite_IBQ231-B86I believe the hype behind Icebreaker Tech T’s. Made from 100% merino wool, they regulate your body temp, look fairly stylish, and are easy to wash. We can wear these shirts for four to five days in dry climates, or two to three days in a hot and sticky Singapore before they need a good wash.

I have two Tech T’s: black and green. If buying only one, I’d recommend the black – it looks a little dressier when we go out at night. Emily has three Icebreaker shirts: a Tech T (crew neck), a scoop neck, and a v-neck. She likes having all three styles, but would recommend the crew-neck Tech T if picking just one. The crew neck protects her chest in the sun and has a looser, more comfortable fit.

Before purchasing, we read that holes may start appearing in the shirts. Sure enough, Emily recently found a few small holes in the fabric. But judging by more recent buyer reviews, Icebreaker may have resolved the issue. Regardless, buy the shirts, and think of getting piece of clothing repaired in, say, Vietnam as a fun activity – it was for us.

Icebreaker Socks – Again, same merino wool, same extended usage. We prefer the thicker, Multisport Cushion Micro 4” if you’re walking all day, and the Run+ Ultralight Micro 4” if going for a run.

T-mobile Simple Choice Plan – Okay, cat’s out of the bag,t-mobile-logo we cheated. In fact, we cheated everyday of our trip (sans Myanmar). We had unlimited data, texting, and 20-cents-per-minute calls in 120+ countries and destinations (unlimited within the U.S.) through T-mobile’s Simple Choice Plan. Sure, we probably missed out on some interesting conversations in broken Japanese asking for restaurant recommendations or asking for directions to an about-to-be-missed bus, but we’re okay with that. If you like regular access to email, news, Instagram, FB, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Booking.com, etc, think of the Simple Choice Plan as a trip enhancer/stress reliever. If your plan is about to expire, do yourself a favor, sign up ($50 per month for one user, $80 for two, $90 for three, and so on). It’s one of those too-good-to-be-true situations, but we promise… it’s true!

Satechi Energy Station 10,000 – I know next to nothingSatechi-Portable-Energy-Station about electronics, but I do know that two phones and two readers require energy and a lot of it. And recharging devices while on the move proves difficult unless you carry an external energy source. Enter the Satechi Energy Station 10,000. One charge of the Satechi equals about five iPhone charges. And with two USB outputs (1A and 2A) you can charge two devices at once. The Satechi was and remains a permanent fixture in my Meridian Daypack.

Vapur Water Anti-Bottle – This was an impulse buy,Vapur Element which we don’t typically do. But considering the features (folds away into near nothing, stands upright when full, attaches to bags via a built in carabineer, and BPA-free), and the cost ($10), the Vapurs were a no brainer. And sparing a few issues, we’re super glad we brought them along. Word of the wise, I’d stay away from the Eclipse model. The matte finish wore off and, worse, a strong smell and taste of soap persisted weeks after washing with dish soap. Thankfully Vapur came through with excellent customer service offering advice on how to rid the bottles of the taste/smell (vinegar unfortunately didn’t work) and then offering to replace the Eclipse bottles with two Element bottles, that continue to perform well.

Exofficio Give-N-Go UnderwearExofficio Lacy Bikini – Stinking sucks, in fact, Exofficio Boxerwriting those words makes me want to vom. But when you’re switching hotels every three days on average, spending countless hours traveling to your next destination by boat, train, car, and plane, or scouting for exotic beaches and restaurants, washing clothes isn’t always the first priority (old me, meet new me). So, it goes without saying that you’ll need underwear that can stand the test of, well…time. I’ve been wearing Give-N-Go Boxers for years (light, durable, long lasting), so of course I brought them along on the ZINK Year. For the ladies out there, Emily loved Exofficio’s Give-N-Go Lacy Bikini.

Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard and Chase Sapphire Preferred – It’s a good idea to have at least two credit cards while traveling, so you might as well get the ones with the best rewards. I mean, who doesn’t need an extra $900? Here’s a quick breakdown of each card.

Barclay Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard – Zero foreignScreen Shot 2014-06-27 at 1.15.30 PM transaction fees, 40,000 bonus miles when you spend $3,000 or more in the first 120 days from opening account (the equivalent of $400 in travel statement credit), 2X miles on all purchases, chip and signature card with PIN capability, annual fees waived the first year – $89 each year thereafter.

Chase Sapphire Preferred – Zero foreign transaction fees, 40,000chase-sapphire-preferred bonus miles when you spend $3,000 or more in the first 90 days from opening account (the equivalent of $500 towards airfare or hotels when redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards **redeeming points is super easy**), 2X miles on travel and dining at restaurants (1 point per $1 on other purchases), chip and signature card with PIN capability, annual fees waived the first year – $95 each year thereafter.

Canon G Series Camera – I love photography, Canon G16always have, but I don’t like the idea of traveling around the world with a five pound, $5,000 camera. It’s always seemed silly, that is, unless you’re a pro or budding pro on your way to making money. That’s why in 2008, I opted for the much lighter (about a pound), much cheaper ($450) Canon G10. Six years later, it still takes super crisp photos. Canon’s worked their way up to the G16 now, surprisingly the same price today as I paid years ago and no doubt better.

Leatherman Style PS – Space in our bags is sacred, Leatherman Style PSso in lieu of carrying multiple tools, we opted for the all-in-one, yet still bare bones, light-as-can-be Leatherman Style PS, which includes spring-action pliers, file, scissors, tweezers, mini-screwdriver, and my favorite, the bottle opener. I used every tool at least once a week and one tool specifically a little too often. Note for the wise: On two occasions in Japan and Turkey, I nearly had the Style PS confiscated by over-anxious security guards simply because it looked like a pocket knife, despite having pointed out repeatedly that it didn’t have anything close to a knife inside. (A fair bit of pleading won out in both cases and we were able to keep the tool). If you’re checking a bag anyway, avoid the possible hassle and store it in your checked luggage.

Eagle Creek Pack-It Garment Folder and Packing Cube
I remember days not too terribly long Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 12.45.54 PMago when it was completely normal to carefully fold shirts and pants and place them into a suitcase, along with shoes and toiletries, without any sort of inner containment. By the time you opened the luggage after the flight, you had a big rat’s nest on your hands. Eagle Creek’s Pack-It Garment Folder and Packing Cubes solved all that, and I’m forever grateful.

Lewis N. Clark TSA Cable Luggage Lock – Close your eyes,Lewis N. Clark TSA Cable Luggage Lock imagine that everything you own fits into two small roller suitcases. A bit overwhelming already, right? Now, imagine all of your stuff being stolen because you didn’t lock your bags. There are tons of luggage lock options out there that minimize the chance of this happening, but we prefer the Lewis N. Clark TSA Cable Luggage Locks. The sturdy, flexible cable swivels so it doesn’t get bound up like locks with fixed shackles and bends minimizing the chance of breakage on airport conveyor belts. I recommend one lock for each bag and an extra one in case you lose one. If you’re the extra careful type, pair the Lewis N. Clark TSA Cable Luggage Locks with a Pacsafe Retractasafe 250 Retractable Cable Lock. We used the latter at a train station (and on a train!) and in a few sketchy hotel rooms.

