Monday, December 31, 2012

The spirit of giving

One of the most thoughtful Christmas gifts we received this year was a gift card from our kids for Alternative Gifts International. How this works is that instead of getting a traditional present, the giver gives you a gift card for whatever amount he or she chooses, which you can then "redeem" by choosing to give that amount to a charity of your choice.

In a society where we often get far more stuff than we could ever use or need, getting a donation in your name is definitely more meaningful than say, getting yet another pair of socks. This organisation is pretty good - it pledges that at least 90% of your gift will go to the beneficiary and there are many beneficiaries to choose from, depending on what cause you prefer to support.

Since we're big believers of education (duh) and we prefer to first support countries closer to home, we chose to help kids in Myanmar stay in school.

I imagine that organisations like this one tend to see the bulk of giving at the year-end season, what with the Christmas celebrations and all. But what about the other times of the year?

One of my regular clients is SingHealth located at the SGH campus. When I go for meetings, I usually use the overhead bridge outside Outram MRT where an elderly blind man patiently stands or sits on a little stool, selling packets of tissue and sweets. I always make it a point to give him a few dollars and take a packet of tissue or a tube of Mentos.

The strange thing is that over the past few years, I've gotten so used to seeing him there that I have subconsciously, come to look out for him. On the rare occasion he's not there, I get a niggling worry at the back of my head that something has happened to him and I hope he's alright. Then when I see him again the next time like a faithful sentinel, I feel happy, like the world is right again.     

It's irrational, I know. What I give him is an insignificant token and he doesn't know me, nor me him. Yet I've come to think of him fondly as the SingHealth uncle and it feels like I've adopted him somehow.

If I may attempt to explain my feelings, I think it's because for most of us, charity is a faceless group of people or an organisation. Even though many Singaporeans complain that not enough is being done for the less fortunate, whether it's for the elderly, handicapped, special needs kids, I find it disturbing that often, we expect either the government or others to look after this lot. Worse than inaction, some folks even wash their hands of the entire issue, as shown in the HDB dwellers who protested over having the old folks home built near their flats. Not my problem, not in my back yard.

When we put a face to charity, however, as in the case of my SingHealth uncle, we can't help but have a different perspective. When we realise that the needy is an actual person who could be our grandma, our uncle, our neighbour, it becomes very difficult to simply walk on by. Giving is no longer a chore or a duty, it is something we feel compelled to do. I can say, in all honesty, when I give to my SingHealth uncle, I'm more blessed by him than vice versa.

As we do our New Year resolutions and reflect on how good God has been to us throughout the year, may we not have to find a reason or a season for giving. I hope you will open your hearts to people in need and give generously - whether in cash, kind or service.  And may you be richly blessed.

A very happy 2013 to everyone.

Monday, December 24, 2012

How to go about sec 1 appeals

Ever since the school posting results for p6 kids on 19 December, there has been a flurry of activity around secondary schools in Singapore, with regards to appeals. Since appeals are handled by each school individually, MOE doesn't give much information on appeals on their website, so I thought I would write a post on it to give more clarity to interested parents.

School postings results are usually around the third week of December. It's a very straightforward process these days. No need to go down to school to find out which school your child has been posted to, you will receive the results via sms.

From what I know, this is where the buzz starts. Usually, you'll get many students and parents who are unhappy with the school they've been posted to and want to appeal to another school.  What do you do then?

First, your child will still need to register with the school he's been posted to. Have your child report to the posted school the following day at 8.30am, wearing his school uniform. There, he will register with the school and confirm his place.

Then, if you wish to appeal to another school, go down to that secondary school and fill in an appeal form (usually, the forms are made available from the day of school posting results). I recommend you call the school to find out what attachments you need to bring, so you can submit the form on the spot and not have to make another trip down.  Some schools make available the appeal forms even before school posting results, so call them and check.

Many common questions I encounter about appeals:

1) How many schools can I appeal to?

You can appeal to as many schools as you want, it's just a matter of legwork and form filling. You don't need to inform the school you've been posted to, until you've been successful in your appeal.  Check the deadline for appeals with the school you're interested in.

2) What do the schools look for in appeals?

I once met a mother who lamented to me that her son couldn't get in via appeal to a secondary school even though his brother was there. My first thought was, "err... you thought that was a valid reason?" I think when appealing, parents need to understand that the principal's main consideration will be, which student can best contribute to the school.

