Trip of a Lifetime: Central & Southern Vietnam

We left Northern Vietnam {read all about our adventures here} and flew to Da Nang.  We arrived and drove a half hour or so late at night to Hoi An.  It was dark, we were tired and so we joined the resort’s New Year’s Eve celebration in medias res and barely made it to 11 o’clock.  All we knew was that we’d made it to the beach.

Boy were we in for the most wonderful surprise the next morning.

We awoke to breakfast by the water to start an incredible day.  Hoi An was once Vietnam’s most active trading center for centuries, and the architecture of the city reflects the influence of Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, French and British traders.  We all couldn’t stop taking pictures wherever we went!

We spent our first day on an eco-tour of the local farming and fishing communities, and had a great time.  We first started out on bicycles, where The Cuties promptly teased me for missing my beloved mamachari and having to actually pedal on my own!

bicycles

We then met up with a local farmer who graciously gave us each a ride on his water buffalo.  We may go down in history as the first women in monograms and Lilly Pulitzer to ride a water buffalo, but it was quite fun, despite my intense fear that the beast was going to toss me into the water!

waterbuffalo

We then went to a local farm where the cutest 74 year old woman taught us gardening skills.  She also smoked me in her ability to carry two loaded watering cans and use them in harmony while I shuddered beneath half the load she carried and splashed about franticly.  I loved her.

wateringgarden

As we continued riding, we passed all the local farmers working hard in their rice paddies while our guide explained the rice crops of the different regions of Vietnam.  We then arrived at the Cua Dai Sea and boarded a boat to start our fishing tour.  First, we took a little side excursion in traditional round bamboo basket boats.  There was much showing off amongst our two crew members as to who could performer the best tricks while steering the boats.  But The Cuties’ favorite part was the accessory-making out of coconut palm fronds!

basketboats

We then met an adorable couple who had been married and fishing together daily for forty years.  They brought us onto their boat and taught us to cast and retrieve the homemade nets and The Cuties even caught a few!

fishing

For the record, I’m pretty sure we hadn’t even had lunch at this point in our day!

We then rowed onto the beach and learned another fishing technique and each had a few tries at casting the nets from shore.

casting

The next day we explored amazing Hoi An and just simply fell in love.  It’s such a cute little city filled with color and charm at every turn. hoianstreets

For me, however, what I loved most about Hoi An, were the amazing silk lanterns hanging from nearly every shop.  In many of them, families were sitting making them right there ~ bending the bamboo frames, gluing the silk and in a few cases hand-painting the silk with scenes of birds, bamboo, temples and more.  It should come as no surprise that I made my way to a local post office bearing more than a dozen large lanterns I’d bought to ship home with the hope of someday hanging them from trees in a backyard back in the States.

lanterns

One of the things Hoi An is known for are its custom tailors and custom cobblers.  People travel there from all over the world to have things designed or bring favorite items to be replicated in a quick twenty-four period.  Keeping this in mind, and knowing our long-standing struggles to fit Big Cutie in shoes {her CP causes her feet to be two different sizes}, we thought it would be a special treat to let her have a pair of dress shoes designed.  After much thought and many leathers to choose from, she got the cutest pair of silver pointy-toed flats.

flats

And in true form to my daughters’ individual personalities, when we then turned to Little Cutie and asked her what she would like, here’s what she picked ~

cowgirl

She will be styling during horse backing riding at camp this summer!

Our last day in Hoi An we found craft classes! Seriously, did you ever doubt me?

We started the day learning traditional Vietnamese ink painting.  While a little similar to Japanese sumi-e, it was different enough for me to be just as frustrated as The Cuties and my husband that we couldn’t make our brushes do what we wanted.

paint

Then we each made a mini silk lantern.  Which only gave me greater appreciation for the lanterns I loved all over town, as it was ridiculously hard to make and by the end, all of us had managed to snip a small hole in our silk while trimming our edges.  I seriously wanted to cry.

lantern

After craft classes we headed to Da Nang to climb the Marble Mountain.  At the top were several beautiful temples and pagodas and an amazing view of China Beach.  Little Cutie and I continued the hike a bit more with our guide and went into a cave that had served as a Viet Cong hospital, while Big Cutie and her Dad climbed down and checked out the amazing carved marble shops in the surrounding area.

marblemountain

After Hoi An we flew to Ho Chi Minh City, colloquially known as Saigon still.  In Saigon we toured the Reunification Palace, which was an interesting contrast to Ho Chi Minh’s house on stilts in the North.  We ate delicious Pho for the first time, and were lucky enough to sit at the same table President Clinton and Chelsea did for their visit {I suspect our visit will not be memorialized in photographs on the walls to the same extent!}.

