Rona & Aaron’s Excellent Adventure, Part 10

To see what preceded this go here

Tired yet?

We arrived in Hanoi on the night train from Lao Cai. It was still dark when we arrived at a mini-hotel where our people fell into bed for a couple of hours of sleep before breakfast and departure from Hanoi. That morning, unlike others, I made the omelets in the kitchen rather than on the portable burners that are all but ubiquitous. I had no idea of how many omelets I had made and so twice, at least, I thought I had finished, but hadn’t. What made this task more arduous than usual was that I was cooking on a stove top that was fairly short. At 5’6″ I am taller than most Vietnamese people, so leaning over to cook wasn’t that much fun, but in addition, there was a huge range hood that started at about the level of my nose. So, each time I found out that I had more omelets to make, it was pretty disappointing.

However, breakfast was good and soon we were on the road to Halong Bay. Along the way we stopped and bought everyone pineapples. Yes, each person got a pineapple, peeled and on a stick and the taste was fabulous. Better than ice cream. From me, that is high praise.

Halong Bay is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is known for its magnificent rock outcroppings. There are about 1600 huge rocks, some the size of mountains and others only a few meters long and a few meters tall. They are the result of a process that is termed “Karst.” Karst is the name of an area in what is now Slovenia where these types of structures were first identified and explained. They are the result of the receding of the ocean floor and erosion that took place over thousands of years. The limestone has been worn away leaving only the core area resulting in beautiful formations.

Sailing on Halong Bay

Sailing on Halong Bay

Halong Bay has been named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Although most of these rocks are not large enough for people to live on, the bay has a large number of residents who live on floating homes. Their food is delivered to their porches by boat and their children are collected by boat to go to school.

On our tours of Vietnam, one of the loveliest experiences we have is lunch on board a boat as it cruises along Halong Bay. Because our tours are strictly kosher, we bring with us, of course, all of our own kitchen equipment (woks, knives, cutting boards, stirring implements, foil trays, foil for surfaces) and disposable utensils to eat with.

Our boat

Our boat

Here is a picture of the kitchen on the ship set up with our utensils (over to the right, on the towel), our salt and pepper shakers (behind the utensils), the serving plates (their own that they wrapped in aluminum foil), spices (“Shufersol” brand, all of which I brought from Israel) and the fresh vegetables that they would be cutting on our blue vinyl cutting boards with the knives we had brought. The kitchen was immaculate.

Kitchen on the boat

Kitchen on the boat

By the way, we had brought 3 brand new knives from Israel. They are like normal western kitchen knives. Because of our late arrival and our luggage having gotten stuck in Hong Kong, our guide had bought us a new Vietnamese knife which is more like a cleaver. When we unpacked out utensils, the chef immediately chose the Vietnamese knife and began cutting with it. As he was cutting one of the fish, a piece of the knife blade broke off.. an area maybe a half inch long was now missing from knife edge about a quarter of the way from the top of the blade. He continued using that knife anyway because he preferred it. As we continued to travel, every chef chose the broken knife over our new western knives!

On the other side of the kitchen was the cooking area which they also had completely emptied of all of their equipment and had only our pots and wok.

Our pots on the boat

Our pots on the boat

Our pots in the boat's kitchen (and Osem soup mix)

Our pots in the boat's kitchen (and Osem soup mix)

While the men were working in the kitchen, the chef asked me where I was from. I must say
— for all that Israelis think that the world pays attention to news about us, from the reactions I got in Vietnam– not so much. He had no idea. Sometimes people will respond, “Near Egypt?” and that’s not bad. This man waited a couple of minutes and said, “Cities in your country?” I answered “Tel Aviv, Jerusalem…” He stopped and closed his eyes, and put his hands together and said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem” almost as if he knew the song we sing “Yerushalayim, Yerushalayim.” He had a smile on his face and kept repeating “Jerusalem.” I wish he had been able to tell me his associations with Jerusalem, but his English was fairly rudimentary and my Vietnamese, well, I can say “Pho?”

Preparing the food

Preparing the food

How long to stay on Halong Bay? The answer is: as long as you can. It is simply paradise and as the boat moves, one after another view is even more breathtaking. The best time to arrive is shortly after noon, so you can see it in full sunlight and return as the sun is setting.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Next time: Visiting a fishing port in Halong Bay, visiting Japanese and Chinese vestiges in HoiAn and answering the question: what’s in style on the streets of HoiAn?

Continue the adventure here

Rona & Aaron’s Excellent Adventure, Part 9

To learn what came before this, go here

After the market in Bac Ha, we went to a village named Pho. No, not Pho. Pho? What? You’re confused? Welcome to Vietnam.

You see, Chinese (yes, I mean Chinese– bear with me) is a tonal language. People who try to learn it have difficulty with the fact that the same one-syllable word can have 4 completely different meanings depending on the tone used to say it. There is a flat tone, a rising tone, a falling tone, and one that goes up and down. Still with me?

