One Month Down, Eleven to Go

As of this week I have officially been living in Can Tho for an entire month. It’s been a very pleasant month, one full of new people, places and experiences, and naturally I’ve already fallen behind on blogging. Whoops!

Hanging out at an English cafe
Hanging out at an English cafe

So to make up for the missed time, I thought I’d compile a list of things I have noticed, learned (or not learned) in the past month. And I’ve thrown in a few pictures for good measure. I don’t need to do everything at once. The last time I was living abroad I was moving from place to place at a pretty rapid rate. I had to do it all or risk missing out and possibly never coming back. And while I did eventually learn that down time was sometimes necessary, living in the same place for a whole year sets a different pace to my actions. I’ve settled into a nice balance of wandering the city and returning to my favorite coffee shops (or my own house) that makes me happy. Can Tho is not a tourist city, and I like that. I’m not pressured into going on a million day trips, and I can sit back, relax, and do things in my own time. Eventually I will get out of the city and see the rest of the country, but that doesn’t have to happen this week or even this month.

A park near my house (located in the tourist area) plays homage to Ho Chi Minh
A park near my house (located in the tourist area) plays homage to Ho Chi Minh

Coffee is life here. I think there are more cafes than any other type of store here. And that’s not even a bit of an exaggeration. I could go to a new coffee shop every day and still not have visited all of them by the end of the year. I’ve even gotten into the habit of drinking coffee, something my family and friends will surely be surprised to hear. I mean, it helps that they serve it with condensed milk, but still…

An iced coffee with milk (of the condensed variety). Most cafes will give you a free glass of iced tea along with any purchase, even if it's just another drink...
An iced coffee with milk (of the condensed variety). Most cafes will give you a free glass of iced tea along with any purchase, even if it’s just another drink…

The traffic is crazy, until you become a part of it. When preparing to leave the US, I will not deny that my greatest fear was getting on the roads in Vietnam. Traffic rules do not work the same way here, and to the uninitiated, it does look like complete chaos. I still felt that way once I got here, and within the first few weeks I decided to go for a bicycle instead of a scooter. I was still nervous, but it seemed like a good compromise. Now that I’ve been riding on the streets for a few weeks, I’m much more comfortable with the rules of the road, and have even considered upgrading. We’ll see what the future holds, but the idea of showing up to class and not being a big sweaty mess is definitely appealing, and possibly worth learning to drive for…

My fancy ride. Yes, it's the hot pink bicycle. Yes, my helmet is also pink.
My fancy ride. Yes, it’s the hot pink bicycle. Yes, my helmet is also pink.

Clear communication is not always a given. You’re probably saying, “uh, duh Jessica.” Yes, I was expecting this, but nothing ever turns out exactly how you think it will. A few weeks ago I was told I would be organizing an event for the center. This surprised me, but I figured I’d just go with it. I heard nothing about it until a week before the event, at which point I was told I would be MCing, not organizing. That was much better. Two days before the event, I learned I was not as much an MC as someone to manage the MCs, since the show would be hosted by two young students. Again, that’s cool. I was told I would have no lines, I’d just stand on stage and herd them around. The next day I get a script with their lines, and the night before I am told I will actually be speaking a bit. All of this is totally fine, I’m rolling with it. The day of I get a text around 8am asking if I’m attending the rehearsal I never heard about, and I of course read the text while half-asleep, and promptly roll over and wake up an hour later wondering if I had forgotten to do something… I call in and it’s fine that I missed rehearsal, but could I come and try on a costume for the show? Now I’m thinking, “there’s no way whatever they have will fit me” because I happen to be a bit wider than your average Vietnamese woman. And, of course, my prediction is correct. The white dress they have picked out is just too small, and when that’s when I’m asked if I have anything suitable for the event that will make me look like a fairy. Yes, a fairy. Why am I supposed to look like a fairy? I have no idea. Do I have any fairy-like clothes? No, not really… So I go home and spend some time putting the most fairy-like outfit together that I can manage, and I’m pretty much drawing a blank. My only reference is that long, white dress they tried to give me, and I have nothing remotely like it. In the end, I grabbed a few options, put on my longest skirt and a lacy white top, and kept my fingers crossed something would work out. When I arrive I’m told they’ve found me a new dress – it’s a very nice white dress that looks like something I’d wear to an office party. This is a fairy costume? When I come out everyone tells me I look just like a fairy, and then it clicks. I was never being asked to wear a costume, I was simply being told I looked pretty and fairy-like, or I would if they could get the right outfit. Communication is hard sometimes, but it keeps life interesting.

