Thursday, November 29, 2007
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Saturday, November 24, 2007
Hotels: I loved loved loved the Rex. It is in the process of being renovated, so not all areas are shiny and new, but it has charm and the staff is excellent in all respects. The spa is on the 6th floor and it's excellent. The hotel restaurant is on the 5th floor and man, do I miss the fruit in the mornings! I know some families have found outside laundries to wash their clothes, but with 6 free items per day, I found the Rex laundry service more than adequate and not all that expensive. Plus, the convenience more than made up for any added expense in my opinion. Internet service was flawless, with a wireless box right outside of our room. The Somerset Westlake was nice, but definitely lacking in the charm and amazing service of the Rex. There was a small kitchen, so we could cook some of our own food and keep large quantities of Diet Pepsi cold. We were also able to request 5 gallons of purified water for around $2, which made cooking and bottle-making much easier. Internet service was shaky, and cost us $10 per day. It was worth it since we were Skyping every day and keeping in touch by email, but all of us experienced difficulties with it. Making up for the negatives was a lovely grassy courtyard where we could get outside and let the kiddos play. There's an absolutely beautiful pool too but we thought the water was too chilly for a casual swim.
Taxis: I was worried about using taxis when we first arrived in Vietnam. It turned out to be a non-issue. The hotel doormen were right there to get us taxis whenever we left either hotel and the people at whatever restaurant/store/attraction we went to were happy to help us as well. Of course, the Dillon staff organized transportation for any official appointments. The only time we had an issue was when we left the Temple of Literature. The taxi cabs were not from companies we recognized so we walked a few blocks and hailed a different car. We needed two taxis and the first taxi driver sat and waited with us after calling for a second driver.
Currency: Spending dong is easy. Heck, I had to buy another suitcase for my purchases - that's how easy it is! Figuring out the conversions was another thing I was worried about, but I had it down within a couple of days. When we first arrived at the Rex, I had $500 converted from U.S. to Dong. Even with paying the passport application fee and the adoption fee in dong, I had more than enough for all of my shopping, a large majority of my meals, taxi cab rides, and admissions to the zoo and museum. When I arrived in Hanoi, I converted another $100 'just in case' and I ended up buying a pretty pair of jade and silver earrings on our last day simply because I didn't want to deal with having to convert the money back to U.S. currency.
Food: In Ho Chi Minh, we didn't search out much for 'American' food, but we did have one meal at the famous Pizza Hut in the Diamond Center on our last day there! Be aware that food that sounds like American favorites have likely been modified. For instance, the club sandwich at the hotel was served with cucumbers and fried egg. It's not nearly as disgusting as it sounds - honestly - but your tastebuds are going to be disappointed if you expect the 'homemade apple pie' to taste like Grandma's. The Thousand Island dressing had horseradish added to it and the ketchup was sweet. There is a cafe on the first floor of the Saigon Center that served a thin crust cheese pizza to die for! All of us were ready for familiar foods in Hanoi and I think everyone would heartily recommend Jaspa's (on the 4th floor of the Somerset Grand) and Al Fresco's (a 20 minute taxi ride from the Westlake). The grocery store on the first floor of the Somerset Grand complex has peanut butter & jelly, Kraft macaroni and cheese, sliced cheese and bread, and good chocolate.
Shopping: The area surrounding the Rex has a ton of shops that are fun to explore. Just walk the two block area around the hotel and you'll find pretty much everything you were looking for. Just down the block from the Rex is the Tax Center. It's a giant craft fair masquerading as a mall. The first floor is jewelry and makeup/perfume, the second floor has the grocery store, and the third and fourth floors have everything else. For a wider variety in clothing, go to the Saigon Center (about two blocks from the Rex). This is a more upscale mall with some recognizable brands, including a Lamaze store where I dropped serious cash (err... dong) on baby toys. There's also a bookstore here where I found children's books in both Vietnamese and English that I bought for P. I bought most of my gifts in Ho Chi Minh, but I could have bought more in Hanoi. When we were walking through the Old Town area of Hanoi, the stores were more charming, the streets closer together, and the atmosphere was just more authentic somehow. Less touristy I guess, although the stores had much of the same things we'd found in HCMC. In Hanoi, there is a bookstore called the Bookworm. It's the only English language bookstore in Hanoi and is about a 15 minute taxi ride from the Westlake. I throw that in there for anyone else who must absorb the smell of paper and glue on a regular basis.
That's about all I can think of at the moment. Let me know if you have any questions!
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Last night, we hopped in two taxis for a trip to the Somerset Grand (ask Bill how his taxi ride went!!!). We headed for Jaspa's on the 4th floor of the hotel complex. Jaspa's is half pub/half fine dining. The menu ranged from burgers to steaks to fajitas to pizza and all sorts of other good stuff. After appetizers of turkish flat bread and hummus and bruschetta, most of us tucked into steak fajitas, served along side a tall mug of Tiger beer. I think it was the most I've eaten since I've come to Vietnam and my stomach felt it last night! We were celebrating our Visa appointment, so dessert was ordered and eaten next to the rooftop pool at the Somerset Grand. It was a gorgeous night (and the taxi ride home was less eventful.) As a group, we highly recommend avoiding traffic in Hanoi from 5:30-6:30... otherwise expect a scarier-than-normal ride, followed by long periods of sitting completely still.
Our Visa appointments were a piece of cake - step up to the window, pay your $380 (Visa application fee), sign a couple of pieces of paper, swear you didn't lie, and get a nice yellow card to bring back the next day. The gentleman behind the bulletproof glass seemed to think we'd have no problem picking up the Visas tomorrow, so I'm hoping he's right. Mom, P, and I have an 11:40 p.m. flight out tomorrow night! I was actually hoping for a Friday night flight, to give us time to correct any errors on the Visa, but most of us found that it was either Thursday night/Friday morning or not at all until Thanksgiving. The 11:40 p.m. flight was our last available option until the night before Thanksgiving, our original return date. As I told my husband, I'm either going to be leaving tomorrow night or I'll be a poster child for Jynger's "Don't change your airline tickets until you have your Visa in hand" speech :)
Since we'd all eaten breakfast and lunch in our rooms, we ventured out (at 5:10 this time and in slightly less traffic) to Al Fresco's, a fun Italian joint! It's evidently a chain and there's one in Ho Chi Minh City too. Calzones, lasagne, pizza... burgers, Mexican dishes, and some mighty tempting banana daquiris. I thought that might be a bit much though and managed to hold myself back.
Now we're back in the room, stuffed again and feeling miserable. What a great feeling!!!
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
This morning, we grabbed a taxi to a supermarket of sorts. Several of us were low on important things like diapers! Then most of us had peanut butter & jelly sandwiches in our rooms for lunch. I was excited to find a tennis match on television - Andy Roddick vs. Davedenko in a Tennis Masters Cup game, so I watched that for a bit (Andy won). I've been hankering for some new books to read and had read about a English-language bookstore called the Bookworm, run by an Australian couple, so I talked two of the other families into going with us for a book run. The gentleman who owns the store was so nice and I found three new books to keep me busy. We weren't far from the Old Quarter so we decided to walk for a while. It was great to stretch our legs and really see some of Hanoi. Of course, there was some shopping done along the way but we're all being more cautious now, since two of us have already had to buy more luggage just to fit all of our purchases (sorry honey!!!). We went past the most beautiful old church (Steve took pictures, which we're all going to get copies of) and then we ended up near a small lake and stopped for ice cream drinks.
One of the things I love about Vietnam is how everyone is willing to help. When it was time for us to head back to the hotel, the staff at the restaurant called us a cab. Since there are usually 6-8 of us, we can't jump into a regular taxi - we always need the larger sized vehicle. And everywhere we've been, we've asked the security staff (who are everywhere in both HCMC and Hanoi) and they've gone out of their way to find us a ride 'home'. Sometimes we don't even ask... we just look confused and mill about until someone takes pity on us. :)
We're going to head out for dinner this evening. Hopefully we'll have an appointment time to celebrate - Thomas is going to call us soon to tell us what he's found out from the Embassy.
