Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Dear Traveler

In honor of my parents coming for a visit later this month, I decided to post some helpful traveler tips based on my own observations since being here. I might edit this post later with anything else that comes to mind. Edits will be in bold.

-If its in a popular guide book with one price, its already gone up after publishing.
-In tourist areas, the prices quoted are usually twice what they should be. Its better in local areas, but haggling is still acceptable.
-Don't haggle over anything involving service, like food or tailoring. Street food usually doesn't advertise their prices, but they rarely rip you off. You can politely ask your tailor for a discount if you're making a bigger purchase. In general, when it comes to service, you pay for what you get.
-In general, if something is quoted in dollars and you have dong, you should convert at a rate of 18,000VND to the dollar. However, if you're buying something expensive, they might insist on the black market rate, which will cost you more.
-Its best to bring large US bills to convert to VND. And always at a jewelery store, where you can get the better black market rate. No, its not illegal, its just that Dong isn't tradeable on the international market, so local investors need to buy large amounts of US dollars from tourists, as the state owned banks won't convert Dongs to Dollars. Is it that big of a difference? If you have $1000 dollars with you, you'll profit $80-150 just by converting your money at a jewelery store instead of a bank or post office.

-Taxis. The best options are either Vinasun or Mai Linh. They are metered and fair. Many other taxi companies don't use a meter and charge too much, or if they do use a meter it counts faster.
-Xe oms, or motorbike taxis. Travel within the same district is 5-15,000VND, 15-25,000VND to get to the next district over, depending how far. Rarely should a trip cost 30,000VND.
-Always have your direction written down, be sure to include all accents and District number[District can be represented by Q.] If you try to say it, they probably won't understand your accent, or they'll think you said something else and take you in the wrong direction.
-They'll always claim to know that they know where it is even if they don't. Don't be surprised if they stop along the way to ask other xe oms for directions. And don't bother pointing to it on a map, as many of them don't know how to read a map.
-Agree to the price of a trip with a xe om before you get on.
-When crossing the street, move at a steady pace, and with confidence. Traffic will move around you. Whatever you do, don't run, and don't make any sudden stops or movements. The traffic will move around you just fine so long as they can read and understand how your moving across the street.
-For cheap flights in SE Asia: Jetstar, Tiger, Airasia, Vietnam Airlines.

-Bring a pack of dry napkins, many places only have wet napkins, which they charge you for[only 1,000VND]. With all the spicy food, a wetnap won't do the job for your nose.
-You don't always get what you think you ordered. For starters, don't try to read Vietnamese, just point and clarify. Also, you come into a place and order a fish from the menu that you end up really liking, then you come back the next day, ordering the same fish, and getting something completely different. Also, always have a backup ready on the menu. Its not uncommon for them to come back five minutes after you placed your order saying, 'sorry, finished.'
-If you find a hair in your food, observe, and let it pass.
-There are no refunds, no free dessert, and its hard enough to get them to take back the meal if they brought the wrong thing.
-Service. It sucks. But there's also no tipping. On occasions when you do tip, don't do percents, just tip between 10-20,000VND.
-Fights. Don't get involved. It might seem like its just between two people, but if you interfere, so will the whole neighbourhood.
-If your food comes first don't wait for the other person's food, just start eating. Your food will get cold.
-No, those aren't free samples, its a shrine with an offering of food. Don't touch it.

-Most practical items you may need on your trip are readily available here and can be bought for cheaper. So save your luggage space for the souvenirs you'll be bringing back.
-Sunglasses. Not just for the sun, but to keep dust out of your eyes while on a motorbike. Applicable near a beach, construction areas and the dry season[now] in general.
-Face mask. Not for disease. Again, dust on the motorbike. Though, I never wear one, I find it too stuffy. But my throat has been scratchy since the rains stopped, so you may not want to follow suite.
-Sunscreen and mosquito repellant. It's pretty useless in the big cities but there are parts of it that are exceptions. Bring small bottles just in case.
-Drugs. No prescription needed and they're cheaper too.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

