Tips for Traveling in Vietnam

I have a few tips for traveling in Vietnam. This may pertain to other countries but for this particular write-up it only applies to Vietnam. Also, as with much of what I write, this is neither thorough nor comprehensive and in no way researched and verified. If you find yourself buying a bunch of crap from aunties on the beach (see tip #1) that’s on you.

1. Do not look like you have just been shopping which implies you have money. You will be accosted by every auntie trying to sell her tchotchkes. The auntie’s also have eagle eyes and when you try to discreetly see how much cash you have, she will have counted it before you do and point out (in a very polite manner) that you have more cash than you’re implying. She’ll even personally walk you to the nearest ATM if you feign being broke. To be honest, you’ll be accosted no matter what.

She wasn’t taking “no” for an answer.

2. The following was advice given directly from a Vietnamese man. When crossing the street, take it slow and do not stop or dart. The scooters know how to gauge how fast you are going and whether they need to go behind you or in front of you. To be clear, I’m not sure if this applies to cars so let’s just assume it only applies to scooters. Don’t go walking out into traffic with a row of cars. That might not end up the way you want it to. Also, please don’t get hit and then blame it on me.

Crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City is like Live Action Role Play Frogger.

3. Speaking of people selling things, don’t be a schmuck and get lured-in by a gimmick and then get stuck paying for something you never wanted in the first place. We were those schmucks (though apparently Marcus saw through the guy from the beginning). There was a man carrying a pole laden with a cooler and fresh coconuts. He pointed to Marcus and implied how tall he was and that he must be strong. Did he want to try and carry the pole? Marcus declined but the girls and I, intrigued by the idea of Marcus carrying the pole, urged him on.

After a short walk and a few pictures, the guy takes back the pole and immediately whips out coconuts, cuts the top off, sticks a straw in, and asks for 200000 Vietnamese Dong ($8.52 USD). Marcus was pissed. He haggled with the guy for a bit, growing more irritated that we were being forced to buy something we didn’t want. I, on the other hand, grew more uncomfortable of the situation and insisted we give coconut guy all that he asked for. It was a learning lesson. Mostly for the girls and me.

We always knew Marcus was tall but this really highlights the height difference.

4. Be prepared for your children to be petted if they have unusual hair. In our case, both of our girls are very blonde. We had heard that moving to Asia this might be a common occurrence, but this was actually our first experience with complete strangers coming up and touching the girls’ hair. To be clear, while this isn’t something we would do in the United States, our girls understand that cultures vary wildly, and some people do not perceive it as a violation of personal space. With that said, this is definitely not the cultural norm in Singapore.

Anyway, our oldest eventually grew annoyed with the attention and put her hoodie up. I believe our youngest secretly enjoyed the attention and just accepted it. It wasn’t a constant petting, but it happened frequently enough. I also noticed a few times during our adventure in Vietnam that I would be walking very intimately with a person I had just met. I was even politely moved aside by a restaurant worker. Like, physically touched in a motion that meant “step-aside.” It was a bit startling but again, cultural differences.

Two blondies walking down the street of Hoi An.

5. Finally, for my last little bit of knowledge, using the car horn is part of driving. Like, if Vietnam released a “Sounds of Vietnam” album it should be of vehicles honking. It’s used in a much more friendly way than in the U.S. though could certainly be misinterpreted as angry. It’s used as a “I’m coming around you” for those on bikes or, serves as a warning going around a corner. It also serves as a “You pulled out in front of me” honk, a “You’re drifting into my lane” honk, a “Pick a lane” honk, and I’m guessing is morse code for a myriad of other things. In other words, the honking is no joke.

So, there you have it. A non-extensive list of tips for traveling in Vietnam.

Has anyone ever been surprised that they haven’t been arrested because you’re carrying a child through the streets and she’s screaming “Let me go!”? No? Just us?

Christmas in Singapore

Last year Marcus decided that, as a stay-at-home-mom whose sole purpose in life during the holiday season is to make sure it’s amazing, I didn’t contribute enough and asked that instead of giving the girls a chocolate for each day of advent that I plan for them to have experiences instead. If you’re not sure how many days are in an advent calendar ours has 25 (including Christmas day). That’s 24 days of experiences. Also, if you read any of that first sentence with a hint of sarcasm you would be correct in your intonation and your inference.

Last year’s Christmas was fun because it was right before we moved to Singapore. As in, Christmas day was the 25th and the packers arrived on the 27th. Along with all that comes with the holidays and a move across the world I also needed to plan an advent calendar chock-full of surprises. Anyway, rather than be snarky overwhelmed only mildly annoyed about the whole thing I looked at is a farewell tour of our little city of Fredericksburg and the girls had a great time.

So that was last year. This year I once again find myself planning and executing fun experiences for the 24 days leading up to Christmas for our girls. This year, instead of also planning an international move, I find myself alone as Marcus is on travel for essentially the last six weeks. Of course, Singapore is known as being one of the most expensive cities in the world to live so the cost of experiences here is a little more than the cost of experiences in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Shall that stop me from making sure I do exactly as Marcus wishes? No. It shan’t.

So far my girls and I have had mani-pedis, seen Sarah Brightman’s Christmas show and the Singapore Ballet’s The Nutcracker, been to the zoo and fed manatees (100% would do that again), checked-out the Singapore Comic-Con (100% would not do that again), and the calendar isn’t over yet. I have a few more tricks up my sleeve like mommy and me facials and a trip to a Christmas Village. As you can see, this all benefits me to the greatest extent as I would never just go get a facial or a mani-pedi without prompting. I need to line-up a massage to really round it out.

Despite all of our Christmas-y events, it doesn’t quite feel like Christmas. It’s a cool 78 degrees Fahrenheit with the humidity at 87%. There are birds chirping and green grass and instead of the smell of a wood-burning fireplace I occasionally smell incense (which is quite pleasant but not the same). I’m also feeling ill-prepared for the big day itself, but I guess there is still time. Fun fact: Toys R Us is still thriving in Singapore so shopping for toys is easy (though terribly overpriced). Another fun fact: Apparently my children have outgrown toys and now ask for ridiculous things like brand new iPhones and Apple Watches. I’d rather buy an overpriced Lego set.

Another decision made was to purchase a “native” live tree as our Christmas tree. We ended up with a Chinese Money tree and have since put lights on it and decorated it with all of our felt and light-weight ornaments. It’s not quite the same and I’m kind of regretting it. On the upside, an imported Christmas tree can cost over $200 SGD for the tiniest of trees and, unsurprisingly, from what I’ve seen many aren’t in very good shape by the time they get here. So, Chinese Money tree it is and we’ll have it for the next few years until it’s time to leave.

Anyway, so far I think the girls and I have created some core memories during our Advent adventures. That said, as soon as Marcus is home, I have big plans to send him to a bounce house with the girls. Seems only fair.

Traveling to Bali

Despite the fact I spent the last half of our Bali trip in excruciating pain from an ear infection (side note: The 24-hour UbudCare Clinic is top-notch), I enjoyed our holiday. I would say this though: Do more than an iota of research before going. Don’t be like me, who did only an iota of research, and you may get more out of your experience.

Overall, Bali is lovely. I was enthralled with the stonework and how their houses are designed. Many of the homes are like little villas with numerous buildings housing the various functions of daily life. Almost all, that I paid attention to anyway, had house temples. According to a very quick and absolutely not thorough Internet search, Bali is 93% Balinese Hindu which, as the name implies, is a form of Hinduism. Every day, a member of the family prays and gives offerings at the house temple. We would see this ritual frequently during our time in Bali, watching as offerings were left at the door to the family villa, up high on the brick wall, and on the mode of transportation (frequently a motorbike) all of which are meant to bless the day.

Because of my total lack of planning, I ultimately booked us a tour guide with Klook (which is a fantastic app for when you’re going on travel). It’s especially useful when you have no idea how to get around a country but have a little idea of what you would like to see. It’s also a really useful app to use if you really don’t know what there is to do in the country you’re visiting as it gives insight to what is popular. I use it with confidence and have always had a great experience. For this trip we chose a tour that included rice fields, waterfalls, monkeys, and temples.

Speaking of temples, we had promised the girls to not go to a temple but, before they even realized what was happening, a sarong was wrapped around their waists and we were wandering the 1,000-year-old (!!) Puseh Butuan Temple. Our Klook tour guide, Joke (his nickname and it went well with his personality), was so kind and he enthusiastically answered all of my questions, helping me to understand the ceremonies and customs of the Balinese Hindu temple along with the differences between Balinese Hinduism and Indian Hinduism.

The only complaint I would have is how contrived everything was. This is where doing a little bit more research would have worked in our favor. With the exception of the temple, all of the places we went to put a big emphasis on Instagram pictures and souvenirs and left little time for being in the moment. As an older millennial, the Instagram/Influencer thing is, and this is putting it nicely, fucking annoying (after I had written this I later found out my little cousin is doing quite well as an Instagram influencer…sorry, Hope). I’m not petty enough to ruin someone’s shot but believe me, the thought has crossed my mind, especially when all I want to do is live in the moment and also, you’re blocking the path in a vain (used in two ways here) attempt to get that perfect shot.

One thing I did get right was our Ubud AirBnB at Villa Sentul. This was chosen exclusively for the reason that they had house cats which sounds silly but believe me, was a real sticking point for the girls. We only saw one cat during our stay, but he was more than enough because he was friendly and cuddly and would curl-up next to us while we read and relaxed. We were also nestled amongst the town which added to its charm although the roosters at four in the morning were terrible. Honestly, roosters are terrible anywhere you go so this is nothing against Villa Sentul.

