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: