Friday, January 27, 2017

New Year's in Bali

As I look back on living 4+ years in East Asia as an expat, I realize that I have been incredibly fortunate to travel to so many places on this side of the world. “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” wrote Dr. Seuss. For me, this has included China (three times) & Taiwan (twice), Japan (six times), Hong Kong (twice), Singapore (three times), India (twice), Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand (three times), Malaysia, Australia (twice), New Zealand, and of course… 15 trips to Vietnam! Knowing that my remaining time living in this part of the world may be short, a bit of FOMO is setting in — but I realize that most of the places on my Asia bucket list have been checked. One of the few that remained unchecked was Bali, Indonesia, described by many as an idyllic paradise. I wanted to see for myself!

The memorials cut into the rock at Pura Gunung Kawi were tall and impressive
Once my wife and I decided not to visit my parents in the US for Christmas this year, I was on the lookout for places I could take a winter vacation using my frequent flyer miles. Turns out that Korean Air has a great loyalty program with lots of rewards flights available to Bali — I booked two and got a great deal on some expensive holiday tickets! The flight to Bali from Seoul is long — 7 hours — surprising to some until you realize that Bali is south of the equator, making Seoul to Bali about the same distance as New York to Peru. There is a small detail I left out: late December is the rainy season in Bali. However, that didn’t bother us greatly… even though every day contained a rain shower or two there was still enough abundant sunshine for my wife to receive an unwanted sunburn.
After arriving on a late flight and spending a short evening near Ngurah Rai Airport, my wife was able to negotiate with a Grab driver to take us on the 2-hour journey to Ubud for less than $15! In Bali the local taxi cartel is more rent-seeking than in most places (as evidenced by our $6 taxi ride to drive 2km from the airport) which makes the new competition from Grab and Uber quite welcome for consumers. Realizing this the taxi cartels have placed signs all over tourist areas demanding people not to use Grab or Uber, though I imagine the effect of this has been rather limited. We arrived in Ubud tired after a long bumper-to-bumper car journey — the tiny roads in Bali are packed with cars — and were delighted to have a welcome sign placed up for us at the boutique hotel we were checking into. We stayed next to a rice field but could also walk easily to restaurants and cafes — a nice balance. My Vietnamese wife was also delighted by the warm weather as the bone-chilling winter in Seoul was starting to wear on her!

Tanah Lot had a nice ocean breeze and wasn't too crowded at midday
Ubud is a well-traveled tourist town for the “alternative” Bali experience — up in the hills there are a lot of boutique jungle resorts and yoga retreats. The town is rather small and walkable but congested with cars … fortunately we could walk to Ubud Palace and the nearby Monkey Forest — many friendly monkeys here! The forest is a nice and relatively quiet outdoor walk. We hiked a bit from the center of town to a warung (Indonesian restaurant) for dinner … nasi goreng (fried rice) and chicken skewers seems like a standard meal in Bali … and the warung prices are great!

The next day, New Year’s Eve, my wife hired a local driver — available for about $50/day all-inclusive, if you bargain — to take us on a tour of Hindu temples on the island (Bali is primarily Hindu, not Muslim like most of Indonesia). We started at the “Elephant Cave” (Goa Gajah), which actually didn’t have any elephants but did have a cave famed for its ancient stone carvings of Hindu gods. It was a nice morning walk also with a jungle canyon area to explore. Next we visited the Pura Gunung Kawi temple — at the bottom of a lush green river valley lie 8-meter-tall memorials cut out of the rock face of a cliff. It’s a long climb to get down and up but well worth it! If you’re not soaked in sweat you can hike back up for some nice views … we felt too hot! Next was the Pura Tirta Empul temple, a water temple with many locals wading in the holy waters. For lunch our driver escorted us to a tourist restaurant with a lovely view over Batur Lake, until the pouring rain started — we were lucky to be indoors with the buffet! Sadly our view of the lake was short-lived once we were fogged in by the rain cloud. The rain turned into a downpour once we reached Pura Besakih, the “Mother Temple” — though my wife excited for the views we gave this a pass and retreated back into our car. By the time we reached the empty Pura Kehen the rain had stopped and we were alone in this green, wonderful, peaceful place. Temples are great when they are not full of tourists! Finally on the way back to town we glanced at the Tegalalang Rice Terrace — a little late and soggy for us to hike in. Besides, though the view was nice this place has nothing on Sapa, Vietnam!

Uluwatu Temple was on a majestic cliff edge overlooking the water ... but, whew, HOT!!
For the evening we ate a simple warung dinner and found a coffee shop which was open to 11pm. The amateur fireworks started at sundown and continued to almost 1am, but Ubud had no big public fireworks show — from the television it looked like there was a big show at the Kuta Beach.

Gitgit Waterfall... the only site worth seeing in North Bali
On New Year’s Day my wife and I woke up a little groggy from the late night before and started an early day with the driver again. This time we made the long 2-hour drive north to Pura Ulun Danu Beratan temple. The temple is on the shore of a nice lake but was packed with local tourists … not worth the long trip, in my opinion. Being on a flat seashore rather than a jungle hillside also took away some of the mystique for me. From here we traveled further north to the Gitgit Waterfall, an impressive waterfall 35 meters tall surrounded by tropical trees. It was hard to get a good picture here because of the water spray. We drove down to the road along the northern coast but were disappointed as you cannot actually see the sea from the road as the whole coastline is blocked by resorts. Also the traffic jam here was horrible on a holiday weekend day. My wife wanted to swim at the Banjar Hot Spring but by the time we reached here it was already 4:30pm and crammed with bathing locals. I knew we only had the driver for 10 hours and we had a long drive ahead back to Kuta. Nearly 4 hours later we were in Kuta, a raging concrete jungle packed with loud bars and tattoo parlors and rowdy young Australians. We spent too much time on New Year’s Day in the car — besides Gitgit Waterfall there was nothing worthwhile on the northern part of Bali. Though the distances are relatively small the tiny roads and bumper-to-bumper traffic make any car journey in Bali quite taxing on one’s patience. A massage and yoga day in Ubud would have been much better!

