Halfway between Hanoi and Halifax

Tim and Somara in Koh Lanta Thailand

As we count down our stay in Southeast Asia I am stuck somewhere between Hanoi and Halifax. You can’t find this place on a map and I can’t name it; it’s a mental space.  My subversive mind is wandering back and forth through my life picking up people and events long past and has mired me down in memories. It’s not bad or good; it’s a quagmire.  I’m feeling incredibly grateful right now for my life, and so happy we came. I’d prefer to stay in the moment and focus on this chaotic complex world around me, because time is running out. But this seems to happen every time I’m about to make a big transition….I become lost in these mashed up memories and dreams. Anyhow the real reason I’m trying to express all this is that I’m struggling to write. (You don’t want to know how long it took to get just that out!) So once again, instead of words, I offer pictures.

These are photos of many of the  people who made this year incredible…..

First is Huong and Chinh. My aunt and uncle introduced us as Huong had been their guide in Hanoi in 2015.  They were pretty sure we’d become friends.  And they were so right.  Somara and I had the honour of being at their wedding in December.

This is Kristy (and Somara after a particularly good sale at a shoe shop).  She’s also a Canadian who came to Hanoi with WUSC and stayed on to teach English.  We ‘hang out’ a lot and I’m going to miss her terribly.

The Canary hotel, where we live is a family business.  Thu, the manager, and her two daughters are the ones we see the most, and  they have treated us more like family members than clients. Before we go I must try to get some good photos of all the family. Meanwhile, Tan, Van, Thuy (who you see in the first photo), Phuong who’s in the second, and Van (in the one below) all work at the Canary and have become friends. We enjoy their company and will miss their smiles.

 

Mai, who’s worked with (and humoured) Tim at the Hanoi Open University has brought us together with her family numerous times this year.  We even met her father and mother and sister, and her family, who live 2 hours North of Hanoi a couple of weeks ago. I hope one day we can host them in Canada.

One thing I’ve learned about privilege is that it’s not just about having the means to do things in life, it’s about having the support of those around you to do those things you desire. One of the best parts of this year was having people we love come and join in the adventure.

Sarah and Dave, dear friends from Halifax, fit Hanoi in to their 3 month journey to Australia and New Zealand.  And I’m so glad they did.  It was a blast showing them our favourite spots as well as uncovering new ones.

 

Amrita and I met in grade 7, a long long time ago. We’ve been through a lot of life together. And I was thrilled when she asked if she could come visit with her kids, Katie, Jason and Marina.  I think we laughed for 12 days straight.  The first picture is of all the kids playing Heads Up (a charades type game) at the Fine Arts Museum. The next is Amrita trying to throw clay.We had an amazing trip to Mai Chau (3rd photo) where we wandered through rice fields, and played more games until the wee hours of the morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tim’s brother Jeff has lived in Southeast Asia for over 10 years.  He was a bit elusive this year although we finally got to meet his girlfriend Ying (who was wonderful) in Thailand in early February. Jeff eventually caught up with us later in the month in Hanoi but somehow still avoided being photographed. Tim’s parents however were not photo resistant. This is Jackie showing us how to play cards and Paul showing Somara how to mug for a photo. Their visit was far too quick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Never ones to pass up an opportunity for travel, almost all my immediate family showed up at some point this year. First takers were my sister Fia’s family.  In fact they beat us here.  And we caught up with Fia, Joel, Ava and Lily almost a year ago in Central Vietnam.  The picture tells you what you need to know.

Note that the apple doesn’t fall far…

Next was my mom, who waited for the summer heat wave to end.  Even though she’s travelled the world I worried that it was really far for her to come. It didn’t phase her one bit, nor did the traffic, or the food…. The best moment was when the women at our local market asked her age (not uncommon, as age changes the way you address some-one), she answered, they gasped, and then clapped and cheered.

Before Mom left her sister, Naomi arrived.  And then her brother, Shim, and my aunt Moe. It was great just hanging out with them enjoying a lot of good scotch, vodka, and other delicious things.  I had forgotten how much I like shopping with both my aunts, and we made up for lost time. (Naomi is being fitted for one of the few items she had made in the first photo.  Note the poncho in the next was not tailor made.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I said these are photos of people who made this year incredible.  Tim, didn’t just make it incredible, he made it.  I can’t believe I put up so much resistance…what was I thinking?! Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.   As for Somara, I think she’s shown us her incredible capacity to be open to the world.  She’s also taught me that if you want her attention, there can be no puppies in sight.

Chasing the Light

Late afternoon fun in a Mai Chau rice paddy

It’s been raining and overcast for over a week in Hanoi. In fact it’s down right chilly and I’m under the fleece blanket Somara has brought from Halifax. I’m not telling you this to get sympathy, I’m making the point because I’m frustrated with the light. When it’s not raining or foggy, the sky has been flat and dull and my photography plans have been thrown askew.

Hoi An, after rain, before sunset

Dusk or the light that comes just before dusk, something called magic hour (which are really just minutes), is my favourite time of day, that is when the sun shines through. When it happens something comes over me and I’m able to centre myself, clear my head and sometimes even experience awe. The change in me is palpable.

But magic hour is fleeting and I’m always torn between savouring the moment and running off with my camera. And I’m feeling anxious right now because there’s a spot I’ve been wanting to photograph for awhile that I just can’t seem to get to at the right time of day in the right conditions. It’s even more stressful knowing our days in Hanoi are numbered.

