The Freedoms I Take for Granted

Dragon Bridge over the River Hàn in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Dragon Bridge over the River Hàn in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Well-known Vietnamese blogger, Nguyen Huu Vinh, and his assistant, Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy, were found guilty yesterday and imprisoned for five and three years, respectively. There were found guilty of abusing their democratic freedoms. What freedoms? Let’s not kid ourselves.

In 1975 the Communist regime of Vietnam took over the whole country. By 1985, Communism had not worked very well for the country’s economy so they introduced a socialist-oriented market economy. Today, Vietnam has a thriving economy with tons of tourism but there is a dark side. I visited Vietnam in 2013 and witnessed this firsthand. The reality is that although Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, it is still a single political party country that does not tolerate dissent. There is no democracy in Vietnam and citizens have limited rights. A citizen cannot speak against the government and the government controls the media. The Vietnamese government arbitrarily arrests activists, lawyers, and bloggers if they feel they are criticizing the government.

Vinh’s blog, “Ba Sam” was a political and social blog founded in 2007. The blog aggregated news stories from major state-run newspapers and also published individual blog posts written by activists. His blog reached up to 3.7 million page views. What also made Vinh a unique blogger was that he had once been a policeman and had had ties to the communist party elite. His father had been a government minister and his grandfather a former ambassador to the Soviet Union.

Vietnam stands the chance of becoming the biggest winner in the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement making them even more important players in the global economy. But I have always felt that a country that does not treat its citizens well, can only go so far, i.e. like China. Ironically, in 1945 Ho Shi Minh, the leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (north communist Vietnam) was inspired by the United States Declaration of Independence and the words of Thomas Jefferson that say, “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. The constitution of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (north communist Vietnam) adopted these lines in their 1946 constitution and provided for freedom of speech, press, and assembly. Of course these rights were never really instituted. By 1959 the North Vietnamese constitution took a more communist tone. The constitution was revised yet again in 1980 to better serve politically unified Vietnam. In its article 67, the Vietnamese constitution guarantees the citizens’ rights to freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and association, and the freedom to demonstrate. But here’s the kicker, the government says, “ no one may misuse democratic freedoms to violate the interests of the state and the people”. Vinh and Thuy were found guilty of violating their so-called democratic freedoms.

At moments like this I truly appreciate our founding father’s gift of the First Amendment. I share it below with you for your reading pleasure and to remind ourselves that we are very fortunate to live in a country with real democratic freedoms.

Today my thoughts are with the people of Vietnam. I wish that someday they enjoy true democratic freedoms. Today, my thoughts are also with blogger activists around the world who promote human rights and peace.

Faces of Vietnam

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Amendment I

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition.  It forbids Congress from both promoting one religion over others and also restricting an individual’s religious practices.  It guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely.  It also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government.

 

One of our wonderful tour guides. He views life as a glass half full. He is appreciative of the few democratic freedoms he does have and he is very optimistic for the future of Vietnam.

One of our wonderful tour guides. He views life as a glass half full. He is appreciative of the few democratic freedoms he does have and is very optimistic for the future of Vietnam.

 

 

 

 

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Rediscovering a Friend

In life we meet many people that we like to refer to as “friends”, but the truth is that often we don’t take the time to really get to know them. This happened to me with an old colleague from business school. We were two of approximately 171 women in a graduating class of 780. Although we were “friends” we were more like comrades sharing an experience, supportive of each other yet not close enough to fully understand each other’s personal story. After graduation we both went our separate ways and lost contact. After 24 years I would have the opportunity to reconnect with Vera. She had just published a book and shared the information with some of her classmates. So, this summer I read her book and rediscovered an old friend in the process. After completing the book I knew I had to speak to Vera to fully understand the inspiration behind her novel, The Lonely American. Though it was written as fiction, I suspected there was much of Vera herself interwoven in the story, and it sparked a desire, almost a need to learn more. I spent three hours with Vera on the phone, not only catching up on life, but also delving into the historical period of her book from her perspective.

The Lonely American by Vera Lam

The Lonely American by Vera Lam

Vera was born and raised in Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. So naturally she chose to write a book inspired by her personal experiences with the Vietnam War, a time period that is of particular interest to me. To clarify, in Vietnam, “The Vietnam War” is referred to as “The American War”. Like many, I grew up in the 1960’s with current events of the Vietnam War playing out in television news and the papers yet I understood very little of it. Reading about the war in Stanley Karnow’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Vietnam: A History, was an eye opener. It helped me understand the context, the players, and the actions of a war. When Vera told us about her new book, I was delighted to hear the news, and at the same time intrigued by the subject. The Lonely American delineates the life of an American pilot and his kindred connections to Vietnam. After serving two tours of duty, he returns to the US as a fully decorated officer. He marries his pre-war American sweetheart and has a son. However, he never forgets a woman he had met during his Vietnam years. Years later, as his treacherous life has driven him to complete solitude, he rediscovers his special love and connections to Vietnam. I don’t want to give the story away but suffice to say that it is a story that could have and may have happened to many. The characters personify the true historical experiences that so many have lived.

I wanted to dig deeper and asked Vera about her own personal story. As we spoke on the phone, I listened intently and scribbled pages and pages of notes. Listening to Vera’s story was like reading a novel. I appreciated her openness. Although she was happy for me to share her story I have respected her request to omit some of the events due to their delicate nature. After listening to Vera’s life experience I have a newfound respect and admiration for her.

The United States supported South Vietnam in their fight against communist North Vietnam. In January of 1973 all parties finally agreed to a cease-fire. The United States pulled its troops out leaving South Vietnam to deal with its fate. Many South Vietnamese refugees chose to leave their country when the US left. But leaving the country would become increasingly difficult especially if you did not have money or connections. Soon after, North Vietnam broke the cease-fire and resumed fighting, continuing its push to the south. South Vietnam, with no military aid from the US, was forced to surrender in 1975. In 1976, the country was officially united and called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This caused another exodus of South Vietnamese who chose to leave rather than live under communist regime.

So while I navigated the dramas of middle school and high school, watched The Six Million Dollar Man on television, and listened to Simon & Garfunkel on the radio, Vera was figuring out ways to leave Saigon in 1975. Since her father had been an ‘under cover special agent’ in South Vietnam for the Republic of China for more than two decades, he was blacklisted by the North Vietnamese. Though he had narrowly escaped by boat to the neighboring country of Thailand, Vera’s mother and her siblings were left behind. They were subsequently placed under house arrest for several months. In time, Vera obtained a pass that allowed her to leave communist Vietnam and move to Paris. After having lived through the aftermath of the war and all of its insecurities, Vera understood the importance and need for establishing “security” in her life. She decided it was time to go to America to study engineering. She believed education was the equalizer in society. In 1979, with her unstoppable resolve, Vera moved to LA and began her studies in a community college. In 1981, Vera’s family finally joined her in the United States. She would go on to win a full scholarship to the University of Southern California where she earned a degree in computer engineering in 1984. After graduating from USC, Vera started working for AT&T Bell Laboratories. Soon after, Vera’s path would cross with mine. She and I met in Boston at Harvard Business School in 1988. After graduating from HBS, she would go on to have a very successful career in business. And lucky for us that she would get inspired to write “The Lonely American”.

In writing her book, Vera wanted to express the “things” that are important to her. She wanted to remind people of the horrors of war because as she says, “we have such short memories”. In June of 2014 the UN Refugee Agency reported that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide due to conflicts exceeded 50 million people for the first time since the end of World War II. Pulling a direct quote from her book, “Bullets have no eyes”, Vera wanted to remind us that many of the victims of war are the innocent bystanders. She iterated the importance of our understanding foreign policy because it will undoubtedly impact us one way or another. Towards the end of our telephone conversation, Vera mentioned that she had bore grudges against her own family members, but later recognized the power of forgiving.

I am very impassioned with the topic of mentoring others and serving as a role model. My “rediscovered” friend is a true inspiration for the next generation. She is an inspiration, not just for young women, but also for all young people around the world living in conflict. Vera’s determination proves to us once again that we are the ones that make the choices in our lives that can alter our destiny in a positive way.

I invite you to read “The Lonely American” by Vera Lam, my friend. http://www.amazon.com/The-Lonely-American-Vera-Lam/dp/9573909111/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1410626853&sr=8-2&keywords=the+lonely+american

The UN Refugee Agency Report June 2014 http://www.unhcr.org/53a155bc6.html

For historical background read Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam A History http://www.amazon.com/Vietnam-History-Stanley-Karnow/dp/0140265473/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415295380&sr=8-1&keywords=stanley+karnows

Central Vietnam

Newly Opened Dragon Bridge in Danang

Newly Opened Dragon Bridge in Danang

Danang, Hue, and Hoi An

We arrived in Danang airport at night and were met by our new guide, Huan. Huan was friendly and overflowed with exuberance and enthusiasm. Together with the driver we took the windy mountain road to Hue arriving at our hotel at 10:30 p.m.

We stayed in the beautiful La Residence Hotel & Spa in Hue. From the moment I stepped into the lobby I felt I was transported back to the 1930’s Art Deco Hollywood era.

Hallways in Hotel La Residence in Hue

Hallways in Hotel La Residence in Hue
Art Deco Inspired

The hotel was originally built during the French colonial period and has been enhanced with two additions that match the Art Deco design. The hotel sits on the banks of the Perfume River across from the Hue Citadel Imperial City.

Hue was once the Imperial City and was a very important cultural and historical center. Our first stop was the Hue Citadel.

The Hue Citadel

The Hue Citadel
Ngo Mon Gate – Outside Fortress
Photo by Curt Petrucelli

Emperor Gia Long who ruled between 1802 and 1820 established The Citadel in 1805. It is an immense fortress made up of three concentric sections, the Civic, the Imperial, and the Forbidden Purple Cities. The architecture of the Citadel was influenced by both Chinese and French design. Although it endured heavy damage during the war you can still appreciate its grandeur. It is currently undergoing restoration and will be even more amazing to visit in the future.

Part of the Purple Forbidden City fashioned after the Forbidden City in China

Part of the Purple Forbidden City fashioned after the Forbidden City in China
Photo by Curt Petrucelli

Newly Graduated Students Visiting the Citadel Photo Courtesy of Curt Petrucelli

Newly Graduated Students Visiting the Citadel
Photo by Curt Petrucelli

The countryside of Hue is dotted with tombs of many emperors. Our schedule allowed us to visit the most magnificent one, the Tomb of Khai Dinh. Khai Dinh ruled between 1916 and 1925, and was the penultimate Nguyen Emperor. He was also the last to be buried in Hue. He started construction of his tomb while he was still alive.

