31 December 2005


Six hours until 2006. It never feels like a year has come and gone, but it especially doesn’t feel real this year. Maybe it is because I have lived in quite a number of places in the past year, and now am in a really different spot.

The other night I was trying to remember in how many different countries I had spent New Years Eve: Mexico, Brazil, Israel, Egypt, Malaysia, and now Vietnam. (Brazil was the best.) I went to sleep thinking about all of them. When the alarm awakened me the next morning, for a nano-second I didn’t know where I was. I was sure I wasn’t in “my bed” and that didn’t bother me. But I had to run through that list of countries before I remembered.

One hour to go. Between those last paragraphs and this one, I went out for a while. I had received an invitation to a concert by some local choir, to be held at the Ferris wheel next door. The program listed traditional music as well, so I thought it might be nice.

All the rides at the park were lit up, and some were running. I think I explained before that this amusement park is on the scale of a small carnival, situated amongst palm trees and greenery. They had erected a large stage and assembled plastic chairs just to the left of the swinging pirate ship, which screeched and groaned with every sway. Having recently rained, (although this is supposed to be the dry season), the chairs were wet. I perched on the edge of one.

As the choir started, I had to plug my ears. They were backed by taped music and the volume was turned up loud enough to fill a 700,000 seat arena. Whether they were good or not was hard to tell. However, what I could hear was not exactly easy listening music. When they started in on some Christmas type songs, I got up to walk around.

Families and couples milled about and some kids were on a few rides. I walked over to the jittery-looking carousel. I heard the ring-ring announcing the start of the ride. All of a sudden, the merry-go-round lurched forward and started moving way to quickly. I thought I was about to witness toddlers being hurled through the air. Fortunately, it slowed down almost immediately. I watched as it creaked around and around.

I then returned the few steps to the stage area, hoping to see some of the traditional music. I watched as a group of youngsters, dressed in Santa suits and carrying violins, marched on stage with their teacher. They had to cover their eyes as they were being blinded by stadium lights. Eventually, the light situation was sorted, and the music began, again at 3000 decibels. It was the Glo-ooo-oo-o-oooo--oo-oo-o-ria, en excelsis deo, backed by a disco track. It was time to head out into the night.

And what a night it was. About 8:30 and 80 degrees, and I had dressed for the chilly night air. As I walked down the street I passed a few people doing the same. This isn’t what you’d call a rocking suburb, but it was New Years Eve, so I walked the three blocks to the local pub.

I have been there before, but only in the day to sit at an outside table and drink ice tea. That’s what I did for a short while tonight. Almost no one was there. I am sure the hard core boozers were in town, although I have heard it is a madhouse in the center. Apparently, thousands and thousands of people fill the streets and just stroll and talk.

I finished my night by dropping into Lotteria, a Korean fast food joint. The only thing I ever have bought there is ice cream, and that was what I wanted. I got a sundae to go, which consisted of a tiny blob of soft ice cream, drizzled with some imitation strawberry gook. The counter person slapped on a lid, dropped it in a plastic bag, then scooped ice on top. I had been wondering how it would survive the trip home.

It is now 12:05 am, 2006. I just was out on my bitty balcony, camera in hand, set on night mode, and NOTHING! No fireworks, no neighbors hooting it up, no car horns, (not that there are any chairs on the streets I look on to), nothing but still air! I thought there must be something on TV, but all they had was very embarrassing footage from a club in Hanoi, where some really horrid band dressed in red satin Cossack shirts, was signing Santana music, while the lead singer, (American) kept looking at his watch. There looked to be 20 people n the club, seated quietly at tables, while a few hoochy-coochy gals with the band tried their best to wiggle. (You do realize this does mean there still is hope for me as a bar chanteuse). They cut back to the news room when the guy said, “30 seconds till midnight”.

I have lasted to see in the New Year, while many of you are still waking up in 2005. Do go out and have more fun than I did.

Auld Lang Syne


26 December 2005

Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta. If you are American, and of my generation or older, there is only one thing that comes to mind when you hear those words: war. Hearing the country name, “Vietnam”, often evokes the same thoughts, but since I have been here, those connections are less frequent. Yet I had not been able to escape the visceral response to Mekong Delta; images from the nightly news, stories from survivors on both sides, sections from movies. But I also knew that it was a beautiful area with a unique way of life and I wanted to see it. So yesterday I took another day trip, this time to the Mekong Delta.

“The bus leaves at 7:30”, I was told by the woman at the tour office. The bus from where I live to the center of town takes 20 minutes at that time of the morning, then it’s a short taxi ride over to where I’d get the tour bus. There should be enough time, especially considering that my last trip with these people left 40 minutes later than we had been told. But I knew I would freak the whole way there thinking that I might miss the tour, so I took a taxi and got there at 7:20am. We finally left around 8:00.

Our mid-sized bus had 30 people fully packed in. We were an international group; Australians, Koreans, Vietnamese, New Zealanders, British, Taiwanese. I sat next to a young Vietnamese woman who was home on holiday from studying in Australia. Like we do in our own countries, she had never been to the Delta region.

Our guide was a jovial man in his mid-30’s. As we headed out of town, he told us about the various produce grown in the Mekong. Pineapples, he assured us, “are very good for your health”. They cure skin problems, help you loose weight, help you sleep, and make you strong. Watermelons from the Mekong are also very good for your health. Eating three of the small ones is better than Viagra, he told us. As the day wore on, we were to hear that anything and everything in the Mekong, is “very good for your health”. By the end of the trip, most of the group would fill in those words before he had a chance to say them.

Looking out the bus window, I noticed we were heading back towards my apartment. You could actually see my building as we turned left onto the highway. I checked my watch; 8:15. Damn, I hadn’t needed to get up at 5:30; I could have just walked out and flagged down the bus at 8:00! I would remember this for trips in the future. Oh well, it was only an hour and a half to the Delta and out boat tour. I had chosen this trip over the three hour bus ride of the other option. However, I had been given misinformation. We wouldn’t reach the Delta and our boat until almost 11:00. If this was the ‘shorter’ trip, I didn’t want to think about the other trip I hadn’t chosen. One thing I can say about Vietnam, nothing goes for more than an hour and a half without a break. When I teach, we have to take a break every hour. On a bus, it stops every hour or hour and a half, relieving me of one of my greatest fears: the 3 hour trip with no bathroom stop.

Our guide assailed us with stories and songs and information about the areas we passed and the history of the Mekong. He had graduated form the university, but his father was still a rice farmer and he would go home to help harvest and drain rice paddies. I had noticed on my last trip that there seemed to be graves standing in the middle of the rice fields; one here, on there. He explained that in the countryside, people were buried where ever the geomancer tells them is a good spot. He further explained that in the north of the country, three years after a person is buried, they are exhumed, their remains but into a jar, which is then taken to the temple.

We passed through little towns and over cannels, and eventually arrived at the dock for the river boat we would board and tour in. It was a long, low slung affair, allowing you to ride right on the water. We sat on two-seated benches. A wooden roof covered our heads, but the rest was open-air. The day was rather grey, but that was probably preferable to insufferable jungle heat and humidity, and/or rain.

As we wound our way up the river we passed boats moving in both directions. Some were public transport, others carried produce from the Delta to Ho Chi Minh City. The boats were of the same basic design as ours; long and narrow, but in varying sizes. Some had only the pilot, others had up to five people either engaged in an activity or lying in hammocks. I was very pleased to see at least one boat with a lone woman at the helm. Our guide explained that most of the boat owners sometimes lived on the boats but also had a house on the land. The majority of work done by the boats in this region had to do with transporting produce and materials produced there. Fishing boats were in other areas.

Our first stop was at the coconut candy factory. We filed out of the boat and into an area that really was producing candy, but also arranged so that tourists could watch the process. I saw them make flat, paper-thin rice pancakes that you use as tortillas. (and when filled, they are delicious!) I watched the process for making coconut taffy. Every part of the coconut is used for one thing or another; the husk, the oil, the milk, the pulp, the shell. I skipped the sampling of cobra wine, (very good for your health), and will not even describe it to you. There were tables set up with piles of various candies to buy, as well as handicrafts. I knew we would only be there a short while, so went in search of purchases.

These trips are so cheap that I don’t know how they run them. The least I could do is to throw some money into the local economy. I ended up with wooden cooking spoons made from coconut shells, a purse made of a shell, (lined and with a zipper), and about one kilo of candy including taffy and crystallized ginger.
Again, I don’t know how the venders make much money as we are rushed through it all.

