Hakone, a Perfect Day Trip from Tokyo

Oct. 7- 8, 2014

Hakone is famous for its hot springs, natural beauty and Mount Fuji. Less than 100 kilometers and about 90 minute train ride from Tokyo, makes Hakone a popular one day trip among visitors to escape the hustle and bustle of the capital city and enjoy the change of scenery.

Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain at 3776 meters high with near perfect cone-shaped, has been worshipped as a sacred mountain in centuries. It’s an active volcano that erupted last in 1708. More than 200,000 people climb up to its summit every year during summer months. Unfortunately, bad weather prevented us from getting even a glimpse of it.

To get to Hakone, you could take a Shinkansen train to Odawara station or the Odakyu Romance car from Shinjuku station to Hakone Yumoto station. We took the 90 min ride on Romance car for added costs of 900Y per  over regular train fare. Why it’s called Romance car, I have no idea. It looks like a regular train, with comfortable seats and plenty of leg room.  Other type train offers a glass vista dome for better viewing. However, I found nothing scenic on our way to Hakone so not having a vista dome made no difference.

Boarding platform for Odakyu Romance car at Shinjuku station.

Boarding platform for Odakyu Romance car at Shinjuku station.

We boarded Odakyu Romance car from Shinjuku station, departed at 7:30am and arrived in Yomoche station around 9:00am. Limited food and beverages are available on the train if you did not bring any food with you on board.

Aboard Romance car that will take us to Hakone.

Aboard Romance car that will take us to Hakone.

An economical, convenient way to explore Hakone is by circling the region (going clockwise or counter-clockwise), a course called Hakone loop using Hakone Free Pass which allowed us unlimited ride on the Hakone Tozan line, Hakone Ropeway, cable car, boat  and bus.  The pass, valid 2 or 3 days, is available from any Odakyu Railway Office in Shinjuku, Odawara or any Odakyu line station. We bought 2-day pass from Odawara stn which cost less for it did not include return train ride to Tokyo.

We wanted to start sightseeing upon arrival at Yomoche stn, without the burden of our luggage, so we have them delivered to our next destination in Kyoto. I arranged it with the concierge at Hyatt Regency Tokyo, and cost less than $20 US. This practice is quite common, and highly recommend for convenience. Carrying only backpacks for our overnight stay in Hakone allowed us to start sightseeing as soon as we arrived at Hakone Yomoche station.

You can complete the Hakone loop course in one day, starting at 9:00am to 5:00pm. Just follow signs where to go next, or the crowd to the next ride or attraction. Each stop has extra attractions to visit such as museum, wine tasting, onsen baths. You definitely need to spend a night or two to have time for other attractions and/or activities.

Arriving at Hakone Yumocho Station on Romance car.

Arriving at Hakone Yumocho Station on Romance car.


To Kojiri, near Togendai by bus.

Tozan bus, one of the many transportation included in Hakone Free Pass

Tozan bus, one of the many transportation included in Hakone Free Pass


Old road are lined with cypress trees, and believed they were planted in the early 17th century.


Pirate boat cruise on Lake Ashi

Lake Ashi was formed in the caldera of Mt. Hakone after the volcano’s last eruption 3000 years ago. There are 2 sightseeing boat companies, one start from the southern shore and the other from the northern shore of the lakes and takes about 30 min to get from one end to the other. As you cruise, and if you’re lucky you will get to see a breathtaking, priceless view of the lake with surrounding wooded mountains and Mt Fuji on the background on a clear day. Unfortunately, it was overcast the day we cruised Lake Ashi.

Kojiri, north boat terminal for cruising Lake Ashi

Kojiri, north boat terminal for cruising Lake Ashi

Cruising Lake Ashi on the pirate boat.

Cruising Lake Ashi on the pirate boat.

This was a relaxing and scenic cruise, unfortunately Mt. Fiji was oui of sight due to hazy weather.

This was a relaxing and scenic cruise, unfortunately Mt. Fiji was oui of sight due to hazy weather.

Hakone ropeway, for an exhilarating ride up the mountains.

Hakone Ropeway going up the mountains.

Hakone Ropeway going up the mountains.


From a distance we could smell a foul strong odor and see some smoke, and knew we were approaching Owakudani an area around a crater created during the last eruption of Mount Hakone some 3000 years ago. Today, much of the area is an active volcanic zone where sulfurous fumes, hot springs and hot rivers can be experienced. Had it been a clear day, this place would have given us a good view of Mt Fuji.

Sulphur fumes emanating from Owakudani.

Sulphur fumes emanating from Owakudani.

Our souvenir photo in Owakudani.

Our souvenir photo in Owakudani.

Popular items for sale here are black eggs. The egg’s white shell is blackened by sulphur when cooked in naturally hot water and believed to prolong one’s life by seven years when eaten. I was looking forward to eating the black eggs thinking it would taste like the Chinese century eggs, that I like, but it tasted just like a regular hard-boiled eggs. Another irresistible item was their black ice cream, but other than the unusual color tasted just like green ice cream.

Cable car to Gora Station.This was a good place for us to end our sightseeing, as our hotel is about 10 min away and offer free pick up from here. Our plan was to complete the course the next day  when we leave for Kyoto.

Cable car to Gora Station.

Cable car to Gora Station.

To experience traditional Japanese lifestyle consider staying in a Ryokan. Their rooms have tatami floors, futon beds, onsen bath, and rates often include breakfast and elaborate 10-12 course kaiseiki dinner. Cost, however, is not cheap averaging between 15,000 to 25,000 Yen per person. We did not stay in one as most Ryokans were already sold out.

Check in at our hotel, Hakone Hyatt Resort & Spa was quick and easy. A room with a view, awesome! Facing the mountains, it would have afforded us a good view of Mt Fuji if it were not raining that day!

View from our windows, without even a glimpse of Mt. Fuji due to bad weather.

View from our windows, without even a glimpse of Mt. Fuji due to bad weather.

Yukata, is a casual summer kimono worn by both men & women, and provided by the hotel to all its guests. Guests could wear it at public places during happy hours, breakfast and dinner in the restaurant. We took advantage of free drinks offered during happy hours from 5:00pm -7:00pm. They served all kinds of alcoholic drinks & champagne, but no appetizers. We ordered a plate of cheese sampler to go with our wine, and after our 2nd glass of wine headed for the Onsen bath.

Wearing our Yukata to Happy Hour, and later to Onsen .

Wearing our Yukata to Happy Hour, and later to Onsen .

Brochures were left in our room explaining guidance and proper use of Onsen bath. There are separate indoor onsen baths for men and women. Guests must wear Yukata when entering the Onsen facility. Swimwear is not allowed, which means guests go butt naked. We must first cleanse our hair with shampoo & our body with soap, rinse before dipping into the pool. Ahhh, the hot water feel so good, and soothing. It is recommended one don’t stay longer than10 min each time, rinse our entire body with cold water, then go back again. Repeat up to 3x. The therapeutic effects of the Onsen bath was awesome, all our body aches and pains are gone.

Oct. 8, 2014

Hotel provides free shuttle to Odawara station where we were to board the Hikari Limited Express train to Kyoto, but was not able to use.  Its schedule starts late at 11:00am, and since the trip takes 1 1/2 hr would have made us late for the 12:00pm Hikari train departure.

Hakone Tozan train

Instead, we took the Hakone train back to Odawara (included in our Free Pass), thereby completing the Hakone Loop, and made it to the station with plenty of time to spare before boarding the Hikari Limited Express train.

