Remote Year Month Five: Feeling Reborn in Vietnam

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After spending time in places like Croatia, Bosnia, Czechia, Germany, Portugal, and Spain and then reading about their recent histories, I was in a pretty nihilistic and depressed mood. For a lot of the places I saw, I had the distinct sense the best times for them were over, especially Portugal’s problematic love affair with its far bygone “Age of Exploration” (read: slavery and colonialism), and that things weren’t going to improve significantly anytime soon. 

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Also given the backdrop of what was happening in the US at the time and still happening in the US and the West, I couldn’t help but think the post-War period was ending and not in a good way. After corporate December back in the real world didn’t help lighten the mood, a friend I had lunch with was probably legit concerned I was in a dark place. 

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Thank goodness I was getting on a plane to Asia at that point. Seeing Vietnam in its current stage of development after endless conflicts with France, Japan, the US, Cambodia, and internally, it was good to see a place so young, alive, optimistic, and reborn. Indeed, that is the feeling of being in all of modernizing Asia for someone who is Asian, who was born in a time when the rise of the East was not yet written in destiny. Even going elsewhere on the continent still feels like a journey home

Even though I’m obviously not Vietnamese, for the first time in Remote Year I felt in my element. Vietnam has that wild wild developing East feeling a lot of places have lost, quite frankly in a good way, but nonetheless it’s exciting being in that sort of place in a way only a first world person could feel. 

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Hanoi remains the most vivid and out-of-body month I had on Remote Year, a sense of what the French called depaysement, maybe because it was the only month I didn’t take a side trip out of the country and started to make real friends on the trip. It also felt super familiar. In many ways, Hanoi is so modern, yet it easily feels like I got dropped in 1980s Taiwan. 

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It also felt like a true re-birth. I learned last year in January that places and people can be re-born and heal. Considering all the malaise in the West at the moment, and as someone who finds herself often between New York and London, the rot feels real, but now I know, not necessarily permanent, especially given all the resources we have. I hope a sense of will finds us, but I’ll fight to keep the Asian will that’s inside of me still, one that will always survive and perhaps find a way to thrive as well.

So finally I also have to give props to the mighty Vietnamese, for resisting China, France, the US, and now resisting China again, a young country full of hope and confident its best days are yet to come. I write this now remembering how special it was to be there during the eve of Tet and flying back to Taiwan for the Lunar New Year shortly after.

The world is full of problems and sadness, writing on the heels of a New Year of catastrophic ecological disasters, strongmen on trial, and a possible pandemic. But Vietnam shows us what is possible and for many people globally, it’s a true belief that the best days are yet to come, and this is determined by the will of the people despite lack of control of their governments or their economic state. 

Thanks for the lesson and rescuing me out of a nihilistic state, Vietnam. 

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Sidebar: It’s important to note that Vietnam in Western eyes is not even looked at a place with real people, but a war that somehow happened to Americans. I empathetically push back on that, and that Vietnam should most be looked through its people, especially by people in the United States whose perspective as been obscured by decades of terrible movies centering White American men (no more Apocalypse Nows or Deer Hunters please). I recommend this first book that explores the ethics of memory

Remote Year Month Three: Dictatorship Depression in Portugal

I feel reflective in a good way re-reading and editing disjointed thoughts from last November and December a year later. I’m filled with an optimism rooted in the benefit of experience and perspective despite world events.

I capped off three months of Remote Year in Europe. I spent the better half of December opted out of RY in a slog of work and family commitments between NY and CA. I was in what Remote Year calls the “Growth Zone,” but my mind was also slipping into the “Danger Zone” of negativity. During our orientation, we were warned Month 3 is hard, because this is now real life and not always easy.

I had really looked forward to Lisbon after a magical summer trip there, but November 2018 wasn’t that. I remember my first visit and looking at the narrow roads, ailing infrastructure, and happy visitors. I thought to myself that this place is about to blow up with tourism, and it is not ready.

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When I came back, tourism had exploded. All the ills of tourism and part-time residents from the EU and further abroad, from “too overpriced for locals” housing and businesses to petty crime, had arrived full force in Lisbon. This was the only month I had something stolen off me. This was also definitely only place all year I felt I was definitely causing harm as a digital nomad in a tight housing markets.

