January 31, 2007

New recipes

Since she started porridge at seven months, Yiu Yiu's lunch and dinner menu has been porridge with a combination of different meats and vegetables: carrot, tomato, potato, french bean, pumpkin, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, green peas, sweet corns, fish, chicken, minced pork, dried scallop. She must be so bored with the repertoire of food offered to her as she would sometimes just take a few spoonfuls and refused to eat any more.

Over the last few weeks, I try to increase the variety of foods offered to her by cooking something less conventional. The first recipe I tried was potato, carrot and large onion soup with alphabet pasta. It wasn't such a big hit with her but at least she didn't refuse the food. She has also tried spaghetti Bolognese and Swedish meatballs at Ikea. Last Sunday evening, I sautéed some potatoes with cauliflower and minced chicken, and let it simmer till soft before adding a slice of cheese just as I turned off the fire. She polished off the whole plate, much to my delight. Hmm… I think I may have just found something she enjoys. Got to work harder to increase variety in her food choices. Recipes, anyone?

January 30, 2007

Yiu Yiu's first overseas trip

Hanoi was Yiu Yiu's first overseas trip. I wanted to ensure that everything would go well and starting reading up on books and surfing the internet to read on other people's experience on traveling with a small child, what to pack, etc. The first obvious thing to do is to apply for a passport for her. I downloaded the application form from the immigration department website and went to the Subang immigration office one Friday. As there was special privilege for children under two, we didn’t have to join the queue and was attended to almost immediately at the special counter. The whole process of submitting the form and making payment was painless and we were out of the office in less than 30 minutes. We collected the passport in two days time.

I also stocked up on baby food jars, which I've never given her before as I wasn't sure if we could find appropriate food for her. She ended up consuming only one jar, so the rest of them are collecting dust in my kitchen at the moment. She basically took adult food, mainly noodles and we also managed to order porridge at some places.

We bought a booster seat from Babyland SS2 during last year-end sales in preparation for the trip and boy, were we glad for the foresight. Hanoi is not a child friendly place and none of the restaurants we visited had any baby chair, so the booster seat was really a godsend or else I would have ended up carrying her at each meal.

Yiu Yiu was pretty excited seeing planes for the first time. As we walked on the tarmac towards the aircraft, she shrieked with delight and was visibly delighted. She to the flights well and didn't encounter any problems with ear pressure during take-off or landing.

Overall, I think the trip was tough on her. Meal times were irregular but thank goodness she's still breastfeeding, so at least she got sustenance whenever needed. She hardly took proper naps throughout the four days, and she really crashed out after the trip. She napped for two straight hours at the babysitter's place the day after we returned. That's quite something considering her normal nap time of 30 – 45 minutes, twice a day.

I'm still undecided whether to take her along to Siem Reap in August. I think Siem Reap will be even more punishing on a young child so it might be better to leave her with the babysitter. But I'd feel very guilty leaving her behind while I gallivant around Angkor Wat with her papa. Tough one, this! I guess I'll cross the bridge when the time comes.

January 25, 2007

My maiden flight on Air Asia

As the title of this post suggests, despite having been around for five years, I've never boarded an Air Asia flight before. We took Air Asia for our family trip to Hanoi as we made the booking during one of Air Asia's promotion period. I've been warned that the low cost carrier terminal (LCCT) resembles a bus station and so, I had little expectations of the look and facilities at the airport. The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the sheer busyness of the airport, a huge difference compared to the quietness of KLIA.

Our check-in was quick and simple enough, save for the long queue at the check-in baggage screening machine. As we had time to kill, we proceeded to have some snacks at McDonald's, which was operating at full capacity. Finding an empty table was difficult, and I remember thinking that this must be one of McDonald's most profitable outlet, given that it is the only fast food outlet there and the inflated prices.

It was soon time for us to proceed to the boarding gate. We cleared immigration without any hassle but there were noticeably more counters for foreign passports than there were for Malaysian passports. The common waiting area at the boarding gate was a hive of activity and the noise level was not unlike that at a pasar malam. When it was time to board, the airport staff gave priority to those traveling with children and elderly passengers to board first. We boarded the much touted Airbus with its leather seat. A cabin crew noticed Yiu Yiu and offered me an infant seat belt for take off, which I thought was a nice gesture. The flight was uneventful and we touched down at Hanoi at the stipulated time.

