Visiting Vietnam and Thailand

Highlights of my visit to the exotic and beautiful Thailand and Vietnam

We are back from a fourteen day cruise to Vietnam and Thailand and ending in Hong Kong.  To put it simply, this trip was a dream.

Vietnam may hold some very unpleasant and painful memories for those who served in the Vietnam War.  On our very first day aboard the Azamara Journey we met another couple from Arizona who told us the most interesting story when we asked, why Vietnam?  She told me her husband had served as a fighter pilot in the war and had been shot down.  He subsequently spent a year recovering in a hospital in Japan.  When they watching the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War her husband heard a familiar voice, it was the soldier who was across the room from him in the hospital in Japan.  Immediately he said to his wife, “I would know that voice anywhere, I’ve been looking for this guy for fifty years!’  The two were able to get in touch with one another and the soldier told our cruise mate “Go to Vietnam, you will be glad you did.”   After he hung up the phone they made reservation for the trip to Vietnam.

Our first stop was the island of Ko Samui, off the coast of Thailand.  The people were polite, quiet, gracious and very peaceful.  We toured the small island and visited waterfalls, a giant gold Buddha, the beach and rode an elephant all in one day!  Another cruiser made the arrangement for the tour and it was jam-packed and perfect.

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Na Mueang Waterfall

 

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I loved riding an elephant, but next time I would visit an elephant sanctuary

Next stop was Bangkok, Thailand.  It’s a huge, crowded, city known as “Venice of the East”.  I don’t see the similarities except for canals.  We booked a cooking class in town.  We were taken by boat on a tour around Bangkok.  When we arrived at the family compound on the water our host Tam showed us around the beautiful garden and told us about the different traditional herbs and fruits they used, in cooking and healing.  The entire experience was hands on and delightful.  We thought we were taking a cooking class, however, it turned out to be a peaceful, quiet, secret garden with a phenomenal teacher and a fabulous menu.  After finishing a four course meal we left with recipes and a better understanding and appreciation  of the Thai culture, food and people.  Www.amitathaicooking.com

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The store comes to you on the canals in Bangkok
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Our cooking class enjoying our delicious meal at Amita Thai Cooking School

Bangkok is amazing for shopping, Thai Massages and beautiful pagodas and Buddhas.

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On the Azamazing Evening we took part in the Loy Krathong ceremony where you place lit flowers in the water to allow past negativity in your life float away.

Our next stop was Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam.  We visited the Saigon Central Post Office designed by Eiffel, saw Notre Dame Cathedral, shopped at the central market and enjoyed an outdoor concert on the steps of the Saigon Opera House with many locals.  Saigon is a bustling, beautiful city with lots of French influenced architecture.  The one piece of advice I would give anyone visiting Vietnam would be when you cross the street, cross with the locals and never hesitate. The scooters are likely to avoid you as long as you keep moving.  In Vietnam there appears to be no road rules whatsoever.  Traffic lights are merely suggestions, lane lines are ignored and most scooters are occupied by entire families.

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The beautiful interior of the Saigon Central Post Office, notice the portrait of Ho Chi Minh in the rear.
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Even in heavy traffic, the people are friendly and engaging.
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Shopping on the street for fresh produce.
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A friendly family in Saigon enjoying an outdoor concert on their scooter.

Our next stop was a tour to Hoi An, a gorgeous artistic town teeming with history and beauty.

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Silk lanterns decorate the landscape in Hoi An
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The Japanese Bridge in Hoi An
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One of the large Buddhas on Marble Mountain

One of our final stops was Halong Bay.  This gorgeous bay contains spectacular landscapes and many caves used by the North Vietnamese for weapon storage during the war.

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Halong Bay
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The interior of the caves in Halong Bay
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I fell in love with the colorful boats in Vietnam.

