So Long, Bangkok!

Bangkok, Thailand – 20, 21 & 22 October 2017

Hard to believe it’s my last few days here already… Spent the time mostly re-visiting some old favorite hangouts along with checking out some new ones.

Friday we mostly spent wandering around town checking out shops and snacking at Siam Paragon as usual. Dinner that evening at Soul Food Mahanakorn, but we stopped by the Okura Hotel to check out their happy hour, served on an open-air terrace off the lobby on the 24th floor. It was OK, but I was frankly underwhelmed – it just wasn’t a very interesting space and the cocktails were unmemorable.

Ak suggested we make our next stop at the Siwilai City Club at Central Embassy. WELL! This was much more to my liking. The space up on the top of the mall is really cool, with a beach-y vibe. Plus, I really liked the perspective of being only about six floors above street level, surrounded by tall buildings and hearing the BTS passing by just below. A great space and some tasty drinks.

Dinner was great, as expected – especially the miang kham, which is a plate of pork, coconut, lime, chile, ginger, peanuts and onion that you use as you like to fill a leaf and then pop it into your mouth. So simple and so delicious.

Saturday and we headed to Chatuchak Market (of course!) with a stop at Or Tor Kor Market for lunch. I even managed to order my own cha nom yen in Thai! Well, OK, the lady did correct my pronunciation, but still!

Shopping was good that day: I found a bunch of cool t-shirts, Ak got me a great new travel bag printed with angry cats along with some new toys for his cat. There was another torrential downpour which was kind of hilarious given that the “indoor” sections of the market aren’t necessarily as indoor as one might think, so we wound up rather damp. Good thing we found a little sweet shop to duck into for a snack…

After we were back in the city, we checked out an exhibit about the construction of the crematorium for the King. It was a small show, but really fascinating to learn about all of the work that went into the design and construction of this magnificent structure – that will be dismantled after the King’s funeral. There was also an amazing scale model, which I was really excited to see since we hadn’t been able to get very close to the real one next to the palace.

Dinner that night at Jay Fai, a shophouse restaurant long famous for drunken noodles and other seafood dishes prepared by Auntie Fai. It’d been on my list for a long time but this was the first time Ak and I actually visited. And, it was fine. The serving was generous and the seafood very fresh – but was it the pantheon of my favorite meals in Bangkok? Nope, not really. Ak was more critical than I, particularly given the high price relative to other “street food” type places – though by SF standards, the price was not at all unreasonable, though certainly higher than is usual in Bangkok. I’m really glad we did get a chance to visit and that it was a pretty low-key affair. The place was recently awarded one Michelin star, so it’s likely to have nightmarishly long lines now – and I can say, “Oh, I ate there aaaaaaaages ago, long before Michelin star…”

Since we shared our meal, we still had plenty of room for more food next door at Thip Samai, with a reputation for serving the best pad Thai in town. I’d eaten here before with Ak and we really liked it. The food was still very good – but the line this evening was nuts. I think we waited 45 minutes for a table? And someone who shall remain nameless (but whose name rhymes with “I’m-never-coming-BACK-here”…) was already kind of crabby so it wasn’t the most enjoyable meal of this trip. I’m not a really a huge fan of pad Thai anyhow – but I think this place really does make a fantastic pad Thai. I probably don’t think it’s worth the long wait – really, what is in a town with so much amazing food? – but if the line isn’t too cray, it’s worth a visit.

Next stop was Tep Bar, which I only visited for the first time last April and really loved it. Tonight was no different, with the usual live performance of traditional Thai music. The place was packed, but we lucked out and got the last table and enjoyed a couple of cocktails. Next stop was up the road at Foo John. They had a live jazz combo playing upstairs which was nice way for us to wrap our evening – my last in Bangkok before heading back home to SF.

Up early – but not too early! – to head to the airport. It’s always so sad to say goodbye to Ak and to leave behind this city I love so much. The blow was softened somewhat knowing I’d already booked my next trip to this part of the world for April 2018. And softened even further thanks to the fact that I’m flying EVA Air business class via Taipei – making the 19-hour voyage home more than just tolerable, but quite lovely.

I’d flown EVA before. They are a great choice out of BKK, given that they have the best lounge that I’ve visited there – even better than the just re-modeled Singapore Airlines lounge, which was fine, but EVA has a nicer location with great tarmac views, an excellent selection of food and – best of all – Toto Washlets in the bathrooms. Another perk is that EVA’s regional business class is the same excellent lie-flat pod-style seat as on their long-haul flights. Many of the Asian carriers have regional configurations with comfortable seats with plenty of leg-room – but in a 2-3-2 layout which means substantially less privacy than EVA’s 1-2-1.

The one thing that surprises me – and not in a good way – is how underwhelming the EVA lounges are in Taipei, their home airport. They are quite crowded, the design feels dated, the facilities shopworn and the food uninspired. I actually preferred the ambiance at the Priority Pass lounges around the corner. Eh, first world problems.

The flights were great though. Really tasty food, excellent service from the crew and plenty of Veuve Clicquot La Grand Dame was poured as we jetted across the Pacific… Soon enough, I was wheels down at SFO, whisked through immigration thanks to the best $100 I ever spent for Global Entry and I was home in my living less than one hour after arriving at the gate. And just like that, vacation is over. Back to work in the morning – but counting the days until April… Next stop: Singapore!

More from Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand – 17, 18 & 19 October 2017

Tuesday morning and I decided I needed to finally visit Lumphini Park. I generally stay in Silom when I visit Bangkok, so it’s kind of shocking I’d never actually ventured inside the park. Well! It’s really just lovely – green and quiet and a nice respite from the bustling city surrounding it. And I saw some cats, so that’s the sign of a great day.

After the park, we walked up Wireless Road, past the US and other embassies on our way to Central Embassy mall. Besides some window-shopping (and availing ourselves of the Washlet-equipped toilets), we popped into Eathai downstairs for a snack of roasted bananas with caramel sauce and moo ping.

