Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I have been home for one month now. For the most part, the transition back to american culture has been smooth. Everything is familiar, and it's easy to embrace the convenience of everyday life once again. Still, many things remind me of Vietnam, and I continue to notice stark contrasts between our culture and theirs. Many of their customs have rubbed off on me, and it's difficult to break them.

Let's just take the example of eating out. Now I find it strange for the waiter/waitress to take drink orders and then disappear for five minutes before coming back for meal orders. I'm used to rushing to choose what I want to eat and drink at the same time, since the waiter is ready to hear it all at the start in Vietnam. When eating something out of a bowl, like rice or noodles, I have to resist the urge to bring the bowl close to my mouth for scooping. And at the end of every meal, I'm always looking for the toothpicks. Some places don't even have toothpicks here, which causes me to feel a little confused. Why wouldn't I want to pick my teeth after a meal? And when I do pick it, I absent-mindedly cover my mouth to make sure no one sees what I'm doing. The same happens when I yawn, and I have to get used to the fact that other people yawn with reckless abandon. In addition, I'm trying not to cringe when I see people wearing shoes when walking around the house. I could go on and on...

Driving a car at first was a little strange, after becoming so comfortable on a motorbike. I missed the sensation of being outside and exposed to the wind and sunshine while I drove around. Being in a car feels like you're not even moving. It's like I leave my house, I enter a room, the room is transported, I leave the room and find myself in a new place. I look at motorcycles I see on the road longingly, but I also am turned off by the gigantic, garish models I see most people driving here. I'm much more interested in scooters and vespas rather than big harleys.

The weather of course was another shock. During the day here, it can get as hot as Vietnam, but it's not nearly as humid. It's actually somewhat pleasant, and when other people around me are complaining, I don't see what the big deal is. In Vietnam, it stays warm all through the evening and night, and being outside at night can still be a sticky, sweaty time. In America, it actually gets chilly at night even in the summer, and I cross my arms to feel warm even when other people still say it's hot. I wonder how winter will feel for me.

I would say the biggest shock, though, is the advertising in America. The food advertisements on TV are ubiquitous, especially at night, and they show the unhealthiest foods at the latest hours of the night. They show burgers up close so that they cover the screen, and I can't help my mouth from watering, but I know in real life that they're actually quite greasy and disgusting. This pervasive advertising, though, seems to be a major part of our culture, and probably part of the reason why we're so unhealthy. I don't recall fast food commercials or anything like that in Vietnam. Instant noodles and such would be advertised, probably because there was just a bigger audience for that. In America I have also noticed a huge prevalence in media commercials, advertising movies, electronics, etc. When a new movie comes out, it's advertised so frequently that you'll hear about it on every commercial break for every show on every channel. And then after it comes out, it's forgotten, and the next movie is advertised. Everything is so ephemeral when it's so consumeristic. New product, then it's old, see what's next.

So, I'm progressing through my reverse culture shock, and I'm re-acclimating to America even as I miss certain things about Vietnam. I wish there were nice, inexpensive, well-decorated coffee shops here where one could bring their laptop or chat with friends. Unfortunately, there is mostly just starbucks and duncan donuts, with boring settings, expensive drinks, and I think the wireless costs money to use. It's not the same as a cafe filled with trees and ponds where you can while away the hours of the day.

Looking back on the past year, and reading some of my old blog posts, it seems like it was a dream. When I read certain things, I can't believe they actually happened. It was almost like a second life I lived over there, where my personality and habits changed, and when I came back here they are slowly changing back. However, I would say that the experience of living on my own, teaching English at different schools, and meeting new people really did change me in some ways. I think it transitioned me from my college stage to my adult stage of life. I learned greater independence, confidence, and open-mindedness. I learned what it means to be a man on his own, either here or abroad. And I learned that teaching is a fascinating and worthwhile profession, but it is probably not something for me in the long term. If I try something which is unfamiliar, I can succeed at it and attain new strengths, but in this case I can also better understand my own personal areas of interest. So for the next stage of my life, I will be entering law school, and taking the experience I've gained in Vietnam to prepare me for whatever unexpected challenges await me in the future.

