Friday, August 29, 2008

A break from the heat

For the last couple of days the weather here in Hanoi has been beautiful. Beautiful in Vietnam means you don't sweat through four outfits per day! The humidity is so bad here that it feels like you're locked inside a small inclosed, wet sauna left on high. But lately there has been a breeze. Not Hawaii breezy. But enough for us to go outside mid-day, and not contemplate slitting our wrists. If I sound over dramatic, consider that most locals and school children take a break from 12-2 to get out of the heat. A Vietsiesta. So I'm not the only one. Anyway, yesterday Pearce and I went out to the pool. Of course our little water boy was in heaven.

Pearce is holding onto the last step letting his legs freely kick around. He thinks he's swimming. He is very proud of himself, shouting "look mumma, I'm doing it, take a picture."

Pearce and a friend. Pearce sure misses playing with Connor. But he is always happy to meet a new friend. His favorite demographic is 7-12 year old males. Most of the kids Pearce meets at the pool don't speak English. But some how they manage to communicate just fine.

We ate lunch. Notice the big holes in the bread. Guess who. I did manage to sneak a few bits of burger into Pearce. It's a big deal. He is finally branching out to other meats besides snake.

Pearce then decided to take a never ending shower, cleaning all his pool toys and shoes. A short flick, watch Pearce playing in the shower. Sorry I had problems uploading the film. I will try again tomorrow for all those die hard Pearce fans.

Pearce is slowly getting tired. Nap time. I have realized how sleep deprived Pearce is in Hawaii. We live in the city high above every thing on a very busy intersection right next to a hospital. We constantly hear ambulances, firetrucks, police sirens, and honking. Pearce averages about 6-8 hours per night, and maybe a one hour nap if I'm lucky.

But since we have been at the quiet Intercontiental, Pearce has been sleeping an extra two hours per day and night. I've decided moving to a quiet area is priority No. 1. More sleep for Pearce means more sleep for me and Eric. Hurray!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Snake'n around!

Last night our friends Nam, his wife Trang and daughter Y (pronounced EE) took us to one of their favorite dinning spots.

This is Nam and his family. We followed them on our own motorbike. I have to admit I do like riding by motorbike. It's a new type of freedom that awakens all my senses. Especially in such a dynamic country like Vietnam. Cars are great, but you miss the smells, the feel of the weather, the personal connections made with the chaos of every day life and with the people. Drivers constantly rev up next to us and start a conversation. It's classic. The down side is that after 20 minutes of driving your butt is numb, your ears half deaf from the honking war raging around you (honking is a religion here), and the thick film of sweat covering your skin is coated with road grime and exhaust particles (hence the re-emergence of any adolescent acne).

This place was definitely out of the way, beyond the outskirts of Hanoi. Down a small alleyway we stopped in front of this small restaurant called Ran Rao, which specializes in "11-course" snake cuisine.

The first thing we noticed as we entered the patio of the restaurant were the cages. Each one contained a different type of snake. We were asked to pick the snake we would like to dine on. Feeling queasy yet?

The owner made sure we had a chance to physically bond with our dinner first. Little Y was not thrilled about this tradition.

Pearce was undecided on how to feel about the snake.

I made my feelings known...Ehew. But I would way rather hold a snake than a tarantula.

Part of the dining experience is to watch them cut out the heart and liver, then drain the blood that will be included in the meal. It deserves motion rather than a picture. Watch with discretion...There will be blood!

After the carnage of death, we were ushered through the different levels of the restaurant, each showcasing different variations of bottled snake wines. Apparently, this restaurant consistently wins first place for its snake wine.

Bottled snake wine.

Bottled worm wine on the right. The balls in the wine vat on the left are just that...balls. Testicles to be more medically accurate. Mainly from cows, but we wouldn't count out some human ones making it in there.

Once we climbed up four flight of stairs we found our table and this very large jar of wildcat wine. Apparently you can only drink this wine if you are over the hill. It is "known" to help ailing back problems. I would rather just deal with the back problems. Or pop an Advil.

This was our selection of drinks.

What's "no thank you" in Vietnamese again.

Of course, Pearce dives into the only bread item at the table. The red snake blood wine drink in the left corner is the first of eleven dishes that were made from the snake we chose earlier (plus two of his buddies). Of course ,we didn't drink it...besides the alcohol, we're not that into drinking blood. But our friend Nam did.

The meal began with ground snake bones (far right, dark brown), two different types of snake spring rolls (green at the top and and brown in the middle), snake stir fry salad (far left), and snake skin with sesame seed batter deep fried (bottom right). All the small dishes are dipping sauces with mixes of sea salt, pepper, lime juice, and diced hot red peppers.

