Thursday, January 21, 2010

Last days in Saigon

Date: Monday-Tuesday, January 18-21, 2010
Travel: Rental Van
Party: Linda, Vu & Family
Lodging: Hai Long 1
Photos: 20100118 Saigon Bien Hoa Family Pictures, 20100120 Saigon Cafes More

Except for my parents, we had moved all of our bags from our hotel in Bien Hoa, to one in HCMC, since Stella and I had some other plans going on. Stella would go and meet up with some of her family members living in Vietnam. I would be meeting up with my girlfriend Linda, later that night. This would be her 2nd visit in so many weeks. In the morning we would go around the city, and make visits to other extended family members. In the evening, we visited one of my cousins house, who was doing very well for himself, creating faux furnishings using aluminum. He has a new SUV, which vehicles in Vietnam gets taxed 100% if it is an automobile, and another 100% if it is imported. An imported Mercedes for example, would cost 3 times the price of retail. It is a status symbol, and although wages are not the high on average, there is a major discrepancy between the extremely wealthy, and the extremely poor (which is the majority) and not much in between. The same goes in my family, we have some that are very well off, and some that are not. Phones and electronics cost a lot more there than back at home, but everybody wants to have the latest and greatest gadgets, even if their salaries are a magnitude lower. It's all relative. More people there are willing to spend 3 months salary on a nice phone, where as at home, people might hesitate for a phone purchase of 1 weeks salary. I suppose there's just so many other factors that we have to worry about such as higher cost of living in general and healthcare, and people don't need to have a nice shiny gadget to be judged upon.

Later that evening, my cousin takes us out to a nice seafood restaurant, and even after the hospital episode with my brother, they trusted this place more, and chowed down. I had to bail a little sooner, to pick up Linda from the airport. We met up back with the family at a mall in the city, where my wealthier cousin suggested to go and buy clothes. My mom also made a promise to my niece Tiffany that she could go out to the market and point out anything that she wants. However, this mall, called Diamond, was ritzy, and everything was so expensive. Toys were even twice the price that we could find in the US. I guess my cousin is much more higher class than us, we didn't want to spend a dime there. My mom ended up fulfilling her promise at a supermarket in Bien Hoa, where she was able to load up on Hello Kitty stuff at fraction of the prices (like 1/10). Inside of Diamond,there was a Pizza Hut inside (which is special here), and pepperoni pizza had never tasted so good. I am not sure whether the quality was higher than a local Pizza Hut, or was it that we had too much Vietnamese food lately.

The next couple of days, it would rain, so there is not much we did but sit at cafes, eat and shopped. We went to Chinatown for a delicious lunch, and then at night, I took Linda out to Van Thanh where we enjoyed a romantic dinner on a gazebo over the lake. The crazy part of the dinner was the price shock. We had a full meal, with appetizers, entree, and desert, while being alone under a wooden hut like gazebo, for only about 10 dollars. Then on top of that, there was a 90 minute massage and facial session provided at the hotel for only 6 dollars. Stella mentioned that it was one of the best massages of her life. All for almost the tenth of what we would normally pay. We had to take advantage of that.

We spent some more time shopping, this time at Ben Thanh market, and there were a lot of trinkets and crafts that we were able to get for great deals. We had already built a solid baseline from days before, and this time we were going to take advantage of that knowledge and put it to work. Unfortunately we can only take so much back, and we had initially squeezed our whole family and bags into a minivan, which we had parked in LA and planned to drive it back to Tucson. It looked like we would need an alternate plan than to drive 7 people home. So it was decided that my brother and his family fly back from LA to Tucson, while my parents and I take the van back with the luggage.
Linda had to fly back Wednesday night, the day before I would return back to the states, so we drove down to Bien Hoa, where she could meet my maternal family and Ba Ngoai (maternal grandmother). Then in the afternoon, we would go pick up an aunt of mine from Hue at the airport, who had some great snacks for us. And again in the late evening, when we drove back to the airport for Linda's departure, we met 2 more aunts coming from Hue and Da Nang. I think I have seen that airport 5 times ( it was starting to feel like business trips ).

