And a Happy New Year!

It’s been about a month since we’ve been back in the US, and we’ve been quite busy.

First of all, we tried to surprise Joan and Steve by changing our flight to arrive in Colorado a few days earlier than we had planned. All was going well, even extremely tight layovers where we had to sprint from one terminal gate to another, until we received a text from Joan saying, “Are you in San Francisco?” Thank you Delta for sending her an email. Grr…

We were going to stay the night in Denver and buy a car, but the weather reports told us that the skies would be dumping snow all evening, and if we waited the mountain passes would all be closed and we’d be stuck in Denver until they cleared up.  So, after flying for over 24 hours we made the 4 hour drive to Meeker.  Thank goodness for Seth. He was able to get us there in one piece through tons of snow.  When we finally arrived at Casa de Cobb in Meeker we had been traveling for a good 34 hours. Bali to Singapore, Singapore to Tokyo, Tokyo to San Francisco, San Francisco to Denver, Denver to Meeker. Man oh man, that was a really long day. 

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A Cobb Christmas is always wonderful.  And having it in Colorado is an added bonus for me.  And for the past three Christmases we’ve had snow, so it’s been beautiful.  This Christmas there was an exceptional amount of snow, and the trees were frosted with ice.  It was picturesque.  We took advantage of the snowy weather and made a point to use the snowmobile and sleds.  Seth was nice enough to dump me off the snowmobile leaving me nice and numb.  One day we attached ropes to the back of Steve’s Expedition and went sledding up and down the ranch roads.  Though I’m getting better at holding on, Seth is an expert and can stay on forever.  Mochi really enjoyed chasing us on the sleds.

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Speaking of Mochi, she was so excited to see us.  She bounced up and down and wiggled a whole bunch when we walked in the door.  She’s been stuck to us ever since.  We missed her a lot.

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It was so nice to see Emily and Jess as well.  We cooked delicious meals and shared stories from the time apart. Seth tried his hand at some of the dishes he had learned while traveling, and they were pretty darn good.

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Christmas day was so much fun, and quite a relief for Seth and me.  We had been collecting gifts during the entire trip and we were finally able to give them and tell their stories.  It was so much fun.  Also, we had been collecting ornaments from almost every destination, and it was nice to put those on the tree and tell their stories as well.

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Eventually Christmas was over and Emily and Jess left.  So, it was about time that we took our leave as well, and made our way back to Los Angeles to begin to rebuild a home base.

We were driving two cars back to Los Angeles.  While in Colorado we purchased a brand spankin new Jeep Grand Cherokee, and we still had my tried and true Honda CR-V to take back as well.  The Jeep was well equipped to handle the icy and snowy conditions we faced, but the Honda had Los Angeles summer tires from 2007.  Oops.  After driving it for about 6 hours the snow and ice became really bad and we were down to about 25 mph on I70.  After I watched the car in front of me skid off the road, then back on to face me, Seth and I decided that it was time for him to drive the Honda, because he has way more snow experience.  After a few more hours of driving we broke through the snowy conditions and made it to our halfway stop.

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The next day was easy driving and we made it to Los Angeles without event.  Luckily we have amazing friends, Colin and Amber, we had a place to stay in Los Angeles while we found a place to live.  It was kinda fun having room mates.  It was nice watching movies in the evenings and chit chatting in the mornings.  Mochi might have a different opinion.  Their cat Sarah was not keen on having a furry houseguest and kept Mochi on lockdown.  It was pretty funny watching Mochi stop dead in her tracks when Sarah turned a corner.

After looking at dump after overpriced dump, we finally found a winner.  We now live in a really cool place in Playa Del Rey, with delicious restaurants in walking distance, and a big outdoor patio area.  It’s pretty exciting.  It’s kinda weird having a set home base after being a nomad for six months.  But, it’s also very comforting.  It was always strange referring to a place we’d only stay at for two nights as home.  (i.e. “Let’s go see one more monastery before we go home” or “You know, that 7-11 we passed on our way home yesterday”)

Being back in LA is odd.  It’s exactly the same, but little things have changed.  There are still things I love about LA, like being able to find the same exact okonomiyaki sauce we had in Japan in the Japanese market on Centinela, or knowing how to get places without looking at a map or asking for directions.  But, there are things that drive me mad about LA  the same way they did in the past, like traffic, and the cost of living.  Then there are the things that, to me, are exaggerated from when I left, and will be the reason I leave.  After seeing so much of the world I have been left with a wider lens.  It leaves me frustrated with all the wrong that could easily be right.  We have so much, yet we want for more.  Being in a place like Los Angeles we can’t help but want more.  And then there’s the horrible supercilious conversations you overhear and wonder, “do I sound like that?” Gosh, I hope not.  I could talk for hours about how the trip has changed me and my outlook on the world, but it’s not that kind of blog.

