Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"The Seoul of Asia"

At the end of March Kim and I took a flight to Seoul, South Korea for what was originally intended to revalidate my tourist visa, but turned into a rather pleasant mini break. Japan gives you a 90 day tourist visa so you have to leave the country and come right back in order to reinstate it. Seoul is often the destination of choice for most Gai Jin as the flights are relatively cheap. I use relatively cheap very loosely in that it cost us about $350 per person. Not exactly the bargain we were hoping for, but it beat going to Guam for $550. We talked with a bunch of people from Kim's office about what to see and do and the general response was "uh, you mean besides eating and drinking?" After a comment like that I really wasn't expecting too much out of "The Seoul of Asia." (This is the catchy slogan for tourism, hence the quotes)

The flight over there was disappointing to say the least. We've been spoiled by flying international carriers such as China Air, and on this trip I skimped and booked United Airlines just to save a few bucks. We thought, "its an international flight of course they will serve us a meal." You thought wrong Dave, instead the United experience involved a quarter of a sandwich with cheese, ham, and a yellow gooey substance that appeared to be regurgitated out of yak, and slapped on a piece of processed white bread for our wholesome enjoyment. Ahh the sweet pleasure of flying USA airlines. I'm amazed we didn't have to pay for toilet paper.

We arrived late around 11pm or so and apparently missed the direct buses to downtown, and ended up having to settle for the local. We were confused about how in the world to get to the place we were staying as it was a little off the beaten path. The Korean people were happy to help out and told us a bus to take to get relatively close. One guy, literally right before his bus was about to leave, sprinted to find the bus stop for us. It was pretty cool and I thought "the Korean people are very nice." Then we proceeded to get in line for the bus, and wouldn't you know it this korean couple cut right in front of us. I don't know what it is, but whether you are in Japan, Viet Nam, or South Korea, asian people will purposely cut in front of you. They don't even act like they did anything wrong just stand there with a blank look on their face. This sets Kim off. She turns into a little pitbull and starts mouthing off in english. Kim has this theory that no one in Asia can understand english. I keep telling her that although they may not be able to speak it well they more than likely can understand the gist of what you are saying. We managed to cut off the rude couple before getting on the bus, but any ground we gained was stripped from us by the little old korean ladies. That's right, watch out for the old ladies, they are by far the most vicious. On the bus Kim nearly got knocked over as they pushed past her to get to their seats.

We stayed in a town outside of downtown called Nowon. It was about 30 min by train outside of downtown and is a solid place for cheap shopping relative to the expensive Myeongdong district. We found the real gem of Nowon though, called Wild Bill's NO. 10 Bar. It looked really shady but we decided to go up there for a drink anyhow. I don't know if it was the best or worst decision I ever made. On the weekends they put on this little show. They have this huge space behind the bar and I thought it was very weird that they wasted that much space on a bar back. Around 10:30pm or so the performance began. All of the bartenders would take their turns flipping and tossing bottles. Then the bar manager or the ring leader as I like to think of him whips out this staff and lights both ends on fire and starts to twirl it around Bruce Lee style. He then proceeds to blow fireballs, and display his awesome fire eating abilities. Then if that wasn't cool enough, the ring leader and another bartender lit two bottles on fire and tossed them around to each other like a game of hot potato (I just want to thank Brad for giving me the idea of hyperlinks). Kim and I sat there in awe at the talent of these two as they twirled these homemade fire bombs around copious amounts of alcohol. At the time we didn't seem to mind the grim reality that with one slip the whole place could have turned into a blazing inferno.

To top off the show they built this tower of glasses. After each bar tenders performance they would poor a shot onto the top of the tower to eventually drip down into a pint glass. The ring leader would end the night by pouring Bacardi 151 down the tower of glasses and lighting the entire structure on fire with the final result a pint glass full of high octane booze. They then would give this death drink to some poor unsuspecting white guy in the crowd. Naturally he couldn't turn it down since his manhood was clearly on the line. Down the hatch it goes, and w/n thirty minutes that guy was nowhere to be found. Luckily I befriended the bartenders so they never picked me. Honestly I think they were just afraid of Kim :P.