The next morning, we boarded a boat on the Mekong River {notice a theme?  anyone keeping track of just how many boating adventures we’ve had so far?}, and traveled South to Cai Be, the agricultural heart of Vietnam.  We first stopped at a coconut candy making establishment and had a snack of the local treat and then for lunch, where we had the local specialty, elephant ear fish served whole.

elephantearfish

As you can see, we kinda liked it!

fishbones

We went down river a bit further and arrived at a local family’s guesthouse, where we spent the night!  We learned how to make and roll our own spring rolls and slept together in a communal room.  Look at us with our cute host family!

hostfam

{check out Little Cutie with her flowers ~ she turned the Big 10 in the Mekong Delta, continuing her streak of birthdays in exotic locales!}

On our last day in Saigon, we headed West to Cu Chi, where we toured the extensive network of underground tunnels.  I think it was one of the more interesting lessons about the War for The Cuties, gave them some perspective, and many things to think about.

cuchitunnels.

Although as always, I adore the innocence and brilliance of children, and appreciate the simplicity of Little Cutie’s question: If no one really wins a war, and people on both sides lose so many lives, why don’t people stop fighting them and just skip to the peace talks?

Yeah, why don’t they?

Next time…Cambodia!!!

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Trip of a Lifetime: Northern Vietnam

When we signed on for Expat life, it was with the agreement that we’d do our best to take advantage of our time in Asia and travel as much as possible while in this part of the world.  For the most part, due to location and timing, we’ve ended up primarily at beach and tropical locations.  So in planning this year’s winter break, the husband and I really wanted to do something a bit more cultural and adventurous, and we planned a 16-day tour of Northern and Southern Vietnam and Siem Reap, Cambodia with The Cuties.

And what an adventure it was!

After culling through two full SD cards, and all of the smartphones photo albums, here are some of the many highlights of our trip  {broken into a few posts for ease of reading!}.

We started in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.  In preparation for the trip, we had The Cuties read The Vietnam War from the Usborne history series for kids to help them have a beginner’s understanding of the complex history of Vietnam, Communism and the War.  They were able to ask good questions of our guides, and it gave them a basis for our visits to places like Ho Chi Minh’s home on stilts, his Mausoleum and the “Hanoi Hilton.” {all very interesting, and well worth visits, but not terribly blog~photo friendly}

We visited The Temple of Literature where we learned about Confucius and the first national university of Vietnam.  We were fortunate to see graduation ceremonies on the grounds the day we visited.  You know I have two hundred photos of those amazing dragon and sun roof lines!

templeoflit

In addition to the beautiful structure, it was The Cuties’ first opportunity to see beautiful áo dài up close.

aodai

We spent a half day at the Museum of Ethnology learning about the 54 different native peoples of Vietnam.  It was extremely cool seeing all the different ways of life, manners of dress and styles of homes.  The Cuties especially liked this home, built with a very sloped roof to manage water run-off during the rainy season and up on stilts so that roaming elephants could pass freely underneath!

vietnamesehome

A big treat was stopping at the Metropole Hanoi for high tea.  The Cuties liked looking at the long list of famous people who had stayed there.  But the snack was loved even more!

hightea

While in Hanoi The Cuties were mesmerized by the traditional Water Puppet Show we attended.  These involve lacquered wooden puppets on long rods, and are performed in a waist-deep pool by performers hidden behind a bamboo screen.  The art form dates back to the 11th century and were originally performed in flooded rice fields.

waterpuppets

The best part of Hanoi, however, was simply wandering the busy streets, dodging motorbikes, and playing our family game of Who Can Spy the Best Thing on Wheels!

