posted by David
(This started as a simple email to tell the parents that we made it to Vietnam. It ended up being so long and informative that Amy decided to just stick it on the blog.)
We are in Hanoi, Vietnam! We arrived yesterday from Bangkok and were met by a hotel van who took us to a cool little hotel in a neighborhood in the heart of Hanoi. The place has great WIFI, which has actually become our most important criteria in choosing a place to stay.
After checking in and settling in the rooms for a bit, we went out to get a bite to eat. First, we were approached by a young guy selling English language books out of a small box. We have become immune to street sellers so we didn’t pay much attention at first, but somehow he engaged us and we ended up buying two books.
Almost immediately after buying the books with a combination of Vietnamese Dong and Thai Bhat (he was very willing to take the Bhat and exchange them for Dongs), there was a man crouching at my feet with a small bottle of Superglue. He was gluing the rubber on the front of my sneakers, just like that! He somehow spotted that a tiny piece of the front of the shoe was coming unglued, ran over, crouched down, whipped out his adhesives, and went to work. I was too surprised to shake him off my foot. When he finished, he wanted money, but we were still unfamiliar with the exchange rate and only had only Dong. Really, there are only large bills in Vietnam as $1 U.S. is worth 20,000 Vietnamese Dong. I had taken out 2,000,000 Dong earlier in the day but it was all in notes of 500,000. I suppose this is one way to make everyone in the developing world a millionaire. Anyway, a nearby shopkeeper saw what was happening and ran into his store, got us change and showed us what we should pay for the service, which turned out to be 20,000 dong or $1.
We then went and had a nice meal of Pho at a restaurant called #10 (we had dinner at #72…I’m not sure why the restaurants are named like this but I plan to find out), which consists of a beef based broth, rice noodles, veggies, and brisket. It’s Vietnamese chullent and it’s very good. I put a spicy red-pepper paste in mine. Everyone (but Rikki) enjoyed it. After lunch, we walked along the street and ran into the bookseller again. He informed us that he had miscalculated the exchange rate on the Thai Bhat that we had given him for the books and he wanted an additional 150 Bhat which amounts to a little over $5 (the exchange rate is about 30 Thai Bhat to every $1). He was very apologetic and seemed like an honest person so we gladly gave him the additional 150 Bhat and also ended up making a date with the guy to meet us this afternoon so he can show us a few nearby sites. A lot of young Vietnamese people are anxious to practice English and will take you on a tour simply for the practice (and a tip at the end, I’m sure). We are doing the same this morning with another student that we arranged through a website called Hanoikids.org.
We then went back to the hotel and the kids did their homework before we went out to dinner. Walking to dinner was truly one of the scariest things I’ve ever done (I’m not exaggerating). This part of Hanoi does not have traffic lights or stop signs and the streets are flooded with motor scooters, bicycles, cars, and trucks. The sidewalks are impromptu parking lots for the scooters and any remaining space is taken up by restaurants that place tiny step stools and tables out for their customers, women selling fruit, and cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) drivers hawking their services. So, pedestrians are forced to weave in and out of the parked motor scooters, the diners, the fruit peddlers and rickshaw drivers while also keeping an eye out for oncoming traffic which weaves up and down the street at breakneck speed with lots of beeping of horns. Intersections are in a class of chaos all by themselves. Because there aren’t traffic lights, the north south traffic flows at full speed until the east west traffic decides, en masse,that it’s their turn at which point they aggressively drive into the intersection, and miraculously they change the entire flow from north-south traffic to east-west traffic and then the whole cycle starts over again. You’ll notice that I didn’t say anything about the pedestrians trying to get across the street. Pedestrians don’t really exist in the reality of Vietnamese person on a motorized vehicle. If you are relegated to using your feet for transportation, you are on your own and must develop the skills of an NFL running back to stay alive. So, I kept Rikki on my right flank and asked Maya to stay close by while Amy protected Eva and we weaved in and out of Hanoi traffic. I know we did well because we made it back alive and without incident but there were some close calls. I thought that the traffic in Shanghai was insane but Hanoi has it beat hands down.
People continue to be charmed by Rikki and Eva and anyone who stops to look at them asks if they are twins. They especially like Rikki’s smile, her white skin, and chubby cheeks and they are not shy about touching her as we walk by. To my surprise, she has become tired of this. I thought that she would relish the attention but I think it’s overwhelming and she just wants to be left alone. I can’t say I blame her.
