Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Hanoi - Part One (Live Action Frogger)

If you had asked me two years ago, Vietnam would easily have been among the least likely places I’d travel for a family vacation.  In part, due to the historic relationship between the Americans and Vietnamese, but mostly because it’s really far from the US and I never imagined it offered anything worth travelling that far to enjoy.  We recently returned from a five day visit in Hanoi and Halong Bay, and I now realize how shortsighted and narrow minded I was. 

Streets of Hanoi
Vietnam is the eastern most country on the Indochina Peninsula and is home to more than 90 Million residents (making it the 13th most populated country in the world.)  It's about 1/30th the size of the US, with about 1/3 of the population.  Do the math, it's pretty crowded.

Hanoi is the second largest city in Vietnam and is over 1000 years old.  It's home to about 6 million people, and by my account, every one of those people travels by bicycle or moped just outside the front door of the hotel where we stayed, on a daily basis.   Honestly, I’ve never seen so many people traveling in so many different directions at the same time!

Live Action Frogger
But that seemingly chaotic energy was one of the things that I really enjoyed about Hanoi.  After experiencing insane driving in places like Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, I thought I had seen it all…but Hanoi somehow took it to a new level.  Cars, buses, bicycles, mopeds etc. all managed to travel the streets of Hanoi, dodging each other, and people on foot, with ease. Though, admittedly, very few actually appeared to follow a common set of rules.  

We learned late in our visit, “everyone respects everyone else and so you move slowly, maintain your speed and direction and everyone adjusts to avoid hitting each other”... well, at least that's what our guide, Johnny, told us on our final day in Hanoi.  But, he also told us the reason people wear face masks as they drive all over town is to keep from getting a tan....not because the city has a slight pollution problem.  So, take Johnny's guidance with a grain of salt.

Either way, our frantic, frogger-like hopping across the street through traffic clearly wasn't the correct technique. Instead, walking slowly, directly INTO traffic and maintaining a consistent speed is the best way to avoid bodily harm or death.  (Caution – don’t try this at home….unless home is Hanoi)  

Unfortunately, we didn’t meet Johnny to get this advice until our final day in Hanoi, so you can imagine the number of expletives screamed at us during the rest of our stay.  This video really won't do it justice, but hopefully gives some sense of what the scene in Hanoi is like.  You may be able to pick out a few expletives in this clip as well:

Unaware of the appropriate traffic “etiquette”, we still managed to successfully navigate and explore Hanoi without incident.  On the evening of our arrival, our group of 12 (Ludts, Bergstroms and Burnetts) walked the city to find a good place for dinner.  The tallest of our crew, Scott, led the way (though we all stood a head taller than most Hanoi residents) to The Gourmet Corner where we enjoyed dinner with a view over the entire city.  Dinner was quite good, especially with a menu that catered to the adults’ desire for local cuisine and the kids’ desire for chicken nuggets and pasta.  While I enjoyed saying the name of Jennifer's dish (Bun Bo Nam Bo - go ahead and say's fun to say, right?), I preferred the taste of mine (Bo Ong Vau) - or grilled bamboo beef.  

Street Vendors
After dinner, we spent a short time exploring the night market.  It consisted of many of the same "treasures" we've seen in other parts of Southeast Asia, including t-shirts, hats, national flags, and every imaginable, cheap, breakable toy your kids could ever want.  There were a number of interesting handmade items, but we found that the selection and quality in the surrounding stores was much better.  Besides, we were all pretty beat from a day of travel and headed back to our hotel, The Elegance Ruby Hotel, to put the kids in bed and prepare for an early morning, four-hour car ride to Halong Bay. 

As usual, we selected the Elegance Ruby Hotel because of its top rating on Trip Advisor.  After a few short hours there, we understood fully why previous guests raved about it.  The staff was exceedingly friendly, welcoming and eager to provide anything we needed.   We were met with a “good morning” upon reaching the tiny lobby every day, and at breakfast the staff was attentive and accommodating.  Cooper loved the attention to detail when he ordered his daily pancakes - with both syrup and chocolate.  Sophia loved the multiple juice options and fresh croissants.  The front desk staff also offered to track down stamps and to mail postcards back to friends and family in the US, probably because directions to the post office would have been impossible.  They were also very helpful in identifying an appropriate guide (Johnny) to show us around the city on our final day in Hanoi. 

The rooms were very clean and spacious and the beds were very comfortable (which I understand is rare in Hanoi hotels).    The kids loved the balloons that sat on each bed when we arrived and the hotel had a small living space on the second floor where we spent two nights enjoying a cocktail and game of cards.  Though the staff was reluctant to join us in our card game (when we asked) they were quick to bring a bucket of ice to keep our beer and wine cold.  Without question, I’d highly recommend the Elegance Ruby Hotel to anyone visiting Hanoi.

In the morning, we all enjoyed our breakfast, packed up our bags and prepared for the long drive to Halong Bay.  But before we left, we took a few minutes to explore the busy alleyway just outside the door of the hotel.  This was truly one of my favorite parts of our visit to Hanoi.  
Just outside the door of the Elegance Ruby Hotel, Hanoi
The evening before, this alley was bustling with small shops, local street food and the regular flow of mopeds and bicycles zipping by.  In the morning, it transformed into a thriving market with fresh produce sold right on the street, off the back of a moped, and from the occasional basket carried over the shoulders of tiny women walking the street.  In addition, chicken, meat and seafood of all (literally ALL) varieties was being chopped, ground and wrapped.  In some instances, the market was an extension of the existing clothing or shoe store.  In one case, meat was being chopped at the counter of the “Rent a Bike” kiosk.  In nearly all cases, this market existed directly outside the doors of people’s homes, who lived either above or behind the shops they worked at.  It was truly amazing to witness.

Street Market with Fresh Produce...

...and More Produce

Rent a Bike....Get a Free Kilo of Beef??
After we all had a good look around, it was time to climb into our pre-arranged transportation and settle in for the four hour drive.  The next part of this adventure was about to stop, Halong Bay!

The Friendly Elegance Ruby Staff Helping us with Luggage

Monday, 28 October 2013

A long, long time ago...when I actually had a job...

Cooper back in the day!
I have no job.  Blah blah blah being a mom is my job of course - but let's be honest.  I don't make any actual money doing it and I can watch my favorite shows pretty much whenever I want (for the record, they include Scandal, The Good Wife, The Biggest Loser and Suits to name a few).  I have no domestic help of any kind, so I do occasionally have to clean the house, but come on...I have nothing but time on my hands these days.  My kids (8 and 10) make their own breakfast and even their own lunch sometimes, and my husband does his own ironing, so if I didn't feel totally guilty I could probably send them off to school/work from the comfort of my own bed.  I might have to try that tomorrow.

But a long time ago, in a country far, far away, I really did work.  Really I did!  When I graduated from Wake Forest University, I was in the large group of graduates that had NO idea what they wanted to do with their lives.  So I did the smart thing (AKA the most stupid thing ever) and went to law school.  To say I hated it is a gross understatement.  Slaving away in a library researching the most excruciating details for hours just wasn't working for me - especially considering how the student loans were piling up. 

So I left there and did what another large group of college graduates do - asked Dad if he could get me into his company (he was in HR...lucky me!).  Being that everyone loves my dad (which means they automatically think I'm just like him...then they get to know me) it wasn't difficult.  I worked for a few years at the old school computer company, Unisys, in Marketing, met my husband, then quit when he broke up with me and moved to New York City.  After eight months working as Website Content Manager for NYU Medical Center/School of Medicine, the stars aligned (he came to his senses), we got back together and I came back to Pennsylvania to work in Operations for a Sprint PCS affiliate. 

This is going somewhere, I promise.

Once I had Sophia I quit my job (there is a much longer story to why but that needs to be told over a few glasses of wine).   When I was pregnant, I received two embellished burp cloths from my college roommate, Serena (who owns - she's some sort of mogul now).  They were adorable, but I remember thinking "I could do this, and maybe even better."  So my friend Dora gave me her sewing machine, I hit the local JoAnn Fabrics and just like that, Baby Sophia Gifts was born.

