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Ah Spain, glorious Spain!
Jun 3rd, 2010 by Kate
In front of the Royal Palace (I think - so many pretty buildings!)

In front of the Royal Palace (I think - so many pretty buildings!)

During about our third week in India we decided we needed to stop moving around for a bit and rest our tired backs.  Our onward tickets to UAE and Egypt were already bought and our plans made – so we had 2 more weeks of moving and then… what?

And now I’ll make a long story short… my best girlfriend from high school (hey Kel!) is engaged to a great guy (hey Mariano!) who has a really cool sister (yeah Koren!) who very generously offered us her townhouse in southern Spain way back last year when we were planning our trip.  At the time we thought maybe we’d go and stay a week or so, but when we decided we needed to stop moving for a while I thought of her offer, and after a few emails we arranged to stay for a MONTH!  Woohoo!

So, onward to Spain – to Malaga and the Costa del Sol via Madrid.  As fate would have it, half my family was already planning on being in Spain the week we arrived.  My sister Claudia and stepmom Bo were on a high school trip with Caud’s school, and my cousin Sydney was there visiting friends (we had a great dinner with her our first night in Madrid – so funny!!)  Then, my sister Krissy and her son Jack amazingly arranged to meet up with us in Madrid and join us for a week down south (amazing, because she has one year old twins at home!).  So it was like a little family reunion!

Our first night in Madrid with my cousin Sydney!

Our first night in Madrid with my cousin Sydney!

Madrid was awesome.  We all loved it and were SOOOO happy to be in a “first world” country again (our idea of the high-life is being able to drink the tap water!).

In Madrid, we decided to do the most touristy of things to kick off our trip – hop on the Big Red Bus tour!  I know… it sounds lame, but with three kids, three jet-lagged adults, and 1000 years of Spanish history to tackle in three days, it was the only way to go!  Madrid was the perfect city to do this in… it brought us all over the city, we got to see all the sites from high above the traffic, and when we saw a museum, palace, or giant hill that needed to be rolled down, we just hopped off the bus!

My sister Krissy, nephew Jack, Tess & Phoebe cruising Madrid on the Big Red Bus!

My sister Krissy, nephew Jack, Tess & Phoebe cruising Madrid on the Big Red Bus!

Jack and Phoebe taking part in our family tradition of rolling down any large grassy hill we can find - in this case behind the Del Prado Musuem!

Jack and Phoebe taking part in our family tradition of rolling down any large grassy hill we can find - in this case behind the Del Prado Museum!

Madrid is very pretty – lots of great architecture, fountains, tons of parks and lots of green space.  We had been good about not shopping too much up to this point, but it was in Madrid where we started slipping down the slope of retail therapy… the shops here are amazing, and everywhere.  Tess, Phoebe and I did a great job justifying our purchases because it indeed was springtime in Europe and much cooler (both temperature-wise and cool/hip-wise) and we only had clothes for hot weather!  And the baby clothes – wow!  The Spanish babies are the best dressed I have ever seen.  The other funny thing that all of us noticed was that the older people here (grandma and grandpa-aged) are impeccably coiffed!  Smart suits, dresses, furs, hats, lovely handbags and jewels and beauty shop hair dos.  Phoebe commented that when Auntie Tasch and I are old that we should move to Spain so we can dress up every day and walk around together.  I think we might just have to do that.

Tess, Jack & Phoebe at a park in Madrid.

Tess, Jack & Phoebe at a park in Madrid.

mad tess w statue

Spain has been doing its best to displace France as the culinary capital of the world.  And I have to say they are doing a pretty darn good job!  We opted for tapas and bar food over the fancy-smanchy dining rooms of Madrid, but we still ate like kings.  By FAR our favorite and most often eaten meal was fresh bread with Iberica ham (or Serrano ham…those acorn-fed piggies sure are tasty!) and Manchego cheese.  Grilled veggies, mystery sausages, anchovies in olive oil and lemon with crushed sea salt, and gazpacho rounded out many-a-meal.  And in Madrid, we couldn’t pass up their famous churros and chocolate!  Yes, churros like we have at home, but freshly fried, and served with a cup of “hot chocolate” that is more like hot chocolate pudding that you dip your churro into.  OMG!  I’m getting fat just writing about it!

All and all, Madrid is definitely a city to come back to and spend more time in.  We didn’t even scratch the surface of the museums and cultural sites I wanted to see, plus there really are some amazing restaurants that I need to experience.  I would definitely put Madrid high on my list of places to come back to.

Phoebe & Jack in their scarves, cruising the streets of Madrid, lookin so hip!

Phoebe & Jack in their scarves, cruising the streets of Madrid, lookin so hip!

The ultimate in rock climbing – the Great Pyramids!
May 10th, 2010 by Kate
Couldn't open my blog about Egypt without posting my version of the Sphinx and the Pyramid...

Couldn't open my blog about Egypt without posting my version of the Sphinx and the Pyramid...

Aside from Tessa developing an irrational fear of camels – our time in Egypt was awesome.  I have to say, Egypt was on my “list” of places we absolutely HAD to go to because I thought it should be, not because I was really dying to go there.

