Capturing our love for art, adventure and learning
Anniversaries and birthdays tend to remind me to consider my mortality. It teaches me to number my days and savour the moments. Do you feel this way too?
I spent my last 7 years being a stay home dad, homeschool teacher and entrepreneur. I have had a lot more time with my wife and children compared to most people. But it still feels like the time flashed by. The babies I carried in my arms are now running around, talking back and will probably be off to college before I know it.
The studio shoot
The best way to keep memories in my opinion is to photograph and write about them. It is ironic that as a photographer, the last thing that I'd do is pay someone to take photographs of me and edit them. It is like an occupational hazard. Well, that's where you need a better half. Debra was the one who suggested taking studio photos and I reluctantly agreed.
The photos turned out really nice although the process of taking them were rather exhausting. If we got paid for asking Gwyn to look at the Camera, we'd be rich by now. She even put up a strike nearing the end of the shoot. Nothing some Haribo gummy bribe couldn't do....
The whole cost including the clothes, make up, studio and photographer was about 2 million Dong ($118 SGD). This would have cost us $500 bucks in Singapore...
When we got back to the hotel, we flipped through our iPhoto albums to compare the pictures for fun. Oh, we laughed till our tummies hurt. Unlike most people who accumulate wealth, we accumulated fats, white hair and wrinkles. haha!
If you missed out on our epic 10 year journey story, read it here!
Our time in Saigon
We didn't do very much in Saigon. We visited Saigon Central Post Office and had the intention to visit the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon but it is currently being refurbished. We also took the Saigon River bus to catch a glimpse of the Landmark 81 building (2nd tallest in South East Asia).
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) is really the up and coming economic power in South East Asia. The amount of foreign direct investments is very apparent when you travel through the city. In fact, Singapore is the biggest foreign direct investor in Vietnam. You'll find tall buildings occupied by Keppel and Mapletree. There is even a mall in town that is named Vivocity. You'll also find NTUC Fairprice's joint venture supermarkets and Cheers convenience shops across the city. We were surprised to find that the bread wrapped ice-cream/ice-cream wafer got exported there too!
It is a HUGE contrast to what you'll find in Hanoi and other smaller cities. The subway system in Saigon is also near completion.
We are spoilt Singaporeans
We've enjoyed a good 6 weeks being in Vietnam seeing the most epic mountains, learning about the cultural heritage of the tribes, understand the war from the Vietnamese perspective and savouring some tasty Vietnamese dishes. But to be very honest, we are starting feel a little weary. There are things we just cannot get used to.
We are in no way criticising the Vietnamese and their way of life. It is just not something we are comfortable living with. Our biggest struggle as a family is the food in Vietnam. I know of people who absolutely enjoy the Vietnamese cuisine. We do like a few dishes ourselves. But we are so SPOILT by the wide (and VERY affordable) selection in Singapore and Malaysia. We also miss the taste of spice in our food.
When we left the small town for the sprawling metropolis in Saigon, we found more food we are familiar with. But they can cost MORE than you'll pay in Singapore/Malaysia.
Another thing that we are very uncomfortable with is the noise in Vietnam. The very loud talking (sounds like yelling to us) all across Vietnam is something we never got used to. In hotels that more locals visit, you'll often be woken up by locals who all seem to be early risers. They would yell across the corridor to speak with their friends or family in another room at 5am in the morning.
We had to move hotel because we just got so sick of being woken up by yelling. The hotel breakfast was catered more to the local tastebuds too.
Although we are no longer startled by the incessant honking, it is still something we can't drone out and ignore. A good number of people have little concept of personal space (especially the older folks) and queue cutting is also something we find unpleasant.
Since it was our 10th Anniversary weekend, we took the opportunity to celebrate it at our favourite brand of hotels. We've been to Sofitel Heathrow, KL Damansara and now Sofitel Saigon Plaza. Guaranteed an awesome bed, a comfortable room and a great breakfast.
Gwyneth REJOICED when she found cereal and milk again at a hotel breakfast buffet. We took it for granted that it will always be possible to go to a local supermarket and find breakfast cereal, we were so wrong. The more local supermarkets in less touristy areas often don't carry cereals. Those that do sell them at a premium.
We still think that Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is a great place to spend a short vacation. You can find 5 star hotels that charge a fraction of what Singapore hotels charge. You will find many well stocked shopping malls with a wide array of good food. Grab rides are cheaper than Hanoi and the cars are of better quality. It just isn't a place we will base ourselves out of to get our books, art and photography done.
We decided to slow down and give ourselves more time to create our work in a place with the comforts of familiar food. We were extremely apprehensive given how the last two visits to KL gave us anxiety attacks. We were very lucky to find an apartment right smack in the CBD and very affordable too. We hopped on a VietJet (Vietnamese budget airlines) flight to KLIA. We are so thankful that everything went smoothly other than a 45 minute delay on the tarmac due to a technical fault that needed fixing.
ALL OF US were so grateful to be back in Malaysia. When Gwyn realised she was going to Malaysia halfway through the flight she thanked Debra so loudly a few rows of ppl looked at her HAHA! It felt like we were going back to a 2nd home. The immigration officers greeted us and smiled at us. We had lunch at the airport and we never smiled so much. FRIED RICEEEEEEEEEE and SAMBALLLLLLLLLL. Yes we are hopeless spoilt Singaporeans.....
We took a grab car to our accommodation. (Costs 70.50RM including toll) The ride was so peaceful. No honking and no dangerous manoeuvres. Grateful and relieved that the apartment is clean, comfortable and offers a gorgeous view!
