Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 4: birds, burning, and bumbling around

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 4: birds, burning, and bumbling around

Day 4 of our ongoing trip in Hanoi, Vietnam, and we spent the day meeting up with a  friend and just discovering more about this city.

By complete coincidence, it turned out that a friend of ours from back home was planning a trip to Southeast Asia at the exact same time as us; today, our paths finally crossed.

Shaughnessy arrived late the previous night from Bangkok, but had been in no shape to go out, so we connected with him this morning. We decided that an easy thing to do would be to take an electric bus tour of the city. It only cost us 300,000 VND to rent the bus and driver for an hour’s tour of the city. Marcie and I had walked so many of these labyrinthine streets already, but it was neat to see from this new perspective, whipping around in this tuk-tuk-style vehicle.

In truth, we spent most of the trip catching up with Shaughnessy and hearing about his adventures in Thailand and comparing stories. One thing that did catch my eye, was the old city gate.

old city gate-builtin1749_knownlocallyasQuanChuong.jpg

Built in 1749, this is all that remains of the wall that once surrounded the old city of Hanoi.

After the tour came to an end, we caught some lunch, then ended up helping Shaughnessy finding a hotel for a night. Seems like he had bungled up his booking, so had no place to stay for the night, so we ended up scavenging the city in attempt to find him a room. One hotel sent us to another, then another, and each meant another trek through the chaotic city.

And chaotic it was. You see, when we started out in the early afternoon, the streets were quite sedate (I find it always quiets down here at that time of day), but, as our venture continued,  I could feel the energy on the streets palpably increase until it reached a full frenzy. Welcome to Friday evening in Hanoi, I guess!

So, despite this being our fourth day in the city, there were all kinds of new sights to be seen, including:

  • A rooster (crowing like it was sun rise)
  • Many people burning votives (offerings)—so a lot of open flames on all the already-perilous sidewalks
  • An old man peeing in the middle of an ornamental garden
  • People with super-loaded bicycle carts of goods to sell


  • Song birds in cages lining the back alleys
  • An infant girl strutting out from her mom’s shop, onto the sidewalk, hiking up her dress, and peeing like no tomorrow.

To be honest, too much peeing for my liking . . . but the song birds were a surprise. We have been down so many alleys and narrow streets, but today was the first day we saw so many birds out. Perhaps, it’s a custom peculiar to Fridays? My preliminary research hasn’t revealed much except that keeping song birds is a cultural customs here.


As for the burning of offerings, it seems to be something done according to specific days in the lunar calendar. I saw people burning paper and different types of colourful fabric, including felt.


Here’s a few pictures I tried to snap while we navigated the frenzy:


In the midst of all this, we passed a school, and got to watch the amusing and universal scene of children scampering out of their classrooms on the last day of the week. Except here in Vietnam, there are no parents waiting in their cars to collect them. They’re waiting on their scooters. And on the children jumped, and off they zoomed, into the moving maze.


Eventually, we sorted out a hotel for Shaughnessy, and Marcie and I and made our way back to our hotel. Along the way, I needed to fetch a pair of trousers I had purchased in the morning that had needed tailoring. What an expert job, and completed within the day!

After a quick rest, we headed back out into the streets to reconnect with Shaughnessy and visit the Friday night life of Hanoi. The whole of the old quarter is entered around Hoàn Kiém Lake. The road that rings the lake is usually teeming with traffic, but on the weekend nights they close it to the traffic and it’s magically converted into a family playground. Instead of incessant honking, you hear live music, chatter, laughter, and all the sounds of mirth that go with a world suddenly being released from the grim reality of the workday.

We had a lot of fun wandering around the lake, watching all the activities. We began at the enormous stage in one of the main round-about. Music blasted from this so loudly that you could feel the thrum in the pavement. I think there is a big concert happening there on Saturday night, but on this night, it was just pre-recorded music playing, with some dancers.



Heading away from the stage, we found families immersed in many different entertainments. Children played skipping rope, or built wooden towers, or drove around in toy cars.



There were live musicians, karaoke, fortune tellers, and, of course, plenty of treats to eat.


The buildings and the remnants of old architecture were lit up. In short, we were in the midst of a festival!

nightmarket_archThe weather was perfect; the rain from earlier that day had abated and we found ourselves in mild twenty-degree weather.  We eventually made our way back to the main square and ventured up the market street. Like the main ring road, it had been closed to scooters and, here, countless vendors (and I mean, countless) had set up to sell their wares. To be honest, I didn’t find this part very interesting—it was just more of the same regular items that you can find everyday on the streets. I was hoping to find something antique or mysterious (like perhaps a doorknocker!), but if that section of the market exists, I haven’t found it (yet)!



Well, that was are day (and night). Here are a few shots of the various details I discovered during our wanderings.








Next up, a two-day tour of Halong Bay!



Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 3: prisons, papers, and puppets

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 3: prisons, papers, and puppets

Another day in the city of Hanoi and my wife and I continue our explorations.

The only thing we had planned was some pre-booked tickets for a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show in the evening, so the whole day was ours to discover.

We decided to set into the city and make our way towards Hỏa Lò prison in the old quarter. This historical museum was once a functioning prison, built by French Colonial powers in 1896. It was originally designed to detain Vietnamese resisters and it’s quite chilling to see the different cell blocks. Visitors can visit the block for male prisoners, the block for female prisoners (and their children), and the one for prisoners designated for execution.






In true French style, two guillotines were installed in the prison to perform said executions, and one is still on site.



The conditions of the prison are what you would expect—horrible, and nothing brings it home like wandering the cold and dank corridors and cells.


The museum also features many display cases that exhibit personal items used by the prisoners, plus other grisly objects such as shackles and clubs.

In one of the outer courtyards, you can see segments of what was once the sewer system of the prison. Some prisoners were actually able to escape Hỏa Lò through this sewer grate. They went on to become influential political leaders in Vietnam.



Another part of the museum focuses on the second phase of the prison: detaining American’s during the Vietnam War. Many prisoners came to Hỏa Lò Prison between 1964 and 1973, including US senator John McCain. These men were treated much better than the Vietnamese were by the French Colonial powers—in fact, an American nickname for the prison was “Hotel Hanoi.”

After we left the museum, we wandered along the wall of the nearby courthouse (also built during French Colonial times) enjoying the textures, colours, and patterns of the blacked stone.



We passed the courthouse and Marcie discovered a fashionable clothing store that sucked her in like a black hole. I lingered outside, taking in the sights and sounds, when she suddenly reappeared with an expression somewhere between bemusement and anger. When I asked her what was up, she said the lady kicked her out because she was too fat.

“She didn’t actually say that,” I said, and Marcie went on to explain that the lady kept pointing at her body and throwing her hands wide then gesturing to the clothing and narrowing the gap. So, yeah. More or less, she said “too fat.”

We rounded the courthouse and Marcie was instantly cheered, because we found ourselves on a quiet street composed completely of bookstores (well, okay, one shop was a café, but it was full of books, too, and called “The Book Café”).


We had so much fun exploring the different stores and finding familiar titles, but written in Vietnamese.



Then, in one shop, I discovered the Vietnamese version of a book by my friend Margriet Ruurs, Stepping Stones, which is a beautifully-conceived picture book about refugees, and illustrated with stones. We felt compelled to buy it! Actually, we ended up buying a few books, even though they were in Vietnamese. Well, what can we say. We’re book people.


We ventured onward, through the old quarter of Hanoi, absorbing and trying to digest all of the street life. I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but the contrast here is sometimes overwhelming. You can find a boutique clothing store and, next to it, a dingy alley, then a temple, then a humble grill where someone is serving street meat. Many people sell their items right on the sidewalk or by riding up and down the streets on their bikes.




At one point, I noticed a woman trudging by with a type of styrofoam cooler filled with writhing—well, I can only think to call them worms, though I’m sure they were something else. Larvae? They were most definitely intended for eating. I didn’t stop her to probe for enlightenment.

We also noticed many people in very poor physical condition, such as one woman walking on legs bent at right angles at the ankles, her contorted feet splayed outwards. Still, people carry on here, despite their conditions. It really makes us feel grateful for the clean simplicity of living in Canada.

There are so many textures and small details to notice in Hanoi. It’s hard to capture them all—but I try: doors, shutters, and bits of ornamentation peering out from the clutter of the city.





Our final adventure of the night was visiting the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre and watching a mesmerizing show.


Full disclosure: puppets kind of terrify me. It’s their frozen faces and stiff limbs. And the human puppets fit that exact bill, but there were so many other wonderful creatures to be seen in this show: happy ducks, the legendary tortoise of Hoàn Kiém Lake, a playful cat, and dragons that breathed fire (that effect in particular was spectacular).


The performance consisted of fourteen “mini-shows” chronicling fables and stories from Vietnamese culture. The stage, if you will, is a pool of water and this is where the puppets play. The puppeteers are hidden behind a curtain and wear hip-waders (they came out afterwards for a bow), After leaving the theatre, you can enter the foyer to see many traditional puppets on display.


Some puppets are also available for sale. Marcie, of course, ended up buying one: a fairy puppet with diaphanous wings.

One more day in Hanoi before heading off on an over-night trip to Halong Bay!


Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 2: how to avoid scooters, buses, taxis, and tuk tuks

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 2: how to avoid scooters, buses, taxis, and tuk tuks

My wife and I continue to explore the city of Hanoi as part of our “inspircation”—a vacation that involves research and world-building inspiration.

In particular, I’ve come to Vietnam to gather ideas for an upcoming book in my writing schedule (part of the new Zoone series that I’m working on with HarperCollins).

The day did not disappoint, as I found plenty of inspiration . . .

We began our itinerary by venturing out into the spiderweb of streets radiating out from our hotel. Nothing makes you feel as alive as navigating the whirling, buzzing, roaring streets of Hanoi. Back home, I see people crossing the busiest of intersections with their noses firmly planted in their phones, but such habits would lead to certain injury here!

The sidewalks are a maze of people socializing, cooking, selling wares, entreating you for your custom. It’s also not uncommon to suddenly hear a scooter humming from behind you! The paving stones are often uneven and broken. At one point, a car turned into an alley and struck a block of stone fallen away from the sidewalk. The driver did not discern what was going on, so kept pressing the accelerator—only to have the wedge-shaped stone suddenly spit out across the alley like the payload of some ancient catapult. This created quite a stir amongst the onlookers!


There is always something different to see here. At one moment, you happen upon the most derelict door . . . the next a French Colonial building, painted in bright colours and sharp trim. Then, suddenly, a beautiful tree has insinuated itself into the architecture, its roots and vines twisting upwards through electrical cables.



The collision of past and present is very apparent here. The scooters weave in and out, but it’s not uncommon to see the riders wearing nón lá (traditional Vietnamese hats), or to suddenly espy a woman wandering along, carrying a quang ganh (two baskets on either end of a bamboo stick).


So many sights, smells and sounds. Especially sounds. The cacophony of the traffic noise is relentless. Honking is a way of life here. I have fantasies of discovering a shop that specializes entirely in installing, enhancing, and fixing car horns.

Yet . . . these are all things I love about this city. You certainly feel alive. Some people like to go for a beach holiday, but to me, nothing makes me feel more present and clear than exploring a city like this.

In just one day, we’ve become pretty adept at crossing the streets here, drawing on our previous practice in Bangkok. The trick is timing the scooters, cars, tuk tuks, and buses—all coming straight at you at different speeds and angles, and often swerving as they approach.

I should add that most intersections don’t have lights. The ones that do are a bit more manageable, but the ones that don’t—there’s some mystery at play here as to how the drivers and riders on the different intersecting routes sort themselves out. As a pedestrian, there is no opportune moment to cross—you just have to go for it. The key, is never stop moving. You stop, you juke, you jag . . . you’re probably done for.



Eventually, we did require a break from the din, so we ducked inside the palatial gardens of the National Library of Vietnam. The library was originally founded by the French Colonial government, and it shows in the very European layout of the place. It was amazing to take a few steps off the street and suddenly find ourselves in a place where the traffic was muted and the birds were squawking.


The library itself featured many old texts and newspapers, many of them in French.


After the library, we found our way to the Museum of History. We purchased our tickets for a humble fee of 40,000 dong (less than 2 US dollars) and began exploring the gardens. There were many statues here, interspersed with beautiful bonsai-type trees.




The trees gave me unexpected inspiration for a different world I’m building for Zoone, but I was most intrigued by the statues . . .







That last one is a mythical tiger. Mythical, I suppose, because of that mischievous grin!

After we had our fill of the gardens, we went inside the museum itself. The museum covers the history of Vietnam from the prehistoric age, through the middle ages of repelling Chinese incursions, to French Colonization.

A couple pieces in particular caught our eye . . .



This pair of whips jumped out at me (once again, for world-building purposes):


One is made of bones, the other a manta ray tail.

After a quick lunch, we back-tracked through the city to the Women’s Museum. This is a unique exhibit chronicling the contribution of women in all aspects of Vietnamese society—from child-rearing, textiles, food preparation, agriculture, and even war.  There’s a different floor to cover each aspect.


The museum is designed around a central installation of these beautifully decorated nón lá:


I found a lot of unexpected inspiration here—unexpected because so many of the traditions and customs had been previously unfamiliar to me and they really helped me consider some angles for the world I’m building. In particular, I was quite interested to learn that many of the ethnic groups within Vietnam employed a matriarchal approach. So, instead of the woman going to live with the husband’s family, the reverse was the case.

Marcie and I were very captivated by the floor dedicated to women’s involvement in the Vietnam War. They were truly instrumental in that conflict; their strength, determination, and zeal really comes across in the exhibit.

The museum is very modern, incorporating a lot of multimedia, but, for me, I’m always the most attracted to the physical items. Here are some of my favourites that caught my eye . . .






After the museums, we were pretty tuckered out, so we slogged back to our hotel and arranged traditional Vietnamese massages.

We’ve made arrangements for a tour of Halong Bay towards the end of the week—as for tomorrow, we’ve left it wide open for more exploration and discovery.


Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 1

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 1

My wife Marcie and I just finished up a creativity camp in Korea and have now made our way south to Vietnam and Cambodia for some must-deserved R&R—and to discover new inspiration.

Visiting Vietnam is a bit trickier than going to other countries, just because of the advance paperwork that has to be completed. Visas have to be sought in advance and, once you arrive at the airport, it’s not a simple matter of going through immigration. You have to actually line up three times—once to hand in your passport and visa documents, once to retrieve them after they have been processed, and then once to go through the regular customs, like you would in any country.

Thankfully, Marcie had us prepared and we went through all the stages without a hitch. The only thing we needed during this time was patience, but we had only been on a five-hour flight from Korea, so weren’t plagued by jet lag, like so many other travellers we saw, scratching their heads as they tried to sort out the various steps.

Marcie had also arranged a car for us, so, once we cleared customs and collected our luggage, we were quickly on our way. Our first afternoon in Hanoi was rainy, misty, and just a bit magical. In fact, we were only in the car for about five minutes, when I looked out the window and saw my first water buffalo. Welcome to Vietnam!

Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough to snap a photo, but here’s a look at the landscape without Mr. Buffalo:


Hanoi itself is a collision of cultures. The remnants of French colonialism can still be found in the architecture and the streets are a mixture of people in traditional clothing (love the hats), riding old bicycles or zipping along on scooters. Crossing the streets here sure keeps you on your toes. Having been to Bangkok several times, I have some experience!


After getting settled into our hotel, the first thing we decided to do was go out and explore. Our hotel is a few minutes walk from Hoàn Kiém Lake, which means “Lake of the Returned Sword.”

According to legend, the Viet hero Le Loi was given a magic sword by the Divine Turtle that lives in the lake. Le Loi used the sword to fight off the invading Chinese and, after a successfully doing so, restored the weapon to the lake.

Today, Hoàn Kiém Lake is in the historical centre of Hanoi and its focal point is Tháp Rùa, or “Turtle Tower”, in the center. The haze was still clinging to the city as we ventured around the lake, giving us many mystical views.




It may seem cool from the photos, but the temperature was in the 20-degree Celsius range and there was a tropical hint of humidity in the air. We ventured across the red bridge and visited the temple shrine on the other side.


This afforded us not only a close look at the temple and its unique Vietnamese architecture, but at the various tropical trees.






I especially love the details that we find in these spiritual places. Just check out this gorgeous incense burner . . . the handle actually appears as smoke billowing from the creature’s maw.


I also decided that this tree root system looked like a sleeping giant who had been petrified by some magical force. (Or, perhaps, just by time!)


After leaving the temple, we walked the circumference of the entire lake, which actually did not take very long, but gave us a glimpse at more of the old quarter. It is not uncommon to find bits of architecture just like this, sticking its neck out through modernity to remind us of the past.


At this point, evening had settled in on Hanoi—and with it, the buzz of nightlife. We caught dinner in a lounge on a multi-story restaurant tower, which allowed us to sample local cuisine and also get a great view of the lake.


More adventures await us!



The nightmare escapes: a writing prompt at our creativity camp

The nightmare escapes: a writing prompt at our creativity camp

My wife and I our currently in Korea, teaching a creativity camp for tweens and teens. We’re combing writing, art, prop building, and acting to provide the students with a week of intensive creativity!

One of our opening activities was based around the idea of bottling dreams. Students brainstormed characters, focusing on their fears and nightmares. The students then “built” the nightmares by imagining that they had been bottled.

Students could be as literal or symbolic as they wished. I brought a lot of general supplies such as black sand, hair, cotton, and feathers, all of which could be trimmed or stretched to represent the negative qualities of nightmares. There were also some more “on-the-nose” objects, such as plastic bugs and snakes!

For story purposes, those bottles get accidentally opened, unleashing story inspiration!

Here are some photos of the students’ bottles and brainstorming . . .











A boy in an inside-out shirt, a flying tiger, and a thousand doorways: My new book series!

A boy in an inside-out shirt, a flying tiger, and a thousand doorways: My new book series!

I’m very excited to announce that I’ve signed with HarperCollins Children’s Books for a three-book middle-grade series. Book 1, The Secret of Zoone, is about a boy who stumbles through a secret door and into a magical station at a crossroad between worlds (so, as you can guess, a lot happens there).

I can’t wait to introduce readers to my cast of characters, including . . .

Ozzie, the boy in the inside-out shirt . . .

Tug, the skyger with failed wings . . .

Salamanda Smink, the inept wizard’s apprentice . . .

and Fidget of Quoxx, the princess with inappropriately purple hair.

I’ve been working on this world (worlds!) in one way or the other for ten years. It’s involved not only writing, but a lot of doodling, drawing, brainstorming, prop-building, and traveling the world.






I’m so thrilled that the series has finally found a home. It combines many of the things I absolutely adore: doorways, keys, talking (and flying) animals, magic, and steampunk.

I want to thank my agent Rachel Letofsky with CookeMcDermid for all of her support, but in helping me get the manuscript in shape and, of course, in finding a dream publisher for it.

I also want to thank all those people who helped by preceding the book: the one and only Marcie Nestman, Paige Mitchell, Kallie George, Sarah Bagshaw, Renuka Baron, and a cast of young readers, including Nadia and Rachel.

I’m currently hard at work with my wonderful editor, Stephanie Stein, to complete final edits on Book 1 for its release in 2019.

The thief who coveted the dragon’s scale

The thief who coveted the dragon’s scale

As a middle-grade fantasy author, a big part of my personal process is bringing my worlds to life through prop-building. It’s also something I love bringing to the classroom.

A recent project I’ve worked on with two different creative writing classes for tweens and teens is something I call “The Dragon and the Thief.” In this series of workshops, we build dragon scales then write a series of pieces about two adversarial characters.

The first set of writing is a pair of poems. The first one, “I am a Thief,” is from the perspective of a character who wants to climb the mountain to snatch a dragon’s scale.  The second one, “I am a Dragon,” is from the perspective of the fantastical beast who is being pilfered. To get the students started, I have them work on a couple of brainstorming sheets.

Of course, some students choose to do their own brainstorming in their notebooks:


Afterwards, the students choose the perspective that they feel most connected to, and write a short story.

And, of course, along the way, we build the scales themselves. These are fairly simple to craft, though they do demand some time and patience.

The first step is to cut out some basic scale shapes from soda bottles. Then it’s a matter of using plaster to “sculpt” around them. Depending on what you want, you can just simply leave the surface flat and smooth, or sculpt in ridges.





This is where the patience comes in; after this stage, you just have to wait for them to dry! At this stage, the scales should look like the ones below, with a gentle curve (which you get naturally from the soda bottle).


The next stage is to texturize the scales by adding acrylic gems (though other materials could work, too). Once the gems are glued down, we then paint the scales with mod podge, which helps bind everything together.








Then we need more patience, to let everything dry . . . but once that happens, then it’s just down to painting. I usually recommend painting the whole scale black for a base, then dry brushing metallic paint overtop to achieve the desired color and texture.

Here is a gallery of the scales that my students have produced. I think they look pretty darn amazing!