Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

As promised, here is one bonus post about Vietnam. I’m writing this aboard an Air New Zealand flight from Melbourne to Christchurch. Onward for adventures! More about Australia soon, but first I’ll finish up a bit about Vietnam. If you just want to hear about my adventures feel free to skip this post; it’s mostly just information on food, etc. and, for the sake of time, I will add in photos later. 

Upon arrival in Vietnam, something striking is how rare English is; it’s not on the signs, it’s not on restaurant menus, you don’t hear it around you (in fact, one day I recognized a familiar melody filling the air through a speaker: “Love Potion Number 9” in Vietnamese!). You can tell when you’re in the touristy – and more expensive – areas of the country when you do see/hear English. For instance, in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City you can find more English than any other district in the city but you’ll pay for it; the average pho costs 20,000 dong elsewhere, but 40,000-60,000 in D1. Likewise, a bottle of water – 8000 – 10,000 dong elsewhere – is 20,000! Beware the tourist trap…

To avoid high prices and hold your own in non-English areas, it’s good to learn to recognize basic words. Here are some that are fairly easy to learn and which I found to be most useful:

Food words:

Bo = beef

Bo = avocado

Bún = a particular soup meal

= chicken

Chả  = pork

Cơm = rice

Cơm tấm = broken rice (uses fractured rice grains)

Ga = fish

After learning to recognize these, it’s time to learn to speak a couple words. I recommend xin chey (sounds like sin chai, means hello), com on (sounds like come on, means thanks), and some basic numbers so you don’t get scammed. Here’s a video my host in the Mekong Delta, Danny, suggested to practice numbers 1-10.

Foods of Vietnam

I had so many good meals in Vietnam; I felt absolutely spoiled. If you visit, here are some of the foods you shouldn’t miss:

Snacks/drinks/desserts:

Chè: This word is used to describe many Vietnamese sweet drinks/puddings, all delicious and usually containing mung bean, tapioca, etc. Here are some examples. 

Avocado smoothie: If you make avocado smoothies already (like I do) this won’t be anything new, but the price can’t be beat..and if you make avocado smoothies then you probably already love them. 😉 

Chanh Da: Vietnamese lemonade.

Yaourt trái cây: This is essentially just yogurt, fruit, and ice, but it’s a great combo.

Nước mía or mía đá: Sugarcane juice. Man oh man…this is so refreshing on a hot day, and very fun to watch as the sugarcane is squished up to get all the juice out. Definitely drink this.

Any kind of smoothie: Seriously…fruit is so fresh and cheap in Vietnam that you could just live on amazing smoothies. Yum yum yum!

Peanuts: In Vietnam there are some amazing peanuts with a crunchy coating. They are sold in an airtight package and coated with a little coconut oil, which gives them a great taste. I don’t know if they have a special name but you can find them at almost any little store. 

Durian: This fruit is just amazing. That’s all I can say. 

Milk tea: If you haven’t already had it, might as well try it in Vietnam!

Vietnamese coffee: This is hard to explain. You use a drip filter to let the coffee slowly filter into your mug, and it’s very strong and caffeinated. I’m not a huge coffee fan but I enjoyed this, especially with a little condensed milk (very common in Vietnam). 

Meals:

Pho: The staple. There are many soup-based dishes in Vietnam, but pho – particularly beef pho – is basically the national dish. 

Bún thái : Thai noodle soup. So many flavors in one bowl! This was my favorite meal aside from Quynh’s cooking. If you are familiar with Thai food, this is the Vietnamese version of tom yum. It contains seafood like fish, squid, shrimp, along with some meat, lemongrass, green onions, noodles, bean sprouts…I think there was more? This soup was so so so so good. I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

Canh chua cá: Sweet and sour fish soup. This is one of the meals Quynh cooked, and it’s delicious. It’s very hearty, containing fish with loads of vegetables, chili sauce, and fish oil. Served with rice. I think of this as a great meal to get when you want something comforting, warm, and filling. 

Cơm tấm: Broken rice with ingredients on top, usually grilled pork chops, onions, some sort of herb like mint, and sometimes extra stuff like egg, cabbage, peppers, etc.

Bánh mì: This word means bagueVietnamese sandwich found on almost any street corner for 10,000 dong. If you see it for more, you’re probably overpaying! Typically this is a baguette filled with pork and veggies, but could be chicken, beef, etc.

Chả lụa: Sausage wrapped in banana leaves. One day, Marlyse, Nolan, and I accidentally bought this thinking it was a sort of Vietnamese dolma. We were sadly disappointed when we unwrapped it and found a giant hunk of sausage.

Spring Rolls: Vietnamese spring rolls come in many forms, all delicious! 