Bali relies heavily on tourism and that was quite apparent as we spoke to the various tour guides. One woman in particular told me that during the pandemic she had to sell her motor bike and wedding ring in order to keep her son in school. Drivers were a dime a dozen and totally worth it because the motorbike situation is insane, and driving is not for the faint of heart. Of course, I write all of this with the understanding that we’re a family of four and not a happy couple tooling around on their own. A lifetime ago I probably could have been convinced that renting a bike would have been the way to go.

So, to wrap-up because honestly, I’ve been working on this post so long that since I started writing this Indonesia has passed new laws criminalizing sex outside of marriage (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg but I’m not here to be political) and even hosted the G20 Summit. Overall I found Bali to be quite lovely. The people were lovely. The food was lovely. The scenery and artwork through every little village was lovely. The only thing that wasn’t lovely was the ear infection and that two of us ended up with “Bali Belly” which is akin to Delhi Belly, Montezuma’s Revenge…you get the idea. Just be careful about what you eat and drink which is a good rule of thumb for most of Southeast Asia.

Where to Scuba Dive in Bali

Bali. I think the only thing I knew about Bali before going was that my brother and his wife loved it so much they went twice in rapid succession. I also thought maybe it was a setting for the musical, South Pacific, buuuttt, I think I’m wrong about that because, after a very rapid scan of the Wikipedia page, it seems to be set in or around Vietnam. I’m not a details person.

Going to Bali was all Marcus’s plan. He had high hopes for his gaggle of girls to become scuba dive certified so, he found a local dive instructor (Jack Tan with Dive Degree) and got us all set-up to become aquatic adventurers. To be perfectly honest, scuba diving has never been on my bucket list, but I went along with it because I didn’t want my girls to think I’m a wuss. Suffice to say, I am not a wuss but, after 30 minutes of our first training session, I was convinced I did not care to pursue this activity any further.

Despite my very thorough, 30-minute assessment of how I felt about scuba diving, I persevered. We all did. The oldest did the best out of all of us and was the most confident. She was also the one who spent most of her time trying to blow a bubble ring underwater, bless her heart. The youngest and I, who are very much alike, did well enough though apparently we aren’t very good at playing it cool and our instructor could tell we were anxious. I don’t know how? The youngest always kicks her legs frantically and I pretty much always swim with a furrowed and anxious brow; we’re the very definition of calm.

It’s definitely an activity that will take time to get used to and improve upon. I mostly had trouble with equalizing but also breathing entirely through my mouth. I also struggled with achieving neutral buoyancy, keeping my arms folded while swimming, and staying horizontal rather than vertical. So, um, I struggled with all of it. In case you think I’m overexaggerating, my favorite memory is of watching every one grow farther away as I helplessly floated to the top. Eventually I succumbed to the pull and just pitifully waved goodbye (not really, the other scuba dive instructor was able to help drag me back down which was equally pitiful).

Another hard part of scuba diving is the inability to mother. It’s an odd feeling of helplessness to not be able to do anything for your child because you’re a few meters underwater. Anyway, even if something was terribly wrong what could I do about it? It gives me a bit of anxiety just thinking about it.

Honestly, I think my favorite thing about scuba diving was our instructor, Jack. He was personable, kept the girls focused and safe, and best of all, is Singaporean. During our four-hour, round trip car rides to the dive sites there was much conversation about Singapore vs. the U.S. and I think we all learned a lot. I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I hope that if I ever run into Jack on the street, we’ll be able to greet each other as friends.

The Tepaskes and Uncle Jack

Finally, and possibly the only reason you’re reading this, where did we go for scuba diving in Bali? Our first day of diving was in Amed. We spent the day running the skills we had learnt in the diving pool the day before and getting more comfortable with diving. The highlights of that trip were giant, bright blue starfish, eels, and of course, clown fish and sea anemones. At the end of our day in Amed, we all boarded a “junkung” which is a traditional fishing boat and went a bit farther down shore.

Our second day of open water diving was in Tulamben. This little village is one of the most popular in Bali because of the USS Liberty shipwreck, a U.S. cargo ship that was torpedoed by the Japanese in 1942. To swim amongst the wreck under the ocean gives a strange perspective on not only the size of the ship but the vastness of the ocean. I’m getting a little too poetic here but I think you know what I mean.

Seeing how nature had completely taken over the ship was breathtaking. And then, as if things couldn’t get better, what with the giant starfish and clams and garden of eels (now I know what Ursula the Sea Witch was turning her victims into and 10-year-old me was quite giddy), a sea turtle came along making a lunch of whatever was living amongst the ruins. I swam away feeling happy and fulfilled with a small understanding of how an activity such as this could become addicting. Then I woke-up two days later with the most painful ear infection I have ever had in my life and as quickly as I took-up scuba diving I decided to give it up.

