Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Resolution Check-in: 2014 Post-Mortem

The hour is almost here (on my side of the globe, at least): 2014 is slowly making way for the new calendar year. 2015, you ready?

But first, let's cut 2014 up into gloopy pieces and see what it was made of for me. What made it go? What brought it to a halt? What helped, and what hindered. And, most importantly, where am I going next?

Back in January 2014, I made a list of 8 resolutions, plus some Lesser Goals, for the year.

So... how did I do?

I should say that I've never before followed-up my resolutions like this. I've really enjoyed the time spent mulling over and reflecting on what I did and didn't do to make these goals come to life as I sit down to write - there's often a deadline on traveling, which makes it nice for setting practical goals and provides a good incentive to follow through, or at least thinking of following through - there's sometimes no 'next year' to restart and re-evaluate your chosen goals. Do it now, while the doin's good!

In thinking about my goals for 2015, I wanted to quickly review what I accomplished, and didn't, in 2014... and in my creative life! Some of it worked... some of it didn't. Entire projects fell to flooding, rust, and sun, and it was a helluva time finding and using new materials (including bamboo!) All of it was sweaty, dirty fun, and most of it didn't give me minor electrical shocks! But hey, that's how I roll.

Let's see, shall we?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Ho Chi Mix City: Soundtrack to a Vietnamese Coffeehouse

Romance is in the air at Cafe Tram.
It's been a looooooong time since I've put up any mixes (the Christmas song posts don't count... neither good nor bad)... too long!

Here's a post that I've been meaning to do for quite a while - over a year, in fact. It's just silly, but consider it a Christmas gift from me to you!

BEHOLD: a Youtube playlist so that YOU, TOO, can pretend that you're spending hours a day in a Vietnamese Coffeeshop!

You read that right.

I sat and Shazaamed (wow, I'm getting a lot of use out of that app lately) songs for 90 minutes, then listed them in a playlist, in order and as I heard them. Naturally some Vietnamese songs were impossible to identify, but, really? You're not missing out on much. Here's the rest...

...and MERRY CHRISTMAS!! Enjoy - I know I did!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Au Parc: Carb-y Morning Glory

Home of the Marvelous Bread Basket Breakfast (French Brunch):
served with marmalade, mulberry jam, honey, salted butter
(and sometimes homemade chocolate sauce instead of the jam).

Having just done a virtual eating tour of the midwest (and Colorado) for several weeks, I’m more than ready to be back in Saigon, including my routines and my exercise. My smooshy Thanksgiving face demands it! But all those (absurdly) generous portions and cheesy variations have me thinking about one restaurant in particular in HCMC - One with one of the the most interesting (Western) brunches in town. To those of you in the D1 brunch loop, I am, of course, referring to Au Parc.

From their ample, varied baskets of homemade bread, to the colorful, healthy salads and sandwiches, this place has carb-y decadence for sale, and I’m in the market.

Let me show you why Au Parc is worthy of a precious meal timeslot on your visit to Ho Chi Minh City…

Friday, December 19, 2014

App Review: (iOS, Android, Web)

Today let's look at Foody, an app/website that strives to be the 'Vietnamese Yelp' and is helping organize this city's wild and ever-changing mix of food and drink offerings.

First of all, let's note that I did not use the word 'restaurant' above. Holy schmoly, yes, people, this is an app that catalogues food stands! The future is here! And not only street food... as you'll see, the app lets you delve deep and get specific in describing your particular craving.

I have been using Foody daily for three weeks now and it's been an interesting, and informative, ride.

The app is packed with functionality, but, in general, it doesn't get in the way of the main tasks: discovering new places to eat and drink, documenting your visit there, and rating them.

Click through for screenshots and a tour, and see how I find new places to eat... or simply identify what's a restaurant, and what's someone's kitchen/living room (this can be tricky, seriously)!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

6 Cringey Vietnamese Christmas Songs

Me in my first grade classrooms last year, playing the Jolly Old Elf himself.
Vietnamese loooooove Christmas. And, while I didn't get/have to dress up this year for my job, I still got my fill of the regional holiday music.

Endless techno Jingle Bell remixes. Cloying, sugary, soaring ballads. Mariah Carey covers every hour, on the hour (...actually not so bad. What is it about that song?? Will we be collectively singing it forever? Is it - gasp - traditional now?? OMG please say it is). Feliz Navidad, inexplicably, and quite a bit of it.

Last year I kept meaning to document this visit to another aural dimension, where a driving synth beat is practically mandatory on the uptempo hits, but things got hectic.

This year, however, I'm on my game. Armed with cafe time, Shazaam, and fair-to-middling doses of ibuprofen to pair with my coffee, I took the plunge.

Lucky you. Oh, lucky, lucky you!

Click on, brave souls with a few minutes to spare... I dug out the youtube recordz for you, and I've got a few tracks to spin! Listen and marvel as Vietnam attempts to give you diabetes over the internet...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Banh Mi Ha Noi: The Art of the Local Deli


C’mere kid, I’ve got something for you.

You like crispy, fresh-baked baguette? …Yeahhhh you do.

Fatty, crispy pork? …Drool, baby. You know you want it.

Sautéed onions and peppers? A couple slices of white cheese? A bit of lettuce? All topped off with chili sauce and some kind of sweet-soy-whatever (it's hoisin, I'm an idiot) sauce?

Come around the corner with me, and let’s get some Banh mi thit nuong, or BBQ Pork Sandwich!

This is the most delicious, craveable piece of food art in my neighborhood, and a dangerous distraction after a long day at work - it’s all I can do to stick to only ordering one most days.

Feast your eyes on this specimen...

Sunday, December 7, 2014

General Observations on Saigonese Architecture

[NOTE: This post goes out to my friend Jenny, who asked me about architecture in July 2013. Excitingly, it's a much more interesting topic than I assumed! So here's the first post!]

I find myself often looking down out my window, which is located on the 3rd (4th, American-style counting) floor of my house, and find myself succumbing to the question that must be difficult for any Vietnamese architect to resist: why isn't the entire lot filled... the entire vertical distance??

There's about half a meter of a small awning over the entrance to the garage... that would give me (or my poor roomies on the other side of the building, in their small, glass closet-rooms) just a liiiiiitle bit more breathing room.

But this is a form of thinking that I had never encountered as a designer. Form really SHOULD follow function, but it's difficult to resist the idea that an object's aesthetic should be at least equally important.

On one level, though, this extreme interpretation of Form v. Function just makes common sense - people are more important than the building, so stretch the building to the farthest corners of the available land, all the way up, and you'll have slightly more comfortable humans.

Not to mention the fact that in the average Vietnamese home, there are many family members, and, all of a sudden, this doesn't just seem like A way to do it, it becomes THE way to do it. Even in parcels of city land that are surrounded by unsold/unimproved lots, the tube house reigns supreme... because the expectation is that this neighborhood will, in time, be just like every other well-developed neighborhood in the city - packed, walkable, vital, and very, very local.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Resolution Check-in: Mistakes and How to Make Them

Wow, well in retrospect, I probably never needed to put this on my resolution list again. Because I'm SUPER, SUPER GOOD at making mistakes!

Here's the text of my resolution:

5. Make more mistakes... and learn from them 
The time for trepidation is over. I've got to be bold and confident. This extends past learning and communicating in the language, but it's a good place to start. I'm a fairly strong introvert, but being here has exercised my extrovert skills. Every day presents me with magical, unique opportunities and I'm here to say Yes to them, even if I'd rather putter around with my plants or write some postcards by myself. I will go new places and make new mistakes there.

Now, let's be clear... I was not talking about the same KIND of mistakes. I've learned that variety is the spice of life, and that - deities help me - extends to mistakes of all kinds, stripes, colors, and pearly, iridescent hues.

Also, double clear... my stipulation was that I had to LEARN FROM THEM. I guess that's what (spoilers?) I'm still working on. To be fair, though, I assume that'll be a rather permanent resolution for the rest of my life.

Oh, ok. So there's where we start to go off the rails. But it's good to have a jumping off point, even if that point goes right over a shark into a boiling vat of turkey gravy.

Monday, December 1, 2014

No-Plan Vacation: Cần Giờ by Bike

New Dream Job:
Step 1: Open a hammock cafe. 2: ... 3: profit.
My roommates and I recently took a random bike ride to the southern coast, traveling south through the country. We stopped for hammocks and coffee, took many ferries, biked through the vast mangrove forest in Cần Giờ district, and explored the area around Cần Thạnh, a small, beautiful town on the southern tip of this peninsula.

The Cần Giờ District is the poorest in Saigon, where most of the locals make their money from fishing and the spotty tourism that comes through. The area is sometimes known as the "Green Lungs of Saigon" because, although it's far outside the hustle of the city, this nationally and internationally protected biosphere reserve helps buffer storms from the south seas and provide ample oxygen to cleanse what it can of the heavy pollution coming out of the city.

It's about 80,000 ha of mangroves, and, although much of it was destroyed in the American War, the natural flora and fauna have been slowly recovering and making their beneficial presence felt. As everywhere in the South, folks we encountered were kind and helpful, and dealt with our poor grasp of the language in a heroic fashion.

It was relaxing and refreshing. And here's the proof.

Click through for a map and photos!

Friday, November 28, 2014

What is Vietnamese Ancestor Worship?