We've already got a line up of posts prepared for August. We have planned a list of places in KL to visit. This time we are visiting places on public transport! Before we go, let us know in the comments what are things you can't live without when you're overseas?
A quick trip update...
We left Hanoi and Sapa on a return flight to Singapore with plans to travel to Korea. But it didn’t turn out in our favour because we found out there was a need for THREE swabs….
1. Pre-flight ART/PCR,
2. Arrival PCR
3. 6th/7th day ART
The airport clinic was OVERFLOWING with people to the point that I thought we’ll probably catch covid from trying to get a test to prove we don’t have the virus. In the end we decided to take a short trip to the South of Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon) since we haven’t seen it yet. We are in the process of collating content for a new blog post on that!
The 12 hour overnight layover in Singapore was absolutely exhausting despite being in the world’s best airport. It was such a relief when the plane took off and we were rewarded with some mind boggling views.
Watch us ascend through the clouds on this reel!
Now we answer two of the biggest queries!
Are you not worried about retirement?
Since we’ve posted our almost viral post (https://www.hirojack.com/blog/10-years-of-marriage-we-sold-everything), we’ve got quite a few questions about our “homelessness” and nomad lifestyle which ultimately leads to the first question about retirement.
The short answer is Yes and No.
Before I begin on my longer answer, I would like to make it clear that these are my opinions and they are highly subjective.
To properly answer this question, we need to first tackle the preconceived notions of retirement, what’s the best way to live our lives. There isn’t a “best way” to live one’s life to be honest but in Singapore, the large majority of people focus their lives around these things:
2. Promotion/Corporate ladder
3. Investments, savings and hoarding.
4. “Face” (Having the things and lifestyle)
The “safe route” to retirement
The modus operandi for most would be to pour 30++% (if you include interests you pay the bank/HDB and your own CPF account) of your gross income into a HDB flat/property. Some homeowners spend almost ALL of their CPF savings each month on their property loans.
This property is expected to appreciate in value just as our parents generation experienced. Sell off the property and make a handsome profit so you’ll have a nest egg for retirement.
This way makes us more worried and uncomfortable. In fact, I don’t think it will work. Just because it worked for our parents, it doesn’t mean it will work for us. Properties have appreciated 500-700% from 30 years ago, I cannot imagine it growing that amount given how slow salaries have been rising. That means that even if there is appreciation, it wouldn’t be enough for a nest egg. Moreover, we will be putting all our eggs in a basket that decays. All leasehold properties aren’t forever homes, the lose their value.
Nobody owns a HDB property. Everyone is a HDB flat lease owner with the ability to resell that lease. (You ask for permission to renovate, HDB inspects the unit when you sell it off because the building belongs to them) You are the lessee and HDB is the lessor. It's in the documents you sign. That means HDB has full reign over SERS and redevelopment. It is no certainty that this investment you make with 30+% of your gross income will always work out the same way it did.
Along with the flat, people put in long hours into their careers and investments at the expense of only spending a couple of hours with their kids daily. Having nice things matter to them a lot more than other things in life. We don’t see the appeal in these. We can’t bring ourselves to build our lives around things we don’t believe in or don’t see value in. These are very personal choices, we are not saying that wanting items 1-4 is wrong. There’s nothing wrong with it if you’ve weighed your options and find it worthy enough to dedicate your life work to it.
This safe route makes us a lot more worried about retirement. So yes we are worried.
We are worried that our children will grow up not having that personal connection and collection of childhood memories with their parents. We are worried that in our old age, the property we spent our life savings on will be taken away, redeveloped and lose its value entirely. We are worried that even if we have made a fortune from selling the nest egg, we will put a huge amount of it back into medical/care bills. We are worried that having dedicated our working lives to a career that we build our identity around, we will have to experience the trauma of losing that identity through retirement.
The path we choose to take
We have chosen to carve a career for ourselves. One that we don’t have to retire from. One that we don’t want to retire or take a holiday from. One that gives us time to grow with our children. Like everyone else, we eventually want to have a property we can call home. We don’t need a house that’s worth a million dollars. We just want a home that we really own and be able to pass it down.
We want to live in a place where we pay our taxes all through our working lives as a society and have free healthcare as a right. We want to be where we have the right to manage our savings for retirement the way we deem fit. We know this isn’t a perfectly fool proof plan. But countries that offer what we want also affords a right to freely protest, challenge and change the government that does not work in the best interests of its people.
Travelling, migration, building a career, homeschooling our kids....What have we gotten ourselves into HAHA! At the end of the day, no plan is foolproof or superior. This is just the way of life we find worthy of investing our lifework in. It is the way that makes us less worried.
How much does it cost to travel a month like that
We’ve not been able to travel beyond ASEAN for now. The airfares and accommodation prices are too extreme and so we are staying within Asia for now. The costs here can get you a month in places like Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Indonesia. The prices are quoted for 2 adults and 2 children aged below 8 years.
-Air travel around the ASEAN region typically cost $200-500 one way. This fluctuates. If you book early, it’ll be cheaper.
-Monthly accommodation generally costs between $600 to $2000 a month. We try a mix of home stays, hotels and Airbnb properties. Month long stays typically get you quite a good discount. But don’t expect super luxurious
-Food, groceries, attractions and grab etc we try to keep within $700-$1200 a month.
We cook and eat at local places as much as possible to keep the costs down.
When we slow down and get school/writing done with less travelling it can go as low as $2500/month. When we are out and about exploring many locations, it could go as high as $4000+/month
Our next post will feature what we’ve done for the past week in Saigon. We are really excited to feature an activity we did to celebrate 10 years together! We are happy to make more posts answering your questions too! Keep the questions coming.
