We are in China!

We had a busy week in Seattle. We had a very nice visit with my family, ending with a lovely dinner with a complete set of four generations of the descendants of my parents. (And if I have any readers in the Seattle area outside my family, you have to try Lee’s Asian Restaurant in the West Seattle Junction. You  haven’t lived until you’ve had their salmon yuk.) In fact, we did a kind of world-tour by restaurant while we were in Seattle: All day-every day dim sum at the China Gate in Chinatown; Pacific Northwest seafood at Anthony’s Homeport on the waterfront in Olympia, WA; Thai green curry chicken at one of the most upscale “food courts” I’ve ever seen in the Southcenter Mall, Mexican at the Guadajara in the Endolyne neighborhood, near near the Fauntleroy Ferry dock; and my sister’s chicken piccata. So one of our major activities in Seattle was just to eat! At one point, my stomach said to me, “I thought the overseas trip didn’t start until next week!”

There were chores to do as well. We had to repack from a “car trip” to an airline journey; a major change in traveling philosophies. We shipped two boxes about 50 lbs)  of miscellaneous stuff for our use during the year to Sri Lanka by USPS Priority Mail (total cost for shipping about $300). We shipped three boxes of stuff we did not want to give away back to Ohio (much cheaper!). Goodwill in Seattle (or equivalent) will get some donations. My sister ended up buying our van, so that worked out without much hassle. We let it go for the blue book trade-in value, so it was a win-win deal. My sister will donate my cell phone to a domestic violence shelter. (Virgin Mobile made it very easy for me to donate the phone and the remaining minutes so it can be of immediate use to someone while protecting my privacy and that of my Visa card. ) And we bought medevac insurance for Kris (I’m covered by my Fulbright-related medical insurance). We went with a company called MedjetAssist. For $600 they have a simple deal: For one year, if you need to be medevac-ed from anywhere in the world, they will fly you to your hospital of choice in an air ambulance anywhere else in the world, along with up to three other family members.

We also finalized our Vietnam and Cambodia itineraries with Sue at Avia Travel. Here they are:

15 Sep: Hanoi – Arrival at 10:00pm CZ 371

Upon arrival at the airport and after clearing the immigrations and customs, meet with your guide and transfer to the hotel.

Meals: None

Accommodation: Anise hotel/ Park View Room -> confirmed

www.anisehotel.com

16 Sep: Hanoi

After breakfast, enjoy a full day city tour the charming capital of Hanoi. Hanoi lies in the mighty Red River Delta and has a turbulent history going back over a thousand years. It is a charming city and graded by many parks and lakes, and the Old Quarter still features some magnificent French colonial architecture. Our first visit is Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We walk via the beautiful Presidential Palace to visit Uncle Ho’s simple Stilt House, where He lived off and on between 1958 and 1969 and the lotus-shaped One Pillar Pagoda known as the Temple of Love in the form of a lotus, it emerges from the water and rests on a single stone pillar. Then, continue to visit the Temple of Literature, to have an overview about Hanoi culture and history. We also visit Tran Quoc pagoda, one of the oldest Buddhist pagodas in Vietnam. In the afternoon, visit to the beautiful Museum of Ethnology to enhance your understanding of Vietnam’s diverse culture through its unique presentation of objects & dress from a variety of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups. Highlight your trip with another cultural feel through another aspect – art, at Art Vietnam gallery owned by an American Art. We then take a break from the recent parts when we explore Hanoi’s Old Quarter by cyclo and on foot. In the 13th century, Hanoi’s 36 guilds established themselves here, each taking a different street, like Silversmith Street or Coffins Street, Fish street. In the evening, attend a water puppet show, a uniquely northern Vietnamese art form especially designed for depicting scenes from rural life and many episodes of national history – opportunity to enjoy your interaction with the puppeteers after the show.

Meals: Breakfast

Accommodation: Anise hotel/ Park View room -> confirmed

17 Sep: Hanoi – Halong

After breakfast, enjoy a scenic drive of 3.5 hours to Halong City with a coffee break en route at a local coffee shop. Arriving by noon at the quayside, board your deluxe junk where a welcome drink awaits. After a relaxing break, enjoy a delicious seafood lunch while cruising through Bai Tu Long bay recalling the famous Indochine film featuring charming Actress Catherine Deneuve. Later there is opportunity to go trekking or swimming at Soi Sim Island. Then, enjoy further cruising to visit Hang Doi water tunnel by rowboat on the Bay. Around 0630pm, dock for overnight and enjoy dinner on board.

