Lists and Short Thoughts – Thinking About the Past Year

(So I started this post a few weeks ago, but once I recovered from my cold I sort of forgot to finish it… Today I left Vietnam and I’m still a bit choked up, but finishing this made me think about all of the great things I’ve experienced and also what I’ve got to look forward to in the future. I’ll post more about Vietnam sooner or later, but be sure to look out for my upcoming entries – Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore!)

Looking to the future
Looking to the future

I’m sitting in one of my favorite cafes, alternating between lesson planning and reading think-pieces about the new Avengers movie (TLDR- Black Widow is awesome, deserved better, we need more female superheroes. Don’t hate on Joss Whedon, he’s still amazing). As I’m sitting here, a woman dressed in what is either a wedding or prom dress has walked out of the bathroom with a photographer in tow. They’re currently having a full-on photo shoot in the middle of this busy cafe, presumably because the brick interior is good for photos.

What’s notable about this particular event is that… I barely noticed it. Honestly, this happens pretty frequently. I’ve never met anyone who loves photos like the Vietnamese, and professional-level photo shoots in random places are pretty common. If it’s not someone with extra lighting and a fancy camera, then it’s a group of university students taking a full hour to pose in a trendy coffee shop, often with multiple outfits and props. It’s quite a sight, and one that I will certainly miss once I leave Vietnam in just over two weeks.

The Selfie game is strong here in Vietnam
The Selfie game is strong here in Vietnam

The pre-departure sentimentality is hitting me hard, with every conversation reminding me exactly how little time I have left. Whether it’s the realization that I only have one more class with my favorite students, or the way I have to kick myself to get things done NOW, these days most of my time is spent reflecting on the past year and the things I will miss most when I leave. I’m a fan of lists, and since I recently caught a cold and am not really up to that whole “making the most of every day” thing I talked about last post, I decided to share a few of my current lists.

Things I Will Miss:

This list is LONG. I’ve condensed it here for the sake of brevity, but rest assured, I have loved Vietnam and I hope to come back someday to revisit many of these foods/people/places/etc.

FOOD. Anyone who has ever visited Vietnam, or been to a decent Vietnamese restaurant will likely talk your ear off about the wonders of Vietnamese cuisine. Yes, it is delicious, and varied enough that I haven’t gotten sick of it in eight months here. And while most are familiar with Vietnamese-American mainstays like pho and banh mi, it’s the lesser known (but equally delicious) dishes I’ll miss most. Bun thit nuong (cold vermicelli noodles with pickled veggies and grilled pork), Vietnamese fried chicken, and com suon (something like pork short ribs? There are so many variations on this one it’s hard to say).

Vietnamese BBQ (well, this might actually be "Korean style")
Vietnamese BBQ (well, this might actually be “Korean style”)

Friends and Coworkers. I have been so lucky in the past year to have met some amazing people who I will sincerely miss. I don’t think I can really get into it here or I’ll get too sad and mushy, but this year would have been a disaster without them, and I hope to keep in touch with many of them. I know that I will return to Vietnam someday to see all of my amazing friends again.

Spicy noodle adventure with a group of friends, including many of the teaching assistants. Noodles went from level 0 to 7 spice, and level 1 took me DOWN. No spicy food for me, please.
Spicy noodle adventure with a group of friends, including many of the teaching assistants. Noodles went from level 0 to 7 spice, and level 1 took me DOWN. No spicy food for me, please.

Cost of living. I have lived a bit of an extravagant lifestyle this past year. I eat out most meals, go to coffee shops almost every day, take weekend trips and buy things when I feel like it. It’s going to be a bit of a shock when I return to countries where a fancy meal costs more than $6. Actually, anything costing over $10 will be a shock. My daily budget here is $10, and I usually only spend $5. The other day I had to get a physical and the whole thing, including an x-ray and taxi fare to and from the hospital, was under $20. My favorite breakfast costs $0.50. Life is good here.

One of my favorite meals - bun thit nuong, very conveniently located next to the center I work at. And it costs roughly 75 cents.
One of my favorite meals – bun thit nuong, very conveniently located next to the center I work at. And it costs roughly 75 cents.

Easy access to travel. Travel within Vietnam is so easy! Buses are cheap and reasonably comfortable (though roads may not be as nice). There’s a train that runs from Hanoi to Saigon (which I’ve never taken but would love to one day!) and many cities have airports. It’s equally simple to travel to neighboring countries for relatively little cost. I’ve seen round trip tickets to Taiwan for as little as $20, which is crazy! I sometimes wish I had taken advantage of this more, but oh well.

This is the "before" picture on our sleeper bus to the mountains. The after photo looked decidedly sleepier, and a bit more anxious after a long night of crazy driving.
This is the “before” picture on our sleeper bus to the mountains. The after photo looked decidedly sleepier, and a bit more anxious after a long night of crazy driving.

Cafe culture! This is a big one. This year I’ve spent so much time in coffee shops and cafes, and my usual routine included going to between one and three coffee shops in a single day. Not only is the coffee here great (fun fact – Vietnamese coffee gets its distinct taste from the roasting process. It’s roasted in butter and fish sauce, which sounds strange but tastes amazing), but the variety of styles, themes and offerings is fantastic. I would go to cafes with friends and hang out for hours, or hang out on my own (like now) to get in some blogging or finish up my lesson plans. Nobody cares if you stay for six hours and only buy one drink. It’s wonderful, and my life is going to have a big, coffee-shaped hole in my life.

