Thursday, February 27, 2020

Our “New Normal”: Life in Korea During the Coronavirus Outbreak

When I was ten years old, there was a huge flood.  We lived in Dhaka, Bangladesh at the time and though it was the country of my birth, I had never seen anything quite like it.  Sure, Bangladesh flooded pretty much every year.  It’s a very flat land, with rivers cutting through it that are fed by snowmelt from the Himalayas.  The annual monsoons coincide with that melting snow, so the rivers flood and cover much of the country.

But this flood was very different.  Almost no rain accompanied it.  There was just this gigantic mass of water growing every day, creeping ever closer.  It was at the airport, then it was coming down the main highway into town, then it was into our neighborhood, at the crossroad to our street, then inching down the street, then at our neighbors’ house.  

And then it was at our driveway.  Like a strange, living creature, we watched it under a clear night sky, the moon’s reflection on its surface gleaming like mercury as it seeped under the gate.  We stood for several minutes with wide eyes, wondering how far it would come.  Mom told us it was time for bed, but it was hard to fall asleep not knowing what we would wake up to.  

I keep thinking of that flood, as strange as it may sound, as I read the news about the novel coronavirus or COVID-19.  We first heard about it around New Year as it started to affect Wuhan, China, and it’s been inching closer.  Last week, messages started coming in from friends and family: “Are you guys okay?”  We were fine, we told them truthfully, and Daegu is about three hours from where we live near Camp Humphreys.  

My friends in Busan started experiencing shutdowns from the virus after cases were discovered there.  One reported her neighborhood grocery store being cleared out of produce, eggs, and meat.  The school my kids attended when we lived there went on “early spring break.”  I started feeling like that ten-year-old girl again, watching as the floodwater got closer with nothing to hold it back.

It’s not that I’m overly scared of the virus, not for the lives of my direct family — at least, not any more than I fear the flu or even the stomach flu which has sent us to the hospital a couple times.  I hesitate to say anything because there’s a lot of unknown, and I completely understand fearing the unknown.  But based on what I see in statistics, I don’t see a reason to panic.  We aren’t smokers and don’t really have underlying health issues.  I am concerned for those who are immunocompromised or have pre-existing conditions, or live in places with poor medical care.

If I end up wrong and my family does get really sick, please don’t send hate mail or “I told you so” ’s.  My perspective may be skewed by the fact that I grew up with the occasional cobra in my house.  

But also bear in mind, I’ve been through some pretty crazy stuff during my time here in Korea — like two strong earthquakes and a trip to the ER with my very sick son all within 48 hours my first month here, or the shenanigans of our neighbors to the north.  Plus, my family has teased me for years about my hand washing and sanitizing habits that are probably borderline OCD, and now my anxious habit is supposed to be the best method for prevention.

What I do find genuinely alarming is the fear pandemic, the rage and ugly comments on Facebook (especially if someone suggests remaining calm), and the barrage of panic-inducing headlines that  all but scream, “HOW DARE YOU NOT FREAK OUT?!?” 

On Sunday, we went to church, joking about how brave we were for going, but things were still mostly normal.  We skipped the hand-shaking part, where we are supposed to greet those around us, but to be honest, I don’t think most people missed it.  One of my friends told me that some services on post were canceled already, so we were lucky to be there.  We sang songs like “Eye of the Storm,” “It Is Well,” and “Good, Good Father.”  The worship leader picked them weeks ago, but they were perfect given what was on all our minds.   

After finishing the last song of the second service, I said to the rest of the music team, “I hope we’re all here again next week.”  I called Matt (who goes home with the kids after the first service) to say that I’d stop by the commissary to pick up groceries.  “I’m low-key apocalypse shopping,” I joked, but before I left post, I also made sure the car had a full tank of gas.  

All through Monday, I saw angry comments on local Facebook pages from family members, all but demanding that schools be shut down.  That afternoon, I picked up Skyler for an orthodontist appointment.  “They’re saying school will be cancelled by the end of the week,” she said as we drove away from the high school.  I wasn’t surprised, but had that same feeling as I did watching the water. 

Matt came home a few minutes before six, telling me that the garrison commander (GC) was about to do a townhall meeting on Facebook, and I should probably watch.  

What followed was an outline of the “new normal” for everyone here.  I don’t know exactly what to call it — a sort of lockdown/ quarantine/ health curfew kind of thing?  Soldiers can’t go off-post to any of the restaurants or bars in the area, and families are discouraged from it as well besides getting takeout.  No social gatherings of more than 20 people.  Schools are closed base wide with virtual classes starting, and all kids’ activities canceled. 

