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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Nov 28: Hanoi

After Saigon, Michael & I flew to Hanoi. We did the self-guided walking tour of the city recommended in the Lonely Planet book we were carrying. We saw lots & lots of stores selling lots & lots of crap. At the end of the tour, we arrived at the venerated water puppet theater. I was excited to see a show - Michael not so much, but he went along with it anyway.

Now, if you've never seen a Vietnamese water puppet show, you really haven't seen Vietnam - at least that's what the brochure says. The puppeteers stand behind a bamboo screen in a pool of water, manipulating wooden puppets to tell the story of kings, dragons & rice growers. It's campy, but I loved it anyway. It was great entertainment for two bucks.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Nov 26-28: Ho Chi Minh City

After spending a few days in Siem Reap, Michael & I flew to Saigon to spend a few days.

The first day we found a cheap all-day tour of the Mekong Delta - $10 per person, including lunch. The pamphlet promised they would take us to a bee farm, a coconut candy factory, & a rice paper factory. It also said we would have a traditional Vietnamese lunch, & sip tea while listening to a performance of traditional Vietnamese music. It sounded great, so we signed up.

Indeed we did see all of the promised attractions - but still the tour was below par. Instead of explaining the process of honey production at the bee farm, they just dropped us off & directed us to sit at some tables where they served us tea. Then they tried to sell us jars of honey products. A similar thing happened at the next stop, the coconut candy factory, & again at the third stop. I felt like I was on a shopping spree instead of a tour of the delta region. I can say, though, that the tour was worth just about ten bucks. I guess you get what you pay for.

The second day we walked around the city on our own. I took Micheal to see all the usual sites: Reunification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, the main post office, the opera house, the market - & we took photos of them all.

After two days of Saigon, we were both ready to move on. Our next stop: Hanoi.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Nov 22-25: Siem Reap, Cambodia

I finished my English teaching job in Bien Hoa, Vietnam on November 16th. Since I don't start my new job in Shanghai, China until January, I decided to spend the rest of the year traveling. How lucky am I?

For my first stop, my friend Michael I. from Arizona met me in Siem Reap, Cambodia where we toured the ruins of Angkor Wat. These ruins were massive, beautiful, amazing. I dare to say they are the best ruins I've seen, which includes Teotihuacan in Mexico City & Machu Picchu in Peru. We got tons of photos of the crumbled structures from every angle, from far away & zoomed in close. But the two dimensional images just don't reveal the depth of the sights, the sounds, the awe of it all.

I was surprised to find that US dollars were used everywhere: at the hotel, at the entrance to the ruins, in the restaurants, at the market - everything was in US dollars. When I tried to use Cambodian riels it actually threw them for a loop. They looked bewildered, even slightly annoyed. I wonder if US dollars are used throughout the country or it it's just that way in Siem Reap because of all the tourists.

With the days ruined, so to speak, we spent the evenings in the backpacker area of Siem Reap, swilling Angkor beer & watching the people go by. There was a slight chill in the air, a welcome change from the sticky heat of south Vietnam. What a great way to start the trip.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Nov 21: Saigon

I'm on the road! I left Bien Hoa yesterday to come to Saigon. I hung out with some cool foreigners (a German, a Brit, & an American) last night. Here we are having dinner at the Ben Thanh night market.

I'm flying to Siem Reap, Cambodia this afternoon to meet my friend Michael I. We're going to spend a few days at Angkor Wat, the famous ruins. I can't wait to take tons of photos :)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nov 20: Teacher Day

Friday November 20th is Teacher Day in Vietnam. There are no classes that day & the teachers receive lots of gifts from the students to show their appreciation & respect. Some students even put on a talent show of sorts to entertain their teachers.

All week my students have been taking me out for coffee or dinner, & giving me Vietnamese souvenirs. It really makes me feel good to know that my students appreciate me, even though I've only been here a short time.

One of my favorite gifts is the ubiquitous conical hat. Now, how am I going to fit that in my suitcase?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Gift from the Post Office

I go to the post office quite often to send gifts & cards home. Today I made another visit there to send off some last items before I leave Bien Hoa. As the woman handed me my change, she also gave me a bag with the post office logo on it, apparently a frequent customer gift!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Laundry Guy

I dropped off my last pile of dirty clothes with the laundry guy today.

