Friday, September 26, 2008

Hanoi Zoo

Pearce as usual woke up with pancakes in mind and then added out of the blue, Zoo Mama. In Hawaii we have a year round pass to the Honolulu Zoo. Pearce is a zoo zealot. There is interactive activities for a two year old that blows his mind into sheer bliss. So his wish was my command. Pearce and I took a taxi. The day's forecast was rain, rain and more rain. So we were ready to get wet. The entrance of the zoo was something I would pass by without even a thought that it was a zoo. It was only 50 cents to get in. And by the conditions of the animals in the cages I think they need to charge more. Off the zoo entrance was the bird sanctuaries where about a dozen cages held the largest to smallest birds. The whole area was flooded. Regardless we walked through a couple of inches of muddy water to see:

I am not a bird expert, but I think this is a crane. Very large and scary. Pearce was hesitant to stand to close to take a picture.

Pearce and an ostrich.

No shortage of parrots at the Hanoi Zoo. At least 3o birds were distributed throughout 5 different cages.

This is where the Zoo is making the real money. Rides are 60 cents. And Pearce enjoyed at least 10 dollars worth.

From the bird sanctuary we followed the pathway to a bridge that connects to a long island. Arguably the most peaceful location in all of Hanoi.

On this island we saw countless cages of very hyper monkeys. Each cage contained 6-8 monkeys ranging from different ages wildly chattering, screaming and chasing each other. We spent most of our zoo time watching in amazement. It was very entertaining. Pearce named this monkey, 'Crazy.' A good observation for a two year old. The monkey really did act like it belonged in a straight-jacket.

At the end of the island we crossed over another bridge, and this contraption was awaiting us. I believe it wins for most obscure entertainment device at a zoo this year. It's a giant clear circular air mattress that you can climb into and roll around the lake. I would love to hear from anyone who has had first hand experience in this plastic bubble. Unfortunately Pearce wasn't up for anything that weird. I think we should get one for the next Lake Powell trip.

We saw crocodiles, bears, tigers, goats, and more monkeys. It was sad to see the state of many of these majestic animals in such small quarters. But it took me over the edge to see the elephants chained by all four feet to stand, eat, and poop in the same place all day. I was so close to jumping over the the fence and freeing them. They're so depressed that all they did the whole time we watched was sway side to side.

I think Pearce even felt sad for them too.

A few more rides on a space ship was a perfect way to cheer up Pearce. The minute he sat in the cockpit of his space vehicle Pearce was talking away and looking behind him at the imaginary crew of bad guys following him. I love to see his imagination turned on. As a mother there is nothing more satisfying.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Still Among the Living

Apologies for the huge delay. And, if you're reading this, thank you for not giving up on us. The long delay was not for a lack of trying. For the last three weeks, Eric has had us (Jane and David joined us two weeks ago) travel over 2500 miles through three countries via bus, taxi, cyclo, motorcycle, tuk-tuk, sled, sampan, longtail river boat, speedboat, plane, hot air balloon, helicopter, wheelbarrow, space shuttle, human sling shot...OK, the last few are exaggerations. But there hasn't been much time for blogging. And the few moments I have had free, we were nowhere near an Internet connection.

I'm writing this from a small island called Don Khong in the middle of the Mekong River. It's located in Southern Laos's "Four Thousand Islands" area near the Cambodian border. It's about as isolated as I've ever been. But, amazingly, it boasts a great Internet connection. Hopefully I can play blog catch up.

I left off with us traveling to our friend Chien's country wedding. "Two kilometers that way," finally came true, and we made it to his village about two hours outside of Hanoi. His village's designated profession is carpentry. His uncle manufactures wood furniture. The festivities and ceremony took place in this cleared out wood shop, with hundreds of wooden bed frames lining the sides. Bright colored fabrics decorated the space making the dim factory come alive. The cutting saw table and blade were used to hold cocktails. Chien's Uncle (one of the only english speaking wedding attendees) remarked that this was probably the only wedding we have attended that had giant saws as part of the decor. Honestly, that is what I loved about this wedding and why it stands out among the hundreds I have attended.
Eric hang'n with the elders of the family.

Feeling a little low? Get in line and feel a little high.

Pearce entertains the crowd, playing Kung Fu Panda using a giant fan for special effects.

Pearce making friends. No speaking needed to play.

Beginning the preparations for the wedding meal, washing the rice at 11pm. This rice was probably picked from the fields just that morning.

