All posts by Jim St. George

Mark on our boat ride out to the resort

After all that time on the beach in Quy Nhon it was off to the beach! Next stop was a stunning Six Senses resort on Ninh Van Bay, just a little ways from the city of Nha Trang. The resort is on peninsula that juts out into the South China Sea, accessible only by boat, so it felt like you were on a remote island. It was a nearly perfect stay.

First, though, we had to get there. Google Maps said the drive would be about three-and-a-half hours, but since we had to catch a scheduled boat to the resort, we left four-and-a-half hours early. And as we sat in the car driving south we kept losing time, minute after minute. We were down to a cushion of only about 25 minutes when the driver turned off the main highway onto a detour of sorts. No explanation, but suddenly we lost another 16 minutes. And on top of that we had to find an ATM en route to pay the driver. We were starting to freak out about missing our boat!

Immediately upon arrival we sat down for lunch. In the sand, under the trees – it was an auspicious start.

Somehow, almost shockingly, we found an ATM right on the route and got to the pier about two minutes early. We don’t like to cut it that close!

Once we got there, though, it was heaven. The resort spans hundreds of acres and they provide you with bicycles to get around. The beach was perfect, the sun loungers were perfect, the weather was perfect … even the food was really good. One of the down sides of resort life is often that while the food may be prepared well the choices are just too limited looking at the same menu every day, in some cases the same menu for both lunch and dinner. Not so here: every night there were options for different locations, different menus, different cuisines.

And there were lots of activities to choose from. So the very first morning I got up early to grab breakfast and go on a scheduled hike. Alas, I mis-remembered the information and got to the starting point a half hour after they left. Not to worry: the resort offered me a discounted private hike the next day. So again up early and this time just me and my guide, Nhon.

The high point of our hike. Then it was down, down, down to that isolated beach you see on the shore.

The hike was nearly two hours, up and over two “mountains” (big hills, to be honest), and it might be the first hike I ever did where I felt old. 26-year-old Nhon would bound up the trail, hopping over logs and rocks, then stop and wait for me. Off he’d go again leaping from one rock to the next, then stop and wait for me. Rinse and repeat, over and over. Old or not, I made it to the second peak and then it was a relatively quick descent to a private beach where I really enjoyed a swim while we waited for the resort’s boat to take us back. For once a beach resort was about more than just reading, napping, swimming, and eating.

Since reading, napping, swimming, and eating was the large bulk of what we did, though, that’s about all there is to say. Except to note again that this was a nearly perfect resort.

Mark thinks I sometimes wear too much pink. He’s wrong.

The second umbrella from the left somehow just fit us perfectly

The view from breakfast

Another view of breakfast

Dinner our first night at Grandma’s Kitchen

Dinner one night was sitting at this little table on the beach with a little grill for squid, shrimp, steak … I don’t remember all of it, but it was all really good. As long as the staff took care of the cooking; we weren’t really very good at that.

Mark at dinner in the main restaurant where you sit at normal tables and order off a menu. Very fancy!

My intrepid guide Nhon, at the peak. He wasn’t quite as tired as I was.

We became very fond of these bikes as we roamed the massive grounds of the resort. The name tags were a nice touch.

The view from our upstairs loft, a lovely place to hang out in the afternoon and evening

The bay, looking across to the mainland

Reading a history of the Greeks. Notice those little bowls on the table beside me? The resort has a free ice cream station from maybe 11:00 AM until 4:00 PM. We resisted the first couple days but then decided it was too good to pass up. Turns out it *was* too good to pass up!

And finally, the boat back. Off to the next adventure!

Here we are with our old classmate Lin Liu, living in Hanoi as an American diplomat. Right below us (we’re in her apartment) is the lake where John McCain was shot down and captured.

We’re spending February in Vietnam. We’ve been here twice before, first for three or four weeks in late 2001/early 2002 and then again almost exactly 10 years ago early in our big adventure. We’ve long described Vietnam as one of our favorite countries – great food, friendly people, interesting history, beautiful beaches, and some lovely cities – but we both wondered if we would like it as much this third time. Maybe we’ve kind of seen it all already and we would just be reliving some Greatest Hits experience. After a couple days in Hanoi, though, I’m inclined to think we will really enjoy it. Simply put (and something I would never have imagined saying growing up during the war) I love Hanoi.

If you have to take a flight half way around the world, might as well do it in Business Class with a bottomless glass of champagne, right?

