Move to Ho Chi Minh City

On February 7th I got up and flew to Ho Chi Minh City. I had a visa on arrival waiting for me at the airport and lucky for me, there were no flights that arrived just before mine so the wait wasn’t too bad. I found the kiosk where everyone was queuing to get their visas and couldn’t help but chuckle at how unorganized it all seemed. I gave an official my passport, and in return they gave me a form to fill out all the information from my passport on it. Fortunately I have that all memorized from my trip with Will when we had to fill that in almost every two weeks. After filling in that form, people just butted to the front of the line to hand it back to an official as opposed to getting back into the queue. I did overhear some people panicking about how they were going to fill in the form without having their passports on hand.

After getting my visa, I made my way out of the airport, passing the many non-registered taxi drivers who approach you when you’re foreign. Generally they try to scam you by saying the meter doesn’t work, or if it does, they take you on a bit of a roundabout ride to your final destination to run the meter. Instead I used the airport service which you pay a flat fee for depending on how far you’re going. I was a little skeptical paying beforehand and getting a receipt to give a driver, but it all worked out just fine.

On arrival, I had made plans to stay with Sam and Charis, good friends of Auntie Mae and Uncle Ken from their church in Bangkok. They’re a wonderful couple from Malaysia and have two young kids, so it was very generous for them to take me in! They made me feel very welcome and were incredibly helpful for me while getting my feet on the ground here. I stayed with Sam and Charis for about 10 days, setting up interviews, exploring District (Quận) 7, and looking online for places to live.

Tết Nguyên Đán 2015 – Year of the Goat

Tết is the Vietnamese New Year, celebrated on the Lunar New Year at the same time as the Chinese New Year. It is the biggest holiday for the Vietnamese people, so many people were off from work for over a full week. Traditionally, people will leave the city to go back to their hometowns to spend time with their family, which left Ho Chi Minh City very quiet relative to how it normally is. There are many decorations set up all over, incredible displays of organized flowers and lights, and special food that’s only available during Tết.

Tet2

One of many displays showing some of the crops grown in Vietnam. This scarecrow is in a simulated paddy field growing rice. Incredible how quickly they set it up and took it down in a popular area!

Tet1

In addition to the decorations, there was a festival going on in Quận 7 that had food, rides, and many shops selling a variety of things. There was a large section devoted to selling plants, which are supposed to bring luck to the family in the new year. The most popular were yellow flowers and kumquat plants.

Farm display

Farm display

Food prepped for a quick deep fry at the fair.

Food prepped for a quick deep fry at the fair.

On the eve of the new year, fireworks were set off in various districts, the most popular display being in Quận 1. By that point, I had moved to Quận Bình Thạnh which is north of Quận 1. That night I was able to see the fireworks from the rooftop deck of the house I’ve moved into.

Job & House Search

On arrival to HCMC, I immediately began shooting my resume out to many different international schools and education centers around the city. Quick note about the resume, the format here is very different. You’re expected to put your picture at the top, as well as your birthdate, sex, and nationality. Two-pages is also more than acceptable. Anyway, international schools tended to have more requirements for employment, so I wasn’t too enthusiastic that I would get a job with one, but it didn’t hurt to try. The education centers just teach English and tend to be after school programs, so their requirements aren’t as stringent and my TESOL Certification + Bachelor’s were what most were looking for. I managed to set up several interviews in a short period of time, but many companies told me they would get back to me after Tết. Not ideal for someone needing a source of income!

One day while killing time before an interview in the afternoon, I went to a Phở restaurant that Sam and Charis enjoy. While waiting for my food, a guy across the restaurant named Abe initiated a conversation with me to find out what I was doing in HCMC. I told him I was an English teacher looking for a job, and he asked what I majored in. “Biology,” I said, to which he responded, “Oh, so you can teach Biology too!” He told me he ran a school teaching International Baccalaureate (IB) courses as well as English courses for Korean expats in Quận 7. I was a little nervous about that idea, but I asked him what level and he said High School. I figured I could at least give it a shot if he asked, so we exchanged contact information and I sent him my resume, thinking that my lack of experience would deter him from asking me to come teach Biology. I was wrong. Abe texted me the next week, asking me to teach a two-hour Biology lesson that Saturday. I picked up the material from him the following day and brushed up on my genetics, which was the content of the first lesson. I have to say that those may be easier lessons to do than teaching English as a second language. Not having a language barrier is nice! Abe called me after I left and told me that I was one of the best Biology teachers they had at the school, so I was hired. Lucky me!

