Spring Break in Nha Trang

Last week we spent our first overseas Spring Break in Nha Trang, a beach resort on the Southern coast of Vietnam. Unfortunately, we had to spend our first night of vacation in Guangzhou due to a four hour delay and missed connection. Apparently, this was due to some kind of military exercise, so Southern China Airlines put us up in the HJ (not) Grand Hotel. No voucher, no upgrade, and honestly, I’m not even sure there was an apology. So very China. When we finally got to the Intercontinental Hotel in Nha Trang, the accommodations and the view were much improved.

Motorbikes are the preferred means of transportation in this part of the world, and crossing the street can appear to be an insurmountable challenge for the uninitiated. Ultimately, you just have to boldly step out into traffic and magically, the motorbikes go around you, as long as you keep moving forward. Stopping or hesitating can definitely result in serious bodily damage and clearly signifies that you are a clueless tourist. Check out this video to see one of our earliest attempts.

Once we figured out how to navigate the streets, we did some exploring of the local landmarks, which include a cathedral, a pagoda with a giant Buddha statue and a Buddhist temple. Jeff got adventurous and decided to try the local cuisine – we both enjoyed the Chicken Pho and then we BBQ’d chicken, beef, pork and shrimp at our table. We really enjoyed chatting with our waitress, Khanh, so we decided it would be fun to take a cooking class. We started out in the morning by going to the local market to buy the ingredients, and then headed back to the restaurant to make lunch. Along with seven other couples, we learned how to make Goi Cuon, or rice paper spring rolls, and Kho To (Pork & Chicken in a Clay Pot). Pineapple flambé rounded out the meal, and that was plenty of exertion for one day.

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One of the reasons we chose to go to Nha Trang was to do some diving. I hadn’t been in about 5 years, so I really wanted a refresher and some personal attention. Everything is so cheap that we decided to charter a boat instead of going out with a bunch of other people. We spent a great day on and under the water with Scotty, a chill dude from Arcata, CA; he took us on two decent dives near Madonna Rock. It was good to get back in the water and get some sun, although Jeff’s poor head is still healing from a pretty bad burn.

We spent our last day in Saigon, officially Ho Chi Minh City, where we saw the Cuchi Tunnels, the elaborate network of underground tunnels used as hideouts, living quarters and supply routes for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. We also spent some time at the War Remnants Museum and then had dinner and walked around the city center before heading to the airport for our 2:35 am flight. We knew that it was not going to be fun getting home with a flight scheduled for that time, but it was then delayed until 4:30 and delayed again when we were on the tarmac. I think we actually took off at 5:30 am, so that was a fun way to wrap up our vacation. At least it made us happy to back home in Shanghai! Stay tuned for more Spring travels: Taiwan and Bali are up next!

Lantern Festival

Lantern 1The Lantern Festival, which took place on February 22, marks the official end of the Chinese New Year celebration. The Lantern Festival falls every year on the 15th day of the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar. The festival is held to mark the first full moon of the new lunar year, and the Chinese celebrate it by hanging colorful lanterns, playing games and gathering with friends to eat sweetened rice dumplings. There are also some less traditional celebrations, such as the Lantern show at the Shanghai Expo Park, “which covers 130,000 square meters and has 99 different sets of colorful and huge lanterns, all in varying shapes and sizes. Visitors can see Sun Wukong, or the Monkey King, from the famous novel Journey to the West, dragonfish, a symbol of good fortune and happiness, and even characters from famous cartoons.”

We went to see this Shanghainese version of Portland’s Zoolights with a group of teachers last Saturday night. Half of the fun was managing to buy our tickets online in advance and then figuring out how to pick them up from the automated ticket dispenser. Once inside, we enjoyed the giant light show, along with thousands of our Chinese friends.

Chinese FriendsSpeaking of Chinese friends, Bella and Shep are doing their part as American ambassadors. Today when we went to play ball at school, these two Chinese boys were very impressed with the dogs’ speed and ball skills, so I handed over the Chuck-It. The boys knew a few words and phrases in English, but they kept asking me questions in Chinese and all I could do was smile and shrug. The big question they had was, “How much?” as in how much did the dogs cost? Dogs are a sign of wealth here and a status symbol. I didn’t know how to say “rescued”, so I told them they were from America and we paid 500 yuan (about $75), which I’m sure sounded pretty cheap compared to what you would pay here. I managed to get this across in broken Chinese and since I had just been studying this afternoon, I also was able to say, “We have to go home now.” It’s more than I could have done a month ago… so, while it’s slow going, we are making some progress.

Chinese New Year

CNY homeWhile the majority of the Chinese traveled to their hometowns and many of the resident expats escaped to exotic locales like Thailand, Vietnam, and India, we stayed in Shanghai for the holiday. Even though we’ve been here six months, there’s so much of this city we haven’t explored yet, so we planned to balance a few trips downtown with time relaxing at home & watching pirated, Oscar-nominated movies.

