Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Days Seem Shorter ...

as our time in Hue draws to an end. While I hope to be able to blog a bit about the upcoming Australia leg of the trip, staying with friends who will be showing me what they think is best about their wonderful country means I might not want to ignore their hospitality in real time. But hey! If there are comments asking for it, I can always blog Australia when I get home to Virginia. Photos do keep, and I have mine backed up in multiple locations that are only together when I'm with all of them.

The past four days (I'm including today) have been nothing short of amazing. I don't have photos for some of it, but I hope you'll understand why when you read about them. The two-and-a-half days of 55th anniversary celebrations for Hue University's Physics Department and College of Education about did the husband and me in. One of the nice things about hotel living (another blog post, along with the beer one and one of flying solo while the husband works, that might not get written; it was going to be called "Channeling Eloise") is that there's not really any housework to do, and I'm not doing martial arts every evening. This means we can actually go to bed before 10:00 p.m. and, with no evening exercise, I can actually fall asleep. Even getting up at 6:00 (the husband likes to leave for the office at 7:00 since he starts teaching at 8:00), I feel very rested. The nights of the anniversary events followed by the opening ceremony of Hue Festival made for three very late nights followed by three just or almost as early mornings.

At Thursday night's physics after-party karaoke event, I spent a bit of time chatting (as much as one can chat in a room with the karaoke turned up to max) with a female doctoral student in physics education. We chatted a bit about kids; she was a 7-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl. It was hard, though, with the music pounding, so she invited me to go for coffee Monday afternoon. She picked me up at 3:00 on her motorbike, and off we went. Remember this later--motorbike singular.

Aside: On our first full day here a month ago, I took my first ever ride on a Vietnamese motorbike. I shall admit it; I was terrified. All I could think about as we careened through the city (I was riding behind the young woman who coordinates the Advanced Program in Physics here) was that given all the grief I took about last trip's dog bike, all I needed to do on this trip was get hurt in a motorbike accident. I survived that trip, though, and another one, behind the husband's teaching assistant, to a dinner that they had for the husband after he gave a special seminar.

Back to the story of Monday. Kha (that's pronounced something like "car" would be with a Boston accent) had asked if I liked Vietnamese coffee and, when I said that I did, said she knew just were we should go. Off we shot into the shadow of the Best Western Indochine Palace traveling through an amazing intersection at which about six main roads come together into something that cannot be called a roundabout or traffic circle and which had just had water sprayed on it for cleaning purposes. We pulled up to a coffee shop located in the bottom unit of a townhouse-type building. I asked Kha if the people running the shop lived upstairs, and she said they probably did. Kha asked me if I had ever had what translated as "salt coffee." I said I had not but I would certainly try it. (If you Google "salt coffee Vietnamese," you will find that this is nothing new, though it was to me.) It was incredible! Vietnamese coffee in general is quite good and lacks much of the bitterness I taste in many coffees at home. The references one finds through Google point out that salt is a base which means it naturally counteracts coffee's acidity. Whatever the reason, it was good, and I'll probably try adding a small amount to either my grounds or my brewed cup when we get home.

As we sipped our coffees, we talked. Both being moms, a lot of the talk concerned our respective kids. Kha is trained as a high school physics teacher and supports herself and her kids by tutoring high school students for the physics part of the college entrance examination (high school students wanting to go to college take national exams that cover all the subjects they study in high school, somewhat like our SAT I and IIs combined); her husband teaches physics in his hometown which is about 200 kilometers from here. They see each other about twice a month. After we finished our coffee, Kha asked if I had to be back at the hotel at a certain time or would I like to go with her to pick her daughter up at school. Anyone who knows me well knows that I immediately answered in the affirmative, since I'm always ready to jump on learning about how another country handles education.

