Thursday, July 30, 2009

We Interrupt this Program...

When I woke up this morning, I didn't know I was going to be on a plane to Singapore a few hours later. When I return to Saigon on Sunday, Daphne will be coming with me. The conclusion of my Hoi An blog will have to wait until then...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hoi An: Days Three and Four

Day Three
My Son

After breakfast and some procrastination we rented another motorbike for the day. This time I scrutinized it much more heavily because we were about to go on a 55km trip and everything had to not only work but be comfortable. Destination: My Son, the ruins of a Hindu temple set in a tropical valley. Ruined even more in the seventies with the help of American bombers, but still an impressive site to see.
It was the longest trip I'd ever made on a motorbike thus far, but it went relatively smoothly, minus an awkward sunburn that made my arms red down to my knuckles, where my fingers were completely white from holding the handle bars. Not much to say about the site itself except to show some pictures:

[Note the Sanskrit on the left column and the linga in the middle]

[If my understanding of Hindu symbolism is correct, then I am a dick]

The site was rather small, but it took us a while to figure it out as we looked at the map in our guide book and tried to figure out where the rest of it was. Our timing getting there and leaving was exactly the same as a small group of French tourists. So much so, that when we left and decided to stop for lunch about 10km out we incidentally stopped in the same little pho place. As we were leaving lunch, we noticed some serious storm clouds coming our way, with another 40km or so to go. We hopped on the bike and decided to race the cloud back to town. Lucky for us the cloud wasn't bringing rain, but unlucky for us it brought wind. Strong wind. In a very dusty area. We only had one pair of sunglasses between us, which I had let Daphne wear, but it got to the point where I had to steal them from her. We felt it was in both our interests that I kept my eyes opened while I drove, Daphne hid her her head and closed her eyes. We made back alright, but I think I still have sand in pores even today.
That night, Daphne and I decided we were done with the tourist bar scene and opted instead for a romantic sit by the river. In one quiet spot on the 'Vietnamese' half of town, there were straw mats laid out with a foot high table in the middle. An old lady comes and brings out cane juice. That's it. That simple.

Day 4
Old Hoi An

We waited until half way into our trip to finally do a proper tour of the town. Since its pretty much about seeing and buying, I'll spare the history lesson. Suffice it to say that the Chinese influence here is[or was] big and the hotels and souvenir shops know it. Here are some pics, they'll do the talking:

Our last stop on the tour was really hard to find. After several hours in the heat already we circled the same block five times trying to find a craft warehouse to watch a music and dance performance. When we finally made it we only got to see five minutes of the show[which was only ten minutes long anyways]. After that I refused to ever step foot on that block again, deciding that in five times, I had seen more than enough of it.

Fine Dining
We picked a recommendation from Lonely Planet called Des Amis. Its the most expensive place there, which doesn't say much, and there's a set menu that changes every night, depending on what the cook feels like doing. It was four courses, and really good, but it had one fatal flaw that didn't rear its head until after the bill was paid. Cockroaches. They slowly started coming through a window that faced a dark alley, and was right between us and the stair case leading out. Did I mention they can fly? I've never seen a cockroach fly in the States, but these do. Flip flops went flying too, as we fought our way through. I'd never seen so many in one place. So, while the food was good, I would recommend taking an early dinner if you every plan to check this place out, unless you're going for dinner and a show.

Hoi An: Days One and Two

Wow, so after typing up the first two days, I can see that I'm going to have to do installments so here's day one and two. Please forgive me if the style here is a little bit rushed. I do have stuff to do.
Day 1
Getting There
It was a short hour and a half flight from Saigon to Danang. The airport was so small it looked more like an office space. Outside, Daphne and I grabbed a taxi to the bus station, paying twice as much for the fair as Lonely Planet advertised. They need a disclaimer on their cover that prices go up on all of their recommendations immediately after publication.
Danang itself seemed to be a rather soulless town. Industrialized but sprawled[Daphne's reminded of LA] and amazingly bare of people. The place just seemed off, but luckily we weren't staying around. An hour ride on a rickety bus and we were in Hoi An, turning our map in circles trying to figure out where to go for a hotel and waving off motodrivers trying to make a Dong.
We sat down for some fresh squeezed cane juice as we planned our route, but a driver wouldn't stop hastling us. Convinced that Daphne was Vietnamese, he kept trying to talk to her and wasn't put off by her English one bit. Not until she laid some Mandarin on him did he realize he made a mistake.
Old Man in the Red Helmet
We left the juice stand and headed towards the river where we hoped to find a hotel as close as possible to the old town. Along the way, a motordriver in a red helmet stopped us and promised a hotel with pool and wifi for 10 a night. He wanted to put us on his motorbike to take us there, but with our luggage we wouldn't fit and were unwilling to split up and taken one by one. So we followed him on foot for five minutes to a really nice hotel....that was booked. No problem, at least according to him, he'll just take us to another hotel. But we decided to try our own luck, as there were plenty of really nice looking hotels lining the streets to choose from. But every place we checked was booked and the old man in the red helmet kept meeting us outside waving us to come with him. We agreed to follow him, but we couldn't help stopping in to hotels here and there to try our own luck. For a good twenty minutes we walked like this, until we realized that he was taking us to this big, soulless hotel we saw on the way into town that was just too far out of town. We finally divorced ourselves from the driver, it was rather difficult but he moved on and found new tourists to solicit. As we continued checking booked hotel after booked hotel, he kept reappearing to try his luck, but we pushed on and found a really nice hotel for $22 a night. It had an inner garden pool, Chinese influenced interior wood decoration and included breakfast. Settled and showered, it was time to check out the old river town, have some dinner and see what its all about.
The Town
What can I say about Hoi An that your guide book hasn't already told you. Well unless your going to Vietnam you probably don't have one, so I'll try to be brief. River town. Quiet. Charming. Heavy Chinese influence in architecture. Cheap fitted clothing and shoes. Really good cheap food. 20 cent 'fresh' beer. Tourist town[mostly French]. Close to the beach and other really cool sites. That should do it.
The People
Generally friendly, the only annoyance comes from the motorbike drivers and restauranteurs hollering for customers. Everyone there seems to speak pretty decent English and French, a result of heavy tourist traffic. As for the tourists, we had a tendency of running into the same people over and over again in the oddest ways, but more on that later.
The Perfect Fit

["I'd like that in gecko, please"]

There's definitely something addictive about being able to custom make your clothes. If you go to Hoi An your going to need a few days, while the clothes will be done in just one day you'll probably need something changed. Our clothes took about four days of tweaking, especially Daphne's chamsaras that she had made. I had a total of six fitted shirts, three pants and a pair of black crocodile pattern and suede shoes made. The shirts and pants were only $12 a piece and the shoes were $25. Daphne got three chamsaras[a traditional Chinese style outfit], a skirt and a pair of pants.

[Too big, too small, too long, too high...]

Day 2
The Beach

After the intensive month of study that we had undergone, the beach was an obvious first stop for the two of us. No agenda, just go, swim and take our time. For $5 we rented a motorbike for the day and drove the 4k there, trying to use the breaks as little as possible as the screeched worse than the horn did. The beach itself was really nice. Fine sand, calm waves, clean water with an almost pleasant taste to it and really quiet. Actually, it was kind of an eerie quiet, the tourists here in general were a quiet sort but that wasn't all. It wasn't until our third beach trip that we realized what it was. No seabirds. It's amazing how something so simple could make such a big impact on a beach experience but that's how it was.
One thing worth noting about the swimming, however, is that there were stinging microbes that lived in the water. Not that big of a deal, the stings were small, invisible and only hurt a little and for a few seconds. Except for every now and then when you'd get five stings in a row. Or in unpleasant locations.
A swim and a rest later, we were ready for a seafood lunch. We walked along the beach past restaurants that were sandwiched together. You get to one someone runs up with a menu and starts soliciting than when you get to their 'border' there's the server for the next place waiting and you can see the next three on down the way that you'll have to say no to. All the menus are the same and pretty expensive considering the prices off the beach. But at the fifth such restaurant, when we said no they ran back to us with another menu, all the same stuff on it but with half the price. Before heading back to town we had a long siesta under a leaf umbrella, waiting out a rain storm.
The Night Life
Well, it is a tourist town so of course there are some bars to check out on the river banks. That night we went for a couple drinks to a place called 'The Salsa Club'. Ironic, considering less than a third of the music they played was salsa and the other two thirds was Shakira. The oddest thing about the place was the fact that the person who came up to solicit us to come in was a skinny American guy. And he didn't own the place, nor was he friends with the owner. He just came there for holiday one day and decided to stay. Got a job at a local bar to make ends meet, I suppose.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Coming Soon

Back from holiday. And what an amazing week its been, but I won't go into any details yet. Between taking Daphne to the airport this morning and having to make a very[very] difficult goodbye, being physically ill and editing through over two hundred pictures that I took on the trip, I'm pretty much all sapped out for the day. Expect a very big entry tomorrow though with lots of pictures too.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Motobikes and Bloody Lips

In honor of the eventful day I've had, I'm posting a second blog. We had a couple errands to run, Daphne and I. The weather was real nice, blue with wispy clouds, a cool we knew a storm was coming at some point. But we didn't care, we had an early start and we had just rode up to the post office that was built long ago by Gustave Eiffel, of Tower fame. We parked in its garage, got the standard parking slip and were on our way. The post office was an attractive, train station like building, that had the majority of the interior gutted and replaced with a gift shop. But the service was very professional and we got Daphne's package shipped with the quickness.
A couple more stops and we were on our way to the garage to get the bike, blue skies gone and a menacing darkness that was as much a storm as it was the encroaching twilight. But I had lost the slip. While the attendees had no problem recognizing my face when I came to claim my bike, not having your ticket is a serious offense to them and they like to keep your bike for a day as punishment. Unacceptable, as we had a flight in the morning and wouldn't be back for a week. So I tried to play the dumb foreigner card as best as I could, but they just turned to Daphne and tried talking in Vietnamese to her, thinking she was one. I tried to pay the 3,000VND for the parking, gave the guy a 5 and asked for change, completely ignoring the ticket issue. He hands the money right back and keeps pointing at the bike asking for a ticket and pointing to a parking spot for me to return my bike to. But I'm saddled and the key is in the ignition. Finally, I had enough of negotiating, put the 5 in my pocket and revved the engine a couple times. I told Daphne to get on, but the attendants were still in front of me, one with a foot right in front of the wheel. But when Daphne got on and my foot went for the gear, they had provided us with just enough of a gap for me that I had to take it. I brushed past them, up the parking ramp, with one of the attendants running after us. What I drove out of was a mess-and-a-half, but what I was driving into was a torrential storm. Without my raincoat on.
We drove a little around the corner until we were scotfree and under shelter trying to catch our breaths. Daphne noted that my lip was bleeding. How and when that happened, I'm not sure. We thought we could wait out the storm, but seeing it was going to be a long one we put on our coats and went into the thick of it on our last errand.
The agenda called for me getting the charger to my beard trimmer repaired. Thanks to international voltage incompatibility, the charger had blown and I didn't know where I could get it fixed. I got into my head that all I needed was another cord, any cord, that I could splice with the charger's male end. So we went on a hunt, in the rain, to every electronic store we could find trying to explain what we needed to do. All we got were shaking heads and smiles. It seemed that they couldn't wrap their head around what I wanted to do and instead kept telling me, 'but we don't have that charger.' While I would've loved to have saved this futile trip for another day with better weather and humor, I needed a trimmer for the trip tomorrow. Thankfully, the last place we went to, and by last I mean that we were going to give up, the service staff there had reluctantly agreed to take me up on my plot. Did it work? Well, we'll see tomorrow.

School's Out

Done! The course is finished! So what's next? Daphne's packing her suitcase right now for the trip to Hoi Ann tomorrow. We get back next Sunday, she flies out Monday at 9 and at 11 I have a job interview at ILA Vietnam. I'm going to send my CV out to a couple other schools, but I could be at work as soon as two weeks from now. We'll see how things go.
Yesterday morning we had a potluck with our students. The students generated a game that involved picking tasks out of a bag. Like truth or dare without the truth part. John, one of the teachers, had to flick a student on the nose, and Bret, another teacher, had to kiss his 'favorite student' on the cheek. I had to chug three glasses of water. Foreshadowing for the night ahead maybe?
The school day was halved and just involved a few minor administrative details. Then some pre-evening tea and movie[The Bedford Incident~I recommend it] and we were back at Quan An Ngon for dinner with the CELTA crew.

[At Quan An Ngon]

On the way there, we had a bit of a fright. We saw a four-year old boy take a bus to the face. Luckily he was on the ground crying and his mom was there, so it seems that there was no serious injuries. I can't blame the bus on this one, the kid was crossing the street with his mom and did a 360 in the middle of the road, right into its path. People are pretty careless about safety here sometimes. 'Hold my son's hand while crossing the street at night? Why?'
Anyways, dinner was really good but a little tightly packed. One guy had to crawl under the table on one side to get to his seat. The service was kind of slow, after five minutes I had to get up and get behind the bar to get my beer.
After dinner we headed to an over decorated five story karaoke bar where two of our tutors, Rob and Joanna, joined us. The talent was poorly balanced, with Angela being an absolute diva on the mic, and Phillip, who didn't know when to let go[he REALLY needed to let go]. Bill, the 70 year old New Yorker in cowboy boots, had bought some rice wine in the Mekong Delta. I took a small sip and cringed. Joanna, being Polish, teased me for being a Russian and cringing at alcahol so I was obliged to take a double shot straight from the bottle, look her in the eyes and smile as proof of my rights to heritage.

[There were also some real cool shots of polar bears]

At the end of the night there were some goodbyes but also some see-you-arounds as a few of the crew will still be in Saigon teaching, maybe even in the same school as me.
Alright, Daphne's done packing and we've still got a bunch of errands to run. Updates after I get back from Hoi An. Wish me luck at the interview!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Crocodile for Breakfast

Only a week to go. I'm told that the third week of CELTA is the hardest, they'd better be right. I had hardly a dollop of sleep all week. To illustrate my point, the sunrise:

[Too HDR?]

