32,831 miles later

About eight months ago, we decided to put our regular lives on hold for a brief period and venture out to see the world again. We were heartsick and weary and in desperate need of a break from pretty much everything except each other. So we gave away our chickens, threw a few clothes in a backpack and locked up our house. And thus it happened that on a chilly January day, we left Colorado for Japan.

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Colorado

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Japan

In Japan, we visited monkeys in hot tubs and worked on farms. We ate ramen and tempura and so many other delicious things. We walked Tokyo and Kyoto and fell deeply, completely in love with a country so strange and different and welcoming and lovely that we cannot wait to return.

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New Zealand

From Japan, we flew to New Zealand. We rented a ragged campervan and drove the length and breadth of the country. We stumbled on an old sheep station and did some stunning walks and learned how macadamia nuts grow. And we discovered that we are perfectly content to live in a campervan…and we plan to do that again soon, too.

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Cambodia

After New Zealand, we were off to southeast Asia. We started in Cambodia with Angkor Wat and we also saw interesting things being made, like incense and rice noodles and tofu. Oh, and it was hot. (At least we thought so until we got to India, where we learned what heat really is.)

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Vietnam

We traveled overland to Vietnam, where we jumped on trains, dodged motorbikes, devoured street food and struggled to learn more about a conflicted country with a conflicted history.

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Thailand

Then it was time for a brief rest in Thailand; we went to more markets and bicycled through rice paddies and learned how to make handmade paper. We didn’t ride any elephants but we loved our time on the Banana Pancake Trail.

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India

No matter what, we weren’t ready for the heat and noise and crush and total sensory assault that is India. We’ve never traveled anywhere that we loved and hated in equal measure – sometimes in the exact same moment – and this complicated country has for certain gotten under our skin. We’ll be back here, too, and much better prepared this time.

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Spain

We flew from India to England, with a brief jaunt to gorgeous Madrid. This is one hell of a city…we miss drinking canas and eating jamón y queso at 2AM with hundreds of other people in the city’s beautiful plazas.

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England

We finished with some restorative time in the Midlands’ lush, rolling hills, where the innumerable shades of intense green defy belief. Hours of walking with only cows and sheep for company and then perhaps a brief stop at the local pub for a pint of Tiger. It’s not the worst way to spend a day.

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Colorado

And that brings us to now. We’ve been home for about three weeks and we’re struggling to adjust. This is not the country we left; it has been immensely challenging to reconcile the joy and freedom and lovely people of our travels with the rage and divisiveness and fear currently smothering all of us like a dense fog. But we’re back on our bikes, we’re volunteering on a goat farm and we’ve planted our garden. And this fall, we’ll be out on the road again to search for our farm property in earnest. Thanks for joining us on our travels over these past months and please stay tuned, friends, as our journey has just begun. We’re off to find Quiet Farm.

Scenes from the Banana Pancake Trail

We’ve never claimed to be the world’s most adventurous travelers, and our travel in southeast Asia definitely adhered to the classic Banana Pancake Trail. Nevertheless, we had a phenomenal time here and loved seeing countries that were new to both of us. We visited Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand in just under a month; below, some of our favorite images from this portion of the trip. We’re off to India!

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Illuminated lanterns in Hoi An’s Old Quarter.

Hoi An, near Da Nang on Vietnam’s central coast, was most certainly our favorite place in the country. We loved its antiquated feel and the charming Old Quarter, which is decorated with tens of thousands of brightly colored lanterns hung all over the shops and streets. Strolling here after sunset was such a pleasure.

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A fruit vendor in Hoi An.

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Early morning gardening in Vietnam.

In Hoi An, we participated in a sunrise bicycle tour that took us to the daily market, an organic farm and out to the rice paddies. Truthfully, most small village farms in developing countries are organic because labor there is cheap and chemicals are expensive. In the U.S., unfortunately, the opposite is true.

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The stunning interior of a village temple outside of Siem Reap.

This gorgeous temple was on a dusty road leading out of Siem Reap; from the outside, you’d never know that the interior was this incredible. Each fresco had a number painted in the corner; this indicated the amount of money raised by the village to pay for that particular painting.

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Vietnam’s favorite son is absolutely revered in this country.

Vietnam’s national hero, Ho Chi Minh, is celebrated all over the country but nowhere more so than in his namesake museum in Hanoi. The museum is one of the strangest and darkest – both in terms of actual light and the overall mood – places we’ve ever visited. It’s an unsettling combination of blatant propaganda and modern art installation, and worth seeing just for the weirdness.

