Sunday, February 29

Steve: This was one of those days that we're sure we won't forget. We continue to find that serendipity brings us our most memorable experiences, this time an unplanned visit to a village that we simply passed along the road. As we drove this morning on our way to a ceramic village (that we never ended up making it to), Stan noticed a festival of some sort. We stopped the car, and Tan was confident that we'd be welcomed in the village where the festival was happening. He also warned that if we stopped we'd need to be willing to spend some time there. Tan turned out to be very right about this…

As we walked toward the village, we saw several men and women in colorful and traditional robes participating in some sort of temple ceremony. We heard chanting, accompanied by the sound of a large drum and a gong outside. As soon as we arrived, we were warmly greeted by two officially-dressed men. We later learned that one was responsible for planning the festival and the other was the senior government official in the village (the "Party" representative). Very quickly, we realized that we were in for a special experience.

First, we were invited inside the temple to see the ceremony, joining a group of older men sitting on the floor for some tea. We learned that the temple was built to honor a famous Vietnamese general (Nguyen Cong) who defeated the Chinese in 1543. The ceremony was asking the general's permission to hold a festival in his honor starting in 4 days. We watched as the women lit candles and incense, stepping in unison while clicking teacups, and making offerings to the general. The actual ceremony was a very serious affair, yet the men (all seated on the left) and the women (on the right) in attendance were all relaxing and socializing with each other.

After learning about the temple, we moved outside and sat at a table along with various officials and residents of the village who gathered around us. An official photographer showed up and started taking pictures. With Tan as our translator, we learned about the people and their village (called Tram) of 2,500 people, and they asked questions about us. They couldn't stop talking about how honored they were to have had us as visitors. They told us that no Americans had ever stopped by this village before. There were repeated smiles, handshakes and hugs from everyone, and we were quickly told that the village wanted us to be their special guests at the much larger part of the festival that happens in 4 days (unfortunately, we'll be in Laos).

We then proceeded to the village's pagoda, where we met the resident monk. She had just completed her studies, and was extremely warm and friendly. Along with our entourage of village officials, we went into the pagoda where we were given incense that we used in making a prayer and offering to Buddha. The monk then gave us a mini-lesson in Buddhism, explaining the meaning of the various statues inside the pagoda. Many of these statues were adorned with fruit and other offerings that we saw people bringing in as part of their prayers. The pagoda itself was very beautiful, and had just recently been restored.

After leaving the pagoda, we said that we'd like to make a small contribution to help with the continued restoration of the pagoda. Our donation (100,000 dong, or about $6) was warmly received, and I was asked to pose for the local photographer (with the village officials in the background) as I handed the money to the monk on a plate. All very official.

Next we were told that the village wanted us to partake in a "lucky meal" with them before we left. How could we refuse! We were taken back inside the temple, where the ceremony had now completed and people were gathering to eat. But prior to eating, it was first things first. Before we knew it, we were all given cups of locally produced rice wine, and were participating in a large and increasingly raucous group toast. Of course, we were expected to drink the wine in the same the way the locals do - bottoms up (Paula successfully pretended to down it all at once, while David and Katie were given a reprieve and were allowed to sip the wine).

Our cups were quickly refilled, and we then approached the group of older men on the other side of the temple - Tan suggested that it would be proper for us to go and offer them a toast. Now things got very funny as the men started laughing and joking loudly in Vietnamese. One man repeatedly shouted "Hanoi! Washington!" and then said something like "Best Friends" (in Vietnamese). He obviously had partaken in quite a few cups of rice wine… Included in this group of men was the 96 year-old village elder, and we took some great pictures of him.

Next we were escorted back to our table (which they had set up especially for us since they didn't think we'd be comfortable on the floor), where we were served sticky rice and salted pork. We've had some sticky rice before, but this was the stickiest. It had to literally be cut with a chopstick acting as a knife. It actually tasted great, and made it much easier for using chopsticks (we were pretty sure that there were no forks here…). As we ate and drank the rice wine, our plates and glasses kept getting refilled - this obviously made the people very happy. The atmosphere during our meal was jovial, and we continued sharing stories and learning about each other. Katie was particularly pleased when told how tall she looked for her age!