Pacsafe Walletsafe 50 Compact Wallet – Pickpockets existPacsafe Walletsafe 50 because people don’t take the proper measures to protect their stuff. Simple as that. The Walletsafe 50 keeps shifty hands at bay with a safety chain that attaches to a belt loop. It’s small enough to wear in a front pocket and features a convenient inner cash/credit card divider and external coin pocket. An added benefit of the chain is that it prevents you from misplacing the wallet along the way.

Our Love Affair with Greece

When you spend 24 hours a day with someone for 8 months in a row, conversation starts to get creative: i.e. we frequently ask each other unrealistic hypothetical questions, like… “If next year you were forced to return to one destination we’ve visited this year, where would you go?” The answer for both of us: Greece.

Our three week frolic through Greece was idyllic, romantic, relaxing, delicious, enchanting… and probably every other luring adjective you can dream up. We went for the ruins—amazing in their own rite—but left in love with the terrain, the food, the people. Thanks to this no-job thing, we had time to linger. Lingering is good in Greece. In fact, we could have lingered longer. It’s perhaps the one place we’ve been this ZINK Year where the MO is slow no matter your default speed—a place where you’re forced to slow down, decompress, soak in what’s before you (not what’s in your head), and gulp down the incredibly cheap wine.

Need more convincing? The scenery is sumptuous, especially in spring; the food is local and fresh (and cheap for Europe); the people are some of the kindest, warmest, most generous you’ll encounter; and the history is omnipresent—ancient ruins and walls and olive trees blanket the landscape, giving you a calming sense of timelessness and selflessness, a reminder that thousands of generations have walked this same path before you and will do it after you leave… If you’ve spent the past months stressing over a wedding, work, or anything, visit Greece, especially the Southern Peloponnese. Below is an outline of our itinerary and suggestions for each destination. Go! Grecians need your money and you need their intoxicating charm.

*****

Athens 

Before we arrived in Athens, we’d spent the past five months in either frenetic Asian cities or desolate natural landscapes. So our first impression of Greece was an overwhelming sense of European-ness: cobblestone streets, café tables spilling onto sidewalks, soot-stained 19th-century townhouses, and well-dressed urbanites sucking cigarettes. As we traveled more through the continent, we realized the “Europe” we’d found Athens was grittier, poorer, slower than its neighbors, but for us, maybe more charming. And as many great cities we’d see in Europe, only one is lucky enough to go about its modern day-to-day living beneath the world’s most beautiful ancient building.

Oh, the Parthenon. You will be swept away by its beauty up close and swooned at a distance: its massive, yet delicate 2500-year-old frame is visible from every point in the city. Other highlights: The brand-new Acropolis Museum with its ancient statuary, epic view of the Parthenon, and its disturbing placeholders for the missing Elgin marbles that controversially live in the British Museum in London; the Plaka district, a bougainvillea-draped village within the city; The drab, but important National Archaelogical Museum, where you’ll see the pounded-gold Mask of Agamemnon; the colossal Corinthian columns at the Temple of Olympian Zeus; and the lovely Centrotel Hotel, which was hardly central and located in a rough neighborhood, BUT… was super cheap ($50/night) and nice. We’d stay there again. You could linger in Athens, but for those with limited time, make it a 2-3 day stop.

The Parthenon, aka the most beautiful ancient building in the world

You’ll see the Acropolis from nearly every spot in the city, but our favorite view was atop Filopappou Hill.

Porch of the Caryatids on top of the Acropolis

Athens by night: Streets abuzz and glowing ruins

Athens by night: Streets abuzz and glowing ruins

*****

Delphi

The 2.5-hour drive from Athens is a commitment, but if the ancient Greeks could do it by foot, we can all manage a quick trip to Delphi in our rental car.

Set into the shadow of a gorgeous mountainside covered in wildflowers in spring, Delphi is a quaint, if touristy, little town famous its ruins. Ancient Greeks from all corners of the country would journey here for Apollo, who spoke directly through Pythia (the oracle), an older woman who sat on top of a “chasm in the Earth.” Her gibberish answers to such questions as “Should I invade neighboring lands?” would then be translated by priests. With such prophetic knowledge, the Greeks would return home, put her advice to use, and benefit greatly.

Unfortunately, the oracle abandoned her post 1600 years ago and the temple she once lived beneath is in pretty bad shape. But walking in the dappled morning sunlight among the toppled marble and stone of once a grand complex in the 4th century B.C. was appropriately our most mythical ruin visit and one I wouldn’t miss on a trip to Greece. (Stay overnight to visit the ruins first thing in the morning).

Set right at the base of Mount Parnassus, the Tholos at the sanctuary of Athena Pronoia was partially reconstructed in the early 1900s. The rest of Delphi remains as it fell.

The Temple of Apollo, where the oracle sat and prophesied to open-eared Greeks.

Arrive at 8:30 am to avoid the crowds; we had the whole complex to ourselves.

The 5000-seat theater overlooking the temple

A note on transportation:  We’ve heard buses are doable, but for maximum discovery ability, you’ll want to rent a car in Athens for your trips to Delphi and the Peloponnese. We rented the cheapest car available through Budget, a beat-up Hyundai i-10—$200 for a 9-day rental. Driving in Athens is crazy, especially when you’re in a rickety manual-transmission vehicle, and the whole rental process was a little sketchy—Budget placed a $2000 hold on our credit card to ensure we returned the car. We did return the car and all was fine. The surprise? Gas is nearly $9/gallon in Greece (the 5th highest in the world!), and since we drove so much, we ended up spending another $370 in gas and road tolls. If an option, consider paying extra for a fuel-efficient vehicle.

*****

The Peloponnese

Want romance? Want a trip back in time? Want to be showered in love by locals? Want gorgeous scenery? Head quickly to the Peloponnese (the giant Southern peninsula of mainland Greece), one of our favorite destinations in the world. For more inspiration, watch Before Midnight, filmed entirely in the Southern Peloponnese. The towns:

  • Nafplio: Set on the sea in the shadow of a gigantic 17th-century Venetian fortress, Old Town Nafplio and its meandering streets make for a relaxing 2-3 day stop. We camped out at the lovely Byron Hotel for three nights, which may have been a night too long for a town that’s charming, but definitely touristy. (When we return, we’ll spend more time in the Southern Peloponnese towns like Kardamyli). If you go, don’t miss Mezedopoleio O Noulis, one of our favorite dining experiences in Greece. (For more pics of Nafplio, click here).

    Sunset at Nafplio’s Old Town port. You can sit down for pricey drinks at one of the seaside bars, or… just park yourself on a bench each night like we did.

