Archive for the 'Travel Journal' Category

Hrvatska

This is a long overdue report on my travels to Croatia earlier this year.

It all began over drinks with Kai in San Francisco. She mentioned she was planning to travel to Croatia in the Spring. With who? I asked. Why, by myself, she replied. To which I naturally, and in my standard elegant mode of address, replied, I Wanna Go Too I Wanna go Too!

And so we did go. Since Kai is a busy doctor and all the time busy with doctoring things, she let me take on most of the planning for the trip. Which, naturally, suited me just fine. We had only 8 days in Croatia, with a few days in London on either end, but we wanted to experience as much of the country as possible. So we planned a whirlwind tour of the Southern coastal area, beginning in resort town Zadar, through Split and ending in Dubrovnik, with one venture inland to Skradin and the Krka Waterfalls.

Zadar

It rained the morning we were in Zadar, preventing us from exploring the city. Our one adventure here was taking the public bus to the bus station, which the guide book made sound quite simple, but was complicated by the rain, our bags, the crowds and the fact that the bus station was not labeled as such. We made it, though, and went onward to Sibenik, where we had yet another interesting bus travel experience in trying to decipher which bus was our bus.

Skradin and Krka National Park

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We were travelling just before Easter, which marks the beginning of the high season for tourism in Croatia. We arrived in Skradin to find it a ghost town — empty streets, shuttered restaurants and stores. In wandering around, we would see restaurants washing down their decks, dragging about tables and chairs, beginning preparations to open for the season. In our day and a half there, we had the place totally to ourselves, which was actually a bit disconcerting. It almost felt like we were interrupting the town’s last moments of solitude before they open their doors and welcome in the masses.

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We were the only occupants of our hotel and for the included breakfast, instead of opening up the dining room, they set us up our own little table in the lobby. It was comical, but in an endearing way.

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The town has a lovely pier, where the boat that takes visitors to the Krka National Park and its waterfalls docks.

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Though Krka is much smaller than the famous Plitvice Lakes, it was still a lovely way to spend the morning and was all we had time for anyway. We ended up having to hike there since the early morning boat never showed up to take us.

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Before leaving, we stopped for what was fast becoming a morning, noon and night ritual for us: cappus.

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Wien

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When planning this trip, I was told by a few people that they thought I’d love Vienna. I’ve heard many people say that, while cities like Paris and London are wonderfully cosmopolitan and chockablock with culture, and while the Spanish and Italian cities are amazing for their food or art or nightlife, Vienna is a city that you can see yourself living in.

Vienna is, of course, rich in history. One guidebook calls it a “head without a body” — it is the former capital of the uber powerful Hapsburg Empire, yet is the seat of a small country with little military might or global sway today. Its former glory is evident no matter where in the city you go, however; as is its past as the center of several revolutionary intellectual and artistic movements (see Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Freud, etc. etc. etc.) There’s enormous palaces to be seen, the largest collections of Klimt and Schiele in the world far as I can tell (including The Kiss), beautiful, monumental statues celebrating Hapsburg greatness, a zillion monuments to various famous dead white bearded guys (see Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Freud, etc. etc. etc.), and much like Prague every corner brings a new architectural gem. (The statue above is from the Belvedere Palace, a “summer home” built by Prince Eugene in the 1700s — if by “summer home” you mean two colossal mansions linked by sprawling Versailles-esque gardens. It’s now most famous as being home to Klimt’s The Kiss.)

But who cares about all that history stuff right? Some white guys plus Maria Theresa did some stuff, blah blah blah, built some stuff, blah blah blah.

Those people who told me I’d love Vienna? They were probably talking about the food. Scratch food. The coffee. And the cakes. Above all, Viennese seem to value the importance of plopping down in a beautifully appointed cafe, ordering a melange and a Sachertorte, unrolling today’s paper and then staying there for, oh, anywhere from an hour to a half-day. Why move? The waiters don’t rush you out, they’re happy to let you sit there all day. If you finish your Sachertorte, then you order an apfelstrudel.

THIS is what I’m talking about:

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Those are the cakes on offer at Oberlaa, a chocolatier and torte maker in the Naschmarkt.

