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Meet Sith!

Pete and I had the great privilege to spend a lot of our time with Sith.  Pete had met Sith on his last visit to Luang Prabang, as Sith worked the front desk of the hotel Pete stayed in at the time.  Sith took us to a few sights in the city, and hung out with us for a good portion of our stay.

Sith story is so much like most young people in Laos.  He comes from a large and poor family, raised in a small village which is a long bus ride away from Luang Prabang.  He’s studying at university and working full time, seven days a week to pay for his schooling.  He works everyday so he has a place to sleep.  While Sith studies IT and has three scholarships, some of the other young men we met (significant because the young women don’t seem to be able to break out of the cycle as much as the boys) study to be a teacher or English teacher.

What was inspiring about meeting the youth of this city is that they have a vision for their future.  This is something that many in Vietnam do not have.  One young man, Sai, said that he wants to return to his village after he completes his education because he wants to see his village progress and wants a better future for his family and community.  In a situation which is pretty desperate, that selflessness is tremendously admirable.  And humbling.

Sith might be the one who is in school right now, but in the course of six days we spent with him, I learned a lot more about life than any school could teach.

Everywhere a monk monk

What Lao people may take for granted is the stunning beauty of their country and quaint city, Luang Prabang, as well as the intriguing sight of monks walking about the city.

I’ve had several conversations over the last two years with my Lao co-workers and friends to explain that in most other countries, monks keep to themselves and certainly don’t walk about town in the same manner as you and I.  I explained that most other countries are not Buddhist, and therefore there are no temples like you find in Laos.

Part of the charm of visiting Luang Prabang is the numerous temples…some right on the main street and others tucked down side streets or off a wandering path.  And along with the temples are the many monks who study there.  It lends such a peaceful environment and beautiful setting for vacation in Luang Prabang.

While I’m sure the monks hate having their picture taken all the time (that’s why I took this one from the back), it really is fascinating to be walking down the street and pass by one or a few monks. Their robes are so brightly colored and when they pair it with another bold color…it’s just eye-catching and beautiful. And I can’t help but to take a quick snapshot!

Happy Birthday Hanoi (for what it’s worth)

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.)


Vietnamese Funeral

I learned on Thursday that my wonderful friend and maid, Hien’s mother had passed away.  While I could not attend the funeral on Friday, I did go to pay my respects yesterday.  I learned that her mother was a little ill, but in the course of 10 days, she became worse, was checked into the hospital and just couldn’t gain her strength back and was gone.  She was 87 years old.

Hien lives out in the outskirts of Hanoi.  It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get out to her area of town.  The village she lives in has about 300 families or so.  Kurt, Anna and Sean joined me on this visit, as Hien has worked with them for about six years.  Upon arrival, we were told there was another elder in the village who had passed away the day after Hien’s mother.  That service was held across from the home of Hien’s brother. We arrived at her brother’s house where family, friends and neighbors were gathered to pay respects, visit and mourn.  It seemed they were all a bit shocked and saddened by the quickness of her death; it seemed she was a relatively healthy woman.

In Vietnam, there are a few things they do differently than you or I might be familiar with.  An altar is created in the home displaying a photo of the deceased.  There are numerous offerings on the alter.  Flowers, fruit, foods, beverages and incense sticks are arranged on two or three tiers.  The Vietnamese believe that the relative must receive 3 meals a day for 49 days, as that is how long the stomach takes to decompose.  The incense sticks must be burning for 24 hours a day during this time, too.  All the family members wear black, but also a white headband, signifying the loss of a family member.  I couldn’t quite get the answer as to the meaning of the white head band, though.

After three years, the family will uncovered the buried body, clean the bones and put them in a special ceremonial box.  This is made usually of metal and are quite decorative.  When the family has found the perfect and lucky spot for their relative, they will re-bury the remains there forever.  The problem many Hanoians are facing now is that the city is expanding and the city building are starting to invade the countryside.  The families are very concerned as to what land they buy for their loved one, where the final resting spot is, because moving them after the “permanent” burial is considered terribly unlucky.  With a growing metropolis exploding in front of them, many folks in the countryside have had to relocate their ancestors to more remote areas.

The family takes about a week off to mourn, maintain the alter, welcome visitors and receive guests.  I was glad I could support Hien, as she has been so kind to me.  Her sister-in-law is quite good at speaking English and among other cultural points, we discussed tourism, her children and the family.  Hien is one of 8 children.  Her oldest brother died in the Vietnam War. (They call it the American War here.)  Her only sister died rather young of a “blood disease.”  Her father passed away some 24 years ago, and so Hien’s brother looked after their mother.  In Vietnam, boys are usually of more value simply because it is their duty to look after the elders and ancestors.

After our visit with Hien’s family and neighbors, after a moment at the altar to pay final respects and leave an envelope with a monetary gift, Hien walked us down the street and around the corner to show us the status of her house.  Her husband seems to be a rather “lazy” man and does not earn all that much money.  Hien has saved an invested $15,000 to buy land and the first story of her three story house.  She needs another $15,000 to finish the home. She anticipates it will take her another three years to be able to pay and so in the meantime, her home will be built brick-by-brick on a pay-as-you-go type basis.

