A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Back in the USA

After much deliberation, we have decided to head home to the good ole US of A. Ron's family made a valiant effort to re-rent his apartment, but in the weeks that followed, the financial situation proved to be a little more precarious than initially thought. Ron, like millions of Americans, is underwater on his mortgage. And in a big way, from buying in 2004 near the peak of the market in California.

He is headed back to San Francisco to look at mortgage renegotiation or short sale options. In the meantime, he is going to squat in his condo, and even with meager accoutrements, will be living better than we have been in 9 months. So don't feel too bad for him!

We've decided to divide and conquer, so I'm going to Oklahoma to see my Dad and my much-missed kitties. Fear not readers, there are a good 10 more blog posts from the last month in Vietnam and from earlier in the trip when I got back-logged. I won't be closing down camp just yet! And who knows, we may pick back up either abroad or here in the States.


Monday, March 8, 2010

The Tokyo Airport

We arrived at Tokyo Airport before 7am, armed with a detailed master plan as to how to expedite our way through customs, get on the Narita Express to Tokyo, visit the Imperial Palace grounds, eat the most amazing (and expensive) sushi in the world, and arrive back by 2:30pm to catch our flights. Only problem was, I got one lousy hour of sleep (due to screaming kids and over-crowding) and Ron had just started to get my cold. We stood bleary eyed at the end of the ramp into the airport, like zombies. What to do now? Well, the traveler in us told us to press on, no matter the obstacle or physical discomfort. “You only get this one chance, don’t waste it.” The pragmatist in us said, “Screw it I want to go back to sleep.” Solution: the day room. Only the Japanese would think to provide a room at the airport where you could pay by the hour to sleep. Ingenious. We awaited their opening at 8am and snagged a double room for 5 hours. Cost: $65. A little more than the Holiday Inn, but worth every yen.

We awoke and wandered through the designer shops and duty free offerings. What can I say, the airport was splendid. Everything was clean and sparkling: all the little trinket shops with lucky cats and anime dolls.

Perusing bean paste sweets, as lovely as a work of art, as expensive as a small car…

Next came a Japanese food extravaganza. Since it was morning, we headed to a café for coffee and pastries. We sat amongst chain smoking travelers for an hour, only then realizing the whole café was, in fact, the smoking section. We headed to the next course where we ate some Japanese fast food, or Ikayaki, pan-fried squid dumpling. It looked more like deep fried goodness than it tasted: the inside was gooey with a hint of fishy flavor. However, the cold Kirin beer, serving as a chaser, saved the day.

We were frequently lured by the fantastical plastic recreations of menu items in restaurant windows, but we couldn’t resist the sushi bar. I mean, how can you visit Japan and not eat some sushi? We opted for a line-up of our favorite nigiri: maguro (tuna), sake (salmon), and aji (mackerel). Sipping hot sake and savoring the moment. Clearly, it wouldn’t rival the famous Tokyo sushi joints, but it hit the spot and made us feel like we got a little taste of this little island.

Now I know that in my synopsis I tend to stereotype, but I just loved, I mean LOVED the Japanese people: their gentle way, sincere helpfulness, and sheer graciousness. Everyone we met was so polite (and so stylish), I was literally taken aback. The only thing rotten about the whole day, was knowing we would be leaving, and we didn’t even get to venture out of the airport. Ron and I firmly resolved that in our next world travels we must return and properly visit Japan. Sure, we’ll need a small fortune but I have a sneaking suspicion, more like a trustworthy inkling, that it will be well worth it. Something about the air, the overriding sentiment of quality over quantity, has won me over. I’m smitten.

When it was time to board our separate planes, a curious feeling came over me. I had dreamed of this day (can you blame me after spending every day together for over nine months?!), and equally feared it, how could we ever part? Can I function alone in the world? And more importantly, can I even function? This ending has been quite abrupt and unexpected. We are being flung back into our regular lives - to sink or to swim.

Will we hack it? We'll see, dear readers. We'll see...


Sunday, March 7, 2010

So Long Hanoi

We only spent two nights in Hanoi, one before and one after our excursion up to Halong Bay. We stayed at the Sunshine Hotel in the Old Quarter a buzzing, boisterous section of the city. We walked the narrow streets, getting to Dong Xuan Market that was just closing. On the way back we passed street vendors selling Thit Jo or dog meat. They say that sandy blond dogs taste the best. Ewww. We didn’t dare it try it, I may be able to munch on Charlotte but I just couldn’t bring myself to eat Lassie.

One night, we finally took a cyclo ride and cruised past the Opera House and Hoan Kiem Lake on our way to a Mexican dinner at Al Fresca.

Street food abounds on every street corner. Vietnam is a serious contender, if not heavyweight, of the world in street-cooked delicacies. Most vendors specialize and offer up only one dish on their menu. In doing so, they keep costs low, operations simple and the food perfecto. Some memorable dishes include: Pho Bo (Beef Noodle), Com Ga (Chicken Rice), Bahn Mi (the famous “everything but the kitchen sink” sandwich). The price is invariably right at about 20,000-30,000 dong ($1-2) and you get to eat in miniature plastic chairs that make you feel like Lily Tomlin.

We didn’t make it to Bia Hoi corner (at Ta Hien and Luong Ngnoc Quyen) where fresh beer is served to revelers to cries of, “Mot, hai, bat…go!” or “One, two, three, cheers!” Apparently a lot of local Vietnamese drink beer when it’s the freshest, which is first thing in the morning when it sounds the least appealing. I suppose, there is always next time.

We did make It to Ly Van Phuc Street or what known as “Chicken Street. Tucked away on a side street is the most tantalizing smell of chicken ever to waft on air.

We were gestured to a plastic table and sat down. As the only westerners as far as we could see, we knew we were in for a treat. However, the menu was a bit challenging. Instead of totally chancing it, we went up to the grill master and pointed out our selection. No chicken feet, please.

The chicken came out on two giant bamboo skewers and there were only three words to describe it. To die for. It was easily the best chicken since tandoori in India. The potatoes were perfectly browned, tastily seasoned, and equally gone in 60 seconds. But Elanore, oh Elanore, came in the form of white baguette bread drenched in honey and grilled with butter. We ordered seconds of everything, and washed it down with some Tiger beer.

The entire evening was fab until we hopped in a taxi (not one of the reputable green & white ones). I thought, how bad could it be? Maybe all these people getting ripped off are whiners or inexperienced travelers. Well, about 10 seconds into the ride the meter had already flipped three times. The ride that was around 36,000 dong ($2) on the way there hovered near 100,000 dong (over $5) on the way back. You know me by now, and I wasn’t going to stand for that.

When we stopped I told Ron to get out of the car, it’s always easier to deal with someone one on one. I calmly explained to the driver that his meter was faulty but out of the kindness of my heart I would pay 50,000 dong. Upon this point, he started yelling that he “didn’t know” why it was so much but we had to pay up. His arm reached back and barred my way out of the cab. I laughed at him and pushed my way past his twig for an arm, throwing the bill in my wake. I mean seriously what was he going to do about it, I outweigh him by at least fifty pounds. The moral of the story: take only the Mai Linh or the Vina Sun cabs while in Vietnam. The reports of unsavory taxi companies are confirmed true

As a final aside, the Vietnamese currency is called “dong”. Although snicker worthy in its own right, it actually makes me think of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, everyone’s favorite foreign exchange student. Which brings me to one of life’s great mysteries, where in the world is Molly Ringwald?!! No doubt, living in Evanston, Illinois with Jake Ryan and two screaming brats.

Well, that’s all we have to report from Vietnam. We’ll leave you with a view of the rice fields that adorned many of our bus rides through the countryside.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

The sheer beauty of Halong Bay

Since we were almost certainly cutting our trip short so Ron could deal with his condo, we wanted to go out with a bang. To aid and abed this idea, my Dad had given us money to get scuba certification for Christmas, which seemed a waste at this point. So we re-appropriated the funds and settled on a luxury cruise around Halong Bay as our swan song of the trip. Thanks Dad!! To start our jet setting, we took a flight to Hanoi instead of the horrid overnight bus, which made us feel like movie stars right off the bat. The next morning, we took a shuttle bus 3 hours to the private dock at Bai Chay where we were greeted with warm hand towels and a fruity beverage.

You can take any number of tours on Halong Bay, from a few hours to a few days, from $25 to over $500 a person. We took the 3-day cruise on Handspan Indochina Sails which is one of the luxury lines, for $281/person. The boat, I mean Chinese junk, had only 16 rooms but less than half were full. It exuded romance and for us was a highly indulgent affair, so much so that I had those chills that whispered, “So, this is how the other class lives.”

Our wooden room was cozy at about eight square feet but the dominating king-sized pillow top bed had a down comforter (down! comforter!) and was stuffed a mile high with pillows. “Yay!” I screamed in glee internally to myself as I threw off all the unnecessary and pompous bed toppings, “to have the luxury of being annoyed at throw pillows!”

