Monday, August 30, 2010

Getting Hue From It All

Yay, posts from the Continent! Vive la France! So long as it steers clear of the whole colonialist aggression bit.

Since we’ve last reported, a number of notable things have taken up our time, both in Hoi An and lately, up the coast a couple hours in Hue. We’ve spent a long and exhilarating but ultimately tiring day in the sun, though (life is hard in vacation-land), so we’re simply going to list these notable things with the best intentions of going back to fill them in later. A few pics included below to make it a bit more worth your while:

  • Pho on the street across from the hotel, followed up with breakfast part 2 at the hotel proper (street food wins again, but just about everyone around here makes damn good coffee)
  • Tour of one of the Chinese assembly halls. Think that maybe Hoi An hasn’t really changed so much in 400 years. Used to be that the foreign merchants came to town to bring back the goods of the Orient to local markets. Now foreign tourists shop in the same shops for souveniers. Different goods – same basic game? Made me feel better about the tourism, somehow.

  • Stroll around town, stopping for some spring rolls
  • Tailoring, fitting #3
  • Taxi out to the gorgeous white-sand beach (bathwater, wonderful); hanging out under the umbrella with a frightening thunderstorm on the horizon, chatting with but not buying from the persistent vendors (“Son Son is Number 1!”)

  • Tailoring, fitting #4
  • Stroll through a different part of town along the water, very residential. Most everyone is either hanging in the streets or eating together on the living room floor (mostly in front of the TV); run across at least two gentlemen belting out karaoke alone in their living rooms. Houses all painted a kind of teal inside that glows out into the street. We stop for a bahn mi

  • Tailoring, fitting #5. Amazingly not yet feeling like they’re sick of us. Our sales clerks are doing a good job of advocating on our behalf to the tailors, who reluctantly agree to this or that change. To my untrained ear, every minor change they agree on would seem to imply a total reconstruction of the clothes; nonetheless, they seem to have a better way and never need more than an hour or two to turn something around

  • Refresh at the hotel
  • Fancy Vietnamese food at “Secret Garden” for dinner – amazing water spinach salad and Num (fresh spring rolls), grilled pork and fish

  • Bicycles through town, which seems to have the Vietnamese equivalent of a lively Sunday brunch scene (maybe just like this everyday). Stop at a couple of the busiest places for Bahn Mi Op La (sandwich with veggies and spicy fried egg, among other things), and for Pho Bo (Beef soup)
  • Tailoring #6 – all is done!
  • Hotel for breakfast and all-you-can-drink coffee (how much sweetened condensed milk is too much?)
  • Beach, lovely
  • Mystery of the day: when it's 100 and humid, why is it that so many local ladies are wearing not just long pants but sweatshirts and gloves, even on the beach? Only answer we could get: they don't like to get tan. Plausible.

  • Check out of hotel and wait for our bus to Hue, only to be picked up and driven one at a time by scooter – with our giant luggage, to boot! – to the bus station

  • Bus (with stops) to Hue, with storms. Four hours and ~140km later, we're there.
  • Wandered the streets a bit before landing back in backpacker town, where a mediocre dinner was saved by delicious lime sherbet
  • Iced coffees in a covered pavilion, avoiding the torrential rain
  • Walked the morning market, stopping for mediocre breakfast soup, and then for better breakfast soup on the other side of town
  • Joined a crowd of men for street watching and coffee (with the requisite side of green tea)

  • Boating adventure to the Nguyen Emporers’ 19th century pleasure palaces/mausoleums – beautiful places, a bit like touring the Rockefellers? Or the Bush ranch?

  • Headed over to the local market, only a mile away but off the beaten track and a bit closer to the local action. Bought a Vietnamese coffee maker and then a mélange of snacks/dishes at 5 different vendors/restaurants: Potatoes with peanuts and coconut, bahn beo (dumplings), red bean marzipan, pound cake, com hen (salad with chopped mussels), fried rice and sesame crackers, bun bo, some kind of rice mix, two beers. Total: 113,000 Dong ($5.80)
  • Mani/pedi for EB, with three attendants and locally vibrant colors: 110,000 VND +20,000 ($6.70)
Now off to sleep!

Bonjour! (better late and with photos from the internet than never)

The pressure of describing an entire week in France.  Where to begin.  How about by noting that I (Amy) have no ability to transfer photos from our camera to this computer, so I will be populating the blog with photos of others (strangers) because some photos are better than no photos.

We arrived in Paris a week ago today and headed immediately for the Gare de Lyon train station (above), where thankfully both croissants and english-speakers abounded.  A highlight from the hour or so we spent there was my attempt to translate for a man who spoke only spanish.  As he told me in spanish, his problem was that he didn't have enough money to buy a train ticket to Barcelona.  Specifically, he had one-half the price of a train ticket.  I dutifully explained this in english to the information clerk (who, like just about everyone here, claimed to speak little english but spoke fluently), and together she and I tried to come up with a way to explain "you're SOL" in spanish.  Hopefully he made his way to an autobus.  Moments later, we were on the TGV to Le Cruesot, which is sort of like the maglev in Shanghai but slower and frencher.

Upon arrival in Le Cruesot (a little town in Burgundy) our friends (the bride and groom) picked us up, and we were off to the Chateau, where we stayed until yesterday.  What's that?  You'd like a photo of the Chateau?  Ok:

Yes, it's as awesome as it looks, and yes, it's haunted.  We were met by a fantastic spread of vin and fromage at le chateau, and later went to a nearby town for a truly incredible welcome dinner: foie gras (3 ways, who knew), boeuf (Matt), fish (me, and no my french hasn't substantially improved), chocolat (as if I'd fail to learn that one) and of course, again, fromage.  They're really onto something here.  And by "onto something" I mean my pants no longer fit.  Literally.  I hope there's such a thing as a "welcome cleanse" in Los Angeles, which, now that I think about it, is a pretty good business idea.  Employment may be in my future yet.  Anyway.  Following the great dinner, we all went back to le chateau, where I woke in the middle of the night to a thunder and lightening storm that could not have been more cinematic or terrifying: doors and windows opened and slammed shut, our room lit up and then plunged into darkness, ghosts appeared, etc.  The week included innumerable references to the forthcoming horror movie "The Chateau" (and of course, since we were there for a wedding: "Chateau Deux: Le Marriage").