Canceled?”  Lilly repeated when she heard, a look of panic on her face.  She loves her rock climbing, parkour, and gymnastics classes so much. I nodded.  “For how long?!”  

“Well, this week for sure…” I didn’t know what else to say.  I didn’t want to tell her that this could go on for a while.

Tuesday, I was dreaming about snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef when Matt’s alarm went off.  My eyes opened, and I heard rain falling.  The warm, turquoise water of my dreams was replaced by blankets and a dreary February day.  

“I was having such a nice dream…” I said, closing my eyes again, wishing it back.  I felt a certain sadness, thinking of the contrast between my dream and reality, and our spring break in Thailand that we’ve already bought plane tickets for, wondering if that would even happen now.  

Matt leaned over and kissed me, saying, “Well, I guess you don’t have to get up.  Nothing to rush off to.”  So I lay there for a while, thinking about the contrast to my usual Tuesday which is such an extremely busy day for me, I often have to grab Taco Bell from the food court on base to feed my kids dinner as we dash from one activity to the next. 

The day felt a little odd, like one of those times you’re in a place where you know you don’t belong.  Since Lilly, Wyatt, and Annalee homeschool, it wasn’t that different than normal, other than the pleasant addition of Skyler, but I kept feeling like I needed to go somewhere.  Instead when our work was finished, we made popcorn and watched an old black-and-white movie.  It wasn’t a bad day, but not one I wanted to repeat over and over without knowing when it would end, like a weird Groundhog Day.

We had more news by the end of the day: the garrison commander cancelled church — but we were expecting that.  Then a friend who lives in Hong Kong and has been dealing with this version of living for a few weeks already announced on Facebook that her kids’ school informed them they would continue virtual schooling until April 20th.  April 20th?!?!

Again, the floodwaters.  It was hard not to feel anxiety about the rapid changes and how long they might last.  

As I put the kids to bed, I read them their Bible story for the night.  It was about Jonah and the plant.  Most people who ever went to Sunday school know about Jonah and the big fish (or whale) that swallowed him whole.  But Sunday school never spent a lot of time on the plant.  Basically, Jonah’s all mad because God doesn’t bring hellfire and brimstone to Nineveh, and he goes out to the desert to sulk.  God causes a plant to grow quickly and provide shade from the extreme heat, which of course makes Jonah pretty happy, and then the next day sends a worm to eat it.  Jonah gets all angry at God and says he might as well just die, but God reminds Jonah that he’s not the one who grew the plant; in fact he had nothing to do with it.  Our chaplain preached on this last summer, and I’ve thought about it often — how I never hesitate to claim and enjoy God’s good gifts in my life, but when things get hard I get rant and rage and panic.  

I stared down at the page in front of me, thinking of the tight feeling in my chest, thinking it was funny that this would be the story we would read this particular night.  Most Tuesdays, I’m exhausted by bedtime from a day of mad rushing around.  Instead of panicking about what I felt like I was losing, I could be grateful for quiet day of family time.  I realized I needed to change my heart a little — or a lot.

Here’s what I know: I have an awful lot to be thankful for right now.  

  1. We are healthy — maybe the healthiest we’ve been all winter.  That’s a gift I don’t want to take for granted even though it’s ironic that at our healthiest we can go almost nowhere.
  2. We are together, and together is my favorite.  Jayna is at college, and all this does make me wonder more when we will see her again.  But six of us are here, with our very entertaining dogs.
  3. We are being taken care of.  The GC and other administrative staff here in Korea have an unenviable job right now, trying to keep panic at a minimum and sanity at a maximum while also mitigating risk to a huge group of people.  But they’re actually doing it pretty well, I think. 
  4. There’s a whole lot more — like a cozy home out in the country so that we can go outside without close contact with crowds (since that’s a concern) and a commissary nearby that is staying well-stocked despite the fears.

Here’s what’s hard:

  1. The unknown — mainly, What else is going to happen?  How long will our lives be like this?  I’ve read several articles including this from The Atlantic that suggest this will just be a part of our global health picture from now on.  There are no solid answers.
  2. The huge adjustment to our lives.  Even the library is closed now, a beloved destination for my kids, especially when the air pollution is bad as it frequently is here in Korea. (And I’m talking so bad it could affect our health).  Our world right now is basically our house and the outdoors around it, and the outdoors depends on the air quality.  
  3. Maintaining sanity.  Because of what I’ve listed above, I don’t think I’m alone in saying I have moments where it all gets a bit overwhelming.  I’m not sure exactly how many people are stationed just at Camp Humphreys, but there are also contractors, civilian employees, teachers for the base schools, etc.  It is basically a medium-size town.  And there are more in Daegu and Busan.  We are all trying hard to figure out this “new normal” while keeping our stuff together for those around us.  As I have said, it feels like there is an assault on staying calm.  Not only are there alarming headlines, our phones go off around the clock with emergency alerts from the Korean Emergency Alert System.I ask for prayer:
  1. For health of those in this country that has been my home for over three years and that the precautions would end the spread of the virus.
  2. For the leadership here, that they would know the best ways to deal with all of this.
  3. For the businesses in the area to not suffer too much.
  4. For good air quality days as we wait through this so we can at least enjoy the outdoors.
  5. For patience and sanity for all of us.

What I’m trying to do:

  1. Keep a sense of humor.  It’s not a matter of ignoring the serious nature of what’s going on, but what I think will help us get through this.  Any recommendations for good and funny books or movies is VERY welcome right now.
  2. Keep my family happy and entertained for however long it takes, even on the days we have to stay inside.  Again, ideas welcome, and bonus points for high-energy releases indoors.  At least no one is downstairs from us any more for rowdy dance parties!

So for all those wondering, that’s where we are.  Wyatt climbed into my bed this morning to snuggle as I wrote in my prayer journal and started singing songs from our church service last Sunday.

“Through it all, through it all, my eyes are on You, and it is well with me.”  May it be so.


Thursday, February 20, 2020

Korea Adventures: Our Trip to Paradise (water park, that is)

Sometimes you just can’t find a good enough answer to the question “Why not?”.

That’s what happened the other day when our homeschool group had a field trip planned to Paradise Dogo Spa, a water park and spa built on natural hot springs about thirty minutes from here.  I made the mistake of checking it out online with the kids looking over my shoulder, and immediately they started in with the whole, “Ohpleaseohpleaseohplease, can we go?”  It turned out there was a 50% discount for military off the ticket price!  Bonus: it was an easy thirty-minute drive from my house.  

Why not?  I could think of no good reason.

We ended up enjoying it so much that we went back two weeks later, this past weekend, and when the kids asked if we’d go again, I told them honestly that I plan to!

What’s so great about it?  

— There is so much to do! It truly is a spa/ water park!

There is a large indoor section that includes a jjimjilbang, or traditional Korean spa, located directly by the locker and changing rooms.  But for those who prefer to keep their bathing suits on, there are several large pools mostly interconnected, with different water settings.  There are “neck streams” designed to soothe a home neck muscles, and pools with a variety of jets.  There are little fountains and waterfalls, and areas to swim.  A shallow wading pool has a frog slide for the kiddos.
There’s also a separate area where for 5,000 won extra, you can pay to put your feet in the water with kara rufa fish that eat the dead skin off your feet.  I did this on my second trip to the spa, as it was something I’ve been curious to try since coming to Korea.  It took about half a second to realize that the sensation of dozens of tiny fish swarming my feet and nibbling them was not for me! 

The indoor pools connect through little waterfalls to the outdoor lazy river, or you can also walk through doors to the soaking tubs, interestingly called “Event spas” according to the signage.  Toward the back of the property, there are traditional style soaking tubs.  These reminded me of the nursery rhyme, “Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub,” especially when sitting with my kids in it.  
The other “event spas” have different colored and scented water.  For instance, there was a peach one and lavender, and an olive green one that the sign said was mugwort, which looked like something out of Harry Potter, but I suffered no ill effects.  In fact, I felt a little like an Easter egg, soaking in the different tubs, and though the sign warned of the possibility, none of the color stayed on! Whew!
Also, can I just say, lazy rivers are usually my favorite part of water parks anyway, but a heated lazy river?! YES, PLEASE!  When the tubs got to feeling a little too warm, we’d cool off in the river, which was not too cool!  Besides, walking between the pools through the chilly winter air made everything feel warm by comparison!
The lazy river wraps around a kids’ area with its own soaking tub, slides, and fountains.  There is also a wave pool that the kids enjoyed playing in (while I coasted in the lazy river or watched from an “event spa!” Ahhh, the good life!)  There is also a larger water park area with bigger slides and sprayers and fountains, but it was blocked off and not running either day, probably because I went on weekdays when it was not very crowded.