Therefore, the students who stand the best chances of appeals are those who:

a) have a talent in an area that the school needs, typically a CCA (especially niche area). Do note however, that the child will stand a better chance if he has either a record of achievement in that area or has already undergone a trial or audition at the school.  In such cases, the school might accept the student even if the t-score is quite a bit lower than the school's Cut-Off Point (COP). It's important to know that if you are successful for an appeal via CCA, you are expected to commit significantly to that CCA.

b) have a t-score that is very close to the school's COP. Arbitrarily, I would say it needs to be 2 or less. For top schools, you might need to have exactly the same t-score as the COP.  For this batch, you are banking on the fact that when the school has taken in all those they need stated in a), they will just take in appeals to fill vacancies based on those closest to their COP.

c) have put the school high on the priority on the School Option form. This one really depends on the school. Some schools don't care if you've even indicated interest in them initially, some do. But generally, I would say that even if this plays a part, it tends to be a secondary consideration. Criteria a) and b) are still more important.

Here's my personal advice on what reasons generally don't work for appeals:
  • My brother/sister/cousin/neighbour studied at your school.
  • I live within walking distance of your school.
  • My t-score is 10 points lower than your COP but I really really really really really like your school.
I need to stress though, that I'm just a parent, not a teacher or a school administrator. What I'm putting forward is my layperson point of view, based on what I've read and heard from schools and teachers. I'm told that at the end of the day, appeals are approved by the principal so even if you know a department head or board member, all he or she can do is put in a good word for you. The decision still ultimately lies with the principal.

3) How many vacancies do the schools have for appeals?

The appeal process is essentially a nation-wide game of musical chairs. The initial school posting is done by MOE purely based on t-score, ie all the students are all ranked based on t-score and given their choices accordingly until all the vacancies in each school are filled up.

This means that after the school posting exercise, most schools start off with no vacancies and have to wait till students successfully appeal out before they can take in their own appeal students. As you can imagine, this is a massive logistics exercise of epic luan-ness and the schools have all of two weeks to complete it.  This is why some schools, up to the second week of January, are still confirming appeal cases.

From what I've seen, a huge number of students appeal. The 250 scorers want to appeal to the 260 schools, the 240 scorers appeal to the 250 schools, and so on. Common sense then dictates that much of the process is first determined by the top schools and how many appeals they can accept, before domino-ing to the rest of the schools. As you would expect, the top schools tend to have extremely limited vacancies for appeals.

4) What should I expect after submitting the form and when will I know the results?

Many schools will tell you that they will inform only successful applicants. So if you want to know the results in the meantime, you'll need to call the school yourself for an update. Some schools require shortlisted students to go for interviews or trials so my advice is, don't plan any overseas vacations during this period.

Most schools inform the successful applicants by end December but as explained in 3), sometimes vacancies don't open up until early January so you'll need to be mentally prepared for such a scenario, if you're really keen on the school.

If you have been successful in your appeal, you'll be given a letter of offer which you should then bring to your original posted school to complete the transfer. 

My personal take on appeals is, do consider carefully what is your reason for wanting to appeal and your chances of success.  Often, I find that the reason for appeal is simply that the parent wants the child to go to a better school, with "better" being narrowly defined by the COP.

I once met a mother who told me she wanted to transfer her son from School A to School B because the badminton training sessions at School A took up a lot of time and were affecting his studies. I was puzzled as School B is a badminton niche school with an even more intensive training schedule than School A. When I told her about it, she replied, "Oh, but School B's O level results are better."

I find it baffling how some parents believe if they thrust their academically weak child into an academically strong environment, the child will magically blossom and churn out straight As along with everyone else.  Sorry, it doesn't work that way. Incidentally, I always look at a school's value-add score more so than their academic scores as that tells you how much impact the school had on the student.

Anecdotally, I've found that once parents and students report to the posted school, they find that it's  not too bad afterall.  It's just the initial shock or disappointment at not being given their first choice school.  But sometimes, coming to terms with the school and making your child feel comfortable with it is the best thing you can do for him, to help make the transition to secondary school a smooth one. Consider too that the first two weeks in a secondary school is usually the orientation period where kids make friends and adjust to a new environment. Transferring him out to a another school after that can be very unsettling and make him feel out of place.

I find that many neighbourhood schools in Singapore these days have fantastic facilities and a very dedicated teaching staff.  It's about finding an environment where your child can thrive in and you don't necessarily find that in a branded school.  In fact, many neighbourhood schools look after the kids much more so than in top schools which expect their students to be independent and perform from the onset.