Part of Tomb of Khai Dinh

Part of Tomb of Khai Dinh

Our Wonderful Tour Guide Huan

Our Wonderful Tour Guide Huan

Huan stopped at one of the local bakeries and bought us delicious Vietnamese pastries to try.

Sampling Delicious Vietnamese Pastries

Sampling Delicious Vietnamese Pastries

From Hue we took the scenic route to Danang. Today, Danang is one of the country’s most important ports and is the country’s third largest city. Danang served as a major American military base during the war. Danang felt very modern, clean, and progressive as we drove through it. We went over the newly constructed bridge shaped like a dragon.

We also stopped to visit Da Nang beach nicknamed “China Beach” by the American soldiers during the Vietnam War.

"China Beach"

“China Beach”

Huan brought a wonderful perspective to our trip. Huan was very versed in many world topics. As a practicing Buddhist he was the personification of positive thinking, optimism, and kindness. He is very enthusiastic and positive about Vietnam’s economic future.

Listening to Huan's Every Word

Listening to Huan’s Every Word
Photo by Curt Petrucelli

Huan taught us about ancestor worshipping and how people set up small altars with offerings for the ancestors. Many Vietnamese are also very superstitious so they set up offerings for the ghosts and demons to help keep them away.

Ancestor Worshipping  An altar is set up and offerings are placed there for the ancestors.

Ancestor Worshipping
An altar is set up and offerings are placed there for the ancestors.

Notice the small toy size boat in front of the house. It is set up with offerings for the ghosts and demons to appease them and keep them away from the home.

Notice the small toy size boat in front of the house. It is set up with offerings for the ghosts and demons to appease them and keep them away from the home.

On our way to Hoi An we stopped to visit an amazing collection of pagodas built into Marble Mountains.

One of the many Happy Buddha Bellies I rubbed.

One of the many Happy Buddha Bellies I rubbed.
Marble Mountains

We arrived in Hoi An in the afternoon and checked into the lovely hotel the Life Heritage Hotel located on the banks of the Thu Bon River. The Old Quarter in Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Life Heritage Hotel - Hoi An

Life Heritage Hotel – Hoi An
Photo by Curt Petrucelli

We were walking distance into the Old Quarter and minutes by car to the beaches. Hoi An was quaint and peaceful. Our family was able to enjoy bicycle riding in the village.

Riding Bicycles in the Quiet Village of Hoi An

Riding Bicycles in the Quiet Village of Hoi An

One of the first orders of business was to visit one of the 24-hour tailors that Hoi An is famous for. First they took my husband and son’s measurements. Then we selected fabric and styles. The next day we went back for the boys’ fittings. And about 2 hours later the goods were delivered at our hotel. Pretty Amazing!

Exploring the Old Village in Hoi An

Exploring the Old Village in Hoi An

We started the next day with a half day tour of the Old Quarter of Hoi An. We also visited the Japanese Covered bridge built in 1593 by the Japanese trading community.

The Japanese Covered Bridge - There is a pagoda on the bridge itself.

The Japanese Covered Bridge – There is a pagoda on the bridge itself.
Built in 1593

The highlight of the morning was visiting the market. We were surrounded with fascinating colors, smells, and foods.

Enjoying the sights in the market.

Enjoying the sights in the market.

Huan Shows Us Some of the Delicious Foods

Huan Shows Us Some of the Delicious Foods

Later in the day we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at the beach.

The Beach at Hoi An - Notice the round fisherman's boat in the front.

The Beach at Hoi An – Notice the round fisherman’s boat in the front.

After three wonderful days in central Vietnam it was time for us to continue on to South Vietnam. I left this region with hopes of returning someday to further explore and enjoy its beautiful beaches and villages.

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Mystical Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

The Islets of Ha Long Bay
Photo courtesy of Curt Petrucelli

We met Sunny, our guide, at 7 a.m. to depart to Ha Long Bay. The car ride would take us from Hanoi, due east, through the countryside, to our destination by the sea. Sunny told us the ride would take over 3 hours because although Ha Long Bay was not so far in distance, the road to get there was shared not only by cars, trucks, and motorcycles but by cows as well and he was not kidding.

Examples of Tube House Architecture Notice: Most of the time they leave the sides unpainted.

Examples of Tube House Architecture
Notice: Most of the time they leave the sides unpainted.

We passed through numerous villages, rice fields and farms. We saw plenty of cows and water buffalo. We were also introduced to the architecture of Tube houses. Tube houses were originally built between 1428 and 1788 but today continue to be the house design of choice in the northern part of the country. They can be as narrow as 6.5 feet (2m) but up to 262 feet (80m) deep. Some of these houses today have been made taller and are referred to as “rocket buildings”.

The Ginger

The Ginger

UNESCO designated Ha Long Bay as a World Heritage Site and its name translates into “descending dragon bay”. Ha Long Bay is a 580 square mile (1500 sq km) area dotted with more than 2,000 outcroppings of limestone and dolomite. We were mesmerized to see the mystical beauty of Ha Long Bay. The islets looked even more magical set against the misty bay. Upon our arrival in Ha Long Bay we boarded a junk, named the Ginger with Jasmine Cruises. We would spend the night on board the Ginger with 15 other passengers.

That afternoon we went on an excursion to visit caves that exist inside the numerous islets. The highlight of the afternoon was a visit to a floating fishing village. At the floating village we boarded smaller boats that took us closer to see the floating village homes and the villagers. One of the primary ways to make a living is fish farming.

