Travel Agrncy Adventure

I can’t figure out why some photos get turned sideways.  If you are on-line, you should just be able to click a picture to expand it.  First photo is the lady in the alley near the hotel, then two of the Hanoi Hilton and the last of my day’s last Grab Bike driver.

18 August – Most mornings Hanoi is blanketed in haze, but today it was clear and sunny, for which I was grateful because I was going to be out most of the day, planning to use grab bikes (motorbike taxis) for transportation and not relishing the thought of such a ride in the rain.  I planned to visit a couple of travel agencies to find one to book the trip I want to take to Angkor Wat the first weekend in SeptEmber.  That Sunday in the Vietnamese National Day and there is no school that Monday.  Two of the agencies looked from my guide book to be in the French Quarter, which I wanted to visit in any case. Many days when I leave the hotel there is an older woman in the small alley I have to walk to reach the main road. She is usually clearing detritus from the dirty alley with her bare hands and moves aside to let me pass. She always greets me with a smile and a nod. This morning the alley was choked with the items she had gathered and she tried to let me pass, but I decided to walk around a short block so she did not have to move. With gestures I asked her permission to take her photo and she nodded her agreement. Then I caught a Grab Bike.  I gave the driver the address of my destination and he asked a fee of 50VNDong, about $2.50. I handed him a 100 VND bill and he tried to short change me by handing back 40. I insistently gestured that he owed me another ten and he finally relented, handing over the balance. He drove the same route I had walked two weeks ago and I marveled to see how far I had actually walked. I wondered if he were regretting not having asked more, because he stopped part way in the wrong street at the wrong address and asked me to get off the bike. I refused, and showed him again the address of my destination. He had to ask directions from a nearby officer, then drove another mile or two, where he stopped again and asked me to get off. The road ahead had been blocked so I had no choice. I stepped into the nearby Singapore Airlines office to ask directions and found the driver could simply have turned at the corner and he would have ended up where I had to walk. But, I needed the exercise.

I was surprised to find that I was at the lake in the Old Quarter where another teacher and I had been last Saturday and not in the French Quarter at all. I asked directions again and walked about a mile till I came to the VN Visitor Center, allegedly a good source of maps and tours. As a visitor center it left much to be desired. I asked for and was given a small Hanoi map showing just a portion of the city, and I was told that the center does not plan tours except for air travel.  So, I asked directions to the second agency I wanted to visit, which was half way around the lake.  Part way there I decided to skip that and go on to the highly-recommended Buffalo Travel Agency – which decision took me the rest of the way around the lake, the same circuit I had made the previous weekwith mynteacher friend.  At the end of this route I came to the small theater with a performance of Lotus Water Puppets, whatever they are. But I was curious about them and thought I would try to see the show.  Last week my friend and I had strolled all the way around the lake but arrived at the little theater too late for the last puppet performance, and today the first one was not until 1730. It was only about 1100. It had begun to rain so I pulled out my ever-present umbrella and continued down Ba Trieu street looking for number 70/72. Several blocks along I found #68 to be an apparently abandoned building and #74 was a parking garage. There was no building with the #s 70/72 on it but a bank where those numbers should have been. I continued walking until I was sure I had passed the right address so I U-turned and walked back … still no obvious right place. With the rain the humidity had climbed. I decided to go into the bank, which was air conditioned, and I lucked out. Reading the tenant board I discovered Buffalo Travel was on the 9th floor. Right across from the elevators was a clean restroom, which I had been thinking I might soon need. Up to floor 9 and with even more luck I found the travel office open, if sparsely staffed on a Saturday afternoon. A young woman speaking passable English confirmed that the agency can arrange the Angkor Wat trip I want, and told me the booking agents would not be back in until Monday. She asked if I could come back then and after an exchange of information she gave me the booking agent’s name and Whatsapp number, taking mine in exchange, and promising I would hear from Ms. Thuy in a few days. (Whatsapp in an application through which one can send msgs and make free calls anywhere in the world if it is installed on mutual I-phones. I was told before I left home that is a universal means of communication throughout Asia and I had installed it on my new phone.) When I left, the young woman escorted me to the first floor door to be sure it wasn’t locked. Kudos for her customer service.

