Friday, March 21, 2008

What I Miss

I have been in Vietnam for over a month. While I have thoroughly enjoyed my stay here, there are a few things I miss:
  • Friends and Family. Obviously! Imagine if internet and e-mail didn’t exist …
  • Cooking. Although we can technically cook, we don’t because food is cheap and we’re not that comfortable using the kitchen. I used to easily spend an hour preparing a meal, even numerous hours on the weekend, and I miss that.
  • Seeing baby P grow up. But her picture is used as my computer background so I see her every day! And I'm sure she'll hold off walking and talking until I get back.
  • Recycling and Composting. I just feel terrible every time I put something in the garbage. Blame it on my guilt-ridden, catholic, green conscience!
  • Not having to negotiate. We’ve already determined I’m bad at it and I hate having to think that everyone is out there get me. The good news is that I’m improving, I think…
  • My house. I do love my house so very much!
  • Smoke-free indoor spaces!
  • A number of needless things. Like my clothes and shoes I left behind, my comfortable bed and pillow, TV shows like Lost, Design Inc. and Giada shows.

And some things I don’t miss:

  • Snow and boots. It sounds like there’s been a massive amount of snow in Montreal and Hamilton. What can I say, except laugh evil-y! And I’d be happy wearing sandals year round!
  • My car. It’s not like I would even consider driving here. I don’t mind walking, except for the heat.
  • Working. I miss the interaction with co-workers and some routine things, but I don’t know that I really miss work.
  • Having to clean/do laundry. Our room is cleaned every day. However, I’m not sure mopping the floor without sweeping and dousing the bathroom with water really count as “cleaning”.

Monday, March 17, 2008

It's A Zoo Out There!

Unlike back in North America, you can encounter animals on a regular basis in Vietnam. Often, they are stray dogs, sometimes cats. There are definitely some scruffy dogs out there, but I find a lot of them are actually quite good looking, kind of like in Morocco. I've abstained from taking pictures of the rats I've seen. Luckily, they've all been dead. They have been quite big, comparable to a pigeon! So here are some random pics (nothing too exciting, unfortunately).

Stray in Quang Ngai. Whenever The Boyfriend tried to interact with strays, my aunt would give him a hard time. "They'll bite you!"

Cows are actually a rare signt in Vietnam. These look much skinnier than what I'm used to.

Water buffalos are more often seen, especially working in the rice paddies.

Some goats on our hike in Sapa.

It's hot out there, even for the doggies!

A nice looking dog, with a bunch of ducks in the background.

Some dogs get pampered here too.

These are our alleyway neighbours. I see them most mornings. I'm guessing I might see them in a soup one day...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Cars, Motorbikes and a Pedestrian

Being a pedestrian is looked down here in Vietnam. The Boyfriend learnt this when his students were horrified to find out that he actually WALKED to school. Not many people walk around here for two reasons: 1) it’s too hot and 2) it signals a lack of status, i.e. you can’t afford a motorbike.

To clarify, what is referred to as motorbikes are actually scooters and not motorcycles. Motorbikes are more affordable and thus more rampant than cars. The typical picture is the whole family riding on a motorbike (see below). It’s also funny to see a lady, daintily sitting in a side saddle position.

The whole family on a motorbike. At least they're wearing helmets.

The classic side saddle position.

We could technically afford a motorbike. Renting one is about 40 USD a month. However, traffic is so crazy that we don’t want to risk our lives. (Well, I have a second reason: I don’t know how to ride a bike and am assuming I need those balance skills to ride a motorbike…).

Risking our lives seems like an exaggerated statement but it really isn’t! I even feel like I’m risking my life when I’m walking. We’ve literally stood at an intersection for ten minutes trying to figure out how to cross a street unscathed. Now a motorbike is smaller than a car, but I’m still fairly certain that being hit by one would still be quite unpleasant.

The trick is to find a pedestrian walkway with a traffic light. However, you cannot assume that people will respect traffic light. There are always laggards who will accelerate across a red light. Another issue is that sometimes traffic is very congested so you’re dealing with many lanes of motorbikes. Just their sheer volume is overwhelming.