Vietnam Day 7: Leaving

Posted: March 15, 2018 in 2018, Adventures, Vietnam

On my last day in Vietnam I woke to the sounds of gleeful children not quite behaving in their early morning math class. In the Mekong Delta public school typically lasts from 2-7 PM and many students attend classes outside of school, such as Danny’s math, English, and Vietnamese lessons.

After a breakfast of tea, fresh-picked bananas from a tree in Danny’s yard, and the peanuts and sesame crackers I’d brought along, I joined the students on their break to learn the game they were playing. They had a toy similar to a Nerf football but made of some weighted plastic circles and bird feathers for the tail. It flew really well! The game itself was essentially dodgeball, with a sandal in the middle of the path representing a line that neither team could cross. It was fun!

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When the kids returned for their lesson, one student presented me with a balloon, and after their lesson I shared my peanuts with them and they asked Danny to translate and tell me I should join their game. This time, the game was similar to Sharks and Minnows, but with counting steps similar to in Mother May I. The night before Danny had taught me some Vietnamese words including numbers 1-10, and I am proud to report that I could understand some of the numbers the kids shouted out. After half an hour of playing, they said goodbye and all rode off on their bicycles, and not too long after Danny drove me to the bus stop to head back to Ho Chi Minh.

For the very end of my trip, I visited Ao Market to attempt to find artichoke tea, which I’d seen elsewhere but hadn’t gotten to try. Sadly I failed to find a small enough amount to take back in my backpack, but I did get one last avocado smoothie! Then I returned to Quynh’s to pick up my other bag, bought some snacks for the plane, and left for the airport. From there I had a layover in Singapore, which I will include in another post, because that airport is like a village! 

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My last meal in Vietnam, delicious spring rolls

Now I’m in Newcastle, Australia visiting my friend Mike so I may not post again for a bit, but stay tuned for posts about the food of Vietnam and how to make the most of airport layovers in interesting places!

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Ho Chi Minh City from above. Cam on, Vietnam. I hope I’ll return again ❤

 

Vietnam Day 6: Mekong Delta

Posted: March 15, 2018 in 2018, Adventures, Vietnam

After waking early to say goodbye to Quynh, I finished packing my bag, said au revoir to the Marian and Diana, and left to catch a bus to the Mekong Delta. I could’ve easily spent one more day in Ho Chi Minh City (there are lots of non-touristy places to check out, and cheap buses to areas just outside the city for nice day trips) but I wanted to see at least one more part of Vietnam before I left the country, so I accepted an offer from a couchsurfing host in the Mekong Delta.

Danny (his chosen English name) is a math/English/Vietnamese teacher living in a little village called Tan Binh, in the Tien Giang province, in the town of Cai Lay, two hours away from Saigon. Danny met me on his motorbike and we drove to an office where I had to get my passport approved. As both Quynh and Danny explained, the police are very corrupt in Vietnam and will find any excuse to make money off of you. One way they do this is by randomly checking to see if people have guests and giving them a fine if they are hosting a guest who was not granted permission to be there. In Cai Lay, the lady at the office made a note in my passport that I was scheduled to be there for 24 hours.

Next we drove along the Mekong River and into Danny’s vilage, home of roughly 5000 people, mostly rice farmers. The scenery was very nice along the way and almost everyone stared at me; Westerners are quite rare that far into the Vietnamese countryside! At Danny’s home he gave me a quick tour, showing me the large room that he has converted into a schoolroom complete with desks made of slabs of wood balanced on wooden blocks, the two bedrooms with mosquito nets, the little sink area, and the bathroom. His home is located right on the river, and he has a huge garden filled with all sorts of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. He also has a nice little patio area with a table and three hammocks.

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After the quick tour Danny presented lunch he had prepared, consisting of rice along with bittermelon stuffed with ground pork and onions. In Vietnam I eat everything that is presented to me, not only because it’s polite but also because everything is surprisingly tasty, including this meal.

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Bittermelon stuffed with ground pork and onions

As we ate I learned more about Danny: He grew up in this village but left to attend college in the city, where he the worked as a travel consultant after graduating. Two years ago he decided he wanted a change, so he left his job and moved back to his village to become a teacher. A friend told him about couchsurfing, and for the past year he has hosted guests almost every week (sometimes multiple guests each week). There isn’t much to do in his village, but many tourists visit the Mekong Delta with expensive tour groups, so he likes to bring Westerners into his area and give them a free tour and housing in exchange for interacting with his English students. Danny enjoys working on his English by talking with surfers, and the children benefit as well.

After lunch Danny gave me the tour of his village, during which I began to question whether this was the best way to spend my last full day in Vietnam. I held my tongue as Danny gave a tour much like my mom – an avid gardener – would gve, pointing out literally every flower, fruit, vegetable, and other plant we passed. I was also surprised when we visited his parents’ house and his uncle’s house to say hello briefly. At his uncle’s house I saw how rice is harvested; it is harvest season right now so his uncle had a large trow filled with rice soaking (to make it easy to remove the shells). We also got to ride in Danny’s uncle’s wooden boat, which is used to transport rice from the fields, and we walked past a field that had been completely harvested and one that was yet to be touched, which was surprisingly interesting.