From Goat Barbecue To Sheraton Ball Room

I've been getting more comfortable with planning lessons over the months. No longer do I need thirty minutes to an hour the day before to plan my lessons. Now, I just open the book fifteen minutes before class and I know what I'm going to teach and how. This has really helped having a social life, too. So even if I have to wake up at 5:30am to get ready for school, I can still go out on the weekends.
After class on Saturday, Daphne and I went to meet our friend Rob[the one that crashed my bike a couple months back] and some of his work friends at a local goat place. It was a big place with a very small menu: steamed goat, roasted goat, grilled goat, sour mixed goat. The food was really good, we ordered the steamed goat which came in a large clay hotpot with goat meat, goat brain, and some other parts of the goat we couldn't identify but were delicious none the less. One of the guys notices that a lot of the servers are at the doorway watching some drama going on outside. As we're debating what they could be rubbernecking about, I decided to be nosey and go have a look. Just outside was a tow truck with a very familiar motorbike loaded on the back. I run up to the tow man yelling, "My bike! My bike! What are you doing to my bike!" The towman and the officer nearby were more than a little surprised to see me. They were expecting to tow conflict free, and in that area of town they least expected to see a foreigner come out yelling at them. Neither of them could speak English, and the towman was already making movements to unload my bike, keeping his eyes on the officer for the go-ahead. The officer was confused, tried to explain something, but failing through the language barrier. I hand him my ownership papers. A nearby local who speak some English asked the translated question of whether the bike was mine or a rental. I lied, saying that I rented, as I am unlicensed I would surely have gotten my bike taken away if I admitted to owning it. Thankfully, the bike was lowered and my papers handed back to me. Apparently, where I parked it was for a food stall that had closed up since I had been eating my goat and all the other bikes had left with it, leaving just mine. There was an official parking lot across the way that I was supposed to park in. What luck. To have noticed the servers watching when I did, and to have been nosey enough to inquire about it. I would've been rather sore to have come out of there and not had my bike anywhere in sight? Where do you go if your bike gets towed here? How do you even know it was towed and not stolen? Not a clue. And I'd be happy if I never had to find out.
Last night we had our company Christmas party. They had it at the Sheraton with a massive buffet and free flowing open bar. It was nice event and the food was excellent, but the down side was that since the school had so many employees and the Sheraton was so expensive, we couldn't bring any guests. Daphne talked me into going anyways and made dinner arrangements with our friend Rob[of crashing motorbikes] so I wouldn't feel guilty for going without her. Luckily, instead of stamping hands when we entered, some people got stickers on their shoulders that didn't do a good job sticking. It wasn't long until stickers were finding their ways off of ILA shoulders and onto those of Daphne and Rob. When we were heading home, the garage security was asking for another 15000VND on top of the 8000VND I had already paid for parking. The average price of parking in the city is 3-5oooVND. I kept a smile, shook my head and told him, 'no, pay already' over and over, pretending that his English wasn't good enough for me to understand. When he finally said, 'you pay more, you know, you foreigner,' the smile came off my face and the engine turned on. He quietly moved himself out of my way and pretended not to notice. Up the ramp we went and into the night.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

New Home

We've finally settled in our new place in District Five, though as you'll see from the pictures, the place still needs a personal touch.

Okay, so it has plenty of personal touch, but not our own. Frankly, photos of heart shapes and baby hands aren't our style. So I'm going to find a photolab and get some of my pictures printed to take over the frames on the walls. As for the rest of the furnishings, we're rather happy with it. Not only was the place fully furnished, as though made to model for an Ikea catalog picture, but it also came with plates, bowls, silverware, pots, pans, and other kitchen necessities that we won't need to buy now. Not to mention a fake Christmas tree which you can see for yourself if you come to our Christmas Eve housewarming party.
We're still getting acquainted with our neighbourhood, which is very different from where we lived in District Four. District Five is pretty much China town, consisting of most of the ethnic Chinese-Vietnamese population of Saigon. A couple of the main differences we've noticed here is the large amount of Cantonese food[including my new favorite, Duck Noodle Soup] and Daphne can actually talk to people now. One of the downsides we've noticed, however, is that there are more westerners here, which means that the locals aren't as warm to us as they were in D. 4, where westerners were few and far between. We found out later that apparently a lot of teachers actually live in our building, from ILA and other schools as well.
One dissatisfying element, however, is the millipedes we keep finding in the house. They aren't many, they're easy to get rid of[much easier than the ant problem of my last place] but its always disgusting to find them crawling around on the floor. We're not exactly sure where they're coming from, but the little garden that lives on our balcony is a likely culprit.

We'll be making a shopping trip for pesticides soon. Aside from that, we're quite happy. The place is cozy and cheaper than our last place. Daphne does miss the wardrobe space we used to have, but not the fluorescent lighting. And we definitely miss the old neighbourhood, we still go back there to have lunch now and then at one of our old haunts. But we're also having fun discovering this new area, and what secrets its hiding.

