Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Travelogue: Ha Long Bay and a little of Hanoi

We've moved to Ho Chi Minh City, but between getting boys settled, trying to unpack our last boxes (always the hardest: office and art supplies and papers), and figuring out what exactly our jobs are, I've had no time to write.  Stay tuned for something about the city we live in eventually. For now, I want to document a bit of the travelogue before I forget.

We took advantage of the Columbus Day weekend to visit Ha Long Bay. Greg had taken some trips for work, and we had all taken one day trip to the Mekong Delta, but mostly it was the first time the boys and I had been out of the city since our arrival.  I admit, it was great to hear them ask, "when do we go home?" with "home" meaning HCMC.  A sign of settling into the new place.

But back to the travelogue.

We opted for a three day, two night trip, at the recommendation of friends.  It was a wise decision!   Ha Long Bay is beautiful, but it does take a long time to travel to from Hanoi: 4-5 hours in the car, depending on traffic.  You can fly into Hai Phong and then the trip is shorter, I think, but since Greg and I each had work in Hanoi on either end, that wasn't a good option for us.

Because travel with three kids is a little grueling, we broke up the trip with a night in Hanoi's old quarter on either end.  Again, a good decision!  Except, taking a 7pm flight out of SGN was a poor decision.  Domestic flights are often delayed, apparently, so we didn't actually take off until 8:30, which means we didn't land in HAN until 11pm.  Ian fell asleep on the luggage cart while going to the car to the hotel. 

A single friend at work had some time on her hands and kindly offered to research hotels in Hanoi's old quarter that are family friendly.  Apparently she enjoys travel research, even for other people!  At her recommendation, we ended up at the Essence d'Orient, which was fantastic.  Rare to find a mid-level budget hotel with connecting rooms (we booked in advance for about $50/night/room, inclusive of full breakfast buffet.  Airport transfer for minivan at $22/one way extra very reasonable.  In about an hour, I'm going to try the hotel spa :)  ).  Rooms were clean, bathrooms had modern fixtures, and staff super friendly.  Plus a laptop in each room, so I can actually write this blog post right now!!  If this friend has more time for research for future trips, I'm going to have to set her to work :)

For our cruise, I went through the Kangaroo Café.  I read a number of blogs and opted to go with the "flashpacker" category (ie, a step above backpacker, but not quite mid-level).  For our price point ($169/person for full trip) we got almost exactly what was promised, so no complaints.  While the boat the café runs was unavailable (I had picked that boat because it had one cabin with three beds, the only such boat I found like that), the substitute boat was ok (two rooms very close to each other).  The other small hiccup was that the bicycle tour of Cat Ba National Park didn't happen because the bike rental place didn't have any kid size bikes (though the café operator said they did).  It was unclear to us if they didn't have any kid-size bikes ever, or if they were already rented, or if they were saving them for the expensive cruise ship that was coming in behind our tiny boat.  But, whatever the reason, when Wm started fighting back tears (poor kid had been looking forward to the bike ride since we started talking about this trip), our tour guide thought quickly and opted to substitute a trip to the beach at Monkey Island instead, for more swimming.

That meant we had three swimming stops on the trip: Titop Island (many boats stop there and it might actually be the only place in Ha Long Bay proper where you can swim); a secluded beach on a small island (highlight of the trip!  Technically it was in the Hai Phong area.  Imagine swimming with the tiny limestone islands all around you and just your family, a small beach (sadly had trash washed up), and jumping off a boat into the emerald green sea.  Pretty amazing); and Monkey Island (so named because of the macaque monkeys along the beach.  Other benefit is this island was closer to the ocean proper, so boys also enjoyed waves).  Frequent swimming turned out to be key for happiness of boys.  

Food was tasty for us -- lots of fresh seafood! -- but fairly miserable for the boys.  Thus, non-seafood eaters should probably scope out the food options ahead of time.  If we go again, we need to bring snacks and peanut butter. 

