Hanoi in a Nutshell

I arrived in Hanoi at 10:10pm Tuesday night with I had everything I needed, I thought, to get my visa on arrival.

That’s how they do it here. The embassy in Beijing’s phone numbers are disconnected and no one responds to email. So you must get the visa through a service (for a fee) with a hotel. I had everything and went to the window. Behind it was a line of chairs with portly middle-aged clerks in military uniforms kibbitzing. Finally the youngest approaches the window and I give him all my forms. With tortoise-like speed he looks them over, shows them to his peers, yawns and saunters away. Eventually, he returns and tells me I have to go to the window on the other side of the kiosk. I do and wait.

Finally the same guy comes to help me as the “cashier.” One other clerk helps travelers, but the others do nothing work related as far as I could see. So this man has a receipt requesting 45,000 Vietnamese dong ($25) in cash. That was weird since I thought I paid through the service. I’m pretty sure, but I’m not going to argue. I’m just too tired. This desk is the first stop outside the plane so I ask if they take other currencies (I’ve got US, Chinese and Korean with me). Nope it has to be dong. He looks at me like I’m nuts when I say I need to change money. He says there’s no ATM or currency exchanges. At the airport? I just stare at him hoping he figures out that he has to do something.

Eventually he leads me out past customs and all to the ATM that he said they didn’t have. We then return and I give him my money. Onward.

After clearing customs I see the university contingent sent to pick me up. There’s a professor and two women dressed in white sequined traditional dresses with purple and yellow sashes. One has an ornate headband so they look like beauty pageant contestants. They greet me and take my bags to a van. They take me to my hotel and chat as we go. One woman will be my guide through the conference. That’s nice, but it also meant there was no chance I could leave should I get bored and do some sightseeing. I knew then that the next day would be really long. For my convenience she’d pick me up at 7:15am. I really didn’t need to be among the first to arrive, but whatever.

My hotel was very nice. I saw a flattering comment on a NY Times piece on Hanoi. It’s the Hotel Elegance #1 and they couldn’t be nicer. The room’s nice and clean and the location is great. I’ve got a computer in the room with internet, though very slow. I can get on my blog, but not on Facebook. More Communist censorship.

So my guide was here at 7am, but I let her wait till 7:15 since I don’t want to encourage this kind of early rising. We drive through the city to the hotel where the conference will be. Vietnam, like all Asian cities I’ve been to is a jumble of architecture. There are lots of French style buildings and other quickly thrown up unattractive multistory buildings. Chic shops have the shabbiest of neighbors and it produces a kind of charm. Frank Lloyd Wright would be apoplectic, but one gets used to this style.

Hanoi does have a nice energy and atmosphere: lots of women toting the fruit they sell on woven carriers, multitudes of motorcycles, and near the lake in the center of town numerous people are exercising and doing tai chi.

We were amongst the first to arrive at the conference. How I wished for some freedom even if it meant less hospitality. We got there at eight and of course they didn’t start on time at 9. I did meet two interesting women from California who run a non-profit agency that provides teacher training in Vietnam.

The schedule they gave me the night before at 10:45pm had me scheduled to talk on Thursday. I still had hopes of explaining that I didn’t feel well because of my cold and getting to leave, rest and sightsee in the afternoon. Then these women pointed out that the schedule had been all changed and I was to talk that day. Great. I really wasn’t as prepared for that as I wanted. Memories of Indonesia pop into my head and that never is pleasant.

Anyway, the welcoming speeches and keynotes proceed, but we’re soon 90 minutes behind schedule. The topic was Innovations in Global Educational Leadership and most of it was not of interest to me. I was impressed that they had speakers from Sweden, France, Hong Kong, the US, and Thailand as well as Vietnam. They also had simultaneous translation so you could put on headphones to get the language you preferred. Even when the French gave their talks one could get Vietnamese or English translations. (The Chinese English Conference I went to in Oct. was mainly done in Chinese.)

By mid morning there’s no way we’re going to finish at 5. Then the Dean and Hostess of the even announces that it would be such a pity to miss anyone’s talk and so sad if we had to divide into smaller groups so she pronounces that we’ll just stay in one room and everyone will talk for 10 rather than 20 minutes. Suddenly we all have to halve our speeches, which we already had to do when they told us a few months ago that we would have 20 instead of 40 minutes. How ridiculous. Basically, everything went to hell after that. There was no reason for this since we all received an 800+ page book of every paper in the original language with an Vietnamese translation. Mind you I have no interest in most of these topics. Somehow I did survive and listened to a lot more blathering about “globalization,” “autonomous learners” “student-centered learning” and “quality education” (nebulous because no specifics are attached – who doesn’t want quality education, but what do you mean when you say quality?)

I cut pages from my paper and basically raced through the PowerPoint slides sometimes just having to say “and there are many things one would have to do for evaluating the program, next slide.”

No one got the irony of how non-learner centered, passive and old-school the event itself was. Well, maybe a few like me and we’re too well mannered to say anything.

As the afternoon wore on, even the Dean, who positioned herself and two chairpeople at a table facing the spectators, dozed off.

Finally, it ended and my helper and two of her friends escorted me back to my hotel. Though I’d hoped to wander around the Old Town and try one of the restaurants I’d read about, I was treated to more hospitality. They took me to dinner and then we wandered Old Town and took me around the lake. It was lovely. We had pho soup which here came with long savory donuts for dunking.

Back at the hotel I got to browse some of the many blogs I love and can’t see here. They are a little bit more open with internet.

After the second day of agonizing pedantry on pedagogy, I went on the city tour they organized. I met an interesting Fulbright scholar who’s time in Hanoi mirrored mine in Makassar. The US government has no problem sending people overseas to not teach and to basically show up at events and smile. Her pleas for help have been unanswered and the Fulbright office is the bane of her existence.

They should have had us see as many sights in the city as one can. It would have been really good if the university just hired a van and had a history professor take us around. Instead it was a typical bus tour. We drove for an hour by stretches of ugly construction that’s going to be a blight on the landscape for generations. Very sad. We got to the pottery village, which was a typical tourist trap just like all the places where you see them make whatever. Some provide interesting background on how the crafts are made, but this one really didn’t edify. The pictures I got weren’t bad though IMHO.

Next we saw the 900 year old Temple of Literature, a beautiful Confucian temple.

Of course, at the last minute they decided to change dinner. So we were whisked to a party at the Daewoo Hotel, which was gorgeous. We feasted on Chinese food – lots of meat and fish and one vegetable. It was sumptuous and one of the soups was a little bit better than what I’ve had here that’s comparable.

I did meet lots of fascinating people who are doing interesting work. Even if it means dealing with the louts at issuing visas, I’d go back. When I go to a new place I wonder if I could work there. The thing with Vietnam is that since it’s got even more tones than Chinese, their accents are really tough to discern. Eventually conversation just consisted of nodding on my part. I’d really have to become an accent reduction expert to teach there otherwise I’d go nuts. Then the visa clerks in their military uniforms just indicate that it’s not the culture for me. I know that I was very lucky not to have any hassles. I lucked intoGreat place to visit though.

About smkelly8

writer, teacher, movie lover, traveler, reader
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