Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Birthday Pictures

I've had lots of free time lately, which is ok. The schools are waiting until after the holiday to start up new classes. All my schools are closed for 4 days. But, a lot of places got booked up fast, since everyone wants to travel. I think it must be really crowded at any vacation place. So, I'm just going to hang out with Uyen and her cousin and go to a nice resort close to the city. I think it's better to plan vacations during times that aren't holidays, so there's less crowds.

Yesterday I got a freak illness, a really bad stomachache and fever, and I think it was probably some food poisoning. Not sure what caused it, it could be anything else. I'm feeling better today and able to eat some normal food. I got a lot of medicine to take, too. But my stomach still feels a little strange.

So, last weekend I celebrated my birthday with Uyen and her cousin and a friend. We were originally going to eat peking duck but we wound up eating sushi instead. Which is ok, sushi being one of my favorites. We ordered a lot of different sushi, and then some soup and rice as well, and we were all stuffed by the end. Since it was my brithday, I treated them all to dinner. Such is the tradition in Asian culture. But altogether it was about $30, which for quality of food and the amount we ordered is still a great deal (though very expensive by vietnamese standards). After that we got a cheesecake at Tous Les Jours which made me very happy.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Proper Update

Time for, as the British would say, a proper update.

Today is also my birthday! Although it hardly feels like it, because today I had to work, and so I'm celebrating on the weekend. And it's strange not having all my usual family and friends around. But at least I can celebrate with Uyen.

The past couple weeks have been moving at a slower pace, as a lot of my classes have been ending. Since many classes started up soon after Tet, and they last about 10 weeks, a lot of them end around this time. Maybe there won't be any new classes until after the next holiday (april 30 to may 1). This holiday celebrates the reunification of Vietnam, or the fall of saigon, and then may day. It's one of the biggest traveling times for the vietnamese, and this year it's on a thursday and friday, meaning a 4-day weekend for people who dont work on the weekend (or a proper weekend for those who usually have to work weekends). I was hoping to go somewhere new and interesting, like Binh Chau hot springs, but it got all booked up quick. So now I'm trying to book a room in Vung Tau, which I've been to a couple times before.

A few days ago, I was pulled over by a cop and my heart started racing. But, less than a minute later, he let me go and I was on my way.
What happened? Well, I was moving into the left lane in anticipation of a left turn onto Pasteur street from Dien Bien Phu. It is not allowed for motorbikes to be in the left lane, and it is strictly enforced by the cops here, but I hate getting stuck in the right lane trying to make a left-hand turn so I thought I could fudge the rules like everyone else. No dice, and I was waved by the cop to pull over. I decided to play dumb and kept repeating in English "I go left!" and using hand signals. So he finally gave up and waved me to continue on. I was fretting because some foreigners get pulled over and have their bikes impounded because they dont have vietnamese licenses. But apparently it's the cops on bikes who ride around and pull over foreigners, not the stationary ones.

On Monday, I celebrated Easter belatedly at the Russian consulate. I tried in vain to find an Orthodox church service on Easter, but I did discover that a priest was coming from Russia on Monday, so I stopped by the consulate to see what was going on. I was happy to stumble upon a small room with 10 or so Russians inside and the priest doing the service all in slavonic, which is an old, church version of Russian. I had no idea what was going on but I can only assume it was the service for the day after Easter, so I joined in and crossed myself when I saw the others do it. It was really nice just to smell that incense again and hear that beautiful music. After the service he flung a lot of holy water on us, and I got a little wet, but it was nice and reminded me of home. After the service, I didn't quite understand what was going on but I could tell they were preparing for another service, and since I didn't have to teach for another hour, I decided to stick around. It turned out to be a baptism! So I stayed and watched because I was sorely missing all the beautiful Orthodox services. I guess the small Russian expat community has to wait a long time for the priest to come, so while he was there to celebrate Easter, they had him baptize a baby as well. After it all, I introduced myself to the priest in my bad Russian and he said he spoke a little English, so we chatted for a bit. He was pretty friendly and bearded, and I was glad that despite different languages and cultures and being in a completely different country, we had something that connected us in the faith. Finally I said "do svedonya" and went to my class.

That's all for now. Stay tuned for the next "proper" update!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Quieter American

I got tired of seeing that picture of beef at the top of the page, so here's an update.

