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.

The UN Refugee Agency Report June 2014

For historical background read Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam A History


Series on Multiculturalism, Diversity, and Cross-Cultural Relationships

Part II

The Importance of Exposure to Multiculturalism and Diversity

This is the second of my three-part series on multiculturalism, diversity, and cross-cultural relationships. In my first article:, I shared with my readers how and when I became impassioned with this topic. In this follow-up posting, I elaborate on the importance of exposure to multiculturalism and diversity. My definition of diversity includes people with all types of differences: race, religion, philosophy, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical health, mental health, socioeconomic, intelligence, genetic attributes, etc.

Exposure to multiculturalism and diversity helps us expand our awareness and knowledge. As we build our awareness of other people’s differences we learn to understand them and in turn we develop tolerance, acceptance, trust, and compassion, which can lead to cooperation and collaboration. And how much easier would it be to live on this planet, to work together to solve its problems, if we operated under this premise. But I know this sounds very utopian, and perhaps rather than try to solve the world’s problems, I can focus on my little part of the universe and help influence those around me in a positive way. I behave a certain way, because I know that my children are watching and emulating my every move. I want them to grow up without unfounded prejudices and fears.

Celebrating my birthday in London with wonderful friends from around the world. From left to right: Colombian-American, Mexican, Palestinian, Turkish, Venezuelan, and Canadian.

2012 – Celebrating my birthday in London with wonderful friends from around the world. From left to right: Colombian-American, Mexican, Palestinian, Turkish, Venezuelan, and Canadian.

It is human nature to gravitate to known and comfortable environments. And it is also human nature to be weary of those and of things that are unknown. In the absence of true knowledge we allow fear and ignorance to form our misguided judgments.

I grew up as a Colombian immigrant in Queens, New York in the 60’s. At the time the Latinos in New York City were made up of mostly Dominicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans. Even among the existing Latino groups there was dislike and mistrust. My parents and I moved to an apartment building in Woodside, Queens. We were the only Hispanic family in our building. For several months after we moved in, my parents greeted our next-door neighbors, a white Jewish elderly couple, and for months they ignored my parent’s polite salutations. My parents were patient and knew from prior experience that in time the couple would come around, and they did. Somehow their comfort level grew as they got to know us and they became friendly with us. It makes me happy to think that we helped influence their viewpoint in a positive way. My other memory of a neighbor was of the Marshall family, one of the few African-American families in our building. Mrs. Marshall was working a full-time job, was raising a family, had lost a son in the Vietnam War, and on top of all of that, she was the dedicated Girl Scout leader of my troop. I always admired her commitment to the community and am grateful that she served as a role model to me inspiring me to become a Girl Scout leader to my own daughter.

Marching proudly in the 4th of July parade in Westport, CT with my Girl Scout Troop.

2005 – Marching proudly with my Girl Scout Brownie troop in the 4th of July parade in Westport, CT.

Growing up as a Latina in New York was not a great thing. Not because I was directly mistreated but because there was a prevailing attitude that Hispanics and Hispanic culture was sub par. As a child I looked for ways of blending in and forgetting my ethnicity. I suppose this is what thousands of immigrant children had done before me and continue to do to this day. Immigrant groups that arrived before us staked a claim and defined what they believe is the “right way” of being American, and all of the newly arrived immigrants try desperately to fit in by giving up their uniqueness. It is sadly contradictory that some of the people of this country, a nation founded on freedoms and religious tolerance, punish those for being different. I was incensed recently with the reaction by the general public when Ms. New York, the first Indian-American woman to win the title of Ms. America 2014 received vile feedback in the news and social media. Ugly comments were made accusing her of not being “American” enough, and of not representing “American” values. Wow, that today in 2014 we can still have such biased views and prejudices saddens me.

In 1974, my parents decided to return to Colombia because that was their plan all along. Little did they know that our going back to Colombia would be the greatest gift they would ever give me. I had come to the United States at age two and now at 13 we were returning to my birth country. The USA was my home but I was equally accepting of the idea of moving back to Colombia where I had spent most of my childhood summers. I would become immersed in the culture, learn the history, travel the country, study the language, and develop an appreciation for being Colombian. This experience also heightened my sensitivity to the appreciation of other cultures.

My daughter smiling in the African dress I sewed her for a pre-school international event.

2003 – Westport, CT My daughter smiling in the African dress I sewed her for a pre-school international event. The shoes are Colombian “alpargatas”, a type of espadrille shoe.

As much as we enjoyed living in Colombia I had my sights on going to university in the states and so we returned in 1978. Living in Colombia had raised my self-confidence and solidified my identity. Upon my return to the USA I no longer felt like a minority. That is until my senior year of college when I went from not feeling like a minority to being labeled a “double minority”. That was a huge surprise and I envisioned a giant rubber stamp coming down on my forehead.  I was a soon-to-graduate engineer who was a “woman” and a “Latina”. I became highly coveted by the recruiting companies because I could fill two of their minority recruiting quotas. The reality was that I was back in the United States where labeling seemed and continues to be, unfortunately, a very important part of this culture.

In my first article, I mentioned how I have three distinct roles. I am a Colombian citizen, a Colombian immigrant to the United States, and a US citizen. In the first role, I did not and do not need to prove anything to anyone. However, in my role as a Colombian immigrant and naturalized US citizen I have always felt it necessary to show other Americans a positive image of Colombia and of Latinos, while dispelling some of the misconceptions they have of our ethnic group. I will take this opportunity to say that there is a subset of American society that is open-minded and have an appreciation for diversity. I also have to point out that prejudices can also exist within a minority group.

Celebrating a birthday in Annapolis, MD with two American friends.

2013 – Celebrating another birthday in Annapolis, MD with two wonderful American friends.

My husband, a white American of European decent, and I have raised our children in a multicultural environment. Together we made the decision that I would speak Spanish and he would speak English to the children. As a family we have lived in Belgium, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and England. Every location has offered us varying experiences. Moving has taught us resilience and adaptability. Living abroad has taught us to see things from a different point of view. We have lived in small towns and in big cities. We have lived in very diverse and in very homogenous locations.

2002 - My son on the left in yet another costume I made, representing lightning. He is standing next to his Sikh buddy. His mother would share concerns over whether or not to cut his hair for kindergarten. In Sikhism, Kesh is the practiceof allowing their hair to grow as a  symbol of respect for the perfection of God's creation.

2002 – My son on the left dressed as “lightning”. I certainly kept busy making costumes. He is standing next to his Sikh buddy. His mother would share concerns over whether or not to cut his hair for kindergarten. In Sikhism, Kesh is the practice of allowing their hair to grow as a symbol of respect for the perfection of God’s creation. She was worried about her son being teased as he got older.

I have come to the conclusion that people from very homogenous towns or groups are at risk of becoming insular and close-minded. These folks have had limited exposure to people who are different perhaps by their own choosing or just by chance. When suddenly faced with a person or group who may not conform to their value system, they allow fear and ignorance to form their misguided judgments. Some can exhibit behaviors such as apathy, unfriendliness, anger, discrimination, segregation, bullying, mistreatment, or even violence. These behaviors are then passed on to their children and the negative behaviors and misconceptions are perpetuated. However, not all people from a homogenous group will react negatively. Some will allow themselves the opportunity to get to know the “stranger” much like the elderly couple did towards us, and eventually welcome them into the community. It is nice to know that human decency and goodness can prevail.

In 2011 we had the opportunity to move to London with our teen-aged children. We spent two years living in one of the most diverse cities of the world. I am so grateful that we were able to expose our family to so many ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic groups. When you live among people of different backgrounds or attributes you develop a comfort level with them that allows you to be open-minded. This better prepares you to interact with each other and offers a basis for cooperation and collaboration. It prepares you to live in the global community and to work in a diverse environment. I also feel that living in London gave my children an appreciation for their own multi-cultural background.

2011 - London Exploring our new home.

2011 – London Exploring our new home.

We are now in suburban USA. There is still so much to improve and accomplish in the arena of diversity. In the fall, I was at an orientation at my children’s school and I could not help but notice that there were three distinct groups of people. There was a large group of mostly white families with a smattering of some ethnic families mingling with them, there was a small group of African-American families, and then there were the assorted loners. I wondered to myself why each group was keeping to themselves fully knowing the answer to my own question. Everyone was choosing to stay in his or her own comfort zone. This self-selected segregation bothered me so I chose to walk over to the group of African American parents to introduce myself. Some of you may argue that self-selected segregation is acceptable, but I will counter that with, self-selected segregation is a defense mechanism, that although shields us temporarily, it prevents us from pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone to reach our fullest potential.

