HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tet in Sri Lanka

Some quick self-promotion to start - check out my latest story, which looks at traditional Vietnamese wood furniture producers and their reliance on rare illegal timber species, here.

I spent the just-concluded Tet holiday in Sri Lanka, traveling for 10 days with my friends Alexis and Dana. I hadn't heard much about the country until last year, when several friends went on separate trips and returned with rave reviews. After being forced to stay in Vietnam for last year's holiday thanks to a last-minute change of plans I knew I wanted to go somewhere new, and Sri Lanka fit the bill.

We plotted a route from Colombo, the capital, east into the country's mountainous tea-growing areas (it is the fourth-largest tea producer in the world), then south back to the coast and up to where we began. I wasn't sure what to expect, largely thanks to my own ignorance of Sri Lanka. I knew there had been a brutal 30-year civil war, largely confined to the north, that ended in 2009, and I figured there would be some similarities to India given its proximity. Suffice to say, I absolutely loved the place. The food is delicious (and cheap), the scenery stunning and diverse, the people exceedingly friendly and helpful, and getting around is very easy.

The train ride (as a former British colony, Sri Lanka has a fairly robust rail network) from Colombo up to Nuwara Eliya was spectacular. As we chugged uphill huge vistas of mountains and tea plantations spread to the horizon. The greenness of the countryside was striking, and just what we needed as an escape from the polluted concrete jungle of Saigon. I was reminded of the tea country of southern India.

The town of Nuwara Eliya was pleasant, and we had managed to book a hotel outside of the main tourist area. This meant we were near lots of delicious, cheap local restaurants, including a row of Muslim-run eateries that we quickly became regulars at. (Sri Lanka is 70% Buddhist, 13% Hindu, 10% Muslim and 7% Christian.)
We had come to Nuwara Eliya to hike in nearby Horton Plains National Park, which we visited early one morning. Though visiting the park isn't cheap, it is beautiful, and they take extremely good care of it - at the entrance staff went through our bags to make sure we weren't carrying any trash, and they even cut the labels off our water bottles. The country as a whole was very tidy, a stark contrast to nearby India, where garbage is everywhere.

The park itself was representative of Sri Lanka's diversity, as the landscape looked like something out of Scotland, not an island in South Asia.

We moved on to Ella afterwards on another spectacular train ride, though the popularity of the route meant we had to stand in a second-class car for a few hours. The scenery was worth it though.
Ella was our longest stop of the trip, and the pleasant mountain town offered several hiking options, along with amazing food. Unfortunately Alexis had sprained a foot while walking down some steps in Nuwara Eliya, so she was relegated to the hotel while me and Dana went exploring. At least the view from the hotel was nice.
The big draws there are Ella Rock, Little Adam's Peak and the Nine Arch Bridge, a century-old structure on the rail line outside of town. We hit all three over two days of fantastic hiking.
You can hike along the railroad tracks around Ella.
Heading up to Ella Rock.

Atop Ella Rock.

Ella Rock seen from Little Adam's Peak.

The ridge along Little Adam's Peak.

A train trundles across the Nine Arch Bridge.
From Ella it was onwards to Udawalawe National Park, one of the most popular areas for wildlife safaris. Sri Lanka is extremely biodiverse, and we jumped at the chance to see some of its animals. None of us had been on a safari before, and it did not disappoint. The headline species is the Sri Lankan elephant, which we saw about a dozen of, in addition to peacocks, hornbills, eagles, crocodiles, monkeys, deer, water buffalo and many other beautiful types of birds. Sitting in a jeep as wild elephants eat about five feet away was pretty special.

 This was my first trip abroad under the Trump presidency, and I was curious to see whether anyone would comment on the USA's new president. When I traveled during the Obama years the reaction I got when people found out I was American was largely positive - I often heard "Obama number 1!" or "Obama very good." Say what you will about his policies, but that was always a good feeling.

As we left our guesthouse outside of the national park Ruwan, the owner, mentioned Trump since he knew we were American. We made our keen displeasure towards the president clear, and Ruwan asked how he could've won the election when every American he has talked to opposes him. We tried to explain it the best we could, though we're all rather baffled by it as well. Our bus pulled up, and Ruwan offered his take on Trump: "Definitely I think he will destroy everything."

