A craftsman, a luxury, two dollars.

Photo courtesy feelpositive.wordpress.com

 

 

Massages in Asia are widely available and dirt cheap,but I’m not rushing to get them. I’ve only gotten two professional massages in my life, probably because it’s not something I find relaxing, restorative or pleasurable. I can see why it invokes these feelings in others, it just doesn’t have the same reaction in me. I have found another luxury here that does bring all those feelings, and I think it’ll be something I really miss. It’s getting my earlobes shaved.

Getting a haircut and shave in Asia is remarkable. It’s the grooming equivalent of getting your car detailed. Every element is checked, cleaned, often brought to a never before achieved level. In the states I cut my own hair, a task done over a toilet, often with a roommate double checking and lining me up, before a shower. 25% of the time there’s an area missed that someone has to clue me into. It takes around six minutes.

The works package in Asia takes around 45 minutes and costs two to three dollars. Often the barber isn’t even in a shop, he’s set up on a corner or an alley with a chair and his tools. It’s an extraordinary value for the money. After the discussion of my preferances, the barber shaves my head with the clippers. He switches to the one without a guide, trims extra long facial hair, goes around the ears and lines up the back.

Then he brakes out the warm lotion and moistens everywhere he’s going to shave. This isn’t limited to the face, it’s everywhere. I didn’t know most of these places could even be shaved. The straight razor is a precision tool, and in this case it’s being wielded by a master. The goatee is straightened up and the hairline is shaved to a military straightness. The area around and between the eyebrows is shaved, as are the temples. Sideburns are, if desired, sculpted into geometrically perfect shapes. The cheeks are shaved starting just below the eyes. The back of the neck is shaved all the way to well below the shirt line. An inordinate amount of time is spent on the ears. The insides of the upper ridge, then the outsides. The ear lobes, on both sides. Then the headrest is inserted, the chair is reclined and the neck is shaved. This is a slow, deliberate process, a craftsman who loves his craft.

Next the scissors come out. Ear and nose hairs are swiftly dealt with. The goatee is shaped, trimmed, checked and rechecked. Eyebrows and mustache are taken care of. This is the point where I politely decline the ear canal cleaning, a 15 minute procedure done with a headlamp, tools that resemble dental implements and small cotton balls on the end of delicate six inch long tweezers. Though I’m curious about this part, I can’t stop myself from picturing an early ending to my trip, trying to explain how I punctured my eardrum allowing a man whose name I don’t know to stick a few inches of metal in the canal.

Photo courtesy drieddates.blogspot.com

 

Finally the hair is brushed, checked from all angles, closely inspected. The clippers come out again, and the whole head is shaved again, just to insure a uniform length and no stray bits. The attention to detail never ceases at any point. Aftershave is applied and the head is lightly massaged. A thorough check is made to insure all cut hair has been removed, even though I’ve been toweled down ten times during the procedure. This is a level of grooming beyond anything I’ve ever achieved myself. I rise from the chair and someone immediately takes my place. I hand over fourty thousand dong and then the cycle begins again.

I can’t help but wonder if this is a service I can find in Chicago. I’m going to have to explore Argyle and Chinatown again, this time looking for a barber. I don’t expect the price to be the same, and I won’t be able to go once a week, as I’ve been doing, but I don’t want to go back to the way it was before. I’ve become accustomed to this.

The Two Things People Asked About Before I Left: (No Food Content)

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There were two subjects that repeatedly came up for discussion when i talked about this trip with my friends (okay, three, but i’m saving the ladyboy hookers for next time). They were US-Vietnamese relations and traffic. They’re topics I think on often as I ride through Vietnam.

Traffic in Vietnam is legendary. Busses passing busses passing trucks passing motorbikes, all on a two lane road. Intersections where motorbikes stream through non-stop, and pedestrians hoping to cross the street are expected to wade into, and slowly through, the flow of traffic. The outsiders often remark that there are no rules, but after a few weeks of travel I’m starting to see some patterns emerge. Cars are a remarkably new addition to Vietnamese roads. Thirty years ago, bicycles ruled. Motorbikes are now available for a paltry sum of money, and soon cars will be within the grasp of all middle class households. I think the rules of the road in Vietnam came from a different source though.

