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Vietnam, Foreign

4 Jun

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Vietnam was one of those places where on one hand I felt a sense of familiarity since my last visit 18 years ago, but on the other hand, it was quite foreign to me at the same time. I wavered between both feelings during our 12 day stay.

Here’s the foreign stuff:

You know how you’ve heard of so and so distant relative but if you ever saw them on the street you wouldn’t recognize them? Or when your family’s not socially networked when you go away to college and so you come back to find out that suddenly your baby cousin is now a kid who can read and has a Facebook profile? That’s how I felt about my family that are still in Vietnam.

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I always knew I had relatives in Vietnam, but I never really knew who they were or even some of their names. Sure I had met some of them 18 years ago, but over the years, it was out of sight, out of mind. So it was really neat to sort of “discover” and get to know my cousins better. Not to be cheesy, but I feel like I gained more family while on this trip. The last time I felt this way was when we got married.

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See the cute little girl? I had no idea she even existed!

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I had no idea my cousin is artist/teacher. I knew he was a teacher, but I thought it was some academic subject, not art. He is super talented, he made those busts!

I played badminton with my cousin. That was incredibly fun though sweaty. Badminton was quite foreign to Jerry before he met me, but familiar to me, as I got my first badminton set in 5th grade.
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No one in my family in the States played badminton while I was growing up, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my cousins in Vietnam play almost every day!

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I thought we left food drive thrus when we left America in February, but it turns out in you can ride your motorcycle right up to a vendor and get stuff like meat buns and fruit without getting off your bike.

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I had no idea Saigon had its own version of Notre Dame. It was a duh moment!

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Jerry found these buildings to be oddly shaped. Built very tall instead of wide, when there was plenty of land to be had.

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Who knew the post office was this baller? Although given the amount of cardboard boxes it handles, I shouldn’t be surprised 😛

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Jerry discovered the best DDR players to be in Vietnam (we thought they’d be in Japan). And as you’ll see in the video at the end of this post, go kart racing is where folks take the opportunity to not drive like they normally do outside.

Museums in Vietnam:
I pretty much got schooled by these museums in Vietnam. I won’t even pretend that I am knowledgable about Vietnam’s political history or current political climate. I guess there is always the assumption that if you’re from a certain country, how dare you not know the history, right? Well, better late than never! What I knew about Vietnam’s past I cobbled up through years of random things I’ve heard in passing from my family, the TV, or in school. And to prove this point, we flew into Hanoi on April 29th. Our hotel receptionist told us the following day (4/30) was a holiday. I blankly looked at him and said, huh? Then it registered with me that it was Black April. I actually only learned about Black April during college, not even from my family. And why would they tell me? I certainly didn’t ask. So this trip to Vietnam was a huge history lesson for me. I didn’t even know that the US used Agent Orange during the war either. That was a huge shock for me and seeing the pictures, that was eye opening. I think that when we come home, I’d like to ask about the war and my family’s boat escape story in further detail with my family if they feel like talking about it. I’ve only heard bits and pieces, but maybe I’ll have more intelligent questions to ask now that I’ve seen one side of the story (i.e. the museum exhibits).

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I had never heard of the “Hanoi Hilton” or that former Senator McCain was a prisoner there. Jerry had though.

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Vietnam Military History museum in Hanoi. I learned a lot about the French colonization of Vietnam here.

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The site where the northern Vietnamese army tank (pictured above) crashed through the gates of the then called Independence Palace and afterwards renamed Reunification Palace.

The War Remnants Museum in Saigon. There’s no flashy exhibits or fancy technology like today’s museums. But I think it’s well curated and extremely powerful. The photos speak for themselves.

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Not to be all dramatic, but that Agent Orange exhibit had me tearing up. I felt so depressed seeing all the photos and reading the stories. How do you ever repair or repay an action like that? You just can’t.

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So despite flying in and thinking that Vietnam would be the most familiar place for me because I knew the language and the food, it ended up being foreign to me in the most positive and eye opening way. Someday I’d like to take our kids there so they can get a sense of their family roots.

Vietnam, Familiar

4 Jun

Vietnam was one of those places where on one hand I felt a sense of familiarity since my last visit 18 years ago, but on the other hand, it was quite foreign to me at the same time. I wavered between both feelings during our 12 day stay.

Here’s the familiar stuff:

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Crossing the street in VN is always an adventure, and the plethora of motorcycles certainly makes it even more challenging! There’s no such thing as traffic laws in Vietnam.

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Apart from American hipster salads with fancy ingredients such as quinoa and seitan, I’d consider Vietnamese food to be on the lighter side. Well, with the exception of egg rolls pictured above. Although is it healthier when wrapped in lettuce? 😛 Anyhow, it was quite a refreshing change from the greasy and heavy Chinese food that we’d been having.

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Typical restaurant set ups. I didn’t bother to use Google much in countries like Vietnam. I had a feeling that once we ventured outside, we’d just go where our noses and eyes took us.

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One Google exception: we made it out to the “Lunch Lady.” She became famous after she appeared on an episode of No Reservations, but believe me, she was well known in Saigon before that. Definitely worth the hype! Everyday she serves different bowls of noodle soup. I believe on Saturdays she serves banh canh, bun thai on Mondays, etc. We specifically went on Friday, when bun bo hue is on the menu. No worries about being ripped off. Even though she has two tiers of pricing for locals and tourists, it’s still on roughly $1.25 per bowl for tourists. I could have been satisfied after one bowl, but Jerry and I “splurged” on a third bowl. 🙂

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More bun bo hue near my cousin’s house. I actually prefer bun bo hue over pho. I crave pho when I’m sick because it’s simple and comforting, but when I’m just plain hungry a bowl bun bo hue has my name written all over it.

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I didn’t try to seek out the “best pho” in Vietnam. I’m not really that picky about pho, as long as it’s not too salty or skimpy on the portions, then any bowl will do. Pictured left is Ben Thanh market, which is really fun to browse in and well organized I feel.

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We went to what was supposedly the best banh mi in Saigon. We went twice, the first time I thought everything was perfect except for the bread which I felt was too over baked. The second time the bread was softer. Pretty much a winner, although really, you can’t go wrong anywhere I feel.

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Night markets galore in Hanoi and Saigon. Though the wares offered have changed over the years to reflect tastes, I think the concept of a night market hasn’t, thankfully.

One of my favorite things about Asia is the plethora of fresh fruits and drinks. Really no point in drinking soda or anything artificial when you can get fresh squeezed sugarcane juice and coconut juice straight from the source so easily.

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I ate my weight and more in jackfruit and rambutan specifically. It’s really pricey back at home. Another place I also get my exotic fruit fix is in Canada. I think my cousin said that import laws there are more lax than in the states.

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The Vietnamese cardboard box. If you head to the airport on any given night, at the check in counter for flights to Vietnam, you will see lines of folks waiting to check in their cardboard boxes. Who knows whats in them, but keep in mind that Western goods are still prized in Vietnam.

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Jerry and I decided to partake and ship a box of stuff (souvenirs/extra clothes) home. Our stuff is estimated to arrive by boat…oh in a few months or so. It was 66% cheaper by boat than by plane!

So after having spent the last couple months prior trying to sign language our way through Brazil, interpreting what was what on a menu in Peru, and searching the ends of the Internet for the correct bus to take to the Great Wall, I thought Vietnam would be the one place that we’d breeze through. Boy was I wrong, and I’m glad I was wrong. Our next post will go into that!

Tips for Visiting Ha Long Bay

1 Jun

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If you’ve got a week or so in Hanoi, you might consider Ha Long Bay as a side trip. Another option is Sapa, which our friends really enjoyed as well. For this particular trip, we opted to check out Ha Long Bay. Here’s some tips!

The pictures you see advertised aren’t really representative of the actual boat itself. That’s okay. If you choose Galaxy Cruise, you’ll find the accommodations to be pretty decent. AC only turns on after 6pm though. But otherwise, not so shabby. Though it’s overpriced, you do get what you pay for. We saw some of the cheaper junk boats out at sea and they looked pretty old and sorry.

