Travel

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.

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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!).

Preparation

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, MyEyeSupply.com, 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 MyEyeSupply.com 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.

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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.

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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 dryeyeshop.com. They are no longer available there but plenty of other vendors carry them, including amazon.com. 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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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View of closed Military History Museum from gate.
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Cannon at Military History Museum as seen from restaurant next door.
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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.

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Joseph, Philip and Vladimir Lenin.
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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.

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

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War room in bunker.
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Phones in bunker war room.
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Detail on table fan.
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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.

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Captured aircraft at War Museum.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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Turtle Tower on Ho Hoan Kiem.
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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.

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Vietnam is prominently featured on a globe at Ho Hoan Kiem, seen at night.
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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.

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The Presidential Palace.
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Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the presidential palace, instead choosing to live in this simple two-room stilt house.
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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.

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Guillotine from French Colonial era.
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Drainpipe used during 1945 escape from Hoa Lo Prison.
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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.

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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.

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Brass bell at the Second Courtyard.
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Giant drum at Temple of Literature.
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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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“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.

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Construction of a mural featuring the tower at the Temple of Literature.
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The 2012 Tet holiday heralded the Year of the Dragon.
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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.

Vietnam Vacation: Mai Chau

Although we could easily have spent an entire week in Hanoi, Hanna wanted us to experience more of Vietnam. We certainly had no objection. Early on it looked like we would be able to tag along on a staff retreat to the coastal city of Hoi An, but the retreat was rescheduled to a date after our departure. I was keen on seeing Ha Long Bay, one of the New7Wonders of Nature, however December weather is iffy on whether it will be a clear enough day. Hanna’s supervisor, JP, offered to organize an outing to one of his favorite getaways: Mai Chau, a native Thai district in the mountains about 135km (85 miles)  northwest of Hanoi.

JP, his wife Aimee and daughters Celeste and Bella, Ken and Gail, teachers at Concordia International School Hanoi, Hanna’s coworkers Sarah and Mary, and we five Hartmans piled into a fifteen-passenger minibus. About two hours later we pulled into the village of Ban Lac.

The Mai Chau district is known for its stilt houses built from bamboo and timber. Houses are elevated about 10-12 feet above the ground to both protect the houses from the elements and provide shelter for animals. Our guest house was a single large room, divided into separate sleeping areas by suspending quilts for walls. There were separate “rooms” for Phil and me, Ken and Gail, the Cima family, and the four single girls. Lucky Joseph, being the only single male, got a space all to himself. A pallet was made up for each person from a stack of quilts and a pillow (we brought our own pillow cases along). We were shown where extra quilts were kept in case we got cold during the night. Then a mosquito net was suspended over each sleeping area.

Mai Chau guest house
Sleeping area with pallet and mosquito netting.

Our group was large enough to have a sleeping area to ourselves. Smaller groups might be placed with other guests, especially during busier times of the year.

Bathrooms were downstairs, as well as a common eating and gathering area. Each building had two bathrooms, with a sink outside. There was no separate area for the shower inside the bathroom, simply a shower head on the wall and a drain on the floor.

Laura relaxing in the common area. Bathrooms can be seen in the background.

Lunch and dinner were served family style, with a wide variety of dishes (described in my earlier post, Vietnam Vacation: Food). Meals are included in the lodging rate, but beverages are priced a la carte. Each individual or family kept an honor system tally of beverages available from a refrigerator in the common area. We drank mostly bottled water, except for Joseph who indulged his soda addiction. Phil and I sampled a bottle of Vietnamese red wine with dinner. Let’s just say Vietnam is not renowned for its wine. We ended up giving most of the bottle to JP to use at the next communion service.

Mai Chau is also known for its homespun textiles. There were numerous stalls in the village, each displaying a variety of scarves, quilt tops and other products characteristic of the area. Nothing goes to waste – fabric scraps are used to fashion hacky-sack balls, caps and purses.

Mai Chau textiles.
We bought about 40 homespun Mai Chau scarves, enough for Phil to distribute his female employees and other colleagues. Some of the weavers cut scarves straight off their looms to meet our demand.
Laura buying a tiger stripe scarf. By now she had gotten fairly proficient at bartering.

The afternoon of the first day a group of us – JP and Bella, Sarah, Mary, Hanna, Laura and I – rented bicycles to explore the outlying areas, while Phil and Joseph decided to hike. The weather was comfortably mild and the roadways and paths were not too challenging considering we were in the mountains.

We saw several types of industry during our two hour ride,

Man working with water buffalo in a rice paddy.
I believe this is a rice mill.
Brick factory.
This is some sort of medicinal root cultivated for export to China.

passed a school with friendly children,

“Hallooo . . . “

crossed a rickety bridge,

JP and Bella, Laura, Sarah and Mary crossing the rickety bridge.
Don’t look down.

encountered a number of dogs,

Laura playing with some puppies.
Tired mamma dog with her puppies.
The dogs we encountered in Vietnam were not threatening, but were not friendly either.

rested on a bridge,

Bikes on bridge.
My girls.

and were invited to tea.

