Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The First 100 Days

At the Mountain lookout in Sapa, Vietnam
As we're 100 days into our Big World Adventure, we thought it was about time to give an update on our progress! Since we were last in the US, on April 6, we have been to Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. All in all, we've spent all 2400 hours together, and we're still happily married!

Cory recently revamped the blog to add the following sections (links on the right):

  • About us (as of now, gives a super-short intro to us...will be beefed up later!)
  • Buy Us Lunch. We're happily making our way through the world on $100 per day (or less!), but we certainly don't turn our noses up to a free lunch donation from anyone who feels so inclined :)
  • More Trip Photos (in case there just aren't enough on the blog, we've got a whole Flickr site with more, more, more!!)
  • Join Our Email List (sign up and you'll get a little email note when we post a new adventure)
As we look back on our first 100 days (with about 140 left to go, budget willing), we've each compiled a list of those things that we have found to be essential for this trip (and most of the things on our list are surprises to us!). 

1. iPhone in waterproof case: Camera, GPS, Music, Skype... is there something this thing can't do?  If I had to only bring one gadget with me it would be this (thank goodness I am not traveling with those types of restrictions).
2. A good camera: I am traveling with the Olympus E-M5 which has been great.  It has interchangeable lenses but is still small and light enough to carry most days.  I am also using the Peak designs Leash, which is seriously the best camera strap I ever could have imagined.
3. Dove Soap, because hotel soap sucks!
4. Pepto Bismol pills, because you can take them on the plane, you can't buy them anywhere, and travel in SE Asia comes with plenty of tummy trouble!  We have been rationing these lately because were not sure we can get more...
5. Tech Underwear, because more than 4 pairs of undies would be unreasonably luxurious... however, very long bus rides in tech underwear is much less comfy for the gentleman's region.  
6. Mozzie Cream (which we have never seen in the states), but is the perfect way to know that you haven't missed a spot, and are totally protected from the malaria and dengue carrying mosquitos.
7. Great flip flops (we both wear and love Olukais); we wear these absolutely everywhere (except Hanoi because it's super dirty) and they are comfy enough to wear miles and miles!
8. Balega socks, because all the world’s best socks are made in South Africa (plus, these are crazy comfortable)
9. PlugBug because when you have one outlet and lots more gadgets this little guy keeps you topped up on juice
10. My best friend, because she's so cute to look at!

1. Cocoon sleep sack, because when you have questionably clean sheets, or you feel homesick and just want to feel snuggled in, there's nothing better than crawling into your own personal cocoon! (though to be fair, Cory already sent his home, because he thought it was heavy and totally useless - he uses a cotton hoody sweatshirt to get that snuggled in feeling).
2. Icebreaker wool sweater, because anti-bacterial is a great feature in the only sweater you own for 8 months
3. Dominoes and a deck of cards, because when you spend every waking moment with someone (even when that person is your best friend), it's really nice to have something to do over dinner or happy hour instead of saying, "so, how was your day, all of which I was there for?"
4. Oatmeal or All Bran, because we're over 30 and we just can't keep eating hotel buffets!
5. A pair of comfy shorts (which I had to have made in Vietnam, because I'm just a tad bigger than your average asian woman), because when you live in hotels, it sucks to have to put on real clothes for breakfast every day.
6. A good pair of earbud headphones, because Asia is just super loud. All the time. Seriously.
7. A sports bra that doesn't give you a squished uni-boob, because you're going to wear it a lot and you won't feel like a pretty girl. I got two from Victoria's Secret and lost one in Thailand (how, I can't imagine!). Start with two!
8. Some pretty clothes, because you just can't wear t-shirts and capris for 8 months and feel like your best self (if you're anything like me).
9. Leisure cards, with our name, email and blog: we had no idea how much these would come in handy, but we use them all the time (thanks, Sherry!)
10. My best friend, because it would suck to spend 2400 hours with someone else!

As we leave our first 100 days and look forward to the next 140, we're feeling excited, a little less scared than when we started, and blessed to get to be on this life changing adventure! Here's to the next chapter!

