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Posts Tagged ‘Travel with Peggy’

Customer testimonial: Friendly Planet Travel does it right

There’s nothing like being greeted by a little good news as you get ready for vacation. A customer testimonial came in recently that had me smiling from ear to ear.

"Friendly Planet does it right and does it well. A sure-fired way to get me back as a customer is to keep on doing what you’re doing. Your focus is on the traveler, your service is very responsive and your prices are very reasonable. The real advantage to a novice traveler, such as myself, comes from having experts who take the hassle and the fear of the unknown (new countries) and the guided tours are well organized and very instructive. Overall, Friendly Planet is a one of the best, if not the best, travel agency that I will revisit again and again."

 – Dana Davis, Wyncote, PA

Thanks, Dana! We WILL keep doing what we’re doing. As for the vacation part, I’m off to Europe for the next two weeks! But don’t worry, I’ll be keeping you updated with our regular Friendly Planet Travel news, as well as what’s happening on my side of the world. So stay tuned for pictures and stories from Gran Paris and beyond!

My journey through Vietnam (part 4)

In the fourth part of My Journey through Vietnam series, I’m going to take you to the Halong Bay. If you want to catch up on my Vietnam travels so far — from the streets of Saigon to the waters of the Mekong Delta — you can have a look.
After our wonderful visit to the Mekong Delta, we drove from Hanoi to Halong Bay, where a dense cluster of about 3,000 limestone islands and islets rise spectacularly from the sea. The islands are topped with dense vegetation, and a few have huge caves with gorgeous stalactites and stalagmites, one of which we visited later that day. Without a doubt, Halong Bay is among Vietnam’s most beloved and visited tourist attractions, and definitely deserving of its appointment a World Heritage Site.
En route to Halong to board our cruise, we stopped at a special embroidery and handicrafts factory and showroom. Aside from being the best restroom stop of the trip, it was a chance to purchase souvenirs made by young handicapped Vietnamese artisans. The embroidered wall hangings and table linens were particularly beautiful, and — like everything else in Vietnam — very inexpensive.
I bought a wall hanging was able to have my picture taken with the artist. He is deaf, and this job is one of the few, apart from rice farming, that he can do to earn money to support himself.
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We arrived at Halong Bay around midday, and settled into our cabins aboard the cruise ship Emeraude, then joined others in the ship’s dining room for lunch. I think I discovered my dream menu there in Vietnam. I couldn’t seem to get enough of pho, a light, delicious Vietnamese soup made with a lovely, delicate beef stock, rice noodles and aromatic herbs.
The lunch buffet also had spring rolls, which are artistically wrapped with bits of shrimp, sprouts, green onion, basil, and cilantro, along with several types of sauces for dipping. There are other choices as well, but who cares, when I can enjoy pho and spring rolls?
After lunch, we headed for the Hang Sung Sot Cave. This cave, whose name in English means Cave of Surprises, was named by a French explorer who was amazed by the size and beauty of the cave’s interior rooms. It is probably the most beautiful of all the caves found in this region of Vietnam, with amazing stalagmites and stalagtites.
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When you exit the cave, you find yourself high above Halong Bay, peering at a gorgeous panoramic view of the water, the mist, the limestone karsts, and the women paddling boats laden with all sorts of things for sale — from conical hats to Ritz crackers and Oreo cookies. It was truly an amazing site.
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We returned to the Emeraude full of awe at the cave’s spectacular interior chambers, and I was again left wondering how I could be in such a beautiful place with such a painfully inadequate camera. But the images of the cave and the incredible views of the Bay from high atop the water are very clear in my mind.
That afternoon, while I took a cooking class conducted by the Emeraude’s chef to teach the art of making a spring roll, others in our group took advantage of a kayaking adventure offered aboard the ship.
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Many of those aboard the Emeraude enjoyed the rest of the afternoon and evening in the experienced hands of a Vietnamese masseuse. People were lined up for a treatment (more like a treat), and the women were booked up right through dinner. It wasn’t until after dinner, when everyone assembled at the ship’s bar and took their seats for the movie, Indochine, that the woman giving massages left the boat, hopefully having earned lots of money in well deserved tips.
Finally, I settled into my seat for an evening of Indochine under the stars on Halong Bay. There was a gauzy fog draped haphazardly over the limestone karsts. But that didn’t obscure them or dim their beauty. As the movie progressed, the familiar karsts of Halong Bay appeared, as lovely and mysterious on the screen as they are in real life.
The next morning, we reluctantly disembarked and returned to Hanoi to continue our tour. We were already regretting the moment we’d have to leave Vietnam, and we still had some days to go. That, my friends, is the test of a truly wonderful destination. Not ever wanting the day of departure to arrive!

