Saturday, January 28, 2006

Tet NOT Offensive

Tet, the lunar new year celebration, is the biggest holiday in Vietnam. Everyone gets caught up in the spirit and the festivities and traditions. All of Hanoi is buzzing with activity. Every little shop and restaurant is decorated with banners, flowers and bunting.

There are so many traditional greetings, wishing people a Happy New Year, wealth, luck, good health, and all manner of other good things. Ira has learned many of them and finds ways to work them into the conversation. Anyone can say "Chuc Mung Nam Moi"(Happy New Year) but when you wish someone "Vui Ve Quang Nam"(Best Wishes for the whole year) they know that you are not a tourist.

There are many traditional foods, such as the sticky rice cakes, fatty pork and other delights. Many restaurants have traditional Tet menus during this period. The Vietnamese are quite family oriented and most travel to their parents' homes for feasting and reveling. Flowers are in abundance and the big flower market is so crowded that the main street is blocked. On Carol's last day of school, there were not taxis getting through so she had to call Ira to bring one from the hotel to rescue her. But even the traffic jams are fun as there is just so much energy out there.

According to tradition, everyone must have a kumquat tree and/or a peach blossom tree for Tet. The road is lined with these plants, many rather large and it is quite a sight to see the parade of motorbikes and other vehicles laden with the bright orange kumquats and the pink blossoms of the peach trees. After the frantic shopping and rushing about, the streets are eerily calm on the evening of the first night, as everyone has bought the food and flowers and is somewhere celebrating. We visited "Uncle Ho" at his mausoleum the morning before the holiday and also went to the Army Museum that catalogues this small country's long history of war, from the Chinese in the 8th century, through the Japanese invasion, French colonial period and the "American War." We can only hope that Vietnam will now spend the 21st Century in peace and that the rest of the world will follow suit.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Hot L Sofitel Plazzzzzaaaaaaa

As we come to the midpoint of the school year, we realized that we haven't told much about our living situation. We had often fantasized about living in a hotel, but realized that residential hotels are generally in large cities and are at the top of the scale so the economics didn't seem to work.

When Carol was offered the job here in Hanoi, we knew from our previous visits that we could not live "with the people" in a residence without heat, with inadequate utilities and with a variety of animals that we had not invited to be our pets. Having heard about serviced apartments, we undertook an internet quest and finally came up with Sofitel Plaza. It is definitely on the upper end of the price scale, but we choose to compare it with similar accommodations in other cities rather than with prices of other Hanoi residences. If you think this is a way to rationalize spending money, you may be right.

Sofitel Plazzzzaaaaa!!! is how Ira says it to taxi drivers so that they will understand him. It is kind of how the Vietnamese say it but really just for fun.

The apartment is great. who knew that 69 square meters was enough space? Our early blogs showed the layout and the equipment so we will now focus on the hotel and the incredible staff.

In Hanoi, most young people attend university so there are a lot of young, smart, eager workers to fill all sorts of jobs. Technical and white collar jobs tend to pay low salaries so many of the best and brightest wind up in the hospitality industry. Even though tipping is not so common, it does exist, especially among the tourists(Note that we are NOT they!). A few extra dollars can go quite far in the local economy.

The bell staff is the first line of defense and we see them many times in a day. They get taxis, give you advice and converse with you(even in Vietnamese in Ira's case). they also bring the large bottles of water, deliver the mail after its month long journey from the US and keep us up to date on the happenings in town and in the hotel.

The apartment staff is wonderful too. Ms Hoa and Ms Hoai are the ones with whom we usually deal. They respond to our complaints, help us find our way around, help Ira with his Vietnamese language and culture, and tell us how young we look! They used to be a bit formal but after six months, they are much friendlier. We used to address them as "Co" which is a formal title for "Ms" but one day the phone rang and it was "em Hoai speaking," indicating that we were more family at this point. Ira is often addressed as "Bac" or "Chu" which is sort of like an honorary uncle. We are actually more the age of "Ba" and "Ong" which are more grandparent-like, but the Vietnamese are very tactful, at least in that department.

The Fitness Centre is one of our hangouts. It is located right across the hall from the apartments. We have never been gym rats and always felt that just walking around town would be all the excercise we needed. The idea of joining a gym, having to go there, get dressed, work out, shower, get dressed again was too much time to spend on fitness. With the Fitness Centre membership included with our apartment rent and the location just a few steps from our door, we knew that if we didn't use a gym now, we never would.