All around our trip to Korea was spent walking around downtown. We went to a couple palaces, such as Changdeokgung, and Deoksugung. They did an excellent job of recreating the palaces to present them as they once were. I say recreate because literally these palaces were burned down several times by the Japanese, and also by the North Koreans. One thing I love about Seoul is that they did a great job of trying to maintain the cultural heritage of their city. Although Seoul is very modern with heavy western influence, the Koreans go out of their way to demonstrate the desire to preserve the history of their country (and maybe to boost tourism dollar a bit). Within Seoul they have five palaces in downtown so its easy access for you history buffs. At each palace they also do a sort of changing of the guards performance which I included a video below. It was pretty cool and worth seeing.

Besides the endless eating that we did on the trip (Korean beef is the best, so good!), my favorite part was the War Memorial of Korea. I would have to say if there is one thing that you do in Seoul besides eating as much Korean food as possible, go to this museum in between meals. We spent 3 hrs and still we had one more floor to go, but we made it through most of it before they kicked us out. I knew little about Korea history other than that the Japanese occupied them for quite some time and of course the Korean War. After going to the Memorial I found out that the Koreans were in endless war even before it established itself as a country. The memorial walks you through the whole history from the various battle tactics, to the armory. I thought that the memorial would be very one sided, but honestly it really wasn't biased at all. I definitely encourage reading up on Korean history, it is pretty fascinating.

Seoul was a breath of fresh air from the madness that is Tokyo. The city was open, with a lot of green. At any point you could look out and see the mountains that surround the city. In Tokyo you feel so small and detached from nature that it gets to after a while. Seoul you felt like you could finally breath. It also is a heck of a lot cheaper. You can actually buy fruit for a reasonable price. To put things in perspective Kim bought 30 strawberries for 2,000 won ($2). In Tokyo a deal would be 6 strawberries for $10. However according to Kim's GAP index, Seoul is a bit pricer than Tokyo. Kim measures the cost per unit of a foreign good according to GAP department store prices. According to the law of one price a GAP t-shirt should cost the same in one country as it would in another country if the currency traded at one for one. Not so according the GAP index. Tokyo is about $10 cheaper. So remember that ladies when shopping for American goods in Seoul.

Unlike Tokyo if you avoid the western stores you have a chance to bargain. Kim is a born negotiator. Its almost like she is trying to play Jedi mind tricks on the poor victim behind the counter...slowly waving a hand past the face..."you will give me this mask for 8,000 won." Unfortunately the lady was having none of it and only knocked it down a few thousand won, but I like to think we won that battle.

As far as renewing my tourist visa for Japan, lets just say it didn't go as well as expected. The lady at immigration kept questioning my purpose for coming back to Japan after I had only renewed my tourist visa once in the past five months. From what I've read foreigners renew several times for over a year and not had any problems. I however was not so fortunate. She didn't buy my story that I was backpacking Asia and carrying this huge pack for the sanctity of my health. They brought me to a back room where another guy proceeded to take my picture and ask further questions. That's when I decided enough was enough and I laid down my cards to call black jack, a note from PwC explaining why I am here. Viola! I skipped across the border and back into Japan.

A plethora of palaces in the middle of downtown Seoul
Is it me or does Kim look particularly nervous standing next to a guy with a giant sword?
Digging for gold!
Mmmmm...pho, we haven't had good solid vietnamese in a while. Needless to say we were pretty happy when we found vietnamese joint outside our hostile.

War Memorial of Korea
First, you're probably wondering what the heck am I doing....
Second, you're probably wondering why I am bundled up in a jacket, scarf, and gloves. Korea is frickin' cold man, and makes you do crazy things!

Monday, April 6, 2009

I found the Powder

About mid February I took a ski trip on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. Japan primarily consists of three large islands, Kyushu to the south, Hokkaido to the north, and Honshu right in the middle. Hokkaido's claim to fame is the city of Sapporo, which houses the company Sapporo that makes the beer and some of the finest powder known to man. I arrived in Niseko on a monday and skied for three days.

