May 4, 2015

Making Vietnamese pancakes - Yummy

Is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City? Ho Chi Minh City has been the official name since the fall of Saigon in 1975 but both are in use. We stayed at the InterContinental Asiana Residence Saigon where we used our once-a-year free night that came as a perk for using the IGH credit card. We had lunch at their Market 39 Restaurant where they had a Vietnamese pancake station. We asked Chef Josh, the executive chef, if he would share the recipe and explain how they were made. He was happy to do so. 

Saigon is a bustling city. We visited the War Remnants Museum which can be distressing for Americans but we remember a remark from when John and I visited the Chu Chi Tunnels outside of Saigon several years ago.  Our guide, who was born in the tunnels, when asked about the “American” War (as it is called in Vietnam) and his perception of Americans, he replied, “That was then, this is now, let’s go forward.” More than half of the population was born after the war and the American War was preceded by 100 years of French colonialism and before the French 1000 years of Chinese domination. Now they govern themselves. 

Vietnamese Pancake with Prawns and Pork (Banh Xeo)

½ (one-half) cup rice flour pancake mix
2 tsp turmeric powder
2 eggs
½ (one-half) tsp salt
2 ¼ cups water
1 cup coconut milk
3 stalks spring onion, diced
2 prawns, cooked and peeled (or 4 large shrimp)
2 oz cooked pork, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper as desired for prawns and pork
2 tsp oil per pancake
1 oz bean sprouts
3 leaves of lettuce
2 oz of Vietnamese fresh herb leaves (can be spring onions, basil, cilantro, mint, and/or lemon grass
3 stalks spring onion, diced
½ (one-half) tsp salt

Pickled carrots
¼ (one-fourth) lb of carrots and white radishes (daikon), julienned
¼ (one-fourth) cup white vinegar
¼ (one-fourth) cup water
1/8 (one-eight) cup sugar
Salt to taste 

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the rice flour, turmeric powder, eggs, and salt in water. Add coconut milk and chopped spring onion. Stir well and let the batter rest for 30 minutes.
Season the cooked prawns and pork with salt and pepper. Set aside. 

Add vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet on medium high heat. Add 2 prawns and a few pork slices and fry until the prawns and pork change color. Ladle some of the batter (about 1/3 cup) and tilt the pan in a circular motion to spread the batter evenly. Turn heat down to low, cover and fry for 1 minute or until edges are firm. Uncover and add some beansprouts, then cover again and fry until the edge is crispy. Fold the crepe in half so that the 2 prawns stay on opposite quarters. Fry for another minute and transfer to a plate. Repeat until the batter is finished. (Tip: For the first fry make just the crepes and stack them on each other until the batter is finished then fry the crepes again and add bean sprouts.)

To make Pickled Carrots put carrots, radishes, vinegar, water, sugar and salt in a bowl. It can be refrigerated and saved. 
To serve pancakes use scissors to cut the crepe in half. On a large piece of lettuce place some herbs and half a crepe. Roll it up, dip in pickled carrot mix. Enjoy. 

Apr 27, 2015

Visiting Old Neveda

John and I often visit family in Las Vegas and, even though in the beginning we were drawn to the gaming part of Vegas, now we seldom even see a slot machine or other gambling devices. Many people do not realize that the major gambling area is located in two distinct areas: The Strip and the Downtown/Freemont Street area. We seldom stay in either area.  The casinos offer great deals for accommodations because they make it up with gambling and diners.  Many of the casino hotels add charge a resort fee which does not make it such a great deal.  

We usually rent a car at the airport. Remember it pays to be a member of the car company’s customer loyalty price.  We are Fast Break with Budget so we get a good deal plus do not have to stand in line to pick up the car.  Most of the car rentals are located in one off-site location with a shuttle bus connection.  It is about a 20-minute drive which is important to remember when returning the car to catch a flight.  However, there is a new section of the airport which has eased some of the congestion and walking distances.   

I have always wanted to visit Old Nevada, a replica of an 1880’s mining town. The property was the homeland of the Paiute Indians and in 1843 became a stopover for wagon trains traveling the Spanish Trail. It is about a 30-minute drive from the city. It seems they are closed when we are free to go.  True to form the website said they were closed on Monday, the day we were free to go but we headed out anyways because I wanted to have lunch at Bonnie Springs which has great food and reminds me of the Old West.
When we arrived there was a tour bus in front of Old Nevada so it was open but not all the activities were available.  Even so, it was great.  The walk through what an old town in the West must have been like was fun.  There was a quaint church.  Someone had put a dollar in an animatronic cowboy who was singing “Don’t Fence Me In” giving ambiance to my walkabout.  I noticed a crowd at the top of the street near the Opera House and made my way in time to see a trial and hanging.
 Members of the audience became the judges and witnesses.  Needless, to say the verdict was guilty and the poor soul was hanged.  It was done with a lot of humor.  The sheriff was wearing long red underwear and was not the brightest of souls.  There is a Bonnie Springs Ranch Petting Zoo that is now accessed from the Old Nevada site which I understand is open every day and is a non-profit venture.  When everything is operational there is a small railroad, a shoot-out on Main Street, and a variety of shops and other activities. There is also a motel and horse riding available.  Good family fun. Tours are available from Las Vegas.

