Monday, December 30, 2013

A Tale of Two Le Pubs

Garlic Butter Fries -
a real thing that was brought to our table.
As I believe the Bard so eloquently phrased it...:

Two le Pubs, of unequal dignity,
In fair Saigon, where we lay our scene,
From Vi'tnamese to gastro mutiny,
Where mango shakes are mostly cream.
From forth the kitchens of these two foes
Two pairs of entrees stake their claim;
Whose mismanaged qual'ty overthrows
their chances at glory 'n fame.
The downing of their soggy chips,
And sides of server apathy,
Which, but for our cries, nought could fix,
Made dining out an agony;
Now if you with patient ears attend,

With what I write, your dining plans mend.

Strangely, there are two different restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City called le Pub. I thought perhaps they were two branches of the same restaurant - nope! Totally separate restaurants, and there are a lot of differences lurking behind the label (even though they have very similar logos!).

Let's start with le Pub in District 3 - closer to my house, and closer to my idea of a grown-up restaurant.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Buckaroo Ben in the Street Food Dimension, Part Deux

I've been told by many locals that street food is the way to get the real Vietnamese experience - restaurants are fine and all, but if you want to eat like a Viet, you eat on the street.

This edition brings another dessert cup, a whole bunch of fried things, rice in all forms, and even a surprise cream puff. Did not expect the cream puff.

Here's my second round-up of treats from the streets. Enjoy!

Sticky Corn with Sweet Coconut Sauce
Average Cost: $.25 USD
Mandatoryness Level: Skip it
Best Attributes:

-It's traditional, but that doesn't make it acceptable to my western palette, even one that's been saturated in Vietnamese tastes for 7 months. Instant regret. Not even a rumbly tummy kept me from throwing this one away.

-The texture and taste of what is essentially creamed sweet corn with coconut sauce is just not my cup of tea.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Oh Nothing, Just My 1st Graders Singing Christmas Songs and Dancing

It's Christmastime in Vietnam!

Despite being a primarily Buddhist/Atheistic country, it's been a great surprise to learn and see first hand how much Vietnamese people TOTALLY DIG Christmas.

It's the lights. The tree. The songs. Santa. Decorations are everywhere, and people flock from all over the region to the area around the Notre Dame Cathedral in downtown District 1 to take dozens of facebook profile pictures in front of the decoration displays.

I anticipated a week like any other week, but from the traffic to the atmosphere, it's been a pleasant surprise.

To get into the spirit of the season, I've been singing Christmas songs with my first graders for several weeks. Although I'm pretty sure my ears will bleed if I ever hear Jingle Bell (sic) again, it was still pretty darn adorable.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Roommate Christmas in Vietnam!

Last Monday, my four roommates and I held our first ever tropical Christmas BBQ and House Decorating Bonanza! This should be a tradition everywhere. There's nothing like fire-crisped meat and vegetables, Christmas tunes, and strands of lights.

We each prepared or brought something, and ended up with a huge feast. Beers were enjoyed, ice water was had, and over the course of two hours we laughed, talked, drank, and ate.

While food was being prepared and the BBQ was being (painfully slowly) fired up, we also got out the scotch tape and set out holiday-ifying our place! It just wasn't the season without some crazy cheap ornaments, tinsel, and holiday lights, right?

Click on for pictures of our house, food, and the fun we had celebrating a Christmas far from our homes!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Gifts, Goodbyes, and Grub: Expenses Dec 16-22

Let me preface... it really can be cheap to live here, I promise you!

This week saw a lot of activity (besides me losing my voice). Multiple friends left Vietnam (hence, parties and meals!), I got a whole hell of a lot of house stuff accomplished, got more Christmas presents (still have to ship them, of course...), and had social engagements almost every night. 'Tis the Season! I addition to that gaping money wound, I also chose this week to present a donation to the English program at one of my schools and give a holiday tip to the maid. So much money... money hemorrhaging everywhere. Things to think about when I get to budgeting!

Click on for the details - even without rent this week, I spent a solid stack of real (USD!) bills.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What is Tet, and Why Am I Preparing For It?

The blog post pretty much says it all! What the heck is Tet, and with so much time off, why am I doing anything but laying around eating banh mi and re-watching Fringe?

So first, I guess:

What is Tet?

Tet is the Vietnamese lunar new year. It is considered the first day of spring in Vietnam and, because it's a lunar holiday, happens on a different date each year - usually the end of January and the beginning of February. While it's also celebrated in Cambodia, the tour books all say it's a pretty fun time to visit - very colorful. Staying in Vietnam for the Tet holiday is problematic for a couple reasons.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Quan Bui: The Restaurant That Could Cook No Wrong

This is one of those magical dining experiences where you go in knowing that everything you get is going to be basically perfect.

Unlike the banh xeo place, we have literally NOT FOUND a bad thing on the menu, and this is after eating here on an almost weekly basis for months. That's a pretty bold statement, but I'm pretty serious - this restaurant is on my "take every guest" list of places. No matter what we've gotten, big groups or small, not one person has ever said "...nahhhhhh."