So, Seth has his marvelous job back.  He’s already back to work.  I, thanks to the help of many, will be starting at a new job very soon.  I am really excited to begin my internship to become a marriage and family therapist.

My plan is to keep this blog going and to see how it evolves.  Adjusting to life after travel is interesting.

Bye Bye Bali, Hello Singapore!

Ubud turned into a place to just relax.  We spent lots of time roaming the streets, eating decent meals, and reading.  On our last night in Ubud we went back to Cafe Wayan for the third time for their Sunday night Indonesian buffet.  Their food was pretty good.  We tried dishes like chicken satay, roast duck, and a variety of curries ranging from mahi mahi to beef.  

This morning we left bright and early for Singapore.  We finally made it to our accommodation, then turned right around to find our Haianese Chicken Rice.  The place we loved before happened to be closed, which was a bummer, but we went to the place next door instead.  Also good, but not as amazing as the other place.  There’s always next time!

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Dubious Diving, and a Bali Birthday

We left Gili Trawangan in hopes of finding more amazing diving off the coast of Bali near Amed.  But first, we were going to go out on a Jukung, a Balinese fishing boat, to catch some Mahi Mahi.  We set out before sunrise and the stars were amazing.  Once the sun came out, and we saw the boat and available gear, we knew that we would not be catching any fish.  But, we had a nice sunrise boat ride, nonetheless.  While we were boating around ‘fishing’ we saw pods of dolphins dancing through the water.  That was nice.  I wanted to hop in.

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We were back and ready to dive at 8am.  We saw some pretty amazing soft corals, and we went deep to find a huge wreck of the USAT Liberty.  The USAT Liberty was a US cargo ship from WWII that was hit by a Japanese torpedo.  The damage was beyond repair, so they beached the ship and took out all the cargo.  The ship stayed on shore until 1963 when the volcano erupted and the lava pushed the ship back into the sea where it sits today off the coast of Tulamben.  Though it was large and there was a lot of life around the wreck, the water was cold, and our gear was pretty crappy, which made for an uncomfortable dive.  The next dive was to the Coral garden.  The site was filled with tons of soft corals, eels, sea stars, and tiny critters we had never seen before.  It was pretty neat.  But, it was still cold, and the visibility was still bad.  

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It ended up raining pretty hard that night, and left us without hope for better visibility for our upcoming dive.  The plan was to do three more dives in the area, but after our first dive we decided against it.  Even though it was a cold and uncomfortable dive, it wasn’t a shabby way to spend my 30th birthday.  We saw some amazing pink fans, some blue spotted sting rays, some purple nudibranchs, anemones the size of trash can lids, and so much more.  It’s amazing what you can find down there.  

We hopped in a car to make our way to Ubud.  I’m told it’s the cultural capital of Bali, but so far it seems to be tourist central.  Streets filled with expensive boutiques selling clothing, aromatherapy, and chachkies interspersed with hotels and restaurants.  So far, the best part is all of the huge geckos we’ve found in our rooms.  Also, our room is right up against the monkey forest, so we had visitors running around our roof and balcony this morning.

Dive Dive Dive…

Bali is supposed to be an island of peace, tranquility, luxury, and beauty.  Though we didn’t find it on our first visit, we will be back in Bali soon to find it.

We landed on the island of Bali late in the evening.  The drive from the airport to our hotel in Sanur, showed me tons of motorbikes, cars, and development.  I was hoping for a small, beachy, atmosphere.  Our hotel was beautiful.  The Griya Sanur is definitely a great place to stay if in the area.  There are large rooms, with big beds and great showers all surrounding a beautiful pool area.  We happened to be the only ones staying the evening, so we had our own little pool party, with our portable speakers.  Fun times.

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We spent a day walking around Sanur.  It was kind of a sad beach, with trash and empty shacks selling cheap souvenirs and begging you to sit and have something to eat.  We strayed from the beach in hopes of finding the ‘beach town’ of Sanur.  There were big streets with zooming cars, and perilous sidewalks that would disappear into large holes at no notice.  We had to hopscotch from one stable concrete slab to another.

Eventually we found our way into a travel agency to get some info about Bali and the surrounding area.  And, from what we found out, the place we wanted to be in Indonesia was the Gili Islands of Lombock.

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The Gili Islands are just off the coast of the island of Lombock, just East of Bali.  This chain of three islands is known for it’s laid back island feel and top notch diving.  After a boat ride that took about 3 hours longer than expected, we made it to Gili Trawangan, the farthest from the mainland of Lombock.  This is a small island with no cars or motorbikes, only bicycles and horse drawn carriages.

