Memorial Day Weekend in Saigon: Honoring History

Reflections

Growing up in Minnesota, we’d always spend Memorial Day Monday at my mother’s family’s cemetery plot, placing American flags on the graves of our family members who served their country in WWI, WWII, and the Vietnam War.

This year, we happened to find ourselves in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, a bustling metropolis where scores of soldiers lost their lives during the Vietnam War. (Post to follow on our comings-and-goings). It was an odd feeling for this American to visit HCMC on Memorial Day weekend and I spent a lot of time reflecting on how much has changed in the last 40 years since the fall of Saigon.

Our stay this time took us to the grounds of the U.S. Consulate, where U.S. Marines fell defending the former American Embassy, and to the Cu Chi tunnels, site of some of the most brutal fighting in Vietnam and countless lives lost on both sides.

For those Americans who have visited Normandy, you know how profoundly moving, unsettling, and humbling it can be to visit a place overseas where Americans gave their lives in service to our country. On this Memorial Day, I honor all those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice.

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Living it Up in Luang Prabang: Part 3, Food

I’ve already set the scene and shared my favorite frolicking adventures, but now it’s time for my favorite: the food.

Having spent the past two years living in Southeast Asia, I’ve eaten a lot of good food, but I have to say, the food in Laos is some of my favorite. Hanoi has some good go-to food options (namely bún đậu and chả cá) but by and large food in Hanoi can be a bit lacking in punch. I’m a spicy kind of girl – I like my food to have a little kick. And after 18 million nem ran (spring rolls), I was ready for something different.

Enter Laos.

Best snack? The crispy, sesame coated Mekong River Weed. Frankly, I’d rather not think about the source of this delicious snack. But suffice it to say, it’s similar to a crispy seawood, lightly fried then sprinkled with sesame seeds and a dash of spicy goodness. And you can dip it in an array of tasty dips (jeow).

Best staple? Sticky rice. White or brown – both delicious. And cooked in beautiful handmade baskets – it’s like opening a little gift every time you sit down to a meal. Appropriate for early morning alms-giving to the monks and pairs great with just about everything. My husband’s favorite main accompaniment: lemongrass stuffed with seasoned pork or chicken.

Best drink? The awesome fruit shakes sold from the stands near the night market. And, of course, Lao Dark beer. Lots of Lao Dark Beer.

The local food is certainly a highlight but we found a few good international restaurants too. Here’s a summary of our favorite Luang Prabang restaurants:

Coconut Garden

Our first stop was a return trip to the Coconut Garden, sister restaurant of L’Elephant–a beautiful, tasty, but less kid-friendly spot. We’d eaten at Coconut Garden twice on our last trip and had loved the chill, outdoor garden vibe and mix of local and western food options.

Tamarind

This meal was the highlight of the trip. We got there early in order to avoid ruining others’ meals with our loud children. The TripAdvisor recommendations were great and highlights were the watermelon chilli granita aperitif, Laos sampler, stir-fried pumpkin, and lemongrass skewers. Bonus? Great gourmet Laos goodies to bring home, like coconut tamarind spread, ginger tea, and chilli salt.

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          The spread at Tamarind

Ock Pop Tok

Don’t miss this delightful oasis a few miles outside of town. On the banks of the Mekong, with freshly died silk blowing in the breeze, you can’t beat the vibe. I had the Living Land Salad – lettuce with beetroot, apple, pumpkin seeds, goat cheese, and a creamy balsamic dressing. It was delicious and definitely not something I’d find in Hanoi. The Lao Dark was delicious (as always), as was the post-meal cappuccino.

IMG_7609Enjoying a quiet moment on the banks of the Mekong

Indigo Cafe

My daughter and I stumbled across this gem of a cafe as we were trying to escape the heat. What a find! Cute cafe vibe with good coffees, smoothies, and an extensive menu that includes lots of veggie and vegan options. A good sandwich can be hard to come by in Southeast Asia and I was pleased to enjoy a veggie sandwich on good, fresh bread. The cafe is on the bottom floor of a hotel of the same name, and attached to an adorable store. I found a cute, reasonably priced locally made indigo pillow case and this awesome hat ($3!).

Pizza Phan Luang

Don’t miss this off-the-beaten path restaurant. And by off-the-beaten-path, I mean you have to cross the Nam Khan River via a creaky bamboo suspension bridge (see photos below).

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Once you cross the bridge and climb the steep staircase to the top of the river bank, walk about 1/4 mile and you’ll find Pizza Phan Luang on the left hand side, down a narrow corridor. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find a quaint garden pizza cafe, complete with a wood fire pizza oven, romantic candles, and relaxed outdoor vibe. The pizza was the best I’ve had in Southeast Asia (although, admittedly, this ain’t Manhattan).

Have I whet your appetite?

Shine on!

Way to go, Facebook!

#Facebook #like

I was psyched to see Sheryl Sandberg’s announcement that Facebook now has new standards on benefits for its largest contractors and vendors, including paid parental leave:

Today, I am pleased to announce that we are implementing a new set of standards on benefits for contractors and vendors who support Facebook in the US and do a substantial amount of work with us. These benefits include a $15 minimum wage, minimum 15 paid days off for holidays, sick time and vacation, and for those workers who don’t receive paid parental leave, a $4,000 new child benefit for new parents. This will give both women and men the flexibility to take paid parental leave, an important step for stronger families and healthier children. 

Why is this so important? Because, according to this report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “The United States is the only high-income country, and one of only eight countries in the world (Heymann and McNeill 2013), that does not mandate paid leave for mothers of newborns.” I won’t go into paternity leave or shared parental leave, but suffice it to say, it’s no better.

It’s great to see a U.S. company leading the charge on changing parental work policies – not because they’re forced to, but because it’s good for their employees AND for their business.

Bravo! Shine on!

And I Bid You Goodnight…

Grateful_Dead_-_Steal_Your_Face

Thanks to the genius advice of a friend, our new bedtime routine has been drastically improved as of late. After we read a book and say prayers, we watch this video:

It makes me so happy because it brings me back to my Grateful Dead fueled high school days (lucky for all of you I don’t have any high school pics here in Hanoi). Better yet, it reminds me of my dad every night. He loved talking about his 17 live Dead shows and transferring his love of music – but especially the Dead – to his kids. I hope to give the same to my girls.

Shine on!

Living it Up in Luang Prabang: Part 2, Frolicking

For a small town, Luang Prabang offers myriad fun, outdoor, active things to do. After two trips there, I’ve done most of the top-rated activities (except for the nature hikes, which I plan to do when I return sans munchkins or with much older kids!). Here are my recommendations for fun frolicking in Luang Prabang!

Stroll through town

Luang Prabang is all about chill – strolling through town, visiting the numerous wats sprinkled throughout, sitting at a café, and walking along the river. A climb up Mount Phousi is worth it for the sunset views (and the exercise)!

Luang Prabang Strolling            IMG_7479

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Luang Prabang Blooms            Luang Prabang Strolling Scenes

      Luang Prabang strolling scenes

Elephant Village

The Elephant Village was hands-down the best part of the trip. We loved it so much the first time, we did again! The Half-Day Elephant Experience includes time at the sanctuary, an elephant ride, a boat ride up the river to meet a baby elephant, a cruise to a waterfall, and lunch. And at around $50 a person (kids under four are free and kids 5-8 are 50% off),for 5+ hours it’s a total steal.

Elephant Trunk Luang Prabang

Feeding “our” elephant bananas

The sanctuary is beautifully done. Situated on the banks of the Mekong, it offers beautiful views of the river, fishermen, and farms, below. Unfortunately, the waterfalls were dry so we couldn’t do that part of the trip this time. But instead, we hung out at their beautiful pool, complete with an elephant fountain, stunning views of the river, and a swim up bar.

