Saturday, July 2, 2011

{Expat life} Moving on

A year ago today we moved into our villa in An Phu, District 2, in Ho Chi Minh City. A very secure compound by the riverside with resort-like facilities (which of course comes with a price!).

This time next month we'll be living in a new rental house in Thao Dien (also District 2, but closer to the school) - that is, if we don't get screwed over by the potential landlord at the last minute.

We're fast learning that in Vietnam it doesn't matter if you're drawing up a contract. At the last second the landlord can say "sorry, didn't I tell you that I was negotiating with someone else?...and they've just signed". Very frustrating!

The difficulty is down to the fact that houses are listed with numerous property agents (more by default than design) which means that more than one person can be in the process of signing a contract at any one time. It's all about whether your ink dries faster!

Watch this space. If all goes well we'll be moving to downtown Thao Dien on 1st August. Away from the secure compound life we've grown used to over the past 2.5 years in Vietnam, which means that in addition to our current staff (housekeeper and driver) we now have to hire a night security guard!

NB: some expats would argue the need for a personal security guard to watch your house overnight, but they are the lucky ones who have not been yet! But more on that topic another day!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Travelling with kids - how to avoid inflight tantrums

This week the writers at The Punch ( shared with readers a lively, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, office discussion about the horror of being seated near a screaming baby on a long haul flight.

Titled "I've had it with these #!* babies on this #!* plane", as it was designed to, the article sparked a heated debate on The Punch's comments board.

The topic followed this week's confirmation from Malaysia Airlines CEO, Tengku Azmil that the airline doesn't allow babies under 2-years-old to fly first class (and apparently that has been their policy for years).

You can read Malaysian Airlines' defence of the baby ban policy here. Interestingly the statement is all about the reconfiguring of their planes rather than the true reason for the ban.

As pointed out by Azmil on Twitter earlier in the week, the ban comes down to the fact that first class passengers who pay a lot of money to fly just don't like screaming babies. Who does?

As a parent of two noisy pre-schoolers, who fly long and short haul on a regular basis, I also don't like being seated near screaming babies or other people's bratty 4-year-olds who kick the back of the seat and have sugar-fuelled tantrums.

The (unfortunate) fact is that as parents it's generally not an option for us to leave our kids behind when we travel in order to make it a more comfortable flight for the rest of the passengers.

So what's the solution? Should families who travel be segregated on "family-only" flights or, alternatively, should airlines introduce "no-kids" flights to give intolerant adults an option? Should people with kids be given a different section of the plane? (But that's just as stupid as the old smoking sections on planes because, just like smoke, kiddie noise travels a long way!).

Basically it comes down to parents taking a sensible and considered approach to travelling with their kids, particularly on long haul flights.  

Team Somerville has certainly had its fair share horrendous flight experiences due to the bad behaviour (and otherwise) of our children.

A standout example was when my then 3-year-old projectile vomited all over me as the pilot was announcing the plane's descent. As I found out when I tried to get out of my seat to go to the bathroom, air stewards have no sympathy for a parent covered in vomit. They just want you to sit the @#! down!

We're certainly not experts, but having notched up loads of air miles with young children in tow since we left Australia in early 2009 here's our tips for travelling with kids.

With babies (0-2 years):

There's generally a reason for a baby to scream - they're hurting, hungry, overtired and/or over-stimulated. Make sure you prepare for all possibilities.

Some ideas to make their flight more comfortable:

  • Keep their routine: try to work in with their sleeping and feeding routines so they don't get overtired. For really young children, we've found that overnight flights work best.
  • Drugs are good!: if it's the first time your baby has been on a plane, pre-empt any issues with their ears by giving them some cough medicine (such as dimetapp or benadryl) which will help "balance" their ears (this is advice I was given by a nurse when my girls were little and it hasn't failed us yet!). Always carry baby Panadol or Nurofen in case they have any kind of pain during the flight.
  • Something old, something new: for babies they will appreciate some comfort from home so make sure you bring their favourite teddy or blanket. Like any kid, no matter how old, they'll also appreciate something new such as a toy or book to play with. And if it's wrapped so they can play with the wrapping paper, even better!
  • Seated for comfort: most carriers will let you sit with a child 2 years and under on your lap which means they fly for free. If you can afford to buy them their own seat, it is more comfortable for them and you. You will need to take their car safety seat which can be strapped into the plane seat. Also good if you're hiring a car at your destination. 

With toddlers and pre-schoolers (2-5 years):

It's pretty obvious but so many parents travelling with kids just don't seem to get it. Children need to be entertained on a long flight. Don't board the plane expecting the flight attendants to find ways to keep your kids busy, the inflight children's pack will be opened and discarded long before the plane takes off. Always take your own toys (new if possible), books and snacks. 

Like you they'll be excited about going on a holiday, but they're not going to understand just how long the flight will take. Talk to your kids about what is going to happen, particularly if it is their first plane flight. To make it more exciting, let them help pack their own carry-on travel bag (we highly recommend the Trunki).

Here's some ideas to make your trip fun for everyone:
  • Timing is everything: try to work in with their sleeping and eating patterns. When our kids were babies we found overnight flights were best. Now they are 4-years-old, and less likely to fall asleep easily, we find the daytime flight is better - they can watch movies or do drawing and if they miss their afternoon nap it's not such a big deal.
  • Divide and conquer: if you are travelling with more than one child (and two adults), we recommend splitting them up. Try to get two rows near each other and give the kids the window seat (which has the added advantage of keeping them contained). If you're lucky you'll get a spare aisle seat so you can let your kids spread out.
  • The bribery bag: make travelling on a big plane fun. For all long flights we give our girls a present bag that they only receive once the plane takes off (if your kids aren't used to travelling you might want to give it earlier). In our present bag we have small gifts that will keep them occupied during the flight. Examples: a small toy (for us a Strawberry Shortcake or My Litttle Pony), a small lego set that they can build on their tray table, reading books, colouring crayons/pencils and colouring books, a new dvd. Also include some of their favourite snacks, but go easy on the sugar! And if you wrap each present it makes it just a little more special.
  • Let their eyes go square (just this once!): once your kids realise there's nothing interesting down the end of the aisle, they'll be happy to sit and watch a movie or kids tv show. If you don't think the inflight programs will be suitable, take a portable dvd player or laptop with their favourite tv show or movie. Take some kid-sized earphones as some carriers don't have them. If you have an IPad they have some great kids apps that will keep them amused for a long while.
And if you're a childless adult flying on a plane where someone's kid is misbehaving, try to have some sympathy. Instead of scowling at the parent who's trying their hardest to keep their brat under control, put yourself in their shoes.

If you can't do that put your earphones on and keep your opinions and snarky looks to yourself. And if you're that intolerant, learn from our mistakes - go get yourself sterilised. (sorry, just kidding!)

Do you travel regularly with small kids in tow? Share your travel tips (or horror stories!) by posting a comment below.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Give blood, save a life

Sweetened condensed milk in a tin. Yum! In Australia, at around $3 a can, it's considered more a luxury than an everyday item. Its primary purpose is as an ingredient in desserts (and also for fat spoilt kids whose moron parents let them suck it out of a tube like they're drinking skim milk!).

In Vietnam, at less than $1 per can, it's used to sweeten Vietnamese coffee (Ca Phe Sua) at street stalls and coffee shops throughout the country. Given many Vietnamese households are without refrigeration, particularly in rural areas, sweetened canned milk is also used as an alternative to fresh milk as it's cheaper and has a longer shelf life.

So I shouldn't have been surprised when I was given a bag of sweetened condensed milk cans as a thank you present at a blood donation centre in Ho Chi Minh City this morning. Afterall, in many Australian Red Cross Blood Donation Centres donors are given a free meal.

But what I found disturbing when I got back to my office, feeling no worse for having shed 250mls of my blood, was that I also found an envelope containing 50,000VND amongst the cans (along with two blisters of B12 vitamin tablets which I was encouraged to take by the nurse to make me feel better!).

I immediately felt sick, like I had done something immoral. This can't be right. I went there to do good and I left with a bag of cans and an envelope of money that I don't deserve (let alone need). I felt ashamed.

Even though (for me) it was a small amount of money, I'm not quite sure why I had such a strong reaction to being paid for my blood.

In many countries paying blood donors is viewed as an acceptable way of encouraging people to donate. In Vietnam where horrific motorcycle accidents are an everyday occurence it is essential that healthy people are encouraged to donate blood, so this can only be a good thing...right?

But a scene from this morning's donation drive has played over and over in my mind, adding to my sense of discomfort. 

At the centre there was a young, skinny guy, barely 18 years old, who had the unkempt appearance of someone who struggles to get by from one day to the next. He went into the blood donation van after me with a big smile on his face. What I didn't realise at the time was that, for him, this was pay day.

In Australia, we donate blood because it's the right thing to do and, lets face it, for the feel good factor. Here, where poverty is a sad reality, blood donation centres offer a harsh insight into the facts of life in Vietnam.

No matter where you live in the world, donating blood is essential. I'll continue to donate while I live in Vietnam, but next time I'm going to make sure my goodie bag goes to someone who really needs it.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

{Saigon Snacks} Bun Cha Ha Noi!

It's one year today since we moved from Hanoi to Saigon, so I thought it only fitting that we celebrate the anniversary with a lunchtime reminder of our time up north.

Turn right down the alley next to the Pho 2000 store on Le Thanh Ton Street in District 1 and you'll find Bun Cha Ha Noi  - one of a handful of restaurants in Saigon totally devoted to serving the delicious northern dish. (See my previous post for a description of Bun Cha).

If you're not the adventurous type, and tend to steer away from roaside street eats (as we often do for fear of making our 4-years-olds sick!), the grungy appearance of this 2-storey restaurant may put you off. (And if the look of the restaurant doesn't make you head back the way you came, the pile of trash bags neatly stashed out front just might!) 

In fact, as we walked down the alley Rob's first comment to me was "Are you serious?".

Given Georgia and Mackenzie have been begging me to take them to a real Bun Cha restaurant since we left Hanoi there was no way I was going to turn back.

I must admit, I have eaten lunch at Bun Cha Ha Noi a few times with my colleagues so it was not like I dragged my family here without recommendation!

Owned by a friendly family from Hanoi, this is the real deal Bun Cha (not too sweet like the southerners tend to make it). They also specialise in crunchy Nem (deep fried spring rolls) and deep fried battered prawns. Each dish is 27,000 VND (that's about US$1.31 for a meal!).

Bun Cha Ha Noi - 26/1 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1

Bun Cha Ha Noi


If you don't have a stomach of steel I suggest you avoid the greens!

Bun Cha Ha Noi's busy kitchen (that's the owner reading the newspaper!)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

{Saigon School Moments} School's out for Summer!

We follow the American school calendar in Saigon, so summer is here and school's officially over for the year! 8 weeks of pain for the parents, but the kids are pleased.

Georgia and Mackenzie graduated today from Dynotots 3 at the Australian International School in Saigon (a year of schooling equivalent to pre-pre-Prep in Oz, if there is such a thing!). They are both excited about moving up to the "big" class of Dynotots 4 after the summer break.

Sadly, at the end of each school year we often have to say goodbye to expat friends who are moving on to other countries or back home. This time it's goodbye to Summer and her family who are off to a new posting in Switzerland and Kryztof and his family who are moving home to Poland. We'll miss you!

Last day of school!
Just for comparison, here's the link to their first day of the school year photo!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Swimming in Saigon

One of the joys of living in a city that is hot all-year-round is that Georgia and Mackenzie don't have to take a break from their swimming lessons.

After a year of swimming lessons in Saigon, and at only 4 years old, both can already swim better than me (not really that hard!).

After graduating from Rubba Duckies in March where Mr Tony took them from little girls who wouldn't put their heads under water to swimming to the bottom of the pool, they now have a weekly swim coach.

Here's a few snaps of the girls with coach Ms Ros.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

And...we're back!

Ok, so it’s official. I have been VERY slack.

Rob asked me this evening whether I had abandoned my blog. In short ... NO! It has just been so long since I blogged that I keep thinking of all the potential backdated posts that I should do/or should have done ... blah, blah, blah! Yep, typical Libran-style procrastination!

Anyway, so here’s a text and pictorial summary of life in Vietnam since the last post almost three months ago!

The biggest news, and essentially the sticky circumstances that forced me to stop blogging for a short while, was our “elopement” to Malaysia in April.

We invited only a small group of friends to escape with us to Langkawi in Malaysia for a holiday to celebrate our "non-wedding" on 28 April.

Had I blogged in the lead up to April, when life seemed to revolve around the “nuptials”, I would surely have given the game away to the unsuspecting friends and family back home.

And afterwards…well, I guess I just felt a combination of guilt (for those that missed out on what was essentially a bloody good holiday) and lazy!

So, Team Somerville is now officially legal. I’ll do some follow up posts (promise!) on the legalities of marrying in Asia, specifically Malaysia vs Vietnam soon, but suffice to say it was all good fun (despite the fallout!)

A bubbly party in all senses of the word!

Woohoo, we're legal!
Other than a quick trip home to Oz for another wedding on Mother’s Day weekend (and of course to try to smooth the ruffled feathers of those back home not invited to our non-event!) it has been life as normal.

We had a mini break in May with a weekend trip to the beachside town of Mui Ne (5 hours north by train) so Rob could compete in a triathalon. Lots of AIS school families went for the weekend, so it was a lot of fun (especially for those of us not competing!). Train travel is fun (our second time to Mui Ne) but the toilets, regardless of the cabin class, are seriously gross!

We recently tested the skills of a local plastic surgeon (private clinic of course!) when Georgia had an accident at school. Ran into a pole and split her forehead open. A very brave little lady and the scar looks more like a scratch. A permanent reminder of our time in Saigon!

It’s our almost one-year anniversary in the south of Vietnam, and the girls and I still haven’t been back to Hanoi. We’re planning a trip back to the north during the July school holidays when Nanny Somerville comes for a visit. I’m also hoping to take them to Nha Trang (which we did when we were newbies back in April 2009) and to Quy Nhon - a non-touristy beach area further north of Nha Trang.

As for other travel plans, we’re off to Danang/Hoi An for a long weekend from this Friday with our mates The Moggys. Looking forward to a fun weekend away from the rain!

Georgia and Mackenzie in Mui Ne
Triathalon Bob!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday in Saigon

Today was the last day of the Sunday swimming term with Mr Tony at AIS and the last day of the Rubba Duckies program for the girls now they are 4 years old.

We'll miss Mr Tony - they have graduated from little girls who wouldn't put their head under the water to being able to dive to the bottom and swim quite a distance.

Sad that it's over, but after 3 terms of swimming lessons I'm looking forward to getting our Sunday mornings back! May'be we can go away for a weekend here and there!


Another day, another car...

Yet another different car...

Between the car rental company constantly swapping our car for another (sometimes nice, sometimes not so nice) and our very naughty driver who keeps misbehaving (despite repeated warnings), we have decided to ditch the car at the end of the month.

We're hoping to find a private driver with his own car...hopefully someone who understands that lying and misbehaving are not qualities I look for in an employee!


If only Mackenzie could drive...I am sure she'd behave better than our current driver!

Today Lotta and I visited Chinatown in District 5 to shop for some arts and crafts supplies for the kids. I'm not really an arty person, but even I couldn't resist stocking up on packets of cute beads because they were so ridiculously cheap!

A packet of 300+ beads for 15,000 VND (that's less than $1)! The girls were pretty impressed with my stash when I got home! We had a very peaceful afternoon making beautiful bracelets and neckalaces.

Friday, March 18, 2011

{Saigon School Moments} Bears, Caterpillars and Pirates!

Mackenzie and the Caterpillars
Today we had a special school assembly at AIS Saigon...both D3 classes were performing.

Georgia's class was first up with their customised version of "We're going on a bear hunt". A long song for 4-year-olds to get through, and most of them vagued out and started watching the photos on the screen behind them...but cute all the same!

