Thursday, January 28, 2010

Amazing Race Parody

In the spirit of fun, we made an Amazing Race Parody, in which we are one of the teams competing for a million dollars. Watch the Oscar-winning performance below.

This video was inspired by our new favorite travel past time, geocaching. Basically, we use a GPS, secret codes, ambiguous clues, and our own wits to find hidden treasures in Okinawa. (FYI, in case you're wondering, no, I don't really run like's all fine acting)

Will their marriage survive? What will the next Road Block be? Do they have what it takes to be the winners?

Tune in next time for the next episode of Mary and Sean's Amazing Race...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Honey, Row Down the Street and Buy Some Pringles...

During our overnight stay in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, we made a short side excursion to Cua Van fishing village.
Cua Van is the most perfectly contained and self-sufficient community, with floating houses, floating school, community center and bar, snack boats, and even dogs!
For children, there's no walking to school in the morning. Nope, you hop in your boat and sail on over. Can you imagine?
Some entrepreneurial residents even thought we might be hungry...
Pringles or OREOs anyone? Why yes, please...
How about some shells?

While we were there, someone with a beautiful voice in one of the floating houses started singing "Silent Night." Amazing. It was Christmas Day, after all.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sail Back to 1930s Indochina

A popular way to cruise Ha Long Bay is an overnight stay on a junket boat. They are small and intimate replicas of old ships, and though they do offer short side excursions to caves and floating villages, the experience is really all about drifting the soothing waters of the bay.

"Do you ever get tired of cruising these same waters every day?" I asked our ship captain.

"I would never go back to my hectic life in Hanoi. I love the peace here," was his answer.

Vietnam Travel Tip: We highly recommend this junket experience. There are dozens of cruise lines to choose from, but we ended up on the Jasmine Ha Long Bay. The rooms with balconies were great, and the bathrooms were huge!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sublime Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. How to describe it?

Take a look at the photos and see for yourself.
In the Gulf of Tonkin, Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, reknown for its thousands of limestone islands, sea caves, and pillars jutting out of the ocean.

It's quite possibly the most calming place I've ever been.

I never knew Ha Long Bay existed until a few years ago when it was featured in the movie "Vertical Ray of the Sun," by Vietnamese Director Ahn Hung Tran. (You may know his other films "Scent of the Green Papaya" and "Cyclo").

Incidentally, the movie is one of the most visually stirring films I've ever seen. Unfortunately, the plot isn't much to talk about, but that never seems to stop me from getting absolutely lost in it. The film glimpses the lives of three sisters, one whose husband leads a double life and periodically steals away to his other wife living on a houseboat in one of the many fishing villages in Ha Long Bay.

Vietnam Travel Tip#3: Many visitors prefer to visit Ha Long Bay in the summertime when blinding sun reflects off gleaming emerald green water. In my mind, I can certainly appreciate the gorgeousness of that scene, but for now, I'm perfectly happy with my dreamy hazy Ha Long Bay encounter in December.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Times Square New York- But in Vietnam

This past Christmas Eve in Hanoi was as memorable as they get. We spent the entire day strolling (and sometimes crawling over pedicabs when the traffic stalled) through the maze of streets in the Old Quarter, walking in to all kinds of interesting scenes.
This school had just completed its Christmas program, and we peeked inside the heavy gates to see these children decked out in their Santa outfits. Cultural note: in the States, parents are weary of strange lurkers outside a school. Not so in Vietnam. The parents called out to us, ushered us in, and had their kids pose for us.
We got completely ripped off buying one of these Santa hats. The sneaky guy shortchanged us. Where's your Xmas spirit, man?

Yes, once again I force Sean into hats or costumes and make him smile for the camera...

I loved seeing large groups of people out together enjoying coffee and snacks all over town. This scene is in front of the local Old Quarter Catholic Church, St. Joseph's.

That night, we attended a special performance at a Water Puppet Theater.
Musicians sat to the side and serenaded as these unique puppets emerged from the water and splashed the audience, whipped around in circles, and reenacted traditional tales. I half-way expected to fall asleep (I do that sometimes, even sleeping through intermissions), but it was a lively event.
When we walked out of the theater, whoa! We couldn't believe our eyes.

Swarms of motorbikes trying to fit in a tiny area. Think Times Square New Year's Eve in the sheer number of people and energy in the air. At first, I thought all the hoopla was for the holiday. Then it dawned on me. I bet that same public meeting area is just as crowded, hectic, and pulsing every night of the week.