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We walked around the main strip of the island in search for the perfect accommodation.  We found Martas House, a group of bungalows surrounding a pool and garden.  Our bungalow is sweet, with AC, TV, DVD player, a big bed upstairs and a large bathroom downstairs.  It’s far enough from the main road to be quiet, but close enough to join in if we want to.

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After that we decided that choosing a dive shop was in order.  The shop with, what looked like, the nicest dive boats, and the most people diving, was Blue Marlin Dive Center.  So, we talked to them and signed up for some diving.  Sandra signed up for an Open Water Course so she could begin to dive, too.  We ended up completing the Advanced Open Water Course, which included a deep dive to about 90-100 feet and a night dive.  We, also, became NITROX Certified, so that we can have longer dives at greater depths.

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The diving here is amazing.  The water is 86 degrees Farenheight all the way down to the bottom, and from the boat, you can see straight to the bottom.  The visibility is amazing.  You can definitely see anything coming.  We’ve seen sea life like turtles, blue spotted sting rays, giant sea cucumbers, tons of tropical fish, scorpion fish, lion fish, crabs, sea stars, and even a white tip reef shark.  The deep dive was really amazing.  Going down you could only see blue at first and blue all around you.  Seth held my hand so I wouldn’t get nervous.  But the ocean floor arrived and I was fine.  Like always, we saw amazing sea life, but a cool one we didn’t see was the black tip reef shark swimming right behind us during our descent.  We were told about that afterwards on the boat by some other divers.

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Also a new experience, was the night dive.  It was kinda spooky.  It was a wall dive, so we were just moving horizontally along the wall, but behind us was simply blackness.  You’d shine your torch out into the black and see nothing.  Better just to look at the wall.  We saw a huge eel move from the wall to find a better hiding place.  When he re entered the wall, he happened to find the resting place for a huge lobster.  They fought for the space and the eel ended up with the choicest spot in the back while the lobster had to hang out in front.  That was pretty spectacular.  But, the best part of the night dive was the bioluminescence.  We turned off our flashlights and waved our arms around a bunch and it was like we were batting fireflies around in the water.  The little green sparks from our agitation was wonderful.  It was like we were casting spells underwater, “Alohamora!”

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We, also, rented some bicycles so we could circumnavigate the island.  There is a ‘road’ that follows the beach around the island.  It probably only took us about two hours to complete the journey, which included a swim, and a stop for drinks.  I couldn’t honestly say that we rode all the way around the island, though.  There were points where the ‘road’ was just a sand path, and parts of it were too deep to ride through.  We definitely walked our bikes for some of the trip.  Well worth it though.

Off the coast of Lombock there is a wreck dive that we decided to do.  It is the wreck of a WWII Japanese ship, and it’s down 148 feet below the ocean’s surface. For those of you who don’t know, that’s a really deep dive, past what is considered recreational diving, getting into the technical diving status.  So we went down in a small group with our guide who was a tech diver.  The weird thing about deep diving is that descending to 150 feet feels just the same as dropping to 100 feet, which feels just like going down to 30 feet.  The only difference is that when you drop into the water, you can’t see the floor, and when you are at the bottom, you can’t see the surface of the water, it feels exactly the same.  But, the actual difference is the addition of way more nitrogen in your system, which means careful planning, and strictly following the plan.  The risk for nitrogen narcosis increases at that depth, but neither Seth nor I felt a thing.  They say that it feels like being drunk.

The wreck was really neat.  It sits on a sandy flat with no coral or real formations to see.  Finding this wreck was probably a difficult venture.  But, on and around the wreck lives tons of fish, coral, and anemone.  You can’t enter the ship, but if you shine your flashlight into one of the holes in the hull you can barely see the other side, due to the densely packed fish using it as habitat.  Large pink, white, and red coral fans spring out from the outside of the ship, lion fish hide in the crevices, large grouper take refuge in the spaces under the hull, red snapper poke their heads out of corners to check you out, and schools of trevali hover over the top of the wreck.  A few feet away from the base of the boat are 35mm bullets.  Those were fun to see.  It was definitely a highlight in our dive experience, and a great last dive on Gili Trawangan.

Brusha Brusha Brusha…

I love landing in places where you can drink the tap water.  It means that we don’t have to buy bottles of water to brush our teeth.  We made it to Singapore.  It’s a funny kind of place.  A big, first world, modern city that happens to be a country as well (aka city-state), dropped right in the middle of countries that are a bit farther behind.  Walking around Singapore is similar to walking around a modern US or European city.  The demographics are mixed here.  The hot pot of Singapore is home to groups of people coming from all around the world, all trying to find a better quality of life.  Things to do in Singapore?  Shop and eat.  As you can imagine, we’re here for the food.

