Wednesday, October 31, 2007


I may have mentioned previously how stressed I am feeling regarding my school studies. Well, the countdown has begun, our mid term exams will be held on Nov 13 and Nov 14, and we still have three more lessons to cover.

We have to cover them next week and still have time to review what we have learned in our Foundation class. As for the Listening class, I don't think there's a lot of hope there. You have to listen to all the initials, finals and tones and indicate the letters and the accents. Some words contain 2, 3 or 4 different tones. We're happy just to get the spelling correct, let alone trying to determine the tones. You would think that if you attended these classes it would sink in. I am waiting for the day that the light bulb goes on, but that hasn't occurred so far. A few students, mostly Chinese decent or Asia decent, seem to pick it up much more quickly than the rest of us, who have either dropped out or have given up on this class. I haven't done either, but I have been tempted on more than one occasion.

As one expat said to me, who happens to speak Chinese fluently, "you need to be completely overwhelmed in your classes, and if you are not, you are in the wrong class." You will all be happy to know I'm in the right class.

More like home...

For those first three months that we were here we went out to dinner every night, trying a different style of Chinese most every night. Ah, we said, as nice as this is we can't wait until our stuff arrives and we can finally cook again.

There are quite a few western style restaurants on the island, and we have been to a few during out time here, but we tended not to go to these too often because they also charge western prices. One of Tina's classmates was asking about some of the restaurants, and later we tried to calculate how many of the western restaurants we had been to. By our count the desire for western food would overcome us every 9-12 days. A far cry from some of the expats here who seem to only eat western style, but still not bad considering that we weren't cooking and were going out every night.

So, now we have our kitchen supplies and we've cooked up a few delicious meals, but somehow they just aren't the same. The tiny midget sized kitchen makes preparation a chore and only having two burners for all your cooking suddenly isn't enough. That and trying to buy food is a bit of a challenge, everything is labeled in Chinese (Shocking, huh?) and even things that you recognize seem to have a slightly different, Chinesey, flavor to them.

It's tough that cooking has become a chore where in just a few short weeks it's now "What do we want to cook tonight?" and "I don't know, you wanna go out?" Going out doesn't solve it either, as then we fall right back into trying to decide what style Chinese...

So, now what we are really missing from home is home food delivery. For when it's too much of a hassle to cook something, too late to go out, and all you're really craving is a Philly cheese steak grinder....

Monday, October 29, 2007

Tai Chi 101

I decided since we are living in China, that I would learn Tai Chi. Hey, when in Rome....
No one can really pinpoint when Tai Chi began, so let's just say a very long time ago. Originally, Tai Chi was practiced as a fighting form, emphasizing strength, balance, flexibility, and speed. Over time it has evolved into a soft, slow, and gentle form of exercise which can be practiced by people of all ages.
Off I go early this morning, since Tai Chi should be practiced outside where it's peaceful either first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon, around sunset. I drag my friend, Edlin with me as she too wanted to try Tai Chi, so we met up with our master at 8:30am.
The biggest issue according to our master is not learning the moves as much as the practice of Tai Chi, or in my case, getting out of bed. Our master gives us the origin of Tai Chi and then performs two types of Tai Chi. We just needed to make a decision which type we wanted to learn. The Yang style which seems very soft, and elegant, or the second one (cannot remember what name he used) which is pronounced in the movements. We opted the for the second one.
We learned breathing, balance, and movement of our hands for the first nine steps. The movements are slow and deliberate and important to watch the placement of your hands, feet and body. When doing this, you only think of your movements, all other thoughts of work, life, family are pushed aside during this time.
Each morning before class begins, I will pass by a group of elderly Chinese women, practicing Tai Chi. Perhaps one day, when I have learned more, I will be able to join them.

Vacation over...

Ah, I've been spoiled. Having Emily visiting and writing the posts has given me a reprieve for about 10 days, now reality has set in. I have to attempt to come up with something witty, or entertaining for the blog, and I'm still exhausted to come up with anything that remotely reads like wit or charm.

As we patted our backs for doing such a fine job with our first house guest, we figured we are more than prepared to handle the onslaught of relatives/friends willing to come and visit us while we are here in China. That's a hint to all. In fact, we will tailor the itinerary based on your needs. We know that the needs of our guests will vary from one group to the other. Some will want to sightsee, some will want to climb and hike, some would like to shop, and others would like the spa treatment. Nancy your request has been noted. As long as you stagger your stays we will be up for the challenge and Mark has already posted our fees.

On another note, my husband did the Irish jig yesterday as the Red Sox beat the Rockies and today won the World Series. Yes, he was a very happy man.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Free Beer?

Last night the bar You and Me 2 was celebrating its six month anniversary, and in doing so was giving out free Beck from 18:00 to 21:00. So of course we went over to enjoy a few drinks. It was crowded, and mostly with westerners, but nowhere near as crowded as you one would have thought considering the free drinks and all.

We didn't make it over until closer to 19:00, and we were thinking that we wouldn't be able to find a seat and that it would be tough to get drinks, but we were pleasantly surprised. After the free drinks ended we moved up the the bar and got ourselves into a dice game with some locals, and we wound up staying there until almost 02:00.

We asked the owner if he was going to open up first thing in the morning so that we could watch the Sox game but he didn't think that was a good idea. That's too bad, it would be nice to be able to watch some baseball....

Saturday, October 27, 2007

2007 winners of the Ms. Em best B&B award...

Friday morning Tina puts Emily into a cab to send her back home, and we feel good that she enjoyed her time here. At least she is telling us that she fully enjoyed it, maybe she'll get back and tell horror stories about how we made her order food and eat things that one normally wouldn't eat, but even if that's the case at least it was an experience that she can tell stories about. Seriously, we were glad that she was our guinea pig visitor, that we passed her tough B&B standards and that she enjoyed seeing our new home and some of the frustrations that we get to deal with. It was a lot of fun showing off Xiamen and what little Chinese we do know.