On the final days, we just spend more quality time with the whole family, and try to squeeze as much gifts and souvenirs in the bags as possible. I almost passed out at the airport, just minutes before our own departure, but I was able to gather myself with some of my aunts herbal treatment (which was like back scratching). I think I have had enough. I got a little better, but driving home from California was brutal, and we did not get home until 4 am on a Saturday morning. In'n'Out tasted great, and I needed a week to recover.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Family Night at Van Thanh

Date: Sunday, January 17, 2010
Travel: Rental Bus
Party: Vu & Family
Lodging: Hotel in Bien Hoa
Photos: 20100117 Van Thanh Resort

After spending a long morning recovering from the previous day's drive, we visit my grandfather's burial site. We invite the entire family (a very large group) out to dinner in the city. We had to rent out a large bus for this trip. Being a sunday, the driver of the bus was speeding down the road at probably 50 mph (NOT kmh)! I actually felt scared for some of the mopeds on the road. I guess he just wanted to do something he won't be able to do on a weekday. We end up going to the Van Thanh resort offered a large park like area filled with many restaurants, but notably for the weekend, there was a buffet dinner. It was really pretty, and there were wedding at every corner. The buffet dinner looked nice, but I think my family in particular was not feeling well, and the appetites were simply no longer there after weeks of over eating on Vietnamese food. I think we would argue that the food was not mediocre overall, and of course nothing could taste as good as home food, but I think it was the fact that it was eating so much every day. If I recall back to specific moments, there were plenty of times where my tongue felt satisfied.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Stopover in Dalat

Date: Saturday, January 16, 2010
Travel: Rental Bus
Party: Vu & Family
Lodging: Hotel in Bien Hoa
Photos: 20100116 Dalat

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Failing to find airplane tickets to HCMC (Saigon), we have to find a private bus to take us and all of our luggage. We decided that we might as well stop by Dalat, which there is some history from Stella's family there. Dalat is a mountainous town, and it was preparing for its annual flower festival. I think Dalat is a destination for the locals because of the higher elevation offers a cooler environment from all the tropical heat. After 4 hours of driving hell, especially on the dirt roads, we make it to Dalat for lunch. After that we search around for Stella's mother's childhood home. We ended up finding it, and there was no one living in it. We spend only another half an hour at the local market before we end up driving again. This time we would spend another 7 hours on hellish roads. It was windy, bumpy, slow. It's a good thing we were able to get a bus where you can just lay down across the seats. Never again... We make it into Bien Hoa by late night, where Ba Ngoai (maternal grandmother) lives, and spend time with the family there.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Nha Trang & Vinpearl Land

Date: Friday, January 15, 2010
Travel: Taxis
Party: Vu & Family
Lodging: Nha Trang Lodge Hotel
Photos: 20100115 Nha Trang Tour, 20100115 Vinpearl Land

My brother finally got to take in the beautiful beach of Nha Trang early in the morning. He was well rested, and was ready to go. In the morning, we decided to do a little tour of the city, starting with Hon Chong, followed by a visit to Po Nagar, and then the villas of Bao Dai. Some people were just feeling tired and wanted to rest up during the afternoon. Later that evening, the family takes the cable car over to Vinpearl Land, which for the longest time I thought people were saying "Vin Bun Lan." It's essentially a resort island, with an amusement park built on it. Getting off the cable car, we were dumped into an amusement area designed for children with slightly dated fair rides. However, there is a resort if we walk further (which we didn't), but we did go down to the aquarium, which is new, modern, and not half bad. There is a ritzy shopping area, and a stage used for water and light shows. It looks the area could be really nice with a lot of restaurants and cafes, but it all seemed very empty. It seems to be geared towards tourist, but it was not busy at all. Perhaps it cost too much, or its just not the high season. At least we as a family were able to taste a little bit of Nha Trang, even though we technically based out of there for 5 days.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Return to Nha Trang

Date: Thursday, January 14, 2010
Travel: Taxis
Party: Vu & Family
Lodging: Nha Trang Lodge Hotel
Photos: 20100114 Thap Ba Spa Bac Loc's Vacation Home

