Go, Keem, Go

to philly and beyond

Waterworld & Wedgies: Brownstone Park, Portland, CT

What if I told you that there’s a magical place, where swimmers and non-swimmers can both have the time of their lives in complete, equal harmony? What if I told…

What if I told you that there’s a magical place, where swimmers and non-swimmers can both have the time of their lives in complete, equal harmony?

What if I told you that it’s only roughly five hours away from Philly? I tell you what, five hours or not, you better find a way to get here.

As part of another adventure weekend with my nieces, we made an absurd promise that if they survive a four or five hour car ride from Philly to Connecticut, their wildest water park dreams will come true. We based this promise off of Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park’s OK website, which contain OK-quality-but-extreme-enough action videos. Zip lines? Into water? Giant slides? LIFE JACKETS REQUIRED? We couldn’t pack our swim suits fast enough.

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Brownstone E & D Park is an abandoned rock-quarry turned adventure land. Once a construction resource in the 1690’s, its grounds now boast a variety of activities to please your average outdoorsman, and tucker out your average seven-year-old. We’re talking, as mentioned, zip lines across the giant body of water, a 100-foot slide, inflatable obstacle courses for both kids and adults, wakeboarding, cliff jumping, and of course, the non-water or less-extreme sports we didn’t observe that day, like kayaking, canoeing, mountain biking and rock wall climbing.

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For a pittance of $22, you can get an all-day “DIY activities” pass, for swimming, hiking, biking, snorkeling and kayaking, plus a pretty beaten-up, tattered life jacket; I’d suggest BYO for comfort. For $10 more, you can access the basics, plus the extreme activities, like inflatable obstacle courses, zip lines, and life jacket, as well. The girls insisted on the extreme pass to which we, the spoilers of weekend, agreed. And thank goodness, because they had a blast on the squishy log-spinner, and obstacle courses, which ended with jumping off of a squishy, non-threatening cliff, and into the dark quarry water, seaweed tangling their ankles.

Michael and I were happy to watch the girls together for two hours, but switched off an hour each for separate adult time. Michael had taken one of the girls to the 100-foot water slide. It was around noon, with about a 20-minute wait in line. Before I knew it, my little niece was flying down the slide from a cliff, shooting out at the end like a little bullet. She bobbed up effortlessly in her life jacket.

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For my own adult activity, I wanted to take the zip line without harnesses, so I could drop myself in the water, mid-line. The wait time was miserable at that point (maybe 30-45 minute wait, around 2 PM?) so I eyeballed the shortest line: the cliff jump.

Being such a weak swimmer, I’ve never done anything of this sort. But I figured with the life jacket, why not? A note about the park, important to mention: there is no height, weight, or age restriction for any activity. You sign a waiver and plunge at your own risk.

Thus, I, the adult, should have no problem, right? I skipped the smaller cliff, assuming it was for children, and chose the 25-foot cliff.

I stood at the edge and immediately regretted it. I needed an adult. I needed my nieces. Either of them. It looked so scary. What if there was a rock no one saw? What if I fell on a kid? What if —

“C’mon, lady!” a kid whined. Lady? It was my birthday weekend. Lady, already? This sort of bravado and peer pressure was not unusual at Brownstone, I learned. Despite the mandatory life jackets, more experienced swimmers were inclined to be more impatient, obnoxious (pushy and pushing, for a good laugh), and less sensitive to those, ahem, who needed a little more time.

I jumped before I was ready, hands crossing my life jacket and legs straight, like the park employee instructed.

It felt like forever. My friend told me afterwards that paratroopers train to jump from heights at 33 feet high, because mentally, 33 feet ignites the same fear you feel at 10,000 feet. Well, I was scared. In a little less than a militant way.

I hit the water and immediately felt my left butt cheek bruise. That was nothing compared to the next pain I felt, which can only be described as the most extreme wedgie I’ve ever experienced, or ever will experience, until my next cliff jump. I screamed underwater until I bobbed back up for air. Swimming back to the pier, I avoided eye contact, convinced that everyone knew what I just went through.

We spent almost four hours there. I think if it were only just us adults, we’d have spent a whole day, plus rented out one of their private pier picnic areas. Otherwise, we had to secure a spot underneath some trees on our beach towels, close to other families who smartly brought their own food. I paid an arm and a leg for a veggie burger and chicken nuggets. Never mind the Dip n’ Dots, was exactly what I said to my nieces. They pouted but complied. Can’t complain much, though, free parking!