bikecollage3

After three days in Hanoi, we traveled east three hours to Hon Gai, the gateway to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  On the way, we stopped at My Company, Ltd, which employs people with disabilities in handicrafts.  It was fascinating to watch the incredible artisans at work and we bought a few of their beautiful things.  And in looking around the shop floor, we also said a prayer of special thanks that with all we’ve been through in Big Cutie’s life, we have had access to amazing doctors, early intervention, therapists and more.

mycompanyltd

At Ha Long Bay, we spent a night aboard a traditional junk.  The Bay was beautiful and our weather was superb.

halongbay

One of the coolest things about spending two days on the Bay was seeing so many different kinds of Vietnamese boats.

boatshalong

The highlight of the Ha Long Bay trip though was the Thien Cung Caves.  Filled with stalactites and stalagmites, and lit with spotlights, each anteroom was more breathtaking than the next.  Well worth the hundreds of steps we had to climb to get there!

cavecollage

We then went for a small boat ride in search of monkeys.  We didn’t find any except the two we brought with us, but had a nice jaunt anyway.  ;-)

boatride

We played on the nearby beach with our girls to burn off some energy before bed and watched the prettiest sunset.

halongbeach

The North was great fun and not as cold as Tokyo {and certainly nowhere near as bad as our friends and family were experiencing back home!}.

Stayed tuned to hear about Central and Southern Vietnam next!

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Craving Order

Like many of you, I’ve been running around like a chicken with my head cut off.

End of the school year parties, goodies to be baked, holiday parties, and sadly, when you’re an Expat, sayonara parties to attend.  Additionally, we are leaving on an adventure in a few days, so my lists and piles are accumulating at a rapid rate {but I’ll share all about that soon enough!}.

Last night I opened my desk door to find the staple remover and saw this ~

deskmess

It was clearly my breaking point and it was a bit of chaos I felt I could tackle.

{interestingly, the aforementioned staple remover is from a set I had on my desk in college 20+ years ago ~ I have no idea why it’s the rogue item that seems to have followed me all these years}

Like any organizing project, I emptied the entire drawer and grouped like items.  I took things like the fancy binder clips that have never actually been used and offered them to Big Cutie.  I moved the spare headphones to the lower drawer where I keep my charging cords and put all the stamps in an envelope on my French bulletin board to keep them neat.  I then regrouped everything when I put it back.

deskclean2

MUUUUCH better.

Now the things I really need to access the most are easiest to reach.   The top section has a mini stapler, stapler remover and the two sizes of post-it notes I use the most in my daily calendar {in rainbow order, of course!}.  The middle section has correction tape, double-sided tape {Japanese envelopes do not come gummed, so it’s helpful to have this on hand}, a small sampling of washi tape {about ten times as much lives in the craft room!} and paper clips.  The bottom section is a “personal” one, holding a nail file, spare reading glasses, band-aids, hand sanitizer and an EOS lip balm.  And finally, the side section has a few rubber bands, a tape measure, an eraser and an automatic reinforcement dispenser ~ possibly my most favorite random Japanese stationery store purchase ever!

I was so inspired after finishing this project, that I managed to completely clear the surface of my desk as well, which included filing the outstanding insurance claims and properly storing things in their assigned 3-ring binders.

And of course, because it was a perfectly clean surface, I woke up this morning and discovered that the husband had decided it was the perfect place to move all his electronic devices for charging!

What’s up with that?!!!

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The Year I Completely Blew Off Hanukkah

And there’s no making up for it since the Miracle that was Thanksgivukkah won’t happen again for almost 8,000 years.

Talk about blowing it as a blogger.

But I just wasn’t feeling it this year.

The whole Expat-Thanksgiving-lack of family-hard to get a turkey challenge, combined with Hanukkah falling so early it was November and not December kicked my butt.  Then the kids had most of Thanksgiving week off and my husband couldn’t take vacation days and well….

Like I said, I wasn’t feeling it.

So much so I didn’t even pull out the Hanukkah bins.  No popsicle stick Stars of David from preschool to decorate the apartment, no nuts glued onto wood menorahs covered in wax to light each night.  Nothing.  I was like the Hanukkah Grinch.

I didn’t even wrap a single gift for The Cuties since our tradition is an experiential gift from the two of us, so this year we took them to see One Direction in concert, which happened a few weeks before Hanukkah even started.