Vietnam Travel Tip#2: Many tour companies and even hotels offer excursions to the Water Puppet Shows for extremely jacked up prices, as high as $25 a person. We visited the theater ourselves earlier in the day and bought our tickets for about $3 each.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

In Vietnam, the Street is King

Hanoi street (notice how everything goes according to its own agenda)

The Vietnamese street. Whoa... how do I describe it? Well, it's a place that makes your senses go into overdrive.
It's a place to get a traveler's fix if you built up a tolerance to more mundane destinations. It's also a place where the Street is King.

Almost every aspect of life revolves around what can be bought, sold, expressed, consumed, or enjoyed in the public arena.

There, you can swallow black coffee thick and dangerous as quicksand

Observe the motorbikes honking and zooming by.

Watch young lovers posing in front of ancient pagodas
Hoa Khoa Lake

Experience the most wonderful bakery smells hitting you as you walk, quickly replaced by the most fowl I-don't-even-want-to-consider-the-origin smells.

Feel the human connection with all the people in front of you, next to you, behind you all the time, brushing against you on the busy sidewalks and dropping their loads accidentally on your feet.

You can (unsuccessfully) try to avoid the straw rice hat wearing ladies force-burdening their baskets of bananas or washcloths on your shoulders in hopes of earning a little money from the photo op.

You can even get a hair cut and shave right there on that corner where the mirror is hanging on the tree.
Street barber set up

Let's just say that most destinations, beautiful, scenic, or historic they may be, can be underwhelming compared to this. I'm always one for being on the streets and seeking out the bizarre when I travel, and even I had to escape it after only 3 hours of walking around the Old French Quarter in Hanoi.

That said, I still loved it.

Vietnam Travel Tip#1: Book a hotel in the Old Quarter for easy walking access to many sights, and of course, to get lost in the maze of streets. We stayed in a hotel smack in the middle of this bustling part of town, the Hanoi Elegance Hotel #4, and I highly recommend it for the excellent service, cleanliness, and price.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Cambodia Last Look

Stone-carved wall reliefs at Angkor Wat temple

Before I move on to telling you about the crazy next leg in our Southeast Asian trip, Hanoi, Vietnam, here are a few last glimpses of the very colorful characters and images of Cambodia...

I'm loving it too- this photograph, I mean.

I'm loving this one even more... check out the monkey in the middle

Puppets hanging from a tree

Fat monkey

Waiting for the bus

Do me a favor. Go there now, please!

Next up: The motorbike honking capital of the world, Christmas Eve with water puppets, and the sublime Ha Long Bay...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Be Careful What You Say to 5 Year Olds and Other Cooking Adventures

Having free time before our late evening flight out of Cambodia, we enrolled in a cooking class. It turned out to be one of the most engaging and fun experiences we had on our vacation. We were partnered with a dynamic British family, currently expatriates in Singapore. They had two bright kids, Charlotte, 14 and Tollie, 5 years old.

We started off the session by shopping for the freshest ingredients in a very local market.
Chicken feet, anyone?

I too have always wanted to fall asleep among my chilis and bananas...

We spent the afternoon chopping, slicing, grating, and pounding our ingredients before we expertly prepared them under the fine guidance of our Cambodian chef. All the while, we got to know our new friends and shared some laughs.

In the end after about 3 hours, we had this fabulous spread of food to feel proud of and enjoy.
Cambodian feast, bird's eye view

Who can resist fried fresh eggrolls?

Tart mango salad

Tollie, posing with the spring rolls that he himself expertly rolled

At the end of our day, we sat with our new friends and chatted for about an hour as we dined on our meal. Inevitably, the conversation turned, as it often does anytime there's a Brit (or any foreign person for that matter) and an American together, to a questioning of why America does a certain thing this way or that. In my travels around the world, I've heard the gamut of observations on American ways.

This particular evening, the question was about American currency, a topic which I have fielded from disgruntled foreigners before.

"Why does America have bills that are all the same color and size? It's confusing and it makes it easy to make a mistake when you hand over your money," Tollie's father inquired.

"The trick is you have to keep all your bills stacked together in same denominations and lined up bank face. That way you won't give the wrong bill."

"I'm a banker, for heaven's sake. I'm a really organized person."

I glanced down at his wallet. "Okay, well there's your problem. See, you have a ten and then some ones, and a twenty back there and over here. They are all turned different ways."

Tollie's dad gave me an annoyed look and the conversation was over as he stuffed the bills back in his wallet.

After we said goodbye and we parted ways, from a distance, I heard little Tollie chastising his father about the currency, "Daddy, you did it all wrong. You've got to put all the ones together, and then the twos together..."

Cambodia Travel Tip #6: Le Tigre de Papier is not only a great restaurant in Siem Reap, but a wonderful cooking school. Classes are offered 3 times a day at 10:00 am, 1:00 am, and 5:00 pm. They last 4 hours and cost $12 a person.


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