Author Archives: Ahimsa

This is not ‘Nam. There are Rules. (A Vegan Vietnam Experience.)

The Halong Bay cruise was admittedly a low point. Of course, it being Southeast Asia, everyone from the ticket seller to the driver to the people loading luggage onto the boat, had assured us that vegan food as available as an option. “Oh yes, very tasty, very fresh.”

It being Southeast Asia, they were all lying. The rice was vegan, it’s true. And a huge plate of crunchy peanuts were free from animal products. The rest, side dishes and fried eggs and entire fish, were decidedly not. I mixed the peanuts into my rice. I’d had worse meals, some of them cooked by me.

Dinner was no different–big piles of rice were the only surely vegan options–there were a few veggies swimming in a sauce that smelled of fermented fish. Plain rice isn’t so tasty but I happened to have a small container of nutritional yeast and some dried seaweed flakes, so even though I missed veggies it was a bearable few days.

Halong bay is beautiful, absorbingly so, and between climbing to caves and kayaking through lagoons and hiking through jungles and moonlit swims, the lack of vegan food didn’t interfere that much.

It was a low point, but only relatively so. Vegan Vietnam is an incredible treasure trove of tasty treats.

55 million Vietnamese people, give or take, are Buddhist, and have a tradition of eating veggie foods twice a month. (Snack options during this time include vegan pig ears, vegan chicken feet, vegan dried squid meat, and vegan king mackerel fish in tomato sauce, all of which costs two dollars or less ). Vietnam is easier than other places in SE Asia to be vegan in another regard as well. The word “chay,” written in a westernized script, adorns every veggie restaurant and food cart. Vietnamese being a tonal language, it’s a harder word to pronounce than you’d expect, but at the least you can keep your eyes out for it in written form.

The big cities have many vegan options of course. There are the cultish but always dependable Loving Huts, which often offer buffets on certain days and affordable, tasty meals the others. Not many people use Happy Cow anymore, and many of the listed restaurants have since closed, but the numbers do provide some perspective. Happy Cow lists 28 veggie and vegan places in Hanoi, 94 in Ho Chi Minh city (which puts it roughly on par with Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur and not too far behind Bangkok, which clocks in at 130. Interestingly, it’s the tiny Singapore that sports an all mighty 287 listings!) But the little towns are where the fascinating vegan options–and experiences–are to be found.

North from Ha Long Bay is Sapa, the famed hill station nestled in a land of misty rice terraces and cheeky Hmong touts. The specialty here is Dau phu Ca chua or tofu fried in tomato sauce and sprinkled with green onions. If that doesn’t sound exciting, then you need to hit skyscanner right now; the tofu is that good.

Because it is high in the hills and quite chilly by Southeast Asia standards, the other ubiquitous vegan friendly option is hot pot. Like shabu shabu or steamboat, they bring to you a grill and large pot of veggie stock, along with a table full of veggies, mushrooms, tofu, and even some mock meats. It’s fun to cook your own food at the restaurant, and one hotpot is enough food for two or three people.

One good thing about the tourism in Sapa, and other popular destinations in Vietnam, is that everyone understand what you mean when you ask for no egg or no fish sauce. All of the dishes are quite cheap–think in the 2 USD range–but for even cheaper you can DIY.

That most tasty remnant of French colonialism–baguettes–is everywhere and always vegan. It usually costs about .15 cents USD (depending on your haggling prowess, of course.) The markets have fruit, and many of the little stores sell western sundries, so peanut butter and banana baguettes are very easily achievable as well. (Or in a pinch, you can swap pringles for bananas, but it’s not recommended unless the very real danger of hanger is about to happen.)

Excepting the Ha Long Bay cruise of course, the food in the north was excellent. But it wasn’t until the cities of Hue and Hoi An that I really got to talking to Vietnamese vegans. In a crowded lunchtime place in Hue, one woman–who has lived in the US for over 30 years now–asked me if I knew that I was in a vegetarian restaurant. This made me laugh, as I had walked 4 kilometers along a busy road to find this place, and that the small room was filled with grey-robed monks. We chatted for a bit and I assured her I loved veggie and vegan food and had for all my life. The woman remained politely dubious–Americans she knew loved meat and cheese and milk. She watched in fascination as I munched on a plate of mixed rice.

