Archive for January, 2011

I’m what you might call a picky sleeper.  At home, I sleep in my bed in a very specific way – the fitted sheet has to be very tight and I fix it every night, sheets and blankets must be even on all sides, I have a favorite pillow that I put over my exposed ear, and I travel with said favorite pillow if I’m going anywhere within driving distance.  Additionally, I like for the weight of blankets to be just so, and if it’s warm, I’ll stick a foot out from under the covers  but I mostly like to be covered by something with some weight.

Thanks to my pickiness, I have trouble adjusting to new beds when I travel.  I think it’s pretty common for people not to sleep well the first night in a new bed, but it takes me at least two nights to get used to a new bed.

My sleeping quirks are typically no big deal, and I obviously am able to get around just fine.  But, let me tell you…switching beds every couple of days for over a month is really wearing on my poor quirky body.  For instance, here in Singapore, our bed is quite comfortable.  All beds in Asia tend to be hard, so I’m basically used to that, and I can’t feel any individual mattress springs which is helpful.  We also have A/C so the weight of the comforter is not a problem (which it was in Kep, Cambodia when we only had a fan, but the comforter was just a little too heavy for my liking).

Bed #1: Huge, good comforter weight, no extra pillows!!!

But my Singaporean pillow is just too high.  I tested both pillows before choosing the lower one.  There are rarely extra pillows available for me to put over my ear, so I substitute a throw pillow or the edge of the blanket.  Last night, I was up for a couple of hours in the middle of the night, messing with the pillow (I moved to just lay on one corner and flipped it over and over to be on the always-disappearing cool side), changing the room temperature, and basically tossing and turning.  Today, my neck hurts from the extra tilt from the high pillow, and as you can imagine, I’m always somewhat sleep deprived.

Bed #2: comfy, but only a sheet, no blanket. Made me sad...and cold.

Drew, on the other hand, sleeps like a log and has absolutely zero issues sleeping anywhere – he slept on his couch for the first two years after college even though he had a perfectly good bed just a few feet away – which is helpful for me when I can’t sleep.  When I wake up in the middle of the night and think I might have chosen the wrong pillow, for example, I’ll pull a quick switch on him, which he never remembers.  He told me if our Singapore pillow situation is too much for me, he’ll give me both pillows and he’ll just pass out anyway flat on the hard Asian mattress.

Bed #3: my favorite so far, the right amount of spring and the only time I've slept through the night!

I’m just excited for my bed.



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Vietnam Expenses

You can read our previous expenses postings here, here and here.  We spent 12 days and 11 nights in Vietnam, and traveled south to north, from Ho Chi Minh City to Hoi An to Hue and finally, Hanoi.   All of our major expenses are listed below with a couple notes:

Note #1: The currency in Vietnam is the dong, and currently it’s worth about 20,000 dong for one dollar.  That’s basically what our ATM withdrawals indicated, and those are calculated real time.

Note #2: A few items are not included in these expenses, mostly because I can’t remember the exact cost.  One is the cost of the visas we obtained a few months ago, and I want to say the cost was about $75 or so.  Also, our transportation into Vietnam was included in our Cambodia budget post.

Note #3: Accommodation totals are divided by 11 nights, even though we spent 9 nights in hotels and 2 nights on trains.  All other expenses are divided by 12 days.

Total Hotel Cost (ranging from $35 per night to $42 per night): $329 or $29.90 per night

Transportation –  $349.75 (includes two overnight train trips, private driver from Danang to Hoi An, private driver from Hoi An to Hue, and taxis)

Food – $179.75 (includes all food, snacks, many bottles of water and some of the best and cheapest food we’ve had yet.  Does not include our swindling incident, which has its own category.)

Entrance Fees – $16.25 (includes all museums, caves, the Hue Citadel, and the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.  Most entrance fees were just about $1 each, and the most expensive entrance fee was $2.50 each for the Hue Citadel)

Misc. – $203.50 (includes all tips, some luggage fees for our remaining flights in Asia, our day at the spa, walking tour of Hanoi, laundry, and souvenirs)

J & D Getting Screwed Over – $24.00 (includes the $12 rip-off at the Hue market and another rip-off we haven’t mentioned elsewhere which included a taxi ride to our hotel in a cab with a crazy meter…a $1 ride cost another $12)

Total (not including hotels): $423.50 or $35.29 per day

I cannot believe how much we spent on transportation in Vietnam.  It’s a big country, and we moved quickly through it.  Our train trips were 12 and 17 hours respectively, and were pretty expensive, as were our private cars.  Other than that, our spending was very low per day in Vietnam, thanks to the low entrance fees and cheap food all around.  Gotta love that dong!  (We’re posting this from Singapore, where the exchange rate is NOT in our favor and we’re feeling the pinch!)

