Bruised clouds stacked up. They crouched over the mountains, clung to them, sucking on their peaks. Then they let loose, and moved across the plane like on a chessboard. They were heading for our direction.
With the clouds came the wind. Sand whirls rose along the road. A thick layer of brown dust formed on the windshield of our rented Ford. We kept driving. Knowing that we were still an hour away from our destination.
Then up from the valley it came: an ultraviolet burst that illuminated the sky for a second. I turned off the radio. The fun was officially over. Fat raindrops began slapping against the windshield. We stopped talking, concentrating on the road, already slickened by the drizzle.
I thought I saw a golden shimmer ahead and took out my camera. But the spot soon shifted into a different light. I wanted to capture everything but I couldn’t capture anything. Everything is a shadow. Here, more than anywhere. It’s like trying to comprehend what doesn’t want to be comprehended.
So we kept driving. Through dirty roads. In awe. Feeling small. Tiny, like a sand corn in the huge clockwork of the world. We kept driving. Up and down. Up and down.
And suddenly, in the heart of nowhere, a city rose like a late cherry blossom. We knew it shouldn’t be there but there it was, in all its glory. Shimmering lights as far as the eye could see.
We still couldn’t grasp how quick the storm rolled in and out again. This was new territory for us. We got parachuted into a different dimension. Another planet? Perhaps.
An hour later… we stood on the top of the world. Feeling shaky. The desert winds agitated the tower’s crown. We could feel the rumble beneath our feet.
For the first time, I understood how far humans will go to realize a rich man’s dream. Their foolishness, as well as their craziness. Don Quixote in the modern world: still fighting for freedom and for their unspeakable truths.
Parts of us wanted to join in the joy, the craziness. So we abandoned ourselves to the city. Deliberately loosing ourselves, sinking in, hovering between her legs, to become one with her… Las Vegas.
From afar, we spotted the glitter of the Royal Monastery of Brou’s glazed patterned roof tiles. Its burgundy, terracotta and emerald mosaic gleaming in the July sunshine.
I pulled over at the next intersection and found an empty spot under a sycamore. – Here we are! Mei shot me a smile, then grabbed her mask and climbed out of the car. We crossed a huge lawn towards the transept, then walked down to the apse to circle the church, marveling at the building’s sumptuous details. Only now did I notice the vastness of the nave. And only now did we realize the extent of the monastery.
A sign replete with Covid-19 recommendations lead us to the entrance of the monastic buildings, adjacent to the portal of the church. Wow! This is really a flamboyant Gothic masterpiece! Mei stepped back a few meters to catch a better view of the whole façade.
When we entered the church, it was empty. Not a soul lingered in the aisles nor in the choir. The rhythmic succession of pointed arches led us past fluted pilasters and profusely decorated stained glass windows. I suddenly stopped in my tracks. The iconography I was looking at seemed familiar and a bit void of religious essence. A couple was kneeling and facing each other. On the inscription on the banderol, I read: “Fortune infortune fort une”. “Both fortune and misfortune make a woman stronger”.
Now my interest was sparked, for this was not a typical monastery! Clearly, a story was lurking behind these stones; and a woman played a role in it. I walked to the choir and couldn’t find a display of an Ecce homo nor of a sculpture of Christ bleeding on the cross. But there were three tombs.
Protected in a niche, a recumbent statue of Margaret of Bourbon was tilting her head to the right, towards the center. I found this quite intriguing. Who was the subject of her eternal adoration? I moved closer to the central tomb, where I found two recumbent statues, one above the other. The upper one seemed almost alive, dressed in ceremonial attire with a sword, a feathered helmet and a discreet crown delicately placed on his head. I read the inscription: Philibert II, Duke of Savoy, also known as Philibert le Beau.
The name unlocked a treasure hidden deep inside my brain. I searched and searched… and history lessons from the past slowly unfolded in my mind: the siècle d’or – the Golden Age, the rivalry between Spain and France… I looked at the lower statue of the central tomb. There, the duke was clearly dead, stripped of all its glory and almost naked. Just like on the upper statue, Philibert’s eyes were turning towards the third tomb. There were also two recumbent statues displayed on two levels. However, those are female effigies.
Mei whispered in my ear: – that is Margaret of Austria, Philibert le Beau’s wife. – So, wait! Then who was Margaret of Bourbon, the one who’s looking at Philibert? – His mother! – So, the mother is looking at her son, who has been contemplating his wife for five hundred years!? This representation of conjugal love moved me. Mei gifted me with a smile, her way of showing me her bemusement of my lurking but secret romanticism.
Suddenly, the foggy curtain of my academic studies lifted. It all came back at once. Of course! How could I have forgotten about this? I ignored the anger that was stirring up inside me and turned to the last tomb, where Margaret of Austria was locking eyes with her lost love. She was a young widow and could not forget the three years of marriage she shared with Philibert. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she did not choose to share a tomb with her husband, but instead opted for this display of eternal longing. I could not help but admire her subtlety.
She had wanted all effigies to be depicted as life-size statues. And surrounded by lovers’ knots binding Margaret and Philibert’s monograms together. She herself was portraited as a regal duchess on the upper level. But very simple on the lower one, with her hair untied and loosely draped around her shoulders. Her head was gently inclined toward Philibert’s tomb.
In the first part of the monastery, we learned more about the fascinating project of this monument. The Royal Monastery of Brou was in fact commissioned by Margaret of Austria. Born in 1480, she was the only daughter of Maximilian of Austria, also known as the Holy Roman Emperor. Margaret was first engaged to Charles, the son of King Louis XI of France, when she was only three years old (!). Her whole education was refined, polished and oriented to prepare her for her future role as Queen of France. But her fiancé chose a different wife eleven years after the engagement. So, Margaret was left hurt and mocked.
Her father then started negotiating with Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. Their only son John should be wed to Margaret. She embarked on a ship to reach Spain in 1496, but it went all wrong. During the crossing, the ship hit a storm. In a hurry, facing death, Margaret drafted her own epitaph:
“Here lies Margaret, the willing bride, Twice married – but a virgin when she died.”
Margaret of Austria survived the storm and married prince John a year later. The marriage however lasted only about six months, as her husband suddenly died of fever. She was pregnant but gave birth to a stillborn daughter shortly afterwards. Without a husband and an heir, her role was once again threatened.
In 1501, she finally married Philibert II, Duke of Savoy. This time, everything seemed to work well: the newly wedded couple immediately fell in love with each other. And it was the happiest time of Margaret’s life, as she would point out in her later correspondence with the great minds of the European courts. But Philibert died of pleurisy in 1504, only three years after their wedding. At that time, Margaret of Austria was only 24 years old. Widowed and heartbroken, she tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a window but was saved. She then considered taking religious vows for a while, but finally ended up with another – much better idea. She decided to build a monastery on the outskirts of Bourg-en-Bresse as the final resting place for Philibert and herself. The construction project of the Royal Monastery of Brou was thus launched in 1505.
During the construction works of the monastery, Margaret kept working. She became regent of the Netherlands in 1506. And took care of the education of her nephew Charles, who later became the great emperor Charles V. Margaret was known as a patron of the arts and appointed the best architects and artists of her time to build the Royal Monastery of Brou. She also possessed an impressive library with books ranging from ethical treaties to poetry. Her court was visited by many renowned humanists such as Erasmus, Adrian of Utrecht and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa.
When we crossed the second cloister of the monastery towards the first floor, which now hosts a museum of fine and decorative art of Bourg-en-Bresse, we both had to agree that Margaret of Austria’s reign was one that was marked by love. Love for her family, love for her nephew and nieces which she helped raise. And above all, love for her husband Philibert. She dressed as a widow for half of her life and categorically refused to remarry after Philibert’s death. In the end, the lovers reunited in death inside the sumptuous Royal Monastery of Brou. More than a simple monastery, it’s a temple of eternal love.
I guess, no quote is better fitted than Henry Van Dyke’s: “Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.”
Oh no! Nooooo! I can’t believe I just said “Venice”! Noooo!!! Never had I wished so hard to be able to turn back time! Just one minute. Or maybe even 2 seconds would have been enough. Suddenly, tears rolled down my cheeks and I felt like jumping into a hole in the ground and bury myself alive.
Next to me, Kerstin couldn’t stop laughing. The more she laughed, the more I cried. We were both sitting in her car. Queuing. Waiting to pick up our order in a Mc Donald’s Drive-in. Next to our car, stood a gigantic blue bin… which stank of oily burgers and fries. There couldn’t possibly be a less romantic spot on Earth. And I could not possibly have found a worse place and a worse moment to reveal to my wife where I was going to “kidnap” her after Christmas Day. The location where we were going to spend the romantic Twixmas week that I had been planning in secret for months!
No, the stupid me could not have kept my mouth shut for once. No, I had to talk like a waterfall after a long stressful and tiring week at work… and then make that stupid mistake by saying something as meaningless as “yeah… I didn’t have time to get a Christmas present for that colleague, you know, but I thought I could just buy her something when we’re in Venice…”
Venice… Venice! Yes, Venice! One single innocent word. But the ONLY word I was not supposed to pronounce until Christmas Eve! Until the moment Kerstin opened my Christmas present.