OK, if you think Chinese is difficult, try Vietnamese. They have 6 tones. That same one syllable (the one they always use to illustrate it in both countries is “ma”) means six different things in Vietnamese, depending on the tone. So when we came to the village and I read the sign Pho (foe), our guide said “what?” and I said, “The name of the village.” And she said, “no, the name of THIS village (as if she had no idea of what I was talking about) is Pho (foe?)” And yes, the question mark is the best way to explain how the tone needed to say Pho is pronounced. So if you said, “Can we go to Pho?” she would understand. But if you said, “This is Pho” she would have no idea what you were talking about.

Anyway, this is Pho



This was my second time visiting Pho. The first time we were invited to visit the home of the mayor of the town. He was a wiry, happy old man who offered the men liquor and danced around his home with them. This time we went into the home of one of the villagers. To give you an idea of the cooking facilities in Pho, here is a picture from the kitchen.

kitchen in Pho

kitchen in Pho

Outside we were able to see the laundry hanging, drying in the clear mountain air.

Drying laundry

Drying laundry

More laundry

More laundry

The scenery around Pho was very beautiful. We saw little black Vietnamese pigs and lots of chickens and ducks. However, most beautiful of all were the people.

Women returning from Market

Women returning from Market

Children in Pho

Children in Pho

With agriculture being the primary source of income, children become very wise in the practical aspects of farming. This little boy, leading his water buffalo who was hauling a large log, gave new meaning to the phrase “…and a little child shall lead them…”

Leading the water buffalo

Leading the water buffalo

Pho was lovely. We enjoyed a wonderful day, returned to Lao Cai for dinner, after a short visit to the Chinese border, and the boarded the overnight train for Hanoi.

Next time we answer these questions: How long should one stay on Halong Bay? How does the cook on the boat respond when I answer his question as to where I am from? and What do Vietnamese think of the knives we use in the the west?

Continue the adventure here

Rona & Aaron’s Excellent Adventure, Part 8

For the previous episode look here

Early Sunday morning we packed up and left the hotel. We set out for Bac Ha, about 3 hours away, where the largest market for the ethnic minorities in northern Vietnam is located. We drove along roads that had huts and banana plants and rice terraces and lots of lots of life as people walked and biked along the roads. Children played outside. Older children in their school uniforms walked or rode bikes to school. It is a country on the move.

The market at Bac Ha is a place to buy all sorts of things. Local people come there to buy clothing, linens, sewing supplies, hardware, fruits, vegetables, fish (mostly dried), nuts, noodles, and meat– pretty much everything. They socialize and there is a festive atmosphere. They also buy that most famous household pet: the water buffalo.

Buying water buffalo in Bac Ha

Buying water buffalo in Bac Ha

Water buffalo are, of course, very valuable because they are the closest that most people get to mechanized farming equipment in most of Vietnam– actually in most of the far east. The water buffalo are domesticated and very gentle and friendly.

It was interesting to see lots of combinations of traditional and contemporary. We saw girls in native dress checking their mobile phones.

Looking for messages

Looking for messages

We saw people walking around wearing their motorcycle helmets.

Pink helmet-- and Flower Hmong dress

Pink helmet-- and Flower Hmong dress

We looked for interesting things to buy. We found silk sleeping bags– small pouches made of silk with a sheet inside that one could crawl into with an attached pillow cover. We found belts with zippers that when zipped up became small purses. We bought them from a little girl who was fascinated with my husband’s beard and with a big smile took out a comb and attempted to comb it!

Combing Aaron's beard

Combing Aaron's beard

As we walked through the market, we saw our travelers walking too, smiling and enjoying the sights and sounds. There are more pictures of this market in this post. It was a feast for the eyes.

After our experience there, we got on the bus and went to a local village. More about that next time when we answer these questions: Why can’t we simply say the name of the village? What does a normal kitchen in the village look like? and most important… what is the special significance in this village of the phrase “and a little child shall lead them”?

To continue the adventure, click here

Rona & Aaron’s Excellent Adventure, Part 7

To see the previous page, go here

Which is, in fact, appropriate, since the seventh part corresponds to our first shabbat away.

The kabbalat shabbat service that began our shabbat together was really very beautiful. All of our travelers were dressed in their nice clothing and the women ranged from lovely to elegant. The table was set with tablecloths and napkins and the tea candles were lit. We all were one family as we said the traditional prayers and sat in a leisurely manner to eat our meal. Having moved so far and so fast, all of us welcomed the sabbath rest.

In the morning, we gathered for services. We had noticed that another Israeli group was staying at our hotel. We had seen these people in Hanoi and would see them again when we got to Cambodia. We hoped that some of the men might join us for services as we had only 7 men. Well, two men did show up, not at the same time, and both of them had the same response when I asked them if they would like me to being them a siddur (prayerbook) “I just came in for a few minutes to feel the shabbat atmosphere.” After services, we had kiddush and ate breakfast. After breakfast, it was time to change clothes and go for our shabbat walk up Ham Rong Mountain.