This was my Wednesday night/Thursday morning. I had a lesson plan to make for the next day and an assignment due. On top of that, one of my tailored shirts turned another two shirts pink in the wash and the ants got into my cereal. The day went by in a cloudy haze, teaching and classes until 6pm on zero sleep. I wasn't the only one suffering. After our 3pm break, there were ice coffees on desks from one end of the room to the other.
This weekend brought a much needed relief with some great dining and some expensive drinking. Somehow, the CELTAs and I managed to find the three most expensive bars in Saigon Friday night after class. La Habana was not only expensive but charged a sneaky service charge of 10%, a rude move considering that tipping doesn't exist in VietNam, or tax. We hauled out of there to another spot, Vasco's, where there was dancing and bad music. It was just around the corner, but not knowing this some of the CELTAs went into a taxi for a 30 second, 10,000VND ride. We weren't there long, thanks to the weak cover band, crowded dance floor and drink that topped La Habana. So we headed down to the backpacker's area to hit up Go2. On the way, one of my students rode up next to me on her motorbike and chatted me up for a bit. This city can really feel small at times.
Next day, Daphne and I took another trip to Ben Thanh Market. After some yummy soup and cane juice we dropped off her shoes to get fixed and went for a stroll. We found a flashy little Indian temple, not sure if it was truly Hindu, and wanted to have a look. Outside, a gentleman stopped us with an offer of incense. We told him we weren't interested in buying any, but he persisted and it seemed as though he was giving it to us for free, as an offering. When we went inside, he showed us how to light the incense and that two sticks had to go at each shrine. Another woman came over and gave us a bag each with a candle, lime and some kind of leaf inside to put at a shrine. After having a look around this gaudy painted temple and trying to make sense of what just happened we headed out the exit, where the man and woman were waiting for us, rubbing fingers. I anticipated this, but what I didn't anticipate was that they'd ask for 125,000VND[$8USD]. Each. That's fine, I don't think they anticipated getting only 20,000VND.
With that headache behind us, and Daphne's fixed shoes, we headed to do some shopping and get my horn fixed in my bike[always something with that bike]. On the roundabout in front of Ben Thanh, we laugh as we see a shiny yellow Lamborghini trying to navigate through a river of motorbike madness. What a waste of car in a place like this. We got our errands done, had a pot of Pu-er tea at my place, and then headed out to meet a Couchsurfer group at a really nice, decently priced restuarant called Quan An Ngon. Some of the Couchsurfers were actually taking the CELTA, too at another school called Apollo. They had only just finished their first week, with the worst of it still to come.
After dinner, most of the crew went out to Vasco's, but Daphne and I decided to join Steve, Charlie and a couple others for a game of pool and beer at a fourth the price. After a bad couple games of pool I gave up and danced to Abba and Johnny Cash, while Charlie threw down some sick moves to Thriller[A LOT of Michael Jackson is getting played here right now].
And this morning? I had crocodile for breakfast. Probably my new favorite thing ever. Even with the amazing variety, deliciousness and cost of food here, I can't help but start to feel a little greedy for some home-cooked food, especially some of those poppy seed pastries my mother rocks out on the weekends.
Sorry again for the infrequent posts, I'm afraid I won't improve on this until a couple weeks from now. Daphne and I are taking a plane to Danang and Hoi An and vanishing among the ocean waves for about a week, trying to forget CELTA ever happened to us. Then I'll be back in Saigon doing interviews, while she, sadly, goes off on the next leg of her adventure. I might be a little late on the posts, but I'll supplement with some wicked photos, as I'm told Hoi An and Danang are good places for it.
Wish me fun.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fixed my Flipflops

As previously promised here are pictures of Natasha's school, before and after. Amazing for less than two weeks of work:
It's no Extreme Makover, but pretty damn impressive.
The opening last night went well. An interesting mix of upper class families with their kids and Couchsurfers who Natasha had invited. She had the event well catered, you couldn't blink after your last sip before someone is there with a fresh glass of wine for you. I munched on cheese and quiche while a Vietnamese guy from Hanoi, who was now the school's dance teacher, proceeded to blow me away with how well he spoke Russian[better than me, I have to admit. He even noted that my accent wasn't Ukranian but American].
After I left the party I went to have dinner with Daphne at this cool little restaurant called Bi Saigon. The menu was massive, I'd argue ambitiously so, considering how small the place and its kitchen were. There was a lot of international cuisine, all fairly cheap, and they had a good drink and dessert menu to match. Eating the seafood in this country, I don't think I'll ever be able to eat seafood that isn't fresh again. Ohio's best sushi spots don't come in the ballpark.
The meal did end up costing a bit more than advertised though, because when we went out to my bike we found my spare helmet was missing. Not that big of a deal, it was a 'fake' helmet I bought so that both my passenger and myself could be street legal. Only cost 60,000VND[3-4USD].
This morning, Daphne and I went to Ben Than Market for breakfast and a little shopping. If you ever look inside a tourist guide for HCMC, this market will be the first thing you find. It's pretty much a warehouse where you can get everything. I mean swords, teapots, clothes shoes, fake purses, watches, artisan masks, food, snake wine, everything. We had some seafood soup and fresh ground cane juice.