Fortunately once we reached Kuta we were no longer planning any long temple trips by car. The next morning we checked out of uncomfortable Kuta hotel and my wife drove a motorbike to Tanah Lot, a rock formation in the water about an hour’s drive northwest. This place I’m told would have been packed at sunset, but in the middle of the day was manageably crowded and we were able to get some nice photos. That afternoon we moved to the Nusa Dua enclave, a fenced-in resort area on the southern peninsula full of resorts along the beach. We chose the Westin, which had a good deal with Starwood Points. It was a very different Bali experience in the resort — the cocoon has everything you could want without leaving but spending 3x what you would be spending outside for a meal felt like robbery. I have mixed feelings about resort vacations… certainly they are easy but you lose touch with the authenticity of the location you are visiting. They are great for kids though. The water was a little cold but the beach had some nice covered chairs we could lie down on. I was happy to lounge with my wife and take a break from sightseeing. And there was a great pizza restaurant nearby — my wife and I had tired of eating nasi goreng with chicken skewers!

The next day was quite lazy. My wife and I had a long walk along the beach to the Water Blow in Nusa Dua. We watched large waves from the Indian Ocean crash against a jagged limestone cliff. We took time to play ping-pong, go to the resort gym, and eat sushi. Busy day, I know!

Nice to watch the waves crash into the Nusa Dua Water Blow
On our final day in Bali we went to the Uluwatu Temple, a 1-hour motorbike drive away from Nusa Dua on the other side of the peninsula. Fortunately there is not too much traffic and this was a pretty peaceful ride. Like Tanah Lot, this place is popular for sunset views, but we tackled this head-on under the midday sun … boy was it hot! You must be very careful of the monkeys if you visit here — unlike the Ubud Monkey Forest these monkeys have been trained to steal from tourists. I watched a monkey steal the prescription eyeglasses off one tourist and another monkey hissed threateningly at my wife. That said, with a little care Uluwatu is worth the visit for the splendid views over a steep cliff into the ocean. These are probably 10 times better at sunset, but we had an evening flight to catch back to Seoul.

It was difficult to leave paradise to return to the middle of winter in Seoul. Bali has it all — where you stay and what you do depends on the type of vacation you are looking for … beach resort, nightlife, culture, escape into the mountains. I wouldn’t recommend to my American friends to make the very long trip here but for anyone living in Asia I think Bali is a place to visit. I’m glad I checked this off my Asia bucket list.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Honeymoon in Japan

I think for most newlywed couples, Koreans in particular, honeymoon planning is an integral part of the wedding planning process. For my new wife and I, however, this simply never crossed our minds. Faced with the challenges of getting my family halfway around the world to Vietnam and figuring out how to incorporate two distinctly different wedding cultures into one special day, the honeymoon vacation was simply nothing more than an afterthought. Not to mention, we had more-or-less exhausted the tiny list of countries my wife could visit visa-free on her Vietnamese passport, and it just felt rude to simply say goodbye to my family the day after the wedding while they were still exploring Vietnam. Getting my wife to Korea to live with me would be a major accomplishment. I told everyone we would find the time to take the honeymoon "later"...

Turns out Korea has a nice little holiday called Chuseok, usually falling around late September though it varies based on the lunar calendar. Well, it's nice for expats at least... Koreans are busy at home bowing to their ancestors. With 3 workdays off one could make a 9-day holiday for the low price of 2 annual leave days – a real bargain! Other than the gaga airfare prices you must pay to get off the peninsula, of course...

Since moving to Asia I've discovered my single favorite place to visit on this continent is Japan. I love the food, the cleanliness, the serenity, the quirkiness, the way everything is bewildering but all just comes together to fold you into its harmony. I've wanted to do a big Japan trip for a few years, but I was just a tad distracted by my lovely relationship in Southeast Asia, so not surprisingly most of my trips went there. Japan was a dream destination for my wife, too!

Japan would not be an easy trip to pull off on short notice as, of course, my wife needed the visa. The application form was opaque and confusing, asking us to fill out areas like the "sponsor in Japan". I have one distant acquaintance living in Japan but no one I would feel comfortable asking to be a "sponsor". When the travel agency at work refused to help process the visa on our behalf, citing vague difficulties that other Vietnamese citizens had suffered recently at the Japan embassy, I felt increasingly hopeless. Thankfully my wife has a lot of free time on her hands these days and found a helpful staff member at the Japan embassy who could speak English and coach us through the necessary application steps. Though we had to go through some hoops like photocopying 6 months of my bank statements and getting a travel agent to reserve a cancellable ticket for us, the visa came very quickly – just 1 business day! We couldn't wait to pack and go... our first trip together as a newly married couple.

We took a late Friday night flight to Tokyo on Peach – not a bad low cost airline for our trip. On Saturday morning after a night near Haneda Airport and a big breakfast, we were off to Tokyo! Our luggage went into a locker at a train station – the big lockers are difficult to find – and we were free to explore our first stop, Shinjuku.

Yakitori in Tokyo
It was a lovely sunny afternoon to walk around Shinjuku Gyoen, a little hot actually. My wife loved the big evergreen trees. I loved breathing the clean air and finding some solitude... this type of park simply cannot be found in Seoul. We stopped for some green matcha tea before our next stop – Harajuku.

