Erica and Matt Chua: Vietnam on Arrival

Downtown Ho Chi Minh

Vietnam.  For a 20-something American the name signifies a war more than a place.  I have seen the movies, but have little understanding of the place and conflict.  I know we went due to the Domino Theory, but I never grasped how a theory became a war.  I know we fought and lost.

I headed off to Vietnam without doing any research.  It was only recently that I had learned where Vietnam was on a map.  I heard Vietnam was a fast developing country with factories producing for the West.  It sounded like many places I had gone, but on arrival it gave me some shock and awe.

When I arrived from Singapore I was surprised by how large, clean and new the airport was.  It could have been in any developed country and was nicer than most American airports.  The change was especially stark coming from Singapore’s Budget Terminal which was like the sanatorium in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  The only airport hassle was picking up my Vietnam Visa on Arrival from a bureaucratic regime that was holding up 30+ people.  Luckily, my visa processed fastest of anyone on my plane and faster than most on a plane that had arrived earlier.  After gathering myself and belongings, I exited the airport expecting a crush of touts, taxi services and unsavory individuals that hound tourists in many airports.  As I exited I was surprised by the calm and order.

Outside I met a Finnish man who was being hassled by a taxi tout, in hushed tones only good English speakers could comprehend we surmised that we were heading to the same area.  I told him I wanted to take the bus and he agreed.  The taxi tout told us the last bus had left as service ceased at 6pm.  It was 5:55pm.  We haggled to an agreeable price and the tout told us to wait in the parking lot.  Realizing he may not be allowed to fetch passengers at the door, we obliged and waited.  Minutes passed and the tout was nowhere to be seen.  Then the bus arrived.  With no taxi in sight we boarded the bus which was 94% cheaper than the taxi would have been.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Vietnam on Arrival

Erica and Matt Chua: Hiking the Routeburn Track

This was our second Great Walk in New Zealand.  Click here to read about the Milford Track, New Zealand’s most famous hike.

Inscribed on almost every “World’s Best” hikes list is the Routeburn Track in New Zealand.  All too often the reality fails to meet the hyped expectations, but Routeburn does not disappoint.  From start to finish the trail wow’s you so much that the work of hiking is forgotten.

The sun rising outside the Routeburn Falls Hut, a fine start to our final day on the track.  This is a view hikers traveling in the traditional, Queenstown to Te Anau, direction are given on their first day.

Having completed the Milford Track just days earlier we chose to hike in the opposite direction of most, starting from Te Anau and hiking towards the comforts of Queenstown, the de facto capital of New Zealand tourism.  We had been discouraged by the weather report in the Department of Conservation office: freezing temperatures and snow at the level of the campsites.

Traveling with $25 warm-weather sleeping bags and yet to rent a tent, news of snow was unwelcome.  Given our experiences with rental tents we made the expensive decision to change from camping to staying in hut dormitories.  Even though the huts were listed as booked we learned that there are a couple extra beds always available for a difference of $36 NZD ($28 USD) per person ($54 NZD for huts versus $18 NZD to camp in high season).  Being budget travelers as we are, we lamented the cost, but decided that if greeted by rain, snow and freezing temperatures, this was the right move.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Hiking the Routeburn Track

Erica and Matt Chua: Hiking the Milford Track

What makes a “Great Walk”?  This question haunted me after reserving our spots on the Milford Track.  Reputedly one of the world’s best hikes, reservations are required months in advice at the cost of almost $250 USD per person for the four day, three night, hike.  What kind of public park hike requires you to carry all your stuff, cook your own food,and costs over $50 a day?  After a year of traveling on less, paying that much to hike uphill seemed absurd.  That said, having made the payment, we’d soon find out how great this Great Walk is.

After a beautiful boat ride to the trailhead the first day is lovably short hike through moss-covered forests.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Hiking the Milford Track

Erica and Matt Chua: He Said/She Said: Japanese Fashion

When you hear “Japanese fashion”, what do you think?  Middle-age men wearing Disney World hats, Las Vegas t-shirts and enormous cameras?  Or do you think the Harajuku women, dressed up like dolls, anime characters, and the occasional horse head?  Are their fashion choices representing craziness or self-expression in a repressive society?  Read our takes then have your say in the comments below.

