Week 16, Hoi An, Vietnam, and LEGOLAND Malaysia

Diary of a Globetrotting Family

Making lanterns and wishes in Hoi An, and unleashing our imaginations at LEGOLAND Malaysia

The blocky stamp thunked four times, and the Malaysia immigration official handed us back our passports. After leaving Hoi An to fly out of Da Nang, then a day of traveling across Vietnam and Singapore, we’d arrived in the peninsular Southeast Asia nation on a hot night. Now out of the checkpoint and in Johor Bahru, our first steps in Malaysia took us into Aster’s sixth country, Connor’s seventh, Jodie’s ninth, and my lucky thirteenth.

A few minutes later, our Grab driver dropped us off at our rental. We stared through the windowed back of the high-rise elevator as it took us to the thirteenth floor.

The kids pressed against the window and shouted, “We can see LEGOLAND!”

The four of us stared out at the bright park where we’d spend the next week. Jodie and I smiled. We were tired. Ready to go to bed. But we also knew that, yes, everything was awesome.

“No matter what now, we remind each other—even the kids remind us sometimes—that before we can eat, the phone eats first.”

Phone eats first

Photos? Check. Tuck in!
Photos? Check. Tuck in!

In Da Nang, Vietnam, the server at Roots Plant-Based Cafe set down our breakfast bowls. Alongside a strip of banana slices in the children’s smoothie bowls, a bright pink stripe of red dragon fruit puree shone in the fresh morning light. In my Mediterranean-style veggie bowl, the scents of herbs from hot, fried falafels wafted up. I reached for my spoon.

“Not yet,” said Jodie. She snapped some photos and videos. “The phone eats first.”

It’s a good reminder—not to mention a quippy line. But when your job is creating content, especially around your family’s travels, taking those extra seconds to get some shots and footage is important.

However, we can’t take credit for this wonderful phrase. Jodie encountered it earlier that morning while catching up on Instagram. A colleague was posting about the Disneyland trip she and her kids are on. That mama and fellow content creator had told her own kids that little command, when one of them took a bite of Mickey-ears ice cream before she got a photo.

Food travel, as you may have noticed, figures in big with our lives. Food is a priority in where we go during our travels. Plus, food bonds all of us, wherever we are in the world. We find it helps connect us to a place, and it helps us connect you with our travels and stories.

So sure, we might have to take a few moments to snap some photos, but it’s worth it. It’s in the fun of the trip, of making memories, and building one last bit of anticipation before we dig in.

No matter what now, we remind each other—even the kids remind us sometimes—that before we can eat, the phone eats first.

“Growth takes growing. However, growing is not always comfortable—as anyone who looks back on puberty is well aware of.”

Our 2023 words for the year

Ready to make our wishes—and more importantly, do the work—for 2023.
Ready to make our wishes—and more importantly, do the work—for 2023.

Just about every year for the past decade, Jodie and I make an important new year choice.

We don’t go in much for resolutions, you see. But we do like focal points. So, as the first days of the new year get underway, we do some reflection. We talk about what, as the new year becomes the old year, we want to look back on for the year. We discuss what we want to have accomplished or made progress on.

Then, each of us picks one little word. We first got into this years ago, through businessperson—and fellow Oregonian!—Ali Edwards, and her One Little Word program. Nowadays, we just do our own thing. (For many of our YouTube videos when we were in the house, you may have noticed our previous words on the letter board that was often behind us: STRIVE and THRIVE. Oh, and while you’re combing through our YouTube channel, please make sure you’ve subscribed!)

We love the spirit of Ali’s program, though, and we’ve carried it forward in our hearts and dreams. After all, each year brings new challenges and opportunities, different goals sought and hopes we want realized. Jodie and I have found that having our word in mind gives us an anchor point. Just as we come to each other for support, guidance, and perspective, our respective words help us refocus and rebalance.

Amid our travels, we had talked a little about what we wanted our 2023 words to be. Honestly, I’d been so caught up in our joy at being in Vietnam, that I hadn’t thought about it much.

Winding down one night, Jodie got in bed and was clearly working on something important. I gave her the mental space she needed, and did my own thing for a while, such as journaling for the day, and completing some Spanish, French, Italian, and Japanese lessons in Duolingo. (I tried Vietnamese as well, but so far have been nearly as hopeless at Vietnamese as I’ve been at Irish. I’ll get there.)