Now thinking back, I know that it was funny. Ridiculously funny. That’s why Kerstin kept laughing so loud. And I know that I overreacted. But it was way beyond my control. And to be honest, I’m still angry with myself. And disappointed.
For years, I had planned many surprise trips for Kerstin. I loved the secrecy of the planning, and I had always managed to keep the secret alive, up till the very last moment. For Bergamo, she didn’t find out until we arrived at the airport. And when we road tripped through Burgundy from Tanlay to Vézelay, the destinations were revealed to her upon each stop on the road.
Planning surprise trips for my wife was somehow my hidden talent. And I was proud of it… until the moment I failed. Boom! Big time.
But perhaps one needs to fail at a particular incident every now and then. So that this specific situation can be followed by a series of perfect events. This is exactly what happened with our trip to Venice. For our whole trip was so perfect that sometimes I still wonder if Venice was not merely a dream…
Venice from the sky
It started with that aerial view from my window seat on a December 26. We were gazing at the majestic Alps, trying to figure out whether we were flying over France or Switzerland.
For a moment, our minds had wandered off to old travel memories and we had talked about Chamonix and Lake Annecy. But all of a sudden, the rugged mountain range was replaced by a cityscape. Not a mass of grey buildings and matchbox cars like in Paris. Nor an overwhelming grid city like Los Angeles. Unlike any place we have flown into, Venice from the sky seemed like a blurry dream.
A diffuse morning haze lingering above Venice drew us into the city. Water was stretching as far as the eye could see and it was hard to distinguish between the water- and the skyline. A lagoon was glistening in the early sunlight. Like a snake, Venice’s Grand Canal slithered through the city, dividing it into two. Among the maze of red rooftops, we spotted a few white domes, and the iconic Campanile di San Marco. But when our plane started to land, little did we know about these majestic Venetian buildings…
Venice from the Grand Canal
The first impression of a person, a book or a place matters a lot to me. Because no matter how much time passes, the first impression will stay with me forever. Most of the times, I cannot control the first perception. But when a possibility presents itself to make our entrance into a place memorable and worthwhile, I choose that option. Even if it means that we would have to pay a bit more.
When we walked out of Marco Polo airport, most people headed to the bus or train station. Traveling to the city center by road is the less expensive option. But we chose to take a water bus. For Venice is a water city. And the arrival scene of Angelina Jolie in The Tourist had convinced me that we should enter Venice on a boat.
Watching the waves crashing against our Alilaguna boat, as it moved forward towards Venice’s cityline, stirred up our enthusiasm. Like two little schoolgirls, we sat next to each other, holding tightly on our luggage, smiling at each other while looking out of the boat’s windows.
When we reached the Grand Canal, the boat slowly moved forward along majestic Venetian Renaissance and Baroque palaces. One next to another, the historic monuments blossomed in the morning sunlight. When I spotted the red façade of the 17th century Palazzo Fontana Rezzonico, my heart started to pound, while Kerstin couldn’t take her eyes off of the 15th century Ca’ d’Oro. By the time we reached the Rialto Bridge, I still couldn’t believe we were finally in Venice.
Venice from the Ego Boutique Hotel The Silk Road
Oh, you must be Mei and Kerstin! Welcome to our hotel! Never had we been greeted more warmheartedly than at the Ego Boutique Hotel The Silk Road.
I had booked a hotel about three months prior to our trip. But one week before we left Luxembourg, I stumbled on the Ego Boutique Hotel while looking for places in Venice related to Marco Polo and the Silk Road. The few photos of this hotel that I found made me dream… So, I contacted Ekaterina, the hotel owner, who explained to me that their hotel was brand new. It opened only a week before Venice was hit by one of the worst acqua alta in the 20th century. Due to the high waters, they had to close down the hotel for a while. So, we would be among their first customers, and she was happy to offer us a good deal.
I didn’t hesitate long to accept her kind offer and canceled the hotel I had booked before.
When Ekaterina personally led us into the Imperial Suite, all the decor and furniture down the smallest detail left us speechless. That night, we stayed for hours in our private jacuzzi, relishing the Venetian dream we had been living from the moment we spotted the city from the plane.
And that dream continued the next morning, as we savored the view of the Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge right from our king size bed.
Venice from the Basilica di San Marco
Three hours later and a tasty gourmet breakfast in our stomach, we finally managed to leave our hotel. Venice was void of crowds. Stores were opened, restaurants were being delivered their daily fresh ingredients, and here and there we came across a few tourists strolling around with their smartphones.
When a narrow street led us to the Piazza San Marco, we stood aghast in front of the iconic plaza. No tourists. Hmm. Where is everyone? Acqua alta had clearly scared away many people.
Both the Campanile and the Basilica di San Marco drew us towards them. We couldn’t find a line to queue, since there was no line. As we entered into the Basilica, I told Kerstin that no one would ever believe us when we’d tell them how empty Venice was…
Known by the nickname Chiesa d’Oro (Church of gold), the Basilica di San Marco in Venice dates back to the 11th century. The floor, pillars and lower parts of the interior walls are entirely in polychrome marble, whereas the upper levels and ceilings are covered with dazzling gold ground mosaic (about 8000 square meters!).
With a distinctly Byzantine design and a Venetian style of the Renaissance art, the Basilica kept us inside longer than we had expected. We were mesmerized by its opulence and couldn’t stop looking up at all the details. And once again, we were caught in another Venetian dream…
Venice from the Doge’s Palace
We didn’t see the Palazzo Ducale (or Doge’s Palace) immediately when we walked across the famous Piazza San Marco. Perhaps, we were too focused on the Campanile and the Basilica next door. But once we laid our eyes on the Doge’s Palace, we couldn’t take them off of its facade built in Venetian Gothic style.
Founded in 1340, the Doge’s Palace served as the residence of the Doge of Venice (the chief magistrate and leader of the former Republic of Venice). But it was also the seat of the government until 1797 when the City fell at the hands of Napoleon. In 1923, the palace was transformed into a museum.
The weekend tourists arrived in bunches, when we were ready to enter the Doge’s Palace on the third day of our trip. Thanks to the 3-in-1 museum ticket that we bought the day before, we accessed the museum without queuing.
From the palace’s apartments to the institutional chambers, the whole building is profusely decorated. We spent almost half a day inside the Doge’s Palace to examine all the architectural details. And let the historical paintings on the walls and ceilings guide us through Venice’s past and make us dream away…
Venice from the Bridge of Sighs
There are more than 400 foot bridges in Venice. The Ponte dei Sospiri, or Bridge of Sighs, is one of the top tourist spots in Venice. From the outside, this enclosed arched bridge that passes over the Rio di Palazzo doesn’t really look interesting. But what’s interesting is the reason it is called the Bridge of Sighs, as well as the view of Venice from the inside…
Built in 1614 to link the city’s (new) prison to the interrogation rooms in Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs was the last corridor that the convicts passed through before imprisonment. Legend has it that prisoners sighed while crossing this bridge as it was their last chance to look at freedom through the bridge’s small windows.
When we stood inside this enclosed bridge, peeking out at the crowds standing on the Ponte della Paglia who were looking back at us, we imagined what the convicts must have felt back then…
The Venice of Marco Polo
About a year before our trip to Venice, we started to read the Travel memoirs of Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant and explorer who traveled from Venice to Xian along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295. That’s when we decided to follow Polo’s footsteps and to explore the Ancient Silk Road in China in the summer of 2019. Spending our Twixmas trip in Venice, where Polo was born and grew up, was therefore the perfect way to end our year.
However, to our surprise, it wasn’t easy to find any historical place related to Marco Polo in Venice! After spending a whole morning strolling around every little corner of the city, through narrow streets and along quiet canals, all we could find was Marco Polo’s house.
The house cannot be visited, and the only noticeable element is a small and discreet plaque on its facade, on which it is written that Marco Polo lived here. Standing two meters below that plaque, we both scrutinized it for a minute. Behind us, a gondola made its way under the Calle Scaleta. All of a sudden, the gondolier’s singing voice disrupted the utter silence and propelled us back into the 13th century. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I caught a glimpse of Marco Polo behind the window… or was I just dreaming?
Venice at sunset
Some say that sunsets are always the same, wherever you go. I like to think that whoever says this has never really experienced a sunset with his or her full senses. For us, sunsets are linked to memories. And to feelings of specific moments, as the ones you remember because you held hands, or kissed.
From Malta to San Francisco, from Santorini to Halong Bay, each of the sunsets we laid eyes on and felt have burnt their last violet sunray in our heart. But when the Venetian sky started to blush and slowly turned into crimson, we had to hold our breath. And make space in our heart for this specific sunset.
Standing at the bay, we looked out into the open lagoon. The tower of Palladio’s church in the distance invited us over to the island. But we felt good where we were, in front of the ebony gondolas, lined up between wooden poles and gurgling wavelets.