My journey through Vietnam (part 3)

Today marks the third installation of my Journey through Vietnam series. I’ve taken you from the bustling streets of Saigon to the captivating and impoverished life along the Mekong Delta.
After more demonstrations on candy and rice paper making, and some time to buy a few treasures, we got back on the boat and continued to our final destination. We were on our way to an old, elegant house originally built in the 1830s, tucked away in a village a mile or so inland from the river.
This house had been passed down from one generation to another, lovingly preserved and now operated by a great granddaughter of the original owner. She has opened a restaurant in the house where visitors to Vietnam can sample the cuisine of the Mekong Delta region.
If this woman were to come to New York and open a restaurant there, she would definitely hit it very big. But she’s not likely to leave her house (of which she is enormously proud) or her current thriving restaurant business.
On the day of our visit, she prepared a succulent lunch of no fewer than five courses, including baked elephant ear fish (a local specialty, freshly caught that morning), several varieties of spring rolls, shrimp and vegetable dishes, and the ubiquitous sauces that make Vietnamese cuisine irresistible.
All of this was prepared on four little burners in an immaculate kitchen that is missing most of the conveniences the average American house takes for granted. Yet, the lunch was served perfectly prepared, at the perfect temperature for each course, with every one of the 16 diners being served at the same time.
The main course, Vietnamese elephant fish!
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Our talented chef accomplished this culinary miracle with the help of four lovely young Vietnamese women, all of whom — despite the day’s oppressive heat — were dressed in the beautiful “long dress,” without a sign of discomfort from the heat which had the rest of us guzzling bottle after bottle of anything cold and wet.
The dessert was, of course, fruit from the trees in the garden of the house. The pineapple was just picked, as were the mangosteens, mango, papaya, melons, and bananas. Every piece of fruit was unbelievably sweet. There was never a need to add anything. Needless to say, I was in heaven, although I was so full I felt like I might have had to be carried back to the boat.
A closer look at the famous elephant fish. Yummy!
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Finally, we boarded our little boat, and sailed back to the spot where we’d left our coach. Driving back to Saigon, we passed more rice fields, fruit orchards, and fishing boats, and we began — ever so slowly and subtly — to understand that there’s more to life than we might have ever noticed or realized before. At least that’s how it is for me. It certainly made me eager to learn more about growing rice. ;)

My journey through Vietnam (part 2)

Last week I started to tell you about my recent journey to Vietnam. Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of running my own travel company is the opportunity to travel to some of the world’s most beautiful and culturally rich countries. And my very first trip to Vietnam was no exception.
The snaking traffic of Saigon and the aromatic foods of the bustling outdoor markets were just the beginning of what would be an unforgettable trip through the heart of Vietnam. Our next stop was the Mekong Delta. That morning, I boarded our touring coach with our guide, Man, and the other eager travelers, and we set off on a long drive to our waiting boat.
Along the way, we passed seemingly endless rice paddies on both sides of the road. Whole families were out, weeding, tilling, and tending to the magic grain that fees this nation.
Popular author Malcolm Gladwell has written, in his best-selling book, “The Outliers: The Story of Success,” that to understand successful rice farming is to understand success. It takes a great deal of patience, precision, intelligence, and planning, to grow rice.
And while the people who live in the Mekong Delta are considered among the least prosperous in this generally poor country, the Mekong Delta dwellers themselves believe they are actually very lucky. With rice (which grows everywhere), fish and other seafood (which is pulled from the area’s many rivers, streams, and canals), and the extraordinary abundance of locally grown fruit, vegetables, herbs, and other edible plants, everyone thankfully always has enough to eat.
A small look at life along the Mekong.
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Our bus brought us right to our boat, a luxury vessel compared to the small fishing boats and houseboats we passed as we chugged along on our way to see some very special sites. Our first stop was a communal village where local villagers use some of the rice they grow to make products, such as rice cakes, for sale throughout the country.
All aboard! Our trusty crew was ready for our boat ride, one of the most memorable experiences from my entire Vietnam journey.
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These rice cakes aren’t anything like those available in the U.S., which are mostly consumed as bland diet food. Rather, these are made from freshly popped rice, mixed with honey and seasonings, and then formed into rectangular cakes. Once packaged, these sweet rice cakes are sold as treats throughout Vietnam. But more than the sweet taste, the process by which the rice is popped is what makes the treat well worth the calories for me.
The rice is threshed by hand, or sometimes (if the farmer is lucky to have one), by machine to remove the hulls. No part of the plant is wasted, as the hulls are gathered into a furnace to be used as fuel for a fire that heats a huge, wok-like pan filled with sand from the river. Once the hot sand — black from repeated heating — reaches its optimum temperature, the rice is poured in and stirred.
At first, I couldn’t imagine why the rice was being mixed with the hot, black sand, but it soon became abundantly clear. The rice begins to pop — just like popcorn — as the attendant stirs the black sand and rice over the fire. Soon, the white, fluffy rice has popped and is ready to be removed from the heat and separated from the sand.
An ingenious series of homemade filters does the job efficiently and elegantly. The first filter is made from fine chicken wire strung on the bottom of a wooden frame. The popped rice remains in the filter and the sand is sifted back into the wok. Then the popped rice is poured into a second filter made of much finer chicken wire, and the rest of the sand is removed. Now the rice is ready to be treated to the honey and other yummy flavors that make this such a popular Vietnamese sweet.