Monday, November 12, 2007
The Embassy is closed today because of Veteran's Day, so it looks like we won't hear about our appointment until tomorrow. We're still hoping for Wednesday so that we're home by the weekend. Keep your fingers crossed, send a few prayers our way, and add in a couple of pagan rituals if appropriate. :)
Sunday, November 11, 2007
The flight from Hanoi was easy for me - P slept from takeoff to landing. Our flight was slightly delayed through and then it was about 45 minutes from the airport to the hotel, so we were all very tired when we got here. We had also worn ourselves out with two days of hard shopping in HCMC :) Plus, when you've been going to bed at 8:30 and instead it's 11:15...
No more for now. P's taking a quick nap and I'm thinking some makeup might make me look somewhat awake before we head out to explore Hanoi.
Friday, November 9, 2007
Anywho, we were all sweating bullets by the time we got to the building, but this time it was nerves instead of humidity. However, the interviewer (Mary Ann something - I can't believe I can't remember her last name) was nice as can be. There were a few basic questions to be sure our information hadn't changed since we applied for the I600A and then questions about P's health and her orphanage. Then we had a nice long talk about the corruption in Vietnam adoption and some of the incredibly scary things she's seen lately. I promise a nice long post on that when we get home and are settled in. Since today is Friday, we weren't sure if we would get the decision today or Monday, but our interviewer was sweet and Minh was able to pick up the decisions for our families this afternoon (all of us 'passed'). We went to the Vietnam Airlines office and made reservations to leave HCMC on Sunday at 6 p.m. - on to Hanoi!
Tonight is our dinner with the Dillon staff at a Vietnamese restaurant. Minh promises a traditional Vietnamese meal... another adventure!
Thursday, November 8, 2007
- P counts as a third person in our room.
A third person means an extra two items of free laundry each day.
- Even better, a third person means another piece of chocolate delivered each night... even if the third person's mama eats the chocolate for her!
At the zoo:
- When it looks like it's going to rain... RUN!
We have had a great day so far. After some paperwork with Minh this morning, we were free to roam. We went with two of the families and explored a couple of blocks around the hotel. There are some absolutely gorgeous silk and embroidery shops here in Vietnam. We came back to the hotel for some much needed downtime and then met up at 1:30 with Christi, Steve & Jake and Al, Chris & Hank to head to the zoo and Vietnam History Museum. The zoo is also a botanical garden and we wandered for quite a while before we even saw animals, other than the ones carved out of bushes. The elephants were quite a hit though, especially when Al decided to feed one. This set off a round of elephant feeding, with one big guy taking all of the bamboo shoots. He very politely nodded his head after each treat though, so we forgave him. The humidity was starting to get to everyone so we decided to head for the history museum and we had excellent timing because the skies opened up and it POURED. We wandered around inside and then stumbled upon a water puppet show! I was so excited! That was something I wanted to be sure to see here in Vietnam. After the exciting finale (fireworks shooting from the dragon's mouth), we asked the guard at the front door if we could find a taxi. And here's what we all decided we had to write home about. I'll set the scene.... it's still pouring outside. We're six Americans with babies. And a Vietnamese security person comes running up to our group with an umbrella that looks like he's just grabbed it from some picnic table. We huddled together and ran for the front gate, splashing and looking like complete fools but staying relatively dry. Of course, by the time the taxi had arrived it wasn't raining nearly as hard but I'm sure we provided excellent amusement for folks watching our little adventure! We had 'tourist' written all over us :)
For those still waiting to travel, I highly recommend both the zoo and the museum. The zoo was 8000 dong per person - about 50 cents - and I think the museum was 24,000 dong per person. The water puppet show had an admission price too - maybe 32,000 dong? I can't really remember but I don't regret a penny!
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
Yesterday afternoon, the skies opened up and Vietnam showed us what rain REALLY looks like. All of the people on scooters whipped ponchos out and continued their ride. Pretty funny, actually. We've decided that crossing the street in Vietnam traffic is kind of a cross between Frogger and Dodge Ball. Unfortunately, we're the frogs. But everyone is getting better at it. We just wander right out in front of the scooters but are still smart enough to wait until the cars and buses pass by.