Hen gap lai!

Thursday, August 6, 2009


After Hanoi, I went to China.

I wish I had spent longer there. Three days was a bit short to spend in Beijing, although I saw all the big things that I had planned to see. Because I was only there three days, I was able to spring for a better hotel room, and treated myself to a sumptuous peking duck dinner on the last day. With longer time, I could have seen some different temples and museums and zoos in the city, but perhaps that will have to wait for a future date.

I had some interesting impressions of Beijing because it was the first city I came to after leaving Vietnam. It was like coming back to civilization again. There was a wide, well-paved highway from the airport to the city. There were actual criss-crossing highways in the city. There were subway stations and decent buses. Everything seemed much less crowded in general. But the biggest change was the lack of motorbikes. Sure, there were a few here and there. However, it was mostly cars and bicycles, and they didn't constantly fill the streets. It was actually quite pleasant walking down the street. I didn't notice pollution per se, but the skies were pretty hazy during my whole time there.

One other difference was that there seemed to be less English everywhere as in Vietnam. I think since Vietnam relies more on foreign investment, they realized the importance of putting English translations on signs and restaurants and such, but the Chinese seem to be attempting to be more independent of America, and all around me I saw chinese symbols that I couldn't even read. When I asked my hotel for a place to eat, they wrote two symbols on a piece of paper, and I had to wander down the street trying to match the symbols to a sign. I felt that the Chinese were also not quite as friendly as the Vietnamese, but that may just have been my impression.

I took a hiking tour of the Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai, which was 10 kilometers. I severely underestimated the strenuousness of it. A lot of the area was old and unrestored, which was really cool to see, but it was tough climbing up and down steep staircases and ramps that were falling apart. I was completely exhausted not long into the hike, but I kept on moving and eventually I finished it. While I was walking, an older mongolian woman was following me with a bag of things to sell, and she kept fanning me and chatting with me and helping me climb down steps, until the end when she asked me what I wanted to buy. I was thankful for her company so I bargained down some good quality chopsticks from her.

When I first entered the great wall, there was a group of chinese who were all taking pictures. A few of them asked to take pictures with me, which I guess is something they do. So I posed for a few pictures with them, and they seemed happy at that. I couldn't imagine someone trying to do that in America, though.

In Beijing, I checked out the Forbidden City, which was full of old temples and palaces, and one could really spend hours and hours in there. It's very crowded and full of people from all different countries, with automatic audio guides in about 30 languages available. The guide explained everything to me, so I understood the gist of the chinese imperial history. Mostly I just liked looking at the architecture and hearing about the meaning behind certain statues.

And now, some pictures:

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

I spent 4 days in Hanoi, and it was very nice to see a familiar face, because my friend Mike was staying there working with the organization Kiva, which does microfinancing in developing countries. So, he was able to show me around, and introduced me to his friends, and I didn't feel like so much of a helpless tourist. While there, checked out a water puppet show, too. They have the puppets in the water, telling a story, with people moving the strings standing behind them out of sight. We couldn't really tell what the story was, but the program gave us the gist of it. It was a lot about the harvest and the kings and the magical animals of Vietnam. Worth seeing, but anything longer than the one-hour show we were there for would have been a little repetitive and boring.

What I really liked about Hanoi was the Old Quarter, which was an area filled with many little streets, full of shops and hotels and travel agencies. This is the most popular area for backpackers, so when you walk through here you are constantly being asked to buy something or eat something. All of these streets have names which correspond to the product they used to sell, such as "duong" for sugar or "cha ca" for fried fish. But, nowadays the names dont always correspond to what they actually sell. After all, they didnt have a "bootleg dvd's" street a hundred years ago.

