Sunday, June 28, 2009

Disco 2000

Whoo. What a busy weekend! I just finished my first assignment and prepared my lesson plan for my second 40 minute teaching session tomorrow morning. Pretty much took up the whole day, but to be fair I did sleep in until 11 thanks to the excellent house warming party Anh and I threw. Yesterday we spent 3-4 hours in the supermarket getting stuff together[my former housemate, Kait, would shudder at the thought]. Plates, wine screw, towels, food, beer, ice, speakers... We had billed the party for 6 but didn't get back from shopping until 5:30, with cooking and cleaning still to do. Luckily, people didn't start showing up until 6:30, but I was still making food when the house was starting to get packed. Early comers were helping out, cutting fruit and such.
The security downstairs [who we bribed with food and beer to give our guests a hastle free time] were graciously 'accepting' beers from anyone they saw carrying a case upstairs. The guest list consisted of Anh's coworkers[mostly Vietnamese], my fellow CELTA victims and an open invite to the Couchsurfing community. It was a really good, diverse crowd of French, Polish, Viet, Americans, Welsh, Singaporean, etc. We had the world in our apartment, Natasha even brought a puppy that she had bought not four hours prior.
The neighbors were friendly and didn't give us a hard time, partially thanks to the fruit we brought over to them.[Highlight: me throwing a dragon fruit into the air and chopping it in half] We couldn't wait until the morning to clean, we had to race against the ants, but even so the place still looks hit. A maid is coming tomorrow to fix this since neither of us has time. Bourgeois I know.
Music played[Herbaliser, Deltron, Daft Punk, Girl Talk, Justice, Pulp, and wrapped it up with some Tom Waits]

[Outside my place]

I'm having a genuinely good time in CELTA. I like my tutors and I feel very strongly about the teaching methods I'm learning. You can really see how it works. Some of my former teachers could've used training like this. I do miss having time though, that's a luxury I'll more or less have to do without for now.
And I miss climbing. There's a wall in town but its too far and not open late enough to be practical. I'll try to go next weekend if I can.
Sneak previews: Getting clothes tailored, those before and after pics of Natasha's new school I promised, and maybe my bike will make it one week without having to get repaired.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Toooo Busy

CELTA course=no free time. I just got done writing a lesson plan for tomorrow at 9am, and then I'll be in the school until 6 or later, depending if there's any other prep work I have to do. This weekend, shopping. Me and Anh are having a house warming party so if you're in Saigon, you're invited! We have to get a lot of supplies, foods and beers for guests and the security guards[for a hastle free time]. Also, I need to buy more work clothes, I've been circulating three shirts and two ties. Gotta run and get some sleep, I have to take my bike in to the shop on the way to work and figure out why it still runs even after I take the key out. I'd rather not have to pull the spark plug to turn it off and risk getting electrocuted[again]. I'll write more on the weekend when I have more free time.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

End Of My Vacation

Let the madness begin. Tomorrow is the first day of the CELTA course, which means my social life will probably be mia for the next four weeks. I have to go to bed soon, since I have to be up in five hours, but I wanted to post a few pictures. I took another trip through my neighborhood and found this little buddhist temple hidden away:

Here I met a friendly monk, Thien, who invited me to join for lunch. I had already eaten but said yes anyways. Good food, and apparently they can eat chicken, which I thought was against their religion. Thien and I exchanged numbers[apparently monks can have cellphones, too?] so that we could have coffee and help each other learn our respective languages.

[Thien serves me tea]

I spent yesterday helping Natasha look at locations for her new school in An Phu[sort of a French expat district] and found and signed a lease on a place that day, as well as organized the entire redecoration of the space. It's really interesting to see first hand how somebody starts a business here. Everything here is done so fast, Natasha even plans to start classes there in two weeks! I'll put some before and after shots of the place when everything is done so you can see what I mean. In the meantime, enjoy these shots of my mechanics working on my bike, again.

[D4 Represent]

[Eating on the job]

That's all for now. Wish me luck tomorrow...

