Communist Kitsch: More than a look

 

Seriously good Kitsch from a Kitsch Museum in Romania

The only way to start this twisted adventure is to make a shameful admission about my first thoughts on Kitsch, a german word that made its debut in the English language in the 1920’s. Kitsch and Kitschy have always been a part of my vernacular, perhaps it’s because my grandparents spoke yiddish, but it could just as easily have come from outside. As a teenager I used the words a lot, particularly when describing the things other people bought. I was a snob who believed my family and I had impeccable taste and most others did not. (Those who knew me as a teenager will know of what I speak).

My not kitschy box collection

For example, I had a sand collection; it wasn’t kitschy, it was unique. The bright green ‘designer’ sweater with the alligator across the front, the one my dad bought me in Florida, (and would blind you if you looked at it too long), was the height of fashion. And my father’s paint by numbers on velvet, they were too cool for school. Kitsch and kitschy were words I used in reference to others, and I said them with attitude and a slight hint of venom.

So the first time I, the fashionista and decor icon, heard the term Communist Kitsch, I was very confused. I liked the way it sounded, but the idea that kitsch was cool hadn’t occured to me. Besides communism plus kitsch sounds like an oxymoron; I mean how much stuff can a communist have? I didn’t think communists collected sequins and snow globes, not even considering they were responsible for so much of the kitsch being made in this world. To avoid taking you deeper into clearly compromised thinking, just consider this, everything I learned about communism was from watching American movies, and listening to teachers who’d watched the same movies. If they had really known anything about communism they wouldn’t have said so. In other words, we all had indoctrination issues.

So when I arrived in Vietnam in 2016, a communist country, which calls itself a one-party state, where my family and I were going to live for one year, my knowledge of communism was pretty superficial. Which is when I heard Communist Kitsch for the second time.

Somara at the Cong; notice the cushion underneath her.

It started with the Cong Caphe, a coffee shop near our apartment in Hanoi. We went often to escape our small apartment and soak in the hipster vibe. Somara sometimes went alone, to listen to books and draw; and then I’d show up and pretend I didn’t know her, because going to a coffee shop with your mom is NOT hip, even when you’re twelve.

Walking into the Cong felt a bit like I was walking onto a set for the TV series M.A.S.H.,  just more fashionable with a better selection of drinks. Beneath the whirring metal fans is utilitarian wooden furniture; chairs, benches and tables set with tin dishes and plastic flowers. The staff all wear khaki t-shirts and hats. What stands out most from the earthy palate is the brightly colored fabric that’s used for cushions.

Communist Kitsch and this style of fabric covers a lot of the interior decor we saw in Vietnam; the Cong Caphe, a very successful chain through Southeast Asia has capitalized on it, the way Anthropologie the clothing and decor chain has grabbed hold of shabby chic. And this is where I left my musing on Communist Kitsch, amongst the cool coffee shops, and fabric markets, which I came to adore while living in Vietnam.

That’s until a few weeks back when I wrote my last post, the first in four years, a fumbling manifesto about why I was writing a blog called VietnamSpam, from a desk over looking the Bedford Basin. (You can go back and read it, click here, I’d be grateful.)

What you will see immediately, is this photo. I added it to the last post as a throwaway unrelated to what I was writing, but a genuine and earnest deviation in search of help. I still wanted to know more about the black chalkboards we saw in the alleyways of Hanoi.

These blackboards were all throughout the city, and I took a photo of this one in my neighborhood, thinking it might poetry by the way it was blocked. Poetry has a rich tradition in Vietnamese culture and because I saw other boards with similar blocking, I asked a Vietnamese friend if that’s what it was. ‘Not poetry, just messages from the government,’ she said. She said the messages wouldn’t make sense to me and didn’t seem to think the boards were interesting; I didn’t want to pry, and so the conversation ended.

I tried finding out more when we were still in Vietnam, but felt tentative. Quite a few people had told me to be careful writing  about our experience and to avoid criticizing the government. I wasn’t sure where the line between curiousity and criticism was drawn, and since I wanted to stay in Vietnam, I really loved being there, I never used the ‘c’ word or wrote about some of our strange happenings. I tried to do research on the blackboards when we came back to Canada, but all the search engine spit back at me was black, white and green boards for sale. It felt like a dead end.

So when I published the most recent blog entry, I  cross promoted the link to one my instagram feeds using this photo of some houses in Halifax. And the very next day, POOF, out of thin air, came a tiny little like that has sent me off on a new adventure.

Here are some of the photos I saw when I clicked on the like from an account by the name of @HanoiMinitrue.

 

I was pretty darn excited.

The first thing Trang, the author and photographer behind HanoiMinitrue taught me, is the blackboards are called Public Notice Boards. As my Vietnamese friend said, the boards communicate things the government wants people to know. Not ‘foreigner’ people, Vietnamese people.

Most of what Trang’s put on instagram in the last month shows blackboards with the words Chúc Mừng Năm Mới, which is the greeting used for lunar new year. According to Trang, Minitrue is a reference to George Orwell’s 1984 and the Ministry of Truth; now that’s intriguing. Her logline on her website is The Vanishing Beauties of Communist Kitsch, and even though I was a bit surprized to see that phrase again, I understood immediately.

Trang’s instagram and website look perfunctory on first glance. But linger and go back, as there’s lots of layers. She’s been following individual boards for several years, documenting change, and is always posting new boards discovered by her and her followers. One instagram post about ‘general clean-up’ has an explanation beneath the photo, saying it’s a reminder that Saturday is the day to attend to the area outside their building. I share a driveway with my neighbor and wonder what would happen if I put up a sign telling them Saturday is when we clean. No, I lied, I don’t wonder.  This is one reason I’m so happy to have her site. Trang’s providing the small details  of daily life which were out of my grasp when we lived in Hanoi.

In another blog post Trang interviews a 25 year old artist, named Thang, who takes care of  five boards in the coastal city of Hai Phong, which is near the Unesco World Heritage Site, Ha Long Bay. I’ve read her interview with him several times now, and you can read it here too. The reason I keep going back is because it reminds me of  the consulting work I was doing in Hanoi with journalists at VTV, the National Broadcaster. One of the things I was asked to do was to help staff improve their interviewing skills. It was not easy; how do you teach people how to probe for information in a place that has censors?

When I  read the interview with Thang the artist, I wanted to know more. I wondered why it’s such an honour for him to do this work, and why he’s committed himself to five boards when he has a full time job. Does he get paid? What happens if there’s a message he’s being asked to convey that he doesn’t agree with? I would ask the same questions in Canada, but still don’t  know if they’re inappropriate in Vietnam.

I recognize that the layer that’s missing may be because I’m a foreigner, but it’s similar to the gap I couldn’t bridge when I was working with VTV. The work was fantastic and I still think about that job and how sad I was to leave the challenge behind.

I know the gap exists in North America as well. It may be born of other things, but the quality of journalism and most certainly the quantity, has been washed out to sea as of late.

So questions aside, because I always have those, Trang has taken me deeper into the place I was so sad to leave. I don’t believe she’s writing for some-one like me, or that her intent is political. She’s sentimental, and appreciative of the artistry which has gone in to creating the chalk messages. Worried the Public Notice Board will soon be a thing of the past, she’s building a community of people who have her sense of nostalgia and this is a database, which will have even more value going forward. It has value to me right now.

Trang’s work has inspired me to go further in my exploration of Communist Kitsch, and I’m going to write more about it in my next post because kitsch saves lives.

What I want to acknowledge after having found Trang’s website is the common space between the two of us, a space that’s held between women all around the world. Last week she had a photo on her instagram feed, showing a Public Notice Board celebrating International Women’s Day. The photo is a blurry image of a women driving by the board on her bike. According to Trang, she is a garbage picker, like the two women in the photo below. The job is exactly what you think, going through garbage to find items of value to recyle and sell. Trang says she waited some time to take the picture and I appreciate her perseverence.

Garbage Pickers in Hanoi

I’m not sure what we’re celebrating on International Women’s Day, and I’m pretty sure Trang agrees. All it does is remind how poorly women are treated everywhere. Forever frustrated and angry about the misogyny, inequality and abuse of women in my own country, the irony of her image stung. When I got over that,  I was able to find my way to the feelings of warmth and solidarity I have felt with women from all around the world. I remembered conversations, even when there was very little common language, where we understood one another, and shared a moment. It happened to me often in Vietnam. That’s the part of this adventure I don’t want to forget. And those are the stories I want to keep telling.

I’d love to know if you’ve ever heard the words Communist Kitsh and even better if you have photos. You can comment on anything, I’m interested. And while you’re still here…do you think this stuffed cat from Mexico is kitschy? (Some-one in this house thinks so!)

Dispatch from Halifax

I never confirmed what these bulletins boards in the alleyways  of Hanoi are for and I’m still wondering. Anyone?

It’s been four years since Tim, Somara and I changed address to return Halifax and five years since we left to go live and work for a year in Vietnam. I’m not waking up all groggy anymore, thinking I might still be in Hanoi.