An altar in a medium-sized business. Altars are
definitely status symbols - hierarchy is hugely important
in virtually every facet of Vietnamese life and culture.
Through centuries of various foreign influences, from the fundamental (Vietnam's latin-character alphabet) to the superficial (Western influence on wedding style, or the celebration of birthdays), Vietnam has been largely successful in maintaining ancient traditions and incorporating them into modern life, even as the pace of change continues to accelerate. That is no mean feat!

One of the most unifying traditional practices in Vietnam is ancestor worship.

Virtually no Vietnamese house or business, no matter the size or socio-economic status, is without an altar to venerate the dead of their family. Regardless of faith, it is a uniting practice in the country to thank those ancestors that have come before and paved the way for the successes that you and your family have experienced (or not, in which case, more incense and fruit to bring peace to the dead, and therefore success to the living).

This concept is so utterly foreign to me that I can't help but be fascinated. What follows is my personal exploration of this very private celebration of family, continuity, and identity.

Click through for an idea of what this tradition consists of and how it forms the foundation for many, many other aspects of Vietnamese culture!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving 2014!

It's that time in America - Thanksgiving!

Time to celebrate what we have in our relationships and to reconnect with friends and family... and eat slowly and surely until we're so full we hate ourselves. But that's what the after-dinner nap is for, dontcha know?

In this way, it's the perfect time to visit my home country and the friendly Midwest in particular (so, thanks Alex, for having your wedding during this time, or I probably wouldn't be here right now, because BRRR). There's something about a little snow on the ground and a warm, food-scented kitchen that activates all the Peace hormones in my brain. Provided, of course, that I'm in said kitchen, and not out shoveling or something. And wearing many, many layers.

In the spirit of recognizing how much I love about BOTH of my current homes - Vietnam and the US - here are a couple lists for you.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Saigon Sights: Cu Chi Tunnels

One of the more famous sights to see when visiting the HCMC area is the Cu Chi Tunnels in the Cu Chi district some 2 hours north of the city center (and yet, amazingly, still within the city limits of Saigon).

Earlier this year, my good friends Alex and Liz took a Sibling Trip to Vietnam and we visited this unique site. It was sweltering hot, but we got a great half-day trip in and a fairly tolerable guide (sometimes the heat, non-stop narration, aggressive attempts to include you, and annoying co-tourists make you just want to punch them in their tourist-guide faces, but we got a little lucky this time around).

Together, we wound our way through a piece of our shared American/Vietnamese history, and learned just a little bit more about how the American War shaped an influential cadre of Vietnamese

Click through for pictures and (just a little bit of) history!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sozo Cafe: A Cafe With Heart, But Little Soul (Food)

Does Chile Con Carne usually go over rice?
Sozo Cafe is a pleasant two-story cafe on Ho Chi Minh City's Bui Vien Street, right in the middle of the backpacker district and just down the block from Lam Cafe (a wildly different beast).

I spend a fair amount of time upstairs, where you don't have to do reconnaissance on outlet availability before you settle in and you're guaranteed an environment where you won't hear Vietnamese pop music or anything with Celine Dion - lots of piano, jazz, and old Standards from the '50s and '60s.

Pretty darn good PB cookies, too.
It's a lot of things. It's a reliable local organization that helps pull young and/or disabled Vietnamese and their families out of the cycle of poverty, has a great selection of western desserts (including, I must mention, that phenomenal brownie, DO GET WARM WITH ICE CREAM), is a really nice place to get work done in the AC on hot afternoons, and is super cheap and more quiet than many other comparable cafes. The ca phe da is sweet and the coconuts are cold - my tastes in cafe drinks are simple and this place delivers reasonably well.

Is the food that great? Well... it's nothing outrageously special..

But if you're in the mood for something serviceable without being pretentious or expensive, put this on your list of places that provide a 'home vibe' and stop in... or simply click through for my review below.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Da Lat 2014: Scarf & Fireplace Weather

Erin, I adore this picture.
One of the best and most relaxing adventures of my summer was my return trip to Da Lat, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam - Land of 1000 Pines and Former French Colonial Playground.

Not only is the weather here just ridiculously comfortable (a mild 70's during our visit in July), but it was an excellent last hurrah with my friend Erin and a great experience for my friend Lisa visiting from NYC.

It's truly a must-see if you're looking to experience a few of the sheer variety of climates and environments in Vietnam.

Some of the great things we did included: staying at one of the world's most unique guesthouses, visiting pagodas and flower parks, discovering secret trails into the hills originating in the cemetery, frolicking among lush jungle waterfalls, doing the central Market on a Sunday, and generally wandering around this picture-perfect painting of a town, far away from the sweltering heat of Ho Chi Minh City to the south.

