Back in the Saddle…and dressed to impress

DC is the land of the power suit and pearls. When I first moved here from LA back in 2003 (in my early-20s) I was shocked to go out to bars and see other women my age wearing suits or sweater sets and pearls – even on a Saturday night. My crop tops didn’t seem to fit in. But fast forward a few months and I was right there with them – black skirt, black pumps, sweater set, and big chunky pearls.

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I first realized my style had gotten a bit lame when I started working part-time at an Old Town clothing boutique with decidedly cooler-dressed women than me.  I stepped it up a bit, adding some fun DVF wrap dresses and MJ items to the mix, but after a number of years downtown, I was back where I started. I had another reawakening when I was lucky enough to spend six months in Paris. My Ann Taylor dresses and suits certainly didn’t fit the bill in the chic area surrounding the embassy! I couldn’t afford any Parisian couture, but I loved strolling the streets of Paris, window shopping, and being inspired by French women’s classic style.

After years of working full-time in an office and donning business attire (lame or otherwise) five days a week, landing in Hanoi was a shock to the system. No office. No business attire. And it was hot. And humid. Far worse than D.C. in August – and not much air conditioning. No longer did I need to wear uptight professional attire every day, so I embraced it: shorts, tanks, workout gear, and loose elephant pants most days. I became a lot more relaxed and enjoyed not having to think too much about getting dressed.

So here I am, back in D.C., plotting out my next move, and trying to figure out what to wear. While certainly not a huge obstacle to overcome, it is an important consideration while searching for a job. And it turns out the tanks, elephant pants, and flip flops that were my uniform in Hanoi don’t cut it as professional attire in the DC area.

So I was excited to learn about a new clothing delivery service geared toward working women: MM.LaFleur. Its mission? “To help modern women feel polished and empowered, without having to think too much about their clothes.” I love the idea and the clothes look adorable. To start, you complete a survey on the MM.LaFleur website. Then they’ll send you a “Bento Box” of hand-picked items including a few dresses, a top, skirt, or knit, and possibly accessories. The company gives you four days to consider the items and return anything you don’t want. After your first order, MM.LaFleur charges a $25 styling fee per box, which they’ll waive if you keep a Bento item.

The best part? The clothes are designed by Miyako Nakamura, former head designer of Zac Posen, and are machine-washable and travel-friendly.

I can’t wait to try it…maybe it will help me land my dream job?!

Shine on!

P.S. I still love me a string of pearls and a pantsuit.

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Beating the Beast that is Jet Lag

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Travel is exhausting and stressful (especially with two kids) but the experiences and memories are always worth it. But one beast I’d happily leave behind (or at least tame)? Jet lag. We’re in the midst of a multi-week, multi-continent boondoggle and having a blast. But this jet lag is killer.

Hanoi to Honolulu: two flights, one red eye, and 17 hours of time difference. Honolulu to Boston? Two more flights, another red eye, six more hours of time difference. Lots of miles traveled, lots of whining, tons of fun, but not lots of sleep (at least not at the times it’s supposed to happen). Add to this no real routine and you get cranky, whiny kids and spent parents.

When I’m traveling solo, I know how to deal with jet lag: get on the destination schedule as soon as possible, exercise, get some sunshine, avoid napping during the day, and take a melatonin before bed. It’s not fun but I can tolerate it and am good to go after a few days. But when traveling with kids, my normal tactics don’t seem to work as well, especially because we’re staying in hotels or rental properties and trying to keep the kids quiet and avoid ruining other people’s vacations. 

Here are some tips for managing jet lag with munchkins:

  1. Stick to your routine as much as possible – meals, naps, bedtimes – replicating the schedule at home will help kids get acclimated.
  2. Get your kids outside and active. The sun will help get them on the new schedule and stay awake and being busy will tire them out!
  3. Encourage them to drink lots of water.
  4. Bring a few familiar items to help with the bedtime routine – blanket, lovie, nightlight – this will help comfort your kids and (hopefully) make bedtime a bit easier.
  5. If traveling with a toddler in the midst of potty training, expect some setback and bring some extra diapers and/or changes of clothes everywhere you go.

And here are some new tips I plan to try the next time we travel:

  • Delicious Baby has these great tips for how to help kids sleep better on the plane (thereby reducing jet lag’s duration and unpleasantness).
  • Take fish oil on the plane to boost circulation (for me, not the kids).
  • Focus on maintaining good sleep routines before the trip.