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Consider going on a 3D/2N cruise even though it’s pricier. A day trip is definitely not worth it, it takes 3 hours to get from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay each way, which leaves very little time to enjoy the bay to the fullest. A 2D/1N cruise will save you a bit of money, but for a bit more of your time/money, you’ll get to explore the quieter parts of the bay.

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On day one we had to kayak in a high traffic area with everyone and their mom, and on day 2, our semi-private guide (we only had to share him with this Russian couple on their honeymoon, who had been married only five days prior!) took us through a sea cave which opened up to our own little private bay. It was super nice!

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Bring your own bottled water. We’d totally understand if soda/alcohol costs extra, but we thought water should have been included! Technically they even charge you a fee for bringing your own water, but umm..just don’t tell them! Easy!

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Inside the dining area of our boat. Food was fairly decent.

If you swim in the bay, beware of jellyfish stings! I got stung very lightly, but the sting marks remained for over a month. However I think this happens more in the shallow areas? We swam in deeper water the day prior and were okay. PS, Jerry did not pee on my leg. Instead the tour guide gave me some lemon to squeeze on the affected area.

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Bring your bathing suit! One of the girls on our boat got in the water in her regular clothing. A sure way to drown it to wear clothing that gets heavy and weighed down when wet.

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As with any tour, there are obligatory shopping excursions. We got taken to an embroidery factory during the 3 hour drive to and from Hanoi/Ha Long Bay, and a pearl factory inside the world wonder. We hate these side trips, but it’s pretty unavoidable!

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You’ll be taken to an underground cave with cheesy lighting and cool limestone formations. After you’re done, wait for your group inside the cave, as it’s super hot and crowded outside. Jerry and I tend to breeze through these things, but being in a tour group, we have to wait for the very last person.

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Definitely deserving of its natural world wonder title! It’s a very beautiful place.

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First Impressions: Jordan

26 May

We’ve still got posts on Vietnam, Thailand, and India coming your way, but we thought we’d drop a quick post about first impressions of Jordan while it’s still fresh on our minds!

First off, Jordanians are incredibly friendly, and not because they want something from you! They just want to say hi, without any pretense of selling us anything. Supposedly Petra itself
is not like that, but we’ll see.

The children are super friendly, they will wave hi and say hello as you’re walking/driving by.

The food is really tasty and simple. The meats are very tender and flavorful. Jerry has ordered the mixed plate grill (one kebab each of chicken, lamb, and beef) three meals in a row, that’s how good it is! Prices vary greatly for the same amount of food depending on how touristy the location is.

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Super high taxes on everything. There is a 17% tax on food!

Speaking of expensive, we bought some fruit and it was PRICY. But we needed something to supplement the meat we were eating. I tried to order a fruit salad at dinner and it turned out to be a serving of canned fruit, bummer. So we’ll pay a little for the real deal. Apparently the local markets by Petra are not allowed to sell fruit and veggies, instead vendors have to specifically sell at a warehouse by the bus station.

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Driving in Jordan is not all that different than driving in the states. Yes, you read correctly, we rented a car for our week in Jordan! Luckily they drive on the same side of the road and the drivers are pretty courteous, they will actually yield. The traffic circles/roundabouts take a bit getting used to though. More on driving later…

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The king (King Abdullah II) has his pictures everywhere. Not surprisingly, we found this in Thailand and North Korea as well. I haven’t see any of Queen Rania so far, which is too bad because I think she’s one of the most gorgeous woman in the world!

We’ve only been in Jordan for about 32 hours, and we love it so far. Tomorrow the Indiana Jungs explore Petra!

A Little Reputation Would Go A Long Way

22 May

While I will never cease to shop at big box stores (Target is my jam!), I also like supporting small businesses. Often Jerry and I prefer to eat at hole-in-the-walls over chains. I enjoy looking for one-of-a-kind gifts at events such as Unique LA. But while traveling, we don’t feel all that inclined to support a certain subset of small businesses, i.e. drivers, shopkeepers, restaurants etc.