Hoi An and the Marble Mountains

Japanese Bridge at Night
Before coming to Hoi An, we had heard majorly romantic stories about it from other travelers, and were excited to find out what all the fuss is about! Because there is no train to Hoi An, we took an overnight train to Danang and then needed to find our way to Hoi An. Getting off transit in SE Asia has proven to be a bit of a challenge. After a long journey, you step off the bus/train and are immediately bombarded with taxi and bus offers, some of which may be scammy. We finally figured out the best game plan (short of figuring out our destination the day before, as would be REALLY smart!). We bust through the throngs of offers and find the nearest Vietnamese Coffee at a cafe with wifi and re-center ourselves over a thick dose of caffeine. Best new plan ever!

We called our hotel in this case and they sent a car to pick us up for the 40 minute drive to Hoi An. There is a cheaper public bus, but we had read many stories about how they significantly overcharge foreigners and if you stand your ground and pay the official fare, they may kick you off the bus partway to the destination if they find another tourist willing to pay the inflated fare. We decided it wasn't worth saving $10 to end up on the side of the road halfway to town, so we enjoyed our private car instead!

Getting measured!
By day, Hoi An is a shopper's paradise. It used to be an essential port for trade, and you can see the French, Chinese and Japanese influences in the architecture and food. But now, each building in the old town boasts a shop for tourists, selling tailor-made clothes, art pieces, lanterns, or other souvenirs. It can be tough to see the charm walking through town while being propositioned by every single shop you walk by!

Any annoyance about this disappears as the sun starts to set, though, because Hoi An is magical at night. There are lanterns lit up everywhere, in windows, hanging over the streets, and floating down the river. Sure, people are still trying to sell you stuff, but the sheer beauty of this lit up little town is so incredibly romantic, it's easy to ignore any negatives.

Nightfall in Hoi An
Biking through town
On our second day, we learned that the best way to enjoy Hoi An is to get a bicycle during the day - a ride out to the rice paddies on the edge of town are easily accessible and you can just cycle down along the men and women harvesting the rice, and the children fishing for lunch. By 9am, it was so hot we felt like we were tourists on the surface of the sun, but it was such a wonderful adventure getting to see the area without being sold stuff. And we learned that bicycling through town meant we were fast enough past the shops that we were no longer sales targets. Success!!

Our third day, we upped the adventure ante a bit and rented a motorbike to see the Marble Mountains. We weren't sure exactly what we were in for, but we had heard about these mountains between Danang and Hoi An and thought we'd make a day of it. We arrived at the Marble Mountains and started walking up to the top (which would only have been more fun if it was miserably hot out...oh wait, it was!). Thinking we were going for a hike up a mountain to see a pagoda, we were shocked to find natural caves in which Buddhas and temples have been carved into the caves themselves. It was absolutely stunning, and well worth the trip!!
Scenes from the Marble Mountains
Throughout our adventures in and around Hoi An, we had the wonderful opportunity to sample Hoi An's local cuisine.  Hoi An seems to have more local delicacies then most any other city we have been to; one dish that we will sorely miss is Cau Lao. It has heavy Chinese and Japanese influence and is a dish found only in Hoi An (the noodles are made from the water in the town well, and therefore cannot be authentically made anywhere else in the world).  The noodles are a chewy rice noodle about the thickness of udon which are sitting in a small amount of intensely flavorful pork broth.  On top are bean sprouts and slices of soy glazed bbq pork, pilled on the side of the bowl is a mix of fresh herbs, then the dish is finally garnished with a couple crispy pork rind crackers. A perfectly balanced and absolutely delicious dish!!

Cau Lao
Spots we loved in Hoi An:

Cafe 43: a super cheap cafe with great food (and $.15 fresh beer!) right next to our hotel, on the north side of the old town. Friendly service, good prices and yummy dishes...we ate here so many times I can't count!