Quality of light, I believe, is different everywhere. That quality is part of what contributes to my connection with a place. It’s hard to separate the light from location and physical surroundings, because ultimately you experience it as one. But atmosphere, physical geography, and physical relationship to the sun must have an impact on light….it just must.

I find the light particularly gorgeous at dusk in our living room and on our porch in Halifax. Most of the time the porch looks tired and frumpy but when the conditions are right, it’s a paradise. One day I might put together photographs of my favourite ‘twilight’ locations and try to illustrate the differences.  But for now I’m in Hanoi, where I’ve seen light that I feel is a new and welcome addition to my repertoire. Sadly I think it’s the pollution and smog that contributes to the beauty.

Hanoiing Traffic

Diverging back to Nova Scotia for a moment, there was a scene in one of my documentaries that I will always remember filming. Outdoors, just before dusk, we were on the shoreline of a rural community, and it was a calm calm evening.  I can recall the orange bronze glow of the descending sun on the subject’s face, and the warmth of the imagery. It was almost over the top, kind of like seeing Northern Lights, too out of the ordinary to believe, and unforgettable.  I was horrified when I saw that the editor had colour corrected the footage to look like it was much earlier in the day…and had completely removed the glow. To this day I regret not having pushed him to return the footage to its genuine state.

View from 7th floor

One of the tiny challenges I’ve had this year being a ‘late afternoon light chaser’ who lives in a high rise, is calculating the time differential of what you see from the 7th floor window as compared to the ground.  In other words, don’t wait to see great light from your window before heading outside on your mission. It’s going to be a lot darker on the ground. The other problem is that it can literally be a chase.  Hanoi is so congested it’s hard to know where the light is going to fall. When I was photographing traffic I was constantly trying to find the openings where the light came through; part work-out, part photo session, wearing my running shoes.

Somara’s Botanical Dance

One of my favourite respites in this crazy city is the Botanical Gardens. In late afternoon it becomes a haven for badminton players, runners, soccer enthusiasts, and parents and kids who just want some space to run around. I’ve taken my camera there on many occasions but have little to show for it. My excuse is that it get darker quicker than most places because of the enormous trees and I think it’s on lower ground. I’m reposting the one image I’ve taken there that I really like.

Late afternoon light in Cambodia

We were in Cambodia in December to see the temples around Siem Riep, including the most well known of them, Angor Wat.   Many tour operators built their agendas around light for two simple reasons, temperature and beauty.  So even though I like to think I’m not a ‘typical’ tourist who goes along with the crowd,  I was, always conscious and planning where we’d be in the late afternoon.  (For the record, sunrise was a no brainer; we were in bed). So even though we went everywhere on our own, no guide or gaggle of tourists in tow, I was chasing the light and the perfect image.  Day 1 just as we were perched at the top of a temple waiting for the sun to descent, Somara leaned across her dad and said ‘I don’t feel well’.  We quickly made the mad dash down to get her back to the tuk tuk to go home.  Good thing too.  On the way I was able to capture the image above (see everyone at the top waiting?) and this one of Somara, whose hair looks much more spectacular than she feels.

In retrospect I’m not sure why we were waiting for the sun to set and looking down.  I’ve always preferred the quality of light cast onto objects at dusk over sunsets in the sky. Don’t get me wrong, I like a gorgeous sunset, (in our house we yell out ‘ Sky Alert’), I’m just not interested in photographing them.

Our second night in Cambodia we went to Angor Wat (with at least 5000 other tourists) and  I was in my glory.  Arriving just after 4:00 pm I knew I had a good hour plus of really good and then great light ahead of me.  Not even 30 minutes in, my camera battery died.  I’m not even going to share what I captured on my cell phone.  But here’s an image from when we just arrived.

Moat around Angor Wat

Perhaps the best part of being here this year, is having the time and opportunity to think about all the things I haven’t made time for in recent years, and to act on them.  I remember an article in an Alberta Travel Magazine about the light during magic hour in Southern Alberta.  It described the lengths director Ang Lee went to in planning and preparing a scenic shot for his film ‘Brokeback Mountain’.  It was a shot that was only available to him for a very short period of time…minutes.  It’s a privilege to be on a similar quest even though the results don’t ultimately matter.  I’m quite happy to just walk around basking in the late afternoon light and savouring the glow. I hope it returns soon.

Monks in Battambang, Cambodia, end of day
Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi
Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi

 

 

 

Danang in August

 

 

A crash course in Cơm a.k.a rice

A crash course in Cơm a.k.a rice

I’m a bit trepidatious to start this post, and you’ll understand why in a moment, but I’ve spent so much time wandering in, around and through rice fields this year, I need to tell the story.

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Planting rice near Hanoi in early July

Prior to coming to Vietnam my relationship with rice was purely that of a consumer who would choose rice over potatoes any day. I love sushi rice, I love basmati rice and most of all I love day old rice of any kind that I can re-fry with a bit of olive and sesame oil, and then splash with Tamari sauce. The only time I’ve ever considered how it’s grown is when I’ve watched films like ‘The Painted Veil’, an adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham novel set in China, or my absolutely favourite Hiyao Miyazaki film ‘My Neighbour Totoro.’ Both have sweeping scenes of Asian rice fields where men and women are bent over working. Most of what I remember in these scenes are the conical hats called Non La in Vietnam, pants rolled up high and hands dipping in and out of the water. What they were doing under the water has always been unclear.