This home was located across the road from the brick factory. The owner invited us to join him for tea.
Our host. He told us stories about his son, who is serving in the military.

Next week I will continue with the memorable evening we spent at Mai Chau.

Vietnam Vacation: Shopping

The Christmas shopping season is in full swing here in the United States. Last year I was blissfully able to skip it, since we planned to bring all of our gifts home from Vietnam.

The exchange rate was hovering around 20,000 Vietnamese dong per US dollar during our visit, a nice round figure for calculating prices. One of Hanna’s friends, a German expat, wanted US dollars to go to graduate school in the States and offered us an excellent rate for his surplus dong, much better than we could have gotten at a bank or money changer. We were multi-millionaires!

Vietnamese currency. There are coins for the lower denominations, however they are rarely used.

Hanna took us to the Hanoi night market our first evening in Vietnam. It was Christmas Eve, and we were exhausted from traveling, but it would be our only chance to go.

Dong Xuan night market, held on weekend evenings in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

This gave us our first opportunity for souvenir shopping as well as our first lessons in bartering. Hanna, having lived in Hanoi for nearly a year, was an invaluable asset. She knew the going prices for merchandise and when to walk away, although this made Laura quite unhappy when she was willing to pay the asking price for a backpack but Hanna would not let her buy it.

Most merchants knew enough English to barter. Those who didn’t punched their asking price into a handheld calculator and handed it to us. We had three choices: agree (although that would be silly at this point), walk away (no fun in that), or enter a counteroffer on the calculator (optimally a lowball bid so that the seller could tsk-tsk and renegotiate until common ground was reached).

Laura pouted a little while about the backpack, but recovered enough to poke fun at Hanna for the singsong voice she adopted during bartering. A typical exchange went something like this:

  • Hanna (upon receipt of the first offer): Oh, no, no, no. Too much, too much. I bought this much less at another store. (Gives counteroffer.)
  • Merchant: Oh, no, no, no. Cannot be, too cheap, too cheap. Who sold for that?
  • Hanna: I bought one week ago, two blocks that way. (Gestures vaguely “that way.”)
  • Merchant: Same same, but different. This better.
  • Hanna (shaking head): No, no, just the same. We will go back to other store. (Turns away.)
  • Merchant: For you, best price. (Gives counteroffer.)
  • Hanna frowns and holds her chin in her hand for a moment, considering, then makes another counteroffer.
  • Merchant accepts. Smiles all around.

Laura caught on quickly, although she staged one minor rebellion and bought a Mickey Mouse scarf against Hanna’s better judgment. We bought a few gifts and souvenirs that evening before our menfolk pooped out altogether.

Later during our stay we returned to the Old Quarter for sightseeing and more shopping, learning a few more tips along the way. For instance, there are so many stores in the Old Quarter that it is easy to forget where they are located. Most shops provide business cards so that a shopper can find them again. Hanna had quite a collection. If a merchant makes an offer in dollars rather than dong, it means s/he will accept dollars in payment. Also, while bartering is acceptable at most stores, there are some with firm pricing. In general these are specialized artisans or craft cooperatives. How to know for sure? If a store has individual price tags on each item, then the prices are fixed.

These are some of the noteworthy fixed-price stores we visited:

  1. Gingko Biloba T-shirts – high quality, original design tee shirts. The girls and I each bought a “Vietnam Telecom” tee shirt.
  2. Mekong Quilts – beautiful handmade quilts. The girls each picked out a “Circles” quilt. Phil and I selected a quilt reminiscent of the ones we would see later at Mai Chau. The store kindly delivered our purchases to Hanna’s house later that evening so that we would not have to lug heavy quilts around the city.
  3. XQ Viet Nam – exquisite hand embroidery. The finished products are breathtaking in their detail. There are works in progress throughout the store, which also contains a museum dedicated to the art. The store will wrap purchases securely for airplane transit.
  4. Craft Link – a not-for-profit organization for traditional crafts artists offering a wide assortment of scarves, jewelry, clothing, purses and home accessories.

Although Craft Link was a fixed-price store, it had a clearance section! Not only did we find the journal Laura had been seeking, but also some lovely silk scarves at an extremely reasonable price. I bought all of the scarves they had left to give out as gifts. At first I felt a bit bad at how inexpensive some of our gifts were, until I rationalized that distributing the cost of our air fare among the gifts made then quite expensive.