You know, the occasion for visiting Hien was not a pleasant one, but she and her family were so generous with their time and so gracious to receive us…it ended up being a very pleasant afternoon, one full of cultural understanding and connection. It helped me understand a lot more about this one custom in Vietnam, but also a lot more about Hien.

The Destruction of a Villa

Across the lane from my apartment, there used to be this gorgeous villa. A family lived there for awhile, but then they moved. And then in moved the construction crews.  I woke up one day to men on the roof taking off the tiles and then endured weeks of jack-hammering as they destroyed the cement roof to make way for two more floors.  The sign above the gate says “Office Space and Serviced Apartments Coming Soon!” I’m sad to see the unique architectural features of this villa disappear into boxed frames and rectangle windows.

Fact of the matter is, Hanoi is one big construction zone.  Everywhere you look there are buildings being torn down, built up or even changed.  It’s part of a very enthusiastic master plan to make Hanoi a major metropolis. One has to wonder how this will all pan out.  One of the buildings that went up next to my friend Mette’s apartment building didn’t get authorization for the sixth floor they built, so they had to take it down a floor!  Can you imagine?

My neighborhood is a mixture of old French villas, traditional Vietnamese houses and newer apartment buildings (like mine).  With more and more foreigners moving to Vietnam and moving to my part of town, Tay Ho (West Lake), these type of construction projects are only going to continue.  In fact, since I moved into this apartment (#2 since moving to Hanoi), I have had ongoing construction next to and near me everyday.

I’m fascinated by the way home and apartments are built in Vietnam.  There is such a lack of order, no concern for safety, and construction sites are just an utter mess.  I’ve taken photos before of construction in my neighborhood, and have also been in the habit of taking a photo of this villa every few days or so.  Here’s a few to show the progress.

36 days to go

10/10/2010 UPDATE

This blog post was mentioned on October 8th 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! For my most recent post on the 1000 Year Anniversary of Hanoi, please click HERE.

9/24/2010 UPDATE

I wanted to see if anything has gotten better 20 days after my last post and many more days fewer than 36 to go until Hanoi’s 1000th Anniversary comes to town.  So I did some snooping in the new and found some more supportive articles that the 1000 Year Anniversary of Hanoi will bring more disappointment than celebration:

Vietnam Net Bridge feels that the government forgot tourism.

My favorite quote from this article is, “It seems they were not well prepared for the event and so they could not gain high results. Another problem is that there had been no clear-cut long term planning. They just waited until the last minute to try their best.” Funny thing is, this is the famous Vietnamese pianist talking about an international piano competition.  He happens to be performing for the opening ceremony on October 1st.

The words – golden opportunity for profit – is not what any tourist wants to hear!

I suspect that this type of exhibition will be everywhere.  1000 of this and 1000 of that on display. But could you imagine THIS???

And here finally is something which somewhat resembles a calendar of events.  Still looking for more details!

I want to make something clear….I feel very privileged to be here during this most momentous occasion. I LOVE festivals and celebrations.  That is evident if you’ve ever read some of my blog entries from Japan.  I really want Hanoi and Vietnam to shine during this remarkable milestone.  But having worked here for two years, I’m not even the slightest bit surprised by the lack of organization and the last minute planning…and the exclusion of the foreign community.  It’s turning out to be a very local and exclusive event…and that’s a real shame. 1000 only comes around once.  And I’d like to participate and really enjoy the celebrations!!!



The main photo above shows the countdown screen at Hoan Kiem Lake which helps all Hanoians eagerly anticipate Hanoi’s 1000th Anniversary.  The city is 1000 years old on October 10th. I’ve written before about the disorganization of the event and the lack of ability to capitalize internationally on such an occasion.  A few new decorations have gone up around the lake such as the banners and tribute to Ho Chi Minh for Independence Day, as you can see in the photos.

Unfortunately, Hanoi has not gotten its act together enough to really draw attention globally.  Working in tourism, it’s a big disappointment, as you have to rely a bit on the country and city to market the destination to foreign travelers.  And what better occasion than the 1000th – 1000!!! – Anniversary of the birth of your capital city!?!?!? There has been absolutely no international news or marketing for this event. Here are some local news articles I’ve found:

“The biggest concern now is traffic jams.” http://en.www.info.vn/society/122-facts/11092-many-heads-of-state-arriving-for-hanois-1000th-anniversary

Best Wishes Sent http://www.hanoitimes.com.vn/newsdetail.asp?CatId=79&NewsId=17675

Wow, this sounds fun… http://www.thanhniennews.com/2010/Pages/20100820213343.aspx

Where? Schedule? Tickets? http://www.thanhniennews.com/2010/Pages/20100904165116.aspx

I hear that just as they did for Independence Day (an every other holiday), the flowers will go up around Hoan Kiem Lake, and there will be fireworks…but what of festivals? There are brief mentions of activities, dignitaries visiting from other countries, parades, gala dinners, cultural shows and such but I have yet to see a website with a calendar of events, nor do I know when all these festivities will take place, if I need to buy tickets, where to buy the tickets, etc.  A little hard to participate when I have no idea who, what, where and when it’s happening!