It will be a little strange to get back to a normal life as we know it, Friday night we just cooked up a quick casserole and called it an early night. Playing tour guide is actually exhausting but enough fun that we are looking forward to having another guest. Remember, the cost to stay at the Wichmann B&B is only a bottle of wine for every two nights and to be a courier who'll bring us triscuits and those other items that we surprisingly miss....

It was fun to watch the attention that Emily got while over here, the photo is Emily with a group that just wanted their picture taken with a westerner. Tina figured that if they get a picture with a westerner then we should have a picture of Emily with a group of Asians. She also noticed that no matter where you go everyone looks at you, that is one of the one things that we know we are really looking forward to when we come home for the holidays. It will be nice to be in a crowd and know that not everyone is looking and talking about you.

And finally, as we promised Lisa, a photo of a Chinese baby...

Friday, October 26, 2007

A very sad day... Em's Last Blog

Oy! My vacation is over, and I’ve been mourning ever since this morning when I packed my bags. Today was my last full day with Tina and Mark in Xiamen. This trip has been one of the best experiences of my life. I love the fact that you can take a 14 hour plane ride and learn so much more about the world in under ten days. Tina and Mark have been fantastic hosts - they consistently made me try things that I don’t think I would have touched with a 10 foot pole a week ago. They also made me feel right at home halfway across the world. I give the Wichmann China tour and B&B 5+++ stars! It couldn’t have been better, except maybe a little longer.

Tina took me to her Chinese classes today at Xiamen University. You would all be impressed by how much Tina has learned; I felt completely overwhelmed – there are four different tones for each word that give it completely different meanings; on top of that are characters. Xiamen also has a different Mandarin dialect from northern China, and Tina’s learning from professors that are local and from Shanghai. She’s doing incredibly well, especially with spelling – the teacher kept dictating sentences and Tina spelled everything correctly. She’s a lot brighter than we gave her credit for, LOL!

After class we went to Luwak café with Justin, one of Tina’s classmates, and had dinner and drinks. The neighborhood by Xiamen University is just like any college town – lots of young people, art, good music - and many people speak English. Mark met us shortly after dinner, we went to another café/bar nearby, and had a tsing taos on the upstairs deck.
We ended the night by going to My Way, this cool little bar that somehow Tina and Mark found in their months of living here. We met up with this American couple getting their doctorates in anthroposophy in Xiamen - Tina and Mark had met before. Both very bright and on full scholarship… We talked about Xiamen, the people, the food, and had a great time. I feel like I’ve just begun to get a taste for the place and now I’m leaving!

I am looking forward to seeing you all back home and showing you the pics of our travels – we’ve had the best time! I land in Chicago at 4:40pm Friday if all goes as planned and I receive all my Orbitz TLC alerts.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Post #4 by Miss Em

Mark and I explored Zhong shan Lu, the main drag in Mark and Tina’s neighborhood, and walked up and down the side alleys. There were all kinds of local markets with lots of live fish and seafood, poultry, flowers, tea... you name it. Some of the alleys were so narrow we had to walk single file. It was funny to see Mark, who’s probably over six feet tall, towering through the tiny walkways.

Tina came home from school at around noon, and we met back at the house for Wichmann-style nachos; yum! Then Tina and I went to Gulang Yu island to explore more and climb Sunlit Rock – more tiny stone stairs for our sore legs, but the views and cool breezes at the top made the climb well worth it.

We headed to back Xiamen by ferry at around 5pm, and met up with Tina’s friend Edlin for foot massages. A foot massage in China lasts about 100 minutes and also includes a neck, back, arm and leg massage – it costs about $13 USD. It sounds relaxing but Tina and I were both screaming at times during our massages. The masseuses were men and masters at massage – they had obviously received a lot of training. They used a lot of acupressure (severe acupressure); they easily found and poked all our sore spots. It turned out to be well worth the pain since Tina and I felt a lot better afterward. I am looking forward to seeing if there are any foot massage places back in Chicago’s China Town.

We ended our day by going to a seafood restaurant on the water, where we had “hairy crab” which is in season right now and considered to be the best crab in China.

Em day three in Xiamen

Tina and I visited Nanputuo Temple; like many Buddhist temples, it is built into the side of a mountain. We climbed all the way to the top which turned out to be quite a hike as the pathways leading up the mountain were stone stairs and built for tiny feet (the temple dates back to the 1600s) . One funny thing I should note is that the entire climb up there was a Chinese guy on our heels talking on his cell phone. This seems to happen a lot, and according to Mark there’s apparently no voicemail in China, so if a cell phone rings, most pick it up regardless of whether they’re at a temple or climbing a mountain… Touring the temple has been one of the highlights of the trip so far. I enjoyed seeing the monks and the 360 views of Xiamen.

Tina and I then ate at a small café by her University - we had sandwiches, fries and smoothies! Very delicious after the hike and after days of having no western food. I did have a “red bean” smoothie just to keep it a little Chinese – turned out to be similar to a vanilla shake – very good.

We then went to Xiamen University so Tina could go to class - it made me want to go back to school too! The campus was huge, green, full of flowers, palms, a lake, and students lollygagging out in the sunshine. Tina pointed me in the direction of the beaches, and then she went to class while I walked the shoreline.

We ended the day by meeting up with Mark, going to Good Taste (a hot pot restaurant where you stew fresh veggies and meat in a shared cauldron). We then went to a wine bar called Temptations - you guessed it! Mark and Tina are regulars there, so we got the executive treatment. We drank a bottle of red wine on the upstairs deck, and chatted with the owners, and ate exotic fruits that we had never tried before. I’m looking forward to trying to find the fruits in Chicago’s Chinatown and making you all eat them!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Guest Post #2

I have to admit I’m a little “dehydrated” this morning. Tina and I wound up visiting Gulang Yu island yesterday and meeting with Nina, her pearl dealer. The island was incredible: old European style buildings with lots of hilly alleys and tropical plants. We will be going back to Gulang Yu Wednesday to spend more time exploring. We ended our day by meeting up with Mark and going to a Dim Sum dinner - I’m still unsure what Dim Sum means, but it’s delicious. We had Tsing Taos with dinner, then headed to an outdoor bar on the water where we drank more beer, listened to a Filipino band and played a Chinese dice drinking game… you know Tina and me - both brutally competitive when it comes to silly games (looks like Mark’s that way too) - hence the reason for my dehydration this morning.