Anyway, since it was still pouring cats and dogs, we had dinner at the Rooftop restaurant at the Rex last night and it was gorgeous. It's beautiful enough during the daytime, but at night it's lit up and you can see the traffic down below. We were still back to the rooms for an early bedtime and today has been pretty relaxed. We signed some paperwork this morning (again), explored the Saigon Center (a very nice mall only a couple of blocks from the hotel), and then went with Minh to pick up the kids' passports. We have also encountered our first delay. Since there are so many families here trying to get in under the 'old' I600 rules, we won't have our CIS interview until Friday morning. There is a chance we'll receive our approval that afternoon, but it probably won't be until Monday. So we won't leave for Hanoi until Monday, putting us just one day behind on the schedule. The Dillon staff will try to get us an appointment in Hanoi for Tuesday or Wednesday, and we would have our approval and be able to go home one day after the interview. We may encounter more delays in Hanoi, but so far we're all just trucking along and doing whatever the Dillon staff says. Thomas says we should relax and enjoy this 'vacation' with our children. He will make everything easy for us! And boy, do they. The Dillon staff has been absolutely amazing - explaining each step of the process, doing as much on their own as they can, and then picking us up and taking us to each appointment. They tell us when to sign on the dotted line, check all of the information to be sure it's accurate, and then tell us when to meet in the lobby for the next round of paperwork and appointments.
Tomorrow is a free day and I think we're heading to the zoo. Or the waterpark. We'll decide tonight at dinner. All of the families are meeting and we're walking to the Saigon Center to explore a restaurant on the first floor over there.
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
Monday, November 5, 2007
This was the part we were all a tad nervous about, but there was no screaming or crying or fussing of any type. And the kids did great too (ha ha). We stopped at that same beautiful rest area for lunch and it was the perfect way to cap the day. We made it back to HCMC around 3:00, ran to the Tax Center for more diapers and formula and essentials like cute pillows and Diet Pepsi (diapers, formula, pillow, 6 cans of pop, bag of M&Ms, Pringles, and 2 huge bottles of water = less than $15 U.S.), and then met the other families for a quick dinner. Believe it or not, P slept for 13 hours last night. She woke up twice for bottles and then went back to sleep. I think she was hoping we'd disappear if she slept long enough, but no such luck. So far, we've all been lucky and the kids are settling in. Stay tuned for the meltdown tomorrow :)
We applied for the kids' passports this morning and had their photos taken. This afternoon is the medical appointment and we'll be sticking close to the hotel tomorrow, waiting for our CIS interview. More later!
I've been horrible about posting to the blog but I tell ya, this Vietnam thing has been kicking my rear. Nerves have been at a fever pitch for days and by the time 8:00 rolls around, I'm ready for bed. But tonight I'm going to stay awake until you've got the whole scoop, so here goes!
On Sunday morning, all four families met upstairs at the Rex for breakfast and then we checked out of the hotel in time to meet Minh and another Dillon staffer downstairs. One family went with the other Dillon staff person to Can Tho and the rest of us piled into a bus for the trip to Vinh Long. It's a nice, air conditioned bus and Minh took great care of us, keeping us stocked with bottled water and stopping at the nicest rest area I've ever seen for a potty break. We were able to buy Diet Pepsi and Pringles there! Mmmmm. One of the other moms and I were getting a little bus sick, what with the constant swerving around motorbikes and the bumpiness of the road. It got worse as we went on and pretty much everyone was feeling it as we neared Vinh Long. (As it turns out, the ride home was much smoother and we decided it was just as much nerves as bus sickness!) We stopped at a restaurant in Vinh Long right on the river and watched barges, ferries, and assorted other vessels motor by. This was where the lizards came into play. These little lizards were crawling everywhere on the walls of the restaurant! We, of course, took pictures :)
Back to the bus we went and then it was a short drive to the Center. I was videotaping the trip when we turned into the driveway and the driver paused so we could take a picture of the sign. Then we went up this crazily narrow lane with water on both sides of us, stopping so the driver could move a motorbike further to the side of the road. We pulled up in front of the main building, which I'd guess is some sort of office building, and met the social worker. After a little talking, we walked right to the Center where the infants and toddlers were. I'd been told to expect a tour of the whole place, but we walked over, took our shoes off, and there we were! One of the families met their toddler boy (oh my gosh is he cute!) as soon as we walked through the gate, and then we were led upstairs to the infant room. P was sleeping in a crib right inside the door and she looked so tiny. She woke up with all of the commotion and didn't fuss at all when I picked her up. She does this thing with her eyebrows where she scrunches them all together when she's worried, and she was doing it big time when I first started to hold her. We were able to stay for 2 1/2 hours and we ended up on the floor playing with several of the babies. We were also able to watch the nannies feed the babies their cereal and give them baths. Everyone tells you how much the nannies love these babies, and wow it's so true! They were all loved on and played with.