Plus, almost everyone we spoke with about Egypt was like “good luck with that” and “it is SO insane there… dangerous, dirty, and difficult…”  Needless to say, after our dangerous, dirty, and difficult time in India, Egypt was sounding more and more like work, and less and less like fun.  But there’s those darn pyramids, and all that history, and in my mind, we couldn’t very well go to the Great Wall of China and then not see the pyramids because it was gritty – right?  Plus, my sister Olivia wanted to meet up with us for her Spring Break (a month in New Zealand just wasn’t enough!) so after a few lovely days in UAE and our first McDonald’s purchase in 10 months (free wifi with purchase!) during our layover in Kuwait – we made our way to Cairo.

Egypt was great!  Yes gritty, yes crowded and polluted and, yes the traffic was a bit crazy (the little electronic guy on the crosswalk sign, he literally RUNS when its time to cross – we didn’t even see that in Shanghai!) but we liked it.  Cairo is massive, I mean like 2nd largest city in the world massive, but thanks to my dad and stepmom, we stayed on Zemalack Island which is rather large island right smack dab in the middle of the Nile.  Back in the heyday when Cairo was obviously highly influenced by French architecture, Zemalack was where the embassies were, and where the embassy staff lived.  Lots of really old fabulous houses and apartments remain, along with tree-lined streets and the coolest restaurants and shops we found in all of Cairo (and you know us – we looked!).

Walking across the bridge over the Nile between the island of Zemalack and the downtown.  That is our hotel in the background - nice view!

Walking across the bridge over the Nile between the island of Zemalack and the downtown. That is our hotel in the background - nice view!

Cairo? Paris?  I'm so confused!!!  This is one of many old cool downtown Cairo buildings.

Cairo? Paris? I'm so confused!!! This is one of many old cool downtown Cairo buildings.

Our very first night in town we made a beeline for a Cairo classic – El Sid – for a feast of Egyptian delicacies… the rabbit, lamb in yogurt sauce, fool (a lentil, noodle, and tomato sauce dish – my FAV!), and pigeon stuffed with rice and dried fruit (YES – we ate pigeon!) were amazing.  The vibe was awesome… great music and fruit scented sheesa smoke… and the décor SO exotic… dark woods, funky north African lanterns and spinning table tops.  LOVED IT!

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The Chiang Mai Experience
Mar 11th, 2010 by Jeff

Chiang Mai is a wonderful city in the north of Thailand. We flew up there from Bangkok while we waited for Kate’s new veneers to be made. We had plans for a number of great adventures while we were in this town, including Thai cooking classes, visiting some of the 475+ Wats (or temples) and to have an another elephant encounter.

The first day spent in Chang Mai we used as what I call a utility or down day. This is one of those less glamorous sides of our extended travels Kate blogged about earlier. A number of things typically get done one these days. Usually this is when Kate and I realize that we’ve been slipping in our parental duties and haven’t forced the kids to do any homework in a couple of days, and they need to do some math and writing (much to their chagrin). Also on this particular day I spent two hours going to the train station to book our train back to Bangkok only to learn all the trains were booked for the next week. After making this discovery, I ended up coming back to the hotel to book a plane back via the internet instead. I then made arrangements for a hotel once we arrived back in Bangkok. Finally, I dropped of the dirty laundry for cleaning at the local laundry. By this time it was 3:00. We did make it out after this to the Chiang Mai Museum of Arts and Culture to learn a little about the area and the northern Thai peoples. It was a pretty good museum that had quite a bit of information in English (so I could count that towards the kids schooling – parental duty done for the day!).

The next day we spent a gluttonous day at the Thai Farm Cooking School. They picked us up from our hotel and took us to the local market. At the market our instructor taught us about the various ingredients we would use in our cooking that day. We then made our way out to the school were we walked through their garden to learn a little more about the various herbs and plants we would be added to our Thai dishes. We then proceeded to start cooking.

Kate and Tessa Cooking Phad Thai

Kate and Tessa Cooking Phad Thai

Phoeve and Jeff Pounding on the Curry - Making for quite an appetite!

Phoebe and Jeff Pounding on the Curry - Making for quite an appetite!

We actually used mortar and pestle to pound the ingredients into the various curries we were making. The curry could not have gotten any fresher! Tessa opted for a yellow curry, Phoebe and Kate made green curry and I went for red. Needless to say we all loved our entrees! We then continued with cooking a five course meal. In addition to the curry we made soups, spring rolls, a noodle dish, and desserts (mango and sticky rice!!! Yum!). We all rolled away from the table after the first four coursed and brought the noodle dishes back to the hotel for them to heat up for us as dinner. We are all looking forward to cooking Thai food at home when we get back to our kitchen in the Phoenix!

The following day we decided to explore the Chiang Mai. This included visiting the local Wats. The highlight of the day for us all was Monk Chat at the MCU Buddhist University at Wat Chedi Laung. This is a great program that has been put together to give tourist and foreigners an opportunity to interact directly with monks on a one to one basis. It is an open forum where the monks and the tourist sit around tables and the monks answer questions from the tourist about their lives and living in Thailand as a monk. The discussion was very interesting. We learned many interesting things about monk’s lives. For example a monk in Thailand can choose at any time to leave the monkhood and return to normal Thai life. If he then chooses to return to the monkhood he can, even if he has been married – as long as his wife grants him permission to return. Also of the three monks we met, each had a different objectives or goals for their future.

Chatting with the Monks.

Chatting with the Monks.