Morning Glory: a wonderful, more upscale restaurant right in the middle of the old town. You need to make a booking, as they definitely fill up. We had two dinners here and were so impressed! We especially loved the do-it-yourself pork roll appetizer and the stir-fried bean sprouts and baby celery. We ordered it because of the awesome menu description ("sprouts are considered excellent for detozifying the bowel but bean sprouts have the added benefit of enhancing one's romantic feelings", but we kept ordering more because it is incredibly delicious!

New World Tailor: (70 Nguyen Thai Hoc St, Ph: 0510 3911 913): we went to a few different tailors in Hoi An and this was by far our favorite. Excellent prices, great (not pushy) sales people, and great finished products! We got dress shirts ($17) and shorts ($20) made and are so happy with the results!

More photos from our trip:
Hoi An River FrontPretty Wife at SunsetLanternsFloating Lantern KidsThe Streets of Hoi AnGetting Fitted for a shirt
The Japanese Covered BridgeRiver front lightsNo Fishing PleaseRice Paddys near Hoi AnCycling in Hoi AnBoat at Sunset
Steps up to Marble MountainMarble Mountain GateMarble Mountain Cave BuddhaMarble Mountain Cave BuddhaTam Thai Pagoda at Marble MountainCave Light
In the CaveView From Marble MountainCycling in Hoi AnSmallest chairs ever!!Feeling a little homesick nearing the 4th... Soo we decided to stop for a little BBQ

Thursday, July 11, 2013

More thoughts on the Night Train

I'm thinking maybe when we return to the US, my next career will involve profiting off the blog posts written while not sleeping on overnight trains that are zooming through Southeast Asia. To move along on that career path, let me share our current train experience.

We're heading from Nha Trang to Danag, north along the Vietnam coast. We had heard (but not heeded) the warning that the trains fill up, so when we went to buy our tickets, all the soft sleepers were full and we would need to take the hard sleeper. Our hotel lady who sold us the tickets explained that instead of a thick, fluffy mattress, it's just a little thinner. She gestured it to be the thickness of a Japanese futon...I can handle that.

But boy was she flattering the state rail system! We arrived to the station, boarded our train, and found that the hard sleeper ticket involves a private cabin with 6 bunks, 3 on each side, stacked floor to ceiling. And the futons I was looking forward to are more like decorative (and thin) Persian rugs on a slab of metal. Oh, and there's not enough room to sit up in bed, but reclined on a hard surface we will be. I was suddenly so thrilled that our journey would take a whole 11 hours!

We met our bunk mates for the trip. One was a fairly surly older Vietnamese gentleman who yammered on his phone for the first hour or so. On the top bunks was a young Vietnamese couple who kindly explained that we were too big: "these trains are made for Vietnamese!" (Yes, I'm aware of that because I cannot sit up in bed!). But I was endeared to him when he got my attention by calling me "Miss America!" Our last roommate was a young Australian guy by the name of Wade, wearing salmon colored Bermuda shorts and a tank top (with big armholes...yuck) that said "DORK" across the front.

Wade found Cory quite charming, as his first questions were "so, she's your girlfriend?" "Nope, my wife." A few minutes and some chatting later, "so, she's your girlfriend?" "Nope, we're married. She's my wife." Wade: so are we going to go get drunk, or what?" Cory: "uh, I guess." They leave to explore the train and find a beer. They return 15 minutes later, beers in hand, and I hear, "so, are you guys going to get married?" Seriously, dude!!

Then I realized there's something wrong with Wade on the bigger scale. Not sure exactly what, but an hour into the ride, he fell asleep (luckily on the bottom bunk), and fell out of bed! Seriously, it's not that hard to stay in your bed, even on a moving train. But I knew something was amiss because once he woke up and realized he was on the fairly nasty floor of a Vietnamese train (sans pillow), he decided to stay. And that is where he remains, snoring cheerfully, as we barrel down the tracks.

