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Monday, June 29, 2009

Karaoke Vietnamese Style

Sunday night is the night when everyone in Bien Hoa City goes out. Not Friday or Saturday. Sunday night is it. The streets are teeming with scooters & people in the midst of merrymaking.

This Sunday, our landlords, who live in the house next to ours, invited us over for dinner & karaoke. Who could say no?

In Vietnam, karaoke is a private event. Many people will rent a karaoke room for an hour or two & invite all of their friends to join them. Our landlords have their own karaoke room set up right in their house...

...complete with disco ball!

This is me singing my signature Copacabana - & no, I had not been drinking!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Visit to a Buddhist Temple

Michael took us to a Buddhist temple in Ba Ria, about a two-hour taxi ride from Bien Hoa. It had been a few months since he had been there, & all of the monks & nuns were so happy to see him.

They were very open to me taking all of the photos that I wanted, even inside the temple itself.

After a yummy vegan lunch, we went for a short hike up a nearby stream. It was so nice to be out in nature again after spending nearly a month in the city. I REALLY miss the outdoors.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Plans to Travel

I'm going to Saigon on Monday with Michael & Jimmy to renew my Vietnamese visa. I started out with a one-month, single-entry visa. To be able to travel to neighboring countries & come back to Vietnam, I'll have to get a six-month, multi-entry visa. Once that is done, I'll be able to start exploring Southeast Asia. I have a cousin living in Bangkok, & I think that will be my first destination. It looks like I can get a round-trip flight for $150.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

100 Thing Challenge: An Update

Nearly a year ago, I began trying to reduce my material possessions to 100 things. See the original post here:

I don't really think that I can actually accomplish this difficult task, but I thought it might be interesting to see how close I could get. A year ago I began scanning all of my old photos & journals into my computer to help reduce my stuff. I also had four different yard sales over the past year to get rid of the superfluous junk that I had accumulated. When I decided to move to Vietnam, it was a mad rush to fit all of my remaining possessions into four suitcases. However, I wasn't quite successful, & wound up having to leave several boxes with my brother & my friends Debra & Michael.

Since my days are pretty lazy here in Vietnam, I decided to count my possessions. (Insert histerical laughter from my readers here.)

The tallying rules are:

1. Things that work together are considered one thing. For example, a pair of socks is one thing. My mp3 player & headphones is one thing. My bicycle with a basket is one thing.
2. Food is not included

With me here in Vietnam, I have a total of 340 things. Not bad.

Here's the breakdown:

250 permanent things (clothing, luggage, etc.)
15 books (I consider these semi-permanent since the collection is constantly changing)
52 consumable things (shampoo, soap, etc.)
23 things that I will leave behind when I leave Vietnam (mostly furniture & my bike)

=340 Total Things

A breakdown of the boxes I left behind in the US:

5 boxes of memorabilia (photos, journals, etc. that I didn't have time to scan)
1 box of winter clothing
3 boxes of household items
1 box of camping gear
1 box of legal files
5 boxes of family history information (which is not really mine anyway - it belongs to the family)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Dos & Don'ts in Vietnam

I bought this book while I was in Saigon last Sunday. After being here in Vietnam for just a few weeks, I can see the truth in much of what the authors write. If you're considering a long-term stay in Vietnam, you might want to pick up a copy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Letting Go of Control

I've been learning a bit about letting go of control here in Vietnam. The language barrier makes it difficult to express myself, so I can do little but allow things to happen as they may. On top of that, the Vietnamese seem to be very concerned about making things right, whatever they think that is.

The landlords have keys to our house & enter often to rearrange furniture, clean up, & bring us food. The other day, the landlady, Nam, brought us a cooler of ice & wanted me to put my fruit inside. I don't really like cold fruit, preferring to eat it at room temperature. But she wouldn't let me leave it on the counter, so I put it in the cooler. It was more important to make her feel like she was helping me than to refuse her efforts.

Yesterday Nam took me to the beauty salon. I had made a comment (really just a gesture & a smile) on her own decorated nails, & she was nice enough to take me to get my own nails done. The salon was not as bright & clean as you would find in the US, but it worked.

I decided to ask for a pedicure. My toenails soaked in tuperwares of water as I relaxed in a plastic patio chair.

I only wanted them to paint my nails blue (in honor of Sharon S!)...

...but they had a better idea. I decided to let them do whatever they wanted rather than try to stop them.

So now I have Vietnamese toenails!

Monday, June 22, 2009

My First Trip to Saigon

Jimmy, Michael & I went to Saigon yesterday. We caught the train from Bien Hoa at 7:00am. The trip to the city was a short & fairly comfortable 45 minutes.

The train originates in Hanoi & terminates in Saigon. The entire trip takes about two days, but we had just hopped on for the last leg. The train car was littered with trash from the people who had camped out there to make the long journey from the north.

Once in Saigon, we visited the market & some touristy-type buildings, including the opera house & city hall. The guards at city hall didn't want us to take any photos, but I got one from afar with a statue of Ho Chi Minh in front.

We went shopping at a foreign imports grocery store where Michael got some Skittles & some other American items he'd been longing for. I was going to buy a pack of gum until I found out the price: $1.25?! No way, I said. Waaay too expensive. Funny how your idea of pricing changes when you're traveling.

My favorite purchase of the day: a Vietnam flag tank top to match Michael's T-shirt. Oh, how touristy!

We caught the train back to Bien Hoa at around 5:00pm & were back home in time for dinner. This time the train car was pristine. Since the afternoon trip originates in Saigon, the train was at the beginning of the two-day trip back up to Hanoi, so it hadn't been messed up by the long-haul passengers yet.

It was nice to get out of Bien Hoa for the day & do something completely different. I may try to go in to the city on my own sometime soon. I'd like to check out some of the museums that are there.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Shopping at the Bookstore

I went to the bookstore today just to look around. Among all of the books in Vietnamese, I found the ubiquitous Harry Potter...

... & of course the Twighlight series translated into Vietnamese.

They seem to like American politics too.

Even though this is a communist country, they're surprisingly business savvy.

You got that right, bub! (85,000 Dong = US $4.72)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Live Animals at the Market

I've been going to the market every day before work to buy super cheap vegetables, fruit & tofu. Of course there is plenty of meat there as well, & some live fish, crabs & shrimp in tubs for the choosing. One day, I saw a lady displaying her selection of live frogs tied together with string. She had one of the frogs on her lap & was cutting off its head with scissors.

Another day I saw three live ducks for sale, their legs tied together. The saleslady was in the process of plucking a fourth duck, presumably just killed. The live ducks were just sitting there, not quacking, not moving really, as if in somber acceptance of their fate.

This is Vietnam.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Doing Laundry

I finally did some laundry today.

I asked Sophia, our landlords' daughter how we get laundry done. She gave me an incredulous look & said, "You do it yourself." It was as if I had asked how you get to the second floor: You use the stairs, silly. Of course.

I've always thought of myself as a worldly person, without need for frivilous luxuries. But I now realize, more than ever, that I have lived a very privilaged life. A basic task that most of the world can accomplish without problems has been lost on me. I'm definitely gaining some perspective here in Vietnam.

So I set to the task of washing my laundry by hand in my bathroom. It took much longer than I had imagined, & once I started it I had to finish the chore. No leaving the rest for later, like I've done so many times in the US. I think I did okay for my first try. I didn't try to wash any of my jeans. That will be an experiment for another day.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Internet Cafe

We moved into the new house over the weekend. It didn't take me that long to move my stuff since I only have four bags' worth of things. We don't have internet at the house yet, so Michael & I have been going to the coffee shop to take advantage of their Wi-Fi. Here he is sporting his Vietnamese flag T-shirt. Yay Vietnam!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Establishing Relationships

I think I've finally found a way to make connections here in Vietnam!

So far, it's been very difficult for me to meet people here. Some of it is because of the language barrier, but I think a lot of it has to do with the Vietnamese culture. Many Asian cultures are based on the in-group/out-group duality. If you're *in* the group, people are super friendly towards you. If you're *out*, you're all but ignored.

I've been going to the same coffee shop for a few days now with very little interaction with the other people there. Today, the waiter who has seen me several times finally reached out to me, asking "Where are you from?" in English. I was thrilled at the effort, & answered with a huge grin on my face. That was the end of our conversation, but it was the beginning of understanding for me. I'm just going to have to put myself in the *in* group.

Tomorrow I'm moving to a new house, & since this particular coffee shop is not on my way to school, I probably won't be going back there anymore. But I will make it a priority to find a good coffee shop near the house & start going there every day. Maybe in a week or two I'll start making some communication headway there as well.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Language Lessons

I asked some of the other teachers at KTV where I'm teaching English how I would find Vietnamese classes to take. They all looked at me like I was from another planet & asked "Why would you want to do that?!" Hm.

