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Monday, August 31, 2009

Bangkok Wow!

When I arrived in Bangkok last Sunday night, I was shocked by how modern the city is. After living in Bien Hoa, Vietnam for three months, it seemed like I had stepped back on US soil when I got off the plane. It actually took me a couple of days to adjust to the Western lifestyle.

There were soaring skyscrapers everywhere.

The SkyTrain was fast, easy & clean. It was like riding the BART in San Francisco.

There were modern shopping malls with stores like Paul Frank & Gucci, & a health club that you might see in LA or Chicago.

There were even beautiful fountains that actually worked.

In the middle of all this, right in the heart of the bustling city, there were amazing Buddhist temples, hundreds of years old.

Bangkok has everything anyone could want. It has restaurants serving any cuisine you desire: Indian, Mexican, Italian - from elegant restaurants to street food. The night life lasts till dawn. It has Starbucks, McDonalds & 7-Eleven. There are yoga studios & modern movie theaters. But there are still plenty of tuk-tuks, street vendors, & traditional Thai crafts - the elements that a vacation traveler might be looking for.

Everyone speaks English there, it seems. Almost all of the signs & billboards are in Thai & English. At the shopping mall, there is a bookstore on par with Borders or Barnes & Noble with tons of books in English. Real books. Not just photo copied versions. It was so refreshing to be able to communicate with people without engaging in an elaborate game of charades.

I settled into the hustle & bustle of city life quite easily, enjoying the conveniences of Bangkok that I don't have where I'm living in Vietnam. I think it would be very easy to live there.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Back from Bangkok - More Posts to Follow

I had a great time last week in Bangkok with my cousin Eddie & my friend Laura. I'm spending all day today organizing my photos. I'll write more about my trip soon.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Going to Bangkok

I'll be offline all next week. I'm going to Bangkok, Thailand to visit my cousin who lives there, & to meet up with my friend Laura who will be there on vacation. Look for photos & stories when I get back!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Soap Operas in Vietnam

Ky Tuc Xa - Click here for more free videos

I've been going to my coffee shop friend's house once or twice a week for lunch. They always cook a delicious vegetarian spread for me. I try to bring them fruit or other goodies to help contribute to the feast. While we eat, they try to teach me the words for the various foods that we're eating.

After lunch, we've taken to watching soap operas on TV. The best translation I've found for "soap opera" is "social drama broadcast regularly". In Vietnamese, they just say "phim", supposedly a translation of the French word "film".

Watching soap operas is a great way to connect with my new friends, helping to reach beyond the language barrier. I can't understand what they're saying on the show of course, but it's not difficult to understand the overall plot. This man is cheating on his wife. That woman is excited about getting married. It's the same the world over.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Commercial Free Vietnam

There doesn't seem to be much advertising here in Vietnam, at least not the kind of advertising that I was used to in the US. There are no commercials on TV, & there aren't many billboards around. The only signs I see are in front of businesses. Even in the newspapers, there doesn't seem to be any advertising.

So how do people know about new products or businesses? Word of mouth, maybe? Or maybe I just don't notice the Vietnamese method of advertising because I don't speak much Vietnamese, so I can't differentiate what's advertising & what's not.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Market Day with Vinh

One of my students, Vinh, invited me to visit his house today.

He lives in the heart of the city, right next to a very beautiful Buddhist pagoda.

He took me to the huge market near his house.

We saw chicks, puppies & kittens for sale. I don't think they were intended as pets.

There were lots of body parts strewn about.

Finally, we stopped at a food stall for some delicious "che", a sweet soup containing everything from beans & rice to corn to little jellied candies. Yum!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Language Lessons at the Buddhist Pagoda

Today I biked back to the same island that I had found last Sunday. I wanted to visit with the nuns that I had met there last week at the Buddhist pagoda. This time, I brought some fruit as an offering & my Vietnamese dictionary to facilitate conversation.

We had a delicious vegan lunch, & then we had a great time flipping through the dictionary & spitting out simple phrases. The nuns invited me to come back any time I wanted so we share some good food & exchange language lessons.

What a great connection!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Vietnam = Construction Zone

The unemployment rate in the United States is near 10% these days, but it seems that Vietnam is not suffering the same economic downturn. Everywhere I go I see construction.

...In front of my house...

...Even at humble Buddhist pagodas.

I hear the sound of banging hammers at all hours of the day or night, & see piles of bricks & fill dirt everywhere. People are building!

The English classes at my school are full as well. They have just hired another foreign teacher to help meet the demand for English. If you ever considered teaching English abroad, now's the time to do it. Go to Dave's ESL Cafe to get started.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Western Luxury: Perspective

After living in Vietnam for two & a half months, I find that I feel uncomfortable in Western-style restaurants, hotels, & shops. When the average restaurant here looks like the one above, the Western-style establishments seem way too luxurious. I look at the menu & gape in shock at a dish for 100,000 Dong (=$5.50). A $25 dress seems like a bargain, but at 450,000 Dong, it's out of my league. I feel like an impostor if I go into these places because the Vietnamese employees there might think I'm a rich tourist with lots of dough to spend, so I tend to avoid them. Even on the train, I prefer the hard seat.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Religious Scamming

I went into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) again on Thursday.

