September 2, 2015

Secret Vacation in Bali

I have spent a large portion of my life on Cinderella stories in which princes and rich men spoil their girls, buying them clothes and jewelry, whisking them away on fancy trips, showing them flashes of life in the lap of luxury. From Beauty and the Beast to Hana Yori Dango, there's always been something wondrous about that charmed life, where you don't have to choose between money and love.

But when I found myself flying first class to Bali, it wasn't because of a prince or a fairy godmother. I definitely felt like I was living the good life, going on another vacation when I'd been on a cruise the month before, having the flexibility to take a week off from work each month, and using my travel benefits to my advantage. I flew to Bali via Seoul, enjoying a flatbed seat with plush pillows where no one had to climb over me, a big television screen with a hundred movies (ironically, I watched Enchanted), and a six course meal. It's the way rich people fly, and I was going for next to nothing.

And the best part is, I did this. Without having to rely on anyone else, I got exactly what I wanted. I am my own fairy godmother.

I wanted to go on vacation by myself this time. Originally, I wanted to go to Montana and visit Yellowstone, find pho and go white water rafting, but I desperately needed a beach. I needed something that would make me feel human again, and preferably something inexpensive. Enter Bali, a place I've been wanting to check out. It was great for my budget - $77 for four nights at Bakung Beach Resort, which has a very nice pool and a balcony or veranda for each room. This was a vacation solely for me, and I had an urge to keep it to myself. I didn't tell anyone what I was planning, and I only told my parents where I was going once I got a seat on the plane to Seoul. Secret vacation indeed.

Bakung Beach Resort
Beautiful pool!

The room at Bakung Beach Resort was nice enough, considering it was less than $20 per night (I've paid more for a bunk in a hostel) and I wanted to spend more time out of the room anyway. The hotel was conveniently located close to the airport, and Kuta Beach was a ten-minute walk away. Unfortunately, that beach didn't have the sparkling blue waters I wanted, and was dingier than I expected. I had someone drive me to a gorgeous beach the next day, but that first day, I figured I was better off hanging out by a big beautiful pool.

I decided to borrow some space at the Holiday Inn Resort, where they had a huge blue pool that faced the beach. I bought a drink and sat down to read Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance in a lounge chair, but when the staff caught me looking at a fancy cabana, they asked if I wanted to use it. Don't mind if I do.

Cabana life.

Everything was so cheap in Bali. I went to the spa every day, because you can get an hour long massage for $6. So the first day I had a massage and facial ($12), the second day I went for a massage ($6) and the last day I had a gel manicure and pedicure ($27). Why the heck not?

And then, food. I must have paid $2-3 for each meal. I ate a lot of noodles - mie goreng is their standard fried noodle dish, and nasi goreng is fried nice. But the best food I ate was at this shop right by the hotel, where two ladies cooked different dishes to choose from each day. I would just point at the things I wanted - curry? fried chicken skin? is this squid? yes, I would love some chicken hearts! 

Seafood mie goreng
Day 2 breakfast at the two ladies' shop.
Day 3's assortment of goodies.
Mie goreng by the pool,
accompanied by Indonesian Bintang beer.

On my secret vacation, I just wanted to relax and pamper myself. Living this way was like a prince-less fairy tale, but also not like a fairy tale because I got badly bitten by bedbugs every night. Sadly, I didn't figure out I was being attacked by bedbugs and not mosquitoes until the last day, when it was too late to complain or switch rooms. Oops. At least the bites stopped itching when I got back!

Next: driving to Pandawa Beach and cultural hub Ubud!

250th post! woohoo!

August 26, 2015

State #1: South SF - Pho Saigon

In the quest for local, convenient Vietnamese food, I've often found myself at Pho Saigon, in South San Francisco. A mostly round building in a plaza with a variety of delicious choices (Philz Coffee, Paris Baguette, Five Guys, Bonchon Chicken, Take One Pizza, and Tokyo Sushi & Bar), it's the easiest place for me to grab Vietnamese food.

They have a pretty impressive menu, serving everything from phở to bún bò Huế to bánh hỏi - all of which I've ordered at some point. When I got back from the cruise, I was dying to have a bowl of phở. I wanted it to be my first meal, but alas, I returned to San Francisco just before 10pm, when most Vietnamese restaurants close. I settled for In-N-Out, so I have no complaints.