I have a theory that they came from the boats. Smaller vehicles here always yield to larger, regardless of timing, lanes, direction. This is standard with ships, right? The way that traffic flows, around pedestrians or motorbikes crossing perpendicular, doesn’t involve maintaining lanes, but it closely resembles the flow of water around rocks in a stream. The hostel I’m in now has a warning about the traffic, and it points out that accidents happen when you try to impose your own rules on the roads here. It doesn’t work. Our system is a set of guiding principles to minimize the chance of collisions. The system here is one where the traffic is viewed as a whole, not piecemeal. It is a living thing, a writhing beast, but knowing this, accepting this, makes navigating it easier. You learn to balance the proactive with the reactive. You learn to take things in stride, to abandon the personal insult so often taken by Americans from the driving habits of others. When you view yourself as a drop in the stream, you focus on maintaining the stream, on not disrupting the pattern. This is how you safely navigate.

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In Laos, I thought I would find resentment under the surface, as our cluster bombs still kill and maim people every day. I never found it. I was never greeted with anger or suspicion, only warmly. In Vietnam, it’s the same, but with so much enthusiasm I’m often perplexed at the source. One man showed me how (conversing through hand signs) our countries used to butt heads, and it was bad, and now we are very close, and it makes him very happy. Another ran his hand over his head to indicate short hair and said “Obama” followed by a large grin and thumbs up.

So many people asked if I was concerned I would be ill-received by the Vietnamese. They asked if I would pretend to be Canadian. They had no clue what the current relationship between our countries is, and neither did I. Amazingly, my reception has been nothing but positive. Strangly, I’m greeted with more enthusiasm as an American than the Europeans and Australians I’m often traveling with. At first I thought this was a fluke, an act, but as I got the same energy from everyone I met, I began to realize it’s authenticity. Children shouting to me “I love ah-mare-ee-ka!”. Teens saying “America, very strong country”. 

Where does this warmth come from? Is it our exportation of culture? I don’t think so. It’s never “Oh America. Breaking Bad good tv show” or “Jonas Brothers, very good rock music”. Maybe it was Bill Clinton’s visits in 2000 and 2014. I thought for a while, perhaps, that it is due to rising tensions with China. As relationships with one global powerhouse crumble, they hope to see new bonds in another. I don’t think this is the case though; this love of America seems set too deep to be reactionary. I think it’s a reflection of how the Vietnamese view themselves, their future. They’ve worked hard to shed their past. Outside of the museums, there are very few reminders of the wars, of communism, of harsher times. This is a country on the rise, people looking forward to a brighter future. They’ve made an incredible tourism industry in not much time, with no evidence of slowing down. The work ethic and ingenuity displayed every day are a thing of beauty. I always try to communicate to the people I meet how proud they should be of their country.

The best restaurant I’ll never return to [most likely].

Andrew Zimmerman, chef of Sepia (hi Sepia friends!), recently wrote an article about the joys of eating alone. He waxes poetically about a perfect sausage, some strong mustard, sauerkraut and a cold beer. That is a perfect meal, and one better not shared. This post is about another perfect meal, also eaten alone, but there’s one big difference:

Chef Zimmerman’s meal isn’t brought to you by a brutal totalitarian regime known for nuclear missiles and prison camps.

Pyongyang Restaurant isn’t your typical restaurant chain. It’s operated by Room 39, the North Korean government agency better known for Superdollars, the counterfeit hundred dollar bills so good they’re actually BETTER than the originals. It’s staffed by an array of gorgeous, multitalented North Korean women dressed like flight attendants. The upstairs VIP rooms are probably bugged. It’s like being in a spy movie. I spent the whole meal waiting for a giant North Korean weightlifter to throw James Bond out of a second floor window. I was ready for that. I wasn’t ready for the food though.

Pyongyang Restaurant, Hanoi

Pyongyang Restaurant, Hanoi

“Chinese food” in America is a bastardized take on Cantonese. “Mexican food” is the food of the northerners; “Thai food” is the cuisine of the south. I had never paused to consider the regionality of Korean cuisine until reading a Vice article about a North Korean restaurant in Cambodia, the Phnom Penh location of this same chain. The article mentioned how the employees are basically enslaved, kept on the premises at all times, with 50-90% of tips garnished by the regime. It covered how the servers are trained to fill South Korean businessmen with alcohol and then pry state secrets out of them. Annoyingly, it barely mentioned the food at all. I needed to know about the food.

Stone Bowl Al Bap

Stone Bowl Al Bap

I showed up promptly at 7 pm and was shown to a table. The furniture and tableware all had a nice weight, everything felt of impeccable quality. I ordered tea, fried dumplings, the Pyongyang Cold Noodles and a stone bowl of Al Bap, a cousin of Bibim Bap where the egg and meat are replaced with heaps of flying fish roe.