One had started as a novice at the age of 12 and was now working his way through college. He was very frank about wanting to leave the monkhood as soon as he obtained his degree. The second monk of the group had begun his time as a monk at nineteen. He was also working his way through the English program at the university, but he planned on continuing as a monk and hopefully traveling to the U.S. It was also very interesting to find out their take on technology and how it impacts their lives. For example they can use computers in their studies, as long as they don’t use them for listening to music, playing computer games or anything involving entertainment. They also are allowed to use cell phones for communication with their families and other monks. Overall this was an extremely enlightening discussion and we all walked away understanding each others culture that much better.

I think everyone in the family agrees that the best part of our time in Chiang Mai was our visit to the Baan Chang Elephant Park for their Mahout for a Day program. In this day long program we were given the opportunity to work directly with the elephants and their trainers (mahouts), and had direct contact with the animals. The day started with another trip to the market to buy bananas and sugar cane. Each elephant eats about 250 kg of food a day. We then came into the camp, changed clothes and were given the opportunity to feed each of the nine adult elephants and the two babies (eleven months and 2 years old). According to the camp owner, this gave the elephants a chance to meet us and to understand that we nice and that we came with food rewards. It seemed that the elephants were just as curious about us as we were about them. They reached out with the trunks to take the bananas and sugar cane.

Kate & Phoebe w elephant

 The also searched the pockets of our mahout clothes for goodies and gave us sloppy elephant kisses with the trunks. During this whole introduction phase we could get right up next to the elephants, pat their heads, stuff bananas in their mouths and scratch them behind their ears. It was quite an amazing experience in and of itself. After this introductory session, we were given instruction on how to mount, ride, and control the elephants. This was a little intimidating for us all. Phoebe was especially brave, and with a little help, she mounted a large female that was probably fifty times her size (3000 lbs) and rode her around in a circle with the help of a mahout on the ground beside her.

Phoebe the Mahout

Phoebe the Mahout

After all this excitement it was time for a break and we had lunch. After lunch we all got to get on an elephant to take a trek into the jungle. Each elephant carried two people. The person in command of the elephant rode on the elephant’s neck right behind the ears and the passenger rode on the elephant’s back.

Phoebe and Jeff - into the Jungle

Phoebe and Jeff - into the Jungle

It was great fun and the elephants seemed didn’t seem the least bit phase by having an extra 200-300 lbs on their backs. (Part of the reason we chose this elephant park is because of there treatment of the animals. They only do one group a day with one trek per day, they do not use seats – which some feel are at least uncomfortable for the elephants and in the worst scenarios are painful for them, and this park is located on a large private preserve area so the elephants can roam when not working.)

Kate and Tessa on Elephant Trek

Kate and Tessa on Elephant Trek

After our trek, it was time to cool down and clean up. To do this we rode our elephants into a large 30×70x5 ft deep mud water pool. We then proceeded to scrub the elephants down, and get completely soaked in the process. It was great fun. Phoebe even got the opportunity to hop on the 2 year old elephant to sneak around and spray us with his trunk.

The Baby Attacks!

The Baby Attacks!

Scrubbing the ride!  It's wierd to sit on them while you was them.

Scrubbing the ride! It's wierd to sit on them while you wash them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This whole day was unforgettable and a wonderful experience that I know we will never forget. I highly recommend it to anyone making their way to Chiang Mai.

Up close

Everyone say "Cheese"

Queenstown!
Jan 31st, 2010 by Kate
On to Queenstown!
Lake Takapo

Lake Takapo

We headed across the middle of the South Island to Queenstown.  On the way we spent an night at one of the glacier fed lakes – Lake Takapo (yes Jack, it is indeed pronounced take-a-poo ! ).  It was the most amazing color blue EVER!  The blue color is created by “glacier dust” which is rocks that are ground by the movement of glaciers, and then washed down the many waterfalls and streams.  When it finally settles, the “flour” that is suspended in the water reflects or refracts the light (or something like that) and makes the lake look freaky blue. 

Queenstown and lake from high above on the gondola

Queenstown and lake from high above on the gondola

 Queenstown is known as the world capital of adventure sports.  It totally is!  We drove into town, and everywhere you look, there are people hurdling themselves in harm’s way.  Literally, paragliders, hang gliders, bungie jumpers, zip liners, white water rafters, sky divers- you could not look up into the sky without seeing someone!

Phoebe zipping through the trees!

Phoebe zipping through the trees!

Tess already posted on their sky diving adventures, and while not quite as high off terra firma, Phoebe and I had a blast zip lining high above the trees high above the town.  We also had a great time with our couchsurfing hosts Trish and her great son Lucas in their stunning home overlooking the lake.

The view from our couchsurfing host Trish's beautiful home - couchsurfing rocks!

The view from our couchsurfing host Trish's beautiful home - couchsurfing rocks!

It was such a fun town with lots of great places to eat, shop, party (Olivia, you can write a guest blog about the night and morning life!) and take risks that don’t seem like that big of a deal when everyone else is “just doing it”!

Fergburger - a Queenstown institution - gotta have one, or two, or four!

Fergburger - a Queenstown institution - gotta have one, or two, or four!And we love Ferg!Olivia had to leave us in QT and go back to school - we miss you LIV!

