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

Here I am in a sea-themed room in the Crazy House. Crazy indeed.

D is for Dalat. And for Disappointment. We first read about Dalat back in 2001 in anticipation of our first trip to Vietnam. At an elevation of nearly 5,000 feet it’s a colonial hill-town, first settled by the French in the early 20th century as a place to escape the heat of Saigon. Studded with old French villas and favored with a spring-like climate, with lots of opportunities for adventure tourism in the area, it sounded like someplace we would really like.

As we had to make choices of where to go during our 2001 vacation, it got struck from the list. Then we came back in 2014 … and it got struck again. This time I was determined to make it to Dalat. The result? Meh… More quirk than fabulous.

One of the joys of traveling in Southeast Asia is getting your laundry done. This lovely woman did maybe a week’s worth of laundry for us for a total of about $6.50. And folded it way better than I ever could.

Speaking of quirky, how do you like this little water feature in a park by the train station?

I was expecting some of the beauty of Hanoi and Hoi An, and we just never found it. There was some colonial architecture sprinkled around, but what there was was always surrounded by distinctly inferior stuff. The morning and evening temperatures were quite pleasant, but in mid-day it was just too hot to really enjoy being out and about. And 20+ years after we first anticipated coming here – with age and bad knees inhibiting us – we were way less interested in climbing around in canyons and so on.

Oh, and one other strike against Dalat. We made a rookie mistake and took a nice hotel but that was too far from the center of the city to just hang out in the tourist zone. It was about a 50-minute walk from our hotel to what seems as though it was the city center and while that’s doable, you don’t want to do it very often. On the other hand taking a taxi – or actually Grab, the Uber-equivalent here – was ridiculously cheap and easy, maybe $2.25 or so for the ride. I should add that while the hotel was nice enough, it was quirky. Just weird stuff about how the room was designed and how the grounds were nice but had no place to sit. Just kind of quirky.

Ok then, if it’s hotter than you expect, you’re further away from things than you want to be, and it’s just not that pretty a place, what do you do in Dalat? We found a few things. First up, you have to see the Crazy House. Yup, that’s what it’s called, and it is very aptly named. It’s crazy. I can describe it no better than to just quote Lonely Planet. “Imagine sculptured rooms connected by superslim bridges rising out of a tangle of concrete greenery, an excess of cascading lava-flow-like shapes, wild colors, spiderweb windows, and an almost organic quality to it all, with the swooping handrails resembling jungle vines. Think of Gaudí and Tolkien dropping acid together and designing their own version of Disneyland.” Definitely raising the quirk factor for Dalat.

Atop one of the crazy winding slim bridges with a couple new friends

That pretty much sums it up. The book describes it as a private home, but these days it seems to be a small one-star hotel. The woman who designed it over a number of years has a PhD in architecture and is the daughter of the second president of Vietnam, the guy who succeeded Ho Chi Minh. We were distinctly skeptical about what we would experience there, but we both loved it. Another example that when you think perhaps you’ve seen it all, you haven’t. And a crazy way to spend an hour or so.

Then there was this cog train that takes you about 30 minutes out to a town called Trai Mat. There are only two reasons to go to Trai Mat: to ride the train, because it’s a tourist attraction (described in the English translation at the train station as a “fake antique” car), and to see the Linh Phuoc Pagoda. The train ride itself was fun – on narrow tracks with buildings and farms built right up along the tracks. And then the pagoda was … quirky. Extravagantly colored tiles everywhere, a dragon made from more than 10,000 beer bottles, a seven-story pagoda that you climb to the top of to see … not very much.

The dragon made of 10,000 beer bottles. Quirky, right?

That was about it for sights. Of course our favorite thing to do in a city is to scope out the food scene. This was seriously hit or miss. Lunch at the hotel on arrival, when we discovered how far we were from the city center where we thought we’d find nicer restaurants, was just awful. A Mexican restaurant where we had dinner one night that was the second-highest rated restaurant on Trip Advisor was worse, way worse. Like the worst guacamole I’ve ever had. Just terrible.

I don’t think I’ve ever had pizza this good outside of Naples

The team at Gemination Eatery & Bar

Ah, but then there were some real finds. Like Primavera, a small Italian restaurant run by a real Italian. We stopped for lunch and Mark decided to splurge on a pizza. The second the waiter brought it out and I smelled it and saw it I said out loud “Oh my God, that’s the real thing!” It was a true Neapolitan pizza. We chatted a bit with the owner/chef who talked about getting the crust exactly like they do in Naples. So the next day we went back and both got pizzas. I can spend weeks in Italy without splurging on a pizza, but this was worth it.

And we found what has to be one of the great bar/restaurants in all of Vietnam, a place called Gemination Eatery & Bar. Just a very cool space, well designed, and bartenders who seriously knew what they were doing. As in knew the difference between a Manhattan and a Perfect Manhattan without being prompted. Even knew the proper garnish! The first night we just stopped for drinks, but with every round they brought us some tasty little bite of something-or-other. So the next night we went for drinks and dinner and were thrilled with the food. A place that good, that we loved – you just know it’ll be out of business too soon.

So yeah, Dalat was a disappointment. But D doesn’t stand for Disaster – that would be way too much. Just not as exciting or pretty as I’d long hoped. I will, however, dream about that pizza for a long time. Now get ready for a lot of pictures of the Crazy House.

The Crazy House

A view inside one of the rooms at the Crazy House hotel. It’s only a one-star hotel and I’m pretty sure the rooms didn’t have en suite bathrooms. On top of that, of course, I’m not sure how I’d feel staying in a room with tourists poking their heads in all the time.

Very weird architecture

Crazy winding stairs connecting various spaces

Weird designs on the exterior of one of the buildings

Mark outside one of the first buildings we saw in the complex. It got weirder and weirder.

These narrow, winding stairs are in no way child-friendly

One last picture of me on the stairs of the Crazy House. Gaudí must be in a jealous rage.

Here I am at our Italian lunch spot with a plate of tagliata. That’s before I discovered the pizza.

And that was my little friend for lunch

Our wonderful bartender at Gemination. He could be working at any bar in Manhattan.

Our “fake antique” train to Trai Mat

Korean ladies in a tour group on the train. We were always amused at how insistent so many women here are about keeping their skin completely covered and protected from the sun. You can see the woman near the window wearing gloves. And it was 80 degrees!

Dalat is a major agricultural area for Vietnam. And oddly it seems as though they grow nearly all their produce inside these plastic buildings.

A view inside one of the production areas. The train was just that close to these and many other buildings.

The pagoda. We climbed to the top just because we were afraid we would miss something if we didn’t. We wouldn’t have.

An indication that we were getting close to the pagoda

There was tons of this stuff there

And more pagoda art

I look as though I would fit right in with these colors

As we were walking to the pagoda we walked by this guy working on a backhoe and I thought “Now that’s what Mark’s dad would want to see here!”

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!