Today is Thanksgiving and I am in Vietnam, far away from family and friends, on a work assignment, no less. When I booked the press trip for the Emeraude, the Thanksgiving holiday didn’t even jump out and say “Hey, what are you doing? It’s Thanksgiving!” And so I find myself on a boat in the middle of Halong Bay. There are worse places in the world. I am feeling grateful for my life.
In the two years I’ve been employed with Apple Tree and living in Hanoi, I’ve been privileged to partake in any number of adventures and travels under the auspices of “work”. Here in Halong Bay alone, I have enjoyed the annual Wine & Dine Cruise Classic and dined in formal attire within a setting straight out of a fantasy book; a large cave in the bay, bathed in candlelight. I’ve rocked climbed, getting up close and personal to the limestone rocks which make up thousands of islands in the bay.
In Hanoi, I’m thankful for my lovely apartment and the kind and caring family who own the building and live “with” me. Without them, I would not have had my little sanctuary to return to after a long and stressful day, after traveling on a street full of honking motorbikes and lost taxi drivers. My apartment could be anywhere in the world, and it is because of them that I could feel that it served as my retreat and “home”.
At the Press Club, I’ve enjoyed countless meals, excellent dinners and some absolutely fantastic parties. The location alone is prestigious, across from the historic Metropole, near the Opera and within a short walk from Hoan Kiem Lake. Every ride into work provided any number of sights, from barbers setting up their shop against a tree trunk, to buffalo and pig legs sticking out of a box on the back of a motorbike, a rare sighting of an entire and dead pig on top of a trash pile, numerous children riding squished between parents on motorbikes, and the numerous women who are hauling anything from fresh veggies to a small restaurant on two baskets slung over their shoulders. The sights, tastes, and sounds of the streets of Hanoi will live within me forever. It’s impossible to forget and one small aspect I know I will miss very much when I am sitting in a car, behind a steering wheel stuck in traffic on the 405.
I traveled to Laos on a handful of occasions, this last visit being just for fun. And over two years, with each visit, this landlocked country with the mighty Mekong running through it as its main artery has become one of my most favorite places in Asia. The people are gorgeous, the pace is slow and if you don’t walk away from your experience there feeling spiritual, at least humbled, then you have not experienced the real Laos. I can never forget being blessed by a monk, my friend’s father, and then being in a tiny village to receive blessings from the community. That touched my heart like no other experience in my life.
My business travels have taken me to Berlin, Singapore, Bangkok, London and even the exotic in Marrakech. I’ve made friends in each place and have been treated to the local perspective. In a place like Marrakech, that’s especially fortunate. I love traveling, as you all know, and I feel so lucky that I have visited these terrific cities not just once, but a few times. Many people never travel outside of their hometowns, so I am appreciative of the opportunity.
I’ve learned a lot in the last two years. Living and working in Vietnam has been one of the biggest challenges of my life. But with each daily hurdle, came tremendous personal growth. If Vietnam didn’t kill me, then I don’t think anything can! ;p
I owe these two great years of experience in my life to my friend and my manager, Kurt. You’ll all remember that when I traveled to Vietnam in 2008, I stayed with he and his family for a few weeks and that they were such gracious hosts. Once I returned to the US after my travels, it was Kurt who pushed for my return to Hanoi and for me to fill this role. He’s lent an incredible amount of support and provided such a wonderful opportunity for me to grow professionally. He’s often referred to He, Marcel and me as his “Dream Team” and you know, we are. The three of us work so nicely together and are really a powerhouse. For this I wish I could remain longer in Hanoi, so that the three of us could really gel and continue on our path of success. Both Kurt and Marcel are Swiss German, so I’ve been exposed to a “unique” style of management (that’s a positive comment) which is efficient, productive and completely straight-forward.
I can never express in words how grateful I am to Kurt for bringing me on board, for continuing to be my cheerleader and biggest fan, for pushing me to be better and grow professionally. As I come to the close of my contract with Apple Tree, I’m super happy I took the offer to live and work in Vietnam and will always be thankful for this chapter of my life.
In 1976, America celebrated it’s 200th birthday. I was just six at the time, but I remember a few things from the occasion. I remember wearing red, white and blue in our school picture, at the request of the school (we also said the pledge of allegiance in “those days”). I remember being down by the bay and lots of flags and the Star of India sailing for the first time in 50 years.
Every Thanksgiving, our little community of El Cajon rang in the holiday season with the Mother Goose Parade. We’d listen to the local high school bands, wave at the B-list celebrities who agreed to be in the parade and eagerly await the last float…the one with Santa Claus on it.
In Siena Italy, I was in town between the two Il Palio races. One evening I was sitting on the steps writing in my journal when the piazza started to fill up and a festival ensued. I stood with a group of people who started singing when their flag was dropped out the window, announcing that their horse would race in the August Il Palio. It was at that moment that I fell in love with festivals.
In Japan, I participated and attended my fair share of festivals and celebrations from sports festivals at school to fire festivals to celebrate a good harvest. I have been dressed in yukata to walk WITH my Japanese friends in the parade. I have sat under the sakura WITH co-workers friend and the like to marvel at delicate pink blossoms and drink a decent amount of sake. I have sat beneath the dark sky WITH my Japanese teachers and friends to watch a two hour fireworks show, part of a regular summer celebration. And I have poured beer WITH my friends to celebrate comings and goings, birthdays, wedding and sometimes no reason at all. I was included in those occasions and I loved them all.
So when I knew that I would be in Hanoi during it’s 1000 year anniversary celebrations, I was naturally excited. I’ve already expressed my disappointment leading into the celebration, the lack or organization, the lack of inclusion of the foreign community, both locally and internationally. And in this past week of celebrations, I have grown even more so. Some would say that the expats are being too negative and looking for bad things to say. But I’ll tell ya…when a city turns 1000 years old, and you don’t tell anybody how you are planning to celebrate or what festivities they can attend, when you don’t even tell them what days they may not be able to get to their place of work due to road closures or close so many streets that the already insane traffic becomes monstrous, well then…I don’t have a hell of a lot of sympathy. It’s poor event planning and it’s laughable.
Mette and I did venture out yesterday to see what might be happening around Hoan Kiem Lake. We saw lots of people making laps around the lake. We saw lots of people wearing “I ♥ Hanoi” t-shirts and red ties around their head. One vendor put a sticker on our faces, unsolicited, and then demanded that we pay him 10,000VND. He wasn’t too pleased when we peeled the sticker off our faces and stuck them back on his sheet. We didn’t appreciate the raised voice, nor him pointing at us like we had stolen the stickers.
Lots of people in from out of town sat around the park areas and watched any number of the jumbo TV screens, programmed to tell the story of Hanoi. I did take some pictures of some funny and rambunctious boys, but that was only after their parents called for me to take their picture when I was actually trying to get a picture of the crowds gathering lakeside. Mette was asked to take a picture with a girl, who motioned for her boyfriend to make sure to get all of Mette in the picture (Mette is a very tall and gorgeous Danish gal). We left the area just in time, before the real crowds descended. We went past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum on our way home to see the set up for the big 10.10.10 parade site.
And so this morning, I watched on TV the ceremony, the parade of military and cultural troops and birds on roller skates, dragons and flags and flowers moved and shaken for the sake of pageantry, big colorful floats depicting moments in Hanoi’s history, and I’m not sure how many of the same exact picture of Ho Chi Minh. One of the most enjoyable moments on the TV program was the last 15 minutes where they showed numerous old photos of Hanoi. That was really interesting and culturally appealing.
And so now that the celebration is nearly over and it is assumed we will all go back to our normal lives tomorrow, I have to wonder what everyone in Hanoi, in Vietnam thinks of the overall celebrations? What will people here remember? What will they take away from this? I can tell you that while initially I was super grateful to be here on this momentous occasion, I really have nothing to boast about. I didn’t celebrate WITH you, Hanoi. And again, that’s such a shame, because I really wanted to.
