Category Archives: The World through a Photographer’s Lens

Photograph by Dave Stamboulis

Taking It To The Streets: A Weekend in Hanoi

Story and Photos by Dave Stamboulis

Hanoi by Dave Stamboulis

While most first time visitors to Hanoi make a beeline to the atmospheric Temple of Literature or join the masses queuing up for a glimpse of Uncle Ho at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, I prefer to stick to the streets, where one can experience the real Hanoi up close, partaking of its great café culture, and then heading for some knockout dining, not to mention superlative drinking.

Hanoians certainly are not ones to laze around. If you think you will have the city to yourself at 5 a.m. you’d better guess again, as thousands of folks are already up and about, preparing wares for the day’s vending, or else taking advantage of the early morning cool and some free time to exercise around the city’s center point, Hoan Kiem Lake. Here you can find people doing Tai Chi, doing aerobics, jogging, playing badminton, and there are even large groups of ballroom dancers twirling away in the early morning light.

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I prefer to kickstart my morning with a bit of firepower, heading for the nearest café, of which there are hundreds to choose from. Vietnamese coffee is pretty akin to rocket fuel, dark, strong, and taking up to 15 minutes to drip through the metal filters that come with the traditional cups. If you really want to get a boost, try a cup of café ch?n, better known as weasel coffee. This is the most expensive blend in the land, whose beans are eaten, digested, and shat out by a civet cat before being processed, and supposedly the digestive passage of the beans decreases bitterness and improves flavor. If this is a bit too much to fathom, there is also café trung, or egg coffee, where a raw egg gets whipped up with condensed milk and added to the brew; Café Pho Co (11 Hang Gai) just off of the lake has been serving up their grandfather’s blend for decades in their antique family shophouse overlooking Hoan Kiem.

Hanoi by Dave Stamboulis

However most cafes are at streetside, giving unparalleled views of the frenzied nonstop action that goes on. Vendors hoisting bamboo carrying poles with balanced loads weighed down with fresh produce compete with bicycle sellers laden down with everything from flowers to the kitchen sink, and all of course try to swerve in, out, and between from the zillions of motorbikes that rule the streets. Sitting out here, one can sample the gamut of Vietnamese food that is renowned worldwide, from banh cuon steamed rice paper crepes to bun cha noodles with grilled pork, or perhaps some banh xeo savory rice pancakes.

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If the action on the streets gets a bit too chaotic and sticky, there are plenty of indoor spots to go replenish and revel in as well. Several places in the old quarter offer an atmospheric spot away from the hustle and bustle, each serving their own brand of unique Hanoi influenced fare. At The Green Tangerine, a romantic niche housed in a 1928 villa, fine French, Vietnamese, and international fusion all meet, resulting in some delectable results. Creations like scallop Carpaccio served over a tart-like layer of beetroots, mango, and pineapple look more like art than food, and the king prawns cooked with mango and rum and served with carrot cake will leave you marveling. Meanwhile, just around the corner, the aptly named Highway Four takes you on a journey through North Vietnam’s mountain provinces, serving hard to find delicacies like crickets roasted in pig fat, grilled ostrich, and banana leaf flower salad, all incredibly delicious and washed down with the finest alcohol you’ll find in Vietnam, their homemade Son Tinh rice liquors.

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Speaking of alcohol, make sure to get back out on the street and find a spot to quaff some bia hoi. Bia hoi, meaning ‘fresh beer’, is a light lager brewed without preservatives and found everywhere in northern Vietnam. It is dirt cheap, and a great way to sit out on the street and meet locals. In Hanoi, the corners of Luong Ngoc Quyen and Ta Hien are legendary for the conglomeration of bia hoi stalls full of hundreds of foreign tourists along with locals all hanging out sipping their cold suds and making cultural exchange.

Photograph by Dave Stamboulis

Hanoi by Dave StamboulisDespite the chaos on the streets there are plenty of spots near and far to get some much needed respite. Making home at the Sofitel Metropole while in Hanoi is the classiest way to go, enjoying Hanoi’s most elegant and historic hotel. This French colonial gem, located around the corner from the Opera House, is a period piece, with its recently discovered air raid bunker now available for touring by guests.