The day was perfect. The ladies agreed that the car ride was completely worth it, and that it exceeded their expectations (even though one of the girls seemed a little bored towards the end and just wanted ice cream. Sorry, girly.) An A++ from the kids, and an A+++ from this adult. We’ll definitely be back next summer!
Where to?
Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park: 161 Brownstone Avenue, Portland, CT 06480

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CT Residents’ Special: Candlewood Lake, Stew Leonard’S, & Pepe’S!

Summertime always ignites the urge to jump into water. Directly related, being stuck in a car with two seven-year-olds will also present this urgency. ‘Tis the season for family roadtrips!…

Summertime always ignites the urge to jump into water. Directly related, being stuck in a car with two seven-year-olds will also present this urgency. ‘Tis the season for family roadtrips! After five hours of being on the road from Philly, the moment we pulled into Connecticut, I felt I owed it to my nieces for sitting patiently in their car seats while enviously watching the gorgeous scenes of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, fly by.

It was around 5 P.M., and while antsy, by golly we wanted our money’s worth if we were going to find a good spot to cool down. With Candlewood Lake’s fingers visible and sparkling at every turn along the road, we first took time to investigate the free alternative. It didn’t work out.

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That wasn’t what we were looking for, so we consulted a Visitors Center list of swimming holes. Squantz Pond: reputedly sizable and budget-friendly. Closed for flooding. New Fairfield Town Park? On top of the absurd amount of money they wanted us to shell out for only 30 minutes of swim time left in the day, non-locals are also required to pledge their first born. PASS. I wasn’t too impressed with the small beach area, anyway. It was mostly grass. Sour grapes, probably.

The kids were wriggling in their seats, trying not implode. Michael checked the map, and drove towards our final, saving destination: Candlewood Town Park. Behold:

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There were many families in the water, but we all seemed to have enough dedicated space for our aquatic antics. After a good solid hour of swimming, we all got out and dug holes in the sand, or smacked around the wiffle ball set we brought. Everyone kept to themselves, no one seemed to mind our scrambling; not even the bro-ish lifeguards, who were so eager to call out unruly “little dudes” in the water, and perhaps some snuck in some mild slurs to their buddies in jest over their intercoms. Meh, kids.

What a refreshing feeling, leaving that dreadful, confined car ride and stretching out in the infinite waters of Candlewood Lake, Bear Mountain sprawling before us. For as much as I’ve enjoyed exhausting our explorations in Philadelphia and the New Jersey-area this summer, there’s no denying that you’ve got to travel pretty far to catch a view like this. And it’s worth it.

CT-roadtrip-8504-1024x768ESPECIALLY if you’ve got dinner plans. Simple solution for dinner in the hotel: grab salads and ice cream/free entertainment at Stew Leonard’s, a local grocery store featuring animatronic, singing livestock, fruits and veggies, and other standard kitchen products. Now that’s a sentence I never thought I’d try to put together, but as a childhood memory of Michael’s, it is apparently not very unusual. Not so far from there is the old-trusty, a chain location of Pepe’s! And if there’s anything you’ve learned from this blog, if not travel for the nature, travel for Pepe’s.What a refreshing feeling, leaving that dreadful, confined car ride and stretching out in the infinite waters of Candlewood Lake, Bear Mountain sprawling before us. For as much as I’ve enjoyed exhausting our explorations in Philadelphia and the New Jersey-area this summer, there’s no denying that you’ve got to travel pretty far to catch a view like this. And it’s worth it.

Where to?

Candlewood Town Park: 36 Hayestown Rd. Danbury, CT 06811

Stew Leonard’s: 99 Federal Rd, Danbury, CT 06811

Pepe’s: 59 Federal Rd, Danbury, CT 06810

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Modern-Day Nostalgia: Atsion Recreation Area, NJ

I can’t swim very well, but I love water. I’ll be damned if the possibility of drowning will keep me away from cooling down on a hot, humid day. When I…

I can’t swim very well, but I love water. I’ll be damned if the possibility of drowning will keep me away from cooling down on a hot, humid day. When I was a kid, we’d would hop  over to the wonderful Hershey Recreation Center for a whole day of sun and fun. While my sisters would plunge majestically in the deep end, my brother and I glued our fingers to the sides, trying to avoid swallowing the dead Japanese beetles floating through the filters. More often than not, I’d spend the afternoon running through the onsite sprinklers, then whine for an ice cream sandwich or french fries.

The point is, these urges and abilities still exist today.

