A Few Videos

One of my friends from Pac Rim recently uploaded a video she made at the end of our trip, but never showed us. While we were in India a few students took a Bollywood dance class, which I regret to say I did not participate in (I was probably doing something stupid like writing my thesis). But lucky us, while we were spending a few days in Temi, gazing at the tea fields, one friend said, “this looks like someplace they would shoot a Bollywood music video.” And so, we did just that.

And yes, as you can clearly see, I was going for the full-on Bollywood-level enthusiasm, which I seemed to think was more important than learning the actual dance moves.

Another quick video has nothing to do with me, but a friend found this and sent it to me. If you’ve ever questioned why I wanted to go to Vietnam, if you thought it was all muddy rice paddies and war-torn landscapes, think again. There are many videos like this one, but I thought it was particularly well done, and not too long.

Makes me want to drop everything and see the rest of this amazing country! But first, it’s time to go to class…

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Back to Saigon

After having lots of fun at the Pac Rim Banquet, I hopped back on a bus to Can Tho around 9am Christmas morning. I think I got back to the hotel and fell asleep closer to 3 or 4am, but luckily for me I fell straight asleep on the bus and stayed that way for most of the 3 hours. I found myself back in Can Tho exhausted, wanting nothing more than a nap. But there as a lot I still had to do – lesson planning for my evening class, packing for my trip the next day, and I’m sure there were a million little things I should have done. Naturally, I did none of those and instead decided to go out with friends and play Vietnamese hacky-sack, or đá cầu. According to the Wikipedia page, this is Vietnam’s unoficial national sport, which I totally believe. It’s played everywhere, and it’s the best way to meet new friends if you’re out and about. Just start playing in any park and after a few minutes you will inevitably be joined by a number of strangers. Even if you’re terrible at the game, which I most definitely am. Check out the video below to see how the game is played – these guys are playing a real game, with a net, but usually my friends just play to see how long we can go without dropping the shuttlecock.

Before beginning our game I got a call from work and was informed that the director would be observing my class that night. At that point I was absolutely running on fumes, and took all of my nervousness out on the da cau game before running home and praying that I could pull it together enough to teach a passable class.

Saigon Post Office
Saigon Post Office

As it turns out, I got my second wind just in time, and class went pretty well. The director told me that his comments were mostly positive, and we had a nice conversation about ways I can improve my teaching in the future. I was so relieved and happy that I said to hell with exhaustion, I’m going out with friends to celebrate! Possibly not the best idea ever, but we had a good time. The next day I administered final exams to my university students in the morning, spent the afternoon grading, and returned home for some last-minute packing before I caught the bus to Saigon around 5pm. In my haste I naturally forgot a few things, like my computer charger and my Vietnamese cell phone…. this was a bit inconvenient, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my travels, it’s that you don’t actually need a phone to make plans.

Just carrying a bicycle - no big deal.
Just carrying a bicycle – no big deal.

In any case, I arrived in Saigon late that night and met up with Lisa and Linda again for drinks. I got a bit lost going to their hotel, but along the way I found a golden retriever. I probably spent a good seven or eight minutes petting the dog before I remembered that I needed to backtrack and find my friends. Once I found everyone, we sat at a streetside bar called the “art cafe” and did a bit of people watching, which is the best thing you can do in the backpacker district. It’s a strange crowd that flows through Ho Chi Minh City, but my best memories of the night are all about dogs – across the street we watched as a couple and their (very large) dog waited for street food. I’ve never seen a dog so calm in my life, even as motorbikes, people and food kept zipping by him. Wow! I managed to snap a quick photo before they took off with their food.

This dog was amazingly well behaved - the street was very busy, and he stayed calm for the entire 10 minutes they were waiting for their food.
This dog was amazingly well behaved – the street was very busy, and he stayed calm for the entire 10 minutes they were waiting for their food.

At the end of the night I returned, exhausted, to my hotel. Annin arrived a few hours later, and she tells me that we had a conversation where I kept insisting that I was fully awake. I remember almost none of this, but we woke up the next morning and got properly caught up. We had breakfast at a nearby noodle shop, then proceeded to do all of the touristy things in Saigon. We walked around the city and visited the Notre Dame Cathedral, Post Office, Reunification Palace, and of course the War Remnants Museum. I wasn’t quite ready to go back to the museum, so I killed time at a nearby coffee shop while everyone else visited the museum.