Unfortunately, it was then that I discovered a vegetable that is truly loathsome. We’re talking a Lovecraftian menace; some kind of ancient, fermented something with a clear grudge against humanity. I can’t really describe the taste–though words like “rotting old socks” or “slightly corpsey” suggest themselves–and though I tried I could not eat it. Even the other foods on the plate it had touched were tainted. The woman watched my struggle, saying nothing, but when I left with half the food on my plate uneaten she smiled sadly to herself, clearly thinking something like “that’s what I thought.”

Three hours south, in Hoi An, things got better. Like everywhere else in the touristy parts of Vietnam there are plenty of great places to get vegan meals here (including the deservedly famous Karma Waters). But my favorite place in town didn’t even have a name. Down a side street off a different side street, it was the kind of place you could stumble into once and never find it again. There were no menus, only a small buffet for lunch with some of the tastiest eggplant I’ve ever had.

On my fourth or fifth visit there, the woman in charge started talking with me. She was a new vegan, and in a case of no one as pious as the recently converted she talked to me of the powers of grains and veggies for quite some time. It was all quite interesting, but when I told her I had been a vegan since 1995 she stood up and grabbed my biceps. With a big smile, she then disappeared into the back. Moments later, she returned with a dilapidated Polaroid and took a photo of me, which she tacked up onto the wall. “Very strong,” she said, smiling at me.

I took the night bus that night and didn’t see her again, but for all I know there’s still a photo of me hanging on that wall. What I learned later is that many Vietnamese think that without the protein provided by meat, there won’t be enough nutrition and you’ll waste away, or even break in half. (Seriously.) Having seen (and photographed) me, a 6 foot 3 guy, who is not skinny, might have helped her win the next argument. At the very least, she got to tell me about how healthy beans were, and I think that meant a lot to her.

Further south, the Russian enclave Na Trang was the land of 50 cent vegan Bánh mì from a smiling lady with a cart close to the ocean. I bought four from her on the way out of town. Dalat, another hill station with horses painted to resemble donkeys, had more cheap vegan restaurants than I could even try in a week and all of them were more delicious than I can say. Think a big bowl of phở (or something like it), three enormous fresh spring rolls, and unlimited tea for around 1 dollar USD. As for Hanoi–well Happy Cow wasn’t lying. The number of restaurants were staggering and all of them were grubbin’, but a small place called Huong Sen earned repeated visits for its awesome set lunches.

The tradition of abstaining from animals and their products has existed culturally for long centuries, but veganism is still new, burgeoning even, and that makes for a rewarding place to travel. As part-time vegetarians, they understand the needs of full-time vegans surprisingly well. From the powerhouses of phở and Bánh mì, to the equally tasty rau mong (the tastiest river weed around), you’ll eat well in Vietnam. Just watch out for the fermented gym socks.

Random discoveries at a Korean Grocery store

There is a small Home plus close to my new place. Home plus is partly owned by British super giant Tesco, which means you can find some Western things that the other big Korean markets (Emart, Lotte) do not have.

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This neighborhood, however, is rather Korean, especially as I was just in HBC (the most western part of Korea) for the last 2 months. So you can find things like Sweet Pumpkin/Yam tea.

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A cider that I have not seen anywhere else but might be fun to try in the summer time.
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And my favorite. Korean “Black Beer Stout” which is decidedly average. But this particular promotion comes with a a free toothbrush and mini-toothpaste. Perhaps to erase the bland taste as quickly as possible?
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So you’re going on a visa run to Fukuoka

Firstly, this information changes quickly. With my trip coming, I googled around a bit and found a lot of conflicting information. None of it was particularly old. So as of February 2015, this is absolutely correct but it no doubt will be out-of-date sooner rather than later.


Step 1: Get to the Airport. Take the Earliest Flight you Can

Korea-Incheon-International-Airport-Deperture-lobby-overview

Ideally, you would want to catch a flight at 7 am from Incheon. My flight was at 8 and I slept at the airport the night before. You cannot get through security to the really nice sofa lounge, but there are plenty of benches and charging points in the general public area.

