Thursday, July 25, 2013

Psycho Asian Comfort Food, The Beginninging: Veggie Scrambled Egg Baguette

It's attractive open-face, but, like any good relationship,
you have to seal it up nice and tight to prevent the cheese
and juices from leaking out. ...Eww. I'm... I'm so sorry.
Hey there! Back again? Good! Glad I haven't alienated you with my absence. I've been taking a drug for My Gout (I have started to think about it this way) and it's been making me super sick, nauseous, and basically made me need to be less than 10 feet from a bathroom at all times. It's finally starting to wear off (and my foot feels better, too). I thought I'd share what I'm up to in my very own kitchen (I have to take the damn med with a meal... shudder. I mean, what's the point??).

Recently, I've been sticking to trying to emulate street food in my home, which is basically a no-win proposal (well, a win-win for me, but it's definitely not up to par with what I can get for cheaper and better on the streets... but then I wouldn't be cooking, would I?).

Tonight, before starting in on some VN flashcards, I decided to branch out a little and try something new. I will call this new series of posts "Comfort Food" but it's only because being in the kitchen and playing with food relaxes me. It's a form of artist play, I feel. And, since I can finally keep any of it down, it's basically like eating for the first time after a week of ginger ale and unsalted saltines.

It turned out pretty good, so I'll share. Feel free to suggest new and even more interesting ideas in the comments... you better believe I've got my ears peeled.

Veggie Scrambled Egg Baguette

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Guest Post: Meet Tâm!

[Note: This is Tâm! She's going to be doing a few guest posts about life in Vietnam. Please say hello, and when she posts her longer pieces, don't forget to ask followup questions!! She's super friendly and a pretty cool person. :)]

How I Met Ben

Hello everyone. My name is Minh Tâm – it means a good heart in a spiritual way. It is my honor to have a chance of making friends with Ben and his friends as you guys. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Ho Chi Minh City's Fascinating District 7

Rae recently took me out for my birthday and we had a fantastic time. I visited a section of the city that I've never been to before and was wanting to know more about, because it's substantially different than the rest of the city: District 7. (Pardon the lack of photos for this post - because it was after dark, my camera wasn't taking anything worth posting - mostly just blurry light splotches on a sheet of pitch black.)

We went to Scott & Binh's, the number 2 rated restaurant in HCMC, where I was in an almost all-English environment for the first time since coming to Vietnam. It was weird! To celebrate, I got myself a fish and pasta pesto dish, which was fantastic. We toasted to the Fourth of July with Tiger beer and mango margaritas, and our dinner on the patio, surrounded by bamboo and christmas lights, resulted in a very relaxing meal. Afterward we went walking and she pointed out her international school and her yoga studio. We picked up a final late night coffee on our way back to the beginning.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Vietnam and the Cost of Living

Some of you have asked me about personal costs and money living in Ho Chi Minh City. Here's a little more info for you, with some personal experience details. All denominations are in USD for the sake of easy comparison to you followers back home. The column on the left is always Chicago.

Note: All statistics come from (I don't know how well-reputed this site is, but the figures given largely fit with what I've seen, so I'm going to run with them and just post commentary) along with supporting anecdotal information from the sources listed at the bottom, combined with my personal experiences.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Good Lord, a Breakfast Buffet

Today I got to my Vietnamese lesson early, which I have several times a week at a coffee shop chain called Highlands Coffee. I'd wanted to go over the article from that I was supposed to practice for pronunciation, as well as run my numbers again (they're still shaky, especially thousands and millions), but the maitre'd apparently had a huge problem with me sitting in our usual spot on the second floor without ordering the expansive buffet on the other side of the room.

In the past couple weeks we haven't had any problem with this, so it may have been a new policy that everyone on the second floor has to be ordering the brunch until it closes at 9 or 9:30. Or maybe he's a dick - we may never know (no, he's definitely an ass). Since I was so early, and because I'd actually been dying to try it, I acquiesced and paid the 6 bucks. It was a great deal, and it ended up being completely worth it.

