About Amber

(And The Husband)

After 10 years as an attorney, I left my job at the largest law firm in the world and decided to start living my life. I am now a recovering tax lawyer, perpetual nomad, intrepid foodie, and yoga teacher, traveling the world With Husband In Tow.  I plan, Eric follows, and after 65 countries and 12 years of marriage, I want to share our travel and expat tales with you. Follow me @husbandintow

Currently: Stalled in Ubud, Bali!

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Tuesday
Apr152014

Where Did You Sleep Last Night - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam with 20 Years Hence

Next, we ask Steph and Tony of 20 Years Hence, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?  We were lucky enough to meet Steph and Tony last year when they came through Ubud, where we spent most of the night talking about food.  They are also sharing what it is like to live in Vietnam, one of our favorite countries! 

20 Years Hence Travel BlogWho are you?

I'm Steph, the writerly half of an early 30s married writer-photographer duo. Prior to launching our site and heading off on an indefinite travel adventure, my husband & I were living in Nashville, TN while I completed my PhD in Psychology. (So yes, I am technically a doctor and am just ballsy enough to check that box on airline reservation forms whenever available!) Tony & I often let our stomachs guide us on our travels, and our ambitious goal is to eventually eat our way through every country and still be able to fit into non-elasticized pants when we are done. We have been traveling full-time through Asia (with eventual plans to conquer the rest of the globe) and blogging about our adventures over at 20 Years Hence since August 2012.

Our blog, 20YH, is all about sharing stories, forming deeper connections with the world and its people and food, and living life boldly, without regrets. Our site’s name comes from the Mark Twain quote, which pretty much sums up our entire trip philosophy: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Where are you right now? How long have you been there?

We're currently in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We've been here for just over 2 months and have a few more weeks in the city before we move on (we have a 3 month visa for Vietnam).

What made you choose this destination? Why did you go?

The food! Isn't that how we always make our decisions?

In all seriousness, we've been traveling pretty much non-stop for 18 months now, and as anyone who has moved around for that long can tell you, it is EXHAUSTING. As our current trip begins to wind down, we realized that we aren't anywhere close to done with travel and there is so much more of the world that we want to see and this location independent lifestyle really suits us. We've been bouncing around various ideas of how we might be able to support ourselves so that we can continue traveling for the foreseeable future, and given my husband's background working as a professional graphic and web designer, we knew we had the tools to build something for ourselves. But traveling full-time and building a business is pretty much impossible, so we decided the best thing we could do was base ourselves somewhere that we loved that had a low cost of living so we could dedicate ourselves to developing sustainable income streams.  

We specifically chose Ho Chi Minh City because we spent 2 months in Vietnam last year and LOVED pretty much everything about our time here. We rode a motorcycle from Hanoi all the way to HCMC, so we were pretty exhausted by the time we arrived, and given that it's such a massive city, we knew we had barely scratched the surface of things to see and do here. We figured it would be a great base for exploring the Mekong Delta region AND since we could get a three month visa to the country fairly easily, we figured why not live a dream and spend 90 days in a country we love?

You mentioned the food as one of the reasons you settled in Vietnam for a bit.  What is your favorite Vietnamese dish and why? 

20 Years Hence Travel BlogAck! This is pretty much an impossible question because I pretty much love all Vietnamese food (well, ok, not the dishes that feature dog meat, but everything else! Even frogs & snails!). If I really had to choose, however, I might pick bánh xèo, which is a southern speciality and is essentially a big crispy crêpe (subtly flavored with coconut milk and turmeric) that is stuffed with all kinds of fillings, like bean sprouts, mushrooms, pork and shrimp. You then take pieces of it, and wrap it up in a lettuce or mustard leaf along with a ton of fresh herbs and dunk it in the ubiquitous Vietnamese dipping sauce, nuoc cham. When I'm feeling hyperbolic, I proclaim that this is the quintessential Vietnamese dish because it represents all of the cuisine's hallmarks. It's light but satisfying and the fresh herbs make it bright and exciting. It's got the perfect balance of sweet, salty, sour, and spicy, and it's also a great combination of textures (the soft greens pair nicely with the crunchy, crispy crêpe). You never feel greasy after a Vietnamese meal and there are just so many flavors going on, you never get bored either, and I think that's especially true of bánh xèo: every bite is a delicious adventure!

How did you get to Vietnam? 

We flew in to Ho Chi Minh City so that we could receive Vietnam's version of a "visa on arrival". You still have to file your paperwork in advance and receive a letter of invitation from a travel agency, but you can do all of that online and for a lower cost than applying in person at an embassy. However, receiving your visa when you arrive with your letter is only viable if you fly into the country, not arrive by land.