Monday, November 23, 2009

And The Curtain Falls

I've just learned that my internet problems aren't the cause of a lame ISP but instead a government action. Facebook is banned. As well as other sites that are popular forms of social communication[so not Myspace]. I believe that my blog is also blocked, as I have to use a web proxy to make this post. There are several theories going around as to why the ban, some say the government fears security breaches through the display of private information, others say it has something to do with an upcoming election. Whatever the reason, its rather annoying and hopefully will be temporary, as I can't post photographs using a proxy.
But I can still write. So let me take this rare chance to poke out from under the ISP curtain. On Friday, Daphne and I stopped by our future apartment to sort some stuff out. We found a nearby Chinese restaurant where after having some good soup we decided to make it one of our future regulars[we have so many places in our current neighbourhood to drink and eat, where will we go now?].
I took an alternate, exploratory route back home when something in my bike started making a clicking noise and causing it to jump. Slowly, and with continued auditory threats from the bike, we made our way to my local bike shop where I always go to get work done[2:30pm].
The first mechanic to deal handle it said I needed a new chain for the wheel and also a new brake. Well enough. Though after paying for that and getting on the bike, I had to do a U-turn almost immediately when I realized the problem persisted. So he drove the bike around, came back, tightened some screw and gave me back the keys. Again, another U-turn and I was getting frustrated. So another mechanic, my regular, had a drive and came back telling me the engine and the gears are messed up. They took the entire engine and gear box apart, showing me all the pieces that needed to be replaced and quoting a price to the tune of 900,000 VND[$50][4:30pm]. Now, by Western standards this isn't much for a bike repair, but in fact this is four times more than any other job I've had done on the bike, and this isn't including the 200,000 VND I had just spent on replacing a chain that wasn't the problem. Discount? Not negotiable. So they told us to come back at 7.
We headed home, picking up two cartons of soy milk on the way. When we got to the door of my apartment on the 11th floor, I searched my pocket for the keys, which were still on the key chain in the bike shop. Lamenting our gross error, we decided to not bother with going back but instead to have a drink down at a street bar until 7. I left the soy milk by the door, hoping it would go undisturbed, and we made our way down.
While drinking at the street bar, we were joined by an old drunk who proceeded to joyfully tell his life story to us. In Vietnamese. Completely disregarding that we couldn't understand. As he used his foreign hand gestures and fast talk to tell his stories, Daphne and I took turns using our imagination to translate for eachother what he was saying. "He fell in love with a French girl during the war, and then something about his legs getting blown off by a grenade."Actually, his legs were just fine, but everytime we did this he would rejoice that he was being understood and shake my hand and offer cheers. Behind him, other locals were dictating with their hands that the gentleman was not just drunk, but insane. Still, it was quite amusing and helped the time pass.
At 7 we made our way back to the bike shop, only to find that they weren't finished putting the bike back together. Another hour we waited, as we watched them reassemble the bike, and a new bill was presented to me, with an addition of nearly 300,000 VND for extra parts. This was quite upsetting and pushed me over the edge. I tried explaining to them, even though they didn't understand any English, that they can't add more things without first consulting me. But they just kept pointing at the parts they replaced and treating me like I was stupid and didn't understand. There was a lot of fussing, hand gestures, mechanics arguing with other mechanics, until finally, the bike was back together and the guy took it for a test drive. Only to find out that it was still broken. So they appologize, agree to the 900,000 bill, and ask me to come back the next day for the bike[8:30pm].
We had held out for dinner until the bike was fixed and now were starving, so we grabbed a taxi to the backpacker area for dinner. It was a good meal and helped distract us from the events of the day, until Daphne looks at me and asks,"Did you get the house key?" Twice in one day, I had forgotten the key. Luckily I still have a roommate[for just another week] and he was able to leave the door unlocked for us. I'll be making extra copies of my next apartment key, that's for sure.
Went the next day after work to pick up my bike. It was running like new, but the price was back to where it was the night before. But as they had replaced another part and didn't charge for it, I took it as a consolation, accepted that I'm in a country with different service standards, and consoled myself with the fact that my bike was now running as if it were brand new. Paying for the bike, I went to get Daphne and we went to have Indian for dinner. At dinner, she offered a toast to my bike being fixed, but I dared not accept, fearing to take chances with jinxes.
Still, even though my bike is working well now, I think I'm ready for something new. So I'll be on the lookout for a new moto and selling my old one soon.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Here's to Better Internet in December

Haven't been able to post in a while. There are certain sites that my server just won't do at times. Facebook has been a 'no go' for a week now. Next month my lease with Anh ends and Daphne and I will be moving in to our new place. I'll still be on the eleventh floor, but in District 5 instead of 4. There's no riverside view, but its still good and the place is better furnished, as well as $100 cheaper a month. Hopefully the internet will be better there too.
Bought new flip flops. After searching through several high-end shoe boutiques in posh crackerland, Geox, Clarks, Aldo, Timberland, I couldn't find any pair that could serve as a fitting replacement for my wrecked Tevas. Not to mention the high price tags. But on a drive through District 3 we found a street full of local shoe shops. In the first stall I checked, I found a great pair, and got the price down to only 130,00VND[<$8USD].
In other news, I've learned to play Chinese chess and Daphne's teaching yoga now at a couple places in town. My parents are coming for the holidays, so I'll have a special 'tips for travelers' blog up in a couple weeks. Also, house warming/Christmas party, tba.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Chicken Rice Full Moon

Halloween and a full moon, what good luck. Back in Ohio, I remember that the commute between my university and Cincinnati would go through a forest rich in autumn colours. While there the weather cools and the green browns, in Saigon what trees there are haven't changed their hue and won't. The dry season will be starting soon, however, so that'll be a first for me.
My school goes crazy for Halloween, kids go from room to room asking for candy, and then throwing paper at each other. They prefer tricks over treats. After my class got raided by a neighbouring room, we dropped in on them to exact revenge. The other class held the door fast to prevent our entry as my students struggled to get the door opened. In the push and pull the door actually broke off the dry wall. Oops.
Also, the younger kids got to pay a visit to the ILA haunted 'house', a converted classroom on the fifth floor across from the bathrooms.

My students were so scared to go in, only three in a class of eighteen even tried, of those only two made it through. And there were many tears. My favorite part of Halloween? I got to wear flip flops instead of dress shoes to work as part of my pirate 'costume'. First time my feet didn't hurt at the end of a weekend.
Halloween night Daphne and I joined our friends and former CELTA colleagues, Rob and Sylven, at Muntaz for some Indian food and then went to the club up in the Sheraton for their Halloween party to meet up with my roommate, Anh. It was a good time, but having to wake up at 5am the next morning for work, I couldn't stay out that long.
Today, my real weekend[Monday], we had several errands to run through out the day. Taking lunch at a chicken rice place, we got into a bit of a disagreement with the proprietor. First, never ask for chicken, or you end up getting fish. The words are very similar but the inflection is opposite. So 'asking' chicken yields fish. But we do get our chicken,regretting we didn't get the fish instead, which was cold and chewy. Finishing the meal, we got the bill and it was for 134,000 VND[$7USD]. Ok, so this probably doesn't seem like much, but this is Vietnam. It shouldn't have been half that price. The chicken rice was 90,000 and should've been more like 45-50,000. I had a word with the owner and called foul. Put 105 on the table[still more than I should] and she got angry. She blocked the entrance, threatening to call the cops. Daphne and I told her to go ahead, we weren't going to pay the other 30, not because its expensive, but for the principle. She fiddled with her phone but kept putting it away and instead yelling at passing locals to bare witness. But I could tell by their faces that she wasn't winning favour with them. Especially after I showed them another customer's receipt I had found there, showing that they were charged only 40,000 for the chicken rice. In the end, both Daphne and I had reached our time limit for how long our principles would hold out against a dispute over $1.50. So I paid up and we left. Outside, one of the women watching walked with us and motioned that the place was bad and not worth coming back to. For Anh's two cents, he said, 'so basically what happened was, you were white in Vietnam.' But usually when a merchant gets caught gauging they correct themselves. This woman just went berserk, not willing to lose face in front of me, but instead losing face in front of her neighbours. My two cents? People go crazy when the moon is full.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mui Ne

