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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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it works

 

 

 

Perfume Pagoda –  A Magical Kingdom

Perfume Pagoda – A Magical Kingdom

My words won’t do justice to the Perfume Pagoda.  Sixty five kms from Hanoi, it’s known to the Vietnamese as Chua Huong  and is thought to be over 500 years old.  Many visit because they believe they will be graced with good luck.  The complex houses 15 separate pagodas nestled amongst the tropical Huong Tich mountains. To reach the main entrance you must travel 5 km along a river almost entirely flanked by lotus flower farms.  The journey there induced conversations about Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ but the only darkness we felt was when the bill arrived for lunch. We were told that less than 200 other visitors joined us on Saturday compared to the hundreds of thousands of Buddhists pilgrims who come to the site during New Year celebrations called Tet. We’ll return, but perhaps not then.

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New crops of rice being planted on the journey to the Pagoda
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Everything is sacred including the advertisements
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lily pads of the lotus flower
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locals fishing
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Somara’s reward for helping row

 

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The first of many stairs

 

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Ancient beauty

 

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On the way to a place called Heaven’s Kitchen

 

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The only image I could get of this temple as there’s no photography allowed any closer
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A bell in the main cave, can you tell I was mesmerized
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One of the very few people we met leaving
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Emergency rain hat
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Even the decay is stunning
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I can understand Monet’s obsession with these
Traffic – some seriously scary SH*T!

Traffic – some seriously scary SH*T!

A friend suggested  I should write about traffic in Hanoi before we even left Halifax.  And even though I agreed verbally, I actually thought that would be predictable and a bit mundane.  Isn’t traffic just like weather?  You talk about it in the absence of better material.  I’d seen a New York Times video on how to cross the street that was funny and helpful, and I couldn’t imagine there was anything more to say.

(Take a look here. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/28/world/asia/hanoi-traffic-daunts-tourists.html)

But I am now professing VERY LOUDLY, that this video is just the tip of a very LARGE and CONFUSING iceberg.  From the mouth of some-one who has been walking, taking cabs and driving a motorbike for the past four months “Traffic in Hanoi is SCARY SHIT!”

First of all my photos will never capture the enormity of how much traffic there is.

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Two lanes of eight
Calm Street
A calm street in my ‘hood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course I’m hoping that some of you and you know who you are, won’t have caught the motorbike part. But I’m going to have to fess up some-time; Tim and I are both driving motorbikes, yes we are, and that makes our relationship with traffic that much more emotional and intimate.

Before you make judgements or send me off the stats about traffic accidents for foreigners living overseas, please read the rest of this. At the very least you’ll see I’ve put some serious study into the matter of traffic in Hanoi. And for you who can’t resist, my sister has already reminded me that I said ‘over my dead body’.

Okay, so back to the beginning.  After just one day in Hanoi I was convinced that it’s a city with no rules and no place for pedestrians.  You can’t just casually meander down a street; the streets in the Old Quarter are far too narrow and the people far too plentiful. There were times I wanted to go out to pick up some drinks or food, but the thought of navigating the streets made it all too much. Every time I did go out, all my senses were alert and my hands clenched.  I just about had a heart attack the first time a motorbike came barreling down a sidewalk toward me. Plus I can’t even tell you how many cellphones I wanted to grab from the clutches of people on bikes texting. Apoplectic  is the best word for what I was feeling.

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Somara on the left staking out her territory
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At the very least the city buses are bright

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During those first few weeks I couldn’t even employ what I learned from the NY times video. One of the women selling pineapple in the Old Quarter grabbed my arm on two separate occasions to escort me across the street.  She couldn’t stand to see me there just waiting and waiting for the right moment to step off the curb. I know now there is no such thing as the right moment.

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Not stopped, still talking
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Bike transport, #1 way to move stuff around

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three months later my perspective has evolved. Instead of looking at traffic and seeing a hurtling mass of metal in many directions, I can decipher the motorbikes, from the cars, from the taxis, and the bikes and the buses. I even distinguish between public transportation buses and the buses carting tourists around. (There’s millions of those coming here each year as well as the eight million who live here.) Most important are the vehicles that I call ‘miscellaneous’ moving objects; anything from a lorry, to people pushing carts selling clothing, to people on  bicycles selling food and/or flowers. The key to overcoming the paralyzing fear that many foreigners experience is to carefully watch each category that I’ve mentioned and understand how they move and the rules that govern them.

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Gym shorts today?
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Pineapples and flowers…how convenient

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

motorbike commerce
transaction in progress

 

For example it’s okay on the small side streets to pull up in front of a store on a motorbike and without dismounting from their bike, make a purchase. A lot of the small shops have some-one at the door ready to take an order. All others need to maneuver around these transactions. There’s a lot of honking in this city, but never at this situation. The same goes for the merchants who are transporting their wares by cart or bike. Don’t get between them and their customer, transactions first, pedestrians and other travellers second.

Honking. It will drive you crazy, until you realize its purpose. I first learned this in Hoi An where we were getting around on bicycles.  You ring your bell or honk if you’re going around some-one. The side check is almost non-existent. In its place is a horn, listen for them, the larger the sound, the larger the vehicle.

Your place in the hierarchy on the road is determined by your size. Bicycles yield to motorbikes who yield to cars, who yield to buses…. I’ve yet to see a massive transit bus slow down for anyone or anything and if you’re on a motorbike heading towards a vehicle that’s backing up, get out of the way. At the bottom of this heap is the pedestrian. People don’t walk in Hanoi.  Most of the people you see walking are foreigners and it’s usually on the road.

Back to Thomas Fuller, and his New York Times video.  Hanoi has a lot of cross walks that are well marked. But he’s correct in saying that if you stand at one waiting for the vehicles to stop, you’ll expire of hunger, thirst, heat, or all 3.  They rule of the road is to always move at a  consistent pace. Let me say this one more time, ALWAYS MOVE AT A CONSISTENT PACE.  Even the dogs and cats in this country know you don’t jump out into traffic.  You must trust that the traffic will move around you.  If you dart quickly and make a sudden change in movement, you’re looking for trouble.  What he didn’t say in the video is that rule governs vehicles as well.  There are always the idiots who drive too fast, and jump in and out, but for the most part traffic here moves at a consistent forward pace. Seeing all those vehicles is heart stopping, but if you can take a breath you will realize that their speeds are significantly lower that those in  North America.

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Girl is fast asleep in front.

This is where I end part one.  Frankly I’m exhausted and need a drink.  I hope you’re beginning to relax too. But I’ll be back soon with part two that includes the low down on sidewalks and their significance to the life of this city. Drive safely my friends.

 

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.

two girls

 

 

 

 

 

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

mai chau road
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.

rice field
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.

Sol's pool
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.

Kuwait
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.

weaving silk
boiling silk worm cocoons and spinning silk
textile two
textiles from various ethnic groups
textiles of Mai Chau
I salivated over the one at the front
Sol cows
Cow traffic
buffalo bath
Bathing the buffalo

 

Bia Hoi, Oy, Oy, Oy !!!!

Bia Hoi, Oy, Oy, Oy !!!!

There’s a lot of shouting at a Bia Hoi (pronounced Bee-ah Hoy), after all it’s occupied by a lot of dudes drinking beer. You’re pretty much guaranteed to hear Mot, Hai, Ba! (one, two, three) after which everyone clinks glasses and has a gulp or two or Mot tram pham tram! which sounds like mo jam fan jam, and means 100%. If you say it, then you’ve got to do it, and swig the whole glass back baby.

Bia Hai beer
Topping up the glasses

Bia Hoi means ‘Fresh Beer‘ and drinking a whole glass at once is easy; you could substitute it for a cold glass of water. Made fresh daily, it’s light with 2 to 4 per cent alcohol. At 5000 dong, the equivalent of 30 Canadian cents it’s worth the investment.

There’s a lot beer gardens in Hanoi, kind of like Tim Horton’s there seems to be one on every street. One article I read says that 30% of the consumption of beer in Hanoi is done at a Bia Hoi…and even though I’m not going to do a fact check, it’s easy to believe. We’ve been going to one close to our apartment, A LOT.