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner

Accommodation: Bhaya Cruise/ Deluxe is confirmed

www.bhayacruises.com

18 Sep: Hanoi – Halong – Hue / night train

Get up early to catch the sunrise on the bay and enjoy a Tai Chi demonstration on the sun deck. Relax with a cup of hot coffee or tea. We depart for a visit to the splendid Sung Sot grotto and a quick glimpse of a nearby fishing village. Enjoy late buffet brunch on board while cruising back through Halong bay to the pier. Arrive at the pier around 1100am and it’s time to say goodbye to the crew. Enjoy a quick city tour of Halong city and transfer to Hanoi with stop en route at Phu Lang ceramic making village, opportunity to interact with the artisans and understand how people preserve their traditional craft over generations. If time permits, we could visit some other handicraft villages before transferring to the railway station for the night train to Hue to Hue, the former capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty of emperors from 1802 to 1945.

Meals: Brunch

Accommodation: Overnight on train/ Air conditioned soft sleeper/ private cabin for 2

è Confirmed

19 Sep: Hue

Arrive in Hue at 08:42, meet and transfer to the hotel for breakfast and relaxation. Early check in is included. Afternoon, take a dragon boat across the triangle of the Perfume River upstream to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue’s most preserved religious monument the former imperial city of Hue offering an insightful look into its regal past. Then, we proceed to the Forbidden city to visit the Imperial Citadel – The Vietnamese Forbidden city from where the Nguyen Emperors once ruled Vietnam.

Meals: Breakfast

Accommodation: Festival/ Deluxe -> confirmed

www.festivalhuehotel.com.vn

20 Sep: Hue

Free at leisure

Meals: Breakfast

Accommodation: Festival/ Deluxe -> confirmed

21 Sep: Hue – Hoi An

After breakfast at the hotel, transfer overland around 3 hour drive to the ancient town Hoi An, over the Hai Van Pass – Pass of the Ocean Clouds – where the summit provides a spectacular panoramic view of the central coastline. We stop en route in Danang and enjoy visit the Cham Museum, the best collection of the Cham ruins dating from 2nd to 15th century. The objects on display represent the art of architecture and sculpture of the Hindu influenced ancient civilization of Champa. Continue to visit Marble Mountain and China Beach before transferring to Hoi An ancient town, then a walking tour, exploring the rich history and culture of Hoi An, an ancient Japanese, Chinese and European port of trade. Much of Hoi An’s rare wooden architecture remains in this small, pleasant town — typically a favorite stop for it’s elegant pagodas, bustling riverfront marketplace, tailoring and artist shops, delicious cuisine, as well as beach combing on scenic Cua Dai Beach. Afterwards, we take in the former merchants’ houses, the 400 year-old Japanese Covered Bridge and the colorful market with its stalls brimming with tropical specialties.

Meals: Breakfast

Accommodation: Ha An hotel/ Junior room -> confirmed

www.haanhotel.com

22 Sep: Hoi An

Free at leisure

Meals: Breakfast

Accommodation: Ha An hotel/ Junior room

23 Sep: Hoi AnDanang – Saigon / train

Free at leisure until transfer to the Danang Railways station for the train to Saigon, departs at 01:15pm.

Meals: Breakfast

Accommodation: Overnight on train/ Air conditioned soft sleeper/ private cabin for 2

-> confirmed

24 Sep: Saigon

Early morning, arrive in Saigon at 04:30 am. Meet and transfer to the hotel for check in. Early check in is included. Free at Leisure.