The shopping street was madly packed on a Saturday and we suddenly felt suffocated by the crowds. We needed to break away and Yoyogi Park looked so close ... at least on the map. In fact, we made a wrong turn and discovered the area north of Harajuku is blocked from the park by the JR Rail tracks. After several kilometers of walking to the park's northeast entrance we realized our mistake! Yoyogi is another huge peaceful green park with massive trees and the Meiji Shrine. We enjoyed seeing a procession from a traditional Japanese wedding at the shrine on a Saturday.

Several more kilometers of walking later we finished our afternoon by finding our Airbnb in Shibuya. Airbnb works great in the major tourist cities of Japan – we found good cozy accommodations at a fraction of what we would have paid for hotels. And all the places we stayed at offered portable WiFi units we could carry around during the day ... a real lifesaver at times! Shibuya is a fantastic area to stay in Tokyo, super hip and vibrant. The famous street crossing is there with masses of pedestrians walking across at every signal. We couldn't help but be tourists taking selfies of ourselves in the intersection!

Shibuya is a great place to meet a local acquaintance for dinner. My business school classmate Hiro lives in Tokyo and knew a great yakitori place to take us to. It was a place with about 20 seats and menus in Japanese-only ... my wife and I would have been unable to eat here by ourselves. A wonderful meal! And what a way to start our trip.

For Sunday in Tokyo we started in late morning in Azakusa and made our way to the large crowded Sensoji Temple. I enjoyed all the burning incense but wish we had made our way here a little earlier to avoid the crowds – my wife and I are not good at waking up early when we're on vacation. My wife loved the neighborhood, browsing at all the small shops and trying the fish-shaped waffles filled with red bean. I also loved seeing the local Japanese ladies in their lovely kimonos out and about taking pictures. For the afternoon we toured the Imperial Palace Garden. My wife was sad that she couldn't visit the actual palace itself but she greatly admired the vast space and all the various types of trees that she had never seen back home. Ueno Park afterwards felt disappointing by comparison. After dark we walked through the bright lights of Ginza, but a light rain started falling and we decided to end our day with some food court sushi and edamame back in Shibuya.

On Monday morning we found a great city view at the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, much better than Tokyo Tower – and free! Plus when you tire of the view it is an easy place to sit down and enjoy a coffee. We had finished Tokyo sightseeing and we were off to the onsen hot springs of Hakone, about a 2.5-hour train ride from Shinjuku Station. We wanted some R&R away from the city and we were hoping for a view of Mount Fuji.

Unfortunately due to its proximity to Tokyo, Hakone is crazy-expensive. The traditional ryokan we stayed in was about $180/night and felt rather dated, but at least it had two private onsen rooms for guests to enjoy. We were served dinner and breakfast from the floor of our room and it was a real treat! We dressed in yakuta robes and feasted on fish, tempura, green tea and tasty mochi. Sleeping on the floor wasn't the most comfy but certainly much easier than in Korean hanok houses – the futon pads we laid on felt soft and pillowy. And the hot water of the onsen felt wonderful for our tired legs after all the walking we did in Tokyo.

The mountain setting of Hakone was lovely but unfortunately our 2 days there were marred by overcast skies and some rain, so we couldn't take in any of the breathtaking scenery and couldn't see Fuji. We did a little exploring by bus on Tuesday and I would recommend the Hakone Shrine near Lake Ashi. But on a rainy day there wasn't much to see, so we returned back to Odawara and rode the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. Super fast but otherwise not extraordinary.

If there is one must-see destination in Japan it's Tokyo. If there is a second must-see destination this is almost certainly Kyoto. Tokyo is enormous and has tons of neighborhoods to explore, but Kyoto has the history.

On Wednesday we headed for Arashiyama to see the famous bamboo forest. So many majestic tall skinny trees... the place actually can feel semi-dark even on a sunny day. More than the bamboo forest though my wife loved walking around the neighborhood and viewing the boutique shops. Then we really started temple-hopping in earnest. Kyoto is a city of temples, the whole place has sprouted up around them. You can't help staying more than a few minutes on a public bus without seeing a temple or Shinto shrine pop up somewhere. And often the temples off the beaten tourist path are more refreshing... more Zen to be found when you're not surrounded by mobs of loud, photo-hungry Chinese tourists. We started at Seiryoji and the outer entrance of Tenryuji in Arashiyama... it was only the beginning.

We spent the afternoon in Nijo Castle, which I had seen during for a nighttime cherry blossoms exhibition during my first Kyoto trip. The large grounds were also wonderful during daytime and quite enjoyable without the cherry blossom crowds. In the early evening we wandered around Higashiyama and viewed the shops. Kyoto unfortunately does not have much going on after 5pm when the temples close. You really can just walk around in the twilight until you get hungry and find a restaurant for dinner. One exception is the Yasaka Shrine, beautifully lit up in the evening. We walked around and after leaving found a historic udon restaurant in Gion. We went geisha hunting and did spot one putting her client in a taxi and waving goodbye.

Thursday was our tour of the temples in northwest Kyoto. The city is sprawled out and the famous temples are all over so you really need to plan your days carefully if you want to see every temple on your list. We started at Ninnaji and worked our way to the famous rock garden of Ryoanji. We found a nice coffee shop nearby and then continued our walk to the gold-covered Kinkakuji Temple. I had a bad feeling when I saw all the Chinese tour buses outside that we were going to be in for a rough afternoon, and indeed it was. Though the place is spectacular, just about any tourist destination in the world can be ruined by masses of Chinese! At least we patiently fought through for a couple nice photos... the place wasn't anywhere near as quiet as the photos looked!

After that mess we ran away to Daitokuji, so quiet you could hear your own footsteps and we felt self-conscious not to raise our voices. The peace and quiet was so welcome after the disaster of Kinkakuji... thank goodness Daitokuji is just a local temple and not in any Chinese tour guide books! Again you run out of things to do in Kyoto after 5pm so we took a twilight walk along the Philosopher's Path before retreating to our Airbnb for a home cooked meal. Japanese food supermarkets are quite nice, BTW!