Pavlova – YUM!
Jan 25th, 2010 by Kate
There are many many tasty foods here in NZ.  To start, ALL the land animals that we eat here are eating what they were meant to eat – cows and sheep grazing on real grass while walking around pretty green pastures.  Not a feed lot anywhere.  The meat and cheese REALLY do taste different, and better.  And I should know – as I have made it a really bad habit of buying a round of “local” cheese just about every evening.  Needless to say, I will be dieting next month in Thailand.  To make matters even worse, they do fish and chips here that are SO light and crispy and perfect!  WAY better than in England!   And the steamed mussels are meals fit for a  king.  ANd don’t get me started on the fresh fruit ice cream stands that dot the countryside – if you’ve never had fresh kiwi ice cream you haven’t lived.

So imagine our surprise when we couldn’t find New Zealand’s official national dessert – Pavlova!  For our first 12 days in OZ we checked every menu we came across with no luck.  We had Pavlova made for us by a Kiwi couchsurfer in Phoenix last year, and Australian’s all over make it a point to let you know that Pavlova was REALLY invited by them – but we are going to give credit to the Kiwi’s for inventing it, as we always root for the underdog.

Olivia & Tessa overlooking the Wellington and the Bay

Olivia & Tessa overlooking Wellington and the Bay

Our quest for Pavlova brought us to Wellington – New Zealand’s capital (I am ashamed to say I didn’t know it was NZ’s capital until we were on our way here!) and a really cool city on the southern end of the Northern Island.  Wellington is yet another city on the water, has a great “walking” downtown with lots of cool shops and resturants, and a couple really cool museums. 

City Gallery Wellington - covered in dots for the Yayoi Kusama exhibit!

City Gallery Wellington - covered in dots for the Yayoi Kusama exhibit!

 

In one of the Kusama instillations - Kusama is from Japan and came to America in the 60's where she was a contempory of Andy Warhol's.  She has always been obsessed with dots, and has made quite a name for herselft in the dot (and art) world.  She is still alive, but suffers from pretty significant mental health issues that she blames on the dots.  While I'm making all this "dot" stuff sound really flipant - her work is really good and Olivia, Tessa and I totally enjoyed the exhibition!

In one of the Kusama instillations - Kusama is from Japan and came to America in the 60's where she was a contempory of Andy Warhol's. She has always been obsessed with dots, and has made quite a name for herself in the dot (and art) world. She is still alive, but suffers from pretty significant mental health issues that she blames on the dots. While I'm making all this "dot" stuff sound really flipant - her work is really good and Olivia, Tessa and I totally enjoyed the exhibition!More dots - but in the form of lights this time. The Phoenix Art Museum has an exhibit very much like this (I actually like PAM's better) called "Fireflies" (I think!). I'm not sure who the artist is - maybe it is Kasuma - but if you are in Phx you should go check it out, it's really cool and Tessa & Phoebe's favorite exhibit at PAM.

But what really made our time in Wellington great was meeting back up with our friends Diana, James, Theo, Iris and our main little man Bruno!

Our friends the McLean/Castles.  We met them back when we were in Hanoi, Vietnam at our favorite cafe and spent Halloween with them celebrating with ice cream.  They generously took the five us in when we visited Wellington - and we had a blast with them!

Our friends the McLean/Castles. We met them back when we were in Hanoi, Vietnam at our favorite cafe and spent Halloween with them celebrating with ice cream. They generously took the five us in when we visited Wellington - and we had a blast with them!

Phoebe & Bruno in the tree (photo courtesy of Iris)

Phoebe & Bruno in the tree (photo courtesy of Iris)

7am Twister anyone?  "Kids in New Zealand are just like kids in the US but they talk funny" says Phoebe.

7am Twister anyone? "Kids in New Zealand are just like kids in the US but they talk funny" says Phoebe.

The McLean/Castle crew totally spoiled us – we ate, drank, played (Phoebe spent about 10 hours a day on their trampoline and in their tree house with Theo, Iris and Bruno), and Diana did her best to totally fatten us up with her amazing baking EVERY day!   We woke up to the smell of fresh muffins, then munched on no fewer than 3 different kinds of amazing cookies throughout the days (I will be adding a few of these cookie recipes to my Christmas cookie repotorie!).  We causually mentioned to her on the morning of our last day there that we’d yet to find Pavlova – and when we returned that afternoon from museuming – there it was – the Pavlova of my dreams!

pavlova

Pavlova

(recipe from Edmond’s Cookbook – perfected by our friend Diana)

 

For Meringue:

4 egg whites

1 ¼ cups fine sugar

1 tsp white vinegar

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tbs corn starch

 

For Topping:

Kiwi fruit, peeled and sliced (traditional Kiwi way to eat it!)

Strawberries, blueberries, or other assorted berries

 

Fresh Whipped Cream:

1 pint heavy whipping cream

2 tbs powdered sugar (frosting sugar)

1 tsp vanilla extract

 Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).  Using an electric mixer, beat egg whites and sugar for 10 minutes on high until thick & glossy.  In a separate bowl, combine vinegar, vanilla, and corn starch.  Add to egg mixture & beat for an additional 5 minutes.

 Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.  Using a pencil, trace a dinner plate or a 9 inch round cake pan onto the parchment paper.  Spread the mixture to within ½ inch of the edge of the circle, keeping the shape as round and even as possible.  Smooth the top.  Put Pavlova in the oven, and turn temperature down to 210°F (100°C).  Bake Pavlova for one hour.  Turn off oven & open door slightly, leaving the Pavlova in the oven until it is cool.  Carefully transfer onto serving plate.