Consulting my map I saw that the Hanoi Hilton prison was only a few blocks away so I walked to it, able to put my umbrella away as the rain had stopped. For some reason I had believed the prison was somewhere in the middle of a jungle, but there it was, right in the city. After that I decided to visit the John McCain memorial and caught another grab bike. I had not known that when McCain bailed out of his plane he had landed in a large lake in the northwestern part of Hanoi. The memorial is at the side of that lake. The grab bike driver asked 30 VND, about $1.50, and we were off. Unfortunately, my guide book had the memorial mislocated – on the wrong side of the street with a barrier in the middle – and we could not find it. So I asked the driver to take me back to the hotel, and en route, after a U-turn, we passed the memorial. I would still like to see it, and would willingly venture to pay another 60 VND for the return trip. That ca. $3.00 is what the driver charged me to go back to the hotel. And I was after all not able to escape a grab bike ride in the rain, which had started up again.  I noticed that among the thin plastic rain covers motorbike riders wear there was one model with a hood fore and aft so a pillion rider coild share the same cover.  But what the heck, the ride in the rain was only water and it wasn’t raining very hard.

nap and Preach time

nap and Preach time

Don’t know why some photos are sideways and one upside down.  This is how people in Hanoi catch their rest .. on a park bench, at school after lunch, on their motorbikes, in a hammock slung across the sidewalk or in the front seat of their taxicab … don’t know where that last photo went!

I have been staying after school to help score the tests the students take at the completion of each unit.  One of the teachers kept asking why I kept asking for things to do, and I said I wanted to help.  So, they asked me to lead the morning devotional tomorrow, based on one of the students’ memorization verses from Proberbs 11, and Pastor Thai, who on Monday began telling the story of Joseph and his brothers, asked me to finish the story at next Monday’s devotional hour.  I wondered how I would handle the portion about Joseph and Potafer’s wife?  Then I said I was leaving for the day before they asked me to do somethig else.

For the last two days I have been able to take small groups of advanced students aside for an hour of conversation.  I do this with five different groups, for an hour each.  I encourage the students to talk about themselves, their families and so forth, and I tell them about mine.  It is surprising how many of them do not know what their fathers do for work, though several fathers are doctors or pastors, and several mothers are dentists or business women.  I spend an hour each morning with the Bluebird class, 3-5 year olds, who have almost no English, except for one little guy who is a quick study and alresdy has some words.  Working with them, and trying to hold their attention,  is like pulling teeth or, better said, herding cats.  Nguyen Anh, their teacher, usually just plays with them and does not do a lot of English training, but she and I are working out a way to give these children some understanding and basic vocabulary. They are all so cute that, as my mom used to say, I could eat them up with a little salt.

The Eagle class (advanced students) numbers twenty and six more new  students are scheduled to join the Eagles in the next few weeks.  It’s strenuous work for the teachers who are always running around to answer one student’s questions or another’s. I rarely have time to sit down except to eat lunch, perhaps making up in part for not being able to do my usual two-mile morning run.  Some teachers have calculated that they walk over two kilometers just around the classroom, and I believe it!

My “Sermon” at church

The first day I was here Pastor Thai asked if I would read one of the lessons at church the following Sunday ( and preach the sermon.  What he apparently meant was to connect the reading – I chose Ephesians 4:1-16 – to my mission to the school) To prepare, I had taken some notes and written down some thoughts and just prayed I would deliver a decent message.  

