Sunday, June 5, 2016

[travels] Vietnam Motorbike Ride - Lessons Learned

My first mistake was assuming we were taking the direct path from Hue to Da Nang which was a reasonable 100km, or 62 miles over the course of two days. "Sure... no worries." I said despite never having ridden a motorbike before.  That's a lie.  9 years before I tried riding and almost careened into a rice paddy. But hey, I'm still alive and kicking.

My second mistake was naively thinking one day of practice before the trip would be sufficient to keep an uncoordinated person (such as me) unharmed.  Within two minutes of leaving the hotel on my rental motorbike, I found myself behind the pack and dealing with an unprotected left turn in a large intersection in Hue. Cue panic.

Vietnam driving etiquette is a whole different ball game.  People move fluidly in and around you in every direction.  They key is to drive confidently in a sensible trajectory (which I wasn't exactly doing).  I began to turn left then hesitated and wobbled at the sight of a woman riding directly at me.  Before I could register completely, I was forced into a tight turn and scraped my right side against the side of a parked taxi. In the shock, I erroneously pulled the throttle back and accelerated into a parked cyclo filled with plant pots. Well, that was certainly one way to get the bike to stop.

In typical Vietnamese fashion, grievances were immediately aired. I've been told whoever possesses the loudest voice has the most sway in the situation. The taxi driver and cyclo man immediately began yelling and pointing their fingers at me. Onlookers flocked to the area and began shouting their own version of the events.  Our tour guide pulled up and got into the fray while grabbing a few bills from his pocket. In the end, the taxi driver was given $20 or so and the cyclo man got $5. Not so bad on the wallet! I was extremely fortunate and came away unscathed with only a bruise to show for the whole ordeal. 

I learned a few things that day:

1) When you fail or fall, it's imperative to get up and try again right away.  Especially if it scares you.  Our tour guide immediately had me ride around the block with him to make sure I could do it. 10 minutes later, we set off on the trail.

2) Booking an outstanding tour guide is worth every cent or dong in this case.  I went back and forth deciding between Hue Adventures, which was rated well on TripAdvisor versus hiring a guide with no online reputation for a fraction of the price. My traffic accident and the subsequent trip that followed could have been drastically different. Hue Adventures handled the situation marvelously and made sure I came home with all my limbs and a big smile.

3) Bad things can and do happen on vacations. Prepare well to minimize damage and don't let negative experiences stain the entire journey. Never let difficult circumstances own you. Don't forget to find the humor in every situation. We all had a good laugh at dinner recanting our own versions of the day's events. 

The 270km motorbike ride is a memory I will treasure for the rest of my life. Despite visiting Vietnam three times before, I had never felt so connected to my heritage until this trip.

We rode along the Ho Chi Minh trail in the blistering heat and downpour of rain. I will never forget the children waving in the tiny village streets, buying gas from a 1960's-era hand operated petrol pump, the humbling feeling of huge trucks ambling past, the smell of thick humidity, and the sound of heavy insects calling from the thick jungles. I held hands with the vibrant 95-year-old matriarch from the Ta Oi tribe and witnessed wise kindness in her eyes. This ride gave me more than an adventure; I caught a rare glimpse into the chaotic beauty my ancestors have called home for thousands of years.

Video credit to my drone-flying brother, M.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

[travels] Vietnam Summer Packing List

May can easily be one of the hottest months in Vietnam, particularly in the central region in Hue. In just a few days, I will be embarking on an 18- day journey to Saigon, Vung Tau, Dong Hoi, Hue, and Da Nang. There is no doubt in my mind our travels will be sweaty, arduous, and riddled with disagreeable stomachs... but that is the price that must be paid for sweet adventure.

Can grumpy looking tortoise shell cats come too?