NOTE: My previous blog post “36 Days to Go” was mentioned in an article in The Economist. Not a super positive article about Vietnam, but I’m pretty happy to have On The Bright Side mentioned in such an establish and respected publication. Imagine that! My little blog made it into The Economist! (The link will no longer work, as my blog has been moved to WordPress now.)
I returned from Singapore yesterday and into a 3 day weekend. The Vietnamese are celebrating Liberation Day and May Day together. While my friend Mette and I were at dinner last night, we heard the 20 minutes of fireworks to celebrate the occasion. I thought I would share a bit of history of these significant celebrations.
On 30th April, 1975 the Vietnam People’s Army (NVA) captured Saigon, the South Vietnamese Capital. This day marked the end of the Vietnam War (Khang chien chong My), commonly known as the “American War”. It resulted in the reunification of Vietnam under Communist rule and Saigon was renamed Ho Chin Minh City. Those who supported the war remember it as the liberation of Saigon. Vietnam celebrates this day every year as Vietnam’s Liberation Day. The Vietnamese name for it is Ngay Giai Phong. Today it is one of the Major Vietnam Festivals & Events. It is also called the Victory Day or the Reunification Day and Vietnam celebrates it every year declaring it a public holiday. This day initiated the process of reunification of North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The reunification took place on 2nd July, 1976.
To the exiled Vietnamese who are settled abroad and the supporters of the Southern government Vietnam’s Liberation Day is the Ngay Quoc Han (National Day of Infamy) or the Fall of Saigon. In present day Vietnam, supporting the cause of the then southern government is regarded as betrayal to the nation and is punishable by imprisonment. For the Vietnamese who served the country and were in the process hurt and exiled overseas the Liberation Day in Vietnam is a day of remembrance.
May 1 is International Workers’ Day (a name used interchangeably with May Day) is a celebration of the social and economic achievements of the international labor movement. May Day commonly sees organized street demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of working people and their labor unions throughout Europe and most of the rest of the world — though, as noted below, in neither the United States nor Canada.
This is pretty much me for the whole day of January 1, 2010. (I mistyped that at first as 2020…jeez! Let’s not rush it!) It’s cold and rainy in Hanoi today so the heater brings great comfort. I’m in my favorite uniform, a jeans an my long sleeve black t-shirt, have a bowl of M&Ms there on the corner and some nice candles filling the air of sandalwood. I’ve got three piles of journals in front of me…travel journals, diaries and then note books I carry around with me to jot down random thoughts or funny/interesting things I see when I am on the move. My new MacBook is there, too, trying very hard to win my affection after my trusty Powerbook G4 bit the dust recently. (I’m a sentimental fool. The Powerbook has been with me for 5 years. I’m loyal. I’ve only known the MacBook for two weeks. I’m hopeful he’ll stay with me for awhile. We’re having fun getting acquainted. ;p )
About ten years ago I developed a tradition where I take the first couple days of the New Year and have a good read through old journals. I get in touch with Me for a bit, have a think about my future and charge forward. I write one long end-of-the-year entry and get myself organized for the year ahead.
At some point before the weekend ends, I hope to post a few more blog entries here, get 100% of my J-blog converted from the old site and hopefully spit out an OTBS newsletter – something I haven’t done at all in 2009. That’s a quarterly communication I really miss putting together, so I hope the 2009 wrap-up goes smoothly and I find more ME time in 2010 to produce it regularly. It’s important to me.
Here’s to Day 1 and a great year ahead! Happy New Year!
Well, I’m afraid to say that Christmas is officially over. I returned to Hanoi in the wee hours of this morning on the overnight train from Sapa. The ride back to Hanoi was much smoother than the ride up to Sapa. Coming home, I had both Pete and Duc in a private cabin, and one which was pretty luxurious compared to others. In 2008, when I traveled back to Hanoi from Sapa, I suffered a horrendous amount of bed bug bites, some of which, after getting severely infected, still scar my legs. Because of this, I’m not a big fan of overnight trains (go figure!).
