A Sunday in Saigon

Two weeks ago a few of my friends decided to spend the weekend in Hồ Chí Minh City, which is about 3 hours away from Cần Thơ. I really wanted to go, but my schedule didn’t quite line up for the weekend trip. In the end I decided that I would go up for one night – leave Sunday morning and return on Monday. It was a quick visit, but I’m glad I went.

So first, let me clear a few things up. Yes, Saigon (Sài Gòn) and Hồ Chí Minh City are the same place. Saigon was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City after reunification, but you’ll hear people use the two names interchangeably here. Also, you see signs that say “Sài Gòn” all over. I’ll probably use both names in this post too, as well as the abbreviation (HCMC).

Anyway, I set out Sunday morning via bus. This was the first time taking a bus by myself, and I’m happy to say it all went very smoothly. Buses leave from Cần Thơ to Saigon every half hour, so it’s pretty easy to catch. I also recently learned how to say “I’m going to….” and was very excited to use my (extremely meager and definitely butchered) Vietnamese. In the end the ticket cost $6 and took around three hours. Also, unlike the bus I took to Tra Vinh, this was a Phuong Trang bus, which is significantly more comfortable (and more expensive, but that’s ok).

The bus journey from CT to HCMC goes something like this: catch a bus at one of two stations in CT (one is a 5 minute walk from my house). The bus makes one or two stops on the way to HCMC, which is great for those of us with small bladders and large water bottles. The station in Saigon is a little far from the center of the city, but luckily there’s a free transfer shuttle that will take you to another station, a bit closer to District 1 (the tourist/backpacker area at the center of HCMC). After that, you can take a taxi or xe om (motorbike taxi) wherever you need to go. It’s all pretty simple, which was great.

Anyway, once I actually arrived in the city I dropped my stuff at the hotel and met up with my friends in a nearby coffee shop. We decided to walk around and find some food, then go to the War Remnants Museum.

So, for anyone visiting Saigon, it’s not the best walking city. Streets are crowded, and things tend to be a bit spread out. The city is HUGE, but if you don’t plan on leaving district one, then walking and the occasional taxi should see you through. We wandered for maybe thirty minutes before finding a place that wasn’t crazy expensive (well, by Vietnamese standards any meal over $2 is pretty pricey) and too touristy. With full stomachs we continued our walk to the museum.

If you ever find yourself in Saigon, I strongly recommend visiting the museum, regardless of how much you know about the war in Vietnam. Personally, I remember learning a little bit about it in history class, and I know I’ve read The Things They Carried. That’s about the extent of my knowledge, which is pretty embarrassing considering that I not only decided to live in Vietnam, but had visited the country before. Back in July I decided to try learning more about the war and read The Sorrow of War – a novel by a Vietnamese author, Bao Ninh. It was gruesome, but it told me more about the realities of combat than the politics and history of Vietnam. So, visiting the museum was a bit eye-opening for me. It made me realize that I knew very little, and that my knowledge was extremely one-sided. The museum offers rooms that show protest photos and letters, pictures of soldiers, American weapons and transport, and endless photos of the lasting effects of Agent Orange. It was hard to get through, and I walked away feeling horribly guilty, and also amazed at the fact that I’ve felt no animosity from any Vietnamese person.

After taking a taxi home we were all feeling tired and probably a little contemplative. We watched a movie in the hotel room and after a while I wandered out to find a store I remembered reading about. I bought some postcards (which will be arriving soon! Or, as soon as I remember to post them…) and met up with Peter and some of his friends for dinner. Across the street from our hotel there was a food festival, so we wandered around and sampled a few stalls. It was really crowded, and a bit overwhelming, so after a while we left the park and got a drink at a sidewalk bar/café. The night ended with a spontaneous massage, and the next day we returned to Can Tho.

A concert at the food festival
A concert at the food festival

It’s taken me a lot longer to write this than I had anticipated, and so now I’ll be returning to Saigon tomorrow to meet up with friends from college and celebrate Christmas Eve. I’m excited to see more of the city, as well as some old friends, and hopefully this time I’ll gather my thoughts and write about it a little faster.