The gym is well equipped, with a weight room, many exercycles and treadmills and the Swiss ball, which Ira always calls the Swedish ball, both countries being historically neutral. The girls who give you towels are all very friendly and know us well. David, the manager, has helped us establish a program and we are pretty faithful about getting to work out at least 3-5 days a week.

The pool is the nicest in Southeast Asia and is covered by a retractible roof so you can swim in all weather.

The pool and fitness centre are used by hotel guests, but mostly by members, many of whom are upscale Vietnamese. We all recognize each other and Ira often chats with the locals in Vietnamese. They are very social and spend much of their workout time chatting, either with the other members or on their ever present mobile phones.

We don't exactly have "abs of steel" but we are considerably more fit than when we arrived and have pledged that, wherever we live, we will belong to a gym.

Hu'o'ng, our maid, is a gem! She doesn't just clean and tidy, she does so many little things to make the place liveable. When we arrived she showed us how the rice cooker and microwave work and got us manuals. She also showed us how to wash our fruit and vegetables-three washes, the last in Veggy solution, and two rinses. Hu'o'ng arranges the flowers we bring in and, if we arrange them and she doesn'like them, she rearranges them. Each day she prunes out the dead ones. Occasionally, she even brings in flowers from who knows where, probably a party or some other event at the hotel. The fresh robes used to come in on hangers, but whe Hu'o'ng noticed that we discarded the hangers, she began hanging the robes on the hooks on the back of the door. It is like having your own maid! Actually, she is responsible for the entire floor but we seem to get special attention.

Actually, we seem to receive personal attention from the entire hotel staff. Although the apartments are a separate unit, we still deal with the desk clerks, restaurant personnel and others whom one encounters in the course of daily living. It will be a shock to our systems when we go back to a world of cooking, cleaning and the rest of the chores. After 25 years of fending for ourselves, it didn't take long to get used to the comfort.

We are located in between West Lake, the largest lake of the many in Hanoi, and Truc Bach Lake, a small charming body of water that on a nice day is filled with swan pedalboats. The street between them, Thanh Nien is famed as the place where young couples come on their motorbikes to get away from the fast pace of the city.

We have high speed internet, good heat and air conditioning and ample lighting, none of which are standard in much of Hanoi. The only complaint might be that the TV channels are not so interesting. we have a couple of Vietnamese channels, two Chinese, Japanese, Korean, German, French, Italian, Russian and Spanish. The english channels are mostly news like BBC and CNN. The main entertainment comes from Australian Broadcasting and Star TV, which shows a mix of old familiar shows and old shows we have never heard of. There are sports, mostly football(soccer) but Ira did see the World Series live and will watch the Super Bowl at 7 am live!

It would be great if we had guests so we could show them what a great place Hanoi is, but for now you will have to experience it through us.

Street scenes from Pho Yen Phu, our neighborhood thoroughfare.

Lan, who runs the hair salon.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Birla Orphanage

The United Nations International School of Hanoi expects its students and faculty to participate in community service. One Saturday a month I assist UNIS students who provide activities, food and gifts to children from the Birla Orphanage.

The Birla kids usually come to UNIS but this Saturday we visited the orphanage. There are 110 children at Birla aged 3-18. They live in three large homes in a family setting with the older children helping to care for the younger ones. Each child has a bed, a small desk and a closet. They share bathrooms as well as sitting and dining areas.

The UNIS students come prepared for a variety of activities, such as: musical chairs, making paper airplanes, coloring, drawing cartoon characters, playing "Uno" and jumping rope. The UNIS volunteers also brought boxes filled with clothing and toys to give to the Birla children.

When the Birla children visit UNIS, in addition to the activities, the UNIS host children bring in food for the group to eat. They also give present to those having birthdays in that month and give everyone a "goody bag" when the morning is over. This is a very worthwhile activity for both the UNIS kids and the Birla orphans.

Vietnam has many orphanages throughout the country. The government is very interested in taking care of these children, who would otherwise live in the streets. These are both children whose parents have died and also those whose parents are unable to care for them.

