Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Thursday in Vietnam

I tried not to do it, but it was really hard to keep any images or quotes from Good Morning Vietnam from running through my head as we headed off to Hanoi on Thursday afternoon (sans children who were delighted to have a whole weekend with friends). That movie's the only impression I have of Vietnam, that and the sense that if I were Vietnamese, I don't know that I would like Americans very much.

I expected something crowded, like Bangkok, but the airport was still, and the air outside smelled like a giant bowl of incense. We placed our fate, as we have done so many times now in Asia, in the hands of a stranger with a taxi, trusting that he would ferry us to our hotel by the most direct route and not swindle us. It was hard to get an idea of what we were in as we drove through the dark, seeing only a few narrow houses popping up here and there. It was strange to be driving on the right side of the road again - why can't we all just pick one side and stick with it?

At the airport we had changed some money into Vietnamese dong. We walked away with over 1,000,000 dong which made us feel quite rich until we handed over nearly 200,000 to our cab driver. Easy come, easy go.

We stayed at the Sheraton because we had lots of points that made it free. That was a blessing, but it stood in such contrast to its poor surroundings that it felt unreal. After a very warm welcome, we grabbed some room service dinner and settled in for our weekend in Hanoi.

Friday in Vietnam

Staring out our 15th story window, I couldn't see more than a mile because of the smog. Our view looked down on the InterContinental, where a steady stream of motorbikes brought workers three rows deep behind the hotel. The city woke up early, the streets dotted with pointy woven hats (they actually wear those? I thought only tourists did!) and motorbikes fighting for the roads.

Our objective for Friday was to explore the city and buy some paintings as a 10th anniversary gift to ourselves. The concierge looked dubious when we told her we planned to walk to the Old Quarter - the recommended area to see in Hanoi. She was right to have her doubts, as it was a few miles from our hotel. But along the way we were able to take in the feel of it - the buildings 4 to 5 stories high and one room wide, each a different color from the next, like it is against the law to have the same as your neighbor; the massive amounts of wiring hanging over every street; the people selling everything from kleenex to plastic bowls to snacks along the road. My personal favorite was the women carrying fruit balanced on two large flat baskets, hanging from a pole over their shoulders. A man in a pedicab hounded us to take him for a ride. He even showed us a sign that said, "The money is not the important thing. It is the pleasure of giving you a ride," or something close to that. We didn't bite - it was too interesting to take it in slowly.

Once in the Old Quarter we booked a tour to HaLong Bay for the next day, and were given assurances that we would have the "superior" tour with a comfortable, air-conditioned bus for the 3 hour ride and that our boat would have lovely lounging chairs. We also rented a motorbike from the same agency so we could look as much like locals as possible (though me clutching my Lonely Planet Vietnam in one hand while we rode might have given us away as tourists). Then, on the recommendation of our concierge, we headed to the south part of the Old Quarter to see if we could find a camera. Yes, I know, we have a wonderful camera. But that camera stopped at the Hang Ten clothing store counter at the airport in Singapore and did not continue on the journey with us. I can't tell you how many times I kicked myself during this trip because I didn't have my camera. Erik said he couldn't be mad at me for leaving it there because my self-punishment was more than enough.

No cheap cameras to be found, we gave up and went to Hang Trong street where there was rumored to be lots of good shopping. We spent the better part of the day looking at paintings, trying to decide which was best. In the end, we decided to think it over and found a place for a good cheap massage (gotta love Asia for cheap massages). Our dinner was next to a beautiful Catholic church where they were holding a wedding. Can you imagine a priest chanting in Vietnamese?

Our ride home was a little harrowing, since we weren't familiar with the one ways. Thank God for Erik's aunt and uncle who got us into geocaching this summer so that we now own a GPS. If not for that, we might still be driving around lost in Hanoi. Thanks Bill and Jan! So our GPS guided us back to the Sheraton where we watched 3:10 to Yuma, which is a good movie. I won't mention how we obtained said movie. A very full but enjoyable day in Hanoi.

