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.