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Archive for June, 2009

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. 😉

The wondrous Greek Isles: Heraklion and Santorini

If three days of sailing throughout the Mediterranean just isn’t enough to take in all the wonders of Greece, there’s also an Athens and four-day Greek Isles cruise. The itinerary for the two vacations are almost identical, but on the four-day cruise, the M/V Aquamarine also docks at the most popular of all the Greek Isles, Santorini, as well as a stop at Heraklion, Crete.
Two Friendly Planeteers enjoying the breathtaking views of Santorini.
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On the four-day journey, after a day in Rhodes, travelers will enjoy a trip to Heraklion. Just five kilometers from the Heraklion city center lie the ruins of Knossos — the capital of Minoan Crete and today the island’s major tourist attraction — which travelers can visit on an optional shore excursion.
Other points of interest here include Heraklion’s Archaeological Museum — one of the finest in the Mediterannean — which houses exquisite findings from Knossos and other Minoan ruins, numerous Venetian fortresses, and fountains and loggias scattered throughout the city.
At the Historical Museum of Crete, Byzantine and folklore collections are on display. The island’s open air market is a must-see, where colorful and boisterous crowds buy, sell, and trade everything from goats and sheep to enormous cauldrons of freshly churned yogurt.
The next port of call is Santorini. This striking island, with breathtaking panoramas and rugged landscapes, is actually a volcanic crater slightly immersed in the sea. The island is famous for its whitewashed houses, narrow streets, open-air cafes, and glittering boutiques which cling to steep cliffs, accessible by foot, cable car, or mule. Like Mykonos, it is not only Santorini’s physical beauty that makes it one of Europe’s most popular destinations, but its dynamic nightlife as well.
The island of Santorini was formed by one of the largest volcanic eruptions on the planet, which destroyed the earliest settlements on what was formerly a single island. The Minoan eruption (sometimes called the Thera eruption) occurred approximately 3,600 years ago at the height of the ancient Minoan civilization.
Vacationers can enjoy an optional tour of Santorini that takes them up along the Caldera (volcanic crater). They can also drive uphill along the rocky sides of the Caldera and pass through many traditional villages to Oia, a village that brims with many fine examples of Cycladic architecture. At the end of the day, passengers return to the ship for a final evening at sea before returning to Athens.

The wondrous Greek Isles: Mykonos, Rhodes, and Patmos

On the third day of our Athens and Greek Isles cruise, vacationers head to Piraeus, a large coastal city just 10 km from the center of Athens, where they’ll board the M/V Aquamarine. Travelers can pass their time enjoying the sun, warm sea breezes, pool, and shipboard facilities while they sail to Mykonos.
The island of Mykonos is famed for its cosmopolitan character and energetic nightlife (some say it’s the best in Europe), as much as it is for its labyrinth of winding alleyways and whitewashed buildings, basket-laden donkeys, and cascading geraniums. Chic crowds flock to the island’s trendy restaurants, discos, and clubs each night, and vacationers sit seaside, sipping ouzo and watching the sunset while listening to traditional Greek music.
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The next day takes travelers to Rhodes, the stunning “Island of Roses.” Historically, Rhodes was famous throughout the world for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
In the heart of the island’s biggest city, also named Rhodes, is the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe, a fascinating web of Byzantine, Turkish, and Latin ruins. There’s no wonder why it’s been declared one of the few World Heritage Sites. Its mighty fortifications provide the finest surviving examples of defensive architecture of the time.
Lindos, with its dazzlingly white houses clustered beneath a soaring castle-capped acropolis, is Rhodes’ most picturesque village and most important Doric settlement because of its natural harbor and vantage point built 125 meters above sea level. Here, travelers can explore on their own, or take advantage of Friendly Planet Travel’s optional shore excursions.
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The following morning, the M/V Aquamarine docks in Kusadasi, Turkey. Just 10 km from the port of Kusadasi lies the ancient city of Ephessos, where travelers will find an archaeological site that ranks among the wonders of the world. The day’s optional tours include the the Great Theatre of Ephessos, which had a capacity of 25,000 people, and the Library of Celsus, dating from 135 A.D.
Vacationers will then sail to Patmos, Greece. The Aquamarine docks at Skala harbor, a lively atmosphere with whitewashed houses, flowered courtyards, tavernas, and shops. The Island of Patmos is famous in history as the place where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. An optional tour takes you to the cave where St. John lived and the nearby Monastery, built on one of the island’s highest points, housing priceless icons and manuscripts in its Treasury.
From there, it’s back to Athens for a final few days in the Paris of the Mediterranean.

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!