Saturday, May 10, 2008

Day Twelve in Vietnam: May 24

24 May,
AM: Arrival Hue station at 8am.
Transfer to hotel.
The rest of morning will be visit to Imperial Citadel.
PM: Boat trip along Perfume river to visit Ming Mang mausoleum and Thien Mu pagoda and Dong Ba market.

The train to Hue is a dive. Ken says this is much closer to how the Vietnamese really travel; I say "no thank you." It's not one single thing: herky-jerky motion of the train, the non-functioning AC, the blaring loudspeaker (a form of torture?) or the grimly grimy berths and dubious linens or the sullen, imperious staff...but put this all together with the toilet which consists of a hole in the floor of the train, and you have a recipe for true grodiness.

We find that there is a (relatively much nicer) toilet with an actual seat in it in the car next door, and I go to investigate. As I am washing my hands, I hear a loud grating noise. Hmm.... I try the door. It won't open. I try is locked. I am trapped in the loo. I try knocking on the door, calling out, to no avail. For the next ten minutes I alternate between tapping out an SOS with my chapstick on the metal door and calling out, "Help! I am trapped in the the toilet!!!" but the noise from the train prevents me from being heard. It is really hot and the sweat pours from my face. Surely one of my party must figure out I am missing... or perhaps they will find my body days from now, a victim of heat exhaustion, or terminal grodiness. "If only she had not drunk the water!" Tragedy in the Loo: film at eleven. The innate humor of the situation keeps me from despair....after all, someone has to come by...

another five minutes pass and I go for the big guns, banging against the door with my foot. Finally the door opens and an enraged train official is on the other side, yelling at me angrily in Vietnamese. I yell back: "The door was locked!" He is not mollified. I give up and trek back to my cabin to tell the sorry tale. I use the hole in the floor for the rest for the trip, which is not much better.

And then, finally, when we reach our clean, luxurious hotel in Hue, it is like Heaven. Absolute heaven.

Day Eleven in Vietnam: May 23

23 May,
Ha Long Hanoi/ Hue Road/ Train HA LONG BAY
morning swim.
Back to Ha Noi.
19:00: Overnight on train to Hue.

In the morning after a swim, a cup of coffee and a roll we divided up into "away teams" to explore a lagoon accessible only at low tide, through a natural entryway carved out of the rock (I'll try to load a picture later). It was so peaceful! Then, brunch.

All too soon it was time to return to the mainland. Our taste of how the other half lives was marvelous. but nonetheless moments of uneasiness intruded into our luxury: the ship was often approached by small sampans rowed by local women selling cold drinks, snacks, and souvenirs. "Hello!" they called, "You want to buy something?" I admired their industriousness at the same time as I felt the gap between affluent Westerner and impoverished native emphasized. I felt guilty, as I had so many times while traveling here. Sure, my tourism dollars are helping the economy, but once again I felt the huge discrepancy between our lives. I hope I never complain about my modest professor's salary again--it could support an entire village here.

Ha Long Bay. Beautiful.

Day Ten in Vietnam: 22 May

22 May Hanoi Ha Long Road HA LONG BAY AM: Transfer to Ha Long City through the Red River Delta. PM Transfer to Bai Tho Boat for lunch with fresh seafood, then cruise Ha Long Bay. Stop at Titop Island to relax and swim. “Relax under the starlit sky before retiring to the comfort of your cabin.”

Ha Long Bay is one of the most beautiful and romantic sights in all of Vietnam, if not the world. (Liam, we will go back together one day...) As the Lonely Planet guide describes it, "majestic and mysterious, inspiring and imperious..." The name Ha Long means "where the dragon descends into the sea": the Bay and its many islands created from the thrashing of the dragon as it wriggled its way to the shore.

We drove from Hanoi early this morning and arrived at the Bay by late morning. We won't be staying near the bay...we'll be staying ON the bay, in a motorized junk By a stroke of luck, our twenty-person party has scored a boat big enough to hold all of us, and small enough not to share with any other groups. So, in essence, Private Cruise on the Victoria 4!!!. A smaller motorized ferry took us out to the main ship.