He has always treated me well, not only doing my laundry, but also making minor adjustments to my bicycle for free, & sending me home with freshly made soy milk. He charges me 20,000 Dong (=$1.11) per kilo, which is actually double the normal price, but I can afford it & he sometimes gives me discounts. I once left some clothing with his wife to be altered, shortened or lengthened. For all four garments, she charged me 17,000 dong (=$0.94).

In my rudamentary Vietnamese, I told them that I would be leaving Bien Hoa this weekend to go to China for a year, & that I wanted to take a photo to show to all my friends at home. The laundry guy quickly skipped to the back of the shop, too shy to pose. In the photo above, his wife rests on her trusty sewing machine, surrounded by the week's work.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Grapefruit Farm

Tonight the students from my class at the bank took me to a grapefruit farm for a farewell party. We sat on the riverside, ate plates & plates of food, & drank grapefruit wine. They are such a great group of people. I will miss them very much.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Death Anniversary Celebration

Miss Hang, my coffee shop friend, asked me to be at her house yesterday at 4:00pm. I didn't know what we were going to do, but I always accept invitations - I could miss something really cool if I don't.

So there I was at 4:00. We hopped on her motorbike (aka: scooter) & were off. We stopped at the market & bought huge bags full of noodles & fruit. I started to realize that something big was about to happen. A little further down the road, I began to recognize our surroundings, & soon we pulled up in front of the same house where the wedding took place last month. All the usual suspects were there - it was a party!

I still had no idea what the occasion was, but was happy to see everyone again. They all welcomed me warmly & invited me to sit down. We gathered around long tables covered in plates of food, the women & children at one table sipping sodas, the men at another swilling beer.

Finally, one of the cousins who speaks very good English explained that this was a celebration for her grandfather who died four years ago, though the gathering was anything but somber. Everyone was laughing & boisterous. Yay for Granddad!

After dinner, I played with some of the children until it was time for them to go home. We gave each other high fives & stacked beer cans until they toppled, laughing heartily at our fun.

When the party dwindled to about 15 people, I was invited to the beer table & encouraged to drink lots & lots of beer. We all tossed our empty cans under the table, & clincked our glasses together as we yelled: "một, hai, ba, yo!" (1, 2, 3, yo!)

Miss Hang & I stayed until the very end, drinking & laughing together. When it was finally time to go home, we waved goodbye to family members, as the chicken bones & other debris that had been thrown on the floor during the festivities was swept out into the street. I got home at around 11:00pm, tired but happy, honored to have been a part of this celebration.

Friday, November 13, 2009


I have met so many interesting people here in Bien Hoa. Tram is one of the coolest. She's very outgoing, unusually independent, & has a great sense of humor.

She is from a small village near the Cambodian border where her family has a farm. She's the ninth child of twelve, but the only one who has left her village. She's now 23 years old. In Bien Hoa she works for a Korean company that contracts with Nike. She speaks English at work, the common language between her & her managers. Lucky for me that her English is so good.

One of the difficult things about traveling is that you have to say goodbye to so many wonderful people. It must also be difficult for Vietnamese people to make friends with foreigners since they don't tend to stay in one place for very long. But Tram is pretty adventurous. Maybe I will meet her again someday in another place, at another time.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Storing Luggage

I will be traveling around for about six weeks before I move to Shanghai. I didn't want to take all of my things with me while I'm on the road, so I needed a place to store them. My Vietnamese tutor Phuong generously offered to keep my luggage at her house so that my belongings stay safe while I'm away. Also, this will allow me to see Phuong one last time before I leave Vietnam. I'm so lucky to have met such wonderful people in my short time here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Coffee Shop Friend

The first Vietnamese person that I made friends with on my own was Miss Hang, the owner of the coffee shop that I go to regularly. She speaks no English, & when we met, I spoke no Vietnamese. Still, she has invited me to have lunch with her & her family on several occasions, taken me to see the sights of Bien Hoa, & invited me to a family wedding. Over the past four months, I've learned a few key phrases, but we still can only communicate in stilted sentences. In spite of our language barrier, Miss Hang has continued to show me generosity & kindness.

When she found out that I would be leaving Bien Hoa for China, she expressed that she would miss me, & decided that I should have lunch with her every day until I go. Yesterday I went with her, her daughter, & some of her daughter's friends to the supermarket where we posed for several cute photos at the photo booth there.