Aside from the initial terror, the french countryside was (surprise) absolutely spectacular.  The wedding took place on Tuesday at the Chateau (gorgeous), with a fabulous dinner at an 11th century restaurant in nearby Couches (cleanse me).  A real highlight (among many) was a sort of newlywed game played at french weddings: the bride is blindfolded and then must select, based on feeling a single body part (here, knee), which of five men is her groom.  The game is then reversed, and the groom must do the same based on the noses of five women (or, here, four women and one hilarious friend of the groom's).  Luckily the newlyweds were able to identify one another, hooray!  And no, I wasn't one of the four mystery women, at the specific direction of my adoring husband, who said "you're not playing."  Funny.

The remainder of the week was a combination of chateau-ing and touring around, with day trips to Autun and Geneva.  One piece of advice for those of you visiting Geneva: going under the Jet d'Eau is fun and worth doing, but keep an eye on the way the wind is blowing -- we found ourselves under a wall of water when the wind turned.  Oops.

The final day at the Chateau we went on a wine tour in Burgundy, on which I learned lots of things about Burgundy wines.  Interesting tidbit: they use no irrigation or additives of any kind, so the wine can change dramatically year to year, whereas in California many (if not all) of the vineyards manipulate the wine by irrigating and adding acid (or something).  When asked what she thought of California wine, our host said "I think California wine is not just wine."  Zing.  

Overall, the week could not have been better -- we were thrilled to be there for the beautiful wedding, and it was such a privilege to be at the chateau.  Merci boucoup to our hosts!

And now, we're in Paris.  We spent yesterday walking to, um, everything in the city: started in the Marais (where we're staying, love it) to the Louvre, then on to the Arc d'Triomphe (and up its 287 stairs to the top), over to the Tour d'Eiffel (no idea how my spelling is working out here), a stop at a neighborhood brasserie over there somewhere, back along the river by the Musee d'Orsay, over by Notre Dame, and back.  My legs hurt this morning.  As does my head, as a result of a vin-filled dinner with some of our chateau friends last night.   So I'll leave it at that for the moment.  No, I'll paste a picture from the internet of the Arc (just pretend it's me instead of her in the photo) and then leave it at that.   Au revoir!


Friday, August 27, 2010

Ciao, Laos; hola Hoi An!

Greetings readers. Or as they say here in Hoi An….oh wait, we don’t know how to say hello in Vietnamese. After becoming great experts in the Laotian word “sabaidee” which means hello, goodbye and just about everything in between, we are at a total loss to learn any of the 6 tones of the Vietnamese language in order to communicate. Fortunately nearly everyone we have encountered thus far in Vietnam has spoken substantially more English than we speak Vietnamese, so all is OK.

To re-cap the past couple of days, yesterday we started off our last day in Luang Prabang with another pre-6 am wakeup to watch the procession of monks receiving alms one last time before we left. It was really a sight and something we wanted to catch once more before leaving Laos behind. Then we wandered to the morning market, a somewhat smaller version of the giant market we had gone to with our cooking class.

There we succeeded on two fronts – we bought none of the live ducks, blue chicken feet, or whiskey soaked eel that was on offer AND we had delicious “nem kao”, rice pancakes with pork and mushrooms covered in fried shallots, from a vendor that we had read about online. An excellent Lao treat to kick off our last morning. Back at the hotel after a stroll through town in the rain, we naturally sat down to second breakfast of waffles and homemade pastries. With that on offer, who could settle for only one pre-9 am meal?

Eager to see a bit more of the surrounding landscape, we then headed down to the Mekong River, where we negotiated with a boat man to take us down river a bit for a cruise and to visit a nearby village where they make pottery. Turned out the boat, which was surprisingly nice, was also where the man lived, so his wife and young son joined for the adventure. Cruising on the Mekong was lovely, with the occasional rain only adding to the scenery of clouds hanging low on the rolling hills. We stopped at a little village known for making pottery and though we were only 10 minutes away from Luang Prabang it felt like another world. The village’s dirt roads (more like road) were totally muddied from the rain and it seemed like a car had never been there – it’s not clear a car could even travel the bumpy terrain. Chickens and children roamed freely in the mud with the occasional adult scurrying them along. The houses were very modest and there wasn’t much going on – though we did see some people making pottery and were offered fried chicken feet for sale. Like every good village in Laos it did have a monk and a temple which we briefly visited before heading on our way. Sobering to get a sense of life in Laos even just outside the main cities.

Back in town we did one last swing through one of the more elaborate monasteries, grabbed a quick lunch and were off to the airport for our flights to Hanoi and then Da Nang. The flight to Hanoi was uneventful (except for a cute little Italian kid in the seat next to us looking out the window and saying, "Ciao, Laos!"), though the tiny Luang Prabang airport was buzzing with excitement because apparently the King of Thailand was about to land just after we left. The flight from Hanoi to Da Nang was much more exciting as it seemed that other than us, just about everyone on our Thursday night flight was decked out in their best clubbing attire for a big weekend of going out in Da Nang. Our driver to Hoi An sort of confirmed it for us (moderate translation difficulties), but it seemed like Da Nang is a place for trendy types to hang out at resorts and maybe casinos. In any case, everyone on the flight looked very chic and walked right off the plane when we landed, having checked no bags for a weekend of partying. We adventurers looked a bit scruffy as we waited nearly alone at the baggage claim. A 40 minute drive later and we had arrived in Hoi An.

