China Assignment (Suzhou) bio picture
  • Welcome to my Suzhou blog!

    For the next two years (starting on Feb 14, 2011) I will use this blog to chronicle our travels while on assignment in Suzhou, China. My wife and I (OK, mostly me) consider this a great opportunity to get to know one of the oldest and richest cultures in the world. We are excited about the opportunity and hope you will join us as we explore this amazing land and it's surroundings. We encourage you to add comments as you see best.
    Thanks for visiting!
    My assignment ended on March 8, 2013. If you like to follow our next adventure click HERE
    Carlos & Bethe

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Controlled Chaos

Vietnam seems to follow the same traffic rules Chinese uses at busy intersections where there are no traffic lights. Meaning, just go straight, keep a steady speed and hope for the best. Yes, this video scene is repeated in every corner in Hanoi where there are no traffic lights.

What amazes me the most about this is that nobody gets upset when they are cut or bumped; they just keep on moving; completely emotionless. I know it looks crazy, but I believe there is a lesson in here for us westerners. Our guide told us you must have three things when you drive in Vietnam; good breaks, a good horn and good luck. There you go!

ccausillasNovember 10, 2012 - 9:23 AM

I would have, but we had to see so many things. Actually, we were having dinner the night before and our table was right on next to the window facing a very busy corner. I wish I tapped that corner, it was so busier that this one. It may have been rush hour.

ccausillasNovember 10, 2012 - 9:21 AM

You are right, Lima is very similar; at time even worse.

Ana MariaNovember 10, 2012 - 6:34 AM

It is so true. You can see less accidents than in other places that they have lights and even a police directing traffic. When I was there I had the same feeling that I have when I go to Peru.

Ana MariaNovember 10, 2012 - 6:34 AM

It is so true. You can see less accidents than in other places that they have lights and even a police directing traffic. When I was there I had the same feeling that I have when I go to Peru.

PeterNovember 10, 2012 - 3:42 AM

Well, it requires a good set of "personal antenna" that allow you to navigate through the traffic, including eyes and ears that see and hear from all directions. It may look disordered, however, there is an order in it ūüėÄ

shayneNovember 9, 2012 - 10:30 PM

I could probably just sit on that corner all day and watch traffic.

Vietnam

There are so many places/countries we would like to visit while in China that making a choice within the time we have left is becoming very difficult. We know we are fortunate to be here and would like to make the most of it. Amongst the many places in our list, Vietnam was one that we have heard so much about; all of it positive. So we decided to go to Hanoi for a couple of days and then for a brief cruise around the highly regarded Ha Long Bay; we were not disappointed.

For those who remember the Vietnam war, seems hard to believe that Americans are now so well received in Vietnam. While still under a communist regime we found it hard to tell in view of the general feel of openness and capitalistic commerce seen everywhere. As with many other Asian countries, tourism is growing at a very rapid pace. In fact, many of these places maybe starting to lose some of their charm since the volume of tourism is changing what you see and how locals behave towards you (they see you as a very good source of income – cannot blame them there, they have little compared to a Westerner).

Note: our Vietnam plans were impacted by a Typhoon that came from the Philippines, hit the center of Vietnam on Sunday, passed by Hanoi on Sunday evening and hit Ha Long Bay area on Monday. So, we had to move our Ha Long Bay cruise to the back-end of our visit and shorten it by two days. We were grateful we could move it and get a refund for the day we could not use due to the Typhoon. Thumbs up for our tour agency (Haivenu tours); they were very helpful and fair – we highly recommend them.

Usually I try to keep the number of pictures for each post under 15. In this case, I will need to make an exception to give you a feel for our Vietnam trip in only one post. Let’s go and review how we did together…

 Hanoi

One of the two hotel rooms we stayed in while in Hanoi. Must say that the rating of 3 stars was deceiving. Both hotels — Hanoi Moment and the Golden Lotus hotel were much better than any other 3 star hotel I have even been in. Especially at $55/day with breakfast included. A real great deal!

 

At breakfast we had a wide choice of western and or Vietnamese breakfast. My wife loved the decorations on each drink. This one made out of a carrot slice – the mango juice was great.

 

This was my most favorite breakfast. The Vietnamese chicken rice noodle soup was amazing and the red-hot peppers added a great warm kick to it. Noodle soup (Pho) is the traditional breakfast soup here.

 

Our hotels were located in the city old quarters. A very densely populated portion of the city with very narrow streets and small businesses in every available space. This second floor balcony was across our hotel window, like how most of the balconies had some sort of plants making them look a lot nicer.

 

As Hanoi was occupied by the French (1873) their influence can be seen on many things, especially the architecture in old Hanoi and the French quarter. This is one example across our hotel. Many of the homes in Hanoi are only 4 meters (13 feet) and from 15 to 25 meters long (49 to 82 feet). One way to maximize the number of homes in a block I would think.

 

Our Sunday was a rainy one. What to do after visiting a couple of historical sites? Go to the top of a popular building filled with restaurants and bars to have a coffee and look down on those getting wet below you. Here my wife is having her coffee with our guide – Quinn (Guyen).

 

What do people below do? Take pictures of those above taking pictures of them…and so on, and so on.

 

Many of the customs we saw in Vietnam are very much like those found in China. No wonder, since the Chinese occupied Vietnam for over 1,000 years. Lack of refrigeration on food items Westerners always keep under control is one obvious one. Must say it does not seem to bother the locals one bit. Weather was muggy and around 78 F when I took this picture.

 

As I mentioned below, noodle soup is one of the main staple foods in Vietnam. Street vendors cater to this craving by taking over portions of a sidewalk and erecting their portable restaurants for breakfast, lunch and dinner times. This happy lady just sat down and it is getting ready to start. Believe it or not-she has everything she needs neatly stacked; bowls, pre-cooked noodles, broth, eating utensils and the very popular miniature plastic seats. More on those below. Saw many Westerners eating on this “outdoor” restaurants; we decided to stay with the hotel option.

 

Another examples of a street side butcher. This time it looks like we are selling pork and maybe lamb.

 

The traditional Vietnamese hats; a big hit with many tourists. Amazing the number of these of Westerners you see in the airport wearing them as they return to whatever country they call home. We saw this guys several times; he was selling each time we saw him.

 

My wife auditioning for a potential part-time job. She quickly changed her mind as soon as she found that these contraptions are a lot heavier than they look. I confirmed this to be true. The lady actually stopped us and gave my wife her baskets for a photo-op. She was very nice and told us she wanted no money for it; that was a new twist.

 

A familiar sight for us by now having lived in China for almost two years. Incense offerings in a popular temple in Hanoi.

 

As we were visiting the museum of literature, we saw a group of college  girls taking a class portrait. I just could not resist this photo opportunity. Young Vietnamese girls getting ready to take on the world.

 

We visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and visited the adjacent presidential palace and Ho Chi Minh’s residency until his death in 1969 at 79 years of age. Ho Chi Minh was a key figure in the foundation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945, as well as the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong (NLF or VC) during the Vietnam War. This building, built during the French occupation, is primarily used today to welcome other countries heads of state and other important government events.

 

We also were lucky to visit the “Hanoi Hilton”. In reality, it was the prison the French built and used to house locals that rebelled against French imperialistic demands. It was also used by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam war to hold US prisoners of war. The most famous of those being John McCain. Quite a place and recommended as a must see when in Hanoi.

 

By far the most popular pastime in Hanoi seems to be…sit in a little plastic stool and watch the world go by while you have a refreshment. These little stools are everywhere and cannot think of any other place we have been where I have seen more. in this picture and the next three you see a view of three corners of the same intersection. In this corner you have locals exclusively.

 

On this one you seem to only have tourist…chilling, watching, talking. Just seemed like a great time to me. Specially for taking pictures.

 

Finally, on this corner a mix of locals and tourists. Quite a busy street, but happened to catch it at a low point in the evening. The inside of this place is virtually empty, so they are not sitting outside because inside is full. I think people watching is great; they take it to the next level in Hanoi.

 

As mentioned before, the old quarter is filled with businesses every inch of available frontage. It seems like the thing to do for each business owner is to sit on your little plastic stool, watch the world go by and hopefully make eye contact with a passing pedestrian. Once that eye contact is made, you are in for the final kill.
In this picture the shop owners do not seem to happy as the flow is almost not existent. The owner in the center is using this break to dig for some nasal items in need of rearranging.

