Monthly Archives: August 2012

Exploring Hanoi

Hanoi StreetsOne of the things we are finding most wonderful about visiting Vietnam is how incredibly affordable everything is.  Seriously, if you are looking to take an interesting and exciting vacation, this just may be the place to go.  It has history, culture, shopping, beaches, and a whole lot to just observe and digest.

Because it is so affordable here, we are able to stay in a wonderful hotel for a reasonable price.  The Hanoi Moment Hotel, a boutique hotel in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, prides itself on customer service.  They arranged for our taxi from the airport so we wouldn’t get scammed and when we pulled up out front, the doorman ran to get our bags and carry them inside.  We were ushered in, presented with fresh mango juice and asked to sit on the couches while they checked us in.  Soon, the very smiley and friendly Jimmy sat down with us to review the amenities of the hotel and room.  When we looked up, our bags had already been taken to our room and Jimmy was escorting into the elevator and upstairs.  As he opened the door, Jimmy informed us that he turned the air conditioning 30 minutes prior to our arrival so our room would be cool for us.  A welcome tray of fruit sat on the bed and along with a complimentary bottle of wine.  The room also has free water, robes, slippers and a WiFi connected laptop plugged in.  It is really beautiful.

Welcome to Hanoi MomentThese things helped Hanoi Moment Hotel to make a great first impression, however it is everything else that has really made us fall in love.  There is a travel desk downstairs run by the very knowledgeable Ching.  She is always eager to help and has been very patient with our many questions.  She took care of booking a tour of Halong Bay which we will embark on tomorrow and also helped book tickets to a theater event.  The best part is the awesome restaurant suggestions.  They are really looking out for us.  They even gave us a list of cab companies we could trust so we wouldn’t fall prey to the scams which are so common.  We originally only booked two nights here, but we like it so much we are staying for a third.  And the most amazing part is how affordable the hotel is.  This wonderful stay is only costing $67 USD per night, including taxes.  Amazing.

Central Hanoi

It isn’t just the hotel that is affordable.  We can’t believe how little things cost here.  We first had to get used to doing the conversion from Vietnamese Dong to the US Dollar.  Twenty-one thousand dong equals one dollar.  Which means that 2,000,000 Dong equals $100. So, it is a little strange to buy two bottles of water and see the price ring up as 28,000.  But, when we stop to think about it, we realize that is less than 2 bucks.  That’s a great deal for two bottles of water!  In addition, the local food we’ve eaten has not only been inexpensive (totaling about 15 bucks for a full dinner with two beers), but it has been delicious.  The staff  have guided us to outstanding places locals choose to eat and we look forward to trying more adventurous dishes.

Temple of LiteratureAside from our interacting with the locals at restaurants and bars, we actually found ourselves engaging in some more typical tourist activities today.  The first place we visited was the Temple of Literature, essentially an academic hall of fame for scholars of Confucius.  This complex looks like a temple, but is not dedicated to religious study. Instead, it honors the teachings of Confucius which are basically focused on how to become the best person you can be (really, how to be a gentleman but I’m trying to be PC).  They have stone stelae with names of doctors who have passed the 82 Confucian exams and some of these date back to the 1400’s.  I’m glad we visited, but overall it was a bit underwhelming.  Perhaps a guide would have been helpful and we maybe could have appreciated it more.

After the Temple of Literature, we went to the Vietnam Military History Museum.  This was easily the most interesting and unsettling thing we saw today.  Of course, we all know the history the US has with Vietnam and I was really interested to visit this museum to see a new perspective.  I didn’t anticipate how upsetting it would be.  Outside the museum they have aircraft which have been captured from the French and the US, and in the center of all of these is a huge sculpture formed from wreckage of downed aircraft.  Looking at this gigantic pile of crumpled metal which had been shot down, thinking about the pilots of these aircraft and reading the plaques which brag about how many planes were brought down made me feel kind of sick.

