Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Beth and Steven Visit and we go to VIETNAM!!!!

280,000 : Number of people reportedly employed in China to troll the internet and make the government look good.

Okay so I have decided I need to schedule time in my calendar to work on this blog. This is a good thing! It means I have a lot more going on in my new life here in Beijing. Before school ended I had been getting more involved in the school, taking on the management of the school store where we sell school supplies, books, jewelry, BCIS (Beijing City International School) paraphernalia, and ice creams on Fridays! It's the biggest source of income to the PTCA (=PTA in the states).

Goal for this entry: To catch you up on April!

Chris and the kids left on Wednesday, March 31st and Beth and Steven (Eric's sister and our brother-in-law) arrived on Thursday April 1st! And that's not an April Fools joke! We were so psyched to see them and really excited because we were going with them to Vietnam.

They brought along "Flat Mira", a cutout paper doll representing one of Steven's nieces. The real Mira is doing a school project and part of it was to mail a "Flat Mira" to someone and ask them to photograph her in different places. I don't think she knew Beth and Steven were coming to China and Vietnam! Flat Mira had some real adventures...

They trekked off to the Great Wall the day after arriving - what troupers! Here's the proof:

Back in Beijing, we all went to Sanlitun, a 25 minute walk from our apartment, where there's a fun market and, most importantly, a Starbucks! There are Steven, Flat Mira, and Greta.

We also visited Houhai, a popular area in the north central area of Beijing. This is an architecturally untouched area - old hutong neighborhoods, tile rooftops, etc. It was particularly crowded this day.

Can you spot the Westerners below?

Our next big adventure was touring the Forbidden City and the area around it. We checked out the National Center for the Performing Arts (called The Egg locally). It was designed by a French architect, Paul Andreu and is made of titanium and glass. It holds about 5500 people and took 6 years to build. It's 120,000 square feet.

Here's our family in Tiananmen Square again.

We've been inside the first courtyard of the Forbidden City before, but had never gone beyond that (where you have to pay) until we went with Beth and Steven. It was a bit late in the day by the time we arrived, so we had to kind of rush through it. We hired a guide and he was quite good, but we were literally running through and there are 980 buildings covering almost 8 million square feet!

The Forbidden City was built in the early 1400s and has been the imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. 24 emperors lived there over the course of 500 years. It was overtaken several times during those years, parts of it burned.

During the Japanese invasion in 1933, a lot of the art and treasures were evacuated from the Forbidden City for safekeeping.

After the war, some were returned and the rest was sent to Taiwan at the orders of Chiang Kai-Shek. There are still many national treasures now in Taipei.

In 1912, the Republic of China was created. After 2000 years of imperial rule; no more emperors. One of the buildings inside the Forbidden City was given to Puyi, the last emperor, in which to live. Eventually in 1924 he was thrown out altogether. But his nephew is still a presence in the Forbidden City. He is a famous calligrapher and works and sells in this building:

Of course, our tour guide made time to stop in here even though we were racing through the uneven cobblestone grounds at record speed getting tidbits of information here and there before he whisked us on. We didn't get anything, but some of the pink plum blossoms were really tempting!

Steven is an artist, so of course he wanted to visit the 798 District of Beijing.

This is not far from our apartment in the northeast. This is a large collection of galleries in old military factory buildings.

During some of the grimmest times in Beijing's history, the 798 district was a good place for the communist workers. They had a relatively higher standard of living than the rest of the city (and far higher than the rest of the country).

I didn't photograph much of the art, but there were several galleries that looked like this: ----------------------->>>

In general, the Chinese current art at 798 was not anything I would have a hankering to collect necessarily, but it was a great glimpse into where they are in their art appreciation and it was like taking a step back in time - maybe 50 years, to when the USA was more naive about art.

So after a quick few days in Beijing, we all headed to Vietnam. It might have been my favorite place and my best vacation ever if it wasn't so short!

Greta posing with Hermione at the airport:

Greta and Ivy on the plane:

Myself, Eric, Beth, and Steven on the plane:

We had around 3 days in Hanoi and 3 days in Nha Trang - an hour and a half flight south of Hanoi on the South China Sea. The weather was a bit rainy (still warm) in Hanoi, but it didn't slow us down. We stayed in this hotel I found on

We were really happy with the location, service, and breakfast. Super cheap - around $25/night. It was nothing fancy, but clean and had great air conditioning. Here are a couple of views out the window:

The hotel was right in the thick of the old quarter of Hanoi, near Hoan Kiem Lake. The streets were narrow and there were colorful vegetables and people in colorful clothing everywhere.

The locals we met were extremely friendly and kind and a lot more people spoke English than in Beijing. They seemed to value tourism more than I feel they do in China, or at least they put on a good act!

And the food was to die for. I love Vietnamese flavors - lemongrass, cilantro, lime, mint, fish sauce, red pepper, coconut, beautiful shrimp, oh my gosh I'm getting hungry~!

We arrived late in the night so went straight to bed. Greta slept with Beth and Steven each night we were in Hanoi because each room had two beds. That way Greta and Ivy each got their own bed! In the morning I got up first and went for a walk outside. I saw this shrine near the end of our little street. It reminded me of some of the shrines I saw in Mexico... so much to look at in such a little space with candles and fairy lights and offerings of sweets and flowers. I assume someone died recently who lived in the room behind this shrine.

From 1886, the French colonized Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and this area was called French Indochina. In 1902 the capital was moved from Saigon to Hanoi. Therefore, there is a lot of evidence of French influence in the architecture in Hanoi. It was so different than anything you would see in China.

During this time any Vietnamese people who protested the French rule were all thrown in jail. We toured the jail (Hoa Lo, aka the "Hanoi Hilton") for a few hours one day - extremely interesting. Of course the French had their own deceivingly nice name for it - Maison Centrale, built in 1886.

Here is what it must have been like to be a prisoner here.

After the prison was expanded in 1913 it was supposedly able to hold 600 prisoners but on a given day in 1916 it held 730, and in 1922 there were 895 recorded. This rose to 1430 in 1933 and unbelievably, over 2000 in 1954! The situation was sub-human and prisoners were badly mistreated. Many people were tortured and killed. A guillotine:

John McCain was held here during parts of his 5.5 years as a prisoner of war. Here's the suit he was wearing when they pulled him out of the water.

A few people were able to escape from Hoa Lo over the years. in 1951, a couple dozen death row inmates escaped through this sewer tunnel.

On a much more pleasant note, we also spent a few hours in the Temple of Literature. This is a Confucious Temple where people also took imperial exams like in China. It was also a university for 700 years. The temple had beautiful gardens with lots of bonsai. There were laurel plants shaped like deer, rat, dog, rabbit, etc. Here are photos from the temple:

Can you see the turtles at the bottom of the stairs? They're real!

Roof details:

Inside one of the buildings this group was playing traditional music. It was beautiful! We sat and listened for a bit but ran out when they stopped to ask us to buy a CD. The amazing bamboo xylophone is called a T'rung. It was my favorite thing to watch and listen to.

After the Temple, we went to lunch and had some amazing food (as usual in Vietnam!!) Ivy went to use the bathroom and came back raving about how nice it was! I had to go check it out after lunch just to see what all the fuss was about.

You decide for yourself... have we lowered our expectations / standards at all since leaving the USA?

After some of the facilities we've seen this truly is the Taj Mahal of toilets. AND it had toilet paper on the back of the toilet tank!!! A true score in Asia, let me tell you.

Here's a tiny shrine I saw in a tree out on a main street in Hanoi:

And here are some police pulling somebody over with just a stick. Not sure what they did wrong, but we saw this several times.

The quantity of motorcycles and scooters and bikes on the road is insane. I now see Beijing as tranquil. It's good to get away and see the rest of Asia to put this into perspective. Crossing the road in Hanoi is truly life threatening. I don't actually know how I survived it.

We finally couldn't resist the Vietnamese hats, just in time to escape Hanoi's drizzle.

We headed south for some sun! Nha Trang is about a two hour flight from Hanoi, closer to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It's a beach town, quite small, but still buzzing with motorcycles! We really relaxed and had fun in the water, went snorkeling and saw some amazing colorful coral and fish. We also went to a large market, rode rickshaws, ate beautiful food, and everyone but me rented motorcycles. Thank goodness I didn't go with them. Steven crashed and Ivy got a third degree burn on her right calf when she got off the motorcycle and hit the exhaust pipe.

Here's a daughter of the hotel proprietor and her number one fan:

The beach chairs:

Swimming - water was beautiful and perfect temperature.

Fruit on the street!

Taking a load off!


Flat Mira

Snorkeling trip

Our crew on the way out
(before wetsuits):

These boats are clear bottomed.
The men will take you out to see
the fish if you don't want to
snorkel. Everyone in our group
snorkeled. One of us got seasick...

Guess who that was? Suffice it to say the fish were fed well that day!

Tired! We had to get up at the crack of dawn for this trip!

Beth and Greta:

Eric and Ivy:

All the hot rods (Steven in background):

Here it is, one of the

casualties of the motorcycle ride...
Right after it happened:

Here's a hottie we spotted strutting down the beach in his subtle swimsuit!!!!!!!!!!

And the burn after an hour in the sea...

At the large market in Nha Trang:

Here Steven is chatting with a

Women at the market:

Greta and Ivy near the beach - look at the color of green!

Okay, that's most of April. Cross my fingers I'll get up to date before I leave for Seattle on July 17th! Miss you,
Park and Greta