Iran Diary #1: Overview

When I first announced my intention of traveling to Iran – alone, no less (my friend from the Cuba trip last year couldn’t accompany me), I was met with a lot of concern – “Is it safe?” was the question most frequently asked, even though Iran doesn’t have a particularly bad rep in Vietnam as it does in Western countries. But I had read that it’s actually very safe – certainly the safest in the Middle East – and my dad, who has been there a few times for work, raved about it. Plus, any country that has a visa-on-arrival policy can’t be that bad in my book, so I was determined to go.

And I’m glad that I went. Iran is completely different from any place I’ve been to, yet there is something familiar about its busy cities, its mixture of modern and traditional architecture, the wild beauty of its landscape, and most of all, its friendly people. Don’t believe the media; go now if you have a chance!

Iran is growing in popularity as a travel destination, but people still know quite little about it, so I’m going to share with you some practical tips that I’ve learned from my trip.

– Visa:

If you are a US, British, or Canadian citizen, you have to join a tour and apply for a visa through that. Most other countries, including Vietnam, are eligible to apply for a visa-on-arrival in Iran, meaning you can get a visa at the airport. To save money and waiting time, though, I applied for an electronic visa and picked it up from the embassy in Hanoi. It was very simple.

– Money:

The money in Iran is called the rial, but everybody uses the old name, “toman”, instead. 1 toman = 10 rials, meaning when something costs 17.000 toman, it actually costs 170.000 rials. More confusingly, since there are so many zeros, people may leave out the “thousand” part altogether and just say “17”. When you’re not sure, always ask if the price is in toman or rial.

The inflation in Iran is quite bad, so the exchange rate changes every day. The “official” rate when I went there was about 40.000 rials = $1, but the actual rate was closer to 100.000 rials = $1. So definitely ask around first before you exchange any money. Most hostels/hotels and taxi drivers (especially for long trips) do accept euros/dollars.

Alternatively, you can also get a Mah Card, which is like a debit card that you can top up. Everywhere in Iran takes card – even street vendors! – so it can save you from carrying around wads and wads of cash. I didn’t, but some travelers I met had the card and said it was very useful.

Iran isn’t expensive, but it isn’t cheap either, especially when you count all the admission/entrance fees, which add up very quickly. My budget came out to about $50/day, but if I was traveling with a friend, I could’ve easily gotten away with $30 or even $25/day.

– Accommodation:

There are plenty of hostels and hotels in any of the main tourist destinations in Iran – in the individual post about each city, I will talk more about the hostel I stayed in. Since they can’t accept international credit cards, the easiest way to reserve a room is to email the hostel itself (which is what I did). Of course, it means you will have to carry extra money with you to pay them once you get there. There are some websites that allow you to book a room beforehand (1st Quest, Apochi), and some hostels can even be found on

As for prices, it depends on the kind of room you want. I stayed in private rooms in hostels (I’m at that age now where I can’t handle dorm rooms anymore), which average at about $20/night, with breakfast included.

My hostel in a traditional house in Kashan

My hotel in Shiraz

– Getting around:

Iran has a pretty good public transport system. During my 10 days there, I used a combination of public buses and private taxis to get between the cities (Tehran – Kashan – Isfahan – Yazd – Shiraz), plus one domestic flight (Shiraz – Tehran). The flight I booked beforehand via 1st Quest, while the bus tickets could be bought at the station. In each city, I mostly walked, except for Tehran, where I used the subway, and in Isfahan, where I used Snapp (an app similar to Uber/Grab/Lyft), both of which are very cheap and easy to use. Again, more details will come in the individual posts.

– Food:

Iranian food is good and cheap and the portion is huge – seriously, look at this kebab sandwich (with my sunglasses for scale). It’s as big as my head! The breakfasts at hostels are also huge, with bread, butter, jam, soft cheese, tea, and sometimes bean porridge and other traditional Persian food as well.

Fresh promeganate juice sold outside the Grand Bazaar in Tehran

A baker laying out his freshly baked bread in Shiraz

Also, get ready to drink a lot of tea – Iranians love their tea, and there are usually sticks of crystallized sugar to stir in it. Just don’t forget and leave it in too long, or you’ll end up with more sugar than tea!