Business quickly grew, but not until Jennifer Garner entered this story did I become super busy.  See, a friend from college, Katie, is Jennifer's best friend.  I've met her several times over the years and she's just lovely.  So one day I get a call from Katie and she asks if I could fedex a couple of bib/burp cloth sets to Jennifer's baby shower (this was for Violet).  I almost told her I didn't have time - and if you believe that you are even more gullible than I am.  HELL YEAH KATIE!  I obsessed for hours over what to send but got them off in time.

Well wouldn't you know, when I started Baby Sophia Gifts, my friend Whitney started her business, a blog called Mommies With Style (this was early in the blog days!).  Long story short, she posted about the gift, someone else saw it, posted it on their blog and later that day I get a phone call.  From E! Television studios.  I will never forget.   I'm standing in my kitchen in West Chester, Pennsylvania, with a baby Cooper on my hip heating up his formula.   They asked me if my offices were in NYC or LA (uhhhh the answer would be "my basement").  I said Philadelphia.  Not a total lie, I was in a suburb!  They wanted me to get to the NYC studio for an on-air interview in two hours.  Another long story short, I couldn't go so I sent pictures and they got some quotes and my business was front and center on E! News Live that night.  That led to segments on two of their "Baby Boom" specials and a blurb in People Magazine.  Needless to say, business picked up.  I will always be forever grateful to Katie and Jennifer for changing my business for the better!

So when I moved to Singapore, I wasn't sure what to do.  I could have sold the business, but instead gave it to the best sewer I know - my mom!  She is going to retire in the next year, and was delighted to have a retirement income possibility!  It's been a seamless transition (pun intended) and she's probably better at it than I was.  I still help with the website work, but everything else is done by her.  When I get back, I have no idea if I'll work with her at all, or start a new business (or just binge watch TV shows).  Time will tell I guess.

So I just wanted to give my friends a little insight into "before Singapore Jennifer".  And maybe even "before kids Jennifer" - because that seems so long ago sometimes I forget who that person was. 

If you need a baby gift, please order from our business!  I guarantee you will love it!

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Visitors from OZ and a visit to Khao Lak, Thailand

Last December, our friends, John and Deb Voger, welcomed us into their Melbourne home to enjoy the Christmas holiday.   When they announced they were planning a visit to Singapore in September, we were happy to return the favor and invited them to stay with us.  While Singapore is not huge, the Vogers were only visiting for a short while, so we had all sorts of plans ready, to show them around the island, and to give them a taste of the very diverse culture and food.

Vogers at Botanic Gardens
Wet market treasures
We visited the Empress wet market on Farrer Road catching a glimpse (and whiff) of local produce, fish heads, raw chicken, seafood and freshly butchered frogs.  While the frogs looked tasty, we opted for Nasi Lemak for breakfast instead.

We walked through the Botanic Gardens, shopped and ate our way along Orchard Road, Joo Chiat Road and Chinatown, and even bared our feet for a treatment at the fish spa, which coincidentally was a highlight for the kids.

Fish Spa
We checked out Singapore's coastline, including zip-lining to Sentosa's Siloso Beach, and we visited friends at Mana Mana Beach Club and Singapore's East Coast Park. 

Eventually, the adults managed to get an evening out in Clarke Quay, singing and dancing at the Pump Room and Highlander (photo evidence has been expunged) while Josh Voger kept the kids under control at home.  From what I remember of our night out, I think we might have been smarter to have Josh provide supervision for the adults instead.

Afternoon at Mana Mana Beach Club
Needless to say, we were worn out and ready to relax after all that running, touring, eating and shopping.  We were all in need of a vacation from the Voger’s vacation!  

Khao Lak Beach View
Thanks to a quick two-hour flight, Thailand offered the perfect destination for some time on the beach, cheap massages, and the opportunity to relax for a long weekend away from Singapore. 

Thailand has been on our “must visit” list since arriving in Singapore, however, we’ve been pushing it further and further down the priority list, knowing we’d get there eventually.  It turns out that was a good plan, because it allowed us to enjoy it with our friends. 