During this trip, we will be enjoying city life, sleepy resort towns, spelunking in questionable caves, and feeling every bump in the road on a two-day motorbike tour.  Take a peek inside my packing list:

**UPDATE** I have since returned from the trip and highlighted essential items in bold typeface.

  • Visa
  • Passport
  • Printed hotel, activity, and flight reservations
  • VND currency

** Aim for articles that are lightweight, breathable, with easy care
  • 2 sleeping shirts
  • 3 three-quarter sleeve blouses
  • 3 sleeveless blouse
  • 3 camisoles
  • 4 cotton tanks
  • 4 synthetic tanks
  • 2 thin long sleeves
  • 1 workout long sleeve
  • 1 workout tank
  • 1 light open cardigan
Chic Attire
  • 1 long sleeve dress
  • 1 sleeveless dress
  • 1 long sleeve romper
  • 1 midi skirt
  • 1 pair of jeans
  • 2 sleeping shorts
  • 3 workout bottoms at varying lengths (skirt, ankle, capris)
  • 2 linen pants
  • 1 casual skirt
  • 4 shorts (white, navy, khaki, black)
  • Underwear for every day

  • Visor and baseball cap
  • Sunnies
  • 2 swim suits
  • Drawstring backpack

  • Medicine (allergy, travellers meds, aspirin, Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Immodium, Tums, acid reducer, sleep aids)
  • Teeth (toothpaste, toothbrush, floss)
  • Eyes (contact solution, contact holder, eye drops, lenses)
  • Soap (shampoo, conditioner, face wash)
  • First aid kit
  • Extras (detergent stick, anti-itch ointment)
  • Lotion (daily face, facial sunscreen, body sunscreen *sport*)
  • Other (makeup wipes, q-tips, hair ties)
  • Hardcore bug spray (try Jungle Juice sold at REI)
    • Travel nurse pro tip from Palo Alto Medical Foundation: use .5% Permethrin clothing spray or wash. For 2 weeks of protection, use 3 oz of each set of clothing. For skin, use Ultrathon lotion which is a 34.3% DEET in a special formulation that allows the product to be active for 10-12 hours. You can also try Picardin which is 20% DEET with 8-hour protection.

Carry On

Now that the trip is over, my only regrets are not bringing more floss and sleeping shirts. Not too shabby in my opinion!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

[travels] The Shire at Hobbiton

I knew I liked watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  But what I didn't expect, was how I would attach myself to the Hobbit- like a moth to a big, warm light.  You can't help but root for Bilbo in all of his naive hobbity self.  I quickly learned that if you tell anyone you are planning on visiting New Zealand, a conversation about LOTR is going to happen.  Typically, it's within some semblance of: epic scenery, Milford Sound, Lord of the Rings, kiwis, and extreme sports, in no particular order.  It was a no brainer- we knew we had to visit the Shire to see the wondrous sight for ourselves.

Being an American and driving in New Zealand is a lot more tricky than it may seem.  Not only are the driver and passenger seats flipped (driver on the right side), the roads are also opposite.  I watched my new marriage crumble like toast; bit by bit as my chastised my husband for his driving.  Luckily, we have now put enough time between this episode... but he doesn't hesitate to remind me how insufferable I was.  There's nothing worse than a half-asleep passenger seat driver.  

Me: Notices car drifting too close to the left shoulder, touching the road line
Me: "Hey, LINE"
Husband: Dutifully adjusts
Me: Back to sleep, then wakes up several moments later..."LINE"
Husband: Begrudgingly adjusts
Me: Nods off for a few minutes

...that went on for 2 hours until we got to Cambridge, where we were staying.  We arrived in the middle of a meaty downpour, which New Zealanders are clearly not phased by.  The grandchildren of the Earthstead Villas hosts were happily splashing around, calling out to each other in their adorable accents.  

New Zealanders:  Soaked?  No worries.  
Me: Awkwardly cowering underneath my hoodie and yellow slicker, hopping around puddles like they were hot pools of lava.  

We had a lengthy chat with the undeniably affable owner Alastair, who smiled broadly at our every response.  He's the kind of person who is clearly living the dream.  Their farm and home is completely magical... just check out the breakfast we ate.  Freshly churned butter, milk from the cow over there, honey from the beehive, bread baked by his co-owner and wife Susie...

