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.
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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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