Where did you sleep last night?

20 Years Hence Travel BlogWe have a room in a traditional Vietnamese home on the outskirts of District 1 and that's where we lay our head while here in the city. 

The best part is that it's really affordable and we're in a local area so we really get to experience a bit of what it's like to live like a local here in HCMC. Our landlords are really friendly and welcoming, but they don't speak much English, which means conversations involve pantomime more than words, but we do our best to communicate and a smile goes a long way. 

Probably the worst part about our lodging is that because we're in a traditional Vietnamese neighborhood, this means everyone gets up insanely early. No need to set an alarm, because we're always roused by some kind of ruckus out in the street. Today someone started construction (loudly banging on a shared wall) at around 7:30 am. I guess they slept in a bit because it is the weekend? (Normally the noise starts at around 6:30...)

How did you find last night's accommodations?

We found our room through good old Craigslist! We checked out a few places in our price range but this place immediately felt like home.

Provide one tip to travelers who make it to your current destination.

One of the best things about Ho Chi Minh City is its "café culture". HCMC is the trendiest, most westernized city in Vietnam, and one of the ways that this is expressed is in the abundance of funky, artistic, independent little coffee shops throughout the city. These are perfect places to just hang out, sip on some devilishly strong coffee beverages (or fruit smoothies if that's more your thing), and watch the world go by. It can be hectic out on the streets, so these cafés are lovely little respites from the hustle and bustle.

Vietnam has gotten a bad rap as a tourist destination, due in part to blog posts from people like Nomadic Matt, what are your thoughts? 

20 Years Hence Travel BlogWell, I love Vietnam—it's my favorite country in Asia, and maybe anywhere on the planet—so obviously I feel a bit protective of it and am saddened to hear others slam it. Then again, I'm also ok with most people avoiding Vietnam because it means there's more for me to love and enjoy without worrying about it being overrun or changed by tourists. I'm selfish that way!

I think we have traveled long enough at this point, however, to recognize that travel is so subjective and that everyone's experience is their own and you can't fault or judge people for responding however they do to the countries they are in. I mean, if we had the experience that some of the naysayers relate about Vietnam, then we probably wouldn't have had much fun either; plus, we have certainly been in the position of visiting a place others have loved only to feel quite differently. 

But to be honest, when I read about people being unrelentingly harassed by touts, or having Vietnamese people gouge them for tons of money, or just being plain rude to them, I kind of can't believe it because that is so far from our own experiences with the country. I also think it's more than a little unfair that, for whatever reason, widespread practices seen in many countries, have become Vietnam's claim to infamy. People focus on things like tourist pricing, which maybe does exist, but it's usually in the range of 10 or 15 cents extra, which is probably not worth getting into a huff over. Also, newsflash: this happens all over the world, even in much loved backpacker SEA countries like Thailand and Cambodia. 

All this said, Vietnam isn't an especially easy destination—it can be very in your face, and the people there do know how to hustle—but I think recently it's been gaining a lot of (much deserved) good will from travelers and digital nomads, because there's so much about it to love. We've had some tough moments in Vietnam to be sure, but I think those have only made the good ones (of which there are far more) all the sweeter—we have experienced some of the loveliest people and most astounding moments of generosity here. Vietnam might play hard to get, but it's so worth it. If you've never traveled in Asia or haven't traveled very much, maybe don't start your trip here, but I do think that it's a destination very much worth visiting and people should go and make up their own minds about it.

What is your most important travel tip to share?

Embrace street food! I know a lot of travelers are intimidated and worried about hygiene issues when it comes to eating food prepared curbside, but in Asia, it's often the safest bet; you can see the entire cooking station and judge for yourself whether you think the cleanliness standards are up to snuff and you can watch your food get cooked right in front of you (which minimizes your chances of getting sick). Additionally, if you don't speak the language street food is generally the easiest as you don't need to navigate menus—most carts only sell one thing, and if they do serve a few items, it's easy enough to just point at what you want. As an added bonus, not only is street food delicious, it also tends to be cheapest and is a great way to experience the local culture. Just make sure to ask the price of everything before you tuck in—if you wait until after the meal, you may find the price is a little bit higher than if you had asked at the start.

Why do you travel?