“In the end, there’s always this city. As long as it exists, I don’t believe that I, or for that matter, anyone, can be mesmerized or blinded by romantic tragedy.” – Joseph Brodsky
What exactly is Vietnamese food? It seems like all the Vietnamese dishes are similar! I looked at my friend in disbelief. My facial expression was probably as shocking to him, as what he said was to me. So, I told him about what happened to us on the first day we arrived in Hanoi:
Sitting on a pink plastic stool, I waited impatiently for my bowl of Pho. When we were finally served, I looked at my dish, at Kerstin, and then at the waiter. Why does my Pho look like this? Where are the fresh white onions, cilantro, lime, bean sprouts, and all other “green” stuff? Where are the beef meatballs? And where are all the side sauces?
Our local guide in Hanoi giggled. I can see that you are from Southern Vietnam…. I explained to him that I was born and grew up in Luxembourg. Only my family is from Vietnam. But yes, they used to live in Saigon. Ah, yes, I see! Well, only Southern Vietnamese people eat Pho with so many different toppings. Maybe because they can’t prepare a sophisticated Pho? Our guide giggled again. I could sense an air of mockery…
I must admit that before visiting Vietnam, I had no idea that Pho or any other Vietnamese food is prepared differently depending on the region. Now to my friend, who thought that all Vietnamese dishes taste the same, I urged him to visit Vietnam. Then he’ll perceive the differences, not only in the variety of Vietnamese dishes, but also in regional flavors.
From appetizers to desserts, let me take you on this journey through Vietnamese cuisine… and introduce you to our 20 favorite Vietnamese dishes.
1. GOI CUON
Goi Cuon is my absolute favourite Vietnamese appetizer. Sometimes called spring roll, summer roll, cold roll or rice paper roll, Goi Cuon is believed to be introduced to Vietnam by Chinese immigrants. In Northern Vietnam, they call it Nem Cuon. This is probably the reason why I couldn’t find any Goi Cuon when we visited Hanoi and Halong Bay. The locals couldn’t or didn’t want to understand what I wanted to order…
But it didn’t matter, for I know how to prepare Goi Cuon myself. It is actually one of the rare (only?) Vietnamese dishes that I can prepare, because it its quite easy. Goi Cuon are served cold or at room temperature. So there is no need to cook nor deep-fry the rolls. All you need are cooked prawns, slivers of pork, fresh vegetables, and bun (rice vermicelli). Then wrap a bit of everything in a banh trang (rice paper), before dipping the rolls in a Hoisin sauce, to which you can add a few fresh chili and crumbles of nuts.
2. CHA GIO
I grew up with the smell of Cha Gio. Every morning at 4am my mother prepared hundreds of Cha Gio filled with ground meat – may it be pork, beef, or chicken -, and diced vegetables such as carrots, kohlrabi, bean sprouts and jicama. When I brushed my teeth, she was deep frying the rolls. By the time I finished my breakfast, she was ready to take the bus to Luxembourg City, where the warm crispy and golden rolls would be sold within hours.
It’s not easy to obtain a perfect Cha Gio: the way the ingredients are prepared and mixed, the quantity of ingredients to be wrapped, the degree of moisture of the rice papers, the way the Cha Gio are rolled, the temperature of the oil in which the rolls should be fried, the way they’re being put into the boiled oil, the amount of time they’re inside, AND the way you take them out… every little detail matters! Even the way you stack the rolls once they’re done matters! But if a Cha Gio is well made, you’ll love it! You wouldn’t even need to dip it into Nuoc Nam fish sauce!
3. BANH CUON
Originally from Northern Vietnam, Banh Cuon is a made from steamed fermented rice batter, shaped as thin delicate sheets. These rice sheets are then filled with minced mushrooms, shallots, and seasoned ground pork. Once they’re steamed, you taste them with slices of Cha (pork or chicken saussage), topped with fried shallots, sliced cucumber and lots of Nuoc Nam fish sauce. There is also a variant of Banh Cuon in Thai cuisine, called khao phan.
4. NEM CHUA
Nem Chua is a fermented pork dish. It’s sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Since they’re usually served or sold in bite sizes, you can put them in a salad, or eat them as a snack. When I was a kid, I loved devouring a nem cha after school, while all my friends ate chocolates or cookies.
5. BANH XEO
Literally “sizzling cake”, Banh Xeo is a fried pancake made of rice flour. Stuffed with shrimps, lots of soja bean sprouts, onions and fatty pork, Banh Xeo is actually not eaten like a crepe, although that’s how most Westerners eat it. You cut it and wrap it either in a banh trang (rice paper) or huge lettuce leaves, along with a few mint leaves and basil. Then you dip it in Nuoc Nam fish sauce.
For those who don’t like to eat with your hands, stay away from Banh Xeo, or eat it like Westerners do with a fork and a knife. The best Banh Xeo I have ever had was at the local market in Hoi An. They even topped the ones my mother cooked!
6. BUN BO HUE
The name of this dish says it all: it’s a bun (rice vermicelli) with bo (beef) from Hue (former capital located in Central Vietnam). The broth of Bun Bo Hue is cooked with beef bones, beef shank, onions, coriander and lots of lemongrass.
Some people add pig’s knuckles and cubes of coagulated pig blood. I know this sounds weird and perhaps even disgusting to some people. But keep in mind that pig blood curd is in fact a popular delicacy in Vietnam, as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Bun Bo Hue tastes best if you add a spoonful fermented shrimp paste, fresh mint and basil.
7. NEM NUONG
If you love barbecued meat, then you will love Nem Nuong. This Vietnamese dish from Nha Trang consists of chargrilled pork meatballs, infused with shallots, black pepper, and Nuoc Nam fish sauce. Nem Nuong is served with fresh vegetables, such as lettuce, carrots and mint leaves. It is accompanied either with rice noodles or rice. And of course topped with lots of Nuoc Nam fish sauce, like most Vietnamese dishes!
I suppose that by now, I don’t need to explain what Pho is. Let’s just say that if there is one Vietnamese dish that you need to know and taste, it would be Pho, because it’s considered as Vietnam’s national dish.
Today, it is savoured during lunchtime or dinnertime. But originally, Pho is sold at dawn and dusk by roaming street vendors. My father always says that pho is not a “real” meal. It’s a noodle soup meant to be slurped quickly in the street, sometimes still sitting on your motorbike. The broth is prepared in huge cauldrons hours in advance. And the noodles can be cooked in boiled water within a minute or two. So Pho can almost be considered as a type of junk food. But the healthy kind of junk food…
The interesting thing is that Pho exists only since the beginning of the 20th century! It became popular throughout the world thanks to Vietnamese refugees who fled the war. And in 2007, the word Pho was even added to the Oxford English Dictionary.
9. BANH MI
Literally, Banh Mi means bread. All kinds of bread. But since the French introduced the baguette in Vietnam, the term is now commonly used to designate a “Vietnamese sandwich”. Less crusty than the Parisian baguette, the Vietnamese baguette is still much better than a zillion other kinds of breads around the world. But unlike the French sandwiches, Banh Mi also have typical Vietnamese ingredients, such as Nuoc Nam fish sauce, pickled carrots, and cilantro.
When we lived in Paris, I used to eat a banh mi during lunchtime instead of any other types of sandwiches. Sometimes, I wondered if my mouth smelled of Nuoc Nam fish sauce during classes? But then, my professors and classmates didn’t seem to have noticed it…
10. BUN RIEU
Bun Rieu is a specialty from the Mekong Delta. It’s a rice vermicelli soup with fresh tomatoes, eggs, crab and shrimp paste. As many other Southern Vietnamese soups, Bun Rieu is of course also topped with lots of fresh vegetables, such as green onions, cilantro, bean sprouts, and Vietnamese water spinach stems (called rau muong).
11. BANH CANH
When I was a kid, I used to hate Banh Canh, because the thick noodles made of tapioca and rice flour reminded me of worms. Now I love Banh Canh, especially when I’m cold but don’t want to gain more weight. They are often compared to Japanese Udon, but these Vietnamese noodles taste less sweet.
Banh Canh from Southern Vietnam includes fish balls, pork and herbs. But in other Vietnamese regions, the broth can be shrimp-flavoured, crab-flavoured, and sometimes includes pork knuckles.
12. CHAO TÔM
Chao Thom is another traditional dish from Hue in Central Vietnam. As the name says it, this dish is made of shrimp (tôm). It’s actually shrimp surimi grilled on a sugar cane stick. Honestly, it’s the shrimp’s flavour on the sugar cane that is delicious, not really the grilled shrimp itself. Chao Tôm is often served as an appetizer. In North American and Europe, it is sometimes served as a meal with bun (vermicelli), mint, carrot, lettuce, and crushed peanuts.
13. HU TIEU
Very similar to Pho, Hu Tieu is a noodle soup originated from the Chinese Teo-chew ethnic (my ancestor’s origin!), who settled in Southeast Asia. In Teo-chew dialect, it is called koe-tiau. Usually eaten at breakfast, Hu Tieu is also a famous dish in Thailand, Cambodia (called kuy teav), Singapore, and other Southeast Asian countries.