We decided on the area of Khao Lak, Thailand, in order to enjoy the beautiful beaches and a slightly more “family-oriented” night time scene vs. Phuket, located about an hour further south.  Since arriving in Singapore, we’ve become dependent on TripAdvisor for solid recommendations on hotels – usually opting for the small boutiques with great guest ratings.  This time, we found ourselves reluctantly booking the Ramada Resort in Khao Lak, which is clearly not boutique, but was highly rated.   I was not overly thrilled with the idea (Jennifer's note:  I dragged him kicking and screaming but couldn't ignore the value and TA reviews!), but must admit we couldn't have selected a better option.  The hotel staff was very friendly, the rooms spacious, clean and comfortable, and the location was perfect.

Pool at Ramada Resort
After about an hour drive from the Phuket airport, we arrived and checked in at the hotel.  A quick change into bathing suits, and we immediately headed for the beachfront pool (and bar) to enjoy a dip and a drink.  We explored the grounds of the hotel for the next hour or so, and couldn’t help but think of the tragedy that unfolded right where we were standing, just 9 years earlier.   Khao Lak was hit the hardest of the Thailand towns and the setting of movie "The Impossible" was a resort just down the road from ours.

Reminders of the deadly December 26, 2004 tsunami that rolled ashore all across the Thailand coast are still visible.  You notice them in the very prominent “Tsunami Evacuation” signs, the recently created Khao Lak Tsunami Museum, twisted and broken sea walls, and the Police Boat that remains more than a mile inland precisely where it came to rest in 2004.

Though it’s hard to forget what happened, the people of Khao Lak have obviously bounced back.  New and repaired resorts dot the coast, as well as restaurants, shops, tailors and massage parlors just about everywhere you look.  You could hardly walk more than 20 feet without someone (politely) offering you a new suit or a Thai massage.  This interaction with the locals is what really made us enjoy the location of the Ramada.  All of this local business was just outside the front entrance and we were very quickly and easily able to visit the local shops, tiny outdoor bars, and a variety of restaurants. 

We ate at two excellent local restaurants.  The first, Ton Son Restaurant, was located on the beach directly next door to the Ramada.  It was obviously a family-owned venture, as the 9 year-old son expertly waited on our table.  Seriously, this kid was impressive.  The kids loved playing with the family dogs, Whiskey and her pup Vodka (best names ever), which allowed us adults as much time as we wanted.  And I have to say it was some of the best food I have ever had, at ridiculously cheap prices.  I had to laugh when Deb and Jennifer ordered a bottle of wine - they had to send a staff member to the store to buy it.  Guess it's more of a beer-drinking establishment! 


Another restaurant that shocked us with the quality of the food was a couple of blocks from the Ramada.  I have no idea what the name is but I vow to figure it out.  It really did not look like much from the outside, and when we sat down I was admittedly a little nervous.  Our tables (we always had a "kid" and "adult" table - ingenious) were next to the exposed kitchen, and was like something you'd see on Survivor.  We watched as huge fresh fish were brought in and butchered before our eyes, with the fillets thrown directly on a gas-powered grill.  The menu (like all menus at the local joints) was like 32 pages long - ordering was definitely the hardest part.  I can't even remember what we ordered (except for barracuda in a green curry sauce) but as with Ton Son, it was a huge highlight of the trip.

This is how we rolled.
Suit Fitting

Unlike many of our recent travels, we actually did very little while in Thailand.  Yes, John, Deb and I enjoyed a massage EVERY MORNING (why not, when they are $9 for an hour), and we spent countless hours on the beach and in the pool.  John and I also invested in a few new tailored suits, an experience I couldn't pass up while in Thailand.  We even became regulars at "Cloud Nine", where Ramon and "Our Father" played live music nightly.

Jennifer's note:  I must expand on our nights at Cloud Nine.  I think Deb and I were there every night, singing and dancing.  I learned Ramon's life story and Deb actually invited a honeymooning couple to visit her in Melbourne after a 30-minute conversation.  But the BEST part was this drunk guy dancing by himself for eternity.  This video is dark, but you can get a glimpse of what we got to watch for about an hour.  And awwwww...he tried to give me a paper rose! Unfortunately, when it was time for crazy dancing guy to leave, he got in a car and drove himself away.  Scary thought...


