Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Welcome Visit to Phuoc Tien Primary School - Nha Trang

School begins at 7am here in Vietnam so it was a bright & early start for us yesterday morning!

The school is only a few blocks away so we are able to walk. We arrived a little late and assembly had already started. As we walked in, the 1000+ children let out a huge cheer and applauded us until we took our seats at the front. It's certainly the closest I have felt to some kind of celebrity status.

We were part of a very formal assembly with a drum group, flag raising a gift presentation. One boy from Footscray gave a great speech in Vietnamese and all the children were very impressed.

The teachers let us sit in their classrooms for a little while as they completed the morning lesson and our kids got involved in a reading task. It was fantastic! Today the students are in class all day and our teachers are taking lessons too. No doubt our kids will get mobbed in the playground and they will be signing autographs all day.

I am in the hotel with a sick student which is actually fine because I'm enjoying spending some time in the air con. It's 31 degrees and about 1000% humidity, which is apparently cold for the locals!

Vinpearl Waterpark- Nha Trang

It's been a few days between posts so its time for an update!

We flew in to Cam Ranh Airport in Nha Trang on Monday morning and travelled by bus to our hotel "The Nha Trang Lodge" which is right on the beach.

It's really lovely here. There's a bit of a Gold Coast vibe but much more down to earth and with more spectacular views! Actually, it's more like if Lorne were a small city with high rise apartments. It's a popular tourist destination and we have noticed lots of very brown Russians in teeny tiny bathers, but it's the off season so it's mainly locals around now.

After putting our stuff in the hotel we nicked across the road to pho 24 for a quick lunch before heading to Vinpearl Water Park. It's on an island so we caught a cable car over the water. It takes 12 minutes and the views are breathtaking!

We enjoyed lots of scary water slides, the lazy river, wave pool and the ocean beach and the kids ran themselves ragged before taking a tour around the aquarium.

We shared a special birthday dinner for one of the teachers, Josh, on the island too. Something scary happened during dinner, I pulled out the bushman insect repellent as the tiny winged Air Force was coming in for the kill. We passed it around the table and all applied it and suddenly the teacher next to me started coughing and saying she couldn't feel her lips. She had an allergic reaction and thought her throat would close up. Fortunately she had some antihistamines and it settled down quickly but it certainly gave us all a fright! I've decided to stick to the Aeroguard from now on!

Once it was dark the cable car pillars lit up like the Eiffel Tower. It was a great day and the kids were asleep before their heads hit the pillow.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

A day in Hoi An

As I said in my last post, Hoi An is a touristy place. I would liken "old Hoi An" to Sovereign Hill as there is a lot of history there but it's been overtaken with gift shops & Aussies.

One awesome thing about Hoi An though is that it is the home of many tailors and you can have clothing made cheap and very quickly!

Many of us had clothes and shoes made. It was very exciting waiting and receiving our packages at the end of the day. I got two pairs of pants and a skirt, a dress for Molly and April got a pair of pants, a top and a special dress for her graduation- see the last pic!

The kids got to make lanterns before we headed out on a boat to the cooking school! We made several dishes including fresh rice paper! I found this fascinating and I will definitely make it again! Other dishes included an eggplant clay pot, Vietnamese pancakes and a green mango salad. It was very delicious and a great thing to do!

Some photos from our day on the farm in Hoi An

Here are a few pics from yesterday! After a quick flight from Hanoi to Da Nang we arrived at The Hoi An Historic Hotel. It's very touristy here with lots of leathery brown Aussie older people.

After getting settled we cycled through the Hoi An streets to a local farm (quite a full on experience, especially as some of the kids had said they were competent riders but we quickly discovered they were NOT!) April did well, no one died.. Phew!

We arrived at a small herb and salad farm and the kids spent time learning farming techniques before being taught how to make Vietnamese pancakes.

We were all full but returned to a big dinner as compensation from the travel company for the pool not being operational. We struggled through the meal and the kids were SO tired that a few just started bursting into tears! The teachers removed gaming and Internet devices from their rooms as many kids have been staying up very late playing.

We are spending just two nights at this hotel before travelling to Nha Trang early tomorrow morning. I'll do a separate post about today's activities as I don't want to have any trouble posting due to too many pics.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Day 3: Perfume Pagoda Cave

(I've tried uploading a bunch of photos with this post & it's not working so ill need to do it some other way.. Until then, here's another big slab of writing about yesterday!)

