Vietnam by train

Thus far on this trip, we’ve used just about every imaginable method of transportation, so long-distance trains in Vietnam fit perfectly into our plans.


Hazy sunrise over the rice paddies.

Long-distance trains were established by the French in Vietnam in the 1880s; the North-South line, connecting Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), opened in 1936. The line was cut in 1954 at the beginning of Vietnam’s war against the French when the country divided into North and South. It was rebuilt in 1976 and is still known to many as the Reunification Express.


No one is striving for architectural greatness at these train stations.


Though it’s officially called Ho Chi Minh City, the station signage and the timetables still use Saigon. We’re not certain which one is socially correct.


It is advisable to purchase snacks for the journey from the station vendors, though they will almost certainly shortchange you.


This doesn’t show the large family groups camped in the room behind, but the waiting rooms are clearly both luxurious and comfortable.


Unlike the precision of Japan, Vietnamese trains are on a bit more of a casual schedule.


A four-bed “soft sleeper” cabin.

Train accommodations in Vietnam come in fairly self-explanatory flavors: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper; sleepers can be either four-bed or six-bed. We first used soft seats for day trains, but learned the hard way that this meant we’d be subjected to Vietnamese musicals played on the communal televisions at ear-splitting volume. Presumably this was very enjoyable for the Vietnamese passengers, but it did diminish our love of train travel somewhat. So did the physically aggressive food vendors who hopped on board at stations.




This rice paddy photo is clearly lacking the iconic tiny Vietnamese woman in a conical cap.


Everything – and we mean everything – is under construction in Vietnam. This includes every single hotel we stayed at.


Railway crossings are not automated, so the train employee runs to shut the barrier as the train passes.



Almost every house we passed had a large vegetable garden.

In addition to the vegetable gardens we saw at most homes, families also harvest part of communal rice paddies. Their allotment is determined by the size of the family, so there is certainly an incentive to have more children. Obviously, no one actually owns land here; land is theoretically owned collectively by the people, but of course in reality controlled entirely by the government.


On many occasions, we passed close enough to touch the buildings outside.


We were a little surprised by the cavalier attitude towards crossing live tracks, but when in Vietnam…

Here’s the honest truth: trains are not the most efficient way to travel around Vietnam, and unfortunately they’re not the most economical, either. Though we had planned on doing all of our travel up the coast via train, budget airlines like AirAsia and JetStar have made the decision much more difficult. From Da Nang to Hanoi, for example, it’s sixteen hours by train and about ninety minutes by plane. The trains are by no means particularly comfortable or clean, and the airline tickets are often cheaper! So we’d love to tell you that we honored the backpacker credo and traveled slow, but that’s not the entire story. This is a complicated, difficult country, and the vagaries of train travel are just the beginning.


We finished our train journey about halfway up the coast at Da Nang, or “China Beach” to Americans.

Walk this way

We believe that one of the best ways to explore a big city is by walking it. During this adventure, N and I have tackled Kyoto, Tokyo, Auckland and Wellington, plus numerous small towns and villages. Never before, however, have we encountered as much danger as we did when exploring Ho Chi Minh City (formerly and still sometimes Saigon) and Hanoi in Vietnam.



It’s every man (or woman) for themselves out here.

Imagine the biggest non-motorway road you can. Now envision it filled entirely with cars, and fill in the empty spaces with thousands of motorbikes. Add more motorbikes. Throw in pedestrians, elderly women on bicycles, wheeled carts filled with vegetables, tuk-tuks, and a few more motorbikes, just for good measure. Feel free to paint in lane lines and dividers on your imaginary road, but don’t worry too much as everyone will assiduously ignore these. Now imagine that everyone who has access to a horn or a bell or any other noisemaking device is using it – at the same time. Oh, and don’t forget to let everyone text while they’re driving. Now you might just barely have the tiniest inkling of the risk involved in walking Vietnamese city streets.


Southeast Asia is absolutely overrun with motorbikes. Tourists can rent them, but do so at your own risk; serious accidents are common.


We love walking (maybe me just a touch more than N, especially in the southeast Asian heat) but never before has it been quite so difficult. Even on the sidewalk – ostensibly a safe haven – we faced myriad obstacles.


