Category Archives: Travel summaries

A week in Budapest, and the end of our international travel

Oh hello there. We do, in fact, still exist. We didn’t just decide to stay in Vienna forever and never come back, as can be verified by our travel timeline right there to the right. We’ve just been a little busy, and posting about Budapest and everything since then hasn’t really floated to the top of our to-do lists.

First, a note – today officially marks the one-year anniversary of this crazy travel adventure. As it always goes, it’s hard to believe it’s been one whole year already, though of course certain things already feel like they were ages ago. We’re definitely more and more excited each day to get back to having a home and a more “normal” daily life, but we both definitely agree that this year has been amazing and we’d do it again in a heartbeat.

And now on to Budapest – which now that’s a bit in the past, I’m having trouble remembering a lot of the details. You’ve likely noticed by now that Brett’s posts tend to be far more detailed and chronological than mine, which is mainly a function of my far inferior memory for details. I’ll do my best, but just a warning that this will be a pretty basic summary of what was a really great and full week.

We left Vienna on June 13 and took what was supposed to be a train to Budapest. Central Europe was at the tail end of what was some of the worst flooding they’d seen in hundreds of years, and the train we should have been taking from Vienna to Budapest could not get from Munich to Vienna because of flooding. The train agency scheduled a different train to take passengers to Budapest, but decided to communicate this situation by flashing a giant “CANCELLED” next to our train on the station board. This was less than amusing, especially since we then had to find the agency office and figure everything out while lugging around our giant suitcases and bags full of all the wine and other souvenirs we were dragging home from Austria. But we did get on a train, and even though flooding meant we had to transfer to a bus and then back to a different train in order to get to Budapest, we still made it into the city only about an hour behind schedule.

Budapest was fantastic. We’ve often described it to people afterward as having the beautiful buildings and history of Western Europe but with a much more laid-back attitude – similar to the feeling we had in Buenos Aires, way back at the beginning of our international travel. Also like Buenos Aires the city felt very young, artistic, and hip, and we were very surprised by how … well, how hip everything felt, to use a word that is already overused. In comparison, Vienna definitely felt more old-fashioned and a bit behind the times.

While our time in Vienna was mostly rainy and cold, our time in Budapest was HOT. And I don’t mean that because of the paprika, but because it was about 98F almost every day we were there. That put quite a damper on our ability to explore on foot as much as we would have liked, but aside from some frustratingly hot and sleepless nights we made it work.

We rented a fantastic apartment in Budapest in an area of the city that felt fairly quiet yet young, the sort of place that hip young families might live, slightly southeast of the center. There was a lovely park about two blocks from our place, which we walked through at least once or twice each day, and our building was on a street with a wide selection of restaurants.

Breakfast in the park by our apartment.

Breakfast in the park by our apartment.

Beautiful (but noisy) courtyard of our apartment building.

Beautiful (but noisy) courtyard of our apartment building.

An evening in the park.

An evening in the park.

Despite the heat we still walked around the city quite a bit, stopping at sights like the synagogue (the second largest in the world, at that), the Great Market Hall, Hero’s Square, the old palace, the Museum of Terror (which was excellent, despite a depressing subject) and the Parliament building.

Basic Budapest street scene.

Basic Budapest street scene.

View of the Parliament building from old town across the river.

View of the Parliament building from old town across the river.

 

Gorgeous synagogue

Gorgeous synagogue

Great Market Hall

Great Market Hall

Paprika for sale at the Great Market Hall

Paprika for sale at the Great Market Hall

Hero's Square

Hero’s Square

First underground subway station in Europe.

First underground subway station in Europe.

Liszt statue along Andrassy Ut.

Liszt statue along Andrassy Ut.

We also took two day trips, one north to the small town of Szentendre and one east to Eger. Eger is in Hungary’s wine district, and much of our visit consisted of tastings in the town’s wine caves – small rooms literally built into the rock, some more modernized and ready for tourists and some far more old-fashioned and basic.

The weekend market on the streets of Szentendre.

The weekend market on the streets of Szentendre.

Getting lunch in Szentendre.

Getting lunch in Szentendre.

A more modern wine cave in Eger.

A more modern wine cave in Eger.

Checking out the guest book at a more old-school wine cave.

Checking out the guest book at a more old-school wine cave.

Buying a bottle of wine from a wine cave (the walls are literally covered in cushy black mold!)

Buying a bottle of wine from a wine cave (the walls are literally covered in cushy black mold!).

The train to and from Eger.

The train to and from Eger.

The food and drink in Hungary is definitely worth noting. We absolutely loved most everything we ate and drank, though it was definitely heavy and we were happy to have a little more variety by the time we left. We loved the goulash and chicken paprikash, all the pastries and breads, and the beer and wine and fruit brandies.

Excellent sour cherry and plum beers.

Excellent sour cherry and plum beers.

Chicken paprikash.

Chicken paprikash.

Goulash.

Goulash.

Fried dough with cheese, sour cream, and veggies.

Fried dough with cheese, sour cream, and veggies.

At the end of our time in Budapest we flew back to the United States, with our heavy bags full of souvenirs in tow. This marked the end of our international travels, which we faced with mixed emotions.

Vienna, part two

The remainder of our time in Vienna has been a bit slower, mainly due to the fact that the weather has been so terrible, though a couple of days ago the sun finally (FINALLY) returned and we’ve been able to spend more time outside (and divert from the steady rotation of 2-3 outfits we’ve been wearing for weeks … we packed mainly summer clothes, which have barely left the closet). We have only a couple of days left before we head to Budapest on Thursday, where we’ll be for a week before heading back to the United States. Our international travel for the year is almost done, which is really hard to believe.

There’s no way I’ll remember everything else we’ve done in order (Brett’s much better with that chronological stuff), but here are some highlights:

We’ve done quite a bit more hiking, bringing our total of the Stadtwangerwegs to five (hikes 1, 2, 3, 4a, and 5, and we’re planning to do 1a as an activity on our last day – and we didn’t intend to those first five numbers, by any means; they just ended up being the ones we chose). This system of trails is quite amazing and we’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting Vienna. You can get to each trailhead by public transit and the website lists places along each trail to stop for eating and drinking. Most go through vineyards and parks and have beautiful views of the city, though some have had some disappointingly urban sections that weren’t very exciting (we’d recommend they shorten the route and start in the natural areas instead). If you’re traveling there and want a hiking recommendation, leave a comment below and we’d be happy to help! I decided that if we ever live here I will put together a more detailed English-language guide to the trails, since there are definitely some interesting places to note along the way and sometimes the signage on-site is a little confusing.