The final outfit - onstage with one of my co-hosts.
The final outfit – onstage with one of my co-hosts.

Teaching can be fun, and my students are great. While I never really imagined myself teaching for more than a year or two, I have to say that the past month has definitely been fun. I like teaching university students and teens, and my fellow teachers have all been awesomely friendly. I’m not saying I think this is my calling in life, but it’s not so bad at all.

The view from my teacher's desk.
The view from my teacher’s desk.

Meeting new people is awesome. For me, this year was all about a new beginning. This meant a new place, new job, and new friends. While I’m not exactly the most outgoing girl at a party, I’ve really liked meeting new people here, both fellow foreign teachers and Vietnamese students and coworkers. I’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers and my new friends. I’ve had a pretty good first month here, and that would not be the case if not for the people I’ve met.

Check it out - a Vietnamese dachshund!
Check it out – a Vietnamese dachshund!

So those are my thoughts. Nothing to prolific or life changing, but they’re my thoughts all the same. And now, I’m off to meet some friends at a rooftop bar. If it doesn’t rain, I hope to get a lovely view of the city at night. Maybe I’ll even remember to take a picture this time! Until next time.

Living the good life at the "rustic cafe"
Living the good life at the “rustic cafe”

PS – Oh yeah, did I mention that I happened to meet a fellow St. Louisan and Jew here in Can Tho? We got together with some other foreign teachers and celebrated Rosh Hashanah. Here’s photographic proof, since I know nobody would believe me otherwise.

Foreign teachers celebrating Rosh Hashana
Foreign teachers celebrating Rosh Hashana

Shana Tova!

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I Get By With A Little Help From Hello Kitty

Hanging out at the Hello Kitty Cafe in Seoul 3 years ago.
Hanging out at the Hello Kitty Cafe in Seoul 3 years ago.

I’ll start this by stating the obvious: I really like Hello Kitty. And it has been pointed out, on more than one occasion, that I am in fact an adult, and my love of this childish mascot is kind of…. well, childish. Well, let me tell you right now: Hello Kitty love is a great thing, and it kept me from getting hopelessly lost this week. 

But first, let me back up a bit. Heading into week two here in Can Tho, I’ve begun to get the hang of things. I’ve found a few food stalls and restaurants where I can order without speaking Vietnamese. I can cross the street, if not with reckless abandon than at least without a major panic attack (maybe just a small one). And I have been exploring my neighborhood as much as my incredibly poor sense of direction allows.

If you know me, you probably know I would have trouble finding my way out of a paper bag. But even so, I usually find my way eventually. Back home, I credit my iPhone and Google maps with this small miracle. Here, I’ve yet to unlock my iPhone, so I’m left to rely on actual maps (by which I mean screenshots taken on my iPhone of a Google map). And in reality, I didn’t even try this until Thursday. Most of my adventures have been in a straight-ish line or with others with better directional capabilities than myself. It was working out just fine, but eventually I knew I’d have to get to work without a taxi and find my own way to the grocery store.

But I digress: Thursday. I don’t teach on Thursdays, and while time off is great, I have yet to really figure out what to do with the copious amounts of free time I seem to have these days. I mean, even on days I do teach, my schedule is still pretty lax. I wake up whenever I feel like it (usually later than I had planned), eat some form of baguette + topping for breakfast, do some lesson planning, venture out for coffee or lunch, come home and wait until I need to go to work. Plain and simple, I’ve been a bit bored with all this time on my hands.

It sounds silly – when I told people I was planning to move to Vietnam for a year, even I had visions of a year jam-packed with adventure and excitement. I forgot that, even on the other side of the world, life is just life, and some days you end up sitting at home in your pajamas watching Netflix and eating junk food. Here the junk food just happens to be seaweed-flavored potato chips and choco-pies. I was feeling bad about not being more adventurous, and especially for not making more of an effort to go out and find friends.

That’s when my new housemate told me about a nearby café that hosted an English happy hour on Thursdays. He was going to observe a class at the center, but suggested that it might be a fun way to meet some friends in the area.

I decided this was exactly what I needed. I studied my route, dressed up, and headed out in order to arrive at what I calculated as around 30 minutes after happy hour started. My route took me through several smaller streets and back allies, and while back home this would have been a scary thing to do (walking alone in an unfamiliar place), I promise that here, it was really no big deal. In fact, I prefer walking on the smaller streets, because there are fewer motorbikes, and even small streets are full of people. 

