Farewell to Hanoi – 3 years on

Today marks 3 years since we left Hanoi at the end of our 3.5 year posting. We have been back in Australia for almost as long as we were there.

Our life has changed so much since then. Our little boys who were 3.5 months and 2 years old when we arrived in Hanoi, were still so little when we left – and are now school boys. We’ve had our ups and downs adjusting to a new life in the Barossa. There are days where I do miss the challenge of my public service/diplomatic career and I wonder whether leaving it behind was the right thing to do. But then I think about our wonderful lifestyle, the new friends who have welcomed us into this community and supported us and the opportunities we have been presented. I look at two little boys thriving in this beautiful rural town, playing sport and learning so much and I appreciate the fact I do have the time to spend with them and create my own new career.

The photos below were just a quick sample, uploaded in between the boys Crossfit class and basketball yesterday. It would be lovely to sit and browse through the albums of thousands of photos we took during the years. But how do you sum up 3.5 years of your life in photos or even words. We grew as parents and as a family and made some big decisions. We had the most incredible experiences and we made friends from all around the world. There are so many wonderful people from Vietnam and beyond that really should be in the photos below.

Its been cold and rainy here in the Barossa today and so I can’t help but miss the Hanoi summer. We are so grateful to have had the chance to call another place home and while it was only 3.5 years, it will always be a very special part of our family’s story.

 

Rediscovering the joy of writing

 

img_0058For the last 30 days, I have been doing a writing bootcamp as part of the Australian Writer’s Centre “Make Time to Write” course. I’ve woken up each morning and checked the tasks with a level of excitement. Some days I had to write 250 words, sometimes 500 words in 30 minutes, occasionally 1000 words. There were days where we were encouraged to stop, be creative, plan. We were encouraged to test writing at different times of the day. The key was to realise that we don’t need whole days locked away in silence to write. For most writers, its about finding small pockets of time during the day to just write.

I completed every task although there was a week where being on holidays and spending time with my sister and her family meant I didn’t write, but I didn’t give in and when I sat down to write, the words flowed. On those “catch-up” days, I realised I could actually write a lot – and sometimes, having had a break for a few days, I was filled with ideas and inspiration.

For the 30 days, apart from one blog post, I have focused on writing my memories about my visits to Vietnam – my first 12 days visit in 2003, our three and a half year posting between 2011 and 2014 and then an 8 day holiday last year. Once I started writing the memories flowed and on most days I surpassed the word count. In high school, I was always told quality not quantity, but during this course, I learned that it was better to have bad words to edit than no words at all. During the last 30 days, I haven’t edited or researched. I had a list of topics and quite often, starting to write on one topic, lead me to another.

The main aim of the course was finding time to write. I had barely blogged for the last year because “I never had time”. While I haven’t written apart from the book, I have finally rediscovered a love of writing that I had lost – if I’d even had it. I used to like the idea of writing but actually sitting and typing has seriously got the creative juices flowing and I’ve had several nights where it’s been after midnight when I’ve gone to sleep – either because I have been writing or researching about writing. I’ve found writers to follow on social media, found guides on writing (especially about travel memoirs) and actually started to believe that I could write a book.

The only downside to this new excitement is a few nights where I have struggled to go to sleep because my mind was buzzing with ideas for blog posts, rewriting my website and chapters for my Vietnam memoir. I’ve skipped more gym sessions that I should have because I’ve stayed up late writing and I just hope that now the boys are back at school, I can carve out a bit more time at reasonable hours so I am not leaving it until after 9pm to start writing down everything that has swirled around my head all day.
Rediscovering writing has been just the creative outlet I have needed and realising that I don’t need a whole day to write a blog post will hopefully mean I’ll update this blog a bit more. While I’ll continue to write about travel, career change and my Barossa life, I’ll also start sharing some more thoughts about writing and I expect, some draft chapters from my Vietnam book as it takes shape.

I hope you enjoy reading and I’d love to know what you think!

Learning to find (make) time to write

Last week I published my first blog post in 9 months. I use the word published because I’d actually written it 2 weeks ago when I’d decided I really did want to write again. But I procrastinated for a fortnight because I didn’t have time to sit and upload photos. So I hit publish and then did nothing else. No social media sharing – despite having set up (and then unpublished a Facebook page for the blog).  I even changed the name, the theme and the profile on my blog. But apart from the 40 odd followers who will probably unsubscribe when they see the notification, having forgotten who I am or that they had even subscribed when they get an email, I didn’t tell anyone – not even my family.

Given this lack of self-promotion(?), even I question the need for a blog. Surely a diary would suffice. But if I’m really honest, two years on from starting my blog, I still do like the idea of building a community and interacting with those people. I have no grand plan to become a BabyMac or Mrs Woog but I’d be lying if I said, I’m writing just for me or my friends and family.

My excuses for not writing are varied but in short, I’ve backed myself into a spot where I  only seem to write at the desktop computer and I had to have photos to upload. The silly thing is, when I first moved here and left my career, my big thing was being free of being tied to a desk. I wanted to work anywhere. That means that when time is short, I don’t just sit and write and yet, mornings in the shower, evenings cleaning my teeth and other times in between,  I find myself dictating blog posts in my head.

When Simon’s tumor was diagnosed in February, part of me wanted to write. But another part of me felt it was his story, not mine to tell. And to be very truthful, I didn’t like the idea of starting a story where there was a chance the ending wouldn’t be great.

I’ve also realised that something else holding me back has been this idea of separating the blogging me from the consultant me. I wanted to write about the challenges of starting a business but what would that say to people who might want to hire me. The word authentic is almost as overused as journey but not writing about how it feels to start a business from scratch and juggle it with a part time job and a family didn’t feel very authentic.

The truth is, I have a wealth of knowledge about trade policy, free trade agreements, negotiations, market access and amazing networking skills. I am great at connecting people, identifying valuable research and opportunities. None of that is erased by me saying that starting a business is hard.

During our trip to Vietnam,  I was struck my this need to write something about our the 3.5 years we spent there, as well as this recent visit and my first visit in 2003 (which I still have a full journal of notes about). While a true writer would have scribbled a first draft, I mulled over ideas and signed up to a writing course which will be launched later this year and will hopefully teach me how to be a better writer and to allocate time for it.

While I don’t often back myself, I have a small arrogant streak that truly believes I could write a book. But in order to do that, I need to cast off some bad habits and just write. So first step, writing this on the iPad in bed, (even if it then took be another week to edit and post) and maybe, just maybe along the way, I can entertain my readers as I improve my craft.

I’m back…where to start?

I cannot believe I haven’t written since last year. That said, I’m not sure where the first two-thirds of this year disappeared. Writing a blog post about all that has happened might seem like a whole lot of excuses – so instead, here’s a month by month snapshot and some photos with the promise of more to come.

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Stunning beach at Port Hughes – a couple of amazing days at a cabin in the caravan park

January – a great Christmas in Sydney, sold our house in Canberra and came back ready to start the year. A few days in Port Hughes making the most of a great summer. Decided I really needed to get a job so started looking around for cellar door roles. Got the boys ready for school. Simon finally decided to see why his arm was bugging him so much – and bought a ute. Finally we had 2 cars.

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First Day of school – Year 2 and Reception (Kindergarten)

February – 1st of the month saw our youngest join his brother at school and I got a job. Simple. Met for a coffee, chatted, walked to the office – organsied handover. I like to decsribe my job with Schwarz Wines as anything but making the wine – which isn’t entirely true but it’s an awesome mix of office administration, finance, marketing and recently, even some selling. We got back into the groove of working and school and I got ready to run my first training session on free trade agreements as part of a China Ready program run by the local regional development association. Great presentation – not such a great day. Turns out the pain in Simon’s arm was a tumour.

March – day 1 of the month was Simon’s biopsy and 11 days later his amazing surgeon confirmed the worst. A 9.5cm tumour (chondrasacoma) in the cartlidge in his upper arm bone.. The treatment – removing about 20cm of bone and replacing with titanium and so another 11 days later, Simon was under the knife. Amazing doctors and nurses at Flinders made us very glad of our choice to move to South Australia – and thankful my Mum could come down and help. After a week in hospital, brough Simon, his bionic arm and his sling home to start rehab. Fortunately with this kind of tumour, treatment was limited to cutting it out – and as he went into surgery, we learned it hadn’t spread.

April – no idea what we did. Simon went back to work pretty quickly. His employers and colleagues at Artisans of Barossa were amazing. The boys took it in their stride. Friends were amazing. Teachers and after school carers a huge help. I started Crossfit because I needed some exercise after Easter! The Dawn Service in Tanunda was lovely and I realised it was the first time I’d attended a local service. We had a wonderful visit from old Beijing/Canberra friends and again got to play tourist in our own town. Lots of great wine was drunk. Simon’s first follow-up appointment showed all was looking well and the surgery had removed all the cancer. Went on my first decent bushwalk in the Barossa – so beautiful.

