Cha-cha-cha-changes

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Dog is my navigator

Dog is my navigator

My poor blog.

I think of it often, but for some reason I just cannot make myself sit still long enough to sit down and write posts. There are so many things I want to write about, but I can’t get my act together. I feel particularly bad about this since I LOVE reading other people’s blogs, and almost feel guilty at my consumption-output imbalance.

But I don’t foresee my behavior changing anytime soon, at least not for a while. So this week, while I’ve scrounged up a bit of motivation, I figured I’d do a life update on some of the topics I’ve been meaning to write about.

  • We got a helper… about a year ago

I’m way overdue for a post on this, perhaps in part because I felt uncomfortable writing about it for a while. The subject is such a lightning rod, and I just wasn’t sure I wanted to enter the fray. Crystal at Expat Bostonians has covered the subject of helpers – pros and cons, government initiatives, local vs. expat attitudes, and much more – thoroughly and I highly recommend checking out her blog for more in-depth info. Her own experience with a helper definitely gave me a lot to think about before we made the decision to hire one ourselves.

Helpers are a big part of the social fabric here in Singapore, but I find it’s nearly impossible to explain their role to friends and family back home. I would never use the word “maid” because I picture someone from Downton Abbey waiting on me in a uniform. Generally, we tell people that we have a live-in housekeeper because that’s something they can maybe sort of picture, but LL is much more than that (if we’re extending the Downton Abbey example, she’s Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, Anna & Nanny all rolled into one).

I think it’s fairly uncommon (though not unheard of) for childless couples to have helpers, but this all came about early last year when Avon’s doggy daycare informed me that they’d be shutting down. I’d had a tough time finding dog walkers on the East Coast to begin with, and dreaded having to reinitiate the search. Meanwhile, we were using the cleaning service Mrs. Sparkles to clean our apartment once a week. We were very happy with the job they were doing and the responsiveness of the management team, even if it did cost a bit more ($80/week) than what some of our friends were paying to people under the table.

We’re friends with a couple that also has a dog and had a helper, and they never stopped singing the praises of having someone to cook, clean and look after the dog. We started toying with the idea, particularly since the monthly cost of a helper actually came out to about the same (or maybe even a little less) than what we were paying for doggy daycare + once-a-week cleaning. So I put the word out to a few of the helpers and families in our complex, and asked other friends to be on the lookout to let me know if they heard of anyone looking for a transfer.

Right off the bat, my downstairs neighbor said one of the helpers in our complex who was working for a local family would be looking to move after her contract expired in a few months. The only problem: the helper didn’t have a day off, wasn’t allowed to have a phone, and couldn’t access her passport. Can you believe she was interested in changing employers?

I tried on a few occasions to talk to the helper – usually while I was out walking the dog early in the morning and she was hanging laundry – but she was so terrified of getting in trouble that we could never talk for long. I told her she could knock on our door anytime to come for a chat, and gave her my number if she wanted to text me, but after about six weeks of clandestinely trying to track her down the whole thing felt kind of ridiculous. Although it would have been great to easily hire her to transfer and live within the same complex, she ultimately decided that she wanted to go home to Indonesia when her contract was up, and I certainly can’t fault her for that.

In the meantime, I interviewed a few friends of helpers in our complex, as well as a helper who lived next door to a friend elsewhere on the island. Another friend mentioned to me that the niece of his helper (who worked for his family when he was growing up in Singapore about 20 years ago, and with whom he’s still in touch) was in Manila but looking for a position. She’d previously worked for a local family in Singapore but went back after her contract was up.

I started texting with this woman, and interviewed her over the phone. Of all the people I interviewed, she was the most prompt and forthcoming (a couple others flaked on me when we were supposed to meet up) and, unbeknownst to her, totally got my attention when she said she loved to cook and watch Food Network shows in her spare time. I also met her aunt, who is so sweet and lovely, and liked that she would have family here to help offset homesickness. Finally, I got a good reference from her previous employer (as any red flags would have of course given us pause).

Ultimately, the hubs and I decided to hire LL (I’m not going to share her full name), even though it added a bit of work and extra cost on our end to coordinate the immigration/work permit stuff in comparison to hiring a transfer helper already in Singapore. What shocked me most was all the stuff I was told by various employment agencies (it’s nearly impossible to coordinate the immigration stuff yourself); from what I can gather there just seems to be corruption and extra cost at every juncture, from the handlers in the helpers’ native country to here in Singapore (where we have to pay a monthly $265 “levy”). And the helpers see none of this extra cost. One agency told me we could avoid hefty charges in Singapore by having LL enter the country on a tourist visa (essentially she would have to lie to the immigration officials who apparently conduct sweeps of Singapore-bound flights in Manila). Another told me they had a priest in Cebu who could bring women into Singapore as “religious workers.”

This was all far too clandestine for our taste, as we certainly didn’t want to break laws nor get LL into any trouble. Ultimately we used Universal Employment Agency to coordinate the paperwork. I feel like we paid them an awful lot considering we hired LL directly, but they were efficient and above-board, which we appreciated. It’s still crazy to me that helpers are expected to cover much of these costs (often they pay the first 8 months of their salary directly to the agencies) in what basically amounts to indentured servitude. We didn’t feel comfortable with this and covered all the costs directly.

LL arrived last March, and pretty much from the moment she walked through the door (when she bent down, smiling, to meet Avon and happily scratched him behind the ears) she’s been wonderful. She really is an amazing cook (I can give her any recipe and, like magic, our kitchen is filled with delectable smells when we come home from work at night. We eat so much healthier because – unlike me – she can competently cook vegetables and put together tasty salads). She keeps the apartment tidy. She walks Avon during the day and at night when I have to stay late at work or go elsewhere (and he loves her). She has alleviated so much stress from our lives, and at the same time totally enriched them.

LL is honest and trustworthy and kind, and we feel very fortunate that the situation has worked out as well as it has (knock on wood!). Very rarely something might get lost in translation, and sometimes it’s hard to remember that I am managing an employee, but she is smart and has been patient enough to roll with my sometime-forgetfulness. I definitely want to give a shout out to Naomi, who provided me with lots of fantastic tips on setting the ground rules in our relationship and creating a structure and routine that works for everyone. Her tips have been invaluable and really helped us get off on the right foot.

There is still a lot about the helper situation in Singapore that baffles, even disturbs me. These are women who leave home (including, often, their own children) to work hard and support their families through incredible personal sacrifice. And yet local attitudes sometimes treat them at best like children who can’t think for themselves, and at worst like sub-humans.  I know some of our neighbors think we’re crazy for letting LL have a day off every week (um, it’s the law), or giving her a cell phone. They might be shocked to hear she has her own bedroom with TV and Internet. The way the hubs and I see it, we appreciate the hard work that she does, we want her to be happy and comfortable in our home, and it’s as simple as that.

  • We bought a car

It depresses me to think of what kind of car (or cars!) we could have bought in the U.S. for the same price as our used Volkswagen. As the hubs pointed out to his parents a few weeks ago, we could have comfortably purchased a house in Cleveland for the same price! But alas, Singapore’s got the 100% import tax, and the super-fun COE. As of a couple weeks ago, it costs between SGD $70,00-$80,000 to register a new car, and that 10-year registration is pro-rated even for used cars. We find it’s best not to dwell on all of this for too long, lest we fall into a deep depression.

So why did we do it? Well, we love it here, and don’t have any plans to move back home in the next few years. This feels like putting down roots. We wanted the flexibility to explore more on the weekends (especially with the dog), and to commute to work together. The lack of etiquette on public transportation has nearly made my head explode on a few occasions (more on that below). Singapore is already a convenient and efficient place, but having a car has so far upped the convenience factor considerably.

And last but not least …

Week 26 with Avon

  • We’re growing our family

Yup, much to Avon’s chagrin, we’re expecting a baby [girl] to arrive in a few months’ time, in early June.

The hubs and I are so happy and excited. Pregnancy is another thing about which I’ve wanted to write dozens of blog posts, but at the same time just didn’t feel quite comfortable going public with it. The first 12 weeks are so tough, because on the one hand the news is new and exciting and you want to scream it from the rooftops, but on the other you live in constant fear that you could lose the baby at any moment. (As an aside, I can’t recommend highly enough the book Expecting Better by Emily Oster, if for no other reason than the page 72 chart “Miscarriage Rates by Week of Prenatal Visit” provided a useful countdown to alleviate my fears as the first trimester went by).

A few of my close friends here gave birth in the past year, and a couple others are due right around the same time, so it’s been nice being able to seek out lots of advice and wisdom even though our families are on the other side of the world.

I think I’ll do a separate post with more pregnancy-related specifics and the requisite week-by-week (in my case it’s more like month-by-month) bump shots, but a few quick thoughts on being pregnant in Singapore:

Compared to the U.S.: Obvs I’ve only been pregnant here, but apparently the fact that we get an ultrasound during every monthly doctor’s visit is pretty crazy, since in the US most normal pregnancies seem to only entail two or three.

While there is plenty of baby crap available for purchase here, it is NOTHING compared to the U.S. I’m mostly thankful for this so as to avoid being overwhelmed, although stuff in the U.S. is also a lot cheaper and more readily available (part of why I’m going home next week for a baby shower/shopping trip).

Again I can’t yet say how people in the U.S. would treat me, but I can say my Chinese co-workers, neighbors and the security guards in our condo all clearly think I’m crazy for running on the treadmill (or really doing much exercise as all). I plan to do a separate post about exercising during pregnancy (spoiler alert: I’ve felt great throughout and I think it’s a big part of why I never had morning sickness and avoided the brutal fatigue that so many people experience) but needless to say I think it’s one area where Western and Eastern attitudes greatly differ. (Perhaps the most glaring example of this: in a childbirth class at a local HOSPITAL, my friend was told that the more soy sauce she consumed, the darker her baby would be).

The biggest difference from home, though, is the much-welcome presence of LL. All that scary stressful stuff you hear about bringing home a newborn – you never have time to sleep, or shower, or cook, or clean the house – seems a lot less daunting because she’ll be around. This is not to say that we don’t plan on taking care of the baby overnight and handling feedings around the clock or anything, but it’s SO nice to know that someone will be there to take Avon for a walk, or clean messy clothes or sheets, or watch the baby for an hour if I feel the need to take a nap. I feel so grateful knowing we’ll have that safety valve.

On public transportation: I briefly alluded to this above, but I would say that people offer up their bus/train seats (yes, even the specially-designated priority seats for pregnant women, the elderly, handicapped, and small children!) less than 50% of the time. I guess their mobile phones are just far too fascinating! On a few occasions I’ve just blatantly asked people to give up their seats, but sometimes I’ll just stand there and stare incredulously at the 22-year old guy who pretends to be so engrossed in his phone that he doesn’t notice my protruding belly inches from his face. Sometimes I’ll snap photos of these offenders and tell myself I’ll start a Tumblr of SMRT shame; even that doesn’t get their attention, though! This has by far been the most frustrating aspect of being pregnant in Singapore. I feel like people in New York or Boston would be more polite about this, but obviously can’t say for certain. I will, however, call total bullshit on the recent government claims that 94% of people would give up their train seats. The fact that the LTA even needs to launch a “graciousness” campaign speaks volumes about how rude people can be on public transport (yes, even when pregnant, I continue to get elbowed and shoved in the butt by old ladies who just HAVE to be the first one off the bus. KIASU OR DIE!). Ok, rant over. Like I said, having the car has ameliorated this issue and I’m grateful for it.

**

So yeah, I’d say our lives have changed a great deal in the past year, and they’re sure to change even more in the coming months. It’s crazy to think we’re approaching our 3-year Singapore anniversary, and even more nuts that we’ve now been living abroad for going on five years. Five years ago I never would have guessed this was where we’d be, but I can say I’m extraordinarily happy, and grateful, to be here.

2012: The Year in Travel (Part 3)

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Yesss!! At least I’m wrapping up the series just one year later, rather than two. (After I published part 2 last night, the hubs read it and was like, “Wait, didn’t you go to Hanoi, like, two years ago? And you’re only writing about it now?” Cue embarrassed face).

August: Hong Kong

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I flew through Hong Kong once before, but this was my first legit trip there. I went for a couple work meetings, then the hubs flew up to meet me so we could explore the city over the weekend.

Where we stayed: Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong. As you may have gathered by now, the hubs and I kind of have a thing for staying at great hotels. In Hong Kong we figured that meant staying at either The Peninsula (the original!) or The Mandarin. While we might have slightly preferred The Peninsula because we love the whole historic grandeur thing, it was undergoing renovation and the open part was fully booked, so our decision was made for us anyway (guess we’ll just have to go back some time!). Anyway, our room was very nice (favorite amenity: the roll-on relaxing jet lag balm), service was excellent, and the location is ultra-convenient to Central Hong Kong. There was a lot of construction going on around the hotel so that was kind of a drag, but we still had a very nice stay.

What we did: Took the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour; walked around Kowloon; rode the crazy-long Escalator up through the Mid-Levels; had Friday night drinks in totally nutso Lan Kwai Fong (I’ve not seen so many sloppy drunk British people since I went to uni in Edinburgh); had shoes (Jimmy Choo & Christian Louboutin knock-offs) made to order at Lii Lii; took a taxi to the top of The Peak and rode the tram down.

Waiting for the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour from Central

Waiting for the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour from Central

What we ate: I went out to a fabulous dim sum lunch (pictured at the top) with my co-workers, and also enjoyed some ultra-delicious black sesame soup (one of my very favorite desserts these days!). The hubs and I enjoyed what I would consider probably a Top 3 meal of my lifetime at Bo Innovation, which I initially heard about through No Reservations. Every single dish on the tasting menu was so incredibly inventive (and tasty!). Finally, on the Sunday morning before we left we also had traditional Sunday morning dim sum with my colleague Rainbow. It was fun eating at a big round table and seeing all the families getting together around us.

The Bo Innovation tasting menu

The Bo Innovation tasting menu

At Bo Innovation: "Bubble tea" with mango, hawthorn and chili

At Bo Innovation: “Bubble tea” with mango, hawthorn and chili

I enjoyed Hong Kong, and was certainly eager to visit since it so often seems to be compared with Singapore as the other great Asian financial capital for expats. While it certainly feels a bit more like a real city and had the energy and grittiness of New York that I sometimes miss, I still prefer the tropical languor and greeness of Singapore, I think. (I also like our airport better). I love the gorgeous views afforded by Hong Kong’s hills, though, and envy the hiking they can do on nearby Lantau. And I loved being able to check the baggage for my flight at the Airport Express counter right in the middle of the city. The multiple typhoon warnings and never-ending subway tunnels (seriously, it takes like 10 minutes to get from the street to a subway platform)? Not so much.

September: Boston (with a quick stopover in London). 

I covered my trip home for my Grandmother’s funeral last year so won’t re-hash it again, but who would’ve ever thought the 7-hour flight between London and Boston would come to feel so brief?

October: Bangkok

The hubs and I went back to Bangkok for a weekend lacrosse tournament, played with the Singapore Lacrosse Association (which is totally booming these days if any players out there are keen to join in!). The men’s team won both their games, while unfortunately us women lost in overtime to Hong Kong, 9-8. Ah well, it was still fun to get out there and run around. We stayed at Sofitel So Bangkok again (I told you I loved it!). The only thing I don’t like about the hotel is that it’s on Sathorn Road, where traffic can often grind to a painful standstill (like, sit at the same light for more than an hour), and it’s not convenient to the Skytrain. It’s an easy walk to the subway and Lumpini Park, though.

The view we woke up to at Sofitel So Bangkok, not bad amirite?

The view we woke up to at Sofitel So Bangkok, not bad amirite?

On Sunday morning before flying out we hit up Chatuchak Weekend Market, which has got to be one of my favorite spots in Bangkok (besides Health Land Spa, of course).

November: Bangkok again & Siem Reap, Cambodia

Thank goodness Thailand gives visas on arrival; I can’t imagine traveling there as often as I do and having to go through the annoying process of, like, Vietnam or something. Anyway, the hubs and I went for yet another weekend for his firm’s Asia-wide lawyers’ retreat.

Where we stayed: The Sukhothai, a lovely resort-like hotel that’s actually right down the street from Sofitel So on Sathorn Road. (Jackpot! I could walk to Health Land!). The hotel is low-rise and has a very mellow, boutique feel that makes you forget you’re surrounded by skyscrapers in a business area. I thought our room was very comfortable, and the breakfast buffet was great.

What we did: While the hubs was in meetings got a couple massages at Health Land (seriously, THB 280 / ~$8 for an hour-long foot massage?! THB 500 / $15 for a 2-hour traditional Thai massage?! In an upscale, comfortable setting that all my Thai clients personally recommend?! YES PLEASE!). If you should find yourself in Bangkok and looking for a good foot massage, get thee to Health Land asap.

But I digress. We also had a very nice private dinner at Vertigo Restaurant on the roof of Banyan Tree Bangkok (right next to The Sukhothai) — fortunately it didn’t rain. The rooftop definitely offers some of the awesomest views of anywhere in Bangkok.

We also did an “Amazing Race” team building activity that took us down the river and through some interesting markets. The overly-competitive side of me took issue with a few parts of how the company runs the competition, but it was still an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon (until a torrential downpour flooded the streets and we had to ride through them in tuk tuks — but that’s Bangkok for you). It was nice of the firm to include spouses and children in the activity, and I enjoyed getting to spend time with some of my husband’s work colleagues.

At the end of November we returned to Siem Reap, Cambodia to run in the Angkor Wat Half Marathon (10k) again. Because the race is so popular, flights from Singapore sell out months in advance so we actually had to leave on Wednesday even though the race isn’t run until Sunday. Not that I’m complaining; we got a chance to re-visit one of our very favorite hotels, ate lots of good food, and hit up some further-afield sites we hadn’t seen before.

Where we stayed: For the first three nights, the hubs and I stayed at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor (which we visited on our pseudo-honeymoon in 2009 and absolutely LOVED). I’m happy to report that the hotel still has the lovely lobby filled with tinkling music and the scent of lemongrass, and that the gorgeous pool is still a picturesque and lovely place to while away an afternoon. And the staff is just superb — so friendly and gracious (and they gave us a cake to welcome us back on our “anniversary”!).

At the Raffles in Siem Reap. Maybe my favorite pool in the world.

At the Raffles in Siem Reap. Maybe my favorite pool in the world.

Because the Raffles was filled up over the weekend during the race, we moved down the street to Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Resort. I think we just might be spoiled by the Raffles, but neither the hubs nor I was a huge fan of this hotel, despite its ace ranking on TripAdvisor and tons of accolades from Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure. Granted, the grounds are beautiful, and I was really impressed that the pastry chef left good luck cookies and chocolates in our room on the night before the race, but our room was nothing special, and we had trouble finding open chairs by the pool (which was also less-than-relaxing due to a preponderance of screaming kids). I don’t object to kids playing at a hotel pool, it’s just too bad there aren’t separate areas for kids and adults as there are at many other resorts we’ve visited.

What we did: Aside from the race itself (the hubs’s very first race — I was so proud of him for running it! And I came in third!), we enjoyed a number of delicious meals with some of our friends who’d also come over from Singapore to run the race. I also visited the “River of 1,000 Lingas” with our old guide friend Tek, and we enjoyed a lovely evening of all-you-can-eat Cambodian BBQ with Tek, his wife and daughter. I was hoping to volunteer again with the Ponheary Ly Foundation, but unfortunately the kids were out on school holidays. All the same, Siem Reap is such a fun town and such a pleasure to simply walk around.

December: Bali

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Since the hubs and I knew we’d be going home twice in 2013 for his siblings’ weddings, we decided to stick close by for Christmas. Since he’d never been to Bali, and since the weather seemed like it would be OK (compared to Vietnam and Borneo, which are also on our list), we gave it a shot and were quite happy with how it worked out.

Where we stayed: The Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay. I’d visited here once for work and have to admit I was pretty enchanted. Every room is a private pool villa overlooking the ocean, and of course the Four Seasons is renowned for its topnotch service. We loved our villa — between the outdoor living room with daybed (perfect for naps!), the spacious plunge pool, the sumptuous canopy bed, and the outdoor shower, I would have been perfectly content to spend our entire 4-day vacation here. (Don’t worry — we did leave occasionally). Our room rate also came with a free massage, and the spa is amaaaahzing. The downsides: it takes forever to drive anywhere in Bali, and Jimabaran is a bit isolated if you want to go to Seminyak (anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour away) or Ubud (1.5 – 2 hours). The resort has a few restaurants (expensive for Bali, as you’d expect) but Jimbaran’s famous strip of on-the-beach seafood restaurants are also a short walk down the beach (be careful, these prices can add up too, as we learned when eating lobster on Christmas Eve!).

Seminyak Sunset from Potato Head Beach Club

Seminyak Sunset from Potato Head Beach Club

What we did: Visited BARC Animal Refuge in Ubud with my friend who lives in Bali; went for a light trek around Jimbaran (so beautiful); took a guided bike ride around nearby Ayana Resort (and its famous Rock Bar); enjoyed sunset drinks at Potato Head Beach Club in Seminyak; went shopping in Seminyak (the world’s best destination for cute dresses, I’m convinced); ate delicious babi guling at Ibu Oka in Ubud; spent 90 minutes waiting to get a visa at the Bali arrival (I’m happy to report that the new airport has finally opened and the visa situation is now much-improved).

Whew! I made it. Fortunately I’m a bit more caught up on 2013 (having already written about my trip to Shanghai in February and a bit about my trek in Nepal in April/May), but hopefully at some point I can recap the wonderful trip we took to Beijing and the Great Wall in July, or even our two trips home in May and August. We’ve got a bit less travel on tap for 2014, but I’m still hoping to visit at least one new country to keep my streak going.

In the meantime, we will continue to be thankful for all the wonderful opportunities we’ve had to travel here, and wish everyone out there a happy, travel-filled 2014!

2012(!): The Year in Travel (Part 2)

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Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto

Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto

Hey Everybody! How’ve you been for the past, oh, 7 months or so? Apologies for my extended absence. This year has flown by (in a good way), and once again I guess that’s just meant I’ve been too busy (and yes, at times, lazy) to update my poor neglected blog.

But I refuse to let 2013 end without another post or two! So, I’m going to do a speed round-up continuation of a travel post I started nearly a year ago (!). By the way, I hope everyone has had a wonderful holiday season. The hubs and I just returned from Bali (where we also went last Christmas, as you’ll see below), and despite rain for 3 of the 5 days we were there, we had a very nice, relaxing time. Even after nearly three years in Singapore, I can’t believe we’re just a 2-hour flight away from places like Bali. We are so lucky to live here.

Without further ado, here are the great places I went in 2012!

Romonea Pool Sunset

February: Hanoi, Vietnam
In Hanoi's Old Quarter

In Hanoi’s Old Quarter

I went to Hanoi with my Mom (it’s about a 4-hour flight from Singapore) and met up with her best friend from Boston before they headed out on a 2-week trip around the region. I spent the weekend there and had plenty to do, but word to the wise: if you go in February, bring a warm coat and sweaters. It’s not only chilly (probably 40s-50s), but also damp, and nothing is heated. Even in shops and restaurants people are always wearing their winter coats.

With my Mom (right) and her best friend outside the Presidential Palace

With my Mom (right) and her best friend outside the Presidential Palace

Where we stayed: Hanoi Elegance Diamond. This hotel is PERFECTLY located in the Old Quarter, about a block from the lake and convenient to everything. The Elegance chain was actually recommended to me by a travel agent client; the rooms are comfortable, modern and clean, and I was particularly impressed by both the friendliness of the staff and how excellent their English was (better than when I stayed at the InterContinental in HCMC). Both this hotel and its sister, Elegance Ruby, get excellent reviews on TripAdvisor, where you’ll notice that local hotels tend to outshine the big international brands (which is fairly unusual). It doesn’t hurt that we paid about $100 for our room, whereas the Intercon or Sofitel Metropole will typically run you $300-$400.

What we saw: We hired a local guide through our hotel and visited famous sites like Ho Chi Minh’s home & mausoleum; St. Joseph’s Cathedral; the Temple of Literature; and West Lake. My mom and I also took a nice stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake (I imagine this would be especially lovely in the spring, fall, or summer — it was nice in winter although everything was very grey), and we got in some good shopping on Hang Gai Street. I got the cutest dresses made to measure from a tiny little boutique called Ngoc Anh; I only wish I could go back to get more clothes!

At Ho Chi Minh's former house

At Ho Chi Minh’s former house

What we ate: Pho (of course!); Bun Cha and Xoi Xeo street food stalls that I sought out courtesy of Hanoi Top 10; and a plethora of delectable local dishes at Quan An Ngon (which I admittedly also ate at in HCMC, and yes it’s a little touristy, but the food is delicious and high-quality and the setting is lovely). We also took a taxi to a rather obscurely-located restaurant that my Mom saw recommended in the New York Times, but I can’t recall the name of it, only that it was hard to find, hard to get a taxi afterwards, and incredibly cold throughout the meal.

Pho 24 -- the McDonalds of Vietnam

Pho 24 — the McDonalds of Vietnam

April: Australia & Bangkok
I went back to Australia for a few days of work meetings, and it was really fun getting to catch up with all my old colleagues in our Sydney office. Unfortunately it rained, unrelentingly, until the very last day so I didn’t get to do as much as I’d hoped. Fortunately I was able to catch up with old colleagues for dinner in our old neighborhood of Darlinghurst, and I got in one good run at Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, which is still my favorite running spot in pretty much the entire world. It’s hard to beat Sydney weather on a good day, and I had a particular appreciation for the coolness and lack of humidity after living in Singapore.

It's tough to beat this view when you come around the bend from Mrs. Macquarie's Chair on a good run

It’s tough to beat this view when you come around the bend from Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair on a good run

Where I stayed: The Menzies, an Accor Hotel (booked through work). I was never a fan of Australian hotels; they are so dated (TVs are often old, Wi-Fi is rarely free, and you get zero bathroom amenities) and overpriced. This hotel has a decent location (right next to a train station in the middle of the CBD, however everything in the Sydney CBD closes at night), but otherwise I was underwhelmed.
On my final night, while waiting an inordinate amount of time for the train in Kings Cross to bring me back to the hotel, I made a list of things I did and didn’t miss about living in Australia. I planned to spin this off into its own blog post, but oops! Here’s the list, though:

Things I miss
  • Smell of eucalyptus
  • Gorgeous flowers throughout the year
  • Everyone calling everyone else darling
  • Enthusiastic Aussie friends
  • Cockatoos
  • The view from Mrs Macquarie’s chair
  • Coopers Sparkling Ale
  • Turkish toast in the morning
  • The perfect temperature
  • Raspberry bullets
  • Laid back style
  • All the space — the Domain seemed to stretch out in front of me for miles
  • So many good looking people
Things I don’t miss
  • Violent drunk people (knives, screaming FUCK loudly from the train)
  • Constant rain for 2.5 straight days
  • Homeless people harassing you on Victoria Street
  • $4.60 for a smelly train (8 minute wait!) one stop each way
  • $4.80 bottle of water at 711
  • $2.30 can of Diet Coke
  • $20 cab rides
  • Too-strong sun
  • Crappy hotel amenities
  • Pre-made sandwiches
  • The hills
  • Rugby games from the 90s playing on Primetime TV
How Singaporean do I sound complaining about the 8-minute train wait?!

In April I went to a Bangkok for a week of meetings with clients. I’ve been to Bangkok many times so there’s not much to re-has tourist-wise, but there were two highlights I’d like to mention:

Where I stayed: Sofitel So Bangkok, which had only opened about a month previously. I LOVE this hotel; the rooms are so stylish with amazing views of Lumpini Park, and each of the on-site bars is really cool. There’s a delectable chocolate shop on the ground floor (I highly recommend buying a jar of one of their handmade chocolate spreads), and the breakfast buffet is delicious. And not a bad view from the rooftop pool, right?
The pool at Sofitel So Bangkok

The pool at Sofitel So Bangkok

Where I ate: I had a fantastic French tasting menu at the chef’s table within Sofitel So, Park Society. (Funny story: my co-worker tried to make a booking but was told the restaurant was full, then she ran into one of the chefs in the elevator, where he proceeded to totally hit on her and insisted that we could get a booking after all. Voila!). Some of our clients also took us to a wonderful meal at Patara Fine Thai Cuisine in the very cool neighborhood of Thong Lor. The food is delicious (they actually have locations around the world, including a recently-opened outpost in Singapore), but the best part was the gorgeous setting, which is basically a lush tropical garden strung with fairy lights. You totally forget you’re in the middle of Bangkok.

June: Japan & back to Bangkok

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The trip we took to Japan was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. In total I spent about two weeks there (four days for work, and 9 days on holiday), and visited Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. The country is so fascinating (and clean!), the food is ridiculously awesome (so varied, and all so good), and the people are so gracious and kind. Pretty much the only two things I didn’t like about Japan were 1) The insanely expensive taxis (it costs, like, $250 to take a taxi from Narita into Tokyo — which I why I took the bus) and 2) The crazily complicated addresses that no one – not even taxi drivers – can discern. From what I can gather, street numbers are based not on where it’s located on the street, but rather when a building was built. Um, what?

I couldn’t possibly recall everything that we saw and did, but here are some highlights:

-A company dinner with all-you-can-drink sake and countless “Kampais!”
-Late-night karaoke in Tokyo singing “Turning Japanese” with my Japanese colleagues
-A day trip to the beautiful city of Kamakura, famous for its hydrangeas, artwork, and temples (we also had lunch at a Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant, which would normally be so my jam, but unfortunately I was still hurting from the aforementioned night-of-too-much-sake)
A bamboo forest in Kamakura

A bamboo forest in Kamakura

-A ride on the Nozomi Bullet Train from Tokyo to Osaka
-Strolling along Osaka’s 2.6km Shinsaibashi shopping arcade
-Nightlife in Osaka’s Dotonbori area
-The seemingly infinite, serene temples of Kyoto
-Strolling along Kyoto’s lovely Philosopher’s Walk by myself, in the rain (the poor hubs was sick in bed for most of our time in Kyoto)

Kyoto's Philsopher's Walk

Kyoto’s Philsopher’s Walk

-Kyoto’s historic Gion District
-Every Japanese department store (Takashimaya in Singapore is such a poor carbon copy of the Tokyo version!), which seems to be at least 10 floors and features the most beautiful gift-wrapping
-The Japanese obsession with stationery (which I share); not only did I spend about 90 minutes marveling at the legendary Ito-ya, but even every 7-11 has a dedicated stationery section!
-Japanese showers (and the robotic toilets)
-Attending a Japanese baseball game with friends at the Tokyo Dome. Between the sushi & noodles ballpark food, the brass band that played throughout, the individual song that the crowd chanted for each player, and the high quality of play, this was one of the most fun baseball games I ever attended.
The crowd goes wild for Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants

The crowd goes wild for Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants

Where we stayed: Man oh man are Japanese hotels fantastic! They are also quite expensive (and unfortunately the yen was at a high when we were there), but the service and amenities are so outstanding you almost forget about the cost.

In Tokyo during my work meetings, I stayed at the b Akasaka, a client hotel of our team in Japan. The rooms weren’t huge, but the bathrooms & amenities were great, the location is convenient to a subway stop, and the complimentary breakfast and free Wi-Fi were nice, too.

When the hubs joined me in Tokyo, we treated ourselves with a stay at The Peninsula Tokyo, which just might be the best hotel I’ve ever stayed at. The rooms were MASSIVE, service was impeccable, the location is super-convenient to both shopping in Ginza and sightseeing at the Imperial Palace, and the bathrooms were nothing short of insane. I mean, here’s a picture I took of the Red Sox playing on the TV in our bathroom:

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In Kyoto, we stayed at The Hyatt Regency Kyoto. According to my Japanese colleagues, this is the nicest hotel in Kyoto, and it was quite lovely, but somehow I didn’t love it (perhaps because a typhoon blew through so I associate our stay with torrential downpours and wind). The lobby was always full of Americans using the Wi-Fi on their iPads, it was kind of depressing. I think if I should ever stay in Kyoto again, I’d opt for a more locally-flavored (if also expensive) ryokan.
 
Finally, we stayed at The St. Regis Osaka, which comes a close second to The Peninsula for its wonderful-ness. The rooms were equally gorgeous, and the hotel has a super fantastic location right on top of a subway station. I really liked Osaka — the restaurants, shopping and nightlife are all great, and the public transportation system is really good (Japanese trains totally live up to the hype). We actually visited because my grandmother was born in Osaka and I wanted to see if we could find any remnants of where she and my great-grandparents once lived, but most of the present-day city seems to have been built since World War II, so no dice. All the same, I really enjoyed Osaka and look forward to visiting again with my parents when they come back to Asia next month.

What we ate: 
Again, this is just off the top of my head and I’m surely missing some things, but highlights I recall include:

-Okonomiyaki (savory, slightly sweet, friend noodle pancakes that are beyond description) at Tengu in Osaka (courtesy of this CNNGo article)
-Super-delish, cook-your-own meat at Matusakagyu Yakiniku M in Osaka:
According to my carnivorous husband, that marbling is gorgeous.

According to my carnivorous husband, that marbling is gorgeous

-Michelin-starred tempura at Yoshikawa Inn in Kyoto (I loved it – particularly the gorgeous private room setting overlooking a Japanese garden – but the hubs thought there was far too much fish involved. It seems like it would be an amazing place to stay as well).
-Mouthwatering pork tonkatsu at Maisen in Harujuku (such great shopping!), Tokyo. Here’s a great post about if from popular Singapore foodie blogger Lady Iron Chef.
-Greatest ramen of my life at Ippudo in Tokyo (get your Google Translate ready!). This is a chain with multiple locations – including one in Singapore – but the hard-to-find Ebisu location was just amazing (I also ate at the Ginza shop).
Ippudo Ramen: Mouth...is...watering

Ippudo Ramen: Mouth…is…watering

-Unbelievably fresh sashimi at what was essentially a hidden shack deep within Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market. No, we didn’t show up at 3am for the tuna auction, but my wonderful Japanese colleague Yukiko did treat us to what she calls her “secret spot” and we enjoyed a seemingly endless parade of sashimi, crabs and grilled fish in a private room (in fact, I think we were the only customers allowed in at all for lunch). It was simply amazing.

Fresh sashimi by Tsukiji Fish Market

Fresh sashimi by Tsukiji Fish Market

-Best of all, sushi at Kyubei in Tokyo. According to Yukiko, this was Steve Jobs’s favorite sushi restaurant in Tokyo, and judging by the surroundings it was certainly popular with Japanese businessmen. Check out the list of reservations that we found upon arrival:
At Kyubei: which one of these bookings is not like the others?

At Kyubei: which one of these bookings is not like the others?

Since we didn’t have the time or patience to try for Sushi Jiro, we thought this would be a good option since it was also close to our hotel, and both the hubs and I LOVED it. Not only did the owner personally greet us (while also proudly presenting us with a print out of this WSJ article, which was adorable), but the chef (who spoke great English) talked us through the entire meal while we marveled at the counter (such a treat!). Neither my words nor my photos would do this meal justice, but I would describe the sea urchin as “a party in my mouth” and would convey the freshness of everything by mentioning how the shrimp literally jumped off my plate, even after its head was cut off.

I absolutely loved Japan, and am so excited to go back again over CNY in January (and yay for the yen being much lower against the dollar this time around!).

The day I got back from our epic Japan trip in June, I took a taxi home, emptied out my suitcase, re-packed, and headed back to the airport for another work trip in Bangkok. Nothing too exciting to report on, other than the hotel.

Where I stayed: Sofitel Sukhumvit. Like Sofitel So, this one has just opened up so the rooms were very nice, if more conventional and a bit less stylish than at So (fair enough, it’s a slightly different brand). I personally don’t like the Sukhumvit area – it’s crowded, dirty, and kind of dark since the elevated BTS line runs right down the middle of the street – but the hotel is ultra-convenient to the skytrain as well as the popular Terminal21 shopping mall. A lot of people also like the sleazy nightclubs in Sukhumvit and I know that’s a big draw in Bangkok but again, not really my scene.

Ok, I think I need to break this up into one more post! Coming in Part 3: Hong Kong, Bangkok (twice more!), Siem Reap and Bali…
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