My second job I got through yet another connection of Auntie Mae and Uncle Ken. They got me in touch with a girl named Stephanie who has been teaching English here for the last year. Steph had two part-time jobs, and recently one of the two asked her to come on full-time. As a result, the other school she worked at was looking for a quick replacement to step in. When I arrived in HCMC, I texted Steph and she filled me in on the situation, saying that I could pick up a few hours per week at a kindergarten/preschool. It was going to give me more experience, which is always a good thing. I shadowed Steph for her two last days there, and on the second day some of the students were already greeting me with hugs. That’s a really nice way to start the day, relative to talking to some angry people about their money.

The last job I got, which I start tomorrow, is for a company called British Education Partnership (BEP). BEP is associated with Apollo, which is the oldest foreign owned chain of education centers in Vietnam. My interview was at the very beginning of Tết, so the school was pretty much shut down. I arrived a little early and met the interviewer, Will, who was very friendly and informative off the bat. When we sat down to begin the interview, he said, “Well, first of all, UM YA YA!” (A Saint Olaf cheer) Needless to say, I was shocked. Running into another Ole randomly on the other side of the globe isn’t something I was expecting at all, but I guess we’re all over the place. He graduated four years before me and has been teaching in Asia since then. After the interview he told me they could hire me for a 6-month, part-time contract during which I would be sent to local public schools teaching Vietnamese students. Exactly what I was hoping to do.

At this point in time, Sam and Charis’ driver, Nguyen, was taking me from place to place during the day while Sam was at work and Charis was with the kids. We got to know each other during that time and he is now someone I consider a friend here in HCMC. He is very kind and helpful, and he introduced me to some of his friends who are also drivers for businessmen. He has a degree in Electrical Engineering, but the job he had was boring so he has since found other work.

Nguyen and I (middle) with his friends

Nguyen and I with his friends

When Sam and Charis left to spend the Lunar New Year in Malaysia, Nguyen took me out to eat and drink beer with his friends at an authentic Vietnamese restaurant (pictured above). We had all sorts of snails, mussels, and clams which were probably not the best idea for me to eat, but man were they delicious. I figured I didn’t have work yet, so if I got sick, there was nothing going on I would be missing. Fortunately everything sat fine and my body has adjusted to the bacteria here.

At one point when we were driving around, Nguyen asked me what my budget was for a living space. From my research online, I had seen many serviced apartments for around $300/mo, so I told him that’s what I was thinking, but I was hoping for something better if I could find it. He informed me that his aunt and uncle have a home in which they rent out rooms to foreigners only. He thought it would be cheaper than what I had budgeted, maybe by even $100. Sounded good to me, so we arranged to check out the room.

The room was fully furnished, had a TV on the wall, a walk in closet, and a private bathroom. Nga, Nguyen’s aunt, confirmed that the price for renting was $200 per month, but having the maid clean my room and do my laundry would cost slightly more. Works for me! I haven’t done my own laundry since leaving the States, no reason to start now. In addition there is some common space on the top floor for karaoke and a rooftop deck attached, as well as a nice kitchen on the first floor. I jumped on the opportunity and it is where I am currently living. My housemates are all French (aside from Nga and her husband) and everyone living here is very friendly. Occasionally Nga will cook food which she sends up via the maid to my room, and she knows how to cook. She runs a restaurant nearby that I have yet to go to. Maybe I can have her teach me how to make some Vietnamese dishes…

As I moved into the house during Tết, I got to experience one of the family Tết parties here with Nguyen and Nga’s family. One night there were probably about 25 people or so in the house and Nga formally invited me to the party. One of my housemates, Alexis, was also there and we had a phenomenal time chatting with the family members. Over the course of the holiday, a family will have a series of parties at different family member’s homes.

Alexis, Nguyen, me, and his uncle

Alexis, Nguyen, me, and his uncle

Random Tidbits

On one of the days while I was still living in Quận 7, I went with Charis to Bến Thành Market, a large market in Quận 1. Will and I had gone the last time we were here accompanied by a local who thought we needed to see it before we left. It’s a pretty cool market, but it can be overwhelming if it’s the first time you go because nearly everyone is trying to get you to purchase something from their store if you linger at all. You have to walk with determination from point A to point B if you don’t want to be bothered. I didn’t mind much, just laughed and said, “no, thank you,” constantly while I walked through. It was here that I had my first Banh Mi sandwich and Vietnamese iced coffee. Delicious, but can’t make a habit of having the coffee all the time as it has a fair amount of sweetened condensed milk in it.

