Monday, 14 January 2008

We arrived in Hoi An, Vietnam, late last night. While Clay and I checked in and did passport stuff, the kids discovered a pool table under a pavilion and two swinging hammocks. They made themselves right at home, knocking around pool balls and swinging under the stars until it was time for bed. This morning we woke up to do a little more investigating. Our rooms were sprinkled with flower petals, and the floors of the showers were covered in white rocks, with a wooden platform to stand on when you showered. All of this looked really cool, but wasn’t entirely functional, as we found out when we took a shower later. Apparently those rocks don’t drain too well, and water overflowed onto the bathroom floor (there was no lip) and swelled towards the door, threatening to flood the room.

We headed out with Truk (pronounced “trook”) after breakfast to walk around the city, which is very small. We started with the market, and admired some piglets a woman was placing in a wooden pen to sell. Live chickens squawked from the back of motorcycles as we went deeper into the market, past unidentified vegetables and hand-embroidered tablecloths. The fish section was right along the river. We saw barracuda, a small shark, squid, women cleaning fish as they were thrown from the boats, and a toothless old woman in a boat who hammed it up for a picture (then wanted a tip, of course!).

After the market we visited a Taoist temple, where red incense spirals hung from the ceiling. From the middle of each spiral was a yellow piece of paper with wishes for the New Year written on them, from visitors from all over the world. Truk said the spirals take six weeks to burn all the way up. This temple is dedicated to the river goddess, and there were statues of her two assistants as we entered the main room. These were scary creatures, one with sharp eyes (big bug eyes that bulged out of his head) and one with sharp ears. Perhaps the kids’ favorite part of the temple was the tiny Chihuahua in the front courtyard. He really was cute, and friendly enough to let the kids fawn all over him.

Among the many shops we passed were many tailors, where you could pick a design, pick your material, have yourself measured, and get your custom-fitted clothes 24 hours later. This sounded like loads of fun to me and Alayna, we walked through the store with the same scrutiny and observation techniques we had used and perfected on our game drives back in Africa. The boys settled into chairs, a dull stare coming over their glazed eyes. Alayna and I each settled on pretty “Chinese-style” shirts and shoes that were made from the same material our shirts were made from. Of course, I got a different material so Alayna would not have to endure the utter humiliation of wearing the same outfit as her mom. After being measured, and photographed from all sides by a digital camera that then stored our photos on a bank of computers (this was certainly high-tech), we were told to return tomorrow at noon for a fitting. We left the shop with a spring in our step.

As we left the shop, we passed a building next door with rows and rows of sewing machines, women hard at work on yesterday’s orders, I presumed. I paused for a minute, wondering what their working conditions were like. Wondering if we had just bought clothes from a sweatshop where women were poorly treated and paid very little. I hoped not. I hoped that buying our clothes here had given a woman a job, given her the chance to earn money and put food on her table.

We visited a woodworking shop where they inlaid mother of pearl, and left with three cute little wooden pigs. We picked up two Chinese lanterns at a street stall, $5 for the pair. We toured a traditional Vietnamese home (Truk said it actually looked very Chinese, but the government said it was “Vietnamese”, so that’s what they say) and left with a hand-embroidered tablecloth and matching napkins ($30 for the lot). By this time Clay put the kibosh on any more shopping endeavors, and after hauling our bag around town I was in full agreement.

After lunch we took a boat ride. When the kids wrote about it later in their journals, they all said it was “loud and windy”, and that it was, but Benji and I saw a school of white fish flying over the water. I thought they were birds at first, flying low to the water to catch a snack, but then suddenly they weren’t there anymore, they had disappeared under the water. We passed a boat with a man and woman fishing. The man threw his fishing net so we could get a good picture, it ballooned into a perfect circle before settling gracefully on the surface of the water. Beautiful. Nate got to drive the boat for a while, a thrill for him.

After docking, we went to the beach for a while. The waves were great, but the sky was gray as gray can be. The kids didn’t care, they dove right in. Benji would run right up to the water’s edge, but when a wave came he would run away screaming and giggling. Alayna and Nate body surfed, and Nate’s arms and legs and face turned a bright, tomato red. Disturbing, but it didn’t seem to bother him at all. I think it was probably just the friction of the salt and sand rubbing his skin raw. We watched them play for awhile, then caught a cab back to the hotel.

For dinner that night we had some really interesting conversation. The kids wanted to know all about the Vietnam War, what started it and who were the “good guys” and the “bad guys” and why did America get involved. This led to a discussion of war in general, and then the current situation in Iraq. Alayna was especially interested, I loved watching her listen and ask intelligent questions. Benji listened attentively as well, then in a lull of the conversation he spouted out his thoughts on it all. What America needed to do is bring back the dinosaurs, all they’d need is a little preserved dinosaur skin and a little genetic engineering. Then we’d set them loose in the mountains of Afghanistan to catch Osama Bin Laden (both boys were very disturbed to hear that this bad guy had not been caught yet). “That would do the trick,” Benji said with great conviction. We plan on contacting the Pentagon as soon as we get back to reveal Benji’s plan.


Tuesday, 15 January 2008

This morning we took a bike ride into the countryside of Hoi An. This involved mounting our bikes at the hotel and actually riding them through the city to reach the countryside, something that had me on edge. While there are tons of bikes on the roads, there are also tons of motorcycles and cars and giant trucks that barrel down on you, honking their horns. The Vietnamese we passed in our car the day before seemed unphased by all this honking and traffic, they just steadily pedal onward, but I wasn’t sure how our kids would react to all the hubbub. I wasn’t sure how I would react.