– Internet:

Certain websites are blocked in Iran (Facebook, most social media sites except for Instagram, international new sites, etc.) but you can easily get around it by using a VPN. Being cheap, I used a free one (Hotspot Shield), which works fine for browsing Facebook and Tumblr, but if you want more security, you can pay for a premium one.

– Dress code:

This is one of the things that put people off visiting Iran, but I think that’s just silly. It’s no big deal to put on a scarf to cover your head and wear a longer shirt – because that’s all there is, really: no short sleeves, no short pants (this goes for guys as well), a headscarf, and shirts that cover your butt. I will also talk more about it in my packing post.

Fashionable young girls in Tehran and Shiraz

– Other tidbits:

You can find English speakers, but it can be difficult. I mostly relied on body language and Google Translate to communicate. I did learn the Farsi numbers, though, so I could read the prices of things.

Such as the prices of these spices in the Vakil Bazaar in Shiraz

Much more to come in the individual posts, so stay tuned!


Year Of The Pig

It’s the Lunar New Year holiday here in Vietnam, and in the spirit of the Year of the Pig, I’m taking the rest of the week off to stuff my face and lounge around doing nothing. See you guys next Monday!

Book Reviews: December 2018 – January 2019

I skippe December’s book reviews in lieu of the “Year in Review” post, so here they are, along with the books I read in January. A pretty diverse selection, even if I say so myself:

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman:

This book has a very specific plot that it shares with several other works of fiction – a grumpy but sympathetic Caucasian widower learns to open his heart with the help of his Asian neighbors. “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”, “Up”, and “Gran Torino” – they all have the exact same plot. Sure, the settings may be different and the actual stories are different, but the plot is the same. That may make it a little predictable, but the characters are all quite interesting, and I dare you to reach the end without choking up a little. 3/5

The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley:

I know Lucy Worsley from her BBC series about the six wives of Henry VIII, and I love anything that has to do with British history, so this book, which revolves around the court of George I and George II at Kensington Palace, is right up my alley, especially since these early Hanoverian monarchs don’t always get a lot of coverage from other historians. What I like about it is that it manages to give us a glimpse of the everyday life at court without getting bogged down by the historical and political facts. The facts are there, but the focus is on the people, and that’s what makes it fascinating. 5/5

The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamman:

I grew up watching the trilogy of films about the life of Elisabeth of Austria (or Sissi, as she was usually known) starring a young Romy Schneider, and since then, I’ve always been fascinated by her. This biography doesn’t take such a romantic look at her life; instead, it portrays Sissi as she was – a highly sensitive and complex but also emotionally disturbed woman, thrust into a marriage and a life she was not prepared for. Highly recommended. My only complaint is that the flow of the book is a bit all over the place – the first few chapters follow a chronological order, but then the book turns to specific areas in Sissi’s life (her beauty and fitness regime, her relationship with her children, etc.) which forces the narration to go back and forth in time. I’m familiar with the events in Sissi’s life, so it doesn’t bother me too much, but it can make the book difficult to follow. 4.5/5

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire:

Have you ever wondered what happened to Alice after she got back from Wonderland, or the Pevensie children after they got back from Narnia, or Dorothy after she got back from Oz? This dark little fantasy explores that question – it takes place at a school for those children who have traveled to fantasy worlds and are now having troubles adjusting to the “normal” world. I’ve read Seanan McGuire before, and I’ve started to recognize a pattern here – her world-building is top-notch and her subversion of the familiar fantasy tropes is super cool, but the story itself tends to be lacking and the ending feels very easy. Still, it’s a super quick read, and like I said, the world and the characters are pretty awesome. 4/5

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor:

It’s a murder mystery set during the Great Fire of London, which sounds exactly like the kind of thing I would enjoy. Unfortunately, this falls completely flat. Even though the murder is introduced quite early on, it’s very slow, and the mystery itself, when it gets revealed, is very anticlimactic. There is no twist or surprise. The problem is that the story alternates between two protagonists (a young man working for the editor-in-chief of The Gazette, and a young woman trying to escape her ruthless cousin and an arranged marriage, both children of fugitive Royalists), but what is seen as a mystery in one storyline is often revealed in the other, so often the reader is left frustrated since we know so much more than both characters. Plus I don’t feel engaged to either of them, and the historical setting is not well utilized either. 1.5/5

