T(anzania) – 6 months


This morning, I realized that it is six months to the day until I leave for Tanzania. February 1 still seems like a long way off, yet I also feel as if I don’t have nearly long enough to prepare. One of my major goals for the trip is to come home with some amazing shots of my “spirit animal.”

Years ago, when one of my grade-school teachers asked, “If you were an animal, what would you be?” several members of my class piped up with “giraffe” before I had a chance to answer for myself. Even back in the day I was tall, quiet, and awkward. I was fine with the comparison; it certainly wasn’t the meanest one they could have picked. Next trip to the school library, I checked out a book about giraffes and a lifelong interest was kindled.

I read once that this same question is popular during job interviews. I have never been asked, though, which I find unfortunate. Among the myriad of intelligent yet social dolphins, go-for-the-jugular jaguars, and sly foxes out there, a gentle giraffe would be a refreshing change of pace, and not merely because as an adult I am roughly the same size as a newborn giraffe.

Here are my favorite traits of this venerable animal:

  • Giraffes work together as a team to solve problems and accomplish goals, with no jockeying for leadership
  • When a goal seems out of reach, the giraffe strives to reach higher (see picture above)
  • Giraffes are non-predatory, but utilize a strong defensive kick when threatened

These are praiseworthy characteristics in life as well as in the workforce. I also like that giraffes have huge hearts, and that while they may initially appear gangly, there is actually an ambling grace to their movements.

I keep a giraffe figurine on my desk for motivation. When six months seems interminably long, it helps to imagine for a moment I am already in Africa. When I worry about not having enough time to prepare, it helps to remember that as long as I keep reaching, seemingly insurmountable goals become achievable.

More Scleral Tools and Tips

Today marks ten years since I awoke from microvascular decompression surgery to left-side facial paresis. Well, paralysis at that time. Single-sided deafness as well. Fortunately over time I regained most of my balance and hearing and enough facial function that most people don’t notice anything amiss. My blink and tear function have never returned, so I have spent a decade finding a remedy for painful dry eye. The solution that has worked best for me is the combination of an implanted eyelid weight and scleral contact lenses. These large-diameter specialty lenses are expensive and require quite a bit of maintenance, but in my opinion are worth every bit of cost and effort.

In past posts I outlined the care routine that works best for me. Since then I’ve discovered a couple more items that make it more manageable.

Several months ago I had to have my collarbone plated following an auto accident. Something went wrong with the nerve block and for a while my left arm did not function. My insertion technique requires both hands – one to hold the inserter and lens, the other to hold my eyelid wide open. For the first couple of weeks my husband helped with the eyelid part. We were both relieved when I regained the minimal movement and grip necessary to hold the inserter relatively steady. It was frustrating at first. My left hand did not have the strength to hold my eyelids, so I could only use it to hold the inserter and lens. Fine for my right side, but very awkward for the left. It wasn’t what I was used to and I kept bumping into my nose moving my right hand across my face to open the left eyelids. The weakness in my left hand caused me to spill the solution quite often. I also had a hard time aligning the left lens in the mirror I used on the counter. I was back to needing ten to fifteen minutes or more just to insert my contacts.

I remembered seeing a scleral insertion system that incorporated a lighted stand, but remembered it as pricey. I also didn’t want to have to wait on shipping. I thought about my craft light box but couldn’t find it, so we went to Hobby Lobby to see what they might have. A store employee directed us to this:

I snapped it up with a 40% off coupon and it worked like a charm. All I needed to do was align the inserter so that I could see a little circle of light. This lasted for a few weeks before it died. I think that even though I blotted up excess saline right away, some made its way into the box and shorted its circuits. In retrospect, I should have put a square of glass or plastic over it to keep the liquid out.

No worries though – since the concept worked so well I wondered if combining lights with a mirror I had been using wouldn’t be any better. I started searching at and found this lighted compact:

I highly recommend this for people who have trouble inserting their lenses. I find that it helps immensely to align lenses properly, plus it’s inexpensive and small enough for travel.

Before I regained normal strength and dexterity in my hand, I reverted to using disinfecting solution rather than ClearCare. I did not want to run the risk of snapping a lens, even having moved to PROSE cases with their larger baskets. As soon as I was able, I switched back to ClearCare, but there is a drawback. I have two pairs of lenses that I switch between every other day. Because the hydrogen peroxide system doesn’t seal, when I travel there is a risk of spilling the solution out of the second case. Before our most recent hiking trip to South Dakota, I made an exciting discovery. The PROSE case exactly fits into an empty eye makeup remover jar. (The labels peel off easily.)

Make sure it’s the extra-large 120-count jar. The 80-count is too short for the PROSE case, but might work with a ClearCare case. While a little solution may still seep into the jar, it won’t leak out into luggage.

It amazes me to look back and see how far scleral lens technology and use has come in the past decade. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next ten years bring.


Safari Prep on a Budget

Having pulled the trigger on going on safari, I turned my attention to preparing for it. Whenever I plan to leave the country, I take out travel insurance, and this trip is no exception. I looked for a policy that would cover many contingencies of not being able to go, and maximizing lost luggage since I am taking expensive camera gear.

That done, I started googling safari gear. I had originally thought that I would be pretty well geared-up already, since Phil and I have been on many hiking excursions and I figured quick-dry gear is quick-dry gear, eh? However, the bold colors that make one easy to spot on a hiking trail also make one easy to spot by African wildlife, and not in a good way. Add in my post-accident weight loss, and suddenly I wasn’t so well geared-up after all, except for hiking boots.

The best colors for safari are desert neutrals: brown, beige, khaki, tan, olive drab. Besides the aforementioned bright colors that alarm the animals, black and navy blue draw tsetse flies, and who wants that? So . . . off to! Unfortunately I soon discovered that 6L hiking pants are nearly impossible to find and quick-dry shirts have become quite pricey. Time to expand my shopping horizon, and explore alternative payment sources.

Our account is linked to our Discover rewards, which I used to purchase a number of items for the trip, mostly related to technology (laptop sleeve, port dust plugs, MacBook port adapter, keyboard cover and such). We also have a policy of directing “found money,” such as product rebates and Ebates, into our travel fund.

We also have a Cabelas rewards charge card, which enabled me to order tan hiking socks, a khaki sun/rain hat, and a “Rite in the Rain” pen and pad – all with points.

eBay became my new best friend for safari attire. I was able to find five gently-used neutral-colored quick-dry shirts, two pairs of long-inseam pants (one new with tags), and a khaki travel jacket at prices ranging from $10-20. I was also able to purchase a Kata camera backpack with a laptop slot. One of my favorite eBay features is “Make an Offer,” where I explained to the sellers that I was going on safari on a budget. Almost everyone was willing to negotiate a lower price. (As a bonus, eBay participates in Ebates at a rate of 2%.)

I am still debating the merits of a travel vest and am watching prices.

Next up: camera gear.


Safari Bound!

I am going on safari in Tanzania next February, where I will see these majestic animals in their natural environment. I am so excited!

This trip has been a long-term dream that  started when I began following the work of photographer Jeff Cable. Among his extensive portfolio, he does amazing work shooting Olympic sports, portraiture, and of course, travel photography. The first time I saw him post about his safari excursions was probably 2015 or 2016. I had recently started a new job and it was just not feasible to take extended leave.

Several things happened in 2017 that made me realize that while no timeframe is going to be perfect, now is the time to follow dreams. One was a car accident in which I suffered a broken collarbone, with a subsequent surgery that resulted in an unexpected nerve injury with extended recovery. I also lost three “mother figures” — Arleene, a dear friend and former colleague, Aunt Grace, my beloved godmother, and Ann, my former mother-in-law. I’m sure that each of them would be honored to be an impetus behind this decision.

There is a lot of preparation for a trip such as this, and I anticipate multiple posts related to that in the near future. But for now I will revel in the decision to do this, and the anticipation of seeing my spirit animal, the giraffe, in its native habitat.

Have Scleral, Will Travel

This post marks the final installment of my thrilling scleral lens trilogy, following The Eyes Have it and My Dry Eye Triumph. Even as you read this, my agent is negotiating a movie deal; optimally this segment can be split into Parts 1 and 2 for a four-film series. Rumor has it many Hollywood A-list actresses are interested in playing me, that is until they find out that the role will entail extensive Botox injections on just the left half of the face to replicate facial paralysis. Filming will have to be carefully coordinated to take advantage of the right level of weakness.