Then we proceeded to get molested by every merchant we walked past. And by we I really just mean me. Daphne, being Asian, was eclipsed by the big white dollar sign walking with her. Merchants don't just call to you, they touch your arms and poke you with their merchandise and menus. One woman even stood in our path weilding crap t-shirts and tanks. Anytime we stopped to look at something the person working the stall was in our face asking, 'what do you like? very good you buy" making it uncomfortable to even consider what they had.
I did stop to buy a couple ties. I would hold one and before I could think the lady selling them was on me, insisting I should buy it. I put it down to look at others but she was in my way looking for me and pulling ugly things out to show me. I had to grab her, look her in the eyes and say, 'let me do it.' She wanted 70,000 a tie, I got two for 60,000.
Also got some nice oolong tea from Dalat[where all the shitty Viet wine comes from], but it was pretty expensive at 10USD for 100grams.

Just outside the market, I got my flipflops fixed finally for just 10,000VND. Only took two minutes and they were back on my feet, tight as ever. On the way home I noticed my horn wasn't working, so I stopped on the way to get it fixed. But I wasn't able to, because as soon as I pushed the button to show the mechanic what was wrong it was working again. Can't complain I guess.
Definitely a positive weekend, despite all the crazy rain, but it will only make my feet drag harder tomorrow morning when its back to school.
Looking forward to the weekend already.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

It's not Fish, it's Banana

Weekend's here! And I'm trapped inside by the rain. Out the window I see the cityscape disappear in front of me as the rain falls harder and harder. In a couple hours I'm going to the opening for Natasha's school, a 35 minute minimum drive by bike[assuming I don't get lost] but if the rains keep up it could mean flooding in some parts.
Its good to have a day of rest after a rough week of 12-hour days, lesson plans and four hours-a-night of sleep. Not to mention other distractions. Thursday I missed lunch so that I could pick up my tailored shirts. Amazing work, and only 300,000 VND[18USD] a pop. But I got lost on a roundabout when driving back to the school. I circled it a couple times until I couldn't even recognize the direction I had come from. By the time I was back on track I was starving, had five minutes to get back to school, and it would be another four to five hours before I'd have a chance to eat. At a red light[which isn't always a requirement for stopping] an old woman had some fried food that looked kind of like fish. Turned out to be banana, but it was better than nothing.
Back at school, I've been learning far more about the English language in two week than I ever did in my entire schooling in the States. We have three tutors, Rob[young Brit and amazing teacher], Benita[old Brit, wrote a Grammar book, has traveled the world several times teaching English], and Joanna[Polish]. The class is more diverse than I was expecting, especially since I was worried I wouldn't get in for having a Russian name. But there's a Vietnamese girl from Cali, an Indian girl from...I forget, a Korean, and another girl from Singapore, Daphne, making up part of the fifteen student class, and ages ranging from 21 to 70. We did have sixteen in our class but Phil, a Hawaiian ex-journalists, showed up two days late, brought us laughter, and then disappeared without notice. It would take too long to explain what kind of character he is, but if you've ever seen the cartoon Home Movies just think Coach McGuirk and you'd have a good idea of what I'm talking about.
To celebrate the weekend several of us went to a really neat restaurant that was four stories high, open-window and stuffed with patrons. The beer there was only 12,000VND[.66USD] and the food was cheap, with a menu that included deer, rabbit and turtle alongside the usual beef and seafood options. We finished off the night with more drinks in the 'white people area', as my roommate likes to call it, in a cute little bar called TamTam where Rob[Welsh, upper 20's, very straight laced during the week and a riot on the weekends] proceeded to get us smashed with a drinking game that was very much like The Postmodern Game we used to play in college.
But distractions aside, Sunday's going to be rough. I have to revise my first assignment, finish the second one, and lesson plan for Tuesday. Wouldn't be so bad, but something tells I'm not going to make it out of bed until noon.

[Side note, in the time it took me to write this, the rain has completely stopped. If you don't like the weather in Saigon, wait five minutes]