Singaporean Observations

“Singaporeans love to queue!” exclaimed our Grab driver. His funny, self-aware, cultural joke was not wrong. For weeks now there has been a queue waiting for the Swatch store to open. I have no idea what they’re waiting for but it must be “exclusive.” Shopping is a sport here, seriously, and I’m sure the love for queueing partly comes from that. During our own shopping adventures I’ve noticed so many people with luggage. My first assumption was there must be a sale at the Tumi (high-end goods or bust). But then I realized it’s how the shoppers transport their goods from store to store. I mean, there could also be a sale at Tumi but I think it’s just the practical Singaporean way of shopping till you drop.

Speaking of high-end goods, the love for luxury is real. I was reading a post on Facebook recently in which the poster was asking for suggestions for gifts to bring from Singapore. Someone, jokingly, said to bring everyone a Chanel handbag. It’s true. And it it isn’t Chanel it’s Louis Vuitton. And if it isn’t Luis Vuitton it’s Gucci. I have a Gucci watch from when I worked in jewelry. It was part of a mega blow-out sale of items that were long past their “fashionableness” and I also got a discount. I probably put it on a credit card. That is how I came to own a very small piece of Gucci.

Another uniquely Singaporean trait is how quiet everyone is. I’m sure it’s not true for the entirety of the country and, once I did see some men fighting in the street (you wouldn’t believe the shenanigans I’ve seen at 6:30 in the morning) but on the whole it is so quiet here. We Americans are loud.

Singaporeans also walk at a snail’s pace though I’ve determined that is why they never look like they’re sweating buckets (like me). They walk at a leisurely pace so as to not break a sweat which is almost impossible but I rarely see a Singaporean looking as disheveled as I feel 1000% of the time. As soon as I can learn how to manage my time better I may stand a chance of not always looking like a drowned rat when I walk to appointments. Side note: Did not give myself time today. Showed up to yoga disgusting.

This next one I only came to understand because of another expat’s Instagram page (@alisoninasia). Because the weather never changes here (hot and humid) it would be silly to make small talk about it, such as we do in the States. Instead, Singaporeans make small talk about “taking meals.” The first time I was asked if I had eaten yet I wondered if I was about to asked on a date. I laughed and said, “Yes, I’ve had breakfast,” followed by awkward silence and then a hesitant, “Have you?” because it’s a weird question to be asked by a stranger and I didn’t know what to say. Now that I’m aware, I find it quite endearing though I’m still trying to figure out the best way to respond. Like, in response to “Have you taken breakfast?” do I give a full rundown like, “Yes, I had two eggs and some fruit and then I was still hungry so I had some toast but I accidentally burned it so I had to start all over and then I discovered that we were out of butter and jelly and so I had to eat it plain which was just the worst.” Or, should it just be a simple “Yes” or “No”? Is it rude not to ask the question back? I could use a little guidance on this one.

Finally, one last observation. Singaporeans are cautious. The indoor mask mandate has just recently been lifted and we are no longer required to wear them in most places with the exception of hospitals, public transportation, etc. I predict most will continue to wear them. When the outdoor mask mandate was lifted in April (we had to wear them outside unless exercising and yes, it was brutal) there still remained a very large majority of people who wore them when outside. Even still, after all of these months I would guesstimate it’s 50/50 those who wear masks outdoors and those who don’t. I am curious to see how long it takes the majority of Singaporeans to feel safe enough to not wear a mask indoors. Of course, it is quite convenient the indoor mask mandate was lifted considering they’re gearing-up (pun!) for the Formula 1 in September.

That’s all I have for now. I’m sure as time goes on there will be more observations. I am hopeful that without the requirement of wearing masks it will be easier to gauge how friendly Singaporeans are. Are they smile and wave to strangers people like we are from the southern States? So far, I say “no” to that but wearing masks makes any sort of interaction difficult. To be continued…

Singapore Hospital(s)

Years and years and years ago, I was traveling through Tijuana, Mexico with some friends, on our way to Rosarito and we passed by a hospital. At that moment, we all made a pact to not do anything that would ultimately lead to a stay in a Tijuana hospital. Because we were all very mature, young adults we made it back to the US unscathed though certainly not without some stories.

Anyway, this is all to say that there have been more than a few times I’ve been in a foreign country where a hospital visit would be less than ideal (though really, is a hospital visit ever ideal?). I am happy to report that Singapore is not one of those places. Also, I cannot believe that after a mere seven months of living overseas I stayed in a hospital for the very first time, with the exception of giving birth. The girls have had a few accidents that led to ER visits but were never actually admitted.