First, though, we had to get there. It was supposed to be straightforward: Qatar Airways, one stop in Doha, a modest layover, then on to Hanoi. Everything was fine until we got near Hanoi when the pilot announced that due to weather conditions we would have to circle for a while. And another while. Until finally he announced that we would have to divert to Bangkok. OK we thought, we can sit it out for an hour or two until the plane is refueled and the weather clears up as the forecast certainly showed it was to do. (Even then, at one point the plane did a big loop, turned around and headed back to Hanoi. Yay!! Except the celebration was too soon: the weather fogged up again and we turned back to Bangkok.)

So we go on to Bangkok, land, and hang out on the plane for a couple hours while the airline tries to figure out what to do. Eventually the weather in Hanoi cleared, but too late: the crew had “timed out” and they couldn’t take the plane back to Hanoi. They tell us instead we will deplane while they figure out if they can get another crew or if we’ll have to spend the night.

Mark and I then tried to decide whether we should just buy a one-way flight to Hanoi so we could be sure to get there (and the pre-paid hotel room!) that afternoon. Seats were available and they were pretty inexpensive. One problem: Qatar Airways insisted – insisted! – on holding our passports when we went through immigration. They said it was the Thai officials and maybe it was, but it made no sense: Americans can go into Thailand without a visa so what’s the problem? Just have us go through immigration like anyone else. Absolutely no way: we had to give up our passports. It was only for a couple hours, though, they explained, as we’d be flying out between four and five that afternoon.

That was just a big old lie, though, to get us to quiet down and give them our passports. Instead they took us to a hotel maybe 30 minutes from the airport and nearly an hour away from the center of Bangkok. And there we stayed overnight with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

While the diversion to Bangkok was a fiasco, we tried to make the best of it. There was nothing very interesting around our airport hotel, but we did find one tiny local restaurant that got good reviews so we tried it. Colorful, local, and cheap, yes, but … not as great as we’d hoped.

The next morning when we got to the airport it was an unbelievable zoo. Somehow no one had figured out how to get our passports back to us so when someone went to the check-in counter – dedicated to our delayed flight – the staff would just start looking through the passports one-by-one, trying to match the name or picture with whoever was standing in front of them. Apparently no one had ever heard of “alphabetization.”

And speaking of stupid, the new boarding passes they issued still had yesterday’s date, since that was the scheduled departure. So when I got to the security line they didn’t want to let me through – my flight had been yesterday. Eventually a supervisor came over and showed the agent a little scribbled note that explained the discrepancy. Even then we weren’t free, though. Thai officials didn’t want us to go through the normal passport line since we’d come into the country without having our passports stamped. Instead they herded us, one-by-one as people gradually worked their way through all the hoops, into a holding area. When could we go through? Once all 174 people had made it through. That was insane and was going to take hours … and who knew if someone had gotten lost or went through a different line or whatever. So finally they realized the stupidity of that and when there were maybe 30 of us let us through.

OK, fine. Eventually they got that sorted out and we flew on to Hanoi. And within about an hour of checking into the Metropole Hotel – the grand dame of Hanoi’s luxury hotels – I was over all the frustration. Around the center, French Quarter, and old town, at least, Hanoi is just such a beautiful, exciting, vibrant city that you fall in love immediately or, in my case, fall in love again. The weather was pleasant, temperature in the 70s and overcast so not too hot. The street life is alive. And right in the middle of everything, just a block from our hotel, is Hoan Kiem Lake, where the people of Hanoi run, walk, take pictures, play badminton, exercise, and just enjoy life. I’ve gone out for early morning runs and walks every time I’ve been in Hanoi and this trip was no exception. It just makes me happy.

We took a break while walking through the old city and sat on a second-floor balcony of a coffee shop watching a random intersection. The noise, the chaos, the colors … it was exhilarating. Watching cars, buses, scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians pushing through with little or no traffic controls you wonder how people survive but somehow they do.

Sadly though, we’d only booked three nights in Hanoi, in part because we weren’t sure we would really want to stay longer. But since we lost a full 30 hours to the Bangkok fiasco, in fact we only had one full day to enjoy it. We made the most of our time there, spending much of the day with a former classmate who is part of the American embassy in Hanoi. She showed us around a bit, including a spectacular street-food lunch, a local coffee shop, and a great place for dinner.

Lunch with Lin was a special treat. She took us to a popular little “restaurant” that was mostly just stools on the sidewalk, where they specialize in Bun Cha, a Hanoi specialty of grilled pork patties, grilled pork belly, in a divine broth with rice noodles and tons of fresh, local greens. Oh man.

One of the things we noticed as soon as we got into the city that it just seemed cleaner, nicer, wealthier than we remembered it. And as we walked around you could see unmistakeable signs: nicer restaurants, five-star hotels, a Four Seasons under development. People were better dressed with maybe just a little more spring in their steps.