It was SO COLD... seriously,
like at least down to 70 F.
Scarf and fire weather.
True, I was brutally sick with a stomach bug for the first day and a half (including a really, really precarious sleeping bus trek. Sorry about your bathroom, Da Lat bus station - but seriously, you should be sorry about it too: thank god I carry toilet paper with me).

(BTW: Hello Erin's Family - this post is for you!!)

Not a lot of reading today, it's been a long week and I'm tired of looking at these summer posts stuck in Draft Purgatory. Plus, I pretty much detailed everything I liked about Da Lat in my 2013 post, which you can find here if you haven't memorized everything I've ever posted.

Check out a photo album of my Last Vietnam Hurrah with Friend Erin, and the beginning of my Vietnam Adventure with Lisa, below!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Vũng Tàu: 30 Hours on the Southern Coast

The entrance to our nearby beach.
Note: I'm currently in Chicago and it's -12 C. These pictures are making me really happy.

Vũng Tàu is about 2 hours south of Ho Chi Minh City, and there's an awful lot there to make an excellent weekend of it. Whether you go by bus or motorbike (and, of course, I highly recommend traveling by motorbike), there's enough to see, tons to eat, beaches to loiter on, and of course, enough Banh Khot to kill a horse (an ok death, I assume).

The city itself is situated on a southern outcropping of the nation, with a few atypical hill-mountains near the shore, and features a relatively compact city center as well as several important historical sites. And Banh Khot.

While we were unable to get a hotel room in the city center, instead ending up in a new guesthouse about 7 km away in an unfinished division, we did have a whole beach essentially to ourselves at night and BANH KHOT GUYS, THIS IS WHERE BANH KHOT IS FROM! And... Jesus?

Click through to check out what 46 hours in Vũng Tàu looks like, as well as some of the most fun you can have for a stoopid cheap weekend not far from the crazy hustle-bustle of Saigon...

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Finding Medicines While in Vietnam

The pharmacy next to the Baby Factory near my house.
Virtually anyone traveling abroad will face some kind of medical issue during their travels.

Whether you contract dengue fever, malaria, traveler's diarrhea, or just are dealing with a nasty hangover from too much bia hoi (fresh-made beer), eventually you're going to have to get something to help you recover. But finding what you need when you are in pain and not at your mental peak is a daunting prospect.

I've been fortunate enough to only have a few medical issues, and most times I can get what I want, when I need it... now. A year ago? Maybe not so much. I take a few daily medications, and, as I've documented in my post of medieval bodily horrors, suffer the occasional gout attack. Then there are all those times I went in unprepared, sick or in pain, and left with a product that didn't help at all (when I was able to get anything at all).

Thursday, November 13, 2014

That One Time I Went on a Vietnamese Talk Show

Pics or GTFO? I'll do you one better! Here's some video to file away under 'WTF just happened'.

In June of 2014 I was invited on this HTV talk show in Ho Chi Minh City. That's me, in the coral shirt and black suit.

This segment is about the quality of English education in Vietnam. It's a very interesting topic (see my post  about their national plan for increasing foreign language skills in their student populations for more details - it's pretty fascinating stuff).

I was invited on to provide the perspective from a Native Speaker's vantage point. It's about 20 minutes long and I'm only in a few minutes (sweating and rambling... too many 'uhhhh' and 'ummm's to even mention!).

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Da Lat's Hằng Nga Guesthouse

Lisa's Butt in her New Pants approaching the second spire of Crazy House by cement ivy walkway.
It makes sense... trust me.
Note: This summer took me to many new places... so many, in fact, that I'm only just now realizing that I have a zillion more posts to write about those three short months! Oof.

In July I went to Da Lat (again) with my friends Erin and Lisa. We had a BLAST.

Part of the experience was that we were staying in what I can easily call the most unique guesthouse I've ever seen. It's so absurd, I have a hard time even describing it with words. Even my gift for analogy seems like too fine a point on it when trying to talk about this astounding creative vision.

On second thought, that won't stop me from trying. Click through for a tour of one architect's vision made concrete (literally and figuratively, I assure you) - a kaleidoscope of nature, wire, stone, and wood brought together in an unforgettably eccentric manner.

Friday, September 5, 2014

ABenAbroad's Saigon

Me and my Mom!
I've done a lot of talking about services, food, drinks, and products I've come across in HCMC, but it's not always easy to compile those into a cohesive whole.

Today, I'm beginning that process.

That's right: this is going to be a full map of everyplace I go: from getting ink cartridges to a haircut, drinks to my favorite restaurants, I've begun compiling everything here on a brand new post!