After we were settled, I gingerly observed my husband attempt to MacGyver coffee into tea satchels because we couldn't figure out how to work the french press.  Let's just say our efforts were futile, so we headed out to Hobbiton un-caffeinated.

The Shire is built smack dab in the middle of an existing family farm.  After the movie came and went, this family saw the business opportunity and renovated for tourism.  Their family cat "Pickles", has gone along for the crazy ride and is a regular fixture there; either sleeping by the fire in the Green Dragon Inn or greeting visitors as they enter.

All of the hobbit homes are facades, except for one hole where the door swings open just enough to go inside and snap a picture.  Upkeep requires an insane amount of gardening and work, but let me assure you, this place is on point.  Some of the knick knacks and vegetables are props, but a lot are also genuine.  Even the little mini gardens outside of some of the homes are real.  Pickles the cat must be in heaven here.

The best part of all, was the Hobbit feast inside of the Green Dragon Inn.  Hobbiton only offers the evening tour a few times a week, and we were lucky enough that the stars aligned during our travel dates.  We enjoyed ales by a crackling fire (the very same one Pickles frequents) and let our minds wander.  There was a grand unveiling of the feast, complete with oohs and aahs as we took in the sight.  Food was piled high on each table- whole birds, dinner rolls, casseroles, fruit, baked vegetables, and hunks of meat.  Score!  Clearly, I was too food-focused, else I would have snapped a better picture.  Sorry, folks!

Our evening rounded out with a final tour of the Shire by lantern, a little group dancing-jig session by the party tree, and one last look at the glowing village.  Hobbiton truly lived up to, and exceeded my expectations.  The feast is a must-do. Be sure you plan your visit accordingly to make it happen.  My single regret of the day was not purchasing this Gollum figurine (what a gem) in the gift shop.  Alas, such is life.

Next Up: Waitomo and Auckland
Came from: Queenstown and Milford Sound
Before That: Waiheke Island and Auckland

Sunday, February 28, 2016

[eats] Homemade Chicken Stock or Bone Broth

Apparently, bone broth is the new green juice. has a roundup of "8 Reasons to Try Bone Broth", with justifications ranging from healthier skin and nails to clearing out your innards.  Lonolife is crushing it with all natural bone broth K-cups at $19.99 for 10 cups.  Chef Ivan Orkin makes his infamous ramen broth with only the finest quality chickens (all body parts intact) and meticulously chronicles his 6-hour cooking process until the bones and flesh simply slide off in his book (my bible), Ivan Ramen.  Making broth is just one part of my ramen-making journey, and the most important process of all.  Plus, simply learning how to make homemade broth is a powerful tool.  And if it makes my hair, skin, and nails look fantastic too?  I'm all in.

I'm going to walk you through one method of making homemade chicken broth.  These basic steps can be applied to any other animal bones (turkey, pork, beef, etc.) as long as you adjust cooking time and/or preparations.  After reading this information, you should be armed with sufficient information to go forth and rock your nutrient meter.  Pictures below are from two different broth-making sessions.


  • 1.5 lbs. of Chicken bones (raw with some cartilage and meat still on them)
  • .75 lbs. of Chicken feet (trust me, you want the collagen, but if it creeps you out it's optional)
  • 2 Leeks
  • 1 Onion
  • .1 oz. Ginger
  • 3 cloves of Garlic

Optional: Carrots, Celery, Fresh Thyme, Fresh Rosemary, Shallots, Whole Peppercorns or other "aromatics"

You might be thinking, "Where do I buy chicken feet or chicken bones?!"  I've found the majority of my parts at the Japanese or Chinese grocery store.  Specialized butchers and Whole Foods usually carry parts as well.  You may have to ask in the meat department.  They're typically pretty inexpensive and you can buy them for a few dollars for a pound or two.  