The next day, I had to get my phở fix. I was jealous of my parents, who were in Vietnam eating real Vietnamese food, but this would do. I ordered phở đặc biệt, priced at $7.95. Phở only comes in one size, and it took about ten minutes to arrive.

Phở đặc biệt

Cutting right to the chase, this was a big, average bowl of phở. Somehow, the broth tasted more like chicken than beef, definitely missing that beefy, meaty flavor I like. The noodles were in a big, tight clump, which I've always disliked. The rare steak was just barely pink, and a lot of the cuts of meat were on the dry side. I had to make a dipping sauce to make it more appetizing. Sure, it was phở, but I would try to avoid ordering it again.

The first time I came here, I ordered bún bò Huế. It looked different from what I'm used to - when I sent my mom a picture ("guess what I'm eating!!"), she couldn't guess. Because bún bò Huế doesn't usually look like this, with cha (Vietnamese ham). The color of the broth is right, but usually there would be some beef with bones sticking out, and my favorite topping, sliced banana blossom. But whatever, I was still in the mood for the savory, meaty heat of bún bò.

bún bò Huế

It was spicy as hell. Seriously. Hot soups always make my nose run, but spicy foods make it flood, and I was burning through tissues like crazy and still continuing to eat through the hot tears. I figured it was good for my sinuses, but to be completely honest, I would probably never order it again.

Fast forward to the most recent time I came. I ordered bánh hỏi, a dish I'd eaten a lot of in the previous month, when we were celebrating my grandma's đám giỗ and my grandpa's 90th birthday. It's seen as a skillful dish, and is commonly served for special occasions like weddings or đám giỗEvery party we went to served it, and for some reason I've always liked it. Bánh hỏi is just rice noodles, normally a very common dish. But these toothpick-thin noodles are woven into flat little rice mats, and are commonly eaten wrapped in lettuce and herbs, with nước chấm. They can also be eaten like regular bún, with everything mixed up on a plate. I had mine with grilled shrimp and nem nướng (grilled pork meatballs). The nước chấm, nem nướng and shrimp made for a salty combination, but this was pretty darn delicious. The best dish I've had at Pho Saigon, that's for sure.

The restaurant is usually pretty busy,  even though I believe most of the food is mediocre. Service is brusque and you pay at the counter when you're finished. There's a $10 minimum for credit cards. The atmosphere is all right - it's large and open, with cool wooden light fixtures and a noise level that would ruin a proper date. For family, friends, and solo diners like me, it'll do in a pinch.

Rating Breakdown:

Taste (9/14)
  • Broth flavor- 3/5
  • Noodle & meat quality- 3/5
  • Garnish selection- 1/2
  • Portion size- 2/2
Restaurant (12/16)
  • Service- 3/5
  • Cleanliness- 4/5
  • Atmosphere- 3/4
  • Speed of arrival- 2/2
Total: 21/30

Pho Saigon, 2280 Westborough Blvd, South San Francisco, CA 94080

August 19, 2015

A Day in Rome, a Dream Come True

The city of Rome evokes something from a lost time, with its crumbling ruins (actually quite well maintained), columns standing proud as the emperors that once ruled, and an abundance of classic buildings that seem tantalizingly distant from the modern world. Though it's packed to the brim with tourists, it's also full of history, unique sights, and amazing food. I was so glad I stayed an extra night there after the cruise ended.

Once I arrived in the city, I checked into my hostel, Rome To Stay. It was a lovely place, though the air-conditioning was a little weak. The owner, a perfect gentleman, pointed out all the places he thought I should visit during my short stay. He showed me on a map exactly where I should walk and take the train, but since I have no faith in my ability to navigate new international cities, I opted for the hop-on, hop-off bus to get around.

I stopped to snap a few photos of Santa Maria Maggiore, a basilica that set the tone for all the old architecture I'd see throughout the day. I made the mistake of showing a bit of interest in the hats that a man was desperately trying to sell on the street, and he hounded me relentlessly until the bus came to save me.

Naturally, I was excited to see the Colosseum, by far the most famous landmark in Rome. Entry to the Colosseum and the adjacent Roman Forum is included on the same ticket, so I strongly advise you to buy it at the Roman Forum, where there is never a line. Try buying it at the Colosseum and you will most definitely wait at least 30 minutes, if not an hour. I bought my ticket and explored the Roman Forum first. Looking at my pictures three weeks later, they came out so well, I can't believe I took them!

Click to enlarge the awesomeness!