Walking further, we were taken to the puffed rice area. A giant cauldron hung over a fire. Inside were several pounds of blacked sand. Rice, still in its husk, is dumped into the burning hot sand, while the rice-tender quickly stirs it with a long pole. Within less than a minute, all the rice is puffed. He then dumps it into a sieve to separate the puffed rice from the husks. The husks are used in animal feed.

The rice is then mixed with caramelized sugar. Two men stand on either side of a giant vat, meter long mixing spatulas in each hand. With astounding grace and precision, they mix the concoction as if performing a ritual dance, moving in a slow circle around the pot, as they dig, scoop, pull there sticks up and shove them down again. It really was memorizing. Once they finished, the mixture is dumped onto a rectangular table with three in sides. It is rolled and flattened before being cut into squares.

Back on the boat, we soon reached what looked like the open sea. Getting back to that mental connection I have with the Mekong, I was surprised to see how wide it was. The guide said over one and a half kilometers. I keep thinking about the small canals I had always seen on the news or in movies. And wasn’t that John Kerry swift-boat film from the Mekong? Obviously, there was way more to this river than I had known. And it was also then that I realized I hadn’t been thinking WAR for over an hour. As the day passed, visions and thoughts of conflict drifted further and further from my mind, not by any conscious effort, but by the people and lives I saw around me

Up another narrow waterway, we docked at the lunch restaurant. I sat at what we dubbed the International Table. Me, a Korean couple, two ladies from Taiwan who had been in Vietnam on business, and to Vietnamese men. We ate fresh elephant ear fish that had been deep fried, (but not at all greasy), served standing on its side in a little stand. We ate it with those rice paper pancakes which you fill with mint, lettuce, noodles and vegetables, and dip in fish sauce. Fish sauce is on every table with every meal. It is made of sugar, lime, chilly, and something else. I love it. I threw MSG-caution to the wind, and dug in. twenty minutes later, I was stuffed and had a splitting headache, but it was worth it. I have never had such excellent fish.

We had another half hour before leaving, and were encouraged to grab a bike and take a turn around the neighborhood. I needed water and a seat. Our lunch had been included in the $7 tour and, again, I couldn’t understand how anyone could profit from this. I looked around for things to buy and only water was available. I did manage to take a short walk, while most of my fellow travelers hopped on bikes. I figured after all those hours of sitting on a bus, then in a boat, then eating, why spoil it with actually getting the blood moving?

We had one more stop on our trip and that was to the ceramics factory, where they make bricks and garden pots for both the local market and export. The factory is inside a building, but it’s a very simple structure, with openings in the roof to let in light. About eight, immense brick ovens lined the walls. After they are cut from clay, they are fired for three weeks.

Walking on, we went into a giant warehouse of drying pottery. Only two people were working, making large planter pots in the shape of a cat. The clay, which is from the banks of the river, is sliced from a huge block. One person pounds and kneads it, rolls it out, and then it is pressed into a two-side mold. The team of two can make about ten of these large pots a day, working a ten hour day. They are quick and efficient, and are paid by the number of items produced. They are paid about 2 or 3 dollars a day. Keep that in mind the next time you buy are large, earthenware garden pot that is made in Vietnam.

We boarded the boat for the last time. Before taking off, we were each given a fresh coconut to drink. From a branch of coconuts, the boat pilot chopped off the bottom and top, stuck in a straw, and we drank as we cruised back up the delta.

It was 4:00, and I was not looking forward to another bus ride, but was happy to be heading back. This time, our bus was even smaller and I was wedged in over a wheel well. “OK”, said our guide, “We will be in Ho Chi Minh City in three hours”. What? I called out. It’s supposed to be an hour and a half! It turned out to be quite enjoyable. Across from me was a mother and daughter from New Zealand. Behind them, a father and daughter from Australia. Next to them, a couple also from Australia. We started pulling out the various snacks we had bought or brought with us, and passed them around. We exchanged stories, got travel tips from those who had been here a while, and later heard more stories from our guide.

Nearing the city, I realized I would not have to go back into town if they could just let me off at the turn off the freeway. I called out to our guide, who talked to the driver, and it was arranged. When the bus pulled over to let me off, I was a little sad to leave my new friends, and felt rushed giving my thanks to our charming guide who had put up will all my extra questions. Once out in the open air, I decided to walk home, even though it was pitch black. Everyone assures me it is safe and it was. The twenty minute walk really helped after that last, squished bus ride.

A long day, but a good one. Now, when I hear ‘The Mekong Delta,’ I may still have the old memories, but I will also have new, positive ones. And isn’t that what it is all about?

Happy Holidays to all

23 December 2005

Day Trip

After four and a half months, I finally got out of the city on a day trip to the Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi tunnels. I met up with a friend at the travel office at 8 in the morning, having bought the $5 ticket the day before. Our tour group of about 20 consisted mostly of young couples from assorted countries. We piled into the mid sized bus and after a mere 45 minutes we had left the noise and stop-and-go traffic of the city behind.

I kept staring out the window as we drove along the road lined with what one imagines Vietnam to look like. I almost yelped out loud when I saw my first water buffalo plowing through rice paddies. Having looked at the same scene in numerous photos or on TV you’d think it wouldn’t look so brand new and exciting, but it did.

It took about two and a half hours to get to our first stop, the Cao Dai Temple. Caodaism was founded around 1920, and incorporates aspects of many different religions. They use mediums and conduct séances. And anything else you want to know about it, you will have to look up for yourself. It is a popular tourist stop mainly because of the large, rainbow colored main temple that looks like nothing you have ever seen, yet has familiar features.

The interior of the Temple reminded me of a mosque with its cavernous, high-vaulted hall, and floor to ceiling pillars, except that the pillars have Chinese dragons wrapped around them. Then there is the Eye that stares out at you from inside a triangle, amongst floral designs, evoking thoughts of Egyptian gods. The ceiling is painted the blue of a sunny day in the summer, and dotted with little silver stars and wispy clouds. The symbolism is endless but we really didn’t have time to explore it for more than twenty minutes before being lead to the upstairs mezzanine. From the narrow walkways encircling the interior, we were able to watch the daily, noon-time ceremony.

Again, I don’t know what exactly was going on other than it was a religious ceremony. With men and women separated on either side of the hall, they walked slowly up towards the main alter. (Which, by the way, includes a gigantic globe surrounded by dragons, burning incense, wooden tables, and a lot of gold decorations.) Musicians and singers accompanied the devotees who, upon arriving at the designated prayer area, sat on the floor. The majority of the men and women wore white, while some of the officials wore bright red, blue, or orange.

Although we were told that it was all right to take photographs, even during the ceremony, it felt quite intrusive to do so, especially with the flashes going off. We were allowed to take pictures of the followers, but when a tourist attempted to take a picture of another tourist inside the temple, we were gently told not to do so. I really would like to have taken more time there, but the bus was about to leave. Part and parcel of a day trip.

Next, we were off to the restaurant for lunch. It was just a small, side-of-the-road, open-aired affair, but they managed to serve all of us our various orders in no time at all. Before heading out, I availed myself of the facilities. I followed other tour members out to the back where a row of doors led to the toilets.

One door was open so I walked over and looked in. Obviously, it was some sort of wash room. It had a slightly sloped floor with a bucket of water and a mouse hole in the corner leading to the outside. I waited until a vacancy came up and walked in, only to see the same type of room. I called out to the women who had just walked out of it. So we just pee on the floor? I asked. “Yes, and wash it down with water.” And I thought that I had seen every type of restroom that existed. It was way weird! And yes, you get pee in all the places you don’t want it. And what was I supposed to do with the toilet paper?

It was another hour on the bus to the Cu Chi Tunnels. At this point, I would have really questioned the point of a trip like this had it not been for our tour guide. He was incredibly knowledgeable and articulate about where we were going and what we were seeing, about the war years and where he had been and what he had done. I was surprised at his candor – there are some things that are just not cool to talk about if you were working for the wrong side in that war.

Originally, I had not wanted to go see the tunnels that were used during the war. I have met people in my life whose job in the army was to work those holes in the ground, and I had seen what it had done to them. However, I am glad I went. I really had no idea that these were more than just escape and attack tunnels. The people of the area lived underground, cooked underground and carried on everyday life there for years. The ingenuity of their construction is amazing.

