Friday, March 25, 2016

Mot, hai ba yo!

A REALLY funny warning sign in the hospital bathroom where Gavin
taught his workshop.
Today we woke up to monsoon season in Hanoi – pouring rain and a little chilly.  Of course, today we have a walking street food tour scheduled.  After (stupidly) eating buffet breakfast at our hotel, we grabbed our umbrellas and rain gear and took our taxi to Awesome Tours in the old quarter to start our tour.

Our balcony overlooking Westlake.  I call this my "Hanoi hair;" it gets
ridiculously curly in the humid, misty Hanoi weather.  :)
Mopeds lined up on the street with a ton of beer bars.

Our enthusiastic guide Trang met us at our taxi, and right away we started traipsing through the mist and rain.  She first took us to a little restaurant to try Bun Cha, a pork and noodle dish with herbs and dipping sauce.  Then we wandered to a little place selling Bahn Cuon, a rice flower steamed pancake with little bits of pork inside.  The next restaurant we got to squat on the tiny little Vietnamese plastic stools and eat Nom Bo Kho, or green papaya salad that had a nice refreshing crunch.  After that we headed to yet another restaurant and sat on the balcony overlooking old quarter, only a foot away from the city’s power lines, which also incidentally held an empty metal bird cage.  This restaurant provided Banh Xeo – a crispy fried pancake filled with meat, which we then were supposed to wrap in dry rice paper with herbs and veggies and dip in sauce – it was a little messy.  We also had Cha ca, which was fried fish, and Nom Hoa Chuoi, which was banana flower salad, made from the blooms of banana trees.  Also at this restaurant we got to try shots of snake wine, a liquor sitting in a large glass jar with several dead snakes curled up in it, said to improve happiness in everybody and virility for men.  :)  Trang taught us the toast “Mot hai bay yo!” which means something like “One, two, three, cheers!”  I couldn’t taste anything “snakey” in it, it sort of tasted like grappa.  After that, we all (Gavin and I seriously regretting our buffet breakfast by this time…) went to another restaurant for Bun Bo, a south Vietnamese style noodles with pork that was sweeter than Pho.  Next was dessert at yet another restaurant, where we had Sua Chua Nep (black rice with yogurt) and Bahn Troi Tau (dumplings filled with black sesame seeds or green beans and coconut, floating in a delicious sweet ginger broth).  Our final stop was at a little coffee shop, which was the first coffee shop to make coffee with egg: coffee with whipped egg white custard on the top of the coffee.  I had hot chocolate with egg custard instead since I don’t drink coffee.  Both were incredibly rich; the Vietnamese are really adept at making coffee taste not like coffee.  :)  (another favorite in Vietnam is coffee with sweetened condensed milk, called “Vietnamese Coffee.”)

Sitting in the tiny little plastic chairs and tables,
trying out green papaya salad. Trang informed us that
at the end of the day the owners put the tables away
and sleep in this room where we were eating.
Sitting on the balcony right next to the power lines with a metal birdcage
hanging off of them behind Michele. Interesting decorating choice.
Trang shows us how to correctly eat the Banh Xeo.
Girl making Bahn Cuon.
Banana flower salad.
Delicious grilled fish.  (Trang called it grilled, but it definitely looked
fried to me!)
Snake wine.  Mmmm, looks tasty...
Mot Hai Ba Yo!!!  (notice I am the only one with any enthusiasm...  :D )
A man making Bun Bo.
Trang shows us how to correctly mix the Bun Bo.
Time for dessert! Sua Chua Nep on the left and Bahn Troi Tau on the right.
Gavin enjoys coffee with egg custard on the top.
The skinniest building in old quarter. You can see
how small it is by looking at the moped in front of it!
Finally, about 20 pounds heavier, we headed back to the hotel and laid around like blobs for a bit letting this ridiculous amount of food digest.  We planned to meet and go to the Night Market at 7:30pm, but the concierge told us that the Night Market is only open on the weekends.  So instead we went to plan B, which was yet more food.  
Since we were a little (or a lot...) Vietnamese-fooded-out, we chose a French restaurant called La Badiane.  We arrived and realized we were completely underdressed in our sneakers and jeans.  I was still completely stuffed, so just ordered an appetizer as my meal; smoked salmon with goat cheese, fig jam and assorted other tasty bits on the place.  All the food everybody had was delicious, enough that I wanted to share a dessert with Gavin, but he insisted that we each get our own.  The desserts ended up being 4 DELICIOUS small desserts apiece, so I left that restaurant yet again feeling sickly stuffed.  :)