 Combine heavy cream and powdered sugar with 1 tsp vanilla extract in an electric mixer.  Beat until fluffy and peaks form.

 Fill top of Pavlova shell with whipped cream (the middle of the shell may cave in) and decorate with fresh fruit. 

 YUM!

 

Our bargain tour of the Mekong Delta
Dec 2nd, 2009 by Tessa
Mekong River tributary & the bow of our boat
Mekong River tributary & the bow of our boat

Mekong tessa 2

So, we continue on with our adventures… Since no trip to Vietnam is complete without seeing the Mekong Delta (and since Phoebe had been assigned the “homework” of researching it) we decided to try something different and go on one of those organized tours.  We found the “exact” same tour offered from $9 a person to $46 a person, so being the budget travelers that we are, we of course chose the $9 tour. 

 We woke up early in the morning and walked to the “bus parking area”. Our guide passed all of the big fancy busses full of German tourists, until we finally arrive at our little, broken down “special” bus. Laughing about our bad bus kharma (and at our cheapness), we boarded the bus and set off for a 2 hours ride to the Mekong Delta.  My mom had the illusion that once we got out of Ho Chi Minh proper, that we’d come across quant rice fields and banana fields, but it was like one giant suburb all the way.

Coconut Boat

Coconut Boat

Coconut candy making factory, when its done it's like a coconut flavored "Bit-o-Honey"

Coconut candy making factory, when its done it's like a coconut flavored "Bit-o-Honey"

We arrived and got into some small boats that took us to a coconut candy factory; As our group learned the process of making the coconut candy, I hung in the back and proceeded to eat all of the samples I could get my hands on. They use every part of the coconut to make the candy, they even use the husks as fuel for the fire that they cook the over. We also learned that if you bought 5 bags of the candy (each with about 50 pieces in it) you get one free! =D What a deal! I reminded my dad that us buying the candy helped the local people, so now have 300 pieces of candy – sucker!
Maggot tea!

Maggot tea!

 We got back into the boat and went to the honey farm. They poured bee pollen, fresh honey, lime and tea into my cup. Gazing over the rim, I couldn’t help but notice (and  announce) that there were maggots in my cup! I flicked them out onto my plate and watched them as they crawled away. Well, now I had something interesting to write about… Mekong boat w fam

 We got back into another little boat, with two paddlers that harassed us whole way for tips and “big money”.  But my mom was okay with it, because Phoebe and I got to finally wear those cool pointy hats so she could take our picture in them. The next stop was our lunch place. Because we didn’t order the giant fried fish that was 15 dollars (and kind of freaky looking – they stood it upright in this dead fried fish contraption) and everyone else did, we were the last to get served (but who cares ^_~ cause we had coconut candy!

After lunch, Dad fell asleep in a hammock and almost got left behind, and on my 5th piece of post-lunch coconut candy I managed to pull a tooth out!

 When we get back to the bus, we are tired and worn out.  After about 15 minutes on the bus, the driver pulls off on the side of the road into some random parking lot and the tour guide says “everyone who is on the 2 day trip, stay on the bus, everyone on the one day trip, get off the bus.”

 One day trip… right that was us!

 We got off the bus and the guide brought us over to another bus. All 14 of us clomped down the parking lot to find that the new bus only had 2 seats open.  “Hmm. That’s strange,” the guide said, and then he went to a 2nd bus to see if they had and seats open.  The driver said he did – and so our guide said “BYE” and with that, he jumped onto the bus and drove off, leaving 12 of us in the parking lot without a bus!  Well apparently the other bus didn’t really have any seats, as they said “sorry” and drove off without us too!!!   There we were, stranded in the middle of the Mekong Delta suburbs with no ride home.  Not to fear though, we wouldn’t starve (after all, we DID have about 250 pieces of candy left) and one of our new friends from Australia (hey Ian!) reminded us all that we weren’t really stuck – because in Vietnam we are RICH and could just hire a taxi all the way back if we wanted. The adults dispersed and started waiving down other buses that passed, asking for a ride. Eventually we found one of those “luxury” buses that had room on it and we drove back to the bus area in comfy leather seats and air con.  So yet again – it all worked out great!

Food, glorious food! And of course lovely Hoi An!
Nov 27th, 2009 by Kate
Fresh, hot baguettes by the giant basketful!

Fresh, hot baguettes by the giant basketful!

We are pretty much eating our way through Vietnam.  The food here is SO good.  The seafood is probably the best we’ve ever had.  You can get white meat chicken (non-existent in China), and when you order pork or beef, you don’t need to worry about getting what we not-so-affectionately call “inside meat” (brains, organs, etc) that is so popular in China.  Aside from breakfast, Tessa has had squid, clams or mussels for every meal for six days.  I am not kidding. 

 In China, we stuck very faithfully to our “no ice or water, veggies and fruit only if cooked or peeled” mantra.  By our second meal in Vietnam we threw that rule out the window.  It just seems cleaner here and SO much of the cooking is done right out in the open you have a better feel for what you are getting.  Plus, all the food looks so good and fresh on the plates being served around you – you feel like it would be a shame to miss out on the fresh spring rolls and the tasty fresh herbs they are piling onto everything.

