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.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Tradition

For so many years on the first night of Passover our family would pack up and make the trek out to Queens to our cousins' home for the seder. The traffic on the Belt Parkway and Van Wyk was always heavy and some years it seemed we would never get there. The core group was always the same, but some years the numbers would vary as guests were brought or family members might have other commitments for the first seder. Although it is an important religious observation, the night was not without levity, even occasional hilarity as year after year, family members could be counted upon to repeat their words and actions. Sadie would always run into the kitchen to check on the progress of the meal, then Sid would stop and announce that we would not keep going until she returned. Sid and his brother Herbie had a competition going. Each would correct the other's Hebrew and all of the others at the table eagerly anticipated the byplay. Of course, as the years passed the numbers diminished and after Sid's death, Sadie moved to Chicago. Pearl took over the seder and Bob, our very large cousin would join us along with various others, depending upon who was able to make it. Bob always brought the charoset, Ira always grated the potatoes, Dick would consult on most dishes and prepare others, including gefilte fish that beat anything from a jar. When Pearl moved from her apartment, the seders became smaller and less formal, but the hoiday was never forgotten. There is a tradition at the end of the seder to say "Next Year in Jerusalem!" Little did Carol and Ira realize that it would be "Next Year in Hanoi!" The Jewish community in Hanoi is small and there is no temple. From time to time Ira would email the Israeli embassy to see if there were any events, but he never received a response, probably due to their intense security! On the Friday preceding Passover, we ran into Miriam Lieberman, an Israeli married to an American. The couple lives right upstairs and we know them casually(more on this later). Miriam told us to call the embassy as the seder would be held at the ambassador's home on Wednesday. Since we are not highly placed, we assumed that it was unlikely we would be invited but Ira called on Monday, only to find out that all the places were filled. They did take his mobile # in case two places might open up. Ira was delighted to receive a phone call on Wednesday morning advising that there were indeed two spots open and he said that, of course we did, emailing the news to Carol. A few minutes later, Ira got another call. this time it was Mr. Doron, the head of security at the embassy. We had to fax him copies of our passports and give him the names of anyone we knew in Israel who might vouch for us. Ten minutes later, Mr. Doron called back, regretting that, since we were not known, we could not attend for security reasons. Grasping at straws, Ira said that we knew Miriam Lieberman who was coming to seder and could(would? only knew us to say hello!) vouch for us. Ira then emailed the change of plans to Carol. The mobile rang again a bit later and Mr. Doron said that he had reached Miriam and that we were indeed welcome. Ira then emailed this new development to Carol and we were set to attend. The embassy staff told us the event was at the Sedona Suites in the ambassador's home and that they would email details. Ira then went out on his daily rounds of shopping, eating etc. When Ira returned home, he noticed that there had been no email so he called the embassy, only to find it had closed for the day. all that we could do was show up at Sedona suites and hope that we could find the ambassador's home. After some confusion at the front desk, we were shown through security and into the apartment. Ambassador Ephraim Ben-Matityahu who makes you call him Ephi, which could stand for effusive, as he is a warm outgoing person. After greeting us, the first thing that he told Ira was that the tie should come off and that when he took his off, that would be the signal for the other men to follow suit. The group of about forty guests included many Israelis and quite a few Americans. Yarmulkes were provided and the ambassador welcomed everyone before turning the seder over to Lou Lantner, the Counselor for Public Affairs at the US Embassy. Israelis are informal and the seder, though containing all of the traditional prayers and readings, was marked with discussions and dialogues about the meaning of the holiday and the strangeness of celebrating it in a different country, one with zero Jewish tradition. Everyone present read some of the service, many in English and some in unbelievably rapid Hebrew, unlike what we are used to from the US, where we painfully try to remember our early training and go word by word through the Haggadah. During the meal, which was quite passable except for the matzoh balls, which are nowhere near as light and fluffy as Pearl's! We had a great conversation with the young man seated opposite us. He is the boyfriend of the ambassador's daughter and the couple was enjoying an extended visit. Some things are the same around the world. One is that at a seder, nobody knows the words to the songs(except one verse of "Dayenu") and the singing begins enthusiastically and then trails off into nothingness. Another is that the seder, no matter where it is held and no matter who are the participants, is always a time of good fellowship and the upholding of centuries old traditions and the retelling of the Passover story.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Trivia

We noticed a trivia contest was being held and thought that Ira might be a natural for it. Carol asked her colleagues and found that there was a team in need of a player. Of course free Mexican food and beer didn't deter Ira!! The first two rounds were brutal as the team languished near the bottom of the pack. The questions were about strange countries' flags and things that a 60 year old man would NEVER know. Then the team began to gain momentum and they climbed steadily up the ladder. There were also bonus rounds for individual prizes. The "Who am I?" round turned out to be right up Ira's alley! The question began with "I was an amateur student of chemistry." so Ira blew the whistle signifying he might know the answer. "I have NO idea unless it is Mr Sherlock Holmes" he said. Let's just say it was the fastest "Who am I?" ever in the history of the contests! The team could not overcome the age bias of the contest or the early deficit but they managed a third place finish just two points out of the lead. One more round might have made a difference. Maybe next time!!!!

Every Dog

We knew that dog meat was a delicacy favored by many Vietnamese and did find out that it was served only at special restaurants meaning that one would not inadvertently eat some while expecting beef or pork. The dish is mainly eaten by men, washed down with Vietnamese rice wine or vodka. The dogs are specially raised for meat and not your typical Peke or Westie. During our eight months in Hanoi, we had not felt constrained to try fried Fido, but when one of the lawyers in Ira's class invited him, he decided to take the plunge. The meal is eaten while seated on a mat, like the tatami in Japan and consists of a variety of cuts, some more palatable than the others. The meal is accompanied by greens, noodles, chilies, cucumbers and crispy bread. Some of it is a bit gamy, but some actually very tender and delicious. It was fun having the meal with a couple of Vietnamese friends and chatting about this and that. Fortunately, Ira does not feel "hooked" so will easily go back to more normal fare without having the urge to eat every dog he sees on the street.