Okay, so I decided to take my own advice & use my surroundings as my language lesson. I took the room service menu at the hotel & my Vietnamese dictionary (courtesy of my friend Scott W. - thanks, Scott!), & set to deciphering it. I think I got most of it, except two things: "beef butt" & "buffalo thing", both under the beverage column. I must have gotten an accent wrong!

Next task: the headlines in the newspaper.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Morning in Bien Hoa

This morning I went back to the public swimming pool with Michael, Jimmy, & Harley. Michael was determined to get five laps in at the olympic-sized pool. The rest of us were content to splash around.

A Vietnamese man came up & started talking to us while we were at the pool. He said that he was a pilot & had studied English in Houston in the 60's. His English was very fluent, a rarity here. He must come from a privilaged family. Not many Vietnamese have enough money to travel outside the country, let alone to the US, & forget about becoming a pilot unless you have some serious cash.

After swimming, we went to a coffee shop for more sludge. I'm starting to get used to this gritty goo they call coffee. There is a coy pond at this coffee shop. Someone was throwing in pieces of bread & the fish boiled up into a frenzy over it, like pirhanas on a scuba diver.

Back near the hotel, Harley dropped me off at the market. I bought a plate & bowl for 22,000 Dong (= $1.25), plus some yummy ingredients for a bowl full of lunch. Cooked beans 3000 Dong = $0.17. One slice of tofu 1000 Dong = $0.06. A tomato 2000 Dong = $0.11. An avocado 3000 Dong = $0.17. I put it all in my new bowl with cilantro, green onions, & a little chili oil = YUM!

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Biggest Small Town in Vietnam

Except for teaching three hours of classes tonight, I spent the whole day today in my hotel room. There's really nothing else for me to do right now. There are hundreds of thousands of people living in Bien Hoa, but it is certainly not a lively town.

So far, I've discovered a street market & a coffee shop but not much else for entertainment. Everything seems to shut down around 9:00pm. Harley, the teacher from South Africa, says that there are restaurants & night clubs that stay open late around here, but I have yet to see them. I haven't even been able to find any postcards yet (in case you were wondering when yours would come).

I'm planning to move into a new house (brand new, just built) with three of the instructors from the school where I teach English. They say we'll be able to move in next week, but we'll have to wait & see if that's real time or Vietnamese time.

I'm looking forward to the move. Not only will it be safer for me than living in this hotel (note the prison-like bars on my hotel room window), but hopefully it will also liven up my social life. I mean, I value my alone time, but I'm getting a little too much of it right now. Thank goodness for my new friend Michael, who's been taking me to the supermarket, to the park, & to lunch.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

My Date with Michael & Jimmy

I went to lunch with Michael & his friend Jimmy (Vuong) today. We ate at a Chinese restaurant near Michael's apartment. We had eaten there a couple of days ago & the owner remembered us. I tried out my rudimentary Mandarin on him, but couldn't understand a word of his response. Alas.

After lunch, we went to a very cool coffee shop where Michael & Jimmy both had pineapple smoothies & I tried another cup of sludge. It was even thicker than my cup of coffee yesterday, so it wasn't long before I again poured the gritty goo into my iced tea glass. Voilá, a yummy cup o' joe. It's okay, I can blame it on being a foreigner!

Coffee & smoothies down the hatch, we headed back to the Co-op Mart to buy more groceries. Tofu, bread, lotus root, chom chom fruit, a cucumber, an avocado (5,920 Dong = $0.33 - HA!), two oranges, & some jicama: $7.00

Then we said goodbye to Jimmy, & Michael dropped me off at my hotel. It was a great morning out!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

First Day Out

Today I ventured out on my own for the first time. I had written down a few phrases in my notebook to take with me just in case.

First, I stopped at the coffee shop across the street from the English school where I work. They love their sugar here in Vietnam, & the coffee usually comes with a healthy portion of it. At the coffee shop, I tried to say, "Coffee without sugar, please," but my pronunciation is atrocious, so they just gave me a blank stare. Then I showed the woman what I had written down & the light of understanding came across her face. Minutes later I was served my own little coffee pot atop a miniature glass with a side of ice to pour the coffee over when it was finished brewing. The coffee turned out to be more like sludge. No wonder they use so much sugar! I finally diluted it with the iced tea that is served wherever you go no matter what you order, like water is in the US. It was at last a tasty cup of caffeine. 7000 Dong = $0.55

Next, I checked out a street market, where lots of pointing & gesturing got me some freshly made tofu, a tomato & four bananas for 6000 Dong (= $0.35). Of course I got an individual bag for each item. Forget about saving the planet here! Later, another street vendor wanted to charge me 15,000 Dong for an avocado. I waved him away because it sounded so expensive. 83 cents for an avocado? You must think I'm a fool!