There seemed to be a store featuring Apple iPhones on every corner, and counterfeit goods abounded. Copies of brand-name luggage, watches, and clothing were available ranging from obvious fakes to not being able to tell a difference. The labeling sometimes gave it away, though. A sock merchant on one corner had identical socks branded “Tommy Hilfiger,” “Tommy Hlfger,” and “Tommy Helen.” I sincerely wish I had taken a picture.

Laura wanted to have a dress made by a tailor during our stay, but there was not enough time. Hanna had quite a few outfits made while she was there. She would go to a fabric market to buy material, then the tailor would make each garment to measure. Hanna also had a traditional ao dai made for herself, Laura and me. I wore mine to Phil’s office Christmas party and received many compliments.

JCMG Christmas Party 2011. This party pic cost more than the infamous “Joseph the Pineapple Vendor” shot in Hanoi.

I would have to say that the girls and I enjoyed shopping more than Phil and Joseph did. Joseph did barter for a hammer and sickle tee shirt all by himself, but passed on the opportunity to get an inexpensive foot massage (40 minutes for $6). Phil took Joseph to a money changer just for the experience. Phil’s major purchases were for scarves for his female employees from Mai Chau (I know, I know . . . I promise to post about Mai Chau next week) and robust Vietnamese coffee.

Toward the end of our visit, the girls and I happened to pass by the store with the backpack that Laura wanted. We stopped in and Laura practiced the skills she had been honing all week. This time she scored the backpack . . . for even less than Hanna had coached her to settle for. Unfortunately, it started to unravel inside right after we returned home.

Next week: Mai Chau!

Vietnam Vacation: Housing

When we started sketching out our trip, we planned to stay in a small boutique hotel in the Old Quarter. Then Hanna received an invitation from the administrator of the International School to stay at the family’s villa in exchange for taking care of their cat. This was a huge blessing. Not only would we save the expenditure for two hotel rooms, we would not have to check in and out for our trip to Mai Chau, be away from the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter, have room to spread out and facilities for laundry and cooking, with the added bonus of a kitty to play with!

The villa was located in an area known as Ciputra. Many of the villas are occupied by executives of foreign companies. Most of the International School teachers live in apartment buildings nearby.

The view from our villa. The apartment towers and an American market are an easy ten minute walk away.

The villa had three floors. The ground floor consisted of a living room, kitchen, dining room and half bath. The second floor contained two master-style bedrooms, one of which was set up as a study. The third floor had an open living area, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a laundry room and a loft that was used as a play room. There were nice touches such as marble tile floors and a small swimming pool in the back yard.

Dining room. Kitchen is to the left. The windows were boarded up due to an increase of burglaries in the area.
There was no dishwasher. Instead, the cabinet over the sink had a slatted bottom to be used as a dish drainer.
Upstairs bedroom with loft above.

There seemed to be electrical switches for everything.

Villa living room switches.

Nighttime winter temperatures in Hanoi range from the high 40s to low 50s. Most homes do not have furnaces; residents rely on clothing layers and extra quilts instead. Our villa had the luxury of space heaters in the living room and master bedroom – more switches.

Hot water is delivered through an in-line heating system rather than stored in hot water heaters. There is yet another switch for that, then a short wait before washing dishes or taking a shower. (Phil did not hear this bit of advice before his first shower. Based on the primal screams from the bathroom, it must have been quite invigorating.)

Despite Vietnam’s humid climate, the majority of homes have only a washing machine. Clothing is hung out on porches to dry. This may take several days. Hanna’s clothes were often still damp when the house helper brought them back to her. We were again fortunate that our villa was equipped with a clothes dryer, but even a small load took nearly two hours on high to dry.

Laundry drying at apartments near the university.

LCMS rented a room for Hanna in a home near Hanoi University of Science and Technology. Her landlords both spoke English very well; the husband had a government position and the wife worked at the Canadian Embassy.

Hanna’s home in Hanoi. As a frame of reference, Hanna is 5’4″ tall. The home is less than 3 meters wide.

Hanna’s landlords bought the property to live close to the wife’s parents, tearing down the existing structure to build this house. Located in an alley, the houses are extremely narrow, but tall. This house has five stories. Just behind the gate there is a utility room where they park their motorbikes and bicycles.

Hanna’s room was the rear half of the first floor. It was about the size of a typical dormitory room in the United States.

Hanna’s bedroom.
Hanna’s bathroom.
Hanna’s kitchenette. She had a mini fridge and a hot plate for food storage and preparation.

The second floor is the family’s living space with a living room, kitchen and dining room. The third floor has two bedrooms, one for the parents and another shared by their son and daughter. The fourth floor has a laundry room and a couple of rooms used for storage. The fifth floor is currently vacant. In a few years the children will want rooms of their own and one or both of them will move to an upstairs room.

These are representative of the nicer residences in Hanoi. On the other end of the scale, some street vendors live in their storefronts. We also saw rudimentary rural huts that I will share in a future post about our side trip to Mai Chau.

