Overnight Trains and a Fresh Chicken Update

A few days ago we took our family to a place in Vietnam called Sapa.  There are several minority ethnic groups that live in small, very rustic villages in the mountains and grow rice in terraces cut into the mountainside. They dress in traditional clothing that they make themselves. It is a beautiful place.

Rice fields in Sapa

The ONLY way to get there is by overnight train. A special train that makes lots of abrupt stops throughout the night. A train that has some kind of animal or bug eating your complimentary crackers on the table right next to your tiny bed. A train whose air conditioner that might go out in the middle of the night and whose conductor pretends to be asleep and ignores your pleas of “Em Oi!” (hey!) to fix the air. A train that you board at 8:00 pm and exit before five the next morning, bleary eyed but excited about your adventure. A train that, despite all its issues, is an absolute wonder for children under the age of 10.

Our berth on the train to Sapa. Matthew and Anna shared a tiny bed!

Despite the rain, we were able to get out and explore the villages and town of Sapa. It was surprisingly cold, but we welcomed this after 100 degree heat in Hanoi!

The market in Sapa.

We walked through two small villages. The houses were very basic, with dirt floors and lots of farm animals including many cute baby pigs and chickens.

Most adults were out working in the rice fields.The children were left at home to play with each other. They came out to see Kate, Anna and Matthew.  The curiosity was mutual.

We also saw a group of children playing on some water buffaloes as if they were as tame as puppies. We were amazed at how comfortable they were on these massive animals with big horns!

We went inside one home and took a tour of the kitchen:

After just one night, we headed back home on the overnight train again!

Back at home we had a very busy week to end a great school year. Matthew had a big role in a school play (really an operetta) – he was the narrator in The Three Nanny Goats (kind of like The Three Billy Goats Gruff).

Anna created a video about how to buy fresh chicken in Hanoi. Right by our house is a woman selling fresh chickens (she butchers them right on the street). We’ve passed by it daily and marveled at how different food production and distribution is here from what we’re used to at home. There is no doubt that we are eating some of the freshest (and most tasty!) food. And by the way, Anna edited this entire video by herself!

After school one day we took a family walk around our neighborhood and found more interesting things, as ever. The summer short haircut is very popular here.

Another beautiful sunset over West Lake.

When the weather got hot, sugar cane juice machines popped up everywhere. We finally had a chance to try it.

Making sugar cane juice in Lang Yen Phu.

Today was the last day of school, and we sadly said goodbye to all our friends. Kate celebrated her birthday at school today.

And Matthew graduated from kindergarten!

The electricity went out in the afternoon so we had to get out of our sweltering apartment and do the only thing that was left to do:

Ice cream and swimming at the Hanoi Club!

Michael and I are saying goodbye to our friends, too. The good news is that in order to get to see everyone in the coming years, we will have to travel to other parts of the globe….

Einat and Zafrir

On to Burma on Friday…. then Thailand…. then Cleveland, OH!


Napping in Hanoi

I think the heat is making everyone sleepy here in Hanoi. We went to the fabric market and my friend Yossi pointed out this tired vendor:

When we ate dinner at a restaurant, Kate went to the bathroom and discovered a door with an open window. When we looked in, a few people were taking a nap right next to where we were eating!

We were at a temple last weekend, and Anna discovered a sleeping monk!

Taking a nap can happen anywhere.  This guy is parked by a very busy street (although what street in Hanoi isn’t busy?)

Other things happen on the street that are surprising to us…. like getting a haircut or shave:

Mohawks are popular here for the summer:

And if you have lice or gray hairs, that’s something else you can take care of (this is a common sight on the street):

I have seen 2 dishwashers in total since I arrived in January, and they were in the homes of two embassy families (they have very nice places). Mostly people just do it the old fashioned way, right on the sidewalk:

We were so happy this past week to welcome our friend and final visitor to Hanoi, Jackie Acho. Her husband John was a real hero staying at home with their two kids so she could come to Asia for the first time in her life. One of my Vietnamese friends was so surprised that she would come so far and leave her family at home for a week. I told her we American women were very lucky and we had great husbands. Of course we had to take Jackie out to one of our favorite street food restaurants, Bun Bo Nam Bo:

Here is a shot of the kitchen. As is usual with these kind of places, they make one thing only here. The noodles and herbs are so fresh. The food in Vietnam is amazing. We are going to miss it.

We took Jackie to our friend Phuong’s house – it was her daughter’s 1st birthday, so there was a big meal!

Here is the birthday girl, Ming Que:

Phuong took us to an orphanage near her home called Bo De.  We brought rice and milk and Matthew handed out some baseball cards to the boys. It was very sad and difficult to see 150 children without parents.

Sadly, a lot of people who mean well bring the children candy and junk food. They had lots of rotten teeth.

Some of the smallest babies were sleeping in hammocks!!

Later on the way home we had to squish into a taxi, and Kate sat on my lap in the front seat…we’ve gotten lax here!

