Christmas Epiphany

From hard work to holidays

Teacher training ended just days before Christmas. There was a strange crop of Santa suits for sale hanging all over the old quarter. Instead of being red and white they were red, white and yellow. I assumed this is because the Vietnamese flag colors are red and yellow, so being a popular color theme in the country.

Santa suits for sale in Hanoi

Santa suits for sale in Hanoi

While most Vietnamese practice a variety of folk religions, about 16% are Buddhist and 8% are Christian (mostly Catholic, mostly in the south). When I asked my Vietnamese friends at my hotel what happened on Christmas. They replied, not very much, that sometimes they dress up and drive around to see the churches and the beautiful decorations. Business is not closed, but Christian people celebrate it more.

Come Christmas eve, I had a nice sit-down dinner with the staff and other guests at my hotel. It was a mix of Vietnamese cuisine as well as french fries and not very good wine.  I helped in the kitchen with the springs rolls, letting the staff have a laugh at my inexperience.

Travel tip: always say yes to any task or event when invited.  Be humble and allow your local acquaintances to have a laugh at your expense. Laughter and teasing are great friendship builders.

The busy street I lived on was even busier than usual, thick with people on their motorbikes. Every so often someone would be in one of the Santa suits that had been for sale the week before, mostly men, one woman and several adorable babies.  I had blast stopping people for a photo; the mood was celebratory and sweet.

Guess I’m going to church

There are a few beautiful old cathedrals in Hanoi, one of the more famous ones was just a few blocks away, so I thought why not join the noisy throngs and see what was happening there. When I arrived the crowd around the majestic cathedral was thick with hundreds of local people waiting to get in. I was just there to see what I could see and unconcerned with actually getting into the church (I’m not Catholic).  However, the crowd kept opening up in front of me and I was being gently ushered to the door. Because I was a westerner, they assumed I was meant to be there, and were eager to assist.

Once in, it was near the end of Mass. The attendees appeared to be about half Vietnamese and half foreigners. The Priest spoke in English, with a very strong accent. The choir sang some hymns in English and some in Vietnamese. The final “Hymn” was Jingle Bells. Every one was all smiles and warm greetings as the service ended. It was a truly joyful worship.

Then the doors were opened to the public that was patiently waiting outside. The non-Catholic locals filed in with total reverence and respect that such a church deserves. I myself was in awe.

I thought, how amazing if people of different religions could all be so warmly and innocently curious of others spiritual practices. What if Muslims, Jews and Christians all welcomed and all visited each other’s places of worship on their holy days just because it is beautiful?

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Hello Hanoi!

I arrived in Hanoi, mid November, 2009 with one week to get my bearings before my intensive teacher training started.  Hanoi is a busy, loud city full of endlessly interesting sights. I rented a cheap room in a hotel with a restaurant below which turned out to be a nice place to eat many of my meals and become friends with the staff for the month that I would reside there. It was located in the old quarter, just 2 blocks from Hoan Kiem Lake.

Turns out Hanoi can get a bit chilly in the winter. Like so many places in the world that are too hot most of the year, there are not a lot of heaters for when it does get cold. I had to go out and buy a couple of sweaters (at a couple of bucks each) and I searched out the cafes that had a heater or fireplace and served hot chocolate. The less chilly days were perfect.

Zen and the Art of Crossing the Street

You may have heard about the traffic in Vietnam being absolute chaos.  Well it is and it isn’t. Later in Danang, I had my own motorbike and really got the hang of it. It is just entirely different and counter intuitive to the western mind. Anyone’s first days in the country will terrify and confound them when trying to cross the street.

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The trick is that you have to stay slow and steady as you step into a steady stream of hundreds of motorbikes, a variety of cars, carts, cyclos, and the occasional truck. Darting about through traffic is a sure way to cause an accident. I started by shadowing local people.  I would find someone, (the older the better cause who’s gonna run over an elder?)  I’d stand beside and a little behind them and copy step by step.  Miraculously the oncoming traffic parts around you like a river around a rock. No matter how dense the traffic, you just step in and slowly walk through it. Yikes!