We headed to the restaurant and decided to get something light before the drive back.  They advertise the “best burgers, chicken, and ribs in the West” along with an “authentic bison burger.” Thinking that the burgers would be too much we decided on the on-site baked Bread Pudding.  Oh, my, it was huge and the best we have ever had.  

Apr 20, 2015

Plantation Bay Resort in Cebu

Several years ago John and I visited Cebu and loved the mangos which were sweet and had the consistency of cling peaches.  When we were there we stayed one night at Plantation Bay Resort and never forgot the massive pools so we decided to return this year to see if it was as wonderful as we remembered.  It was.

Once again we used our United frequent flyer miles so the flight cost $43 for the two of us from Bangkok to Manila.  We then booked Air Asia round trip to Cebu.  Plantation Bay picked us up which was included in the price which we appreciated.  The Resort was even more wonderful than we remembered.  Their three saltwater pools total an amazing 5.6 acres and there are four freshwater pools, plus a small beach. The first time we stayed
we were only their one night so I didn’t know about all the activities that were available many of which are free.  Our room was on one of the freshwater pools that was like a quiet oasis.  Most of the rooms are on or near the water with some it is possible to step off the porch into the water.

Plantation Bay is huge and set up like a village with free shuttle service around the clock and most days there is also free horse and carriages rides.  We spent most of the day enjoying the pools but one day we went snorkeling right in front of the resort.  It is best when the tide is high.  I saw a bright blue
starfish.  Another day John went to the shooting range and fired an M16 with amazing accuracy considering it had been many decades since he had fired anything. He followed that up with rock climbing.  I am more interested in the sublime things of life so I went
to the spa. I even convinced John to join me. The spa is large with a Zen ambiance – they even have spa accommodations. The spa has four Jacuzzi-type pools: hot and cold, salt and freshwater; and that doesn’t include the small pool with a waterfall.

Breakfast was included in our rate.  It was typical of Asian
breakfast: massive and provided something for every palate. Each morning the breakfast buffet featured a different ethnic group: American, Italian, Filipino, Asian, French, and Mexican. Americans never have a problem dining in Asia; oddly, the Asians have trouble dining in America because they love rice at all meals and rice is seldom on American menus unless it is an Asian restaurant.

One day my objective was to swim in all the fresh water pools. On the way to discovering the fourth pool I saw a pig being barbecued. Called lechon, it is served at all important celebrations, festivals, and holidays in the Philippines. It was being prepared for their Filipino Themed Dinner. Most evenings there was a themed buffet dinner.  We made reservations for dinner and got their early so we could watch the chef carve the
pig and, most importantly, to get a good seat for the show. A soloist started out the evening and then we were invited to visit the buffet after which there was a great show displaying Filipino culture. People were encouraged to come up on stage and learn the coconut dance and bamboo stick dance called tinikling. They say “It is more fun in the Philippines."

Long-staying a Regent Beach Resort in Cha'am

The much-loved Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, has reigned since 1946 making him the longest serving current head of state and the longest-reigning Thai monarch. When the king and the royal family want to enjoy a beach getaway they head three hours south of Bangkok to the Cha’am/Hua Hin area. International tourists, especially North Americans, usually head south,
too; but to Phuket, Phi Phi Island, Ko Samui, and other places that are reached by plane.  The current royal family has a large property on the beach near Hua Hin which cannot be visited by the public but the beach retreat of Rama VI is now a walk-through museum. The grandfather of Rama VI was immortalized in “The King and I.” The Thai/Victorian-style summer seaside palace was built in the 1920s with lots of verandas, lattice work, and high ceilings to keep it cool during the hot summer. It is beautiful.  