Elephant Pool Luang Prabang

Elephant Neck Luang Prabang                Elephants Luang Prabang

Ock Pop Tot

Ock Pop Tok or “East Meets West” is a stunning weaving center, restaurant, and shop just outside of the LP town center (with another shop centrally located in town). They offer a free tuk tuk to and from the center and I recommend taking it. I convinced my family to walk and we ended up hot and on a street that dead ended in the Mekong (true story: we tried to hail a fisherman to take us up the river in his boat but it didn’t work out):

Mekong Dead EndMekong dead-end

The restaurant is the ultimate chill – overlooking the Mekong and surrounded by beautiful gardens and women weaving. The food is good too!

Ok Pop Tot Silk Dining Ok Pop Tot Silk  

Ok Pop Tot GardensExploring the gardens

After lunch, we took a tour of the grounds and learned about Ock Pop Tok’s mission and the beautiful they textiles create. Their mission? To elevate the profile of Lao textiles and artisans, to increase economic opportunities for artisans, and facilitate creative and educational collaboration in Laos and worldwide. Can’t argue with that. And after witnessing the completely natural products firsthand, I’m even more of a supporter.

Our tour guide showed us the silkworms that produce the silk, and explained the process.

     Ok Pop Tot Silk Worms                    Ok Pop Tot Silk Cocoons

Once the worms have produced the silk, the artisans dye them using locally-sourced, natural dyes (e.g., indigo).

     Ok Pop Tot Silk        Ok Pop Tot Silk Drying

Naturally dyed, handmade silk drying in the Laos sun

Ok Pop Tot Silk Red

After the silk is colored and dried, the weavers begin using their looms to create beautiful textiles.

    IMG_7626       IMG_7627     Smiling Weaver Ock Pop Tot          Hmong Batik Ock Pop Tot

This lovely woman was creating batik textiles in traditional Hmong patterns using local beeswax and indigo.

        Hmong Women Batik Ock Pop Tot                IMG_7631

Interested? Next time you’re in Luang Prabang, you can sign up one of their weaving courses. I’ll happily join you!

Night Market

LP’s night market is the best I’ve visited in Southeast Asia. Unlike other markets in the region, it’s not all imported items from China – there are actually local Laos handicrafts. While you can find the ubiquitous “elephant pants” and Lao Beer t-shirts, you’ll also find hand-carved wooden bowls, paintings, cutlery and tokens fashioned out of old bombs, and homemade rice wine with cobras inside (I didn’t try that!). My favorite purchase was an adorable handmade quilt of a Laos jungle scene – it hangs over my daughter’s crib, reminding us of our fabulous trips.

Luang Prabang Night Market

People at the LP night market are friendly and not aggressive – it’s fun to stroll through the aisles, checking out the items for sale and enjoying the delightful cool, fresh, night Mekong air. Best part? At the end of the street you’ll find a series of “fruit shake” stalls, where you can get a fresh-blended smoothie. My favorite was mango ginger, while the banana Nutella was a big hit with my girls.

As we sat, sipping our smoothies, we encountered a fun variety of people – locals, backpackers, expats, senior travelers – all friendly and happy to be in Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang Night Market Vendor

Luang Prabang QuiltMy favorite purchase (much prettier than it appears in my terrible pic!)

Mekong River Cruise

On my last trip, I went on a half-day Mekong River cruise. We boarded the boat mid-morning, cruised out to see a cave, and visited a small village. En route, we enjoyed lunch and stunning views of the Mekong, including people riding elephants on the beach. The cave was cool, but nowhere near as impressive as the caves in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, and – frankly – I could take it or leave it. The best part was cruising down the Mekong, a slight breeze in my hair, a Lao Beer in my hand, and soaking up the incredible scenery.

Mekong Boat Luang Prabang    Mekong River View Luang Prabang

Living it Up in Luang Prabang: Part I, Setting the Scene

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The Laos flag, flying high

Just got back from four days in lovely Luang Prabang, Laos. I loved it just as much the second time around. Highlights? Beautiful wats (temples) and saffron robes, peaceful Mekong breezes, the best night market I’ve visited in Southeast Asia, fabulous food, elephant rides, local artwork and handicrafts, and an exceptional hotel.

