bikes planes and automobiles · Travelogue · Vietnam · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 1093: Clickbait

If I wrote my blog like clickbait headlines:

We thought we could get away with one fewer backpack, when this happened…
(The seamstress brought us a gift of Vietnamese coffee and one of their metal filters and we had to pull out an extra bag to carry it in.)

This family almost managed to sneak an extra carry-on through the gate, until the airline employee said this:
(“Please put your guitar in the sizer. Nope, too big. Yes, I know it’s a musical instrument. You still have to check it. And how many carry-ons? You’re six people and I see three… four… five… six… seven suitcases. You have to check some of these.”)

A woman with a cane gets onto a crowded shuttle bus to the airplane to find no empty seats. Wait ’til you see what happens next!
(Mr. December asked a guy to move so I could sit down. The guy moved, I sat down, everything was fine.)

The family makes a quick exit from the plane and then THIS happens…
(One of our brand-new spinner suitcases took a went for a spin down the airplane staircase. The pull handle mechanism was irreparably damaged.)

A driver picked us up from the airport as planned. Everything seemed fine…then we saw the car!
(It was an SUV with a folding third row… not big enough for six people, seven suitcases, six backpacks, and a small guitar. We made it work, but it wasn’t a comfortable ride.)

You won’t believe what we found at the end of this long, deserted hallway!
(We went to a restaurant that’s deep in the bowels of a building in the old quarter. The food was very good, but to get to the dining area we had to walk down a dimly lit hallway and through the kitchen.)

She refused to eat her steak, until she noticed it was covered in THIS!
(Fried onions. K loves onions.)

They were desperate to get back to the hotel until Mom said THESE magic words:
(“Anybody want to buy a few snacks? There’s a WinMart right over there and they have that yogurt you like.”)

You won’t believe what’s spiking my website’s stats today!
(Is it clickbait? It’s clickbait, isn’t it?)

bikes planes and automobiles · family fun · Keepin' it real · Travelogue · Vietnam · whine and cheese

Day 1088: If it’s not one thing…

We had a beautiful morning today. We biked over to the beach with the three girls (N refused to go) and went swimming in the ocean. The water was calm and clear, the bottom was sandy, and the sun was shining. Perfect. I was so busy swimming and having a good time that I forgot to take any pictures. Sorry, not sorry.

My legs are still very fatigued, though, and I ran out of steam halfway up the hill (the only hill there is around here.) I stopped, put my foot down, and told E to get off and walk the rest of the way up. As she started to dismount, the wheels slid through the brake pads and the whole bike started moving backwards. I had one foot planted on the ground and the other moving slowly downhill with the bike. I think I yelled. I tried to slow the bike’s fall so that E could get off safely. She did, unscathed—but I didn’t. Now I have a beautiful bruise and some scratches on my ankle where the pedal hit me.

But the beach was great.

This afternoon Mr. December went into the Ancient City to explore without the rest of us breathing down his neck. “Should I bike?” he asked. I encouraged him to bike because—aside from that one blasted hill—Hoi An is as flat as a pancake (which makes every bike ride so much easier.)

A few hours later I messaged him: “Coming home soon?”

And that’s when I learned that his bike—the one whose pedal fell off last week—had a flat tire. He rode all the way home (at least 6 kilometres) on the wheel rim. If you didn’t know, riding on a slightly flat tire is difficult; riding on a completely flat tire is painfully so. By the time he got home, Mr. December looked like a glazed donut: a thin sheen of sweat covered every inch of him that we could see.

As they say, if it’s not one thing, it’s another. I just hope tomorrow’s “one thing” has no impact on our sunset kayak tour.

bikes planes and automobiles · family fun · gardening · Holidays Jewish and holidays not. · Jewy goodness · Travelogue · Vietnam · what's cookin'

Day 1084:

Today we took a bicycle tour of the Tra Que vegetable village. As you can see from the photos, it was very hands-on.

After all the manual labour and plant identification, we left the farm and biked over to the home of a family that makes traditional rice paper. We got to try our hand at making it and then we ate the final result with some soy sauce for dipping. Crunchy and delicious.

After that we biked into town for lunch at the “Banh My Queen”—apparently the very best Banh My in Hoi An. We chatted with our guide, Emma, who grew up in Hoi An and whose English is excellent. At the end of lunch we biked back to our villa and practically threw ourselves in the pool (it was pretty hot out today.)