Definitely not your typical Vietnamese coffee, but you get the idea
Definitely not your typical Vietnamese coffee, but you get the idea

Experiencing a new culture. Learning about the lives and experiences of people in Vietnam has been both fascinating and eye-opening. I believe everyone should find a way to put themselves in a situation completely outside of your normal life and try this. I’ve learned a lot about the world, about Vietnam, about the way I view things and how and why others might see them differently. Some things are great,  some are bad, and some are a mixed bag. Either way, life was never too dull. Every time I started feeling too comfortable, something would catch me off guard. It was also humbling to know that no matter if I spent eight months or eight years here, I could never possibly learn every facet of the culture. Amazing.

That one time I went to a wedding in the countryside and the family wouldn't let me stop dancing. They pulled me back on the floor for an extra four or five songs, even as I was trying to put on my helmet and ride away. Khmer weddings are fun (and LOUD!)
That one time I went to a wedding in the countryside and the family wouldn’t let me stop dancing. They pulled me back on the floor for an extra four or five songs, even as I was trying to put on my helmet and ride away. Khmer weddings are fun (and LOUD!)

Free time. Oh man, was my schedule ever open this year! Teaching between 1.5-6 hours most days meant I had lots of time to spend with friends, explore the city, and generally do what I wanted. I set a goal to read 25 books this year and am already at the halfway point! But the best thing about this was probably that my friends, mostly other teachers and students/recent graduates, were able to hang out all the time, with little prior notice. It felt like college, where you could just go down the hall and knock on someone’s door and ask them if they want food. I’m going to miss this quite a bit.

Color Me Run with my friends
Color Me Run with my friends in Ho Chi Minh City

Things I Will NOT Miss

It’s been a great year, but let’s be real – it can’t all be sunshine and rainbows, com suon and ca phe sua.

Being the token white person/foreigner. This seems self-explanatory. It involves a lot of photo-taking, often to the point where my face hurts from smiling, an expectation that I will pay more for certain things, and sometimes awkward questions. But in the end, this isn’t so bad, sometimes it’s even great. I went to karaoke a while ago and one of the employees asked to take promotional photos of our group singing, which I think might have gotten us a discount. So hey. Either way I signed up knowing full well what I was getting myself into, but sometimes I miss being able to fade into a crowd…

What's better than photos of your foreign teacher? Photos of her wearing traditional Vietnamese farming clothes. I'm marketing gold.
What’s better than photos of your foreign teacher? Photos of her wearing traditional Vietnamese farming clothes. I’m marketing gold.

Traffic. Yes, the traffic in Vietnam is crazy. Can Tho isn’t so bad, but there have been a few close calls, and one almost-accident where my leg got bumped by another motorbike. Since I rode a bicycle instead of a moto, it wasn’t so bad, but I’m glad I didn’t live in a bigger city like Saigon. I took a ride with my friend there last week and it was a bit frightening. But as with all things, I got used to the traffic here and now I feel perfectly comfortable riding down the busy streets. Sometimes I worry that my crazy riding habits will follow me home… best to ease back into driving slowly, I think.

No traffic in the countryside! But lots of scary bridges, and a sore butt after riding that long...
No traffic in the countryside! But lots of scary bridges, and a sore butt after riding that long…

Language barriers. Ok, a lot of this one’s on me. I never learned much Vietnamese. Between having friends/housemates who can speak and the surprising amount of English spoken/English menus provided at restaurants, I learned very quickly how little language I needed to get by. I guess I learned this on Pac Rim too, since you know I didn’t learn much Mongolian or Chinese, but I made it through just fine. My Vietnamese skills extend about as far as ordering food and telling you my age and occupation/nationality. I also have a talent for remembering only strange/dirty words, which is always fun, but not particularly helpful when you want directions to the bus station. Also, it was sometimes lonely when my friends would speak together in Vietnamese, and I couldn’t participate. This was never done on purpose, but it happened frequently, and was always a bit alienating. I also was only able to make friends with people whose English was at least conversational, which leaves out a lot of really cool people. So, my advice to anyone living abroad? Learn the language!

Things I’m Looking Forward to

Because I can’t just dwell on the past! My future is looking good, and I’ve got lots of exciting things in store. As some of you may know, I recently accepted a new job – starting in August I’ll be an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) for the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program! I don’t have many details yet, but I’ll be living on the southern island of Kyushu, likely in a rural area, possibly teaching high school students. It’s all TBA, and I’ll be sure to make a post soon about what’s happening. And in case you were wondering, yes, this is why I went to Guam back in February. JET applicants are required to interview in their home country, and the closest thing to the US was Guam. It’s been quite a process…

Other things on the horizon include a trip to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, followed by two weeks in Australia with my aunt Cindy. And after that, one month at home before I start this all over again. The fun never stops!

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Back to Reality – One Last Day in Da Nang

Quan Am looks out over the city
Quan Am looks out over the city

Before I knew it, my Tet holiday was coming to an end. After just over two weeks of adventure it was time to make my way back to Can Tho, by way of Da Nang.

In case you aren’t familiar with Vietnamese geography, Da Nang is the biggest city in central Vietnam, and one of the four biggest cities in the country. It is also Vietnam’s fastest developing city, with a handful of skyscrapers and lots of trendy restaurants and hotels. It’s only about 40 minutes from Hoi An by bus, but it might as well be a world away in terms of atmosphere.

Da Nang
Da Nang

In any case, I set out on foot for the public bus that would take me to Da Nang. I was told at the hostel it would be around d200,000 ($10) which was way more than I wanted to pay – my four hour ride from Hue had cost less! I was also told that the bus picked up nearby, but at a different location than I had been dropped off at. Hoi An being a small town, I decided to walk, figuring it must be nearby. Nope.

Almost an hour later I found the bus station, dripping in sweat and more than a little disgruntled. But I suppose my efforts paid off, since the bus I found turned out to be the public bus, which was only d30,000 ($1.50). The ride was quiet and comfortable, and after showing my hostel address to the attendant I made it off at the correct stop. Once again I found myself walking to a new hostel, but this time the directions were right, it was only five minutes.

Da Nang's famous dragon bridge. You can just make out the head on the other side of the river.
Da Nang’s famous dragon bridge. You can just make out the head on the other side of the river.

After dropping my things off I decided to make the most of my day by exploring the city on foot. I slowly made my way along the riverside, towards the Cham Museum. I had read that this was a museum not to be missed, but I think the guidebooks oversold it. Or perhaps I should have done the audio tour. In any case, I enjoyed walking through remnants of Vietnam’s past, especially since the relics showed ties to Hinduism that I had not seen in Vietnam before. You can see similar sculptures and images all over Cambodia and Thailand’s temples, but Vietnam has a stronger Chinese influence, and so I was unaware of the shared history. I spent maybe an hour walking through the museum remembering bits and pieces of Indian art history from my time on Pac Rim, and was able to recognize several key stories and characters. I even found my favorite Hindu deity – Nandi the bull, mount of Shiva.

Once I finished up at the museum I found a bus stop and rode to the “marble mountains” on the city’s outskirts. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was a bit surprised to see a handful of small mountains rising from a very populated city. It was an interesting mix of nature and civilization. The bus attendant on my way out had spent much of the 20 minute ride trying to have a conversation with me through her bits of English, my minuscule Vietnamese, and a lot of gesturing. All of this in between people running to catch the bus, which never actually came to a complete stop. She was super friendly, and told me that if I came back to the bus stop at the right time, she would be on again and wouldn’t charge me for a round trip ticket. Her timeframe left me with about two hours to explore the mountains.

Marble Mountains!
Marble Mountains!

The most visited mountain contains a series of pagodas, and is free to visitors. I slowly made my way up to the top, pausing to take in my surroundings at each turn.

On the way up
On the way up

The view from the top was beautiful, and I’m not sure how I worked this out, but I managed to get there right at sunset, and except for a few monks I was the only one there. It was amazingly peaceful, and I took some time to reflect once again on where I was, how lucky I have been to have these experiences, and how amazing the past year has been. I’m not really one for spiritual experiences, but sitting on the top of that mountain and watching the sun go down was an absolute highlight of my trip, and a note I would happily end on.

 

Sunset over the city
Sunset over the city

Not wanting to climb down the mountain in the dark, I left the pagoda and walked toward the bus stop, pausing along the way to snap a few photos of a nearby temple. I wanted to share this picture in particular, since I’ve gotten comments before on similar scenes. You will notice that there is a swastika front and center on the temple gates. The first time I saw this I was shocked and appalled, but the symbol’s history is widely misunderstood. Contrary to popular knowledge, the swastika is a symbol that dates back over ten thousand years. In Sanskrit, it means “it is” or “well being,” and it appears in images related to many world religions, including Christianity and Hinduism. It is especially significant in buddhism, and is a symbol of prosperity. If you’re interested in the history of this symbol, and why a marker of peace was perverted into one of mass murder, you can read up on it here and here. And if you find yourself in Asia, don’t be surprised if you see it everywhere. Once I learned of the symbol’s history, I was able to take in the beauty that often surrounds it on temples and other places of worship.

But back to my trip – I had made it to the bus station a bit too early and was picked up by a new bus, which meant I had to pay for fare again. This was a bit of a bummer, but then again, $2.50 isn’t too much of a hardship, especially when on vacation. I made my way back to the city center and back to my hostel. I found a delicious pho restaurant for dinner and wandered around looking for a bit of dessert. Lucky me, I stumbled into a convenience store selling imported goodies from the US and Europe. I bought a few treats to bring back to my friends in Can Tho and walked down to the riverside to enjoy a mini hagen daz ice cream – quite a treat!

I watched people coming and going, looked at the lights on the bridges, and enjoyed the last night of my trip. Over the past two weeks I had learned a lot – traveling alone gives you a lot of time to reflect, and also sheds light on your own preferences. Even though I’ve had a lot of experience traveling, I learned so much this trip about what I do and don’t like to do, just by being the sole decision-maker. I also walked away with the knowledge that I can handle myself well, and am now more confident in many ways. For all of you reading, I would encourage traveling solo at least once in your life, as it gave me a sense of perspective and accomplishment I don’t think I could have gained elsewhere.

Da Nang at night
Da Nang at night

As I finished my ice cream and prepared to return to the hostel, I knew that this trip was something I’d never forget. I walked through town thinking about all of the possibilities the future holds, how many more places there were to see in the world, in Asia, or even just in Vietnam. This adventure was over, and I was already waiting for the next one to start.

Hoi An – Everyone’s Favorite Ancient Town

The lanterns of Hoi An
The lanterns of Hoi An

If you find yourself traveling to Vietnam, you will inevitably hear about a handful of “must-see” destinations. Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, Phu Quoc Island, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City are the ones I hear most often. But of all the places I’ve been told I MUST visit, I think Hoi An was the only one I consistently heard positive things about, and I mean overwhelmingly positive. I never met a single person who didn’t like Hoi An, and several (including my Vietnamese friends) have said it was their favorite place in Vietnam. Strangely, nobody could give reasons for their love of this town. So naturally I figured I needed to see what all the fuss was about for myself.