We’ve also taken two trips outside of Vienna – one overnight trip to the Krems area along the Danube (which has since experienced some pretty heavy flooding – our timing was fortuitous) and a day trip to Bratislava, Slovakia. We did the same trip to Krems when we were here two years ago, although then we drove there from Vienna and afterward continued heading west across the country. This time we took the one-hour train ride out in the morning, stayed there overnight and took the train back. We spent the two days biking around on the bike paths along the river (which run along the river across the entire country), stopping at heurigens and other little shops in the villages along the way. We had a few favorite places from our last trip that we wanted to revisit, which we were able to do for the most part (notable because most of the heurigens and other places are only open for a few random weeks of the year; we were lucky to be there when a few of our favorite places were open). Buying wine was one of our main priorities of the trip, and we brought 9 bottles back with us, most of which were far cheaper for the level of quality than what we’d be able to get in Vienna. We also enjoyed a repeat visit to Wieser, an Austrian distillery, where we picked up a collection of high-quality fruit schnapps (totally different than American schnapps; get that idea of root beer and peach and whatever else out of your mind) to have a taste of summer in the middle of what is sure to be a shocking Midwestern winter.

Train to Krems

Train to Krems

Heuriger garden

Heuriger garden

Wine and Quargelaufstrichtsbrot at a heuriger

Wine and Quargelaufstrichtsbrot at a heuriger

We stayed at the same homestay in Stein (next to Krems) where we stayed last time, one of the many “Zimmer Frei”s (open room) places in the towns where people open up a few rooms of their house to visitors, which was wonderful. We rented bikes from the new city bike stands, which didn’t exist last time we were there, and despite some language-barrier difficulty in renting and returning the bikes (all of which happens over the phone), everything worked out pretty well. This was in the middle of a particularly bad rainy spell, but we picked our days perfectly – the only two non-rainy days in those few weeks.

Biking through the vineyards

Biking through the vineyards

Biking Brett

Biking Brett

Biking through Durnstein

Biking through Durnstein

Half a case of wine in basket in backpack!

Half a case of wine in basket in backpack!

If anyone wants more details about doing a biking trip to this area, definitely ask. We’d be happy to share details of where we stayed, where we drank, where we ate, etc. It’s one of our favorite travel experiences that we’ve ever, ever had, and we’re really hoping to do the longer cross-country cycling trip some day. If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you can see the album of photos from the trip that I posted when we got back.

Last week we took a day trip to Bratislava, only a 45-minute train ride from Vienna. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit another new country and to see somewhere so different. It was amazing to be somewhere so close but with an entirely different language, culture, and history. We mainly wandered around the picturesque little town, hiking up the hill to the castle to get great views and eating a pretty traditional Slovakian lunch, which was about the heaviest meal we’d ever eaten. (Seriously – I ordered the gnocchi, which was covered in sheep cheese, lard, and bacon. Brett ordered the porkchop, which was heavily coated in potato batter and deep fried, topped with a mountain of shredded cheese, and accompanied by a salad that was more creamy dressing than lettuce. It took a lot of walking to work those pits out of our stomachs …) We also wandered over to the river, where great crowds of people were gathered to see the height of the water. Temporary walls guarded by police officers were put up along most of the way, holding back the water that I would guess was almost five feet above the level of the sidewalks/streets. It was pretty crazy to be walking along knowing that on the other side of the metal wall next to us was a rushing river at about shoulder height.

Bratislava doorway

Bratislava doorway

Statue downtown

Statue downtown

Historic downtown

Historic downtown

View over the flooded river

View over the flooded river

A view over the historic area

A view over the historic area

Brett's porkchop and salad

Brett’s porkchop and salad

Flooded boat dock

Flooded boat dock

There's a raging river behind that temporary wall ...

There’s a raging river behind that temporary wall …

Flooded park (view over the temporary wall)

Flooded park (view over the temporary wall)

Closed railway bridge over the river (not flood-related)

Closed railway bridge over the river (not flood-related)

The central, historic area of Bratislava is pretty cute, although touristy, but it was definitely worth a day trip. We didn’t really want to pay to get into any museums or do a tour or anything, though, and we were a little afraid of eating another heavy meal, so we ended up heading back before dinner.

Back in town, we’ve checked off a number of things on our Vienna To-Do List. We’ve visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum (classic/historical art), Museum für angewandte Kunst (applied arts), and the Secession Museum, a museum/contemporary art space founded by artists in the so-called “secession” movement of the early 20th Century. Each was awesome and totally different, and now I’m obsessed with, among other things, Klimt friezes and Viennese coffeehouse furniture.

We’ve also spent more time wandering around the center, partially because of our quests to eat more döner and to buy some nice ceramics, the first of which has been fulfilled many times and the second of which has utterly failed. But we did discover and return to Café Hawelka, a totally old-school and popular café downtown, and finally made it back to Figlmüller for their incredible schnitzel and potato salad with pumpkin seed oil.

Pre-lunch snack at Freyung Biobauernmarkt

Pre-lunch snack at Freyung Biobauernmarkt

Central Vienna

Central Vienna

Huge and amazing schnitzel

Huge and amazing schnitzel

We also finally made it to the Flohmarkt (flea market), which attaches itself to the end of the Naschmarkt on Saturdays. We thought we’d come away like bandits with ceramics and steins and maybe even some leiderhosen for Brett, but our shopping mojo is way off these days and we ended up spending our money on desserts, cherries, and vinegar mothers in the Naschmarkt instead. (Vinegar mothers! I can’t wait to make vinegar once we get to Madison. That’s me!)

Schuhe for sale at the Flohmarkt

Schuhe for sale at the Flohmarkt

Flohmarkt stalls

Flohmarkt stalls

And it was our wedding anniversary! This means we’ve officially spent half of our wedding anniversaries in Vienna. We spent the day kind of lazing around in the morning eating a delicious breakfast at home (leftover Turkish braised veggies and meat with poached eggs), then went on Stadtwanderweg 1 through the woods and vineyards above Nussdorf, where we enjoyed some delicious white wine and a Jausenbrettl (snack board) for lunch. We came home, cleaned up and dressed, and went into the center for a fancy cocktail at the Palmenhaus, which we fully enjoyed outside in the sunshine on the first sunny evening since we arrived in Vienna on May 9 (seriously). We went to dinner back in our neighborhood at the same restaurant where we went two years ago, which was lovely, and headed home to enjoy dessert and some fancy apricot schnapps from the distillery we visited on our biking trip. It was a lovely day!

Jausenbrettl

Jausenbrettl

Poppies and vineyards, Stadtwanderweg 1

Poppies and vineyards, Stadtwanderweg 1

Stadtwanderweg 1 view

Stadtwanderweg 1 view

We also did plenty at home in our apartment, mainly because of the rain. We made our way through Arrested Development from pilot to the end of the new season, and I’m this close to finishing the first three seasons of Friday Night Lights, which I bought for about 3 dollars on DVD while we were in Asia. (Wait, I’m probably not supposed to admit that.) Brett’s been working hard on his consulting projects and doing some math studying to prep for school in the fall, and I’ve been putting in long hours looking for jobs and reaching out to folks in Madison and working quite a bit on my website, which I painstakingly transferred to self-hosted back at the beginning of our time in Austria. Our time in Vienna has been perfect for doing those sorts of projects, and we both are so, so glad we decided to schedule this part of the year this way.