On top of a western-style "coffee cup full of coffee" (YOU SMILE... but this is the first time I've just seen straight up coffee in a cup, even when I've tried ordering it), there was fresh squeezed orange juice, water, iced tea, and regular black tea.

Hit the jump to find out exactly what was on my plate...

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Yesterday I got some video of what it's like to be on the back of a motorbike going through Saigon at 7am. I've been trying to get a good trip video for a week now and finally realized this is about as good as I'm going to get.

The driver in the video (not the one in the picture on the left) is my regular guy - he camps out where my side-alley exits into the main street - and he is a little faster than some of the other xe om taxis that I've taken. Not the fastest on the road by any means... some people with their own bikes really zoom. But he doesn't limp along like some of these weaker bikes I've been on. I like that. He also doesn't go the wrong way down one-way streets, which I ALSO like. He's a good driver.

Check out the video after the jump...

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

HealthNews: Ridiculous Foot Pain Not Infection

Centre Medical International - Where I now have a GP.
Well, this diagnosis was completely unexpected. I thought I had an infection. WRONG.

Let me explain. As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, I have been experiencing some serious problems with my left foot. Let me recap a full 9 days with the following representative dialogues:

Day 3: "Hey Ben! Want to go to the supermarket?"  "Sure, but I can't go far or fast."

Day 5: "Hey Ben! Want to go out tonight?"  "I can barely make it to the kitchen on the 2nd floor and you want me to walk to a restaurant 30 minutes away with healthy, drunk 21 year olds?"

Day 8: "Hey Ben! How's your foot?"  "Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod"

By Day 8 it was swollen, red, shaking, and completely unable to support weight. I couldn't move or wiggle any of my toes. I was in major pain. I'd roll over in the middle of the night, touch it to the bed frame, and wake up gasping and sweating (the sweating is normal, but the gasping in pain? not so much). I could barely go anywhere, let alone get off my bed, without leaning heavily on something. I was getting really scared.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ho Chi Mix City: July 2013 & Mix Tape Creation

July has been a great transition month for me as I get used to my new house/city/country/culture, new neighborhood, my lessons, and anticipate moving into my job teaching English in the public schools in the coming weeks. A lot of my time has spent walking, exploring, and thinking. In the US I'd be listening to my iPod almost constantly - here? Nope.

Surprisingly, there was not a lot of music in my life in June, and since I've gotten out of the habit of making these for myself (instead preferring to spend my time making them for friends in recent years) I thought I'd kill a few birds with one stone and musically document my months here, treating myself to some musical therapy and sharing them with YOU.

This week I've been working on a mix that describes my Transition-y, Explore-y July. It's a work in progress, but I'd like to share it with you today. I put it on youtube just for you:

Monday, July 15, 2013

My Bedroom is Like a Third-World Ocean Fairytale

[UPDATE: The walls are white! There are posters hung! A new homemade light fixture! And... no more finding nemo shades! We feel positively grownup about it all.]

In all the ways that my bedroom is like living in a deep sea children's insane-asylum - the pink coral-colored walls, the Finding Nemo windowshade, the charming children's sheets on the charmingly-sized twin bed made of plywood - the LED lights are by far the oddest feature (yeah, let's stick with 'feature'):

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Stoopin' It in Ho Chi Minh

My alley, 8:20pm. (Stoop: bottom left, all couple
inches of it.) Notice the florescent lights
strung above the alley - the wiring here is just crazy.
I was supposed to go out with my new roomies on Friday night for dinner, but because of a problem with my foot, I couldn't walk with them. Through a series of miscommunications I ended up waiting outside my front door for about an hour when the following interesting event took place.

I was sitting on my stoop (all 3 inches of it) waiting for my ride to come when the family in the house across the street came home. We exchanged Chaus ["hellos"] and Smiles (Vietnamese folk music band name?) and they went in. (Something you should know is that people's front bike areas are often converted to living space when there's no more room for family anywhere else. This house was one such place.)

