Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bat Trang Village

We visited Bat Trang Village today. The village is well known for its ceramics. We were lucky enough to get to go with some students from Bryce's class. One of them lives in the village and invited us to his home to see their ceramics being made and to have lunch with his family. They were lovely and gave us the inside scoop on the whole process.
This guy was making containers for the pieces to be fired in. He was mixing materials with his feet here in a cool little dance. Bryce and Titus worked together to make a snail with their hands. You can kind of see the big block of clay in the background.There is a woman there who paints the same design on tea cups all day. Her hands moved so fast it was impossible to tell what she did and when. One second the cup was blank and then next it was finished and nestled in stacks with hundreds of others. She let Titus and Maggie paint a few cups of their own. They had some very original, if less precise, designs.
This family made tea cups and tea pots. These are the cup molds. In the background you can see the door to the kiln. It's coal powered and wasn't on today.
We also went shopping. There were so many beautiful things. I kept trying to remind myself that ceramics aren't easy to take home in your luggage. Of course, I bought stuff anyway. What else could I do on a beautiful sunny day in a town full of shops?


I hope you had a great Thanksgiving… We decided to mark the holiday by learning a new recipe. Spring Rolls! We love the Vietnamese Spring Rolls. So flavorful and delicate. So hot and crispy. Delicious! I wanted to be sure to have a Spring Roll Tutorial before I left and, thankfully, Miss Hieu and Miss Nham said they were free Thursday evening. We followed up the meal with a cake that was decorated with ambiguous white birds. I thought they were doves, everyone else said chickens (Titus thought maybe swans). It wasn’t quite turkey and pumpkin pie but it was a great day. Memorable. Here’s the recipe as far as I can tell:

Vietnamese Spring Rolls:

Pork (ground, or super duper finely chopped)

Mushrooms, maybe 8-10 (cooked and finely chopped)

1 Onion (thinly sliced)

Bean Sprouts, maybe 1 ½ cups (chopped into ½ inch pieces)

Noodles, 1 bunch (thin vermicelli type noodles, maybe rice based, maybe not)

Wrappers (thin, papery, definitely rice based)

Salt (might be mixed with MSG)


Oil for frying

Prepare ingredients. Set noodles in water for about 5 minutes and then cut into ½ inch pieces. Place all ingredients except the wrappers in a bowl and mix together well. Season with salt and pepper. Heat oil in shallow frying pain on medium (maybe low) heat. Place about 3 Tbs of filling mixture onto one end of wrapper and roll it into a parcel, folding in the edges as you go. Repeat until all of the mixture is used. Fry parcels for about 10 minutes until outside is golden brown and inside is well cooked. Serve with sweetened fish sauce.

We’ve had these spring rolls made with a variety of ingredients. If you’re near the sea they might be made with shrimp instead of pork. If you’re vegetarian the meat might be substituted with chopped egg, cabbage, and carrots. No need to be fussy.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Squids, Snails, Science.

Every job seems to have its perks. The other day, over a lunch of rice and vegetables (what else?), Bryce realized a major job perk. Access to microscopes!! His class was dissecting animals that day. If we wanted to we could come down and have a peek at the end of the day. You've never seen such excitement at the prospect of seeing some guts.Titus seemed to be a natural with the microscope. He was giving Maggie pointers about how to use it after being an expert himself for only about 15 seconds. I think his favorite part was writing with the squid ink when they dissected the squid. He wrote "He He."
Maggie was amazingly adept with the scalpel and scissors. She followed instructions perfectly. The project brought out her curious side and she kept asking scientific questions like, "Is this one a girl or a boy? How can you tell it's a girl?"

I mostly watched and tried to keep Enzo from touching anything in the lab. Besides the squid, they dissected snails. The snails were alive when they started dissecting them. I'm not sure that's ethical. It might be as bad as that machine that breaks sheep legs so vet students can practice setting them. That still bothers me.

But anyway, the dissection project was very interesting. I love job perks.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Vinh City

Can I say just one more time that we loved our trip south to Vinh City. The wide streets, tree lined boulevards, hillsides, and pine forests. Wonderful and welcoming people. Seeing some things that appear to be the same throughout Vietnam... and some things that are different. Here are some snapshots from the phones. We went to a pagoda on the top of a small mountain. The mountain was covered with meticulously planted pine trees that helped maintain an unbelievably peaceful atmosphere in the pagoda. Titus and Maggie were most impressed with this carving. As far as they're concerned its a liger. See the tiny mane?
We went to another amusement park. There were huge insects all over and the kids wanted their picture taken on each one.
The beach was great. There weren't very many people there but the ones who were there all wanted to take pictures of the crazy American kids who were swimming in such "cold" weather.A nice walk we wen t on in the hilly forest. Hieu's dad gave Enzo this do rag with Texas written over the top. We felt even more conspicuous while he was wearing it (if that's possible). Enzo loved this old woman and she loved him. She was tiny and bent and insisted on holding him. They almost fell down together because he made her so top heavy. They had to make do with alternative forms of bonding. Mostly Enzo pulled on her face while she smiled at him.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Weekend Away

Four out of the five members of our family went on our first train ride this weekend! We went to Vinh Friday on the night train. I can't string my thoughts together so I'll just write down some brief memories of our quick trip.

