Saturday, August 30, 2014

Tourists at Home in Kuala Lumpur

With Vicki and Gil in town for two of our last three weeks in Malaysia, we became KL tourists. This turned out to be a fun way to wind down our time in KL. We hit some of our favorite spots and introduced them to the cast of characters that colored our lives here this year. And we also said our goodbyes...

Mary and Rosie at TTDI market
As you might expect from reading our blog this year, much of the year centered around food. Ana and Sue from LaZat put together a special family Malaysian Chinese cooking class for us. In addition to the adult student cooks, Monique's daughter, Aimee, and Violet joined us. Mary has been looking forward to this for the entire year since the focus of the class was her favorite Chinese dish, char kuey tao (CKT). The morning began with a tour of the TTDI wet market to learn about the ingredients we would be using in the class. Mary of course stopped by to see her resident spice lady Rosie, who as usual was delightfully cheerful and even put together a special snack pack for Gil. We then we headed over to LaZat for 4 hours of cooking and gorging! We started off by making fried wantons with shrimp and prawns. Next up, a delicious crab salad followed by the CKT. The trick to a flavorful CKT is frying the ingredients in a wok at incredibly high heat. After nearly choking to death on the the thick black smoke of frying chili (ok, maybe Violet and Brian burned them a little) it was amazing to us that anyone survives long enough to become an expert Chinese Malaysian cook! The Malay cooking class next to us nearly had to be evacuated. Sue of course was un-phased and found the whole scene somewhat amusing. Overall the food was delicious (of course!) and Violet and Aimee represented the next generation of chefs well.

Sue in her element at the TTDI market

We were glad to be in town to go to LaZat's Hari Raya open house
and say farewell to Ana, LaZat's owner. 
We also had to continue the Pohl tradition of Korean barbeque so we took everyone to our favorite Korean restaurant, Dao Rae. This also doubled as a farewell dinner for Nicole. We were so happy that she met Gil and Vicki since Nicole has been such an important part of our life this year. (Violet is still asking when she and Nicole are going out for another foot massage.)

No visit to KL would be complete without a trip to Restoran Lim Kee on the food street Jalan Alor. As usual, Lillian did not disappoint. The salt and pepper squid is still the best dish we have had in KL (sorry duck curry from My Elephant - you're close but not quite there!) and Lillian made a special noodle dish for Gil that was one of his favorite dinners of the trip. Lillian and Simon are simply wonderful hosts. Our friend has celiac disease and Lillian prepared separate dishes for her using gluten-free ingredients our friend brought from home. We have convinced all of our Mont Kiara friends that Lillian's is the place to go on Jalan Alor and we hope they continue the tradition of eating there at least once a month (remember guys, she is closed on Thursdays).

Our final dinner with Lillian on Jalan Alor
Gil loves malls and tall buildings so we spent an evening in KLCC at the Petronas Towers. We started off by exploring Suria KLCC mall and then headed over to the Sky Bar at the Traders hotel to watch the sunset over the backdrop of the Towers. Patrick took us here in July 2013 to introduce us to the city so it was a fitting goodbye to one of the most gorgeous architectural structures in the world. The view at night is simply spectacular and it is a wonderful place to spend an evening with family and friends.

Are they drums, are they stools? Brian can't tell...
In addition to loving malls, Gil and Vicki also love to shop, and shopping we did. We have officially dubbed Vicki and Gil "the great shopping enablers." Mary went to Jim Moore's to buy two stools and ended up with 4. She went to IPC to buy 1 Thai pillow and came home with 2. Brian went to get 1 instrument in Hanoi and came home with 3.  You get the idea...

Brian however wins the award for the most ridiculous shopping adventure. Whenever we go to a new country he tries to learn about the local music with a particular focus on stringed instruments. For the past few months he has been looking for a traditional Malaysian stringed instrument called a sape' but they have been impossible to find anywhere outside of a few towns in Borneo. He briefly talked about going to Kuching with Gil for a 12 hour trip but we had too much to do in KL to get ready for our move. So he did the next best thing - he brought the sape' store to our apartment. Brian found a sape' teacher and musician who commissions sape's from local makers in Sarawak, Borneo. After discussing things over Facebook, Saufi agreed to bring a traditional 4-string sape' to KL from Borneo the weekend  before we moved. It is solid wood, handcrafted, heavy and beautiful. It is by far the coolest instrument that Brian acquired from Southeast Asia. Saufi stayed for over an hour teaching Brian how to care for, tune and even play the sape' and then he gave us a ton of both traditional and contemporary sape' tunes to download. Check him out at

Tyler and his swim coach, Michelle (or as Ty called her
for months -- "Miss Shell") at the kids' final swim lesson. 
A heartfelt goodbye to Mr. Madu Tapa, our wonderful apartment guard
Brian and Saufi with the sape'
In addition to being tourists, we also started the unappealing task of packing our apartment and preparing to move back home. Our apologies to Gil and Vicki that their last day was spent changing lightbulbs and sorting pictures.

