Burning “Money”

The Lunar New Year celebrations (Tet) came to an end this past weekend, and our family was honored to be invited to a Vietnamese home again for a meal. We consider ourselves very lucky – we have met many Americans who have not had this experience and yet lived here for much longer than us!

We went to our friend Tung’s house – he is Michael’s colleague at National Economics University and a PhD candidate who is co-teaching with Michael. His mother and brother cooked an amazing meal with many, many traditional Tet foods, including a boiled whole chicken:

Big Tet dinner at Tung's house

We tried another kind of rice wine made with black rice. It was sweet and tasty. Tung showed us how they had an entire room on the top floor of their house that was used as an altar to pay respects to their relatives and ancestors and pray. It was beautiful.

Out on the roof, Tung’s mother invited us all to burn fake money, a tradition for good luck and a prosperous new year that they observe on the last day of Tet. There was Vietnamese and pretty real looking American money that we threw into the fire.

After dinner Tung had these big confetti pipes… fireworks were outlawed in Vietnam for safety, so now people explode confetti out of these big tubes.  Tung exploded a couple of them for the kids.  It was loud, messy and exciting!

To end the weekend, the girls had a Hebrew lesson via Skype with Abby from Park Synagogue. We were glad to remember that Tu Bishvat was coming up and the girls had fun practicing Hebrew words and singing the Shema.

Playing Chess with a Hermit Crab

The kids had a week off for the Lunar New Year, so to escape the clouds and cold of Hanoi we took an hour and a half flight south to a Vietnamese beach.  After a three week total absence, it was wonderful to see the sun again!

We spent the first two nights at Paradise Resort in a remote location called Doc Let. At the end of our two night stay there was some questioning of the moniker “Paradise”, which we all decided was a bit optimistic.  It was very rustic, but the kids loved the beach – the water was warm, clear and calm, there was no drop off so they could swim out far.

One day when we wanted to play chess, we noticed two pieces were missing so I sent the kids to the beach to find shells to complete the set. Anna returned and plopped a shell down that started to move on its own accord, which turned out to be a hermit crab.  Another “piece” they found was a small sand crab which didn’t like the chess board at all and scurried away. The kids were very proud of their joke.

Interesting chess pieces

There were many fishermen and beautifully painted boats near the shore where we swam. From about 100 yards away, the beach looked pristine.

Upon closer inspection, I was upset to see loads of trash on the beach, washing up on sand and floating in the water.

Litter on the beach

Just as I said to Michael that I thought for sure this must be trash coming from people on boats, a little boy ran out of his house and out onto the sand in front of us, and he threw a plastic bag of trash into the water.  It was heartbreaking. I wondered if it was safe to allow the kids to swim in the water, but there was no keeping them away from it.  On the second day Anna cut her hand on something in the sand.  We are not sure what it was – it could have been a shell or glass. She is fine now, but it was a pretty nasty cut.

We also saw a couple of mopeds on the beach. There is no place in Vietnam free of mopeds!

Moped on the beach

Sunrise at Doc Let

One memory that we will laugh about for a while is how the owner of Paradise, an older French man, got upset with Anna for her picky eating. Anna nibbled on French bread for three days while we ate family style fish or soup.  The Frenchman lectured her one day, saying that “not even a dog will look at you if you eat nothing.”

After two nights of relaxing at Paradise, we set out for the larger beach town of Nha Trang. On the way we saw rice paddies and brightly painted houses.

Rice paddies

In Nha Trang the beach was a bit cleaner, but still we found dead rodents, bloated and washed up on shore, amongst other trash.  There were more things to do and see in Nha Trang, including a trip to the locally famous mud baths (three family members opted to participate while the other two chickened out)!

Mud bath

Fun shower after the mud bath

The children were constant objects of special Vietnamese love.  Everywhere we went, they were like movie stars and the Vietnamese could not get enough of them. They were hugged, kissed, pinched, cuddled and nose-tweaked by many strangers. They were really good sports about it. We were repeatedly asked their ages and if the girls were “same same” (twins). One night we happened upon hundreds of families jockying for a photo op in front of a special New Year’s display of sorts that included a couple of big dragons, flowers and a sign proclaiming “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese. We maneuvered in for our own shot, and then a Vietnamese family asked for a picture with the kids.

Funny family photo

We also saw some free public performances on an open air stage of dragon and lion dances.  Here’s a short video clip of one of the dragon dances:

We also visited a very old local temple called Po Nagar. To reach the top of the hill where the temple buildings stood, we walked up lots and lots of stairs that led to beautiful views of the ocean and city. Po Nagar is more than 1,000 years old. To show respect, we had to remove our shoes before entering the buildings and be very quiet. There were many Vietnamese people praying in the temples.  I saw one little girl rub her hands all over a statue of Buddha and then rub her face with her hands.