It was upsetting, yet surreal to walk around an area had been repeatedly bombed and napalmed. Coming upon a US Army tank that lies in the exact spot where it had been disabled gave me the shivers. Others clamored to take photos seemingly unaware of what that dead tank signified, and what had taken place on the ground where we now stood. Several times I walked away from the group and peered out into the now, re-vegetated landscape. As our guide had repeatedly told us during the day, war is terrible.

With hopes that all those spirits are now at rest,

18 December 2005

Orchids part 2

I couldn't get these on the orchid story yesterday.


17 December 2005

The Frustrating & The Magnificent

Getting money is not always that easy here. There is an ATM machine at work, and it even is from my bank. The problem is that it is often out of order or out of money. Today being Saturday, I figured I’d clean the house and loll around in the early morning, then head to the supermarket where another ATM machine is located.

I hopped on the bike around 11 o’clock and after only 2 blocks my thighs ached. (Terribly out of biking-shape, I am.) There are parts of this suburb that are pretty much empty, but one still has to keep a keen eye out for drivers who just don’t really stay in lanes and start turning left the block before they need to, veering dangerously into the wrong lane.

And then there is the main street, which is really a four lane, divided highway. Even with the stop light, you have to be really careful, because the motorbikes will not stop, and the monster trucks; only if really necessary. Once you cross that, and get on to the parallel back streets, it is ok. Ok, that is, until you hit the speed bumps. I walked my bike over one last week and ended up on the pavement. I probably wouldn’t have if the bike hadn’t weighed 40 pounds. This time, I got off the bike every time and walked it over the bumps. That was far less embarrassing than landing on the street.

Arriving at the supermarket parking lot, I locked up the bike and went in to the ATM machine. It was out of order. Crap. Well, my bank was just two blocks away. As I started to walk back to my bike I remembered that there was about a 10 cent parking charge and I had left all my change at home. All I had was a few big bills. I knew saying I would pay another day wouldn’t work.

Back I walked into the supermarket to get change, which I almost didn’t get. The week before I had misplaced my parking ticket but had paid the guy and was about to ride off. “No ticket, no bike”. I tried to argue, but the only thing he knew in English was “no ticket, no bike.” I had to go back into the store but luckily found my ticket by the checkout stand.

I walked my bike down to the bank but, oh dear, even though they were still open, they had stopped handing out cash at 11:00 and it was now half past.
“You can go to the supermarket”, the bank lady said. I said I had already tried that. “Well then go to the university”. I explained that I worked there and that the machine had been out all week. There was one other ATM, way down the road, but my standards, and it would entail driving on that freeway with all the semi’s and crazy drivers. And who was to say if when I got there, the ATM would actually work? I rode back to the supermarket just to check if maybe the machine was now functioning. This had worked in the past, but not this time.

Now I will backtrack and explain why getting to the bank was all that important. I mean I still had a few Dong left and wasn’t yet totally destitute. My urgent need for cash had to do with the opening of a new supermarket in town that I hadn’t even known about until yesterday.

I believe I have mentioned the only, woefully inadequate supermarket that exists in this suburb of foreigners, where a big supermarket would do a booming business. True, they are building a massive new building next door, but I guessed it would take at least another six months until it was completed. “Oh no”, said a colleague, who lives out here, “It’s bad luck not to have things completed before Tet, (Lunar New Year), so it will be done by the end of January.” It didn’t seem possible, but gave me hope.

And then yesterday, another co-worker said, “That new supermarket looks great.” I asked what he was talking about. “The one they have been working on for months. It’s just down the road from your apartment. Haven’t you seen it or the signs advertising the grand opening today?” Ok, so it is just down the road, but that side of the road is across the mini-river/slough, and five freeway lanes away from where I pass it every morning on the way to work. It’s just another min-mart, right? I asked. “No, it’s a real supermarket.” And that is the reason I wanted more than a few Dong to go shopping with. On the way home in the taxi yesterday, I spotted it. This was miraculous! One day there is nowhere to shop and the next day there is a brand-new supermarket!

I would at least go check it out, and be able to buy soy milk and juice. But as I got closer to my house, I noticed my bike acting strangely. I got off. Two, almost flat tires. I pushed it across the big street, looking for the pump & tire change/oil guys who hang out on the divide across the “river”. No one was there. I walked back to the entrance to my apartment complex and managed to convey to the guards what I needed. One hopped on his bike and told me to follow. We had gone only a short way when he spotted a fix-it man, and flagged him over.

An ancient gentleman, on an even more ancient bike, pulled out his very old pump and put air in both tires. I paid him, got on the red-devil bike, and zoomed down to the new supermarket.

The front of the supermarket was lined with around 20 floral displays. They were the types that are on a stand, and brimming with orchids, lilies, roses, mums, and greenery. They do that here when any new business opens. I am not sure who sends them, but possibly other businesses, family and friends. Parking my bike in the dirt, I saw that two or three of these huge arrangements had already been dumped. I could see perfectly good sprays of orchids sticking out all over the place. I would have to deal with that when I finished shopping.

I was very impressed with the new market. It is two floors with food downstairs and house wares upstairs. It is well laid out, and a cursory tour through the aisles proved that it had many items that are unavailable in the other market, and at better prices. The produce didn’t even look too bad. I would prefer to go to the outdoor market for fruits and vegetables, but it is a hassle to get there and I can only do it on weekend mornings. I will still go every few weeks, but at least now there seems to be a reasonable option.

Once outside with my few purchases, I laid my pack down so I could dig through the garbage dump of flowers. I simply couldn’t believe that they had been discarded after less than 24 hours. True, the brutal sun had done a number on them, but they were far from the throw-away stage. I already had an enormous armful of orchids when I noticed one of the guards taking a cigarette break and watching me. I asked if it was ok to take them. He seemed to understand. I kept going on about how beautiful they were and how I couldn’t understand why they had been 86-ed. (does anyone still use that term?) He was soon joined by a colleague, who beckoned me over to the 18 displays still standing. They told me to take whatever I wanted. I wasn’t sure I had understood, but then they started pulling out orchids and handing them to me. I took a few more, but began to feel funny. Also, I had so many, and no vases at home, that it was getting ridiculous.
The guys helped me tie them together and put them in the basket of the bike.

Then I had to hoist my pack onto my back. It was when I grabbed the handlebars that I realized I should never leave the Red-Devil out in the open sun. Somehow I managed to get on the bike without loosing my balance from the weight on my back, lay the flowers in the front basket, and while toasting my hands and butt, drive precariously home.

My flowers are displayed in plastic bottles and I am thinking of going back later to buy a vase and get more. I know that the others will be thrown away at the end of the day and the thought sends chills down my spine. Just one more cultural difference to get used to. Hopefully, I will again be in the neighborhood of a new business just when they throw away the orchids.

Flower arranging time.

14 December 2005

Acupuncture House Call

After two colds in four months, I could feel my ear starting to go again. I’ve had the dizzies for a few weeks now and thought it best I find a Chinese doctor before things got out of hand. It’s not like I have been loosing my balance or anything, but things in the inner ear just aren’t right. Fortunately for me, I was given the name of a local Chinese doctor last week.

I called Dr Trung on Monday. The first thing I asked was if he read Chinese. The reason being that Doctor Leung, (who had treated me in California and spoke no English), had given me a medical letter written in Chinese. Dr Trung assured me that he did and that he could see me Wednesday afternoon. I asked for directions to his office. No need for that, he said, he would come to my house. I did think this was odd, but when I checked with the woman who had given me his name, she said that was how he worked.

At 3:30 he knocked at my door. He sat down and I handed him the letter from California. He read it and asked me some questions about my health. He also wanted to make sure that I wanted the needle treatment and if I’d had it done before. I explained that I was nearly a professional pin cushion. Then I lay down on the couch.

He sat down on a stool, opened his briefcase, took out supplies, and put them on the chair next to me. Then he unwrapped one of those disposable wet towel things and wiped his hands carefully. I watched as he opened a metal tray containing a ton of carefully ordered needles. He assured me they were sterile.

I’d only ever had one other doctor stick me, so was interested I experiencing the difference or similarities in technique. Even before the treatment began, there were differences. Dr Leung always first took my pulse, on both wrists, then checked my blood pressure. Dr Trung did neither. The sticking-in was also a little different and felt a little different but, with both doctors, it never hurts.