When you're making broth, you want to consider its end use so you can decide what kind of aromatics to add.  The flavor of the aromatics diffuses into the broth and can alter the flavor quite a bit.  If I were going to use the broth to make chicken noodle soup, I would have loaded it with all of the traditional aromatics: Leeks, Onions, Garlic, Carrots, Celery, Fresh Thyme, Fresh Rosemary, and Whole Peppercorns.  In this case, I was making a large broth batch for the Vietnamese Soup, Bun Thang so I left out the "Western" ingredients.

Wash them bones and wash them well under running water in the sink.  Random pieces of congealed blood and other bits will fall right off.  Do the same with the chicken feet.

Find a tall stockpot and put the bones and feet inside.  Fill with enough water to fully submerge. Now, fill one inch above that water level.  Make note of where this water line is, because you will be maintaining that level for the next several hours.  You and the line are going to be best buddies. Bring it all to a boil.

While you're waiting for the pot to boil, use this time to prep all of your aromatics.  Cut white bottom portion of the leeks into 3" pieces.  Onion can be quartered.  Garlic cloves peeled and smashed a bit.  Ginger chunks peeled.  Everything is going to be fished out later, so don't worry about perfection.  

Once the stock gets boiling, you will see foamy brown scum and other bits float to the top.  Use a fine mesh skimmer to take all of that dirty surface layer off.  This is surprisingly fun to do.  Get aggressive... don't let a single piece of film or brown foam last in the stockpot.  Once all scum is removed, turn the heat down to a simmer.  You should see bubbles rise to the surface every few seconds.  At this point, some people transfer the entire stock to a new clean pot.  I really hate doing dishes, so I go the easy route.

Take a pair of chopsticks and wad up a clean napkin between it.  Wipe any residual sludge you see on the inside of the stockpot with the napkin.  Your chopsticks will keep you a safe distance away from being scalded.  Ah yes, now it looks much cleaner.

Throw in all of the aromatics.  From here on out, it's smooth sailing.  Keep the pot simmering away and add a bit of water to replenish back to the right level.  Your best buddy, remember?  I always keep a clean bowl and skimmer nearby in case any scum decides to make guest appearances.  My rule of thumb (I learned this from Martha Stewart) is the simmer at least 3 hours to make a decent tasting broth.  Keep it on for 4-5 hours to extract more collagen and achieve a better flavor.

Jelly consistency (after refrigeration) = good!
Turn off the heat completely after 3-8 hours and let it cool to room temperature.  Use the skimmer to fish out all of the large solids and discard.  Then, use a fine mesh strainer and pour your broth into storing containers.  Glass Pyrex bowls and takeout soup containers work well.  I usually end up using my ramen bowls too.  Refrigerate and use within 6 days or freeze and use within 4-6 months (some internet sources say up to a year, but I'm iffy about that).  Once your broth chills in the fridge, check it out.  Jiggliness directly correlates to collagen!  Skim the thin layer of white fat off the top if you wish.  I like to leave a little on. :)

**Want to use a slow cooker?  After you skim scum, put it into your slower cooker on 'low' for a few hours.  Replenish water as needed.

Monday, February 15, 2016

[travels] Queenstown and Milford Sound, New Zealand

The ground below is a vibrant shade of living green, reaching upward with snow-capped peaks, calling for silent appreciation.  Everywhere you look, the sun shines brightly- bouncing it's piercing rays off of every slick surface from dewy drops of leaves to shimmering lakes.  We were spending three days in Queenstown, wondering how on earth we would make the most of our time in this place of endless beauty.  Read on to dive into our 72-hour trip. called me three weeks before my honeymoon trip to let me know that my booking could not honor the reservation.  "Sorry, not sorry" was the general answer I was getting from both and the bed and breakfast owner.  The acid in my stomach churned and gave me heart palpitations for a solid day until I managed to pull myself together and look for alternatives. By sheer luck, I noticed one of my marketing newsletters from was advertising a deal in Queenstown New Zealand.  There must be a God.  I booked our stay for two nights at Queenstown Park Boutique Hotel and never looked back.  Although it was the polar opposite from my original lodging intention (quaint bed and breakfast) my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed it's location near the gondola base.  Did I mention they also served evening canapes with wine and local beer?