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First proper Barossa bushwalk – 10km from Little Kaiser Stuhl to Bethany

May – continuined the juggle of work, my business, trying to stay fit, kids sport etc etc. Went to Sydney for my sister’s 40th – great to spend time in their newly renovated house and catch up with some many friends. On a whim, booked the trip to Vietnam we’d thought about earlier in the year.  More walking and the rain began….

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Rainy morning in the vineyards

June – June was just June. Winter so cold and so wet. The countdown to Vietnam was on. More fantastic walks, work, work and family stuff.

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Hanoi really turned on the weather

July – The countdown to Vietnam continued and Mum came to look after the boys for the first week of the school holidays. It was freezing. I got hailed on going to the toilet at work one day and Mum pointed out it was colder than Lithgow or Canberra. We got our work done and finally we left for Vietnam. 10 amazing days. We landed in Hanoi exactly 2 years and 1 month after leaving – but I’ll save that for another post. We came back and it was still cold, wet and there was work to do. But then a friend pointed out a house that was on the market.

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Beautiful weather for our escape to Hoi An too

August – The first week was jam packed. Did our tax (yahoo money back), saw the mortgage broker and I went to Sydney to sell wine. Was glad I’d listended to Simon over the years. Sucked at getting public transport (even with apps on my phone I missed trains) but discovered Uber. Caught up with friends as well as my family. Came home and got serious about buying the house (more on that to come). Simon’s recovery continues and he’ll hopefully be behind the wheel again soon. I’m getting clearer about the work I want to do with my consulting business and got to work with my execllent B2B colleagues on a fantastic conference (more on that soon too).

September – its trying to warm up but it’s still wet. The canola and blossoms are beautiful. I’m working on a great project that will helpo business to understand how to create better value for consumers. Settlement it later in the month. Right now its all about booking tradespeople, deciding on colours and choosing lights.

It’s definitely been busy, and had it’s ups and downs. I’ve wanted to write but couldn’t work out when or where to start. But while we were in Vietnam, I suddenly had this huge urge to write about our posting experience and the experience of my three trips to Vietnam – first as a single girl in my 20s (during my posting in China – so lots of comparisons), then our posting which started with a 3 month old and a two year old and me going back to work, and then going back.

So, it’s time to start writing blog posts again, and while there might not be a theme (and expect lots on rennovations, gardens and decorating), I’ll try and make it fun – and include lots of photos.

Retail therapy in Hanoi

Edited: 18 September 2017 to update some detail for some of my favourite places

Study deadlines of course bring on the urge to bake, clean and shop but rather than head into the dangerous territory of online shopping, I thought I’d take myself on a little virtual shop through my favourite places in Hanoi. I started this post last week, but a malfunction with my photo album and study took over and so it’s been over a week between posts.

When I drafted this post initially, I was going to make the point it is now over three months since we left Hanoi and that like many places in South East Asia, Hanoi is changing fast. As it turns out in the last few days, I have learned about a few new places but I’ll still be sharing this with friends and asking them to add to this – and of course, if you have been to Hanoi and want to add anything, please comment below.

There are also lots of tourist maps around, but I would recommend the Nancy Chandler hand drawn map of Hanoi which you can find at various places including Bookworm. Updates also appear on the Nancy Chandler web page.

Chula

It’s no secret that the vast majority of my Hanoi wardrobe was from Chula. From the first time I set eyes on these amazing designs, rainbow colours and perfect fit I was hooked. Although many of us in Hanoi had similar designs, I don’t think I ever showed up wearing something the same as anyone. I also loved how Laura & Diego and their team would alter things to suit – my last dress which I wore for my 40th being adapted from a poncho.

Mum and I wearing Chula on my 40th birthday. My dress was from Chula's most recent Hanoi collection and was actually adapted from a poncho!
Mum and I wearing Chula on my 40th birthday. My dress was from Chula’s most recent Hanoi collection and was actually adapted from a poncho!
With my birthday twin Elodie wearing Chula - hers is the fabulous Pho (noodle soup) dress
With my birthday twin Elodie wearing Chula – hers is the fabulous Pho (noodle soup) dress

Laura & Diego are passionate about what they do and have really created something special. Once a small studio in their home, they have moved out allowing for the expansion of the shop space which also doubles as a venue for art and music (and includes the family alter of the landlords which is still used daily and is an incredible sight). It’s also on a pretty part of Ho Tay (West Lake) which is worth a visit (just near the pottery covered dragons) and if you can’t make it to Hanoi, best thing is they are now online. So you can shop the collection or even send your measurements in for something custom made and they’ll send it anywhere in the world (just make sure you tell them I sent you)!

Courtyard at Chula
Courtyard at Chula

Hang Gai

Vietnamese for “silk street” it’s probably no surprise that this was one of my favourite shopping streets in Hanoi. I often did a mad dash from the office in the last lunch hour before leaving for Australia to stock up on last minute gifts. I’ll talk about Tan My, Ginko and Hanoi Moment below, but other good shops include Ninh Khuong for embroidered clothes and gifts for babies and children and of course being silk street, lots of shops selling silk. Han Gai is also home to the Hidden Café (great Vietnamese Coffee especially egg coffee with a view over the lake – see my post on the things I miss about Hanoi).

Tan My

If Chula was my favourite place (and weakness) for dresses, then it was Tan My for everything else. It was my favourite place to take guests and the best place to buy good quality gifts including lacquer, linen, gorgeous Valerie Cordier handbags, art deco lamps from My Way deco, art prints and Vietnamese themed stationery and kids books.

Valerie Cordier bags and beautiful lacquer from Tan My
Valerie Cordier bags and beautiful lacquer from Tan My
My Way Deco lamp from Tan My
My Way Deco lamp from Tan My

Ginko T-shirts

Ginko sell funky t-shirts in kids and adults sizes. My favourite is probably their Vietnam telecom shirt which has sadly been picked up by all the t-shirt copiers and one with various activities on a motorbike (everything from moving house to sleeping). Ginko have a couple of shops in Hanoi, including on Hang Gai, and are also in Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City

Hanoi Moment

Another great shop on Hang Gai. I’ve bought silver jewelry and candleholders, great pottery and they also do some really interesting boxes inlaid with rolled paper.

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Future Traditions

Future Traditions beautiful clothes using indigenous textiles sourced from across Vietnam as well as beautiful jewelry. In 2017, Future Traditions opened a showroom at 17, 11/18 To Ngoc Van. Their designs are also available at Emporium and Tan My Design

Oriberry Coffee and Pottery

This social enterprise has two locations – on Xuan Dieu in the Tay Ho (West Lake area) and one in Au Trieu in the Old Quarter (called Indigenous) has great coffee (both western and Vietnamese versions), and juices as well selling fair trade coffee (ground or beans) from a variety of areas in Vietnam and beautiful pottery from Bat Trang (great if you don’t have time to visit this pottery village just outside Hanoi).

Beautiful pottery from Bat Trang at Oriberry
Beautiful pottery from Bat Trang at Oriberry

Things to consider buying:

  • Vietnamese conical hat – non la – great for gardening I’m told
  • Bird cages – although a little tricky to ship
  • Lacquer and bamboo – with the usual rule of “you get what you pay for”
  • Fabric – depends what you are looking for but a trip to a fabric market like Cho Hom or even the street selling all manner of ribbons, buttons, zips and trims in the old quarter is worth it if you like sewing

Even taking a few days from my first draft on this, I’m sure as soon as I hit publish I will remember some others but these are my favourites that spring to mind as I indulge in a little virtual retail therapy..

Please share your tips and any favourites you have found in Hanoi.

Dreaming of a beach break in Hoi An

After a beautiful weekend, it’s a wet, cold and windy day in the Barossa so I can’t help but start thinking of the beach. So I thought it was a good time as any to share some of my favourite places in Vietnam starting with our favourite spot for both family beach getaways and girls weekends.

Beach in Danang
Beach in Danang

Hoi An and Danang are in the centre of Vietnam, on a long skinny strip of the country that is only about 50 kilometres wide with ocean on one side and mountains (and Laos) on the other. It’s an area with a fascinating long history with amazing Cham Kingdom ruins but was sadly also hugely affected by the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese refer to as the American War). The Cham Museum in Danang is well worth a look. Other popular tourist sites include the ruins at My Son, Ba Na Hills and the 67-meter-high statue of the Bodhisattva of Mercy at the Linh Ung -Bai But Pagoda on Son Tra Peninsula.

Lady Buddha in Danang
Lady Buddha in Danang

Hoi An is an old fishing village which has been well preserved although it’s quite different from my first visit in 2003 when much of the Old Town was a tourist site. However you can still buy a ticket that gives you access to the Japanese covered bridge and some of the old shop houses, which have been restored. Hoi An used to be much quieter, but it is now a popular spot for local and international tourists. However it is still a wonderful escape from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and has some of the best food, hospitality, tailoring and hotels in the country.