Niseko is made up of 3 different ski resorts: Annupuri, Niseko Village, and Grand Hirafu. I don't know why the Japanese do this, but at every mountain, no matter the size, they operate several small independent ski resorts. I had no idea that it was this way so I basically just picked an area that had relatively cheap housing, which turned out to be the Annupuri side of the mountain. You can buy a pass for just that resort or you can buy an all mountain pass to ski all three. The funny thing is you really do not save much buying the pass to ski just one resort (maybe $5) and are better off just getting the all mountain. You can actually buy your lift passes from the place that you stay and you save quite a bit. I paid $130 for a three day pass, which is an excellent deal for a resort this size.

I stayed at Annupuri Youth Hostel, which I can tell you that the term "Youth" is a misnomer. I was the youngest person that stayed there besides the family that arrived my last day that had two 7 yr olds (who knows the kids could have been 13 or 3 yrs old and I wouldn't know the difference. I have no concept of kids ages).

When I arrived I expected the hostel to be filled with Aussies, but to my surprise it consisted of primarily old Japanese men. That night they proceeded to get pretty lit and sang old Japanese songs. It was quite entertaining. Overall the hostel was very nice, clean, and Yu-san and his wife fixed up some rather delicious meals. The town of Annupuri is pretty terrible. There are very few restaurants, no bars, and the closest convenience store is about 10 miles away. Yu-san can bring you over there but only if he is heading out in that direction. Despite the negatives there is one major positive point to staying in Annupuri and I will get to that in a bit.

My first day on the slopes I did my best to hit all of the challenging runs that the resort had to offer. Unlike Hakkuba, Niseko opened up far more terrain and you could easily ski throughout the trees and you can even get into some of the backcountry. There was still a lot of skiable terrain that they do not open up, but they claim they have plans to open it up in the future once they figure out avalanche control. The runs are not as long as a lot of the major resorts we have in the US, but they were definitely reasonable. I was lucky in that I had about 2 ft of fresh powder to work with on my first day out. I skied to all three main lodges of the resorts to check out the scene and I was not too impressed. None of the areas really had a cool bar scene. The restaurants were Japanese style that consisted of inserting money into a machine, which produces a ticket and that is how you order your food and drinks. The resorts were also characterless. Even the Hilton wasn't anything to write home to Mom about. Lift lines were practically nonexistent but I did ski on the weekdays to purposefully avoid them. One annoying factor is that they have very few high speed lifts and the gondolas themselves they run at a slow speed. It definitely gets frustrating when you are used to the lifts back home.

My second day these two Aussies that stayed at my hostel invited me to ski with them. They claimed they could take me to the serious backcountry, which I really had no idea how to access on my first day. I gratefully accepted and we took to the slopes. These two guys apparently leave the wife and kids at home and come up to Niseko for 3 weeks every year to ski. They were about in their 50s and both were very accomplished skiers. We entered the backcountry from the Annupuri side, which apparently Annupuri has the best and easiest access to the backcountry out of the 3 resorts. Niskeo Village does not have access b/c it is located in the middle and Hirafu's backcountry is apparently difficult to get to and is the largest ski resort which translates into more people skiing out the terrain. This is the major positive point I mentioned earlier. I literally had two days of skiing through powder, all fresh runs in the backcountry. It was amazing! The powder itself is impressive. It is so light and feels like you are floating. It is far better than the concrete we are used to in the northwest. My legs stayed fresh all day and not a single leg burn. It was as if I was a snowboarder for a day. Thank you John & Jeff for letting me tag along.

One interesting point I forgot to mention about Niseko is the weather, you never know what you are going to get. The weather changes constantly throughout the day. One minute it could be sunny the next it could be pounding snow with high winds. As the saying goes in Niseko "if you don't like the weather, just wait ten minutes."

As far as choosing a place to stay in Niseko it all depends on what you want out of your ski trip. For a family Niseko village is probably a better pick b/c there is a bit more there than Annupuri. If you want a night life apparently Hirafu has it, as it is a lot bigger than the other two villages. If you want fresh powder and pretty decent backcountry I would recommend staying in Annupuri.

Dining area at Annupuri Youth Hostel
Here is a picture of the common area. That's my roommate on the floor. I don't think I have ever heard anyone snore as loud. I did not sleep for 3 days.
the rooms

John tearing it up in the powder.