Saturday in Vietnam

Erik and I ate an early breakfast at a little place we found outside our hotel called The Kitchen, which served western breakfast. We changed a little money at the desk (if you call 1,600,000 dong a little, which it kind of is), then we scooted as fast as we could down to the travel agency fearing we would miss our bus. Then we waited for 1/2 hour. The bus wasn't the luxury vehicle we imagined, and we were stuck in the back seat with a Vietnamese family for 3 hours, but seeing the Vietnamese countryside was interesting. If you've ever seen the famous picture of the little girl burning from napalm during the war, you have an idea of what it looks like - open fields broken by cement buildings, usually 3 or 4 stories high. We passed several villages before we stopped at a large store run by the children of war victims. I wondered a lot while I was there how the Vietnamese feel about Americans. There were few of us there - most foreigners were from elsewhere. Every old person made me wonder what memories were stored up in their minds.

We landed at HaLong Bay around noon and climbed aboard our ship, which did not possess the white lounge chairs we were promised. Still, we were able to enjoy the view and the breeze from the top as we navigated through "so many beautiful islands" as our guide kept reminding us, jutting out of the sea. HaLong Bay means "descending dragon bay" for reasons that aren't clear to me due to our tour guide's heavy accent. He said he was previously a college professor, now he's a tour guide, but next year he'll be a lawyer. Being a lawyer pays about the same as tour guide he said - roughly $1,000 US a month.

We docked at one larger island and took a cave tour. Then the best part, we turned around and stopped at a floating fishing village - these people live on the water all the time! - where we spent an hour sea kayaking around the islands. I love my life.

The ride back felt longer, especially since when we pulled into Hanoi we saw the bus pass our street, then proceed to drop off everyone else except a man and his son, which took more than 1/2 hour. Using our trusty GPS we found our way back to the hotel and collapsed into bed. All in all, a fascinating day. I'm glad we took the time to see something outside of the city.

Sunday in Vietnam

Our first order of business/pleasure was to enjoy the facilities at the Sheraton, which stands in sharp contrast to its surroundings. We worked out on the treadmills, then grabbed a bite at The Kitchen, despite Erik's desire to try something new. We spent the rest of the morning by the pool. I took a nap! It was glorious. Those of you who know me know that napping is not my forte.

Erik managed to find the one geocache in Hanoi so we set off on the motorbike to find it. It's hard to blend in when you have a map in one hand and a GPS unit in the other. Also the white skin gives us away. This cache was an "earth cache" where you just take a picture or answer questions. It was the crash of a B-52 bomber in the dirtiest excuse for a lake I've ever seen.

Erik got his way with lunch - we found a place whose name is escaping me, but the seats are all old rickshaws. The food was ok, but the atmosphere was fun. We had a few more items to buy - I wanted a set of bamboo serving bowls and a few gifts for family. It was sad to drop off our motorbike, but we felt enjoyed the feeling of a safer mode of transportation as we walked back to get our paintings. Back to the hotel to pick up our bags, where Erik tipped the bell boy a whopping 10,000 dong. I mention this because as much as we appreciated his help, we were exactly 10,000 dong short for our taxi ride back to the airport. I ran inside with a Sing $2 bill. I went to the first store I saw and said, "Change money?" She looked at me and said, "2?" Then handed me 20,000 dong, making it the easiest transaction ever. I did get shafted a bit on the exchange, but that's ok.

So what are my impressions of Vietnam? I was surprised by how undeveloped it was, but delighted by the many ways people still use old modes of business and transport - the women with their balanced baskets, people selling things along the road, makeshift everything. I kept trying to imagine living there, but it was hard because I'm used to seeing the whole spectrum of living standards, from "Never in my wildest dreams could I afford that" to "Lord, thank you that I don't have to live there." This was mostly all the latter.

