amy and brandon’s southeast asia journal

December 4, 2013

End of the Road

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 10:52 pm

All right. Here we are in Chicago, where we had and indecently long layover. Still, it’s a good way to spend that extra night you need to adjust back to your regular schedule. We enjoyed a delicious Polish buffet for dinner, and I’m glad to be back in a country that’s nice and chilly and sufficiently decked out for Christmas.

So the last day in Bangkok was… well, it was the last day of the trip, in the sense of being in Southeast Asia. I was tired and kind of over the whole “dirty, smelly city with lots of annoying touts and sparkly Buddhist temples” thing, but it was still not a bad day. There were even a few perks. The first being, we were right there, folks. Right in amongst it. That’s right, boys and girls: the Bangkok protests. We were so certain we’d be sensible and avoid those areas of the city, “just to be on the safe side.” Little did we know that they’d camped out right in an area known as “Democracy Circle,” which happens to be near a few tourist attractions. It really was not at all intimidating. It reminded of all the photos I’d seen of Occupy Wall Street, with people just, ya know, camping out. They had a kind of rally going on all day (we were in that area for several hours and heard a lot of the stuff while we were looking at more temples), with people yelling and singing badly. There were street carts and vendors everywhere, selling Thailand T-shirts and whistles and hats and food and water bottles and everything else you could need while protesting/camping in the middle of a big city. It was fascinating.

The other perk for me personally was that after Brandon had his final fitting at Rajawongse, they thre in a complimentary pashmina for me! And they just so happened to pick out lilac, one of my very favorite colors. It was such a nice end to the trip.

Tokyo was pretty cool. So big! I mean, just huge! We didn’t really experience that shoulder-to-shoulder crowdedness everyone thinks of with Tokyo. I was actually surprised at how spacious everything seemed. We really enjoyed walking through the Shinjuku Nyogen Gardens, though I know they’d be just breathtaking in spring and summer, with cherry blossoms and roses blooming. We were too late to really see the Tsukiji Fish Market in action, but we at least got there in time to see a few lingering stalls open and, most importantly, to eat some fresh, delicious sushi. Wow! Those were pretty much the highlights of our day, then it was back to the airport for our long flight back to the States.

Said flight, operated by American Airlines, was sadly kind of pitiful compared to our Japan Airlines flight over to Asia. I mean, JAL is 4-star, and I think American is just 3-star, but still… I guess we’d gotten spoiled. Anyway, we crossed the border just fine, got to our hotel, and I’ve pretty much brought us back to the beginning of this post. We return home tomorrow, and I can’t wait. I’m ready for my routine and my kitties and my kitchen and my car and my mountains and CHRISTMAS!!! Still, it’s been a great trip. I may even write one more post here tomorrow to reflect on it on a grander scale. Maybe.

December 2, 2013

Touring Bangkok

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 11:19 am

Today I was impressed by Bangkok’s network of public transportation. While the tuk-tuk (motorcycle-drawn rickshaw type thing) is still the most iconic form of transportation, and auto taxis are ubiquitous, Bangkok has been slowly putting together a grid of rail and boat systems that interconnect and cover most of the city. We experienced firsthand the unreliability of the train system yesterday, but the new subway is clean and fast, and connects with one brand new elevated line to Suvarnabhumi Airport and older two elevated train lines. The elevated lines also connect with two boat lines, one that takes you up and down the Chao Phraya river and has over 30 pier “stations,” and another which takes you east/west along the Saen Saep canal. While the lines are all run by different companies and therefore each requires a separate fare, all are affordable with the most expensive fare (most are based on distance) being about $1.50. Public transportation is very popular with locals; when we were on the train back from Ayutthaya it was obviously rush hour and the train was packed, but as I looked out the window to the street running parallel traffic was very light. We experienced the same level of “congestion” aboard the elevated train and even aboard the Chao Phraya boat during the heavy commuter times. The existence of such an extensive system provides yet further evidence of the relative prosperity of Thailand; it is the only country in Southeast Asia to have any kind of metro system and it felt just as modern as Hong Kong’s.

This came in very handy today as we took a short walk from Yaorawat Road down to the Chao Phraya and Rachawongse Pier, where we caught a boat north to a pier literally right across the street from our first tourist visit, the Grand Palace. One of the most expensive sites for us to visit at 500 Baht (about $15 - second to the Temples of Angkor at $40, but far dwarfing any third place contender as the vast majority of the sites we visited on this trip cost $5 or less, often less than $2).

The Palace is connected to the Monastery of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), one of the most beautiful places I have seen in my lifetime. Essentially it took the ante set by Cambodia’s Royal Palace and doubled down. Unlike many of the temples we have seen on this trip, this was immaculately maintained and absolutely gilded. Photos really cannot do this place justice but every building was encrusted with gold and jewels, and there were buildings upon buildings, as well as jewel-laden statues and stupas upon stupas. The adjoining Palace was in my mind not quire as impressive as Cambodia’s, but still imposing. It was however entirely diminished by its juxtaposition to the incredible monastery.

We saw two other sites today: Wat Pho, home of the intimidatingly large Reclining Buddha; in this photo you can see his state of repose and a hint of the bottoms of his feet, which are encrusted with mother of pearl - and Wat Arun, which is covered from head to toe in beautiful broken ceramic.

After these sites, we headed to dinner. Last night, we had a taste of street food with noodles, shark fin soup, and donuts with a green colored fruit dip. Tonight we checked TripAdvisor looking for the best authentic Thai food in a convenient location. I felt a little bad when our pick ended up being in a five star hotel, but it was highly regarded and we were not disappointed. All of the food felt like entirely authentic Thai cuisine and the presentation was not what one would find in a Stateside Thai restaurant. Few Thai restaurants would expect you to assemble your own food, and on account of this this starter we had felt more authentically Southeast Asian, as everywhere in Vietnam and Cambodia we were expected to do so. As the restaurant we called Smooth Curry, both of us opted for curry - red curry with duck (and lychee and pineapple) and yellow curry with beef and egg and noodles. The flavors were far richer than what I would expect from a Stateside Thai curry, and did not lean on spiciness as a crux.

After dinner I went for my first fitting at Rajawongse where one pair of suit pants was mostly ready and the jacket was in very rough form. Jesse noted some adjustments and I will return tomorrow for another fitting. All in all, a good day. This is also our last night in a hotel so this may be my last post until my return. Tomorrow we have another full day in Bangkok with a minimal agenda, and then we fly to Tokyo for a ten hour stopover. Hopefully we can recap this part of the trip upon our return. Cheers!


Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 9:43 am

Amy here. And I am WIPED OUT. Today was killer. We saw some cool stuff, but there was a lot of walking around in the sun, and I got burned fairly early on, and you know how a sunburn will just zap you. So I spent the rest of the day playing catch-up, in an energy sense. Plus we got to the entrance of the Royal Palace, and I was told I was dressed inappropriately, so I had to run back to the entrances to the grounds and pay an $8 deposit on a loaner skirt. Which was just annoying. Still, we got to see some awesome stuff. The small Emerald Buddha (in actuality, jade) and all the religious buildings surrounding its chapel. The Monastery, they call it, though no monks live there. All the buildings are decked out in intricate mosaics and shimmering tiles. The Palace itself wasn’t outstanding, but, of course, was still cool. I personally was most impressed by the Reclining Buddha, which is HUGE. I mean… longer than our house in Lexington, easily. The last stop of the touring day was Wat Arun, which is like an un-ruined version of the ruins we saw yesterday. These were covered in the same kind of tilework and mosaic work we’ve been seeing on newer buildings in Thailand (like the Emerald Buddha Monastery buildings). We climbed up to the tippy top and saw some good views of the city.

After our touring, we traipsed around quite a bit to get an nicer Thai restaurant inside a fancy hotel. It was pretty good. Brandon went for his second suit fitting, while I read a Time magazine from last month (cool article about cooks and food writers) and drank a complimentary Coke. I swear, I was so tired, a Coke has never tasted so darn good.

Speaking of tired, I’m done writing. Next entry from Tokyo airport…??

December 1, 2013

Shanghai Mansion and Ayutthaya

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 12:41 pm

I don’t want to overshadow Amy’s far superior (and overdue) post below, so please make sure you read that. But I wanted to add a few thoughts.

I did not mention in my previous posts our accommodation in Bangkok. We are staying in Bangkok’s Chinatown, a bustling and conveniently-located area, within walking distance of both the central train station and most of the sites along the Chao Phraya. At night Chinatown is lined with what is purported to be among Bangkok’s best street food. We are staying at the Shanghai Mansion; after having stayed at mostly “4-star” places during our Vietnam/Cambodia tour, which were mostly lovely but relatively similar in style with a couple exceptions, this boutique hotel stands out in its design. Our room is gorgeous and littered with beautiful lanterns; there is even a birdcage in the shower; the central spaces also impress. I’ll also add to tie this in with my previous post that the breakfast selection included several “dim sum” including little shrimp dumplings; I enjoyed this very much. They also had guava juice (pictured - the first I have seen it thus far) along with pineapple and orange, the first time I have encountered pog since Hawaii.

Today we ventured to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam. Amy did a pretty good jobs describing the day’s adventure though I will say I didn’t feel at all unsafe pedaling across the bridge as the motorists mostly left us alone and there was plenty of room to pedal in the shoulder area; in every Asian country I have visited, all available road space is put to some use and this was the use the shoulder was put to. Here’s a picture of the most iconic of Ayutthaya’s temples. I had a good time riding around; once we got off the main street and into the historic area it was a pretty relaxed ride and we didn’t share the road with many cars. There was bicycle parking in front of each of the temples; obviously we are not the first tourists to take this route!

Coming back as Amy said was a bit crowded: the train we were on had been delayed almost two hours; this itself didn’t particularly affect us as we arrived about 45 minutes before its rescheduled departure. But the delays certainly contributed to the overcrowding. I should have perhaps anticipated this and we could have avoided standing for an hour (out of the 1h45m total travel time) by upgrading from third to second class, but both of our other times on the train in third class had been fine, with plenty of space. In any case, you can read Amy’s post below for more details on what we accomplished on our return. The only thing I will add is I found it odd that so many places were closed when we went out looking for dinner around 8pm. It wasn’t clear if they were closed because it was too late in the evening or because it was a Sunday, but contrasting this with just one block up which was alive with life even closing in on midnight with locals out enjoying street food, and the seating for the carts pouring out into the street and filling one lane on each side, was confusing. Chinatown was hopping on Sunday night yet all the establishments just one block off Yaorawat Road were shuttered. We’ll have to explore further tomorrow.

Catching Up

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 12:32 pm

So Brandon’s been on my case about how slow I am at writing blog posts. So I guess I have some catching up to do. Unfortunately, I’m pretty worn out and may have to trim things down a bit from what I’d originally imagined.

I wanted to highlight a few things about our last day in Siem Reap, since it was one of my favorite days of the trip so far. We began with a ride in an oxcart, and ours was one of the few that still retained its old wooden wagon wheels; it was a bumpy ride, but it felt kind of, you know, authentic. We got to see a lot of rural Cambodia that seems to be relatively unbothered by the country’s young tourism industry. With the humidity down in the 60% range (when compared to the previous days’ 90+% range) and the sun beaming in bright blue skies, it was wonderful.

I thought for sure that the oxcart would be the highlight of the day, but it just got better. We hopped aboard a longboat and started our way toward the Tonle Sap River. I wasn’t sold on the boat at first, but another tour member and I figured out that we could relax on the flat bow of the boat, where we could take in the scenery and the sun. Again, breathtaking. And again, it got better. We moved from our longboat into smaller flat canoes — two per boat — and were rowed around a large mangrove forest. Brandon has already that he and I both (independently, I may add!) thought this would be an idyllic setting for our ever-elusive wedding ceremony, and it certainly was breathtaking.

After all this fun, we spent a good deal of time in our hotel’s large, beautiful pool, where we also enjoyed Happy Hour with some of our tour group friends. Brandon & I then headed into the center of town for a really delicious dinner and some shopping. I’ll have to say here that Brandon described the area as pretty touristy because of all the neon lights. I guess it was, on some level, but I still found it to be fun and, in its own way, relaxing. I guess it felt like a beach town or something. The way beach towns felt before they all turned into Myrtle Beach. Anyway, the magnificent weather again factored into the “paradise” feeling of this last full day in Cambodia. And as a final note, we got to take a peek into a crocodile farm (there’s one next to the restaurant where we ate) and see a bunch of crocodiles and baby crocodiles settling in for the evening.

The next day found us bidding farewell not only to Cambodia but to our tour friends. It was sad leaving both, and I hope to keep in touch with those special people and my memories from those special countries. Our transition to Bangkok was easy enough, as Brandon has described. So far we can’t tell that there’s anything unusual going on. No one seems bothered by the “political unrest.” The tailor where Brandon went to get measured for his bespoke suit was having internet trouble because of the “shutdown” (sound familiar? National Parks??), but that’s it. Speaking of, that was an interesting experience. Very “hustle and bustle”-y, and I didn’t care for it much. I guess because it was a cramped, crowded little shop. I sure hope the clothes are worth it, but everything Brandon has read suggests they are.

On to today. Oh, the things I could write about today… It’s been overwhelming, I feel, in many ways. I’ll do the best I can to succinctly describe some of it. We started the day with a big Asian-hotel breakfast buffet, then while Brandon worked on the computer, I got a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf beverage from the lobby and sat in the semi-outdoors lounge area waiting for him to show up. I waxed prosaic on the back of a receipt but didn’t really observe anything worth much of anything.