We finally started using the camera function on our phones. Our real camera plummeted to its untimely death in the sleeper car on Friday night. I won't tell you who helped it to plummet.

If he's tired enough Titus can fall asleep on the sidewalk with his head pillowed on his backpack. This new found skill came in handy a couple of times while waiting for trains and buses.

We love the beach. Take us to a beach and we'll be your best friends forever.

Tropical storms sure can deposit a lot of debris

It was a weekend of Ho Chi Minh. Statues, busts, pictures, temples, clocks... We joined the domestic tourists at the sites as they paid homage to their revered leader.

I can tell why everyone here seems to like Enzo. He really is a great baby. He managed to be downright jolly after getting only half of his normal sleep and got yet another woman to offer to keep him when I go back to the US. I said no...again.

There are some people who believe that bringing a certain kind of incense into their house will bring bad luck, or even death. You really have to be careful with incense. I wish we had known that before Maggie and Titus decided to start collecting incense sticks. Sorry doesn't even begin to cover it.

Maggie had the unfortunate, though inevitable, realization that using public bathrooms is quite a risky business. She got stuck behind a rusty lock in a bathroom with worse than dubious cleaning practices and has vowed to hold it from now on. I can see why the Lonely Planet suggests that you might rather pee behind a tree.

It was a relief to get back on the train on Sunday night. We were exhausted. But the trip went by so fast. We blinked and it was over.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Happy Teacher's Day

Vietnam has some great national holiday traditions. Yesterday was Teacher’s Day and the culmination of a whole week of teacher loving. There were bouquets and gifts, speeches and dances…singing. Bryce was quite overwhelmed. He annoyed everyone by trying to keep working through it all. I was even congratulated, even though I’m only a fake teacher, with a lovely visit from some guys in my English class. Thanks for the presents guys!

I’m afraid I had to disappoint everyone again by explaining that there was a teacher’s day in the US but it wasn’t celebrated with such fervor. I was solemnly told that teachers are very important and should be revered because they hold the key for educating future generations. Without teachers, how could any country keep going? Indeed.

Last year, in California, we watched while thousands of teachers (and librarians and teaching assistants) lost their jobs in spite of fervent fundraising and protesting by concerned citizens. Budget cuts, etc. What does this say about how America values teachers? What does it say about how we value educating future generations?

One thing is for sure. It is way more fun to appreciate our educators (even fake ones, like me). So, how about a little more celebrating and a little less laying-off?

Happy Teacher’s Day!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Construction on the outdoor kitchen seems to be at a standstill and the workers have left several piles of debris just begging to be turned into something amazing (I mean besides an amazing kitchen). The kids decided to create a playground. So far, they have made a passable teeter-totter, an art table with a basket full of “supplies”, hopscotch, and a chalkboard for playing pictionary. They were delighted to find the old bricks drew a chalk-like orange line, just where it was wanted. Unfortunately, the brick drawing was cut short by a young man in a dark suit who repeatedly uttered the mysterious warning, “do not finish, do not finish.” It was another one of those times that I wish I spoke fluent Vietnamese. We got the message, and quit with the bricks, but I do wonder what he meant exactly…

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Keeping Them Busy

Lately I've been guilty of just keeping the kids busy as opposed to helping them have "enriching" experiences. In the past few weeks they have spent considerable time on such lengthy activities as trying to crack open coconuts with broken tiles and "weeding" the lilypad ponds.

Yesterday, since Bryce was still gone, we started another activity that was meant to fill in time but ended up being quite telling and fun. We sat down with a bowl of beads and some fishing line and proceeded to make some necklaces. It was interesting to see the different approaches they took to the beading. Titus was very methodical and determined. He was characterized by sayng, "I'm going to make the most beautiful necklace for you, Maggie." Maggie was a little more spontaneous with her designs and shied away from patterns. Enzo didn't enjoy it at all sine we kept the bead bowl away from his remarkably sticky fingers. "Beads aren't for babies, Enzo," Maggie sang repeatedly.