It’s not that we don’t want to support them. We do. But we feel uncomfortable in doing so because in many of the countries we’ve been to, the reputation is less than stellar. Examples:

If the driver tells you that the hotel is full/closed/under repair, don’t trust the driver because touts (drivers in India) at the airport copy your name on their placards and cheat, so never trust anyone until you arrive at the hotel.

In that vein, don’t get into a taxi unless you’ve agreed upon a price. Drivers will often take you on a circuitous route and your bill will be doubled or even tripled, or you may even be taken to a strange place and their buddies will rob you.

Bargain hard, upwards of 30%-50% because shopkeepers won’t hesitate to start very high.

Don’t eat at restaurants that don’t list prices on the menu, because you’ll end up with a really high bill.

Speaking of high bills, don’t trust anyone in China that wants to strike up a conversation with you under the pretense of wanting to improve their English. They’ll sweet talk you into going to a tea house, and leave you with a $300 bill.

Ridiculous but not surprising, yes? None of us are born yesterday, we can see through all these tricks. We sympathize with the fact that everyone needs to make a living, and of course tourists are a gold mine that should be tapped into, it would be very unbusiness-like to not take advantage of that. But taking advantage should only go so far. And while there are many honest business folk out there, unfortunate a few bad apples ruins it all.

We would most likely choose the first decent looking taxi company we saw if they were all cut from the same cloth. Unfortunately, I don’t relish the the fact that we’d be at the mercy of the driver at any given time, and we have no choice but to decline rides from numerous taxis and only ride with ones that have a good reputation. So FYI, if you’re in Vietnam, go with the Mai Linh or Taxi Group because they actually use their meters accurately. And be careful, there’s a taxi group out there that mimics the logo of Mai Linh and instead spells it as M Linh. Yep, counterfeit taxis, the nerve of them! Because they have the reputation of ripping us off even a few cents, they lose dollars in potential fares.

To us, it’s not the amount of getting ripped off on, but the principle of it. We’ll spend $5 more in your shop, but if you try to rip us off 50 cents, it makes us feel like spending zero, and instead we’d give our money to someone else more honest, which unfortunately may be a big box store that lists prices.

Speaking of spending money, Jer and I, we hate bargaining. We really have no interest in playing games to see how low we can go. After all, the shopkeeper has to make a living as well! So our tactic has been to just name a price that we think is fair, and to stick to it. We don’t like going back and forth. Ultimately it’s just a matter of pennies or dollars, and to us it doesn’t feel good to achieve some sort of moral victory or whatnot that we saved fifty cents. So be it if the price we think is fair still ends up being more than what it’s worth. This tactic backfired on us once in Hong Kong when we got thrown out of a few stalls in Mongkok for bargaining too low on a cell phone case, but otherwise it’s been working for the most part!

Getting ripped off is just one of the aspects of traveling, and we’re okay with that when things are out of our hands or if the situation calls for it, i.e. that $4 we spent on 600ml bottle of Fanta because it was 100 degrees at Iguazu Falls and we were desperate. And sometimes we’ll just buy that Taj Mahal souvenir for a buck more because it’s our last opportunity or because it saves us time, and because it’s not worth it to haggle over fifty cents. But certainly when we do have opportunity and choice, we’ll make sure to go with our gut, even if it means giving our business to chains over mom and pops. A little reputation goes a long way!

To Expat or Not to Expat

11 May

The majority of travelers and expats that we’ve run across while on our travels have been decidedly non-Americans. That’s no surprise to us, since America has the reputation of being a no-vacation nation. Also, it’s pretty hard to find a company that’s willing to put you up in a different country, and you’d have to have marketable skills to boot as well.