Banchan Assortment

Banchan Assortment

First up was the banchan, the array of small plates filled with pickles and preserved delights. My selection was shrimp chips, lightly sweetened boneless anchovies, daikon radish, some marinated greens, plain cucumbers with a funky fish paste reminiscent of peanut butter and a large bowl of napa kimchi in a perfectly balanced broth spiked with cilantro and scallion. All of the banchan was delicious.

The dumplings showed up next, crispy side up, covered in a light coating of chile oil, with edible flower and cucumber garnish in the middle. A pork filling heavy on the kimchi and a nicely balanced dipping sauce made these irresistible. There had to be a dozen or more in the order, and I stopped myself with four left on the plate to insure that I’d have room for the next two courses. I spent the rest of the meal staring at those four delicious dumplings.

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As I was enjoying my dumplings, the entertainment started. The servers took turns playing something like eight different musical instruments, singing and dancing. My favorite was the dancing, a two person dance with a puppet and puppeteer theme. It reminded me of a cross between japanese geisha and hip hop popping and locking. All of the entertainment was surprisingly good, but a few of the singers were unbelievably talented.

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Both the noodles and the rice dish came at the same time. The rice came with a clear broth that I was instructed to eat after finishing the rice. The noodles came with all their garnishes beautifully arranged on top, only to be pushed aside as the noodles were cut with a pair of scissors. These dishes were not as boldly flavored as the dumplings but were still rather tasty.

Pyongyang Cold Noodles

Pyongyang Cold Noodles

The noodles, which I love to get at Chicago’s Da Rae Jung, are subtle, they’re soul food. They’re more about texture than flavor, the contrast of the cold buckwheat noodle with the boiled pork slices, the chicken meat, the apple and kimchi and all of the other garnishes I couldn’t identify. The rice dish is also about texture, the intermingling of the flying fish roe with the soft rice inside the bowl and the crispy rice on the edges. More pickled vegetables balanced this dish and kept it interesting. The broth served alongside was rich in texture but subtle in flavor, well balanced, a nice finish. Dessert was a slice of watermelon bursting with flavor unmatched by American produce. With a focus on meat, seafood, chili and fermented things, well made Korean food always leaves me satisfied. 

This brings me to the great moral dilemma of this restaurant. I wasn’t able to identify a distinct North Korean cuisine, but I did have a truly great meal. A friend declined to join me based on not wanting to give the PDRK any of her money or support. I can make a moral exception for one visit, for the opportunity to see a culture unknown in my home country and the experience as a whole. Now, having been, I feel great about it. I’m just not ethically comfortable with returning, which is really disappointing considering how many tasty things I saw on other tables.

Nirvana is at the end of an alley in Hanoi.

Picture this scene: You walk down a long alley to an outdoor restaurant. A gaggle of shirtless teenage boys, clad in basketball shorts and flip flops, man a pair of eight foot long grills, filled with raging charcoal. There are a ton of seats, probably room for two hundred people. You sit on your diminutive stool at your diminutive table and some hot sauce, pickled cucumbers and handi-wipes are placed in front of you.

Photo courtesy upbeatsquare.com

 The menu is non-existent, but this is not a problem because it is only six items. Everything comes on wood skewers, and everything is cooked on the grill. Chicken leg quarters, flattened out, bone in. Chicken wing, stretched out joint by joint. Pork riblets, glazed and grilled to perfection. Banh mi baguettes, flattened, glazed with honey, and grilled until the charcoal flavor takes hold and the outside is perfectly crisped. Chicken foot and honey roasted sweet potatoes round out the food offerings. Cold draft beer is the drink option, though iced tea and sodas are available. This is heaven. This is the promised land.

You wade in slowly, ordering one of each thing. A young boy, not old enough to work the grills yet, walks by with a large pair of scissors, cutting your food off the sticks and into bits sized just right for gnawing. You quickly find your favorites, reordering many times, going for the cucumbers and the sweet bread when your palate tires of charcoal meats. Orders of more beer and more meat are immediately served. This is a place where you can eat as little or as much as you want, where you’re never without exactly what you want. This is the greatest restaurant concept of all time.

Time passes unnoticed. You find a perfect place, rest for a bit, then clean up with the handi-wipes. Wave over the oldest boy around; he tallies up your handscrawled tab. Beer, bread, and an amount of meat only hinted at by the mountain of discard bones are all accounted for. You’re stuffed, thrilled, and the check comes to a little under $8 a person. This is the greatest restaurant of all time.

