Hoi An has seen a huge development in the last 15 to 20 years. This little colonial town in central Vietnam is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the richest and most visited destinations in the country. However, despite the tourism, Hoi An still manages to keep its interest, charm, beauty and traditions intact. We visited Hoi An after our three day trip with the Da Lat Easy Riders, and a short stay in Nha Trang, and stayed in Hoi An for 11 days – the single longest stay within our trip.
When we were in Asia, as part of our round the world trip, we tried to learn as much as we could about the diverse and fascinating cultures we came across.
One thing that we loved doing was reading both fiction and non-fiction books about the countries we were visiting. Even though there’s no replacement for being there in person and feeling, smelling and seeing things for yourself, a good book will entertain you and, at the same time, enhance your understanding of a place.
Books can tell you things that local people may not be willing to talk about openly. They can also answer questions about behaviours and customs that may otherwise be left unexplained – how many times did we ask locals about how a certain tradition may have originated, or what was the meaning of some rituals, just to find out they didn’t have a clue?
Below is a list with some of our favorite reading while we were travelling in Asia:
Romana says: I left Dublin with this 920 pages book on my backpack. I started reading Shantaram in Dublin before our trip and I finished it at the end of a troubled trip to Mumbai, as our train approached Mumbai’s chaotic and overcrowded slums.
This book tells the seemingly semi-true story of a convicted Australian heroin addict and bank robber who escaped prison and fled to Mumbai, India, where he got involved in organized crime and other nasty business. In the first half of the book, which I found the most interesting and entertaining, Gregory David Roberts, author and main character, tells about his daily life in the slums of Mumbai.
Not only did I smile and cry alongside with the characters of the book, but I also got an invaluable amount of insights on the Indian national psyche. The second half of the book was in my opinion a bit less interesting and even a tad boring at some stage. However this is still one of the most entertaining books I’ve read and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good reading.
Also, because many people travelling in India are still reading this book, reading Shantaram will provide you with one or two good conversation-starting lines if you’re travelling solo
Emanuele says: Far away from a cliché-image of India as a colourful and exotic destination, Aravind Adiga‘s fictional story brings you into the dark side of the subcontinent south of the Himalayas. A great story that delves into the gap between the filthy-rich and the animal-like poor, the corruption and the other underlying mechanisms of the Indian society.
Romana says: No other book (or movie) made me shed so many tears as First They Killed My Father. I still remember being on an old bus somewhere in Cambodia and having to stop reading the book because some people started to look at me wondering if I was feeling well as they could ear me crying.
Loung Ung, Cambodia-born author and human-rights activist, tells the story of her family and herself as a child, under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, between 1975 and 1979. I believe this book is a MUST read if you want to learn more about Cambodia‘s recent, tragic history.
Romana says: Lucky Child is a sort of sequel of First They Killed My Father and I read it because I wanted to follow the story of Loung and her older brother after they fled Cambodia to live as refugees in the USA. In Lucky Child Loung also tells the story of the other three siblings they left behind in Cambodia and all the difficulties they went through in the aftermath of Pol Pot’s regime.
Romana says: Do you remember the most famous picture of the Vietnam war? A young girl, naked, runs out of a smoke cloud with her arms open and a terrified expression on her face, after having been hit by a napalm bomb.
Even though the Vietnam war ended a few years before I was born I remembered that picture very well, so when I saw it on the cover of a book in a shop in Vietnam I almost immediately knew I wanted to buy and read that book.
The author narrates the story of this little girl called Kim Phuc and how the Napalm attack changed her life forever, turning her into Vietnam’s most famous casualty. As you go through Kim Phuc’s life, a rich historical context emerges, which makes you learn more about the war, the communist regime and its propaganda, as well as the local traditions and the culture of Southern Vietnamese people.
Romana says: Even though it’s always been at the top of the list of the countries I want to visit, I didn’t go to China yet – and I read this book at home, so for consistency’s sake Wild Swans shouldn’t be in this list Still, I loved Wild Swans so much that I had to share it here too. Wild Swans is such an absorbing story that once you start it becomes hard to put the book down. Emanuele bought this book years ago for himself but I managed to put my hands on it first and once I read the first page I just couldn’t let it go. I told him so much of the story that in the end he never ready it
Jung Chang, the author of the book, tells here the story of three generations of her family: her grandmother, her mother and herself.
An extraordinary reading at the end of which you’ll learn so much about China, the communism, Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese culture in general.
My final verdict: A MUST READ even if China is not in your travel plans
Emanuele says: Another book which shouldn’t be on the list: I read this book a couple of years before the round the world journey. But my wanderlust levels increased dramatically ever since, so I had to share it here Italian travellers already know journalist Tiziano Terzani‘s powerful and compelling narrative, but I believe not many international travellers have read this author – so this may be a chance for you, non-Italian reader, to widen your literary horizons and discover new exciting reading material.