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Young rice field near Hanoi

So it’s understandable that I’ve always believed that rice is picked from under the water. (I’m nodding my head yes as I write this to convince myself that there’s nothing wrong with this assessment). I imagined separating the long green leaves to reveal tiny kernels inside. Not a lot of kernels, just enough to support the delusion of how it all worked. Sadly I was never humble or curious enough to find out the truth. (I say sadly because I’m from the Praires and have this romantic notion that Prairie life is imprinted on my DNA, but if it is, it’s lost or forgotten the farming chromosome). And I’ve been living this lie for quite some time.

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Young rice
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Fully ripe rice

Not immediately, but fairly soon into our time in Vietnam, I uncovered the truth on the birthing of rice. Actually it was never covered; it was blowing in the wind in front of my face.  I remember the exact moment when it all became clear. Rice, like many other grains, grows out of the stock above ground. It seemed so obvious. One stock can hold a lot of kernels, and there are a lot of stalks in a small area.

Since this revelation, I’ve become enchanted with rice fields and the growing process.  My understanding of how it works is still superficial but I’m coming along.

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Freshly cut stalks
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Step 1 in the drying process

In much of Vietnam, rice is planted and harvested manually. Each new crop begins as a handful…okay maybe a bag of kernels that’s been soaked in water and sprouted. Each of the green stalks is then placed in a field by hand. Depending on what part of the country you’re in there can be as few as 1 and as many as 3 crops per year.

When the rice has grown high, and turned from a vibrant green to a golden yellow and brown, harvesting begins.  Also done by hand with a sickle, crop owners chop what are best described as handfuls which are then tied together and splayed across the remaining stock to dry.  From that drying position they’re collected in baskets and then piled in heaps to dry further in the sun.
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I met the woman above as she was transporting what seemed like a massive amount of rice from one part of her village to another to get the optimal amount of sun.  Once it’s dry enough, the kernels are separated from the stocks.  This can be done by machine (I haven’t seen it), but is still done manually by many.  And from there it’s dried again.  I’ve been in several places where half the road has been turned into a drying rack.  The strange part is that there seems to be little bother if some-one drives over a patch.  (And the mother in me says this is the lesson on why you wash your rice…but let’s try and forget I even thought that).

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Tam Coc rice drying
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Raking the rice

And once this stage is complete the rice is separated out of its husk.  I’ve tried an old fashion grinding machine to do this task and surprisingly many people still do it manually and it’s called winnowing. A shallow basket of rice is held away from the body and flicked sharply so the husks fly off in the air, and the heavier kernels just circle back into the basket. I imagine it’s a similar skill to flipping eggs in a skillet.

We’ve walked in the same rice field 3 times this year.  The first time, in June, the rice was young, the second in October, it was partially harvested, and the last time, in November it was a wet muddy bog, waiting for the stalks to dry out enough to turn under into the soil.  It may have been the time of day, but in some ways I think this last time was the most beautiful.

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If ever I decide to commit myself to the study of one grain, there’s no doubt it will be rice. I’ve just touched the tip of the stalk.

 

Gorgeous children

Gorgeous children

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Exhibit A taken in Phong Nha

I love kids, always have, and Vietnam has been an incredible place to indulge in their presence. My assessment, that I will gladly defend with photos, is that Vietnamese children are gorgeous and often angelic looking.

I love that there’s little hesitation to talk to unknown adults. For the most part I haven’t received the ‘why are you talking to me?’ stare. I get long looks…but it’s often from the really little kids who are just checking me out. Generally no-one is uptight about strangers talking to their kids, particularly if it’s a foreigner.

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Exhibit B taken on the train to Hai Phong

The most fun has been in restaurants and at parks where you just wave to a child and they start to move in closer. Somara’s an added bonus (for a multitude of reasons of course), because the kids are drawn in by the colour of her skin and hair. On a number of occasions our table in a restaurant has become Grand Central Station with kids running back and forth to grab our attention. Because of the nation wide push to learn English, parents encourage their kids to take any opportunity to speak it, even if it’s just running up, yelling ‘hello’ and dashing off.

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Mai Chau

A lot of the times I’m out walking I see grandmothers and grandfathers pushing their grandkids on bikes around the neighbourhood.  Often they have a bowl of food they’re trying to spoon into their mouths. It’s fun to watch them eating on the run. No stress or tantrums that I can see about getting them to eat; they’re taking it moment by moment enjoying the sights along the way.

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Doan Trang feeding the pigs

Remember what I said about being angelic ‘looking’? I’ve noticed that as always those with the angelic looks also know how to work it…and work it good. They’re able to assuage a bad situation…such as my friend here who was not supposed to be plucking greens from the garden to do this.

Unfortunately there are severals things that challenge my desire to take photos with wild abandon. My work in the film business has ingrained in me the need for the waiver. I can’t help but believe people have the right to decide how and when their image is used and appreciate that being a photographer comes with obligations and responsibilities that are rarely fulfilled. And the last is my belief that sometimes you just need to be in the moment. Nothing between you and your surroundings. All of this leaves me a quagmire that’s easier to acknowledge and move on from, than it is to solve.

I have most easily left these impediments behinds in rural areas where kids are excited to have you hanging out with them.  Somara has stopped to pet A LOT  of dogs and cats in this country…and that’s been another great ice-breaker. What has stuck with me in these situations is the amount of fun that’s had in genuine play. Kids hiding behind structures and slowly creeping up on people…trying with everything they’ve got to catch a bug in a cup or a jar….riding bikes side by side holding on to each other’s handle bars…(and no helmuts)and just combing the beach for shells.

