Friday, June 16, 2006

Unfinished Business

Here we are on the last day of school for Carol with so much left to do. After much weighing of all of the options and the pros and cons of various scenarios, we have decided to spend the next school year back here in Hà Nọi Việt Nam.

Yes, Ira can now type in Vietnamese as you can see from the above accent marks! We love this city and its people and the thought of never again being here was not welcome. We would have loved to arrange some sort of a part-time scenario especially since it would be possible to keep a home in Hà Nọi rather cheaply.

The Universal Health Care in the US was very attractive but...Oh that's right, there isn't any! I guess no one has thought of it yet. But seriously, health insurance and costs were a huge factor in our decision. Carol's school pays for a very good medical plan and our doctors at International SOS are first-rate.

The school also pays for a lot of transport and other costs if you teach for two years.

On the down side, we are far away from friends and family. We keep in touch with email and Skype but can't drop by for dinner.

We will be taking a short holiday in India. Why didn't anyone tell us it gets hot this time of year? After that we will be in the States from 27 June through 6 August catching up with the respective families and probably getting a serious steak or two and perhaps a Slurpee.

We don't have shortages but there are some things that are just not the same like burgers(though a great brewpub in Singapore has good ones with decent fries) steaks, pastrami and hot dogs. Also big salads are difficult to come by.

Next year, we decided to stay at the Sofitel Plaza Apartments. They are expensive compared to what you can get size-wise for a lot less money, but we prefer to have zero chance of roof and window leaks, creatures of all sorts, air-con that is iffy, power outages and the like. Also, since it is a hotel, the service is better than in any other serviced apartments. We are treated like hotel guests, rather than tenants. Of course, next year it will be a hardship to get to the gym as we are moving all the way from the 4th floor, where it is located, up to the 5th.

Today, Ira made the rounds and said goodbye to his riends and acquaintances. He may forget a lot of his Vietnamese although people have promised to email and sms(text message).

We have heard that reverse culture shock is twice as bad as that of when you move to a foreign country. Perhaps this is because you are on your guard more in a new place but feel that "home" can't be all that difficult. Anyway, we haven't driven a car in nearly a year so what will that be like? Carol is also worried that Ira will be forgetting where he is and yelling Em ơi!! to get a waiter's attention as they do here.

Regardless, we hope to have a great time in the US. We have taken an apartment in King of Prussia, strategically located between Ira's mom, Ira's brother and Carol's family.

We are renting a mobile phone to keep in touch and have a credit card ready to buy gas, talk about shock! Between doctors' appointments, visits to family and purchasing the things that are difficult to get in Việt Nam, we will probably be quite busy.

Now it is time to finish part 1 of this exciting time in our lives and for Hanoi Journal to close. there will probably be another installment next year but for now we must say tạm biệt.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Jean -Yves Thibaudet

When Ira's brother Dick was here, he noticed in the Vietnam News that the noted pianist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet was to perform in Hanoi and showed Ira the article. Naturally we HAD to get tickets, but the paper did not list the concert in the events column, nor could it be found on our usual source

Ira immediately emailed and sms'd(text message on the mobile which is a great form of communication if you enjoy the dinging sound when a message arrives) to the powers that be at the website.

The first report was that they had not heard of the concert. Later they said that there were no tickets, all having been allocated to Party members and government officials. A subsequent message indicated that there might be two tickets for a special and favored customer but that they might be too pricey.

Well, they were pricey and they did exist so last Friday evening found us in the sold-out Opera House hobnobbing with Hanoi society, or at least that is who we imagined the audience to be. Actually, we did run into two of Carol's colleagues, Ira's Vietnamese teacher, Mr. Huy and the group from the Hanoi Conservatory.

The recital was just great! Thibaudet makes you feel as if he is playing just for you. He has great technique of course, but it is his expressive playing and musicality that makes the night special.

He played Schumann and Ravel during the main part of the program, but the encores were familiar pieces by Chopin that had the audience stamping their feet and clapping. We were pleased to have been a part of this. Perhaps one day we will attend a performance in the US and be able to meet Thibaudet and tell him we heard him in, of all places, Hanoi.

Not Yet

The Vietnamese people we have met seem, on the whole quite cheerful and friendly. They are helpful when Ira tries to speak the language and so far we have not encountered anyone who resents us as Americans or as Westerners with more money than most of them have.

Perhaps one word that evidences this cheerful attitude is "chu'a" which means "not yet." Whether it is a woman being asked whether she has a husband or boyfriend, a person being asked if he or she has a job or someone being asked whether or not they have had lunch, if the response is in the negative it is never "khong"(No) but always "chu'a"

Ira has now vowed to use this expression more. When he is asked whether or not he has accomplished some task or if he has fulfilled a mojor goal or if he knows the meaning of life, his answer will always be "chu'a"

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Brother Act

BIG EVENT!!! Our first "real" visitors came to Hanoi this past week. Ira's brother Dick, his wife Sue and daughter Leslie(20 years old) were able to undertake the long journey from their home in Bethlehem, PA where Dick and Sue own a great seafood restaurant( We eagerly awaited their arrival ever since they told us that they were going to be able to come. We wanted to be able to show them our adopted city and let them experience for themselves what attracted us to Hanoi. We also wanted to see how people might view the city having never before experienced it. Ira met them at the airport and was easily able to recognize them as they came through the airport doors wheeling their half-empty suitcases that they hope to fill with new clothes and souvenirs. Ira had arranged for a car and in half an hour they arrived at Sofitel Plaza and their introduction into the little neighborhood that surrounds it. When you live abroad, the biggest thing you miss is family. Through the wonders of Skype and email, we do stay in touch with both sides, but there is a time difference and you can't just pop over for a visit anytime you feel like it. Of course, as Ira's mother Pearl always says "the minute you hang up you think of many things that you meant to talk about."

We won't give you a detailed play-by-play of the all-too-short week but we can tell you that they spent one day out on their own on an excursion to Halong Bay, the most scenic attraction in Vietnam and spent the rest of the time enjoying Hanoi pleasures. Sue and Leslie had several nice outfits made for them and did a lot of other shopping. Ira also arranged for Leslie to spend a couple of hours with a young woman closer to her age. she really enjoyed riding on the back of the motorbike and shopping where the young Hanoi women do.

Ira arranged an itinerary, making sure that Dick, Sue and Leslie visited Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and his "house on stilts" as well as the infamous Hoa Loa Prison, dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton" by Americans unlucky enough to have spent time there during the war.

Shopping, strolling and dining were high priorities as was a ride in a "cyclo" which is a bicycle rickshaw that is now mostly a novelty for tourists rather than a primary form of transport.

We tried to do as much as possible while still leaving them time to enjoy the gym and pool and of course the "Happy Hour." We took them to "Cha Ca La Vong" on their first night. This Hanoi institution serves only one dish-fried fish with various condiments. It boasts no decor but it is great fun to serve yourself from the sizzling skillet that sits on a charcoal fire right in the middle of your table.

Later meals included examples of upscale and less formal Vietnamese food as well as some Western meals including the best pizza in Hanoi at Luna d'Autunno.

On our final night, we enjoyed the sumptuous buffet at Sen, where traditional dishes are cooked at various stations. We then repaired to Fanny's Ice Cream for the best ice cream in town.

They say that all good things must end. In truth ALL things must end, whether good or not. This special visit was no exception and on Friday morning Ira went to the airport to wish Dick Sue and Leslie a safe journey home. As he rode a cab back to the city, the familiar journey was just a little bit different as he text-messaged to his Vietnamese colleagues
"Anh buon it" (I'm a little sad)

Friday, May 05, 2006

They foam at the mouth

In Noel Coward's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" he says that "In Bangkok at 12 o'clock, they foam at the mouth and run." We have now been to Bangkok six times without ever witnessing such behavior(Brits would say "behaviour")but there's always a first time. Many years ago, on our first visit to Asia, Carol had discovered that the occupancy rate at the legendary Oriental Hotel was extremely low, due to some revolt or other. We were able to stay there at a quite reasonable rate and it has been our digs in Bangkok ever since. The service is impeccable and the hotel a dream. Located right on the Chao Phrya River with every room having a view of this busy stream, it defines Old World luxury. With approximately one staff member for every two guests, they don't miss much. A couple of years ago, a restaurant manager noticed that a bee had spooked Carol by buzzing around her too closely. He proceeded to have a special ripe mango cut up and presented to "make your day better, Madam" As returning guests, we are always treated with special care. This time they upgraded us to a deluxe room, with large sitting area, dressing room and marble bath. On one of our visits, Ira's mother, Pearl, accompanied us and enjoyed the luxurious surroundings and attentive service. We are not in the class of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and the hundreds of royal guests who have graced the Oriental, but we get the same treatment. This is why we keep returning.