Here is the Sachertorte I sampled at the Cafe Drechsler. It was very good, though a bit too sweet for me:

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This chocolate and sour cherry torte at the cafe Milo in Museumsquartier was Delicious. My favorte food on the trip so far:

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Ceska

One of the things I love about traveling is being exposed to the look and sounds of different languages, especially languages you rarely hear in the States. While traveling in Vietnam, I tried my best to learn some of the basics of the language — I even downloaded podcast lessons beforehand. But other than a few easy to handle words (Gam un = thank you; Ca = fish), I found the language extremely difficult to get a hold of in even the most basic ways, and naturally unnecessary given that 95% of people spoke basic English.

Here in Prague, it’ s much the same. Most people speak English, and it’s not necessary to even try to speak in Czech. Still, it seems unfair that it’s so easy for us English speakers to travel everywhere without even having to learn hello and goodbye, so I’ve given it a shot. But pronouncing Czech words is definitely just as difficult as Vietnamese words were. I mean, this is what I’m dealing with:

Na Phkope
Pstrossova
Na Perstyne
Vysehradska
(all street names)

You get the gist. And that’s without all the crazy accents. Navigating our way through the city — yelling out absurd, totally illogical pronunciations of street names while gesturing at nothing in particular — has made for quite a scene.

The Czech language is beautiful, though. It has the same rich chunkiness as German but with the elegant lilt of French or Italian. And thankfully the most important word is easy for even the most linguistically challenged among us to pronounce:

Pivo
(beer)

Praha

Here I am in Prague.

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In three days, we’ve managed to see quite a bit: the castle, a tour of all the synagogues in the Jewish quarter, a driving tour of much of the rest of Old Town and some of New Town, a few museum visits, and some fancy lunches and dinners.

But of course, you can read about tourist destinations in Prague anywhere. Here are some of the most interesting things I’ve noted in my time:

  • You can buy little bottles of Absinthe on the street. In cute little bodega-esque stands:
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  • Prague is no longer the budget travel destination it once was. My brother told me that just seven years ago, you could get 40 koruna per dollar. Today it’s about 14 koruna to the dollar. Yeah, that’s a big Ouch.
  • And that’s only partly because of how poorly the dollar is doing today. The Czech economy is apparently booming, and the tourist industry is certainly big-time booming, even for what is technically considered off season. Old Town, where we are staying, is packed with tourists all day long to the point where it becomes difficult to push yourself down the street through the mangle of Italian college students and Japanese families.
  • It’s true: You don’t come to Prague for the food. Now, I have yet to go to Kampa Park, supposedly the best restaurant in the city; and I spent much of yesterday sick in bed with a sore throat. But I was expecting street carts with sausages and sauerkraut piled on top of random dishes, and at least a few dishes per menu that end in -wurst. Haven’t had a real -wurst yet.
  • They really hate the Communists here. Given the history, that’s not especially surprising, but Prague’s history is filled with torment, persecution and corrupt governing. Our guide told us the story about how the walls in the New-Old Synagogue ran red with blood after the Catholics (I think it was the Catholics, but it’s hard to remember given how many groups persecuted the Jews in Prague over the years) killed off 90% of Prague’s Jewish population and how those red stains are still visible today underneath the synagogue’s white paint. But nearly every guide we’ve had or local we’ve spoken with somehow manages to get in a hard word or two about the Communists.
  • Speaking of the Communists, they built some darned ugly buildings in a city known for its beautiful facades. We happen to be staying in one of the Communists’ crowning architectural achievements (photos and comparison of Non-Communist Pretty vs. Communist Ugly architecture to come).

The Highlight Reels

Back in New York. After traveling for some 26 hours, it feels good to be at rest and at home. Of course coming back from traveling is always sad, and it is so very very different here than there. I tend to remember most of my travels in superlatives, so here’s the highlights from my trip:

Favorite Place I Visited:
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This is a hard one to call, since we hit bad weather and suffered mishaps that were no one’s fault in various locations. And, of course, weather can totally taint my perception of a place. Despite that, I am going to say Hoi An was my favored destination. Two of our three days there it poured buckets, but it was I think the friendliest place we visited and I found it the most charming. I found things to enjoy about every place we stayed, though: Singapore’s food and diversity; Ha Noi’s colonial mystique; the beach at Nha Trang; the big-city-bustle of Ho Chi Minh City.

Best Meal in Singapore:
A tie between the fried oyster omelette and lobster laksa. The laksa wins based on taste alone, but the oyster omelette was like nothing I’ve ever eaten before, truly.