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Thuan An beach near Hue
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Self described BFF’s grasshopper catching in Mai Chau

Parks are few and far between, land is expensive, and most empty space is a construction site or has something edible growing on it. But going to the few parks we’ve found is guaranteed good kid watching. (Yikes it sounds so creepy). Near us is a particularly good park with astroturf, some fantastic climbing structures and a short zip line. The best part is watching the negotiation that goes on between the kids lining up for the always popular zip line. I haven’t seen a scuffle…only a few indignant young girls questioning the boy at the back who thought he was entitled to go to the front of the line. I also loved the man who was lifting his small child up onto the knot to sit, and took it upon himself to stand there for the next 20 minutes helping every other small kid who came along.

I guess it’s not just the kids I love, it’s watching others treasure these young creatures; it’s all quite magnetizing. As are these three beauties of the Canadian kind. And I’ll leave it here.

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Hoi An Pagoda dance

 

 

 

 

Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes….

Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes….

My appreciation of Leonard Cohen began when I heard Jennifer Warnes sing ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. That was more than 25 years ago and a time when I was taking a lot of photography courses. I chose Warnes’ version of the song for an assignment that required me to create a slide show to illustrate a favourite piece of music. At the time I owned a long soft purple coat that with the magic of light could disguise itself as a famous blue one. I even convinced myself that the block where I lived in downtown Halifax, with it’s 19th century row houses, could pass for New York city’s Clinton Street. It never occurred to me that I had no idea what the real Clinton Street looked like. And I must have listened to that song 200 times, obsessing over every word and phrase, trying to untangle what it all meant.

I’ve been thinking a lot about words and language during the last few months watching Clinton and Trump duke it out for President.  Not much of what they said had meaning or consequence. I’m always amazed by what I think should be called “The Big Game” rather than “Democratic Elections”.  Clinton’s and Trumps’ words were just filler for the ravenous appetite of the media. And clearly, the art of oratory has been shelved; hell Trump was barely coherent let alone articulate. I don’t want to wallow in this for too long, except to say, I, like millions of others, became anxious and depressed.  And then Leonard Cohen died.

And in what seems like an inappropriate twist of emotion, his death grounded me. Immersing myself in his tributes, I returned to a place that despite its complexities and darkness felt real and most of all humane. Leonard Cohen reaffirms my belief in the power language.  Words when used well help us understand each other and bring us together.  It’s the world I want to live in.

My command of language is wobbly right now, but I do feel compelled to offer something of beauty, something that inspires hope.

Here are a few recent photographs.

Kindergarten kids in Hanoi’s botanical gardens
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Mai Chau Buffalo and his tongue
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Boys in Mai Chau having fun
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Girls in Mai Chau
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Bringing home the Bamboo in Tam Coc
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Grasshopper hunting in Mai Chau
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Fishing in Tam Coc
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The pumpkin who wouldn’t slide
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Hoi An lanterns

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PHONG NHA – my kind of FANTASY LAND

PHONG NHA – my kind of FANTASY LAND

I grew up skirting the edges of Fantasy Land (now called Galaxyland) at the West Edmonton Mall (WEM) in Alberta, Canada. On my way to a shop or a movie, the vibrations of this enormous indoor amusement park pulsed through the food court and into neighbouring businesses.  Even though it’s been many years since I’ve stood under its halo, I can still hear the dull roar of the Mind-Bender, a roller-coaster, touted as the largest indoors and infamous since 1986 when three people fell to their deaths. Despite never having been a disciple of Fantasy Land, the title was part of my vernacular.

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So, I usually write my titles last, after I’ve written and re-written the body, searching for a heartbeat to whatever it is I’m working on. But I knew immediately what to call this short piece on one of our most recent journeys.  Phong Nha in Quang Binh Province is a genuine Fantasy Land. Forget that noisy atrocity in a city I so love.  That’s not it.  This is it!  And I know that not everyone will agree and that’s good too.

A fantastical place inspires awe and can be ‘other-worldly’.  I have always loved the sense of anticipation one feels when you’re in such a remarkably beautiful place, that you are overcome by the wonder of what’s around the next corner. A Fantasy Land makes the ordinary sublime.

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Phong Nha, both a village and a national park (called the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park) is in Northern Central Vietnam less than 15 km from the coast. When I use the name, I’m referring to an a fairly large area. The fact that this place holds the world’s largest cave (discovered in 2009) and has a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation has nothing to do with my evaluation.  The reason we went was because a friend told us to.  And from now on, I will always listen to her advice._igp0465

The confluence of rice and cassava fields, tropical jungles, large limestone karsts (almost mountains), and waterways, some of which go for miles underground is at times mesmerizing.  Magic hour according to the light could have been at any number of times of the day. I wish I could have take an aerial shot of the late afternoon light reflecting off the muddy backs of tens of buffalo in bright green fields.  I just couldn’t get high up enough.

I had a sense that this was one of the few rural communities where poverty was being held at bay.  (I have tried to find statistical evidence to get at the truth – but so far nothing). I hope I am not wrong about this. The large buffalo and cow herds grazing in the fields buoyed my optimism, as did the many many large homes throughout the area. I know it’s changing rapidly as word of the ‘enchantment’ spreads and I fear for the future.

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A 70km motorbike journey around the park, twisting and turning our way on switchback roads sparked my imagination of what was in the mass of green.  And even though I felt a pit in my stomach when I saw signs announcing snakes as one of the park’s main inhabitants, I still found the place beguiling. Rumour has it that a Hollywood crew was there earlier in the year filming for the latest King Kong movie. I understand why.

Zip-lining and a foray into the ‘Dark Cave’ to float in the mud was fun and an opportunity to meet some other travellers. But this kind of activity leaves me very conflicted and since we’re talking about Fantasies, let’s move on.

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On the way to the ‘Pub with Cold Beer’

Really what I loved most was just being there, and the night we ventured out to the ‘Pub with Cold Beer’. Driving 10 km down a very bumpy dirt road, we arrived at the Pub at dusk. I was a bit panicked about the drive home, but settled in as we were handed cold beer and told to pick our chicken.  Happy that Somara was distracted by the two girls who lived there, she and I skedaddled off to play pool while Tim participated in the killing and cooking of dinner. Note that Somara cries in a zoo when she sees animals enclosed let alone slaughtered. Tim however, was in his glory.  Unquestionably the best chicken we’ve eaten in Vietnam, we were also treated to fresh pepper and fresh quava from the trees in front of the house. The magic of this evening was getting to know these two girls, both close in age to Somara, who didn’t just want to play with us, but who were interested in finding out more about Canada.  So smart and so sweet, we hugged them good-bye a mere 90 minutes after meeting them.  As we bumped and stumbled our way home in the dark on our motorbikes Tim suggested we stop and turn off our motors.  In addition to our star extravaganza was the cacophony of unknown creatures many of which must have been frogs.  I wish we had tents, but then we would have troubling getting to sleep.

I don’t want to bottle up our experience or even tell too many of you how to get there; I feel both the privilege and the burden of having been in Phong Nha.  The fantasy of this place may ultimately be fleeting, but I will hang onto it for as long as I can.

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The HUE (hway) to go

The HUE (hway) to go

One thing I’m really good at is going along for the ride.  Literally. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a lot of it, but I’m picking it up again.

What I’m talking about is tagging along with others on their travels. During my two years in Botswana, I became a pro at it, travelling anywhere with almost anyone. I like the sense of possibilities when you start out and that I’m relieved of the task of reading guidebooks, blogs and websites etc.

As soon as we arrived in Vietnam, I was back to my old ways.  Somara and I flew south to join my sister and her family, who were already mid vacation.  We just fell in beside them as they decided where to go, how to get there, and where to put our shoes at the end of the day.  It became a bit of a joke about how little I did, and the one time I booked the accommodation, let’s just say it was ‘an experience’. But we sure had a great time.

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Inside the Imperial City

Last month, we did the tagging a long thing again.  Tim had a conference in central Vietnam, in Hue, and Somara and I showed up for the fun, having done very little research.  I knew that a group of Tim’s colleagues were staying longer to visit the sites and thought, we’ll just do what they do.

On day 1 when most of the other adults were at the conference I took the lead from 7 year old Lam.  The daughter of  Tim’s colleague and now friend, Lam said she wanted to go to the beach. I have to admit I did hesitate, knowing from the little reading I had done that the beach is not the top attraction in Hue.  But it was unbelievably hot and and after a morning in the pool, and a quick lunch, we added 3 more to our posse and hopped in a van.

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Somara, Lam and Rio

Thuan An beach, 15 kms from the centre of Hue, is a gorgeous expanse of golden sand, where you can body surf, sleep under a cabana, or drink mojitos in the shade. Most of the time I hung with Marco, a three year old with the same passion for finding shells as me.  I also lost my voice that afternoon, yelling at kids to be careful, and laughing uncontrollably as we bounced between the waves.

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Dragon Boat

Significantly smaller than Hanoi, I knew Hue was going to be a break from the big city, but I couldn’t believe how much of a relief I felt being there.  Might have been the salty water, but the streets are mostly wide, as is the Perfume River that winds itself through the centre. Scattered a long its edges are dragons boats to transport tourists to Pagodas and the tombs of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. There’s lots of room to navigate. And in the style I so love, it was an easy place to meet up with others, and then go your own way.

The only pla_igp0210ce firmly on my list was a visit to the Imperial City. Once Vietnam’s capital, Hue’s main attraction is contained within the walls of the Citadel. Home to the ruling family, the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, it’s a place that is as cultivated and refined as it is earthy and coarse. Decimated by the Americans in 1968, you can still imagine life as a member of the Royal Family, with a field of flowers, ponds of gold fish, court musicians, and magnificently ornate buildings. It’s serene and majestic. There’s an effort to rebuild many of the structures that were bombed, and some are already complete.  I prefer the worn, peeling facades of buildings and walls that haven’t been touched.  So many layers within them, they are both tragic and stunning.

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Toward the end of our stay, on the advice of our friends, we rode motorbikes about 15 kms from town to see Huyen Khong Son Thuong Pagoda, a much less fancy pagoda than the more famous Thien Mu.  Huyen Khong, a garden retreat is known for its orchids, flowers and ponds.  The journey there turned out to be just as spectacular (and more bumpy) as the stroll within. For the second time since being in Vietnam,  I wondered if Claude Monet, the famous French painter had ever been to Vietnam.

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Building at Thien Mu

 

Huyen Khong Pond
Huyen Khong Pond

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other highlights of Hue, with no thanks to me, were our incredible suite at the Villa Hue booked by Tim’s office.  Larger than our apartment in Hanoi, we kept marvelling at the bathtub and shower. Chi, one of Tim’s colleagues took us to two different restaurants serving the world famous Bun Bo Hue soup.  Never having appreciated the soup before, my taste buds were treated to what might have been the best possible renditions out there. Sublimely delicious.