My first taste of snake bones on flat bread. It was wasn't bad. Crunchy. Very crunchy.

BBQ snake with spine in tack. Actually, this one was one of my favorites. The sauce was delicious. In fact, all the sauces were delicious. The owner of this restaurant works in Hanoi as a Sous Chef for a $30 per plate Italian-Vietnamese fusion restaurant. Still, Eric insists that Todd's Buchli Lake Snake recipe was just as good.

This was another of my favorite dishes, which I ate a lot of. It wasn't until after the meal, Eric tells me it was snake intestines. I am glad he waited. I swear it was really good.

Two different types of snake soup. One with rice and the other made like Pho.

The last dish was rice cooked in snake oil. And there you have it, all 11 dishes. Enough snake for a lifetime. But one of the craziest parts of the night wasn't the just the food.

Pearce, who won't eat chicken, beef, fish, or pork...let alone 95% of all fruits and vegetables, ate the snake! This, after he watched the thing get slaughtered. I give up. There is no chapter on this in any of the child rearing books. My child only eats pancakes and snake. As crazy as that was, I did leave the best for last. What, there is something crazier than Pearce eating snake? Yep. Eric eating a live, beating snake heart. Viewer discretion beware.

The lesson learned is that Eric is a real man, Pearce is unpredictable, and I can eat just about anything as long as it is prepared and seasoned well.

Monday, August 25, 2008

And four more baptisms!

Once again, this past Sunday before church, four young Vietnamese were baptized and confirmed. That puts the number of baptisms during our four Sundays here at 12. That's more than a branch per year...without the missionaries even allowed out their door. Imagine what would happen if they were unleashed! Sadly the missionaries are leaving for Cambodia this week to train several American greenies. Each elder gave a talk during Sacrament, sharing their testimony of the gospel. Their conviction blew us away.

We successfully kidnapped the Elders last Thursday and took them out for dinner. It was a night niether party will forget. We gave the Elders some fun dinner choices like Mexican, East Indian, and Japanese. To our surprise, they choose East Indian because neither had tried it before (and, if I accurately read their intensely distressed faces, never will again). While we ate, each Elder told of his converstion story. Eric heard the complete versions while I chased Pearce around, so I will let him tell more later. But he assures me that their stories are legendary. He's going to see if he can get them into the Liahona. It's refreshing and inspiring to associate with real pioneers.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bat Trang Village

There are over 3,ooo craft villages in Vietnam. One village that is famous for ceramics and pottery is Bat Trang. Saturday we ventured over the long dusty narrow roads that follow the Red River, to the small village by taxi. It was just too long, hot and dusty to carry a baby by motorcycle...for us. Those conditions didn't stop the locals. I did feel a tad of wimpiness come over me. But that quickly passed when I saw several motorbikes almost run over by trucks that took up the entire road.

On arriving to Bat Trang, Eric remarked how much larger the village had become and how there was more mass produced items than the last time he visited.

The parking lot in Bat Trang village.

Bat Trang produces items to sell on both the local market and abroad. We strolled around the village's small streets and alleyways watching and learning how an experienced artisans daily life goes.

This man is teaching us how to mold the clay with a turn board by peddling with his foot.

Next we watched the painters brush over each pot with precision, with thousands of pots waiting in the wings. Unsteady hand's need not apply. We skipped over the kiln tour. It was already too bloody hot.

Pearce got a chance to try painting a dish all on his own, along with the other ambitious sightseers.

Pearce posing with his master piece.

Pearce had decided that his artisans mark would be only painting the inner center and no where else. We tried to help him paint the sides or the back but he was adamant about only painting the inside 11 coats of colors.

After working up a painter's sweat, we stopped for a bean flavored ice cream. Yum? Not really.

One way to transport breakable items. Check out the plates that sit between the drivers legs.

Overall we had an interactive day. But in the end we came home with nothing. I am such a careful buyer. And if it doesn't emotionally sing to me I just can't buy it. And nothing sang.

Morning ritual

Since arriving in Vietnam Pearce has gone on a hunger strike. The food here looks a little different then the spread we offer him at home. But there are plenty of choices. Yet, for lunch, dinner and all the snacks in between, he only opts for bread and butter. That's it. If he was a POW he'd be fine.

Breakfast is a bit better. If you consider pancakes an improvement. Without fail, every morning the minute Pearce wakes up, we hear a small little voice coming from under his devet saying "pancake" over and over until we get up, dress and sonter down to the cafe. It's a buffet of delight waiting for us to overindulge. I can't blame him for exclusively eating the pancakes, though. They're sweeter and heartier than normal. Pearce does get some nourishment with his two drinks of choice; milk and apple juice. Both with a "straw please." The very attentive Vietnamese that work in the Cafe know his plan by heart and promptly bring him these items like he's some kind of prince.