Bangkok Sit Down Restaurants

There is a line between restaurants and street food in Southeast Asia; sometimes a blurry line, sometimes clear. Some countries skew one way, some another. Laos seems more restaurant focused. Thailand is all about the street.

Most of the meals we’ve been eating have been at street stalls, but some of the restaurants are worth visiting too. Some clearly started out as street stalls, and haven’t forgotten their humble beginnings. The Chinese roasted goose restaurant we visited is one such restaurant.

frontofhouse

The restaurant must have started as a street stall and only opened inside to accommodate more diners, the cooking is still done in the front area on the street. This place serves one thing, delicious roast goose, sliced, attractively plated with offal and blood cubes and doused in jus. Soup is optional, but the water spinach with crispy goose bits is included, which is a good thing because you can’t miss it. Cold tea is supplied to wash it all down. 

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We only two other sit down meals in Bangkok. One was soft serve at McDonalds for 9 baht ($0.30) to get free wifi. The other was the polar opposite, the full tasting at Nahm in the Metropolitan Hotel. Chef David Thompson was the first chef to receive a Michelin star for Thai food. He has been studying Thai food for 30 years and has written three incredible cookbooks; Thai Street Food is one of the best cookbooks of the last ten years. This was my chance to eat his food at the San Pellegrino #16 best restaurant in the world.

The atmosphere at Nahm is ideal. The restaurant patio butts up against a beautiful, serene pool. The banquettes are high backed and section off the room, blocking noise and offering lots of privacy. The music is perfect for the space.

canapes

Nahm’s tasting menu format is unique and works perfectly for their concept. You start with a spread of four canapes. Your table chooses one of each entrée category: a stir fry, a curry, a soup and a dip. This is followed up by an individual dessert from the selection. This allows you to eat the meal in the Thai style, communally sharing the entrees together over sticky rice, balancing the strong flavors of one dish with the subtleties of another.

entrees

The highlights included a perfect rendition of the one bite salad wrapped in betel leaf, a mussel satay and a very tasty crispy coconut cakes for dessert. All for around $60 per person, an amazing deal considering the company they keep.

desserts

Street Eats (pt 1 of many)

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If you have a few baht in your pocket, you can’t go far in this city hungry. Food exists on every street. Markets crowd the avenues and surround the parks. They shift like the tide.

The first day in Bangkok I thought I was lost, only to realize that I was on the right road, the market I’d previously walked through had changed completely in just three hours time.

On Si Lom Road, the 1/2 mile long market running both sides of the street has three distinct phases. In the early morning, it is snacks and food catering to the locals. Mostly take-away food ready to eat, for business workers to snatch up on the way to the office. After lunch time that market has broken down completely and a new one has taken it’s place. New booths and new vendors hawk fruit, baked goods and gifts, things for the local workforce to buy when they get out of work. Once the locals have left for the day, another market appears, selling souvenirs, knock off tee shirts, pot pipes and banana pancakes for the tourists.

Some markets specialize in ladies make-up and clothing, some in tourist trinkets, some in flowers, but the food is always present. I thought I had a handle on the food a couple of days in, but then I started to notice subtle variations in preparations and completely new dishes masquerading as familiar favorites.

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The fried chicken stands are ubiquitous, but upon closer inspection, the one on Convent rd with the long lines is actually making a really tasty fried chicken salad. This one should be pretty easy to recreate at home.

Breaded fried chicken thighs, cut off the bone and into small chunks, tossed with julienned carrot, red onion, white onion, scallion. Dressed with lime juice, fish sauce, chilies, sugar. Served over rice, with a sprinkling of roasted rice powder over it, this dish is simple, approachable and delicious. I’d like to try it with peanuts and ginger at home.

Avoiding Stay Puft Marshmallow Man Syndrome

The backpacker is a common site in airports, bus terminals, tourist sites. The ones that always stick out to me are the overloaded ones. Huge 100 liter pack on the back, filled to the brim, framed, towering over them, extraneous items lashed to the outside. Another, smaller daypack on the front, filled with more crap.

The physical burden is obvious, they toddle around like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I have to wonder about the other burdens. Obviously there is some small financial burden, from checking this as luggage or paying for it’s storage. There is the burden of time spent packing, unpacking, digging through it. Missed opportunities and slipped discs are both things I want to avoid.

