Ha Long Bay and water puppets. 11/18/19

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.

Some of the islands and islets in Ha Long Bay as we come into port
As the sun peeks through the sea takes on an aquamarine hue
Ha Long is a city with lots of building going on and a fairly new bridge

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.

Harvested rice paddy
Some fields planted and others harvested
Mrs. Pham welcomes us with tea
Mrs. Pham is 76 and lives with a cousin in their house which is 186 years old
John walking across the courtyard of the house
Mrs. Pham with her giant genealogy tree
A small section of Mrs. Pham’s family tree
Paying reverence to one’s ancestors is very important here. Mrs. Pham has an altar set up in her house.

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!

We are served watermelon and cake while we watch the water puppet show
Two ladies singing in a boat
Two dragons in the water
Two men ploughing with oxen while two women plant rice

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.

A day at sea. 11/17/19

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.

Hainanese 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!

A tour of Hong Kong. 11/16/19

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.  

View of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak
John and the view
Mary, John, view selfie
John by Lion’s Gate
Galleria at top of peak. Stores still closed this early morning. Excellent American style bathrooms.

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!

Fred (not his real name) Cheng, our guide

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.

John in his traditional beer pose
I decide I should be in the picture too!
Avocado toast, so California!

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.

Not an inspiring sign!
Our captain
Enormous floating restaurant
Another sampan
The old and the new
John and Mary on the boat

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.

John and wine glasses

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.

Hong Kong traveling woes. 11/15/19

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 are finally on our way!

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.

Hong Kong !


Peggy comes to visit. 10/21-28/19

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.

Mary and Peggy at Jacuzzi Winery
Sarah and Peggy at Ledson Winery
Mary and Peggy at Victor Sattui’s Winery
Mary and Sarah at Sattui’s
Peggy and Mary at Rombauer

Imagery Wine Dinner. 10/5/19

When we got to Imagery around 6PM we were surprised to see the parking lots totally full. I guess I was thinking this was a smaller affair. We were given a small pour of the 2017 White Burgundy (yum) and waded into the sea of people. We found some people at a table and put our stuff down so we would have enough hands to get some passed hors d’oeuvres (who doesn’t love passed hors d’oeuvres!) and some 2016 Barbera. There was also an olive oil tasting station, a guess the juice station, and a station about the artwork on the bottles.

Tables set up on the back lawn of Imagery Winery

 After standing around for a while we headed over to the table and met our dinner mates. At our table were a couple from Cleveland, a couple from Connecticut, and two ladies from Sarasota. It was a congenial group with this one guy, Dieter, and John doing a lot of the talking.

They poured a glass of 2016 Tusca Brava and one of 2016 Lagrein and dinner commenced. The first course was a salad of greens, a pear half, Gorgonzola, and walnuts in a Moscato dressing.  It was quite good. Now it seems that we were the last table being served and unfortunately between our serving position and the fact that the temperature was plummeting as it got darker everything was cold.

Pear and Gorgonzola salad

Sure, it was probably around 80 when we got there but by the time we went into the tasting room for dessert it was in the 50s. So maybe the food might have tasted better if it were warm. We had Cannelloni stuffed with crab, shrimp, and scallops topped with a vodka sauce. This was cold seafood mush inside cold pasta. I ate like one bite. We also had porchetta on a bed of roasted butternut squash, beets, and Brussels sprouts. Now it is quite dark and the first piece I took was a big cold piece of fat. Yuck! I tried to find some lean pieces but I would have needed a flash light. The vegetables were super good and so I mixed them in with the mushroom risotto which was also very good. Everything was served family style so nobody took too much to begin with which was good for my diet. John who eats anything ate my cannelloni and my meat so I was a member of the almost clean plate club.

Seafood cannelloni, porchetta, and risotto

I really had to increase the light on the main dish plate! For dessert there was gelato and a 2017 Primitivo. I had a scoop of pistachio which was really delicious like you were eating the nuts themselves and not too sweet. I ate half my scoop before passing it over to John.

The wines were great. The hors d’oeuvres were also very good and the salad was super tasty. I should have made myself a vegetarian plate out of the vegetables and the risotto which fared much better under the arctic conditions.

But it was fun! The people were interesting. The winemaker and her sister spoke. Jaime Benziger, the winemaker, was named to the 40 under 40 international wine makers and a bunch of other awards. Her brother who stopped by the table said that since she was a kid she helped out doing the scut jobs at first and then learning the whole business to become winemaker. Her sister runs the business end and their father, Joe, runs Benziger Winery nearby.


Rosh Hashanah. 9/29/19

We have been home for a couple of weeks and are getting back into the swing of things. We have missed seeing Alex and Sam and today had Jon and Sam over for tennis and lunch.  Sam helps me make an apple pie for our Rosh Hashanah celebration tonight. He does a good job peeling apples. I promise him a piece when it cools and half the pie to take home.