The United States is not the only country dealing with diversity issues. The challenges exist worldwide. Italy appointed its first black female cabinet member, Cecile Kyenge in April of this year. What was seen as a positive step in racial integration has publicly highlighted the ugly face of the prejudices that exist in Italy as Mrs. Kyenge endures countless racial abuse. Many other countries have experience similar challenges with assimilation of ethnic groups such as France, Germany, Britain, Sweden, and Finland. Colombia and many other Latin American countries are guilty of marginalizing their own native and black minority groups. Other nations struggle with uniting internal religious and ethnic groups. No location is immune to this problem.

I have been through my own journey. I too am guilty of passing incorrect judgment. I have come to the realization that prejudices come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes can be almost imperceptible. We all have a value system that we learned at home. There are moments in our lives that we come to crossroads where our existing value system is challenged. If we recognize these junctures as learning opportunities then we can begin to make changes that allow us to become better human beings.

In the end, the hallmark of a good relationship is when all parties involved are made to feel good in that relationship. And how do we do this?  By taking the steps necessary to learn about the other person. As we build our awareness of other people’s differences we learn to understand them and in turn we develop tolerance, acceptance, trust, and compassion, which can ultimately lead to cooperation and collaboration.

Slide1I do a reality check and bring myself back to my little corner of the universe, back to my original goal, to behave in a way that teaches my children to be open-minded and not develop unfounded prejudices and fears.

In my last and third article I share my call to action with you, steps you can take to further your exposure to multiculturalism and diversity.

For now I leave you with the following:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou

Series on Multiculturalism, Cross-Cultural Relationships, and Diversity

Part I: My Passion for All Things International

This is the first of a series of three articles on the topic of multiculturalism, cross-cultural relationships, and diversity. In this first posting I share with my readers how and when my interest in this area developed, creating a backdrop for the second article. In the follow-up article I communicate why I feel it is so important and critical to be exposed to multiculturalism, cross-cultural relationships, and diversity. In my last and third article I discuss some of the challenges that we face in this arena, and offer recommendations of steps to take that could increase our exposure to diversity. Keeping in mind that when I refer to diversity in my articles, I am including individuals with all kinds of differences. 

A symbol of Colombian Culture, the open truck called "Chiva" or "Bus de Escalera" used as transportation in rural areas. The buses are beautifully hand painted with colorful images and accents.

1983 – A symbol of Colombian Culture, the open truck called “Chiva” (goat) or “Bus de Escalera” (ladder bus) used as transportation in rural areas. The buses are beautifully hand painted with colorful images and accents.

There are things in this world that inspire our passion and interest. For me, some of those things are multiculturalism, cross-cultural relationships, and diversity. There are various paths that have brought me here. I am a Colombian born immigrant to the United States. This allows me three distinct roles, that of being a Colombian citizen, a Colombian immigrant to the United States, and lastly an American citizen. By moving to the United States I entered into a multicultural environment, I lived in a Colombian home in an American culture. A defining moment in my life, when my interest for all things international was sparked, happened when I joined Mrs. Bouhafa’s 3rd grade class in 1969. I joined her class after the first month of the school year when the powers to be decided I belonged in her class.

Mrs. Bouhafa and her 3rd grade class of 1969-1970

Mrs. Bouhafa and her 3rd grade class of 1969-1970. That’s me, the Girl Scout Brownie on the left hand side.

Mrs. Bouhafa stood in the front of the classroom with me and introduced me to the rest of the class and said something about my Spanish-speaking ability. I had been fully bi-lingual since kindergarten. A boy in the class, Stephen (bottom row 1st boy on left), took me by the hand to the back of the room, to a globe of world, pointed to Spain, and asked me if I was from there. I said no, and rotated the globe back and proudly pointed to Colombia and said, “I am from here”. Stephen smiled. I feel good even today knowing that he and the other children learned about Colombia from me. It would be the beginning of my lifelong mission of trying to share a positive image of Colombia and of Latinos with Americans. Mrs. Bouhafa was a world traveler. She shared her passion for all things international with her students. Her room was filled with pictures of her in various parts of the world, but the picture I remember the most was of her on a camel with the Egyptian Pyramids in the background. Mrs. Bouhafa taught us about world cultures, worldwide geography, and to find beauty in all of it. Little did Mrs. Bouhafa know that she had planted a seed of wanderlust in me, and the desire to see the world.

