Tra Vinh Travelin’

Two weeks ago I took my first trip outside of Can Tho since I arrived here two months ago (yes, this post is super overdue. Sorry!!). It was a short trip – only one night – but we had a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about traveling within Vietnam.

The Mekong Delta - my home base (Can Tho) and destination (Tra Vinh) are circled
The Mekong Delta – my home base (Can Tho) and destination (Tra Vinh) are circled

Tra Vinh, my destination for the weekend, is a small city roughly 2-3 hours Southeast of Can Tho. It is the home of Tra Vinh University, where my friend Selina is currently working, and where my housemate Peter spent the past year, also teaching. I knew almost nothing about the city before going there except that I should expect awesome coconuts and delicious pho.

Originally the plan was for Peter and me to ride his motorbike for the 2 hour trip, but shortly before leaving our friend Marc decided to join us, and we opted for the bus instead. I was excited to see how the buses work here, since any future travels will likely be by bus.

The bus was not what I would call luxurious, but it was perfectly comfortable once we got the windows open. I was excited to have a window seat by myself once the bus took off, but was told that we would continue to pick people up along the way. This made sense, it wasn’t an express bus (I’m not even sure if those exist here), but once we got moving I was a bit surprised to discover what he meant. Rather than stopping at bus stops, people along the road would flag our bus down like a taxi, and just hop on board. And I do mean hop, because the bus did not always come to a complete stop. I learned that sometimes people called ahead and told the bus they would be getting on along the way, but other times people just got on as they felt like it.

Inside the bus. Don't worry - the guy in front of me isn't contagious. People here wear these masks to keep out dust, especially when riding bikes.
Inside the bus. Don’t worry – the guy in front of me isn’t contagious. People here wear these masks to keep out dust, especially when riding bikes.

I sat by myself for a good 45 minutes, but eventually gained a seatmate. Now, one thing to know if you plan on riding a bus or using any public transportation in Asia is that you’re going to get close to others. Personal space “bubbles” don’t really exist here, and it’s common for you to be literally rubbing elbows or shoulders with your neighbors. As such, my new seatmate and I got pretty close over the next 1.5 hours as we squished to accommodate more and more people getting on and off the bus.

The drive in was fairly uneventful, though we did get pulled over by the police for some reason. They looked inside the bus and sent us on our way, and we were left to wonder what it had all been about. But most of the trip was spent listening to music and looking out the window. In Can Tho there isn’t a ton of greenery, so I enjoyed seeing more than a handful of trees here and there.

A communist statue seen from the bus. We passed several similarly-themed monuments on our journey.
A communist statue seen from the bus. We passed several similarly-themed monuments on our journey.

The bus dropped us off near the university campus, and after grabbing a quick lunch at a nearby rice place, we walked over to the guest house where all of the foreign teachers live. Unlike my house – which is just that, a house near the city center – the teachers at Tra Vinh University live on campus. This means that they have a school-imposed curfew, and the gates to their building actually lock after a certain hour. The same is true of my friends working at Can Tho University, as well as many of my students living in dorms and boardinghouses. My house may not be the most glamorous, but I’m still very happy with my living situation, all things considered

Anyway, we quickly moved on to a nearby café, where we talked and sipped coffee for around three hours. We started with maybe five or six people, but as time went on we kept adding more and more people to our table, since all of Peter’s friends wanted to see him while he was in town. It was a really friendly group, and I had a nice time meeting everyone.

After coffee we decided to get dinner at a seafood restaurant, which was apparently Peter’s favorite place. Now, even though I’ve lived by the ocean/large bodies of water off and on for the past five years, I’m still a Missouri girl when it comes to seafood. That is to say, I’m pretty hesitant to eat anything that comes out of the water (unless it’s sushi – go figure). Despite my feelings towards fish and the like, the food was really good, and the company was even better.

Bia Hoi with the whole crew. Photo by Marc Nguyen

Our dinner was briefly interrupted by a sudden downpour, and Selina and I learned the hard way that the bathroom roof was not super effective at keeping water out. But regardless of my wet clothes and soggy purse, the dinner was great, and afterwards we went out for “Bia Hoi.” This is basically a Vietnamese brewery, where the beer is brewed on site. They’re not very common in the South, but when I was in Hanoi you would find one on every street. The beer is extremely cheap (something like 50 cents for a liter), and since it’s made in small batches on site, it tastes a little different every time you go. This night it tasted pretty good, and we completely lost count of how many pitchers we’d gone through. I should also note that in Vietnam, drinking is an extremely social event. In order to take a drink, you have to “cheers” with everyone at the table. The proper way to do this is to go, “Mot, hai, ba, YO!” which translates to, “one, two, three, cheers!” By the end of an hour or two, everyone was pretty sauced, and we decided to go to karaoke, which is apparently the hip thing to do in Tra Vinh. Several songs and a few too many drinks later, we caught a cab back to my friend’s guest house and spent a few more hours singing, since one of the neighbors brought his ukelele over. All in all, a fun night.