Almost immediately one can start to feel little electrical tingles coursing between the needles. I got a needle in the temple region, behind the ear, between the eyes, on the top of my head, on the feet and legs. (equally distributed on both sides of my body.) Then he hooked me up to the electric pulse machine, but only for the temple and ear points. In California, every needle got plugged in. It is then you really start to buzz and it is very relaxing. My eyes were already closed and it would be 20 minutes before I opened them again.

I must admit that lying in your own house to get a treatment is quite decadent and so much easier that going to the doctor’s office. But all the sensations took me right back to the little office in Oakland’s Chinatown where I had had my last treatment. I missed the conversations going on in Chinese between the doctor and other patients. I missed the smiling faces of the elderly clients, waiting for treatment or herbal medicine. And most of all, I missed the smell. I adore the aroma of Chinese herbs. You just want to dive into to all of them and roll around. It was always so soothing and calming. I really hoped this doctor would leave me with a batch, but my nose didn’t pick up any of the scents.

Lying there and dreaming of the office in Chinatown, I did what I always do in such situations; fall into a deep REM state, only to be awoken by Dr Trung telling me he would now remove the needles.

After quickly pulling them out, he immediately put pressure on the spot with an alcohol soaked piece of cotton. And as with all my prior experiences, after 5 minutes, it is impossible to tell where the needle had entered.

I asked about any herbs I might need and the doctor told me I didn’t need them. Or maybe he will bring some next time. Although he does speak English, it is still limited. I did find out that he studied in China and that the needles are made in Vietnam. Next time I will ask more questions. He seems to think 7 treatments should have me right back on track. After only one, I feel better. And the cost? About US$4. I simply couldn’t pay that little even if that is more than some people earn in a day. After all, I am not some people.

My next treatment is on Friday, and I am sure he has time for anyone else who would like to come over and get cured. Such a sensible way to treat the infirm!

Maybe this weekend I will go to an herbal shop to gets bags of scents to freshen my house.


08 December 2005

Odd Time Of The Year

When in tropical climes, in non-Christian countries, one doesn’t notice the months changing or the advent of The Holiday Season. So why is the local supermarket decked out with a giant, fake Christmas tree; a mechanical, laughing, anorexic Santa; and why does it have carols blasting from the sound system? Or why where they putting up ornaments and green tinsel in the telephone company store? And then there is downtown, where one of the 5-star hotels has plaster snow and trees with big red balls all along the side of the building. It is all so strange.

Usually, it simply seems bizarre and very out of place. But I was in the supermarket two days ago, having just run in from a rain storm. The sky through the front windows was grey, and the air conditioner was on high. As I wheeled past the MSG lane, I heard “Oh Come All Yee Faithful” resonating throughout the store. The weather and the music must have sparked some primal memory, because my whole being felt the touch of the holidays. And I am talking about the good feeling, not the commercialized insanity it has become. I caught myself quietly singing along to “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem”. I must admit that I love the traditional carols, probably because I hear them so rarely, and I enjoyed the few minutes of musical escapism.

I can’t say the same for the CD my hair stylist opted to play when I was in there last week. It was all that horrid, kitschy, crap, like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa”, sung by children, in Vietnamese.

Along with all the out-of-place symbolism, it has been an odd month paying, or trying to pay the bills. For some reason the electric bill, in my small apartment where I never turn on the A/C, was outrageously high. Higher than my friends in a 4 story house. My phone bill was also another shocker, 95% of which was for internet use. The damn dial-up is not a flat rate. I pay for it by the minute, and since it is so slow, I probably spend double the time I would spend if I had DSL. Which, by the way, I hope to get before January, but that is a whole different story.

I give up trying to pay the rent. Last month, I had to call the landlord six times before they finally came and got the money. So far this month, I have only called once, and am now leaving it up to them. I don’t particularly like having the rent money sitting in my apartment, but it really is safe here. I tried to get a bank check but it isn’t possible. The only people who can get checks are business owners. Everything is done in cash. I think the worst part is having to keep my house spotless because I never know when the owners will call and come over. Or maybe it’s worse thinking that they’ll come over on the weekend, which is scared time to me.

Then there is the opera singer who takes early morning and evening walks. I can’t quite tell if it is just a good voice, or a very good voice. Definitely, it carries. I can hear him blocks away. Today it was at 6 in the morning. I looked out the window to watch him as he strolled and belted out tunes. Again, I can’t tell what language it is, but I don’t think it is English. This time, however, I noticed that he was stopping at the house builders shacks. I ran to another window to get a better view. He was singing and had his hand extended to them. It was then that I spied what I believe to be a bible in his hand. Of course, I am on the 8th floor, so I could be wrong, but it did seem to make sense. I will have to further investigate this one.

I plan to take the bike out for its maiden voyage this weekend to explore the backwaters of the neighborhood. I am sure I will find more oddities, which is a major reason for living the life I do.

Peace on earth, good will towards men and women.

03 December 2005

Blonde Once More

After my last hair experience, I had to find another salon. I kept passing an interesting place that was a block from my house. A few weeks ago, in desperation, I walked in to talk to the owner. I was happily surprised to learn that he had gone to the US as a teenager, where he had studied and worked in the hair business for 17 years. He returned to Vietnam five years ago and opened two salons.The cut was superior, so I went back today for the highlights.

The first step had his two assistants, one on each side of me, painting in a base coat to the roots of my hair. They lowered the chair all the may, and then asked me to scoot down even more because they couldn’t reach the top of my head. By the time they finished, it was time to shampoo it out.

After one of them dried my hair, the foil process began. I was already sweating from the various layers of protective towels and capes. I steeled myself for the upcoming LONG procedure.

I don’t think I have ever had as many highlights put in at one time. I knew that more foils meant better highlights, but I had almost fallen asleep by the time we were only two thirds of the way through. It did eventually get done, but then I had to sit under a hot hair dryer for twenty minutes. I actually did nod off, I think, with rivulets of sweat dripping down my back.

But it was all worth it. I am, once again, really blonde. And although it was expensive, it was still way less than they last guy who gave me dark hair.

Now, to do something exciting with my new image!

PS: the photo is the Kite Master who didn’t make it on to the last posting. I swear I will get DSL in a few weeks so that I can actually get pictures to upload in less than 40 minutes.

01 December 2005

Kite Making

During Tuesday’s class, I noticed that there was a lot of activity going on in the large center room of the third floor. At the break, I wandered over to see what was happening. It was a kite making class, organized by the student activities office.

About thirty students were busily constructing kites. I asked who was in charge, and someone led me to the front where a man in his 50’s was helping students to make kites. It turned out he was one of the top kite makers in the city, if not the country. He not only designs and makes kites, but is a champion kite flyer.

This was really exciting, and I expressed my interest in learning how to make a kite. I was invited to join in, but explained that I still had several hours of teaching left. No problem, there would be a second class on Thursday afternoon, after class.

So today, at 3:30, I set out to discover the world of kite construction. I knew that kite flying was a traditional, Vietnamese sport, and I often see kites flying in the distance when I look out my living room window. But that is about all I really know.

As soon as the Kite Master came in, we all got down to business. I watched as he carefully measured out the pattern on a sheet of large paper, and then cut it out. Next, he grabbed a thin strip of bamboo, about 2 feet long and, using a knife, quickly split it exactly down the center. After that, he rapidly whittled the stick to smooth it out. When I had watched a room of students doing the same on Tuesday, I also noted the first aid bag on the center table and more than a few bandaged fingers.

While I grabbed paper and bamboo sticks along with everyone else, a student drew the pattern on the whiteboard. Now, if I only had a ruler. At that moment, another student approached and just started helping me and another teacher. This guy was from a part of Vietnam where they make kites all the time and he seemed to enjoy helping us rather than making his own.

Once the kite was cut out, it was time to glue on the bamboo. I sat down on the floor. I stuck my fingers in a pot of solidified, jello-ish, gluing material. It turned out to be made from rice, I think with the starch stuff that washes off dry rice. This stuff really worked. After securing the strips, I used small pieces of paper to brace the sticks in place. I was having the best time, covered in glue and scooting around the floor to hold sticks and grab glue and paper. The next step was to tie strings to the bamboo strips. Actually, that was the step that should have been before the gluing, but I made due.

My kite was now done and I took it over the instructor for his approval. He tied the side strings together and gave it toss to check the aerodynamics. He nodded his approval. There was no way I was ready to stop, so I decided to attempt a second, different style kite.

My helper was still with me when I got up to get more supplies. It was then that I noticed three students from one of my classes, busily constructing kites. They looked quite adept at the process. When I asked them, they said that they had been making kites all their lives. I know had three more assistants.