That's a hard recommendation, nerds.

Quan Bui is a small restaurant in District 1 that specializes in traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Everything's made fresh to order and between the presentation, atmosphere, service, and flavor, I'm not sure that there's a quibble to be had.

From the moment you enter you know you'll be taken care of. You can sit on the ground floor or ascend the incredibly steep staircase to the first floor where an air conditioned room and an outdoor patio filled with plants await.

The minute you open the menu, though... you know you're going to have to do some soul searching to fulfill the particular craving you've got. For, I can guarantee it, if you've got a particular need in your soul, you can get that itch scratched here.

Since I really can't speak highly enough of the food, I'll let it do the talking this time. Click on for a photo album of (merely) the dishes I remembered to take pictures of before digging in!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Saigon Sights: À Ố Show at the Saigon Opera House

Wow, finally... a post about the theatre! A fitting choice for my 100th (!) post!

Theatre's usually a dress-up time for me - the closest thing I could manage after 12 hours in my work clothes was jeans and a snazzy bow-tie (I have LITERALLY been waiting since I got to Vietnam to pull out the bow-tie!!), but I shouldn't have worried. The house was packed with expats and visiting tourists in casual duds.

The visitors were there with good reason. The À Ố Show currently in residence at the Saigon Opera House brags that it's changing the guidebooks, and they're pretty much right on the money. That is no undeserved brag, my friends. This is an honest-to-god piece of art, and I enjoyed every second of it. If I hadn't seen it's artistic antecedents several times in America (Cirque du Soleil, you've gone and had a love child with Vietnam, didn't you?) I would have had absolutely no idea where this came from.

As it turns out, the show was a blast. My inner theatre professional thought it was practically perfect in every way - funny, moving, beautiful, well-designed, well-choreographed and executed, thoughtfully-conceived, and an all around pleasure!

Click through for pics, the Opera House, and my thoughts...

Monday, December 16, 2013

Shopping and Rent: Expenses December 9-15

I made a number of financial decisions this week, and I spent an absolutely insane amount of money.

For one thing, I decided to pay ahead on my rent (~$150) in order to prepare for my Cambodia trip next month - slowly getting used to the paid-once-a-month model.

I also bought a lot of things for our house! I got an amazing set of tables and chairs for the terrace, and it looks awesome - I think the porch is finally done. It's so peaceful and nice out there!

I just finished a picture frame project for the 5th floor, and I bought some christmas lights and decorations - I couldn't help myself! I also bought some things for the BBQ grill and got a bucket to make watering the plants easier (now that it's the dry season, especially important). Lots of house stuff.

I also have some friends coming in late December, so that entailed new pillows, sheets, and an air mattress for them.

Click through for the gory details of my money-drenched week...

Psycho Asian Comfort Food: Sweet Sriracha Pancakes with Maple Soy Dipping Sauce

I'm trying to figure out what the line down the center of this picture is... 
Man, cravings! Sometimes they hit, and you can't be held responsible for what happens when you satisfy those needs.

It was recently One Of Those Nights, and I was feeling hungry and kitchen-adventurous. Talk about cravings - here's all my cravings, rolled into one weird little dish that was fun to make and eat.

The pancakes don't have any further butter on them. I used my fingers to rip them up and dip a little bit in the sauce I made. I suppose you could pour it on, but a little goes a long way, in my opinion.

That said, if you've got a good twist on this for my next pancake outing, holler back! Aito thought maybe bacon in the pancake would be good. I must agree with him - perhaps next time. (UPDATE: IT WAS GREAT).

Read on for my "recipe" and some pictures!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

And Now For a Word From Our Sponsors...

A couple weeks ago I came into my first primary school of the day to be greeted by this nonsense. There was a massive promotional push to get kids to drink a particular brand of Vietnamese milk (Dutch Lady) happening this morning.

Because I have to walk through the courtyard to park my bike in the rear of the school, I had to navigate it past maybe a thousand children playing with the mascots, getting pictures taken, and generally running amok because there was some kind of change in their schedule.

You remember how fun changes to the school day were when you were little? It was crazy! All bets were off when things didn't follow the normal day! And it always felt so great to bust out of the routine. This was like a mixture concert, basketball contest, circus, and toy giveaway, and it was totally crazy.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Mentally Mapping the City

I never appreciated what I had in Chi-town.
God bless you, grid system.
"Where in the twisted hell am I??"

is something I find myself saying pretty much every week, whether it's because I'm lost in some maze of alleys or because I've just realized that I'm living and working in Vietnam (both can be equally disorienting). Let me try to give my definitive answer on locating myself in space and time* here...

I never really knew Chicago until I biked it. The same holds true for Saigon. This time, however, I've got a few extra cc's under me!

Sure, I took public transportation all over Chicago prior to biking, but it was always a passive, stare-out-the-window kind of knowing. It wasn't until I had to navigate and triangulate my position on two wheels in motion that I truly felt I knew where I was, and how I'd get to where I wanted to go. It was a good feeling.

