Saturday, August 27, 2005

Music-Opus 1

Music abounds in Hanoi. In our first 3 weeks we have already attended a variety of concerts and have also experienced live music in restaurants and hotels. VIETNAM SYMPHONY This is a professional orchestra. the strings are excellent while the winds are not up to that standard. The program, very traditional Western music, included Brahms' Tragic Overture, Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 with a flamboyant young Chinese pianist, Weihui Mao(she just finished her doctorate at USC), and the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony. the conductor was Colin Metters, director of conducting studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London. VIETNAMESE OPERA This nationalistic piece was composed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Vietnam's independence. It was extremely political(We seemed to be the only Westerners attending) and was done to canned music with lip-synching. It was a huge spectacle with great sets and costumes and imaginative choreography. VIETNAMESE CULTURAL SHOW This was held at the Labor Theatre and included Vietnamese music, both traditional and modern, played on a variety of traditional instruments. These folk instruments were amplified and accompanied by keyboard, electric guitar and drums, giving a more modern sound. Included in the show were folk dancing, pop singing and dramatic acting. This worked well and was quite enjoyable. The ensemble also played a couple of Western classical numbers, concluding with an unbelievably facile csardas played on a two-string violin! HANOI CONSERVATORY CONCERT Our friend, Dr. Minh, gave us tickets for a concert with the Hanoi Philharmonic Orchestra which includes professors, teachers, professional musicians and students from the National Conservatory. The strings have a full, rich sound in a good reading of the Schubert Unfinished Symphony. Dr. Ha, the Rector of the Conservatory is one of the country's most accomplished pianists and teachers. One of her students, Vu Ngoc Linh, was the piano soloist in the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto. He had recently won 1st prize in a competition at Rowan(NJ) University. His performance was quite animated and rewarded by great applause and a stage full of flowers. Music is indeed alive and well in Hanoi and we have plans to attend more performances. Next post to follow as spring follows winter, that is to say, not immediately.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Buckling Down

"Toi le khong khach du lich." Means, roughly, assuming you can possibly be understood "I am not a tourist." The hope is that this will avoid the postcard sellers or the Xe Om (motorbike) drivers who approach from time to time. It seems to actually work, although, they see we are larger than average, have different hair and eyes, can’t speak the language and have no idea where we are, where we are going or where we have been. Well, in truth, we do live here, at least temporarily so must try to act the part.
We wonder what might possess them to think that Ira’s 110 kilos would be enjoyable to transport at breakneck speed through high traffic for less than $1 American. We have vowed to stick to taxis, except where someplace is actually walkable.
The fact that we are NOT tourists is brought home by Carol’s having to report to the United Nations International School for orientation. We also were treated to a boat ride with dinner (Italian of course! More on this phenomenon later) and a Vietnamese dinner in a local restaurant. We met the new teachers, basically all of who are in early or mid-career and who have spent nearly all of their working lives teaching in International schools in various countries around the world. Many have very young children. One of the perks of the job is free tuition for one’s children, not an inconsiderable sum. Carol will be writing separately on the school experience but suffice it to say that there is a lot of material, curriculum, rules etc.
One of the things we must get used to is that the default in restaurants is definitely smoking. Unlike even the former smoky days in the US, no one even asks, they just light up. One of our hotel dining rooms has a non-smoking table. Enough said. Ira can hold his breath for a long time.

Cooking and shopping are not as exotic as some might have thought. There are local markets and a variety of minimarkets. The Fivimart has some food, but more canned and frozen than fresh. Veggys has rather a larger selection, though it tends to be pricey. Still, most produce is a lot cheaper than home and meat and cheese can be purchased in small amounts, except when you ask for 400g of lamb and get about 800. I guess butchers are the same all over the world. We probably won’t cook home more than a couple of times a week as restaurant prices range from cheap to cheap by Western standards. While you can spend 90$ at Vine (wine ups the ante considerably), the meal would be $150 or more in the US.
Our first two home meals were stir-fried seafood with spinach, served with rice and a green salad. We splurged on some marinated artichokes and have recently got a jar of capers. Tonight it is to be lamb tenderloin with potatoes and broccoli. A lot can be done on a stove with one large and one small burner, a rice cooker and a microwave/grill oven.
We have already been to a symphony concert. Very good quality, especially the strings! They played Brahms, a Liszt piano concerto with a flamboyant soloist, and Tchaikovsky.
Last night we attended something billed as "Vietnamese opera." It was actually a patriotic tableau done to canned music with lip-synched pop vocals and a cast of thousands. The costumes and effects were spectacular and we think (hope?) that the vanquished army represented our old "friends" the French and not a different group of soldiers.
On Monday, the children arrive at school so in a few days Carol may have some words for our friends halfway around the world yet close in many ways. Skype is a wonderful program we found that enables users to talk free over the Internet. The sound quality is surprisingly good. We thought that Ira’s brother Dick was next door. Otherwise, we are stuck with the old fashioned email and, of course, reading blogs. Next time, more on language.
LATE NOTE-Once again it is raining! Tis the season and we do own a $2 umbrella that we bought in Sapa.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Our apartment in hanoi

Here are a few shots of our new home. Not as spacious as our previous place, but it's cozy

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Sapa Adventure

Our first journey away from Hanoi was a visit to Sapa, an old French hill station in the north, near the Chinese border. The semi-luxurious(at least private) Victoria Express left the Hanoi rail station at 10:00 pm Saturday evening The overnight trip was without incident and we probably managed some amount of sleep before pulling into Lao Cai station at about 6:30 am

The winding road from Lao Cai to Sapa rises steeply to over 4000 feet. We felt excitement and much fear as the van sped around curves, passing most of the other vehicles while our driver tapped continuously on his horn, the standard for Vietnam.

