It's Not All Roses Over Here...

We’ve been quiet recently and inquiring minds want to know. And I figure the truth is that if we completely leave out this part of the trip, then we would be lying – both to the small outside world that cares and to our present and future selves. As partially expected, leg two of the trip has not gone as planned. Why that is the case is a concoction of variables that end up adding up to a big fat ‘meh.’ So here it goes.

Hoi An is a small town on the east coast of Vietnam, right in the middle of the country, a bit south of Da Nang. It is known as a romantically colored (and highly touristed) town, with sprawling rice fields, faded yellow colonial buildings, and lanterns dotting the town and the boats that wind through its river. It truly is magical – that is, when it’s not raining.

The draw for us was its size. Compared to Chiang Mai, we thought it would be small and welcoming, we could find community quickly, and we could take advantage of having bikes and spend leisurely afternoons wandering through rice paddies and venturing on bikes to the beach. There truly have been a couple of days like this.

But the real story is this. It is winter here. You would think that 60s/low 70s (low 20s) would be warm enough, but it’s just too windy and rainy. You can’t bike during those times. No one, I repeat, no one is at the beach. The cute collection of restaurants and shops at the beach is a hollowed-out ghost town. The Vietnamese government changed its visa rules since Covid, so travelers can only get 30 days entry into Vietnam. That means that Hoi An basically cleared itself out of foreigners – one person told me it once had 4,000 long term expats, and it has now dropped to 300. Finally, we are here before the big new year holiday of Tet, when people take off and go visit family for long periods of time. It feels empty or like the town doesn’t have a center of gravity. The end result is that we just can’t get a foot in here – we go to a restaurant, no one is there. No activities are happening. Where is everyone???

And then there is the house. It should be awesome, shouldn't it? Look at this pool, and our cute bikes and scooter!

But there just have been SO MANY ridiculous things. This will bore you to tears, but we just had to have a repository to store the mishaps of this house.

  • No blankets, not enough sheets, no lamps, no side tables, no towels, no cleaning supplies
  • No hot water
  • Water stops altogether
  • Small centipede on couch
  • Electric shock from microwave
  • Can’t turn TV volume down
  • Power completely out
  • Still no hot water
  • Cockroach in bathroom
  • Low water pressure in shower
  • Shower water never gets to right temperature - either scalding or freezing
  • Large centipede in bathroom
  • Electric kettle breaks
  • Loud karaoke from neighbours every few nights (which is somewhat endearing)
  • Microwave back - shocks Chris again
  • iPad charger tips lightly shock us
  • Large spider in house
  • AC doesn’t turn on
  • Battery compartment corroded in AC remote
  • Rat nest inside AC unit
  • Dead large lizard outside house
  • AC is dripping in neighbour’s yard "preventing chickens from laying eggs"
  • Many spiders inside house
  • Giant grasshopper in living room
  • Tin roof clatters constantly every time it rains 
  • Loud banging on same roof every time wind gusts
  • Landlords speak no English (and our Vietnamese is definitely lacking) so we have to communicate through realtor
  • Chickens and roosters loudly crowing 24/7, dog barks during the night
  • Pool guy shows up 5 times in 2 days
  • No screens on windows so can't open doors because of mosquitos - things in bathroom getting mold all over them 

So we’ve decided to jump ship a bit early. This slightly breaks our hearts, because we know that things will improve with both the weather and the environment after the holiday. That said, when there are enough signs that something isn’t quite right, then it is best to listen to those voices. So here’s the new plan:

  • Hop over to Penang for a 10 day worldschooling hub this weekend
  • Come back to Hoi An for a few days, then venture off on a trip to Hue and Phong Na
  • Back to the house for our final few days and then fly to Hanoi
  • Hang out in Hanoi, go to Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh
  • Fly to Taiwan to visit our dear friends for a couple of weeks
  • Fly to Sri Lanka for 3 weeks
  • Then start our Italy trip (the final leg!!!)