Then Jodie set down her phone and looked at me. Triumph and excitement blazed in her eyes.

A big year ahead

“I’ve figured out my word,” she said. “The more I thought about our year, our travels, the business, all the things we want to do, and how close we are to some big goals, it got pretty clear to me.”

“So what’s your word?” I said.

She grinned. Even writing about it now, I have to pause. I’m such a sucker for that smile.

“My word,” she said, “is soar.”

We always know when we’ve hit upon the right word. Not only can we feel a connection to a word, but when we reveal to each other, we can often feel like we’re riding a bolt of lightning. The moment she told me her word was soar, my heart soared. After all, to soar can mean “fly or rise high in the air,” or “increase rapidly above the usual level.”

We work together, travel together, enjoy life together. Starting our travels has been a huge dream come true, but we are also working toward some big dreams and goals with the business too. We know that 2023 has big potential for us, and we don’t even know what all might be ahead.

We see so much good stuff coming. There is so much we are excited about. And to talk about soaring is exactly what it feels like. It feels like we’re about to take off on an amazing voyage. Which in some ways sounds crazy, since we’re already on these amazing travels.

Sure, we’ve flown and ridden trains and endured buses and wandered all about. But this year? 2023? We feel so ready to soar.

What will it take to soar?

Jodie had figured out her 2023 one word, and it’s such a good one. I, however, felt stuck. What should my word be? There are plenty of things I want to make progress on: being fitter, growing our family’s wealth, making our business more successful, continuing our world family travels.

When I work on my word, I ponder those elements I want the year to have, the things I want us to improve or make progress on. As individual words come to me, I take time with each of them, consider them, look them up. Those initial words never wind up as the final. They are the stepping stones that help me go farther down the path toward my word. 

Considering 2023, we have so much happiness and togetherness in our lives. I want us to keep our balance. However, we want to further grow our business. That takes being willing to push our boundaries, our knowledge, our comfort zones, our skills.

Growth takes growing

Growth takes growing. However, growing is not always comfortable—as anyone who looks back on puberty is well aware of. As I reflected on the progress Jodie and I have made over the past ten years with family, business, finances, and our dreams and goals, something came into focus.

Our next successes depend on our willingness to push ourselves creatively. It’s what scares me, but it’s the right scared. Some fear is the kind that tells us when we need to flee something. This fear tells me when it’s time to go toward something. In particular, I need to trust my intuition, creativity, and heart more. It takes a bit of courage, a willingness to be bold, to follow a sense of daring.

As I pondered all that, one word made me pause.

Courage? Nah. Not that one. I’m not fighting fires. I’m a middle-aged writer who travels with his family in safe places. “Courage” is a bit much.

Bold? Bold is a great flavor descriptor for coffee. It’s a formatting change to add emphasis to text in writing. Bold is Irish slang for when a child says something Americans might call being a smart alec. 

But… daring. Thinking of the word daring took me right to the edge. Daring means “adventurous or audaciously bold.” So close. But not quite. Over the top, and not quite on target.

However, there is a similar word, which means “have the courage to do something,” to “challenge (someone) to do something,” or to “be brave enough,” “pluck up courage,” or, simply, to “venture.”

All those things came together in exactly the word I needed. The word that could remind me to say yes to being braver in business, creativity, family, love, and travel.

My word for 2023?

Dare.

“Inside, I tensed, but I kept my face even, my breathing steady, and my spirit wary but hopeful.”

Don’t be a what?

We'd be leaving Vietnam from the Da Nang airport. Leaving Hoi An, we passed hundreds of orange trees, ready for Lunar New Year.
We’d be leaving Vietnam from the Da Nang airport. Leaving Hoi An, we passed hundreds of orange trees, ready for Lunar New Year.

Red and gold shining lanterns swayed in the breeze that blew over the Thu Bồn River in Hoi An, Vietnam. Our second-floor, open-air balcony table overlooked the bustling pedestrian night market below. Jodie and I watched the river of people. Tourists made their way to and from the pubs, restaurants, massage parlors, and shops that took up the ground-floor spaces. On the side of the street, vendors stood behind boxy, narrow stalls. Any stall might display banana crepes, cut fruit, smoked ice cream, or a grilled, suckered tentacle wrapped around a stick.