Tina and I are now headed to her University. We will be touring a nearby temple, then Tina will go to class, and I will walk the beaches on the south side of the island.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Authored by Miss Em!!!

The Wichmann’s have me on assignment, so I’m now officially on blog duty. Hello to everyone back home and happy Monday to those at the office!

I LOVE China! I have to admit I was getting nervous right before the trip – unbelievably, all the things I was most afraid of have turned out to be just fine or even fantastic. For instance, the food: I thought it might not be edible, but it’s turned out to be by far the best food I’ve had in my life! We eat fresh fruit from the markets everyday - bananas, clementines, oranges, and exotic citrus fruits that Tina and Mark have been exposing me too. Mark and Tina are also the best guides because if I had my way at mealtimes I’d eat just the pork or shrimp dumplings, fried rice, chicken, etc., but they order odd dishes on the menu that turn out to be incredibly delicious (refer to yesterday’s post with the red-chili trout). The vegetables at mealtimes (bok choy, green beans, pickles, unidentifiable crisp stems of some sort) are also delicious.

We left Hangzhou yesterday afternoon and arrived here in Xiamen last night around 5pm. I heard from Mark that some people refer to Xiamen as the Miami of China - I would agree with that, but add in some Las Vegas lights, and lots of Chinese markets and culture, and that briefly describes my first impressions of the island. It’s warm and tropical; last night after walking through the markets, we had dinner and Tsing Taos outside on a rooftop deck overlooking the water and Gulang Yu Island. It’s my kind of town here…

What makes China so different is that here are no westerners here, or at least in the places we’ve been so far. There really isn’t a way to be anonymous - we get lots of attention all day long. One thing that happens all the time is people shout “HELLO” at us just to see how we’ll respond. I would compare it to trying to get a trucker to honk it’s horn on the highway as a kid… If we respond to the “HELLO” shouts, we get gaggles of laughter and excitement - I don’t know whether to be flattered or offended.

Tina was kind enough to let me sleep in this morning. She’s is in Chinese class until noon, and then we will resume the rigorous schedule she has planned. I think foot massages and pedicures are on the agenda for the afternoon, then more island exploration. I can’t wait!

Old Town, Tea, and Trout

Today we awoke and wandered down to the old town shopping district in Hangzhou. Being Sunday apparently everybody had this same idea, but we still enjoyed shopping in this old district.

We then stopped for some of their famed tea, as our guide books informed us that aside from the beauty of Hangzhou, it is also renowned for it's silks and teas.

We did struggle a bit with the menu.

But the tea was delicious, and the tea pouring was a ceremony in itself.
From the tea we wandered back to the lake and nearer to our hotel, where we found a nice restaurant with an outdoor deck. This is where we treated Emily to her first meal that still had its head, and she loved it....

Outdoor dining overlooking the lake.

Delicious pepper trout.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The most beautiful city in China....

Ah, a full day in Hangzhou to tour what again is constantly touted as China's most beautiful city. It is a beautiful city, we spent today walking around the west lake.

Actually we slept in until 09:00, then went out and has Starbucks since this is a tourist town and they have it. The coffee was delicious. Then we hopped onto a boat tour, which takes you between the small islands on the lake. You can just get on and off at your leisure, and it makes for a very nice relaxing day.

One problem is that, being Saturday, there are a lot of tourists. This is the most people that we have had to deal with in a long time, it's strange when you aren't used to it. Another problem that we had is that when you get off the boat on the lake shore your ride is over. We learnt this when we got off the boat on the opposite side of the lake when we got out to climb up the pagoda. So we ended up walking back around the lake which took a few hours, but we did see a wonderful sunset, and then sat in a small western bar for a bottle of wine and a cheese plate.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Getting to Hangzhou is a story in itself, in that I had asked Rachel to purchase train tickets for us just to avoid any issues when we finally got to Shanghai. Rachel works up in the Shanghai office, and helped out out by getting tickets for us. However, we had to go up to the office first thing in the morning before we went over to the train station. This turned out to be over an hour in the taxi, and although it provides a great idea of just how big Shanghai is, it is not a fun way to spend your morning.

But after running around all morning, we pulled into the Hangzhou station shortly after 13:00 and were quickly at the hotel.

From there we had a delicious lunch and headed down to see the famed west lake. It is beautiful, and we are really looking forward to taking some boats across that lake tomorrow. We've wandered around and found the relaxing cafes and restaurants, and now we are off to what should be a great dinner....

Thursday, October 18, 2007


So tonight we are in Shanghai to welcome our first guest. Emily flew in this afternoon, and we met her to take her around Shanghai before we take the train over to Hangzhou tomorrow.

We met up with Emily and went out for a nice dinner out on the Bund, where we had a nice view of the river. We then walked along the river and dealt with all of the peddlers that are pushing watches and other cheap goods. We were heading over to the famed Peace Hotel where we could have a drink before heading in for the night.

No doing, the hotel has been closed for renovations since April. Ok, well we head back towards the hotel and figure that we will just stop at the first bar that we find, forgetting of course that the Chinese don't really do bars. Since we are off of the main tourist strip, there are no bars only restaurants, clothing stores, and hair salons. So, with jet lag starting to hit Emily, we decide to call it an early night...