Sidewalks in Vietnam aren’t so much for walking as they are for sitting down to catch up with friends.


If the road traffic is too much, the motorbikes will join the pedestrians on the sidewalks. Also, feel free to park your car wherever you’d like, as demonstrated on left.


Pop-up meat markets, like this one, also make navigating sidewalks in Hanoi somewhat challenging.


Oranges, anyone?


We regularly saw bicycles and motorbikes loaded with two, three or four family members. Child safety seats? Not so much.


The kid sandwiched on the motorbike in the foreground apparently doesn’t need a helmet.


Even when the crosswalk light says it’s the pedestrians’ turn, this is typically the gauntlet you face. Beware.


No, that isn’t a crashproof bike helmet.


We saw motorbikes carrying all manner of goods, from extension ladders to mini fridges to lengths of steel pipe to balloon bouquets.


The bicycle on the right is loaded with ceramics for sale. Imagine how heavy and unwieldy it must be to ride.

We learned quickly that the only way to make progress was to take a deep breath and step out into traffic. No one is actually driving all that fast, and the motorbikes will elegantly navigate around pedestrians like a shoal of fish. As long as you move smoothly and consistently – and don’t stop in the middle – the system actually works, surprisingly. It defies all Western conventions. Numerous times, we saw panicked tourists frozen on the side (or the middle!) of the big roads. Know that a good degree of faith is required.


Apprentice monks have places to go, too.


Yes, N was crossing the road when he snapped the shot. Risky job, this.


Drivers wait for a fare…these carts only seat one passenger, so they’re not practical unless you’re traveling solo.


Notice here that lane lines and directional traffic are merely a suggestion.



We read a helpful travel trip: “If taking a motorbike taxi, ensure your driver is sober and lucid.” Honestly, how would you know? Our airport shuttle bus driver fell asleep with alarming regularity along the journey.


4AM and we can finally use the pedestrian crosswalk safely.

Navigating Vietnamese cities on foot has been one of the trickiest and most tiring parts of our travel thus far, but it certainly qualifies as an adventure!


To market, to market

For a chef and a photographer, traditional food markets are a wonderland. We visit markets whenever possible and do our best to capture the scents, sounds and tastes through our words and photos. These markets are often messy, fragrant, hot and noisy, to say the least, but they capture a place and its people the way few other tourist attractions do.

P.S. If you’re in the Denver area, I’m teaching an incredible cooking class on exploring ethnic markets in June at the Botanic Gardens. Learn more here!


Chile paste, fresh chiles and ground turmeric.


This little piggy went to market…


The morning fish market in Hoi An.


Fresh herbs, delivered by bicycle.


Rice is the staple food for more than two-thirds of the world’s population, unsurprisingly, there is a lot available for purchase here.


Know where your meat comes from.


Siem Reap’s famous Night Market.


Fresh pineapples are often sold peeled and cut for an easy to-go snack. 


The “blackfoot chicken” is just one of the many poultry options available. Every conceivable type and size of bird is eaten here.


Lots of unusual fruit varieties that I’ve never seen before!


This is what chefs mean when they talk about “nose-to-tail” cooking.


Most markets we’ve seen are conducted primarily on the ground.


This is not the gluten-free section.


Spices ready to blend into fiery curry pastes.



Markets in southeast Asia aren’t just for food; Cambodia and Vietnam produce a great deal of the world’s “fast fashion,” typically in abysmal working conditions.


Everything you need to garnish pho.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to cooking again when we get home!


Temples of boom

We thought of calling this post “Angkor what?,” but it’s a bit of a cheap shot. To sum things up rather simplistically, tourism in Cambodia exists primarily because of one place:


The famous view of Angkor Wat at sunrise. 

Over two million tourists visit Cambodia each year, and the vast majority – like us – make Angkor Wat and the nearby temples central to their trip. Last year, the government-run organization that recently took over management of the temples (some sources claim this cultural treasure is actually owned by a businessman) announced a dramatic increase in the price of a one-day temple pass, from $20 to $37.