Cars and motorbikes.

Motorbikes stopped at a red light.

Finally, because being a pedestrian isn't hard enough, there are many obstacles on the sidewalk. There are all sorts of improvised businesses, be it motorbike parkings, where attendants will charge 3000 dong to look after your motorbike, or restaurants/juice bars/coffee shops. I am a big fan of street food, but this means that you'll come upon little plastic tables and chairs that you have to weave through or else walk on the road. It has also happened to us that a motorbike has driven on the sidewalk; why not, everything's fair game, right?

Motorbike parking taking over sidewalks.

To add to the craziness, there is the cacophony of different honks and engines. Like many Asian countries, honking is not a last resource like it is in North America, but a way to communicate you’re coming through, that you’re right behind, that you’re being impatient.

At a point, you do get used to the honks (somewhat), but then an unfamiliar honk will blare out, scaring the hell out of you. The less frequent larger vehicles, like a bus or garbage dumpster, have their own particular sounds and your life flashes by as you see yourself being hit.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Vanity Insanity

I’ve made a comment that most women here are pretty thin. The Boyfriend commented a week after we arrived in Vietnam that he could understand how a woman would feel pressure to be thin here. He thought that there is a level of vanity that drives the women to want to be thin. I had thought that it was a matter of nutrition. Someone growing up here would not have all of the nutrients and calories available to someone growing up in the Western world, like myself. There isn’t as much junk food available here either, although I think that is changing.

However, I have noticed that there is an emphasis on physical looks. When people meet me, the first thing that is said (not to flatter myself…) is that I’m pretty cute. I’m not sure if this would be the case back home (or maybe people don’t think I’m cute?!). My cousin’s said “Obviously she’s cute, she’s from a cold country!”, as if that’s obvious. They’ll even ask “Is your sister as cute as you?” and not “Is she as smart/nice/successful?” - or any other adjective that would be just as important. (And in case anyone is wondering, my sister is not as cute... just kidding!)

My Vietnamese teacher also has commented about looks: how I would look nice with makeup on and how The Boyfriend is han dsome. Then she mentioned she thought girls from the West are very cute from a young age to the twenties; however, it seemed to her that as they grow old, they get bigger. And that is why she finds occidental men more attractive than women. I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t the case and women try more and more to take good care of themselves.

I’ve also noticed a few businesses advertising plastic surgery very openly. There’s actually one just down the street from where we live. Maybe I’m just not familiar with this topic, but it doesn’t seem that we’re as open about it. I’ve never noticed a plastic surgery clinic back home and people hide the fact that they have had plastic surgery. Plastic surgery seems pretty common here; I think one part because it’s much cheaper. Some people will even go back to Vietnam to get surgery. What I don’t like is Asian people trying to look occidental. What’s wrong with looking like yourself?

Needless to say, this is a complicated subject and hopefully, as I meet more people, I’ll get a better understanding of it. Meanwhile, I have to go to the gym so I can fit into the small clothes here!

This is right by our place, next to the nuoc mia (Sugarcane Juice) Lady that I love.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Learning Vietnamese

One of my goals here in Vietnam is to learn Vietnamese. I already speak Vietnamese, but at a very conversational level and the main person I speak to on a regular basis is my mom. This means that my vocabulary is very limited; I learned while trying to rent that I didn’t know terms, like contract; however, I am very familiar with food terms!

I don’t know how to read or write; I literally don’t know how to pronounce my street name so I write it down and show it to cab drivers, rather than butcher the name and end up god knows where. So I signed up for private classes at CICER (Centre for International Education Exchange and Research). At 5 USD per hour, this actually pays for your teacher to come to you (only if you live in districts 1, 3 and 5). I’ve signed up for the month of March, 3 times a week for 2 hour sessions.

I had my first session with my teacher, Cô Phuoc. She’s quite nice and about my mother’s age. She told me of her tragic life, how her first love left for the US and tried to sponsor her right when Vietnam closed its doors on emigration. After she finally married and had two kids, her husband passed away merely 7 months after her second was born. I told her that she was very brave. No, she says, I have a sad life!