It may not look like much yet, but stay tuned. It is roughly half the places I've been to and utilized in the past 15 months, and I'm sure I'll be exploring even more in the future. I will continue to update this map with locations and small commentary, as well as reviews to my blog if I publish them.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Mui Ne: Resort Life at The Cliff

In early July I went with a group of Vietnamese to a bona fide RESORT. I've never been to such a classy, blatantly rich-people destination before. Goodness!

We stayed at The Cliff Resort near Mui Ne. It really had it all. Great food, great service, clean rooms, amazing acrylic artwork in the rooms, and a private beach. This was the off season, so there weren't a million billion people here on their holidays, which was so pleasant.

I don't have much to say about this place, except that it was absurdly relaxing. This was the same trip as our stop at the waterfalls in Dong Nai. Click through for some pictures of my stay, and see why it's basically always the best time to visit Mui Ne... but that early July is exceptional.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Resolution Check-in: Maintaining This Blog


I've saved this post for my 150th - Thanks for being my readers, everyone!! I LOVE YOU.

Let's hop back 8 months to the start of this year and the resolutions I made going into 2014...


Saturday, August 23, 2014

App Review: Touchnote (iOS & Android)

In a nutshell, Touchnote allows you to mail a physical postcard of any photo/s you choose and personalized notes/captions to anyone in the world... in seconds, without going to the post office.

This app isn't strictly a travel app, but it has such a powerful real-world impact on people you love that I think I'd be remiss not to let more people know about it. It is certainly one of my favorites - of dozens of apps on my phone, this is one I consider indispensable, and would no matter where I lived.

It's so fantastic. Worth every penny, and one of the most fun apps I have on my iPhone. (There's also an Android version, but I haven't used it. Got notes? drop 'em in the comments, please!)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Vietnam's 'English 2020' Program in Perspective

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Park Life: Thac Giang Điền

I wish I'd found this place myself.

However, it's so far off the beaten path of my everyday travels that only looking for it specifically would find it - it's not in Ho Chi Minh City at all, but rather, about about 60 minutes (~45km) outside it in the countryside of Dong Nai Province, northeast of Bien Hoa City.

Join me in the Dong Nai countryside for a relaxing surprise!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Pho Binh: Occupation Out Front, Tet Offensive Upstairs

Terkel has his eyes closed in every picture, I swear.
The pho bo was satisfactory, but not mind-expanding
 (...maybe I ask too much from my soup).
A pho restaurant named 'Peace Soup' that held the command of a massive military operation? How much more Vietnamese can you get?! Probably not much. If it were a perfume it would be called Essence d'Viet.

I may be in the minority in this, but I didn't get a whole lot of education concerning America's actions in Vietnam in my public school education. I feel shortchanged, and a bit stupid about it.

Soup's on - It's Learnin' Time!

The entire back half of the 20th century was a blur in history classes (as it was also, now that I think of it, in my Theatre History/Literature class), and although names and events stir a vague recollection in our collective unconscious for me, I'm embarrassed to reveal exactly how much I don't know about the Vietnam conflict... AKA The American War.

Embarrassed because I live here now, and doubly embarrassed because the trauma of this prolonged, ridiculous war game has had long-lasting effects and left obvious scars (albeit, scars fading into the past) on many of America's politicians and demagogues in the years since.

Visitors from all over the world have left notes expressing
peace and well-wishes for the family operators of Pho Binh.
Every time the hawkish white men push to go to war, there are fewer and fewer people to remind us of our mistakes in Vietnam (more recently Iraq, which is sadly now becoming a new problem), which is a pity.

The world needs more friends, and fewer enemies. This is the current attitude of the Vietnamese government (except maybe about China) and certainly of Pho Binh (Peace Soup), and has been since the Tet Offensive was planned above the kitchen of this restaurant beginning in October of 1967.

The family is always ready to offer soup and history lessons - they embrace the significance that their establishment holds - and they have been drawing in curious members of the public for over 44 years since the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

My mission to understand more about this prolonged and divisive conflict continued in the most delicious and interesting way possible... with food and some first-hand history.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Saigon Survival: Regulating Your Body Temperature in the Tropics

Our family cabin in Northern Wisconsin, Winter 2013-14 - A DOOZY.
 You know it's hot here.

I pretty much can't shut up about how hot (or, alternately, how rainy/humid/flooded) it is, every single day - if there are two things Westerners like to talk about, it's politics and the weather... and you can't talk about either here.

I'm still not entirely sure how I got here, weather-wise.

I'm a generally warm person descended from people that originated in northern Europe (Norway, Sweden, Germany, etc), and I've lived all my formative years in places that usually received a pretty decent load of snow and freezing cold crap for several months a year - Wisconsin and Chicago can be very cold places.

So, naturally... Vietnam! ...Huh?? But it was new, different, the development pace was right, and the challenges they were facing as a people/city/country were fascinating... so here I am in the tropics, sweating my butt off and playing fast and loose with body odor.

