Here Comes the Storm

We’re right in the middle of it; the kids are in Hanoi with Keith and Trang while I’m down in Thanh Hoa. We are all edging into the red zone. Hold on tight.

Thank you, Weather Channel. Now I'm a little nervous.

Good Night and Good Luck

Last Friday was the last day for the A2 class; they’ll be taking the TOEFL-iBT in just a couple more weeks. As a way to celebrate the end of their studies and the final push toward their test, we went out to dinner as a group. Our original dinner with the students had been at a restaurant that prominently features goat meat (called “The Most Goat”) and we’d been secretly hoping we’d return there, but the students chose another restaurant, practically a stone’s throw from our dormitory.


Built over a small (possibly man-made) lake, the restaurant consists of a dozen huts perched in the water. It’s a quaint setting with palm-leaf thatch roofs that shade your view of the other diners and definitely gives it that oh-so-tropical feeling. Thang and Chinh made sure to order some food that the kids would eat (chicken, always chicken) and took care of the rest of the food. After about a 20 minute wait, it started coming out. First the bits of pineapple and cucumbers. Then nem… these little sausage style rolls of pork skin, meat and spices that are wrapped in banana leaves. They are actually pretty tasty if you can avoid thinking of skin while you chew.

Snails taste just as good as they look.

Next came the snails and after trying them I am completely perplexed by the Western notion of these as some sort of delicacy. They are chewy and thick and covered with a thin layer of mucus. It looked a bit like mildewed cartilage wrapped in nasal discharge and, personally, I’m not sure they tasted much better than that either. Yeah, definitely not a fan of the snails. It took forever to chew it up and get it down my gullet. Stuart tried, as well, and liked it just about as much. Audrey wouldn’t even come near the stuff.

Audrey got pretty creative with chopsticks and a disembodied chicken head.

But she did eat some chicken and rice. Chinh was nice enough to take it off the bones for us, not always an easy task, and find the best bits every time. We had both lemongrass chicken and grilled chicken, but they were vastly different. The lemongrass chicken came with mostly leftover bits of the bird. Rib pieces, tails, sections of the neck. Nothing with any meat and everything that made me feel like a neanderthal while chewing on it. Needless to say not much of it was eaten. Audrey found the head in there, though, nicely fried up, and was somehow able to get past the “ew” factor of plunging a chopstick in and made a little puppet. Oh my.

And I got my palm “read” by the Vietnamese teacher. Supposedly, I have a good Luck Line, meaning that I will travel abroad often (not often enough yet!). My Study Line is strong and shows that I will continue to learn and get more education (if I can ever afford it). My Love Line though is, as she put it, difficult. She said that your left hand is your love/romance hand and wanted to take a look at that to see if she could get a better answer, but the best that she could come up with after much inspection was that my love life is “complicated.” I think non-existent may be a better word for it, but it still got a good laugh. And then she measured the thickness of my hand, which isn’t so thick, and decided that I will never be rich (I was already quite sure of that) and that sometimes I will struggle financially (oh yeah, like every day). Audrey got the advice to exercise as her Health Line was a little weak and that she would get a Master’s degree someday. I can only hope.

After the palm reading and eating as much of the meat (including squid and fish, along with the snails, chicken and pork skin sausages), we headed out for karaoke. Well, the kids went home and most of the students went out to, as they call it, carry-oh-kay. I enjoyed myself as they belted out Vietnamese love songs and joined in for a mediocre rendition of “Let it Be.”

Thanks so much to everyone in the class who was there and for those who couldn’t be. I had a great time teaching you all and wish our time together could have been more than these quick seven weeks. The best of luck to you all! -Co Teresa

Even though I rarely sing at karaoke, I am going to miss these moments of craziness.
As always, the men brought out the shot glasses and got started right away. After several tries, they stopped asking me and moved on to trying to convince Stuart to give it a try.
Stuart finally got them to stop asking if he wanted a shot of Vodka by pouring it down his back. The burn on his skin was enough to convince him that it probably isn't so healthy going down one's throat, either.
Picking through the bits of meat to find the edible-to-us parts.
Just a handful of the A2 students: Na, Duc, Phuong, Chinh, Dan, Chien, Cuong and Chinh.

B is for Babies

This precious little one weighed in at less than 3lbs. at birth.

Today we were, after much planning and procrastinating, able to get out to the Thanh Hoa orphanage. Located much closer to the beach than the city, it’s a good-sized orphanage that is home to more then sixty children from the area. We’d gone at the request of an adoptive mom who had brought a little girl, Thuy, home from there last year. She had a letter and photos to be brought back to the caretaker and I volunteered to do it. It’s just taken me a few weeks to get it arranged with people to come along with me.

