know before you go: JFK

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I have a complex relationship with JFK, as I do with LAX.  Being the two most populous international arrival airports, they should be more inviting and welcoming than they are.  Instead, customs lines are long, people aren’t the friendliest, and they both could be cleaner for sure.  Plus, at JFK, you have to leave security to go terminal to terminal!  There’s no way that’s not confusing to a foreign visitor, or even to a local for that matter.

Perhaps we’re trying to give foreign visitors a picture of what America’s truly like?  Confusing and crowded and sweaty.  At least it’s still better than LaGuardia?

JFK is located in Queens, about 16 miles south of Manhattan.  There are 6 terminals with about 128 gates.  Terminal one serves a bevy of international carriers (Air France, Korean, Lufthansa, JAL, Turkish, Norwegian, WOWAir, Alitalia, Air China, China Eastern).  Terminal 2 is for Delta, Four is for Delta and Skyteam (including Aeromexico, China Airlines, China Southern, KLM; JetBlue, Emirates, Etihad, Singapore and Virgin amongst many others).  Terminal 5 is a club in NYC and it also serves JetBlue.  Terminal 7 has British Airways, Alaska, LOT, Icelandair and Qatar.  Terminal 8 is for American.

Remember: ✈️ = ny i love you but you’re bringing me down to ✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️ = welcome to new york (it’s been waiting for you)

Transportation to the airport:  ✈️✈️✈️✈️ (metro, bus, taxi, car, airporter, lots of options)

Ease of navigating through terminals: ✈️ (just the fact that you have to exit and re-enter security sucks)

Convenience of security lines: ✈️✈️ (it goes as fast as it can with the sheer volume of passenger traffic; customs lines can be brutal here)

Dining: ✈️✈️✈️ (there’s lots of options, but it’s inconsistent; like some terminals have McDonald’s and Starbucks, some don’t.  Some have Peet’s and don’t get me started, eesh.  7-Eleven in a few, and Terminal 4 has two Shake Shacks while the others don’t have any.  Some have Dunkin Donuts and Buffalo Wild Wings/Panda Express!  Why so cruel, JFK?  And since it’s NY, so I’m kind of expecting elevated dining, but there isn’t much beyond fast casual)

Bathrooms: ✈️✈️ (please don’t judge us by the bathrooms in this airport)

Charging stations/wifi: ✈️✈️ (free wifi — didn’t always used to be the case)

Amenities: ✈️✈️✈️ (again, inconsistent luxury shopping between international terminals.  Tumi, Cartier, Hermes, Mont Blanc — do people need last minute fountain pens as gifts? Good luck in Terminal 2, there’s like a Best Buy kiosk for shopping and that’s it.  Lots of international flights means lots of lounges {except for the last one shutting down in Terminal 5}, but don’t expect any yoga or meditation/prayer rooms in this airport, there’s no real estate for that)

hometown hits: orange, california

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Orange County, California is more than housewives and McMansions. Granted, we do have our fair share of overly plasticized people, sprawling estates and vapid teenagers, but anyone who visits will encounter a far different vantage than what you might have seen in a show.

What they don’t show on TV is a 3 million + populated area filled with cultures from all corners of the world.  There’s Little Saigon, Korean District, and Little Arabia to name a few neighborhoods around.

But, what started it all, and what was most attractive to settlers to this part of Southern California was its miles and miles of orange groves, hence the name of the county.

Before Walt stuck his spike down to create Disneyland, this whole area was filled with ranches amongst the fruit trees.  And in some pockets of the area, you can still unearth some of the history of this county, especially in appropriately named Orange, California.

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on the fringe: day trip to edinburgh

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Edinburgh is the perfect city for a day trip/long layover…especially during the month of August, when the city celebrates its nearly month-long creative arts and entertainment based Fringe Festival.

Even if you’re not visiting for the Fringe benefits (see what I did there?), it’s manageable, transit is well planned and there’s a lot to see and do in a small area.  For being a smaller capital city, Edinburgh’s history is just so rich and jam packed with notable figures and events.  Just don’t be like me and not realize that they use British pounds instead of Euros.  Doh.

Tartan up!

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3 days in Reykjavik

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As we all swelter in the blazing sun today, all I can do is dream of the perpetually cool, crisp air in Reykjavik.  While I dream of my next trip to somewhere more brisk, here’s a little #tbt to cooler weather in Iceland.