Our first stop after dropping our bags at the hotel was the Maxwell Road Food Center.  In Singapore, there are large groupings of food stalls, much like a food court in a shopping mall.  But, unlike food courts in the US, which are packed with fast food joints with buddies like the Colonel, Ronald, and The King, these food centers are THE places to eat.  And here, they’re not called food courts, they’re called Hawker Centers.

Maxwell Road Food Center is home to tons of delicious cuisine, but we were there for something in particular.  Though often disputed, many will say that Tian Tian Haianese Chicken Wa has the best Boiled Chicken Rice.  Boiled chicken rice sounds pretty boring and bland, but in reality, it’s amazing.  They boil the chicken to perfection in seasoned water, then they dunk it into a bucket of ice cold water to leave the chicken and the skin with the perfect texture.  Then they boil the rice in the water they boiled the chicken in.  The chicken and rice is served with a soy reduction and a spicy garlic sauce.  It was delicious and perfectly cooked.  We washed it down with an equally delicious and novel drink, barley juice.  It was earthy, sweet, and had little bits of barley that you could suck up your straw to munch as you sip.  For dessert we found a woman frying up tasty little balls of sweet potato, coconut, and other delicious insides.  Though fiery hot, I can’t wait to try them again.

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That evening we went to the movies.  I think we’re making up for lost time.  We haven’t seen movies our entire trip, and now that we’ve started, it’s like we can’t stop!  We saw Life of Pi in 3D.  It was a really good movie with spectacular special effects, Seth’s co-workers are sure to get an Oscar this year.  

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Today we slept in, which was easy, because our rooms had no windows.  So, at 9am when we finally rolled out of bed, it was still pitch black in our room.  

We decided to check out the Golden Mile Food Center.  There were a few places on our list to try.  The first was Kheng Fat Haianese Beef noodles.  They were delicious.  Thick vermicelli rice noodles in a thick brown beef stock gravy, topped with small slices of beef and beef meatballs, and served with a spicy garlic sauce.  Another hawker stall we sampled was Jin Hua Fish Head Bee Hoon, where they served a fish soup with a milky broth and vermicelli noodles.  Topped with fried garlic and spicy pepper flakes it was delicious.  

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After our feast we wandered around Little India and the Arab Quarter, passing shops that looked all too familiar, reminiscent of the beginning of our trip.  We eventually made our way to the Thieves Market, which happens to be Singapore’s first swap meet.  It’s a makeshift area with people selling all sorts of nick knacks laid out on blankets on the cement.  There were things like used shoes, phone chargers, carved wooden statues, and bigger ticket items such as laptops and cell phones.  Whether or not these items were hot was unknown, but the vast variety, and hard usage alone, would make it easy to imagine that they were not acquired legally.

Just after the Thieves Market, we noticed that the far away rain cloud from earlier had finally made it’s way over to us.  And the skies opened up.  The torrential downpour waited just long enough for us to duck into a Sweedish coffee shop to have a drink and watch the storm.  We would have stayed there until the storm passed, but we had a plane to catch.  So we braved the storm, and were drenched by the time we made it to the metro stop (Singapore has a great, easy to use, metro system),  Just as we were beginning to dry off, we left the station to become drenched once again on our way to our hotel.  Now, we’re on a plane, headed to our penultimate destination, Bali, Indonesia.  But, don’t worry, we’ll be back in Singapore to try more food, and hopefully see some sights!

Back in Bangkok (Again) – Terrible Taxis and Market Marathon

We’re back in Bangkok, for the last time.  We decided to try another hotel near Khao San Road, and it was a disaster.  Lucky House advertised itself as being clean and cheap.  It was only cheap.  But, it definitely wasn’t the worst hovel we’ve stayed in, and it was still in a convenient location.  

Our first day was cut short, due to the massive amount of traffic getting to the hotel from the airport.  Even though Thailand doesn’t have an acting king anymore, they still hold their former king close to their hearts.  Apparently his birthday is December 5th and they celebrate his birthday for the entire month.  This, being the first weekend of the month, is some sort of holiday where people were trying to get home early or get out of town to celebrate, which meant unbearable, stand still traffic for miles (or kilometers).

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After checking in to our hovel, we walked around, showing Sandra all that is Khao San Road.  We, then, made our way to MBK, a huge shopping mall.  Not only was MBK huge, but it was connected by a skywalk to two or three other shopping complexes, a science center, and a center for the arts.  It was immense.  Sandra used the time to purchase a new camera, bargaining her way into a pretty sweet deal.

We ended up on a round about ride by a tuk tuk driver who tricked us into going to a restaurant that would give him a kickback, when we had asked to go to another area.  He lied.  Oh well. But, it took us at least an hour to find a taxi to take us back to our hotel area of Khao San.  Once again, they were either trying to charge us way too much, or simply refusing to take us there.  Work ethics are different here.