Happy holidays!

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How is it already December?

Hey everyone!

The river at night.
The river at night.

I’m having a tough time believing that it is, indeed, December, but the Christmas decorations on every street would seem to indicate that it’s true. I didn’t think Vietnam would be particularly excited about Christmas, seeing as it’s a primarily Buddhist (but 7% Catholic, according to Wikipedia) country, but it appears the stores all know the value of a holiday promotion, and the Christmas feel that goes with it. Yes, I am a bit of a grinch, but with not one Hanukkah bush to be found, I feel I am entitled to a little less enthusiasm than some, haha.

Not a christmas decoration, but a typical holiday display at the local grocery store. They get very creative here...
Not a christmas decoration, but a typical holiday display at the local grocery store. They get very creative here…

But regardless, there have been a few holidays in the past weeks that I did celebrate, including Thanksgiving and my 24th birthday! Thanksgiving was a fun affair – it was completely last-minute, but a bunch of the foreign teachers organized a dinner at a friend’s house and made everything from chicken to spring rolls. I dutifully provided cheese and crackers, and a few store-bought cookies, because we all know that cooking is not my forte. I did miss my usual job as pumpkin pie baker (even I can’t screw that up), but I still had fun. Unfortunately, since Thanksgiving isn’t really on the radar in Vietnam, I had to work that night from 6:30-8:30pm. I arrived at dinner in time to help set up, left right as everyone was about to eat, and returned in time for everyone to leave. But not to worry, I still ate my fill of food and was able to get in on some games and singing before heading home for the night. In the end I decided I was very grateful for the friends I have made here, my supportive friends and family back home, and the fact that I can be here doing this right now. I’m a very lucky person, and sometimes it’s nice to sit back and reflect on that.

I don't have any photos of Thanksgiving dinner, but lunch that day was pretty American. It was an alright steak, and a nice change of pace. Also, nobody got food poisoning, despite the food being extremely rare, so hooray for that.
I don’t have any photos of Thanksgiving dinner, but lunch that day was pretty American. It was an alright steak, and a nice change of pace. Also, nobody got food poisoning, despite the food being extremely rare, so hooray for that.

So, since Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday here in Vietnam, the designated time to begin decorating for Christmas appears to be December 1st. I swear, on November 30th I walked down the street and everything was normal, and the next day I was swimming in a sea of Christmas trees, lights, and Santas. I haven’t really taken any pictures, but even now, I’m writing this in a cafe and there’s a strobing string of lights and ornaments right in front of me, and pictures of snowmen everywhere. It’s a tad strange, but I’ve decided to just go with it.

Did you know they have Baskin Robbins's here? A friend was getting ready to move to Phu Quoc Island for a few months, so we celebrated with an ice cream cake. We didn't stop to consider that this was really too much cake for only 4 people... Live and learn
Did you know they have Baskin Robbins’s here? A friend was getting ready to move to Phu Quoc Island for a few months, so we celebrated with an ice cream cake. We didn’t stop to consider that this was really too much cake for only 4 people… Live and learn

Anyway, the start of December was a great time for me. As some of you know I was really excited to have clothes made for me once I arrived in Vietnam. Somewhere in the shuffle of getting settled in and working and traveling, I lost track of that thought. A while back I told a friend that I wanted to have some clothes made, and she surprised me a few weeks later by saying that she’d take me to a fabric shop, and then to her friend’s mom, who is a tailor. This all came together about 2 weeks ago, and I picked up my finished clothes just in time to go to a friend’s birthday party. I don’t have pictures yet, but below are a few of the fabrics I picked up. The one on the left is now a nice, full-length skirt, and the other two are waiting for me to figure out what I want. I’ll post pictures once I figure it out.