Really had to fight for this picture at Kinkakuji
Friday was our last day in Kyoto and we still had a long list of places to see, but I knew no visit to Kyoto would be complete without seeing the vast Fushimi Inari Shrine. Once you get past the main temple you are faced with what feels like a never-ending climb in the woods under iconic orange arches. If we had more time or my wife was a more adept hiker perhaps we could have hiked the whole thing – I think we made it 2/3 of the way up which itself was quite a workout. Lots of Chinese tourists here too, but if you hike uphill long enough you eventually escape them! We refreshed with coffee and walk to Tofukuji, then a bus to Nanzenji to admire the aqueduct. We wrapped up our whirlwind temple day at Kiyomizudaera, not an easy place to reach as you face a long uphill hike from the nearest bus stop, but well worth it.

On Saturday we took an easy train ride from Kyoto to Nara. Thankfully Nara is an easy day trip as the areas worth seeing are all in a compact area around Kintetsu-Nara train station. I put Nara on the list of places to see because of the famous wild deer walking around Nara Park, which my wife loved! Unlike the deer back home, which are scared of people, these deer are always approaching you looking for food and most are quite petable – though be warned that some are a little attack-minded when hungry! My wife loves cute animals and she could not get enough of these Bambis. There are hundreds of deer for miles. Everything else in the area – museums, temples – was a sideshow. My wife didn't want to leave, even though a couple deer did bit her! (Gently, of course)

Osaka is Japan's #2 city and more edgy than Tokyo. It is not a place with great historical sites, but rather restaurants, nightlife, and shopping. We came to the Dotonbori on Saturday evening after our day in Nara and sampled takoyaki on the street before finding a nearby teppanyaki restaurant that served the delicious okonomiyaki savory pancake, washed down with a refreshing beer. After a big meal we walked off a few calories along the canal and my wife was mesmerized by the tax-free shops. We could have easily spent the whole night here if we were looking for a drink or a nightclub, but my wife is not particularly into either.

On Sunday, our final day in Japan, we saw the one must-see historical attraction in Osaka – the Osaka Castle – tall and majestic and with a nice city view at the top. Also the grounds make for nice walking and we saw many student performances. There was also a judo tournament in one of the nearby buildings. Unfortunately Osaka didn't have much else to offer. We went to one of the local malls but felt overwhelmed – for the first time on the trip I felt tired and hungry and grumpy.

But the last dull afternoon in Osaka didn't sour our Japan trip. What a wonderful place to explore as newlyweds. So many foods to try and places to visit. I finally got the big Japan trip I was craving and I'm so glad I was able to share the time with my new wife. It's a trip we will never forget.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Return to Da Lat

Da Lat, a city in the mountains about 300km northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, has a different feel from the rest of Vietnam. The altitude cools the air to a temperate level, the air is fresh, the skies are blue, and evergreen forests abound. Before my first trip to Vietnam, my Vietnamese friend told me, "Are you sure you want to visit Da Lat? Only honeymooners go there." Indeed, by myself I found the city to be nice and quaint but rather dull.

My fiancee admires the sunflowers in Da Lat Flower Park

However I recently got engaged to my Vietnamese girlfriend (now fiancee) and we needed to spend some quality time together on a retreat to gather ourselves and discuss some of the meaty issues of our future life together – for example, now I know how many children she wants!  (we are mostly aligned)  Da Lat provided us with the fresh air we needed. Almost every time we are visiting each other outside of Vietnam, my fiancee will mention that some tree-lined area outside of the city in Korea or Taiwan or USA "looks like Da Lat". So I figured we must go there together.

Flying to Da Lat is 100,000 times better than driving from Ho Chi Minh City. Flights are cheap and you cut the travel time from 8 hours to 4 hours. And Da Lat airport is a nice little facility. We arrived at a quaint boutique hotel called Stop & Go, away from the motorbike noise of the city center, and the staff had set up a nice little romantic flower arrangement in our room. After enjoying a peaceful lunch we took a taxi to the Truc Lam pagoda, my 2nd time visiting and perhaps my favorite place in Da Lat. It's a majestic and peaceful Buddhist temple with many monks and trees and flowers. It was a wonderful place to walk around and chat. I was sad that we missed the lake below the pagoda (gates close at 4:30pm). We enjoyed a participatory dance show of local villagers with an audience that was half Vietnamese and half Russian ... Russian tourists are amusing :)   We finished the Friday night at a roudy barbeque restaurant full of loud youths grilling meat.

Peaceful hike at Cu Lan Village

The next morning we hired a car to drive us to the Golden Valley, a lovely park with lakes, hills, flowers, and large coniferous trees. It had some decent walking paths and was a great place to lay around for awhile. I enjoyed breathing in the cool, fresh air and felt a bit like I was back home in the US. We enjoyed lunch at Cu Lan Village, a cultural resort with horses and grilled meat and more hiking in forested hills. In the afternoon we hiked Lang Biang, an easy hike mostly up a road, with some shortcuts through the woods available for the adventurous. My fiancee was quite tired from the walk up but even she was able to make the climb in only 90 minutes ... I guess I was pushing her a bit to hike faster! The top has a decent view but the humidity drowned out the opportunity for a nice picture with the valley below.

After a lazy Sunday morning at our boutique getaway my fiancee decided we needed some more exercise. We rented kid-size bicycles from our hotel and we strained to ride up the hills of Da Lat. After a rest for lunch and a post-lunch frozen fruit dessert, we pushed our pedals to the Da Lat Flower Park near the Xuan Huong Lake in the center of town. It has a decent array of flowers and is worth the $2 price of admission. From there we biked halfway around the lake to the Rooster Cathedral, and I sat for the beginning of a Sunday Catholic mass in Vietnamese! It resembled Catholic masses in other countries. From there we biked around the night market and took in some easy time at a coffee shop.

