Last Friday night Jess’s school hosted a night fair; parents and staff could set up booths in the classrooms and parents and kids came to buy their homemade foods and crafts. Jess signed us up for an apple-themed booth and she made a bunch of applesauce and I made some individual apple pies and cheddar-apple muffins, and we went into business! We didn’t make a lot of money but we covered our costs and used the rest to book round-trip train tickets to Tianjin and hotel costs. We’re thinking about taking the show on the road and opening up a street-food cart to fund our travels (joking, joking). So keep an eye out for trip photos in a couple weeks!
Also just a few photos from our nursery rhyme lesson this week. We’re learning Humpty Dumpty so I decorated an egg-which I was quite proud of-then we incorporated some science and wrapped him up in tissues and marshmallows and balloons and threw him off the third floor balcony to see if he would break. In a surprising twist to the original story, he survived!
I was up bright and early Sunday to go explore Hoi An. Hoi An was once a busy trading port on the Thu Bon River and the river is still a big draw, with various tour boats and fishing boats everywhere. Tons of shops line both sides of the walk along the river and the whole place has such a cute, small-town feel; it was easy to walk everywhere. One of the things the city is known for is the tailor shops. There are more than 400 and they can make practically a whole new wardrobe overnight. One of my first stops Sunday morning was to Bebe’s, one of the best-known tailor shops. It was even more fun than shopping. You can look at pictures from their catalog or anywhere you find them, like Pinterest, and they’ll sketch out the items you like and make any changes you want, then you can pick from hundreds of fabrics. It’s relatively inexpensive but I never have money when I travel, so I only got one dress, but it was custom-made from Hoi An silk and still less than I would have spent walking into a shop at home and buying something similar. They had it finished 24 hours later so I could come back and try it on and the seamstress could make any adjustments. She finished the hem and it was ready to pick up Tuesday morning. I wish I could do all my shopping there! Afterwards, I just spent some time walking around the old town.
Monday morning I booked a tour/cooking class where we visited a local market, then took a boat downriver to Cam Thanh water coconut village. It’s a small fishing village at the edge of Hoi An. During wartime, soldiers and locals would hide here, but now they hive a thriving eco-tour business. From the large riverboat, we transferred to traditional woven basket boats, which were fun to float around in. Each boat had a local guide to row us around and show us how to weave grass, catch crabs and fish. I was in a boat boat with a girl named Haley from the U.K., and our guide was a sweet lady who must have been about 80. She spoke only a few words of English but would talk to us in Vietnamese and gestures, smiling the whole way. Her husband was in the boat rowing a couple ahead of us, and their son had his own boat as well.
After floating around for an hour or so, we were rowed over to a big open-air kitchen to prepare lunch. I liked the cooking class a lot. Sometimes, they are too touristy, more like demonstrations, but this one was really hands-on and the instructors knew a lot about the ingredient and could explain the technique. Hoi An is also known for its cuisine so it seemed like every restaurant in town offers cooking classes, but I would definitely recommend this one, especially since it includes the coconut boat tour.
When I got back, I rested up at my Airbnb and did some homework, then went out to see Hoi An at night, which was both wonderful and frustrating. The city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999 to try to protect its culture, but it appears to have done the opposite. The streets are busy enough during the day, and just about everything in the old town area is now a shop or restaurant, which is bad enough, but at night the area is just flooded with tourists. It’s sad to see. I still enjoyed seeing all the lanterns and the small boats going out on the river, but I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more 10 years ago.
That said, the view on the river is amazing. I tried to narrow down my photos but it was hard! I got there just before sunset and stood on the bridge (with about 400 other people) to watch it go down.
Evidence of environmentalism was everywhere. Recycling bins, recycled planters, like the ones below, were really common, restaurants and vendors are cutting back on disposable items. The place where I got a breakfast smoothie one day had hollow wooden straws instead of plastic. All the fishermen and tour guides had nets in their boats to nab any bits of floating trash they came across in the river or sea.