All in all we had a good time and now they have several necklaces that they intend to sell and thereby make a fortune.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Alone in Asia

I’m not really alone after all since I have three children with me. Bryce has left for the weekend. Off to an interview in Bangkok (gulp). So, to counteract the despondence I felt at being left without my other half, I decided to live it up (after all, I’d probably rather be here than facing an interview!).

And what says “live it up” better than a wedding? So, off we went this morning to a beautiful Vietnamese wedding. I ironed and wore shoes for the first time since we’ve been here. The groom is an acquaintance of ours for whom I have a special place in my heart since he once jiggled Enzo to sleep while watching soccer on TV. He looked appropriately dazed in his spiffy suit. His bride was stunning and they embarked on their life together with flair and pizzazz. Blasts of shiny confetti rained down on the couple and their parents while they cut the cake and drank a toast with magenta champagne (champagne is my best guess. I'm definitely no expert). The wedding was just what we needed. Titus and Maggie even had the distinction of being the only two guests to have any wedding cake.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Our New Neighbors

The guest house has been innundated with people this week. Most of the new people at the guest house are lecturers from other universities who are here for a huge badminton tournament. We even met the defending champs from last year's doubles competition. They are a loud boisterous bunch who are especially happy (and perhaps a little tipsy) after a big win. Titus and Maggie will even talk to them, which is huge, since they usually pretend not to understand people when they speak to them in English (of course, sometimes they really don't understand). The best thing about having these badminton guys here is that one of them loves to sing and is really good at it. He sings constantly and, after two days, I'm still not tired of it. Who knew how great badminton was?

Monday, November 10, 2008

For my Ferry Friends

Growing up on Vashon Island meant that I spent a lot of time with ferries. They feature strongly in my memories and, like many islanders, I have a passionate love/hate relationship with ferries. Anyway, one of the highlights of the weekend was riding the ferry to Cat Ba Island. I thought I would do a comparison between the Cat Ba Ferries and the the beloved Washington State Ferries (WSF).

-It was kinda hard to tell who the ferry workers were in Cat Ba. Some of them were wearing uniforms (more like the army variety) and some were wearing business suits. The anonymity of the workers didn't seem to hinder their performance as they got down to business and loaded the ferries on time! This all boils down to a definite absence of the power trip sometimes found among WSF workers (Mad Marge - need I say more?).
- The ferries were loaded and unloaded in a somewhat random fashion. Cars, buses, motorbikes, and pedestrians got on and off at their leisure. It was a little alarming for someone used to the more orderly approach of WSF. - The ferry docks were essentially concrete slabs and there was usually more than one ferry there at a time. Imagine all of these ferries loading and unloading in their special way and you get the picture of the relative chaos that reigned. Still, everyone seemed to get to the right place and this was all done without blinking lights and walkie talkies (I'm just saying that might be one way to keep the WSF ticket prices down).

- There was a snack place on the Cat Ba ferries and, believe it or not, I could afford the snacks.

- The bathroom on the ferry was a wooden outhouse with a drop box philosophy. The lock on the door was broken which gave way to the obvious problem of the door being opened at inconvenient times. Give me a WSF bathroom any day.
-Undoubtably, WSF is faster. I had to keep looking around to see if we were moving. There wasn't much of a wake.

- We ended up eating our lunch on the Cat Ba Ferry sitting in a circle on the floor (not a lot of benches to be had). Of course, it was the floor of the control room at the top of the ferry. The WSF have plenty of padded benches and tables but I've never been in the control room. I guess it's a toss up which I would prefer.

- There is a definite theme of safety in the WSF system. Bright orange vests, warnings, posters, drills... Bryce used to get nervous when we parked in a cross-hatched area of the car deck. We didn't really notice that same theme here. There were some orange life rings that were obviously very accessible since the students seemed to have a good time playing with them.

- After taking the Cat Ba Ferry we started to realize all of the paint that must go into keeping the WSF system going. Paint for the outside, the inside, the warning signs, the car deck... It is a lot of paint, but I think it is worth it. The alternative is an amazing amount of rust and bewildered passengers.

Field Trip Weekend

This weekend we joined Bryce's students on a field trip. He teaches the second and third year students in the Advanced Training Program for Crop Science. These guys are crazy smart and are doing their degrees in Engish. They are also super nice. They have been known to translate for us and to graciously help us buy fruit. I also get to have English classes with the second years which is a lot of fun.
Some of the students on our bus. There were about 100 people on the trip in all.