The world is now looking up since we’ve settled on a new plan. And things haven’t been all bad. Obie has finished up his 8th grade applications/assessments, Emmet has found a new passion for poetry (along with photography), Asa has been inspired by the incessant karaoke of this place and pushes for nightly karaoke dance parties where we all go up to the attic, put on a disco light, play music, and sing and dance. Chris has been restarting running training. I’ve done some Pilates and have been exploring a possible academic return. We have times of biking and scootering through rice paddies. We’ve had a couple of sunny days at the beach. We have seen the dragon bridge breathe fire and water in Da Nang and explored some incredible sights such as My Son Sanctuary, Marble Mountain, and Lady Buddha. 

My Son: ruins from the Champa Kingdom in the 4th-13th century, with origins of Indian Hinduism (bombed heavily during the American/Vietnam war)

Marble Mountain: five limestone mountain peaks with interlocking caves filled with Confucian and Buddhist shrines

Lady Buddha and Linh Ung Pagoda

Da Nang, including the fire/water breathing dragon bridge

And I'm sorry - I can't resist all of the pictures of creatures we have seen. This does not include all of the snakes, which slither away too quickly for a picture. The last pic is of the AC man clearing the rat's den out of Obie's AC. A bit too much for this city girl...

But it’s time to switch gears…onwards and upwards!

First Week in Vietnam

We’ve now been in Hoi An, Vietnam for nearly a week. The transition was not an easy one. It all started with an excruciatingly stupid plane route that had us fly from Male to Kuala Lumpur in a 4-hour overnight flight, and then rot away for 5.5 hours in wing 3 of the Kuala Lumpur airport. This part of the airport - the low-budget wing, currently in construction - had no place to lie down. Grateful for our kids’ exhausted but unflinching roll-with-it attitudes, we moved over some chairs and slept on the ground for the next 3+ hours. At one point, bleary eyed, I woke up, saw a large brown cockroach scuttling along on Chris backpack, brushed it off, and went back to sleep. I have no idea if that was real or a dream.

We landed in Da Nang, exited customs, found our driver, and made our way to our new home 40 minutes south of the airport. It was rainy and dreary out. Not cold, but certainly not warm, my skin already nostalgic for the luxurious perfection of the Maldives’ cocktail of sun and breeze. We pulled up to the house, and several people began to wave us in, asking our driver to carefully back into a narrow driveway. This passageway definitely was not meant for cars. And slowly we began to carry our bags into our house.

Now we rented this house sight unseen, no reviews, just a few pictures. And you might think – well, that wasn’t your most savvy travel decision. And I would nod affirmatively, perhaps aggressively. It’s been quite an adventure. 

The house is big, much bigger than our Chiang Mai house. It has a pool (why would we need a pool in cold, rainy weather you also might ask?), backs up onto the river, is three stories, and has enough rooms for each of my kids to have their own room (a first!). BUT. It also feels a weird combination of old and never-lived-in, hollow, sparsely furnished. We have found two questionably poisonous centipedes in the house. The first day the water stopped working, and Chris got an electrical shock from the microwave which then began smoking. There was no hot water. There were no lamps, no night tables, no towels, no blankets, no sheets. Roosters wake us up before the sun rises, and our room is covered by a tin roof which blasts its tin drum every time it rains. Chris and I were urgently looking for a way out of this rental contract.

But then, a flurry of activity and humanity. The real estate agent, the landlady, her daughter. A story of her husband stricken by a stroke, no longer able to fix the house. People streaming in, with nightside tables and lamps, a large table and chairs, blankets and towels. The electrician, the plumber, the laundry lady, the pool man.

And so began our adventure in Vietnam. It hasn’t been the easiest. I can’t yet tell you what the tag line will be for this part of our eat-pray-love adventure. But I can say without a doubt that I have already engaged deeply by people here, learned of their stories, and have been jolted awake by a certain dynamism. 

First impressions - this place is alive! Beeping, laughing, loud talking, a lot of hugging, so much music. People love karaoke (I’ve heard it’s 90% men, but still…). Everyone engages us and loves on our kids. The second time we entered our local minimart, the old woman asked Emmet to take her picture, gave the kids lollipops, and proceeded to hug every one of our kids. Here are some shots of our first days...wandering through rice paddies, exploring the currently desolate wind-swept beach, markets, and Hoi An town...