Amy and I spent a good deal of time planning out the rest (or most of the rest) of our time in Vietnam. We will be here until we leave for New Delhi on the 24th to meet up with the Katz’s and the Hersch’s which we are all very excited about. We will leave Hanoi tomorrow evening on a train headed for Sapa, Vietnam, which is north of Hanoi. It’s an overnight train and will arrive about an hour from Sapa at 5AM. We will be picked up by the small hotel and driven to Sapa where we will be doing some trekking (that’s what they call hiking here). We plan to visit some Hmong villages and a school before heading back to Hanoi on the 12th. (the Hmong spread out over SE Asia and are originally from China. There are many sub-groups of Hmong but essentially they are mountain people who live in small villages and are mostly subsistence farmers. During the Vietnam War…which is called the American War here, the CIA worked closely with the Hmong who served as spies against the North Vietnamese. After the fall of Saigon, the U.S. Brought many of them to the States so they were not killed by the Communists for collaborating with the U.S. Amy and I encountered many Hmong in Minneapolis when we lived there. They lived outside of the city and continued their lives as vegetable farmers).
After Sapa, we are coming back to Hanoi for a night to meet up with another family that is traveling for the year. Our friend, Mike Moskowitz introduced us by email. They live in Seattle now and have three kids. We are looking forward to meeting them and sharing stories. The kids are especially excited. After this, we will head for Hue and Hoi An which are in the middle of the country (near the DMZ). We are going to do a few days of cycling before heading towards Saigon where we plan to see the Cuchi Tunnels and also try to find a quiet beach to relax at before the whirlwind week that Greg has planned for all of us. When we are in the Hue and Hoi An area, we plan on looking for various spots where our friend and neighbor, Bill Marker, was stationed in 1967 and 1968. He outlined all the hills for us and asked that we take a few pictures that show the people there living their lives in peace. He was discharged with a Purple Heart after being shot. It’s hard to believe that the U.S. felt it was in our national interest to save the Vietnamese from communism. What a waste.
We are now just over four months into our journey. Everyone is doing well but we are a bit tired. We are all learning a lot and having great fun together. Overall, the kids have been absolutely amazing. We forget that we are asking a lot of them on this trip but by in large, they are meeting and exceeding our expectations. Of course, there is some kvetching, some bickering, and some stubbornness but it all works itself out very quickly. Maya misses her friends but keeps up with them on Facebook and with Skype. Making time for school on a daily basis has proved more challenging than we expected but Amy is still on the job persevering. School has consisted of math, reading, and journal and blog writing in addition to all the informal learning we do on a day to day basis. Maya’s online algebra course is the most structured and can be a bit stressful for her but she seems to be learning what she needs. My intentions of teaching gym class everyday have failed although on the days we take a tour, we are generally walking a lot.
Our time in Pattaya with Harvey Price and his wife Phen (silent ‘H’) was very nice. They own a beautiful house, actually three houses on joined lots, near the China Sea about two hours south of Bangkok. Harvey showed us some phenomenal photos he took when he served in the Peace Corp in Thailand from 1962-1965. He worked with hill-tribe people in the north of Thailand. He returned to Thailand in 1967 and opened a law firm doing international trade. The firm has grown steadily and he now works very part time. He and Phen adopted Phen’s brothers’ children (four kids in all from two different brothers). Two are grown and now live in Florida and two are still in school in Thailand. One is planning to go to medical school, probably in China. Phen told us a little bit about her life…she was born in a small village around 1950 and was delivered by her grandmother who was a midwife (she said her grandmother lived to be 112) where she was one of four kids. They did not have electricity or running water and she did not go to school. She did say she ended up going to school for six years at some point. Her father left the family when she was nine and became a monk. Her mother moved the family to Bangkok where they also lacked electricity and running water. Her mother went to work while she cared for the younger kids. Later, her mom re-married and had four more kids but her stepfather was very abusive. Her mom died at 42 and Phen raised the rest of the kids. There’s much more to the story but this email is getting incredibly long…..suffice it to say that Harvey and Phen were incredible hosts and treated us like family, thanks you to you, Nison and Doreen. so, I’ll leave it at that and tell you that we miss you all and are continuing to have a great adventure.
Love from all of us,
David, Amy, Maya, Eva, and Rikki