Monday, December 30, 2013

I'm Moving!

I’m moving!  No, I’m not getting out of Chicago. I’ve decided to move my blog. Not only am I moving away from blogger.com I am changing names too.  I came up with the name of Life and Times of Tim in 2007 – which ended up being the name of a short lived HBO show.

I’ve decided to change the blog name to Tim-Foolery.  I find it to be mildly clever and is much less of a mouthful compared to the Life and Times of Tim – agreed?  The blog content will continue to focus on the following:

  • Travel
    • Reviews of Trips, including airlines, hotels and experiences
    • Points/Miles/Promotions
  • Food
    • Recipes/Cooking
    • Restaurant Reviews
    • Wine/Cocktails
  • Home
    • Design
    • Garden
Where can you find my new blog, you ask?  Point your browser to: Tim-Foolery.com.  Go ahead and update your apps/readers now.  I’ll be sure to post blog updates on both the new site and the legacy site for a while , but in a few weeks the old site will go dark.


I’m looking forward to this change and hope you all enjoy it too.  I also look forward to your thoughts and opinions of the new site – including both content and design.  Let me know your thoughts - but remember, whenever you move it takes a little while to get things setup the way you like...

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Monday, December 09, 2013

Cu Chi Tunnel Bike Exploration

We've gotten in the habit of taking bike tours while we vacation and we decided to venture out a bit on our visit to Southeast Asia.  We didn't want just take an urban bike tour of Hanoi or Saigon (too damn dangerous in my mind), but we did want to get on the bikes again.

We did some research on TripAdvisor and found a group who would drive us out of Saigon where we would hop on the bikes and ride a total of 25km, which the route would include a ride through some rubber plantations, rice fields and small villages before we visit the tunnel areas.

The tunnels were essential for the Viet Cong's battle against the Americans during the Vietnam War (the American War).  The system of tunnels were more than 250km long covering multiple levels underground.  These tunnels allowed the Viet Cong to transport supplies (food and munitions) without the American's intervention.  People, not just soldiers, lived their lives in these little tunnels - cooking and sleeping here as well.

Our guide picked us up at 08h00 and we drove 30km outside of Saigon before we got on the bikes.  The bikes were in pretty good condition, not perfect but mostly safe. Our group of 4 were the only ones on the tour and our guide had just returned from leading an 8 day bike tour of the Mekong Delta area.  I think he was disappointed that we weren't as avid cyclers as his last group.

We made a couple stops along the way to look at the road side shops selling everything from fruits and veggies to live animals, etc.


Eels for sale
Dinner?
Moving farther down the road we come across a large rubber plantation. I really loved this part of the ride as it reminded me of the great film Indochine.  It was so calm and peaceful to ride being surrounded by the rubber trees.

Rubber tree plantation
The Cu Chi Tunnel area was more formally organized than I expected. There was an actual visitors center, guided tours, etc. Our bicycle guide acted as our guide on site as well, which was a bit of a double edged sword. He really seemed frustrated by our group.  He seemed quite hurried and rushed through some of the exhibits and areas.

One of the exhibit centers with a traditionally thatched roof.
Cap to the tunnel entrance
Peek-a-boo!
Booby trap!
We were then were given the chance to enter the tunnels through one of the access points.  It was a very tight fit and was quite unnerving ducking down into that area.


I could barely fit into the access point
GOOD BYE!
Now you see me, now you don't...
We continued through the area learning how the people lived during the American War, seeing their uniforms, their weapons and learning of their tactics.

Hammock

Rest area for VC troops including a hammock
Remains of a US Tank



Representation of daily VC life

VC Tunnel Hospital

Samples of ordinance used in war
We then left the official park and continued another 10km (or so) to get lunch.  The ride was long and very hot/humid at this point.  I lead the pack and decided that I was too hot and needed to stop for some sugar cane juice -- the guide did not want us to stop, he wanted us to power through the heat but I had no part of that. He was quite frustrated by me at this point too, but we needed to stop.