The children can live in the orphanage until age 18, at which time they are provided with a job and then they live on their own. Although it is sad for the children to be without parents, the orphanages are clean and well managed and the children have enough to eat. they also have as much love as is possible outside a traditional family. There is a cabinet-level position for the Minister for the Care and Protection of Children, whose department oversees the orphanages.

Vietnam is a country in which family is extremely important. In the case of those without families, Vietnam still takes care of its own.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Ira's Excellent Adventure

Carol needed wind chimes in a hurry! She had bought 7 sets in Bali as gifts for the Vietnamese aides at school only to find out that there was organized gift giving for Tet(lunar New Year) and that there were 12 aides.

Ira volunteered to go into town and find some wind chimes. Hang Bong Street is a good starting point as it has the musical instrument shops. Rather than take a taxi for perhaps 30,000 dong(under 2 bucks), he felt it was time to take the bus(3000 d).

Ms Binh of the office staff cautioned against the bus as the signs are in Vietnamese and few Westerners ride the buses. Undaunted, Ira set out for the bus stop and jumped on the first one that arrived. The bus took a familiar route on its way to the Ga(railroad station Cf French=gare)Hanoi. When he felt he was close, he jumped off only find he was at.......
HANG BONG STREET! A few inquiries in Vietnamese led him into Hang Manh Street where he actually found what he was looking for.

Mr. Huy's Vietnamese lesson of the day before mentioned the food in Hang Manh Street so why not try some? The quest was finished and one does have to eat! Sitting on the tiny stool, he ordered spring rolls and bun cha, a noodle dish. Taking pity on him, the waitress helped him up and led him to a long communal table where the locals were talking loudly and eating from big plates of food. She then delivered two huge fried spring rolls, a plate of noodles, fish cakes in pork broth, chopped garlic and heaps of fresh basil and coriander. She also forced him to drink a large bottle of beer. The meal was delightful, punctuated with much conversation with pretty much everyone who would listen.

There are two sides to everything and in Hanoi there are two kinds of people, those who understand everything Ira says and converse with him, and those who don't understand one word! It is great fun to meet with the former, who are beginning to catch up in numbers with the others.

The bill for all of the above(conversation is free) was 40,000d or $2.25 US.

All that remained was to get home and instead of wandering around for a bus going in the proper direction, just whip out trusty mobile and give the taxi the address where you wish to be picked up. Next time-round trip!!!

So all in all it was a successful little afternoon. The only question is why would a 60 year old man, with two university degrees, lots of travel experience, a good sense of direction and knowledge of the city, not to mention rudimentary command of the language, feel so proud that he could do what most 8 year olds can manage without incident?

Cambodia Redux

At the AmCham gala dinner, there was a silent auction. although Ira is rarely silent for any significant period of time, we placed bids on various items, including a 2 night stay at Grand Hotel d'Angkor, a luxurious property in Siem Riep, Cambodia, where we stayed several years ago.

At the time, it was the only remotely decent accommodation for those visiting the ancient temple ruins of Angkor Wat. We thought nothing more of it until a few days later we were informed that we had "won" this prize. Since we had a bit of free time over Christmas, we decided it would be best to use the certificate, rather than perhaps find that we had no opportunity to do so later.

After a short flight on Vietnam Airlines, which is quite acceptable these days, we were picked up and taken to our hotel. We were shocked to see the development over the past few years! there are now nearly one hundred hotels in Siem Riep, many of five star quality. We do have a weakness for nice hotels, so Grand Hotel d'Angkor would always be our choice. It was built back in the 1930s and is now run by the Raffles Group. Service is exquisite and nothing is left to chance. We were greeted by name and they still had our(now outdated) information from our last visit.

It was easy to arrange our temple visits for the next day and we then had a nice dinner. Carol had fish and Ira had three small stuffed frogs! Because of Ira's restaurant connections, the chef came to the table and chatted with us.

The temple complex at Angkor is incredibly vast and reasonably well preserved. The Khmer civilization was once very advanced with libraries, temples and roads. They had a written language back when Western Europe was populated with barbarians. A city of over one million inhabitants was located on the site of present day Angkor.

Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and pointed out the best carvings and sculptures as he led us through Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom. we then took a break to rest up at the pool before returning to view Angkor Wat at sunset. This is a spectacular sight and well worth the trip.

Of course, Cambodia is a sad country. The Khmer Rouge ran it into the ground and, as is well documented in the film "The Killing Fields," they systematically eliminated(nice word for killed)all of the educated people.

