Happy Holidays from Hanoi

Trip Start Oct 24, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

As I sit here, I'm realizing that this is the last entry we'll write on Hanoi (at least for the next few months), but I feel like I have so much left to say! Where to begin?

The Holidays
Christmas Eve in Hanoi is an event. While not many people here are Christian, loads of people go to midnight mass. Straight from the horse's mouth (aka: my students) they go because they are bored and it's something for them to do. As a result, the streets are insane that evening. We were interested in going to a mass, which is delivered completely in Vietnamese, but we were told not only were the streets impassable, but it was also impossible to actually get inside the church unless you arrived exceedingly early (we're talking mid-afternoon). That said, we decided to just relax at home, so we had some friends over, made a big pot of spaghetti, and drank lots of wine. It was a great way to celebrate our last day of teaching and Christmas Eve.

Sunday, December 24th was our last day of teaching. It was sad to be done, but at the same time we were/are really looking forward to a bit of a break.

I have to say it was amazing to see how we evolved as teachers throughout the year. When we first arrived in Hanoi, the idea of teaching 15 hours a week was really intimidating. By the end, we were both working 24-30 hours a week, and felt we could have done more. Not only did the teaching and planning get easier (and much more efficient), but we also really developed as teachers. We learned ways to enhance the lessons without using lazy fillers like crosswords and word searches, our confidence levels shot through the roof, and (perhaps most importantly) we ended up really enjoying teaching.

We're taking a break, but we'll be back at it again in the near future.

The Language
I still feel a bit embarrassed that we haven't picked up more of the Vietnamese language after being in the country nearly a year. It's quite difficult for us because it's a tonal language. In tonal languages, one will find that the same word can be pronounced four or five different ways, depending on the inflection of your voice. Mastering the tones is what has really held us back. Despite that, we've still learned a bit, and are resolute that, if we return, we'll be taking lessons.

Apart from being a tonal language, Vietnamese is also a mono-syllabic language. That means that each word is made up of only one syllable (even if my ears can't get used to the diphthongs and tripthongs sounding like one). This is the reason my dad always asks me: "Do they still spell all the names as two words?" Yes, they do -- in fact, over the years, the western world has taken the Vietnamese words and (again) modified them. For example, Vietnam is really Viet Nam. Hanoi is Ha Noi. Danang is Da Nang. Kathleen would be Kath Leen. And so on and so on.

It's also true that Vietnamese is very similar to English in many respects. There are huge differences between the language in the South and in the North, like British English v. American English. Vocabulary is different (in fact, I have been told a number of times that a SV can't understand 80% of what a NV says, and vice versa) -- even the word "yes" is different in the North and the South. The same can be said of British v. American English: how many of you know what trainers are?  They're tennis shoes/sneakers.  Pronunciation is different, just like in British v. American English. Spelling is different (think theater v. theatre, etc.). So traveling this loooong country can present problems to people attempting to speak the language. Just remember that if you ever buy a Vietnamese phrase book.

With our days in Hanoi winding down, we've made an effort to do a bit of sightseeing. Here's a short recap of the places we've seen:

The Temple of Literature:
This temple was built in the late 11th century, when Vietnam was part of the Chinese empire. The Emperor at that time designated it a Confucian university dedicated to educating the sons of Chinese mandarins. It was in fact Vietnam's first university, and the building still stands, in good condition, in the center of Hanoi as a quiet retreat from the maddening din of the rest of the city. As you walk in, you are impressed by all the green you can see: towering trees, grass, flowers.... There are some enclosed ponds, replete with lilypads, several buildings in excellent condition, and a variety of gates through which to pass. Upon stepping through the first gate, you are able to see the rows of turtle stelae, each one bearing the name and accomplishments of the men who received doctoral degrees from the university. As you continue on through the grounds, you are treated to some impressive altars of worship, as well as some traditional Vietnamese music. At only 20,000 dong a piece, it's an inexpensive way to get some peace and quiet in this crazy city.

Tran Quoc Pagoda:
Tran Quoc Pagoda is a temple we, quite literally, stumbled upon during a walk around Ho Tay (West Lake). Nestled on the banks of Ho Tay, Tran Quoc has a beautiful setting, and is quite peaceful. It's free to enter, which is nice, and if you walk all the way through, you'll find yourself looking out at the lake with the temple at your back, surrounded by people fishing (without poles, just using coiled lines).

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum:
No visit to Vietnam would be complete without a trip to see everyone's favorite uncle, Ho Chi Minh. Perfectly preserved, a la Lenin and Stalin, Uncle Ho rests in a giant mausoleum somewhere between Ho Tay and Ho Hoan Kiem. The body is taken to Russia for a month or so for yearly maintenance, and we were afraid we'd missed him, but he returned in time for us to sneak a quick peak before heading off to China. After waiting a short bit (and being subjected to further Vietnamese propaganda), we were off to the mausoleum. We dumped our cameras and cell phones, and then were allowed to walk, single-file, to the mausoleum. Along the way, I was harassed by guards who made me open my purse, Konrad was yelled at because he had his hands inside his pockets, then I was yelled at because I had my hands inside my pockets (it was really cold in there!), then we were told to be quiet (no talking!). Finally, we found ourselves in the room with Uncle Ho. I must say it was a bit eerie, and I found it difficult to stare at him the whole time, so I looked around at the other people's faces. It was particularly interesting to watch the Vietnamese people, who revere him as the ultimate hero, as they viewed his body -- you could tell it was quite emotional for them to be there.

The mausoleum is on the same grounds as the Presidential Palace and the Ho Chi Minh Museum, so one can really spend a bit of time here, if one wished to do so. We didn't, so we were off to our next destination....

The Museum of Ethnology:
One of the better museums I've been to, located not too far from my old stomping grounds out at HQV, is the Museum of Ethnology. This museum has displays of the many different ethnic groups scattered around Vietnam, as well as a fascinating display of bao cap, and an incredible outdoor section which shows replicas of the many tribal dwellings.

One can see the different dress worn by the various tribes, learn about their traditions and customs, and also watch videos taken during trbal ceremonies, etc. There are some excellent replicas of the villages built within the museum, showing how the people celebrate different events, make various crafts, and cultivate their crops.

The bao cap was the time in Vietnam during which everything was rationed: from bicycle parts to meat, from necessities such as rice to Tet delicacies such as jams. The display told it like it was -- no propaganda here, just the facts, as unpleasant as they were. Complete with the different ration stamps, video diaries, and photos mixed with testimonies, it was a very impressive display.

But nothing was as impressive as the displays one found outside the museum. The grounds of the museum are covered with full-scale tribal houses, all of which were used by the various tribes and then donated to the museum. One is able to walk in the different houses, which are filled with the furnishings of that tribe, down to the dishes and mattresses. It was unlike anything else I've ever seen, and was really the icing on the cake -- an excellent museum!

What's Next?

We leave Hanoi bright and early on Wednesday, January 3rd. We're not sure how long our travels will last, but we expect at least three months. First we're going to head north into China ($50 for a US visa!!!), then south into Laos, through the wilds of NE Cambodia, and back into S Vietnam to hit an island (Phu Quoc) in the south we missed initially. From there we'll head back to Thailand, and see how much time we have left. We're hoping to head south through the Malay Peninsula, hitting Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, but we'll see what our financial and time budgets allow.... During this time, we won't have our phone hooked up much, but you can always leave a message, which we can listen to whenever we check our email.

I think it's safe to say that it's been an amazing year for us -- we hope the same has been true for you. Happy holidays to you all, and best wishes for the New Year!
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