Tomorrow we take the train to Hangzhou which is, as CCTV9 the only English TV channel we have explains, the most beautiful city in China.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Final Preperations

So, as most of you that have been reading along know, tomorrow afternoon we will have our first China visitor. We have been making full lists of things to do so that we can show off our new home, and hopefully Emily will enjoy her trip. By we are making lists, I mean that Tina is making lists and I say "Sure, sounds great." every time she asks if I think doing something will be a good idea. That works until she throws out a multiple choice question.

When we finally received all of our items, we realized that although we had downsized we still had a lot of stuff that doesn't really fit anywhere. This is extra apparent when you live in a house with no drawers in the kitchen and no closet space at all. We think that people here just do not own a lot of clothes, my very small collection fills up what closet space we have. That said, the guest room quickly became a storage room. This apparently would not do when one has a guest over.

So, last weekend we shuffled everything around, found extra spaces for items, and cleaned up as much as we could. Tina felt that we really needed to get a mattress pad for the guest room, and we made that our main weekend goal.

So yes, everything is now ready for our first visitor, a fairly comfortable bed, a clean room, and Tina's itinerary that is detailed to the extreme.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

You thought work was tough....

It's been awhile since I have written about school, so today I thought I would share with everyone how STRESSED I am, along with a few of my classmates.

The first few lessons were going along quite nicely, however both the Foundation Chinese and the Listening Chinese classes have definitely moved more quickly in the past week. In learning Chinese, one needs to determine how to say the word correctly, ie. peng is said like puung, one needs to determine the tone, then one has to learn how to spell the word correctly in pinyin, and last one has to learn to write the Chinese character.

Today, we are moving towards longer sentence structures. Personally, I like the short ones, but if one wants to learn the language properly one should try and speak the entire sentence. Our teacher had us review the initials and finals and currently there are over 400 of them, and that is without the tones. The initial would be the first part of the word, ie xiao, x would be the initial and iao is the final. Multiply that by 4 and you get the picture. As for our Listening Chinese class, she puts the tapes on and we have to determine what the initials and finals, along with the tones. Unfortunately, this is not a multiple choice exercise and when you hear this, x, q and, j, all start to sound alike. Perhaps not to the trained ear, but for us beginners, pretty much sounds the same. The poor teacher wanted us to hand in our work after this little test and the class revolted, so we get to do this all over again this week.

Everyone leaves depressed after this class, but as one of our classmates declared, "think about what we know, we've only had classes for 2 1/2 weeks." We looked at each other, and patted ourselves on the back. We felt so much better.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Egg Purchasing 101

This weekend we decided that we would make pancakes, so we needed to buy some eggs for our pancake mixture. We ponder as to how one may purchase the eggs here in China. The eggs are not refrigerated as we see back home, and unless I get them from the farm, we have no idea how long they have been sitting on the shelves. They come in all sorts of plastic containers lining the shelves, and a few are still in the egg crates.

I decided to ask a few people in my class on Friday in hopes that I may be able to get some insight. So much for that idea. I had two people tell me that they have the person who cleans their home to also buy their groceries so they couldn't help. The next gal tells me that she won't even purchase them here, since she doesn't trust the freshness of them, and the rest tell me that they chance it, since they too have no idea on how to purchase eggs.

We came to the conclusion, right or wrong, that the ones in the carton appear to be the freshest since those egg cartons are usually empty.

I went to the store, looked at the entire row of eggs on the shelf and spot two cartons of eggs. One is full, the other had two left. I went for the one that had two left, believing that these would be the freshest ones. You grab a plastic bag, have them weighed, and pay the cashier, all the time gingerly carrying the bag, hoping that they don't break, and voila a successful purchase.

Okay, Nancy E., where are you when I need you.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Meaningless Milestone #1

One Hundred Posts.

Ah, our first 100 posts. What better time to look back at what we’ve done and talk about where we are going, right? Eh, we think we’re doing well.

Actually all this posting has been fun, and it’s allowed us to keep track of everything that we have going on with this move. I think that doing this has helped to keep us grounded and a little more sane, as often when things seem at their worst we will just say “Ah, now this will make a great post for the blog…”

For another item, we have finally loaded all of our Vietnam pictures up into Flickr. They are all located within the ‘Travel’ collection, and we tried to group them so that you could fairly easily get through them. As you click on each set it should give you a quick view of all the photos so you can just select the ones you want to look at.

Another addition that we finally added is the links on the side to some of the other blogs and internet sites that we try to read with some regularity. I had the time to finally do this while listening to that incredibly long and unbelievably frustrating Sox game this morning.

I'm still amazed at just how far technology has advanced, and how lucky we are to be able to take advantage of it. From streaming the radio feed and listening to a baseball game a half a world away to following world news events, and finally in being able to quickly and easily allow people to keep up with our adventures. Because, believe me, you wouldn't be receiving letters, e-mails, or update calls if we had done this move as recently as 5 years ago.

After that, what do you guys think? How are we doing, what would you like to see more of, what do you wish we wouldn’t bother to tell you? Anything?

Home sweet home.

It feels so good to finally have our belongings, to unpack the rest of our clothes, our photos, DVDs, and books. Tina spend the better half of yesterday afternoon, instead of studying, unpacking boxes and finding places to put everything, and washing all of our sheets and towels.

The most important thing to arrive, other then the wine that we were so anxiously awaiting, is our kitchen supplies. Knives, sauce pans, skillets, and all sorts of non-perishable food stuffs. It felt like we had just hit a cooking jackpot.

Finally the end of our almost three months of the same nightly discussion:

"What do you feel like eating tonight?"

"I don't know, I guess Chinese."

Last night we cooked up a Tex-Mex chicken and rice dish and sat out on our balcony and enjoyed a nice home cooked meal. Ah, how good it tasted.

Today we woke up nice and early so that I could listen to the Sox game, and we had a nice breakfast of pancakes. Pancakes never tasted so good.

Yes, and with the books and photos this place feels a lot more ours then it did just a few short days ago. Home sweet home indeed....

