Saturday, October 22, 2011

Vietnam Trip - Part 1

Vietnam is one of those countries that I never had a desire to visit before living in Okinawa. Since moving out here, I've heard all kinds of great things about it… the scenery is amazing, the food is so fresh, the city is so historic, everything is so cheap… etc. etc. Well, after visiting, I can say, yes, yes, yes and definitely yes!

We decided to combine Vietnam and Thailand in our big trip for the year, so we were only able to go to one part of Vietnam. Although Saigon is an interesting city, I was drawn to the historic feel of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. An even bigger reason I chose Hanoi: this is where Ha Long Bay is located – one of the places I’ve been dreaming of going since moving to Asia! Before flying into Hanoi, we had a decent layover in Shanghai, China, so we took the opportunity to get out of the airport and see yet another new city. We were hesitant about going, but we ended up hooking up with two other tourists who wanted to do the same thing - a girl from Germany and a man from Vietnam. Right out of the airport, we hopped on their high-speed train system that takes you into the city. It's called the Maglev, because it doesn't sit on the track or use wheels at all. It levitates using magnets, and it is actually the world's fastest train! It reaches about 430 km/hour and is as smooth as can be. It felt like we were in a plane, not a train! From there, we used the subway system to get to People's Square and Nanjing Road, which is the big, touristy street in downtown Shanghai. The shops and restaurants in this area were really nice, and we ended up eating dinner with our new travel friends at a big restaurant on the 7th floor of a mall type building. We ordered a bunch of dishes and all shared. The food was delicious and turned out to be pretty inexpensive as well. After dinner, we had time to walk down to the end of Nanjing Road to The Bund, which is a ritzy area along the river where you can get a great view of the Shanghai skyline all lit up. After seeing the skyline, it was time to make our way back to the airport. Unfortunately, it was raining that night, and it just so happened to be a Chinese holiday, so the streets were PACKED with people and umbrellas, which made it a little difficult to get back to the subway quickly. Well, we ended up making it back and getting onto our flight in time. I'm really glad we used our layover time to see the city - it was another fun experience and more great memories.

On the plane

The Maglev

Top speed

Nanjing Road in Shanghai

It was a sea of umbrellas

Shanghai Skyline

The Bund

Bright and early the next morning, after arriving in Vietnam, we were picked up by our tour company and made the 3 ½ hour trek down to Ha Long Bay. I feel like we were always missing bad weather by a hair on this trip. Right after being picked up for the cruise, we were informed that a typhoon was coming and that we would most likely not be spending the night on our ship. Thank God the weather turned around and we were able to enjoy our 2-day, 1-night cruise on this incredible bay!

One thing we noticed about Vietnam quite quickly was the driving situation. I am not exaggerating when I say that I was fearing for my life most of the time we were on the road. We spent about half of our time driving in the opposite lane right into oncoming traffic! Only when the traffic got too close would we zip back over into our own lane for a moment. I’m actually not even sure why they have lanes painted on the road at all. We saw only about two working traffic lights the whole time we were there! Again, I’m not exaggerating – we’ve been to quite a few different Asian countries by now, and this was by far the worst I’ve ever seen!

Beautiful scenery on the drive down to Ha Long Bay

Somehow, we made it to Ha Long Bay, boarded our boat, and set sail into the limestone cliff-filled bay. The bay is filled with many other boats, all the same type as our’s – a modernized version of a traditional Vietnamese Junk. Our’s was called the Calypso Cruiser, and it was definitely one of the nicest out there. Ha Long Bay actually means, "Bay of Descending Dragons", describing the hundreds and hundreds of rocky outcrops that make up the scenery.