That's me as a very proud Girl Scout Brownie 1969 waiting to discover the world.

1969 – That’s me as a very proud Girl Scout Brownie  waiting to discover the world.

At first I would not need to travel very far. I lived in New York City where all you had to do was step out of your front door and see people from around the world. When I rode the subway I loved observing the different outfits worn by people, the beautiful colors of the fabrics, the styles, and the hats. In one afternoon you could see Hasidic Jews dressed in black with their payot, Indian women in colorful saris, African women in their long dresses of African print, Cuban men in guayaberas, Muslim women wearing hijabs and abayas, and Sikh men wearing turbans. You could venture into Chinatown and feel you were half way around the world as you walked in wonderment looking at the food markets, smelling all the fish, and seeing all the Chinese character signs. It was also the sixties and there were many changes happening in our society. The Civil Rights and Feminist movements were in full swing. People were protesting the Vietnam War and the Flower Power generation was blooming creating a historical generation gap. My dad’s hobby was to make 8mm home movies and capture the essence of New Yorkers on his films.  On Sundays, our family would go to Greenwich Village in Manhattan to people watch. We have great footage of my mom and I dressed in our 1960’s Sunday church outfits hanging out with “Los hippies”, as my parents called them, while listening to guitar folk music and Hare Krishna chanting. There I stood at age 8, absorbing all of these experiences quietly in my head helping to shape my opinion of the world.

I attended Public School 151 in Woodside, Queens. Our 3rd grade class of 29 children was comprised of mainly white (European ancestry) children, 4 African-American boys and girls, 3 Asian boys, 1 girl from Aruba, and 1 Colombian girl (me). There was some religious diversity. In the month of December we learned Hanukkah songs together with Christmas songs. My first school trip to the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan was a true highlight. I was amazed with the concept of simultaneous language translation. The idea that someone could be speaking in their native tongue, and that dozens of translators would be translating in their private cubbies, speaking into microphones, which in turn were wired to members of the audience. That people could understand each other even though they spoke in different languages was mind-boggling.

In my other parallel childhood life, I would visit Colombia during the summers. I realize now how privileged I was to be able to have had those experiences. When I went to Colombia I would stay with family in my birth city of Medellin. Sometimes I flew with my parents, and other times they would send me by myself on the airplane. I would spend amazing summers discovering Medellin, its surrounding villages, and the countryside. But it was not all fun and play, my mother who gave me spanish lessons during the school year, would also request that I take spanish lessons during vacations.

The "gringita" niece learns about animals at the "finca"  (the ranch)

1971 – The “gringuita” niece learns about animals at the “finca” (the ranch)

As a young adult I would begin to travel the world. The first big trip that I planned and saved up for was during college. In 1983, I visited a total of 10 cities and villages in the Atlantic coastal, central Andes, and Amazon regions of Colombia.

1983 - On the first adventure that I plan and finance myself. Here I am by the edge of the Amazon river near Leticia, Colombia in the Amazon jungle area of the country.

1983 – Look Mrs. Bouhafa, here I am by the shores of the Amazon river near Leticia, Colombia in the Amazon jungle area of the country.

In 1984 I began working as an engineer in upstate New York. That alone was a cultural change for me, Schenectady was very different to New York City. I continued to travel with work to other states allowing me the opportunity to see the vastness of this nation and the huge regional differences. In 1986, I took my first European trip to the Alps in Switzerland to ski. With each trip I knew I wanted to see and learn even more of the world and its cultures. There was no turning back. I started figuring out ways of traveling, not just for pleasure but also for work.

Look Mrs. Bouhafa, that's me on a train in the Alps!

1986 – Look Mrs. Bouhafa, that’s me on a train in the Alps!