In our remaining few days here we’re hoping to do one last hike, like I mentioned earlier, which will take us by our favorite local heuriger and should give us some great farewell views of the city. We have a few last “to eat” tasks that will probably include quite a bit of dessert (I’m having my last apfelstrudel at Cafe Prückel as I write this), and some shopping to do (like coffee and a big bag of poppy seeds to bring back). Tonight we’re going to try to get into the famous Loos American Bar for a cocktail before dinner, and we’re hoping tomorrow is sunny enough for some park time and general wandering.

Vienna – The first half

We’re just over half way through out time in Vienna.  And it has been magnificent.  We’ve been able to see and do some of the wonderful tourist activities such as museums, but for us, that is not the main draw of Vienna.  Those things are all great, but what makes us love Vienna so much is simply the way life feels here.  The city is set up for Gemütlichkeit.  You may recognize that word from the title of our blog, A World and Gemütlichkeit, and it was being here two years ago that (re)introduced us to the term and reminded us of the importance of the concept.  Gemütlichkeit doesn’t have a direct translation but means, roughly, comfortableness or friendlyness or unhurriedness.  To me, it means enjoyment of life, taking time to enjoy the good things that we always have available to us but that we often neglect.  So while we’ve been here we’ve been going often to cafes, taking lovely hikes through the forested hills that surround the city, drinking incredible and cheap wine, and generally enjoying life.

Most days we spend the morning in our apartment, working, reading, or studying, and then head out after lunch for some adventure.  Sometime just a lovely cafe, sometime the opera, sometimes a museum or a hike.

Our time here started with a wander from our apartment into the center to enjoy one of our favorite Austrian treats, prosecco mit Aperol, at the Kunsthallencafe.  (For more on Aperol, see Bowen’s blog here and here.)  I had set a goal for us not to use any public transportation until after our first weekend so that we would have to get out and walk the streets.  So our second day we walked the nearly three miles up to the Brunnenmarkt market in the 16th district, which was lovely. And we bought a lot of cheap and delicious produce, cheese, dry goods and chicken and walked it back.  Which was … uncomfortable.  I didn’t get sensation back on the tip of one of my fingers for about two days after carrying heavy plastic bags.

Prosecco aperol at Kunsthallencafe

Prosecco aperol at Kunsthallencafe

Chicken for sale in the Brunnenmarkt

Chicken for sale in the Brunnenmarkt

The first weekend we spent wandering and sampling some classics, including our first of many visits to Aida Cafe for Sachertorte and a visit to Zwölfapostelkeller for wine and liptauerbrot.  On the first Monday we explored the city a bit on the free (for the first hour) City Bikes that are stationed all over the city.

Zwölfapostelkeller

Zwölfapostelkeller

The next day we went on our first hike, Stadtwanderweg 3.  The city has a set of 15 hikes in and around the city, 11 of which are short hikes in scenic areas, two of which traverse the city and two of which are 5-6 days trips around the city (seriously).  Each of course is well maintained and has lovely cafes along it to refuel weary walkers.  And each is served by public transit.  Gemütlichkeit!!  This hike took us through the western hills through a couple of vineyards, but mostly through forests and meadows.

A broad boulevard near the beginning of Stadtwanderweg 3

A broad boulevard near the beginning of Stadtwanderweg 3

One of the many signs pointing the way

One of the many signs pointing the way

Another lovely scene in the Wienerwald

Another lovely scene in the Wienerwald

The next day I went to the Opera.  Opera is a big deal in Vienna.  In fact, my understanding is that there is a general belief that every Wiener (person from Vienna, or Wien in German) has a certain right to access opera and other elements of culture.  Thus, while there are fancy seats that cost 185 euro, there are are seats for about 11 euro, and perhaps most impressively, standing tickets (stehplatz) for 3-4 euro.  That’s right, anyone with 3 euro and some extra time to wait in line at the Stehplatzkasse can see the some of the world’s best opera.  By comparison, the New York Met has standing tickets as well, but they cost $17-40.  So to finish out our first week in Vienna, I waited in line for an hour and a half, paid 3 euro and then stood through four and a half hours of Wagner’s Die Walküre.  And it was awesome.  I don’t generally like opera all that much, but this was fantastic.

On the one weekaversary of being in Vienna we headed to see the Klimt and other great art at the Belvedere.  The Belvedere not only has great art, it has lovely gardens and is only about a half mile from our apartment, and recently we’ve been joining the locals on morning jogs through the gardens.  I can guarantee the scenery is much nicer than looking at a TV screen or out the window at the gym.  We started the weekend with dinner at Esterhazy Keller, a local institution with great wine, and then found a lovely little festival at the foot of Stephansdom (St. Stephens Cathedral) where we drank fresh raspberry wine and admired beautiful local crafts.  The next day we wander through the Prater, the very large park in the city and home to the Reisenrad (a giant Ferris wheel) and the Liliputbahn (a tiny train about which my sister and I made up many songs when we were children) in the Wurstelprater amusement park.  The day was intermittently quite rainy, so we escaped into Cafe Prückel, which has become our favorite cafe in the city.

The gardens at the Belvedere

The gardens at the Belvedere

Würst in the Wurstelprater

Würst in the Wurstelprater

A bit of class at Cafe Prückel

A bit of class at Cafe Prückel

On our second Monday in town Bowen came with me to the Opera, and we saw Carmen stehplatz.  This was fun, and the stage direction by Franco Zefirrelli (seriously) was great, but it was much more of a standard opera experience in which the characters sing five times about what they are going to tell you, then sing what they are telling you, and then remind you five times what they just told you, when all they are telling you is that the sun is out today.  The next day we headed in the afternoon out to Nußdorf, an area at the edge of town that has many vineyards and heurigen, small and often informal places to drink new wine and eat simple food.

A whole roast pig at a heuriger

A whole roast pig at a heuriger

In the remainder of the first half of our time here, we went for a walk at Schloss Schunbrunn, I went back to the Opera for more Wagner (Götterdamerung, even longer than Die Walküre), we headed back to Prückel, we wandered through the second district of the city and we took two more great hikes, one up near the northern vineyards and one across the Danube (and also near vineyards; there are lots of vineyards here).

Vineyards along Stadtwanderweg 2

Vineyards along Stadtwanderweg 2

The view from Häuserl am Stoan, on of the Gasthäuser along the hiking paths around Vienna

The view from Häuserl am Stoan, on of the Gasthäuser along the hiking paths around Vienna

Another lovely spot to refuel

Another lovely spot to refuel

Vineyards along Stadtwanderweg 5

Vineyards along Stadtwanderweg 5

So in a word… gemütlichkeit.  Life is good.  The weather has taken a turn for the worse (as I learned yesterday from Rosetta Stone, “Dieses Wetter ist am schlechtesten.”), but we’re still finding ways to enjoy life every day.  Stay tuned for more.