Lunch was a fabulous seafood feast, with a complementary glass of wine (and the prices ensure that this will be our only glass). When they brought out the first course, steamed crab, I nearly swooned (Avie loves her seafood!). Next we had shrimp, then octopus, and finally, broiled fish.

The afternoon was spent in gliding around the islands that dot the Bay, and we all piled into the small boat and stopped at one point to explore Sung Sot (“Amazing Cave,”), a large series of caves on one island. Then we returned and after anchoring in a quiet area, we had a swim from the main ship. I must admit I was a bit apprehensive to jump off the second story of the ship--I am afraid of heights and it requires not only the --but I felt I had to keep up the honor of the professors, as Ken had already (literally) taken the plunge.

Here is a great photo of the students jumping in:

Here is a photo taken from the water (Ken held the camera with one hand as he treaded water!) I am standing to the extreme right (discretely covered with a towel) as I attempt to gather enough courage to make the jump. (There will be no photos of me in my bathing costume...I can't risk becoming an Internet pin-up sensation)

The evening was quiet and cool. Sunset came early and the ship dropped anchor for the night.
We watched Indochine in the dining room after another seafood dinner that could not be beat. I celebrated with a glass of Jameson's (pretty pricey but worth it!) Our cabins were cozy and beautiful.

Day Nine in Vietnam: 21 May

AM: Visit to U.S. Embassy, NGO Resource Center to speak with NGOs about development in Vietnam
PM History museum, Hoa Lo prison, Water puppets show this evening.

A most fascinating and diverse list of activities for the day!

First off, we went to theUS Embassy in Hanoi. Passports were scrutinized, we went through security, and received a visitor's badge. The building we wnet into is not the main Embassy buiding, so it was guarded by local guards, not U.S. Marines. We talked with Ralph Falzone, a Foreign Service Officer at the Embassy. After a very interesting overview of his career path (including how difficult it is to pass the foreign service exam!) he gave us a short briefing on some of the main emphases of the work in Vietnam (the most significant being human rights and children's welfare). He said that due to some major abuses, adoption of Vietnamese children by Americans would probably be put on hiatus for at least two years. His own work was focused primarily on human rights. He was very personable and the Q and A was fascinating. I asked about child labor, and he said that in the villages it is very hard to regulate, mainly because so many children work on the farms, and sell trinkets to tourists. All too soon we had to leave.

The next spot was a visit to talk with two NGO (non-governmental organization) workers, Andrew, working with Catholic Relief Services, and Ted, with Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, both of whom have been in Vietnam for about ten years. Of course, they are not allowed to address faith-based issues, but they do valuable work in improving the lives of the Vietnamese through health education and other programs. Check out the links for more info.

After lunch,we went to the history museum, which was rather a disappointment, as most of the emphasis was on prehistory, and most of the later historical exhibits were heavy on (non-translated) texts and not so much on individuals. (For example, I'd like to have seen more emphasis placed on Hai Ba Trung, the two sisters who launched a rebellion against the Chinese in the first century AD.) But there were some superb bells on display, as well as another massive stele on an equally massive turtle (symbol of longevity)

Later on, a tourist activity sine qua non: the Water Puppets (in Vietnamese "Múa rối nước. We poured into the Water Puppet Theatre Than Long with about 2 million other tourists and crammed our bodies into the very tight seating (obviously not designed to Western proportions!) The loudspeaker gave a brief intro in Vietnamese, English, and French, and the band of traditional Vietnamese instruments gave a short number to begin.

What are water puppets, you ask? Good question. They are (usually wooden) puppets that float on the surface of a submerged stage, and are manipulated by means of very long poles by artists behind a curtain. The movements are very intricate. Each separate piece or story (which deal with life in the village, nature, episodes in the life at the royal court) is accompanied with music and sometimes an explanatory song (in Vietnamese). It was quite entertaining but I couldn't really see myself going back for was good to experience it once.