Anyway. Our big plan for the day was to head up to Ayutthaya, the island town that used to be the capital of Thailand and where you’re able to visit lots of temple and palace ruins. We got on a clanky, stuffy third class carriage and began the super slow journey there. It was made all the more pleasant by the Londoner seated across the aisle from us, who was very friendly and chatty and eager to share with us how much he loved America and his time living there. (”I overstayed my visa by about 4 years, 9 months,” he told us. INS wasn’t pleased when they figured this out, so the poor guy can’t come back the States for awhile. They put him on a 10-year “probation.”) Very interesting. I wish we’d gotten his name, at least.

Ayutthaya itself was crazy. There are a couple ways to do it, and the one we chose was cycling. We picked up some bikes from a roadside stand for the steep price of about $1.25 each for the whole day. None of them were great, and a few meters down the road, I realized that mine hiccuped every few rotations or so. Scared the crap out of me at first, but I decided I could live with it, as long as I didn’t accelerate too much. Of course, I’d forgotten who I was riding with (a man who waits for no man), and I often found myself up to several blocks behind him. Anyway, to get to the actual island, one must cross a bridge, and if one is on a bicycle, one must cross this bridge with all the four plus lanes of traffic (car, motorbike, etc.). It was terrifying. But I did it. It’s easier when you remember that people here are very used to driving with motorbikes and bicycles on the road, and sharing the road is very easy for all involved. My tin can of a bike didn’t boost my confidence much, but we made it.

The ruins were pretty cool. I like climbing all over them, myself. One in particular, though, will probably always stand out in my mind as the closest I’ve knowingly come to some odd horror movie kind of incident. In brief (well, as brief as possible), one the towers — called prang — in one of the ruins is intact enough that people can walk inside it. To do this, you walk up several sets of outside steps and steps, then you finally get into the prang. Once inside, you can inch your way up some small stairs to an “altar” kind of area, or you can inch your way down some even smaller stairs into a very narrow and cramped little space, supposedly which leads to an area adorned my ancient murals. Well, the two of us made our way inside and first went up. It was interesting enough, but it stank to high Heaven. Mostly, it smelled badly of pee. There was a little altar area set up in this upper chamber, complete with an offering of two tea cups. I couldn’t help but wonder if they contained pee instead of tea. Guess I’ll never know. But I digress.

As we’d been climbing around, I’d noticed a young Thai kid about 12 years old or so, kind of dawdling around. I’d encountered this at the temple ruins we visited in Cambodia on Friday: being followed by a Cambodian woman, trying to push some kind of herb on me, and if I’d taken it, she’d insist on telling my fortune for me for one dollah or perhaps two dollah. I ain’t no fool. I ignored her. My plan was to ignore this kid, too, but he never spoke to us. Instead, he wormed his way down the stairs into that narrow chamber and virtually disappeared. I hadn’t the faintest idea what was up, so I ignored him and checked out the view from the windows up top (trying to forget that pee smell). I finally decided to check out those downward stairs and maybe find the murals we’d read about, and I assumed the kid had gone to harass other tourists or… something. Anyway. Made it down the first set of frightening stairs. Felt cramped, and the pee smell worsened, but I was distracted by a next of baby birds (pigeons??) that was settled snugly onto a ledge near the stairs. Possibly the source of the smell, but still cute. I was determined to soldier on, though. Down the next set of cramped, stuffy, narrow stairs, which led me right to…

Well, I don’t even know. It sort of looked like, perhaps, a small doorway or cave-like entrance, but all I could see in it was that kid. Just freakin standing there like some kind of Thai child of the corn. I simply said, “Yep, there’s a person there,” and I turned and bolted back up those awful, stinky, cramped stairs. When I got back up to the main level of this tower, it felt like I’d come up for air after swimming to the bottom of a swimming pool’s deep end. I don’t know if it was heat or claustrophobia or the smell or that kid… but I was glad to be free of it.

Brandon, of course, is even more fearless than I am (okay, I am, typically, a pretty fearless person, despite how this account may make me appear to the contrary!), so he bounded on down there and disappeared. I was — I kid you not — already envisioning how this demon child had abducted him and begun offering him as a sacrifice to Beelzebub. Then he came be-boppin’ back up the stairs, unscathed. He didn’t mention demon-child but simply asked me if I’d seen the murals. I hadn’t, of course.

So that was that.

We also saw people riding on elephants, which was cool. And other ruins. And a huge golden Buddha. Then, after returning our rickety old bikes, we boarded a late, crowded 3rd class carriage back to the city. I stood up for a good portion of it and got to look out the train door, which remained open for the whole ride. It was pretty uncomfortable, but I did enjoy seeing a brilliant orange-yellow bonfire against the pink-and-purple sunset over some rice paddies. The whole day was worth it for that.

This evening saw us desperately wandering around Chinatown for some restaurants we’d hoped to try based on a pamphlet from our hotel. We never found them. We settled for street food, which we’d heard was unbeatable in this part of the city, and it was pretty tasty. Noodles, wontons, shark fin soup, pomegranate juice, and this doughnut things that come with some sort of papaya pudding to dip them in. We ended the day with a walk-in-off-the-street Thai massage (about $6.25 each for an hour), which I guess I wasn’t fully prepared for because they pretty much beat the crap out of you to make you more flexible. I was hoping for a little work on my sore ribs, but the guy (yes, guy) basically just popped a bunch of joints. I didn’t realize how ticklish I am, and I had to find to not burst into fits. That was also an un-relaxing aspect of it because the whole thing required a lot of mind-over-matter. No falling asleep here…

Final thoughts on our first full day in Bangkok: It’s a city. Lots of cool stuff, good food, interesting people. And it’s dirty and stinky. Phnom Penh was particularly dirty and stinky, too. I guess I notice it more here because we’re left to our devices more here. Wandering around and whatnot. It just… smells weird. What’s worse is that our hotel room smells weird, too. Stinky. Kind of like the backstreets. I’m not a fan. It’s a beautiful room, and I know we’re very lucky to be here. But it is making me appreciate my home and the town where I live even more!

Hmm. Well, so much for succinct. Also, it’s past midnight here, so forgive any typos. I am not about to go back and edit this monster.

November 30, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 10:15 pm

I have neglected to discuss the food we have enjoyed on our trip which is a cardinal sin considering both how much foodies we are and how many photos of food I have taken (I have photographed every course). The food in Vietnam was phenomenal and incredibly diverse. Certainly there were staples which appeared again and again - noodles and spring rolls - but even within these, there was incredible diversity in what kind of meats and vegetables were used, the presentation and preparation. One of our very best meals was $2 beef pho prepared just behind the curb; we sat in cafeteria style seats among locals. This was a noodle shop recommended by our guide, but I believe we were the only brave souls who did not enjoy that meal in the hotel.

