You can click a photograph to expNd it.
I have tried to try everything and have come across some mystery foods. The hotel brings a couple of bananas to my room each day but one day the fruit that was delivered was something I had never seen. It had skin the color of the wax on an Edam cheese with green tentacle-like attachments. Having no idea what it was, I took it to school to learn that the dragon-loving Vietnamese often eat this dragon fruit. It was easy to peel and its edible flesh is a translucent white filled with tiny black seeds, smaller than poppy seeds. It has a nice, mildly sweet taste, and once peeled I recognized it as a staple of the hotel’s breakfast buffet. The buffet has also featured another whitish, soft-looking something cut in slices and accompanied by what looked like small pieces of rye bread. The white stuff was slimy and tasteless and the ” bread” turned out to be a mystery meat. One try was enough for me. One morning I tried what I thought was deep fried chicken nuggets that turned out to be deep fried tofu, something I came quite to like. Another day, thinking I might be taking small deep fried fish pieces, they turned out to be potato. The buffet sometimes has a fruit medley of tiny cubes of various melons in a yogurt sauce which I always take. One day the medley included cubes of hard-boiled egg, potato and some green peas, which I thought did not meld well with the fruit and which I did not care for as much as the original concoction.
There is a seasonal fruit that grows in bunches on trees that I at first thought were lychee nuts. I learned they are called (phonetically) lanlin. They are shooter-marble size and have a very heavy brown shell which when opened, with some difficulty, reveal a small, opaque white ball of fruit with a hard black seed, resembling their name: dragon’s eyes. Good tasting but nearly too much work for the reward. There are dozens of other foods I have seen on display but am ill inclined to try for lack of identification. One day at school lunch we were served a soup with small pieces of fish, another of my non-favorites, so I managed to pick out a large piece with my chopsticks and deposit it in the soup of one of the other teachers – who saw me do it but did not object. The cook, who prepares about 60 lunch trays a day, fills each with sticky rice, a largely tasteless clear, usually room temperature soup, a piece of fruit, a thin green and stringy veggie of a name I had never heard and which is slightly bitter, and chunks of steamed or wok-fried meat. I now usually take just a small bowl of rice and then add to it the other foods I want from the communal pots. That way I am not wasting foods I have tried but don’t care for, and managing both portion size and selection. I may have written earlier that lunch sometimes includes quail eggs, that I at first found difficult to pick up with chopsticks. The first time they were served I asked how in the world one can control them with chopsticks, the only utensils available aside from the soup spoon, and while my lunch partners were giggling at my question, one of them told me it was OK to pick them up with the spoon. In the meantime I was able to master the chopsticks pick up. I have temporarily liberated a salt shaker from the restaurant because no meal I have eaten here is salted. At lunch I put soy sauce on the otherwise plain white rice.
Fortunately ice cream and many other fruits are the same as at home, but stay turned. I am sure I shall have other culinary challenges to report.
26 August – last week we had a visit from the Bishop of Singapore Rennis and John Lin, the Dean of the Anglican Church in Vietnam. They came to look at the new space the diocese of Singapore is purchasing for the ABBA English Centre when the lease on its current property expires at the end of October. Bishop Rennis is the tall grey-haired man in the right rear, and Dean Lin is on his immediate right, both just behind little ole grey-haired me. The man to Dean Lin’s right is a pastor from HoChiMinh City. Dean Lin sent me this nice picture of the Eagle class, the advanced English student class with which I am working. You can see their favorite poses, with lots of V-signs and mugging for the camera. The class ranges in age from seven (middle front, small boy) to sixteen (right rear).
You should be able to tap the photograph to expand it, but that does not always work, so get out your magnifying glass.