On our way back to the hotel, we ended up stopping at what turned out to be a huge night market with carnival rides, games and attractions like a ‘freak show’ (with no actual freaks) and a haunted house.  It was filled to the brim with people, so after some time of shuffling through the crowds, we caught a tuk tuk back to Khao San Road.  We decided that the perfect way to end the evening was to get a massage.  What better way to end the day, than with a massage.

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The following day we ended up on a market marathon.  The last time we tried to visit the Tailing Chan Floating Market we learned, the hard way, that it was only opened on the weekend.  So, we made our way to the riverside market.  It was wonderful.  Stalls selling gardening supplies, fruit, and food lined the street down to the river where a floating dock served as a food court.  Little wooded boats were lined up around the dock, serving up fresh seafood like grilled prawns, scallops, and even chicken satay.  All was delicious and the relaxed ambiance served for a very enjoyable morning.  We chose this market specifically for this reason.  When you tell a taxi driver you want to go to the Tailing Chan Floating Market they tell you about how they will take you to a better, bigger floating market.  Those are jam packed with tourists, and maybe some locals, and I hear it can be a hectic, stressful experience.  We leisurely made our way through the market without being hassled by anyone, and most of the other patrons were locals, with a foreigner sprinkled here and there.  It was really nice.

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Afterwards, we caught a cab to Chinatown.  We walked around the streets revisiting their electronics section, in particular.

We decided that one more market was in order, so we caught a tuk tuk to the Skytrain station in order to arrive at the Chatuchak Weekend Market, the largest weekend market in Thailand.  This place was massive.  Hundreds of stalls selling ‘I love Bangkok’ tees, Thai silk tissue box covers and ties, street food treats, and even a western store selling 10 gallon hats and cowboy boots.  

It had been a long day and we were ready for our last meal in Thailand before heading back to our hotel.  

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To say the least, Vietnam has not been our favorite country.  Hoi An and Da Nang were nice, but the food is bad, and the cities are very nondescript.  Square buildings, unexceptional landmarks, just not exciting.  The redeeming factor is that the Vietnamese people are very nice.  

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We made our way to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, expecting a modern city.  We were told by people in Hanoi that Hanoi was the old city and Ho Chi Minh was the modern city.  We were expecting it to be different.  It had less interesting little streets and shops than Hanoi, but more indoor restaurants, cleaner streets, and acceptable food hygiene.  Our first day we went to see a few sights around the city.  Our first stop was the Reunification Palace.  We were expecting a pretty building, but it turned out to be a plain old 70′s style bit of architecture.  That was disappointing.  

At least we found a decent place for lunch.  Luckily, the place we found in the guidebook was closed, so we were wandering aimlessly and found a busy restaurant and pulled up some chairs.  We found Bahn My, and it was really good, for Vietnam taste standard.  But, we found it!  

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There was a propaganda store that we were interested in checking out, so we found that after lunch.  It was a store with a bunch of plastic stuff.  Stuff like change purses, bags made from rice sacs, plastic magnets, and stuff, tons of stuff.  Ugh…

Then, we found the Ben Tanh Market.  This turned out to be a large indoor market with tons of vendors selling their wears.  Kind of like Ho Chi Minh City’s version of a Grand Bazaar.  The interesting part about this market were the vendors.  They were so unenthusiastic about selling their goods.  They would call out to you, without even looking at you, and with no energy in their requests for you to, “please buy something”.  Others were simply sleeping in their stalls, sprawled atop their goods, with something laying across their face.  It was kind of a sad place.

That night we found the movie theatre and saw Wreck It Ralph.  It was a really good movie.  But, it says something that we’ve seen two movies in the past week and a half while we’ve been in Vietnam, and they weren’t even local movies.  We just don’t have enough to do in these cities.  I don’t know, maybe we missed something.

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The next day we took a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels.  Upon entering the minibus for our tour, our guide commented on Seth’s beautifully white skin, and eventually dubbed him with the Vietnamese name of Mr. Rao, due to Seth’s current beard (Rao means hair).  Our guide was knowledgeable, friendly, and light hearted.  All necessary for where we were going.  The Cu Chi Tunnels were made in the 1940′s for their war against the French and used, again, during the Vietnam and American War.  The tunnels are an elaborate labyrinth of small passageways dug underground to survive the air raid bombings.  The entire region was littered with booby traps and tunnels to evade the enemy.  The explanation video was a one sided documentary of the Vietnam and American War and told of the many war heroes who earned ‘American Killer’ medals of honor.  Luckily, the guide who debriefed after the video and the guide who brought us around the grounds were more well rounded in their version of the war and understood that there were two sides to every story.  They knew that the Vietnam War was not a war that the people wanted to fight.  I’m not saying that the Americans aren’t to blame for mass destruction of the country, but, once again, there are two sides to every story.  Either way, it was eerie scooting through the tunnels, sometimes having to crawl, and to see the different types of booby traps was somewhat unnerving.  They were quite innovative in their methods of defense, but I kept thinking about all of the people who found their death with those traps.  And obviously, the traps were a form of defense, so…  It’s difficult to talk about a war and to walk the grounds of a major war zone.  At one point during the tour there was a big tank that we were able to take photos with.  I thought it was one of the Russian tanks given to the Vietnamese to use, but Seth, more knowledgeable about such things, pointed out that it was a US tank that was probably a coffin to a few US soldiers.  That was when I decided I was done walking around the area.

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That happened before we participated in the coolest part of the tour.  We were able to shoot big guns!  We chose to shoot an M60 machine gun and an AK47.  The M60 was fun, and the AK felt very similar to Seth’s AR15 at home!

 

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That evening we went to a German Brewery that we had driven past earlier in the day.  Though the sausages were decent, the beer was large, cold, and delicious.

Afterwards we stopped by an ice cream shop, and had a treat of coconut ice cream in a coconut. Yum!

Today we fly back to Bangkok.

Da Nang

Da Nang is a beach city.  The waves steadily roll to the coast and the lazy ambiance rolls along as well.  Our first night in Da Nang we went for a walk along the beach.  Locals smiled and waved, and were excited to practice their English by saying, “hello”.  The feel of the area was instantly different from the moment we set foot in the airport.  Even driving from the airport to the hotel, we noticed the change in cleanliness.  The streets were clean, and the restaurants set forth an appearance of good hygene. Eventually we decided that dinner was in order.  There was an enticing entry in our guidebook with mention of house brewed Czech style beer and local cuisine.  How could we resist?  So, we hopped in a cab and made our way to the Tulip Brewery and Restaurant.  The golden steins of cold, frothy beer were exactly what we desired after a long, hot beach walk.  We were, also, able to sample local cuisine.  We ordered plates like a seafood salad that you eat on shrimp rice crackers, a whole seasoned chicken that you dunk into a spice mixture with lime and green glutinous rice, and a seafood and mushroom dish with noodles.  All were fairly tasty, but went well with our giant mugs of beer, unless you are Sandra and I’d say giant mug of beer.  After our long day of travel, heat, dinner, and beer we called it a night, and took advantage of our satellite TV and cushy beds.

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Our next day, we began with a trip to the Marble Mountains, which holds caves and temples.  There are shrines set to the budda set within the mountain and the light that came through on our cloudy day proved to create an eerie light and a marvelous sight.  This cave was way more amazing than Amazing Cave on Halong Bay.  And there were barely any tourists to obscure the view, mainly locals with offerings.

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We, then, hopped in a car to spend the day in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hoi An Old Town.  The streets that radiate out from the central market are filled with handicraft shops, boutiques, and cafes.  The architecture is inspired by the Chinese and Japanese who used to frequent this once bustling port town.  Now it booms with the assistance of a steady tourist crowd, but there is a healthy mix of locals to remind you that you are still in Vietnam.  It is a quaint little town that lit up in the evening.  Situated along a river, Hoi An made a perfect place to experience our first full moon festival of our trip.  Children and old women sold paper lanterns that you could lower into the water for a small price.  The evening was lit up by the large, bright moon, the colorful lanterns in storefronts, and the flames of lanterns illuminating the river way.  Outside shops you could find offerings of rice, fake money, fruit, alcohol, cigarrettes and anything else that may please the gods.  

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While in Hoi An we tried the local dish of Cao Lao, thick noodles of yellow color said to get their flavor from the ash and water from the local well.  Served with pork, veggies, and a bit of broth, these noodles are best when accompanied by some chili sauce.  It was a step up from some of the other Vietnamese food we’ve had. We were happy to have some new flavors, but are still not too impressed by the Vietnamese food.  There were, also, some wontons and crab, but the best food of the day occurred i the evening.  We were searching for bahn my only to find that it only means sandwich, and weren’t impressed with our options, when we came across a line of food stalls that looked intriguing.  A man approached us and explained to us as we walked that the food stalls were all the same.  A group of 35 families work together in this line of stalls.  They all have the same menu and take turns pulling in customers.  It sounded like a really neat idea, and fell into the category of what we’d expect from a socialist nation, so we pulled up a bench and dug in.  We all ordered what he had recommended.  We began with a seafood, tomato, mango, and onion salad atop a crispy, rice cracker (think ceviche or nachos).  For our main we ordered shrimp, lemongrass, and onion mixture, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, served with the spice and lime mixture and rice.  All washed down with some good local beer and it was the best meal we’d had, yet.  