Lovely Hoi An

Lovely Hoi An

 

Hoi An's waterfront - looking towards the Morning Market

Hoi An's waterfront - looking towards the Morning Market

After our week on Cat Ba Island, we head down to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Hoi An.  It was for centuries the largest seaport in Vietnam, and the buildings there have strong Chinese and Japanese influences, with enough French influence too, to make it quite pretty in a really old city kind-of-way.  Hoi An is known for its food – and having been in the country for two weeks at this point (and having eaten at places you can not even fathom in the States), we didn’t even pause for a second eating anything that caught our fancy.

 And the prices for food – it is almost shameful how little things cost, even in really nice, hip, well decorated, clean restaurants.  We could easily enjoy an appetizer (almost always fresh spring rolls – we loved tasting the different ways they were made), beers for the adults and fresh juices for the girls, four entrees, dessert and coffee for $12 out the door.  And this was not for a couple of sandwiches – I’m talking snapper in passion fruit sauce, tuna in tamarind sauce with veggies, chicken with chili and lemongrass (one of Jeff’s favs throughout Vietnam), and a lovely curry or claypot, PLUS some insanely good dessert like fresh coconut ice cream or mango with sweet coconut milk rice (my fav!).

 And the coffee here – OMG!  Yes, I know I’m not supposed to be drinking coffee.  They typically serve it here very very strong with sweetened condensed milk.  Jeff has at least one at every meal.  I have been cheating on my no caffeine rule in the mornings, I order a coffee, split in half, then fill up the difference with “fresh milk” that actually comes in a box (I turned up my nose at first but now I actually kind of like boxed milk!).  It is SO tasty.  Coffee farming in Vietnam is an important part of the economy in the mountains, and I hope that next time you’re shopping for beans that you’ll consider trying some Vietnamese Fair Trade java.  Pick up a can of sweetened condensed milk (or put aside a bit when you’re making those pumpkin pies this week) and combine an ounce of the milk with a few ounces of strong coffee, drink up, and think of us!

We went to the Moon Restaurant the first time because the building was just so darn cool (yes that is real moss growing on the outside), we went back (over and over again) because the food was OMG GOOD!

We went to the Moon Restaurant the first time because the building was just so darn cool (yes that is real moss growing on the outside), we went back (over and over again) because the food was OMG GOOD!

 A few of our other favorites in Hoi An from our favorite restaurant called “Moon Restaurant and Lounge” were carmelized eggplant in a clay pot (clay pot cooking is one of the local specialties), squid in coconut milk, mussels in lemongrass broth, and crepes with bruled bananas and pineapple with vanilla gelato.  I became obsessed with the fresh spring rolls and the divine dipping sauce.  I inquired about what was in the sauce, but we had a bit of a language barrier so they to me to come back tomorrow morning and make the sauce with them.  Phoebe and made our way back the next morning and we spent a lovely hour in the 8×8 foot kitchen chopping, sautéing, mixing and tasting.  I was so happy to be in a kitchen.  When we get back home we’re going to have a big party and this is going to be one of the tasty things we serve for sure.  Right now, Phoebe thinks we should keep it our secret recipe – but I’ll keep working on her and see if she’ll give it up – and I’ll post it for sure!

Ducks in the Morning Market

Ducks in the Morning Market

One of 100 market flower ladies

One of 100 market flower ladies

 On our last day in Hoi An all four of us took a cooking class from the Red Bridge Cooking School.  Our morning started with drinks at their restaurant in downtown Hoi An, a trip to the Morning Market with the chef, a charming boat trip to the cooking school, and then four hours of observing the chefs, learning some of the tricks-of-the-trade of Vietnamese cooking, and practicing our new skills (oh yes, and then feasting on everything we made!). 

Cooking School - I've learned yet another way to make eggplant (yippee!)

Cooking School - I've learned yet another way to make eggplant (yippee!)

The best part of the cooking lesson was we learned to make rice paper.  I didn’t even know what rice paper was when I was 12.  Watching Tessa & Phoebe over their pots of boiling water flipping their rounds of paper was a really good “this is why we are doing this crazy trip” moment.

Phoebe after finishing the "garnishing" lesson at cooking school - oh so Montessori!

Phoebe after finishing the "garnishing" lesson at cooking school - oh so Montessori!

Ahhhh…. Cat Ba…..
Nov 27th, 2009 by Kate
Limestone karsts in Ha Long Bay

Limestone karsts in Ha Long Bay

Cat Ba Island is located about four hours outside of Hanoi in Ha Long Bay.  It is amazing here.  One of the prettiest places I’ve ever been in my life.  Remember the limestone karsts we wrote about when we were back in China – the hills that stick up out of nowhere put all over the place?  Well here in Ha Long Bay – they stick up out of the ocean.

It took us one taxi, three buses and one boat to get to Cat Ba Island but it was totally worth the trip.  Phoebe thinks they should call it "Goat Ba" Island instead as these were just one of the many goat gangs we saw roaming the island.

It took us one taxi, three buses and one boat to get to Cat Ba Island but it was totally worth the trip. Phoebe thinks they should call it "Goat Ba" Island instead as these were just one of the many goat gangs we saw roaming the island.