Miss Hang is from Hanoi, like many of the Vietnamese people living here in Bien Hoa. She is planning to visit her family there in December. We figured out that we will both be in Hanoi at the same time, & made plans to meet again there. She has been a good friend, & I'm glad for the chance to see her hometown with her before I leave Vietnam for good.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Open Tour Bus

I'll be spending the end of the year traveling around, being a tourist. I'm really looking forward to getting back on the road.

First, I'll spend about ten days with my friend Michael I. He'll be leaving from Hanoi, in the northern part of Vietnam, & then I'll have about three weeks to make my way down south to Ho Chi Minh City, where I will meet my brother & sister-in-law. Since Vietnam is a long, thin country, it'll be easy to just take the road south, stopping along the way at various interesting cities.

I've considered taking the train all the way. I love the train. There's a certain romantic element to it: you can watch the countryside go by, meet interesting people, listen to the clack-clack of the train's wheels as they go over the tracks. But people tell me that most train stations are outside the cities & towns that they service, so it might be inconvenient.

I've also considered taking an open tour bus. You can buy a ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City for about $60. Then you can get on & off the bus wherever you want, whenever you want.

But I talked with one tour agent who said that the open tour bus might not be the best way to go. You don't have priority over other travelers, so you might not get back on the bus exactly when you want. Plus, you have to choose your destinations & the order in which you will stop at them when you buy the ticket, which doesn't allow for flexibility once you're on the road.

Instead, the tour agent recommended that I buy a ticket for each leg as I'm ready to go to the next place. It'll cost a few extra dollars, but he says it's worth it for the freedom you gain. Since both the train & the bus offer sleepers, I can travel either way, depending on my needs that day.

I think I will take his advice. I'll be posting about how it turns out.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

In the Out Group

I'm sitting alone at a restaurant in the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City. An English pub across the alley way is filled with loud, boisterous Americans. I'm not one of them. Three young women ride up on motorbike taxis. A crippled beggar approaches them, his hand extended. They cringe & back away, then laugh amongst themselves as they join their friends inside. The cripple moves on. Later, the Americans in the English pub break out in a drunken rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Tears sting my eyes. I am surprised. I miss my home, my friends, my family. But I am not a part of this celebration of Manifest Destiny. I don't want to be.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Plans for the Rest of the Year

My time in Bien Hoa, Vietnam is coming to an end. I will be here for another two weeks before I head off to see the rest of the country as a tourist.

It has been quite an experience! I've learned a lot about living in Vietnam, & about myself. Most importantly, I learned first-hand what culture shock is & how I react to it. I'm forever grateful for the opportunity to live here.

As for the rest of the year, I've got a banner line-up. Here's a snapshot:

  • [Nov 20-Dec 1] Travel with Michael I. to Angkor Wat, Saigon, & Hanoi
  • [Dec 2-Dec 21] Travel solo from Hanoi to Saigon, stopping along the way for a few days at a time
  • [Dec 22-27] See the sights in & around Saigon with my brother & sister-in-law
  • [Jan 2010] Move to Shanghai, China to start my new job teaching English there

I'm so excited to start the next stage of my journey!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Teacher Training with Pearson

Last weekend I went to Ho Chi Minh City to observe a teacher training seminar held by Pearson-Longman in preparation for my own seminar, which I will conduct this coming Sunday, also in HCMC. I will be presenting some teaching activities to a group of teachers who currently use two of Pearson's textbooks, plus introducing the interactive whiteboard activities to them.

I'm looking forward to it. I've never done any formal teacher training before, so it will be a good experience for me. I'm hoping to do more of this kind of thing in the future.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Weekend in Vung Tau

My partner in crime Katie is leaving Bien Hoa to return to New York. Before she left we decided to have one last hurrah on the beach in Vung Tau, a two-hour bus ride from here.

On our first day there, we took a long walk on the beach, snapping tons of photos of the waves & the people enjoying the sun.

The next day we climbed the hill to the statue of Jesus, much smaller but reminiscent of the famous one in Rio de Janeiro.

In the evenings, we had dinner & beers under the light of the full moon.

I'm so lucky to have spent the last few months with Katie. I will miss her very much.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Wow! So much has happened in the last week. I've gone to the beach with Katie, done some work for a publishing company in Saigon, booked a flight to Cambodia, & accepted a job in China.

I'll try to expand on all of these things over the next few days, but for now I'll just say that the end of 2009 is going to be great!