Tag Archives: Vietnam

Metropole Hanoi’s Amazing Legacy

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The plush Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi is a standout of French colonial architecture and was a favourite place of mine to have an afternoon coffee, evening cocktail by the pool or special birthday dinner. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhy? It boasts a rich history and many cultural icons have stayed and created literary works here over the years. Designed by architects André Ducamp and Gustave-Émile Dumoutier, the hotel’s doors opened in 1901. After a secret marriage in Shanghai in 1936, Charlie Chaplin spent his honeymoon here with one of Hollywood’s famous female stars, Paulette Goddard. The hotel even named a suite in Chaplin’s honour.MetropoleCitroensVintage Citroens that are available to guests for city jaunts.
Celebrated British authur Somerset Maugham wrote The Gentleman in the Parlour about his observations in Indochine and Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American. Greene stayed at the hotel in 1951 as a war correspondent and his experiences discovering “the third force” (covert support of the CIA) inspired him to write a novel that illuminated Vietnam’s independence struggles and the United States’ interference. A very insightful read about how the seeds of the Vietnam War were sown. Both Maugham and Greene also have hotel suites named after them, as well.
joanbaez-painting_at_lobby_hanmetIn the 1960s, a bomb shelter was built in the basement and in 1972, during the Vietnam war, actress and anti-war activist Jane Fonda stayed here, as did singer/songwriter Joan Baez. On her return from Vietnam in 1973, Baez released the album, Where Are You Now, My Son? that includes the air-raid sirens and dropping bombs she heard outside. Baez has give up singing for painting and on a trip to Hanoi in 2013 she stayed at the hotel and painted a portrait of a young Vietnamese boy which is now hanging in the lobby.joan_baez_painting-famoushotels Here’s a shot I took from the Metropole website of Baez completing the painting.
More recently, in 2009, the hotel named its new restaurant Angelina after actress and guest Angelina Jolie whose son Pax was adopted from an orphanage in Vietnam. Other movers and shakers who have stayed here include Mark Zuckerberg, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel.
And me? Well, I like to eat, drink and get inspired here, especially on the gorgeous terrace.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Activities and Legends of Halong Bay

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Halong Bay is around a three-hour drive northeast of Hanoi and well worth the trip. The UNESCO World Heritage Site’s name translates to “descending dragon” and the bay features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various shapes and sizes. Halong Bay is a center of a larger zone which includes Bai Tu Long Bay to the northeast, and Cat Ba Island to the southwest. These larger zones share a similar geological, geographical, geomorphological, climate, and cultural characters. The area has amazing kayaking and there are many caves to explore. BoatsCove copyMy husband and I took an overnight junk boat trip and were able to spend an afternoon paddling past the towering stone formations. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe caves were also a delight to walk through, having paths and colourful lighting.
HaLongKayaking copySearching around on the web, I found a site called HalongHub that describes some of the legends of the area. According to the tales, when the land was newly formed, the Vietnamese forefathers had to fight against fierce invaders coming from the North by sea. The gods from the heavens watched, then sent the Mother Dragon and her children to help the Vietnamese people defend their country. The dragons descended upon the earth, incinerated the invaders and spat jewels of emerald and jade that upon hitting the land, turned into great islands and islets that formed invincible defensive walls that the invaders could not overcome. The enemies fled and peace finally returned to this Southeast Asian country. After the battle, the Mother Dragon and her children did not return to the heavens, but stayed in the mortal world. HBCaveKayaks copyTo this day, the dragons lay on the lands they helped protect and it is their shapes that form the bays iconic mountainous landscape. The area called Bai Tu Long literally means ‘Thanks to the Dragon children’ and their tails form the area of Bach Long Vi while the great Mother Dragon forms Halong Bay, which literally translates as ‘Descending Dragon Bay.’ MoCatBaCat Ba island is the biggest island in the region. Here, during times of war (even as recently as the American War) women produced supplies such as medicines, bullets, and clothes for men fighting on the front lines. The nearby island where men often fought enemies was called Cac Ong island meaning “Island of Men.” The island where the women lived was named “Cac Ba” which eventually morphed into “Cat Ba” island which means “Island of Women.”