A bit of Fabric shopping. The one on the left has been made into a skirt, but I'm still thinking about what to do with the other two...
A bit of Fabric shopping. The one on the left has been made into a skirt, but I’m still thinking about what to do with the other two…

In any case, after picking up my awesome new skirts and dress I went to a friend’s birthday party, since she’s also an early-December Sagittarius. Fun fact, people I’ve met here talk about astrology a lot. If I tell friends I was born in the year of the horse they know how old I am, and I’ve had my palm read by students at least twice. Fun stuff. Anyway, the birthday party! We went out for goat hot-pot, which I love, and once we got their my friend asked if I had ever tried hột vịt lộn, or fertilized duck egg. Now, before arriving in Vietnam, I thought this sounded like the most horrible thing ever. Having lived here for a while, I’ve had a bit of a change of heart, and decided I was willing to try the egg, provided it was dark, and I’d had a few drinks first. And maybe I’d start with the quail version, since it’s much smaller… In any event, I told her that I hadn’t tried it yet, and that it was still to bright out to change that at the moment. It turns out she wanted to add one to our hot pot, and that sitting on the tray of veggies waiting to be cooked were two, perfectly innocent-looking eggs. Peter and I were both convinced she was just teasing us, and that these were in fact just normal eggs. So, quite brazenly, I told her to go ahead and add them! It was her birthday after all, and I figured if it was the real deal than at least it’d be cooked when I ate it. I was soooo not prepared for what came next. She cracked the egg and poured it on into the pot, and I really haven’t seen anything quite as… well, gross. The egg oozed a black, mucus-y membrane, which was bad enough, and then, out plopped the tiny almost-duck. I don’t tend to be a squeamish eater, but that almost did me in. Even Peter, who had eaten hột vịt lộn before was a bit put off by the whole thing. But after a few minutes we had regained our composure and our appetities, and everyone dug in. I don’t think I ate any of the duck itself, but the hot pot was delicious, and I can now (sort of) say I’ve tried hột vịt lộn. Go me. After dinner we all went out for karaoke and dancing at a local club. It was an eventful, fun night.

Surprise cake from my students!
Surprise cake from my students!

The next day I had to give my university students their midterm exam, which they were of course thrilled about. But even so, after the test was finished they surprised me with a birthday cake and they all sang. I was really touched, it was so nice! They gave me a cake even when I gave them an exam, haha. It turns out that my students in almost all of my classes had found out from each other that it was my birthday, and for the next few days each class sang to me. It was so sweet, I really love my students…

My students are pretty great :)
My students are pretty great 🙂

And that was about it for my birthday. I went out to a rooftop bar for drinks with friends, but we kept the whole thing pretty laid-back, which pretty much falls in line with how I usually celebrate my birthday. I also went to Ho Chi Minh City for the weekend, but I’ll save that for another post.

Funny face photo!
Funny face photo!

So, here I am, a week into being 24, and I’m pretty happy about it. I’ve gotten a lot of love from friends, family, students and coworkers the past few weeks, and I’ve been constantly reminded of how happy I am to be here, living a life-long dream, learning every day, and generally just having a blast.

Thanksgiving/birthday surprise from my friend Sarah! You might remember her as my roommate from Nantucket, and you will notice that the package was a very cute nod to our summer there (nantucket cookies and a can of cranberry sauce)
Thanksgiving/birthday surprise from my friend Sarah! You might remember her as my roommate from Nantucket, and you will notice that the package was a very cute nod to our summer there (nantucket cookies and a can of cranberry sauce)

Thanks to everyone who sent me birthday/holiday well-wishes, and to everyone who has been following my adventures here through my blog. I’ve got a good bit of traveling coming up at the end of the month, so hopefully I’ll have some fun stories (and pictures) to share with you soon!

Another birthday surprise - my neighbor has started selling waffles right next door. This could be dangerous...
Another birthday surprise – my neighbor has started selling waffles right next door. This could be dangerous…

PS – I saw this bike one day parked outside of a restaurant. I still can’t ride, but if I could have this bike, I think I’d learn right away 🙂 IMG_2317