Here is a link--I can't make the embed work.

Day Eight in Vietnam: 20 May

20 May, Viet Tri Hanoi Road
Hosted by MCC / Thanh Thuy Women’s Union;
Back to Hanoi by bus in p.m.

More meeting with local dignitaries, more speeches, and then one of the highlights of the trip so far: a visit to two primary schools in the area. We came prepared, with candy. As we handed each child a piece, they did not eat it, but put it on the desk in front of them (three pupils to a desk for most of them, on tiny chairs). Only after they had invited all to share in the food (a necessary ritual for the Vietnamese) were they given the ok to eat them. So very solemn!
Both schools had at the front of the room, in position of honor, is a photo of Ho Chi Minh surrounded by children ("HCM loves the little children, all the children of the Nam...")
The teachers proudly put a few star pupils through their paces, singing songs and giving short recitations (none of which I could understand, all of it being in Vietnamese) and we answered by singing a couple of songs. ("The Hoky Poky" was a big hit.) The we drove off, with all of the children waving enthusiastically at us.
The next school was even smaller and more remote, and intensely hot. They turned on the fans for us (Evidently they did not need them). More candy, more songs, from them and us, and this time "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" was a winner. Our guide led it in Vietnamese.
Here is a group photo of us with the children. The local dignitary is on the extreme right as you view the photo.
Lunch was at a local restaurant where the big hit was a pet monkey. Michael and Joel became its BFF.
The food was great and very authentic, including what is becoming one of my very favorite dishes, water spinach. The chicken we ate had had a rough life, being tough and lean, but the grilled pork was spicy and tasty. How they manage to turn out such fabulous dishes in the most rudimentary of kitchens is extraordinary. A cat and her kittens wandered the restaurant.
Then we dropped off our honored guests and began the long, bumpy ride back to Hanoi. Tonight we will stay at the Van Xuan Hotel in the Old Quarter, where we had previously stashed our main luggage. (We have been living out of a small backpack for four days).

Day Seven in Vietnam: 19 May

19 May, Hanoi Viet Tri Road HANOI/THANH THUY
Hosted by MCC Vietnam.
Go to Thanh Thuy District to visit MCC rural development projected.
Hosted by Thanh Thuy Women’s Union

Today is my and Liam's tenth year anniversary. That he has agreed to let me go off to Vietnam and spend our anniversary apart is a testament to his respect and love for me. Liam, I miss you and love you very much.

After returning to Hanoi and cleaning up as best as possible in a truly dive hotel next to the train station, we were off again; this time in a bus headed for Than Thuy.

Than Thuy is a district in Phu Tho Province (for more info, see the wiki article.), one of the places where the Mennonite Central Committee is engaged in aid that "includes working with partners in projects in agriculture, income generation, women’s reproductive health, children’s nutritional needs and HIV/AIDS prevention."

We were pleasantly surprised to be housed in a very nice complex where retired government officials from Hanoi come for R and R. We met with the local province dignitaries who gave speeches about the great things the Communist Party is doing in their province. That night we had a "cultural exchange" which consisted of three hours of karaoke-style singing by the local Vietnamese (dressed in their finest), with three songs thrown in by our students (Including "Do Re Mi" from the sound of music)

(I must finish this post later as we have just enough time to catch some dinner before our busleaves forthe train station.)

Day Six in Vietnam: May 18

Sapa Lao Cai/ Hanoi Train SAPA
Long trek to visit beautiful village named Lao Chai & Ta Van,
get in local house to learn about the life of local people.
Back to Sapa town by bus.
Free for shopping at Sapa market until transfer back to Lao Cai railway station to catch night train back to Hanoi.

