Baby Frogs and Worms

Living here has brought many changes to our lives. One big change is that we have grown more accustomed to taking risks. We are so safety conscious in the United States (okay well I am!).  But in Hanoi you have to just let some things go.  Like say, for instance, when your cab driver has an iPad mounted to his dashboard and is fiddling around on Facebook while driving.

Even what seems ordinary has something unexpected and new. The kids had a spring program at their school recently.  I felt like I could have been at any school in the world it seemed so normal – kids smiling, nervous, happy and proud. Just like home.

Take a look at the video of the third graders — the second half has a beautiful Japanese fan dance:

But after the program we had a wonderful international treat. At the reception the parents were invited to bring food and items from their home countries to share. We had an amazing international buffet (in case you’re wondering what we served at the U.S. table, it was lemonade, banana pudding with Nilla wafers that were brought in a special diplomatic pouch delivery as they don’t exist here, Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookies and a yummy Hawaiian meat dish).  Here are some Korean moms dressed in their beautiful traditional outfits:

Entertaining ourselves has been a challenge at times because of the lack of green space. One great indoor activity turned out to be our parakeets….Anna, Kate and Matthew create all kinds of homemade playgrounds and toys for them, feed them, and take them out of the cage to stretch their wings.

While not totally tame (hard to do with two birds), they tolerate us pretty well.

Matthew and Cheerio

The weather has been a drastic change from what we’re used to in Cleveland.  (By the way, we are not discussing the fact that it was the warmest winter in Cleveland in 2,000 years).  The Hanoi winter was all humidity and damp cold.  Now there is withering heat and humidity. No spring at all.  Our cellos and violin can attest to the extreme weather here — take a look at the warped bridge on Anna’s cello.  We are hoping it makes it till we get home in July and get a replacement (not available here apparently):

At least with the super hot weather we can go swimming at a pool near our house right on West Lake.

Blowing bubbles at the pool

The rain and warm weather brought out thousands of baby frogs. You have to step carefully to avoid squashing them in the street. They are apparently loads of fun to play with (I am not sure how the frogs feel about that though).

Baby frog world

In addition to the frogs, the rain brought massive worms – this guy was over a foot long and looked more like a snake to me:

One great thing about coming here is having the chance to meet so many amazing and interesting people from all over the world. In addition to our new Vietnamese friends, we’ve met people from other countries, including Israel, Korea, Japan, Belgium, China and Chile!

Dinner with the Valdes family.

The soccer season came to an end last weekend.  There was a tournament with real refs, which meant they kept score and there were winners and losers.

Kate’s team came in first in the second grade division. Anna’s team came in 2nd place. It was great to see how hard the kids played in the competition.

Every day brings interesting sights to us. Here’s a few of the fun, beautiful and weird.

Pinwheels for sale

There are a lot of fowl on the streets.  Somehow they learn to stay on the side and manage to not get run down.

Chickens on our street. We’ve watched these guys grow from baby chicks over the last few months.

These are fighting cocks.

When a wedding happens here, the family sets up a tent right in the street and has a reception there. We’ve seen them several times all over the city, but this one was in front of our apartment building last week.  That’s the Concordia school bus trying to squeeze by:

A wedding party tent.

As I mentioned before, safety isn’t quite as high profile here as it is at home.  I am sure if there were more resources, things might get more attention.  This hole in the road has been here since we arrived in January:

On the other hand, the city does spend money flower and plant beds around West Lake (which people then use to let the chickens roam in, but no matter):

I think the Vietnamese believe that trees have spirits.  Here is a little altar to put incense and make a prayer for this beautiful big tree:

The kids have been upset about this little Chihuahua on our street.  Every day he’s tied up on a very short leash with no water for hours. If I had to choose a place to be a pet, it would not be Vietnam.

In Vietnam we often see examples of stark differences between the haves and have-nots.  This photo shows a small hut made of corrugated iron and wood.  A family with children and several ducks live there. Their neighbor is the fancy Intercontinental Hotel. What a contrast!

This is another home on our street, surrounded by many fancy new houses and cars.

People have to get around on their motorbikes, no matter the weather. When it’s raining, out come the big raincoats:

But I guess an umbrella will do if you don’t go too fast:

Most of the streets are lined with places to pull up a (very tiny) stool and have something to drink or eat.

Note the tree in the wall behind – also with a place for incense and praying.

If you need air for your tires, here’s the guy to see:

Last week I attended a lacquer painting demonstration. What a time consuming and tedious art form – with beautiful results!

Michael has been very busy doing lectures on entrepreneurship in Laos and Cambodia and working with the Vietnamese Ministry of Science and Technology on a week long seminar, amongst other things. In Laos all sorts of people came to hear Michael, eager to learn about starting and funding businesses:

Last weekend we had a family recital.  All three kids did a wonderful job practicing and performing. Our friend Joanie kindly offered to accompany them on the piano!

Kate and Anna play a fun duet.

Thirty friends came… how nice!

It’s May 23rd. We have just over a month left before we leave Hanoi for good and do some traveling in the region.  It’s not always been easy, but we’ve enjoyed and embraced the newness and unexpectedness and even the confusion (yes, the daily and even hourly confusion of not knowing what anyone is saying or doing). Mostly, we have loved watching our children learn and grow and embrace the unexpected.  They’ve even made up a few funny rap songs about their lives here.  You’ll have to ask for a performance when we get home.

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Boogie Board Vs. Tooth

Poppy and Uncle Rob were here for a short visit, so we left Halong Bay and caught a plane straight to Hoi An, a beach town in central Vietnam.  Remember how I complained about how dirty and polluted the water was in Nha Trang and Halong Bay? Well, not so in Hoi An. On my first morning there, I saw a water buffalo pulling some contraption through the sand behind our hotel to rake the beach. I figured that it could not be possible that this cleanliness went beyond our hotel’s beach. After running for over a mile down the beach, though, I saw not one scrap of trash!