Epic Proportions

Ira has a new job! Lawyer and Business Consultant for a company known as EPIC(Economic Based Professional Investment and Counseling). This is a Vietnamese company specializing in investments in Vietnam, a rapidly growing field. Ira was speaking to two of their people at an AmCham function and a meeting was arranged. After a rather lengthy period of time, he was invited to lunch with the head of the company and the offer came shortly afterwards. His duties are rather varied, from helping with editing of English text for report and the website to the writing of articles for an economic journal, to dealing with the new Investment Law. The staff is quite friendly and helpful and he has a nice desk and computer in an office shared with the IT specialist, Mrs. Hang. This is particularly helpful as his technical knowledge is less than perfect. On his first day, he attended a meeting held totally in Vietnamese. They speak quite rapidly and comprehension is not 100%. After the others had spoken, Mr. Hung, the director of EPIC, asked Ira to comment and give his suggestions! That's only part of Day One. Ms Thuy, the Director of Communications, asked him to provide a 1000-1500 word article(in English at least) on due diligence. Of course, she needed it yesterday, but would settle for the next afternoon. Is this what happens in a developing nation? EPIC is a very professional company with a website at for your enjoyment and education. Ira's business cards are also very professional and, like the baseball cards of his use, fun to trade! EPIC is seeking foreign investors so if any of you are thinking of diversifying into an emerging economy with real estate, shopping centers and power plants just waiting to hit the market, you can email Ira for details. The above does not constitute an offer which can only be made by formal prospectus(Where is the tiny print for that announcement? It is so much fun working with the people at EPIC. They need and ask for help with their English and, in turn help with Ira's Vietnamese. Of course, much of the help consists of their speaking VERY quickly and replying to his efforts with "khong hieu"(I don't understand). It's not total immersion but the next best thing.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The same in any language!

Ira was once presented with a conundrum: What is the only word that is the same in every language in the world? Well, this blog will be sort of a catch-all as we had a pretty eventful week. On Monday we went to a symphony concert. Those of you who saw the movie "Together" will remember the young Chinese violinist. Tang Yun, who played the young boy in the film, is now 17 and a very facile violinist. He played the Tchaikovsky Concerto for violin faster than I can ever remember hearing it. This is not to say it was the best interpretation, but the audience loved it and one had to be amazed by the speed and technique. The orchestra also played the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony, also at a breakneck pace. It was another example of how culture abounds in Hanoi. Of course, it is not up to the level of some Western cities, but it was a fine night of music nonetheless. On Thursday we attended a showing of a documentray film "Mai's America," which details the travails of a young Hanoian woman who was an exchange student in, of all places, Mississippi! Needless to say, she ran into difficulties. Her attempt to go to Tulane University was also difficult and she wound up having to do nails in a salon in Detroit before returning home in semi-disgrace. Mai attended the showing and answered questions. She is currently still in university and trying to capitalize on the film. Most of the audience seemed thrilled, but somehow we were less so. It seemed to us that a rich(for Hanoi) girl went to america with illusions that were shattered, many due to her own poor planning and decision-making. On Friday, we attended the English class of our friend Luu, an interpreter whom we have known since our first visit to Hanoi in 1996. We had an enjoyable time conversing with the students. In truth we were sort of his show-and-tell exhibit. "See the nice Americans speak good English. Enjoy the big one's attempts to speak Vietnamese!" It was a lot of fun and we went out to dinner afterwards with Luu, his son Minh and a few others. It is always great to interact with people and discuss the similarities and differences of our countries and people. Ira has now begun working with EPIC, a high-level consulting firm here in Hanoi. They are economics-based and they help businesses with due diligence and other exciting tasks. Ira has a nice desk, which feng shui will tell him which way to face, a computer with special email and business cards touting him as lawyer and business consultant. He actually was sent on an assignment with two other firm members to Ha Tay province, which borders Hanoi. EPIC was signing a contract with the province's Planning and Investment Department and needed another body to appear, and to help with pictures and handshaking. After the ceremony, everyone went to a local restaurant for a nice lunch. The funny part of the lunch, other than Ira's Vietnamese chatting and the fact that most people spent the whole time talking or sms'ing on their mobile phones, was that all of the men, though they were high ranking government officials and businessmen love to pop the plastic bags that hold the wet towels that are distributed at the meal. It is strange to witness this, since you usually associate this behavior with young boys. We can only imagine if they ever hand these out at a formal state dinner! Our final experiences dealt with taxis. We must say that in general the Hanoi taxi drivers are friendly, courteous and reasonably knowledgable. This week, we had two experiences that were out of the ordinary. Ira's mobile rang one afternoon and it was Carol in distress. "The taxi driver has NEVER heard of Sofitel Plaza. HELP!!!" So Ira had to get on the line and guide the driver in. Fortunately, the directions are easy and Carol got home soon after. The second misadventure occurred when a driver seemed to be taking a strange route home. Ira asked why he was not taking a certain street. When he didn't get an answer, he asked was the driver taking the reasonable alternative route. The driver told Ira how he planned to go and became very frightened when Ira asked in rapid Vietnamese "How can you go that way? Not through the Old Quarter! Is this your first day driving?" Of course the route through the Old Quarter was longer, slower and filled with traffic. It's not the money as it only cousts about a dollar more, but the principle. We did let the young man know that we were not really angry and chatted with him on the remainder of the trip, but Ira's final words to him, which provoked a rueful grin and nod of the head were "Em can ban do(You need a map." The rest of the week involved DVD shopping(about $1.10 each) where we scored Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Capote and Memoirs of a Geisha among our 13 purchases. Carol also got some nice clothing and we had a great lunch at the Hotel Metropole. Oh, if you were still wondering about the universal word...TAXI!!!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Side Effects