 

Ha Long Bay

On our way to Ha long Bay; a four-hour car drive (including a 30 minute break at a tourist store). As we cross one river this motorcyclist looks at us probably wondering … what do you find so fascinating here?

 

Rice is one of the largest crops in Vietnam (5th in the world). Can you believe that coffee is also huge in Vietnam? I had no idea that Vietnam was the 4th top coffee producer in the world.
Here we see a common site you see outside Hanoi. Rice being dried on people’s drive ways. Many farmers have small plots of land to cultivate what they need for their own needs and maybe a little to sell. Rice is a big portion of what they grow and harvest it twice or three times per year. Once harvested and separated from the stalks the rice still with the husk is spread out on drive ways and even along the side of the roads to dry before the husk can be removed. Hard living in many areas of the world. We are spoiled in so many ways.

 

From Super Cuts to Side Street Cuts!
Imaging it is quite inexpensive.

 

We arrived at Ha Long Bay – a UNESCO world heritage site – and it was great to see the weather was a lot nicer than the Saturday we tried to go on the cruise. This is the boat we were in.If you like to do a cruise in Ha Long Bay we highly recommend the Paradise Luxury line. They were great in everyday.

 

We visited Sung Sot cave in Bo Hon island, by far the largest cave we have ever seen. It covers 10,000 square meters (170,000 sq. feet). The number and beauty of the many formations that have taken thousands of years to form is quite striking. Another must see attraction if you visit Vietnam. Took many other pictures as you can imagine, but must keep the posting to a reasonable amount…I think I already went over it – sorry.

 

On the way out of the caves, you see street..no…boat vendors selling you the fresh catch of the day. On the way to the caves we saw a few boat villages where this people live. Literally floating homes with flaring walkways connecting the various homes. They use the green net with the long handle you see in the center to reach for many and deliver the goods to the tourists above. Some of the offerings are being kept fresh in the submerged baskets.

 

The food on the boat we were on was great…really great. The service also top-notch.

 

Before dinner the crew held a cooking lesson. We learnt to make Vietnamese spring rolls..yum. Each person took a turn and as expected it became a race.

Here I am rolling my own and beating my competition to it…was there any doubt?

 

In addition to many hot and delicious dishes in the dining room we also had the option of grilled marinated chicken, clams, squid, steak and prawns. Real nice again.

 

Ending the evening with a nice glass of red wine and enjoying the moon lit night in Ha Long Bay. Does not get much better than this. We were very thankful for the opportunity.

 

This was the morning look we had from our room. The day again started with great weather. We were very lucky to be able to rearrange our itinerary around the typhoon.

 

Local residents of one of the floating fishing villages in Ha Long Bay.

 

Ha Long Bay is quite beautiful and different from other bays we have been in. There are  hundreds of the type of rock formations you see here. Different shapes, size and amount of green make this such a beautiful place.

 

As we get closer to the end of the cruise we had our picture taken to assure we remember this moment and share it with you. Thanks for visiting and hope the length of this post did not turn you off.

Hang (Ms)February 28, 2013 - 2:29 PM

Xin chao!

I am Vietnamese, today i just found your blogs on web by chance, posting and picture are very nice! Thank you for visiting my country!!!
Are you and your wife is working in Suzhou?I just came Suzhou to visit my husband, i would like to learn more about Suzhou and hope receive experience of life in Suzhou.

Wish you and family have more trip! (sorry, my English is not good)

Hang

gailNovember 9, 2012 - 10:13 PM

BEAUTIFUL!!!! What an awesome adventure to share with us!!!!
xxoo gailW

DavidNovember 4, 2012 - 9:43 PM

Absolutely wonderful posting!!!
Truly enjoyed reading and learning more about this very interesting and historical area of the world.
It’s on my “Bucket list”!!
Thank you for sharing
All the best and Happy Holidays to you and your family.

Kim DwyerNovember 4, 2012 - 9:40 PM

THe picture of the incense with the Buddha in the background is amazing!!!

ccausillasNovember 4, 2012 - 4:56 PM

Jocie! Glad you liked it. We had a lot of fun; Vietnam is very nice and would like to spend more time there some day. Will definitely show you all the pictures when we visit in december.
Love you.
Daddy

JocieNovember 4, 2012 - 12:07 PM

"The owner in the center is using this break to dig for some nasal items in need of rearranging." haha! It was not too long at all, I actually wish it was much longer!! you will have to show me all the pictures in December.

