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Sunday, June 8, 2008

Honeymoon Blog, Final Installment: Good Morning Hoi An, Vietnam!


Yes, this is the Final Installment of Elisse & Dan's Excellent Asian Adventure! After this I Swear I will immediately go back to writing about life in Wild, Wonderful West Virginia- and there's LOTS to catch up on!


The previous three installments have been about our all-too-short stays in Korea, Japan, and southern, northern, & the Central Highlands of Vietnam. As you may realize by this point, this is also our "photo album", and a way for us to keep the wonderful memories of a most extraordinary trip alive. I have Loved every minute of writing about this trip, which for all my travels, was truly the most amazing and wonderful excursion I've ever had, and each time I look at the photos I get to "relive" all the fun we had again in some small way...
I hope I've shared that fun, and made you all want to go to all three places ASAP! We both dream of returning to all three countries, to do and see so many things and places we weren't able to get to on this trip- there are elephants to ride and jungles thru which to trek, tea ceremonies to learn, markets to explore, beaches to play on, adventures to have, museums to see, wonderful things to buy, people to meet, and, of course, all sorts of fabulous foods to savor and drinks to imbibe! We Truly hope that this will be possible sooner, rather than later, so if anyone has any ideas... And PLEASE comment on the blog and share it with friends!

Thank you again Sandy, Miguel, Jo Lynn & Mr. Marriott, Mr. Huynh, FEMA, and all the others who made this extraordinary Honeymoon-of-a-lifetime possible!

The last installment ended with our stay in Quy Nhon on the sea... One of the things we did while wandering around downtown Quy Nhon was find the old train station and buy tickets to Da Nang, and after two nights in Quy Nhon we went to the New Station- which is in Dieu Tri, and NOT in Quy Nhon, causing our cab driver, hell bent on taking us to the airport, some Issues...












We whiled away the wait-time drinking coffee, shooting "train pix" (Railfans that we are...), & watching Wheel Of Fortune in Vietnamese (!) on the waiting room's giant flat-screen TV...






When the train pulled in I stood on the platform with my 49-rose bouquet, for all the world like Miss Kon Tum, waiting for her train!
(Observation: If a girl is Really Lucky In Life, at least once she gets to stand on a train platform clutching a bouquet of 49 roses...)









This time the train trip was fun for Both of us (!), as we spent most of it in the dining car, slurping pho, drinking ice coffee, and smoking cigarettes- Life is Sooooooooo Good!- watching the panorama of the Vietnam countryside whizz past us: rice paddies glistening in the misty sunlight, dotted with clumps of Buddhist graves... villages with conical stacks of hay behind the houses, motorcyclists waiting at the RR crossings... Several other diners were enjoying delicious looking meat-on-a-stick type dishes that were Not on the English-language menu proffered to us, but after I saw the word "chien" on the dining car's chalkboard, we were both reluctant to try it...








Slurpin' pho & smokin', watching the panorama of gorgeous countryside sail past us...


















At the Da Nang train station we got a cab to Hoi An, famous as a beautiful historic town and a UN "Heritage Site", and now for it's gazillion tailoring shops, art galleries, and the Red Bridge Cooking School. This was the second cooking school we attended in Vietnam (the first being at the Vietnam Cooking School in Saigon/HCM City), and as Red Bridge is in a different part of the country, with different local specialties, we learned different techniques and to make different dishes. Red Bridge is a lovely place, and we spent an excellent day there, meeting in the morning at a Hoi An cafe, then going to both the market and a nearby farm to buy the organic produce, herbs,





















...and other ingredients for our dishes, stopping for a lovely glass of ginger tea at the farm...





...and finally arriving at the Red Bridge Cooking School, to learn to prepare a selection of Vietnamese specialties, including the delicate, translucent rice-flour pancakes that are used in so many Vietnamese dishes. The chef-instructor, an excellent teacher and an obvious master of his craft, entertained us with ribald jokes while teaching us to create dishes we Never would have attempted to do otherwise- such as the rice-flower crepes! We ended the class with a truly fabulous lunch of our own creation, and then, barely able to walk(!), were taken by boat back to Hoi An town...