Po Nagar Temple

Matthew inside a Po Nagar temple

Vietnamese girl and a Buddha statue

On our last day in Nha Trang we spent the day at an amusement park called Vinpearl — it is Vietnam’s answer to Disney World (sort of). To get there one can take a ferry or ride on the world’s longest cable car! It is 3320 meters (how many feet could that be??).  The kids loved the cable car ride– check it out:

There were many amazing water slides that the kids enjoyed. There was not much enforcement of height restrictions, so Matthew was able to join in all the fun (thankfully we made it out alive).

Kate and Anna had beautiful traditional Vietnamese outfits called au dai made. Now we just need an excuse to wear them! The Vietnamese typically wear them to formal events like weddings and graduations.

Girls wearing their new ao dai

When we returned home to Hanoi yesterday, we were invited to the home of some new Vietnamese friends to celebrate the end of Tet. We tried a locally made rice wine (just for adults – very strong!).

Trying rice wine

We also went to a temple down the street.  Many Vietnamese visit a temple during Tet to pray and show respect to their ancestors.  This was the first pagoda we had visited that was filled with the sounds of a monk praying. Listen for yourself:

Walking into the pagoda

Just to show you that not every dog in Vietnam is eaten, we had to take this picture:

Gecko in the Bathroom!

A couple of days ago someone accidentally left the window open in my bathroom. We found out there was a gecko that got in, but we couldn’t catch it so we left it there. Just tonight Kate was taking a shower and all of a sudden started screaming like someone had died. When Dad came to the rescue, it turned out that the gecko was sitting on the floor of the bathroom and she thought it was dead. Watch the video to find out what happens.

Weasel Coffee, Bean Curd

There is a lot of coffee in Vietnam, but I learned about a new type yesterday called Weasel coffee. It is unique because weasels eat the coffee beans and after the beans have passed through their digestive systems, the beans are collected, cleaned and sold. For a lot of money. Yuck! Give me Starbucks (which doesn’t exist here).

Weasel coffee

In the coffee shop I took a picture of a shrine for Buddha – there is one of these in almost every home and shop here:

We are in a countdown for Tet, the Vietnamese/Lunar New Year, which starts on Monday. We tried a traditional Tet food called Banh Chung. It consists of rice (cooked for 10 hours) with bean curd (squished, light colored beans) and meat inside (well, ok it was pork — friends at Agnon forgive us as we don’t keep Kosher).  It’s all wrapped in banana leaves and each package weighs over a pound.

Unwrapping the banana leaves of the Banh Chung

Kate and Matthew and I gobbled it up.  Anna didn’t like it at all.

Kate at home eating Banh Chung

In our little neighborhood there are many tiny alleys that run between the houses on the street, and there are many more houses deep inside. They are too small for cars, but the motorcycles still ride through them.

Not only are there houses in these alleys, but there is also a surprising amount of business and commerce.  Throughout the city, many businesses are grouped together, so you’ll find an entire street dedicated to plants or another to electronics or another to plastic chairs and so on. Our neighborhood is home to many fish vendors. Live, goldfish kind of fish, not the fish you eat. So there are a lot of aquariums!

Fish vendors in our neighborhood

There are lots of dogs and a few cats as house pets that we’ve seen. We are planning to get a bird after Tet and our trip to the beach. The kids are very excited.

A cat warming itself by the tea kettle

I think this blog must make our lives look very exotic. However, daily life is much like it was at home.  The kids get home from school and it is a race to get all the homework and music practicing done after dinner. There are some differences, though. For instance, Kate told me in a very quiet voice today that on the way to school she saw something for sale on the street that was hanging and had teeth. I am not sure what it was… maybe another roasted dog?

Kate worked hard on a project for school.  She created a diorama of the arctic. We were one of the few families without a printer at home, so she had a lot of hand drawn arctic animals.  We learned what a narwhal is.  Fascinating!

Kate's diorama project

Matthew also has homework.  Here he is reading a book to his dad:

Homework

I mentioned in an earlier post that our neighborhood is fairly quiet compared to other parts of Hanoi. Here is a short video of Michael walking through a busy old market street.  And this is not even rush hour:

For comparison, here is what our neighborhood looks like.  I shot this from inside a cab on the way home. We stop right outside our apartment building.