Meals: Breakfast

Accommodation: Elios hotel/ Deluxe room – > confirmed

www.elioshotel.com.vn

25 Sep: Saigon

Pick up by your guide after breakfast for a tour of this dynamic, bustling city with its historic landmarks. Wander along the former French Colonial streets and stop for photos at the Notre Dame Cathedral and the 1880’s General Post Office, then visit the Former Presidential Palace and followed by a quick drive to the War Remnant Museum to have a feel of Vietnamese history and people. End the day at Saigon’s ‘twin city’, the Chinese district of Cholon, to enjoy the bustling wholesale quarter of Ho Chi Minh City, Thien Hau temple built by Cantonese Buddhists at the end of 18th century.

Meals: Breakfast

Accommodation: Elios hotel/ Deluxe room -> confirmed

26 Sep: Saigon

After an early breakfast, set out on an excursion to My Tho, the closest city in the Mekong Delta to Saigon. A 2-hour drive brings you through urbanized areas till you reach river tributaries, there Mekong Delta! On the way, stop at Vinh Trang pagoda built in 1849. The monk who ordered the build had been to Angkor Wat so here and there influences of the famous Cambodian temple complex. On arrival in My Tho, board a local private motorized boat (sub-standard) for a river cruise on the upper part of the Mekong River and a taste of the agricultural life of the mighty Mekong River. Visit to a fish-raising village before entering Vam Xep canal and its beautiful scenery of water palm. Disembark and stroll around Quoi An fruit orchard, visiting fruit-drying kilns and coconut craft wares home. Enhance your trip with a short horse-drawn cart ride along the village road. Upon arrival at Ben TrucPhong Phu garden, sample Mekong delta fruit whilst enjoying traditional local music, and an opportunity to interact with the local people, whose livelihood is on the river here. End your trip with a rowing boat trip to explore the water palm canals. Re-board the main boat and transfer back to My Tho. Arrive at the dock and lunch at Ngoc Gia Trang restaurant, the standard is basic but it offers great Mekong specialties. Afterward, drive to Can Tho.

Meals: Breakfast and Lunch

Accommodation: Golf Can Tho/ Deluxe room – > confirmed

27 Sep: Can ThoChau Doc

After breakfast, check out of hotel and board the boat for a cruise to visit Cai Rang floating market, the unique styled market of this locale. There will be hundreds of boats laden with fruit, vegetables and fish, jostling for trade. Sellers advertise their wares by crying out across the waters. Then visit My Khanh orchard garden where you will try some delicious seasonal fruits. Leave Can Tho and drive to Chau Doc. Arrival in Chau Doc and drop off at hotel.

Meals: Breakfast

Accommodation: Victoria Chau Doc/ Superior room -> confirmed

www.victoriahotels-asia.com

28 Sep: Chau Doc – Phnom Penh / Speed Boat 07:00am – 1:00pm

Early breakfast then transfer to the pier for the Victoria express boat to Phnom Penh. On arrival into Phnom Penh transfer to hotel. Arrive in Phnom Penh and transfer to hotel. This city was once considered one of the most beautiful in the Orient, and despite its recent turbulent history it still retains a colonial charm.

In the afternoon, visit Phnom Penh including the Royal Palace complex. This palace dates from 1866 and was the last one built during the French colonial period. The same complex houses the Silver Pagoda, named for the over 5000 silver tiles that cover its floors. Its original name is Wat Prakeo, meaning Temple of the Emerald Buddha. In this temple you will view a collection of Buddhas in gold, silver, crystal, and bronze. Continue on to the National Museum, built in 1917. Housed there are over 5000 statues, lingas and others artifacts arranged according to pre- Angkor and post –Angkor periods of Cambodia history

Meals: Breakfast

Accommodation: FCC (Bateay kdei room)

29 Sep: Phnom Penh

Free day to explore on own

Meals: Breakfast

Accommodation: FCC (Bateay kdei room)

30 Sep: Phnom Penh departure – Silk Air 12:15pm – 3:15pm

30 Sep 08: Transfer to the airport with guide and driver.

Meals: Breakfast.

We ran out of items on our to-do list and the number of days we would stay in Seattle at about the same time. We were sorry that we did not finish our lists more quickly as there were many people in Washington State we would have liked to see before we took off. We woke up early on Sunday morning (August 31) with a heightened sense of anticipation. My sister Shannon ran me through what she calls her “OCD checks.” Did I have my passport? Did I have my airline tickets? And so forth. We loaded up the van and headed to the airport; our last ride in what had been, for the most part, my faithful steed for the last several years. Shannon drove and her grandaughter, Maddy, 7,  provided critical commentary from the backseat. Dropped at the curb, our passage to the gate was the usual mildly annoying, but otherwise uneventful airport experience. We boarded the plane. The plane pulled away from the gate and that is when our troubles began.