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Clockwise from top left: Insect farm, one of the river views, traveling in Danny’s uncle’s boat, my mosquito net bed (and a bike!)

At the end of the tour Danny suggested I buy some sugarcane juice (and, knowing how few people visit this village, I obliged) and – to my surprise – recommended I buy some vegetables so that I could cook dinner for us that evening. After I recovered from my shock at this statement I explained that I am not a great cook and would be happy to make a meal together instead. I honestly think Danny meant well by this statement and it’s not so much a cultural thing as a misunderstanding of couchsurfing. Danny has never couchsurfed,  but has hosted over seventy surfers. His profile links to an article he found called “How To Be A Good Couchsurfing Guest and Host” which includes a point that a couchsurfer should cook dinner for the host. I don’t fully agree with this; couchsurfers and hosts balance their time together in a multitude of ways, and while some surfers offer to cook, others choose to bring gifts, teach something, or share an experience in some other way. I recommended to Danny that he should try couchsurfing himself – even somewhere close like Ho Chi Minh City – because that always helps me learn about different hosting styles and might give him some new ideas. Hopefully he doesn’t take that advice as an insult!

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Sugarcane juice with crushed orange. Yum!

Next, we returned to Danny’s home and met his first student of the evening, a 15-year-old girl. We said hello and she began to ask me some questions from her notebook while I peeed vegetables (Where do you live? How old are you? What do you do in your free time? Etc.). I learned that her dream is to visit New York City, so she was very excited to discover that I lived there. I hope she can go someday! After the questions we did a reading/listening/repeating exercise in her reading book, and as we were finishing, the next two students arrived, a pair of sisters aged 7 and 9. I said goodbye to the first girl and began the same routine with these, followed by identifying words with letters A-E in their alphabet book. We sang the alphabet together and they seemed to enjoy the experience, as did I. I’ll always love teaching. ❤

I was surprised to discover that while I’d been working with his students, Danny had prepared dinner! I felt a little guilty for not helping, but I think the English immersion time was important and valued. After dinner we relaxed in the hammocks until two more students arrived – brothers ages 10 and 12. Normally these boys would not attend an English lesson that late in the evening, but they were coming for the opportunity to practice speaking with an anglophone. They brought some mangos, asked lots of questions, and when their mom came on her motorbike to pick them up we took a photo together so they could remember the time they got to speak with a Westerner. I guess the opportunity really is rare out there!

By then it was 8 PM, so Danny and I hung out in his hammocks for one more hour before getting ready for bed. Becase there is not much to do in the village and because the river atracts mosquitoes at night, Danny turns the lights off and gets ready to sleep by 9 PM each night. This was fine with me, but I felt a little silly having to ask Danny about the proper way to get into my mosquito net; I’d never used one before! I’m happy to report that the net worked, and I left the Delta without any bites 🙂

Day 5 was by far my most touristy day. My experiences on this day felt like the equivalent of coming to NYC and visiting Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, etc. I began with a non-touristy bus ride to District 1 (land of the tourist trap), on which I met a German who’d just arrived in Vietnam. Germans get a free visa to Vietnam if they visit for less than 15 days. Jealous!

Once off the bus I walked to Notre Dame Cathedral, which was crawling with tourists. The cathedral itself was under construction, so I took my obligatory photo and moved on to the Saigon Central Post Office, which despite the tourists was impressive for a post office. Next I visited Reunification/Independence Palace, where the Vietnam War ended, and finally the War Remnants Museum. Despite so many tourists, this last stop was quite powerful, especially the replica of the tiger cells used for torturing Vietnamese soldiers during the war. There were some extremely graphic photos and descriptions of aspects of war in that museum, and the overall experience was shocking. The museum also had some Vietnamese people working there who were experiencing third generation effects of Agent Orange, resulting in physical deformities. This struck me; the Vietnamese are still experiencing the effects of Agent Orange today, and it is not entirely uncommon to see people walking around with deformities. The chance of having a physical disability from the chemical is less common with every passing generation, but there are still thousands of people being born with deformities even today.

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Clockwise from top left: Notre Dame Cathedral, the War Remnants Museum, Saigon Central Post Office, Reunification Palace.

The war museum was, in some ways, one-sided, but it was important. I didn’t want to be a traveler in Vietnam without acknowledging the past history my country has had with Vietnam, so going to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the war museum felt important. I certainly recommend visiting both if you travel to southern Vietnam.