Hoi An Old Town
Hoi An Old Town

Our first visit as a family was in 2011 when the boys were almost 1 and 3. We stayed at the Victoria Resort which was perfect for a family, the deluxe garden rooms being big enough for a spare bed and a cot – and we have been back several times. The Victoria is on the beach, and although part of the beachfront was lost during a series of bad storms in 2013, but they have built up another area of beach at the end of the resort. The gardens are beautiful and the breakfast buffet is one of my favourites. The hotel offers side car trips around the local area and is about a 5 minute taxi into Hoi An. It’s a popular hotel for families probably because babysitting is easy to organize through the hotel and there is a kids club and kids pool.

View from our room at the Victoria Resort Hoi An
View from our room at the Victoria Resort Hoi An

Getting around Hoi An with small children is also fairly easy compared to the bigger cities. There are still motorbikes but no cars in the old town so it’s actually a pleasant place to push a stroller around. Like most of Vietnam, children are welcomed and well looked after.

Sunset at the Victoria in Hoi An (sadly this beach was lost in the storms in 2013)
Sunset at the Victoria in Hoi An (sadly this beach was lost in the storms in 2013)

Hoi An is home to some of my favourite Vietnamese food including white rose dumpling, My Quang noodles, Cao lau noodles (a Hoi An specialty) and Hoi An chicken rice. I also had the best ban my (Vietnamese roll) at Banh My Phuong on our last visit 2B Pham Châu Trinh Street. Great restaurants include Bale Well – all you can each skewers and Vietnamese pancakes wrapped in rice paper wrapping; White Marble – fusion food and a great wine bar which makes it a good choice for snacks or dinner, Morning Glory (and their fabulous cookbook of the same name), Streets Cafe – providing hospitality training for local youth (and my pick for Hoi An chicken rice) and Q Bar for cocktails.

Favourite Hoi An dishes at the Victoria - white rose dumplings and Cao lay noodles
Favourite Hoi An dishes at the Victoria – white rose dumplings and Cao lay noodles
Banh My from Banh My Phuong in Hoi An - so sad I only discovered this on my last trip.
Banh My from Banh My Phuong in Hoi An – so sad I only discovered this on my last trip.

We had lots of things made at A Dong tailors on Le Loi Street but apart from suit and shirt fabric and some silk, there is limited choice so my best clothes were suits they copied or dresses with fabric I had brought with me. Other great shopping in Hoi An includes quirky Ginko t-shirts, Metiseko, Hot Chilli (Australian designed and locally made beachwear), as well as lanterns, pottery and other souvenirs. A fairly recent addition to Hoi An’s shopping scene is Ô Collective which brings together a selection of great brands from across Vietnam including Saigon Kitsch.

I would always recommend Hoi An to tourists and if you can, a trip on the train to Hue gives you an amazing view of the Hai Van pass. Otherwise fly in to Danang which is one of Vietnam’s newest (and best) airports and only about 30 minutes from Hoi An.

Hai Van pass - on the train between Hue and Danang
Hai Van pass – on the train between Hue and Danang

Living in Hanoi, Danang was a popular option for girls’ weekends and golf trips. There are a range of great hotels and spa resorts along the beach like the Fusion Maia which has spa villas and 2 spa treatments per person per day as part of the package or the secluded Intercontinental about 40 minutes north of Danang.

Pool villa at Fusion Maia Danang
Pool villa at Fusion Maia Danang
Intercontinental Danang
Intercontinental Danang

One of the only downsides to Hoi An and Danang can be the weather. We found it was still a bit cool for swimming in March but was beautiful by April. In 2012, we had five amazing days in July, but August- September tend to be stormy months and in 2013, there were still storms (and floods) through until November. Given how quickly Vietnam is changing, and the fact we’ve already been gone three months, I’d recommend Lonely Planet for general tourist information, Trip Advisor and local bloggers like Sticky Rice, Vietnamese God and Cameron Stauch for restaurant advice and Trip Advisor and Agoda for hotel reviews. Travelfish is also a good site for general information and good accommodation reviews. Travelling with children I have always tended to book directly with hotels just to ensure we can all fit and get the cot/spare bed we needed – and I found being a resident in Vietnam usually ensured we received a good rate. Over the next few months, I’ll try and post about some other places in Vietnam and the region, but please get in touch if there is somewhere you’d like to hear about.

Beautifully preserved and restored buildings in Hoi An
Beautifully preserved and restored buildings in Hoi An
Riverside in the old town in Hoi An
Riverside in the old town in Hoi An