May 8, 2024

Explore beyond Seattle on a fast, walk-on ferry from the city's waterfront

 

A fast, walk-on ferry travels between Seattle and the waterside suburb of Kingston


Visitors aboard the fast ferry between the Seattle waterfront and the Puget Sound suburb Kingston often ask deck hand Coco Murphy for tips on what to do or see on a day trip from the Emerald City.

Once the boat begins its 40-minute scoot across the Puget Sound, she usually has time for questions. Chances are there will be only a dozen or so on board, compared to 150-200 riding in the opposite direction.

Kitsap Transit launched the walk-on fast ferry in late 2018 as a commuter service for Kingston-area residents, but nearly six years later, few still take advantage of the “reverse commute” — sailing from Seattle to Kingston in the morning and back to Seattle in the late afternoon or evening.

"It's a nice opportunity for people in Seattle to check out Kingston," says Murphy. The fast ferry eliminates the hassle of driving 17 miles north to the suburb of Edmonds and a  30-minute ride on a Washington State car ferry.

Sailings through April were weekdays only. Now with Saturday service running through September, more Seattleites will no doubt discover the delights of a day trip on a sunny day.  

With views of Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, the cruise is a budget-friendly way (fares are $10 westbound, departing from Seattle, and $2 eastbound, departing from Kingston) to explore a walkable waterside town where small business owners are trying out new ideas post-pandemic. 

Best advice: Go Thursday-Saturday when most businesses are open. Catch an early ferry, and be mindful of return times if you want to stay for happy hour or dinner.

Bakeries and books

It's hard to resist not stopping for a bag of miniature donuts made fresh in the morning, and sold through a window at Aviator Coffee next to the ferry terminal. 

Hot donuts to go at Aviator Coffee

Everything to do and see in Kingston is within a short walk of the dock, so grab a few donuts and a coffee to go while walking north on State Highway 104 towards a cluster of sit-down cafes and restaurants.

If breakfast or lunch is on the agenda, find a small strip mall housing two bookstores, a hardware store and the Borrowed Kitchen Bakery Owners Lacey and Kory Anders first started selling baked goods in the Poulsbo Farmers Market in 2010. Now they work out of a full kitchen where diners can smell the bread baking. Settle in at a window table with a savory croissant or lemon blueberry scone.

Next door is Saltwater Bookshop, one of a few new businesses that opened post-pandemic.


Saltwater Bookshop

Owner Madison Duckworth partnered with baker Lacey Anders to open the shop last year after selling cookbooks in the Borrowed Kitchen. 

Nestled among shelves stocked with titles by Northwest authors, cookbooks and a large selection of children's books are stuffed chairs for browsing or book club gatherings. 

All the titles are new, part of an agreement with the landlord to leave used books to the Kingston Bookery a few doors down where shelves bend under the weight of hundreds of titles the owner takes in trade for credit.  

Shop houses

Colorfully painted, restored historic homes house shops dedicated to gourmet chocolates, pottery, jewelry, houseplants and vintage treasurers.

Havencraft

Horticulturist and jewelry artist Anja McElvaney works with her partner Matthew Schaffer,  a woodworker, inside a century-old craftsman-style house where they opened Havencraft last October. House plants spill out onto the front porch while inside rooms are filled with handmade soaps, local pottery and earrings made from poppy pods painted and grown by McElvaney. 

A few doors down, in an aqua blue cottage built in the 1930s,  Methia Gordon runs Sweet Life Cakery.

Sweet Life Bakery

Inspired by “Chocolat,” a romantic comedy-drama about a woman who opens an unusual chocolate shop in a small French town, Gordon invites visitors to sit on her sunny enclosed porch to sip tea and sample a confection called "Sweet Bliss," two layers of chocolate cake filled with whipped cream enrobed in a chocolate glaze.

Hikes and a beachside stroll

Take a beach walk along Saltair Park near the ferry dock when the tide is out, or hike up the hill on Ohio Avenue to A Quiet Place Park, nine acres of walking trails through second-growth forests, named and donated to Kitsap County by Naomi M. Libby Elvins in 1993.

Keep an eye out around town for Kingston’s “Big Chairs,” giant Adirondack-style seats painted in bright colors. A local businessman came up with the concept to promote Kingston as a place to relax.