Best Meal in Vietnam:
On our last night in Ha Noi, we ventured to a divey place called Restaurant 1,2,3, where we were the only non-locals. We were served two heaping, steaming plates of yummy food and three beers for 80,000 dong — five dollars! Plus, we got to watch a Vietnamese variety show on television, which the waitresses couldn’t pull their eyes off of and which seemed to be a cross between a war-era USO show and American Idol.

Best I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-That-Annoying-Tourist Experience:
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Halong Bay. There were hundreds and hundreds of tourist boats docked in Halong Bay and when we first arrived, we wondered how they possibly filled them all. Fifteen minutes later, the entire place was swarming with tourists from every imaginable country and of every imaginable ilk. The process of getting aboard was nightmarish, but totally worth it once we were sailing the emerald water on our sienna yellow boat.

Weirdest Observed Cultural Difference:
Indian men holding hands in Singapore’s Little India. Apparently, it’s common for men from India and I believe Pakistan to hold hands with their colleagues while walking the streets and so on. It’s something that would certainly not be seen anywhere in New York and I would venture the United States. (Interestingly, I also read that these men are rarely seen showing such affection for their family and friends.)

Biggest Wow-I’m-on-the-Other-Side-of-the-World Moment:
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The traffic in Vietnam. It stunned us in Ha Noi and we continued to marvel at the sheer number and power of the motorbikes in the street. And everyone’s — pedestrians, drivers and passengers — total absence of fear or caution as they swarm the streets.

Scariest Moment:
This was, surprisingly, not the flight out of Da Nang mid-typhoon but our descent into Ho Chi Minh City. On the way down, a sudden storm came through the city and made visibility terrible. Because of that, our pilot misaligned the landing and had to abort, pull the aircraft back up into the air, circle around and give it another go. Thankfully, the weather had partially cleared by that time and he got it right on the second try. But, really, there’s nothing like watching the land approach, approach, approach and then — whoopsies, just kidding! — pull back up, up and away into the dark and cloudy sky.
HPIM5441.JPG It was less dramatic than that, really, but I was still pretty much convinced for a few minutes there that our pilot was drunk/incompetent and we were all goners. Taylor was, of course, nonplussed by the entire thing.

Moment When I Most Felt on Vacation:
Not crossing the street in Ha Noi or HCMC, let me tell you. It was certainly while blissing out on Jungle Beach. There’s really nothing like having an entire beach — and I mean miles and miles of sand, here — to yourself. I highly recommend it.

So Much More Than an Airport

Here I am in Changi Airport, which is pronounced “Ch-ahhhhn-geeee” for those who care about such things. And I now remember what I liked about Singapore.

I don’t know what part of Changi we were in the two previous times we came through, but we missed the heart and soul of this airport. Which, being Singapore, is all about food and shopping: the Transit Mall — a large, 24-hour collection of shops and food stalls. There are designer shops, pods where people can play videogames, bars, stores selling Singaporean food and — mother of all that is good — Free Internet. And everything is clean, and nice smelling and handsomely laid out.

I have a whole thing written about the highlights of my trip, but it’ll have to wait until I get to Frankfurt, or possibly New York. I have more important things to do right now. Like track down some kaya toast and kopi. My travels have come full circle.

To my New Yorkers: I’ll be back on the Upper West Side Sunday morning.

Out of the Rain, Into the Jungle

Remember that scene in “Independence Day” where Air Force One is taking off and all of Washington D.C. is blowing up just in its wake? Well, substitute in the dinky Vietnam Airlines plane for Air Force One and the city of Da Nang for D.C. and thunderous, ridiculous, pounding rain for alien-induced explosion and you pretty much have what our flight out of the central coast was like last Tuesday, the 2nd of October. Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but as several concerned friends and family members have written to us, they did end up having to evacuate something like 400,000 people because of Typhoon Lekima and it also apparently killed 12 people. Yikes. We just missed the truly bad brunt of it (all the flights were canceled the day after we left Da Nang), but we did spend two rain-soaked days in Hoi An, which was otherwise a charming place to be. The streets flooded up to our knees. I was constantly donning the H.O.T. smurf-blue poncho. Really the rain was just amazing and we were unsure if it was really safe to be flying in all that. Even more amazing was that when we got to Nha Trang, just a forty-five minute flight down the coast, the weather was just fine.

