Took My Breath Away: A His & Hers Tale of Engagement

soil and thread


Well it all started in the attic on Woodstock Road.  I said that I didn’t know when, where, or how, but I was certain that somewhere along this trip I was going to propose, and I wouldn’t do it without Dominique’s father’s permission.  With Dominique rarely far from my side, blessings were given in a whisper.

Now the hard parts began. The next day we were leaving for a ten month trip in which we would be together virtually every moment, and somehow I needed to find and purchase the perfect ring on the other side of the world, without getting caught in the act or ripped off in the process.  On top of that, I had to plan and execute a proposal worthy of Dominique’s hand within the same constraints (admittedly this trip did provide for more options than available to the average Joe).

I thought it would be easier.  Dominique has never been one to turn down window shopping, and “Point out your favorite in this case” has always been one of her top Royal Street pastimes.  It should have been easy to find the right one without raising any suspicion, but her genetic disposition for good taste clashed with every jeweler in 7 consecutive countries. A whole hemisphere of rare metals and stones, and not one piqued her interest.  I couldn’t nail down any pattern; not a single color, cut, style, gem, or setting.  It was obvious I was going to need some help.

With a welcome sign and theme song, we received that help at the airport in Cambodia.  Alexis to the rescue.  I enlisted Alexis in my campaign to scout out the best ring.  Surely two sisters comparing favorite rings in window displays would produce a winner.  Well Southeast Asia loves its jade (which comes in two main styles, Buddha and bulbous), and jade does not make for swooning Donoghoes.  Two more countries down and no takers.

soil and thread

We had made it all the way to Hanoi (Alexis’ last city before departing), and I had to get a ring while Alexis was with us to run diversion.  After several fleeting hushed conversations in Dominique’s brief absences, Alexis and I decided it was going to take some footwork to get the job done.  Under the half-false pretence of picking up Alexis’s commissioned painting, we set out alone to find the ring.  First we decided what we should look for in an engagement ring for vagabonds: beautiful of course, but subtle enough to not invite attention from street entrepreneurs, with the option of being transformed/incorporated into a more flashy ring when the time came.  So unorthodox gold band it was, no stone, easily melted and molded, and lacking the necessity of theft insurance.

We spent several hours walking from jewelry store to jewelry store, and visited every open establishment Hanoi had to offer, reputable and less than. It was already dark and many jewelers were closed. Few spoke English but all thought I was in a rush to marry Alexis. Before giving up on trying to clarify the situation, we tried explaining that the ring was to be for Alexis’s sister.  With the waters sufficiently muddied, I think they interpreted that I was going to marry my sister.

Finally we found the perfect ring.  I liked it, Alexis liked it, it was the right size and fit all the requirements.  We tried it on, looked it over, and decided.

“I would like that one please”.

“That one is not for sale. You have to order it and that will take two weeks.”

They wouldn’t budge.  We searched some more and then came back to the hotel empty-handed and full of excuses for our tardiness.

The next day was Alexis’s last in Vietnam.  As a last-ditch effort and in the interest of good quality sister time, we devised a plan for Alexis to request time alone with Dominique. During these two hours I ran from store to store to every jeweler that had been closed the night before.  Apparently Alexis’s presence (even if I was going to marry my sister) had lended me some credibility that I did not possess on my own.  As a traveler with uncut hair, dirty sunbleached clothes, and a five month beard, I did not warrant much attention or approval from the high dollar vendors I was visiting. Most mildly ignored me and a couple refused to talk to me.

soil and thread

Pretty discouraged but still determined, I decided to head back to the store from the night before and beg that they let me buy that ring, even if I had to pay double.  I walked in, looked at the ring, and asked if I could buy it.  A different saleswoman said that of course I could, and shot me a questioning look. There isn’t much in Vietnam that isn’t for sale.

So I proceeded to lift my shirt and remove every bill I had in my waist belt that holds my passport and money around my stomach, and then to the surprise of the security guard and saleswoman, I began to remove the belt that secured my shorts.  It was my reserve moneybelt, of which I too had to empty completely.  I paid the saleswoman with a mixture of Vietnamese and US currency.  Then as she handed me the bag full of receipts and the ring, I removed everything from it, stuffed it all into my pocket and handed the bag back to her.  

soil and thread

I peaked up and down the street before leaving and then bolted out, rushing down the sidewalk so I could get to the hotel and hide the ring before meeting the sisters at our scheduled cafe.  As to ensure the ring could not be found, I sewed it inside a bag once used for my travel silk sheet and then sewed that bag into the dark, seldom visited regions of my backpack.