So I was sitting there, trying to fiddle with my cheapo Nokia phone to look like I wasn't obviously curious and staring right into their living room (although I was), and one of the guys came out to smoke a cigarette. We proceeded to have a 30 minute conversation through his iPhone's translation app (Google Translate, I believe), and it was fascinating. As much pain as I was in, I was more curious about this man my age who had chosen to sit down next to me and try to communicate, difficult and slow as the process was.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Language Diaries: The Vietnamese Alphabet

[Note: Heh. I remember when this was a thing. I've basically come to terms with the language now...]

They say the most effective way to learn something is to eventually teach it to someone else. In this series, I'm going to take you deep into my (no doubt painful to hear) attempts to learn the languages of my host countries. First up, obviously: Vietnamese.

Vietnamese is a complete asshole of a language for many Westerners. I do not use the profanity lightly - my brain honestly starts to cramp after my 1.5 hour lessons. The subtle, alien-to-my-ears tone inherent in each vowel, plus any additional tonal phrasing included in the form of up or down accents, tildes, hooks, and dots, brings a sing-song effect that is easily mocked by racists (seriously, I feel like I'm making fun when I try to read sentences), but very difficult to master, let alone speak accurately.

Friday, July 12, 2013

In Which My Sister Makes Taro Root Ice Cream


So my sister just sent me the newest link to her completely adorable cooking blog, and it's a serious winner.

Her stated goal is to make everything that I eat in my What is it? posts, and she started with the Taro Ice Cream, because holy god delicious. And she added mangoes?! Is she a food wizard? (Hint: yes.)

Check her out if you get a moment, and see the magic of Taro Root in action!

Enjoy, and stay tuned as she attempts to make all the excellent/horrifying mystery foods I shove in my pie hole here in Vietnam. Things are about to get real.


Park Life: Công viên Lê Văn Tám

I couldn't find much info on this statue, which is
a shame - I like the stylized torch on top.
As one Google user states in their review of Le Van Tam Park (presumably a local, speaking in translated Vietnamese):
"Complicated resident with old construction..."
Couldn't put it better myself (well, mayb. This was the first park I fell in love with, and so it's the first public space I'll cover in depth in my tour of spaces that make Ho Chi Minh City unique.

I love parks. They're good for the mental and physical health of residents, they provide much-needed space for groups to meet, socialize, and exercise, they beautify, they breed civic pride, they can boost tourism, and they help create strong, integral communities with a multitude of opportunities for residents to interact, play, and work. They're an important part of any neighborhood, and cities without parks are just downright boring, as well as have more difficult paths to all the benefits I've already mentioned. A park is simply a wonderful thing to have around, and I have a personal interest in community infrastructure and design... which is why it's pretty much the first type of place I tried to find after moving to Vietnam. I was not disappointed - this park is well-designed and great for all sorts of activities.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Movin' On Up! & Up, & Up...

Welcome to my new house!

As far as I can tell, the new place doesn't have a mail slot in the front doors. There's certainly no room for a package in there, I can tell you that. 

As for the front doors themselves, they're HEAVY mothers - both of them are extremely solid in their construction! The outer doors slide and the massive inner ones swing open to allow motorbikes to be parked in the garage (which is right on this side of these doors in this picture. I'm standing where 5 motorbikes could fit parked across. The doors are the width of the whole house.
As you can see from the photo at the right, this area near the doors reaches quite high, although not up into the second story like the space above the bike storage goes. That's a metal frame that is holding wooden shingles. 

By the way... this is not a hermetically sealed living bubble, by any means, like the homes we like to tell ourselves are impenetrable back in the US (as if). But honestly, I haven't seen a ton of bugs (or animal life of any kind) here in the city. There are a few small ants that are in the house - like, REALLY small - but if you keep the place clean they don't hang around. And we'll get to my little house lizards in another post - as soon as I find out what they are!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

How to Succeed at Birthdays Without Really Trying

A NEON CORAL (new color?) Catholic
Church around the corner from the hotel.
[Note: by the way, I know the blog has been running a full week or more behind my experiences - I hope that doesn't bother you too much. I'm attempting to get into a more present groove, with less of a delay on "live experience" posts. I promise.]