Goats on Stadtwanderweg 5!

Goats on Stadtwanderweg 5!

The Czech Republic

The first part of the European leg of our year was in the Czech Republic.  The main portion of this trip is a five-week stay in Vienna, but we wanted to add on a bit of other travel before and after, and Prague seemed like a great place to start.  Not only is it a great travel destination and much cheaper than Western Europe, some of Bowen’s ancestors came from the Czech Republic, so it was an opportunity to visit “her people”.

We arrived in Prague after a grueling 20 hours of travel from Portland via Dallas and London, and caught a bus to a subway to a bus, which was quite easy and cost us less than $2 per person.  We had found a hotel about 3 miles south of the center in a lovely little residential neighborhood.  We got settled in our hotel, rested a bit and then took the tram into the center to wander a bit.

We got off at the Charles Bridge (Karluv Most), walked out along the bridge a bit to get the lay of the land, and wandered through the old town, into the new town, soaking up the sights and architecture.  We decided to have dinner back in our neighborhood, but stopped into a pub for our first Czech beers.

The Vltava River, with the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle

The Vltava River, with the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle

A few words about Czech beer.  Delicious.  Cheap.  Light yet flavorful.  In a word, awesome.  In a year of lots of beer that was big on refreshment, but not on taste, Czech beer was a wonderful return to quality.  And very different than high quality American beers, which all seem to be about out-hopping the next beer.  (We went to a bar recently that had a full page of beers on tap and about three quarters were either IPA, Double IPA or Triple IPA, and the balance were mostly Imperial Stouts or Belgians, leaving approximately two that weren’t intended as flavor bombs.)  These beers were all about being delicious and reasonable and balanced and drinkable.  I love fizzy refreshing beer, and I love hoppy, flavor-intense beer, but the beer we drank in the Czech Republic was a welcome middle ground.

Our first Czech beer.

Our first Czech beer…

...auspiciously overseen by Emperor Charles V.

…auspiciously overseen by Emperor Charles V.

Our first full day in Prague we headed after breakfast to the Little Quarter (Mala Strana) and the Castle Quarter, wandering up the hill past the beautiful old buildings and an old walled vineyard to great views of the city.  We visited St. Vitus cathedral and wandered a bit.  Then we walked back down again and through the Wallenstein Garden.  We stopped for a lunch of wine, cheese, sausage and bread at a little festival we found on Kampa Island.  We wandered the island a bit, and visited the Infant Jesus of Prague in the Carmelite Church, a major focus of pilgrims and recipient of fancy clothes from all over the world.  Then we walked through the town back to the tram and headed back to our hotel.

Stained glass by Alphonse Mucha in St. Vitus Cathedral

Stained glass by Alphonse Mucha in St. Vitus Cathedral

Spires in Prague Castle from the Wallenstein Gardens

Spires in Prague Castle from the Wallenstein Gardens

A street fair on Kampa Island

A street fair on Kampa Island

Creepy public baby art by David Cerny, the guy who did the creepy baby public art on the huge telecommunications tower in Prage

Creepy public baby art by David Cerny, the guy who did the creepy baby public art on the huge telecommunications tower in Prague.

On our second full day we spent our time in the Old and New Towns.  We started by wandering around Wenceslas Square (Vaclav Namesti), enjoying the beautiful architecture and pondering the historical events that occurred there over the past decades.  Then we headed to the Mucha Museum for some really incredible art.  After lunch we wandered through to the gorgeous Municipal Hall, past the Powder Tower and over to Old Town Square, where we watched the Astronomical Clock chime.  We were so taken by the art at the Mucha Museum and the discussion of the Slav Epic, that we hopped a tram out to the National Gallery to see the full Slav Epic in person.  The Slav Epic is a series of 20 gigantic canvases (the smallest are about 13’x16’ and the largest are about 26’x20’) showing key moments in Slavic history.  Seeing it was one of the best art experiences I have ever had, although I really wish I had a pamphlet or something to help explain each of the canvases.  Then we stopped briefly through the Jewish Quarter and hopped on a nail-biting tram ride as our 90-minute transit tickets expired (we didn’t get caught).

Wenceslas Square

Wenceslas Square

Much less creepy public art by David Cerny, featuring King Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse.

Much less creepy public art by David Cerny, featuring King Wenceslas riding an upside-down horse.

The beautiful entrance to the Municipal Hall

The beautiful entrance to the Municipal Hall

The Powder Tower

The Powder Tower

Prague Astronomical Clock

Prague Astronomical Clock

The next day we headed out to Kutna Hora ,about an hour outside of Prague.  The main attraction is the Bone Church (the Sedlec Ossuary).  In the 13th century the abbot of the local monastery was sent on a trip to the Holy Land and brought back some soil, which he scattered around the cemetery.  Thereafter, people from all over Central Europe wanted to be buried in the cemetery.  Then the Plague and various wars came through, providing many more skeletons for the cemetery.  A few hundred years later, a church was built on the site, and they built an ossuary underneath to house the exhumed bones.  For whatever reason, they decided to decorate the ossuary with the bones, rather than simply stack them all together.  There were bone pyramids, a bone chandelier, a coat of arms of the local noble family made of bone, and even a signature by the architect made in bone.

The bone chandelier

The bone chandelier

A bone coat of arms

A bone coat of arms.  Yes those are all actual human bones.

After the church, we visited the nearby cathedral and then walked into the center of town, getting incredibly lost in our extreme hunger.  We eventually found our way in, got lunch and then visited the beautiful Church of St. Barbara, dedicated to the patron saint of miners, and paid for by the vast wealth coming out of Kutna Hora’s silver mine, the largest in Central Europe.

Probably the best word fro ice cream.  Also a great new word to indicate getting ice cream all over one's face and similar situations of personal challenge.

Probably the best word fro ice cream. Also a great new word to indicate getting ice cream all over one’s face and similar situations of personal challenge.

Church of St. Barbara with Charles Bridge-style statues

Church of St. Barbara with Charles Bridge-style statues

The next day we headed to Cesky Krumlov (prounounced chesky kroom-loff), a lovely little medieval town set in a crook in the Vltava River a few hours south of Prague.  It was raining when we arrived, but the rain eventually cleared and we walked through the town a bit, enjoying the narrow, winding stone streets and views of the beautiful castle.

Cesky Krumlov town square

Cesky Krumlov town square

A bit of Czech springtime

A bit of Czech springtime

A view of the town with the castle

A view of the town with the castle

We had only one full day in Cesky Krumlov, and it ended up being beautiful.  We wandered back to the castle in the morning to book a tour, and stopped into a few shops before going on a tour of the local Eggenberg brewery.  The tour finished with half liters of Eggenberg beer with our tour mates.  After the tour we ate lunch at the Tavern of the Two Marys, which focused on historically typical Bohemian food like barley, millet, buckwheat and herbs.  Then we headed to the castle gardens where we walked for a while, and then napped under a big oak tree with bright green new leaves.  Our dinner reservation at Krcma v Satlaske (Satlavske Tavern) wasn’t until 8, we think because the guy taking our reservation was just a jerk, so we sat by the river enjoying the evening.  When we arrived at the restaurant, they had no record of our reservation, but lots of empty tables, so we settled in for a delicious medieval meal of half a roast chicken and a roast pork knee.