Hooray, my internet works once more. Daphne and I just got back from a Japanese tea ceremony in a really nice, quaint tea house I found in a hidden alley. The matcha wasn't of the highest quality but the ceremony was beautiful and we felt like we could stay at the tea house forever[Daphne even took a small nap in my lap].
Daphne returned from her intensive yoga trainer's program in Dharamsala last Sunday. It was really like a dream to see her again. We had spent the last six weeks talking every day on Skype, but even so it was almost unreal not have a screen between us anymore. I took a couple days off work and we took a morning bus the next day to Mui Ne, a beach resort town[with an unusually large amount of Russian signage] located four-five hours from Saigon. We stayed in a cheap but roomy place called Ngoc Suong and spent most of our time playing in the waves and soaking up[a bit too much] the sun.

[Kite surfing is big here, but too expensive]

We took one day off from the beach and, renting a bike, went looking for some sand dunes that were supposed to be really neat. On the way we stopped by the Mui Ne fishing village where we were greeted by the locals by getting waved away from most streets we wanted to explore. Perhaps they just assumed we were looking for the dunes, or maybe they just wanted to be left in peace. I got some good shots before we moved on.

[Fishing boats]

[Operation Deshell Clams]

[The devastation left behind from above Operation]


[Daphne, taking an even better picture of the baskets]

After taking lunch, we headed to the yellow sand dunes, which looked more like an anti-oasis, being that it was a saharan desert just less than a kilo away from the beach and surrounded by trees. When we arrived and parked at the foothill, a little boy runs up and says he's going to guard my bike. Being that the bike and helmets were all locked in I didn't really mind. Another boy came up to us and followed us along the sand dunes, playing as our guide.

[Laziest 'guide' ever]

[Desert, forest, ocean]

After enjoying the serenity and [near] solitude of the dunes we walked back to the bike to find the boy guarding it had been gone. One of the helmets was no longer locked in but resting on the handlebar, and the seat was covered by one of the raincoats which was supposed to be locked in the compartment under the seat. Another teen walks up with the second raincoat, letting us know that the kid had squeezed his hand through the seat looking for money. Then, after packing the coats back in and getting ready to leave. Our 'guide' had the nerve to say, 'you give me money now!' To which I reply, 'go find your friend, ask him for money.'
We hit the road again and moved on to see the sunset at the white dunes, another 40 minute drive away. Where other children rented sheets of plastic to sled down the dunes[Daphne is very aerodynamic on a dune sled].

It was a good little holiday and gave us a chance to reconnect outside of the bustle that is Saigon.
But its good to be back home and living a life with so much in it to do, even when we're not doing that much. I'm back at school and Daphne's on the hunt for a job[will she be a yoga teacher, english teacher or one of the many other things that she's more than qualified to do?].
Just living in the present, and loving it to bits.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Bun bun bun!

[Second part in a series on Vietnamese food]
If you know about one Vietnamese dish then its probably the soup known as Pho. Cheap, healthy, filling and very good. But 'Pho' isn't the name of the soup, its the name of the noodle. Noodles aren't just noodles here in VietNam. When you look at a menu, the food is listed by its ingredients, the word for rice, com, or one of the words for noodles always comes first in such a list. So Pho Bo, means pho noodle soup with beef[translation sounds longer,eh?] Even if you get an english menu, its good to look at the accompanying vietnamese text to know what kind of noodle you're getting. Among the ones I've come across there's pho[/fa/], a flat and tender rice noodle, mi[/me/], a thin, round egg noodle, bun[/boon/], a thin, round rice noodle, and mien, which is vermicelli.
One of my favorite lunch time meals is a Bun dish. I've only found a few places that serve bun in this manner, usually its served in some kind of soup, like pho. But fortunately for me, there's a stall that sells it right behind my building.

Nem Nuong is a grilled meatball, Cha Gio is a fried spring roll, Chao Tom is minced shrimp wrapped around a piece of sugarcane and grilled, and the Bi...I don't know, roommate's asleep so I can't ask him. So how do I order? I say 'Bun' and then do a wave of my hand over all the food to show I want everything in it[the same technique I use for baguettes].

[The chef prepares the sauce]

[Cha Gio]

[Chao Tom]

[First, some chopped lettuce, basil and some sprouts]

[The rolls are cut up and the shrimp paste gets sliced off its stalk]

[It's garnashed with shreds of pork, lightly pickled carrot, chives, peanuts and spices] about some dessert for after? You see that woman who's not doing anything?

[The round textured ones are my favorite, but I don't know what any of these are made of]

It's very common for stalls to be side by side and even work together. While these two women sell completely different products, I often see two stalls selling the exact same thing next to eachother, with the same display and same prices. Very strange.

[I don't like eating from a box]

[I was almost too hungry to keep taking pictures]

And there you have it, though the small stall behind my building has fewer options than a street restaurant might have. A place close to my school has four different kinds of grilled meats in their Bun. The sauce in the bag is a fish sauce mixed with Ot[spicy pepper] which I pour over the noodles.
Wow, I'm hungry just looking at it, but its too late for a meal so its off to bed. Daphne will be returning in just a few days and we have a small trip planned. No hints, you'll just have to read about it next week.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What Happens at T & R

The best laid plans...Wednesday was the first day of my Vietnamese lessons, a free perk of the job, but before going I had a plan laid out for the morning. I was going to go climbing, even woke up earlier so I'd have time, but I had to stop by the bikeshop first to get my motto fixed. What was wrong with it? I'll get to that later...
I was planning on stopping back at the house after climbing for a shower and change of clothes before class. The class was taught at the same school I teach at, but only for us teachers, and taught by one of the Vietnamese TA's. The school has a dress code for teachers that we have to follow even if we come in on a day off: pants, tucked shirt, tie and shoes. I don't adhere to this, but I still didn't want to come to school in my sweat-stained climbing clothes.
So, a bowl of cereal later, I'm downstairs driving to the bikeshop. The repairs end up taking FOREVER. I was getting the bike rim replaced because its was dented, but I also got talked into a much needed replacement of my gear chains, an oil change, tighter brakes and I had to replace a passenger footrest that came off somehow. The chains take quite a bit of time to do, my ice coffee long drained. My butt goes numb from sitting on a metal stool that is barely a foot off the ground. After the mechanic's done with that there's still the rim to do. So he hands it over to another worker and motions for me that we need to go eat. He speaks no English. So we go around the corner and have a small lunch at a rice stall. I get some eel with ginger and meat stuffed tofu. The mechanic keeps trying to guide me through how I should eat. Showing me to wipe the chopsticks before use, making sure I drank my soup, that I used a spoon for the rice instead of sticks and even told me to wipe my mouth at the end! When we get back the wheel's done and I pay up. But when I drive a few meters down the road I can tell that the bike still has the same problem that I brought it in for. So with a quick u-turn I'm back at the spot shaking my head. The mechanic takes the bike for another spin, comes back and questioned me with the gestures of his arms whether I had crashed it into something. No, I try to explain, but...
The night before, not drunk but drinking, I had convinced my friend, Rob, that he needed to have a lesson, then and there, since the streets were pretty empty and he was still afraid of getting a bike. Rob, drinking and drunk, though I didn't think him to be, agreed very reluctantly under my ill advised persuasion. Outside of T&R Tavern I began to explain how the bike works, but he had already had a lesson and supposedly knew, so I got on the back and told him to drive to the end of the ally. Which he did. The short way. He drove across the street, straight into the metal shutters of a business that was thankfully closed. No fear, family and friends, there are no injuries to report at such a low speed and distance. After I managed to get him, to stop saying 'oh my god' repeatedly and turn the bike off I found myself laughing, as well as our friends across the street. Rob was the only one that wasn't. He was shaken with guilt and was down with a drop in confidence that he'll ever drive a bike again. I gave him a ride home, then noticing that my bike was having difficulty maintaining a straight line and that it kept wanting to turn left. Rob did the gentlemanly thing, offering to pay for repairs, but I declined. Partially because it was my fault for not knowing better than to let him drive drunk[without really knowing how to drive at all], and also because bike repairs are cheap to do, even at the worst of times.
So anyways, I try to gesture what happened to the mechanic, and he tells me that the bike has to get its frame hammered even. So he drives it off, I sit my self down on the stool that an eight year old would feel too grown up for, and look at my watch noticing that I have an hour till class. No time to climb. No time to even shower. So I leave my bike in their hands, after finding out its going to take an hour to fix, and grab a xe om[motorbike taxi] to school. Walking in with my helmet still on, ashamed to show my unkempt hair.
I had to take a driver back, too and got caught in some nasty rain, my coat still attached to my bike. But the bike was fixed and is now in better shape than ever before, so I guess that can count as a happy ending. Moral of the story: teach 'brake' before you teach 'accelerate'. There's another one too, can you guess what is?

[Side note: For those on the other side of the world watching the news about all the bad weather, I am in a pretty safe spot. We don't get earthquakes, and it is central Vietnam that gets the typhoons and flooding every year, not the south where I am. Plus, the Philippines serves as a protective wall against tsunamis(sorry Philippines). So aside from daily rains, nothing to worry about in my slice of Asia.]