We were fortunate to have a room with a beautiful view of the courtyard, which is filled with lush greenery. We were even luckier to actually have a room that was ready for early checkin. It was great to be able to unpack and relax, rather than sit around the lobby until noon. It was pouring rain which proved to be an omen.

Unfortunately, the schedule precluded our visiting the largest market in the area, so we had to be content with descending a steep slippery set of stone steps into the village of Sapa where we browsed its market and had a delicious steaming bowl of pho, the national dish of Vietnam.

The hill towns are populated by members of the 54 ethnic minorities that make up about 10% of Vietnam's population. The Black H'mong are the tribe that is in the Sapa Market. they can be rather assertive in trying to sell you their textiles and other goods. One tiny old woman held fast to Ira's wrist and it took him several minutes to break free, unencumbered by any purchases.

After climbing back up the steps, we did our best to dry out and look around the hotel. Later, we sampled a tasty buffet, trying to ask for the various items by their Vietnamese names. The chefs and servers always seem to enjoy our attempts to pronounce the language, which is extremely difficult due to its being tonal. The locals are extremely helpful and patient, repeating the words endlessly as we ask "Isn't that what I just said?"

On Monday morning, we set out on a trip to Ta Phin, a nearby village where the Black H'mong and the Red Dao(pronounced Zow, see what I mean?) live. As soon as we arrived, we gained an entourage of women who somehow speak perfect English. They sort of surrounded us as, together with our guide, we trekked up a steep, slippery path in the (what else?) pouring rain. Of course, we knew that we would have to purchase some items from our hosts. we were just hoping that we would not own the entire village at the end of the morning.

We were doing just fine until we were invited to visit a Red Dao dwelling. When Ira stepped on the muddy ledge leading down, it gave way and he landed flat on his back, causing as much concern among the Dao as it did to us.

Inside the house, we were shown yards and yards of woven goods by the lady of the house. Our first purchase was a table runner. Oh by the way, the Dao are better at bargaining than Americans, in case you think that everything costs pennies. From what we have read about the per capita income in Vietnam, the Dao made three month's wages in about ten minutes with us!

There are a number of domesticated animals in the village, including potbellied pigs, water buffalo, and various fowl. Ira tries to learn the local name for each but it is heavy going. He can say duck, but the word for goose is unpronounceable, so he calls the goose a big duck. The Red Dao laugh, but they seem to laugh a lot regardless. Of course, they are laughing with not at us.

After the obligatory fruit and water, the real selling begins. Before we can get into the jeep, we have added to our store of cloth goods. When you get these as presents in the coming years, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that they are not cheap and that the citizens of Ta Phin are doing quite well.

We spend most of the rest of the day lying by the indoor pool while the rain beat down on the roof, mispronouncing a whole new set of foods at the evening meal and watching HBO.

Tuesday we awoke to the surprising sound of, well yes, raindrops, or actually sheets of rain. We had a visitor, a local doctor called to check the condition of Ira's back. Fortunately, he indicated that there was no serious damage and we were able to enjoy the rest of the day before yet another hair raising trip at warp speed down the winding wet road to Lao Cai where we boarded the Victoria Express for another overnight trip.

We arrived back in Hanoi at around 5:30 am, caught a cab for home(!) and sorted out our plans for the rest of the week. Look for our next report soon. This mini vacation was courtesy of the Council Rock Music Department, as their generous farewell gift to Carol was used for train fare, the beautiful hotel, food, of course drinks and, last but not least, some Red Dao handicrafts.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Ira and Carol in the US a week before embarkation Posted by Picasa

Friday, August 05, 2005

Settling In

After an 18 hour nonstop flight in executive economy(very highly recommended) on Singair, we wandered about in Changi airport before taking the 3 hour hop to Hanoi. Having visited on four previous occasions, we were not unprepared for the city. At this stage in our lives, we feel that adventure need not encompass discomfort so we had booked an apartment in the Sofitel Plaza Hotel. While 65 sq meters is not what we were used to, having just sold a home containing about 255 sq m, we were quite agreeably impressed by all save the barely functioning kitchen area. The living room, equipped with satellite TV and DVD, has large windows. The bath is quite spacious and has large tub and stall shower with unlimited hot water. This post originates from a nice sized office and the bedroom has king bed and more windows. the view is not perfect but does admit of at least a portion of West Lake. The service could not be more attentive! If one calls for assistance, by the time the phone is back in its cradle, the doorbell rings. The staff helped set up our high speed internet, provided us with transformer and adapters and assisted us in finding the "Fivimart," a sort of grocery store a few minutes walk away. Maid service is every day, save Sunday with through cleaning, lining up of toiletries and other items left out and change of both towels and robes daily. So far, our Vietnamese is rudimentary, but we are resolved to communicate within a month or so. For the first time, we have joined the health club(included with our exhorbitant rent) and actually have a workout program which we have faithfully pursued, at least for the first four days. Carol will report for her job at the United Nations International School on Friday, while Ira has had two job interviews which may result in his working for the best restaurant and wine group selling wine and training staff. For now, we must pack for our first trip, to the resort at Sapa, in the mountains of the north. Expect a full report on our return.