Bears in the castle moat

Bears in the castle moat

Brewing equipment at Eggenberg Brewery

Brewing equipment at Eggenberg Brewery

A view along the river

A view along the river

A view of the town from the castle

A view of the town from the castle

The castle gardens

The castle gardens

Getting my feet wet in the Vltava

Getting my feet wet in the Vltava

Now that is a meal.

Now that is a meal.

The next morning we toured the castle.  The only way to see the interior of the castle is on a tour and the tour in Czech was a lot cheaper, so we took that one and got an English information sheet.  The castle was very cool, with lovely old rooms and paintings, a large gilded chariot that the family used while in Rome, and a ballroom painted with commedia dell’arte characters.  (Unfortunately, no cameras allowed.)  Then we headed back to our hostel and caught our shuttle through the Bohemian and Austrian countryside to Vienna.

A month homeside

After we hit a bit of an emotional wall during our last week in Southeast Asia, the idea of a month back in the States definitely felt like a vacation from our travels. It didn’t matter that we’d be in 10 cities over three weeks, or that we somehow needed to get our taxes filed, or that, hey, we had about two weeks to decide where to move at the end of our year of travel, including where Brett would be going to grad school. No big deal! Not when there are clean toilets to be using (and flushing, oh the joy), and burritos to eat, and bourbon to drink, and reasonably familiar beds to be sleeping in, and friends to see, and English to speak.

We flew into LA to stay with Nick and Hayden and spent five days doing a lot of well-needed things, like getting haircuts and eating Mexican food and watching sports. We unpacked everything in our backpacks, appreciatively disposed of the things we’d no longer need (bye bye, four smelly and faded t-shirts, among many other things) and reunited with the items we’d left behind after South America (like my super comfortable and strange-looking Ecuador pants, which shrunk about 6″ in length after I washed them). We also spent a day in San Diego with two of our best friends who have since had a baby (it’s still crazy to think that we’ve been traveling longer than it takes for an entire pregnancy to happen). (Also, happy being born Baby Roxy! This is probably your first non-Facebook mention on the internet. You have a whole lifetime of the internet to look forward to, little baby. I can’t wait to meet you and start grooming you for watching college football.) (Go Ducks.)

Getty Center with Nick and Hayden in LA

Getty Center with Nick and Hayden in LA

Anyway. After LA we flew up to Eugene for about 18 hours, which included a massive to-do list of things like sleeping, unpacking, doing laundry, reuniting with our belongings, packing, filing our taxes (both as independent contractors – so complicated!), buying new phones, buying me a new computer, and setting up said phones and computer. Then we flew out for a whirlwind tour of our top three new home/grad school program contenders – Davis (UC Davis), Twin Cities (U of MN), and Madison (UW Madison). We had a great time in each place, hanging out with friends and touring what could be our new hometown, including potential apartment viewings for Davis and Madison (the university schedules there make housing markets a little intense, so we would have to find an apartment pretty quickly if we chose either of those cities). Brett had meetings on each of the three campuses, and to make a long story short you already know we made Madison our final choice. Each of the three places would have been great places to live and had great program options for Brett, but Madison was the best combination of both elements.

Davis Farmers Market

Davis Farmers Market

We chose Madison!

We chose Madison!

After excitedly making our decision about Madison and applying for our top choice apartment, we had a celebratory dinner with our friends in Madison. The next morning we flew to New York City, where we spent five days enjoying the start of spring – blossoming trees, blooming daffodils, and lots of walking around without a coat. We went to museums, cooked and ate many amazing meals, drank some delicious new cocktails, spent good time with friends and family, made somewhat of an effort to catch up on sleep, and mainly wandered around the city on foot.

One of many delicious dinners in NYC

One of many delicious dinners in NYC

Daffodils in Central Park

Daffodils in Central Park

Making homemade chorizo in NYC

Making homemade chorizo in NYC

Next we flew to New Orleans, our first time there together. We stayed with good friends and enjoyed many of the sights, sounds, and eats of New Orleans, including an incredible array of food, some amazing music, and again lots of wandering around the city. We spent an afternoon canoeing in the swampy bayou, went to a jazz concert, helped our friends welcome their newest family member (happy homecoming Puppy Wyatt!), and enjoyed a delightful lunch at Commander’s, which features a $0.25 lunch martini special (limit three per person). (The wandering around the Garden District after that lunch was possibly even more delightful than the lunch itself.) We also helped Gill and Jeff host a crawfish boil (if by “help” I mean mainly “accompany to seafood market”) and over the six days we were there met many of their lovely friends.

Street music in NOLA

Street music in NOLA

Beignets and café au lait in NOLA

Beignets and café au lait in NOLA

NOLA seafood market

NOLA seafood market

Crawfish boil!

Crawfish boil!

Then we flew back to Portland, spent a couple of nights there with friends and family, and headed down to Eugene for about six days. We drank Oregon beer and Oregon wine and ate lots of great spring Oregon food, and took full enjoyment of a wide range of our belongings that we really haven’t seen since November.

Field wandering with Ella and Evan (Jessie too - she's taking the photo)

Field wandering with Ella and Evan (Jessie too – she’s taking the photo)

Spring sloshing in Oregon

Spring sloshing in Oregon

Facetime teeth brushing with Hayden. (No real reason to put this in, just think it's funny.)

Facetime teeth brushing with Hayden. (This is by far the least embarrassing of the screenshots taken from this experience.)

We flew out of Portland again on May 2, and included a brief stop at our friends’ new homestead/farm/future artist workshop on the way. (No goats yet, but they’ve been promised.) April included many, many great places, and a lot of stuff that happened that I didn’t get around to mentioning. Just know that we had a great month full of wonderful people and wonderful cities and wonderful experiences.