Joseph and the cat to whom we owe our stay at the villa. Thanks, Panini!

 

Vietnam Vacation: Infrastructure

Water – It is not safe to drink the tap water in Vietnam, but bottled water is cheap and readily available. I have since learned that may not be entirely safe either, but none of us got sick drinking it. We used tap water to brush our teeth, and that turned out fine as well.

Bottled water for cooking and drinking. We consumed two big bottles and innumerable small bottles during our stay.

We learned the hard way how water is delivered to individual homes. On Christmas Eve, our first night in Hanoi, we suddenly had no water. Back home that would be a major plumbing emergency with an equivalent service fee, but in Vietnam it just necessitated a call to the house helper to arrange for a plumber to drop by. Despite a significant language barrier, he managed to explain to us that water is pumped into a holding tank on the roof. One of the toilets had kept running and emptied the tank. In about an hour the tank would refill and we would have water again, but we would need to make sure that toilet stopped running. Problem solved.

Sanitation – To conserve water, toilets are equipped with either two buttons or a two-way lever. One delivers a mini flush for liquid waste and the other a full flush for solid waste. Some public facilities are equipped with “squatty potties.” Although I was instructed on various methods for their use, I fortunately never had to use one.

“Squatty potty” en route to Mai Chau.
No, thank you.

Electric – Wiring in Vietnam is a jumbled mess, with ugly tangles of cables everywhere. Phil surmised that when there is an outage it would be easier to cut a wire and start over than to find the problem, so there are multitudes of dead wires, some just dangling, as well as live ones. Once while we were walking through the city, Joseph inadvertently knocked the cover off a service box of some sort mounted to a utility pole. He started to pick it up to replace it, but Phil and I both quickly intervened.

Typical Hanoi intersection.

Trash – Hanoi is a dirty city. There are no streetside garbage cans; people just drop trash where they are. (Our “Leave No Trace” training would not allow us to do the same, so we kept our trash in our pockets or backpacks.) Streetsweepers run, but they can’t reach the refuse that accumulates on sidewalks. Household trash is put out on the curbs and collected in pushcarts.

Trash pickup outside Hanna’s house after the holidays.

Streets and Traffic – Traffic is as bad as you’ve heard – maybe worse. Traffic lights are few, and personal bubble space is nonexistent. Sometimes another vehicle would be merging toward ours so closely that we anticipated a collision, when suddenly a motorbike or two would zip in between. Amazingly, we saw just one accident during our week in Vietnam. It was not serious, as the volume of traffic keeps the speed low.

Back in college, I preferred playing Frogger to Pac-Man, Who knew that years later those skills would come in handy crossing the street of Hanoi? Hanna was impressed by our fearlessness and taught us early on that motorbikes can avoid hitting you, but cars can’t.

Inexpensive to buy and operate, motorbikes are the preferred mode of transportation. Whole families, including infants, will ride on a single motorbike. We often saw a precarious amount of cargo tied with twine to a motorbike. Automobiles are a sign of affluence. Bicycles are still common, and we saw a couple of horses and buggies.

It startled us to see infants and children on motorbikes. Most adults wore helmets but most children did not. Hanna’s friend Aimee explained that many Vietnamese believe that children’s necks are not strong enough to support a helmet until age 12.

Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive. There are small (4-passenger) and large (7-passenger) taxis and even larger buses for hire. Large taxis cost more, as do rides with English-speaking taxi drivers (Hanna would only use two companies). Still, we had only one fare over $10 and that was for a more than 20 minute ride with two stops.

Hanna sometimes rode motorbike taxis when she was by herself, but usually took the bus. Her monthly bus pass fee was $4 for unlimited rides. Individual bus rides cost 15 cents (that is not a typo). We took the bus a couple of times for the experience. It is considered rude to speak loudly on the bus which makes for a much more pleasant experience than in the States.

The sheer number of vehicles puts parking at a premium. Parking lots are three or four deep bumper-to-bumper vehicles, and motorbikes are often parked en masse on the sidewalk. In fact, it was not unusual to see motorbikes driving on the sidewalk.

Motorbikes parked on the sidewalk.

Motorbikes aside, Hanoi sidewalks themselves are often in a sad state of repair. Uneven surfaces, cracks and potholes are common. It is quite a contrast from the ADA standards back home, but we also did not see a single person in a wheelchair during our visit.

Air Quality – Industry, the massive number of motor vehicles, and lack of regulation contribute to extreme air pollution in Vietnam. Many residents wear a cloth filter over their nose and mouth, but I don’t know if they are effective. Hanna had a chronic cough while she lived in Vietnam. Phil and Laura also developed a cough during our visit. Joseph and I, who both take Singulair for allergies, did not.

Motorbike riders wearing face masks.