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Lessons from 35,000 Feet

The last month or so has provided a lot of travel opportunities for me.  Most have been on business, but I did get to squeeze a weekend in there for myself.  Traveling in SE Asia has its good points and bad points.  Let’s start with the good…In less than an hour I can be in either Vientiane or Luang Prabang, Laos.  In two hours, I’m in Bangkok.  In just fours hours I can make it as far as Hong Kong or even Japan.  Living in this part of the world where a bunch of countries are mushed together has its benefits.  It’s one of the reasons I traveled through SE Asia last year.  It’s super easy to get from one place to the next.  And while there are some general similarities between Asian countries, an hour flight takes you to an entirely different culture.  And I love that.

The bad part about this area of the world is that it is still behind more developed areas.  Let’s take Vietnam for example…The Hanoi airport would be better off if they leveled the damn thing and put up tents.  The building is old, the airline employees are not all that nice and the waiting areas are tired-looking and uncomfortable.  Before you even get your boarding pass, you deal with people blatantly cutting in line, people who are standing so close behind you you can feel their breath on your neck (or smell their breath when they cough, as was the case on one travel occasion) and agents who appear that can’t be bothered to do their job.  Never mind the ridiculous number of delays the airline experiences and the lack of communication with passengers.

I’ve likened Vietnam Airlines to being one chicken short of a local bus.  It is probably the worst airline I’ve traveled with – ever.  Not only for the lack of professionalism of the attendants – falling asleep in the jumper seat as the plane is preparing for take-off should not be acceptable in my book – but also for the condition of the planes.  On one of my last fights to Saigon, I noticed that the hardware, like plastic coverings on some of the seat fixtures, were missing on several rows.  I’m still shocked by how many people on board have probably never flown before.  They have no idea that their ticket holds a seat number.  Many people sit where they want and get bumped a few times until an attendant explains where their seat is located.  Others walk aimlessly through the cabin and don’t know how to find their seat number, never mind figuring out if their seat is an aisle or window.  I quite nearly punched a guy who kept pushing me when the row of people in front of me making their way through the plane stopped and he yelled, “Move!”

Vietnam Airlines also has a very strange way of seating people.  If a flight is not full, they will clump people together in groups and leave several rows completely empty.  As of lately, I’ve been involuntarily seated in the exit rows on most of my flights.  I actually don’t like the exit rows.  You are not allowed to put your items underneath the seat, and call me crazy, but I’m not willing to put all my belongings out of sight.  The seat doesn’t go back, either.  I’m not 6’5″ and I don’t think I look particularly helpful or someone who stays calm in an emergency.  I have a feeling that in some training course, the reservation staff were told, “The foreigners like the exit rows.”  And so now I am getting in the habit of asking to NOT be seated in emergency rows.

It’s kind of funny that everyday I’m learning something new about this country and about working in SE Asia. Everyday poses some challenge.  I just never expected that I would learn so much while sitting in a plane so high in the sky!


On the Bright Side,


Hanoi Traffic

I remember L.A. traffic very vividly.  In your car, inching along the 10, not letting the guy who wants to cut in front of you into the space because he didn’t plan ahead….the people who stick their arms out the window to signal a sense of panic that they “really” need to get into the lane they are trying to merge in…merging onto the 405 and hoping like hell you can make the Santa Monica Street exit?  Sound familiar?

All I have to say is this…at least there are lanes on the freeway and for the most part, people stay in them.  In Hanoi….it’s utter chaos!  L.A. drivers wouldn’t have a chance here!  It would be road rage central!  Look how close that motorbike on the right is to the taxi! If that were your BMW or Mercedes, would you not freak out?

I think it would be hilarious to begin a reality TV show of rush hour commuters swapping modes of transport and  cities to see who survives the best and which people are truly the best drivers in the world. Hmmm…thoughts?

Tropical Rains

I just had to share this little video with you.  Shortly after a lovely lunch with my dear Pete, the dark clouds rolled in and the skies just opened up.  At first there was still some sunshine below the clouds.  But as the storm blew in from the East, it got darker the the winds kicked up even more.

Pete and I both made it home in time not to get drenched, but I just had to get my camera and take some video and photos.  It sure doesn’t rain like this in San Diego!!!

tropical rain

I really ♥ chocolate!!!

The Sofitel Metropole, the oldest and most prestigious hotel in Hanoi not only serves high tea, but a chocolate buffet!!!  Pete introduced me last month, and I just went yesterday with Mette and her mom & friends. It’s actually my third time in a month!!! I usually eat some bit of chocolate everyday anyway…but my goodness! I feel so divine and decadent at a chocolate buffet!!!

I’ve taken a few photos in my last two visits and give you a little taste here!


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.

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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