How To Eat A Fertilized Duck Egg

The first time I ate a fertilized duck egg was at a Vietnamese restaurant in New York City three years ago. I was headed to Vietnam in a few months and knew I’d be writing about something food related, so I spent the run-up to the trip eating as much Vietnamese food as I could. When I saw balut, as fertilized duck eggs are often referred to, on the menu, I knew I had to try it. But as if the chef expected no one to order balut, my dining companion and I were informed they were out of it. “You want us to go get some,” the server said, daring us. We called their bluff and soon enough someone from the restaurant was making a fertilized duck egg run to Chinatown. A few minutes later, the eggs were presented to my dining companion and I.

They weren’t good. They weren’t bad, either. If you closed your eyes and didn’t look at the little dead baby partially formed fetus duck pinched between your chopsticks you’d just think you were eating something very egg-y. My dining companion went for seconds but I think he was just showing off at this point.

I thought I’d sworn off eating duck fetuses but a few months later, there I was in Saigon, doing a story on Vietnamese-born New York chef and prolific restaurateur Michael ‘Bao’ Huynh for a New York Times travel article. The mission seemed easy enough: just go where he goes and eat what he eats. The rub, though, was that he was eating congealed pigs blood, rats, snakes and, of course, those fermented duck eggs.
I looked around and watched happy families inserting the aborted partially formed duckling carcasses into their mouths. I figured out there was a five-step system to eating balut:

1) Crack the top of the egg with a spoon.

2) Sip the broth from the hole in the top of the egg.
3) Enlarge the opening to bite off the boiled, cooked yoke.
4) Pull out the partially formed duck and eat it. Yum.
5) Go into the bathroom and vomit.

I’ll admit balut wasn’t my favorite – even rat was better – but one has to do such things in the name of journalism. Right? You don’t, of course, have to go all the way to Asia to eat balut. That Vietnamese restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side where I first ate a duck fetus is long gone. But there’s a new place proudly serving balut in New York City. The Filipino restaurant in the East Village called Maharlika. Or you can just stop by the very first balut eating contest on Saturday August 25 at 3 p.m., taking place at the Dekalb Market in Brooklyn, where 10 brave eaters will try to eat as many fertilized duck eggs in five minutes. It’ll be five minutes of unborn-duck-eating glory!

Nicole Ponseca, owner of Maharlika and sponsor of the eating contest, said, “Our goal is to push Filipino food forward. We’re the third largest minority in the US behind Mexicans and Chinese. But no one knows our food.” She added, “Some people ask why we’re putting balut on the menu. It might turn people off. But we have to be proud of our food. And I want it to cross over.”

Anyone want to meet me for some balut?

Young Tourists Killed In Vietnam In A Tragic Mystery

nha trang, vietnam Last week, two young teachers were killed while on a weeklong trip to Nha Trang, Vietnam, in a tragic mystery.

According to, Canadian-born Cathy Huynh, 26, and American Karin Joy Bowerman, 27, fell ill only days apart from each other. Last Monday, Ms. Bowerman was taken to Khanh Province General Hospital for respiratory failure and a zero blood pressure. Only two days later, Ms. Huynh was taken to the same hospital for shock before going into cardiac arrest and passing away.

Authorities believe the friends, who were sharing a room at the Son and Daughter guesthouse, may have been poisoned. However, police are also speculating it may have been the result of drinking too much alcohol, a theory the women’s families are rejecting.

It is not yet known if autopsies have been completed.

The case resembles an incident in Thailand last year, where four tourists and a Thai guide died in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai region over the span of five weeks. Investigators deemed the deaths a coincidence.

[Image via Arian Zwegers]

Portugal To Vietnam By Rails: Are You Up For The Ultimate Train Challenge?

Last year, Michael Hodson and two travel blogger friends challenged each other to take on the world by train. For a month the bloggers traveled on separate routes from Lisbon, Portugal, to Saigon, Vietnam, on a competitive quest to conquer the longest continuous stretches of train tracks currently on the planet. The rails-only expedition was dubbed the Ultimate Train Challenge, and after the bloggers completed the trek, Hodson found he wanted to instill his competitive spirit – and love for travel – in others.

Recently, Hodson announced that the competition would take place again. Only this time, any travelers can take part in the challenge, which is being sponsored by Intrepid Travel, Eurail, Hostelworld and Urban Adventures. Anyone with the month of November free, a $425 entrance fee and additional cash to fund the trip can join in on the 15,000-mile expedition. During the challenge, participants are asked to each raise at least $500 for Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation supporting street children, children with disabilities, the rural poor and victims of trafficking in Vietnam.

Do you think you have what it takes to travel across Europe and Asia by rails?

[Photo by Libby Zay]

The Most Useful Useless Phrasebook Phrases

broken heartI’ve frequently touted Lonely Planet’s Phrasebooks on Gadling (about as often as I’ve truthfully stated that I receive no kickbacks from them). They’ve saved my butt countless times, helping me do everything from getting on the right train platform to finding out what obscure ingredient is in a dish.

There’s another reason I love these indispensible travel companions, however, and that’s for their entertainment value. Like all LP books, the personality and preferences (and sometimes the nationality) of the authors shine through, although the content is consistent. Whether Czech, Hmong, or Mexican Spanish, you’ll find the layout and categories the same, barring cultural or geographical improbabilities: don’t expect to learn how to get your car tuned up in a Karen hill tribe dialect, for example.