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Top 5 Vietnam

By Julie and Drew

As we wrap up our last full days in Vietnam, here are our top five, in no particular order.

1. The beauty.  Vietnam is gorgeous.  That’s all there is to it. Leave any city center and within minutes you’re surrounded by rice paddies.  The coastal location is beauty in itself, but add in mountains on the other side, and you got yourself one pretty postcard.  The green here is almost neon, it’s just that green.  Luckily for us, we had plenty of time to few the splendid countryside as we spent a combined 36 hours in some form of transportation going from the southern border to the northern city of Hanoi.

2. The food.  Our love affair with Vietnamese cuisine began in Montreal of all places, when we tried pho (the noodle soup that is eaten mostly for breakfast and lunch) for the first time.  It quickly became a favorite food for both of us and now we get our fix at one of two great Vietnamese restaurants in Portland.  Here, we’ve eaten some form of noodle soup every day.  Add to that the pervasiveness of cilantro, hot sauce, fish sauce and garlic, and you’ve got yourself a party in the mouth every single meal.  And, the food is cheap (save for that one market incident…).  We haven’t spent more than $7 USD on a meal yet.  Our favorites have been less than $3 combined.  Hell to the yes.

Soup at a food stall

3. Hoi An Day Spa.  Drew insisted that we include this one.  He’s a bit obsessed (and he says his skin still feels amazing).  We had a great time at the spa in Hoi An.  We loved chatting with the owners about their daughter who lives in Los Angeles.  We loved our massages, the pedicures, the hot tea.  It was a great way to spend an afternoon, and one we won’t soon forget.

4. The old women.  The markets in Vietnam are run by hoards of tiny old women wearing conical hats, who haul around 50lbs of rice, balance huge amounts of fruits and veggies on their little 4′ 10″ frames.  They easily weave through the crowded walkways, negotiating and yelling, and basically kicking ass and taking names.  Drew was shoved out of the way repeatedly by 75lb old women. They run the markets, and therefore the cities, and therefore the country.  I’m pretty sure they could take either one of us in a throwdown.

We're pretty sure they'll take over the world...

5. Some historical perspective.  Vietnam has a tragic and, at the same time, fascinating history.  We as American’s tend to get a one sided perspective on our involvement and interaction with Vietnam.  Seeing our history from the “other” perspective was intriguing.  One thing that stood out was the omnipresence of Ho Chi Minh.  Multiple museums are dedicated solely to him, most at least have a special section on him and his mausoleum even contains his embalmed body on display in a glass case.  Uncle Ho looks decidedly shiny and plastic currently.  His beard still looks good though.

"Uncle Ho" Mausoleum

And, in true form, what didn’t make our Top Five?

1. The weather.  We understand that it’s January, and that weather stinks for much of the world during this month.  We have been extraordinarily lucky that most of our trip has been drenched in sun, and our biggest concern is sweating through shirts too quickly.  But Vietnam has three distinct weather patterns, so if you plan on visiting the North/Central/South in one trip, you’re likely to get crummy weather in at least one of those areas.  This time of year, Southern Vietnam is really nice, Central is rainy and Northern Vietnam is cold.  By cold, we mean in the 50s, but the humidity is super high, which makes it feel colder.  Top it off with the fact that we each have one pair of pants, one long-sleeved shirt and one jacket, and you’ll understand why we’ve been wearing the same clothes for six days.

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We spent about 12 days in Vietnam and have been sorting through our hundreds of photos to find our absolute favorites.  These are all straight-out-of-camera, and could probably do with some minor editing from home.

Saigon Traffic

We’ve posted the photo above before, but the traffic in Saigon (and really, Hanoi is pretty nuts as well) is just that crazy.  We took a ton of photos, trying to really convey the chaos, because this is honestly something you just have to see to believe.  This picture did a pretty good job.  Imagine us walking slowly but purposefully through the motorcycles, the only way to cross the street safely.

Tourist boats, Hoi An

Hoi An is one pretty town.  We decided that of all the cities we’ve been so far, Hoi An is the most ‘parent-friendly’ destination.  It’s small, calm, has lots of good restaurants and when you get tired, you can sit down near the water and watch the boats.  We visited during winter, so the temperamental weather meant that most of these tourist boats were parked.

East Citadel Gate, Hue

Hue is another incredible city in Central Vietnam.  Its primary claim to fame is that it is the historical capital of Vietnam, and was the home to many emperors and royal dynasties.  As such, much of the city is encompassed by a huge Imperial Wall, and the Citadel within has its own massive walls.  Hue was also the first major city on the South side of the DMZ during the Vietnam war, and was the victim of a massive amount of destruction.  We saw one gate riddled with bullet holes. This is a detail shot of one of the many gates, though this is not a gate you can enter…we just happened upon it.