Ordinarily I would toss out a disclaimer at this point, something along the lines of “But, I digress.” However, in this case, everything after the first sentence is pure and simple fiction, so instead we are interrupting this fantasy to return to your regularly scheduled programming.


Like many a good title, this one has dual meanings. My primary intent is to pass along travel-related scleral care tips and hints gathered during my trip to Costa Rica earlier this summer. More on that later.

The underlying secondary message has to do with the origin of the phrase “Have (insert gun, tux, or another term, say . . . scleral), will travel,” particularly as it relates to employment. Here’s the deal: if I could make a living as a goodwill ambassador for sclerals, I would. My wish is that everyone who suffers from facial paresis-related dry eye would find the same relief that I have. I am not exaggerating – it’s been a life changer for me. I would be happy to test any lens, try any product, make endorsements, write reviews, attend conferences, oversee a clinical trial, zipline, parasail, skydive, what-have-you. If you know of such a job, please let me know. Of course, I am willing to travel!

Which provides a lovely segue to traveling with scleral lenses (in my case just one, but for those who wear two – double the fun!).


Once the initial thrill of returning to Costa Rica dissipated, one of my first concerns was traveling with a scleral lens. My biggest fear was losing or breaking the lens, so I contacted my optometrist about taking my initial lens (which is a step too loose) along. He agreed to do this as long as I was willing to put down a deposit on the lens. Seemed like refundable insurance to me, so I was happy to comply. (Thankfully, I never had to use the backup.)

About the same time I sent an inquiry to the manufacturer of my scleral lens about cleaning procedures for protein deposits. A few days later I got a response from Keith Parker, president of Advance Vision Technology, suggesting that we speak in person rather than try to answer multiple questions via e-mail. Once we were able to coordinate a time to talk, we had a lengthy conversation covering both the deposit issue and my upcoming travel. I am going to keep this post travel related and defer the deposit issue to a future post. (Ha! It’s going to be a four-parter after all!)

Mr. Parker assured me that suction keeps scleral lenses in place even during extreme sports. He approved of my cleaning and soaking routine and asked if I rinsed my lens in tap water between cleaning and soaking (yes, I do). He recommends rinsing in tap water in the United States – the water pressure rinses more debris from the lens – but never in a foreign country where bacteria might be an issue. Finally he informed me of a sister website,, for eye care supplies, including a line of solutions developed for the AVT contact lens line.

My major fear allayed, I assembled eye care products for travel:

scleralcomplianceScleral Compliance Pack – This kit contains nearly everything needed to travel with scleral lenses. Leave the 12-ounce bottle of RDS (Rinsing, Disinfection & Storage solution) at home. Take the rest – a 2-ounce bottle of RDS, a 1-ounce bottle of GP daily cleaner, wetting drops, a contact case, a lens inserter, a lens remover, and saline – along in the handy zippered bag. I chose the non-buffered kit that includes 50 5ml vials of sterile saline (Addipak). There is also a buffered option with a 3-pack of Unisol 4 instead of the Addipak vials. I prefer inserters that are hollow all the way through, so I had to snip off the end of the one from the kit, but fortunately the remover is the classic one that I like.

Airline regulations allow for a reasonable amount of medications in addition to the one-quart bag allowed for carry-on liquids, so I kept my contact paraphernalia separate. I printed up a couple of cards that read Medically Necessary Liquids and popped one in each side of the bag. I had no problems at any airport security checkpoint.

cleanerpadsCleaner Pads – I found this product at and thought it would help with the protein buildup (again, more on that in a future post) and added them to my order. Great find! These pads are designed to be used for a week and discarded. Since I wear a single lens, I cut them in half. My rule while traveling was to change every 4 days and discard if I happened to drop one (which I did). I took along two pads (four halves) for a 9-day trip, which turned out to be just right.


Drain Mat – This product is from my friends at the dry eye shop. It was originally an add-on item to qualify for free shipping, but it turned out to be invaluable since many of the sinks in Costa Rica did not have a stopper. Particularly that one morning when I was still so tired that I dumped the soaking solution into the sink before removing the lens.