The entire process was mesmerizing and definitely hard work, as the temperature around the wok was most likely well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As we watched, we were served lovely lotus tea by the matriarch of the commune, a tiny Vietnamese grandmother. We chatted with this impressive woman who was unsure of her age, but believes she’s at least 75 years old. While we sipped our tea, her grandson minded the rice popping process. Every villager smiled patiently as we snapped pictures, even as we all jostled for the best camera angle.
That’s probably the operative thought from my trip. Everyone was smiling. It’s something you see everywhere in the Vietnam. There’s one particular rice farmer that stands out in my memory because I wish I had a more powerful camera lens to capture the large, sincere, and completely infectious smile that spread across his face as our coach passed his fields. And you can be sure that everyone aboard the coach was just as happy to smile and wave back to him.
Hello from one of the Mekong Delta children.
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My Friendly Planet journey through Vietnam (part 1)

Perhaps no country in the world hits such a psychological nerve as Vietnam. It is a notion that nearly divided our entire country 30 years ago, and yet today draws back thousands of Americans eager to fully understand the Vietnam experience — its people, culture, and ways of life.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I’m no stranger to the world. But despite my decades of world travel (plus the fact that we’ve been offering Vietnam as popular tour destination for years), I’d somehow never had the chance to visit Vietnam. Having just returned from 10 days of touring the country south to north, my only regret is that I didn’t make it there sooner.
In Vietnam, you won’t find any of the usual sites and sounds of typical Western countries, such as towering cathedrals, impressive monuments, colossal amphitheaters, or excavations of ancient civilizations. Rather, the fascination for Vietnam comes from its extraordinary beauty; simplicity of life; and warm, incredibly approachable people. Not that Vietnam is lacking in ancient civilizations and monuments, but the culture — like its Buddhist religion — shuns opulence in a way that we westerners might find surprising.
Life in Saigon, Vietnam’s largest city, is different from any other place in the country. On arrival, driving from the airport to the city, I was dazzled by the swarms of motorbikes that are this country’s major mode of transportation. Often, there are two, three, and even four passengers on a single bike. And they move like a river through the busy streets, flowing around anything — or anyone — that gets in the way.
As you can see, it was crowded.
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Lesson one upon arrival from Man, our sweet and helpful guide, was in crossing the street without risking life or limb. It turns out that the trick to navigating safely is to keep moving, slowly but steadily, through the traffic, and to keep looking, not in the direction of the oncoming flow of motorbikes like you might think, but in the direction of your destination. Man swore that the motorbikes would just maneuver around me, and — to my amazement — he was right.
Here’s Man, a Friendly Planet Travel tour guide, giving us a few handy tips on navigating ourselves through the streets of Saigon.
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Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called) has plenty of sites to explore, including a wonderful central market that filled with aromatic fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, clothing, shoes, and anything you might want, all at prices that might make you an instant shopaholic. There are also rows upon rows of food stalls in the market, where you can taste some of the delicacies that make Vietnamese cuisine so popular around the world.
If you’ve never tasted an authentic Vietnamese spring roll made from a paper-thin rice crepe, carefully filled and rolled up with sprigs of basil, cilantro, steamed shrimp, bean sprouts and dipped into a delicate, slightly spicy fish sauce, you’re missing an incredible treat. And without any help from sugar or addition of any kind, the pineapple, mango, mangosteen, and lychee are delicious. I couldn’t get enough of them (and I’m not known for my voracious appetite).
This woman is making the rice paper for spring rolls by hand. Delicious!
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Stay tuned, because I’ll be continuing my Vietnam tales this week!

My family story in National Geographic

As part of a Mother’s Day special, National Geographic published a short story I wrote about a wonderful trip to Israel with my family in their Intelligent Travel blog. This was certainly a belated Mother’s Day gift for me! I hope you enjoy.
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A look at Herzlia, Israel

Earlier this spring, I was fortunate enough to be able to go on a trip to Israel with my husband. For me, trips to Israel are not only about visiting family and learning about the timeless history of my people, but they are also a time of fascinating culture, luxurious spas, and dazzling coast lines.
Herzlia, Israel is the perfect vacation target. Herzlia is a small resort town outside Tel Aviv, situated along the stunning Mediterranean coast, and just a short trip from some of the oldest cities in all of civilization. Most of the town’s hotels offer elegant spa packages, and are a short walk from the breathtaking Mediterranean Sea.
Cities such as Caesarea, Megiddo, and Tiberias, among others, are close enough for day trips, and offer fascinating glimpses into our ancient past. See the beautifully restored theater, and extensive (and ongoing) excavations of the ruins of ancient Caesarea. Travel inland to Megiddo, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. And discover Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee.
You can see all of this and much more on Friendly Planet Travel’s Classic Israel vacation. But I don’t think our Web site could do Israel complete justice. So while I was there, I shot some videos to give you a little peak at the beauty and culture found in one of my favorite countries. I’ll be posting the videos here on the blog, starting with this one: a video of a beautiful beach on the coast of Herzlia. Enjoy!

About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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