French and US aircraft

Throughout the whole museum we got a sense of boasting about winning battles, downing aircraft and defeating the enemy.  In one exhibit, they even had the uniform of Lt. Everett Alvarez on display.  He was the first American pilot prisoner of war and one of the longest POWs in American history, having been held for over 8 years.  Seeing his uniform on display like a trophy was surreal.  I’m not sure if I’m describing this right, but the whole museum focused on triumph and victory, nothing about any casualties suffered by the Vietnamese.  They call the Fall of Saigon the Liberation.  They called the Saigon Government the Puppet Government.  The whole thing was so one-sided and filled with propaganda.  Of course, it constantly reminded me of Animal Farm by George Orwell, a book I love and know well from having taught it for 6 years.  It may sound strange, but we could really feel the Communism in this museum. Perhaps it was the giant statue of Vladimir Lenin across the street.  The whole thing was really interesting.At a square in Hanoi

Phil and I wondered, are American war museums like this?  I realize the closest I’ve come to one is the Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, but I remember that as being more a display of artifacts, not celebrations of killing.  I can imagine how visiting this museum could be very difficult, especially for members of my parents’ generation.  I’m glad we went, but our response to the exhibits has made us reconsider if we should to go the Hanoi Hilton Museum, the infamous jail where US prisoners of war were held, most notably John McCain.

Our visit to the museum today and our response to those exhibits illustrate for me the reasons why it is important to travel.  Seeing other perspectives, analyzing how information is presented and considering if that is reflected in one’s own culture broadens your horizons and makes you think about things in new ways.  I think that is one of the most valuable things that will come out of this trip.  We can’t wait to continue our journey and explore more of Vietnam.

-Brooke

The waiter had to show Brooke how to eat her Vietnamese pancake with shrimp and bean sprouts. Wrap it in rice paper and dip it in delicious sauce. Yum!

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Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Exploring, Finances, Hotels, Reflections, Surprises, Temples, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Impressions from Hong Kong

Nightly Laser Show in HKThere are no two ways about it: Brooke and I have really enjoyed our time in Hong Kong. We really dig it here. We’ve been in town just long enough to get a taste for this unique city. Three days has been enough time to allow us to get a sampling that left us with a quality impression of Hong Kong. This is a city that manages to be both part of China, but not much at all like the rest of China.

As with every destination so far, we had some miscues upon first arriving. After rolling into town, we were quickly misled by signs indicating a “subway.” Turns out that a Subway here refers to subterranean passageways underground cross walk and complicated network of pedestrian tunnels scattered throughout the city. These help with the flow of streets and are far more often seen than traditional cross walks. The subways also have an added bonus of being a fantastic way to dodge the summer heat. Of course, we had misinterpreted the “subway” signs for an subterrain train (which is in fact commonly called the MTR).

Food at the Night MarketSpeaking of the heat, we have been knee deep in it. The sights of Hong Kong during the day have been plagued by some tenacious haze, but I suppose that’s what you get for visiting Southeast Asia in the middle of August. As unlikely as it sounds, it somehow keeps getting hotter and hotter as the day progresses into night. We’re pretty sure that by 8:00 PM it was hotter than it was at 2:00 PM! Baffling. As we head even further south into Vietnam and Singapore, we’re thankful that (so far) we’ve had no trouble finding places to stay that have functional, soothing Air Conditioning.

View from the 55th Floor of the IFC Tower!

Brooke and the View from the free 55th Floor gallery of the IFC Tower!

Over the course of several bus tours and self guided tours, we’ve taken in a pretty good chunk of the city. One of the great things about this trip has been being able to make connections. We were surprised to see that the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is apparently alive and well beneath the HSBC Bank building in central Hong Kong. There is a public space beneath the bank’s giant tower, reputed to be Hong Kong’s best architectural example of feng shui, that apparently has been bereft of campers and protestors since October. A movement is underway to kick them out, but it is kinda cool to see what was happening all over America also in play in the middle of Hong Kong.

Speaking of banking, we’ve also found that Hong Kong hasn’t been the most inexpensive city, but it hasn’t been as costly as we expected a giant metropolis to be either. We’ve stumbled across some meals that are full of flavor, quick, cheap and no frills just the way we like it. But the (large) beers continually run us about seven dollars a pop. The only exception is during evening Happy Hours and in the outdoor markets where there are an abundance of deals to be found. In this weather, it is hard to resist a nice, cold beer in the middle of sight seeing during a hot day. We’ll keep looking for the perfect dive bar!

The famed Peninsula Hotel!Cost is all relative, I suppose, and flashy businessmen can be seen everywhere.The central neighborhood on Hong Kong Island is a spectacular mesh of glass and steel buildings banking, commerce, company headquarters and high quality hotels. It’s remarkable. There appears to be no end to the number of five star hotels. NEXT time, we will book a room at The Peninsula or the Ritz Carlton…or the Intercontinental! But that’s just one section of town. The culture here is a brilliant blend of 150 years of British colonial rule mixed with with an old Chinese City. The result is a mixed ethnicity, langauge and amusing juxtaposition like a Baptist church next to a market with fresh duck hanging in the window. One of our favorite common sites is buildings under construction with workers climbing on scaffolding…made of bamboo!