On Sunday, we had a hankering to enjoy the gorgeous, sweltering summer day in the most logical way: in water. Striking out with the Flying W pool (it was too full, apparently everyone else had the same idea), we decided to try Atsion Recreation Area, which is a swimming lake part of Wharton State Forest. We’ve passed the umbrella-packed beach a few times on our way to the usual favorite swimming hole, which in contrast is very private. I felt like being around people that day, so it worked out.

It only cost us $5 to park with the one motorcycle. We expertly crushed our lunch in the side luggage of Michael’s Kawasaki Versys, along with two beach towels, a board game, and Bananagrams — talk about being prepared! The main building was simple, housing a few water fountains, changing rooms, and bathrooms, including showers to rinse off. Other than the amazing snack stand I didn’t notice til we were about to leave (just as well; we snacked on local sugar plums and cherry tomatoes, instead) the rest was swim and sand.

From afar, the beach looks huge. Being in the sand, to me it was spacious enough, but definitely loud and chaotic, with kids screaming and parents screaming at their kids to stop screaming. We found a spot with a respectable perimeter, nonetheless, and managed to read, snooze, and lay out a looong game of Bananagrams in peace.

The swimming area is also surprisingly limiting up close. From afar, it looks endless, but of course it must be roped off for safety purposes. I could safely stand in the relatively still waters the whole time, but be submerged and flounder comfortably. Children are not allowed to play in the water past chest-level, which made for small seclusion further out.

Speaking of children, there was a SNAFU where a kid got lost, so everyone had to evacuate the lake and wait as several life guards combed the waters in a very impressive, and orderly way. It turns out the kid was probably in the parking lot or something, so no one was hurt. But I think it’s important to note that the staff seems very trained and professional.

All in all, a good experience. I think we still prefer our secluded water hole, but I really appreciated the nostalgic feeling of family fun and chaos. In contrast to my local pool memories versus the lake-side experience, it felt charmingly exotic, too! Maybe I’ll try to go once a year, but will make sure I get that dang ice cream sandwich next time around.

Where to?

Atsion Recreation Area: 744 US-206, Shamong, NJ 08088

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New Travel Buddies: Kids In Philly/NJ (And, Apologies)

Our weekends are completely packed with planned and unplanned adventures, and I love it. This summer has been amazing, and you on the internet wouldn’t even know; I’ve been doing…

Our weekends are completely packed with planned and unplanned adventures, and I love it. This summer has been amazing, and you on the internet wouldn’t even know; I’ve been doing a horrible job blogging about it. But really, can you blame me? I get enough of the internet during work hours. The last thing my body wants to do is to sit still and stare at a screen after 5 P.M.

Still. I solemnly swear to buckle down and dump these brain thoughts regularly. No excuses!

So, this past weekend, I had a dream come true: my lovely twin nieces came to spend the weekend with Auntie Keem and her dashingly handsome companion, Michael! The girls are seven years old, incredibly polite, hilarious, and always down to explore. They made for perfect travel buddies and we ran into no problems.

One would think that it is wise to dial back the itinerary when it comes to kids. We did not follow that sentiment. It was that mix of excitement you get when you want to show loved ones things you love, with hopes that they love it, too, and wanting to have an entertaining weekend ourselves. One major compromise: no motorcycle. Rental car, car seats. Everyone was cool with that.

See our below itinerary, given the stamp of approval from two clever, well-behaved young girls. Given the season, we opted to explore mostly outside of the city to enjoy nature; perhaps in cooler weather we will stick around and check out the great local museums nearby.

FRIDAY NIGHT

kids-philly-activities-8249-1024x768After taking a car ride, a regional rail train, AND a subway ride to reach South Philly, the girls needed to stretch their legs. We broke out our spare Razor scooters, snapped on their helmets, and trailed behind them while they zipped off into the sunset. Well, not really. It was time for dinner, and we were dying to show them the charming Passyunk neighborhood. Pizza at Marra’s was a hit, even though they were skeptical of the thick, chewy islands of mozzarella on their thin slices. I could tell they weren’t used to this kind of pizza, but the curiosity was there. One twin even ate a sprig of broccoli rabe, and politely declined more.

Dessert, where else? We zipped back to Broad and Oregon to enjoy Pop’s Water Ice, one of the famed spots in South Philly to grab those waxed paper cups filled to the brim with homemade water ice (the other spot is Italiano’s, yummm). We enjoyed our icy treats in Marconi Plaza, where the girls serenaded us with cartwheels and handstands on the dark grass.