The cruise consisted of incredible sites, amazing food and drinks, and two days of relaxation! I cannot say enough great things about it, and I am so glad we spent the extra money on such a nice ship. I’ve been looking forward to seeing Ha Long Bay for so long now, and our cruise really made the whole experience special. The ship was large enough that we had plenty of space to walk around and enjoy time to ourselves, but there was also a great group of other tourists with us as well that we had the pleasure of getting to know – mainly from Australia. Our dining table consisted of Matt and I, two Australian women (mother and daughter), and a guy around our age from Singapore who spent the past ten years living in New York City. It was a lot of fun getting to know them, we even stayed up late talking and having a few drinks from the bar. Speaking of the bar, the accomodations on the ship were excellent! Our room was like a mini version of a 4-star hotel, the upper sun deck was so relaxing, and the dining room was upscale and had a very nice bar inside.

The food was nothing short of incredible itself. The chef was extremely talented - I feel as if he could have his own restaurant! Everything was not only delicious, it was all so detailed and carefully prepared with beautiful presentation. It was one of the highlights of the cruise, and we looked forward to each meal on board.

Our Calypso Cruiser

Our room on the ship

We had an itinerary while on the cruise, but it was so relaxed that we never felt overwelmed or busy. After boarding the ship the first day, we set sail through the limestone cliffs for a couple of hours. We ate lunch, and then were taken to a cave to get out and explore. After getting back on the ship, we had more relaxation time, a short cooking class presented by the chef himself, dinner and drinks. The next morning, a group of us woke while it was still dark to see the sunrise and do Tai Chi on the upper deck, however, it was raining out and the Tai Chi was cancelled. Fortunately, the weather cleared up and even got a little sunny out after breakfast. After some more relaxation time, we headed to Titop Island, one of the islands where you can climb up to the very top and get a panorama view of the bay. The rest of our second day consisted of lunch and more relaxation on the upper deck until getting back to the port in Ha Long City, where we boarded another death-bus and made our 3 1/2 hour drive back to Hanoi. This drive was even worse than the first if you can imagine. There were actually people (including Matt) yelling at the driver to slow down and stop driving so recklessly!

The cliffs are incredible, and they make you feel so small!

Check out this video clip of the view from our room on the ship:


I LOVE the bright colors of these floating houses!

Sunset on the bay

Cooking Class

Dinner time... every meal was served with this sea salt, pepper, chili & lime juice mixture - SO GOOD!

Dinner was delicious... actually, everything was delicious - we really looked forward to each of the meals!

Next morning, relaxing on the sun-deck

Before leaving Ha Long, they took us to Titop Island, where we climbed to the top for a panorama view of the bay.

Memories we will have forever;)

Stay tuned for the rest of our trip to Vietnam!


Friday, October 14, 2011

Favorite Eats & Treats

Okinawa may not have an In-and-Out Burger, A Jamba Juice, a Krispy Kreme, a Cold Stone Creamery, or a Lou Malnatti’s, but it definitely doesn’t have a lack of good food! Here are fourteen of my Japanese favorites!

1 - Crunchy Salmon Roll at Sushi Zen – there is a reason this is number one on my list! Fresh ingredients, just the right amount of salmon, crunchiness, and incredible spicy sauce!

2 - Okinawan “limeade” - sold in most vending machines or Family Marts

3 - Mister Donut Classic Donuts – they are so light and have a honey taste to them

4 - The Sparky Burger at Captain Kangaroo – Beef, Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato, Deep Fried Onions & a sauce to-die-for – my mouth is literally watering!

5 - Beer Pretz – pretzel-like snacks that taste like beer – pretty self explanatory!

6 - Mint Chocolate Waffle Dessert – one of my favorite desserts, this is a wafer waffle with mint ice cream and cookie crumbles inside. The cookie crumbles taste EXACTLY like Girlscout Thin Mint cookies! Unfortunately, we’ve only been able to find this dessert at one Family Mart down in Naha!

7 - Japanese House Salad at Sushi Zen – the veggies are so fresh, but that dressing – I could just drink it up like soup I love it so much!

8 - Macha Ryo Iri Kucha – very strong Japanese Green tea. They serve it at a sushi-go-round restaurant that we go to. The waitress wrote down the name for me and told me where to buy it!