This morning we travelled through beautiful rice fields on the way to visit the Perfume Pagoda. We passed a few small towns on the way and for the first time noticed lots of signs for dog (thịt chò) and cat meat (thịt mèo). Apparently it's much more common in the north. Vinh explained that during the many times of food shortage the Vietnamese people have learned to see meat as meat and not to discriminate as a matter of survival. He is going to order some "special treats" for us to try tonight including dog & insects.. Yummy!

We went by boat for an hour and were surrounded by beautiful mountains. It was raining quite heavily and some of our flimsy cheap ponchos were torn so we all got a bit soggy. I really didn't mind because it was still quite hot and sticky and the rain was cool and refreshing. I bought a new one when we got there.

Once at the Perfume Pagoda precinct we climbed many many slippery steps to ascend to the lower pagoda. Some of us decided not to climb all the way as our shoes weren't grippy enough and it felt too dangerous.

Vinh explained that there was once a young girl who forewent having a husband and family to look after her sick father. One day the father became sick and the monk told her that the only way to cure his illness was to bring a human arm and human eyes to the temple. She sacrificed her own body parts and cured her father. She later died and it was decided that her spirit was the god of mercy. People come to the perfume pagoda to pray for mercy still.

After very carefully climbing back down the steps (I took my shoes off because it was the only way I'd make it down!) we stopped for lunch at a restaurant at the foot of the pagoda. This meal was very basic but the nicest I have had so far. The ingredients were apparently sourced from around the mountains and very fresh.

With full tummies we climbed more steps to find the cable car and we went in groups of six up the mountain to visit the Hòn Đun Gạo- hưởng tích cave. This is a very special place of worship with a giant stalagmite in the centre. It was absolutely amazing! 

We then boated back again to our bus before making the 2 hour trip back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner. I'm a bit nervous about trying the "special treats" but I said I'd try anything once... 

When in Vietnam...

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

River boating at & Ha Long Bay on land- Day 2

It was more difficult to wake up this morning. I think the jet lag is catching up with us a little bit!

After another delicious buffet breakfast Vinh arrived with our bus and we made the two hour drive to the Ninh Binh Province to visit some temples (there are the remains of an ancient king and queen there but I don't have the right characters to spell their names correctly so I won't try in case I end up writing something completely wrong). We travelled through rice fields and farming land. I felt like I was in an episode of M.A.S.H. It was so lush and green and many of the built structures were in quite bad disrepair, lots of buildings were unfinished and Vinh explained that there was not enough money to finish them. People rode bicycles and motorbikes but there were weren't nearly as many as in the city. A thick mist lay heavy over the rice fields and farmers worked in their long blue cotton clothing and bamboo hats. It was really like something out of another time. 

We arrived at the temples and were rushed at by roadside traders wanting us to buy their fruit, umbrellas and ponchos but we followed our tour guide's instructions and showed no interest in their wares and they left us to walk past. The temples are set in the middle of beautiful green mossy mountains and are surrounded by a freshwater river. Donning colourful ponchos to protect us from the rain, we wandered around the grounds and Vinh told us some stories about the ancient king and his wife. The queen had been married before (re-marrying was a big no-no as they believed that widows should look after their dead husband's family until her death... Nice huh?) but she was allowed to marry again after her husband's death as he was the king and his wish over-ruled traditional beliefs about morality. The statue of the queen in the temple shows her smiling like the Mona Lisa due to her love for the king and being permitted to marry again.

We learnt the difference between temples and pagodas; a temple is a place to worship and bring offerings to the dead and a pagoda is for worshipping gods/Buddha. In a temple people can bring anything as an offering but in a pagoda only vegetarian food. Vinh explained how you can look at the foot of the dragon on the stone tablet in the front of each temple to gauge how old the temple is by how many toes the dragon has. I don't remember how many equate to which era though... So much info to take in!

As we made our way back to the bus one of the children decided it was a good idea to pick up a rotten human molar that she found on the ground... I drowned her in hand sanitizer while explaining why this was not the best idea to handle something like this.