Hanoi by Dave Stamboulis

For further escapes, it only takes around 3 hours to get to Halong Bay, the UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with dramatic limestone karst peaks rising out of the South China Sea. The best way to see Halong Bay is by cruising on a traditional junk and spending an evening or two aboard the boat, taking in the various cave complexes, floating villages, kayaking opportunities, and beaches on sleepy Cat Ba Island, all out in the bay. Paradise Cruises runs excellent trips. All this is guaranteed to get you back to Hanoi rested and recuperated, and perhaps seeing northern Vietnam’s capital with a bit more of an unhurried attitude. Believe me, the café, bia hoi, and rice wine paced lifestyle is actually quite addicting.

Hanoi by Dave Stamboulis

Stay Sofitel Metropole: 15 Ngo Quyen, Tel: +84 4 3826 6919, www.sofitel-legend.com

 Eat Green Tangerine: 48 Hang Be, Tel: +84 4 3825 1286 Highway Four: 5 Hang Tre, Tel: +84 4 3926 4200

Do Trips to Halong Bay Paradise Cruises: Hanoi Office Unit 8 & 9A, 3rd Floor, International Center, 17 Ngo Quyen Tel: +84 4 3936 8338,

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Dave Stamboulis (Facebook Page)  is a global nomad who spent seven years traveling 40,000 kilometers around the world by bicycle. His book Odysseus Last Stand chronicles that journey. Dave resides in Bangkok, Thailand, where he works for magazines, newspapers, and stock agencies as a freelance photojournalist.  His quest for stories and images in off the beaten track places has taken him to spots such as Borneo, Ethiopia, Bolivia, and other way out locations, often reached via bicycle, kayak, or on foot.  you can check out his work at www.davestamboulis.com and his most recent photography at hisFlickr.

 

kochi by Dave Stamboulis

Kochi: City of Many Faces

Story and Photos of Kochi by Dave Stamboulis

kochi by Dave StamboulisTravelers often get confused over the various names given to Kerala’s port city of Kochi. The city used to be known as Cochin, and internationally as Fort Cochin, which is actually the name of the old harbor area of the city, while many Keralans may be heard referring to it as Ernakulam, which is actually the larger mainland part of the town. Yet names aside, Kochi is a fabulous mélange of cultures and people, perhaps due to its history of openness to the outside world.

kochi by Dave Stamboulis

Kochi has been known throughout the ages as the center of the spice trade on the subcontinent. Jewish, Roman, Arab, and Chinese merchants visited it from the 13th Century and the city became Europe’s first settlement in India when the Portuguese colonized it in the early 1500’s. The Dutch and later the British also had their period of rule, and even as an Indian city today, Kochi is characterized by its large numbers of ethnic minorities, ranging from Tamils to Jews to Gujaratis to Syrian Christians, and probably the largest concentration of Catholic churches and followers you’ll find in Asia outside of the Philippines.

kochi by Dave Stamboulis

Vestiges of all this multiculturalism can be seen everywhere, from the city’s iconic Chinese fishing nets, which date back to the 14th Century and are still used sparingly today, to the imposing Santa Cruz Basilica Cathedral and the St. Frances Church, the first European churches built in Asia (1502 and 1503) and still the site of well attended masses today. Kochi also boasts a Jew Town, with the Paradesi Synagogue as its centerpiece, and a living heritage site today. The father of the warden of the synagogue built the still standing Koder House (www.koderhouse.com), reconstructing it over a 19th century Portuguese mansion, and is just one example of the fine colonial architecture one will find meandering the pleasant back streets of Fort Cochin. The house serves as a fine boutique hotel today and gives a feel for what life must have been like during the days of old.

 kochi by Dave Stamboulis

Kochi prides itself on culture and spectacle. Leading the way is Kathakali, Kerala’s famed dance-drama performance art in which long periods of training, makeup, and ritual are fused into a colorful and mesmerizing spectacle. While short performances are staged for visiting tourists, the real deal still involves all night long temple shows and is a major part of the elaborate Keralan festival calendar each year.