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See how dark this museum is?

The placard on this exhibit in the Ho Chi Minh Museum read, in part, “The models in this hall give visitors information about how scientific and technical achievements have been made use of for peaceful and beneficial purposes. The models at the same time condemn those who have utilized these achievements for aggressive and destructive purposes.” What?

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A ferocious temple guardian in Chiang Mai.

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Look closely: the labeling on these boats in Hoi An lets everyone know you’re a tourist.

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Trainspotting might be a bit risky in Vietnam.

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Adding decoration to our handmade paper.

In Thailand, we took a papermaking class and created gorgeous papers with leaves and blossoms. It’s simple and rewarding and beautiful; we’re hoping to make our own to wrap our handmade cheeses in at Quiet Farm.

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Fishing boats on the river in Nha Trang.

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One of Chiang Mai’s many elaborately decorated temples.

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Da Nang’s famous (and very expensive) Dragon Bridge changes colors – and on weekend nights, it also sprays water and breathes fire!

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We found this lion dancer at an international food festival in Vietnam.

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The building boom in Nha Trang, a beach resort popular with Russian tourists.

Vietnam is in a mad rush to modernize, so hotels are constructed at a breakneck pace. This means that not only are there hammers and saws competing with motorbike horns at all hours, but that a lot of construction is left partially finished when workers move on to the next project.

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A “skinny house” in Hanoi.

Even more common than all the new construction is making do with what’s already there. The skinny house above has been tucked in; notice that the bamboo poles are actually structural and are keeping the two buildings from leaning in. Presumably something will be quickly built in that empty space. But there’s a fancy coffee shop! With gelato!

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The exterior of the traditional lanna house we stayed at outside Chiang Mai.

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A monk studying at a temple in Phnom Penh.

Monks in orange robes with shaved heads are a common sight throughout southeast Asia; it’s amusing to see them with earbuds and mobile phones, too. Even monks have to modernize.

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Is this for here or to go?

And we leave you with this photo, and dare you not to smile. While dogs are still eaten in southeast Asia, as the region grows in economic prosperity, its people want what they perceive as middle-class luxuries – and that includes house pets. So now it’s more common here to see dogs on a leash rather than on a grill.

Street food

After the markets, street food vendors are one of the most colorful sights in southeast Asia. From fresh fruits and vegetables to juices, meat and snacks, just about anything you fancy is available from a street stall. Although you might not know exactly what you’re eating, it’s worth watching just for the show.

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A lobster stall in Nha Trang setting up for business.

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Crocodile farming – for both meat and leather – is big business in central Vietnam; the industry is definitely not PETA-approved. This enticement is outside a restaurant in Nha Trang.

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These delicious little packets contain sticky rice stuffed with bananas, eaten as a snack or dessert.

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These lovely women are running a rotee stand. Rotees in Thailand fall somewhere between a crêpe and a pancake and are filled with sweet or savory ingredients.

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Carts are set up along just about every street.

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This woman is making Vietnam’s world-famous banh mi sandwich, sold for about 75 cents.

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These tiny bananas (about the length of a finger) are so much more flavorful than the standard Cavendish variety we get at home.

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Fancy some whiskey or red wine with your street food meal? You can have it.

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Perhaps you’d like a meatball skewer?

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Salted whole fish, ready to eat.

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Fried sweet potato, banana and other tasty treats.

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The “special meat” restaurant outside of Siem Reap. Sit, stay…good dog.

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Little sweet cakes, served hot.

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Skewers and more, ready for the grill.

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Baling sugarcane on the streets of Phnom Penh.

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The sugarcane is crushed through a press to produce delicious juice, which is flavored with fresh lime and sold in little baggies as a refreshing drink.

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Chefs demonstrate their stir-fry skills at Siem Reap’s night market.

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Honestly, I don’t know. But what colors!

 

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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Oranges, anyone?

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

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

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

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No, that isn’t a crashproof bike helmet.

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

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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.

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Apprentice monks have places to go, too.

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

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

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

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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.

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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!

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Chile paste, fresh chiles and ground turmeric.

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This little piggy went to market…

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The morning fish market in Hoi An.

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Fresh herbs, delivered by bicycle.

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

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Know where your meat comes from.

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Siem Reap’s famous Night Market.

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

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

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

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

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

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This is not the gluten-free section.

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Spices ready to blend into fiery curry pastes.

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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.

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Everything you need to garnish pho.

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