A love story and union that always went against the grain, against immense objections and against the odds will celebrate its 10th Anniversary in a week’s time. Join us on an epic journey that led to our grand tour and The Odd Life Blog.
I was lucky she didn’t run away
Debra and I met 18 years ago in church in the most unlikely of circumstances. We weren’t in the same small group or zone groupings but somehow we were always randomly paired to lead youth camp groups for 4-5 years consecutively. We hated each other’s guts in those early years but somehow enjoyed chatting on the now defunct MSN messenger. She was someone I would look forward to talking to after a long day of training in the Army or a stressful day in school. She was there chatting with me in the long cold winter nights despite the time difference in the UK. I think we shared many positive feelings for each other but I never saw it beyond a great friend. We never went out but this went on for 7 years.
We were both fresh out of school and at the crossroads of our lives when somehow magic happened and we discussed the possibility of dating. The most romantic thing wasn’t flowers which Debra hates (lucky me!). What’s romantic was our desire not to waste time in a relationship that would not have the best chance at lasting and bearing fruit. We discussed extensively our plans, goals, careers, the possibility of a long distance relationship, opportunity costs of marriage etc. I must be the luckiest man on earth that she didn’t run away. We eventually decided to date and it is the most incredible feeling to be with someone who had been a constant friend for 7 years. Unpretentious and so comfortably familiar.
It rained brimstones and hail
Several months into dating, a series of extraordinary events happened. I was invited to her family Christmas party but was told to not come at the last minute. It was baffling. This was almost like a premonition of what was to come. As the time progressed, we started having random people in church telling us we shouldn’t be together. We should reconsider etc. We were young adults at that point who had a vision for our relationship, with plans to buy a HDB flat and to work towards marriage a couple of years later. But that was not what her parents and the church community had in mind. The more they pressed us to leave each other, the more we pressed on. I proposed and Debra said yes. Almost a year passed and this culminated in an orchestrated storm of brimstones and hail from all corners. I was man-handled and almost punched by a supposed leader I defied for holding my fiancé hands in the service. Obey or leave, that was my ultimatum. It came to the point I had to make a police report for my own safety and threaten to sue. Debra was forced to a corner. Leave me or leave home.
I did nothing to deserve what Debra chose. She left home.
We never intended to be on our own. We thought we had two years to build our way for a nice wedding, a marriage that our families celebrated.
We chose love and commitment
It was a point of no return. It was the point we chose for ourselves. 10 years ago on August 3rd 2012, we were joined in matrimony in small ceremony at the ROM with no fanfare. Debra cried sad tears because among the guests were her fuming parents who stormed out shortly after we signed. Why they chose to subject us to such trauma is still a mystery. But we, and by we I mean Debra, myself and my parents, chose love and commitment. My parents accepted Debra and loved her like their own. That’s something I will always be grateful for.
My parents made it a point to always give us good counsel and reminded us to honour our parents. Mummy would tell us “no matter what, they are still her parents and raised her”. They reminded us about forgiveness.
Fixing what went wrong
It took an entire year to find our footing in our faith again before we returned to my childhood church. We were newly married and struggled though what most couples struggle with as we learnt to make marriage work. The last thing we wanted was a wedding ceremony to relive all the turmoil we had to experience at ROM. Eventually though my mum persuaded me to not short change Debra for her wedding dress moment and for God and His people to bless our marriage. We had a small church wedding ceremony to celebrate our marriage a year later so our families could come together and make right what went awry. It was not without its problems but we pressed on. We put our past behind and took our first steps toward normality in our relationship and marriage.
We committed to marriage at 22 and 25. That’s pretty young by today’s standards.That also meant we had less resources than most couples who choose marriage a whole 5 to 10 years later. We pressed on hard to build our careers but we were clear we wanted to raise children while we are young. We had Matthias 1.5 years into our marriage and Gwyneth came 3 years after Matt. The severe lack of sleep, long hours and stress of being a new parent eventually broke me. I battled physical and mental illnesses for years.
Choosing the path less travelled
Debra was supportive when I decided to quit a stable and well paying job to be home with Matthias until I could find a job. Debra had her own battles at work that led her to quit eventually. We just couldn’t find jobs that fit. With the last thousand dollars in my bank, we bought a sewing machine in faith. That was how Hiro & Jack Co. started. We definitely don’t recommend starting a business on your last thousand dollars from scratch. There were many moments that the bills, loans and commitments broke us. I’m very thankful it didn’t break our marriage or family. We had very very little money, long nights of work while we raised our children. There were days we only had just enough coins left to buy economic rice.
Homeschooling the children was yet another massive commitment we chose over sending them to school. There is a heavy price to pay for our personal conviction to raise little ones the way we deem healthy and afford them the autonomy to learn at their own pace.
Thank You Lord for your blessings on us
We didn’t build an empire or a business that raked in millions. We recovered our investment and my dad’s kind seed money that he very kindly gifted us. Still we didn’t have a lot because everything went into raising the children and growing the business. There were many moments we wanted to give up. We cried tears and we raised our voices in frustration.
But there is so much that we are grateful for in the past 6 years building a marriage, a home and a business together. We always had a roof above us, food on the table, shoes on our feet, the love of my parents and God.
Death, grief and what really matters
It has always been our dream to travel and perhaps settle somewhere that didn’t cost us so much personally and financially to live a slower life. The pandemic had other ideas for two whole years. Life had other ideas too. Dad was diagnosed with cancer just 2-3 years post retirement. He worked all his life and it was only deserving he enjoyed his golden years with my mom and the grandchildren he loved to bits. It was being self employed and a homeschooling parent that gave me the opportunity to be with my dad a lot more than I would be allowed if I had a regular job. It is also because I had a capable wife who held the fort when I had to be there for my dad at short notice. She cooked, cared for the kids and worked on products/designs.