Lunch next at a lovely elevated restaurant overlooking Tam Cốc (I found the Viet button!) which is also called "Ha Long Bay on Land". We were served a wonderful variety of dishes and it was lovely to feel the cool breeze blowing through as the rain fell outside. We hoped it would stop before the next part of our journey, a boat ride through the caves, but it didn't. 

We were then rowed down the river by very skilled rowers, many of them rowed with their feet! The 2ish hour journey up and back took us through three caves and the scenery was magnificent. Mountainous and tropical with mountain goats (thịt dặ - meat goat) dotted all over the rocky faces. On the way back we were ambushed by boats with people peddling food and drink. They held on to the boat until you bought something from them. I was totally caught off guard and ended up spending the 50,000 dong tip I had been holding for my rower on a drink and snack for him. My wallet was in the bus so I had to ask for more money from Chau to tip as it is expected. Also, the boatmen/women have very limited opportunity for work I think they said only once every ten weeks and the company only pays them 70,000 dong per ride which equates to about $3 AUD for 2 hours work. 

Despite the money dramas it was a beautiful experience! We were all soaking wet from the rain so we decided to come back to the hotel to change before dinner. April and I skyped Molly, Rich & John very quickly before we headed out again on foot to 24 Pho, a fast food soup chain, where the children were required to order in Vietnamese.

A great second day, well and truly ready for bed now!

Night night!

We actually made it to Vietnam!

April keeps turning to me and saying "We're in Vietnam... We are actually in Vietnam!" 

It has been the most surreal experience getting to this point. After my last very disenchanted Vietnam related post I actually almost gave up on getting April's passport altogether as there were just so many hoops we had to jump through and the whole thing became so tiring. But the citizenship document arrived just in time!! It was almost like I needed to give up and let go of the reins a little before things could fall into place. 

I picked up the passport last THURSDAY, we got the visa on Friday and we got on board the plane yesterday (Monday) morning! Talk about the eleventh hour! It really was like a bad early nineties American comedy- think Home Alone.. Or Home Alone 2.. Or 3.. Whatever takes your fancy.

Fortunately, since then, everything has been super smooth and we are now sitting in an amazing five star hotel in the middle of Hanoi after a jam packed day of amazing new experiences. The journey here felt very long as we flew 8 hours from Melbourne to Saigon/HCM, then had a 2 hour wait in the airport, another 2 hour flight to Hanoi and then 45 minutes in a bus to our hotel. We have 19 kids, 6 teachers and 2 parent helpers all together and I was expecting a few disruptions. I thought there might be a few cheeky/naughty/pushing the boundaries all the time kinds of kids, a few vomiters and definitely a whinger or two thrown in for good measure but to my surprise, everyone was amazing! Very little complaining was heard even though the journey was quite arduous. There was one sick child but he seemed to chirp up quite soon after.

On the bus trip to the hotel my right eye and the whole right side of my face was in pain. It felt like the beginning of a migraine and I started to worry that I would be down for the count for a couple of days. My head went so fuzzy that I couldn't open my suitcase (damn complicated padlock is hard to work when you're in a migraine haze) to get a Panadol out so I had a couple of pain killers from the other dad which were so effective that I was nearly asleep before I got off the elevator and into our room. I fell straight into bed and April had to do everything to set us up in our room. She was a champ figuring out the adaptor and power boards and she plugged all our devices in so they'd be ready for this morning's activities. 

We woke at 6 feeling really fresh and ready for the day and after a quick shower I was anxious to head down to the lobby to use the wifi to Skype and email the family back home. The buffet breakfast was amazing but I was a little bit distracted chatting to John and Richie (Molly was already at school) and I didn't really eat much, just a little Bircher muesli, coffee and fruit. Tomorrow I'm planning on making a better effort. The kids were going nuts on the pastries, coco pops and bacon and showed an appropriate 12 year old lack of self control leading to some being starving by ten o'clock and some feeling overstuffed. I guess it's one of those living and learning experiences. Another of those is the need for sleep and the 12 year old's inability or refusal to acknowledge this vital human requirement. Kids are crazy... They're great... But crazy.