Very soggy day! Our long trek to Lao Chai and Ta Van was pretty wet. We were escorted all the way by the omnipresent enterprising Hmong women, always trying to sell us their handicrafts. They have hand-embroidered textiles (purses, wallets, tablecloths) and hand-made jewelry. It's hard to depict just how persistent they are...when a bus of tourists stops, they surround it like wasps...One feels very conflicted: one the one hand I have nothing but sympathy for their plight: they see us (quite rightly) as extremely wealthy and while ten dollars to us is a couple of cafe mochas, to them, it is over half a month's income. On the other hand, their aggressive sales tactics are quite uncomfortable. They seem to follow the same sales manual: first, they ask you your name and where you are from. Then they ask about children, husband, ...and then the sales pitch begins in earnest. If you get to this stage, they assume that a personal relationship exists and that you will buy from them. But if you buy anything from one, this unleashes a flood of indignant entreaties: "You buy from her, you buy from me...YOU BUY FROM ME!!! They can be very unpleasant if you do not buy from them. One of the students was quite shaken when a Hmong woman cursed her out for not buying from her. And so it is best not to respond to their insistent "Madame! Madame!" But nonetheless, I did buy some presents here.

The houses in the Hmong "beautiful villages" are dark and sanitation is minimal. Children are dressed in dirty clothes and covered with insect bites. They mainly grow rice (in long terraces lining the hills) and corn, and keep poultry (chickens, ducks and things that are larger but don't look like turkeys....your guess is as good as mine) and the occasional pigs. What I found most depressing was the small markets we passed (little more than a shed with a table) which sold bottled water and snacks to that I am sure they could never afford to eat themselves. But lest I paint too bleak a picture, I should say that conditions are much better than in previous decades and tourism has a lot to do with this, and wealth does not always equate to happiness. One of our students is Hmong, and she could speak to them in their native language. Here she was, going to college in America: it must have been amazing for them to imagine.

So, Sapa was a blend of good and bad: the tourists that keep the local economy running may be discouraged from a second trip by the off-putting strong-arm sales tactics of the Hmong peoples, but I suspect there will always be more tourists. Nonetheless I was a bit relieved to board the bus back to Lao Cai station.

Day Five in Vietnam: 17 May

17 May, Lao Cai Sapa Road SAPA
Arrive Lao Cai railway station at 6am.
Transfer to Sapa (~37km). Have breakfast at local restaurant and free for visiting Sapa market.
12:00: Have lunch.
PM: Nice walk to visit Cat Cat village and Cat Cat stream of the Black H'mong people (~5km).

It is time to leave Hanoi for a time and travel northwest to visit the areas of the Montagnards (mountain people). Our base will be Sapa, "Queen of the Mountains" and it will take an entire night's train ride toget there.

"Who is it that does not love a train?" to misparaphrase Frost.

The gentle rocking, creaking, lullaby, the ever-changing view, cosiness and comfort, safety.

We climbed on the train last night and what a pleasant surprise to behold the clean, modern sleeper cars glowing with golden-reddish wood. It is the King Express. Out sleepr c\has four couchette, a talbe with candies and crackers...the toilets are even clean, with an outside sink for washing up. A drinks cart brings tea and juice for free, beer and other alcoholic drinks for a small fee. The students play Pit with the deck I brought with me, but must switch to "silent" mode when things get a bit too noisy. (We have most of this car, but not all of it.)

I take a top bunk and after the customary ablutions settle down for the night with a good book. Soon all the other inhabitants of my cart are asleep and I spend some time watching the scenery roll past. I hated to go to sleep to miss any of it, but eventually sleep I did, and comfortably, too.

I awoke at about 5 to find it already beginning to be light outside. I dressed and stood in the corridor watching a new vista unfold. The wide brown river flows sluggishly. In the distance misty mountains cast their tranquil protective arms around the land.

We pass a brick-making"factory"--little more than a pile of clayish dirt next to a pond. A boy trudges back with a five-gallon container of drinking water (obtained from how far away?). Fields of corn right up to the tracks, scattered villages, cool, green, damp, fertile.

Soon our train pulls into Lao Cai Station (a stone's though away fromthe Chinese border) and we all pile out. After breakfast (pho again, but I never tire of it) we climb aboard the bus tthatwill take us from Lao Cai to Sapa. It is a small bus and we are crowded in together.