I've had to find ways to survive the heat.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hội An: Ancient Town, Lovely Beach, Magic Atmosphere

Beaches, textiles, cacti, seafood, and old, old, old buildings are just a few of the pieces of the puzzle called Hội An - one of the oldest, and most immaculately preserved, trading port towns existing in SE Asia today... and definitely one of the most unique.

In July 2014 I visited with my good friend Lisa, after spending several (extremely mild) days in beautiful Da Lat and a bit in Saigon. It was only 700 km from the south-central highlands to this central port town, but the weather couldn't have been more different! We got a lot of variation on our trip together - a key characteristic of Vietnam.

Da Lat required me to buy a sweatshirt and scarf (a scarf, people), but there was zero need for them here. Although it was the beginning of the rainy season, we were blessed with three days of beautiful, hot, sunny days, and we took advantage of each one to the fullest, eating, drinking, biking, and walking our way around this sleepy and beautiful town.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Lam Cafe: Consistent, Affordable, Varied, and Guinea Pigged

Chicken Cashew Stir Fry at Lam Cafe.
I generally try to avoid Bui Vien (the backpackers district in District 1) but occasionally you just want a good, cheap, quality meal. I've got just the place.

For my money, Lam Cafe is the best all-purpose restaurant on the strip. Enormous portions, quick and friendly service, and consistently high-quality meals add up to the a meal that lets you enjoy the vibrant atmosphere of the Pham without taking a gamble on touristy places that may or may not deliver for more money.

Officially it's at 175 Bui Vien, Pham Ngu Lao Ward, but in reality, you can also eat at Chao Saigon (Burger Crazy, 222/2 Bui Vien) across the street (it's owned and operated by the same family/kitchen). An odd setup, but given the limited seating at the original site it works out well. (Protip: there is also upstairs seating at Lam with a good view of Bui Vien. Ignore the mini-second floor. Avoid the bathroom.)

Plus: they have a guinea pig that runs around. True Story. Click through for my favorite dishes, and pics of some of the cheapest, tastiest eats on the block.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hạ Long Bay: Natural and Economic Marvel of North Vietnam

'Tornado Light' - all afternoon!
"Twisters!" is an unexpected thing to hear where I live - not just because I immediately wonder what Helen Hunt is doing these days, but because I don't read much weather news here in Vietnam (why bother... it's either Hot and Dry or Hot and Rainy).

So when my mom and I did hear it, it only lent another interesting layer to our overnight daytrip to Hạ Long Bay, Vietnam, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, in June 2014.

This is an ancient place, one of the first cradles of humanity in the Vietnam region, and a huge, interesting business built on the fickle whims of Mother Nature. Read on...

Monday, July 28, 2014

What's Your Vietnamese Age?

How old are these kids, anyway?
The mystery first revealed itself in February.

For some reason, it appeared that all my first graders were the same age. Possible, of course, but... statistically improbable, no?

But there it was: in response to a lesson that included the question "How old are you?" I got a solid week of "I'm seven years old!" (Note for later: this was in the second semester, post-Tet 2014.) Hours and hours of "I'm seven!" Improbable. Not impossible... but very strange.

I didn't think about it much, except for what a boring and monotonous exercise that was for them (and me!), until later in the semester.

Towards the end of the school year, I was presented with a class roster which had their official ages on it. You guessed it... all seven years old. What was going on here??

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Pizza 4 P's: The Only Pizza in Saigon

As far as we can tell, this guy makes every pizza, one at a time. His
workspace is also a casual, circular dining bar area.
Or rather, the only pizza in Saigon that's worth a damn.

From the crust to the cheese to the excellently combined culinary traditions of Italy, Japan, Vietnam, and, yes, even France, everything about these pies screams "Don't forget to take a picture before you decimate it!" and "DECIMATE ME IMMEDIATELY, SCREW THE PICTURE" in the same breath.

I've been lucky enough to dine here three more times in the past month, and the restaurant never lets me down. True, similar to my fascination with the Banh Xeo at Banh Khot Vung Tau, I'm not sure why you'd ever get anything other than a pizza, and possibly a salad, while you're here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Vietnam Telecom Goes Underground

There are a few ubiquitous sights in SE Asia. The street food... the busted sidewalks... the tangle of power lines?

One of these might be most welcome: ... HCMC wants all these wires underground!

You guessed it, this is yet another one of HCMC's ambitious urban programs. Just like the canal project, which delivered substantial benefits not originally envisioned, this project appeals to those in power who have dedicated their policy to making Vietnam a fully-developed country by 2050, and making Ho Chi Minh City the center of that progress. Appearances are important, and governmental types are intent upon developing the modern character and atmosphere of Vietnam's biggest city and central business hub.