Giang, my student from two years ago, and Thang, a current student, accompanied the kids and me out to the orphanage with a bag of clothes and an envelope with the caretaker’s name on it. On arrival, the guard didn’t seem too sure what to do with us, questioning who we were, where we were from and what we wanted. The buildings were quiet (“Where are all the kids?” Audrey wanted to know. I assumed, correctly, that they were in class) and only a few adults roamed, looking us over a few times. Thang did all the leg work and tracked down the vice director of the orphanage who invited us up for a bit of tea and a little conversation. Continue reading “B is for Babies”

Us versus Them

Living out in Thanh Hoa, we see the same pale faces over and over again–the three of us plus one of the Kaplan teachers. That’s it. We never run into other Westerners at the supermarket or walking the streets of Thanh Hoa. And even though we know we look vastly different, we have stopped feeling vastly different. Familiar faces wave hello. We know where to get banh mi, how to get to the shopping center, who has the best fruit drinks and more. Each of us have begun to feel like we fit in somehow, that this place is our home in a unique sort of way.

Which makes it truly shocking when we disembark from the train in Ha Noi to face Westerners seemingly everywhere. When we arrived last night, we saw more than a dozen pale-skinned people like ourselves just in the train station. Checking in with the hotel, Americans passed by talking about how nice it is that everyone speaks English and I wanted to yell at them: “Only because you’re in tourism central. You should check out the real Viet Nam!”

On our way to get the fruit drinks we love so much, we managed to merge into a group of Australians coming around the corner. Loud and beligerent and distinctly new to Viet Nam. “Nothing worse than a bunch of drunk Aussies,” Stuart muttered for only us to hear and we laughed loud enough to prove our own Western tendencies.

We’re glad to find a donuts and pizza in Ha Noi, yet find ourselves frustrated with other Westerners clamoring for KFC. We know only the smallest bits of the language, yet belittle others for distancing themselves from the culture. We each complain about all the tourists in the Old Quarter, but this, too, is where we come each visit.

It’s hypocritical, I know. But it’s true that we feel a connection to this country, these people, that cannot be explained easily or readily. Maybe what we really want is for others to appreciate the beauty, depth and culture that exists outside the hop-skip-jump travel that keeps our fellow Westerners isolated from the realities of Viet Nam.

This Week’s Food in Pictures

Stuart's order of grilled beef with potatoes at Da Lan, an upscale restaurant in Thanh Hoa.
Banana Blossom Salad made by yours truly over the course of an hour. Delightful.
Nuoc Chanh Sua Chua (Yogurt Lemonade) and Sinh To Xoai (Mango Smoothie) at New Sky Cafe in downtown Thanh Hoa
Rolling out tortillas for Rice & Bean Burritos, using a spaghetti sauce-filled Milo bottle as a rolling pin.
Vegetarian Spring Rolls made sans recipe with mushrooms, carrots, noodles and onion.
A homemade doughnut that turned out looking a bit like a cow.

Weekend in the Rainforest

Since I’m working five days a week for the entire duration of our time in Vietnam, our chances of seeing much of the country are pretty limited. So I’ve had to come up with a short list of places we want to go. What we’ve decided on, and hoping to make it work, are visits to:

  • Ha Long Bay
  • Sa Pa
  • Cuc Phuong National Park
  • Sam Son beach
  • Hoi An
  • Tam Ky
  • Da Lat

We’ve been to all but Cuc Phuong and Da Lat on our last trip. And after the adventures of the weekend, we can cross the national park off our list of places to go. Been there, done that.

Check out the size of those Jurassic-style leaves.

I’d been trying to figure out how to get us to Cuc Phuong all week, hoping that I could find some student (past or present) to accompany us on the bus, then taxi ride up there, but that never quite worked out. As of Friday afternoon, I was thinking we’d just be stuck on campus for the weekend, the sole remaining residents who didn’t have somewhere else to go. Then it struck me. We’d been up that direction before, two years ago with Keith, and I remembered that the hotels offer tours out to Cuc Phuong, Tam Coc, Phat Diem, and Hoa Lu, among other area interests. I figured we could get up to Ninh Binh, stay in a hotel overnight and then hit the park in the morning on a tour arranged by the hotel.

And that’s just how it worked out.

My former student Thanh helped me get to the right bus and they dropped us off along Hwy 1 in Ninh Binh. I knew we hadn’t reached the area where the hotels were, having been to the city before, so we just kept walking up the road until I found the familiar intersection and within 10 minutes we were checked in and drinking water. We spent the evening strolling the area and enjoying a bit of ice cream a few doors down from our hotel.

Our detailed travelog (plus pics!) is on our Vietnam With Kids site.

Kitchenware–Vietnamese style

So certain niceties of life in America are missing here. One that’s come into clear focus here is the absence of kitchen tools. There are no mixing bowls; I use an empty saucepan. No measuring spoons, only a large spoon that I guess by. No one-cup or half-cup measure; instead I use a glass cup that looks like it might be about the same on one cup. We had no grater until yesterday when I found a handmade version at the market. Obviously made by hammering a nail into a piece of metal at an angle, then attaching that to a couple of sticks, it’s a primitive version of the one I have at home. But after trying to make hashbrowns last week by slicing into the potato then using the peeler/knife/bottle opener to make thin slices resembling grated potato… Well, I knew it was something I needed. The holes are a bit small, but I am hoping to be able to expand them a bit with the tip of the knife. The same knife I use to make holes in cans since I don’t have a can opener either. See, it really is the basics that you never even consider as luxuries. Those are the things I wish I had. A spatula. A can opener. Or one of the three blenders we have back at the house in Oregon. I sure will appreciate them when we return.