Iceland is super trendy.  In the past decade, there’s been a >300% increase in the amount of visitors to Iceland — it’s almost to the point where you barely see any locals.  Because I have the worst FOMO ever, I needed to go here before tourists overrun everything and American chains start moving in.  Everyone in my family had already gone (which is not a reason to travel, but again, FOMO), so off I headed to Reykjavik for an Icelandic adventure.

all is full of love…

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3 days in Toronto feat. Niagara Falls

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Well, the NBA is making moves.  Toronto is a bit cooler than San Antonio, so be like Kawhi and start planning your trip up north.

As far as bucket lists go, Niagara Falls is typically a popular featured destination, for good reason.  It’s one of the most beautiful natural wonders of the world, and it’s right in our own backyard.  *Whispers: the Canadian side is better. Sore-y, not sore-y.

Oh Canada…

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know before you go: SFO airport

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I left more than my heart in San Francisco (SFO).  Mainly, my patience.

Honestly, SFO is never my airport of choice to fly into or out of, and there’s one reason for that.  The morning fog that chills the air…turns out I DO care, Tony Bennett.  I care because I’ve never had a morning flight that was not delayed due to nature’s wet blanket.

But, it’s one of the busiest airports in America as it is a gateway to the East and Europe, so sometimes its inevitable. It’s about 13 miles from Downtown SF, which is basically a year away, approximated for traffic.  The exterior reminds me of NY JFK, and the interior is also reminiscent.  That’s not a compliment for either airport.

There are 4 terminals and 7 concourses with about 85-90 functioning gates.  Terminal 1  (Delta, Frontier, Southwest); Terminal 2 is Virgin and American, Terminal 3 is United, and then there’s international (for some reason Hawaiian and JetBlue are grouped in here) which is another ballgame.

The thing I do appreciate, however, is the dining and shopping options.  There’s a real focus on local brands amongst the national chain restaurants, and lots to see in the duty free shopping portals (2 Gucci stores!  Most cities don’t have one Gucci store!).  There’s a Three Twins Ice Cream, which almost makes up for the delays… almost.  Of course, as a huge international hub, there are 17 airline lounges.

It’s not the worst and it’s not the best place to have a layover, depending on the area.

Remember: ✈️ = basically alcatraz to ✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️ = bae area

Ease of navigating through terminals: ✈️✈️ (it’s the largest airport in CA, larger than LAX which is HUGE)

Convenience of security lines: ✈️✈️ (there’s a lot of people which slows things)

Dining: ✈️✈️✈️✈️ (so many local options: Gott’s, Dogpatch, Gordon Biersch–from Palo Alto, Boudin, 24th & Mission–but, at local prices)

Bathrooms: ✈️✈️ (as with any major airport, could be cleaner)

Charging stations/wifi: ✈️✈️ (free wifi but it is shotty at best)

Amenities: ✈️✈️✈️✈️ (yoga rooms, kids areas, museums, airline lounges, Xpresspas, a Ghiradelli store, luxury shopping–which is very good in International, did I mention there’s 2 Gucci stores?)

day trippin’ dubrovnik: world cup edition

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GOOOOAAALLLL! It’s going to be Croatia vs France in the World Cup Finals on Sunday, so what better way to prepare for what is going to undoubtedly be a nailbiter, then to highlight the two nations?  I’ve already written extensively about the best of Paris, France, but congratulations to Croatia for making it to their first ever FIFA final!  You kinda have to root for the underdog, right?  I’m just happy I get to write about one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I visited Dubrovnik a really long time ago.  Like, we’re talking, I barely had my driver’s license/independence, and they barely had theirs.  It’s obviously changed quite a bit.  Back then, being in Dubrovnik was so memorable because it was a relatively unbothered by tourism (except cruise ships, which is how I came to visit).  Croatia had only declared independence from the former Yugoslavia republic in 1991, gaining that right in 1995 after winning their war.  I visited 5 years later, so the nation was a baby.

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mt srd then…scroll down for mt srd now

But babies grow up…and turn into popular teenagers.

Like really popular…instagram-influencer-status teenagers.  Seems like it is the hot destination of the moment, and I’m glad it’s getting its day in the limelight.  There’s a bustling tourism trade, especially due to its location as a jewel on the Adriatic Sea.  The coastline is one of the most gorgeous you will see, with its orange rooftops and imposing fortresses.  I guess some really popular TV show filmed there too — thrones something or other (wink wink), and that draws a lot of people, too.

As it has been some years, I’ve enlisted the help of my pal (and fellow traveling doc) BD, who has graciously let me use some of his photos and given me some updated tips.

it’s a nice day for a red wedding…

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know before you go: Bali (DPS)

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Bali is an otherworldly oasis, tucked away in the pacific island nation of Indonesia.  It’s paradise found for many who flock there for romantic getaways and family vacations.  To get there can be tricky, but there is an airport that serves this area: Ngurah Rai airport (DPS).  Named after a Balinese hero who fought the Dutch, this airport is about 12 km from Denpasar (the capital of Bali) and about 2.5 km from Kuta, a main resort area.

It is Indonesia’s third busiest airport, although a share of passengers has been shifted away to Lombok Airport.  There are two terminals (split into Domestic and International) with about 25 gates serving mostly Asian and Australian carriers and destinations. Domestic mostly serves Garuda, Batik, Indonesia, Citilink NAM, and Siriwaja.  International carriers include Cathay, China, China Eastern and Southern, Emirates, Qatar, KLM, Korean, Qantas, Thai and Virgin Australia.

Remember: ✈️ = bally total fitness to ✈️✈️✈️✈️✈️ = bally’s las vegas

Convenience to the city: ✈️✈️✈️✈️ = not too far, but as in any Asian country, beware of swindlers and pickpockets.  Taxis are notorious for overcharging and cheating tourists, so get a shuttle to your hotel if possible or take the bus transport.

Dining: ✈️✈️✈️✈️ : some western options (McDonald’s, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Pizza hut, Haagen Daz, Hard Rock Cafe), but take this opportunity to explore some interesting Asian eateries with the best names: The Duck King, Beard Papa, Coffee Club.  The traditional Indonesian fare looks amazing: Kantin Modern, Singgalang Jaya, Bakso Lapangan Tembak Senayan.

Bathrooms: ✈️✈️✈️ : tidy, could have more

Charging stations/wifi: ✈️✈️✈️ : free wifi, but not a ton of charging areas

Amenities:✈️✈️✈️: balinese architecture is beautiful, these decent dining options, Garuda Executive lounge, spa, the shopping could be better and more luxurious

 

 

good morning vietnam: 3 days in Hanoi

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Hanoi is the largest city in Northern Vietnam…and it shows.  Spend any amount of time there and you will be astounded by all of the motor bikes and people teeming into the streets going every which way.  It is the worst live action Frogger if there ever was one.  But, it’s so completely worth it to visit.  This bustling metropolis still has a lot of imperialistic architecture touches from French and Chinese occupations and has charming neighborhoods and streets based on different types of goods that can be found there.

I had the good fortune to spend a significant of time here on my travels.  This is a great place to spend a few days and also serves as a great starting point to get to the Vietnamese highlands of Sapa or trek down towards Ha Long Bay and Hoi An.

I also think the North has the best food in Vietnam as well, don’t @ me.

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To get a feel for this urban oasis, stay in the Old Quarter.  Early morning walks in this neighborhood are the best.  There are boulevards upon boulevards.  This area near Hoan Kiem lake is made up of about ~40 streets, many of them dedicated to a certain trade or product (Silver, Bamboo, Jars, Silk, etc).  Nowadays, you may not find that specific product on the specific street, but it is fantastic to shop in these areas, especially if you’re looking for something in particular.  I stayed on Hang Bac (Silver) because it is so central to a lot of attractions and walking distance to the lake.

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heroes on the half shell…turtle tower

Speaking of, the Hoan Kiem lake is a focal point of the city, even though it’s not the largest (that is Tay Ho described down below).  This picturesque spot features a tower in the center, called Turtle Tower, because of the folklore that a golden turtle spirit arose from the waters to ask the former ancient king for a magic sword to be returned to its rightful owner, the Dragon spirit.  That’s literally the story.