We met our wonderful tour guide Vinh (Vinny) in the lobby and the first thing on our agenda was a visit to the Vietnam Ethnicity Museum. Lots of artefacts and information about the different ethnic groups around Vietnam, which regions they came from, what set them apart from each other etc and while it was very interesting, the heavy humidity was making it very difficult for the kids to concentrate and enjoy it. They were very good though and didn't complain too much before we finally took off through the lovely tropical gardens, stopping to look at the historical buildings on the way, to our next destination, The Temple of Literature.

This is a temple that was constructed to honour education and literacy. It was very beautiful, set in pristinely kept gardens with a large pond in the centre. Turtles are everywhere as the turtle is a symbol of education. The turtle lives the kind of life required to do well in study, the Vietnamese believe, as they are steadfast and they are nourished on living food. There was also a Phoenix standing on a turtle to represent the balance required for study- like yin and yang, one stays on the ground and one soars above. There were gorgeous floral displays everywhere and it was just a lovely lovely place to be. I rubbed the turtles head in the hope that it brings me luck in my planned study next year. 

We left the temple and did our first Vietnam road crossing! It's quite the experience crossing the road as a pedestrian in Hanoi. You need to slowly walk out into the traffic without hesitating and the motorbikes and cars stop for you. The whole driving thing seems super chaotic but the more you are in it the more you realise that this sort of chaos works here. Everyone is always beeping their horns at each other but it's not aggressive like it is in Australia, it's more like an "I'm here, just letting you know" kind of beep. It's sort of friendly really!

Anyway, the road crossing led us to KOTO restaurant for our lunch. KOTO means "know one teach one" and is a social enterprise that teaches street kids hospitality skills so they can go on to work in professional hospitality jobs after. It's the same kind of model as STREAT in Melbourne. Chau (the bilingual coordinator at the school) seemed to think it was the same thing  but I'm not sure. It is affiliated with Box Hill institute so it's possible. The food was amazing, BBQ pork in a sweet and sour fish sauce with rice vermicelli noodles and salad and to finish all the adults had a coffee with condensed milk. I wasn't sure if I'd like it but I really really did. I loved it actually. 

Feeling full and happy we then travelled to the Ho-Chi Minh mausoleum. The area around the mausoleum was quite tranquil as there is no traffic allowed and it provides a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of the streets of Hanoi. We wandered through the presidential gardens and looked at some of the significant buildings from the time of Ho-Chi Minh, his cars, and, as the kids were fading fast (maybe a proper breakfast would've been good) we decided to abort our plans for an hour and head back to the hotel and let the kids have a swim in the pool and recharge before the next bit of our adventure.

After a little R&R we hopped into the bus again and arrived (a little late) at the water puppet show. Water puppets are a traditional story telling art form. It was quite clever and a bit weird really but everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and that's what's important . 

The next experience was by far the highlight of my day. We left the water puppet show and wandered through the crowds to the intersection of two busy roads where we waited for our cyclos to arrive and show us the back streets of Hanoi where our big tour bus could not fit. I loved this experience so much that I want to do it again and again. Sitting on a cyclo, which is a bike that has a seat in front for a passenger and a little roof overhead, and riding through the crazy Hanoi traffic has to be up there with one of the coolest things I've done. It was such a fantastic way to feel what it is like to be in the traffic without having the responsibility of manoeuvring through it myself - which I must say, I don't think I will ever try. There was an air of familiarity as we travelled past restaurants, this-n-that grocery stores and neon lit mobile phone shops... Footscray! It's very different of course, but definitely familiar. 

The cyclos dropped us off at our dinner destination and we were lucky enough to meet up with some lovely friends from Footscray who have recently moved with their three kids to Vietnam for 6 months and celebrate their daughter's 13th birthday with them. It was so lovely to chat to them as its been few months since I've seen them and they were clearly really loving having some familiar people around again. I am hoping to catch up with them again before we leave. 

Dinner was ordered by Vinny; a selection of dishes which we shared with one another. Soup, rice, noodles, spring rolls... So much food! Then cake with our friends and a lovely walk back to our hotel before trying to get the kids to settle down. 

April has been asleep for half an hour but I can still hear some other kids making noise in the other room.. Oh we'll, they're not my responsibility.. My kid's asleep.. I'm the winner!

I'd better go, we need to be at breakfast by 7am.

I'll add some pics to this post tomorrow... Stay tuned!

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