Our First Airbnbs

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I’ve always wanted to try Airbnbs and now that I have, how can I ever go back to staying in hotels?  This is way, way, way better — much more space and the feeling of home for much less cost.  It gets addicting poring over the choices but once you’ve made the choice and dive into it, the rewards are enormous.

The first one we stayed in Ho Chi Minh was in a little alley in the older part of town and even though the roads are noisy, you are completely protected once inside.  The space was a celebration of light, of getting light through to the inner areas and of simple and honest construction.  Joshua can’t forget the banh mi on the street corner down the road and I can’t forget the pho.

The second one was in Nha Trang, a bit off the central area.   The unit was on the 35th floor of a tower block and it was a bit inconvenient going up and down because there were too many people and it made me yearn for being in a low building like the first bnb.  The reason I chose this over the others was rather silly but practical.  It was because it had Netflix!  This location had another unexpected advantage: the beach is quieter and less populated than the longer stretch of sand Nha Trang is famous for.

The third was back in Ho Chi Minh but this time we picked a spot near where James lived which is where a lot of expats are concentrated where there are a number of International Schools.  Modern areas meet the older parts of town in a healthy jumble.  The owner of this Airbnb enjoyed adding touches of home that even the WiFi password, “welcomehomemydear” makes you feel exactly that way.

Three Airbnbs, two nights each, allowed us to vegetate, chillax, do a good share of study and work in the comforts of homes that don’t make you feel like a total stranger in a strange land at all.

After writing that, we went to the airport where too belatedly, I realized rather sheepishly that 1:35 does not mean PM but AM.  I needed to scrounge for a fourth Airbnb and if the first three were a walk in the park, the fourth one was anything but — giving me more lessons in an already learning-laden trip.  The owner of the condominium unit was from Korea and because I had booked on the same day, the cleaners arrived late so the owner did not know on the ground what was happening.  I kept messaging him and he assured me everything was okay when it was not.  Anyway, long story short, there is the side of Airbnb that may not be as idyllic and it’s as business-driven as any.  They seem to raise prices on weekend and the more you search like other algorithm maximizing platforms.

Still, adventures into the unknown are beset with uncertainty and the more you experience, the better it is for your learning curve.  The lesson learned in this case is — it’s better to book in advance when it’s Airbnb.  However, when you do need the Airbnb right away, be careful of owners who have multiple units in the same building because there might be a mix-up and be ready to accept that it might not be cleaned up on time.

Still would choose Airbnbs over hotels if given the option.

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In Love With Design Again

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It’s me and my ex-boyfriend again, my on-and-off — Architecture — because Vietnam reminds me this one is a keeper and I’d be foolish to let it go — design that sparks joy because love is at the root.

This is just one restaurant with gorgeous interior-exterior and equally superb food:

 

The name of the place is:

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I wish I could go back to Hum during the day time and take pictures of the crazy fun sculptural tree house in the middle of the courtyard.  There’s a swing and boxes filled with wooden blocks and toys to entertain the kids while their parents dined on vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.   If it weren’t for James, I would’ve just been too lazy and chosen a place in the mall because it was right across the Airbnb.  There are many more like this gem where attention is paid to details but I didn’t have enough time to discover them since the kids were too tired to explore.  However, it’s more than enough to see glimpses and snippets, to feel gratitude and feel revived.

 

Well, I got my wish in an odd sort of way that the universe plays almost a mean joke.  I made the mistake of thinking 1:35 meant PM, not AM and we had to stay in Saigon an extra day.   So I was able to take more pictures:

 

I see parks like these in other countries and I wish I can be Bill Gates rich and buy all the land and turn them into parks with libraries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Chill and Not-So-Chill

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We settled on a totally chill, lazy holiday pattern of waking up late, doing a bit of writing and reading exercises for the kids to make up for the sin that is to come — binging on Netflix and games, plus drinking too much bubble milk tea simply because it was there and there were no lines unlike in Manila.  We managed the minimum of sightseeing — just enjoying what’s there in front of us although we took the effort to fly to Nha Trang from Ho Chi Minh and suffered the regular flight delays that brought us back to Saigon at 4 am instead of the expected, ticketed midnight.  In Nha Trang, we stayed in the quieter part of the long stretch of beach towards the north.  Huge tower blocks housing tourists still loomed overhead but the shoreline is not as inundated with bodies as the famous lengthy stretch of sand south of the bridge.