Beyond a narrow green space that ran parallel to the water, the river was lit up with people in long, narrow row boats. As a solo rower steered the boat along, people lit candles and set them in a waxed paper box. Closing their eyes and making wishes, people leaned down and set their wish candles afloat on the dark water.

The star of Hoi An, though, was the lanterns. Along the fronts of buildings, strung along bridges, brightening every corner of town, the soft glow of hundreds of lanterns added a festive yet relaxed air to the evening.

Light gleamed through thin fabrics, mostly reds, but some golden yellows, as well as other designs and colors, from cherry blossoms on pink, to white Chinese characters on blue, orange, or red. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam, Hoi An’s renown comes from these lanterns. We chatted about how the next day, we wouldn’t just be admiring the lanterns. We would take a class where we would make our own.

Baby

Aster’s attention, though, kept getting taken up by the servers. Throughout our travels in Vietnam, it’s hard for Aster to pass by Vietnamese women without getting marveled at—especially if she’s wearing her favorite combo: her white, patterned Oaxaca dress, with her conical Vietnamese slatted bamboo hat that she’d gotten in Tam Cốc.

Women stop and talk with her. Owners at our hotels have asked to take her photo. At Hoi An’s Tiger Tiger, the young women would serve trays of food and drinks, then lightly touch Aster’s arm.

And all of them, from Hanoi to Hoi An, call Aster “baby.” They tell her she’s beautiful, and they look into her eyes. They thank her for being her.

Connor, however, kept looking at the black shirts worn by the servers at Hoi An’s Tiger Tiger Pub and Restaurant, both the women and the men. He turned to us and said, “Did you see the backs of the employee’s t-shirts?”

That’s quite a slogan

Oh, I had. Inside, I tensed, but I kept my face even, my breathing steady, and my spirit wary but hopeful.

Jodie and I have never been much for censoring language. Typically, when the kids get exposed to something, and especially when they ask questions, we follow those cues to have earnest, open, yet age-appropriate discussions. Swearing gets more of its impact from the emotion behind it than the words themselves. We’ve had frank conversations with the kids about swearing, what the words literally and figuratively mean, and when they are and are not appropriate. Discussing language like this, from what we’ve seen, has diffused the novelty of cussing.

The kids know that if they want to try using a swear word, they may do so only around me and Jodie. They have to use the word correctly (sage advice we got long ago from a dear friend and fellow parent).

(And yes, they’ve heard me and Jodie swear. After all, if you don’t teach your kids how to cuss, who will?)

A woman passed by. Connor stared at her black t-shirt, then told us, “They say, ‘Don’t be a pussy, be a tiger.’”

The big white letters were hard to miss. I nodded. “Yup.” It was suddenly hard to keep from bursting out laughing. I tried to focus again on my breathing, but I couldn’t seem to breathe out.

Waiting to exhale

Sure, we’d discussed swearing, especially with Connor, since he’s older and has been asking more questions about cussing and cuss words. We also openly talk about bodies, body parts, and functions. But we hadn’t yet discussed words that are more, shall we say, swearing adjacent.

Was he going to say what I thought he might say? Though if we were, I was definitely going to be curious to find out where he’d learned that word in that context. It wasn’t part of my and Jodie’s speech. The father-general part of my brain began preparing new lines of discussion, inquiry, and, I hoped, calm understanding, discovery, and patient teaching.

My breath kept catching. I hoped my face wasn’t as red as it suddenly felt.

“That’s pussy,” said Connor, “as in pussycat.”

“Yeah,” said Aster. “Instead of being a house cat, you should be a tiger.”

I smiled big at my kids and said, “Exactly.”

Finally, I exhaled.

“What do diamonds, papaya, and garlic have in common? Each describes a common shape of Hoi An’s famous lanterns.”

On lanterns and letting go

Our Hoi An lantern making class has been one of our favorite activities.
Our Hoi An lantern making class has been one of our favorite activities.

What do diamonds, papaya, and garlic have in common? Each describes a common shape of Hoi An’s famous lanterns.

Wandering Hoi An, Vietnam at night, our memories of the red and gold, softly lit lanterns stayed with us. And made us even more excited, the next morning, to take part in a class where each of us would get to make our own Hoi An-style lantern. Lanterns are everywhere in Hoi An, and now they are in our hearts. We could decorate our whole house in these lanterns—and had spent the evening daydreaming exactly about that.