I have had a number of small blessings this week, from finding the Buffalo Travel office almost by accident last Saturday, and then finding a small staff working on a weekend afternoon, to my decision this morning to walk to the Big C for some shopping, and finding the day less humid and with a breeze. The blessings did not include losing my glasses, apparently leaving them in my shopping cart, but after a search I was able to find the spare pair I brought with me. I had a small blessing when I entered the Big C: its security check rivaled the airport. The straps of my little back bag were zip-tied together after an inspection, so I would be unable to reach my wallet (I later cut the tie with the small jackknife I have been carrying with me), and I was told I had to surrender my full water bottle. Aside from my umbrella I always have a full water bottle with me I opened it and took a drink before giving it up, and was about to hand it over when a second security person came along and indicated I could keep it … perhaps having seen me take a drink she realized it was only harmless water. The Big C is a larger version of a Costco or BJs, where one can buy soup to soap to cereal to nuts to fridges, washers, ovens and just about everything else in between except vehicles. I wandered all the aisles, including toys, linens, appliances, jewelry and groceries, of which I bought a few, including skim milk (fortunately my room has a small refrigerator) and sweets. I have not had sugary snacks, not even my beloved chocolate, for over a month and found I have nearly lost my taste for them. When I was finished I thought to catch a Grab Bike so as not to have to carry a heavy-ish shopping bag but realized my last driver had kept the hotel card with its address. So, I had no alternative but to walk the mile back to the hotel in the warming day.. After a few blocks I set the bag down to take a photo of an interesting blue building and suddenly another small blessing. I was kinda struggling to pick the bag up again, with a long baguette sticking out, when a Grab Bike stopped and – small wonder- the English-speaking driver asked if I needed a ride. Of course he asked for the address which I, of course, did not have. I told him I could tell him how to get there and he could set the fare when we reached the hotel. We arrived without incident and he charged me 50 VND, a little high for the short ride, but I was quite willing to pay it.
25 August – it has taken a week to find an internet connextion that does not cut off in the middle of what I am writing, but I have discovered the WiFi in the hotel breakfast room, which is high up, is often the best. It has been an exhausting week. I have been staying late at school to help the head teacher score student tests and file mountains of paperwork, not leaving until nearly 8:00 p.m. I also discovered that Lheonie Ver. , the head teacher, lives on the fourth floor of the school. She is the most experienced teacher, having taught for nine years at a Christian school in Ho Chi Minh City. With the need to be at school by 7:30 a.m. that makes for a long day. Slept in this Saturday morning, all the way to 6:30.
I am thoroughly enjoying this mission, loving the students and believing that I am helping. I have at last been able to conduct some small conversation groups, with from three – five advanced students. They are doing well, speaking in front of classmates for extended periods, telling me about their families, where they live, what their interests are and other subjects. I also spend an hour each day with the toddlers, who have minimal, if any, English, except for one four year old whose parents both speak English and who have been teaching him at home. He is a bright light in my mornings. The classes are getting larger: there is a group of seven would-be advanced students who are late comers to English and are being tutored to try to catch them up with the rest of the class. They will join the 20 other Eagles when the school moves to its new building at the end of October. That does pose one problem: right now there are only six teachers, one with the toddlers, one with the intermediates and four with the advanced students. There is one woman who comes just once a week for conversation with the oldest students, one other part-time woman and, just this week, a part time young man from Singapore. Not enough to cover the required ground.
This week we had a visit from the Bishop of Singapore, who oversees the church in Nepal and Vietnam, along with the Dean of Vietnam. The primary reason for their visit was to see the new school space which is still being prepared, but for which the diocese of Singapore will be paying … that is for the purchase of the space only, but not for furnishings and other needful items. I shall never forget the bishop’s name: Rennis. He said his name is “sinner” spelled backwards. Heasked to be remembered to Bishop Guernsey. I sent the latter an email with Bishop Rennis’s greeting.
I made one reslly good discovery at school. There are two student WCs that, as you may imagine, are a mess after use by the school’s total of 45 children. One these restrooms has no working lght. I had never been to the fifth floor, but ventured up there this week, to find a large, clean WC that is seldom used. The floor has the school library, now all packed in boxes, and a game room with a ping pong table. After lunch, when I want to brush my teeth, the students are all in nap time – yes, even the sizteen year olds – so no one is on the fifth floor. I have claimed that clean bathroom as “MINE”.
I have done only a little sightseeing, and one afternoon discovered that the Hanoi Hilton was just a few blocks from where I was strolling. I had always imagined that the prison was somewhere in the jungle, but No, there it was right in the city. It is open for tours but I had no desire to pay to see where sAmerican POWs were somercilessly tortured dor yesrs. Curiously, there is a John McCain memorial which resembles nothing remotely identifiable. It consists of two red sandstone pillars said to be a bound prisoner hanging upside down, but I am derned if I could see that. The memorial is across the road from the lake into which McCain parachuted when his plane was shot down. I was blessed when I left church a week ago when a member asked where I was going. I told her I wanted to see the McCain memorial and was planning to take a Grab Bike, the motorbike taxi swrvice. She offered to take me on her motorbike since she was headed home and lived near the memorial. She was a much more cuatious driver than the Grab Bike operators, but the traffic was nonetheless horrific.
My driver “swan” xuan, whose name means spring.
Pastor Thai, my host, invited me for a walk withh his wife one evening this weekend to get a taste of “the real Hanoi nightlife.” I am much looking forward to this.
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.