After the war museum I continued my touristy day by walking to Ben Thanh Market, one of the most touristy and Westernized markets in Vietnam. Quynh and another couchsurfing host named Kyle (who did not host me but gave me tons of great tips) had both warned me that Ben Thanh is overpriced so, as Quynh advised, I took some pictures and left.

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Ben Thanh Market

Next, I am almost ashamed to say I paid 200,000 dong ($10) to visit the sky tower, a true tourist trap. Sure, it was cool to see Vietnam from high up, but I probably could have used that time for something more meaningful, like a massage. 🙂  After taking photos in the sky tower I followed Kyle’s advice and found my way to a dark and seedy-looking alleyway, which he’d advised me to visit. Following four flights of stairs, I discovered two tiny, tucked away coffeeshops with amazing views of the city: Mockingbird Cafe and Beauty Tea and Coffee. After scoping out both, I opted for Beauty and spent a relaxing hour drinking milk tea and gazing out over the Saigon River. Afterward, I walked down and crossed over Rainbow Bridge, built by the same Eiffel who built the Eiffel Tower in France. I concluded my touristy experience by visiting the Saigon Opera House (which is supposed to be a great place to see an opera, though sadly I didn’t have time to see for myself) before calling for a motorbike to take me to a far less touristy destination.

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The alleyway/stairs I walked through to find the cafe, and some views from inside.

Like New York City, Ho Chi Minh City has enclaves of different ethnic groups, including a Vietnamese Chinatown. I’d read that the Cambodian area was supposed to have a great market, so I directed the Uber driver there, hopped off the bike, and began exploring the most hectic little alleyways I’ve ever seen. Imagine claustrophobic dirt paths between buildings with shops clustered on top of one another selling all sorts of goods, then add a ton of people walking around, kids running around, people sitting in plastic chairs eating, and then add a bunch of motorbikes to the mix. It’s amazing. I spent a good 45 minutes walking around the market and in that time I saw not a single Westerner or written English word. Awesome! In Vietnam you can always tell where the good food is based on if there are tiny plastic chairs present, and if those chairs are filled with Vietnamese people. I found one such place and had the best meal of my trip there. I felt awesome eating knee to knee with the other diners as motorbikes buzzed by behind us. Afterward, I rounded out my market experience by tasting the delicious Vietnamese dessert che before catching a motorbike for rugby practice!


When I arrived at The American School for rugby, I was sad to learn that a bunch of girls had bailed and a total of five of us had shown up. They were all cool, so we did some fitness drills for twenty minutes or so and then headed to a bar. So much for rugby, but it was cool to get to talk to them and learn what it’s like to be an ex-pat in Vietnam, and I got to drink a local Vietnamese beer at the bar. We exchanged contact info., so if I ever come to Vietnam again I can play rugby with them. 🙂

When I got back to Quynh’s place I met two girls who were couchsurfing for just one night. Marian and Diana are French travelers who have been hitchhiking, biking, and bussing around Vietnam for one month, and Asia/Europe for almost a year. They are so cool! They told stories of finding random places to pitch their tent in northern Vietnam (which is apparently beautiful and a good place to camp out in random areas), how hitchhiking has worked in each country (Vietnam is easy because everyone is friendly and wants to transport them, Spain is hard because people don’t really understand hitchhiking there, etc. We traded phrases in French, Vietnamese, and English, talked about passport power, ate mangos together, and spent time singing songs in French. It was a French sleepover party and I loved it! The next morning we all got up early to take selfies with Quynh and say goodbye before she left for work. I will miss those girls. Quynh was a really fun host, and we would absolutely be good friends if we lived close. I hope she gets to fulfill her dream to come to New York one day, and I hope she brings her friend Nhi too – they are great!

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Quynh, Diana, Marian, et moi 🙂

After the late night karaoke party I woke up at the insane hour of 5:30 AM to get to a bike shop. I really wanted to go cycling in Vietnam, so before coming I’d done some research on how to do that. The choices: Go solo by myself (super affordable, but maybe not the best idea), pay a lot of money to join a bike tour group, or contact the cycling groups I found on Facebook and see if I could join for their weekly ride. Option C it is! I’d contacted two of them and chose The Bike Shop’s half-day adventure to Tri An Lake, about an hour and a half outside of Saigon. This riding group consisted almost entirely of ex-pats, many of whom were teachers at The American School and two of whom played on Vietnam’s only women’s rugby team! Hooray for teaching and rugby! 

To get to Tri An Lake we boarded a bus, then boarded a water taxi with our bikes. Once we’d crossed the lake we headed to the Ba Dat Eco Homestay, where we were offered coffee, tea, and bananas before the ride. We then split into two groups based on ability level and set out for our 26K adventure around the lake. It was a beautiful day, the ride was gorgeous, and the post-ride meal prepared by the homestay was incredible. Plus, I learned all about being a teacher in Vietnam and was invited to rugby practice the following night. Great!

