Travels in South East Asia

In June 2005, I completed a three-week journey through China. Pictures downloaded and memories left, the readers of saw some insights of traveling through China. Along the way, I did some coffee (and tea) exploration, as well as an overall travel journal which was reported in a series of CoffeeCrew articles - click here.
This past winter, I decided to travel across the Pacific once again to explore the countries of South East Asia. In the middle of a Vancouver winter, full of rain and grey skies, the sun of SE Asia was a welcoming thought! Aside from the sun and beaches, other to-do's on the list included the exotic cuisines of the region, as well as some coffee explorations; all the typicals of an epicurean!

My three week journey began in the fantastic city of Hong Kong, China. After fourteen hours in the back of a plane across the Pacific Ocean, I returned to this fantastic city! As I reported in my third article on my journeys through China, Hong Kong is a city with more of a European feeling over any other large city in Asia; a great starting point to ease your way into the Orient from the West.

After two days in the relative luxury of a 8x10 hostel room in Kowloon, Hong Kong, it was time to move into "real" Asia. Just in time for New Years 2007, Saigon (Ho Chi Ming City) was the first stop in SE Asia proper.

The buzz of this city was immediately overwhelming, with more moto-scooters than I had ever seen before. Venturing into the center of the city, it was time to test what I had read about numerous times before arriving: how to cross a street in Vietnam. The process is simple: slowly walk out into the chaos, and hope for the best. The whole thing seemed very much like a leap of faith, but it worked every time. Saigon had a feel very different than any other Asian city I had visited before. The architecture is of French-colonial style, but the city has a more chaotic feel than a similar sized city in China. A country experiencing rapid growth, the capital of Saigon has all the visible signs of burgeoning prosperity, but still retains the chaotic feel of a South East Asian metropolis.

After gaining some bearings in the city and acclimatizing to the humidity, I began exploring early the following morning. With people exercising in the grand boulevards, markets quickly filling with goods from the countryside, morning allows you to take in the city unlike any other time of day. I then set off to find some of the cafe culture that is so prevalent in the city. The cafe's of Saigon stem from the past, when Vietnam was a French colony. However, Vietnam is now one of the largest coffee producing nations in the world, also contributing to the fantastic cafe scene. I settled on a cafe directly beside the Hotel Continental, which sits on the corner of the famous square from the Vietnam/American War. The cafe was a popular meeting spot for journalists and ex-patriots to learn of the days events. The square was also the site of many suicide bombings by Viet-Cong Nationalists. Sitting at a more 'European' style cafe, I was able to order an Illy espresso, but also had the option of the traditional Vietnamese coffee. This type of coffee is a blend of beans and chicory root, filtered through a press atop an espresso cup. Once filtered, condensed milk and sweetener is added, creating a caramel colored drink.

With a caffeine buzz, it was time to begin some of the typical day-trips around the city with the first stop being the Cu-Chi Tunnels near the Cambodian border. A series of networked underground tunnels used by the South Vietnamese liberation army, the tunnels were a site of severe guerrilla warfare against the American army.

Saigon also was a great walking city, with most of the attractions within easy walking distance. Sites such as the French-inspired City Hall and Opera Hall, Notre Dame Cathedral were some of the highlights. Also interesting was the large East Indian presence in the city, with a few Hindu temples to wander through.

After a few sweltering days in the congested city, it was time to move into 'real' Vietnam - the Mekong Delta. Appropriately called the nations 'rice basket,' traveling through the Delta provided a glimpse into the life of Vietnam’s agricultural workforce along the river. Moving between towns on small boats and mini-buses, this scene of Vietnam from a countryside perspective was quite different than provided in the capital of Saigon; a much more simple agrarian life, almost transporting back thirty or forty years. I was hoping for a glimpse of some coffee plantations, but rice is the dominant crop in this region, and I would have needed to travel to the central mountain region of the country for a glimpse at a plantation. Equally as interesting however was a morning spent at South East Asia's largest floating river market in Cantho. Floating between vendors, I was able to feel like a true local, bartering for goods while precariously balanced from falling into the river.

I will be writing a second article on my travels through the Gulf of Thailand region, as well as Cambodia and Malaysia. More to come. {mos_sb_discuss:21}

David Reimer is a Vancouver resident, coffee expert and World traveler. David works and lives in the historic East Vancouver enclave of Mt. Pleasant -- ground zero for some of North America's best coffee.