Then I headed over to the Colosseum and walked right in, bypassing the poor schmucks unaware there was another place to get tickets. Iconic on the outside, unexpectedly large on the inside, it was an incredible sight to behold.

Interior - click to enlarge!

Concerned about my time, I skipped the Parthenon (in retrospect, unfortunate) and headed straight to the Vatican. St. Peter’s Basilica was stunning from the outside and apparently incredibly ornate inside. Entrance is free, but the line was incredibly long and I knew I couldn’t survive without shade, during what must have been the hottest part of the day.  It wasn't worth it to me to suffer any more than I already was, so I’ll have to come back when it’s cooler and explore more! Now, I guess I could have gone to the Vatican Museum, but at that point I was more worried about heatstroke. Feeling a little dizzy, I just wanted to finish the route and go home to the hostel.

So many people...
Piazza San Pietro

Next, I visited the iconic Spanish Steps (in Rome, what isn't iconic?). At the bottom lies Piazza di Spagna, one of the most popular squares in the city. It was crowded like a beehive, with half the people buzzing around animatedly, and the other half resting wherever they could find a seat. It was so hot that people were taking turns dipping their hands and arms and faces into the cold water streaming from the fountain in the center.

I was most excited for my last stop, Trevi Fountain - or Fonta di Trevi. It looks amazingly beautiful in pictures, and I hoped to catch it as the sun set so I could see it by day and by night. But my dreams were dashed when I actually arrived, for it was under renovation. Instead of water flowing against gorgeous statues, I saw a dry fountain blocked by a large barrier. And yet, tourists still swarmed the area trying to take a decent picture - myself included.

I can't lie, that was disappointing. I'll definitely have to come back at some point to see it in full glory. But even with that kerfuffle, I was satisfied with all that I'd seen. Hot and tired, I returned to the hostel for a shower and a bit of rest before dinner. I wanted some good Italian pasta; hopefully close to the hostel.

Just at the end of the street was this lovely church. I snapped a photo and realized someone was behind be taking the same photo, just with a different camera. We nodded at each other cordially, and I proceeded to peruse the menu at the nearby restaurant, a cute enough place with tables set up outside. 13 euros for a pasta dish sounded all right to me, and I looked up to see the same guy looking at the menu too.

"Are you traveling by yourself?" I asked. "Yeah," he said, and with little introduction, I asked him if he wanted to eat with me. He was a little on edge, saying he gets a daily stipend and it might be over budget, but he flipped to the pizzas at the back of the menu and figured it would work.

And that's how I ended up having dinner with a stranger. It was sort of like a blind date, only much more relaxed because there were no expectations, and the kid was 22. I've already forgotten his name - was it Spencer? - but he was in Italy researching art. We had a nice conversation. See? I thought to myself, I can be spontaneous. I can have fun. I can be fun.

Anyway, I had the brilliant idea of sharing, and Spencer or whatever was down, so we split pizza and pasta. It really was the best idea, because I finally had good pizza in Italy. Ours had four cheeses and surprisingly, walnuts. They keep serving it whole, though - look, we're Americans, we can only eat pizza cut in slices! Spencer, young but amiable, carefully sliced the pizza for us as I went wild over the pasta, perfectly, textbook al dente and complimented by fresh tomatoes and savory squid.

It was a lovely dinner, and I had to laud myself for having the audacity to invite a stranger to eat with me. For my one and only night in Rome, good conversation over tasty Italian food was the perfect way to end the night. Though it was only a day, and a sweltering one at that, exploring Rome was still like a dream come true. Places I'd always heard of but never really thought about, suddenly staring me in the face and blinding me with the glamorousness of their authenticity. You can't be surprised at the masses of tourists - it's still a city everyone wants to visit.

August 12, 2015

Pompeii & Amalfi Coast

Our next stop was Salerno, one of many cities along the beautiful, scenic Amalfi Coast. Others include: Sorrento, Naples, and Amalfi. For me, the highlight was Pompeii, just a 45-minute train ride away.

Amalfi Coast

Pompeii, along with neighboring Roman cities, was buried under 13-20 feet of ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted way back in the year 79. It was rediscovered in 1599, and its excavation provided an accurate picture of life in that time because everything was preserved so well in an environment without air or moisture. Honestly, I think I first read about it from the Magic Tree House books - anyone remember those? I’m not a huge history buff, but it was an archaeological area I was really interested in exploring. (Next on the list - the Moai heads of Easter Island. I am absolutely determined to go before any of my friends!)

