Sunday, April 24, 2011

Award Airline Travel: Scam or…Scam?

I’m currently on hour 42 of my “free” flight back to Hanoi. I still have roughly 20 more hours to go until I’m back in my apartment, but only 2 more until I’m in HCMC where I’ll spend the night.

There’s nothing much to say about my 60-hour trip from Honolulu to Hanoi, unless one wants to focus on various frustrations that come from poor service on airlines, at immigration, in airport hotels, etc. I just passed through Hong Kong International Airport, which to me was the worst international airport I passed through on this trip.

Part of this was due to the Regal Airport Hotel where I stayed. It was an enormous hassle to go through customs—imagine how long it takes for a line with 120 people to be served by only 2 customs officers—just so I could take advantage of a day room facility. And the check-in area of the hotel, which was run by what appeared to be a gang of teenagers, was very inefficient—another 10-15 minutes spent waiting for them to confirm my reservation and enter my information on their computer. The room itself was comfortable and spacious, but not at all worth the $156 I spent on it (shockingly, the cheapest option at Hong Kong’s airport, and much more expensive than day rooms in Singapore and Tokyo).

Granted, the room was spacious and comfortable...

And the bathroom was nicely appointed and all shiny and clean...

And the view from the window was quite nice (or would have been if there hadn't been so much haze)...but it really wasn't worth what I paid.

Like at the day room at the airport in Bangkok, I was awakened early (after almost a day and a half without sleep) — this time by a too-eager maid who had no idea I was still in my room and asleep. It would have been nice to log on to the Internet from my room at some point, but that would have cost me an additional $17. To top it off, checking out was just as slow as checking in.

Were my frequent flier miles worth my $1500 ticket savings? Yes and no. I ended up spending quite a bit on airport day rooms and on airport food and drink—including the $5 bottle of tea that I bought at a kiosk right outside my boarding gate in Hong Kong, which was promptly confiscated five minutes later upon boarding. (Seriously, what the hell is up with that?) Also, it’s hard to justify wasting more than 100 hours of my life on a round-trip flight between Hanoi and Honolulu. Somehow, I still have enough miles to take two more free flights between Asia and the U.S. I’m either going to have to find some other way to use those miles, or I’ll have to hope that the airlines will find a much better way to make award travel less of a nightmare.

I do know this: if the only choice I have to use my award miles is to spend 2 1/2 days and pass through five different countries to travel what would take less than 20 hours on a normal ticket, I’m not going to do it. And I would highly recommend that others don’t do what I’ve done, even if the savings are substantial. I’m fairly sure that my expenses just in the airports I passed through on this trip cost upwards of $500. I didn’t have to spend that much on day rooms, of course, but then is going sleepless for two and a half days on a single trip worth it?

My next international trip will be sometime in June, when I move to Japan. I’ll see if I can use my frequent flier miles for the trip. If I can’t get a direct flight from Hanoi to Tokyo with United Airline’s Award Travel program, I won’t use the miles and will make immediate plans to cancel that credit card. The option of “free” flights is obviously nice, but it seems rarely worth it in the end.

Postscript: I can’t even express my relief upon arriving in HCMC. Not only did the city, on the short ride from the airport to my hotel, feel more relaxed (so did the flight from Hong Kong, where suddenly most of the passengers were traveling in bare feet, often propped up on the armrests of the seats in front of them), but interacting with the super friendly taxi driver and hotel staff was a kind of revelation…or a re-run of past revelations. Aside from the terrible traffic, increased population density, and the occasional pushy person, I love HCMC.

I liked Kim Yen a lot and will stay there again if I have an overnight in HCMC.

I stayed the night at Kim Yen Hotel, which is only 4 km from the airport, and after 4 hours of sleep—I had no idea what time it was when I woke up; at 2:15 a.m. I thought I might be late preparing for my late morning checkout—I wandered through the streets of Phu Nhuan looking for morning com va ca phe. I couldn’t find anything to suit my tastes at 6 a.m., so I went with a two egg and mixed-everything-else sandwich (20,000 dong / $0.96) and a coffee (10,000 dong / $0.48) from a small restaurant in front of my hotel. It was heavenly.

Why are you looking at me like that? I just want to show the world what great sandwiches you make...

And why are YOU looking at me like that? Did you see me photographing the sandwich cart guys up the street or something?

Talk about inviting! Look at that beautiful, cheap, oversized glass mug of ca phe sua da.

This might look like a boring place to eat a breakfast sandwich and drink coffee in Saigon, but at 6 in the morning, with the city at its near-quietest and near-coolest, this was a little piece of heaven for me. (By the way, that's not me at the table. I'm behind the camera lens with half a sandwich stuffed in my mouth and the rim of my coffee glass wedged between my lips.)

Kim Yen Hotel is at 126 Nguyen Trong Tuyen Street, 15th Ward, Phu Nhuan District. Tel: (84) 8-3997-7005/6/7/8. Fax: (84) 8-3997-7010. Email: Web:

Back at the airport, where I had to deal with all kinds of line-challenged travelers, I got through things easier than expected. I had a suitcase weighing about 20 kilograms more than the allowable limit, and while I was ready to pay as much as $75 (I had to pay that much once before, though for an international flight), they only charged me $36. Good to know. It helped, I think, that I spoke Vietnamese to the airport staff. The women—who delayed my payment by getting the phone number of a German tourist about 65 years old — all said I was handsome, to which I said, "No, I’m ugly, I'm not handsome at all," at which point they cackled together and then wrote down the amount I was to pay. I have no idea if they gave me a flirtation discount, but I certainly tried.

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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Cincinnati Art Museum

Part of the museum's renowned Egypt collection.

On the day before I left Cincinnati, my parents and I headed to the Cincinnati Art Museum, located on a tree-lined hill in Eden Park and one of my favorite places to visit in the city.

The Art Museum costs nothing to enter. Thanks to a generous gift from the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Foundation, it’s absolutely free to the public! That’s one of the reasons I love going here. Another is the setting, with its surrounding trees and urban vistas (depending on where you look), which is ideal for a museum like this. Another is the architecture and design. And yet another, of course, is its permanent collection which boasts more than 60,000 works. The national and international exhibitions here tend to be really interesting, too.

The museum was founded in 1881, and its collections go back 6000 years. The museum is divided into some of the following areas: American Painting and Sculpture; European Painting and Sculpture; Classical and Near Eastern Art; Far Eastern Art; Decorative Arts; Fashion Arts and Textiles; Arts of Africa; Art of the America; Prints, Drawings, and Watercolors; Photographs; and Circus Posters.

Some of the bigger draws come from the world’s most celebrated painters, including Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Gauguin, Chagall, Modigliani, Titian, van Dyck, Wyeth, Hopper, and Rothko, among many others. There is also a Cincinnati wing of the museum, with art work depicting the city over the last 200 years.

A new policy at the museum allows visitors to use a camera, but only in specially marked areas. I took advantage of this and snapped some photos of a small portion of the museum we visited.

This is a painting called "Daily News" by the Japanese painter and lithographer Yasuo Kuniyoshi (born in Okayama in 1893), who arrived in the U.S. in his teens.

As you can see in some of the photos, there are red plastic penguins in many rooms. The penguins are there to help bring attention to 21c Museum in Louisville and the designs they have of creating a red penguin sculpture downtown. I like the red penguins. They’re quiet and don’t bother anyone. In my opinion, every museum should have red penguins.

There were several exhibitions on when we visited. Just about every month the museum brings in something new and interesting.

The museum has a pretty excellent and very reasonably priced restaurant, too, called Terrace Cafe. Although my Cincinnati Reuben was hardly mind-blowing, I’ve had good meals here before. Also, the setting is quite interesting. On warm days you can eat outside in the courtyard (it has free wifi) with the scent of blossoming pear trees adding to the atmosphere, or you can sit inside with a view of a very large mural by Joan Miro. Either way, you’ve got good options.

"The Midnight Mass" (1911) by Edward Timothy Hurley. This painting is of the Mt. Adams neighborhood in Cincinnati during winter. One sees the Immaculata church here, covered in snow and masked by haze.

The museum store is excellent. I've even bought dinner plates here by local artists.

The Cincinnati Art Museum is located at 953 Eden Park Drive. Tel: (513) 639-2995. Web: Hours: Open Tuesday – Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Mondays and major holidays. Tours are available in English, French, German, or Spanish.

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Friday, April 8, 2011

A Glimpse at the Downtown Cincinnati Food Scene: Findlay Market and Emporium Coffee

I was in my hometown of Cincinnati recently to visit my parents. My parents are always surprised that I don’t come with a list of things I want to do when I’m home, but the truth is I very much enjoy resting. Especially after flying for almost countless hours from Vietnam. Still, near the end of my trip I took advantage of Cincinnati’s decent weather and went downtown on successive days. The places I most like to visit when I’m home are only two or three: Findlay Market, The Cincinnati Art Museum, and the restaurants, shops, and parks around Mt. Adams and the Ohio River.

Findlay Market is near a historic area of Cincinnati called Over-the-Rhine, and is Ohio’s oldest surviving municipal market house. Built originally in 1852, and opened for business three years later, Findlay Market has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for nearly 40 years. Its most recent renovation, which an included an expansion, was completed in 2003. The names of several shops in the market, and the distinctive architecture in the neighborhood, speaks to the large German and German-American population that settled in Cincinnati in the early- and mid-20th century.

One of the first places in the market that we came to was a long, continuous row of vegetable stands. My mom stopped by here and bought some cucumbers and green beans, while I kept moving along and attracting attention with my camera.

We also stopped in a shop called Eckerlin’s, which specializes in cheeses, meats, breads, and jarred goods such as olives. We took a stab at a new kind of cheese my parents like—white cheddar with horseradish—and they produced a half-wheel of it immediately. We bought a pound for less than $9 and went on our merry way.

The indoor market is surrounded by quite a few specialty shops as well as the occasional restaurant.

There’s also an outdoor seating area with plastic chairs and tables; a nice location in the market, too, since you can get food-to-go from just about anywhere.

You can get all kinds of international products here, from Middle Eastern foods to Italian, French, Greek, Vietnamese, and Mexican, just to name a few. We stopped inside a store called Madison’s, which had too many imported common fruits and vegetables for my taste, and went inside a few more other places as well.

I always like to browse around some of the fishmonger shops, too, but we didn’t have a lot of time today and fish wasn’t on our shopping list anyway.

We headed to the indoor part of the market to seek out lunch. It was pretty busy here, mostly with people buying things to cook in their own kitchens. It’s amazing what one can find here. Virtually any kind of typical meat is here, including Amish poultry if that’s your thing.

There is also a very good selection of fish and seafood, which isn't always easy to find in Cincinnati (from what I remember).

We were after something to eat at the market, though, and it took a while for us to check everything and figure out what we wanted. Somehow we opted for gyros, which I haven’t had in probably two years, at a Greek booth called Areti’s.

The gyros were cheap at $4.75, but they were hard to polish off. To say that the woman who made our food was generous with the lamb pieces would be a major understatement. I could barely get it all down.

Despite feeling full, I couldn’t stop myself from stuffing myself further with a Whoopee, which is basically just two airy chocolate cookies with sweet cream cheese in the middle. I had it cut in two, and my dad and I gorged ourselves.

Walking through Findlay Market, one occasionally comes upon local artwork. In recent years, it seems, the Cincinnati flying pig has become more visible, especially downtown and along the river. Not surprisingly, given how much pork is sold here, there’s a pig statue at one end of the market. There are also murals and even an interesting chair made out of steel, though I don’t think you’re supposed to sit on it.

Findlay Market is on Elder Street between Elm and Race. Hours of operation are Tuesday through Friday from 9 am – 6 pm, Saturday from 8 am – 6 pm, and on Sunday from 10 am – 4 pm. The market is closed on Monday. Tel: (513) 665-4839. Email: The Farmers Market is on from April through November on Tuesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. For more information, please see the Findlay Market website: There’s all kinds of information here, including seasonal local recipes.

My dad wanted to show me what he promised was a good downtown café, so we left Findlay Market and headed further downtown to a place called Emporium Café. Along the way we passed by quite a few blossoming pear trees (or were they dogwoods? or magnolias?). I took photos from the back seat of the car, which isn't exactly a prime spot. I got a couple serviceable ones, though, as you can see below. These trees are everywhere at this time of year. Most of the other trees in the area have yet to bud.

The cafe didn’t exactly look like much from the sidewalk, though the outdoor seating was a nice touch, but as soon as we stepped inside I was taken aback by how big the place was.

Interestingly, only about a quarter of the space the café occupies is devoted to seating. There’s a big room used to store, grind, and apparently bag coffee, and a sales area between there and the barista counter.

City Beat, the local alternative newspaper, named Emporium the best coffeehouse last year. I can see why. The coffee was pretty tasty, and the café is easily the nicest I’ve been to in Cincinnati.

As you can see below, downtown Cincinnati, which I photographed from the sidewalk outside the cafe, is just a short walk away, and the location of Emporium is really pretty excellent.

I could see myself camping out here on many a weekend…if only Cincinnati were in, say, Asia.

Coffee Emporium is located at 110 East Central Parkway. Tel: (513) 651-5483. Web:

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