On our way back through the airport we picked up our camera, no hard done aside from the agony of missing so many photo ops. It will just have to exist in my memory.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Singing the Praises of the Paint Man

The reason I haven't posted pictures of our new place is because I wanted to wait until it is painted. This has been a long process for me because when it comes to paint I am a psychotic, uber-particular freak about getting the perfect colors. The poor man, Jason, who owns the Jotun paint store in Holland Village here has had to bear the brunt of my psychosis (with my husband Erik a close second).

I first brought him paint samples (Pumpkin Patch, Lavender Veil, Summer Day) from the U.S. which he scanned and reproduced for me. One out of three worked. Then I went back with Pottery Barn books and new paint samples. He patiently made more. Then I brought back the 6 different liters of paint he'd already made and he spent 2 hours fiddling with them to make them just what I wanted. This man is stellar. He laughs at me because I drive down there all the way from Upper Serangoon, but what can I say? The guy is a color genius. He stared at a green he had made for the homeschool room which I wanted to look more like the green in the Pottery Barn book for some time until he declared, "I know what you need! (a Valium?) You need more red!" And voila - my perfect color.

He came over yesterday to inspect our place and give us a quote. I would happily pay him whatever he asked since he's been so helpful, but his quote was quite reasonable and he's coming in a week to paint. He commented that we have huge cracks in our walls that will need replastering. He offered not to do it to save us money, but not doing it means it will require more paint. Doing it also may help appease our landlady when she sees I've painted my bedroom Pumpkin Patch.

This kind of personal service and accommodation are somewhat rare in Asia. I guess that's a by-product of capitalism which doesn't have as much of a stranglehold here as it does elsewhere. All I know is that if someone in Singapore wants to paint, I know just the guy.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Smell of Death

I should have acted when Ethan commented to me, "This part of the kitchen smells." He was by the toaster. Certain parts of our new kitchen have a strange smell, something like mold or dust, despite my best cleaning efforts. I dismissed it.

Tonight while Erik and I were doing the dishes, I said, "It really does smell over here." Then I discerned the source of the smell.

When we first moved in, we discovered that there were several small house geckos who already lived here. They were quite bold, too bold in fact. I decided we didn't want any squatters so I bought two gecko traps. I put one in the kitchen and one in the living room. Then I forgot about them.

Guess what - they work! I picked up the one in the kitchen tonight and saw two sets of blank, lifeless eyes peering out at me. As is my custom when I encounter small harmless critters in my house, I squealed and threw it at Erik. He said, "Ah, so this is why it smells like rotting flesh in here."

I vow to listen to Ethan the next time he says something smells.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Leaving Eden Prairie

Our last day in Eden Prairie, MN, we did a little photo shoot with Erik's family (minus Andrew, who's in Japan).

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Mid-Autumn Festival

We've always wanted to go to the Chinese Garden down in Jurong (southwest part of Singapore). Since Saturday was one of the last days of the Mid-Autumn Festival, we thought we should celebrate there. First we went in the morning, thinking to avoid the crowds. What crowd? We convinced the girls at the ticket house (after walking around seeing that all the rides and vendors were closed) that we could come back that evening and use the same tickets.

We headed back that evening, had a great Thai dinner under a big tent, and met up with the Oliver family. The park was filled with lanterns in an underwater theme. They were beautiful during the day, but they were amazing at night.

This pagoda greets you at the entrance to the park. It was beautiful at night - look below.

We thought these giant people were cool during the day but at night they were even better.

They gave out these free lanterns with little birthday candles that were meant to stand up by means of little pieces of metal. Martha brought along tea lights, so those worked much better - less chance of catching fire.

This beautiful lantern was created by fusing three candles together. It later perished in a spectacular ball of flame that happened so fast I didn't catch it on camera. Trust me, it was a sight to see.

You can buy the objects you see in the tree - two large gold coins attached with red ribbon. You throw them in the tree for good luck or prosperity or something. I really should research that. This woman may have cursed herself a little because on her first attempt she hit a woman about 20 feet away.

This is the seven level pagoda at night in all its glory. Martha, Erik and the kids walked to the top, but I just wasn't motivated. Maybe next time.