The story actually begins almost a week prior when we went to Malaysia. Soon after arriving our youngest started to complain of her back and side hurting. This is going to sound neglectful but we thought she was just being herself and trying to control our time. Up until this point she hadn’t complained of anything else though we had noticed her appetite had dwindled. Looking back, there were some big red flags but this is the kid who is notorious for digging in her heels so hard during family outings that we have frequently have to abort our plans.

After about five days of off and on complaining she fell ill with a fever. This was problematic for a few reasons, the biggest being we were supposed to board a bus back to Singapore. While the borders are open, traveling via public transport requires a health declaration which specifically asks if you or your dependents have a fever. All it would take is for one person to look at her and you would know that our kiddo had a fever. That said, she had COVID about three months ago and we were fairly certain it wasn’t COVID but a fever is a fever and we had no idea what was going on.

Once it was clear we could not travel home via public transportation we changed our plans and hired a private driver to bring us home (I had wanted to do this anyway so was kind of glad to be able to ride in luxury). Traveling via a private car does not necessitate a health declaration and you drive through the border checks rather than having to disembark.

Alright, so, to make a longish story short, we took a private car and made it home to Singapore at about 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon. Marcus and I walked to his office to pick-up a laptop and we moseyed our way home. I even insisted on a latte. Upon entering the apartment we were greeted with a child who had been sick to her stomach. I cleaned it up and put her on the couch and on a whim, took her temperature. It read 40 degrees Celsius, or, for those of us who only know the Imperial measuring system, 105.4 degrees Fahrenheit. I was stunned. I tried my best not to panic but immediately, I pulled together a few items and called a car to bring us to the hospital.

Marcus carried her downstairs and put her in the car and the driver immediately asked what was going on. I was worried he wouldn’t want to drive us knowing she was so sick (you know, ‘rona and all) but instead, he asked if he could pray for her. I told my dad later that he would have liked this guy as he prayed and we listened to his Christian rock station. I am not a person of faith but I appreciated that he must have recognized the look of a very worried momma and did what he felt best.

We arrived at the emergency room, called the A&E (Accident and Emergency and called such probably everywhere else in the world except the States), and were quickly triaged. As we waited, at one point, the little abruptly woke-up from her cat nap, delirious as hell, and with her eyes glazed over said “I feel fine now. I’m fine. Can we go?” Bless her little heart. The doctor soon arrived, quickly examined her, asked a few questions, and then went through the few procedures she wanted to run in order to be able to diagnose her properly. All the little one heard was “blood tests” and she was rooted to her seat. All I heard was “admitting you” and I knew we were in it for the long haul.

Luckily (not really), the little had a 105 degree temperature so she didn’t have much fight in her and we were able to coax her into a wheelchair and up to a room. They drew blood, took a urine sample, and inserted an IV in order to pump her with fluids. Again, looking back as the guilt flooded in, I understood why she had been guzzling water like never before; I should have realized just how high her fever was.

So, after being admitted, working through the guilt of having not recognized how sick my baby was, and waiting to hear from the doctor about the plan for care all we had to do was sleep, watch TV, and eat. The eating was, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, pretty incredible. It was a mix of Asian and Western which included local favorites such as nasi lemak and savory porridge along with pizza and hamburgers. Not to mention, the three, THREE lobster dishes you could choose from. I ended up with lobster thermidor one night because A. I didn’t believe we’d still be there and B. I could hear Marcus’s voice in my ear saying, “I know you don’t like lobster but, get the lobster!”

After five days of sleeping, watching TV, and eating, we were finally released (they wanted the little to be fever free for 48 hours). Up until that moment I felt like a caged animal, not wanting to leave my child’s side but desperately feeling the need to escape. Given that she was hooked-up to an IV the little couldn’t go far though we did go for a thrilling walk/run through the hospital on her way to the radiographer (nobody walks fast in Singapore with the exception of the orderlies in the hospital, I could barely keep up). All of the nurses and the attending doctor were as nice and helpful as they could be. Everyone was invested in getting our girl’s fever down and making sure she was hydrating.

The only thing left to do upon being discharged was, of course, paying the bill. In Singapore, health insurance is a combination of publicly funded healthcare and private sectors. All Singaporeans are required to pay into the government healthcare plan. For many reasons, the healthcare here is effective and the average life expectancy is longer than anywhere else in the world. As expats we do get to enjoy the efficiency of the healthcare. On average, we may wait for about 10 minutes to see a doctor. Even the dentist is pretty amazing. On a recent visit it was noticed that one of my fillings had fallen out. Instead of having me schedule an entirely separate appointment to get it fixed the dentist just took care of it then and there and then cleaned my teeth (by the way, the dentist does all of the work, not the hygienist).