After sitting still for some time, the pilot came on the intercom to announce that the starter motor of one of the engines was not working. So they tugged the plane (an Airbus A330) back into the gate, then announced that it would take the mechanics about 45 minutes to swap out the starter motor. In all, we were about an hour late leaving Seattle. This was a source of some worry for us as we only had an hour and a half layover in Tokyo.

Flying international is so much nicer than flying domestic, even in economy class. Yes the seats were cramped, but the A330 had 2-4-2 seating and Kris and I had a 2 on the starboard side of the aircraft. Northwest Air served a hot dinner about an hour into the flight, then a hot breakfast about an hour before we landed at Narita Airport. The A330 was also equipped with Video-on-Demand that allowed me to catch up on two movies that would never make it onto a list of DVDs Kris and I would share on a Friday night: My Super Ex-Girlfriend (I am a sucker for a good premise) and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skulls. For the second time recently, I was interrupted in my reading of Anil’s Ghost when Shannon stole my copy before our departure. So to go along with the mind-candy of the not-too-intellectually-challenging movies I anticipated being available on the flight, I bought a copy of the latest Stephanie Plum mystery, Lean Mean Thirteen, by Janet Evanovich at the SeaTac Airport. I am a bit ashamed to say that I had pretty much “read” (by means of Books on Tape) all the earlier installments in the series (I told you I was a sucker for a good premise), but had grown tired of the formulaic stories. Sad to say, this book is no different. Stephanie has totaled another car, she is still playing off Ranger and Morelli with no progress in resolving her relationships with them, and, most distressingly for a feminist like myself, she has not improved one iota as a bounty hunter. Janet Evanovich has created the Peanuts of the mystery genre. No one ever changes or evolves in any way. I think Evanovich (or perhaps her publisher) has a checklist of things that must happen in every Stephanie Plum novel. Has Morelli expressed jealousy when Ranger protects Stephanie? Yes. Check. Has Stephanie totalled a car? Yes. Check. Has Stephanie allowed another bail bondee to take away her handcuffs? Yes. Check. How many times has Stephanie done something totally stupid that allows a bondee to escape? Only five? Better add one or two more to pad the book. But I digress… In any case, the ten and a half hour flight from Seattle to Tokyo went by pretty quickly. I also got in a good nap or two totaling about two hours.

Upon landing at Narita, we were told that our connecting flight had gone on ahead without us and we were rebooked onto a China Air flight that left only an hour after our original scheduled connecting flight. The China Air Boeing 757 was not nearly as nice as the Northwest Air A330, but the staff and passengers were very helpful and friendly. The flight was not nearly as full as the Seattle to Tokyo flight and a nice young man who had a seat in our row of three seats volunteered to move to another seat so that we could have the three seats to ourselves.

We arrived at the new airport in Beijing about 10:30PM local time. It was a very long walk from the gate to the gate hub, then a train ride to the main terminal and baggage claim. It is a beautiful, hypermodern airport. Certainly cleaner and in better repair than any American airport I have been  in. To give you a sense of this, I noticed when we got to the parking garage, they had painted the concrete floors everywhere; the parking areas, the roadways, everywhere. And those floors were spotless. After all the work I had done in getting the paperwork in order, I expected to be grilled and searched and then given a well deserved medal by the China Worker’s Party. Instead, our papers were looked over quickly, no supporting documents were requested, there were no lines anywhere and we found ourselves having cleared customs and immigation in no time flat. Oh. And the US Customs and Immigration officials could take some lessons in courtesy and helpfulness from their Chinese counterparts.