A similar process of knowing is happening here in HCMC, but the difference here is that the City is so massive and the map is so unpredictable, it would take years and years of non-stop exploration and practice to effectively know it all. Hell, even my taxi drivers don't know it all! When I took taxis, they often had to stop and ask another driver for directions. I stick to the places I need to get to, and add to my repertoire as I need to.

So that's something I've been doing in my spare time - figuring out just where in the sam hell I am...

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bánh Khọt Cô Ba Vũng Tàu: Breakfast for Dinner

lThis is probably the easiest review I'll write about a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh (UPDATE: Psych... no it wasn't). I know that going into it. The challenge will be how to look critical - as far as I know, these pancakes can do no wrong. They even cancel out the blatant misfires I've had - that good.

Bánh Khọt Cô Ba Vũng Tàu is my favorite bet in the city to get enormous rice pancakes filled with stuff. Delicious, delicious stuff. In fact, this is the only place where I allow myself to blatantly order things with seafood in them (damn you, The Gout!) and enjoy it - I don't really care if my toes hurt for a couple days afterwards. Totally worth it.

For those of you new to the Banh Xeo ("Bahn Say-Oh") party, the Southern version is a huge rice pancake filled with stuff, usually seafood, and made a nice toasty yellow with the addition of turmeric.

Since I'll never be able to make something like this dish at home (it takes a lot of ridiculously special equipment and training), I haven't bothered to find out the details. So bear with me as I take you through eating one of Vietnam's most surprising dishes...

Monday, December 9, 2013

4/5ths Of It Food: Expenses Dec 2-8

The first step to taming your spending is knowing where your money is going - and, three weeks in, I'm finally developing a picture.

Most of my money is going to food. This is fairly unsurprising - I mean, I really like food, and I'm in one of the food capitals of the world. There is literally food everywhere. Go half a block and you'll meet at least one street food vendor.

I should note that for this spending/tracking experiment, I'm just spending money like I normally would here. It's probably true that I curtail it a little bit (you can't observe something without changing it!) since I'm keeping such close tabs on it, but for the most part I'm letting myself run willy nilly.

Because my long-term money goals are ambitious (for me, at least), my next step after collecting data will be to create a budget that allows me to have fun and live a comfortable (delicious) life while also saving substantial portions of my income (hopefully in a way that lets me remit it to the US). Look for my first budget experiment in January 2014!

But for this week... my god, 83.3% of my weekly expenditures on food?!:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Saigon Sights: Lâm viên Cần Giờ (Monkey Island)

District Can Gio.
Recently it was the most glorious holiday (TEACHER'S DAY!) and I was able to rearrange my office hours to take a much-needed trip outside of the city - fresh air, fewer people, fewer bikes, nature... and monkeys.

So many monkeys. And so many pictures!

You can see the map of Cần Giờ District (yes, still part of Ho Chi Minh City, crazily!) that we traveled to. Our destination was Lâm viên Cần Giờ (Cần Giờ Forest Park), in the southern region - almost as far south as you can go while staying both on land and in HCMC's expansive boundaries.

Lâm viên Cần Giờ is a designated UN Biosphere Reserve, recognized as such for the best practices exhibited by the Vietnamese government in regrowing the massive and extensive mangrove forests following the destruction of over 80% of the total biomass through American gas attacks during the Vietnam War. Today, the area is a quiet haven for thousands of monkeys (called a troop!), a group of crocodiles (called a float!), and a beautiful and calm alternative to the endless shouting, honking, bustling throngs of Ho Chi Minh City.

It's picture slideshow time!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Teacher's Day 2013

Teacher's Day!!!

Was there ever a holiday so fantastic?! Vietnam holds an annual national holiday recognizing the hard work of (and low pay of most) teachers every year, and this year it landed on Wednesday, November 20th. Both of my schools cancelled classes and I got my office hours moved to Friday - the better to go to Monkey Island with!

On this day, kids sing songs, dance dances, and shower teachers with all sorts of presents, cards, and cash. Parents and administrators alike seemed to take this 'gift' thing to heart, as you'll see below. I got an absolutely unnecessary amount of gifts - honestly I just love interacting with my kids. That's usually reward enough... but this did not hurt one tiny bit!

Here's one of my photo album posts - just to explain how big a deal this is, here's a set of some of the craziest parts of this fun day (and indeed, whole week). If you're thinking of teaching in Vietnam, I guess I'd say this was an endorsement!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Cost of Smartphones in Vietnam

This is $10 of minutes that I purchased at
my local convenience store.
"How much does your phone cost?"


"How do you use a phone there?"

These are fairly common questions I get, and I think it's worth a response simply because the system here is so unlike the system we have at home in the US - it took a bit of a learning curve (and I still have questions!) to familiarize myself.

RECAP: So basically, in America, you don't have to bear the entire cost of a new smartphone because they are subsidized by the carriers. In return, you're limited to their network and most likely locked into a long, expensive, two-year contact, paying anywhere from $50-100 - or more - to provide that phone with service and whatever internet packet you've signed up for.