9 - Cream Collon – one of my favorite Japanese cream-filled treats:)

10 - Edamame – I know they sell these in the States as well, but its only been since living here that I’ve really gotten into them

11 - Coconut Milk Bubble Tea – Refreshing, creamy deliciousness served with a thick straw!

12 - Sugar Cane Ice Cream – This is the best flavor! I love it in regular or soft serve!

13 - White Miso Soup with Ramen – on a cooler or rainy day, this is fresh and delicious (favorite place is the “Ramen Place” inside SEGA – don’t know the actual name, of course!)

14 - Sea Salt Chinsuko Cookies – Although these Okinawan cookies are apparently known to be super fattening (the ingredients are lard, sugar and flour! Ew!)they are soooo good! They are similar to shortbread cookies in a rectangular shape with zig-zag edges. They come in all sorts of flavors, but my favorite is Sea Salt!

How did I ever go through life NOT knowing about these amazing things??


Friday, October 7, 2011

The Lucky One

The other weekend, Matt and I made a new furry friend when we rescued a little kitten we found up in Onna Village. We were on our way to take our Pajero off-roading to test our our new Go-Pro action camera when what I perceived to be a squirrel, ran across the road in front of us. It ended up being a tiny little kitten - I should have known as there really aren't squirrels here in Okinawa! Anyway, we got out of our truck and she came right to us - meowing all the way. Side note: we still aren't 100 percent sure if the kitten is a he or she, but we believed she was a "she", so that's how I'll continue to refer to her!

This is right where we found her

She was the sweetest stray kitten I think I've met - she loved to be held and just wanted us to stay with her. Not to mention, she was pretty thin and obviously starving and dehydrated. At first, we decided not to take her from the area. We put her back in the bushes and went on our way. About four hours later, we were about to drive back home when we decided to see if she was still where we had left her. Even if we are not able to take care of her right now ourselves, we agreed that if she was still there, we would take her and find a home for her. It turns out, she was right where we had left her four hours prior! I didn't see her at first, but then I heard her little meow in the bushes.

Us rubbing her tummy on the drive home

I think this is my favorite pic:)

We ended up stopping at a Family Mart on the way home and buying her some sushi to eat (most spoiled kitten ever!) which she quickly devoured. Matt posted fliers around our tower when we got home with her, and lucky for her, a girl named Morgan called us within a couple of hours! Morgan and her husband live on the third floor of our tower and were specifically looking to adopt a kitten in need of a home. They had just adopted a little dog they found on the road as well. In fact, they even had food, a liter box and toys already set up for a cat - I think this was meant to be!

The box we had her in at home before Morgan called - she's sooo tiny!

Wanting Matt to share his noodles with her

The couple that now owns our kitten is really nice and said we are welcome to come see her whenever we want to. Matt and I stopped over the next day to see how she was adjusting, and I have to say, it looked like she had lived there her whole life! She was super comfortable there, she has a new best friend (their little dog), and you can tell she really loves her new owners. Although I'll admit I miss the kitten a little bit, I feel good because I know we did a good thing by helping this little kitten find a great home. It was a happy ending for all of them... and she's only two floors away from me!


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Tropical Dream Center

A place that’s been on my “To Do in Okinawa” list for awhile is the Tropical Dream Center up north in Nago. The ocean hasn’t been so nice these past couple of weekends, so Matt and I had to continue to explore the island in other ways. This botanical garden is actually part of Ocean Expo Park that includes the famous Churaumi Aquarium we’ve been to before. For some reason, we’ve always passed over the Tropical Dream Center, saving it for another day.

It’s hard to describe this place – I’d say it’s actually more than just a botanical garden. It is a garden amongst some interesting architecture, green houses, tropical fruit trees, scenic viewpoints, and lily pads the size of your coffee table! We didn’t spend all day there, but it was really a beautiful place to see, especially on the gorgeous day that we ended up going! You could hustle through the place in under 15 minutes if you wanted to, but being the photography fans we are, we spent a little longer there, playing around with our cameras.

- C