Friday morning began with a walk to the morning market, filled with women selling fish, veggies and meat and delicious Vietnamese breakfast. We opted for Cao Lao, a local specialty of rice noodles, pork, veggies and pork skin croutons.

It was an excellent way to start the day and we mostly avoided embarrassing ourselves in front of the Vietnamese women, except when Josh trying to be helpful passed fish sauce to a woman to put in her glass of water. Not quite what she was looking for. Interestingly, a walk through the market (while enjoying a delicious avocado shake) quickly revealed distinctions between Vietnam and Laos. Everything looked just a bit more prosperous in Vietnam. The veggies were presented in baskets rather than simply in piles on a tarp. The fish was packed with ice to stay fresh. The women fearlessly chopping meat sat on stools rather than on the chopping block itself. Little differences, but definitely noticeable. (Interestingly/dorkily, the stats we [Josh] dug up suggest the difference isn’t as much as it feels – GDP/capita of $1040 in Vietnam vs. $860 in Laos:

The town of Hoi An is absolutely charming – filled with two-storey mixes of Vietnamese and Chinese architecture. The homes are built with dark wood interiors, open stone courtyards and are painted beautiful (now faded) tropical yellows and blues and whites.

We strolled in and out of some of the historic homes and met the current occupants who taught us about the advantages of sleeping on flat wooden beds. They did not look comfy. Virtually all the buildings in the old town are of the same, beautiful stock – whether they’re currently put to use as homes, museums, tourist shoppes (many), or in one case, the very official-seeming “Hoi An Department of Managing and Gathering Swallows Nests” (really).

Our big excitement for the day was tailoring and we spent some time in the morning picking out fabrics and patterns for shirts, jackets and nearly anything else we could imagine. Somehow, we ordered what we wanted at 11am and just a few hours later we were back for fittings with many of the clothes taking shape already. Things happen fast here. In between fittings and wandering through town (in the unbelievable heat - it is really warm!) we stopped for some street food and a long-sought meal eaten on the sidewalk on tiny stools. Here they had upgraded to small plastic chairs, but the joy of making our own chicken rice paper wraps was much the same.

We were offered a tour of Vietnam on easy rider motorcycles (we sadly declined) and then headed back to the hotel for a two-wheeled adventure more our speed – bicycles. We rode through town joining the rush hour crew of motorbikes and other bicycles, though they almost always had two to a bike so we didn’t qualify for the HOV lane. Turning off the main road we ended up on some tiny streets which alternated between being paved and dirt and occasionally taking us through a rice paddy. It was nice to get a bit outside the tourist center, though an impending thunderstorm eventually encouraged us to head home to the hotel to wait out the rains.

An hour or so later the torrential downpour was over and we headed out for a nighttime walk through town and dinner. I had grilled pork, Josh the Vietnamese sampler with two kinds of dumplings, more cao lao and some rice paper wraps of his own, and we called it a night.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Stay…Just a Little Bit Luang-er (Wish We Could)

We’d been worried a tad bit about our flight on Lao Airlines, but for naught – and after all, not much could top our 2008 Costa Rican adventure with a 6-seater landing on a dirt patch in a town with no electricity, right? Anyway, for the record, our flight was on a spanking-new, 100+ person prop plane with full beverage service and even a bag of chips (banana, mango, taro, etc…top that, JetBlue!), and after a quick 40 minute hop over rice fields and jungle and a lot of amazingly brown river, we touched down without incident and began a lovely time in Luang Prabang (Pronounced roughly “Luah Phah-b(ng)ah.” Does that not make it clearer? Neither did asking the locals several times a day.)

We’d decided to splurge and put ourselves up at the swish 3 Nagas hotel just to the end of the main old-city drag – in the executive suite, no less, though we were hard pressed to imagine anyone doing too much serious business in this or any other room in Luang Prabang – and we’ve been well waited-on since we arrived. As for the city itself, we love it – it seems to have retained everything good about French Colonialism (Was there anything good about French Colonialism? If nothing else, how about baguettes, petanque, strong coffee, and elegantly aging villas?) alongside a heavy dose of Laos charm. The old town is a string of temples, each a riot of mirrored glass and gold paint and graceful slanting roofs, each swarming with young monks in bright orange robes either chanting or texting. While most of the old city outside the temples is now dedicated to tourism, the town still feels very much alive, and the setting – on the intersection of the Mekong and Nam Kahn rivers – is amazing.

We spent Monday afternoon wandering around by bike and getting our bearings, ducking into temples and stopping near the river to join a crowd of twenty guys watching another four play petanque. All the businesses did double duty as people’s houses, and we stopped for a late lunch (fried noodles, chicken soup) outside someone’s living room. We chatted up a monk (he told us he wanted to practice his English, but he didn’t need much practice) – one of seven children, eight years in the monastery, studying accounting on the side and planning either to go to Bangkok for Buddhist University or into tourism here in LP. We joined our fellow foreigners for a short trek up the big hill in the center of town to watch the sun set over the mountains and the Mekong (nice) and finally settled down to dinner at our hotel. Dinner was delicious – the NYTimes had judged it the best place to try Lao cuisine. This being the low season though, we were the only people in the room, waited on with great formality by no less than eight people, and both the hotel manager and the chef found time to stop by our table. We slept well.