Visiting Vietnam and Thailand was a special time for us.  Meeting the amazing warm and kind people was a gift.  The best thing about taking a cruise is that it gives you a small taste of a region or country that you may want to see more of in the future.  That is how I feel about Vietnam and Thailand.  I want to see more elephants, cook with more people and get to see more of the countryside and get to know more about the amazing Thai and Vietnamese people.  I know I will return and I look forward to getting to learning more about Vietnam and Thailand.  I am already richer for having visited and for that I am thankful.

 

Singapore Surprise

Discover a different side of Singapore during the Christmas season.

We spent three days in Singapore walking, tasting and exploring more of the city we visited earlier this year.  We are here in Singapore because we will be leaving in a few days for an Azamara Club Cruise to Thailand, Vietnam and ending in Hong Kong.

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Shopping the tourist stalls in Chinatown

 

Singapore can be a very expensive city, but there are so many inexpensive options to explore the city.  We walked and took the MRT (subway) all around town for only a few dollars.  We avoided Raffles, the iconic hotel and home of the Singapore Sling because we don’t feel a need to spend over thirty bucks for a drink.  We enjoyed shopping (of course) and eating at inexpensive hawker stands with locals in Chinatown.  We tried a ramen bar, tasting the most delicious noodles and soup that don’t remotely resemble the Top Ramen I enjoyed during my college years.

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Delicious ramen, a very tasty treat

On our final night in Singapore we visited Orchard Road, home to gorgeous high end retail and hotels and restaurants.  We were so surprised to see the opulent Christmas decorations.  As we walked past Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Tiffany we were delighted with the sights of Christmas everywhere.  At a Christmas village set up outside a mall we were treated to a Christmas violin concert by school children.  Singers were eveywhere singing Christmas songs and top hits.  The lights and sounds with the magnificent backdrop of the architecture  were such a treat to us and a true Singapore Surprise.

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High end stores on Orchard Road decorated for the Christmas holiday
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The holiday lights along Orchard Road

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Barcelona, Scenes from The Street

Street art in Barcelona

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Whenever I visit a new city I like to pick a photographic theme. Barcelona was easy, the view of street art was everywhere. There seems to be an unwritten rule about graffitii in Barcelona, it is mostly limited to the doors of shops. The artistry varies but it is always colorful.  As we walked through the city you get a feel for the neighborhood and the people.  When you look at the street art, you see the people and businesses that are the neighborhood.

I have tried to include a good variety of artwork and if nothing else, I hope to encourage others to look around and take notice of the art around us.  Recognize the artistry along with the creative graffi. Often the doors advertise the business behind them.  To catch much of the art you must get up early  before the doors open and the artwork is hidden from view.

A back street in El Raval neighborhood
I’m not sure who this fellow is but I love his eyes
A side alley near our Airbnb
Every flat surface is a canvas
Beautiful door showing the handmade shoes sold here

Sometimes it Rains, Sometimes it Pours

Remaining optimistic in spite of lots of unexpected changes

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I love a rainy day.  We live in the desert, and when desert storms begin there is a sweet odor of desert plants like creosote bushes that fill the air.  Following a desert rain plants bloom, washes turn to little streams and long silent desert color begin to blossom almost immediately.  So of course I love rain.  There is no raining on my parade.

We are getting ready for our first transatlantic cruise on Azamara Club Cruises. We’ve been looking forward to this cruise for a while because it was going to give us an opportunity to visit places we’ve never been and revisit some places we really loved. We will even be reconnecting with friends we made on a previous journey.  Anyone who knows me knows I’m an optimist.  But lately I’ve had to try harder to not be worried. Originally, the cruise itinerary planned to visit the islands of Saint Maarten and San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Due to the devastation caused by two hurricanes the islands have been removed from the ship’s itinerary.  I am sad for the people on the islands living in very difficult circumstances with broken infrastructure and still dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster.  We loved visiting the magnificent beaches of Saint Maarten and delighted in exploring old town San Juan. I can only hope that the islands recover quickly and pray for the lovely people we met on our last trip.

