New Zealand Adventure: Hobbiton

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Our family just got back from a 10 day holiday in Middle Earth. We started our journey in Auckland, New Zealand and drove to Matamata in our rented minivan (which is exciting for these boring parents). Matamata has the farm where The Shire was built and filmed for the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogies. The set was originally torn down after LOTR but was rebuilt and kept up after the Hobbit.

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We took our double stroller up and down the small dirt paths around the Shire during our tour. It was a beautiful sunny day and the magic of the hobbit-burrows was enchanting. We even got to see Bag End, which was Bilbo and Frodo’s house. Fun fact: the big tree at the top of Bag End was a real tree in LOTR but is now a fake tree since the set was rebuilt. The hobbit-burrows don’t have insides, the scenes in the movies were all shot on set and not actually inside the homes.

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At the end of the tour we drank some cider in the Green Dragon, a pretty touristy spot. The whole Shire is beautiful and even if you’re not into LOTR, it is a fun tour. It’s set on a working sheep farm in a beautiful part of the North Island and it’s very scenic. Stay tuned for more on our New Zealand adventure!

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Weekend in Saigon

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We haven’t done any traveling since Memorial weekend. We spent the summer getting readjusted to life here in Hanoi and getting back into a routine, so we decided to take an extra long Labor Day weekend and explore Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

As can be expected, our weekend consisted of lots of time in the hotel for naps and diaper changes. Luckily we already knew that and stayed in a hotel with a nice playground and pool area. The kids had ample room to run around and play in our spacious room.

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Saigon is more polished than Hanoi, and we brought our coveted double stroller to haul the kids and their stuff around in. It was SO nice not to have to carry them and all their gear around the city, especially considering it was sunny and humid all weekend. Saigon is a bigger city than Hanoi and we enjoyed indulging in some western food that we don’t get back home. Some favorites were steaks at B3 Steakhouse, burgers at East West Brewery and burritos from Cali Burrito.

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In between naps we visited some of the more famous spots in Saigon. Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon which we couldn’t enter due to renovations, Saigon Central Post Office which was constructed in the late 19th century, and Saigon City Hall. It was sweltering, so we cooled off inside when we could. Oliver made friends with a little boy while he was running around a display for the upcoming Moon Festival in a local mall.

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We visited the Imperial Palace on the morning we flew out. It was a whirlwind visit but we’re glad we didn’t miss it. The Independence Palace (also known as the Reunification Palace) is the site of the Fall of Saigon in 1975 when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates. The palace is largely untouched and can be seen as it was in the 1970’s. It was good place for kids because it has a large lawn where they can run around.

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Our flight home was easy because our two tired babies slept the whole flight. We know how to tucker our kids out!

Silk Village on the 4th of July

Sometimes when the U.S. has federal holidays and hubby is off work, we leave the kids with our wonderful nanny and spend the day together just the two of us. On July 4th this year we took the opportunity to explore Hanoi on our motor bike.

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We drove about 30 minutes to Silk Village (Làng Vạn Phúc), one of the craft villages around the city. It was a pretty little area with some pretty fish ponds and bridges all around the village. The shops were quiet because it was a weekday morning, but I’m sure it’s hopping on the weekends.

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We found a room filled with silk looms weaving beautiful patterns. The shops sold everything from silk robes, to silk pillowcases, and silk embroidered slippers. We bought a few things including an áo dài, a traditional Vietnamese long dress that will fit Ada when she is a little older. I wanted to get some clothes for myself but I was not willing to try on silk in 110° weather, so we will go back in the winter when I’m not quite as sweaty.

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Before we left the village, hubby took the chance to teach me how to ride our motor bike. I had driven a Vespa before and fell in love (thanks Beth and James!) so it wasn’t completely new to me. Our Air Blade has more power to it, but the concept is the same. I think I did well, but I wasn’t ready to drive it on the road yet, let alone drive it with tall hubby on the back. Next time we ride around, I’ll give it a shot.

A walk in Hanoi

One thing hubby and I loved about living in Northern Virginia was the beautiful walking paths. We could walk out our front door and onto a nice wooded path around our neighborhood. Sophie loved it. Oliver loved it. Hanoi is not the same. We do a lot of walking, but we’re mostly trying not to trip over broken sidewalk  concrete or get run over by motorbikes.

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Sunday we found a nice path from our house to “pretty street”. This street, Phan Dinh Phung has a nice wide sidewalk and beautiful trees, perfect for a walk with kids. Oliver loved riding on his tricycle and Ada enjoyed her view from the ergo carrier.

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Hanoi is home to some beautiful architecture. The French colonial buildings and old city gates give the city an old feel, but the buildings are not well maintained making many of them unsafe.

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After looking around this parish church, we grabbed some lime juice to cool down and replenish our fluids. Oliver found a stick so he would agree we had a great walk. We took a cab back to our house, so I would agree with Oliver.

Our home in Hanoi

I’ve been getting a lot of questions regarding our home here in Hanoi. I’m sure what everyone really wants to know is what is different here than in the States. Most of our home is pretty typical, and that’s due in large part to the State Department trying their best to give everyone a home they’re comfortable in and as close to a house in the States as possible.

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There are a few things that are different in our home. One is the outlets. We have standard Vietnamese outlets (220v) that we can use for our local appliances, but we have converter boxes for our American appliances (120v). We also purchased some outlet converters for smaller appliances like my hair straightener or our baby monitor.

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Another difference is the toilet. It’s a typical toilet but like all toilets in Vietnam, it comes with a sprayer on the side. Hubby and I have different opinions about what this is for. I think it’s a sort of bidet but he thinks its just for ease of cleaning the toilet. We’re too afraid to ask, but it does come in handy.

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The tap water here is not safe for us to drink, so we have a big water dispenser and water bottles for when we go out. We still use the tap water for washing fruits and vegetables and washing our hands.

Air pollution here in Hanoi is very high. To combat the humidity and air pollution, we have dehumidifiers and air purifiers running all the time. The dehumidifiers pull out so much water, we empty it at least once a day, sometimes more.

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Most of the embassy homes do not have dishwashers, but we are blessed to have one in our kitchen. I don’t know how we got so lucky, but I’m not going to question it! However, no one has a garbage disposal.

Everything else in our home is westernized, including our full size washer and dryer. Our hot water is a little interesting, but works most of the time. We even have more closet space than I was expecting and room for our bikes and stroller that we never use. (Shoes organized by Oliver – he’ll work for goldfish).

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We also have a nice big guest room with a beautiful view of the city *hint hint*. Our home is wonderful and our family has settled in nicely. Come visit and see for yourself!

Back in Hanoi

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We arrived back home to Hanoi about two weeks ago after three months in the States, and we’re finally recovered from jet lag. It took the kids a little longer to adjust, but everyone seems to be back on schedule. We’re lucky to have two great sleepers, so now that they’re back on track we are feeling more human.

Our first weekend was a blur of long naps and eating at odd hours. But last weekend we went on a day trip to Thanh Chuong Viet Palace outside the city. The location was Thanh Chuong’s residence, a writer and artist. The site contains multiple buildings that house art and pottery that is centuries old. It was a great place to spend the day. Oliver was able to run around and climb with our watchful eyes on him so he didn’t fall into one of the many ponds. Ada liked sleeping in our Ergo carrier although she did get a little sweaty.

It’s warm here now, very humid most days. Walking around town is interesting with two babies, but we make it work. I haven’t figured out how to take both babies out alone yet since the streets are too dangerous for Oliver to walk on his own for long. Our home had a big balcony on the top floor that serves as a good play area for us when it’s nice outside. We can’t wait for the new pool in our apartment complex to be finished!

Happy New Year

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Tomorrow is the beginning of Tet, the celebration of Lunar New Year. Tet starts on January 26th and ends on February 1st, with New Years day on January 28th. 2017 is the year of the rooster, which is one of the 12 zodiac signs and is a fearless and fiery fighter. You will find roosters on everything right now.

Tet is a time to get the bad luck out and invite the good luck in. Every home has an ancestral alter and before the new year it is taken especially good care of. Homes are cleaned from top to bottom, new clothes are bought for New Years Day, and debts are paid before the year ends. Kumquat trees, peach blossoms and other colorful flowers are placed in the home and decorated.

The new year is an important holiday for families to spend time together. Children have a break from school for two weeks, and it is common and expected for families to travel to their parents homes to spend time with them. It’s a week of eating and sitting around with family. Special dishes will be prepared like Banh Chung, which is sticky rice, green bean paste, and pork wrapped in leaves and stewed in water for hours.

It will be quiet in Hanoi, and most restaurants and shops will close down for at least part of Tet. Most foreigners will leave the city during Tet, because it will be quiet and there really isn’t anything to do for almost 10 days unless you have family nearby.

It’s been beautiful watching the Vietnamese people get ready for the new year. There are lots of pretty blossoms around Hanoi, and many vibrant lights. The city is covered in red and gold. At night, the Tet markets appear throughout the city selling food and goods to give as gifts or put in your home.

Happy New Year! Or as the Vietnamese say “Chuc Mung Nam Moi!”

Hong Kong Part 2

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Go to Hong Kong Part 1 to read about the first half of our week in Hong Kong.

Thursday was Hong Kong Disney Land. Hubby and I were definitely more excited than Oliver, but he was pretty excited, too. It’s been over 10 years since I’ve been to Disney and over 15 years since Hubby has. We started our day by riding a special Disney Land line of the MTR, which had Mickey shaped windows and fancy plush seating. Once we entered the park we rented a stroller for Oliver, which was a great break for poor Hubby who had been carrying Oliver in our hiking backpack all week. We got sucked into the gift shop right away and bought some souvenirs, including some cute Mickey and Minnie ears for Oliver and I.

We were fortunate to have a less crowded day, and didn’t have much of a wait in any of the lines, except to get our picture with Mickey and Minnie. The three of us were probably slower than your average family, stopping for breaks and letting mama sit down and rest her cankles for a bit. But we were able to cover about half the park, and Hubby was able to go on some of the adult rides like Hyperspace Mountain. We took Oliver on any ride we could, including the Mystic Manor (similar to the Haunted Mansion). But the most exciting part for Oliver was Toy Story Land. We were able to let him loose to look at the giant Buzz Lightyear and larger-than-life toys all around. However, he did not enjoy meeting Buzz or any of the other characters, but we have some funny pictures to show for it. It was an excellent day and we had a magical time.

On Friday we were exhausted. The beginning of the week we really went full force and it hit us on Friday. We took it easy, sleeping in and walking around the neighborhood at a leisurely pace. Hubby wanted to stop at the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum, which wasn’t far from the apartment, so we spent about an hour there walking around. Naps were in order, and we all took advantage of our lazy day.

Saturday was great because we had Kristina to show us around a bit. It was much easier and faster getting around with her guidance. Navigating Hong Kong can be difficult, but once you realize there are signs everywhere, it becomes easier to get to your destination. We walked around the city looking at some colonial buildings, including St. John’s Cathedral where we saw a wedding in progress. There is a lot of street art in Hong Kong, some made by different street artists and others created by schools or businesses. But walking around was never dull. We ended the day with the Star Ferry Light Show, starting in Kowloon and sailing into Victoria Harbor. Maybe we missed something, but it was a pretty expensive ferry ticket for a 15 minute light show. We decided to get off at the TST port and head back.

Sunday was our last day, and really a half day since we flew out that afternoon. Kristina took us to a great brunch place called Oldies. They had a yummy breakfast with hashrowns which is another food I didn’t know I was missing living in Hanoi. And we had to stop by and get an egg waffle gelato before we left for the airport.

We left Hong Kong exhausted but with lots of experiences we will never forget. It’s an expensive city, but I highly recommend a trip at least once in your life. It’s a unique and special place that you won’t regret visiting.

Hong Kong Part 1

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We decided to take our holiday vacation after the holidays, the first week of the new year. The three of us flew to Hong Kong for a week. We were fortunate enough to have our good friend Kristina let us stay with her while we were in town, and give us some good advice on getting around in the city. When we arrived on Monday, Kristina and her mom met us at the end of the Airport Shuttle. One of the best dim sum places, Tim Ho Wan was right there in the Hong Kong station, so we had lunch right away. It was super yummy, although I don’t personally care for the gelatin texture of some of the dishes, but that rings true in Vietnam as well.

Once we got settled in the apartment, we tried our hand at the bus system in Hong Kong, attempting to get to the Peak Tram. We went past the stop and had to get off and go back on another bus, but eventually we made it to the Tram. However, the line was super long and we didn’t have the patience to wait, so we took a cab up to the top. We expected great views of the city, and the Peak did not disappoint. What was not expected was the huge mall at the top. However, there were patios that overlooked the entire 360 view of the city, and we made sure to walk around all of them and look around. We had dinner at Mak’s Noodles, which all three of us loved. We watched the sunset at the top and then hopped in line to take the tram back down the mountain, getting creamy gelato while we waited. The ride back down the mountain was strange and I would not recommend it, if you have already ridden the tram up.

Tuesday we found the mid-level escalators close to the apartment. Hong Kong is very hilly terrain. There are a LOT of stairs and hills. To mitigate this, there is a system of elevators that goes up or down depending on the time of day. In the morning they go down and then at 10am they all switch and move up. Most days we were able to take the stairs down to get to where we needed to go, and we used them Tuesday to get to the Man Mo Temple, which is a tribute to the God of Literature and the God of War. It was very serene, with lots of people praying and huge incense coils hanging from the ceiling. A big bonus included a park across the street where Ollie was able to run around for a bit. Our lunch was at Morty’s, a New York style deli in the heart of Hong Kong. The food was amazing, and it was something we didn’t even know we were missing in Hanoi until we ate it. Next we hopped on the MTR and rode to Kowloon, across the harbor for our food tour. Our tour was just us, so we had some special treatment, which was much appreciated with the pregnancy and Oliver in tow. We walked around for about 4 hours tasting foods in restaurants and from street vendors ranging from goose to snake soup to egg tarts. It was about twice as much food as we could eat, but it was delicious. Plus, the tour took us into some local neighborhoods that we never would have ventured into.

Wednesday we decided to take it pretty easy. After our epic day on Tuesday, we needed a little less walking and a little more napping. So we took the MTR to Lantau Island and visited the Tian Tan Buddha. We took the cable car up and down, which was a beautiful ride over the hills. The area around Big Buddha is VERY touristy, including a Starbucks and a lot of gift shops. Hubby and Oliver hiked to the top of the statue, but I passed and stayed at the bottom. After they got back we walked around a bit and enjoyed our trip back down in the cable car. The three of us were able to relax the rest of the afternoon and had delicious burgers for dinner (something we have not been able to get in Hanoi).

Check out Hong Kong Part 2 for tales of the rest of our week in Hong Kong!

Merry Christmas from Vietnam

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We are still celebrating Christmas in our house. Our boxes didn’t arrive until December 21, which means I couldn’t decorate the house until then! The first thing I did after the movers left was put up the Christmas tree. And it will stay up until I get sick of it or until Oliver has removed/broken all the ornaments, whichever comes first.

I’ll admit, it was hard for me to get into the Christmas spirit this year. It is the winter season here, but it’s been pretty warm still, hitting somewhere in the 80’s on Christmas day. That means that this pregnant lady is sweaty and not feeling the fake snow that’s sprinkled everywhere.

There are some similarities between Christmas in Hanoi and Christmas in the U.S. For example, the same Christmas pop music was piped out of the speakers in every store I went to. You can see lots of decorations on businesses as you drive by. However, the decorations are not all the same. They have pretty wreaths, Santa’s everywhere and lovely decorated Christmas trees. But the biggest difference is there are no Christmas lights. There are a few light strands, but nothing that looks like traditional, American Christmas lights. Christmas here is a lot less sparkly, which I realized was important to me. I’ve celebrated Christmas in warm climates before, but when I can’t drive down the street and look at pretty lights, my Christmas spirit takes a hit.

Another thing that’s much different is it’s not really a holiday here. Businesses were all open Christmas day. The Vietnamese schools don’t get vacation for Christmas. They were at school on Christmas Eve for a half day and back at school the day after Christmas. They big school break here is at Tet, which is the celebrating of the Lunar New Year which comes at the end of January. Schools get about two weeks off, as does the government. All the decorations are going up for Tet right now, which also ushers in the season of Spring.

We enjoyed some traditions like a big Christmas Eve dinner, followed by cookie decorating and Christmas Eve service. We woke up on Christmas morning and spent half the day opening presents with Oliver and the rest of the day walking around the streets of Hanoi. Hubby had the day off work the following day, so we took advantage of our nanny and went to lunch and a movie. It was a really nice time to be together as a family and enjoy each other.

I think that next year, I’ll just have to order more Christmas lights from Amazon and light up our house for the month of December. Oh, and go to Starbucks earlier to get my peppermint mocha.