The Floating Fishing Village

The Floating Fishing Village

The children of the village attend the local school also floating on the bay.

The School

The School

We were surprised to see that some of the houses had televisions. We were also surprised to see that some of the families owned dogs. We met a very protective dog taking care of  his master’s fish farm. He ran across the logs that supported the fish nets with amazing balance and speed.

This dog protected the fish farm and ran across the logs with great agility.

This dog protected the fish farm and ran across the logs with great agility.
Photo Courtesy of Curt Petrucelli

During monsoon season the villagers tie their houses together and float them closer to the islets.

The next morning we were invited to take a class of Tai Chi on a nearby beach followed by a short hike to the top of the island.

View from the Top of the Islet

View from the Top of the Islet
The Ginger in the bay.
Photo Courtesy of Curt Petrucelli

After a wonderful breakfast we returned to the port. There we met up again with Sunny. He had bought Vietnamese snacks for us to enjoy. Among them were dried Jack Fruit. The flavor of Jack fruit tasted to me like a combination of mango and pineapple.

Jack Fruit

Jack Fruit on Tree

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Jack Fruit Chips

Fresh Jack Fruit

Fresh Jack Fruit

We said goodbye to Sunny and to North Vietnam and took a flight to Danang, Vietnam. Stay tuned for the continuing trip through central Vietnam.

For further reading about Ha Long Bay: http://wikitravel.org/en/Ha_Long_Bay

For further reading about Tai Chi: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T’ai_chi_ch’uan

Hustling Hanoi

The Energetic Streets of Hanoi

The Energetic Streets of Hanoi

Welcome to bustling Hanoi located in northern Vietnam off of the Red River. Its name translates into “City within the River’s Bend”. Hanoi is the capital and the second largest city in Vietnam. Six and half million Vietnamese call Hanoi their home. Hanoi founded in 1010 A.D. offers a magnificent blend of 600 year-old Vietnamese and 19th century French colonial architecture.

We were greeted at the airport by our wonderful and cheerful tour guide, “Sunny”.

Our wonderful guide and friend Sunny

Our wonderful guide and friend Sunny

Together with the driver we made our way to our hotel the legendary Sofitel Metropole Hotel. As we started driving, Sunny shared that motorists use their horn as a way of saying “I am here”. So just about everyone is honking their horns. The city is a whirlwind of color, sound, lights, and energy. Traffic in Hanoi is crazy. There is a motorcycle for almost every inhabitant of the city. Motorcycles are more affordable and are used to transport just about anything, from families of four to large loads of food or building materials.

Transportation of Eggs

Transportation of Eggs

Cars have a 200% tax so only the very wealthy can afford them. There is some public transportation in the form of buses. People rely heavily on taxis, motorcycles, and buses to get by.

The Sofitel Metropole Hotel

The Sofitel Metropole Hotel

The Metropole Hotel, built by the French during the colonial period, exhibits an exquisite Art Nouveau design. (The French colonized and occupied Vietnam between 1887 and 1940). Many notable figures have stayed in the Metropole like Charlie Chaplin who honeymooned here in 1936. The hotel continued to house visitors even during the war and used bunkers during the bomb raids to keep them safe. Today the hotel is restored to its original splendor and even offers tours of its restored wartime bunkers. We spent our first evening in Hanoi dining in one of the hotel’s renowned restaurants, the Spices Garden. We enjoyed some traditional dishes like Pho (Vietnamese Noodle soup) and Bun Cha (grilled marinated pork) and refreshing Hanoi Beer.

The Vietnamese have some really good beer. This one is Hanoi Beer

The Vietnamese have some really good beer. This one is Hanoi Beer

The next day we met Sunny in the morning for a day tour of Hanoi. Sunny gave us some basic tips. Like any big city there are pick pockets. We were advised to hold on well to our cameras and bags. We were advised to be brave but determined when crossing streets. Sunny not only offered great information on the sights we visited but shared his first hand experiences of growing up and living in Vietnam. Sunny was our first introduction to the very friendly, positive, and optimistic Vietnamese people.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
People Lining Up to See Ho Chi Minh’s Embalmed Body

Our first stop was to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, six years before the reunification of Vietnam. His body was sent to Russia to be embalmed. Today many Vietnamese visit his Mausoleum and his body to pay their respects. Since the line was very long we chose just to visit the outside of the Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh was a man of simple pleasures. He chose not to live in the colonial presidential palace that had been used by his predecessors. Instead he built a wooden house on stilts.

The Presidential Palace: where Ho Chi Minh's Predecessor's lived.

The Presidential Palace: where Ho Chi Minh’s Predecessors lived.

The Cabinet Room in Ho Chi Minh's Stilt House This room was on the ground floor and open to the elements.

The Cabinet Room in Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House
This room was on the ground floor and open to the elements.

We visited the Temple of Literature. It is the oldest architectural complex in Hanoi dating back to 1070 and established during the Ly Dynasty. The center was founded in honor of the Chinese philosopher Confucius and functioned as a center of higher learning. During our visit we saw many school children visiting the facility as well a newly graduated students taking their photographs at the Temple.

School Children Visiting the Temple of Literature

School Children Visiting the Temple of Literature

School Graduates taking their photos at the Temple of Literature

School Graduates taking their photos at the Temple of Literature
The Large stone slabs list the names of graduates of the Temple of Literature throughout history.