My only rule of thumb when travelling is to talk to other travellers. It’s taken me incredible places…and added another dimension to the journey. In July at our favourite pool, Somara and I met an American man who lived in Vietnam for six years and takes any opportunity he can to come back. We talked a lot about food. Following up on our conversation he sent me an email about Hue recommending “a goat hot pot place called Dung Goat. I don’t have the address but will try to get it for you. It’s near Thien Mu Pagoda. In Vietnamese: Dê Dũng”. (In English it looks like you’re talking about poop, but the D actually has a Z sound).  I’d been thinking about the goat hot pot since I received that email. Excited that we had motorbikes to take us there, Tim, Somara and I spent the better part of an hour on our final night, driving up and down the road near the Pagoda. Most people we asked said they knew it, but precise directions were elusive. Finally 3 friendly drunks told us to follow them on our bikes. It took about two kms and a near collision to realize they didn’t have a clue, so we made a quick escape. By that time starving for dinner, we ended up eating at a Bia Hoi. The food was lousy but the evening was memorable. We’ll find that goat hot pot next time, I’m sure of it.  And if you’re interested I can recommend another restaurant, Hanh’s where we ate at 4 times during our stay. I have an address and map.  Remember to share with others  if you know ‘the Hue (hway) to go’.

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What I Did on Summer Vacation

What I Did on Summer Vacation

This is the first time since I was 14 that I qualify to write the ‘what I did on summer vacation’ essay.  That’s because for the past 30 plus years, I’ve had a full time job during the summer.  In fact for many years summer barely showed itself to me. It just blended into spring and fall, and the continuum of a life where I was constantly working and taking a week’s vacation here and there, wherever it could fit in.  It wasn’t 30 years bereft of anything good in the summer. We have always been in search of the next moment that can be spent on a beach or swimming in a lake, particularly in our gorgeous province; and we’ve had fun renting cottages with friends and travelling to spend time with family in other parts of the country. We even spent two years in Botswana where it’s always summer. But its been a long time since I’ve had the expanse of two full months in front of me with no job and no concrete plans.

So I’ve been anticipating this summer for quite some time. I wanted to come to Vietnam so I could stop working and take the time to just be with Somara and Tim, and ultimately myself. Top priority was spending the summer with Somara. The only hitch being that for the first time in 4 years Somara was going to miss out on Camp Kadimah, a place she really loves. I worried that she would be online watching a play by play of her friends having loads of fun along the South Shore of Nova Scotia, so I kept saying that we were in Vietnam and it was going to be awesome. July 1, came and there we were. No plans, big hopes and 2 months for Somara and me to hang out and experience awesome.

It did not start awesome…in fact it felt more like awful. Our Hanoi apartment is tiny. One thing is out of place and I see it or trip over it. I was (and still am) on Somara constantly to pick things up!  Really there’s no place to spread out. It was and still is scorching hot outside. Some days we wear 3 outfits which leads to a lot of laundry that needs to be hung up. Hanging up is Somara’s job. I admit it, ‘it sucks’. But she chose the position. On top of which every time we’ve opened a door or window for the past few months, it feels like we’re being thrust against a burning hot wall. Getting out can be a real problem.

In addition to the physical challenges, I have fretted about not working since we arrived. A lot of energy has gone into this anxiety. And because I’m not working I put up roadblocks to doing things that cost money, whether it makes sense or not. (I’m working on this one). So I was saying NO to a lot of things, and stressing about every damn thing we bought. Somara was bored and frustrated. I was anxiety ridden. It was tense.

So very early on I was feeling desperate. In an attempt to find something for her to engage in I went looking for camps, activities, anything that preferably involved art. I contacted SolArt the Vietnamese art, music and dance studio next door to where we live. And there was nothing in English. We considered a French sports camp. I kept asking and googling, and googling and asking. We just couldn’t find anything she wanted to do or that was suitable. As this was spinning around and around, I was becoming more and more convinced I needed a job. And so, after a bit of prodding from a Vietnamese friend, I approached SolArt, to see if I could offer the course that Somara wanted but they didn’t have. And without realizing what was really happening, our summer started to turn around.

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SolArt Class

SolArt posted an ad for our class, and within a few weeks we had enough people enrolled. Mostly Vietnamese students, the group included three Irish siblings. Three days a weeks for two hours in the morning, Somara and I shared the wonders of colour and getting glue and paint all over yourself with 9 youngsters fr0m 5 to 11 years of age. Sometimes my activities were too difficult for them, sometimes they got antsy and naughty. Through all of it Somara more than fulfilled her role as my assistant. She refilled paint trays, poured glue, helped tiny fingers hold things in place…and best of all was a kind voice helping some of the younger kids come out from behind the pole or under the table.  On the particularly bad days, we had fun  recounting who had been a ‘butt head’ that day.

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Vit, a.k.a. duck, good for chasing and eating
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Somara on the steps of a Tam Coc Pagoda

In between classes we went swimming, to museums, to the American library, and different parks around town. I know she liked coming out for dinner with our Canadian friends because she’d get really sad about the nights I told her she couldn’t come. We indulged our love of lemon water and avocado smoothies. (I have yet to see a lemon in this country, many many limes, but almost every cafe or restaurant has ‘lemon’ water). One weekend was spent with my friend Pia in Tam Coc, cycling through rice fields and drinking copious amounts of water.  Somara was the first up the steps of every pagoda and she seemed quite happy chasing goats and ducks down the lane in front of our bungalow. The shouts of boredom subsided, and so did the shouts of frustration.