20 Years Hence Travel BlogThe glib answer is that Tony and I are doing this for the food... but while it is true that food is one of our great motivators and we love seeking out local cuisines, the hunt for our next great meal isn’t really what keeps us going. For us, travel is about more than ticking off items from our bucket list (we don’t even have one!) or collecting stamps in our passports. No, we travel to form connections, to learn about things bigger than ourselves, to tell stories, and to live our best lives. Traveling is the one thing that allows us to feel simultaneously that the world is incredibly huge—because of its diversity and all the possibilities each country represents—and impossibly small—because even on the other side of the planet, when you find yourself surrounded by new friends, it feels like home—and it’s hard to think of something more extraordinary than that.

 

Thanks so much Steph for playing along, and saying such fabulous things about Vietnam!  You can follow Steph and 20 Years Hence on Facebook and on Twitter

If you are a blogger dying to answer the question Where Did You Sleep Last Night, shoot me an email at withhusbandintow@gmail.com.

Sunday
Apr132014

A Day Trip From Ubud - Shopping in Kuta

There are many reasons why I am living in Ubud.  A big one is that despite it being a small town, there are tons of amenities to keep a Western expat happy.  I can pretty much get anything I want here in town.  It might not be my favorite brand, but I can get a reasonable alternative.  

There are some things, though, that I just can’t get here.  Besides dim sum, and Chinese food in general, I can’t buy underwear.  Ok, yeah, I can buy underwear at the local supermarket, and maybe it makes me a snob that I feel like I need to buy underwear some place else, but it is one thing I just can’t buy in town.  It is also hard for me to find yoga tops and bathing suit tops, for obvious waist up reasons. 

Similarly, Eric has a hard time finding t-shirts large enough to fit him, other than the Bintang beer tank tops and tees.  And, once we moved into the new house there were just a few items we needed.  We used all of these expat “issues” as an excuse to get out of town for a day.  We hired a driver to bring us down south, to the big city of Kuta.  

I am not a fan of Kuta. I generally refer to it as the arm pit of Bali, loaded with drunk Australian tourists and aggressive touts.  I avoid it at all costs.  But, there are occasional times where even the most adamantly anti-Kuta person, finds themselves in Kuta.  Even if somewhat against their will.

After grabbing a morning yoga class, our driver, Kadek, brought us, along with our good friend Joe, straight to the Mall Galeria, in hopes of finding some dim sum.  We walked through the somewhat depressing mall and could not find the supposed dim sum restaurant.  Instead, we bought some towels for our guest room, an air freshener, and a grill basket.  

We walked to the mall next door, DFS Galleria, run by the famous duty free shopping company.  We actually aren’t even able to shop at DFS because we do not have tickets showing that we are flying out of Bali.  Instead, we were still in search of the supposed dim sum restaurant.  My belly was crying out for food.  

We found it, tucked away on the upper level.  It looked decent enough, like many similar Chinese banquet halls back in the States.  The big difference: all of the round tables had reserved signs on them for Chinese tour buses that would begin to pour in later in the day.  We quickly ordered some passable dim sum.   Honestly, I was hoping to find dim sum that was so good that I would want to hop on my motorbike and drive the hour to Kuta just for some dumplings.  Instead, this place was “eh.” It was fine.  It scratched an itch.

shopping in Kuta Bali

ACE Hardware in Bali

shopping in Kuta BaliI was a little deflated, but still having fun on our little road trip with Eric and Joe.  After eating, we walked back to the Galleria Mall to one of the ACE Hardware outlets. 

Now, I have been hearing about ACE from every expat in Ubud for months and months.  They have everything I have been told. What I did not expect was that it was an actual outlet of the ACE Hardware store in the US.  It was clean, orderly, fluorescent, all things I have not fully experienced on Bali before. It was, in fact, slightly disturbing.

shopping in Kuta BaliAnd, they did have a ton of stuff I would not expect.  If I were still a huge shopper, like I was back in the States when I was trying to fill up a three bedroom condo, I would have been in heaven.  Instead, we bought a shower caddy and a power strip.  

I was amazed at how much entirely useless stuff there was at ACE, including lawn art, one of my pet peeves. I just wonder who is buying the ceramic deer for their lawn in Bali.

shopping in Kuta Bali

shopping in Kuta BaliThere were omelet pans to make eggs in the shapes of pigs and bunnies. There were not just one or two, but a whole collection of funny shaped frying pans. 

shopping in Kuta BaliIt felt like a little bit of the over consumption of the US had made its way to the tiny island of Bali.  Under a sign that read “MUST HAVE!” were a collection of fancy and oversized book ends, certainly a must have on a tropical island.  I felt like I was at a Target, but in a very bad way. 

shopping in Kuta BaliBetween the three of us we left with a measly few items, and made a pit stop for the main reason why I had to go to Kuta.  Donuts.

