Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Back in the USA - North Carolina & TN

We finally arrived in the USA on December 12th (sorry, the blog isn't quite on the minute) after 50 hours of torturous travel filled with long layovers and way too much fast food. We were so exhausted we literally crashed the first few nights at Amanda's (Jason's sister) house. Our only accomplishment those first two days was a trip to the salon where we were both recipients of brand spanking new haircuts! No more Bangkok butcher hair for Tracy! YAY!

From Raleigh we drove to Holden Beach to visit Fay, Jason's grandmother. We relaxed in the seaside air with Christmas shopping trips, walks on the beach and a bit of seafood NC style!

We were due back in Raleigh soon enough for Amanda's graduation from NC State. CONGRATULATIONS Amanda, we're so very proud of you! Now it's time to really start saving so you can join us sometime in 2009 :-)

Jason's mom, Karen, was kind enough to give us all a package to the Biltmore House for Christmas so the day after graduation we hit the road to Asheville, NC and started with a candlelight tour of the house. The next morning we returned for a full tour of the gardens, house & was fantastic! The BIltmore goes all out for Christmas with over more Christmas trees than you can count! After the tour we drove to the winery where our whole group participated in a seminar of wine and chocolate...Tracy was in heaven :-) After the seminar we headed through the winery and into the tasting room where we sampled many of the Biltmore wines before continuing our journey to TN!

Arriving in TN we started work on our annual early Christmas preparations. We dug out the rolling pins, cooking sheets and flour and began rolling Moravian molasses and sugar cookies as well as lefse! By the end of the day we had a feast prepared complete with turkey, garlic mashed potatoes, stuffing & cranberries! And so began our first Christmas of the year!

Driving back to Jason's Dad's house in time for Christmas Eve we had dinner at Darlene's parents (wow...her mom is a fabulous cook). Bellies full we headed to Winston Salem for the Love Feast at the Moravian Church. The next morning we celebrated Christmas at Jason's Dad's house and in the following days visited Old Salem and had additional Christmas celebrations at Aunt Lois and Uncle Danny's house. Our last night in NC we were able to get together with the extended Bedsaul clan one last time before flying into Minneapolis, visiting friends Jamie, Maria & Emma and then taking to train to North Dakota (arrival temp was -16...brrrrr)!

To see more pictures of Amanda's graduation, the Biltmore house and our southern Christmas celebrations please click here!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Langkawi, Malaysia


Destination: Langkawi, Malaysia

Number of Days there: 2 days

Times we took the: Boat: 0; Bus/Minivan: 0; Train/Subway: 0 Taxi/Car: 3; Motorbike: 0

Where we stayed: We stayed at two places in Langkawi. The first was the Sandy Beach Hotel for 88 RM/$27 which I would not recommend at all. For the price it was a dump with a funny smell. The included breakfast was equally disappointing (in fact, I wouldn't even both with it). We also stayed at the Landor ???? Hotel which was at the end of the strip and more expensive but quite nice at 110 RM - $35 which included hot water, wifi & AC in a spotless room.

Favorite Restaurant: Red Tomato: Australian red wine at $2 per glass (a steal for Malaysia), homemade pasta dishes for $6-$10, tomato basil soup for $2, homemade yogurt for $2 & huge fruit plates for $2-$3

Best of: Sunning ourselves on the beach!

Worst of: December is a school holiday for Malaysia so Langkawi was totally overrun with tourists which made prices extremely high for SE Asia. Worse, many people were downright unfriendly.

We finally made it out of Saigon and after a rather long layover in Kuala Lumpur we took a flight to to Langkawi! We had high expectations for Langkawi and unfortunately we were rather disappointed and ultimately decided to only use it as a transit point. On the first full day there we took it easy, took advantage of free wifi at Red Tomato to call our families, took out money for the transfer to Koh Lipe and spent a few lovely hours lazing on their white beach! We splurged that night and took advantage of duty free alcohol with dinner at Red Tomato (yummy)! The next morning we headed to Koh Lipe!

One week later we returned for our final evening in SE Asia! We booked ourselves into a nice hotel and made a final stop at the Red Tomato before settling in and packing for our 50 hour journey (THAT'S RIGHT 50 HOURS) back to the United States. Bags packed and ready to go we said goodbye to SE Asia and headed home!