Tonight I went back to Chabad with N and R. We had a lovely dinner there (chicken kebabs, veggies, spring rolls, and challah) and then spent some more time chatting with Israelis. Now we’re home and I’m totally wiped out—so if you’ll excuse the brevity of this post (and even if you won’t,) I’m off to bed.

bikes planes and automobiles · family fun · Fibro Flares · Keepin' it real · Travelogue · Vietnam

Day 1081: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Since WhatsApp wouldn’t work for me, I solved my communications problem the old-fashioned way: I biked down to the rental shop to tell them I wanted to keep the bike for longer. Mr. Thoî appeared completely unconcerned about it. When I asked if I could pay him some more because the deposit had been half of a week’s rental fee, he waved me off and said, “When you return the bike is fine.” People in Vietnam are pretty relaxed about this stuff.

The ride from our place to Mr. Thoî’s is 5.5k, so we biked 11k today. R came along in the hopes that there would be some kind of perk: I happily offered to buy her bubble tea (the place right next to the bike rental makes excellent drinks.) We had some time to kill anyhow, because one of the pedals fell off Mr. December’s bike and we had to wait for him to walk it the rest of the way to the shop to get it fixed.

I honestly thought twice before going on that bike ride today. I woke up feeling foggy-headed and achy; but did that mean I couldn’t or shouldn’t bike? I wasn’t sure. Maybe it wasn’t the beginning of a flare, but the consequence of quite a few very late nights in a row? Decisions like these never seem to get any easier, because my physical state is dynamic and always shifting—and just because it worked out fine last time doesn’t mean it will be fine today.

This time I decided to err on the side of overexertion. I feel like I spend enough of my life sitting things out; today I wanted to be bold and see what happened. My head still feels foggy, but I’m not particularly achy. The physical effects might show up in a day or two; or they might not show up at all. I’ll keep you posted.

Purim starts tomorrow night. R has been particularly concerned with being able to give and get candy, so I took her to a well-stocked minimart to buy treats that we could package into mishloach manot for all four kids. I’m hoping we’ll make it to Chabad for the holiday—I expect they’ll have hamentaschen and other familiar treats that make the it feel festive. We haven’t got any costumes, but maybe I can convince them that it would be funny to dress up as each other. I wonder if my pink dress fits Mr. December—the built-in bra would be pretty easy to stuff.

“It’s amazing how long things take when you have all day to do them,” Mr. December mused tonight. He’s right: we did almost nothing today—just a bike ride to renew our rental, and a quick trip to the store, but our day was full and drama-free. I never made it into the pool for a swim, though. Maybe tomorrow.

bikes planes and automobiles · family fun · Keepin' it real · Kids · Travelogue · Vietnam · whine and cheese

Day 1079: False Start

In my defense, the forecast said today would be sunny with some cloud, but not rainy. The forecast said.

We had plans to take a basket boat ride in the water coconut grove today. We hit our first roadblock early: R and N refused to bike there.

“Not optional,” was our answer. After a lot of grumbling and whining (and maybe a little understatement of the distance on my part) we finally hit the road.

And then it started to spit.

R biked up beside me and started yelling, demanding that we turn back “RIGHT NOW.” K and N joined the chorus of “Let’s turn back” as the few solitary drops of rain finally brought all their cousins and friends along for the party. I’m not opposed to biking in the rain (when it’s warm out,) but it was starting to look like the rain would last some time, and how good would the boat ride be in this kind of downpour?

We turned back.

It finally cleared up around 1 p.m. and we marshalled the troops for a second attempt. There was even more vocal opposition to biking this time. It was one of many times this trip when Mr. December and I looked at each other with the same thought in our minds: “Suck it up, buttercup. Holy cow, do they ever STOP complaining?”

I don’t remember what was said to get all the kids back on bikes. I suspect the whining was so awful I’ve blocked out the memory as a defense mechanism.

We did the 5k ride in decent time, with a couple of kids getting close to me to tell me about all the ways their bodies hurt too much to bike anymore. I could only respond that if they keep avoiding exercise, it will always hurt their muscles—practice is key to getting stronger. Meanwhile, carpal tunnel reared its head and my hands started going numb, so I rode one-handed while the other hand dangled at my side to get the feeling back, then switched hands.

Anyhow, we finally made it to this really cute village. Our tour operator offered us cold water and ushered us to the boats.

A basket boat—some people call them coconut boats—looks a lot like half of a giant golf ball. It’s round, woven out of some kind of leaf (banana or palm, I wasn’t quite sure,) with a bench across the middle. There’s only one paddle and the stroke looks a lot like the paddler is stirring a pot of something.

We floated through a narrow gap in the water coconut trees, and then came out into a huge open part of the river where a few men performed on their boats (mostly spinning and wobbling.) A little farther away, a fisherman demonstrated how he casts his net into the river before pulling it back in. Mr. December, K, and E all tried it. I have to say, E made the best first attempt of the three of them.

You’ll notice in the photos that we’re all wearing those conical Vietnamese hats. We were given them to wear during our boat ride, and K declared it “The first sunhat I don’t mind wearing.” I think we might have to buy one for her (or go to a workshop and make it ourselves.)

We biked back home, this time with less complaining (there’s always less complaining on the way home.) Would it really kill them to go without complaining from the get-go? The constant whining—when we’re working so hard to give them the experience of a lifetime—is really starting to grate on me. Suck it up, buttercups.

bikes planes and automobiles · Just the two of us · Keepin' it real · The COVID files · Travelogue · Vietnam · Worldschooling

Day 1076: Where the Buffalo Roam

Our cleanup after Saturday’s fire was thorough. We even threw out any open packages of food (this is a great reason not to have open shelving in the kitchen) because the sand from the fire extinguisher was absolutely everywhere. As you might imagine, we were left with very little food in the house; we ate at restaurants for the rest of the weekend—in between cleanup efforts.

Everyone was exhausted this morning, but we forged ahead with school anyway. The sky was overcast and it drizzled on and off all day; but despite the weather, Mr. December and I rode our bikes down to the Western-food supermarket to stock up on groceries.

You know what’s weird? Even though Hoi An has an impressive number of bike paths and special lanes, Google Maps insists that there’s no cycling information. To find a route that didn’t go down all the major streets I had to ask Google for walking directions. Once we crossed over the river, we were on car-free paths until the last block before the store. Idyllic rice paddies stretched out all around us, water buffalo grazed, and motorcycles honked as they zipped past us.

I went to the housewares store next to the supermarket to pick up a few things this house lacks—cleaning cloths, shampoo, and tea towels, among other things—and the young woman at the counter asked me why I wasn’t cold wearing just a long-sleeve t-shirt (for the record, it was 20 degrees celsius at the time.) Anyhow, I responded that as a Canadian, I see 20 degrees as slightly cool summer weather. She looked at me incredulously, shook her head, and shivered.

Our ride was about 10K, round trip. On the way back we biked along the riverfront path that goes right past our house. It looks like someone had grand plans for this neighbourhood—the stone path lined with palm trees, the iron railing at the edge, and the many smaller paths leading from the river to the street at regular intervals all suggest an upscale neighbourhood—before COVID came in, shut everything down, and got rid of all the tourists. It’s a shame—it would have been stunning, with the view of the river. I wonder who will restart the project, and when?

It seems that I demonstrated poor judgment tonight: in an effort to be efficient and not mess up too many pots, I put the pasta and the sauce in the rice cooker together. It worked beautifully—but apparently N doesn’t like the sauce, so he stood up and walked out of dinner because there was no plain pasta for him. Oops. That’ll learn me.

This week’s challenge: find a place to dry our laundry that doesn’t leave it smelling like mildew. Today I tried hanging it from the back edge of the metal stairs to the roof. After ten hours, it’s still damp. Why doesn’t anybody sell clotheslines in this town?

bikes planes and automobiles · family fun · mental health · Travelogue · Vietnam · Worldschooling

Day 1073: How We Roll (in Vietnam)

Yesterday we rented bikes for me and K. The ride home was exhilarating—all the joy of riding at home, with the added fun of navigating a very different type of traffic.

Traffic in Hoi An looks chaotic from the outside. There are bikes, motorcycles, cars, and trucks all zipping around each other with only centimetres of clearance. Nobody signals. Everybody honks. Total bedlam, I tell you.

From the inside, though, it feels very different. Because nobody signals and people are constantly zipping around, everybody watches—I mean really watches—and uses their judgment.

The honking isn’t angry; a honk means, “Heads up, I’m coming through,” or “Hey you cyclists riding side-by-side, there’s someone behind you. Single file, please.” And everyone honks, from trucks to cars to motorcycles (the bicycles don’t have horns, or they’d honk too. I just ring my bell almost constantly.)

I felt very safe biking back to our place yesterday, despite the fact that we were on a busy road that had only one lane in each direction. The drivers are extremely careful to go slowly and give a bit more room when passing cyclists. There’s also a critical mass of small vehicles on the road: bikes and motorcycles are just part of the flow of traffic, and they get the appropriate level of respect and accommodation from motorists.

It’s been so long since I’ve biked. As soon as we got on the road, I felt the familiar rush of joy that accompanies the wind in my hair. My legs were so tired I couldn’t get up the incline of a bridge (I had to walk it,) but I was happy nonetheless.