I confess I’ve used my phrasebooks as icebreakers on more than one occasion because they make the ideal bar prop or conversation starter. Whip one out of your daypack, and I guarantee within minutes you’ll have attracted the attention of someone…so wield and use their power carefully.

The following are some of my favorite useful useless phrases culled from my collection. Disclaimer alert: May be offensive (or just plain stupid) to some readers. Also note that phrasebooks, unless written by native-speakers, will always have some errors or inconsistencies in grammar or dialect, especially when transliterated, so I won’t vouch for the complete accuracy of the following:

“No, it isn’t the alcohol talking.” Non, c’est moi qui dis ça, ce n’est pas l’alcool qui parle.

“Maybe a Bloody Mary will make me feel better.” Peut-être qu’un Bloody Mary me fera du bien. Unsurprisingly, many LP phrasebooks are written by Australians.

Spanish (Spain/Basque version)
“I’m sorry, I’ve got better things to do.” Lo siento, pero tengo otras cosa más importantes que hacer. Trust me, this comes in very handy if you’re a female traveling in Latin America.

“Do you have a methadone program in this country?” ¿Hay algún programa de metadona en este pais? Because savvy travelers are always prepared for the unexpected.

Under a heading called “Street Life” comes this handy phrase: “What do you charge? Quanto fa pagare?

And because Italians are romantics at heart, you’ll do well to learn the following exchange:
“Would you like to come inside for a while?” Vuoi entrare per un po?
“Let’s go to bed/the bathroom.” Andiamo a letto/in bagno.
“I’d like you to use a condom.” Voglio che ti metta il preservativo.
“Would you like a cigarette?” Prendi una sigaretta?
“You can’t stay here tonight.” Non puoi restare qui stanotte.

“I have my own syringe.” Ich habe meine eigene Spritze. This is actually useful, but not so much in German. If you’re traveling to developing nations and have a condition such as diabetes, definitely take the time to learn this. As for carrying syringes and hypodermics in developing nations if you don’t have a pre-existing medical condition, do so at your own risk. I’ve debated it and to me, I’d rather not be caught with “drug paraphernalia” on my person.

“I may be in a wheelchair but I’m able to live independently!” Posso andar de cadeira de rodas mas consigo ter uma vida independente! This isn’t so much funny as it is totally random. And I like the exclamation point.

“Oh baby, don’t stop.” Nao pares, amor! Better have this memorized or you’ll defeat the purpose of looking it up when needed.

“Sorry, I can’t sing.” Go men na sai, u tai nam des [phonetic]. Very “Lost in Translation.”
tasmania map
“I’m feeling lonely/depressed.” “Miserable as a shag on a rock.”
My favorite ‘Strine phrases – not found in the LP book; I just know a lot of Aussies – include “leg opener” (a bottle of cheap wine) and “mappa Tassie” (map of Tasmania, referring to a woman’s pubic region, although I suppose this made more sense before Brazilians became the norm).

“Do you want a massage? mát-xa không? Not a cliché at all.

“You’re just using me for sex (male speaker).” Am jeé moo úhn laám ding ver eé aang toy [phonetic]. Talk about progress.

Thai: “Where can I buy some gay/lesbian magazines?” mii nang seu keh/khaai thîi nai? Emergency!

[Photo credits: heart, Flickr user Toronja Azul; woman, Flickr user;Tasmania, Flickr user NeilsPhotography]

Language Learning Tips

Hanoi’s Oldest Hotel Will Open Secret Bunker To Visitors This Week

bunkerDuring hotel renovations last August at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi in Vietnam, construction workers discovered an unknown bunker thought to be used during the Vietnam War. While drilling near the poolside bar, they found a flooded hallway, numerous rooms and a staircase leading to the secret 500-square-foot bunker. Moreover, wine bottles, unbroken light bulbs, graffiti and air ducts were also found, according to VietNamNet.

“In the hotel’s history, there is a story of the American folk singer, Joan Baez, who sought shelter in this bunker during the Christmas Bombings in 1972, and who sang some songs beside a Vietnamese guitarist,” explains Kai Speth, the hotel’s General Director. “We don’t know of any other hotels, in Vietnam or anywhere else for that matter, that maintained a shelter for guests and staff.”

The luxury hotel is the oldest in Hanoi, boasting a 110-year history that has welcomed guests such as Charlie Chaplin, Jane Fonda, Fidel Castro and Somerset Maugham. That will be celebrated, along with the opening of the bunker to guests, on May 21, 2012. Likewise, people who actually spent time in the bunker, such as Bob Devereaux, the Australian diplomat who carved his name into the bunker in 1975, will also be present at the opening ceremony.

[image via The Metropole Blog]According to the hotel’s blog, some guests were given a sneak-peek of the Bunker. As a recording played of “Where Are You Now My Son,” a song Baez made there in 1972, each guest was brought back in time to those scary days.

“I knew that my guests were the beneficiaries of a powerful feeling for a place, and the past,” writes Speth on the blog. “Usually, people travel beyond the confines of a hotel for such experiences. But how lucky, I thought standing there with those 10 Americans, that my guests could experience that right here with us.”