I set out from Hue early in the morning and boarded a sleeper bus headed for Da Nang and Hoi An, about a four hour ride. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the sleeper buses here in Vietnam are pretty comfortable,and the top bunk offers a nice view of whatever you happen to be passing. This trip was particularly beautiful, and absolutely lived up to the gorgeous travel photos I’ve seen advertising the central highlands. I wish I had stayed awake for more of this trip, but if you give me a bed and a rocking bus, I’ll probably fall asleep. I did manage to get a few photos between naps though.

Central Vietnam en route from Hue to Hoi An
Central Vietnam en route from Hue to Hoi An

Mid-day we arrived in Hoi An, and upon disembarking the bus were bombarded with the usual crowd of taxi and xe om drivers looking to get a fare. Before getting on the bus I had been told that my hostel was within easy walking distance of the bus station, so I refused taxis and decided to save a few thousand dong by walking. Luckily for me, several other passengers were headed to the same hostel. None of us were particularly great at reading maps, but we made it to our destination without too many hiccups.

Riding my bike through the rice paddies
Riding my bike through the rice paddies

As far as hostels go, the chain I stayed with in Hue and Hoi An, the “Backpacker’s Hostel,” was as stereotypically backpacker-y as you can get. Everything was clean, safe, and well-located, but they also had full bars, loud music late at night, and decorations with sexual puns all over the place. This isn’t exactly my scene, but my philosophy of travel is still that the hotel/hostel is only important for location, safety, and cleanliness. I don’t tend to spend much time in the room, so I’d rather not pay a ton for something I barely use. But man, the party thing is so not for me. I also tired quickly of the shallow conversations and constant discussion of how “real” this country is. It all stung of gross privilege and a well-meant but ultimately futile attempt to find “authentic experiences.” Honestly, I could go on and on about my frustrations with backpacker culture, but I’ll spare you that for now.

Doner Kebab! A true highlight of my trip.
Doner Kebab! A true highlight of my trip.

Regardless, I set my stuff down and went out to get a feel for my surroundings. I walked into the Ancient Town, the central attraction that takes up a good part of the city (which is really a small town). I quickly discovered that Hoi An was an excellent shopping destination, particularly if you want to have clothes tailored. Seemingly every other shop is a tailor, and everywhere you go people try to pull you into their stores. Even though I had plenty of time to have something made, I decided that I would rather wait and have this done in Can Tho, where the prices are lower and the hustle is nonexistent. However, if you’re only visiting Vietnam for a short trip, I think this is probably one of the best places to have clothes made. It’s also a great place to find charity shops and high-quality handicrafts. I found several beautiful jewelry stores, quilt shops and even a silent tea house, all benefiting local artisans or disadvantaged children. Nothing like a good cause to help alleviate the guilt of over-shopping!

The famous Japanese covered bridge, right on the edge of the "Ancient Town"
The famous Japanese covered bridge, right on the edge of the “Ancient Town”

In any case, I spent my three days in Hoi An wandering the streets and going from shop to shop, and was very happy. That first night I wandered into a shop called “Cool Japan in Hoi An” and chatted with the store owner, who just so happened to have lived in St. Louis. Small world! Everyone I met in the town was super friendly, and English was widely spoken. I’ve also never seen so many expats in Vietnam! If you’re interested in the tourism industry here, I guess this is where you end up (or Ha Long Bay). There were several expat-owned restaurants and coffee shops, including one that sold chai hot chocolate and delicious coffee, and I think I went there every day of my stay.

Walking by the river, a group of boats. I love the painted faces, which are meant to keep evil spirits from sinking the boat
Walking by the river, a group of boats. I love the painted faces, which are meant to keep evil spirits from sinking the boat

Besides shopping and sipping coffee, I also took a bike tour of the town and spent some time at the beach. I didn’t even realize Hoi An had a beach! It was gorgeous, and if I hadn’t already had my beach fill in Vung Tau, I probably would have spent a full day there. But in the end, I really prefer looking at the water to getting in it, so I wandered back to town.

So over the course of three days I learned to love Hoi An. It was cozy, quaint, and charming. The beaches are beautiful, the town is small and easy to navigate, and the food is fantastic. I finally got my hands on a doner kabob, which I have been craving ever since I left Hanoi (that’s three years) and it was marvelous. Local specialty dishes were also quite delicious, and there was no shortage of food options. And to top it all off, Hoi An is known for lanterns, which are everywhere in town. They look nice during the day, but the town is transformed at night. Wandering the lantern-lit streets was downright romantic, even if I was on my own.

Hoi An at night
Hoi An at night

At the end of three days I was sad to see my vacation coming to an end. While I had purposefully left my plans up in the air, giving myself flexibility should I find one place more interesting than the others, I decided to take my final day of the holiday and explore the neighboring city of Da Nang, which I will tell you all about next time.

Central Vietnam – Huế for a Day

After landing in Ho Chi Minh City I had a long layover that ended up taking even longer than anticipated. In the six hours I spent in the airport I learned that pizza in Asia is not to be trusted, even if it comes from Dominoes. Just say no to Asian pizza, unless it comes from Pizza 4 P’s in HCMC, which, oddly enough, is a Japanese pizza place. Go figure.