The next day we were walking around Hanoi and saw a Pentecost celebration outside the Catholic cathedral. The costumes and music were beautiful.

We had dinner at a friend’s house that has a beautiful view of West Lake.

Hanoi is so full of sights. It’s a delight to walk around and take photos. Even after 5 months, I cannot get over seeing children riding on motorbikes without helmets. Many of the infants ride with netting covering their heads – maybe to keep the bugs off?

If you’re pregnant, it’s best to ride side-saddle:

And who says you can’t have an ice cream cone on a motorbike?

Hold on tight!

Even though it’s well into the 90s most days, many of the Vietnamese cover up all their exposed skin so they don’t get a tan:

And some other funny things I saw today… guinea fowl and other wild birds being sold on the side of the road:

Gourds for sale:

And a children’s photographer called Tom and Jerry???

Speaking of wild birds, collecting them and hanging their cages around your house and business is a very popular hobby here in Hanoi:

Some people have 10 or more birds!

Anna found double banana twins!!

While we’re still enjoying our last few weeks here, we are really excited to get home and see family and friends. We are especially eager to meet a new cousin of ours that was born in NYC right before we left, so we have yet to meet little Leo!  Except by Skype, that is.

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.

Teaching Entrepreneurship in Hanoi

It has been such a luxury having Stacy documenting our past two months here in Vietnam on this blog.  When I get emails from friends around the world asking how things are going over here, I usually say something like: “it’s great…here is a link to Stacy’s blog to read more.”  I hope she continues it once we get home so when people ask me how things are going in Cleveland, I can also just refer them to Stacy’s blog.  Very efficient.

Since unfortunately Stacy is not accompanying me to my job teaching entrepreneurship at the National Economics University, the time has come for me to add something to this blog.  I received a Fulbright fellowship to teach this semester at the National Economics University (NEU), one of the leading universities in economics, management and business in Vietnam.  It has over 45,000 students across 45 graduate and undergraduate academic programs.  I am primarily working in the NEU Business School with students in the Bachelor of Business Administration in English (EBBA) program although I am also doing occasional lecturing in other departments such as International School of Management and Economics (ISME).

I am “team teaching” a course in the EBBA program called “Entrepreneurship and New Venture Creation” to 50 Vietnamese undergraduates in their third year of the program.  The other lecturer for the course, Ha Tung, is a MBA graduate of Washington State University and has been a great partner in delivering a course that looks comparatively at starting businesses and raising investment capital in Vietnam and abroad. 

We have had some excellent guest speakers in the class including Do Tuan Anh, CEO of Appstore.vn, Simon Andrews, IFC Regional Manager, Duc Tran, General Partner, IDG Vietnam Ventures and Ryan Galloway, Vice President, Strategy, MobiVi.  Most of the speakers have come to our class in person although we have also used Skype to have conversations with business leaders outside of the region.  In the picture below, you can see Ryan Galloway’s face on my laptop as he joined us by Skype from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) for the class (and our projector was not working in class that day).  Ryan, an American living in HCMC, was a former student of mine at Case Western Reserve where he completed his law degree last year.

In addition to my teaching at NEU, I have met with a number of people involved in supporting the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Vietnam, including venture capitalists, leading entrepreneurs, directors of incubators and government officials.  I was honored to be asked to speak at the Workshop on Technology Incubation hosted by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) several weeks ago.  My remarks focused on the fact that I found Vietnam to be one of the most entrepreneurial countries I have ever been to, evidenced by the fact that there are local entrepreneurs selling things here on every street corner.  In order to continue to encourage the growth of Vietnamese start-up companies, the ecosystem here needs to continue to find ways to provide financing to these companies including the active participation of local angel investors.  The photos below are from MOST workshop.

I also participated as a mentor in a course for entrepreneurs in Hanoi run by the Founder Institute.  Founder Institute is a global network of startups and mentors that help entrepreneurs launch meaningful and enduring technology companies.  I participated in a Founder Institute session with representatives from IDG Vietnam Ventures and DFJ VinaCapital on fundraising.

I have also spent time in Hanoi connecting with the international community here to learn more about the various donor efforts to support the growth of Vietnamese small and medium sized enterprises in general, and entrepreneurship in particular.  In addition to the friendships I have made with local diplomats in Hanoi, I also reconnected with a college friend who came to Hanoi earlier this month in his capacity as one of the top US trade negotiators.  Ambassador Demetrios Marantis is the Deputy United States Trade Representative who lived in Hanoi earlier in his career (and was incredibly helpful in introducing us to many of his friends and contacts here before we arrived).

Ceramics and a Hot Pot

This week Michael and I went to hear the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra.  The music (Brahms) was lovely and the venue was beautiful-  an opera house built over 100 years ago.  We have seen people snoozing in concerts in Cleveland from time to time, but we were a little surprised by the guy sitting behind us who chatted on his cell phone (quietly, but still!) and had his iPad out throughout the performance!

