Archive for March, 2010

Did she say Dog?!?

Vietnam is full of contradictions. The old and the new are present in every inch of the city. Elderly in pajamas biking next to Gucci-clad Vespa-driving girls. Women selling fruit on the street outside of art galleries full of $1,000+ paintings. And I am full of contradictions too. The cyclo drivers are always whistling at me for a ride, a constant reminder of my foreign status. I’m so Vietnamese in many ways, but keenly aware of my American-ness too. The truth is I get treated better and worse as a foreigner. I can always get a cab ride, but have to pay more for most goods/services. The travel agent charges me exorbitant prices and gives me the wrong times for my flights, but my Vietnamese friends treat me like a queen. I figure a 30 percent markup on very inexpensive things is a small price to pay for staying in this wondrous country.

I’ve been traveling with a Vietnamese American foodie friend who visits Vietnam annually. He knows all the great street food and we are having a culinary tour of Hanoi. Our first day here we ate four meals between 2pm and 9pm: two kinds of soup, banh cuon and seafood (bloody clams, monster prawns and crab). I was bemoaning the deprived tourists who only eat in restaurants and never experience the joys of street food. My cockiness was noted the next morning when I suffered a quick two minute bout of projectile vomiting. As liquid was streaming from my mouth into the toilet, I was just worried that if I had food poisoning it would put a major cramp in my street food escapades for days! Fortunately, it wasn’t food poisoning and I was back on the street in hours. Last night, we ate at a fancy Vietnamese restaurant. Honestly, the street food has been heaps better and costs a fraction of the price. Plus, I get to witness the amazing street scenes.

This morning, I ate bun oc (snail soup) for one dollar. Lunch was fried tofu, fishcakes, mint, rice noodle and shrimp paste. The shrimp paste dipping sauce was a masterpiece exploding in my mouth comprised of shrimp paste, fresh chili, garlic/chili soaked vinegar, kumquat juice, MSG, sugar and oil. And all for sixty-five cents! Tonight, on my last night in Hanoi, I decided to dine like the locals and eat dog, the Northern specialty. The hotel staff couldn’t believe it and asked for photos as evidence since foreigners don’t eat dog. We ate dog four-ways: roasted, sausage (included peanuts in the sausage), stewed in wine, and my favorite, grilled with lemongrass.

The massages continue and I’ve gotten four massages in two weeks. They are as varied as Vietnam ranging from $4/hour with locals to $18/75 minute aromatherapy massage in a spa. The spa massage was pretty heavenly. The masseuse was kind, gentle, firm and caring. She took me to very edge of pain and then gently rubbed away the hurt. I got a little crush on her from her tenderness J

We are leaving Vietnam tomorrow, and I’m already starting to feel a bit sad and homesick even though I‘ll be back in May. I can’t believe it only took two weeks to feel like home. Vietnam is different this time around, my third trip but now I know I’m here to stay. My days are filled with visiting old and new friends and exploring old and new haunts. I had fears about moving to one of the big cities in Vietnam. Saigon has 10 million people, Hanoi has 4 million, and the traffic, pollution and noise felt oppressive. Somehow, I have quickly acclimated and enjoy the vibrant buzz. I could still do without the nonstop honking though…

Next up is Vientiane, Laos. My friend and I will part ways and I’ll head up to Luang Prubang and then on to Thailand. The adventures continue!

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Last week, I met 40 volunteers at 5am on a dark street in Saigon. We were going to the Mekong Delta to interview scholarship students/parents and award their annual scholarships. The volunteers were young Vietnamese students and professionals, most of them had never been to the Mekong Delta. The group split into two and headed off to different provinces. Our group of 20 boarded the bus to Bac Lieu. There were two other Viet Kieu (Vietnamese Americans), but I was the only non-Vietnamese speaking person.I am constantly relying on my best asset to span language barriers. Not my 200 words of Vietnamese – my big, cheesy grin. People will quickly look at me to ensure they are the intended target, the smiles are shyly returned at first, and then our smiles grow in mutual delight. It works well with children, elderly and women.

I was assigned to video tape the interviews with students and parents. You might think this is a challenging task since I can‘t actually understand the interviews. But I’m pretty good at reading situations and can see emotion and spirit, I can tell when someone is going to open up and tell a great story. And the stories just pour out. Single mothers that have struggled to raise children, older sisters raising younger siblings. They are giving the next generation everything to create a better future. It’s an age-old story and I never get tired of seeing the proud smile of mothers as they gaze at their daughters with love and hope.

After two days in Bac Lieu and Ca Mau, my friend and I left the group for beach time in Ha Tien and Phu Quoc Island. It was the beginning of circuitous travels that wind up heavenly. We got to the bus station, but since there were no other passengers to our destination of Ha Tien, we had to take another bus, a shuttle, another bus and a taxi. On the first bus a 90-year old woman boarded and sat next to us. She was hunched over and used a PVC pipe as a cane. Her son was sick and she was in Ca Mau to visit him. He had dissuaded her from visiting, since he didn’t have the money ($2.50 USD) for her bus fare home. A mother’s concern is fierce and she came to see her sick son without knowing how she would get home. My friend paid her return fare. When we finally got to our destination after 8 hours at 10pm, we ate steamed, sweet crabs with lime and salt on the beach in the dark.

We returned to the same beach resort as my prior trip to Phu Quoc Island. My last trip included flirting with one of the hotel staff. He was surprised to see me with a male traveling companion and asked if he was my boyfriend. I told him we were just friends, but I think “friend” in Vietnamese is code for something entirely different. It’s amusing for others to look at us and make assumptions. I feel like I’m acting in a straight play, but then my gay friend and I laugh hysterically and call each other honey.