Our low, slatted bamboo table was clearly a working table. Rubbery bits of dried glue and residue stuck to the bamboo. Bits of thread, scraps, and fabric detritus clung to the surface, the remnants and reminders of previous classes and work sessions. Along three other long, low tables in the long, narrow room, other visitors were in class as well, each choosing fabric, spreading glue, and figuring out how to turn a droopy bit of cloth into a taut, softly lit wonder.

The Hoi An lantern class is run by a small family who has made lanterns in Hoi An for generations. Each one, they make by hand. While we’d be lucky to craft a lantern inside of a few hours, each family member could make over a dozen a day, by hand, using simple tools.

Let’s make some garlic

Before us were the slatted bamboo skeletons, the frame that would give our lanterns structure. Our first task? Choose our shape: diamond, garlic guy, lotus bud, papaya. The garlic came in two variations as well: “sunrise garlic” was bulbous at the top, and tapered at the bottom, while “sunset garlic” was the reverse.

All four of us decided on “sunrise garlic.” Connor, however, chose a smaller frame. A sort of baby garlic, if you will.

Over the next couple of hours, Connor and Aster had a meticulous focus that made the world feel like it had become no bigger than a Hoi An lantern. Whether spreading a bead of glue along four bamboo slats at time, gently laying and tugging the fabric until it was even and taut, or trimming up the edges so each line of fabric was clean and smooth, the kids brought pride and craftsmanship to each panel they laid.

In the end, we hung up our Hoi An lanterns, took a photo of them together, and picked out a few more lanterns—they were only a few dollars each—hoping we could figure out shipping them all from Hoi An to the US for safekeeping.

That night, I had a word with our hotel’s manager, and he said he would make some calls for us.

What the manager said

We take pride in making. We all enjoy working in digital mediums, too. Jodie edits photos and videos. I write. The kids even use Minecraft for art projects. However, there is a different satisfaction that comes with working with the hands. For example, that’s part of why I love to cook. Since I work on so much intangible creation, for example, cooking puts my hands, mind, and heart to work in a different way.

Jodie and I saw the same care and crafting put to work making our Hoi An lanterns, too. We all finished our lanterns, hung them, and lit them up with a sense of pride. They were beautiful. We pondered the lanterns we would give as gifts. In a someday home, where might we hang the lanterns we had made?

The next morning, after breakfast, Jodie and the kids went back to the room. I sat at the table on my own, finishing my coffee and doing Wordle on the New York Times app. The hotel manager came over to me.

“I talked with the company we use for shipping,” he told me.

While his smile was soft and kind, there was a flatness in his voice, as if he knew he had no choice but to disappoint me, and dreaded having to do it. I braced myself. I had no illusions, and didn’t expect the shipping to be cheap. It’s a long way from Hoi An to the USA, after all.

“And I’m afraid they said that shipping your lanterns to the US would cost about two hundred and seventy dollars.”

Oh. Well. Okay. I figured shipping would be expensive… but not that expensive.

There was no way we could justify spending nearly three hundred dollars to ship the lanterns.

What we could take with us

I thanked the manager, then headed back to the room. And broke the news to Jodie and the kids.

Gazes went downcast. Connor went over to the bag where we had stored the lanterns and took out his own. He sat on the floor and stared at it, turning the lantern over and over, looking at each of the four panels he had crafted.

Aster asked Jodie to take some pictures of her with her lantern. Jodie and I felt sad, a little sluggish, even. We had all felt so joyous. And while we had tried to be tentative about the shipping, we all loved the idea of having these waiting for us back in the US. Making the lanterns had been one of the most special activities we’d done together so far.

Now, it was going to have to just remain a memory.

Later, as we checked out, I chatted with the manager about how we left the lanterns in the room.

“I’m sorry that the shipping didn’t work out,” he said.

“Making those was really special to us,” I replied. “The kids especially are sad about leaving them. If it’s possible, could you try to give the lanterns a good home?”

The manager nodded. I think we left the lanterns in good hands.

A couple of hours later, we were in a van, shuttling us from Hoi An to Da Nang so we could stay the night before flying to Singapore the next day. I thought back to our lantern class, but said nothing; Connor had told us he wanted some time to let his feelings settle, but right now, he still felt pretty upset about having to leave his lantern behind.

What we make is rarely what we keep

As our van drove through the outskirts of Hoi An, we passed gardens, trucks, motorcycle cargo sidecars, and shop front after shop front full of potted orange trees, each as covered in tiny bright globes as a Christmas tree with ornaments. Our understanding is that the trees are a popular gift for the Lunar New Year, which was fast approaching.