Compared to Pho, the rice noodles of Hu Tieu are square-formed. And unlike Pho, you have to dress the quickly boiled noodles with garlic oil, sugar, oyster sauce and soy sauce, before adding the broth made of pork or chicken bones. Other ingredients include seafood, chicken, and pig’s blood jelly. Hu Tieu can also be tasted as a dry noodle dish. In this version, instead of adding the broth to the seasoned noodles, just serve the soup in a seperate bowl.
14. COM TAM (+ BI CHA TET NUONG)
Literally “broken rice”, Com Tam is a rice dish from Saigon made of fractured rice grains. It is served with grilled pork, bi (thinly shredded pork skin), steamed egg, and fresh sliced cucumber. This dish is usually topped with Nuoc Nam fish sauce, but I personally prefer the grilled pork’s sauce, mixed with caramelized onions. Since Com Tam is a rather dry meal, you usually “cleanse your throat” with a bowl of broth on the side.
15. BO LUC LAC
This cubed beef sauteed dish is a French-inspired Vietnamese dish. My father used to tell me that this is what they ate when they went to a “European” restaurant in Vietnam. But except for lettuce, the fresh sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, nothing in this dish is European.
The name of this dish derives from the shape of the beef: “Luc Lac” literally means small cubes the size of a dice. Why is the meat cut like that? Well, it is an Asian custom to cut meats in small pieces before cooking them, and not on your plate. Firstly because it’s easier to eat with chopsticks, and secondly because using a knife on the table was considered as rude. Bo Luc Lac is not just served with fresh vegetables and slices of onions, but the beef cubes are to be dipped in a sauce made of salt, pepper and lime juice.
16. CANH CHUA
Canh Chua is Kerstin’s absolute favourite soup. Originated from the Mekong Delta, this sweet and sour soup is made of tamarind-flavoured broth with fish (from the Mekong River), tomatoes, coriander, basil, lemony-scented herbs, bean sprouts and pineapples. Canh Chua is usually served with white rice, which is then a side dish for the fish. A little tip: always take the fish out of the pot, before serving the soup.
17. CA KHO TO
Ca Kho To is another Vietnamese dish made of fish. But this time it’s catfish, cooked in a clay pot with caramelized sauce (nuoc mau), shallots, and tons of Nuoc Nam fish sauce. If you don’t like fish, you can also get the same dish with beef (called Bo Kho), or with porc, eggs and coconut juice (Thit Kho). But either way, you’ll love the sauce of this Southern Vietnamese comfort dish!
Traditional Vietnamese desserts, mostly consisting of sweet drinks or sweet soups, are usually called Chè. There are a lot of varieties, both hot and cold. The most famous chè is certainly Chè Ba Mau. It contains “three colours”: green beans, red beans, and yellow beans, mixed in coconut milk and lots of crushed ice.
Our favourite version of Vietnamese sweet drink is however Chè Dau Do. It contains red beans, tapioca and coconut milk.
19. STICKY RICE DESSERTS
There are also many Vietnamese desserts which are made with glutinous rice. One of my favorite steamed sticky rice dessert is with bananas, packed in banana leaves. But I also love sticky rice with fresh mango and topped with warm coconut sauce.
20. BANH LA DUA
Originally from Indonesia, pandan cake is popular in many Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In Vietnamese, pandan leaves are called la dua. So the cake is called Banh La Dua. And yes, it really is green. But no, it is not weird. It’s light, fluffly, spongy, and simply yummy! Some bakeries sell pandan cakes filled with strawberries or whipped cream. While others top it with shredded coconuts. Kerstin like the one with whipped cream, whereas I prefer the simple chiffon cake, savored with a glass of cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee).
What about you? Which is your favourite Vietnamese dish?
Travel is a way to connect with the world. And travel the world with your life partner is a way to get closer to each other, to connect with each other, and to tigthen the bond so much that you feel like nothing bad in the world could ever harm you. Because you have each other, know each other, love each other… This is what we feel about traveling the world together. But we’re sure that we are not the only couple on the planet who thinks that.
Not so long ago, we stumbled on the Instagram account of Chelsea and Ash, a queer couple from Minneapolis. After reading their story, we found out that travel matters to them as a couple as much as it does to us. So, we decided to ask them to share their story with us – and with you – and to all the LGBTQ+ community.
Meet the girls behind “En Route with Love”!
I’d always held the belief that I needed to be able to travel with my partner before making any life-changing commitments because there are so many intense moments that happen en route. Beautiful moments. Scary moments. Difficult moments. Memorable moments. You really get to know the person you are with when you’re spending two or more weeks together in a new country. Lucky for me, Ash was that perfect travel companion, and that perfect partner.
When explaining how we met, my wife tells the same story every time. It varies slightly from mine in that Ash loves sharing how instantly passionate I became around the topic of travel. It was a Saturday night at a local Minneapolis queer bar when I first saw Ash. After some prodding from my friend, and a little liquid courage, I made my way over to them. We struck up a conversation in which I dove into a long, detailed explanation of my last trip abroad. I told them how traveling held an incredibly special place in my heart. And I enthusiastically pressed upon them the necessity of taking a trip overseas. Looking back, it could have been my charm (cough) or the vibrant description of my trip. But ultimately something must have worked because three months later we were planning our first vacation abroad together.
It was April 2017, and two of my friends and I were making arrangements for a trip to Europe that summer. We decided that we would start in Iceland and hop over to Norway altogether. And then I would split from them to explore England on my own. I explained these plans to Ash one morning while walking from their house in South Minneapolis to a local breakfast diner, when they proposed the idea of flying out to meet me in London. I will never forget the moment of complete joy I felt at the thought that my partner… of only a couple months… Who had never been overseas before, but wanted to fly across the Atlantic ocean just to spend time with me. I was ecstatic and began counting down the days to our big trip.
My friends and I left for Iceland and Norway mid-July 2017. We spent 10 days exploring Reykjavik, Oslo, Bergen, and a few places in between before I got on a plane to meet Ash in London. Ash’s plane was scheduled to arrive at Heathrow airport prior to mine. So by the time I got through customs they were already there waiting for me. To this day, Ash still says that I never looked queerer: hiking boots, flannel shirt, backpack… They loved it (and so did I!). It was so good to see their face and wrap my arms around them. We grabbed two coffees and got on the train towards London to begin our adventure.
Our vacation started and ended in the capital city, but we also spent some time driving around the south of England. During our trip we made sure to visit historical sites like Hastings Castle, Bodiam Castle, Arundel Castle, and Stonehenge. But also made it a priority to explore queer-friendly spots. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stay near Brighton, one of the biggest LGBTQA+ cities in England and only an hour and forty minutes south of London.
We rented a mother-in-law suite from a queer couple just blocks from incredible white cliffs overlooking the English Channel. Brighton was preparing for its big pride celebration. So many of the bars that lined the beach were decorated with rainbow colors and promoting various pride events. Although we were bummed to miss what we could only imagine as one of the best pride celebrations in the country, we were happy we got to see the city preparing for it.
London’s Soho district was probably our favorite queer area. Ash and I ended our night atShe Soho, a nightclub catering to women and gender queer folks. Entering through the front door and immediately walking down into a basement, we found ourselves in a small, dome-shaped room lined with corrugated metal. A DJ took up a fifth of the floor, while the bar took up another. The remaining space was filled with dancing people, fitting in where they could.
We grabbed a couple of drinks, and made our way to the front of the DJ booth. It felt great to be out in a new place, experiencing a new style of social life, with my best friend and partner. Ash and I had a great time and danced for a couple of hours before calling it a night. The club may have been small, but it welcomed us into its space and provided all the key ingredients to having a fantastic night.
As queer travelers, our trip to England was primarily positive. Folks responded well to us holding hands in public. AirBnb hosts didn’t bat an eye when they learned we were together. And other than one or two ‘looks’ in the smaller towns, most people enjoyed seeing us in love. I could go on forever with all of the amazing things we experienced together in this country. But this specific blog post is not the place for that (you can visit our website for the full details!).
Ultimately, what our first trip abroad together did was prove to us that we were ready for the next step in our relationship. So it was during our last night in England that we made plans to move in with one another. Travel has a way of providing clarity, growth, and assurance. Our vacation to England was so important for us in these ways that I wanted to capture it; to have it forever. I began a website and blog called En Route -with- Love, with a goal to have every single trip that Ash and I take together on record, describing both the physical adventure and emotional experience. It has not only provided us with a way to relive important parts of our past. But it has also become a creative outlet for myself and a space for information sharing from fellow LGBTQA+ travelers.
Ash has embraced my passion for travel, jumping in head first to plan and execute adventures with me. We’ve traveled overseas three times, been out of the country with one another a total of four. And continue to create and update our 15-year plan of new places to visit. I couldn’t imagine going on these adventures with anyone else. Travel is, and forever will be, a special way to connect with my love.
It was raining cats and dogs when we arrived in Halong Bay. When we left Hanoi earlier that day, I had no idea we would need 4 hours to reach the Gulf of Tonkin. In Europe, we would have needed only 2 hours to reach a destination of 170 kilometers. But in Vietnam, things were a bit different, especially back in 2014.