Today, Pearce realized that blowing bubbles into his apple juice and milk made him and everyone around him laugh histerically. This caused a sudden surge of excitement to bolt through his body, followed by a realization that blowing bubbles into both his apple juice and milk symotaneously elicited even more response.

Here is a little bit of movie magic showing part of Pearce's morning ritual.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Old Quarter Streets

Two weekends ago, we decided to walk through Hanoi's Old Quarter. Eric has been to Hanoi a lot, but admitted he'd never done the 'tourist thing' and actually gone on the self-guided walking tour of Vietnam's most famous shop-a-thon. So off we went.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter is the oldest continuously developed area in Vietnam. Its history spans over 2,000 years. Located between Hoan Kiem Lake (or the Lake of the Restored Sword), the Long Bien Bridge, a former city rampart, and a citadel wall. The Old Quarter started out as a swamp full of crocodiles and snakes, which later evolved into a cluster of villages made up of houses on stilts. Later, Chinese administrators who occupied the area unified the villages by building ramparts around their headquarters.

The Old Quarter began to acquire a reputation when the Vietnamese attained independence in the 11th century and King Ly Thai To built his palace there. In the early 13th century, the collection of tiny workshop villages around the palace walls evolved into craft cooperatives, or guilds. Skilled craftsmen migrated to the Quarter, and artisan guilds were formed by craftsmen originating from the same village and performing similar services. Members of the guilds worked and lived together, creating a cooperative system for transporting merchandise to the designated streets in the business quarter. Each guild was set up on a different street. The streets were named after the merchandise sold or the work carried out. For example, you’ll find the 'blacksmith' street full of metal workers and the 'shoe' street' full guested it. Shoes.

In today's Old Quarter, you can still find any type of trade, and some streets still sell the original merchandise it was named after. Personally, it took some time to soak up the atmosphere and to get used to the noise, smells and chaos.

Eric and Pearce standing at the original entrance into the city.

Wendi and Pearce checking out the selection at the Old Quarter Market.

Eric and Peace deciding on what to baby crabs, eels or prawns. Pearce turned his nose up on all three "Eheww Mamma".

The parking situation: park where you can. Who needs side walks?

Pearce making friends with the locals.

We bought several gifts for some of our readers, including you, Connor. And we also had the worst chocolate ice cream of all time. All in all, it made for a good use of about five hours. Not sure if I'd want to live there. But shop? Absolutely.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hang'n with Lenin

At dusk, on any given night, Hanoi’s parks and lakes are full of hundreds of young lovers, elderly playing games, reading or sipping tea, groups of women exercising and families playing together. But one park in particular is my personal favorite for many reasons, one being the “in your face” irony of conflicting ideals. Let me explain.

The park was built in 1958 and inaugurated in 1960 with a statue of Vladimir Lenin. At that time, the country was divided into two parts with two different political regimes; the park was named Thong Nhat, meaning "united," to express the governments hope of reunification of the people. In April 1980, on the 110th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birthday, Thong Nhat Park was renamed Lenin Park. Nowadays, Lenin Park is situated on Dien Bien Phu St. Thong Nhat Park has its original name.

Beneath the gaze of Vladimir Lenin, the father of Soviet Communism, a group of teens in saggy jeans practice their break dancing, skateboards fly over curbs, trick BMX bikers bounce around, kids roller blade through cones, and toddlers joy ride in small replicated motorized motorcycles, SUVs, and cars to rent for 15 minutes at a time for 40, 000 with over twenty vehicles to select from. The delightfully ironic scene is so Vietnam, surrounded by rich traditions with a population moving lightening speed into the globalized world, while still tending to old political philosophies. I can only smile and wonder what Lenin would have thought.

One thing I do know, this is Pearce’s favorite place to go. He could cruise around in a motorized vehicle all night. And of course, Eric and I don't mind, we enjoy hang'n like locals.

Click on and watch this small snippet of toddler traffic jams.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

More Baptisms!

Once again, before church we attended a baptism for three wonderful Vietnamese young single adults. Pearce continually asked "what are they doing?" while we all huddled on top of the fourth floor covered veranda where the portable font was located. It was so hot. We all happily became a pool of sweaty bodies, all wishing we were the ones climbing into the cool waters of baptism. Four flight of stairs down to the open room, meant for a living room, but used as the main place the Branch congregates we sang songs awaiting for the newly baptized to dry and dress. Once arrived, Eric gave a talk on the Holy Ghost, in Vietnamese while Pearce and I listened on our translating head sets. The electricity went out (which is a regular occurrence) in the middle of the musical number, so we were honored to hear it twice. Regardless of all the hiccups, the baptism was a beautiful reminder of the gifts God has given us here on earth.