Hydrangeas along Hakone Tozan Railway line are in full bloom around mid-June, hence during this period, it is referred to as the “Hydrangea train”. The scenic route is taking the train from Yumoche stn to Gora station.

The "Hydrangea Train", photo courtesy of Japan Guide

The “Hydrangea Train”, photo courtesy of Japan Guide

As we visited Hakone in early October, we missed the peak season for hydrangea blooms but caught a glimpse of some on their way out.

A glimpse of hydrangeas in October.

A glimpse of hydrangeas in October.

KYOTO: last stop in our 8-day tour of Japan.

A Night in Morocco

Just returned from an overnight stay at El Morocco Inn & Spa. A perfect getaway, an oasis, a jewel in the desert, a paradise. Exotic, magical, and romantic described our experience from staying here.

Entrance to El Morocco Inn

Entrance to El Morocco Inn

Nestled in the foothills of Desert Hot Springs (DHS), the city is located within the Coachella Valley in Riverside County: 12 miles to Palm Springs, 112 miles southeast of Los Angeles, 140 miles northeast of San Diego. It has the finest natural hot mineral water aquifers, which made this place a premiere tourist destination since the 1950. A true spa experience, tranquility of the natural desert environment and therapeutic benefits of the mineral-rich waters are the reasons visitors frequent the spa zone of DHS.

We came to relax, soak in the mineral rich spring water for its restorative effect.

We came to relax, soak in the mineral rich spring water for its restorative effect.

These two came for the visual and sensual experience.

We came for the visual, sensual and romantic experience.

So close, yet so far away. Tucked away in an unexpected  residential neighborhood, El Morocco Inn & Spa looked unimpressive from the outside. Once inside, it magically transported us to a different world, a far away, exotic country in North Africa, called Morocco.  Small and intimate, this boutique-type hotel is a Moroccan-theme inspired luxury inn; adorned, decorated with authentic decor and furnishings the Owners had shopped for during their multiple travels to Marrakesh.

The Inn has 12 guest rooms referred to as  “chambres” each one uniquely designed, and assigned an exotic name like Arabian Alcove, Berber’s Boudoir, Sultan’s Playpen, Pasha’s Paradise, Sheik’s Retreat, and so on. Moroccan sofas or chaises (some are built-in), ornate lamps, framed artwork featuring different parts of Morocco, canopied bed, brightly painted tables…all add to the ambience and authenticity of the room. You’ll think you’ve checked into one of the Riads in Fez, Casablanca or Marrakech (popular cities of Morocco).

We stayed here, one of the largest room with two bathrooms.

My husband & I stayed at the Sahara Suite, the largest room with two bathrooms.

A separate living room at the Sahara suite.

The separate living room in our suite.

Canopied Cal-King beds are featured in each room.

A canopied Cal-King bed is featured in every room except the Sultan’s playpen which has a round bed.

A round bed is featured at "The Sultan's Playpen" chambre.

A round bed is featured at “The Sultan’s Playpen” chambre, perfect for honeymooners.


Some rooms have built-in seat similar to this.

Feast your eyes on so many visual delights at this hotel. In keeping with its theme, special touches and attention to details are evident everywhere you look; no space or corner are left void.

Moroccan-inspired touches are seen thruout.

An brightly painted and ornate door.

A pair of camel statues welcome guests on the way up to 2nd floor.

A pair of camel statues welcome guests on the way up to 2nd floor.

Rich textiles and beaded curtain on doors.

Rich textiles and beaded curtain on doors.


A sample of the many ornamental and intricate lamps used in this hotel.

A very ornate lamp hangs in the lounge room.

A very ornate lamp hangs in the lounge room.

Each space or corner of the property goes with the theme.

A loft, seating area just outside of the guests rooms on second floor.


The housekeeping storage room nicely concealed.

The focal point of the property is the courtyard with a swimming pool filled with mineral-rich spring water with temperature around 85 degrees. Plenty of lounge chairs to relax, bask on the sun, daydream, etc.

The Courtyard

The Courtyard

Plenty of comfortable lounge chair around the pool area.

Plenty of comfortable lounge chair around the pool area.

The hotel does not allow guests less than 18 years old, making this place perfect choice for special occasion such as honeymoon, anniversary or a romantic getaway.

Comfortable lounges to relax and bask in the sun.

Comfortable lounges to relax and bask in the sun

Other option for your pleasure (whatever it may be) are two comfortable, decorated day beds. One placed under a shade, the other exposed to sun. Read, take an afternoon nap or check your emails. Yes, there is wi-fi and it’s free.

One of the two daybeds by the pool.

One of the two day beds placed under a shade..


For warmth and comfort on cooler nights, the lit gas fireplace and fire pit provide inviting ambience for guests to gather, meet and make new acquaintances.

A gas fireplace adds warmth on chilly nights.

A gas fireplace adds warmth on cooler nights.


Or find a private corner and have a romantic evening as you watch the flickering flame.

IMG_1505 (2)a

And an after-effect of feeling amorous..."luv ya Mr G."

Besides the pool, there is also a covered spa set to 103 degrees temp. that seats up to twenty people. The night we were there, our group (nine of us) practically had the entire property to ourselves. The only other guests were the couple from Toronto, whom we befriended so they won’t complain about our noise. I even invited them to join us for dinner (typical Filipino hospitality).

The spa felt a bit hot when you 1st go in, but after few minutes was OK.

The covered spa

The covered spa.

Guests are free to use the spa late into the night. The management only request is to keep the noise level low in consideration of other guests. After dinner we soaked in the spa to soothe and relax our sore muscles. A prelude to a restful sleep, or so we thought. The hotel is old and has no central AC. The window AC unit makes a lot of noise every time it turned on. Hey, I never said the place is perfect besides we all did manage to get some sleep after all.

FYI, the place offer massage and other spa treatments.

We used the spa until 11:30pm.

We used the spa until 11:30pm.

The hotel offer so many amenities and extras. Snacks and beverages are available all day long. French-pressed coffee, chilled water, lemonade and soda. Dates, dried apricots, and fresh fruits for snacks..

The self-serve "kitchen-area" for snacks & breakfast.

The “kitchenette” where beverages, snacks and breakfast are served.

A bowl of dried apricots offered for snacks.

Dried apricots (and dates) for snacks.

Breakfast is included in our room rate. Its healthy, hearty and ‘all you can eat”. There’s bagel, cream cheese avocado, boiled egg, yogurt, cereals, fresh fruits, orange juice and apple juice, French-pressed coffee.

Our breakfast

Our breakfast

The place thought of everything. A library full of DVD’s, games, books kept us busy and entertained.  A lounge with a big TV that plays continuously the movie “Casablanca”. A soft piped-in background music constantly playing, genre in keeping with the theme, of course, but not obtrusive and just right for the mood.

The movie "CasaBlanca" being played continously at the lounge.

The movie “CasaBlanca” being played continuously at the lounge, but there’s a collection to choose from.

If you’d rather play games, you have many to choose from. If you want to read and learn about Morocco, they have them at the library or in your room.

There's the game of chess.

There’s the game of chess.

My sisters playing srubble.

My two sisters playing word scrabble.

Read books on Morocco to learn more about this country.

Read books on Morocco to learn more about this country.

A time-honored tradition in Morocco is eating with their bare hands, so they do a “hand-washing ceremony” before eating. They use a kettle filled with water scented with either, rose or orange. It was fun to experience such tradition, and our hands not only came out cleaned but smelled really good.