Ours is called Bia Hai Xom; I know that Hai means two, and I think Xom is the name of the owners. But first back to the beer. What’s incredible is watching the staff, some wearing no shoes, carry these huge trays of glasses on ceramic (very slippery floors).  They move incredibly fast, as there’s usually has no less than 300 people anxious for another Bia Hoi. For those who are looking for something with some alcohol content you can purchase bottles of vodka.

Bia Hai 1
This WAS ribs and muong, a delicious green
tofu
Tofu coated in egg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s much more than a stale bag of chips available to eat at our Bia Hoi.  The menu is long and so far the favourites are papaya salad, pork ribs, salted chicken, and this tofu dish.  What’s loved most is the small packages of peanuts they bring with the beer.  Unsalted they’re sweet and fresh.

Bia Hai Kitchen
The Kitchen

The first time we went I quickly realized that amongst the large tables of men, (ie. soccer teams),  there was only a handful of women present.  Not quite yet comfortable with that, on our second visit, we cozied up to a group of kids who were using the restaurant as a gym to run in circles. I think the parents were deep into a tray or two of beer, but ultimately that’s the great thing about a Bia Hoi, no-one cares. It’s a genuine hang out.

But there is one critical point to embrace before entering a Bia Hoi. Forget Miss Manners.  There are no rules here.  Protocol is to drop the plastic wrap that comes around your bowl and plate on the ground along with your napkins, and whatever other garbage you amass.  If you can’t bring yourself to do it, that’s okay too. At the end of the evening the staff clean up by dumping what’s in the dishes on the ground, then removing the dishes into these big bowls, tilting the table on its side to make sure everything’s off, and then sweeping everything off the ground.

For a lot of reasons next time we go, I’m going to chant “Bia Hoi, Oy, Oy, Oy” and see if I can get it to stick. I think it’s perfect.

washing glasses
Three bucket, and three second, glass cleaning system.

 

dishes
The dishes.
It pays to get to Church on time

It pays to get to Church on time

pinks:purples

It never crossed my mind before coming to Vietnam that we’d attend Catholic mass. A Buddhist ritual for sure, but I assumed that Catholicism would be scarce in the north and it wouldn’t be something we’d come upon since reading that Vietnamese aren’t known to be religious. Well less than 2 weeks into our adventure we embarked on a boat tour through Kenh Ga, a floating village in Nim Binh province and as we meandered past limestone karsts, water buffalo, and rice fields, the steeple of an enormous Catholic Church broke the horizon. Memories of Ennio Morricone’s  theme from “The Mission” swelled inside of me. We did not go in or get close enough for a decent picture, but several weeks later, we found ourselves sitting in the midst of a overflowing Catholic Church in Village #7 in Nim Binh province. Cue the theme music once more.

yellow spokesGuests of Quyen Tran and his family, very devout Catholics, we’d just had lunch with their new priest and were attending Father Peter’s first big mass in his new community. I wish I’d snuck a few more photographs and recorded the sounds, because this was a scene from another movie. (One that isn’t fully realized yet). An ‘Elvis’ version of the Virgin Mary beneath a neon blue halo occupied one side of the stage and the music, more like chants than hymns were lovely and hypnotic. It was good there were kids running around the back plus these women who kept disappearing up a back stairwell, also looking somewhat retro, to keep us awake.  The service was after all entirely in Vietnamese. Evenly spaced across the wooden ceiling, eggshell blue fans worked unsuccessfully to break open the mid afternoon heat.

church sidecarved detail crowd

Driving through the countryside that week-end we spotted many Catholic Churches in a wide variety of styles. The most spectacular of which is Phat Diem, the oldest Catholic Church in Vietnam. Just 10 km from Village #7  we arrived early on a Sunday as the parishioners were gathering for mass.  It seemed like something special was about to happen. Like the Church near Kenh Ga, this structure was majestic, however on first glance I would have identified it as a Pagoda. Made out of stone, there were tiered towers with multiple eaves. Officially described as a cross between European and Vietnamese architecture, there are numerous other structures built in a similar style to the main Cathedral.  However it wasn’t the Cathedral itself that captivated our attention; it was the hundreds of women dressed in their best Ao – Dai’s parading around the grounds and then into the Cathedral.

