Thursday, October 30, 2008

Don't Drink the Water

Last weekend we went to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for the ABS Singapore Family Day trip. Once each year, ABS in Asia offers a group trip to its employees and their families as a "thank you" for all of the hard work during the year. It's not actually free, but the cost is heavily discounted. The company picks up about 70% of the cost, so it's hard to pass-up the offer.

On Friday afternoon about 75 of us boarded a Singapore Air flight to Vietnam. We landed after only an hour and a half in the air got through customs pretty quickly. We then boarded 2 coach buses and headed off to the hotel.

Asian women love little white boys

The New World Hotel was very nice. We had a great room that easily fit the three of us. We didn't have anything planned for Friday afternoon, so we took it easy at the hotel. After relaxing in the room for a bit, Melissa and Jack spent some time in the small "kids playroom" at the hotel while I got a great massage. Only $25 for a 60 minute massage at a top hotel. You've got to like the prices in Vietnam.

Melissa, Jack and I decided to keep it in the hotel for dinner as we weren't too excited about walking through a dark city known for it's pickpockets with a 6 year old searching for meal. We ended up eating a great dinner at one of the hotel restaurants. The even had "swish-ish" cheese.

Saturday morning was where the fun began. After breakfast at the hotel, we all piled into two buses for a tour of the city. The first stop was the "Reunification Palace". It's otherwise known to the local Vietnamese as "The place where the American war ended". This building was the South Vietnamese equivalent to The White House until it was taken over by the Viet Cong. It's now a national historic site. It's open for tours and still looks l lot like it did in the 70s.

From there we went to the Notre Dame Cathedral.

It was built by the French (I think in 1880). I've seen a lot of cathedrals in my world travels. This looked pretty much like the rest of them. Stained glass, a few sculptures, not much else to be impressed by. Once you've been to Rome, it's hard to be impressed by a church. This sign was kind of unique though.

After Notre Dame, we went to one of the most interesting places of the trip. Vietnam is apparently well known for its Lacquerware. We went to a small factory where it's made. Wood items are first sanded very smooth. Then they're decorated, coated in a few coats of lacquer and polished until they're smooth and shiny. Sound simple. You just have to see it to believe it.

Items are decorated in one of three ways. They're either painted, decorated with cut seashells, or decorated with pieces of broken eggshell. A person is sitting at a table with a basket full of broken duck egg shells. Some are roasted to make them darker than others. Them with nothing but some glue and a lot of patience, pieces of shell are then glued down to make patterns and pictures.

The same is done with pieces of seashell. The shells are cut with a small saw into the shapes they need to make a design. It's incredibly intricate work.

We ended up spending $100 on small items here. A nice part of this place is that all of the workers are handicapped. The factory is owned by the government. It's used as a place to teach some skills to the physically disabled. I hadn't even noticed that half of the people we're missing parts of limbs or had other problems until Melissa pointed it out to me. This picture is a great example of what it is like to be disabled in a poor country.

From the lacquerware factory we went to lunch. There's not much to say about lunch except that I got some ice in my 7up. That was a mistake. Don't drink the water in Vietnam. That's enough on that topic.

After lunch, the tour went to the War Museum. The guide had the bus pull through the hotel on the way to give anyone who was tired a chance to bail out. Jack and I decided we'd skip the museum and go for a swim at the hotel instead. We'd heard the museum was mostly full of some pretty graphic pictures and we thought the pool would be a better idea for a 6 year old than a building full of photos of death and destruction. Melissa went on to the museum and enjoyed the trip.

Sunday was even more interesting as we jumped in to the bus for the two hour trip to the Mekong River Delta. This is getting long, so here's the shorted version.

Rode on a big boat.

Rode on a smaller boat.

Went to a coconut candy factory in the Jungle.

Melissa and a big snake and the coconut candy factory in the jungle.

look at jack's face

Wore a funny hat in an even smaller boat. (Alright. I need to mention this. Near the end of the tour, the canals got even smaller and we all transferred to what were basically big canoes. They held 4 tourists and 2 paddlers. The paddlers were 60+ year old women. Imagine your grandma rowing you through the jungle in a canoe for 40 minutes. Crazy.)

From there it was dinner, 2 hour bus ride and into the plane back to Singapore.

All in all, a good trip. Two full days was enough though. We were ready to go home by the end of the day on Sunday.

Happy Halloween to everyone!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hangin' with Uncle Ho

We're back from Vietnam!