The backpack is the lifeline, but also the burden. Balancing this is the challenge. Everything I need, but as little as possible. What do I really need? Here’s what I’ve put together, based on the advice of travel bloggers, friends and family.

First Level of Packing

Clockwise from Top Left: down jacket, sleeping bag liner, folding shopping bag, backpack, sandals, rain jacket, laundry bag

Down Jacket: Montbell Ultralight – 900 fillpower, 8 ounces, packs down to a baseball. Got slightly used from GearTrade.com for $111. Half of the weather protection plan.

Sleeping Bag Liner: Cocoon Coolmax Travel Sheets. Really comfortable but just a bit bulky. I’d love to get something smaller in the future.

Folding Shopping Bag – Timbuktu. Found it in my bedroom left by a previous tenant. Somehow I found it two years after she moved out. We’ll see how much use this gets. May get replaced by a plastic bag after a month.

Backpack  – Tom Bihn Synapse. 25 liters, well built, nice organization, highly recommended by Tynan.

Sandals – Rainbow double layer hemp sandals. Anti microbial, comfy (after the long break-in) and well built.

Rain Jacket – Marmot Micro-G. Hurricane level protection, packs down to a soda can. The other half of my bad weather gear. That’s it.

Laundry Bag – Fleece lined on the interior so I can turn it inside out, stuff it and use it as a pillow

Electronics

Electronics

Electronics (Clockwise from Top Left: Kindle, laptop, laptop charger, usb charger, camera battery charger, travel mouse, outlet adapter, flashlight, usb cables)

Kindle Paperwhite with plenty of books loaded up. Travel guides are loaded on here and the laptop. No hard copies. Maybe one real book just in case.

Laptop: Lenovo X220 Tablet – this thing is fast and works great but it’s bulky and heavy. I miss my Dell Adamo. The accompanying charger is oversized and has too much cable on it. If I had extra cash I’d scoop up one of these.

USB Charger: 4 ports, two 5V 2A, two 5V 1A. Plug folds away. Works on 110 and 220v. Two Micro-USB cables, one Mini-USB cable. Charges the phone, the Kindle, the flashlight and whatever anyone else needs charged. $15 on amazon.

Camera Battery Charger: I wanted a camera that charged via USB too, but I got a great camera on Craigslist for $70. Can’t say no to that. Guess I’ll lug this stupid charger around.

Travel Mouse: Folds flat, pops up for use. Nifty design, good feel, and it was free. Thanks Charlie!

Outlet Adapter: Converts anything to anything. The size of a deck of cards.

Flashlight: Very bright, long life LED flashlight. The lithium battery is recharged via USB. If I had more cash, I’d pick up this Flashlight/USB Battery Pack

Clothing

Clothing

Clothing (Clockwise from Top Left: 3 merino t-shirts, 3 merino boxers, cotton shorts, basketball shorts, 3 pairs merino socks, merino hoodie)

It’s all merino wool of varying brands and thicknesses. Anti microbial, odor resistant, moisture wicking wonder fabric. One pair of cotton shorts, one pair of basketball shorts for lounging, sleeping, swimming

Toiletries

Toiletries: (Clockwise from Top Left: deodorant, Dr Bronners soap, Lactase, travel toilet paper, Eucalan, sunscreen, shoe anti-stink spray, fish oil, vitamins, q-tips, nail clipper, razor, sewing kit, medical tape, lip balm, toothpaste, toothpaste, toothbrush)

The key to the toiletries set is the Dr Bronners soap. It’s bodywash, shampoo, shaving lotion and more, in one bottle. The Eucalan is special laundry detergent for wool, it replaces the lanolin, natural fats that keep the wool soft, comfortable and durable. The folding toothbrush has been replaced last minute with the Ionic toothbrush that I normally use at home. Small size, easy use, just as effective as all the expensive electronic toothbrushes but for $20. There’s also a minimal first aid kit. Everything ends up in three different Ziploc bags, organized into one thin nylon Dopp kit.

Stuffed into the bag, there’s also the following: Sleep Mask, Earplugs, Travel Clothesline, Sink Stopper, Deck of Cards, Pen and Moleskin Notebook, Maps (torn out of guidebooks, hole punched and key ringed together), Water Bottle, Travel Towel, Breath Mints

On my person: merino t-shirt, boxers, socks, Lucky brand jeans, leather belt, Sorel desert boots, belt wallet, phone, camera, passport, headphones.

That’s it. What do you think I am missing? What do you think I could get rid of and why?