We decided to let Nate give it a try on his own bike, but Benji would share a bike with Clay. In the past this has involved an attachment of some sort, where Benji sits on a seat behind Clay, but in this scenario Benji would perch on the luggage carrier on the back of Clay’s bike, the little metal thing you use bungee cords to attach things to. We had no bungee cords for Benji, he would just have to hang on to the back of Clay’s seat, and keep his legs out straight so he would not get them caught in the wheel.

So off we went, Benji clinging to the back of Clay’s seat and looking very precarious and fragile to me, I stayed in the rear in case he fell off. I figured I could slow down faster than the kids and avoid running over him. Benji was actually very comfortable and composed and we made it through the city without any incidents, and continued down a quiet road, it seemed to be a suburban street with houses lining either side. I heard music coming from up ahead, and as we got closer I realized it was coming from the trash truck. When people heard the music, they came out of their houses with their trash cans to hand over. I guess they didn’t leave the cans out overnight or the dogs would get into them. Truk said the trash trucks used to play the same music the ice cream truck played, but people would run out all excited about ice cream and meet the trash truck instead. So, they just recently changed the music to a Chinese-sounding song.

We passed rice fields, where women in cone-shaped bamboo hats bent over working. Strong black water buffalo were scattered across the fields, a teenager lounged on the back of one of them.  The fields were submerged in water, just like in the pictures, with tiny bright green shoots poking out of the water. Truk explained how the rice needs water to grow, and the water kills the grass that would threaten to choke it out.

Next we biked to a garden, filled with neat and tidy rectangles of growing things, spaced at perfect intervals, paths in between each plot. Families may own six or seven of these little growing patches, they received the land for free from the government. The ones owning this land were “late-comers” to Vietnam, there were no more fertile rice fields to be had. They had to settle for this land, covered entirely in sand. Nothing could grow easily in sand, so they were given the land.

The farmers bury seaweed along each row to fertilize the soil, they baby the earth, pampering it. They ship in extra-fine sand for seedlings to grow in, which are then transplanted when they’ve grown larger. They have contracts with merchants in the market, to provide a certain amount of vegetables or flowers. Any leftovers are taken to market by the farmer individually and sold on the street outside the covered market, spreading their wares on a blanket. In this garden they grew herbs and vegetables, and flowers. Our hotel room can testify to the growth of the flower market due to tourism, when we arrived our bed and floor were sprinkled with hibiscus, red rose petals, and yellow chrysanthemums.

Yellow chrysanthemums are used during the Tet, the Vietnamese new year’s celebration (in early February this year) so they must bloom at just the right time. Lamps shine on the plants at night if they need to speed up the growing and blooming process. If they’ll bloom too soon, they water them with cold water and cover them with dark nets so they get less light. Walking amongst these tenderly cared for plots of land, we were careful to stay on the narrow paths so we wouldn’t trample any of these precious plants. Plants these farmers depend on to provide for their families.

We hopped back on our bikes and circled around the garden, coming upon a wedding celebration. A covered patio was festooned with bright silk swags and an arch of flowers. It was packed with tables and people and music. Truk told us how guests to a wedding bring an envelope filled with money for a gift, and the money should equal at least the cost of their own dinner. Family and close friends include a little extra. In this way, the reception pays for itself and the bride and groom get the leftover money to spend on a honeymoon. Truk said it is very unlucky to have a wedding on a rainy day, some people may choose not to attend and the family is left with lots of leftover food and empty chairs. They must go to the bank and get a loan to pay for it all, and the bride and groom start out their life in debt.

We ended our bike ride at a different beach than the one we visited yesterday. Rain threatened all around us, dark gray clouds closed in, and Alayna and I had a fitting at noon. Alayna really wanted to put on her swimsuit, she said, “I won’t get wet, I just want to put it on so I don’t get my pants wet, I just want to get my feet wet.” Of course the boys followed shortly, wanting their swimsuits, and all three kids got totally wet in the matter of about five minutes. While they frolicked and the clouds gathered, Truk discovered a limb full of interesting shells. They had a thick stalk that attached them to the limb very tightly, and their shells opened up at intervals to reveal tiny claws and antennae hiding inside. We determined they were barnacles, I’ve always wondered what living barnacles look like.

When the raindrops started plopping we got the kids out of the sea and we all hopped on our bikes and pedaled home, beating the rain by just minutes. Alayna and I had our fitting, everything fit but my shirt so we scheduled another fitting for later afternoon for me. Then we headed back to the hotel for some home school (groan!) and then a movie for the kids (our room had a DVD player). I went back for my second fitting. It still didn’t fit just right, the shoulder had a little wrinkle in it, so they marked it for one more adjustment, and said they’d deliver it to the hotel that night.

We’ve had some amazing food here, and have been dazzled by the cheap prices. Our dinners cost $12 to $15. Laundry is charged by the kilogram, and our first large load was a whopping $6. My handmade silk shirt, including the three fittings and the late night delivery (they promised to deliver it to the hotel by 8PM) was $20. The custom shoes were $12. This is a shopper’s paradise, several times I considered suggesting this as our next girl’s weekend, my sister and mom and aunts and cousins would have a hay day in downtown Hoi An.

In the morning we drive to Hue, today we hung all our wet things and hoped they’d dry. Fat chance in the humid weather we’ve had. It hasn’t been hot like Cambodia, but it rains almost every night, started early afternoon today, and our bathroom drainage issues created quite a damp environment. We have loved the hotel, the kids have all played chess and rolled pool balls and spread out the ever-present legos. They had chocolate cake on the breakfast buffet and an occasional lizard on the wall of the rooms, what more could a kid ask for?