Truc Bach, Me and John McCain

Truc Bach Lake Lawn Chairs, HanoiWhen I lived in Hanoi, I had an apartment in the quiet enclave of Truc Bach. It is on tiny Truc Bach Lake, a diked off portion of Tay Ho Lake. I was a little shocked to learn this is where the late Senator John McCain landed when he was shot down during the Vietnam War (known here as the American War), in 1967. Searching the internet I learned that US Navy aviator John McCain was shot down by anti-aircraft missile on a mission against a Hanoi powerplant and parachuted wounded into Truc Bach Lake, nearly drowning. He was dragged out of the water and beaten by city residents who were angry at having seen the area razed by previous U.S. attacks. He was later taken away as a prisoner of war. cof Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
I came upon a monument marking his downing called Tchen Sney Ma Can on the western shore of the lake. Beside the depiction of a downed airman, there’s an inscrption in Vietnamese saying, “On Oct 26, 1967, at Truc Bach Lake, the military and people of Hanoi arrested Major John Sidney McCain, a pilot of the American Navy’s air force.”DefenseSecAshCarter2015This shot (courtesy the U.S. Defense website) is of Defense Secretary Ash’s visit to Hanoi in 2015.
Apprently, when McCain made a trip to Vietnam in 1985, he returned to this spot. A lot has changed since his horrible experience. Most people in Vietnam are under the age of 30 and don’t even know who he was. Plus, the Truc Bach and Tay Ho area is now filled will posh hotels including the Sofitel, the Hanoi Club and the Sheraton. It’s a very desirable neighbourhood.OnTrucBachBridgeTrucBackNight
1) Truc Bach was separtated from Tay Ho by the construction of a dike in the 17th century, allowing inhabitants to fish. Today, it is extremely polluted although there are still lots of fishermen and nets to be seen. I would advise against eating anything caught here.
2) In the 1700s, Truc Lam Palace was constructed on the lake shore. It first served as a pleasure palace housing concubines, but was later converted in to a prison for royal concubines found guilty of crime. The silk they produced became known as ‘Bamboo Village’ Silk and was famous for its beauty. At the time, the area was known also for its crafters of bamboo blinds.
3) According to history, during the Le Dynasty (1428 – 1527), people of the 5 villages Dong Mai, Chau My, Long Thuong, Dien Tien and Dao Vien (from Hung Yen and Bac Ninh provinces), who were skillful at bronze casting, migrated to the capital to establish a casting workshop for business. They settled in the Truc Bach area and set up a new village called Ngu Xa to remember their five original villages. Afterwards they reorganized into a separate professional guild called Ngu Xa bronze-casting guild. Nowadays Ngu Xa Street is still there to the east of the Truc Bach Lake, in Ba Dinh District. There’s a really interesting article that gives more detail on the bronze casters there who are still practicing their craft by Vu Thu Ha in the Viet Nam News.

Tet Flower Power in Hanoi

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In Hanoi, the biggest holiday of the year is Tet, celebrating the Lunar New Year. Tet usually falls around late January/early February and has to be the biggest season for flower sellers, especially at Quang Ba Flower Market, in Tay Ho, near where I lived. I noticed marumi kumquat plants were in as high demand as evergreen trees at Christmas in the West. P1170842A couple of weeks before Tet, the streets are crowded with motor scooters burdened with bushy green pyramids covered in with small orange fruit. Although the fruit looks like a mandarin orange, it is sour (the peel is the sweetest part) and few people eat them. P1170832The kumquat tree symbolizes gold, wealth, unity and perfection.  So the selection on each tree purchased is not taken lightly. The marumi kumquat is a tree with five characteristics that must be considered when buying – fruit, flowers, leaves, branches and roots. Combined, they symbolize wealth and happiness for the new year. Tips for choosing a good plant? KumquatDeliverThe tree must have both ripe and green fruit, mature leaves and new buds. If it has all these, the family will enjoy wealth and luck in the new year.
Another popular item at the nursery is peach trees since its flowers blossom in spring – sometimes even during Tet holidays, but it was too cold for this during my time there. Vietnamese believe this symbolizes a strong vitality and brave heart. The colour of the flowers is important, too. In Hanoi, the dark pink blossom is favoured, showing the love and joy spread among people in this unique time of the year.

Hanoi’s Imperial Citadel

Hectic Hanoi is full of history and while living there I found a little slice of peace on the grounds of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Bonsai plants and random buildings were scattered throughout the complex’s almost 20 hectares. Plus, I was able to examine all sorts of architectural relics that had been uncovered in the ongoing excavations. There isn’t a lot of explanation available in English onsite, so I did a bit of my own digging. According to Wikipedia, the royal enclosure was first built during the Lý dynasty (1010) and subsequently expanded by the Trần, Lê and finally the Nguyễn dynasty. It remained the seat of the Vietnamese court until 1810, when the Nguyễn dynasty chose to move the capital to Huế. FrenchSoldiers 1883 DragonStairsFrench soldiers taking photos on the steps of Kinh Thien Palace during the encamping period here. (Taken by Doctor Charles – Edouard Hocquard during 1884 -1885)
The royal palaces and most of the structures in Thăng Long were in varying states of disrepair by the late 19th century with the upheaval of the French conquest of Hanoi. By the 20th century many of the remaining structures were torn down. Excavations began in the 21st century and in 2004 the site was opened to the public. The central sector of the imperial citadel was listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage Site on July 31, 2010.
The few remaining structures within the royal compound are the Doan Mon gate, marking the southern entrance to the royal palace, the Flag Tower, the steps of Kinh Thiên Palace and the Hậu Lâu (Princess’ Palace). Thus far only a small fraction of Thăng Long has been excavated.
CitadelFramedDoorPerhaps the most iconic of the remaining structures is the Flag Tower. Rising to a height of 33.4 m (41 m with the flag), it is frequently used as a symbol of the city. Built in 1812 during the Nguyễn dynasty, the tower, unlike many other structures in Hanoi, was spared during the French colonial rule (1885–1954) as it was used as a military post.
Citadel-GradCircle copyIf you visit during graduation season, October-November, you’ll get a chance to see the students who come to have their pictures taken. I loved seeing the young women in their gorgeous traditional garb, called ao dai.CitadelGradLongshot copyI was quite intrigued with the D67 tunnel and house, built in 1967 and found north of Kinh Thien hall. From 1954 to 1975, the North Vietnamese military command (Vietnam People’s Army) under General Giap, had its underground headquarters here.
CitadelBunkerBoardTableA connecting underground tunnel allowed for emergency evacuation in case of an attack. It was eerie to wander the halls and see the furniture and communications equipment used in the fight against the South and the United States.
Hau Lau Shot copyOne of the most restful spots in the Citadel is Hau Lau, also known as the Princess’ Palace. Originally built in 1821 during the Nguyen Dynasty for the queen and princess, it was later the residence of imperial concubines.Hau Lau Roof copy It is a mish mash architectural styles, since the French rebuilt it, but I loved the Vietnamese roof with its crescent-like bladed corners. Hau Lau View copyHardly anyone comes here, so it’s a perfect place to chill and enjoy the gardens.

What I Do: Volunteering and Travel Writing

IMG_9119 Taking a break after a vigorous ride through the rice paddies of Mai Chau, Vietnam.

Terri Marshall at Travel Writing 2.0 wrote this profile of me that covers what I’ve been doing for the past few years. Thanks Terri!

Rolls Royces and Bicycles: The 1% of Vietnam

Since I’ve been in Vietnam, I’ve noticed more luxe cars than I ever see at home in Canada. The other day a white Rolls Royce was parked outside a hotel in my Hanoi neighbourhood. Bentleys and Mercedes are the other cars of elite choice here.
This article in the LA Times sums up all my questions about inequality and gross extravagance in a country where people were starving 3 decades ago. A country where teachers earn $100 US a month.

Improving the Vision of Vietnam’s Ethnic Minorities

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Here’s a recent article I wrote for Innovate Development on Vision Vietnam’s work with the people of Sapa. This Montreal-based charity collects old eye-glasses, sends them to Vietnam and then distributes them to ethnic minority peoples in the countryside. Good work!

