Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Back To The Motherland: Sheraton Saigon and Hilton Hanoi Opera


As Rick James once said, "hotel credit card sign-up bonuses, hell of a drug."  Ok, terrible joke, but you get the idea.  I was on a mission to accumulate hotel points, and stockpile them I did.  In a very short period of time, I was able to get the following all via credit card offers:
  • SPG Amex: 25,000 point sign-up bonus
  • Hilton Amex: 60,000 point sign-up bonus
  • Amex Premier Rewards Gold: 75,000 sign-up bonus + 35,000 system-glitch "gift"
  • Hyatt Chase Card: 2 free nights systemwide
Coming from 0 hotel points, I felt like I was sitting on a small fortune, and was excited to put them to use.  The first uses of the points would be on 2 nights at the Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers, and then 1 night at the Hilton Hanoi Opera.

After landing in Saigon, I was an absolute wreck.  I believe that the flight from ORD-HKG was around 14 hours, followed by a 3+ hour layover, then a 2 hour flight to SGN.  I hadn't slept a wink on the longhaul ORD-HKG flight, and had a really hard time with jet lag on this trip. The Sheraton Saigon is located in District 1 which is very nice and central part of the city.  I've actually found there to be a lot of good deals, especially in Asia, for western hotel chains such as SPG and Hilton.  I believe that the cost was only approx. 2,800 SPG points and $40 per night which I thought was good value.  Overall we enjoyed our stay at this hotel and in particular thought the breakfast buffet was fantastic and offered a lot of options.

After 2 days in Saigon, much of which I spent in a daze, we headed to Hanoi.  We'd be spending 1 night there before leaving for Ha Long Bay.  I used 30,000 Hilton points to book the Hilton Hanoi Opera, and despite having not stayed in a Hilton in the past decade, had managed to get Gold status through a loophole.  At the time I thought I was a king with my Gold status, and the hotel actually did a good job recognizing it through room upgrade to a suite, access to executive lounge, and free buffet breakfast.  Now that I've traveled more and more with hotel status, I've found that non-US hotels definitely do a better job recognizing status, especially those in Asia.

The hotel is definitely a bit older, and while it was perfectly acceptable for a 1 night stay, we certainly weren't dazzled, but I felt it was good value for the 30,000 points I spent on it.  However, I was glad that I had booked the Sofitel Metropole Hotel for our 1 night stay later on, as we found that hotel to be much better. 

suite living room

suite bedroom

welcome gift

fog/mist all over the city
traditional hanoi fish soup

Back To The Motherland: Introduction


Lisa had just started her 2nd year of business school, and one night while we were talking, she casually asked if we should take a trip for spring break.  I thought to myself, what the heck is spring break?  Then I remembered, it's the week-long break I used to get each year in college, along with the three month summer break, and month and a half winter break.  I started to wax nostalgic about the good ol' days, and next thing I knew we had a spring break trip planned.

At this point, we were obviously way too old for a Daytona Beach/Mexico trip, so we instead decided to visit each other's "motherlands".  I had always wanted to visit Vietnam, and Lisa had wanted to see Hong Kong.  I had just made 1K for the first time the year before, and was excited to have the opportunity to burn 4 of my systemwide upgrades to upgrade us from economy to business class.  The popular SFO-HKG route didn't have any confirmable upgrade space available, so instead I agreed to backtrack to Chicago to meet her, after which we'd fly ORD-HKG-SGN, and then back HKG-ORD-SFO.  The reason for the open jaw was that adding a stopover in Hong Kong significantly increased the price of the ticket, so instead I figured I'd use miles to get us from SGN-HKG, which I did and was able to book my first ever international first class experience on Thai Airways routing SGN-BKK-HKG.

I had been in the points/miles game for about a year at this point, and had focused my energy on accumulating airline miles and status.  However, as I began searching for hotels to stay in during the trip, especially in Hong Kong the costs were routinely $200+ and even as high as $400-$500.  We still had about 6 months until the trip, so it gave me the opportunity to get into the hotel points game as well, and was quite pleased that on a 12 night trip, we only paid for 4 nights of lodging of which 2 were on a train (no Amtrak loyalty program in Vietnam), 1 was on a boat (hard to find a loyalty program for that), and 1 at a non-mainstream chain that I absolutely wanted to stay in.  Gotta love those credit card sign-up bonuses!

Are We There Yet?: Lima and Astrid y Gaston


After a long 8 hour drive back from the rainforest, we arrived in Cusco in the late evening.  The food on our rainforest trip hadn't been as good as we had on the Inca Trail, so we decided to treat ourselves and grabbed a last minute reservation at Chicha.  It's located very centrally in the middle of Cusco town square and came highly recommended by the hotel concierge.  We actually found out later that it is owned by the same chef that owns Astrid y Gaston, which we had made reservations at the next day.  The food at Chicha was really good - it has a modern take on many of the traditional Peruvian dishes, and in particular I really enjoyed my lomo saltado there.

blue corn chicha and pisco sour


alpaca tartare

lomo saltado
The next day we headed to the airport for the short flight back to Lima.  We had heard from our friends that there wasn't much to do in Lima, so we only budgeted a day there before flying back home.  I had used points to book the Doubletree hotel in Miraflores and overall we liked it.  In particular, it's in a good, safe location and is walking distance to some of the nearby attractions.  I emphasize safe here because we had heard a lot of horror stories, even some from the locals, about getting in taxis and then being taken into a back alley and being robbed.  So being able to minimize the number of taxi rides we took was a plus for me. 

I'll even spend a minute telling the story of our friend's night from hell in Cusco, just because it's absolutely insane what happened.  After a night out at the bars, he inadvertently got separated from the rest of the group, and ended up walking down a back alley.  A man was sitting on the curb and said something to him.  As our friend turned to look at the man, someone hit him in the back of the head knocking him unconscious.  He eventually came to, and realized that his wallet, camera, and phone had been stolen.  Still dazed, he made his way to the main road and flagged down a taxi.  The taxi driver instructed him to sit in the front seat since someone was already in the back seat, and since our friend didn't have any money to pay he was willing to go along.  This fact was unbeknownst to the driver and his friend, and next thing he knew, the man in the backseat was trying to choke him out.  Our friend managed to wiggle free and jumped out of the taxi.  The taxi driver and his friend then walked over, and frustrated that our friend had no money since he had already been robbed, proceeded to beat him up and broke his arm.  Honestly, I couldn't even believe the story when I first heard it, but moral is to be safe when traveling through countries such as Peru where threats of violence are real.

Back to Lima...we spent the afternoon walking around, and since we hadn't had a chance to try and of Peru's renown rotisserie chicken, visited Pardo's chicken for a snack.  The food here was fantastic, and I highly recommend it.

Afterwards, keeping up with our tradition of going to World's 50 Best restaurants whenever we have the chance, visited #35 on the list, Astrid y Gaston.  The food and especially the wine here is great, and it was a much deserved night of gluttony after our Inca Trail and rainforest excursions.  We also thought that the tasting menu here was a good deal in the context of world's best restaurants, as it is as around $75/person for an 8-course tasting menu.

astrid y gaston

Are We There Yet?: Rainforest


By the time we got back to Cusco from Machu Picchu it was late evening and we were pretty darn exhausted.  We had booked a 3 day/2 night rainforest excursion that started the next day, and by the time we got back I was already dreading the 5am wake up call the next morning.  If I could do it over again, I would budget at least a day of rest after completing the Inca Trail hike.

We had actually booked the rainforest excursion after arriving in Peru and ended up going with the same tour company, SAS Travel.  After completing this tour, I would actually recommend looking into other tour group options.  SAS Travel specializes in the Inca Trail excursion, and they do it really well.  However, the rainforest tour we had felt a bit more disorganized, and the guide and crew weren't as experienced and knowledgeable relative to what we had on the Inca Trail.

Getting from Cusco to Manu National Park is a loooooong drive, over 8 hours each way.  We took a couple stops along the way to explore a couple cultural sites, as well as a couple towns/markets.  As much as I wanted to sleep, much of the drive is quite rocky and bumpy, so it was particularly hard to snooze.

view on the way to rainforest

We arrived at Manu National Park in the early afternoon, and spent some of the remaining daylight hours exploring the area.  We did a brief hike and the guide provided us with binoculars for bird watching and monkey spotting.  Afterwards, we headed to the cabin for dinner and went to bed early after the long day.

The next day, after breakfast we spent a bit more time exploring the area around our cabin.  There was actually a garden where you could see all of the different types of crops that are grown in Peru.  It's pretty amazing, since basically anything you can think of can be grown in Peru to the number of climates throughout the various regions.

monkey spotting

huge jungle avocados

Afterwards we drove to a nearby dock and took a boat further down the Amazon river.  Traveling by boat is actually the most efficient way to travel through the rainforest area.  We stopped at our next lodge which was right off of the river.  Because of the proximity to the water, there were a ton of different insects flying and crawling through the area.  This was definitely one of the most sleepless nights I've had in my life, as I constantly woke up terrified of bugs crawling all over me.

After dinner, we actually went on a night hike through the area which was really cool.  We thought that we had seen a lot during the day, but at night the rainforest really gets cracking.  We even stalked a crocodile swimming through the water hunting its prey.

boat trip down the amazon river

eating termites

bird with a mohawk

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Are We There Yet?: Machu Picchu


We had left camp very early in the morning, and arrived at Machu Picchu after about a 2-3 hour hike.  It was really nice getting there so early in the morning, since as time passed more and more tourist started to funnel in.  We spent about 2 hours walking around and soaking everything in.  It was actually a weird feeling being surrounded by so many people all of a sudden as we were on our tour of Machu Picchu.  The Inca Trail limits the number of people that can enter each day, and obviously the trail is so vast that even though most of the tour groups share the same campgrounds and start hiking at the same time, people get very spread out throughout the day and you really feel like you're on your own.

As you can see in the picture below, there is a huge mountain in the background called Huayna Picchu that you can climb.  However, it is capacity controlled, so if you're planning to do so make sure to get tickets in advance of your trip.  We had planned to do the climb and had arranged to do so in advance.  We were actually really gung-ho and looking forward to it when we started out.  However, after 26 miles and 4 days of hiking, we called uncle and actually passed up on the opportunity.  In the moment we just didn't have it left in us to make the hike, and I hear that the views from the top are amazing.

After you're done there is a bus stop that pretty much everyone utilized to get back to Aguas Calientes.  In terms of distance it's not very far, but actually takes a while since the buses go through a series of tight hairpin turns.  We had to hang out for a couple hours in Aguas Calientes until our train departed and had a chance to walk around the town.  This is a really touristy place, and I would recommend that you be as careful as possible for potential scams here.  In particular, we had bought some ice cream, and while waiting for change, our friend who happened to be fluent in Spanish overheard one of the workers tell the cashier to "get money from the other drawer."  We didn't think much of it at the time, but after holding the bills in her hand that she had gotten from the cashier for a couple minutes, the ink had completely bled off onto her hand.  The money was obviously fake, and after a good yelling in Spanish the ice cream shop workers begrudgingly gave her new money to avoid a scene.  We became psuedo-experts by the end of our trip to be able to identify fake money, which I hear is a huge problem in Peru, so just a word of caution to be extra careful with regard to counterfeit money.

machu picchu guards?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Are We There Yet?: The Inca Trail


After a couple days in Cusco, we were ready for the main event, our 4 day and 26 mile trek on the Inca Trail.  Even though our tour company had sent us a list of things to bring, we came ill-prepared.  Because of the constant changes in weather and temperature in the mountains, it's important to be prepared for hot and cold.  We didn't get the memo on the cold piece, since we assumed that it'd be constantly warm.  Luckily, near the start of the hike there are a lot of vendors who probably know that tourists like us will inevitably forget something.  Lisa and I each grabbed a hat, beanie, and set of gloves for use during the hike.  We had had an orientation with our tour guide the night before and stubbornly declined his offer to rent poles.  But luckily we changed our minds the next day and these proved to be life savers during the hike.

The tour company we booked our trek through was SAS Travel.  Based on our research, they had consistently shown up with good reviews, and were also known for treating their porters very well.  We had each hired a porter to help bring our things along, and this was definitely money well spent.  I would recommend SAS Travel to anyone thinking of doing the Inca Trail, but would not recommend booking a private tour like we did for our group of six.  We ended up paying a premium for a "private" tour, and the main benefits were having our own guide and crew.  But in reality nothing else about it warranted the extra premium, since the campgrounds are small and you end up staying right next to everyone else anyways.  The other tour group that we saw and would recommend is Llamapath as their guides and crews seemed very professional and knowledgeable as well.

After a short ride to the trail head, we were off on our journey.  Day 1 is actually pretty easy, and we took a leisurely 3-4 hour walk along the path while enjoying the breathtaking views.   The guide recommended that we turn around every 10 minutes because each time you'd have a different point-of-view of the surroundings.  There's also a lot of Inca sites on the hike and we spent some time exploring some of them.  After a few hours on the trail, I was feeling pretty good about myself and thinking that this would be an easy 4 days.

We stopped for lunch, where the porters had been walking way faster than us and had already setup the dining tents.  This was actually a big surprise for me - the food throughout the hike was really, really good.  Each meal, the cook would prepare something new for us, even buying fresh meat and fish from the villagers that lived along the hiking trail.  I had also informed the tour company ahead of time of my gluten allergy, and they were extremely accommodating at each meal.  Anytime they prepared a bread or pasta dish for the group, they would have something equivalent for me so I never missed out. 

off we go

crew setting up the dining tents

delicious soup

garlic bread

salad with huge jungle avocados

group picture

After lunch, we hiked for another 3-4 hours and arrived at camp which had already been setup.  After sleeping like a baby, we got up early and started back on the trail.  Day 2 was the hardest because of the hike up Dead Woman's Pass.  All my enthusiasm that I felt on Day 1 about being in great shape quickly went out the window.  After what felt like an eternity, we made it to the top, where all the porters had been waiting for us for who knows how long.  Those guys were amazing how quickly they walked carrying the heavy backpacks, some of them even did it in flip flops!

we made it to the top!
porters in action

After another fantastic dinner at camp, we passed out and got ready for Day 3.  If I remember correctly, Day 3 is actually the longest in terms of mileage.  The terrain was actually quite easy, and a large part of the hike was actually in the shade as the trail went through some heavy foliage.  The reward at the end of Day 3 was a million-dollar view awaiting us that was truly breathtaking.

As an added bonus, as a reward for not collapsing and having to carry us back, the chef whipped up a special dinner that even included a fully decorated cake.

Day 3 actually ends quite early, and you're instructed to rest up since you start Day 4 very early.  You actually need a headlight for the first hour of the hike since you're walking in near darkness, but it's all worth it since you arrive at Machu Picchu early enough to catch the sunrise and beat the crowds.

And by late morning Day 4, you can see Machu Picchu in the distance and you realize that you made it.  Honestly, this was one of the best experiences I've ever had, and highly recommend this to anyone that's thinking of visiting Peru. I know that Machu Picchu is the main attraction here, but in my opinion, I could have left after finishing the Inca Trail hike without even seeing it and would have been perfectly content after the amazing journey.

we made it!