When dad’s cancer turned aggressive, he left us just 2-3 weeks after that. It broke all of our hearts. 69 is too young to go. As I’ve mentioned several times, his last words were "enjoy life as much as possible, be grateful”. He worked so hard for the family and his retirement but never got the opportunity to savour it for a few more years. That opened our eyes to what really mattered at the end of the day.
We sold everything
Many may think we’ve probably got a big bunch of cash and a rich family backing that allows us this privilege to build the life we want on our own terms. We don’t. We really don’t. We sold our flat and gave up our car. I think we have 5 small barley loaves, 2 fishes and a tiny bit of faith in our hearts?
People have called us foolish, reckless and irresponsible. There will be more who will mock us for how “little” we have and will have.
When Debra and I decided to marry, we didn’t marry for a flat, a car or a fat juicy bank account. When we chose to take this incredible journey in pursuit of happiness and a well-lived life on our terms.
We paid dearly for our choices but I can say we don’t regret it one bit.
We have also reaped the rewards of having each other’s love and company every day. We grow as a couple and with our kids. We walked the last years with our beloved dad.
Potest Qui Vult
This latin phrase means “He who wills, can”. As we look forward to the journeys ahead, we know that if we are tenacious and have faith, God will make a way for us.
Our 10 years of marriage has been absolutely mental. A younger me wouldn’t believe that we could have survived this journey together. There were so many moments that could stop us from making it so far.
I can only thank God for giving me a wife whose aspirations are so aligned with mine. I am so thankful that Debra is so hardy, so brave and loves me despite the really rough journey we’ve had. We are so thankful for His grace in our lives.
We hope our journey has inspired you. Through our writing, photography and art, we hope that our audience can find love, peace, faith, courage in your own journeys.
If our stories resonate with you, please support our work. We need your love and generosity to keep this journey going. A purchase on our shop or a donation will go a long way in keeping the journey going. A comment, like or share means a lot to us. It helps us reach a wider audience. We also appreciate your kind words and conversations via chat!
We have stationed ourselves 1500m above sea level for the past couple of weeks and briefly spent a day at 3142m last week. (Read it here) Although it isn't as hot as Hanoi or London at this moment, it still feels like 30 celcius when the sun is out while you're hiking up a mountain. The evenings have been generally cool (around 18-22 celcius) and it is the best time to take long walks or hang out in the town square.
I think being in a more rural area has taught us to look up and around more. We've learnt to pause and appreciate the flora and fauna around us, watch the sunset and savour the cold breeze. It is as if God the artist decides to magically transform the same scene on the canvas differently every day.
Having caught up with school work, sleep and blogging we decided to head out for a good hike yesterday. We walked a total of about 7km with climbed down 245m and made 200m of elevation gain. We are super proud of the two kids because this is not something we do a lot. In fact, Gwyneth spent half of her life growing up indoors. I'm not sure if there's a correlation, but both kids are EXTREMELY afraid of insects and animals. They instantly panic when they see dogs or cats move in their general direction. I'm thankful that the majority of free roaming dogs in Vietnam are very calm and mind their own business. In fact they are so well behaved that they put to shame many of the out-of-control, leash tugging and aggressive pet dogs in Singapore. This has helped so much with positive reinforcement that not all creatures are out to harm them.
EXPLORING CAT CAT VILLAGE
We decided to visit Cat Cat Village that is about 3km from the Sapa town centre in Lao Cai province, northern Vietnam. We walked all the way from the town centre and was a little sweaty. The inclines are quite challenging and you get ALOT of traffic zooming past you. It can get quite muddy if you've had a downpour as the erosion flows onto the road.
The village is a kind of a living replica tourist village that shows the H'mong people's culture and traditions. I know of many reviews that talk about how this isn't an "authentic" home of the H'mong people and it is just a tourist trap. I think that regardless whether you visit the hill tribes at their "real" home or not, the experience will be curated. All places that cater to tourism will alter themselves to meet tourist needs in one way or another. There is no need for us to be too critical about it. After all, the operation of this village benefits the H'mong people financially, provides jobs and bring attention to their art and way of life.
We enjoyed ourselves seeing the beautiful architecture nestled in the hills. Summer is the best time to see the really enchanting rice terraces. The waterfalls and river adds beauty to an already picturesque location.
Do note that the entire village is in the mountains so you'll have to climb MANY steps. Prams and Wheelchairs won't work here. If you suffer from mobility issues, you may want to pay for a taxi or electric buggy to take you to Cat Cat Village and back. They tend to not run their meters for this destination. This is one of the ways you'll get scammed! We'll touch on some how we can avoid these scam tactics in habit!
Here in the village you'll find shops renting out traditional costumes for tourists to get dressed up and take photos. You'll also find the H'mong people at work creating their traditional fabrics and handicraft. There are functional waterwheels, and a dried up bank of the river that allows you to get close to the water to get more pictures!
Pretty idyllic eh? Do check out this hilarious reel we made about the reality of the country side:
Now this was when it got difficult. The sun was setting and shining in our faces, we've already walked for at least 3 hours. It was uphill all the way back to the town centre. The cabs, buggies and motorcycles are scamming tourists between 150,000 to 250,000 dong for a 10 minute ride back to town. (The usual price is about 75,000-85,000 for that distance). Drinks cost more at the exit because you are thirsty and you need the drinks.