Luang Prabang’s town is a UNESCO world heritage site and boasts a delightful mix of historical buildings, quaint shops and cafes, traditional houses (many now guesthouses), and – of course – dozens of temples. As UNESCO explains: “Luang Prabang is an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.”

Luang Prabang Monks almsgiving

Early morning almsgiving, February 2014

Again, this trip was a combination of my favorite things: family, fitness, and frolicking, (with Lao Dark beers sprinkled throughout). To be honest, there was a bit less straight-up fitness than I would have liked, but I figure when you’re carrying/pushing two young children all over town in 90 degree, humid heat, that’s equivalent to a workout (or four).

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Getting there

Luang Prabang as an easy one-hour flight from Hanoi. We flew there on Laos Airlines on a packed prop plane and back home on a similar plane operated by Vietnam airlines. Not the most spacious airline experience but thankfully the flights were quick and on time. (I recommend dressing for warm weather, as it took half the flight for the aircon to get kicking.) The best part is that, not only is Luang Prabang a quick flight from Hanoi, but once you arrive at the small airport tucked among the hills, the car ride to town is ten minutes tops.

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    “We’re getting on this little plane?!”

Where to Lay Your Head

Our first time in Luang Prabang we stayed in a quaint riverside boutique hotel, The Belle Rive Boutique Hotel – a quintessential French colonial style set of buildings. The lobby feels like stepping back in time to a much earlier Indochine experience. The location can’t be beat. Right in town and only a block away from almsgiving (more on that later). Our room was simple but comfortable, the food was delicious, the hosts were warm, and the room rate included a cocktail cruise. We loved it and would recommend it enthusiastically.

Belle Rive Luang Prabang Door         Belle Rive Luang Prabang

The beautiful Belle Rive

This time, we opted for a hotel with a pool (it’s HOT in Laos in April). In Luang Prabang, this means you have to stay a bit outside of town, as pools aren’t permitted in the historic district. We stayed at Hotel de La Paix, a boutique hotel managed by Accor (soon to become a Sofitel property). A fabulous decision, it turns out. Thanks to our Accor Advantage Plus card, they upgraded us to a large, open poolside room, complete with a huge bathroom, an outdoor garden with lounge chairs, a stocked (complimentary) mini bar, an iPod with local music, and a ridiculously comfortable bed.

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View of our room from the breakfast table

Bonus? A free baby crib and a small sofa perfect for a four-year-old’s temporary “bed” with no extra charges!

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Getting Around

Most hotels include round-trip airport transportation. Once you unpack your bags, take a stroll along the Mekong and Luang Prabang’s main street. Most hotels offer free bikes and tuk tuks are plentiful, cheap, and fun!

Luang Prabang Bike

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Elephants are another great option (more on that later!).

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Riding in Style

Avec Les Enfants

Luang Prabang is one of the more child-friendly cities I’ve visited in Southeast Asia. There are plenty of fairly wide and obstruction-free sidewalks, making it (relatively) stroller friendly. Most of the restaurants we visited (more on this to come!) had high chairs and were kid-friendly. Additionally, the tourist activities – riverboat cruise, night market, elephant rides (more on these to come too!) – welcomed kids, (although if you’re safety–minded, I recommend bringing life jackets from home).

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Stay tuned for Living it Up in Luang Prabang: Part 2, Frolicking!!!!

On a side note, this is my go-to travel highchair. It’s light and folds flat so I can keep it under the stroller with no problem.

Tory Tell All

Tory Burch

I enjoyed this Harper’s Bazaar interview with Tory Burch. I love her personal “preppy-boho” style, which is embodied in her eponymous brand. I also think it’s pretty amazing that she was able to build a billion dollar company in less than a decade. Some Sunday morning inspiration from Ms. Burch:

Why do you think you’ve managed to be so successful? Did you ever doubt that it would happen?

It was completely unexpected. I think it comes down to having a great idea and an amazing team and being willing to work incredibly hard. There’s no such thing as an overnight success.

Do you have a mantra or a phrase that you live by?

Negativity is noise.

We need a Tory for Target. Who’s with me? You heard it here first!

Shine on!