Big coniferous trees in Golden Valley

On Monday morning we caught the airport shuttle bus and flew the short 1 hour flight back to Ho Chi Minh City. Amidst the traffic and heat and pollution of Saigon, I was missing our clean, peaceful weekend getaway destination.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Return to Taipei: Fooooooood

I was long overdue for seeing my girlfriend in VN, so we agreed to meet for a 3-day weekend in Taipei, roughly halfway between Ho Chi Minh City and Seoul. I had greatly enjoyed my first visit to Taipei for a wedding in 2013 and I was eager to return.

Xiao Long Bao time
Much like my return to Hong Kong, Taipei’s charm and allure faded a little for me on the 2nd visit, but I still consider it a highly appealing and overlooked travel destination — a “diamond in the rough”. Some facts about Taipei that became more apparent on Trip #2: there isn’t a lot to do besides eating delicious food all the time; it is very Chinese, though certainly far more civil and refined than the mainland; there aren’t many tourists besides those from mainland China.

To coordinate flight schedules my girlfriend and I both scheduled strange overnight itineraries: I landed at about 3:30am on Saturday morning from a flight eventually bound for Singapore, and my girlfriend landed at about 5:15am. At about sunrise we were heading on a bus into the city.

We put our bags down at our boutique hotel in the Ximending district and took a walk around to look for breakfast. Fortunately there was a “Breakfast Street” nearby … perfect! At 7:30am people were starting to queue for sticky buns and street dumplings and other foods. We found a food counter with a little bit of seating. I grabbed a wrap of pork surrounded by sticky rice … almost like a breakfast burrito. It filled me up. By the time we were finished a long queue of locals had appeared at the food counter, which certainly justified our decision to eat there.

I touched the top of Taipei 101!  (well, not exactly...)
After coffee, which was actually rather difficult to find, we jumped onto the Metro for early brunch at the original Din Tai Fung restaurant on Xinyi Road near Dongmen Station. At 10am the restaurant was already starting to fill up, it seemed largely with tourists judging my the number of cameras taking pictures of food! We ordered several sets of xiao long bao still steaming in bamboo pots when they arrive at your table. Our favorite was the shrimp with fish roe xiao long bao — the shrimp was so fresh! By the time we finished at 11:30 there was another long queue outside the Din Tai Fung … maybe an hour’s wait for a table … I am glad that we arrived early!

We next checked off the Taipei 101 box by staring up at the tower and taking photos. We didn’t feel the need to ascend … it’s a beautiful building and the only thing you won’t be able to see from the observatory at the top is the tower itself! Plus the entrance fee, about US$15, we deemed too high. The mall below feels quite luxurious and is worth walking around.

Next the Sun Yat Sen Memorial, a big building dedicated to what seems like an important guy, but most of the exhibits were written in Chinese only so its pretty indecipherable. There is an entrance with a big statue of the man guarded by armed soldiers, and the hourly changing of the guard ceremony drew a big crowd. By this point, lack of sleep caught up with us and my girlfriend could barely walk in her high-heels, so we napped at the hotel before going out for a delicious all-you-can-eat hot pot buffet at Mala Hotpot by Zhongshan Station. Though right on top of the station it was a little difficult to find, but quite filling and enjoyable — the certified Angus beef here was superb!

Falling in love with conveyor belt sushi!
When we returned to Ximending in the evening my girlfriend was surprised to see how the pedestrian area had come alive with shops and street vendors and crowds of young people. She thought it was similar to Myeongdong in Seoul, but I agree with the prevailing sentiment that it is more like Harajuku in Tokyo. The area definitely has a Japanese vibe with anime characters plastered on billboards and punk teens walking the streets.

On Sunday morning we got a much-needed late start with lunch at a Sushi Express restaurant near our hotel. Conveyor belt sushi! Fresh and wonderful and a great value! We found some milk bubble tea from one of the many stands and wandering Ximending in search of swimwear for my girlfriend … not the easiest thing to find! We finally found a bright orange bikini and my girlfriend was able to use fingers to negotiate the merchant down a little on the price. Then, we were on the Metro north to the hot spring district of Xin Beitou.

I chose for us to visit the Millennium Hot Spring, a public facility which opens for 2-hour shifts and attracts many Taiwanese senior citizens on a Sunday afternoon. It was crowded and had makeshift changing facilities, but eventually we found our way into one of the cauldrons of hot water. Ow ow ow ow ow! I think I saw a sign that said the water temperature was 43C. It was an endurance challenge to submerge one’s body from the neck down for more than a couple minutes. But once you get out of the water… ohhhhh, it’s so relaxing! We dipped ourselves in the water a couple times before the shift ended and the elderly masters of the facilities shooed us out before the beginning of the next shift.

On our walk back to the Metro station we searched in vain for some bubble tea — it is not as ubiquitous in Taipei as I would have expected — and then took a Metro ride to the Shilin Night Market, which seemed to have opened a little earlier (around 6pm) on a Sunday. This was dinner time… we tried street dumplings and street fried squid and street sausage. So many other foods we could have tried but skipped. The whole place was mobbed with people shopping, eating, or just out for a walk.

Monday morning was another sleeping-in day before a big lunch at Chao Pin Ji Cantonese dim sum restaurant in the San Want hotel by the Zhongxiao Dunhua station. Also some really delicious shrimp dumplings here as well. The atmosphere was more formal than Din Tai Fung but isn’t mobbed with tourists, and certainly the food was of similar quality. The time flew by on Monday, as it always does on days when my girlfriend and I are separating yet again. Before we knew it, we were at the airport eating pork at the cafeteria food court and saying our goodbyes…

Saturday, November 21, 2015

India Business Trip

I work in South Korea for Samsung, but I have seen very little of South Korea this fall. After a 3-week business trip to Brazil and a 5-day trip to see my girlfriend in Vietnam, my boss soon had us packing our suitcases for another 3-week business trip to New Delhi, India for a project with Samsung India.