In fact, it was quite beautiful. So beautiful we decided to book it out of the busy, tout-clogged, neon-lit streets of Nha Trang for a remote, hippie-dippie-type resort called Jungle Beach, run by a Canadian who, as far as I could tell, never wears anything but boxer shorts. We stayed in the “beach-front suite,” which was a true bungalow — three walls and a mattress on a platform, covered in mosquito netting. I totally roughed it. There was little electricity and barely running water. We could literally see the beach through the “window” (read: square-shaped hole) in our bamboo and straw hut. There was really nothing to do but sit around on the totally isolated beach and stare at the horizon. Which is why we were out of touch for some time, and not dutifully posting on the blogs.

We were also fed three meals a day by the super friendly madame of the house, who cooked up tasty, authentic, family-style Vietnamese food. This also meant we had to share a table with the various Germans, Israelis, Brits and others at Jungle Beach, but I was able to put my American xenophobia on hold, pull out the friendly face for a few days and make the typical travel small talk. So where have you been in Vietnam? Ah, all the typical places. And how long are you traveling? Oh, only two weeks… And where are you from? Oh, America…

You get the picture. And I’ll hopefully be posting pictures of Jungle Beach real soon. It was something else.

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Banh My, Oh My

One of the treats I was looking forward to seeking out in Vietnam was banh mi, Vietnamese sandwiches that are available in several tasty places in New York. Banh mi are something of a WSJ Fun Club tradition and also are one of my favorite foods of all time. So I was naturally psyched to be going to what I assumed would be the Banh Mi Mother Ship.

But my book didn’t include banh mi in its list of classic Vietnamese dishes. And there didn’t seem to be any banh mi for sale in Hanoi. I looked on restaurant menus — nothing. That was to be somewhat expected, as banh mi are supposedly sold street-side from carts, much like Pho. But I looked quite vigilantly, and nothing.

On our way out of Hanoi, I asked our guide Minh whether he had ever heard of banh mi. I described them and did my best with the pronunciation (“baaaan – meeee”?) but he had no clue what I was talking about.

This didn’t bode well. Were banh mi, in fact, an American creation that I would simply have to wait for until my return to the States? Would I in fact be unable to enjoy a Vietnamese sandwich in Vietnam?

Finally, on our sixth day in Vietnam, I found and had a banh mi cart in the local market. Here in the beautiful and charming riverside fishing village of Hoi An, where we’ll be for a few days, banh mi carts are plentiful. Only it’s spelled “banh my” and there don’t seem to be the same variations on the sandwich as I’ve seen in the U.S. My banh my cost 10,000 dong, which is roughly equivalent to 62 cents. That’s what I’m talking about.

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Halong Bay

We’re actually in Hue now (more to come on that in a bit), but we did make it to Halong Bay for a day trip on Thursday. It was beautiful and I was sad to have to leave so soon. Here’s our boat:

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And here’s a pretty good shot from Taylor, though none of our photos seem to really encapsulate the gorgeousness of the place:

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Hanoi: Traffic Gone Wild

It’s raining in Hanoi. Hence the need for me to wear this H.O.T. outfit:

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When we first arrived in Hanoi it was overcast and rained on and off throughout the day. As soon as we arrived at the hotel, we had a message waiting saying that our Halong Bay boat trip for the following day might be canceled. Indeed, it was. The weather gods have thus far not been on our side in Vietnam. We’re currently scheduled to go on a day tour of Halong Bay tomorrow, so everyone out there please pray for sunshine and calm waters.

Despite missing out on a night aboard a romantic Halong Bay cruise, this does mean we’ll get to spend an extra day in Hanoi. And Hanoi is really something.

It’s the polar opposite of Singapore. It’s illegal to j-walk in Singapore (though plenty of people did in certain neighborhoods). In Hanoi, j-walking is the only option as there are basically no traffic lights.

We were told that Hanoi’s street traffic is something to write home about, but nothing can really prepare you for this. Not even New York’s crazed intersections have anything on what’s going on outside this Internet cafe as I write. Motorbikes and bicycles fill the streets — and I mean droves and droves and droves of them. It’s unclear to me which streets are one-way and which are two-way. When you cross the street, you simply have to step slowly and allow the cars and bikes to make their way around you. It feels like navigating a busy American freeway. But there’s a weird logic to it, as well, and now that we’ve adjusted to it, I almost enjoy crossing the street. It’s like a living game of Frogger.

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