John & Jeff the two Aussies who showed me the ropes.
A typical day of skiing through the trees.

In the distance is the backcountry. It comprises of 3 huge bowls.

This is a picture of the summit at Niseko on the Annupuri side

Another picture of Annupuri resort. The weather was too hectic to get a lot of good shots of the mountain. The pics you saw were only a handful of times when the weather actually cleared up long enough to get some good shots.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A weekend getaway in Nikko

Kim and I took a little weekend getaway to a place called Nikko. Nikko is approximately 2 to 2 1/2 hours by train outside of Tokyo. It is probably the most popular place for those who want to escape the the big city and enjoy nature in all its splendor. Nikko is a quaint mountain town that is home to some exceptional shrines, temples and the burial place of the first Shogun (pronounced Sho-goon (goon as in goonies)).

We stayed at a traditional Japanese pension with all the fixings; tatami floors, futons, and of course the all important tea set. The town itself isn't anything special. I did not think it had any real charm. However the wilderness was gorgeous. The shrines and temples (Tosho-gu) were surrounded by old growth forests, and the mountains in the background made is quite surreal. The Tosho gu area was probably the most decorative and impressive shrines I've seen to date.

Unfortunately the trip was a bit hampered by wind. In all our pictures you will see us bundled up, not because it was extremely cold, but we were getting hit with 20 to 30 mph gusts of wind. It made it quite an unpleasant experience. We intend to go back in the spring or summer when it is a bit warmer to romp around the forests in search of the elusive Japanese macaque (snow monkey Until that time enjoy the pics.

Hear no evil speak no evil, see no evil

Our traditional japanese bedroom

Tea anyone?

Legend has it that the artist never saw an elephant before but was able to create this sculpture based off a dream he had.

Seriously if anyone can tell me what the hell this means I would appreciate it. I mean the japanese makes more sense to me. One would think they would have consulted someone before plastering this on every bus stop sign.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Viet Nam

Drifting back in time....

Day 1 12/19/08

After a delightful overnight stay in Taipei's international airport we arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Min City). From the airport we took a cab to Kim's sister's mother in law's house. Little did I know that this would be the scariest cab ride of my life. A significant majority of Vietnamese do not own cars. They instead own motorbikes, which whizz by and disregard all traffic regulations. The entire cab ride was wrought with danger as these bikes literally surrounded the cab going 40 mph down a two lane street. I knew from that point on Viet Nam was going to be an adventure.

Day 2 12/20/08

Kim and I ventured out into the 90 degree heat (apparently winter for south Viet Nam) to explore the city. We both hopped onto Kim's nephew's motorbike and took the streets. This is the point in the trip where I lost my second life (1st was gone from the cab ride). We weaved in out of traffic until we reached the bus stop and took the bus into downtown. Our first stop was Ben Thanh Market, which has a lot of great Vietnamese food and various goods for sale for ridiculously cheap. Again our journey was wrought with danger as we had to figure out how to cross the intersection to get to the market. There is no such thing as a crosswalk in Saigon (at least the motorbikes disregard that there is one in the first place) and the city is so packed with people that traffic never lightens up. There are no breaks, just a constant flow of madness. In order to cross you step out into the middle of the street shuffle slowly across while whizzing motorbikes pass by you. The saying "there is safety in numbers" has never really hit home until I tried to cross the street in Viet Nam. To put things into perspective, imagine watching the discovery channel and a pack of gazelle try to cross a river filled with crocodiles and you will get an idea of what we were up against.

I consumed my 3rd life trying to get to the market and was pleasantly surprised by how delicious the food was. After Ben Thanh we took a bus to Cholon district to see Binh Tay Market, which is apparently larger than the former. The Cholon district is home to the largest Chinatown in the world, and is probably one of the grossest. It was a pretty filthy area, not to mention we got completely lost and I consumed at least a couple lives while I was there. The market was enormous and you could easily get lost but it caters mostly to the locals and isn't very good for shopping for tourist goods.