And now we’re in Prague! Tomorrow we head for Cesky Krumlov, then to our five weeks in Vienna. I’ve never been so excited to unpack a suitcase …

Thailand, the end of Southeast Asia

Welcome back to the very delayed summary of our Southeast Asia trip! This post talks about our last week in Southeast Asia, which we spent in Thailand. Right before this week we finally hit a wall of exhaustion and the last nine months kind of caught up with us, so you’ll have to forgive the relative lack of photos and a somewhat more … pessimistic post. But this is what we remember most from this time, so bare with us …

First, let’s back up a bit. Back when we were in Hanoi (see this post for more details), we started making logistical plans for the next part of our trip, which was a week in Thailand before heading back to the United States. We had our plane tickets to Bangkok and then planned to hop on an overnight train up to Chiang Mai, where we’d stay for five days before heading south again. In Thailand the train tickets must be booked either in person or via email with a travel agent, which resulted in the following unfortunate series of events:

  • Four days before we want to travel, submit detailed ticket request form to travel agent
  • Receive email 24 hours later telling us the exact seats we want are gone, but there are others we could have – do we want them?
  • Send email saying “Yes, we want those”
  • Receive email another 24 hours later instructing us on how to pay for tickets
  • Pay for tickets using instructions
  • Receive email another 24 hours later (approximately 8 hours before flying to Bangkok) saying “Whoops, by the time you paid those tickets have been sold out too. No seats left, sorry.”

Now, up until this moment we had actually been feeling pretty fantastic. Whenever we’d tell people about how long we’d been traveling and what we’d been doing, their first question was inevitably about exhaustion, but we could honestly answer that we were feeling great! Fantastic! Doing fine! No problem!

Until this moment.

Our plans were to fly to Bangkok and go immediately to the train station and get up to Chiang Mai, but now we had no idea how we’d be getting there. Bus was the most obvious option, but we really weren’t sure we could handle another overnight bus ride. We were paralyzed by the idea of making a whole new series of decisions about what bus to take, whether to stop for the night on the way and where, which bus station to depart from and how to get there from the airport, etc. etc. etc. Traveling is an extended exercise in decision-making, every single day from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to bed, and it suddenly felt like the last nine months of decision-making had caught up with us.

So we had a mini freakout and spent about 20 minutes lying in the bed of our hotel room, throwing around ideas and getting more stressed out by the minute. I’m not entirely sure how we ended up coming up with the plan that we did, but I do know that it was definitely on Brett’s part that the next few days came together logistically. Thank you, amazing husband.

So. We flew from Hanoi to Bangkok and took a shuttle bus to Bangkok’s northern bus station, where we bought a ticket to a town about halfway to Chiangmai. We had a few hours to wait before the bus left, and managed to order ourselves a pretty delicious meal despite not a single letter of English in the food court. (Pointing is an incredibly effective mode of communication.) The supposedly 6-hour bus ride took only 1.5 hours longer than expected (practically early, based on Southeast Asia standards), the last two hours of which we spent on high alert making sure we got off at the correct station (and when the bus stops every 20 minutes, that’s a lot of high alert). This means we were treated to 7.5 hours of Thai music videos (every single one of which except one – one – featured Facebook) and 7.5 hours of Thai chips and cookies, the only thing available to eat on the journey.

Meal ordered entirely by pointing and nodding.

Meal ordered entirely by pointing and nodding.

After checking into our hotel our first order of business was buying a bus ticket to Chiang Mai for the next day, which turned out to be one of the more challenging communication-related situations we’ve been in all year. The bus station consisted of a few dozen windows at which you could buy tickets to various destinations, the signage for which were entirely in Thai. At one end of the station we found a sign that said Chiang Mai in latin script, so at first tried to identify the Thai characters in those words so that we could find a window that would sell tickets to go there. (“First letter looks like … an H with two swirly things. Second letter looks kind of like a present with a bow on top. Third letter is like an R with a spiral in the middle …”) This did not get us very far, but just before we were ready to stand in the middle of the station and yell “Chiang Mai! Tomorrow! We have money!” and see if anyone knew enough English to respond (oh, and I hate how all of this sounds … but honestly, walk into a bus station that has only a dozen or so words written in Latin script, and see if you can figure out how to buy a ticket …), a woman at one of the windows called us over in halting English. Through pointing and a small selection of English words we managed to buy a ticket for the next morning, and headed back to our hotel.

Supposedly this told us where and when to catch our bus.

Supposedly this told us where and when to catch our bus.

The next morning, we arrived at the bus station with enough time to get breakfast before our bus. Again there was no English anywhere, but we managed to get two bowls of pork noodle soup from a woman who at least knew the word “soup” and through gestures could communicate that the meat came from a pig. The woman who sold us the tickets the evening before had told us to show up an hour early, which we found a little confusing, but thank god we did and thank god she was working again the next morning, because when we arrived at the station she recognized us and motioned that we should get on a small minibus to go somewhere else. Lots of confusion ensued, but very long story short in turns out that our bus was leaving from the town’s other bus terminal, a 15-minute minibus ride away. Eventually we arrived at the other terminal, and a few minutes later we lined up to get on our bus. But they wouldn’t let us on. And no one spoke English. We’re honestly still not sure why they wouldn’t let us on that bus – a bus with the same number going to the same city – but all we know is that another bus showed up 10 minutes later and we tried again, and they did let us on that one.

Utterly exhausted, we arrived in Chiang Mai toward the end of the day and refueled/recuperated with steaming piles of fried noodles and a series of large bottles of beer.

Maybe the most-needed beer of the last nine months.

Maybe the most needed/appreciated beer of the last nine months.

The next morning, we headed out to the train station to buy our overnight tickets back south. I bet you see where this story is headed, but it doesn’t turn out at badly as you might think. The only tickets available left early in the morning and took all day, but we bought them anyway. Our five days in Chiang Mai were down to three, but we had tried our best.

And our three days in Chiang Mai were relaxed and lovely – Thai massages and temple visits and good food and lots of shopping at the night markets and a day-long cooking class. Our hotel wasn’t particularly notable, aside from the very strange pool, but overall the food was delicious and we had a great time buying gifts for family and friends and ourselves.

It took us about 5 minutes to confirm that the guy in the middle was not in fact a real human being. (it's a fiberglass statue of a deceased monk.)

It took us about 5 minutes to confirm that the guy in the middle was not in fact a real human being. (it’s a fiberglass statue of a deceased monk.)

Stupas holding relics for deceased royalty and monks.

Stupas holding relics for deceased royalty and monks.

Thai coke.

Thai coke.

Green papaya salad, ridiculously good.

Green papaya salad, ridiculously good (and spicy).

A totally normal shaped pool at our hotel.

A totally normally-shaped pool at our hotel.

Setup for our cooking class.

Setup for our cooking class.

We made and ate a ridiculous amount of food!

We made and ate a ridiculous amount of food!

I made this, no biggie.

I made this, no biggie.

Our time on the train back south wasn’t particularly notable either, but our next two days were pretty great. We were in Ayutthaya, a town about an hour north of Bangkok, where we met up with Chris, one of Brett’s good friends from childhood and high school. He teaches at an international school in a small town outside of Ayutthaya, and took a short trip in to hang out with us. We spent a day biking around temples and eating great food and having fantastic conversation, and it was wonderful to see someone we knew. Ayutthaya is a pretty interesting small little town full of beautiful temples and surrounded by a river on which we took a sunset boat trip, and the whole experience was wonderful.

A temple in Ayutthaya.

A temple in Ayutthaya.

Tourist transport between temples.