The same can't be said for the return flight. Our flight was delayed and by the time we took off, it was already 1.5 hours behind schedule. Air Asia has a notorious reputation of delayed flight and here I am experiencing it first hand. The cabin crew had a busy time selling their snacks and beverages as many passengers didn't have their dinner before boarding. Their nasi lemak, croissant and sandwich were sold out in no time and instant noodles became an instant hit, pun intended.

Our maiden flight on Air Asia

On the return flight. Note the effect of the cold weather on Yiu Yiu's cheeks,

When the plane touched down at LCCT, there were three other international flights disembarking at the same time so you can imagine the chaotic situation at the arrival terminal. Not surprisingly, there was a long queue at the immigration but the officer at the line I was queuing was very considerate and instructed other passengers to give way to those traveling with children. Alas, time gained from the speedy immigration clearance was lost waiting for our luggage. There were only two luggage conveyors and both were not loading luggage from our flight. Signage was poor and our flight number was never displayed on the screen, resulting in us having to shift between the conveyors to locate our luggage. We finally got our luggage about an hour later.

So from my experience, Air Asia lived up to its reputation of having a warm and friendly cabin crew. I happened to be on the Airbus on both flights and the leather seat lends a really nice touch. The space between rows was pretty narrow though, and I can imagine that a big size Caucasian will have trouble fitting in. I also find the fact that the cabin crew comes around to collect garbage from passengers near the end of the flight rather interesting and innovative, as I'm sure this is a major factor in enhancing efficiency in turning around the aircraft. On the flip side, one out of two flight delays doesn’t make good statistics but I think the trick is to fly on earlier flights, as there will be less cumulative delay time compared to a later flight. The unloading of luggage also needs improvement, but I guess that's not really Air Asia's responsibility, or is it?

Anyway, in the spirit of Now Everyone Can Fly, we made some bookings again during the recent Air Asia promotion. Our next destination? Siem Reap. Angkor Wat, here I come...

January 24, 2007

My personal take on Hanoi

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is a fascinating blend of east and west, with Chinese influence from centuries of dominance, and French influence from its colonial past. What struck me most when we first got into Hanoi city from the airport is the width of the houses and shops. Buildings in Hanoi have a narrow frontage with multiple stories, which reminds me of Amsterdam. I found it particularly peculiar as Hanoi was colonized by the French, not the Dutch.

With a population of 3 million, and each family owning two or three motorcycles, it's not an exaggeration that Hanoi may be the motorcycle capital of the world. The motorcyclists, comprising male and female of all ages, will weave in and out of traffic without a care in the world, and without any safety helmet to boot! The incessant blaring of horns regardless of the time of day needs some getting use to. The first day we arrived, I felt so stressed out as drivers and motorcyclists press their horns continuously throughout their journey. And even when we were getting off the taxi, the cars behind kept pressing their horn, as if we deliberately help up the traffic.

Language is another major problem. Aside from a handful of shop attendants who speak a smattering of English, majority of the man in the street can't. As a result, asking for directions is near impossible. People are generally rather rude and unfriendly and will simply push their way through in a crowd.

Many people have complained about being cheated as a tourist in China but my experience in Hanoi is worse. Taxi drivers have no qualms in fleecing you off. There were several instances where the taxi driver tried to give us less change than what's due. For example, if the fare was VND15,000 and we handed him a VND50,000 note, he'd just return VND25,000 to us in the hope that we wouldn't notice or make a fuss. Some taxis had their meter tampered – on two separate occasions, we were charged VND11,000 and VND50,000 for the same trip. When we argued with the second driver, he just played dumb and ignored our protests! Street vendors were not any better. Mum saw a lady selling something akin to our local "char kuay" and she wanted to try. As the lady obviously did not speak English, we just asked for two pieces and handed her VND10,000 (~RM2.50), which we thought should be more than enough. To our surprise, we asked for another VND10,000! We said no but she just grabbed the money from my sister's hand and stuffed another two pieces into the plastic bag and walked away! We felt so indignant and violated. Although the amount involved is not a lot, we just felt the spirit is so wrong. We comforted ourselves by thinking that these people are poor and our money may be the only income they get for the entire day.