By the time I finished number two, my hands were caked in glue, but I didn’t want to stop and go wash them. Anyway, as the stuff dried, it kind of rubbed off easily. I Iooked around the room to see what the others were up to. Groups of three or four students were busy painting their kites, on top of tables, or on the floor, with no paper underneath. The room was a mess. And I had assured the student activities coordinator that I would make sure all the tables were back in rows because 80 students would be testing in there the next morning.

Garbage can in hand, I went around picking up paper and bamboo and glue and string. The other teacher went in search of a broom. Students were leaving, obviously with no intention of picking up. So we swept and mopped and I told the painters to take their brushes to the bathroom and wash them off. I can’t say the room was spotless, but at least it wasn’t a disaster.

Walking down the hall on the way out of the building, I looked through the windows into the second, large activities room and saw one of my students practicing for a fashion show. I opened the door, because I am very nosey, and saw another of my students seated on the side, obviously bored because he was playing games on his cell phone. He looked at my kites and asked what they were. I told him about the kite class down the hall. He seemed sad that he hadn’t known about it. But I told you and the whole class, I said. “We thought you said it was a ‘cake making’ class. Hey, I am sure I wrote it on the board.

It now seems there is a keen interest in making kites and flying them and there is talk of more classes and kite flying contests. I can’t wait!

I’m going to fly a kite!

27 November 2005

27 November 2005

Last week was mid-term week. It was brutal. By Friday, the students were burnt, the teachers were burnt, and thank god I don’t have to be involved with that for another five weeks.

I tested and scored on Monday and Wednesday; taught the other three days. Rather, I tired to teach. Seems my students were either too exhausted to come to class, or behaved like rambunctious 12 year olds. Even my best, loud, admonishing teacher voice had no more than a 5 minute effect on any of them. I certainly hope everyone will have recovered by tomorrow, Monday. Meanwhile, I had a weekend ahead of me.

Friday evening I went into town to meet up with a group from work for dinner and beer. After four months here, I finally made it into the backpackers area, the place where most budget travelers start their journey. It was just what I expected; lots of young scruffy tourists, packed into restaurants and cafés, or wandering up and down the streets. When I first arrived in Vietnam, I spent weeks without seeing other foreigners because they all hung out in this part of town.

I did learn that this area was where you could get really inexpensive meals that had NO MSG! (It is mostly because of msg that I never eat out.)

My weekend of exploring new places that most tourists visit on Day One, continued on Saturday when I went to Ben Than Market. This is the giant, indoor souk that sells everything from kitchen utensils to fruit and vegetables to tourist items. It is both a market for the Vietnamese and the tourists. The structure is massive. I think it must be at least a square block, with a cavernous ceiling. Inside is packed with aisle after aisle of small stalls, each crammed to bursting with consumer goods.

The taxi let me out at the main entrance, and I braced myself before entering. I knew it would be crowed and hot and claustrophobic, even at 9 in the morning. I started down the wide, main aisle, and was immediately greeted by stall owners beckoning me over to look at their wares. I really had no idea what I wanted to buy, and mostly just wanted to get my bearings and see what was available.

To the left and right, row after of narrow aisles lead off the main drag. I saw shoes and clothes and glasses and plates. Halfway down the main corridor, I took a deep breath and turned right into a row of t-shirts. The women manning the stalls immediately stood up, grabbed items out of their stalls, shoved them in my face, grabbed my arms, and asked what I was looking for, and told me that they had the best prices. It really was unnerving, but I know they are just doing their job, so I smiled, said hello, and tried to keep walking.

I stopped to look at a few bags and ended up buying two. I walked around a bit more, but the place was really getting to me and I decided that once I was able to find a way out of the maze that I seemed to be stuck in, I was out of there.

It was then that I happened upon a stall that was a little larger than the others. You could actually walk inside. The good part was that unlike the other stalls, it was not blasted with long tubes of florescent lights. The downside was that it was a tad hard to see things clearly. But the more I looked the more I saw that this was the kind of shop I was looking for. It was loaded with ethnic goodies.

Almost immediately, my eyes locked onto an elaborate headdress, adorned with beads and shells and hammered tin. I picked it up and knew I had to have it. I should say at this point, that I hate to bargain. What I did at this stall is what I do everywhere I go in the world; I asked the price, was told something I couldn’t afford, then asked if that was the best price. Without even entering into the undignified act of the bargain, I soon had the headpiece for less than half of what was written on the price tag. And most importantly, it was a price I deemed very reasonable and one I could afford.

Then I saw the second headdress. It was very different from the first, but equally fantastic. Without even asking, the price tag was cut in half. However, that didn’t do me much good because I didn’t have enough money left to buy it. I told the folks at the shop that I would come back the following day. That would also give me a chance to decide if I really needed the second one. And then I really did leave the market.

Once I got home, I took out my new purchase and beamed. It was even more incredible under good light. I was definitely going back to get the other, which is how I spent the morning today.

My second time in the market I felt much better. I really didn’t know all the sections, but at least some things looked familiar. I had been worried about ever finding the same stall, even with the address written down. Once inside, I looked around for some indication of where I would find store “888”. To my surprise, stall numbers were displayed at the top of every aisle. I found my shop in no time. I chatted with the family that ran the place, bought my headdress and some other little things, then walked towards an exit.

Along the way, I passed a bed linins stall. (I need another sheet so I can convert my extra bed into a couch. I will then replace it with the tiny loveseat I now have in the living room that is totally useless to lie down on to read or watch TV.) A young couple ran the place. He stood in front while she was inside on top of stacks of packaged sheet sets. Then began the interchange of three people who don’t speak the same language.

At least I was able to write out the dimensions I needed. Trying to tell them that I wanted a solid, dark color was another story. Most of the sheets here are ghastly plaids or prints. But eventually, I ended up with a solid, greenish-blue fitted sheet and two pillow cases. This had required a whole lot of digging into stacks and throwing packages of sheets in all directions. I am really glad I found something I wanted, because after all the effort, I could not have left without buying from them. Ok, no I really was going.

But directly across from the sheets, and we are talking a distance of less than 5 feet, there was an Indian shirt stall. And right in front were piles of a type of shirt I had been searching for, for over five years. I ended up with two shirts, and I think I may have paid too much for them, but it didn’t matter. I really did leave then.

Back on the street, it was getting hot. I had already planned to walk back to the backpackers area to eat a real meal with no msg. It wasn’t far away, but entailed crossing several, six lane, extremely wide boulevards, and there are no lights. Or if there are, not everyone adheres to the color of the light displayed. My reasoning was that if it got really scary, I would flag a taxi to go the final few blocks.

I found the place I had been on Friday night and ordered ginger shrimp with vegetables, and a glass of lime juice. Delicious! I guess I will have to come to this area more often if I want to eat out.

For the next few hours I strolled around the streets, stopped for a soda, bought some vitamins, then grabbed the bus back home.

I thought I might go for a walk in my neighborhood, but the thunder and lightning decided to appear. A bolt struck just struck within spitting distance of my apartment, causing me to jump out of my chair and yell. I’ve already looked out to see if there were any dead bodies on the street, but things appear to be ok.

I’m going to see if any good movies are on TV.

20 November 2005

The Weekend + Good Weather

I have no real idea why this seems to be the best weekend since arriving, but it does. Maybe it is because of the weather, or the fact that on Saturday there was almost no construction going on overhead, leading me to believe that they might almost be finished upstairs. Or maybe it is because next week I only have to teach classes for three days. (but still be at work for other things.)

It’s Saturday afternoon, still warm and sunny, and I see no threat of rain in the near future. I keep being told that the dry season begins in November. It is almost the end of November and it continues to rain everyday. My landlords had told me that this was a great flat, in part because of the breeze it gets. This morning, for the first time, a lovely gentle wind blew through my house for several hours. In fact, I was actually cold for awhile! (don’t worry, I was still able to survive in my shorts and t-shirt.)

Around noon, I went for a walk and tried to get some interesting photos, which is a challenge in newly built suburbs. I attempted to get some urban floral and fauna. I ignored the odd looks as I bent down on the sidewalk along the main street to capture the bug. Please note that he turned his head to look at me before flying off into the atmosphere.

I hope it was a good weekend for the other parts of the world.


18 November 2005

Teacher's Day

Sunday, 20 November, is Teacher’s day in Vietnam. And today, Friday, teachers all over the country, including me, had flowers and presents bestowed upon them.