— It’s so family-friendly! 

I’m always on the lookout for things all my kids can enjoy, especially since we cover such a wide span of ages.  There were so many things for the kids to do, and plenty of attentive lifeguards.  They have a policy that requires kids under a certain height to wear a lifejacket regardless of swimming ability, and everyone who goes in the wave pool has to wear one as well.  They are rented for 5,000 won each. It might seem a little extra, but honestly, it’s nice not feeling like you have to worry about your kids every second.  

— There are plenty of food options.  Outdoors there are two snack bars, including an “Aqua Bar” where you can stand in hot water while you eat your lunch or enjoy a beverage.
 Our first trip there, my kids shared a cheese pizza and French fries there, and the novelty made it really fun for them.  I couldn’t read everything on the menu because it’s in Hangul, but I was able to read “cheese pizza,” and not gonna lie, I’m still high-fiving myself.  

Indoors, there are more options, including traditional Korean fare, and most is written in English as well as Hangul. 
I was even able to order sprout bibimbap.  If you’ve been reading this blog a while, you know that my hunt for vegetarian options in Korea has not always gone so well!  There are also cafe options — coffee and tea beverages, and small desserts like macarons. Mmmm, macarons...

—  They think of everything!  You don’t need to take anything with you besides your bathing suit.  They provide towels (though, just so you’re prepared, these are Korean towels, aka “hand towels,”  or not big enough to wrap around your body unless you’re a toy poodle).  But there is also shampoo, conditioner, and body wash in the showers, as well as lotion, cream, hairbrushes, combs and hairdryers by the mirrors.  What really impressed me, though — maybe more than it should? — was that plastic bags were provided for wet bathing suits!  

— Bonus: I had some Google Translate fun.  You should know how much I love this.  I didn’t even know “temperatureism” was a word.  Is it??
Good to know if you go:

— Your entrance ticket has number that coordinates with a shoe locker.  That locker has a bracelet that will also lock and unlock your clothing locker (same number).  You wear the bracelet for your entire stay and use it as a scanner for all your purchases once inside the spa, including food.  When you leave, you pay the balance for everyone in your party before you’re able to retrieve your shoes.

— You do have to pay for the extras.  For instance, if you want to use some spa services like a facial, you’ll have to pay more.  As I mentioned already, under a certain height, life jackets are required regardless of the child’s swimming ability.  They are also required in the wave pool, even for adults, and you do have to pay more for them.  For a day full of water fun in the middle of winter, I felt like the prices were reasonable.

— Locker rooms are separated by gender.  This is pretty strict.  When I went with fellow mom friends, an attendant took our boys off in the other direction and walked them through the locker room, had them put their clothes away, and helped them get their bracelets, too.  A couple of the boys were under five.  I’m not bothered by this, but I mention it because I know some Americans feel uncomfortable about being separated from their kids.  However, it should be noted that while dressed modestly in public, Koreans are fine walking around their respective locker rooms in the clothes that God gave them.  This makes sense since the jjimjilbang is connected to the locker room and you can see into it if, for instance, your locker is close to that area or you use the bathroom before heading into the water park area (always a good idea, IMO!)  Please, honor their culture and customs.

— I’m not listing entrance prices because to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what we paid per person.  We conducted our transactions using our translation apps, and as usual, some information was not conveyed.  I’m pretty used to that by now.  I can tell you that it averaged out to around 20,000 won per person on a Friday morning.  Prices vary according to the time of day, and the day of the week, etc.

— You can search “Paradise Spa Dogo Asan” in whatever navigation app you prefer.  I used Waze, and a friend used Naver.  We both got there with no issues.  In fact, it was one of the easier drives I have done in Korea, with signage even in English very clearly marking the way as well my navigation assistance.

So now you can see why I loved it so much!  And I can’t wait to go back!
{While you’re here... check out more of our travel around Korea!}

— Our trip to the toilet museum in Suwon
— Busan bucket list about favorite spots in the city where we lived for two years
— That amazing park in Ulsan that I still miss

Friday, February 7, 2020

My Freedom Day

At first glance, this is just a picture of me taken of me earlier this week, being silly while holding a macaron.  I was going to delete it, because it was me goofing around, but just before I did, I stopped myself.  Because this picture, and the moments surrounding it, are actually something of a miracle.