This is Halifax, not Hanoi

That year was a crazy awesome adventure we shared with a lot of our family and a few dear friends who also couldn’t resist. We still keep in touch with the Vietnamese friends who welcomed us into their lives; but as time passes, the communication is less frequent and sadly I’ve lost track of a few. On occasion I’ll reach for one of thousands of photos, but they’re still not properly sorted . (But hey, look what I just found under 2014 on my hard drive….)

Not 2014. And not Halifax. This is Hanoi.

Yet something’s changed in the last few months. The pandemic, which has eaten everything in its wake, has tossed us back to the magic of living in that chaotic, polluted, and oh so lovely part of the world.

Classic dipping sauce for Bang Xeo

People who know my family, know we talk about food constantly. Since returning, Tim likes to review our favourite restaurants; the one or two dish street stalls and shops we returned to over and over again. We have sought out some of the more common delicacies here in Halifax, (we love, I Love Pho on the Bedford Highway), but still yearn for the authenticity of plastic tables and stools. We’ve also learned to make a few dishes and frequently visit Tien Phat, the grocer who has pretty much everything we need – who’s also on the Bedford Highway. If Somara’s not with me, I try to speak Vietnamese to the owners, but my pronunciation which was barely acceptable in the thick of Vietnamese lessons, is now pathetic. Back to the food – I’m still contemplating buying a decent hot plate to try Korean/Vietnamese BBQ, but don’t know how to cram another gadget into the cupboard without Tim’s ire. (Like he owns the kitchen.)

Somara and friends trying Tien’s drag outfit from contest at Australian Embassy.

Another strain of conversation is about the kids we met. We know they look substantially different, but wonder how their personalities have changed.

Mai’s son, who was really shy, and who adored plain white sliced bread, was a boy and is now a teenager. I was thinking about the segway he rode up and down the halls of his high rise apartment. Maybe he still does it. If so, I hope it’s in the dead of night while everyone is asleep. (Kind of like the kid Danny, in the movie The Shining; except my movie is on a segway instead of a small trike, and there’s no orange and red carpet, but I’ll keep the music from the original soundtrack). What I really would like to know is what is Mai’s son like now? Does he miss his sister who’s moved to Toronto and hasn’t been home in two years? What video games does he play? 

Several weeks ago, I found the picture Ling’s daughter drew for me when we were on vacation together in Hue. Is she still drawing and taking piano lessons? Or did she rebel like Somara and move on to another instrument? How big are her twin brothers? I know these kids probably don’t remember me, but I feel wistful about them and their parents; they’re people who we started to get to know, they made Vietnam even more meaningful for us, and then we left.  So whether it’s plain old nostalgia or trying to break out of walls that have closed in on us, Vietnam is top of mind these days.

What Tim, Somara and I discuss most are the streets where we rode our motorbikes, and the places where we went to hang out. Most Vietnamese live in small spaces and spent a lot of time in cafes, and parks, and on the sidewalk; parks are their dance studios, fitness clubs, and a place where all ages come to play; sidewalks are where you can find the best restaurants and markets; and like the cafés, they all buzz with the rituals of Vietnamese life. Some of the place and street names don’t come to mind quickly, and our conversation can get a bit ridiculous as we try to get ourselves all situated at the same location, but these memories are precious.

When these conversations occur, it’s as if we’re trying to rebuild a scene in a movie that we all love. Each one of us talks about a sight, sound or smell; something that reminds us of why the memory is special. If I was to sum up my movie about Vietnam and describe how I want it to feel, I would say I want my viewers to feel a sense of adventure and wonder.

Ceramic wall started in 2007, Long Bien Bridge above it started in 1899.

This blog started because I wanted to find a way to capture the adventure and wonder that kept coming at me. Hanoi, one thousand years old with a population of close to 10 million (give or take a million) is undergoing massive change as capitalism has made friends with a one party state. You never knew what you’d see in the next metre let alone the next block. Many of my days were spent going just a little bit further, or turning a different direction to peek around a corner. You could never get it all in either…the city is so layered and full of nooks and crannies begging to be seen. Hayao Miyazaki’s movies give me the same feeling. Not all his films, but some, like Spirited Away  summon it perfectly.  Maybe it’s because the unknown felt safe and beguiling; in the unknown, as in many of his films, there is optimism and hope. Hope is a great antidote to fear and trouble. I don’t want it to sound sugary sweet, because it wasn’t that either. There was a gentle tug of mystery, of something that might be a bit sinister, and that might be where the wonder comes in.