Fellow family travelers: what are your tips for beating jet lag with kids?

Shine on!

Expat Lessons Learned: Seven Things I Learned During my Two Years Overseas

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The first year is the hardest. I knew this—in theory—before I left the States, but reality was a lot harder than I imagined. I had planned everything to make the transition easier but it turned out that most of my plans didn’t work out. Part-time graduate school? Didn’t work out. Part-time job? Not when I was ready for it. Homesickness, discomfort, exhaustion – I experienced these on entirely new levels. I’d lived abroad before moving to Hanoi and thought it would be no big deal, even though I was leaving my career, bringing my 2.5 year and 2 month olds along for the ride, and didn’t speak the language. Truth? I was so naïve, and the first year nearly did me in.

The second year is so much better. Throughout the lows of my first year, several seasoned expat friends assured me the second year would be better. They were right. After the first year, I had friends, a routine, could communicate in basic Vietnamese, and things (cultural differences, directions, etc.) felt more normal and comfortable.

Forget the “old me.” Abandoning the “old me” was hard, and I held on to it for a long time. I didn’t even realize how strongly ingrained my identity—full-time working mom who “did it all” despite the stress—was until I left it behind in D.C. All of a sudden I found myself in a new country, with two kids, no friends, and no job. And I was miserable for a while. I mourned “the old me” and obsessed about how to get her back. I realize now that I was grieving my old life, and it was a painful process. But after 1+ years of feeling sorry for myself, I took action and started making things happen. I embraced the new me. And when I did, it felt like someone had ripped off blinders I didn’t even know I was wearing!

All of a sudden, opportunities started presenting themselves because I was open to them. The new me is still evolving, but I like her.Also, the more I talked with friends, the more I realized that the changes and challenges at this point in my career and family life were common and normal. It’s just that being abroad made them more emphatic. There was no old routine to fall back on and get lost in—just the hard cold facts staring me in the face. And it was up to me to address them.

Communication is critical (and HARD). Communicating is entirely different with a 12-hour time difference. It requires thought, planning, and even some sacrifice (getting up early, staying up late). I thought it would be so easy with FaceTime, Skype, iMessage, etc. but the truth is, everyone is busy and unless you make communicating a priority, it doesn’t happen. I was pleasantly surprised by some of the people who made efforts to communicate (not necessarily those I expected) and it reminded me to be a better communicator. I’m a work in progress, but I have a new appreciation for family and friends that went the extra mile to keep in touch.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder. Cliché for a reason: it’s true. I love my country but have never appreciated it as much as I do now, after two years living so far away from it. I loved getting to know Vietnam, its people, and its culture, but I also found myself missing aspects of the U.S. I usually take for granted—its diversity of people, cultures, religions, foods, the clean air, city parks, sidewalks unobstructed by motorbikes, and affordable, accessible consumer goods from all over the world

Kids are more adaptable than I thought. In the “helicopter parent” world of American parenting (especially in the D.C. area of hyper-competitive everything), I succumbed to planning everything for my kids. I’m still a planner, but I’ve learned the lesson—the hard way—that the best laid plans can be disrupted (or chucked entirely). Like all kids, mine love their routines, but they also love experiencing new things and, after an adjustment period, can really thrive in new environments. They adapted faster to living overseas than I did!

Amid the challenges, traveling with kids also brings an entirely new perspective. In no way was it always easy (turns out they don’t sell Children’s Benadryl at the Luang Prabang night market) and there were frustrations, scratches, mosquito bites, and tears (theirs and mine!). But I found that encountering new places, cultures, sounds, and tastes becomes more multi-dimensional with your kids in tow, because you experience things through their eyes. My former college backpacker self still independently revels in the walk over the swinging bamboo bridge or finding a quiet nook on a bend in the Mekong. But doing this with my daughters conveyed a whole new level of fulfillment and sense of discovery. This lesson isn’t unique to being an expat, but for me, it took moving halfway around the world to learn it.