Friday, October 12, 2007

Final Vietnam Stories

Yes, so we had an excellent trip even with the fun that we had with the typhoon, the delays, and the cancelled flight. If anything the flexibility that we had allowed us to adapt and get to see a part of Vietnam that was definitely worth the delays, as the train ride and the views of the coast from Hue down to Da Nang were spectacular.

The cancelled flight, albeit annoying, just needs to be looked at as a free flight to nowhere that included a meal. I remember taking a small plane up for a loop around Hudson when I was a kid and getting to see our house, I’m willing to bet that cost a little more then free and I don’t recall having food service. Another hidden bright side to this is that had we initially booked the train we would have slept in past 06:00, and we would have missed driving through the early morning market. When driving out of Hanoi we went right through this outdoor market, still almost pitch black, and got to see the booths each with their lights showing off their goods, and all the little old ladies with their baskets buying the fruits and vegetables that they would later be lugging through the streets of the old quarter selling to all the small restaurants, locals, and tourists.

On our last night in Vietnam, as we mentioned earlier, we stopped off at the Rex Hotel right in the center of Saigon. We walked in at probably around 15:30 and headed up to the bar at the roof deck. Exiting the elevator I went over to the window to take a picture of the town hall and when I return towards the bar Tina is talking to a guy saying “Now why do I think I know you from somewhere?” I walk up and say “Because we talked to him two weeks ago over at the Orient Bar in Xiamen.” Here were are 1,200 miles from our China home, some 8,000 miles from the states, and we run into a Californian that we know.

Now, we did know that he was going to be in Vietnam for the holiday week, but he was going to be further north for his engagement party. He had just gotten back into Saigon, had tons of errands that he needed to complete before heading back to Xiamen, and had only gone to the Rex because it was close to where one of his friends works and they were catching up over a quick drink. Fifteen minutes later and we never would have run into him. We joke that Xiamen is a small island because one seems to run into the few people that you know quite often, but this is more small world then I would have ever expected.

Finally, on our last day as we head to the airport we still have 1.7 million in Vietnamese Dong, it does seem really odd that first time you go to the ATM and pull out 2 million in cash, but 1.7 equates to roughly 105 USD. The international side of their airport is beautiful, brand new, many of the stores and restaurants are still under construction, and so too is the currency exchange. Huh. Vietnam has a closed currency, so we can’t exchange it anywhere except Vietnam. “Buy stuff” is the advice that we get, “Great”, 1.7M buys a lot of airport trinkets.

Yes, so why not just buy more wine at duty free? We thought of that, but we have a connecting flight through Hong Kong, and we aren’t fully sure of their rules for liquids. Not worth the risk.

Vietnam magnets for everybody we know? OK, grab some of them and then that bag of snickers bars, the peanut M&M’s, and bunches of gummy bears. What are we up to? $48, OK what next? That’s when Tina calls me over to the back corner of the store. Ah, she’s found the humidor and it’s stuffed with Cuban cigars. Yes, we can easily spend $105 on Cubans, I’ll go and put all these magnets and candy back.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Vietnam Airlines

Having been in the travel industry for awhile I find it interesting/frustrating/amusing to see how this industry works. I will start at the beginning, and attempt to write our fun with Vietnam Airlines.

Due to the typhoon we were approximately 10 minutes from flying into Denang when the flight attendant announces that we will be returning to Hanoi, due to severe weather. Not sure why they wouldn't have known this before we left, but who are we to say. We arrive at Hanoi, and was told that we needed to wait in the departure area until Vietnam Airlines had more information. There was a chance they may fly out later that day. We waited, and waited, until the announcement came that flight had been cancelled. We needed to pick up our luggage and check alternate arrangements. We get our luggage only to find a huge line that would have taken hours, so we decided to leave. We call our travel agent and he has someone pick us up at the hotel, and then he advised he will meet us there to make alternate plans. Our agent books a train from Hanoi to Denang, cancels the tour and hotel in Hue. That was all confirmed and now the fun part.

We went to the first Vietnam Airlines office to get a refund for the 1st leg of the journey. They couldn't help us, and advised to go to the main Vietnam Airlines office about 1 km away. We get there, wait, and explain the situation, and she tells us that they cannot refund the ticket, it has to go to the agency of where we purchased the flights. It's a full fare economy ticket with no restrictions, and totally refundable. Generally, you can get a refund from the airline or the issuing agency, however in this case apparently only the issuing agency can do it. I request that she documents the record to avoid any confusion, though we do not have the flight coupons, we do have our boarding passes, and the rest of the ticket. She asks why we don't have them, and explain that your airline has them, when we boarded they take the coupons. Apparently, with this airline when there is a cancellation, you have to wait in the long line at the airport and pick up your coupon. She documents the record.

Later, as we were leaving to go to the train station, I receive a call from Vietnam Airlines asking me to call another number, because the coupon that they took for our flight has to be sent Denang to get a refund. You're kidding? Nope, they have to have the coupon or they won't refund our tickets.They have to literally fly the coupons to Denang in order for us to obtain our refund. We get to Denang airport at the end of our stay in Hoi An, and with the help of our guide explain what happened. We just need to either get authorization to refund the ticket or they can refund the ticket. Yes we understand that we do not have the coupons, but you have them in Hanoi at the airport. There should be something in our record, please take a look and see if nothing else. Nope, nothing in the record. You do understand that there was a typhoon two days ago, right and flights were cancelled? He tells us that he will call Hanoi once they are open to see if they will put something in the record, then send it to Saigon, so that they can refund our ticket but he needs to get information regarding the flight. Exactly what information are you waiting for, I ask. He says information. I ask about what? This goes on for about 30 seconds before he tells me that he needs to verify that the flight was cancelled. Okay, this explains, my first question? Clearly he doesn't recall a typhoon just hit central Vietnam. He keeps giving us the same answer regardless of the questions we ask and was hoping we would leave him alone. He got his wish. in Hanoi.