Next up: a movie! Bangkok’s malls, besides being home to amazing food, house some of the biggest and most luxurious movie theaters I’ve ever seen. If you’re willing to pay for it, you can sit in big luxurious chairs or even sofas or beds, along with pillows and blankets and food delivered to your seat. But I’m a cheap bastard and went with the OG style auditorium – which was still huge and comfy and reasonably priced. Oh, and we saw “Blade Runner 2049” – which I liked, but JHC, they could’ve been a bit more aggressive in that editing room. If we’d gone with the recliner seats and blankets, I’m sure I’d’ve dozed off at some point during what felt like the fourth hour…

After the movie, haircut for me and haircut and beard trim for Ak. He took me to his usual barber shop, David No. 5, a tiny two seat space right off Silom Rd. I got a great cut for only THB250! This place is now on my list of “must visits” in Bangkok. There’s nothing better than getting my fade cleaned up while I’m on vacation.

Dinner at Jae Koy, one the many great local places Ak has introduced me to here. There’s really nothing I like more than being the only farang in the place. Not only do I know the food will be good, I feel like I’m getting to see something most other tourists don’t get to experience. Food was delicious as always: grilled pork, larb, tom yum, noodles with seafood. A real feast!

In some ways, this was my favorite day in Bangkok – I think because it was so ordinary and gave me a small taste of what it might be like to actually live here.

Wednesday we tried to visit the King’s crematorium next to the Grand Palace – but didn’t have much luck. There were crowds everywhere and lots of street closures with very little in the way of instructions on how to get where we wanted to go. It would’ve felt like a bit of a wasted morning, but it was still interesting to see all the people down there – plus we had an appointment for massage that afternoon at Pai Spa, the first Thai massage place I went on my very first visit to Bangok two years ago – and happily, Jin, my therapist from that visit was there and her massage was as amazing as I remember.

Dinner that night at the new location for one of our favorites, Suppaniga Eating Room – or so we thought. We arrived at the riverside inn where it’s located and were directed to the elevator up to the roof. It was a nice spot with a lovely view – though for some reason, the staff seemed a little flustered by our arrival and my assertion that we had a reservation – but we were seated nevertheless.

We ordered a couple of drinks and a snack – and I remarked to Ak that the menu seemed kind of weird. A lot of fancy Western-sounding dishes like pasta, but little in the way of the Thai food we know and love at Suppaniga. We finally figured out we were in a different restaurant entirely – Suppaniga is on the street level, across from the hotel entrance. So, NBD, right? We paid for our cocktails and headed down for our actual reservation – only to discover that the afternoon’s torrential downpour had left the alley between where we were and where the restaurant’s entrance was flooded with knee-deep water. So, not our most successful evening – but we made do by heading back to our old stomping grounds and visiting our usual branch of Suppaniga. Granted, no view of the river and Wat Arun but the food was great as always and we were able to enter the restaurant without fording any streams…

Thursday was for shopping! First stop: Jim Thompson Factory Store, which I was so happy to discover last time I was in Bangkok. Got some new pillow covers and a couple of other goodies at prices not quite as high as in the shops in town. I think it’s mostly first quality, just last season’s colors and patterns. After this, we spent some time back in the malls and stopped in for an underwhelming afternoon tea at Erawan Tea Room.

Back at the hotel, Ak availed himself of the large tub in our bathroom and attempted to take a bubble bath. I wasn’t really sure what he was up to in there but there seemed to be quite a bit of commotion – eventually followed by the crestfallen exclamation that there were no bubbles.

When I went in to help get things sorted, I may have rolled my eyes – and Ak cried, “But I don’t know how to take a bath!”

“What do you mean ‘I don’t know how to take a bath’?” I said.

“I’ve never taken a bath. I’m from third world,” he replied, using his hilarious catch-all excuse for anything that he doesn’t know – or, as is more often the case, can’t be bothered with. Anyway, he had his bath and all went well.

Thursday evening was a special dinner at Restaurant Sühring, a German restaurant helmed by brothers Thomas and Mathias. It’s reputed to be one of Bangkok’s best restaurants and I had been wanting to try it for a while. Granted, I felt a little guilty about not eating Thai food for every meal, but I figured I’ve been to Bangkok enough that I can start expanding my culinary horizons a bit.

Ak was dressed in his fancy new shirt that he’d gotten for his birthday – sent to him by a designer friend Timmyyy from his latest collection. Appropriately, our first stop was at Vogue Lounge for cocktails before dinner.

Then we headed to the restaurant. This turned out to be fun! I’d not told Ak where we were going, only that it was someplace nice. I was sure he’d have figured out our destination, but as we continued along our way, he announced he had no clue where we were or what our destination could be. When we arrived and he saw the sign out front for Sühring, he was genuinely surprised and very excited for dinner – as was I!

The place is lovely – an old house with three separate seating areas: The Garden, an atrium looking out on the lovely grounds; The Living Room, the main seating area; and our choice, The Kitchen, where we sat at the counter and watched our chefs prepare all of our courses.

What can I say? It was an amazing meal and a wonderful experience. The service was both highly professional and very personable – there was none of the stuffiness that sometimes accompanies service in a high-end restaurant. We had some excellent wine, thanks to the recommendations of the sommelier.

And the food – wow! I enjoyed the entire meal – though looking back on it, a few of the courses that stood out for me and still remain very fresh in my mind were the pretzel rolls served with obatzda – a mixture of cheese and butter – along with tiny steins of beer; crawfish served with a sublime assortment of tomatoes and a scoop of Ossetra caviar; a simple and stunning cut of lamb; and a dessert with buttermilk ice cream and gin-and-tonic sorbet that made me laugh out loud at how amazing the G&T was.