One question I’ve gotten more than once is how people act toward Americans, or were there still any signs of war. It seems that’s all Americans really know about Vietnam. It’s impossible to answer definitively; I only visited four cities and I certainly didn’t talk to every person in the country. I can only tell you what I saw and heard from others. I’m sure there are still people who hate us; I would, frankly. But I didn’t feel that at all. What I’ve read, what I had been told by other people I know who have been to Vietnam, is that Vietnamese people love Americans. I don’t know if I’d go so far, but I certainly found them all friendly and welcoming. (Of course, Vietnam now has a thriving tourism industry with Americans pouring money into it.) This article has a much more detailed perspective if anyone is interested. In general, they view us as just one more invader they conquered, the way they did China, Japan, France, and others. Others appreciate that we tried to help. There are likely as many opinions as there are Vietnamese people. Another factor is that many revere Ho Chi Minh, and took his words to heart when he told them to blame governments, not people, for their trouble. (Something we could all learn from right now.)
You don’t have to look far, though, to see that America has had a big impact on this small country. What we call the Vietnam War, they call the American War. On a tour of Hanoi, driving down the shaded road between Trúc Bạch Lake and the West Lake, the guide was sure to detail the account of John McCain crashing down in Trúc Bạch Lake and point out the small memorial of the event there. We went by Hoa Lo prison where the POWs were held. In souvenir shops there are t-shirts like this:
I found a vintage poster shop with replicas of propaganda ads from different eras. I just bought a few, but there were dozens and dozens featuring America, American soldiers, American presidents.
Everywhere I went, people would quote prices to me in USD. I find this completely useless since I now think in RMB, and I don’t even really do that when I travel. I exchange my cash, since my Chinese debit card doesn’t work outside China. I take the amount I have, divide it by how many days I’m staying in any given country, and that’s my daily allowance. I had roughly 1 million VND per day (about USD $44-a lot, compared to my usual budget; I probably could have gotten by with half) to spend. So shopkeepers waving me over to buy things, “Very cheap, only 5 US dollars”, meant nothing to me. I had to keep asking people to tell me the price in VND, which confused them. They assume all Americans must have money and simply didn’t believe me when I told them I couldn’t afford things. “Beautiful necklace, 20 dollars”. To most tourists, that’s nothing. To many Asians, and me, $20 is a lot of money. It doesn’t sound like it, but when I convert it to VND or RMB, my first thought was usually, “Are you crazy? I’m not paying that!” Most of my hotel rooms didn’t even cost $20 a night, and they were nice rooms! I suppose this pricing is helpful to most American tourists, but I didn’t encounter many of those; most were from Europe, China, New Zealand, or Australia. Still, it shows how pervasive our currency is, and our language. Nearly every person I encountered spoke English.
After 3 days in Hoi An, I left to spend a night in DaNang. Hoi An is so small it has no airport or train station, so you have to fly in to nearby DaNang, the 3rd largest city in Vietnam, and from there it’s nearly an hour’s drive to Hoi An. (However, even in a private car, the trip was only about $11.) I had a 6 am flight back to Hanoi Wednesday morning, so I thought it would be more relaxing to go back to DaNang around noon on Tuesday and spend the night there, instead of trying to get back from Hoi An so early Wednesday morning. It worked out well. My hotel was only a ten-minute drive from the DaNang airport and I was surprised to find it was only a five-minute walk to the beach. I got some lunch at a seafood restaurant (incidentally, this is the only time in my life I’ve ever gotten sick of seafood-I think I ate it for every meal in some form) and then spent a couple hours walking up and down. I covered every inch of me I could reach in sunscreen, rubbing it in to my skin, then added another layer on top so I looked like a mime. I added a hat, some sunglasses, and still got burned. Not as bad as I usually do though. The sand was actually sparkling with some sort of gold mineral mixed with black, and there were tide pools everywhere, some up to my knees, and light was reflecting everywhere. It was a beautiful day, and the beach was relatively quiet. I’m sure it’s more crowded on the weekend, and in a few more years it will be unbearable touristy, as seems to be the trend in Asia currently. For now though, it’s perfect.