Vietnam has what amounts to full-time, state-supported daycare starting when children are one. Children progress through this rising as a group with each passing year. What we would think of as formal school starts when kids are six. They start learning English at nine in most schools and younger in others. After they start, English is part of the curriculum for the rest of their primary and secondary education. One problem, according to Kha, is that the Vietnamese teachers may not speak English all that well themselves. It is very hard for them to practice, and they struggle with the English pronunciation. I will admit that I had to smile at this and think how I struggled with trying to learn even a bit of Vietnamese, which is a tonal language. And they think what we pronounce is difficult? Class sizes here are much larger than in the U.S. Kha's husband's high school physics class of 55 students is abnormally large; average high school class size is usually more like 45. In primary grades, 30 is about the norm. Yes, those would be with only one teacher.

Anyway, Kha's daughter is three, and her classroom looked much like the preschool classrooms my kids attended, though larger. This is understandable given the 30 kids in a class. They were all sitting quietly listening to the teacher. As parents or grandparents arrived to pick children up, kids would rise and somewhat bow to the teacher. Some would run to the door and greet their adult; others would run to the back of the room to get their shoes, and then head for the door. Kha says that at three, her daughter has already learned many of the social skills she will need in school--raising her hand to speak, for example. While Kha's daughter is not yet learning English in school, Kha spoke to her in English in my presence, and she seemed to understand. When prompted, she would say a word or two in English to me. We spent a bit of time on the playground, and then Kha asked if I wanted to meet her son. I actually knew where the school we were at was, and I could have walked back to the hotel from there, but I said sure. So off we went, Kha's daughter riding in front of here somewhat standing on the floor of the scooter; I sat as before behind Kha.

Kha's son's school was on the outskirts of Hue, in an area I have never been to. As we pulled into the drive to the school, Kha explained that they paid a little money for their son to attend this school, but it was a bit better academically than the school that he could have attended for free was. (Yeah, parents have lots of the same concerns whatever the setting.) When he saw his mother, Kha's son stopped playing with two other boys, and they all ran inside to retrieve their backpacks. Kha's son and daughter greeted each other with more warmth than my brother and I ever showed each other and played together a bit. Kha asked if I would like to see their house and, when I said that I would, off we went, now four on the motorbike. Kha's daughter sat/stood as before, and Kha's son sat in between Kha and me. I've seen four people on motorbikes here fairly often, at rare times even four adults. Being one of those four people, now, that was something new.

Kha's house was down an alley off the street with the altar built into a tree that I wrote about here. The bike pulled into a small concrete parking area onto which about four doors faced from two directions. Motioning around the parking area, Kha explained that this was the best she could afford that had a yard for the kids. She unlocked the door to reveal a room that could fit inside my dining area. There was a desk with a computer, a table, a bed big enough for the three of them, and a small one-burner stove. No, there wasn't any plumbing to speak of, though there was the equivalent of a chamberpot that she took somewhere out behind the building to empty while the kids entertained me. Her son had to test my math skills (I passed) as well as my Vietnamese pronunciation skills (I passed there, too). At 7, he speaks amazing English. Kha says that he can also translate quite well, reading a story in English and then translating it to Vietnamese for his sister. The significance of this comes when you learn that word order differs between the two languages and that in many cases there is no verb used in Vietnamese; it is understood. If someone says "he funny," (using the appropriate Vietnamese words for "he" and "funny") it means "he is funny" or "he was funny." You infer the appropriate to be verb form depending on context--past, present, future.

When I got back to the hotel, I talked with the husband for a long time about this. Kha's son had asked me if I could send him a photo of my house (he gave me his email address). I am somewhat embarrassed about it, having so much to their so little. At the same time, though, the kids were thriving by all standards of behavior, physical and mental abilities. One room is what they know, and they are fine with that. It does make me want to go home and sweep a whole bunch of "stuff" into a box and take it to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. We have so much that we don't need or don't need any longer.

