We fell asleep on the ultra plush 5-star Sofitel bed in Saigon hoping for a good rest before we headed for the dreaded city. Worry plagued our subconscious and our minds were very heightened the whole night.
What if things turn out bad or worse than our previous nightmare of an experience? What if we hate it so much that we can’t focus on publishing?
What if we run out of money trying to secure a good accommodation?
If only we had a little faith…
Many may ask “Why go back to a city where you’ve had such bad experiences?”
There’s so many reasons why we are stuck in the region. An obvious reason is the ridiculously expensive airfares and accommodation across the world due to pent up demand and limited supply. Our limited budget limits our destinations.
China, Japan, Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan are either too restrictive to enter or closed to tourists. The effects of covid on travel are still deeply felt.
Some call it fate but we think its divine intervention that we didn’t proceed with flying to Seoul. We posted on Facebook about how we were SO close to getting a PCR test and purchasing the flight ticket during our layover in Singapore. We felt no peace and decided against it. A couple of days later, Seoul experienced a deadly flood.
The flight from Saigon, Vietnam to Kuala Lumpur International Airport was smooth. Our worst nightmares didn’t happen and we are incredibly blessed with a great property in the middle of Kuala Lumpur City Centre. We wake up to the views of the magnificent Petronas Twin towers.
We will be based in KL for several weeks to focus on publishing our books. We are also working on new designs. You can check these new art pieces inspired by our travels in Vietnam…
That doesn’t mean we won’t be exploring the city and putting up some amazing content!
Is Kuala Lumpur the next New York City of Asia?
We’ve been here well over a week and we must say that we feel so blessed and happy to be here. It is as if we’ve got a 180 degree flip and the experience is absolutely phenomenal. It begs the question, is this the next NYC of Asia?
Anyone who has been to NYC, London and other great cities will tell you that what makes a great city is:
Kuala Lumpur has ALL of these qualities!
Seamless transport connectivity
Landing in KLIA, you’ll find a dedicated express train line connecting you to the middle of KL. You’ll avoid all the jams and hit the city centre in 40 minutes. If you are familiar with London, this is just like the Heathrow express. We opted for a 1 hour Grab car ride that cost 70RM including tolls to our apartment in the city centre.
I must say I’m very impressed with the KL transit system. The trains are comfortable, fast, clean, modern and on-time! Children below six travel free so we don’t have to pay for Gwyneth! We are well connected throughout the city and only have to pay between S$1-S$2 for 3 of us each way. The signs are easy to understand and a lot of the information is very well integrated into google maps. You can navigate anywhere in the city easily via google maps and it will tell you which buses and trains to take.
GoKL city buses are FREE buses that plough parallel to many LRT lines around the city centre. There are 5 routes that bring you to all the major attractions and areas in the city centre. Some of the buses are FULLY ELECTRIC buses.
The Malaysians have every reason to be proud of KL’s public transport. There are many moments I’ve felt I was somewhere along Singapore’s Circle or North East line! I told Debra a few days back that this is WAY cleaner than parts of the old dingy London Underground.
There’s a convenience store round every corner. They don’t charge an arm and a leg for a good snack or drink. We got this massive Cornetto Unicorn ice cream for RM3.
Grab Car, Foodpanda, Panda Mart and other delivery services work very well here 24/7.
Internet connection here is WAY better than Vietnam in our experience. You get 5G network in some areas of Saigon but it only crawls at a pathetic 7mbps. We easily score 35Mbps on 4G LTE in KL on Celcom network.
You’ll find everything you need at the amazing malls across KL. Here are some of the malls we really enjoy here:
KL is also only a 1 hr+ car ride/2 hr bus ride from Genting Highlands.
Easy access to great food
We’ve been eating very well in KL. Fortunately for us, we look forward to our meals these days. Unfortunately for us, we may be gaining back the weight we lost in Vietnam haha!
We did this survey recently about the tastes we miss when travelling
We don’t need to miss ANY of these anymore in KL. We must applaud the creativity in the food scene in Malaysia. Cafes don’t just sell what everyone else sells. There are many who do put in effort to create their own food and identity.
The past week we’ve had the most heartwarming and tantalising culinary experiences. Not an exhaustive list but these are some must visit places if you visit KL!
Serves amazing roast pork dishes and Nasi Lemak. (Jalan Sin Chew Kee)
Feeka Coffee Roasters (Jalan Mesui)
Serves awesome breakfast sets and western dishes. We had our first cup of properly good expresso based Latte in 6 weeks. Special mention of their Vegetarian Tacos, these tiny packages pack some blowing flavour! (The dip makes it even better!)
Karaikudi Chettinadu Restaurant (Jln Palestin)
A banana leaf indian restaurant. The Sambar, Rasam, Chicken/fish curry and Dhaal curries are ALL CRAZY GOOD. Need a curry/indian fix? Eat here!
Great architecture and culture
We explored the china town area and roamed the alleys around vicinity. What was very apparent is a stark juxtaposition between the new and the old. On one hand, you have a really old street shophouse, temples and a shaky old iron overhead bridge that I remember from my visits in my childhood. On the other hand, you have Merdeka 118, a brand modern engineering marvel being completed in the background. (2nd tallest in the world after Burj Khalifa)
We also visited Central Market where you’ll find shops selling art and crafts representing the Malaysian cultures. The place has lost a lot of its tenants possibly due to the pandemic. Tourists are slowly streaming back to the area so we hope it’ll be bustling again!
The glory of a great city is its ability to host a diverse population and support peaceful coexistence.
We’ve been treated very very kindly by people in KL. Our children have been offered seats on EVERY train/bus ride we’ve taken. Even with masks on, the service staff smile and are very patient. Nobody is yelling or honking at each other non-stop. We are surprisingly free from the frustrations of being in a big city. It has been an amazing experience so far!
Even in a supposedly world-class Singapore transport system, it is often quite unbearable to travel around the city without your own car. We get really frustrated with the huge crowds, people’s rude stares and inconsiderate behaviour. (Absolutely cannot stand self-entitled people who deny wheelchair users/parents pushing prams from taking the lifts in train stations when they are completely able bodied.) We were actually really anxious about being in an Asian city without our own car.
It is completely unexpected that we have had such a good experience.
What do you think? Has your experiences in KL been comparable to that of NYC or London?
Is KL the next NYC in Asia?
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.
You can eat at a local eatery like this and have a Bahn Mi (Baguette sandwich) for a low as 15,000 Dong (0.88 SGD). You can also get a range of dishes and rice and a family meal will cost between 150,000 to 250,000 Dong. (9-15SGD). There are however many flavours and smells that we find very strange.
We spent almost an entire month in a mountain station town called Sapa. Eateries sold mainly local food. Even the local cup noodles were odd to us. We ate most of our meals at this restaurant called Ladybird restaurant. They sold a mix of western and asian dishes that tasted more familiar. But an average meal for the family here would easily cost 500,000 to 600,000 Dong (29-35 SGD). We were so grateful to have found this place in Sapa!
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! We are also working hard to expanding our Tees range, stickers, Art cards range as well as brand new book launch. Stay tuned!
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.
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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.
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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!
Vincent & Debra Kwan, Founders of Hiro & Jack and stay-at-home parents with the odd life.
Drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org