We strolled around the Hoan Kiem Lake and visited the iconic red bridge, the Huc or Sunbeam bridge, that leads to the Jade Mountain Temple. We visited Buddhist Pagodas and Temples of Confucianism. We learned a lot about the practice of worshipping ancestors or dignitaries. The Vietnamese set up altars where gifts are offered to ancestors or famous people from the past like rulers, teachers, or leaders.

The Huc or Sunbeam Bridge at the Hoan Kiem Lake

The Huc or Sunbeam Bridge at the Hoan Kiem Lake

A Temple Honoring Confucius with offerings in front of the statue

A Temple Honoring Confucius with offerings in front of the statue

A visit to Hanoi would not be complete without taking a cyclo tour, a modern-day rickshaw. We experienced Hanoi traffic up close and personal riding through the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter was established in the 13th century by the local artisans. Over the years 36 distinct craft guilds developed. Today, the streets of the Old Quarter are named after the craft guilds like, Hang Gai (Silk street), Hang Tre (Bamboo street), and Hang Huong (Incense street). It was so exciting to see the market activity of dozens of shops and restaurants.

Following my husband and son's rickshaws through the streets of the Old Quarter

Following my husband and son’s rickshaws through the streets of the Old Quarter

In the early evening we attending the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Water Puppetry originated in the Red River delta in the 11th century. So here’s my take on the Water Puppet show. If you have young children, if you have an appreciation for puppetry, or if you have an appreciation for a 1000 year-old art form then I recommend the show.

The Vietnamese Water Puppet Show

The Vietnamese Water Puppet Show

The accompanying musicians played lovely Vietnamese music with traditional instruments like the Dan Bau. At the end of the water puppet performance the puppeteers come out from behind the screen and do a short performance.

Vietnamese musician  playing the Dan Bau.

Vietnamese musician playing the Dan Bau.

In general, cars, buses, and trucks obey traffic lights but for motorcyclists they are merely suggestions. Crossing a street in Hanoi takes a lot of courage. Even if you cross at a pedestrian cross walk, the vehicles will not yield to you, you have to negotiate your way across the street.

Ay dios mio! Holding on to my little gir's hand (not so little anymore) as we negotiate our way across the street.

Ay dios mio! Holding on to my little girl’s hand (not so little anymore) as we negotiate our way across the street.
Notice how none of the vehicles yield to us in the cross walk.

After our busy and exciting day visiting the important sites and enduring the stress of crossing Hanoi streets, we ended our day peacefully enjoying a lovely dinner at the The Green Tangerine Restaurant located in the Old Quarter. The Green Tangerine offered a fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine, a very typical combination found throughout Vietnam.

On my next posting I will bring you to beautiful Halong Bay located about 3 hours by car from Hanoi.

Interesting Tidbit

One of the famous visitors who stayed in the Metropole Hotel was Joan Baez. Many of you may have heard of Joan Baez but for those of you who have not allow me to introduce you to one of the best American folk singers and songwriters of our times. Even today, Joan continues to delight her audiences. She has been an activist in the fields of human rights, peace, and environmental justice. My father was a devoted fan of Joan Baez. At the age of 6 he took me to one of her concerts in Forest Hills, New York. I think I was the only child there. Joan Baez visited Hanoi as part of a Peace delegation in 1972. She was lodged at the Metropole Hotel. During her visit, Hanoi was being bombed and she sought refuge in the hotel’s bunkers. After her trip Joan Baez wrote the song “Where Are You Now, My Son?”, which features spoken-word recordings from the bunker and walks in the city after a bomb raid as well as sounds of air-raid sirens and dropping bombs in Hanoi. You can read the lyrics with the link below. Hearing a Vietnamese woman walking the streets after a bomb raid asking, “Where are you now, my son?”, inspired the title. Today the hotel has a special exhibit of the various guests who stayed there including Joan Baez and a copy of the vinyl L.P. “Where Are You Now, My Son?”.

The exhibit showing Joan Baez' L.P., "Where Are You My Son", that she recorded after staying in the bunkers during her visit to Hanoi in 1972. There is also a piece of shapnel that Joan took with her in 1972 and presented back to the hotel in 2013.

The exhibit showing Joan Baez’ L.P., “Where Are You My Son”, that she recorded after staying in the bunkers during her visit to Hanoi in 1972. There is also a piece of shrapnel that Joan took with her in 1972 and presented back to the hotel in March 2013.

For further reading: http://www.idahostatesman.com/2013/04/09/2528063/ap-interview-joan-baez-returns.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Baez

For the lyrics of “Where Are You Now, My Son” http://www.joanbaez.com/Lyrics/whereareyou.html

An Adventure in Vietnam

Hoi An MarketCourtesy of Curt Petrucelli

Hoi An Market
Courtesy of Curt Petrucelli

Our family just spent an amazing 10 days exploring the country of Vietnam.

Because there is so much I would like to share with my readers I have decided to do it over several postings. In this article I write about general information about Vietnam and our itinerary.

Colorful Lanterns for sale in Hoi An

Colorful Lanterns for sale in Hoi An

Vietnam is located in the eastern section of the Indochina peninsula. It borders with China to the north, Lao and Cambodia to the west, and the South China Sea to the east. By the way, the Vietnamese refer to the South China Sea as the Pacific. Approximately 80% of Vietnam is mountainous, with peaks as high as 10,308 feet (3,142 m). Vietnam boasts a coastline 2140 miles (3444 km) long with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Fishermen in Halong Bay

Fishermen in Halong Bay
Courtesy of Curt Petrucelli

The total population of Vietnam is approximately 90 million people. Vietnam has 54 distinct ethnic groups. The Viet (or Kinh) people account for 88% of the population. Most of the 5.5 million ethnic minority people live in the mountains. Even today these ethnic groups distinguish themselves by wearing their traditional local costumes. The national language of Vietnam is Vietnamese. The ethnic minorities also have their own native languages.