I found the same sense of adventure in my consulting work and couldn’t get enough of it. I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to work so closely with ‘journalists’ talking about freedom of information, and objective reporting. I didn’t feel I could write about these topics while I was still living in the country, but I’m going to try in upcoming posts. So while politics was very rarely discussed, the current state of affairs and Vietnam’s complex history created a fascinating backdrop to our experience.

Corn field and building typical in rural North.

We knew the magic of Vietnam would have worn off, we just didn’t know when. It wasn’t all ‘wonderland’; we saw bits of corruption and capitalism singeing the edges of what we found charming and good. Not all our memories are sweet either. Somara recently reminded me of an excruciating long taxi ride through the city during which I kept vomiting into a plastic bag. Delightful, I know.

However almost everything that happened that year fed the desire for adventure and wonder.  You can also say we broadened our horizons, or stepped out of our comfort safe, or that we were foolish or brave. Whatever you call it doesn’t matter, it was privilege that gave us the ability to leave our home, our jobs, Somara’s school, to pursue our desire to go back overseas. It’s wrong not to call it a gift.

 Which is partially why I understand the nostaligia and know it makes perfect sense. Even though the spread of Covid 19 has been minimal in Nova Scotia, (although we are now starting to see signs of community spread), it’s been a really lousy time, personally, professionally and as a human being. In fact, the hardest part is because I’m a human being. But there’s no escape. Yet as so many others have pointed out, there is an antidote to pandemic life. The antidote is ensuring you take the time to summon adventure and wonder wherever you are.

Bay of Fundy
Bay of Fundy near Wolfville

If I step back and really think about it, I can continue on the path. It doesn’t look or feel the same as a year in South East Asia, that’s beyond obvious. However this pandemic has forced me to look around and grab hold of the riches of this life – the one in Nova Scotia, the one that’s also distressing and really hard right now.

This past year has included trips to parts of the province, stunning locations, I haven’t seen for years. I’ve gone hiking on new trails, and made trips back to ones I adore. The summer was full of long leisurely beach walks, ocean and lake swimming and more kayaking than I normally do in a summer. I have spent oodles of times with old friends, commiserating and supporting one another and I’ve made new ones. I’m trying to be a better partner, daughter, sister and mother. Some days, today included, it doesn’t feel better, but there’s been lots of shared moments  and laughs; I marvel at my good fortune. 

As I peer out onto the world, I don’t want to throw this stuff away when the pandemic passes. They are key to living a good life. And I want them to transcend the line that will inevitably be drawn between pandemic and post pandemic life.

I’m returning to VietnamSpam: from Hanoiing Canadians. The title is problematic, and it may be insurmountable but I’m not doing anything dramtic until I finish writing about Vietnam. Instead I’m trying to think of a logline that captures the essence of what I’m writing.  For example no more Hanoiing Canadians…now we’re just plain annoying). And I’ll tell you the story later about the most magnificent title I ever had for a book –  it created quite the buzz, but there just wasn’t any content.  The best I can describe it right now is I’m continuing the adventure and I’m documenting it with words and photographs. It will help, I know it will. 

Small island near Terrence Bay, Nova Scotia
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.

 

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

lanterns
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.

Just A Moment

Those of you who know me well, know that I believe in stories…and I’m always looking for the narrative thread.  But sometimes a photo doesn’t fit into a bigger story…I mean it could if you wanted to make something up. But since I’m so tightly aligned with my own truths, I can’t do it. At least not for this. Here are some photos that I love but they are photos without big stories. Each one is just about a moment.

Lantern Lady

 

 

I saw this woman in Hoi An making lanterns.   I think she’s quite regal.  She was at a workshop far from the tourists and crowds in a place we just happened upon.  Just before seeing her we shook hands with an elderly man and realized he was the guy on the big write-up in front of the place.  I wish I remembered his name now, but he was credited with bringing the art of lantern making back to Hoi An.

 

Grandma and Rice

 

 

 

During our visit to Hoi An we took a cooking class on an island about half hour by boat from the town. It was called “Grandma’s Cooking Class” and this is grandma. She was showing us how the Vietnamese once separated the rice from the husk. She’s 90 something and didn’t flinch once going up or down into her squat.

 

 

Spinning Somara

 

About 20 km from Hanoi is the village of Bat Trung. It’s also called Ceramic Village because almost all the commerce there is based on ceramics. I’ve never seen so many teacups, teapots and piggy banks in my life. I’m not sure the world is big enough. One of the best things about going there is that you can learn how to throw clay. It was super fun.