Apricot blossoms - the official flower of Tet
Apricot blossoms – the official flower of Tet

Anyway, after a long delay I finally landed in Huế, the old capital of Vietnam. Getting off the plane I was super sad to discover one of my earbuds had gone missing, rendering my sound-canceling headphones all but useless. I waited around while they cleaned the plane to try and recover them, but apparently they were gone for good. Fortunately I had picked up a new pair of “sleeping headphones” in Singapore, which are basically a large headband with headphones built in, so I would not be entirely without music and podcasts. I don’t know about you, but I find headphones pretty essential when I travel. Before a trip, especially one with a sizable commute, I always load up my iPod with podcasts to pass the time. This is particularly useful on buses, when reading isn’t always possible, and the sound-canceling feature is great when the bus plays loud variety shows on the tv.

But in any case, I sadly said goodbye to my headphones and caught a taxi to my hostel in the city, about a half hour ride from the airport. The long delay meant I didn’t get to my hostel until around midnight, and all of my roommates were asleep. Good thing I had that headlamp!

The next morning I woke up around 8 and had a pancake breakfast at the hostel. Afterward I rented a bicycle ($1 for a full day) and went out to explore the area surrounding the city. Huế is located on the Perfume river, nestled in the central highlands. The climate is a bit more mild than the delta, but it was pretty hot when I visited. I rode my bicycle through town and out to a famous pagoda.

Famous pagoda up on a hill
Famous pagoda up on a hill

The pagoda was lovely, and the bike ride allowed me to get a nice feel for the area. It’s a really small city, with no tall buildings and far fewer people than Can Tho. My ride took me along the river and past several smaller temples before I reached my destination.

The Perfume River
The Perfume River

This pagoda was full of tourists, but when I pulled up on my bike I was not sure where to leave the bicycle. Outside the pagoda were a string of drink stands and food stalls, and as soon as I pulled up and started looking for parking, they all beckoned over and yelled at me to leave my bicycle with them. I was a bit worried, but in the end decided to leave my bike (after locking the wheel) with the owner of a tiny cafe and hope for the best.

Up close at the pagoda
Up close at the pagoda

I walked around the pagoda and the grounds, enjoying the riverside views and beautiful architecture. I was a bit surprised to see an antique car on display, and upon further inspection I learned that this was the car that drove Thich Quang Duc to Saigon, where he famously self-immolated in protest of the American-Vietnam War. I walked away a bit sobered, reminded that Huế is only a short distance away from the former DMZ, and the region, while bustling and comfortable now, saw horrible things.

Leaving the Pagoda I returned to the cafe where my bike was thankfully tucked away in the back of the shop. The woman clearly expected me to stay and have a drink in return for the service, so I bought a soda and took it to go. I had already gone through my entire water bottle, it was so hot!

Huế Imperial Citadel
Huế Imperial Citadel

After the pagoda I made my way to Huế’s main attraction – the Imperial Citadel. At $5 for admission, this was one of the pricier attractions I’ve visited in Vietnam, and I’m not entirely sure it was worth it. Built in the 1800s, the citadel was the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, who unified the north and south. The building claims to be unique in that it combined features of Eastern and Western architecture, or something. Honestly it was too hot for me to care much about reading signs, I was more interested in hanging out in the shaded gardens.

A ticket to the Citadel also give you access to a nearby museum, but when I made my way over I realized it was lunchtime, and they were closed. I returned to my bicycle and figured I would find food. My map labeled one area “food street” so this seemed like a safe bet. I found a small street stall and was offered the choice of noodles or rice. Rice turned out to be the wrong choice, since it was really just a lot of onions that tasted like shrimp and almost no rice. Oh well, live and learn.

On my way back to the hostel I decided to check out a “local market” that was recommended by the hostel. Pro tip for travelers in Vietnam – markets are overwhelming, and rarely as interesting as you anticipate. Most are full of low-quality clothes and knicknacks that you really don’t need. When I saw the market I got off my bike to walk around, but didn’t even approach the stalls, I didn’t have the energy to bargain for a “Viet Nam” tshirt.

The rest of my day was pretty uneventful. I ate dinner in a small restaurant off the main drag and packed up in preparation of my departure the next day. I don’t think I’d go back to Huế, but I’m certainly glad I went.

Next stop, Hoi An!

Tết Traveling, Part 1: Vũng Tàu

Cần Thơ at night
Cần Thơ at night

After returning from Guam it was time for Vietnam’s biggest holiday: Tết. Tết is the Vietnamese celebration of the lunar new year, and is celebrated anywhere from 3-14 days. If you were to compare it to an American holiday, it would be something like Thanksgiving and Christmas combined. Everyone goes back to their hometowns to spend time with their families and ring in the new year by cleaning, buying new clothes, and visiting friends and neighbors.

Out for an evening walk with my uncle
Out for an evening walk with my uncle

In the weeks leading up to the holiday I watched as Cần Thơ transformed in preparation for the holiday. While christmas-style lights had been up since December, February saw flower markets spring up all over the city. Apricot blossoms are the symbol of Tết, and they were suddenly everywhere. It was beautiful to see, and as more and more decorations went up, I got more and more excited for my holiday plans.

Family reunion in Cần Thơ
Family reunion in Cần Thơ

While most Vietnamese go home to visit family, I had just seen my parents in January, and had made plans to spend most of the holiday traveling on my own, which was looking a bit lonely. Luckily for me, right before Tết my uncle Brad came to visit, and I was able to show him around my new home in all of its decorated glory. We rode bikes, ate in my favorite restaurants, did a bit of walking around the city center and even went to high tea. It was really good to see family, and it was fun to host my first (and possibly only) visitor. Thanks again, Brad!

High tea with family and friends (Brad's on the other side of the camera).
High tea with family and friends (Brad’s on the other side of the camera).