You’ll want to arrive early, since you’ll be jostling for space with hundreds and hundreds of other tourists angling for the same sunrise shot.

Based on the throngs of people already at Angkor Wat at 5AM, it seems very few tourists have been put off by this price increase, despite concerns to the contrary. Although there are hundreds of temples in the immediate area, most tourists – like us – visit just a few and if we’re speaking honestly, it’s because this is a tourist attraction we’re supposed to see, rather than one we’re really interested in. It’s easy to get “templed out” here very quickly, especially in the blistering heat and pervasive dust of the dry season.


One of Angkor Wat’s towers.


Stone carving detail, Angkor Wat.


Angkor Wat is the largest and best-preserved of the main temples, hence its overwhelming popularity.

As good tourists with unlimited access to travel guides and “places to go before you die” lists, travel too often becomes a series of boxes checked off, mostly based on others’ experiences (or glossy Instagram photos). Angkor Wat and its compatriots are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and regularly cited as one of the world’s most important historical monuments. The reality, however, is that unless you’re a devoted student of history, archeology and/or crumbling stone, you might actually find the endless piles of rubble and maddening crowds rather underwhelming.


Temple entrance at Banteay Srei.


Banteay Srei is carved from red sandstone, making it particularly unique amongst other temples in the area.

It’s also difficult for us, at least, to feel charitable towards a government who might have made somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million last year (based on a conservative 1.5 million visitors buying $20 temple passes) plus about $35 a head for visitor visas (again, conservatively about $70 million) but can’t seem to find the resources to organize clean drinking water or trash collection for its citizens. Where, exactly, are these millions going?


Stone guards on duty at Banteay Srei.


Carving detail, Banteay Srei. The temple’s name roughly translates as “citadel of the women;” one possible explanation is that men couldn’t have managed the intricacy of the carvings.


Some of the thousands of tons of rubble at Beng Mealea.


Beng Mealea’s grounds were only recently cleared of landmines and opened to the public.


Crumbling walls at Beng Mealea.


It’s a bit of a fixer-upper…


Need any more convincing that nature rules absolutely?

Please don’t misunderstand: the temples are absolutely amazing. Most were built during the 10th or 11th centuries, and the Angkor area once comprised the world’s largest city. The history and craftsmanship carved into this stone is palpable. But it’s also hot, crowded and dirty, and it’s essential to acknowledge that when you travel, you will probably visit some “touristy” spots.

Look past the trash and the hordes, close your eyes and imagine what life might have been like in these temple complexes over a thousand years ago. Birth and death and war and famine and joy and love would all exist then, just as it does today. The main challenge we as tourists face now is how to appreciate significant places like this while still preserving them for future generations. Is there really such a thing as sustainable tourism?

How things are made

Hi! We’re in Cambodia! Adjusting to southeast Asia’s extreme temperatures (currently 96°F with 43% humidity) after New Zealand’s temperate climate has been a bit of a shock, but we’re adapting. The key? Drinking plenty of water and a hotel with a pool. Plus, no heavy-duty touring activities (like dusty temples) between the intense hours of noon and 5PM. One must take good care of oneself when traveling.


$29 a night gets you quite a bit of luxury in Siem Reap.

One of the benefits of traveling in less developed countries like Cambodia is often the opportunity to see things being made by hand that are almost always created by machine elsewhere. We participated in a tour that took us through small villages outside of Siem Reap where we had the chance to see incense, rice noodles, and tofu, among other things, all crafted by hand.


This incredible woman has been making incense sticks since she was 15. She’s now 76.


Scented bark, used as the base for the incense sticks.

Bark and other raw materials for the incense are collected from the surrounding area, then sifted and made into a paste with water. The paste is rolled around bamboo sticks, dusted and dried in the sun.


61 years of making incense by hand might be the embodiment of mastering one’s craft.


Dusting the incense sticks before they’re left to dry in the sun.


The finished incense sticks are collected into bundles and sold at the market for ceremonial use at altars such as the one below.


An altar at a village pagoda.

We stopped at a home in a village outside of Siem Reap where fresh rice noodles are made. As with most of the homes we visited, this business is a family affair, with everyone participating in the household’s livelihood.