I finished reading "The Quiet American", and I found it to be a pretty engaging book. It wasn't so much about Vietnam as the development of the characters and the political tensions underneath. It was fascinating to find out more about the history of Vietnam, since I wasn't alive in the 1950's and I only have a vague understanding of the war with the French and then the Americans. It's interesting to note, though, that most Vietnamese I meet today are really not interested in politics. In Greece, everyone wanted to rant about something political, but in Vietnam it's just not on the minds of most people. They mostly want to talk about culture or something, and the most political they get would be talking about Obama or something. But if I try to read an article about Israel or anything else that doesn't concern them, they get very bored and actually confused why anyone would even be interested.
It's a very different world from when "The Quiet American" was written. Even then, there was a colonial mindset, though it was fading away. The French thought they could control Vietnam's destiny through force. Then the Americans thought they could do the same and prevent Communism. But the North Vietnamese eventually took control. Nowadays, it seems like military force is not as reliable a method of controlling destiny, because you'll never win the hearts and minds of the people. Today, people are conquered by culture and economics. The only remnants of French rule you see in Saigon are the architecture, the bakeries, the catholic churches. These became somewhat part of the culture of Vietnam. All but a couple of the streets were renamed. There is no more "Rue Catinat", the central area of activity in "The Quiet American". The only French names that remain honor important scientific or cultural figures, such as Louis Pasteur, or a school named after Marie Curie.

In the book, the main character is a British journalist, and he and an American are both in love with the same girl, Phuong. She appears to have no real power over her own destiny, just sort of blowing in the mind and going with whatever man promises her a better, more secure future. Today, there is a little bit of that sentiment left, but I think that the women here are much more assertive now, and the stereotype of submissiveness is quite outdated. At least in my own personal experience. However, the large economic inequality between the women here, along with many of the locals, and the foreigners is still a reality, so this will always affect the relationships between them.

Right now the Vietnamese system is really quite stable. When looking back through their history, there has been a lot of violence. Even before the Europeans came, there were numerous dynasties and kingdoms over different territories that were at war with each other, and the Chinese were actually in control of the country for 1,000 years. Then there was the French rule and the many years of rebellion and war that followed. The past 30 or so years have been pretty stable compared to the rest of the region, and as Vietnam grows more economically successful and open to foreign trade, I believe the quality of life will gradually improve. Right now, though, it still has got a long way to go. The biggest change that I'm holding out for in Saigon is a subway, to ease the horrendous rush hour traffic situation. 6 million or so people, all trying to drive to work or school on their motorbikes, is just lunacy. There are buses, but when vying for space on the narrow roads with the motorbikes, and navigating around construction, it seems like far from the ideal public transportation.

Anyway, this was just my own rambling observations, make of it what you will.

Monday, April 13, 2009

on Beefsteaks and Teachers

It was a good weekend. I especially enjoying hanging out with a couple expat friends. We ended up at a place overlooking the river in Phu Nhuan near my house, where a lot of local Vietnamese go. It closes very late, around 4am, so a lot of locals go there when the bars and clubs close, and it's a great place to people watch. It's also a good chance to buy cheap food from the people who wander up and down the tables trying to sell things, like quail eggs and boiled peanuts. It took me awhile to get used to the softer peanuts when they're boiled but I've come to like them.

Sunday night I wanted to go with Uyen to a place that advertised ostrich meat. I was really excited to try it, but when we came they told us they were out of ostrich. So, we settled for beefsteak, which was fine, because I really like it here. It's not the same as the typical steak in America, which I imagine as being thick and juicy with steak sauce. Here it's very thin and is served on a hot pot which is hot and crackling as it comes to you. Often it is also served with an egg and other styles of meat, and even french fries and bread on the side. The Vietnamese then squirt chili sauce over the whole mess but I passed. Anyway, beefsteaks are one of my favorite dishes in Vietnam, and they're usually cheap compared to Western food. Plus, almost every coffee shop in the city has it on the menu, so if you're ever in a hunger panic at any time of the day, you can count on getting some beef and eggs and bread at a cafe.
Here's a picture of my meal:

So, now that I've been teaching more children's classes, it's very interesting noting the differences between my co-teachers. When I walk into a class, the students are often already engaged in a lesson with the Vietnamese teacher, and I unwittingly cause a disruption. They all turn to me, most of them saying "hello!" and if some of them remember me then they shout my name. Some Vietnamese teachers are really hands-on and don't like letting go of the class. I'll start to teach and they'll keep interrupting with suggestions or ideas for games, which is okay towards the end of class if I'm looking for a different activity to do. Sometimes they will even interrupt in the middle of a game and say they want the students to work on their workbooks. But these teachers are good at translating my more complicated instructions to the students so they can participate in the games. Other teachers see me come in and immediately retreat to the back of the class, where I don't hear from them until the end of class and I'm pretty much on my own. So, if I do try to explain an activity, the students are lost and the teacher isn't really paying attention, so I have to look at them in exasperation until they realize they should translate what I'm saying. I can relate to these teachers, because the students really are a handful, and they have to be around the kids longer than I do, but still, I rely on their ability to convey quickly in Vietnamese what I'm trying in vain to describe with English and hand signals. At any rate, I think I'm able to better establish a rapport with the students when I'm communicating directly with them without having the other teacher trying to direct things all the time.
In general, I feel like a novelty item, as a foreign teacher. I come in and I'm immediately an item of interest. I don't have all the training of the Vietnamese teachers, and I'm not expected to have any knowledge of grammar or anything like that. Yet somehow my role is still essential. I guess it pays to have someone who speaks English as a native speaker so the students can at least hear how it's supposed to sound. Especially when even the Vietnamese teachers pronounce things wrong, saying "He ee tall" instead of "He is tall". No one wants to say the "s" at the end of words. It's an ongoing battle.
But Rome wasn't built in a day!