One thing about Saigon that was almost comical was the pro communism signs everywhere. In downtown they had in the center square all these pictures from the Viet Nam war and it would say "this is a picture of our soldiers storming the gates of Saigon as we completely overpowered the Americans and liberated Saigon from their control." Every sign would talk about how they liberated the south when in fact they basically took it over and impoverished the country.

Later on in the evening Kim's nephews arrived (Dustin & Denny) and we ate out with a few other relatives who showed us some the finest Vietnamese cuisine, snails. We went to a place that specialized in both snails and clams. We must have had 14 different varieties, it was pretty great. Kim's relatives as well as others in the restaurant got a kick out of me trying all these various crustaceans.

Day 3 12/21/08

A vacation in a tropical country without the beach just didn't seem right, so Kim, Dustin, Denny and I left with D and D's father's brother and wife Lap & Nha to Vung Thau. Vung Thau is a beach town about 3 hrs southeast of Saigon. It was a beautiful day of sitting around eating fresh crab, and snails and of course beer. Once we arrived back in Saigon Kim's mother, sister (Thu), and brother in law (Minh) arrived after several days of delays at PDX due to the unbelievable snowfall that hit the Pacific Northwest.

Day 4 12/22/08

Early that morning we caught a flight up to Ha Noi (north Viet Nam) to begin our guided tour of the North. Our group consisted of me, Kim, Dustin, Denny, Momma Nguyen, Min's mother, Thu, Minh, and two of Minh's friends. All of us packed into our tour van and began the trip that was guided in entirely vietnamese. Luckily Kim is a superb translator so I got the gist of what was said. What is even funnier is that Dustin and Denny who have had Vietnamese spoken to them their entirely lives had to listen in on Kim's translations to follow along. I'm convinced I understand more of vietnamese than they do. Ha ha just kidding fellas.

Northern Viet Nam is quite a different experience than the south. As our guide told us, in order to fully grasp the history of Viet Nam you have to visit the north. The north has 5,000 yrs of history, whereas the south has only about 300 yrs. Our first stop on the trip was Hoa Yen, which is a famous temple/shrine in the mountains. The story goes that a King renounced his thrown and traveled to the mountains to embrace Buddhism. He then built these temples that are way up into the mountains. I realize that I completely butchered that story and it is probably worth reading up about b/c it is rather fascinating. The temples were pretty cool and you had to take this gondola up to the oldest temple that is high in the mountains. It actually very impressive that they built this temple so far up. If you go to Viet Nam and need to see one temple I strongly recommend seeing this just b/c it is pretty amazing that they built this whole network of shrines and temples so high up into the mountains.

Later that evening we drove up to Tuan Cirau, which the city outside of Halong Bay. Our guide took us to this amusement park after dinner to see this water light show. Originally we thought this was going to be really stupid and boring, but it turns out it was actually pretty impressive. They have all sorts of streams of water that move to the music along with fire (I mean seriously who doesn't like fire) and lights going every which way. Pretty entertaining.

Day 5 12/23/08

Early in the morning we set off for Halong Bay. Unfortunately it was a bit overcast so you couldn't catch the full beauty of the place. I guess it also didn't help that it was around 50 degrees outside as well. In Halong we saw various caves and caverns (Dau Go), but the highlight was the floating fish markets. There is a community of people who live in boats and rafts within the bay that make their living off selling fish. You go onto their platforms and they have these tanks of a variety of fish and other crustaceans that you can purchase. We bought a fish, several crabs, and shrimp in addition to the meal our tour was providing and gorged ourselves on seafood. Overall Halong Bay was a very beautiful place and I am sure it is even better in the spring time.

Day 6 12/24/08

Quite possibly the coolest part of our tour through the North was to go see the temples of Trang An. In order to get to these temples you have to travel by boat. All of us shipped off on these tiny boats with vietnamese woman as our rower. We traveled through a network of caves through limestone mountains (similar to the limestone rocks of Halong Bay) to reach various temples and shrines that were over 1,000 yrs old.