The dough for these noodles is simply finely ground rice and water.


This contraption uses the well-known engineering theory of “playground seesaw” to knead and pound the dough in shallow pans.


The noodle dough is placed in the cylindrical press and tamped down with a wooden plunger.


The boy wasn’t heavy enough to weigh down the press, so another family member joined in.


Noodles gently dropping into their hot bath.

The family’s press is a simple yet ingenious human-weighted device that forces the thick, dense dough through a metal sheet pricked with tiny holes, creating the thin noodles. The noodles are quickly cooked in boiling water, then removed and drained.


Bundles are carefully weighed, although these women are so skilled and accurate that the scale probably isn’t even necessary.


The noodle bundles are packed in bamboo-lined rattan baskets for transport to the market and local restaurants.

Another stop was a house near Siem Reap’s wholesale market where a local family makes fresh tofu. Batches and batches are made every day and sold at the market or to a multitude of small restaurants. The “production kitchen” is of course also the family’s home.


The wood-fired stove used for heating the soymilk.

Tofu is made in a manner very similar to cheese: fresh soy milk is heated, a coagulant is added to curdle the milk, and the mixture is pressed to remove liquid.


The hot soymilk curdles immediately after the coagulant is added. 


The curd is drained through fabric before being placed in the press.


The drained curd is placed in a tray and pressed to remove liquid. Note the clever use of a bottle jack!


Finished tofu.


Tofu cubes, ready for sale. Tofu is always stored in liquid (usually filtered water) to keep it fresh and moist. 

If you’re interested in making your own homemade tofu, start here!

Interlude: N takes the wheel

Most of the time, Finding Quiet Farm is all like this: blah blah you should cook more at home blah blah compromised food system blah blah me droning on and on about God knows what. But not today, lucky readers! We’re in transit between countries right now, so N is taking the wheel and you get to enjoy a commercial break of his absolute favorite photography subject: cars.

Old cars, new cars, rusty ones and shiny ones…he loves automobiles. And he loves taking photos of them, too. N was the photographer at a high-end dealership in Colorado before we retired; he photographed their inventory as well as their social media and print advertising campaigns. He also had the opportunity to drive amazing cars, some worryingly expensive and unacceptably fast. So behold: an extremely limited portfolio of some of his favorite photos and magazine advertisements.


2017 Audi R8.


2016 Porsche GT4.


1973 Porsche Carrera.


2016 Porsche GT3 RS.


2017 Audi R8.


1961 MGA.


1968 Triumph TR250.


2017 McLaren 540C.


2017 Audi R8.


1970s-era De Tomaso Pantera (modified).


2017 Audi TTS.


Three-image composite featuring the 2017 Audi A4 and the Denver skyline.


2017 Porsche 911 launch advertisement.


5280 Magazine advertisement featuring the 2017 Porsche 911.


High Gear Magazine advertisement featuring the 2017 Porsche 911 Turbo.

A walk in the woods

Any time we stop at a campground or visitor information booth in New Zealand, we face brochure racks stocked with dozens of flashy, full-color advertising cards for every adventure imaginable. Sky diving! Bungee jumping! River rafting! This country’s tourism industry caters heavily to the adrenaline junkie, and many of the young backpackers we’ve encountered seem more than happy to shell out hundreds of dollars pursuing their long-held dreams of jumping into, and out of, various modes of vaguely dangerous transport.


Gnarled old trees on the walk to “The Snout” in Picton.

N and I, however, are sage and sensible in our advanced years, and we choose quieter, calmer, less aggressive activities. Like walking, for example. For all its jumping and rafting and diving, New Zealand really is perfect for people who just want to put on a pair of sturdy shoes (and perhaps lug thirty pounds of camera gear) and walk.


Boardwalk into the bush near Tongariro National Park.

The country is absolutely overrun with well-maintained tracks, perfect for a few hours or for multi-day treks. While we’ve only ever gone out for day trips, all of our walks have been more than worth the time and effort, and a great way to see the country slowly. The photos collected here truly emphasize New Zealand’s incredible natural diversity.


The Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park.