And as clever and amusing as some of the presentations were, it never felt like they crossed into being overly precious. We also both really enjoyed interacting with the chefs, who served some of the courses to us themselves as they explained how they’d prepared it.

After twelve course, we left feeling deeply satisfied – but not gluttonous! – and happy to have shared such a lovely meal together. It was a wonderful evening.

And Now Back to Bangkok!

Bangkok, Thailand – 15 & 16 October 2017

A mostly uneventful flight from SGN to BKK. I say “mostly” only because when we were served a box of spaghetti as our snack onboard, I suggested we ask for fresh parmigiana – and Ak found this unamusing. So humorless!

Made it through immigration quickly and immediately spied one of my favorite sights at any airport – a driver holding a sign with my name on it, waiting to whisk me away. And soon enough we were climbing out of the cab at my usual home in Bangkok, Le Méridien. As we’ve come to expect, the staff recognized us as soon as we got out of our car and welcomed us back – despite our last visit being six months ago. I could honestly quibble with some aspects of the hotel – mostly related to the room decor feeling like it could be refreshed despite it being as comfortable as ever – but the staff here are delightful, delivering service that is excellent, genuine and effortless. It’s absolutely my favorite hotel in SE Asia for this very reason.

We were quickly settled in and then grabbed a bite to eat before it was time to take care of the first glamorous order of business: schlepping a couple of bags of dirty drawers and stanky t-shirts to the laundry. It was exhausting! So much so that we dragged ourselves to Dahra Spa for a couple of hours of massage therapy…

Feeling much revived, it was nearly time for dinner. First stop was at Above Eleven, a rooftop bar with a nice view of Bangkok by night. Then downstairs for dinner at Charcoal, an Indian place that specializes in tandoori – and amazing cocktails.

I had the Muffety Mai – described as “a whimsically floral and refreshing combination of Bombay Sapphire gin, fresh cucumber, tarragon, lemon, jasmine, and chat Masala.” It was sensational – some of my absolutely favorite flavors all in one cocktail! Plus it was gorgeous, with a lattice of decorative spice adorning the glass.

As for dinner, it was great! Seekh kebab were pretty good, though perhaps a bit softer than I care for – but the flavors were great. Tandoori prawns were meaty and delicious. But the two standouts were the chicken biriyani – tender and fragrant – and the special dal. This was the best dal I’ve ever had – our server explained that it’s cooked for 14 hours to bring out all the richness of the ingredients. The spices made the dish complex and so tasty. Even Ak, who’s not a big fan of legumes declared it fantastic!

Monday we headed first to Nightingale Olympic, a store that’s been on my list of places to see in Bangkok since my first visit. It’s an old department store housed in a cool, somewhat brutalist looking structure. Once you walk inside, it’s a literal time capsule of products from 60s and 70s: faded hairdo accessories, rusting “vibrating belt” weight loss machines, weirdly out-of-date clothing, wooden tennis racquets. The place is theoretically an actual business, with plenty of sales clerks there despite the dearth of customers. I actually wanted to buy something displayed in one of the dusty showcases – but the clerk could not be bothered to interrupt her phone call. The place is weird and amazing and I hope it’s around for another hundred years.

Spent the rest of the afternoon wandering Chinatown and the Sampheng Market – which literally sells everything: phone accessories, fake flowers, toys, notions, designer knock-offs. It goes on for what seems forever and it’s kind of a madhouse and it’s pretty fun.

Also in Chinatown are tons of shops selling car parts and various metal rods, slats and other fabrication materials. It was hard to winnow down all the photos I took of them – the colors and shapes at each place seemed more amazing then the last. Same could be said for all the shops selling LED lights.

This was all very exhausting of course, so we also needed to break for lunch, stopping for dry tom yum noodles and fried wontons at Tock Long Moo Noodles, one of Ak’s favorite places. It was delicious – of course! We also managed to find time to pop into Siam Center and have a bit of dessert.

As I write this, I realized that I’ve visited Bangkok enough times (this was my fifth visit!) that, while there is still plenty for me to see and do, I spend a great deal of time doing my absolute favorite thing: eating! I really do think Thailand has the best food in the world and I’m lucky that my friend Ak is there to take me to places I’d never know about as a farang.

Anyway, that evening, we ate a little neighborhood place specializing in Isaan style food called Larp 3. Dinner was great – we had larb (natch) and som tom tai and moo krob – plus they were playing one of the many fascinating Thai soap operas on the TV inside.

Walking home afterwards, we got caught in a crazy downpour – so we had no choice but to duck into Eat Me down the street and wait out the rain with some drinks: a couple of very good cocktails for me and some excellent craft beer for Ak.

A fine way to wrap up our evening. The rain had let up after a couple of rounds, so off we toddled back to the hotel. Tomorrow: more food!

Weekend in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 13 & 14 October 2017

Today’s agenda was rather similar to yesterday’s – though this morning we had a food tour! Our guide Vu from Vietnamese Street Food Tours met us in the lobby promptly at 8AM. This was one of the few tour companies that had options that didn’t require traveling by scooter. Now, I’m all for adventure and trying new things when I travel, but I’m also pretty focused on remaining alive – so today’s walking tour was much more my speed.

We first went by taxi to District 4 but the remainder of our morning was spent on foot. We started off having what our guide told us were called Cambodian noodles. Really good – a little spicy, a little sweet. I did refrain from eating the pork intestines that are one of the ingredients – I’m not as adventurous an eater as one might hope.

We continued through the market area and tried lots and lots of different things, including a really nice banh mi, traditionally-prepared Vietnamese coffee and the best phở I’ve ever had. According to Vu, Phở Mùi is well-known (and typically mobbed for breakfast and lunch) thanks to the 14-hours the broth spends simmering. It was really delicious with a depth of flavor unlike any other phở I’ve tried. Really amazing!

Wrapped up our morning with a wee dessert: egg custard, served in an eggshell. Really yummy and just the right amount after all we’d eaten over the course of our walk.