Right after Brad’s visit my holiday truly began with a 6-hour bus to Vũng Tàu with friends. My housemate, Peter, had invited us to spend a few days with his family and hang out at the beach. We hopped on a sleeper bus Saturday morning and, after taking full advantage of the reclined seat/beds (and the delicious pancakes sold at the rest stop), arrived in Vũng Tàu in the late afternoon. We all set our stuff down at Peter’s family’s house, then took a walk out of town and by the water to get a feel for our surroundings. I guess we walked in the right direction, since we had a nice view of the sunset over the ocean.

Taking in an seaside sunset.
Taking in a seaside sunset. (thanks for the photo, Selina!)

After a while we realized that it was getting late and went back to the house for a delicious seafood dinner with Peter’s family. After dinner another friend arrived, and we all went out for bubble tea, which was probably the clumsiest evening I have had in years. The tapioca “bubbles” were too big for the straws, and so they would get stuck as we drank. One by one we all had this happen, then attempted to pull the straw out and get the “bubble” off of the end, while simultaneously spilling tea all over ourselves and the table. It was like something out of a comic skit, as we would laugh at one person and then turn around and do the same exact thing. We went home with sides that hurt from laughing and hands sticky from bubble tea.

Beach yoga with Selina.
Beach yoga with Selina.

The next day was our beach day, and we went all out. It took maybe 15-20 minutes by taxi to get to the nice beach, and we walked a ways before staking our claim to a stretch of clean sand. I had brought along a book and had intended to spend most of the day reading under an umbrella, since I’m not a big swimmer, but as the day went on I found myself jumping in and having a lot of fun.

We spent the entire day by the water, swimming, eating ice cream and taking tons of ridiculous photos. We buried one person in the sand, and I even took a stab at making a sand-sculpture. Yes, it was a sand manatee.

What else would I make but a sand manatee?
What else would I make but a sand manatee?

The next day our numbers began to dwindle. Selina and her friends from the US had to catch a 6am bus back to Tra Vinh, and they had to be at the bus station by 3am to ensure that they could get a seat (they don’t do reservations and every type of travel was crowded for the holiday), so when I woke up they were already long gone. Everyone was moving slowly that morning, and I was a bit burnt after a day in the sun, so we decided against going back to the beach and instead went out for coffee. Peter and Marc hung back and stayed at the house, so I spent a few hours sipping coffee, eating banh mi and talking with Laura and Hang. I can’t exactly say why, but I think this was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip, just hanging out and talking with friends. By the time Peter and Marc met up with us it was already time for lunch, and we were treated to another delicious home-cooked meal with Peter’s family.

Beach buddies. They guys weren't as into the photo shoot.
Beach buddies. They guys weren’t as into the photo shoot.

In the afternoon Marc took off for the airport, and the remaining four of us decided to go to the city center and find a gift to give Peter’s family for letting us stay with them. We ended up at the local Lotte Mart and ate a super healthy lunch of KFC and pastries, caught an afternoon movie, and then bought a cake as our gift. When we got back to the house and gave Peter’s family the cake, we learned that it was actually his aunt’s birthday, and so the cake was super appropriate.

Cake with Peter and his family
Cake with Peter and his family

The next day was our last day in Vũng Tàu, and we decided to once again have a lazy morning at a nearby coffee shop, where Laura, Hang and I planned out an extravagant evening in Ho Chi Minh City, where we were all headed that night before going our separate ways. We had one last meal with Peter’s family and then caught a bus into HCMC.

After dropping stuff off at the hotel we went out in search of our chosen restaurant. After sitting in traffic for a while we made it to the restaurant only to learn that it was closed for the holiday. So we then took off on foot for plan b, which was also closed. We walked around from place to place only to find that all of the places we had planned on were closed, all of our second and third and fourth choices were also closed, and eventually we ended up walking all the way back to the backpacker district, where we had halfway decent (by Vietnamese standards) Mexican food. The night sounds like a disaster on paper but it was actually a funny adventure, going from place to place only to end up back where we had started. It seemed like a good way to end the first leg of my holiday before setting off on my own.

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The next day I embarked on my first true solo vacation, four days of shopping, sightseeing and drag queens in Singapore, but that’s a story for next time.

I Think I Must Be Getting Old… Teaching at a Vietnamese High School

This past fall the Clayton High School class of 2009 held a 5-year reunion. I did not attend, what with living in Vietnam and all, but I was still pretty surprised that enough time had passed for there to be a reunion. Was I really that far out of high school? Well, after a weekend spent teaching high school students in Sóc Trăng, let me tell you, the answer is yes. 110% yes.

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When I returned from my winter travels I got an email with my schedule, and a little note that basically said, “by the way, you will be going to Sóc Trăng at the end of the month to teach at a local high school.” With no idea why this was happening, or what I’d really be doing, I was a little nervous but also excited. I’d never been to Sóc Trăng, a province in the delta, and I had never taught at an actual high school, since all of my classes in Can Tho tend to be at the center or CTU. So I was tentatively excited, but basically didn’t really think about it for about a week.

As I’ve mentioned before, my normal class schedule is pretty light. I teach in the evenings and sometimes on weekends (although I try to avoid that, since those are the kids’ classes, and I’m not exactly a kid person). So life went on as usual, and I heard snippets about the trip. Eventually I found out that I was being asked to teach two full days of high school English classes, and then help with some sort of party/assembly. It sounded like a big jump, going from a 12-hour work week to three 8-hour days, but I guess that just stresses why I really couldn’t complain, haha. Somewhere in the mix Peter was asked to go as well, and by the time we were to leave we had a general idea of topics to teach, but no idea what level the students were at. This was exciting, but also not ideal. I’ve learned over the past year that I really do work best within some sort of framework, and this whole, “do whatever you want!” thing isn’t really for me. But when life gives you lemons, you do what you gotta do.