It was now time to head back to the coast, and our first stop was Tangalle, a quiet beach town. The weather in the mountains had been fickle, with sunny days interspersed with rain and overcast. Once we hit the sea, however, we barely saw a cloud over the next four days.
Our last stop was Galle, home to a fort built by the Dutch (the colonial ruler before the Brits took over). The area inside the fort was very touristy, but man was it beautiful. The well-preserved architecture brought to mind Goa in India and Malacca in Malaysia, while tasty (if somewhat overpriced) food was all over the place.
Sunset on the walls of Galle Fort.

Eventually it was time to head back to Colombo for the return flight to Vietnam, and we left Galle kicking and screaming. The train ride directly on the coast back to the capital was a stunner, and we killed a few hours before our flight along Galle Face Green, a waterfront park, and with a couple cocktails at the lovely Galle Face Hotel.

The three of us were in agreement that Sri Lanka was absolutely wonderful. Traveling can leave one jaded at times, but I've been gushing about the place since we got back. Add it to your travel list now. I hope to return someday. Now, back to reality.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Travels & Tet

Well once again it's been ages since I've posted on here. That's partially due to the fact that I've done a bunch of traveling over the last six weeks, and also partially since I've been really busy writing for money, so I haven't felt very inclined to use words for free.

I've also been regularly consumed by deep despair over the future of the US given the complete abomination that just became president. I just don't know how to stay positive when the new administration clearly has zero concern for facts, science, the climate, women, minorities and so many other issues. I've never felt so upset as an American.

Anyway, instead of harping on that topic I'm going to share a bunch of pictures from my recent travels, as well my most recent work. The Tet holiday is a few days away and I'm getting ready to head to Sri Lanka for 10 days, so hopefully I'll be back with some posts after that.

Here are four links to my latest journalism work for Mongabay, the South China Morning Post and Saigoneer;

Enforcement, development and education define efforts to save Vietnam's rare primates

The good, the bad and the ugly of Chinese tourists in Vietnam

Vietnam faces dilemma on forests as climate change threatens coffee crops

How Mekong Review Aims to Connect Southeast Asia Through Literature

Now, a variety of travel pics.

Cao Bang Province, far north Vietnam

Hong Kong

Cat Ba Island (with one of my sisters who visited)

Chúc mừng năm mới to everyone who celebrates Tet!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Kitten

On Friday evening I was walking on the sidewalk next to the river with my friend Tin. We were playing Pokemon Go, and at one point heard a pathetic meowing up ahead. We came upon a tiny kitten looking very disoriented and obviously scared. The thing was so young it couldn't even walk fully upright. I'm not a cat person, and Tin is allergic to them, but with no owner in sight I knew I couldn't just leave it there.

We searched the area to see if we could find its mom or any other kittens, with no luck. There was a construction helmet sitting on the ground nearby, so I placed the kitten in it so I could take it home. The little one meowed almost the whole way back, and was clearly distressed.

I got home and messaged a few people who own cats, but no one had dealt with such a young kitten - it wasn't even weened off its mother. I learned that cow's milk would not be good for it, and I had nothing else in my apartment to feed it. The stores were closed since it was late, so I had to hope it would make it through the night so I could take it to the vet in the morning. I arranged a towel in a drawer and it spent the night there in my living room so the meowing wouldn't bother me or my flatmate. We also named it Meo (Vietnamese for cat) before going to bed. Here it is next to my hand for comparison:

The following morning the kitten was fine, though surely very hungry. I packed her (I think it was a her) into a backpack, along with a hand towel for cushion, for the drive to the vet in District 2.
I had hoped to be able to bring Meo to the rescue shelter, also in D2, but I was told over the phone that they were full. The vet fed her some powdered formula mixed with warm water and gave me a tube so that I could feed her later. I posted in the expat Facebook group asking if anyone would be able to foster her until room opened up at the shelter and took her back home.
That afternoon I went to a friend's apartment to cook for the Thanksgiving potluck we were going to later, so Meo came along. By this point I had been contacted by a woman who was already fostering a few cats and wanted to take over caring for Meo. She would pick her up later that evening. I fed Meo regularly and she zonked out in a nook on the couch.
Even though I'm not a fan of cats, she was undeniably adorable. Any time one of us lay down on the couch she'd snuggle up into the crook of your neck and purr. We headed to the potluck later, where Meo got some attention from the host's two kids and a few other guests. A little later the foster parent came and picked her up, so I said farewell to Meo. I won't lie, I was a little sad, but with my work schedule and the amount of traveling I have coming up there's no way I could've kept her, and I definitely don't want an adult cat. Still, it felt good to have saved her from the street - she was very healthy and quite clean so she obviously hadn't been lost for long, but there's no way of knowing how she ended up there. It made for an interesting 24 hours, to say the least.