While the PSLE t-score is not a perfect indicator of ability, it does offer a rough gauge. I would hesitate to put my child in a school which has a COP significantly higher than his t-score. I've heard anecdotal accounts where kids enter a school via DSA or appeals with t-scores some 30 or 40 points lower than the school's COP.  More often than not, the mismatch in ability ends up with the kids struggling for four years to keep up.

With this in mind, I would urge parents to take a longer term perspective - getting a foot into a choice school is merely the first move on a board game. Getting to the end having had an enriching experience is the real objective. Like with anything in life, you increase your odds of success if you operate with the end in mind. 

Here's wishing all readers a very blessed Christmas!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Top Gear

As my family knows, I have zero interest in cars. Once, a friend picked me up in her new car for lunch. Later, I mention this to Kenneth and he asked, "What model is it?"

Me: "Err..."

Kenneth: "Brand? What did the logo look like? Do you at least know if it's a Japanese or continental car?"

Me: "..."

Kenneth (underwhelmed by my powers of observation): "Big? Small?"

Me (in a desperate attempt to sound intelligent): "Oh, oh, I know the colour - it's silver!" (Pause) "Or beige."

It would therefore surprise you to know that lately, our favourite family tv show is a car show. This is even more unfathomable considering there's only one real driver in our household. Among the other three,
  • one can't drive (Andre)
  • one really hates to drive (me)
  • and one has no desire to drive (Lesley-Anne)

And yet we all clamour in front of the telly to catch this hour-long motor show. It's called Top Gear and we love it because of its dry Brit wit. To give you an example, when one of the hosts Jeremy Clarkson was reviewing a car, he said, "There's space in the back for two children. And room in the boot for two more. A real family saloon."

In another episode, he was listing the features of a new car model and when asked if it was green, the camera zoomed into a close-up shot of the car with a dramatic voice-over: "No. It is red."

As you would expect, I don't watch the show for its cars - I watch it because it is possibly one of the funniest comedies on tv today. Each episode typically features a challenge of sorts - either a race or a competition to build some sort of car. This inevitably leads to some wacky concoction or accident, with hilarious results.

The show has become such a big hit that the hosts now practically get away with murder... literally. In some episodes, they annihilate quite a few cars. The challenges have also  become more outrageous, anything from constructing their own stretch limos and motor homes to racing against a fighter jet.

So if you're bored and looking for something to watch, you might like to tune in to this car show on BBC Knowledge. You don't even need to be a car enthusiast to enjoy it.

Here's an excerpt of an episode where the hosts had to transform cars into boats and sail them across a lake.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Somewhere, beyond the sea

Last week was family vacation time for us. We went on a cruise with Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas and it was a terrific close to a very hectic and stressful year.

This blog will go on a short, temporary break as I post on my Travel blog instead. So do tune in there, lots of commentary and photos to come!

Monday, December 3, 2012


Right after Andre returned from Ho Chi Minh, Lesley-Anne left for a two-week immersion programme in Shanghai. Kids are more jet-setting than their parents these days.  Since I'm summarising Lesley-Anne's trip in one post, I'll be very selective in the photos and places she visited.

Shanghai is an extremely cosmopolitan city. Here is a model of the entire city which is both amazing and scary - see how built up it is.

Here's a pretty interesting building - it has a built-in thermometer!  It was uncharacteristically chilly this November.  This was before it rained. After the downpour, the temperature dropped to 15 degrees celcius.

Here's a night scene of the famous Bund.

The kids went up the Oriental Pearl Radio & TV Tower in the Pudong District. Up to 2007, this was the tallest structure in China until it was surpassed by the Shanghai World Financial Center. 

At any of the three observation decks, you can enjoy a panoramic view of Shanghai.

What creeped me out though was the glass floor. You can't make me stand on it like the students did here - the illusion of falling is too terrifying.

A trip to the Shanghai Museum to view its rich collection of Ancient Chinese artworks and historical artifacts.  Here's a Mongolian chess set with intricately crafted pieces.

A jade carving
As it so happened, Lesley-Anne was fortunate enough to catch a visiting Russian exhibition called World of Faberge with exquisite pieces from the Kremlin Museum, including this opulent Faberge Easter Egg.

As a community service module of their programme, the students had to visit a childcare centre to teach the kids English.  Lesley-Anne said it was clearly a centre for rich kids as the facilities were fabulous. Look at the music room!

The kids were uber cute and precocious - here they are acting as shopkeepers.

One of the highlights of the trip for Lesley-Anne was the overnight trip to Hangzhou, a three-hour drive from Shanghai.  Known for its natural scenery, Hangzhou and its iconic West Lake (西湖) have been immortalised in Chinese poetry and art. Since June 2011, the West Lake has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Butterfly Lovers Bridge (many couples congregate around this romantic spot).

Another popular tourist destination in Hangzhou, the Running Tiger Spring (虎跑).

In the evening, the students were treated to a performance, Impression West Lake. Directed by Zhang Yimou, the story is loosely based on the Chinese classic, Madam White Snake. Words cannot express how spectacular it is. With typical Chinese ingenuity, the lake is transformed into a live stage and the actors seem to dance and float on the water to an ethereal soundtrack.

Lesley-Anne couldn't take good pictures cos it was too dark but do check out this promotional video  - it's quite, quite magical.

Finally, here's a look at the school where Lesley-Anne attended classes. She even sat in physics and maths classes conducted in Chinese (which she said were pretty scary)!

Lovely surroundings. Since this is in a suburban part of Shanghai, it's much more peaceful and less congested.

The dormitory is in a building next to the school. Basic but comfortable.  The tv only broadcasts one channel though, haha. 

Overall, it was an eye-opening experience for Lesley-Anne. Although two weeks is relatively short for an immersion programme, living and studying with PRC kids for two weeks is a fantastic way to understand a different culture and improve your Chinese!

The PRC students were extremely welcoming and hospitable, and went out of their way to make their Singapore counterparts feel at home. Because the education landscape in China is even more competitive than in Singapore, the poor PRC kids admitted to having no life as their days revolved around studies. When they didn't have school, they often did self-revision.

Soon after she returned, Lesley-Anne kept in touch with her Shanghai buddies via Chinese emails and QQ, the China version of Facebook. Friends across cities - truly, we live in a borderless world.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The ultimate stress test aka PSLE results

Three years ago when Lesley-Anne received her PSLE results, I had to think long and hard about whether I was going to post about it and if so, how I would write it.  You can read about it here.

With Andre, I'm facing the same situation and when writing such posts, I'm very conscious of the fact that I have to take into account the interests and feelings of my kids. Since they read my posts too, I have to decide if any sharing will impact them positively or negatively. It's a delicate balancing act.

When I checked with Andre, he told me he didn't want me to reveal his PSLE results publicly, so I'm respecting that.  I'm just going to share my reflections in general.

While Andre's results were not a big shocker, he had hoped to do better, especially considering the amount of work he put in.  I think there are many, many kids and parents out there facing the same situation and I'm hoping this post can give some perspective.  You see, when PSLE results fall short of expectations, I hear many parents start playing the blame game - "You should have studied harder!" "What did you do wrong?" etc etc.  But perhaps, just perhaps, it's simply a case of unrealistic expectations to begin with.

As I've always said, PSLE is harder than many parents think (especially those going through PSLE for the first child).  There is actually no way of gauging what your child's relative standard is based on school results as standards and the ability of students vary so drastically among schools.  Even with the knowledge that an average t-score is 200, it's very difficult to predict where your child stands in terms of the national average.  Added to that, the way the t-score is calculated can be very skewed, due to the distribution curves of the different subjects. A common conjecture is that a bad or good score in the Mother Tongue or English will impact the overall t-score more drastically than a bad or good score in Maths or Science.  This hypothesis seems to bear out from what I've seen. 

What I'm saying is that with all the uncertainty, the PSLE results is no time for recriminations.  It is not constructive and all you'll succeed in doing is undermine your child's self-esteem and give yourself a few ulcers.

The night before the PSLE results, Andre was a nervous wreck. Suddenly, he had lost his usual bravado and quavered, "What if I fail?" To which I reminded him how hard he had worked and said, "If this was the best you could have done, then no matter what the results, you should have no regrets."

It was a reminder to Kenneth and myself as well. Too often, we equate results with the quantum of effort (and revise our perception of the effort after the fact) but that's a flawed logic. In reality, the effort you put in sometimes does not yield an equivalent result.  That's life.  We have always told our kids that we celebrate the effort, not the result and we have to practise what we preach.

When Andre received his results, I saw the disappointment on his face.  However, in typical fashion, he soon started focusing on the plus points - "I can't believe I got an A for Chinese!" (Yes, he gave me permission to post this. Actually we couldn't quite believe this either).  He was also, quite unexpectedly, given the EAGLES award for Leadership in CCA. This went some way to cheering him up, especially when he learnt later that it comes with a $250 cash prize from MOE.

Some people may think we're rationalising or too unambitious. Personally, I'm glad Andre has a healthy self-esteem. It's difficult to go through life feeling insecure all the time. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the PSLE really is not the be all and end all. Secondary school is a whole new ballgame and the PSLE t-score is not necessarily an accurate indicator of how you will perform in school later on. There are kids in Lesley-Anne's school who had t-scores in the 270s range and are now struggling to keep up. Conversely, there are those who scored in the 250s and are now acing their exams.

I like how MOE has stopped revealing the top scorers for PSLE.  As the Minister has said, it won't remove the PSLE stress but it's yet another small step towards reducing the over-emphasis on academic achievement above everything else.

For us, we're glad PSLE is finally behind us. Secondary school will be a brand new chapter for Andre and we pray that it will be a fulfilling journey for him.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Going with the flow

The school year has finally closed and it's incredible but Andre is done with primary school.  Is it really possible that my baby-faced last-born will actually be entering secondary school in a few months? I can hardly believe it.

There is a wide gaping ocean of difference when I compare his attitude with Lesley-Anne's when she was at this momentous juncture.  Towards the end of p6, Lesley-Anne became all melancholic and sentimental. Even as she looked forward to a new chapter, she knew she would miss her primary school and her friends, whom she had become very fond of.

In contrast, when I asked Andre if he would miss his primary school, he responded in typical fashion, "No. The food sucks."

Not quite able to believe that Andre's impression of his six years in this school revolved around his stomach, I asked, "What about your friends? Won't you miss your friends?"

"Ok lah" came the nonchalant reply.

"What if you go to a school where none of your friends are going to?" (Yes, I can be very persistent).

"Never mind, I can make new friends."

"So which school do you want to go to?"

At this point, Andre was getting tired of the interrogation and answered, "Aiyah, anywhere lah!"

For someone like me who is wary of the unknown, I often marvel at Andre's live-for-the-moment attitude. It also gives me many moments of anxiety as he doesn't seem to think of or plan for his future.  For example, we have been visiting many school open houses and it would exasperate me to no end when he inevitably asks, "Do we really have to listen to the Principal's talk?"  Incidentally, I see lots of bored kids at these talks. They're usually dragged there by their parents.

Tip to secondary schools:  If you wish to attract active kids like Andre, ditch that slideshow about your special humanities programme. Just showcase your sports facilities, food at the canteen and computer labs with iPads. Late school starting hours are a bonus.  (Ok, I concede, maybe the schools already know this but students like Andre are not their target audience.)

However, if I were to look on the bright side, there are advantages to being spontaneous and embracing the unknown.  Andre is pretty good at adapting to situations as they occur and hopefully this will help him in life.  Meanwhile, I need to convince him that he shouldn't choose a secondary school just because it has air-conditioned classrooms.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Smitten by the cookie monster

We've been doing quite a lot of baking lately since exams are over. One of the things I love about our new place (we've been here a year now!) is that there is an actual oven, which makes baking that much easier compared to using a convection microwave.
For example, I could never bake cookies before, the microwave was just too small. Just a note, when it comes to cookies, our family loves the soft, chewy ones. Mrs Field's over Famous Amos any time.  So for our maiden attempt, I searched online for a good soft cookie recipe and found one with loads of great reviews and no fancy ingredients needed.

It turned out to be a great hit and the first batch of 18 cookies was polished off within 2 days.  Since then, I've baked the cookies a few times and made just a slight adjustment to the amount of sugar as I found it a tad sweet.

Here's the recipe:

  • 250g plain flour
  • 2g baking soda
  • pinch of salt
  • 170 g unsalted butter, melted
  • 220 g packed brown sugar
  • 75 g white sugar
  • 15 ml vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 350g chocolate chips or chocolate buttons
1. Preheat the oven to 165 degrees C.  Line cookie tray with parchment paper.
2. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.
3. In a medium bowl, cream together the melted butter, brown sugar and white sugar until well blended. Beat in the vanilla, egg and egg yolk until light and creamy. Mix in the sifted ingredients until just blended. Stir in the chocolate chips by hand using a wooden spoon. 
4. Drop cookie dough 1/4 cup at a time onto the prepared cookie sheets. Cookies should be about 3 inches apart.