Welcome to India ... NOT!

I had been to India once before during my business school days, and let's just say that I did not enjoy it. Most people who have visited India tell me, and I agree with them, that India is a polarizing place — you either love it or you hate it. I had recollections of bad pollution, intense heat, burning trash, chaotic roads, strange smells, and food poisoning.

At least I had remembered Delhi Airport to be a decent place. ENHHH! Wrong! It's crap. Just witness the chaos at the immigration line when I landed at 2am from Seoul. Why on earth do a ton of flights land in Delhi in the middle of the night, and why does Asiana Airlines (an otherwise decent airline) operate the only direct flight from Seoul to Delhi from 8:10pm to 1:00am?  (our flight was delayed) Anyway, the Indians have not figured out that they should staff enough immigration officers to meet the demand in the middle of the night, or maybe immigration officers there like everywhere else in the world don't want to work the graveyard shift. Anyway, the immigration line at DEL moved at a crawl ... it took an hour to get through and I was not in my hotel room until 3:30am. Ugh ... terrible.

This Punjabi restaurant in a Gurgaon shopping mall was excellent (and one of the few Indian meals I was granted)

Thankfully I had a day to sleep in on Sunday before the long work week began. We were staying at the Westin Gurgaon, a nice hotel but with nothing around ... it's a fortress. Not that India is a walkable country anyway. I looked outside my window, noticing the cloud of smog and a dusty grassless field where dozens of Indian men were playing cricket. I will admit that I am a man that greatly prefers comfort in business travel, and when faced with the choice of staying in the hotel and getting a massage and taking a nap on the Westin Heavenly Bed, or going out on a rickshaw into the polluted chaos outside ... I chose to stay at the hotel all day.

Humayun's Tomb
It was to be one of only 3 free days that I had on my whole 3-week business trip to India. Korean-style business trips are stressful and unpleasant ... "You're not there to shop," as they say ... and we worked long hours of 6-day weeks in a conference room at the crowded Samsung India subsidiary. After 6 days of hectic work in a week in the chaos of a Korean-Indian task-force environment, the last thing I wanted was to hang out with my teammates on Sunday and go around to explore things, sadly.

However the Indian-Korean office environment was certainly a fascinating experience. For one thing ... Koreans do not eat Indian food! Samsung India has 2 cafeterias — a hidden bunker that serves pretty terrible Korean food (and felt like a prison to me) and a chaotic loud crowded cafeteria serving Indian cuisine. 99% segregated lunch hours ... I once saw an Indian in the Korean cafeteria. Then for dinner, to "take care of us" the Korean dispatcher walked us to the nearby Korean restaurant just outside in a pathetic half-abandoned shopping mall next to the subsidiary. I was so sick of eating Korean food in India that I needed to go on Korean food strike upon returning to Seoul. The one saving grace is that somehow the Korean restaurants were able to serve beef, which I thought was outlawed in most parts of India.
(Actually, we did not eat Korean every night for dinner. One night the dispatcher took us to an Italian restaurant, and once a Japanese restaurant, and once a Chinese restaurant. But absolutely no Indian food!)

The big meetings were chaos. A ton of people would fill the room. So much commotion. At one point in one of my meetings I counted 6 simultaneous conversations going on in the room between Hindi, Korean, and English. You have the authoritative Korean boss and the constant Indian chaotic debating. So much commotion and head nodding and "Tikka" this "Tikka" that. I also had one of my meetings interrupted by an earthquake...and the rather disorderly evacuation of the Samsung building (thankfully there was no damage and no one was injured).

Fortunately I discovered that Uber still operates in Delhi/Gurgaon and we used them all the time to get to/from the office. So thankfully we could avoid being trapped in the 15-passenger rickshaws. The big advantage of Uber is that the drivers were honest and didn't try to cheat us, unlike a couple of the terrible normal taxi drivers. Also Ubers are cheap — the 5km daily commute only cost about $1.60. Unfortunately, Uber drivers in India have almost no idea where they are going. I thought a 5-star hotel (the Westin) would be a major landmark and every Uber driver would know how to get there, but probably half of the drivers relied on GPS or needed direction on how to get to the hotel. And most of the drivers only speak Hindi ... not all Indians speak English, apparently.

Indian emergency room experience
The operative word to describe my first trip to India was "Unclear" ... why were things happening the way the were around me and what would happen next? Nobody knew. It applied on this trip as well. Why don't Uber drivers in Gurgaon know how to navigate? Unclear. Why does GPS give you bad directions? Unclear. Why are there no signs to mark the roads? Unclear. Getting around was stressful. The traffic was terrible in Gurgaon, the whole road outside the subsidiary office was torn up and there were cars and rickshaws and buses and diesel-spewing trucks and farm tractors honking everywhere. There are cows and pigs in the road and cars sometimes drive the wrong direction on one-way streets. Gurgaon has a lot of offices for overseas IT companies, and could be a little like California's Silicon Valley if you added a toxic dust cloud in the air and tore up all the roads and added cows and pigs and rickshaws.

I did manage one day on sightseeing on a 21-day trip. I went into Delhi and saw Humayun's Tomb, the National Museum, and ate dinner (Indian food!) in Connaught Place. Humayun's Tomb looks like a mini Taj Mahal made of sandstone. It has quiet grounds around it with green grass that actually felt pretty peaceful. My colleague got caught up speaking with some teenagers masquerading as "English students" who wanted to take us somewhere and scam us, but we thankfully shook them off easily. National Museum is old and has too many items .... my colleague liked it but I am not much of a museum person. Connaught Place was a chaotic mess but at least we ate well there.