The bathroom was all marble granite and sparkling glass, and reminded me of our suite in Goa. Too good to be true, almost to good to use. Certainly interesting to use on the high seas, swaying and sloshing around on slippery floors. But the piece de resistance was the giant picture windows that looked out onto the magnificent bay floating slowly past. It was so beautiful we would just sit and stare in reverence. We couldn’t bear to close the curtains, unless absolutely necessary, lest we missed a split second of the majesty.

Nothing could be more perfect, and then of course, I started to come down with a cold. What ill timing for the finale of our trip! But I wasn’t going to let it slow me down. I knocked back a shot of Jack Daniel’s and leapt off the hull of the ship 12 feet into the frigid water. That should either wake me up or kill me, I thought. I put all my money, what meager scraps are left, on the former.

We had lunch in the large teak dining room on the second floor of the ship. Our table, for the remainder of the voyage, was in the corner along a long stretch of windows. Lunches were generally a five course set-menu of various seafood and meat dishes, some more successful than others, all far more fancy than our habitual fare. Needless to say, we were delighted with everything, even something as banal as a radish rose.

The first activity on the itinerary was a stop at Ti Top island situated 7-8 kilometers southeast of Bai Chay. There we could sun and swim on the crescent moon shaped beach and hike the 427 stone steps to a pagoda-style rotunda. The hike up left me light-headed and clammy but the 360 degree view of the surrounding bay sprinkled with thousands of limestone islets jutting out of the water was spectacular. Legends say that the islands were created by a great dragon, hence the name of Halong Bay translating into, “where the dragon descends in the sea”.

Our first afternoon we went sea kayaking in a doubles kayak. It was a pleasant sunny day to be out on the emerald green water. We paddled through the Luon Bo cave, the water eroding a natural granite archway into a secluded inlet. I love being inches above the water with the peace of nature all around you. Especially when you pull up your oars and glide along in perfect bliss.

With not a moment to waste, we were back on board for a quick shower and change of clothes so we could be ready for dinner. I can get used to this buffet of food at regularly scheduled intervals. Did some say buffet? Oh yea. Every night for dinner was a buffet! Nothing excites me more than to have a sumptuous feast ready for the picking. I can get a half dozen spring rolls with extra dipping sauce, fall-off-the-bone pork spare ribs, steamed vegetable medley (I actually squeaked when I saw fresh broccoli), and jumbo shrimp cocktail. And then have a repeat of all my favorites. Oh joy! (I can always buy bigger clothes when I return home, right?)

I got the best nights sleep aboard the boat from the gentle lull of the waves. Fascinating especially to me, I was up early and on deck at Tae Kwon Do before breakfast. The svelte instructor tried to teach us the slow deliberate movements but it was hard to follow. At times we would be turned around and she would be behind us. And then we would be perched on one foot in a crane position, which would be hard enough if the rocking ship underfoot was actual land. Half of us would stumble over in giggles. What do you expect at 7am in the morning?

We visited the Sung Sot or “Surprise Cave” that was discovered in 1901 by French explorers. Impressively grand at 10,000 square meters with thousands of well-lit stalagmites and stalagmites.

Some in interesting shapes and configurations. This, the tour guide told us, was a big cannon. Mmm hmm, sure. Maybe in your country, buddy.

We visited Cua Van, a working fishing village, that was the definition of remote. Not a Walmart in sight. Instead, the mini-mart would paddle to you where mother and enterprising children would sell you Oreos and Pringles (marked up 300%) from their family boat.

Surprisingly, they did have electricity (from generators I presume) to operate radios, tv’s and lights in their floating houses. There are 176 floating households and even a floating school, buoyed by empty drums. Everyone gets around by boat, children learn to swim before they learn to walk, and generation after generation of fisherman cultivate the waters. I’m sure it’s not an easy life, but you couldn’t paint a better view from your office window.

We went kayaking again and realized that some couples should just not kayak with each other. This was our third attempt, and as always, it ended with a fight. We couldn’t paddle in time together so we would knock oars. We also couldn't decide who was steering so we would run too close to the shoreline or into other boats. It was almost comical how we would veer back and forth, overcompensating every turn until we were pointed in the completely wrong direction. We bickered the entire time. I think we both pledged to stay on dry ground from now on, at the very least, to spare our relationship.

The remainder of the evening, we sipped our smuggled whiskey up on deck, watching the sun set in orange wisps behind the granite islets. Ah, this is the life.

Before we knew it, we were sailing back. Like the rest of our trip, it went by way too fast. The time on Indochina Sails was an unexpected highlight of the entire trip. So, if you are looking for an unconventional vacation idea, why not take a trip to Hanoi, a romantic cruise on Halong Bay, and (what I hear is) a fascinating cultural jaunt to the tribal villages in Sapa.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Hoi An, Vietnam

Our next stop up the coast was Hoi An. We took our last official overnight bus ride of our trip. Hallelujah. It was a Sinh Tourist bus, the kingpin of travel in Vietnam, and it was the first multi level bus I’ve ever seen. With fully reclining seats stacked on top of each other in two levels. It looked quite promising but unfortunately it was most uncomfortable. First, I had my big satchel and the food bag and there was nowhere to put them. One I hung off the side, the other I stuffed between my feet so I was virtually immobile. Secondly, there was a sharp piece of exposed metal right under my Achilles heal, so I had to choose between wrapping my feet in the single provided blanket or turning blue under the full blast of the AC directly over my bunk. Either option left me sleepless. Overnight travel is pure torture, and I won’t be shedding any tears over our last sleeping bus.

We arrived in Hoi An in the early morning and proceeded to get turned around in the wrong part of town with no hotel in sight. There is nothing quite like being sleep deprived and lost to make you feel hopeless and irritated. A nice man pointed us in the right direction and we soon found Thanh Binh Hotel 3. Off the main street was an attractive hotel, the dark wooden interior had a Chinese flair which made the Roman statues of the inner courtyard pool seem more oddly placed. Our spacious room on the second floor had two beds, fast wifi, and a balcony for $25 a night.

Hoi An, an important trading port between China and Japan in the 15th-19th century, has retained a rich cultural heritage. In even earlier times, it was a hub of the booming spice trade, that brought much wealth from afar. The Old Town is now a World Heritage site, and it is a fascinating marriage of Asian and European architecture. There are Chinese style shop houses next to a Japanese covered bridge, juxtaposed harmoniously like a 5-spice blend with colonial style buildings. It feels like you are walking around on a movie set. These two enterprising grandmas were stars.

At night, the streets of Hoi An are lit up by brightly colored lanterns, and filled by pedestrians taking in a pleasant stroll by the riverfront shops.

We wanted to try some of the local dishes, and headed to a restaurant called Faifoo (interestingly, the previous name of Hoi An itself). Our ebullient waitress Yum Yum advised us on a few tasting menus and soon our table was filled with: Cao Lau, White Rose, Binh Xeo, Wonton, Springrolls, Cuttlefish, and Vegetable Soup. We topped off the feast with a Vietnamese bottle of Vang Dalat Red Wine. It was quite a gorging and we walked away (or waddled as it were) with a bill of only 300,000 dong (or $16). We were so in love with their Binh Xeo, a fried savory pancake wrapped in lettuce leaves, we had to return for our last lunch in town to have it again.

The next night we went to The Cargo Club, a highly lauded restaurant on the riverbank. Replete with white tablecloths and sparkling silverware under the soft glow of lamps, I felt severely underdressed in my Cambodian t-shirt. We started with the baked brie. Need I say more? Ron had bacon wrapped pork chop and I had an extra creamy gorgonzola fettuccine. Despite the severe lactose overload, it was a lovely evening dining on the terrace.

Hoi An’s other claim to fame is their prolific tailor shops and made to order wares. They had some totally cute coats with asymmetrical collars, but I couldn’t justify spending money on a jacket in the balmy weather. However, I made no qualms about talking myself into some new sneakers. Yum Yum told us that Shoes 9 on Tran Hung Dao was a reputable place that made shoes to order with real leather. I tried on a pair of hightops with a Velcro strap in a myriad of color. It was supposed to be a sample of all the types of leather on offer, but they were so funky that I wanted them off the rack. The girls seemed a bit confused that I’d want such an ugly pair of shoes but were quite happy to make a twenty dollar sale.

We meandered around town window-shopping and sight-seeing in the stifling hot afternoon. Our hair was wild and unkempt so we ventured to a hole-in-the-wall salon called Nana on the other side of the Japanese Bridge . Nana had spent a year in Hanoi becoming a beautician but was back in her hometown. My cut, the first of the trip, was a decidedly Asian inspired bob with a straight bang. Ron got his hedge-like hair mowed down mostly on the sides and back, but leaving some height a la Kramer. His hair grows like a Chia pet so this has been his 3rd or 4th cut.

We both sported the ultra fashionable Chinese bamboo hats, although mine was ten times too small. I wanted to get one Sushi sized, as a Halloween costume, but I hesitated at one shop and never found the size on offer again. What a shame, she would have been an adorably cute Chinese cat.

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