We’ve gone through a lot of the basics. We go through the sounds and I repeat after her. We then read a few words and sentences based on the sounds we learned. I can handle most of this. Cô Phước then dictates me words we just learned. That’s when I get in trouble. I write one word – no this actually means X; I change the accent – no that means Y. After five iterations, I may get it right.

Vietnamese is a tonal language, which means changing the tone (not the sound) of a word changes the meaning. This can be very subtle and is a very different concept from other languages. I also have some issues with certain sounds. For example, ng vs. nh sounds the same to me, which is problematic when trying to write. And when I try to pronounce ơ (sort of like e in French), Cô Phước tells me that I sound like a French person and I tried to explain to her that I grew up speaking French in Montreal

I think my efforts to learn Vietnamese will be worthwhile. I've already felt some synapses have after a few things Cô Phước said, little ah-ha moments. I have this fantasy that one day, all of a sudden, everything will click and I’ll be fluently writing, reading and speaking Vietnamese. Somehow I don’t think it will be so…

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Costly Lessons

While I think I have traveled sufficiently to know better, it seems that one mistake I always repeat is to get deceived by locals. I’m not sure if I scream “Please take my money”, but it seems to always happen to me. It’s sometimes just a few dollars, but it’s very frustrating nonetheless. Unfortunately, two instances occurred recently.

My seemingly nice, 70 year old landlady offered to buy us bottled water because she says we would be charged more as foreigners. So she charged us 72,000 dong for a case of 24-500 mL bottles. I figured out that this was 3000 dong per bottle, which is the same as they charge tourists on the street! I further found out at a store that a case of 24 bottles cost 60,000 dong. Thanks, but no thanks. We’ll have to keep an eye on that landlady! (She’s also the one who wants to charge 50 USD for laundry a month, which sounds quite excessive.)

The second instance took place when The Boyfriend wanted to buy maps for his students. We found a street vendor (first mistake), in a touristy area (second mistake) who was selling a map for 20,000 dong, about $1.25 which didn’t sound too bad. He wanted 8 and the vendor first said she couldn’t give us a deal unless we bought 10 (third…) and that she was selling at a fair price unlike big stores. The Boyfriend said 140,000 and I translated; she rebutted 150,000. Finally, she agreed on 140,000, a bit too easily (fourth). A bit later, I realized that he paid nearly $10 and that sounded too much. We found maps at a bookstore later in the day (isn’t that always the case?) and they were selling for… 3500 dong?!!!!!!!!! That’s right about a sixth of her price.

I can hear some of my friends remind me that I have taken a negotiations course. Well, actually, sort of two. So in class, we would analyze the situation… I think the first case was simply trusting my landlady; I really didn’t expect her to go out of her way and lie about helping us when she’s actually trying to deceive us. The second case was really not thinking, not considering the conversion and multiplying a mistake by 8; it was that lady’s lucky day. Rehashing this is painful, but hopefully I’ve learnt my lessons. I hate having to think that everyone’s out to get my money, but it seems that’s the case.


Here are some random observations about Vietnam:

  • McDonald’s. There are no McDonald’s in Vietnam, or rather none that I have seen. The KFC’s make up for its absence though. They seem quite popular here.
  • Coffee or ca phé. There are no Starbucks either, but why would you go to Starbucks when you can get excellent café sua da at a fraction of the cost? On this point, coffee places are very popular here. They’re bigger than usual Starbucks and look more like a very trendy restaurant/lounge. They’re more of a hangout and socializing spot. You usually get free ice tea, and it is refilled the minute you’ve had a sip by the usually over abundant staff; you can easily have 5 different people waiting on you. Wifi is also usually available.
  • Smoking. Smoking and smoking indoors is prevalent here. One of my pet peeves, Vietnam!!
  • Adidas. There are many Adidas stores here in Saigon. Not sure why, but I keep seeing them everywhere.
  • Saigon. In my always paranoia, I wasn’t sure it was ok to call Saigon Saigon. Or rather use Ho Chi Minh City. Supposedly, it’s fine. I won’t get arrested for it.
  • Candies for money. 1 USD = 16,000 dong. Actually, the USD is dropping quite fast, so it’s more like 16,650 dong… This means that everyone’s easily millionaires and a grand is meaningless. The smallest currency is 500D, but when I’ve been owed 500 dong, I’m usually given a couple of candies as change.
  • Television. Vietnamese dubbing is quite funny because it's usually one female voice for every character, with no inflections. She seems to be rapidly reading the script. And if you were wondering about Who wants to be a Millionaire?, they have their own version here. the grand prize is 120 million dong (about 7500 USD). seems to play '80's music on a regular basis, which makes The Boyfriend happy...