On this day, twenty-seven years ago, I was stepping out into a cold and rainy February day in Northern California — stepping out from a hospital where I’d spent the past almost-month due to an eating disorder.  

I don’t like talking about this time in my life.  It embarrasses me a little, it makes me kind of sad, I worry about what others will think, and I wonder if I do say something, does it even do anyone any good?  

But every time I’ve tried to write this week, this was all I could think about.  So I here I am trying to put what’s on my heart into words — words that I hope and pray help and don’t hurt.

That day that I left the hospital, I was far from “healthy.”  I still weighed less than I should have at that age for that height, and I still had enormous anxiety about control that I would struggle with for another good year or so.  But I was no longer in danger of my heart failing, of actual death, so they let me go home.

Trying to explain the why’s and how’s of what had gotten me to that point would be take longer than I want because that’s not really the reason I’m writing this today.  It was definitely a struggle for control, and a search for value everywhere but where I’d really find it, and like matches being dropped into a tinderbox, everything blew up, way out of my control.  What I can tell you is that it started with me wondering if I could just lose a little weight (weight I absolutely did not need to lose!), because maybe then people would like me more, and it spiraled from there.  

My family was overseas at the time, and I was attending a boarding school.  One of my roommates said one day, “I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘too skinny.’”  She said this when I had a patch of raw skin on my backbone from doing so many sit-ups, and a bone on my sternum was sticking out.  I know now that it was just a dumb thing to say, as I have done many times myself, but at that moment I believed her.  I bought into her words, and I almost died.  

My parents brought me home from the boarding school first, desperate to get me healthy again.  They took me to a psychiatrist in Bangkok who told us I didn’t have any markers for an eating disorder, so I just needed to eat more.

“Do you like milkshakes?” he asked me.  I nodded.  “Do you like peanut butter?”  I nodded again.  “Well, then, my prescription for you is to go out and a get a peanut butter milkshake from Swenson’s.  Do that every day.  You’ll be fine.”  He sat back in his chair and folded his hands on his chest with a satisfied smile.  Case solved.

But... I just couldn’t.  I was trapped in a prison of anxiety that if I listened to him and just ate whatever, my life would spin way out of control.  Already, I told myself, no one liked me (this was also as untrue as my roommate’s words, but when you’re fourteen, you believe these lies), and no one ever would.

I remember Christmas that year and always being cold, even in Thailand, always being so tired.  Everything in my body hurt.  Then one night I had a dream.  I was taken to this hospital.  I could clearly see the pattern on the curtain around the bed, and I walked over to the window and looked down into the courtyard, taking in the fountain below, and the brick wall of the hospital building.  A voice began talking and said very clearly, “You are going to die.  You are never going to have friends, never fall in love, never going to get married, never have children, never see any of your ideas or goals come to pass.”  I started crying, begging for whoever spoke these words to be wrong, begging for a chance to live.  Then I woke up.

My dad took me to California in early January.  I knew I needed help, but I didn’t know how to help myself because “drinking a milkshake” was somehow physically impossible to me.  I literally choked when I tried.  En route, we stopped in Singapore.  The air conditioning in our hotel room made me shiver from cold, so while my dad was watching television, I drew a hot bath.  As I stepped into it, I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror.  We didn’t have a full-length mirror in our home, so this was the first time I’d seen my body in its entirety for quite a while.  

I didn’t like looking in the mirror ever.  I’d believed the boys on my bus in fifth grade who told me for our entire 20-minute bus ride both ways every day that I was the ugliest thing they’d seen and had a hard time disagreeing.  So that evening, I flinched and looked away quickly, but what I’d seen alarmed me, and I looked back. 

I knew then, for sure, there was such a thing as too skinny.  

The reflection in the mirror was just bones with skin over them.  The sore on my back had grown so that most of the skin over the vertebrae in my middle back was raw, and my chest was just bones sticking out at weird angles.  My face looked like little more than a skull.  I stepped into the bath and hid my face from my reflection, sobbing.  This was not what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to get better.  

I slept almost the whole flight back to San Francisco.  I was too tired to fight when my dad drove me to the hospital, and they decided to check me in.  I was taken to a room and as I looked around, terror filled me.  The curtains were exactly the print I had seen in my dream.  I walked to the window, knowing what I would see, but still having a pounding heart as I looked into the courtyard below, seeing the brick wall and the fountain I already knew from my dream.