So instead, I packed bathing suits for me and The Cuties and we took off for Guam.  And as the only adult, I had to be the “Fun Parent,” a job usually bestowed upon my husband, and always well-earned.  I didn’t read but a page or two in my book, didn’t sip a fruity drink and didn’t nap on a chaise lounge in the sun.

I did, however, take an archery class with The Cuties, repeatedly go down water slides, and by the last day, finally make it across the suspended walkway on the water, a la Wipeout! {Note to Self: future efforts at being the Fun Parent will be easier if you remember to pack the strap to your strapless bathing suits!}

photo (59)

We saw Catching Fire within a week of it’s release, without subtitles and for a normal price.  This is a really big deal, in a you have to live in Japan to understand kind of way.  We ate at places like California Pizza Kitchen and The Hard Rock Cafe and we shopped at KMart to buy things like Sensodyne toothpaste and NyQuil.

I am sure I never once thought this would be a vacation I would plan and enjoy ;-)

But all good things must come to an end, so we returned to Tokyo to see the Daddy, whom we missed very much, eat some yummy Japanese food and I made one last ditch effort at finding my Hanukkah Happy and so I cooked some latkes.

And like the Miracle of Hanukkah itself, there in the bottom of the Rubbermaid bin I was able to dig out exactly enough candles to light our menorah for one night.

And as I was cleaning up and doing the dishes I turned and got to see my very favorite part of the holiday ~ that moment when the candles have burned down all the way and you just see flames in the menorah and they quietly burn out.

Next year Hanukkah is right in the middle of December.

And I’m already feeling a little more genki about it.

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Keeping it Real

Lest you think my time here in Tokyo is all festivals, beautiful kimono and amazing food, I thought I would share to you my experience this afternoon.

As a responsible adult I felt I needed to get some copies of the key to our apartment.

So I set off for a key shop my husband looked up online using Google Maps.

Now Google Maps Japan and I have had a bit of an antagonistic relationship together, but today we were in the groove; and I was confident having first looked at the map online that I was headed in the right direction.  So I walked a mile or so on a beautiful autumn day, only to arrive at my destination with no key shop in site.  A kind young man even stopped and asked if I needed help and confirmed, no key shop in sight.

But putting my thinking cap on, I remembered, that sometimes Google Maps puts the pin on the opposite side of a block from where the building actually is, so I back-tracked and tried again.  Still no luck.  But this time, I spied a cobbler’s shop which seemed to me like a place that might also have key-making equipment, so I went inside.  I gestured and used my minimal Japanese skills to ask about making copies of keys, and the woman working there responded in elaborate Japanese.  Defeated, I politely said I didn’t understand, and turned to walk away.  At which point she told me in perfect English that there was a place above the nearby train station that made keys and the shop name.

So off I went, in search of the train station and the next shop.  And when I arrived, there was a line seven people deep.  Yup.  SEVEN people deep.  But there, to my delight, behind the counter, WAS a key cutting machine AND key blanks, so I contentedly waited my turn.  When I was up, I handed him my key and asked for five copies.

And was immediately told no.

Whhhhaaaaa?

He said to head down to the Information Desk and ask for Garden City.

And off I went.

Where six women at the Information Desk fuss about me for almost a half hour, trying to convey that there is a grocery store chain with a store at a place called Garden City, which it turns out is only a few blocks away, and it has a key making kiosk inside.  Once we finally determine this piece of information, they hand me a photocopied map and I am on my way.  To the THIRD potential key shop, for those of you keeping track.

I arrive at Garden City, find the key kiosk, where the gentleman working there answers me in such rapid-fire Japanese that I can’t even begin to understand him.  So I find a grocery-store employee and bring them over for help and explain I want five copies.  They have a lengthy conversation at which point the grocery clerk turns to me and says he can make the copies but it will take a long time.

I ask how long.

ONE MONTH.

I kid you not.

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Pantry Planning

It’s the time of year when we’ve finally settled into the groove of school, work, activities and daily life.

Which also means we’ve dropped our good habits and gotten a little sloppy in the Felt So Cute household.  Everything doesn’t go back in its proper place, shoes are left in the genkan by the dozen, and chips are left wide open in the pantry just waiting to attack me when I open the cabinet door.

