Day Twenty-three: Wednesday, March 19 (Beijing):

March 20, 2014

After two and a half days of great weather, and frankly nearly a month of very good weather, today was cold and grey.  We visited the Summer Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Summer Palace first build in 1750 is about five times the size of Tiananmen Square and includes a man-made lake in the shape of a peach with a bat on the side to symbolize long, healthy life in Chinese culture.  The Dragon Lady Empress Long Yu ruled with an iron fist as she pulled the strings of her three Emperor in name only nephews who were ages six, four and three as they were too young to rule on their own.  Innovations for the time included the first electric lights and the first telephone in China in 1908. 

We enjoyed a leisurely late lunch at a French restaurant.  After the late lunch I had the driver drop me off at the hotel so I could get a jump on packing as we had a very early flight home the next morning.  MaryKay and Bill did a little street shopping in a historic Hutong.

Beijing, Summer Palace, Boat

Beijing, Summer Palace, Boat


Beijing, Summer Palace, 1908 first telephone in China

Beijing, Summer Palace, 1908 first telephone in China


Beijing, Summer Palace, Living Quarters for Empress Long Yu, Dragon Lady

Beijing, Summer Palace, Living Quarters for Empress Long Yu, Dragon Lady


Beijing, Summer Palace, Tai Chi with Racket and Ball, Bill and MaryKay join in

Beijing, Summer Palace, Tai Chi with Racket and Ball, Bill and MaryKay join in


Beijing, Summer Palace, MaryKay, Bill and Jared PeachTree Blossoms

Beijing, Summer Palace, MaryKay, Bill and Jared PeachTree Blossoms

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Day Twenty-two: Tuesday, March 18 (Beijing):

March 20, 2014

We began our mild, clear day with a tour of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.  Tiananmen Square is the world’s largest public square and is surrounded by the China National Museum, Mao’s Mausoleum, the Chinese Parliament and the Forbidden City.  There is a large monument dedicated to all soldiers who lost their lives during any Chinese conflict throughout history.  In 2009 two huge jumbo-trons were placed in the middle of the square commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution.  These giant screens show a loop of ‘positive images’ demonstrating how successful and happy everyone in China is.  Ironic that as we were passing by the screens a protester began to shout, but within seconds he was whisked away by about a dozen armed guards, followed by a police van.  Not even time enough for a photo, just the way the Chinese government wants it.  Unlike other communist countries I’ve visited; Russia and Vietnam, you really feel the police presence here.

We took photos of ourselves with Chairman Mao as the backdrop, the image of Mao seems smaller in-person than it does on T.V., albeit it is still a very large image.  We then passed thru the many gates to the Forbidden City, now called the Palace Museum.  There are no trees, shrubs or plants of any kind in the main area as the Emperor wanted to be able to clearly see anyone coming.  There are three arches in the gates to the Forbidden City, the center one used by the Emperor and only once his wife, on their wedding day.  The other arches were used for government officials and commoners.  We passed by the area where the Emperor conducted his business, sleeping quarters and where his concubines lived.  On our way out we saw the Imperial Garden, which includes huge stone structures shipped from far away as a way of demonstrating wealth.  It was very expensive to ship such large objects and took years for them to arrive.

We then had lunch at an urban restaurant, which was good, we took vegetarian leftovers for dinner.  We then went to the Llama Temple, an active Buddhist temple even today.  Our next stop was the Old Beijing Hutongs, which is a historic shopping area.  I was happy our final stop, the acrobatic show was indoors as the temperature dropped precipitously.  The acrobatic show was the most amazing show any of us had ever seen and included a woman balancing on a set of chairs that she stacked to the ceiling of the theatre and seven motorcyclists riding in a circular steel cage.   

Forbidden City, Entrance

Forbidden City, Entrance


Forbidden City, Imperial Garden Library

Forbidden City, Imperial Garden Library


Forbidden City, Main Square

Forbidden City, Main Square


Forbidden City, Palace Chaise Lounge

Forbidden City, Palace Chaise Lounge


Forbidden City, Palace, Bill, MaryKay and Jared close up

Forbidden City, Palace, Bill, MaryKay and Jared close up


Tiananmem Square, Mao's Masoleum

Tiananmem Square, Mao’s Masoleum


Tiananmen Square, Parliament Building Close Up

Tiananmen Square, Parliament Building Close Up


Tiananmen Square, Jared, MaryKay and Bill in front of Mao image

Tiananmen Square, Jared, MaryKay and Bill in front of Mao image

Day Twenty-one: Monday, March 17 (Beijing):

March 20, 2014

I got up early and decided to update my blog, but was greeted with an unpleasant surprise, WordPress is blocked in mainland China.  I sent a brief email to family letting them know we got in safe and sound, but couldn’t update my blog until my layover in Tokyo as it was blocked in mainland China.  I have to say it is times like these when you really realize how valuable things like freedom of speech are. 

 We enjoyed the breakfast buffet at the hotel before meeting our tour guide Lisa in the hotel lobby.  Our first stop was the Great Wall of China.  The day was pleasant and included a breeze that blew the smog away so we had crystal clear blue skies.  We visited the Mutianyu Great Wall which has been partially restored and has hand rails, which we came to appreciate.  We took the ski lift chairs up to the top and then climbed around for several hours exploring the expansive views and the various guard towers.  MaryKay and I actually explored a little more than we intended to as we got a little lost at the top and ended up climbing the equivalent of 100 flights of stairs!  There isn’t signage at the top so we ‘missed our exit’ and had to double-back.  Eventually we re-joined Bill and Lisa.  We opted to use the bobsleds to get to the bottom, which was a first for all of us.  It was incredibly fun.

Our next stop was lunch at a non-touristy local restaurant.  Not only was the food outstanding, but the outdoor patio restaurant was incredibly beautiful.  After lunch we visited the Ming Tombs which was fascinating.  The third Ming, considered the first is important as he greatly expanded trade with other countries around the world, created an encyclopedia and made peace with the Mongolians.  He lived to age 71, which is amazing given the life expectancy of someone during the late 1300’s was 46.

Marriott Beijing Exec Apts, Decorative Glass Hanging from Ceiling

Marriott Beijing Exec Apts, Decorative Glass Hanging from Ceiling


Marriott Beijing Exec Apts, Dining and Living Rooms

Marriott Beijing Exec Apts, Dining and Living Rooms


Marriott Beijing Exec Apts, Bathroom

Marriott Beijing Exec Apts, Bathroom


Beijing, Ming Tomb 5

Beijing, Ming Tomb 5


Beijing, Ming Tomb Emperor Statue

Beijing, Ming Tomb Emperor Statue


Beijing, Ming Tomb itself

Beijing, Ming Tomb itself


Great Wall of China, Jared jumping

Great Wall of China, Jared jumping


Great Wall of China, Mountains with Chinese characters on them

Great Wall of China, Mountains with Chinese characters on them


Great Wall of China, Steps 3

Great Wall of China, Steps 3


Great Wall of China, View from Guard Tower 1

Great Wall of China, View from Guard Tower 1


Great Wall of China, MaryKay, Bill and Jared

Great Wall of China, MaryKay, Bill and Jared


Great Wall of China, Bill on tobagan

Great Wall of China, Bill on tobagan


Great Wall of China, MaryKay on tobagan

Great Wall of China, MaryKay on tobagan


Beijing Patio Restaurant 2

Beijing Patio Restaurant 2


Beijing Patio Restaurant 3

Beijing Patio Restaurant 3

Day Twenty: Sunday, March 16 (Travel to Beijing):

March 20, 2014

Matt’s flight left about three hours earlier than ours did and so we traveled separately to the airport.  I woke up at 5:30 a.m. when Matt was getting dressed and joined him at the buffet while he ate his breakfast so he wouldn’t have to eat by himself.  I then showered and got dressed while Matt packed up his carry-on items.  We met MaryKay and Bill at 7:00 a.m. so Matt could say good-bye to his aunt and uncle.  MaryKay, Bill and I then went up to the buffet for our breakfast before departing for the airport.

We easily found our luggage at the cruise ship terminal and fortunately a porter came with a large cart for our mountain of luggage.  We then waited on a very long line for one of the liquid propane powered Toyota Crown Comfort (think late 1980’s Toyota Camry) taxi’s to take us to the airport.  Hong Kong is a very green city and goes to great lengths to keep the water and air very clean.  Even the water by the ferries was clear.  We piled our luggage in the trunk and the front seat and squeezed into the backseat for the 40-minute ride to the airport.      

As we got closer to Beijing you could see the light brown haze of the smoggy city.  We arrived in Beijing and it took a while to get thru customs and collect our luggage.  We looked for our hired car, but didn’t see anyone.  I looked in the other exit area, but no luck.  Frustrated, I got us a van to take us to the hotel.  I later realized that the company I thought I’d reserved with never processed my request for the reservation.  The Imperial Mansion, Beijing Marriott Executive Apartments is an elegant hotel located near the Forbidden City in a pedestrian friendly area.  The hotel had a special and for about the same price as the breakfast buffet we could upgrade our rooms and the breakfast buffet would be included, which we did.  The rooms are actually one bedroom apartments, complete with kitchens, dining room, living room, even a guest restroom.  After we checked-in we found a nearby restaurant and had dinner.  MaryKay and Bill walked around a bit after dinner and I went back to my room to unpack. 

Day Ninteen: Saturday, March 15 (Hong Kong):

March 20, 2014

MaryKay made friends with Vicki the Buddhist Shore Excursions officer who suggested we use the ‘Hop on/Hop off Big Bus’ to explore Hong Kong.  We easily found the big red bus outside the cruise ship terminal.  The bus took us to the starting point of the hop on/off bus.  Our first stop was the bottom of the famous tram that takes tourists and daily commuters alike to the top of Hong Kong.  Fortunately we purchased our tickets when we got our bus tickets to avoid the very long line, think Ticketmaster for a Madonna concert pre-Internet.  The tram transported us at a 45-degree angle up the green and skyscraper lined terrain.  Once at the top we then took an escalator up another six stories.  The view from the top is amazing, albeit hazy at the time of our visit.  Hong Kong is Asia’s ‘world city’ and can be described as a cleaner New York City set among mountains, it is the most vertical city in the world.  Shopping is the favorite pastime.  After taking our photos we went down to one of the main plaza and retail levels.  While MaryKay, Bill and Matt got coffee I went in search of an ATM to withdraw funds for tomorrows cab ride to the airport.  On my way back I noticed a Marvel Comics store selling various super hero t-shirts and purchased a Superman one for myself.  The clothes in Asia tend to fit me better than in the U.S. as they are made for shorter people.  I was in a hurry and didn’t look at the price of the t-shirt and even with the ‘tourist discount’ was a little shocked that it cost the equivalent of $58 U.S. 

We then took the steep tram ride down and MaryKay and Bill took the green bus to see Stanley Market, the beach and a cruise around the bay while Matt and I took the red bus that connected to a ferry to enjoy high tea at the Hotel Intercontinental.  Tea at the Intercontinental is served in the contemporary lobby with floor to very high ceiling windows overlooking the water.  A string orchestra played popular music from the past few decades while we enjoyed our tea. 

We found our way back to the ship and finished packing.  We enjoyed our ‘last supper’ in the main dining room with MaryKay and Bill.  That night Matt enjoyed one more night of Karaoke, while I went to bed.

Hong Kong, High Tea at Intercontinental Hotel

Hong Kong, High Tea at Intercontinental Hotel


Hong Kong, Top Best Photo

Hong Kong, Top Best Photo


Hong Kong, Matt and Jared at top

Hong Kong, Matt and Jared at top


Hong Kong Bill and MaryKay at top

Hong Kong Bill and MaryKay at top


Hong Kong, Bill, Jared, MaryKay, Matt

Hong Kong, Bill, Jared, MaryKay, Matt


Hong Kong Tram Car on the way up

Hong Kong Tram Car on the way up


Hong Kong Tram Car on the way up 1

Hong Kong Tram Car on the way up 1


Hong Kong Tram Car Close Up

Hong Kong Tram Car Close Up

Day Eighteen: Friday, March 14 (At Sea, Celebrity Millennium):

March 20, 2014

Today was a fairly typical sea day, I went to the gym in the morning and we ate breakfast in the main dining room with MaryKay and Bill.  After Matt and I packed up what we could since we only had one more full day of the cruise, which would be mostly spent touring Hong Kong.  That evening Matt, MaryKay and Bill performed at Karaoke as I cheered them on.  My singing voice is best reserved for the deaf.

Day Seventeen: Thursday, March 13 (Ha Long Bay and Ha Noi, Vietnam):

March 20, 2014

Today even though I pre-paid for the Ha Noi tour, I decided to stay at Ha Long Bay to Skype with my parents, sister and her family since I haven’t been able to so far. I found a nice hotel, the ‘Dream Hotel’, which had a banner with all sorts of tech logos on the front and ‘2014’; I assume they were having a convention so I thought they might have good Wi-Fi and I was right. There was even a small cubicle and a chair for me to sit in while I make my calls and updated my blog. The next section about Ha Noi will be created from MaryKay’s, Bill’s and Matt’s experiences.

The four hour each way bumpy bus ride from Ha Long Bay to Ha Noi included much road construction, mud, rice patties and a series of small towns. Once in Ha Noi the tour stopped at a restaurant for lunch. After lunch the group visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, commemorating the revered Vietnamese president. The next stop was the Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace from where Ho Chi Minh ran Vietnam for many years. The following stop was the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison build by the French and was used to imprison the Viet Kong as well as U.S. Service prisoners of war. The final stop was in the center of the French quarter where MaryKay, Bill, and Matt shared a brief but amusing ride through the Hanoi traffic in an electric city car. They compared it to a real-life version of a Disneyland ride like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Just before boarding the bus back to Hanoi, they enjoyed some good coffee at Helios coffeehouse.

MaryKay and Bill Ho Chi Minh Masoleum

MaryKay and Bill Ho Chi Minh Masoleum


Matt and Bill Ho Chi Minh Masoleum

Matt and Bill Ho Chi Minh Masoleum


Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace 1

Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace 1


Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace Car

Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace Car


Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum 2

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum 2


Ha Noi Hilton Model

Ha Noi Hilton Model


Ha Noi Hilton Guillatine

Ha Noi Hilton Guillatine


Ha Noi Hilton Escape Sewer Door

Ha Noi Hilton Escape Sewer Door


Ha Noi Hilton Entrance

Ha Noi Hilton Entrance

Day Sixteen: Wednesday, March 12 (Ha Long Bay, Vietnam):

March 13, 2014

Gargantuan Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam is foggy from January thru March.  However, even thru the thick fog you can tell the bay is beautiful with rock formations of various sizes and shapes jetting up from the water.

Via combination of using the translator app on my phone and hand signals we were able to get a cab to the Halong Bay Boat Terminal.  These ‘junk boats’ as they are referred to take visitors out to visit the caves and other natural beauty offered by Halong Bay.  The price for the boat is fixed so the more people in your party the less expensive it is.  Unfortunately at the time we approached the counter no one else wanted to go to see Sung Sot (Surprise Cave) so MaryKay, Matt and I boarded our own junk boat for the hour and a half journey to see this magnificent cave.  The cost was still modest, about $118 for the boat and the entry tickets for the three of us.  Of course, this also included a ‘shopping opportunity’ as the on-board government-authorized sales lady held up a lit cigarette lighter to demonstrate that the pearl jewelry she was selling was authentic.  We were also offered hot tea and cold beer as part of the ticket.  Surprise Cave is called that because from the outside you can’t tell how large or beautiful it is until you enter.  The cave is huge and according to MaryKay’s Fit-Bit we climbed over 20 stories of stairs, which is why Bill didn’t join us.  The cave is truly amazing in terms of both size and beauty.  It is lit up inside which adds to the dramatic shapes. 

After our tour we found a hotel near where the ship was tendered and used the Wi-Fi for a bit.

Foggy Halong Bay

Foggy Halong Bay

Jared, Surprise Cave

Jared, Surprise Cave

Surprise Cave, 3

Surprise Cave, 3

Surprise Cave, Jared and Matt inside

Surprise Cave, Jared and Matt inside

Surprise Cave, MaryKay and Matt inside

Surprise Cave, MaryKay and Matt inside

Surprise Cave, Multicolor

Surprise Cave, Multicolor

Surprise Cave, Stalactites near 'window'

Surprise Cave, Stalactites near ‘window’

Surprise Cave, Yellow and Green

Surprise Cave, Yellow and Green

Day Fifteen: Tuesday, March 11 (Chan May Port/Hue, Vietnam):

March 12, 2014

‘Why be early, when you can be on-time, or a little late’ is my sister’s philosophy.  Today I got to experience what it is like to be late.  I misread our Celebrity Shore Excursion tickets and thought we were to gather at 7:45 a.m., but in fact we were have to gathered at 7:30 a.m. and the tour departed at 7:45 a.m.  Matt and I were looking for MaryKay and Bill and didn’t see them, I sent Matt back to the room to knock on their door, no answer.  Finally at 7:45 a.m. I said let’s go to the person at the front and see what’s going on.  When I enquired, she said, ‘Oh that tour already left.’  To which I responded, ‘we’ll run, I’m sure they are still boarding.’  She radioed ahead that we were running behind and to wait.  We jumped on the bus, apologizing to the waiting passengers and of course saw MaryKay and Bill already on-board. 

The one and one-half hour ride on highway one to Hue, the Imperial City of the Nguyen Emperors is picturesque with lush green trees and grass lands.  Unlike in Ho Chi Minh City, where land is at a premium and cremation is common, central Vietnam buries it’s dead and colorful tombstones dot the landscape.  Another key difference from the south and the central part of Vietnam is how prominent the Vietnamese communist party is.  In the south there are almost no red flags with gold stars or the sickle symbols, in the central part of the country many flags proudly display these symbols.  The first stop was the tower of the Thien Mu Pagoda (Heavenly Lady Pagoda).  The seven tiered tower overlooks the Perfume River.  We saw the vehicle driven by the monk who set himself on fire in the streets of Saigon to protest the repressive Diem regime in 1963. 

Next we visited the Imperial Citadel, which is built on a similar plan to that of Beijing’s Forbidden City.  We also visited Tu Duc Tomb, considered one of the most beautiful tombs in Hue.  Our lunch at the lovely Century Hotel included traditional Vietnamese fare.  Unfortunately the Wi-Fi didn’t work well so I wasn’t able to update my blog.  On our way back to the port, we made a brief comfort stop and after we used the facilities, we were given a ‘scarf presentation’ – think timeshare sales pitch.  After the brief demonstration, we walked thru a store that was set up much like Ikea, a long one-way path.  Once we reached the exit, the shop keeper unlocked the back door for us to exit to our bus. 

Matt, Hue, Heavenly Lady Pagoda Tower

Matt, Hue, Heavenly Lady Pagoda Tower


Hue, Heavenly Lady Pagoda Main Temple

Hue, Heavenly Lady Pagoda Main Temple


Hue, Heavenly Lady Pagoda, Happy Buddha

Hue, Heavenly Lady Pagoda, Happy Buddha


Hue, Matt,Bill, MaryKay and Jared

Hue, Matt,Bill, MaryKay and Jared


Hue, Forbidden City Temple

Hue, Forbidden City Temple


Hue, Forbidden City Lanterns

Hue, Forbidden City Lanterns


Hue, Car of Monk who burned himself to death in protest of Diem regime

Hue, Car of Monk who burned himself to death in protest of Diem regime


Jared, Matt, Hue, Forbidden City

Jared, Matt, Hue, Forbidden City


Hue, Forbidden City Landscape

Hue, Forbidden City Landscape


Hue, Forbidden City Civilian Gate, Closer

Hue, Forbidden City Civilian Gate, Closer


Hue, Tu Duc Tomb Archway 1

Hue, Tu Duc Tomb Archway 1


Hue, Tu Duc Tomb, King and Queen Shrine

Hue, Tu Duc Tomb, King and Queen Shrine


Hue, Tu Duc Concubine Area 2

Hue, Tu Duc Concubine Area 2


Hue, Jared, Matt, Tu Duc Elephant

Hue, Jared, Matt, Tu Duc Elephant


Hue, Tu Duc Jared with short statue

Hue, Tu Duc Jared with short statue


Hue, Tu Duc Tomb Statues

Hue, Tu Duc Tomb Statues

Day Fourteen: Monday, March 10 (At Sea, Celebrity Millennium):

March 12, 2014

I slept in a bit had a pre-workout snack with Matt and went to the gym.  Mary Kay, Bill, Matt and I had breakfast at the buffet and sat near the back of the ship and enjoyed the view as we ate.  The afternoon was spent sitting at the indoor pool and I labelled photos and updated my blog.  The evening entertainment was the very talented electric violinist Jane Cho who played everything from classical to 1970’s and 1980’s rock favorites.