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We had a successful day in Hoi An of local cuisine, shopping and even a festival.  Now we’re on our way to the modern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

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Good Morning Vietnam!

We woke up for our first full day in Hanoi with a knock on our neighbor’s door.  Sandra has come to travel with us, and it’s so exciting!  We started off our day with breakfast in our hotel, and some Vietnam planning, before we finally made our way out to see the town.

Our first stop was to Hoan Kiem Lake.  We walked around the lake before stopping at a lakeside cafe for some Vietnamese coffee.  Vietnamese coffee consists of a strong, dark coffee, with a layer of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom.  You can walk down any street in Hanoi and find people absently stirring their coffee to integrate the thick, sugary syrup.  It’s delicious.  

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We continued around the lake before trying to find the French quarter of Hanoi.  We’re not exactly sure if we found it, but we found loads of streets filled with shops for tourists and locals alike.  One stop we made was to grab an avocado shake.  I’m not sure if it was avocado in my thick, green beverage, but it was tasty nonetheless.  

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Afterwards we found the Water Puppet Theatre.  It was an interesting show where the stage was a large pool of water, and the puppets emerge from the water and are controlled by puppeteers wading offstage.  The little puppets are accompanied by live traditional music and the whole show displayed traditional ceremonies and cultural traditions of the Vietnamese people.  It was actually really interesting.

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After the show, Sandra noticed that she had grown a wart during the duration of the show.  Apparently puppets cause warts.  In any case, we needed to find a pharmacy to remedy that.  We found a pharmacy and tried first in English, hand gestures, and by showing them the wart.  They had no idea what we wanted.  Our Lonely Planet phrasebook was useless (and seems to be in many situations).  We found the word for wart on google translate or something like that.  We pointed to her thumb and said ‘cam’ which is what it said was the word for wart.  We showed her the spelling, and she laughed.  She said, “This is pharmacy. Only sell medicine [laughs] not rice”.  Awesome.  We were asking for rice.  Fun times while trying to converse with locals.  We ended up having better luck at an herbalist who gave Sandra little pink stickers to cure her ailment, and it worked.  And she was left with a pretty pink dot.

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We made our way back to the hotel to freshen up, because we had a Thanksgiving dinner to attend.  Thanksgiving happens to be my favorite holiday and we found a place to enjoy a, mostly, traditional turkey dinner at a fancy French restaurant in Hanoi.  

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The next day we checked out the Ho Chi Minh Memorial and the one pillar pagoda.  We were kind of conflicted when we were there, because we’re not exactly Ho fans.  But, then again,  we’re being supportive by just entering the country, so…  Maybe if the building were prettier, less concrete slab more ornate beauty, we may have felt better about it.  And we found out that the one pillar pagoda was a smaller replica of another pagoda.  Wah wah…

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Then we went to the Temple of Literature.  The Temple of Literature was the first university to open in Vietnam.  We happened to visit on graduation day, so there were groups of students dressed nicely, taking pictures.  There were lucky turtles to rub and shrines to pay homage, and of course, the compulsory souvenir shops.

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We were trying to find some Vietnamese food for lunch that, also, looked like it wouldn’t send us to the hospital.  The majority of places to eat in Hanoi are street stalls, where meals are sold, cleaned, cooked, and eaten either directly on or within inches from the street, and car and foot traffic.  Needless to say, the street food does not seem as safe in Hanoi as it was in Bangkok.  We found an actual restaurant with an indoor kitchen and ordered some food and drinks.  We didn’t get what we thought we ordered, and all came with the same sweet, vinegar dipping sauce.  It was all fairly bland.  

After more meandering, we decided that a movie night was in order.  The guide book boasted of a great cineplex in Hanoi, so we made our way there to see Skyfall, the new 007 flick.  I’m sure I drove Seth and Sandra crazy with all my noises of excitement and surprise.  It was like sensory overload for me, not having seen an action movie on a big screen for such a long time.  Just about everything amazed me.  Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the film.

The next morning we woke up bright and early to begin our Halong Bay adventure.  Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to it’s stunning beauty of limestone karst formations that rise vertically up from the calm turquoise water.  The hazy weather we had during our overnight stay on the bay only accentuated the eerie quality of the area, with large formations materializing through the mist.  

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The tour company picked us up from our hotel and brought us the three hours to Halong City.  It was an extremely bumpy ride, and I think it was due more to the shocks of the minibus than the roads.  Our cabins onboard the ship were quite fancy for a boat, I thought.  The first order of business on the boat was lunch.  They served us a spread of bland, Vietnamese dishes.  I don’t think Vietnamese food is for us.  Soon thereafter, we hopped onto a smaller boat to take us to the floating city.  We boarded a little rowboat with a member of the floating city, and went for a trip around the neighborhood.  It was a pretty interesting place.  Even though they live in the middle of the bay, floating on the water, they still have some modern conveniences.  We saw that most had televisions and we know that their computers had internet because our phones began picking up their signal and emails were pinging.  All of these modern comforts are powered by generators.  The main source of income for these people are from fishing, which makes sense.  Whether they caught the fish and sold them or caught them and grew them to a larger size, fishing funds this village.  There was also a pearl farm that probably makes money through tourists and their website, as well.

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That evening we were served more mass quantities of bland Vietnamese food.  We even had a ‘cooking demonstration/class’ where we made spring rolls.  Not even those were good.  Maybe it’s not fair that we just came from Thailand where every bite of food is packed with flavor and spices, but the food seems to be lacking any kind of seasoning.  We’re still trying.

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The next morning we went to Amazing Cave.  It was quite large and had interesting limestone formations, and I was amazed at how many tourists they packed into it.  If we had been there with way less people it may have been the type of amazing they were advertising.

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We went back to the boat for lunch.  What?  Breakfast at 8 and lunch at 10:45, too much.  The bay was beautiful with limestone formations jutting from the ocean, but the cruise seemed to highlight meals.  After we filled out our comment cards the trip seemed to be quite rushed to get us off the boat.  We were served an equally unexciting meal and rushed off the boat, only to wait in a parking lot for about 45 minutes, sitting on a curb, for our shuttle bus to take us back to Hanoi.  The bus ride home was equally as bumpy as our ride to the bay, but we made it back in one piece.  

We were not convinced that all Vietnamese food was bad, so Sandra found a recommended place online.  We all ordered a vermicelli rice noodle, greens, and pork dish and were able to add some chili vinegar and spice to help it out a bit.  It was okay.  No real wow factor though.  Dessert was a bit more interesting.  Sandra chose one with fried grapes and tapioca balls (or something like that) and I ordered a coconut cream with purple sweet potato.  Both were pretty good, and definitely were interesting.  Not a bad meal, but hoping for better.  This morning we are flying out of Hanoi and into Da Nang where we can hopefully find some better cuisine!

Moving On…

Seth gave me quite a scare.  A hospital in Thailand is not ideal.  But, they were good enough and after some tough days, he seems to be on the mend, though his culinary experimentation phase has come to a screeching halt (understandably).  

Getting to Vietnam was a two step ordeal.  Due to flight times, we would have to fly from Phuket to Bangkok, and the next day fly from Bangkok to Hanoi.  We had a bag of unused items and souvenirs that we wanted to stash somewhere in Bangkok.  So, once our flight landed, we hopped in a taxi (a metered taxi from the airport) and sped off to a storage facility in the center of Bangkok.  After some confusing back and forth with the driver, who knew about as much English as we know Thai, we got him to agree to wait a minute while Seth dropped off the bag, before heading to our hotel, which was right across from the airport.  I’m not sure what he thought about the whole ordeal, but he seemed to think it was funny.  

What I thought was funny was driving up to our hotel.  Our hotel was disguised as a car wash, and I think it was an undercover no tell motel.  I wish we took pictures, because it was such a funny place.  It was mostly clean, and the bed happened to be one of the most comfortable we’ve had in a while.  I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it, but Thailand seems to be notorious for very hard/firm mattresses.  This, mostly clean, bed was much softer.  

We asked the woman at the front desk if there was a shopping mall nearby.  She asked us if IT Shopping Mall was ok, and we said, “sure!”  There have been so many acronyms on our trip and shopping malls tend to be referred to by their acronym.  Who knew that this time the acronym would be so literal in English.  The mall was full of IT gadgets.  It was a mall of adapters, monitors, speakers, phones, and anything else you and your electronics collection may need.  And our dinner options were minimal.  But, we ended up going to a chinese restaurant that had been recommended to us in the past named MK (note the acronym).  It was pretty delicious.  We ordered a mix of noodles and dim sum like foods.  

We woke up at 4:30am to catch our flight to Hanoi.  Unfortunately, when you hail a taxi at odd hours, and not odd hours, there’s a high chance that your taxi driver will be drunk.  We noticed this very quickly.  Even though the ride was only about 10 minutes, we almost got out and walked, because he was bad news.  But, we made it to the airport and from there it was pretty straightforward; long lines, airport employees who don’t make sense, seats with no legroom, and smelly people sitting next to you.

At the airport in Hanoi we grabbed a super cheap sim card for our phone and found our hotel shuttle.  The Landmark Hotel is in the old section of Hanoi.  We walked around a bit and found some interesting lunch of sautéed  veggies.  We’re pretty excited to see Sandra tomorrow!