People told me that Hanoians are less friendly than Saigonese, and I couldn't really tell any difference but I started to assume it was true. Perhaps I was reading too much into it. I was taking taxis everywhere in Hanoi, which I hadn't really done in Saigon, and had a couple bad experiences to sour my mood. No one really walked up to me to ask me where I was from, which happened often in Saigon. But maybe they could tell I was a tourist, not a resident. Anyway, even though it was 1,000 miles away from Saigon, I felt the same distinct Vietnamese atmosphere, similar food, practically the same language, similar looking people. All in all, Vietnamese.

It was a nice, relaxing few days there, but we did spend one long day on a tour of Ha Long Bay. We left very early for the 3 hour drive there in a cramped travel van, but we had a nice boat to tour the harbor in. We ate a lunch on the boat, then docked at an island that had a strange cave with many stalagmites, and then back to the boat while people tried to sell us sodas, doodads, and jewelry. Next the boat traveled around the bay some more, it was a very sunny day, and we saw some remarkable islands and strange rock formations. The Vietnamese have folklore about the area, and when they look at the rocks they can see a certain person or animal who is part of the story. You have to admit when you look at a certain rock that it looks like a man's face.

Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO heritage site and it's on the list of nominees for the 7 natural wonders of the world. So, it's a very famous place of natural beauty here, and I'm very glad I had the opportunity to see it.

I could ramble on all day about it, but here are some pictures:

Sunday, July 26, 2009


That's right, folks, I'm finally home from my year living in Saigon. It was quite a whirlwind the past couple weeks, saying goodbye to everyone, finishing up last minute things, then going on a week of traveling. Even though i was on my own, I still kept pretty busy while traveling, and it wasn't the relaxing vacation I had envisioned. But that was fine, because I was in such beautiful, fascinating places such as Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Beijing, and the Great Wall, so i didn't want to waste time. Now that I'm home, I have plenty of time to lounge around and relax before I start law school.

Now I'm still pretty exhausted from my long journey and my huge time shift, so I need to let my body clock adjust. Once I feel up to it, I'm going to post about my travels and show some pictures, and also reflect on my year abroad and the reverse culture shock of coming home.

And I think I may still keep this blog in the future. After all, even though I'm no longer in Ho Chi Minh City, I will always be the rock of Saigon.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cafe Tram, or what i'll miss the most

Did I mention how much I love coffee shops? In Vietnam, they really embrace nature and make you feel like you're miles away from the city when you've ducked into a coffee shop down an alleyway. I met fellow blogger Kevin at a coffee shop Thursday morning that was very relaxing and beautiful. However, I did not have my camera to take a picture.

However, later that day I met someone at Cafe Tram, which is practically around the corner from my house, on Tran Huy Lieu. I didn't know it existed until my friend recommended that we meet there. I think they are really trying to keep the place a secret. All you can see from the street is a narrow passageway. You enter through giant wooden doors to find a secret garden of sorts. There's a small manmade stream, and you walk over it on stone steps, with lots of statues nearby to wish you luck. In the water are big, bright koi. My friend led me into a very dark room, lit only be dim Chinese-style lanterns. It takes awhile for your eyes to adjust when you first walk in, as you can barely see. But once you adjust you realize how peaceful and cozy it is in there. You are at almost a lower level than the water outside the window, so you feel like you're in the deck of a ship. Did I mention the fruit juices are delicious? I can't believe I discovered this place with one week left in Saigon.

Also, they wouldn't let me take pictures, apparently afraid that someone would steal their ideas. However, I still snuck a few, and they let me take a couple from up top as long as a person was in the picture. So, enjoy a free, clandestine peak at Cafe Tram! (by the way, Tram, which sounds like 'jum', is a word which means introverted or introspective)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What I'll miss

Even though I miss many things from home, I know that when I go back I will miss many things about Vietnam.

My tutoring job has finished and my student will try taking his visa interview for the third time. Good luck to him, but I really think he needs another toeic course before he can hope to pass it. Anyway, in this last week or so before I go home I once again have a lot of free time, even though I'm still teaching at VNU right to the end. Also, the construction on the house nearby has finished, so once again my neighborhood is quiet and peaceful. It reminds my why I quickly felt at home here in the first place.