On a side note, I'd love the use the restroom. However, when your husband goes to investigate it, returns, and looks into your eyes meaningfully and says, "do not need the bathroom on this train" you cap your water bottle and hope for the best.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Nha Trang: Sleeper Hit of the Summer

After a nice few days in Dalat, it was time to continue north. We hopped on a 3 hour bus to Nha Trang, which turned out to be the worst ride we've had so far this trip. The driver careened around twisty mountain roads at 50 mph, with a bus full of crying babies and vomiting adults. And just when we thought we were roughing it, the bus pulled over for a pit stop...in a field full of low brush. Ladies, have you ever tried toileting daintily in a field full of short grass next to a very tall bus full of men? It's a challenge, to say the least!

We arrived finally in Nha Trang, a town we thought we would use for a one night stop over to ease the annoyance of our travel days. What we found was a surprising delight of a town! Nha Trang is more developed than the beaches we visited in Thailand (as evidenced by the Sheraton and Best Western hotels right on the beach front road), but the beach itself is long, wide and beautiful. We stayed in a little hotel (the quiet and delightful Truong Giang Hotel) about 5 blocks from the beach, in the backpacker area, which turned out to be a great way to get cheap food and drink during our visit. 

The touristy nature of Nha Trang has helped us solidify our understanding of Vietnamese sales tactics for foreigners. The script goes something like this: "hello, where are you from?" To not be rude, you respond. Then you realize all the sudden that you're in a conversation and you can't get out, even though you never wanted to buy (insert tour, clothes, restaurant here)!!! I discovered a good response tactic, which is to say "no thank you!" firmly but with a smile, and slow enough so that they can't get a word in, but you're already passed them by the time you finish declining. Works like a charm!

Parasailing over the bay
We spent a couple of afternoons drinking beers on the beach, watching parasailers over the bay, and despite my intense fear of heights, we thought, "gee, that looks like fun!" So we thought we'd try it out (thanks for the sponsoring, Mama B!). Basically, you go up to a guy on a beach, pay him $40, skip any formalities like waivers, and then he straps you into a harness. You tell him it's too loose and insist it be tightened. When you're all set, a boat on the other end of the rope takes off and you go flying into the air, hovering between the bay below and a colorful parachute above. You scream in terror while your husband behind whoops and hollers like he's having fun. Then you see the most beautiful sunset and stop screaming because it's just so pretty. And you realize you're having fun! And then the boat turns, the wind shifts, and the parachute is no longer holding you up. Huh. You go gracefully plummeting to the water, where the boat continues to speed along as you, your husband, and your various legs smack along the top of the water painfully. After what seems like an eternity (but is probably no longer than 5 seconds), the wind shifts again and you are in the air, your body held up by the biggest wedgie imaginable (ouch!). Then the ride is over, you flutter back down and plop into the water, bobbing around. All the sudden, a jet ski comes racing to save you. Actually, he just wants to parachute back so he can send more tourists into the air. You can swim back to shore yourself. All in all, quite an experience!

Spots we loved in Nha Trang:

Drinks at Sailing Club
Swings at the Sailing Club
Curry in a coconut at Lanterns
Lil Shack: Little Mexican food shack with 6 bar stools on a street corner, and the best Mexican we have had since we left San Diego. It's San Diego tacqueria prices, but so incredibly worth it. We had lunch our last day, and returned for dinner :)

Sailing Club: Expensive, but really lovely beach front bar and restaurant. Their happy hour deal is a plastic bucket full of Tiger beers, they have a nice pool table, and there are swings all over the restaurant (although if you think you can actually swing on them, you would be mistaken. Stern looks abound if you're caught...).

Lanterns Restaurant: One of the best dinners we've had in a while, and certainly the best in Nha Trang! A gorgeous restaurant (with lanterns of course), fabulous (and insanely cheap) food, and excellent service. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Dalat of Fun!

After 2 months of hot, hot weather, we decided it was time to head into the mountains for some cool weather, and hopped on our best bus yet for Dalat, Vietnam. Although we chose a day bus (because it seems much safer, and we're not short on time), they only have sleeper buses from Saigon to Dalat. Unlike other photos I had seen of sleeper buses, this one was surprisingly nice! We each had a well-ventilated, sizable-enough reclining bed to enjoy for the 8 hour trip north. And although our driver drove as though he had a million dollar bonus awaiting him in Dalat (I've never before seen a bus pass on so many blind curves while honking angrily at the oncoming traffic, or honk while passing nice little families on bicycles driving in the torrential downpour). Maybe this is a cultural sensitivity problem on my part, but I basically think our driver was a big asshole!