Since we were traveling with the tour group, many of our meals were included and some of the presentations were quite extravagant: look at the peacock presentation of these spring rolls, and these marzipan-style sweets. We were also spoiled at breakfast, included at the hotel every day; all were extensive but my favorite by far were those that offered a wide variety of Asian cuisine; I was by far the most adventurous eater on our tour at breakfast but I almost always preferred the rice porridge (with meat or seafood) to waffles and cereal.

Because Vietnam is a long, narrow country spread out along the coast of the “China Sea,” seafood featured heavily and it was generally excellent.

In Cambodia, there was far less variety. Not to say the food was bad but it did often start to run together. A lot of it was similar to Vietnamese but with fewer options; however there were some unique items such as Khmer-style barbeque which you prepare at your table.

In both countries, beer was cheap, ubiquitous, and local. The local wine, however, was pretty bad and the imported stuff, mostly from France and Chile, was expensive, so we generally opted for the beer which was pretty good and cheaper often even than juice. Cocktails were often extremely cheap as well, with happy hour prices hovering at about $2-$2.50; we did try some Vietnamese vodka and it was not bad.

Before arriving in southeast Asia, however, I viewed the biggest draw for Vietnam as its history and culture; Cambodia, its architecture (both ancient and modern); and Thailand, its food. With that in mind, I am sure I will have more to share in the days to come.

Arrival in Bangkok

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 8:09 am

Our arrival in Bangkok this afternoon was not only uneventful but lucky; our flight departed and arrived early, allowing us to arrive at Don Mueang rail station and catch the 1:45 train with seconds to spare (there would be another, more expensive train at 2:15, but no more until 4:15 - with the long queues at immigration there was a real concern that had the flight been on time we would have missed the 2:15). Taking the train rather than a taxi was extremely economical (5 baht or about 15 cents - compared with at least 200 baht for a taxi) and convenient; our hotel is very near to the central rail station Hua Lamphong. The trains in Bangkok are slow and unpredictable but overall efficient.

After checking into the hotel we took the subway and were impressed by how clean and well managed the stations are. Overall it is readily apparent upon arrival in Bangkok that this country is far more prosperous than Vietnam and Cambodia. The streets are filled with cars rather than motorbikes; there is little begging or hassling on the street; everything is clean; stores are in proper spaces rather than shacks; the people are more well dressed and generally just give off an aura of comfort. On our flight from REP to DMK we were seated next to a very talkative Thai who wanted to tell us about everything there is to do in Bangkok and heavily reassure us that we should not be concerned about the political situation. Indeed, we have seen no sign of the protests since our arrival though everyone is certainly mindful of it and it is all over the newspapers and TV news.

This evening we visited Rajawongse Clothiers, where I will be getting possibly my only “souvenirs” from this trip - bespoke clothing, for which Bangkok is famous. I picked out fabric for two suits and four shirts. While several of our tourmates in Vietnam had clothes made in Hoi An, I held out for Rajawongse, a tailor shop with a paramount reputation; they count among their clientele numerous heads of state. Indeed I felt the attention was personal from the father-and-son proprietors and while the price is high, from what I have read the value is unbeatable for expertly tailored menswear. I will be returning Monday and Tuesday evenings for fittings and they will Fedex the final products to me in the new year. Actually, this visit provided the only evidence so far of the protests, as Victor pointed out that their public-serviced internet has gone out due to the opposition severing the communication lines. He is very dependent on the internet for business and expressed his frustration at the situation (luckily, it appeared he would be able to tether his computer to his private-serviced cellular service in the interim). I presume there must be competing public and private internet services and that our hotel utilizes the latter, as internet service is uninterrupted here.

After our visit to Rajawongse, we were lured into a nearby pub by the siren song of a sandwich board advertising a special of “Thanksgiving leftovers” - an open faced turkey sandwich topped with stuffing and accompanied by cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. I wasn’t expecting much despite being unable to resist this “make up” for missing Thanksgiving, but it was excellent. We will certainly be doing Thai for our remaining three dinners as the food here was perhaps the biggest draw for our visit, but we did not regret this lapse in “authenticity.”

Tomorrow we plan to visit Ayutthaya on schedule, and in the days to come will tour around Bangkok despite the unfortunate loss of our guide. So far everything is calm and I have to say I really enjoy Bangkok thus far; everything is clean and there have been remarkable few folks bothering us in the streets for tuk tuk rides and shopping. While it seems Bangkok is decidedly more expensive than the cities we visited previously, there are still pockets of great value: lots of places on the street advertise 1 hour massages for 250 baht - about $8 - this is far cheaper than the already-great-value $17 massages we got in Vietnam. I am sure we will indulge, perhaps more than once.

November 29, 2013

Siem Reap

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 6:03 am

As Amy indicated, we saw a lot of temples during our three-day stay in Siem Reap. These included Bayon (Angkor Thom), Angkor Wat, Banteay Srey, Ta Prohm, Bakong (Roluos), and others. The town of Siem Reap itself is small but full of neon lights directing you to the night markets and Pub Street, the equivalent of the Third Street Promenade and similar drags. All the neon certainly makes this feel like a tourist haven, and it is, essentially just being a base camp for visits to the dozens of Angkor and pre-Angkor temples in the vicinity, but thankfully it hasn’t become too trashy or too aggressive yet.

Our last day in Cambodia also included some very idyllic riverboating, including a serene row through what felt like the jungle, trees crawling out through the water. Amy and I agreed this was a magical place, one we could envision our wedding ceremony taking place, surrounded by half-exposed trees, though I’m not sure logistically if it could work.

Today we also say goodbye to our tourmates; tomorrow we fly to Bangkok. As you may be aware there are currently members of an opposition party occupying most of the government buildings. As a result of the political unrest, the tour guide we had booked for two half day tours has cancelled those arrangements. Bangkok was essentially “on our own” anyway and we intended to mostly make independent arrangements but the cancellation of our escort around the city is disappointing. From the news reports all appears to be safe and peaceful so hopefully nothing significant stands in our way of seeing the city and surroundings. We may opt to walk around on our own or see if our hotel can book another guide for us. In any case, we will be spending about four days there before the final leg of our trip - ten hours in Tokyo.

November 28, 2013

Temple Town

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 9:41 am

Well, we’re in Siem Reap now, home of coughcoughbignumberofcough temples. It’s beautiful. To be honest, I like it a lot more than Phnom Penh. It’s green and lush and fairly jungle-y, which complements the abundance of temple ruins quite nicely. There are even monkeys around the ruins, to complete the picture. Yesterday we saw Bayon, famous for its four-face towers, and the iconic Angkor Wat. (Literally iconic, as it appears on Cambodia’s national flag.) Today’s temples were Ta Phrom, which I believe is called “The Tomb Raider Temple” because it was used in that film. It’s known for the trees that have grown on top of the ruins and feed off the moss, and apparently a good deal of the filming happened on location here. We also saw one nicknamed “The Lady Temple” because of its finely detailed carvings all about, suggesting that women are better at such work and must have done the craftsmanship on this particular temple. There was one other that didn’t particularly stand out to me, but I’m sure Brandon can fill in the gaps. We’ll see somewhere between one and three tomorrow, plus go on another river cruise and an oxcart ride. The icing on the temple cake was getting to return to Angkor Wat this morning to see it with the sun rising behind it.

One particularly interesting aspect of the temples here is that they blend Buddhist and Hindu influences. Cambodia is a fair mix of both religions and apparently has been for many centuries. The tradition is that the country is officially the religion of the current king, whatever that may be. Some of these temples may have been built with religion symbols from one, then reinterpreted years later, upon discovery, as the other. Take Bayon, for instance, known for the four faces. It was built with the understanding that each was a face of Buddha (and Cambodian Buddhists only believe there was one Buddha, whose name I’ve forgotten at the moment), but when it was discovered after years of abandonment, it was thought to be a temple to Brahma, one of the Hindu gods, who is often believed to appear in a four-face incarnation. There are stories like this all over these temples (including how some Buddha faces were “re-carved” with beards to hide their original images and to be passed off as images of Hindu priests).

The extreme heat-humidity double whammy here in Siem Reap has somewhat dampened everyone’s enjoyment of the unforgettable landmarks. Yesterday and today were around 92F with about 93% humidity. Pretty rotten. Confession: we actually cut out some of the temples on today’s itinerary because we were all wiped out. After the sunrise adventure, especially. Brandon and I came back to the hotel room for a well-deserved nap!

I can’t forget the fact that today is THANKSGIVING!!! It would have been easy to, believe you me. There’s nothing here remotely reminiscent of it, though I will say that we’ve seen Christmas start to sneak in a bit. Still, no turkey, stuffing, or football. Nevertheless, Brandon and I indulged in a uniquely Cambodian dining experience — probably our most expensive meal on the trip so far — which I justified as an homage to the feast we’re missing out on back home. For the curious among you, it’s similar to fondue, where a small brick pit with heat (coals, I believe??) is brought to your table, and you cook veggies, broth, and cuts of meat over it on a UFO-shaped metal dome. I’m crossing fingers that photos will be posted soon. Anyway, it seemed a proper way to celebrate the bounty of creation as made available through unlikely sources, which (hopefully) is at least a fragment of what Thanksgiving is all about.

Though it’s not even 10pm here, I feel like I’ve worn myself out and stayed up past my bedtime to write this. These temples and high temperatures take it out of a person! To quickly wrap up, I’ll note that tomorrow is our last day with the tour group, and on Saturday we venture to Bangkok, which, unfortunately, has gotten a little more press coverage lately than I’d like to hear for a city I’m traveling to. Prayers appreciated.

P.S. Thanks to those of you who’ve been commenting. Much appreciated, and we miss you!

November 26, 2013

Phnom Penh, by Amy

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 10:00 pm

Brandon has once again done a great job describing our day yesterday. We’re presently sitting in the airport, waiting to board our flight to Siem Reap, where we’ll see loads of temples and, most excitedly, Angkor Wat (which is featured on the flag of Cambodia). It is hot HOT HOT here in Cambodia! It made it a little hard to focus yesterday, but we still enjoyed the sites. I’ve fallen in love with the architecture, which I believe Brandon was praising yesterday, too.

One quick thought about yesterday’s touring: the Pol Pot Killing Fields. It was moving, of course, but I was struck by the abundance of butterflies there. Butterflies, of course, are sort of a universal symbol of resurrection and starting anew. Kind of like little phoenixes that, you know, aren’t mythical. It just seemed so poetic that nature has sort of proffered this symbol of hope without any prompting. I found it really inspiring.

Well, the hustle and bustle of the airport and the added responsibility I had of checking in the entire tour group because our guide was not permitted in the airport has me a little distracted right now. Don’t think I’ll come up with much more to say. Off to Siem Reap!

Phnom Penh

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 5:35 am

Today was a busy day with a full day tour of Cambodia’s capital city. Phnom Penh is also Cambodia’s most populous city but comparing it to HCMC is night and day. Crossing the streets in Saigon was essentially just committing yourself into the intersection and weaving your way through an unrelenting slew of motorbikes. Phnom Penh feels like one tenth the city.

What we saw here ran the gamut. We started our day exploring the legacy of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, visiting Tuol Sleng, where prisoners were kept and tortured nearby, and the Killing Fields, where they were executed and buried in mass graves. Our guide, whose family included several victims of the Khmer Rouge, did a good job providing context to what we were seeing and overall the sites were well presented: the former, a converted high school, allowed you to view the cells and torture chambers, and, because Pol Pot kept thorough documentation, rows upon rows of photos of the victims. The latter featured a stupa stacked to the ceiling with the skulls of victims and an opportunity to visit the many mass graves; overall it was laid out similar to the memorial at Son My.

After this, we visited the Russian Market, which was divided roughly in half with part for locals featuring food and an eclectic array of power tools and tires; the other half was an assortment of touristy tchotchkes; as a result, this didn’t remotely compare in authenticity to the markets we saw on the Delta.

After this, we visited the magnificent Royal Palace, which was probably the highlight of the day for me. The Khmer flair you see in the rooftops of Cambodian temples and palaces is a favorite architectural element of mine, and it was at its most opulent here. I wish we could have spent more time here but we were running a bit behind schedule and as one of my tourmates observed, the day consisted of “torture, torture, torture, then jogging through all the art and culture.” Indeed, after our trip to the palace, we hustled to the National Museum, arriving half an hour before closing time, and got precious little time to view its collection of sculpture from pre- to post-Angkor, as well as its charming courtyard.

Overall, my impression of Cambodia so far is that it is a bit more relaxed than Vietnam. The country seems to be struggling a bit in ways Vietnam was quite abreast of its situation. For example, Cambodia is heavily reliant upon the US Dollar. Locals actually turn up their nose at the Cambodian Riel and price everything in dollars. Most ATMs dispense only dollars and do not even provide an option to withdraw riel; contrast that with Vietnam where all ATMs by law must dispense only Dong and everything is priced as such (in thousands).

Upon arrival in Cambodia yesterday our bus had to board a ferry to cross the Mekong. Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s metropolis, sits on the west bank of the Mekong and there is no bridge which crosses the river either at Phnom Penh or anywhere south. As we ferried across we could see a half-completed bridge that our guide suggested might be complete by 2015. Trying to imagine our most populous city with no Hudson River crossings is unfathomable. Vietnam, on the other hand, had numerous crossings of each river in the cities we visited. As Amy mentioned in her post some of our tourmates were happy to be visiting a country early in its “development” and this is certainly an example of its status; it was suggested Burma (Myanmar) might also be another place to visit soon before it is “overrun” by tourism.

I think I will take a swim on the rooftop pool before we decide what to do with the evening. Tomorrow we fly to Siem Reap where we will spend three nights and three days touring the Angkor complex and various surrounding temples.