The teacher’s room at work looked and smelled like a florist’s, each desk piled with bouquets of lilies and roses and orchids. Many of us also received gifts. I got the most beautiful necklace and earrings. I think the last time I taught at a public school in the US, there was something called “Teacher Appreciation Day”, and the principle left a basket of apples for us in the staff room. I kind of like this Day better.

Today was also the initiation of Friday Afternoon Softball, where I teach. For some reason, softball equipment is in short supply in HCMC, so I was surprised to see a few students at lunch swinging a bat, trying to hit a pitched tennis ball.

The batter’s hands were half-way up the bat, as he flailed around trying to hit the ball. I couldn’t stand it so walked over to give batting instructions. As I reached for the bat to demonstrate, another teacher called out, “Don’t complain about the weight.” I understood why he had said that as soon as I grabbed a hold of the bat and nearly dropped it.

It really was a gorgeous thing; dark wood polished to a mirror shine. But it weighed a ton. Why did you get such heavy bats? I asked. Turns out our resident English teacher/Sports Director had had them made the day before after an unsuccessful search for softball equipment. He’d given the specks to a furniture maker, who’d then churned out two bats.

Feeling the grip of wood in my hands, even though it weighed too much, brought back memories of all those years I had longed to play Little League, back in the days when girls were not allowed to do so. I remember trying everything I could to get on a team, but it was useless. When I finally got to an age where there were women’s city leagues, I was so out of practice, I didn’t even try. But it is still my favorite sport, and I just had to try a swing.

I took my stance, the ball was thrown, and I cracked it on the first pitch! It was the most amazing feeling. Like the old you-never-forget-how-to-ride-a-bike. I guess you never forget how to swing a bat and connect with a ball. I couldn’t participate in the game today, but just might do so next week.

What a great Friday! Flowers, jewelry, and baseball!
Batter up.

12 November 2005

Tan Lines

I finally made it to the pool next door. It is part of the pretty much defunct amusement park. There is the Ferris wheel, which I have seen turned on once; the race car circuit, which occasionally has drivers; and two of those death-defying rides that take you way up on a track, then let you free fall back down. I have yet to see those in operation.

Apparently, when it was first opened, maybe ten years ago, it was packed on weekends. Now, about the only thing in use is the pool on weekends. And it is an odd pool. The whole thing is only about a meter and a half deep. The water doesn’t even reach my shoulders.

But I wasn’t there to swim. I was there to get a tan. I figured about an hour in the morning sun would do for a start. I arrived at 10:00. There were already a fair number of families sitting around or splashing in the water. I found an empty deck chair, one of 6 in the whole place, and stripped down to my swimming costume.

Leaning back, I surveyed the scene. I was the only white person there. The rest were Korean and Japanese, with the requisite Vietnamese nannies in tow. And I was the only female in a bikini. A few of the little girls had on one piece suits. A few moms had suits that covered more than even the most modest American bathing suits. The teenage girls swan in t-shirts, bras, underwear and track pants.

The stares started immediately. Kids hung on the lip of the pool and glared at me. One came over, bent down, and tried to peer under my book to get a look at my face. Then there was this woman who kept swimming up to the edge of the pool, standing there, and just staring at me. After the third time, I thought that maybe she was someone I knew and I didn’t recognize her. But I don’t know anyone here, so it couldn’t have been that.

I walked into the water a few times to cool off, but did no swimming. After 45 minutes, I was hot enough, and probably tan enough for the first day out in the sun in months. An odd scene, it was, but the sun felt great.

I’ll go earlier next time and possibly avoid being the local freak show.

Cold From Hell

All plans are off for an exciting weekend, not that I had plans, but I’d like the option. I have a nasty cold. It’s a no-brainer as to where I picked it up. About 80% of my students have been coming to class sick as dogs, sneezing and hacking, never covering their mouths, not that it would really help that much in a sealed environment.

I instituted my usual game plan aimed against acquiring any contagions but, obviously, it didn’t work. Most probably because the odds against me were doubled; half the teachers are also ill.

The other health risk on the horizon is Bird flu, which I am not concerned about. I figure if I am going to worry about getting a deadly disease, the one I have the most chance of acquiring is Dengue fever, which is very nasty. It comes in two forms: the first will make you super sick for a few months, and possibly leave you with residual effects. The second is a hemorrhagic fever, (think: Ebola virus), which will kill you in the most gruesome way imaginable. And there is little you can do to prevent getting bitten by the mosquitoes that carry it.

As it stands right now, I am not at high risk for Bird Flu, which doesn’t mean I don’t keep up-to-date on the WHO and CDC websites. I even took it upon myself to make a suggestion to the student cafeteria that they stop serving sunny-side-up eggs, as the virus can live in such an environment. I was happy to note that they stopped serving them. But yesterday I saw that they now cook eggs over easy, easy being the operative word. The virus could still linger on.

At least in the high-class, staff cafeteria, they are taking strict precautions. As of a week ago, they stopped serving chicken. However, quiche and omelets are still available. Not that I usually eat there.

Last week, having left my lunch at home, I went in to get a vegetarian sandwich having been assured by staff members that the staff lunchroom did not use MSG. Halfway through my panini, eggplant, hummus concoction, I knew that was not the case. I got a major MSG reaction and still had three hours of work to go.

The following day, I went in and asked the manager if they used MSG. “Of course”, she said, “food doesn’t taste good without it and the Pasture Institute checked it out and said there was nothing wrong with using MSG.”

I will stop writing now. I really shouldn’t send updates when I feel like hammered dog meat.
Time to eat more garlic.

08 November 2005

Earthquakes In Viet Nam?

“Did you feel the earthquake last night?” was the question going around the teacher’s room as I walked in during a class break.

No, I said, before thinking. Then I remembered being awakened around midnight by some noises, looking up at the ceiling and seeing the light fixture swaying. At the time, I thought it was probably just some more construction somewhere, and assumed the breeze from the fan was causing the movement overhead. Guess I was wrong.

A few hours later, I was back in my classroom, feeling pretty spaced out. (the end of the day, florescent lights, whatever.) It was one of those rare times when I was seated at a table, correcting papers, while my students were in groups writing a story.)

All of a sudden, the room began to roll. Shit! I thought vertigo attack! But I immediately noticed that the students had stopped talking and were looking around the room.
“What’s that?” asked one, to which I quickly replied, Earthquake. As I said, I was not feeling 100%, so just road out the rolling of the room, calmly telling people to sit down, that it was all right.

Was I nuts! Where was all that California earthquake training? Why hadn’t I instructed them to get under the tables? Possibly because I am used to your everyday, fast-jolt-it’s-over quake, and figured that is what it was. However, this was not a fast one. It seemed to go on and on. I stayed seated and asked if it was over, still not convinced it wasn't a vertigo attack, or that the shaking had induced one.

Once again, after class, earthquakes were the topic of conversation among teachers. “I’m from California”, was the response from about four of us. One guy from England looked a little green. “You Americans may be used to it, but I didn’t like it. I thought I was going to throw up.” Another first-timer said it was as if she’d been drinking beer all night then smoked a joint. And just for the record, I did not like it at all!

Hopefully, that will be the end of the shaking. At least that will be my mind set. I live on the 7th floor, and I don’t fully trust the construction standards here.
Gee, and I was going to write about Bird Flu. That will have to wait for another day. Enough scary vibes for one day.

Rock and Roll is here to stay.

06 November 2005

Saturday Night On The Town

After three months in Ho Chi Minh City, I finally made it out on a Saturday night. I took the shuttle into town to have dinner with three colleagues from work.

It gets dark here very early and by 6:30 pm, it is pitch black. In all honesty, it was really hard to get out the door. It felt like it was 10 pm, and time to go to bed. But once I did get into town, everything was fine. Seeing the city for the first time at night was quite a revelation. As I walked the two blocks to the restaurant and looked around at the tourist filled streets, I wondered why I hadn’t done this before.

Everything takes on a different flavor at night. Even though I had been on those same, exact streets at least twice a week since arriving, it was if I were in a new city. Everything’s lit up, people spill in and out of restaurants and cafés, and the outside temperature is perfect. The pleasant weather alone is reason enough to come out at night. You just don’t sweat like you do when the sun is beating down at midday. So why hadn’t I gone out before?

We ate at a nice place, although the service seemed to be a little off, at least for our table. It took about thirty minutes to just get our drink orders in and then another thirty minutes to be served our food. They never did manage to clear the table, so we just piled the dishes up at one end when they brought our tea at the end of the meal.