My fancy smoked salmon appetizer.
Michele's delicious soup.
Dessert was almost too pretty to eat, but who am I
kidding?  I'll never shy away from chocolate.  :)
After dinner we took a taxi back to our hotel.  We had one more day in Hanoi, but we spent most of the day just relaxing, so this is the end of the "blog-worthy" part of our trip.  :)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Highlights of Hoi An

We spent a few days in Hoi An after Koh Samui, and since I already wrote in detail about Hoi An last year, I'll just put a few highlight photos here.  :)

Our room at the Anantara Hoi An Resort, cute little elephant made from
towels, and yellow mums EVERYWHERE.  :)
The food market in Hoi An.
Walking through it, your nose is assaulted with ever-changing scents with
each breath, from the sickly rotten smell of durian fruit, to acrid smell of
the fresh fish, to the delicious smell of the twice-fried doughnuts that are a
common street food here.
Fun fact: at night after the market closes down, as we walked back to our
resort, we got to see large cockroaches and HUGE rats pawing through the
leavings.  Needless to say, we didn't buy any food here.  :D
Drinks have little flowers in them at Mango Mango, a
restaurant across the river in An Hoi where we sat on
the balcony overlooking the night market.
There was a food festival going on while we were there, so the town was
decked out with even more lanterns than usual!
We found the tourist-trap Handicraft Market, which was basically a big
"fleecing station," but they did have machines (not running while we were
there) showing how to make silkworm pods (the yellow things in the basket)
into silk, then the silk thread into fabric.  Wish the machines had been
running, that would have been interesting!
Decked out in full sun gear - I didn't want to put on
sunscreen and then go get fitted for the clothes I was
getting tailored, so I bought a hat and scarf.  :)
Sunset over the river.
Michele at Yaly Tailor surrounded by no less than five people to fit her
custom made shoes.  :D

Friday, March 18, 2016

"Isle of Dogs"

Cake for breakfast? Hey, it's vacation AND her birthday!  :)
Today was Michele’s birthday, so we arranged for a surprise cake to be delivered during breakfast, and we and the staff sang happy birthday to her.   :)  After breakfast, we left our hotel early to do our tour of Ang Thong Marine National Park.  100 Degrees East picked us up at our hotel, drove us about an hour to the boat, then we sat in the motorboat for about an hour to get to the snorkel/dive site in the national park.  Gavin and I were the only two on the boat who were diving; all the rest of the 15 or so people on the boat were only snorkeling.  We suited up, then our first bit of the dive was through a small cave!  The cave wasn’t entirely underwater, which I am not sure I could have handled without getting really nervous/claustrophobic.  It was shallow water, and there was air above us in the cave.  As we swam through, a school of thousands and thousands of small silver fish swirled around us!

In the rest of the dive, we saw almost whole fields of anemones, hundreds of sea urchins, and lots of coral.  We also got to see a spotted stingray, which we had never seen before.