 

 

waving Buddha

 

 

These are just a few of the hundreds and probably thousands of Buddha Statues at Bai Dinh, a large Buddhist Temple. People were rubbing their knees as they walked by.

 

 

 

 

altar

 

 

I posted this photo in a much smaller size when writing about the Catholic Church, Phat Diem. I can’t get over the eyes on this Altar Boy. I wonder if he’s really pious, or worried about something he did and what the priest is going to say, or if he’s wishing his mom would stop taking pictures.

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I just love this photo of Somara and Doan Trang, who we spent a week-end with in Village #7. Either one of these girls could rule the world when they’re older.

 

 

 

 

 

tragic flowers

 

Those who are Facebook friends will see this too is a repeat. They are lotus flowers. I can’t get over them. They’re beautiful, they’re dramatic and they’re tragic. My friend Jane compared them to an ageing Bette Davis, which I thought was just right.

 

 

Mai Chau – A mountain sanctuary

Mai Chau – A mountain sanctuary

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road between rice fields

About three hours into our journey to Mai Chau (pronounced cho) last week-end, a stranger handed Tim his cell phone and said ‘it’s for you’. We were on a public bus just over 120 km southwest of Hanoi, moving somewhat aggressively and quickly on roads that ascended and descended through mountains.  The only people Tim knew on the bus were Somara and me. In fact the only people who knew that Tim was on the bus were Somara and me.  The first thing I heard Tim say was ‘Sorry I don’t understand’.  Because it’s genetically ingrained in my being, I imagined every bad scenario possible. But after a moment’s pause Tim laughed and said  he was sorry but we already had our accommodation booked.   Through the rearview mirror I could see the eyes of the driver light up as he looked back to see that the connection had been made and a promise fulfilled. He didn’t care whether it panned out or not.

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Rice fields

Connections are what Mai Chau is made of.  Rivers and canals bring water to rice fields and multiple other crops like corn and morning glory (known as muong); which is delicious smothered in garlic and chilies.  Zipping around are a multitude of birds, butterflies and other insects feasting on the flowers, while buffalo, cattle and goats graze for their sustenance closer to the mountains.  The most amazing part is that you can cycle the paths and rocky roads that link the series of small village settled in the valley between these mountains.  Mai Chai is an area that, in addition to showcasing ethnic minorities to foreigners, has become a haven for the Vietnamese to relax away from the city and connect with nature.

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Sol Bungalows’ pool

After eating dinner at Sol Bungalows (the place we had booked) the first night, and eating lunch at the largest of the villages in the area earlier in the day, we took a short cab ride to another small village in search of food on Saturday night.  It was clear that something big was going on because of all the activity in the large field on the edge of this small village.  My guess was an outdoor concert.  As we walked from restaurant to restaurant chock a block full of young people we quickly realized we weren’t going to find dinner there and unless we found the field more interesting and wanted to hang out we needed to move on.

So we started the 1 km trek to the village where we had earlier eaten lunch. Along the way we passed a lot of Vietnamese teenagers, heading to the field where loud music was now thumping away. I can’t remember now if it was K-Pop (Korean), V-pop (Vietnamese) or Western pop music but I do know Somara told me to start dancing.

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Stilt home with basement

Regrettably we never figured out what was going on.  But fortunately we found a restaurant at the next village willing to serve us at this late hour. The only other customers were two tables of Vietnamese who looked more like family and friends than patrons. We were ushered to our own table and within moments a gaggle of kids starting running back and forth to where we sat.  They would run up, tap our shoulders, say ‘hello’ and then run away screaming and laughing uproariously.  Before our delicious meal was all done Tim had migrated to the men’s table to shoot rice wine.

Somara had wandered off by then, so in search of her I migrated to the sounds of music next door.  Up the stairs on the main floor of the stilt house was a group of people eating dinner and being entertained by local dancers. Before I could sheepishly back away from what was clearly a private party, I was invited in and told to make myself at home. I could see that Somara had already done so and was chatting with another girl who looked closer to her age. Eventually Tim appeared. For the next hour plus we talked, we danced and Tim drank more rice. They were a friendly, generous and fun loving group of people.  It was an awesome night.  I left with a couple of new facebook connections, great memories and an attachment to this lovely little valley in Northern Vietnam.  We’ll be back.

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boiling silk worm cocoons and spinning silk

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textiles from various ethnic groups

textiles of Mai Chau
I salivated over the one at the front

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Cow traffic

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Bathing the buffalo