To see more photos of Langkawi please click here!

Monday, December 22, 2008

A relaxing week at the beach - Koh Lipe, Thailand


Destination: Koh Lipe, Thailand

Number of Days there: 7 days

One thing unexpected: The number of available bunaglows on Koh Lipe doubled since last year so the island as a whole was much busier than we expected. Luckily we stayed on the far side of the island and there were only a few hotels nearby so it was much quieter than the rest of Koh Lipe.

Times we took the: Boat: 6; Bus/Minivan: 0; Train/Subway: 0 Taxi/Car: 0; Motorbike: 0

Where we stayed: Mountain Resort 1200 Baht/$36 including breakfast & lovely views of Koh Adang & the Andaman Sea

Favorite Restaurant: Nothing in Koh Lipe really stands out but stay away from Mama's Restaurant. Both of us ended up getting sick after we ate the chicken.

Best of: Enjoying the beautiful sea view from our hotel and sitting on a gorgeous beach soaking up the sun while knowing that it's freezing cold at home!

Worst of: Three rainy days put a damper on diving & sun worshipping :-(

We took a speed boat from Langkawi, Malaysia to Koh Lipe, Thailand. The cost for the boat was about $35 and it took about an hour to complete the transfer. After going through "island style" immigration which included hanging out in the sand while we waited for a guy to pass out a stack of stamped passports we hit the road and checked out several hotels and dive shops before deciding on Mountain Resort which we would highly recommend. We spent the next few days relaxing in the sun and sand, getting caught up on our blog and in general, just relaxing and enjoying our final week in SE Asia. We also spent two days diving with Castaway Divers (3300 baht/$90 for 3 dives) off of 8 Mile Rock and off of Koh Pung. The coral off of Koh Pung was phenomenal but the poor visibility made the diving a bit of a disappointment, particularly because we had been in Sipadan just two months just didn't stack up. We enjoyed it but we were glad to get back to relaxing on the beach. Despite the rain we took advantage of the beautiful views from the restaurant, playing cards on our patio and getting Thai massages (300 baht/$8/hour)! We were very lucky and the weather cleared on our final day in Koh Lipe so Jason had a final massage and Tracy enjoyed several final relaxing hours on the beach!

To see more photos of Koh Lipe please click here!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Silly Pedestrian, Sidewalks are for Motorbikes: HCMC/Saigon


Destination: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Number of Days there: 4 days

Times we took the: Boat: 0; Bus/Minivan: 2; Train/Subway: 0 Taxi/Car: 2; Motorbike: 0

Where we stayed: Happy Inn ($22 US) - pricey, but good value with all the bells and whistles - WIFI, Air-con, etc.

Favorite Restaurant: Quan An Ngon - the same great place we wrote about in Hanoi makes a return. Street Vendor food meets casual dining for a unique combo that really works! Siagon also shows off it's cosmopolitan side with Fanny's Ice Cream - handcrafted desserts and ice cream served in whimsical shapes and designs.

One thing Unexpected: Having to deal with the hassle of Bangkok Airport being closed and our visa expiring at the same time.

Best of: Cu Chi Tunnels and The War Remnants Museum

Worst of: Talk about crowded and loud - 10 million people + 8 million motorbikes = constant headaches and pollution.

Special Moments: Our "Happy" tour guide serenading us with his propaganda laden song "Ho Chi Minh...Vietnam" as we walked out the tunnels of Cu Chi.

After spending too much money in rainy Hoi An, we made a bee line for Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC or Saigon). HCMC is the largest city in an already over crowded country and it certainly shows. With over 10 million people and nearly 8 million motorbikes, it's just as crowded, noisy and dirty as any other big city. The pollution is so rampant here that people regularly wear face masks while out and about. Despite the constant honking and fumes from the motorbikes one can find charm within its layers. Compared to Hanoi in the north, HCMC is far more cosmopolitan. There is a distinctive western feel to the downtown area complete with the high end shops and restaurants. Capitalism is alive and well. Can anyone tell us what the pink thing is in the photo below? These two were handing out samples of banana flavored gum, but we have no clue what the pink guy is supposed to be.

The War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the American War Crimes Museum, lives up to its reputation as a must see. Haunting photos of the war era show the atrocities of war. From the pictures of journalists killed to the Agent Orange room, it's a moving collection. They also have the compulsory large military pieces sitting in a courtyard outside that every war museum in Vietnam has.

Along those same lines, we also made it out to the Cu Chi tunnels. Built by the Viet Cong and villagers supporting the North Vietnamese, the tunnels served as a home, hideout, transport and military storage during the war. The tunnels were quite extensive, covering miles and miles underground and out of detection from the South Vietnamese and American contingency. Our guide was a survivor of the war and fought against the Americans in these very same tunnels. It was amazing to think that with all our superior firepower, weapons and technology we were pushed back by trap doors, ancient weapons and some great propaganda from Uncle Ho (Chi Minh that is).

On the lighter side, HCMC also provides endless shopping opportunities and so we hit up the Ben Thanh Market several times. The main difference between markets in Vietnam and others in the region is the personal space aspect; as in, there is none. As we passed through the clothing section not only were we greeted with the usual chorus of "T-shirt!", "Come look at my shop!", etc. but their hands joined in. They like to grab you on the arm to get your attention and one lady even grabbed Jason's face to try and force him to look at her shop. I suppose that when you live in such crowded conditions all the time your comfort zone shrinks considerably.

The rest of the time we had left in Vietnam was spent working on how we were going to get out. We had a flight scheduled to leave for Bangkok, but with the airport being shut down by the protests there we had to make some quick change of plans. After sitting on hold for eternity with Air Asia, we finally worked out an alternate plan. Instead of going to Bangkok and then to an island, we flew to Kuala Lumpur and made our way up to the islands from there.

We hopped on the plane and headed to our next stop - Langkawi, Malaysia.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Shop til you drop - Hoi An, Vietnam


Destination: Hoi Ann, Vietnam

Number of Days there: 5 days

One thing unexpected: We knew Hoi An was a shoppers paradise but we never thought it would be so addictive.

Times we took the: Boat: 2 Bus/Minivan: 1 Train/Subway: 0Taxi/Car: 0 Motorbike: 0 Bike: 2

Where we stayed: Dai Long Hotel - $10/night including free wireless Internet (excellent hotel)!

Favorite Restaurant: Miss Ly's Cafeteria served the best Cau Lau in Hoi An (25,000 dong/about $1.50 US). Mr. Thai's served up amazing grilled clams for 40,000 dong (less than $3)!

Best of: Tailor made clothing, hand made silver & friendly kids

Worst of: Tracy's rain jacket was stolen

Special Moments: We were like movie stars traveling through the islands with bicycles, everyone was constantly yelling "hello" at us and coming out to see the foreigners. The kids at the elementary school nearly ran down Jason when he offered a bag of candy.

We caught a bus from Hue to Hoi An ($3) for the quick trip to town (4 hours). We settled on Dai Long Hotel which was a steal at $10 a night (centrally located, spotless & free wifi) and did a bit of wandering through town that night inspecting the damage done by the flooding. We soon found out after arriving that it was the monsoon season and it was evident by the flooding in the first two blocks of town. Local people in boats called out to tourists giving boat rides through the flooded area. We didn't take them up a boat ride but we did get some rather priceless photos!

We spent our first two days in town just wandering around and doing a bit of shopping. We visited several tailor shops and finally decided on B'Lan which was recommended by our friends, Wren & Robert (thanks guys). We started by just ordering a few items but after seeing their work it quickly proved addictive! Over the course of the next few days we would order a little something new each day and looked forward to trying our news clothes each day.

On our third day we decided to rent bicycles ($1) and explore the area surrounding Hoi An. Upon a recommendation of Sleepy Gecko owner Steve, we ended up riding all the way to the beach where we stopped at his friend, Mr. Thai's, for lunch. We spent hours at the beach despite the rain just watching the ocean from our private perch above the sand while eating grilled clams and drinking LaRue beers! As sunset rolled in we met several expats and enjoyed talking with them about their time in Hoi An & Vietnam.