All of New Zealand is volcanic, but thermal activity is highly concentrated around Rotorua, roughly in the center of the North Island. The Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Park allows visitors to see volcanic activity in a close and colorful manner.


Wai-O-Tapu’s famous Boiling Mud Pool in action.


This is not Colorado’s EPA-poisoned Animas River; rather, it’s a sulfur pool at Wai-O-Tapu. 


Abel Tasman National Park, on the northern edge of the South Island, is rightfully famous for both its kayaking and its extensive coast track. We only spent a couple of days here but loved its beachy-desert feel.


View from the Abel Tasman coast track.


Tropical waterfall in Abel Tasman National Park.


Lumberyard and harbor near Picton. Timber is New Zealand’s most important agricultural export.

IMG_20170226_130837035 (1).jpg

Pro tip: while foraging may be all the rage, don’t ever, ever eat mushrooms you find while hiking unless a mycologist can confidently identify them.


On the way to Picton’s “Snout.” Most of the walking tracks we encountered varied between open country and tropical forest.


Huka Falls, near Great Lake Taupo.

Huka Falls is apparently New Zealand’s most-visited natural attraction. We’re convinced this is because it’s located about ten feet from the parking lot.


New Zealand has a wealth of diverse plant life, but ferns are ubiquitous.

Kiwis are rightfully very proud of their country, and the fern emblem is seen everywhere, most notably on the All-Blacks’ uniform. Recently, the country even tried to change its flag to incorporate the iconic fern image, though the referendum failed.


Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua.

Like many island nations, New Zealand has fought for hundreds of years against invasive non-native species. The most destructive example is the possum, introduced in 1837 in an attempt to start a fur trade. Now there are thought to be more than 30 million – and they eat more than 20,000 tons of vegetation every night. The Redwood Forest pictured above, however, is an example of a non-native species that hasn’t spread ferociously. These trees, native to California, were planted in Rotorua in 1901 in the hopes of expanding the country’s timber industry. Unfortunately (for the timber industry) but fortunately (for the island’s native trees), only six hectares of the original twelve hectares survived, and the wood produced is far too soft for use in construction. They love the rich volcanic soils in this sheltered grove, but they can’t grow beyond this particular area.


The hardest hike we did by far was the legendary Tongariro Alpine Crossing, considered New Zealand’s best one-day hike and also one of the best in the world. It’s only about twelve miles from start to finish, but it ascends more than 2,000 feet and descends more than 3,000, and it’s tough, even for these Colorado hikers. We started before dawn – both to beat the crowds and the midday sun – and completed it in about six hours.


The beginnings of sunrise on the Tongariro Crossing.


Looking west at the ominous shadow of Mount Ngaurahoe, more famously known as Mount Doom.


This photo of Mount Ngaurahoe emphasizes the area’s stark volcanic landscape.


The weather shifted frequently while we hiked the Crossing, from bright sun to low enveloping clouds. It’s easy to see why Tolkien’s books were filmed here!


The Emerald Lakes of the Tongariro Crossing.

Thank you, New Zealand, for your beauty and your hospitality. We’ve loved our time here and look forward to returning. Onwards to Cambodia!



Happy hour

Between filming Hobbit movies and grilling lamb chops, New Zealand also manages to make some pretty decent beverages. Wine represents a hugely important component of New Zealand’s agricultural exports; craft beer has always been second fiddle to wine here, but the microbrew industry is definitely on the rise. We obviously wanted to be as fair and open-minded as possible, so we made sure to taste just as much beer as we did wine during our time here.


Hops are the flowers of the female hop plant (Humulus lupulus), and they’re used primarily as flavoring and stability agents in beer.


All of New Zealand’s hops are grown in the Nelson region on the South Island. As the craft beer industry has exploded around the world, hops have become a much more lucrative crop.


The tap line-up at Hop Federation, Riwaka.


Rule No. 1: when photographing for your blog, find a friendly, amenable bartender.



A beer tasting board at McCashin’s.