kochi by Dave Stamboulis

Not far from one of the Kathakali performance theatres lies the ornate Dharmanath Desar Jain Mandir, a Jain temple founded by Gujaratis that engages in a rather bizarre pigeon feeding ritual each afternoon, in which pilgrims come and pray to the thousands of pigeons which descend from the rooftops to eat the birdseed put out by the temple monks each day. Needless to say, Kochi never ceases to astound.

kochi by Dave Stamboulis

While the heat of the day drives many to shaded cafes, it’s still easy enough to find an auto rickshaw driver out seeking a fare who will be more than happy to show you all the old colonial buildings and act as a history lecturer at the same time, all the while trying to get you to stop in for a purchase of some of Kochi’s famous products such as pepper, cardamom seed, or tea from the nearby plantations in the Western Ghat Mountans.

kochi by Dave Stamboulis

He will also be quick to point out his favorite Ayurvedic shop, as most of the plants used in this ancient traditional medicine practice come from Kerala and are traded out of Kochi’s busy port. An Ayurvedic massage, which features warm herbal oil head massages and relaxing steam treatments are extremely rejuvenating and yet just another reason to pay the bustling Kochi a visit.

Chinese fish nets at sunset in Fort Cochin (Kochi) in Kerala, In

It is a popular ritual for visitors and locals to gather along the promenade next to the Arabian Sea in Fort Cochin each night, drinking fresh mango shakes and portions of fried fish served up by enterprising hawkers. The backdrop of the sun setting behind the Chinese fishing nets is the most photographed site in Kerala, and yet this long running tradition may be seeing its final hours. The novel land operated cantilevered fishing nets which are counterbalanced by large rocks on ropes and need 5-6 men to work, have been reduced to only a dozen or so in the past decade, as the trade is no longer profitable enough for the fishermen due to market prices and local dredging. While cultural heritage and trust foundations have tried to get behind movements protecting the long running practice, the Indian government has not done anything to make the nets a natural treasure.

kochi by Dave Stamboulis

Yet undoubtedly Kochi will survive, just has it has all these years of the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and more, always open to the sea, to new faces, new ideas, and perhaps India’s most inviting destination, just waiting for what the drifting tides will bring in next.

kochi by Dave Stamboulis

Travel Tips:

Transport: Kochi’s International Airport is one of India’s busiest, with dozens of carriers calling in from around the world. The airport is about an hour’s drive from the city. In town, local ferries are a great way of getting around and avoid the heavy traffic that pervades Kochi during rush hours.

kochi by Dave Stamboulis

Stay and Eat: The Koder House Boutique Heritage Hotel has a fantastic location in Fort Cochin opposite the harbor and Chinese fishing nets, and the hotel’s unique restaurant serves sumptuous Keralan and Jewish cuisine. There are not many rooms at this gem, so make sure to book in advance especially during high season. The Koder House: Phone: +91 484 2218485, www.koderhouse.com

kochi by Dave Stamboulis

Do: aside from all the local attractions, it is easy to visit the famed Kerala Backwaters for a boat trip or go up to the tea plantations of Munnar for an excursion from Kochi. Travel agents abound in Fort Cochin and can set this up.

kochi by Dave Stamboulis

Dave Stamboulis (Facebook Page)  is a global nomad who spent seven years traveling 40,000 kilometers around the world by bicycle. His book Odysseus Last Stand chronicles that journey. Dave resides in Bangkok, Thailand, where he works for magazines, newspapers, and stock agencies as a freelance photojournalist.  His quest for stories and images in off the beaten track places has taken him to spots such as Borneo, Ethiopia, Bolivia, and other way out locations, often reached via bicycle, kayak, or on foot.  you can check out his work at www.davestamboulis.com and his most recent photography at his Flickr.

Kerala

Kerala Backwaters: An India You Never Imagined

Story and Photos by Dave Stamboulis

While India gets a lot of bad press for its crowds, hassles, and other impediments to the discerning traveler, the state of Kerala in the south is a far departure from this, and actually home to one of the world’s greatest escapes, the amazing “backwaters” of Kerala, a spot that is in fact even worth putting on that “50 places to go before you die” bucket list. Actually National Geographic did just that, naming the backwaters in their “50 destinations of a lifetime” list in their millennium collectors’ edition.