We won’t deny it, the idea of being an expat has crossed our minds in the past. While watching the Giants vs Swallows game in Tokyo, we thought that it would be pretty neat if Jerry was a washed up MLB pitcher playing in Japan. Less pressure, good money, and life on the road in Japan can’t be too shabby right?? As alluring as that sounds though, we’ve come to the conclusion that being an expat is not really the lifestyle for us. Also, if you know us personally, our jobs are not necessarily transferable to a different country, unfortunately! We also have really strong ties to our families and logistically it would be difficult to see them as often as we did before we left for this trip. Also having been on the road for the last couple of months, we’ve realized that personally, the good ‘ol United States of America is really home sweet home for us. While we have been enjoying our experiences abroad exploring other cultures, trying a variety of foods, and just having fun, there is really nothing like the familiar comforts of what we were raised with. However, we love hearing stories from our friends/family who are current and former expats, and we selfishly hope our friends/family become expats so we have opportunities to travel to different countries to visit!

Ever been an expat? Or have you ever thought about becoming an expat? Or not for you? Share via comments or in the poll below!

 

Akihabara Electronics

4 Apr

This district of Akiharbara is known for electronics. If you can think of it, they probably sell it. We spent a few hours in the largest store in the district- Yodobashi Camera- and it wasn’t enough. But lucky us, there is one in Kyoto, so we’ll be exploring that one as well.

For anyone who was been to the mecca of camera stores in the USA, B&H photo, Yodobashi puts that place to shame. The store is just a completely massive place that sells every single piece of camera equipment and more! Try walking through all the tv/audio, computer, high end watches, washing machines and refrigerators, games, stationary, beauty products, bicycles, and more! This place has it all. There’s even 2 floors with restaurants and a food court.

Unfortunately due to the poor exchange rate prices are relatively expensive. So Jeannie won’t be getting that new fridge after all. Bummer.

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Parrillas in Buenos Aires

20 Mar

We might or might not have gone overboard in Buenos Aires. Steaks were consumed on a daily basis for 4 nights in a row. In the land of glorious grass fed beef how could we not? So we partook in the experiences of 4 different types of parrilla “establishments.”

Exhibit A, local:
Club Eros
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Nondescript exterior, check.

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No, we didn’t stumble into a futbol field by mistake. Club Eros is a legit and local parrilla joint that is attached to an indoor gym that hosts soccer and volleyball games.

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This place was happening on a rainy Monday evening.

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The menu is very simple, spanning only a couple of pages.

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Obligatory papas fritas aka french fries.

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Bife de chorizo, aka strip steak. So what you have to know about ordering steak in Argentina is that they basically only offer 3 cuts: New York, Rib-eye, and Filet Mignon. Local people order them cooked like hockey pucks all the way through, but if they know you’re a tourist they will cook it medium-rare for you. The terms to use (if you don’t have a picture on your phone) is azul (blue) or jugoso (juicy). Most places speak English to a degree, but at Club Eros they didn’t.

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Milanesa, essentially beef that’s been pounded thin, battered, and fried.

Verdict:
Not the best cut, but still really tender and mindblowingly cheap. $8 for that hunk of steak! Our total bill was around 20 bucks!

Exhibit B, food court:
Yes, we tried steak at a food court.

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This flan was disappointing- too eggy.

Verdict: not shabby for a food court.

Exhibit C, tourist happy hour:
La Cabrera
South America is similar to Europe in that people dine quite late. At home we used to eat at 5:30 or 6, so we had to adjust to eating at earliest 7 or even later. We found out that La Cabrera has a happy hour from 7-8:30 where food is half off. Instead of it being a true happy hour where people order drinks and light foods, all the tourists use it to eat steak at their normal hour for half off! We started lining up around 6:30.

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Verdict:
Very decent. We wouldn’t mind coming back, esp with happy hour being such a good deal!

Exhibit D,
Don Julio
This was our favorite parrilla experience, and one our top restaurants that we’ve ever eaten at.

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For a size reference, those steaks are sitting on 12″ plates.

Verdict: Fantastic. The steaks were HUGE and cooked a perfect medium-rare. Where else can you get a whole meal like that for $61 including potatoes, sodas, and flan)? We also loved the ambiance and service was impeccable. This place is a must visit for the ultimate parrilla experience.

So there you have it, all in the name of research!

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