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!).