Kettle with rose-scented water for "hand-washing" ceremony.

Kettle with rose-scented water for “hand-washing”

The hand-washing ceremony before  Happy Hour.

The hand-washing ceremony before Happy Hour.

The happy hour which was from 5:00 – 6:00pm was so enjoyable. They served their specialty drink, “Morocco-tini“….sooo good we asked for refills again and again! Florence happily obliged to share the ingredients: orange juice, cranberry, dry vermouth and sake.

 "Happy Hour" is served at the bar everyday at 5:00pm..

“Happy Hour” served at the bar everyday at 5:00pm..

Florence preparing their famous drink, Moroco-tini.

Florence preparing their famous drink, Moroco-tini.

This drink is so light and very refreshing.

This drink is so light and very refreshing.



El Morocco Inn & Spa has no restaurant on site. The choice for dining outside is very limited (most will deliver to the hotel) to mostly fast-food, pizza, Mexican, a Thai place and a Chinese restaurant.  We ate lunch at the Chinese place before we checked in. The restaurant is very close to the hotel, and their food is delicious and reasonably priced. If you prefer fine dining, then take a 20 min drive to downtown Palm Springs.  We did not want to waste time going out to dinner, so I brought food. The kitchenette, in one of our rooms, made it easy to prepare and assemble our dinner. Our meal consisted of shrimp & watermelon salad with lime vinaigrette for appetizer and Mexican carnitas bowl for main course. I pre-cut everything, and just needed to warm up the rice & carnitas.

Our 1st course, Shrimp & Watermelon salad, which was a hit.

Our 1st course, Shrimp & Watermelon salad in lime vinaigrette, which was a hit.

The perfect place to gather and have dinner.

By the fire pit, was the perfect place to gather and eat our dinner with enough space to accommodate all nine of us.

Good eats, good company and good place.

It does not get any better than this…good amabience, good eats and good company.

But wait, there’s more to tell about this place. Two years ago, they added and designed a beautiful garden to be part of the hotel. The garden provides more space for guests to spread out, more seating, a private nook. There are two hammocks that will sway & lull you to sleep. Or play a game of  “boce” (not sure if correct name) or be challenged playing a game of chess using giant pieces. If you are so inclined, the big tent set up on the middle of the garden is for yoga, exercise or meditation. The big, tall trees give  much-needed shade outdoor, and with a gentle breeze, a cool respite from the hot weather. Not sure though at triple digit temps, esp. in summertime, if the garden would be comfortable enough.

This is one of the seating arrangements provided in the garden.

This is one of the seating arrangements provided in the garden.

A giant chess board  set up in the garden.

A giant chess board set up in the garden.

A big tent to exercise, do yoga or meditate.

A big tent to exercise, do yoga or meditate.

There's a potpourri of antique looking pieces scattered in the garden providing visual interes besides the landscaping.

There’s a potpourri of antique looking pieces scattered in the garden providing visual interest besides the landscaping.

Tall trees provide much needed shade and breeze.

Tall trees provide much needed shade and breeze.

The morning of our departure I met Bruce, one of the Owners, who was so friendly and a proud owner of this unique place.  We had a long chat, his travels to Morocco and how his whole family helped in creating the ambience of the hotel.  He told me why peacock feathers are commonly found and used in Morocco. Two giant vases filled with peacock feathers sitting on both sides welcome guest upon entering the inside of the property. Supposedly, when guests walked/brushed thru the feathers it removes dust from their hair & clothing.  He also pointed the two massive old doors that adorned the DVD library and shared how he acquired them. He had to sit, chat and drink mint tea with the owner for over three hours to convince him to sell. He declared it was worth it!

From right to left: Bruce, Florence (one of the Staff) and me.

From right to left: Bruce, Florence (one of the Staff) and me.

Peacock feathers used to dust off guests as they enter a room.

Peacock feathers used to dust off guests as they enter a room.

All things good or bad must come to end. Surely, we had a wonderful, relaxing and enjoyable time we lingered for as long as we can. Check out time is at noon, we checked out at exactly 12:00pm.

Thank you El Morocco for everything. We hope to be back again.

Thank you El Morocco for everything. We hope to be back again.

El Morocco Inn & Spa is a hidden gem, jewel in the desert.

Aria Experience in Vegas

Aria LV July 2013
I could not resist a great rate offer to stay at Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.  A luxurious hotel for $88 per night plus tax and resort fee of $28 per night, plus $100 credit towards dining at any of their restaurant. Hey, why not? So I booked a 2-night stay during the first week in July, 2013.
Aria Resort & Casino

Aria Resort & Casino

Aria Resort & Casino is located in the City Center where prominent hotels and buildings are found: Vdara, Mandarin Orient Hotel and Crystal Center.  Crystal Center is a shopping mall with impressive architecture and name brand stores (Fendi, Gucci, Prada, etc.) and many restaurants.
The City Center

The City Cente

Crystal Center

Crystal Center

The hotel is centrally and conveniently located, with walkways that connect it to Planet Hollywood, Cosmopolitan, and free monorail you can take to Monte Carlo, Belagio .
Free monorail that connects Aria, Monte Carlo & Belagio.

Free monorail that connects Aria, Monte Carlo & Belagio.

Here’s a tip I learned from TripAdvisor forum. During check-in, and to be discreet, I slipped a $20 dollar bill between my credit and membership card to the hotel clerk, politely  asked if it would be possible to get an upgrade to a room with city view on higher floors.  The clerk laid the $20 dollar bill on plain sight, which caught me by surprised.  Don’t know what their policy is on tipping to get a free upgrade, but it worked. Instead of getting a standard room for the rate I paid, we got a room on 36th floor facing the Strip.
Our room 13604 with city view

Our room 13604 with city view

Our room was good size, equipped with “high-tech” smart buttons much like the smartphone, used for light switches, drapes and TV. However, we were technically challenged and initially frustrated for we could not figure out how they all work.  It’s simply decorated, with understated modern elegance. Lots of closet space, robes provided, in-room safe and mini-bar.
I truly enjoyed the magnificent view from our window, esp. at night when buildings were illuminated like sparkling jewels. We even left the draperies opened to enjoy the view while lying on our bed. No problem with privacy. An ocean view room would be the only contender to this one.
Our view from our bed

Our view from our bed

We ate at two of their restaurants, where the $100 dollar credit towards dining only made a small dent on our food bill.  The Julian Serrano restaurant is famous for tapas or small bites.  We went during happy hours from 4:00pm to 5:00pm; drinks and eleven of their most popular tapas reasonably priced from $4.00 – $7.00.  Some of our favorites were ahi tuna popsicle, fried calamari and brava potatoes cooked in spicy tomato creamy sauce…delish! Did not care too much, bomba (a spicy lamb meatball) and lamb sliders. They have extensive wine collection, but of course, went for their sangria offered 3 ways: white, red and sparkling. I had the sparkling sangria with raspberries, and just loved it!
The Julian Serrano Restaurant