...where we got to wander up and down the cobblestone streets, pop into museums and galleries, stop for coffee, and SHOP! If you know about the terrible storm that devastated Hoi An, you'll be happy to know that the town has fully recovered; we saw no evidence of the devastation that took place, save a few road-works in progress.... There are Lots of nice and inexpensive places to stay, too, even in "resort" towns such as Hoi An, as we discovered, so let no one be discouraged! Even tho' the US dollar is currently in the potty, Vietnam is definitely a place you can enjoy a truly fabulous (and even luxurious) holiday on a very limited budget. One of the places we stopped for a bite at was "Good Morning Vietnam", a cute cafe which turned out to be part of a chain of Italian (!) restaurants throughout Vietnam. Dan had cotton-silk tropical shirts made at 22 Le Loi, embroidered with the little gekkos that for us symbolized Vietnam, and he finally had to break down (!) & buy himself a "Good Morning Vietnam" tee-shirt, in order to literally give the tailor the shirt off his back to use as a pattern!
"Shopper Dan" twisted my arm (!), & so I had two dresses made, up the road at another shop on Le Loi (one in a red-cream silk-satin brocade, and an "everyday" dress in light cotton- for $24 each- all in 2 days!)
We're both still kicking ourselves for not having more clothes made- Italian cashmere suits! Shoes in any leather, fabric & style imaginable!- But hopefully there'll be another trip, one in which we're toting the latest copy of Vogue!
(Note: We stayed at a "5-star resort" in Hoi An that shall remain nameless, for allthough it was physically beautiful (designed along the lines of the Boulders in Arizona), the service from their European manager and their food was So appallingly and amazingly bad (read: food poisoning) that we filed serious complaints, and their management refunded part of our money on the condition that I do not write about it. Suffice it to say that this was intended to be a luxurious and romatic "honeymoon spa resort" stay to end our trip on a high note, and turned out to be the lowest- and the Only bad experience we had in Vietnam- or anywhere throughout our entire trip!) We did have a very lovely "cottage" there, however (that they kept threatenening to move us from, so we never unpacked...), with a wonderful bath that's worth writing about: the large "soaking tub", big enough for two :-) was situated under an open skylight, so you (both) could lay in the lovely tub and look up at the stars... and then go out onto a little patio overlooking the palms and the pool, to cool off...
At the Hoi An Museum...











We spent our last day frolicking on the beach, getting stupidly sunburned, but having a wonderful day playing "Honeymooners By The Sea", replete with G&Ts delivered to our umbrella-covered chaises in the perfect, pearl-white sand, whenever we raised our little flags...
I totally loved the whole concept of raising a flag for one's drinks! "Tres Colonial" to be sure, and pretty darn wonderful!

Dan hoisting the Yellow Flag for G&Ts... Seriously- does life get better than this?!












We spent one evening at the resort's "disco" being regaled yet again with a selection of the Seventies, & getting the chance to Lindy/Swing around the dance floor; by this point we expected it, and enjoyed it immensely! I mean, seriously- where in the USA can you walk into a club and have the band immediately ditch the hip-hop & start playing The Carpenters & Donna Summer- Just For You?!


We taxied into Hoi An town & had a lovely, romantic dinner in one of the many waterside restaurants in Hoi An Town, delightfully eavesdropping on the conversation of two journalistists... (!) Our last day in Hoi An we had final alterations done on our tailor-made clothing, and strolled through town in evening dark, enjoying the cafes and shops festooned with colorful lanterns... Hoi An is a truly a "gallery town", and there must literally be hundreds, but we were lucky enough to find Art Gallery 25, the gallery of an immensely talented young artist, Tran Nguyen Khang on 25 Phan Chau Trinh Street, and Dan & I both loved his work. He'd been taught to paint by his father, and his large paintings of tigers were extraordinary... Happily, we found a painting of his that we not only could afford, but as he had painted it on a large fan (see below), it folded up & could be packed & transported! And it now graces the Dining Room of the Elkhorn Inn!