Even though Singaporeans have a fairly robust health care system that doesn’t mean we, as expats, get to take advantage of that. Instead, we pay out of pocket and then file a claim. There are local health insurance providers for expats but we just stuck with what we had. Also, our experiences have been largely positive because we use our overseas healthcare therefore we almost exclusively go to private clinics. The hospital we were in was a private hospital as compared to a public and, since I have yet to be in a public hospital, I won’t even try and compare the two. I will say that paying a hospital stay out of pocket was a bit of a hard pill to swallow (ha! medical joke); it hit differently than it would have back home when we would receive a statement of benefits that explained just how much we didn’t have to pay.

Toilets in South East Asia

I’m just going to say it. Bidets are a big deal here. Toilet paper is hardly even a thing (outside of Singapore, Singapore has toilet paper). Therefore, learning to use a bidet has become necessary. I would emphasize starting to practice in the privacy of your own home rather than winging it for the first time while traveling.

We were recently in Malaysia and I was waiting for my girls to come out of the bathroom when I heard peals of laughter. “They’re probably spraying each other with the bidet hose,” I said to Marcus. I wasn’t too terribly far off as one child (I won’t name which one to save from any future embarrassment) waddled out of the bathroom, quite upset because she had tried to use the bidet hose but had not pulled her bottoms down far enough and now had sopping wet underwear and shorts. I had to walk away because I couldn’t let her see me crying with laughter.

Now, here’s a riddle for you: Not all bathrooms do not have toilet paper, but all bathroom stalls do not have toilet paper. Got it? Generally, if toilet paper is provided, it is in a dispenser on a wall near the stalls. It’s definitely in your best interest to travel with some sort of paper product in case it is not provided or, like me, you frequently forget to check if it was on a wall as you walked in. Or, if you’ve already done your practicing at home, use the bidet hose that is available 99% of the time.

The only drawback to the bidet is, of course, the amount of water that gets on the floor. And the toilet seat. And the walls. I mean, part of you thinks, “it’s only water.” Then the other part of you thinks “Dear Lord, it’s water with probably pee or poop mixed in and what the actual hell has been going on in here, did someone take a shower?!” This is also a good time to teach your children not to let their bottom half garments fall to the floor completely.

There are also squatty holes that you can use if you’re ultra brave which I am not but one of my girls was, in desperation. I was impressed. It also made me grateful for all of those early teaching moments when we would be out in the middle of the woods and they had to learn to go in the wild. God, they’re going to be so embarrassed when they read this one day. But you know what, ladies? Everybody poops and pees.

There you have it. My not-so-comprehensive list of using the bathrooms in South East Asia. If you have learned nothing else I hope you take away the need to travel with toilet paper. And maybe practice spraying yourself with a hose. You can thank me later.

Owning a Vehicle in Singapore

Have you ever wanted to experience the thrill of driving on your own for the very first time, again? Picture it, your best girlfriend in the seat next to you, TLC’s “No Scrubs” blasting through the speakers via a CD player that you have connected to the car by a cassette tape adapter (remember that fantastic work-around?), cruising around in a vehicle that honks when you make a turn. Those were the days…

Before moving to Singapore, I’m fairly certain my exact thoughts on owning a vehicle, let alone driving one, were: Don’t need one/don’t want one/have no intention of driving one. I’m a good driver but I know my limitations and driving in busy cities has always been an intimidation for me. Marcus is usually the one who does the driving through cities or unknown territories. Part of this is because he’s more confident. The other part is I tend to get overly irritated with the drivers around me and as a result my girls have a more “well-rounded” vocabulary.

We knew for a fact we could not bring our vehicles from the United States. Singapore has strict guidelines on the importation of cars: They must be no more than 7 years old and the steering wheel must be on the left. Neither of our cars ticked those boxes by a long-shot. There are also safety and emissions standards that imported vehicles must meet. So, for anyone looking into bringing a vehicle into Singapore there are no less than three different websites you should look at first: OneMotoring, Land Transport Authority, and Singapore Customs.

As with many things involving numbers and/or more than one step in the process, my brain shuts down and as such the various rules, initial costs, and recurring fees with owning a vehicle are about as clear as mud to me. From all that I gather it is expensive to own a car not just in the purchasing of one but also the maintenance, the taxes, the insurance, the fuel, the parking fees (city living), and Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) (similar to the U.S. system of tolls) add-up quickly. I think being that Singapore is such a small country it benefits them to make it pricey to own a car. Plus, the mass transit system here is easy, extensive, inexpensive, and nice. It may take you an hour to get to your destination via mass transit but it’s totally doable.

Also, I was always under the assumption that cars cannot exceed a certain age in Singapore but the more I look into it the more I realize that is incorrect. There are stipulations to the age of a vehicle depending on its use however, if it is a private vehicle then there is not an age limit. What does expire is the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) which is something you must bid for, lasts for ten years, and can be renewed. This is probably how I got confused about the age of vehicles.

