A full moon rising over our resort

It’s the kind of place where they can actually produce a good martini!

Evening entertainment from our Transnistrian jazz duo

From Dalat we traveled by car 3-1/2 hours back to the coast, but further south, where the turquoise sea meets craggy mountains ringed by sandy beaches. Near a village called Vinh Hai is a resort called Amanoi, part of the very swish hotel group Aman. Saving the best for last, we reserved a room here for our final resort stay of the trip.

The hotel was fantastic, but the weather was not exactly cooperative. It was hot and sunny enough, for sure, but it was also incredibly windy. The whole time. Jim didn’t even seem to mind much, but I can only enjoy the beach so much with endless, persistent wind. Five days of wind, wind, wind.

One funny story from the Amanoi: We’d read that there was a jazz duo from Moldova in residence for a couple months to entertain us in the lounge area. Moldova is kind of an obscure place, the least visited country in Europe. We have actually been there, though most people know pretty much nothing about the place.

We chatted a bit with the performers, and I asked, “So, you are from Moldova?” The very friendly singer responded that they were actually from a place nobody ever heard of called Transnistria. You may recall that we’ve also been to Transnistria, the very bizarre breakaway Russian enclave on the edge of Moldova. When we told her we’d actually been there, she seemed almost confused and said, “Oh, I guess it must be getting more popular.” I assured her that was not the case.

A pretty lake on the extensive grounds of the Amanoi

A dining table at the extremely Zen-elegant Amanoi

The Cliff Pool. We would have this entirely to ourselves for hours in the morning.

The beachfront pool. It was pretty, but windy as hell.

Buzzy Saigon

In front of Xu, a cool restaurant in Saigon

From Ninh Hai we caught a quick flight to Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City, but people still call it Saigon) for our last two nights in Vietnam. It felt like sort of an obligatory stop since we needed to fly out of there to get home. And if we have to go there, we might as well book two nights, though we wouldn’t want any more than that. We remembered Saigon as a big, crowded, super hot place we don’t love that much.

But then we noticed something unexpected from our last blog post from Saigon 9 years ago. That time we had booked a hotel there for three nights — no more than that, since we remembered it as big, hot, and crowded. But we got there and loved it so much we extended our stay for two nights — and then went back for another couple after that! We’d just completely forgotten that discovery.

While there was no opportunity to extend our stay this time, we did again discover a city that is really pulsing with life. It’s got an excitement you can only have in a nation’s biggest city. There’s more wealth, more color, better restaurants, better spoken English. Like New York, the nation’s premier city attracts the best of the best.

At a lovely colonial style French restaurant in Saigon

A plaza wrapped in dragons

Lunch at the French place

[ So that is the official end of our trip to Vietnam. You may, gentle reader, wish to leave this blog now. Do not continue on unless you are willing to be subjected to a long, angry travel nightmare rant. I will at least compensate you with pretty pictures from Doha, Qatar along the edges. ]

Lunch at an Iraqi restaurant in Doha

The National Museum of Qatar is a stunning piece of architecture by Jean Nouvel

The exhibits include incredible wall projections throughout the huge museum

An amazing Japanese dinner at our hotel’s rooftop restaurant

So then it was time to catch our flight home — which would consist of an 8-hour flight to Doha, Qatar, and then a 14-hour flight to JFK. We could have done two flights with a minimal connection time, but that would have gotten us home to New York late at night, and I hate arriving home late at night. I find that depressing. So I instead booked flights that gave us an overnight in Doha, followed by a nice afternoon arrival back home. We’ve been to Doha before, and it has its charms.

But when we arrived at the check in desk at the Saigon airport, we were informed that the flight to Doha was overbooked, every single other person had checked in, and there were no more seats. But no problem, they said, they had re-booked us on another airline, Cathay Pacific, with a one-hour connection in Hong Kong. Apparently it had not occurred to them that maybe we had plans in Doha. And a non-refundable hotel room there. And that we’d paid thousands of dollars for the flights that worked for us. And that it is against U.S. law to sell us a plane ticket and bump us without compensation that we’ve agreed to. And that someone was staying at our house for the month, and we didn’t really care to get home a day early and boot her out.

We were shocked and furious. And they were implacable. They’d given our (reserved) seats away to someone else, and there was absolutely no room for us. Nothing we could do. We tried to fight them and got nowhere. Then two more people arrived at the business class check in to be told that they, too, were screwed out of their seats. A manager who was now involved kept insisting, as if it were a great consolation, that we could email a complaint to the airline. That didn’t make us feel one bit better.

At one point during this dreadful standoff, Jim conceded that there was really nothing we could do. We probably just had to accept the new seats on Cathay Pacific and deal with all the associated problems. So we told them to go ahead and give us the new boarding passes. The manager pointed to some crummy, crowded seats nearby and told us to go wait there because the Cathay Pacific desk wouldn’t open for another hour and a half.

That was it. Jim informed the agents that we would do no such thing. We were going to stay right where we were, in their faces, until we had the seats we’d paid for. The two other victims were pretty equally insistent that they weren’t going anywhere either.

About a half hour into this ugly standoff, the original agent quietly told us that she could now go ahead and print up our original boarding passes. After a few more minutes, all four of us had boarding passes for the very seats we had reserved in the first place. There was no explanation offered as to how the situation suddenly got resolved. It seems like they were simply lying to us, hoping that we’d take the fall instead of whoever came along next.