The next morning we set out early for a cooking class. We took a market tour, were shown how to do fruit carvings, took a boat to the cooking academy and started cooking! We were able to make fresh rice paper, spring rolls, ban xeo (Vietnamese pancake) and a hot pot with eggplant. All of the dishes were excellent and in addition to the those dishes we were also given instructions on how to make a cucumber fan and a tomato flower...the results were less than spectacular :-)

After the cooking class we browsed around town a bit more and came across a silversmith that took custom orders...that was all Tracy had to order was immediately placed for a monogrammed silver bangle as well as a few other items too numerous to mention!

The next morning came early again as we trudged through the rain and across the bridge to the Sleepy Gecko for an all day bike tour of the surrounding islands. The morning rain continued throughout the day and we had a great time riding through puddles, with some being knee deep! While we were riding through the islands we saw wood carvers, mat makers, ship builders, water buffalo ranchers as well as local people just doing their thing. We were even stopped by a group of men that offered us rice wine to fortify our journey :) We were tipped off that a visit to the elementary school was included in the itinerary so we came prepared. The kids nearly chased Jason down when he held out the bag of candy we brought for them! The bike tour was $35 per person and included an all day guided trip, all ferries, lunch including beer and a barbecue dinner. Well worth it! For more information contact Steve at the Sleepy Gecko -

The last day we raced around town from tailor shop to silver store back to tailor shop, etc while we tried on clothes and requested last minute changes to the jewelry we purchased. It wasn't exactly how we pictured our last day in Hoi An but it was reminiscent of Christmas Eve with frantic shopping the whole day! Backpacks fuller than ever we caught our flight to Saigon for our last stop in Vietnam!

To see more photos of Hoi An please click here!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"You don't know till you go, so you go so you know": Hue, Vietnam


Destination: Hue (pronounced "way"), Vietnam

Number of Days there: 2

One thing unexpected: Most of the restaurant walls are decorated like a truck stop bathroom - graffiti filled from all the travelers over the years

Times we took the: Boat: 0; Bus/Minivan: 0; Train/Subway: 1 Taxi/Car: 2; Motorbike: 0

Where we stayed: Binh Duong I ($8 US) - small room, but with WIFI, satellite TV and hot water, you can't beat the value

Favorite Restaurant: Good and cheap breakfast at Cafe On Thu (pronounced "two") Wheels

Best of: We happened upon a monastery with chanting monks!

Worst of: A rich cultural history virtually forgotten and abandoned over time

Hue seems to be forgotten in the pages of history. It was recently declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightly so, the town is rich in history but at this point in time most of the sights are run down and in need of restoration. There are signs however that Hue will be an amazing place once the money and time are put into it. The Citadel in the middle of town was virtually destroyed during the American/Vietnam War and the area around Hue was where some of the fiercest battles in the war including the infamous Hamburger Hill took place. Even on this day, the area is still riddled with UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) and unable to be visited from all the heavy bombing.

We decided that we would spend our first day in Hue wandering around the old part of town and the Citadel. The Citadel was home to the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty and Hue itself was the capital of Vietnam from 1802 until 1945 when the communist movement (led by Ho Chi Minh of course) swept through the country and forced the royal family out of power and into exile. After realizing that the Citadel was closed for lunch, we opted to take a cyclo (a bicycle with a small carriage attached to the front - 70,000 per hour) around the neighborhood and get a little tour of the town. The cyclo's driver's name was Mr. Hue and he spoke English very well. We checked out a couple of Chinese temples, the market, and a few other sights of interest. He also found someone to let us into their house (which used to be a member of the royal families abode) which was very interesting with the mother of pearl inlaid woodwork and intricate carving adorning all the pillars and furniture. At the end of the tour we waved goodbye to the cyclo driver as he dropped us at the entrance of the Citadel (entrance fee 60,000 dong). Upon entering the site we quickly realized just how run down the place was. The walls around the citadel were the most impressive part, still standing after the test of war and time. There was evidence of UNESCO trying to work their magic, several of the buildings were being worked on and repaired. Other than that, the rest of the complex was rather fake and included plastic guardian lions that had been spray painted gold. Let's just say they have a long way to go before this resembles its glory days.