Afterwards, now an hour late, sacrament began. The humanitarian missionaries gave there farewell talks. They leave this Friday, returning home to Tucson Arizona. They have been with the Hanoi Branch from its beginnings. Teaching even the Branch President, who has only been a member for two years, how to run a Branch. They are the modern day pioneers. What a blessing they have been to Vietnam. And naturally after church the Branch celebrated with refreshments.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Perfume Pagoda

This is Eric.

If you'd like to lose five pounds in a day, visit Chua Huong (Perfume Pagoda) on the hottest day of the year. That's what we did yesterday. Luckily we did it as part of a tour. Had we, as I initially suggested, taken the motorbike, I would be dead or divorced right now. And deservedly so. It was a 2 hour drive there and and back through narrow, dusty roads featuring 50-mph truckers who haven't looked before turning in 15 years. Add that to being sweatier than the arm pit of a gorilla in a space suit, at least six million stairs, and a 40-pound two year old, and even an all-male jury of Arabs would have acquitted Wendi for spousal homicide.

As it was, though, the day was fantastic. Pearce, as always, was phenomenal. And Wendi and I got to see arguably the coolest pagoda in Vietnam for less than $25.

We woke up at 5:30 and were picked up by a bus driver who decided to run errands for 30 minutes before taking us to meet our guide and fellow travelers. I wanted to say something, but I'd decided not to speak Vietnamese during the trip in order to spare us of the constant, "Why do you speak Vietnamese? Why don't you have a Vietnamese wife? Do you want one? I have a cousin?" conversations.

Finally, we left Hanoi and were given a new driver. But he ended up worse than the first. When we finally arrived in Ben Duc village (about 70 km southwest of Hanoi) where the river ride to Perfume Pagoda starts, our driver cruised right past the boat launch so he could get to his smokes quicker. Our guide, Tuan, asked him why he was being such a jerk, and the driver responded, "They're just dumb tourists anyway. They won't know the difference."

That was enough for me. I broke my promise and laid into him. But to no avail. We had passed the boat launch already and he wasn't going to lose face and turn around. He lied that he was following company 'policy.' To which I wished him a future full of lung cancer. My cover was blown, but it ended up being fine. Our guide, Tuan, was cool, and understood that it was rude to speak a language nobody else in the group understood.
The ride along Yen Vi river in our small metal canoe amidst the surrounding karst limestone mountains carpeted in green was peaceful despite it feeling like we were under a McDonalds heat lamp wrapped in saran wrap . Pearce kept dragging his hand in the water to the displeasure of our rower. She grumbled that his little fist was causing excess drag. I thought about countering that his hand was hardly big enough, but when I turned and saw that she was almost 80-years-old, I shut-up and pulled Pearce away from the edge. I had turned into the jerk. An 80-year-old rowing four fat Westerners in 90-degree, 10 million percent humidity for an hour at mid-day! Just think about her the next time you're about to whine about your job.

Perfume Pagoda is actually a series of pagodas in the Huong Son Mountains. Viets usually visit in the springtime, especially during the annual Chua Huong festival a few weeks after Tet (late February). In fact, during Chua Huong festival more than 100,000 pilgrims crowd the area. On August 16, 2008, however, there were only about 50 pilgrims. Every single one, a dumb tourist like us, hopelessly fanning their slimy bodies with futile paper fans. Why no Viets? Because Viets have brains. August is only a good time to visit if you're a cryogenic patient trying to hasten your thaw process.

We landed at the first pagoda of Den Trinh (The Shrine for First Presenting) after about an hour on the river. If we were Viet pilgrims, this would be the start of a three-day journey. We would sleep in one of the thousands of tents that spring up during the festival. Luckily, we were not pilgrims intent on visiting all 17 pagodas. Instead, we had our sights on two. The pictures of the first, Den Trinh, follow:

Pearce spent most of his time at this temple fanning the bugs.

Thank Buddha the Japanese funded the construction of a tram to the main pagoda. Otherwise we'd still be hiking. As it was, we blissfully rode atop of Huong Son Mountain, then hiked another couple thousand stairs to the main Perfume Pagoda.Wendi & Pearce creep down into the main Pagoda, Chua Trong--really just a cave. The steps were soaked and slippery.The Perfume Pagoda got its name from a nun who used to worship at this temple in 13th century. Apparently, she finally reached nirvana and left this earth. On that day, the entire mountain bloomed, filling all surrounding villager nostrils with an intense, pleasant aroma...thus the Perfume Pagoda.

Our journey back seemed half as long, and half as hot. When we finally arrived at home at 6 p.m., Wendi and agreed that it was the coolest pagoda we've seen in Nam.