Our first excursion on New Year’s Day was to the financial district, home to the famous Shanghai skyline and the Pearl Tower. While the Metro was emptier than we’d ever seen it, it started to fill up once we got to People’s Square. What we discovered is that many Chinese were not spending time at home with their families, but instead had decided it was a great day to visit some of the sights in Shanghai, and the Pearl Tower was clearly a popular choice. There was a three hour wait just to get inside the building, so we headed up the street to the Jin Mao tower instead. We got up to the Grand Hyatt’s Cloud 9 bar on the 87th floor just as the city was lighting up for the night and enjoyed the view from there.

Another day, I managed to get a dentist appointment (at a dentist that caters to expats) to fix a small crack in my tooth, and then we went to a famous shopping and dining area called Xintiandi for lunch. Again, the streets were lined with tour buses and the area was crowded with Chinese tourists. We ventured into a couple of shops and after looking at a couple of price tags ($1,000 for sandals; $500 for a pair of jeans), we decided Xintiandi was not for us. We much preferred exploring the labyrinth of small alleyways and hidden shops and cafes at Tianzifang that we had visited just before Christmas.

We had been anticipating a flurry of fireworks all week and had heard that it would sound like a war zone around here, but it was surprisingly quiet. Really nothing worse than your average 4th of July. So toward the end of the week, we got a driver and took the dogs to the Shanghai Sculpture Park. We went with some friends from school, who also have two dogs, and spent a few hours exploring, swimming (the dogs), playing ball and admiring the art.

GF DinnerOn Sunday, we had our regular appointment for our weekly foot massages, but Jeff had gotten a text the day before from the owner asking if we would like to come an hour early for dinner. She has always been very friendly and kind to us, so we were intrigued, but we weren’t really sure if there were other people/clients invited or if it was a personal invitation. When we arrived, we saw that the table was set for four, so it was clearly just us. “Sarah” and her husband “David”, who speak about as much English as we speak Chinese, served us a traditional Chinese meal, and we spent several hours Foodgetting to know our new friends. We were able to use some of the phrases we had learned in our first two Chinese classes (“Looks good”, “Tastes good”, “Do you have children?”), and then resorted to communicating using the translators on our phones. When we left, Jeff summed it up perfectly: “So that was awkward, and interesting and fun.” We are looking forward to more dinners, and I can’t wait to see what kind of food they’ll get Jeff to try next.🙂

From the Margins by the Shanghai Guy Tai

All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy All play and no work makes Jeff a very fat boy

And bored too.🙂

I’m starting to feel like I’m Jack Torrance in The Shining…………………Chop, chop, chop……Susan….. Heeeeeeeere’s Jeffy

shining

I need a job. (In China.) Or things are going to go “Jack” real fast.

But aside from the much needed weight loss, and the lack of physical and mental stimulation, things are going OK. I’m excited about our upcoming travels and that helps offset the no job issue.

Just hitting the 7 month mark today…WOW!

In review:  Thailand was great, the people were friendly and engaging, the culture certainly different from here and they drive on the wrong side of the street just to name a few. I stuck to my Western sensibilities when it came to food and did just fine. I have a ton of pictures from here but mostly of 2 things: T&T’s. I hope we can go back there soon as we barely scratched the surface. I learned more Thai in 5 days than I have Chinese over 7 months. I’ll write more soon on my side of our travels. Beijing is next then maybe Christmas back in the states. (That is if I’m not frozen to death in the hedge maze). Yes, that’s another movie reference…..get used to it. Here are some more Thailand pics.

Reconvene the Routine

After our short trip home, it has been nice to settle back into our established routine. If you are looking for excitement and descriptions of crazy, world-traveller adventures, this post is sure to disappoint. Our day to day life here is pretty mundane and just like back in the States, we like to keep it simple.

starbucks

Every morning around 5, I take the dogs for our regular walk. By 7:30, it’s time to leave for work, so Jeff and I ride our bikes to Starbucks and then head our separate ways for the day. Our housekeeper or “ayi” Hong Mei comes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Mondays, she cooks up a storm and the other two days she cleans and does laundry. She also takes the dogs out for a walk or to the park each day she comes, and most days in the afternoon, Jeff takes them on a “Daddy Walk.” While I’m sure they miss driving around town in Jeff’s truck and Money (1)going to job sites (although probably not as much as he does), they get out and about quite a bit. When I get home from work, if it’s not too muddy, I take them out and throw the ball so they can have some off-leash time. They really look forward to weekend mornings, though, when we get up early and head over to the fields at school where they can really stretch their legs.

Weeknights are typically pretty quiet for us. We don’t venture out much, but starting next week, we will be meeting with our Chinese tutor every Wednesday. Our other weekly standing appointment is on Sunday nights when we get foot massages from our buddies “Kevin” and “Alan” at the Golden Flower. It is a great way to get ready for the week ahead. For dinner, Jeff either cooks or heats up something Hong Mei has made.

Hong Mei (1)

Hong Mei

Some of our favorites are her Japanese Chicken Curry, Shanghai Meatballs, Fried Pork Chops, and Chicken Stir-Fry. She also makes a tasty Chicken Salad that has become a staple for lunch. Mostly, I bring my lunch to school, but sometimes I’ll get something from the cafeteria and about once a week, Jeff and I meet at one of the restaurants in the mall across from school. It’s a nice break for him and for Hong Mei, since it gets him out of the house for a bit. He mostly holes up in his office and works on the computer, so he’s not really underfoot, but he says that sometimes he feels like a prisoner. Occasionally, we’ll have dinner out with friends or attend a school event, but our homebody tendencies haven’t changed much in that regard.

