It seems like every post from here on out may be about transitions. We are now at the six-month point, and recently left our home in Hoi An – the last time we will have a ‘stable’ place to live. Our last few days in the town were filled with Hoi-An's best-ofs and life maintenance, including haircuts. We even got some sunny days! The boys finally swam in our very cold pool (we were not able to get out of paying for the near-daily cleaning of this pool, despite the fact that it was cold and pouring rain - see pic) and devoured the long-desired bunny cotton candy of the kids' dreams.  

It’s wild to think that we have been traveling for six months. We are starting to think about our return – what that looks like both logistically and intentionally, while trying to stay fully present to the everyday.

Chris and I recently had a conversation where we both had arrived at the same conclusion – it feels like the kids have reached a point of saturation. Not that they are no longer enjoying our trip or our time together. But what we hoped would be sparked by this journey has – to some degree – been fulfilled...their appreciation and curiosity of difference, resilience in the face of challenge or ‘unforeseen circumstances,’ grappling with socio-economic inequities and historical contexts that give rise to them, and willingness to try new things. And on the other side of that, they are no longer ‘wowed’ by sights like they once were. There is a quiet appreciation, but it has become more ‘normal life,’ rather than oh-my-god-how-am-I-so-lucky.

We are currently in Hanoi (more on that in a bit), and just returned from an overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay. We ended up on a gorgeous boat with floor-to-ceiling views of limestone cliffs jutting out in 360-degree panoramas. It was stunning and iconic. 

I watched my kids take in the magnificent scenery and noticed that the wows had turned into more subtle appreciation, with a tad of been-there-done-that thrown in the mix. This is not a case of spoiled children (I hope!). I believe that it is more of a psychological response to the relentless wows of this trip, as well as legitimately having had a number of similar experiences for context and comparison.

The kids’ time horizons also differ. Whereas Chris and I both feel the fleetingness of this time together, our kids live much more in the present. They know this day-to-day reality as their life - past, present, and future (Obie may be an exception here). We recently asked Asa what he remembers of our house in Vancouver...shockingly little! For him, this is life. The wows, the challenges, the food, overtaking motorbikes, people pinching his cheeks.

And now back to the travelogue. I know I have waxed endlessly about the places I have loved thus far in our trip. But Hanoi. I absolutely love-love-love this city. It’s vibrancy, street culture, mixture of old and new, pride of history, enchanting cafes, winding alleyways and vertical houses, endless balconies and courtyards with plants spilling out. I could go on and on.

Hue, Family Rooms, and Regulation in New Places

On Family Rooms
A good friend recently commented on the human capacity for adaptability. So for all of you wondering how this life works, here’s another slice! We are now on the road, and to some degree, will be for the rest of the journey. While we will have some longer rest stops, we will no longer be rooted in a place for three months. So that demands a certain adaptability. We are currently in Hue, a city of history, legacy, violence, and pride. We truly love it here. Alive, charming, steeped in history and sadness and glory, it’s perhaps my favorite place we have visited thus far in Vietnam.

And there’s one problem. I booked a ‘family room’ in a charming guesthouse. This means we are all in the same, small room. This honestly doesn’t work for anyone. We all need our space, time to recharge, find our groove in new surroundings, etc. and this layout doesn’t really account for that. So besides late-night scrolling through every single booking we have remaining in the trip to make sure I never, ever do this again (findings report: we have five challenging bookings, must revise ASAP), here’s a snapshot of what I have done since we arrived to take some personal time.

I get up early, find the local café, put in earphones, drink a coffee, write, and read. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good solution for now.

So here I am, at a café called ‘Binancians’ [what the what?], reading a fascinating re-imagination of the final months of Ho Chi Minh, and writing, while the endless streams of motorcycles whiz by, a very large and very small dog hump across the street, and a man speaks so loudly on his phone that it breaks through my noise-cancelling earphones.

