I’m sorry for those of you that get posts by email. I will do my best to make this the only test post for the foreseeable future.
I’m thinking about writing up a couple blog posts about what it’s like to travel internationally during COVID-19 because a few people have asked me about stuff like managing vaccine cards and passports, testing, planning, and how I’m expecting it to go.
I’ll essentially have to completely relearn WordPress (not that I was ever particularly good with it, but still) so I figured I’d start by seeing if I even remember how to publish a post.
Stay tuned (but also no promises!)
P.S. Please do not follow me on Snapchat as suggested in the column to the left. Because then I’ll have to relearn WordPress AND Snapchat. I think this post will auto-post to facebook, though. Hopefully.
P.P.S. It didn’t post to facebook. If you’re reading this one facebook, it’s because I shared it.
I have tons of half finished posts – about packing, about going to go a Japanese hospital, about it taking 2 weeks to get a pedicure – but this information I want to share with you now because as we finish up our time in Asia, I’m starting to get excited for the next big chapter in the Adventure.
I have accepted a volunteer position with the Refugee Language Initiative teaching English in Belgrade!
This is something that’s been in the works for months now. I had thought about doing volunteer work on the Adventure for at least a year before we left, but it took a conversation with another traveler in Vietnam to get me to send the first email. I had been having a tough night missing home and she told me she had felt similarly until she did a month-long yoga retreat – something that was personally fulfilling to her – and suggested I find something that would be the same for me.
Since then, I have been talking to the coordinator at RLI about placement. Back in April, they didn’t know where they’d need teachers in July or August, which was my timeframe. We talked about Greece and Serbia and agreed to check back in with each other the first week of June when they’d have a better idea about placements for the summer.
Last week I committed 4 weeks – July 3-28 in Belgrade, Serbia – to work with adult refugees, most likely women. The program is already going on and students are attending even through Ramadan – that is how committed they are to learning. I am expecting to work 3 days a week and spend the rest of my time relaxing and enjoying the opportunity to fully unpack and also doing some traveling around the area.
Right now I’m working through an online course about teaching English and reading about Belgrade. We have an apartment in one of the nicest areas of the city – full of parks, shops, and restaurants and with good public transit. We leave Japan on June 27th to give me the opportunity to settle in maybe observe some classes before I start working.
Well, that’s the big news for right now! Now to get back to those half-finished blog posts you’ve all been asking about!
I know I haven’t been writing as often as I should and I apologize for that. If you’ve been thinking it’s because of non-stop action, you’ll probably be disappointed – really I’ve just been kind of lazy after some busy days. Well, first I was sick in Thailand, and then I got lazy.
We’re now about 8 weeks into the trip and the novelty of long-term travel may be wearing off just a bit. What’s left is a ton of fun, but also bunch of interesting problems to solve and I’m going to try to write about those in some upcoming posts – visas, choosing places to stay, deciding where to go next, and when do we pick up guides.
First, I just have to say that Hoi An, Vietnam is amazing. It’s a beautiful marriage between beaches and farmland, but also a fun place to set yourself down in for an adventure-filled or relaxing week – or for most travelers, a combination of both. Most of our days start off with breakfast at our guesthouse (which is awesome, but more like a hotel than a homestay) and then Jason and I set off on our 110cc rented motorbikes before it gets too hot. The first time we did this, we were planning to take the suggested bike route on the map provided by the guesthouse, but we found a small bridge leading to some rice fields and just decided to run with it – it’s been one of our better decisions. Hoi An is small enough to know that no matter where you wind up, you’ll always be able to get back okay.
The food in Hoi An is great (even if I’m missing the pho of Saigon) and the locals are super friendly. The downtown (or Ancient Town as it’s called) is a fun place to walk around at night and I cannot get enough of riding through the farms during the day. We also took a day trip with a guide to the My Son Sanctuary with stops to see some smaller local villages and went out one night for a food tour where we got so full I could only eat two bites of dessert!
My Son Sanctuary
With our guides from the food tour
(This is actually from two nights after the tour where we decided to go out again just for fun!)
Afternoons and evenings are often spent back at the guesthouse, relaxing in the pool talking to other travelers, or lounging in our room doing normal stuff – getting lost on the internet, watching TV shows (I’m loving this season of Survivor,) and playing video games. They have a good restaurant here, there are a few more within walking distance, and since we don’t ride the bikes at night, we can take a taxi to the Ancient Town for about $3.
Now to talk about a “problem” with open-ended travel when you unexpectedly find a country as engaging as Vietnam – our visas. When Jason and I chose Vietnam as our next destination while in Thailand, we expected to spend 2-3 weeks here, so there wasn’t any concern about the one-month e-visa. We had the opportunity to use the more involved and more expensive 3-month visa-on-arrival, but didn’t see any reason to. Well, here we are on day 20 and if we commit to leaving on April 15th when our visa expires, we are going to miss out on at least one place we want to see.