Selfies with the students!
Selfies with the students!

On the day we were meant to leave, a group of four students came all the way to Can Tho to pick us up, then made the 1.5 hour drive back with us. We chatted a bit, and when we arrived in Sóc Trăng they took us out for what they called, “stinky soup,” or bún nước lèo. It’s a Sóc Trăng specialty, and it’s extremely similar to bún mắmwhich is sold in a stand outside my house. I was a bit surprised to discover that I couldn’t smell anything when they brought out the soup, and neither could Peter. We must have gotten desensitzed after living with the bún mắm smell (which is a bit surprising, considering when I first moved in I couldn’t stand the smell, and refused to eat at the stand). In any event, the soup was very good. The alleged smell comes from the fermented fish paste used in the soup, which is pretty strong, but tasty.

After eating the students dropped us off at our hotel and asked if they could come back later and take us out to the “Freshwater Lake.” We were tired, but decided to go out and see the town. We walked around the lake and drank sugar cane juice, and the students were really sweet. Their English was waaaaay better than we were expecting, but hanging out with high school students was really testing my conversational abilities and pop-culture knowledge. We managed, but I went to bed that night feeling old and out of touch.

Hanging out with students for bubble tea and more selfies
Hanging out with students for bubble tea and more selfies

The next day the students came by to take us out for breakfast at 6:30am. I was not particularly enthused about waking up this early, but the students were really sweet, and the food was tasty. We then got to the school and found out that, since we were teaching 2nd period, we had about an hour to sit and wait until we did anything, then an additional 30 minutes to wait while the students had a breakfast break. We were a bit perplexed as to why we got breakfast so early when we didn’t really need to be at the school until 9am, but later found out that the school was taking care of all our meals, and the students volunteered to go out with us. Since class started for students at around 7am, they had to take us out early. While our hotel was only a 5 minute walk to the school, they students and staff felt that we would either get lost or seriously inconvenienced if we had to walk on our own, so I think starting early also gave the students enough time to pick us up on their bikes and motorbikes.

Peter took the first class of the day, and I sat in the back with the Vietnamese teachers and observed. Talking with them I realized that the schedule they were using and the one we had been given were different, which meant a bit of maneuvering of materials and improvising introductions. In the end everything worked out, and I sat back and observed for the morning. We had lunch with the students and a quick rest before I returned in the afternoon to teach two classes on the environment. It was a bit odd, since I was given no materials and had no clue what the students already knew, but their English skills were better than I had been led to believe, and they were generally enthusiastic and fun.

Peter and I were the first foreign teachers to ever visit their school, and everyone was really excited about it. After every class (and often during the class as well) students would ask to take selfies or have photos taken of us, or they would ask for our facebook info. By the end of the weekend my face hurt from smiling, and I had over 200 new friend requests. The students would post pictures on Facebook taken in the middle of class, and write statuses about Peter and me, that they knew we could see because they friended us. One student posted something like, “here is Peter’s Facebook, and Jessica’s. Add them!” All of it was a bit overwhelming, but clearly well-meant.

That night we went out with students again for dinner, and again to the lake! It’s pretty much the only thing to do in town… This time they went for the carnival rides, which I declined to do. They were so insistent that I ride a ride that eventually they wore me down and I rode the baby roller coaster. My aversion to rides still stands, I did not find even the baby coaster fun. Thrill-seeking coaster-lovers, I will never understand what you get out of this. That sinking stomach feeling? Not so fun. But hey, to each his own, I suppose.

The next day was early breakfast again, and then Peter taught two morning classes. I asked if I had to be there, and they said yes, so I sat through the first class. I was clearly falling asleep, which is not good teacher etiquette, so I snuck off back to the hotel to nap before lunch. I was a bit nervous about my afternoon classes, since the topic was “women in society,” and I had no idea where to even start. Also, the first class was a combo of two classes, meaning it was over 50 students in one large room. I had to use a microphone to be heard. The classes went alright, but I really wish I had done things a bit differently. Oh well, live and learn.

That night we went out for dinner with students again, but afterwards declined going to the lake (which was full of mosquitoes – my legs were almost entirely covered in bites by this point) and instead met up with two friends who live in the town and work as foreign teachers at the local community college. We grabbed a beer and had a great time talking to people our own age. The high schoolers were really sweet, but the conversation was a bit forced, and there was a lot of, “so…. what do you want to study in university?”

Photo op with the students at the assembly
Photo op with the students at the assembly

Our final day in Sóc Trăng was a Saturday, which is still a school day in Vietnam. Since nobody had mentioned breakfast to us the day before, we decided to sleep in til 7. Such a luxury! After finding our own food we went to the school to teach two project-oriented classes. These were pretty fun, since the students just made posters talking about their favorite bands or discussing the differences between Vietnam and other countries, then presented to the other students. In the afternoon we met up with other staff from our center in Can Tho for the assembly, and generally sat back and observed the games and activities. At one point they were doing English trivia, and the students who were eliminated could be brought back into the game if they got teachers to sing for them. Peter and I were asked to sing, and we agreed, but thankfully another teacher got to the mic before us and we were spared that particular embarrassment.