Monday, September 28, 2009


It's becoming harder to write blogs the longer I'm here. Life is slowly molding itself into routine. On the weekends I'm waking up at 5am and in school from 7 to 7. Saturday night? With the exception of last week when I went to a boat party for my friend Natasha's birthday, I usually don't go out on Saturday because I've got to lesson plan for Sunday morning. Work on Tuesdays and Thursdays is a bit easier with just two evening classes, but I'm not out until almost 10. Friday is more like a half-day off, I need to spend a chunk of it planning the weekend lessons. But after wearing my legs and back out from standing all day, its good to know that relief is only a $7 massage away in Crackerland.
As for leisurely pursuits. Got a 3-month pass for the rock wall[an overpriced pass], and I hook up with friends or fellow teachers whenever our schedules line up[the planets do that more often] for a game of poker, a drink or an 'expensive' meal out. But I usually don't stay out too late, as I find myself watching the time for when I can meet Daphne on Skype.
Speaking of which...
I'll be back with another entry soon on my other favourite leisurely pursuit. Food.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Banh Xeo

[First part in a series on Vietnamese food]
Now that life here has settled down a bit I thought it would be good to focus a bit more on the setting. And how better to understand a place than through its food. Saigon has a lot to offer in culinary delights and great prices to match. You can even find really great western options[spanish, french, italian...]
Today I'm featuring the banh xeo. A word of caution to those learning Vietnamese or trying to make sense of a menu with no English, just because you recognize one of the words in a menu item, doesn't mean you know what it is. In this case, 'banh' could mean either sandwich, cake, meat dumpling, pancake, croissant, shrimp crackers, pudding or pastry depending on what other words follow it.
Banh xeo is basically a rice pancake, of sorts, that may or may not have egg in it.
Here are some pictures of it being made:

My roommate informed me that his mom makes it without egg. The yellow comes from the oil that's used. On top there we have some sprouts, mixed with some shrimp, meat and green onion.

Adding more oil.

A satisfied customer. It's served with some greens and a fish sauce with chili. When I was served I was given nothing but chopsticks. I wasn't sure how to eat it and seeing the confused look on my face the woman grabbed the plate from me along with a bowl and some scissors. After chopping everything up and mixing it into the bowl, she poured the sauce over the whole thing and handed it back. I don't know if that's how your supposed to eat it, but I had no complaints. I think the way it was meant to be eaten was with the lettuce around the pancake and dipped into the sauce. The 'pancake' was actually very crispy on the outside. The whole thing makes for a good breakfast or light lunch and costs around 20,000VND[1.1USD].

And just what you need before taking your siesta.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Corporate Teacher

Woke up this morning wanting to get on Skype and chat with Daphne, only to find that the power was out in the building. A quick change later and I was in the street on my motorbike, looking for a wifi hotspot. Settled for a chain French bakery, Tous Les Jours, that has some pretty yummy, properly French and cheap baked goods. Daphne was also at a wifi hotspot in Dharamshala so we had breakfast together while we talked. What I'd do without technology, I don't know.
Last night, I had plans to meet some friends at Vasco's for a live band from Canada, Handsome Furs. So I got off of work, picked up some street food on the way for a quick dinner, and brought it home. But just as I got home and was out of my work clothes Aimee, one of the many academic managers at my school, calls and politely ask where I am. Turns out, I had a new class to teach and no one had told me. So Aimee goes to the class to keep them busy, as I take a few frantic bites of the chicken I had bought to fill my stomach before getting dressed and driving back over. I get there in time to watch Aimee finish teaching the first half of the class. During break she passes me what she calls an 'emergency lesson plan'. After an awkward session with a particularly quiet and unmotivated class, I got onto my bike and headed over to Vasco's.
I was an hour late. But the band? Indefinitely late. So after an hour of dancing and being sociable, my stomach made a ruling and insisted we leave. So I make my goodbyes and head to a ramen place around the corner before heading home.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Home Body

Back to health. And to work. My school greeted me back with a new schedule, complete with eight hours of classes on both Saturday and Sunday. But in reality, it keeps me at the school from 7am to 7pm, with time for a short lunch before I have to plan the lessons for the second half of the day. I was wiped out after Saturday but by the next day I was a bit more comfortable with the craziness of the schedule.
The timing could've been better though. Daphne left for her trip to India on Monday where she will be doing a yoga trainer's course and will be gone for six to seven weeks. Which means we really didn't have much of a last weekend together. Also, my roommate is visiting family in Seattle for the next couple weeks, which means I'm living alone for the first time since I've been in Vietnam. It is a bit lonely, but at least I'm catching up on my reading.
Tomorrow I have a follow up blood test to make sure my body's going back to normal. My tonsillitis was caused virally, and doctor's keeping me off sports and heavy drinking for a month to let my spleen and liver settle. I'm more bothered about the sports, because I've gotten pretty out of shape and am ready to do some climbing. On the other hand, the climbing wall here is awful. It's poorly run and seems as though they don't know anything about making routes. I'm thinking I may need to open up my own wall if I end up staying here for more than a year.
Anyhow, I think I might make myself some yoghurt and Coco Puffs and head for bed. Cheers.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Going on vacation, we'd like to think that we're leaving the rest of the world behind. But one thing you can't drop at the bus station is that chest cold you've been nursing for two weeks.
I was sure that I'd be better by the time of the trip but I was still feeling quite sick the morning we had to get on the bus. Hopefully, I thought, the rest of a long bus ride will help me feel better. But 12-hours with air conditioning that could not be turned off only made things much worse. By the time we got to Siem Reap I was a mess, and my health would only get worse as the week went on. Tuesday morning, after our complimentary breakfast of tea and toast, we took a tuk tuk[its a carriage hooked to a motorbike, what passes for a taxi around here] out to the Amelio School where Daphne used to do NGO work with Caring for Cambodia. Looking at the people and state of the country, Cambodia really made Vietnam look like a first world country. Their saving grace would be that those that owned motorbikes kept them very shiny and pristine, unlike in Saigon. But the roads were a terror, people get spine injuries from driving on less.

We helped Kaye, the director of teacher training, with some odd jobs around the school. I taught her how use a new program she had just gotten for making picture books.