I would love to post photos of Ham Rong Mountain, but I have only climbed it on shabbat when I am unable to take pictures. The mountain begins its slope in the center of town up a steep flight of steps. We passed by stores and stalls selling herbs and plants that are used medicinally. We passed stalls where they were selling a type of liquor that had coiled snakes at the bottom of the bottle and sometimes scorpion-type creatures. None of us was tempted to buy.

As we ascended the mountain, a nature preserve, we were treated to the most magnificent experience. There was a slight drizzle that covered all of the bushes and trees and grasses with silvery droplets. The rocks and plants and paths and fountains and the areas that were planted with flowers were nothing short of exquisite. There was a freshness to the air and the fragrance of the plants and trees was intoxicating. As we walked, we heard the sound of music and as we approached a house on stilts, our local guide asked if we wanted to go in. We said, “Of course.” We didn’t realize that what was inside was a folklore show with music and dancing. The last number involved the men holding long thick bamboo poles parallel to the floor just above floor level and moving them back and forth as the women dancers avoided stepping on them. Then, both the men and women took up the dance. Finally, they invited us to participate and one of our brave travelers actually went and danced with the troupe! (He was great!!)

After the hike, we had a short time to rest before we got together again for mincha (the afternoon service), dinner (salad, the cholent that had been cooking since Friday afternoon and some delicious fruit salad!) and finally maariv (the evening service) and havdalah (the service that ends shabbat.)

What a wonderful, beautiful shabbat– and what a pleasure to finally have nothing go wrong for a change!

Next time we answer these important questions: Where can one buy a water buffalo, what do you do if you’re in traditional dress and want to ride on a motor scooter, and most important– what is that little girl doing to my husband’s beard?

For more of the adventure go here

Rona & Aaron’s Excellent Adventure, Part 6

For what came before, go here

We arrived in SaPa at the Chau Long Hotel. The hotel has a feel not unlike that of a German or Swiss ski lodge. There’s a fireplace that usually has a burning fire in it and we are usually greeted with hot apple tea. Of course, since our bus arrived a good half hour behind the first bus, the tea was already fairly cold, but the fire was burning and there was a lovely ambiance. It didn’t hurt that the clock display behind the desk had the time for Tel Aviv labeled on one of its 5 clocks.

Our travelers got their room keys and settled in while we checked out the kitchen and the room in which we would eat during the time we were there. We quickly unpacked the food that needed refrigeration and placed it in sealed bags in their fridge. I went with our local guide to the market to buy another big pot for cooking the cholent – a bean stew dish that is cooked on low heat for about 24 hours and is traditionally eaten on shabbat– (our other pot had a lid that was bent and loose) and a wok. Then I returned and washed the beans we had brought from Israel and started them soaking in the cholent pot. I went upstairs to the kitchen to retrieve our plata (hotplate) and the person in charge said to me, “No cook in room.” I thought she meant that the cook was not in the kitchen, but upon reflection, I realized she was saying that they would not allow us to cook in our room. On our two previous trips, the hotel had not allowed us to leave the hotplate plugged in continuously in the kitchen so the guides had taken the hotplate into their rooms and had the cholent cook there. She was saying that I would not be permitted to cook it in our room. Just as I was ready to object, she told me that they would plug it into the wall on their serving table in the dining room and leave it plugged in all night. And that is what they did. Later in the day, they diced all sorts of vegetables that we added to the beans and barley and then we added some soy protein in chunks that we had brought from Israel that were very reminiscent of meat. With everything added, the pot was full to the brim. We covered it with a towel and checked on it a few times both on Friday night and on Saturday and they were true to their word. No one touched anything and the cholent was excellent– but I am getting ahead of myself.

We had a decision to make. Since it was raining, I told the local guide that I would prefer to go to the village that was on level ground rather than the one that was down a long muddy hill. She said that she had checked and that the monsoon rains had washed out the bridge between SaPa and the village I wanted to visit. So, there wasn’t a decision to be made at all. To the mud!!

We boarded the two mini-vans and headed to the village of Ta Van. Ta Van is a beautiful and interesting place with lots to see. We drove in the rain, more than once crossing torrents of water that were flowing from the mountains on one side across the road and down to the valley on the other side. Often there were no shoulders or guardrails. But we made it safely.

Our vans parked and the village ladies were happy to greet us and accompany us on our walk down their road to the village.