SATURDAY

kids-philly-activities-8269-1024x768Kids wake up early. Totally fine with that, especially with the day we had planned.

Breakfast of the anything-you-want variety at Penrose Diner, where your junky breakfast dreams come extra crispy. There are a lot of other cool and hidden diner spots in South Philly, and we are so lucky for that. But at Penrose, it’s never a miss.

Scooter to the rental car, it’s time to hit Jersey! I discovered that the girls prefer to interact with us during car rides, and we don’t offer the option of watching movies. This time around, they entertained themselves through coloring books and complaining at each other. We’ve learned, since then.

First stop: Paw’s Farm Nature Center. They really, really, really wanted to see cute and pet cute animals, and this is what Michael dug up in his research. What a cool place! It’s a mix between petting zoo and the Please Touch Museum, but not as big, and admission is something absurd, like $7. When we arrived, there was a birthday party going on in the front building, and maybe that’s why the rest of the grounds seem so unattended and empty. We ran into a few farm keepers, but otherwise, we were allowed to feed goats and sheep, pet pigs, and follow swans around on our own. In addition to the cute animal aspect, there are themed playrooms, where kids can act out and learn the farm-to-table process (fake market, plastic cow-milking station [although I don’t think we were supposed to touch that part]) and a veterinarian experience (stuffed animals and old doctor toys.) It was perfectly quaint, sweet, certainly educational, and you get your money’s worth for two hours or so.

kids-philly-activities-8319Lunchtime. A few miles away, we stopped by a farm stand and said the girls could pick out their dream dinner tonight. Who would’ve thought that both kids chose corn, potatoes, and broccoli? Hot dogs and chicken, of course, later. But I was impressed! Photo of the stand is above. They chose a dozen ears for some fantastic bargain.

Across the street we could not ignore Evergreen Dairy Bar. I mean, that cut-out soft serve is a kid magnet. Just this once, ice cream for lunch. Sure.

After lunch, time for more fun. Back to our beloved swimming hole! As you might remember, this swimming hole connecting to the Mullica is stained, tea-colored. A New Jersey native told me it’s called Sweet Water. I was afraid the girls would be grossed out but they were fearless, and jumped right in. I’d never seen such child giddiness, and I won’t forget. The girls and Michael took turns on the Kammock we set up over the stream, laying above them plunging loudly, giggling uncontrollably. After a good three hours, we got dressed, picked a TON of blueberries nearby, and headed home to make that dream dinner they asked for.

Our weekend didn’t end there; we took them to a family party for more swimming and fun. But that was the end of our adventures, for now. I knew I always wanted to host them, but I didn’t realize how fun it would be, or how fearless children can be. I also want to acknowledge that to me, they are remarkably well-behaved and easy to manage. As a childless woman who is almost thirty, let me just say that this is definitely a sign.

We have GOT to have them over as many more times as possible! Being an aunt rules!

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An Unlikely Pilgrimage: Holy Land, Usa, CT

I’m finding that most adventures we go on (almost every weekend in the summer, loving it) I make sure to consult Atlas Obscura for a unique or kooky recommendation. On a…

I’m finding that most adventures we go on (almost every weekend in the summer, loving it) I make sure to consult Atlas Obscura for a unique or kooky recommendation. On a recent trip up to Connecticut, after hitting our usual spots like Modern Apizza and seeing family friends, I added a quick, not-so-roadside attraction on the way home.

A nod to my youth (13 awkward years of Catholic school, whatwhat) as well to my adulthood (didn’t play enough as a kid, so now I’m climbing shit, whatwhat), Holy Land, U.S.A. delivered the exploration we were looking for on a creepy, rainy day. Tucked away on a hill past a crumble of seemingly unsuspecting residential row homes, this once bustling religious theme park now exists as the demolished relic of one man’s dreams, and a devastated community’s modern-day nightmare.

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Did you get shivers yet? At this point, picture me holding a flash light up to my face.

But it’s all true. In 1955, an attorney Waterbury, CT named John Baptist Greco started the construction of what he intended to be a universal place of comfort and worship, across all religions — despite, of course, the emphasis on Christianity. In its hey day, the park attracted up to 40,000 visitors annually. Had my parents known about this, I bet they’d be in that crowd.

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In 1984, Greco closed the park for further renovations but these plans never reached fruition; he died in 1986, as did his vision.