There is also a Vehicle Quote System (VQS) which manages the amount of new cars allowed to be registered in Singapore. This is tied into the bidding of the COE and, my eyes are crossing, I think what happens is you bid for a COE and only if the quota has not been exceeded for that month then you are able to procure a vehicle. It’s not at all confusing and probably a very effective way at keeping traffic to a minimum because people like me would have given up by now.

Finally, if you are an expat, you will have to eventually take the Singapore driver’s license test. Apparently, you can drive on your home country’s driver’s license for one year in Singapore but after that you will have to obtain a Singaporean driver’s license. For some reason I also felt like we were told if you wait for more than six months to purchase a vehicle upon arrival then it gets harder (probably for all of the abovementioned procedures)…but, I was half asleep when we first arrived and I’m not finding verification of that online.

This is all to say that shortly after our arrival in Singapore Marcus found the car of his dreams, one even older than what we left behind, a 2002 Toyota Previa. Picture this (and if you’ve ever seen our previous cars this won’t be hard to do): A sideview mirror so rusty the previous owners attached two secondary mirrors, a shaky start-up with an engine that may or may not stall at a red light which is always a fun game to play, an early 2000s body style (though we have recently discovered the captain’s seats in the middle have foot rests and the sliding door windows roll down), and, most recently, a dead battery (fun fact, nobody owns jumper cables because nobody has a 20-year-old car). It blends in nicely with the Mercedes and Lamborghinis in the parking garage and I’m sure our status as the Beverly Hillbillies has been sealed. Ultimately, the reasons we purchased the vehicle was because it was cheap, buying one sooner would be easier as opposed to later, and, worst comes to worst and she goes belly-up, we can say we tried it and it wasn’t for us and we wouldn’t be out a ton of money.

So far having a car has been nice especially when we want to go places that can take an excessively long time to get to via mass transit or would be excessively expensive to take private transport. The max speed limit is 90 km (55 mph) so nobody is going anywhere fast though there are the motorbikes which breeze between cars and which scares the shit out of me. With the girls going back to school it will be handy to have it in the case of emergency pick-ups (looking at you, youngest child of mine who knocked her head so hard on a concrete block that the nurse had her come home because she was bleeding so profusely).

I have driven a handful of times now though always with a navigator. My girlfriend was the first guinea pig because it was shortly after our move into the new apartment and an Ikea trip was necessary. She met me at the apartment and after a stall out, we were on our way! She was a better navigator than Google Maps as she prepared me to be in certain lanes and helped me look out for buses/motorcycles/other cars/pedestrians/UFOs. There were only a few tense moments as I recall. My biggest mistake that I still deal with is the turn signal lever is on the right and the windshield wiper lever is on the left. I’ve definitely turned on the windshield wipers every time I drive.

Anyway, we made it to Ikea in one piece and now was the second biggest hurdle (the first being making it to our destination alive): Parking a minivan in a parking garage with spaces meant for compact cars. I did it with only a few back ups and pull forwards to adjust. I may or may not have hit a pillar, though the car will never tell you because she’s 20-years-old and knows how to keep a secret.

After our adventure in Ikea, we loaded-up and left the parking garage. Easy enough. We chatted on our way out of the parking garage and both of us heard a noise…was it a flat tire? Was the engine about to crap out (again)? Had I hit something? Was I dragging something? The answer to those last two questions was “yes.” Yes, I was hitting and dragging something. Specifically, I was hitting the corrugated wall outside of the Ikea and dragging the left side-view mirror along it resulting in a ballad that could only be the result of metal on metal.

I think my girlfriend just about died from laughter as it evoked memories of cruising around town in that long ago car, the one whose windshield wiper flew off as the rain started or whose brakes gave out, cruising through a left hand turn all while still jamming to that TLC CD on repeat.

I think this is what is referred to as “Wild-eyed excitement.”

Planning a Trip to O’ahu

Some of you may roll your eyes at this because I know it sounds ridiculous but, after being in Singapore for six months, it was a small culture shock coming back to the U.S. (albeit, Hawaii). First of all, I’ve only, personally driven in Singapore maybe three times but more than once I was briefly concerned that Marcus was driving on the wrong side of the road. It also really didn’t help that there is a road in Waikiki that looks like they expanded by adding a lane to the other side of a median so the lanes go from two to three with a treed median between them…does that make sense? I mean, my description. Does my description make sense? In a way, their work-around makes sense because it saved trees and all they had to do was paint some new lines directing traffic so, really, I applaud the ingenuity but it is a bit startling at first when your entire life a median is now, no longer a median.

The second slight culture shock was just how loud it was. I didn’t realize how used to the quiet of Singapore I had become. There is an absolute difference even at the airport. I first noticed it at the airport in Fiji as many of the people who were in the waiting area were American. It was so loud compared to the peace of the waiting area in Singapore. But that wasn’t the only time I distinctly noticed the difference. Everywhere in Hawaii was loud. The people on the streets, the restaurants, the constant sirens (I have a hunch that the Waikiki first responders have to be some of the busiest in the United States).