Around midnight the party started to slow down and Chien took us to the only guest house in the town. Vietnam has Orwelian polices to keep track of every move you make...especially foreigners. You must have a passport and permission from the local police to stay the night in a hotel or residence. We "absent mindedly" forgot our passports and could not stay in the village overnight. We tried to bribe the owner of the guest house, but he was too afraid of being caught, so we had to wait an hour for the only cabby in town to wake up and drive us back to Hanoi. Driving at night through Vietnam's countryside was slightly more safe than Russian Roulette. First, there were no street lights. Second, obstacles such as 500-pound water buffalo like make sudden appearances on the narrow pot-holed roads. Third, only one of our cab's lights worked (and even it was on it's way out). Fourth, our driver was trying to break a land-speed record. And Fifth, Eric and I might have broke the Word of Wisdom just by smelling his breath.

We said a lot of prayers, though, and safely arrived back at our adopted Hanoi home (Intercontinental) at around 1 am. The next morning we had to wake up at 4 a.m. to meet the bus full of wedding attendees from the Intercontinental. This time, however, we were confident we'd get to the wedding without a hitch because we were cruising with the locals on a chartered bus. No more "two kilometers that way" incidents.

We were wrong to assume. We got lost. The bus driver asked for directions several times. We finally found our way but stopped dead in our tracks at a bridge that was too small for the bus to cross over. There was no where to turn around so the bus had to drive in reverse through an entire town barely the width of the bus, brushing inches away from the shops and homes. We had only 15 minutes to find another way into the town. It took 30 minutes. We missed parts of the wedding. Oh for the love!

The bus could not fit down the narrow streets to Chien's parents house so we hitched a ride. Sitting on a motor bike side saddle with a skirt in high heels while holding Pearce was not a ride of ease.

The bride and groom. The bride is wearing a traditional Vietnamese red and gold ao dai.

A traditional Vietnamese Wedding goes like this; early in the morning the groom's wedding party travels to the bride's house to ask her ancestors for permission to marry the groom. Both bride and groom wedding parties then go to the groom's house to ask his ancestors for permission to marry the bride. I wonder if the ancestor ever says no? The ceremony begins and they are now husband and wife. And the bride and grooms wedding parties return to the brides house for a celebration that includes the whole town. Finally the bride and groom wedding parties return to the groom's house for the wedding dinner and entertainment. The bride and groom sit and serve welcome tea or rice wine to all their guests at each home, at every stop. That is a lot of pouring. We had to refuse rice wine about a million times. Finally we faked it by putting water in our cups to make the traditional cheers with everyone else. There were TVs playing either snap shots of the bride and groom in American wedding digs, or techno/disco pop seventies music videos. Very loud. A wedding singer sang to the bride and groom in Vietnamese. Very entertaining.

The dinner was amazing. Everything freshly killed the night before. Duck, chicken, pork, and fish served with rice and vegetables. The amount of work that went into the food alone, I can't imagine. Three cheers to the ladies of the house who prepared such a feast.

I hung out with the elderly ladies. With the elderly group, the women sit with the women and the men sit with the men. But the young (under 70) intermingled.

Pearce was a hit.

The drive home was not any better. The bus driver couldn't find his way home. I just could not believe that our bus driver was a professional tour guide driver? We decided to buy him a map as an early Christmas gift.

Saturday, September 6, 2008


The last four days have been a dizzy reminder that we are out of our element. But, as always, it came with an exciting adventure that touched us and gave us new perspective on how grateful we are to spend time here in Vietnam and to be a small part of the lives of our new friends.

Saturday was filled with errands. We called our laundry lady to come pick up our laundry. I love the laundry lady. We went over to the Marchant's (friends from the Hanoi branch. They will be in Hanoi working at the Embassy for the next 3 yrs) to pick up a few loner items I haven't been able to find. Butt cream for Pearce who ate something that gave him a sore bum. Apparently Vietnamese toddlers have perfect, unburdened butts. Breaking Dawn, the last book of the Twighlight series (and the reason I haven't blogged in a week). And a cure to my back problems. Yes you read the last sentence correctly. I won't have to drink wildcat wine after all. My back is now easily corrected with a door, a pully, a bag of water and a head-hanging neck holder. It was the miracle I have been praying for. Anyway a BIG thank you to Jenni Marchant who shared her back healing humility. LOL. I will be forever in her debt. While Jenni shared her most coveted secret, Pearced played happily with Emma (Marchant's 5 yr old daughter, Xander 2 yrs was already napping) Eric went out to finish some of our other errands, such as buying 60, 1 dollar DVDs (surprisingly most of them were HD quality and the others a nice bootlegged version) and inspected his dress shirts that were being made at the local tailors. We then ventured over to meander through the Ho Chi Minh Museum. I was very impressed by how dramaticly artistic everything was displayed.