Visitors came and went throughout the years, mostly vandals and mischief makers. Unfortunately, in 2010, an incredibly sad crime took place in the holy hills, bringing attention once again to Greco’s creation. But not much came of it, except for morbid interest. In 2013, the post-Greco-era caretakers, the Fillipini sisters, sold the property to the Mayor of Waterbury, CT. There are plans for community revitalization efforts, and touring the grounds (past the not-so intimidating “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” sign, and despite the handful of deer we saw running through the ruins), there are some indications that this intention lives.

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For now, I’m glad we caught it in its current state. Technically, it is closed, and as I mentioned, the front gate bears a warning to keep out…never mind that you can actually very easily walk around the gate with no problem.

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Abandoned spaces often have a long, interesting, and complicated life cycle. A chance for rebirth, a second chance, or a new life is always exciting, especially for the tragically misunderstood Holy Land, U.S.A. If you visit, be respectful, don’t vandalize, and just take in the beauty.

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Where to?

Holy Land, U.S.A.: Slocum Street, Waterbury, CT 06706

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Home Sweet Home!

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts! We’re back! Three weeks…

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts!


We’re back! Three weeks survived together, feeling our best, looking like hell, as backpackers do (and we didn’t even go all-in!) I had so much time to write when we were traveling solo, but once we arrived in Saigon and Seoul, family and friends were to be seen. Before I realized it, late nights were filled with exhausted rest, instead of recaps.

So, here’s a quickie to end my journaling for this trip — solid guides to follow.

Saigon was AMAZING! I grew up with stories about Saigon (or, Ho Chi Minh City) painted strictly in the war era. Being able to see it myself now, and applying what I know (youth population is dominating Vietnam, old ways are changing — as is the government, it seems), an optimistic, modern outlook is in store for the motherland. Over three weeks, Michael and I enjoyed endless social commentary and speculation in this world we were exploring. Despite sadness that some ancient culture is dissolving, young people are clearly working hard to express their dreams, which can be seen through non-foreign-owned business ventures, and even every day style. This is a short way of saying that Saigon, compared to much of the north we explored, is very modern, nearly apathetic to tourists, and do-able for most travelers. I’ll write a more specific post on what to do and see (and drink!).

We met with some family in Saigon — two instances were pleasant, as we were all able to enjoy conversation and share mutual interests like traveling and asking questions about each other’s cultures. My third visit with family was a stretched effort to visit a more closed, religious community, and to no one’s surprise, I got to experience once again being ridiculed for my lack of language fluency and my evil American boyfriend. Note: Maybe not waste time/energy there next time. Though the experience is common, it’s left a bad taste in my mouth for days.

Fly to Seoul! My first time in Korea. I hate to be that person, but eating in Vietnam was not really new to me. My dad had a restaurant, and my parents fearlessly exposed me to the wildest dishes one can hope to see as a child. The only difference in Vietnam was the freshness of the food. Seafood and beautiful greens impressed me to no end.

But in Seoul!!!! I got to experience an entire culture shock, which I am relieved to have had before the trip ended. I enthusiastically ate and drank everything that friends recommended, from student street food, to more traditional dishes (like the Korean version of moonshine). We stayed at an Airbnb for the first two nights, that a fellow blogger and old friend, Nadia, managed to snag us a whole house in the Bukchon Hanok Village. Nadia is my absolute favorite person, with the dependable traveling advice and endless enthusiasm to go with it. I’m so delighted to have had her as a tour guide (along with Michael) and enjoyed her recommendations for food, fun, and even dance (hello, Korean 90’s dance club!). I met her in Philly last year as Michael’s guest, and can’t wait to have her back.

I feel like just a summary won’t do either place justice, so I’ll tie up the journaling now and get to work on the real thing.

This has been one of the best trips of my life. As I told Michael, new brain wrinkles were massaged every day we faced a new challenge, whether looking for food, trying to communicate with the locals, or communicating with each other. My mind and my body felt every moment, and now being home, I’m steadily recovering from being both trashed and adored from the experiences.

And now. Back in Philly. Something that not many are able to say, or maybe even realize: I’m so fortunate to be able to leave one amazing experience, only to return to another lovely life. Thank you for reading!

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From the Road: Asia Recap

i everyone! If you’ve been following for the past three weeks, I just tied up an amazing trip to Vietnam and Seoul. I really wanted to capture my thoughts, so I…

i everyone! If you’ve been following for the past three weeks, I just tied up an amazing trip to Vietnam and Seoul. I really wanted to capture my thoughts, so I added a more personal category to the site, From the Road. This section is less of a guide, but more of my personal experiences and takes on the world that I am exploring. I’m so pleased that Vietnam and Seoul were my first places to present to you in this format.