It wasn't nearly as hard to leave as I thought it might be. P went back into her crib for a nap and we went downstairs to play with the toddlers for a bit. Then Minh was ready (he'd been doing some paperwork) and we headed out the door for the trip to Can Tho. There was a little conversation at first, but then everyone crashed. The emotional high we'd been riding collapsed and dazed sleepiness took over. The drive really isn't that long - usually around 1/2 hour from what I understand. However, we got in line to get on the ferry... and stayed in line for more than an hour. I fell asleep somewhere along the line and when I woke up, it was 1 1/2 hours after we'd first gotten in line and we were just coming off the ferry on the other side. I was wiped out, so we checked into the hotel, ordered in a little room service, talked to Chris and the girls on Skype, and was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. Then we were up at 5 a.m. for breakfast before the trip back to Vinh Long.
The G&R ceremony went off without a hitch, but you'll have to wait for that post until tomorrow. P is fussing and I'm ready for bed. Good night!
Sunday, November 4, 2007
Saturday, November 3, 2007
We explored the Saigon Tax Center from top to bottom. Clothes, toys, gifts, food - you name it, they had it. And they definitely want to sell 'it' to you. As soon as you stop to touch something, a girl is at your elbow pulling you into her stall to show you other things you might like. The words 'just looking' are necessary and I think we've decided that it's best not to touch anything. There are some beautiful things though, and I'm looking forward to some serious shopping once we're feeling more settled.
After lunch, Mom, Kim and I went to the spa on the 6th floor of the Rex and had massages, then Kim and I had pedicures while Mom had a manicure done. It was so nice to have all of the travel aches kneaded out of my body. And we look pretty too! Naps were on the agenda after the spa, and we were going to head out for some more exploring but Bill wasn't feeling the best and we decided to forego new experiences until we had him with us. I wanted to get out for a bit though, so Kim went with us to the Tax Center again and we checked out a few places we hadn't seen the first time around.
There is so much to take in and you're definitely on sensory overload. The scooters beep their horns, the language is different, the sights are amazing... all while your body is physically exhausted and your nerves are on red alert waiting for this thing called 'baby'. We meet Minh in the lobby tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. for the trip to Vinh Long. We'll visit the Center, meet P (yippee!), and then travel to Can Tho to stay for the night. The next day we will have the G&R and then come back to the Rex. There are so many places I want to see while we're in Ho Chi Minh but we'll have to save the majority of our exploring for another day. I hope P is ready for some sightseeing!
Friday, November 2, 2007
Thomas and Minh got us all checked in and then left us until Sunday morning. We have a free day tomorrow so we're meeting for breakfast and then we're off to explore! (That statement right there will scare the heck out of my poor dad!)
Our room is fabulous, the internet was super-easy to connect to, and Skype is working great. We did have to ask the very nice man who brought our luggage to our room to explain how to turn the lights on. After he showed us how to insert our key, I vaguely remembered that Tim & Rachel had the same problem :)
More tomorrow after our next adventure!
Okay... off to find our connecting gate. We're here until 7 p.m. Seoul-time, which is 5 p.m. HCMC time. Then it's a 5 1/2 hour flight. Gotta love airplanes.