Notre Dame, again!
Notre Dame, again!

At the end of the day we went to a pizza place that Pase found, and it was amazing. It was Japanese-style pizza with a Vietnamese twist, so the toppings were a bit different from what you’d get in the US, but it was all delicious. Also, if you thought prosciutto and melon was good, swapping the melon for mango is infinitely better. We left the restaurant stuffed and happy, and walked until we found our way back to the hotel.

Amazing okonomiyaki pizza. Yes, that is squid you see, and it was delicious.
Amazing okonomiyaki pizza. Yes, that is squid you see, and it was delicious.

The next day we said goodbye to Linda and made our way to the airport for the next leg of our journey. But that’s a story for another time.

Best part of the Reunification Palace? The swings out back.
Best part of the Reunification Palace? The swings out back.

Let the Holidays Begin – Pac Rim Reunion in Saigon!

Alright, time to begin the holiday travel posts! I think I should start by explaining exactly what I had planned for a very extended holiday, one I’m still shocked went off without a hitch.

Hanging out with Lisa and Selina
Hanging out with Lisa and Selina

While I was given the green light to take almost three weeks off to travel, the first few days of my trip were a bit more complicated. From the very beginning of my stay here in Can Tho, I had always planned on spending Christmas Eve in Saigon, where this year’s Pac Rim group (including several staff members from my trip) would be holding their holiday banquet. I was beyond excited to see old friends, meet the new students, and generally wax nostalgic. A few days after the party my friend Annin was going to meet me in Saigon, and we would then travel around Vietnam. Our friends Lisa and Pase, staff for this year’s Pac Rim, would also be joining us for a few days during their holiday. Everything was coming together and it was looking great!

A few weeks before the party, I realized that while I was told I could have time off, my university course’s final exam was scheduled right between the Pac Rim banquet and meeting up with Annin. This meant that my schedule would have to go as follows: Dec 23 – bus up to Saigon and hang out with Pac Rim. Dec 24 – Pac Rim Banquet! Dec 25 – bus back to Can Tho, teach in the evening. Dec 26 – Administer final exam in morning, finish grading all 50 tests in afternoon, and bus back to Saigon at night to hang out with Lisa and check into hotel with Annin.

Yes, it was a bit of a crazy schedule, and yes, grading took far longer than anticipated, but it all worked out fine in the end.

Now, for what you’re really interested in – how was it meeting up with this year’s Pac Rim?

The banquet marked the end of Elisabeth and Nima's final Pac Rim, and a new director will take over for the second semester.
The banquet marked the end of Elisabeth and Nima’s final Pac Rim, and a new director will take over for the second semester.

Well, it was great to see old friends and say hi to a few of the students whom I had met back on campus. I spent most of my time running errands with Lisa and Selina and trying to be helpful with party preparations. I loved hanging out with old friends and getting to know the new staff members, but one thing was made abundantly clear: three years is a lot of time, and I am definitely no longer a student. This sounds obvious, but spending time with current students really hit home to me how much I’ve changed over the past three years. And, while I loved my experience and wouldn’t change it for the world, I’m not interested in going backwards. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have an awesome time seeing everyone.

Realizations aside, I spent a lot of time catching up with Elisabeth and Nima, who had led my trip. This year is Elisabeth’s final year as Pac Rim director, and she and Nima were leaving the trip mid-year to allow a new director to step up. It was great to see them, and we had a wonderful time together. On the second day in Saigon, Selina and I snuck into the Grand Saigon’s breakfast buffet to eat with our friends (and, let’s face it – our hotel’s breakfast was not nearly as nice), and we ended up having a lovely meal with EB and Nima, talking about the highs and lows of this trip, their plans for 2015, and how much I missed non-white bread while in Vietnam. Elisabeth was very cute and surprised Selina and me with a loaf of wheat bread later that night, which was so nice, and much appreciated.

Thanks for the wheat bread, Elisabeth!
Thanks for the wheat bread, Elisabeth!