We walked through the last control point and there was no one to meet us. We had just about reached the limits to our endurance, it was 11PM,  and here was this last hurdle. There was an army of people (left over from the Olympics?) willing to try to help us, though the language barrier was a pretty thick cobweb to fight our way through. Thank God for Kris, who excels at communications. After some back and forth, it seemed that we could be helped if only we knew the phone number and address of our hotel. Hmm. Not on our printed itinerary. If only I can connect to the internet, I can check my email. I power up the laptop. There are two unsecured wireless access points with strong signals. I check with the guy at the information desk and he points to one. I try them both. Zip. I connect to the access points just fine, but my browser can not find any websites. I fume. The information guy has given Kris a number to call. She goes to the public phones. They don’t take credit cards. She heads for the money exchange booth to change some dollars. Before she reaches the money exchange booth, she happens across a desk that makes hotel reservations for you. Bingo. They will call (for free) and a nice young woman takes us into her care. She calls the hotel and confirms that we are expected. Then she arranges for a driver to take us to the hotel. Then she personally leads us, while insisting on pushing one of our luggage carts, to the pickup point. As we arrive at the pickup point, the car pulls smartly up and the driver loads our bags into the trunk. Now that is what I call service!

The driver speeds out of the airport into the night. The tollroad is excellent. It is clear that the Chinese spiffed up some things for the Olympics. The toll plaza is graced with a cap of ultramodern design.  Traffic is light and we speed along. All we know is that our hotel is somewhere in Beijing, our fate in the hands of Sunny of the Chinese International Travel Service, Guilin, aka chinahighlights.com. My hopes rise and fall as we pass by nice looking hotels and, shall we say, more modest hotels. Finally, the driver does a U-ee and pulls into a very nice looking hotel entryway and we have arrived.

I had stopped at an ATM at the airport and withdrew the maximum 2000 RMB (aka yuan) from my checking account in the US. (How does an ATM in Beijing know my PIN set by a small bank in Ohio?) Having not purchased anything yet, the smallest bill I have is 100 RMB (about $15 at the current exchange rate of 6.7 RMB to the dollar). So the driver is pleasantly surprised when I tip him 100 RMB, as the entire fare from the airport was only 300 RMB. A bellman takes our luggage into the hotel for us. We register without incident, though I had forgotten the warning that the hotel requires a pretty substantial deposit to cover telephone charges and use of the minibar. We turn to go to our room and discover our bags have disappeared without our having noticed! No problem, we are told, the bellman has taken our bags to our room. Sure enough. We arrive at the room to see the bellman waiting for us. We enter the room and the bellman turns on lights and puts our bags into appropriate places. He is also pretty happy when I tipped him 100 RMB. I suppose the hotel’s level of service is not his doing personally and I didn’t have much choice, what with no change in my pocket, but I would have been feeling pretty generous at that point in any case. When was the last time you had someone in the US take your bags to your room?

The room is gorgeous. As advertised, the Chinese hotel beds are very, very firm, and the room is not particularly large by American standards. But the furnishings are all modern, the  bathroom looks brand new and spotless with very modern fixtures. The bed has a nice comforter to keep us warm as we crank up the air conditioning, oversized pillows, and is dressed with a red silk bed scarf. The walls are a kind of mustard color that sets off the dark wood furniture and doors. And for us geeks, I am happy to report that, while the rooms do not seem to have wireless access, there is a CAT5 outlet and cable and that works just fine.

There is a phone message waiting for us from the tour operator. He is very distraught that he missed us at the airport where he had waited for two hours along with a driver. We have a free day on Tuesday and so we make arrangements to meet him on Wednesday  morning at 9AM to start our first tour in the Beijing area.

After sending off emails announcing our safe arrival, we rinse off in the excellent shower, collapse into  bed, and are instantly asleep.

Tim

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3 Comments

  1. Paula said,

    September 2, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Hi! I’m so excited to have found your blogsite (Ben forwarded the link to me). I have enjoyed the whole saga so far, and I look forward to coming installments. Give my love to Kris, and have a fabulous time! – Paula

  2. Tim said,

    September 3, 2008 at 8:59 am

    Thanks for the best wishes. We are certainly having a fabulous time so far!

    Tim

  3. December 10, 2008 at 11:42 am

    […] harder to post pictures faster. As it was, I had to refer back to my posting that contained our Vietnamese itinerary to remind ourselves what we were scheduled to see in Saigon. Here is the relevant […]


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