woman in pinkred women

 

 

 

 

 

 

They were simply stunning. Accompanied by altar boys, nuns, and the occasional group of men carrying what must have been religious paraphernalia, they marched solemnly, and eventually dissolved inside the church.  We didn’t follow.gong leader

altar 2

nuns
white ao dai

Our ‘Hood in Hanoi

Canary 2I just paid our second month’s rent at the Canary Hotel and Apartments (‘The Canary Hotel, I remember it well’…. ) and expect we’re going to stay here the entire time we’re in Hanoi.  We could find another place that’s bigger and with more personality, but we’re close to Somara’s school and we really like the Canary staff. Both Son and Ton, they two key guys at reception have decided it’s also their job to help us learn Vietnamese.  Ton taught me the word for sweat today, Mo Hoi, as I was walked through the lobby dripping wet from head to toe after a workout.

Daily activities are starting to etch themselves into routines and we are getting to know our ‘hood.  I don’t know what to call this area.  Our district is Ba Dinh, but that’s huge, and we live off Lieu Giai, a major artery.  As I’ve said before everything here is layered, including the streets. Each large road, leads to numerous secondary roads, leading to even smaller alleyways.  A lot of times I feel like I’m in a corn maze. I’m still surprized by all the shops you find in the smallest of alleyways. Convenience stores, clothing and a lot of Cafes.Cards and Cong

The Cong Cafe, about 45 seconds out our door has become a favourite. It’s a genuine hangout, a place you can play cards, or just while away an afternoon. On order are fancy coffees, smoothies, beer…I’m there (here) right now drinking an iced lemonade blend. I’d show you a picture but I sucked it back too quickly and now have a freezie headache.

The Cong looks across to the Japanese Embassy, and in the evening people exercise here or bring their kids to ride bikes. Best of all it’s where people come to play badminton.badminton wide

One evening as I was strolling about in flip flops and a sundress trying to get a few photos, a man pulled me into a game of doubles. I was happy to play but then my participation in the game of doubles was protested by another man who told me to go away. He got overruled by the others and then refused to play in that match. I was uncomfortable for about 10 seconds. Perhaps he didn’t think I’d play well enough, I don’t really know what was going on, but I did just fine. My plan is to return in running shoes and shorts to whoop his butt – if he’ll ever engage. Somara and I have been back several times and she’s the one improving the most.  I, on the other hand, sent 3 birdies over the fence onto the grounds of the embassy never to be seen again.

Aroulottend another corner is the Lotte (pronounced LAW-tay) Tower. It’s not just a landmark for us, but for all of Hanoi. At 65 stories, it’s close to being the tallest building in the city. Mostly an office tower, it has a grocery store and some very fancy shops…kind of a cross between Holt Renfrew and The Bay on Bloor. Eventually we’re going to check out the Dim Sum on the 36th floor plus everyone who visits will be treated to the view on the observation deck up top. Perfect for a romantic night out.

door dude

 

Traffic around here can be crazy, but truthfully, it’s more peaceful than where we were when we first arrived and lived in the Old Quarter. Besides watching traffic can be a bit of an activity as you never know what you’ll see driving by.

Close to the Cong, we’ve found an amazing bakery that makes delicate moist croissants for about 60 cents. I really like the man we buy milk from; his store is so full you can only open the door one way, but it’s spic and span clean and he’s got cheap cheese. I’ve made friends with a few vegetable and fruit vendors, and feel like I’m cheating if I choose one over the other. You can buy virtually anything within 1 km of our place, anything except Cheerios, haven’t found those yet.

Somara’s school Lycee Alexander Yersin is just over a 1km away.  A cab there costs $1.20 but we mostly walk. We’ve discovered a nifty shortcut that winds its way through one of those corn mazes avoiding Kim Ma another major artery. There is still one massive intersection to cross, MASSIVE, and you need to take a special course to work out the traffic signals. And I’m setting myself up for trouble by telling you this, but yesterday I caved and let Somara walk to school on her own.  She begged for a week and I couldn’t take it anymore. Now I need to go home and wait for her to return from school.  I’m not worried and you shouldn’t be either.