I had to rush out, leaving the dinner group with their tea, in order to get the last shuttle bus back home. Looking around at all the activity, I thought about staying longer and taking a taxi home, but what was I going to do? Walk into a bar, sit at a café, or stroll the streets alone at 10pm? Those are things one can do during the daylight hours and not feel completely like a total looser for not having any friends. But it is not the same at night, especially when you don’t know a soul at any of the establishments.

Still, I think it might be better than sitting alone all weekend cleaning the house and spending way too much time on lesson plans. I’ll decide what to do next Saturday, next Saturday.

30 October 2005



I think I want to change my career path; I want to become a wizard. It seems so much more exciting than lesson planning and correcting papers. I could conjure up spells, dispense evil spirits, live in a castle high on a hill, and dress in really funky clothes.

Having said that, I finished week one of the new job and have to say it was quite enjoyable. Luckily, I only teach one level, something quite unheard of in the world of teaching. The only downside is that I teach one class two days a week and a different class three days a week, and I split these classes with two other teachers. Added to that confusion is that while I am on a break from my class, my co-teacher is teaching a different class, making it quite difficult to meet and coordinate plans. It’s a real Escher-type scheduling challenge, but I seem to have survived so far.

An added benefit to the work week is all the exercise one gets just going from classroom to office to photo-copy machine and back. I am working in a brand new, huge building, with cavernous ceilings and long, wide, winding corridors. (It really is nice architecture, although the color scheme of pale green and salmon leaves something to be desired.) However, it does take quite a bit of time to get from point A to point B, especially since no one is allowed to use the elevators. So if you happen to grab the wrong class register out of the teachers room at the back end of the second floor, and you teach at the back end of the third floor, and the staircase is in the exact opposite direction of both, it’s a bit of a hassle. Forget about running out to get an extra copy of anything.

And as for photo-copying, which we do a lot of, things brightened up on Friday. The English teachers got their own copier! Prior to that, there was only ONE machine for the WHOLE school, which was on a different floor at the opposite side of the building.

With the combination of a new job, new books, new classes, and all that running up and down, by Friday night I was fairly whipped and dreamed about hibernating in the house all Saturday. Unfortunately, I had to cruise into town for various, extremely uninteresting errands. I had planned to get up early today, Sunday, and go to the local market to stock up for the week, but just couldn’t do it. So I cleaned the house and vegetated most of the day.

With the weekend coming to a close, it is now time to sit down and work on next weeks classes and correct papers.

I’m going to Google, Schools of Wizardry.

ps: yes, it’s a watermelon!

23 October 2005

World Series

World Series

Can you believe it? I can get the World Series LIVE in Vietnam! I didn’t quite believe it when ESPN Asia announced that it would carry the games. The play- offs were broadcast a day or two late, and I don’t think they showed the entirety of any one game. But this morning, Sunday, at 7AM, I turned on the TV and there it was. I did check on the internet to make sure it actually was a live game. I’m looking forward to watching a few innings before taking off for work.

And yes, I will again be gainfully employed starting tomorrow morning. I am as ready as one can be, and hope things go smoothly. The good part about the new job is that I only teach one level, instead of the usual five to seven levels I have done in past teaching establishments. The semi-tricky part is that I teach one group of students two days a week, and another group, three days a week, and I share the classes with two separate teachers. Yes, I am confused. Coordination will be a bit of a challenge, but it should smooth out in a few weeks, and then the term will be over.

Time to go over my lesson plans one more time.


19 October 2005

Fixing Things

Fixing Things

My leaky kitchen faucet and dripping washing machine hose just got fixed. I also got my full length mirror hung. I had to wait two and a half weeks, and it only took twenty minutes for the work crew of two to complete the tasks.

I showed one of the guys where to hang the mirror, and we marked the drill spot. He then went to retrieve his substantially large drill from a nylon sack. I looked at it and noticed there was no plug; just a split, coated wire. (And in case you didn’t think about it, neither the workers nor I spoke each other’s language.) I put on my most shocked face and pointed.

The men laughed and said something like “No problem.” I had to leave the room as the one with power tool in hand stood ready to drill, while the other inserted the bare-ended wires into the socket. I jumped when the drill emitted a large whine/grind as it connected to the wall, then abruptly stopped.

I stuck my head around the corner to make sure no one had been electrocuted. The guy at the socket was busily shoving the wires in with a something that may have been a pen. This time I left for good.

I would love to be able to hang things myself, and possibly avoid having to give emergency CPR, but you can’t do it here. Or at least not without a drill. The walls are brick. I remember the first time I lived in a brick walled building. I’d spent about five minutes knocking on the walls trying to find a stud before I realized there were none. The advantage of not being able to hear your neighbors far outweighs not being able to easily hang pictures. Except that for right now, I can hear the workers upstairs building the two story penthouse.

The noise level has gotten radically worse since I first moved in. I had been looking forward to a few weeks of unemployment and spending my time in my beautiful home, reading and writing and creating. It has been all but impossible. The hammering is something I can put up with, but the electric tile cutter that sits on the floor directly above my apartment is unbearable. I was told by my landlord that when they built my apartment, they were not allowed to cut tiles inside because of the noise. They were also not allowed to work on weekends. But the people upstairs were at it all day last Saturday. I think my landlord phoned in a complaint today. However, nothing changed.

I am also a little concerned about how long it will take to complete. When I first moved in, they said one month. It has been almost three weeks and now they say another month. Oh well, I start work full time next Monday, so I guess it no longer really matters.

The good news is that I can now see the moon! I face north, which means no direct sunlight, but loads of light all day. However, I was starting to miss seeing the sun and I had never seen the moon. Then, a few nights, when the moon was full, it decided to visit my side of the building, and every night since I can see it for longer periods of time. It was still in my viewing range at five this morning. I never have been able to figure out the movement of heavenly bodies, so will just have to wait and see if the sun puts in an appearance.

Oh! There goes the helicopter again! Or at least that was what I thought it was for two nights running. Sounded to me like it was circling for criminals, but I just couldn’t see any helicopter lights. Then it happened again yesterday, in the late afternoon. I looked out my window, and oops….there is a river just about half a mile down the road, (which, for some reason, I hadn’t been aware of even though I cross it every time I go into town.) That put-put-put is the sound of the fishing boats returning. Yes, I feel really stupid, but you have to give me credit for admitting my idiocy.

By the way, please do note the Google adds at the top of the page. Somehow I don’t think I am ever going to accrue enough of whatever it is to make any money, especially if you look at what is listed. I wrote about construction, and ads come up for concrete. I wrote about light bulbs and ads appeared for lighting fixtures. And when I wrote about a bad hair day, there were ads for afro wigs and bridal wigs. I am sure that when you read this, you’ll see ads for plumbing or maybe fishing.

And one final, further unrelated note: the picture is of an ENTIRE supermarket shelf of MSG, which one can purchase by the kilo. Just one more reason I avoid eating out.

I need to check on the moon.

15 October 2005

This Ain't Blonde

This morning I was all excited about my trip into town to get my tresses back to blonde. I knew my guy in town would do me up right.

Finding a great stylist is difficult anywhere in the world, but much more so when you live in a country where people have totally different hair. Vietnamese hair is out-of-this-world beautiful. Generally, it’s thick, heavy, straight and black. Not to mention rich and shiny. But if that is the only type of hair you are used to, my thin locks, (which are straight in California, but kind of wavy here), are not something you should attempt to cut.

A month or so ago, I accidentally found a hair salon that was filled with people who did not have Vietnamese hair. I talked to a couple of the patrons and they assured me that this was the best place in town. I had to agree when I went a few weeks ago and had my hair cut.

The stylist was Vietnamese, but had immigrated to Sweden as a teenager, and had learned his trade there. He gave mean awesome cut. I said I would be back in a few weeks to get highlights.

I am an old pro at how the technique of highlighting should be done and how it should look, as I have had years of practice watching it be incorporated into my very dull hair. Some years I go for “natural blonde” and sometimes it is “I paid good money for this, blonde”, depending on my mood. And one day, I promise, it will not just be highlighted, but be 100%, Scandinavian blonde. For now, I wanted to stick with super blonde highlights.

When I made the appointment, I checked on the price. Outrageously expensive for Vietnam, but less than I pay in the US, and this isn’t something you can skimp on. So, money in hand, plus additional tip cash, I set off fully intending to return home a stunning blonde.