So we have three choices here – okay, really four, but we are not going to overstay, so that leaves three –
- Extend our visas. Vietnam immigration is like a mystical black box where once you find an agency willing to work with you, you are told to close your eyes, spin around a few times, and when you open your eyes they will have the answers as to the cost and how long it will take. I’m not kidding – there doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason as to what the process is or the price. I’m convinced it’s just a question of whose palms they need to grease to get it done and every agency has different connections.
- Do a “visa run” where you take a long bus ride to Laos and then re-enter Vietnam with visa-on-entry the following day. Many people on a tight budget will do this, but Jason and I don’t have the willpower to endure it. The bus ride is pretty terrible and the border towns seem … “sketchy”, to use a term from my high school years. We also considered flying to a nearby country (Singapore, Laos, and China were all considered) but this is more expensive than just doing the renewal and who wants two additional air travel days if you can avoid them?
- Leave on or before April 15th and cut our visit to Sa Pa short (or skip it entirely.)
So what’s the answer? Right now we are planning to choose option #1. Our Ha Long Bay cruise booking agency agreed to handle our visa extensions for $120 each and it should take about 7 days. Why did it cost $25 for the initial one-month visa and $125 for a one-month extension? Great question, but one that will have to go unanswered.
I’m planning to write another post this week where I catch you up on where we’ve been so far, since we’ve attracted a bunch of new readers with over 150 likes on facebook! If you find these posts interesting please like, comment, and share!
And I still want to do a packing post, where I share with all of you what I brought initially, what I recently sent home, and (at least) one thing I wish I had!
When we arrived in Bangkok and found that outside of most metro stations there is a motorbike taxi stop, I thought it was crazy. Most women sat on the bike side-saddle and nobody was wearing helmets. Throughout the city, people on bikes would ask us if we wanted a ride – I thought they were insane. Who in their right mind would get on the back of a motorcycle driven by a stranger and just hope for the best?
Drivers in Bangkok
A month later, we’re in Ho Chi Minh City – a place with terrible public transit. Jason and I enjoy taking trains and public buses, but the systems here are very limited and unreliable. What does everyone do instead? Well, in a city of 10 million people, there are 8.5 million motorbikes.
We started by dipping our toes in – we booked an evening food tour on the backs of bikes. I had this recommended to me by a few people who are decidedly not crazy, so I found a company that could take us with just a few days notice (Back of the Bike) and made a reservation.
It was awesome! The riding on the back of the bike was easy to enjoy only a few minutes into the first ride. Our drivers were great – we never felt like we were going too fast or riding outside of the “pack” of bikes you can find on any street here. The drivers offered their shoulders to hold on to if you weren’t comfortable holding on to the back (or not holding on at all!) and we closed the evening feeling like confident motorbike passengers.
Over the new few days, we really only took GrabCar and walked. GrabCar is the best choice here because they base the rate only by distance between pick up and drop off – not the route the driver takes. This means the driver cannot go out of the way to drive up the fare like they can with Uber. We had several very successful GrabCar trips when we started to talk about GrabBike.
GrabBikes are everywhere. They wear green jackets and have green helmets. The drivers carry an extra helmet for their rider – something that we absolutely required! Motorbikes get around faster and let’s be honest – it’s way more fun!
Jason and I went out for brunch this morning and then did a little bit of our own walking tour to see some of the highlights downtown. When the heat got to be too much and we knew we needed to head back to our apartment, I think we both were thinking the same thing – we were ready to take the leap. I took out my phone and requested a bike – within 3 minutes, he was there.
I approached my driver and gave him a big smile and little wave. He handed me my green helmet and it was a perfect fit. He helped me buckle it because the clip was a bit different to what I was used to. I swung my leg over the bike and hopped on. I grabbed the bar in the back of the bike and held on – we were off!
What I immediately realized is that this was a lot different than riding in a pack of tourists. My driver didn’t go a fast as many of the bikes or do anything crazy – except maybe for the one time we crossed the center of the road to go around some stopped cars – but it definitely felt like the local experience. He even spoke some English, asking where I was from. I also told him it was my first time on a GrabBike and he laughed – he probably already knew that!
When we arrived back at the apartment and I hopped off, I thanked him very genuinely and just a few seconds behind me was Jason on his GrabBike – he also had a great time.
Now we’re back inside recovering from the midday heat. If you’re ever visiting Ho Chi Minh City, I would absolutely suggest GrabBike – but maybe take a city tour on the back of a bike first, since those drivers are used to newbies.
If you have any questions about this – let me know!
I now present to you a sampling of the food we enjoyed in Taiwan. This isn’t even everything – it’s only what we thought to take pictures of. I decided not to include the food we didn’t really like – which was mostly outrageous stuff we tried just to be a bit crazy – like pig intestine soup and BBQ chicken butts on a stick 😂
Ah yes, let’s start with an easy one for everyone to like – it’s a pineapple cake! The outside is buttery and firm and the inside is a very soft filling with real pineapple! When you visit, they sit you down for a free sample with a cup of tea. Sunny Hills
This one might be the most famous – stinky tofu! If you can manage the smell, it tastes pretty good. But then again, I’m a huge fan of most things tofu so I’m probably biased toward liking it. If you visit Taiwan, this is a must try!