Some of the ladies were wearing galoshes. Some were wearing sandals. Our people were mostly wearing sports shoes. I was wearing crocs. What all of us really needed were skis. The road was very very slippery. There was precious little to walk on that would give one traction or stop the forward motion of the feet. There was a little grass on the edges in some places and a few rocks, but basically it was walk and hope that the little ladies and older teens that were holding onto our elbows would be able to steady us. Fortunately, no one fell (my greatest fear.) Two years ago, only one person fell and my coat is none the better for it. Uh, yes, I must confess I am not graceful, but at least I didn’t hurt myself…

Walking down the muddy road

Walking down the muddy road

The village was very picturesque, although not beautiful in the purest sense of the word. It was exactly the way it needed to be for people to live in it and to earn enough to have food and clothing. They also made money selling their handicrafts to visitors, many of whom felt indebted to them for steadying them on the muddy roads and paths.

Villager walking on road with rice terraces in the background

Villager walking on road with rice terraces in the background

Some of our travelers took magnificent photos of some of the people. I concentrated on the animal kingdom. Here are some other inhabitants.

Mr. Water Buffalo (aka John Deere)

Mr. Water Buffalo (aka John Deere)



We saw the regional school where children from other villages also study and where they dorm during the week. It was a lovely, pastoral walk. As we made our way back to the entrance to the village, that road that we had descended loomed in front of us. Our local guide had called the smaller van to come and pick up our people, but it became mired in the mud, even as one by one people got off the van. Even with only the driver aboard, the van was stuck. With no alternative, we started up the road. When we came to a small building with a 4-wheel-drive car parked outside, I asked the local guide if she would find the owner and ask him if he would take us up the hill for a fee. He agreed and in two trips, he took those of us who were at the back of the group. His vehicle was filled with mud from our shoes, but I suppose he was used to it.

Ww boarded the larger of the mini-vans and headed back to SaPa. When we got back to the hotel, we were pleased to find out that the hotel will clean shoes free of charge and my travelers tell me that they did a fantastic job!

It was time to relax and prepare for shabbat. And what a shabbat it was! In a word: Perfect!

All about it next time…

Continue the adventure here

Rona & Aaron’s Excellent Adventure, Part 5

For what happened previously go here

It is Thursday night. Hanoi. A porter laden with suitcases and boxes arrives at the door of the train and as my travelers settle into their cabins, two at a time, he delivers three large and two small suitcases to my cabin. In addition, there is my coat, my backpack, and a couple of plastic bags that somehow accumulated in my hands. It took some time to put everything either up on the bed opposite me, on either side of the table between the beds, or under the bed opposite mine.

Once people were settled in and the train began to move, I am able to heave a huge sigh of relief, knowing that I am off duty until about 4:30 a.m. at which time I am to wake people in anticipation of our arrival in Lao Cai.

The train was clean and attractive and the train ride lulled me to sleep. Although I had set my alarm, one of the workers on the train came by to wake us before the alarm went off.

In a few minutes, everyone was up and moving.

The train stopped and I was the last off of our car with all of the suitcases etc. We walked along the length of the train, looking into the cars as we passed. Some had flower arrangements on the tables between the beds. One had lotus-shaped lamps. Some had six beds per cabin and not four. We finally emerged from the station to a dark parking lot in which were two mini-buses that had come for us and our luggage. My husband went with about half the travelers and our local guide who had come with us from Hanoi and held our train tickets in one of them and I got into the other with the rest of the travelers. As we began to pull out of the parking lot, one of the travelers said, “Where is my money belt?” In a second or two it became clear that it was not on the bus with us. I called to the bus driver to stop the bus, which he did. He and the others remained on the bus and I went with the traveler back to the station.

Lao Cai, 5 a.m.

Lao Cai, 5 a.m.

The station was dark. I did not have the tickets, hence no proof we had been on the train nor proof as to which cars we had occupied. In addition, I do not speak Vietnamese. At all. Fortunately, Lao Cai is the last stop of the train, so it was still in the station.

We walked past an office where there were several uniformed men. In one of my winning charades gestures, I gestured that the man’s money (rub finger tips with thumb) belt (point around waist) was on the train (point to the train.)

Apparently they understood me and a couple of the men walked with us to the train. We started down the length of it. It must have had twenty cars or more. We started at car number twenty and walked looking into the now darkened train. Fortunately, I had a sense of the variations in the cars and when I saw the car with the lotus-shaped lamps, I knew we were not too far. We finally reached two cars that were identical just as ours were, cars 5 and 6. I hadn’t realized that one of the men had a cell phone with him. To make sure, I gave him the number of our local guide’s cell phone. He called her and I asked her what number cars we had been in. She told us and we were right. Only one problem— the train was locked.

I think that Vietnamese people are truly kind because they did not want to give up. Apparently the same person who built the mini-hotel with only one key per room and no pass key had designed the train system in such a way that when all of the cars are locked, no one at the station has a key. Our heroes did what was necessary.

No, they did not saw through the wall of the train. They stood at the side of the door and put all of their weight on it and pushed and pushed, each time getting the door wider and wider open. It must have opened by just a couple of degrees and then one of the men was able to slip in. He went to the cabin that had been occupied by my traveler and he brought the money belt to the door. Aha, but he couldn’t get out. He had squeezed into something that was angled in, but getting out, he was confronting the edge of the door. Another, slimmer man then squeezed himself in. He then pushed the first man out and then he himself came out. My traveler was thrilled to receive the money belt. The Vietnamese were very happy to point from one to the other as to who deserved the reward money. In all, I think around $60 were distributed and all of us left the train very happy.