While most of our time here has been setting up the house and the logistics of our stay (bikes, etc.), here are snapshots of two adventures:

Cooking Tour
This was our first experience of a tour in Hoi An. We paddled down a river in coracles, almost caught crabs, and learned how to make Hoi An food specialties.

First a coracle trip with leaf jewelry and crab catching...

Then cooking - fresh rolls, spring rolls, banh xeo, and pho...

Village Bike Tour - 27 km!!!
Now this really should be its own blog post. We went on a boat down the river and then rode 27 kilometers. Asa was on the back of Chris’ bike, but everyone else (including Emmet!) did this ride. Through rice paddies, village streets, around cows, next to pigs, across rivers, over snakes (literally). 

We learned the stories of our guides, how villagers survive annual flooding, repurpose French/American bombs into vases, weave bed mats, make rice, make snake (cobra!) and centipede wine, hug chickens (mortal enemies of centipedes) to heal centipede bites, and more. It was unbelievably awesome.

The elders in the village all seemed to have a story from the American war, including this 99-year-old woman whose husband was killed in the war. In the pictures above: the woman weaving a bed mat with her son, old French bombs repurposed in and around her house, and the hollowed out tunnel where she and her family used to hide. 

Snake wine (only men drink) and centipede wine (only used for massages). Chris tried the snake wine. I tried the rice wine without the snake :) 

And a few more of some training in paddling a coracle...

I was so proud of the kids for heroically thriving from a 6:45 am wakeup until we got home at 6:30 pm at night. The guides said they had never before had so much fun and laughed so much with a group. This trip is nothing but micro-moments, where I find myself suddenly rising above the planning for the next day's adventures and watch my kids interact with the world. Moments out of time, I see how they have grown, how open they are to newness and 'firsts,' and how engaging they are in conversation and curiosity about the world and people around them. 

I'm still not thrilled with the weather, but people tell me we are on the edge of a seasonal shift, so I'm waiting!

A Taste of Paradise

Sitting on the couch of our new house in Hoi An, Vietnam, less than 24 hours into our stay, and I feel the sting of the all-too-quickly passing memories of the Maldives. We have been loathe to share much about this past week, as we know many of our friends and family have been braving the winter elements. That said, for the consecration of our own memories, here are some photos of this last week.

In short: it was perfect. For most guests at this resort, a trip like this means much-needed quality time with loved ones, likely an escape from their hectic lives that deprioritize friend/family time. For us, this week was the opposite!

The kids were in camp each day. Obie was at a teen camp, which was really quite the salve for his 24/7 life of being the best and most patient big brother. He made incredible friends from around the world, wandered the island independently, stayed out late, drank non-alcoholic beverages as he pleased, and generally embodied as many preteen inclinations as he could muster in a week.

How many pre/teens can you fit on a paddle board?

Trapeze bravery... A sad goodbye...

Emmet and Asa had their own adventures, made friends, and pushed themselves in ways we would have never in a million years foreseen. Not only did they willingly spend the entire day (and sometimes evenings!) away from us, but they also performed in a dance show with great enthusiasm (for those of you who know Emmet and particularly Asa, performing in these types of shows is NOT on their life to-do lists), as well as swinging from an incredibly high trapeze (Emmet went twice!). Talk about conquering fears!  

And Chris and I? We did whatever we wanted without caring for anyone but ourselves! We swam and snorkelled with sharks and turtles and brilliant schools of fish and sailed and did beach yoga and read books and paddle-boarded and talked and ate (I had no idea what foods I'd be drawn to after the wonders of Thai food, but I will tell you I ate strangely excessive amounts of cheese and Indian food) and drank and went out dancing. And of course, Chris rocked the trapeze. Every morning I’d wake up by myself and sit out in front of our room on the beach reading, writing, and generally being lulled by the brilliantly translucent ocean.

More soon on our slightly bumpy transition to Vietnam, but for now, I’ll leave these final moments for posterity here, including the crystal clear starry sky, otherworldly bioluminescence, and some animal friends (birds, bats, sharks) that frequented the island.

Goodbye Thailand!