During my last time there to get my hair cut, I was both impressed and a bit taken aback by the hair wash. It is wonderful to have a head and neck massage while lying with your head over a sink, but this had turned into an ordeal of 40 minutes. It was really too long, and just not that good. This time I was determined to tell them to cut it way back.

I arrived at 10:00 and they put me in a chair while my stylist was finishing up with another customer. They brought me magazines and coffee, and then a young woman brought over a stool, sat down, and said she was going to massage my arms. Sort of weird, but my left hand has been really screwed up, so I told her to work on that side. Then another gal came over and started doing my neck and shoulders. It was OK, and I guessed just part of their service, but you got the impression these people really didn’t know a whole lot about massage.

I figured they would stop sooner or later, so said nothing. The neck masseuse stopped when the stylist came over. I explained exactly what I wanted, and he understood. The other young woman was still doing my hand and arm, which was beginning to ache. She only stopped twenty minutes later at my insistence, and seemed hurt. Could she do my claves? I told her I just wanted to relax. I have no idea if I offended her or not.

After all the foils were in my hair, (don’t ask if you don’t know what I mean), the stylist started talking about putting in the base color. Huh? Then I remembered that when I had had my hair done before leaving, my stylist had added color to the un-foiled areas, and it had come out beautifully. I acquiesced. I only started to get nervous when some of that base dye was turning awfully dark where it touched the skin on my forehead. A few times people tried to continue the massage treatment and I declined. I also told them no head massage. Just wash the crap out and let me up.

End result: My hair is NOT blonde-blonde. In fact it looks darker than when I went in. It isn’t destroyed, but it is dull and icky and not pretty like I had envisioned. The folks at the salon were all ooh-ing and awing, and asking if I liked it. I sort of smiled and said I did. At that point, I just wanted to pay and leave. I walked over to the cash register.

This is the point where I almost had heart failure. I was handed a bill that was over twice the price I had been quoted. It was more than I have ever paid in the US. I stared at it and asked them to explain. Seems half the bill was for the highlights and half the bill was for the base color. And the price for the highlights was quite a lot more than I had been quoted. My fault though, I had assumed I had short hair and found out at the register it was medium-length, so the price went up 30%.

Obviously, I didn’t have that much money. I tried to think if I even had that much money in the house. I told them I would return tomorrow with the balance. I had to get out of there. I was so upset I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t understand how they could charge what they did. And I know I’ll probably go in to tomorrow, hand them the money, and leave, instead of telling them I hate what they did to my hair and feel I was overcharged.

Time to look for someone new.
I’m covering all my mirrors.

13 October 2005

Siestas and Light Bulbs

There is a reason I try not to be out, walking around at mid-day; the heat. Even as much as I thrive-like-a-lizard in hot weather, strolling on the streets between 11:30 and 2:00 simply isn’t advisable. You kind of feel like you might pass out at any moment, and that would prove embarrassing.

But yesterday, after a morning indoors, I was desperate to get out. I looked at the clock; 1:15, it wouldn’t be so bad. And there really isn’t much to walk to around here so my excursions are limited.

Umbrella opened to protect against those solar flares, I realized just how brutal the sun was. No cloud cover whatsoever to help cut down on the flames. I really need to get a darker umbrella. This one may keep the UV from penetrating, but does little in terms of giving true shade.

As I walked to the supermarket, I peeked into the small shops along the way, noticing that there wasn’t a lot of activity inside. The corner, open-courtyard restaurant was being hosed down after lunch, and had obviously served its last noon-time customer.

Inside the pitifully limited supermarket, with its rolling floors, (need to hang on to that cart!), I just couldn’t find the light bulbs I needed. Their supply was limited to compact fluorescents and I don’t do fluorescents. I grabbed two cans of soda and headed back home.

The motorbike taxi guys in front of the supermarket lounged on top of their bikes. They can actually fall asleep stretched out over the seat and handle bars, and I have yet to see one fall off. One called out, “Ride, madam?” while mimicking revving the engine with his hands, which is how they all ways solicit fares. The others ignored me. (note: that’s the French pronunciation of madam, left over vestiges of colonialism, and it beats the crap out of “Hey, you!)

A few shops up I passed the store that sells lamps and lighting fixtures. Oh, they’d have light bulbs! As with many stores here, the front is completely open. I looked inside but saw no one. As I ventured up the two steps to the entryway, I spotted someone lying on a mat in the back of the shop. Tentatively, I leaned in. The person napping turned out to be a woman. She saw me, got up, and beckoned me inside. I tried to protest, I mean it really was too hot to engage in commerce, but she insisted I come in.

Colorful lamps hung from the tall ceilings and jutted out from the walls. Table and floor lamps surrounded the perimeter. I headed for a glass display case on the left. There I pointed to the compact fluorescents and explained I wanted regular light bulbs, using my hands to approximate the shape.

The saleswoman bent down and extracted a 60 watt bulb in a box from the bottom shelf. I opened it and took it out. It was clear glass and I asked if she had a bulb that was white. She pulled out another bulb enclosed in a small box. I knew this light bulb. I had them in my house. Frosted glass, regular base, but odd shaped and small.

Yes, I told her, that’s what I want but do you have it in this shape? I pointed to the first bulb. She gave me a questioning look. “Do you want white light or yellow light?”

OK, that is the question that I still don’t get, having heard it since the day I arrived. White light/yellow light? The bulbs are not /were not coloured lights. After the first few times of asking what I preferred, (in response to my request for replacing fluorescents), I just rolled with it and said White light. But now that I was in the light store, I figured I’d try to clarify it. I don’t understand the difference, I told her.

She took the bulbs and turned to a testing panel on a shelf behind the counter. About this time, another woman popped up from behind the counter, yawing, stretching, and patting down her hair. At the time, it really didn’t register that she had also been in siesta mode. I was too involved in the lighting demonstration.

The normal, (to us), clear light bulb and the squat one were screwed in and switched on. She indicated the smaller bulb, saying it was yellow light, the other, white light. They both looked white to me. Not wanting to look like a complete idiot, I nodded my head and said, I see. She unscrewed the bulbs and handed them to me.

I then asked about wattage. Do you have 100 watts? She gave me a look of total confusion. Maybe it was a language thing. I pointed to the box, where it said 60, and said 100. I pointed to the small bulb, which was 40 watts and asked for 60. No luck. I further took a stab at asking about three-way bulbs and this woman, I am sure, was convinced I was whacked. I ended up with a couple of each style. She began to write out the bill, just as a young man sprang up from behind the counter on her right.

This time I almost jumped. I was quite embarrassed – I mean here I had been talking and asking questions, and this guy had been sleeping. I tried to say I was sorry, but I guess it didn’t matter.

Still not ready to go back to the crib, I went to a little deli/café that I had not previously been to. It has two, outside tables, so suited my requirements. There wasn’t a soul on the street. I went in to order and the place was empty. Or so I thought. From the back of the small café, a young woman slowly rose and greeted me. Again, I thought I should leave and felt bad about interrupting her rest.

But I stayed, and wondered why the hell I had thought sitting outside in the heat, after being out in it for quite a while, would be refreshing. I gulped my ice tea, went home, and jumped in the shower.

We’ll see how many of me it takes to change these light bulbs.

09 October 2005

Across The Street

It’s Sunday, and I really thought that the men and woman building the four story house across the way would have the day off. They didn’t. So now I know that they work seven days a week, from 7 in the morning until 5 at night.

They also live on the site, off to the right in a tin roofed lean-to. They have electricity and running water, and not much else. There is no outhouse that I can see.

In the evening I see the men in their shorts soaping down and hosing off. I don’t know what the women do. I was surprised to even see woman on a construction site. But they are there, hauling buckets of sand, bricks, and mixing concrete.

I think some of them go home in the evening, but there are around seven who stay. They gather wood to build a campfire and cook dinner. It appears to be a communal effort.

Yesterday, I saw one of the women hanging washed clothing on the fence that surrounds the site. Fortunately, the rain held off most of the day so their clothes should have dried.

At noon they break for lunch and sleep. Then right back to the building. It rains a lot these days, but they do not stop until the rain is really pouring.

I don’t know how long they have been working on this house or how much longer it will take to finish. I wonder if they have family and children and if they ever get to see them. I know they don’t eat enough food to sustain that type of labor in this climate. I know they are drinking the water we are not supposed to drink. I know that I would never have the strength and courage to survive in that life.