Alsace France and Germany for Christmas - markets, flammenkeuche, and hot wine

The Alsace Region of France was a favorite place of ours when we lived in Belgium.  It was only a five-hour drive from our home.  We last visited in 2011, right before we moved to Singapore.  It was so nice to go back.

This time we shared our experience with my sister-in-law Tammy!



A night at the chateau



Santa is called Père Noël, or Father Christmas, in France.  Father Christmas originally wore a white gown; and the modern Santa with the red outfit came about from Coca Cola ads of the 60's.  Merry Christmas! = Joyeux Noël !






When we visit the Alsace region, we always stay at our favorite B&B in Europe, Ambiance Jardin.  We have stayed here six times, including a trip with D's parents.  The owners are now our friends.  If you visit this area you MUST stay here!  Pierrette makes the sweetest breakfasts.  We were there five nights and each morning our table was decorated in a different theme.



Wine tasting



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Wine tasting



The Alsace region has fantastic gastronomy and world famous wines, charming towns and villages, and wonderful hospitalityThis region is in the very eastern side of France in a valley along the Rhine River – a river that separates France and Germany. On the other side of the river is Baden, Germany.  Alsace’s capitol city is Strasbourg and is said to have France’s oldest Christmas market, established in 1570. It is known as the "Capitale de Noel" (the Capital of Christmas).  This whole region has some of the most spectacular Christmas Markets (Christkindelsmarik) in Europe. 




Our favorite part of the markets?  Flammenkeuche!!  Depending on the region, this dish can be called Tarte Flambe in French, (which translates as "pie baked in the flames.") or Flammenkeuche in German (which means "flame cake").  It is a pizza-like dish with sour cream, bacon, and onions and it is actually baked outside in an oven or on the flames. Let's just say... to die for!!!



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Another favorite market treat... Gluhwein or vin chaud .... it's hot-spiced wine.  You can get it in the red or white version.  Ohhhhh so good when you are walking around the cold market.  Each village has their own special cup or mug.  You pay a deposit and continue to fill up the cup.  In the end - you can keep the cup as a souvenir or return it for your deposit.  Of course we kept ours.



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Other market favorites

.... Choucroute Garnie (sausage and sauerkraut).



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... bacon, potatoes, cheese, and cream


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and sweets!!



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A night at the chateau



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We enjoyed a wine and food tasting called Cave de Noel.  Alsace is known for its white wines; Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris.  Most people think of Riesling as sweet, but in Alsace they are dry. The vineyards have mineral-rich soils, which add acidity to the juice and overpowers the sweetness.

This area also produces a lot of organic wines. Largely due to the dry, windy climate, about 15 percent of grape growers farm without chemicals, making it the largest organic wine region in France.

The vineyard we visited, Domaine Baumann-Zirgel, was an organic vineyard.  We bought a few bottles to bring home.



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 The Christmas markets are very festive with fun activities for all ages.



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You know this is a special time of year when they have rides that can only be used at Christmas.  This one was adorable.  The tree branches go up in the air, along with the seats. 



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Every year Strasbourg puts up a very tall Christmas tree at the main market.  It is the largest Christmas tree in France.   This year, it took them three tries to get a tree that would not crack under the decorations, costing the city 50K Euros.  And if you notice this one, even it leans a bit to the side.



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At Christmas time, Ribeauvillé decorates with a medieval theme.  Dilly Dilly!



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You can find decorations in every nook and cranny of the little village streets.



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And in the windows!  We love the way they decorate the windows.  Looks like what Dr. Seuss had in mind when he created “Whoville” in How The Grinch Stole Christmas.  Common themes this year were polar bears and mice.



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If you look closely, this little bear is actually blowing bubbles.


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In France, Christmas Day is considered the “First Day of Christmas” and the Twelve Days are the 25th of December to the 5th of January. It is on January 6th where gifts are opened and they eat ‘la galette des rois’ – the cake of kings.



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The Cathédral of Notre-Dame 



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There are so many little villages in this area to visit - each more magical than the next.  One of our favorites was Eguisheim.


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A perfect snow!


One wish of mine for this trip was to have snow.  My wish was granted!  The morning we were visiting the Haut-Kœnigsbourg Castle we had the perfect snow.  It made the little vineyards and the castle even more enchanting!



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Brother and sister!



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Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle was built in the 12th century. Its purpose was to watch over the wine and wheat routes to the North and the silver and salt routes from West to East.  It was reduced to ruins during the Thirty Years' War and then abandoned.  In 1899, Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to rebuild the castle and turn it into a museum.  It was restored using the architecture of the middle ages. 



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Our two-day adventure into Germany

A castle and a Michelin Star Restaurant


Germany is just across the river so we put the car on a ferry and off we went.  Thanks to the Schengen Agreement, we can cross into Germany without showing our passports.


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I booked us a night at this castle along with a Michelin star dinner.  It was our Christmas/Anniversary treat.  And a special treat it was!



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Otto I built this castle in 1272, but only the ramparts and the foundation of the keep survived.  William IV of Eberstein expanded the castle in the 16th century, as did Philip III in the 17th century. At the end of the century during the Palatine War of Succession, or Nine Years’ War, Prince Leopold Wilhelm and the nuns of the Convent School of the Holy Grave found safety here.  Over time, the estate came into the hands of the Margrave of Baden. In 1802, the castle was rebuilt in a neo-Gothic style.  Since 2006, the castle has been open as a hotel and restaurant.



Image may contain: sky, house, tree, outdoor and nature 

{Above photo is from their site}



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The view from the castle looking back into the Murg Valley and the Black Forest. 



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Bernd Werner, one of Germany’s top young chefs holds a Michelin star.  He creates innovative cuisine using local produce.  His focus is on food that's perfectly executed.  It was some of the most beautiful dishes we have eaten.  Each bite was a mouthful of exotic flavors.


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We started with an amuse-bouche of a fried oyster and celeriac soup.



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First course - foie gras with chocolate and fig.  Oh my!


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Next course - caramelized pork with shrimp. 

Did I mention we had wine pairings with each course?   :  )


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Then halibut with artichokes and tomato-caper relish


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A palate cleanser of sorbet and foam before the main dish.



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The main dish was venison.  I am not a huge fan of venison, but I have to say this dish was exceptional.


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My dessert, speculoos and coffee brulee in a glass bulb.  Yes the bulb was eatable - made of paper-thin sugar.  A very unique dessert and really delicious.



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D and Tammy opted for the chocolate dessert.  Equally as decedent.


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 It was truly a memorable meal.   


Our Day in Germany


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Have you ever seen a can of sauerkraut this big?



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 Check out this rotating grill.


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These tools are actually handcrafted from chocolate. 


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 We bought a few tools for D's dad for Christmas.






Here is the chocolate version of the wrench compared to a real one!  An amazing amount of detail.




Back in France

Champagne Region of Reims



A night at the chateau



It was fun pretending we lived in a Chateau.  There are only two rooms so we were the only guests.  The family lives here as well.  It was in a very small village outside of Reims and luckily there was a fantastic restaurant just around the corner.  My dish was duck with a pumpkin sauce served in the pumpkin shell.  Two of my very favorite foods.



A night at the chateau



Look closely at the trees; they are made of wine bottles.  It is my goal to drink enough wine this year to make a wine bottle tree next December!  Looks like there are around 65 on each side, so 260 bottles.  That is almost a bottle every day!  Okay, I am probably going to need some help.



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A night at the chateau



And last but not least is a very special story we have from this trip.  Over the years, I have met many people from my blog.  Most of them are on-line friendships, but many I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet in person. 


Meet Odile and her daughters Kim and Thanh Le.

Odile lives in Reims, France. She and I have been writing back and forth for many years.  We have a common bond of photography and all things vintage!  Especially papers and books.  We have even sent each other little gifts through the mail.  As soon as I knew we were going to be in Reims, I sent her a message to meet up for a coffee.  But being the lovely person she is, Odile invited us to her home for lunch.  Words cannot describe how special this get-together was for me.

The lunch was wonderful!  To us, it felt like a very local french.  We started with a bottle of champagne and foie gras.  For lunch we had Duck confit parmentier - a baked duck dish.  Similar to our shepherd's pie, but with duck.  and much tastier!  And we had a fabulous cheese plate.  Why can't we have cheese like this in the US?  As stuffed as we were, we finished with a frozen dessert.  Just perfect!!



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The three of them could not have been any more gracious, hospitable, friendly, and kind.  It was as if we were family that had not seen each other in years.  Not only did they spend their entire day with us, but they showered us with gifts.  After lunch, we had grand tour of Reims.  It is such a beautiful city and really made me miss living in Europe.    





We arrived at noon and left at 6!  Thank you Odile, Kim and Thanh Le for the special memories you left with us.



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Note:  D was with us, but was taking the photos and why he does not appear in any! 



Happy 29th anniversary to my Poo-Pie!


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Beijing, China

Our Great Wall trip also included a few days in Beijing, the capital of China. With a population of 21.5 million people, Beijing is the nation's second-largest city after Shanghai.

It is a modern city known for the ancient temples, the Forbidden City, Olympic stadiums and terrible pollution.  It also has some of the most expensive real estate in the world. 


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As pretty as the modern part of the city is, we preferred the hutongs (residential neighborhoods which form the heart of Old Beijing). 



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He's a big boy.


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Doesn't this meal look good?  Having translation problems with a menu that was in Chinese characters, we ordered this dish by pointing at a photo.  When it arrived at the table D took a bite and assessed it to be kidneys.  We then googled "kidney" in Chinese and showed it to our waiter.  He nodded yes and I ate rice. 


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The next three photos are my favorite of the trip.  Peanuts anyone?



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Obviously someone likes peanuts.  Look closely at his mouth.


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So did he fall asleep with the peanuts in his mouth or did someone place them there?  So funny!






It is always interesting to see the different modes of transportation in various countries.



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This one is so cute!


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Most everywhere we travel in Asia a post-lunch nap is essential for shopkeepers.  And they really do not care if customers come in to shop.  Yes, the sleeping lady on the cot is the owner.  I decided not to buy so I did not need to wake her up!


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 The summer Palace

The Summer Palace was built in 1750 and was destroyed in the war of 1860.  It was restored on its original foundations in 1886 and is a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design.  It was used for the Imperial family to get away from the heat of the forbidden city.  Today it is only used for tourism.


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The Forbidden City

Also known as the Palace Museum, it lies at the city center of Beijing, and once served as the imperial palace for 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 - 1911).



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The Forbidden City was declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1987.  It holds the title of the world's largest preservation of wooden structures from ancient world.



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Around one million artifacts are housed within the Palace Museum and they are considered Chinese National Heritage items and under the protection of the Chinese government.


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I can't end this blog without a little clip of my shopping! 

First, here is D at the market... patiently waiting for me.  What a great hubby!



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It was a large indoor market with many treasures.



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Look at all the chops (stamps)!!  Did you know that in many Asian countries they still use chops in lieu of signatures for personal documents, office paperwork, contracts, art, or any item requiring acknowledgement or authorship?



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Me, happy with my purchases!  The vendor was very excited that I was so interested in the chops.


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This vendor was very popular.  He was selling seed pods from a Banyon tree.  They are really fun as you have no idea what it will look like until he polishes it.  People analyzed the pods forever until they picked one.  I guess they knew what they were looking for.  We bought a few. 


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I was exhausted after my shopping and made D get me a Tuk Tuk back to the hotel.  As always... safety first!


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With all of our travel in Asian, we had never seen this.  It was in the closet of our hotel.  To be used in case of a nuclear attack... we are glad we did not have to use it. 


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This was a quick trip but we really enjoyed seeing the city of Beijing!

One from the bucket list - the Great Wall of China


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This one was on the bucket list for me. How could we live in Asia for four years and not see the Great Wall of China? The timing was not the greatest as D had knee surgery ten days prior.  He had to climb with a brace, but he was a real trooper! 



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Walking on the Great Wall was amazing and certainly worth the journey.  To see the wall zigzag through the mountains is a special sight.  Like many places we visit, photos don't do it justice.  You really need to see it in person to feel the enormity and the history. 


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The Great Wall is more than 2,300 years old and the official length is 5500 miles (8851.8 kilometers). 


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It is considered the world's longest wall and the longest man-made structure in the world.  Reconstruction and protection of the Great Wall began with Badaling in 1957.  In 1987 it was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. 


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After a lot of research, we opted to visit the section at Mutianyu and spend one night at a nearby hotel. There are other parts of the wall you can visit that are closer to Beijing, but Mutianyu is the best-preserved section and less crowded. 



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The Great Wall at Mutianyu was built in the early Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644).  Glutinous rice flour was used in making the binding material to bind the bricks.  



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Sadly, nearly 1/3 of the Great Wall has disappeared due to humans and natural erosion.  During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), many bricks of the Great Wall were taken away to use in building homes, farms, and reservoirs. 


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The watchtowers on the great wall are mainly 2 stories tall. The first floor was used for soldiers or to store food and weapons. The second floor served as a lookout.  There are only 23 watchtowers left. 



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The Great Wall of China has been called the longest cemetery on Earth. Over a million people died building the wall and archaeologists have found human remains buried under parts of the wall.  There is an old legend about a woman called Meng Jiangnv, whose husband died building the Wall. They say her weeping was so bitter and loud that a section of the Wall collapsed, revealing her husband's bones so she could bury them.



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There is a marathon held each year in May.  It attracts   over 2500 runners from all over the world.  There are many different levels including a full marathon (26 miles), half marathon (13 miles), 10k, and 5k distances.



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We were very lucky with the weather as we only had an afternoon and a morning tour the wall.  We went to see it as soon as we arrived.  It was a good thing as the next morning we woke up to heavy rain.



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Contrary to common belief, the Great Wall of China cannot be seen from space with the naked eye.  



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At the Mutianyu location you have the choice of taking a cable car both ways, or to get down from the wall via toboggan or slide rail.  Because of D's knee, we took the cable car both ways.

Notice we are in the same cable car that Bill Clinton rode in.


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A few tips to visit the Great Wall of China:

They say that the best time to visit the Great Wall is spring (April - May) and autumn (September - November). Summer is the peak season with exhausting heat and popular sections get very crowded, and in winter it’s very cold with almost no crowds.  We were there the first week of June and the temperature was very pleasant and the crowds were minimal.  But I can only image how stunning it would be in the snow!

How do you get from Beijing to Mutianyu?  We hired a private car through our hotel.  Non - English speaker, but there really is nothing to see on the route so no talking is required.  It is a one and a half hour drive.

There is a lot of walking and climbing steps but you can take your time and really enjoy the amazing views.



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Where have we been?

We are living in Virginia and still traveling!

It is hard to believe but my last post on our travel blog was in May of 2016 and it was a trip we took in May of 2105!  I am not sure why I stopped blogging.... but I miss it.

In August of 2015 we relocated back to the United States and it was a much more difficult transition then I could ever imagine.  We were frantically traveling before heading home, along with the giant task of packing up our entire home to move to the other side of the world.  There was no time to blog and once you get out of the habit it is hard to keep it going. 

But I AM READY to get back into the groove of blogging!  I have so many exciting trips to share.

We continue to travel.... D quite a bit!  In fact, we will head off to Greece in a few weeks and on the way home he will hit his million miles on United!  Technically, he hit it a long time ago if you count ALL of our travels, but while we lived in Brussels and Singapore we rarely flew on United so our miles are spread across many airlines.  I probably have one million under my belt as well!

So check back soon - I will be posting trips from Beijing and the Great Wall, Sri Lanka, Japan, Vietnam, Bangkok, Bali, California, Paris, Brussels, three fabulous weeks in Italy, and Singapore (I have been back twice since we left, D has been back five times!)  I asked him if we really should still be living there  :  )


Snapshots from Korea


Seoul, Korea

May 2015



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Jeju Island, Korea



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We really enjoyed Seoul and wished we had more time to explore the city. 

We ended up having less than two days there due to the conference D had to attend on Jeju Island. 

A fun fact about the route from Seoul to Jeju Island, it is the WORLD"S busiest passenger air route.

Ninh Bình, Vietnam - the missing post


Ninh Bình, Vietnam

"The missing post"

November 2013



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This was a really good trip and I am not sure why it fell through the cracks in getting posted.  Ninh Bình is a city in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam and has some amazing scenery.  It is about a two-hour drive from Hanoi.  D had a business trip to Hanoi and while we were there we took the weekend to explore Ninh Bình.  We were not expecting the area to be so picturesque.



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Ninh Binh is much less touristy than its nearby "big brother" Hạ Long Bay.  We found it to be as beautiful with equally impressive views of the Karst Mountain formations.  But to really see the Karst Mountains properly at Ha Long Bay, you have to take a two-to-four day cruise.  Ninh Binh can be done via a car or motorbike with a few short trips in a small boat. 



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In fact, Ninh Binh has been referred to as “Ha Long Bay on Land.”   And along with the Karst Mountain views, you experience winding rivers, rice paddies, ancient settlements, and everyday life in the countryside.  



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We visited in November, which is the tail end of their cold & rainy season.  And yes, it was rainy and cold.  But this did not stop us.  We had planned a two-day motorcycle ride, but it was too rainy the first day so we had our driver bring a car.  The next day, even though it was very cold, we bundled up and rode on the bikes!



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In all of our travels we have never seen a raincoat for a calf.  Adorable!



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Our guide needed to stop by the father's house of his best friend, and he asked us if we wanted to go along.  The older gentleman's wife had passed a few months earlier and our guide had not been able to visit to give his condolences.  What a unique opportunity.  Other than our guide, no English was spoken.



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Moments like these make me realize why I love traveling.  They were as interested in us as we were in them. 



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They offered us tea.  I always do my "pretend tea drinking" when we are offered tea in an area that I feel the water might be questionable.  It would be rude to say no, but I also can't risk getting sick.  So I just put the cup up to my mouth and act like I am taking a sip.  



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 It is always fascinating to me to see how hospitable they are to complete strangers.



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The inside of the house was very simple.  It was one large room with fabric hung to separate the rooms.  It's hard to tell from this picture, but the wall directly behind us is the family shrine.  Every Vietnamese house has a prominent family shrine with photos of all their relatives.  The owner was very proud to tell us stories about notable people in his family. 



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Next, a boat ride at Tam Coc to see the Karst Mountains...

I have to say that I think Karst topography is one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the world.  We have seen them in Vietnam and China, but there are many countries around the world where you can experience them.  The mountains are formed from soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum.  They have unique underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves.



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D steering our boat.



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... an interesting hay stack.



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In this area they have a very unique way of rowing... look closely at how the locals use their feet on the oars to row.   Interestingly, most are older women rowing, especially on the tourist boats.



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As I mentioned, it was very cold, so I had on two pairs of pants and four layers of tops.  



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A great Pho stand near our hotel.  We ate here a few times as there were very few restaurants.



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 And we had to sample local Banh Mi.


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With the local salted lemon mineral water.


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The next day...

The rain stopped so we decided to hop on the motorcycles with our fabulous guide Toan.  It was still very cold, especially riding bikes!  D wore three pairs of pants (really) and five layers of shirts/sweaters. He basically had on his entire wardrobe at once. 

We stayed at the charming Vancouver Hotel in Ninh Binh.  Many guides will tell you to stay in Tam Coc, but since this is not a touristy area good hotels are scarce.  We highly recommend this hotel but book early, because David (the owner) only has two rooms.  He was hoping to expand and may have done so since we stayed.



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I have shared with our readers that I am not a fan of motorcycles, but I do love riding them in Vietnam!  Okay, technically these were only motorbikes.



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I was enamored the poinsettia trees (Trang Nguyen flowers) that grew wild in this area.  All in full bloom.






As of 2014, Tràng An, a scenic area known for it's boat cave tours near Ninh Bình, was included in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.  



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This time we were in a boat steered by a shoe-less woman.  It was a bit cold so she had socks on.



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Get ready - we are going in.... there are about ten different caves on this two-hour boat ride.



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 It was an amazing view when you exited the cave.



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Below - a packed boat of friendly visitors.  We were very lucky because this time of year is a low travel period so there were very few boats on the water.  At peak season the waters are full of boats with locals trying to sell you soda and souvenirs.   We did not experience any of this so it was a very pleasant experience for us and we highly recommend it.



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Back to our bikes for more rice fields and local characters...



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Always a favorite of ours, visiting the local market. 



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 And a few photos of the local people.

This might be my favorite photo - notice how the girls are all bundled up with coats, leggings, and hats but still have on their flip flops!



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I thought this was a parade but our guide told me it was a funeral.  But he said it was a time to be happy and to celebrate the life of the deceased.



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The local barber...





Ear cleaning is an art in Vietnam.  I think I would be afraid to let someone dig in my ear like that!



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We went to a very old amusement park.  It was closed for the winter; at least we think it was just for the winter.


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Can you image and old rusty ride like this in the US?



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Bái Dính Temple and Cultural Complex is a series of Buddhist temples on Bái Dính Mountain.


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The compound consists of the original old temple and a new larger temple. It is considered the largest complex of Buddhist temples in Vietnam and has become a popular site for Buddhist pilgrimages.



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We really enjoyed our three days in Ninh Binh - we would love to go back when the rice fields are green.