My worst experience in Hanoi was getting diarrhea. This was truly a tourist nightmare came true. All along I have a rather weak stomach and when the taxi stopped at the street where we were to have our steamboat dinner, I was hesitant. Nevertheless as we were already there, we just went ahead. I took great care to rinse my plate and utensils with the boiling soup and didn't order any drinks but my stomach starting churning in the midnight. Good thing I went prepared with some "Po Chai" pills and oral rehydration salts. My diarrhea lasted three days and I count my lucky stars that I had access to reasonable good washrooms throughout.

All in, Hanoi is a quite a pleasant city but for someone who doesn't speak Vietnamese, it can be fraught with dishonesty. Would I want to go to Hanoi again? Probably not on a personal trip. Would I recommend it as a travel destination? Perhaps, but it's probably better to follow a tour package rather than travel on one's own as with the former, everything will taken care of and one will even have a local guide who can assist during unexpected situations.

January 18, 2007

Places to see in Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is the final resting place of Vietnamese great father or affectionately known as Uncle Ho. The body of Ho Chi Minh lies in a chamber of the building, surrounded by numerous guards. Security was tight and visitors entering the mausoleum are subjected to strict security procedures before being allowed in. According to Wikitravel, the body is taken overseas for re-embalming for a few months around the end of each year.

Next to the mausoleum is Ho Chi Minh Presidential Palace, a relic complex where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked from December 1954 to September 1969. Of particular interest is the presidential palace where many an official function took place and the house where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked from 1954 to 1958. The highlight of the complex has to be the historic house-on-stilts where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked from May 1958 to August 1969. The modest house symbolizes his way of simplicity, modesty, gentleness and dedication to the nation and its people.

Ho Chi Minh's house-on-stilts

Within walking distance of the presidential palace is One Pillar Pagoda, consisting of a pagoda and a tower built in the middle of a square lake. The pagoda is dedicated to Goddess Kuan Yin. Legend has it that a wealthy man sought divine help to grant him a son and when his wish came true, he built the pagoda to as a symbol of gratitude to the Power above.

Temple of Literature was founded in 1070 under King Ly Thanh Tong and is dedicated to Confucius. Six years later during the reign of King Ly Nhan Tong, it was established as the country's first university to train talented men for the nation. It was the biggest educational center in the country under the feudal system, having trained thousands of scholars. The courtyard features 82 stone tablets, which recorded the name and native places of 1307 graduates of 82 Royal exams held from 1442 to 1779. Each stone tablet was mounted on the back of a tortoise, one of the country's four holy creatures, along with the dragon, unicorn and phoenix, which can live a long and healthy life.

A portion of the stone tablets

Hoan Kiem Lake is a pleasant park in the center of town. Hoan Kiem means "returned sword", and the name comes from a legend in which King Le Loi used a magical sword to drive the Chinese away. While boating on the lake one day, he encountered a giant turtle, which grabbed the sword and carried it down the depth of the lake, returning it to the gods from whom it had come.

North of Hoan Kiem Lake, the Old Quarter, as the name suggests, is the older part of the city where most of the action is. Artisans and craftsmen have set up shop here for generations, and each street is dedicated to selling only one specialty item, such as wedding cards, beddings and mattresses, prayers items, flowers, babies stuff, books, motorcycle seat covers, hardwares, toys, medicines and herbs.

Halong Bay, 165km east of Hanoi, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Area for its outstanding natural beauty. "Dragon descending into the sea" as it is known in Vietnamese, picturesque Halong Bay has more than 1,000 limestone islets rising from the sea, many of them containing beautiful grottoes. One of the most popular is Thien Cung Cave. Discovered in 1993 by a fisherman seeking shelter from the storm, it has an amazing collection of unique stalactite and stalagmite formations resembling various natures of human and animals. Some may apt to compare Halong Bay with islands off Phuket and indeed there is a striking semblance, while Thien Cung Cave can be compared to the limestone caves of Ipoh. All the same, Halong Bay remains one of the most popular attractions for visitors to Hanoi.

January 15, 2007

Family trip to Hanoi

We've planned for this trip since August as dear old dad had wanted to visit Vietnam. Since both my sisters had been to Ho Chi Minh City, we decided on Hanoi. After dad's passing, we were not sure if mum would still be up to it. When we asked her about it, she felt that we should go ahead with the trip and so we did.