After working up an appetite by climbing up to various shrines we went to a restaurant that specialized in goat. Saying they specialized in "goat meat" would not have been appropriate, this place specializes in goat and everything that has to do with the goat. They brought out various dishes that came from all parts of a goat. Luckily they did not specify which part of the goat it came from and I was pretty content with the broad description that I was merely eating goat. Everything seemed pretty normal until we got to desert. They brought out what looked like cherry pudding of some sort. It turns that this too was part of a goat, in fact it is literally "goat blood pie." YumMAY!! I managed to take down every bit although it didn't taste like much. I included a pic just so I can imagine my vegetarian sisters cringing at the thought.

Once our bellies were full of goat blood it was off to Ha Noi. Ha Noi is a beautiful city and is heavily influenced by french architecture. At one point it was considered a french colony. Ha Noi was a lot less crazier than Saigon with the chaotic traffic mess. It is also a lot cleaner since it is a hot spot for tourists. In Ha Noi we ate traditional vietnamese dishes of the North. Eating almost became an all competition between Dustin, Denny and I. We kept having to order more food or D and D's parents would sacrifice their food to stab off our ravenous eating. Although the food was good in Ha Noi it still could not hold a candle to the food we had in the south. The south's cuisine is similar to what we get in the US, whereas the North's cuisine is a bit bland, but still good. After dinner we did the tourist thing and hopped on the death trap known as the Cyclo. Its more like a bike bumper car than a taxi.

Day 7 12/25/08

Christmas day was spent for the most part in a car and airplane. We went to Cho Dong Xuan market in Ha Noi, which was not nearly as cool as Ben Thanh in Saigon. Probably b/c Cho Dong Xuan catered to locals as opposed to tourists. We also went to the main Catholic church in Ha Noi for mass. Everyone wished we could have had a few more days in Ha Noi b/c it really was a great city. Maybe one day I'll head back that way.

Once we got back to Saigon that night the group split. Kim, Momma Nguyen and I left with Kim's uncle to visit her grandmother and tour the South. MInh and his family left for a beach town north of Saigon. We drove from Saigon to Kim's aunt's house in Phuoc Long, which is about 3 hr drive outside Saigon. Kim's aunt has a nice quant house with an absolutely beautiful garden. She has quite the green thumb and the house is literally covered in flowers. She is also apparently quite the artist and designed various sculptures throughout the yard.

Day 8 12/26/08

We spent the day in Phuoc Long. We did a bit of hiking and just lounging around the house. Kim's aunt made me one of my personal favorite vietnamese dishes, banh xeo (kind of like a crepe with lots of herbs and meat). It was awesome! At dinner though I had a real treat: pan roasted baby duck (see pics). This isn't just the meat, no no, this is the entire baby duck. Kim's uncle caught these suckers and you pop the entire baby duck; bones, head and all, into your mouth. Its kind of like eating popcorn. Its a bit crunchy, but very good. If I could set up a trap to catch baby ducks in Tokyo, I would do it.

Day 9 12/27/08

We left early that morning for Rach Gia, which is where KIm was born. To get there you cross through the famed MeKong Delta, which accounts for more than 50% of the world's rice production. This was the first time I got to see the southern countryside during daylight hours and it seemed to be a distinct difference between the north and the south. Quick background: prior to Viet Nam war the country was split b/t the north (communist) and the south (democratic). When the US left the communists took over the entire country. All the money basically comes from the south. Saigon is the commercial and industrial hub of Viet Nam, and the Mekong Delta provides a significant majority of agricultural products for Asia. The north has very little commercial and industrial activity and mostly feeds off of tourism.

When we drove through the north's countryside most people I saw lived in these two story concrete dwellings that were relatively well maintained. It was quite a different story when we drove through the south. People lived in huts that were built with anything they could find. I imagine many of them probably did not have running water. Here I was driving through the rich Mekong Delta that was the hub of agricultural production of Asia and it looked like people could barely feed themselves let alone have a roof over their heads. It seemed to me that the north has a lot more help from the government than the south.

We were aiming to stay in a small village at a friend of Kim's aunt and uncle that was slightly off the beaten path. A terrential down pour started and things started to look a bit bleak. Once we arrived at the village we found out that they turned the power off to the entire village. Apparently all of these little villages rotate each week to turn off all power for one day to save energy. If only we could learn by such an example. As a result of this we opted for the cozy hotel in the next large town. It was a good thing too b/c Kim apparently is a human mosquito magnet. Seriously if you don't want to wear bug spray just take Kim along with you. The bugs will literally bypass you and eat Kimi.