Eventually Somara went to a Chilean Art teacher for three private classes. That experience was hers alone as she took cabs to and from class by herself and decided with Teresa what she wanted to learn. Unfortunately she met Teresa just as she was preparing to return to South America and it was all over much too quickly. However every day since she has been drawing for at least an hour.

On her way to those art classes Somara found a cat hostel that masquerades as a cafe.  She first went with Tim, and then we spent 3 hours one afternoon, stroking the fur of a rather motley crowd of cats. I applaud my patience as the smell in there was kind of like the wall of heat I described earlier…a putrid, acrid reek of cat urine.

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And finally on August 22nd we left for 10 days in Central Vietnam. Tim had a conference in Hue and we were going to turn it into a vacation. For the next 10 days we indulged in new tastes, like succulent crab in tamarind sauce and the dazzling sights and sounds of the region.  We motorbiked, zip lined, rode the train, soaked in muddy caves, swam in the ocean, and countless other pools, and hung out.  Somara got car sick, I lost my voice and we still bickered the way we always do. It was the best. (More on Hue, Phong Nha and Danang later).

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Thuan An beach near Hue
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A view of the river in Phong Nha

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Phong Nha sunset

In summary, this summer I taught an art class with my daughter.  I watched Somara find a new passion, drawing for hours on end as she lost herself in an older passion, Harry Potter, listening to the audio books. I found out that she’s willing to try or do anything once, and will tell you if she didn’t like it. She always likes a cookies and cream ice-blend. I watched her watch a lot of youtube videos and movies and of course I nagged her about it. I saw her compassion and kindness for others come out when she interacted with the other kids in our art class.  I heard her vocabulary grow and watched her shorts get shorter. She’s even more confident than when we arrived.  She showed me how to find fun and how to always capitalize on the laughs particularly if there’s something really odd going on.  I learned that when I’m mean and hard on myself, I do the same to others. I need to be kinder to all. And I watched Tim get up every morning and go off to work, so I could have this experience.  July and August of 2016 were spent with my posse, Tim and Somara, bickering and loving one other in this crazy great, hot and stinky Vietnam.

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Phong Nha
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At the Imperial City in Hue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daily Details

Daily Details

I’ve been spending far too much time fighting back the ants this summer.  They’re tiny, and come in large quantities in random locations throughout the apartment. They suss out the most minuscule of food remnants, but also have a habit of showing up in places that have nothing to offer these feisty creatures, unless of course, they like to eat paint. So a good portion of my day is spent itching and cleaning, and cleaning and itching. And I wouldn’t mention it, except that my other main pre-occupation, the heat, is starting to bore me (and others) and if you’re going to get a sense of the day to day here you need to hear the not so sexy stuff.

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Walking near Ho Chi’s Minh’s Mausoleum.

In better news, for the first time in months I walked for the pure sake of walking this past week. I was actually on my way home from the pool, and because Tim usually has to make 2 trips as there isn’t enough room for 3 of us on the motorbike, I took the opportunity to enjoy the late afternoon light. The best thing I saw on the way home (but didn’t capture on my camera) is loads of kids running through the sprinklers on the lawn in front of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. We’re going back as soon as it stops raining to see if we can do it too.

A good amount of time this summer has been spent in swimming pools, and we’ve become very attached to the one at the Army Hotel very near our place. That’s because it’s clean, never crowded and COOL!  A lot of the pools here are like hot tubs. Last week Somara made friends with 2 Dutch girls who were in Hanoi on vacation and like us were hanging at the pool. When they came back through Hanoi after travelling North, we met up with them a second time before they left for the south. We’ve tried other pools, like Sao Mai where the girl is taking a selfie below, but the number of people swimming is a bit like the numbers of ants in our apartment.

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Somara and her Dutch friends playing tag
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Overview of Army Hotel Pool
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Sao Mai Pool, refuge for hundreds

Another escape from the heat has been the art course I’ve been teaching at a Vietnamese art, music and dance studio two doors down from us called SolArt. The kids are from 5 to 11 and we’ve been exploring colour. Somara has been my most excellent and desperately needed assistant.  The majority of students are Vietnamese but I also have 3 siblings who are Irish but live in Australia. Mostly its been fun but there have been a few low moments, like when the youngest kid stabbed the oldest with a wooden skewer. Sadly class will be over on Saturday and I’m going to miss all of them, even the stabber.

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Judah and his bird mobile
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Xu and her sparkly mobile
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Grace and Somara
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Ha Chi and Xu doing collage

Somara has been a star distributing supplies and attending to the wide variety of needs of the 9 young artists, including fetching treats and water, so she hasn’t always been able to do the activities.  But she’s been coming home and doing a lot of drawing and today had her second art class with a South American artist.  Here’s a few of her beauties.  (This past week she’s also made four magic wands from chopsticks and a glue gun.  It might seem obvious but she’s currently on book 4 of Harry Potter).

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Museum of Ethnology

When we’re not at a pool, or in art class, we look for museums, parks, nail salons and cafes to pass the time. Even though I’m not enjoying Vietnamese avocados, they’re too mealy for me, I worship the avocado smoothie, and am afraid of addiction issues. We’ve been spending time with some of the children of Tim’s co-workers and in particular have become friends with two fellow Canadians, Kristy and Mai, who we really enjoy eating and drinking with while we all laugh about life in Vietnam.