This week I’ve received not one, but two holiday party invitations {YIKES!}, our school Winterfest is in a few weeks, and I just heard mention of class holiday parties, so that means there will be much baking in the near future.

Which brings us back to said pantry.

pantrybeforeWhile not complete Armageddon, way too many things were cohabitating with things they weren’t supposed to be and I had a suspicion we were up to four bags of dried mangoes because people kept writing it on the grocery list {and yes, the cracker bin has not been able to close for some time now}.

Like any good organizing project, I started by emptying the shelves, checking expiration dates {and tossing items well beyond questionable}, wiping down the shelves and grouping like items.  Remember, what are “like items” in our household aren’t necessarily the same in yours.  And that’s cool.  You just need to make your home work for you as best it can.

Because we are in a rental and most likely past the halfway point of our time in Japan, I decided to not purchase anything for this little project.  That meant no perfectly matching containers and no perfectly matching labels.

Rest assured, dear readers, I AM still breathing.

Once I made the call to just use found containers from around the house and whatever stickers I could scrounge up it was rather freeing to my Type-A little self.  {But don’t think I’ll be abandoning rainbow order and alphabetizing any time soon!}

And the after ~

pantryafter

The biggest part of this project was “containerizing” {we’re going to pretend that’s an actual word for the sake of this post, please} most of my baking supplies.  It’s much easier to stack things neatly, and more importantly, less likely to mix up cornstarch and powdered sugar in the heat of the moment or while being assisted by the short people in my house.

baking

I also got rid of the many half-torn boxes of teas that were always tumbling down on me and put them in air-tight containers {I have no idea why I happen to have so many of these on hand unused, by the way!}.  Please note my hoard of Starbucks Very Berry Hibiscus Refresher instant packets.  They did not sell these in Tokyo this Spring/Summer, so before I left Kiawah, I bought every single one they had for sale.  Since each packet makes two servings, Big Cutie and I have to make the joint decision that the day is “Refresher Worthy” {Quick: TV reference anyone? And NO, my 12 -year old daughter doesn’t know it!}

tea

So hopefully we’re good for awhile.

And I now am fully aware that we own three jars of capers.

capers

I can’t even begin to explain that one…

Linked to:

A Bowl Full of Lemons

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World Stroke Day

Today is World Stroke Day.

Twelve years ago I didn’t know there was a World Stroke Day.

Twelve years ago I didn’t know babies and children could have strokes.

Twelve years ago I didn’t know I would have a baby who survived a stroke.

And what a survivor she is.

So many people comment to me they had no idea Big Cutie has any issues when I tell them her story {if you’re new to Felt So Cute, you can read our Stroke Story here}.  And I want to shake their shoulders, do a happy dance, and drop to my knees in prayers of gratitude and scream, “I KNOW, RIGHT?!”

Except that misses one of the most magnificent things about our stroke survivor.

And that’s how hard she works, each and every day to make it look like nothing ever happened!  And she’s so amazing at it, and so incredibly tenacious, that all of us in her world can forget sometimes that she’s working her tail off.

Here’s a little example for you to get your brain working ~ imagine tying a weight to your right arm and right leg.  Now hop in the pool.  Start swimming a lap, please.  How ya’ doing?  Tired yet?  Swimming crooked?  Are you lifting both arms out of the water equally?  Oh yeah, are you remembering to kick evenly with both legs?  Did you finish a few laps?  Fantastic!  Now jump in and do it all over again!

That’s how a Therapist once described daily life for Big Cutie to me.

I remember watching her in Physical Therapy years ago, working hard to walk heel-toe across a piece of tape on the floor.  Her brow would be furrowed, her right hand would be fisted up tight, and she would work that right leg so hard and so patiently to place it in front of the left one.  And more times than not, she’d fall off the marked line.  And without adult intervention, she’d go back to the start and begin again.  In her mind, it wasn’t going to be a victory until she could do it from the beginning to the end, perfectly, her way.  She’s always been like this.  No short cuts, no easy way out.

It’s a blessing and a curse.

As a parent, while I would never wish a stroke for my child, I believe with all my heart, that these challenges will give her strength in so many ways as she grows up, that the blessings will outweigh the curses and the smiles will outshine the tears.

And the victories will keep coming.

One foot in front of the other, slowly but surely.

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