Walking to the "bus stop." I love the clouds here!
Walking to the “bus stop.” I love the clouds here!

The next morning we woke up and headed to Peter’s favorite pho place, since pho (a noodle soup) is the go-to hangover food. It was delicious, and afterward we gathered our things and got in a cab to catch our bus. Now, we thought the bus came every hour, but when we showed up and there was no sign of a bus, we quickly realized this was not the case. We instead took the taxi all the way to the bus depot to see if we would have better luck there, but instead we learned that we would have to wait another two hours until the next bus. The funny thing was, our cab ride to the bus depot and back to the guest house cost more than our bus fare (it’s a $3 bus, and we took a $5+ cab).

Fields on the way home, after the rain.
Fields on the way home, after the rain.

And so our journey came to an end. The bus picked us up at 1:30, and we arrived safe and sound back in Can Tho later that afternoon. While it wasn’t the most thrilling of journeys event-wise, I had a great time. Oh, and while I was there, one of the new friends I met invited me back for his wedding! So next week, I’ll do it all again.

Swimming in the Rain, and Other Small Adventures

While my year of study abroad was full of huge exciting moments often brought on by traveling from city to city on a monthly (sometimes weekly) basis, my life as a teacher in Vietnam moves at a much slower pace.

This is not a bad thing in the least, but it means that my “blog-worthy” moments aren’t as obvious or even as exciting to the average reader. Since moving to Can Tho over a month ago I have not left the city, nor have I ventured especially far from my neighborhood. I realized this today when I met up with a student for coffee, and she took me to a location I had assumed was super far away – the Big C shopping mall.

The mall is maybe 10 minutes from my house by motorbike – not exactly an insurmountable distance. The fact that this was a big excursion for me has made me sit back and reflect on how I spend my time here, and why, despite the lack of movement, I’ve generally been very happy.

Coffee Time class with my students
Coffee Time class with my students

To give a little context, I’ve defined my post-college year by a need to move around. After graduation I ran to Nantucket for a summer, then moved back home to St. Louis for a PR internship. Returning home was not a decision I had anticipated, and the minute I finished my internship I began traveling as much as I could. From January to August of 2014, I think the longest stretch of time I spent in St. Louis at one time was 4 weeks, and that was mostly because my plans to visit Israel fell through. You can see a sampling of my travels in the photos below. Basically, I tend to get antsy being in one place for a long time.

Hanging out with a sea lion in the Galapagos Islands
Hanging out with a sea lion in the Galapagos Islands
New Orleans Jazz Fest with the family
New Orleans Jazz Fest with the family
Exploring the Oregon Coast with Annin
Exploring the Oregon Coast with Annin

Despite my love of travel, I’ve found myself happy and generally content to get to know Can Tho. While I would of course like to see other parts of Vietnam and South East Asia, I don’t feel any rush to get out and about. I only just made plans to travel to Tra Vinh (2 hours away), to visit a friend, and have no other excursions on the horizon. Part of this is definitely my teaching schedule, but I think it has more to do with discovering a different type of excitement. An excitement that comes from really getting to know a new place, and making it my home.

Because that’s what Can Tho is now, it’s my home for the next year. And it’s full of small adventures, from making new friends to learning how to maneuver a bicycle on the crowded streets. It’s going to the nearby swimming pool right before a storm, and deciding with my friends that we won’t let the rain stop us, because this is Vietnam and pools don’t shut down when it rains. It’s trying endless new foods, learning how to get my students excited about learning how to order in a restaurant, and struggling to understand what my neighbors are trying to tell me when they emphatically point at my bicycle and wave their hands (still no idea on that one…).

The nearby "police pool" as it starts to rain
The nearby “police pool” as it starts to rain (photo taken by Selina)

I’ve settled into a great routine of coffee shop afternoons, classes in the evening, and grabbing beer with friends after work. And despite the routine, it still feels new and exciting. Maybe this will change in a few weeks, but for now I’m going to sit back, sip my coffee, and enjoy the small adventures as they happen.