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Scuba in Nha Trang
Nov 28th, 2009 by Kate

We had heard great things about the beaches of Nha Trang – so of course we were TOTALLY there!

The beaches were kind of lame.  The city reminded me of Miami Beach before its heyday – lots of vaguely tacky pastel colored hotels and bad soveneiger shops.  The only big difference was that instead of being full of old retired men and woman from New York and New Jersey, only the old men were there – a bunch of old American men looking for their true loves among the eligable young ladies of Vietnam.  Kinda creepy.

Jeff & Tessa on her last check-out dive

Jeff & Tessa on her last check-out dive

We made the most of our time in Nha Trang though – it is well known for its great scuba diving, and they had a 5-star rated PADI dive shop – so Tessa got her Open Water SCUBA certification!  She did a great job, her instructor said she was the best student he’d ever had (I’m sure he tells that to all the cute girls).

We also saw our favorite scooter in all of Vietnam.  This is a big deal because we’ve seen, I don’t know, about 20 million of them!  This one is covered in these little tiny colorful sea shells called “cat’s eyes”.  We saw the scooter one day but didn’t have our camera with us so Phoebe and I had to stalk around town looking for it so we could take a picture of it for Jeff Cline.  We think it is RAD!

Na Trang vespa 1

Na Trang vespa 2

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

Homeschooling in the Bahamas…
Jul 23rd, 2009 by Kate

One of the most common questions we get when we tell anyone that we are traveling around the world with kids is “what are you doing about school?”  After lots of reseach and soulsearching, and taking into consideration where the girls are in school, what year they’ll be missing, their learning styles, our parenting styles, our travel schedule, and our collective self disipline, we’ve decided on taking with us formal math curriculum, and the rest of their lessons being “the school of the world”. 

In other words, we are making it up as we go along – learning about cool stuff that seems relevent at the time, wherever we are.  For example, our “homeschooling” in the Bahamas so far has consisted of:

  • Reading Discovering the Caribbean – The Bahamas, a 68-page children’s text book on the history, environment, economy, people, religion, festivals, islands, and general culture of the country.  (Tessa and Phoebe)
  • Reading Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Tessa)
  • Saxon Math – Lessons 1-5 (Phoebe)
  • Principles of sailing including sailing techniques and terms, knot tying, sail racing, parts of a boat, water safety and how to capsize annoying boys without getting wet (Tessa)
  • Ocean currents, and specifically the Gulf Stream (Tessa)
  • Nautical measurements (Tessa & Phoebe)
  • This history of Pirates, Privateers, and Wreckers in the Caribbean. (Phoebe)
  • Tropical ocean habitats- reefs, sandy beds, grassy beds, deep water (Tessa & Phoebe)
  • Native plant and animal identification (Tessa & Phoebe)
  • Cardinal directions (Phoebe)
  • Latitude & Longitude (Tessa)
  • Ocean tides (Tessa & Phoebe)

Other important things they’ve learned in the Bahamas:

  • How to tell if a conch is a “keeper”
  • How to get back into an ocean kayak with tipping all your sand dollars back into the ocean
  • Which tide is better for shelling – low or high
  • Which way the storms are heading based on the direction the rain falling in the distance
  • How to make a wasp-on-stick and impress all the boys
  • How to shuffle your feet on the sandy bottoms so you don’t step on stingrays
  • How to Skype with your friends back home so we don’t seem so far away!
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