J. Co Donuts and Coffee have been an infatuation of mine for about a year now, with branches in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.  I am slightly addicted.  And, as I was taking a day off of my healthy Ubud eating, some donuts and coffee sounded great.  We ordered six donuts, and me being the practical person I am, assumed we would each down a donut with our coffee and then we would take the rest with us to snack in a bit.

My mistake.  I have never seen six donuts disappear so quickly.  Before I could say bon apetit, our donuts and coffee were demolished and we were back in the car, heading to Beachwalk Mall.  

shopping in Kuta BaliBeachwalk in Kuta

As we neared the water, and the heart of Kuta, I was reminded why I never go down there.  The traffic crawled, people everywhere, nothing but cheap souvenir shops and tattoo parlors lined the streets.  This is the town that gives Bali a bad reputation.  

Then, Kadek dropped us at Beachwalk.  It had been a few months since we were last in the civilization of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, where shopping malls are the norm.  Beachwalk, though, made me think we were in Miami.  An open air shopping mall with brightly colored and fluorescent lit store fronts.  They even had a Gap.  Yeah, there was also a bubble tea stall and other stores that reminded me that we were in Asia, but it felt so foreign to me.   It is even advertised as a “contemporary shopping and lifestyle hub.”  It was a slice of Americana in the heart of Kuta.  

Eric was able to buy t-shirts.  I bought a yoga top.  We even found the necessary cord to hook the MacBook to the TV at the house so that we can watch our downloaded movies on a larger screen.  Suddenly, the trip felt like a success.

We downed a few happy hour mojitos overlooking the strip, with the waves in the distance.  I felt for a moment like I was on a holiday.  It seemed so far from the feel of Ubud.  

shopping in Kuta BaliWe grabbed a few beers on the beach, overlooking the waves, and the piles of rubbish.  During the rainy season, the currents bring in tons of natural debris, and right along with it, loads of plastic.  Each day, someone comes out to rake it all up into piles.  The following day, the garbage is strewn again on the beach.  It is a reminder of exactly how over built the beach areas of Bali are becoming, and of how antiquated the sanitation system is on the island.  

shopping in Kuta BaliRegardless, we tried to enjoy our beers, feeling like very bad yogis, particularly when we stopped at McDonald’s on the way home.  One thing I really cannot get in Ubud - a good burger.  I understand that McDonald’s is not a good burger, but something familiar and recognizable was exactly what I needed.  I relished that Big Mac and fries.  

shopping in Kuta BaliI am sure I am not alone as an expat.  I do love living in Ubud, and am happy most days here.  But, there are times when you need to escape the expat bubble for the familiar.  For us, it happened to be ACE Hardware, donuts, the Gap, and McDonald’s.  It was a day well spent in Bali.  I knew, though, I was in no rush to return to Kuta.

Thursday
Apr102014

The Boys of Nyepi - a Photo Essay

I rarely take photos around town.  It is not like I am a tourist, snapping shots to commemorate a trip.  I often think about bringing my camera out with me, to drive around the villages for a day taking photos.  But, then, my regular schedule kicks in, and I just live my life as an expat, living in Bali.

The day before Nyepi, however, I wanted to take advantage of living in Ubud during one of the most important holidays of the year. I wanted to be a tourist in my own village.  I took the requisite pictures of the ogoh ogohs, and posted them to Facebook, like many of my friends in Ubud.  

But for me, the most interesting photos were not of the ogoh ogoh themselves, but in the boys carrying them.  

Nyepi in Bali

Nyepi in BaliNyepi is definitely a holiday for the boys of Bali.  They dress up like miniature versions of  their fathers, with their sarong and head covering, an udeng.  

Nyepi in BaliThe girls do this as well for most Balinese holidays and ceremonies, wearing small sarongs and lace tops called kebaya.  For Nyepi, though, the girls take a back seat, and the boys are the stars.  

They join together to make the neighborhood’s ogoh ogoh, and then they carry them together as a group through the village.  

Nyepi in Bali

Nyepi in Bali

They took pride in making the finishing touches on the ogoh ogoh.

Nyepi in Bali

Nyepi in BaliYou could just see how excited some of the smaller boys were to participate in the ceremonial procession, some nervous with anticipation. 

Nyepi in Bali

Nyepi in Bali

Nyepi in BaliI am sure the older men tired of it after so many years, but the younger ones were still so excited.  For this brief moment, in the ten and younger crowd, Nyepi was certainly the highlight of their year.