The Julian Serrano Restaurant

For a fine dining experience, we chose Sage Restaurant based on good reviews. The ambience is sophisticated, yet comfortable requiring a casual but dressy attire. It  is a favorite Las Vegas restaurant for foodies focusing on contemporary American cuisine spiced with global influenced. We chose 4-course Signature tasting menu which costs $89 per person instead of the 6-course tasting menu for $120 per person. A wine pairing costs extra $40 per person. Hubby and I don’t drink much so each ordered sparkling wine by the glass. Intent on trying out as many dishes, I ordered 2 dishes for each courses. For our 1st course… foie gras crème brulee and wagyu beef tartare*; 2nd course… poached egg with shaved truffles*, octopus salad, Dover scallops; 3rd coursebeef belly and Iberico pork w/ tomato jam, 4th course…almond tart w/ blueberries and Giovanato ice cream made w/ olive oil and served with chocolate mouse.The dishes in bold letters were our favorites. Our bill for the night including tip was $318.
Jean Philippe is the place to go for your sweet cravings. It has varieties of desserts, pastries, chocolate for sweet lovers. The place also serves coffee, crepes, sandwich for simple, quick breakfast and lunch. I liked their blueberry tart, but the croissant with almond paste fillings was just OK.
Pastries at Jean Philippe

Pastries at Jean Philippe

People go to Vegas for various reasons: gamble, eat, nightclub, shopping, see shows. For me, the highlight of our trip was seeing the MJ Tribute show at Crown theater in Rio. The impersonator, Justin Dean, looked, dressed, sang, danced and spoke just like MJ. His butt a little heavier, but he was Michael Jackson all the way around. Even if you’re not a fan, you’ll enjoy the show. He was a terrific performer, his dancers & band were good.  Very entertaining and I highly recommend the show. I purchased VIP tickets to the show for half the price ($33) from Groupon.
Photo with MJ after the show.

Photo with MJ after the show.

Here’s another money-saving tip. I also purchased dinner with unlimited drinks at Carnival World Buffet in Rio from Groupon for $44 for 2 people. I could not speak for the rest of the food for all I gobbled up were their crab legs (sweet & tasty), but served whole and required lots of work getting to the meat. Feeling not full after two heaping plates of crab legs, I had Pho, a Vietnamese soup that was really tasty. Now I’m full and very satisfied with my dinner plus the glass of wine. But wait, I have to try their desserts. I went for sugar-free chocolate gelato…uhmm, very good.
The quick getaway to Aria Resort and Casino was a great experience. Although we liked and prefer the all-suite rooms at the Palazzo, we don’t mind staying again in Aria if another great offer comes along.
Aria LV July 20134

A Perfect Weekend Get Away

Getaway for a few days, when was the last time you’ve done this?  It is a perfect way to relax, re-energize, re-focus and just have a great time.  No need to plan, and just go on a whim.

I have awards for two free nights at any Hyatt hotel worldwide that would expire in June, 2013.  Since my husband has total  left hip replacement surgery in April, and was not sure how long his recovery would take, we decided to use our freebies before they expire.  To take full advantage of our free nights, I wanted to use them at the most luxurious and/or expensive Hyatt hotel. Not wanting to fly or drive far, I considered Huntington Beach, San Diego and Carlsbad. In the end, we chose Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in Carlsbad based on good hotel reviews at TripAdvisor.

Situated on Southern California’s sun-drenched Pacific Coast, Park Hyatt Aviara Resort is a luxurious seaside hotel in Carlsbad, CA, just north of San Diego.  Located within the master-planned community of Aviara, it is very private and secluded amid hillsides and rolling valleys. It sits atop a high ridge on the shore of Batiquitos Lagoon,  surrounded by lush landscape, edged by one of top golf courses in San Diego. This spectacular setting provides  natural beauty and tranquility.


As a Platinum member of Hyatt Gold Passport, we received free room upgrade to a higher floor with pool view, instead of the lagoon view I requested on our reservation.  Cristina, from the reception desk, wanted to make sure we were happy, offered to show rooms  on the lower level with partial view of the lagoon. We  decided to keep our room on the higher floor. In addition, she offered us a choice of free amenities; a cheese plate and bottle of wine or fresh fruits. Wow, very nice and so accommodating. I made sure I gave her very positive feedback. Actually, all the hotel staff are very friendly and helpful.

Our room with pool view.

Complimentary wine & cheese

Complimentary wine & cheese

The resort has two swimming pools, plenty of lounging chairs and shaded, draped tents. Their tranquility pool, reserve only for adults, is pretty amazing providing privacy and romantic setting. We came here during St Patrick’s weekend, perfect timing, as it was not crowded. Had we come the following week, this place would be so crowded for they were having golf tournament; and all their rooms were sold out.

Swimming pool area

Swimming pool area

The Tranquility Pool

The Tranquility Pool

I highly recommend staying at Park Aviara Hyatt Resort and Spa, albeit it’s not cheap with average rate of $300 per night. But if you are celebrating a special occasion/event, this place deserves consideration. It is beautifully landscaped, food delicious and luxuriously appointed.  It is just the place to relax, indulge and enjoy.

Hotel Lobby

Hotel Lobby

View of the garden from the lobby.

View of the garden from the llobby

All you can eat appetizers during lunch at Versace restaurant

All you can eat appetizers during lunch at Versace restaurant

Carlsbad, about two hours away from downtown Los Angeles, offers many things to do.  Shopping at the Premium Outlet offers bargain prices; a visit to Legoland keeps your young ones entertainedspectacular and colorful display of ranunculus  at Carlsbad Flower Fields , but must be timed in the spring. You can take a coastal train from downtown Carlsbad to San Diego, which takes about 30 minutes and offer a spectacular view of the coastline.

Just what we needed before hubby’s major surgery.

Just what the doctor ordered.

Just what the doctor ordered.

Update: It’s been 5 weeks since my husband’s total left hip replacement surgery. He’s doing well and happy with his “new & improved” left hip, but now bothered by arthritic pains from his right knee. Oh well….another surgery, and another getaway?

9 Day East Coast Tour: Part 2 New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington, DC

Sept. 27, Day 3 New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, DC

This morning we drove to Princeton University, one of the nation’s oldest university and a member of the Ivy League Schools. Our brief stop allowed us to walk its open grounds and view interesting architectural buildings in this beautiful campus.

Princeton University

Princeton University

Princeton University

Princeton University

Princeton University and one of its many architectural buildings.

Princeton University and one of many architectural buildings.

Princeton,NJ (17)

For a bit of history, our next destination was Philadelphia. Major attractions here have historical significance in American history: Independence Hall where Declaration of Independence took place and where the US Constitution was first drafted; and Liberty Bell, which has become an international icon for freedom.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

The Liberty Bell, as displayed in Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia

The Liberty Bell, as displayed in Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia

We desperately longed to try Philly steak sandwich while in Philadelphia but did not have time.  Our tour guide, Michael, wanted to make sure we got to Washington, DC in time for our scheduled tour of the Capitol building, and we did. My husband, with hip and knee problems, was painfully struggling to walk uphill to reach the visitor center of the Capitol until we saw a service car and rode to the top.

The Capitol tour is offered from 8:50 a.m. to 3:20 p.m., Monday through Saturday.  Tour is free but visitors must have passes, they can reserved in advance.   The tour  starts with a brief orientation film entitled Out of Many, One,” which takes you on a journey through the country’s struggle to set up the world’s first truly representative democracy. Once inside the Capitol we saw the Crypts of the Capitol, the Rotunda and the National Statuary Hall. If Congress is in session, you might see legislative history being made. You will need a pass and may be obtained from your Representative or Senators. International visitors can ask about passes at the House or Senate Appointment desks in the Capitol Visitor Center.