Bamboo Scaffolding could be found on buildings everywhere!

Bamboo Scaffolding could be found on buildings everywhere!

Hong Kong as seen from central with the HK's tallest building in the backgroundBeyond Hong Kong, as we continue to expand our world view, it’s been good to see that some things are universal. A bride in Cincinnati looks pretty identical to a bride in Guangzhou, there are lines at the post office no matter where we go, drunk 19 year-olds at a Hotel bar in Hong Kong act a lot like drunk 19 year olds in the states. My personal favorite is that the tired businessman who kept leaning on me while falling asleep on the subway in Tokyo reminded me a lot of the tired businessman who kept leaning on me while falling asleep in NYC.

And there are some shops we’ve found that are ubiquitous in any city. No matter where we’ve gone so far, we can count on seeing plenty of 7-11s (which have come in quite handy), Starbucks and McDonalds. Our one regret? We might have bought our souvenir set of Chopsticks too soon. Every other shop is selling an interesting set of chopsticks. It’s funny because when you are in the states, you never see stores falling over themselves to sell forks. I can’t wait to see what new experiences Vietnam brings. Onward!

–Phil

One of our favorite buildings- The twin Lippo Centre which are said to look like

One of our favorite buildings- The twin Lippo Centre which are said to look like Koala Bears climbing the building!

Brooke trying very hard to just get a dang spoon from the counter person at 7-11

Phil getting some food from the 7-11 – A surprisingly great place to get a quick bite

Categories: China, City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Discounts, Random Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Beyond Hong Kong’s City Center

Last night in Hong KongToday was our last full day in Hong Kong, so rather than stay in the center of the city as we have been, we decided to get out and see something a bit different. With our Big Bus Tour passes from yesterday, we were able to get out and see another side of this lovely city-state.

We got up nice and early to make the most of the day and in hopes that we might beat the heat a bit (no real luck there).  We climbed aboard the Star Ferry which took us over to Hong Kong Island.  From there, we boarded the open-air Big Bus and began our journey away from downtown.  It took a while for us to get out of the city center, since traffic here is quite thick.  However, once we passed through an immensely long tunnel, we could feel the difference almost immediately.  Sure, there are still giant buildings, but fewer people and there was generally a more remote vibe.

Great tour bus!One of the first things to catch our eye was this amazing amusement park called Ocean Park, which has the coolest roller coaster we have ever seen.  Because land here is at a premium, the amusement park bought two different pieces of land on either side of a huge hill.  The two sections are connected by a super-long gondola which looked very scary to me.  The awesome part though was this twisting and turning roller coaster on the side of the hill overlooking the South China Sea.  That must have some of the best views of any roller coaster in the world (granted, it is so hazy here right now that they probably can’t see much of anything).  We didn’t want to take the time do an amusement park, and I have a tendency to vomit when riding such roller coasters, but it looks like an awesome time for people who are into that kind of thing.

As we wound our way through narrow roads along the coast of the South China Sea’s Repulse Bay and Deep Water Bay, we heard tales of the many rich and famous people who have vacationed here over the years.  There have been a couple of famous movies filmed here including “Love is a many Splendored Thing” and it soon became clear that this area is a playground for the wealthy.  Perhaps it was the beach-side Ferrari dealership that gave it away or it could have been the Lamborghini we saw driving past us.  Either way, it is clear these beaches provide a nice getaway for people living in Hong Kong who need a bit of respite.  If we were here longer, we would have definitely spent some time swimming and lounging on the beach.

A view of the seaThe next beach town we came to was Stanley, famous for its huge Stanley Market.  We had heard this was a great stop, so we decided to hop off the bus and see what we could.  The market spread across several blocks, twisting and turning like a maze.  As with all of these, there are lots of items that repeat themselves and you can find in any market in Hong Kong.  However, there were also handmade crafts, beautiful clothiers and handmade jewelry.  Phil found lots of toys to play with and was especially impressed by the remote-control car that could climb up a wall.  We found a few little tokens to buy here, but I could tell Phil was starting to lose interest in shopping after about an hour, so we hopped back on the bus and left Stanley.