My assistant told me a few weeks ago that the only news she could find through VNAT (Vietnam National Administration of Tourism) was an opportunity to advertise on the billboards which will go up around town.  In fact, if you take a look at their website (http://www.vietnamtourism.com/e_pages/news/index.asp) you can barely find a focus on the upcoming birthday. A few other organizations have contacted us to advertise in special tourist publications, maps and cookbooks for the month. I don’t want to advertise, I want to DO something, ATTEND something, WATCH a show, a parade, a concert…something… and CELEBRATE.  I simply cannot find the information on how to do that…and neither can any of my local staff.

In a time when SE Asia is fighting to attract tourists after an economic meltdown, H1N1 crisis, rampant reports of Dengue Fever, and political instability in Bangkok, Vietnam could have been the hero of the region by investing their resources to bring a positive focus to their country.  I’m sure that in 1000 years of history, there is a heck of a lot of culture, people, events, food and amazingness to celebrate and showcase to the rest of the world. I’ll be curious to see what actually happens come October, but at just 36 days to go, I have a feeling this is a huge, HUGE, opportunity missed.  And that’s really a shame.

Afternoon in Hanoi

After work today, I was eager to talk a walk about town.  I’ve felt a bit disconnected from Hanoi recently.  A few of my friends have either left or are out of town, and if it’s just me, I usually spend my free time at home at the computer.  I can always find something to do or someone on SKYPE to catch up with.

So I pushed myself to go to do a little shopping today.  I wanted to go to the camera shops to search for a case for my new camera and a new cover for my Mac.  I went into one shop and said, “Do you have camera case for Panasonic Lumix?” The clerk replied, “Do you need camera?” I pulled my camera out of my purse and it’s simple cotton sack I’ve been keeping it in. “Nope. I have the camera.”  She gave me the snottiest look and said, “No, we don’t have case.”  Ok fine.  Just because I am not buying the camera from you doesn’t mean you can’t sell me the damn case!

I quickly gave up on shopping after that first failed attempt (My patience has actually grown shorter in these 2 years in Vietnam) and decided to take a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake.  I just wanted a leisurely walk, soak up the sights and hit the refresh button.  I couldn’t walk five steps without someone approaching me.

I was ‘bothered’ by a kid trying to sell me guidebooks, or another who wanted to practice English or when I shifted sides and walked roadside, it was the motorbike, cyclo and taxi drivers begging for me to accept a ride.  I even had some expat dude named Isaak walk up to me, ask me if I spoke English and then proceed to tell me about a special tour I could take into remote villages.  Perhaps I normally would have spoken to the kid who wanted to learn English and engaged Isaak in a longer conversation about how he finds himself in Hanoi selling charity tours into the hillsides, but my whole point of taking a walk in the city was simply to observe the pace of life, people watch and soak it up a bit.  I didn’t have one moment to absorb anything because just as I finished brushing off one person, then next was approaching me. I felt like an offensive lineman trying to protect my QB! How am I supposed to feel the pulse of the city if I can’t sit for a moment to observe it?

Vietnam just celebrated it’s Independence Day, as well as the death anniversary of Ho Chi MInh.  Hoan Kiem Lake was also the hub of many activities, including the ever-present-on-special-holidays flower festival and fireworks.  I’ve included a few photos of the remains of the flower festival. You can even see the cyclo driver carrying a potted plant to his cyclo. That guy stopped three times to dig up flowers from the remaining pots. Madness!

I thought I would stop in one more shop before I went home, and that was a jewelry shop I like, where I bought my little dragonfly earrings.  Even in the tiny shop, I could not move an inch without the store clerk closely following my every footstep.  I tried to strike up a conversation, to no avail and then decided that it was time to go home. I fended off the meter-less taxi drivers, the questionable motorbike guys who in very creepy voices say as you pass by, “Moto?” I finally caught a Mailinh taxi. The guy has driven me home before and it did nothing to put me at ease that he told me my street and side lane before I could tell him.

I stopped quickly at L’s place to pick up some cereal and some spices, and while there, listened in on two uber skinny 20-something girls debate if they should break their diet and get a chocolate bar or an Atkins bar.  I didn’t bother to see what they chose. One of them proudly announced to the entire market that she would drink the large bottle of water by the end of the day. Um, whatever, girls.  No need to justify what you are buying to each other or the rest of us.  You’re young, you’re health conscious…we get it.  We actually don’t give a shit…just buy the damn items and move along.

I arrived home, cranked up the air con (it was 37/98 today) and sat down at my computer to unwind.  So much for my pleasant little afternoon in Hanoi.


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