So, essentially the field trip was a quest to find animals for the students to see as part of their animal biology class. We went east to Haiphong and then took the ferry to Cat Ba Island where we fell madly in love with the beautiful sub tropical paradise. We are currently plotting ways to sneak back. The kids on the deck of the hotel. Titus and Maggie had a great time even though they didn't get to go swimming (no time).
Bryce, Enzo, and the sunset.
It was a fast paced, whirlwind field trip. In fact, it might just be the craziest field trip ever (since the promised animals were few and far between). Still, we had a good time and thoroughly enjoyed the students.
The students gamely checking out the only live animals they got to see up close... clams.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The End of an Era

The water has receded now. We're just situated in the middle of a rather muddy puddle. I've learned a few things from this.
1. There is a limit to how many treats my kids will eat. I can tell you from first hand experience that it is rather important for your food storage to include more than choco-pies and halloween candy.
2. There are some women who look amazing in heels even while walking down a flooded sidewalk. I will never be one of those women (sigh).
3. Running water is more important to me than electricity. Candles can even make washing one's hands quite romantic.
4. Life always goes on.

Monday, November 3, 2008


Tuesday Morning:

The water level is slowly going down. It has gone down about six inches so far. They now say that this is the worst flooding in Hanoi for 40 years, and the worst flooding here ever. The water level in the drainage canals and lakes near the university are at the same level as the streets.

We are lucky to have power from a generator during the day (between 10 am and 5 pm). Occasionally we have internet access too. Sadly, there is no running water anymore. We can flush the toilet with brownish water that I suspect is pumped in from outside the front steps (not sure I want to know where it goes). We are using bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth but it seems it will still be a little while until I have a shower.

Bryce and Maggie waded out this morning for some breakfast. It seems that fruit and veggies have doubled in price. The market has only a few vendors and they're taking advantage of it.

All in all, we're doing well. Yet again, I have been reminded of how easy my life usually is.


Sunday Morning:

We woke up this morning to find the guest house surrounded by water. Somehow, during the night, even though the rain had stopped, the water rose higher and higher. There has been intermittent rain today and since morning we have watched the water level rise another six inches or so.

Bryce found an online article in English this morning that informed us that we are experiencing the worst flooding in the area for 24 years. In Hanoi city the water is chest deep in places. There have been 19 deaths there as a result of the water. The dean of Bryce’s department stopped by this morning to soberly warn us not to let the children play outside. I think he feels somewhat responsible for our safety.

Here, near the university, the water is about knee deep and the atmosphere is still playful. Every time the rain stops the students head outside and start splashing each other with the murky water and shrieking like monkeys.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


Yesterday morning the there were several places the little ponds had swelled beyond their banks and the streets were still ankle deep in water. Our friend said it was perfect weather for fishing. We took some buckets out to the fields behind the agronomy building and started picking up the tiny silver fish that had been stranded there by receding water. We waded through deeper water just for fun before we were chased inside by more pounding rain. Now we have two buckets with live fish sitting in our room. We never got around to asking what they were for.

Halloween Week Highlights

  1. We put together the “costumes” for the kids with the clothes we have here. Titus was Spiderman (spidey jammies, gray gloves, black socks). Maggie changed her costume daily between a Vietnamese lady (her new ao dai), a gymnastics teacher (swimming suit and leggings), and a “matchy matchy girl” (she picked out a shirt and skirt that matched each other. I think it was her favorite costume). They both seemed totally happy with what they came up with.
  2. Candy, candy, and more candy. The huge pile of candy flanked happy, eager children seems to show the essence of Halloween. The candy looked way better than it tasted but the kids still loved it with predictable passion.
  3. The three rust colored pumpkins were brought in by a friend of a friend on his motorbike from hours away. We had them in our room all week and finally carved them today with some friends.
  4. My English classes took on a Halloween theme and became more party-like as the week went on. I was totally impressed with the proper students who threw caution to the wind and did the apple under the chin game. I’d like to see these guys get down when it’s not 8:00 in the morning on a school day! It was actually great of them to be so into it since Titus and Maggie came with me seeking some Halloween cheer.
  5. It rained today. A huge torrential downpour that was deafening as it came down. The courtyard filled with water several inches deep. There was a pervasive foggy mist swirling through the trees and houses. Every few minutes we saw the bright flash of lightning and heard ear splitting thunder that went on and on, as if a cosmic bowling ball had been rolled across the purple sky. Perfect spooky weather for Halloween when you’re not trick-or-treating outdoors.
  6. It rained more and more. The roads turned into rivers. The power cut out several times today including while we were carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating around the empty guest house rooms. We ended up doing these festivities by candlelight. Then we slogged through the pouring rain in knee deep water to the restaurant, where the power was still out, and ate dinner by candlelight as well.
  7. “Goodbye,” we said to our friends who had shared the evening with us. Everyone had rolled their pants up over their knees. We were huddled under umbrellas and nearly shouted to be heard over the pounding rain. “Happy Halloween.”