Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Life's a Beach

We took the opportunity for a weekend trip out of the bustling metropolis. Airline and work schedules limit the destinations that can be achieved over a two-day weekend. Many of these are in Vietnam and we decided to revisit Danang, a mere hour's flight from Hanoi. The scene of some of the worst battles of the American War, Danang has a location on the South China Sea. The Furama Resort is the best in Vietnam and likely in all of Southeast Asia. This was our third visit, so we knew what to expect. Unfortunately, we didn't expect the two hour flight delay, but at least we finally did take off and our driver had checked the flight so was waiting for us at the airport to take us on the ten minute ride to paradise. We changed our plans to have dinner immediately as we hadn't eaten since noon and it was 9:30 by the time we checked in. The restaurant has a huge menu, with Western, Indian, Vietnamese, Asian and grilled food. We enjoyed some fried calamare, grouper and a duck breast salad before adjourning to the Hai Van Lounge for drinks and the Filipino band with its trio of singing and dancing girls. In the morning, following a buffet breakfast including tropical fruit of all types, we took the shuttle bus to Hoi An a resort town that includes a few small museums, some historic houses and every mountebank, charlatan, seller of worthless goods and cyclo(bicycle rickshaw) driver from miles around. there are actually some fine tailoring and other shops, but the assertive(well pushy actually) peddlers make it difficult to shop. We have been to Hoi an several times, so we opted to keep the visit short and take a taxi back to enjoy the Furama. We couldn't have had a nicer day-90 degrees and clear, with only a bit of wind to avoid total perfection. You can see from the pictures how withe the sand is and how deserted it was!! We are much more city people, but you can't deny the allure of this fabulous resort. At night we relaxed in the lounge, then dined on more grouper(whole grilled fish was great!) and rack of lamb. We had time on Sunday after breakfast, where Ira chatted away in his newly acquired Vietnamese, to spend another hour on the beach and take a dip in the lagoon, before flying home again. You can be sure that when opportunity knocks again, we will be revisiting Danang!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Some people eat to live....

Well, you all know the corollary and we are certainly the latter breed. At age 13 or 14, in working towards a Boy Scout merit badge, Ira had to rewrite his account of a family vacation because the counselor retitled it "And then we ate." Hanoi is full of good things to eat, on many different levels. Our kitchen is rather rudimentary, so we have resolved to cook two dinners a week and eat the rest out. We have been visiting Hanoi since 1994 and each time we return, there are more things available . In 1994, there were virtually no restaurants and, except for the exquisite Le Beaulieu, the cuisine was totally Vietnamese, with occasionally some French tossed in. There were local markets of various sizes and nothing in the way of Western supermarkets. Now we have the Fivimart, a small supermarket with a decent selection of products; Citimart, a larger version; Metro, which we have not yet visited and which is a warehouse, like our Sam's Club, and some boutique markets with fresh meat and vegetables as well as canned and frozen items. Ira was able to make a choucroute garni with pork chops, sausage, and juniper-laced sauerkraut. Last night it was fettucine bolognese. Our usual dinners consist of steamed or fried rice, with vegetables, spices and some sort of meat or fish, with a green salad to balance it out. Hanoi is now a real restaurant town. You can get all sorts of Vietnamese food and nearly any other cuisine is also available. There is, of course the local places that mostly serve pho(noodle soup with chicken or beef), where you sit on the low plastic stools. There are also many nha hang, true restaurants with service and menus. One local place, banh tom Ho Tay, is always full of locals and it has a huge menu, with seafood the specialty. while it is a tad pricey for Hanoians, we can get shrimp or chicken salad, a whole steamed mullet in spicy broth, rice and green vegetable for about $11 US with beer, tax and service. It's lakeside location makes the place very desirable, especially on cooler dry evenings. There are several higher end Vietnamese restaurants, including Seasons of Hanoi, Wild Rice and Nam Phuong, where you might spend $30-40 and where the food is more elegant, the surroundings beautiful, and Westerners make up perhaps half of the clientele. Another of our favorites is the Ly Club, which is decorated with photographs and artifacts from the Ly Dynasty, which ruled the country from Hue, where some of the worst fighting in the American War took place. There are actually a number of Italian restaurants in town. We have settled on Luna d'Autunno, where the pizza is thin-crusted and crisp, the pasta home made and the Neapolitan front man, Alberto, is fun to chat with about food, wine and Italia. We also frequent the New Cali(for California, although it is anything but) Pub. they feature steaks but not quite like Peter Luger or any New York steakhouse for that matter. The service is great and so friendly and on weekends they do a grill buffet with excellent salads and then beef, chicken, fish, pork and shrimp grilled before your eyes. If you are really hungry, the buffet at Sen(Lotus) is the place to go. There are over 60 items, mostly authentic Vietnamese dishes, many cooked to order at various stations, and all for only about 100,000 dong. At 15800 to the dollar, we leave the mathematics to the reader. One more belly-busting buffet is the Sunday brunch at the Melia Hotel. The food ranges from sushi and raw shellfish, to Vietnamese and other salads, fresh baked bread, ripe cheeses, roast meats and fish, several hot entrees and then an incredible display of desserts, including crepes to order and four flavors of home made ice cream. It is $18 per person, plus 5% service and 10% tax, but well worth it, especially if you partake of the free-flow sparkling, white and red wine (soft drinks as well). Finally, on the high end, you can get really good French food at Green Tangerine, fusion cuisine that is totally first-rate with great service at Bobby Chinn's and International cuisine from pizza and salads to prime filets at Vine, which has a huge wine selection, unheard of even five years ago. If this isn't enough, there is still the tried and true Le Beaulieu, classic French cuisine, quite pricey for Hanoi, but not by international standards. We know that people are imagining exotic food on every corner, but the world is shrinking every day. Yes, you can get snake, crocodile or(sigh) dog, but right now, Hanoi doesn't seem so very different from anywhere else. If you were coming to visit us and wanted to bring something that we lack, it would most likely have to be......pastrami!!! Ira might say tongue on rye and some half sours with a Dr. Brown's Celray. We will keep you all posted on this and that but for now we leave you with the word ngon (delicious )