Exhausted and enjoying sugar cane juice.
We continued on a bit farther for lunch.  This was probably the worst selection for lunch on the entire trip. Most of the restaurant was filled with cruise ship people (Europeans and Americans). The food was bland and so poorly cooked. I was so horribly disappointed here.  The food thus far on the trip had been pretty great - this was really bad.

Lizard wanting to join us for lunch -- he could have it!
Watch out Ryan, he's right behind you!
Mediocre food after ride.
The one nice thing about that restaurant - and I must say, there was just one nice thing, was the views. The restaurant was surrounded by marshland.  I wouldn't visit this restaurant for the view though.
Marshland view from restaurant
View back to the restaurant
Closer to the restaurant
I am happy we did this bike tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. I was far from impressed with our tour guide. He was knowledgeable and spoke English very well - he was just rushed and seemed quite frustrated by us.  I would recommend taking this ride, but I would not recommend using this guide. We coordinated this tour through Exotissimo, which came highly recommended from other friends. They have a nice network throughout Southeast Asia.  The booking process and the plan of the tour was good - I think we just got a dud of a guide.

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Sunday, December 08, 2013

SPG Platinum - A First For Me

This week marked a first for me - achieving Platinum Status with @SPG.  I crossed the 50 night in a year threshold last week at the Le Meridien Mexico City, but since I hadn't fully earned the status, at the time of check-in, I didn't get to reap the benefits while in Mexico. 

This week I returned to the Sheraton Garden Grove - Anaheim South hotel for work.  While their systems hadn't been fully updated to reflect my new Platinum status, I showed them my "card" from the smart-phone app and they were able to update their records.  Here's what I got for being a Platinum at this hotel (compared to what Gold gets):

  • Welcome Gift of 500 Points (only 250 for Gold)
  • Complimentary Internet (charged at $9.95/day for Gold)
  • Complimentary Welcome Bottle of Wine (Nothing for Gold)
The best part, was how excited both of the young women who were working check-in when I arrived were when they found out this was my first stay as Platinum.  They were absolutely giddy.  The woman who was helping me was a bit stereotypical young Asian - she was super excited and when she laughed she covered her mouth and cast her gaze to the floor, almost like she was embarrassed she was so happy.  She was great!

I think I was supposed to get either the 500 Welcome Points or the bottle of wine.  I didn't drink the wine (I was hardly in the hotel room at all), so I left it for housekeeping with a note thanking them for their help. I am sure that wine goes right back into inventory.

There was only two nights from the time I earned Platinum until my next stay, so it isn't surprising that my reservation wasn't updated, but my SPG account was updated to reflect not only the new status, but I was immediately credited with the 10 Suite Night Upgrades (more on that later) as well.  

When you cross over a new Status Threshold (regular to Gold then again from Gold to Platinum) you get the option of choosing either Double Starpoints for a month of your choice or 35% off a redemption of Starpoints.  I haven't decided yet, but my gut says Double Points in April when I'll be staying at a relatively high priced hotel for work.  I haven't fully made my decision yet.

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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Infidelity

I am a @United guy. Everyone knows that. When I am not flying United, I'm flying one of their Star Alliance Partners (either because United doesn't fly directly to the destination in question -- or because I am using United MileagePlus miles for partner travel in a premium cabin, which I otherwise couldn't afford).  I flew non-Star Alliance Airlines on a trip to Southeastern Asia only because no Star Alliance carriers flew the routes I needed (HAN-SGN-REP-PHN).

I decided to try American Airlines for an upcoming trip to Nashville.  God Forbid.  I haven't flown American since 2007 (ORD-SAN-POS-MIA-ORD).  I made this choice for two simple reasons:
  • I do not need anymore EQMs on United to keep Premier Gold Status (50,000 miles)
  • United doesn't have a convenience schedule from ORD-BNA.
I have to be in Nashville for a holiday lunch party, but I also have a dinner that same night - both work functions that I really can't miss.  I must admit, I'm a bit excited about trying the American product - even if it is just a crappy little Regional Jet, on an airline with which I have no status.

How bad can it be, right? It's only an hour flight - and the times work for what I need.  

Do you ever feel like your cheating on your airline (or hotel) of choice when situations like this come up?  

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Monday, December 02, 2013

Thanksgiving Travel

How did this busy travel weekend treat you? Did you all take a trip to see family or did you stay home (or did you take a trip to get away from family)?  We took a quick trip to Mexico City (full trip report coming, I still need to finish Southeast Asia from earlier this year -- I promise to have that report finalized before the end of the month) and on this trip, we ran into many of the people who make travel so difficult.

Firstly, we had some of the rudest flight attendants I've ever come across - both the outbound and inbound flights were crewed by people who had lost all love for their jobs.  Everything from aggressively providing completely inaccurate information to lacking all the basics of customer service (waking me up to ask if I want a drink, then getting angry with me as they set the full trash bag on my tray table/lap while navigating a busy aisle).

The crews weren't the only ones who were struggling - we saw many people today who had the DYKWIA (Do you know who I am) mentality.  One guy was pissed because the flight from SFO-MEX had to land in Guadalajara because of fog in MEX. Evidently United should have called him before the flight left SFO to let him know he could sleep in (he was on the MEX-SFO leg).

All in all, we had no delays and very few personal run-ins with idiot travelers.  Obviously, Thanksgiving travel brings out the folks who aren't frequent travelers, so those of us who are in the air a bit more need to cut them some slack and try to go with the flow. If you are a frequent flyer and you are stressed, just think about how people who fly but once a year feel.

What are your Thanksgiving travel horror stories?  Did you have trouble getting to your destination? Did you have trouble with house guests?  Did you have a guest use bath linens as toilet paper (I got two texts from friends who had friends/family do that this weekend)?

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

New Starwood Promotion

Starwood today announced their first promotion for 2014.  The promotion itself is pretty lackluster.  For every 5 nights you stay you earn 2,500 bonus Starpoints.  This equates to getting an additional 500 Starpoints per night. This really isn't that exciting of a promotion, but it's a whole lot better than nothing, I guess. If can earn a maximum of 10,000 bonus Starpoints for staying a total of 20 nights.
You have to register for this promotion, but registration isn't open quite yet. Registration should open mid-December, according to the SPG website.  You'll earn these points for stays at ANY SPG hotel (this is huge, because most of the time dozens of hotels - usually the ones I want to visit - opt out of these promotions) between January 5 through April 30, 2014.
Image
While it's nice to see any type of promotion for the first part of 2014, this one isn't very lucrative and is definitely not mattress run worthy.  In any event, don't forget to sign up - it'd suck to miss out on this opportunity, no matter how bleh it is.
Will you be planning any special SPG stays because of this promotion?
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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Aloft Smart Check-In

I received an email from @SPG congratulating me on being specially chosen to participate in an exclusive program wherein they send me a special key card and when I stay at participating Aloft hotels I can by-pass the check-in desk and go directly to my room. The day of check-in, the hotel would send participants of this program an email notifying us of the rooms to which we've been assigned.


This is an interesting idea - and based on a few of the last hotel stays I've had, I would have loved this benefit.  Recently in Nashville I was stuck in line (in the SPG Gold/Platinum Line) behind people who seemed like they had never been out of their mother's basement before.  The people in the non-Gold/Platinum line were even worse - they were demanding suite upgrades because they had a long cab ride in from the airport.  God I hate these people.

Usually when I check in to a hotel, I like to chat up the front desk people - mostly to see if I can talk them into giving me a better room.  At an Aloft that is usually just a room with a better view or located in a quieter part of the hotel (away from elevators, on higher floors, away from public outdoor spaces, etc).

I signed up for this benefit and once I make my first stay, I'll report back on how the whole thing works.  I'm not at all sold on this "benefit" as of yet.  Since this is only for Aloft and there isn't a chance for any real upgrade I don't think any other benefits would be lost.

Who else got this "benefit"?  What do you think about it? Do you think there is any benefit to this new program? Have you received your new Aloft Card yet? Does it indicate your SPG status on it?  I'd hate to be stuck carrying two SPG cards (Aloft permanent room key, SPG Platinum Card...and my SPG Amex).

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Huge Day In Dubai

Today was the first day of the Dubai Airshow and it was big.  There are a ton of news articles about the transactions.  Emirates made the biggest splash by agreeing to purchase 200 aircraft - 150 Boeing 777X and 50 Airbus A380 - plus options to buy an additional 50 planes.  According to an Emirates representative, this will be the largest aircraft order in the history of aviation.

Love this photo from the official Airshow website, don't you?
When you include the other two major gulf carriers - Qatar and Etihad - $150B worth of airplanes (list price) were committed to in the first day alone.  These carriers purchased nearly 260 aircraft on Sunday. While there is still the option to cancel the orders at a future point (economic downturn, delivery delays, etc), but this order shows that the 3 main Gulf Carriers are investing in their future. They intend to bring the world to the Gulf - even if it just to connect as you travel the world.

I haven't had a chance to fly any of the Gulf-3, but I would love to cash in some miles/points to fly a premium cabin and spend a few days in Dubai/Abu Dhabi.  If you were going to hit the UAE for a long weekend, which airline would you fly and more importantly, how would you pay for it - cash (not I), American Express Membership Rewards? Starwood Preferred Guest Points? Codeshare miles?

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Saigon: Back of the Bike Tours

One of the more popular items we found when searching for activities in Ho Chi Minh City was a motorbike tour -- a motorbike food tour.  Score.

We decided to book with Back of the Bike Tours.  This tour was designed by an American Chef, who worked at Alinea (consistently ranked one of the best restaurants in the world and located in Chicago) and lived in the Vietnamese neighborhood in Chicago. He fell in love with Vietnamese food and decided to visit Vietnam - where he fell in love with the country, the people and a young woman.

The tour starts by picking you up at your hotel. You meet your driver, most of which are young women - the story is that young women are safer drivers.  We are riding on the back of our driver's personal motorbike and we are assigned to the same driver for the whole night.

No one in our group had ever spent much time (if any) on a motorbike before.  We were a bit apprehensive at first, but after we met our guides our fears were definitely lessened.
The bikes we'll be riding throughout the evening.
Meeting our guides.
All prepped for the dinner tour - including safety helmets.
Our guides were so nice, so welcoming and put us all at ease so quickly. Our tour leader (the owner) explained the plan for the evening, which included 6 different stops. All the food and all the drink we wanted were included in the price. He told us he could give us the names and addresses of the restaurants we'd visit, but he guaranteed we'd almost never find them again.  These places were off the beaten path, but just a few meters from major roads.  He also guaranteed that the restaurants would be full of locals and nearly no westerners.

As we headed out, we held on for dear life and snaked our way through the crowded streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Weaving our way through traffic around round-abouts and after a couple near-misses we made our way to our first stop. A traditional Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich served on a baguette). We each had half a sandwich (about 4" long) with pâté, peppers, pork, cilantro and pickled vegetables.  This was really great - so flavorful, so fresh.  One of our group is gluten free, so when we told our guide this, he immediately found an alternate meal for him.
Banh Mi Shop 
John enjoying his Banh Mi

Loved this sandwich.
Our second stop was harder to describe. We sat upstairs, had some beers and tried a few different sausages, meat spreads and veggies. Everything was really good here too - I really didn't know what some of the items were, but our leader and guides described them the best they could - moreover describing the taste versus the composition of the dish.
It was at this stop that we really got to sit down and talk with the leader of our group (who is also the owner of the tour company).  He told us of his passion for Vietnam, for the people, the food, everything.
The alley leading to our second stop, ample motorbike parking.
It's unclear what we were eating, but it was very tasty.
Pork, shrimp and some jellied meat...
 Our third stop was an outdoor area, where we had this amazing Vietnamese crepes - these were very eggy, so it seemed more like an omelette. Our guides showed us how to eat these, with the various herbs, vegetables all wrapped in a lettuce leaf.  I must admit, I was a little concerned about eating the herbs and veggies, I decided to give it a go and low and behold, no GI issues.  I did get advice from our tour leader (the American) and he assured me that these restaurants were among the cleanest around.

Open air crepe stations 
Large group of people loving the crepe stop.
Crepes cooking
All the fixins' for the crepes.
Ryan and I enjoying the crepes and drinking
some amazing sugar cane juice.
The next place we hit was probably my least favorite and it was a bun (noodle) shop. While this food was good, we had much better bun in Hanoi.  This place was also so brightly lit, it felt a little sterile - like an operating room.

Bright bun (noodle) shop.
Name of the Bun shop where we had dinner.

Our group posing after dinner. 
LET'S RIDE.
Our final stop was along a major thoroughfare for dessert.  We had some puddings, some durian and a couple very sweet drinks.  The durian, which most of the Vietnamese guides hated, didn't taste too bad to me. It wasn't like I had heard, so miserable and disgusting that it would turn your stomach.  I probably wouldn't order it on my own, but it wasn't all that bad.

Street at our final stop.
The tour ended about 3 hours after we started with us being driven back to our hotel. We said good bye to our tour guides, who we really got to know over these few hours. We talked about our lives, our studies, our dreams, etc. My guide wanted to travel and her goal, was to visit Bangkok. I asked if she thought about going to the US or to Europe and that question really shocked her. She said she never thought that would ever be a possibility, but if she worked hard she might be able to visit Thailand.  That was really surprising to me. Growing up in the US, I always knew that I could go anywhere I wanted, if I just saved and planned the trip. It is such a foreign idea to be restricted on where we could go.

This trip was fantastic, not only did we get to eat some amazing food, travel like the locals, meet people who were passionate about the country, food and really just living life, but we got to meet people who while very different from us, they had the same wants, needs and dreams.  This really is what travel is all about, isn't it?

Have you ever done a motorbike tour?  Does the idea of riding a bike throughout Saigon terrify you?  When visiting a new City do you try to hit up the local eateries or do you stick to things you are more use to?

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Saigon Sights

We woke up early in Saigon - mostly because our hotel room was still quite hot, poor air conditioning.  We were being rejoined by our friends who decided to spend a day/night in Hue. They would be meeting us around noon.  We got up and headed out, using the Frommer's walking tour of Ho Chi Minh City as our guide.

The first thing we noticed was the Saigon was much faster than Hanoi. There were more cars and the motorbikes weren't going a slow and steady pace, they were whizzing by. We would not be able to cross the street against the lights here - that would be a death sentence.

So many more cars and much higher speeds.
The modern Bitexco Financial Tower looms off in the distance. This 68 floor building was is currently the 124th tallest building in the world (263 meters). I dig this building - the first thing I thought when I saw it was that we don't have enough helipads in the US. It also looks a bit like the Burj al Arab. At least to me.

Tallest building in Vietnam until 2011.
We worked our way over to the Ben Thanh market, just a few minutes from our hotel. This market opened to the public nearly a century ago and inside you can purchase everything from tourist trinkets to food, raw silk and fine Asian arts.  It was very hot and humid when we were in Saigon and the market was very stuffy and since we weren't really in the mood for raw silk or Asian art we didn't spend much time here.

Ben Thanh Market

View from Ben Thanh Market with the Bitexco Building Looming
Inside the market
Crowded and full of things we didn't want to buy.
A fruit stand selling dragon fruit and durian.
We ventured out of the market continuing along the path Frommer's recommended.  We saw a different type of market - this was just an open air street market with locals picking up their supplies for the day.

Much less crowded market.
Fresh meat - no need for refrigeration.
More red meat and white things in a liquid bath...
This gives the fish counter a Whole Foods a run for it's money.
We eventually made our way to an old square, flanked by the Saigon Opera House, several Western (US and European chain) Hotels and a thriving high end shopping district. To quote David Puddy from Seinfeld: "What do you think The Gap in Rome has that's not in The Gap on Broadway?"  Not a big fan of hitting the shops abroad that I can get on Michigan Avenue at home.