That evening we set sail on magnificent TSS Earnslaw which proudly chugs across Lake Wakatipu as one of the last remaining passenger coal-powered ships in the world.  My favorite part by far was walking on a sturdy (yet thin) bridge which looked directly over the coal-shoveling and mechanical operations.  It was a warm refuge from the whipping cold on the outer deck (also nice but can only be enjoyed for so long).  The TSS Earnslaw took us directly to Walter Farms, where we feasted upon a staggering buffet display with more desserts than I could possibly sample.  Vacation problems.

Typically, I'm disagreeable when I wake up at 6am during holiday, but not on this day.  I felt alive with energy, brimming with anticipation at the thought of our visit to the Milford Sound.  FergBaker (a branch of the ever famous FergBurger) called to me with her menu of savory meat pies.  With my pork belly pies and flat whites in hand, we piled into the Milford Sound BBQ Bus  and met our tour group-mates.  We rode on a small passenger van with our exceptional guide Marty.  He had an endless trove of knowledge about the surrounding landscape, and enlightened us on the conservation effort for endangered Takahe birds.  In fact, one of the images on the shuttle bus are of two Takahe birds sharing rare moment.

We wound through the roads, stopping often for incredible photo opportunities and short nature walks.  True to it's name, we enjoyed a BBQ lunch sitting outdoors in the glorious sun, bums content in comfortable camp chairs. The Milford Sound was just a short drive away and its grand presence reverberated in the lush green forests, and jagged peaks in every background.  I felt it before I truly saw it.  Seeing it before my eyes brought a surge of emotions I couldn't articulate.  Maniacal joy, fear, splendor, unworthiness, confusion, topped with electric excitement.  It's difficult to comprehend the 360-degree view while you travel through the fjord.  Waterfalls gush and flow in droves, sharp air slaps at your face, while the sun continues to shine boldly.

Seize every moment and carry it in your soul.  

We flew on a tiny passenger plane back to Queenstown, relishing in the sights below.  The road we had traveled on just hours before looked insignificant; bending to yield to the looming mountains above.  In just thirty minutes, we found ourselves back in Queenstown.  It felt eerily similar to time travel.

The next morning we found ourselves in another elevated locale, atop the Skyline Queenstown  Gondola.  There is a stunning view of Lake Wakatipu and the residences of Queenstown that curve around her edges.  For lack of adventuresome technological equipment, my husband and I tethered my phone to my shirt pocket to capture the ride down the hill.  It's basically a three-minute movie of my right thigh, hysterical screaming (I forgot how to brake once we took off), and sporadic glimpses of blue Lake Wakatipu. I'll treasure it forever.  Luckily, our next item of business (of the calmer variety) was to visit Onsen Hot Pools  to soak in the panoramic sights of the mountain ranges and braided lake below with yellow-flowered bushes peppering the landscape.

We had moved from our swanky boutique hotel into a comforting bed and breakfast called the Queenstown House Boutique Hotel.  Our day lightly eased into relaxing massage at Body Sanctum and into a quiet evening.  After dinner the clouds had moved in.  By nightfall, rain fell gently across homes, buildings, trees, lakes, and mountains.

The next morning, we were greeted by white snow-capped mountains and looming grey skies; certainly a stark contrast from the day before.  Our host, Louise had set up a breakfast, nay, banquet in which I gorged myself on fresh croissants, porridge, fruit, berries, and warm beverages.  Our short time in Queenstown had come to an end and we had fallen in love with this place.  

Previously: Waiheke Island and Auckland
Up Next: The Shire at Hobbiton

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

[travels] Waiheke Island and Auckland, New Zealand

We planned an 8 day New Zealand crash course and landed midnight at the Auckland airport haggard, hungry, and a little dazed.  Luckily, we happened to be staying at one of the most iconic and easily recognizable hotels within the entire city center-- the SkyCity Hotel.  Take me to that tall spindly building please!  This was the country we had dreamt about visiting well before our engagement, and the one we had chosen to visit for our honeymoon trip.  Best decision ever.