This time I stopped at the Hindu temple to check it out. As I entered, a woman shoved some incense in my hand. I tried to refuse it several times, but she insisted. She drug me over to the burning oil lamp & lit it for me, then gestured that I should place a stick in front of each of the gods & pray.

I did as I was told, taking photos along the way.

The temple was small but beautiful. I looked around, but didn't see my favorite Hindu god Ganesha there.

When I was finished, I put my shoes back on & exited the way I had come. The incense woman was waiting outside for me & asked for 20,000 Dong for the incense. Aha! A scam! I began to walk away, but a couple of her friends surrounded me. With angry looks on their faces, they demanded the 20,000. I handed her 5000 & pushed through the crowd. They did not follow me, but I could hear their incredulous voices, probably calling me a jerk (or worse).

So much for my religious experience.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

10 Things I'm Glad I Brought With Me to Vietnam

1. Laptop
2. Camera
3. Headlamp (great for reading in bed!)
4. Backpack
5. Vietnamese dictionary
6. Chinese language study materials
7. Leisure books in English
8. Amor Mío DVDs
9. Emergen-C
10.Tampons (can't find them here)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Missing Joe Aigner

A wonderful man. Rest in peace.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Exploring Bien Hoa

I decided to do a little bit of exploring around Bien Hoa today. I saw on the map that there were several pagodas on an island in the middle of the Dong Nai River & wanted to check it out.

I crossed the train bridge to the island...

... & found a beautiful pagoda there. It was very hot today, so I sat down in the shade to rest & cool off a bit. Soon several nuns came out & invited me to lunch. We exhausted our language abilities pretty early, & then just sat around giggling at each other for a while.

I took some photos of the pagoda, then I left to bike further down the road.

I went all the way to the end of the island & found a much more rural area there. There was a ferry at the end of the road: 1000 Dong (= $0.55) to get across. Maybe I'll hop on next time & see where it takes me.

Friday, August 7, 2009


Since I had the day off, I went into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) again today. In the morning I went to the botanical gardens/zoo, & I spent the afternoon in an English-language bookstore. I was like a kid in a candy store! My entire purchase cost me around $16, but at 300,000 Dong, it seemed really expensive.

I got four books:

A biography of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's beloved president
A book of Vietnamese legends - in Spanish!
A novel: Across the Nightengale Floor by Lian Hearn
Another novel: Mary Called Magdalene by Margaret George

The first two books were published by a Vietnamese company, & the last two books came from the UK.

The available books that had been published in the US were much more expensive, so I decided against buying them, leaving them at the bookstore.

The last book is 875 pages long, so it should last me a while!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Miss Hang

I went to Buu Long Park today with my friend Miss Hang, the owner of the coffee shop that I go to in the mornings. We had a nice morning walking around the park, talking with the monkeys & lounging by the lake.

She & her family have been very nice to me, inviting me to their house for lunch at least once a week. Miss Hang, who is 39 years old, doesn't speak much English, & I don't speak any Vietnamese, but her daughter speaks pretty good English, so she often translates for us.

I'm so glad to have made a friend here in Bien Hoa.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Saigon vs. Bien Hoa

After taking my trip into Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) on Sunday, I returned to Bien Hoa & immediately felt a difference.

Saigon is a bigger city with more traffic & a faster pace in general. Of course there is a wider selection of goods in Saigon, including books in English, which we don't have much of in Bien Hoa. Plus there are many more Westerners walking around there. It was weird to see so many tall white people again.

Also, many people speak English in Saigon, whereas in Bien Hoa it's rare to find someone who knows more than "Hello!" I don't speak Vietnamese, so it's been difficult to get certain things done here in Bien Hoa without the help of a Vietnamese friend.

But the biggest difference that I felt between Saigon & Bien Hoa was in the attitude of the Vietnamese people. In Saigon, I felt like everyone was out to scam me, as if I had a sign on my back that read: "Walking ATM". Being a Westerner, people in Saigon assume I am an ignorant tourist, who will easily pay higher prices without realizing it, & to some degree that is true.

I paid 40,000 Dong for a scooter taxi from the train station to Reunification Palace. I could tell that the taxi driver was proud of himself for getting such a high price from me. Later, I got a scooter taxi back to the train station for 20,000 Dong - half the price! But when you think about it, that's the difference between about $2 & about $1.

When I stepped off the train in Bien Hoa, I immediately felt more relaxed. I didn't have the tension of distrust of the people approaching me that I did in Saigon. Here in Bien Hoa, they call out a friendly hello, & all they want is a friendly response. They're not trying to get any money from you. They really just want to say hello.

Any Westerner would be shocked at how cheap prices are in Vietnam, but 40,000 Dong is a lot of money here. I can get an entire meal in a decent restaurant in Bien Hoa for that amount. I really need to learn how to haggle over a dollar!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Trip to Saigon

I decided to take a trip into Saigon by myself on Sunday.

I took the 7:00am train that arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at 8:00am.

I went to Reunification Palace...

...Notre Dame Cathedral...

...saw City Hall again...

... & checked out the War Remnants Museum.

See more photos of the day on Facebook.