November 25, 2013

Last Impressions of Vietnam, First of Cambodia

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 10:00 am

Brandon did a pretty good job summing up our last day and a half in Vietnam: the “slice of life” look at life on the Mekong, the hustle and bustle of HCMC, the difficult experience of the War Remnants Museum. Concerning the latter, I feel like an effective display in a museum of this sort makes one walking away feeling moved (possibly even to tears) and perhaps desiring to be part of efforts toward peace and humanitarianism in the future. I left these exhibits feeling ashamed to be an American and very… I don’t know, angry, I guess, but I’m not sure who with. We absolutely must face the atrocities of war and particularly with the inhumane way the Vietnam War was fought, but I feel like a better-done museum would have moved us in a more profound way.

The rest of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) was pretty nice, though we got dumped on by a huge rain. Plus we had to say good-bye to several of our fellow travelers, and we were all feeling a little tired. I personally found our little venture up to the top of Bitexco Tower to be really cool because I’d never seen a view quite like it. Lots of lights and busy-ness. Today’s trip the Co Chi Tunnels was interesting enough, I suppose, but Brandon’s use of the word “carnival” was pretty appropriate. The really old (think, “could be a short at the beginning of a Mystery Science Theater 3000″ kind of thing) video we watched on the bus definitely mentioned “cruel Americans” several times, so the few Yanks we have in our group toyed with the idea of taking on British or Australian accents for the rest of the day. Also, I kind of got “voluntold” to try out one of the original entrances to the tunnels, and… you guessed it, I got stuck. That is now in the running for most embarrassing moment ever.

Anyway. We moved on to Cambodia, and I’ve had some mixed first impressions. One is that “the people are really beautiful here.” Another is that “the buildings (read: ‘temples’) are really beautiful here.” Yet another, however is, “Boy, I thought Vietnam had a lot of trash everywhere.” And it’s certainly true, the infrastructure of some these countries that haven’t been open to tourists very long has not yet caught up with the budding tourism industry. Several of us on the trip have mentioned that we actually think it’s kind of nice, seeing the country before it’s gotten too “sterilized” for Westerners. I wish it could pretty much stay this way, only with less trash everywhere. Anyway, I’m excited about seeing more of this area, and I’m sure we’ll both write more about the culture, the people, the temples, etc. It’s exciting to be in a new country.

Southern Vietnam

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 6:00 am

I post this from Phnom Penh, where we have just arrived; we will spend approximately one week in Cambodia. Since my last post, we spent a couple days in the south of Vietnam experiencing two distinct areas.

First we experienced “life on the Mekong” where the river is a bustling abode of commerce, locals selling food by boat. Visiting the Delta felt far more authentic than any sense of local life I had encountered in China. Visiting the floating and grounded markets felt exactly like a slice of the real lives of these people and it certainly felt we were encountering real people making real transactions, going about their daily lives. It is these meetings with Life that are often the most fascinating - and sometimes the most-skimped-on - components of travel abroad. When the touts step back and commerce becomes an opt-in initiative, I most feel “at home” among a swarm of faces.

Our next stop was Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), where we visited the War Remnants Museum, the most famous museum in Vietnam about the American War. Compared to the memorial at Son My, this felt a lot more aggressively one-sided. The most powerful exhibit was one on those affected by Agent Orange: it was essentially a room full of myriad photos of the horrible deformities caused by the chemical. The museum however provided no context for the use of the pesticide in the war and instead just drew us face to face with the awful aftermath. The whole museum was mostly this way, but some of the photographs - culled from various sources - were stunning masterpieces. This was absolutely a necessary visit but I felt it could have been balanced more akin to the massacre memorial.

Following this museum, we also visited some other sites in HCMC: the Notre Dame Cathedral, Old Post Office, and a 52nd-story bar from which HCMC looks like any other bustling metropolis.

Before going on to Cambodia, we took a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels in the morning, a Viet Cong stronghold. This has obviously been presented for tourists (complete with a firing range where you can get your hands on various rifles and machine guns, and a carnival-style presentation of traps used by the VC) but it was interesting to see the Vietnamese ingenuity firsthand which so befuddled our efforts in the War.

I hope Amy will add her thoughts; my next entry will be Khmer.

November 23, 2013

Spoiled rotten

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 10:18 am

Today, all I can think of with Vietnam in mind is, “So. Much. FOOD!” We’ve been pretty spoiled today, with a catered “breakfast box” from the resort where we’d been staying, a southern Vietnam fruit tray on our Mekong Delta longboat tour, lots of free candy samples and tea, a lunch spread that featured elephant’s ear fish, and another prix fixe for dinner that featured… well, I can hardly remember. Brandon was chatting with some of our new tourmates, and they were all agreeing that from their previous travels to China, they were relatively unimpressed with the food. Well, I don’t think anyone could say the same about our Vietnam experience! Even though we’ve had a lot of spring rolls, they’ve always been different. I’ve also been impressed with the little clay pots that meats are often prepared in (tonight’s fish was a great example!). The fruit is great, too, and today I tried some I’ve never had before, including a little grape-type guy called “dragon’s eye.”

Speaking of indulgence, I spent some time at the spa yesterday, with a back/shoulder/neck massage and a classic pedicure. Just something you’ve got to do while in Vietnam! I also enjoyed some poolside reading and puttering around in said pool; I don’t like to travel to exotic places and do ONLY those kinds of things, but I feel it’s okay to take one day in the whole trip to remember that you’re on holiday and act like it!

One of our fellow travellers today was remarking how spoiled she feels, not having to plan much of anything on this trip or be responsible for terribly many decisions. “I get up when they tell me, they have breakfast ready for me, I get on the coach where they drive me to the next place,” etc. It feels truly luxurious to me, and again I used the word “spoiled.”

All this pampering and care makes me feel a little guilty, especially when travelling to country like Vietnam, which suffers great poverty in a lot of places. I feel very exposed and very… I don’t know, like royalty or something weird. I feel I should be travelling here to help people, not take photos of them. Nevertheless, I keep reminding myself that even just being here is something. I now have stories and experiences to take home with me and remember Vietnam by. Maybe that’s planting the seeds for me making more efforts to transfer the things that make me feel “royal” to those who really need them.

As a final note to put it in perspective, I guess it makes leaving my best swimsuit ever in the previous hotel a little more bearable. A whole new light on my “firstworldproblems.”

November 22, 2013

Son My (My Lai)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 7:22 am

After spending most of yesterday enjoying the charming port of Hoi An (a previous post contains a photo of the splendid waterfront; here is a photo of the gate to a gorgeous assembly hall)

Today I took a trip down to the site of the Son My Massacre (which you may know by the slightly less accurate “My Lai”), the first and likely most sobering site related to what the Vietnamese call the American War. The monument, which is at the original site of one of the villages, is straightforward and unslanted. The exhibit begins with an excellent video featuring one of the soldiers who participated in the massacre; he is actually confronted by a survivor of the slaughter, whose family were all victims. The soldier is apologetic but the degree to which he has buried his emotion within him speaks volumes. He insists he was just following orders. Another interview features a soldier whose hands shake and who is visibly disturbed; we learn he later commits suicide and it becomes obvious that these kids have to somehow swallow up this atrocity within themselves to keep on existing.