Day 10 12/28/08

We finally reached Rach Gia where Kim's family lived for many years and where the great Kim Nguyen entered this world. Apparently the town has developed significantly since her family fled the country in the mid 80s. An array of colorful condos now line the river front in downtown. We took a brief drive through tour and then headed over to Kim's family's old house.

The house lies across the river from downtown. We took a small row boat over there (see pic) and you could see a lot of the cottages on the water that looked like they were near toppling over. The Nguyen family house was designed by Kim's mother and the land around the house was owned by their family including a saw mill right next door. After the Viet Nam war the communists came and kicked Kim's family out on the street and confiscated their house, business, and other parcels of land. At that time the house was the tallest building on that side of the river and still remains as one of the tallest houses there today. When we arrived it was quite emotional to see Kim's mother standing and looking at her old house, reflecting on memories of the past.

I was expecting to see another family living there, but apparently the communists still use it as a government office. They allowed us to take a tour of the house and mom explained how the house was set up and so forth. On the top balcony is where I mustered up the courage to ask Kim to marry me. It didn't go quite as I planned b/c all the smooth things that I thought in my head to say turned out to be a jumbled mess, but she did say yes (thank God!) so it all worked out (see pic of engagement spot).

After the house we headed to Can Tho, which I do believe is the 3rd largest city in Viet Nam and in the heart of the Mekong Delta. We arrived just before dusk and we had one mission while we were there: find Phung Hiep. Phung Hiep is the largest floating market in the region. You can purchase fish and other various items, but the main attraction is the plethora of fruit! All throughout the trip we gorged ourselves on all sorts of various fruits such as dragon fruit, lychee, and chirimoya. I have never eaten so much fruit in my life, but it was fantastic and now we are off in search of more.

We bargained with a lady to take us over and we hoped onto this small motor boat down the river. Kim's mom on the trip talked about how entire families would live on these small fishing boats and I couldn't envision it unless I saw it with my own eyes. Then as we were riding along I saw many families all huddled in their fishing boats. It was quite remarkable and sad (see pic). We eventually got to the floating markets, but very few boats remained since it was so late. However, we did manage to purchase some pineapple so it made the trip worthwhile.

Once we arrived back we ate dinner at a small street vendor. In Viet Nam a space on the sidewalk is as good as a restaurant. We had some incredible food straight from a vendor on the sidewalk. It seems anywhere you go in Viet Nam the food is incredible. I also had one of my personal favorite vietnamese cuisines, balut, or as I call it by my literal translation "baby duck fetus." Basically you crack the duck egg open at the top and scoop out the goodness. You eat everything from the beak to the feathers and you know, it is quite good. Dip it in a little salt, pepper and lime juice and mmmmmm....delicious!

I just want to add real quick that we were in Can Tho when Viet Nam beat Thailand for the first time ever in a soccer match and not only that won the Asian cup. The Vietnamese literally partied all night long.

Day 11 12/29/08

Basically we drove straight to the airport and that concluded our vacation in Viet Nam. If you want to see more pics then what is shown below click on the slideshow off to the right and it will take you to Kim's picassa web page. From here you can see all of our photos from various trips. I congratulate you if you actually made it this far as I practically wrote a novel. Good day

Death crossing to Ben Thanh Market

I swear, the chickens were alive when we left (dinner in Saigon)

Crab and snails at Vung Tau

No, there is no trick photography here I really am this white (Vung Tao)
The old ladies didn't stand a chance against Dustin and I's ravenous eating.

Picture perfect (Halong Bay)

Those lights, in the cave....completely natural (Denny & Thu Halong Bay)

Lunch (floating village Halong Bay)

Lined up to take us to Trang An

The Gang

Ahh goat blood soup

This pic goes out to my Vegetarian sisters

mmmm yumMay!

Kim's aunt's house

Kim's aunt & uncle

On the way to the Nguyen family house (Rach Gia)

Where I popped the question (Rach Gia)

Homes on the riverside of Can Tho

An entire family lived on this fishing boat

Ah yeah, bring on the baby duck fetus