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.

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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!

Cupcakes for Idiots (i.e. How to Look Like a Super Mom at Your Daughter’s 2nd Birthday Party)

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I love to cook but I’m no baker. I don’t like exact measurements. I’m not very good at remembering to set the kitchen timer. Needless to say, my attempts at baking usually end up misshapen, burned, or raw in the middle (or some combination thereof). I’m usually pretty impressed with myself if I can successful make brownies from a Duncan Hines mix. But this year, for some crazy reason, I decided I was going to be a super mom and make homemade cupcakes for my daughter’s second birthday. And not just any cupcakes. Elmo cupcakes!

So what is a non-baker to do?

Step 1. Order Elmo baking cups and icing decorations from Amazon.

Step 2. Order even more obnoxious Elmo-themed decorations to distract from the quality of homemade baked goods.

Step 3. Google “perfect simple vanilla cupcakes.”

Step 4. Buy ingredients in advance to avoid winging it the day of (“Do I really need baking powder? Baking soda’s fine, right?”

Step 5. Try not to swear too loudly in front of children while baking cupcakes.

Step 6. Listen for kitchen timer and don’t get creative.

Step 7. Actually let cupcakes cool before impatiently spreading frosting on top.

Step 8. Put Elmo icing decoration on top to look like Super Mom-professional baker.

Step 9. Serve bubbles to parents (kids don’t care as long as there’s lots of sugar).

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Seriously though, this Perfect Vanilla Cupcakes recipe from Glorious Treats ROCKED. And the Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting was to die for.

At the end of the day, all that matters is my little pumpkin liked her Elmo birthday party and blew out her two candles. And for now, she thinks I’m a super mom no matter what.

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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

Friday Inspiration

Reading this article from Parenting Magazine was just the inspiration I needed on this Friday morning.

Have you heard of PowerToFly? I’m so inspired by this company and the women who founded it. You may have read Katharine Zaleski’s open letter in Fortune Magazine “I’m sorry to all the mothers I worked with” that went viral on social media.

While dealing with the issues common to all working parents, she took action and helped found a company to help other working women. I love the concept! As Katharine wrote in her letter:

By enabling women to work from home, women could be valued for their productivity and not time spent sitting in an office or at a bar bonding afterwards. Mothers could have a third option that would allow them to either remain in the workforce or be a part of it even from areas with few job options.

Genius, huh? And there’s even research to back up this approach:

All the tools exist for remote work – Slack, Jira, Skype, Trello, Google Docs. Research shows remote workers can be more productive. Furthermore, millennials – with or without kids – want that flexibility, a Harvard study found.

This is the future and I’m thankful for trailblazers like these women who are making it happen for the rest of us! Shine on!

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Check out the PowerToFly website and app for flexible tech opportunities and resources for working women.

Hen Gap Lai Ha Noi!

Fabulous impression of Hanoi.

Hà Nội Sống

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Hanoians are famous for nostalgia. Being the great storytellers that they are, there are myriad poems, paintings, folk tales and other art forms depicting the sentimental beauty attached to this city. Despite – or sometimes because of – the drastic modernisation witnessed over the past few decades, there remains a pride in the certainty that Hanoi is, and always has been, a city of unsurpassed charm and romance.

From the moment I arrived in April 2013 I, too, found this charm impossible to resist. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of aspects of life in this city that irritate me. Truth be told, there are moments when I have wondered what it is with the sprawling suburbs, crowded streets, temperamental weather and questionable driving techniques that allows this city to still be considered charming. In the end, however, Hanoi is a good seductress: she woos with imagery and flirts…

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