Dodging Mopeds, Fishing and Food

From what I’ve heard, just 15 years ago there were virtually no motorcycles or scooters in Hanoi. I can only imagine how peaceful the streets were then. They are loud, honking and omnipresent now. Despite the noise and congestion on the street, it’s obvious that this new mode of transportation has improved life for the Vietnamese as it gives them an fast way to get around.

I mentioned in an earlier post that we cross the street and the traffic just flows around you. Here is a video of Michael crossing a smaller street in the old market district with the kids.  I did NOT enjoy taking this shot, but I thought you’d like to see it:

When riding a moped, helmets are required for adults but not for children (we hear the laws are changing for that soon). And there are no yellow school buses in Hanoi, so most children get to school or anywhere riding on a moped without helmets.  This causes us great anxiety!  Here are some examples of kids being transported here in Hanoi:

Two children, no helmets

I think the kid is driving the moped in this photo.

Goldberg kids getting off the "bus" at home after school

Another thing that has amazed me about the mopeds are the items that people cart around on them and the shoes that women wear while driving on the moped.  Here are some examples of that:

On the phone and 3 inch heels.

The biggest holiday of the year is coming up next week, the lunar new year — also known as Tet here in Vietnam. Everywhere we go we see peach blossom trees and kumquat trees perilously strapped to the backs of mopeds for delivery, taller than the driver themselves. We also see them in every shop and house. Here is an example of one I saw on the street.

Kumquat tree on a moped

The children were asking if we could get one for our own home, so we bought a small kumquat tree and it is now in our living room.  To their dismay, we learned that the fruit is very sour, so it is more for decoration than food!

We did a little more exploring of the city and our neighborhood the last few days. In the ground floor of our apartment building is a place for mopeds (I guess instead of a car port you’d call it a moped port).  The owner of our building has two huge fish tanks in the moped port, and this a favorite spot of Matthew’s:

One evening while outside awaiting a cab, Michael and Anna met the next door neighbors and received a warm, wordless welcome from them when they were offered stools to sit and enjoy the evening:

Hanging out with the neighbors. If only we could speak with them!

For the fishermen reading this blog (you know who you are Dad and David), there is plenty of that activity even here in the big city. I was fascinated by the equipment that the fishermen use. It is a simple long stick for the rod and the “reel” looks just like the string wrapped around a can, but there must be more to it that I can’t see.  The rod and reel are not attached to each other. There is no crank. I asked a Hanoian about the fishing and found out that it is illegal on this lake, but I guess people are willing to take their chances. I watched one man catch a fish and pull it in – I was surprised to see a huge three pronged hook that had caught the fish in the side, not in the mouth. Apparently the fishermen throw out something to attract the fish and then just drag the hook through that area until they catch a fish.  The fish don’t bite a hook. The lake is so polluted, I can’t believe people eat anything out of it, or that anything lives in it for that matter!

Fishing on West Lake, near our apartment.

We are planning to attend a National Symphony concert at some point while we are here. They perform in the Opera House, which is one of the most beautiful and well kept buildings we’ve seen.

Hanoi Opera House

A beautiful painted mural I saw near the opera house.

Taking a little nap

We have not taken a break from all the delicious food that Vietnam has to offer. Here are some recent things we’ve tried….

Kate's favorite new fruit, Dragon Fruit. Yum!

Duck and eggplant

Summer rolls with fish sauce

Michael and I enjoyed lunch at a place called Quan Nem today. They specialize in spring rolls that are so big that someone cuts them with a pair of scissors for you after they are served. Delish!

Enjoying Nem Cua Be (spring rolls)

Settling in

We made it through an entire week here and survived. In fact, every day gets better and we are excited about the coming months. We visited some American friends who have been here for 2+ years who laughed at me and said “just wait.”  I think the pollution and insanity of living in this crazy city gets to people after a while, but for now we are happy.

We decided to be tourists over the weekend before we left our neighborhood.  We saw the famous Vietnamese water puppets show- a very old art form from the 11th century. The kids really enjoyed the show.

Vietnamese water puppet show

Matthew tried some freshly grilled corn a lady was selling on the street, and the kids picked out some trinkets as we walked around. It was a lot of fun.

Buying grilled corn

The kids do attract a lot of attention wherever we go. I see a lot of backpackers and adults wandering around the old quarter, but I have yet to see any other foreign children touring the city. I know they are living here in the city, but I don’t think many are tourists.