Somehow we arrived safely in Dalat and made it to the most charming little hotel (largely because of the insanely friendly and adorable couple who run the place). The weather was 68 degrees and drizzly (and we were so happy to be back to sweaters and jeans!), and the town just lovely. Dalat is centered around the lake and central market, with little cafes and street food all over. It was a new experience for us, as there are very few westerners, as it's basically a tourist town for middle class Vietnamese. Odd to be in a touristy town that's not geared to us: very little english signage, but plenty of huge tour buses, honking and speeding their way through the twisty mountain village streets.
Craziness of central Dalat

On par with a mountain tourist town, the food we had was basically terrible, with a few exceptions. After being told two (clearly open) restaurants were closed (we assume they didn't feel like dealing with non-Vietnamese speakers), we ate at a small restaurant (2 pre-school sized stools in front of a lady sitting on the sidewalk). She filled a bowl with fresh noodles and ladeled soup broth and unidentified meat pieces (the texture tells me it was not the standard Western meat parts) over the top. A side of freshly sliced avocado and warm tea rounded out our $1 meal. Not the best taste, but a great memory. For better taste, see V Cafe below :)

Children dressed up in the throne room
The tourist attractions of Dalat are a little odd, though the town itself is charming to enjoy. You can visit the summer palace of the king from the 1950's, which one might assume would be like the Independence Palace in Saigon. One would be mistaken. Where Independence Palace is a fascinating look into the 60's, the summer palace is more like walking through an open house (booties and all) of a tired, dirty house that Grandma never wanted to renovate, and now it needs it...bad! The only english information in the house was regarding the various hunting "trophies" displayed throughout. The only exception to the old, tired house rule is the throne room, where you can dress up in royal outfits and have your photo taken. Super weird to visit, but also quite cheap if you're on your scooter and it starts pouring and you need to get inside for 20 minutes :)

Spots we loved in Dalat:

In front of Datanla Falls
Paris Hotel: charming hotel near the center of town, run by a charming couple, with pet hamsters in the lobby, laundry that comes back in 3 hours, and inexpensive scooters for rent. Plus, we got hugs and waves goodbye as we drove away on the bus...awesome! Only problem was the family of rooster just outside our window who thought 2am was sunrise, and therefore time to talk!

V Cafe: Best restaurant we found in Dalat, with great live music at 7:30 each night. Had dinner here 3 times (in 4 days), and on our last day, we met the owner, Curtis, who invited us in for drinks, nachos and lots of advice and ideas about our upcoming stops in China. Meeting Curtis and his lovely frenchman friend, Francois, was a fantastic evening to end our time in Dalat!

Latte art at Windmills
Datanla Falls Roller Coaster: Best thing EVER (and would never be allowed in the US)!! We took our scooter out to Datanla Falls, just outside town. Small fee to get into the park, and then you pay $2.25 each for a roundtrip on the roller coaster, a single car track where you are in control of your own braking (and you hope the person in the car behind you is paying attention so you don't get hit!). So fun we did this 3 times!

Windmills Cafe: a totally charming little second floor cafe in the center of town, with super friendly staff and delicious cappuccinos with the best latte art I've ever seen! We spend many rainy afternoons here, practicing english with the staff and enjoying their latte art, wifi, and positioning over (but thankfully above) the zany street.

View Some more photos from our Trip to Dalat here:

Drive-thru ShoppingDucksChickenMolly at the MarketThat's Dalat of Fish!Bunch of Limes
Molly having Pho BoThe Veggie AisleMorning CoffeePlaying dress up at Bao Dai's PalaceDatanla FallsDatanla Falls
Datanla FallsDatanla FallsDatanla FallsTarget shooting gameTarget shooting gameGetting on the coaster!
Dalat, a set on Flickr.