Cool Things About Vietnam

1. Fish sauce. A salty clear-ish liquid made from fishies like anchovies. Add chilies and lime juice and splash on just about anything.
2. Ice tea and ice coffee. Usually served in a tumbler with one or more big chunks of ice. Tra da (pronounced cha da) is “tea” “ice.” Caphe sua da is “coffee” “milk” “ice.” The milk is sweetened condensed. In the north they also mix in yogurt. Caphe sua chua da. Yum. Like a milkshake.
Tea from the north I find bitter, but I love the artichoke tea from Sapa and the ginger tea is wicked. At cafes you often get a free glass of ice tea along with whatever else you might order.
3. The conical hat. I went to a village where these were made. By hand. Takes a good solid two days and many, many stages including softening the palm leaves by foot, drying them, ironing them, hand stitching them to a frame. They sell for $5. Incredible.vci230-conical-hat-incense-making-village-in-hue5-5108fe0c158f8
4. Beer with ice. And I don’t even like beer.icebeer
5. Tiny plastic stools. These are whipped out for eating or drinking on the street. A little tough on guys with long legs.tinystools
6. Silk scarves. Everywhere in every colour. Gorgeous and cheap.SilkScarves_fall2010
7. The word “oi.” “Oi gioi oi” means “Oh my God.” “Em oi” is what you yell at waiters to get their attention…means, “Oh hey there young person.”
8. Bun Cha, a delicious noodle soup with bbq pork patties and fresh herbs. Great in winter.BunCha
9. Pearls. Not always the best quality but fun and cheap. Bought some from a woman in a boat in Halong Bay.

A necklace in Hanoi I'm coveting.

A necklace in Hanoi I’m coveting.

10. Love of poetry. Reading and writing it is a national pastime. Wonderful.

South Vietnam College Tour

A warm welcome at Vinh Long Community College.

A warm thank you for our workshops at Vinh Long Community College.

My three-week tour of Southern Vietnam educational institutes has been full of pleasant surprises. Not only did our workshops go smoothly, I’ve made new friends and been able to explore some very cool places in the Mekong Delta. Ashley Laracy, another WUSC volunteer, and I visited Vinh Long Community College, Kien Giang TEC and Tra Vinh University. At our first stop in Vinh Long, I was so pleased to see they had made a banner to promote our workshops.VingLongWksp Mine was “Creating Powerful Stories For Marketing and Promotion.” Ashley’s was “Partnership Development.” The college was a little outside the downtown core, so on a few evenings Ashley and I hiked the 5 km into town to enjoy a coconut water or dark beer…worth the walk! Translator Minh Chao was a wonderful help, from making sure the room was ready, to providing us with her impeccable English skills.
Peace with Minh Chau in front of VLCC.

Peace with Minh Chau in front of VLCC.

She was also in charge of writing up the college’s “Success Stories” so I coached her and we interviewed two very impressive alumni, the president of a rice processing company and high ranking manager in an international rice company. On our last day we took a boat tour and completed our evening at a delicious seafood restaurant.

Enjoying some java at Cafe Bale in Kien Giang.

Enjoying some java at Cafe Bale in Kien Giang.

Kien Giang is a seaside resort town full of charm and fantastic coffee shops. Watching the sunrise and sunset with an iced café sua da was spectacular.
Kien Giang Tec: A very well-attended workshop.

Kien Giang Tec: A very well-attended workshop.

We presented our workshops to the largest groups yet, 50 people per workshop. The rector and vice rector attended, as did many teachers and administration staff. Each evening our hosts took us to a new eating spot. My favorite was a place that offered a huge pancake stuffed with veggies and shrimp. Yum! We also were judges at an English Speaking Contest where students competed for prizes based on grammar, comprehension and delivery. Lots of fun. One of the staff took us out to have our hair washed – an amazing Vietnamese tradition that took more than an hour and was super relaxing. My hair never felt so clean!

Tra Vinh University: Auspicious yellow rules.

Tra Vinh University: Yellow rules!

A gorgeous campus full of sparkling yellow buildings welcomed us at Tra Vinh University. Each morning while sipping our iced coffees on the patio of the school canteen we watched exuberant students play soccer or volleyball on the nearby pitch. Here, our workshops were given to staff in charge of international collaboration and international partnerships, so we were able to give them in English with no translation. Much easier.
A wonderful place to reflect.

A wonderful place to reflect.

Tra Vinh is a lovely place, divided by a canal. We spent many evenings sitting and chatting in restaurants by the water. One day we even saw a dragon boat team practicing.

The south of Vietnam is very different from the north. People are not in such a hurry. They are warm and friendly and very inclined to share a plate of seafood or an iced drink with you. The participants in our workshops were also really engaged and I’m looking forward to seeing them implement what they’ve learned in the next few months.

Kien Giang Sunset...the best in the south!

Kien Giang Sunset…the best in the south.