And sure enough when I looked it up, Vietnam’s economy has been on a tear. Inflation-adjusted per capital income is up nearly 75 percent over the last 10 years. And given the challenges of addressing rural poverty, and especially the historic interest autocratic governments have always had in keeping people in the capital happy and complacent, I suspect income growth in Hanoi is measurably larger than that. It seems as though things are going well here, at least so long as you don’t do anything to promote democracy or anything stupid like that.

It was all over too soon though and after just a day-and-a-half we were flying down to Danang for a few days at a resort near Hoi An. We have four weeks here so there’s still plenty of time to soak up Vietnam.

The people of Vietnam are always so friendly. These kids were doing some assignment with their teacher so a couple of them interviewed me. Very cute.

It’s the start of Tet here, and the Sunday we arrived there were hundreds of mostly young women and girls dressed up, posing, and having their pictures taken. Very colorful.

Here’s a classic Vietnamese picture. The local guy taking a break, napping on his scooter. We’ve taken this picture on each of our trips here.

The bridge to Ngoc Son Temple in Hoan Kiem Lake in early morning fog

I love walking or running around the lake early in the morning where you see every kind of exercise imaginable. Here we have a group of older women pounding each other on the back. Looks like fun!

More women exercising

Yet another group of women out early. I suspect they were practicing something for a Tet celebration.

Mark on one of the crazy colorful crowded Hanoi streets

While Vietnam is modernizing rapidly, untold millions of people still make their living the old fashioned way.

Me & Lin at a very pleasant little coffee shop/art studio. It’s the sort of thing that I just don’t remember from 10 years ago and certainly not from our first visit 23 years ago.

And finally, how happy do I look stranded here in Bangkok. Fortunately though as they say, all’s well that ends well. And this ended well. Eventually.

Stopping for a selfie at a lava field on Chain of Craters road in Volcanoes National Park

Two quick stops with a long flight in between. From Bora Bora the goal was the Big Island back in Hawaii, but instead of trying to arrange a connecting flight we stopped for a day-and-a-half back in Tahiti. Same hotel that we liked, the Hilton, but this time we made reservations in advance to have dinner at a very nice French restaurant in downtown Papeete. Definitely better than resort food once again.

I walked around Papeete a little and it had the potential to be a cute place for a day or two. Nothing you ever need to see but possibly charming.

Steak tartare at L’O A La Bouche, a lovely French restaurant in Papeete

Then it was back to Hawaii, a six-hour flight north and then a connecting flight to the Big Island. (The island is officially called Hawaii but since that would constantly confuse people wondering if you were talking about the island or the state, everyone calls it the Big Island.) Our first stop was again pretty short, just two days in a rustic lodge very near the entrance to Volcanoes National Park.

If you are really into geology and how the earth was formed and all that, Volcanoes National Park would be just your cup of tea. There were lots of trails to hike around various volcanoes and lava flows, and lots and lots of boards explaining how this had happened and why that had happened. It turns out that I was just never a science guy and after just a few of those my eyes were glazing over.

One of the smaller craters we hiked by. If you’re from northern Minnesota it looks a lot like an abandoned iron ore pit…

With that said it was still interesting to walk around and see stuff. We hiked quite a ways around the rim of Kīlauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Lots of steam but sadly no spewing orange fire balls. And we did a drive along the Chain of Craters road that passed by lots of smaller craters and lava flows.

That’s me out on one of a million lava flows

Beyond that I loved just the peace and quiet of the place. The park is up at a pretty high altitude and so the weather was surprisingly cool, a nice change of pace for us. Our little cabin was a decided change from the fancy resorts we usually stay in and it was a nice diversion. It was in a pretty remote spot so I could do long walks on quiet country lanes that were beautiful.

And that was that, four days and a long flight. We have one last stop on the other side of the Big Island before we go back to the small island we call home.

The Tahiti Hilton at sunset. Not too shabby.

The deck on our little cabin made for a great spot to read and maybe have a little scotch. The lodge was in the town of Volcano, so there we were, staying in a volcano!

That may look like a hiking trail but in fact Mark is just a couple feet from the door to our cabin

Part of my very cute and very relaxing country lane walk

Our hike along the crater rim

Mark up above the crater. We were high above the floor at this point and back further it got a lot deeper still.

Hiking the trails of Volcanoes National Park

It may not look it but that’s a long way down

At the entrance to a lava tunnel. Fortunately they had electric lights in there or it would have been a pretty challenging walk.

The Hōlei Sea Arch at the very end of the Chain of Craters road