The system in much of the rest of the world is different. I recently bought a secondhand smartphone (my very first capable smartphone!!) and, having lived the dream for a couple months, want to tell you all about it.

Read on for numbers and money, and to learn how much your phone plan sucks!

Monday, December 2, 2013

More Gas, Please: Expenses Nov 25 - Dec 1

My second week of formally tracking every single "cent" I spend is off to a good start, and I'm starting to notice things that I had no idea were happening. I love budgets.

I've had good money news this week - I get paid once a month (CRAZY, I KNOW) and I've learned that my probation period at work is over. I'll notice several changes:
  1. Taxes reduced from 20% to 10%
  2. A fixed salary every month, no matter what
  3. A higher salary
THESE ARE GREAT THINGS!! Hopefully this will allow me to start putting much more away, now that my big ticket items are purchased (phone, bike). I'm looking forward to seeing much more money remitted to the US in these little posts in the upcoming months!

Things I've learned this week:

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Khoi Thom: Mexican, In Living Color

I wish I could bring my 1st graders learning about color here!

With a name like Fragrant Smoke, you've got a lot to live up to. I expected a lot, and I'm happy to say that Khoi Thom (Vietnamese for Fragrant Smoke) delivers in spades.

Located on a beautiful side street between the Archbishop's house and the Japanese Embassy, Khoi Thom is easily one of the tastier restaurants I've visited since I've been here, and not just because I've been pining for Mexican food (it's like a sickness!).

The atmosphere is relaxing, the al fresco dining room felt right, and the food was a spot on version of Mexican that perfectly suits the Vietnamese palette. I leave satisfied and ready to tackle another plate, every time.

And true, although it's a VERSION of Mexican, it's more than enough to satisfy my cravings. I've been three times now, and I'm sure I'll be again soon! Here's what I thought:

Thursday, November 28, 2013

First Experience with the HCMC Public Buses

Recently I went to Monkey Island with a friend on Teacher's Day, and we ended up taking public buses to get the full experience.

This is the first time I've been on the bus system here (seriously - this long! It even took me months to try the buses when I first moved to Chicago! I don't even know) and it was a pretty good experience. Long, but very interesting, and I got some fun videos.

I thought I'd write a brief post about it, as some aspects are a bit... different... than bus rides I've had in the past.

Read on for a short primer on "how" to ride the city buses in Saigon! Complete with amusing videos!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

My Public School Teaching Methods

This is THE phrase everyone - EVERYONE - knows
(complete with arm gestures!): "I'm fine, thanks. And you?"
Technically speaking, I'm not doing the job I expected to be doing when I began this foray into teaching.

I'm mostly employed as a Listening/Speaking ESL teacher, my syllabus assuming that their regular Vietnamese teacher has taught them reading, writing, and grammar. The consequence of this division of labor is that I rarely get to do 'whole language' instruction with my youngest students.

Their two worlds of skills are completely separate, and it's evident by the expectations of my older private students: "Teach us how to communicate!"

At the same time, identifying student problem areas are difficult, to say the least, in classes where each individual might hope to get a maximum of 2 or 3 minutes of pure one-on-one practice time with me - the sheer volume of learners coupled with the once-a-week instruction work to keep everyone at the slowest common denominator.

Here are the ways that I try to mitigate these circumstances and lay some heavy English knowledge on all these kids...

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rediscovering Budgets: Expenses November 18-24

For many years I had a pretty good budget system in the United States, but, unfortunately, it all fell apart when I moved to Vietnam. One major difference in day to day life here is that not many places accept debit/credit cards, which was how I tracked my old expenses. Vietnam is really, really into getting cash for goods and services.

Here's my first attempt at getting back on track: keeping tabs on my spending and rediscovering my inner fiscally-responsible self (however deep he's buried in street food!).

Once I started voicing my frustrations, it seemed like everyone around me had an idea on the best way to proceed. I was clearly not alone.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Preparing Holiday Cards

2012's design, hand-stitched with painted buttons.
For several years now I have produced my own Christmas Cards for my family and friends. I've had successes, and some missteps, but few things excited me more before I left America than the idea of sending a new, original christmas card to my family and friends from the opposite side of the world.

This process always starts with my list of addresses from the previous year - I usually have between 60-80 cards to make. I have a few more this year because of new friends, which is both awesome and a little exhausting to think about.

When I envisioned this task while in America, I thought that I would have already started to practically learn more about Vietnamese artistic traditions by this point. That hasn't really happened, but I decided I still wanted something that would be iconic, festive, and really, really Vietnamese. I put my thinking cap on and got to work.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Fall Open House: 14 Weeks of Teaching and Counting

Two Mondays ago I took my job to the Nth level - it was open house time. Time to preen and show off!

Several times a year, my class will come down to the courtyard and 'perform' for parents and invited guests. With many resources available to us that we don't have in the regular classrooms (including projector, computer, and speaker system - the ubiquitous microphone does NOT count), it's a great way to plan something that's a little out of the ordinary.