We did it! Three months in an unfamiliar country, opening ourselves to the ups and downs of traveling, new experiences, and so many adventures. As we watch our kids on the plane right now, we see how much they have grown – not so much in size (though Obie is really getting up there – watch out, Bubbie!), but in their ability to navigate the world with sensitivity and confidence.

We spent the last few days in Bangkok, a city I wish I could have explored more. After the privilege of ‘slow travel,’ the action-packed, fit-everything-into-a-day style of travel feels superficial and jarring. We did have some lovely moments – from the overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, to climbing up the Wat Saket steps at sunset, to getting soaked at the Icon Siam light show, to wandering the back alleys of the amulet market, to our canal trip through the khlongs, to our final fancy dinner in celebration of this transition [other things I could have done without, namely Safari World, with its unbelievably questionable everything, from animal to cultural ethics].

Overnight train...

Light show...

Wat Saket...
The khlongs (canals)...

Don't ever go to Safari World...this is my warning to you.

Last evening at a fancy rooftop restaurant.... 

So here’s our calendar from the last three months! Many of you have admired Chris’ calendar handiwork (both in Vancouver and now in our travels). It has been a grounding vessel for the kids who do not have the ritual of everyday routine to settle their nervous systems, and it provides an awesome log of our trip.

I write this en route to the Maldives where we will take a one-week Hanukkah/Xmas break. Our hope here is to soak up island life (all), go to camp (kids), and get a bit of a break from 24/7 parenting, decision-making, and cultural navigation with a family of five (Chris/me).

I would say overall we are somewhat unsettled, wondering if we have the appetite and resilience for another three-month journey in Vietnam – starting all over again with language, food, and cultural practices, and the so-many decisions that one has to make in onboarding to a new locale. We are excited and trepidatious. We are reflecting on our time in Chiang Mai and wondering what we would like to replicate from those three months and how we might want to experiment with other ways of being/doing.

When planning this trip, Chris and I forecasted that this may indeed be the hardest part of the journey. We are not quite halfway, starting anew in a place so foreign, with the adrenaline of novelty behind us. We will see how this next leg goes. But for now, we will dial into the present moment and bask in a decision-less palate cleanser of pina coladas and ‘international’ buffet dinners.

Last Days in Chiang Mai

Leaving a place you love takes courage and faith. A few days before we leave Chiang Mai and I have all of those familiar doubts – most times, just low grumblings that appear in the hours not quite late night and not yet early morning. What if we don’t like our next location? What if this was the place for us? Why are we leaving if the seeds we have planted are just starting to take root?

This last week for us has been – and will be – full of goodbyes to our favorite restaurants, cafes, night markets, activities, and people. To the ease and safety and gems of this place.

I still remember day one in Thailand. 

Stumbling out of our new house, eating at our first restaurant, the jet lag so all-encompassing. For Chris and I, that annoying friend that you just grin and bear to the other side. For the kids, so new and overwhelming that they could barely stand. Remade into depressive toddlers, wobbly legs, fog, and emotional swings. And now, I watch them, confidently buying things, bartering, speaking basic Thai, adopting mannerisms and social customs, avoiding all types of vehicles and walking with intention, appreciating the heat on their faces, and the noises that surround.

Emmet said to me last night as we dodged the gazillion people in our last Sunday night market, “Is this trip a once in a lifetime thing?” I responded, “Well, you never know, but we probably won’t ever do a full year like this again in the same way.” “Why did you decide to do it,” he inquired. And so I told him the story. Not for the first time, but it must have been something about leaving Chiang Mai, and his ears perked, like the budding nostalgia had already penetrated something in him.

“I just love it. So much creativity, each stall with its own art and food.” And he kept on inquiring, about my growing up and if I did a trip like this as a child, and how we came to the decision to change our lives so dramatically. In the chaos of people and noise and smells and sweet desserts and the array of potentially unmet needs, he drew himself into the poignance of him, us, and this setting. 

I often wonder if we have helped our kids develop a sense of gratitude that will ease life's navigations, and perhaps even more so, imprint a deep and sustained knowing of serendipity and magic. And here it was! I paused and shared in the gratitude arising through him.