Kristy, from Vancouver, asked me for some help shooting photographs for the place she works called Hoa Sua. They have a restaurant and cooking school and Kristy has been trying anything and everything to get them out of a huge rut. So last Monday I channelled my inner ‘food producer’ and ‘photographer’ and ‘set designer’ and tried to help her out. There’s so much I could say, but won’t.  Except that I wouldn’t charge for my skills and hope there’s a few acceptable images for their website.

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Aside from Tim, the only people Somara and I see every day are the three beautiful women below. Thuy, Phuong and Ang take care of our apartment and this entire building.  Thuy, who’s holding up her fingers is absolutely hilarious, and is always holding court with Phuong and Ang.  She’s been trying to correct my Vietnamese pronunciation for months but I think has given up on me. I really enjoy the three of them, and wish we could speak the same language. I don’t know the name of the man saluting us. But we see him every day in the alley, listening to music on a small transistor radio.  He takes care of a large garage in our lane and never fails to greet us kindly and warmly.

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Thuy, Somara, Phuong, and Ang
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The happiest man on the block

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re travelling to central Vietnam in a week and a half for our last summer vacation hurrah. Somara is going back to school the first week of September and I’ve agreed to consult part time with VTV 6, the Youth network for the National Broadcaster.  I’ve done a few days with them already and it’s been great.  Looking forward to fall.

Part two on traffic:  still trying to calm down

Part two on traffic: still trying to calm down

Before reading the following, I recommend going back to my earlier post on traffic that was written quite awhile back.  The reason part two is delayed is that I’ve really been struggling with the topic.  I think I’ve been trying to be tidy and concise about something that is messy and enormous and defies reason. Part of the reason I’m overwhelmed by it, is that there is no refuge from traffic in Hanoi.  In most big cities I’ve been in, you can take refuge from the roads on the sidewalks.  You can’t in Hanoi….a problem that has apparently spread to the Big Apple.

Once again the New York Times has beat me to the lead in my story…kind of. Here’s their version.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/nyregion/new-york-city-overcrowded-sidewalks.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

the sidewalk
sidewalk parking lot

My version is that New Yorkers really have no idea what ‘overcrowded’ looks like or means until they’ve been to Hanoi. There’s so much diverse activity on the sidewalk it’s impossible to see or predict when you will have to jump out of the way of some-one who’s chosen to use the sidewalk as a private road.  (It can be a challenge to distinguish the sidewalk from the road, but really!)

Hanoi is an ancient city; 1016 years old. This means that in much of the old city, sidewalks are minuscule, uneven or non-existent.  In places the roots of trees have asserted their status, bursting through the pavement.  While visually compelling, it’s treacherous for walking.

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sidewalk/road/small shop

In terms of human activity, sidewalks are parking lots for motorbikes, a place to do business and a spot or the citizens of this fine city to relax.  Remember there’s at least 8 million of them.  Each day, thousands of small restaurants and cafes set up and close down on the pavement.  It’s a place to get a 30 cent glass of Tra Da (iced tea), a Pho, or some sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf.  In addition to the places you can eat that open and close each day, existing restaurants extend out onto sidewalks with plastic tables and chairs. Existing businesses also open up onto the sidewalk; racks of clothing, puppies

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roadside Barbershop

in cages and bags of buttons are carted in and out of shops every day.  It’s quite possible that there are millions of small businesses who’s only address is the sidewalk. Tim has had his hair cut on the street, next to a key cutter, next to a women selling some kind of lottery ticket. Sidewalks (and roads) are also the people’s patios.  (It can be hard to distinguish a sidewalk from a road). People put out chairs to sit around and chat or play chess.  As I said earlier, sidewalks are for many things here, but they are not for walking.

The ambiguity between a sidewalk and road is very hard for a foreigner to grasp. But the ultimate challenge is the absence of rules in intersections.  There are lights in major intersections, but turning  left is hair raising as both directions do it at the same time and there is no such thing as a lane. It’s not an experience you want to have with some-one who’s anxious.

For the places there are no lights, which is most intersections, you’re completely and utterly on your own, flung out into a web of moving vehicles.  I mean it.  The  Vietnamese don’t use STOP SIGNS! For me this is the scariest place to be when riding a motorbike.  My driving instructor Tim, says whatever you do, don’t stop.  Slow down yes, but keep moving.  That doesn’t mean, your heart can’t stop…mine has, a couple of times.

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notice the signs; none say ‘stop’

On top of all these shenanigans is the distraction of what you are seeing all around you. Motorbikes carrying 4 people and two dogs, or the transporting of cargo that is so large and heavy you can’t help but marvel at the feat. You never know what you’ll see and if you’re concerned about how well a load has been secured, you shouldn’t be driving. You’ll never find peace. I’ve learned to focus on the few feet in front of me and around me and nothing more.

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one lucky guy
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a common sight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I started by saying that Traffic is scary shit.  It still is for me…and I’m going to continue to think and feel that way because it will keep me on my toes. I have taken a driving lesson and tried to stash my Western notions of how safety and traffic should work. I have also considered not driving in this country at all.  But that’s not the right answer either.  For now, I’m just going day by day, and trying to force myself to practice and stay focussed, and to take deep deep breaths.

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A typical load
give me a guess
give me a guess as to what it is

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

blue jugs
it works