Top 10

With only a few moments left of this around-the-world trip, I have been pondering my favorite memories of 2008.

Because I can not choose the most  beautiful country, or the friendliest people or the tastiest food, I have compiled a list of the times I felt overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude. If I could go back to these moments, I would be able to travel another full year!

Top Ten Adventures of a World Traveler

1. The four-day Mediterranean Blue Cruise from Fethiye- Turkey

turkey


2. The vineyard and bike journey through Mendoza´s wine country- Argentina


3. Waking up on a roof deck in Jerusalem to the smell of freshly baked bread and sensing the spiritual ambiance of the city – Israel

israel

4. Coromandel Peninsula´s Hot Water Beach with friends- New Zealand (North Island)


5. All-night karaoke festivities- Hong Kong


6. Rottnest Island´s serene beaches and bike routes- Australia


7. Meeting up with family and old friends along the way- New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Hong Kong, India, The Netherlands, Hungary, Greece, England, Italy and Argentina


8. Nha Trang´s massages and fresh fruit delivered right to the beach chair- Vietnam


9. Chiang Mai´s motorbike route into the countryside- Thailand


10. Reaching the top of The Golan Heights, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, after a 3 day steep bike journey- Israel



If you are interested in reading the details of any of these adventures, use the search box to type in a key word and find the entire article.

Central Vietnam (Hue, Nha Trang and Da Lat)

Hue

Dubbed the culinary capital of Vietnam, Hue is split by a river and has a huge Citadel which was the site of major battles during the Vietnam War. Finding a hotel was painless and we decided to rent bicycles for the day to explore. But first, we needed to eat.

Deciding to ditch our Lonely Planet guidebook for a day, we pedaled across the bridge and explored the area surrounding the Citadel before finding a place that looked good with second-level outdoor seating. Sure enough, as we got upstairs and looked at the menu, they boasted their write up in the Lonely Planet. ‘Oh well’ we thought, and ordered three dishes to split and some beers since it was past beer o’clock, whatever time that may be.  We tried a seafood pancake and some other gelatinous substance sprinkled with dried, shredded pork.  After adding some fish sauce, they were both absolutely amazing.  The beer opener’s here were kind of neat as well as the deaf owner makes them himself.  It’s basically a foot-long by 1/4 inch piece of wood with a screw and perfectly positioned nut on once end.  After we finished eating the owner gave us one and wrote the name Lac Thienh on one side.  Then, he proceeded to show us pictures sent to him from around the world with folks holding up the beer opener.  Those photobooks, all 17 of them, seemed to be his most prized possession and he smiled from ear to ear as we pointed to the picture with the Golden Gate bridge, then to ourselves.  No speaking – or in his case, even hearing – necessary.

Other than some amazing dishes, Hue really wasn’t what we looking for.  At this point, besides the food, we weren’t really enjoying Vietnam that much.  On the surface, it seems as though common courtesies amongst the Vietnamese and tourists are non-existent.  People talk loudly on their cell phones, hock and spit as they please, blow snot-rockets indoors, sneeze uncovered, play music loudly, and operate on the thinnest of margins when it comes to personal space.  This coincides directly with their direct embracement of capitalism and they seem to live solely to extract every last dong from your pocket.  We’ve had to send restaurant bills back because they ”added incorrectly,” argue with hotels over being charged for sodas that weren’t even in the fridge to begin with, and our sweet hotel manager in Cat Ba who so graciously gave us his motorbike for the remainder of the day, tried to charge us for it the next day because we didn’t go to Ha Long Bay with him (due to the terrible weather.)  All of these things and many more have made our impression of Vietnam very poor and we could only hope that things changed soon. 

Nha Trang

Hello sunshine!  Sometimes all you need to cheer up is a couple beach days and Nha Trang possesses one of the most breathtaking beaches I’ve ever seen.  Our original plan called to skip past Nha Trang and head straight to Da Lat but as our bus pulled into town after another overnight run, the sun was rising over the water behind slowly swaying palm trees and we could not resist the urge to stop.  Lathered up on comfy lounge chairs by 8am, we spent the next  two days completely relaxed on the beach, buying souvenirs, gifts, and food from touts as they strolled by, begging us to buy anything.  On the second afternoon, we each treated ourselves to a massage and just as I was packing up to check some email, I spotted Travis and Katie about three lounge chairs away.  Running into friends on the road is always exciting because you get to share your adventures since the last time you saw each other.  We went out to dinner with them and opted for some Western fare, Italian.  Thinking of my Dad, I ordered the calzone hoping that it could somehow match the quality of anything from Philly.  It was good but I need some Julio’s when I return home.  We said goodbye to Travis and Katie and swore we’d make enough time to see them in Bangkok before heading to India.

Da Lat

The bus rambled up the mountains for a good six hours before we finally arrived.  Da Lat is set high in the hills and is like a miniature San Francisco with the feel of Paris.  Much to our delight, the weather is much cooler and before we could even leave our hotel to walk around, a guy spouting the nametag “Easy Rider” stopped us dead in our tracks to sell his tour.  I had read about the easy riders in our guidebook and although it was tempting to take a motorcycle journey around Da Lat, the price was a bit too much and we basically purged as much information out of him as we could so that we could take our own tour.  Two days later, we rose early for an epic 200-mile motorbike journey to – what we thought was nearby – Lake Lak.  The ride was amazing and I enjoyed every second of it.  Passing plenty of small villages and stopping for plenty of coffee to keep us revving, we finally arrived in Lake Lak.  If not for the elephant we saw as we were heading back to Da Lat, we would have been dissappointed.  We pulled over and got up as close as we safely could and watched it eat tall grass at the lakes edge for 15 minutes before leaving. 