I've finished Don Quixote and bought a photocopy version of The Quiet American for 2 bucks while on vacation in Nha Trang. It's quite short and I'm almost done, but I'm enjoying it so I'm only reading a little bit everyday. I'm interested in its portrayal of Vietnamese culture 50 years ago, not so much interested in the politics. After I finish it I want to compare my experience with that of the observations in the book.

And on that note, farewell til next time. I'm trying to blog more often now that Kevin of gave me a shout out and I'm getting some more readers! So, if you read mine then check out his too, he talks a lot about coffee shops which are a major interest of mine!

Friday, April 10, 2009

My new-found obsession with coffee shops

I've gotten back into the swing of things, and making up the classes I missed last week at the public school has kept me busy. Some of my classes at the journalism school are ending so I'm hoping that new ones will start up for me to teach. So, some days I have a little more free time than others. Yesterday I was busy pretty much from 2pm to 9pm but today I just teach from 3:30 to 4 then 4:30 to 5 and I'm free at night. Hopefully I'll be meeting some fellow expat friends. I've been hanging out almost exclusively with Vietnamese people lately, which is good, but there's something to be said about being with expats and being able to speak at full speed. With some of the free time I had on Monday, I started writing, and trying to realize the goal of making a novel about life in Vietnam, semi-autobiographical. As they say, you need to write a little bit everyday and get in the habit of it. Same as exercise or reading the bible or anything else, but since I tend to forget about my daily tasks until the end of the day, I usually don't exercise since doing a bunch of sit-ups before bed keeps me awake. Even though I'm tired, I'm usually able to write a little bit before bed and time will tell if it's actually cohesive. I'm just writing now and not worrying about what it looks like until later.
This week I've also been sick with a common head cold, which are so common here that people barely bat an eye if you tell them that you're sick. They just remark, "oh, it's the weather" and recommend some medicine for me to take. The medicine has been making me feel better and I should be back to normal soon.
Sometimes living in Saigon really gets on my nerves and I dread the drive to work. I think part of this is just the conditions of driving in general. From where I live, there are several routes to take to reach my school, and I often try different ones to test the traffic, but I keep finding that all of them are bad. There is perpetual construction on some streets that limit the width of the road to barely the width of a car, and all the motorbikes have to go on the sidewalk to get around it. There are some construction areas in the middle of the road which actually jut halfway into the intersection, and if you're making a left-hand turn, well, good luck. Because of all the narrow spaces, if a motorbike breaks down in the middle of it, it causes more chaos than the apocalypse.
Now, it appears that the rainy season has arrived early. Every day for the past week or so it has rained heavily in the afternoon, not for long but rather intense so that driving is very unpleasant. A light drizzle doesn't cause much of a reaction, but as it starts to pick up, you see many drivers who are stopped at the side of the road pulling their raincoats out of their compartments and sliding them on, then back on their motorbikes. One upshot is the cooling down that happens after a rain. But I still miss the cool, dry season.

Now I've been getting more interested in finding coffee shops, particularly when I have some free time. It's much better than sitting at home. I want to find one that is the perfect combination: good vietnamese coffee but not expensive, some light food options, free wifi, A/C, relaxing music, interesting decor, a nice upstairs area, close to my house. Sounds like a lot, huh? But it's pretty common, except the coffees are more expensive than I want. At the places I've been trying, coffee is 35-40,000 dong, which is about $2 or $2.25, but when I can buy it on the street for a quarter, it's overpriced. I guess I'm paying for atmosphere. Yesterday I had coffee at a nice place called Le Cafe de la May, which had a French theme and nice artwork, on a busy street but pretty quiet inside, and lots of plants around. A recurring theme of coffee shops here is the inclusion of nature, with some cafes being right outside with trees in between the tables, but I like my A/C so I'll take an indoor venue.