Anemones and their inhabitants.
Little wormy things on a vase sponge.
Spotted stingray!
Purple anemones.
Me and me Medusa hair.  :)
After diving, we took the boat to a beach on one of the little islands of the park.  From that beach, we kayaked to another teeny island with a small beach and two ornery puppies living there; they kept grabbing any towels or clothing we left in the kayak, and played tug-of-war with Michele for her hat, and then tried to pull off her bathing suit.  :) We swam in the warm water of the tiny beach for a bit.  After kayaking back to the first beach, we had lunch, which was “European Thai food,” according to our dive guide.  Basically, it was Thai food with very little spice/heat/flavor.  :)

Gavin in the back of the kayak.
Me in the front with my ridiculous amount of sun protection.  :) Yes, I am one
of THOSE people who wears a swim shirt...
Gavin and I on the beach where we ate lunch.
Michele making friends with the local "wildlife."  :)
Michele in the warm water off the "Isle of Dogs." (Not its real name, just
what I am calling it.  :)  )
After lunch we boated to the Emerald Lake viewpoint.  Through the sweltering heat of a Thai afternoon, we had to drag ourselves up around a hundred stairs, which were thin enough and steep enough that they had more in common with a ladder than a staircase.  At the top we had a view of an emerald green lagoon inside one of the islands, fed by the sea from an underwater cave.  We climbed down another steep staircase down to the lagoon, but we were not allowed to swim in it.  We then hoisted our sweaty selves back up the ladders/stairs to the top of the island, then back down to the boat, now all wishing that there was more beach/swimming time planned for the rest of the afternoon.  :)

The platform at the top gave us a view of the ocean and the Emerald Lake.
Gavin and I sweating at Emerald Lake. :)
Gavin and I overlooking the ocean in Ang Thong Marine National Park.
Our last stop was Monkey Island, another beach that has many ADORABLE monkeys living in the trees.  We were lucky that we saw a family of monkeys right away when we first arrived.  There were two adults and two babies, and the babies were definitely hamming it up for the tourists.  :)

Just chillin'.
He's VERY comfortable.  Manspreading at its finest.  :)
Two little ones.
And the mother. These were all only about 10 feet away from us or less.
After the boat tour, we had scheduled a sunset cruise from the hotel, but the 100 Degrees neglected to tell us we wouldn’t be back to our hotel at 5pm, but rather just at their shop at 5pm.  And then after calling the hotel for us to tell them we’d be late, they proceeded to drop us off the VERY LAST of all the other people on the tour.  We should have just taken a taxi instead.  We arrived for our sunset cruise after sunset with our private boat still waiting for us, luckily.  Despite that the sun had already set, we still had a nice cruise with champagne and appetizers.

Post-sunset cruise.
After our cruise, we decided to stay at the resort for dinner, and ate at the restaurant overlooking the water.  We had a decent Chateaubriand steak, but overall the food at the resort isn’t that impressive.  We then turned in after our busy day.  Tomorrow we will leave for Vietnam!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Elephants, Jeeps and Mopeds.

Those were our three methods of transport today.  :)

We got up early this morning to get picked up for our tour of Ang Thong Marine National Park, only to discover that the tour is actually happening TOMORROW.  Oops.  We ate breakfast at the resort restaurant overlooking the ocean and made a different plan for the day.

After breakfast, we asked the resort to bring us some mopeds so we could drive to a waterfall.  Michele had never ridden one before, but we assured her it was easy.  We also assured the resort personnel that we had all ridden mopeds before, but “not for a while.” :) I am sure we did not inspire confidence in the moped rental company, as I put my helmet on backwards (I didn’t notice until 30 minutes later…) and Michele promptly ran her moped into the curb.  :)

Michele practicing her moped skills at the gas station.  :)
It was only about a half hour drive to the waterfall, and we were surprised that the whole area in front of the falls had been turned into a massive tourist trap complete with ATV rides and elephant rides, and they wouldn’t allow us to ride our mopeds up to the falls.  We had to pay to take their Jeep to the falls or walk a mile uphill on the narrow, winding road with the real risk of getting smashed by their Jeeps flying down the road.  We opted for riding in the Jeep.

Michele was excited about the elephant rides, so we did one with her before visiting the falls.  This elephant ride was different than in Chiang Mai; we didn’t get to drive, :) and we had to sit in a metal seat on the elephant’s back rather than bareback.  Michele had a friendly and talkative driver, but ours was quite sullen, only talking to us to say, “I take photos, you give me tip.”  He did take some nice pictures of us on the elephant.