  • Epidavros is home to the best preserved ancient Greek theater. The 14,000-seat, 3rd-century B.C. theater is grand–test out the perfect acoustics by standing in the middle of the proskenion and orating to your husband way up in the stands–but perhaps our favorite part of the area was the no-tourist-in-sight ruins outside of the theater, where you can ramble in and over the stone remains of the recuperation halls of the once-renowned healing center. Epidavros makes for a good day trip from Nafplio; you won’t need more than 2 hours to meander through the complex.

    The acoustic-perfect Epidavros theater, less than an hour’s drive from Nafplio.

  • Kardamyli: We are smitten with Kardamyli. One idyllic main street lined with tavernas. The bright-blue Mediterranean sea. A brilliant red-rock gorge and steep mountains that rise from the water with walking paths to hidden chapels and monasteries. The opulent roof-top breakfasts with doughnuts, omelettes, and cakes at Stella’s Rooms, a 3-room guest house run by the wonderfully overbearing, but hospitable Stella. We will return here one day, hopefully for a month. (For more pictures, click here).

    The tiny village of Kardamyli boasts plenty of good restaurants. Try Kiki’s Taverna, one of our fave little spots.

    Don’t miss a hike through the Viros Gorge, directly behind the town of Kardamyli.

    Walking along one of the many paths in the Kardamyli foothills

    In the foothills, you’ll discover tiny chapels like this one that are still cared for by locals.

    Introducing… Stella’s Rooms incredible breakfast spread. For $70/night, you get this and a lovely room. Not cheap for Greece, but worth every calorie.

  • Areopoli is another seaside town south of Kardamyli. We stopped here for an hour or so, long enough to get lost in its ancient streets. We’ve heard the village of Limeni is even more charming. There are so many towns to discover along the Mani peninsula coastline. Give yourself days to do it.

    The old cobblestone streets of Areopoli, the launchpad for the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans in 1821.

    View of the Mani coastline; you’ll zoom up and down the mountainous coast in your rental car.

    Dig into a seafood lunch on the coast. Here, fresh grilled calamari from Saga Fish Taverna in Gytheio.

     

  • Monemvasia: If you don’t have time to linger in the small towns that dot the Mani coastline (Kardamyli, Areopoli, Limeni, Agios Nikolaos), head straight to the Medieval castle-town of Monemvasia. It’ll blow your mind in charm and scenery, especially if you visit in the spring before the summer crowds arrive. To save money (theme of this entire blog, obvi), we stayed on the mainland at Angela’s House hotel. We adored this place and Demetrios the host, who sent us home with a bottle of olive oil straight from his farm. That said, if you make it to Monemvasia, just buck up and pay for an expensive room in the “castle,” a pedestrian-only stone village built into a cliff. The town is adorable; the castle ruins on top of the island are spectacular. This place is unbelievably special.

    Lunch (and a pitcher of wine!) on a Monemvasia rooftop.

    Lunch (and a pitcher of wine!) on a Monemvasia rooftop.

  • View of Monemvasia from the top of the island

    View of Monemvasia from the top of the island

    The ruins of a once-grand Byzantine fortress a top the island

    The sun rises behind the island of Monemvasia, connected to the Peloponnese mainland by a causeway

The Islands

White homes. Blue doors. Pink bougainvillea. Late-night, rowdy parties. If this is your image of the Greek islands, you’re right on point. For us (and our revered Rick Steves), the islands are lovely and worth a quick stop, but we’d rather devote our lingering to the Southern Peloponnese. However…

Santorini is a must. You’ll be there with hordes of tourists–even in off-season. The prices are outrageous; the cruise ship crowds are annoying; the entire island feasts only on tourism. But it really is a must-see destination. The 3.5-hour hike along the rim of the caldera was one of the most spectacular things we did this ZINK Year. You’ll get jaw-dropping views of the sea, see colorful lava-rock terrain (smothered in wildflowers), and walk through adorable villages filled with the distinctive white-washed cave homes miraculously nested into the cliff face. And if you time your hike right, you’ll arrive in the town Oia at sunset with the rest of the crowds to watch the orange orb seep into the horizon.

Hotel tip: Splurge for a room on the caldera. That’s why you’re here. We recommend the luxe, but small Chromata: 1-2 nights here will be plenty to soak it all in. (We saved $150+ a night by staying at Stelios’ Place, right next to Perissa’s black-sand beach. A great option for the super cheap, but… you’re a 45-minute bus ride away from what you came to see!)

A church on the rim of Santorini’s giant caldera

One of our favorite days this ZINK Year was hiking along the rim of Santorini’s caldera. Bring your camera for the amazing views, colorful wildflowers, and up-close shots of the island’s amazing cliff homes.

While most of the 3.5-hour hike from Fira to Oia is on a paved sidewalk, you’ll have to walk through plenty of slippery volcano scree. Wear hiking shoes and bring plenty of water.

Let’s just call this… Paradise. Do splurge for a room on the caldera, where you’ll get pools and views like this one.

End your caldera trek in Oia, just in time for the famous sunset.

It’s all gorgeous, but I think Santorini’s at its very best at twilight. Simply magical.

Once you’re already way out in the Aegean and have time to discover more of those lands from the Odyssey, you may as well do it. We stopped at Naxos, thanks to its glowing article in the New York Times (but were a bit underwhelmed ourselves); Syros, for logistical reasons (but really did love the cosmopolitan feel of its main port, Ermoupoli); and Samos, as a gateway for our trip into Turkey. While two days in Santorini was plenty, we could have stayed two weeks in Samos. It’s less grand, but far more relaxed with a more varied terrain. Linger here as long as you can to… discover hidden cave chapels, frolic through poppy fields, and sunbathe on desolate beaches.

The “Nat Geo” ruin (once the entrance a temple for Apollo) greets you at the Naxos port

Naxos is made for driving. You can rent a car for the day on most Greek islands for ~$30/day. Just keep in mind that gas costs $9/gallon.

Naxos from way up above.

Poppy fields on Samos, just outside of Pythagoreio.

Find a beach. Any beach. Chances are, you’ll have it to yourself. (Here, we’re at an unnamed beach south of Limnionas. Supporting cast: Our dear friends, Amelia and Davin).

For more Greek island action, visit our Flickr albums for Santorini, Naxos, and Samos.

*****

Now that we’ve convinced you that Greece should be your next destination, here are a few quick tips:

1. Most hotels on the islands — even budget options — will provide free transportation to/from the port. Take advantage of this service; you’ll save tons!

2. Carry small bills with you when driving in the country. You’ll pass plenty of tolls.

3. Order the gyro pita (2-3 euro), not the platter (7-8 euro). All restaurants will push the latter, but it’s a tourist scam. Buy two pitas if you’re that hungry.

4. Show up for dinner late. Tavernas are pretty dead (and full of tourists) until 9 pm or so. For a more local experience, show up late.

5. Save for Santorini where the glitterati roam, Greece is casual. Pack light and comfortable.

6. Spend time with your innkeeper. We stumbled upon incredibly kind hosts, who were eager to discuss everything with us: their families, their business, their politics. It’s amazing what we learned about the culture. Ask questions and listen.

7. Plan your trip in the spring. You’ll get wildflowers, off-season prices, and perfect weather.

 

 

 

 

 

New Zealand: The Good, The Bad, and the Beautiful

New Zealand is stunningly beautiful. Patten proclaims (on Radio New Zealand) that it’s the most beautiful country he’s ever seen. I’d argue that our own USA wins the beauty prize, but there’s no denying that New Zealand is gorgeous: pristine white-sand beaches, craggy coastlines against turquoise waters, other-wordly volcanic landscapes, isolated fiords, idyllic prairies, rolling hills planted with vines, snow-capped peaks, and placid lakes abound. New Zealand is the super model of terrain. Pure, natural eye candy.

But be warned: Land this beautiful doesn’t come cheap or easy. And if you’re starving for culture, unique flavors, coddling hosts, or a great value, you may want to consider a different country. Here’s a breakdown of what we loved, what we didn’t love, and what we saw… because the main reason to go to NZ is to see ridiculously pretty natural things.

What we loved:

    • The well-kept hiking paths: Any visit to New Zealand should include a lot of walking, hiking, or tramping, as locals like to call it. The Department of Conservation has done an incredible job of maintaining hundreds of walking paths throughout the country: This means you’ll have clearly marked routes, well-packed trails, and knowledgeable staff in a plethora of DOC offices. We wrote about our lovely experience on the Kepler Track (one of the 9 Great Walks), but we also hiked a dozen other shorter paths/sections of longer tracks during our travels throughout the country. We tried to squeeze in a walk of some sort just about every day. If you come to NZ, you must hike. This is the main attraction.
    • Delicious Pinot Gris in the Marlborough Region, South Island

      The white wine: We’ve been drinking NZ Sauvignon blancs for years — they’re good and cheap. One of our favorite non-hiking days was spent white-wine tasting in the Marlborough Region in the South Island. We had almost every winery to ourselves, tastings were free, and the landscape was intoxicating: rolling vineyards, puffy clouds, and blue sky. Our two favorite places: Auntsfield Estate (for its gorgeous views and outdoor tasting) and Gibson Bridge (for the tastiest Pinot Gris’ on the planet).

    • Gourmet Instant Coffee: Traveling on a budget in New Zealand does not include $6 frothy lattes from the wonderfully hip coffee shops you’ll find everywhere. Instead, you’ll be introduced to the instant coffee section in your local New World supermarket, where you’ll find numerous brand names alongside Nescafe (which I’ve admittedly come to actually like too.) But the gourmet stuff is better. For $10, we bought a small bottle of Jed’s Brewing Co. medium roast, which has provided us 20+ mornings of what-tastes-like-freshly-brewed coffee. Can’t drink it black? Buy powdered milk, something we’ve also learned to like. Another NZ plus: Every motel and hostel comes with an electric kettle — great for that instant coffee and for boiling eggs.
    • Eden’s Edge Backpacker’s Lodge: What a dream! We paid $24/person for a comfortable bed in a 4-person dorm, which was really like a cute cabin set amid an apple orchard. The facilities are new, modern, and filled with light: Believe me, after you’ve been cooking in dingy window-less kitchens in other hostels, you will absolutely adore the huge sunlit dream kitchen at Eden’s Edge. Uncork a bottle of that delicious white wine and eat Patten’s spaghetti bolognese on the deck at sunset. (If you’re on a long trip, you’ll also appreciate the owner’s giant DVD collection and the cushy leather couches in the video room. A little taste of home!)

Best accomodation: Eden’s Edge Backpacker Lodge

What we didn’t love:

    • Paying for WiFi. If you’re staying in budget accommodations, you can expect to pay $5 for 24 hours of internet usage. We haven’t experienced this in any other country and it’s annoying, to say the least. Don’t expect restaurants or cafes to have WiFi either. Actually, many may actually have a signal, but after you’ve paid for your $7 cupcake and ask your waiter for the network password, he’ll tell you “it’s not working today.”
    • Paying $80/night for a very basic room or two beds in a hostel. Budget accommodation is expensive and not nearly as nice as what we’ve stayed in elsewhere. We’d always heard about how great NZ hostels were, but many seemed to be past their prime. For visitors 15-20 years ago, maybe these hostels seemed palatial next to their European counterparts? Most of the YHAs and BBHs we stayed in were pretty darn run-down.
    • Green-shell mussels from the Mussel Pot in Havelock. North Island.

      The food. You will likely be disappointed in your overall eating experience in NZ if you’re coming from Asia, where you were spoiled with complex, new, and beautiful foods. Sure, the lamb here might taste better than what you get at home (though your local Costco probably sells New Zealand lamb for a better price). The dairy is decidedly creamier (eat lots of yogurt!). And the massive green-shell mussels are as tasty as they look. But overall, the food we ate in NZ was forgettable. I should qualify that statement with the fact we ate affordable food here. I’m sure you can be wowed with plenty of new tastes at gourmet restaurants, but the middle-class fare (a la fish & chips, burgers, and Indian curries) just weren’t as wonderful as we’d hoped or as good as what you’ll get in the Motherland. The exception: An incredibly juicy $19 steak from Atlas Beer Cafe in Queenstown.

    • Cooking that food. Okay, maybe it was actually refreshing to take a break from restaurants for a while, but I like to eat out (!!!) and that simply isn’t possible to do on a budget in NZ. We caved a few times and shared $20 hamburgers at pubs, but for the most part, we cooked. If cooking is a vacation for you, you’ll enjoy traveling here.
    • $9/gallon gas. We’ve complained enough about prices, so we’ll just let this one speak for itself.

What we saw:

Yes, we got a little heated over the price of things, but we both feel like our 4 weeks in New Zealand were totally worth it. Why? This:

Ocean Beach, Whangerei Heads, North Island.

Mount Ngauruhoe (aka Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings), Tongariro Alpine Crossing, North Island

Emerald Lakes, Tongariro Alpine Crossing, North Island

Marlborough Wine Region, South Island

Waikawa Bay, Picton, South Island

Torrent Bay, Abel Tasman National Park, South Island

Tinline Bay, Abel Tasman National Park, South Island

View of Mount Cook from Lake Matheson, West Coast, South Island

Fox Glacier, South Island

Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki, West Coast, South Island

Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki, West Coast, South Island

Pororari River Track, Punakaiki, West Coast, South Island

Lake Tekapo, South Island

Lake Tekapo, South Island

Lake Hawea, South Island

Road to Moke Lake, Queenstown, South Island

Kepler Track, South Island

For more pictures, check out our Flickr albums here:

Hiking the Kepler Track in New Zealand

New Zealand is unquestionably one of the most beautiful countries we’ve seen, especially the South Island, where every turn seems to uncover yet another postcard-worthy shot. Our favorite spectacular-scenery experience in New Zealand — or anywhere else in the world for that matter — was hiking the 60-kilometer (37-mile) Kepler Track. If you’re headed to NZ, do this walk. It’s breathtaking… and surprisingly underrated.