Usual Nighttime Stuff – My favorite lubricating drops (and I have tried all that I can find) are TheraTears Liquid Gel vials. Unfortunately I can only find them locally at WalMart, but they are worth an occasional foray into the Evil Empire. At home I will recap a vial and use it for two or three applications, but when I travel I use them once and discard the rest.

I have both a pair of clear Quartz and dark Onyix eye shields from the dry eye shop, but I fashioned a custom shield using the left eyepiece from a Quartz shield and a Croakie-type glasses strap. One of these days I’ll post a tutorial because I like it much better than having both eyes covered.

Airline Travel

Scleral lenses are perfectly designed for airline travel, combating dry eye from pressurized cabin air with a fluid reservoir over the surface of the cornea, I had one tiny problem: our travel group was leaving at 1:00 in the morning to catch a red-eye international flight. My optometrist gave me strict instructions to wear the lens no more than 14-16 hours daily and soak it for a minimum of 8 hours. I could have disrupted my routine to wear the lens during the flight, but then I would have to go without the lens for a while once in Costa Rica. I opted to forgo the lens on the plane, which led to a second decision – how to keep my cornea lubricated.

The failsafe approach would have been to use Refresh PM ointment on the airplane, but that would have caused blurry vision that continued for at least the first few hours of wearing the lens. Instead, I opted to add another tool to my arsenal:

WileyXcurveWileyX Curve With Clear Lenses – I found these glasses, actually climate-controlled motorcycle goggles, on clearance from They are no longer available there but plenty of other vendors carry them, including There are other moisture chamber options, including less expensive Dustbusters and Onion Goggles (heck, even swim goggles would work in a pinch). I found the motorcycle goggles to be a better choice because they are sturdier, seal better, and are slightly less geeky looking.

Used in conjunction with generous applications of my regular nighttime TheraTears Liquid Gel drops, the WileyX glasses is an acceptable travel protocol. The seal on the glasses is not quite tight enough so I experienced a bit of low-grade dry eye discomfort, but when that happened I just popped in more drops. Our travel itinerary from St. Louis to Liberia, Costa Rica included an hour-long layover in Miami. By that time my contact had soaked the requisite eight hours and I decided to insert it before boarding the second flight. Public restrooms are not my favorite place to deal with my lens and while I was in there I missed seeing members of the Miami Heat pass our group on their way to the NBA playoffs, but those were small prices to pay for increased comfort and clearer vision.

I had absolutely no problems on the second flight or the return flights back to St. Louis. I ended up wearing the lens slightly under 18 hours due to a bus ride that got us home just before midnight, but that turned out all right too.

Extreme Activities

The trip to Costa Rica was a 9-day environmental education tour with plenty of adventure activities mixed in. Here’s how I managed my scleral lens during the most extreme activities:

Beach – Still tired from travel, I chose to stroll on the beach and wade in the surf. Even with a spare lens and assurances that it wouldn’t pop off, I did not want to risk sea water on or under the lens.


Snorkeling – No worries. The mask provided a watertight seal, protecting the lens. I was more concerned about the waterproof case for my camera but that worked out just as well.


Rain forest hike – It rained. I wore a hat.


Ziplining – Here’s where the suction of the lens faced its biggest challenge. There was a lot of wind whistling past my face. No sunglasses allowed and just as well – they probably would have fallen off. Fourteen exhilarating zip lines and one Tarzan swing later, I was a happy camper – scleral lens intact.

Sara, 2014

Horseback ride/La Fortuna Falls hike – This is a picture of me and my horse Gugi. None of the other horses liked Gugi much, but that is a story for anther time. I wore sunglasses on the ride but never felt that I needed them for eye protection. At the waterfall I climbed out on some boulders but again opted not to submerge while wearing the lens.