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The backwaters are comprised of a chain of lakes, canals, and lagoons that lie just off the Malabar Coast and Arabian Sea, fed by around 40 rivers that snake their way out of the Western Ghat Mountains down to the ocean. One could say it is like an Indian Bayou, except that these backwaters are home to a thriving lifeline, as thousands of people live surrounded by water and have shaped their lives to living above the flow.

houseboat sailing on the backwaters of Kerala, India

The area of the backwaters most often visited is that around the towns of Alleppey, Kumarakom, and Kottayam, with ferries plying the larger routes, small boats navigating the smaller canals, and beautiful luxury houseboats cruising through the most scenic parts. Even Kerala, with its high literacy, history of foreign trade, and welcoming traditions, can be crowded and chaotic, thus nothing can compare with sitting back in style and silence, watching the water flow by and taking in the lush green canals without a care in the world.

enjoying the life on a houseboat on the backwaters of Kerala, In

The kettuvallams, as the houseboats are called, are traditional rice grain barges that were formerly used to transport rice from the wetland paddies to the coast. Made with thatched roofs and over 25 meters long, the boats are quite elegant, and used to be the preferred way of merchant travel prior to the coming of paved roads and motorized vehicles. These days, they are a huge tourist draw, as although motorized, they languidly drift throughout Kerala’s labyrinthine system of lakes and canals, where visitors can enjoy plenty of birdlife, with kingfishers and cormorants being some of the more common sightings, or focus on the cultural aspect of the backwaters, such as the coir industry, in which coconut husk fibers are used to make ropes fishing nets, and other local products that the native Keralite people use in their daily lives.

peaceful canal life in the backwaters of Kerala, India

Better yet, it’s just as pleasant to do absolutely nothing except sit out and enjoy the backwater scenery with ones feet propped up in an armchair drinking a cup of Indian chai or even a cold Kingfisher beer. The houseboats come equipped with all amenities; fans and air-conditioning, western toilets, televisions, showers, and period piece dining rooms and bedrooms. Additionally, they are staffed with cooks and attendants, and just about every whim and nuance is catered to, ensuring a journey of bliss.

sunset along the Malabar coast in the backwaters of Kerala, Indi

Most of the houseboats do a bit of canal touring before dropping anchor in one of the large freshwater lakes that dot the area, and spending a night under the stars. While there are huge numbers of houseboats to choose from, it is recommended to make reservations in advance, especially in the November-February high season, and this also assures getting a boat and operator of one’s choice. One of the best ways to go is to book a boat through a resort, which gives some accountability as well as getting some five star treatment both on and off the water.

houseboat sailing on the backwaters of Kerala, India

The Kumarakom Lake Resort, (http://www.kumarakomlakeresort.in/) perched on the banks of the serene Lake Vembanad, is the best place to stay in the area. Awarded as India’s Leading Resort by the World Travel Awards, this hideaway under the coconut trees has beautiful lake view villas with plunge pools, a restored traditional Keralan restaurant, and a superb spa that offers Ayurvedic massage and healing treatments. The resort also specializes in packages that offer a combination of houseboat overnights combined with a night relaxing at the resort.

sunset along the Malabar coast in the backwaters of Kerala, Indi

Sailing along like royalty on a Keralan houseboat is about as close to bliss as one can get in terms of pampered travel, and a trip one will be savoring for years afterwards.

peaceful canal life in the backwaters of Kerala, India

Travel Tips:

Go: All of India’s major airlines as well as numerous world carriers fly into Kochi (Fort Cochin) International Airport, which is just an hour’s drive from the backwaters.

Do: In addition to an overnight on a houseboat, canal tours on small dugout canoes are also recommended for seeing village life on intimate and slow terms. If you happen to be in Kerala in August, the Nehru Trophy Boat Races are a must see, as locals race traditional “snake boats” (crafted wood longboats in which 100 oarsmen can sit) through the backwaters.

houseboat sailing on the backwaters of Kerala, India

Stay: The Kumarakom Lake Resort is the best in the region, offering houseboats and private villas on the shores of Vembanad Lake. Tel: 00 91 481 2524900 or toll free out of India: 1 800 425 5030