Catch up on the first-hand accounts of an American-born-and-raised Vietnamese woman. Looking forward to your feedback, and please share your own thoughts!

Entries From the Road

Countdown to Vietnam: 24 Hours til Take-off!

Searching for the Perfume Pagoda (Ending up at the Temple of Doom)

Yo Mama’s So Fascist

A Take on 3 Cities: Hanoi, Hue & Hoi An

The Conductor’s Throne: 12 Hours on the Sleeper Train

Mystery Meats: Notes on Being a Visiting Vegetarian in Vietnam

Say No to Sleeper Buses!

Home Sweet Home! Update on Saigon and Seoul

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Say No To Sleeper Buses!

 Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts! Sure, a four-hour bus…

 Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts!

Sure, a four-hour bus trip for $6 sounds like a good idea, but take the time to ask, “Does it really?”

Let me start off by saying, hey, who hasn’t seen a parent change their baby’s diaper next to you on the bus? I’m pretty sure it has happened to me twice (exclusively on Greyhound) back at home, and the kid was cute. And speaking of, as I write this, the kid next to me is also cute. He gave me a high-five (before his mom started coaxing him to aim into an open diaper on her lap, making hissing noises that Michael says he’s heard done for the occasion in China as well.) So I guess, warning number one on buses in Vietnam: if you want to reduce facing some stranger’s deuce, then maybe upgrade a bit.

No, let me backtrack. Rule number one. If you’re booking a bus ticket in Vietnam, don’t listen to the travel agent telling you simply it’s “the best” option. Maybe follow up by asking, “What kind of bus is it?”

“Good question!” he will hypothetically say. “I actually meant that I’m booking you a sleeper bus for your five-hour trip! A hit with our more-compact locals, you can lay down the whole way!”

“Oh, terrible!” we would have exclaimed, because we didn’t actually ask; we were just relieved to book our last-minute tickets out, from Hue to Hoi An.

Day of departure, a wild-eyed, angry man runs into our hotel lobby, screaming at us to hurry up and board the shuttle that will take us to the yet-to-be-known sleeper bus. At this moment, Michael realizes that he left his passport/camera bag at the coffee shop we just left. He darts down the street as I drag our large backpacks one by one in exaggerated slow-motion to the red-faced man.

HURRY UP!” he screams in Vietnamese. I shrug and gesture fingers towards my forehead, claiming I don’t understand, and slither towards the next round of bags like a slug. Michael returns and I quickly throw my load into the trunk.

The guy speeds comically less than two blocks away and drops off us in front of a line of buses.

Before us, it looks like a double-decker luxury bus on the outside. On the inside are three rows of concentration-camp styled bunks, about 30 beds, mostly filled locals already. We tentatively step in. It’s oddly styled, but clean enough with cheap carpeting and fake leather upholstery. The driver waves plastic bags at us. We take off our shoes and search for free beds.

The only free spot that could accommodate Michael’s long legs are in the back. Three beds laid out flat next to each other, unlike the rows of separate beds for each passenger. I let him take the middle seat to stretch out, and I took the window.

It wasn’t a direct trip. The bus made several stops, finding room (or not) for more passengers to lay down in the aisles. Before we know it, the bus picks up a husky, half-blind older woman, who read things through a small marble. She grins at Michael and waves for the middle seat. “No, no, long legs!” we gesture. She agrees to squeeze next to him and the wall of the bus. Just to show us, I’m sure, she dials up her gal pal and starts talking loudly.

Everyone starts to fall asleep. My seat space is actually big enough, and I’m sliding around to the ebb of crazy traffic. The rest of that trip is uneventful but not peaceful, just uncomfortably… pretzeled next to one too many people, or two.

We arrived on time in Hoi An, and strolled maybe two blocks easily to the Main Street, so it’s good that we didn’t have to taxi to get from a station. A cab driver tried to suggest a 100,000 VND ride. YEAH RIGHT, MAN.

After that, we declared no sleeper bus again, ever! It seems like a luxury that actually isn’t, especially for daytime. Maybe some guy thought it was a cool idea and everyone else caught on, which is why when we booked tickets for a bus from Mui Ne to Saigon, there were ONLY sleeper bus options available.

Which brings me to now. Next to the super deucer, frenetic drivers communicating not English nor Vietnamese, but overly angry hand gestures telling foreigners where to sit or what not to do. People sneezing or expectorating in small spaces (where’s that motorcycle face mask I bought the other day?) But it’s not constant, it’s nothing that some creative body bending can accommodate, at least for me. Michael, in his glorious height, not so lucky, but this time he’s seated by the AC, thank goodness.