This is a photo of our kitchen now, complete with granite countertops, a shelf for dishes and another two shelves for food stuff. The sink is tiny, but it’s a real sink for washing dishes and includes a filter for the drain and a drying area to the right. Granted, the faucet isn’t firmly attached and swivels in every direction. But it’s so much better than what we had before.

Look at that lovely counter space! And a real sink!

No Look Monkey

Last Thursday, a monkey tried to attack me.

Unfortunately these didn’t taste any better than they look.

One of my evening students, Nam, and his wife took the kids and I out for a delicious meal of bun cha and then over to an enormous coffee shop/resort that is tucked away behind the city. The expansive grounds are covered with umbrella-covered tables interspersed with play structures, primarily metal swings in the animal shapes.

We meandered through and around to the other side of the building where an empty stage sat waiting a performer. Music blared from worn speakers, distorted. Nam asked if we’d like to sit up on the hill, a slight berm that overlooked the area and we jumped at the chance. The path was strung with Christmas lights, as were the slight trees that dotted the hill. We followed it up and each grabbed a swing.

There were eight of them up there—metal swings meant for two—perched above the crowd of empty tables. On a Friday night, I bet this is a hot spot to take your date.

We enjoyed the view of both the café and, behind us, the city park where locals were taking an evening stroll. Stuart and I had both ordered orange juice, though they were quite different when they arrived. My guess is that one was orange juice and the other was an orange lassi (made with yogurt).

dark night + flash = blurry pic (sorry!)

It was strawberry, chocolate and taro ice cream for Audrey, melting down the side of the dish before it even arrived at our table. She enjoyed the accompanying miniature umbrella more than most would, but it entertained our hosts, as well.

Mr. Nam had said there was a monkey and since we hadn’t seen once since our time in Tam Ky two years ago, we wanted to check it out before we left. Sure enough, tied to the tree by the motorbike parking was a sad little monkey. And then Stuart noticed the other one. Tied to another tree twenty feet away, another monkey sat, then stood, then paced. Not quite as depressing as the first, I went to take a photo of it. But it moved and the zoomed in shot only caught his tail end. Time to try again.

He wouldn't even look at me.
He wouldn’t even look at me.

So I squatted at the edge of the sidewalk and zoomed in again, determined to get a better shot of the animal. And in the matter of a second the thing was lunging at me. I jumped back faster than I have moved in a long time, heart racing, the monkey halted only by the length of his chain. It sauntered back toward the tree and we left without another pause. If I don’t see another monkey for another two years, it’s fine. I’ve seen it closer than I ever wanted to.

Joining Forces

A month or so ago, the organization that is handling the logistics of our volunteer trip got me in contact with another single mom who was contemplating spending some time in Viet Nam orphanages, as well. She lives in New Zealand and has a daughter a few years younger than mine. So, we’ve been chatting and she decided that she is going to go and will be heading there at the same time. -doing a happy dance- There are tentative plans to meet up in Ha Noi on 29 December and take the overnight train to Da Nang together. We don’t know, and won’t until December, whether we will be at the same orphanage/school, but just having another person there that we know (even if it is over the Internet until then) should prove comforting.

There are only two weeks left in the Spring term, that much closer to finally graduating. I was hoping to take what my university calls a Capstone course this summer that has participants volunteering in the Hmong community, but since I have to take another class on Marxist theory in English Lit criticism (doesn’t that sound thrilling, boys and girls?) and work almost full time, there is no way to fit it in and ever spend time with my kids (which will, in turn, make them angry and no fun to be around when I do find the time). So, I’ll take the theory class, possibly one American Sign Language course, too, then there will only be two more classes that I must take in the Fall. It’s so close I can almost see the diploma.

I Bought Them.

-deep breath-
I pushed the “book flights now” button and lived to tell about it, despite my worries of a panic-induced heart attack. We fly out December 26th on a 24 hour trip to Hanoi via Seattle (WA, USA) and Taipei (Taiwan). The kids’ excitement at having both passports and tickets took (most of) the fright out of it for me.

I’ve been emailing with the volunteer coordinator in Da Nang; his name is Viet and he took a couple of the photos on our main page. He said that we could request a location and I’m quite interested in Hoi An. There is an orphanage and community center that volunteers work at and I think I would enjoy both. The orphanage is for older children (11-20 years old), many of whom are not actually orphaned, but rather that their families are too poor to feed and school them. My second choice would be the House of Affection in Hue which is the home to orphans and street children, 4-16 years old. The orphanage also runs a school for children in the area, so it might be better for my kids (the kids will be the same age).

Preparations are beginning for our garage sale next month and I am amazed at how much stuff I actually own. I’m glad I’ll be weeding out so many of our belongings; who needs all these serving bowls, placemats, candle holders, picture frames, sheets, sewing patterns, etc.? I keep shaking my head in disbelief at the sheer volume, knowing full well that we don’t own nearly as much as “the average American family.”