5. Bake for 15 mins or until the edges are lightly toasted. Cool on baking sheets for a few minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.   
Here are a few extra tips:

1. From what I gather online, there are 3 critical things to ensuring your cookie is chewy - melted butter, extra egg yolk and not to overbake.

2. In our humidity, the dough can get very soft and slide around on the tray, meaning you end up with wide and flat cookies. If you like a chunkier cookie, try keeping the dough in the fridge for about half an hour before baking. And using a parchment sheet is much better than just greasing the cookie tray.

3. Try using chocolate buttons instead of chocolate chips. It's so much more satisfying to bite into a melted gooey blob of chocolate.

Here's a funny story: I'd run out of chocolate chips and sent Kenneth to the bake shop to get some. The poor man stood in the aisle of a dazzling area of chocolate chips, cocoa compounds and chocolate buttons, bewildered. As he was calling me on the phone trying to ascertain if I needed "60% cocoa content", he was accosted by well-meaning aunties bombarding him with advice on which chip to buy!

Feeling adventurous, I decided to attempt my own double chocolate chip cookie for my chocoholic family.  What I did was substitute 60g of the flour with cocoa powder.

It turned out to be a runaway success - in fact, we're never going back to the white dough ones. If you're choco-freaks like we are, you'll love these.

They keep very well, no need to refrigerate. No more buying Subway cookies for us!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Boy in Ho Chi Minh city

Every year, some P6s at Andre's school are selected to go on a 4-day trip to Ho Chi Minh city after the PSLE. Andre was fortunate to be one of the few boys chosen from his class and he was over the moon.

Although the trip is for CIP purposes (the kids have to come up with a project to teach English to Vietnamese kids at a local primary school), most of the students treat it like a holiday. "We stay in a 5-star hotel and fly Singapore Airlines!" Andre gushed. He's quite clear about his priorities.

He was even appointed group leader for the CIP project although it turned out to be quite a farce as his group mates were 3 girls (after his best friend pulled out due to injury) and as is common knowledge, the sole boy in a girl group always gets bullied. He complained that the girls bossed him around and kept telling him what to do, which was secretly fine by me as he's clueless. If it were left up to him, the project would never get done.

We were a little apprehensive as this was the first time Andre would be travelling on his own. However, we also recognised that it was a great opportunity for him to learn a little independence.  So off he went!

Vietnam is probably a good place for Andre to visit education-wise as he has an interest in war and military strategies. He also knows a little about the Vietnam War from watching Forrest Gump. The highlight of the trip for him was undoubtedly the Củ Chi tunnels.  These 121-km tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots, communications and supply routes during the Vietnam War and essentially helped the Viet Cong succeed in their resistance to American forces.

Here's the guide demonstrating one of the holes used for ambush. It's tiny.

Covered with leaves, it's undetectable.

Here's the entrance to a tunnel that the kids walked through. 

This rock is actually a hiding spot, the holes are for ventilation.

The students were also shown the types of traps used. Seems like they were all designed to inflict the maximum amount of pain. Shudder.

The students also visited the War Remnants Museum...

... and the Reunification Palace. Home and command center of General Nguyen Van Thieu who came into power in 1963, the Reunification Palace was the site of a dramatic finish to the Vietnam War as tanks crashed through the main gate on 30 April 1975.

Apart from the historical sites, Andre also visited a rice paddy field...

... and a lacquerware  factory.

I'd told Andre to take photos of street scenes and anything he deemed interesting.  So like a good boy, he acquiesced. Ho Chi Minh really is motorbike city.

Andre didn't take a single photo of the hotel and the food but he said both were superb. I didn't think it was possible but he came back looking rounder than ever! I think the tour organiser probably knew parents would worry about their kids not having enough food and fed them to the point of excess. Each meal was either a buffet or featured multiple courses.

Some of his schoolmates returned with conical Vietnamese hats and various local souvenirs. In contrast, Andre brought home a bright red Adidas cap (which he bargained for US$4 at the Ben Tanh Market), a rock from the hotel and a rice stalk. We had hysterics when he whipped out a plastic bag containing mini toiletries from the hotel. It's an inside joke cos we're always teasing Kenneth for this very Singaporean habit.

Andre had a ton of fun and he told me he's most pleased about being able to look after himself. Indeed, he was sensible and organised throughout the trip, and there was nothing missing when he came home. His teacher smsed us later that he was a joy to have around.

Aww... my little boy is all grown up.

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