Are we on a highway? Oh yes, of course this is one of the most popular highways in Northern Vietnam. Our guide Than sounded proud to be a Hanoi native. So, you cannot drive faster than 65-70 kilometers per hour on this highway? No, no. Not faster! The road is in a bad condition, there are too many motorbikes. And lots of holes. Look, look, here! As our guide pointed at a pothole, our driver suddenly hit the brake. And then accelerated again after bypassing the depression and a few motorbikes hunting from right and left.
You see over there? Now Than was pointing at roadworks in the distance. In a few years, there will be a new highway. Maybe in 2018, you can drive to Halong Bay in only 2 hours. Imagine, you will win 2 hours for one way! You won’t have to sleep in Halong Bay, when you visit us again in a few years. You can make a quick day trip to Halong and come back to Hanoi in the evening. You will save a lot of money and see more of Hanoi!
I looked at Kerstin and we both shot our guide a polite smile. I resisted the urge to explain that we wanted to stay a night in Halong Bay. That we didn’t like to rush when traveling. But I decided to change the subject and ask him about Hanoi’s architecture…
It is still raining, please wait in the “waiting room”. What waiting room, we asked. Oh, the room where you wait for me! I go get the tickets for your boat trip. And you wait here in the room, OK? When we walked into the “waiting room”, a brouhaha of dozens of different languages filled our ears. Hundreds of tourists were sitting and standing in the hall. Americans, French, Brits, Russians, Chinese, Germans… Despite the rain, the heat was still palpable. And in this jam-packed hall, sweat was running down everyone’s neck.
Do you think we’ll be on the same boat as all the tourists here? I sensed Kerstin’s worried tone and didn’t know what to answer. Well, I hope it will stop raining soon. Or what view of Halong Bay will we get?
I wasn’t done worrying when Than’s smiling face popped up behind our shoulders. Here, look, I have your tickets! We can go now. He pushed open the misted glass door and held up a rainbow colored umbrella over us. For a moment, I wondered if the travel agency revealed to all our private guides that we’re a lesbian couple. Clutched to our rainbow umbrella, we followed Than down to the dock. As we boarded the Victory Star Junk Boat, I swiftly heard my father’s voice in my head: never sleep on a boat! Never go on a cruise!
When my family fled Vietnam in December 1978, they became boat people. For eight months, they were “prisoners at sea”, sitting like sardines on the Tung An freighter, off the coast of Manila. Before being moved to Tara Island for four more months, waiting to be resettled overseas.
I was not on that ship. I was not part of the boat people. I was not a Vietnamese refugee, for I was born in Luxembourg a few years later. But growing up, I kept hearing my family’s creepy stories on the sea. My fear of the ocean could never be compared to that of my family’s, nor other Vietnamese boat people’s thalassophobia. However, the terror of a possible death in an ocean was great enough to make me swear I would never get on a cruise.
But then, the idea of spending a night on a boat, feasting on the spectacular seascape of limestone pillars, really tickled me. After all, it was just one night. Aboard a luxurious five-star junk, with only 32 cabins… absolutely human-scale and safe. And it’s not in a big scary ocean, but in a bay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site to be exact.
Are you OK? Kerstin shot me a worried look, snapping me out of my daydream. I grinned bravely and we entered our cabin. Our luggage was already waiting for us, next to an ebony bed. The sea breeze waltzed with the gilded curtains and uncovered a private balcony. I walked over to close the window and caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a sunbeam, fighting its way through the dissipating grey clouds.
When you come from a country as Lilliputian as Luxembourg, chances are that you get to hear welcoming words followed by an exclamation mark. Sometimes by a question mark. But usually an exclamation mark: Oh, you’re from Luxembourg! That’s unusual! How rare to meet someone from such a tiny country! But then, when you really come from a country as small as Luxembourg, you’re probably used to these exclamation marks. We usually simper, nod our head and say nothing more. That’s exactly what we did when the waiter of the restaurant onboard led us to our table.
Each couple had a dedicated table. Each table showcased the national flag of the guests’ country. All the other couples had a flag made of fabric. Ours was made of paper. Clearly it had just been printed less than an hour ago. I hope this is the right flag? The waiter asked nervously, before pulling out another red-white-blue flag from his pocket. Kerstin laughed out loud and said: No worries! This is the right flag. The one you’re holding in your hand is that of the Netherlands. They’re similar, but the blue stripe on the flag of Luxembourg is lighter. Oh yes, I see now! The waiter giggled, nodded his head a few times and finally withdrew to the kitchen.
The rain stopped after lunch. When we were getting ready to visit Vung Vieng fishing village, the sky was clearing up. The sunbeam that I’d seen earlier finally managed to find its way through the clouds.
From our junk boat, we climbed into a speedboat which brought us to a floating platform in the middle of Halong Bay. There, four by four we climbed into a bamboo boat, welcomed by a slender lady in a conical hat. When a couple of baby-boomers settled down behind us, the boat started to sway.
The noise of their orange life jackets squeezed between each other and against the vessel’s rim made us edgy. Is the lady strong enough to row our boat? Kerstin whispered in my ear that perhaps we should help her. What? To row? As I turned around, I was even more worried to see the face of an elderly lady hidden under the hat. But when our bamboo boat started to glide on Halong Bay’s emerald waters, she rowed faster and faster, overtaking the other boats.
None of us spoke. We were all savoring the sound of the wavelets pushing against our tiny boat. And marveling at numerous caves inside conical peaks, arches between towers made of limestone and hundreds of virgin islets and uninhabited islands…
The peace and quiet of Halong Bay ceased as soon as our boat approached the Hang Sung Sot caves. Hundreds of tourists were lining up at the grotto’s entrance. We were told to queue up behind them. The family of four in front of us were too polite to not let a group of French students jump the queue. Kerstin and I both agreed that they must be British. Or Buddhists. Or perhaps they didn’t want to offend any representative of France, since it was the French who discovered this cave in 1901?
Our British friends seemed to be familiar with speleology. Since Kerstin is a big fan of grottoes and caves, we decided to follow them for a while, listening to the father as he explained to his teenage son how the karst features were formed. We stopped more often than the other visitors but moved past those who were taking selfies with a massive rock formed as a phallus and lit by a pink spotlight.
The trip back to the Victoria Star Junk took place on a motorboat. It was shorter and faster. Still, I missed our lady friend who brought us to the cave. And regretted that we had not given her more tips for her hard work. A few hours later, we kept talking about her when we settled down on the upper deck. We guessed about her age, her name, the number of hours she had to row in a day, the number of passengers she had carried on her boat…
Slowly, the sun was setting across Halong Bay. Soft pink clouds settled above the faint outline of the limestone islets.
When I woke up at 5am the next morning, the pastel colored sky from the previous evening was replaced by hues of midnight blue. But on the horizon, I spotted a hint of orange. Catching a sunrise has always been a challenge for me. As a night owl, I get creative when the world goes to sleep. Kerstin always says that I write the best stories when the clock strikes midnight. So, I get to watch a sunrise only once in a blue moon.
Standing on our private balcony, I kept my eyes on the orange tinge, which soon turned into flaming red. It slowly stretched across Halong Bay, revealing one by one the many limestone pinnacles, looming out of the water. Fog patches began to dissolve. But the world remained bathed in silence. Kerstin discreetly joined me on the balcony. Together, we were glued to this blissful spectacle. A daily spectacle that is often overlooked…
Mei turned down the volume when we almost reached the Arcachon Bay. I was going to make a right turn to head towards the town of Arcachon, when I suddenly spotted the road sign “Dune du Pilat”. I hit the break. A dune? What could that be? Mei quickly unfolded the paper map on her lap. Her index finger moved feverishly across the map. Dune, Dune, Dune… I can’t find a Dune on this frigging map!
Mei was getting impatient… and so was I, as I kept checking in the rear-view mirror whether a car was approaching or not. Suddenly, she looked at me. You know what? Let’s just check it out! She turned up the volume, I hit the gas, and off we drove towards the mysterious dune.
A couple of kilometers further, another road sign led us to an outdoor parking hidden in the pine forest. A few remote cars seemed stranded on the deserted parking lot.
Should we bring a bottle of water? I knew that Mei usually gets thirsty out of the blue, at the most unexpected place and time. So, I always carry a bottle of water wherever we go. Nah! We probably won’t stay long… Our tiny purses slung across the shoulders, we walked down a narrow cobblestone path through the forest.
From afar, a tetchy metallic sound filled the air. The dissonant jingle reminded me of my childhood and yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on it… The further we trekked, the louder the clapper. When we caught sight of a row of wooden cabins, I finally recognized the sound. Mei looked at me and said: those are wind chimes, right?
Set at the brink of the pine forest, the wooden cabins were actually souvenir shops lining up like solitary sentinels. Most of them were closed. Bonjour! A lady, dressed like a gypsy, came out of nowhere and invited us to take a look at her store. We suddenly felt transported to an eerie parallel world. Or maybe it was the clatter of the dozens of wind chimes hanging outside her storefront. On vend aussi des boissons si vous voulez. Parce que là-haut vous ne trouverez pas grand-chose à boire.