Handing out boards for the trivia competition
Handing out boards for the trivia competition

By the end, however, I still had a pretty silly role to play. I got up and tried to teach the students the “Cha Cha Slide,” which I can’t even remember how that was agreed on, but I did a horrible job of teaching it. Pro tip – if you’re going to teach a dance, take the time to really learn it ahead of time. I assumed that I knew it, and only practiced once, which was a huge mistake. The students were quick though, and picked it up just fine. In the end it was pretty fun. You can see it for yourself, in all of its embarrassing glory below.

At the end of the event the students presented us with lots of gifts, including tons of banh pia (durian cakes), which are a specialty of the region. I think we ended up with a lifetime supply… Anyway, it was then time to make our way home. We were exhausted, but that day our friends were hosting a “beer olympics” party, which we thought was for another friend’s birthday. So we dutifully showed up, only to find it was not, in fact, his birthday party, just American style beer games. So that day I went from high school to college, and by the end of the night I was exceedingly glad to no longer be a student.

So. Many. Students.
So. Many. Students.

Dalat, Day 2

On the second day of our trip to Dalat we had decided to ride a cable car into the mountains, see some waterfalls, and then take a tour of local farms in the afternoon. But before all of that, we started our day with breakfast at the homestay.

Breakfast at the hostel was a do-it-yourself type deal, with omelet supplies readily available, and plenty of bread and Dalat strawberry jam. We came down a bit late so most of the guests had already left. This meant we got to spend the morning with one of the house residents, an older woman who spoke no English and had no intention of letting that stop her from having full conversations with the guests. She would speak to us in Vietnamese with plenty of gestures and expressions, and we would do the same in English. She was by far our favorite person at the homestay, with a huge personality and a lot to say.

Coffee beans laid out to dry
Coffee beans laid out to dry

After breakfast we took a taxi to the base of the cable car, where we took in a lovely view of the city, and came across sheets of coffee beans, drying in the sun. After snapping a few pictures and wondering who the beans belonged to, we made our way to the cable car and rode up with an Israeli guy who told us all about his travels. The views were lovely, and I was really enjoying being in the mountains after months of life in the delta.

The city of Da Lat
The city of Da Lat

At the top of the cable car we found our way to the monastery, which was nice enough. Mostly we wandered through the gardens, watched other tourists (mostly Russians), and enjoyed a nice, sunny day.

Taking time to smell the roses at the monastery
Taking time to smell the roses at the monastery

After walking through the monastery we decided to walk to the waterfall, which we were told was about 2 kilometers (roughly 1.2 miles) away, and definitely within walking distance.

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Now, I should say that in Vietnam, if you ask for walking directions almost anywhere, even just a few blocks away, people think it’s weird. People pretty much take their bikes or motos everywhere. So, when the woman at the monastery assured us the walk was short, we believed her. Turns out we shouldn’t have, since the walk was way longer than we had anticipated. But after about an hour of walking, with a few pit stops for dried fruit and fresh persimmons, we found the waterfall.

Walking by a lake on our way to the waterfall
Walking by a lake on our way to the waterfall

The first thing we noticed is that we had to pay to see the waterfall, which was a bit strange, but we accepted it and went in. Once inside the gate, at the top of a hill, we saw a sign for a “roller coaster” that could take us down the hill to the waterfall. Lisa and Annin were really excited about it, so I set aside my fear of roller coasters and decided to give it a try – it was more of a toboggan slide than a roller coaster, and I was put in charge of the break. The ride was a bit scary, but a lot of fun. Annin and I were screaming the whole way, but I used the break every time we passed a “break!” sign, which was probably a good idea – some of the turns really made me think we might fly off the rails (though that probably would never happen…. right?).

Toboggan on the way back up - no screaming this time.
Toboggan on the way back up – no screaming this time.

But anyway, we all made it safely to the bottom, where we admired a very nice waterfall. Before we went up to the waterfall, we saw that there was yet another cable car, and since we had bought tickets for every other type of transport that day, we figured it was probably best to ride this as well. The ride was super short, and it took us to a smaller waterfall. There was nowhere to go, but there was a glass elevator built into the rock, and for another fee we could ride the elevator down. We all decided this sounded a bit absurd, and we rode back to the main waterfall.

Pretty!
Pretty!

As we were looking at the big waterfall, we noticed a man dressed as a monkey wandering around. We weren’t sure exactly why he was there, but Annin went to go take a picture with him. He promptly turned around when she walked up to him for a picture, which we assumed meant he wanted us to pay for the photo (though he never said anything, or did anything to suggest we pay). We went ahead and took pictures with his back turned, and right after the photo below was taken, he angrily shoved Annin away. While we were standing next to the drop off for the waterfall on slippery rocks. She was totally fine, but we were a bit shocked.

Evil monkey man and a very happy Annin
Evil monkey man and a very happy Annin

Since everyone was alright we laughed it off and took the “roller coaster” back up the hill, since it had a suspension deal that pulled us back up. We headed back to town and had lunch by the lake.

IMG_2611 In the afternoon we went back to the homestay and the owner lead us on a walk through the neighboring farms. The terrain was a bit treacherous, and another guest who was walking with us slipped and fell down a hill leading to the strawberry plants. He was alright, but after that we were all very cautious.

Strawberry fields forever
Strawberry fields forever
Lisa and Annin showing off their musical grass skills
Lisa and Annin showing off their musical grass skills

We walked through fields of flowers, stawberries, broccoli, and countless other plants that I have since forgotten. We walked around for over an hour and the scenery was lovely. At the end of the tour we watched the sun set over the farms and went back to the homestay to cook dinner.

Dinner at the homestay
Dinner at the homestay