At siesta time, we went to the pool that the hotel owned to have ourselves a very long nothing. There were a lot of very long nothings on this trip in fact, because I was too ill and too low on energy to do anything. Plus, my appetite for most foods had gone which made it hard to be talked into meals. I failed horribly that night when I tried to have a burger.
The next day we went back to the school and did a small photography project for Kaye. She gave me a driver and we went out to find examples of littering so that she could make a picture book about it for the kids. All I have to say is that the river is very, very dirty and people burn their trash. But I don't know what else they can really do when there is so much more that they need in their lives than a better public trash utility. We spent another siesta in sloth and then met up that night with Kaye and Fionna, the owner of our hotel, at a tapas bar. I managed to find a couple things I could swallow. When we parted, Daphne and I stopped by The Blue Pumpkin, which makes really good ice cream and desserts and got some green tea ice cream. Not as healthy as a pot of green tea, but still very yum.
We had planned to do the temples on the third day, standard tourist protocol, but Daphne was feeling apprehensive about my health and kept asking if I was sure I wanted to go. Had I looked at my health with some clarity I would've said no, but instead I shone with the arrogance of a drunk who's convinced he can still get behind the wheel. My memory of the temple trip is hazy, but here are some picture that prove I must've been there:

After we had done most of Angkor Thom I threw in the towel. I could barely breath with every step back to the tuk tuk. It was absolutely miserable. When we got back to the hotel we talked about going to the doctor and decided we should. I was already planning on going when we returned to Saigon and had called off of work for the weekend. But then Daphne asked if I would mind being quarantined if it came to that. The issue wasn't one of minding, but of my visa status. My Vietnam visa expired the following Wednesday and I had to get my passport to HR stat. What if I was quarantined passed the visa date? Would I be stuck in Cambodia for two weeks, trying to get a new visa?
We finally decided that the hospital would need to wait until Saigon and we didn't leave the hotel room that night[Daphne left for a bit to get a small, but crucial, road item, a blanket, and some soy milk since I was passed eating solid food] or until our pick-up for the bus the next morning.
At the bus station a little beggar boy was biting at our heels and Daphne gave him our leftover breakfast, which he sits down on the spot to eat. On the bus I manage to circulate a thought through the haze of my fever and ask her, 'Did you just give that boy my half eaten banana chocolate pancake?' She looks back at me with an 'oh shit' look. Luckily, I would find out later that what I have isn't contagious, but it was a worrying thought. Well, not so much for me, I was emotionally cold going on frigid by this time in my illness. The only thing I saw was a stretch of road with the hospital on the finish line and reaper racing me there[bound to feel that way when you spent the morning coughing blood into the toilet seat].
So, twelve hour trip, dropped stuff at the house, and taxi to the hospital. Walking through the doors I was relieved to see that there weren't alot of people to wait for, but was less than thrilled that they made me fill out paperwork. Worst hospital ritual ever. What I can say about the hospital, well, I don't have much experience with hospitals but I definitely think the nursing staff's english and service definitely has some ways to go. But the doctors were generally helpful and their english and knowledge was very good. I spent the next two nights there at the hospital on an IV being pumped with antibiotics and fever reducer. With me I brought a stack of tests that I had to grade and have at the school the next day, but thankfully Daphne took on that grueling task for me.
So... Today. I'm at home, I'm on antibodies, and I'm barely moving a muscle. But I'm eating, I'm breathing and I can even smell things now too. So the reaper will have to wait for a rematch.
Expect to see me out and about very little the next couple weeks, I just spent the better part of the month being sick and acting like I'm not and I'm exhausted. I'll write again after that. Wish me health.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Holiday. Again.

Two weeks into my first teaching job and I'm already on my first holiday. Just a short one though, we'll be back this weekend when I have to teach six hours of classes on Saturday.
Daphne's visa was coming up for expiration so we took the opportunity to head to Siem Reap, Cambodia. She wanted to visit the school where she used to do volunteer work with an NGO, and we're also planning on seeing some very old temples.
Short post. Be back in a week with details of the trip and pictures.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Birthdays, Pho and Learning New Games

I'm taking the opportunity of this small window of internet access, even though its nearly midnight and I'm still pretty ill. I had my first day of teaching Tuesday evening, was running around like I was trying to find my head as I prepared a lesson plan for a group of Intermediate level students ages 11-14. But the warm-up game I had lined up to start got booed down by the students. So I put it in their hands and let them pick the game, which of course they had to teach me, since I barely know any. But the second class, which I only spent a half-hour planning went by pretty smoothly. Even though I left my lesson plan at home.
Wednesday was Daphne's birthday. Her not being very fond of birthdays, I really wanted her to have a great time. In fact, she couldn't remember her last few birthdays. So for starters I made her the poshest breakfast-in-bed conceivable: crepes with banana-dragon fruit jam filling and turkish coffee. We had plans for dinner, but first I wanted to get my bike tuned up, so it wouldn't give us any hassle later on. The bike breaking down on Daphne's birthday would've been an embarrassment. Then for dinner, we had a six course meal at a nice restaurant, Ngi Xuan, which served really good Hue cuisine. We then made our way to an expat Irish pub, O'Brien's, to meet up with our CELTA friends and celebrate with some drinks. I wish I could've planned for more, but Daphne seemed to be pretty happy, so I am too.

Then yesterday, another birthday girl arrived off a plane from Singapore. Daphne's friend Jeanne, along with their friend Andria, have come to spend Jeanne's birthday eating and shopping the town to the ground. I've never met a girl so skinny with a bigger appetite than me.
After a pretty late night out yesterday, Daphne and I made it home to find that the power was out in the entire building. We had to make the walk up eleven floors to my place, but on the way we came accross a bamboo screen that I had to take with me, despite the extra weight, exhaustion, illness and nine floors left to go. But its worth it, for the feng shui value it adds to our living room.
After waking-up this morning, covered in so much sweat I thought I had just come out of the shower[no power, no AC], we met up with Jeanne and Andria for some more food. Cheap pho, baked goods and iced coffee. Jeanne got to try the really yummy baguette with pate and fried egg. Best sandwich ever and only 12,000 VND[.66USD]. For dinner, it was Quan An Ngon and we had to call the night there for the sake of getting an early start tomorrow. Plus, it was just beginning to rain and we couldn't be bothered. We'll meet up again tomorrow for a trip to the War Museum[I still haven't been to a single museum in Saigon] and the ladies will be on a plane again Monday morning, by when I hope to be free of this week-long illness.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Hoi An: Conclusion

Delay delay delay. For some reason my internet's been giving me grief, blocking only my blog site and nothing else. But without any further further delay I bring the conclusion of the Hoi An trip, thanks to the wifi in the Highlands Coffee downstairs in my building[no, nothing like the one in Cincy, this place is like the Starbucks of Vietnam].
Instead of boring you with minute details I'm going to shorten this last entry by focusing on the most entertaining chapter, our trip to the Marble Mountains.
The Marble Mountains are five small mountains in an otherwise flat landscape that have seen centuries of Buddhist temples, shrines and statues as well as marble excavation. Five mountains for five elements. Our plan was to visit all of them, having lunch after the first one. It was an uneventful 22 km drive north, just outside of Danang, and the mountains weren't hard to spot. But the entrance was. We passed a thin concrete bridge facing one end of one of the mountains. It certainly didn't look like much of an entrance, but we figured it was worth a shot. We parked the bike on the side of the road under a tree and went to have a look. There was a Buddha sculpture in a shabby state that made for a pitiful entrance and it didn't match the description in Lonely Planet for any of the five mountains. We didn't even know which one we were on. The strangest thing we noted was the lack of tourists, in an otherwise touristy location. But as we walked towards the base we found even more sculptures, covered in some family's drying laundry.

Under one structure there was the family, keeping shade and having a meal. Daphne and I debated over what mountain we were on, how to get up and whether we would have to turn back and find another route. We approached the family and pointed to the guide book.

The family pointed straight to the mountain and then nominated their three year old daughter to lead the way. The little girl, who was absolutely adorable, led us to the sketchiest little climb.

[Daphne didn't even see this sign]

When we reached the top we found...a lot. First there was a serene little Buddhist temple tended by a wide grinning midget monk and a couple other care takers. Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, looked over the remaining Marble Mountains and the town below.

As we climbed on, tourists started to appear as we found more temples, statues, caves and even someone dressed as Monkey God trying to charge for photo ops. We later realized that the reason nothing in the guide book seemed to make sense was because we were doing the mountain backwards[and not paying the admission fee, apparently]. It's hard to give the mountain the justice it deserves, there is just too much stuff on it. Hopefully some of these pictures hint at its beauty.

[Caretaker napping in the temple shade]

[Daphne tries to find out which mountain we're on]

[Entrance to a really cool cave with a giant Buddha carved into it]

[Guanyin carved into the rock face]

[We crawled through a tiny cave system to come out the top of the mountain and got a private view of the ocean and the surrounding countryside]

After four hours of hiking up and down the mountain, which we finally realized was named Thuy Son for the Water element, we knew we wouldn't have time to even set foot on any of the other Mountains.
And having done the whole mountain on only breakfast and in immense heat, we dragged ourselves back down the mountain to the bike and went on the hunt for a very late lunch. Choosing the beach road back we finally found the dingiest little hole in the wall, where they dipped the glasses in a tub to wash them clean. The food was cheap and pretty good, I left a tip bigger than the price because it seemed like no one had been to this place in ages.
That night, after a bowl of wonton noodle soup, Daphne and I sat at a river side bar in Hoi An, reflecting on the last week and writing notes to help me remember what to write in this blog. Drinking our 4000 VND[.2US] beers, we laughed when we remembered the Salsa Club, not noticing that the American who worked there was right behind us. As was the French couple we had met at the cockroach restaurant. 'Ici il n'y a pas des cancrelats, ne c'est pas?'
This was also the first night I noticed I was feeling sick. The next day I drugged up and went to the beach where I felt fine doing nothing but laying out and swimming. But that night, which was our last, we went to a wine bar and that's when I really started to feel it. It was an otherwise pleasant evening, the music was good, we had the place mostly to ourselves, a bottle of champagne and the power in the city kept going out adding to the charm and romance of the evening. But after a couple glasses I felt pitiful and spent the rest of the bottle with my head in Daphne's lap. The climax of my illness was the next morning when I woke up with the biggest fever I've ever had. Daphne ran downstairs and got some Ameflu from the front desk and brought it back with a cup of tea. Luckily, two of these did the trick and my temperature was back down with the quickness.
Ok. That was a not-so-brief entry I suppose, but there it is, that was Hoi An. Unfortunately, I'm sick again just two weeks later and after having completed my induction for school I'm starting my first class on Tuesday. I hope to be in better health by then.