5 August, as I was about to leave the hotel for church, it had begun raining, so I popped open my trusty little don’t-leave-your-Hanoi-hotel-room-without-it umbrella, the one mother bought in London in 1962 – of necessity in the London weather – and took off walking. As I stepped out of the door of the hotel the rain stopped, but by the time I was admitted to the school/church building it began to pour torrents. Once again it had cleared as I walked home. And what of the service? It was scheduled to begin at 8:00, as on every Sunday, but the downpour delayed many congregants and we did not start until after 8:45. This was a communion Sunday and the liturgy is just enough different that I had to apply myself to pay attention. I am so used to the American Anglican liturgy that I barely think about the responses. Today I had to give heed and that gave me a new perspective. (Hold your applause) I believe my testimony, which in fact did replace the sermon, went OK. I have never worked with a translator before and just got on with my talk without waiting for Michelle, a small, truly lovely young Vietnamese woman who acted both as a LEM for the communion service and as the service leader. When Pastor Thai, sitting in the front row, gestured toward Michelle, I realized I needed to pause occasionally to let her catch up.  She did a remarkable translation for those attendees who had little English. She was also in charge of the overhead projector, holding the clicker in her hand throughout the service. Fellowship hour consisted of crustless tuna sandwiches and basketfuls of landchi (phonetic), a fruit resembling a lychee, with a very hard rind, about the size of a large marble, and nearly impossible to peel. They have to be peeled before eating and have a sweet flesh surrounding a firm black pea-sized seed. Indeed, they resemble their name: dragon’s eyes, looking for all the world like naked eyeballs.

Chapter w

August 9: I actually wrote this two days ago but the WiFi is so unreliable that I could not stay on line long enough to send it.

Good morning friends, today is Tuesday August 7. Apologies for not having written much, because the WiFi at the hotel is very sporadic and I do not have much time to write while at the school, where the connection is more reliable.

I have now finished my first full day of classes and find things much easier than I at first anticipated. My advanced Eagle class is comprised of 27 students from 7 – 12 years old, chosen for their level of English ability, and six teachers. The school uses a heavily King James Bible-based curriculum which I would love to have TFCA’s ESOL classes use – though it is very expensive – its exercises, ALL in English, are separate books for social studies, math, science, Englsh, Bible studies and vocabulary building. The students work largely independently, with teachers only available to answer questions. Each student office (cubby hole) has one of those small flag holders with two flags. Students raise one if they need teacher help and the other if they want permission to leave their seats to go to the loo or the “scoring station”. That is the place in the classroom where they take their workbooks to “self-check” the accuracy of their work against a Key book. Then a teacher reviews and if he/she finds there are still errors, sends the students back to recheck and correct their work. A teacher must sign off on a unit before the student may go to the next one. On Monday the 6th I was given two of the Centre’s grey and dark blue uniform shirts, which all staff and students wear. It is the “rule” that they be worn tucked into skirts or trousers, but the students, being children, need constant reminders. Before class begins each morning the students are called to order, to stand straight with their arms at their sides, not fidget and not talk. Then there are prayers. After this the students are led in the memorization of two Bible verses, Proverbs 11 right now. They read multiple times through printed versions (even I find the KJV difficult language, as I am sure the students also do). Then they are told to put the papers away and recite the day’s two verses from memory. Students are not relewsed for lunch at noon until they can recite the verses from memory in front of a “supervisor” (teacher). If the students have permission to leave their desks they are to push their chairs fully in. I am amazed at these children, who are learning English and the Bible at a furious pace. They begin the day by saying: “good morning teachers, good morning classmates, have a good day.”

The hotel’s eighth floor restaurant has a great buffet, sufficient to hold me until lunch and beyond, so I have taken to eating just two meals a day. The school has five floors and when it serves lunch students come to the second floor kitchen and carry their food trays back to their classrooms where they eat. Sometimes teachers go with them and sometimes they eat at a low table in the kitchen, where Hoa prepares bountiful quantities of sticky rice, soup, wok-sauteed veggies and meat. I had pretty much mastered chop sticks at home long ago … good thing because except for scoops for the soup, chop sticks are the only available utensils. I didn’t know whether to laugh or be insulted when staff recommended I eat in the kitchen, which I actually prefer, because they worried about this old lady climbing the 25 steep and winding stairs between each floor. (My classroom is on the third floor.)