I cried that night begging my dad to take me home, swearing I would figure out how to get better, that I’d do whatever they said.  I know now how it must have nearly killed my dad to leave me there.

What happened over the next few weeks was that all control was taken from me, then slowly,  in incremental steps, granted back.  I had counted calories before, but now everything was measured: how much I ate and drank, how much I peed.  I was walked down a hall every morning wearing nothing but a hospital gown to be weighed.  It was humiliating.  My heart and blood pressure did crazy things as I began to put on weight so that I was literally bed-ridden for days because my heart could fail if I got up and walked around.  My skin all over my body ached like a bruise, like I’d been beaten everywhere.

The day I left, they told my parents, “She’ll be back.  It might be just once or twice, but she’ll be back.”  Because the people who worked there knew well the prison of eating disorders, and that escaping them is no easy feat.

But I didn’t go back.  I knew that it would mean death.  I fought, and sometimes it felt like an impossible battle, but eventually I was healthy again.  

I’m sharing this — the ugly and terrible and painful and humiliating — because I want you to know just how horrible it was.  I think the term “eating disorder” gets casually tossed around without an understanding of the actual hell it is.  I want you to know that this is the reality of where an unhealthy attitude about eating, and mostly about yourself, can get you.

But also, I truly believe that eating disorders are not at all rare.  I cannot tell you the number of people I’ve heard say, “I mean, it’s not like I have an eating disorder or anything,” but seeing the way food consumes and controls their minds, their lives, I would beg to differ.  True, not everyone gets to the extreme point I got to where actual medical intervention is needed, but I think a lot of us have unhealthy approaches to eating.  Eating disorders don’t always look like a skeletal teenage girl; they have many different appearances.  If you are reading this and can relate at all, please know that you are not alone.

More than that, I feel like eating disorders are looked at by some as “totally crazy.”  I beg to differ.  If things were bad twenty-seven years ago, they’re far worse now.  We live in a world where so much value is placed on appearances and especially on weight.  Numbers are everything to us.  How many followers do I have?  How many people liked that last photo I posted?  And all this can get so muddled up to where it suddenly makes sense that the number on the scale will dictate love and approval.  

It’s strange — on the one hand, that experience feels so far removed from my life now.  I love eating, my hanger is scary and real, and I’m a healthy, happy weight.  I’ve got an amazing and loving husband and a bunch of kids running around.  I weigh myself only at the doctor’s office and almost never think about the number of calories in what I’m eating.  I never do fad diets or even fast for faith purposes.  I make it a point not to say to or in front of my kids, “That food is bad for you!” or “Ugh, I look so fat today,” because I know the slippery slope that kind of talk creates.  I can (and sometimes do) happily try to pretend that it never happened, or dismiss it as “a crazy thing I did.”  

But the thing is, I think any of us can, very easily, be “crazy,” even if it isn’t an eating disorder at all.  I have for years loved the Susanna Kaysen quote from Girl, Interrupted

“Crazy isn’t being broken or swallowing a dark secret.  It’s you or me amplified.”

The truth is, I thank God every day for rescuing me out of the hell that is an eating disorder, but I also know there are daily battles I need to fight with Him to stay on this side of sane.  I think if we are honest with ourselves, that’s true for all of us.

And that’s why I’m writing this.  I might sound like a broken record by the time I finish, but I want everyone who reads this to know: you are NOT alone.  You are not alone, you are not alone, you are not alone...

So even though that time in my life almost seems like a glitch now, even though I don’t want to dwell on that dark time in my life, my heart needed to address it here.  I want you to know that I didn’t just take a picture with that chocolate macaron, I ate it. And as I ate it, didn’t think about fat or sugar or calories; I just thought about how delicious it was.  I didn’t even at the time remember those hospital walls, I just looked at my daughter across the table, laughing about something she had said.

And I tell you, that’s a miracle.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Our Family-Friendly Trip to Vietnam

This picture is one of my favorites from last year.  It was a total scam, one that we knew about before we even took off on our week-long trip to Vietnam last April, and still we were somehow suckered into it.  But I think we’d all agree it was some of the best two dollars we spent.