Even then, I had to pay for a super expensive cab just to make sure I got to the Embassy in time.


Step 2: Get to the Embassy

Korean Embassy

Korean Embassy

The first new thing I found is that the Korean embassy in Fukuoka now closes for applications at 11:30. (It used to be 11:00) From the airport, it takes an hour on the subway (which is ten times cheaper than a cab and only two times as slow.) If you land and get through customs by 10, you should have enough time. First, take the free shuttle bus to the domestic terminal. This takes around 10 minutes.

Then hop on the subway and take it to Tojin Machi. This is 9 stops from the airport and it takes 30-40 minutes. Get out and leave via exit 1 and walk straight about 300 meters (5 minutes), then turn right at the big intersection and go about 400 more meters (6-7 minutes.) The Korean Consulate, recognizable by its flag, is on the left hand side.

The actual address, should you need it, is 1-1-3 Jigyohama, Chuo0Ku, Fukuoka, Japan, 810-0065.

The Phone Number is 81-(0) 92-771-0461/3.

If you do want to take a cab, get a map from the information desk and ask for them to write the name of the embassy in Japanese.

this is what it looks like

this is what it looks like


 Step 3: Everything you Need

  • Visa Application Form (available online or at the embassy.)
  • Name of your academy
  • Name of your employer
  • DOB of your employer
  • Phone number in Korea
  • Address in Korea
  • Visa issuance number
  • Passport Photo (1)
  • Fee in Cash (Yen) For Americans, it costs 5.400 Yen. It’s 7,200 Yen for Canadians, Kiwis, Irish, and SAers. Ozzies pay 14,400 Yen and Brits must shell out 24,000.

Step 4: Passing Time

Dazaifu

Dazaifu

Get your receipt–make sure it’s stamped–and come back in two days between 1:30 and 4:00 pm. If you are going in February, book your room early or you might end up having to pay a fair chunk of money. Fukuoka is full! Not only are there people on extended Lunar New Years, and loads of other visa runners, but also many parents are in town to see their children graduate. I couchsurfed the first night and then slept in a manga cafe the 2nd night. The hostels and all hotels under 100 dollars were full a week before.

There is quite a bit to do in Fukuoka for two days, but I recommend taking a day trip or two. Beppu is an amazing land of hotsprings, and almost as nice is the old capital Dazaifu.


Ask for this in the airport

Ask for this in the airport

I think that about covers it. Let me know if you have any questions.

Five Asian Places Surprisingly Difficult to Pronounce

Adapting different languages into a romanticized alphabet can be tricky. Many places in Asia, especially countries with the more squiggly alphabets, are difficult to translate into English. Obviously something like”Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit” is a bit of a mouthful, but you can get into linguistic difficulty with far fewer syllables.

Here are five places more difficult to pronounce than you might guess.

Hspiaw, Myanmar

Hsipaw

Hsipaw

Pronunciation

Looks like: Hiss-pi-ah
Actual: See-Paw (or Tee-Bor) !!!

Myanmar has a lot of places that are tongue-twisters for most westerners, but Hspiaw with two distinctly different pronunciations is an easy choice.

Ubud, Indonesia

Ubud

Ubud

Pronunciation

Looks like: Oo-bud or Uh-bud
Actual: Oo-bood

The culture capital of Bali, where you can pay good money for plenty of “authentic” dances is a little tricky to say for a four letter word.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom penh

Phnom penh

Pronunciation

Looks like: Fu-nom Pen or Pa-nom pen
Actual: Nom-pen or P’nom (one syallable, aspirated p) pen

This sexpat capital is full of middle age blokes adding needless p or f sounds, but at least their linguistic crimes are not as momentous as their moral ones.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

A water buffalo in the water

A water buffalo in the water

Pronunciation

Looks like: Si-han-ook-ville.
Actual: Say Hack nook wheel

Cambodia earns two entries with this dire seaside resort that few travelers know how to say. Most Cambodians will understand it’s the one that isn’t Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.

