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!
Who 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?
Ack! 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?
We 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?
Well, 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?
The 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.
If you are a blogger dying to answer the question Where Did You Sleep Last Night, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.