Farewell, Lady Opium by Vu Bang:

This memoir tells the story of a well-known Vietnamese writer’s struggle with opium addiction and his arduous road to get sober. I read it mostly for the description of life in Hanoi during the 1930’s, so the opium stuff and especially the author’s ennui can get tedious after a while, but you can’t deny that it’s painfully honest and surprisingly relatable. 3/5

Adventures In Watercolor 7

These may be the last watercolors I’m going to post in a while. I really should start painting again – I can feel myself getting rusty – but these past few weeks have been so insanely busy that I didn’t have the time or feel the inclination to take my brushes and colors out.

Anyway, here are some landscapes I did a while ago. I’m still struggling with shadows and reflections, as you can see. (These are all copies of existing paintings).

Back in October-November, I had enough free time to take another watercolor class, with a focus on landscapes, and the results certainly look better than the ones I did on my own:

I guess I’ll just have to keep practicing, or take another class if I can!

A Year In Review: Books Of 2018

(I didn’t post on Christmas, so it seems appropriate to bring back this book tree for this post, doesn’t it? Happy Boxing Day!)

I want to do a different “Year in Review” for the books. As opposed to just rounding up the favorite books of 2018, I got this list of questions from Kezzie, which I think is a fun way to look back at my reading of the year. Here we are:

Best books you read in 2018:

– Children’s fiction: I didn’t read any that can be comfortably called children’s fiction (the closest is The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly, but it is too dark for a kid’s book), so I guess none.

– Crime fiction: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Michael Sullivan. Actually I prefer Altered Carbon, but it belongs to a different category (see below).

– Classics: I didn’t read a lot of books in this category so Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee pretty much wins by default.

– Non-fiction: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. It’s horrifying but uplifting at the same time.

– YA: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. The Book of Lost Things deserves an honorary mention, though again, I think it’s not a true YA book. More like a fantasy for adult featuring a kid as the main character.

– Dystopian fiction: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. I’m not sure if this is true dystopian, but it’s definitely better than the “true dystopian” book I read this year, Red Rising.

Most surprising (in a good way) book of 2018: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. It sounds like a typical ghost story at first, but it ends up haunting me even now.

Book that you read in 2018 that you recommended most to others: A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain, The Little Stranger, any Discworld book.

Best series you discovered in 2018: Either the Takeshi Kovacs series (Altered Carbon) or the Daisy Dalrymple series (Death at Wentwater Court) by Carola Dunn. Both are crime series, though they cannot be more different – one is set in a futuristic, Blade Runner-like world, and the other is set in the upperclass British society of the 1920’s – but they’re both enjoyable in their own ways.

Favorite new author you discovered in 2018: Mary Roach. I have read Mary Roach before, but this year solidifies her position as my favorite science writer. When I pick up one of her books, I know I’m going to enjoy it. The list of authors whose books I always enjoy is very short – Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Bill Bryson – so I’m glad to add another author to it.

Book you were excited about and thought you were going to love but didn’t: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton. Hidden Figures is merely disappointing, but Margaret the First absolutely infuriates me with how bad it is.

Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre to you: People who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry. It’s not the first true crime book I read, but it’s definitely more modern and sensational than my usual fare, yet it turns out to be really well-researched, well-written. A true page-turner.

Book you read in 2018 that you’re most likely to read again: A Cook’s Tour. I like to reread travelogues whenever my wanderlust hits me, and I always like to read about food, so a book that combines both is naturally going to be reread multiple times.

Favorite book you read in 2018 from an author you’ve read previously: Monstrous Regiment and A Cook’s Tour.

Best book you read in 2018 that you read based SOLELY on a recommendation from somebody else: Death at Wentwater Court. I picked this up after reading about it on Kezzie’s blog, so thanks, Kezzie!

Favorite cover of a book in 2018: Margaret the First. Too bad the book isn’t good.

Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2018: The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. I’ve always loved nature, but this book has made me a lot more aware of my relationship with nature and made me resolve to spend more time in nature.

Book you can’t BELIEVE you waited until 2018 to read: Speak. It’s such a classic YA book, and I like the movie and also enjoy the author’s other works so I didn’t know why it took me so long.