Apple pie made with Sam’s help

After Jon and John are showered we all go to Fiesta Taco for lunch. Sam enjoys his chicken tacos and after lunch we return home for pie! Sam takes Jonathan’s usual spot on the couch and promptly falls asleep.

Sam asleep on the couch

After Sam and Jon leave Sarah bakes the challah for dinner and I make Autumn Soup.

Sarah’s challah
All the vegetables in Autumn Soup

With all the work behind us we settle into a lovely dinner of golden soup and yeasty bread with apples and honey and pie for dessert.

Autumn soup, challah, apples and honey
Festive table

Happy New Year!


Boise, 9/12/19. Reno, 9/13/19. Home, 9/14/19.

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.

Photo from the internet

Take a look at this blog for more info about the area  https://idaho.for91days.com/arco-and-atomic-city/

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.

Our room has a large whirlpool bath in the center of it!

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.

Idaho Capitol in Boise

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.

Stage for the Foreigner concert

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.

Reverse-Rebirth by Korean artist Han Seok Hyun uses discarded items and indigenous plants to create a tree-like organic sculpture
Stonehenge-ish arrangement of rock

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.

Most people would want to get out of jail but John wants to get in!
The 17’ wall and watchtower. The guards would have a pretty good view of the concert tonight!

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.

Costco hot dog!

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.

The Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial
Stone tablets

Later for dinner we walk over to Joe’s Crab Shack and have a very mediocre dinner.

There are no crabs in the Boise River

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.

Tacos with retried beans and rice

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!

Helena, the Ka-boom town. 9/10/19

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!

Photo from Helena Independent Record

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.

Looking toward the direction of the runaway train

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.

Montana 2019 planting in front of Capitol
Frederick Meagher, territorial governor on horseback with John
Montana Capitol

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.

In front of the museum is the sculpture Herd Bull by James D. Hadcock
Joe Scheuerle painted Native Americans in the early 20th century. This is a painting of Eagle Elk from 1905
Joe Scheuerle photographed with Native Americans
Callous Leg
There is a large gallery of Charles M. Russell artwork. This is his philosophy late in life.
Indians Discovering Lewis and Clark, C. Russell,1896
When the Land Belonged to God, a depiction by Russell of the West before the Euro-Americans arrived
John and a grizzly bear
A rare white bison considered very spiritual, almost magical

Next we visit the attractive Gothic style St. Helena Cathedral. The stained glass windows reflect the style of their German maker.

Exterior of St. Helena Cathedral
Stained glass, Sacrifice of Isaac
Art Deco decoration in the nave
Cathedral selfie

For lunch today we add a new cuisine, Japanese, at Hokkaido Ramen. Very enjoyable.

Tonkatsu shoyu ramen
John and today’s beer

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.

John interacting with a rocker in an interactive gallery
I am interacting with a Richard W. James Homunculus
Phoebe Toland’s Reflections
Understory/Overstory installation

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.


Knock, knock. Who’s there? No one. 9/9/19

Today we delay our departure from the hotel until almost 10 AM. Our plan is to visit the railroad depot in Whitefish and see the railway museum before we leave. Railroads played an important role in the settlement of the West and there are usually a lot of interesting side stories. During the summer the museum is closed Monday and opens the other days of the week at 10. Walking quickly through the rain we reach the inner door to the museum and it is locked. On the door it says, Summer Hours 10 AM – 5 PM. John jiggles the door knob again in cases someone inside forgot to open it. No luck. A helpful local informs us that the museum will not open until 11 AM because they are on Winter Hours.  Wait, what? It is September 9th about two weeks before Fall! Mr. Helpful tells us that Winter Hours begin when the kids go back to school. Egads!

Since we cannot hang around until 11 with a long drive in front of us. We leave. Somewhat cheerfully I find another museum to see along the way, the Upper Swan Valley Historical Museum. It’s about an hour and 40 minutes away. John pulls into the parking lot where the sign says “closed.”

So we drive straight through to Helena and arrive around 2:30. Right near our hotel there is a ramen place. Hurrah! I have been craving ramen for a couple of weeks. We go to the door. “Lunch hours 11:00 to 2:00” There is no winning today. We go to a steak place across the street where we have their impression of a medium rare burger. It is well done! However I think I have taken the best beer photograph of John yet.

John enjoying a Lewis and Clark Miner’s Gold

We check in at the hotel and then take a look at a carousel right across the street from where we are staying. Our trip is taking on a mini-theme of carousels. This is the fourth one we’ve seen. It was built in 2002 and features Montana animals.

Great Northern Carousel
Ride a bison!
Or a steelhead trout!
Maybe an otter?

We are too full from lunch to have dinner and decide we will just hang out in our room and catch up on work stuff (John) and blog posting (me.)

Tomorrow will be a better day.