What I have not mastered is the VND, the Vietnamese currency, and last weekend I was taken for a ride because of that.  Many staff had recommended I visit the old quarter, the original walled part of the city, so Saturday I walked the six miles to see it.  As usual, it was very humid, so I decided to hail a Grab Bike, a motorcycle taxi service, for the return to the hotel. One sees them and their green-jacketed and -helmeted drivers everywhere on the roads, generally with passengers, but I found an unoccupied driver. Fortunately I had taken a business card from the hotel and I showed it to him because he could not figure out how to get to the hotel using my paper map. He put the hotel address in his handle-bar-mounted GPS, told me the ride would cost 65 VND, a little less than $3, and away we went. When we got to the hotel, it was clearly obvious to him that I am a foreigner. When I pulled out a few bills I realized much later that I had actually paid him 650 VND, but he offered no change and did not demur. At that point I did mot realize my mistake, but he is probably still telling how he got away sith ten times the price he asked.

As expected, the weather here is very Washington, D.C.- summer-like except that the similar humidity seems much wetter. That makes wearing the heavy school shirt a challenge.

Break time for staff and students comes at 1000 and is nothing short of
chaos, as students, freed from classroom discipline, are running noisily all round or playing games on the floor.

Monday was the opening ceremony, another barely controlled chaos.  The evening began with a procession of flags, the Vietnamese, two church flags from Vietnam and the diocese of Singapore ( which oversees the church in Vietnam), and the school flag. This was followed by a generic pledge to the flags, to an unnamed (but understood to be our own) country, a pledge to the school and one to the Bible.  The Eagle students did in unison a mistake-free recitation of Proverbs 8:1-14, proving thr value of memorizing Scripture. Four students gave their testimonies about God and about their school experiences, all in pretty good English. They then sang a song with gestures, followed by a Skit depicting the story of the Prodigal Son.  Other lower level classes did small presentations and then it was over. Throughout the students could not sit still, talked all the time or just fidgeted.

When I first arrived Rebecca Yan, one of the teachers, told me had heard about me from a Korean woman on an airplane. Impossible as that sounds, I was later able to determine that her husband, Paul, was sitting on the flight with Christine Buchholz and her mother. When Christine learned that Paul is a pastor of a church near Hanoi she mentioned me and my mission to a church school. At the opening ceremony Paul came up and introduced himself, having deduced that I was the person Christine had been talking about. The ABBA English Centre is also attended by four of their five chicldren …. truly it is a Small world.

Lunch hour and nap time are over at 1:00.  Even the 12-year old Eagle students take naps, on mats spread out in the church space.  Then students return to the classroom and I have to go back to work . BTW, all the students and staff are assigned English names, many from them from the Bible, so remembering them is easier than I think remembering Vietnamese names would be.

I hope not to wait so long before posting again.

Progress Report

Progress Report

Dear Friends – I arrived safely as scheduled in the evening of 29 July.  Passport control was interminable, but I breezed through customs with no questions.   I was met by Sam Vu, son of my sponser (who was out of town conducting a funeral) and was taken to my hotel.  I am on the 6th floor overlooking a busy little park/playground abutting a large pond.  On Monday my host picked me up on his motorcycle such as hundreds here ride and we went off to the school.  The first week was getting me settled, learning the ropes and becoming familiar with the setup.

I came prepared with my own set of teaching materials which will not be of much use.  The curriculum here is vastly different than the one I was prepared to use, but I am making progress in learning the new one.  It takes about ten minutes to walk from the hotel to the school and for thr most part when needed  my little collapsible umbrella has been sufficient  to stave off the almost daily rain.

We had a staff retreat last Wednesday which was really just an outdoor excursion and excuse for fellowship and getting to know one another.  I am acclimating to the food, not hard to do, and the hotel generously provides all the bottled water I can use.  My room is quite comfortable, if basic, with a queen bed, big bathroom and a nice shower the water of which nearly scalded me the first time I turned it on. The hotel provides a decent breakfast buffet and the school provides lunch.

We will have just under fifty students and nine teachers.  Last night was a parent orientation and Monday is the opening session for students.  I am prepped and ready get started.

At home I usually jog a couple of miles in the early morning, and I brought my shorts and running shoes, but have only used the shoes for the trek to the school.  Things get started early and, unlike cooler mornings at home, the humidity and heat are already oppressive by 7:00a.m.

Stay tuned for updates