Coming back to Nha Trang, I learn that my brother has moved from the hospital to a private institution with much better care. He was in a room by himself with AC, and a nurse right outside the door at all times. He was getting better as well, and was ready to be discharged that evening. With the better news, the rest of the family decides to go around and finally have a little fun. So we head out to Thap Ba spa, which is another hot spring spa, and the major draw of this location is the mud bath. The spa site is beautifully located along the hill, and is fully loaded with individual tubs, with varying sizes. Since there was 6 of us, we get to be at the highest level in the family section. New mud fills the tub up each time new patrons enter, and after half an hour of sifting through the mud, it is then drained away. There is an area with chaises around so you can lay around letting the mud to dry, followed by a nice warm spring water shower. To help rinse away all the mud in all corners and cracks of your body, there are a couple stone walls, with jets shooting out horizontally. It was a lot of fun just to run around in. After this rinse off, the next stage are family warm water spas, where you just sit and soak in the warm mineral water. After all that, then you can go down to the pool area, also filled with warm spring water, to waste the day in. Theres a mini waterfall you can soak in, or just sit back and relax and get a massage.

After all the relaxation, we visit one of my parents friends vacation home, which is under construction. The 5000 sq feet behemoth sits a little outside of Nha Trang, and has a gigantic balcony overlooking the nearby hills. Perhaps this might fuel the fire in our own family to look into some property.

That night, my brother is finally released from the hospital, and we could finally rest as a family. So now that we know he is ok, we have to make our next travel plans. The initial plan was to fly to Saigon, but the flights were sold out. I thought the train was good, but we have too much luggage. Imagine carrying 14 full size luggages everywhere... what a pain. Being such a frequent traveler, I like to travel light. Anyways, it was too late to buy flights, because it was sold out. We just had no idea when we could go because my brother had to go to the hospital. One thing was for sure, is that he had to spend at least 1 day in Nha Trang.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dropping off Linda

Date: Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Travel: Taxis
Party: Linda, Vu & Family
Lodging: Sleeper Train

Linda and I arrived to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) around 5 am, where we got some help from Chi Be, a cousin on the maternal side, to get a hotel. We spend lunch with Chi Be, and a handful of other cousins, for some Pho, a brief tour of the city, and some coffee. After wards, Linda and I were able to go around and shop, buying trinkets, souvenir and gifts. We put on our great bargaining skills and got some great deals. However, it really seemed like we were setting a lower baseline of market value for each thing we buy. This would really help me get some nice deals on many other things for days to come. As the time approaches, we make our way to the airport. I had already purchased a train ticket which was scheduled about an hour after Linda's scheduled flight, since the stations were pretty close to each other...on paper.

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However, even leaving 3 hours prior to the flight from the hotel seemed like a bad idea, as the traffic was at its peak rush period. Only needing to drive around 2 km, it would take over an hour and a half, where we ended up in a stretch of 30 minutes sitting in the middle of an intersection. We would frequently see the driver walk out of the car just to see what was going on, and chat with other people. After a bittersweet departure, I would have to rush to the train station to take another sleeper back to Nha Trang. This time I got to meet someone in my room, and he happened to be part of an event which is taking place at my hotel in Nha Trang. Sweet, now I get to party.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sick in Nha Trang & Train to Saigon

Date: Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Travel: Taxis
Party: Linda, Vu & Family
Lodging: Nha Trang Lodge Hotel
Photos: 20100111 Nha Trang Beach

The airport in Nha Trang was actually closed, as the city had expanded and it was no longer safe to fly in to that airport. Instead, the nearby Cam Ren airport, which was a converted air force base, is where we landed. Its out in the country side and it was filled with a ton of mosquitoes. Already suffering from the runs from the terrible oyster-like animals, my brother was stung by mosquitoes as well. Over night, he ended up falling over, and was taken to the local hospital. The hospital was not a desirable place to be at, as the small rooms housed 4 patients, with windows and doors swung wide open. The bathrooms were not necessarily clean, and the care was not prompt. Of course if you feed some hidden cash into the system, you would find yourself getting a lot more attention. My brother was not doing well at all, getting fevers and chills, along with an upset stomach. My parents stayed with my brother, and we just ended up spending time around the hotel. It was difficult to really go do anything when somebody is not feeling well, but the hospital is not a place where you wanted the family to sit around either. The difficult part was that I had to take Linda back to Saigon for a flight the next night, but the only reasonable train to take was an overnight sleeper train, so we had to be ready to leave that evening.

The train, which was named the golden train, or formerly known as the VIP train, was indeed clean, especially from stories that I heard from the normal trains. The room had 4 beds, and had a TV, which we could not control so it really ended up being more annoying than convenient. The ride was pretty smooth, but it did not move at constant speeds and would randomly stop at points. I actually ended up getting a very good sleep.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ha Long Bay

Date: Sunday, January 10, 2010
Travel: Touring Van
Party: Linda, Vu & Family
Lodging: Ha Long Hotel
Photos: 20100110 HalongBay

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Early in the morning we take a van including, another cousin working in Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. Even though the bay is not far from Hanoi, we have to wind through traffic and small roads for over 3 hours. Once we arrived, Chau had arranged an entire junk boat for just our family. The boat could probably sit over 100, but we only used up over just a dozen seats. The cruise was to be a half day long, and would include an entrance to a nearby cave. During the short cruise, there would be lunch served, and again, plenty of seafood.

As we returned back to the shore, we stayed around the coastal town of Ha Long for dinner and eventually for the night. What was strange was that Ha Long Bay is a known tourist destination, but yet the town seemed a bit empty. Granted that it was not the high tourist season, it still seemed to be too empty. We went to a nearby restaurant where there was not 1 customer inside. It was a fairly large restaurant. The food ordered was strange, and was not tasty. The Pho ordered had tomatoes in it, which is absurd. And then there was this oyster like animal. It was very expensive and tasted horrible. So horrible in fact that it would lead to a huge amount of troubles over the week, landing him in the hospital. (See post )

After waking up early in the morning the next day to listen to an NFL playoff game with the Cardinals, we shop by local artisan markets, where we end up purchasing crafts. Crafts which are a bit more pricier than other places, but with higher qualities. Spending so much time shopping, we did not have a chance to go back to Hanoi, and instead just went straight to the airport to fly out to our next destination of the beach town, Nha Trang.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Now to the North

Date: Saturday, January 9, 2010
Travel: Rental Van
Party: Vu & Family, Linda
Lodging: Hanoi Capital Hotel
Photos: 20100109 Hanoi

In the morning, the rest of my family goes out to the city and visits some of the attraction, such as Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where you can see the man preserved. I, however, went out to the airport to pick up my girlfriend, Linda, who flew overnight from Jakarta. She had only a few days off from work, and it would be a good chance to meet everyone. We meet up later at a restaurant near Ho Tay (Western Lake) and she would get to meet my family for the first time. Fortunately, Linda is able to enjoy every type of food, and thus was able to enjoy Vietnamese food, even the exotic stuff.

One of the nicer things about this part of the trip, is that my nieces had some other girls that they could be entertained by other than their mother. My female cousin, nicknamed Thi, and Linda were able to give Stella a break. We spent the next part of the day at the Phu Tay Ho temple. Outside the temple was some kind of snails for sell sitting in tubs. I think that after a week of nobody getting sick, we felt confident about eating more liberally. This would eventually bite us a few days later. We visited some other sites in town, like Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), even though the traffic during the day was bad. Motorcyclist were everywhere, but there were a lot of number of automobiles now, which make the congestion on the tiny roads even worse. Dangling on top of the poles are the spaghetti bunched wires for electricity. The infrastucture is bad, and it's difficult to see how the city can sustain a healthy growth.

In the evening, we ate at the well advertised Quan An Ngon, ( I think literally meaning good tasting restaurant ). It has a wide array of Vietnamese food, where you can watch food be cooked over a dozen stations. Unfortunately our party was large and we had to sit at the 2nd story, where we had to order food from the menu rather than just pointing. After a delicious dinner, we walk around town near ho giom, the temple, and the fun weekend night flea market.

Most of the hotels in the city have been retrofitted, and its usually done half ass. Typcially a bathroom is one floor, and you would have a nozzle to shower, a drain, and a squatting toilet. There was no tub, you would just shower and the water would just get all over the floor which would drain in one corner of the bathroom. So walking in to bathrooms of any home, even if it was to just use the toilet or wash your hands, the floor would be wet. Well the squatting toilets in the hotel would be replaced by wester toilets, and a bath tub would be installed. In the Hanoi hotel we stayed at, there was a bathtub, but it had no shower curtains for a stand up shower. So I would squat in the tub to prevent the whole floor from getting drenched. However, I noticed that the floor was still wet. I noticed a tiny PVC pipe coming out of the tub sticking about 1 inch, and water from the tub was actually being drained from the pipe, onto the floor, which would make its way to the corner drain. They never even connected the plumbing, but instead just let the water flow out of the tub into floor and into the drain.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Laziness in Hue; monkey see monkey do

Date: Thursday & Friday, January 7 & 8, 2010
Travel: Rental Van
Party: Vu & Family
Lodging: Duy Tan Hotel
Photos: 20100107 Thanh Tan Spa, 20100108 Hue Farewell

After the long days so far, it would nice to be lazy for once. And why not, a lot of the workers around were pretty lazy. We went to a shopping mart a couple of times, and it was interesting to see the work ethic around. One time entering a cafe, it looked fairly empty with a few tables with people just lounging around. As we sit down and wait for some time, some of those people lounging around get up and come to our table and wait for us, and the rest huddle around the counter. I guess they were just all workers. I was thinking that there are a lot of workers just for an empty cafe, probably around 8 or 9 people. And the worse part, is that the service was lousy, and we had to keep calling the server over to request for things which they had forgotten in our order. So not only are they are overstaffed, they didn't do much. This seems to be the work culture in the marts and malls, which I suppose are corporately owned.

Another odd thing entering these marts or super markets, is that you can not take a bag into the store. I felt like I was 11 again, and I had to drop my backpack down to the ground before I enter my local Circle K convenient store after school. But not only do you have to check in any bags at the security desk, you would have to do this at every level of the mart. So you could have bought something on the 1st floor which is all bagged for you, and then you have to check in these goods if you enter the 2nd level. You can take a purse in under one condition, it has to be securely bagged in plastic and machine press closed. What if you left your money inside the bagged purse and wanted to buy something? Well you better leave the store first, open up the bag, take money from your purse, and then go back to security to re-seal the plastic bag. I guess theft is a real big issue there, so that's why it has to be done. I remember one time during closing time, there was a ton of women walking out of a mall, down the stairs, and there were security guards forcefully trying to check their bags. It was a huge ruckus, as most of the women were just trying to exit, and pushing each other to get out, and trying to avoid the guards.

In some stores however, it seems like it would have been really easy to take anything, as convenient store clerks would actually just sleep on the job. I remember walking by a small convenient store, and there were 3 clerks there (which is 2 too many) and they were all sleeping. After all of that, half the people seem to take really long lunches and the cafes seem so busy. It seems to be a pretty laid back working class.

We could have used a little laziness ourselves, as the family takes us for a nice afternoon at a hot spring spa, at Thanh Tan. You can start your way at the bottom of the spa, where the water is the mildest, and move towards the natural spring, where it gets to as warm as 60 degrees celsius. The spa is also like a water park, but all with warm spring water. After soaking up the warm water and beautiful scenery, we enjoy a massage. The nice part about all of this is that we were able to provide all the amenities to the entire family of almost 20 for less than the price of a 1 hour massage here.

Later that evening I break away with my cousin, Chau, which I did every evening and would just ride around in his moped at night, hanging out at the many cafes. That night we also stop by the university, to watch a performance in which Chau's "friend" was performing in. Performance ranged from traditional folk music, to viet pop and bands rocking it out. It's nice to be hang out with Chau, as he knows all the things going on, and can take me anywhere.