The second night was at a hotel on Cat Ba Island.  Because we were traveling between the two tourist seasons (domestic season is June-August and international is November-January), the hotel was deserted.  In a 100+ room hotel, only 12 people were at breakfast.  Greg and I found this very spooky!  Were we to go again, we would have paid to upgrade to the Nam Cat Island Resort, which had individual huts over the water.  Apparently only backpakers stay there right now, but our tour guide said that as they just got a powerline and from a few months ago are now able to have air conditioning in the rooms at night, we expect it will soon become more popular with the "flashpackers" and mid-level clients.  Caveat: boys were happy at the creepy hotel because the restaurant options nearby meant they could have pasta and pizza.

Coming home the last day was long for traveling with kids: 2 hours on a boat and 4.5 hours in a car.  Adults enjoyed the scenery, but with no active time for the boys, they were CRAZY in the van.  Absolutely nuts.  Even the return of ipads (which had been hidden away during the majority of the trip) couldn't distract them.  Hence, again, good decision to spend one more night back in Hanoi before the plane ride home the next morning. 

Before I write about Hanoi, documenting for the blog some boats that looked nice in the harbor.  Again, for our budget for this trip, the Kangaroo Café was great.  I liked that our boat was small (max 16 people) and had a lot of outdoor covered space.  The decks get really hot in the direct sun, so having shade on the top deck is key, in my opinion!  I also liked the fresh sea air, so personally I would shun away from ships with aircon-only spaces, but I know others might prefer more climate control.

These ships looked a bit nicer (I'd estimate about $250+/person): Syrena, Bahya, Heritage Line, Emeraude, Pelican Line

These ships we know are luxury ($400/person): Au Co, Indochina Junk

In Hanoi, with our limited time, we walked around by the hotel and by Hoan Kiem Lake.  Two out of three boys enjoyed the water puppet show (tickets $5/person, so not a waste).  They were quite tired in the evenings, so an electric car ride (while horrible for Greg who prefers to walk everywhere), was great compromise (in my opinion) - I got to see the sights while Ian slept and Patch fell asleep!  ($10 for 30 minutes).  The road around the lake is closed to traffic on the weekends, which gave Wm, especially, some space to blow off energy while Ian napped in my lap.

We had grand plans for dinner, but tired boys meant a few sticks of grilled pork + bread, followed by smoothies, was sufficient.  The frozen coconut coffee smoothie at Cong Café lived up to the hype!

The second late afternoon and evening we walked half way around the lake.  We thought there was a playground by a statue of a king, but turns out it is only a square where kids skate and use scooters.  Except we have none of those with us, too bad!  So, we headed to 4Ps Pizza for dinner - a local chain, which started in HCMC.  Tasty, as always!  Again, Greg and I would have preferred to try something local to Hanoi, but with so much new after 5 days of travel, the boys appreciated something they knew already.  Ice cream at Kem Trang Tien (a Hanoi spot since 1958) added a little of a local component.

With totally tired boys, we paid a cyclo driver (bicycle rickshaw) an exorbitant price to take us back from the south side of the lake to our hotel.  Not something we would EVER do without kids, but those little legs couldn't walk anymore ... and they enjoyed the novelty of it.  I'm surprised Greg survived the trip - the things parents do for their children, ha ha ha. 

So, that about sums up three days/two nights for the Ha Long Bay trip and two not-even-half days in Hanoi.  

Things we need to remember when traveling with kids: bring playing cards and Spot It; bring markers/paper; bring a small bag of playdough and newspaper to play on; research where playgrounds are; pack a tennis ball or two for tossing around; pack more extra clothes for sweaty boys (or stay at a place to order room service in pjs). 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

From incredulity to a pit in my stomach

I'm moving through whatever would be the equivalent of the "12 stages of grief" for moving, but I can't really think straight for what all the 12 steps would be.  I just now that in the last week, the pit in my stomach has surfaced.  Luckily for me, taking a walk and making lists are two easy ways to reduce the grapefruit-sized ball in my stomach to plum-sized.    

So does cleaning.  Last weekend I scrubbed some baseboards and touched up chipped paint on the first floor.  Why?  Because those are things I can do, unlike all the things on my list that can't be done until June, July, or after we move.  I think that is what causes the pit: the anticipation of so many things that will have to be done, but can't be done now.  

So, find me in June and I'll let you know what the next step is.  In the meantime, send some warm spring weather to DC so I can take my walks in the sunshine, instead of the incessant off-and-on rain plaguing the area.  

Friday, April 22, 2016


I am having a moment of incredulity today.  This week has been filled with many pre-move preparatory activities, many of which were initiated because we received our travel orders (i.e., the State Department has allocated funds for us to move).  Thus, while I have been studying Vietnamese for seven months (yes, 7.  How crazy is that in and of itself?), this week is when things started to get real.  Very real.  

Which, honestly, is normal, considering we're about three months from departure.  Back in September, I knew the last three months would be the crazy time.  Except now those precise three months are starting.  And the crazy is starting.  

I've been trying to identify all day why I have this feeling of incredulity.  After all, we've moved to two other countries as a family before.  Why is this time any different?  I think it boils down to the fact that neither of us have never been to Vietnam.  

We had visited Mumbai in 2004.  While Mumbai is very different from Hyderabad, at least I had somewhat of a concept of "India."  At least, I thought I did.  (After I lived there, I knew how mistaken I was, because the country is so diverse.  But, to my 2007-era brain, I had already been to "India," so it was a familiar concept.)

Our move to Manila was so quick (no language training, just 2.5 months back in the U.S. in between), I didn't have time to stress over that.  

VIETNAM has been lurking about since we received our assignment in November 2014.  And I have no idea what our life will be like there, except from what people have told me and images I've seen online.  And yet, we still go.  And we'll keep on going every three years or so.*  How crazy is that?  Pretty crazy.  For generally rational people, we've chosen a crazy profession.  Perhaps we're not actually so rational after all?

Luckily, everyone says we will love it.  Luckily also, logically I know everything will be ok.  Just have to get over this moment of incredulity first.  

(*yes, coming back to America is always an option, too.)

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Death vs. Knowing and Believing

As my Facebook friends will have gathered, we've had some heavy hearts this weekend.  The father of one of Wm's soccer teammates passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on January 18.  Here is an excerpt from the homily during the funeral service I shared there, which I have chosen to meditate on for the next few weeks:

"Still we gather, sit, speak, sing, and pray; to weep with Jesus at [their] passing....The mystery is not the dying or the why, but that God stays present with [the dead] and all of you. ... Because of this mystery of love, our lives do not ever end. ... Remember that you are loved. We are here until we die and somehow be revealed." (Adapted from funeral sermon today at St Paul's, K St)

I'm repeating in the blog for special keeping since FB status pass by quickly, but these posts stick around for a while longer.  This is my second friend to have lost a husband all too young, and I found this reflection reassuring with such questions of "why?" floating around.

As Wm knew this dad, needless to say we discussed the death.  Wm also had a very church-filled weekend because his choir joined other area choirs to sing at the National Cathedral's Evensong today.  One of their songs was about the Song of Simeon, and the choral director explained the background.  On the car ride home, we shared the following conversation.

First, we discussed prophets and prophecies, since he didn't really understand the definitions of these words.  Which morphed into one of the major differences between Christians (believe Jesus is the Messiah, hence the Song of Simeon) and Jews (still waiting for the Messiah).

Wm: But, that means that maybe Jesus isn't the Messiah.  We don't really *know.*
Me: You're right, we don't.  We can only believe.
Wm: So, the Jewish people could be right and we could be wrong.
Me: Yes, correct.
Wm: But, maybe our belief is also right.
Me: Yes.  That's the tricky thing about believing vs. knowing.  And why we should always respect other religions.  Even ones that aren't related at all to the Bible.
Wm: But, we do know that when we die, like Sebastian's dad, our bodies stays here.  Your body is dead in the ground.
Me (a little nervous): Yes.
Wm: And, I think enough people around the whole world believe that your spirit goes up to God, so I think we could say we *know* that your spirit is with God.
Me: Well, some people might argue with you on that, but I think that's a logical assumption.
Wm: So, if your spirit is with God, that means your spirit can be anywhere.  Which means that Mimi's spirit could be sitting right here next to me in Ian's car seat.
Me: Mimi?
Wm: Yes, Mimi.  Right here in this car, sitting right here next to me in Ian's car seat.  It *is* possible.  I'll never *know*, but I can believe it.

I really love parenting at moments like this.  A lot of my time and effort is spent trying to keep the boys in line, teach them proper manners, trying to keep dinner time from devolving into endless bathroom jokes.  I rarely get to see them make the fun connections: they concentrate so hard at school, by the time they get home, their brains just need rest and their bodies need exercise and movement.  When conversations like this start, I never quite know where they might end - but it is always a fun path to take.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


"Resilience" is a hot topic at my work these days.  I'm tempted to call it a buzz word, except that buzz word connotes (to me) meaningless words we throw around to make our work-speak sound smart.  And "resilience" has real meaning for people who face new jobs - often in very different locations and under very different conditions - every year.

Serendipitously, the sermon at church today was on resilience.  [Text here]  Our priest quoted a book by Danaan Parry that used a trapeze analogy for life: sometimes you're swinging along just fine, and other times you need to let go to catch the next trapeze.  Sometimes you know when one of those moments is coming (starting a new job) and sometimes you don't (meeting someone who later turns out to have a huge influence on your life).  Our priest tied it into the Gospel reading, likening Jesus' baptism as a trapeze-jump moment: no one knew the heavens would open and God would speak, which had a huge impact on the growth of the church. He concluded that we ourselves should trust in God in those moments when we are flying through the air.

The point of the blog is not theological discussion.  But, the background is important, so thanks for bearing with me.

This year, Patch has opted to sit with us in the service rather than attend Sunday School.  As long as he behaves I don't mind, even if I can't really understand why he wouldn't prefer to be with his friends and eat a snack than listen to a sermon.  Lately, Patch has also been paying attention - actually listening - to the sermon. This trapeze analogy really caught his attention, and he listened without fidgeting.

At the end, Patch's reaction whispered in my ear: "Are some people really scared when things change?  I bet my life will change when we go to Vietnam, but I don't think it will be scary.  You and my brothers will be there, so we'll be ok."

I'm not intending to "humble brag" on my kid or on my parenting bringing up kids who genuinely love each other.  But a reminder from the mouths of babes (sort of, he's a bit old to be classified as "babe") that "resilience" has a lot to do with who is around you when you face challenges and changes.  Be kind to and understanding of those people, because they are the ones who will get you through it.  

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Moving Preparations Commencing (sort of)

As December marched on, I could no longer deny 2016's imminent arrival.  And with 2016, of course, comes our impending move, which I have mostly ignored to date (except for that whole learning Vietnamese full time thing).  The mental coaching articles always tell you to live in the present, right?  I'm not sure if I actively was choosing to live in the present, or was secretly living in denial that we'll miss family and friends, but either way, time to face the music and get our stuff in order.

As noted in past posts, parents in the DC metro plan summer camps early.  Our kids have exactly two weeks between when school lets out and when July comes.  We have no idea when in July we are moving, and I do hope to squeeze in a trip home to Texas before we head overseas again, so the last two weeks of June are it for camps.  Thankfully, the stars have aligned and, in the limited time we have that we can actually commit to something, at least one of Wm's friends is free for sleep away camp, and a day camp Patch wanted to try is offering a theme he is super excited about.  Summer camp, check.  (now I just have to remember to sign up when registration opens on January 30, since we have very little leeway!)

And then the ever-dreaded pre-move shopping.  Forced shopping is never fun, especially when, with every purchase, you are forced to remember why you are buying things (i.e., you are moving to the other side of the world).  Don't get me wrong, I love our job and all the fun experiences we have once we're there, but leaving each place (especially leaving America and our family) brings sadness and dread.  However, on December 26, I faced the music and purchased a fake 6.5' Christmas tree.  

With two relocation-related activities under my belt, I can now face the myriad of tasks in 2016 with a little less dread.  Takes a few pushes to get the ball rolling.  

-- PS: side funny note on the Christmas tree --
(1) We had a fake Christmas tree, purchased in Hyderabad.  It was funny looking and only 4' tall, but it served us well for four years in two countries.  This Christmas, I went to take it out to loan to my office for holiday decoration - only to find we only had the middle third in our storage closet!  I have no idea what happened to the top and bottom!  

Either (a) they are hiding somewhere else in our house and we will find them when we pack out / unpack on the flip side or (b) a mover along the way needed only a top and bottom, leaving us with a labeled box, but not a complete tree.  It seemed prudent to purchase a new tree now, in any case, so that we do have one for the next Christmas (and not take our chances on (a) above).  

-- PPS: Christmas tree woes, part II --
Finding an unlit tree is tough!  We need an unlit one so we can put 220V lights on it (few places are 110V like the US).  Luckily, Target came through.  Also luckily, I had exactly one choice in the post-Christmas sale, so I didn't have to make a decision (only spend my time online confirming that I did, indeed, only have one decent-looking option).  

-- PPPS on shopping -- 
No tiny babies making this move!  No mountains boxes of diapers and wipes!  No mounds of tubs of back-up formula!  No having to guess how quickly a baby will gain weight and move out of one diaper size or wonder how much formula, if any, the baby would need.  Most other things I purchased locally (after all, people have babies the world around :) ), but sensitive skin and sensitive tummies in our family seemed to prefer American products for those two items.  One whole (expensive!) category of "consumables" exorcised from the shopping list.  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Teaching Disappointment

Last night and this weekend, I'm having to teach disappointment and dealing with the consequences to Wm.  It is rough!

Background: His school has "jobs" for kids.  Third graders are in charge of the mail delivery system, aka "backpack mail."  I love this system - I can just send in something to the PTA noting the subject mater on the envelope, and the kids have a list of which type of info goes to which child in which class to get the envelope to the right PTA parent volunteer.  If I need to send a letter to a specials teacher or front office, ditto.  If a kid is interested, s/he can sign up to be a "postmaster" (sort the mail in afternoon) or "delivery agent" (deliver mail before school).

William wanted to be a delivery agent.  He came home one day super excited about this.  While he thought the post master job might be more interesting, he said he knew he couldn't do it because with three kids, there was already enough going on after school.  And, he also told me he only volunteered to deliver mail on M/W/F, because he knew it would be too hectic for Lea to get him to school early on days when Ian had to get to school.  Really, I was quite proud of him for thinking about all this.

Friday was the "exam" day.  I wished him luck when I left for work.  When I got home, I asked him how the test went.  He immediately broke down in tears - somehow, by the time he arrived at school, he went into autopilot and went right to the cafeteria to line up for class.  He forgot to go to the classroom to take the test.   (He walks with a friend, so Lea wasn't there to remind him about the test once he arrived.)

I emailed the teacher, but unfortunately there is no make up test.  It was a one time deal.

Through his sadness, he said he wanted to do this because the job he really wanted for the school was to be a "patrol" (i.e., the 4th and 5th graders who help line kids up for buses, make sure the little kids get off at the right bus stop, etc).  But, we won't be here for 4th or 5th grade, so this would be his only shot.

Part of me really wanted to explain these special circumstances to the teacher.  But part of me realized - both for me as a parent and him as a kid - we both need to learn right now.  I need to remind myself I can't do everything for my kids, and he needs to learn he is ultimately responsible for himself. And for both of us to remember that "failure" isn't the end of the world. (let's face it, I don't fail very often, so I don't take failure very well either!)

There's been a lot of discussions about the high rate of anxiety and depression among new college students in articles and in books like "How to Raise and Adult."  I haven't read the book and have only skimmed the articles (in general, I don't like reading parenting advice), but I get the general idea that it's important to help your kid learn how to cope with disappointment, especially when they only have themselves to blame for that disappointment.

So, we'll have a few tough days with tears.  And a few conversations which I'm sure will involve him shouting about how dumb his teacher is and me reminding him he can't blame others for his mistake (and him storming off to his room).  But, fingers crossed, in the end he'll move on and find something else to be involved in.