Woven bamboo walls, infact bamboo used for all sorts of structures, corrugated tin roofs, chickens, dogs, water buffalo, a group of puppies gnaw on a stick... and incongrously, a satellite dish perched on the roof of one house. Many houses have electricity.

Winding, winding, winding up the steep mountain road. Second gear, first gear. We gaze down from the road onto terraces cut into the sides of the hills. When we finally arrive at Sapa it looks very much of an Austrian or Swiss mountain town--only with dozens of Hmong in traditional garb!

It's main market day in Sapa, and the streets are crowded. We check into our hotel and take advantage of the shower to clean up after the long trip. The damp and the steepness of the streets reminds me of Sintra in Portugal. We eat lunch at Gerbera, a restaraunt reached by a set of stairs up from the main drag. As we feast on local Vietnamese favorites, a cat growls (no, really!) under our tables.

The "Nice walk to visit Cat Cat village" consists of a walk straight down the mountain side. (Not so nice knowing that we will be climbing back up). To describe properly the experience withthe Hmong will require another post later on--it's time for bed.

Day Four in Vietnam: 16 May

AM: traditional cooking class in Hanoi
Visit Bat Trang ceramic village

21:00: Transfer to Hanoi railway station
21.55: Night train to Lao Cai.

This morning we went to Viet Cuisine and had a Vietnamese cooking class. First off, the chef took us on a tour of the Old Quarter farmer's market--not to buy, but just to see the wide range of products available. The level of hygiene was not exactly what we are used to in the states, what with raw meat and fish and seafood being prepared right on the floor of the stalls. Takes some getting used to, esp. the smells.
We returned to the restaurant and, after we all washed our hands, they ushered us upstairs to the second floor where a horseshoe-shaped set of tables was set up. We each got a chef's hat and an apron. We learned how to make four dishes:

Fresh spring rolls and dipping sauce
Chicken with lemon leaves
Fish with Tamarind sauce
Sweet potato pudding

The spring rolls were easy once you learned not to overload them: chopped lettuce, cilantro, rice noodles, pork (stir-fried with peanut butter!!!) and a cooked shrimp (artistically arranged), wrapped in a rice paper wrapper.

The dipping sauce had fish sauce, water, sugar, garlic, and lime juice, plus one hot pepper for flavor.
The lights went out during the stir-frying phase, but came back on after a minute or so

We ate the spring rolls right after making them for our appetizer.

We had to debone the chicken quarters--I had an advantage over the students because I do this often at home, as it is much cheaper to buy the chicken quarters bone-in, so I got some praise from the chef. Then we put some plum sauce on the non-skin side, and pressed a few lemon leaves (maybe they were actually lime leaves, as they referred to lime juice as "lemon juice"). These were to marinate for about 15 minutes, and then pan-fried.

The fiash was catfish, filleted and cut into three-inch square pieces. We scored cross-hatch marks into the flesh and put finely sliced ginger on top. The tamarind sauce was already prepared, but they gave us a recipe for making it from scratch. Then you steam the fish.

The most surprising dish was the sweet potato pudding. We began by finely dicing (white!) sweet potatos and puttign them into boiling water to cook. When they are easily "mushed" they are done, but midway through this process the lights went out, and this time it was for good. So the chef finished the pudding on a gas burner. You add coconut milk, cornstarch, sugar, and finely julienned ginger to the sweet potato mixture to finish.

Then we all trooped down to the first floor to enjoy the fruits of our labor, eating by candlelight.

Everythign tasted wonderful, esp. the chicken. The chef fried the lemon leaves as well, and the crispy leaves tasted just like (really!) Fruit Loops.

This would be an easy meal to make at home (add steamed rice), and I will definitely make it for Liam upon my return.

Well, one of the students needs the computer, so I will finish later.