On the way up to Sapa last Wednesday, though, I had new friend Duc with me, and two strangers in the cabin. At some point in the evening, I was in dream mode, but had a frightening nightmare which entailed some creepy man trying to move me over to share my bed. It was all too realistic and relevant to my situation, and so the crazy dream led me to scream in my sleep, startling my fellow cabin mates. I was a bit embarrassed, but the face and hand gestures of the man on the bed across from me, left me to giggle softly after I had recovered from the nightmare. See….travel is FUN!!!
Once in Sapa, I was met with blue skies and unusually warm weather. Normally it’s about 5 degrees Celcius, but we enjoyed about 25 degree weather in the day. After arriving in the early morning and getting settled, we headed out to the valley for a very easy walk through the village. The Hmong and/or Red Dao ladies love to walk along with you, in hoped that you’ll buy something from them. They make hand-embroidered purses, sell silver bracelets and other trinkets. But they also get a chance to practice their English, which is pretty good.
I had a nice chat with Thang (?) who told me she was 26 years old and mother to two children. That was it for her. Unlike her mother who had ten. Whoah! She has one boy and one girl and feels blessed. She could understand difficult English such as, “Are you the oldest or youngest among your brothers and sisters?” I always enjoy speaking to the locals and learning about their life, I just don’t enjoy the hard sales pitch at the end of the walk! But it was fun and we all enjoyed the great weather! Mountain air is soooo refreshing!
Christmas Eve, Duc, Pete and I enjoyed a lovely hot pot for dinner and thought of creative names for Pete’s new company. When you are trying to find a twist on meanings, it helps to have an internet connection. We laughed our butts off with some of the phrases we came up with and also some of the new words we learned; synonyms to words we were pondering.
Christmas Day was a lazy one and we took a drive through the mountains and stared over the beautiful valleys. It was my first time to see the peak of Mt. Fansipan. I’ve been challenged to climb it, but am told it is more difficult than Mt. Fuji. Hmm….we’ll have to see how I feel in July or August!
Christmas Day night was the big dinner at the restaurant. The local minority children arrived just before 6pm and then filed into the restaurant to grab a seat. This was the part of Christmas I couldn’t wait for. Pete and Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel are very involved in the local communities. In addition to his partnership with Ma Cha school, he also does a Sunday Soup program for the local children and feeds about 80 kids each week on average. He distributes lots of donated clothing to some of the most rural areas; these are places where most of the kids run naked for lack of anything.
The Christmas program provided all the kids a meal and a present, which was either clothing or school supplies, or a combination of the two. You can see some photos of the dinner and more HERE.
The day after Christmas, we took the remaining presents into TaPhin village where the Red Dao tribe lives. The presents went quickly, as it was the mothers and grandmothers who were there to accept…the kids were all having lunch at home when we arrived. We also spent some time hiking around and then to the medicinal baths. Being the only chick, I was alone in my little room in a wooden tub, but it was so relaxing and rejuvenating…I really enjoyed the hot herbal water. Awesome.
The train ride back to Hanoi came all too quickly. As I’ve written and as you know, Pete is one of my most favorite people ever and I am so delighted I could spend this special holiday with him at his hotel in Sapa and spend a wee bit of time with the local people. It was a great Christmas and one of my fondest memories of Vietnam to date. Hope you all had a great holiday! I’ll look forward to seeing your updates on Facebook!
Now – let’s get ready to ring in the New Year! Hello 2010!!!
A little Red Dao boy. – There are about 7 ethnic minorities in the Sapa area. It is such an interesting part of Vietnam! I’m glad I got to take a peek for a weekend and for a very special Christmas!
I spent most of today out and about in town shopping for warm socks, knit hats and mittens. While the temperatures have dropped a bit in Hanoi, the shopping spree was for small little people who I will meet in Sapa at Christmas time.