I should have time later tonight to write about the trip. For now, here's a lovely shot of me with Ho Chi Minh in the old Saigon Presidential Palace.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Mind of a First Grader - volume 2

We're in Vietnam for a three day weekend vacation. Last night at dinner, I was eating a few pieces of cheese from the buffet and asked Jack if he'd like some.

Jack: I only like swiss cheese. Is it swiss cheese?
Matt: Kinda. It's swiss-ish
Jack: OK. I like Swiss-ish cheese. You hear that Mommy? Swiss-ish. That's how the men say it. Swiss-ish
Melissa: Oh. OK.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Camp Sarimbun

we just pitched our tent

This Saturday was the annual overnight camp-out for Singapore Cub Scout Pack 3017. Every year, the Cub Scouts and their families are invited to the Singapore Scout campground, Camp Sarimbun.

The campground is very nice and very big. There are covered sleeping facilities for 150 campers and room for over 200 in tents. Each family brought their own tent to sleep in. As a treat for the ladies, any mother who wanted to spend the night was offered the few air conditioned spots that were available. Scouts and Dads had to sleep in the tents.

At least that was the plan.

The theme of the weekend was "hot and wet". We were mentally prepared for the heat going in. We know it would be at least 90 deg. all day. What we couldn't plan ahead for was the rain. We were hoping for a dry day, but mother nature had other plans.

the rain

As we were finishing up the group activities around 5pm, the clouds that had been rolling in all afternoon opened up. To say that it "rained" doesn't really do it justice. The skies opened up and tried to drown us. There were puddles 6 inches deep and rivers of rain washoff running through the camp.

While everyone tried to make the best of it, most people had a lot of wet gear in their tents. We've got a pretty good tent back in storage in Houston that I expect may have been able to stand up the the rain. Of course the $27 tent we bought in Singapore for use one night each year was another story. The bottom half of Jack's and my sleeping bags were pretty much soaked along with all of Melissa's extra clothes.

After the Pack meeting ended around 9:30 pm, we decided we were too tired and uncomfortable to try to tough it out in wet sleeping bags all night. We jumped in the car and made the 20 minute drive back to the apartment to get a few good hours of sleep. I'd say about half of the families did the same.

We woke up early Sunday morning and went straight back to the camp for breakfast, clean-up and the closing Sunday service.

While it sounds like a horrible time, we did actually have some fun. Before the rain, all of the scouts did a bunch of group activities. Jack played flag football, learned to use a compass, worked on his knot tying and learned about first aid.

learning to use a compass

There were some covered areas where we were able to cook the food we brought. Each den brought food and supplies to cook for themselves. Tiger Den 2 had chicken skewers and baked potatoes with brownies and smores for dessert. With a little work I was able to get the charcoal fires going in the wet weather and dinner turned out really well.

cooking smores


Overall it was a fun but tiring weekend in spite of the torrential rains. Jack got along well with the kids in his Den and it was nice to do something different for a weekend.

That's all for now. This weekend, we're off to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for the annual ABS Singapore Family Day weekend trip.

Cub Scout Pack 3017, Tiger Cubs Den 2

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Mind of a First Grader - volume 1

We're starting a new series of posts here at Singaporething. The constant stream of priceless quotes that spew forth from the big hole in the lower half of my son's face needs a permanent record. Years from now, historians will study this accounting of his mind in amazement. I only wish I was able to get it all on tape. Now, on to what I expect will be the first of a long series of posts about the funny/crazy/embarrassing things my son says all the time.

If you watch a lot of sports like I do, you may have seen a new commercial (I don't even remember what it is for) where a bunch of athletes are sitting at a table watching and rewatching a recording of a baseball batter getting hit in the genitals with a baseball. It seems Jack has seen it too. Here's an excerpt from our dinner table conversation. Please note that Jack just brings this up during a lull in the conversation with no prompting.

Jack: "You know what? There was this guy, and he was playing baseball, and BAM, he got hit right in the tenders. You know where the tenders are Mommy? They're right down he.."?

Melissa: "Jack! You don't have to show me dear. I know where the "tenders" are. Finish eating your vegetables."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tokyo Disney Resort

We’re back from our vacation to Tokyo.

(This is a long post. You might want to get a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom before you start.)

Since Jack had the week off from school last week, and I had a week of vacation I had to use, we spent 4 days at the Tokyo Disney Resort last week. What a trip!