We did not have time to visit Exhibition Hall, the only exhibition in the world dedicated to telling the story of the U.S. Congress and the building of the Capitol. Located on the lower level of the Capitol Visitor Center, Exhibition Hall features original and rarely seen documents and artifacts, videos, touchable models, and computer interactive.

My siblings and husband in front of the Capitoi Building

DC Capitol (6)

DC Capitol (16)

The Rotunda of the Capitol Building

DC Capitol (12)

Impressive paintings on the roof of the Rotunda.

DC Capitol (19)

The National Statuary Hall

The US Capitol is a most architecturally impressive and symbolically important building. The Senate and House of Representatives have met here for more than two centuries. It begun in 1793, and had been built, burnt, rebuilt, extended and restored. Today it stands as a monument to its builders and to the American people and its government.

DC Capitol (31)From the Capitol building our tour bus hurried to take us to the Lincoln Memorial, before sunset. This memorial was built to honor the 16th President of United States, Abraham Lincoln. The building is in the form of a Greek Doric temple and has a large seated sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and inscriptions of two well-known speeches by Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. Right across is the fantastic view of the reflection pool and the Washington monument, considered to be the most prominent structure in Washington, DC. Standing 555 foot, 5 1/8” the marble obelisk honors George Washington, the nation’s founding father. He led the continental army to victory, and became the 1st American President under the Constitution.

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Statue of Abraham Lincoln inside the Memorial

Statue of Abraham Lincoln inside the Memorial

Reflecting pool and Washington Monument in front of Lincoln Memorial

Reflecting pool and Washington Monument in front of Lincoln Memorial

DC Lincoln (20)
Sept. 28, Day 4 Washington, DC Full day tour
It rained some the night before which made the streets a bit wet, but by morning had stopped. The skies cleared up and made the day a good weather for a 1 1/2 cruise of the Potomac River aboard  cruise the Celebrity yacht. I had to move from left to right to get better view and shot of attraction/site/building we passed thru as we meander thru the river: Reagan Airport, Washington Hotel where visiting foreign visitors usually stayed, the Pentagon, the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. I wish it was springtime now so we could see the Cherry Blossoms.

The Celebrity Yatch

The Celebrity Yacth

The Potomac River

The Potomac River

DC Potomac (26)

Cherry trees along Potomac River

Cherry trees along Potomac River full of blossoms in springtime.

A popular tourist attraction in Washington, DC is the White House. Our tour did not include going inside, but possible if arranged in advance. There were a number of tourists so we waited for our turn to pose for pictures, and had to do it quickly or you’ll get too many people in the background.

The White House

The White House

Stopped by to say hello to President Obama, but he was not available.

Stopped by to say hello to President Obama, but he was not available.

Smithsonian Air Space Museum was our next destination; free to spend as much time as we want here and to visit other surrounding museums in the compound until 5:00pm We spent about 1 1/2 hr to view several displays: history of airplanes, Apollo and its trip to the moon, rocks from the moon & Mars, rockets, etc. Then had lunch at  McDonalds located inside the museum. American food for lunch was a very welcome  change for us!  Other surrounding museums required a long walk to get to, except the American Indian Museum next door so we decided to check it out  The museum has a nice architecture, beautiful grounds and interesting displays ;and  a restaurant inside.

DC Smith (31)

One of the displays at Air & Space Museum

One of the displays at Air & Space Museum

One of the displays at Air & Space Museum

One of the displays at Air & Space Museum

The American Indian Museum building

The American Indian Museum building

A beautiful water feature outside the American Indian Museum

A beautiful water feature outside the American Indian Museum

Spotted this on our way to the American Indian Museum

Spotted this on our way to the American Indian Museum

End of another long day of touring with Take Tours. We enjoyed this part of our trip; very informative, educational, and we  learned a little about American History.

Stay tuned for part 3 of our East Coast tour.

Your comment or reply requested and greatly appreciated.

Journey to Seattle via Coast Starlight


None of my family members have experience riding train overnight, as I have. In my quest to have another family bonding trip, I thought why not take the northbound Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle. My research on Tripadvisor forum helped me decide to go ahead and booked this trip. Contributors on the train travel forum consider Coast Starlight train as the nicest of the Amtrak train, and its journey to Seattle to be the most scenic route..

I’ve never been to Union Station in Los Angeles prior to this trip. Located in the heart of Los Angeles (across from Olvera Street and near Chinatown), it serves as the transit hub for Metrolink, Amtrak, buses and other train companies.

Union Station, Los Angeles

I’m amazed how beautiful this building is. Union Station is an art deco-loaded, 1939 Spanish revival historic building. It retained much of its original furniture, benches with each seat, high ceilings, chandeliers, and architecture with pre-World War II aesthetics.

Beautiful interior

Impressive ceilings & chandelier

My family (husband, brother-in-law, 2 sisters and brother.

Free coffee & juice were offered to 1st class passengers while waiting to board our train.

My immediate family (left to rt: me, Ed, Belle & Linda).

Our train departed from Los Angeles at 10:25am, stopping briefly at every train station all the way thru Seattle. The trip takes 35 hours, and on occasions are delayed, arriving late at its destination. We found out, the reason is at times the train has to wait for other trains to pass in towns/areas where there are only single tracks. We lucked out for our train arrived in Seattle 45 minutes earlier than scheduled.

Long way to get to the boarding platform

Board that shows all train schedules and where they depart from

There are several options when booking on this train, the cheapest one is booking a coach seat, on lower or upper deck. The seat reclines when you want to sleep, but there is no privacy nor storage for your luggage. When you buy a coach seat plus a sleeper be it a roomette, family bedroom or bedroom then you are elevated to a 1st class category. Our seat converts into bed at night; afforded some privacy when doors and curtains are closed and can store our luggage in our room (altho’ we cannot lock the doors to our sleeper); plus all meals & beverage (coffee, tea, sodas) are included. Alcoholic drinks are extra. We booked 3 roomettes, the cheapest of the sleepers, with two bunk beds, shared toilet and shower facilities. If you want more space, a private toilet and shower then book a bedroom, an expensive option for it cost about three times a roomette.

Coast Starlight train have lower and upper decks.

Inside one of our roomettes.

After we settled in our room, Harold our attendant offered us a choice of champagne or sparkling cider.  After that, he never came back to check on us if we need anything. He did set up our beds while we were having dinner. Nothing to rave about his service, but nevertheless, tipped him at the end of our trip.

Just tell us when is our next trip, we’ll be ready! To many more happy travels!

May we have many more family bonding trips! Thank you Ate.

Me and husband, Ramon. Cheers!

We begun to explore the train to find out where things are. The Parlor Car Lounge, exclusive to 1st class passengers, has a bar, few dining tables, and eight swivel chairs to enjoy the view in all directions. This is a good place to meet, mingle; and chat with other passengers; relax and/or enjoy the fantastic views; work on your computer or read a book. Whatever your heart desires!

The Pacific Parlor Lounge Car

There’s option to dine at Parlor Car Lounge, but with limited menu compared to full menu at the main Dining car.

Parlor Car Lounge

Swivel chairs which allow viewing on both sides of the train.

On 2nd day, all six of us got our own swivel chair after a long wait.

At the Parlor Lounge Car

Farther ahead is the Pacific Dining car open to all passengers. The meals we had during our trip included 2 lunches, 2 dinners and one breakfast. You order from a menu, and you pay cash only if you’re not on 1st class category. Their foods were surprisingly good, especially the steak which was so tender, melt-in- your mouth and tasty.  In fact, we ended up ordering same for dinner the next day. It was the most expensive item on the menu priced at $28.95.