And briefly. We woke up just before 5am to take part in the daily alms-giving ceremony that takes over the town. I (Josh) still haven’t quite figured out the time, I guess, and so we’d gotten up, found our way out of the hotel, and wandered pretty far through unexpectedly empty streets before we realized that it was actually just shy of 4am (oops). A short snooze later, we tried again and seated ourselves outside one of the big temples, armed with a bowl of fruit and another of sticky rice to give to the monks. There was plenty of chanting and drum-beating, and we got to see the town slowly wake up (roosters and soup vendors first), and then around 6, a line of ~300 monks from all the town’s temples began a slow, silent march through the city’s main streets. Tourists, locals, and country folk waited on the side of the road to place a small ball of rice and whatever else we had into each monk’s bowl – this, along with other cooked food donations from villagers, is what keeps the monks fed, and has historically been a way for families to “make merit” (religious credit), as well as to sustain the temples. For us, it was a bit intimidating (nothing quite like being stared down by the hungry horde) but very cool.

After another nap and delicious breakfast at the hotel (I had the nem kao, steamed rice pancakes with pork etc.; EB had two perfect waffles; we both had a fruit plate with mangosteen and dragon fruit and a cup of jet black Lao coffee), we went to the day’s main event: Lao cooking school. Start to finish, a great time. Our guide took us and our fellow students on a tour of the local market (20+ kinds of eggplant, innumerable greens and herbs, glue made from red ant larvae, pungent fish sauce from fish left to soak for a full year), and then off to an outdoor classroom where we were schooled in the art of jaew (a spicy eggplant based dip), fish in a dill sauce steamed in banana leaves, buffalo stew, and the improbable chicken-stuffed lemongrass. When we heard the latter, we assumed they’d got it backwards – lemongrass is a long, hard stock not much wider than a straw, so we couldn’t imagine stuffing it with anything – but we were wrong, and happily so. All in all, a great day – and it ended in a feast! We rounded out the day with a tour of a few more notable temples – particularly enchanting around 6pm, when the monks gathered in each one to say the nightly chants. We found our way down to watch the end of the sunset along the edge of the Mekong; had a quick, delicious dinner of Lao BBQ surrounded by Lao teens on their Lao cell phones; and drifted off to an early sleep.

If Tuesday was all (mostly) about food, today was all about elephants. We were a bit skeptical about the elephant riding thing (OK, maybe just me, pathologically afraid to admit that I’m a tourist), but it was great. We drove 30km out of town and through villages and jungle (thanking ourselves throughout the bumpy ride for having decided against the 10-hour bus ride from Vientiane), finally landing at a picturesque camp along the Nam Khan and surrounded by foggy jungle hills. We spent a couple hours in a small group with as many elephants and trainers (“Mahouts”) and got a few really memorable rides – including one right into the river on the elephants’ backs!

After lunch, we took a longboat up the river to a locally famous waterfall and spent an hour scampering up the falls, amazed that we could keep our balance with the water rushing around our feet. We spent the afternoon relaxing and wandering through the markets around town, and finished with a tasty meal at one of LP’s poshest restaurants (dinner for two with wine, US$55 – about 10x last night’s BBQ feast). Great day! Now just one more morning left to soak up the Laos vibe, and then off we go to Vietnam.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Let the Lao-trageous puns begin!

After our misadventures at the KL airport, our arrival in Vientiane was very smooth and we were off to our hotel near the center of the old town. Despite being the capital of Laos, Vientiane is still establishing itself, though an article in the NY Times quoted a Vientiane resident as saying he thought they had really made great strides since taking over the position as capital from Luang Prabang – which of course occurred a mere 450 years ago.

And now, dear readers, we get to the part of the trip you have all been waiting for. The part where we start talking about food and basically never stop to the point that both you and we are so full we might explode. (We learned how to say that in Chinese on our last trip, perhaps we should add “I am so stuffed I will die” in Lao to the repertoire as well.) Once we were checked in to our nice room – beautiful view of the temple across the street from our 5th floor balcony (though it was a walk-up to get there – oops) we then set off for the evening’s wandering. We encountered a whole series of night stalls set up not that far from our hotel and made a mental note of their location. But we were people with a mission. At the other end of the old town we had heard of a fancy Lao restaurant that also featured Lao music and dancing. It was a bit of a tourist spot – there were a couple of tables full of Thai groups – but it was a great introduction to the local food. For a whopping $15 per person we enjoyed 11 courses of Lao cuisines from sour fish soup to spring rolls to chicken wrapped in banana leaves to sautéed veggies in Oyster sauce. It was great. Certainly a splurge, as we also included a $1 big BeerLao (which is all the rage – see NYTimes link), but it was a yummy introduction to the city. A stroll back through town and we were off to bed.

Sunday morning began as many mornings do here in Southeast Asia in August, with an absolute torrential downpour. Fortunately our hotel provided a delicious breakfast (EB had waffles, Josh a croissant), fresh juice and a banana shake, and Lao coffee (aka coffee ice cream served warm and for breakfast, aka if we lived here we would have immediate diabetes because I (EB) could drink this non-stop). Umbrellas and anoraks in tow, we then headed out into the rain. In spite of the weather, which fortunately quickly cleared, the temples of Vientiane were wonderfully enchanting, with elaborate and ornate carvings of Buddhas and dragons and young monks in saffron robes running all over the place. It was like Christo’s Central Park Gates had come to life. Two temples in, we encountered a street with a couple noteworthy French bakeries – and so, thinking only of our dear amis Matt and Amy (and Jon in DC) we naturally had to have a croissant au chocolat. Yum.

Further wandering took us to the morning market, a giant mall filled mostly with cheap electronics knock-offs and t-shirts, but apparently it is where the people of Vientiane go to hang out, so who were we to buck the trend. Josh swiftly sniffed out the food court and another $2 later we were sitting in front of a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup and glass dumplings filled with pork (and small shrimps – fake allergy seems cured). Yes, readers, it was 10am and we were already on to third breakfast.