Honestly, I felt I was beginning to adjust to the rhythm after 2 weeks on the ground in India ... but then in my 3rd week I fell ill and I remember why I hated India in the first place. Remember how I said I was "sick of Korean food" before? I let down my guard and tried the bibimbap in the restaurant. Two hours later I was racing too and from the toilet and three hours later I was in a Westin hotel car on the way to the emergency room. I was not seeking an Indian hospital experience on my trip! Thankfully I ended up at a decent facility in Gurgaon, surprisingly to me, and I laid there for 4 hours as I took an IV in my arm filled with antibiotics. The hospital doctor wanted me to stay the night but I didn't feel comfortable and just wanted to sleep in my Heavenly Bed in the hotel room. Thank goodness I had a helpful Westin hotel employee there the whole time who helped negotiate my release. I spent the whole next day in bed, eating nothing but bananas and plain boiled mashed potatoes. I lost 2.5 kilograms. THE IRONY! Korean food, which I was so mentally tired of had made me physically sick. I forgot the cardinal rule in India -- avoid uncooked foods when you eat outside of a 5-star hotel. I forgot that even at a Korean restaurant which my teammates and I had safely eaten at almost our entire trip your bibimbap vegetables are rinsed in the local feces water.

I was glad to see these elephant statues at Delhi Airport ... and get out of town!

Our trip ended just before Diwali ... all the lights were set up on the buildings in the the city ... and I cannot remember ever feeling so happy to return to South Korea as when I got off the Asiana Airlines flight on Sunday afternoon at Incheon Airport. Clean air! (relatively speaking)  I can brush my teeth with tap water! No more honking or crazy drivers! (again ... relatively speaking. Korea is not the US or Western Europe.) I imagine at some point in my career ahead that I will need to return to India, but I am certainly not looking forward to that day.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sapa: The Alps of Vietnam

To say I was a little discombobulated is an understatement ... after an enervating and stressful 3 week business trip to Brazil, then 25 hours of flying back to Seoul, 1 night rest in my house while fighting jet lag (a 12-hour time jump), then a 5-hour morning flight to Hanoi, I was rather out of sorts. However my crazy business trip had been scheduled just before a major Korean public holiday (Chuseok: the harvest moon festival) and I hadn't seen my girlfriend in 5 weeks so I wasn't about to change my plans. Fortunately my final destination was perhaps the most beautiful place in Vietnam, Sapa.

Flights full of restless Korean tourists, much more so than the experienced business crowd, are always a chore. I thought by booking a window seat of Vietnam Air that I had bought myself the chance for a long nap, but I was sorely mistaken. I was in a loud section full of tour group trailers and my seat neighbor was a Korean man from the countryside who may never have been on a plane before. He was talking to me in Korean, and I think was explaining that he was visiting his newly-married Vietnamese wife in Haiphong. It is common now in Korea for low-status farmers living in the countryside, devoid of domestic options, to marry Vietnamese women. Though I appreciated this man's story, I did not appreciate that he was reaching over my lap every 30 minutes to open the window shade. Dude, let me rest!

Room with a view
On little sleep, walking around central Hanoi was even more overwhelming than when wide awake. Motorbikes everywhere, noise, few sidewalks, street vendors and little plastic chairs to dodge... I just wanted a little place to sit down and relax. My girlfriend and I finally found that at the Cafe Runam coffee shop, which had an elegant, quiet and supremely comfortable set of sofas in the upstairs section. I fell into a deep nap as my girlfriend snapped photos of her sleepy boyfriend.

We took the 10pm overnight train to Lao Cai, the nearest station to Sapa. Unfortunately on the rickety Vietnamese train, perhaps not upgraded since colonial times, I was not going to get any beauty sleep. The train was loud and rode roughly over the tracks. When we arrived at 6:10am at Lao Cai, I was even more of a zombie than when we departed Hanoi. After another 75 minutes by van up winding mountain roads, we arrived at our hotel. Thankfully our hotel, the H'Mong Sapa Hotel, offered us a room for a nap while our room was being cleaned, and when we finally arrived at our room... I was blown away by the views. Wow! The mountain valley outside was majestic and so green. I loved the clean air and wispy clouds grazing the mountain tops and the little bits of morning fog still in the air. This is truly the most beautiful place in Vietnam.

After a little more rest my girlfriend and I were ready for an afternoon exploratory hike of the area. By late September we had just missed the peak of the real attraction, the rice harvest, yet we still saw many yellow rice terraces stacked up on the mountainsides. In full bloom, perhaps late August, these would have been truly spectacular. In the grassy fields nearby you see buffaloes grazing and young children running around while their parents pull the rice plants from the ground and beat the stalks against the edge of a big wooden bin, separating the rice grain from the plant. Unfortunately the harvested fields are brown and barren, so do time your Sapa trip appropriately!

On our first day we hiked downhill from our hotel to Sapa town, then further down to Cat Cat Village, a tourist attraction where ethnic minorities try to sell the clothes they have knitted. There is a nice waterfall and the walk is great for seeing the slower pace of mountain life. We watched a traditional dance performance where bored-looking teenagers went through the motions of courtship dances and the like. Fortunately a motorbike taxi spared us the grueling trek back uphill to the town. My girlfriend found a massage parlor for us, and I fell into another nap as the local woman relaxed my shoulders and neck.

