Crowded Streets and Talented Singers – Welcome to Vietnam!

Well, it took a long time but I finally made it! After 26+ hours of flying and sitting in airports, I made it to Ho Chi Minh City, and was so very glad I arranged to stay in a hotel, rather than driving straight to Can Tho (thank you mom!)

The travel day itself was not particularly exciting. Beyond a few weather-related concerns flying from St. Louis to Chicago, everything went pretty smoothly. On the flight to Seoul, I sat next to a very friendly woman who was flying back to Korea to take care of her mother, who had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Not the most uplifting of companions for a 14-hour flight, but she was very nice, if a bit more talkative than I. I much preferred her to my other neighbor (yep, I got the middle seat for 14 hours) who spent the first few hours of the flight with his reading light on, even though he spent very little time in his seat. The light was pretty bright, making it hard to sleep. Luckily I was wearing a scarf, which I used as a make-shift blindfold. It was reasonably effective, but regardless I didn’t end up sleeping as much as I would have liked.

Seoul to Ho Chi Minh City was a much shorter flight – a mere 4.5 hours. I had a decent layover and used my time to hit up a Starbucks and do a bit of shopping at the duty free stores. I bought a few types of sunscreen, because Korea is known for not fooling around when it comes to sun, and I had heard that this is an item that’s hard to find here in Vietnam. I was very tempted by the pile of cute cosmetics, lotions shaped like peaches and macaron lip gloss, but they were sold in packs of five, and there’s no reason I need five large peach-shaped lotions. Oh well, maybe next time!

The flight to HCMC was almost empty, and I ended up having a whole row to myself. This would have been great, except I was trying not to sleep, and there was a screaming, kicking child in the row behind me. The father’s response to his kid’s screaming seemed to be yelling back at it, which was not particularly effective. I was immensely glad that I had brought (and charged) my noise canceling headphones. Seriously, there’s nothing better for a long flight, and the Bose earbuds get my enthusiastic stamp of approval.

Moving on, I made it safely to HCMC, hopped on a seriously overpriced taxi (500,000 dong! That’s a $25 cab for an 8 minute ride. I think I was had, but didn’t have the energy to argue) and made it to my hotel. I was reacquainted with the Vietnamese-style bathroom (a small room with a tile floor, toilet and shower head – no shower stall), had a much appreciated shower, and fell asleep.

The next day I had until 2pm to explore the city. It took me a long time to get moving, and even though I woke up around 6, I didn’t leave the hotel until more like 9:15. In that time I went searching nearby for an ATM, and along the way had to re-teach myself to cross the street. You’d think this was simple, but the streets in Vietnam are VERY different than the US. Nobody stops for pedestrians, in fact, people rarely stop at all. Instead pedestrians just pick a quiet-ish time to walk, and cross without stopping, motorbikes weaving around them. It’s best to just stare at your destination, and whatever you do, DO NOT STOP OR PAUSE IN THE STREET. Waiting for a motorbike is not something you do, they will swerve around you, and if you stop it confuses everyone. This is simple, but counterintuitive if you’re coming from the US. Obviously I made it through alright, but it’ll be a while before it feels normal.

After my ATM adventures and breakfast were taken care of, I took a taxi into the city and made my way to Notre Dame Basilica. Yes, HCMC has its own Notre Dame, and it’s in a very posh part of town. I snapped a few photos of the church and realized that my stomach was not doing so hot. I made my way over to a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, where I knew clean bathrooms and English menus could be found. I sat down with a peppermint tea and did a bit of people watching before working up the energy to head back out.

Statue near Basilica
Statue near Basilica
The Front of the Notre Dame Basilica in Saigon
The Front of the Notre Dame Basilica in Saigon

I wandered around for a while before finding the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. The price was right ($1 admission) but the museum was not particularly well done. I had planned on visiting the War History Museum a few blocks away, but my energy was low and I didn’t think I was up for such an experience. I found another chain coffee shop and sat for a while. I was still tired and a little sick, and it was getting me down. I started feeling overwhelmed by what I had embarked on. Suddenly a whole year felt like forever and I was so far from home. I decided to head back to my hotel early rather than wandering around in the heat.

My favorite part of the museum was the trash cans – I remember these from the last time I was in Vietnam

On my way back to the church (a place I determined would be full of taxis) I walked through a park where someone had set up a sound system and a band was playing. I decided to check it out, and found that a huge group of high school or university students were all gathered to watch people play guitar and sing. As I watched, one singer left and a member of the crowd took his place to sing another song. The musicians were pretty good, and the kids were all amazingly stylish. I sat down to enjoy the show, and found myself feeling immediately better. Surrounded by people, I no longer felt so alone and far from home. As the musicians played I found myself entranced. I must have watched them play for at least an hour.