Thursday, June 18, 2009


It was bound to happen eventually. I'm sick. Don't worry, I haven't caught anything exotic or serious. I merely got caught out in the rain and didn't dry off properly. At the very least, it could have happened at a worst time. It's a weekday, school doesn't start until Monday and yesterday I bought bedding and a tea set at Ben Than Market. So I'm pretty good to chill at home and lay low. I've stepped out once today for some Pho and that was it. I do have to make at least two more trips today though, one over to the supermarket for more supplies and another probably for dinner, if I have an appetite.
Yesterday I completely moved into my apartment, not that I had a lot of stuff to move, and went on a shopping trip[I don't like the word spree and I won't use it]. I was determined to avoid the large supermarket which I figured would be more expensive, and decided instead to venture between hole-in-the-wall shops in my neighborhood. This became utterly useless, like a bad scavenger hunt, and I had too much of a headache from being sick for all the fuss. While turning the corner in one secluded alley, I heard several beckoning calls from a table of men having lunch. Usually, when someone call out on the street I just ignore it, unless I need a ride on a motorbike because that's what it usually means. This time I didn't, my free beer sense was tingling.
[Mot, Hai, Ba, Yoooo!]

I joined the table of men, only one of whom could speak English[barely] and was made to drink at least three beers with them before I was allowed to leave. The lot of them were already quite drunk[it wasn't even 1pm], the ground below the table was littered with Saigon beer bottles. The table was covered with all sorts of yummy looking foods. They were insistent that I help myself, going so far as to literally shove the food in my face, and I would've been tempted, too, had I not already eaten.
By the time I left them I had a good buzz going and my headache was gone, but I was no longer in any mood to go on with my scavenger hunt. I went back to my hotel and grabbed my moto and an empty bookbag[not having a proper trunk really limits your shopping capabilities] and headed for the supermarket. It's a good thing too, as I found that, at least for household stuff, this was probably the cheapest I could get. I got hangers, towels, bedding, and a couple pillows, which I had to strap to the outside of my bag. After dropping everything off I made it to Ben Thanh Market just in time to buy my tea set[230,000VND~$13] before they closed and zoomed back to the supermarket get an electric kettle that I couldn't fit last time.
I've gotten much better at driving here. As I told a friend earlier today, if you've every played a driver based video game you're ready to drive in Saigon. The same principles apply, you drive in the direction you want to go and every time you hit something you lose points.
Anyways, as promised here are pictures of my new place:

[Living Room. The light up top changes color]


[Bedroom. Pardon the mess]

[View outside my window]

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Couchsurfers and Karaoke

Day six in Saigon. My days here have been fairly idle the last week but my nights, not so much. I've gone out with my Couchsurfing host, Natasha, and her friends to different bars, restaurants and other events. My third night here we went to Ben Thanh Market for a Couchsurfing meet-up dinner. About thirty or so people showed up, some were travelers from different parts of the world, some were expats that were active in the Couchsurfing community, and there were also a couple Vietnamese who took advantage of the opportunity to practise their English. The food was good and the atmosphere lively.
Afterwards, half of us went out to karaoke[my first]. I grabbed a ride with Steve, a Canadian, and the road we had to take was barricaded so Steve had to drive on the sidewalk dodging trees, and walls through spaces that I wouldn't even have walked through without shifting my shoulders. While there we were given a large room to ourselves, a case of Tigers and ice[the beer is too warm without it] and a remote to a big screen tv. I had the honor of butchering Video Killed the Radio Star, and a U2 song[I hate U2]. While the songs played the lyrics ran on the bottom of the screen, sometimes at the wrong speed[which ruined Sultans of Swing], and the video footage shown during all the songs were montage scenic views of rural VietNam.
When it was time to leave, a handful of us went up to Apocalypse Now, a brilliantly named but gaudy two-story night club. The first floor plays house dance music while the second, where we headed, had a bit more variety and taste. But the place was very crowded, half tourists and half prostitutes.
I also went to an 'International Beerfest' at the Windsor Plaza Hotel. An overpriced affair, that had lots of mediocre food[only the baked foods were worth a damn] and while certainly having a better beer variety than a typical bar in VietNam, it didn't even compare to what you'd expect at even the most average bar in America. If I end up staying here more than a year it'll be to open a real bar with real beers.
In other news, I move into my own place this afternoon, a two bedroom apartment that I will share with a Vietnamese-American named Anh from Seattle. He seems pretty cool and his Vietnamese will definitely be a helpful resource.
My bike broke already. I was so mad about it, thinking that it would cost as much to fix it as the bike cost to buy. But I had it towed and repairs only cost $10. This included the replacement of two parts as well as extra stuff the mechanic did like tidy up the wiring, which was in a sorry state. I'm happy to now have a bike that starts without the kick start[which is uncomfortable to do in flipflops] and whose gears actually change.
There's definitely more to write about, but as a general rule I'm gonna try to keep posts that don't have pictures shorter in length. I should have some pics of my new place up soon.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Aaaaand...we're in Saigon. Haha. Sorry for the delayed updates, let me start this by going back to my last days in Cat Ba, which were quite eventful. I had a falling out at my hotel over the motorbike we had rented to Butterfly Valley. We could tell on the way that the air was very low in the tire, but by the time we got back it was completely flat. I pointed it out to the girl that rented it to us and she said, 'awwwww, you pay?' To which I laughed and shook my head, explaining that the tire was bad in the first place. Her husband came shortly after and with a big smile on his face tried to get me to pay 200,000 VND[$11]. But I refused on principal that the tire was bad at the start and I didn't cause the damage. Eventually, I just had to turn my back on him and rejoin my friends. The whole episode quite upset me because I was in good standing with the people that worked at the hotel. But then the next day, big attitude shift. The guy smiled at me in the street and, said, 'no problem, bike okay,' and that was that. I was happy enough to here that, but then the hotel staff spent the morning giving me free food and drink to make sure that I was completely content. And I was! People here can be quite petty in matters of business, so I'm glad this had a positive resolution.
We rented again from them that day[checking the tire] and went out for another climbing trip to Butterfly Valley. On the way back we grabbed some beers and decided to drive to the west side of the island in search of a beautiful sunset. We couldn't find the perfect spot, but we settled on a spot overlooking a pond that had palm trees. Although to get there, we had to climb over a bamboo fence. And, it was right next to somebody's grave stone. Audhild looked at Cheung and asked, 'you're the resident Asian. is this a bad idea?' to which Cheung had no response.
But Dominic was already over the fence and had opened his beer so it was settled. We climbed over and as we got to the pond we heard a shout over on the other side. An old man was walking towards us from the left side of the pond. We weighed our options. We could play it off as though we didn't know we weren't supposed to be, we could apologize and run, or...we could pretend like we WERE supposed to be there. We decided to try the latter. We waved at the old man and pointed at the beer and the sunset. We could hear him laughing. Along the other side of the pond walked a girl about 20 and behind us, on the other side of the fence, we heard an older woman yell to them. Basically we were surrounded, waiting to see how it would play out. The man and girl arrived and they joined us to watch the sunset. The girl could speak some English, which was helpful. After the sun had set they invited us up to their house to spend the night. This was very tempting, as we were all quite sick of the loudness that was Cat Ba Town, but unfortunately we had to get return our bikes, climbing gear, and arrange our boat for the next day[more on that in a bit].
So instead we agreed to stop in so we could see their house.
The house:

[Cheung showing his shy side. On the left, Thuan and the right, Hua]

[Dominic chatting with the Vietnam vet, who doesn't know any English]

They were extremely hospitable, an older daughter arrived, who was studying to be a tour guide at university and could also speak some English. They served us tea and mango and lychees and were just extremely hospitable. The old man, it turned out, had served his country in the Vietnam War. But he was completely unfazed by me being an American. Before we left, his wife gave us a giant bag of lychees to take with us.

The next day was my last in Cat Ba. For about $22 each, a small group of us rented a boat for the day so that we could go deep water soloing. This basically means that were going to climb rocks in the bay and we got to the top, or fell, we would be falling into the water below. It was a fantastic trip, and included a amazing lunch that had the best squid I've ever tried. I don't think I'll ever be able to eat seafood some where it isn't fresh again. As we watched the sunset on our boat in the bay, drinking our Tigers, we all agreed that $22 was too cheap for the day we had.

[John spotting Cheung]

[Our shoes dry in the sun as we take lunch]

[Beautiful end to the day]

One busy day of traveling later, and I'm in Ho Chi Minh City. I've been staying with the Couchsurfing ambassador for Vietnam, Natasha, who is letting me stay at her place for two weeks. She's an Australian mother of two and teaches at the school across the street. That is, until the end of today. She's starting her own school for the musical arts for kids. From what I understand it should go well for her, she has so many interested parents that she is thinking about opening two studios at once. This appears to be a trend with many westerners here. I keep reading articles about people just opening businesses and restaurants left and right with ease. This is in part because we are rich in this country, and partly thanks to the booming economy here. The city is in a constant state of construction, and the main district looks a lot like Paris with its designer boutiques and tree lined boulevards.
Natasha helped me arrange the purchase of my first motorbike. That's right, like many Vietnamese I am now an unlicensed motorbike driver. The process of getting it was hectic and took two days. The guy brought the bike yesterday for me to examine. The light switch was broken, the seat didn't lock, and the gear lights didn't work. So he said he'd fix it and be back at 1pm. Four hours late, there's a knock on the door. Natasha and I go down to have a look, she notices that the front brake doesn't work, so away goes the bike. This morning, he brings the bike back for a look, and it gets sent away again because the gear shift doesn't work great. Soooo, finally about an hour ago I have my bike. Price: 4.8 mil VND[$266]. So, now that I have a bike I'm going to have some lunch and head downtown to find a cellphone. Tonight we're going to a Couchsurfer meet-up in Ben Thanh market which should be a good time.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Strange Hours

Well, its 12:30am in Cat Ba town and you know what that means? Nothing. Vietnam is early to rise and early to bed. But I can't blame them, I'm back in The Noble House for one night and as far as I've seen the girls that work here do so all day every day. I had a beer with Dominic, a Swiss climber I met yesterday, and had to knock on the hotel to get back inside. The town is quite now and I'm off to bed soon, but I wanted to take advantage of the wifi[which I probably won't have for a bit] and catch up on what the last post is missing. Yesterday was a beach day, all beach all day pretty much. I met Dominic who had come to Cat Ba with a tour group called Backpackers, but he was staying for the rocks. We did some bouldering on the beach and took in some surf and sun. Some local youths joined us on the rocks and showed off there arm wrestling skills. Turns out, Dominic is a friend of Cheung's so today Cheung and Audhild joined us back at Butterfly Valley for some climbing. I did lead climbing for the first time[that's where there's no rope supporting you until you clip it in] thanks to the support and teaching of the others. I lead three routes, a 5b[5.9] and two 6a's[5.10a]. The first was the hardest for me, even though it was one that I had done fairly easily a couple days prior, but its a different story when you have to rely on yourself for safety. But by the second I had the confidence I needed and even though it was a harder 'problem' I felt much more at ease doing it.
Tomorrow morning: another hotel change, some more climbing at Butterfly Valley and then the next day we're taking a boat for some deep water soloing[see picture from the last post where I'm climbing over water].
I leave here on Wednesday and should be in Ho Chi Minh City later that evening. But...I don't have a flight yet, have people working on that. And I don't have a house yet, working on that, too. I'll probably do a hotel for the first night or two, maybe use Couchsurfing, I dunno.

I'm here

[I wrote this post a couple days ago, internet here is tricky]
Hello everyone! I just got back to my hotel on Cat Ba Island after rock climbing on a couple smaller nearby islands. It's my third night here and I'm having a blast. The trip was a long one, not only did air travel take something like 28 hours, but right off the plane I grabbed a taxi to Luong Yen bus station and just barely made my bus. I had a little sheet of paper with detailed instructions on how to use the buses to get to Cat Ba which I clung in my hand as I lugged nearly 100 lbs. on my shoulders. First there was a 2.5 hr ride on one bus, another 45min on another, then a 30min boat ride which got me to Cat Ba, and another 30 min bus ride into Cat Ba Town. The bus conveniently let me out right in front of the rock climbing headquarters, SloPony. I went in to get some advice on where to stay but the crew was out climbing for another couple hours. Luckily, there was a room available right above them for just 10 dollars a night. The room...had its drawbacks. It was simple in appearance, fan, airconditioner, bed, but it had a bad odor to it, like sweat and sewage bad. It was their only room though and I was exhausted but I couldn't just take it as it was. I asked them to change the sheets which I don't think had been, and they also washed the bathroom, which vastly improved things. The bathroom was something else, the shower consisted of the shower head and a drain in the floor, so the whole bathroom was in fact the shower. In all, I think the hotel was worth it for its price, convenience of location, occasional wifi, and this view:

After unloading my stuff I sat down on the bed and let a sigh I'd been holding in since I got on the first [delayed] plane in D.C. The flight was in general decent, and China Airways is a good service. When I checked in they made me a fake booking for a return flight so that I wouldn't get turned away in VietNam for only having a one way ticket. This wasn't a problem though, as the visa process was quite simple. In customs, they asked for my passport and gave me an application to fill out. I was halfway through the application when the official got impatient and just told me to sign the bottom. He already had the visa glued inside the passport and stamped!
So on my first night in Cat Ba my agenda is simple, eat, talk to SloPony and get to bed! So I head out in search of some Pho[oh, and some shampoo, soap and water, amenities all in lacking at the hotel], getting called out for bike rentals and solicited by different restaurants along the way. The entire trip from Hanoi to Cat Ba I didn't see a single westerner en route and in town nothing had changed. The majority of tourism on the island came from within the island, as school's were letting out and family were on the beaches to escape the summer heat. Unable to distinguish one restaurant's value from another, I stop into maybe the 20th one that advertised pho. But for 12,000 Dong[18,000 Dong=$1] all I got was a big bowl of ramen noodles with beef. Sitting there, eating my fake pho, and watching the all the 'foreign' faces passing on the street the distance finally had caught up to me. I was so caught up the last two days in the journey that I had little time to even think about the destination, until I almost spontaneously realize that I'm on the other side of the world. I pay for my meal and head back to the hotel, finding Oslo, one of the SloPony founders. I was ready to climb the next day, but the next time they were going out was in two days so I threw down $60 and had my first plan made. Of course, that still left tomorrow open but I was tired and decided to save the planning for the morning. I was out cold at 7pm[that's 8am Eastern y'all]. For those wondering whether I had jet lag the next day the answer is a surprising no. I hear on NPR that fasting until just before you go to sleep will cure jet lag and having done so myself I can say that it definitely seemed to work.
I woke up at 6 the next morning, with the aid of a some one playing their radio through a concert speaker into the street. This seems to happen every morning as if to say, 'wake up, tourist! go spend your money!'. I was in no rush to get out of bed, I spent the last two days in a constant state of motion, so I was glad to exercise my right to not move. Besides, I didn't know what I wanted to do!
Finally, an hour later, I get my shit together and head downstairs for some breakfast[not included, but cheap and tasty]. I have a simple omelet and some Vietnamese green tea. For the tea they let the leaves steep in the metal pot and you drink it from a shot glass. Because of the oversteepage, the tea is quite strong and its also a dark, army green colour, but it still tastes good with a seedy, vegetative taste and some musky tones. Makes me nostalgic for home.
Hotels aren't just hotels here, they are restaurants, tour guides and they'll rent you motor bikes, too. While eating my breakfast, one of the girls that worked there offered me a motor bike for 100,000VND[$6]. I'd never ridden a motorbike or scooter before, but I also wanted something to do and I noticed a national park on bus ride in that I thought would be fun to check out. So after breakfast I go upstairs and get ready, but on my way down I run into some climber in the SloPony lounge trying to arrange an overnight boat for the next day. While I waited to ask Slo for a map, I struck up a conversation with them. Two of them, Cheung[Japanese] and Audhild[Norwegian] were going to a place on the island that day called Butterfly Valley to do some climbing. They ask me to join and its no question that I say yes. It was great to finally meet some people I could hang out with and that actually spoke my language[Audhild's accent sounds Australian, but she claims its American].
We rent some gear[$5 each], buy a day pass[$3] and order lunch at the site[$3], and then head downstairs where I rent my bike. I won't lie, I was very nervous. I didn't even know how to turn it on! Cheung takes me through the operating instructions, not hiding that he's nervous about me driving, too. We start slow, me following behind as I try to work out what I was doing. Surprisingly, I picked up very quickly, and Cheung didn't have to pace himself on my behalf for too long. It was a 30 minute ride through a beautiful countryside.
I'll try to write the rest of this post faster, as it's getting late, I'm getting hungry, and I've got a good lead on where I can get some quality pho. The rock climbing was great, and I did great at it. There was one route that I had to fall twice though before I got it[don't worry, there's a rope so no actually falling is involved, you just swing]. Lunch there was absolutely amazing. Spring rolls, fish, some omelet thingy, rice, lychees...awesome.

After lunch we took naps in hammocks under the shade, as chickens and dogs ran by us and a cat meowed in the distance[word for cat in Vietnamese is meow]. Cheung and Audhild were cool to have met and good climbers. Hopefully I'll climb with them again when they get back from the boat trip in a couple days.

That night, a quick swim at the beach before sunset, when a fully clothed man comes to blow a whistle and wave a flag for everyone to get out. Then, some very good dinner with other climbers I met. Owner of restaurant sat with us and told crazy stories, about how gecko vodka improves your sexual stamina and that he wanted a third wife[he has two!] that was foreign so that he could have a tall son to play play football[soccer] for Manchester United.
Today, had to switch hotels cause my room was booked. No problem, this one's around the corner and in better shape for the same price. Went on climbing trip with Slo Pony by junk[boat]. Hit up a couple beaches for climbing on some islands. The climbing there is different then in Butterfly Valley, the rocks are sharp to the touch, like climbing on axe blades. It was good climbing though, and lunch on the junk was great, too.
Tomorrow, national park maybe? I'm not sure. Just have to wait and see.
[Me climbing over water]

[One of the islands]
[Junk near a fishing village]