Pacific Dining Car

View of Pacific Coast during lunch

Uhmm, what’s for lunch?

I’ll have your steak please, medium well.

My only complaint was at lunch the portions were very small, not enough to fill you up unless you order the Angus hamburger, which is huge and served with chips. However, they made up for it with large portions of desserts. The frozen lime-berry cake and the chocolate cream puff were my favorites. Breakfast was superb with choice of omelette or crab cake served with hollandaise sauce and choice of french fries or grits. Coupled with view of sunrise, perfect ambience!

Crab cake served with Hollandaise and fries.

We can get used to this pampering!

On the lower deck, they offered more options for lunch, such as pizza. Before each meal, an attendant goes out to take reservations in the dining car. You can opt for room service and eat in your sleeper. The dining car tables sit a maximum of four people per table, so our group of 6 was split. If there’s only two of you or you’re traveling alone, you’ll share the table with other passengers. I supposed a good way to meet other passengers on the train.

My sister & her hubby paired with another couple.

On the very front, passed the dining car is another Lounging Car, larger and opened to all passengers. It offers large picture windows to maximize viewing. As passengers disembarked, we found it easier to find a chair for everyone by the 2nd day.

Lounge Car opened to all passengers on a 1st come 1st served basis.

As many passengers have disembarked, it was easier to find a place here when we reached Portland, Oregon.

Time to post more pictures in Facebook for sharing with family and friends. Show me your best shot. My sister Bella was in charged of posting.

Me (the travel planner) and my husband, Ramon.

Efren (brother-in-law) and Bella (my sister)

Ed (my brother), visiting from the Phillipines and Linda (my sister)

Coast Starlight offered two complimentary Wine & Cheese Tasting to 1st class passengers every afternoon at 3:00pm, featuring four varieties of wine from the regions we passed by; Paso Robles, Oregon & Washington. Each wine Cabernet, Merlot, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Each wine paired with a different cheese. Truly an enjoyable experience, sipping wine, munching on cheese & crackers while passing thru spectacular views; and chatting with fellow passengers .A perfect social event.

1st Wine & Cheese Tasting held at the Parlor Lounge Car.

Enjoying the view while sipping wine and munching on cheese & crackers.

A toast for Happy Travels, and Cheers!

A young couple from Oxnard enjoying their 1st experience riding a train.

There were fewer passengers on the 2nd wine tasting, and we noticed the bar attendant pouring more wine into our glasses…the more the merrier, which made us a little more tipsy. By the way, on lower deck there is a “theater” where you can watch movies. Supposedly, there’s also an arcade room, but we never went.

Enjoying our 2nd day of complimentary Wine & Cheese Tasting.

In Portland, Oregon we stopped for an hour which gave us an opportunity to disembark; walked around the station to stretch our legs.

Portland, Oregon

My family posed in front of our train in Portland, Oregon

Taken in front of Union Station in Portland, Oregon

Taken in Portland, Oregon

Without a doubt, my favorite part of this journey are the breathtaking views we saw while passing thru different towns in California, Oregon, and Washington all the way to Seattle. Simply beautiful, simply gorgeous, simply stunning, simply amazing. Simply takes your breath away.

The stunning beauty of the coast of the Pacific Ocean (California)

Pacific Coast, CA

Pacific Coast, CA

Pacific Coast, California

Paso Robles, CA

Paso Robles, CA

Watching the sun goes down.

A full moon on our 1st night on the train. Goodnight & sweet dreams, as the motion and noise provided the lullaby.

Klamath, Oregon

Klamath, Oregon

Klamath, Oregon

Klamath, Oregon

Klamath, Oregon

Klamath, Oregon

Klamath, Oregon

A beautiful sight in the morning, sunrise.

Willamette, Oregon

Willamette, Oregon

Willamette, Oregon

Autumn leaves in Willamette, Oregon

There were so many spectacular views; landscape and terrains changing as our train drive thru many towns of Oregon and Washington.

Passing thru towns in Oregon

Passing thru towns of Oregon

Passing thru towns of Oregon

Passing thru towns of Oregon.

Eugene, Oregon

On the way to Albany, Oregon

Picture Perfect scenery on the way to Albany, Oregon.

A scenery that captivates your heart and soul (taken on the way to Albany, Oregon).

More sceneries that will take your breath away (taken on the way to Albany, Oregon)

Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon

Surely, pictures I posted don’t do justice to all the sceneries shown here. But as you can see, you snooze, you loose and will miss out on splendors only nature can offer. In other words, you better stay awake on this journey to enjoy and take advantage of the opportunity.  I think going in the fall is the best time to take this trip. The trees and its leaves showing fall colors adds visual interest and excitement.

I’ve truly enjoyed this journey. The awesome, picturesque sights everywhere I gazed my eyes on, make this trip memorable.

Images of Vietnam: Its culture and simple way of life

Southeast Asia has been the focus of our travel recently, and Vietnam was one of them.  In March of 2012, spending more than three weeks, we worked our way to Vietnam from Cambodia. Starting from the south, we visited Ho Chi Minh City then proceeded to central area with stops at Hue, the Imperial City; and Hoi An to enjoy its ancient town and shopping. Our trip ended in Hanoi, to the north, with side trips to Halong Bay and Sapa Mountains.

During this trip I have many memorable experiences, adventures, gastronomic delights and saw many breathtaking sceneries and attractions. But what’s more endearing is learning a lot about the country’s culture and its people, which I hope I’ve been able to successfully capture with my camera. At least some of it. The images represent the essence of Vietnam, and what’s is all about. A simple way of life, hard-working, creative,  friendly and very welcoming to visitors of their country.

One would be hard pressed to not like Vietnam, and everything it has to offer.

Captured Images of Vietnam: Children, pure of joy & innocence

I recently traveled to Vietnam for two weeks and shot many photos of the usual suspects; main tourist attractions of each destination we visited. No doubt, the beauty of Halong Bay is stunning, captivating and one of the highlights of our trip.  While the busy streets of Saigon packed with thousands of motorbikes are intimidating; Hue presents many impressive tombs and pagoda along the Perfume River. The ancient town of Hoi An and scenic drive over Hai Van pass cannot be easily forgotten. And Sapa Mountains, surrounded by terraced rice fields are breathtaking. A visit to the sunday Bac Ha market presented many photographic opportunities, especially of the colorful and vibrant outfits of women from various minority hill tribes.

But my favorite ones are those of its people, finding them more fascinating. These shots were taken mostly candid, and stolen to capture the subject’s  facial expressions, feelings and emotions in that  very moment in time.

Children are one of my favorite subject, for they project pure joy and innocence.

A little girl playing in a park in Cantho

Taken from a Floating Village school in Halong Bay

Taken from one of the shops in Old Quarter, Hoi An

Taken from one of the hill tribe villages in Sapa Mountains

A picture of pure joy & innocence portrayed on this little girl’s face

A stolen shot taken of a family in Ban Phovillage in Sapa

Taken while visiting Bac Ha Sunday market in Lao Cao Province

Taken during our trek to CatCat Village, Sapa Mountain

Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

Off we go to another district for more food tasting.