Ho Chi Minh Bust in the Reunification Hall in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh Bust in the Reunification Hall in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh unified North and South Vietnam in 1975 and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established. Today, it continues to be a communist regime with only one ruling party in existence. However, in 1986 they embraced free market capitalism, abolished the practice of collectivized farming, and gave roots to political liberalization. Today, Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, with an average growth of 7 percent since 2005. In 1995 Vietnam joined the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Nations) and in 2006 it joined the WTO (World Trade Organization). It is now the number one exporter of rice surpassing Thailand. Some of Vietnam’s other resources include: coal, iron, aluminum, tin and oil; as well as many agricultural products like maize, sweet potatoes, soy beans, rubber, lacquer, coffee, tea, tobacco, cotton, coconut, sugar cane, jute, and tropic fruit. There is currently a dispute between China and Vietnam over some of Vietnam’s oil rich waters.

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Being an American, I was not sure how the Vietnamese people would react to me. We had after all been in a terrible war with each other. As a child of the late 60’s to early 70’s, my world was surrounded by the idea of the Vietnam War. My Girl Scout leader, Mrs. Marshall, had lost a son to the war. She proudly displayed his photo over the family television. My 6th grade teacher, Mr. McCarthy made us read The New York Times everyday and write a summary of current events. I hated this assignment because the whole front page of the newspaper was about the WAR. Many of my girlfriends wore POW-MIA bracelets. They were bracelets created in 1970 with the names of soldiers who were either prisoners of war or missing in action. The idea was to wear the bracelet until the soldier returned or was found. My parents and I would spend our weekend family outings in Manhattan. We would mingle among the hundreds of people in Greenwich Village, who would either be protesting the war, singing folk music, or displaying their Flower Power signs. And although, my parents and I, dressed in our Sunday outfits, stood out among the 1970’s tie-dyed, longhaired, so-called hippies, we felt comfortable in this setting and accepted by all. My father, who was dedicated to making 8mm home movies, captured some amazing footage of the times.

Communist Propaganda

Public Service Announcements

We all know how our involvement in the war ended, however it would be many years before I would educate myself in detail and fully understand the Vietnam conflict. It would be years later, that one day arriving from an international business trip in the mid 90’s, that I would hear the announcement as I stood in the immigration line, “Flight such and such arriving from Vietnam”. It was baffling to think that we were now vacationing in Vietnam. I knew then that someday I would make the pilgrimage to Vietnam to see this country, to meet its people, and to pay my respects to all of those killed in the sad and senseless war. And so back to my original concern of how I would be viewed as an American, quickly faded for the Vietnamese people showed me only kindness and friendship. They are very proud of their accomplishments and very positive about their futures. However, they have their version of history and proudly display how they defeated the aggressive United States in the “American War” (how they refer to the Vietnam War) and how under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh they were able to unify their country and expel foreign powers. It’s ironic to think that the Communist regime that once fought and defeated American Capitalism in 1975 would later adopt capitalism in 1986.

The length of our visit probably did not do justice to the country since there are so many diverse regions to visit: The Deltas, Central Highlands, Central Coastline, and the Northern Mountains. But we dabbled a little in as many as we could.

Vietnamese Woman selling lotus flowersCourtesy of Curt Petrucelli

Vietnamese Woman selling lotus flowers
Courtesy of Curt Petrucelli

Our itinerary was as follows:

  • Day 1 – Evening flight from London to Hong Kong
  • Day 2 – Connection flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi, Vietnam (northern Vietnam) Arrival in Hanoi by 7 p.m.
  • Day 3 – Day tour of Hanoi
  • Day 4 – Transfer from Hanoi to Halong Bay by vehicle (3 hour drive). Board junk for overnight boat cruise on Halong Bay
  • Day 5 – Return to port by mid-morning and transfer to Hanoi Airport. Flight from Hanoi Airport to Danang Airport (central Vietnam) Originally was scheduled to fly to Hue airport directly, but it was closed for renovation. Transfer by vehicle from Danang Airport to Hue (2 ½ hours)
  • Day 6 – Half-day tour of sights in Hue. Transfer by vehicle to Hoi An with stops along the way.
  • Day 7 – Morning tour of Hoi An and free afternoon
  • Day 8 – Depart Hoi An and transfer to Danang Airport. Flight from Danang to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Transfer by vehicle to Cu Chi Tunnels for morning tour. Transfer to Ho Chi Minh City and free afternoon
  • Day 9 – Drive from Ho Chi Minh City to Mekong Delta for day tour.
  • Day 10 – Half Day tour of Ho Chi Minh City. Transfer to airport. Flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hong Kong
  • Day 11- Flight from Hong Kong to London
On a tributary of the Mekong River

On a tributary of the Mekong River

Ideally, we could have added 2 to 3 more days to the trip to include Laos or Cambodia to the itinerary or simply more down time by the beach. We decided to focus on just Vietnam with the 11 days we had available to us. This was a very busy itinerary. We did have some free time built into the schedule that allowed us to enjoy the pool and beach.