We arrive in Saigon, and head to the Vietnam Airlines office to see if we can get this resolved. I'm sure you can figure this out, but there was no message left nor anything documented in our record. What a shock! We explain to the gal what happened yet again, and she talks to someone on her team. While we were waiting, we saw three gals over by the computer playing computer games as people were waiting to have their questions answered. Gives you an idea, of what we've bee dealing with. Okay, so the lady comes back and says that she cannot give us a refund because she has to call Hanoi and get some additional information. What information were they waiting on? Apparently the same information the guy in Denang was looking for, to see if a typhoon actually went through Vietnam. We waited for about 10 minutes and told them they we cannot wait any longer as we have our ride waiting for us. This is now going on to about 20 minutes already and our poor driver has been waiting for us to come back. Another gal, comes in and we explain again, but with more feeling, (we were getting a wee bit frustrated by this point) what transpired and we need to get authorization to get a refund for the plane ticket. She does some more digging into our file and comes back to say that she will refund our ticket. It's highly unusual but she will do it, though she tells us that she will only refund USD 100 because the fares are cheaper in Vietnam, and will refund the amount of the market price. Mmm, wrong answer. We were to get USD 230 for both tickets. I'm sure you know what happens next...

I tell her that this is unacceptable and she then tells me that the rates are cheaper in Vietnam. That's lovely, I tell her except, however Vietnam Airlines cannot refund less than what I paid for a fully refundable ticket. I explained to her how the process is done, having been in the travel industry when it comes to a fully refundable y class fares. She looks at me, and then says she has to get an approval from her manager. She stomps off, and I figure we won't see her again, but after 10 minutes she shows up. She tells us that she has been authorized to give us our refund, but tells us that this is highly unusual. We get the amount back, and it's more than we expected. Okay, that covers the time we spent dealing with this airline. We thank her and leave but not before getting a lecture on how we need to wait for our flight coupons the next time there was a cancellation. Can you say electronic tickets?

Hopefully there won't be a next time.

Christmas in China

Yes, our belongings finally arrived today, now begins the fun of unpacking and finding a place for everything.

There was some confusion at first, seeing as none of the movers spoke any English and our Chinese is still quite limited. Being able to ask for the bill and ordering rice and vegetables doesn't help in these types of situations. I tried Tina's magic solution of dialing the English 110 number, but 4 calls in didn't connect me to anyone that could fully understand what we needed. Eventually a lot of pointing and head nodding and they managed to start moving boxes, however they were taking them the long way around but I finally gave up. Well, not gave up, came up to the apartment and got the number of our moving contact in Shanghai and had her talk to the movers. That helped, but by the time I finally got a hold of her most of the moving was already completed.

And yes, for those of you concerned, our wine did manage to arrive safely.

Ah, it was like seeing old friends. Welcome to our home, welcome to our wine fridge...

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Hồ Chí Minh City (Sài Gòn)

Saturday morning and again we are up early to catch a flight on Vietnam Airlines, this time from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City. At least this time we know that the weather is clear, so we have no real worries. We get to the airport early so that we can clear up some issues with Vietnam Airlines over the cancelled tickets (I'll let Tina explain that whole ball of fun to you sometime) and then spend our time relaxing with a cup of coffee as we wait for the plane to board. This time the flight is uneventful and we arrive in Saigon and are whisked to the hotel.

Ho Chi Minh, Saigon? There still seems to be a lot of confusion as to what exactly the city name is, as apparently the south Vietnamese didn't really take to kindly to the north renaming the city after the war so they just still refer to if as Saigon in everything they do. Whatever you call it, it is a bustling, crowded, city teeming with people and filled with wonderful sights.

The old areas are filled with beautiful French architecture, such as the city hall and the post office. We only had one night here so we wandered mostly in this area of the city.

We stopped for lunch at a small cafe just past the city hall, and decided to treat ourselves to a nice French dinner at one of the places highly recommended in our guide book. We called and we are lucky that we can still get a reservation for 20:00 that evening.

From there we visited the post office and then took a tour of the War Museum. The museum is interesting, filled with propaganda and does paint the Americans in a bit of a negative light but still worth it to see. Even the small war museum in Hoi An had some albums left behind with the note "The poison of depraved and reactionary culture of US."

From there to the Rex Hotel, where the Americans used to give their daily war briefings. They have a great rooftop deck and we sat up there to have a drink, admire the view of the city, and watch the sun set.

From there we started to walk over to the Saigon river, but got caught up in all the little shops and soon had to head over to dinner. We ended up spending a lot of time looking at old watches, not the nice fakes that you get up in Hanoi, but old watches that they find and spend time putting back together and getting running. Some of them are real nice, but here for some reason they are really hard to talk down in price. Eventually we cave in and Tina and I buy some watches and head to dinner.

Ah, nice French food, steaks, wine, cheese plates, and a nice restaurant. Once we get the wine and order food I pull out a watch and set to set the time. We had looked at various watches and made sure that they all worked, but suddenly the one I bought won't let the minute hand sweep past the hour hand. Tina realizes that this is going to eat at me all night, and that the shop will most likely be closed when dinner is over, so she sends me back to get it replaced and tells the waiters that they will need to hold the meal for a bit. I head back to the watch shop, he looks at it and quickly replaces it with another one that we verify is working. I set it to the correct time and head back for dinner, getting there just as Tina is sending my steak back to keep warm. Another few minutes go by and I notice that this new watches minute hand hasn't moved, so I quickly eat and excuse myself to run back to the shop. I get there just as he's closing up, get another watch, wait a few minutes to ensure that everything works, and have him change the band on the watch to a better one. He was really friendly about all of it, and I'm glad that I was able to get that all straightened out. When I get back Tina is half way through our cheese plate dessert.

Yes, our nicest meal of the trip and I miss most of it running around Saigon. What fun.

After dinner we went to a nice jazz club, and it was really nice to listen to real jazz again. An perfect way to finish our last night in Vietnam, well other then the missing most of dinner part...