Pie, Thailand

Slice of Pai

Slice of Pai

Pronunciation

Looks like: Pie
Actual: Bye

Almost every westerner says “pie,” which fits because this little town is so sweet, but in the Thai langauge it is pronounced “bye.”

Rambling Namsan

One of my favorite things about spending almost two months in the HBC area has been how close Namsan is. Namsan is a little hill in the middle of Seoul, where the Seoul Tower hangs out. There is a cable car to take those not interesting in walking up, but also many ways to climb up. (I actually seem to find a new way to the top each time I go up there.)

At the top are the usual convenience stories, overpriced restaurants, colored locks clinging to fences, and teddy bear museums.It’s high and shaded enough that snow lasts pretty much all year and on a rare clear day, the view of the city below is quite nice.

From HBC it takes a little less than half an hour to get up to the top. It’s not steep as other Korean mountains but you will see Koreans walking backwards or utilizing the exercise equipment. Anyway, here are some pictures taken from various parts of the surrounding areas.

A Kold Day in Korea

On a cold windy day in January, I went to visit Yeoido Island. (Technically, I suppose, it’s Yeoi Island, as “do” means island, but that sounds weird.) One of my favorite Korean movies is The Host (aka Gwoemul) and I’d heard there was a statue of the monster here.

It was quite easy to find old Gwoemul and on this cold day there weren’t many people out. I love sunny, clear cold Korean winter days. The antithesis of drizzly, cloudy, not-that-cold and hardly ever windy Oregon winters. Later I wandered over to the 63 building and though it is so big I couldn’t find the entrance, it had a really cool reflection of the river behind it.

I was able to get some pictures of the area. Take a look for yourself!

(More than) A Cure For Monsoon Afternoon: Backpacking with Board Games

Some of the games mentioned below

Some of the games mentioned below

I have been living in Asia since early 2009, traveling when I can and teaching ESL when I need to replenish travel funds. As both a traveler and a teacher, I use board games a lot. Much of the weight of my backpack is taken up with games and other geek paraphernalia. (Cheap flights limit you to 15 kilograms of weight, and my game collection takes up between 5-7 of those kgs.)

A deck of playing cards is standard fare for most backpackers, but we live in a golden age of board games and there are plenty reasons to travel with a larger selection.. From Settlers of Catan to Cards Against Humanity, from Elder Sign to Munchkin, there are hundreds of great games that backpackers can use to make new friends or cure boredom on a monsoon afternoon.

Although your local game store, Amazon, and boardgamegeek have hundreds of games, many countries, especially in the developing world, will be limited to the likes of Scrabble and Uno. As a backpacker, you need to carefully consider every thing you put into your bag, but the social aspects of board games as icebreakers and smartphone-free time you can spend with fellow travelers are good reasons to bring them. And many games are either small to begin with or have a portable/card version. (For those travelers who are also ESL teachers, or considering to be, many games have a creative/English learning function as well.)

Whatever the country, I’ve found most locals are interested in the games (though wary as well,) and language barrier prevents them from joining anything too complicated. As far as travelers, I’ve encountered those who like board games, those who like winning, regardless of the medium, and those who simply have no interest at all. The games I have likewise, can be lumped into three categories.

Those that are worth their weight (pass), those are not (fail), and those yet-to-be-tested (incomplete).

PASS

Deck of cards

Not just for King’s Cup or Arseloch, this versatile deck (if you have enough people) can be used for intriguing games like Werewolf as well. You can find them everywhere, and people all across the world have their own games.

Settlers of Catan (card game)

For up to 4 people, this is a highly addictive and easy-to-learn (yet difficult to master) game that I prefer to the full board game. It’s easy to learn and only takes 30-60 minutes. Great game to bring hiking as it’s more than slightly addictive.

Elder Sign

This is surprisingly popular with people who have never heard of Cthulhu, Azazoth, or even HP Lovecraft. Because each game is different, it is highly repeatable. It’s too complicated to teach to young children or without a common language, but most backpackers and travelers have learned it quite quickly. Without the packaging, it’s also quite portable.

Dominant Species (card game)

Another light, easy game that is popular with almost everyone. Not that fun multiple times, however.