On our way to Cat Ba we met a great young German couple (Inga & George) because Inga was the person whose lap Phoebe kept falling into on the bus.  They were great fun – and we decided to go in on a tour together.  Jeff had done some research and found an outfitter (www.slopony.com) that could arrange a boat and kayaking tour for us around Ha Long Bay.  Since we had hired for a private boat we all assumed we’d have small little boat, but we actually we had the same giant boat as the twenty person tour group.  It was a great – a wooden boat about 40 feet, two stories (see Jeff flipping off the top deck) and way more room that we needed.  Because we split the boat with our new friends, the entire day including the boat trip from 8:30am to 5:30 pm, a tour guide, a delicious lunch prepared by the boat’s crew, and kayaks ended up costing just under $20 per person!  Did I mention we love Vietnam!

Floating fishing villages in Ha Long Bay

Floating fishing villages in Ha Long Bay

Squid fishing boat - notice the glass lamps strung between the masts - they take these boats out at night and light'em up.  The squid are attracted to the lights (they fish for shrimp this way too).

Squid fishing boat - notice the glass lamps strung between the masts - they take these boats out at night and light'em up. The squid are attracted to the lights (they fish for shrimp this way too).

We caught the boat in a little port town, and headed out amongst the giant karsts and floating fishing villages.  The fishing villages were so interesting, they had houses, dogs, grocery stores (well, on boats) and even schools.  It was obvious that the fisher-families took great pride in their very modest homes – they were all brightly painted (greens, blues, and red trim were the colors of choice) and neatly kept with the giant bundles of nets neatly hung.  Some of these villages had up to 100 homes – they were quite elaborate operations!  We would also come across single family floating fishing operations (we decided these must be the anti-social fisherman) and clam farms too. 

On one of our kayaking outings our guide asked the men working the pens if we could come closer and see.  Thanks to the novelty of having a little blonde child with us, we were invited up into their house and they walked us around the pens and even pulled up some clam baskets for us to check out.  It was SO cool!  I was so happy the girls got see how the farms work from up close, and we decided that scrambling around the bamboo fish pen frames and chatting with the local farmers totally counted as school for the day.  All it cost us was having Phoebe and Tessa pose for pictures with each of the fisherman (they ALL had cell phone cameras of course).

Feeding the fish on one of the floating fish farms

Feeding the fish on one of the floating fish farms

We traveled through Ha Long Bay for a few hours and then dropped anchor in a large cove with a few other boats.  I was happy to learn from our guide that a large portion of the Bay is a protected sanctuary and that they only allow anchoring in a few areas.  The water was clean and warm and calm in the cove, the perfect place for exploring with our kayaks, swimming, and soaking in the scenery.  After lunch, we motored around the karsts – stopping a few more times to hop in the kayaks to check out even more secluded coves (and a few beaches) that were only accessible by our kayaks or by swimming. 

Floating in the waters of Ha Long Bay

Floating in the waters of Ha Long Bay

As the tide went out, natural bridges and caves were exposed.  We attempted to paddle into one of the caves that our guide Jessie knew about, and we were able to get about 100 feet in, but the water rushing out of the cave was like a river under us, and made it nearly impossible to paddle “upstream”.  It was just as well – we only had one decent flashlight, and Phoebe was in charge of it so we spent half of our them in the cave either in total darkness, with strobe effect, or with the flashlight blinding us in the eyes (note to all parents – flashlights are STILL toys to 9 year old children).

Tessa and Kate kayaking through a natural tunnel formed under a giant limestone karst to a small cove - it was amazing!

Tessa and Kate kayaking through a natural tunnel formed under a giant limestone karst to a small cove - it was amazing!

As we motored back to our little harbor, mist was starting to form around the karsts and the sun was setting.  We had a fabulous day and want to send out props to Jessie and the gang at SloPony for arranging such a great trip for us.

The island of Cat Ba is great too.  It’s very lush and green – very much a jungle.  It is the slow season so there were probably 50 other tourists in the whole town.  Our rooms (we got two cause we’re such big spenders) were $7 per night, we had an awesome view of Cat Ba’s harbor, and decided it was worth the five-floor walk up!  There were some really pretty beaches within walking distance of our hotel – and on the way we could buy fresh mangos and baguettes for about 15 cents each, and Jeff’s favorite Ha Long Bai (beer) for 20 cents.  The seafood there was insane, and we ate it for lunch and dinner every meal.  We decide that the squid there was better than anywhere in the world.  The one bummer about Cat Ba was that we only had electricity for half the time we were there, which meant flashlight and cold showers – but in spite of that we still stayed there for 7 nights!  Ultimately, with food and lodging, we spent about $40 a day for the four of us.

A million dollar view from our $7 room

A million dollar view from our $7 room

More things I love about Hanoi…
Nov 16th, 2009 by Kate
There is a beautiful lake smack-dab in the middle of the old French Quarter with a pretty little red bridge that leads to a pretty little island with a neat little shrine dedicated to a mysterious lake turtle that has folk lore like the Loch Ness Monster.  The entire lake is surrounded by Royale Poinsetta trees that I am sure look stunning in the spring!

There is a beautiful lake smack-dab in the middle of the old French Quarter with a pretty little red bridge that leads to a pretty little island with a neat little shrine dedicated to a mysterious lake turtle that has folk lore like the Loch Ness Monster. The entire lake is surrounded by Royale Poinsetta trees that I am sure look stunning in the spring!

Every building has a beautiful balconey!
Every building has a beautiful balconey!  French Colonial Architecture – gotta love it!
And the locals look so elegant enjoying their views...