Monday, October 8, 2007

Hội An

- Update -
Ok, so I got home at 19:00 and since Tina was still out running errands I figured that I better quickly throw in a post. When I meet Tina for dinner later she informs me that she posted about Hoi An before she left. What surprises me in reading both now is the fact that it appears we actually listen to each other while we talk and wrote close to the same thing.

So today you get two for the price of one, enjoy.

Hoi An is a small little town located in Central Vietnam just about 40 minutes south of Da Nang. This is very much a tourist town, and what it is apparently known for is its tailors. We only stopped there because it is the closest town to My Son, its old town section is an UNSECO site with really unique architecture, and there are a lot of quaint cafés to eat and drink at along the river and throughout the town. I seemed to have missed the whole section on custom tailored clothing and shoes when first scanning through the guide book. We had a few people tell us in Hanoi and in Halong Bay how great the deals on clothes are and that we should really look into having something made while we were there.

The first thing that you notice when you get into town is the local people and the sheer amount of shops within a 4 block downtown area. The people here are much more aggressive than the people in Hanoi in trying to get a sale. They usually all sit at the entrance to their stores and the minute they see you look in the store they jump up with “Buy something, please look, many colors, many sizes. We make for you.” It gets overwhelming, especially if you just want to look in quickly and see what kinds of clothing they might have.

The housing architecture is amazing, but the buildings are old and in rough shape. A lot of the walls are crumbling and moldy, and apparently the city floods quite often during this rainy season. Our first night at dinner another couple told us that the stores all at the river were flooded with a meter of water the day before. There is a lot of Chinese influence, as many refugees from the collapse of the Ming Dynasty moved here, along with the influence of the Japanese and the French. One does spend some time amazed at the condition of these buildings, as what we are used to most all of these buildings would have been condemned.

Once you get used to the pushiness of the local merchants it is fun to do some shopping, you need to view the items in each store by looking in when they are still a few stores in advance or across the street, but once you go in you can barter with them and have them make items for you fairly quickly. We didn’t get a lot of clothes, but some linen shirts that we had made were completed in just under 4 hours at a cost of around $12 each.

The hard part is really in checking out all of the materials, we saw a lot of nice t-shirts that said they were 100% cotton but felt very much like a polyester blend. When you call them on it they just say "It is same. Yes, cotton. Same, same." And they say this a lot, the third or fourth time she said "Same, same" we just kind of looked at each other and said "Ah, so that explains the t-shirts..." There are a lot of t-shirts that you see for sale in Hanoi and here in Hoi An that say "Same Same" on the front and "...but Different" on the back. We never understood what that meant until then.

Hoi An

We arrived in Hoi An in the evening and headed for the downtown area immediately. We were trying to make up for lost time. After a couple of hours of walking, came to realize we saw most of it, granted it was in the evening but gave us an idea that we are fine with our timing while we are in Hoi An. We opted for dinner at a nice little restaurant by the water and a couple of appetizers and wine. We received the bill, and saw the look on Mark's face. The one that says, I can't believe it costs this much for 2 appetizers and wine. The bill still came out to $34. 00, which is quite a lot considering where we were, and the prices in Hanoi were less expensive. It caught us off guard.

Here the streets are lined with shops, more shops and even more shops. This is a shoppers paradise, shoes, suits, and artwork. Pretty much anything you may want. Hoi An, is known for their tailors dating back centuries, so if anyone wants anything made, they will certainly do it for you quickly and fairly inexpensively, depending on your bartering skills. In fact, we met a gal from Europe who had just finished bartering for her drugs at the pharmacy. You can pay in either Dong or USD. The first price that they will quote will be in USD. Mark had to keep asking the price everytime in Dong.

The shop keepers stand or sit outside waiting for the tourists, where they will ask you to coma and visit their shop. "Suits made in a day. "Com and buy something." "Good deals for you". Some may see you stealing a glance across the street, and they will shout for you to come and see their store. They will come over while you are eating, drinking trying to sell you something and in some cases send their young children over, watching them, hoping someone will buy something. They are quite aggressive, considering Vietnam only opened the doors to tourists since 1995. We were told by our guide that there will be approx 25 new resorts coming in the next 10 -15 years, starting from De Nang to Hoi An. I made a comment to Mark, that I can't even imagine what this place would be like in the next 5 years, let alone in 15 years.

The next day, after our tour of My Son, we had lunch and our guide took us on a walking tour of Hoi An, showing us the Japanese Covered Bridge, which is one of the main sites to see here, along with a Vietnamese tube house, a Chinese temple, and then to a craft market, where they wanted to sell more merchandise to you. The city itself is beautiful and quaint, with a nice harbour, so it is definitely worth it. You just have to smile and say no thanks.

We did notice that the buildings were covered in mold since they are in the central part of Vietnam, they tend to get hit with typhoons on a regular basis. It appears that no one worries about that here in Vietnam. Back in 1995, apparently the flood was so bad, it went up to the first floor of one of the restaurants. In the States, the building would be condemned, here it's a UNESCO site.

We had the rest of the day to wander and dinner was prearranged for us at 8pm. We had 5 hours to walk around. The city itself during the day, is extremely quaint and lovely, with bars and restaurants hugging the harbour. We took some time, to sit and have a beer, and watch the boats go by before dinner. It was quite lovely.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

My Son

We finally arrived into Hoi An just after 17:00, and decided that instead of taking a much needed shower we would just head into town, tour a little, eat dinner, and have a few drinks at one of the many cafes that are mentioned in the guide books. We’ll post all of our Hoi An stories tomorrow, as we also took an afternoon after My Son and it fully deserves a separate post.

My Son is a series of ancient temples that were built as a religious center during the Cham dynasty sometime between the 4th and 13th centuries. It had been rediscovered by the French in the 1890’s, and they had spent countless years documenting all of the buildings and relics along with doing some restoration work. Over 80% of the site was destroyed during the Vietnam War from American bombing runs, as the Viet Cong were using these temples as ammunition dumps. The amount of damage and bomb craters that show after 30 years is amazing.