Pagoda, Hue

If you get sick of the Citadel in Hue, no worries.  There are also a bunch of pagodas you can wander through.  We saw a few pagodas, never saw another tourist, and caught this rare quiet moment in the city of 400,000.  You can almost feel the chilly drizzle, right?

And our favorite of all...

And, finally, after almost a month of travel, here’s a proper photo of the two of us!  We aren’t really the types who ask others to take photos of us, so it was by accident that during a walking tour of Hanoi street food (which was really fun and so interesting!), our guide offered to take over picture duty for a minute.  This is a very typical street stall, serving exactly one dish during a very specific time of day (this dish, a sweet gingery soup with rice paste balls filled with sesame and mung beans, is only served between 11am and 2pm, then the shop closes up for the day).  And those little stools?  They’re freaking everywhere.

On to warmer weather.  Vietnam is amazing.

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We Got Swindled

By Drew

We have successfully made it almost three quarters of the way through this trip without being swindled by some ‘enterprising’ tourist-devouring local. We have sort of patting ourselves on the back for having been so lucky, though honestly, I feel that the easiest way to avoid getting screwed is some basic research and common sense (i.e. if you know the scam about telling tourists that a popular attraction is closed to get them to go shopping in your store, you know to ignore such comments). Our streak came to a crashing halt a few days ago when we got totally hustled by an old lady.

Julie and I decided to have lunch at the massive Hue market after having wandered around for a bit. Besides the craziness and the complete lack of any personal space that are trademarks of any respectable Asian market, this particular one was impeccably clean and was devoid of white people, meaning that good, cheap food was to be had. There were numerous stalls, so we made the rounds to find a promising stall and settle into some seats. We ended up in the center of the market whose main speciality was noodle soup. This lady working the stall had a small menu of five items or so hanging at the front written in Sharpie and none of the soups cost more than 15,000 dong (about $.75). She quickly whipped up two bowls of noodle and pork soup, which was delicious, even though we had yet to order. This is where the lunch went decidedly downhill.

The stall lady would come over to our table every few minutes, delivering two more of some other item. First it was spring rolls, and then shrimp paste dumplings, then meatballs for our soup, then skewers of grilled pork. It looked like we had raided the buffet at Ponderosa we had so much food. We kindly declined each time she came over with a new plate, but she was having none of it. She would quickly set down the plates anyway and pour sauces and add condiments, as if she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Once, she even picked up a piece of sausage and literally fed it Julie. When we were not eating enough of the grilled pork skewers for the stall lady’s liking, she rushed over, grabbed five skewers and slid the meat off on top of other uneaten dishes. When I had yet to add the additional meatballs to my soup, the stall lady quickly remedied the situation by dumping the meatballs into the soup for me.

As this frenzy of activity was taking place (and frenzy is really the only word for it), we decided that this must be one of those situations where you pay for what you eat. If you don’t touch the dish, how can you possibly be charged? When we had finished eating maybe 25% of the various offerings, I quickly gestured for the check. The total: 200,000 dong. That’s $10US, a crazy sum of money for lunch in Vietnam, let alone at the market where the most expensive thing on any menu is 15,000. In fact, it’s the most expensive meal we have had in Vietnam. We got completely and utterly swindled.

The entire transaction took place in such a rush, the old lady pulling out a 200,000 note from a Ziploc bag and waving it to us to indicate that’s what she wanted. Since there was no printed menu (the Sharpie board was now almost 20 feet away and not within view), and all the uneaten food had been tainted with sauces and condiments, we were stuck. Should I not pay for the meatballs dumped in my soup even if I didn’t eat them? Should Julie have spit out the sausage? And how do we navigate this conversation about what we ate and didn’t eat in Vietnamese? We only know a few words – ‘bia’ is beer and ‘ga’ is chicken.

We paid the bill. Our egos in shambles, we walked out of the market in a complete funk. We just didn’t see it coming. We thought we were doing the smart thing, going to eat where the locals eat, taking a chance on some unknown food, being as un-Western as possible, and look what happens! We decided as we walked back to our hotel to drown our sorrows in uneaten birthday cake, that this will one day be funny. We tried to comfort ourselves with the thought that you haven’t really ‘done’ Asia until you get swindled by someone, since there are hustlers on literally every corner.

So far, the whole incident still hasn’t registered as funny. The worst $10 we’ve ever spent. I need some cake.

The scene of the crime...Julie with SOME of the food

The lady in the pink hoodie is primary culprit, though her 'helpers' abound

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When our plane left New York just a few weeks ago, we didn’t think that our travel plans would really allow us to get into any sort of routine. We’re moving really quickly, every second or third day, and each city we’ve visited is just so different, the word ‘routine’ just doesn’t seem to fit. But, creatures of habit that we are, we’ve found that our days have begun to fall into a typical pattern, so we thought you might be interested to hear how we’re really spending our time. I must warn in advance, that reading over this we sound pathetic, but this is a true account.