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Home Sweet Home

Exactly a month after leaving Canada, we found a place to stay!! It’s so nice to be able to unpack and put your things away. No more hotels and living out of suitcases! We actually found a place thanks to my aunt Mo Thuy (she’s done so much for us!) and the agent she found; the agent charged us 1 million dongs (about $60) – the easiest mil he’s made I bet!

The place is really a room, not an apartment; that’s all we’ve found actually. The typical rooms for rent are in very tall and narrow buildings, with about two rooms on each floor and a kitchen on the first floor. This room provided us the best space/cost ratio.

Our humble abode.

Our room will cost 400 USD per month and includes everything: cable, internet, water, electricity, AC and even a fridge. The room will also be cleaned for us. They’ll even do laundry for an extra 50 USD; we’re not sure if that’s worth it… The bathroom actually has a bathtub, rather than the common toilet/shower room, where everything gets wet.

Cable includes the Travel & Living channel, which I’ve started being addicted too. It’s part travel, (we didn’t have the travel network at home), food network (definitely had that!), HGTV, TLC and Life/Slice, with some Canadian shows! There’s also a few movie channels and you can always get caught up on Asian business news on the Bloomberg channel!

It is situated steps away from Ben Thanh market in one of those omnipresent alleyways. So starving will not be an issue! It’s probably at the limit in terms of distance from The Boyfriend’s workplace (probably 15-20 minutes walk).
This is our building. We're on the third floor.
View of the alleyway from our "building".

View of Cho Ben Thanh at the end of the alleyway.
Now that I know where we’ll be living, it’s time to plan what I’ll be doing while The Boyfriend is teaching.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Eating duong dua (you read right, that’s Coconut WORM!)

Last night, after a very filling dinner at Huong Vien, a vegetarian place from the gastronomy website, I got a call from my uncle to meet some family members at a restaurant. This is AFTER I called earlier in the evening to invite him for his last dinner in Saigon and was turned down because he was too busy packing… I have no idea where we went since I literally got in a cab, called my uncle and he gave directions to the driver. All I know is that the restaurant had the #31 in its name.

The Boyfriend and I didn’t even look at the menu because we were so full. But it was a grill/hot pot/anything-else-you-can-think-of restaurant. So we ate just a bit of what my family ordered: grilled beef, tofu, okra?, oysters... Around us were boards with menu items: field rat, snake and other interesting items as you can see in the picture below.

Interesting menu items.

Then The Boyfriend made the mistake of noticing a pictures of coconut worms.“Look they sell coconut worms. We just watched a show on that. How would they be served?”. My uncle called the waiter over and asked. Options are raw, grilled or fried in butter. As my uncle is speaking to the waiter, I was trying to say “This is just out of curiosity, we don’t want any!”. My uncle translated: “Why don’t you bring five over, fried in butter?”.

Once upon a time, I believed I was the type who would try anything. Insects, funky meat or raw whatever, bring it on. Either due to age or a misperception of myself, I realize I am not that person! So I just sat there, HOPING that I had heard wrong. I obviously wasn’t.

The fat, grubby worms came in a dish with a side of lettuce, tomatoes, onions and mayonnaise, I think. Just your usual garden salad with a side of grubs. We were assured that these worms are the cleanest since they live in and feed themselves from coconut trees. Still didn’t help.

Yum, clean coconut worms fried in butter...