But, what really made this trip special was the time we were able to spend with the Vogers, as well as other friends visiting Khao Lak at the same time, (The Foulds and Martin families).   For the kids, the opportunity to visit with a baby elephant at Le Meridien Resort, jump on the giant surf trampoline, or simply play together around the pool was enough to keep them extremely happy.  For the adults, we just enjoyed the delicious Thai food, Singha beer, and an opportunity to relax, share stories, and catch up with old friends.

I can't wait for the chance to do it again!

Resident Elephant at Le Meridien Hotel

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Worst Part of Expat Life

I love expat life.  There are so many people here who whine and complain about the most ridiculous things, but I choose to embrace even the quirkiest parts of daily life here in Singapore.  I'm not saying I've *never* gotten annoyed at a taxi driver who refused my business, or dreaded grocery shopping without the use of a car, but overall I can't say I've ever really had a bad day here.

Until now.

One of my best friends is leaving tomorrow.  I had heard that this is the hardest part of expat life, but I really underestimated how it would feel.  I moved a lot as a child, and never really struggled with the goodbyes.  But this is different and I'm struggling BIGTIME.   My friend, Brianna Foulds, is moving back to Texas and I am beyond sad.

It's funny how sometimes you meet someone and just know immediately that you will be good friends.  And in this case, Jason was the one who recognized the potential.  As most of you know, I broke my leg two months after moving here and was confined to my condo for over two months.  During that time, Jason was chief basketball cheerleader for Sophia.  I remember so clearly when he came home from her first game and told me that he met someone I should be friends with.  A few weeks later, I was able to attend a game and the rest is history.

Not only did Bri and I become fast friends, but our children did as well.  Sophia and Savanah shared a love of basketball, Cooper and Gage played a lot of Minecraft, and Kylie...well, she basically played comedienne every moment we were together.  Sleepovers, pool play dates and lots of time hanging out together at the school created a really special bond between all of us.


We were also fortunate to visit Thailand with the Foulds and Martin families (and the Martins are leaving in December!).  We stayed at different hotels, but met up for dinner and beach time. Check out the kids with the baby elephant - this is definitely a memory that will never be forgotten!

So with an extremely heavy heart I must send my friend off.   As hard as it will be to say goodbye in a few hours, I am excited knowing I will see her and her children at a wedding of mutual friends in June.  And we're already talking about sending Sophia off to Austin for a week this summer.   As far as I'm concerned, our friendship is just beginning. 

I love you Bri, and never forget that I am here for you day or night.  Good things are ahead for you, and I'm personally excited to watch your life unfold.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Sri Lanka's Buckingham Place - Even Better than the Palace

The "lobby" - and Cooper reading about the country!
This post is LONG overdue.  We were the lucky guests at Buckingham Place in April 2013, and for many reasons (one of which is laziness) it took me this long to post this.  I hope many people find this one, because it is very special to me.

The third leg of our trip took us from the Yala National Park to just South of Tangalle in Rekawa, along the southern coast of Sri Lanka.  It is an area known, in addition to its beautiful beaches, for whale watching and turtle hatching. 

As you've realized by now, I use Trip Advisor to pick most of our accommodations and this was no different - just look at the reviews of Buckingham Place and you will know why I chose it.  The problem with that, though, is that it then has a lot to live up to.  Well no worries, my friends, it sure did.  I'm just worried that I won't do it justice here.

Getting there was no easy feat.  But getting anywhere in Sri Lanka is no easy feat, so by then it did not even faze us.  One-way bridges, seemingly endless dirt roads...eventually we did pull up to BP.  We were greeted with a big smile and led to the couches adjacent to the restaurant.  There is no lobby building here (why would there be?) and soon we were joined by the owner, Nick Buckingham, for a brief introduction.  In his casual local-style garb and pony-tailed hair, he briefed us on some safety issues (i.e. don't let the kids run around with no shoes on just in case they step on a snake) and gave us his laid-back vision of his property.  It was quite a refreshing check-in and set a perfect tone for the next three days.

The most gorgeous beaches
Honestly I was blown away by our rooms.  They were huge.  We had a main room with a king bed, couch, desk and a twin against a wall.  Connecting to that was a very small room, but with plenty of room for a twin bed and a mini-fridge, then a bathroom the size of my master bedroom at home.  Check out that shower on the right corner of the picture - and it's open to the sky!  As with all of the rooms, the room opened up to a lovely view of the woods and lake below.


To Sophia's delight, the hotel has a resident pony, Ginger, and she just wanders about the grounds day and night.  She is super friendly (note from Nick:  do NOT let the kids walk right behind her, she will kick!) and immediately became best friend to my children.  How many hotels have you been to that have a pony as a housepet?  You might remember reading about Tuna the dog from our Cambodia kids sure do get attached to the hotel mascots!

The grounds also featured a small but perfectly adequate pool (I believe a larger one is in the future plans) and lounge chairs scattered throughout.  If you're looking for a beach resort, a path is situated alongside BP and is a quick two-minute walk.  Although the water was too rough to swim in, there is a rock pool nearby that we swam in (and spent a LOT of time examining crabs and shells). 

Our room was bottom floor on the right

The rock pool

One of the highlights was observing the turtle tracks each morning.  This particular beach is known for sea turtle nesting (seven different species nest here), which is really cool but has unfortunately led to some shady business practices.  Please do NOT pay the people at the Turtle Conservation Project next door to take you on a late night search.  From what we've been told, they do not have the turtles' best interest at heart.  

Another highlight of our stay was the food.  The breakfast menu was unchanging, but had enough variety to keep everyone happy.  Every day I looked forward to the basket of freshly baked croissants that welcomed us to our table, and being the creature of habit that I am, I had eggs and hash browns every day.  Some of the other choices were pancakes, crepes, banana-stuffed French toast and a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast.  Needless to say I left the table stuffed every morning.  And a shout out to the coffee - it sure beat my morning cup of homebrewed Folger's (and Starbucks for that matter).

Our nightly dinners were an event.  I could not wait each day to see what menu items awaited us.  And Nick, ever the most gracious host, makes it a part of his life to get to know each and every guest.  I just *cannot* say enough about Nick, his staff and the attention to detail that is obviously important to them.    (Note to families - kids need to be 8+)

But as we've experienced so many times before, it's the people who make the place so special.  Nick runs a tight ship, but has to be one of the most caring and respectful employers I have ever witnessed.  In his words and actions, it's obvious that he genuinely cares for the well-being of his staff.  And they have to be commended on their own right - they are top notch.

We asked Nick and our driver, Ruan, where to go for an excursion outside of the resort, and we decided on Mulkirigala Buddhist Rock Temple.  It was just great - very few tourists, seven caves, lots of steps and amazing artwork.  Our guide, Vijay, was just amazing - he was a wealth of information and seemed to really want to educate us on his country.  He had previously worked in the office rat race like most of us, and quit his job to live a more peaceful life...the rest of us have gained something from his decision!  We climbed, we learned and we paid a small fee to all get a Buddhist blessing.  I'll take all the help I can get :-)

Looks higher than it really is...but still!

Amazing paintings!

Vijay, Sophia and Cooper

Sophia getting a blessing

The summit at the temple - just unbelievable!

Sophia purchasing bananas at the entrance
On the way from Rekawa to the airport, Ruan stopped at the Tsunami Memorial.  It still amazes me that most people just think of Phuket, Thailand when reminded of the 2004 tsunami. Indonesia was hit the hardest, but Sri Lanka also suffered tragic casualties.  This particular memorial was for a train disaster, killing 1,700 people drowned in the tsunami.  It is hard to describe the feeling when you talk to the locals about the event.  In the United States, we go crazy when minor tragedies or disasters happen (As we should...a life is a life) but we cannot comprehend the loss of life that other countries have sustained in comparison.

All in all, I have to say this was one of my favorite trips.  Negatives - it takes forever to drive anywhere in Sri Lanka.  Positives - everything else.  The recent civil wars only ended for good about five years ago, and this amazing country can use all the tourists it can get.  Do yourself a favor and visit this lovely place, and tell Nick Buckingham I sent you!