June 30th, 2013, was my birthday [See? I told you I'm running late! I'm sorry]. Technically, it started here and then wormed its way Westward as the Central Time Zone eventually had my birthday - It was a nice long one! Two full days of Birthday wishes, right?! Pretty badass. Maybe not (definitely not, not even close) as raucous and off-the-hook as the Rager we threw for my 30th last year, but if I did that every year there's an excellent chance I wouldn't survive to 40.

My two new friends, Rae and Malte, took me out for lunch, sightseeing, coffee, and markets. Initially we were planning on doing it all on Saturday, but  we rescheduled for Sunday. I had initially been planning to spend the day alone, going to the zoo, dinner, and getting ice cream and just doing some general reflecting about where I was and what I was doing. I'm glad that didn't end up happening (as much as I would have enjoyed it).

Monday, July 8, 2013

A 360 Degree Panorama From the Top of My House

It's overcast and dark, and it doesn't quiiiiiiite match up at the seams... but enjoy it anyway! This is from the very top of my flatshare, or the equivalent of the 6th floor, about 2 in the afternoon in an afternoon in July. It started raining about an hour later.

The Noiseless City

By Anh Dinh (
[CC-BY-2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
My friend Erin used to say that there was really nowhere more noiseless than a city where you don't speak the language. I'm learning what that means now.

Obviously, she didn't mean "noiseless" as in, an absence of noise. Rather, she meant "comprehensible noise"-less. I didn't really understand that until yesterday afternoon.

Let's get one thing pretty clear: if I'm not in my room or a common area of the house, I'm basically constantly surrounded by people, and half of them are trying to sell me something in Vietnamese. As recently as last year, this would have FREAKED ME OUT. I'm a dude that needs his alone time, after all! I had always used that time to do much-needed Thinking. I like Thinking, and I need to be alone to do it. It seemed like a simple equation: being alone/quiet time = Thinking. That equation has become more flexible than I ever thought it could.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Demo Lesson Headaches

Pull the football away one more time, I dare you.
NOTE: This will be one of my rant-y posts. I try to keep them to a minimum, but sometimes I just have to let it all out and complain in English. Skip this one if it's not your cup of tea!

First of all, what is a Demo Lesson?

An ESL Demo Lesson is a lot of things, but none of them efficient, or even very useful, that I could see. This is the basic takeaway I have from my first (hopefully only, ever again) Demo Lesson. It was a series of hoops, like many things in Education, but some of them were ablaze, and some got pulled away at the last minute, like Lucy pulling away Charlie Brown's football. I made it through successfully, but it wasn't without unnecessary frustration pitfalls.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Wedding: Choose Your Own After-party Adventure

New buildings and Old buildings in
downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
(Note: I've included some pictures from the 5th floor of the hotel - they didn't really fit anywhere else.)

Following the confusion regarding the state of the party (namely, was it still a party? Had it ever really been a party, or had it really been dinner all along?), my new friend Malte and I descended to the elevator, debating what to do next. The absurdity of the situation was such that we had a hard time believing that we were leaving a wedding before 2am!

On one hand, it was 9:30pm, we were dressed up, and we weren't far from the late-night bacchanalia parade that is known as Bui Vien. On the other hand… actually the only other question that came up turned out to be that age old quandary: walk it or taxi?

The Wedding: Food, Conversation, and Bia in the Evening Heat

There were many sauces available, but no one seemed to season their dishes in any way... so we followed suit.

Saigon - Vietnam
Est. 1925

The hotel's logo, embossed in gold, is on the small, pink giftbox at every seat. A waiter is coming around moving it off to one side, then taking the napkin, unfolding it, and placing it in each person's lap for them. I adjust mine a little bit and wonder what dinner will bring.