It’s also the place, looking back, I felt most uncomfortable. I’ve noticed visiting former colonizing empires, eg. UK, Spain, Portugal, France, Japan, versus not, eg. Czechia Croatia, Bosnia, is that they’re a whole lot more racist because their education and societies laud their past empires. I get a sense when they see someone like me, the first impression is 1) oh no Chinese tourist 2) then some sort of twisted racial jealously at this American-accented English-speaking Asian woman, someone whose socio-economic standing globally challenges their notions of superiority. After a decade of traveling in Europe for fun and for work, it’s gotten real old. There is a jingoist part of my mind that says, “Yes, I’m an upper-middle-class American, and yes, I’m an Asian woman, and you don’t rule anything anymore and America is still number one, get over it.” 

I knew it was bad when at one point I took a picture of this old beautiful blue tiled building in Porto, and a woman came out and told me it was sold already so don’t bother. 

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Portugal is a country still struggling with its colonial past, recent dictatorship, and what I consider current victim of unintended neoliberal excesses, cursed as a cheaper place with good weather and good living too accessible by richer neighbors and nations. It wasn’t just tourism crowding people out, it was digital nomads and richer Europeans buying second homes. 

To be sure, I enjoyed many beautiful, singular experiences in a city of rich history, but it’s not one for the rainy winter season. The creature comforts started to drag a bit. Living out of a suitcase is something I never got as use to as my travel companions. I’m too old, yuppy, and spoiled. I wrote that a feeling of “the movement of time yet a trappedness” started to settle. I don’t know if people who haven’t had the experience will understand how time passes on Remote Year, you are doing the same stressed out corporate life crammed with so many life experiences in month that some people will never experience in their lifetimes while trying to stay sane and healthy. The days and months, are all long in a beautiful way, but emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausting way. 

I remember thinking about Anthony Bourdain vibes and how traveling would make him depressed. I remember his quote often that, “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” The thought crossed my mind that maybe all the travel exacerbated whatever demons he was struggling with.

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After I had a month back in corporate America, especially super negative and competitive NYC and Silicon Valley, and months spent looking at endless exhibits on the horrors of World War 2, Communism, and Dictatorships that came after, my depressing takeaway from last month that that generations can be lost to unfortunate tides of history and misfortunes that you are born in such a time, the wrong place at the wrong time, and how little individual human life and will can matter felt deep. 

It’s a miracle Portugal is a free and liberal European state. The whole EU is a fucking miracle despite its problems. Current generations don’t appreciate it enough because we’ve begun to lose the living memory and connection to those times. I remember visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp and realized the school aged children visiting there were different from people my age in that they personally don’t know or weren’t raised by grandparents who survived the horrors of World War II. We’re in a different era now. 

So I learned this month that places can be beautiful but broken and mired in the past, but we risk forgetting and even misremembering. Places can be victims of unintended consequences or perhaps intended consequences of neoliberalism, eg. looking at over-tourism in Barcelona and Lisbon.

Places can change too quickly in good ways and bad ways. Looking back, part, I could say the same thing about myself. Personally, I felt the shackles of independence. It was my most lonely month, but one where I felt like the travel started to change me. In the heaviness of the old continent, I can write now I could feel myself being reborn on my mother continent the month after in Hanoi and months after.

Looking back, I do feel indulgent using places I am foreign to to hold up a mirror against my own history and place in the world, but that’s also what travel is. 

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Remote Year Month Two: A Prague State of Mind

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Month One of Remote Year: Maniac out-of-body adventure. Month Two: Finding my emotional center grounded in a sense of gratitude and wonder. Meandering in this beautiful European city and working out of the most beautiful of workspaces felt like a gift every single day. 

I also started to get to know people in the group. Still, I was very much in my head and put a lot of pressure on myself on the work I needed to get done. In hindsight, I did a lot but wish I leaned into just milling around more around Prague. Just means I have to visit again, ideally with a bit less neurosis. 

What I Learned

As a group of mostly Americans, we really tried to lean into the America avoidance but not really, considering how much watching bad of Trump news and Kavanaugh’s nomination was done by our group of mostly women. Escapism was in order, but like with my Croatia neurosis, couldn’t help but be in historically reflective state-of-mind.

This part of Europe’s contemporary state remains tied culturally and economically to its recent Soviet past. I didn’t know that Czechoslovakia had been an industrial power, one that could have easily rivaled today’s Germany if history had been kinder to its people. 

The Czech experience taught me of how it easy it is to be a victim of history, of simply being born in the wrong time, and how generations could be lost. Dictatorships, authoritarianism, and destruction are much more the norm in the human condition than the exception. For all the problems inherent in myths of American exceptionalism, it is exceptional that no large-scale conflict has been fought on American soil since the Civil War. The rest of the world has suffered on catastrophic scales.