We took a taxi into town for the night market. I liked the taxi driver, Dong, as soon as I saw his face. When I learned his story, I was immediately crushed out on him. His father and grandfather were communist party officials. He met a woman and wanted to get married. Her family had escaped from Vietnam, and the party told him if he married her, he couldn’t get a job with the party. He chose LOVE and is a proud taxi driver now.

Phu Quoc Island has deserted beaches and unending seafood. We took a boat trip to go fishing and snorkeling. I practiced humility when I didn’t catch a single fish. We grilled the fish for lunch on the beach of a deserted island. My friend wanted sea urchin, so the boat driver swam into the water with a bucket and tongs and emerged 10 minutes later with sea urchin. He gave the spines a quick haircut, cut them open, rinsed them out in the salt water and grilled them. So fresh and delicious!

After three nights falling asleep to the sounds of the surf, it was time to leave paradise. I’m back in Saigon and we leave for Hanoi tomorrow.



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It’s a long haul from Seattle to Saigon. The trip took 21 hours, including a layover in Taipei – but the mental shift is the biggest journey.

At first, it looked like I’d be travelling solo since my travelling companion had forgotten to pick up his Visa. But things magically work out for my life and he was able to work it out through the wonders of e-mail and Vietnamese customer service – it’s a total conundrum how it can be both so good and so bad.  We arrived in Saigon at 1pm, and I stayed awake in an attempt to kick jetlag on day one. My first stops were eating banh cuon for one dollar and getting a massage for four dollars. We dined at the Architect’s House, an amazing restaurant that is designed by an architect. I ate vegetables I’d never eaten or heard of before and was starting to feel like this was the life for me.

The next morning, we were up and out by 7am to volunteer at an orphanage with my friend’s mother. As we were walking through the morning market and the floor began to undulate (it’s 90 degrees already!), I realized I needed to be kinder to my body and not underestimate the power of jetlag. We arrived at the orphanage and were immediately put to work feeding babies. My baby was lying down on my lap with his head back, looking around and distracted, and my vain attempts to spoon mush into his mouth were thwarted. I looked up, saw the staff easily feeding babies, their portions quickly dwindling while mine was landing all over me and the baby.

How could a simple task of feeding a baby be so hard? This is what my first few days in Saigon feel like sometimes. The most mundane tasks seem so difficult.  Vietnamese is swirling around me and it astounds me that I still can’t understand anything after being around the language for 40 years. My friend constantly tells me I’m so American, and it’s starting to get a bit old.

Alternately, it is so exciting to be here. Saigon has 10 million people and the city never sleeps. It is teeming with people, activities and of course, food, in every available space. I try to maintain perspective, and not run away screaming, wondering if I’ve made a huge mistake with my one-way plane ticket to Vietnam.

Tomorrow, we head to the Mekong Delta with volunteers from the Vietnamese Scholarship Foundation. I know it will be an amazing experience and stay open to everything around me. As I speed down the streets of Saigon on a moped, I feel the thrill of living here. This is what I am focused on now. This journey took a lot of courage to leave everything behind me. It is exhilirating, and I don’t regret it for a minute.

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As I fell asleep last night, I relished my last night in my comfortable, soft American bed. Why are Asian mattresses so hard?!? I am trying to soak up these last moments with my friends and family. In Seattle. In my home. It will be a long time until I have a place to call home. I’ll be living out of a backpack until 2011 when I settle down in Vietnam, which is a long time for my Cancer self.

My flight leaves in nine hours but I haven’t even started packing yet. How do you pack for one year on the road and moving oveseas indefinitely? My travels have taught me to let go and not worry so much. What’s the worst thing that can happen? I’ll forget my favorite shirt? Then I’ll just have to find a new favorite shirt and make new memories!  

I start to pore through my closet and draweres and find remants of past relationships. Photos tucked away in books, love letters interspersed with bills. I throw some things away, trying to let go of the past and move on.  l box up a few things, hoping the bitterness will fade to sweet nostalgia in time.

There is a bright new beginning in front of me, and anything can happen. I’m not taking anything for granted and enjoying every single day. If you saw me yesterday you would have noticed me hugging friends in Columbia City, dancing through the aisles in Best Buy and laughing it up in Marshalls. This journey isn’t about what happens tomorrow and wanting to be somewhere else. It’s about sucking the marrow out of every moment.

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Five days to go…

It’s hard to believe I will be leaving Seattle in five days. One-way ticket to Saigon, with no return date in sight.  My days are filled with mundane activities like buying travellers insurance, taking care of my bills, cashing in the change jar ($66 can pay for three hotel nights or ten massages!), determining my malaria medication options, etc. 

There have also been a lot of goodbyes. Blinking back the tears and knowing I will miss the birthdays of my friends’ children, poker nights, and walks around Seward Park. Thank god for skype (anne.xuan.clark) so I can see my little sister’s belly growing in the seventh month of pregnancy!

I am so excited about the road ahead. Next week, I’ll be in Saigon scouting out vendors for my friend’s cookbook on Vietnamese street food and meeting with scholarship students in the Mekong Delta.  Good times abound, but this week is also tinged with the sadness of leaving my wonderful community in Seattle behind.

Darrell Hillaire, former tribal Chairman of the Lummi Nation, and me at my fourth and final goodbye party to raise funds for my volunteer opportunities in Vietnam, Ghana and the Phillipines

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