Because the rental places we went to didn’t have any kids’ bikes, E has to sit on the rear rack of one of ours anytime we bike somewhere. Two of our bikes have cushioned rear racks, and all of them have fold-out foot rests. This morning I took E out to the street in front of our house (a very quiet street) to help her get accustomed to riding that way. There’s no seatbelt, no helmets, and no handle to hold onto. She was scared and almost refused to try, but I pointed out that if she could ride on the back of my bike, we could bike to the store and buy a treat. I am not above resorting to bribery.

She found it a bit scary, but after about ten minutes of riding around E had gone from petrified to nervous. We stopped at our neighbourhood mini-mart (where we buy our fruit and eggs in the morning) and bought some ice cream to celebrate E’s conquering her fear. A little later we went for a ride with K, who somehow managed to photograph us in mid-ride.

As I’m fond of saying, you can’t buy happiness—but you can buy (or rent) a bike, and that’s basically the same thing.

bikes planes and automobiles · Keepin' it real · Travelogue · Vietnam

Day 1066: About Yesterday…

The Background: Last weekend, as we finalized the details for our rental in Hoi An, we realized we needed to get our Vietnam visas before our arrival. The official government website said that e-visa applications would be processed within 3 working days; I naïvely took them at their word.

Fast Forward Four Working Days: We woke up yesterday morning to the realization that our visas still hadn’t come through. Our flight to Vietnam was scheduled to leave at 3:55 p.m. Mr. December and I called and emailed all the contacts we could find online; none of the phone “hotlines” picked up—not even the “emergency hotline”—and nobody responded to my emails.

But… three of the visas came through in the next half hour. Three out of six. And so we started packing (worst packing job ever) and obsessively refreshing the visa application status page. Another visa came in an hour later… and then another… and then nothing. Five of us were fine, but K didn’t have permission to enter Vietnam.

Mr. December and I conferred and decided that if K’s visa didn’t come through, one of us would stay in Siem Reap with her while the other went ahead to Hoi An with the rest of the kids. But we still packed all of us up and got down to the front desk, where we expected our van to be waiting.

It wasn’t waiting. There were, however, two tuktuks. The drivers started loading our luggage in, while I wondered how on earth they were planning to fit all of us and all our gear into two four-seater tuktuks. Mr. December kept telling them we wanted a third tuktuk (which of course would take some time to arrive) but the drivers kept assuring him that two were enough. We squeezed in (poor R and K had a suitcase on their laps the whole way to the airport) because we were already running late.

Arriving at the airport, we saw that our flight was on time—so then why weren’t there any check-in kiosks for our airline? We were informed that our flight was delayed by two hours, so the counters wouldn’t be opening until three hours before the revised time. This gave us forty minutes to cool our heels, which wasn’t a bad thing given that we were still waiting for K’s visa to come through.

The check-in counters opened. Our fellow passengers were all lined up. K’s visa still wasn’t ready. As a last-ditch attempt, we contacted an agency that advertised “Super Urgent” visas in under an hour. It cost us $250, arguably less than it would have cost for another couple of nights in the Cambodian hotel and new flight tickets for two. I guess you could say it was a legally sanctioned bribe. What else do you call it when you pay somebody to call his contact and escalate the case?

Anyhow, it worked. Within fifteen minutes, K had permission to enter Vietnam. The airline staff at the check-in counter very kindly overlooked the fact that we had a handful of small extra bags (Mr. December never met a souvenir he didn’t like) beyond our allowance, and offered to check some of our carry-on suitcases for free. We heaved a sigh of relief and headed to the gate, where we suddenly had all the time in the world.

On arrival in Vietnam someone from the visa agency met us, took K to the front of the immigration line, and passed a paper to the officer who immediately stamped her passport. I had gone to the head of the line too, because of the wheelchair assistance, so we hung out and waited for the rest to join us. We reunited with our luggage and went to find a ride to our villa.

A very pushy taxi dispatcher tried to convince us to take two taxis while Mr. December firmly reiterated that we wanted one van. There were no vans available, the dispatcher said; but as soon as Mr. December opened his Grab app and looked for a ride, a seven-seater car magically materialized beside us. Unfortunately there was almost no cargo space in the trunk, so we were once again squished into the car: one in the very back with most of the bags, four of us across the back seat, and E perched on Mr. December’s lap in the front passenger seat. It was an uncomfortable ride and we resolved to just use Grab from then on.