Day Three in Vietnam: 15 May

Hanoi Ninh Binh
AM: Travel to Phat Diem (~150km), visit Phat Diem Stone Church in the morning.
Back to Ninh Binh town for lunch
PM: Sampan rowing trip along Ngo Dong river.

A very long bus trip today, on some pretty bumpy roads. Our destination, Phat Diem Stone church, is actually part of a large complex including several shrines as well as the cathedral.

During the French ocupation, this area became heavily Catholicized, and the Cathedral itself dates to 1891. Built of massive greyish-black stone, it is an imposing and somewhat ominous edifice. On the weekday we visited, it was pretty much deserted except for a few other tourists and a couple of beggars at the gate, and a group of Vietnamese women who either wanted me to buy their their babie or (more likely) subsidize their maintenance. The church is massive, weighty, and except for the ornate altarpiece, very simple in style. Massive wooden columns hold up the vaulted ceiling, and plain benches and kneelers fill the church. We entered from the sides, which open up to allow in light (a good idea--I did not see any electric lights on inside the church.

The main idea I got from the church is the fusion of Christianity with Vietnamese culture. Although the Mdonna and Child--indeed, virtually all the statues (Peter, Paul, the four Evangelists) were all depicted with western features, nonetheless the architecture itself is an interesting mix of western and eastern. I'll try to post some pictures tomorrow as I manage to download them onto Ken's computer.

After luch we went to the Ngo Ding River for a sampan (small rowboat) trip through the three grottos on the river. We all climbed into the boats, which were rowed by the local women (indeed, Vietnamese women seem to do the lion's share of all the hard work here!). Some of them are able to row with their feet--an impressive accomplisment and a logical one considering female anatomy). Kenm, who speaks pretty good Vietnamese, chats with our rower, and we both lend a paddle. The grottos are large hollows in the limestone rock above the river, and in places are so low that one needs to watch one's head to prevent decapitation. At the midway point schools of vendor-sampans converge on us for the big sell: drinks, fresh fruit, candy...and encourage you to buy refreshments for the rowers as well.

I am reminded of that scene in Apocalypse Now when they are journeying down the river, but this is quite a different atmosphere. For one, there are no hostile locals (there will be later when the tips are not what they expect, but that is proleptic) and the scenery is lush but not overgrown. On the way back our rower brings out what she acknowledges herself is the main moneymaker for her: hand-embroidered tablecloths and other linens. We (or Ken, rather) haggle for a while, and then let the matter rest, then discuss it a bit more, he wants a tablecloth for his wife, and I want a gift for my aunt Jane-Ann in Georgia.
By the end of the ride all parties are satisfied, and I have in the bargain a lovely small spring-green pillowcase to fill with lavendar as a sachet.

Not all the others have such a good experience: their rowers are quite aggressive in their request for tips and make their disappointment very plain. Although it can be offputting, when one is objective it's is hard to fault them: what seems to us like pocket money is an entire day's wage or more to them and they have come to look upon Westerners as their bread and butter...

On the long trip back I once again find the endless lines of small shops on each side of the road fasicnating. How many com pho shops can one kilometer support? Ten? Twenty? How do they make a living???

We arrive home road-weary and when we got off the bus I find I am still moving up and down from the hours of motion. In our room it is difficult to stay awake long enough to jot down some notes from the day without nodding off.

Day Two in Vietnam: 14 May

AM: Visit to the “most important attractions of Ha Noi city: (Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, One pillar pagoda, The temple of Literrature [sic].
PM: Visit Ethnology Museum & Cyclo tour into the old quarter of Hanoi.

Good Morning Vietnam! It is Wednesday, ostensibly the second day of our travels in Vietnam, but the chronology got a little muddled yesterday.