I've been prepared for a large dinner all day - even my 5 o'clock ice cream reward was adorably portioned! But even then, I didn't really quite know what to expect. All I knew was the traditional number of courses: Eight.

My new English-speaking, same-hotel-living (all this is still frying my brain at this point) friend, Malte, and I are escorted to what we eventually determine is some kind of 'international' table. We made small talk with the people at our table - there were many English speakers, and (perhaps?) two Japanese speakers. It boded well for our meal.

First World Problems

One of several escalator tanks of fish in the mall.

What better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than by telling you about my foray to the "Western" Mall? It's the First World in Vietnam! Which is pretty damning, when you consider that it's the place that I think is most like America that I've been to yet, and yeeesh... malls.

I mean, don't get me wrong. It's a very nice mall (Crescent Mall, D7). It's expensive, and it's got a movie theatre, which I haven't tried yet. It's attached to a great lake (man-made, of course) and features a spectacular bridge across the river to the beautiful park on the opposite side.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

New Apartment - Work in Progress!

I like this picture - I almost can't believe it came out of my iPhone 3GS!
Finally, I moved into my new place on July 2nd! I sadly don't have internet quite yet. So, while I'm working at a café, enjoy a few pictures of my new room!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Wedding: Culture, Confetti, and an Awesome Surprise

The Bride and Groom's Official Portrait. Aren't they gorgeous together?
Essential Recap: The Groom is my hotel owner's son.

Fresh flowers everywhere!
Stargazer lilies, I think?
5:30pm Friday came and found me finishing off my celebratory ice cream post-Demo Lesson.

I had came directly from the school, clothes, invite, wedding card and all. My hosts had impressed upon me several times that I was to show up about 6:30, even though there were several times (from 5:30-7) indicated on the invitation. I figured that with the extra time I would stroll down (it's about 2 miles), getting me there just in time to use the bathroom to clean up and change and head up to the dinner.

After two blocks I was so tired from the Demo that I gave up, got on a xe om to go the rest of the way. I carried my nice shirt, a fresh headband, fresh undershirt, and class materials in my messenger bag. My purple tie fluttered behind me from my neck as we got going, drying a little after getting sweaty in the afternoon heat.

I consequently arrived at the hotel much earlier than I had planned when I left that morning. The place is FANCY, yo! Just the Lobby is utterly, mind-blowingly beautiful - I had no idea what to expect from the rest of the night...

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Wedding: The Invite and the Traditional Gift

I feel I'll be getting a fair amount of confusion
about my "three" first names.
[Note: I'll be splitting this experience up into a four part series (see the links at the bottom of the page after they've been posted). It was my first truly epic night in town!]

It was odd to me, to say the least. I'd only been staying at my hotel for 20 days when, in the middle of the afternoon, my host knocked on the door. He had brought me two things: my clothes (they do the laundry here) and an invitation to their son's wedding.

At first, I thought I must have misunderstood. I did not. They were actually inviting me to the swankiest place in Saigon in honor of their son, who I'd shaken hands with once and exchanged a few words with a couple days before.

I was honored, to say the least! Bit puzzled, but I was going to roll with it.

Ms. Marple in Vietnam

Ms. Marple gets busy using her brain and her instincts to
sort out the mess around her. I feel she would handle
culture shock well.
I don't know if you know this, but I am a HUGE Agatha Christie fan. I've read every single one of her mysteries many, many times, ever since I discovered them in middle school (thanks, Mom!). I have almost the complete collection, some 80 odd slim volumes (again, thanks, Mom!!). I'll never get rid of them.

Why are they so enduring? What made her writing so vital and interesting to me? Well, they're undeniably clever, and I always like clever. Ms. Marple always succeeds at catching the murderer, even when (especially when) the police and their strategies have failed. She sums her approach up best (and I'm paraphrasing here) when she notes that, no matter where you go, human nature is basically the same.

This is how living in this strange new city is not new to me, even while it's shockingly, outrageously, vibrantly new.