Collective Regulation
Yesterday, another small moment in a big day of exploration. First days post-travel are often not great. There is this unsettled feeling in the family, destabilized routines, and the overwhelm of unrelenting newness.

So here we were in Hue. We had breakfast at our homestay, on the edge of short tempers and impatience, and then took a taxi to the old Imperial City. We first met a Vietnamese mother and son; the mother was teaching the son English and she asked our kids to ‘interview’ him to practice his English. A very sweet moment between kids across cultures. 

We spent some time with them, took photos, and moved on to explore the humid environs of the Imperial City. Impressive and heartbreaking, lessons of colonialism and intruders and heritage. We were hot and impressed, everyone coping well enough.

We then headed out to find lunch. It was a holiday here, so most local places were not open. Quite hungry after aimless wanderings, we took a taxi to a restaurant near our house, a place recommended by both locals and tourists. We wandered in, famished and hot, to crowds of people – families and friends – no seating in sight, no clarity of how we get a table, loud, hot, voices, coughing, laughter, unfamiliar smells. Finally got a table. Ordered. Half of the food came. Some wonderful, some a bit ‘fishy’ for our palates. Never saw the server again. Waited. Ordered food again. Waited. Nothing happening. Confusion, waiting, fatigue, noise.

And amidst the noise and temperature and smells, our kids’ energy, well, intensified. On edge, louder, slightly unpredictable. It culminated in a drink spilled and small punishments. But what happened next was what was remarkable to me. First, Emmet took full accountability, saying that it was his fault and that the others shouldn’t be punished. Then Obie calmly took accountability and was able to articulate that while they shouldn’t have been behaving in that way, the environment felt overwhelming to them all. The noises, the heat, the fatigue, and that they all found it hard to ‘turn it down.’ It was quite an insight. We were able to talk about it, talk about these moments of unfamiliarity and overstimulation, and how we each handle them.

My kids have become so good at ‘rolling with it’ that we forget that we all have moments of strain, of stretch, of missing, of unsettledness. And our nervous systems cope with those moments in different ways. But what was remarkable was all of us coming together to talk through it, to understand each other, and acknowledge the moments where we all have to call on different parts of ourselves to weather challenge.

Afternoon Pilgrimage at Sunset
It was important to me to visit Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘root temple.’ Thich Nhat Hanh grew up as a Buddhist monk at the Từ Hiếu Pagoda (Chùa Từ Hiếu), located just on the city’s edges. Exiled for 39 years from Vietnam for his nonviolent activism, he finally returned to his root temple for the last three years of his life. Unable to speak after a stroke, those in his presence during his final years remarked that he exuded a deep presence that permeated throughout the temple. Before visiting, we watched a video about his life and then paid homage to his impact on the world, quietly wandering through the forest retreat. 

Peaceful and beautiful, embellished by the non-melodic and joyfully boisterous karaoke of its next door neighbors. Classic.

Asa also thought it would be particularly holy for him to lose his second tooth at this monastery, but alas, it was not to be. 

Ok, time to return to family life. More to come from our last day in Hue and onwards to Phong Nha! 

My Experiences in Penang, Malaysia: January 21st - 30th [Emmet]

We arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport at two o’clock. Our ride, a large green and white van, was waiting for us outside the airport. The ride was so tiring. If we had to stand up for the whole ride, I would end up curled up on the floor. It felt like being in jail for 8 hrs. Nothing to do but wait. Our eyelids felt droopy, we started to nod off when we got there, but we had to get out. We slowly arrived at a stopping place for dinner (that had stuff like McDonalds and Dunkin’ donuts). We had dinner at a hot dog stand, and ate in the car. We bought a fizzy drink, with sweet corn in a cup as well. My brothers and I started playing video games after dinner. Our eyes were getting zombified. We were zonked when we arrived. We began to see Penang at 11:00. 