Pig blood cake – the name is deceiving as this isn’t actually cake. It’s sticky rice made with pig blood and covered in peanut dust. If you put out of your mind that you’re actually eating blood, it’s really good!
This was my all-around favorite snack of the trip. Okay, maybe my 2nd favorite, but still SUPER AMAZING. It’s a savory pancake with green onions, sort of similar to a roti. Then they add fillings like egg, cheese, ham, basil, or any combination them and serve it like a taco. This cart was walking distance from our apartment and ALWAYS had a line – find it by locating the restaurant it stands in front of: Google Maps
This was another top pick for me – sweet potato balls. Not much to say about these but they are super light – almost hollow inside. You can find them at most night markets. A good one to try if you are not super adventurous. Almost as much of a guaranteed win as the pineapple cake!
This was my other all-around favorite snack of the trip. We found it through a blog post on food in Hualien and they called it the Bei Gang Spring Roll – not sure if that is the name of the food or the name of the stand. The wrapper is a steamed savory crepe and you pick your protein and sauce. I got pork, Jason got the black pepper pork, and we both got the original sauce. They add several additional items inside as well. The third night we were in Hualien I had to go back and have it again! You can find it at the Zi Quiang night market and they now have English on their signboard!
Step one – crack egg in hot oil, step two – cover with thin piece of dough, step three – flip and cook until crispy!
The best part is the egg is still runny!
These dumplings are both pan fried and steamed at the same time. I still prefer the xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung, but these are definitely worth a try if you’re in Tapei. Plus, the restaurant is literally around the corner from DTF so if you can’t stand the wait, you can always tap out and visit Kao Chi! (Tripadvisor link because their website is only in Chinese!)
Radish cake – I wasn’t a super fan of this one, but Jason was. It’s like hash browns but radishes instead of potatoes.
Mini xiao long bao from Din Tai Fung – they only have these on weekend mornings until they run out. Officially the restaurant doesn’t open until 9:00 am, but a friend tipped us off that they’ll start seating people at 8:30. Not as good as the original size (at least to me) but definitely worth a try! (Din Tai Fung)
(If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, they have a location in Valley Fair Mall. It’s the only location that takes reservations and they are usually booked up 2-3 weeks out – more info.)
This is the famous Hot Star Fried Chicken from the Shi Lin night market. They became so popular that they have two stands here – both with constant lines. The boneless fried chicken is about the size of both hands with fingers spread. This was tasty, but I prefer my fried chicken in “popcorn” form. Hot Star Fried Chicken
These two pictures were from an area of Tainan that has very little English, so Jason and used our time-tested theory of going to the place with the longest line. It was a pretty good meal, although we didn’t finish it all. In this picture: braised pork over rice, fish ball soup, and the fried patties are shrimp cakes – we didn’t order them initially, but the woman kept pointing to the picture encouragingly, so we gave in. (Tripadvisor)
These are also from the same restaurant as the last pictures – noodles with pork and shrimp rolls. The shrimp rolls were kind of like shrimp tempura and they were my favorite of the bunch 🙂
These next few pictures are from the DaDong night market in Tainan – one of the best night markets of our trip. I’m not exactly sure what I’m eating here but it’s fried, it’s pork, and it had the longest line in the market. It was good 🙂
This was an unexpected big winner for me, and our Airbnb hostess told us we needed to try it in Tainan. It’s called beef soup, and it’s very different than the more-famous beef NOODLE soup in Taipei. It’s kind of similar to Vietnamese pho in that they put raw beef in a bowl of steaming hot soup, but they added ginger, which was a total improvement in my opinion. Also – no noodles.
My Taiwanese friend told me I had to track this one down – it’s a giant pork belly bun. It also has a fried egg, some sort of slaw, plus pickles, and a mystery sauce. Big winner!!!
This was one of those “well how could THAT be bad” things that we passed and had to try. It’s a pancake (just like my dad makes at home) filled with strawberry jelly. They had maybe 8-10 other filling options, including creme, chocolate, red bean, matcha, sesame, and peanut.
These two pictures are from a cocktail bar Jason found called Fourplay. When were first seated, I was dumbstruck by the lines of cocaine on the table next to us. Turns out it was actually sugar and you suck them up with a straw into your mouth. Is it super campy? Yes – but worth it to try it once. These 7 drinks make up what they call the drugset and there is an digital counter of how many they’ve served – when we ordered, it ticked up to 4,586. (Tripadvisor)
And finally, this… thing. It’s a soft serve ice cream covered in cotton candy with a white chocolate lightening bolt and a cone cane. We people carrying them as we neared the stand and couldn’t resist giving it a try. Honestly I enjoyed the cotton candy very much, but I’m not super big on soft serve ice cream so I took a few bites and tossed it. But it looks super cool!
Thanks for reading. This was most of the cool stuff we ate in Taiwan. If you love to try new foods and are ready to push yourself gently out of your travel comfort zone, Taiwan is an amazing destination!