Sunday came with happy news that brought the Mission President from Cambodia to the Hanoi Branch. With all the baptisms the meeting house was getting a little crowed. Late,attendees would have to sit on the sky scraping stairs and little Vietnamese girls were bunched two to a chair. A new, bigger, more centrally-located meeting house (literally a house) was announced to be ready for use in a couple of weeks. Sadly we will have moved on to the vacation portion of our time here in Southeast Asia, and will not get to see it. But the news still made our day. Progress. We love it.

After church Pearce had a long nap, while we packed an over night bag. The excitement was building. We were going to our first traditional "counryside" Vietnamese Wedding. Our friend Chien, who we met in Sapa last year, was getting hitched to his high school sweetheart after dating for 4 years, in there home village of Yen Lac (outside of Vinh Phuc, which is more than an hour outside of Hanoi, for those who care). As soon as Pearce woke we hoped into a taxi, giving the address from their traditional red invitation. We were told it would take about an hour to get there. Now there are a few things about driving in Vietnam that are different than in most other places such as no street signs....anywhere (once in a while we would find an address printed on a building). Let me say this again. Once you're out of the city, there are no street signs in the whole country. So if you have never been somewhere before, good luck finding it. And luck wasn't on our side. Our driver stopped at least 10 times to ask random people for directions. And I mean random. Like an old lady who was marching her water buffalo through a huge field. Like she is going to know? She told him he was close, only two more kilometers "that way." All the advice for directions were answered with two more kilometers "that way." After four similar inquires I realized how comical this was, and started to take pictures of all the places we stopped to ask for directions. Here are a few.

Two more kilometers "that way."

As for the wedding itself, I'll save it for the next post.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Blood on the Highway

We've all been in bad traffic. And anyone who has been to poor foreign countries has been in ludicrously bad traffic. I hereby submit, however, that traffic in Vietnam is the worst in the world. Not because it's jammed up--even Honolulu gets more gridlocked. No, Hanoi wins as the worst traffic because every time you leave the sidewalk, either by foot, motorbike, car, or bus, your mortality rate drops by 20 years.

This fact was nailed home yesterday afternoon on my white-knuckled ride home from work aboard my putt-putt 125cc Honda Wave. I, along with enough people to fill a college gymnasium, was stopped at a red light. That in itself is a major improvement. When I first came to Vietnam eight years ago there weren't any traffic lights in the entire city. Intersections were slaughter houses. Additionally, as of last year, Vietnamese law requires everyone to wear helmets, and most major roads now feature these novel inventions called medians--thus keeping giant water buffalos from charging across the street during rush hour. So things have improved. But the overall degree of improvement is about the same as a 500-lb man on his first day of a diet.

Anyway, we're all stopped and there's only 20 seconds to go before our light goes green (they have count downs on their lights like some kind of execution march). But this jackass kid next to me is honking his horn. We're like five rows back, so I don't know what kind of Red Sea-moment he was expecting. He starts cussing, then lifts his bike up onto the sidewalk, fires his engine straight forward past us fools still stuck on the street, and plunges off the sidewalk into the intersection. What a clever chap. Except that, for some reason, 20 feet into the intersection he gets crushed by the grill of an SUV going about 25. Luckily his body launched to the left instead of under the SUV like his demolished bike. After thud number three, his body came to rest with his arm folded under his back like a leather belt. He was unconcious or dead, because there was no screaming.

Now this was all quite shocking. But I was actually more shocked by everyone's reaction. More than half the people didn't even turn their head in the direction of the crash. The SUV's driver didn't rush out of his car to inspect whether he had just ended a life. He casually put his car into neutral, then sat inside the airconditioned cab and made a call (hopefully to Vietnam-911). When the light went green a few seconds later, everyone except me and a few others fired their bikes forward and, like ants around spit, sped past the SUV and unconcious teen. The whole accident drew about as much concern as a spilled glass of soda in a crowded restaurant.

I pulled up on the sidewalk and ran over to the kid. When I asked the tiny crowd that had assembled if he was OK, they were more interested in the fact that I spoke Vietnamese than the kid's life. Finally, I made it to him. I had visions of heroically putting that first aid training to use. But alas, the dude was already sitting up with his mangled arm scooped up in his other arm. His eyes were glazed, but he seemed OK. The SUV driver came over and callously reminded the kid in an expletive-laced explosion that the light was red. No interest in the kid's condition. Then he tells everyone that the cops are coming...not an ambulance, but the police. He commands the kid not to move until they get here, then they'll decide whether to call an ambulance.

I stayed a while longer, but it became clear that I was more of a distraction than help. I went back to my bike, said about twelve prayers, then sped off for home, slowing down at each light and looking both ways for similar jackasses who fail to grasp the concept that when your light is red, the intesection will probably have fast moving objects in the way.

Here's a video shot by Wendi of traffic during a weeknight in Hanoi. Multiply this by 10 for weekend nights and rush hour.

And here's a quickie of Wendi crossing the street.