Modern Medicine


Carol has had recurring sinus problems so has had trouble breathing and has also had infections that begin to resist antibiotics. She feared that taking too many courses of antibiotics would leave her system resistant to the drugs should she need them for something more serious. Her colleagues at UNIS recommended Dr. Huong, a noted practitioner of traditional medicine, particularly acupuncture. While she was a bit skeptical, nothing else seemed to work so other than suffering a bit of discomfort, what would be the harm in trying. One of the difficulties is that, at first, the course consists of a treatment every day, necessitating an hour or more, including the taxi ride to the doctor's office. the first thing we noticed when arriving was the black Mercedes parked in the garage, a testimony to the doctor's popularity, though saying nothing about her effectiveness. Dr. Huong, who speaks fluent French and quite acceptable English, has a very outgoing personality and a confidence that won Carol over. She bought into the treatment plan and, after a few weeks of daily treatment, whe actually felt much better. the treatments are cheap by Western standards($10) and fully reimburseable by our insurance. Now Carol is down to a maintenance schedule of a session every two or three weeks, designed to strengthen her immune system. So far, so good!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Festival

On Sunday, we decided to travel to Lenin Park for a little craft and food festival. Oddly, there is a huge statue of Lenin, but it is not in Lenin Park, but at Lenin Square across town. the park is located south of the center. this time, we were forewarned and got to the right venue.
The idea was good but there wasn't much for us there. we did manage to spend about an hour and a half noshing, drinking a pretty good local beer and browsing the stands. The best thing we found was the art of making little flowers and animals out of a sort of clay that is made with rice flour. Apparently, these used to be edible but now they are just to look at for a few days until they disintegrate. It is great fun though to watch the men mold the different colored clay into various shapes. The pictures here are the dragon that Carol got. for 10,000 dong(about 60 cents) it was a nice souvenir. So after making our purchase, we headed for home and watched the second DVD of Bertolucci's "1900" a 5 hour epic about the first half of the 20th Century in Italy. It is rather political in nature and though we know Mussolini and his blackshirts were detestable, the Communists offered nothing better. It was fun to see the very young Robert DeNiro and Gerard Depardieu though. We did discover that the pirated DVD's we get here are not always perfect. This one offered four languages, but they all turned out to be Italian! Fortunately Ira found the English subtitles so we managed.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Hong Kong Magic

Our love affair with Asia actually began with a "sampler" trip that we put together way back in 1992. Our first stop was Hong Kong which is a spectacular introduction to the East. The city has the biggest and brightest skyline in the world and when planes came down to the old Kai Tak airport which was right in the heart of the city it was a sight that could never be forgotten.

The new hi-tech airport is out of town on an island so there is no view when you land, but once you get into town you can't help but be impressed by the mixture of skyscrapers and older buildings and the ever busy harbor where cruise ships, barges, ferries and working boats of all types crisscross from early morning until late night.

This trip was a chance to revisit a place we had been on a few prior occasions, and a chance to go a bit more high-tech than Hanoi, and a chance for Ira to buy a few things. He has lost a couple of inches in his waist but he still can't find pret-a-porter in Hanoi! Hong Kong has larger sizes and smaller prices, at least on the lower end of the spectrum. the good hotels and higher end restaurants can cost as much as Western capitals and then some. We noticed that a steak(only 12 oz) at Morton's of chicago was over $75 US, close to double the prices in America. Because of something known as the Rugby 7's(no need to explain as you wouldn't like it any more than we do) there were very few hotels rooms available. It was only Ira's persistence on the Internet that landed us a room at the Kowloon Shangri-La. Our first night we walked around on the harborfront and had dinner at Yan Toh Heen, a high end Chinese restaurant in the Intercontinental. We enjoyed the harbor view and some really fine cuisine, though we opted out of the $200 per person set menu or the abalone and lobster entrees that would send the bill into the stratosphere. After dinner, we had a drink at Felix, a way-too-hip bar at the Peninsula Hotel that commands a great harbor view, even from the urinals in the men's room! Since breakfast was not included in our room rate, we took the Star Ferry(about $0.25 US) across to Hong Kong Island and had dim sum at the Luk Yu Tea House, an ancient establishment that we have visited on all of our previous trips. No English is spoken, but food is great in any language! We spent our only full day shopping, though we avoided the ubiquitous tailors who promise "great hand-made suits in half a day" and the "copy watch" vendors. Walking around Hong Kong is fun, as the old blends nicely with the new and, if you stick to the lower end, you can't get hurt badly. After dining one night at a high end modern place, we returned to one of our old favorites, the Spring Deer, located just two minutes from our hotel as it happens. The dining room was full of Chinese families, all talking loudly and devouring some of the most delicious food imaginable. No nouvelle cuisine here, as we enjoyed broad noodles with seafood, the best Peking Duck ever and ham and cabbage to die for. The place has been there, tucked away in an obscure second floor location, for over 30 years. How people find it is a mystery, but find it they do. After dinner, we walked to the Temple Street Night Market and found a few bargains, some of which may show up as presents in the coming years. We actually had bagels and Nova for breakfast on our last day, after enjoying a last peek at the harbor. The exec chef of the restaurant insisted we have a bowl of matzo ball soup, which was very good but not up to Pearl's standards. We then strolled back to the hotel, packed and took the Express train to the airport for the short flight back to Hanoi. If you ever find yourself in Southeast Asia, you could do worse than spend a day or two in Hong Kong, a magical place.