Those waiting on the bus were also happy and we quickly proceeded onward to SaPa.

The weather in the north of Vietnam, just at the China border, is cold in the winter and although the heat was on in the bus, the driver’s open window was blowing an unpleasant breeze into the bus. After a while I asked him to roll up the window. Once again, my ignorance of Vietnamese was all too frustrating. He thought I asked him to stop the bus.

As I looked outside at the landscape just a short time after dawn, I saw about 5 little pigs by the side of the road. I asked “would anyone want to photograph piglets?” A few people got out of the bus, took some photos and then returned to the bus. He started the bus and off we went.

Piglets along the road

Piglets along the road

But it was still cold.

This time I put held my hands on the opposite upper arms and made a shivering motion. He closed his window. We were warming up and on our way to SaPa. The rain began to fall.

Uh Oh… Our itinerary called for us to walk through one of the local minority villages this morning. They get awfully muddy. But there was still check-in and breakfast and cholent to get started. My worries about that could wait for an hour or two.

At last we arrived at the hotel.

Chau Long Hotel, SaPa

Chau Long Hotel, SaPa

Next time: What we did about the new hotel rules on using our plata (hotplate) and how “Slip sliding away” is a great song, but not the way one would want to describe a walk through a village.

To continue the adventure go here

Rona & Aaron’s Excellent Adventure, Part 4

For what happened previously go here

Having been sufficiently stunned by news of impending doom (i.e., our suitcases could be confiscated along with all we’d packed for shabbat and for other important parts of the tour), I entered the Temple of Literature compound and tried to relax. I thought of all sorts of alternatives to what we had planned and I knew that no matter what, our people were going to be well taken care of. We could bake bread, if necessary. I was pretty sure that beans and barley were available in Vietnam. We might have to buy large amounts of canned tuna to use for lunches to make up for the cheese and the peanut butter that would be confiscated, but we would be all right and our travelers would not even notice the problem.

As I walked through the gardens, relaxing became easy. It was beautiful, calm, tranquil — perfect. When I caught up with the group, they had just spied what was to be their first bride of the day.

Apparently, Vietnamese brides and grooms take full advantage of the period preceding the wedding and they go from place to place with a bevy of professional photographers being photographed in the outfits they have selected for that day. Like Chinese brides, Vietnamese brides often have more than one wedding gown– the traditional one (in China- red, in Vietnam, an Ao Dai in any color) and a white bridal gown such as those worn by brides in the West.

Here is the bride we saw at the Temple of Literature

Bride in Ao Dai

Bride in Ao Dai

We enjoyed a brief concert of Vietnamese music on traditional Vietnamese instruments and then set off for the Museum of Ethnology. There, inside the museum we saw colorful exhibits of ethnic minority customs, traditions, and dress and outside we saw models of homes and buildings of many of the ethnic minorities.

As the day wore on, the sun came out and Hanoi became very beautiful. And what did we see but more brides! Everywhere! And some of them were pretty adventurous!

After a visit to Maison Centrale, known to most Americans as “The Hanoi Hilton,” the place where captured US pilots, among them John McCain, were held, we went to Hoan Kiem Lake, a lake in the center of the city and were treated to a cyclo ride through the old city. The old city has 36 streets that were named for the crafts and trades that were located there. Although some of the streets still have some of those specialties, one cannot easily discern which street was for which trade or craft. One can, however, get the feeling of what it is like to travel at motorcycle/motorbike level in this busy city. You can see it here.

With the day quickly waning, I was getting more and more nervous about the suitcases. Even if I had figured out the solutions to my immediate problem, I really hoped that our people would have their belongings so that they could change their clothes and feel comfortable over the weekend. Since we were leaving at nine p.m. for an eight hour trip on a night train where we would sleep, our deadline for luggage delivery was all too critical.

My husband went to the restaurant to prepare dinner for the group while I went with them to the mini-hotel.

It is apparently called a mini-hotel not just because there are a small number of rooms and only one elevator, but also, I am guessing, because people use it only for a short amount of time. In fact, there were some lovely and wholesome looking young women dressed alike (black shorts, white blouses) waiting at ground level who one might imagine were in some way connected with the hotel. But I digress…

The purpose of going to the mini-hotel was to give people a chance to shower, change, and redistribute their clothing and personal items and pack only their small carry-on for our trip up north for the weekend. Taking the large suitcases onto the train was not a good idea. However, until the suitcases finally arrived, people didn’t want to shower, fearful they’d only have to put on the same clothing they’d been wearing for two days.

Our train was leaving at nine. The suitcases were not delivered until shortly after seven. Of course between suitcase delivery and the train there was distributing them to each room with only one small elevator and five stories of building and then collecting them again and then driving to the restaurant and having dinner. We were rushed.

