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.

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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.

Let’s Explore Hanoi: Botanical Garden

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The weather has cooled down a bit here. The locals are bundled up in warm winter coats and scarfs while I’m still in a sundress thinking there is a nice breeze. In celebration of the mild temperatures, we visited the botanical garden in Hanoi. It’s a large park where locals come to sit by the water, exercise or just socialize. We paid 4,000 vnd to enter the park (about 20 cents).

The park has some beautiful features including a pond, a bird sanctuary island, many interesting sculptures, and a small hill in the middle.

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There are also two animal cages, a monkey cage and a peacock cage. The animals looked sad to me, but maybe that’s because I’ve never seen a caged peacock.

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There were many people enjoying the park. We saw a very loudly broadcast public exercise class, lots of bad-mitten, a big group of people playing pokemon go, and some cute puppies running around.

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It’s definitely a park we’ll visit again, especially when our boxes are delivered and Oliver gets his tricycle. We saw a kids play area, too, but we just walked around the park this visit. Until next time!

Sa Pa, Lao Cai Province

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We were lucky enough to enjoy a three day weekend this past week, due to veterans day, and we chose to do some exploring of the northern provinces of Vietnam. Sa Pa is a small town in Lao Cai province, located in northwest Vietnam. It sits in the Hoang Lin Son mountain range, which forms the eastern cusp of the Himalayas. This town is home to several ethnic minorities, including the Hmong Den, Hmong Hoa, and Red Dao. It’s about a 5 hour drive from Hanoi. Since we have an antsy little one, we chose the most direct and flexible mode of transportation – private car. We also decided on a tour package with a guide who accompanied us for the three day journey.

Our adventure started out early Friday morning, around 7:45am. Ok, I’ll be honest, we were late starting off because it’s early and we have a one year old. I’d hate to give the impression that we’re the perfect family, always on time. We’re not. But we did eventually get on the road and we arrived in Sa Pa around 1:30pm. The thing about paying for an organized tour is that we got to see some really neat things but we were taken to tourist restaurants with food that was good but not great.

After we checked into the Sapa Dragon hotel, our initial plans changed a bit due to the rain and we decided to go to Thac Bac waterfall just outside of town and then visit Cat Cat Village. Cat Cat Village is home to families of the Black Hmong ethnic minority and is known for it’s hand crafted fabric and dyes, as well as stitching. Unfortunately, it quickly turned to night as we walked down into the village, so we didn’t spend much time looking around because we had to get back up the slippery stone stairs in the dark. It was quite a hike and I’d warn anyone looking to descend into the village that you have to walk all those stairs back up, so don’t wait until dark.

Saturday was another misty day, but we trekked back down the mountain to visit the Can Cau market. It was about a three hour drive to the market, but it is an experience you won’t forget. Our guide said that its a gathering place for all the different ethnic minorities, where the young people can meet and drink together. There are tons of stalls selling local food, jewelry, hand sewn clothes, and much more. We also looked at the livestock for sale, including the water buffalo and goats. I’ve encountered some pushy sellers while here in Vietnam, but none compare to the women at the Can Cau market. Grabbing my arm as I walked by to steer me towards their goods and showing me different items was a new experience. But they do know how to bargain, and hubby loves a good bargain. Family and friends, you can expect hand made presents from Sa Pa for Christmas.

On our way back to Sa Pa we went on a private boat ride down a river nestled in the mountains. This allowed us views into untouched landscapes, homes and people that live off the river. However, I’m glad it was short because Oliver can only sit still for so long on a boat ride. The last stop we made was in the town of Lao Cai. We were dropped off at the Red River to see the border between Vietnam and China. Looking at the friendly bridge, it was hard to imagine that this was one of the crossing points of the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979.

Sunday was a beautiful morning. The fog had cleared on top of the mountain and we had a beautiful sunny last day. We took the lift up to Fansipan Mountain, the tallest point of the mountain range at 3,143 m above sea level, also known as the roof of indochina. The views from the car were breathtaking, and the fog only blocked our view when we got to the final stretch. I thought we’d have to climb a few steps to see the top of the mountain. I was wrong. It was not a few steps. I couldn’t even make it to the top. Somehow hubby made it to the top with Oliver on his back, but I swear it was like that movie Everest. People were dropping like flies, huddling together in the biting mountain wind. I am glad hubby made it, but also that he quickly came back down with Oliver who was wet and cold.

Our mountain adventure was over with Fansipan, and we headed south back to Hanoi. It was a wonderful trip, and I’m glad we had a driver and guide to show us the way. Next time, I think we’ll try and guide ourselves, and visit when the rice is in season so we can see the colorful rice paddies.