West Bund

The West Bund

Every couple of weeks, we plan a weekend outing into “real” Shanghai (we live out in the suburbs in an ex-pat community and it’s easy to get complacent). Whether it’s dinner out, a concert, a movie, or even just shopping and running errands, it’s always an adventure when we get out of our comfort zone and mingle with the locals. The dogs have done some exploring, as well. We took them to a riverfront park where we could let them off-leash, and we have a couple of drivers who don’t mind when they go along for the ride if we are out shopping. They love to look out the windows at all of the crazy drivers on the road. There are so many more places to explore – I feel like we’ve barely made a dent! But since we are not travelling out of town for Chinese New Year, we’ll have the opportunity to see more of the city next month.

Happy Holidays! (Part 2)

PNWWe’ve just returned to our Shanghai digs after 2 1/2 weeks in Oregon, where we enjoyed fresh air, beautiful scenery and spending time with family and friends. The hardest thing was leaving the dogs behind, but they appear to have been well taken care of by our ayi (housekeeper) Hong Mei. She sent us many vines of the dogs getting some exercise on the small soccer field here in our apartment complex, and clearly they were getting lots of big meals and treats, since they both look about 5 pounds heavier. It’s back to smaller portions and working on heeling for these two!

At home in Milwaukie, we did some yard work and stocked up on some of the items that we can’t find in China. Jeff enjoyed getting back out in the field and getting his hands dirty, as well as being behind the wheel again after five months. It took us about a week to adjust to the time difference. So far we’ve had an easier time making the switch on the China side.

We spent time visiting with Jeff’s mom, who just before Christmas was moved from the hospital to The Pearl rehab center in Lake Oswego. It was a difficult holiday with her not being mobile and unable to be with the family, but we are hopeful that she can get her strength back up and move back to her new assisted living apartment. It was great to see Jeff’s sister and nieces on Christmas eve – too much good food, as usual. We had Christmas dinner at my sister’s and spent time with my parents who were up visiting from California. We also got to catch up with Jeff’s kids and had a great dinner at the Screen Door on Burnside.

 

All in all, it was both a productive and relaxing trip – a good chance to check up on the house and check in with the family. We are looking forward to more adventures in 2016 – we used our Alaska miles to book a trip to Bali in June and are starting to plan for a possible visit from friends John and Judy in the summer and my parents in the fall. Best wishes for a Happy New Year and thanks for reading!

Happy Holidays! (Part 1)

I’ve been meaning to post about our Thanksgiving trip to Beijing, but finishing up the semester along with more holiday traveling has kept me busy, so I’m doing a two-part post about all of our  Winter Holiday travels. Enjoy!

We had some challenges making our reservations for the Beijing trip, and ultimately ended up using a travel agent. I kept running into walls with trying to pay for airline tickets online, and spent at least a couple of hours getting frustrated by travel and airline websites with mysteriously disappearing cheap flights and error messages. As far as I can tell, it is not easy to book your own travel in country. The travel agent was very helpful and got us what we wanted; it just took a little bit more effort.

TrainWe flew out late on Thursday night and didn’t get to our hotel until about 2 AM. With all of the delays and hassles of domestic flights in China, I think if we do this trip again, we’ll take the train both ways. It was about the same price, but the train trip was so much more comfortable and enjoyable. It was probably the best transportation experience that we had on this trip.🙂 Our taxi driver from the airport was falling asleep on the highway, and then he took us to the wrong hotel. On Friday, trying to get Train 2back to the hotel from dinner proved to be trying when it took like four phone calls to direct our Uber driver to our location. Now I know how to cancel a ride – that would have been handy as we were freezing outside waiting for this guy to arrive. I’m sure the parking attendant who was fielding all of the calls was advising me to cancel, but of course, I didn’t have a clue what he was saying.

We stayed at the Renaissance on Wangfujing, which was very conveniently located, as well as a nice property with comfortable beds and a good breakfast buffet. It was also within walking distance of a Starbucks, which is not something I had checked before booking, but with all of the malls popping up in China, finding a Starbucks has not proved to be too much of a challenge for us thus far.

The Great Wallhighlight of the trip was seeing the Great Wall. We went to the Mutianyu section, which is fairly touristy, but was not too crowded since we visited on a non-holiday weekday in November. The snow was beautiful, but made walking on the wall a bit treacherous. We took a cable car up to the top, enjoyed some amazing views and got some good photos. The next day, we walked from our hotel to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City for more Chinese cultural fun. Unfortunately, the air quality was so bad, that it made Jeff sick and we had to call it a day. This was the first time that we had to bust out our masks and it was definitely worse than anything we had experienced in Shanghai. For a first visit to Beijing, this was a good trip, but there’s much more to see and do – so hopefully we’ll have some visitors soon whom we can take there!