We bit the bullet and climbed uphill for a while before we found another taxi that agreed to take us back to our accommodation at a regular price.
HOW TO AVOID SCAM TACTICS WHILE TRAVELLING
When you are travelling there is no escape from meeting taxi drivers, food establishments and shops that will try to scam you. It is however possible to avoid being scammed! Here are 3 simple points to help you game these scammers and make your trip a lot more memorable for the right reasons!
1. BE PREPARED
Scammers thrive on our knowledge gaps and attack in our moments of vulnerability. Being prepared is the best way to avoid this. How can I be prepared?
- Read up on your destination
E.g. Scammers pretend to tell you that the destination is closed and want to transport you to visit another place for "free". They can pretend to be officials asking for additional fees to enter the attraction etc...
- Pack water and some emergency snacks
Far too many shops don't put on price tags on their items in tourist areas. They WILL sell you items at exorbitant prices.
- Get small change by using your big notes at safer establishments like in the airport or convenience shops.
Taxi driver and shop keepers like to use this tactic to cheat! You hand them a big note and they will pretend that they have no change.
- Take photos and videos of the condition of vehicles/equipment you rent BEFORE LEAVING
"Sir, madam you damage the car/jetski or motorbike! Pay money!". This is a very common tactic to extort money from you. Always film or photograph an item before you begin the rental. Most reputable rental companies provide a checking form where the rental agent will do a walk around with you and mark the existing damages before the rental begins. If it really boils down to getting the police involved, having evidence is always better than having none.
2. AGREE ON A PRICE FIRST
Scammers like to deliver services and goods without clear indication of prices. Once you've consumed the items or used their services, they will extort as much money as they wish
If you need a taxi or other forms of taxis, tell the driver your destination, agree on a price or insist they use a meter. Never hop on and hope for for the best price.
Always check the prices of items you purchase. Note down what you consumed! Make them weigh items in front of you.
3. WALK AWAY
-Agreed on price but still try to extort more
It isn't fool proof even if you have agreed on a price. Transport or service providers may still try to extort you with additional fees, surcharges or whatever ridiculous charges they can think of. Learn to pay the agreed amount and to walk off!
If you have luggage in the taxi/transport, the escape plan is to ask him to open the boot before you settle the payment. One person unloads, next person just gives the agreed amount and then politely say no more money and walk off into the hotel or mall.
If you are buying something and the price drastically increases at point of payment despite negotiation, learn to walk away. You don't have to buy from someone who wants to scam you.
-Don't have exact change and person refuses to return change
Sometimes we have to learn to cut our losses. If it really doesn't cost us much, don't risk fighting over change. Just let it go and walk away. You are in a foreign place and you won't know if they might pull a knife or gun on you.
-Ignore touts/people who pester you to buy things on streets
Ignore them and walk away. The more you engage them, the more chance you'll give them to manipulate, scam, rob or pickpocket. Sometimes I do feel like it is something rude to do but that is actually the best way to protect yourself.
Always remember don't fly, soar!
13 weeks ago, we took on a Grand Tour in search of healing, peace and a new way of life.
We chose to pack our things away, leave the comforts of home and took that step of faith. We knew we wanted to travel and experience life to the fullest in honour of my late father whom we all still miss terribly. Travelling slowly has given us time to work through our grief individually and as a family. We know it is a privilege and we are thankful for it.
When we set aside Hiro & Jack Co's range of products to travel extensively, we also put away 6 years worth of sweat, tears and sleepless nights. It means that we put ourselves in a position of financial uncertainty trying to build a new way of life. We've never been this excited to do what we do now. You know people say you should find a job that you love doing so you won't ever need a vacation from it. We've found it in this!
As you know Debra is our chief illustrator and designer. She creates designs for apparel because she's inspired by them. She draws and enjoys drawing it. She also manages the product lifecycle while feeding the family and being there for the kids.
I've never been happier doing photography and writing up blog posts, social media posts and creating reels. I do this while homeschooling two of the kids and managing the travel itinerary.
Our end goal is to create an attractive apparel range with our original designs and publish a range of children's books exploring issues we discuss on this blog.
OUR GREATEST FEAR NOW
We are being very honest and transparent here because we think that this project cannot take off without you. With every project, growing an audience and making sufficient sales keeps it afloat. It also takes time to create a series of books while we travel, school the children and run the blog.
We hope that you'll help us by sharing our posts, engaging us in the comments because that is how our content gets showed! Share your suggestions via chat to help us improve our product range and content!
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If you see meaning in our project and wish to support us in any form, we are happy to connect via the chat button, our social media messaging systems and our email at email@example.com!
WE HIT THE TOP OF INDOCHINA
We've been telling the kids how fortunate we are to be able to even begin on this project. We've given up a lot to be here. It is days like the one I'm attempting to describe that makes the sacrifices worth while.
Sapa is a key base for many hikers, climbers and travellers to access the Fansipan Mountain. Measuring 3143m (10312ft), Fansipan is the highest mountain in Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). Even though it is situated in South East Asia, there's snowfall at altitude in the winter months.
The peak is a 6 hour hike (one-way) for fit hikers. We are glad that back in 2018, the entire system of funiculars and cable-cars were built for families/travellers like us who would otherwise not be able to reach its summit.
We spent about 2.7 million Vietnamese dong (S$160++) for two paying adults and one child ticket. The staff were kind enough to consider Gwyneth small enough (100cm or under) to qualify for free entry. Expect to spend at least an entire afternoon here! We started our trip at 11am and returned at 5pm.