Tours like this are a great reminder to me of how lucky I am that English remains the lingua franca of travel (though I suspect Chinese will soon replace it, given the huge number of Chinese citizens who travel internationally). Wherever I go, there’s a high likelihood that some locals will speak enough English to communicate – and I can always find a guide who is fluent, like Vu. I always enjoy hearing the vocabulary used by people who speak multiple languages – in this particular instance, Vu observing (accurately!) that Ak’s floral-printed sneakers were “outlandish.” I have to remember to use that word more often!

Ak and I spent the afternoon at the War Remnants Museum. It’s absolutely a must-see for anyone visiting HCMC, but it is also harrowing. I suppose to some extent this is especially true for me as an American – it’s hard to fathom the horror of war, especially one where the underlying reason was largely, “We don’t like the form of government you’ve chosen for yourselves.” The most dispiriting thing is realizing that the U.S. government appears to have learned nothing from what happened in Vietnam. We continue to intervene in the business of other countries that don’t want us there with no clear strategy of what we’re doing.

There was an excellent (and extremely difficult) exhibit focused on journalists who had been killed while covering the war. Seeing their work preserved and their stories memorialized felt agonizingly personal. I had to stop a few times to regain my composure – but it was a very effective presentation that should not be missed.

We spent the rest of the afternoon mostly wandering about District 1. Despite the crazy traffic, HCMC is actually pretty nice for walking. There seems to be regular greenspace and still plenty of charming old buildings and tree-lined streets. It was a nice way to decompress after the museum.

Before dinner, we stopped for a cocktail on the roof of the Rex Hotel. A nice view of Nguyễn Huệ Street from our table and decent cocktails – though I did manage to not only knock my drink over, but to shatter the glass in the process. Ugh, I’m a disaster!

Dinner at Quon Bui. We managed to get into a taxi just before a really epic downpour. Happily, our driver got us right to the front door and the restaurant had someone stationed out front with an umbrella to shield arriving patrons. Sadly, though, the weather put the kibosh on our plans to dine al fresco on the roof.

But the room was lovely and we enjoyed a great meal. We totally over-ordered, not realizing how big the hotpot would be – but the fish and noodle with greens was really delicious.

Made an early night of it, returning to our hotel to share the tiny cake we’d pick up while out shopping earlier. It was beautiful to look at, but rather ordinary tasting – plus, in a highly illegal move, it contained no layers! RUINED.

Saturday was our last full day in Vietnam. Ak and I had contemplated visiting the Mekong Delta. There was a bike tour that sounded great – but weather seemed really iffy with possibly torrential rains plus the bus ride there was two hours. We decided to save that trip for next time and just spend our day exploring Saigon.

We didn’t venture too far afield. Our first stop was for phở for breakfast at a place next door to our hotel. As is so often the case here, it was away down a narrow alley that turned it another quite charming little alley. The hidden location along with the pastel pink and green interior of Phở Minh really made it seem like we were far away from hustle and bustle of the streets of Saigon. It was wonderful.

Our server recognized that we were not Vietnamese speakers, so she just confirmed “Phở?” and we nodded. She first brought us some delicious little meat pies that I discovered are called bánh pa tê sô – which is from the French “pâté chaud.” And then nice big bowls of phở – which were tasty, though yesterday’s phở remains the winner.

We spent the morning visiting a couple of museums. First up, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts. It’s in an impressive old building that was originally constructed as a residence for a wealthy businessman and his family in the early 1930s. The collection was mostly contemporary art and I did enjoy some of the collection – though there wasn’t a whole lot of information on what was being shown or how the works were organized. Of course, given that I’m good friends with more than one paintings conservator, I was made very uncomfortable by the fact that the only climate control for the galleries was ceiling fans and open windows…

Next was the Gia Long Palace, another gorgeous old building housing some exhibits of propaganda material and the history of the city. We had a quick look around before deciding we needed to refuel with a frozen coconut coffee at Cộng Cà phê… which was right next door to building that I’d seen the other day, former home of a CIA apartment and the roof of which was used for helicopter evacuations during the Fall of Saigon. It still boggles my mind to imagine that this beautiful and charming neighborhood was a war zone when I saw it on TV as a child.

We found a charming little place next to the hotel called The Old Compass Cafe – it’s run by the same folks who run the website The Rusty Compass which is an invaluable resource on things to do in Vietnam – especially restaurants. Down an alley and up a few floors in an apartment building, it’s another one of HCMC’s many, many little hidden gems.

Back to hotel for a swim in the quite lovely rooftop pool, along with a snack at the bar. Then a foot massage at an unmemorable but adequate place nearby. Then, time for dinner!

Tonight we ate at Chi Hoa. Crispy rolls, really excellent bbq pork ribs, steamed bánh mi (which was not as interesting as it sounded), shrimp and some delicious clams. A really great dinner!

Sadly, this was our last night in HCMC before flying back to Bangkok. We’d had three full days here – and honestly, as much as I enjoyed it, I wish we’d had more time here. There’s lots more of the city that we didn’t see and plenty of nearby places to visit outside Saigon. I really liked it here very much. It’s definitely a big noisy city – but there are trees and greenspace, lots of great old architecture and every alley and nondescript building seems to contain a cool bar or restaurant or cafe or shop or something. It’s a city that I hope to come back to and learn more about.  

Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh

Hong Kong, SAR China – 11 October 2017
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – 11 & 12 October 2017

We had all morning and part of the afternoon to finish up our visit to Hong Kong before heading to the airport. We were up early and taxied to the Victoria Peak – a trick I’d learned before my last visit, i.e. taxi up early to avoid the crowds for the cable car up, then ride it back down with no waiting. Views were quite good and we had very nice weather.

Once back down, we made a beeline for Maxim’s Palace for dim sum. It’s quite well-known and the dining room is huge with a nice view of the harbor. As for the food? It was OK. Honestly, I still like the dim sum better back in SF at Yank Sing. Maybe because I grew up with it, maybe because it’s geared to Western palate – who knows? I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was disappointed, but I also wouldn’t rush back here if I were in  Hong Kong again.

As much as we enjoyed our time in Hong Kong and at Disneyland, the fact is neither Ak nor I had fallen in love with the city the same way we had with some of the other places we’ve visited. I think this had a lot to do with the fact that we had more misses than hits when it came to meals – and just about everything (with the exception of public transit) felt rather breathtakingly expensive.

We took the train to the airport. Wow! It’s amazingly easy. Taxi to the in-town air terminal where, if we’d not been flying cheapo VietJet, I could have checked my bag in before boarding the train and it would be transported and checked into my flight. Even without this added benefit, the train is great and leaves you off right inside the terminal.

We were very excited to make our first visit to Ho Chi Minh City, especially given how much we’d enjoyed Hanoi last year. The flight from Hong Kong was mostly uneventful, save for the weird charade that so many low-cost carriers put their passengers through – that is, weighing carry-on bags, telling you they are overweight and forcing you to offload some stuff into a separate bag which I just moved back to the other bag before boarding. Eh, you get what you pay for…

The ride from SGN airport to our hotel in District 1 was surprisingly fast and soon enough we were relaxing in a spacious (especially compared to our cozy accommodations in HKG!) room at the Liberty Central Citypoint, with a lovely view toward Nguyen Hue St. and Bitexco Tower – along with the somewhat less lovely view of the subway station being constructed just next to our hotel.

The evening started off inauspiciously when the first two ATMs I visited refused to dispense any money. I naturally assumed that I would be completely unable to acquire any cash and that our trip to HCMC was already ruined, but as it turned out, the third ATM I tried gave me the VND3,000,000 (US132) I’d requested. Sadly, this episode put a bit of a damper on our first evening, but we got through it.

Next morning, we were up early and had some phở up the street at Phở24 before returning to our hotel to meet our guides from Saigon Free Walking Tours, Kiara and Tien, for our Saigon City tour. We started of at Ben Thanh Market, just a short walk from our hotel, where we met up with a couple of Aussies who joined our tour. Spent the morning walking about District 1 while our guides talked about the history and pointed out different sights.

We stopped by the beautiful Saigon Central Post Office and had a look around before checking out the exteriors of Notre Dame Basilica across the street. No visiting the inside as it’s under renovation right now.

While we were walking around, Tien pointed out the building just next to where we’d had a coconut coffee at Cộng Cà phê. We were about a block away, so had a good view of the six-story apartment block which had a small square structure on top. It was the site of the now-iconic photo of a CIA Air America helicopter boarding evacuees during the fall of Saigon.

I don’t know why I found this so astonishing. I suppose it’s such recent history that it still feels very much a part of my own memories of watching the news as a child. There’s also something quite jarring about walking through a lovely tree-lined neighborhood (and across from a shiny mall) and being reminded that it wasn’t too long ago there was a war taking place right on this very spot – and all the human suffering that is the result of war. The location felt so ordinary, so the thought of helicopters evacuating people from the roof felt really extraordinary. It was fascinating, yes, but still difficult to wrap my head around.

Next stop was Independence Palace – it’s another spot where it feels difficult to reconcile the history of what went on in this building with the fact that the palace itself is an amazing example of mid-century design interpreted through the eyes of architect Ngô Viết Thụ. The building is marvelous – it’s airy facade and light-filled interiors give it a gracefulness one might not associate with a largely concrete structure.

Even more amazingly, virtually the entire building is open to visitors, from the public conference and meeting rooms on the main floor to the private residences and rooftop to the underground bunkers and sleeping quarters. Much of the original furniture remains – which is so wonderful to see! Until that is, one envisions Henry Kissinger sitting here plotting with the South Vietnamese government. It’s eerie. I enjoyed the building most when I was able to appreciate its design – but it’s not always easy to separate that from what went on here, especially from its opening in 1966 through the liberation of Saigon in 1975. For me, this was the highlight of today’s tour.

We headed back to the post office to say our farewells – but our guides really went above and beyond the call of duty as they not only shepherded us to the Mobifone store to get local SIM cards, they stayed around to ensure that the surprisingly lengthy process completed satisfactorily. Ak and I were very grateful!

Lunch at a place across the street called My Banh Mi. It’s def catering to the tourist crowd – but the food was delicious nevertheless. My banh mi was probably the weakest link, but our crispy rolls and Ak’s pork with noodles were excellent.

After such a vigorous morning, it was obviously time for a massage. We headed to Moc Huang Spa which had good reviews online. They were able to take us right away and I thought the experience was amazing. The massage was definitely of the “intense” variety, which I really like. It might be hard to endure at certain moments, but I know that I’ll feel like a million dong afterwards. I was a little worried that Ak wouldn’t enjoy his massage, since he prefers a more relaxing style of massage – but he was snoring away in the next room, so I assumed he’d survived (despite his subsequent statements that the massage was way too strong and his refusal to believe me when I told him I heard him snoring through most of it).

Dinner that night at Secret Garden. I’d’ve never found it on my own, but the internet gave good directions to the appropriate alley, as did a local scooter driver who helped the two lost looking foreigners trying to figure out which building to go into. There’s a fairly long climb up the stairs (no lift in the building!) to the roof – and then we were welcomed to a charming little oasis on the top of this apartment building. It was raining pretty hard this evening, but the space still had a nice indoor-outdoor feel to it.

Food was great! Ground pork grilled in lemongrass was excellent. I didn’t take notes of what else we ate – but we had soup and meat and noodles and salad. It was all lovely and in a great space with friendly service. And there was a cat there too! Sadly, we didn’t even notice her until the end of the evening as she was fast asleep on top of cabinet across from our table.