You’ll see all sorts of characters around here.  People jogging, fishing, doing tai chi, having picnics, etc.  You’ll definitely notice the bright red bridge connecting to a small island in the center of the lake.  This island bears a beautiful temple that commemorates several notable figures in Vietnamese history.

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fancy feast

As you’re strolling around, you’ll notice a lot of makeshift cafes and restaurants, demarcated by the plastic stools that look like they’re made for children.  These roadside street eats are usually some of the best in the city (especially Banh Mi sandwiches), and many are designed this way to be mobile. Pull up a stool and gorge yourself on the best damn food you’ll find anywhere.  And don’t forget your bia hoi (freshly tapped keg beer).

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Careful when patronizing these establishments though, there are so many motorbikes zipping along that you may get a mouthful of exhaust rather than a mouthful of Bun Oc.

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Pay attention to street vendors too.  You’ll see ladies walking around with large pendulous bamboo contraptions selling fresh fruits, cakes and delicacies.  They travel all over until they sell out or are run out by the po-po.  Talk about fast food.

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bun cha gives me life

Save your stomachs though.  You’re going to want to head over to Hang Manh to sample one of Hanoi’s most beloved dishes: Bun Cha.  Resist the temptation to go to Huong Lien, where Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama dined.  I prefer the restaurant at 1 Hang Manh, Bun Cha Dac Kim…and judging by the crowds, I think a lot of people agree.

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pork patty perfection

You’ll know it by the plastic tubs overflowing with chargrilled pork patties, although don’t be fooled, a copycat opened up right next door, so make sure you’re dining at the real deal.  They only sell Bun Cha and Nem cua (a crab pork summer roll that is bomb) and you should get both.  The pork hamburger is eaten on top of vermicelli with pickled daikon.  And you pour the fish sauce goodness the meat was soaking in on top of it all and slurp it up.  Literally the best.  Bourdain would never lead you astray (RIP).

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Spend the early afternoon meandering through the narrow, winding passages of the Old Quarter.  My favorite shops were the colorful ones on Hang Quat (Fan Street), which no longer sells fans, but instead funeral accoutrements and religious statues and relics.  Hang Ma (ghost street) has all sorts of paper joss products, like a macabre Papyrus exploded onto this lane.

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A little known (or maybe it’s well known) attraction in Vietnam is water puppetry.  These elaborate shows combine (you guessed it) paper mache marionettes with water and pyrotechnics to tell Vietnamese folk tales. The largest theater, Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, is located at Hang Bac (Silver Street) across from Hoan Kiem lake.  It’s a great way to escape the heat in an air conditioned theatre whilst watching what can only be described as a visual spectacle.  It’s fun for all ages; honestly it’s pretty cool.

After the show it’s the after party, and after the party it’s the hotel lobby?

Or the hotel bar, rather.

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If you can swing it, stay at the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, one of the finest luxury hotels in the city.  But fear not if you can’t afford it, you can always have high tea or an aperitif at the swanky Le Club Bar, where you can hide away in the tropical garden courtyard.

But, don’t fill yourself up.

Tonight, you feast on Vietnam’s national dish.  The dish Vietnam is known for…pho.  This everyday staple is so popular across the entire world, there was even an issue of David Chang’s now defunct Lucky Peach devoted to it.  We made it!

Haters from Southern Vietnam will say they invented pho, but they are wrong.  This full-bodied, intricate soup has the most complex flavor profile: sweet, fragrant, salty.  Pho Thin (pronounced: Teeen) is a tiny (read: teeeny) shop in the French Quarter that serves up a delicious bowl of goodness. SO MANY SCALLIONS.  A MILLION EMOJI HEART EYES.

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shining star anise 

The meat, lean beef, is chopped up in this version, but that’s forgivable.  The broth is almost clear and the fresh rice noodles are perfectly chewy.  The tables are communal and so are the condiments (there are no health codes here), but that adds to the charm of the place.  It’s super cheap ~ $1.50 and SO satisfying. Resist the urge to eat two though, save your appetite for future snacks.

Vietnamese people eat pho at all times of the day, so if you’re feeling a little weary or need a hair of the dog, they serve it in the mornings, too!  This + cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee) = best hangover cure.

The night time is for perusing the night markets.  Asia is known for the night markets and Hanoi is no different.  They’re more like swap meets, selling lots of souvenirs and random stuff that no one really needs for really cheap.  There are also lots of food vendors serving all sorts of meat on a stick and cured fish snacks and desserts.  So vibrant!