On the way home, I enticed Erin to drive so that I could teach her how to drive a manual.  Always the quick learner, she picked it up quick and at one point, daringly maneuvered between a herd of cows crossing the street.  We switched soon after, darkness came quick and the bugs were abundant.  By this point, our lower halfs were in severe pain and the ride became more a test of strength than endurance.  Plus, the temperature had dropped much lower only adding to the urgency to get home.  Finally we made it back and went to the Arts Cafe for dinner, which had received great reviews.  After dethawing my hands under running water, I returned to Erin at the table and with eyes as red as a tomato and a slight limp, said “I don’t think we were supposed to do that.”  We laughed and enjoyed our delicious and well-deserved dinner.  The next morning we boarded another bus for Saigon after picking up some ridiculously good strawberry jam, which is famous in Da Lat, and having some more Ca Phe Sua, Vietnam’s famous coffee served extra strong with two teaspoons of sweetened condensed milk.  I am really starting to love Vietnam. 

Vietnam- Part II

The DMZ, Vietnam’s demilitarized zone, divides the North from the South. Tunnels dug during war times to protect Vietnamese people from bombs and ground troops can be found here. After passing through on a sleeper bus, the 1st stop was the beautiful beach at Nha Trang.

Nha Trang

I woke up and looked out the window of the sleeper bus to the sun rising over the rice fields and this beach. The scene enticed us to stay in Nha Trang for a few days, even though the original plan called for us to move on. We did not regret the decision as the white, clean beach spoiled us for 2 days. Sunning from our memory foam beach chairs, we were served fresh pineapple and mango from local vendors. I did not go to 1 museum, art gallery, famous statue or temple. I simply vegged on the beach with my book, The Time Traveler’s Wife, for a much-needed chill-out session.

Incidentally, the American travelers we had met in Cat Ba Island named Travis and Katie had the same idea. After running into them on the beach, we dined together over wine at “Good Morning, Vietnam,” a restaurant run by an Italian chef. This was the 1st time while traveling in Southeast Asia that I have eaten food that is atypical to this area of the world. Needless to say, a salad and calzone never tasted so good chased with red wine.

Da Lat

During a sweaty 5-hour bus ride, we zig zagged our way up to Da Lat, a farming village in the hills known for strawberry fields and coffee plantations. French architecture abounds, transforming the typical Vietnamese feel to a quaint European experience.

After a day of patrolling Da Lat’s French bakeries and flower gardens, we looked at the map and thought it would be a good idea to rent a motorbike to drive to Lake Lak, which seemed only a short distance. After 5.5 hours of driving, we reached the scenic lake and saw an elephant bathing, just in time to turn back around for Da Lat. 200 miles later, eyes bloodshot from all the bugs flying at us, clothes damp due to rain storms, and tail bones bruised from the hard seat, we rolled back into Da Lat. “I don’t think we were supposed to do that,” joked Jason while we scarfed down dinner. We just started cracking up, thinking about the movie, Dumb and Dumber, and how they ride to Colorado on a motorbike for hours. The whole trip had taken us 12 hours- we were really dumb and dumber not knowing the actual distance before setting out.

Saigon

Motorbikes in Saigon

Above: Motorbikes flood the streets at rush hour in Saigon.

The final destination in Vietnam is Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City. I love it here and have extended my stay by two extra weeks, after being offered a position to do freelance copy editing for an English magazine. I am thankful for this opportunity to diversify my resume and replenish my checking account before moving on to India sometime after May 1.

A friend from San Francisco, Zeus, just moved here in January and has introduced us to many of his friends. Sometimes when we are out at lounges or restaurants with these people, I feel like I am in San Francisco until the bill comes and it’s a fifth of the price! The entertainment scene is amazing, boasting 3 story tapas joints and classy roof deck bars. One night, we randomly spotted a friend from the magazine on our way to dinner and he invited us to join him instead for crab at Quan Ba Chi. The chef at Quan Ba Chi steams a hand-picked crab in a cast iron wok on the street corner outside the restaurant. Then he concocts a reduction sauce using oil, tamarind, and sugar. The sweet sauce is good when soaked in bread and the crab is to die for.

After feasting on the seafood, Geoffrey and wife Thuy, the owners of Black Cat ( a restaurant specializing in a burger weighing one full kilogram and home-made Western style sweets) invited us to come back to the restaurant for a drink. Discovering Geoffrey had owned restaurants in the Bay Area before moving to Vietnam with his wife 6 years ago, we chatted the night away about San Francisco and their current businesses in Saigon.

Here in Saigon, many expats meet for networking at posh restaurants, to discuss entrepreneurial ideas and job opportunities. I am surprised how many US companies are just starting here in Saigon, hiring English speakers right and left for positions people could only dream of in The States. The economy is excellent here and I am guessing Vietnam will be a huge vacation destination and business center in the next few years.

Another industry we have enjoyed learning about is the modeling industry. We have been a part of a corporate shoot for Getty Images and a sportswear shoot for Asia Life. Earning a bit of cash is a bonus and seeing everything that goes into the coordination of these projects is impressive. Who knows where our faces may end up! Scary.

Above: Jason and I after posing for a tennis shoot. The photographer is peaking in behind us.

Above: I get ready for the yoga and aerobic beach shot. CHEESY!