The wet market at Benh Thanh

The wet market at Benh Thanh

Inside Benh Thanh Market

Inside Benh Thanh Market

BanhMi1 CafeSuaDa1

Now that I am officially on my own in HCMC, it’s been a bit strange adjusting to the lack of a social life. In Bangkok I was incredibly busy with my course, so I didn’t mind. That and Auntie Mae and Uncle Ken brought me many places and introduced me to many people, so I had a good amount of interaction when I wasn’t studying. Tết slowing things down didn’t help either as most people had plans and things to do during the holiday. Fortunately I have a meeting tomorrow morning with my new coworkers at BEP so I’m looking forward to making new friends there. More of a social life will come with time!

Over the last few days I got a little sick and I’m pretty sure it’s the kids’ fault at the preschool/kindergarten. I wouldn’t mind much, however I lost my voice as a result and had to teach a two-hour Chemistry lesson for Abe’s school yesterday! That was a bit of a disaster as my voice just got worse and worse as the lesson went on. It’s still a little hoarse, but I’m really hoping that tomorrow when I start for BEP it’s better. I’m hoping for the best as I drank lots of tea and rested my voice today. Until next time!

[Shoutout to my sister Mica: Happy Birthday! Have a great day!]

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Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City

On March 24th we took our plane from Seoul to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We had a layover in Guangzhou, China, getting us into Vietnam around 11:00 pm. We didn’t plan too far ahead and hadn’t booked a place to stay our first night, so we were a bit nervous and went off of Will’s Lonely Planet book. We arrived late at a hotel recommended by Lonely Planet and were accepted with open arms. I had good feelings about Southeast Asia right away. We went to bed and slept in a little after our long day of traveling.

The next day we got up and wandered around our hotel a little bit getting our bearings. It was quite different being on our own again after having hosts for three weeks prior to our arrival in Vietnam. Due to the crowded nature of Ho Chi Minh, we were a little overwhelmed and didn’t get far before we were confronted by cyclo drivers who offered to take us around the city to different sights. We decided to go for it as it would familiarize us with where we were and we would get to sight see.

Riding in my cyclo

The first place the cyclo drivers took us was a pagoda in the middle of the city. Getting there was a bit frightening as we were on the front of the bikes that they would push into traffic. For the most part you ignore motorcycles with the thought process with the thought process that they’ll avoid you. Kind of crazy, but it works surprisingly well there. Didn’t see any accidents and the mopeds and motorcycles went at reasonable speeds. Anyway, when we got to the pagoda, it was pretty, but we’re definitely getting spoiled with how much we’ve gotten to see. At this point, pagodas and temples aren’t as appealing as they used to be with similar decorations and colors on a fair amount of the buildings throughout Asia. I wish I knew more about the history so I could pick out more differences between all of them.

From the pagoda we headed to a Chinese market. It was incredibly crowded and gave a whole new meaning to efficient use of space. Getting through some of the aisles was a squeeze and there were plenty of people grabbing Will and I saying, “Handsome man! Handsome man! This shirt is for you!” We got out of the main area of the market and grabbed some lunch at a small vendor on the first floor that had incredibly good food for the amount we paid. The cyclo drivers were waiting for us and charging us by the hour, so we decided to head out.

Finally the drivers took us to the Vietnam War Museum. It was incredibly interesting getting such a wildly different perspective on the war from the little I’ve heard about it in America. I’m not sure how I went through all of my high school and college education without learning very much about that war, but I definitely would not have been shown images of North Vietnamese soldiers being painted as patriots dying for their country with guns pointed to their heads by American soldiers. It’s sad to me how much money is spent on figuring out ways to harm other people.

After the war museum we called it a day and headed back to our hotel. Across the street there was a bar that had decent looking pizzas so we headed there for dinner as we’ve been craving cheese and something more familiar for a while. It hit the spot and several bartenders came over to practice their English with and get to know us.

The next day we signed up to take a Vietnamese cooking class nearby. We had some time to kill before heading to the class, so we went to a church nearby. It was interesting how they burned incense for Mary and their crucifix in a very similar manner to how incense is burned in front of Buddhas at temples and pagodas.