One of many spectacular vistas on the Kepler Track

We reserved (and paid for) our 4-day, 3-night Kepler Track walk six weeks before we arrived – and because there’s very little information about the walk online, I spent much of that time worried about the experience. As we told people we’d chosen the Kepler, they seemed confused: “The Kepler? Why not Milford or Abel Tasman?” The latter two were fully booked. We chose Kepler entirely based on the advice of our friend, Maia, who’d be joining us on the walk. We trusted her advice, but it did seem weird that a) those familiar with New Zealand questioned our decision, and b) there was very little information about the walk online, other than the short description on the NZ Department of Conservation website. (Lonely Planet dedicates just a few words to the walk, with phrases like “can be treacherous” and “requires a good level of fitness,” neither of which helped my anxiety or proved to be true. And they included absolutely no commentary about the walk’s beauty!)

The goal of this post, then, is to give the Kepler Track some much-deserved online love and toss in a few tips/suggestions that will help enhance your experience. Read this as a supplement to info on the DOC site, which lists all the tactical stuff.

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Our candlelight dinner inside Moturau Hut

What to expect:

  • Unbelievable scenery. Like seriously amazing, mind-blowing vistas and colorful, never-seen-before flora.
  • Well-groomed trails with just a few scary sections. Most of the trail is pretty wide, but there are a few narrow passes on steep “if-you-slipped-you-could-die” slopes. I’m a wuss with heights, but I did this without freaking out. You’ll be fine.
  • Very basic accommodation. The term “alpine hut” conjures up something luxurious, right? While set in amazing locations, these huts are not fancy despite the hefty nightly rate, $54NZD/person. You’ll be sleeping (in a sleeping bag) on a plastic mattress right next to a stranger. There are no showers. There is no hot water. There is no food. There are no lamps or lights. Come prepared.
  • Some physical pain: You are probably walking 10 times the distance you walk in a normal day. You’re legs will hurt, but you’ll be fine. Take two ibuprofen when you end for the day, or when you start. I found the latter actually worked the best for me. Also, my skin was rubbed raw on my hips and collarbone from the heavy pack. I slapped on some Vaseline and kept going.
  • Unpredictable weather: We hiked the track in late February. We had absolutely no rain, some wind, and lots of sun. However, the day after we crossed the alpine pass, it snowed. Again, just be prepared.
  • Spotty cell service: I was pleasantly surprised to have cell service about 30% of the time. Point here is… it’s probably worth bringing along your phone for emergency’s (Instagram’s) sake. Plus, you can use your phone as a flashlight when you’re trying to find the loo in the pitch black at 2 a.m.

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What to expect… in pictures:

Day 1: Beech forest, giant limestone rocks, a constant butt-burning incline, and an alpine meadow.

Beech forest and a steady incline

Gargantuan limestone rocks.

A lovely alpine meadow…

And an even better alpine hut. (Luxmore Hut after sunset)

Day 2: INCREDIBLE vistas that GET.BETTER.EVERY.HOUR.

9 am

10 am: Much of the path over the meadow is a well-maintained foot bridge.

11 am

12 pm: Awww. Christmas-card quality vistas.

1 pm: A spectacular ridge — see the tiny hikers?

2 pm

photo 5

3 pm: A late lunch outside the 2nd emergency shelter

4 pm: The long descent begins. (That scree slide is one of the few scary sections)

5 pm: Back in the moss-covered beech forest

6 pm: Arrive at Iris Burn Hut for a good night’s sleep

Day 3: A low-key march through a valley, around a river, and in/out of lots of beech forest.

A few hours through a flat valley provides some leg relief.

A magical fern forest! Patten searches for a Hobbit.

A peaceful river that leads to…

…the third hut, Moturau Hut.

Day 4: A two-hour long walk to Rainbow Reach, where we cheated and took a shuttle back to our car.

After more beech forest, you walk through wetlands

….and over one of the several suspension bridges on the track.

Your reward for a long hike? A platter of fish & chips at Mainly Seafood in Te Anau

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What to bring:

(Nearly all tips came from our hiking companions, Maia and Dave. You campers out there may already know all this stuff, but this was all new to me!)

  • Hiking Pack: We are traveling with roller suitcases and day packs, so we needed to rent proper packs for the hike. You can rent packs, pots, and sleeping bags at Outside Sports in Te Anau. The packs were $30NZD/each for the 4-day hike. If you’re traveling with good pack, you definitely won’t want to carry all your stuff on the hike. We stored the rest of our belongings in a storage locker at Te Anau Lakeview Kiwi Holiday Park. It’s $5 (with an additional $10 refundable deposit) to store your stuff for the duration of the hike. (The lockers are huge — all four of us shared one).
  • Large Garbage Bag: Use this as a liner for your pack to keep your stuff dry when you get caught in the rain. White bags will make it easier to see your stuff as you dig for those snacks inside, but black bags are totally fine and may be your only option (which was the case for us).
  • Sleeping Bag: I assumed we’d have fresh linens on the beds inside the huts. I mean, we were paying $54/person/night! Luckily we were traveling with people who knew what they were doing and they made sure we each rented a sleeping bag.
  • Sleep Sack / Sleeping Bag Liner: Since you’re probably using a sleeping bag that some sweaty guy before you slept in naked… You may want to bring along your own sleep sack. I was sure glad I had mine.
  • All the food (and wine) you’ll need for 4 days of hiking: I assumed a “hut” would include a “chef” and “prepared meals.” Psych. What initially seemed like a terrible form of torture (carrying heavy veggies up a mountain) turned out to be one of the super fun experiences of the hike. Maia planned our four days of menus, then spent a few hours the night before our hike packing all the ingredients for each meal in big Ziplock bags. She labeled each bag — i.e. Lunch 1 — which made it easy to prepare each meal. (And since you have to carry out all your trash, you can just use the meal bag to fill it with the rubbish leftover from each meal). Both Maia and Dave insisted they carry 4 liters of boxed wine. Of course, I thought this was crazy. Of course, I drank it anyway and loved them both for it. Tip 1: We carried a bag of milk powder to add to our instant coffee and most of our meals. Sounds weird, but the powder made our cooked lentil dish and veggie/rice meal taste that much better. Tip 2: Bring a bag or two of spinach. It’s super lightweight and tastes great thrown into ramen or instant pasta dishes. You’ll be happy to have some greens.
  • Pot, Utensils, Mug, Plate: The huts have gas stoves, but no utensils, pans, pots, plates, etc. You can rent a small pot from Outside Sports ($15 for duration of hike) or buy one there for $20. The pot rental came with a mug — another essential item for your morning coffee and evening wine cocktail. We had sporks too and a few small Gladware containers to use as a plate or a bowl.
  • Wet Wipes: There are no showers in the hut. Again, our pro campers, Maia and Dave, came to the rescue with a box of wet wipes. It’s kind of amazing how clean you can feel after a thorough wipe down with wipes.
  • Matches or a lighter: There are gas stoves in all the huts, but usually no form of fire. Carry matches.
  • Rain gear: We lucked out with clear weather, but the hike can get quite miserable in the rain. Absolutely bring a rain jacket. I wore mine daily, not for rain but for wind. And if you don’t have rain pants, bring a poncho (or an extra garbage bag).
  • Hut shoes: You can’t wear your hiking shoes in the hut. So if you don’t bring along any other type of footwear, you’ll be doing what we did: Traipsing around in socks on cold (and sometimes wet) floors. This is disturbing in the bathrooms. Maia and Dave both brought along Crocs — a great, lightweight choice.
  • Head lamp: The huts have solar-powered lights that dimly light the main room from 8-10 pm. There are no lights in the bunk rooms. It is literally pitch black. A flash light or head lamp is a must. (Actually, if you just take along your iPhone, you’ll be fine.)