A native English teacher is considered an asset to public schools here. Most teachers teaching English grammar, reading, and writing are communicating in Vietnamese, not English, and many are not very proficient in speaking/listening. Luckily, my teacher at this particular primary school is a great listener and speaker, and her kids are usually ok.

It should have been a disaster. Leading up to the moment I started, it certainly had all the characteristics of a disaster. I was nervous but, breaking it down, it was just acting - and that I had done before.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Starfruit Trek

I've shown you all the pictures of our incredibly prolific starfruit bushes on the terrace. I'd been threatening to make starfruit-chili jam for some time, and when we decided to do Canadian Thanksgiving (a post on that after American Thanksgiving!) it seemed like the perfect plan to follow through and produce something with our produce.

We looked at this recipe and everyone pitched in - before long we had a pot of jam boiling down on the stove.

Click though for some pictures and information on how we avoided actually canning... but sadly few Star Trek references.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Why Did I Choose Vietnam?

I waffled (fun word!) for several months before finally picking a place to go teach English, and even then I was unsure and lacked confidence in my decision. It was only once I'd been here for a while that I could say for sure that I made the correct choice - this is an amazing, electric city in a rapidly modernizing & developing country, and, in 2013, it's a fascinating place to live and work.

If you haven't heard me tell it, there was a specific string of events and planning that led me to take the concrete steps to go abroad to teach. Here's how I eventually settled on Vietnam!

Vietnam is special in a lot of ways. Here's what I was thinking when I finally made my choice:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Adventures in Street Food

Have I seriously gone 5 and a half months without talking much about the fun food and drink you can get on the side of the road?! Let's rectify that!

Here you see a coconut - yes, a whole coconut. It's been fashioned into a cup, and then when you drive up, the salesperson whacks the top off with a machete sticks a straw in it, throws it in a little bag, and you're on your way!

Fresh Coconut
Average Cost: $.25-.50 USD
Mandatoryness Level: Totally Mandatory
Best Attributes: Quenches your thirst in a way no other liquid can.

Drive on for a cornucopia of food I bought on the street!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Saigon's Canals: The Project From Hell

The revamped main canal.

Ho Chi Minh City's canals are two different stories, which diverge significantly (ha), with many accidental but important lessons learned along the way. Today I want to tell you about what surely must be one of the most compelling sustainable infrastructure projects I've heard of yet: the transformation of the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe branch of the Saigon canal system.

Over the course of 10 years this branch was transformed from an open sewer spreading disease and destruction to a jewel of central Ho Chi Minh City's park system.

And, to think, it almost didn't happen - at least 4 times. In fact, it was literally abandoned as un-doable at one point by a foreign contractor. Not a good omen, you say?

Hit the jump for just how the longest of these canals turned out, as well as pictures from some of the city's less well-off canals:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Mexican Food, First Attempt

I couldn't resist that bite - I had to know!
My absolute favorite breakfast is Mexican chorizo and onions, scrambled with eggs, with sautéed peppers and cheese on a hot tortilla. So you can imagine the ideas that sprang to mind one recent Friday as I was grocery shopping and found CHORIZO.

This was my attempt to make my favorite Mexican breakfast, including my own homemade tortillas with chorizo, onions, peppers, eggs, and

See how I fared at my first-ever attempt at tortilla making after the jump!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Why Travel Now?

Why Travel Now?

After receiving many questions about my motives for traveling, and Vietnam in particular, I wanted to share with you how I got to where I am, and where I want to go. At least, how I decided to go NOW, and not in a year, or 6 months, or 5 years.

I'll continue about Why Vietnam? in a second, related post. :)

I should also add that, while these are my goals now... I'll be course correcting as I go along!

Once Upon a Time, in the late summer of 2012, I was riding my bike home from my volunteering gig at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. It's a 7.25 mile trek back to Albany Park, about half of it along Chicago's unparalleled lakefront trail - surely one of the most pleasant, easy urban rides in the United States. I was thinking about how nice it was to have access to such a strong network of biking trails in Chicago and how lucky I was as a citizen to be able to use them to get sunshine, exercise, and peace of mind, as well as using them for cheap, practical transport. 

And here I found myself thinking, How did this happen? Who did this? I wondered if there were some way that I could get in on this city-improving action.

The idea stuck, and I was soon concocting plans.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Saigon Survival: Coffee Culture

Saigon is awash in coffee.

Everywhere you go - everywhere - there is coffee. It's generally dark, thick, and potent, with enough caffeine to jumpstart your brain whether it's 5:30am or 11pm (general coffee drinking hours). I have to steer clear of it after about 7, or, as I learned, it's enough to keep me up late into the night.

I've literally never seen anything like this, in regards to general coffee consumption, but after thinking about it and living the coffee life for 5 months, I think I'm beginning to get it.

Click through to learn a little about a few of the most mandatory local coffee drinks, reliable chains, and how to know if your street coffee contains margarine...