Dumplings with the locals

Who does not like dumplings? The Chinese ravioli that come in many shapes, with many different fillings that are cooked in several different ways. I do for sure and we have found a very good place that is a Suzhou chain, but been told by locals this particular one is the best of them all. So, let’s go in together.

About a 20 minute car ride from our apartment into the heart of old downtown. For Suzhou Ex Pats that would like to try it the address is 239 Linden Road. After feasting on dumplings work them off by walking around one of the most beautiful and well preserved old streets in Suzhou – Pingjiang Street. Just a short walk away from this eatery.

Visit my Pingjiang Street post HERE

As you enter the restaurant you are greeted by the cashier. The drill is for you to order from the menu on the wall behind the cashier and pay. The cashier gives you a ticket for each item you order; you will then take the ticket to the window in front of the kitchen and exchange it for what you order. Quite simple and efficient I must say. Notice the most expensive item in the menu is 25 RMB (about $4). We usually get the soup with wonton (7 RMB) and pork Dim Sum (8 RMB).

 

Every time we have visited this place it has been full. I am told the mornings are really packed since dumplings are very popular for breakfast. Here we see some of the workers preparing the food in front of you.

 

To the right of the kitchen you have the soup and wonton section. This gentleman is building a bowl tower that will reach several more levels than what you see right now. The volume that moves through this place is quite impressive.

 

On the second floor (we could not see up there) is where the wonton are being hand-made by what must be an army of ladies (sound sexist I know). Trays go up empty and down full…and this goes on and on and on.

 

Egg white, pork filling ready to be assembled into a delicious dim sum (my favorite by far) that is super tasty. Yeah, you maybe thinking is this safe? Well, a local friend has been coming here for years with no issues; you must let go sometimes and enjoy without worrying too much. We have eaten here about 6 times with no issues at all.

 

These are dumplings made with sticky rice flour and filled with sweet red been past or other sweet fillings. Not my favorite, but definitely the favorite of many locals.

 

How do you cook the dumplings in the previous picture? You place them in a large pot of boiling water and cook away. They are served in a bowl with the liquid you see here. Again, not a fan of this one.

 

A quiet place really, all just enjoying the food and leaving as soon as done; seats are at a premium.

 

It is so busy each seat seems taken. Personal space does not apply here. If there is an empty seat next to you it is taken in a flash. Elbow to elbow, people who may not know each other enjoy their dumplings and go as soon as done. Looks like a fantastic money-maker to me; volume, volume and more volume.

 

Busy morning, noon and evening. The staff seems very well equipped to handle the volume as they effortlessly handle the many requests that come their way.

 

Customers with happy bellies – from ex pats …

 

…to old timers, to…

 

… the very young.

 

What a great way to ensure continued business with future generations. Chances are good that these kids will remember this place and flavor as comfort food and will bring their own children to experience the same.

 

Our order is ready, must run. Hey! I am missing two pork dim sums here!

 

ccausillasOctober 23, 2012 - 6:27 PM

Charo, thanks, glad you enjoy the articles and pictures. Keep visiting, only a few more months left on the adventure.

ccausillasOctober 23, 2012 - 6:26 PM

Charo, I fully agree. Lima\’s China town was/is great. I do remember going with my dad and sister and having great food. I think my dad wanted to be Chinese, have not met anyone that liked Chifa as much as he did. Ah, good times, good memories.

Peter LiaoOctober 15, 2012 - 6:20 AM

Yummy, I missed the wonton noodle soup.

CharoOctober 15, 2012 - 3:05 AM

Ah! your pictures are fabulous, JC! It is like I have visited that place, thank you!!

CharoMOctober 15, 2012 - 3:04 AM

We are so lucky to have had the opportunity to have such a big Chinese population in Peru. We became familiar with that food since very young visiting those tea stores that Anita mentiones, as well as that delicious food at the Chifas!

ccausillasOctober 14, 2012 - 8:10 AM

Anita, Yes it does. Maybe that is why I am drawn to it, it is very good. Wish we saw it before you visited us.

Ana MariaOctober 14, 2012 - 7:37 AM

Very upset! Why didn't you take me to this place? Buaaaaaaah.

It reminds me,those tea stores in China town in Peru, that we used to go every Saturday with our Father. I miss so much Chinese food, it is so good:)

Need new glasses?