The ride from Kuala Lumpur to Penang totalled eight hours! We started unpacking our things, and making the apartment livable. Midnight, 12:00. We started going to bed, but apparently, it was Chinese New Year, so there were a bunch of fireworks. We saw people shooting them out. It was kind of disturbing, but also cool. Pretty loud. I watched them as I started to drift off. Finally, I went to bed at 1:00. Too late.

Day 1: Georgetown

We woke up at 10:10, but we didn’t want to get out of bed. When we realised that it was a chill day, we started going back to sleep. You would think that we would want to get up and have breakfast slowly. But no. Still tired.

But, you think our parents would let us sleep anymore? Nope. They pulled our covers out of our beds and said get up. We groaned, but started getting up. We had breakfast, a yoghurt and eggs. They said that we were doing no worldschooling meet-ups today, but were starting tomorrow. We went to Georgetown because it was Chinese New Year. We ate some food for lunch and walked around Georgetown. My parents bought a dessert for me. They bought me a rainbow ball made out of shaved ice and it was really big. My little brother, Asa, bought a rainbow heart which was made out of the same stuff. It tasted very sweet grape-like and my mom said it was too sweet for her.

Personally, I loved it. It tasted sweet, with all kinds of flavours buzzing in my mouth. Apple and grape, strawberry and orange. It is one of my favourite desserts I have ever had.

We walked around Georgetown for about half an hour. It was great. So many things to see! Red and yellow everywhere. It was like a party planned just for us. We saw a couple people doing henna. Some with boa constrictors on their necks. So fun! We took a car back to our apartment, and settled in more. On the ninth floor, there were games and a reading room and a gymnasium. A pool was there too. We figured that we would come back to this floor sometime. 

Our floor was the 27th. The place was pretty good. Enough beds for all of us. The only problem was that there was one bathroom! One person could go to the bathroom at a time! That was the hard part. Our view was five stars… just perfect. We could see the hills and other buildings. The streets and villas. Nothing better. We did homework and played video games. It started to rain so we chilled inside. It cleared up and our parents went to get us some food. We had dinner and had a conversation about what we did that day. We went to bed and closed our eyes in peace. But! The fireworks went on the same as last night. We all looked out my window and saw the nightscapes and the fireworks. It was truly amazing. We went to sleep at a reasonable time and had a pretty good sleep that night.

Day 2: Hindu Temple
Going to the Hindu temple was an easy hike, worth the work. We took our shoes off and walked inside, We heard the Priests' chanting to the Gods. The marble floor was squeaking under our feet as we calmly walked through the temple. 

We gave some money as an offering, and were given some sweet beans, which we ate with our hands. They were out of some orange sweets that are called “Prasada.” We hear the chanting as the people stand in line to get blessed by the Priests. The Priests put ash on the people’s forehead while we eat the sweets and watch. We look at all the shrines that have Hindu gods in them. We slowly walked out of the temple heading to the smaller temple, just to the left of the main temple. There were a few people praying with one Priest behind them. We put our shoes back on, and started walking back down the hill. 

While we were waiting for a car to come, some Indian people gave us some noodles, and chai (an Indian tea you can get anywhere in India). While we snack on that, our parents bring some more food out. Obie accidentally dropped his red bean bun, and someone said to him, “no,” while he was picking it up. He threw it in the trash and I gave him some of mine.

Day 3: Penang Hill
We hiked up Penang Hill. It took us 2 hrs and 50 min to get to the top of the hill. It was very rainforest-like, but we didn't see any snakes and only one monkey. It was a tough hike, but we had a seven year old (who was walking ahead of us leaving us in the dust, while holding her dad’s hand), a ten year old, a twelve year old (which was my brother), my smaller brother Asa (also my brother), and me, an eight year old. It was very tiring, but the sights were amazing. We had a choice to go on a minecart that looked like a subway, but we chose to hike up. There were a bunch of stations where we could stop and ride the minecart, but we just kept on hiking. 

When we reached the top, we were exhausted. Everyone was so relieved that they were done. We decided that we deserve ice cream after some other fun things. We went on a trail (paved), and we saw monkeys and insects. 