The next day it was raining, again, as came to be a consistent theme for all our time in central Vietnam. Instead of taking the motorbike tour that we had signed up for, we hopped in Thu's brother's brand new Toyota SUV with another couple from Wyoming (small world eh?). While the motorbikes would have been better in nicer weather, we can't say we were disappointed in our change of transportation given the weather. Thien Mu Pagoda was our first stop. An impressive octagonal temple built in the 1600's was home to the famous monk Thich Quang Duc who drove to Siagon and set himself on fire to protest against President Ngo Dinh Diem's (The dictator like President of South Vietnam at the time. Not only did he disregard the election process, but also oppressed all religions other than Catholicism, his religion. He was killed by his own troops shortly after the monk burning and just before the North invaded the South.) oppression of Buddhism. Aside from the temple itself; his car, a picture of the momentous occasion (flames and all), as well as a weird picture of his heart (the only part of the monk that was not consumed by the flames) are on display. Next stop on the docket was another temple, only this one was set in the woods and the monks were chanting, i.e. singing. One of the elder monks was leading the chants with a microphone and speaker. The other monks were seated around him also chanting dressed in varying colored robes. It was certainly a memorable experience and we just watched them sing in unison for about twenty minutes before moving on. After the temple hopping we hit one of the more well taken care of sights in the area - the Tomb of Tu Duc. Of all the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty, Tu Duc has the largest and most preserved tomb. The grounds are massive and it's amazing to think that all the lands and buildings dedicated to one man's final resting place. We made one last stop at the Thanh Toan Bridge (Japanese Bridge). Built in the 1600's, the bridge has survived numerous storms and floods and still stands is it did when it was built.

We finished the morning back at Thu's for a little lunch before catching the bus. Getting our fill of some cultural history, we were on our "Hue" to our next stop, Hoi Ann.

To see more photos of Hue please click here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The highlands of Vietnam: Sapa and Bac Ha


Destination: Sapa and Bac Ha, Vietnam (The northern hill towns of Vietnam)

Number of Days there: 4

One thing unexpected: Holy crap it's cold here at night!!!

Times we took the: Boat: 1; Bus/Minivan: 5; Train/Subway: 2 Taxi/Car: 2; Motorbike: 2 days

Where we stayed: Sapa - Queen Hotel ($10 US) Decent place with a wood fireplace. We stayed on the top floor (7th) and had great views of the valley; Bac Ha - Hoang Vu ($10 US) OK, we ran out of hot water after one shower, but they are spacious rooms complete with an Alice in Wonderland style tea set and chairs (they miniaturize EVERYTHING here :-))

Favorite Restaurant: Highland Bakery - This place had the best bread and other baked goods we have had in all of SEA and rivals some of the best at home - no joke! A super cute puppy running around the place that looked more like a toy than a dog put it over the top in our books.

Best of: Out of this world views of rice terrace covered mountains, colorful Sunday Market in Bac Ha

Worst of: The "love" market, where local tribal youths use to mingle and meet, was so overrun with tourists snapping photos that it is longer relevant.

Special Moments: The lady literally carrying a tree on her back up a hill - trunk and all, Watching arguments at the Bac Ha Market by the colorfully adorned Flower H'mong ladies.

After our wonderfully relaxing cruise around Halong bay, we caught the van - ferry - van - big bus - taxi - back of two motorbikes - overnight train - van to Sapa...bags in tow the whole way. Did I lose you there? Thought so. After finally arriving into Sapa we wandered around town and soaked in the experience for the remainder of the day exhausted from the journey.

The nice couple we met in Hanoi had explained that Sapa had four seasons in one day: Spring in the morning, Summer in the afternoon, Fall in the evening, and Winter at night. This proved to be true as the temperatures and climate changed according to the time of day. We went from wearing shorts and sweating buckets in the afternoon to burning firewood and bundling up at night with the down comforters. Aside from the unique weather, Sapa is filled during the days with all the local villagers coming to town to hawk their wares to all the tourists. Make no mistake about it, Sapa is all about the tourists. Other than the rice trade, they don't have many other sources of income. It could get a little tiresome at times walking down the street and constantly being asked to buy something, take a tour, rent a motorbike, etc. but it comes with the territory. Despite all this Sapa is truly an amazing place. The mountains covered with rice terracing down their slopes is out of this world stunningly beautiful. The people are also about as friendly as they come, regardless if you buy anything from them or not. There was a group of about four women that we kept running across the whole time we were there and we chatted it up with them from time to time. Their English is well polished from talking to foreigners all day and they walk two hours each way just to get to Sapa everyday.