As with most of Vietnam's urban projects, it's massive, ambitious, and pushed to a timetable that mocks cautious international observers and investors and begs them to keep up with this shifting, rapidly modernizing city and country... will it succeed?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Côn Đảo: Unspoiled Vietnamese Island Life

Hey, you. You in the office. You seem stressed.

What do you want?

You want peace and quiet? You want dogs? You want the best diving in Vietnam and fresh seafood for every meal?


Beaches? I know a nice one. Endangered animals? Scads (well, maybe not scads... they are endangered, after all) Ghosts? If you believe some Vietnamese, this place is crazier than NYC at the end of Ghostbusters 2.

And history? Here's a place that summarizes in one 200 year period all the struggles and trials that Vietnamese mainlanders have gone through over thousands of years - shorter, sure, but arguably bloodier, and events just as traumatic to the national psyche in their sheer brutality and lingering impact.

You want all these things, plus boat rides, hiking, bike rides, and island-wide radio hour twice a day?

Have I got the place for you!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Resolution Check-in: Long and Short Term Planning... and Living

An Bang Beach in Hoi An. Did I steal this from my instagram,
or did my instagram steal this from my blog?
Over the past couple months I've begun examining the New Year Resolutions I made back in January. It's a process that I've never really attempted before, but having them in writing has lent a certain amount of solidity and weight to them, and so I thought I might as well respond as I achieve, modify, or outright discard each in turn - a form of public self-reflection.

Our lives are constantly changing, and I strive to be flexible, but I'm also committed to making noticeable forward progress. In many ways, it's an interesting response to my own Resolutions, and one that is threaded throughout all the the ones I made this year: Do, Examine, Do Again. Baby steps to your goals, Ben!

Here and now! has been my rallying cry this summer... Let's pull out my Resolution post and poke at it with a stick!

Here's number three on my list of resolutions for 2014:
3. Plan for the long term, live for the short termI'm at a unique time and place in my life, and while my main impulse is to save, save, save, I have to recognize that there are things that I can only do here and now. I will spend the money I need to in order to get to where I want to. Experiences await! I'd also like to use the summer to get my CELTA certificate, which will allow me access to better jobs and more money internationally.

Plan for the Long Term:

Financially I'm doing fine. I've got dong galore. I've got contracts coming up for the next school year that I'm excited about. My 20-year plan originally had me seeking out an environmental NGO for part time work this coming year, but I'm flexible and certain opportunities have arisen that are too interesting to pass up. More on that after September.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

On the Road Again...

Me in Da Lat... so cold!
...And off the road, and sleeping in my own bed. Magical!

Over the past four weeks (!!) I've had the pleasure of having two longer-term guests visit me in HCMC. Let's just start with the obvious:

1) Guests? Here?? It's not exactly a weekend camping road trip! No, these flights are bad boys that take an entire day each way and cost a lot of money. It's truly humbling for me to know that there are people that want to see me and experience Vietnam with me, in all it's contradictory, tropical, SE Asian glory!

2) New (and old) restaurants! New cuisines! Pictures of all the foods!

3) New travel destinations in Vietnam!! Pictures of ALL THE PLACES!

4) Now they're gone, and I have two weeks of relatively normal life again before my next trip (to the Philippines!), which will conclude my travels this summer. It's been a pretty good jaunt.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Meanwhile, One Year Later in Vietnam...

One year and two days ago I left US soil. One year ago today, I landed in Vietnam.

I did a preposterous, crazy thing. Irresponsible, even. Certainly audacious and full of risk. Setting off for a foreign land with an inkling (and that was it) of what I'd do when I got there was the craziest, outside-of-the-boxiest, obliterate-your-comfort-zoneiest thing I'd ever even considered doing. I could barely even go to bars where strangers might talk to me, much less expect to functionally operate in what amounted to an alien world. But, as my roommates and I talked about today (as I was going to the post office to figure out how to send a package, in itself an adventure), when you only have one option, deciding and acting become accordingly easier.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Closing Time

The Principal speaking.
Yes, people: you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here. Because it's SUMMER VACATION!

Well, if you insist, HCMC. If you insist.

This past Wednesday was formally my last day in the Vietnamese public schools for the 2013-2014 school year, and I really couldn't be happier. Because, seriously, I've been at sweat level Cannonball In The Deep End (which is the highest sweat alert level, if you didn't know) for the past three weeks - I'm soaking wet seemingly all the time.

It's been a real slog to the finish line, both for teachers and their kids. Everyone knows the end is nigh, and as the humidity goes up and the heat stays the same (HOT), concentration becomes a serious chore.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Vietnam's UNESCO World Heritage Sites: a Preview

Ha Long Bay (1994)
It's not long after spending some time researching or living abroad that the subject of UNESCO's World Heritage sites comes up. 