So I walked, and walked, and I was pretty sure I was going the right way. Until I wasn’t, and all of a sudden I couldn’t find the street I was supposed to turn on. Most streets are well marked here, but this is not always the case for smaller, less traveled areas. I stopped to ask directions from a woman running a bahn mi stand (clever me, I had written the address down!), and was kindly pointed back in the right direction.

Off I went again, with perhaps less confidence in my directional abilities, but certainly I was not daunted. And as it turns out, my wrong turn led me to a Pagoda where something big was happening, and I got to sit and watch some sort of ceremony for a few minutes. But this interesting distraction was just that – distracting. And I was once again at a loss as to which way to turn.

I picked a direction and decided to just go for it. I came out at a busy street, totally at a loss as to where I had ended up. I was starting to feel a bit nervous, and then I saw it, bright and pink and happy as could be: an entire shop devoted to Hello Kitty goods!

Now, certainly I had not gotten lost, but had subconsciously wandered in the direction of what is probably the nicest collection of HK goods in Can Tho. Inside the shop, a young woman and man were eating their dinner off of a small table in the back. I decided I would ask them for directions, but naturally I should buy something if I expected them to help me. I selected a pair of kitty house slippers (something I actually did need, and have since used every day) and went forward to pay and ask my question.

Now, I was just hoping for someone to point me in the right direction. I anticipated at least another 20 minutes of searching were in my future. So, I asked the girl if she knew the place I was looking for. Not only did she speak awesome English, it turns out her friend was a volunteer at the café, and she decided to call her friend to have someone come pick me up. This was perfect! She called, but when her friend didn’t pick up she grabbed an extra helmet and said her brother would drive me over instead.

It took me a minute to process that these people were not only willing to help me, they were going to stop mid-meal and make sure I found my destination.

Now, I realize that my family is probably having a heart attack after reading this. Yes, back home, I would never in a million years accept a ride from a stranger on a motorcycle. However, here in Vietnam, the kindness of strangers is not so suspect, and it absolutely did not occur to me that this might be anything other than a kind gesture. In fact, I didn’t even think about that until I started writing this post. But in that moment I grabbed the Hello Kitty helmet, hopped on the back of this guy’s bike, and was safely delivered to the Tiny Corner Café, which I would never have found on my own. 

The café was fun, but I’ll save that story for another day. For now, I’m going to kick off my Hello Kitty slippers, curl into bed, and try to remember where that Hello Kitty shop was….

National Day Fun

So while everyone back home was enjoying their Labor Day weekend, here in Vietnam people have been sitting back and enjoying National Day (or Independence Day, depending on who you ask). The holiday, which happens on September 2nd, meant that I got two days off of work, which was not particularly exciting for me since, to the best of my knowledge, I don’t teach Monday and Tuesday anyway. But that’s beside the point: it was a holiday!

IMG_4553

I’m still a bit fuzzy on what exactly happens on National Day. From what my students and coworkers have told me, it seems like people generally take a day or two off of work to return to their home towns and spend time with their families. Seeing as my family is a bit far to visit for a 2-day break, and since I only found out about the holiday the week before, I had low expectations for the time off. But as it turns out, this past weekend was actually full of fun surprises.

A nice view from the river
A nice view from the river

First, my roommate, Peter, arrived on Saturday. I was glad to have someone else to share this house with – you’ll see when I post pictures (soon!) that it’s a bit big for one person. Also, the way the houses are built and the close proximity to neighbors means I hear a lot of what’s going on around me, and I have found myself running downstairs more than once thinking someone had wandered into my house. This was never actually the case, but I was still glad to have another person around to go through everything with me.

And traveling with Peter were three other women from the VIA program, including my friend from Pac Rim, Selina. It was great to see her after almost 3 years, and it’s such a crazy coincidence that we’ve both ended up in Vietnam. She’s teaching about 2 hours away in a smaller city, and I hope to visit her at some point, once I figure out my schedule.

So anyway, after a week of solo time, it was awesome to have people around. On Sunday morning they invited me to go to the floating markets, and since this appears to be Can Tho’s biggest tourist draw, I said sure. Turns out the market is an early morning thing, and I found myself waking up at 3:30am in order to make sure I could leave the house at 4:30, and meet up with our boat and guide at 5:00am. Ouch!

5AM and on a boat
5AM and on a boat

 

We ended up having the boat to ourselves, and the whole tour cost us about 600,000 Dong, or $30, for a 4-hour tour. And yes, that’s $30 total for the group of five, not per-person. It pays to have Vietnamese-speaking friends!