Tuesday was a bit of a lost day. I've had several day-long bouts of what I finally figured out is dehydration past the mild level that is normal for me here. Tuesday was when I finally figured out the cause of the splitting headache that would wake me up in the middle of the night and totally zap me of energy and leave me light-headed and apt to lose my balance if I moved too quickly. I spent the morning and afternoon in the hotel room, drinking water, reading, doing cross-stitch and crossword puzzles, and otherwise resting. I've promised the husband that if a bout of this recurs once we're back in the land of the easily locatable flushable toiled, I will seek medical advice forthwith. The problem here is that I try to balance how much I drink with when and where I will be (and, interestingly, what I will be wearing) when I need to get rid of some of that liquid. It may be too much information, but of the three restrooms I have visited at Hue University, only one had a real toilet. The others had squat toilets and not very clean ones at that. This is one thing if you're wearing a skirt, but another if you're wearing a silk ao dai with pants and a long dress over them.

Moving right along, I pretty much lost Tuesday morning and afternoon and, later, yesterday afternoon and evening, due to dehydration or heat problems. Not good. It's now Friday morning here, and I'll be taking today off from roaming in the heat. I have several bottles of water to work my way through, and hopefully I'll be up and around again for the weekend. We do have a couple of things we want to do or get before we leave on Monday.

So, on Tuesday night, a couple of teaching assistants, the advanced physics program secretary, and two students who will be grad students at UVa in the fall took us out to eat. More specifically, we took them out in terms of picking up the bill but asked them to choose the place. They took is to one of the sidewalk cafes at which you never see foreigners, and at which you sit on stools like these. Food just kept showing up on the table, and they showed us what sauce to use, etc. The final bill came to a bit less that $15.00 for seven people. We then went to a very new coffeehouse, located underneath the large conical hat here. The bill here, for assorted coffee, teas, juices, and one beer came to $7.00. It was somewhat funny when the maintenance director at our hotel came in with some other men and stopped at our table to say hello. You'd think we live here! At one point we heard music from an area behind us and saw that there was a dragon dancing. By the time the husband and I walked up there, the dragon costume had been removed and a performance of martial arts and dance was beginning. I only had my point-and-shoot camera, and there were lots of people in front of us, so I only really got one good shot. Eventually, it was down to just three young women, the husband, and me. At this point, a young man asked if he could sit down with us since he was all by himself. It quickly became clear that he was hoping to pick up one of the young ladies. Fortunately, I was able to remind the husband that he had to finish grading the midterm he had given that morning, enabling us to beat a quick retreat. And while I haven't really been the object of such a pick-up attempt in years, it was humorous to learn that they're apparently done the same the world over.

Wednesday, I went to the university in the morning and took photos of the husband and each of his students. In the afternoon, his teaching assistant, the secretary, and one of the future UVa grad students picked us up at the hotel to take us to a combination folklife festival and market being held in conjunction with Hue Festival 2012. I actually had directions to the location where it was being held, a Japanese covered bridge about 11 kilometers outside Hue, but if I'd tried to get there by myself on a bicycle I would still be lost. The bridge was originally built in 1776 by a Japanese woman who lived in the town. After she died, the other villagers maintained the bridge in her honor. The bridge actually sat to one side of the festival and market. On the other side were rice paddies.
The area does flood somewhat regularly. Here's the husband standing beside the flood marker. He's a bit slouched but is around 5'7" when he stands up straight. The top gray box on the marker shows how high the water got in 1999.

Right after we got to the event, the husband and I were each approached separately by an elderly Vietnamese woman who stood about four feet nothing tall (not really, but she was quite, quite short). We were each taken aback when she addressed us in the most flawless English we've heard here. It turned out that her now-deceased husband was American. Both the husband and I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance when she started speaking to us. We did not at all expect this person to be speaking such good English. When I spoke with here, we were standing in the middle of quite a large crowd, which is why I didn't get a photo of her. I wish now that I had, but oh well.

There were a number of things for sale at the market part of the event, everything from fans to sandals made from what appeared to be old tires. There were the so colorful balloons you see everywhere. There were several people making these colorful dough creations as you watched. I bought this one which has hardened up quite nicely to the point where I'm thinking I might actually be able to get her home in one piece.