Embarrassingly full, we headed off to see some of the more well known sites of Vientiane, including their (self-described) version of the Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe, a concrete arch built with money from the US government that was supposed to build a runway at the airport. They call the arch the vertical runway instead. Next we walked about another mile to the That Louang, the most famous temple in Laos and national symbol. True to all reports, it was about as gold as anything you could imagine (save perhaps for a Trump building’s lobby) and gleamed in the mid-day sun. The reflection of the sun made for a beautiful site and for a VERY hot visit, which naturally called for the OGAA (our great Asian adventure) Asian cooldown favorite – a POPSICLE! It was coconut this time, but we’ll keep an eye out for the “garbage flavor” we so loved while in China.

Next up was a tuk tuk ride, not the most comfortable ride but certainly authentic, to another set of temples and museums. Our favorite was the Wat Sisaket, the oldest temple in Vientiane and the only one not destroyed by the Siamese when they sacked the city in 1828. It was filled with thousands of Buddhas all wrapped in their trademark yellow sashes. More spiritual than beauty pageant, but definitely in the same family.

A walk along the Mekong revealed a construction site – apparently the city of Vientiane is, like NYC, also doing a waterfront improvement project. I left my resume to see if they need a planning project manager, no word yet. We then settled in for a much needed rest at a little spot (tarp roof, plastic tables, grill on the sidewalk) by the river. And, of course, more food. More spring rolls, veggie this time, and a green chicken curry with basil along with a couple of Beer Laos provided us with the sustenance to do a bit more afternoon wandering.

A few hours later we were back at the hotel for a shower – one gets pretty disgustingly sweaty here – and then out to revisit one of the night stalls we had seen the evening before. For a whopping $5 we had a bowl of noodles and pork sausage, pork spring rolls, Beer Lao (natch) and a Pepsi. We love this country. As is often our habit, we then went to check out the local supermarket where Josh instructed me on how great the Mars products’ brand blocking was on the shelves (a sea of yellow Pedigree bags). Even in Laos, there is much for me to learn. We wandered to the very quaint town square where we sat outside at a fancy French restaurant for a coffee and a chocolate mousse, which cost the equivalent of our entire Lao dinner. Still, very full after $10 is hard to complain about.

Today, Monday, we had only a few hours in Vientiane before hopping on a plane to Luang Prabang, our next stop in Laos. After another good breakfast in the hotel, we set out for a few last minute eating spots we wanted to cross off our list. For me, it was a sugar doughnut at a bakery in the main town square. For Josh, it was grilled fish from a stand on the side of the road, followed by an avocado milkshake from a place close to the morning market. FYI: avocado, coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk and sugar – not the worst combination in the world. Our bellies thus full, we explored the side of the morning market we had missed on Sunday, namely the meat and produce. Luckily we were no longer hungry, because the site of some of the meats on offer (brain, intestine, kidneys, head, penis – no joke) was enough to turn anyone into a vegan, particularly with the lovely lady butchers seated barefoot on the carving tables. But not us, brave readers! We will persevere. The beautiful mounds of leafy greens and garlic and peppers reminded us why we like to eat and all was right in the world again. A tuk tuk to the hotel and cab to the airport and our stay in Vientiane had come to an end. Off to Luang Prabang!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

From DC to Paris slash Malaysia, Abridged. Seriously Abridged.

I (Jon) remain in D.C. But even though I'm not on vacation, with a little too much free time on my hands, I do what the travelers do: EAT.  I'm currently sitting down to Second Brunch as I type this post.  And as my good deed for the day I'll teach Amy some handy French vocabulaire (Amy, that's French for 'vocabulary') while I'm at it.

Gateau (that's French for 'mounds of butter dusted with chocolate'):

Galette (this is how the French say 'yes I ate this whole thing myself last night in one sitting not a crumb left over'):

Cannes (this means what it looks like it means):

Of course the cooking part of eating also serves as useful Husband Hunting practice slash please forward to all travelworthy and eligible bachelors.  Merci bcp (French for 'I'm so good at abbreviating French').

Saturday, August 21, 2010

LAX to JFK, Abridged.

How long do you suppose it will take for the copying of Josh and EB's post titles to get old? Oh, what's that? You can hardly get enough, couldn't possibly be more clever? Right, then, thinly veiled plagiarism it shall be.

I (Amy) am writing to report that domestic travel is just as you remember it, plus one chatty Russian cab driver this morning ("Where you go, New York?" "No, Paris actually" "You fly nonstop?" "No, we stop over in New York" "Aha! You go to New York, like I say!" cue disproportionate satisfaction on his part, giggles from me, reluctant chuckles from Matt). And then we went through security, I resisted buying an US Weekly (why, I'll never know), we boarded the plane, envied the people in first class, slept (Matt), read and demanded reassuring about the physics of flying during some turbulence (me), and arrived at JFK, our current locale. We snacked on some freedom fries (sike I mean French fries, j'adore les crossaints! Fromage! Vin! Bonjour!), and then spotted Alexi Lalas. Take that KL! I read no mention of international soccer celebrities, only snacks and markets and malls! Better luck in Laos!

We have just another hour or so before we are truly chateau-bound, and I can promise you that we will be croissanted within mere hours. I have fewer euros than I feel my dollars are worth (travelex needs new management, I think), but surely they can and will yield material more enthralling than a cross-country flight in coach. Time will tell. Until then, buon soire! Cafe! Pain au chocolat! Can't wait to hear about Laos and then write a less interesting yet still exclamatory report from the continent.

Finally, Jon, something urgent and irrational has come up in France. Please handle by boarding plane (equipped with wifi, curse of curses to lawyers everywhere) to Paris asap. Thx.