So here is the list of things I think I will miss:

Cheap prices for almost everything
Overly friendly waiters
Smiles from everyone
Toothpicks readily available on every table
Driving a motorbike
Never needing a jacket, except for a rain poncho
Many exotic fruits
Looking around the room in a restaurant and finding that I'm the only foreigner, and the good feeling that i'm not another face in the crowd.
Harmony of seeing churches, temples, and mosques all together in the same city.
Planning life around my own timetable
Vietnamese coffee
Cheap gym, even though it's hot, small, and has old equipment
Juice coffee shop
The abundance of street vendors
Interesting stories from English students
very cheap dvd's and tv shows
being able to live and not be saturated with pointless news and media updates
all the friends I've made here, even up to the very end

I could go on, but I think I'd really just keep listing things that are cheaper here.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What I miss

Things I miss from America, that are either hard to find or nonexistent here:

Carbonated red bull
Greek food, including an abundance of Feta cheese
Being able to use slang wherever I go
Using googlemaps to find where I am
Nintendo wii
Fast, stable internet connection
Electricity not randomly getting shut off by the city
Temperature fluctuations
Driving a car
Empty supermarkets at 8pm- ive actually never found a time when the supermarket isnt swarmed with people.
Quieter neighborhoods
Grilled burgers, hot dogs, and shiskabob
TV stations like comedy central
Being able to watch any TV show online
Greater variety of music, movies, books
Black pens - they all seem to be blue here
Wearing shoes indoors - not that i ever really did
Hiking in the woods
Homemade apple pies, cookies, etc.
Orthodox churches
Driving a car
Trash being put in trashbarrels, not just thrown in the street
Printing things in my own house
Philosophical discussions!

Friday, June 26, 2009

New Ventures

I'm not really inspired to write today but I figured I'd give an update.

It's always darkest before the dawn. For awhile I was worried about money, and I thought the last month here would be rough trying to find work. However, I was blessed to be given a lot more work by one of my schools. Vietnam National University, the Foreign Language Center, has been giving me a lot of new classes to teach. Mostly children classes in the morning, which I don't prefer, but I'll take it. I'm glad that when all other schools turned a blind eye and couldn't find any work for me, one still stood by and offered me classes. I guess it was good that I kept friendly with one of the administrators there. In addition, on the bottom of my paycheck this week I saw that I got a small bonus because the re-enroll percent for a class I taught was 67%. So I'm doing something right, and the school rewarded me. That's a good way to run a school, rather than those silly random evaluations done by the other school. And to think that I was considering quitting VNU a few months ago since they only had one class for me at the time. It just goes to show that sometimes it pays to stick it out and take your chances. It's never true that "all is lost".
I've also been given the opportunity to tutor a student who wants to study in the US. He has to pass a difficult visa interview before he can study there, and he has already failed the interview twice, so he's paying me to prepare him for his next attempt. It's a lot of pressure, and I hope he passes so that it wasn't a waste of money for him. However, he really has a lot of work to do. He makes many mistakes speaking english and he has trouble understanding me when I talk at normal speed. I've been asking him a lot of different questions in addition to the interview ones, hoping to get him more comfortable with the language. He makes a lot of the same mistakes that I've been seeing in my students for the past several months, so I know what to expect and I know how to help. However, even if I repeat a sentence a hundred times and finally gets him to pronounce and intonate it correctly, he'll forget it before the next time we talk if he doesn't practice on his own. Now we're halfway through our 3 weeks, and I'm seeing some improvement, but I really hope I can bring him up to the right level before the end.
I've made Juice part of my regular weekly schedule. The place, not the drink. Although sometimes I do drink juice there.
I go there every tuesday and friday afternoon. I've been trying a new dish every time I come. I must have had 10 different things already. I'm starting to run out of options so I may have to eat some again.
Usually I get some good writing in when I come here. But sometimes I just don't seem to be in the mood. I don't know how to describe it other than that my mind is lazy.
The workers there are very friendly, especially the guy behind the counter at the end of the day. I usually spend up to 30 minutes just chatting with him before walking out the door. He even gave me a 10% discount on my bill once. I guess it pays to make a friend sometimes.