First of all, what are they, really? And what is 'UNESCO'? It sounds like a food supplier for prisons.

Hoi An Ancient Town (1999)
UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. In 1972, they approved and launched the most universally recognized international convention in history - the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. It covers many different types of sites around the globe (currently 981 sites (check out that cool interactive map!) - mountains, lakes, monuments, buildings, cities, complexes, and natural features are all treated with universal recognition).

Time to fire up the travel bucket list generator and see what my future plans will include...

Friday, May 16, 2014

Psycho Asian Comfort Food: Fried Rice 101

Dear Aito,

Did I ever say thank you?

When you said that having a rice cooker made you feel like a real person again, I didn't really understand. I'd never owned a rice cooker, but I'd always been curious - mostly because I have the uncanny ability to always over- or under-cook rice on the stove.

I'm glad we got this rice cooker for the house. It's amazing. AMAZING. How does it not burn the rice? How is it cooked perfectly every time? How does it do it so fast?! And how does it keep it steamed and perfect for days, even when it's not on?? Because I'm not a rice scientist (which apparently is a thing that exists), I am content to never know, and only reap the delicious rewards.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Never Say Goodbye

The only Goodbye I'm down with. Still... it's the first track.
I feel like I should admit this: I don't really do goodbyes.

Well, honestly, I don't FEEL like I should admit it, because I'm obviously objectively bad at them, but I feel like YOU might want me to feel that way, so there's that.

I do. I hate goodbyes. They are pointless. If we were randomly charged particles, we wouldn't say goodbye, would we? Of course not. We might see each other again. We might never. We'd never know. If we were randomly charged particles, we could never notice, or care.

But we're not. We've got purpose, direction (even if they change... even if they're random), and, most importantly, the internet.

Thank the gods for the internet!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Street Food III: The Search for Shock

My street food has been entering a bit of a rut lately. There's a storm a'coming, folks - time to shake it up.

Hopefully my next installment will tackle some more diverse dishes, including more substantial meals (almost everything I've gotten on the street so far has been 'eat on my bike' food as I zip between jobs and home) - there are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of specific, common dishes that I haven't tried. They seem to appear out of the woodwork the longer I'm here, and it's always a surprise. Why is it a surprise??

This edition brings 2 new drinks, 2 vegetarian dishes, cylindrical rice things (2, of course), and a whole passel of exotic fruits made into the best smoothies in town... minus the durian. Always minus the durian.

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

Iced Sugar Cane Juice
Average Cost: $.25 USD
Mandatoryness Level: WOAH
Best Attributes:


-It's not that guy's heart, it's yours.

-Early onset diabetes

-Propensity to think/talk in all caps

-A truly unbelievable sugar crash

-The best preparations give it a twist of lime, which is just outstanding.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Resolution Check-in: How to Speak (Enough) Vietnamese

The major difference is that, in the game, you're almost perpetually physically alone - traveling, I'm only mentally isolated.
Let's check out our hero's #4 New Year's Resolution...

4. Be able to basically communicate what I need in Vietnamese 
My vietnamese is just terrible. Much of it is that I'm shy and hesitant to use it in the first place (and the fact that it's just a difficult language, period), but I've come to recognize that, to put it simply, I've got to either use it or stay in the English bubble forever. Since the latter is not acceptable, I will start making more of a lingual connection to my environment.

Ha. Learning Vietnamese. I'd forgotten that I'd even made this resolution. Let me tell you a story.

It's time to unpack that dusty box that has "VIETNAMESE - HOLY CRAP, LEARN ME ASAP" scrawled on the side in big, black marker...

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Traveling as an Introvert

Should the title of this blog
have been AnIntrovertAbroad?
Going away for the first time, I was pretty concerned about traveling as an introvert.

I recharge my batteries by being alone in a rich inner world. In an environment where I would have only new acquaintances, this was worrying to me. Would I have to explain? Would I be able to adapt? Would I be alone in a sea of extroverted youths? I secretly doubted my abilities... yet hoped that I would find reserves of "strength" I didn't know I possessed.

My nature is the big excuse I let stand between me and traveling abroad for so, so many years. I kept telling myself later, later, when the time is right. Later: you've got attachments, jobs, friends, and family. Later: you love Chicago. And could you really leave your cat?? How would you survive in a world dominated by short-term acquaintances? A place where you have to see and be seen in order to have any kind of social life? I both feared what I would find and was privately jealous of what I viewed as a "strength."

Well, here I am, almost one year into my first adventure. I stepped off the cliff of my comfort zone, landed in the deepest end of the forest, and found lions and tigers and bears... and beauty and wonders and friends. It seems like a good time for some introspection... although, when would I not say that?