John and I have been to this area several times usually staying atwhat is now the Regent Cha’am Beach Resort (it was once a Holiday Inn Resort). The hotels in the Hua Hin/Cha’am area are generally less expensive than those favored by North Americans in the other beach areas of Thailand and hiring a car to drive us from the Bangkok airport to the hotel is cheaper than airfare to Phuket and other places.  (We prearrange transportation
with Sawadee Travel Company and pay on line.) We seldom run into North Americans at the Regent Hotel. The grounds are massive with impressive landscaping. There are full-size elephant topiaries at the entrance.  Someone told us it was once part of the royal gardens. The hotel offers long-stay rates so there are many European guests who stay for several
months in the winter.  The hotel usually has a special cocktail party for long-staying and VIP guests. It is a great option to renting or buying a condo.  We enjoyed the two swimming pools and extensive breakfast plus there are a variety of free activities each day from kick boxing to a cooking class to creative napkin folding.  The Regent recently opened a hospitality school to train people for professions in the hotel business. 

There are many things to do in the area.  John continued his kite surfing lessons.  The area is perfect for kite surfing as the waters of the Gulf of Thailand are not as choppy as the South China Sea and the beach is much better – wider with a gentle slope. I, personally, enjoyed reading around the pool
and taking a dip to cool off.  There are a variety of choices when it comes to dinner. The Regent has a new minimarket where we could buy cup of soup and make it in our room as almost all hotels in
Asia come with an electric hot water pot instead of a coffee maker. Sometimes we would eat at the hotel’s Mediterranean restaurant.  The veggie pizza is great and we usually had enough left over for lunch the next day. The other option was to walk into “town” which is actually a collection of shops and restaurants that serve the nearby hotels and condos. The food is great and the prices very reasonable.  It is possible to have a tasty dinner for under $5 per person. 

Apr 9, 2015

Ngapali Beach is Amazing

To my way of thinking the best beach in the world is in front of Amazing Ngapali Resort.  When people ask us what our favorite place is we usually reply, “
"Where we are now.”  However, there is only one place we have
returned to eight years in a row even though it is a half a world away.  For every five nights we stay we get extra benefits that include a free massage and a dinner; but, it is more than that.  The staff is outstanding; the beach is wide and long with soft sand; the water is calm and warm, and it is very safe.  

 Things are changing fast in Myanmar including Ngapali Beach.  Amazing Ngapali Resort was the only hotel on the beach but recently a Hilton Hotel opened along with two other hotels and a Novotel will open soon. Even so, Amazing has the best beach location.  

We consider our stay at Amazing our real vacation.  It is the place we think of when we are home and want to get away.  Our days are lazy: morning walks on the beach to the rock with a temple on it, reading on the beach, swimming (they provide inner tubes which are fun), evening walks to the mermaid on the rock, then watching the sun set and the lights of the fishing boats strung out on the horizon like a string of diamonds.  There are, of course, spa visits, too.  

Over the years we have made friends with some of the other long-stay guests so we enjoy having dinner with them.  There is a Buddhist monastery across the road that we have visited.  Popular daytrips are to the nearby town and to a small fishing village. 

Each year we do something different.  This year we visited Mama
Sue’s School. (“Mama” and “Papa” are familiar ways the Myanmar people great older people).  To get around there are taxis and tuk-tuks.  Tuk-tuks are cheaper and more fun, especially since the main road has been repaved.  Mama Sue is known by all the local people
for her good work and helping ways.  Her school is called the Vera Thomson English School in honor of her mother who was a kind and giving person.  Mama Sue’s (Susan Ozturk) is originally from
England. The school is 12 years old and has several hundred students who come after their government school day is over.  We had a power point program we presented to the older students all of whom have an excellent command of English.  There were many Acer Netbooks and a projector but they didn’t all work. The humidity during the rainy season along with intermittent electricity is hard on computers.  However, Ngapali  Beach should soon be getting electricity 24-hours a day,
something that Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, only received a couple years ago.  Hotels and restaurants have generators. The school has several buildings and play area.  In one classroom the boys sat on one side and the girls on the other.  When the teacher posed a question their hands shot up in the air eager to answer.  When called upon the student stood to answer.  When we asked the students what they wanted to be most said, “A tour guide.” Tourism is growing exponentially and English is the language of tourism.

Mar 29, 2015

Myanmar's amazing Golden Rock

John and I have been to Myanmar many times but the most
amazing site in a country of many amazing sites is the Golden Rock.  On our recent trip we stayed at the Park Royal Hotel in Yangon.  The hotel is wonderful with great service, a bountiful multi-ethnic breakfast, and a wonderful staff. 