Our final stop on the bus tour was probably the coolest.  We were dropped in historic Aberdeen, a town which used to be primarily a fishing village, it still houses many people making their living in this way.  It has been known for centuries as the home to a group of people called Tanka (which is now considered an inappropriate word and instead they are called “Boat People”).  These people have lived their lives as fisherman, living on junks in the water.  Over the years, the government has tried to get them to move out of the bay, but there are still several who live here.  As part of our tour, we got the opportunity to ride a Sampan, a flat-bottomed wooden boat.  We puttered through the harbor,  saw a huge floating restaurant called “Jumbo’s” and looked at boats that range from resembling mansions and some which resemble shanties.  The financial paradox is overwhelmingly clear and really fascinating.  We could tell there were still many people who make their homes on these boats, but we also saw a number of people who are just making their living as fisherman.  It is fun to think about their catch today going on the table of a local restaurant tonight.

Riding on the Sampan

Exhausted from riding in the blazing sun all day, we decided it was time for a break.  After a good rest in our air-conditioned room, we headed out for a final night in Hong Kong.  We found an awesome bar called Castro’s, the first bar in Asia to really feel like our kind of place.  Friendly bartenders, small but not overcrowded, with delicious draft beer.  Hanging out here, looking down on the neon-filled streets below, and rehashing all that we’ve learned and experienced while being here was the perfect punctuation mark for our visit.  We are a little sad to leave Hong Kong because we could easily spend a ton of time here, but alas we must travel onward.  Tomorrow, Vietnam!


–Brooke

Itty-bitty beer

Drinking a half-pint of Stella with dinner. It’s so little!

The busy streets

Even late into the evening, the streets in Hong Kong are bustling with people.

In Aberdeen Harbor

Here is a traditional Sampan which fishermen use daily. It isn’t the steadiest of boats, but it can turn on a dime!

Categories: China, City Visits, Customs, Destinations, Diversions, Exploring, Landmarks, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Hong Kong

Cool Neon SignsDespite our many miscommunications and all efforts to the contrary, we managed to get on the right bus heading for Hong Kong!  Yay, off to experience a new part of China…technically.  It certainly does not feel like we are still in China.  Our first clue that Hong Kong would be different from Guangzhou was when we were required to go through customs and immigration.  No, Hong Kong is not under British control any longer.  It hasn’t been since 1997, however we had to wait in line for over an hour, fill out forms, get our passports inspected and then stamped in order to get in.  It was one of the most complex border crossings we have experienced yet, especially considering we didn’t really cross a border.

Hong Kong is a big place, but when discussing the city of Hong Kong, it really has two parts to it–the Hong Kong Island side and the Kowloon side.  We are staying on the Kowloon side, in the heart of it all.  This is as close to feeling like the middle of Times Square as I have felt on our trip thus far.  We are surrounded by stores, bars and a slew of restaurants.  When we walk down the street, we are approached every 15 seconds by a guy trying to sell us designer suits, watches and handbags.  It certainly isn’t a place I would want to live or even visit for too long, but it is really convenient being in the center of it all.  The Hong Kong Island side is the center for business and industry.  The skyline is filled with mammoth buildings, each one more impressive than the next, touting their company name in bold neon lights.  Every major bank and brand you can imagine has a spot on its waterfront, from HSBC to Hyundai.  It is a short ferry ride from Kowloon and it rivals New York City in its visual spectacle of high rises and well-dressed business people.

Bargains,, BargainsThese two sides of Hong Kong are part of what gives it a really awesome vibe.  It is urban and chic, with high-end shopping that overshadows 5th Avenue any day of the week.  But, at the same time it feels like an old city holding onto its traditions.  The Kowloon side is known for its markets, where vendors sell everything from knock-off handbags to high-end electronics.  As you might expect, nothing has a price marked and everything is negotiable.  While walking through the Night Market, Phil saw a set of bowls he liked and when he asked the price, the lady told him they were $165 Hong Kong Dollars (about $22 USD).  I immediately said that was too much and then the bargaining began.  She said she’d give them to us for $150.  When we walked away and said we had to think about it, she grabbed Phil, handed him a calculator and said, “How much?  How much you want?”  Phil punched in 100, figuring she’d say no.  It took her a minute, but she said yes.  I then began to dig through my wallet only to discover we only had $81 HKD.  We told her we didn’t have enough, so she asked if we had any American money.  We told her we didn’t and said we’d come back.  As we began to walk away, she shook her head, sighed heavily and said, “Okay.”  We were a little shocked.  We couldn’t believe that our lack of cash led to half-price bowls.  If only we had planned it that way we might be considered keen negotiators.  Oh well, we’ll take it!