Whitewater rafting – On the bus ride to Rio Sarapiquo, our whitewater guide warned us not to take phones, cameras or sunglasses as they would surely get lost during the float. During Q&A I asked about wearing a pair of swim goggles that I had brought along specifically for whitewater rafting. The guide wanted to know if they were prescription; when I said no he responded that I would be better off leaving them behind because they would fog up and diminish my enjoyment of the float. When I told him I wore a contact lens, he suggested closing my eyes if water was splashing. I gave his advice serious consideration for about ten seconds. First, wouldn’t shutting my eyes also diminish my enjoyment of the float? Second, the goggles were fog-resistant. Finally and most important, losing a $750 contact lens would flat out eliminate any enjoyment of the float.

I wore the goggles. They did not fog. I was swept off the raft and submerged. I did not lost my scleral lens. My enjoyment of the float was immense.


And there you have it. Research, preparation and common sense prevail. Have these and a scleral lens, will travel.

Deep In the Heart of Texas

I was hoping to post this on Monday from Texas, but could not manage to log in from my iPad. It may be a little late this way, but it will also be more complete. Thanks for your patience.

We were last in Texas nine years ago. Joseph had asked to see the Alamo, and we obliged. In fact, we toured all five San Antonio missions, strolled the River Walk, visited the Texas Air Museum and the Tower of the Americas. We took day trips to see the USS Lexington at Corpus Christi and crossed into Mexico at Nuevo Laredo. We took Hanna to a college visit at Concordia University Austin and stopped to see the Oklahoma City National Memorial on the way home.

It’s been a while. Laura, 8, and Joey, 6, waiting to see the Alamo, 2004. They saw it again this year, but I’m willing to bet they did not have their picture taken together.

As you can probably tell, we don’t mind keeping busy on vacation. For that matter, it does not faze us to do a lot of driving. These traits served us well this past week as we rushed Laura from a week at Missouri Girls State to meet her youth group in San Antonio for the National Lutheran Youth Gathering.


Nine hours of road time Saturday took us from Warrensburg, Missouri to just south of Forth Worth, Texas. Then another four hours Sunday morning met us up with the youth group in San Antonio for lunch. This actually turned into four and a half hours since our GPS decided to deliver us to a warehouse on the south side of the city rather than a restaurant on the north side. But I digress (much as the GPS did). Then four more hours to Galveston.

I had planned a little getaway to test the waters of empty nest living. We checked into the Coppersmith Inn, a bed and breakfast in a lovely Victorian house about six blocks from the beach.

Our suite featured private access to the second floor veranda.

The following day we ventured into Houston. Phil wanted to see the USS Texas, so San Jacinto Battleground State Historical Site was our first stop. The USS Texas is the only remaining battleship to have been in service during both world wars.

This park volunteer turned out to be from Carthage, Missouri. He and Phil had a nice chat about battleships.

We visited Space Center Houston in the afternoon. Things have changed quite a bit since I was last there as a kid in 1968. We have landed on the moon. Skylab, the space shuttle program and the International Space Station have been developed. The experience of visiting the space center has changed as well, from strictly informational to a multimedia extravaganza. Despite all of the interactive displays, my favorite part of the visit was seeing actual spacecraft on the tram tour of Johnson Space Center. I would have loved to see Mission Control, but that tour was not running the day of our visit.

I got to touch a moon rock!

The best part of our trip began that evening, when we were invited to dinner at the home of a woman I got to know through an internet support group along with another member of that same support group. Priscilla and her husband Mark treated us to fajitas and margaritas. Kay and Dave brought their three beautiful daughters, the “curly girlies,” who entertained us along with the neighborhood kitties. I am so glad to have been able to meet up with them.

Three uncommon women, three uncommon neurological conditions: Sara, hemifacial spasm, Kay, acoustic neuroma, Priscilla, petrous meningioma.

The next day, another 8 hours on the road took us to Little Rock, the home of another support group friend. Angie and I share the same rare disorder, hemifacial spasm, as well as the even more rare and unfortunate surgical side effect of facial paralysis. Angie and her husband Hunter have three handsome boys, one newly adopted.

HFS twins. Even our facial problems are on the same side (left).

It was truly a treat to spend time with these remarkable ladies and their families. Thank you all for your hospitality.