The good news: ALL of the suitcases made it. The bad news: They had fastened a heavy plastic strip that held our largest suitcase closed and I had no implement to open it. There was no time. I decided to take all three of the large suitcases and our two small ones with us onto the train.

Our people were wonderful. Everyone was ready on time for the bus. They had left their suitcases outside their doors to be collected by the porters. We were out of the woods.

Or so we thought.

One couple said they weren’t sure where to leave their suitcase and they left it inside the room. When the time came to turn in the keys, they realized that they had locked the room with the key inside. I thought that would not be a problem, I went to the desk and asked for a duplicate key. The clerk didn’t understand me. I showed her a key and asked for another one and wrote the room number. She nodded no. I said “when you clean the room…” Of course, it was only later that I realized that most people staying there, maybe all of them, don’t leave the room and then come back. I had her call Mrs. Mai. I explained to her what had happened. Now I had two Vietnamese women who didn’t understand what I was saying, I believe. However, after the conversation, the desk clerk called someone and said, “wait one moment.” I am certain that when Vietnamese people learn English they are told that “wait one moment” means “this could take hours.”

I decided that my people needed to go and eat. I sent them on the bus to the restaurant. I assured the couple that I would not leave the hotel until their suitcase was liberated.

Finally a young man showed up on a motorbike. I assumed he had the key. I said to him, “You have the key?” and shook my head hopefully. He said, “yes, yes.” I’m guessing that when Vietnamese people learn the phrase “yes, yes” they are told it means, “I think you are a nice person and I would like you to be happy.”

The room was at the end of the corridor on the fifth floor. It was on the left. He walked down the corridor and opened the last door on the right. I said, “No, it’s this one.” He said, “yes, yes.” He went into the room and closed the door behind him. I thought, “Great! there’s an adjoining bath between them!”

He walked out of the room and said, “wait one moment.” He returned a few minutes later with an assistant and a tool box. They went into the room on the right. Then I heard loud banging– as if they were trying to break down the wall. It continued for a very long time. I waited. I sweated. I looked at my watch. I knew I had missed dinner, but how long could I stay without missing the train?

The banging continued. I sweated some more. It was 8:30. The train was at 9. I had no idea how far it was to the train station nor did I have any idea how much traffic there would be. I was cutting it very close. I called Mrs. Mai. I told her that the men were trying to break down a wall to get the suitcase, but so far, no luck. She told me that when the suitcase was finally liberated, she would have it picked up and brought to our other suitcases and that the couple would have it on Monday morning when everyone else got theirs. She called me a taxi and told him to take me to the train station.

I got into the taxi and I wanted him to know that I was in a hurry and so I wrote 9:00 on a piece of paper and apparently that was all it took to get him into Hollywood-car-chase mode. Ohmigosh! He flashed his lights, honked his horn, and drove on the wrong side of the street. As we reached the train station, I began to fear that maybe there was more than one station in Hanoi and I hoped we were at the right one. At that very moment, our big red bus pulled up and beside it I found my husband and all of our travelers.

Stay tuned to find out what happened to the suitcase, why I once again had to break down a Vietnamese door, and other exciting slip and slide adventures next time..

Continue the adventure here

Rona & Aaron’s Excellent Adventure, Part 3

For what happened before, look here

Although I was of college age when the Vietnam War was taking place and people were demonstrating, some of them obsessing about every day’s battles, I was oblivious. I remained oblivious even when I got married and moved to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where my husband was serving as a chaplain in the US Army. Sure, I knew that we had guys being shipped out to ‘Nam, but I didn’t really pay much attention to the news, being somewhat self-absorbed. So, all I knew of Hanoi was that it was where the bad guys were and there was a woman who they called, “Hanoi Hannah” broadcasting nasty, morale-breaking things to our guys

Well, the Hanoi that I have come to know and, yes, love over the last couple of years is a bustling, busy city filled with interesting sights and sounds. During our day there we went to visit the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. It is a tasteful building into which people enter after passing through full security and leaving their cameras checked. People file in a single line, taking off their hats, walking silently into the building , ascending the stairs to the left, turning right and then right again and filing past Ho Chi Minh who is lit dimly and appears to still be alive. We walked the length of the coffin, then turning left, across the front and then turning left once again along the other side, filing out of the room, making two rights, and then going down the stairs. Something about the silence and the dim lighting with the soldiers standing at attention made the experience feel very dignified. Although he was a formidable foe, in the way he is revered in his own country, there is a sense of honor. Always depicted in photos and statuary as being with the children, he is seen as “Uncle Ho” who loved the children.