As you might imagine, a city with so much to offer is packed with tourists.  In fact, this is probably the most touristy city we’ve visited thus far.  That suits us fine, and it is really interesting to see all kinds of people and hear a dozen different languages being spoken in the span of 20 minutes.  We are engaging in typical tourist activities, while also trying to involve ourselves with some locals.  The best way we’ve found to do this is by talking with the people at our hostel, Hop Inn.  They live and work in Hong Kong and have given us really excellent suggestions on local cuisine and places to get away from the tourists.  They led us to our two favorite meals we’ve had in a while, and we found ourselves smiling when we were in the equivalent to a New York City diner, curt manager and all.  It kind of felt like home.  As for the local fare, they love their instant noodles and bread.  My god, we have eaten so much bread we are turning into dough balls.  I never associated Chinese food with bread, but they love it here.  We had a hot buttered roll, drenched with sweetened condensed milk this morning.  Amazing.  I think  I’ll be bringing that idea back with me!

Hong Kong Big Bus tourWe ended our day with an hour-long bus tour of the Kowloon side of Hong Kong.  At 7pm it was only 90 degrees, much more tolerable than the heat of day.  It was easy to forget our sweaty thighs as we cruised through the city.  The streets, with neon signs hanging everywhere, are truly like something off a movie set.  It is exactly what you picture in your mind when you think of Hong Kong.  The tour ended with us on the waterfront, watching the nightly light display.  The skyscrapers on the shoreline dance with lights and beam lasers into the night sky set in time with music.  It was quite a vision–really spectacular.  Tomorrow we continue to discover Hong Kong Island by heading out to the countryside, going to Stanley Market and maybe even visiting a fishing village.  Phil also wants to head to Macau, but I’d hate for him to lose all of our money trying his hand at some Chinese table game he’s never played.  Well, maybe he’ll have beginners luck!

–Brooke

Ferry with Hong Kong's Tallest Building in the background

One of several ferries found in Victoria Harbor with Hong Kong’s Tallest Building in the background

Statue of Hong Kong's favorite son: Bruce Lee

Statue of Hong Kong’s favorite son: Bruce Lee

Spectacular Tokyo Skyline at Night

Spectacular Hong Kong Skyline at Night

Categories: China, City Visits, Customs, Discounts, Eating, Exploring, Landmarks, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

36 Hours in Guangzhou

The Stunning Guangzhou Tower!

The Stunning Guangzhou Tower!

Out of Japan and into China! We landed last night, negotiated another new subway system to our hotel and checked into the lovely Guangdong Dasha Hotel near the heart of Guangzhou. We’re back to driving on the right hand side of the road, but it looks like we’re done with drinking water out of the tap for a while.

Our biggest impression after a day in Guangzhou? It’s hard here. We felt more like foreigners than we ever have in our lives. There is such little English spoken or written on any signs in Guangzhou. For the first time, the langauge barrier became a hinderance and a real issue. A huge chunk of our communication today, from directions to asking for a to-go box for food, was done in half-sentences and pantomime. Relatively simple questions such as trying to get a suggestion for dinner at the front desk of the hotel, turned into a painstaking process involving four employees. While everything was a bit different in Japan, we never had these kind of issues. There are far less Westeners here in Guangzhou, that’s for sure. We’ve been getting a lot of stares that come, we think, mostly out of curiosity. Still, we’d like to learn the phrase “What are ya lookin’ at?!” or “Do I have something in my teeth?” So many stares. It was really an eye opening day.

Brooke is confused

Looking at a boat schedule we were given…not understanding a word

Besides the staring, the general behavior of the people here has a much different feel. Unlike the polite, patient crowds we saw throughout Japan, Guangzhou has been full of Shovey McShoversons. People will not hesitate to shoulder past you to get on a train or to get in front of you in line. This same sense of urgency can be seen in the drivers, too. When it comes to street traffic, our primary goal quickly became to avoid getting flattened by a speeding taxi or bus. The drivers and pedestrians in this town seemed to be locked in an epic city-wide game of chicken. It seems cars definitely have the right-of-way and we were doing some serious heads-up walking when we crossed the street.