Now to plan the main event. We had been trying to decide whether to visit Thailand’s mountainous North or beautiful beaches down South. Since I am not the biggest fan of lazy beach life, I was originally in the northern camp, but after putting up a big enough fight to look sincere, I conceded to the sandy South with proposal in mind.

soil and thread

When we arrived to Koh Mook, I knew I’d found the perfect spot.  The only problem was that too many days and nights of train travel too close together had caused my jaw to lock up so badly I could hardly chew.  The first three days on the island I could only eat soup and swallow rice whole.  My knee could certainly support my weight on the sand, but talking was a chore and my voice was muffled and lips barely moved; no condition to propose.  Thanks to a pharmacist in the last inland town, I had obtained some medicine to relieve the pain and relax my jaw.  By the third day it was loosening up enough that I knew soon I would be in tip-top proposal shape.

soil and thread

So I began to plan.  One day as Dominique lounged on the beach I decided to explore, as I usually do when I can no longer stand to lie still all day in the sun.  I walked along slippery boulders and beautiful pebble beaches for two hours before finding the perfect spot.  It was far enough away from the resort and too treacherous a walk for anyone else to show up on the special night, it had a beautiful view of Dominique’s favorite cliff side, it faced west for some sunset action, and had a driftwood tree trunk lying in the perfect spot for lounging.

soil and thread

Now to practice my stealth and reconnaissance skills.  I noted the time it took to walk back to the resort for later reference, and for the next three nights as we watched the sun fade away from our table on the beach, I noted the timing of each sunset.  One night while Dominique was in our hut, I faked wanting a beer and walked to the reception building to request some candles, which needed to be brought in from the mainland and would take two days.  Then I spent three days using every excuse I could think of at every meal to convince Dominique not to order a ham and cheese sandwich (the only portable item on the menu).

After all the planning, I had to figure out a way to get enough time alone to set it up.  This is where Nicholas came in handy.  He had given me an excellent piece of advise in Goa; that if I ever needed an hour or so alone, a massage could come in handy. Obviously he knows his little sister very well because, if window shopping is a pastime, massages are a hobby. So I secretly set up a massage for Dominique the next day.

Under the disguise of taking a stroll, the next day I walked Dominique along the beach and as we came upon the beachside spa I checked her in for her surprise massage.  Then I had to hustle.  I ran back to our hut, filled a bag with everything I had marked down on my top secret proposal night checklist (including the candles and lighter I had hidden underneath the hut the day before), and then ran off to the restaurant to obtain our grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.  After getting the sandwiches I tipped the waitress and with a promise of their safe return secured a bottle of wine, a champagne bucket full of ice, a wine opener, and two glasses.  Twenty minutes of my one hour eaten away by Thai speed, I set off to the spot.

It was a 15 minute walk along the rocks each way meaning that once I got there I only had ten minutes to set up before needing to start back to the spa to pick her up. Carrying all of my proposal gear across slippery rocks during a falling high tide wasn’t easy but I managed to make it there without breaking anything.  I spread out my scarf, hid the chilled wine and glasses in the crook of the driftwood log and the rest of my supplies in the bushes, buried six candles a few inches in the sand, and stashed the ring in the jungle under a log. Then I ran back and forth along the beach picking up flat rocks to stack around the candles.

soil and thread Thailand proposal

soil and thread Thailand proposal

A few minutes over schedule, I scrambled back over the rocks as fast as possible and rushed to the spa out of breath (and a little more sweaty than I had planned) to find Dominique sitting with tranquility sipping a cup of tea.


We swept off to the Andaman Coast in the south of Thailand to a small island called Koh Mook. Arriving to the island on a slow wooden boat, we saw the waters fade into a glistening clear aqua and knew we were in for an incredible 8 days.

soil and thread

After a short ride on a bumpy crate attached to the side of a motorcycle, we landed at our resort. On this west side of the island, the water was even more crystalline and the sand a sparking soft white. We were upgraded to a beach-front bungalow and as soon as we dropped our bags in the room, we headed to the sea.

soil and thread

soil and thread

Dramatic cliffs rimmed the coastline and studded the open waters with sheer drops of black rock underneath wild green forests. The water was a balmy 80 degrees and the breeze carried a salty scented reminder that we were in island paradise.

soil and thread

We sipped tropical concoctions. We sunbathed. We kayaked to another beach. We daydreamed. We snorkelled amongst craggy rocks and coral, swimming with schools of techni-colored fish in brilliant shades of blue, orange, yellow, purple, and green. We saw striped fish and polka-dotted fish. We even saw a happy shrimp and fish couple living together in the same hole. We dined under twinkling lights in the sand, and awoke to expansive views of the beach.

soil and thread

After a full day of sunshine and lounging, we decided to take an early shower and head out for drinks. However, when we were crossing the resort we stopped short at the open air spa and Lee said, with a glint in his eyes, that I had arrived for my massage. So happily surprised, I settled into a relaxing massage. There was even a blooming arrangement of tropical flowers underneath the massage table to lull me into beautiful reveries.