Since Ira has been going to the gym regularly, he feels better and arguably looks better. The one problem is that his pants are swimming on him. Of course, in the US, tailors are extremely expensive and it is sometimes worth it just to buy new pants. There is an older couple that we see nearly every day at the gym. At first they seemed standoffish but eventually they began nodding and smiling. Neither speaks a word of English so communication is not easy. Ira finally managed to use his Vietnamese and found out that the man is a tailor and that he said he could take in pants. Ira took five pairs and rode down to the man's shop, armed with Mr. Long's business card. Since Mr. Long was not in, Ira tried to explain to the people in the shop that he knew the proprietor from the gym and that these pants needed to be taken in. They seemed to understand and said that it would be fifteen minutes. Ira asked where he could find a cafe to have a coffee until the tailor arrived. They took him to an auto parts shop, where a woman had a few stools and a plastic bottle full of coffee. For 4000d(about a quarter) you can get a strong coffee with milk and ice. After the 15 minutes, Mr. Long appeared and brought Ira back to the shop. Unlike the US, there is no fitting! He measured Ira's waist and then the pants and, without writing anything down, dismissed him with the promise that he would bring the pants to the gym when they were finished. "Next week?" "No a day or two tops!" Imagine Ira's surprise when, at around 3 pm, the phone rang and it was the fitness centre attendant informing him that his pants were here. Of course, Ira wondered how they would fit, there having been no fitting. Not to worry! All five pairs fit just right, and all for about $2.25 each! What a country!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Out for Dinner Bach Soon

The music scene here in in Hanoi is sporadic, but surprisingly busy. There are three symphony orchestras and a variety of other events. There is little or no coordination among the various groups and little advance publicity so that we don't always have much notice of concerts. Some weeks we wind up attending several performances but sometimes weeks go by with no events at all. The groups are also notoriously unreliable. Last week at about 10:00 one night, our phone rang. It was someone from the Opera House. He had money for us as the concert for which we had purchased tickets had been cancelled. There is a website ticketvn that lists performances and permits you to order tickets. They do deliver them at no charge though the time is rarely arranged in advance so that sometimes they come when you are out or at the gym or sleeping! On Friday we found out about a free concert at the Goethe Institute, a German cultural establishment that hosts a number of events throughout the year. We had dinner at Brothers' Cafe, an upscale(the buffet costs about $12US) Vietnamese restaurant with very good food. It was our first visit there and it was quite nice. Buffets are the norm in Hanoi, even at the five star hotels and they go far beyond the typical steam tables with mystery meats steeped in grease that are so common in the US. At Brothers' there are two stations where they prepare soups and noodles from very fresh ingredients, plus a grill station with kebabs, meats, fish and sausages. This is in addtion to the best little nem(spring rolls) and a host of other dishes. The desserts include fresh fruit and a number of local "delicacies" that often look a bit better than they taste. We chose the restaurant for its proximity to the Goethe Institute. Cabs are cheap and plentiful but our instinct is always to eat close to the site of our evening activity. The concert which attracted an overflow crowd, possibly because it was free, was all Bach, in honor of the Easter season. When we are in the US, we have always attended a fine St. Matthew Passion at St. Peter's in NY. This of course was not as glorious an event, but a chamber orchestra entertained us with Brandenburg No 3 and several other pieces. We recognized many of the performers from other concerts and the audience included a number of musicians who were there to support their colleagues and enjoy the music. It is little concerts like this that remind us that the quality of life is indeed high here in Hanoi.