Our other immediate impression of Guangzhou is how friggin’ inexpensive everything was. A full dinner ran us about $15, taxi rides came to around $3 and a subway ride was about 75 cents…for two people! We took advantage by taking the morning to pursue stores (they love their malls in Asia) on the Beijing Road Shopping district. Endless deals complimented endless shops. After walking the downtown streets, seeing the colors and sites and a really, really difficult experience attempting to by boat tickets, we needed a break. So, we went to the one place where we knew everyone in the room would speak English – our comfy hotel room. We grabbed some beers and toasted to humility, to hubris and to travel in general.

Lunch!

Lunch! Somewhat tasty and really, really cheap

Although there have been some challenges today, Guangzhou itself has been very easy to navigate and a breeze to get around. The modern subway runs quickly and cheaply with a lot of innovative, high-tech features. Some of the stations look like they haven’t been open a month and new lines are being added each year. In fact, there was construction everywhere. Cranes on the horizon as far as they eye could see. There is a splattering of high-rise construction around every corner. For every recently constructed high-rise, there was another one half-built. We read that in 2007, 25% of the world’s construction cranes were in China and that seems to still hold true in Guangzhou.

After the best beef and broccoli I’ve ever had, our day ended on a particular high note with a stellar night cruise down the Pearl River. A popular activity, river boats cruise up and down the Pearl River through the center of town. The smooth hour-long ride allows you to see the illuminating, dazzling lights from just about every building – new and old. Every structure from stadium, to bridge, to apartment complex gets in on the act. Most spectacular is the Guangzhou tower. So, yeah, it’s about the 5th tower we’ve seen since arriving in Asia, but it really is the best one we’ve seen yet. It was the highlight of our day and showcased Guangzhou’s most signature feature.

The Pearl RiverIt was important that we ended our day with the river cruise, because our general feeling for today was frustration. We wish we spoke even a little Cantonese, but we barely know how to say hello. Even at our lovely hotel, miscommunication abounds. With that, we’re taking our 36 hours in Guangzhou and heading out of town. We are amazed when we think that we still have SO much trip left! We have lots to look forward to. Including a bus ride to Hong Kong tomorrow. At least, we think we’re heading on a bus to Hong Kong tomorrow. With all of the language challenges we’ve had today, we’re never 100% sure on what we’re doing next!

-Phil

Categories: China, Destinations, Differences, Discounts, Hotels, Surprises, Transportation | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Visiting China and Our Trip So Far


Neon Tokyo at Night
Greetings from China! By the time you read this, Brooke and I should have landed in Guangzhou and are likely out exploring the wonders of a brand necountry – our third on the trip after Japan and New Zealand. However, since the powers that be in China have decided to block internet access to WordPress (among other websites), we’ve written and scheduled this post in advance of arriving. We may be offline for a couple of days until we hit Vietnam, but that just gives us more time to get knee deep into unraveling the mysteries a new country.

On the way to the summit of FujiThis third leg, which we’ve dubbed our Southeast Asia section, is among the shortest portions of our Round The World trip. We landed on August 24th, so we’ll have about ten days to visit a small corner of China (which includes the Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Maccau), Vietnam and Singapore. For our Southeast Asia itinerary, we’re back to just playing it by ear with our stops and activities. We’re more than open to suggestions on anything that’s worth doing in the area. If you have any thoughts, please let us know in the comments section below!

That is one huge ass Japanese Lantern!We know, we know – ten days is nowhere near enough time to truly soak up the region, but we’re determined to make that time work for us. So far in both Japan and New Zealand, Brooke and I have had some long, full days where we’ve managed to pack in a ton. More often than not, we’re up and out of our hotel/hostel/guest house/yurt by early morning and then only returning late in the evening as a pair of spent but fulfilled travelers. Luckily, most of our beds and rooms so far have been uber-comfortable (notable exception – Reino Inn in Hiroshima. Blegh). We’ve been hitting the streets armed with city maps, transportation schedules and perhaps a travel guide to steer us to our next interesting discovery. Racking up the miles on our shoes, we’ve stumbled across wonders ranging from a magnificent a hot-spring geyser to the most stunning temple gate imaginable. And, yeah, sometimes a walk takes longer than anticipated or preferred, but that’s all part of the fun of not knowing precisely where you might be headed eighteen hours prior. At the end of the day, we tend to find ourselves exhausted but, if we’re lucky, just a pinch more worldly than we were that morning. The next day, we’re ready to get up and do it all again. To be fair, we’ve also had a handful of days where we’ve done relatively little. Thankfully, those are the days that help keep us sane and from burning out.