River in Hoi An

We enjoyed walking through the streets of the old village of Hoi An, where we saw actual, real trash cans on the street. And people used them. It was all quite civilized!  The trees and flowers were blooming. The traditional houses had been well preserved, unlike in Hanoi, where everything has been built over or covered with billboards and electrical wires. It was over 100 degrees and scorching, so our forays included lots of stops for drinks.

Poppy in the old town of Hoi An

A street in Hoi An

We opted to stay in a hotel on the beach, which turned out to be perfect for the kids, who loved playing in the waves and eating by the pool (thankfully there was Anna-friendly food).

Clean water!

Starting running back from the University of Hoi An, #33 Rob Rakusin

Hoi An is known for its tailors who can turn around clothes in 24 hours or less. All the guys had new shirts made.

Poppy being measured.

On our second morning in Hoi An, Poppy and I went for a very early photographic stroll down in the market.

It being near the seaside, there was a lot of fresh seafood, some identifiable, some not. All edible, though (for someone!).

The trip was perfect except for one mishap. The kids discovered boogie boards and gave them a try:

Shortly after this photo was taken, a big wave came and knocked the boogie board into Matthew’s mouth, causing a tooth to fall out two days later (thankfully a baby tooth, but it was not due to come out for a long time and I don’t think Matthew thought this was a fun experience at all). Read: boogie boarding not appropriate for six year olds.

Here’s Matthew with his lost tooth (and a summer buzz cut, which Michael blamed on communication issues with the Vietnamese barber in our neighborhood):

And as long as we’re onto doing things that are a bit dangerous, the kids begged for days to take a ride on some motorbikes that were outfitted with side cars in Hoi An. We finally gave in and took a short ride.

We said farewell to Uncle Rob and Poppy, who went back home to the U.S. Thanks for a great trip!

Captain of the Ship

We are so lucky to have a few visitors willing to make the huge journey here to visit us in Vietnam.  In the end of April my adventuresome father, also known as Poppy, and my wonderful and fun-loving uncle Rob Rakusin, made the trek.  Neither had ever been to Asia, so it was very exciting. After spending a few days introducing them to the craziness, heat, and wonders of Hanoi, we took a 3+ hour drive to Halong Bay, Vietnam’s most famous tourist destination. To cruise around the bay for two nights, we boarded a boat (that we had all to ourselves!) called the Indochina Junk.

Kate and Poppy

Could you imagine the kids’ joy of playing on a big boat like this for three days? It was a welcome new playground. Anna, Kate and Matthew had their own bedroom!

Kate and Matthew took turns commandeering the ship’s wheel and playing pirates.

Captain Matthew

Pirate Kate

Halong Bay is known for its natural beauty. There are nearly 2,000 islands of all shapes and sizes dotting the water for miles.  Many of the islands don’t have names and are inhabited mainly birds and plants, but a few have monkeys. The water was blue. The sky was clear. There was a lovely breeze while we were sailing around. Heaven!

Anna enjoying the breeze and sun in Halong Bay

We went kayaking a few times to get a little closer to some of the islands.  We even explored a few caves by kayak.

On the second day we visited a floating village. Some Vietnamese ladies picked us up in some simple basket boats which they worked hard to row in the hot sun.

Uncle Rob with Kate and Anna

The village had about 130 people living in it, and they all make their living by fishing.  Each family had its own floating house.  We were happy to learn that the government is trying to make the people use plastic barrels to float their houses rather than styrofoam, which breaks down in two years and pollutes the water.

There was a small, two room schoolhouse for the village children. And yes, it was floating, too!

Floating school

Here is a view of our boat:

Our junk

We ate fantastic food, and the boat’s chef made some beautiful creations out of the food one night.  Here he made a replica of our boat, made from carrots (the sails) and a watermelon.

The next day we asked if the chef could teach us how to make some of these beautiful food sculptures.  The children made the carrot flowers and he made a crane!

On our last day we went ashore one of the islands and walked up a hundred steps to explore a cave, which was cool and inviting.  People used to live in the cave, but not anymore.

Overall Halong Bay was beautiful, but there was one drawback that marred the entire experience. We were very sad to see trash floating in the water everywhere (no matter how far we went from the mainland) as well as washed on the shoreline of the islands. It is not clear where the trash comes from (I heard different explanations), but it kept us from swimming in the water. In addition, a shipping channel was dug into the bay near Halong City, and huge ships anchor there to pick up coal which they transport to China.  Several times we heard the clear sound of loud explosions in the distance. Our guide said that it was dynamite that was being used either for fishing (good grief!) or for mining. We could see the stripped mountain tops on shore.  Here is an example of the trash we saw in the Bay near Halong City:

Vietnam has a long way to go to clean up, but there are signs of progress.  We went to a beach town called Hoi An right after our Halong Bay trip, and everything was spotless there.  We were so grateful! (A post about Hoi An is due up next). And just this week I saw something else that made me very happy — hundreds of university students volunteered to clean up around West Lake, near our house in Hanoi. They were so friendly when I asked them what they were doing, and I have hope for the future of this country!

Vietnamese university students clean up

Poppy wanted to add his view as seen through a few of the photos he took and sent to me for this blog.  Enjoy!
Hong Kong is a “Western Island” in China/Asia.

Five foot wide alleys in Hanoi old quarter with thousands of single rooms housing five family members. Sterno stoves in alley. Everyone helps make a living 7 days a week (average annual income $900.00).

Seeing women with high fashion on motorbikes was unexpected!  And all covered up to shade from the sun.