The crowd ebbed and flowed
The crowd ebbed and flowed
A woman wandering through the crowd selling snacks
A woman wandering through the crowd selling snacks

After a while I realized that it was almost 1, and I needed to eat. I bought some green mango and chili salt from a woman who was walking through the park, and in so doing ended up talking to two girls sitting next to me. They said that the band was playing because it was Sunday, and that it happened often. I asked if it was open mic because they seemed to switch musicians after each song, but they told me it was all one band. In any case, I had a great time and reluctantly returned to the hotel with lifted spirits.

These girls were pretty good!
These girls were pretty good!

I will tell the story of my arrival in Can Tho another day. I’m still pretty tired overall, and settling in is a slow process. Until next time!

Here’s the video I took of the musicians. Sorry the audio quality is so bad – there was a ton of background noise and I couldn’t get much closer.


3, 2, 1, Blast Off!

By the time you read this I will be en-route to Vietnam! By sheer crazy coincidence, my departure falls on the 3-year anniversary of the day I left for Pac Rim, and the beginning of this blog. Another strange coincidence, I will be flying through Seoul, which is where Pac Rim started. It’s crazy to think about how much has changed since then, so I wanted to take a minute to reflect on exactly how far I’ve come, and how far I’m going!

Pac Rim, the 9-month study-travel program I chose to do for my junior year of college, was an amazing experience. A lot of what I’m doing now reminds me of my year abroad, but this time around there are some major differences. For starters, today I will not have the pleasure of traveling with 24 other students and 4 staff (plus visiting professors). Pac Rim let me travel with some of my best friends, which was great, but also sometimes a bit much. Now I’m on my own. I don’t even have the benefit of an NGO to train or organize my life, which is a little terrifying, but also kind of cool. I like the independence of it, and I’m excited to strike out on my own in such a huge way.

Three years ago I was a student, and while classes were not always easy, life was full of free time and fun. Now I’m the teacher, with all sorts of responsibilities and limited vacation time. This will certainly be an interesting work experience.

I’m also staying in one country, one city for the full year, while PacRim averaged one country per month. This means that I will be able to really get to know Can Tho, and maybe even learn to speak a decent amount of Vietnamese. Fingers crossed on that last one – this language seems tough!

I think those are the major differences, the ones that come to mind quickly. But from here on out, I feel like I need to stop comparing this year to Pac Rim – this is a new adventure. Yes, I will benefit from my past experiences, but I am ready and willing to discover Vietnam and Can Tho through fresh eyes. Bring it on!


How Walking the Dogs Changed My Life

Ok, so those updates I promised would follow in the weeks leading up to my departure? Yeah, turns out they fell a bit by the wayside in favor of spending time with friends and family, freaking out about the upcoming journey, and generally doing more shopping than was absolutely necessary. Even on the verge of a major life change, some things don’t change 🙂

But back to the topic at hand – a fateful dog walk.

The dogs that started it all...
The dogs that started it all…

Over the past few years my family has made a habit of walking the dogs in the evenings. These walks are a full family affair – both parents, both siblings, and of course all three dogs. We make a circuit of the neighborhood, stopping briefly to let the dogs do their dog thing, and we usually make it home without event. On the particular night in question, we happened to run into some neighbors and friends of my mothers. My sister and I had been walking ahead, and were waiting across the street for our parents to finish the conversation when we were beckoned over. I was introduced to the Dons, a friendly couple that lives a few blocks away whom I had never met. We began talking about my career goals (an idea that is always brought up once it is made known that you are living with your parents).

This is not a topic I was particularly happy to discuss. Since January I had been applying to competitive fellowships and teaching programs in Asia. At this point I had been rejected more times than I’d like to admit, and was not feeling particularly optimistic about my goal of living in Asia.

So I said that I was interested in teaching English in Asia, and that I was working to make this a reality (a true enough statement, if vague). Normally, this is a statement that people write off. I think it’s mostly heard as the wishful and bizarre thinking of a recent college grad that hasn’t woken up to the realities of the working world yet. But to my surprise, the Dons responded by asking me if I would be interested in Vietnam.

As it turns out, the Dons had visited Vietnam several years ago as part of an education exchange with a medical school in Can Tho. They had loved everything about their trip, thought the whole experience was fantastic, and would I like an introduction to the man who organized their trip? Naturally I said yes, that sounded lovely, though at the time I was feeling pessimistic and didn’t expect much more than a friendly reference.

I was given Dr. Rob’s contact information that night, and the next day we had set up a time to talk over the phone. After a day of serious time-zone confusion on my part, I had a lovely conversation with Dr. Rob, who offered to put me in touch with anyone and everyone he knew in Vietnam, which is a considerable amount, since he has been making regular trips to the country for the past decade.

I was in total disbelief – this was all starting to sound so great. Not a day later I was emailing the director of an English tutoring facility, and within a week I had a job offer.

Two weeks and I had bought a plane ticket.

Three months later I have a mostly packed bag, a passport full of new blank pages, and a whole stomach full of butterflies.

And it all started by walking the dogs.