Tourist transport between temples.

Preparing for our sunset cruise.

Preparing for our sunset cruise.

We watched a whole team of people robe this giant buddha with blessed cloth.

We watched a whole team of people robe this giant buddha with blessed cloth.

Sunset on the river.

Sunset on the river.

Last temple stop with Chris.

Last temple stop with Chris.

Next was a short van trip back into Bangkok for our last night in Southeast Asia. We had splurged on a nicer hotel room and decided to not worry about heading out into the city much, just to relax and get ready for our return journey. We had trouble finding a good meal in the neighborhood of our hotel for our last night, but nonetheless had a pretty good last day (including the best massage I had on the whole trip).

Oh, but then there was our trip to the airport. Our final task before going to the airport was finding a gift for a particular friend. We headed into one of Bangkok’s crazy massive shopping malls, and found the perfect thing. The only trouble was that we had already budgeted out every last Thai baht we had – exactly enough for the cab to the train station and the train to the airport and the gift – but the gift we found was 10 Baht more than we had budgeted. First, note that 10 Baht equals approximately $0.33. This will be helpful in understanding the tragedy of this story. We tried everything to bargain it down, even offering to give the woman a US dollar instead of the last 10 Baht. (No.) (And to be clear, this would almost double the price she was asking for.) We offered to pay with a credit card. (No.) We offered to give her two US dollars. (No.) We found another Western-looking couple and asked them if we could buy 10 Baht from them for 1 US dollar. (They were French, didn’t want US dollars. No.) Time was running short on our timeline of getting to the airport, so we threw caution to the wind and bought the gift anyway.

As you will see, that 10 Baht wouldn’t have even mattered in the end.

Fast forward, we’re in a cab going to the train station. We had budgeted about 70 Baht for the cab ride, but now we’re down to 60 because of the gift purchase. But really it should only cost about 45, and so as long as traffic’s not too terrible we should be okay.

Traffic is terrible. And about 3 minutes in we’re pretty sure the cab driver is taking the most roundabout way to get to the station. Normally when we had this suspicion we’d make them pull over and let us out, but all our luggage is in the trunk and our timeline of getting to the airport is getting a teensy bit strained. So we persevere.

At some point, we’re pretty sure we’re way out of the way, and the meter keeps going up. We pass 45 Baht, then 50, then 55, then 60, then 70. We’ll need to find a way to get more cash to get on the train, but our number one priority is just getting to the train station. So we wait. And wait. Eventually we can see the station, so even though we’re stuck in traffic we just get out, pay the cab, and walk the rest of the way. That’s when we realize that the driver took us to the wrong station. Still on the same train line, so we’ll still be able to get to the airport, but no wonder it cost so much. Despite our protestations throughout the ride that we needed to go to a certain station, he took us to a farther one.

Ugh.

We made our way up to the train station with all of our luggage and realized that the tickets to the airport are actually cheaper than we thought, which meant that after everything we were only 12 Baht short. (This is $0.41, to be clear.) At least the 10 Baht for the gift wouldn’t have made a difference, which is some small consolation. The only option to get more cash is to use the ATM in the station, which gives out a minimum of 200 Baht with Thailand’s customary 150 Baht ATM fee. We paid a $5 ATM fee to take out about $7 to get an extra $0.41 to get to the airport, all because a cab driver decided to be a jerk on our last hour of our last day in Southeast Asia.

Thankfully, you can drink beer anywhere in the Bangkok airport. We again ran into the problem that we couldn’t check in for our flight until two hours before departure, so we sat in the arrivals area and drank Changs and tried not to hate the cab driver. Our trip back was pretty uneventful, including another layover at the Seoul Airport and a relatively easy arrival into LAX.

Brett watches over our belongings at the airport. With beer.

Brett watches over our belongings at the airport. With beer.

Thailand was pretty great, despite all of our travel frustrations. We had frustrations everywhere, really, but these seemed more notable because all the exhaustion had finally caught up with us. But we didn’t try to do or see as much as we had in Vietnam or other places, and that made our last week more relaxed and enjoyable. I don’t know that we immersed ourselves in the cultural aspects as much as we had in other places, but we still had a great time.

We’ve been in the United States for about three weeks now, and hopefully we’ll get a post up about that soon. In a few days we’re headed off to Europe for our final international travel, then back to the US for a month before we move. More to come!

Vietnam

Here is my recommendation: go to Vietnam.  Ideally you will (finish reading this post and then) drop whatever else you have to do and start getting the details together for you trip.  Yes, it is that good.  The food is incredible, the people are friendly, the cities are nice, the landscape is beautiful, and it is very cheap.  In fact, it is the cheapest place we’ve been all year in addition to being the best.

We came into Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, on a bus from Phnom Penh that traversed the upper portion of the Mekong Delta.  It was already evening when we arrived and we walked from the bus company office to our hotel through the neon-lit dark along the busy and crowded sidewalks.  The next day we headed out to walk the streets of HCMC.  Our first stop was the Ben Tanh Market, full of restaurant stalls, tourist knickknacks, coffee, and clothing.  From there we headed up toward the War Remnants Museum but happened upon a café in a park along the way and stopped for our first ca phe sua da, iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk.  HCMC had many such lovely parks and green spaces with lots of public art.  After the café we headed up to the museum to find it closed for lunch, so we wandered to find some food of our own and had our first banh mi and banh xeo.  For a lot more about Vietnamese food see Bowen’s blog, but here are a couple of thought from me: there are lots of lots of things called banh, which supposedly means something like cake, and they don’t seem to have much in common (but they’re all Vietnamese food, so they’re pretty much all delicious); we ate a lot of banh mi our first week but, while they were mostly pretty good, none were quite as good as the ones we used to have in Rosemead.  After lunch we returned to the War Remnants Museum, which featured US armaments left at the end of the war, models of the French and American prisons where Vietnamese were held, and lots of photos and exhibits.  Much of it had a strong propaganda slant, but it was none-the-less heartbreaking to be reminded of the huge cost of the war on both sides.  We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets and relaxing.  In the evening we sat drinking beer in a café on the street and then had incredible pho for dinner.

A cafe in the park

A cafe in the park

War remnants at the War Remnants Museum

War remnants at the War Remnants Museum

Our second and final day in HCMC was a day of wandering.  We saw the river front, the opera house, the post office, the cathedral and many other lovely sites.  If I needed any more evidence that the Vietnam War wasn’t a good use of resources, we sat on a bench in front of the Opera House, about two blocks from the People’s Committee Hall looking at posters celebrating the recent awards for small businesses; to my right was a Louis Vuitton store, and to my left was a restaurant called, I kid you not, Le Bourgeois.

The Saigon Cathedral

The Saigon Cathedral

The HCMC post office

The HCMC post office

Capitalism lives!

Capitalism lives!

That evening we took an overnight bus to Nha Trang, a beach town up the coast.  Many of the overnight buses in Vietnam, unlike the buses in other countries, we set up with reclining bunk bed-style seats.