The food, of course, is the best thing about Vietnam as Anthony Bourdain would probably agree, salivating over the plethora of street food that celebrates the bounty of the land.  Oh those generous plates of mint and greens that come with everything!  That beautifully soft Pho that is not supposed to be pronounced with an “oh” sound but an “uh.”  And I have passed on my love for Banh Mi to Joshua and Jimmy but where will we ever get that perfect baguette when we go home.  The kids were intrigued by ice cream made on a metal table that instantly freezes fruits, oreo, chocolate powder, together with milk to make thin crepes rolled and slid into cups.  The fish with big bones cooked in foil sealing in layers and layers of flavor — the cost is unbelievably low for all these.  I wonder and lament how can we get good food so way overpriced in our own country.

What’s not so chill is being the referee between a 9-year old and a 6-year old who are at each other’s throat, ready to kill each other.  What’s not so chill is being the only parent there with no reliever.  I appreciated my husband’s role even more because it gets too tiring to keep the two apart when they fight.  What’s not so chill is losing my temper because I’m sick of the whining and ugly attitude.  What’s not so chill is resorting repeatedly to reward and punishment and wishing there was a better way based on intrinsic motivation more than anything else. What’s not so chill is the nagging complaints about flight delay that I just promise them I’ll never make such arrangements and we’ll just stick to one place next time.  I’ll probably be tempted to organize another crazy schedule in the future so then I’ll need to remind myself of the three-hour delay and the sleepy eyed, slumping lumps who almost refused to carry their own weights up and down the plane.

Still the best part of the trip for me is spending time with James and bonding with the kids.  James solved the problem of Joshua’s PUB-G not being able to update.  We were able to listen to James’ reading of the Lorax in celebration of Earth Day at the school where he works.   The night time breeze, swinging in the park, flowers that smell divine, enjoying an extra hour with Amani at Jump Arena, riding two grab motorcycles, watching footballers on the sand, creating a temporary masterpiece that can’t be captured by my camera, finding the perfect luggage and Pikachu in the airport — like layers of flavor build up a dish, layers of moments build up our lives.  The chill parts still override those that are not so chill.

 

Escape to Vietnam

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The escape to Vietnam started on the wrong foot.  We erroneously thought that visa on arrival meant that Jason could literally get a visa “on arrival” but it actually meant applying online days in advance.   Jason stayed behind while the three of us flew and arrived after midnight in a strange, seemingly unfriendly city because the immigration officer was gruff — yes, that’s their job — but to shout, “I don’t care!” like a tantrum-throwing child is quite another thing.  Then against all travel wisdom, I got hoodwinked by a driver who approached us in the airport and overcharged us but not by much since I fought with him each step of the way.  I wanted to step out of the car but it was nearly three in the morning and I had to get the kids to the Airbnb.  These unpleasantries were completely erased the morning after by the sheer joy of seeing James, a friend from TEDA, China days whom I haven’t seen since Joshua was a year old.

This is the perfect holiday for me — just to reunite, catch up with life stories with an old friend.  And for Joshua and Jimmy’s perfect day, James arranged a mega playdate with four other boys — Amani, Thyrdy, Raighne, Rafee, complete with swimming, giant sandbox playground, chips, cupcakes, skateboarding on a rooftop and late night movies.  It was great to meet fellow Filipinos, Rasul and Dianne from James’ school plus Mei and her three-year old daughter, Ella.

Joshua and Jimmy took turns riding with James on the Vietnamese’s preferred mode of transportation – the motorbike.  How complete can one’s experience of Ho Chi Minh be?  With James, the bad impression in the first few hours in Saigon flipped over to “I want to live here!”  I totally understood why James, Rasul and Dianne loved being here and how more relaxed and uncomplicated life is.

 

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Hero’s Journey Version 4.0

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A possible lost passport couldn’t stop the Hero’s Journey, nor could an extra-long bureaucratic nightmare of a process at the airport.  Fourteen kids and three teachers from China arrived in Manila last week, tired but relieved, ready to take on the adventure.  Despite the usual setbacks, these proverbial flies in the soup won’t matter since everyone is bound to have a great time!

This is our fourth Hero’s Journey – an English immersion program for kids coming from China.  They soak in an English environment with five camp counselors from the Philippines, having loads of fun outdoors, trying Filipino food, doing art, improvisation, shadow play, National Geographic lessons, island hopping and this year, we added a jungle survival course.

We have three favorite places for our troopers – Prado Farms in Lubao, Pampanga, Casa San Miguel and Crystal Beach, both in Zambales.  Prado Farms and Casa San Miguel are brain children of creative geniuses and artists, Reimon Gutierrez and Coke Bolipata respectively.  In Prado Farms, ordinary objects take on extraordinary form while in Casa San Miguel, music and architecture are evolving works in progress.  In Crystal Beach, “glamping” is the word.   Their glamp tent comes with light, electric fan and you don’t have to worry about charging your devices.  When you come out to greet the morning or brush your teeth, the sea and sky are your infinite windows.

But as in any camp, more than the place, it’s the relationship built among the kids and facilitators.  We celebrate nature but at the same time, it’s an excuse for bonding – trekking through a forest, crossing a river, cooking your own food in bamboo, waiting for the boat to fetch us from an island, assisting young swimmers reach the platform a considerable distance from the shore.  Sunsets, surfing, building sand castles, movie by the beach, roasting hotdogs and marshmallows, boodle fight — naturally fun stuff are balanced with output — printing using recycled styrofoam covers from the packed lunch eaten on the island the day before, silkscreen printing your own shirt, creating artwork from found objects on the beach, weaving spontaneously a story with puppets presented as a shadowplay, learning about Marine Protected Areas from a teacher working towards his National Geographic certification.  You can imagine how full a week can be but there’s room for free time, quiet contemplation, making friends, playing, laughing and horsing around with the counselors and kids doing what they do best being kids.

Often, school takes out the fun in childhood and we need to give it back to them.  A week may not be enough but it’s enough to remind us and re-fill ourselves.

We look forward to the next Hero’s Journey.  For the next one, we want to try what has always been at the back of our minds, brewing at the back burner — a camp with kids from abroad together with local kids.  Watch out for that!

At Prado Farms, you can grab a bike and explore to your heart’s content.

At Casa San Miguel, you can step inside the mind of an artist and celebrate art yourself.

At Capones Island, you are loved by the sea, salt, sand and sky.

At Crystal Beach, you can surf and glamp.

At Pamulaklakin Trail in Subic, the kids learned how to start a fire and cooked their own food using bamboo.

At Camayan Beach, master the art of R & R.

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很丰富的假期

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They use a totally different calendar and for them, December 31 is not the last day of the year.  It’s an ordinary day that doesn’t end in a colorful bang, at least not in majority of towns that are not major cities chock-full of foreigners.  Christmas decoration is even more sparse and non-existent than before (new rules, I was told), so for traditional celebration-averse people, going to China during the holiday may be the perfect cure for the uber-consumerist tone of the season.  No matter the rituals observed, it’s still the time for reuniting with family and friends.

We started with the usual welcome by my sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s families, spoiled by the excellent cooking of Xiao Dan’s mom.

Manila or Tianjin, Joshua must get his football fix.  The football club in Dagang welcomed him plus dates with favorite playmates arranged.

We had one ski destination each week sandwiched in between the requisite visa-run to the Philippine embassy in Beijing for the kiddos.  Nanshan near Beijing was easy enough for Jimmy and I to enjoy but we left the more professional, technically difficult trails of Wanlong to the true champions of snowboarding — Joshua and Jason.

Four of our previous Hero’s Journey campers were part of a theater group whose performance we were lucky enough to catch and see how much they’ve grown.

The Hero’s Journey is on from January 24 to February 1, 2019 and we had a quickie meeting of partners to discuss the camp.  The more important purpose of the visit was seeing Xavier and for Jimmy, it was Evan’s generosity with his Pokemon cards and beyblades that made his day.  Samantha knew we were bibliophiles like her so she showed us her stash of beautiful new children’s books from Taiwan.

Mike and Joshua missed each other.  Joshua had been wanting to visit Mike in his home and finally it transpired.  We discovered it IS possible to have an X-box like experience with a projector but you need a PS4 instead.  If you don’t have the video camera, you can use the cellphone but it’s limited to dance.  Dance we did with joy and abandon.

Remember the library in Dagang Youtian that we started with a group of moms who love books and wanted to pass on that passion to their children?  That group has always been part of an active organization of Youtian moms who planned an amazingly full repertoire to greet the winter solstice (dong zhi).   Kids sold and traded products, food and drinks followed by tug-of-war.  The Mom who is into Waldorf education told dong zhi stories.   Then the community made jiaozi (dumplings). We’ve been having Chinese dumplings for two straight days and this was the most delicious, freshly made with lots of love.

Joshua and Yinpu were kindergarten classmates.  It’s hard to believe that they had more years apart than together but they still play so well together.  Yinpu’s Mom, Susan showed me Yinpu’s amazing artworks.

It was a blessing in disguise that Jimmy got a fever when we got to the Wanlong ski resort.  The temperature outdoors reached minus 23 degrees.  Jimmy and I wouldn’t have stood that long skiing or snowboarding but the other pair had two full days in the blue and black-grade slopes.  When Jimmy was well enough, we sled down two times a tiny, tiny hill and cowardly rushed back into the warm indoors.

December 29 was Jason’s dad’s birthday and how happy he was to be with his grandchildren.  He gave a touching speech before dinner started.   It was as good as Christmas for the kids with all the toys we managed to get for the cousins.

Vacation is a series of playdates, but then again so is non-holiday time.

Jason’s sister, Jiang Ping is probably the best teacher for Joshua and Jimmy.  They listen to her and follow while I can only learn from the expert.

And the food!!!   We had hot pot, barbecue, our favorite street food breakfasts, our favorite rib place, unbeatable noodles and this newly opened restaurant stoked our taste buds for extreme spiciness.  This table had a thin layer that looks like wafer solar panels but is used to warm the food.  A big piece of waxed paper is placed over the whole table and they pour a mix of seafood and veggies braised in Szechuan pepper and chili.  The best way to eat is with your hands so they provide you with thin plastic gloves, one of which was humorously packaged like condom side by side other designs featuring Chairman Mao and Hello Kitty.   I really miss China but I’m also ready to go home.

Online photos make it appear our vacations and lives are perfect.  The drama is not seen between the photos. A friend of mine occasionally posts pictures of her children crying just to remind everyone, not all is rosy.  In this case, what I was taking a break from Manila is what makes me want to go back.  I miss having problems to solve, tons of work to do.  A part of my mind is with the things I left unfinished back in my country.

But I am truly grateful for the quiet, no-fuss simplicity of this Christmas and New year in northern China.  I get to hug and snuggle more with these two in the freezing cold of winter.

In the Name of Research

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It was a lucky day for our troop getting the research assignment to visit places on our must-see list in Baguio plus sample the food.  First stop was Kidlat Tahimik’s outpouring of love and creativity at the Ili-Likha Artist Village where every corner of the labyrinth was a feast for the eye and soul.  Our favorite was the 7-hour smoked chicken and the smokey bacon that came with it.  If a drive to traffic-choked Session Road is dreadful, perhaps a jaunt to this out-of-place but needed madness will restore our faith in humanity.

Next we went to Arca’s yard whose owner-collector displayed her affinity for all things Baguio to the hilt in a cozy space with a view.   Baguio has a number of these treasures to be discovered, created by people who have made it homier for us who are visiting for a while.  My childhood memories of Baguio have been overshadowed by the unwillingness to drive that long to get to a place far, far from how it was in it’s less-raped state back then.  Good people will always find a way to rescue and restore something that we keep losing.