We booked a two-day one-night tour to the Golden Rock.  Our driver picked us up in an air conditioned car for the five-hour drive. We passed farmland, rice paddies, and villages.  It was time for picking watermelon so there were many roadside stands selling them.  Visiting the Golden Rock is very popular as it is an important Buddhist pilgrimage site.  When we arrived in
Kyaikto, the small town at the base of the mountain that is home to the Golden Rock, the driver dropped us off where trucks were lined up to take people up the twisty nine-mile mountain road.  It was very organized. We climbed into the back of a truck with rows of narrow, padded benches - six to a bench and ten rows. Luckily I had an outside seat so the view was great. Some people walk up the mountain but it takes hours. The ride takes about 30 minutes.  I thought we would end at the top
where the Golden Rock is located but no such luck.  After we climbed out of the truck it was still about a 15-minute uphill walk to our accommodation, Mountain Top Hotel, and then more walking uphill to the flight of steps leading to the Golden Rock. The Golden Rock is at an
altitude of 3600 feet. I didn’t hesitate to hired a sedan chair with four porters.  They were excellent. They waited while we dropped our overnight bags at the hotel and when we got to the bottom of the steps I thought that it was the end of my portage; but, no; they went up the long flight of steps.  Truly amazing!  And, well worth the $20!  

The Golden Rock is amazing and defies the laws of nature as it balances precariously on a table rock and has for more than two thousand years.  It is said that Buddha gave one hair to a hermit
who carried it until he found a suitable boulder.  Upon this boulder the hermit built a pagoda in which he enshrined the sacred Hair, and there the hair of Buddha, the pagoda and boulder remain after more than 2,500 years and several violent earthquakes.  We had a magical view of the rock during dinner.  Many of the pilgrims spent the night sleeping on mats near the rock. On our return to the Park Royal Hotel we saw a new Myanmar tour bus with the side professionally painted with the logo of Las Vegas.  It is especially incongruous consider there are no gambling establishments and/or western chain restaurants in the country – yet.

By the way, the official name of the country is Myanmar and has been since 1989. It was called Burma by the English during the time of British colonization. The Burmese are just one of over 136 ethnic groups in the country. They are the largest group so the British called the country Burma.  In 1989, in order to be more inclusive of all ethnic groups, the country officially reverted to the historical name of Myanmar; however, many Americans and British are still unfamiliar with the name change. 

Mar 23, 2015

Visiting Mui Ne, Vietnam

John and I have visited many places in Vietnam including the beaches between Danang and Hoi An.  This time we decided to try some place different – some place that would be warm. Mui Ne is about 135 miles due east of Saigon.  After some searching we decided to stay at Shades Resort.  The rate was reasonable; it was on the water and had a pool so it fit our needs.
 There are buses that connect Saigon to Mui Ne and they look very upscale but we booked a private door-to-door transport with the help of Mr. Phi at Shades Resort. The driver picked us up at our hotel in Saigon.  The trip took about five hours because of the traffic and road construction.  It was interesting as we passed through towns, cities, past rubber tree plantations and dragon fruit farms.

Shades Resort was perfect for us.  Our room overlooked the South
China Sea and in the morning we watched the sun rise and the unique, round fishing boats called coracles head out to gather their catch from the nets. In the morning when the tide was low we would walk on the beach. For breakfast I would have pho, the traditional soup of Vietnam and my favorite soup of all time. Our accommodations had a kitchen and a Jacuzzi-style tub in the bathroom. Most days it was windy and John would
walk down to Mr. Lee’s Kite Surfing School for a lesson.  It is a famous windsurfing area as the winds are strong but the sea is also rough.  They advertise “Zero to Hero in 16 Hours.” The main thing is learning how to control the kite.  It is more difficult than it looks. In the
evening we would walk to one of the many local restaurants for a great, cheap meal. A good plate of traditional food averaged about $3 and we usually had enough for take-away. There was a lady with a push cart that sold sandwiches for $.75 that were excellent.  We would buy one to share for lunch. 

One day we took a taxi to Ta Cu Mountain.  On the way we stopped at a water tower but didn’t walk to it or climb it.  The boats in the harbor in this area are very colorful.  We also stopped at a dragon fruit farm.  Dragon is quite unique.  Is the fruit of a cactus with the outside
resembling flames of a fire-breathing dragon. The inside is usually white with tiny black seeds but we saw some where the inside was blood red. At Ta Cu Mountain there was a complimentary trolley that took us to a flight of steps that led to the gondola ride.  The ride was great as it went up the mountain and down the other side.  The views were lovely.  Then it was more steps up to the reclining Buddha, at 150 feet in length it is the longest in Vietnam. There was a small temple but a new temple was being built.  

On day the staff shared a great lunch with us and other guests. Lovely! There are other things to do in the area including visiting the sand dunes but we were happy with the one-day tour. The village of Mui Ne was more developed than I anticipated but things were quiet because it is a favorite of the Russians but their economy took a bad dip so there were not many Russian. Most tourists were from Europe and Australia.