Other highlights from the visit include going out to an American-style BBQ restaurant, where I was super excited to eat ribs, mac n’ cheese, cornbread and beer that wasn’t mostly water (Vietnam is great for many things, but beer is not one of them). Earlier in the day we went out for coffee near the hotel at a famous Vietnamese chain, Trung Nguyen. I was shocked to see that prices in Saigon were basically double what I would normally pay in Can Tho, but I guess that’s how it goes. Strangely, it took around 45 minutes for us to get take away coffee, so these days I’m far less enamoured with this brand of coffee shop (although if I bring anyone back coffee from Vietnam, it will probably be from here – it’s widely known as some of the best quality coffee and it’s very easy to find).

Dinner at an American-style BBQ joint. The ribs were delicious!
Dinner at an American-style BBQ joint. The ribs were delicious!

After coffee I set out with Selina and Lisa’s friend Linda to try and find the offices of Saigon Artbook, whom I had read was selling decks of cards printed with illustrations by local artists and representative of Vietnam. It was a bit of a long trek, and once we found the building it was clear that it was not usually used as a storefront – there was no sign, no markers to indicate where to go, and the first floor of the building was a cell phone shop. But in the end we were successful, and everyone bought a beautiful, very unique deck of cards.

The illusive Vietnam card deck! I had been looking for them for almost 2 weeks, and the day I left for Saigon I happened to see a notice that they had a limited printing available. It must have been fate :)
The illusive Vietnam card deck! I had been looking for them for almost 2 weeks, and the day I left for Saigon I happened to see a notice that they had a limited printing available. It must have been fate 🙂

Moving on – the actual banquet was lovely. I sat at a table with a few friends, and a student whose parents were both Pac Rim alumni. It was really interesting to hear about both the current trip and his parents’ experience in the 80s. We were also treated to this year’s mid-year video, which I must admit was very well done, and this group was clearly better at remembering to film things… Oh well! After the video the students presented EB and Nima with scrapbooks as a parting gift, and it all got a bit emotional. I started tearing up for sure. All of EB’s students were invited up to give a hug, but Selina and I weren’t sure if we should sit back and let this year’s students do their thing. Eventually we were prodded into going up by our table mates, just in time for the group to start singing a song we absolutely didn’t know. It was a bit awkward, but funny. After hugs, it was time for a dance party, which was a blast, and a fitting way to bid farewell to Elisabeth, who truly shines on the dance floor.

Traffic on Christmas Eve - photo taken from the Saigoneer (nothing I actually saw was this bad)
Traffic on Christmas Eve – photo taken from the Saigoneer (nothing I actually saw was this bad)

As we all know, after the party comes the afterparty! Selina and I went back to Lisa’s room and played drinking games with the other staff and our friend Jewel, who was the coordinator for the student program assistants in Hanoi, and a surprise party guest. We hadn’t seen her in three years, so it was great to catch up. Once everyone had gathered, we headed out to Saigon’s backpacker district for a few drinks and some dancing. Little did we realize that Christmas Eve is one of the craziest times to be out in Saigon, as traffic was NUTS. Luckily we didn’t have far to go, and when we returned to the hotel around 4am, it was significantly quieter.

Drinks in the backpacker district
Drinks in the backpacker district (photo by Selina)

Anyway, in the end I’m glad everything worked out and that I was able to meet up with the group, if only for a little while. And who knows, maybe I’ll see them again before the year is out – they’re headed to some pretty cool places, and the travel bug hasn’t left me yet 🙂

Elevator selfie!
Elevator selfie! Hanging out with the Pac Rim staff on Christmas Eve

Sharks Ate My Internet!

I’m finally back in Vietnam after three weeks of traveling with friends and family. It was a great break, but I’m glad to be back in Can Tho. Leaving really made me realize what a good thing I have going here…

Anyway, I’ll be posting about my travels soon, but I wanted to let you know that updates might be a bit slow, due to, yes, sharks.

Apparently there’s an undersea internet cable that runs from the US to Vietnam, and many other countries in Southeast Asia, and the portion for Vietnam is… temperamental, I suppose. Since I arrived here almost 5 months ago, there have been two instances of country-wide Internet slowdowns, all caused by damage to this cable. And, as you may have guessed, they believe sharks may be to blame. The cable gives off a frequency similar to that of certain fish that sharks like to eat, so sharks are known to attempt to eat the cables from time to time. Vietnam’s cable must be particularly tasty, or (more likely) shoddily constructed.

In any event, I’ll be attempting to post at least once a week, but uploading pictures and posts can sometimes take time, or a better connection than I currently have in my house. So please be patient – I promise I will update as soon as I can!