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The most popular is probably the Old Quarter weekend night market at Hang Dao (Peach Street), but there are tons of markets open every night around town — just follow the hordes of young people.  Don’t be surprised to find pop up dance parties and art exhibits as well.  Vietnamese people are all about celebrating, they’ve got a sense of joie de vivre.

I highly recommend staying in a hotel while you’re in Hanoi, if not for the comfort, then for the hospitality.  They’ve really got that down here, and hospital staff are hellbent on catering to the customer.  Breakfasts are often included and feature an array of Vietnamese home cooking and lots of fresh exotic fruits, like mangosteen, rambutan, longan, dragon fruit.  These must be tried while in this region.

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longing for longans

You can walk off your morning feast by visiting the former Imperial citadel of Thang Long.  A long, long time ago, the Imperial capital of Vietnam was located in the city of Thang Long (the original name of Hanoi).  Eventually in the 1800s, the royal court moved to the Central Vietnam state of Hue, leaving these palaces and government buildings behind.  Of course, when Vietnam was conquered by the French in the late 19th century, many of these structures were ravaged, but whats left has been anointed a UNESCO world heritage site and the museum has many artifacts that have been excavated.

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Close to this attraction is the memorial to Ho Chi Minh.  If you’re interested in this controversial figure, his body is entombed in this mausoleum and there’s a museum dedicated to him next door.   This area is located in Ba Dinh Square, which also contains many governmental buildings.

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A must see attraction is the ancient one pillar pagoda or Chua Mot Cot located near the HCM mausoleum.  This is one of the iconic structures of Hanoi…and really, of Vietnam.  The original temple was built in the 11th Century, but as the French were retreating in 1954, they blew the structure up.  This facsimile is slightly smaller, but still very recognizable.

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It’s a tiny temple, sitting atop a peaceful lotus pond.  There are vendors around the perimeter selling food and ice cream and trinkets.  There’s a fable that if you wish to have children, you should visit this temple and pray.  As with all temples in Southeast Asia, make sure your legs and shoulders are covered to show respect.

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For a light-ish lunch, check out Xoi Yen.  This fast casual restaurant serves one thing: xoi or sticky rice.  These dishes can be sweet, but think savory when you come here.  You can get sticky rice bowls filled to the brim with baked pork roll (gio or Chinese ham), lap xuong (Chinese sausage), dried pork jerky, chicken, egg, vegetables, mung bean, fried shallots, etc.   This is Vietnamese comfort food at its best.  And yes, you will be sitting on those little plastic stools again…try to get a table on the second floor to grab a great view of the hustle below.

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To continue your historical tour of the Imperial City, head to the Vietnamese museum of Etynology.  This is an amazing museum that focuses on the different minority ethnic tribes in Vietnam.  There are replicas of their homes, tools, clothing, etc.  It provides a lot of insight into the indigenous population and is very well curated.  The A/C in the main building is a plus on a hot summer day, too.

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Before heading back to your hotel for an afternoon siesta, check out Dong Xuan market, Hanoi’s largest indoor market.  You can find it all here: seafood, pets, linens?  Lots of souvenirs on the upper floor, and there’s a large food court also.

If you’re looking for a little more ambiance, Nha Hang Ngon is a really unique and delicious (it’s the name of the restaurant) dining experience.  The restaurant is a French veranda like setting, with separate kiosks around the diameter of the dining area, each cooking a Vietnamese specialty surrounding the large courtyard filled with tables.

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banh cuon (pork and mushroom wrapped in steamed rice) corner 

It’s like street food on steroids, a veritable permanent food truck bonanza.  You can even go around and watch them prepare the food.  All of the different smells meld together together in an amazing melting pot of umami.  There’s also a Quan An Ngon which is another iteration of the same premise, too.

The next day would be the perfect opportunity for a day trip to the colorful highlands of Sapa (Hmong area that really deserves as least a weekend visit) or delve into the gorgeous rural countryside in Hoa Lu and Tam Coc (will write about those later).