And the locals look so elegant enjoying their views...

Even the government buildings are beautiful.  Every single one of them is painted some version of this yellow - I affectionately call it "Vietnam Yellow".  It ages wonderfully and I plan to paint my house this color when I get home!

Even the government buildings are beautiful. Every single one of them is painted some version of this yellow - I affectionately call it "Vietnam Yellow". It ages wonderfully and I plan to paint my house this color when I get home!

They have my tile!!!  The buildings here have very narrow facades along the street, but go very, very far back.  Between each building is a long (usually very dark) passageway.  The passageways are all tiled with the colored concrete tile that I painstakingly had made for my bathroom at home.  I have about 100 photos of the different patterns I have found here - they are like flowers to me!

They have my tile!!! The buildings here have very narrow facades along the street, but go very, very far back. Between each building is a long (usually very dark) passageway. The passageways are all tiled with the colored concrete tile that I painstakingly had made for my bathroom at home. I have about 100 photos of the different patterns I have found here - they are like flowers to me!

The food here is amazing!  There is NO WAY this restaurant would ever exist in the US.  There is an old lady rolling spring rolls on the sidewalk in front of the tables deep frying them in a massive kettle of oil over an open flame, and the lady kneeling next to her is rolling the meat patties you see in the pic.  They boil them there in yet another massive kettle and laddle them into bowls.  I have no idea where the  greens or noodle came from.  You throw the greens into the bottom of your bowl and then noodles and then meat with broth.  Its is SO tasty.  We waddled out of there - and our bill with drinks was $4US.

The food here is amazing! There is NO WAY this restaurant would ever exist in the US. There is an old lady rolling spring rolls on the sidewalk in front of the tables, and then deep frying them in a massive kettle of oil over an open flame. The lady kneeling next to her is rolling the meat patties you see in the pic. They boil them there in yet another massive kettle and laddle them into serving bowls. A lady washing dishes was out there too (they wash just about all the dishes in buckets out on the sidewalk no matter how nice the joint). I have no idea where the greens or noodle came from, they sort of appeared out of no where (and we decided better NOT to know). So, to eat this, you throw the greens into the bottom of your bowl and then noodles and then meat with broth. Its is SO tasty. We waddled out of there - and our bill with drinks was $4US.

There are approximately 500 motorbikes for every one car in Hanoi.  Yes the roads are this busy from 7am until well after midnight.  How do you cross the street?  You step off the curb given the slightest break in bikes, then you slowly but confidently keep walking.  You don't even need to really look over to see if you are going to be run over, you just keep walking slowly.  They all swerve around you.  I am amazed every time we make it across the street alive.  The girls can even cross by themselves!  It's like Dory in the ocean currents in Finding Nemo... just keep walking, just keep walking...

There are approximately 500 motorbikes for every one car in Hanoi. Yes the roads are this busy from 7am until well after midnight. How do you cross the street? You step off the curb given the slightest break in bikes, then you slowly but confidently keep walking. You don't even need to really look over to see if you are going to be run over, you just keep walking slowly. They all swerve around you. I am amazed every time we make it across the street alive. The girls can even cross by themselves! It's like Dory in the ocean currents in Finding Nemo... just keep walking, just keep walking...

Morning in Hanoi
Nov 16th, 2009 by Kate

We arrived in Hanoi before the sun that day.  Our taxi drove the empty streets as if the traffic lights didn’t exist.  He deposited us on the shuttered front stoop of our hotel in the old French Quarter. Vietnamese people of every age were emerging from the long passageways between the buildings in their pajamas and heading towards the lake in the center of the Quarter like it was Mecca.  The morning was cool, and the entire city had turned out for their morning exercises.  In mass, they walked around the lake.  The young people chatted with each other as they walked in small groups.  The elderly were the most serious about their exercise – arm waving, clapping, flapping, twisting and backwards walking were just a few of the many variations of calastenics in their routines.  Did I mention that everyone was in their pajamas?  There were probably ten to fifteen thousand people walking the lake.  I have never heard that many people be so quiet.  The sun finally broke the tops of building, and as if on que, everyone headed back up the spokes of streets that radiated from the lake and disappeared back down their building’s passageways. 

 Phoebe pointed out that it was the first time she’d seen the sun since Japan a month earlier.  Tess noted the blue sky and how pretty the palm trees looked against the candy colored buildings.  I thought to myself how great classic French architecture looks in the tropics, and then felt bad for about a second recalling the horrors of French Colonialism that influenced the gorgeous balconies and wrought iron flourishes on each building.

 Very shortly after, the roll-up gates of the shops opened one by one, and the motorbikes emerged down the ramps in front of every store.  Our hotel gate opened with a clamor, and no less than five motorbikes were wheeled out of the lobby and lined up on the street in front of the stoop we had just been sitting on.  A sixth bike came forth with a rider – a beautiful Vietnamese girl in a pretty pink “ao dai” – she was headed out to the market to get fresh baguettes and fruit for the hotel’s breakfast buffet. 

 We were so tired from our overnight train we decided to forgo breakfast and bought baguettes, mangos, and bananas from the old ladies on our corner.  The baguettes were still hot.  The cost 15 cents each.  The two perfect mangos and a bunch of bananas set us back another 35 cents…

 I have only been in Hanoi for 45 minutes and I love this place…

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