|Good Morning Vietnam!|
My husband and I will be in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) soon for the first time, and among the adventures we have planned is the chance to sample Vietnamese food and family life with a student guide for Saigon Hotpot, a volunteer organization aimed at helping young people improve their English.
Our guide will meet us at our hotel in the morning and take us to a local market, then back to the host's house to start cooking. We'll have lunch, then walk around the neighborhood before returning to our hotel in the afternoon. The cost: Just $10 per person to cover the food and other expenses.
Seeking out ways to connect with locals always trumps traditional sightseeing when we travel. We usually manage to do a little of both, but we find that we remember our people-to-people encounters far better than any museum or monument.
Alternative lodging - homestays, bed and breakfasts, Airbnb etc. - provide the easiest entree into local life, but giving up the creature comforts and privacy of a hotel isn't for everyone. There are other ways to get connected. A few ideas:
* Spend a few hours with a greeter from the International Global Greeters Network, a worldwide organization with volunteers who offer to meet visitors for a morning or afternoon at no charge. I won't call the excursions "sightseeing,'' because the Greeters emphasize they are not tour guides, but rather new friends anxious to share a side of their city you might not otherwise discover.
My first experience with Big Apple Greeters in New York City a few years ago hooked me on the Greeter program. Wandering around Manhattan on our own, we saw the city most visitors see. Then we met Bernie Young, a volunteer for Big Apple. Bernie met us at our hotel for a few hours of off-the-beaten path exploring. We chatted over coffee, then got on a bus for walk a stroll through various parts of the Bronx. We explored City Island, New York's "Nantucket," noted for its fish restaurants, then Arthur Avenue.
All the Greeter programs work a little differently, but the basics are the same. Volunteers accept no money. Donations to the organizations are accepted, and can be made online. Tours generally last anywhere from two to four hours, but can be longer or shorter, depending on everyone's time.
|Greeter Valerie Heitz in Lyon|
A friend and I recently spent a delightful day in Lyon in France with the enthusiastic Valérie Heitz, 42, a volunteer with Lyon City Greeters. Our morning began with a stroll through the Saint-Antoine Sunday market overlooking the Saone River. We sampled ripe cheeses and cured sausages. Afterwards we explored the hidden traboules - underground passages in the Old Town built around the 4th century to allow silk merchants to travel between buildings while being sheltered from rain. From there it was back to the market for fresh oysters and white wine on a sunny terrace. We ended with a hike up to the hilltop silk-weaving district of La Croix-Rousse where we had coffee at a cafe next door to an outdoor carnival.
*Are you heading to Iceland soon on one of those stopovers Iceland Air allows between flights to or from Europe? Try out the airline's new "Stopover Buddy'' service, which aims to provide visitors with authentic Icelandic experiences.
Passengers can request a Stopover Buddy with similar travel interests such as hiking, nature, food, culture or just city sightseeing. The assigned local will suggest a favorite swimming pool, secret hiking trail, a secluded hot spring, or explore a favorite spot to view the northern lights.
Birkir Holm Gudnason, CEO at Icelandair, is one of the available Buddies, offering passengers a tour of his hometown and a day of backcountry skiing. Visitors could also pair up with Margret, 64, a flight attendant of 30 years who is an expert on geothermal springs, or enjoy a cooking lesson in traditional Icelandic fish dishes with travel consultant, Inga, 45.
*Skip the touristy "Hop on, Hop off'' bus tours, and get the lay of the land of a new city on a bike. Most cities have half or full-day bike tours led by young entrepreneurs with a knack for providing interesting backstories on neighborhoods and historic sites. I've done these tours in Belgrade, Bangkok, Amsterdam, Prague and Paris. After we leave Saigon, we plan to add Taipei to the list. I'm always surprised how much ground we manage to cover on mostly-flat trails and paved paths. No worries if you haven't ridden for a while, or don't feel physically up to the challenge. Electric bikes are trending, especially in Europe. Fat Tire Bike Tours offers E-bike tours in Barcelona and in Berlin where the ride includes a spin around old runways at the former Tempelhof Airfield.
|Biking Bangkok's backwaters|
*Eat like a local. Take advantage of walking tours that combine strolls through historic neighborhoods with the chance to sample and learn about the local cuisine. We plan to spend our first evening in Saigon exploring street food stalls with Saigon Street Eats, a company owned by an Australian/Vietnamese couple. Their "Street Food 101'' jaunt promises a movable feast of traditional Vietnamese dishes with transportation on the backs of motor bikes.
|Sampling sweets on a food tour in Amsterdam|
What's the next-best-thing to being invited to dinner in someone's home? Inviting yourself. Meal Sharing seeks out home cooks around the world, and arranges for them to host lunch, brunch or dinner parties in their homes for visitors. In preparation for a trip to Italy this spring, we're signing up for dinner with Angela and Francesco in Matera ($22 per person including wine) and Mirella and friends in Naples whose $35 menu includes pasta with ricotta cheese, veal with raisins and pine nuts, vegetables and a Neapolitan cake. Meal Sharing hosts might have other guests, or invite roommates or other friends to join in which means you're guaranteed to meet plenty of locals. Some even propose after-dinner activities such as walks around the neighborhood after or visits to a local flea market.
Italy's Le Cesarian offers a similar experience for 50 euros. EatWith has a list of hosts in 150 cities worldwide.
Wherever I am, I seek out a cafe, bakery or restaurant where I can become a regular. This usually happens by the second visit, especially if the owner happens to be in the kitchen or behind the counter. My friend and I were in Lyon for only a few days, but we became "regulars'' at Il Palio, an Italian restaurant where the owner, Giuliano Mardino, tosses his pizzas at a counter near at the front entrance, and cooks them in a wood-fired oven. Just for fun, we chatted a bit in Italian (Giuliano is from Apulia in Italy). He invited me ( "Hey "American!") to try my hand at making pizza dough, and sent us home with a warm round of bread. On our second visit, he asked me to send him a postcard from Seattle. I did. A few months later, a long enveloped arrived in my mailbox. It was a return postcard from Giuliano, a beautiful panorama shot of Lyon at night.
|Giuliano at work in Lyon|