We decided that the next two days we would rent a motorbike and run over to the markets in Bac Ha and Can Cau. Can Cau market runs on Saturday mornings and is only 8km's from the Chinese boarder. The villagers in this area don't recognize the borders of the two countries and freely cross between the two. As a result, apparently they sell Chinese wares duty free. Sadly, we don't know if that is true as we never made it to Can Cau. On our way there early in the morning on Saturday we stopped and asked for directions at an intersection. The guys at the motorcycle repair shop pointed to the road to the left as the right way to go. Two hours later and on the wrong side of the river, we realized that we would have to turn back around and go down the same road we had just come in order to get to Bac Ha. We had ended up in Coc Ly, a tiny village that also has a market on Tuesdays. They are in the process of building a bridge

across the river, but it's not finished. The day was not entirely lost however. Along the dirt road to Coc Ly, we passed a little lady carrying an entire tree - trunk and all on her back up a hill, forded three creeks on our motorbike...twice (each way), and watched a little girl riding on the back of a water buffalo. Sometimes the best memories happen when you are lost!

We eventually made it to Bac Ha and got up early for the Sunday Market. Unlike any market you have ever seen or been in, Bac Ha was truly a unique experience. It starts off with everyone getting set up for the day. The smoke from all the fires going is blinding at times. On top of the fires sit huge pots of Horse, Dog, Pork or Chicken parts stewing in a broth like substance. All the colorful H'mong villagers have gathered and are eating whatever is coming out of the pots served with noodles and chatting the morning away. You then realize that this is as much of a market as it is a social gathering once a week. Getting dressed up in their "Sunday finest" they all come down from the surrounding villages bringing with them all the clothing, yarn, and other wares they wish to sell. The livestock portion of the market was even more interesting. Squealing pigs getting stuffed into feed sacks as they are bartered for fill the air. All the animals are separated into sections. There are pig, horse, buffalo, cow, chicken & duck sections and much to our dismay there was of course the sad faces of the dog section. It was sad in one way, but you realize that to them, this is normal. They have lived this way for hundreds of years and just a part of life. The most entertaining part came from the village women. We saw two different yelling matches between a customer and the shop keeper. We have no idea what they were saying, but it was entertaining to see the one yelling at the other and picking up bundles of yarn and throwing at her. The "security" guard even had to step in one time and a little girl was in tears over the ordeal. The women also provided us with a nose clearing spectacle that was as disgusting as well as entertaining (you can 1 finger on 1 nostril and blow over the street corner...wipe hand and then repeat with alternate nostril). We spent the entire morning just wandering around and watching all the villagers just doing their thing regardless of the tourists that had accumulated by mid morning.

Back on our bike, we headed back to Sapa to make it there before dark. We stopped off in Lao Cai to purchase our train tickets, got a late lunch, and promptly got lost in town trying to find our way back to Sapa. After Jason had finished giving his free tour of Lao Cai...three times...we finally found the road we were supposed to be on and started the climb back up to Sapa. As the sun was setting, the mountains and rice fields came to life set in the bright light shining directly across the hills. We stopped no less than a dozen times just to take in and admire the view.

Our last day in Sapa, we took a little hike down to Cat Cat Village, the closest "village" to Sapa. I would like to say that it was worth it, but it was a way too touristy and all the kids wanted to do was to ask you for money. The waterfall at the bottom was ok, but that was about it. Should you find yourself in Sapa, skip Cat Cat and opt for some of the other villages to hike to and explore or better yet rent a motorbike and get out to the countryside. There are plenty of villages comprised of the 10 Montagnard groups (Flower Hmong, Zhan, Giay, Han, Phula, Thai, Lachi, etc) each with different customs and their own unique colorful apparel. We finished the afternoon before we caught the van back to the train station in our favorite little bakery having a cup of coffee and playing with the puppy. Yes, we know, not very exciting - but we loved it anyways.

Boarding the train, we headed back to Hanoi for the day, then on to Hue on the night train!

To see more pictures of Sapa click here!
To see more pictures of Bac Ha pick here!