Malaysia, Abridged

A local doctor we befriended over breakfast this morning gave us some helpful insights into life in Kuala Lumpur, in between enthusiastic bites of pork dumpling. What does he do with his free time? “Go shopping!” Eating and shopping: that about summed up a lovely 24 hours in the Malaysian metropolis.

We arrived yesterday via express train just a five minute walk from our hotel, where we checked in and checked out our 30th storey view over the sprawl of KL. Back on the street, we hopped a train (true to form, the train station was also a mall) to one of the city’s many mosques, at the center of Little India. We walked through blocks of roti wallahs and vendors stringing together bright and fragrant garlands of flowers, pausing along the way for some fried fish balls on sticks and a chocolate waffle (quite a combo). Strolling through one of the city’s famed street markets, we were nearly run over by men carrying whole racks of black-market shoes and purses, and stopped long enough to try a tasty, salty Chinese chicken noodle dish at a long-running food stall. Though it had only been a couple hours, and barely a full meal, I was already losing the battle with jet lag and we had to move on – so many things to try next time! Really liked the style of the satay vendor who kept neat stacks of his various meats and sea creatures in notches along a six-foot block of ice, among others.

Anyway, as I was already nodding off whenever the opportunity presented itself, we rushed off to complete our itinerary grab a quick dinner (two, actually) at another major market – this one the night market at Jalan Alor. The NYTimes led us right, for a big plate of delicious roasted chicken wings with a sweet-and-spicy dipping sauce, and then a bit wrong, for a gooey plate of beef noodles. I can’t tell you much more about it, sadly, because I was mostly asleep (at the table, in the cab, etc.), but I know that I woke up some hours later a happier man.

With only a few hours this morning, we taxied straight away to a fantastic old-style coffee shop , where we shared a table with our doctor friend (“KL’s like New York City – all the families live out in the suburbs, like in Westchester.”) and had a range of greasy spoon delicacies, from a fried pork chop drowned in gravy, onions, peas and carrots (looked straight out of 1956, tasted heavenly) to toast with sweet coconut jam, to a very spicy fried rice (guess you don’t often get that at a greasy spoon?), all washed down with a syrupy black coffee with sweetened condensed milk, more dessert than drink. We took the subway to the Petronas Towers, which didn’t quite look like they were among the tallest buildings in the world, but were impressive nonetheless. And while it was too late to get tickets to the viewing station, it was just the right time to check out the massive luxury mall at the base (the whole thing was very Time Warner Center). Not content with a one-mall experience, we walked a few blocks (past at least five other malls) to yet another, where we managed to find a highly-recommended bakery tucked into the home furnishings section of a fancy department store. Extravagant chocolate-banana cake in hand, we hopped the monorail back through town to our hotel to begin our trek to Laos.

In our short stay in KL, were struck by the diversity of the city - a fairly even mix of the Indians, Malay, and Chinese that make up most of the city’s population, and a stark contrast to many of the other major cities we’ve seen across Asia. There were assorted temples, too, to match. We watched as workers scrubbed dirt off statues of Shiva and applied new paint to a colorful Hindu temple (part of a once-every-12-years consecration, we learned), while at another, elaborately dressed men (priests?) mixed with businessmen on the way home from work, lighting packets of sugar and loudly smashing coconuts into a big tank in offering before visiting the various deities. Meanwhile, it’s still Ramadan, and there were stands of sweets and dinner dishes awaiting the rush of Muslims breaking fast in the afternoon. The malls and restaurants offered Ramadan specials, more festive than I’d expected (Jewelry stores hawked big discounts, and Godiva was decked out a bit like Valentine’s day). Our doctor friend told us that the cities major groups had gotten along pretty well in recent decades, and that spots in the government were unofficially held for one ethnic group or another (e.g., the head of the Dept. of Medicine was always Chinese; the department of Public Works, always Indian).

Anyway, further exploration will have to wait for a future vacation – for now, off to Laos. Our trip was largely uneventful, with one exception. Apparently the main KL airport has two terminals, both part of KUL…but about as far away as JFK and LGA! Fortunately, we’d left ourselves plenty of time to make our flight, and were able to hop a cab between the two with only a little bit of panicked scrambling and still make our Air Asia flight to Laos without a hitch. And here we are! More on our time in Laos next time…

Thursday, August 19, 2010

On the ipad and droid at bangkok airport

16 hours later and almost there. Luckily bangkok had a starbucks and m&ms world ready for us. KL here we come.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Saying Au Revoir to LA

Harry at the foot of my bed, where I would often
find him when I woke up in the morning.
Well readers, things certainly have gotten more interesting for the return of bloggers Herczeg and Bell (nee Koch).  We asian adventurers are most glad for the addition once more of their witty repartee, even if we will be spread across three continents.  Let the hunt for the best story of wacky French-inspired antics - in Paris, in a country once controlled by the French or with Fabrice in DC - begin.

Sadly my time in LA is winding down.  Tuesday morning began with a lovely stroll to a local coffee shop with Aim and Harry and enjoying some iced teas while sitting outside in the once again perfect LA weather.  (Apparently it's hot by LA standards, but after this summer in NYC and my only sometimes air conditioned living room, it feels lovely).  Aim then went off to have an important Hollywood lunch.  It may have just been for networking/meeting people in LA, but as far as I'm considered every lunch in LA is like those lunches in Get Shorty where people are pitching scripts left and right and ordering obscure dishes off menu.  So she probably green lighted three scripts while there.  I meanwhile headed to the Grove and Farmers Market, where I explored a food wonderland.  While enjoying my second set of pork tacos in two days, I overheard a woman say to her friend that eating at the mexican stand where we were was a quintessential LA experience.  Success!  Though all the talk about Amy and Matt's upcoming trip to France also required me, bien sur, to have a nutella crepe for dessert.