I had one more night in Hanoi before flying back to Beijing Thursday. I spent most of the afternoon wandering around the streets of the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake again, enjoying the sights. I found a rooftop cafe overlooking the lake and the busy central square and was kind of mesmerized by the flow of traffic. Everybody just keeps moving at their same pace, dancing around each other. There are so many motorbikes! The government taxes cars between 100% and 200% person, so most people use bikes. I have seen a mom and grandma with four kids on a bike, two guys carrying a 6’x4′ framed mirror on a bike while going down the highway around 55mph, fruit vendors with baskets and bundles piled up on the seat behind them. I’m constantly amazed by the innovations people come up with.
I just thought I’d share a brief history of Thanksgiving with all my friends and family across the world on this occasion. Disclaimer: I threw this together in 20 minutes before my kids arrived this morning, it was done entirely from memory, any resemblance to people, places, or things, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, yada yada yada, yes there are stereotypes, I have the illustration skills of a second grader, and it was intended for 5 year ESL kids who have the attention spans of a fruit fly with ADHD, so yeah, let’s not take it too seriously. But I was trying to explain briefly what Thanksgiving was and keep their attention:
Then we all made Thanksgiving lunch. Turkey isn’t really available but we roasted chicken and the kids mashed potatoes and made instant stuffing and pumpkin pie. I made some green beans and we ordered some canned cranberries online. The kids had never had them but they loved everything!
After lunch-which the kids inhaled-they were a little dopey. Which worked in my favor actually. We watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and I took them outside to enjoy some crisp fall air. It’s been beautiful the last few days.
Beautiful, but icy cold. Winter is either mild and smoggy, or freezing and clear. The same arctic winds that come down to clear away the smog also cause a major temperature drop. It’s also unbelievably dry. I took my sweater off earlier and it nearly electrocuted me. At night, my sheets actually throws of sparks in the dark room anytime I move. Crazy!
Tonight Jess and I went to a Thanksgiving buffet at EAST hotel. Their food is always amazing: ham, lamb, turkey, all kinds of side dishes, salads, and seafood, fruit, wine, beer, soda included. It’s a popular holiday spot for expats. Two Thanksgiving dinners in one day though-bad idea. I think I’ll go into hibernation now. Work tomorrow sounds awful.
Yesterday we talked about gratitude and made a Gratitude Tree. The kids wrote all the things they’re grateful for on leaves-mom, dad, flowers, butterflies, cake, eggs, friends, eyes… Then they glued them to the tree trunk:
I’m way behind on this blog! Later this weekend I’ll catch up and post about our trip to South Korea. For now, here’s a few pictures from our field trip to the aquarium last week:
Then we read the Rainbow Fish and made our own rainbow fish to go with the story, since we’re learning about caring as our character trait, and different habitats in science. They turned out really cute!
This upcoming week is the Mid-Autumn Festival/National Holiday, so we have a week off. It’s the only reason I’ve survived so long. No travel plans unfortunately. For the holiday I least. Jess and I just booked a weekend trip to Busan at the end of October though. Other than that we’re just saving money for our New Year’s trip to India. But there’s a lot of places in and around Beijing I still haven’t seen so I’ll do some exploring here.
Kiki went to her hometown for the holiday and sent everyone who works for her a Tianjin specialty-hairy crabs. Live crabs. 15 of them. Seafood is always super fresh here-literally still swimming. Instead of bags of frozen fish and shrimp, the supermarkets have aquariums with every possible variety of seafood splashing around. The market near my house is one of the best in the city and I always tell myself I’m going to learn how to cook live seafood but I haven’t brought myself to do it quite yet. But now I have these crabs and either they’re going to be dinner or I’m going to have to put a plastic wading pool in the middle of the living room and give them all names. I’ll let you know when I decide.
Also, they didn’t get delivered until after 10 tonight and Jess and I were both ready for bed so we look a little crazy, and Jess’s camera work goes a bit spazy at the end, but it’s still funny:
So I’ve been working on a much longer post but it’s still not finished and it’s just some general China stuff, so I’m going to keep working on it and post sometime soon. For now though, I know it’s been a while, so I thought I’d post pictures from the last couple weeks. It finally feels like spring, although March has definitely been a mixed bag. We went from sunny, clear, and sixty, to smoggy, rainy/sleety, and freezing, and back again in one week. But Jess and I were able to get out and take advantage of the clear days. Two weeks ago we went to spend an afternoon at Forest Park, the north end of Olympic Park.