I looked at Mei. Oops! Now that she knew there was no water “up there” (wherever that was?), I was sure she was going to say that she suddenly got very thirsty! In fact, I didn’t even wait until she uttered the desire to hand the lady 1€ for the bottle of water. Mei shot me a huge smile, followed by a shy kiss on my cheek…
We continued our trek, which now pointed uphill. All of a sudden, we both came to a standstill. My jaw dropped as we stood in front of a giant dune. Imagine a wall made of sand reaching for the sky… 50m, 80m, perhaps even 100m high? Oh my goodness, what is that? I turned over to Mei and saw that she was as startled as I was. Well, I guess that’s the Dune du Pilat. And just like that, we both burst out laughing. Out of surprise and out of joy to have followed our guts…
We needed a few minutes to grasp the reality and size of what we were marveling at. We finally advanced to a wooden staircase embedded in the dune. A couple with a toddler also reached the stairs. The husband soon started to breathe heavily and cursed about how steep and strenuous the climb was. Do you think they serve beer up there? His wife didn’t seem happy about the question: How would I know! I told you to bring that stupid cooling box! And did you get the diapers for Marie? Mei and I exchanged meaningful glances but kept our mouths shut.
Next thing we knew, we arrived at the top of the dune and… stopped dead in our tracks. WOW! Someone led out a cry. It took me a moment to realize that it came from me. We were both so caught off balance that we dropped on the sand.
Sitting on top of the tallest sand dune in Europe, a gigantic yellow bosom nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and an enormous pine forest, I felt like I had reached a milestone in my life.
I had just turned 19 and Mei 20. Adult life had just started for us. We were in love with each other. As I breathed in the salty Atlantic air, I felt a liberating sensation, like a rock falling off my chest. The weight I had been lugging around as a teenager. My own ball and chain filled with guilt, shame and regret. I was the serpent that bursts out of its old skin…
I took Mei’s hand. We went rolling down the sandy slope of the Dune du Pilat towards the ocean. Sky and earth were upside down. Sand was embracing every inch of our skin. I remember us laughing, screaming, maybe trying to sing…
When we reached the beach, I ripped off my shirt and raced to the ocean. I felt the crunching wet sand between my toes, a new energy flowing upward through my legs. Still I ran, throwing myself into the water, into the new blue freedom of being a woman.
As I write these lines looking back at what freedom felt like 17 years ago, I see how corny our story sounds. Like a soap opera from the 1990s. But our discovery of the Dune du Pilat was one of the truthful moments that defined us. This truth set us free.
Have you ever heard of the “Malta Convention”? It’s a European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage. Also dubbed the “Valletta Convention” or the “Valletta Treaty”, since it was adopted in Valletta, the capital of Malta. Due to her job, Mei – who is an archaeologist, as you might know – told me a lot about this convention for the last several years. Mainly, because Luxembourg recently ratified this treaty.
Now, you might ask what this treaty, which aims to protect the European archaeological heritage, has to do with our voyage in Malta? Let me spare you the details: it actually isn’t very relevant. Except for the fact that had Mei not mentioned this treaty every single day for the past few years, I probably wouldn’t have suggested to visit Malta.
Our trip only lasted for four days. But when it comes to travel: quality matters, not quantity. Quality and memories. Because we travel to make unforgettable memories…
MARVEL AT VALLETTA’S COLORFUL WOODEN BALCONIES
It was midnight when we landed in Malta. Not a soul lingered in the city. But as we were driving through the city center of Valletta, our jaws dropped at the sight of the countless historical facades ornated with entrancing details. These buildings were gracefully lit with warm yellow lights.
Only the next morning did the Mediterranean sun finally lift the curtain on Valletta’s exuberant architecture. What the previous night had merely augured, was suddenly unveiled. So, we spent the whole day strolling through the narrow alleys of one of the smallest capital-cities in the world: climbing down dozens of limestone staircases, gazing up at the colorful wooden balconies, unmasking features at every corner. Apparently, the trend to build these enclosed balconies started in Valletta around the end of the 17th century. They revealed the owners’ social status.
However, it’s not sure whether these enclosed balconies have an Aragonese, Spanish, Arabic, or Turkish origin. But one thing is sure: the protruding wooden balconies, the heraldic stone-carved emblems, as well as the solitary church chimes render Malta an interactive storybook. We were eager to turn all the pages…
SIT DOWN AND RELAX IN THE LOWER BARRAKKA GARDENS
After a long day wandering around the streets of Valletta, we ended up in front of a small public park. When we set eyes on a miniature Greek-styled temple, Mei immediately wanted to visit the inside. It turns out that this neoclassical monument was built in 1810 as a memorial to Sir Alexander Ball. He was a British admiral, very much loved by the Maltese population, when the archipelago was under British rule.
The monument was encircled by palm trees, rearing their feathery crowns proudly. The stone pillars presented here and there colorful dots. At times, we could see the golden gleam of a lizard before it vanished in a crevice. A lazy cat was sunbathing. It squinted at us before turning its attention to the waving neck of an orange tree.
We settled on a bench, letting the light sea breeze play with our hair. As far as the eye could reach, the Grand Harbour stretched out its giant legs. The Lower Barakka Gardens soon became our favorite spot in the city. Each night, its magnetic vibe drew us in.
LISTEN TO THE WAVES AT WUESTENWINDS BEACH
Malta is recognized for its clean beaches, reputed to be the cleanest in Europe. But most of them are located in the northern part of the archipelago. In the city of Valletta, there is no beach… or is there?
We chose to stay in Valletta, because we intended to explore its cultural and historical sites. We’re not beach persons. The April zephyr is not warm enough for us to take a dip in the Mediterranean Sea. But on the second day of our trip, we stumbled upon a narrow staircase just a few steps south of Fort St Elmo. A little kitten licked its paw, then advanced to greet us with a meow. It didn’t let us touch its sandy fur, but looked at us with intent, before walking down two steps. Then it stopped again, turned around slowly and gave us another meow. So, we decided to follow the kitten down the stairs…
A few meters further, we found several boats turned upside down. Scattered all around, tiny colorful cabins had been built on top of the steep cliffs. We assumed they were abandoned fishermen cottages. Little kitty didn’t seem to want us to stop there. It led us further down, until we reached the sea. And there it was: a hidden stone beach, called Wuestenwinds Beach.
GET LOST IN MDINA
A bus ride between Valletta and the city of Mdina lasts about twenty-five minutes. But it took our bus driver only ten minutes, and a few close-call accidents…
Perched atop a hillside and surrounded by lime-green fields and canary flowers, the fortified city of Mdina looks like a fairytale town from afar. But once inside the Silent City, we felt like history truly came alive! Mdina used to be Malta’a capital from its foundation in the 8th century BC until the arrival of the Order of St. John in 1530.
In Antiquity, the town was called Maleth. Then Melite by the Romans, before becoming Mdina, which derives from the Arabic word medina, meaning “a walled city with narrow and maze-like streets”. This description of Mdina is still accurate today. But unlike in the medinas of Tunisia or Morocco, the narrow alleys of this Maltese walled city are absolutely quiet.
Most tourists stay at the entrance gates of the town or visit the famous St Paul’s Cathedral or the French baroque Magisterial Palace. Some of them stroll on the city wall to catch sensational panoramic views of the surrounding areas. But once we walked into the hushed heart of the city, we were all by ourselves. Perfect to take in the timeless quietude. To feel the heat emerging from the sun-kissed walls. And to get lost in the maze of narrow alleyways…
SLOW DOWN IN MARSAXLOKK
Compared to the chaotic bus ride we took to Mdina, the one to southeastern Malta turned out to be less hectic. We drove sluggishly along the shoreline, past grazing sheep and cattle… soon, we closed our eyes…
But the unexpected beauty of Marsaxlokk woke us up. We had not seen such a picturesque fishing village for a very long time! We felt like stepping on a Greek island. Not crowded, nor touristy. It was almost noon, but we didn’t want to rush to the first restaurant for lunch. We wandered gently through the little fishing village, marveling at the boats’ coloring and names. Finally, we sat down by the water, enjoying the quiet. A few local fishermen were mending their fishing nets. While others were repainting their luzzu boats… probably getting ready for the high season in Malta.
A group of Buddhist monks dressed in bright orange came out of nowhere. Seeing their genuine smile, we imagined they lived in a jungle-temple in Angkor, or perhaps in one of the many wats in Luang Prabang. Even they found Marsaxlokk scenic enough to take a selfie…
By the way, did you know that it was in the bay of Marsaxlokk where the Phoenicians first settled down when they landed in Malta in the 9th century BC? I like it when Mei reveals bits of history. It soothes me. I put my head on her shoulder, and asked her to tell me more… The name of this village sounds complicated. But its meaning is actually quite simple. “Marsa” is the Arabic word for “port”. And “xlokk” is Maltese (pronounced “shlock”) and means “south east”. I thought that this fishing village was called so, because it was located in the southeast of the island. But in fact, “xlokk” is related to the dry southeastern wind dubbed “sirocco”, which blows from the Sahara.
WATCH THE SUNSET AT THE UPPER BARRAKKA GARDEN
Some say that sunsets are always the same, wherever you go. We don’t agree. They’re never the same. Not even when watched from the same spot. Let alone, from different places. I love the ones we witnessed in Santorini. Mei loves the ones we experienced in San Francisco Bay. Perhaps, sunsets are not linked to places. But to memories. And to feelings of specific moments, as the ones you remember because you held hands, or kissed.
When the last violet sunrays slid across the Upper Barrakka Gardens, a pristine colonnaded garden with fountains and archways, we felt at peace and in love. It was magnificent…
LEARN ABOUT MALTA’S HISTORY IN THE NATIONAL WAR MUSEUM
On the last day of our trip in Malta, we had a few hours to spare. Mei wanted to make one last use of her ICOM membership card, which provides her with free access to national museums and historical sites around the world. So, we walked to Fort St Elmo and the National War Museum. While I sat down under a lemon tree to muse and to write, Mei explored the museum. She sent me pictures of the Knights’ final resting place inside a small chapel. As well as of artefacts from the Normans who conquered Malta in the 11th century. And of several wreckages from WWII’s crashed aircrafts. By the way, did you know that Malta gained independence only in 1964?
Restored only recently, the whole complex of Fort St. Elmo is gigantic. The panoramic views of both the Grand Harbour and the Marsamxett Harbour, which the Fort guarded proudly in the 16th century and again during WWII, were well worth the visit, according to Mei. From the top of the fortification, she waved at me as I finished the last verse of my poem. When she joined me under the lemon tree, I thought that this was life as it should be. For once, without a care in the world. Free to stroll around. We took silly selfies. Kissed. Loved. Looked out into the teal Mediterranean Sea and dreamed away our time…
It was the windshield wiper that woke me up. A familiar sound. And yet out of the ordinary setting. A noise I know so well from my daily life in rainy Luxembourg. And yet unusual. For it had not rained since the day we started our trip along the Ancient Silk Road in scorching hot China. We had left the Bingling Grottoes behind us hours ago. And the pagoda-shaped mosques of Linxia rising amid the setting sun were gone. It was dusk. But where were we now?
Through the gliding raindrops on my window I kept seeing shimmering yellow torches blinking every two seconds. Our car wasn’t advancing very fast. We suddenly approached a yellow vested person holding an orange road sign. Only that it wasn’t a real person. But a reflective puppet… slowing down our car in the middle of a huge road construction work. Another bridge. In the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by mountains, like shadows standing in twilight.
The first images of Xiahe were not very appealing. The town was quiet, dark, and the main street was barely lit up. Our driver turned in circles, and our guide Frank, who was normally calm, seemed to lose his patience. He explained that they couldn’t find a way to cross the bridge. They had never driven to the hotel we chose before…
I noticed a slight accusing tone in Frank’s voice. So, when the car finally stopped in front of a large misted window upon which we read the sign Hotel Nirvana, we were relieved. Knowing that China Highlights always suggests the best hotels according to our budget and travel style, I felt bad for specifically asking to stay at this one. Our main goal is to support local guesthouses or original boutique hotels and to avoid chain hotels. From what we had read from our fellow travelers, Nirvana Hotel seemed to fit the profile perfectly.
When we stepped inside, the room was full of people – speaking English, Dutch, French, German – gathered around food. The ladies behind the hotel counter seemed busy and stressed. They were both blond and spoke Dutch to each other. Two Eurasian kids ran to one of the ladies to ask something. They also spoke Dutch. Standing in a room full of Europeans, Frank suddenly seemed lost. I was probably the most Asian person he could hang onto. Once he had arranged the check-in for us, he quickly waved us goodnight and said he’d pick us up at 9am.
The next morning, he waited patiently at the door, without us even noticing his presence until we finished breakfast. Or, perhaps we were too busy talking to Clary, the lady of the house. After all, we travel to meet locals. And even if Clary doesn’t look quite local, it was interesting to listen to her story. Why she left the Netherlands to settle in this little Chinese town. How her husband, a native of Xiahe, decided to open Nirvana Hotel, Restaurant and Bar.
When we left the hotel, we were surprised to see how alive the town had turned into. Unlike most towns and cities in China, daylight definitely makes a difference in Xiahe. But then again, were we really still in China?
Xiahe is in fact part of the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Located on the southern part of Gansu Province, it certainly still lies inside the People’s Republic of China. But neither the architecture of this town, nor the food or the population can be characterized as “traditional Chinese”. There are some Hui and Han Chinese living in Xiahe. But the majority are ethnic Tibetans, living in rural and pastoral areas in and around Xiahe. Besides, the county was named Xiahe only in 1928, which literally means “Xia River” in Chinese, referring to the Daxia River which runs through the county. Before 1928, the town was called Sangqu, which is Tibetan and also means “Xia River”.
Your tour starts at 10am. Frank spoke so slowly, that we thought we missed a few informations he might have shared. What tour? Was he not supposed to be our local tour guide? Yes, but you are going to visit the Labrang Monastery, which is the main attraction in this town. A Tibetan monk inside will guide you through the monastery.
So, Frank’s job was merely to bring us to the monastery’s entrance… Before even reaching the entrance, we heard an unusual sound: a perpetual whirr we had never heard before. And the closer we got to the monastery, the louder the clatter. Frank noticed our puzzled look, and explained that the rattling noise came from the prayer wheels. You see: all around the outer wall of the monastery, there’s a 3,5km long corridor of prayer wheels, called the Kora. And it is actually the longest prayer wheel path in the world. Pilgrims who come to the monastery in the early morning, first walk this sacred way clockwise and spin each prayer wheel, before going into the monastery. When all the prayer wheels are spun at the same time, the sound is totally awe-inspiring.
When we stood in front of the huge prayer wheels painted in bright red, Frank asked if we wanted to spin them. But why do pilgrims spin the wheels, we asked. Well, Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels are used since the 4th century. And they were created for the illiterate and those who cannot read the sutra. So, instead of reading a prayer, they can spin a prayer wheel, which has the same effect as reading a sutra. Today, Tibetan Buddhists, who can read sutras, still spin prayer wheels, hoping their efforts will be rewarded in their next life.
Kerstin is an agnostic, while I was raised as a Chinese Buddhist. Should we really spin the prayer wheels too? Would we show a sign of respect and courtesy by doing so? Or would it be considered as inappropriate since we don’t practice Tibetan Buddhism? Frank seemed confused with our question, and decided to change the subject.
Let me tell you a bit about Labrang Monastery. It is home to the most important Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet. And it’s one of the six greatest temples of Gelukpa, also known as the Yellow Hat sect of the Tibetan Buddhism, to which the Dalai Lama belongs. Founded in 1709, Labrang Monastery now houses about 1500 monks, who study daily in one of the six institutes inside the monastery’s precinct.
As we slowly walked to the main square of the monastery, I couldn’t help noticing the fortified appearance of the architecture. Buildings were rectangular. Walls were slightly inclined inward. And windows were trapezoidal. They reminded me of the Inca architecture we saw in Peru, on the other side of the planet…
When our tour of the monastery started, my first question to our guide was related to the architecture. The young monk must have wondered why I was more interested in the trapezoidal windows than anything else. Oh, you have good eyes, he laughed. The inclination of the walls and windows are to protect against seismic activity. And do you know why most of the buildings have a flat roof? To keep the heat inside. Because we are on a 3000m high plateau. So, it gets cold in winter. Besides, on a flat roof, it’s also easier to clear the snow.
Oh, and you have certainly also noticed that many buildings are red. Do you know why? The young monk seemed eager to keep explaining. He continued, before we even answered. So, what is the color red for you? I heard Kerstin enumerate love, passion and fire. Seeing our friendly guide smile, I quickly added that red also symbolizes fortune, happiness and luck in Chinese culture. But I suppose there’s another meaning in Tibetan Buddhism? He nodded. For us Tibetans, the color red is associated with Buddha Amitabha. This is also why our robes are red. He looked down on his garment, as if he wanted to make sure it didn’t change color… Red also represents life-force and preservation. And it is sacred. So, buildings with red walls are sacred places that hold and offer life-force to everyone.
But there are also some white buildings in Labrang Monastery… The monk burst out laughing, holding his belly with one hand. I immediately regretted having expressed my thoughts out loud. Yes, yes, you are right, he confirmed. There are also white walls here. White is the color of learning and knowledge. Kerstin supposed that the white buildings were institutes then. Yes, yes, some are monastic colleges; others are residences or common buildings. We don’t just study in schools, but also in our houses.
During the tour, we only visited a few of the eighteen halls and the six institutes. Despite the high altitude, it was scorching hot in Xiahe. We were glad whenever we could enter one of the halls to take shelter from the midday sun. However, filled with Buddha statues, relics, artifacts and thangka, the halls were always illuminated by the dim light of yak butter candles. And yak butter releases an odor so pungent that we couldn’t stay long inside.
When we were ending our visit of the Labrang Monastery, the monks started to chant their last morning prayer. Hundreds of them were sitting in rows. The older ones in the front of the hall; the younger ones in the back rows. All of them were wearing a red robe and a yellow mohawk-shaped hat. As they chanted all together with their deep voice, we felt like entering a trance. The flickering light and the smell of yak butter lamps certainly helped to intensify the state of trance…
Outside the prayer hall, countless black felt boots were scattered on the ground at the entrance. How would the monks recognize and find their shoes after the prayer?