In the U.S., at least, New Zealand is most known for its sauvignon blanc, specifically from the Marlborough region at the top of the South Island. Walk into any American wine shop and you’re almost guaranteed to find a bottle of Cloudy Bay, the wine that basically introduced the rest of the world to New Zealand wine. Central Otago pinot noir, however, is also starting to make a name for itself, as are a number of other unique varietals.  Like other New World wine regions, New Zealand has more freedom to experiment with its grapes and winemaking styles than the Old World with its deeply entrenched rules.


Brancott Estate, Marlborough.


Harvest is about three weeks away for these merlot grapes.


These fruit crates are seen everywhere in New Zealand; they’re used for apples, plums, pears and of course wine grapes too.


The vines and the mountains in Marlborough.


Cellar door at Forrest Wines, Marlborough.

Wine tasting in New Zealand is easy and accessible; cellar doors are signposted and tastings usually cost between $5-$15 per person. Many regions, such as Hawke’s Bay, have numerous cellar doors close enough to tour by bike, and of course there are dozens of tour companies happy to drive while you drink, too.


Neudorf Winery, Nelson. The vines are covered in netting to protect the ripe fruit from hungry birds. Many of the wineries have lovely gardens where you can enjoy a glass of wine and a picnic.


Wine moving from tank to barrel at Moana Park, Hawke’s Bay.

Surprisingly, most of the lower-end bottles ($8-15) you find in the grocery store here are actually from Australia or South Africa, because New Zealand makes more money exporting its wines – especially to China – than it does selling them at home.


Old barrels put to good use as decor at Church Road Winery, Hawke’s Bay.


Finishing our picnic at Moana Park with their 2004 Colheita Port.

Mad about ewe

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the humble sheep in New Zealand. The famous Captain Cook first introduced sheep here in 1773; meat and wool, as well as numerous other byproducts, quickly formed the economic background of this young nation. Even today, New Zealand is well-known for its lamb and wool, and the oft-cited statistic that New Zealand has a lot more sheep than people (about 27 million to 4 million) still holds true, although the animal numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years. The worldwide introduction of synthetic fibers understandably had a massive impact on the wool industry.


One of the great joys of travel – especially on road trips – is stumbling upon something amazing that wasn’t in the day’s plans. We were on our way to camp on the beach at Clifton, in Hawke’s Bay on the east coast of the North Island, when we drove by Wool World. My head immediately filled with visions of a slick, American-style theme park devoted entirely to sheep, hopefully with a petting zoo, roller coaster and extensive gift shop. The reality was far different, and much better.


Clifton Station, Hawke’s Bay.


The dogs are coming…

Clifton Station (ranches in the U.S. are stations here) was founded in 1859 and has been run by the same family since. It encompasses about 2,000 acres on the east coast of the North Island. Despite the signage outside advertising shearing and herding demonstrations, Wool World is now only open for large groups of pre-booked cruise ship passengers. We got lucky, however, and walked up while a station hand was treating lambs in a gated paddock near the road. These lambs had just been taken off their mothers and were headed out to munch on fresh new pasture; the abrupt change in diet causes their delicate little lamb tummies to go a bit haywire, so they’re essentially given a pre-emptive antacid.


The station hand gave us free rein to walk into the old shearing barn, built in 1886 and still in use today. This barn is true living history and it was incredible to see the pride that this family takes in their property, their animals and their way of life. Places like these are becoming more and more rare, and recognizing the past is especially relevant because modern agriculture is changing so quickly. The opportunity to see this space will be one of the highlights of our trip to New Zealand.


Blade shearers in 1893 with shedhands and shepherds. The records indicate that 25,000 sheep were shorn in the shed that year.


Horse-drawn wool bales headed to the railyard for transport to Wellington or Napier.


Bales of wool bound for a local wool sale.


Not much has changed in this woolshed since the late 1800s.


Shearing stalls.


Belt-driven machinery allowed multiple sheep to be shorn at one time.


Wool bales are stenciled with their station origin, destination, pack year and grade. Low-grade wool (and the sacks) were often used on walls for home insulation.


A helpful identification key for bale stencils.


Ye Olde Spinning Wheel. Avoid at all costs, princesses.


If you should ever have the opportunity to see a herding demonstration, do not miss it! Watching the shepherd and the dogs run the sheep is truly remarkable.