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If you have any Kepler-specific tips or general NZ hiking pointers, please add them to the comments!

And for more photos, check our Kepler Track Flickr set.

 

 

One Month in Vietnam: Our Top 20 Experiences

Overall, Vietnam has probably been our favorite country so far: great food, lots of natural beauty, tons of culture, kind people, good tourism infrastructure, and… immense value. We were eating in sit-down restaurants for almost every meal, staying in plush hotel rooms nearly every night, and splurging on occasional adventure activities (kayaking in Ha Long, trekking in Dalat, speedboating up to Chu Chi Tunnels) and we still only spent $100/day combined, including our roundtrip airfare from Singapore. That is CHEAP, especially considering the quality.

You’d think 30 days in a country a little larger than New Mexico would be plenty of time to see all the top spots, but we managed to leave Vietnam without experiencing everything. We missed the rice paddies and mountain villages in Sapa, the pristine beaches of Pho Quoc and Con Dao islands, the world’s largest cave in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, the floating markets of the Mekong Delta… really, this list could go on and on. Which is to say, Vietnam just has a TON to offer.  We loved what we did see and experience, but need to return for more. To give you a taste of what we loved and why we loved it, here are our Top 20 Vietnam experiences in no particular order:

1. Kayaking beside and inside of karsts in Ha Long Bay

The picturesque emerald-green bay with its dramatic limestone karsts truly is a must on any visit to Vietnam, which means it’s overrun with tourists on expensive boat trips. Basic budget boats will cost you $300/couple for a two-night cruise; the luxury liners may set you back $1500/couple. Due to some good investigative work and a good day of planning, we like to think we hacked the Ha Long Bay experience.

The hack: Skip the formal boat trips, and head directly to Cat Ba Island. Find a decent hotel room for $13/night, and book a day-long trip with Cat Ba Ventures. (Our TripAdvisor review here). You’ll get to experience both the quieter Lan Ha Bay as well as the famous Ha Long Bay, enjoy an awesome lunch, kayak through karsts, and ride on a nice boat that you don’t have to sleep on. And… you’ll pay $100 for this experience for two vs. 4-5 times that.

The emerald waters and craggy karsts are beautiful even on a cloudy day

That’s us and the tiny little beach we visited in the kayak.

You’ll see fewer tourist boats and more local fisherman in the neighboring Lan Ha Bay

—–

2. Eating our way through Old Town Hanoi

The old quarter in Hanoi–with its French architecture, buzzing motorbikes, overflowing storefronts, and tucked-away temples–would be charming without the steaming street food. But once you put that first bite of bun cha in your mouth, you may claim aloud that you’ve finally the most wonderful city in the world. We were immediately taken with Hanoi and it had a lot to do with this with these four food experiences:

  • Bun Cha, a self-assembled meal of cold rice noodles, char-grilled pork patties and pork belly, fried spring rolls, fresh ginger, garlic, chilies, a jackfruit-infused, vinegary sauce, and a gigantic pile of Vietnamese lettuce and herbs.
    Where to get it: Bun Cha, 1 Hang Manh Street
  • Ca Cha, turmeric-marinated catfish fillets sauteed tableside with heaps of dill and scallions. (pictured below)
    Where to get it: Ca Cha Thang Long, 31 Duong Thanh Street
  • Banh Cuon, a delicate rice pancake stuffed with pork, onions, and mushrooms, then topped with crispy shallots and fish sauce.
    Where to get it: Banh Cuon Gia Truyen, 14 Pho Hang Ga Street
  • Bun Bo Nam Bo, chilled rice noodles topped with bean sprouts, stir-fried beef, toasted peanuts, crispy shallots, pickled carrots, green papaya, and herbs. Final ingredient: a salty sour hot beef broth poured over the top.
    Where to get it: Bun Bo Nam Bo, 67 Hang Dieu

Ca Cha (fish sauteed with green and peppers) from Ca Cha Thang Long, 31 Duong Thanh Street

—–

3. Hanging out with droves of Russians on the beaches of Nha Trang

Thanks to nonstop flights from Moscow, Nha Trang has become a Russian stronghold. But unlike Phuket, which seemed to attract the most boisterous of the bunch (Russia’s Cancun), Nha Trang seemed to welcome a lovely, sophisticated crew who came for the gorgeous beaches, the good food, and the accommodating Vietnamese, who have taught themselves to write and speak in Russian. Seriously, Cyrillic is everywhere. We’d read seedy things about Nha Trang, but we kind of liked it. The hotels were super cheap, it’s easy to access (flights, buses, trains, motorcycles), we could run each morning on the beach, and there were… tons of Russians.

We were the only non-Russians on Nha Trang’s main beach and it was kind of awesome.

The view from the top of Orchid Island, one of the small islands near Nha Trang

—–

4. Discovering the best fish taco in Southeast Asia, possibly the world

And in this Russian paradise of a beach town, who would ever expect to find the most delicious fish taco in the world? We were wowed by the tempura-fried whitefish taco with chipotle aioli and shaved cabbage at The Lil Shack in Nha Trang. We won’t tell you how many of these we ate, but we can assure you we still fantasize about these delights. I want, I want, I want again.

—–

5. Getting body scrubbed and kneaded for next to nothing in Saigon

Unfortunately, I didn’t snap a photo of Patten prostrate on a plastic sheet covered in coconut sugar scrub… but we still want to mention the fabulous therapeutic massage services we encountered while in the lovely city of Saigon. Our favorite? The $32/each we spent at Cat Moc Spa that got us 2.5 hours of steaming, scrubbing, and rubbing by two professional technicians. (Thanks for the tip, Ruben!) Sure, you can get decent $5 hour-long massages at various spots around town, but at these prices, you may as well go long and luxe.