During a typical non-travel day (we wake up and go to sleep in the same place), here’s what we do:

6:30 – 7:00: Wake up, usually to roosters. We’ve found that even when we have no plans, no agenda, our bodies just are wired to wake up early. So be it.

Drew, showing how to really relax (notice tennis in background)

7:30: Head to breakfast in our hotel. We typically bring our guidebook or my huge accordion file filled with articles and print-outs with us so we can figure out how to spend the day.

8:00 – 9:30: Shower and get ready. Check email. Don’t forget sunscreen and/or bug spray…in these parts, malaria and dengue fever is a real concern, and we really would rather not deal with it. The Australian Open on in the background if we have a TV. There’s also this random television station, AXN, which plays all these reruns of American prime time shows day and night like CSI and Mythbusters so that could also be on in the background, especially if the Aussie Open match isn’t to Drew’s liking. (Quick note: Drew is loving that our current time zone allows him to watch Australian Open matches live…at home, they’re all on in the middle of the night. I think tennis is boring most of the time, so let’s just say we don’t agree on this one point.)

Julie, sporting our essential travel backpack in Saigon

9:30: Take off for the morning. Usually we head to some museum or attraction. If we’ve seen or done the attractions that are of interest, we’ll head to a new neighborhood and wander around. We rarely take taxis, so we walk a lot. We carry one small backpack, filled with my nice camera, our guidebook, water, sunglasses, etc.

12 – 1: We’ve usually already decided where we’re going to go for lunch…that’s a decision often made at breakfast. We have a few online resources we use (some city specific ones are amazing like www.savourasia.com for Hanoi, or www.openrice.com for Hong Kong) and our guidebooks also give us some good general tips, though we find that if a particular restaurant has made it to a guidebook, it’s usually really busy and/or generic. Eat lunch.

A typical meal...noodle soup at least once a day (sorry, color is way off on this)

1:30: Back to the hotel to take a break. More Australian Open, reading, messing around online, writing blog posts, moving photos off of camera and onto jump drives or Shutterfly, etc. Depending on our internet connection, some of these tasks can literally take hours.

3:00: Leave the hotel again. Go to some other attraction, museum, or neighborhood. Wander some more. If the weather isn’t cooperating, stop somewhere for coffee or a beer (in some places, beer is the cheapest thing on the menu, like Huda beer in Hue for only $0.50. The coffee I’m drinking as I write this was $1.50).

5:30: Back to hotel to dump off our stuff, decide where to have dinner. We typically stay close to the hotel for dinner because it’s easier to walk home.

6:00: Grab dinner. In Vietnam, the entire dinner process takes an hour at the absolute most. They take your order within minutes of walking in, and the food is out maybe five minutes after that. They will not come by and see how the food is, or ask if they can get you anything – if you need something, you wave them over. Same with the check. You can hang out all night if you want, and no one will say a word.

7:30: Back at hotel. See what’s on AXN. Read, check email again, write down notes on what happened during the day, write down daily expenses, file stuff in accordion file (I keep ticket stubs, maps, etc.), don’t forget to take malaria medication, hit the sack.

10:00: At the very latest, asleep by 10.

Yes, folks. Now you understand why we know more about what’s happening in the news in the US than most of you. We literally read CNN multiple times a day. We know that areas in Maine made the national news today because of the terrible wind chill. Ok, I’m going to sign off now because we have to make some critical decisions like where we’re having lunch today!

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By Drew

I am now 30 years old. I officially entered the fourth decade of my life. I feel slightly wiser, a little older and very annoyed at the all those young kids with their loud rock and roll music. The one interesting part of turning 30 though is that I did it in Hue, Vietnam.

We had just arrived in Hue, so we spent most of the day exploring the city and walking around the Imperial City, the former home of the emperor. It was a relatively normal day outside of our breakfast at our home away from home, the Orchid Hotel. The breakfast spread is quite nice here actually, with a mix of Vietnamese and Western foods and always a full pot of the ridiculously strong Vietnamese coffee. As we were wrapping up, the staff at the hotel came out, gave me a bouquet of flowers, a birthday cake and did an impromptu rendition of “happy birthday” in the lobby café. A few particular amusing details about the whole situation:

  1. The birthday cake was in a pink box with images of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
  2. The cake itself just said “birthday.”
  3. The card that went with the cake and signed by the staff was addressed to “Mr Drew.”
  4. It is the first time I have receiving a bouquet of roses.

Here are a few pictures for everyone to enjoy:

The birthday boy

No need to add the 'happy' - we know what you mean!

Drew, hobbling around like the old man he is

Editor’s Note: Now that we’re back up and running with pictures, check back on the Marble Mountain post to view photos of the marble craziness.

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