Phil and I spent another six hours on the road yesterday. We picked up the dog from the neighbors and have settled in for a nice relaxing holiday at home. Laura and Joseph will be home in a couple of days, so we have a little time to preview the empty nest experience at home. It seems like just yesterday that we snapped the picture at the top of this post. That was nine years ago; we have just three more until Joseph leaves for college.

I can tell we are going to have to schedule more trips.

Vietnam Vacation: Hanoi Sightseeing

Last week I read an article that a secret war bunker in Vietnam had just opened to the public as part of the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi. This was particularly interesting because a year ago we were exploring that very bunker.

We had planned to visit the Vietnam Military History Museum on a Friday, knowing that most Hanoi museums are closed on Mondays. At the gate, we were dismayed to learn that the War Museum is closed on Mondays and Fridays. This was a major blow because it had been Phil and Joseph’s first choice, and we would have to leave for the airport before the museum would open the next morning.

View of closed Military History Museum from gate.
Cannon at Military History Museum as seen from restaurant next door.
Cannonballs seen from restaurant next door. Thank goodness for telephoto lenses.

After  a walk in Lenin Park and lunch, Hanna suggested visiting the nearby Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, a fascinating archeological site that has been listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.

Joseph, Philip and Vladimir Lenin.
Hanna, Laura and Joseph at the entrance to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long.

We wandered through several courtyards and explored buildings in various stages of reconstruction, some with towers, tiny stairways and hidey-holes, and many beautiful architectural features. Hanna mentioned that some of the buildings had not yet opened the last time she visited.

Palace at Imperial Citadel of Thang Long.
View of courtyard from tower.
Hanna and Laura coming down from Tower of the Concubines.
Central tower at Imperial Citadel.
Staircase with dragons. The dragon heads have been supported to avoid crumbling.
Dragon gargoyle on tower roof.

In one of the buildings that Hanna had not yet seen, we discovered doorways to steep staircases. Seeing no signs to the contrary, we went down the stairs where we discovered the bunker. Hanna was very excited to find a new site for field trips, and pointed out that all of the information tags were translated into English, which is not the case in the War Museum.

War room in bunker.
Phones in bunker war room.
Detail on table fan.
Phil emerging from bunker.

After leaving the Citadel, we walked along the perimeter of the War Museum, looking at captured vehicles through the fence. Although we were sorry to miss the War Museum, the Citadel was an outstanding alternative and a great way to end our sightseeing. We’re glad to see that the bunker is officially open to the public and highly recommend it.

Captured aircraft at War Museum.
Phil and Joey peeking in at land vehicles.

Earlier in the week we visited several other attractions in Hanoi. On Christmas Day we walked partway around West Lake, renowned as the largest lake in Hanoi and the location where John McCain’s plane was shot down.


We stopped at Tran Quoc Pagoda, the most ancient Buddhist pagoda in Hanoi. An eleven-tiered tower is the most striking feature of the pagoda.  A bodhi tree in the garden was grown from a cutting of the original tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment.

Every tier of the tower features six arches, each containing a status of Buddha,

Hoan Kiem Lake is also known as Turtle Lake. According to legend, King Le Thai To was given a magic sword by the Golden Turtle God during a war against China in the 15th century. One day as the king boated on a Hanoi lake following victory, a large turtle grabbed the sword in its mouth and disappeared into the lake. The king interpreted that the turtle god had lent him the sword to drive back the enemy, but reclaimed it once the nation was free, and renamed the lake Ho Hoan Kiem or Lake of the Restored Sword. A giant turtle still lives in the lake. Hanna happened to be present when it was captured in April 2011 for veterinary treatment.

Turtle Tower on Ho Hoan Kiem.
Bridge over Turtle Lake.

The lake grounds feature a bridge and an island with the Turtle Tower. We had the good fortune to visit the lake both at night and during the day.

Vietnam is prominently featured on a globe at Ho Hoan Kiem, seen at night.
Western hemisphere of the globe at Hoan Kiem Lake, seen during the day.

Hanna’s friend Jenny also had family visiting for Christmas, and we met up at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We checked our cameras and backpacks before entering, but Phil forgot about his pocketknife and it was confiscated at a later checkpoint. Admission to the mausoleum, consisting of shuffling quietly past Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body, was free. Another 5000 dong (about a quarter) secured admission to the Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house and the One Pillar Pagoda.