Dragon Fruit

Dragon Fruit

Although it was necessary to visit the big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, we were truly enchanted by our visits to Halong Bay in the north-east, the ancient cities of Hue and Hoi An in central Vietnam, and the Mekong Delta region in the south.

Emperor's Tomb in Hue

Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh in Hue Countryside

We booked our trip through our travel agent. She in turn went to several tour operators. We ended up using Cox & Kings. The agent in Vietnam for Cox & Kings was Trails of Indochina, a very renowned operator of Asian tours. The tour was private and customized to our liking. We had our own drivers and guides in each of the regions. We were very impressed with the quality of the guides and punctuality of the transfers.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

Vietnamese Spring Rolls

Vietnam is a treasure trove of rich history, beautiful sights, delicious foods, bright colors, and friendly people. In my next posting I’ll share more of our visit to Vietnam.

Turkey Holiday in Turkey

The Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet

The Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet
November 2012

A couple of years ago a friend of mine in London went to Istanbul, Turkey for Thanksgiving. It sounded like fun to visit Turkey for Turkey weekend. So we spent Thanksgiving of 2012 in Istanbul and Ephesus, Turkey. Although, we did not celebrate Thanksgiving in the traditional sense our weekend was full of new adventurous experiences. We entered a fascinating world of palaces, mosques, sultans, the glories of Constantinople, markets, spices, rugs and delicious Turkish food.

Turkish Lights

Turkish Lamps at the Grand Bazaar

Once again I share our hotel, restaurants, tour companies, and places we visited in the hopes that it will help you plan your visit.

 Airport Transfers and Taxis

I had read before the trip that taking taxis was a tricky thing in Istanbul. There are many articles talking about taxi driver scams.

http://www.istanbultrails.com/2009/04/how-to-take-a-taxi-in-istanbul-without-being-hustled/

http://www.wittistanbul.com/magazine/istanbul-taxi-fares-every-tourist-ought-to-know/

I decided to arrange for a private car transfer from the airport to the hotel. The hotel offered to arrange the private car transfer but they wanted 35 – 40 Euros each way depending on the time of day. When I was researching tour operators I came across a highly rated company in Tripadvisor who operated a private car service as well. They charged us 38 Euro round trip for our airport transfers. The airport pickups and transfers were timely and smooth.

http://www.privatetoursinistanbul.com/

www.istanbultransfer.net

If you do take taxis, make sure they have operating meters. You can also ask your hotel approximately how long and how much the taxi fare will be.

Where to Stay

One of the challenges in my opinion is deciding what neighborhood of Istanbul to stay in.  You can stay in the Old Town, Sultanahmet. Many of the major sights are located here. You can easily walk to them from your hotel. This is a very touristy area during the day and quiets down in the evenings. And although, there are plenty of adequate restaurants in Sultanahmet, you’ll find that they are pricier and not as good as some of the city’s renown restaurants located in the newer parts of town.  You can choose to stay in the New City, districts like Elmadağ, Nişantaşı, and Etiler. Or you can stay in Galata with neighborhoods like Beyoğlu, Istiklal Street, and Taksim Square. The challenge in staying in these newer areas is that you’ll need to take a taxi to the Old Town for sight-seeing, and there is a lot of traffic congestion in Istanbul. However, a benefit of staying in the newer parts of Istanbul is, as I mentioned earlier, many of the top-rated restaurants are located there.

Best Western Acropol Suites and Spa located in Sultanahmet

Best Western Acropol Suites and Spa located in Sultanahmet

We found a hotel in Sultanahmet with family suites. They were able to accommodate 4 of us in a suite that had a small bedroom and living room. As some of you may know, it is a rare occurrence in European hotels to be able to fit a family of four into one room.  The hotel was the Best Western Acropol Suites and Spa. The hotel is rated as a 5-star hotel. It had a great location, a friendly staff and family suites. However, we felt that the hotel was more like a 4-star hotel due to its finishes and quality of breakfast.  We found ourselves taking taxis at night to get to our restaurant destinations. Although, some of the traffic we encountered was horrific, the delicious food was well worth the taxi rides.

For the James Bond Fans: Skyfall was filmed on this street and over the Grand Bazaar.

For the James Bond Fans: Skyfall was filmed on this street and over the Grand Bazaar.

Private Tours

We are finding it really worthwhile to book private tours for the family. Not only are we on our own schedule, we are able to do “skip the line” at the attractions, and we have the benefit of a private knowledgeable tour guide. In Istanbul, we booked with a company called Private Tours In Istanbul that received excellent ratings on Tripadvisor. Our tour guide picked us up at the hotel and we spent the day visiting the main sights of the city.

http://www.privatetoursinistanbul.com/

We spent our day in the Old Town. Our first stop was spent exploring the Hippodrome area.  It was once the sporting and social center of Constantinople. We then visited the spectacular Blue Mosque. It is called the Blue Mosque because of its intricate and beautiful interior decorated with blue colored mosaics.

The Inside of the Blue Mosque with its blue tiles.

The Inside of the Blue Mosque with its blue tiles.

We visited the Hagia Sophia museum that was originally built as a Christian church and then converted into a mosque. In the conversion process beautiful mosaics of saints and Christian scenes were covered with plaster. When The Hagia Sophia became a museum, a restoration project tried to uncover some of the hidden treasures.

Hagia Sophia Museum

Hagia Sophia Museum

We also visited the interesting and large Topkapi Palace, the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans.