Today we visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. No shorts, no
sleeveless shirts allowed. Long lines of very small schoolchildren (girls in their best pink dresses) each one clutching the garment of the one in front--fussed over, like so many chicks, by their guardians, who occasionally pour cold water down their beaks. Some groups are wearing color-coded hats. Ken talks and jokes with them in Vietnamese. The long line snakes under a thoughtfully provided canopy which shields us from the worst of th e sun. No Cameras Allowed. Keep a Dignified Demeanor. No Jokes. No wearing underwear. (!)We proceed quietly and dignifiedly up the stone steps into the cool of the Mausoleum and into a large, dark. cube of a room. No Hands in Pockets. In the center, in a large glass coffin (much like a Communist Cinderella), lies the body of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's great Leader-Hero, bathed in golden light, improbably well preserved, waxen face, white goatee. Uncle Ho rests uneasily here. His wishes were for a simple cremation, with his ashes divided into three parts, one for each part of Viet Nam: the North, the Central Area, the South. It was not to be. Icons must serve their larger purpose.

Four guards stand, implacable, in a well surrounding the body. Two lines file past; the young children gazing with puzzlement, with curiosity, at the body.

As we emerge into the sun, we pass the four guards who will relieve the other group. (Drat! We miss the changing of the guards by seconds!) I try to think of some sort of comparandum to what we have just seen: perhaps if we had been of an age to remember the funeral of JFK, our own martyr-hero? [Would we have felt the same awe and respect? Princess Diana? The death of Pope John-Paul?] But we do not mummify our rulers and put them on display. Relics...saints...improbable stories of incorruptible flesh and the odor of sanctity..but they were never packed up and sent off for two months to Moscow for maintenance...Maybe we need more heroes.

After the mausoleum we pour out into the plaza where Ho Chi Minh declared independence in 1954: time for a group photo (I'm on the far left, in the hat). Then we visit the humble house on stilts where H.C.M. spent the last days of his life (1958-1969). The area is idyllic: botanical gardens with huge ancient trees, birds, chirping, butterflies...I want my own house on stilts.

Here is the refreshment stand with variable pricing [Price of bottled water for Westerners: 10,000 Dong (about 60 cents). Price for Vietnamese: 5,000 Dong]
Now we are off to the Temple of Literature, founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong and dedicated to Confucius. Vietnam's first university was established here in 1076 and from 1484 to 1778 lists of students who passed their royal exams are recorded here. The lists of names are inscribed on stelae, and it is considered very good luck for students to rub the head of the turtles (symbol of longevity) upon which the stelae are supported. Comparisons are odious, says John Donne, but where is our Temple of Literature? (One of our students is disappointed by the false advertising, expecting a sort of manuscript museum, with actual literature)

Day One in Vietnam: 13 May: in medias res

"09.50 a.m.: Arrive at Noi Bai international Airport in Hanoi. Meet and transfer to hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi."

in medias res: a Latin term most often associated with Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, best translated "in the thick of things".

With my limited blogging time, I am going to skip over, for now, the plane flight and cut to the chase...

We are on a bus barrelling its way into the heart of Hanoi's Old Quarter. The outskirts of the city are an emerald checkerboard of rice paddies, interrupted occasionally by the odd patch of corn or garden plot with all sorts of vegetable. There is not a brown spot to be seen, except for the small dirt roads that connect the fields. (Dorothy, we are not in Fresno any more!). This area is still very much rural.

The simile is overworked, but appropriate: Hanoi is very much like a frenetic anthill of activity. Even more appropriate when you see the small motor bikes laden with impossibly large cargo: a huge TV, 50 dozen eggs, stacks of all manner of vegetables, large blocks of ice, and, of course, human cargo: two, sometimes, three to a bike, babies and children two, all waving in and out of the larger vehicles with what appears to be suicidal abandon. Horrendous ccidents seem inevitable, (although in reality they rarely happen) and the air is punctuated with the almost constant beep of truck and motorbike horns: warning, chiding, complaining, retaliating.

This, more than anything else, is one's first impression of Vietnam: a dizzying blur of traffic; a cacophonous symphony of horns.

With so much activity all around, one's eyes fly from one unfamiliar sight tot he next: the architecture (more on this later), the women in traditional conical bamboo hats, the small shops, the massive omnipresent billboards. It is sensory overload.

Welcome to the Nam!