6. Playing with creepy primates on Monkey Island and crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels.

Just kidding. We didn’t really like either of these experiences nor do I feel like writing about them. BUT, the pictures are fun:

A visit to the strange Monkey Island, where hundreds of these fellows chase you around and try to steal your food. Near Nha Trang, Vietnam.

Climbing into a Viet Cong tunnel is a requisite at the interesting, but disturbing Cu Chi tunnel complex.

—–

7. Experiencing the mystical magic of the Nihn Binh landscape

The scene: A countryside full of limestone karsts jutting out from vast rice paddies. Sounds odd, but it is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. If you go to Vietnam, please visit Ninh Binh. It’s just 1.5 hours south of Hanoi, or you can stop there via train on your way up to the city. The over-run tourist attraction is Tam Coc. We skipped that and headed instead to the Van Long Nature Preserve, where you’ll pay $5 to have a private guide row you through a shallow lake alongside the towering karsts. Absolutely magical. Follow your boat ride with a hike up Mua Caves for 360 views of the countryside.

View from the top of Mua Caves. One of the most incredible viewpoints we’ve had on our ZINK year.

If you have a few minutes, check out the whole set of pics on Flickr while listening to the sounds of Van Long. It was so, so wonderful.

The lovely lady who steered us in and around the karsts in Van Long Nature Preserve.

—–

8. Learning about and experiencing Tet

We penned a whole post on this one, but being in Vietnam during Tet, their Lunar New Year, was absolutely a highlight of our trip.

A silk display in Hoi An during Tet

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9. Drinking hot soy and sesame milk in Dalat

In the chilly mountain town of Dalat, the best night time treat is a steaming, creamy cup of soy milk, served by a kind woman out of a silver cart on Phan Đình Phùng road. (If you’re ever in Dalat, here are the coordinates: 11.94523,108.43479). After you’re served your hot milk, you sit down on a tiny plastic chair at a tiny plastic table and watch passersby shiver in the night cold. It’s surprisingly romantic.

—–

10. Meeting two awesome travelers who we bet will be longtime friends

As we’ve expressed before, one of our favorite events on our ZINK Year is meeting new friends on the road. We were lucky enough to meet Sen and Dipa in our hotel in Hoi An, and over the course of our travels in Hue and Hanoi, we kept meeting up for laughter-filled drinks, dinners, and bubble teas. Recently engaged, Sen and Dipa decided to ZINK-away from Sydney, spend a few months in Southeast Asia, then relocate to London, where they’ll start a business, get married, and become sophisticated Londoners. Sen and Dipa: We miss you two!

Sen and Dipa, our savvy and hilarious ZINK Year friends

Sen and Dipa, our savvy and hilarious ZINK Year friends. Here they are in Hue, which proves to make a lovely backdrop for photos but was one of our least favorite destinations. Where was that magical Hue we’d read about before visiting?

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11. Crossing the street with hundreds of motorbikes zooming towards you

It’s as frightening as you’d expect. This endless stream of motorbikes is what you see before you bravely step into the road and magically cross the street:

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12. Volunteering at an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City

Thanks to a friend who recently lived in HCMC, we had a laundry list of must-dos and a full itinerary from the day we arrived. (Thank you, Sarah!) One of our favorite activities was her recommendation to spend the day with adorable Vietnamese kids at Mai Tam Shelter. Run by the Catholic church, the orphanage is specifically catered towards kids with HIV, whose parents have either died of the disease or deliberately abandoned their sick kids. House “mothers” — women with HIV who have been shunned and thrown out by their families — also live in the orphanage and take care of the children. The stories here are tragic, and yet, it’s probably the happiest home we’ve ever been inside. We were wowed by how well run, clean, functional, and overwhelmingly positive this orphanage was for the kids, and left with an overwhelming sense of hope. There is a lot of “good” in this big world of ours.

13. Riding in a stinky sleeper bus that crashes into a construction truck

We tested out every form of transportation in Vietnam. The winner? Planes. You can fly on nice jets into small airports for very reasonable prices; if you book a month or so early, you may find $30 flights, sometimes cheaper than train tickets. The train is an experience; maybe one worth having for 2 hours, not 12. The bathrooms are super gross, the floors are filthy, and the soft-seat cars where we sat are teeming with boisterous locals (that’s the fun part; just not for 12 hours).

Buses are: 1) Cheap, 2) Smelly, 3) Frightening. The prices are tempting and probably make bus travel worth it for short-haul hops, but be prepared for discomfort and a distinctive stench. Sleeper buses are the worst smell culprits, since they require passengers to take off their shoes. While this probably does keep the bus cleaner, you smell a lot of feet. And if you’re an average sized American, you’ll be cramped in your “bed,” which feels like you’re sitting–definitely not lying–in a bumper car.

Yes, bumper cars are a good segue to the point of this top experience: our glass-shattering wreck during our bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat. An hour into the trip, our driver, who was driving way too fast through a construction zone, hit a ditch and tipped our bus into a dump truck, which shattered most of the glass on one side of the bus. Instead of calling for a new bus, the driver and his assistant taped up the windows with cardboard and made all the people on the left side of the bus sit in the aisle for the remainder of the trip, since there were chunks of glass falling into their seats with each ensuing road bump. Bottomline: Safety standards are quite different in this country, take plenty of Xanex, and fly when you can.

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Hoi-An style wontons

Hoi-An style wontons

14. Obsessing over the food at The Moon Restaurant in Hoi An

The most basic restaurant advice while traveling in foreign countries: Do not eat in restaurants with empty tables. We follow this rule religiously, but the few short reviews we’d read on TripAdvisor about The Moon Restaurant (“daring and traditional” and “best food in Vietnam”) had us riskily entering a completely deserted restaurant. Our meal was so good that we returned three nights in a row. We would have gone again, but were worried about creeping out the chef with our constant fawning.

In a city full of great restaurants, The Moon will soon be considered the very best. When we were there, their TripAdvisor ranking was #43 of 367 restaurants in Hoi An. In one short month, they’ve moved up to #7. And I bet they’ll top that list in another 30 days. Tangent: For those of you that may argue the opposite, this is why UGC sites like Yelp and TA are incredible for local businesses. In the past, it may have taken the chef/owner a year or two to receive proper recognition with a call out in a guidebook or a magazine. But now, great business owners dishing out phenomenal products can see success much sooner, and a guy like Nyugen (the chef at The Moon) will get to continue to fulfill his dream of running a restaurant vs. shutting down this summer for lack of cash. Go, TripAdvisor. Seriously — we’ve become big believers of your worth.

Inside lovely Moon Restaurant in Hoi-An. Our favorite dining experience of the trip.

Inside lovely Moon Restaurant in Hoi-An. Our favorite dining experience of the trip.