Here’s the deal: a “fruit vendor” comes up with her hanging baskets and asks if you want a picture.  We (being educated about this scam) say, “No, no, that’s okay,” and she says, “Free! Just take picture! Try!”  And we’re still protesting as she hangs her wares on Skyler’s shoulder and plops her hat on her head. And at that point, we say, “Wellllll... okay, I guess....” and she takes my phone and snaps this picture and then asks for equivalent of two dollars.  I think the only thing we could have done differently was to run the other way, but we had found a rare quiet spot in Hoi An to enjoy some gelato.  So we are two dollars poorer, but we have this amazing picture.

Last week, I hit “purchase” on our plane tickets for spring break this year, and it occurred to me that I never wrote about one of my favorite things we did last year, which was our trip to Vietnam.  Normally I would not do a post about a trip I took nine months ago, but it was so much fun.  Since I’m spending a good chunk of my time daydreaming about warmer climes and making plans and chatting with local friends about their spring break plans, I am pretty sure others are as well.  So I thought that I’d do this long overdue post just to have all the information in one place.

Our itinerary:

Two nights in Hanoi followed by five nights in Hoi An (with day trips to Da Nang).


Our hotel in Hanoi was the Serene Boutique Hotel in the Old Quarter.  

I cannot recommend this place enough.  It was everything I wanted — an intimate atmosphere brimming with personal touches, impeccably clean, beautiful d├ęcor, fantastic location, gracious staff, and an incredibly delicious breakfast included in the rooftop restaurant.  One of our favorite touches was that our rooms came with bowls of fresh fruit that were refilled every day.  We had passion fruit, mangos, guava, rambutan, and mangosteen, all perfectly ripe and delicious.

I had arranged an airport pick-up through the hotel, and after a somewhat frustrating and tiresome experience in the passport line at the airport, it was so nice to walk out and see our van driver waiting for us while others from our flight were still waiting for their rides.  We arrived at the hotel and were greeted by the staff with juice and snacks.  They asked us our names and used them in all our conversations during our time there.  They were incredibly helpful, providing maps and recommendations (which we should have listened to more).  The only problem with our stay is that it kind of ruined our expectations for all hotels since.
Our first night there we walked to dinner through the Old Quarter, which is an experience in and of itself.  There were motor scooters EVERYWHERE.  I mean, I have traveled a lot in my life, and I know the prevalence of scooters in most countries outside the United States, but I can’t think of a time I’ve seen anything like this.  We also passed several small streetside restaurants with short stools pulled up to low tables and the locals gathered around these.  By the time we found the vegetarian restaurant we were looking for (delicious but I don’t remember the name of it) and finished dinner, we were fairly tired so returned to the hotels for baths and bed.

The next day, we were up early thanks to the two-hour time difference.  We headed to the infamous prison Hoa Lo, aka The Hanoi Hilton.  To be honest, I have mixed feelings about taking my young kids there.  I did because I felt like it was educational.  I mean, Matt and I remember how when we were kids (born in the 70’s), Vietnam was almost a bad word.  We didn’t want to dwell on the pain and turmoil of the past, but at the same time, we felt like it was important for context, and it would be the one place directly related to the war that we would see.

There was an almost palpable darkness, though, for lack of a better word.  Some of the displays were a lot to take in, like a guillotine that was used for several years and some photographs and testimonies I don’t even want to describe here because they still turn my stomach.  I mention this because I’ve been asked several times since if I would take the kids there again, and... I’m not sure.  I don’t think it scarred the kids, but they unanimously say it was the worst part of the trip.  If you do plan a trip, just know it will be an extremely heavy experience, and that might be too much for young children.

We spent the rest of the day around the Old Quarter, visiting the beautiful St. Joseph’s cathedral 
and strolling around Hoan Kiem lake, taking in the atmosphere.  Skyler and I got massages in the spa of our hotel, and they were wonderful.  Then I took Skyler, Lilly, and Wyatt to the amazing Bamboo Circus while Matt took Annalee on a rickshaw tour of the Old Quarter since she was below the recommended age for the show.

The next day we got up and walked around some more before heading back to the airport to fly to Da Nang, just taking in the sights, sounds, and atmosphere.  We loved the architectural style, especially around the Old Quarter.  But I have to admit that two days in Hanoi with the bajillion or so scooters 
felt hectic and stressful to navigate especially with the younger contingent of our family.  By the time we left, we were ready for some beach time and a change of pace.