So take from this what you will, and heed my warnings. If you’re traveling during the day time and aren’t used to being awake, horizontal, for hours on end, just don’t. Don’t. If you want to sleep on these at night, I’d still recommend the sleeper train we took from Hoi An to Binh Thuan, if possible (some travel options aren’t available in all places.) Sure, it’s loud and seems cramped, but it feels like you have more personal, private space, and no one really yells at you. It’s important to say that we lucked out with polite, local passengers on the sleeper train, so just book a four-person sleeper and cross your fingers.

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Mystery Meats: Notes On Being A Visiting Vegetarian In Vietnam

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts! I’m not a big…

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts!


I’m not a big meat eater but my track record for an average (Asian-) American has been extreme enough to question my and Michael’s meal compatibility. Vit lon (boiled duck egg where you scoop out a formed baby bird on your spoon for the last bite), blood pudding (savory cubes in Vietnam, sweet and smooth in France), and shallow plates filled with bright red duck blood and homemade broth (not my favorite but my mom loved to pair it with Doritos) sprinkled my childhood frequently enough for me to develop a loyal reverence for flesh and bone.

Michael, on the other hand, is a long-time vegetarian, upholding his ideals for nearly 20 unchanging years. It’s clear he’s not sporting a trend, he’s the real deal, and his preference has been easily and equally respectable to me.

Rarely our palates cause friction, unless I’m hangry and demand animal protein on the spot. But upon arriving in Vietnam, it didn’t occur to me that unlike the US, there would be more options for meat eaters over nguoi an chay, vegetarians. We speculated that the huge Buddhist population would be on board, but in Hanoi, we had a hard time trying to find something quickly substantial and exciting that didn’t include meat broth or meat as an accompaniment, or wasn’t fried to oblivion. Thus, for Michael, vegetable-only street banh mi proved to be the tastiest and easiest option among veggie clay pots and the like, in Hanoi. It’s also fair to say that we jam-packed our time with crazy adventures, so by the end of the night we were too beat and famished to comb through too many street restaurants, and merely eyeballed their menus which advertised the same beef, chicken, and duck options.

Our Ha Long Bay cruise boasted constant seafood, so the baffled tour guide asked me thrice in person, then called a fourth time to clarify what Michael could actually eat. His first meal began with boiled veggies, plates of French fries and roasted peanuts, while I filled up on freshly caught squid, fried fish, and prawns dipped in lime juice, salt and pepper. Later meals of more flavorful dishes dishes like steamed tomatoes and tofu came his way.

Traveling further central, however, it was easy for us to find places to enjoy meals together. Hue and Hoi An were very touristy, so we took care in dodging the Western palate and prices (although to give our taste buds a break, we found a tasty Italian spot in Hoi An.) In an extremely hot scooter trip to explore ruins surrounding Hue, we made the efforts to stop at several restaurants in a block that tour buses seemed to populate. All meat, including goat and crocodile, and advertised in flashy ways — it was tourist central and it’s obvious the business owners wanted to capitalize on the search for an exotic experience. Further down the road, we lucked out at an empty but beautiful vegetarian restaurant where we filled up on three meatless and traditional Vietnamese courses for $2 each.

Hoi An, whose tag line is “the ancient city” is actually the most modern city in Vietnam so far! While not as many Buddhist temples as Hue, Hoi An still accommodated vegetarians more, from fancy restaurants to push carts.

We found two great places. One for breakfast — complete with the makeshift alley way design with tiny small and step stools for seats — where, I’m so proud to say, Michael had his first pho ever (vegetarian). The meats were substituted with tofu, radishes, carrots, onions and bean sprouts. While the broth tasted fresh, it was missing the signature pho broth flavors — anise, cinnamon, heavy onion, etc. But we’ll let that pass and make note for recreation at home.

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For lunch that day, the second awesome vegetarian place was one that we stumbled upon in exploring a random alleyway. The shack-like structure had a few empty plastic tables, and a caged bird singing merrily. Past the accumulating pile of peeled veggie skins a man was working on by the entrance, we immediately saw a pushcart dimly lit with a lukewarm buffet of styled fake meats and vegetables. Face blocked by the sneeze guard, an old woman’s arms wordlessly scooped us each a plate of rice, then handed us tongs. Her appendages pointed to each item, still wordless, but we got the point to fill up.