Monday, November 4, 2013

Someone Punch a Hole In My Creativity Card

This might be the most Vietnamese thing I've done since I've gotten here, sadly.

Was it eating beef noodle soup on a stool on the sidewalk? Nope.
Was it learning to smile all the time, for any reason? Not even.
Was it staying out late in Bui Vien? No (and that's not particularly Vietnamese).

It was this atrocity of functionality:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Nominally a God

I've had teachers tell me during teacher training (both my first two years of undergrad studies, when I was an education major, and during my more recent TEFL training) that your rules are inviolable in the classroom. In the words of one educator, you are God's direct envoy of teaching to this classroom, and what you say goes. But what if you can't make your wishes understood?

Today I experienced an unsettling situation that I feel compelled to write about, primarily because I'm a little surprised that this hasn't happened to me already, but also because it brought home to be just how much of a guest I am in classrooms.

It underlined my relative newness to teaching, my lack of cultural knowledge, and my entire understanding of discipline in HCMC's public schools, and in this school in particular (disciplinary measures vary widely between schools in the city).

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ho Chi Mix City: October 2013

Note: I promise - this mix is not heavy on classics!

As Fall sets in - or what passes for Fall here - I've been getting a little moody regarding the lack of seasons. Not having the changing weather is a strange thing - I've only ever lived where you can track the passage of time through the cycle of the seasons. Fortunately, I've been able to keep my mind busy by spending a LOT of time getting to know my roommates.

Friends in other houses keep telling us how lucky we are, and that we have the best roommates... and I have to agree! Everyone we've had so far has been great - we actually enjoy spending time together, whether it's a meal or a beer or just a break on the terrace between projects. Perhaps it's the fact that our actual house is rather shitty and so we're forced into small common areas more frequently, or maybe we just did honestly get lucky with each other - no matter the reason, these songs are the ones that fit the bill this month. Pop, dance, indie rock, and just a touch of disco make a mix I can listen to over and over again.

Hit the jump for 77 minutes of realtalk about new friends...

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Freedom of Religion in Vietnam

The Buddha statue in Nha Trang
Growing up as a pastor's son, I've always found religion and its effects to be interesting and worthy of attention, and its role in SE Asia, and Vietnam in particular, is much different compared to how Americans generally regard the practicing of religious principles. In Vietnam it plays a huge role in shaping public attitudes and culture - officially invisible but publicly obvious - and I found myself becoming more interested in the complex dance between the laws of the State and their support, or lack thereof, for various religious groups. This post is an attempt to explore and dissect these relationships and religions in a very perfunctory manner. I do not profess to be an expert, but as an interested observer, this is what I've discovered.

Religion in Vietnam has a long and complicated past that is directly tied to its culture and history. While the country, following in the footsteps of other states established with Marxist-Leninist ideologies, remains officially and almost militantly atheistic, signs of believers are littered everywhere, and there are at least three major religions with a significant amount of adherents, as well as several smaller groupings.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

School Lunch

So, if I'm as busy as I say I am, then where do I find the time to grab food? The only sane answer is street food. Total time to walk up, indicate quantity, and leave with food is usually less than a minute. Best of all, each of these is 15,000 VND - less than $0.75.

Some of these are typical, and one is harder to find - all are tasty and fresh. I've showed you a couple before, but since I've been eating these for breakfast and brunch regularly for the last month, I thought I'd share a portion of my daily diet with you!

Monday, October 7, 2013

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

I've been here in Ho Chi Minh City now for 4 months, and, while that's not a very long time, it's long enough for me to develop some favorite things and some not so favorite things. Usually, it takes me a couple times before I decide, definitively, NO THANK YOU. And, ranked, here they are.

Have you been to Saigon? What are some of your favorites/not at all favorites? I'm curious if these are typical culture shock things or if I'm just developing personal tastes. Leave me notes in the comments!

Read on for a listicle (ugh, hate that word... but it's applicable):

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Dà Lạt: Central Highlands Playground of the French & Fabulous

Two months ago (!) I joined a number of people from my housing association and took a memorable trip (so memorable, in fact, that I'm about to recount it all to you, right now, two months late!) to Vietnam's central highlands, the most prominent city of which is Dà Lạt.
It is situated anywhere from 6-9 hours north of HCMC, and we were told to wear pants and long sleeves because it gets cold there. HA! It was shorts weather if I've ever seen any - a perfect 76F and mostly sunny all weekend. It's known for pine trees, strawberries, milk, and its abundant lakes and tree covered foothills. It provides temperate vegetables, flowers, and fruits to the rest of Vietnam and is particularly famous for a jam made from rose, strawberries, sweet potato, and mulberry.

It is the capital of Lâm Đồng Province, home to the Dà Lạt people, and is a popular tourist destination due to its mild climate and colonial past. During our stay we rented motorbikes, I learned how to drive, we toured the city, visited a temple, took a roller coaster around waterfalls, ate amazing food, and saw some incredible sights.