As our meal came to a close, the man who was responsible for the festival told us that he wished they could have had more opportunity to plan for our visit. He said again that he hoped we could come again in 4 days for the festival, and that they would try to make up for any mistakes they had made today. We couldn't believe it! We started the day as unannounced visitors, and they were now apologizing to us for any lack of hospitality. Meanwhile, we're literally amazed at how wonderfully received we were today.

Before leaving, we walked around the temple and had an opportunity to see two craters from bombing during the Vietnam War. Apparently this area suffered significant destruction (it's only about 2 kilometers from Hanoi's main air field, which is also where the American POW's departed in 1973). The people here are obviously very proud of how they've rebuilt their village.

The village officials escorted us to our van, and we exchanged final smiles, hugs and handshakes. We also gave the group our website address so that they could see pictures from our visit. This was a wonderful experience for us all!

We were now late for a 10:15 appointment at the home of a famous Vietnamese artist, Dao Xuan. Dao is a friend of Tan's, and Tan was able to make arrangements for us to spend time to meet him and see his work. Dao lives in a traditional mountain home that has been brought to its current location, about 20 minutes outside of Hanoi. The home and its gardens, adorned with several of his sculptures, are unique. Ironically, Dao grew up as a member of the government police force assigned to monitor the work of artists in Vietnam. He has now become a famous artist, and his paintings and sculptures have been exhibited all over the world (including many times in the U.S.). Hanging proudly inside his home is a New York Times articles that discusses Dao's life and current work.

We enjoyed our visit and seeing some of Dao's work - he paints in both impressionist and surrealistic styles. Our time here with a modern and very successful artist was a very stark contrast with our morning spent in a traditional village.

Next was a trip to Hanoi's countryside. We started in a small fishing village that has been built around a small man-made lake. Hanoi residents like to come here on weekends to escape the city. The village is set among orchards of fruit trees, and contains several huts where people enjoy picnics, card games and socializing while fishing with bamboo poles that are for rent. David and Katie tried their luck, but could only manage nibbles from small fish that were adept at removing the bait from our hooks. The group next to us managed to land a very large and feisty fish, which was fun to watch.

We drove a bit further on a country road, and soon found ourselves in the middle of huge fields of flowers, rose bushes and vegetables. This is very rich land, and supplies many of Hanoi's markets on a daily basis. The fragrance of flowers filled the air, and we enjoyed walking among the fields and speaking with the women who were planting some crops and harvesting others. We learned that their profits are 6 times greater than what they would earn farming rice. However, this farming requires much more labor, so these people work much harder for their money.

On our way back to Hanoi, we stopped in one more village, and were amazed to find another festival in process. There was a similar ceremony underway, but this one was obviously larger and more elaborate. As was the case this morning, we were quickly invited inside, and we were served tea and fruit. In discussions with the Party leader and the man who coordinated the event, we learned that this temple and the annual festival are dedicated to a famous doctor of philosophy (versus the general who we saw honored this morning). This village is home for 18,000 people and has two universities, so it's actually considered a suburb of Hanoi. We made a contribution, had photos taken (again by an official photographer), received several bags of fruit and rice as gifts, completed several rounds of hugs and handshakes, and were on our way…

Our final stop today was in Lenin Park, back in Hanoi. Stan took us there so that we could see some local recreational activities. In addition to regular badminton, we saw people playing a version with their feet - it was amazing! There were also many people engaged in soccer, jogging, unusual stretching exercises, and some very fit boys doing calisthenics on various exercise apparatus. One thing we've noticed is that there are very few overweight people in Vietnam - the large number of active people we saw today is probably a major reason for this.

We headed back to the hotel, exhausted but thoroughly satisfied with our wonderful day. Now that we've spent four great days in Vietnam, we have a totally different perspective than when we came. Vietnam was one of the countries that we were somewhat apprehensive about visiting - just the word "Vietnam" conjured up very negative images in our minds. Now that we've been here, we realize that this is a livable country (at least here in Hanoi) with warm and friendly people.

Tomorrow we'll spend our last day in Vietnam venturing out to the mountains. In the evening we'll be flying back to Bangkok in preparation for a flight the next day to Luang Prabang in Laos.












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