While Gil and Vicki were incredibly helpful, we simply could not have gotten through the last few weeks (or quite honestly, the last 8 months) without the help of Anita. Anita has been our helper around the apartment since the beginning of the new year. She has been a god-send. She is thoughtful, organized, generous and caring. She is wonderful with Violet and Tyler and just knows how to get things done. Need to find the obscure downtown office to pay your parking ticket? My favorite weekend market is right there - I'll handle it. Craving some fresh Indonesian tempeh wrapped in banana leaf? I know where to get the authentic stuff. Need someone to watch the kids for a date night? I'm free tonight on short notice. Need someone to sew country patches onto Brian's guitar case? I'll do it without you even asking. Anita, we have been so blessed to have you in our lives this year. Thank you for bringing fresh flowers to the apartment every morning, keeping us organized and sane, and being an overall force for good in the world! We will miss you more than words can express.

Anita, we miss you already!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Good Morning, Vietnam!

(The title of this blog is our small tribute to Robin Williams, a comic genius.)

Mary’s parents, Vicki and Gil, planned their trip to visit us in Malaysia almost a year ago. Gil requested two things of this trip. He wanted to 1) go somewhere south of the equator, and 2) ride an elephant. We had originally planned to go back to Bali to kill two birds with one stone... but... as we learned that we were running out of time to explore new places in Southeast Asia, we decided to make alternative plans (AKA - we didn't listen to our parents). Although it is north of the equator and does not have a sizeable ridable elephant population, Gil and Vicki love to experience new foods and cultures so Vietnam seemed like an otherwise ideal country to visit. Inspired by Ethan and Robin’s experiences in Hanoi and Halong Bay, we decided to focus on the northern part of the country for our trip.

Gil and Violet wandering the alleys in Old Quarter
To say that we fell in love with Hanoi is a criminal understatement. Mary (with the help of the awesome team at Custom Vietnam Travel chose a higher-end hotel in the center of the “Old Quarter.” ( Immediately on arrival from our AirAsia flight, we set out to explore the city. We had heard great tales of the street food in Hanoi and we were not disappointed. We stopped at a stall on a small alleyway by our hotel and had delicious Pho Bo and a couple of the famously inexpensive Hanoi beers.

My dad took this picture.
Before leaving KL we'd decided a Hanoi tour the first afternoon of our arrival would provide us some orientation. Trusty TripAdvisor recommended we contact "Hanoi Kids" for a tour. Hanoi Kids is a 300-person strong group of volunteer students from local universities offering FREE walking tours of Hanoi ( The students use the tours as an opportunity to practice their english language skills and tourists receive a lovely tour while chatting about the life of a Hanoi resident. Two university students met us at our hotel the afternoon of our arrival. While the kids (and Vicki) were hot and tired and opted to spend the afternoon drinking hotel cocktails from room service, Brian, Mary, and Gil joined Trang and Hoa -- two university students -- to walk around the Old Quarter and French Quarter. They gave us a nice history of the area and oriented us around Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake ("The Lake of the Returned Sword"). As we chatted we learned about each of their childhoods and studies and got to ask questions that we'd never ask on a normal tour -- "Does everyone in Hanoi own a motor scooter" (It's pretty normal to have one for everyone in the family.) "Is it just tourists that shop in Old Quarter?" (A lot of the shops are for tourists, but then there are places like that one that repair appliance motors. Not many tourists bring along their broken blenders.) "Is it this clean everywhere in Hanoi?" (There is extra street cleaning here for tourists.) "Are the sidewalk badminton courts used?" (YES!) We ended the tour with a "fresh beer" (draught beer) and fried fermented pork (AMAZING, despite the name).

Hanoi Kids tour guides
Because of zoning restrictions, the architecture in the Old Quarter is essentially the same as it was over 50 years ago. There are endless narrow streets and alleyways of 2-3 story buildings with stores below and apartments and balconies above. It is very similar in both appearance and feel to the French Quarter of New Orleans. The main streets in the Old Quarter were originally organized based on trade. For example, Silk Road housed all of the silk traders and fabric dealers. Many of the streets still retain that identity. We spent a lot of time on Silk Street but also walked through “electrical street,” “locksmith street,” “shoe street,” “toilet bowl street” "beer street"(we clearly had some fun coming up with our own names based on what we saw). Thank you to Trang and Hoa! These ladies were so awesome. They accepted no tip or donation for their time and they even emailed us later that evening with the names of must eat street food places around the Old Quarter.