Hit the jump for a long post, and so, so many pictures!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

App Review: CultureGPS (Lite Edition)

I've never done an app review before, but I figured this one was probably the best place to start! What better place than immediately following my foray into non-verbal communication and linguistic rituals?

CultureGPS, Lite Edition, is a nifty little free app that does one thing, but does it very well. As far as I can tell, it's alone in that regard, as well - if there are other apps out there that evaluate cross-cultural differences, I'm unaware of them (and if you know, don't hesitate to shout out in the comments! I'm curious).

This (lite version of a paid) app takes a cross-cultural psychological theory and allows you to compare any two countries in terms of their relative position on 5 social dimensions.  It's a little complex, but it starts with  Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory. Let me explain...

Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory provides a framework for cross-cultural communication, and was originally conducted between 1967 and 1973 using IBM's worldwide employees as subjects. It attempts to explain observed differences between cultures and allows these differences to be quantified (which was the most important part). It has been the basis of a great number of cross-cultural psychological studies. Recently, he has added a sixth axis - indulgence vs. restraint - but that is not included in this app.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Observations on Interpersonal Communications

In Vietnam, every single one of
these emotions can be a smile.
[Note: On June 30th of this year I solicited questions and topics from readers. This is one of those topics. If you have a question or topic you're curious about, use the form at right to email me, or leave it in the comments!]

QUESTION: Interpersonal communication. This might be a difficult topic to tackle before you get a good hold on the language, but what factors beyond the words themselves convey meaning? Are there certain linguistic rituals which are expected which aren't synchronous with behavioral expectations? For example, we ask, "How's it going?" with the expectation that people will say, "good," and not honestly tell us how things are going.

ANSWER: Great question, and since you've asked, let's pick it apart. After four months I've racked up enough interaction points to make some subjective observations about Vietnamese non-verbal communication.

Initially, I didn't recognize much of what I was seeing. In Vietnam, your actions can reflect on not only yourself, but your conversational partner and even the people surrounding you (if you're in public). It's a kind of social norm reinforcement, in many ways. Vietnam is a culturally conservative country and this reinforcement keeps it so on many levels.

Monday, September 30, 2013

What is This 'Rainy Season' You Speak Of?

Honestly, it's not as rainy as I expected to find - it's not like we're getting monsoons every day, all day. Lately they seem to come around 4pm, but there are no rules (just like Saigon traffic, weather here does what it wants, when it wants, for however long it feels like it, and damn the consequences!) - when it rains, it rains. Sometimes it sprinkles. Sometimes it's a total downpour, sheets of rain, look-out-or-it'll-bruise-you stuff. And all of it is fun - the wind and rain are making me miss Chicago a little less.

September has been much rainier than June, and it's been lovely - except for all those times I'm caught on my bike two blocks from home in a crazy-ass downpour. And even those are ok - usually it's so hot that to get soaking wet at 40km/hr is actually a little refreshing! Only when I'm going home though - I hate showing up to work looking like a soaking wet cat.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Book Review: Dispossessed in Vietnam

The other day I picked up Ursula K Le Guin's science fiction masterpiece The Dispossessed. It was the only novel of her Hainish cycle that I'd never read (for shame!!), although it's been on my radar for years. My friend Misty warned me after I was a few pages into it that her copy was seriously underlined (she's a great highlighter of quotes) and that I was going to enjoy it.

I loved it much more than I could have anticipated. In fact, at many points during the second half of the novel, I literally found myself thinking, "This book is about ME!," like some teenage girl finding her first pop-music love. In this case it was clear I'd stumbled upon exactly the book I needed at this moment in time. As I finished the final exhilarating chapters, I was already composing this post in my head: what would become the first entry in my One Person Book Club. If you like reading, go ahead and join me, and come back to this post later! If not, read on for my reactions, thoughts, and analysis of the themes and characters. Or don't, I'm not your mom. But I do hope you find this interesting and relevant. I know I did.

Read on!... and on!... and on! (It's a long one, folks!):

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Park Life: Công Viên 23 Tháng 9

The lily pond in Công Viên 23 Tháng 9, surrounded by an isolating and deeply relaxing grove of palm trees.

Today I want to take you on a tour of the park where I meet several of my clients, as well as my own personal Vietnamese tutor. On concrete benches beneath the shade of palm trees, in a section far away from the mosquitos that live in the pond, I learn and teach languages. Coupled with a ca phe da (iced coffee), banh mi, and folders full of language notes, my students and I learn languages together in the morning heat.

Leslie Knope would be proud! This repurposed park is today a thriving civic hub, one that I visit at least three times a week.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Ho Chi Mix City: September 2013

It's been a whirlwind couple months here in Vietnam!

I haven't had a lot of time to listen to music, what with all the commuting, learning, teaching, and socializing I've been doing. It's a strange thing, and I'm used to much more alone time than I've been getting. I can tell I'm a little run down and I'm planning on easing up on things for a little bit to even out and find stable footing again.

In the meantime, here's my latest mixtape creation reflecting my time and experiences here. We kick it off with my favorite Black Grape song, get into Muddy Waters, Jimmy Eat World, Nina Simone, The Beatles, Fun., Supertramp, and end with a great little Doris Day song, among several other great artists and tunes. Tunes to teach to!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

New 'hood: Ward 2, District 3

A roundabout with public art that I pass every morning
on my way to District 6. Chunky, blocky... everything
you would expect from socialist art. It's still nice.
In Chicago, you tell others a little about yourselves by saying what neighborhood you live in. This is due in part to the extreme hyper-localization that happens in Chicago - ethnic groups tend to clump together, and if you're lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with a solid identity, it will tell other Chicagoans what restaurants you prefer, what kind of neighbors you like, where you hang out, what your social concerns are, and more. It's an interesting and unique way of communicating more about yourself, while granting a more or less permanent aspect to your identity. If you want to live with like minded people, you find them, and then you interact with them in those spaces. It's very simple. While it's true the entire city is your playground, you can still count on knowing that where you live is just as important as how and why you live. It is a very easy way of building community in a relatively small town of 2.8 million.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Our First Dinner Party

It was a dinner party in the loosest sense of the term - but definitely a party where we served food, so I'm not going to be too picky about semantics! Possibly the most fun I've had at my own house since we moved in.

One of the greatest surprises about my new roommates (all but one has left the house, and the last one is leaving on Sunday night) is that there is a cooking enthusiast among them - HOORAY!! Finally, all the dreams I had for utilizing my kitchen will hopefully be coming true!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Nurture Trumps Nature

Look at those big brown eyes... and the skin
sores all over his neck. Awwww.
As I'm writing this, I'm desperately trying to make a mental list of all the good things about fostering a rescue kitten, but really all I want to do is kick him out of my room so I can go back to being a writer for half an hour and not a human climbing tree where he jumps from clingable surface to clingable surface, pretending he's a tiger or a gecko, or whatever goes on in his brain.

Humph. Well. I guess it comes with the territory.

One month ago I finally gave up my search for a snake to foster adopt (you'd think that would be easy here!), and began inquiring about kittens. In District 2 there is a veterinary hospital and animal rescue that I'd been in contact with and they had a little mangy cat come in that needed some special TLC. I told them I'd come in on Friday and we'd go from there.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Friday, September 13, 2013

What Is Happening in This Video?

Seriously, if someone could let me know, that would be awesome.

It's not like they were even very well coordinated, and the leaders - were they the leaders? - weren't really that great, either. I just have no idea.

Saturday morning in Asia, y'all:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Teaching: One Month Down, Eight to Go

All Vietnamese class art is this terrible. It must be traditional, because
if it's not it's an international humanitarian crime.
I mentioned in my last post that I get pretty damn sweaty in the classroom - jumping back and forth, working with kids, and patrolling the narrow aisles leaves me damp and exhausted at the end of it. I'm also covered in all different colors of chalk dust pretty much all the time - I look like a refugee from the Indian holiday of Holi on some days, with yellow, green, blue, red, and white powder on my shirt, all over my pants, and smeared on my face when I lift my glasses to wipe off my brow with the sleeve of my shirt.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The World's Best Men's Underpants

Ok, real talk.

After getting into my primary school classrooms and discovering that they were a) NOT air conditioned, as promised, and b) the teacher does not get a rotating fan pointed at them where they lecture (there are usually 5-7 fans along the tops of the walls pointed at the students, and one pointed at the teachers desk, but none at the blackboard area), I was compelled to write this post.

Let me tell you about how sweaty I get when I'm teaching. People, I sweat through my TIES. They are SODDEN, SOAKED MESSES when I get home. I can sometimes hardly pull them off. My shirt is even more of a mess - it looks like someone has picked me up and dunked the top half of me in water. I'm literally dripping sweat from my chin and nose all over English textbooks and little wooden desks for 4 hours a day, and it sucks. It's uncomfortable and the only thing saving it for me is that I'm going to drink four bottles of water in a row every hour.

But you know what's totally comfortable? My belly button to my ankles. I attribute it to two things: a) my slacks are way too baggy (almost shamefully '90's, I admit, and they need tailoring), and b) I made a stunningly intelligent decision on July 26th, 2012. That was the date I bought two new pairs of boxer briefs.

Comfortable, reliable undergarments are a thing of beauty. Let me share with you the world's most amazing men's underpants... an even more essential product now that I'm in the tropics. Stop reading now if that's not your bag.

You've been warned. Click the jump for comfort and, yes, seriously real (though not explicit) talk...

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Saigon Sights: Notre Dame Cathedral

[Note: While I'm processing my first week teaching in HCMC's public primary schools, please enjoy some pictures of a fancy church!]

In separate occasions in June and July I took the time to stop by the Notre Dame Cathedral and take a few pictures of this beauty, which lies in the heart of downtown Ho Chi Minh City, not far from my favorite cafe (where I'm writing this) and the Resurrection Palace. Unfortunately they were both on Sundays, but here's a few photos of it. Enjoy!