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The spectacular beach on Saint Maarten
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A colorful street scene in old San Juan Puerto Rico

I don’t lose any sleep thinking about terrorists.  Being vigilant, aware of my surroundings and hopeful is basically all anyone can do.  I will not stay home, I will not be dissuaded from travel.  I love meeting new people and exploring new cultures.

Our transatlantic journey leaves from Barcelona and has stops at Madeira, Portugal, Gibraltar and Bermuda.  We visited Barcelona last year and fell in love with the gothic city.  The food and wine were fabulous.  It is such a walkable city with so many more treasure waiting for us to discover.  Unfortunately, Barcelona has been the victim of terrorist activity recently.    Currently half a million protesters are in the streets of Barcelona marching for a separate state of Catalonia, apart from Spain.  Hopefully the protests remain peaceful.   I am certain this cruise is not cursed.  The trip will be a wonderful experience.  However, I did read that there is concern about a tsunami hitting Madeira.  I will continue to be optimistic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We

Must Do Miami

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South Beach is bit like Las Vegas. Both have lots of alcohol-fueled partying with young men and women celebrating their youth while destroying their livers, live music and the obligatory minute millionaires driving their rent by the hour Lamborghini for everyone to notice.  But South Beach is so much more than what you first notice. Take a longer look and you see and appreciate the diverse culture reflected in the eclectic food and music. There is a deep pride and respect for the past, instead of tearing down buildings, the Art Deco buildings are restored and the past is celebrated.

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We chose to stay in a boutique hotel on Collins Avenue, right in the middle of South Beach. The Kimpton Beachcomber Hotel, a small three story boutique hotel. What is a boutique hotel you may ask? Most often they are small and have unique amenities. The lobby was unique and eclectic with live edge wood sculptures, bookcases, sofas and comfy chairs and lots of interesting art. This is not a homogenized hotel! As we are checking in we are offered wine at the complimentary happy hour. The hotel personnel are both friendly and genuinely helpful. The room is small yet beautiful. The beach is located behind the hotel pool area. The back area includes a bar, towel service and a variety of yard games, rocking chairs and sculptures of cows. I did say this place was eclectic.
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The Kimpton offers seats on the beautiful sandy beach, as well as bar service. The bites and drinks were not exorbitantly priced, and who doesn’t enjoy a picnic lunch in the sand? There are several miles of beautifully manicured walking and biking paths just before the beach. We took advantage of the hotel’s free bike rentals and rode up and down the paths early one morning.
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In South Beach you must try the diverse food offered. We were given the recommendation by a waitress to try a Peruvian restaurant called CHALAN ON THE BEACH. The uber fresh seafood was lightly seasoned and plentiful. We shared a sea bass ceviche which was nothing short of spectacular. The patrons were mostly locals ordering house specialities. We also enjoyed a seafood dish with rice, seasoned with Peruvian spices that seemed to sweeten the fish and rice.

When in South Beach trying some authentic Cuban food is mandatory. We visited HAVANA 1957 and ordered the daily specials of Cuban meatballs and rice. The dish was also served with soft, sweet plantain slices. The prices were very reasonable, except for the mojitos. At $15 and up they seemed pricy for lunch. No worries, we came back a couple of hours later and enjoyed delicious half priced mojitos at the bar inside
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We also had chicken, lamb and steak kabobs as well as incredibly delicious deeply roasted Brussels sprouts at CLEO a Middle Eastern place. The bar was ornate and the restaurant was a cool respite from the Miami afternoon heat.

On our final night in Miami our hotel had a pig roast (but from the looks of the poor fellow I think he was deep fried). For only eight dollars we each enjoyed pork tacos, homemade tortillas, rice and beans. The beer was local and cold and soon the Latin band was playing music and everyone was dancing to the beat as the ocean breeze blew.
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Jackie Gleason had a show many years ago that I watched as a child. He used to say how beautiful Miami Beach was as he began each show with the words “How sweet it is!”

The Often Bumpy Road To Retirement

The road to retirement often has detours and bumps ahead.