Our guide told us of how he and his siblings were taken to work in the rice fields at age 10 or so and separated from their parents. His father was a professor so it was clear what had happened to him.

We took lots of photos but are just giving you a few examples of what you will see if you visit Angkor Wat.

We had dinner at the hotel outdoor buffet with dance performance by young people. we had seen the Royal Cambodian Ballet in Washington some years ago and of course, this is not intended to match that performance.

The next day, we enjoyed the beautiful hotel pool, had a high tea, a final drink in the Elephant Bar and headed for the airport and the trip home.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Holiday without Ice

We took advantage of the school break to visit some places that are reasonably near our home base in Hanoi. Our first port of call was Singapore, a familiar place as

we had visited it several times before, including once with Ira's mother, Pearl. Singapore is easy to navigate, with its modern subway and good sidewalks. The fact that all of the signs are in English doesn't hurt either.

When we revisit places, we often have "traditions" that we do over and over again. In Singapore, this means eating seafood down at the East Coast Seafood Centre, a collection of open-air places serving fresh fish and the signature chili crab. Last time we were here, Ira nearly put out the eye of a neigboring diner as he cracked the crab's shell, so this time we made the server open it for us. Yum!!

Singapore goes all out for Christmas. Except for the snow, we might well have been back in the US!! Throngs of shoppers mobbed the stores, and the streets were brightly lit and decorated. the sounds of Christmas carols could be heard everywhere. It was quite a surprising sight.

Carol had long wished to visit the ancient temple complex at Borobadur, Java, so that was our next stop. We checked into the Sheraton Mustika in Yogyakarta, supposedly the student and arts capital of Java. It is also reputed to be the home of a school for terrorists, but, as our guide put it "They won't bomb their own place, will they?"

The temple is quite well preserved and it is easier to navigate than many others, such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We climbed all the way to the top and enjoyed the panoramic view.

The carvings are very detailed and our guide knew the stories behind most of them.

We ate in a local restaurant and can report that Javanese cuisine is unlikely to overtake Vietnamese, Chinese or French any time soon.

We did attend a dance performance at another temple site one evening. The Ramayana dance was rather familiar to us and was quite enjoyable.

Security was very much in evidence, as to enter the hotel, cars had to run through a maze of oil drums and stop to be searched. We saw no evidence of trouble, but were a tad uneasy nonetheless.

Our final stop was Bali, a spot we had been three times before. On the first trip we stayed in Kuta, the tourist center; on the second in Ubud, sort of New Hope in the tropics, where everyone asks you what we call the Three Questions: "What's your name, where are you from, do you need transport?" On the most recent visit, together with Pearl and a friend of hers, we stayed in Sanur, a beach town that is convenient for exploring the rest of the island.

This time we opted for Nusa Dua, a resort area on the southern tip of the island, where several resort hotels have their own beaches, linked by a walkway. We stayed at the Melia which, like most hotels in Bali, is done in a Balinese style making it a nice place for strolling about. Except for one relatively futile shopping trip into Kuta, we never left the hotel grounds. We walked on the beach, rested and read some incredibly expensive books that we bought in Singapore. When did paperbacks begin to cost $12-15!!!???

Bali is not exactly known for good food, especially since we are not currently eating chicken or duck, two of their specialties, but the Melia, like the sister hotel in Hanoi, has great food. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we had Chef Oscar's wonderful set menus that were also beautifully presented.

We returned to Hanoi after Christmas and have been exploring some places, like the art museum, that we hadn't yet gotten around to visiting. We also did some shopping, eating and catching up on things around the apartment.

We spent New Year's Eve at the Ly Club, probably the most beautifully decorated restaurant in Hanoi. They served a nice set menu and had great entertainment(at least from our point of view). A piano trio played Mozart and some Viennese waltzes, and a soprano and a tenor sang arias and songs. The tenor even knew our request "Torno a Surriento."

Well, soon Carol will be back teaching and Ira doing whatever becomes available. It was nice to have a break and to get out of Hanoi for awhile. One big thing we noticed was that the people are much fatter than they used to be. Maybe it's the creeping in of American fast food, but they are bigger on average and there are more really fat ones around, especially in Singapore.

We'll write more as we get back into the swing of things. For now, we can just wish you all "Chuc Mung Nam Moi" or Happy New Year.