An hour later I was sipping a cup of complimentary herbal tea and saw Lee walking up the beach, quite sweaty, to retrieve me. He was a bit out of breath and said we had somewhere to go, so I thought he had been off adventuring and wanted to show me his discoveries. He had my shoes and camera, and said that he wanted to show me the beach he found on the other side of the point, but since we were walking a bit far across rocks he didn’t want to bring much. It all sounded great to me and it was just 5 o’clock so I figured we would be in a nice new spot for the sunset.

The trek across the rocks was a bit treacherous, but exhilarating nonetheless. By the time we reached his discovered beach, I was giddy with having made it there in one piece. I lifted my eyes to see Lee standing behind the camera and telling me to look around. I thought about how I knew how gorgeous it was on our deserted pebble beach with my favorite cliff rising from the sea so close to us and the sun beginning to set. With my feet now planted on sturdy ground, I opened my eyes further and saw his scarf surrounded by a set of candles, each with their own rock tower insulating them from the wind. A large bleached piece of drift wood created a back rest and behind that I spotted a chilled bottle of my favorite wine in an ice bucket. It was the most romantic setting I had ever been in, and it all came as a complete surprise.

soil and thread proposal

Lee had even toted over our speakers and grilled ham and cheese baguettes for supper with the sunset. We ate and laughed and talked about how we would never forget our gorgeous surroundings.

soil and thread Thailand proposal

soil and thread

As the sun set further I suggested we take a few photos to capture the moment. Since we used a tripod and timer, we took a handful of shots to get the settings correct before Lee declared that we had had our last practice shot. After asking me if I was ready, and me responding in the positive, he pressed the trigger, came rushing towards me declaring his love, dropped to one knee, and asked me to marry him.

soil and thread proposal Thailand

I was overjoyed! I told him yes of course, and kissed my kneeling prince. Shakily, with nerves abating, he slipped the ring on my finger. The radiating colors across the sky and picture-perfect cliffs took on new meaning. We danced and romanced late into the darkness. With the stars shining down upon us, we walked back to civilization hand in hand as fiancés.

soil and thread Thailand proposal sunset

soil and thread proposal


  1. Congratulations all over again. Lee we are very impressed with you planning and perfect detail. The MOST romantic proposal I’ve ever heard. EXCITED for the wedding!

  2. Lee you deserve extraordinary credit for the planning and execution of the most romantic Proposal
    I have ever heard of… You are the Best!

  3. Tears (happy ones, of course) are pouring down my face reading this beautiful tale! Joey and I couldn’t be happier for two of the most special, wonderful and IN LOVE people that we know. Enjoy every moment of this precious time and congratulations!

  4. Your romantic love never ceases to amaze me! I was honored to play a small part in the engagement, and full credit goes to Lee and his beautiful vision for the love of his life! I could not be happier for you two!

  5. Love the pic of Dominique’s surprise face! Equally love the man-tank Lee is rocking in another photo 🙂

  6. Lee, Hysterical, bellylaughs cannot begin to describe my reaction to your “proposal tale”. Loved every word! Dominique, Beautiful prose of love! Adored the parting shot of the candle glowing in the night, signifying the end of an enchanted evening and the beginning of a lifteime tgether! We couldn’t be happier knowing you found each other. Totally happy for the two of you to create even more memories as your lives entwine through the decades. All our love until dinosaurs roam the earth again, Mamacita and Dadio XOXOXOXOXOXO

  7. No surprise that the two “Halppens” are responding, unbeknowst to the other (east coast vs. west coast) within 4 minutes of each other’s post. Like Mother like Daughter (namesakes)!

  8. Dominique and Lee, Congratulations from the Archers. We are so happy for you! What a great story. We thought we were reading a well written novel with beautiful illustrations.
    Love, The Archers (Erin Clarice HALPPEN Archer, too)

  9. Such a beautiful proposal, I couldnt be happier for the two of you! Any guy who has a girlfriend (and potential fiance) who reads this has a lot to live up to… Lee just set the bar so high with the most romantic proposal ever! I couldnt think of a more perfect proposal and setting for our wonderful Dominique. Great job Lee! I think its so great how Alexis was able to take part in the big day too 🙂 The smiles and love brought out in this story and photos forshadow a lifetime of happiness and amazing memories to come. I love you both and can’t wait to see you in a few months! xo

  10. B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L in every way…the story, the execution, the journey and the love you two share. Lee – i swear you might be due for a book deal of your own – the next gawande for sure. if your lucky you might even get an advance as it sounds like the vietnamese wiped you out 🙂
    Grace – your looking like Gert in the 60s – effortlessly styled everywhere you go. I am certain she is looking down and playing a tune now in heaven for soulmates in love

  11. Halppen told us all about this — with embellishments– at last night’s Book Club. This is just wonderful in every sense– such a spirited quest for ring and girl. Beautiful how the whole family was involved, connected by such loving threads. Congratulations and bravos to you both on such a great start-up.

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