Ho Chi Minh's Tomb

Ho Chi Minh's Tomb

His tastes were simple. When he gained power, he was entitled to use the magnificent palatial edifice erected by the French when they were the colonial power. Instead, he lived in three sparse rooms for a period of several years until those around him explained to him that it was not an honor to the country for their leader to be so humbly housed. Then they built him a house on stilts, characteristic of Vietnamese architecture in the countryside. It also was quite humble, with just two rooms upstairs– an office and a bedroom– and eating and reception space exposed to the elements beneath it. It was fashioned of fine wood and is very attractive, but not at all the type of home one would expect for the head of a large country. Vietnam is now, by some estimates, a country of 87 million people!

On the grounds of the complex that housed his two homes and the palace, there was a pond where carp were raised. He would clap his hands and the carp would come to the surface to eat. There were also trees that bore fruit and the people of Hanoi were permitted to come and pick fruit.

Adjacent to Ho Chi Minh’s home is the One Pillar Pagoda, an interesting structure with a similarly interesting story. Around the entire area are beautifully landscaped gardens.

After leaving the Ho Chi Minh complex, we went to the Temple of Literature. It was there in the early 11th Century that Vietnam’s first university was founded. You can read more about it here. As our group walked through the front gate, Mrs. Mai, the woman who heads up our operations in Vietnam and Cambodia arrived to talk to me.

Entrance Gate, Temple of Literature

Entrance Gate, Temple of Literature

The group proceeded with the local guide and my husband. I stayed behind to talk to Mrs. Mai and to try and work out our plans. She had to have me sign permission for her people to pick up the luggage when it arrived from Hong Kong. It was due to arrive on the same flight as we had arrived on the day before. That meant that it would likely not be ready for pick up until at least 5 p.m. and with traffic, getting it in time for our people to be able to repack — getting out their winter clothing and putting it in their small luggage– in anticipation of our weekend train trip up north was problematic. I also was worried by the fact that she told me they only had paperwork on 11 of the 14 suitcases because I had not given them my baggage stickers until after they had done the paperwork– so although they had stickers for 14 suitcases, they only had paperwork for 11! I told her that it was really important to get specifically those bags because we had packed a substantial amount of food in them including our challot for shabbat and other essential food supplies that we needed to take with us up north. She said, “If there is food in your suitcase you will not get it.” I said, “I won’t get the food?” She said, “You won’t get the suitcase; they will just not send anything.”

She left with the papers. I left with the worry. But would they find the food? If so, would they send the suitcase? and also, why was it that on that Thursday, everywhere we went we saw brides? The answers to these questions (well, to a couple of them) and some pictures of the brides in the next exciting episode.

To continue, go here

Rona & Aaron’s Excellent Adventure, Part 2

…to see what happened earlier, go here

So we were airborne. Of course the luggage could not have made the flight. We had run over, under, around, and through and the baggage simply could not have been identified and transported that fast. It was all right. There would be another flight that night? the next morning? We’d be fine.

And after about two hours, we landed in Hanoi. We walked to the waiting area where we were met by our local guide. I gave the guide all of our passports, the visa application forms with photos attached, and the visa approval form we had received from the government of Vietnam. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. We could see the office where the visas were being given, see passports opened and visas affixed, but our guide was elusive. So we waited. Did I mention we waited?

After about an hour, she finally came back and we distributed the passports into which had been pasted the visas. Then everyone went through passport control and we met on the other side.

Our guide said we had to go to the lost luggage desk. Reminding her that our luggage was not lost, but tardy, she explained that unless we filed a claim for lost luggage, the luggage would not be transferred to Hanoi. I was to gather up all of the baggage claim checks which they then pasted onto a sheet of paper. Some of my people were hesitant to give up their only proof of every having had a bag, but were reassured when they were told that I would get a copy of the baggage tag page. We were missing 14 pieces of luggage. We had found only 11 baggage claim checks. No one would own up as to having additional ones. They filled out the paperwork only identifying 11 pieces of luggage. As they handed me the paperwork, I opened my ticket holder and found that I was the hold-out. There were the three baggage claim tags. I gave them to the people behind the counter and they copied the sheet for me.

Now about two hours later than we had anticipated, it was time for dinner and everyone was hungry and tired and so we decided to go directly to the restaurant where we would eat rather than to the hotel. We called and made sure that the four Swiss travelers and the one British traveler were brought to the restaurant to meet us.

Finally on the bus, we made our acquaintance with the Hanoi traffic jam– the type that puts everything at a standstill. The major bridge across the Red River was being repaired and construction materials and dug up road surface narrowed it to one lane. But we told people about Vietnam and about Hanoi and most of them were just happy to be finally out of the airport and on our way.

We arrived at the restaurant. It is the “forest” restaurant and it is beautifully decorated with objects that represent the history and folklore of Vietnam. Set in a garden, the wooden building was adorned with cloth and metal and wood wall hangings. The wait staff was dressed in native garb of one of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minorities. It was beautiful.

Rung Restaurant, Hanoi

Rung Restaurant, Hanoi

What was not beautiful was the fact that our knives, cutting boards, and cooking utensils were in our baggage which was currently homeless in Hong Kong. So there we were with our Hanoi equipment (dishes, silverware, one large pot, and a wooden spatula) unable to prepare dinner.