The following day would be our final day in Hue, and it was well spent time with the family. As my brother and I have never been out to the North, we take a couple of our cousins, including Chau since he knows everything in Vietnam. We fly out to Hanoi that evening, to start a tour out there.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wedding in Hue & River Cruise

Date: Tuesday & Wednesday, January 5 &6, 2010
Travel: Rental Van
Party: Vu & Family
Lodging: Duy Tan Hotel
Photos: 20100105 Nhu Bich's Wedding Photo Journal, 20100105 Hue Huyen Tran Citadel

January 5,6. I set my alarm to 4:30 am, as this morning my cousin had the wedding at the church set for a 5 AM ceremony. 5 AM!! It was on a Tuesday, at 5AM. Driving down the streets of Hue, it seemed like there was a wedding at every corner. Apparently this was the wedding season of the area, as January has the most mild temperatures. If standing in suits under the sun still drew plenty sweat in the mild month of January, imagine how soaked we would be in warmest month of July. The 5 am ceremony was done in order to start the traditional ceremonies at 8am, followed by an immediate reception at the grooms house, where they actually had about 5 tables for guest. Following this meal and party, the bride and groom was actually scheduled to do it 2 more times, as another rotation of 5 more table worth of guests would come, followed by another rotation.
After all that, my family went out to pay homage to my grandmother's burial site, which rested on a nice piece of land. However this is a temporary site, and would be one day removed to make way for a resort or park. Something doesn't sound right about that. Nearby, we visited the Huyen Tran cultural center, which a memorial for a legendary princess. The place is newly constructed, and the complex was still being built, but was complete enough to marvel in the site. The rest of the time, we revisited the imperial city, which had just recently started reconstruction. We enjoyed some of the local fare, which was probably one of the better eating experiences of the trip. The rest of the night, I would spend time with the family and make the most of my time with my ailing grandfather, who seemed to be getting a little better while we were there.

The following day was a little more of the same, spending some time with the family visiting the nearby imperial sites, as well as spending some more time with the family. That evening we rented an entire boat, which we comfortably sat 30 or 40 members (we have a big family). On this river cruise, we would be entertained by folk music, but performed by a younger generation of people. The neatest part of the performance was with the percussions created by tea cups, harmonically coordinated between the fingers of the performers.

Monday, January 4, 2010

We make it to Ba Na

Date: Monday January 4, 2010
Travel: Family Car
Party: Vu & Aunt
Lodging: Duy Tan Hotel
Photos: 20100104 Ba Na Hills

I set my alarm to 5 am, which is brutally early for my standards. My aunt and I grabbed a bowl of pho, which was cheap and available at 6am. It's kind of like grabbing a breakfast burrito at Los Betos. It was decent, but its nothing like the pho at home.

We then returned back to Ba Na hills (after a failed attempt the night before) when the sun was breaking out and you could actually see why you would want to come here in the first place. The hills and the landscape overcast-ed by the hue of the sunrise was remarkable, and the agricultural presence of the country was alive. We arrived a bit early, and the first ride up was set at 9am...or so the sign says. Buses full of tourist were already coming in, yet no one even manned the ticket booth until 5 minutes after, and then there was a huge onslaught of workers roving through, on the count of about 150 or so. So even though the place was open at 9, there was no staff up at the top, they all came 5 minutes after, and then they have to take the cable cars up, creating a long line before any paying customers can go up. You would think that a tourist attraction like this or any larger scale business, staff members would be present a half an hour or hour before opening. Anyways, my aunt was able to talk our way through to the front of the line, ahead of the staff workers, and we were on our way. The tram ride on the longest cable car in the world was at least 15 minutes long, soaring above the jungled hills. You can see the the lush green jungles, the rapids rushing down the hills, and the recklessness of landscaping crews, who were picking up trash while scaling on the side of the mountains to where a slip would have them fall to their deaths. No safety here and it makes you wonder how safe those cable cars really were. Well..I suppose I am still here writing this post.

Once we get to the top of the first line, there is another line that gets you slightly higher, to the peak. At the top of this rests a nice mountain resort. This is where we would have stayed had we spent the night before. You can see the clouds roll through, unfortunately blanketing the city from here. The air was definitely clean and fresh, but the place was still being developed, and some coffee would definitely be ideal. There is a temple and a giant buddha nearby, which was in walking distance.

As the early morning came to an end, we go back down and go back to town, having lunch with the newly weds and sending my other cousin to work. In the evening my uncle and aunt drive out to Hue, where we try reach my other cousin's wedding (or pre-wedding) reception. Hue and Da Nang, doesn't seem that far looking at the the map, yet it was still a 2.5 hour drive, due to the 30-40 km/hr speed limits, windy roads (albeit pretty). We ended up showing up late (of course). After a shorter evening, I crash at the hotel for a hectic day.

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