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Finally, she came around the push cart, crankily eyeballed our options, and declared 60,000 VND total, or $2.81. We sat down and bit into our collection of mystery fake meats (clay pot “fish”, simmered “pork”) and marveled. The old woman sauntered over, looking pleased at our reactions, and asked, “Soup?” before returning with two bowls of room temperature cabbage soup.

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(A note, most fake meats back at home make me gag and have headaches but something about this trip’s mystery meat makes me excited to crack the recipes when I return to Philly.)

So obviously, if you allow some wiggle room like accepting animal broth or sauces in your dish, it’s extremely easy to explain your diet, in Vietnamese or English. But in some regions, you might find options to be more challenging, especially if you prefer to enjoy a fully meat-free dish.

But for our trip, we’ve learned that if we want to find the right adventurous food for us both, we have to take time to do the footwork, and not wait until we’re starving from adventuring, and have to settle.

On my own, I’ve eaten some delicious actual meat items which I’ll write about, but that is a much different journey for me.

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The Conductor’S Throne: 12 Hours On The Sleeper Train

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts! I write this from…

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts!


I write this from a sleeper train journeying from Danang to Mui Ne. An overnight trip, we’re stuck in this metal box for a total of 12 hours.

I imagined but not expected worse.There are eight cars filled with probably 7 by 9 feet metal rooms lined with four or six bunk beds squished in as tightly as possible. In our six-person, air conditioned sleeper, Michael lucked out with a bottom bunk — more leg room. I’ve got a middle bed with a bar so I won’t fall off. Designed exclusively for sleeping, I can’t sit up at all and have to hang out the side to drink from my water bottle. Each bed is covered in a sheet and has a thin pillow and a cheap, fluffy sleeping bag.

While its definitely not for the claustrophobic, it’s perfectly fine for the exhausted traveler. The only luxury to be sacrificed, obviously, is that of silence. Expected. We have four other locals in our sleeper, two old grandparents and two adolescent boys they must have befriended. This means a moderate-to-high disregard to our presence, playing music, singing, and loud talking to each other at all hours. Imagine trying to fall asleep to the sounds of the voices of teenage boys, blamelessly notorious for emitting the worst decibels known to humankind at the most inconvenient moments. A spotty night of sleep indeed.

So, if not for the luxury of silence, thank goodness for the luxury of headphones. Until morning. Nothing can block out the sounds of babies crying for breakfast and wiggle room. Teenagers jumping on their cell phones. Old people scolding each other and everyone around them. Nothing. I hung down from my bunk at about 6am to see a baggy eyed, bleary Michael, who obviously shared the same experience. I heard the 4-person sleeper cars don’t have as many children and are much quieter.

Otherwise, my creature comfort requirements are pretty minimal, outside of hygiene. I assumed the bathrooms would be a nightmare, so I was prepared to hold it for 12 hours, much to Michael’s skepticism. When I woke up this morning I felt smugly dehydrated. On a search for a breakfast car or cart, I squeezed my way through from car 7 to car 2, brushing past riders just standing in aisles barely the size of my wingspan. Some people just sat in the aisles outside of their sleeping rooms, not doing anything in particular, just sucking up valuable real estate. Chaos. The two sitting-only cars seemed nicer and quieter. I turned around, unable to find what I was looking for.

I walked too far past car 7 and into 8. Perplexed, as nothing looked familiar, I opened a door.

A toilet. A clean, spotless, mostly odor-free toilet with the seat cover ON (unlike the one near our room that Michael had described.)

I found it. The diamond in the rough. The conductor’s throne.

Suddenly, I wasn’t dehydrated anymore. I whipped my tissues and hand sanitizer out of my fanny pack and closed the door.

I returned to car and announced my findings to Michael, which warranted a small celebration of stripping my food and drink fast. We got two styrofoam bowls of pho (one with meat and one without; sniff test, savory broth like that of won ton soup packets), Oreos for dessert, then settled in for the rest of the long trip. Reading. Sleeping. Reading.

So, the overnight sleeper car is a fun, novelty option if you want to get to point A to point B on a budget, and not lose a day of traveling. The cars can be peaceful if you keep to yourself with headphones and a book, or if you fill a room with your bestest friends (doesn’t that sound awesome?) I wouldn’t rule it out for next time, just perhaps a smaller car and some games.

Most importantly, it’s vital to point out that contrary to my dad’s implications, we did not manage to get stabbed or shot riding this train.

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