March 6 to March 9, 2012

March 6: HCMC-XO Motorbike tour

Flight to HCMC from Siem Reap takes a little over an hour. Thanks to TripAdvisor contributors we know exactly to proceed to Landing Visa for VOA, Visa on Arrival, upon arriving in Saigon airport. With Entry/Exit Visa application form in my hands already filled out, we stand in line and hand our application & passports at the window. About 15 min later (there’s not very many people waiting), they call our names, handed our visa and pay $25 usd each in cash.  We pass thru immigration, collect our luggage and meet our driver already waiting outside. I pre-arranged our pick up with Mrs. Nhung of Tonkin Travel for $18 usd each way for a private car transport.

A word about the streets of Saigon. It is one of the busiest, craziest, most crowded, jam-packed with motorbikes and cars whose drivers seemingly don’t care about you, the pedestrian.  You don’t have the right of way on the street, like in United States. For a first time visitor, crossing the street in Saigon is the most intimidating and terrifying experience. You must conquer your fear, battle with the drivers, cross with conviction; stop or freeze for the oncoming traffic and let them swerve to avoid you, instead of you avoiding them.  The traffic on both directions hardly ever clears up, so if you don’t learn the technique, it can take you forever (10 min or more), or worse will never be able to get across a street.

Streets of Saigon

The Streets of Saigon

Early this morning “Traveler’s diarrhea” starts to attack me, so I quickly take countermeasures with Pepto-Bismol.  It sucks for I book an XO Motorbike Food Tour for this afternoon and will be picked at 5:30pm from our hotel. We arrive at Saigon Sheraton Hotel at around 1:30pm, and pleasantly surprise they upgrade our room to a junior suite at no extra cost. One of the benefits of being an SPG Gold member. I used our award points to book this hotel for our 2 nights stay, so it’s essentially free.  This is the only luxury hotel we stayed during our trip; the rests are small boutique type hotels which I much prefer.  Our room is on 19th floor with a view of the Saigon River, very spacious with a living room area & a fully equipped kitchen. But who would cook while visiting Vietnam?   

Our suite at Sheraton Saigon Hotel

Living room/Kitchen

Fully-equipped kitchen

View of Saigon River from our room

Our room gives us access to the Club Lounge which provides free breakfast, refreshments, appetizers & drinks, served from 5 to 8pm daily. The Lounge  also provides free internet and check-out services for the convenience of its SPG members.

Club Lounge for SPG member

View of HCMC from the Club Lounge, previously known as Saigon City

Pick up time for our tour is getting close, and my stomach has not settled down. Time for drastic measure, so I swallowed “Cipro”  The antibiotic works like magic, settling my tummy and enabling me to eat all the foods offered during the tour.

At 5:20PM, just outside our hotel, two young ladies wearing Ao Dai (Vietnamese outfit) are waiting to pick us up for our XO Motorbike Food tour.  They put on our helmets, give instruction on how to get on/off the motorbike safely, pose for pictures with them…then off we go.  To our very 1st riding experience on motorbikes and the perfect choice to test our nerves; the busy, crazy, clogged up “arteries” of Saigon. Holding on tightly for our dear life, it surely is nerve wrecking, until we slowly  find our comfort zone and start enjoying the ride.

Our XO Motorbike tour drivers, wearing their native outfit... "Ao Dai"

Ramon starting to get the hang of it.

This is so much fun!

At $58 usd per person for XO tour is expensive, esp. in Vietnam standards. I pay less than that for walking food tours in the US. But for us, it is definitely worth the price. There are 8 people in our group in this tour: couples from England, Hungary and California. Our ride covers all 7 districts of Saigon, and learn few things about Vietnam from Mr Tu Dung, the owner of XO Tours. He grew up and got his education in the US (Texas),  then came back to Vietnam to start this business. With less than 2 years since its inception, the business is very successful and rated #1 in TA for things to do in Saigon.  Book early as it is often sold out.

Tung, on the right, the Owner of XO tours

The "Ao Dai Girls" of Mr Tung

Our 1st stop is a specialty place for Pho. It’s really good and tasted way better than we’ve ever had in California. Afterwards, we make our way cycling, weaving thru many streets & interesting places in Saigon. We stop for photos at certain places such as Vinh Ty market in Chalon.  Mr Tung, takes our pictures from his camera, and sends our photos by email afterwards.

Our 1st Food Stop

Our group and "PHO", our 1st tasting...so good!

Pho..much better tasting than what we have in California

Stop # 2  is another place packed with locals located in another district of Saigon. Here we get to eat grilled goat breast, shrimp & okra; whole frog gulf down with banana wine. Ramon is enjoying all the attention and pampering from his driver, Ming (?), I think that’s her name. I’m jealous, but not of her. Bong, my driver is not giving me the same attention and not feeding me well.  We talk the entire duration of our tour, giving her chance to practice her English and learn more vocabularies. I receive the best compliment, when she says  I’m a good teacher, and suggests I should teach English language in Vietnam.  To which I reply, ” You should pay me then for this tour, instead of me  paying.” She gets it, my joke. Did’nt I tell you she’s smart?

Off we go to another district for more food tasting.

Food stop no. 2 of our XO tour

Grilled goat breasts, okra...and more (shrimps, frog legs and banana wine)

Ramon enjoying being mouth-fed & pampered by Ming (?), his motorbike driver

Stop #3 is for seafood: grilled scallops on shell with peanuts & chopped greens; clams steamed with lemon grass & ginger; grilled quails and for desserts, coconut flan & the best, unique dessert, coconut jello served inside a whole coconut shell …sooo good!

Stop #3 is for seafoods

Around 9:30pm we are back at our hotel, with big smiles and full tummies. What an enjoyable & fun evening. We hug, say our  thank you’s and slip tips into their hands. They look,  then both gave us,  even bigger smiles.

Notice something different? At the end of the tour, we get to be the driver (joke only)

March 7: Mekong Delta Cruise-Cantho

Today we go to Mekong Delta for a private tour and spend overnight in Cantho (pre-arranged with Mrs Nhung of Tonkin travel).  The pick up from our hotel is scheduled at 7:30am, but due to some confusions, our departure is delayed. Our guide is looking for Spanish people because of our last name, and he did not hold up a large sign with our names. After looking around for almost 20 minutes, we find each other.

The Mekong Delta, often referred to as Vietnam’s rice basket, is the  biggest rice-growing region in the country. Despite being a predominantly rural region, the Mekong  Delta is one of the most densely populated areas in Vietnam and most of the land is  under cultivation. Other delta products include coconut, sugar cane, fruit and  fish.

We arrived in My Tho, one of the main delta town, and go visit a Cao Dao temple. Our original itinerary is to visit this temple at noon time to witness their ceremony where its worshippers wear different color robes. But we made changes to  our schedule and come here first in the morning. The inside of the temple is very ornate and colorful; with interesting architecture and the “Eye” at the center of the altar.  Cao Dao is a Vietnamese religious movement with a strongly nationalist political character. Cao Dai draws upon ethical precepts from Confucianism, occult practices from Taoism, theories of karma and rebirth from Buddhism, and a hierarchical organization (including a pope) from Roman Catholicism. Its pantheon of saints includes such diverse figures as the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen.

Cao Dao Temple in My Tho

After the temple, we go to the boat terminal and transfer to a beautiful boat privately hired just for us. We start our cruise on the Mekong river.

Our beautiful private boat

Enjoying fresh coconut

We then transfer to a sampan (a smaller boat) to go on small waterways and stop at some villages.


The village is so pretty with many blooming flowers, tropical fruit-growing trees and souvenir shops. We get to see coconut candy making factory, and taste free samples of different flavors. There is also a performance, locals from the village sing Vietnamese songs accompanied while we drink tea.