On Saturday we all went to the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university built in 1070.  It is no longer a university, but it is a beautiful place to visit, buy a treat and take pictures. There were lots ancient buildings, courtyards, ponds and Buddhas.

Entering the Temple of Literature

Eating a popsicle treat at the Temple of Literature

A very large bell

Puppets for sale

Today we took a short, crowded and cheap ($.30 for adults and free for kids!) bus ride to a pottery village 25 minutes outside of Hanoi. Ask Kate about getting pushed onto the bus by an old lady.  People do not form lines in Vietnam but rather push their way into wherever they want to go, and this is not considered rude.

We stopped first for a steaming bowl of pho before doing anything else:

People have been making ceramics and pottery in Bat Trang since the 14th century.  For miles around every shop is selling different kinds of pottery and ceramics.

Pottery and ceramics market in Bat Trang


There are several places where you can make your own pottery and paint it, too ($3 per person).

You turn the pottery wheels by hand.

Painting pottery

Tonight we had dinner at a Vietnamese friends’ house.  Another HUGE, amazing meal.  This time we had Vietnamese hot pot. This large family had us all eat on the floor around a big steaming hot pot of broth, to which all kinds of meats, chicken, vegetables and glass noodles were added slowly (like a fondue) and doled out amongst everyone.

The kids had fun playing upstairs with the other children. There were many cute young ones in this house!

This Vietnamese child's bedroom comes equipped with a slide!

A New Family Member and the Biggest Dosa in the World

We were determined to get a pet (well, except for one family member who reluctantly agreed). With a little help from a Vietnamese friend, the kids and I found a street that had shop after shop, each specializing in selling different kinds of pets — dogs, fish or birds.  We found a parakeet that was blue – just the color we were hoping for.

Bird Shop in Hanoi

In addition to parakeets, they were selling all kinds of native song birds as well as two guinea fowl, which come from South Africa.

Kate checking out the guinea fowl

We think our bird is young and a boy which means he should be easier to train to talk and come out of his cage.  Can you guess how much we paid for the parakeet?  $7! The kids named him Cheerio but we keep calling him Pretty also (the name of our last parakeet).

Cheerio at home

The kids have been dying to try a cyclo ride, so we finally took one on Sunday when we finished some shopping.

We saw another odd thing in the market today.  Some kind of roasted small birds (I think) in soda cans.  They were more like the size of bats. How are you supposed to even eat this? Who would want to eat it?

What is this exactly?

We had a memorable lunch with a college friend of Michael’s at an Indian restaurant. It was memorable for two reasons. First, we ate the craziest dosa (Indian bread) that I have ever laid eyes on.  It was in the shape of a cone and was about 2 feet tall. It was beautiful and tasty. Second, this was the spiciest food I’ve ever eaten, hands down.

Michael and Felipe Valdes with crazy dosa

I asked how spicy the food was and our friend Felipe mentioned in front of the owner that the “two chili”  food he tried there previously was not even perceptibly hot.  We paid dearly for that comment — the entire restaurant was coughing from the fumes emanating from our dishes as they were served, we sweated a tremendous amount, and we had to order two mango lassi’s and some ice cream to cool off. Phew!!

Another family member wept while eating, but this time it was Anna who was simply overjoyed when I found her beloved Cinnamon Toast Crunch, which she has not seen since we left the U.S.  Guess how much it cost? $7! (Parakeet Named Cheerio = Box of Imported Cereal = $7).

Anna and her happy food

Kate’s second grade class did a presentation on cultures. Each child was asked to bring a food or something that represented their culture. Being the only Jewish kid in her class, Kate donned her Agnon t-shirt and shared challah with everyone.  She also brought her Hebrew workbooks for everyone to see.

One of her classmates did a demonstration with Korean drums.

Since I arrived, I have been very interested in learning more about the Vietnamese education system. Luckily someone from the American Embassy graciously invited me to spend a morning recently at Viet Duc High School to observe the opening day for a new “Creativity Club.” The school had a beautiful courtyard that was packed with students in blue and white track suit uniforms during breaks. Here it is while the students are in class:

Viet Duc High School in Hanoi

Instead of a bell, class changes are announced by a loud, deep, human powered drum!

Saved by the drum

The newly formed Creativity Club had its first meeting in the library. About 20 students attended and the principal, a few teachers and some other people helped lead the students in a 2 hour discussion about how they would decorate their allotted space in the library. I am sure I missed a great deal of the details as it was almost all in Vietnamese, but my friend from the U.S. Embassy helped translate enough to give me an idea of what was happening.

Both Vietnamese and many expats who know the country well have told me that the Vietnamese education system is lacking creativity, and that the students simply memorize what they are taught without asking questions.  In visiting the school, I was really impressed by how many people saw the value of creativity in education and how critical thinking is important.

I also started volunteering at Hagar International.They help women who have been victims of domestic abuse and trafficking.

It is a wonderful organization and I am so happy to be helping out with a little bit of marketing and writing.