After a stroll through the shops, Amy and I came home and she headed off to her writing class, where she is in training to become a v. famous Hollywood writer, second only perhaps to her already v. famous husband Matt Bell.  (Note to all Hollywood executives reading this blog in secret - there is a dynamic writing duo residing here in West Hollywood.  You probably want to hire them.)  I then borrowed Amy's car and drove to see a good family friend Hanka Orsten, who came over to the US on the same Army transport ship as Babi and Deda, arriving on Thanksgiving Day 1949.  We had a lovely visit. Between Babi and Hanka there are two pretty fabulous 90-somethings putting most 60 year-olds to shame.  (I took pics with my blackberry but I am having trouble getting them off the device, so photos to come in a bit - apologies.)

Of particular note in our visit (and especially for blogger Herczeg), Hanka taught me some translations of great Czech expressions about Hungarians.  Babi had already taught me:

- After midnight all Slovaks become Hungarian (which I think means they are sloppy drunks)

In that vein, Hanka added:

- A Hungarian will go into a revolving door after you and come out before you
- What's the difference between a Hungarian and a Romanian?  They both will sell you their mothers, but the Hungarian will actually deliver

There are definitely getting added to my repertoire.

After such a nice visit, I then returned to Casa Bell and Matt and I scooped Amy up from her class.  We adventurous three then went across LA - so many neighborhoods! - to Little Tokyo for some DELICIOUS ramen and grilled pork.  The absolutely perfect way for me to get ready to transition to a diet of Asian cuisines for the next two weeks.  What a treat.
Harry knows it is important to stay
hydrated when one is hiking in the heat

At the top of our hike
This morning (Wednesday), Amy and I with our fearless canine leader Harry headed off to Griffith Park for a hike up to the Observatory.  It was pretty hot and sunny, but the hike was great fun, especially when pulled along by an unbelievably energetic dog.  Harry must have known what a nice morning was in store for us, because as soon as we got in the car he started hopping up and down with excitement.  Again, slightly different reaction than Harry the bulldog.

This sign always reminds me of the episode
of Mathnet with the gorillas.  Anyone?
After the hike we stopped in Larchmont, which apparently also exists here as well as on the Metro-North, for yummy Italian sandwiches.  Up ahead for up this afternoon will be last minute errands and laundry, followed by hopefully scooping Josh up at the airport for a quick Bell-Olken double dinner date at a cuban place near LAX.  And then, just a brief 16-17 hour flight later (yikes) we'll be in Asia!  See you all there!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


TO: Readers
FR: Me (Jon)
Attachment:  V. Important Document REDLINE -- PRIVILEGED & CONFIDENTIAL -- DRAFT

Thank you for your message.  I (Jon) am currently not on vacation right now.  I do not anticipate being away from my computer, Blackberry, landline, cellphone or desk in the near future.  If I do not respond to your email within 10 minutes, please forward the same message to me, only this time mark it as urgent with a red exclamation point so you can be sure I see it in my inbox.   If 10 more minutes pass, please call my assistant at [REDACTED] and she will send an email alerting me to your call.  Sometimes it helps if your assistant calls my assistant directly with the message that you are looking for me. 

In any event, of course I am happy to assist with this pressing matter.  Please be advised that I am in the office and not in Paris crunching a baguette or in Hue slurping up pho, though I plan to be out of the office next Thursday recruiting at [REDACTED]; the Acela now has wi-fi so I will be available on a consistent basis as needed.  Your email to me that says only "please assist" provides clear and consistent guidance that is in no way vague.  I can easily follow the correspondence you forwarded me from [CLIENT] and I can interpret [CLIENT]'s unambiguous request.  Though I have no previous experience with this issue or knowledge of the relevant legal standard, I should be able to turn this around without delay by COB yesterday. 

In the meantime, I do hope to interrupt Amy/Matt/EB/Josh's posts about vacation adventures with a few short entries of my own.  Please let me know if you have any questions.

Me (Jon)

Breaking News!

Dear reading public, you've  been misled.  You'll note that at the bottom of this post it says that Jon and Amy are here in absentia.  False.  Present.  I (Amy) am very much here.  Or as EB just said "the inmates are in charge."  I think I'd prefer something more along the lines of "student becomes teacher."  

But Amy, why are you blogging, you ask?  Well, let me count the ways (er, reasons):
1.  I am unemployed.  Yes my numbering is in order of importance.  If you are reading, in Los Angeles, and interested in paying me to do something other than be a litigation associate, it's great to meet you and I would love to buy you lunch and I'm a quick learner with a real appetite for reading for pleasure.  Surely these things qualify me for something.
2.  I am jealous of EBs and Josh and their adventure part deux.  Uncontrollably jealous/envious/furious.
3.  I will also be traveling in the next two weeks, and though I won't be in Asia, I will be in a former colonial power, and who doesn't love a little mercantilism humor.
3a.  If you're now wondering who is to blame for giving me the password to the blog, it was EB.  
4.  This is mostly just a challenge to Jon to write something hilarious for our benefit.  See that, readers?  I'm here to help.

On Saturday, Matt and I leave for 10 days in France: first attending the wedding of our friends in Burgundy, and then wandering around Paris for a few days on a belated honeymoon of sorts.  EB taught me some french while we were stuck in traffic yesterday, so I'm feeling pretty confident we'll have no trouble at all.  I can now say:
-"give me that croissant"
-"I adore wine"
-"I adore you"
-"two coffees please, thank you"
-"where is the Louvre"

I dare you to think of any other truly essential phrase.  Let the adventure(s) begin.


Ladies who lunch (and enjoy happy hour)

Sunday evening was a lovely reunion with the Chapin girls at Bld for dinner followed by the evening's episode of Mad Men at Kathleen's wonderful apartment. Nothing like a night of reminiscing over the high school quote book and gabbing while watching tv to make you feel like it's 1999 again.  It's always nice to know that no amount of graduate school, careers or marriage changes the friendships (and the ability to find middle school teachers hilarious) that result from 13 years of all-girls' schooling.  