 The airport felt desolate and it seemed as if the passengers on our plane were the only ones there-- a bit of a "Silent Hill" creepy vibe at that time of night.  We got checked in and sorted out with sleep as the only item on our itinerary.  The next morning I surfed on Yelp to find a few walkable options for breakfast and settled upon Federal and Wolfe.  Much to my delight, I discovered New Zealand eggs are of the vibrant yellow-orange variety which always reminds me of Japan.  I feasted upon a hearty smoked Fish Kedgeree plate accompanied by a soul-satisfying cup of chai latte.  At this point, our surroundings still felt quite familiar to home; big city life, work commuters going to and fro, keys pounding on laptops in cafes, and business conversations all around. 

Another short walk took us to the ferry dock where we had pre-purchased tickets to Waiheke Island for $36 NZD roundtrip per person (via Explore Group).  There are frequent departures and returns since so many people commute from the nearby islands to work in Auckland.  A ferry commute is definitely up there on the totem pole... I'd take that over driving any day.  The ferry itself was clean, spacious, and even equipped with USB ports in certain areas. 

40-minutes later we docked at the Waiheke port and purchased our first flat-white drink.  This is the infamous cup'o'joe served up in New Zealand.  Essentially, perfectly steamed milk is poured over a shot of espresso.  It's similar to a latte, but has slightly different proportions and tastes much creamier in my opinion.  Our ziplining tour group, EcoZip Adventures spotted us in the terminal and we were whisked away into a van.  We took a slightly windy and scenic drive up the island and stopped at the course; which was the highest altitude zip course on Waiheke.  Ziplining is the perfect combination of heights, safety, small doses of adrenaline, and beautiful sights.  It's relatively easy to find a course all over the world, so be on the lookout when planning your next trip.  Post-zip, our guide took us on a nature walk through the native forest where we were taught about the tree varieties and quirks of the plants.  I couldn't believe how many extraordinary plants there were in the lush landscape.

Another great perk of being on an island, is that it typically leads to an abundance of divine seafood.  Oceanview Road is a great place to stop, wander, and get a meal on Waiheke Island.  It wasn't long before we found ourselves perched on the upper deck of The Oyster Inn with a spread of oysters (paired with a chardonnay vinegar nonetheless) and beers in hand.  The Inn is impeccably decorated with fresh farmhouse whites, and snappy yellows and blues.  This place would certainly be on my radar if we had plans to stay overnight.  Just across the street, we could see the wide expanse of the ocean.

There are several convenient paths with beach access, and we found one with several interesting carved wooden thrones.  As you can see, I'm a sucker for these opportune photo set-ups.  Once down on the sand, I was enthralled, no FLOORED by the amount of whole seashells on the ground.  It was incredible and a such rare treat to see.  Our next destination, Cove Bites and Brews was a few minutes walk back up the hill.  We feasted upon a platter of house specialties including ribs, pulled pork, calamari, lamb meatballs, and pints of local beer.  With all the food we had been eating, I was at thankful we had previously been walking to several of our destinations.

A convenient bus route ran regularly from Oceanview Road, so we hopped on and made our way back to the ferry station and back into Auckland.  By this time, a spot of jet lag had set in, and a nap went underway.  I woke up in a state of confusion and slight panic when I realized it was ten o'clock in the evening.  My sights were set to dine at Elliot Stables, which is a food hall of sorts that offers high quality restaurant dishes all at one venue, but the kitchen was already closed down at that time. Luckily, renowned kiwi chef Al Brown's restaurant, the Depot was right next to our hotel and came highly recommended by our concierge.  Our first day in Auckland ended over velvety bone marrow, delicious fare, and more beer of course.  Not bad... not bad at all.

Up next: Queenstown and the Milford Sound