Love Letter

If you’re talking sheer size for fun, this is a really good game. It’s tiny, and the turns can be really quick but it’s a bit addictive and hours can go by. This is one that children and different language learners can learn quite easily as well.

My Dwarves Fly

Another game that is surprisingly popular even with people who aren’t entirely conversant with goblins, titans and cyclops. It’s small, only takes about an hour to play, so it’s perfect in areas of the world where your food takes some time to come out.

Munchkin

I have the original deck and all the supplements (minus the dungeons but plus the Necromunchkion and Faerie Dust supplements) which makes for a ridiculous amount of weight. It’s (almost) worth it. There is a steeper learning curve than any of the above games, but for those who play a few times this usually becomes their favorite.

Zombie Dice

Simple but super fun. Really good for trekking or other times when the weight-to-fun ratio is vital. Children as young as six can quickly grok the rules and some Nepalese porters on the Everest Base Camp trail loved it as well.

Cards Against Humanity

You probably know this game, but it’s quite different playing with a group of German and Israeli backpackers when a card like Auschwitz is thrown down, or explaining “queefing” to a young group of Japanese and French women. I have seen more people reduced to tears (of laughter, usually) from this game than anything since the heyday of Mystery Science Theatre. My deck is ghetto–not laminated and poorly cut, and I’ve made the deck more internationally friendly by removing both the American politicians and all the trademarked products. (Lunchables is never going to be funny to a group of Asians or Europeans.) This is THE social game to have in your pack.

Carcassone

The grand winner. This epic game of tile placing is popular with almost everyone and doesn’t even rely on common languages to play (it does, of course, help a bit.) The tiles and meeples themselves fit into a small bag (think Crown Royale) and then it’s just a matter of putting the board in a folder or at the bottom of your bag. This game has retired almost every other game I have. It’s just too much fun.

FAIL

Gloom (original and Cthulhu)

No one is ever interested. Too much spontaneous storytelling is involved, and neither the Addams Family-like nor the Lovecraftian themes have much appeal to the average traveler or locals.

Once Upon A Time

This is largely the same case as Gloom. I talked one person into trying once, but he stopped halfway through. I keep this one because it will be great to use teaching ESL. And it’s one of my personal favorites.

Apples to Apples dice game.

Another game that requires a bit of creativity and is not popular. It’s like Cards Against Humanity only not funny. It’s very small though and I will use it to teach elementary students.

INCOMPLETE

These big books aren’t ones that I even offer to play with anyone, but reading through and creating characters and designing adventures is an entirely great way to spend an afternoon or three. However, they take up a lot of space and weigh a huge amount. And in addition to being big old book, they also necessitate having a bag of Dice/pencils/sharpener/

RPG Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (Players Manual & Referees Manual)

This game looks amazing–it’s been described as “Dungeons and Elder Things” (plus Conan) and has the most fun set of classes I can recall seeing. I have spent long bus rides and rainy afternoons reading through, plotting scenarios and rolling up characters. But these two book are not light! I did end up playing with some friends back in the States and it was quite a lot of fun.

RPG RISUS

This six page complete role-playing game is the perfect travel RPG. I’ve played quite a games of this with my geek homies and the system is surprisingly robust.

RPG Mythic Iceland

Maybe a bust, as I don’t even have the Basic Role Playing system to go with it. But the research that went into this book is amazing, and it’s great fun to read through as well.

Avalon

In the Resistance family of games, this mafia/werewolf game is a lot of fun for those who want to match wits. It’s not for everyone though and you need a minimum of 5 players to even start.

For me, having these games is mostly a no brainer. I’ve made friends, met locals, had creative and hilarious evenings that otherwise would have been much less fulfilling. However, I do wonder. If travel teaches you one thing, apart from patience, it’s that minimalism makes a lot of sense. As such, carting several kilos of games around for months at a time does seem a bit ill-advised. Nonetheless, their versatility as both educational and entertainment really makes them worth their weight. For my next trip, I might remove some of the less popular ones, but overall I’m geek enough to be proud to introduce dopplegangers, Azazoth, and wool for sheep into people’s lives.