At the Topkapi Palace

At the Topkapi Palace

We stopped to see the Rustem Pasha Mosque famous for its decoration of Iznik tiles.

Our teen children’s absolutely favorite places were visits to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market.

The Spice Market

The Spice Market

Turkish Delights: Turkish Sweets

Turkish Delights: Turkish Sweets

Another must see attraction in Istanbul is the Basilica Cistern, a water reservoir built underground. It is the largest of hundreds of cisterns that exist in Istanbul. There you can see dozens of columns that were brought over from the Temple of Artemis (located in near Ephesus).

The Basilica Cisternwith recycled columns from the Temple of Artemis

The Basilica Cistern
with recycled columns from the Temple of Artemis

 Where to Eat

I recommend you make reservations for all of these restaurants.

Meze/Mezze: selection of small dishes served in the middle east and Mediterranean countries, much like tapas.

Dinners

Hunkar 1950 in the Nisantasi neighborhood: This was by far our favorite restaurant. Hunkar 1950 serves traditional Turkish food. Our reservation was for 8:30 and we found that by then the restaurant was out of some of the meze and main dishes we wanted try.  But there was still plenty to pick from. The staff was also very friendly. We recommend you get up from your table to look at the meze selections.

Turkish Apple Tea

Turkish Apple Tea

Kosebasi in the Nisantasi neighborhood: This restaurant also serves traditional Turkish food. Although, we did enjoy our food we felt a bit rushed in selecting our mezes, and were not offered a lot of explanation even though we asked.

There were plenty of local clientele at Hunkar and Kosebasi always a good sign to us.

Mouth Watering Treats

Mouth Watering Treats

Khorasani in the Sultanahmet neighborhood: On our third night we had reservations for the Borsa restaurant at the convention center. But since we were tired we decided to go to a local restaurant rather than take a taxi again. We walked to the Khorasani one of the local Kebab houses. Like other of the local restaurants they serve the rugby ball-shaped Turkish bread. Originally we were going to be seated upstairs but it was extremely smoky since their oven/grill is located there. We chose to sit outside even though the weather was rather cool. The heaters and blankets kept us warm.  It was an adequate meal, but definitely not as high quality as the previous restaurants and definitely pricier for being in Sultanahmet.

Turkish Bread

Turkish Bread

Borsa located at the Convention Center in Harbiye. Although we did not make it to this restaurant it was in our top choices to visit.

Lunches

Sultanahmet Fish House: This restaurant gets very high ratings. However, when we went, our meal was included as part of our all-day private tour.  When we arrived at the Fish House we were not shown the full menu. Instead, we were given a choice of fish or chicken. My husband and son thought the fish was just o.k. The chicken was atrocious. For a restaurant that prides itself in good cuisine, they certainly don’t know how to make chicken, and should not even include it as a choice.  We saw other tourists arrive and since they were on their own, their meal choices looked more appealing than ours.

Doner KebabsChicken and Lamb Choices

Doner Kebabs
Chicken and Lamb Choices

Kosk Café and Restaurant in the Grand Bazaar: We were tired and needed a break. We sat down at the Kosk Café in the Grand Bazaar. We ordered doner kebabs, made with the meat from a vertical spit. It was fun to sit and watch people go by but the food was not that good. We could have had much better doner kebabs elsewhere.

At the Grand Bazaar

At the Grand Bazaar

Otantik in Taksim Square Area: We spent an afternoon walking in the Taksim Square area. We had a wonderful snack of Turkish pancakes at Otantik. They also served wonderful meals.

You can get freshly squeezed pomegranate juice in many places.

You can get freshly squeezed pomegranate juice in many places.

Bosphorus Crossing

The Bosphorus, also known as the Istanbul strait, is the body of water that separates Istanbul’s European side from the Asian side. A novel thing to do in Istanbul is to take a ferry from the European side of Istanbul and visit the Asian side.  We had done this on previous trip and chose not to do it on this visit. It’s also nicer to take boat rides on the Bosphorus during nicer weather.

 Day Trip to Ephesus

We took a day trip to the ancient roman city of Ephesus.  For this we hired a private tour company. The car picked us up at our hotel at 5 a.m. and drove us to the airport for a 7:00 a.m. flight to Izmir. The flight was 50 minutes long.  In Izmir, we were picked up by our driver and tour guide and drove 45 minutes to Ephesus. We visited the amazing ancient city of Ephesus, the last home of the Virgin Mary, and the Temple of Artemis.  We then took a return flight back to Istanbul and were back in our hotel by 7pm. The City of Ephesus is one of the most beautiful and best-conserved ancient cities in the world and it is well worth the visit. It ranked as one of our children’s highlights of our trip to Istanbul.

Celsus Library in Ephesus

Celsus Library in Ephesus

A Sculpture in Ephesus of the Goddess Nike - the goddess of Victory.Notice the Swish used by Nike company as their logo underneath her right hand.

A Sculpture in Ephesus of the Goddess Nike – the goddess of Victory.
Notice the swish used by Nike company as their logo underneath her right hand.

The last home of the Virgin Mary near Ephesus

The last home of the Virgin Mary near Ephesus

What is left of the Temple of Artemis near Ephesus. Columns were taken to Istanbul and used in the Basilica Cistern.

What is left of the Temple of Artemis near Ephesus. Columns were taken to Istanbul and used in the Basilica Cistern.

The Temple of Artemisnear Ephesus

The Temple of Artemis
near Ephesus
Considered one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.

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