The village we visited on our tour

A coconut candy making factory in the village

One of the tropical fruit trees in the village

A jackfruit tree

Our tour includes a short bike ride around the village, but realize we can’t ride our bicycle safely.  We are unable to control the bike, going on zigzag fashion & ends up  abandoning it, a few times to avoid falling on a ditch or in the bushes.  We end up “walking our bike, instead of riding our bike”, so embarrassing!  Our guide is very understanding and arranged for our bikes to be taken back to our boat. We ride on a carriage driven by a horse to take us to the end of the village.

The Horse-driven Carriage

The horse-driven carriage we rode for transport

We get  on another boat to cruise the waterways in Ben Tre. Ben Tre is less visited by tourists, and surrounded by many islands with coconut trees. We stop at a rice making factory, at my request, before we head to lunch.  We did not see the process in progress, only the finished products and surprise they come in different flavors (sesame seed, banana, etc). I get a package of banana flavored ones to eat and share with our guide & boat operator as we are getting hungry.

Ramon with our tour guide in blue shirt

 Our boat takes us on an island for lunch, which is well-developed to cater for loads of tourist, as well as locals. It is huge with plenty of tables & chairs. I see locals having hot pots, but for tourist, the standard meal is served. Lunch is included in our tour, but drinks are extra. Our meal consists of fried “Elephant Ear Fish”, fried spring rolls, noodles & soup. The best dish is the deep-fried Elephant ear fish, which is crispy on the outside, but tender inside. A server wearing gloves takes the meat off the bones, add vermicelli, mint & basil to make spring rolls, dip it in a fish sauce, then to your mouth.  My hubby dissected the fish to take all the meat until what’s left is a skeleton of bones.

"The Elephant Ear Fish"


Day trippers go to My Tho to see and experience cruising on Mekong Delta river, have lunch and return to HCMC. If you have time, it is better to do the 2D/1N tour as it is more pleasant and you get to go to Ben Tre which is less crowded and nicer. Other tours go to Cai Be to see floating market, but go to Cai Rang which is better.

We stayed at Kim Tho hotel for our overnight in Cantho city. Our room (#608) is clean, with modern décor, and a view of the Mekong  river. Location is convenient, close to the park alongside the river, walking distance to many restaurants and the night market; plus the boat station.

View of Mekong River from our room

 Since we arrived in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, HCMC , I have been taking two showers per day, due to heat & humidity, dirt, I feel so uncomfortable. It’s no different in Cantho. After my 2nd shower of the day (psst…hubby only takes one per day), we head off to explore Cantho. We stroll along the river, spot young  couples out on dates (obvious), local families eating & relaxing , children playing. The street is full of food carts selling Vietnamese dishes, fruits eggs, grilled corns, boiled peanuts. You can also have manicure and pedicure right there on the streets.

The park by the river

A little girl playing in the park

One of many food carts on main street of Cantho

At the night market, hubby gets a custom cut, punched holes adjusted to his waist, leather belt to replace his old  Yippy! As night falls, the main street gets crowded & busy with pedestrians & motorbikes.  Our stomach growling, we find Nam Ho restaurant to have dinner. The restaurant , recommended by our tour guide , serves Vietnamese & Western dishes, prepared w/ hygienic standards , thus safe for tourists. No wonder the place is packed with foreigners, and prices are moderate to expensive. My hubby ordered  the 5-course fixed menu:  pumpkin flower  soup, spring rolls, fried calamari, pork stewed in a clay pot with coconut, vegetables, steam rice & choice of dessert, fresh fruit salad or coconut ice cream.  While everything is good, the pumpkin flower soup is to die for.  It’s made with clear, very flavorful broth loaded with mushrooms, pumpkin flowers and bits of chopped beef.  Initially not feeling very hungry, I  order only spring rolls but after tasting the soup; ask our waiter to bring  another bowl for me.

March 8: Cai Rang and Pho Dien Floating market

We are ready when Kun, our tour guide, arrived at our hotel at 5:30am. We walk for few minutes to get to the boat station, board a medium sized beautiful wooden boat, hired privately so we are the only passengers.  It is lovely to watch sunshine while cruising on the Mekong Delta River.

Sunrise in Mekong Delta River, Cantho

As the sun rises the daily life on the delta river is exposed; fishing, washing clothes, transporting goods and people. It is evident Mekong Delta River provides the lifeline and main source of livelihood for the locals.

Transportation for local

Tourism as source of livelihood

Locals fishing in the river

A local washing clothes in the river

We see homes on stilts, built with scraps of woods, plastic, aluminum. There are nice homes built with concrete, complete w/ gardens & nice landscaping; obviously a clear  contrast between the poor & ugly and the rich & beautiful.

"The Poor & the Ugly"

"The rich and beautiful"


The main reason tourists go to Cantho is to see the over 100 yrs old tradition of Floating markets, and the best, and largest is in Cai Rang, a wholesale market, which is a thirty minute boat ride from the city. The boats have poles and hang item(s) to show what they sell. It is best to go early in the morning to observe all the action, or you’ll miss most activity if you arrived late.  We approach one of the boats to buy pineapple, which is peeled so we enjoy eating right away…. sweet & juicy.

The Floating Market in Cai Rang

A pole on the boat to show what they sell

This pineapple is so sweet & juicy

The other floating market is in Pho Dien, a smaller one with about 15 boats and sells retail. It is about an hour boat ride from Cantho; and you have to come even much earlier, or selling is over by 9:00am. Boats here are small and carry lighter loads of items to sell.

The Pho Dien Floating market

After visiting the floating markets, we go back to our hotel for breakfast and head back to HCMC.  We make a stop at Mekong Restaurant for bathroom and/or lunch break. Our tour guide reminds us to bring our camera, and I see why. The landscaping of the restaurant is very nice; there’s a lotus pond, colorful bougainvillas and many flowers & trees. This place is famous for their “sticky rice” that looks like a ball when fried.

Mekong Restaurant

A stick rice being fried and formed into a ball.

Of course, we have to try it.

Not bad, it's similar to a Filipino sweets called, "kalamay"

 We took only overnight bags to Mekong Delta, so we pick our stored luggage and check back in at Sheraton Saigon Hotel.  They upgraded us to a junior suite, again, without extra costs. Thank you very much, I’m loving it!  We go to Club Lounge for dinner; and skip our plan to go up to the club on the 23rd floor for our free drinks, we are exhausted!

March 9: HCMC – Hue

We feel good and refreshed this morning, and have breakfast at the Club Lounge. I have their Pho and Congee, which I really like. Food choices served buffet style at the Club are limited, but enough to fill you up. On the way back to our room, Ramon mentions there’s a letter that was slipped into our room, and hands it to me. I find out that for breakfast, we have options to go to the Club Lounge or at the Saigon Cafe. What the heck, we just ate breakfast! How could we have missed this great opportunity? I read that buffet breakfast at Saigon Cafe is awesome and at $25 usd per person is worth the price.  We have about 30 minutes before our transport pick up to the airport, so we quickly head to Saigon Cafe.  I just want to see and agonize more….

Saigon Cafe at Sheraton Saigon Hotel

View of hotel lobby from Saigon Cafe

Fresh flower display at the hotel lobby, changed daily.

From the south, we head towards the central part of Vietnam and fly to Hue this morning.  Good bye Ho Chi Minh, hello to the Imperial City of Hue.