We also saw a stand that had no one in it, but clearly was part of Penang Hill. It said “Insects of Penang Hill.” There were two scorpions, spiders (each one was in a jar and dead), a snake and a couple of beetles.

We kept on walking to find the canopy walk. We found it and started walking up the painted metal.

Then a guide whispered to us, and crouched down and pointed to a green vine snake. It looked like a green rope, with a pointy nose. He said it wasn’t venomous, but had a painful bite. 

We kept on walking across the canopy, until we reached the end of the walk. The next thing was the treetop walk. The treetop walk was a big arena shaped thing with poles sticking out and as tall as the canopy. It wasn’t that scary, but the sides were made out of rope, and it didn’t feel stable. It was like a design “x” pattern rope below the railing, and you could push on it. It felt like you were leaning on the canopy, and were about to fall. 

We bought some ice cream and said our goodbyes. Then we started making our way to the subway/minecart. It was a five minute wait; when we crowded into the subway, it was packed. Good thing it only took us ten minutes (or less) to get down. When we came down, we started to go to the taxi area. We hailed a taxi, which was way overpriced. 

We came home and started doing homework and video games.

Day 5: Countryside Stables
The countryside stables is a place in the countryside of Penang. You can ride, pet, and feed the horses. We had friends there with us. We bought tickets, and started feeding the horses. You can put hay on your hand and hold your hand flat for the horses. You can also get a long piece of hay and hold it by the side, and let the horse take it from you by the other side. We did a lot of feeding. We bought tickets to ride the horses. My horse was a big white one. It had a way of walking where you wobble to each side. You get used to it though. We mounted them and took some pictures, walked around with them; then, we dismounted. It was a really fun experience that I’ve had in my life. I love riding horses as much as I like riding water buffaloes. We went back in our van for the next thing.

This is me in Hoi An, just randomly riding a water buffalo...

Day 5: Bike Ride
We did a bike ride which started on a gravel road, which I did not like. Then we started biking on some paved roads that were better. We finally reached the end of the bike ride. We went to a pier where we took some pictures and could explore. I took a lot of pictures with my camera. It was a truly great experience. Just an amazing sunset. We biked back on the same way and started the van home. We went back home and went to bed.

Day 7: Leaving Penang - Orangutan Island and the Batu Caves
Pictures below!

Orangutan Island

Batu Caves 

Reset in Penang

Penang was the reset we needed. Hot and sticky (my favorite!), teeming with other families who opted for worldschooling paths, a reprieve from what felt like a spate of unglamorous meh. In ‘normal’ life, the state of unglamorous meh – while perhaps not desired – can offer something of a soothing appeal; but in this life, where we seek to embody a different flavor of intention, it feels like a waste.

Cue the Penang reset. We hiked the incredibly steep Penang Hill, rode bikes to a gorgeous spit of land in the south of the island, visited the Batu Caves where we beheld the largest statue of the Hindu god Murugan as well as a sadhu lurching his way up hundreds of stairs in the midst of self-mortification rituals, and visited an island that rehabilitates orangutans. It was the palate cleanse we needed to start fresh in Vietnam for our last month here.

So this is a rather odd post because it is comprised of preface (the story of our arrival in Penang) and post-script (our journey back to Vietnam), and a few of my favorite pics from the journey itself. Another post is coming soon by Emmet who will fill in the middle. 

The trip started rather ridiculously. While most people enjoy traveling in some form, I think for me the enjoyment is often rooted in surprise with a good dose of surreal hilarity. Surprise that comes with some challenge, but then bursts through the door, a mixture of awe, serendipity, and someone laughing in the distance.

We started from our house in Hoi An at 8:30 am, drove the hour to Da Nang airport, winding our way through roads adorned with the red lanterns and banners, yellow flower bushes, kumquat trees, and crowds of morning Tet (new year) festivities. Airport security, phenomenal lounge (go Da Nang!), easy flight, and we arrived in Kuala Lumpur four hours later. Now Chris and I had decided that we would get a car from KL to Penang, a quick so-we-thought four-hour drive. Much cheaper than the additional flight, and easier than the train.

We were wrong. Yet another episode of – “I thought my parents had all the answers, and wow, how wrong I was!”

How did we miss that the new year party was also in full swing in Malaysia? As it turned out, we were traveling on Lunar New Year’s Eve. We embarked on this journey along with thousands of other revellers making their way out of the city. “Ok, no problem,” I thought. We have iPads. We have snacks. Our kids are now habituated to travel hiccups. We can handle this.

We started on the trip. A friendly older Tamil man was our driver and I quickly settled into a brief conversation with him. We were on our way.

Then things went downhill quickly. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say our lovely driver clearly had some mysterious ailment which necessitated that I made sure through the duration of the ride that he did not either fall asleep or lose control of his body. Upbeat chatter engaging him in conversation punctuated by several texts between Chris and I negotiating who was going to jump into the front seat and grab the wheel when he lost consciousness.

I will not bore you with other parts of this ride, but needless to say it was not easy to find rest stops (and when you did, they were backlogged with hundreds of cars), we were stuck in too-many-to-count traffic jams, and our driver was shall we say, ‘heavy-footed’ with the brakes. For what turned out to be an EIGHT HOUR journey, I hyper-focused, attentive mama bear, magicking our driver to stay awake, engaging him in frequent conversation about Malaysia, systemic discrimination of Indians, the history and politics of this place, his retirement from government service, and modeling for his children of the importance of hard work.

We arrived safely. Our kids were rockstars. We made our way up to our very small, but gorgeously situated 27th floor apartment, with panoramic views of Penang. It was now 11:40 pm. I lumbered downstairs to the local 7-11 to get supplies. Chris cleverly MacGyvered up beds and separate areas for the kids in this tiny apartment. We began to settle in. All of a sudden, cracking sounds, then ground-shaking bangs, encircled our abode. What was happening????

And slowly it dawned on me. It’s midnight and it’s New Years Eve. We threw open the curtains on the floor-to-ceiling windows and watched fireworks shooting up from every neighborhood, explosions of color lighting up the city in every direction. It was utter magic.

Penang was pretty awesome. We met up with worldschoolers from around the world, participated in lunar new year festivities, Chris and I had an awesome date where we found a speakeasy bar hidden in a back alley, ate a fancy Nnonya meal, and wandered through the town late at night. We even tracked down the elusive paper coffee filters we spent a month searching for in Vietnam. Emmet is about to write an update with all of the activities we did in Penang, so I’ll leave it to him to offer you the photos and summaries of our adventures. For now, here a few of my favorite pics.

A Final Note
As many of you know, much of this trip is about growth – both purposefully cultivated and unpredictable. One of the many reasons we wanted to do this trip is to offer our kids an environment from which grow into themselves without the confines of a bricks-and-mortar school. While we have very much learned throughout this journey that we are not homeschoolers and that donning the hats of formal educators is not our favorite pastime, I very much appreciate what for me has become a purposeful loosening – allowing my kids to grow in ways that feel more natural for them outside of a regimented school environment. So I’ll leave you with this moment.

On the plane yesterday from Penang to Da Nang, Obie was in a row without us for the first time. I watched him engage a middle-aged Indian woman in conversation for nearly an hour. He has this incredible ability to spark conversation with anyone, to ask questions and to show up openly and without judgement. I have seen this again and again on this trip – across cultures, languages, and religions. I believe that is why he has decided on this trip how much he loves learning languages – because it enables him to connect with people. I had to take a picture of this one because this for me is what this trip is about – slowed-down moments out of my grasp where I see my kids not for what I want them to be, or what I think would be best for them, but where their own gravitational pull is powered fully by them.

Also, let's not forget this milestone...Asa lost his first tooth! What the tooth fairy must have had to go through to find him in Penang! 

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!