After dinner, we wandered toward the river in search of Snuffbox, a bar I’d read about somewhere online. We found the location easily enough – but it seemed to be a block of darkened buildings and warehouses, though with some street vendors and locals hanging out – and who once again came to our rescue and pointed us into the correct nondescript staircase. We climbed up one flight and found ourselves inside a lovely jewelbox of a bar. I think we were the only patrons (it was still early) and we were made to feel very at home. Fancy cocktails were very tasty and we had an extremely engaging server who guided us through the menu and chatted with us about our travels and some of the upcoming goings-on at the bar.

It was a great first day in HCMC, especially after last evening’s rather difficult start. Tomorrow morning: food tour!


Hong Kong Disneyland!

Hong Kong, SAR China – 9 & 10 October 2017

Ak and I had a quick breakfast in town before jumping on the train to Sunny Bay station where we’d connect to the Disneyland shuttle train. And then, there were were – Hong Kong Disneyland!

Walking into the park felt much the same to me as visiting Disneyland in CA or Magic Kingdom in FL – though without the teeming throngs of people. I mean, yes, obviously there were people there, but not huge crowds (though there was a bit of a slowdown getting through the turnstiles at the park entrance. Why is this process so difficult for so many? But I digress…)

First stop, City Hall! I had to get Ak his “It’s My First Time!” pin for newbs. Then we wandered through the blessedly-frigid shops and gawked at all the adorable merchandise. Main St. opens 30 minutes before the park – it’s a nice way to ease into the day.

Once Tomorrowland opened, we made a beeline to Iron Man ride to get Fast Pass, then we hotfooted it over to Hyperspace Mountain – our first ride of the day and Ak’s first ride – and first roller coaster! – ever. There wasn’t much of a line and soon enough we were rocketing through space. It’s a great ride, especially with the new Star Wars theming. We both loved it!

Iron Man was pretty fun too. It’s a Star Tours re-tread, using the same type of simulator, but with the action taking place in Hong Kong – it’s cool that they did a local take on the adventure.

As we made our way around the park, it became clear pretty quickly that we could really relax. Crowds remained non-existent and we never waited in line more than a few minutes. And we did EVERYTHING! From Small World to the crazy fun RC Racer in Toy Story Land to the hokey Jungle Cruise.

One of the best rides was the Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars. It gave every impression of being the same as the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad I’ve ridden many times in CA and FL parks – but it had several fantastic upgrades. I’m not gonna tell though! But I think I rode it ten times over the two days we visited, so that should tell you something about how much fun it was.

I think the tradeoff for the sparse crowds was that a lot the restaurants were closed. Not the end of the world, but there were a lot of shuttered counter service places that sounded tasty but were closed during the week or undergoing renovations. The food at the park was just OK. There was a nice cross-section of different types of regional cuisine: Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Korean, SE Asian. Our meal at the Explorer’s Club was pretty good by theme park standards. Ak liked his nasi goreng and my lentil curry plate was satisfying.

Ak and I both enjoyed Mickey and the Wondrous Book, a live-action stage show – though we both would’ve been happier with more classic songs (“‘Brave’? ‘Tangled’? Nope, I don’t know her.”) . But then I think we’re both a bit long in the tooth to be their primary audience. One of the most fascinating parts of the show is how seamlessly they mixed characters speaking and singing in both Cantonese and English, with super-titled translations.

The parades – which honestly are one of my favorite things at any Disney park – were solid. Though let’s be honest – that villains-themed night parade can’t compete with Main St. Electrical Parade or Spectromagic. I’ll admit to just a bit of disappointment that the current Paint the Night parade doesn’t run during Halloween due to the villains parade. The Flights of Fancy day parade was super fun – and nearly every performer in the parade noticed that Ak was wearing his Disney-supplied “It’s My Birthday!” pin (OK, we were a week late, but we were still celebrating!). Disney performers are always pretty amazing – dancing down Main St. in full makeup and elaborate costumes which must be sweltering in the 80 degree heat – but still taking time throughout the parade to say hello or wish a happy birthday to folks watching the parade.

This was probably the lowest-key Disney park visit I’ve ever had – and I liked it! The park is small enough that a one-day visit could be enough – but I was really glad that we spent two days there. It added to the relaxed feel of the visit and we didn’t worry that we’d miss anything. Plus our second day was more focused on seeing shows and parades. It was a great couple of days. Of course, now we’re thinking of trying to get to Disneyland Tokyo next year… We’ll see!

Weekend in Hong Kong

Hong Kong, SAR China – 7 & 8 October 2017

Ak arrived quite late on Friday night – really great to see my BFF, though we were both pretty exhausted by the time he arrived at our modest-but-serviceable digs. But we slept reasonably well and woke up Saturday morning with a full day ahead of us.

We had the first of two walking tours with Hong Kong Free Tours. This one focused on Hong Kong island, covering not just some of the usual tourist sights like the HSBC and Bank of China buildings, but also delving into some of Hong Kong’s recent history – including the Umbrella Revolution and the really poor treatment of Hong Kongers in general, first by the British and now by the Chinese. Learning about this from the perspective of our guides Michael and Beverly – both Hong Kong natives – was fascinating and certainly eye-opening.

Lunch at Yat Lok afterward, my second visit and Ak’s first. I actually liked my char siu better this time than last, but Ak wasn’t thrilled with his roast pork. Oh well! Did a bit of exploring in Central, wandering along Elgin and Staunton Streets, before ambling back to our home base on Hollywood Rd. in Sheung Wan.

Had a fun evening, starting first at Foxglove, a “speakeasy” type place that really dresses the part. It’s entrance is through a secret panel located inside of a supposed “bespoke umbrella” shop. The bar itself has the feel of a mid-century ocean liner. The concept is all pretty great – though the execution could use some work frankly. The secret entrance was on the fritz, so we just entered through a curtain. Not the end of the world, but disappointing. The cocktails were just OK – and breathtakingly expensive – so we moseyed off to Honi Honi Tiki Bar a bit further up the road.

These cocktails were priced just as dearly – though they were also pretty delicious, so that was a big plus. Dinner was at Little Bao, where we shared an amazing starter of caramelized brussels sprouts fried up with fish sauce, peanuts, shallots and chiles. Ak had a fried chicken bao and I went with fish tempura. After having had an assortment of underwhelming meals, we both really loved this one.

One last round of cocktails at Happy Paradise. Really cool space with colorful neon lights on the ceiling and an open window looking down onto Staunton St. Cocktails were tasty and we had a super friendly bartender who we chit-chatted with until it was time to head back to the hotel for some sleep.

Sunday was a similar schedule as Saturday, as we had another tour with HK Free Walking tours, though this time we’d be in Kowloon. Started off near Mong Kok and spent most of our time in the more “typical” neighborhoods of HKG, which feel quite different than the the gliz of Central.

Our guide Alla shared her insights into the nature of Hong Kong and why it is the way it is – focusing quite a bit on the role that its unfettered free market has in a host of issues that contribute to the difficulty of living in the city for all but the very rich. The Hong Kong government derives a significant portion of their income from property taxes and sales and leasing of the land they own. With no VAT and a very low income taxes, this reliance on property as a source of income results in a lack of incentive for the government to implement any serious reforms to the way the housing market works – meaning the prices stay high and rents exorbitant. Hong Kong is not an easy place to live for many of its residents.

As was the case on Saturday, virtually all of the parks, over- and underpasses and other public spaces were filled with young women hanging out. Some of the folks on the tour wondered if they were homeless. In fact, these women – the majority of them from the Philippines and Indonesia – are working as live-in domestic servants, typically caring for children or the elderly while also cooking and cleaning house, allowing married couples to both work and maintain the two incomes necessary to make ends meet in Hong Kong. These domestic helpers get one day off a week, so Saturdays and Sundays they spend time eating, chatting and catching up with their friends. Since most of their salary is sent to their families back home (and because Hong Kong’s minimum wage law does not apply to them), their free time has to be inexpensive.

It seems a rather difficult way to make a living – though one of our guides indicated that there’s a wide-range of experiences, with some families treating their helpers as members of the family while others insist that the helpers eat separately and alone, keeping them very distinctly in their place as servants. Regardless, these helpers are not eligible for minimum wage or other benefits that permanent residents and citizens receive – all while playing a critical role in Hong Kong’s economic infrastructure.

Anyway, I really recommend the tours offered by Hong Kong Free Tours. Great guides offering a different take on a very complex city.

We wrapped up our Kowloon tour near Sham Shu Po station – which is also a hop, skip and a jump from the OG location of Tim Ho Wan, a dim sum place that made its name as the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. They’ve since expanded, with locations across Asia, but I’d not yet been so I was excited to try the first location. The wait wasn’t too long and the dim sum was OK. The baked pork buns were pretty great – the rest of what we had was frankly nothing special. Not bad per se, but I sure didn’t see what the fuss was about.

Took the Star Ferry back across the harbor and then had an argument with Ak over something that I’m sure was totally important and consequential. We talked it out, sulked for a bit but managed to get our shit together in time for something really important: dinner! We had wonton noodle soup at Mak’s Noodles and it was great. We followed up with a couple more snacks and some wine at Ho Lee Fook which we also really enjoyed – despite having to interact briefly with a couple of very loud Americans.

All in all, a pretty great weekend in Hong Kong – but tomorrow, the main reason for our visit: Disneyland!


Another Visit to Hong Kong

Hong Kong, SAR China – 5 & 6 October 2017

Left SFO at 1:15AM on Wednesday, flying Singapore in business class. The 14 hours across the Pacific went by quickly. Got about six hours of somewhat restless sleep and watched a couple of movies before landing in Hong Kong, where I’ll be spending the next six days.

As soon as I passed through Immigration, I connected to the airport wifi and the first thing I see is an email in my personal account from my boss with a work question. Let’s just say that’s not my favorite thing to see on my first day of vacation – though my actual reaction may have been somewhat more pointed than that.

Visited the arrivals lounge, where I was able to shower and put on some fresh clothes before heading to my hotel in Sheung Wan. I had reserved at the well-reviewed Butterfly on Hollywood, an outpost of a small local group of hotels here in Hong Kong – but in the ensuing months since I’d made the reservation, the Butterfly had divested themselves of this particular location and it is now – tada! – a Travelodge. OK, OK, not the most glamorous brand, but the place seems pretty similar to what I’d reserved originally. But yes, Travelodge. Sigh…

I was too early to check in, so I decided to head down to the MTR for a quick ride over to Wan Chai and my favorite place for char siu. I got to the station, bought my Octopus card and was feeling right at home here in Hong Kong, given that I had some familiarity with the city and public transit from when I was here a year ago.

Pride goeth before the fall, though – I managed to not only get off one station too soon, but to not realize this until I’d actually left the paid area of the station. “Admiralty?” I said to myself as I looked at the neighborhood map outside the turnstiles, “Well, that’s not where I fucking wanted to go.”

Anyway, made it to Wan Chai soon enough and was able to quickly navigate a path to Joy Hing – only to discover that they are closed today, thanks to it being a local holiday (I think). So, hunger, fatigue and frustration were all combining to make this feel like a not-so-great first day of my travel.

But I soldiered on, made my way back to Central and found Yat Lok – which thankfully was not observing today’s local holiday. Had char siu and rice and it was pretty tasty (though I still prefer Joy Hing). Even better, getting some food in my belly did improve my mood a bit.

Decided to head over to Kowloon on the subway to kill some more time while I waited for my room to be ready. Between the teeming hordes of tourists and the seeming vagueness of Google Maps’ blue dot’s location, this was perhaps not the most relaxing choice. Happily, though, I received a call from the front desk at the hotel letting me know my room was ready – and it’s only 11AM!