We arrived at our villa tired, aggravated, and aching from the cramped ride. Our hosts met us and it soon became apparent they spoke very limited English. After a few exchanges via Google Translate one host went off to get us some food from a nearby restaurant while we determined which of the kids had to share a room this time. Finally, finally our hosts left us alone to eat a very late dinner and go to bed.

bikes planes and automobiles · family fun · Thailand · Travelogue · Worldschooling

Day 1060: We Get Around

I’ve always had a goal of making sure my kids know how to get around, at least in Toronto. When we bike, I encourage them to navigate. When we take the subway, I ask them to lead me. “If you can see a TTC stop and you know what station we live at, you can always get home,” I’ve told them repeatedly, “just tell the driver or ticket taker what station you need and they’ll tell you how to get there.”

(Yes, there are apps that do this, but I also have a goal of having kids who can function without cellphones if need be. I’m teaching quaint skills like map reading and asking directions.)

My point is that I pride myself on having kids who know how to use many different forms of transportation, even in new countries. In Israel we used buses and the inter-city train; in Singapore we took the subway; in New Zealand we took buses everywhere; and here in Thailand, we’ve been introduced to two new modes of transport: the Songthaew and the Tuk-Tuk. Last night we used both.

A songthaew is a pickup truck with a roof over the truck bed and two benches facing each other inside. You can hail one on the street and ride it for 30 baht (sharing it with all the other riders,) but we ordered ours on an app and it was a private hire, which means a direct route and no other passengers. For our trip to Chabad last night we paid 170 Baht ($6.75 CAD)—way cheaper than the 500 Baht ($20) minivan we could have ordered instead. The ride was fine, although the open back meant that we could smell all the fumes from the songthaew and surrounding traffic. The inside had lighting and a fan, and the side windows were all wide open (which could be good or bad, depending on how bad the fumes were.)

For the ride home we decided to hire a tuktuk (pronounced took-took, not tuck-tuck.) Actually, we had planned to hire two tuktuks, since they usually seat three passengers, but the driver insisted he could fit all of us inside. K rode in the jump seat next to the driver, E rode on my lap, and Mr. December sat on the floor—or he should have, but initially he was squatting and then kneeling, until he finally tried sitting with his legs crossed and said, “Oh yeah, this is way more comfortable.” It felt a bit like a clown car, and given the lack of doors both Mr. December and I were holding on tight to E, but the ride was fun, well-ventilated, and faster than any car or truck. The ride cost 200 baht (just under 8 Canadian dollars.)

I tried to take some selfies, but both rides were so bumpy that they didn’t come out—and didn’t try too many times for fear that my phone would jump out of my hands and into traffic, so this is as good as it’s going to get.

bikes planes and automobiles · fame and shame · New Zealand · Travelogue

Day 1048: Air New Zealand

Well, that was the best flight I’ve taken in years—or maybe ever. Air Canada could stand to learn a few things from Air New Zealand.

We tried this new seating option I’d never heard of called SkyCouch®. Basically the seats have built-in leg rests that can be brought all the way up to create a flat surface all the way to the back of the seats in front of you. I’d never heard of it before I booked this flight, but it wasn’t expensive to upgrade (because there were already three of us in a row; for a single person to book the whole SkyCouch you’d have to pay for the three seats.) I figured it was worth a try.

I have to say, the SkyCouch was well worth the money. Some of us (including me) have difficulty sitting with our feet down for long periods of time, so being able to sit with our feet up in our usual contorted postures was a major relief.

But enough about the couch. We need to talk about the food.

The flight was 9 hours long, so we were fed both lunch and dinner. For lunch we had the choice of a chicken tagine served over couscous or a pepper beef stirfry over rice. I got the tagine, and holy moly—it tasted amazing. If you told me it was actually from a nice restaurant, I’d have believed you. Mr. December chose the beef and was similarly impressed. And the brownie we got for dessert was excellent. Dinner wasn’t quite as good as lunch, but it was still a vast improvement over the usual airplane food. Oh, and wine or spirits were included in the complimentary beverage service.

Speaking of complimentary, there was a set of earbuds on everyone’s seat for us to keep (and they were blue! My favourite!) They also provided earplugs and eye masks on request.

Now, the service… wow. Are Kiwis just the sweetest, most laid-back people in the world, or what? Every crew member was genuinely kind and helpful. When E said she was hungry, the flight attendant (a sweet guy who looked a bit like a teddy bear) brought cookies and chips for all six of us; then he looked around at the other passengers, returned to the galley, and came back with a tray of snacks for everyone. They came through the cabin with water at least once an hour. Whatever we needed, the crew found a way to make it happen for us: E was extra picky today and our guy cheerfully went and brought extra buns, desserts, and snacks to keep her tummy happy when the kids’ meal just didn’t cut it.

Air Canada, if you’re listening—time to step up your game. Until you do, I’m flying Air New Zealand any chance I get.

Pic of me, K, and E cuddled together on our SkyCouch.