The expat life is liberating and FUN. I met so many incredible people in the past two years. People I never would have met in my “old” life. While I was learning to appreciate close family and friends back home, I was also learning to value the new friendships and experiences overseas. I met women from all over the world, of all different ages, with myriad experiences, and—regardless of these often considerable differences—we could connect and relate based on shared experiences as Hanoi expats. Becoming active in the Hanoi International Women’s Club was a pivotal point in my happiness, because I realized I wasn’t alone. There were tons of other women going through the same thing, and we could have fun. Exploring a new city, reminiscing about the places we’d been, venting about Hanoi’s challenges, and reveling in its charms. (Also enjoying the occasional glass of wine.)

Blog, Interrupted

Greetings, Shine readers!

Apologies for the unexpected hiatus. A week dealing with the plague (at least that’s what it felt like!), a whirlwind trip to the States, and the ensuing jet lag left me exhausted. The good news? I had a lot of quiet time to reflect, and that energized me and generated lots of new ideas.

Back in the day, I used to dread flights over five hours long. They were so boring and I was antsy to just get there already. But now, after doing several trans-Pacific flights with two young kids, the long-haul plane ride by myself seemed like a vacation in and of itself.Those of you who travel with young children (or have to sit near someone else traveling with them) can probably relate. Let’s just say, I’ve never been so happy to have two connections and a 12 hour flight in coach. It was amazing!

An observation: non-U.S. air carriers are far superior to American ones on long-haul flights. Don’t get me wrong – I love me some America! But Asian carriers have such better food, drinks, and service on international flights. I was so enthusiastic about the service that I found myself taking pictures of inanimate objects. First example: Thai Airways gave me a fresh orchid boutonnière as I landed at Narita. How cute is that? I felt like I was going to prom instead of a two hour layover!Thai Airways Orchid in Narita

Second example: this awesome bento-style lunch served en route from Tokyo to Dulles on All Nippon Airways (ANA).

ANA Bento Lunch

And to top it off? Haagen Dazs ice cream for dessert. YES.

Haagen Dazs in the Air

As I’m wrapping up my time in Hanoi, I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on the past two years. And this quick trip back to the States gave me a new perspective on life overseas–and life in the U.S. Look for my next post: Expat Lessons Learned.

Fare You Well, Fitbit

Those of you who follow my blog might recall that I’ve become something of a Fitbit Fanatic. (As addictions go, it’s a positive one, but an addiction nevertheless.) So you can imagine my despair when — gasp! — I lost my beloved Fitbit last weekend.

I had traveled south to lovely Hoi An, Vietnam, a UNESCO World Heritage site full of ancient pagodas, lanterns, rice paddies, and beautiful river and ocean views, to enjoy a few days of R& R with my brother. It was one of my favorite kind of vacations – family, fitness, food, and frolicking – and the Fitbit was seeing lots of action.

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Our last hurrah. On Cua Dai beach in Hoi An, Vietnam (Fitbit attached to my shoe)

After a long day that included running, walking (11,000 steps by 9:00 am!), and biking (16,000 steps at lunch!), I decided to relax with a massage. I “forgot” to remove my Fitbit (can’t miss that extra step or two!) so halfway through, the masseuse removed it from my arm and left in on the table. I thought nothing of it, until I returned to my room and realized I had the bracelet, but no Fitbit. After a rather unpleasant ten minutes searching through used towels and sheets in the therapy room, I realized the Fitbit was gone. I nearly started crying – how could I lose my Fitbit? And on a banner steps day?!

But after a few days of reflection I’ve realized it’s merely a thing and it doesn’t matter if I can’t track my steps, I still know I’m active. Plus, I just ordered the new Fitbit Charge (an upgrade from my previous Fitbit Flex)…

As Jerry might have said, Fare You Well, Fitbit!

Shine on!

Taking Hanoi Fashion by Storm

Pret-a-porteaSweets, coffee, champagne, and fashion? Sounds like my kind of Saturday afternoon! Last week, I went to Pret-a-Portea at the Intercontinental Hotel Westlake. Each month, Chula – the whimsy fashion house preferred by Hanoi expats – partners with the Intercon to host an afternoon tea and fashion show featuring an up-and-coming Hanoi designer.

Last week, the event featured Wephobia Studio, a cool new line designed by two young and adorable Vietnamese women. It was the first time I’d heard of Wephobia and I loved it. Their clothes are chic, simple, menswear-inspired, with an Asian vibe. I loved everything. I especially loved the classic black and white, interchangeable pieces. When I spoke to the designers after the show, I was surprised to learn that their flagship store was in my neighborhood – conveniently located on my walk home from work. Needless to stay, I popped in after work last week and picked up a few items!