We sent the local guide out to buy a knife. She had to take a motorcycle ride to get it and meanwhile, the chef was bristling as he wanted to kill the fish already so that he could cook them. Yes, you see when we cook in Vietnam, we need to see the fish whole and intact. So, often the fish are still alive when we meet them. These fish had something of a reprieve as we waited for the knife to appear.

In the end, we ate dinner, enjoyed getting to know each other, and although our luggage was still not with us, we all settled into our hotel that night for some much needed sleep.

Tomorrow: Hanoi as most people never imagined it and what ever happened to the luggage…

The adventure continues here

Rona & Aaron’s Excellent Adventure, Part 1

This is cross-posted from

We begin our adventure at Ben Gurion Airport. Our travelers arrived so promptly that by 5 minutes after the announced gathering time having received their tickets and bags and hats and information packets, all were in line to get their boarding passes This was surely a portent of a flawless trip!

Several of the travelers asked that I show the people at the ticketing counter the letter of visa approval we had gotten from the government of Vietnam because apparently without it we could not board our flight. One woman had renewed her passport after the visa was applied for and since her passport number didn’t match the one on our approval form, there was a question as to whether she would be able to enter the country. I reassured the El Al personnel that there would not be a problem.

OK, one minor glitch… I called our office and they conveyed the new number to our representative in Hanoi.

We boarded the plane ready for our 11 hour flight to Hong Kong. Our flight to Hanoi had been scheduled for only one hour from our landing time in Hong Kong. I had asked the operations person at our office if that wasn’t much too short a time to get from one plane to another in Hong Kong. He told me that it was a code share and as such, the second flight would wait for us and the two gates would be adjacent. What he didn’t tell me was that he was leaving the company and that he wasn’t really concerned with any fallout if things didn’t go as planned. He was already gone from the company before we left for Vietnam.

As we sat down, we noticed that the TV monitors in front of our seats were registering error messages. As the doors of the plane remained open and we stayed on the ground, we began to realize that they were trying to get the system fixed before we took off. In fact, the system did get fixed and we left not more than about 25 minutes late.

Of course, we likely had lost our place in line to take off and so by the time we were in the air, we were about 40 minutes late.

Realizing this, I began to be very concerned. It was not just that there was not another Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi that night, it was the fact that at the same time as we were in transit, so were four people from Switzerland and one from England, all of whom were to arrive in Hanoi about an hour before we were due. They were being met at the airport and taken to the hotel, but if we did not make it to Hanoi that night, they would be left with nothing to eat until we arrived as they all kept kosher and there is no kosher food available in Hanoi. The only Chabad in Vietnam is in Ho Chi Minh City — Saigon.

I began fairly early in the flight speaking with some of the flight personnel. Some said, “Oh no; you’ll never make it.” Others said, “You’ll be fine.” Still another said that when we get close to Hong Kong, they will call Vietnam Airlines to see if they would wait for us.

And so passed the night.

About two hours from Hong Kong, our projected arrival was 10 minutes before the connecting flight’s takeoff. I was never told they would wait for us. I was, however, still under the impression that the gates were adjacent and if we could only get our people out of the plane first, we might have a chance. When I asked if they could just ask the other people on the flight to remain seated and to let us get off the plane first, I didn’t get an answer.

About 10 minutes before landing, long after the seat belt lights had been lit and the tray tables returned to the backs of the seats and all of the seats in an upright position, I was told to gather my people quickly and bring them up to the first class section. Amazingly, my people were incredibly responsive and in seconds they had gathered their carry-ons from their overhead compartments and joined me in the first class section. (Parenthetically: it’s definitely the way to fly).

When we landed, we got out first. Waiting for us was a lovely lady from Vietnam Airlines with a big sign with our names and she ran ahead of us, leading us to the check-in counter where we quickly received our boarding passes.

Then the fun began.

The Hong Kong Airport is more a city than an airport. It is huge. It is the third largest airport in the world after Dubai and Beijing with a terminal area of 570,000 square meters. Our gates were not adjacent.

Three Vietnam Airlines workers ran with us across aisles, down escalators, onto a train, up elevators, across more halls and aisles, through concourses, and finally to the gate. As we didn’t all fit on the same elevator, my husband and I ended up running separately from the other travelers. Apparently our person was a faster runner than theirs because when we got onto the plane, we realized that none of our people had made it yet. The plane was already 10 to 15 minutes beyond takeoff time. I didn’t want to sit down because I was worried our people would not make it onto the flight in time and the plane would take off without them. In a short time, however, the first of them showed up and after a few minutes we were missing only three. As I begin to make my way up the aisle, the last three boarded. In a few minutes, the captain apologized for the delay and we were airborne.

Freed from the earth, but not out of the woods…

For more of the story, go to this post

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