In 1976 a Hong-Kong fortune-teller warns Tiziano Terzani that he shouldn’t fly in 1993 or he’ll risk his life. Despite the demands of a life as a correspondent covering Asia for European newspapers, Terzani decides to take the warning seriously and, in 1993, he spends a whole year travelling overland (including a 13,000 miles train journey to Florence!) Terzani will spend one of the most extraordinary years of his life, while keeping his commitments as a journalist, meeting many fortune-tellers (and their prophecies) along the way and witnessing the constant tension between tradition and modernity in the Asian societies.
What about you? Have you ever read a book about a country you were visiting, during your trip? Were they fiction or non-fiction books? Any book you particularly liked? Do you have a recommendation for us? Share your thoughts with us – we love your feedback
Unlike the other countries we’ve visited in this trip we didn’t do much research or reading about Malaysia before arriving, so we knew very little about this country and we didn’t know what to expect.
Once we got to Georgetown we found out that the guesthouse we had booked online the day before was well outside the backpacking district in a posh part of town between Jalan Burma and Gurney drive, a scenic sea front promenade with many upmarket restaurants, hotels, skyscrapers and shopping centres. However, our guesthouse was not expensive at all, it was nice and cosy and the staff was brilliant.
With the historical centre (UNESCO heritage site since 2008) not so close, and with other attractions being out of town, we had to find an alternative to expensive taxis to keep our budget down while moving from one place to another. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that there was a public bus system (Rapid Penang) – a very organized and efficient one indeed! Buses are so clean and modern, and some of them also have wi-fi. Would you believe it?
During our stay we learned that Malay people are about 50% of the population and the remaining 50% are mainly Indian and Chinese. Chinese are the owners of the economy and entrepreneurship is their second nature. An Indian-Malay told us and during Chinese new year the country stops, because Chinese people own most businesses and they don’t work during this period.
The other major component of the Malay society are Indians – most come from the state of Tamil Nadu in the south, and many of them are Muslim.
Pulau Pinang (this is the Malay name for Penang, the island where Georgetown is), like all Malaysia, is a big melting pot and this diversity is reflected in its cuisine. Locals will tell you they have the best food in Malaysia, and if you say, like we did, that you’ve heard that Kuala Lumpur is also supposed to have good food, they’ll tell you that you won’t find KL’s food good after having tried Penang’s delicacies.
Normally we would have done a lot of sightseeing (we did some of course) but our stay took inevitably (and rightly so) an intense gastronomic twist. Therefore we spent 4 days exploring… the food markets!!
What we will remember the most about Georgetown are the numerous food courts (the Hawkers centres), the fusion Indian, Chinese, Malay dishes, with their smell of spices and of course extra kilos we gained there.
Of course there are many places to go for food. The places below are, among the ones that were recommended to us by locals and other travellers, the ones that we tried and loved. Make sure you get a copy of ‘Penang Food Trail’, a free map for foodies, with restaurants and the types of specialities they offer. The map also includes a section with photos and notes about typical local dishes, including desserts.
One last note about Hawker centres. These are open air, street restaurants with many different food stalls. Usually there’ll be only one stall serving drinks and a few selling desserts (don’t miss Ice Kacang and Cendol, and if you are adventurous try durian at least once). Our main tip is to eat small portion of many dishes to maximise variety – there is only a limited number of lunches and dinners you can have but a limitless range of exotic delicacies to try!
Quite outside the historical centre, we wouldn’t have known about this night food market if we didn’t take this out-of-the-way guesthouse. Looi, the guesthouse owner, recommended this place to us and we went there for dinner on our first night in Georgetown. What a great way to get introduced to Penang’s food.
To see Gurney drive hawker centre on the map click here
This is the most famous food hawker centre in Georgetown, straight in the middle of the action in Jalan Penang, centre of gravity of the backpacking and local night-life.
To see Red Garden food court on the map click here
We’d seen many food hawker centres in Macalister street from the bus on our way into town. On our last night we decided to give this one a try and it was worth – definitely.
To see Lorong Baru on the map click here
Even though this food market is in the historical centre not many tourists end up here. We were lucky enough to try the delicious food they some of the stalls have. But don’t go there at night, as this food court is only open for lunch.
To see Sri Weld food court on the map click here
If you’ve been to India before, the smell of incense mixed with notes of curries and spices, Hindi music coming out loud from sari shops and images of Hindu deities are guaranteed to give an emotional twist. Try one of the many Indian restaurants in lebuh Queen, lebuh King or lebuh Bishop. Look for Nasi Kandar restaurants – in these restaurants you’ll get a plate with plain rice which you will be able to ‘decorate’ with as many types of curry (and meat or fish) as you want.
To see little India on the map click here
Oh… did I mention we tried Durian too?