We saw many videos on Youtube commenting on the cost and how they think it isn't worth spending the money on the cable car and upper funicular since the views from the lower funicular was good enough. I was apprehensive at first but I remembered that my dad paid more than S$200 PER PERSON for us to ride the funicular and trains up to Jungfraujoch in Switzerland. If you put that in context, this mountain is also 3000+m and you only pay S$200 for a family of 4.
I've lost count of the times we said "wow", "omg" "EPIC!!!" and "this is so beautiful". Feast your eyes on how epic this place is.
You will climb about 1410m in the Cable car. There were moments we experienced a complete whiteout when we went through the clouds. The distance between the pylons on this cable car system is so long you sometimes wonder if you are just floating. Once you arrive at the station, you're now at about 2900m above sea level.
At 3000m above sea level, you are experiencing 30% less oxygen available in the air. Some people experience severe lethargy, headaches, vomiting and rapid heart rates. Debra and I felt a little tired initially but quickly acclimatised to the lack of oxygen. I kept sick bags in my backpack incase the little ones got sick. Lo and behold, the two little ones became hyper excited. We were pleasantly surprised that the altitude did not affect them until a little later when we had to climb some stairs around to explore the area. Other than panting and aching a whole lot the next day, we thoroughly enjoyed the 15 celcius (probably about 10-12 if you consider the wind chill). No snow for us because it is summer but we loved it so much.
We love the fresh air, cold wind and peace that comes with being at altitude so much that Debra and I are dreaming on Fansipan of being able to afford a home in a mountain somewhere in a country that will take us in. If you know a place like that, please call us immediately. haha!
You'll find a massive magnificent buddha statue and some impressive architecture housing the different gods that the Vietnamese worship. The architecture reminded the kids of scenes from the Kungfu Panda movie. Don't mind their hilarious poses!
You can explore the buddha statues, temples and architecture either before or after you hit the roof of Indochina. We did half of the exploration first and headed up the second funicular to the summit so that we give ourselves some time to acclimatise to the altitude. You can watch our latest reel for the whole journey in videos here
The mountain top experience reached its climax as we laid our hands on the summit markers. 3143m above sea level. It is the highest we've been for the entire Grand Tour. Although we didn't physically climb the mountain, it still felt like an achievement to be there. Perhaps we'll be able to climb something in future when the kids are a little older. Have you done that before? We really want to know how it feels like!
We started the trip off with beautiful sunshine from Sapa and went through some thick clouds, and rain. Upon reaching the 2900m it was nice and sunny again. We went up to the summit and it remained foggy throughout the time we were there. We caught the giant buddha from afar in glorious sunlight but soon after we descended to where the statue is, a thick fog came and never left. What you get to catch that day is completely weather dependent. But that is what makes the views so special.
The weather on mountains are very unpredictable. We experienced sunny weather, cloudy skies, thick fog, cold heavy rains and relentless wind. Bring your ponchos and weather protection for your camera is they are not waterproof. We got ourselves a little wet when a sudden downpour came upon us. We were fortunate to be near the cafe and relaxed there over a drink.
We definitely recommend visiting Sapa and Fansipan and its surrounding attractions if you are planning to spend about 8-10 days around North Vietnam/Hanoi/Halong Bay.
This mountain top experience is truly a highlight of our 13 week trip. ALL of us cannot stop scrolling through our pictures of this incredible place. We hope we will have more opportunities to ascend more summits and peaks soon!
WE LOVE SAPA
We are back in the Mountains again! This time we’ve taken a comfy van from Hanoi to Sapa in Vietnam. The transport agent, homestay we booked and the hotel we checked out from all expressed a little concern that we were to spend the rest of the month here in Sapa. We just didn’t tell them we spent almost 2 months in another mountain recently…
The journey took about 5.5hrs including two 15 minute stops. The kids took it on like champions! We’ve unintentionally trained for that by climbing and descending mountains more than 10 times over the past two months. To our surprise, 95% of the roads were good! There were only two patchy parts due to ongoing construction but I must say Vietnam has some decent roads!
Sapa is a mountain station/town that is just 23km from China’s border in the far north of Vietnam. This mountainous region is home to the Hmong, Tay and Dao hill tribes. It is about 1500m above sea level (4900ft).
Here are the main highlights:
We’ve been taking it really slowly! Despite diligent hand washing and mask wearing, we all caught a flu in Hanoi. All of us are well after 3 days so we are back catching up on school work and exploring. The climate here has been so inviting, we don’t even mind walking a total of 4km to town and back! We don’t miss the killer heat in Hanoi! We look out on our balcony and this is the view that greets us….
We chose to live a little out of town to avoid the noise and traffic. Like Genting and Cameron Highlands, there is a significant amount of domestic tourists who visit for the weekend to relax or escape the heat. You’ll find a beautiful lake, a church and a huge town square where people hang out.
The Hôtel de la Coupole - MGallery is an architectural attraction in itself right smack in the middle of town. With Swiss-alps-like mountains as a backdrop, being in the vicinity of this 5 star hotel feels like you are in Europe
A 10 minute walk from town, you’ll find the local market. You’ll find live poultry, Salmon and Sturgeons. There is a sort of wholesale area that deals ethnic clothing, toys, herbs, tea and other local delicacies. It gave us great insight into the local life here.