Goldbergs are touristas

The lady who sold us flags

Dear foodie friends, don’t worry, we have not forgotten you. Michael has been searching out the best Vietnamese street food and we have not yet gotten sick.  One night we had delicious pho at a local place called Pho 49.  A couple days later we tried vermicelli noodles with grilled meat (called Bun Ga Nuong in Vietnamese). Many of the local street food stalls and restaurants specialize and serve one single thing, so we went to a place that served only this dish. The restaurant had about four tiny rooms stacked on top of one another and you ascended by a scary spiral staircase. It was packed. You don’t need to order (or speak Vietnamese thankfully) – they just brought the food right to the table instantly.  This food was enjoyed by all except our very special picky family member Anna who is horrified by the sight of raw meat in most of the local restaurants and the general uncleanliness.  Don’t let her smile in the photo fool you.

Bun Ga Nuong

Bun Ga Nuong restaurant's "kitchen"

Anna and Matthew had their cello lesson on Saturday. Somehow I got connected with the principal cellist of the Vietnam National Symphony, who has honored us by agreeing to teach the children (although she already told me that she thinks Matthew is too young). We went to her studio in a big building that houses the symphony (not where they perform – just where they practice I think?).  Anyway, our new cello teacher doesn’t speak much English, but fortunately music is its own language and we were able to understand everything she wants them to do.

Matthew's cello lesson

We have some great news – we found an apartment and moved in on Sunday. Our stay in the old market district was exciting, but we are happy to unpack our 12 suitcases and have a place to call home. The houses are densely packed together in Hanoi (actually, life in Hanoi is dense in every way with almost 7 million people living here) and the architecture varies greatly by building.  Most buildings are about five or so stories tall. Our neighborhood is quiet and peaceful compared to the old market, so I think it will be good for our family.

View from the balcony

View from our balcony

The children started school yesterday. We took them by taxi and on the way there got our first glimpse of roasted dogs on the street. It was awful. I’ll leave it at that. Now they are riding the bus every day.  The bus is really a 16 passenger van.

First day of school at Concordia

Anna, Kate and Matthew all loved school on their first day. Matthew was very excited about having several boys in his class and two recesses each day. Anna and Kate also really enjoyed school, although Anna griped about having to repeat part of a cursive handwriting book that she had almost completed at Agnon. The drive to and from school is a bit of a hike for the kids and unfortunately Anna gets carsick, but we hope as the bus learns the new route it will get better.

I went with Michael to National Economics University yesterday and met some of his colleagues and had a chance to see where he is teaching and spending time. Michael offered me up as a resource to some administrators in the international business school, so I might help them with a little bit of marketing. It was great to see where Michael is spending time. It is far from our house, but the school is very big (I think 50,00 students).  What I saw were several buildings surrounded by a big gate, trees, mopeds and lots of students (I was too car sick to take pictures when we arrived – sorry for the lack of photos). The two women I had lunch with were extremely kind and happy to share knowledge.  I explained about my job in the US with Young Audiences and how we value having the arts as a part of every child’s education. We had a wonderful discussion about this and the head of the business school spoke so eloquently about the importance of art for children and how it helps them think creatively.  I think she is unique here though. Unfortunately in Vietnam there are almost no arts in schools from what I have heard. I am eager to try to visit a school and see what it is like first hand.

In an effort to try to find activities for my kids, I have been trying to figure out what children do here for fun. I occasionally see them on the street (mainly riding with a parent on a moped and no helmet!).

Sadly there is virtually no green space in this entire city, and I have already explained how the streets are not a friendly place for children to play games due to the traffic.  I was told by one American expat that the typical weekend activity is to visit others’ homes do play dates. My kids do miss the green space and running – the rooftop playground at school was a welcome sight to them yesterday. I have also seen large play yards outside of the local schools.

One other activity we did to entertain the kids on Saturday was to get a foot massage.  The girls joined in, but Matthew declined to have his feet rubbed… he opted to play with his Legos instead.

Kate enjoying a foot massage.

Here are some other photos I took around our new neighborhood and more pictures of the kids on their first day of school:

These roosters are about to be eaten.

The weather has been in the 60s every day, but it has been very overcast and cloudy. We hear that the sun will start coming out in February. Everyone here thinks this is bad weather, but we Clevelanders laugh at that.

Some of Kate, Anna and Matthew’s friends at Agnon wanted to know if there was a shul or synagogue for us in Hanoi.  There is not.  However, we got in touch with an Israeli family who lives here and works at the Israeli consulate. We will meet with them and have Shabbat dinner.  Many Vietnamese are Buddists and they pray in a temple or pagoda.  Here is one near our house:

A pagoda near our apartment

Anna in her classroom (and not happy about me taking photos)

Kate in PE (in the yellow shirt)

Matthew and his new teacher and classmates