After the church, we went to our class at the Mai Home Saigon Culinary Art Center. There was one couple from the UK who joined us who wanted to learn how to cook pho, a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup dish. As a result we had to cough up a few more dollars for ingredients, but it was definitely worth it. If enough of you are interested, I’ll post the recipe on the blog. We paid about as much for the class and the food as we would’ve in Australia for just the meal. It’s really nice to be in Southeast Asia.

Will preparing spices for the Pho broth

The delicious banana flower salad we learned to make

Our last day in Saigon we were shown around by one of the waitresses from the bar we got pizza from. She took us to a large market in a warehouse that we hadn’t been to yet and insisted we see it. It was similar to the Chinese market in how crowded it was and how people would grab Will and I telling us we wanted something. There was plenty to buy and again I wished my bag was bigger. I’m still not willing to carry all of that on my back for the next three months.

From the market we asked the waitress to take us to a Vietnamese restaurant she considered good. We went to a pancake restaurant where the pancakes were thin, crispy, and filled with shrimp, potatoes, and bean sprouts. We were instructed to break apart the large pancake and wrap it in lettuce before dipping it in fish sauce. Quite different from anything I’ve tasted, especially considering the shrimp shells were left on inside the pancakes. Despite that it was a really enjoyable meal!

Hue

That night we took the overnight train to Hue. We got in at about 3:30 pm and took a cab to the Green Bamboo Hotel, another Lonely Planet suggestion. We got settled and then went out for noodle soup, which ended up making me sick for the first time on the trip. It was a pretty good run so far though! It could’ve been a result of drinking all of the broth so quickly because I was famished. Needless to say, that night ended pretty early.

The next day we got up earlier and walked to see the Imperial City in Hue. As a large festival was being held there for the New Year in April there was a fair amount of construction going on, setting up stages and getting other things ready. The last emperor of Vietnam lived inside the Imperial City before transferring power to the Vietnam Liberation Party. It has taken a significant amount of damage from the French and American wars that is clearly visible further inside the Imperial City, but they’re currently renovating it and hope to fully repair it in the next decade.

A courtyard nside the citadel

After the Imperial City we went to the river to find out how much a boat ride would cost. We were planning on going on a boat in Halong Bay anyway, so we didn’t end up hiring one for a river tour of Hue. Instead we sat on a bench and people watched for a while, being approached occasionally by people trying to sell us things. Eventually a Vietnamese guy about our age came up and started speaking in broken English to us, telling us he wanted to practice speaking. He was taking classes and asked us for tips on how to improve his English. We talked for about an hour before he pulled out post cards and told us he sold them to help pay for his education. I asked him how much he wanted for one and when he said, “pay what you want,” I wanted to help him at least a little. Usually we’ve been told prices right away! We exchanged contact information and parted ways.

On the 30th we got up early to go on a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) tour. Our tour guide was a South Vietnam war veteran who had been captured as a POW by the North 6 months before the end of the war. He was a little difficult to understand so it was more sightseeing and picking up little things here and there than I’d hoped, but it was incredible to see nonetheless.

Me with our DMZ tour guide on a bridge connecting the former North and South Vietnam

Our first stop on the tour was the Horrible Highway. From what I understood, a standoff occurred on the Horrible Highway between the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese troops, but there were many innocent civilians present who lost their lives as well. After the war, the Vietnam government built a monument to pay respect to those who died.

Our next stop was a bullet riddled church further inside the DMZ. I didn’t understand our guide at all at this point, but it was incredible to see how much damage the church had taken in a battle. When we got there a cow was standing inside looking out as the land is now used for farming, which was an interesting juxtaposition. Inside there was still an “INRI” plaque where a crucifix must have hung underneath.

Our final stop on the tour was a visit to clay tunnels dug by a village over a seven year time span. The tunnels were three levels deep, the deepest being 23 m for protection from bombings. There were 15 different entrances all covered by bamboo to shield them from the sky, some of which went out to the South China Sea. Gorgeous view. It was impressive how small the tunnels were considering people would have to rush down during an air raid. The tunnels have never collapsed and now there are areas that tourists can walk through.

Bamboo covered entrance to the tunnels

Our last full day in Hue we spent catching up with emails and figuring out Hanoi. We discovered a few days before that two friends from St. Olaf, Ted and Kate Hagen, were also traveling through Southeast Asia and were arriving in Hanoi on April 3, so we coordinated with them a bit. Small world! We let them know where we were staying and then hopped on our night train to Hanoi.