The town centre is a vibrant place full of hotpot restaurants and other restaurants serving local delicacies. Food is hasn’t been cheap for us because we aren’t able to fully enjoy the local cuisine. (It is still way cheaper for an equivalent meal in Singapore for sure)
A TRAVELLNG LIFE ISN’T ALL HUNKY DORY
We can’t find ourselves a decently priced + acceptably furnished Airbnb in Sapa and so we are in a sort of homestay/Bed and breakfast kind of place. There is A LOT of adjustment we have to make. A major one would be food! Sure, we do enjoy the coffee, Bahn Mi and Pho here but that’s really only a small selection of what locals eat. The cleanliness of food prep, the way food is stored, amount of flies, the cuts of meat and flavours are very different from what we are used to. Travelling with two younger kids also mean that we need to find food that is a little more familiar. It is already a challenge to get them to eat when we were back in Singapore…travelling augments your daily struggles X10!
In fact, we’ve had to adjust quite a bit in Sapa. We mentioned how helpful the Grab app was in Hanoi but it is literally useless here. No Grab food, no grab cars or taxi. This is a more rural area so less locals speak English. Debra is ethnically Tamil so everyone automatically assumes she doesn’t speak Vietnamese. I seem to have a pan-south east asian face that Malaysians, Thais and Vietnamese people think I’m local.
A regular day at a shop: Debra goes and asks about an item in English and the shop keeper immediately points at me and her item and speaks in Vietnamese. I just show a stunned face and say no no, English please? *Shop keeper scratches his/her head and whips out her phone/calculator…
Outdated information plagues Google maps in this part of the world. The best way to research is to walk the streets and ask the shop keeper. But that isn’t easy here because we can’t get our own transport in Vietnam. Most car rental companies offer cars WITH drivers and information about foreigners driving in Vietnam is rather sketchy. There is also a lot of conflicting information about driving on an international driving license. Although it is quite common to rent a motorbike with no license, I wouldn’t take the risk considering the traffic situation in Vietnam. You get no insurance coverage and legal recourse if anything happens too. Not having our own transport has cut off a vital source of our adventures. It has limited where we can go and when we can go.
OUR 10 YEAR STRUGGLE THAT GOES ON…
Debra and I will celebrate our 10th marriage anniversary in 3 weeks. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done. I’m sure Debra will concur how crazy it is to be married to me.
One of the biggest struggle we’ve faced is the issue of race in Singapore.
This week, an experience in Vietnam has inspired us to write about this.
A shop keeper points at Debra “you and…” ….*points at me, “different eh?”, “different!”.
I understand the language barrier could have made it difficult for the shop keeper to express herself. Inter-racial marriages are less common here in Vietnam too. There’s room for growth here for sure.
We’ve been fortunate that we never had to feel different or less because of our race in most of our travels across the world. It has become almost an escape for us from the harsh struggle. The struggle is really the denial of the existence of racism, casual racism and insensitivity. It gives you the feeling you never really belong. These are things that we struggle with right from the first day we started dating. I hate to think that my children will ever have to feel this way in future.
Some of the most disturbing incidents we’ve experienced in Singapore…
Look at us. Other than our skin colours and facial features, how is our love any different? How are we that different? Love is love!
Hanoi's summer heat really hit the roof and we've been drenched in sweat! The real feel temperature was hitting 48 celcius (humidity close to 100%) and it is absolutely unbearable. There are still ways you can make it an enjoyable adventure around this charming city in the north of Vietnam.
Here is how we still had fun in Hanoi travelling with two young children in summer!
1. Plan your schedule around the temperature
If you are planning to explore the outdoor attractions like the Sword Lake or West Lake, go early in the morning between 7-10am. The heat isn't that intense yet at that time. You can also plan a trip to a mall or indoor attraction during the hottest hours of the day (between 12pm-4pm).
Notable shopping malls to escape the heat while visiting Hanoi:
-Vincom Mega Mall Royal City (Ice skating rink and many BBQ restaurants)
-Vincom Mega Mall Times City (Bowling and Aquarium inside)
-Lotte Centre (Very upscale departmental store)
2. Hydration and breaks keep you alive
Hydrate yourself and take breaks! Heatstroke risks are real in this kind of heat and humidity. We survived by hopping from cafe to cafe between our walks around the city. You won't have a problem finding cafes serving great coffee, tea, juices and beer because they are EVERYWHERE in Hanoi.
(Beer is quite often cheaper than a fancy coffee! A 330ml bottle costs between SGD 1 to 2, USD 0.70 to 1.40)
3. Grab a ride
Walking is healthy and Google maps tell you its only 1.2km away, how bad can it be right? All 4 of us were absolutely exhausted and drenched in our own sweat after 10 minutes into the 1.2km. I love long walks, just not in the extreme summer heat.
If the walking distance is more than 1km, use your Grab/Gojek apps and get a Grab car/Taxi. It was noon time and we wanted to have lunch so we took a Grab car from the hotel to the restaurant. After we've eaten, we took another Grab car to our next destination. Total distance of 3.27km in two cabs costing only 62,000 Dong (S$3.71, US$2.65). This journey was done during the hottest time of the day and it would have been miserable without catching a Grab car.
We arrived at the museum around 310pm and visited all the indoor exhibits before seeing the outdoor ones only around 4pm. (The museum closes around 430pm). It made the experience a lot more pleasant because we catch a comfortable ride at an affordable price.
We were able to learn about the horrors of war and to reflect on the fact that peace is fragile and we must never take it for granted. There's nothing glorious about killing for power and killing to decide who is right. Wars don't determine who is right, they just determine who's left.
4. Be a vampire (just the nocturnal part okay?)
Come out only after the sun sets. Like most asian cities, Hanoi's retail as well as F&B operate till late. Most shops don't close until 930-10pm. Food opens late and beer places operate into the wee hours.
5. Bring and wear protection
There is nothing beautiful about having your skin burnt bright red. Unprotected exposure to harmful UV rays risks hyperpigmentation and skin cancer. Too much harmful UV rays can harm your eyes too. Bring shades, caps/hats, cooling clothes and put on sun protection on your skin. Wear a good pair of sneakers and bring along a poncho in case it pours.
After 8 enjoyable days in Hanoi, we decided it was time to see another part of Vietnam! You can see the first instalment of our Hanoi adventures here if you missed it! We have embarked on an epic journey to a place that's just overwhelmingly beautiful. Please stay tuned!
Lastly, we want to express our thanks to those of you kind souls who have privately messaged us and chat with us about missing our quality handcrafted baby shoes. We are also very thankful for others who have mentioned that you enjoy reading our blog posts. Others have supported our work by shopping our travel inspired products that we are working hard to add on to!
Till the next post....live your life to the fullest, be grateful!
Xin chào from Hanoi, Vietnam!
After an almost tearful goodbye to the comforts of a familiar Malaysia, our own car and being close enough to drive home, we've flown more than 3 hours to a land neither of us have been to before. Watch this reel if you've missed it:
We landed, passed through immigration and got our luggage in barely 15 minutes. That's impressive to be honest. We've had to wait more than an hour in queues at Heathrow London and Auckland Airport. Spent 30 minutes at a belt waiting for baggage at Changi too.
"DING!" Rang my phone....
Our Airbnb host told us to cancel our accommodation while we were in flight....
I had to report the host to Airbnb before the booking was cancelled and the full refund was made. The host just refused to cancel on his side. How lucky can we be?!
We were thankful that it was easy to grab a Vietnamese SIM card for our little pocket Wifi device. You'll find plenty of shops offering the SIM cards at the arrival hall. It cost us 350,000 Dong ($21 SGD) for a full month with Viettel 4GB limit a day on 4G network. Unlimited on 3G network.
We had lunch at a Burger King restaurant in the Airport while I searched for a hotel to replace our Airbnb accommodation. I'm not going to call this a nightmare anymore because we've been through that twice in Melaka and KL. It has been well established on our blog that Airbnbs are a 50-50 chance of encountering a disruption to your trip.
We are fortunate it isn't hard to find decent and well-priced hotels in Hanoi. We were able to get a Grab car from the airport to our hotel in no time. Grab Car and Grab Food is very affordable in Vietnam! It cuts out the language barrier, getting lost and haggling problems with scam cab drivers. It has been a breeze getting around Hanoi with the Grab app!
The ride from the airport to our hotel was like a baptism of fire. My anxiety was through the roof. If you grew up in country where lane markings and road signs are NOT optional, this is going to shock you. Watch this video and you'll understand....
This is considered mild. There are some massive junctions that I can't even draw a diagram to explain the logic. There are 50 million motorbikes in Vietnam so just imagine.
The biggest cultural shock was really the incessant honking. I’ve been feeling really tensed walking on the streets amidst the traffic. The kids were almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown. We’ve been conditioned in Singapore to understand honking as a show of frustration, anger and imminent danger. But the Vietnamese honk because they are communicating. It goes along the lines of, “I’m coming through”, ”Don’t come out I’m going to pass”, “please move aside”. They also honk when passing a cross junction. Nobody gets pissed. It’s just a way of life.
We are better now after a couple of days! There’s so much beauty in the absolute chaos. We have so much of this world to explore!
Vietnamese summers are as relentless as the honking on the roads. 4 of us are adjusting to the 48 degree celcius real feel in Hanoi.
Before we delve deeper, here are 5 fun facts if you are just as clueless as us about Vietnam:
1. Vietnam is a communist country situated in South East Asia bordering Laos, Cambodia and China. (1 SGD converts to around 16,600 Vietnamese Dong)
2. Vietnamese drive on the right side of the road (Steering wheel on the left of vehicles)
3. It has both temperate climate (in the north) and tropical climate (in the central and southern areas). Mountainous regions bordering China do experience snowfall in the winter!
4. Vietnam was a French colony for 6 decades.
5. Religion was banned, suppressed with great force and persecution until 2004.
We spent the past 3 days walking old town and visiting Sword Lake, Ngoc Son Temple within the lake, Hanoi train street and St Joseph's Cathedral. The heat makes 1km of walking extra hard for all of us although we really are enjoying the charm of this city. There's more to explore and we'll report back in our next post!
We recommend sun block, hats and ALOT of hydration. Avoid being out from 12pm to 3pm. You can get a heatstroke from being out in the sun in summer (June-August)
We also recommend our original design Tees that you see us wearing here!
The city really comes alive at night because most people avoid being out in the heat. The night markets and beer streets only come alive once the sun sets. You also almost forget you're in South East Asia. The charming streets looks European!
Hanoi is most charming in the Old quarters! You'll find historical buildings, old buildings with French influence and a lot of street food. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and you'll also find the glass skyscrapers and a very modern city. It is more developed than we all think it is! You get the same big brands in other major cities!
Speaking of food, you cannot come to Vietnam and not have Bánh mì (A savoury stuffed baguette). You must also try Vietnamese coffee in the street side shops and from Highlands Coffee. Debra is not a fan of the intense coffee but I absolutely love it.
We will add a new post some time this week about the eats, sights and adventures around Hanoi! Please drop us a comment and let us know if we're missing out on something we shouldn't miss in Hanoi!
A parting thought:
Seeing beauty in the chaos reminded us that there really isn't one way to live life. Whether you are travelling on a perfectly orderly road in Japan or North America, or a through a mayhem in the streets of Vietnam's cities, you will still get to your destination. Always remember, My battles, My way!
Sharing our love of art, travel and learning with you.