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.