Da Nang/ Hoi An:

We arrived in Da Nang after a short flight that afternoon, and once again, I had pre-arranged a driver to the hotel, which was outside Hoi An but about 45 minutes from Da Nang.  We stayed at the Ally Beach Boutique Hotel.  It had a very different vibe about it, and while still nice, it was a little more basic.  We found an amazing place for dinner, Baby Mustard,
a farm-to-table kind of outdoor restaurant with the most charming garden.  

The next day I met with Tommy Dao of Tommy Dao Tours who had come recommended to me by a friend and was able to arrange two tours for the week.  This was one of the best things I did for our trip.  Our hotel had a tour as well to the same places, but it cost more and meant a longer day with lots of people.  I just couldn’t see doing that with my kids.  Tommy put together itineraries to exactly the places we wanted to visit with a private van for less money.

After spending the rest of the day at the beach, 
we headed to town in the evening.  Hoi An was a bustling and colorful city.  We loved all the lanterns.  This was the night of the photo scam, but honestly, it made us laugh.  We ate dinner at Phi Banh Mi.  It was incredible.  The sandwiches were so good, and our entire dinner cost less than $7!   
Matt headed back to the hotel with the younger kids while Skyler and I stayed in town to shop and explore.

The next day was our first tour.  We visited Ba Na Hills, which is an amusement park with the famous Hands of God bridge.  We were advised to go very early in the day, and while we were waking up early thanks to jet lag, breakfast at the hotel wasn’t served early enough.  I didn’t want to take my kids out on empty stomachs because I knew how tiring and stressful it is to look for food, so we went later than recommended though still quite early.  It was very crowded as you can see from the pictures, but we still got some decent pictures, thanks to our amazing guide.

From there we went to lunch in Da Nang.  Our tour guide took to a vegetarian restaurant with incredible food.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get the name of it.  The price was also low based on the menu, but our lunch was included in our tour price. Da Nang has a very different vibe than that of Hoi An, in spite of the proximity to each other.  Da Nang feels more like Miami Beach (in fact, some call it the Miami Beach of Vietnam) while Hoi An feels older and seems to have more cultural charm.  Both are good in their own ways.

We went to the Marble Mountains and visited a temple and a Buddha in a cave.  It was really beautiful.  I loved the use of broken blue-and-white ceramics, for instance, and the green tile roofs.
Dinner was again at Baby Mustard (why mess with success?), and the next morning, Matt took a quiet day with the younger kids while I went with Skyler on an all-day snorkeling tour to the Cham Islands.  This was the one tour I booked through the hotel, at the recommendation of Tommy.  The younger kids could have come along, but they wanted to stay at the hotel pool and go to the beach.  I think they were nervous about our any boat rides after our terrifying return trip from Fukuoka the year before. (Hahaha!)

I was honestly a little nervous about that too, especially when we arrived at the pier and everyone was loaded into small speedboats with two long benches.  But suddenly, the guide said, “You two!” (motioning to Skyler and I) “This boat over here!” And we were taken to a huge boat that kind of looked like a pirate ship.  It was slower than the others, but much more comfortable.  There were drinks included (we opted for just bottled water), and a sun deck with an awning stretched over it.  I’m still not clear how this happened, if it was a fluke or what we’d paid for, but gosh. It was nice. 

We stopped at one small island after about 1.5 hours on the boat and snorkeled for 45 minutes, went to another island and snorkeled again.  Then we went to another island for lunch. Vegetarian options were provided as well as water (and alcohol if desired, but I don’t really drink), and hammocks where we could watch monkeys scampering around the trees. 

Our last day, we took another tour to a traditional Vietnamese farm,
 rode in a basket boat (I told Matt I felt like baby Moses), 
and then went to lunch at another charming restaurant in town called the Blue Gecko.  That night we girls got mani/ pedis in the hotel spa, then swam.  We biked to Mate Cafe, a little cafe/ restaurant run by our tour guide to Bana Hills.  We were absolutely delighted by the waffles and coconut coffee we had, plus the lime sodas and mango milkshakes. We wished we’d gone there sooner in our trip.

We flew back to Korea the next day, all having loved our time in Vietnam.  My only regrets are that Jayna wasn’t with us (she was at university stateside and couldn’t join us) and that we didn’t hire a driver for a tour in Hanoi, but other than that, I just wish we’d had more time.  It felt like we were going and doing things every day and a busier itinerary would have been more stressful, but we still missed so much — like going to Ha Long Bay.  While we aren’t spending this Spring Break there, we had to fight ourselves to decide to go anywhere else.  We’d go back in a heartbeat.