The beautiful Zuma Beach in Malibu

Lawyers on the loose
Monday was another perfect sunny day in Los Angeles. Amy (after she got up very early and went to morning pilates and I snoozed right in - guess I'm not quite ready for LA life yet) and I went on a little beach adventure. We headed out to Malibu where we had a yummy lunch of tacos at the hilariously named Malibu Country Mart (think Nobu and $150 jean shorts not Cracker Barrel and overalls) and then wandered around the shops. Next we were off to Zuma beach for a stroll, dipping our feet in the Pacific. It was beautiful.  Though it may only be for a short time of unemployment, we decided we could definitely get used to spending Monday afternoons at the beach rather than in an office.  If anyone is looking to hire two law school grads to enjoy leisurely lunches and weekday strolls on the beach in Malibu, look no further.

In front of Bodega, the fashionable wine bar where Mandi and Amy had the good sense to order wine and I got a neon blue cocktail.  Oops.
After having the full LA experience of getting stuck in traffic on the way home, we got back to West Hollywood, changed into our evening attire and headed out to meet Mandi at a new wine bar on Sunset Boulevard (it is literally impossible for me to say that without starting to sing the theme song from the musical Sunset Boulevard). We had a great girls' night out- happy hour pricing on cocktails and wine (what a deal!) and yummy bar snacks. Not to mention learning all sorts of secret Hollywood insider gossip about the biz- thank goodness I know someone so connected with what's going on.  I can't wait to get home to astound all my east coast friends with what I learned about cool stuff in the film industry. But first I should probably learn some cool stuff about unpronounceable southeast asian cities as well.        

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A weekend with my nephew, niece and neph-dog

If my travels getting to LA were a little less than perfect, all that was cured by the joy of spending the weekend with my "nephew" Shepherd, "niece" Ella and "neph-dog" Harry Bell. Bates and Shep had come down from Palo Alto, Ali and Ella had come up from San Clemente and Harry, well, being the movie star that he is, lives in fashionable LA with Amy and Matt in their lovely West Hollywood home.

Saturday morning we had an absolutely delicious brunch courtesy of Amy and her wonderful cooking (though she did snag a recipe or two from this gem of a food blog Mandi joined us (that's high powered Hollywood executive Amanda Schweitzer to those of you in the biz) as did Matt's delightful mom Renie visiting from Oakland.  After breakfast, the young moms and the "aunties" and Harry the dog went for a walk around West Hollywood, keeping eyes peeled for celebrities at every turn, though no luck so far.  We spent the afternoon astounded by the wonderousness of the babies as Ella made clear that she is ready to start crawling (extremely fast learner) and Shep revealed his amazing array of facial expressions, with the piece de resistance being his own adaptation of lobster face.  For dinner, Amy once again treated us with a delicious meal, this time the Zuni roast chicken and bread salad.  YUMMY!  What a successful day.

Sunday began with spooning in bed once again with Harry - apologies to my dog Harry back on the East Coast but this Harry can jump into bed without the aid of an ottoman or a helpful lift.  Breakfast with the babies again and then we were off for a stroll to the Melrose flea market.  Cute as we grown ups are, Shep and Ella once again were the stars of the show.  I think they were offered several trendy LA outfits by some of the vendors, but naturally refused, referring all discussions about what to wear (and what not to wear - they of course read US Weekly) to their managers.  These are two celebabies in the making.

Sadly, we had to send the babies off to their respective homes Sunday afternoon, but not before several attempts at kidnapping by their aunties when their moms weren't paying attention.  Surprisingly enough, the kiddies weren't psyched about the prospect of stowing away in my bag for a trip to Southeast Asia.  Though I'm pretty sure that several of the baby sounds made by Shep and Ella over the course of the weekend were the names of places we'll be going in Laos.

Next up, dinner with the Chapin girls! 

Oh you'd like to fly to Los Angeles? How about two days from now?

No Continental, thank YOU.
Our adventures began somewhat inauspiciously on Friday when I (EB) arrived at Newark airport for my flight to Los Angeles. Upon attempting to check in at an e-ticket machine, I was informed that I could not check in because it was more than 24 hours before my flight. Odd, I thought, given that my flight was in just over 1 hour. But upon further inspection it was revealed that the machine believed my flight was on Sunday rather than Friday.

A swift discussion with a Continental representative revealed that my 3:25 flight had been canceled and I had been rebooked on the 3:25 on Sunday.*  Apparently Contintental believed that my primary interest was in flying at 3:25, irrespective of the day. Surprisingly, I informed them that actually what I really wanted was to get to California THAT DAY rather than fly at 3:25 and encouraged them to make that happen. Though all direct flights were booked, after a little persistence they found a spot for me on a flight to Chicago and then from Chicago to LAX.

Well, at least someone was glad I was there.

A couple hours later, I was off to Chicago and all seemed to be well in the world.  After a lovely airport dinner in O'Hare and the joyous news that I was being given an exit row seat on the flight to LAX, thunderstorms rolled into Chicago and all flights were halted for an hour and a half.  Luckily I had rented a movie on my snazzy new ipad, so the time passed relatively quickly.  Finally at 10:30pm Chicago time we took off and at 12:45 am the flight touched down in LA.  A quick ride brought me to the wonderful home of Amy and Matt Bell, where a lovely guest room and delightful dog to spoon with awaited me.  I had arrived!

* Side note for this story - are there actually people who go to the check in machine, see their flight has been canceled and they are rebooked for two days later, and just shrug their shoulders and go home to come back in two days?  Is that really a winning strategy for airlines?  I am dubious.