I thought back to the class. Music had been playing. When John Legend’s “All of Me” came on, Connor and I sang it together. I thought about his careful patience, his focused joy, as he decided how he wanted to lay down each panel of fabric. He knew he had made something special.

Of course, no matter how special something is, when you make it, there often comes a time when you have to let it go. Lanterns. Books. Kids. We don’t always get to keep what we make. In fact, we usually don’t. All those orange trees? Someone had planted them, tended them, nurtured them, for someone else.

We’d left the lanterns behind. We had to let them go. It was hard. Harder than I expected. We did indeed have the memory. Right now, it was a little bittersweet. But even though we’d left the actual lanterns in Hoi An, we took the best parts with us. In time, I knew we’d remember that most of all. I knew the kids would recognize it.

The creating is what matters most. The creation merely gives a focal point. While making the lanterns was an incredible experience, the most important part was what we did together, the experience we shared, the craft we learned, and the memory we could take anywhere, forever.

But still. I’ll always miss those lanterns. Especially the one I made. Orange with a hint of golden in the embroidery. Like a sunrise we could always see. For a day we’ll always remember.

“Instead of imagining ourselves inside of a LEGO build, we were immersed in life-size and larger-than-life versions.”

LEGOLAND: Into the bricks

Everything is... awesome!
Everything is… awesome!

The kids have told us that of all the toys they had, the LEGOs are what they miss the most. We kept the LEGOs too, every brick and tile. They’re in a locked storage room in our garage, with the few other things we kept for whenever we return to some sort of humble abode.

Watching the kids play with their LEGO collection (and occasionally joining in), I naturally would think back to my brick-rich childhood. The many sets I had as a child, I eventually decided, as a worldly teenager, that I had outgrown. My dad passed them down to a couple of younger cousins. Now, I am happy to dive into the bricks and build once again.

Creating with LEGO bricks gives such an ultimate hands-on conduit to the imagination. My childhood memories are full of builds and teardowns, elaborate storylines with the characters and sets I’d worked up with siblings or with the kids my mom babysat after school.

Now, with my own children beside me, we took our final steps through the hot Malaysia morning, toward a wall of bright colors. From Vietnam, we had flown to Singapore, then ridden a bus across the island to Johor Bahru, a city just across the water from the northern end of Singapore. Resting up overnight, the four of us were ready to start our first of many days exploring LEGOLAND.

We were ready for bricks. We were ready to dash about in a land of pure imagination (well, not the one that phrase might bring to mind).

From imagination to immersion

LEGOLAND Malaysia had been one of the big places we’d planned to take the kids. Neither Jodie nor I have been to any of the 10 LEGOLAND parks around the world. But we were both longtime fans of the brick. Sorting out our passes, soon we crossed the turnstile and turned back into kids.

When you play with LEGOs, you can imagine yourself in what you build. The robot with the hinged elbows and moving arms? It talks in your voice and fulfills difficult missions. The two-story, sprawling. Space station castle you spend all weekend making? You can imagine yourself wandering the hallways, opening the drawbridge/airlock, and asking nearly arrived space dragons if they are friend or foe.

Wandering through the rides, attractions, and building stations at LEGOLAND Malaysia, though, something else happened. Instead of imagining ourselves inside of a LEGO build, the park immersed us in life-size and larger-than-life versions.

Sure, there were rides and other attractions, in some ways not dissimilar from other theme parks. But the LEGO touch of immersive detail was everywhere, often in whimsical touches and creations. Going around a curve in a path might take you past a couple of wee foxes, all made of LEGO bricks. Everywhere you turned, there were statues and scenes, all made of either LEGO bricks or, with big builds like Einstein’s face outside of the Mindstorms building lab, DUPLO blocks.

There were lands devoted to Technic, Kingdoms, Adventure, and Imagination.

Tucking our passes into our pockets, we stepped forth into this land of wonder and creativity.

We stepped into a LEGOLAND of imagination—and we would get to be there for an entire week.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

1 thought on “Week 16, Hoi An, Vietnam, and LEGOLAND Malaysia”

  1. What wonderful memories! How fortunate you all are to experience this together. Sorry about the lanterns, but I admire the ability to hold it together waiting on his definition of ‘the’ word!

    Reply

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