This isn’t to say that Singapore is always quiet but for the most part, it is. The bus is quiet. The train is quiet. The malls are quiet. The streets are quiet with the exception of the occasional angry honk from a driver. I mean, I even rarely hear sirens. Truly, the loudest thing in Singapore are my children screaming at each other.

Despite these few differences it was nice to be back in the states and I made it my personal mission to find the best tacos in town because I have been missing a good taco. After nearly two weeks of searching I learned that some people have no business claiming they sell tacos. I’m not here to point fingers but please don’t slap two pieces of deep-fried fish in a tortilla with some salad greens and call it a taco (*hint* it’s a blue food truck on Kuhio Avenue). Anyway, I did eventually find my favorite tacos at Duke’s Waikiki and now I need to try and replicate them at home.

Speaking of food, one similarity Hawaii shares with Singapore is that the food is expensive. At least in Singapore you can eat fairly cheaply at a hawker centre. But in Hawaii, even the food trucks are expensive. You can correct me if I’m wrong and maybe we just didn’t look hard enough but we were easily spending almost $200 every day on food for four people. Food costs can certainly be cut by staying somewhere with a kitchen or kitchenette.

Equally expensive are the excursions and fun things to do. I knew I wanted to take the girls to Pearl Harbor and Iolani Palace. I thought it would be a good juxtaposition, showing the girls how the United States was the victim in one case but the aggressor in another. As it turns out, Pearl Harbor’s biggest attraction, the U.S.S Arizona Memorial has strict crowd limitations so, what could have been free cost us over $100 for a bus tour which was almost (though not 100%) a guaranteed way to get on the memorial. Tickets go on sale through the National Park Service the day before but they are typically scooped up before you can even get onto the site. You can go and wait as stand-by for tickets but I heard the wait could be up to three hours so definitely, definitely visit the Pearl Harbor website to better understand the current situation.

Iolani Palace, on the other hand, was a breeze though I did buy tickets in advance. With the way COVID changed things it is good to keep in mind that many places require advance bookings and no longer sell tickets “at the door.” In my opinion, Iolani Palace is a “must-do” for any new visitor to Hawaii. You learn about the culture of the native Hawaiians and their previous monarchy. It’s not a very happy story, in the end, but the palace is beautiful and currently they have on display recreations of some of the last queen’s ball gowns which are just gorgeous and which I would wear any day of the week.

Diamond Head is another must-do for anyone with the ability to climb the 560 feet to the top. Diamond Head also requires advance bookings from tourists in order to climb it. Be prepared for it to be hot and bring a lot of water, especially if you choose an 11:00 AM slot like I did. Also, be prepared for a lot of “it builds character” moments with the children. We didn’t actually make it to the very top as both of the girls took one look at the last set of stairs and immediately walked the other way. They liked the bunker just shy of the very top and explored that for a bit before we started our descent. Despite the occasional “I want to turn around” moments the girls did a great job on the trail and were rewarded with their new favorite drink, Jarritos, at lunch.

Another place we visited was Kualoa Ranch which is famous for it’s breathtaking scenery and many movies and TV shows that have been filmed there including Jurassic Park. As a family, we had just finished the entire Jurassic series so I decided to take the girls on a tour of the movies of Kualoa Ranch. Honestly, this one I could have done without but the girls found it to be mildly entertaining. Really, they were most interested in the horseback riding tours that were offered but neither of the girls were old enough. Also, the price to ride horses was astronomically higher than the bus tour.

I did eventually find a ranch that offered horseback riding at a slightly more reasonable price, Gunstock Ranch, so I made a reservation for the girls and I to do that on one of our last days in Hawaii. That was a fun experience as all three of us are horse lovers and to be able to ride a horse is always such a treat. Plus, they had a small petting zoo with a baby cow and some rather rude goats and the girls got their 4-H on by loving on all of the animals.

So, those were the big things we did. We also had some fantastic cousin time with Marcus’s cousin who lives in Hawaii and a cousin who was visiting with her family from Minnesota. It gave the girls a chance to bond with cousins they hardly get to see (Marcus too, for that matter). Other adventures we had were surf lessons for the girls, tons of beach time, and also stand-up paddle boarding and snorkeling which gave us the chance to see sea turtles and amazing fish in their natural habitat. I did a little shopping and consuming of adult drinks and driving around in a Jeep (not at the same time as the adult drinks) and, like I said, eating a ton of tacos. It was really a fantastic vacation marred only by the realization that we had a long journey home. Oh! One last thing. In case you were wondering where Marcus was during all of this, he was working for the Navy Reserves. He joined us when he could but for the most part it was just the girls and I.