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.

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.

Sleeping in a Stilt House

Last weekend we took a trip through the beautiful mountains into northwest Vietnam with the company of the Valdes family, who have three children of their own.  After three hours in a big van, we arrived in Mai Chau, a small village in a valley surrounded by mountains and rice fields.  There was a beautiful breeze and lots of green space.

Mai Chau is home to one of the indigenous tribes people of Vietnam called White Thai, and they build their homes on stilts which keeps them dry if the rivers flood.  We did a “homestay” in Mai Chau to get the real experience. Here’s our house on stilts.  It’s just one big room that you get to by climbing up a ladder.  The bathroom is outside on the ground floor.  It was quite rustic as you can see.

Sleeping quarters in the stilt house

Underneath the house was a place for meals and also a loom where the lady of the house made beautiful scarves and fabric.

We took a walk through the village.  Everyone was selling something out of their house to the tourists that came through.  Most of the tourists we saw were Vietnamese, but there were some other Westerners like ourselves.  We also walked around the rice fields, which was a big treat for the kids – no worrying about being run down by mopeds!

Fabrics for sale

Fighting roosters so aggressive they must be kept in separate baskets.

A typical stilt house

A well

Entering the rice fields

Weeding her rice paddy

Kate checking out a conical hat

Water buffalo

We saw some traditional dances that night after dinner.  The dancers had everyone join in the bamboo dance, too.

The stilt house was fun to look at and play in, but for sleeping it turned out to be less than ideal.  Everyone was very tired the next day. We left Mai Chau and went to another remote village about two hours away that has absolutely no tourism or homestays. It was also in the mountains, but these were covered in mist. It was beautiful.  There were no washing machines or dryers, but there was electricity and satellite dishes on many homes, and most people had cell phones and motorbikes.

Walking into the village of the Mung people

We had tea in the home of some of the Mung people. They raised ducks and rice.

This is the village school (with water buffalo out front)

Before we came to Vietnam, I swore I would never allow my children to get on a motorbike so I could keep safe. Unfortunately, the road into this village was an hour walk straight down a steep mountain road (this was not on the tour description). There was no way our kids would be able to walk out. Michael had to carry Matthew down on his shoulders half the way, so how would he ever walk out? Our guide tried to hire a truck to carry us back up, but the truck wouldn’t start. So we were left with, you guessed it, riding motorbikes, without a helmet, up a steep and rocky dirt mountain road. Next to very steep drop offs.  Here is Anna, her friend Vicente, and their chauffeur, at the end of their ride.

On the way home we stopped at a roadside market and ate wonderful sticky rice that is steamed and sold it its own little piece of bamboo. You pull chunks of sticky rice out of the bamboo and dip it in sesame seeds and salt. Delicious!

Eating sticky rice

And one last photo this week — I saw another local delicacy back in Hanoi near my house that I have never seen before – not sure if it’s an eel or some kind of water snake (any help on this one?). But you eat them fried. (I did not partake). Thanks to my friend Lobie Stone who was brave enough to get close and take this picture for me, since I was without my camera.

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, 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!