It was bound to happen sooner or later; my glasses finally broke. Having dinner with friends on a beautiful Saturday evening decided to remove my glasses and the right arm just broke (no advance notice at all). The style does not have a pivot screw, it is a funky spring design that was very comfortable and forgiving to side pressures. However, I always wondered how long could such design last. Well, I think it did OK at 3 or so years.

No problem right? Just get a new pair…well since we are in China we had to figure out where to go. We ended up at the Suzhou Eye Hospital (not really a hospital, just a large building where they have a large number of eye/vision checkup rooms very similar to what we have in the US; well, sort off. See below for more on our eye-glass adventure.

While we wait our turn for an eye exam here is a view of the now empty waiting room. We always seem to arrive when things are very busy, but once we are in then the crowds seem to evaporate. Hmmmm, conspiracy? Perhaps.

 

Since it has been a while for my wife and I since we last had an eye exam we decided to both have one. Here is my wife after she registered and had her eyeball pressure test… me next – hate that strong and sudden puff! Struggle to keep my eye from anticipating it and trying to close it.

 

Somewhat strange to be in the examination room while someone else’s test is going on. This little boy was real funny. All he wanted to do was touch the projection on the wall…

 

…and he finally got his wish.

 

It turned out that the room we were in is was not the one we would be using. This young lady entered additional information and told us to move to the next room. Keep in mind all these pictures are being taken without the people noticing (maybe). Her English was good, there were a few that had good English, that was a real life saver for us. If we get in real trouble we could call our driver and he would help us out.

 

The lady doctor shown here had a diploma from the University of California. Her English was very good. Lucky again! She was very helpful. As I said before, the equipment is identical to the one we are used to in the US.

 

My wife after being fitted with proper lenses to compensate for her shortsightedness. Cool glasses!

 

I can see, I can see. I can read, I can read.

 

See! Same equipment as you all are familiar with.

 

You get to wear this colorful test glasses for a while after fitted with the corrective lenses. They ask you to go into the waiting area and walk around and determine if you can see well with them.

 

Always thought this apparatus was the coolest thing. I think the design has been unchanged since the first time I saw it as a kid. At least they looked as I have always remembered them.

 

The yellow ones were mine. Walking around wearing this funky contraption was fun I must admit. They did a great job with my prescription; I could see far and close clearer than before.

 

The examination area may not be to the visual standards we are used to, but they were efficient and we felt accurate with the results.

 

As we awaited for our written prescription we saw the obligatory guard seen in most, if not all, of the public buildings we have visited.

 

After the exam we moved into the area where they had the glasses. Many, many options, but we finally made our selection. We figured this was not bad at all. Then we saw the price for the glasses…$689 for mine and a bit less for my wife’s. WHAT!!! I asked the sales person, how do local people afford to get glasses at all? Mind you that many local people do not make more than a few thousand dollars a year. Many others even less. Yes, there are also many that make a lot more, but the majority are on very tight budgets.

We decided to just pay for the eye exam (122 RMB¬†for two exams — which equals $19 — now that is a deal) and try other places for glasses… and we ended up at Lens Crafters.

We are convinced that there is a price for Expats and then a price for locals. This is true in many restaurants also. However, we settled for Lens Crafters since the overall price was very close to the one I paid three years ago in the US. Picked them up today. They are great.

To those living in Suzhou, we have heard from several locals that while Lens Crafters prices are OK, there are other more cost-effective options that apply to both locals and Expats. One of them is Bao Dao in Rainbow Mall. Remember to ask local friends for their advice as to where they go for things you may need. You will be surprised as to the gap in prices for the same items between stores catering for expats and locals. Yeah, sounds logical/a no brainer, but remember to do it. 

Peter LiaoSeptember 23, 2012 - 10:41 AM

Good tips at the end. Bao Dao means "Precious Island", sometimes indicating Taiwan. I had my first eye glass at one of the Bao Dao's in Taiwan. The company has been open for more than 60 years. I wonder the one you described is one of the branch.

ccausillasSeptember 22, 2012 - 10:26 PM

Glad you enjoyed it. Yeah, hidden camera is the best. Bethe think I am crazy of course…lol.

Linda KnudsenSeptember 22, 2012 - 8:40 PM

Loved your story! You and your hidden camera!

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