Jumped on the Star Ferry and was soon back at the hotel, where I got settled into the very – how shall I say? – cozy room. But it’s perfectly serviceable and seems comfy enough. We’ll see if my opinion changes once my friend Ak shows up from Bangkok and the two of us are in here fighting over space in the one drawer.

After a lie-down, I decided a foot massage might be just the thing to take the edge off the day. Found a place in Central that was about a 20 minute walk away called Zhen Massage. It looked nice on their Facebook page and was perhaps just a tad less so in person – but the price was reasonable enough and I wasn’t looking for the Canyon Ranch.

The foot massage was decent if a bit perfunctory. The therapist answered her phone several times during the massage – though she’d at least keep massaging with her free hand. The calls were brief, so I really didn’t mind – I mean, I don’t know her life! Frankly, the only part that concerned me was the thought of her phone getting lotion all over it (not to mention gross tourist feet cooties).

There was a Western couple in there who were a delight. He was shouting across the place to the missus in their native language while he used an exasperated tone while negotiating with the lady managing bookings as to how long a manicure would take. And both mister and missus kept their faces buried in their phones throughout all of this. Oh, and there were also some kind of loud construction noises going on down the hall, which were eventually accompanied by the sound of the Ms. Western Couple getting her calluses sanded down. So, not exactly the most spa-like experience – but it was sort of so weird that it was kind of hilarious. And my feet sure felt better when I left!

Fortified myself with an iced matcha milk tea from one place and some wonton noodle soup from another on my way back to hotel. A nice way to wrap up what’s been a rather mixed bag of a day. This evening is likely to be quiet.

Had a fitful night of sleep, waking up about once every hour or two – but did manage to sleep ‘til about 7:00AM, so I feel like I’m about adjusted to local time (though I suspect I’ll be hitting the hay early most evenings…). After yesterday’s somewhat difficult first day, I was feeling a bit anxious about today’s tour that I’d booked with Wild Hong Kong. The meeting point was about an hour from HK Central on the train and required three transfers. I figured I’d get lost. Plus, I’d worried yesterday about my physical stamina. Despite a minimum of walking around, my feet were aching and my back was acting up. It’s really the first time that I’ve traveled and felt like my age was catching up with me.

As it turned out, though, I think yesterday’s ailments were primarily due to jetlag and too much sitting around. I felt pretty good when I woke and managed to get myself going with plenty of time to retrace my steps if I got lost on my way to Tai Po Market in the New Territories.

Stopped for breakfast at Morty’s Delicatessen at Jardine House. It was a more-than-decent Western breakfast of eggs, bacon and pastrami hash – plus it’s conveniently located a short walk from Central station.

My last train of the trip was the farthest I’d been from central Hong Kong and the difference was noticeable. While I certainly feel like a tourist in town, I felt much more like a foreigner on this leg of the journey – which was frankly kind of cool. It’s nice to feel I’m getting a bit off the beaten path.

Arrived at Tai Po Market station with time to spare and settled in at the rendezvous point, a Starbucks, naturally! I waited in line behind a white lady who’d decided using chopsticks in her hairdo was a wise choice. It wasn’t… But I got my iced chamomile tea with aloe and grapes – an unusual but refreshing combo and awaited the arrival of my guide, Rory.

He showed up right on time and it turned out I’d be his sole guidee today – lucky me! He’s a gregarious fellow who grew up in Hong Kong and has done quite a bit of traveling around the world, both on his own and as a guide. We drove over toward Plover Cove, picked up our bikes from a local rental shop and off we went!

Let me just say, being back on two wheels was great. I ride just about every day and everywhere back home in SF and it’s remarkable how much I miss it when I don’t do it. We rode out along the Plover Cove Reservoir, a nice long expanse of road with water an both sides and great views of the surrounding hills and city, then came back the same way as we started the ride a bit up the hills to do a bit of hiking. There was one section of uphill riding that was short but a bit intense – the rest was pretty smooth sailing.

Locked up our bikes at the parking lot (which was happily home to a bank of vending machines stocked with ice cold beverages) and then hiked not too far into the park to visit Mirror Pool, home to a beautiful waterfall. Rory and I sat and chewed the fat for a bit – but mostly just sat and enjoyed the solitude and the beautiful setting.

Next stop was Bride Pool Falls, another lovely spot where Rory got a chance to show off his rock skipping skills and I just happily watched. The falls were wonderful and I’m so glad I got to visit. I’d left my “big” camera back at the hotel, not wanting to schlep it all day – and honestly, I’m glad I did. Sure, not so many photos of the day, but I was glad to just enjoy the experience of seeing this new-to-me corner of Hong Kong.

Hiked back up to the bikes and had an easy ride back to where we’d started, including a couple of great downhill bits where we really got flying. Wrapped things up with a bit of lunch at a Thai place and then Rory dropped me off at the train for my ride back into the city. I was sweaty, kinda stinky and bit exhausted – and I could not have been happier. The whole day left me feeling great, both physically and mentally. And it was a real pleasure spending the afternoon with Rory, a knowledgeable guide and an all-around interesting fellow. If you find yourself in Hong Kong, I recommend his services unhesitatingly.

Back at the hotel, I had a nice long shower and then relaxed for a bit while I IM’d with my friend Ak, who was at Bangkok Airport, waiting to board his flight to Hong Kong. Flight was a bit late, so he probably won’t get into the city until after 11:00 this evening, but it’s going to be great to see him – and to introduce him to Hong Kong, as it’s his first visit.

Wrapped up the evening at Joy Hing Roasted Meats in Wan Chai. Tonight they were open, unlike yesterday’s ill-fated visit. There was a line, but it moved quickly and I enjoyed my absolute favorite “eat, pay and get out” meal of char siu and rice. A really perfect way to wrap up my second day in Hong Kong.