My career in engineering evolved and in time I got an MBA. Business school was transformative for me not just in academic ways but also in my view of the world. Prior to business school I used to think that the United States was the be-all and end-all. Sure, I had a multicultural back ground, but I was close minded in thinking that there was nothing better than the United States. I judged everything through the biased American view. Business school exposed me to international students and business, and broader thinking.

One of my dear friends from business school. We sat next to each other for our 1st year. Since English was his second language I helped him with clarifications during class. This is after business school when I visited him in Tokyo, Japan

1994- One of my dear friends from business school. We sat next to each other for our 1st year. Since English was his second language I helped him with clarifications during class. This is after business school when I visited him and his family in Tokyo, Japan.

I learned about countries not just from a cultural perspective but also from a socioeconomic and geopolitical view. I started understanding the role that the United States played in world politics and in the global economy. I knew then that I wanted to work in international business. In time, I achieved my goal and ended up doing international business and product development that involved traveling around the world, working with cross-functional, and cross-cultural work teams. I was in my element.

I sponsored a meeting for our Middle Eastern organization in Marrakech, Morocco. This was the last evening dinner with our Moroccan entertainers. Circa 1996

1996 – I sponsored a meeting for our Middle Eastern organization in Marrakech, Morocco. This was the last evening dinner with our Moroccan entertainers. 

Although, my own multicultural background and training has given me a heightened sensitivity to appreciating other people’s cultures, it has been with each subsequent trip and cross-cultural encounter that I have gleaned the cultural nuances, learned how to behave abroad, and learned to become a more open-minded person. This exposure to multiculturalism has also developed my sensitivity to understanding people’s differences no matter what kind. I thrive in environments that have diversity and I relish the opportunity of being inclusive and of being included.

Visiting another friend from business school in Tokyo. His wife dressed me in a traditional kimono for dinner.

1994 – Visiting another friend from business school in Tokyo. His wife dressed me in a traditional kimono for dinner.

My business and leisure travel has taken me all over the world. I have been to 5 out of 7 continents, and to 33 countries. I have been to 32 states of the United States. If only I could sit with Mrs. Bouhafa to compare pictures and experiences, and to thank her for sharing her love for all things international with me.

Look Mrs. Bouhafa, one hand camel riding in Dubai. 2001

2001 – Look Mrs. Bouhafa, one hand camel riding in Dubai.

Everyday I continue to learn more and more about diversity and human nature. Although, I count the days until I can get on another airplane to visit some exotic part of the world, I know that I have hundreds of resources and experiences to be discovered right here in my own neighborhood.

Family Trip to Vietnam. Our tour guide teaches us about the food at a market in Hoi An. 2013

2013 – Family Trip to Vietnam. Our tour guide teaches us about the food at a market in Hoi An.

With every connection I make to someone or someplace around the world or even right here in my own backyard, I discover we have more things in common with each other than I realized. When I focus on the similarities it seems to lessen the differences.

In my next posting I share why I feel it is so important to expose ourselves and our children to other cultures. I also make the connection to the importance of exposure to all that is different, be they people of different race, religion, sexual orientation, age, physical abilities, mental health, socioeconomic, genetic attributes, etc.


Relishing the trip in the Mekong Delta, outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

2013 – Trip to Vietnam. Navigating the Mekong Delta, outside of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I love this picture my daughter took because if you look at my sunglasses you can see my daughter taking the photo and son and husband further back, all three the apples of my eye!



Definitions from various sources:


  1. of, relating to, reflecting, or adapted to diverse cultures
  2. relating to communities containing multiple cultures
  3. the preservation of different cultures or cultural identities within a unified society, as a state of nation


  1. comparing or dealing with two or more different cultures
  2. pertaining to or contrasting two or more cultures or cultural groups.
  3. in sociology, involving or bridging the differences between cultures


  1. the condition of having or being composed of differing elements.
  2. the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures in a group or organization.
  3. the term can describe differences in racial or ethnic classifications, age, gender, religion, philosophy, physical abilities, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, gender identity, intelligence, mental health, physical health, genetic attributes, behavior, attractiveness, or other identifying features.
  4. In sociology, the term can be used to describe groups of people whose members have identifiable differences in cultural backgrounds or lifestyles.

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:

For the lyrics of “Where Are You Now, My Son”

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.


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.