Wephobia    Photo credit: Wephobia

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After Wephobia, Chula displayed some of their latest creations. Chula is created by a Spanish couple, Laura and Diego, who make fun, eye-catching silk dresses that are more art than fashion. Each dress is unique and made to order. If you’re an expat in Hanoi, you’re sure to see Chula dresses galore throughout the city. I have two – one black dress with a skull and cross bone theme, and one turquoise dress with a wave. I absolutely love them – fun, completely unique, and comfortable to wear.

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In between the fashion shows, we enjoyed delicious, fashion-themed nibbles. From red chocolate lipstick, to a pink chocolate pump, the Intercon went above and beyond. The highlight? Midway through the event, the Hanoi sky erupted into a massive storm – thunder, high winds, palm trees blowing every which way. I was happy to be stuck inside the lovely Intercon with friends observing beautiful Hanoi fashion.

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Shine on!

Saigon Sights – Historical Wanderings in HCMC

Last month, my husband’s soccer team had a game in Ho Cho Minh City, and — as is my habit — I seized upon the opportunity for a family excursion.  The game was HOT for my midwest genes, but the post-game feast hit the spot.  A Southern Vietnamese extravaganza, complete with fresh and fried spring rolls, vegetables, shrimp, sweet rice desserts, and…Budweiser, some of which is now made in Vietnam (who knew?).

Soccer Cheerleaders

HCMC is a thriving, rapidly-changing metropolis growing on top of a lush cityscape full of tree-lined streets and tidy parks. This trip, I mostly glimpsed HCMC life in between tourist spots, but I loved what I saw. I hope to return for leisurely days strolling the streets, sitting in the parks, and sipping coffee as the city flows past. (Hopefully when it’s not quite so hot!)

It was Memorial Day weekend, and throughout the my stay, I couldn’t help but think about the historical significance of the city — and the transformative power of the passage of time. These thoughts stayed with me throughout the weekend as we visited some of HCMC’s historic sites.

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Cu Chi Tunnels

I didn’t want to travel all the way to HCMC without a boat ride on the Saigon River and a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels, leading me to discover Les Rives Luxury Cu Chi Tunnels Speedboat Tour. I can’t recommend this tour highly enough. Les Rives picked us up at 7:00 am at our hotel and drove us to the river, where we boarded our boat. The boat was lovely – the charm of a small Mekong delta riverboat but with a smart, modern layout. As we cruised up the Saigon River, we enjoyed lovely vistas of riverboats, fishermen, barges, bridges, homes, and water hyacinths as far as the eye could see.

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IMG_2108After about an hour, we reached the entrance to the Cu Chi tunnels. Only a short walk from the dock, our tour guide started with a brief history of the tunnels, explaining that they were first built during the French resistance movement and later expanded during the Vietnam war. At the end of the conflict, there were tunnels running over 70 miles.

Today, the tunnels are a war memorial run by the Government of Vietnam. Amazingly, many of the tunnels remain and are now open for tourists. According to our guide, the tunnels have been expanded to accommodate larger tourists, which is pretty incredible give how small they remain (see below – those are my feet).

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Reunification Palace

I’d heard a visit to the Reunification Reunification Palace HCMCPalace was a must-do in HCMC, but I was skeptical. Unnecessarily so. It was time well spent. We enjoyed a leisurely tour of the grounds, complete with Southern Vietnamese tanks, airplanes, and beautiful old trees–a strange dichotomy–and the palace. I’m not normally a huge fan of modern architecture this was fabulous. It was amazing to walk through the huge, open, breezy hallways where so much history unfolded. Seeing the palace featured in this image of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the gates at the fall of Saigon, which I’d seen in so many Vietnamese history books, was profound.

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Reunification Palace HCMC

You’d think being an American would attract negative attention, but that just wasn’t the case. Fellow Vietnamese tourists so were friendly that we spent part of the tour mobbed by Vietnamese tourists trying to take pictures of us – not the museum! They were far more interested in my daughters’ curly blonde hair than the historical sites. Wow. What a difference 40 years can make.

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Next up? Saigon Snacks – A Weekend in HCMC