I ate my lunch as I walked around exploring the neighborhood. Many people yelled "Hello" to me as I passed by. One little boy tried out his superior language skills by asking me, "What's your name?", & then said, "Nice to meet you." Very cute.

As I was walking down one street close to the hotel, I passed by a man leaning casually on his bike. He said, "Excuse me, do you speak Vietnamese?" No, sorry. I continued walking & about 100 yards later, the same man was there again, leaning casually on his bike. "Hello," he said. I started getting the creepies. I turned a corner & saw him ride past me & park ahead of me again. That's when I decided it was time to turn around & head back to the hotel.

Friday, June 5, 2009

KTV English Same-Same Fun

Yesterday was my first day teaching at KTV English here in Bien Hoa, Vietnam. The students were prepared for my arrival since there's a life-sized image of me on a billboard in front of the school. Teacher Nancy is famous!

The system at KTV is a lot different from what I've experienced in the past. The biggest difference is that they have several people teaching the same classes, so on Monday the students might get Bob, Wednesday they get Sue, & Friday they are taught by Mary. It's pretty confusing for me, but I guess the students are okay with it. I'll just have to adjust. Old dog, new tricks.

The students are friendly & seem to be eager to learn, so class time has been great. I'm getting used to the Vietnamese accent, but the students tend to speak very softly, so I have to lean in to understand them. They have this habit of saying the phrase "same-same" to mean that something is similar to something else. I'm not sure where they picked that up, but it comes up a lot when discussing vocabulary.

The hours are perfect for me. Classes are from 6:00 to 9:15pm. I get the rest of the day to do whatever I want. As soon as I get myself some transportation, I'll be able to use the day time to explore the city & learn some Vietnamese from the locals.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Day One

My flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) left from Los Angeles Tuesday morning at 1:30am. I arrived at LAX with my brother & sister-in-law about four hours early. Good thing. My luggage turned out to be way too heavy because I had packed several books to take with me, thinking that I'd have a hard time finding interesting reading material in English in Vietnam. We shuffled & scuffled to rearrange my luggage, to redistribute the weight, but I still wound up leaving a tall stack of precious books in LA. Where is that Kindle now?

I flew EVA Air in Elite Class. I *highly* recommend it. It was like traveling in an EZ chair in my living room. No cramps, no grumpy face.

I had 14 hours before we reached Taipei, where I would connect to my flight to Ho Chi Minh City. I stayed awake for as long as I could in hopes of getting my body on Vietnam time, then slept like a baby for several hours.

We arrived in Taipei at 6:30am local time. I ate noodles for breakfast & perused the Hello Kitty store while eavesdropping on various conversations in Mandarin. I did pretty well understanding the numbers, & caught a few other phrases here & there as well. At 9:30am I boarded another plane for the three-hour flight to Vietnam.

I got through customs with no problems, & found my luggage intact. Michael & Thom from KTV, the school where I'll be teaching, were right outside to pick me up. They took me to an Indian restaurant in HCMC for lunch. Nom nom nom. Then we headed out to Bien Hoa: 16 miles, 1 hour. Traffic here is super slow because of all the scooters on the road. Beep beep.

Michael & Thom dropped me off at my hotel, leaving me to settle in & rest up from my 24-hour trip. I couldn't help but take an eentsy weentsy little nap. At around 9:00pm my hosts came to the hotel to take me for dinner & beers. The beer came with ice. So far no harm.

Tomorrow is a big day. Michael is going to take me around town to change money, get a local pre-paid cell phone, & generally get oriented. Then I start teaching tomorrow evening. I hope I can get some sleep tonight so that I'm awake for my first class.

Monday, June 1, 2009

I'm Ready

I think I'm finally ready for my new adventure. My bags are packed & I'm stocked up on travel books & language CD's. Most importantly, I've been able to spend essential quality time with my brother, my parents, my friends.

I'm flying out from LAX tonight at 1:00am & will arrive in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on Wednesday around noon, after 19 hours of traveling. (Vietnam is 14 hours ahead of California.) I have no idea what will happen once I arrive there, but I'm looking forward to finding out.