15. Trekking through the villages and jungles of Dalat

We’d heard abseiling, or canyoning, was the most exciting activity in Dalat, but I just couldn’t swallow dangling 75-feet over a rushing waterfall. Instead, we booked a jungle trek with Phat Tire Ventures, and spent the day hiking in the Dalat mountainside through villages, coffee plantations, and thick jungle. Our guide, Linh, was and has been to date the best tour guide we’ve had on the trip: great English, full of facts, and an all-around fun guy. The jungle was interesting and worth spending a day in its shade, but the more interesting part of the day was walking through a village and through the farmed fields in the valley. If we were to visit Dalat again, we’d/Emily would just ditch her fears and do the abseiling trip with Phat Tire, which really has seemed like one of the most trustworthy operators we’ve worked with.

Two village girls who took an instant liking to Patten and showed him around their digs.

We adored these two teenagers. Don’t worry: That’s our beer, not theirs. They assured they “do not like beer yet” even though it’s totally legal for them to drink.

16. Hanging out with two teenagers at a pizza parlor

You do get sick of spring rolls and pho. We’ve sneaked in a few slices of pizza on this ZINK Year–all in Asia–and most of it is terrible, save for the crispy, spicy jalapeno pie we got at Bingo Pizza in Dalat. But what made that night even better was the conversation we shared with two driven, adorable, young-and-in-love 17-year-olds, who told us about their own dreams of travel, their plans to become economists, and their excitement about moving and ultimately settling in a burgeoning Saigon: Two kids representing the hope and ambition we saw in the Vietnamese people, especially the youth.

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17. Splurging on a $20 hamburger at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel in Hanoi

Eek. This is turning into a post in which we publicly admit our deviation from local foods in the countries we visit. But this hamburger. This giant, juicy, all-beef (no filler– common in Asia), piled-high-with-bacon-and-egg-and-aged cheddar burger was one of the most wonderful delicacies we’ve found this year.  (Matt: This is the closest we’ve come to a proper PornBurger.) We’ve also come to realize that the only way to effectively enjoy a stuffy, colonial, overpriced-to-be-overpriced restaurant is… to eat a dripping burger over its white tablecloth. Nom.

Sometimes you just need a grease-leaking burger.

Sometimes you just need a grease-leaking burger.

18. Drinking Bia Hoi with the locals

The best way to drown your guilt for splurging on a $50 burger lunch in the cheapest food city in the world? Bia Hoi! This 40-cent beer is served from stainless-steel vats at local bars on nearly every street corner. Sure, the beer tastes like watered-down Natural Light, but it’s 40 cents!!!!

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19. Simply walking through the streets of Hoi An

For a strong dose of Colonial charm, head to Hoi An and aimlessly wander through the streets and alleyways of this old shipping port. Listed as a World Heritage Site, the town is full of hundreds of beautifully restored merchant houses and Chinese temples, now occupied by fancy silk shops, fashionable boutiques, and gourmet restaurants. We spent six days here during Tet, and we never got tired of walking through Old Town and gawking at the architecture. This city is an absolute must on your tour of Vietnam.

The famous Japanese covered bridge in Old Town Hoi An

You can spend hours walking through the streets filled with French-Colonial yellow merchant houses

20. Getting lost in the fascinating street markets throughout the country

Local markets are everywhere. Supermarkets are nowhere. It’s an Alice Waters’ paradise. Unfortunately, we didn’t ever have access to a kitchen, so we just looked at all the fresh fish, plump produce, bins of coffee beans, and baskets full of snails — and took way too many pictures. Our two favorite:

A produce vendor in Hoi An

Many of the markets open as early as 3 am, so this lunchtime nap seems essential. It’s also a sign for me to go to bed.

In case this wasn’t established in our gushing above… Our closing thought: Vietnam should be on the top of your travel list.

Stopover in Singapore

Ahh, Singapore. Returning to a place you’ve already been is severely under-rated: For the first time in 105 days, we stepped off a plane yesterday and knew exactly where to pee, where to go through immigration, how to find the public transportation (where we bypassed 50 people waiting in line to buy passes, because we still had our cards loaded from our last visit), which exit to take at the Tanjong Pagar stop, and which left and right turns to make to get us to our friends’ apartment. After we dropped our bags off, we made our way to a nearby mall, ordered two “duck rices” (that we’d been lusting over on our plane ride in), and stopped by the mall pharmacy to buy two bottles of contact solution (impossible to find anywhere in Vietnam) – all on autopilot! Do you know how good it feels not to think while on a mission to find shelter, food, and supplies?

We’re only here for 32 hours this go round; we board a flight tonight to Sydney, Australia. It’s been just enough time to watch a few DVDs, reorganize all of our gear from the past 3 months of traveling, and eat cheap rice dishes (and drink bubble teas) at the nearby hawker centers. We can’t think of a better way to spend Valentine’s Day. Seriously.

The last time we were here, we came for 12 days. Most of our time was spent resting and talking and laughing with our dear friends—Chris and George—our gracious hosts, who have been kind enough to open up their modern, sun-light filled apartment to us twice. In between sleeping and laundry loads, they gave us daily tours of the city and its varied neighborhoods. Today seemed like a great day to recount those highlights, but only in pictures with captions. We’ve got a flight to catch!

1. The Botanical Gardens

The 180-acre Botanic Garden complex is a pleasant escape from the mostly concrete-covered city. And… it’s free to visit!

Well, almost free. You do have to pay a few bucks if you want to see the National Orchid Garden, but it’s definitely worth it.

Patten in the lush Botanic Gardens at the height of his beardom.

Patten in the lush Botanic Gardens at the height of his beardom.

2. The Marina Bay Sands Building

By day, this ship-topped building is pretty darn cool.

But at night, it’s amazing! Every night at 8 and 9:30 pm, you can watch the place turn lots of pretty colors.

The best part about this hotel/casino though is the VIEW you get from the top.

If you buy a drink at the bar, you avoid the viewing-deck entrance fee…

Plus, a fancy cocktail always tastes better with a view.

Plus, a fancy cocktail always tastes better with a view.

3. The Peranakan Museum

The first Singaporeans were from China, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia. As they intermixed, the Peranakan culture was born. This museum is a must visit, if you want a better sense of the hard-to-grasp Singaporean peeps.

We loved these portraits of today’s Peranakans. The gallery is filled with about 50 or so of these giant images.

We also loved the china — pink, gold, and teal are the hallmark of Peranakan design. Grandma: These plates make me think of you!

4. The Architecture

Modern skyscrapers, Asian-Deco buildings, Chinese shophouses: One of our favorite activities in Singapore was simply walking around and appreciating mankind’s masonry:

For a better understanding of the city and all of its buildings (plus really cool models), visit the Singapore City Gallery.

5. Komala Vilas

For the best vegetarian Indian food ever, visit Komala Vilas. This place definitely makes our list for Top 5 meals of our ZINK year.

The dosa meal at Komala Vilas… and George’s stylish friendship bracelets.

An unbelievably creamy mango shake, not lassi. It must be made with full-fat ice cream.

6. Chewbacca

There is no cuter pup than this little fellow, and the ONLY place you can find him is in Sing.