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The water ferry back to the bus was crowded with cyclists and motorbikes.

When I returned to Quynh’s apartment that evening, Nhi came over again and we rode on her motorbike in search of durian, which I really wanted to try while in Vietnam. Four years ago I read an NPR article called “On The Trail of Durian, Southeast Asia’s ‘Creme Brulee On A Tree'” about a couple who traveled through southeast Asia in search of every variety of durian. Their story intrigued me, and I’ve been wanting to taste durian ever since. Unfortunately this is not durian season so the best deal we could find was 200,000 dong ($20) for a durian, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to try it again, so it was worth it. Then Nhi drove us to a little Vietnamese crepe place that made durian crepes so we could get those as well.

Back at Quynh’s we had another delicious meal that I will write about on my food post, along with thoughts on the durian. Stay tuned!

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Selfie with Quynh and Nhi 🙂

 

On my first full day in Ho Chi Minh I took a bus to District 1 to meet Gyula, a couchsurfer from Hungary. Riding the bus in Vietnam is a cool experience; most rides cost 5000-7000 dong (around 25 cents) and you get to listen to Vietnamese music on the ride. I am proud to say I found the bus stop, confirmed that I was at the right stop, boarded the bus, got off at the correct stop, and found the meeting spot without any English. Hooray! 

I met Gyula just as the bus we needed was pulling away, so we chased after it and got on board. We had 1.5 hours and a bus transfer before reaching the tunnels – plenty of time to learn each other’s stories. Gyula is an engineer deciding what to do/where to go next in life, so in February 2017 he left his job and began traveling the world. He has been traveling mainly in southeast Asia because you can travel for so long with very little money. As we talked, he was surprised and jealous to learn that I’m teaching online while traveling. As he pointed out, I could teach just this one online course and live pretty luxuriously in Vietnam if I wanted. Food for thought…

Eventually we reached our stop and the bus dropped us off on the side of the road. We found a roadside stand selling com (rice), so we had lunch seemingly in the middle of nowhere and then headed to the tunnels. In Vietnam there are two areas where you can enter the Cu Chi Tunnels: Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. Ben Duoc is the less touristy location and has many of the original tunnels available for exploration, whereas Ben Dinh has tunnel reconstructions, so we chose to visit Ben Duoc.

When you arrive at the tunnels you pay an entrance fee that includes a 20-minute video and a guided tour. The video depicts Americans quite harshly, but given the circumstances I can understand why. It was a little disconcerting to hear such anti-American language, but it was also amazing to learn how the tunnels were built and what they were used for. 

cu chi tunnels

The Cu Chi Tunnels, which span 121 km (75 miles), were built by hand by the Viet Cong soldiers over a twenty year period beginning during the French Occupation of the 1940s.  During the Vietnam War the tunnels were used as hiding spots, meeting areas, hospitals, living quarters, and more generally as an escape from the chemical Agent Orange, which made living on the surface impossible. The Viet Cong used hand trowels to dig the tunnels, which consisted of three levels. The chemical could seep into the ground and make spending too much time on the highest level of the tunnels dangerous, but lower down it was difficult to get ventilation. Thus, inhabitants would split their time between the three levels. There were meeting rooms, a medical center, bedrooms, air ducts, and even a path out to the river.

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Lots of mannequins at the tunnels

Additionally, the Vietnamese built traps in the tunnels so that if Americans got inside they would be hurt (but not killed – injuring an American soldier would mean that other soldiers would probably rescue him, which essentially meant incapacitating multiple soldiers since they would be busy helping their injured comrade). The tunnels were also built to make it difficult for larger-bodied American soldiers to move as swiftly as the typically smaller-bodied Viet Cong could, allowing for easy escape. During the Vietnam War (which is called the American War in Vietnam), American forces attempted to destroy the tunnels multiple times but underestimated the depth and complexity of the tunnel system. For more on the tunnels, click here. 

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(Clockwise from top left: Camouflaged tunnel entrance, camouflaged spiky trap, our guide showing Gyula how to enter the tunnel, inside the tunnel.

I was surprised to learn that the Vietnamese had female soldiers during the war; essentially anyone who lived in the tunnels played a role in the fight. There were also regular life experiences, including a folk singing group, weddings, childbirth, etc. Life had to go on during the war, so the Viet Cong made the best of their tunnel existence. 

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Female Viet Cong, and a folk singing group living in the tunnels (bottom right)

Our tour guide at the tunnels was great, providing tons of information and letting us crawl through the tunnels. Gyula and I were the only ones in our group who wanted to crawl through, which meant we got to explore every tunnel on the tour. Along the way we encountered a couple bats, making me wonder what other creatures might have dwelt in the tunnels back in the 1960s. At least we had lights to see by! I was extremely impressed with the intricacy and construction of each tunnel area.