It’s always boggled my mind how multi-generational American mindsets and especially White Americans exceptionally lean into the Just World Theory, but it made a lot more sense with the tangible contrast. 

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So many of the exhibits I saw in Prague and when I traveled in Germany cautioned against totalitarianism, from the twin experiences of the Nazi era and Soviet oppression. During the Centennial celebrations of Czechoslovakia, we got to experience how the two present day states were celebrated their shared history. So much of what I saw felt the last of an era was closing, and with a new era opening with far-right nationalisms brewing globally without a coherent response. I felt pretty pessimistic, especially since being a person of color with my own historical baggage – I’m the opposite of drinking the Just World Theory kool-aid to a fault. 

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In Germany, I walked with my co-worker through Munich, who talked about misconceptions in the US about how all Germans are taught to be ashamed of themselves because of the Nazi past. He told me a lot of that is a misconception, now used by AfD and other Far Right groups, the truth is they are told about the truth, not to forever feel shame, and that the truth has to be upheld and remembered. Unfortunately, that still doesn’t automatically inoculate them against race-baiting fake news and propaganda, though it definitely makes a difference.

Looking at the truth honestly in complex manner to understand history and therefore our current situation is something we Americans lack as a nation

Looking back I wrote a little more than a year ago today at the end of 2019, today I feel a bit same same but different, but we have a lot more control over our destinies in the US than others, although it’s definitely eroding in the wrong direction. The lesson for me from Month Two also is, the future is not yet written for us, but we must always be mindful that our futures can be written for us. 

The Meat Cafeteria: A Modern Version of the Meat Sweats in Prague at Kantyna

I ate so much my first meal here it made me sick. Then I went back twice for more. One of my few repeats during my month in Prague.

An acquaintance recommended Kantyna in Prague simply as a “meat cafeteria.” Kantya feels like an upscale art deco NYC deli. I guess it is a mother source via feedback loop of history since Central European Jewish immigrants brought the roots of that from this region of Europe.

The beef carpaccio, beef tartar, and cuts of brisket are standouts here. Pair wisely with potato pancakes and rotating sides.

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I have to say, I feel a theme here of somewhat fetishizing the old cafeteria style dining and making it upscale, and I’m here for it. Even though I’m someone who typically loathes the notion that your food is suddenly better by “elevating it.” To me, it’s just modernizing a dining experience with nice flatware and decor, making something traditional super well that suits modern diners of every stripe, and cooking food faithful to the past and tradition. It’s really hard to do, and Kantya excels. Eat the meat.

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Kantya is part of Ambiente restaurant group behind other great dining destinations I enjoyed such as Lokal, Eska, and Cafe Savoy that all highly recommend.

  • Website
  • Politických vězňů 1511/5, 110 00 Nové Město, Czechia
  • ~$10-$25 USD depending on gluttony level 

Shoutout to Two Little Red Hens in Upper East Side/Yorkville

Two Little Red Hens is still my all-time favorite NYC bakery for what I consider quintessentially NY treats: Cheesecake, Carrot Cake (ok not really NY but it’s the standout here), Coffee Cake, Brooklyn Blackout, Black and White Cookie but in fluffy moiste cake form.

What’s especially excellent are their mini-cupcakes in every flavor if you’re not committed to a big cake. I heard they recently got a shoutout on some “best of” list so they were extra crowded when I visited last. Totally worth it though and glad I got to share this place with my mom when she was visiting and kind of an nice welcome back to NYC treat for me.

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They’re also on this lovely stretch of what was once “Little Germany” in this stretch of Yorkville.

More details on Two Little Red Hens in my ViewingNYC Post:


Every few weeks or for a special event, I’ll take a trip to Yorkville to get some noms at Two Little Red Hens, a charming bakery on 86th and 2nd. For a place that has over 1,700 Yelp reviews, it doesn’t seem to have the name recognition it deserves compared to the Magnolia bakeries of the world. I’ll take Two Little Red Hens over the ‘famous’ bakeries any day.

First off, the winning item for me is Two Little Red Hens’ Carrot Cake. Moist, flavorful, and honest-tasting with each ingredient standing out– it’s the only way I can describe it. Even the frosting has a subtle tart flavor rather than the usual overwhelming sweet overload. Their cheesecake and chocolate cakes are also standouts.