 

It was too cloudy to see the sun rise, but it was still very pretty
It was too cloudy to see the sun rise, but it was still very pretty

We arrived at our meeting spot a bit early, and so we got to watch other tourists getting onto boats and early-morning joggers in the park. Jogging is surprisingly popular here, though you can’t really do it on the streets due to the traffic.

Eventually our boat showed up and we all climbed aboard. Our boat driver then proceeded to take off his shirt and jump into the water, presumably to untangle a rope. We were all a bit surprised, and he spent probably ten minutes in the water. The people in the park kept yelling suggestions for untying the rope, and eventually he got it. We were off to the market.

IMG_4535

I had been told the market was a tourist venture, and thought that meant there would be boats selling things to tourists. This wasn’t really the case. The market appeared to be wholesale fruits mostly, and we guessed that this is where local markets got their wares.

Watermelons!
Watermelons!

 

We stopped at a restaurant boat and had a breakfast of fried egg, tomato and a baguette, and some amazing coffee. Did you know Vietnam has some of the best coffee in the world? Even I, the eternal coffee hater, had to admit it was delicious. It doesn’t hurt that it is often served with equal parts coffee and condensed milk. Yum!

 

Pineapple boat. I love the way the bow is painted to look like a face - many of the boats had similar decorations.
Pineapple boat. I love the way the bow is painted to look like a face – many of the boats had similar decorations.

After breakfast it was back to the boat, and we drove back through the market. The guide had said he was taking us to two markets, so we prepared to see another similar sight. On the way we drove past Can Tho Bridge – it’s the longest main span cable-stayed bridge in Southeast Asia. Which is a big deal, and yeah, it’s a very long bridge. I crossed it on my way into the city and was terrified, since it’s also pretty tall. It’s much nicer to look at than go over….

 

Can Tho Bridge
Can Tho Bridge

Once past the bridge we pulled up to what the driver described as a garden. We got out and were asked to pay 10,000 Dong (50 cents) to enter what appeared to be some woman’s garden and restaurant. Out of curiosity we went inside and found…. well, I’m still not sure what it was. There were monkeys, birds, and the odd flower. We didn’t spend long there, and returned to the boat to head home.

Check out the carpenter bee! Don't worry, they don't sting.
Check out the carpenter bee! Don’t worry, they don’t sting.

Once home I headed immediately back to bed, and woke later to teach a class. A busy day! It was capped off by the official welcome dinner for the new English teachers (myself, Peter and a Filipino teacher named AJ). All in all, it was a great day, and a really fun weekend.

Hello From Can Tho!

Hello everyone! I’m happy to say that I have successfully made it through my first week of living in Can Tho, and my first week of teaching! 

I’d love to say it’s been a thrilling, busy week, but really I’ve pretty much been laying low and adjusting to my surroundings. Pro Tip for anyone looking to travel abroad – kindly remember that culture shock is a real thing, and allowing yourself a day or two to adjust to your new surroundings is sometimes necessary. My first few days were filled with mild panic and a general sense of being overwhelmed, and I found myself hiding out in my house more often than I’d like to admit.

But the funny thing was, the minute I would step outside and explore my surroundings, I would instantly feel better. I think that being around people, even if I can’t communicate very effectively with them, is something that does wonders for my general well-being. So I made short trips out to eat and find various house supplies, and as the days went on I felt better and better about where I was in the world, and what I was doing here.

It also helped that work kept me busy from the get-go. I arrived on Sunday, observed classes on Monday and Tuesday, and taught my very first class on Wednesday. When I say trial by fire, I mean it! Given two days notice and the course book, I was left to plan and teach a 2.5-hour IELTS exam-prep class. When I looked up teaching techniques online, I found that often schools reserved these classes for the most experienced teachers, which I found very amusing. But in any case, I planned everything out, arrived and discovered that my introductory activities took significantly less time than I’d planned, and basically just decided to wing it for the rest of the class. Everything went well, and I’ll be teaching them again tomorrow.

Since last Wednesday I’ve taught 5 other classes to varying degrees of success. I enjoy the conversation classes more than the exam-prep, and strangely my favorite class so far has been the middle school course. While anyone can tell you kids have never been my favorite people, I found that my class was both incredibly bright, and totally willing to play along with my silly antics. I think this class was also my greatest accomplishment – when we had our mid-class break, one of the kids came up to me and asked if I would be teaching them again next week, and when I replied she ran off to celebrate with the other kids. I think that’s the best compliment I could have gotten, I was over the moon with excitement, and left feeling like I could handle whatever happened next.

Bring it on, Can Tho!