I knew I would have to one. So my Cau Q had the first one. Then I went for it. It really doesn’t taste like anything bad, just a big pouch of melted fat explosion. I drank it down with The Boyfriend’s beer. The outside was a bit chewy/crispy and harder to swallow. More beer helps. My Cau H had one and my cousin Anh V.

Did I mention that we ordered five and all were eaten? Let’s just say someone whose name started with “The”, VERY UNHAPPILY, had half of the last one. But don’t tell him I said so… He did concede that of all the items he could have asked about, this was probably one of the better ones. And the dried squid he tried in Quang Ngai was worst!

Saturday, March 1, 2008


We’ve been back in Saigon for a week. During this time, we moved from our hotel on Le Van Sy St. to one on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai St. (yes, street names are that long, just to make my life harder it seems…). Now we’re steps away from where The Boyfriend will be teaching. We’ve spent most of our time exploring the city, walking when we can (did I mention it’s VERY hot?) and taking taxis when it’s too far. We’re also in the midst of apartment hunting, which is not easy. It’s hard being in a small hotel room, so let’s keep our fingers crossed!

We explored the centre of the city on a REALLY hot day. This is where the well know buildings and hotels are. On another day, we went to Cholon, which is pretty much Chinatown in District 5. There, we saw numerous intricately decorated temples. Here are some of the pics.

Beautiful Hindu temple in Saigon.

City Hall.
Notre Dame Cathedral.
General Post Office.
The old Opera House.

The well known Continental Hotel.

Binh Tay market in Cholon.

Temple in Cholon.

Beautiful detail on another temple in Cholon.

And another temple...

Finally a mosque for a change!
And a temple I like to practice my shopping! I like the name!

Rant ‘n Rave

I’ve realized one thing about my travels: I tend to emphasize the negatives (rant) and less so the positives (rave). People then conclude that I’ve had a terrible time, which is not true. I think it’s just easy to get stuck on some negatives and talk about it. Like when I went to Morroco, I was so stuck in explaining how annoyed I was by men ogling that people thought I had a terrible time; in fact, Morocco is a beautiful and colourful country. Where men happen to ogle women!

So while I was thinking of ranting about a certain aspect of Vietnam, I decided that every time I rant about something, I’d also have to rave about something else. And it wasn’t that hard to find something!

Rant: Lack of line
I’ve commented about this when I wrote about our crazy visit to the Perfume Pagoda. However, I’ve found, to my annoyance, how common it is for people NOT to respect a line, when waiting in line. I actually first observed this when we flew to Danang and someone went in from of my uncle. He was so angry and swearing up a storm; meanwhile, I thought it was pretty funny at the time since it wasn’t happening to me. At a recent visit to the convenience store, The Boyfriend was waiting in line to pay for cookies and a young man goes in front of the three people waiting in line and drops his food at the counter to pay. Just like that. Doesn’t even pretend there’s anything wrong with it. The problem is that I’m not relaxed enough to NOT let things like that get to me, but I’m not aggressive enough either to make a big scene. I just give the evil eye, which really doesn’t seem to faze anyone.

Rave: Helpful people
As we were looking for an English newspaper, I was explaining to the man with the newspaper stall that we were looking for an apartment. He didn’t have an English newspaper but suggested I come back the next day and he’d ask around for us. As well, as were looking for grooming scissors (The Boyfriend got his confiscated at the airport), the women at the beauty salon were also quite helpful, amidst their amusement at my poor Vietnamese.

Finally, while we were looking for an adaptor for The Boyfriend’s laptop at this big electronic store, one employee finally find us one and says it’s about a dollar. When I asked him to pay, he looked in confusion. It wasn’t for sale. He told me to go look at an electric store. Where do I find one?, I ask. Just take it, he gives up. That was nice of him. Then, when we went to wait in line to pay for a memory stick we were buying, that’s right, people kept going in front of us. By now, I’m not that annoyed, more amused. Is this just a cultural practice rather than rudeness? Should I just accept it and be patient? Or should I just jump the line the next time? When in Rome, do as the Romans do, right?