Before we left the Labrang Monastery, our guide offered us one last fact to reflect upon: to study medicine, the monks need fifteen years in total. But philosophy requires at least twenty-five years of learning! You see how important it is to search for the meaning of life and afterlife? This question lingered in my mind for a while. But I’m a historian. Not a philosopher. So, suddenly it occurred to me that our monk-guide didn’t mention much about the history of the Labrang Monastery.
I knew from Thubron Colin’s Shadow of the Silk Road that the monastery housed 4000 monks at its peak. But in the 1920s, many died during numerous battles between the Tibetans and the Hui people (Chinese Muslims) who lived in the region. When the Tibetans rose against China in 1959, a lot of monks were arrested and expulsed. The library which held thousands of sutras were burnt down. And the Cultural Revolution, which started a few years later (1966-1976), also destroyed many buildings and temples of Labrang. It was only in 1980 that the monastery reopened its doors.
None of these events were recounted by the young monk who guided us through the lamasery. Did he choose not to talk about this? Or was he not allowed to?
I got my answer a few hours later, during our short horse ride through the vast highland meadow of the Sangke Grasslands. The two Tibetan teenagers who led us through the picture-perfect prairie didn’t speak English. I understood them a bit. But my Mandarin was unfortunately too bad for them to figure out what I asked. They used their smartphone to translate our questions and translated their opinions back in English.
We wanted to know if they were Tibetan or Chinese. A simple question… with an underlying meaning. The boys clearly caught our message between the lines, and giggled nervously. Without using his translation app, the eldest of them said in his broken English: we are Tibetans. So, we are Chinese. But if talk too much, then… krik! He made a gesture with his hand, as if he were slitting his throat.
When we finally reached the top of a mount, the four of us stood still and stared at the lamasery complex. With its gilded roofs and spires gleaming in the afternoon sun, Labrang Monastery looked majestic and almost peaceful. Somewhere in the surrounding emerald mountains, a bunch of vultures circled in the sky.
Leaving Xi‘an after only 3 days, we felt like betraying the capital of ancient China. When our guide Rocky waved us goodbye at the train station, I almost regretted not having extended our time in Xi’an for a few more days. But I reminded myself to not forget our goal. The purpose of this trip was to discover the Ancient Silk Road…
About 630 km further west, we arrived in Lanzhou. It took the high-speed train only 3 hours to get to Gansu province’s capital. We were starving upon our arrival. But since we knew that we’d still have to drive for two hours to reach our destination, we wouldn’t have minded grabbing a sandwich.
No, no… no sandwich here. Our local guide Frank seemed offended. Then added: we’ll have noodles. Fresh hand-pulled Muslim noodle soups. And you’ll see, the Hui people can prepare the noodles very fast.
The Lamian restaurant we were driven to was small. There were only 6 or 7 simple tables surrounded by wooden stools. Behind the counter, two young men were twisting, stretching and folding doughs into strands of noodles. At a corner of the restaurant, two elderly men wearing a small white cap and a long beard were chatting cautiously. Frank whispered: these are Hui people. Chinese Muslims.
We had barely sat down that a waiter already approached to serve us two huge bowls of sizzling hot Lamian noodle soups. Look… Frank pointed at our bowls with his index finger. A good bowl of Lanzhou Lamian always contains five colors: yellow noodles and white slices of beef, topped with green cilantro and red chili sauce. And all this in a bowl of clear beef bone broth. Frank paused and smiled satisfactorily. Now eat! He said it with a low-pitched voice, but it still seemed like an order. Without saying a word, Kerstin and I ate up, and even slurped our noodles.
Unlike our previous guides, Frank was not very talkative. When we climbed in the car after lunch, he told us that we should rest. Somehow, he reminded me of my father. As a kid, whenever my father told me to rest, it meant “don’t talk”. And so, we both looked out of the window, let the brown water of the Yellow River slide away, and slowly drifted into a nap.
When I woke up, the scenery had changed. As far as the eye could reach, green fields surrounded by green terraced hills. On a hot summer day, it felt soothing to see so much green.
About 10 minutes later, we left our car at an outdoor parking, and followed Frank towards a wharf. The grassy meadows on both sides of the dock looked awesomely picturesque and void of tourist. A kid bathed and chuckled in the sunlight. A Muslim biker sped past us. An elderly couple was picnicking under a tree nearby, and a few sheep were grazing on the riverbanks. This was exactly the kind of place I was looking for in Asia.
For someone who was rather slow, Frank advanced fast enough, since he was already waiting for us at the end of the dock. I soon understood that this was not our destination, but merely an harbor to catch a boat to our “real” destination, the Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves.
But the landscape was too mesmerizing to rush. So, I decided to slow down my pace. After all, this was a private tour, so we took all the time of our life to walk down to the dock. We watched the locals play with their kids in the grassy meadows. Enjoyed the views of abandoned boats lurking in the crystal-clear blue water. There was no disturbing noise, no car honks, no air pollution nor sound pollution.
When the helmsman was moving our boat out of the dock, Frank explained that we were in Liujiaxia Reservoir. And that this was a dam built by the government in 1969 to control the Yellow River which used to cause natural disasters. The Liujiaxia Reservoir is over 130 square kilometers, and in this dam two small rivers pour into the Yellow River.
The clear water of the reservoir slowly turned yellowish brown as we approached the Bingling Caves. And the surrounding green hills soon became brown towering stone peaks.
The Bingling Temple Grottoes, which in Tibetan means Thousand Buddha Caves, can only be reached by boat via the Liujiaxia Reservoir. And boats only circulate in summer and early autumn. Since the site is extremely remote, only few travelers venture out to explore it. When our boat docked in, there were only a handful of helmsmen sitting on the large inviting stairs. And all the way to the entrance, we saw no one but two wandering cats and a bunch of construction workers building a new trail.
As we walked through the winding stone way, we couldn’t help stopping on every turn to look up at the impressive peaks cut into sheer cliff.
The first caves we saw were amazing. And the further we moved forward, the more charming they became. The delicately painted frescoes are slowly fading, which adds to the appeal of the site. Altogether there are over 200 cave niches with Buddhist frescoes, carvings and stone or clay sculptures dating back to 420AD. And each alcove is like a miniature temple filled with Buddhist imagery.
At the end of the stone way along the cave niches on the northern side of the canyon, a 27 meter-high Buddha statue that was looking down at us dominated the front of the caves sculpture. And right next to the imposing Buddha, our sight was caught by a narrow wooden staircase that seemed to connect more niches high above at the top of the cliffs.
We asked our guide Frank if one can climb up to the top, without really meaning that we wanted to do that…. He said that the cave located on the peak of the cliffs holds the most ancient stone carvings executed by reclusive Buddhist monks, and are therefore more severely protected. So, not everyone can access this cave. But if we were really interested, he said that he could arrange it. Before we answered anything, he went off to pay additional money to a security guide. Dressed in army clothes, the young man scrutinized us for a second, then unlocked several gates.
Surprised, we hesitated a bit… but finally decided to follow him up the stairway. Our legs were shaking as the stairs got narrower and steeper, soon turning into ladders that creaked at each step. On the halfway, we had to leave our backpacks before continuing the strenuous climb, as the ladders were too narrow to carry on with a backpack.
When we reached the summit, the well-preserved frescoes and relief sculptures literally took our breath away! The colors are brighter that the paintings in the cave niches below. And the crimson, turquoise and emerald strokes are so finely traced. For preservation purposes, it was not allowed to take pictures. The young security guy who led us to the top was standing behind us, making sure that we wouldn’t take any photos. Frank, who also followed us, reminded us again to keep our camera in our pocket.
There was no other person around, but we still felt like a bunch of people were watching us. And suddenly I noticed three cameras fixed high above our heads, all turning towards us. They moved as we walked. I was surprised to see how serious security was in such a remote place. But at that moment, we still had no idea that it would get even worse in western China…
Since we couldn’t go far anyway, and we were there to explore the cave paintings, we tried to ignore the all-too-present cameras, and to keep studying the exceptional frescoes. After all, we were grateful to be even allowed to marvel at those treasures.
The way down was even trickier, because we had to climb down the ladders and stairs backwards. Although for the security guy, the descent was quick and easy… He waited for us to go down first. And after each flight of stairs, he closed and locked a hatch before descending.
During our our whole visit in the Bingling Caves, we only saw 6 other visitors, travel guides included. But when we stepped down from the top cave, we suddenly noticed that we were the last persons onsite. The sun started to set, but we still took our time to visit the abandoned temple and the gorgeous scenery.
The landscapes got more and more spectacular as we cruised back to Liujiaxia. The water frothed and churned. And the sunlit mountains gleamed around “in a hedge of inaccessible purity” (James Hilton, Lost Horizon, 1933). Now looking back, we can say with certainty that the Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves turned out to be one of the most unexpected highlights of our trip along the Ancient Silk Road.