What is this strange yogurt?At this point, Brooke and I have been on this ole once-and-a-lifetime trip for a little under a month. In short, the trip has been going insanely well. This (temporary) lifestyle of being abroad and absorbing the culture, locations, landmarks, attractions and food has fit like a glove. The days are exciting, eye-opening and thought provoking. We’re constantly discovering locations that we didn’t even know existed a few days before – Miyajima in Japan is a great example. We’re learning a little bit more about how things work in parts of the world that are thousands of miles away from home. Which is incredibly important because that was one of our original primary goals in taking this voyage. Little things like learning that the Japanese tend to shun tattoos because most water parks and osens (spas) won’t let you in if you have one. Or the basic ins and outs of a Rugby game. Or even walking through the largest pedestrian cross walk in the world at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo! We’re chalking up more memories than we can conceivably cram into our blog posts.

This map will direct me to the old sailing ship! Where could it be?So, what’s next? Come early September, we’ll be on a flight from Singapore to Copenhagen for three days in frighteningly expesnive Denmark followed by our Baltic Capitols cruise on Norwegian Cruise Lines. We’re ecstatic for our cruise – in no small part because it will be nine whole nights in the same room and bed. A break from constantly searching for and checking into new hotel rooms. No need to schlep luggage around because our boat will be taking us from country to country! Also, we anticipate that it will be a nice change of pace from our time in Asia matched with a slice of easy cruise-ship living. But for now, let’s see what China has in store for us.

-Phil

Categories: China, Hotels, Random Thoughts, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Many Differences and Surprises of Japan

Downtown TokyoDuring our time in Japan, we have naturally noticed that there is just so much that is different.  Different than we expected and also different from what we are used to.  Some of these things are small surprises, like the crazy numbers of ferris wheels and sky-reaching towers.  Some are more obvious differences, like the fact that we haven’t seen any places of worship besides temples and shrines (though we did see Mormons on riding around on their bikes).  And some are probably just silly–like how seeing an overweight Japanese person is so unusual you actually take notice.  With all of these differences and surprises, we thought we would take some time to highlight some of the more interesting things we’ve observed.

1.  Eggs, eggs everywhere–That’s right, believe it or not, the Japanese love their eggs.  This may seem like a strange thing for us to notice, but seriously, you can’t miss it.  One of the first quick meals we had here was an egg salad sandwich from the convenience store at the airport.  We figured they were just catering to Americans and didn’t think anything of it.  Since then, we have seen egg salad everywhere, from sandwiches to fillings inside of pastries.  In addition to that variety of egg, we are constantly finding sushi rolls filled with steamed egg and vegetables.  I thought it was tofu at first, but was surprised when the chef told me I was wrong.  Our ramen noodles had the optional hard boiled egg on top and the Okonomyaki (savory pancake) has an egg making up one whole side of it.  I’ve been to Japanese restaurants in the states and I swear I’ve never noticed a proliferation of eggs.  On a related note, we’ve seen no chickens.  Curious.

More Shrines2.  Super Polite People–Okay, perhaps it is no surprise that the Japanese people are super polite.  In fact, this is pretty much a stereotype that many Americans have of this country.  However, we had no idea how far this behavior would extend.  We already mentioned that people line up at the train doors rather than all crowding around in a mass.  Okay, that helps things be more organized, we can understand.  But even when the train is crazy-crowded, there is no shoving or shouldering past one another to get on or off.  People here are constantly saying “Domo” (thank-you) and bowing to you in greeting or departure.  But our favorite example came when we heard a fire truck barreling through a crowded intersection.  They were shouting over their loud speaker for people to get out of the way.  Of course, since it was all in Japanese, we only caught some of what he was saying, but he started the whole thing with “Konnichiwa,” essentially saying “Hello, good afternoon” before telling them to get the hell out of the road.  We thought that was the perfect exemplar of their incredibly polite behavior.