There’s no way I can describe it all. If you’re really looking for comprehensive review of the entire place, click here. It’s an incredible review of both parks and the hotels. There is a lot to tell you about though. I guess I’ll start where we started, the hotel.


After a 7 hour flight from Singapore to Tokyo, we took the limobus from Narita Airport to our hotel. The “Miracosta” is the only Tokyo Disney hotel that is actually inside one of the parks. I was expecting something nice, but small. We were happily surprised to find one of the nicest hotels we have ever stayed in.

The hotel has an Italian Renaissance theme to its design and has accents everywhere based upon Disney’s most famous Italian character…Pinocchio. Small, tasteful images of Pinocchio, Geppetto, Figaro, Cleo, and Jiminy Cricket are scattered throughout the decorations in the hotel; from the wallpaper in the hallways to the frame around the mirror.

The lobby was beautiful. The marble floor was a huge compass rose. The lobby ceiling was painted with images to represent each of the different “lands” in the DisneySea park in which the hotel was located. The centerpiece of the lobby was a brass sculpture of a sailing ship almost 10 feet tall with Disney characters as the crew.

The room itself was beautiful. At least as big as a standard American size hotel room. That means HUGE for Japan. The view was great too. We we’re able to look over the entrance to the park and see the humongous fountain outside. Another perk was that we had our own entrance to the park used only by hotel guests.


There are two parks at Tokyo Disney. They are “Disneyland”, which is very much like “The Magic Kingdom” in Florida, and “Disneysea” which is entirely unique to Tokyo. Our hotel was in the Disneysea, so I’ll start there.

This is by far the most beautiful theme park I have ever been to. It beats Busch Gardens, Universal and any other Disney park by a mile.

As you can guess by the name, the park has a water theme. It’s not at all like a waterpark though. There are no waterslides or wavepools. The water or ocean theme is part of the architecture and is the basis for each of the “lands” that make up the park. The different areas are: Mediterranean Harbor, American Waterfront (which included New York Harbor and Cape Cod), Port Discovery, Mysterious Island, Lost River Delta, Mermaid Lagoon, and Arabian Coast. Each area blended very well into the next but had its own very distinct design. The one ride that is in this park that is also in Disneyworld in Florida is the Tower of Terror, which is in the American Waterfront Area. There is actually a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride too (in Mysterious Island), but it was closed for remodeling.

Overall, the Disneysea Park is better for adults and older kids. While there are a lot of rides for young kids, the majority of the major attraction rides are pretty scary for the young. After riding 3 of the scarier rides right in a row, Jack got pretty overwhelmed and said he needed some time on what he called “happy kid rides.” If you’ve got older kids or are just going as an adult couple, Disneysea is the place to be. If you’ve got little ones, one day is enough. They’ll be happier at Disneyland.

Disneyland is almost exactly like the ones in Florida and California.

The same basic layout and rides. There is one big difference (language…I’ll get into that later) and tons of little ones.

I was surprised how much I noticed the little things that were different. Some were in the design. For example, the “It’s a Small World” clockworks is outside, not inside. Other differences were cultural though. The best example was that there was never more than a 20 minute wait for “Pirates of the Caribbean.” I’ll talk more about specific rides later.

Both parks were cleaner than you can imagine. I thought the parks in Florida were clean, but I had no idea. This place was immaculate. If you dropped a piece of popcorn, you felt bad about it. I actually walked back five feet to pick up one piece that I dropped because I felt so bad about it.


If you’re going to Tokyo, October is a great time. It was about 70F everyday. We did have some rain in the morning on our first and third days (both in Disneyland) but it was light and it stopped by lunchtime. We had stylish raincoats to keep us dry and the cast members (workers) did everything they could to keep the walkways and seats dry for you.

The other thing about the weather is that it affects the design of the parks. A lot of the lines for the rides are designed differently than they are in Florida. Most of the time you spend in line, you are covered from the rain. You can imagine, getting wet in Tokyo in December can be very uncomfortable.

The biggest design difference the weather causes in on “Main Street” in Disneyland. There is actually a glass roof over the streets.

There is definitely a different feel to main street because it’s covered, but when it’s raining or windy, you understand why they did it.


You’ll never guess what the number one ride in all of Tokyo Disney is. By 10:00am all of the “fast passes” for the entire day were gone. The line was consistently 80+ minutes. When the park opened, people would sprint across the entire park just to get there before the line formed.

What are you thinking about? Big Thunder Mountain? Splash Mountain? Space Mountain? Nope, Nope, Nope. It’s Pooh. Yup. Winnie the Damn Pooh.

If you’ve ever been to Disney, I know what you’re thinking. “That ride is crap,” right?

It is totally different at this park. The general flow of the ride is the same. You’re in a honey pot floating through a storybook telling the “Pooh and the Honey Hunt” story. That is where the similarity ends. The “pot” that you are riding in is not on a track. It drives itself completely independently and is computer controlled. What this does is allow a few pots to “dance” or spin and circle around each other as they pass through each scene. It really does change the ride.

There are also other improvements. My favorite was the Tigger scene when the entire floor of the room bounced up and down as Tigger passed through. Melissa’s favorite was that in the scene where Pooh is stuck in the honey tree, the entire room smells like honey. The ride is really pretty cool. Is it the best ride in the park? No. Worth an 80 minute wait? No. Worth a fastpass? Definitely.

Another interesting experience was “The Tiki Room” which has now been taken over by Stitch, from the movie “Lilo and Stitch.” Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen 200 animatronic birds, flowers and tiki statues singing Hawaiian songs in Japanese with a fuzzy blue alien dressed like Don Ho.

Jack’s favorite ride of the trip was actually in the Disneysea park. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull” has now overtaken Buzz Lightyear as his number one ride. Jack has been into Indiana Jones since he started playing “LEGO: Indiana Jones” on my Xbox. He’s never seen any of the movies, but he wants to be Indy for Halloween.

Like most of the other rides, Indy spoke in Japanese. It didn’t really matter though. The gist of the ride is that you’re in a jeep riding through the Temple of the Crystal Skull. There are your standard skeletons and snakes as well as some pretty good special effects.

Although this was a pretty popular ride, we had pretty good luck with the lines. There were times that the line looked like it was about an hour long, but we never waited more than 30 minutes even though we rode it about 8 times.

Another ride Jack liked for some reason was the "Sinbad" ride in the Arabian Coast area. While this area didn’t have much in the way of attractions, it was big and very well decorated. I was impressed by the amount of detail put into the buildings and fountains and artwork to make it look like an Arabian town.

I remember the story of Sinbad pretty well from reading the book. The ride told a slightly different story. Translating as best I can from Japanese, it seems that if you follow the compass of your heart, you and your tiger cub friend named Chendu will make friends with mermaids, monkeys and a giant. You’ll then receive a treasure, a few belly dancers and a big pile of bananas. I dunno. Maybe I was missing something.

The last ride I want to mention is the Tower of Terror because it’s different than the one in Florida. The main difference is the story. The Japanese have no idea what “The Twilight Zone” is. In Florida, the story of the ride is that you’re entering The Twilight Zone. In Tokyo, they invented an entirely new story for the ride.

The short version of the story is that an adventurer named Harrison Hightower receives an idol that happens to be cursed during his last trip to Africa. The idol then comes to life and kills Hightower by throwing him into the elevator. On the ride itself, you see a few scenes where the idol attacks Hightower and then comes after you. You then freefall and bounce up and down in the elevator a bit just like in Florida. I didn’t really do the story justice here. Even in another language, it’s presented very well and fits the ride. I actually like it better then the story in Florida. Also, not too many people under the age of 50 remember much about The Twilight Zone. I’d be really happy if they updated the Florida ride to be like the one in Japan.


Here’s the thing about Japan. Its loaded with Japanese people. Everyone speaks Japanese. A few of the rides that are more like shows (Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Aladdin’s Theater) have English subtitles or headphones, but otherwise, all of the rides are in Japanese. On some rides like Big Thunder Mountain, it doesn’t matter at all. On others, like the previously mentioned Sinbad or the Tiki Room, you miss a lot of what’s going on.

At first, it’s kind of a novelty and it doesn’t really bother you. After a while though, you do start do get a bit sick of hearing another language all day. It’s not so much the rides that bother you. It’s the people working the rides that keep speaking to you in Japanese even though it’s clear that you have no idea what they are saying. You just get into a rhythm of nodding your head and saying “Yes” and “Thank You” (the only words I know in Japanese) in response.

It’s also a cultural thing. The Japanese love audience participation and group cheering and chanting. Here’s an example:

The theme of the year at the Parks in 2008 is “The Year of the Villains.” There are a few areas of the parks with “Villains” displays, but the biggest time you see it is during the parade. The parade is Villains themed.

Just before the parade, a few of the cast members dressed in street clothes got in front of the crowd and taught a chant complete with hand motions. It was basically waiving your hands from side to side and yelling “Yatta, Yatta, Villains.” With the Japanese accent, the English word “villains” come out more like “beelans” though, so it took me a long time to figure out what they were trying to say.

Half way through the parade, a Disney villain (Cruella DeVille and such) pop out of the top of each of the floats and take over the parade. It seems that if we all chant and wave our hands enough, they are defeated and disappear back inside of the floats. It doesn’t sound too weird, but trust me, it was surreal seeing hundreds of Japanese people waiving their arms back and forth and chanting in unison.

It really isn’t fair for me to be complaining. All of the people that really mattered, like the hotel desk staff and a few of the more important park staff, were able to speak English. This is their country. I should be happy anyone could speak English at all. I guess I’m just used to the Asian business environment where English is a requirement. While it was a bit annoying at times, the language barrier shouldn’t prevent anyone from going.


This wouldn’t be a Tremblay blog if we didn’t talk about the food.

I’ll start with our main food group of the trip. Popcorn.

All over the park, there were flavored popcorn stands. Pretty much one in each area and they we’re all different flavors. It is hugely popular. You can buy souvenir popcorn buckets that hang on a strap around your neck. Melissa and I both made a ton of jokes about strapping on the feedbag. I’d say a third of people in the park had a bucket.

Each area of the park had a flavor that fit the area. The Medeteranian Harbor had Cappucino flavor (not bad), the Lost River Delta had Coconut (Matt’s favorite), and Ariel’s Grotto had Sea Salt. Here’s the full list of flavors we saw.

Salted, Sea Salt, Capuccino, Coconut, Chocolate (Melissa’s favorite), Honey (Jack’s favorite), Black Pepper, Soda (horrible), Caramel and Curry.

You want to guess which popcorn was most popular? There was a 15 minute wait for Curry. A 20 person line at 9:30 in the morning. You wouldn’t think so, but it was actually delicious. A bit sweet and only a little spicy. We ate a ton of popcorn. I’d say at least 4 buckets each day. The only flavor we missed was black pepper.

As far as the rest of the food goes, we struggled a bit, but were able to manage with some selective restaurant choices. We saw a few things we weren’t interested in trying (like squid pizza) but we also branched out a bit and tried some new things too. The steamed pork and shrimp bun and the pumpkin cake were actually pretty good.

There were your standard pizza and hot dog options from counter service as well as a few scattered “western food” full service restaurants that were pretty good. We found though, that the best tasting food came from the carts in the park. There was a great sausage in a bread roll that was delicious. Another favorite was the pumpkin cake dessert. Overall, we ate pretty well but it took a bit of work.


This was our biggest disappointment of the trip. There was hardly anything in the dozens and dozens of stores that we wanted to buy. We were really just looking for a few shirts that said “Tokyo Disneyland” on them. If you can believe it, we couldn’t find a single one. For Americans, a T-shirt is a popular souvenir. In Japan, people don’t tend to buy souvenirs for themselves; they buy them for their friends and family. That means a lot of cheepo junk in the stores. Lots of little figurines and tins of cookies and candy.

In Florida, all of the shops in the parks are filled with exclusively Disney items. In Tokyo, it will be about half Disney junk and half just regular clothes. I have to be honest with you…it’s kind of weird. Why would I go to Disney world to buy a plain button down shirt or a pair of Dockers?

We even went to the Disney Tokyo Shopping center (called Iksipari). It’s just a mall. It had The Gap and a few other standard mall stores. We were hoping to have better luck shopping there, but it could have been any mall in the US or Singapore. Quite a disappointment.


Overall we had a great trip. A lot of fun with only a few setbacks. The 7 hour flight from Singapore was long, but manageable. Compared to a trip to Disneyworld Florida, I’d say 8 out of 10. The trip lost a point for the language and a point for the shopping. I’d say minus half a point for some food choice difficulty, but that was canceled out by the great hotel.

We had a great time and would recommend it to anyone. While it’s not quite Disneyworld Florida, it’s a great substitute for someone stuck in Asia with a week off.

Monday, October 6, 2008

I'm tired.

Just a quick note to say "Hi" from Tokyo Disneyland." We arrived Sunday afternoon after a 6:00am flight and spent Sunday from 5:00 to 10:00 in the DisneySea Park. We just finished a full day in Disneyland on Monday. We had a great day and are all climbing into bed. Aside from a wet morning, we had a great day. I'll post a full report this weekend.