Rice terraces
For our second day in Sapa we took motorbike taxis out of town to see the countryside and pass through the mountain villages. I would recommend taking the motorbike taxis rather than renting a bike yourself ... some of the roads are in treacherous shape and best handled by a professional. The drivers only spoke Vietnamese (and probably also their local language) but they were able to explain some of the attractions to my Vietnamese girlfriend. Again the landscape was beautiful, and we were only nagged by a couple children looking to sell us knick knacks. Back in Sapa town, mostly a tourist village with little ethnic feel, my girlfriend and I were able to enjoy a date night with a steak dinner.

Beating the rice grain from the stalk
For our third and final day, nature gave us a sunny day with clean air and beautiful views yet again. We took another motorbike trip to a different set of villages ... you could spend a week exploring and trekking through all of them ... and had a hike through a large cave. Unfortunately the clean air goes away later in the day as afternoon fires and set to burn the expired rice stalks, so I advise to plan your sightseeing for earlier in the day if you can wake up. Also I advise you to be careful with the "medicinal oils" in the villages ... my girlfriend dumped one on my hand and it inflamed my skin.

It's a beautiful day!
The van ride back down to the Lao Cai train station was a little frightening... the reckless driver careening at high speed down the windy road made my girlfriend feel ill ... but thankfully I sleep better on the overnight train ride back to Hanoi. Definitely pack a pair of ear plugs if you are a light sleeper! An early morning walk around Hoan Kiem Lake and a couple strong cups of ca phe sua da were just the thing to wake me up! There are more attractions to see in Hanoi, of course, but my previous trip there ticked most of those boxes. With my long-distance relationship now firmly established, and only limited time to spend together before my overnight return flight to Seoul, those attractions could wait for another day...

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Brazil business trip

I had a long 3-week business trip to Brazil in September. Though business travel is not like leisure travel, particularly when you work for Samsung Korea, but it was a new country for me to experience so I thought I should write a little something about it.

For one thing, Brazil is really FAR from Korea, about as far away in the world as you can get (I think only Argentina is more distant). To get there, we flew 10 hours to Abu Dhabi and then another 15 hours to Sao Paulo! Thank goodness we had business class seats on Etihad. It was my first time flying quality business class for a long flight (I have had subpar business class experiences on shorter United and Vietnam Air trips) and I enjoyed the luxuries of high-class travel. Champagne before takeoff... Yes please! Sleeping is much easier when you are actually flat. The Etihad business class lounge in Abu Dhabi is quite splendid and has a great buffet (the airport there is not so splendid, however). It's hard for me to believe that I have survived 9 business trips to US/Europe with Samsung flying economy.

Once we landed I stayed awake in the car to watch late afternoon in Sao Paulo. We landed on a cool overcast day and the city felt quite bleak. Everything felt dilapidated somehow. Motorbikes zipped between lanes in the traffic, graffiti everywhere on the sides of the road. Sao Paulo seemed to have an endless array of unfinished buildings and work-in-progress pillars for new roads and trains. I couldn't help but wonder how many of these projects had been abandoned. My young Korean colleague in the car said, "This doesn't feel so exotic."

We had all been scared pre-trip with warnings about Brazil's safety. Don't walk alone at night. Beware looking conspicuous at the airport. Pray that you're not kidnapped by a gang. I expected Koreans to be paranoid, but my external research was similarly ominous. I felt anxious.

However, thankfully the Samsung Brazil subsidiary, near Morumbi Mall, was in a decent part of town away from the favelas. I quickly grew comfortable with walking on the sidewalk from hotel to office during the day (a lot of people were also walking), and in the early evening I would walk in a pack with colleagues. If I felt afraid, smartphone apps like GrabTaxi seemed to work well and taxis in Sao Paulo are cheap.

Brazilians, Koreans, and *me* ... enjoying steak
That said, I was not in Sao Paulo to enjoy myself or explore. Korean-style business trips mean long hours and a lot of Korean food! Actually being forced to eat Korean food in Sao Paulo with my team was really frustrating. There is enough Korean food in Korea... Expand your palates a little! I really wanted to visit a traditional Brazilian steakhouse, a churrascaria, and was really sad that my team did not want to try this uniquely Brazilian dining experience.

I had a bit of time to myself during the first 2 weekends that I was in Brazil. I went out to try drinking caipirinhas and enjoy life music. The Sao Paulo social scene seemed to have a relaxed dress code and I felt like I fit in quite well.

Actually, I fit in a little too well... Everyone was trying to speak Portuguese to me! I hadn't known how diverse Sao Paulo is, a lot like New York or Houston in the US. I told my girlfriend that I seemed to blend right in and she was shocked, thinking that all Brazilians have dark features (definitely not all).

Real pizza and dark beer ... I love it!
I quickly discovered that Sao Paulo is a center of business and not a good place for tourism. My first 2 weekends there were cool and gray, and after seeing the Parque Ibirapuerra (a nice walk) and the Sao Paulo Cathedral (dangerous neighborhood), I didn't feel like there was anything more to see. Avenida Paulista was dull.

I did enjoy Sao Paulo food greatly. Beans and grilled vegetables and delicious grilled salmon and chicken and beefsteak... Yum yum yum. Also so many tropical fruits in Brazil. Passion fruit! Starfruit, guava, papaya as well. In addition, because Sao Paulo was settled by so many Italians (more even than New York) one couldn't help but find great Italian food too! Speaking of which, Sao Paulo is full of Italian-style espresso shops. A shot of espresso, a cube of sugar, and a little biscuit or wafer... For $1.20, so cheap! It made me feel a little bitter what I pay to drink mediocre coffee in Korea.

Diversity ... you see I do fit in at Brazil!
Sadly, despite the lack of attractions I did not escape Sao Paulo during my 3-week stay. Rio de Janeiro would have been the obvious place to visit, but my first two weekends in Brazil had awful weather, and my Korean team called me into work on the third weekend when the weather had turned sunny and glorious. Damn. I have a 10-year visa to Brazil now, so I guess I will need to return.