Mackenzie's class performed a few songs about caterpillars...lots of "munch, munch, munch and crunch, crunch, crunch!". I may be biased, but I thought Chas, Mackenzie and Jempy stole the show!

In the afternoon it was all about good friend Jempy's 4th birthday party at Snap Cafe. The kids were invited to dress as pirates. There was a treasure chest with chocolate coins hidden in the sand and the most awesome pirate ship birthday cake (made by Jempy's very talented Mum!).

Playing Pirates...Georgia, Levi and Mackenzie

Georgia digs for treasure...chocolate coins are serious business!
Face paitning fun...Georgia the Batman Pirate

Mackenzie with birthday boy Jempy

The awesome pirate ship cake

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Birthday fun in Saigon!

25 screaming 2-6 year olds, an indoor playgym and a lot of sugar ... CHAOS!

Georgia and Mackenzie's 4th birthday party at Joymax was a load of fun (although a wee bit tough on the eardrums!).

Both were ridiculously spoilt by their friends. Thank you to everyone who came along to celebrate with us!

Not too many photos as I was a wee bit busy, but I'll post more in a few days once I get copies from our official birthday photographer Darrin.

The Birthday girls

Mackenzie and Levi

The gorgeous Miss Summer

Oliver had fun playing with the big kids!

Birthday cupcakes

The present pile!

Friday, March 4, 2011

{Saigon School Moments} Book Week fun!

This week was Book Week at the Australian International School in Saigon.

Thankfully Georgia and Mackenzie have inherited a love of reading from both parents so it doesn't take much to encourage them to have a quiet moment with a book or three!

Book Week finished today with a book character parade at school. All students were invited to dress up as their favourite character and spend the day in costume.

Georgia as Minnie Mouse

Mackenzie as Snow White

Mackenzie lead the D3 class parade with Ms Amanda

Mackenzie with best friend Lila the Mermaid

In the reading circle...Levi, Georgia and Jules

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Love Day!

Two years on, I still get a giggle out of Vietnamese to English translations.

Tonight we celebrated Valentines Day, or "Love Day" as it's referred to in Vietnam, at the Hoi An restaurant in Saigon's District 1.

Hoi An is a fine dining Vietnamese restaurant, catering to foreigners, that serves up Imperial style dishes from central and south Vietnam (as well as a few northern dishes for good measure!).

We were led to a table scattered with red rose petals (aawww!) and offered a pink heart-shaped menu with love-themed cocktails and food.

Sadly I didn't take a photo, but one of the dishes was called "Love Lobster" ... you get the drift! 

I had a fit of the giggles when the waiter handed Rob a blank Valentine's Day card, with a note directing him "for your written wishing to your lover on the Day of Love". The look on his face was priceless as he tried to guage whether the guy was actually serious!

From the way the waiter explained it we were both concerned that whatever message Rob wrote was going to be read out to the entire restaurant! (just in case, he kept it clean!)

Another priceless lost in translation Vietnam moment!

Happy Love Day!

Love Day aside, today we also celebrated two years in Vietnam. This time 24 months ago we packed our life into 4 large suitcases and boarded a plane headed for Hanoi.

While for much of the early months in Hanoi I could have easily run back to Australia with my tail between my legs, I'm glad we stuck it out.

Two years on, the frustrations are but a distant memory and I now actually miss Hanoi and appreciate the time we had there.

The friends we've made, and the travels and experiences we've had along the way, have made the low times more than worth it.

As scary as it is to not know a definite timeline for our future in Vietnam (12 months more, but who knows?) I'm happy we're still here.

Here's a few shots of Team Somerville two years ago at the Brisbane International Airport as we headed off on our great adventure. Ahhh, memories!

Georgia and Tash

Mackenzie, Rob and Georgia

Sunday, February 6, 2011

{Team Somerville TraveL} Last day in Langkawi

We kept our promise to Georgia and Mackenzie and spent our last day at the resort. A morning at the kids club followed by hours running between the pool and the beach.

They are not pleased about going home tomorrow!

Mackenzie...poolside picnic