Kiwanis Park


The Port of Kingston's Mike Wallace Park at the marina and the port's Kiwanis Park near the ferry dock offer walking paths, benches and a shaded gazebo for picnicking.

Put together a sunset meal from a clutch of pandemic survivor walk-ups offering take-out from around the world.  

Saucy Sailor

Daphne White greets customers from a sidewalk window at the Saucy Sailor, opened last May. She arrives in the early morning to prepare British comfort food, such as bangers and mash and cottage pie, in a 230-square-foot kitchen. 

Next door is J’aime les Crepes www.jaimelescrepes.com with sidewalk tables for enjoying sweet or savory French-style crepes. Around the corner, Argensol Kitchen  bakes traditional Argentine empanadas filled with creamed corn, butternut squash and spinach and cheese.

The last weekday departure to Seattle is at 5:55 p.m. Saturday departures are at 7:05 p.m., 8:45 p.m. and 10:25 p.m., making it easier for visitors to stick around for happy hour at friendly Downpour Brewing or wine, cheese and live jazz at the cozy Cellar Cat 

If you go

Ferries leave from Seattle’s Pier 50. Crossing time is 40 minutes. 



Mar 27, 2024

Wrong birth date voids visa an hour before a flight from Cambodia to Vietnam: WhatsApp to the rescue


Check visa details carefully

Private visa services used to be helpful for some types of international travel (China, for instance) when applications involved complicated paperwork and mailing away your passport. They charged a fee, of course, but it was worth it.

These services became less useful over the years as many countries began offering e-Visas online.  All many require is  an online application submitted along with a copy of your passport and a credit card payment.

Emergencies do come up, however. This is when a third-party visa service can come to your rescue, and for that, I am grateful.

My husband and I arrived at the airport in Phnom Penh for a flight to Hanoi recently with our Vietnamese e-Visas in hand. The  airline agent looked carefully at Tom's paperwork, then shook her head. "No, you can't fly," she told us. The birthdate on his visa was incorrect. During the processing, someone had typed 2023 instead of 1949. 

Obviously he wasn't born last year, so we pleaded our case to the agent who called Vietnamese immigration. They refused to budge. 

Our flight was leaving in 1.5 hours. "Is there anything we can do?

 "You could go the Vietnamese embassy but it's an hour away, and they close at 5 p.m.," was the response. 

We appealed to a manager who told use there are services that can issue new visas online in an hour through WhatsApp. While we were waiting, I Googled "emergency Vietnamese visa services," and found several that offered the service for a $350 fee. Our original visas cost $30 each.

The manager made a few calls, then connected us with a company called Vietnam Evisa Service which charged $130.

We gladly agreed to pay. Though WhatsApp, I sent a copy of my Tom's visa and passport. The agent on the other end took a look, and assured us they could arrange a corrected visa in time for us to make our flight A link was sent for a credit card payment - all in all a risky venture, but what choice did we have?

A few minutes alter, a pdf of the new visa with the correct birth date came into my e-mail inbox.  The agent on WhatsApp told me to check in for our flight, and let him know once we were on our way.

"We will arrange to take your name in front of the immigration counter at the Vietnam airport, and support your visa procedures," he promised.

We made it through Cambodian immigration and to our gate with 15 minutes to spare. When we arrived in Hanoi, a man holding a sign with my husband's name on it greeted us, and whisked us to the head of the immigration line. 

There an agent waived us through without even looking at Tom's new visa. 

 Lessons learned:

 *Always check every detail of your visa before leaving. I had checked our entry and departure dates, our passport numbers and our names, but didn't look at the birth dates.

*Get WhatsApp and register your details, so if you get in a jam, the person on the other end will have quick access to your QR code.

 *Know how to contact your credit card company quickly from overseas in case any service like this turns out to be a scam.



Mar 1, 2024

Communism, capitalism blend easily in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi

 

Making a delivery in Hanoi's Old Quarter

Anyone planning a trip to Vietnam faces a dilemma when it comes to bookending a visit to both Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the South and Hanoi in the North.

At war with each other in the mid- 1970s, the Communist North and American-influenced South reunited into one country since 1976. They are as different climate-wise as they are culturally.

While the South enjoys 95 degree beach weather this time of year, it's winter in the North, with  temps often no higher than mid-50s.

Coming off a trip to Cambodia where the weather matches that of South Vietnam, it would have made more sense from a packing standpoint to spend a few days at the end of our trip in Ho Chi Minh City.

But I’ve always favored less sophisticated Hanoi with its peaceful lakes and lively Old Quarter known for its warren of 36 streets, each belonging to a different trade guild in the 15th century. The 21st century version has vendors selling funeral supplies and frying fish on the street corners; cafes dispensing egg coffee; travel agencies selling tours; and motor bikes whizzing by, piled high with everything from palm trees to mattresses. 




Planning ahead for a 40-degree temperature drop, we packed light jackets, fleece vests and a few long-sleeve shirts in the bottom of our carry-ons, Bundled up, we set out exploring to see how the city has changed since we were here 17 years ago.

Motor scooters still rule, but there are more cars now and only a few bicycles. A few streets have lights and crosswalks, but for the most part pedestrians have to look for breaks in on-coming traffic, then rely on scooters and cars to steer around them. The No. 1 rule: Once you start to cross, do not hesitate, stop or turn back.

Lyna near the Pomelo tree in Hanoi's White Horse Temple

Reminding us of this on our first day out was delightful, Lyna, 20, a student guide for Hanoi Free Walking Tours. Her technique for crossing into on-coming traffic was simply to stick out her hand as if she were a crossing guard. 

There are organizations that run free walking tours in cities worldwide, but the tours are usually with a group.  Hanoi Free Walking Tours operates a little differently in that you get a personal guide who shows up at your hotel at an appointed time for a three-hour walk. Tipping is expected, of course, but the amount is up to you. What I like most about these tours is the opportunity to connect one-on-one with a local. 

As we walked through one of the temples decorated for the Lunar New Year, Lyna pointed out the pomelo trees bearing yellow fruit that resemble giant grapefruits. Pomelos are believed to bring families good luck. She showed us a photo of the stairs in her parents' home stacked floor to ceiling with pomelos, all of which have to be eaten before she returned to the city after the holiday.

Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism mix with other beliefs in Vietnamese culture. People call on the good graces of gods and spirits at Chinese-style temples built before Vietnam became independent of China in the 11th century. Offerings on the alters  include specially prepared foods, fruit,  tins of cookies, even cans of beer.

A shrine in our hotel lobby decorated with Lunar New Year offerings

Communism and capitalism blend easily. A post-Vietnam War baby boom and a fast-paced, free-market economy have combined to make Hanoi one of Asia’s best values.

Family enjoying a sidewalk dinner

Vietnamese like to dine on the sidewalk while sitting on little plastic stools. A meal for two there might cost a dollar or two compared to around $12-$15 at a small restaurant, or around $30 at a high-end rooftop hotel dining room. Hotels, priced at anywhere between $60 and $100 for nice rooms, come with buffet breakfasts, and in the case of the San Grand Hotel where we stayed, a complimentary afternoon tea on the top floor overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, a fresh water lake in the middle of the city.

Breakfast buffet at the San Grand Hotel 

 
Hoan Kiem Lake and the Red (Huc) Bridge connecting to the Jade Mountain Temple. 

Taking the chill off of winter days are coffee shops on every corner. Some are small, with a few plastic stools out front; others are more elaborate. Several chains, such as All Day, rival Starbucks with cozy interiors and an array of hot and cold coffee drinks and smoothies. Our favorite was Hanoi Coffee Culture where we tried our first egg coffee.

Culture Cafe

Egg coffee

Egg coffee is a mixture of whipped egg yoke, sweetened condensed milk and strong coffee - like crème brûlée in a cup. It was invented by the French in the 1940s when milk was scarce. We became addicted and had one every day.

Most visitors to Hanoi leave the city at some point for a cruise in Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Gulf of Tonkin. We skipped this the last time we where due to lack of time. Going to Ha Long Bay this time was one of our main reasons for returning. 

The bay is known for its limestone pillars, islands and a network of caves, some occupied by fishermen and their families until the 1990s. But overtourism has had its effects. Complaints about crowds and loud partying spoiling the serenity of the experience prompted us to look into overnight trips offered by Indochina Junk. It was the first company licensed to travel further away into Bai Tu Long Bay, an area with similar scenery but fewer boats.

The Dragon Legend

It’s important to pick a Ha Long Bay cruise carefully to avoid feeling ripped off or disappointed. Indochina Junk delivered as promised. Dinner our first night on the top deck was in total silence and darkness with only four other boats anchored around us. Our boat was the 25-cabin Dragon Legend with spacious rooms, indoor and outdoor dining areas and a small pool. 

Cruising Bai Tu Long Bay

The $235 per person price was a little steeper than some other options, but it included transportation to and from Hanoi (three hours); all meals; a cave tour; kayaking; and a visit to a floating fishing village by rowboat. 

Exploring in a rowboat 

Especially cool was an hour‘s ride around the island and under the rocks in a rowboat rowed by a villager from a floating fishing village. After lunch the first day, the ship‘s tender pulled into shore near the entrance of Thien Canh Cave, one of a network of caves and grottoes created when wind, waves and rain eroded the rocks. 

Inside Thien Canh Cave 

Reaching the inside of the cave required a climb up a steep set of stairs carved into a hillside, something that would probably be off-limits in the U.S. due to safety hazards. Once inside, we were treated to a stunning display of stalactites and stalagmites. 

Making Banh Xeo onboard

Indochina Junk didn't fill our onboard time with hokey activities as some of companies apparently do. Much appreciated was a short cooking class on how to make Banh Xeo, a sizzling crepe stuffed with veggies or shrimp and served with piles of fresh herbs. 

Feb 25, 2024

Cooking with Mandy: A visit to an urban farming village outside of Hanoi

 

These hats are not a tourist gimmick. Vietnamese wear the non la (conical hat) to protect them from sun or rain  

Readers of this blog know I‘m a fan of eatwith.com, the Airbnb of dining which connects travelers with locals who host dinners in their homes. My husband, Tom, and I have lasting memories of spending evenings with families in France, Italy, Spain and Mexico, but when I began looking for a similar opportunity in Hanoi, I assumed language and cultural barriers would limit the chances for a connection. 

Then I spotted a listing for a “Hanoi Farm Tour and Cooking Class with Local Family.” The host, English-speaking Mandy, 38, proposed a visit to a rural community 12 miles out of the city center where her husband’s family has farmed for generations. Guests were invited to collaborate with her on a menu, visit the local market and wander through the fields of her farm and other neighboring farms. Then it was back to her house to help prepare a four-course meal and have lunch, all included in the $35 per person price. 

Several WhatsApp messages later to confirm details and the location for a Grab (like Uber) taxi from our hotel in Hanoi, we met Mandy outside the local temple on a rainy morning in the village of Song Phuong. She gave us each one of the conical hats Vietnamese wear to protect themselves from sun and rain. As we began our walk through the Vang market, it became apparent why Song Phuong is called “Vegetable Village,” for its acres of fertile farm land and large wholesale market that supplies vendors and restaurants in Hanoi daily with fresh produce and meats. 

Farmers, many of them carrying their produce, ducks and live chickens to the market in baskets attached to bicycles, show up at 1 a.m. so wholesale buyers can make it back to Hanoi in time to stock the stalls of early-morning street markets and supply restaurants and hotels.

Mandy and her husband, an auto mechanic, are the first generation in their families not farm for a living. She worked in tourism until starting her tours seven years ago. He is an auto mechanic, but his parents still work the family land, harvesting at midnight, and selling guavas, kohlrabi, cauliflower and whatever else is in season to the wholesalers.

Mandy in a cauliflower patch

“I love cooking,” she explained, and when I moved here (after getting married), and saw the beautiful farms, I wanted to find a way to show people where the food comes from.” Her in-laws at first weren’t sold on the idea of bringing in tourists, but they have come around as have the local farmers who seem to enjoy meeting visitors 

By the time we arrived at the market at 9:30 a.m., the wholesale buyers were gone, and the vendors were selling what was left to retail customers. The woman below proudly showed us her freshly-killed chickens even though we were unlikely buyers.



This woman was selling pumpkin leaves and stems used in many Vietnamese dishes. The pumpkins themselves are small, and rarely eaten. Pumpkin soup, which appears on many restaurant menus, is for tourists.


Banana are grown and sold in bunches. No one buys just one 

Vietnam is a communist country, and any man, woman or child born before 1991 was entitled to 360 square meters of land. Mandy‘s parents as well as her husband‘s mother and father encouraged them to go to school,  telling them that if they studied hard, they could say “goodbye to 360 square meters,” meaning they could have the chance to establish careers in fields of their choosing.


Mandy and her daughter, Anh Thu, 9, show us how to prepare stuffing for steamed cabbage rolls

Their education has enabled them to build a comfortable life for themselves and their three daughters, ages 2,9 and 12. They live in a newly-built four-story house next door to where his parents live. They have two motorcycles which they use for everyday transportation and sometimes for taking the whole family to visit her parents who live 60 miles away.

Sitting at her kitchen table with knives and cutting boards, we chopped bunches of herbs, shredded carrots, green mangos, cucumbers and jicama for a salad; sliced mushrooms for a dish of pork and shiitakes in steamed cabbage leaves; learned to wrap spring rolls in rice paper; and helped prepared a pork meatball soup with rice noodles, shallots, tomatoes and taro stems.

Pork meatball soup



Frying spring rolls with chopsticks


Tom slicing mushrooms

“Smaller, smaller,” Mandy would say as we sliced mushrooms and spring onions. She and her daughter, Mai, 12, had to patch up our spring rolls before frying them in oil, but with much of the prep work done by them in advance, it wasn‘t  long before our meal was ready. 

Our four dishes ready to eat


We sat around the table, talking and eating until early afternoon, sharing stories about how we met our spouses (she and her husband in English class and Tom and I in a folk signing group). While we waited for our taxi back to Hanoi, she showed us her garden. She and her husband are a long way from retiring, but  when they do, they hope to farm, not for survival but for the pure joy of growing what they eat.

Visitors can book a farm tour and cooking class with Mandy (Manh Bui) by e-mailing her at manhfarmandcook@gmail.com, by contacting her on WhatsApp at  0084 0945 265 708, or by booking at eatwith.com or bonappetour.com Payment is by credit card with a liberal cancellation policy. She includes all the recipes and a detailed explanation of ingredients in a follow-up note after the visits.

Feb 18, 2024

Phnom Penh: A City of Surprises

 

A gilded reclining Buddha in Phnom Penh

What kind of hotel does $97 a night buy in the U.S. or Europe? In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, it buys a comfortable suite at the Pavilion Hotel, with gardens, two pools, a spa and outdoor restaurant serving $6 cocktails and an unlimited breakfast on the outdoor terrace.

The Pavilion  Hotel, five-star service at two-star prices



An isolated and pretentious Western-style resort, you say? Hardly the case, given our next-door neighbors - street food vendors grilling on the side walk, sugar cane juice sellers and Buddhist monks living in a monastery where a giant Buddha reclines in a gilded temple.

A family sets up for the evening dinner rush

When most Americans think of traveling overseas, they think of Europe or Australia. Few think of Southeast Asia, and when they do, it’s the beaches of Thailand or Vietnam that come to mind. Few consider Cambodia, a country bombed by the U.S. during the Vietnam war, and ravaged in the late 1970s by Pol Pot and his Communist Khmer Rouge regime.

While Siem Reap is well-known for its ancient Angkor Wat temples, Phnom Penh is the surprise city. Abandoned when Pol Pot forced city dwellers back to their home villages in the countryside, it‘s now alive with a mixture of modern and French colonial architecture; street food carts and rooftop bars; outdoor markets and modern malls; and massive monasteries where monks in saffron robes welcome visitors. 

Bea Tem, a Buddhist monk at our neighborhood temple

Morning Glory for sale in a street market

With major sightseeing out of the way on a previous trip, we found various ways to explore the street life, either on foot or by taking Grab taxis which work like Uber does in the U.S. Most rides are $1-$4 at most, more comfortable and often less expensive  than Tuk-Tuks, the open-air motorcycles, we use when we were here 19 years ago. 

Especially fun are a variety of three or four-hour tours organized by eager, English-speaking young people. This is where the Tuk-Tuks do come in handy. Because of the 95 degree heat, signing up for a “walking tour” means going with a guide in a Tuk-Tuk with a driver who waits at each stop.

Neara explains the many types of herbs grown in Cambodia

The delightful Yim Neara, 30, was our guide for an early-morning breakfast tour by Turk-Tuk, organized by Portland, Oregon Lost Plate Tours. She arrived at our hotel at 8:30 a.m. and by 9 a.m., three of us were sampling steaming bowls of a pork and vegetable noodle soup at a popular street stall where the owner shows up at 4 a.m. to start the broth.


Key Teay is a popular breakfast food in Cambodia

Most Cambodians go to a stall like this for breakfast rather than prepare the time-consuming dishes at home. The soup is eaten with a spoon and chopsticks, for picking up the thin rice noodles, and accompanied by shot glass-sized cups of coffee laced with sweetened condensed milk.

Market day in Phnom Penh

After several snack stops and a walk through an outdoor urban farmers market, we stopped for banh chao, a thin, crispy pancake made with duck eggs and rice flour and tinted yellow with turmeric.  It’s a savory dish, filled with pork and vegetables, and served with a pile of fresh herbs. One was big enough to share.

Banh Chao for breakfast

Our next “walking tour” by Tuk-Tuk was an architectural tour led by Hun Sokagna, 30,  a university graduate and freelance architect specializing in urban preservation. She is a member of Architecture Cambodia, a non-profit organization of architects and students promoting urban heritage in Cambodia. Customized tours can be organized on request for around $20 a person.  Free walking tour maps are available on the website of Khmer Architecture Tours.


Tuk-Tuks provide easy transport between stops on walking tours


Our guide, Sokagna, going over our plan to see local architecture 

The French colonized Cambodia in 1863, and left 90 years later in 1941 when Prince Norodom Sihanouk became the king. Houses and monuments built by the French remain along with other reminders of the past. Many older people speak French, and  fresh baguettes appear where you might expect rice. 

Our first stop was the main post office, built in the Neo-Classical style by the French in 1885. Like many buildings of that era in Phnom Penh, it was never bombed, but abandoned when  the Khmer Rouge emptied the city, forcing people back to their home villages in the countryside.


The post office building, built by the French in 1885.

Across the street is the building that was once the Grand Hotel, the city’s first five-star hotel built in Phnom Penh in 1910. Abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over, it and other buildings like it became the property of squatters once the genocide ended and people returned. Complicated laws mean various owners still claim rights to different parts of the same building.


The former Grand Hotel, now part casino, part run-down apartments 

The facade on this side of the old hotel is run down and in need of a paint job. The interior is run down as well although some of the original tile work remains. On the other side of the building is a sleek entrance to a modern Chinese-owned casino and a wine bar. 

Abandoned churches and temples became housing once the Khmer Rouge left. Books in the National Library were burned but the building was left standing, and has been renovated. The iconic Le Royal hotel, built in 1929, was used by the Khmer Rouge to welcome officials from China, then left in ruins. Today it‘s the luxury Singaporean-owned Raffles Hotel. 

Top-notch hotels, drinks and meals come at bargain prices in Cambodia, as they do in many parts of Southeast Asia. Given the country’s poverty and tragic past, travelers need to be sensitive about supporting businesses, restaurants, hotels etc. that promote responsible tourism. Some hotels cater to sex tourists, or do nothing to dissuade the practice, while others, such as the Pavilion, actively discourage it by posting “Child Safe” stickers on their doors.

While wandering towards Phnom Penh‘s Russian Market one day we found Y.E.K. Peace Handicrafts above a convenience store. Walking past shelves lined with boxes of detergent and cereal at Twin Supermarket, we climbed a flight of stairs to find a boutique that provides training and employment for disabled artisans, many of whom are land mine victims.

YEK Hong Tang

YEK Hong Tang, above, is the executive director and also the designer of many items, including these new messenger bags made with reused nylon netting traditionally used for hammocks or mosquito nets. 

Colorful bags made made from upcycled materials

Shops such as Peace Handicrafts can be hard to spot, or even know about. Friendship with Cambodia, the Oregon non-profit we support, publishes an online responsible travel guide on its website with updated suggestions on where to stay, eat, shop and patronize businesses that practice fair trade, and train disadvantaged workers for careers.


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