Or, if you prefer to stick around, there are cooking classes galore.  One of the most popular tourist activities to participate in is to take an authentic cooking class.  Vietnamese food is fresh, delicious and healthy, so push up your sleeves, hone your skills and bring back a souvenir that you can use forever.  Experiences are the best souvenirs in my opinion.  Blue Butterfly is a restaurant that offers a very popular cooking class.  I can’t speak to these classes, as I am already very familiar with Vietnamese cooking, but fellow travelers really enjoyed the experience.

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Lotte Center is one of Hanoi’s tallest buildings and there’s an observation deck overlooking the city and its surrounding countryside.  There’s also shopping…because shopping is an event for Vietnamese people.

Or maybe just wander around the city looking for street food!  Vietnamese coffee is one of the strongest coffees you can drink and in Hanoi, there’s special egg cream varieties and of course the rare ferret (palm civet) poop coffee, apart from the usual condensed milk laden version.

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If you’re brave, try a street cafe that serves another northern specialty, Bun Rieu.  This is one of my favorite soups:  tomato base with crabmeat, tofu and vermicelli.  So rich and the perfect bowl will have a nice sheen of grease on top.  Bun Oc adds periwinkle escargot to this broth.  Also a treat.  These small stalls will set you back less than $2 for most of these dishes.  The value and flavor can’t be beat.  Just pack some Cipro to be safe.

If you’re getting tired of all the Vietnamese food all the time, there are a lot of notable Western restaurants as well (McDonalds and KFC notwithstanding).  Vietnamese cuisine has long been intertwined with French cuisine due to history and Green Tangerine combines these two cultures very well (think duck confit with ginger and sesame notes; pork braised in coconut with a lotus flower mille-feuille cake–classy stuff).  It’s located in a very sexy, dark French villa and will hit the spot for Westerners who just have to have a steak (they fly in meat from Australia, sorry not sorry, American meat is better).

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Try to see as many of the 36 streets in the old quarter as you can:  Cotton, Sails, Fish Sauce, Leather, Shoes, Onions, Sugar, Salt, Herbal Medicines, Cloth, Rattan.  Maybe get some embroidery or silk clothing, pick up trendy bamboo containers or lacquer art.  There’s so much shopping to be done.  Just when you think you’re all shopped out, you’re not, trust me.

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Hanoi actually has multiple other lakes around the city, and Tay Ho is the largest lake.  One of the most famous Banh Cuon chains in the states is named after this freshwater pond.  The Tran Quoc Pagoda is Vietnam’s oldest temple, built in the 6th century.  Relax and people watch to your heart’s content.

For your last meal in the capital, you have to go out with a bang.  Head to 107 Nguyen Truong To where you will find the mecca of northern Vietnamese food: Cha Ca La Vong.  This dish is so northern it hurts.  It’s one of my all time favorites, turmeric battered fish served fajita style in a bath of dill, green onions and pork fat.  You eat these perfectly spiced morsels on top of a bed of vermicelli, assorted herbs and lettuce, peanuts and crisp sesame crackers.  Eat it the classic way with fermented shrimp paste (mam) or the Busch league way (also known as my way) with regular nuoc mam (fish sauce).  All the savory flavors compliment each other, so salty and fatty.  It’s incredible.

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king of the north

The setting is like someone’s house (complete with indifferent servers and raucous noise), and that’s a part of the charm.  Make sure you go to the right place, as there are many copy cats (often off by one letter or accent), as they do not care about copyright infringement here.  This dish from this restaurant is so spectacular that it made the travel bible, 1000 Places to See Before You Die, so it’s kind of a big deal.

In my opinion it’s all worth to see before you die, Hanoi that is.  Experience a truly unique, bustling city that juxaposes colonialism with communism with the backdrop of some of the world’s top cuisine, not something you see everyday.

Good night, Vietnam!

once upon a midnight dreary: day trip to Baltimore

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Baltimore is probably not the first place that pops into your head when you’re planning a vacation.  It’s probably not in the top ten…but they didn’t self-anoint it Charm City for nothing!  Find yourself not weak nor weary, and set out on an adventure filled with fantastic art and forgotten lore.

It’s certainly a gritty city (there’s a reason why the Wire was based here), but underneath the surface, there is a ton of history and culture just waiting to be found.  I mean, Edgar Allan Poe was inspired to pen some of the most suspenseful, fantastical thrillers while living here, so say no to Baltimore?

I bid you nevermore…

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