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Inside the tunnel

At the end of the tour our guide sat with us and offered us a Vietnamese form of yuca/cassava, which we dipped in a concoction of sugar, ground peanut, and a little water. I have to say, it was quite filling and delicious! Our guide explained that the Vietnamese who lived in the tunnels ate this regularly, since it provided sustenance and was easy to access. We also learned that the Cu Chi Tunnels stretch all the way across Vietnam, practically to Cambodia. Really incredible…

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Delicious!

After the tour, Gyula and I visited a pagoda in the area, then caught the bus back to Ho Chi Minh City. There, we walked around a bit before finding a place to have smoothies. I was happy to see a carrot smoothie on the menu (my favorite), and after tasting mine, Gyula wanted to drink carrot smoothies too. A carrot convert! 

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Pagoda at Cu Chi

Next, I said goodbye to Gyula and boarded the bus back to Quynh’s place, since she was going to prepare dinner for us. Unfortunately I boarded the bus in the wrong direction, then somehow failed to find the correct bus when I got off and wound up in an area that the locals – who spoke no English – told me had no bus service. Once again, Vietnamese kindness saved me, and a shop owner let me use her wi-fi to order a motorbike through Uber. Phew! 

When I arrived at Quynh’s I was introduced to her friend Nhi, who is in Quynh’s French class. While Quynh cooked dinner we learned more about each other and about Vietnamese food. Quynh was insistent on cooking each night so that I could get a true Vietnamese culinary experience and not just eat street food. I have to say, she is an amazing cook and I thoroughly enjoyed everything she prepared. I will write about food in a separate entry, but it is all awesome, and I probably ate way too much on this trip. Oh well! 😉

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Delicious dinner – thank you Quynh!

After dinner we all enjoyed fresh mango and pomelo, then had a karaoke party! Nhi and Quynh introduced me to traditional Vietnamese music, and we all sang songs in French, since we all enjoy French so much. Nhi slept over that night, so we were able to sing songs late into the evening – I think we ended at 1 AM!

Next up: Cycling Tri An Lake.

G’day from the Melbourne (Australia) airport. I’m behind on blog posts, but here come a flurry. Stay tuned for posts on each day’s adventures, plus a bonus post with info. on Vietnamese foods, tips for successfully navigating a country in a different language, words to learn, a summary of places to visit, how to couchsurf, etc.

On my second day in Da Lat I woke up early and enjoyed the hostel’s daily tomato omelette (variety in the menu would’ve been nice, but free food is free food). When Marlyse and Nolan came downstairs later, we reviewed our plan for the day. This was their last day in Vietnam and they wanted to eat Vietnamese food for breakfast, so we found a place serving Com Tam – “broken rice” – with pork ribs (yes, I did the hobbit thing and had two breakfasts, because Vietnamese food is cheap and amazing). Next we bought snacks for the day and took a taxi to Robin Hill to catch the gondola to the Truc Lam Monastery.

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Com Tam

Truc Lam Monastery

Thien Vien Truc Lam is Vietnam’s largest Zen/Buddhist monastery, located atop a high hill 6 km south of Dalat’s city center. To get there you need to find a way to Robin Hill and take the Sky Ride (gondola) to the monastery. But! Many Vietnamese businesses shut down from 12-1 PM for a rest hour, so if you arrive at noon like we did you’ll have to wait to buy tickets. The top of Robin Hill is beautiful though, so we enjoyed Vietnamese coffee (sooo good) and spent a relaxing hour enjoying the view.

When we were able to buy our tickets we took the 20-minute gondola ride to the pagoda, with gorgeous views the whole way. The monastery area was very pretty but also a bit kitsch with tourists taking photos everywhere, sometimes disregarding the monastery rules to get the perfect shot. Truc Lam is an active monastery with Buddhist monks living on the grounds, so make sure you wear respectable clothes if you visit (no tank tops or short shorts!).

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The highlight for me: A drum temple!

After exploring the grounds we found a table near the Saigon River and enjoyed the mangos we’d brought (mangos in Vietnam are delicious) before taking the gondola back down.

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Dalat Market

Next we took a taxi to Dalat Market, considered “the heart of Dalat city.” The place is HUGE, and we were happy to discover that very little was written in English and we seemed to be the only Westerners. I bought durian ice cream, tasted Marlyse’s avocado smoothie (delicious, but similar to the ones I make at home), and ate soft serve green tea ice cream, because I’d never seen soft serve green tea! The market is indoors/outsdoors and spans two stories and multiple city blocks, making it a bit overwhelming if you’re looking for something specific. For instance, Marlyse wanted to buy some coffee beans (Vietnam is known for its coffee plantations), but we had some trouble re-finding the vendors we’d passed who sold coffee.

Afterward, we walked back to the hostel to check out and Hana, the owner, gave us each a thank you card and a big hug, then called a taxi to the airport for us. Domestic flights within Vietnam are extremely cheap, making it easy to travel from city to city. 

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Getting to the plane for our 45-minute flight from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh was much like navigating a Vietnamese city street: Organized chaos abounds!

After a final pho meal together at the Ho Chi Minh airport (triple the cost of pho elsewhere…avoid if possible!), Marlyse, Nolan, and I said goodbye and I began walking to my couchsurfing host, Quynh. Google maps showed that Quynh lived just a 20 minute walk away from the airport, so with map in hand I confidently set out for her home…until the sidewalk ended and a highway appeared ahead. I stood there dumbfounded, consulting my offline map and trying to figure out what I’d missed. Thankfully a man saw my confusion and, after attempting to help with directions and determining that there was in fact no way to walk, offered me a ride on his motorbike for 100,000 dong ($5). This was a bit higher than I’d normally pay for a five-minute bike ride (this should cost 5000-10,000 dong, or $0.25 – $0.50), but given the circumstance I was grateful for the offer and that he wasn’t trying to scam me terribly. That was my first motorbike ride in Vietnam and it was exhilarating! In Vietnam everyone rides a motorbike and the streets become organized chaos as bikes speed around each other and around vehicles, much like in New York City. With all my NYC cycling experience I am confident I could master a motorbike in Vietnam, but neither Dalat nor Ho Chi Minh was the place to start. Way too busy for a beginner!

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A typical street. Motorbikes everywhere!

When we arrived I discovered that the front gate was closed and I had no internet service to contact Quynh (yes dad, I tried to activate my plan, but it didn’t work). The man who’d rescued me was concerned about me getting inside, and after some charades I understood that he was offering to call Quynh on his phone for me (good thing I’d written down her number!). It was very nice of him to wait to make sure I was okay – many motorbike drivers will ride away as soon as you disembark, so it was kind of him to make sure I was alright. Luckily she picked up and came down to let me in, and I thanked the man and he drove off.

Quynh, a web marketing student one year older than me, lives in a one-room apartment consisting of a bed, closet, mini fridge, small balcony, and a bathroom in the hall, which made me appreciate the fact that she was willing to share her small space with me. Since I’d arrived late we didn’t have much time to hang out that night, as she had to study some videos and then go to bed. To my delight I discovered that Quynh is learning French and translates French videos, songs, etc. each night, so we spent a happy half hour watching TED talks in French and translating them. Amazing 🙂

Vietnam Day 1: Dalat

Posted: March 10, 2018 in 2018, Adventures, Vietnam

LIke Utah, Vietnam is proving to be an exciting place in which the adventures of a single day could fill up an entire blog post. So…I’ll let them! I will go back in time later to fill in Colorado, Kansas City, and Qatar, but for now stay tuned for posts from each day of my week in Vietnam.

Day 2: Da Lat (aka Dalat)

After my series of unfortunate events on Day 1 of my trip, Day 2 proved to be much more successful. Marlyse, her fiancee Nolan, and I woke up early, ate the daily omelette and bread breakfast at the our hostel, and solidified our plan for a day in Dalat. We left a bit too late to catch a bus to our target location, the Pongour Waterfalls, so we called a cab – very cheap split three ways – and drove the scenic hour-long journey.

The Pongour Waterfalls are touted as one of the most unique and memorable waterfall locations near Dalat, and even the most critical of waterfall connoisseur bloggers seem to approve of visiting this location despite its touristy renown. The remote location of the falls make them a less popular spot than some of the other large waterfalls of Vietnam, so there weren’t many people there when we arrived. We spent time snacking on the rocks, watching the falls, watching the adorable children playing in the falls, and hiking up to the top of the falls for a different view. We also walked across to the far side of the falls for a different view. I guess not too many tourists go over there, because a group of Vietnamese boys picnicking and singing promptly ran over with their selfie stick to take photos with us. That was an experience.

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After Pongour we grabbed some Banh Mi – a sort of Vietnamese sandwich – and decided to walk the roughly six kilometers to the bus stop to head back to Dalat. Around halfway into our walk a car pulled over, and the lovely couple inside offered us a ride all the way to Dalat! Given the hot weather we were grateful for the ride despite enjoying the walk.

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Next, we stopped for coffee/smoothies before heading to Crazy House, touted as one of the top ten weirdest buildings in the world. It did not disappoint. Crazy House is not a single house, but a series of structures that you can walk around and through. Some of the buildings seem to have been plucked straight out of a Dr. Seuess book, while others could fit very well in Wonderland. The highlight was an underwater ballroom (?), and discovering that the place was also a hotel was also interesting. Crazy House also offered some really cool views of the city skyline, especially with the sun setting while we were there.