Anyway, I have 3 weeks left in Saigon. Can you believe it? With work, exercise, and coffee shop I should get through without too much boredom. I'm getting really excited about coming back. But it will also be sad saying goodbye.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Vietnamese Wedding

Last night, I went with Uyen to the wedding of her friend. Although I haven't been to too many weddings in America, just one when I was 8 years old, I could tell that the Vietnamese wedding is very different from the American one.

For one thing, the wedding is usually held at night. We arrived there at 6pm, as the sun was going down. (As a side note, I have experienced 6pm sunsets every day for the past year, because we're so close to the equator.) The wedding was in a small city about an hour's drive from Saigon, and we took motorbikes out on the main road out of town. Not really a highway in the American sense of the word. Just a long, straight road populated mostly with trucks on their way to the port city of Vung Tau and back.

The wedding was held in a big hotel, not a church. In fact, there wasn't really anything religious about the service. I assume they have a more traditional wedding ceremony, but this was just seemed like a very modernized service. Modern, but still distinctly Vietnamese.

The wedding itself resembled what we in America would consider the reception after the wedding. The bride and groom stood at the entrance greeting everyone who came in, and they were very excited to see me. So, I suppose it was not taboo for them to see each other before the wedding service.

I wore jeans and a casual buttoned-down shirt, as suggested by Uyen, and in the big hall I looked out at the crowd of guests sitting at tables and saw that most of them were dressed similarly, although there were a few ties. Only the people actually involved in the wedding were wearing suites or dresses.

And what about the wedding gift? People give money, not gifts. This lets the couple buy whatever they want. Uyen gave them about 55 dollars, and I gave 11 dollars, placed in an envelope and then slid through a slit in a huge box. Sounds like an odd amount of money, but it's equivalent to 1,000,000 dong and 200,000 dong, respectively.

Anyway, the service began with a traditional dance performance of men and women which was really entertaining.

Following this, the announcer welcomed everyone and the lights were dimmed. The bride and groom marched up the aisle to the stage, holding a sparkler thing that was shooting off sparks. They were joined on the stage by their parents and some other people. They all said a lot of things in Vietnamese, and I think the father was offering his approval. Then they brought out the cakes and champagne and everyone toasted. Then all the balloons popped and the sparks shot up and it was a huge spectacle. I guess at this point they were married, but I'm not sure. There was no kissing, of course.

Then the groom went over to a stack of wine glasses on a table on the stage and poured a bottle over it so that wine fell into all the glasses. It was red, so I don't think it was champagne. There were also smoke machines firing off smoke all over the place. Finally, they departed from the stage, and circled around the tables to toast people throughout the evening, stopping by our table twice to toast me and and shake my hand. The next form of entertainment came in the form of a steady stream of pop singers, and we were right near the speakers so it was kind of loud.

BUT the best part, of course, was the food. There were several courses, and I gleefully ate them all.

As usual, all the food was placed in the middle, on a swiveling thing (man I'm really bad at naming things), and everyone put food into their bowls.
1st course: wafers, a collection of shrimp and vegetables, and some weird meaty bready cube thing which tasted just like a chicken mcnugget. in other words, delicious.
2nd course: a hot pot was placed on our table, and a pot placed on top. inside the pot were a dozen or so LIVE shrimp. That's right, whole shrimp, eyes and tentacles and all, squirming away, slowly being cooked by the burner. After some minutes, they had turned from grey to orange, and we were shelling them and cramming them into our mouths. I didn't quite like the head part of them.
3rd course: soup with some kind of chewy red meat, i have no idea what it was, but it was good. probably just some strange part of beef. it was a nice hearty soup with carrots, and bread to dip in it.
4th course: another soup, with noodles and seafood, all the standard things like shrimp and squid and maybe clams.
5th course: dessert! cake? no. pie? no. just some nice fresh pieces of fruit. Pomelo! it tastes like grapefruit but it's a lot better. i just call it "buoi", the vietnamese word.