The rest of the exhibit is in two parts: first, the open air section with the original foundations of many of the burned buildings; second, the gallery of photographs and other artifacts. The presentation is neutral; instead of taking an anti-American tone, the episodes are laid out matter-of-factly, including the heroism of Hugh Thompson, the Army helicopter pilot who saved 12 civilians. The photographs displayed are overpowering.

Overall, the tone of the exhibit is consistent with the tone I have noticed Vietnamese locals take on the subject: there is no anger, only sadness. It seems to be the Vietnamese way to not demonize, to not harbor enmity, but simply to mourn. Certainly you could get a sense of disappointment at the fact that Lt. Calley - the only soldier court martialed and convicted - had his life sentence overturned by Nixon and now is a free man running his family’s jewelry business in Georgia - but like everything else in the exhibit this is stated as fact and without embellishment.

My journey to Son My today was about three hours each way out of Hoi An, and all but one of my tourmates opted to stay at the resort, but I felt this was an essential visit. I feel this was the exactly right way to memorialize this horrible incident.

Tomorrow we fly very early to the south of Vietnam.

November 21, 2013

Hue and Hoi An

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 6:21 am

Whew! The past few days have been something else!

Hue, a city in central Vietnam, had a lot of historical sites for us to take in, such as an Imperial City and the tomb of a Vietnamese king. (The tombs are fascinating, by the way. Kings would basically build “vacation grounds” — home, temples, etc — for themselves get away during their lifetimes there. They’d then be buried after death in a small part of their “vacation grounds,” and all their wives and servants would permanently relocate to the secondary location.) We also got our first taste of the temples in Vietnam, most of which are dedicated to ancestor worship, which is truly fascinating.

We drove to Hoi An yesterday, but not without a few tourist-y, “please buy our crap” stops. One was Marble Mountain, where we could see many buddhas and a cave inside a mountain with more buddhas and lots of stuff carved from local marble. Decent enough, I guess. Before that, though, was the granddaddy of all “follow tourist WOMEN around and pressure them into buying crap” experiences, which, I will add, was right in the middle of a very winding mountain road that made yours truly quite carsick. Awful. I was actually holding up pretty well in the harassment, and I was planning to buy two pairs of pearl earrings and bargain down for them. I thought I walked away with a steal. I got onto the coach, though, and realized that I’d given this horrible person the WRONG DENOMINATION OF BILL. She’d snatched the bills out of my hand and given me an arbitrary amount of change back. Due in part to my carsickness but mostly to my momentary confusion of currency (everything here is in thousands and millions, so all the zeroes run together sometimes), I got seriously swindled. It virtually ruined my day, and it will probably go down as the low point of this whole trip for me; I was (still am, a little) absolutely sick about. (If you want to know exactly how bad the situation was, contact me privately, and I will confess. I won’t offer it up here, though.)

It was hard to stay too terribly cross, though, because we eventually wound up in Hoin An. Boy, is this place cool. Not to sound TOO much like an idiot tourist here, but Hoi An (so far more than any other place) makes me think that I’m, like, in Epcot or the Asia part of Animal Kingdom. I actually said today, “It’s like being in Disney World! Only it’s real!” Brandon has posted some photos, I believe, so you can hopefully see what I mean. The buildings are frozen in time, and it’s just lovely. Quaint, picturesque, spacious, colorful… Some of the words that come to mind. Still lots of vendors selling lots of touristy crap, but there are also a lot of people just buying groceries and flowers and usual stuff. The town is on a river and close to the sea, so there’s water and bridges everywhere. Maybe even a chance for the beach tomorrow! So far we’ve seen a lot of interesting architecture, which blends Chinese and Japanese influences, as well as traditional Vietnamese. We’ve had some great food, and we visited a farming community today, where we “helped” with some garden work and took a short cooking class.

The resort here is pretty lush: pool (with swim-up bar!), spa, fitness center, etc. I’ll be taking advantage of a few small spa services tomorrow, as well as taking in a folk music/dance show. Hopefully the weather will permit some pool time, too. Brandon will take more of a historical route and visit the sobering My Lei Killing Fields. I know it’s an important place to visit in Vietnam, and I’m sorry I’ll miss it. Nevertheless, I’m ready for a day of catching up, and my back is KILLING me (good excuse for a massage). To balance my missing out on this tour site, I may choose to visit a temple and offer some prayer and incense for those who were needlessly killed there.

Speaking of, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning about the religious practices here, particularly that of ancestor worship, which seems most predominant. Like many religions/spiritual paths, this one dictates several aspects of life, and I find it interesting that most of the worship takes place in an altar built at home. Again being the sheltered little American I am, I DO think of Disney’s “Mulan,” but I’m learning more about the real deal here! And, of course, while Chinese culture greatly influenced a deal of Vietnamese culture, the two are not identical, so what I’m learning about and seeing in practice here IS going to be unique to this culture, I believe. Furthermore, I think I may try to take some aspects of it away with and consider them for my own spiritual development: incense (our prayers are like incense to God; focusing all the senses in an act of worship), respect for those who have died in the faith, and making worship a part of home life are three that come to mind.

Well, I’ve rambled enough for one post. More rambling another time.

November 20, 2013

Central Vietnam

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 10:12 am

Our trip has taken us to the central part of the country, where we will spend four nights. Our first stop and the destination of our sleeper car was Hue, the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty. What we saw in Hue continued my recollection of the China trip with us seeing sites that recalled very explicitly the Forbidden City in Beijing. These felt less grand and yet this may only be a reflection of China’s financial resources which it can muster to great effect in restoration. The Marble Mountain in Da Nang recalled Fengdu. Though some of these northern sites evoke the influence of Vietnam’s Chinese rule and culture, overall these sites are more relaxed to visit due to the less aggressive nature of the touts and overall newness (since the 1980s) of Vietnam’s tourism industry.

As we travel further south, I feel a greater separation between China and Vietnam. Hoi An, where we are now, is quite unlike any place I visited in China and almost European, cosmopolitan, in its charming waterfront area. This will be a great place to spend a few days, as we will be doing, and a great way to break up the trip by providing a bit of a slower pace to our travels. Despite the continued bustle of roads shared equally by pedestrians, bicycles, and incessantly honking motorbikes, one feels relaxed walking around Hoi An, which I feel is every bit as deserving of its UNESCO status as the imperial sites.

We have a couples days still in Hoi An before we head south to the Mekong Delta and the military sites of HCMC.

November 19, 2013

The Amy Post on the Past Few Days

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 6:41 pm

So. The first few days in Vietnam…

We were up early Sunday for a trip to Halong Bay, considered the highlight of northern Vietnam. “Halong Bay” means “Descending Dragon Bay,” and there are a few legends about this name. First of all, you have to know that the bay is full of small, round, tall islands, made of limestone. Some of the islands are large enough to inhabit, but very few of them are. One of the legends says the islands formed when fireballs from dragons who had descended upon the Bay to help the locals fight off pirates hit the coldness of the water and solidified, making islands. The other legend says that the mother dragon died during the battle but not before laying her giant dragon eggs in the bay, and the islands are all her eggs. Either way, that’s the idea.

Our experience with the bay was a little less dramatic. We were on a small cruise boat: cabins, dining room, sun deck, happy hour, the works. It was very charming and comfortable, and I loved it! (I think Brandon did, too.) There was a cooking class on making Vietnamese spring rolls in the evening, and tai chi in the morning. We had the chance to swim in the bay around the boat (we did!), and there was also a massage therapist on board, which we did not have time to enjoy.

I said a moment ago that some of the islands are inhabitable but very few are inhabited. Where many of the bay people do live is little floating villages. There are little clusters of the floating homes, and each cluster represents a small fishing community. We got to ride in little boats around one of the bigger ones (Tra Que, perhaps?), and life there is fascinating! The self-sufficiency of the village reminded me a lot of farming communities, but, of course, surrounded by water and the large, round limestone islands.

One of the islands houses a cave, Surprise Cave, full of rock formations such as stalagmites and stalactites. Having seen formations like these elsewhere in the world, it wasn’t exactly a highlight of the trip, and it certainly felt very tourist-y. Nevertheless, it was cool remember that this cavern was housed in a small island. In fact, referring back to the legend that describes each of the islands as a dragon egg, this one particular island would represent an egg from which the dragon already hatched, leaving behind this ornate network of passages.

After a lovely 24-hour period on our little cruise boat, with friendly staff and delicious food and quaint, cozy cabins, we left the bay and hopped on a bus back to Hanoi.

Once in Hanoi, we were pedaled around the Old French Quarter in rickshaw-like contraptions. (The closeness of the word “rickshaw” to “rickety” was noted by me several times during this adventure.) We were up close and personal with Hanoi’s legendary traffic, dominated by motorbikes, but it was still cool to see this part of the city, where locals sell their wares right on the sidewalks, in front of their shops. I especially enjoyed the vibrant colors and sounds of that workaday hubbub pitted against the aging French architecture around it.

For dinner that evening, we had the option of the restaurant at a hotel (where we’d been assigned “day use” rooms to grab a shower and freshen up) or venturing out to the streets. Our guide recommend a particular beef pho spot around the corner from our hotel, so Brandon and I tried that out. It was awesome! It had the feel almost of a cafeteria, with long metal tables punctuated by function-over-form jars of condiments. The food was delicious, and we seemed to be among only locals who enjoyed it, no other tourists. We had to take pen and paper with us to the front, so the lady running the place could write down how much we owed her; she spoke no English, and we spoke no Vietnamese! 80,000 Vietnamese Dong, equivalent to $4. For both of us. We were the only ones from the tour group who ate there, other than our guide, and we were pretty durn proud of ourselves.

Last big stop in this post is the SLEEPER TRAIN. What an adventure! We were fortunate enough that everyone in our group got put on the same carriage, and only one person ended up rooming with people not in our group; and they’re nice people! We all had a little something to drink, our guide put on some music, and we celebrated the birthday of one of our fellow travellers. Sleeping on the train wasn’t exactly “comfortable” in the traditional sense of the word, but we managed it. Yours truly seems to be taking the award of “first to fall asleep” every night of the trip so far, so I had no trouble konking out, and I did so early. In fact, I’ve just woken up on it now, and it’s breakfast time!

November 18, 2013


Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 10:06 am

Many of today’s experiences were reminiscent of experiences past. Today began with tai chi on the sun deck in Halong Bay, which recalls a memorable part of my trip to China and the Yangtze River cruise that was so pivotal.

After we returned from Halong Bay (we also saw some caves in the bay that recalled those Stateside) we took a cyclo-rickshaw tour of Hanoi which recalled the hutongs of Beijing. Unlike those, however, the old part of Hanoi felt living and breathing, while the hutongs of Beijing felt like a show put on by the government. Riding at bicycle speed inside the busy, honking motorcycle filled streets of Hanoi was exhilirating.

Now we are aboard a sleeper train en route to Hue. This of course is reminiscent of overnight trains I’ve taken in Egypt and Morocco. For the first time, however, this is a sleeper cabin… a four-birther. Not the most hygenic, either. And not very fast. The journey from Hanoi to Hue will take longer than my flight from Boston to Tokyo, and also almost 150% as long as driving the same route.

Again no WiFi but I attach a picture of the train cabin. More to come when we get to a hotel. Amy is also working on a post and I’m sure it will be far superior to mine as she has a way with such words.

November 17, 2013

Halong Bay

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 10:07 am

click here for picture

As you can see from the above picture, our tour started off in natural majesty as we cruised overnight through Halong Bay. By starting our tour with a mini cruise we also got an early chance to be introduced to our tourmates. Short post for now as no WiFi aboard, but truly an awe inspiring place filled with hundreds of tall limestone mountains and folks who live most of their lives aboard tiny little houseboats catching fish.

November 16, 2013

Day 1 (ish)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Amy @ 7:53 pm

Hi, all!

Thanks for reading. We successfully got into Vietnam and had a restful stay at a nice hotel here. We’re waiting for our tour group to meet up in the lobby, and we’re pretty excited to see whom we’ll be touring with for the next two weeks.

For those who don’t know, this is my (Amy’s) first trip to Asia. Of course, I’m mesmerized. The drive from the airport to the hotel was kind of long last night, and we were very sleepy, but I still tried to drink it all in. The windows of the car we were in were a little grimy, so all the lights outside had a kind of eerie glow, and everything felt a little dreamlike. I couldn’t get a full picture of the towns, markets, motorbikes, hotels, homes… I felt like I sort of dreamed Vietnam. But now I’m in it for real!

Today we set sail on a junk boat cruise on the Halong Bay. We’ll take a cooking class tonight and maybe do some tai chi in the morning, plus, of course, sightseeing. And speaking of all that, it’s about time to go!


Tokyo Narita Airport

Filed under: Uncategorized — Brandon @ 2:28 am

My first post comes from Tokyo Narita, where we will be catching our flight to Hanoi. We had some yakitori (meat skewers) in an airport restaurant (Miso Kitchen). In many restaurants here, “plastic” versions of the menu items are displayed in the window so you can see what your options are before entering.

Images will hopefully follow from hotel wifi but I am not having success uploading pictures from my phone.

Thanks to Restoril I got a good 7 hrs of sleep on the Transpacific flight to am hoping to be well acclimated upon our arrival in Vietnam tonight.

More to come, hopefully from Amy as her posts are usually more colorful than mine!

Powered by WordPress