Hanoi

At 11:00 am we arrived in Hanoi and were picked up by our hotel. We’d done some research and discovered that a big scam in Hanoi is fake hotels having fake taxis to take you there, so we arranged before our arrival to be taken there. We got into the hotel and I checked my email to discover that Ted and Kate had gotten the same online deal we did and were staying in the same hotel. We waited a few minutes for them to arrive and then went to get lunch.

After lunch we walked around checking out the Old Quarter, where we were staying in Hanoi. We decided that we wanted to see the Ethnography Museum where there were many authentic homes built by different groups of people living in Vietnam. It was fascinating to see how many people lived and continue to do so even now.

While at the museum we saw a water puppet show. We made it in perfect time to catch the full act that involved incredibly intricate puppets that moved in all sorts of ways and fireworks. Whoever first thought it was very clever.

One of the many intricate water puppets

The puppeteers for the show

After the museum we headed back to town and tried to find bia hoi, or fresh beer. It’s a beer made with rice and as a result it goes bad quickly and is made daily. We heard that it was a Vietnam staple and we had to try it. We asked some locals about it and they pointed in the direction to go. After wandering around the streets for a bit, we found a small outdoor “bar” on a street corner with small plastic chairs and tables and sat down. The size of the place very much added to the experience, forcing us to converse with the people sitting at the table next to us as so many people wanting bia hoi. Each glass of bia hoi was sold for 5,000 dong or about $0.25. No wonder it’s so popular! We ended up meeting a couple from Alaska that had been traveling in Vietnam for three or four months with their two year old son. I have to find some job that lets me do something similar!

A few days later we went to see Ho Chi Minh’s corpse in the mausoleum in Hanoi. It was impressive how organized they make people walk through the mausoleum and everyone walks through in silence to respect Ho Chi Minh. After the mausoleum you walk through his former palace and the house on stilts he preferred to the palace. The fact that he chose to live in a two room home instead of the palace made him well liked by the people as they viewed him as one of them rather than just a ruler.

After walking around the city for a significant portion of the day, we couldn’t resist the urge to go back to get a refreshing bia hoi and sit. It was a blast because we ended up sitting with different groups and talking with locals, trying our best to communicate with the people. They were all very friendly and one man I was talking to was getting married at the end of the week so he was out with his friends for the night. When I was about to start asking him about his wedding, two motorcycles flew down the street blasting their horns which got everyone’s attention immediately. I saw a police truck following the motorcycles and it stopped in front of our bia hoi restaurant. I know I looked confused as the man getting married shouted in my ear, “Grab your chair and run!” which I saw many people doing, so I picked up my chair and ran with a crowd into an alley. I found some foreigners who explained to me that the place we were at wasn’t legally allowed to serve food even though countless similar shops do, so occasionally the police will come and either extort the restaurants for money or take their equipment. Such a different world.

Halong Bay

The next day the four of us headed to Halong Bay for a two day, one night stay on a boat. On our arrival on our boat we got settled in our rooms and were then served lunch. The boat took us into Halong Bay during the meal and I think any trip to Vietnam is incomplete without seeing it, regardless of how touristy it is. The views were incredible and as usual it’s impossible to do them justice with pictures. The fog made it even more surreal with these large rocks slowly forming in the distance and clearing up as we got closer.

That day we went to see the Amazing Cave that was much larger than I’d expected. Our guide from the boat took us through the caves and told us stories of the discovery of the caves and pointed out the names of different rock formations. After the Amazing Cave we went to a floating village to get kayaks to get closer to the isles of Halong and look in an unlit cave.

The next day we got up early for breakfast and then were taken on a rowboat through a floating village. We saw their school and homes up close that were both fascinating. I can’t imagine growing up in a floating village and that being all I knew, but I would like to try living in one for a little while just to see what it was like.

A floating village we passed by on our boat

On the 6th we left for Luang Prabang, Laos, deciding to join Ted and Kate there. Going there wasn’t even in our initial plans when we left the states, but as we knew people were going and it was recommended to us, we bought some plane tickets to avoid the hassle of crossing the boarder by land. When we were leaving Vietnam it was the first time I’ve felt sad to leave a country since we started the trip. I had a phenomenal time meeting people, seeing as much as we could see during our stay and meeting up with some Oles…again!

Oles in Vietnam! Kate Hagen, Will, Ted Hagen, and I