Monday, September 12, 2005

Isn't That What I Just Said?

We have been in Hanoi for seven weeks now! Time flies when you are having fun or when you have no idea what you are doing, or when you are in your "middle years."
The gentleman pictured above is Mr. Huy, Ira's personal Vietnamese language tutor. He is a patient, kindly man who speaks good English as well as some French and German in addition to his native tongue.
Vietnamese is a tonal language, meaning that the way a word is pronounced, with voice rising, falling, drop tone etc determines its meaning. So there can be six(or even more) meanings for a word. Confused yet? It gets better.
One thing about most Vietnamese is that they are very friendly and open and willing to help you with language, money directions or anything else with which you may be having difficulty. Unlike the French, they correct your mispronunciations, but they never sneer. the difference between the two languages is that you might in this lifetime, actually speak enough French to be understood.
We have all dealt with people whose English is not strong or is heavily accented and we know that we can almost always understand what the speaker is trying to convey. Vietnamese doesn't seem to work that way.
We should have realized this back in 1994 when we took our first trip to Vietnam. When we returned, we went to see our friend who had a Vietnamese restaurant in Philadelphia. He asked "Where did you stay when you visited Hue City?" Ira replied "Huong Giang Hotel!" Our friend said " Unfortunate. You should have stayed at the Huong Giang Hotel!"
We have found out that, particularly when food is concerned, if you repeat the word about ten times and point directly to the item, you just might make the meaning clear. This also works with numbers if you hold up the right number of fingers.
One great thing is that "beer" is "bia" and it is invariably inexpensive.
There are no tenses or conjugations so you just say "Yesterday I go market" "Today I go market" "Tomorrow I go market" without regard for time or saying "to the market" got it? Well the word for "market" and the word for "dog" are the same except for the tone so you might be saying today I went to the dogs which might not be far from the truth!
Fortunately, without actually eating it, we realized(or realised as they say here since no one ever told them that the sun has, indeed set on the British Empire) that what we thought said "meat market" actually said "dog meat!"
When you try out your Vietnamese on the locals, perhaps one reason they often don't understand you(other than your horrid pronunciation and accent)is that most Western visitors don't even attempt to speak the language and thus they don't expect you to be speaking their language and don't listen carefully enough.
The final difficulty lies in the fact that the language is written in our characters, so words resemble English and French words and we pronounce them as if they were those words.
Final problem: our mouths don't work well on certain sounds like ngh or nha or ng in general.
Ah well, we can get all we want or need of fish, beef, tomatoes, beer and orange juice and we can say "thank you!"
Did we tell you that they have about three letters that sound like "ZZZZZZZZZ" but no zee in the alphabet?

Friday, September 02, 2005

School Begins

I teach music at the United Nations International School Hanoi. It is an International Baccalaureate school on a beautiful new campus with 700 students from Discovery(age 3) through High School. I am teaching the 3 through 6 year olds. They have two 45 minute music classes a week. My room is large, with floor-to-ceiling windows and is well equipped with Orff and percussion instruments. The students come from over 40 countries so part of my job is to assist some first graders who need help with English. While there is a lot of time allocated for general music, there is NO instrumental program; and chorus and other performing groups all meet after school. I will be starting an Elementary String Ensemble and will also assist with the Elementary School musical, "Phantom of the Music Room." In addition, I will be spending one Saturday a month working at the Birla Orphanage(the school provides music and sports opportunities for the kids there). The school is very high quality with very high standards for teachers and students. It is proving to be quite a challenge, especially since I have not figured out how 3 year olds can handle this fancy equipment. Incidentally, the 23 tiny violins donated by Music and Arts Center, have arrived intact.