About a year ago I retired from nearly twenty five years of teaching.  I loved the job and the kids but I believe every good teacher knows when it’s time to leave.  I was lucky enough to be able to retire financially, but mentally I was still a teacher, longing for my kids and the joy that I felt from teaching.

I am spontaneous and a fly by the seat of my pants kind of person, but that was not working for me as a retired woman.  My husband had an eighteen month head start on his retirement.  He had a routine, a schedule, a cool hobby and his day planned out.  At first I felt like I was floundering.  Lack of planning was not really working for me.  Where did my day go?  At the end of each day I felt like I accomplished nothing, nada.

I needed to expand my world.  I started by substitute teaching for some other teachers.  I enjoyed it, but I always needed to remember that I was the visitor.  This was NOT my classroom.  I enjoyed spending time with the kids but it was not enough.

Slowly, things have changed.  My days no longer feel wasted and unproductive. I have come to a place of contentment and satisfaction. Retirement, to me feels like a great pair of jeans you have picked out long ago, saved for and finally just went out and bought. Initially, they were uncomfortable and foreign, maybe a bit too tight and restrictive, they did not feel “comfortable.”  After “wearing” my retirement for a while (nearly a year)  I now feel more at home with it.  It’s a much better fit than it was initially, and I like the way I feel at the end of my day. I have settled into my retirement.

When I first retired we traveled so much I really didn’t get a chance to manage my time at home.  I value every day and I realize that we may never know when it is our last day on this earth, so I need to make all my days count.

Slowly, I began to build my week. At the recommendation of a friend, I started with an outdoor fitness class three times a week.  I had always enjoyed working out and had recently left my long time workout group.  I don’t like change, who does?  But I was exhilarated with the new group.  I was modifying my workouts and felt great afterwards.  Unfortunately I hit a detour.  My doctor said no more working out while my foot fracture was still healing.  I was wearing the ortho boot but apparently my foot was not ready for the extra stress.

I was instantly deflated. I NEEDED to workout.  Swimming came immediately to mind and I signed up for water aerobics at a local community center.  I arrived early to the large facility, complete with a gym, rock climbing wall and multiple swimming pools.  Very quickly I was greeted by “the ladies”.  These nine ladies have been part of the morning water aerobics class for years.  They ranged in age from sixties to eighties.   I was the young one in the group.  I was also the third Nancie, so they referred to me as “Nancie number 3.”   I removed my boot and stepped intrepidly into the warm water.  After sixty minutes I was beat!  This was going to be fun!

In addition, I started a watercolor class.  For several hours each week I would learn some new techniques and meet new people.  Most of the people in my class were obviously very talented.  I don’t consider myself talented necessary, but I am motivated and driven.  I set up my casita with painting supplies and most days I will spend several hours painting and enjoying the solitude.  I have not yet completed a painting that I’m going to frame, but I’m getting closer.

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My hummingbird, a work in progress
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Free form tulips
I make time to see my family and friends.  My schedule is flexible so I love it when I can enjoy a leisurely lunch or activity with a good friend.  My photography interest have expanded and I do try to find opportunities to take interesting photographs.  I now control the hours in my days, and that is a very good feeling.  I am now back at my outdoor fitness class and water aerobics, it feels great.  I have also located a charity that I may volunteer at, my dance card is filling up.

We continue to plan more travel and I have been researching some of the places that we plan on visiting this year.  They include:  Chicago, Annapolis, Miami, Key West, the Caribbean, Barcelona, Gibraltar, Madeira , and San Juan, Puerto Rico.  That will keep us kind of busy, and I really do enjoy having the freedom to be as busy as I want.

This blog began about a year ago.  I love reading other blogs and hearing from people that take the time to read my blog.  Thank you for reading my thoughts.  I would love to hear from some readers about their retirement journeys.

Exploring Down Under

Taking in the sights, sounds and flavors or Sydney and Auckland

When our cruise ship arrived in Sydney at sunrise I was awed by the absolute beauty of the city.  The Sydney Opera House, Harbor Bridge and gorgeous downtown were all so spectacular.