So many people crossing the street!3.  People, People Everywhere–Okay, we knew Tokyo would be crowded.  It is a big city with tons of people and Asia in general has the reputation for being overpopulated in many areas.  Fine, we get it.  What we didn’t get was that the entire country would be jam packed with people.  Whether it is a small town or a major city, it seems there are people everywhere.  We didn’t really realize how crowded it is until we were on Miyajima, a small island outside of Hiroshima.  Here, a ferry boat ride away, was the first place in Japan (other than a temple garden) where we found ourselves with some room to breathe.  We’ve lived in New York City for six years so we know what crowds can be like.  A typically crowded New York street is nothing compared to what we’ve seen here.  It is like Christmas at Rockefeller Center all the time, especially at the train stations.  We are not saying it is a bad thing that there are people all over, but it certainly has made us take notice and appreciate the quiet moments.

Kimonos in Kyoto!4.  Fashionistas–First, let me remind you that it is crazy hot here right now.  There is a ton of humidity, the sun is always shining, and people here walk a lot.  I am always a sweaty disaster looking like I can barely breathe.  On the contrary, the Japanese women look totally unfazed.  No matter where we are, whether it is a major tourist attraction or a small coffee shop, Japanese women are so well put together with nary a drop of sweat anywhere.  They are always wearing full make-up, quite often cute skirts, and 75% of them are wearing high heels.  (In order to keep themselves looking dry and fresh, most of them carry “sweat towels” to dab their faces.)  These are not all women who are going to and from work, either.  This is just part of the culture here.  Interestingly, almost all of the women wear some sort of stocking or hosiery all summer long.  It is completely normal to see a woman wearing stockings in the middle of summer with her open-toed sandals.  However, if they choose not to wear full stockings, many of them wear some sort of cute sock with their high heels and sandals.  It looks strange at first, but it is really cute and I bet it makes those shoes much more comfortable.  They sure look better than I do!

If this looks confusing, imagine the toilet!

If you think this Air Conditioning remote looks confusing, imagine the toilets!

5.  Awesome and Confounding Bathrooms Experience–The public bathrooms here vary from being completely awesome to totally disgusting.  I guess this is true in most places.  However, there are a few things that make their bathrooms particularly unique.  The first is the amazingly high-tech toilets found in some of the nicer restrooms.  These toilets are hooked up to a panel on the wall and they do all kinds of fun things.  The toilet seat can raise automatically, they spray water to clean you (you can adjust the pressure of the spray and the temperature), it will blow you dry with warm air, spray deodorizer and give you  multiple levels of flushing.  These are very refreshing bathroom visits.  In addition, even if the toilet isn’t this fancy, almost all of the restrooms I went into have a sensor on the wall so as soon as you sit down, a fake flushing sound starts happening.  This allows for a little background noise and some privacy to prevent any possible stage fright.  (Note:  Phil said the men’s restrooms were not this fun.) With all of these cool gadgets, you would think they would have amazing sinks and high-tech hand dryers.  To the contrary.  The bathrooms everywhere here do not have any air dryers or paper towels to dry your hands after you wash them!  We don’t understand.  Why can’t there be something to dry our hands?  Why do you want us dripping wet as we leave the bathroom?   Phil kept forgetting about the lack of towels and he would splash water on his face and have nowhere to dry it.  It’s very frustrating, but also kind of amusing.

Brooke and Gate at sunsetOf course, in any foreign country there are tons of differences both big and small, and getting to discover these is part of the fun of travel.  We were surprised to see both men and women dressed in traditional kimonos.  We figured this was outdated, but as it turns out this is common for formal occasions like weddings, funerals and fancy parties.   Another small surprise was the overwhelming number of vending machines.  They are everywhere, even in people’s front yards.  And they sell both hot and cold drinks.  Hot coffee in a can!  Genius.

We look forward to continuing our journey in Asia to see how these countries compare with one another and with the U.S.  No matter what, we will leave all of them with some amusing stories and having learned a lot about a new culture.  And that is what this is all about!

–Brooke

One of Brooke’s new favorite Japan snacks: Asparagus Biscuits!

As seen on Japan Rail

We saw this sign in a few places on the Japanese train line. I believe that when translated, it reads, “If you’re a small child who drops her hat onto the tracks, please wait for a man with a long, long pole to retrieve it instead of going down there”

What's Beef Kyoto

Sign on a restaurant in Kyoto. This one of Phil’s favorite photos from the trip thus far. As Brooke said at the time, “Well, if you don’t know what beef is, I’m probably not going to eat at your restaurant!”

Categories: Clothes, Customs, Destinations, Differences, Exploring, Japan, Random Thoughts, Reflections, Surprises, Temples, Tokyo, Trains, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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