Incidentally, when we booked these seats many months ago, we had two possible routes, at similar cost, that worked equally well — one on Singapore Airlines and this one on Qatar. I chose Qatar because I’d just read a survey that ranked them as the best business class airline in the world. Our experience both in and out of Vietnam was a nightmare. They lied to us on both ends. Do not fly Qatar Airways.

The spectacular Doha skyline from dinner

Mark swimming in the Persian Gulf

Qatar is a strange place. Sitting on a little peninsula on the northeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula, it is a world of contradictions. Based on petroleum wealth – it shares the world’s largest natural gas reserves with Iran across the Persian Gulf – Qatar is rapidly modernizing, yet it imposes punishments like lashings for illicit alcohol consumption. It has the world’s highest per capita income, but treats many of the enormous number of ex-pat workers as little more than slaves. Alcohol is served legally only in fancy international hotels but Qatari men can only enter in non-traditional clothes (and Qatari women aren’t allowed to enter at all). Qatari officials have done an amazing job with architecture in the new part of the city but it is one of the least pedestrian-friendly places we’ve ever been. It is an Arab country and key U.S. ally – it hosts a large American military base and has played key roles in both the war in Iraq and against ISIS – but largely allies politically with Iran.

In other words, Qatar is a strange place. Here are two numbers that are stunning and go a long way to explaining this strange place: 2.3 million and 300,000. The first number reflects the number of foreign workers in Qatar, 2.3 million. The second is the number of Qatari citizens, 300,000. In other words a tiny number of native citizens being served by an enormous army of imported workers, mostly, though of course not exclusively, from the Indian subcontinent.

Some of the many cool high-rises in Doha

Yet I was surprised by how much I liked it. The skyline and architecture and all that was way better than I’d expected. And it is all very much a work in progress, at times seemingly just one big construction zone. There’s a nice, long walkway along the coast – once you get to it; crossing the highway that runs along it is an act of faith – that comes alive in the evening as the temperatures start to cool down, the buildings lit in color, and neon-rimmed dhows plying the bay. There’s a beach a couple miles north of town that we walked to, through ugly construction areas and along stretches that would have benefited from sidewalks (did I mention Doha is distinctly not pedestrian friendly?) so we could swim in the Persian Gulf.

One of the highlights for us was staying at the W Hotel. It’s stunningly beautiful and, because of that Starwood status we have, they upgraded us to a very cool suite, one of the nicest rooms we’ve had in this long adventure. That was really handy, since for a good part of the day it’s just too hot to do much, even in November (I can only imagine what it’s like here in the summer!) and we could hang out in all the space we had.

The W Hotel – the lobby on top, Mark in our too-cool suite

Perhaps the biggest tourist attraction in Doha is the Museum of Islamic Art, opened just nine years ago in a building designed by famed architect I. M. Pei. At the age of 91 he had already retired but the Qatari coaxed him out of retirement (think $$$) and he spent six months traveling in the Muslim world for inspiration. He ultimately rejected all the proposed sites for his museum, insisting instead that it be built on an artificial island so no other buildings could ever encroach. And believe me, it all works. The building and interior design are gorgeous and alone are enough to justify the price of admission; oh, wait, that wouldn’t take much since the museum is free, always my favorite price point. But the collection was impressive too, containing artifacts dating back to the 7th century, from the time of Muhammad himself. All beautifully displayed, I found myself wondering how the heck 9th and 10th century glass could have survived all those years.

Pages from ancient Korans, the top one dated from the 7th century, the bottom from the 8th. Given that Muhammad died in 632, the top one in particular would have been written by people quite close to his lifetime.

And then there was the walking along the Corniche, around the bay from the downtown area a couple of miles to the Museum of Islamic Art. Early mornings were cool and pleasant while during the daytime it was intensely hot. In the evenings, though, the temperatures dropped, the lights came on, and people came out. The strangest thing for me was seeing women out, obviously walking for exercise, with their full-body burkhas flowing in the evening breeze. As it got darker it seemed as though they got eerier and eerier, as though the Grim Reaper himself was stalking.

Art along the Corniche, with the city’s skyline in the background

As for food, you have two choices: local fare at reasonable prices with no wine or alcohol, or fancy hotel restaurants at unreasonable prices with wine and alcohol. We compromised. Lunch would be at a local place – good Indian, good Lebanese, and good Persian – and dinner would be at a fancy restaurant either in our hotel or a neighboring one. It worked.

That was Qatar. We were kind of there just to check off a country but I found myself intrigued. I’m even looking forward to going back in four or five years to see how much it has changed. I expect it will be a lot.

Doha as seen around the Corniche in daytime and at night

Genuinely impressive architecture

Mark in front of the Museum of Islamic Art

Artifacts from the museum. Clockwise from the top left that’s Iranian glass from as early as the 7th century; a 17th century jeweled falcon from India that includes diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires; a 13th century glass vase from Syria; and a gem-studded dagger and scabbard from India dating from about 1800.

Mark caught me inspecting some old wooden doors

I made it to the beach that day, too

The morning we walked to the Museum we saw these camels and riders lined up right next to the royal palace. We weren’t sure what was going on, but it certainly made you feel as though you were on the Arabian Peninsula!

Doha’s old souk is a couple miles from the new, modern city. Not the most impressive souk we’ve ever seen but certainly worth a visit. And, importantly, this was where the good (alcohol-free) local restaurants were.

Speaking of which, here is Mark at Parisi, a nice Persian restaurant we ate at one day that was one of the most colorful places we’ve ever enjoyed for lunch