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Harbor Bridge, Sydney
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Downtown Sydney at sunrise

We had only one day to spend in Sydney before we headed to Auckland, New Zealand so we wanted to make the best of it.  We checked  into our hotel and because it was a Sunday we headed over to the Market at The Rocks.  The Rocks are located on the site of Sydney’s historic city center.  We shopped some of the stalls of hand made and recently imported items then ate a terrific lunch along the way at playfair cafe.  They offered sandwiches and salads but we also decided to order the berry crumble, which was the better than you could ever imagine.  The owner, Sean told us it was worth the wait and was going to change our lives.  It was and it did.  We ate it so quickly I forgot to take a photo of it in all of it’s deliciousness.

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Home of the life changing “crumble”

We walked along the ferry terminal to the  Opera House.  It is spectacular up close as well .  I had no idea that the surface was covered with tiles.

 

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A bit of a different view of the Sydney Opera House

We have some friends from Phoenix who now live in Sydney so after our shopping we met them for dinner at Ripples.  It is located outside a community pool and has a beautiful view of both the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge.  The food and wine were so delicious and it was so very nice to spend time with our expat friends.  After dinner they suggested we walk the bridge.  It was a short walk and the evening views did not disappoint.  It was also free, not the  $250 charged by the company that escorts walkers slowly across the highest point of bridge.

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Seafood salad from Ripples

 

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My friend Brooks and I outside Ripples Restaurant in Sydney

 

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Beautiful bridge architecture
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View of the Sydney Opera House from the bridge

The next morning we were at the airport headed to Auckland, New Zealand for a few days.  We arrived in Auckland and recognized the SkyTower before we even hit downtown.  We checked into our Airbnb in the center of town and were ready to explore the city.  Since we only had four days in New Zealand, we decided to explore Auckland and the surrounding area by foot and by ferry.

We went to the ferry terminal and took Fuller’s  Harbor tour, which provided us with a nice narrated cruise with view of Auckland’s downtown from the water, Bean Rock Lighthouse, the Auckland Harbor bridge and stops in Rangitoto, an island created by volcanic rock, and Davenport.

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Downtown Auckland from the harbor
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Bean Rock Lighthouse
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A seagull perched on top of a roof in Rangitoto

I may get scared easily, but ultimately I am an adrenaline junkie.  I like to be scared.  As soon as I saw people bungee jumping off of the Sky Tower, I knew I had to do it.  A thrill, with very little risk in my estimation.  After you sign your life away, participants are weighed, placed in jumpsuits and harnesses and sent up to the top of the tower to free fall for about twelve seconds.  It was terrifying and exhilarating. I screamed the entire way down and loved it.

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Freefalling from the 630 foot Auckland Sky Tower

We celebrated after the jump by enjoying a New Zealand delicacy, Green Lipped mussels.  They were gigantic and fabulous.

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Green lipped mussels, order the small portion

For our final day in Auckland we booked a day long wine tasting tour with Waiheke Island Wine Tours. We were met by our driver Wayne, a life long resident of this picturesque island, who explained the history of winemaking on the island as well as information about native Maori culture.  We visited three wineries and finished with a gourmet lunch at The Shed at Dunleavy Vineyards.

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A view of the small marina from Waiheke Island
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One of the many vineyard in Waiheke Island
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Wine tasting at Miro Winery
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Luggage for the trip home

The next morning we woke up early for a very long travel day back to America.  We were able to keep our baggage down to two suitcases and two backpacks. For our return We did check our luggage since they were now heavy and expanded to maximum capacity, also we needed to put our wine somewhere..

We have completed our journey of thirty one days visiting the other side of the world.  We tried new foods, met new friends and experienced things that we will never forget.  There is no one else in this world that I enjoy traveling with more than my husband.  As we waited for our Uber to arrive a bus passed us by and on that bus was the message of our travel.

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