Stephenie Harrison and Tony Kuehn, are a married writer & photographer Canadian-American duo, who met and fell in love in Nashville, TN. They have been living their dreams and traveling the world since August 2012 when they sold all their stuff, shipped their dogs off to Toronto, and hopped on a plane to Tokyo, Japan. They spent the next two years slowly traveling through Asia and Europe, eating everything in sight before returning to North America to reunite with their dogs. As of March 2015, they have visited 23 countries together and are back on the road once more, this time driving through Mexico and Latin America… with their dogs along for the ride! Their blog 20 Years Hence documents their journey and is a creative space where they create and share stories that inform, inspire others to travel, and expand hearts and minds!
I started reading their blog over a year ago, and their vivid photography and candid storytelling kept drawing me back. I’m so glad to have them here for their UrbanLegends interview!
What is your favourite city in the world, and why?
Oh, this is such a tough question for us—probably even harder than asking us what our favorite country is!—because we’ve been to a lot of amazing cities. That said, we knew we had to pick somewhere from Asia, because that’s where our heart lies, and after much painful deliberation, decided to go with the city where we’ve spent the most amount of time: Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon), Vietnam!
As for why we love HCMC? Well, we consider ourselves “big city” people as we love the energy and intensity of urban environments, and it doesn’t get much bigger than Ho Chi Minh City. It’s Vietnam’s largest city and also its most westernized, but it still is quintessentially Vietnamese. It has tall, skinny buildings, crazy motorcycle traffic 24/7, friendly locals, fascinating markets and hypnotic temples, a rich (if sad) history, and incredible street food. Speaking of which, if you travel in order to eat (which we do!) HCMC is our personal pick for Vietnam’s top food city—not only are southern dishes specific to the region delicious, but it’s a good place to try other dishes that originate from other parts of the country too. Also, it’s an excellent place to visit on a budget—you get a lot of bang for your dong (the local currency) there!
When did you first visit the city, and what was your experience like?
We first visited Ho Chi Minh City in April 2013 having traveled the entire length of Vietnam on a motorbike (that’s over 3000km, by the way!). We had been warned that traffic in HCMC was intense and intimidating, but we didn’t find it all that bad and personally thought the city was less frantic than Hanoi. We were immediately struck by how wide the streets were as well as the slightly more “western” vibe too… that said, when we first visited, they still didn’t have a McDonald’s though there were plenty of French Colonial buildings. But what we REALLY noticed was how good the food was! We had spent most of our time in Vietnam feeling somewhat disappointed that the dishes we had come to love at our favorite Vietnamese restaurants back in Canada and the U.S. were nowhere to be found… and then we reached Saigon and realized that the Vietnamese food we had been eating for years previously was from the south! We’re pretty sure we did nothing but eat during our week in HCMC, but we can’t think of a better way to spend the time!
We enjoyed our time in the city so much that we returned in December 2013 and based ourselves there for three months while we recharged our travel batteries and started to build our online web and graphic design business. It was a great place to live for an extended period of time!
What is your favourite place to go/thing to do in this city?
Truthfully, our favorite thing to do in HCMC is to eat as much as we can! There is so much good food to be had in this city that most of our days would revolve around where we would be stuffing our faces for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Vietnamese food is incredibly well-balanced and full of bright, fresh flavors that make your palate come to life… every dish features salty, sweet, sour, and smoky or spicy, and there are always so many textures involved in every dish that each bite is exciting.
When we weren’t eating, our second favorite thing to do in HCMC was to simply go for a wander. One thing we loved about Vietnam was how so much of every day life was simply lived outside—people sit outside their homes, catch naps on top of their motorbikes… so much of the day is spent living outside in the open for all the world to see. Because of this, there’s never a dull moment in HCMC… if you sit anywhere long enough, you are bound to see something crazy, whether it’s someone carting a ridiculously huge item on their motorbike or a fight between neighbors! There’s a lot of really beautiful colonial architecture in the city, as well as some really interesting temples, but our favorite place to get lost was down the little tangle of alleyways that make up nearly every block in the city that are referred to as “hems”. You’ll feel like you are lost in a labyrinth, but you’ll also get to see a real slice of Vietnamese life. You also find the best street food here too!
Do you have a special memory attached to this city, and what is it?
During our last week in the city, we were cutting across a park when a group of school children started waving and crying out hello to us. Their teacher came over and asked us if we would play with them for a bit and help them practice their English. We wound up playing catch with them for about half an hour, laughing and cheering the entire time… When it was time to go, the teacher actually invited us to her wedding (!) and all the kids launched themselves at Tony offering him jubilant high fives. It’s a moment you’ll never find in a guide book, and yet it’s one of our most treasured memories from our time in Saigon.
What’s your favourite place to eat in this city, and what dish is your favourite?
There is so much good food in Saigon it’s impossible to pick just one place or one dish to have! The best thing to do is simply to wander around and stop anywhere that is popular with locals and smells good. That’s how we found one of our favorite lunchtime spots, a little family-run restaurant that was run out of their living room and served one of the best “broken rice” plates in the city. Featuring fragrant jasmine rice, covered with a grilled pork chop and a perfectly cooked fried egg, that you then dump a sweet and sour sauce with chopped chives and tiny nuggets of crispy pork fat onto, it is heaven on a plate! Other favorite dishes to check out are bun thit nuong cha gio (cold vermicelli noodles topped with fresh lettuce and herbs, grilled pork and crispy spring rolls) and banh xeo (a crispy crêpe that is stuffed with shrimp and bean sprouts and is then wrapped up in mustard leaves and fresh herbs and dipped into a tangy sauce).
If you could dedicate a song to this city, which one would it be?
Helter Skelter by The Beatles.
Do you have any insiders tips for visitors to this city?
It’s pricier than just grabbing a cheap beer somewhere, but definitely check out some of the city’s rooftop bars for happy hour, where you’ll enjoy a serious sunset and some stunning views of the city. One of our favorites was the Chill Skybar, which is kind of pretentious (you need to make a reservation!), but also gives you a killer view, especially once the sun has set and the city lights up for the night.
Also, don’t be afraid of staying in the main backpacker district Pham Ngu Lao. Although there is a lot to see outside of this area, you can find a lot of authentic and fairly priced food within this area, or within a quick walk. Our favorite smoothie stand to this day is one that is just a few hundred meters from the hostel we stayed in on our first visit!
Is there anything you don’t like about this city?
We admit that the traffic in Saigon can be daunting, and the city is so sprawling that it’s not one you can really conquer on foot and the public transport leaves a lot to be desired (though they are constructing a metro now!). The best way to appreciate the city is to do so by motorbike, but this isn’t a place for beginners to learn to ride.
Also, as is the case with most of Vietnam, HCMC is NOISY. We were always being awakened at 6:30am from a rooster crowing (yes, even in the middle of the city!), someone banging on a piece of sheet metal, honking motorbikes or some other activity taking place at loud volume. If you like to sleep in, this is not the city for you!
If you could sum up this city in a word, what would it be?
If you liked this interview, be sure to check in with Steph and Tony on social media!