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Next stop: Dinner! In Vietnam, street food rules. If you see tiny plastic chairs and tables occupied by lots of Vietnamese people, you know it’s a good place. We stopped at one such establishment for spring rolls and bun, a dish similar to pho but with different kinds of noodles (and some other subtle differences).

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Finally: Maze Bar. After returning to our hostel to relax a bit, we joined a group of travelers heading to Maze Bar, a bar built like maze or, more accurately, Crazy House in bar form. Seems like a dangerous concept for drunk people, and it certainly was built to appeal to tourists, but it was fun nonetheless. Nolan and I had a fun moment when we discovered a face in one of the bar’s tunnels that looked like it was straight out of the awesome manga-turned-anime series Attack on Titan, and two other bar goers enthusiastically agreed. Marlyse just groaned and rolled her eyes at our shared excitement. 🙂

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Day 3 coming soon!

Welcome to Vietnam

Posted: March 7, 2018 in 2018, Adventures, Vietnam

Alright…I’m a bit behind on this blog. Still have to write about Colorado, Kansas City, and Qatar. But, I just took an impromptu trip on a sleeper bus in Vietnam and am too awake to sleep right now, so here’s a quick post about this crazy first day in Vietnam.

The series of unfortunate events began when, after a cool city tour of Daha, Qatar courtesty of the Qatar airport (which I’ll write about another day), I went back to the airport, ordered cauliflower soup, and promptly spilled it all over my backpack (don’t worry Tir, I spilled it on my little backpack, not your amazing one!).

Fast forward eight hours to Ho Chi Minh City:

  1. Even though my visa papers passed through Chicago and Qatar, there was a problem in Vietnam and I had to wait awhile to go through customs. When it finally got cleared up, I had one hour to run and catch my domestic flight to Dalat. Okay, one hour, I could make it!
  2. I asked someone where JetStar airways was and stood on line for twenty minutes – getting close, but I’d still make it!
  3. When I got to the desk I discovered I was at the wrong terminal – domestic flights left from a terminal ten minutes away!
  4. I ran out and proceeded to spend twenty minutes looping around the airport in what seemed like a crowded and never-ending maze that kept leading back to the international terminal. I asked multiple people for directions and while they did try to be helpful, no one spoke English.
  5. Finally I made it to the domestic terminal, went to the desk (five minutes before my flight would leave), and asked if I could get a later flight. No more flights to Dalat from JetStar, go check the other airlines.
  6. Three airlines later, I discovered there were NO flights to Dalat and my only way to get there would be to take a taxi to a bus, then buy a ticket for my six-hour journey (which was going to be 50 minutes by plane!).
  7. After one taxi driver picked me up, drove like ten feet, and then dropped me at another taxi when I wouldn’t give him any extra money, I finally got a nice driver who drove me to the bus.
  8. Missed the bus by TWO MINUTES.
  9. Waited an hour, got the next bus.
  10. Discovered that no one on the bus spoke English, so although there were some announcements in Vietnamese, I was surprised when the bus dropped off on the side of a highway at a little waiting area with some chairs. Again, no one spoke English but they kept saying Dalat, so I kept waiting…
  11. While waiting, it was cool to watch all the motorbikes, which are so prevalent that they get three lanes all to themselves on the highway. It was interesting to note how many bikers kept looking at me as they passed, probably surprised to see a white person in what appeared to be a place only local Vietnamese frequent.
  12. Next, the sleeper bus arrived! This was actually really cool, and seems to be very Vietnamese. Needless to say, I slept most of the way.
  13. Midway through we stopped for a bathroom/dinner break, to my great relief. Some kind women helped me order food, since I had no idea what I was doing. According to my currency calculator, I spent $0.88 for ramen and ginger tea. Good deal. 🙂
  14. After many hours, the bus dropped everyone off, I showed my hostel address to a shuttle driver (free shuttle, hooray!), and he drove me to what appeared to be a dark alleyway and encouraged me to walk down it. Needless to say, I was quite nervous, but he seemed very sure that this was my address, so I followed the winding alleyway until, to my relief again, I found the hostel.
  15. Now I’m here, Marlyse and her fiancee are here, and we are planning an all-day excursion to the Pongour waterfall in the morning. I better get some rest, and hope that the next couple of days are a bit less unpredictable. It occurred to me that I had to do a lot of relying on the words and kindness of strangers who don’t speak the same language today, which made me feel quite vulnerable and on edge. While not pleasant, I think it’s important to feel this way at least now and then to better understand the experiences of those who come to the US as outsiders, so although it was not exactly the best day of my life, it was an important one, and with wi-fi almost everywhere I went, I felt like everything was going to turn out okay.
  16. Good night!

Shower taken, earplugs in, sleeping mask on, hostel bed made, ready to sleep!