Leaving Hoi An, we flew from Da Nang back to Saigon, again on wonderful Vietnam Airlines, and reclaimed our suitcases at the totally delightful Marriott Renaissance Riverside. We first spent several embarassing hours repacking our idiot suitcases, and then repaired, exhausted (!), to their lovely rooftop pool cafe to have a bite & relax, and so "Spa Babe" could treat herself to one last (and totally glorious) refloxology foot massage... There's "reflexology", as in "a nice foot massage", and then there's Reflexology with a capital "R"- & this was that! In order for Reflexology to truly be of therapeutic value it has to be done by trained practitioners who Truly know what they are doing, and the Renaissance Riverside's Refloxology treatments were truly THE BEST I've ever had... Really good reflexology is the song "it hurts so good" made flesh! The massseuse even counted off the numbers so I could follow each corresponding organ on the chart as I sipped my tea! When Dan wants to be Reeeeealy nice to me he massages my feet, & I close my eyes & transport myself ("Beam me up, Scottie!) back to a little suite in the Renaissance Riverside! I wanted to treat Dan to a Last Massage, as well, but at my offer he said those magic words that I Never thought I'd Ever hear him utter: "Let's go shopping"! He said he'd "rather have a "thing" than the memory of a nice massage"! And so we went out a-strolling thru Saigon, on a successful Recon Mission to find him the mahogany Chinook (for $13!), so he'd have both that and the Hewey we'd bought earlier. The lady we bought it from remembered him- a week earlier, he'd apparently gotten her down to $10 for the Chinook, but then (AAAUGH!) walked away, and now, (sensing, no doubt, our last-minute pre-flight desperation) she wouldn't budge from $13, saying "that was then, this is now!" He had So much fun bargaining that he made the shopkeepers laugh; even though it was literally over a dollar or two (and these helicoptors sell for $120 on http://www.military.com/...), he made it a lot of fun for everyone involved! That he also knew about the color-coded shopping bags Vietnamese storekeepers still give out to let other store owners know what kind of a customer they've got (easy mark/can't bargain, or Tough Cookie...) we were able to have a lot of fun... "Shopper Dan" then found me the gorgeous red teardrop coral necklace of large "corn kernel" beads that I'd coveted since seeing it in the Hanoi Opera Hilton jewelry shop- and bargained for it So well that he snagged it for me for only $20! Amazing man!
By this point, I, however, was totally "shopped out"- something I NEVER thought would happen in life! I didn't even want to Try to replace the $5 "Dolce & Gabbana" sunglasses I'd left in a Kon Tum Village Community Hut! As we wandered up and down Saigon's little side streets, Dan would stop to pet the puppies, and we noted, happily, that the Saigon shopkeeper's dogs were all Old dogs, meaning they were Truly pets...

We left for the airport at 10 p.m., and had our four 62" 50lb. suitcases (the absolute max allowed!) shrink-wrapped, so they wouldn't burst, get soaked again, or get robbed, and everything actually arrived intact!NOTE: Shrink-wrapping is a Brilliant idea, and some smart cookie should set up airport concessions throughout the USA such as the ones in Vietnam... All the silly stuff we shlepped home- our North Korean wine & brandy, Vietnamese snake wine, Hanoi Vodka, Japanese whisky, the fragile Hanoi water puppets, china "Cooking School" dishes, embroidered silk paintings, village-loomed fabrics, coconut cooking tools, ginger, coffee & filters, handmade clothing, tiny sticks of Kyoto cherry blossom incense & my Kyoto under-kimono- everything got home safe & sound, & now festoons the Inn, helping us relive our trip every day! I think that's the whole point of souveniers; the tiny hotel toiletries one throws in one's purse bring back a glorious night in Tokyo; that coaster & CD, a jazz club in Saigon; the lovely caligrapy and a beautiful, handmade brush, a magical day in Korea...
But those 20 extra pounds? That's a souvenier I'm happily losing!
We and the suitcases-from-hell arrived in WV the same day we left Asia, but some 24 hours later, punchy from jet-lag, thanks to the 14-hour time change & a 12-hour layover in the Korean airport! Incheon actually has a selection of great tours with which to while away the apparently normal 12-hour layovers, and at the beginning of our trip we thought we'd take one that last day (we both wanted to see the McArthur statue in Incheon, among other things), but we were so bushed that all we could actually do was stagger around the airport in a semi-glazed stupor, buy a couple of cartons of the slim Korean cigarette's we'd grown to love, and doze fitfully across the uncormfortably-curved airport seats!
The flight was blessedly uneventful, and "Saint" Miguel picked our sunburned, achy bodies up at the airport, and here we are, back in West Virginia, in our Big Ol' House with The Puppies- planning & dreaming & hoping to ge back as soon as we can- with loads of dosh, copies of Vogue, & totally empty suitcases!
Korean "good luck" calligraphy... Vietnamese embroidered silk paintings...


Our assortment of Korean, Japanese, & Vietnamese booze, Vietnamese lacquer rice bowls & chopsticks, our gift Japanese lacquer chopsticks from the Kyoto Ryokan, embroidered Montaignyard coasters, & Hanoi water puppets...

Our Vietnamese Cooking School diplomas & Trung Nguyen Highlands coffee, a Japanese bar menu, the Vietnamese liquor teapot & shot glass, and the piesta de resistance: Vietnamese snake-&-scorpion wine! (Eat your heart out, Tony Bourdain!)