I’m headed to the very North of Vietnam for the holiday, spending the occasion with Pete and friends. Our festivities will include giving warm clothing to young ones who don’t have the proper gear to face the cold winter. We’ll also serve them a proper dinner and give them as much Christmas cheer as we can! I’m also going to bring some notebooks and colored pencils, because I think no matter what, kids love to have a toy or a coloring book for fun.
The mall was crowded today, I should have known. The very random Christmas displays outside the center were the biggest draw. Children, young girls posing sexy and whole families had their picture taken with big, fake presents and ugly snowmen in the background. It was the tackiest display I’ve ever seen!
My drive to and from the mall was a good dose of sightseeing in Hanoi. Honestly, I don’t get out much, and I know all to well the sights on offering on the road between my house and office. It was good to see some other parts of life in the streets. You know, the motorbikes with sliced-open pigs thrown over the seat, bus drivers openly peeing in public, and women holding their pantless children over the gutter so they can poop. Sundays are good for a bit lighter traffic, and some of the traffic lights are even turned off, opening the streets up for a special game of chicken in major intersections.
One of the things I really can’t stand is that when you go into a shop in Vietnam, one of the shop keepers will stay on your heels and follow you around, readjusting anything you touch. They don’t do this for Vietnamese customers, of course, only we foreign folks because, you know – we just can’t be trusted. I don’t mind so much when its a nice store, but when I am in the Citimart hunting through a bin of discount underwear, mittens and socks, no adjustment to the merchandise is needed! I also get a little peeved when other shoppers stop to watch me. Is it really that exciting to watch me pick out socks?
Anywhoo – I’m excited to power though the next few days and then get on that train to Sapa to celebrate Christmas with one of my favoritest people and put smiles on some very cute and tiny faces. That part will be the best and I can’t wait to share pictures with you! Merry Christmas!
For those of you who followed my life in Japan, you’ll remember that I am an absolute sucker for festivals. I LOVE them! It’s one of the more interesting aspects of foreign cultures. Sure, we Americans have our parades and block parties, we throw a few fireworks in the air for 20 minutes for America’s birthday. But we fail to celebrate rice harvests, the return of the spirits of ancestors, the full moon or even the seasons. This is where numerous foreign countries have us beat by miles.
I was lucky to catch just a bit of one of the best festivals in Laos – in Luang Prabang. It’s called the Bun Ook Pansaa Festival and it celebrates a the end of a 3-month Buddhist ritual where the devout are not to kill any animals, have sex, eat meat, nor eat after 12:00p.m. The highlight of the festivities are the handmade, natural-product boats, paraded down to the river, and any incense and candles on board are lit before being se afloat down the Mekong River. Similarly, little bamboo and flower boats are abundantly available and anyone who wants can buy one of these, light the candle and incense and make a wish before setting their own boat afloat.
Hand-held fireworks are everywhere! That was really fun! They have these long sticks which set off about 60 pellets and once in the air, explode into a mini starburst. We also had a few big fireworks which you put on the ground and which shoot fire in the air. So WAY cool! These would be totally illegal in the U.S., which makes it all the more fun for me!
It was so awesome to spend part of the evening riverside, watching all these people send their wishes and hopes into the river, shooting off fireworks and having a great time. I particularly enjoyed walking past store fronts, where a group of friends had gathered, blared some traditional music and were just dancing in the streets. The spontaneity of that was delightful. I’m sure there would be some ordinance that would be violated, had we tried to do that in our streets in the U.S.
And that’s exactly why I love these kinds of festivals. Laos is a communist country, but the people are so free in their everyday life and certainly allowed to express themselves and have fun when it comes time to celebrate. And I love being a part of that.
I am already planning to be in Luang Prabang next year for the same festival, as I couldn’t see all of it due to out hotel’s anniversary party. (It wasn’t me who planned them on the same night!) Next year I’ll take some better photos and even some video and really capture the spirit of the festival. It was just sooo sooo much fun!!!