after we had eaten, everyone was celebrating and having a great time and i fully expected it to go long into the night. much to my surprise, about 7:45pm, uyen said to me, "ok, we go." With that, our party left, and i could see a number of other people clearing out too. i was surprised to find the wedding celebrations so short. but anyway, we did have a long ride back to saigon ahead of us, and i was quite full and tired.

So, all in all, a really great experience, and I'm glad I went. One thing is common to weddings of all cultures: celebration and cheer! everyone was just in a great smiling mood for the start of these two people's lives together. if anyone was in a foul mood from the traffic congestion or the hot, sticky weather, the wedding was sure to cheer them up.

More pictures here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2202685&id=1607549&l=742e06d6fa

Friday, June 12, 2009


I wouldn't call myself a friendly person. And I know most people think it's a good thing to be very friendly. But I'm just naturally not that way.

However, people who get to know me well usually say I'm friendly. I suppose what they mean is that I'm friendly in the sense that I'm congenial and chatty, at least with my friends. But my definition of friendly includes a dimension of outgoingness, and being so comfortable around other people that you can greet and talk to people you don't even know as if it's the most natural thing in the world. I'm not like this, and in fact very few people in Connecticut seem this way, but it is a very common trait among the Vietnamese.

If I walk into any store or restaurant where the manager speaks some English, he will not hesitate to start asking me questions and learning about me. It always starts with something like "where are you from?" rather than "what's your name?" or even "hello, i'm __, what's your name?". Then they want to know everything about me, and I realize only after several minutes that I don't know their name. I've met several people around the city this way, and they're so chatty and free with their questioning that they act like we're old friends. I don't mind, but it's certainly not something that I would do, and I have to get used to the fact that when I come home, I'll be the same as everyone else again, so when I go to buy a book or a coffee, they won't ask me where I'm from or how long I've been there, they'll just hand me my bill with a bored expression. Everyone here keeps a smile on their faces, and the waiters are especially polite. If I've finished my coffee, they don't just take it, they quietly ask "excuse me, may I take your coffee?".

I've even had people introduce themselves to me at the gym, asking me what I'm doing in Vietnam, how long I've been here, etc. Sometimes they also walk up to me and randomly give me advice, like where to position my hands when I'm lifting weights. I'm innately very cautious of new people, careful not to trust them if they're looking for a way to take advantage of me. But so far everyone who has introduced themselves to me has had no ulterior motives than to meet a new person and use english. when i was driving home from work one day and stopped at a light, i was startled when the man on the bike next to me said something to me, "money about you", and pointed to my pocket. i didn't know what he wanted, until I saw that there was money hanging out of my pocket. so, people are always trying to help. even those that don't know english well. on my street, i pass by a family who hangs out at the entrance to their alley, who sell cigarettes and repair motorbikes during the day. they're always out there in the evening, eating their dinner or relaxing, several members of the family spanning all ages. the matriarch is an older woman reclining on a hammock, there's a middle-aged guy who fixed my bike a couple times, and there's a young guy with a haircut like a japanese pop star who gave me motorbike rides a couple times. everytime i pass by, they yell "hello" at me. i say hello or wave back in return. then i drive by the small cafe and nod at the employee who sits on the chair at the entrance watching the traffic go by, and sometimes little kids are playing soccer in the sidestreet and say hello to me.

i dont really know any of my neighbors. but when i was walking past a new house being constructed, this woman called at me to have a look around. it's a 4-story house and she's hoping to rent out rooms. it was almost finished and looked really nice. the workers have been laboring away there constantly for a few months and soon all that dedication will pay off. from the top floor balcony, you can look down on my roof, as my house is only 3 floors. it would be nice to see the house when it's completely finished.