Book that had a scene in it that had you reeling and dying to talk to somebody about it: The ending of The Little Stranger (the entire book, actually, especially the interpretation of who the “ghost” might be).

Favorite relationship from a book you read in 2018: the friendship between the soldiers in Monstrous Regiment.

Most memorable character in a book you read in 2018: Sergeant Jackrum of Monstrous Regiment (if this was the Oscars, then Monstrous Regiment would be the movie that sweeps all the categories before winning Best Picture).

Genre you read the most from 2018: sci-fi/fantasy (of course) and non-fiction (surprisingly).

Best 2018 debut: Tell the Machine Goodnight by Kate Williams (it’s not a debut book but at least it was published in 2018. All the other books were published earlier).

Book that was the most fun to read in 2018: A Cook’s Tour and The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. Bonk by Mary Roach is funny as well but it’s just too gross sometimes.

Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2018: Monstrous Regiment.

Book you read in 2018 that you think got overlooked this year or when it came out: The Road to Little Dribbling, maybe? I don’t know if it’s “overlooked”, but it’s definitely not well-received as Bill Bryson’s other books. I still enjoyed it though.

Total number of books read in 2018: 40 (with some rereads).

If you guys want to do something similar, feel free to grab these questions. I can’t wait to read your round-up!

Adventures In Watercolor 6

It’s been a while since I posted my watercolor paintings, and the truth is that it’s been a while since I painted too – it’s the end of the semester, so I’ve been too busy with work. Luckily, I still have some paintings that I haven’t posted, so here goes.

These paintings are a little special – the story is, before I moved home from LA, I bought a pad of watercolor paper from Michael’s with the intention of practicing on it. Flash forward 6 years, the pad has been forgotten in the back of my desk drawer until I started taking watercolor classes and finally remembered it. However, by this time, it has gone moldy and absorbed water too quickly, so the paint can’t spread like it should. Being the cheapskate that I am, I refused to give them up, so I looked up ways to salvage them. I didn’t find any straight answers, but I did find some instructions for making your own watercolor paper, in which you can use gelatin to “size” the paper (i.e. coat it to make it less absorbent). I decided to give it a try.

The result was… OK. I didn’t get my paper back to how it was, but at least I can paint with it now. It doesn’t take well to wet-on-wet, so I mostly use it for still life and food painting. It allows me to understand watercolor a bit more (I never knew about sizing paper before) and gives me a chance to practice different techniques, which is fun.

These are supposed to be eggs but I got impatient with shading each individual one…


Book Reviews: November 2018

I reread Bill Bryson’s At Home earlier this month, so I only managed 3 new books, but they’re all quite enjoyable. Here goes:

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett:

Continuing my Discworld read from last month, I picked another one-off book (it features supporting/cameo roles from some familiar characters like Sam Vimes and William de Worde, but the main characters are one-off). The story is set in the small country of Borogravia, which is always at wars with its neighbor, and revolves around a very special regiment made up of a girl disguised as a boy to find her brother, a troll, a vampire, an Igor, and several other eccentric characters. It starts out a little slow, but the pace soon picks up and it ends up becoming something quite profound and moving – not just a funny story about girls dressed up as boys, but also about the nature of men and women, about war and religion, and about finding your place in the world (with the help of a well-placed pair of socks). 5/5

The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett:

This is often listed as a Rincewind book, though Rincewind plays more of a supporting role in this one. The main character is Cohen the Barbarian, who, along with his Silver Horde, decides to embark on one last quest and return something stolen from the gods by the first hero – fire. This threatens to destroy the entire Discworld, so Rincewind has to reluctantly step in to stop them. This book is quite short, but to make up for it, it is gorgeously illustrated by Paul Kidby. I think people tend to dismiss the Rincewind books as goofy adventure tales and not as “deep” as the other Discworld books, but I dare you not to smile and cheer at the end of this one. 4.5/5

Bonk by Mary Roach:

To be fair, I only read this because it is mentioned in At Home, but I’ve always enjoyed Mary Roach’s books, so why not? As the title says, this is about the scientific study of sex, and I have to admit, it’s more information that I ever wanted to know. I constantly made this face while I was reading it:

and occasionally this face:

But at least it was entertaining. 3/5

So what did you guys read? Check out my friend Mike’s reviews here!