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Tag: Vietnam

Home Sweet Home!

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts! We’re back! Three weeks…

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts!

We’re back! Three weeks survived together, feeling our best, looking like hell, as backpackers do (and we didn’t even go all-in!) I had so much time to write when we were traveling solo, but once we arrived in Saigon and Seoul, family and friends were to be seen. Before I realized it, late nights were filled with exhausted rest, instead of recaps.

So, here’s a quickie to end my journaling for this trip — solid guides to follow.

Saigon was AMAZING! I grew up with stories about Saigon (or, Ho Chi Minh City) painted strictly in the war era. Being able to see it myself now, and applying what I know (youth population is dominating Vietnam, old ways are changing — as is the government, it seems), an optimistic, modern outlook is in store for the motherland. Over three weeks, Michael and I enjoyed endless social commentary and speculation in this world we were exploring. Despite sadness that some ancient culture is dissolving, young people are clearly working hard to express their dreams, which can be seen through non-foreign-owned business ventures, and even every day style. This is a short way of saying that Saigon, compared to much of the north we explored, is very modern, nearly apathetic to tourists, and do-able for most travelers. I’ll write a more specific post on what to do and see (and drink!).

We met with some family in Saigon — two instances were pleasant, as we were all able to enjoy conversation and share mutual interests like traveling and asking questions about each other’s cultures. My third visit with family was a stretched effort to visit a more closed, religious community, and to no one’s surprise, I got to experience once again being ridiculed for my lack of language fluency and my evil American boyfriend. Note: Maybe not waste time/energy there next time. Though the experience is common, it’s left a bad taste in my mouth for days.

Fly to Seoul! My first time in Korea. I hate to be that person, but eating in Vietnam was not really new to me. My dad had a restaurant, and my parents fearlessly exposed me to the wildest dishes one can hope to see as a child. The only difference in Vietnam was the freshness of the food. Seafood and beautiful greens impressed me to no end.

But in Seoul!!!! I got to experience an entire culture shock, which I am relieved to have had before the trip ended. I enthusiastically ate and drank everything that friends recommended, from student street food, to more traditional dishes (like the Korean version of moonshine). We stayed at an Airbnb for the first two nights, that a fellow blogger and old friend, Nadia, managed to snag us a whole house in the Bukchon Hanok Village. Nadia is my absolute favorite person, with the dependable traveling advice and endless enthusiasm to go with it. I’m so delighted to have had her as a tour guide (along with Michael) and enjoyed her recommendations for food, fun, and even dance (hello, Korean 90’s dance club!). I met her in Philly last year as Michael’s guest, and can’t wait to have her back.

I feel like just a summary won’t do either place justice, so I’ll tie up the journaling now and get to work on the real thing.

This has been one of the best trips of my life. As I told Michael, new brain wrinkles were massaged every day we faced a new challenge, whether looking for food, trying to communicate with the locals, or communicating with each other. My mind and my body felt every moment, and now being home, I’m steadily recovering from being both trashed and adored from the experiences.

And now. Back in Philly. Something that not many are able to say, or maybe even realize: I’m so fortunate to be able to leave one amazing experience, only to return to another lovely life. Thank you for reading!

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From the Road: Asia Recap

i everyone! If you’ve been following for the past three weeks, I just tied up an amazing trip to Vietnam and Seoul. I really wanted to capture my thoughts, so I…

i everyone! If you’ve been following for the past three weeks, I just tied up an amazing trip to Vietnam and Seoul. I really wanted to capture my thoughts, so I added a more personal category to the site, From the Road. This section is less of a guide, but more of my personal experiences and takes on the world that I am exploring. I’m so pleased that Vietnam and Seoul were my first places to present to you in this format.

Catch up on the first-hand accounts of an American-born-and-raised Vietnamese woman. Looking forward to your feedback, and please share your own thoughts!

Entries From the Road

Countdown to Vietnam: 24 Hours til Take-off!

Searching for the Perfume Pagoda (Ending up at the Temple of Doom)

Yo Mama’s So Fascist

A Take on 3 Cities: Hanoi, Hue & Hoi An

The Conductor’s Throne: 12 Hours on the Sleeper Train

Mystery Meats: Notes on Being a Visiting Vegetarian in Vietnam

Say No to Sleeper Buses!

Home Sweet Home! Update on Saigon and Seoul

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Say No To Sleeper Buses!

 Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts! Sure, a four-hour bus…

 Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts!

Sure, a four-hour bus trip for $6 sounds like a good idea, but take the time to ask, “Does it really?”

Let me start off by saying, hey, who hasn’t seen a parent change their baby’s diaper next to you on the bus? I’m pretty sure it has happened to me twice (exclusively on Greyhound) back at home, and the kid was cute. And speaking of, as I write this, the kid next to me is also cute. He gave me a high-five (before his mom started coaxing him to aim into an open diaper on her lap, making hissing noises that Michael says he’s heard done for the occasion in China as well.) So I guess, warning number one on buses in Vietnam: if you want to reduce facing some stranger’s deuce, then maybe upgrade a bit.

No, let me backtrack. Rule number one. If you’re booking a bus ticket in Vietnam, don’t listen to the travel agent telling you simply it’s “the best” option. Maybe follow up by asking, “What kind of bus is it?”

“Good question!” he will hypothetically say. “I actually meant that I’m booking you a sleeper bus for your five-hour trip! A hit with our more-compact locals, you can lay down the whole way!”

“Oh, terrible!” we would have exclaimed, because we didn’t actually ask; we were just relieved to book our last-minute tickets out, from Hue to Hoi An.

Day of departure, a wild-eyed, angry man runs into our hotel lobby, screaming at us to hurry up and board the shuttle that will take us to the yet-to-be-known sleeper bus. At this moment, Michael realizes that he left his passport/camera bag at the coffee shop we just left. He darts down the street as I drag our large backpacks one by one in exaggerated slow-motion to the red-faced man.

HURRY UP!” he screams in Vietnamese. I shrug and gesture fingers towards my forehead, claiming I don’t understand, and slither towards the next round of bags like a slug. Michael returns and I quickly throw my load into the trunk.

The guy speeds comically less than two blocks away and drops off us in front of a line of buses.

Before us, it looks like a double-decker luxury bus on the outside. On the inside are three rows of concentration-camp styled bunks, about 30 beds, mostly filled locals already. We tentatively step in. It’s oddly styled, but clean enough with cheap carpeting and fake leather upholstery. The driver waves plastic bags at us. We take off our shoes and search for free beds.

The only free spot that could accommodate Michael’s long legs are in the back. Three beds laid out flat next to each other, unlike the rows of separate beds for each passenger. I let him take the middle seat to stretch out, and I took the window.

It wasn’t a direct trip. The bus made several stops, finding room (or not) for more passengers to lay down in the aisles. Before we know it, the bus picks up a husky, half-blind older woman, who read things through a small marble. She grins at Michael and waves for the middle seat. “No, no, long legs!” we gesture. She agrees to squeeze next to him and the wall of the bus. Just to show us, I’m sure, she dials up her gal pal and starts talking loudly.

Everyone starts to fall asleep. My seat space is actually big enough, and I’m sliding around to the ebb of crazy traffic. The rest of that trip is uneventful but not peaceful, just uncomfortably… pretzeled next to one too many people, or two.

We arrived on time in Hoi An, and strolled maybe two blocks easily to the Main Street, so it’s good that we didn’t have to taxi to get from a station. A cab driver tried to suggest a 100,000 VND ride. YEAH RIGHT, MAN.

After that, we declared no sleeper bus again, ever! It seems like a luxury that actually isn’t, especially for daytime. Maybe some guy thought it was a cool idea and everyone else caught on, which is why when we booked tickets for a bus from Mui Ne to Saigon, there were ONLY sleeper bus options available.

Which brings me to now. Next to the super deucer, frenetic drivers communicating not English nor Vietnamese, but overly angry hand gestures telling foreigners where to sit or what not to do. People sneezing or expectorating in small spaces (where’s that motorcycle face mask I bought the other day?) But it’s not constant, it’s nothing that some creative body bending can accommodate, at least for me. Michael, in his glorious height, not so lucky, but this time he’s seated by the AC, thank goodness.

So take from this what you will, and heed my warnings. If you’re traveling during the day time and aren’t used to being awake, horizontal, for hours on end, just don’t. Don’t. If you want to sleep on these at night, I’d still recommend the sleeper train we took from Hoi An to Binh Thuan, if possible (some travel options aren’t available in all places.) Sure, it’s loud and seems cramped, but it feels like you have more personal, private space, and no one really yells at you. It’s important to say that we lucked out with polite, local passengers on the sleeper train, so just book a four-person sleeper and cross your fingers.


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Mystery Meats: Notes On Being A Visiting Vegetarian In Vietnam

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts! I’m not a big…

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts!

I’m not a big meat eater but my track record for an average (Asian-) American has been extreme enough to question my and Michael’s meal compatibility. Vit lon (boiled duck egg where you scoop out a formed baby bird on your spoon for the last bite), blood pudding (savory cubes in Vietnam, sweet and smooth in France), and shallow plates filled with bright red duck blood and homemade broth (not my favorite but my mom loved to pair it with Doritos) sprinkled my childhood frequently enough for me to develop a loyal reverence for flesh and bone.

Michael, on the other hand, is a long-time vegetarian, upholding his ideals for nearly 20 unchanging years. It’s clear he’s not sporting a trend, he’s the real deal, and his preference has been easily and equally respectable to me.

Rarely our palates cause friction, unless I’m hangry and demand animal protein on the spot. But upon arriving in Vietnam, it didn’t occur to me that unlike the US, there would be more options for meat eaters over nguoi an chay, vegetarians. We speculated that the huge Buddhist population would be on board, but in Hanoi, we had a hard time trying to find something quickly substantial and exciting that didn’t include meat broth or meat as an accompaniment, or wasn’t fried to oblivion. Thus, for Michael, vegetable-only street banh mi proved to be the tastiest and easiest option among veggie clay pots and the like, in Hanoi. It’s also fair to say that we jam-packed our time with crazy adventures, so by the end of the night we were too beat and famished to comb through too many street restaurants, and merely eyeballed their menus which advertised the same beef, chicken, and duck options.

Our Ha Long Bay cruise boasted constant seafood, so the baffled tour guide asked me thrice in person, then called a fourth time to clarify what Michael could actually eat. His first meal began with boiled veggies, plates of French fries and roasted peanuts, while I filled up on freshly caught squid, fried fish, and prawns dipped in lime juice, salt and pepper. Later meals of more flavorful dishes dishes like steamed tomatoes and tofu came his way.

Traveling further central, however, it was easy for us to find places to enjoy meals together. Hue and Hoi An were very touristy, so we took care in dodging the Western palate and prices (although to give our taste buds a break, we found a tasty Italian spot in Hoi An.) In an extremely hot scooter trip to explore ruins surrounding Hue, we made the efforts to stop at several restaurants in a block that tour buses seemed to populate. All meat, including goat and crocodile, and advertised in flashy ways — it was tourist central and it’s obvious the business owners wanted to capitalize on the search for an exotic experience. Further down the road, we lucked out at an empty but beautiful vegetarian restaurant where we filled up on three meatless and traditional Vietnamese courses for $2 each.

Hoi An, whose tag line is “the ancient city” is actually the most modern city in Vietnam so far! While not as many Buddhist temples as Hue, Hoi An still accommodated vegetarians more, from fancy restaurants to push carts.

We found two great places. One for breakfast — complete with the makeshift alley way design with tiny small and step stools for seats — where, I’m so proud to say, Michael had his first pho ever (vegetarian). The meats were substituted with tofu, radishes, carrots, onions and bean sprouts. While the broth tasted fresh, it was missing the signature pho broth flavors — anise, cinnamon, heavy onion, etc. But we’ll let that pass and make note for recreation at home.



For lunch that day, the second awesome vegetarian place was one that we stumbled upon in exploring a random alleyway. The shack-like structure had a few empty plastic tables, and a caged bird singing merrily. Past the accumulating pile of peeled veggie skins a man was working on by the entrance, we immediately saw a pushcart dimly lit with a lukewarm buffet of styled fake meats and vegetables. Face blocked by the sneeze guard, an old woman’s arms wordlessly scooped us each a plate of rice, then handed us tongs. Her appendages pointed to each item, still wordless, but we got the point to fill up.


Finally, she came around the push cart, crankily eyeballed our options, and declared 60,000 VND total, or $2.81. We sat down and bit into our collection of mystery fake meats (clay pot “fish”, simmered “pork”) and marveled. The old woman sauntered over, looking pleased at our reactions, and asked, “Soup?” before returning with two bowls of room temperature cabbage soup.


(A note, most fake meats back at home make me gag and have headaches but something about this trip’s mystery meat makes me excited to crack the recipes when I return to Philly.)

So obviously, if you allow some wiggle room like accepting animal broth or sauces in your dish, it’s extremely easy to explain your diet, in Vietnamese or English. But in some regions, you might find options to be more challenging, especially if you prefer to enjoy a fully meat-free dish.

But for our trip, we’ve learned that if we want to find the right adventurous food for us both, we have to take time to do the footwork, and not wait until we’re starving from adventuring, and have to settle.

On my own, I’ve eaten some delicious actual meat items which I’ll write about, but that is a much different journey for me.

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The Conductor’S Throne: 12 Hours On The Sleeper Train

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts! I write this from…

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts!

I write this from a sleeper train journeying from Danang to Mui Ne. An overnight trip, we’re stuck in this metal box for a total of 12 hours.

I imagined but not expected worse.There are eight cars filled with probably 7 by 9 feet metal rooms lined with four or six bunk beds squished in as tightly as possible. In our six-person, air conditioned sleeper, Michael lucked out with a bottom bunk — more leg room. I’ve got a middle bed with a bar so I won’t fall off. Designed exclusively for sleeping, I can’t sit up at all and have to hang out the side to drink from my water bottle. Each bed is covered in a sheet and has a thin pillow and a cheap, fluffy sleeping bag.

While its definitely not for the claustrophobic, it’s perfectly fine for the exhausted traveler. The only luxury to be sacrificed, obviously, is that of silence. Expected. We have four other locals in our sleeper, two old grandparents and two adolescent boys they must have befriended. This means a moderate-to-high disregard to our presence, playing music, singing, and loud talking to each other at all hours. Imagine trying to fall asleep to the sounds of the voices of teenage boys, blamelessly notorious for emitting the worst decibels known to humankind at the most inconvenient moments. A spotty night of sleep indeed.

So, if not for the luxury of silence, thank goodness for the luxury of headphones. Until morning. Nothing can block out the sounds of babies crying for breakfast and wiggle room. Teenagers jumping on their cell phones. Old people scolding each other and everyone around them. Nothing. I hung down from my bunk at about 6am to see a baggy eyed, bleary Michael, who obviously shared the same experience. I heard the 4-person sleeper cars don’t have as many children and are much quieter.

Otherwise, my creature comfort requirements are pretty minimal, outside of hygiene. I assumed the bathrooms would be a nightmare, so I was prepared to hold it for 12 hours, much to Michael’s skepticism. When I woke up this morning I felt smugly dehydrated. On a search for a breakfast car or cart, I squeezed my way through from car 7 to car 2, brushing past riders just standing in aisles barely the size of my wingspan. Some people just sat in the aisles outside of their sleeping rooms, not doing anything in particular, just sucking up valuable real estate. Chaos. The two sitting-only cars seemed nicer and quieter. I turned around, unable to find what I was looking for.

I walked too far past car 7 and into 8. Perplexed, as nothing looked familiar, I opened a door.

A toilet. A clean, spotless, mostly odor-free toilet with the seat cover ON (unlike the one near our room that Michael had described.)

I found it. The diamond in the rough. The conductor’s throne.

Suddenly, I wasn’t dehydrated anymore. I whipped my tissues and hand sanitizer out of my fanny pack and closed the door.

I returned to car and announced my findings to Michael, which warranted a small celebration of stripping my food and drink fast. We got two styrofoam bowls of pho (one with meat and one without; sniff test, savory broth like that of won ton soup packets), Oreos for dessert, then settled in for the rest of the long trip. Reading. Sleeping. Reading.

So, the overnight sleeper car is a fun, novelty option if you want to get to point A to point B on a budget, and not lose a day of traveling. The cars can be peaceful if you keep to yourself with headphones and a book, or if you fill a room with your bestest friends (doesn’t that sound awesome?) I wouldn’t rule it out for next time, just perhaps a smaller car and some games.

Most importantly, it’s vital to point out that contrary to my dad’s implications, we did not manage to get stabbed or shot riding this train.

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A Take On 3 Cities: Jotted Notes On Hanoi, Hue & Hoi An

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts! An update! Time flies…

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts!

An update! Time flies when you’re exploring ruins, am I right? So much to write about about all the places we’ve been but here are the more interesting notes to share.

As we head south, traveling and communicating becomes easier. Hanoi, and where we stayed in the old town (backpacker’s neighborhood, sprinkled with slightly higher-end budget hotels) definitely showed the Vietnam that I’ve encountered on a family visit a few years ago. It also shows what hipsters in Philly pretentiously dub as truly and only authentic — tight, trash speckled streets with grandmas selling hot bowls of soup, pastries and fresh chopped up fruit for less than a dollar. My feeling is that locals do expect foreigners there but two types of sentiments struck me — the youth working in travel agencies and restaurants seem eager to interact and chat, whereas the older generation seem to tolerate the foot traffic to make ends meet. Together, the challenge of exploring a new place, exercising the brain to translate language and money made it interesting and stimulating. I wrote in a previous post about the countryside leaving Hanoi, and its sometimes disastrous interactions.

After Hanoi, we took an hour domestic flight to Hue, where we spent two and a half days and two nights. Gambling, we did not reserve a place to stay, but instead walked from hotel to hotel to compare prices. We did the same in Hanoi and lucked out on a pretty impressive, modern room. In Hue, we were lucky to find something just as nice, but it felt like a luxury hotel room fit for a Cuban general. Huge room, balcony, and to relieve the 90-degree, sweltering weather, a rooftop pool, for $35/night.

Hue, especially the area we stayed, was definitely a tourist spot. Lots of backpackers and foreigners in giant muscle shirts or tiny, tiny jean shorts. We escaped the hustle and bustle during the day, and rented a scooter from sassy Vietnamese boys to hit five ancient ruins surrounding the city. The hotel we stayed at offered a bus tour but the idea of stopping for fluff activities like visiting an incense village (tourist trap!) and the like seemed too limiting and boring, so we decided to do it ourselves. It’s not impossible and tons of fun, even in the steamy heat! We even found an orphan-run restaurant and had two big bowls of soup, a vietnamese fried pancake (banh khoai) and two orders of banh lot (half a dozen rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves in each order), and two bottles of iced teas, for a grand total of $4.

The ruins were eye-opening. I’ve never been interested in Vietnamese history before 1950, basically when my parents’ lives began. So learning about all of the emperors before the communist era began totally blew my mind. We visited several mausoleums, ranging from traditional to French-inspired. More thorough post to come about what I’ve learned.

This afternoon, after Michael got a quality Ryan gosling haircut for a STEAL!, we took a bus to Hoi An. Leaving later than planned, we arrived in our strange sleeper bus around 5:30pm. It was a little over 4 hours, that trip. The bus itself was ok, with all the seats built as single beds for each passenger, it’s just that when booked, the agent didn’t tell us it was a sleeper.

Before I left for Vietnam, a friend told me that Hoi An is like a vietnamese colonial Williamsburg, which cracks me up every time. And on one hand I agree; tourist central, it’s set up like an old asian night market likely 365 days out of the year. Government-mandated old fashioned lanterns hang from all businesses, bridges are lit up with paper-like, graphic decor of dragons, turtles and fish. Much of the old building style is preserved but yes, maybe it is dolled up a bit but you can also see it as Hoi An having a really good, organized tourism council!

We looped around a few night market alleys, filled with novelty items and tshirts, and the same fried food carts on every corner. A fun sight was seeing a group of local teenagers, dressed in black, practicing breakdancing along the river! Eventually we reached an area for locals, we think, and there was a fashion and music show going on. People were packed inside the perimeter of the outdoor space, sitting mostly. Anyone without a table watched from — of course — their scooters, parked next to the tables and chairs.

So, lots to see in Hoi An, not challenging here at all; sometimes that’s a good thing when your mind is working on overtime trying to understand and be understood. But we’ll see for tomorrow; after we submit measurements for some custom clothing, another scooter adventure in search for ruins and an alleged, less touristy craft village.

A final thought: My whole life I’ve been told that based on my size, looks and circumstance, for better or for worse, (nicely or straight up cruelly) that I am not Vietnamese at all. But having the opportunity to travel throughout the country and experience each region, authentic in its own wonderful way, from street vendors to breakdancers, the curious to the confused… We, people in general, come in all shapes and sizes and from different walks of life. You can’t simply accept or reject a person based on increasingly superficial measurements. It’s late and I’m sleepy, so I can’t draw an intellectual conclusion at this time except that this whole trip has been awesome, and I feel great.

And Michael’s haircut looks really, really good.

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Yo Mama’S So Fascist

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts! We’ve just tied up…

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts!

We’ve just tied up a two-day, one night junk boat cruise through Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long, Ha Long’s lesser scenic sibling, yet freed from the loud party boats and famed floating restaurant and bars.

It was everything I expected it to be — our “VIP” room was gorgeously decorated for a luxury room at sea, constant 9-course seafood meals (special exceptions for Michael, such as a plate of roasted peanuts and desperately creative vegetable dishes [“Never again with the boiled radishes!”]), and timed touristy activities. I appreciated the kayaking through Bai Tu Long Bay and the evening cooking class was endearing, as was night-squidding with our fellow guests, but the hand-held Me Cung cave tour and lagoon hike was a bit limiting for my taste. Still, it felt great to touch the earth with my feet and stretch the limbs; getting to and from Ha Long Bay from Hanoi includes an eight-hour round trip via bus.

As usual on this trip, and contrary to our mostly solo road adventure in Utah, the highlight was meeting new people. About twenty people total were with us, a range of ages hailing from Germany, the U.K., Australia, and the Netherlands. We were the only Americans.

At first, no one was excited to make friends, but the nature of the activity, a cruise, where the only escape is overboard, friendships were bound to happen. The first people we spoke to were two British women in their mid-sixties, who have been traveling together for a week. In a few days, they’ll be splitting, traveling solo, with plans similar to ours — no particular itinerary, few reservations, and mostly spontaneous. They were charming, and we talked about our trips, our countries’ health care differences, and compared similar dishes that could be found at home.

We happened to dine with a fun group from the Netherlands — two beautiful couples our age who did not plan their trips together, but became fast friends on the boat. We started talking when they sat down at our table, and spoke on in Dutch to each other for a long time. Then one of them said, “We probably shouldn’t be rude, we should speak English.” We assured them that it wasn’t expected, and one would think that awkwardness would ensue, but not so. Our senses of humor, sarcasm and friendliness matched perfectly, and we covered topics from sports, politics, and my favorite, tongue twisters in each other’s language, as requested by Michael. Their’s had something to do with a cat scratching bark off the steps. I stuck with the ol’ she sells seashells.

Perhaps the most intriguing interaction was with the ship crew, who upon learning I am Vietnamese seemed to delight in the fact. I spoke what I could, and they teased me about my language skills every chance they got, and not in a cruel way. Our Vietnamese tour guide, “Ken”, made it a point to chat with everyone and drop interesting factoids here and there, but we had a moment on deck when Michael went to grab his binoculars, and it was just Ken and I.

We talked about our lives; his wife, two kids, seven years of education in Hanoi. He was born two years after the war, in the North. His family stayed in this country; mine did not. My parents left on a boat that my dad organized for seventy people to flee the country, two weeks before Saigon fell. They survived the incomprehensible dangers at sea, which were risk-worthy to leave behind their ravaged lives at home. Arriving in Singapore, they jumped from refugee camp to refugee camp until finding their place with family in Pennsylvania.

Ken and I were quiet for a few minutes while watching the blue ridges in the skyline. He said he understood.

Then he asked, “Was your dad…a southern fascist?”

Come again?

“I’m sorry, what?” I asked.

He struggled with his English. “A southern fascist…” I waited it out, patiently, not making it awkward. “A soldier, did he fight for the U.S. Army?”

Ohhhhh. I answered him, and we both kind of changed topics right away. Michael came back into view and I ran over to see through the binoculars while Ken quickly found another tourist to drop factoids.

The compassionate, educated woman that I am, I understand completely where this verbiage is coming from. I’m sure there is history learned in school and home that I have to share will also make him hesitate. Yet the slap-stick comedy-loving wise ass in me can’t help but to bask in such a potentially disastrous conversation. And thus, yo mama so fascist [insert wildy offensive joke]. Too soon. Too soon. Michael agrees.

Back in Hanoi for another night, and morning before we head out to Hue and Hoi An. More on Hanoi to come!

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Searching For The Perfume Pagoda…and Ending Up At The Temple Of Doom

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts! Yesterday we awoke early,…

Entries “From the Road” are written while traveling — often quickly on my phone or with spotty wifi connection. Please excuse any typos or nonsensical thoughts!

Yesterday we awoke early, geared up to find the famed Perfume Pagoda, a journey and a half through allegedly three hours of scootering outside the city, a boat ride down the Yen River, and a hike up the Huong Tich mountains. Always excited to explore by bike, optimism consumed us, even when we got a weak scooter rental through the hotel, couldn’t find a helmet big enough for Michael at the huge town market, got T-boned by another scooter leaving the market, and had to deal with the infamous lawless driving that is found exclusively in Vietnam.

The drive itself was so beautiful, and though I worked on navigation and yelled directions to Michael from a cached google map, I’m lucky to have been able to enjoy the sites with less stress than he. While passing through several villages may not have been the most beautiful sights every time, it was refreshing to leave Hanoi and its foreigner-accommodating comforts to experience a bit of a challenge. But to be honest, I don’t think we were expecting the challenges we experienced yesterday.

Somewhere between miles and stretches of lush green rice paddies and muddy villages with river beds polluted in trash, our navigation died and I lost track of where we were. On top of that, clear signage was not immediately (or simply, NOT) available. We had entered a locals-only zone and had no choice but to deal with it.

Some folks were friendly; it helped when I communicated in Vietnamese that I wasn’t fluent, so some people, like the sweet old man or a crowd of school girls in TT Que, spoke slower and gentler, and we parted ways warm and a little smarter. Other instances, like at a random restaurant in the middle of literally nowhere, resulted in most restaurant patrons coming outside in curiosity, then pointing and laughing at the terrible miscommunication that was happening. Humbling. I could’ve smacked the worst offending child, but her mom redeemed herself by urging us with every bit of verbal and physical expression, to turn down the road to find the highway we were looking for.

The thing is, I love talking to people so much that even though I dread the possible negative outcome, I am eager to try. But it’s important to point out that more often on this trip, reactions have been positive, and we’ve resulted in peals of laughter, acknowledging the different worlds we’ve come from.

Sometimes, however, outside of the rural restaurant incident, we’ll have to pull out the ol’ standby. Michael and I agreed that if we’re in a high negotiation situation, it’s best to pretend that I’m Chinese or Korean. That way, there’s no chance of dangerous miscommunication, but I can also listen to see if we’re being overcharged. Like yesterday.

After six hours of me spooning a gradually frustrated Michael on the scooter, we decided to throw in the towel and head back to Hanoi. Even if we found the boat journey up to the mountain, it would be hours til we got back to the city, and there was no way we could have succeeded in any direction at night. Dejected, we readied to turn around.

But then! A bunch of tour busses pulled down the side road. Why not see where they were going?

We went down a jacked-up, muddy road that I would much have preferred to been on a more powerful, sturdy motorcycle. With every road obstacle we bounced over, I heard an unsettling rattle from beneath me. Once we finally pulled into the area, we saw no foreigners, rather, all Vietnamese people spilling from the tour buses.