Michele on the elephant ride.
Gavin and I on our elephant.
All of us and Michele's happy, friendly mahout.
After the elephant ride, we took a hair-raising ride on the Jeep to the falls.  We were seated in the open-air back of the Jeep on metal benches, but our view of what was in front of us was blocked; all we could feel was our driver tossing the Jeep around the narrow, curvy road, and not being able to see if we were heading toward a collision with another Jeep coming the other way!

We arrived at the base of the falls, and had a small hike to get up to the larger falls.  It was a nice waterfall and had some tiny pools to dip our feet in.  It took the obligatory yoga by a waterfall photo, of course.  :)

The sign says "Warning, Dangerous, One by One."
We weren't sure if this meant literally one
person allowed on the bridge at once, or that we
should go single file.
Not the best workmanship on these bridges. At least the drop is only a few
feet if they break.  :D
Astavakrasana at the falls.
Shows better how if I fell out of the arm balance,
I would take a nasty tumble down those rocks. :)
Also you can see the "do not climb the falls" sign
that I obviously disobeyed.  :)
After another thrill-inducing ride down, we rode our mopeds back to the resort.  We ate some fruit in our room for lunch, then our pickup for a zip line adventure arrived.  We sat on hard metal benches in the back of a truck again, this time for well over an hour, on the dusty, noisy, fume-choked Koh Samui roads.

The zip lining itself was fun.  One of our guides took all our cameras and took videos and photos of us with our own cameras, which was nice.  One zip line I watched a guide jump off the ledge and bounce all the way down the line, so I tried it, too and for the first time finally got a little bit of a thrill on a zip line.  :)  On the last zip line, Gavin and I got to go together on two parallel lines, and we got to mess around and flip upside down, etc.  :)

Geared up and ready to go!
Gavin zipping along.
View of Lamai from the top of one of the towers.
Me being silly. :)
Gavin and I on a zip platform.
After another long, dusty ride in the back of a truck back to the resort, we decided to relax at the resort for a while.  We checked out Rocky’s tiny beach, which was the only unimpressive part of the resort, which we love otherwise.  We wandered into water the temperature of a bath, and I noticed some little crunches happening under my feet.  When I discovered they were thousands of tiny SNAILS in the water, I jumped out of the water really quickly and headed for the pool instead.  :)

Later in the afternoon, Michele and I had scheduled massages in the open-air pavilion overlooking the ocean.  Mine was very nice, good pressure for relaxation, and really nice smelling massage oil.  The massage ended just before sunset, and our massage ladies gave us some nice ginger tea to drink while we watched the sunset.

While we had been getting the massages, resort staff had begun setting up a bunch of tables, a grill, electric lights, and buffet on the beach.  We had a reservation for this dinner, so we went back to the room to shower and change, then wandered back down to the now-dimly-lit beach for dinner.  The buffet foot was good, and the spices were really nice on the grilled meats and fish, but EVERYTHING was overcooked; rubbery calamari, dry chicken, fully brown/well done beef...  It seems that whenever Thai restaurants try to approximate Western food, it doesn’t come out quite right.  :)

Setting up tables for the beach barbeque. You can see the pavilion where
we did our massages in the center of the photo under the trees.
Michele and I at the beach barbeque.
All those lights were added on the beach by burying electrical cords in the
the sand for temporary lighting!
After dinner we got to watch a fire show similar to the on we had watched on Koh Phi Phi last December, but much more professional and impressive; hardly any dropped batons, and the show was so close to us that we could feel the heat from some of the batons!  The moves and twirling also seemed more intricate and smooth.

The fire dancers. Literally the only decent photo we got of them.

After the fire show, we headed back to our room to sleep.  Tomorrow is REALLY our tour and dive in Ang Thong Marine National Park.  :)