We experience fairly rough seas overnight which I find difficult to sleep through. So I am pretty sleepy this morning. But there is no time for laggards and we soon are on a bus to go and try the “Tastes of Hue.” The plan is to meet with a local chef and go through a market learning about the different foods in Vietnamese cuisine and then walking back to her house for a luncheon that she has prepared for us. We originally thought we were going to get a cooking class but that will have to wait for another day.
Our excursion is 6 hours long. One thing they don’t tell you in the blurb about the excursions is how long you are going to be on the bus. They just say “after a ride through the Vietnamese countryside, you will arrive in Hue…” Today’s ride is nearly 2 hours long each way. On the ride to Hue we see a different face of Vietnam. It is poor and rural. Both on the ride and in Hue we are surprised by how Third World Vietnam is.
Vietnam is mostly agricultural with rice paddies everywhere still plowed by water buffalo. Most of the housing is built behind whatever business the locals can drum up—a cafe or restaurant, karaoke bar, spare parts for machines, hair salon. The people we see are cultivating a garden, watching their children, or just sitting around. It is much poorer than we imagined.
The traffic is somewhat chaotic with motorbikes dashing to and fro. Anyone who hesitates has lost the edge to get through an intersection. Our bus is enormous next to the rest of the traffic so for us the locals give way. We de-bus and meet our chef host, Hoang Thi Nhu Huy, a renowned chef and cookbook author specializing in royal Hue cuisine. First she walks us through the market describing the different foodstuffs.
I have to admit that I am somewhat put off by the smells and the fact that I see a large roach crawling among the dried noodles in a package. I am glad when we exit the market and proceed to Madame Nhu Huy’s house for lunch. And what a lunch it is! Obviously she has been cooking for days to put together this feast. We sit at communal tables and Madame Nhu Huy comes around to explain each dish and drink.
John, who has taken prodigious notes throughout the meal, has become a favorite of Madame Nhu Huy. She is so excited when he stands up and is so much taller than she. She insists on a picture with him and her assistant wants one too. She is a teacher and thinks that maybe John is one too because of his notes. The Vietnamese people are very friendly and affectionate.
Now it is back on the bus for the ride back. I immediately fall asleep until we get to our rest stop which is at a cafe on a small lake. It has western bathrooms which is the main reason why we stopped there.
When we are get to the ship and are back in our room the phone rings and it is from the kitchen. The head chef wants to meet with us. We set up a meeting at 5:30 PM. The head chef, Eslam from Turkey, wants us to know he is so sorry for the bone incident yesterday, are we okay, and what can he do to make it up to us. He tells us he would do this for any guest but I think maybe they are afraid that we will sue or something. Can he make us special lobster or a special dessert? I ask if he can move up our 9 PM reservation at the Italian restaurant to 8 PM. Of course, no problem and we will get a special dessert plus we can have reservations at any of the specialty restaurants on any day we want. We feel a little embarrassed. The main reason we said anything about the bone was to alert them about it not to get anything special.
When we get to the restaurant, Manfredi’s at 8 PM, they are falling all over themselves to be nice. The restaurant manager says they have been looking forward to our visit and take us to a table by the window himself. The head chef comes over to make sure we are happy and we get quite a delicious special dessert.
Today we venture out on Ha Long Bay by junk. These junk, though, are not the ones we imagined from our childhood. Those junks with their square sails are now only used for promotional pictures and maybe holidays. This junk is gasoline powered. The boats seem a little scary with their rotting wood staircases up to the observation deck. But we all make it back with the exception of one boat that broke down and had to be towed back. Luckily it is not ours.
Ha Long Bay has 1969 islands and islets and is part of the Gulf of Tonkin. Its depth is around 90 feet and fishermen ply the waters fishing for squid, cod, grouper, and clams. Mostly, though, they are fishing for tourists. It is big business here. Although the islands look fairly close as we push off from the dock, it takes almost an hour to get to them as the boat goes really, really slowly. We are allowed up on the top deck but cannot stand in the middle since the driver sits in the back of the boat and needs to have a clear visual line to steer the boat. Finally we get to the islands and they are pretty fabulous. They jut up out of the sea and are covered with jungle-like foliage. Some have fanciful names. Since it is not sunny today the sea is a more of a somber blue-gray instead of a bright jade color.
At lunchtime there is a special Vietnamese cuisine presentation. It is especially bad. If you never have had Vietnamese cuisine you definitely would not want to eat it again after sampling the ship’s banh mi, pho, and fried rice with chicken. The banh mi is silken tofu with pickled vegetables. The vegetables are served with a lot of the pickling juice so that the roll is totally sogged out. There is also sriracha mayo. This horrible wet sandwich was inedible to me. The chicken with fried rice seemed more Chinese than Vietnamese and pho had weird noodles and no vegetables. Hopefully at some point we will actually get some authentic food from the local cuisines.
Poor John gets an oxtail spring roll from the buffet and encounters a large bone in it, over and inch long and probably half an inch in diameter. How did someone miss it.?! We told one of the chefs about it which will have repercussions tomorrow.
Later in the afternoon John goes to a presentation about the empires of Southeast Asia while I stay behind and take a nap. I am still having some trouble with jet lag and wake up in the wee hours of the night.
Our day finishes up with dinner at The Restaurant which John and I refer to as “the”. I stick with fish but John orders lamb curry. The server takes his order with the comment, Wow! We are not sure what she is wowing about.
We get up early to see Ha long Bay in the first morning light. It is quite overcast this morning so the jewel-like color are muted. Nonetheless the limestone islets soaring up from the sea and topped with thick vegetation are pretty impressive. No wonder this area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We will explore the islands by junk tomorrow.
Today our main activity is a trip to a farming village where we meet a family, have tea with them, and see a water puppet show. Our guide, Moon, is pretty rah rah Vietnam is the best. These best things include pearls, coffee, pretty women, rice, fishing, and being invaded. The reason why they are best at being invaded? Because of all their other best things that everyone wants. But good on her for being proud of her country.
We travel through Ha Long Bay city where there are a lot of apartment buildings and hotels which seem pretty deserted. Maybe it is not the tourist season? It takes us about an hour to get to the village. There are only nine people on our tour which is great. There are rice paddies all around the village. It is the dry season now so the rice has been harvested. They will plant again in the spring. An older lady, Mrs. Pham, welcomes us to her house, gives us hot tea, and shows us around. She has a big genealogy tree on the wall showing how her family started out with one guy and now the family has over two hundred members. We are also invited to use their bathroom which, as feared, is not western style. There is also a giant spider on the wall. I decide not to brave the facilities or the spider.
After talking for a while we head over to the water puppet theater. The puppets are made out of jackfruit wood which is light and buoyant. After a short singing segment by two ladies in a rowboat, the water puppets appear in the water from behind a screen. The stories are about rural life—planting rice and catching fish. It is told in a humorous way. We are served watermelon and cake with tea. After this we head back to the ship. Moon suggests we might stop at a pearl place but I am falling asleep and not up for a forced buying demonstration. So I vote to veto the plan. Yay! The noes win!
Later this evening we go to the Chef’s Table for dinner where we have a lovely dinner and a fine chat with the manager, chef, and sommelier. The manager tells us that we are his favorite couple and I tell him he is our favorite restaurant manager. Tonight’s dinner is Asian Panorama. All the portions are small so I feel like I can enjoy everything without feeling guilty.
We depart Hong Kong just before the escalated trouble starts. Even though we did not see any demonstrations, trying to get from place to place was difficult. I imagine that the threatened, heavy-handed response by the Chinese government will only make matters worse.
We take off for Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, which I was informed by my friend, Rose, at the nail salon, is very beautiful and the site of the most recent King Kong movie. Tomorrow we will visit a rural farm, learn about rice cultivation, and see a water puppet show. Originally we had booked a nine hour excursion to Hanoi on Monday only to find out that the nine hours are filled with 6 to 7 hours on a bus getting there and back. Too much bus time! We have also discovered that hand sanitizer and tissues have been left in our cabin to use for the less than hygienic bathroom situation on the excursions. (Oh, dear) Then on Tuesday we will board a junk for a ride among the limestone islands of Ha Long Bay.
We fritter Sunday away with dining, a port talk, and napping. The water is very calm not at all like our Atlantic crossing last year. I must publish at least one picture of our horrible meal last night. We go to the regular restaurant called The Restaurant, where we choose the “Destination Menu.” We really are hoping for some authentic Asian food. The menu consisted of a spicy shrimp appetizer (which was not spicy) and Hainanese chicken. Below is a picture of the chicken.
The chicken is a dry, bland, poached breast, with a pile of bland white rice, warm cucumber slices, and two bland sauces. It is laughably terrible. I am very sorry for the Hainanese people if this is what they eat!
Today we take a tour of Hong Kong. First we go up to Victoria peak. Originally we were supposed to take the tram but the protests have closed that avenue of transportation. The views from this highest peak are amazing. Hong Kong is a tightly packed city of 7.5 million people mostly living in endless high rises. We spend some time walking around and taking pictures.
A note about bathrooms. When we were in China several years ago many of the bathrooms were Asian style (no toilet) and we women had to line up for the one American style toilet. I had read on the internet how to manage using an Asian style porcelain hole in the ground, practiced at home, and mastered it. But I find, several years older with knee problems, and I can no longer manage it. So finding American style toilets is a concern for me and most of the ladies on the bus. Fred, our tour guide, refers to bathrooms as “happy rooms”. At first I did not understand what he was talking about. Come on, Fred, it is 2019 we can hear the word toilet without swooning!
Next it is off to the Stanley Market and we are given about an hour and a half to look around. It is a warren of very small schlock shops. John and I know that shopping is not what we want to do so we wander around for a while and decide to kill some time at a pub and have a beer and an avocado toast. We spend a pleasant 45 minutes and then head back to the bus.
Next up is a ride on a sampan. After our adventure on the Bosporus we should be wary. We take a ride around a small harbor in Aberdeen. As in Turkey, our captain speaks no English and often abandons the rudder to take pictures of the victims on the boat. At least on this boat ride we are not surrounded by super tankers! In the harbor there are lots of small working boats, luxury yachts, houseboats, and floating restaurants.
After our ride we get stuck in the monumental traffic brought on by the protests. We are supposed to be back at 1:30 but it has taken an hour and a half to go about 10 miles due to the unrest which we do not see but feel the effects of. Fred, who manages to talk the entire time, is concerned about the economic impact. There are many fewer tourists in Hong Kong. After finance tourism is the second largest industry. Fred is quite open and frank about the Chinese takeover in 1997. He says nothing much has changed. They still have freedom but no democracy. However most of his family emigrated to the US and Canada before the handover. He seems kind of on the fence about the protesters.
We have missed lunch but wisely the Viking people have left one venue open for the returning guests. It is a giant scrum of people trying to get food. I eat whatever has the fewest number of people in front of it—some fish, rice, and the dreaded “seasonal vegetables.”
Later we have a safety drill and a face-to-face immigration inspection where some officials make sure we are the people in our passports. Finally we have dinner around 8PM. We meet the very congenial manager of the Chef’s Table who invites to come as often as we would like, the chef who wants us to be as happy as possible, and the lovely team of servers. The Chef’s Table is a set menu with wine pairings. We have a nice dinner seated at a window with a view of the Hong Kong harbor light show.
It has been a very busy last couple of days with little sleep and we fall asleep immediately upon hitting our pillows. Nonetheless we only sleep for about 5 1/2 hours before jet lag catches up with us. Tomorrow is a day at sea and I imagine lots of napping.
Sure, it all looks good on paper—leave SFO Wednesday on Cathay Pacific at 11:45 PM, arrive in Hong Kong 15 hours later in Hong Kong Friday morning, and enjoy a leisurely arrival day getting acquainted with our room and the ship. But, no. To make a long story shorter, our first flight was canceled about five minutes after we were supposed to start boarding. The reason was that they did not have a crew. (Certainly they must have known about this sooner.) They told us to get our luggage and come back on Thursday. Sarah came back and got us. We got home around 1:30AM on Thursday.
Later Thursday, after telling Viking our problem, we were given a new flight which would still get us in on Friday. Unfortunately, no one ever actually ticketed the new flight. There was a giant hassle at the airport which finally led to our getting on the new flight about 15 minutes before the cutoff for checking in. The good part of the new flight was that it was on a Boeing777 which makes the flight almost 2 hours shorter.
We arrive in Hong Kong around 8 PM. Everything goes according to plan and we are in our cabin by 10 PM. We have missed first day of our cruise but there is a gorgeous view of Hong Kong out our window to make up for it.
This is definitely the year of sister visits. It has been a long time since either of them have ventured out to the West Coast. Peggy decided that Phyllis’s adventure out to see me sounded so good that she wanted to do exactly the same thing. With Sarah as our stalwart driver we ventured up to Wine Country twice, had lunch at Zeni’s, took tea in Niles, visited with Jonathan and family, and had George and Karen over for lunch. Here are some pictures from her visit.
On the 11th we drove all day to get to Boise. So not much time to hunt out things to write about although we did have lunch in Arco, Idaho, the first town of nuclear energy, and that was pretty interesting. We listened to a waitress talk about how in 1955 their town was the first to have been totally lit up by nuclear power coming from reactors at the nearby Idaho National Laboratory. She remarked that now the lab was removing nuclear waste from the ground and putting it into containers where it wouldn’t leak out. Scary stuff, I’d say.
Since we changed our plans we have to shuffle our hotels around and we cannot stay at the Residence Inn where we first booked in Boise. Instead we are staying at the Riverside Best Western Premiere which turns out to be not so premiere. I book the honeymoon suite since we like extra space and John is my honey. Unfortunately it is a rather dark suite that smells musty and whose bathroom is painted a rather unfortunate shade of dark brown.
On Thursday we are up early and ready to explore Boise! Since Boise is a state capital, the first place we visit is their be-domed building. Seriously, I will have to visit all 50 capitals to find out if there are any without domes! Idaho was admitted to the Union in 1890 and their building was completed in 1905. It’s architects went for a classical look. It has lots of columns. The three types—Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian are all represented. Atop its dome is a 5’7” eagle. We cannot find a parking space so I just run out and snap a picture and then hustle back into the car before the Capitol Cops can bother us.
The plan for the rest of the day includes the Botanic Garden, the Old Penitentiary, and the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial. We also want to drive around and look at the local architecture as well. The Botanic Garden and the Old Penitentiary are right next to each other so we decide to begin there.
But, no, it is not to be! Right next to these two tourist sites is the aptly named Outlaw Field, home to large scale gatherings. Tonight is a concert by Foreigner and everything is closed! We kind of look around on our own as much as we can and no one comes to throw us out. We are hoping for a sound check since they seem to be fussing around with the amps but no luck.
The part of the Botanic Garden that we can see looks pretty scraggly. We think the better part must be behind the Foreigner stage. There is an interesting sculpture and something that looks like a mini-Stonehenge within our viewing area.
Next we meander over to the nearby closed Old Penitentiary. I am not sure why this is a tourist attraction. The Old Idaho Penitentiary functioned as a prison from 1872 to 1973. The structure started out as single cell house in the Idaho Territory in 1870. It grew into several buildings surrounded by a 17’ sandstone wall. Since we cannot get in we take some pictures of the outer walls and buildings.
After this is our drive-around time. Boise is much bigger than Helena. And in fact Idaho is the fastest growing state in the United States. The city has lots of important-looking buildings due to state government, an art museum, and a history museum. The history museum also backs up to Outlaw Field and we assume it is closed too. In the historic district are many Victorian and Craftsman style homes. The whole area is like a green island floating in the arid high desert.
We have frittered away the morning and early afternoon and I suggest we have hot dogs at Costco for lunch. John is all in. We find the Boise Costco and after a mild panic over whether either of us brought a Costco card along on the trip (I did!), head in for this yummy treat. In Boise a hot dog and a soda only costs $1.50! So for $3.00 we have a tasty lunch.
After a small siesta we go back out to see the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial. It is beautiful place of contemplation. All around are quotes from civil rights leaders, old and new. Boise seems an odd place for this memorial with its Declaration of Civil Rights and moving quotes since northern Idaho is a draw for the Aryan Nation and other white supremacist groups. Indeed, the memorial was vandalized in 2017. But contributions were raised to repair the damage. Perhaps this is a very apt place for the memorial and its center with outreach programs to schools and the community.
Later for dinner we walk over to Joe’s Crab Shack and have a very mediocre dinner.
The last two days are a long trip through uninhabited country. In fact it is stunning to see how empty Montana, Idaho, and Nevada are. John and I have a long conversation in the car about how coming from a populous state such as California, Texas, or Florida cheapens your vote.
Maybe we could have made it all the way home on Friday but we stop in Reno for an overnight and finish up on Saturday. We dine in Winnemucca, Nevada on Friday for lunch and add Mexican to our list of cuisines.
On this trip, along with good old American food, we have had Canadian, Thai, Ethiopian, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, Vietnamese, and German food. We have enjoyed these ethnic cuisines a lot. Most of the rest of our dining has been pretty mediocre. We saw some great stuff and enjoyed our fellow travelers. I think we have thoroughly seen this part of the country with our several trips and next summer we will need to find something new to do.
I have so much love and gratitude for my traveling companion who did almost all the driving with my sometimes terrible navigation. John has an amazing breadth of knowledge and shares it with me as we travel along. I do give myself credit for planning a pretty busy trip. I book all the hotels, make dinner reservations and find interesting things to do. We make an excellent team.
This was a trip in celebration of John’s 70th birthday. I hope he and I can continue with our adventures for many years to come. Happy Birthday, John!
No, I do not mean boom town! Yesterday while I was trying to find interesting things to do, I discovered that Helena had experienced a massive train wreck and explosion on February 2, 1989. It all happened due to a perfect storm of circumstances. Here is the story from Wikipedia.
“In the early morning of February 2, 1989, during a record cold snap, a Montana Rail Link freight train picked up three extra “pusher” locomotives in Helena, Montana, to help move the train over Mullan Pass. The train then traveled west from Helena. Halfway up the pass, the lead engine developed an electrical problem that caused a loss of power and at about the same time was stopped by a malfunctioning signal. The train crew then parked the train at the Austin siding, on the east side of Mullan Pass. While waiting for the signal to be fixed, the crew uncoupled the engines from the 48-car train to switch the order of the locomotives, setting the air brakes but not the hand brakes on the cars. At about 5:30 a.m., record cold temperatures (-32F) caused the air brakes to fail on the decoupled cars. The cars then rolled backwards 9 miles downhill, uncontrolled, into Helena, crashed into a parked work train near the Benton Avenue crossing, caught fire, and exploded.” Ka-boom!
People were evacuated, all the windows in a nearby college dormitory blew out, power was knocked out, the water coming out of the fire hoses froze, and pieces of train landed as much as a mike away. Amazingly no one was killed or even seriously injured.
John and I want to see the site of this awful wreck. Certainly there must be a plaque or something commemorating the event. We go to the Benton St. crossing and there is nothing, nada, zilch. John takes a picture looking up the track and we can only imagine the runaway train heading for the heart of Helena.
So the train wreck site is a bust but there are plenty of other things to see and do in Helena. (In case you are wondering Helena is pronounced Helen like the name and then a. John asked someone.)
Helena is the capital of Montana. It has a population of 31,000 making it one of the smallest capitals in the U.S. It has a big fancy state building with a dome, though, and statues and landscaped grounds. Does every state capital building have a dome?
Montana was admitted to the union in 1889 and the capital’s building is dedicated in 1902. Wings were added to the central building in the early 20th century.
Nearby is the Montana Historical Society Museum. There are so many interesting exhibits that I am just going to put in pictures of some things that I enjoyed.
Next we visit the attractive Gothic style St. Helena Cathedral. The stained glass windows reflect the style of their German maker.
For lunch today we add a new cuisine, Japanese, at Hokkaido Ramen. Very enjoyable.
Now it is time for a little rest before heading out around 3 PM to visit the Holter Art Museum in Helena. Here are some pieces I enjoy.
We have had a busy day! John and I share some chicken wings and call it a night. We have a long drive to Boise, Idaho tomorrow.