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HE SAID…

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Fashion in Japan is interesting.  “Interesting” used in a Minnesota-nice sort of way, as in, “it’s not my thing, I’m not sure about it, actually it makes me a little uncomfortable, but I can’t say that because…well I’m a Minnesotan.”  I’ve been told that in other parts of the country people would say something like, “God bless their heart, I wouldn’t be caught dead in that!”  I think many of the fashions are absolutely crazy, the pedophile soliciting schoolgirl outfits, the dancing Elvises, the anime characters!?!  I don’t get it.

I don’t understand why people want to walk down the street and have people gawking at them.  I don’t get why people want to become a tourist attraction.  I really can’t comprehend why some of them get annoyed that tourists take photos of them, after all, they are the ones drawing the attention to themselves with their choices of clothing.  More over, how long does it take these people to get all done up like this?  Caking on the layers of makeup, doing up their hair, buying all the clothes, putting themselves together the way you would a Barbie Doll.  The time, effort, cost and ogling makes the whole production seem unrewarding.

Are those shoes comfortable?  Whatever you used to make your face look like that…is it toxic?  What if it doesn’t go back to “normal”?  Do you even care?  What do you want to be?  What feeling does it give you to do yourself up like this?  Why, why, why?  Maybe I have too many question, maybe I’m too cerebral for fashion, maybe it’s me that’s crazy, not them, but I’m pretty certain it’s them.

There is one thing I do like in Japanese and in broader Asian fashion: super short mini skirts.  If wacky english worded slogans on shirts, strange makeup combinations, or odd styles are what we have to accept to get super short shorts on a daily basis then I could be converted…

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Erica and Matt Chua: He Said/She Said: Japanese Fashion

David V. Hawpe: Fancy Farm, Mitch McConnell and Blackdamp

david hawpeAlison Grimes ought to remind the Crowd of Fancy Farm that Mitch McConnell is choking the U.S. Senate with blackdamp.

Given what McConnell knows about coal mining, aides may have to explain to him that blackdamp is a mixture of debilitating gases – as one dictionary puts it, a miasma “incapable of supporting life or flame.”

Fancy Farm is, of course, the political picnic in Graves County on the first Saturday in August that traditionally opens the Kentucky political season. St. Jerome’s Parish bills the event as the “World’s Largest One Day BBQ,” where you can get the “best barbequed pork and mutton you’ll ever enjoy.”

At the 134th renewal there will be plenty of ridicule on the menu. In recent years the jeers and the taunts have made it increasingly difficult to hear what the politicians are saying, but nobody seems to mind.

The only violence you can expect at Fancy Farm is the violence that a candidate occasionally and unintentionally does to his or her own campaign. I have in mind two of my favorite politicians. One ranted in front of the picnic crowd as if prepping a Nuremberg rally for the appearance of the main speaker. The other claimed he was one tough son-of-a-you-know-what, when in fact he’s too fine a fellow to qualify as, say, a latter-day Louie Nunn.

I said nobody minds the Fancy Farm faceoffs and dustups, but in fact the Goo Goos don’t like them. Good Government zealots think jeers and catcalls are a threat to political civility. They condemn all the mocking and heckling as if it endangers the democratic process.

I have to smile. If anything, our politics are too polite.

I’m reading a new book by Frederick Brown, “The Embrace of Unreason.” (No, it’s not about what McConnell has done to the Senate.) It’s about France in the period 1914-1940, where civic life was a bit rougher. Opposing groups once turned up at a Paris showing of an ideologically-charged 1930s film called L’Age d’Or, to find the theater lobby decorated in Surrealist art. As Brown describes it, angry right wingers “trashed the premises, splattering ink over the screen, destroying the projector, hurling stink bombs, attacking spectators with blackjacks, damaging the art, and tearing up copies of “Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution” (that were) on sale.”

In America these days we’re much tamer.

A Democratic congressional candidate in conservative Central Washington recently got into trouble merely for airing an online commercial in which he fired a pump-action shotgun at an elephantpiñata . The politically correct folks at Americans for Responsible Solutions condemned Estakio Beltran’s video as “irresponsible and offensive.” As it ends, Beltran rides off toward Washington on a burro.

This is a country where Fox News calls out the Muppets for being“anti-oil” and “anti-corporate.”

The worst damage politically active Americans suffer is Rush Limbaugh boring them to tears or Chris Matthews hurting their ears.

If you make it to Fancy Farm you might hurt yourself, by gorging on pig, but glut and heatstroke are about the only real dangers you’re likely to face. Nobody is going to grab a barbecued mutton shank and thwack you for wrong thought. The stink bombs at this event are likely to be verbal, and thrown from the stage, not at it.

Somebody ought to thwack the McConnell campaign if the senator uses this occasion to once again claim that coal miners need him in Washington. How many miners has he put back to work?

Jobs have plummeted at mines and prep plants in Eastern Kentucky since he was re-elected in 2008 – from 15,418 to 7,332. When he was first elected way back there in 1984, the number of miners working in Kentucky’s mountain coalfields was almost 30,000.

If Kentucky voters send Alison Grimes to Washington, she won’t fix the problem. But she won’t be silent about it either. I expect her to tell both Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to take their anti-coal attitude and shove it – politely, of course.

I’m certain she will join West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin in the Senate’s pro-miner caucus.

Manchin explained his view rather reasonably last year: “It is only common sense to use all our domestic resources, and that includes our coal. Let’s make sure that government works as our partner, not our adversary, to create a secure and affordable energy future, and let’s invest in technology which will have the ability to burn coal with almost zero emissions.” Senator McConnell has been a little more theatrical, charging the President with a “jihad” against coal.

It’s a shame the EPA can’t do anything about partisan emissions.

In the old days, miners took canaries with them underground. They knew they had to run from black damp if the canary died

The Democratic leadership also bears its share of the responsibility, but in Mitch McConnell’s gassy Senate, it’s functional governance that died.

David Hawpe, a native of Pike County who grew up in Louisville, has written about coal and Appalachia for more than four decades. This article was crossposted, with the permission of the author, from The Mountain Eagle.

Erica and Matt Chua: He Said-She Said: Missing the Holidays

Most of the year being away from home is just fine.  Daily life doesn’t give us much to miss, but the holidays are a different story.  Do we want to be at an ugly sweater party?  Yeah, you betcha!  Do we want to be feasting on unhealthy food just because it’s a holiday?  Of course!  Here are the key things about the holidays we miss.

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HE SAID…

December is a deceptively good month at home.  The fun of the holidays outweighs the fact that in Minnesota the temperature drops below freezing; a mark it won’t rise above until sometime in May.  While the air outside becomes frosty, inside it’s a different story, the warmth of people abounds.  Everywhere becomes festive, downtown Minneapolis hosts a nightly parade, stores that seem barren in the summer are wrapped in decorations, and people open their homes to share great food, catch up, and drink a little too much eggnog.  Overall, December is a month that I wish were longer.

Ever seen The Hangover?  At the end they find a digital camera with photos of the night before that show scenes that are unbelievable for even those that were there.  Our friend’s holiday party is like that.  Part of you wishes there were no digital cameras and facebook, but you also realize that’s a big part of the fun.  The party doesn’t really celebrate the holidays, rather it uses the holidays as a reason to party, in costume.  This year’s theme, Punk Rock Christmas, will celebrate the decade we were born in, but too young to rock mohawks and leather jackets without our parents’ agreeing to pay for them.  Being the season of giving, there is a gift exchange where you can expect to walkaway with household essentials such as stuffed bobcats and profane inflatable objects. This is one holiday party that is a shame to miss.

Stuffed bobcat!?  You know you want one and the gift exchange is a great place to get it.

A close second to missing Punk Rock Christmas is being able to indulge in eating without shame.  The holidays are a time when it’s seemingly OK to catch up with family while holding a plate that only contains prime rib, lamb, and turkey.Sure, there are plenty of other things I could put on my plate, some carbs for example, but why?  Spending time with loved ones and a plate of meat is what makes December different from Thanksgiving when people will plop sweet potatoes onto your plate against your will.  The holidays are all about food, family and friends, which makes December a great month.
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SHE SAID…

I have always had a white Christmas, being from Minnesota having snow on the ground is a sign that the holidays are just around the corner.  While we have chased summer weather around the world, I miss the snow that tells me it’s time for holiday parties, ice sculptures and long standing family traditions.  Sure I wish I could attend friend’s ugly sweater parties and play secret santa, but what I miss most is our traditional  Christmas Eve meal and our eclectic Christmas Day gathering of friends and family.

My plate of food with Swedish meatballs, Swedish sausage, lefse and a tiny bit of obligatory lutefisk.

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Erica and Matt Chua: He Said-She Said: Missing the Holidays

Saul Kaplan: Vacation By Design

photo-saulI tried.  I really did try to take a break from all the design and innovation buzz while on vacation last week in Spain.  It didn’t work. Throughout an incredible ten-day sojourn across northern Spain design and innovation reminders were everywhere.  It wasn’t premeditated.  I am sure the lens through which I view the world has a lot to do with it but I also credit Spain, which has a clear case of the design and innovation bug.  Then again maybe my perspective was colored by all of the great Rioja wine.  Here are the design highlights from this innovation junkie’s summer vacation.

We started our Iberian adventure in the great city of Barcelona.  On our first day we set out to see Casa Battlo and La Sagrada Familia designed by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. Both were on our must do list and unanimous recommendations from many Twitter friends who had been to Barcelona. Goodbye jet lag.  Wow.  I wasn’t familiar with Gaudi before our trip but will never forget his work after seeing it.  Gaudi was ahead of his time.  He was more modern than the Modernist Art Nouveau period in the late 19th early 20th century he lived and designed in. Throughout Gaudi’s life, he studied nature’s angles and curves and incorporated them into his designs.  His works are iconic and seem to flow directly from nature. Gaudi said, “The great book, always open and which we should make an effort to read, is that of nature”.  Amen.

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Casa Battlo, or as the locals refer to it Casa dels Ossos (House of Bones), has a skeletal, visceral, natural feel throughout.  I don’t think there is a straight line in the entire house.  The way Gaudi used color and light to draw you in is amazing.  He devoted the end of his life, unfortunately cut short in 1926 by a tram accident, to the monumental church La Sagrada Familia.  He completed the amazing design but barely saw the work started.  The work continues on today and the iconic church spires define the Barcelona skyline.  There aren’t enough times in your life when design takes your breath away.  Visiting Barcelona and seeing Gaudi’s work took my breath away.

 

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From Barcelona we drove into Rioja wine country for some rural relaxation and leisurely wine tasting.  Surely my obsession with design and innovation could take a rest there.  No such luck!  The concierge at our beautiful Relais & Chateau advised us to visit a couple of wineries in the small village of La Guardia.  As GPS guided us toward the Marques de Riscal winery there was no mistaking the iconic design of Frank Gehry as we pulled in.  I had no idea that Gehry did Rioja.  But there they were, those signature metallic ribbons that remind me of the ribbon candy that we ate and got stuck in our teeth when we were kids.  I knew we were going to see his famous work in Bilbao later in our trip but wasn’t expecting to see it in Rioja country.

 

As we visited the winery it began to make sense.  Marques de Riscal is attempting to create a new positioning for the winery and its wines to blend tradition with innovation.  What better way to execute a transformational positioning strategy targeted at employees, visitors, and customers than to hire the iconic architect Frank Gehry.  I would like to think that wine is about grapes and fermentation but the business is all about brand, customer experience, marketing, and price point. It makes great sense to differentiate brand and customer experience through the power of design.  As a bonus the Rioja was pretty darn good.

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After several days in wine country the last leg of our journey took us north into the Basque region.  We headed for San Sebastian and took a side trip to Bilbao.  This time it was by design that we visited the Guggenheim Museum to see Gehry’s iconic work and its great collection of modern art.  It was wonderful to visit and I couldn’t help but think about the power that iconic design can have on a community.  Bilbao is an old industrial port city that has been transformed in part by the iconic Guggenheim into a design and innovation center in northern Spain.

 

I will spare you the details of every tapas bar, pintxos crawl, great restaurant, and winery we visited.  Trust me when I say that a good time was had.  Batteries are recharged and inspiration to advance the mantle of purposeful design and innovation is renewed.  Gracias Espana. El gusto es mio.

Erica and Matt Chua: Agra’s #1 Attraction

Every year millions of tourists flock to Agra to see the white marble, architectural marvel that is the Taj Mahal.  Few leave disappointed.  To enjoy the magic of the Taj give yourself a few days to truly take in this legacy of the Mughal empire.  Seeing the domed mausoleum from several different vantage points will leave you awe-inspired and offer you the best opportunity for a prized photo.

The Taj was completed in 1653 after 22 years of construction and some 20,000 workers contributing their efforts including specialists from as far away as Europe.  It is widely thought to be the most beautiful building in the world.  Shah Jahan built it as a memorial for his second wife, Mumtaz whom died giving birth to their 14th child. Not long after it’s completion Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son and imprisoned in Agra Fort.  He spent the rest of his days only able to admire the Taj from a distance until he was entombed in his own creation next to Mumtaz in 1666.

Unlike Shah Jahan, you are not restricted to viewing the Taj from just one vantage point.  Being that likely your number one reason for paying a visit to Agra is to see the Taj, take time to find your favorite vista.  The four identical faces of the Taj are an exercise in architectural symmetry, yet the eye seems to notice different things from various angles.  Below are my three favorite views, each offering a unique perspective and gave me a new appreciation for this awe-inspiring memorial.

North Bank of the Yamuna River

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Erica and Matt Chua: Agra’s #1 Attraction

Erica and Matt Chua: India’s Big City Life

There are few situations more overwhelming than finding yourself in one of India’s largest cities. The sensory assault soon crescendos into an all out war on your senses with the cacophony of noises and smells fighting for your attention. The problem is these aren’t pleasant sounds and smells, constant honking, yelling along with the stench of garbage urine and body odor. So, what can I say to convince you that visiting any of these cities would be an enjoyable experience. Well, along with staggering statistics these cities also boast some of the best dining, sights and experiences India has to offer.

Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai

MUMBAI 20.5 million

Mumbai has something for everyone with the world’s most prolific movie industry, one of Asia’s largest slums, the most expensive residence ever built and more artists and servants than L.A. India’s most modern metropolis is a 24 hour party or the best place to find a good book and a proper cup of coffee- you decide. We’ve talked to travelers that couldn’t get out of there fast enough, but we could have stayed and eaten the cupcakes at Theobroma forever. It’s a city where dreams are born and dreamers dwell, so come and get inspired!

When to Go: October to February

Don’t Miss: Chowpatty Beach (FREE), Malabar Hill (FREE, a round trip cab ride from Colaba is about $4) , Bollywood (If you’re an extra they pay you!), Restaurants of Colaba (a nice dinner for two $20-$100 without wine), Dharavi slum (tour through Reality Tours is $10 per person), Dhobi Ghat laundry area (FREE, a round trip cab ride from Colaba is about $4)

Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi

DELHI 17 million

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Erica and Matt Chua: India’s Big City Life

The RP at the WSOP — Day One of the “Little One for One Drop”

Johnny pokerYesterday’s $1500 no limit hold ‘em tournament was a wild ride.  For hours, I was grinding and grinding effectively, doubling, then tripling my stack.

Then, I was dealt the worst hand of all:  Two Kings.  Of course, two kings is the second best opening hand in all of hold ‘em.  But when one of your table mates is dealt the best hand — two Aces — you are in a whole mess of trouble.

When you are dealt two kings, you feel like the world is in your hands — and a whole mess of your opponents’ chips.  You are in clearly a dominant position against any other hand, and when no ace appears on the flop, you are almost guaranteed to be in a heavily dominant position.  You know, after all, your opponents only have a .45% chance of drawing aces.  A mathematical game, you can’t operate so cautiously as to fear that slim a probability.

So when it happens, two kings are a killer.  You have less than an 18% chance of prevailing.

And in my case, the odds held.  And I was knocked out of the tournament.

Good news is that there’s another tournament that begins today, and it is one of my favorites: The Little One for One Drop.  I wrote about last year’s event and the incredible “One Drop” global water charity it supports here.  And I’m back for another try today.

I’ve also tried to change my luck with a new fashion strategy.  Take a look at my outfit, and the first person who guesses my shirt fabric wins a prize.

Wish me luck.  And hope that I don’t get two kings again.

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