We got up early and were pleased that the weather looks like it was going to be perfect. A nice day that wasn’t too hot and mostly blue skies, apparently the last two days ranged from tropical storm to 38 degrees (100 Fahrenheit) with over 90% humidity.

When we arrived at My Son our guide directed us over to a seating area so we could watch traditional dance of the natives. There were about 4 other people waiting for this show, so we sat and waited hoping it would be a quick dance routine. When more and more tourists arrived and suddenly the group was pushing 40 people we asked our guide if we could leave now so as to see the sights while there weren’t groups of people milling around the sites. He didn’t seem to like that idea, “Wait and enjoy that dance, it is very good. If you don’t like the music then we can go.”

We gave it maybe 3 minutes before we got up, still intent to view at least some of the sights ahead of this throng of tourists. There were a few other people that had this same idea, but the dancing went on for an additional 10 minutes so this jump really helped one to fully appreciate the beauty of the sight.

It is a wonderful site that really only takes about two hours to walk around and see everything. The Italians and Japanese are doing a lot to work on rebuilding some of the temples that were destroyed in the war, so in the next few years even more temples should be there for people to enjoy.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Train to Da Nang.

Ok, it's been a few days since our last update, but here is the update that should have followed our previous post.

Ah, to look forward to an 16 hour train ride instead of a quick and easy flight. Well, at least this way we know that we won’t be turned around if the storm is still bad, and in the morning before we arrive at 11:30 we will get a chance to see some of the countryside.

Sounds nice and quaint and hopefully is something that we will thoroughly enjoy. The room is a bit of a shock when we see it; four beds in a 6’x7’ room, prisoners have it better then this. Seriously. And there are all these Vietnamese that keep walking up and down the hallway peering into every room in a way that gives you an uneasy feeling. We talk to a couple from Lisbon, Portugal down just a few rooms from us and we decide that someone will always need to keep watch during the night, especially when groups travel to the bar or dining car.

But they do actually go through the train before they leave and get the riffraff off, and one does travel in peace with few worries. We end up sharing a room with a couple from Australia, and once settled we head down to said dining car. We also brought some French Baguettes and a bottle of wine to the dining car, which seemed to bother them slightly. When we offered to buy some pho or some beers to make the woman waiting on our table absolutely refused to sell anything to us.

So around 21:00 we settle into bed and hope to get a fairly good nights’ sleep, the train rocks and skips and abruptly slows a lot more then one would expect, but eventually we drift of to sleep. I awake around 03:00 and notice that we are not moving, and awaking again an hour later we still aren’t moving. Arise around 05:30 with the sun as the shades don’t shade much, and start to enjoy the beautiful scenery.

Most people on the train are going to Hue which arrives at 08:30, we and a few other couples are going to De Nang, getting in at 11:30. The sightseeing is amazing, everywhere is flooding and wind damage from the typhoon that went through in the night. People are all out moving tree limbs and cleaning. We start to see where they are hacking fallen branches just to clear the tracks, and at one point we cross as small causeway that you can tell has been quickly reinforced to cope with the flood waters. Yes, that felt safe.

But again, the sights are breathtaking and it is nice to see the countryside. So 08:30 comes and goes without stopping at Hue and we begin to wonder how much further. Apparently none of the workers on the train speak English (we decide that it is because the train is still government run) and it is hard to figure out exactly where we are en-route to our destination. All we know is that we are 3 hours past Hue, and then another 40+ minutes in a car from Da Nang to Hoi An.

The train finally pulls into Hue at 14:00, just a little off schedule. Apparently the rumor is that they stopped to let the storm go through and, judging by the sights, we figure that was a good thing.

After Hue, the skies really open up. And by that I mean blue skies, breathtaking, and now the train is running along the coast. Wow, just amazing, and that this point we are thinking the train was worth it.

Yes, then we get into Da Nang early, considering, at only 16:00. This put us into Hoi An just after 17:00, plenty of time to sight see this evening before we head of to see My Son tomorrow….

And, although we feel bad that we are now a few days behind, we will post stories from each day individually so that they don't overwhelm....
- Few comments left out by Mark
As Mark stated in the earlier post, the bar car woman was not impressed us or should I say Mark,for bringing in wine, so the next day when we showed up, she still wasn't impressed. We had a couple of beers and met fellow travelers from Australia, also sitting and enjoying the sites of Vietnam, when the same lady came over and tried to shoo us out of the bar car. We ordered lunch and shortly thereafter she attempted to get rid of us again. Like any good tourist, we played dumb. This was lunch time for the crew, and they did not want anyone besides the workers to be in the car, even though the signs state that lunch was from 11:30 until 2pm. Reminds me of East Germany all over again. A man than comes over to the Aussies and instructs them to sit with us. With an empty table, the crew place food on the table as a deterrent for any future sales. Well, it worked. A young couple came in and then realized all tables were occupied and immediately went back to their car. We were the only paying people in the bar car.
As we were in the dining car, our roommate came over explaining that he awoke to find the cabin steward, apparently hungry, trying to get into our cashews that we purchased prior to our trip. She was disappointed to find out that we had not opened the jar of cashews yet, looked at our roommate, and left. I had him point out which cabin steward it was, and left it with her when we arrived in De Nang. I had a new best friend.
Lastly, Mark mentioned earlier that our cabins were quite small, and they certainly were. The cabins had four bunks and a little table, and a garbage can that I assume was white at one time. It was quite small for four people but when we had our fifth guest, I drew the line, granted he was small, but still a mouse is still a mouse. He stayed with us for a short time, before the odor of lunch lured him away, never to be seen again.
Aside from that, we were happy that we ended up taking the train. We were able to enjoy the scenery, and meet some wonderful people from around the world. Definitely recommend it to anyone thinking of going to Vietnam.