The Presidential Palace.
Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the presidential palace, instead choosing to live in this simple two-room stilt house.
The One Pillar Pagoda, built in 1049 by King Ly Thanh Tong in the shape of a lotus.

Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French around 1900 to house, torture and execute Vietnamese political prisoners considered to be agitators for independence. During the Vietnam War, it was used to house American prisoners of war, who nicknamed it “The Hanoi Hilton,” sarcastically for its crowded and unsanitary conditions. Much of the prison was demolished in the 1990s, with the remainder converted into a museum. Most of the museum is dedicated to the French era, including a guillotine and a drainpipe through which more than a hundred prisoners escaped in 1945. John McCain’s flight suit is among the paraphernalia on display in the smaller American section.

Guillotine from French Colonial era.
Drainpipe used during 1945 escape from Hoa Lo Prison.
Christmas scene drawn by an American POW during the aforementioned 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi.

Following the mausoleum and prison, Hanna wanted us to see the Temple of Literature. Phil and Joseph had enough sightseeing for the day and opted to return to the villa. Hanna, Laura and I decided on a girl’s afternoon and evening out consisting of a little more shopping, the temple, and dinner on Chicken Street.

Hartman girls at the Temple of Literature.

The Temple of Literature was the first university in Vietnam, founded in honor of Chinese philosopher Confucius. and consists of five courtyards. Our favorite was the second courtyard, known as the “Constellation of Literature Pavilion,” home to a huge bronze bell to be rung on auspicious occasions.

Brass bell at the Second Courtyard.
Giant drum at Temple of Literature.
Confucius say, “Hanna and Laura very pretty.”

We learned a lot about Vietnam’s rich heritage during our stay, but our limited time kept us from seeing everything we would have liked. Besides the Vietnam Military History Museum, other sites on our wish list included:

  • Vietnam Ethnology Museum
  • Van Phuc Silk Village
  • Bat Trang Ceramic Village
  • more of the Old Quarter
  • inside of St. Joseph Cathedral

and that’s only in Hanoi. Maybe next time . . .

Vietnam Vacation: Happy Christmas!

Losing 13 hours in time zone changes on top of a 30-hour commute landed us in Hanoi mid-day Christmas Eve (never mind that it was midnight to our brains). The first sign of Christmas in Vietnam occurred as we arrived in Ciputra.


Considering that the majority of Ciputra residents are expatriates, this was not surprising. The villa was also decorated for Christmas.

Hanna helped to decorate the Winkleman’s tree, at which time they offered her the use of the villa for our stay.

Jet lag allowed us all to sleep well that night. We awoke at a reasonable hour to open presents and make gingerbread pancakes for breakfast.

Santa and his six-foot-tall elf.
Hanna models her coveted purple Snuggli.

It was lovely to spend Christmas morning with Sarah, who graciously took our annual family portrait.

Christmas Day 2011, Hanoi, Vietnam.
Joseph still looks really jet-lagged.

After breakfast we headed to services at Hanoi International Church, held in the Hanoi Club hotel.


Laura with a festively adorned lion guarding the entrance to Hanoi Club.

The Christmas service theme was “Gifts to the Lord.” Congregants signed up in advance to offer gifts ranging from music, both vocal and instrumental, to artwork and cookies. A family from India explained their home traditions.

Hanoi International Church is interdenominational and widely member led. JP was the clergy responsible for the homily and Eucharist that Sunday. As I dipped my bread into the common cup, I accidentally dropped it in. JP offered me a replacement and said that it happened all the time. I’m not so sure about that, but it was nice of him to try to make me feel less clumsy.

Hanoi International Church altar.

After the service there was a period for fellowship, and we helped JP to sort and count the offering. The offering basket contained Vietnamese dong, US dollars, Hong Kong dollars, Thai baht and euros. JP suggested that we change some of our large denomination bills for smaller ones – easier for him to deposit and for us to spend.

JP and his wife Aimee hosted a Christmas potluck at their home in the Swedish Camp. We sampled a variety of American, European and Vietnamese dishes and met many of Hanna’s friends. JP invited me to read When Jesus Was Born – my first international reading!