We had arrived at a Buddhist temple, tucked away at the foot of a mountain (perhaps the Lim mountain? We were lost!). It seemed like a pilgrimage site for only Vietnamese locals, and there was a festival going on. Tiredly, we agreed to pull the but-I’m-Chinese card. To no avail.

Hopping off the scooter, we were mobbed by older ladies, yelling, “THANK YOU! THANK YOU! HELLO!” Michael was a target for sure, and as was I, as they tugged my arm, urging us to take them as our tour guides.

Lucky me, and joke’s on them, even if they did have something I wanted, I’m cheap and stubborn as hell, so there’s no use getting a buck out of me. On a terrible trip to Vegas once, I rudely and firmly refused to pay up a club promoter who passed out coupons on the strip. To avoid the risk of getting punched in the face, my group shoved money in his direction. Not this broad. No. Way.

So, it didn’t work, but I did freeze up when it came to pull the saving line: I just couldn’t bring myself to say that I wasn’t Vietnamese, not when my eyes were reacting to every word they said. So Michael swooped in and said it for me, and pulled me away. There you have it. I’ll insult a man who can and will shiv me but melt at the presence of an old Vietnamese woman.

Behind the temple walls, colorful red flags announced the new year, sticks and spirals of incense burned wildly to the tone of chanting. Altars were filled with fruit, packaged snacks and sodas, modern-day offerings. It was beautiful but hard to enjoy; while we were less harassed inside the temple, when trying to buy a package (think the size of baseball game treats) of roasted corn for a snack, two women bickered over how to charge us. They said 40,000 VND, or $2, and Michael, who is wonderfully just as cheap as hell, abruptly refused and we walked away. A few stalls down, a woman sold us a package for about 50 cents.

Not all interactions were sour. As Michael walked through, a lot of men regarded him with fascination and shook his hand, saying, “HELLO! HELLO, YES!” Thumbs up. That was nice. Besides the honest roasted corn woman, I only spoke to one other person in Vietnamese, a man about my age who kept following Michael, mystified, giggling. I caught his eye and he nudged me, “Tall, isn’t he?”

I gave him wide eyes and swooned, “Yes, so tall!”

Not long after, we decided to leave. As we drove away in the mud, I could hear the locals rejoicing that they were able to begrudgingly squeeze $2 for parking from us foreigners.

It took a little over two hours to return to Hanoi. We figured out which road to stay on, and what some signage meant. I can’t remember the last time I slept so soundly, but rest assured that the next day we sprung eagerly from our bed, ready for the next adventure.

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Countdown to Vietnam: 24 Hours Til Take-Off!

For the next 3 weeks, I’ll be writing while traveling throughout north and south Vietnam for two weeks, with a fun four-day stop in Seoul! I’ve been to Vietnam before, a…

For the next 3 weeks, I’ll be writing while traveling throughout north and south Vietnam for two weeks, with a fun four-day stop in Seoul! I’ve been to Vietnam before, a short one-week visit for my dad’s wedding (if you know me well, then you are aware of the kind-of-sort-of infamous “kidnapping incident”, which will be avoided this time around.) We stayed mostly in Saigon, and nearby towns in the south. One week is short enough as is, but I did not get to see much of the country at all, as most of my time was spent with family. I could have been in any part of the world!

For this trip, even though two weeks isn’t too much more time for exploration, we (Michael and I) will be making a point to experience the must-see parts of the country, as well as the lesser-known areas — I’m especially excited to explore the great outdoors. While it will certainly be free and adventurous, this is not to say that we’ll be traveling foolishly at all. As someone who has lived in a cold basement crawling with rodents and cockroaches in Philly in college, it is not often that I find valor in physical discomfort. Additionally, oblivious misconduct in another country isn’t my idea of a good time (or my dad’s, who warned me repeatedly to have fun but be careful!).

Anyway, so there’s my rough intro. I’m excited for the challenge of practicing my Vietnamese, which only gets better with practice; discovering the land I’ve only really admired from stories and pictures; and a whole lot of good street food! Off I go, excited, anxious, but assured that this will be another amazing adventure of many in my lifetime.

Photo is from my trip in 2011, Saigon.

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