Traveling in style

Traveling in style

Nha Trang was a great place to spend a few days relaxing.  We spent one whole day relaxing at the beach in front of the Louisiane Brewing Company (celebrating International Women’s Day, which is a significant holiday in Vietnam), and another day on a snorkeling trip in the bay.  We also at the best Pho of our trip.  The strangest thing about Nha Trang is that is appears to be the Russian equivalent of Cabo or Cancún.  Unlike the rest of the country, we saw loads of Russians all over town and almost all the signage was in Russian.  This made for an extra interesting day at the beach surrounded by burly Russian men pounding liters of beer at 10 a.m., and even one doing pull-ups on the support beam of his palapa.

Nha Trang beach

Nha Trang beach

Nha Trang bay

Nha Trang bay

After Nha Trang we took another night bus up to Hoi An.  Hoi An is a lovely little town that was a major trading port until the river silted up in the mid 19th century.  It’s kept its small-town charm, but become a major tourist destination in the past decade.  During much of the day parts of the old town are closed to motor vehicles so that biking and walking are more convenient.  At night many businesses light beautiful silk lanterns out on the street, and tourists buy candles in little paper boats to float on the river.  Hoi An is also a major center for custom clothes production and has hundreds of small tailor and cobbler shops.  We had some of the best looking and cheapest clothes we’ve ever owned made for us while we were there.  We had a wonderful time roaming the town, biking around the countryside to a village that grows herbs using seaweed for fertilizer, and eating fantastic food.

A bridge at night in Hoi An

A bridge at night in Hoi An

Silk lantenrs

Silk lanterns

A quiet street in Hoi An

A quiet street in Hoi An

Herbs growing in the "Vegetable Village"

Herbs growing in the “Vegetable Village”

Seaweed harvested for fertilizer

Seaweed harvested for fertilizer

We took the bus from Hoi An up to Danang, and then the train from there to Hue.  The train trip was an interesting experience in its own right, and much less cushy than we had expected.  It was crowded, and pretty run down, but took us through a really beautiful stretch of country.

The bus to Hue

The bus to Hue

Bowen had come down with a cold, so her time in Hue was mostly spent recovering.  But I got out and saw some more of the neat sights.  Hue was the capitol city of the Nguyen Emperors, and so has many great historical sites.  I biked around to a couple of really beautiful pagodas, and on our last day Bowen and I explored the old Citadel.

Dragon boats on the Perfume River

Dragon boats on the Perfume River

Thien Mu pagoda

Thien Mu pagoda

A small pagoda in the back of Thien Mu

A small pagoda in the back of Thien Mu

Bao Quoc pagoda

Bao Quoc pagoda

The walls of the Citadel

The walls of the Citadel

Inside the Citadel

Inside the Citadel

Riding a cyclo back from the Citadel, and feeling a bit imperialist

Riding a cyclo back from the Citadel, and feeling a bit imperialist

Our trip up to Hanoi was another overnight bus trip, and got us into the capitol early in the morning.  We promptly got scammed by two different cabs that had meters running fast (but we were only out about 3 extra dollars).  Hanoi is a great city for wandering, eating, and drinking.  We spent much of our first day setting up a tour of Halong Bay, and wandering the town.  We checked out the Ngoc Son temple, and drank delicious coffee on the smallest balcony I’ve ever seen.  In the evening we had our first experience with Bia Hoi, fresh beer (I had had some in Hoi An, but this was our first together).  Bia Hoi is supposedly made fresh every day, is very refreshing, quite tasty, and dirt cheap.  We sat in little plastic chairs along the edge of bustling intersection and drank it for 25-30 cents while watching the world go by.  This was a ritual we continued each night in Hanoi.  Our second day we visited the Cathedral, the Hanoi Hilton prison museum, and had our first taste of Bun Cha, a heavenly mix of grilled pork patties, pork belly, and green papaya in a soup of sweetened fish sauce, served with vermicelli noodles, lettuce, and herbs.  For dinner, we had our first taste of Bun Bo Nam Bo, fried beef and bean sprouts over vermicelli with green papaya, noodles, roasted peanuts, and fish sauce.

The bridge to the

The bridge to the Ngoc Song Temple

A gigantic stuffed turtle from the lake

A gigantic stuffed turtle from the lake

Delicious beer!  For 25 cents!

Delicious beer! For 25 cents!

A sewer duct through which Vietnamese prisoners used to escape from the Hanoi Hilton

A sewer duct through which Vietnamese prisoners used to escape from the Hanoi Hilton

Why am I not eating Bun Bo Nam Bo right now?

Why am I not eating Bun Bo Nam Bo right now?

The next morning we headed by bus to Halong Bay for a two-day excursion.  Halong Bay is an incredibly scenic area with limestone karsts rising out of the bay.  On the first day we kayaked around a small floating village and through sea caves, and had a cooking demonstration in which we made the spring rolls for dinner.  In the evening, we watched the sunset over the karsts and were bombarded by local women in large floating baskets trying to sell us beer and snacks.  I took a lovely swim in the bay.

A floating village in Halong Bay

A floating village in Halong Bay

Sunset over Halong Bay

Sunset over Halong Bay

The next day we hiked to the top of one of the islands, named after a Russian cosmonaut who visited the area with Ho Chi Minh, for great views of the surrounding areas.  There are about 2000 islands in Halong Bay, most of them tiny, and about half of them named.  After our climb, we visited the Amazing Cave, which was pretty neat and much less hokey than we expected.  Then it was time to return to Hanoi.  Where we had Bun Bo Nam Bo for dinner again.

A misty morning in Halong Bay

A misty morning in Halong Bay

Formations in the Amazing Cave

Formations in the Amazing Cave

Our last day in Vietnam we visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.  We arrived about 15 minutes before it opened to a line that was roughly a kilometer long. His body, embalmed and on display against his previously-declared wishes, is on display nine months a year, but takes a three month trip to Russia each year for maintenance.  As we shuffled by through the eerie crypt, many of the old women were crying quietly. The man has been dead for over 50 years, but still draws a major crowd and endears a very emotional response on an average day.   We also viewed the homes he lived in during his presidency and the One Lotus Pagoda.  Then we visited the Temple of Literature.  The temple is over 900 years old, and housed the country’s first university to train men for the imperial public service exams.  We then had Bun Cha for lunch, wandered the city some more, had Bun Bo Nam Bo for dinner, and went out for Bia Hoi (are you sensing a pattern here?).

A video playing as we waited in line for Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum showing war protesters in the US, as well as the current air quality conditions

A video playing as we waited in line for Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum showing war protesters in the US, as well as the current air quality conditions

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

The gate at the Temple of Literature

The gate at the Temple of Literature

As I said at the outset, Vietnam is incredible.  My main disappointment was that the security guard at the airport confiscated my fork.  We can’t wait to go back.  Maybe we can meet you there.