On the folklife side of the event, there were exhibits and demonstrations of such things as this fishing net. They had two of these, the one shown above and the one I'm lifting out of the water here. There was also a little museum with things such as this grain mill. I also got a chance to try out the traditional way in which women carry items, even children. I expect I will end up in a number of Vietnamese photo albums because as soon as I picked this up, people other than the husband started snapping photos like mad. Outside, I tried a traditional rice mill. Another attraction was a water puppet show. As we were waiting for it to start, we were greeted quite warmly by Mr. Cu, the owner of the Mandarin Cafe and a photographer who has exhibited internationally. About half of the postcards we've sent are Mr. Cu photos. If you didn't get one, you can see his work here. Water puppets are pretty amazing. They're controlled from behind a screen. Unfortunately, there was no real seating for the show, so I was shooting from behind a host of standing people. This is the best shot I got. There are three separate puppets here, two dragons and one ball. The dragons were throwing the ball back and forth and, at this instant, both grabbed it.

After the water puppet show, we headed back into town. Our hosts stopped at an even smaller sidewalk cafe than we'd been at the night before, and we had an even more interesting, even cheaper meal. This one included hard-boiled bird eggs which were about a third the size of a chicken egg. There was also a noodle soup and some pates wrapped in banana leaves. The shrimp pate was particularly good when eaten with a clove of garlic. The final cost? About 90 cents per person. We then went to an alley cafe for 30 cent desserts. If you had told us we'd eat a dessert made from green beans or from white and red kidney beans, we never would have believed it, but that's what we did. The dishes were something like a simple sugar syrup served with the solid food item (I also tried one made from lotuses) and crushed ice. You sort of mashed it all together and then ate it with a spoon or drank it.

Yesterday morning, before I was hit by whatever malady put me on my back for the rest of the day, Kha and I went out for coffee. Her kids have asked to see me again, so I'm going to go see them tomorrow while the husband gives his final exam. On the way back to the hotel from coffee, we stopped at a CD store, and she helped me pick out some CDs of Vietnamese music. One of the artists I chose is actually from Hue, and there is a street here named after him. I haven't yet listened to these, but if anyone wants to borrow them when I get home, just let me know.

Still on the agenda for the weekend, our last two days in Hue, are to go across the river and pick up some last-minute gifts and photograph an amazing tree that we saw on our way back from the Hue Festival opening ceremony last weekend. I want to visit Bao Quoc pagoda one more time; we may bike there on Sunday along with the Ngueyn Van Minh brassworks which are out near the tiger-fighting arena. We had to switch rooms for one night because of a problem with the water lines in the hotel, and they gave us coupons for free massages as compensation. We'd like to use those. We need to visit TyTy, a shop owner with whom we became friendly three years ago and deliver a photo of me in my ao dai. Saturday's lunch will be at Mr. Cu's Mandarin Cafe, while Sunday's will be at Phuong Nam, home of the best fruit shakes in Vietnam, and whose owner remembered me after three years. Monday, we take an early-morning plane to Ho Chi Minh City to chill in the airport until a late-afternoon flight to Kuala Lumpur. From there, we fly overnight to Perth, Oz. (One of the English-language newspapers here, The Vietnam News, actually referred to Australia as Oz in a headline on Wednesday.) Maybe I'll add the beer, hotel, and flying solo posts when I get home, and maybe not. One thing you learn traveling is to keep your options open. You never know when the chance to do something new will present itself and when you'll be knocked for a loop and spend an afternoon and evening in bed.


Caroline M said...

My last experience of squat toilets was in a spotless, beautifully tiled bathroom in Italy. Shiny tiles, ski boots, dangling straps from my ski trousers - yes I remember it well.

Thank you for taking the time to share your visit Jean, it's been an experience.

Jayne said...

Hope you are soon well! Have loved this blog and hope you someday have time to blog about your Australian adventure, too. Enjoy your remaining time in Hue (if you feel well enough to venture out!) and safe travels!