It wasn't a smooth journey from the very beginning, flight wise. The timing of the flights has been changed compared to the time when we booked our flights in September. The KL – Hanoi flight was supposed to depart at 0950 from KL and arrive in Hanoi at 1155 but would now depart at 1500 and arriving in Hanoi at 1725. The return flight was supposed to depart Hanoi at 1235 and arrive in KL at 1700 but that has also been rescheduled to arrive in KL at 2230. We didn't quite like the new timing as we would be arriving very late at night but there was really nothing much we can do.

Anyhow, we left KL on Jan 8 on Air Asia flight AK762. By the time we reached Noi Bai International Airport, cleared immigration and collected our luggage, it was almost 1830 and pretty much dark outside. We took the pre-arranged airport transfer to our hotel, Hanoi Plaza Hotel, located in the Old Quarter. The owner's son who runs the hotel turns out to be a helpful chap and ensured a very quick check-in for our group. The rooms are adequately furnished and well equipped. There are even three computers at the lobby where guests can surf the Net for free. We then proceeded to dinner at Quan An Ngon. The restaurant has really nice ambience and we could see that it's very popular with locals as well. It has a unique concept whereby foods are prepared by the numerous stalls in the compound of the restaurant, which also serves as the alfresco dining area. Luckily the menu was written in both English and Vietnamese as we would not be able to order, as the waiters and waitresses hardly spoke any English. There was a good selection of local foods and we tried different varieties of Vietnamese noodles, and the famous Vietnamese coffee.

Front facade of Quan An Ngon

Stalls in the compound

The next day, we went on a city tour in a private van. Our guide, Danny, has a reasonably good command of English, and the icing on the cake was he spoke Malay too. Apparently he worked four years in Penang and that's where he picked up the language. Our tour started with Ho Chi Minh Complex, which encompasses the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Presidential Palace and the Museum. Our next stop was the One Pillar Pagoda, Temple of Literature, Hoan Kiem Lake with the adjacent Ngoc Son Temple. The tour ended with a trip to the local Dong Xuan Market. It was only about 3pm then and we wanted to visit the Museum of Ethnology, which was 16km away from the city but Danny said that it would be closed by the time we arrived. So we just went back to the hotel.

After the children woke up from their nap, we walked around the Old Quarter, browsing at the many souvenir shops. Brother in law suggested that we have local steamboat for dinner and the hotel helped called a taxi and gave directions to the driver. We were taken to a street where "Lau" or steamboat shops lined both sides of the street. We dined Vietnamese style, sitting on low stools by the road. That was really quite an experience.

Steamboat, Vietnamese style

Early the next morning, we took a private van to Halong City, about three hours away from Hanoi. Upon arrival at Halong Port, we boarded a boat for a tour around Halong Bay. I felt it was rather wasteful that the huge double decked boat with a capacity of at least 20 persons was occupied only by our family. But as we saw other boats, we realized that it's normal practice for the huge boat to be occupied by only a handful of people. Our first stop was at a floating fishing village and the owner of the fish farm where we docked persuaded us to buy a fish from him to be cooked on the boat for our lunch. As we were the only ones there, we felt obliged and against our judgment, paid USD30 for a garoupa. Lunch was served on board the boat and we asked the boat operator to steam our garoupa. It turned out overcooked, so the flesh was rather hard and our USD30 was for naught. We proceeded with our cruise after lunch and made another stop at Thien Cung Cave before the boat took us back to the port. We reached Hanoi after another three hours journey at about 8pm.

Inside the cruise boat

On the upper deck

Villagers selling fresh produce at the floating village

Dinner was at Little Hanoi, a restaurant that comes highly recommended from Yahoo travel site. I should have expected that the restaurant catered mainly to Westerners and the selection of local foods was limited. The quality of food did not disappoint though, and mum was particularly pleased with her braised sweet and sour chicken with rice. The spring rolls and rice paper rolls were excellent too.

We had three-quarter of a day before our flight so we decided to visit the Museum of Ethnology. Upon checking, we found out that it's closed every Monday. However, we discovered that it only takes 15 minutes and from Hanoi and it closes at 5.30pm so we could have made it there on Saturday! Oh well, I guess it was just not meant to be. Anyway, we whiled our time shopping. We bought a huge abstract oil painting for the new house, while sis got some lacquer paintings. These, along with other souvenir items, made the day worthwhile. We returned to for lunch at Quan An Ngon.

We reached the airport at about 1600 for our 1805 flight home. There was a long queue at the check-in counter as many tour groups were leaving on the same flight. The flight was also delayed. After checking in, we had dinner at the airport café. We were surprised to find that the prices were reasonable, and the food delicious, unlike the inflated prices and substandard quality of foods at airports back home. Flight AK763 finally took off at 1930, and we stepped into our house at 0145.

January 09, 2007

New tricks from a 14-month toddler

Yiu Yiu has learnt quite a bit of new tricks since her first birthday. Here's a list of her recent accomplishments:
  • She is mastering the art of communication and can comprehend a lot more. Though she is still speaking in her gibberish baby language, she can now indicate her needs and wants by pointing to things, nods and shakes her head when she wants or doesn't want anything, respectively. When she misbehaves and we reprimand her, she'll start to cry, as if she knows that we are cross with her. She'll lift her legs up when changing diapers, and lift her hands up when changing clothes. She also knows more words and phrases, e.g., she can point to her nose when asked to.
  • She is mimicking the actions of adults, e.g., by pointing the remote controls at the TV, holding the mobile phone to her ear, pressing the lift button, knocking on doors and wiping her mouth with tissue. So it's time for us to watch our actions and words to set the right example for her.
  • She knows how to climb down from the bed and sofa by positioning her feet down first and prudently assess the distance between the bed/sofa and the floor.
  • She can hold a spoon on her own and naturally, she wants to feed herself now. When I was feeding her porridge over the weekend, she kept grabbing the spoon from me so I gave her another set of spoon and plate. Not satisfied that she only got an empty plate, she used her spoon to dig into the porridge and created a mess. Looks like I've got to come to terms with messy feeding sessions in the process of her mastering the art of self-feeding.
  • When she's asked (in mandarin), "Papa/mummy zui sayang shi shei ah?" she'll lift her hand up to indicate herself.
  • One day, the babysitter carried her out to the gate while sending off the older boys to school on the school bus and she asked Yiu Yiu to cover her mouth and nose with her hand to avoid inhaling the exhaust fumes. Nowadays, whenever she sees the bus dropping the boys off, she'll automatically cover her mouth and nose.
  • Whenever she poo-poo and we say, "Hmmm…chou chou ah" she'll pinch her nose with her thumb and forefingers indicate that it's smelly.

It's a joy watching her growing sociability and independence, which comes with a price. She's starting to test her limits and exhibit those temper tantrums that go hand-in-hand with her budding independence. We’ll just have to be firm and nurturing to ensure Yiu Yiu turns out to become a lovable and well-adjusted child.

January 04, 2007

Bathe standing up

About three months back, when Yiu Yiu could stand steadily while holding onto something, I attempted to bathe her in the shower standing up. However, she fought vigorously as she didn't like the way water trickled down her while washing her hair. As I want her to enjoy her bath time, I decided to give it a break and resumed bathing her in the baby bath tub.

Though I continued bathing her in the tub, I tried to get her used to the sensation of water trickling down her face and neck by splashing water at her face and pouring water down her head. Each time, I'll give her a warning by asking her to look down. It also helped that we recently went to the pool frequently and in the process, she's more familiar with controlled breathing technique.

Last week, I tried bathing her again standing up in the shower. After wetting her hair and applying shampoo, I asked her to look down before rinsing the shampoo off. I guess due to the constant conditioning, she knew what to expect and took it really well. Heck, she even seemed to enjoy it! I've since bathed her standing up successfully the past few times so here goes my success story in bidding farewell to the bath tub.

January 03, 2007

The first few steps to independence...

About three weeks ago, we witnessed out little darling pulling herself up while sitting without assistance or holding on to something for support. She stood there wobbly for a short few seconds before sitting down again. We applauded her efforts and showered her with kisses and praises and she seemed extremely pleased with herself. Since then, she repeated the stunt many times with increasing stability. People tell me that by achieving this milestone, she'll walk in no time. And true enough, the babysitter told me one evening that she managed to take two little steps but this mummy has yet to have the opportunity to witness the significant milestone.

Last Sunday afternoon, while watching CSI on TV, my little darling pulled herself up and stood about one foot away from me. She looked like she wanted to come to me so I reach out my hand and said, "Come Yiu Yiu, walk to mummy". To my amazement, she slowly took one, two, three, four and five steps before I caught her in my arms. Hubby and my in-laws were there to witness this momentous moment and we were all grinning from ear to ear.

So I can now proudly declare that my little darling took her first steps one day shy of her 15th month.