 

Exercise Around the Lake

My neighborhood was awesome! I was in the old quarter, which is a maze of ancient streets still named after the specialized trade guilds they represented dating back to the 13th century.

Then in the middle of all the noise and bustle is Hoan Kiem lake (return of theIMG_3689 sword lake). It is a smallish lake with a red, walking bridge to an island temple. It is lovely to perambulate around observing people socialize and exercise at its edges. If you get up early in the morning you see individuals and groups doing their exercise of choice. Everything from ladies with elegant red fans to loud step aerobics classes and men with rusty old weight sets pumping iron just inches from traffic.

 

The teacher training was demanding so the walk to and from by the lake (with a stop to stretch) was a lovely respite and a peek into the daily lives of the people of Hanoi.

 

 The Food!

The street food in Hanoi is so interesting and delicious.  I never had spring rolls as good again, even in other parts of the country. In restaurants there is lots of local flair to check out, excellent French pastries and other delights from around the world.

One of the best everyday items is Bahn Mi.  For less than a dollar you get the most delicious sandwich on fresh baked baguette. I have yet to find the equivalent flavors anywhere in the US. One great reason to go back for a visit.

Travel Tip: People ask me about eating street food and getting sick in foreign countries.  Here is my personal, entirely unscientific, theory.  If you are from another country you are going to lack immunity to some of the microbes in the food and water. You will likely get a funny tummy from time to time. Paying attention to what looks clean and what other people are or are not eating (a busy place is a good sign) is a good practice. I know for certain that I have gotten sick from a fancy restaurant as well as street food and that really uptight people still get sick. Street food is so damn good, I am not going to miss out on it. So I say: be attentive, but don’t miss out on the local good stuff wherever you are.

Running Away From Home

At the age of 48 I ran away from home. The great recession of 2008 hit me hard.  I lost my business and would eventually lose my home. Everything I had worked so hard for fell flat and then I had to work really hard to take it all apart. I was so stressed I thought might head might explode. It may have been possible to save my house with 3 jobs, but there were no 3 jobs to be had, and that kind of futility is just not my style.

It turns out myIMG_1247 style is to take what little money and credit I had left and buy a ticket to Bangkok, Thailand. I had asked a knowledgeable friend where one should go if they were about to die of stress.  He suggested the island of Koh Phanang on the eastern coast of the Thai peninsula.  I had traveled a fair bit in the past, but never to Asia, so I was game.

 Traveling On My Own

I ended up spending 4 months traveling open ended, overland through southern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and back around through northern Thailand.  It saved my life! I had amazing adventures and a number of life-changing experiences.

One of the life-changing experiences was to do some volunteer teaching in Mae Sot Thailand on the Burmese border. I joined a Canadian friend I’d met in Laos,, who had started the gig and needed some help. We spent about a month teaIMG_2863ching English to refugee kids in the morning and exiled monks in the afternoon.  It was fun, heart wrenching and enlightening. There is a lot more to this story that I look forward to sharing in a future post.

Letting Go

I returned to Santa Fe, New Mexico my home for nearly 30 years.  My house had been rented out and it covered the mortgage, but I had a huge home equity line of credit that was going to come due and no way that I could see out of that. I put the house on the market, but like nearly everyone else, it was under water. It was complicated.

I spent the next 6 months selling a lot of my personal belongings and doing odd jobs. This wasn’t as bad as it may sound as I kept my favorite things and I was truly ready for some downsizing and simplification. One side effect of traveling is that you become acutely aware of how little we really need and how we Americans are drowning in our stuff. I had some nice things to let go of, so I made a little chunk of money.

I also worked on the children’s book I had started while traveling called Elephants Cry and So do I. (I will be self-publishing soon and it will have a blog and web site of its own. Yippe! (update: starquestpress.com)) I was keen to get back to Asia, but would have to figure out how to work while there.

 What about Vietnam, you ask?

After exhaustive research on how to teach English in a foreign country and where one can make enough money to live and travel, I settled on taking a CELTA course (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages) in Hanoi Vietnam.

Update: I started this blog with the title My Year in Vietnam. After writing a few posts I realized that I wanted it to be more generalized about travel. So, that’s why I started the story in Vietnam, even though it’s not where my SE Asia travels began.