Pompeii was a little tricky to get to. Honestly, it wasn’t that hard - I knew we were supposed to take the train to either Pompeii or Napoli, which we did. We watched the stops carefully and exited at Pompeii, but the signs from the station weren’t clear and we walked the wrong way, probably losing 40 minutes. FYI, it’s a straight shot from the station to this church:

And then there are plenty of signs pointing to the archaeological zone to the left of that building. I heard somewhere that there were no maps at the site, so I figured we should stop at an information center that advertised free maps. A friendly girl was telling us about their handy for-fee audio guides, which would come with a free map. "Actually, I just want the map," I said, and her expression immediately changed. "You don't want the guide?" she snarled. "There are no signs inside!"

"Can I just get the map? Outside it says 'free maps'..."

"The map comes with the guide," she reiterated, and things were getting ugly. I had to leave before she attacked me. It seems like these Italian ladies can be real aggressive and downright hostile! Don't waste your time with their badgering, because we got maps and information booklets included with our €13 admission. I almost wanted to return to the information center and say something douchey, like "I got my free map! Thanks a lot, [expletive deleted]!" Almost.

It was hot, but I was really excited. We saw bodies mummified by ash - or at least, plaster casts created during excavation by pouring plaster in the voids within layers of ash that once held dead bodies. They were breathtakingly sad - people frozen in time, some clutching their children, some covering their faces, some seemingly resigned for whatever came next. It was sad, but compellingly and undeniably fascinating.

The excavations of Pompeii extend over 100 acres, divided into 8 regions. I could have spent hours there, searching for specific things from the information book, like the baths, temples, or theaters. Sadly, I was more interested than my friends, and it seemed like the heat was getting to them, so I said we could go back even though we'd only seen a small part.

I at least got an idea of this preserved Roman city. It's ominous seeing Mount Vesuvius in the distance, looming over the destroyed city. It's still active; the last eruption was in 1944. The area around it is now densely populated, so it's an ever-present threat.

Panorama - click to enlarge

Rather than ancient ruins, my friends preferred to see beautiful waterfront cities. Well, who could blame them? They wanted to visit Amalfi, but it took us a while to get back, and we ran out of time. We had just enough time to take the Travelmar ferry there and come right back. It was slightly risky, but off we went. It was a lovely 30 minute ride over, and though the sky was a little hazy, we saw blue grottos, striking cliffs, and…what’s that?

Yes, a mansion built right into the cliff. I couldn’t believe my eyes! We marveled at how that was built, and wondered how hard it was to get basic needs like food and toilet paper up there. Ah, who knows what it’s like to be that rich?

The cities nestled in the valleys between mountains were so lovely and picturesque. So Italian.

Finally, we reached Amalfi. It was unfortunate that we didn’t have time to look around, but we were glad to have at least seen it. The Amalfi coast is certainly worth returning to. “I get why people say Italy is their favorite destination,” Amanda said.

We had to switch boats to get back, and the only ferry that would get us there in time to get back on the cruise ship was just about to leave. Amanda went to hold our place in line while Melissa and I went to buy the tickets.

“The next ferry is at 5:45,” said the bored girl at the ticket kiosk.

“What about the 4:15?” I asked nervously, eyeing the boat. Our ship sailed at 6.

“It’s gone,” she said.

“It’s still there, though…”

“Look,” she said, suddenly aggressive. “If I sell you the ticket and you miss it, I can’t refund it.”

I looked at Melissa. We silently confirmed that this was the only ferry that would get us back in time, and we could not be stranded in Salerno! “It’s fine,” I said resolutely. “I’ll take two tickets.”

“I can’t refund it,” she insisted.

“I’ll take them anyway!”

Armed with our precious tickets, we ran back to the ferry, where somehow there was still a line. Was it full?! But I made my way through the throng to find Amanda, who was frantically waving us over. Apparently those people were waiting for another boat, and Amanda was literally holding the ferry for us. We clambered onboard the crowded ferry, holding onto whatever and sighing with relief.

The thing about cruises, Amanda noted, is that time is really limited. It’s probably best to decide on just one thing to do, or book an excursion if you really want to make the most of your time. But excursions are expensive, and even if you just did a couple, would probably run you a few hundred dollars.

Like I said in my last post, sightseeing on cruises is pretty minimal. I still don’t mind. I’m glad I got to see Pompeii and Amalfi, if even for a little bit. And barely catching that last ferry certainly makes for a memorable experience!