Quiet square and the Opera House.
Hotel Intercontinental
Beautiful Boulevard near the Opera House.
Quite refreshing to see this green space in a busy City like this.
We took a brief break to cool off (super sweaty by mid day) and have some water and mango juice but after that we moved on to see the Ho Chi Minh City Hall.  The guards didn't like us taking too many pictures and there were signs indicating photography was prohibited.

Uncle Ho watching us take his pic.
Beautiful French Influenced City Hall
Mix of classic and modern
Our next major stop was the War Remnants Museum. This fascinating space displayed many of the items used in the American War (or as American's call it, the Vietnam War). So many US tanks, jeeps, planes and helicopters were placed around the courtyard of this space.


Fighter planes
US Air Force prop planes

US Helicopter, with what seems like an angry Vietnamese lady in front.

Tank on display 
Army issued bulldozer
Artillery
More artillery
My angry Vietnamese friend is back again
There was an actual museum here too which included lots of photography.  The most poignant part of this museum was the section about dioxins (a/k/a Agent Orange).  You have to remember that the "victors" right the history books and this museum was not an unbiased attempt to recap history. The descriptions under the photos were quite biased including language like: "imperialism" and the like.

Be that as it may, the photos of the impact dioxins had on the region speak for themselves. They (along with the other defoliants used by the US and Allies) severely burned the people who got in their way and for the others caused horrific birth defects.  There was even a section on how Agent Orange affected US soldiers. The most interesting tale was of a US Serviceman who after returning home from Vietnam fathered a very large family -- with each child showing the effects of the dioxins. I did not take photos inside this exhibit, as I thought it to be distasteful. You can easily find more information and photos online -- Google it.

War Remnants Museum
After the War Remnants Museum, we headed over to the Presidential Palace a/k/a Reunification Palace which was completed in 1966. This mid-century gem had many of the original design and color features - not something you see much of any more.

The palace with rain clouds coming in.
Palace grounds with rain getting closer.

Main conference area
Large lecture area - with several locals hanging out
Love this mid-century design
Aren't these fun little guys...
I always have to take pictures of cats when I see them abroad.
Even if they are stuffed.
What Presidential Palace is complete without two stuffed cats?
Formal office space
I need a cat in my office
The building was very warm, so Ryan decided
to enjoy the fan while we looked around
Who do you get when you use the pink phone?
In addition to cats, I enjoy photographing
various safety signs around the world.
Love these rocking chairs and the big circular couch!
We worked our way over to the Cathedral de Notre Dame and the neighboring old post office.  There was a service beginning at he Cathedral when we arrived, so we just snapped some outside pix and moved onto the post offices.
Cathedral de Notre Dame (with the post office to the right).
I love the grand boulevards of Ho Chi Minh City
This post office was designed and built by Gustav Eiffel (yes, of Tower fame).  We entered and were floored. It was such a beautiful space. There were two paintings in the grand foyer - one showing the greater Saigon Area and the other showing the telegraph lines around Vietnam and Cambodia.  Such an interesting view of time gone by.


Grand Hall
Telegraph lines around Vietnam and Cambodia
Individual telephone booths
The final stop we had to make before heading back to the hotel was a quick (theoretically quick that is) cab ride to the Jade Emperor Pagoda.  The cab driver didn't really know where it was, so he decided to drive us around to see if we could find it.  After a little bit of this nonsense we hopped out and walked.

The guide book built the Jade Emperor Pagoda up more than it should have been. Yes, it was nice to see the jade and watching the turtles swim was nice, but I could have probably skipped this stop.










We had to hurry back to the hotel as we had scheduled a night tour - on the back of motorbikes - which we were all excited to try.

What was your favorite tourist site in Saigon?  Did you think the Jade Emperor Pagoda was all it was cracked up to be?  Ignoring the brutality of it all, I do dig that Colonialism brought amazing architecture to certain parts of the world -- does that make me a bad person?

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