Two Little Red Hens’ amazing cakes also come in cupcake form. Get the Brooklyn Blackout, Red Velvet, Chocolate, and Carrot Cake to get a comprehensive sampling, which conveniently comes in large or mini-size variants. I confess… I normally don’t really like cupcakes and never fully understood the craze, but I’ll lovingly carry a box of the ones from here back with me on the air-conditioned bus so the frosting doesn’t get ruined.

The scones, banana bread, and the pecan coffee cake are my personal favorites to take on the road, which sometimes get overlooked in favor of everything else here.

What I love about the food at Two Little Red Hens is that each flavor remains distinctive and complex rather than just a homogenizing sugary taste, as you often find in other local bakeries.

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California Flavors at Almond and Oak

Brunch: it’s an awful ordeal where you’re going way too late for potentially the first meal of the day with overpriced breakfast food with a bunch of drunk twenty-year-olds. Almond and Oak defied my expectations and served delicious California flavors. Totally a welcome respite from NY-brunch, which I avoid like the plague. Maybe because this place is near Lake Merrit in Oakland, it’s more a family oriented older crowd that expects better food and service.

The biscuits are a fluffy and delicious starter. The beignets are just alright, but a craving fixer.

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The steak and eggs are a huge portion of a Korean BBQ flavor steak with perfectly roasted vegetables. The chimichurri is a nice twist on this meal.

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The pozole feels like an even more decadent offering with an endless bowl of tender pork but has a clean not-too-heavy taste.

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The California-inspired Southern continues with the shrimp and grits, perfectly cooked with an unusual in a good way generous helping of cilantro pairs nicely with the shrimp to almost have an Asian flavor.img_5619

The fried chicken sandwich’s aiole almost has a sweet Japanese-mayo flavor as well. Really delicious departure from tradition that doesn’t feel contrived. img_5618

I’d call this place southern food meets ethnic California flavors. Hardy and tasty, exceeded expectations. I’d come here again, for brunch.

  • Website
  • 3311 Grand Ave, Oakland, CA 94610
  • $12~$20 USD 

Remote Year Month 1: Split, Croatia (and Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina) Top Food Experiences

Soparnik

Detailed in my Top 7 Croatia Experiences. If you have a chance to try this fresh, or at all, don’t miss out. As far as I know, the family that made it from scratch for us sells it at the Split Greenmarket.

Michelin Star restaurant in Split that doesn’t disappoint. Recommended by a local for high quality traditional food that doesn’t break the budget. She mentioned they could charge more but don’t because they want people to have a great konoba experience. Make a reservation as it’s a bouncer-like.

Mostar: Tima Irma and Cafe Alma

Not Split, but a not-too-long bus ride across the border gets you to Mostar, which is very worth going to.

National Restaurant Tima Irma 

Worth the line and the gruff service. Insanely good prices for quality and quantity of food in a great atmosphere. Still one of my top Remote Year Food Experiences writing about it so much later. Get the Mijesano meso or mixed meat, which includes a generous serving of cevapi.

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Cafe Alma

Go for the Bosnian coffee, similar to Turkish coffee, but not, and served with Turkish delight. The locals will explain to you or watch vid in link. One of few if not only still coffee roaster in town, with one that “survived the war” as the family brags.

Luka Gelato 

Delicious gelato. Also a bit off the madness of the main squares of the old town and peaceful to sit near the fountain. Lots of unique flavors, not your average basic ass hipster gelato place.

Green Market 

Amazing farmer’s market with insanely good quality produce. Honest vendors and great prices considering how touristy the rest of the area is.

Dvor

Really beautiful, I mean, beautiful restaurant set outside an elegant old home and next to the beach. Think fifth date. Kind of a hilarious Remote Year memory for me as I went to dinner here for the first time with someone who would become one of my best friends on Remote Year, but kind of an awkward place for a first meeting. As with most restaurants like this, and especially in South Europe, it’s Slow dining with the capital S, but you come here if that’s what you’re looking for. We weren’t expecting it and went off a recommendation, but lovely.

Fisherman’s Pension

Rustic seafood island hopping. If you’re visiting and able to book a private tour to visit the islands, I’d request going to this place. A part of my Top 7 Croatia Experiences.

Uje Oil Bar

Worth a stop in the shop for an olive oil tasting and a meal at the delicious restaurant. I recommend their products to buy home for gifts, really good quality. Olive oil is what you’d expect sitting on the Mediterranean.

Bokeria

This restaurant is definitely kind of fancy tourist hipster, but is delicious and the restaurant group is committed to more sustainable tourism and being a good force in the community. Extensive Croatian wine list.

Find the location to all these restaurants and my other favorite spots this month on this map.