Riding in style in Custom Vietnam Travel's
brand new touring van
The morning after our arrival in Vietnam, we headed out for Ninh Bihn and Halong Bay. As we left town, we were already looking forward to the two days we'd spend in Hanoi on the back end of our visit.

The landscape of northeastern Vietnam is dotted with limestone karst towers. Karsts are what's left behind after rainwater dissolves limestone cliffs. In Vietnam, the karsts are giant, isolated limestone formations. Our first stop outside Halong was in Ninh Binh, often called the inland Halong Bay. We stopped at a small town to take a river tour of the landscape. While a gentle rain fell, two women paddled our boats through isolated rices fields and agricultural lands. We saw villagers fishing and crabbing and we even paddled through some caves! Pretty cool. After a delicious lunch, we started out on bicycles. Tyler learned to bike just one week before this trip and we were all super proud that he kept up even with the rain and the gravel road (although there were a few moments when he almost went unintentionally off-roading through the rice paddies). We decided to skip hiking up the cliff and instead checked in at the Emeralda Resort (, which turned out to be as beautiful as it looks online. 

We're on a boat named "Dang"
Enjoying the giant karaoke room at the Emeralda. 
We were up early for the 4 hour drive to Halong Bay. Halong Bay was the real reason for this trip. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is the landscape of dreams. ( We opted for the three day - two night cruise which is a day longer than most tours and takes visitors out to the isolated areas in the far east of Halong Bay. We sailed on the Dragon Pearl II by IndoChina Junk, a boat which carries up to 20 guests. The beauty of the landscape is difficult to put into words, so we're going to put in a bunch of pictures! Our only disappointment in Halong was the tremendous amount of trash in the water near the major tourist routes. On our first kayak trip, we picked up plastic bag after plastic bag. What would otherwise be beautiful beaches were spoiled by the rubbish. Our second day took us far east. The sea and beaches here were free of trash and our 1-hour kayak trip was stunning! 

Our ship towed the kayaks along as we sailed.

Oh, the food! IndoChina Junk is known for amazing food, especially seafood. Each meal brought us course after course of deliciousness. Violet is now a big fan of prawn (Tyler confirmed that he, indeed, likes only white rice, meaning Brian and Gil got extra helpings from his rations). The rain confined us to eating indoors most of the trip, but our favorite meal was our first lunch after setting sail when we sat at a table on the bow's upper deck and watched the limestone formations go by. For our last dinner, we ate BBQ in a cave (it was awesome except for the smoke - they actually did the cooking in the cave as well)!!! For friends heading to Vietnam, we recommend you check out IndoChina Junk.

Tyler helped cruise the ship!

Super cool in-cave dining!

After our Halong Bay time, we were excited to return to Hanoi. We spent two days wandering around the Old Quarter and we could have easily spent 2 or 3 more. For Brian, music was the highlight of Hanoi part 2. We went to a traditional Ca Tru performance in a beautiful old house in the Old Quarter and Brian got to go onstage to try out one of the Vietnamese lutes used in the performance. It was a surreal experience since the show was in the covered courtyard of the house and an intense rain storm began about halfway through the show. With the rain pounding on the tarp covering, it was at times impossible to hear the singing. We were also nearly flooded out by the torrential downpour. At one point one of the audience members had to reach his hand into the courtyard's drain and pull out a handful of weeds to prevent the entire show from going underwater! 


The performance cemented Brian's desire to buy a traditional Vietnamese stringed instrument so the next day Gil and Brian went on a mission to find actual non-souvenir grade lutes. They came home with not one but two - a Dan Nguyet and a Dan Ty Ba. They are amazingly beautiful with mother-of-pearl inlay and sound great. Later that evening we went to a water puppet show and the band featured a Dan Nguyet as one of the main instruments. During the show Brian fell in love with a Dan Bau, a single-stringed instrument that is played by creating harmonics and then bending the string to get all of the notes of the scale. With his trusty instrument hunter Gil, they ran out of the show back to the music store and got one of those as well! You can probably tell that we are in full-on binge shopping mode before we head back to the U.S. Mary splurged on a couple (ok, three) paintings, and even Violet got into the act and got herself a traditional tea set. 

Strangest shopping experience. To enter "The Big C" (Tesco/Walmat-like store),
we had to have our purses shrouded and sealed in plastic.
A dike wall covered in beautiful mosaic mural runs 4 km through Hanoi
Water puppet theater

Mary also spent the days hunting down the best pho soup -- we had to get her this shirt...

We are so glad that we were able to get to Vietnam before heading home and we feel blessed that we were able to share our last trip in Southeast Asia with Gil and Vicki.