Because Vietnam is a Communist country, we were not expecting many Christmas trappings outside of church or Ciputra. There turned out to be more than we expected.

Lighted Christmas decorations on one of the trees surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake.
Life size nativity at St. Joseph Cathedral. There is still a significant French Catholic influence in Vietnam.
Sarah and Hanna’s office window at Hanoi University of Science and Technology.
Classroom with decorated blackboard.
Picture drawn by an American prisoner at Hoa Lo Prison during the Christmas Day bombings of 1972.
Poinsettias outside the Presidential Palace museum.

Chúc mừng giáng sinh! (Happy Christmas!)*

New Year, of course, is a worldwide celebration. Hanoi rang in 2012 with a flower festival at Hoan Kiem Lake.

“Hanoi Rendezvous of Streets and Flowers 2012”

We were there for the first of a four-day festival, witnessing final preparations for an 8:00pm opening celebration. The theme of the 2012 festival was “Floral Heritage,” with a nod to Vietnam’s UNESCO heritage sites, including the Temple of Literature and Ha Long Bay. The Dutch embassy provided more than 4,000 pots of lilies for the event.

Construction of a mural featuring the tower at the Temple of Literature.
The 2012 Tet holiday heralded the Year of the Dragon.
Joseph’s turn as photographer.

Chúc mừng năm mới! (Happy New Year!)*


*Assuming Google Translate is accurate.

Vietnam Vacation: Mai Chau Nightlife

Besides eating, shopping and riding bikes, what else is there to do in Mai Chau?

Well . . . one can read,

play cards with the bus driver,

engage the kids in peek-a-boo,

Celeste and Phil.

or perhaps contribute to the delinquency of a minor . . .

Disclaimer: In actuality, Bella neither imbibed nor gambled at Mai Chau. Mainly, she was just real cute.

But once darkness falls it’s hard to do much of anything, so JP arranged for a native dance troupe to perform for us. Some of the dances were about love, some about springtime and butterflies and sunshine, some about the harvest. The performers, a number of whom we recognized from the village shops, danced with scarves, fans and other props.

The finale was a dance with bamboo poles, similar to tinikling. The audience was invited to participate, and afterward, to partake from the jug of sweet rice wine featured in the harvest dance.

A group of French Jews who were staying in another part of our guest house asked to attend the dance performance with us. Later, they graciously allowed us to observe as they celebrated the final day of Hanukkah. (Apologies for the blurry shot; my camera battery was nearly dead.) Then they invited us to toast the holiday season with vodka.

The girls had met a group of college students in the village earlier in the day and had been invited to a bonfire. Hanna wished to remain at the guest house, but Sarah offered to accompany Laura. The bonfire was held in a field outside the village and was attended by about 20 students from another university. Most of the students ranged in age from 18-22 and studied engineering or English. All of them were eager to practice their English speaking skills with Sarah and Laura.

They played a game in which everyone joined hands and circled the bonfire. Periodically someone would abruptly change direction. If that caused a break in the circle, the two people who had dropped hands would have to sing a song. Even though Sarah and Laura never lost hold of hands, the students made them sing anyway because they were Americans. They chose “Jingle Bells.”

Some of the group told stories. A boy and girl sang a love song duet. One of the students baked a sweet potato in the bonfire for Sarah and Laura to enjoy. There was no profanity, no drinking and no fights. Laura enjoyed herself immensely, and would have liked to stay longer, but Sarah brought her back to the guest house after a couple of hours.

Laura and a student from the bonfire.

And finally, it was time for bed. Since the kids had gone to sleep earlier, this involved shuffling between the curtained areas to find our own sleeping space. JP had recommended sleeping in our clothes, since it was just a single overnight. We changed into fresh dry woolly socks to keep our feet warm. I kept my hat, gloves and jacket on as well and piled on a few extra quilts. It was, more or less, cabin camping in Vietnam.

Mai Chau was a great little getaway from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. It was also a fantastic bargain. Our share of the cost of the trip, including transportation, lodging, food and the dance entertainment, totaled 3,000,000 dong, the equivalent of $30 per person. Beverages, shopping and biking were the only extra expenses.

Hartmans at Mai Chau, December 2011.