Last weekend we went to the Wanda Plaza IMAX theater to see the new Beauty and the Beast movie. I know it’s gotten some mixed reviews but I loved it-it’s one of my all-time favorite stories. We explored the area around the mall too and found some cool things:
I printed up fake money for my kids to earn and started a store where they can buy fun stuff: toys, candy, coupons for iPad time, to skip an assignment, skip clean up duty, etc. Yes, I have resorted to out and out bribery and it has worked wonders. We’ve been studying Asia-Russia, India, and Arabia, and made a Russian lunch for cooking class one day, then some Indian cake this week. We also started learning about space in science and they are so excited; asking a million questions every day. One three minute video about Mars turned into a thirty minute discussion about aliens.
In other news, Jess and I took up boxing, which is actually a lot of fun and we have not managed to seriously injure ourselves, each other, or anyone around us, so that’s always a plus. The first few classes went kinda like this though:
Yeah…we’re a little out of shape. But on the way home the other day I ran into a woman passing out flyers for a gym really close to our house. So we ended up joining that too; it was incredibly cheap. Two year membership for 3700RMB, about $540. And they even have a pool.
This weekend I spent doing massive amounts of writing for my psychology class, cleaning, shopping, and trying to get some work done for school because it’s going to be a crazy week. We’ve got a field trip to the planetarium on Thursday, a tie-dye party on Friday, then Jess and I leave for Malaysia super early Saturday…think two a.m. early. What were we thinking?
Actually I’m posting this from the airport in Rome, where I have a 5 hour layover, but all the pictures are from yesterday, my last day in Spain (for now). I will definitely come back someday though. I think Barcelona is my favorite of the three cities I’ve been so far. I wish I’d been more organized; I was trying to find something to do Tuesday night when I got back there but all the things I wanted had to be booked in advance, like the monasteries, winery tours, Dali’s house. So Wednesday I decided to go see Park Guell:
After that I went back and wandered around La Ramba area for a while. This area is so much bigger than I thought, especially once you get off the main road. I found La Boqueria market, a gourmet paradise. I probably could have filled another suitcase with cooking supplies. They had stalls with spice, all kinds of flavored salts and olive oils, fresh fruit, dried fruits and nuts, candies, marzipan, vegetables, dates, honey, seafood, meats, even whole rabbits and pheasants and quail still covered in fur and feathers (I’ll spare you a photo of those). Basically, everything.
For now I’m actually looking forward to getting back to a normal routine for a while. The last couple months have been crazy!
I’m not entirely sure what happened to December. It seems to have evaporated. Yesterday was Thanksgiving right? Anyway, I don’t care because I will be home in KC in less than 36 hours! It’s going to be a long 36 hours though, since I have to work Friday and I’m going straight to the airport after our Christmas party. I’ve been dying to see my family and friends and dogs, but I must say at this point I’m kind of more excited about being able to breathe some fresh air. Beijing has gotten disgusting this week.
The last few weeks have been insanely busy with homework and projects, present shopping, lesson planning, party planning, and general festivities. I’ve had so much fun with my kids. We took a field trip to this huge indoor flower market and picked out a live tree for our classroom. We decorated the school together, made calendars and coffee mugs to give as presents, read some Christmas stories. It was awesome to get to do all my favorite things with them. Today we made cookies to share at our party tomorrow and watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas. They loved it!
Sunday I had tickets to see the Russian Royal Ballet performing Swan Lake, which I have always wanted to see, and it was incredible! The Beijing Exhibition Theater is beautiful too, I hadn’t been in that area before.
That’s all I have time for at the moment. I still have to finish some homework, clean the house, pack my bags and get ready for our party tomorrow so it’s about to be a long night. Hopefully I’ll see some of you soon! (And if you could cross your fingers that my flight doesn’t get grounded due to smog, that would be great…)