So, this brings me to today. I was enjoying my typical breakfast at home when suddenly the power turned off. I learned not to expect it back up again until 5pm, so I made plans to look for a coffee shop. I looked around near the street where I teach this afternoon but found some other places were missing power too. So now I wound up at the turtle pond rotary place, and found a place aptly named "Coffee Cup". I like this place a lot, although the coffee is still expensive and I decided to indulge in an iced cappuccino. Anyway, I like the music, it's some good instrumental stuff and now suddenly this song "quando quando quando" came on, this big band song that probably has a famous singer whom I should know but I don't. Now the decor here is really amazing, it looks like a 19th-century parlor. They have comfy old couches and chairs, along with standard coffee shop chairs. I'm resting my computer on a glass table with flowers on it, looks like it was taken from a hotel lobby. Next to me is a shelf with pictures and candlestick holders and mirrors and mood lamps with darkened shades. I have sort of my own little corner here. And of course, free wifi. Being close to Vo Van Tan and Nguyen Dinh Chieu, two streets where I teach, is convenient, and about 15-20 mins from my house. They even have these elaborate curtains on the windows, and flowerpots by the windows as if this were an old apartment building.
And now, a word on the "upstairs" requirement I have. You see, horizontal space is limited here. It seems that most buildings are alotted just a small amount of space to build on the ground floor, and this place looks like they probably also bought the place next door, because it's twice as big as the typical place upstairs. Anyway, this means that when downstairs, you're pretty much open to the outside, there's not much room to hide. I like to hide away in a coffee shop to read or do some writing or internet browsing, so I go upstairs to find a nice nook or an empty seat by a window to watch the rat race below. Nearly every building as at least one or two extra floors above the ground floor.

Anyway, that's all the news that's fit to report right now. Au revoir!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Nha Trang

Nha Trang is one of the most popular beach towns in Vietnam. I say town, but it's really a small city, though much more relaxing than Saigon. One road lined with palm trees stretches along the coast, with the beach on one side and hotels on the other. It has the standard tropical beach town feel but definitely has the Viet charm too. There is some dispute about the origin of the name, since "nha trang" doesn't mean anything. But, I noticed that it's similar to "nhà trắng", which means white house. Could this be the Vietnamese Casablanca? Well actually, this was the home of Louis Pasteur, and he and Alexandre Yersin did their scientific research here. Apparently Pasteur had the only white house in town, and when he was telling the driver where to go he said in his bad vietnamese "nha trang" without any tones, so the name stuck somehow. That's just a story, one of many possible explanations, but it's my favorite.

Anyway, I had a fun couple of days in Nha Trang. It was just me and Hien, as the other teachers had already gone. Unfortunately, it did rain quite a bit. But it was still a fun, relaxing time.

The first day we got in very early from the night train, about 5:30am. We took a taxi to the little but comfortable hotel and saw many people out exercising as the sun was just preparing to rise. After checking into the hotel we had to wait for the breakfast places to open, then we got breakfast at a nice french place. I had my usual vacation fare, an omelet, along with bread and of course a ca phe sua da. After that we went to the beach, I read Don Quixote for awhile, I went swimming for a bit in the pool, and just relaxed. It started to get cloudy and then rained, which it kept doing most of the time there. Anyway, at least I got some beach time in.

The rest of the time, I ate a lot of food, Vietnamese and Western, I got some very good pizza, billed as the best in Nha Trang and definitely the best I've had in Vietnam. We also went on an island tour, we took a bus and then a boat to check out a few islands. They had lots of animals to see, like ostriches and deer and monkeys. One island was all monkeys, and they were wild but also used to people, so they went right up to you and demanded food. As soon as they got some, they grabbed it and ran away to eat it. They were very competitive with each other. I think there were two different monkey tribes that were at war on the island. They also had a little performance with monkeys and dogs and goats, dressed up funny and doing tricks, some of it was silly and ridiculous. It looked like they mistreated the animals, and I figured that such a show wouldn't go on in the US without a lot of complaints. But here, the presenters were smiling away and the audience was clapping.

Anyway, I took a lot of pictures too, which I'll show. When I came back to HCMC, I drove back from Languagecorps at 5am, 1 hour before the sun rose, and saw lots of people awake on the street, some selling food, others exercising. I can't believe what an early start people have. And my mom complains about waking up at 5:30 hahaha... Actually, I complain if I have to wake up before 11am.

So, not much else is going on. Been slow with work since I got back, since I have a couple days off because of Hung Vuong. He was the first king of Vietnam, like 4,000 years ago. It was his birthday on Saturday. They don't know for sure, because it was so long ago, but they decided to celebrate it then anyway. So I got off from both private and public schools. Then later this week it's time to get back in action. A lot of classes are ending but I should start getting some new classes too.

Here is a smattering of pictures. I realized how easy it is to just upload photos to facebook instead of photobucket, so all my pictures are on there as well. Here are the links to those albums: