The last week of classes I gave my students an evaluation they had to fill out about me. Some students took it seriously and had real suggestions for topics such as, speaking loudly and slowly, having more group activities, and teaching about things they can use when they practice teach in the preschool. However some students had suggestions that were rather less helpful like: I like your smile, show us movies (in my technology-less classrooms), and my all-time favorite “I wish the teacher (you) would have a different hairstyle.” I had no idea my hair was affecting your learning so much. Why of course I will change my hair immediately! (Insert rolling of the eyes). I also gave finals. For the freshmen they had to prepare a conversation about going on a trip with a group and my English majors had individual interview with me. I wish I had done interviews earlier because some of the students were a lot lower level than I thought. I definitely learned more about teaching and really hope I can make some necessary improvements for the following term. I was all ready to depart for my travels after putting my grades together to hand into the office when I realized one was missing! One of my students never took their final. I contacted that student and said that she had until Friday to take the exam. She never took it and I failed her. And that ends my first semester teaching in China.
My winter travel began in Yibin where the four of us met up in Leo’s place since it was the easiest and most direct route into Yunnan province which is just south of China. We had to stay in Yunnan because it was in the capital city (Kunming) that we could visit the Vietnamese consulate and obtain a visa. First we went into Kunming and immediately went to the consulate where we ran into two China 15s who were also heading there. They asked us about our photographs for the visa, and so we immediately turned around and left to find a place to take our pictures because we completely forgot—thanks Charlie and the other 15 whose name I don’t know. When we returned there was this young Danish boy behind us in line who was picking his visa and passport up but he had misplaced his receipt and told us that they weren’t giving his passport back to him. We said if he still can’t find it that he should contact his embassy. Anyways we knew to keep the receipts safe, so the two guys gave it to me and Katie to hold. Oh yeah, I was travelling with Leo, Katie and Richy.
So all of our Chinese friends had been telling us that Kunming is the “spring city” because it is warm all year. Well we are walking around shivering and Katie says “I think there’s ashes falling.” Well ashes turned out to be snow!! We arrived in Kunming at a time when it was the coldest in 50 years. Great! We were trying to escape cold but instead it was following us. During this tiem it was colder in Kunming than in our sites.
Anyways we decided to leave Kunming for a few days while the visas were processed. We went to this wonderful quaint city in Yunnan called Dali. It was a typical tourist town and was filled with quite a few expats that maybe didn’t jive well in their own countries because these people seemed like lifers. The weather was still chilly but not cold and we spent the time biking and relaxing and indulging in western style food (which is expensive in China). A few days later the visas were ready and we return to Kunming, pick them up and head to the bus station to take an overnight bus to the border crossing. After meeting the Danish boy Katie was desperately trying to remember what the Danish word for sprinkles was since, she and Richy had previously been there. Anyways when we got to the bus station guess who we see? The Dane from the consulate! I run over and say “hey you got the passport!” Do you know the Danish word for sprinkles?” He was slightly flummoxed by my ludicrous question, stumbled over his words to say no and hurried away. There wasn’t enough room on any of the buses that night so we bought for the next day and took a taxi back to the hostel. The taxi driver was the nicest lady we met that the guys struck up a conversation with her. At one point I looked at her driver’s id and it was a picture of a man. I think she was driving her husband’s taxi! But she was probably a better driver anyways.
We returned to the hostel where there was the cutest puppy; Katie fed it some butter and Richy put it his jacket to keep warm because it was shivering so much. We contemplated stealing it but thought it might be difficult at the border crossing.
Okay—overnight bus…never take one if you can help it! It was frightening. Very shaky. I maybe slept 2 of the 17 or so hours we were on it. But we arrived safely and that’s all that matters. At one point when we were first starting this guy came around and was asking everyone for 5 Yuan but wasn’t explaining why. Richy and Leo told us not to pay until he explained and until the Chinese passengers paid incase this was a scam. It ended up being because they had to redirect the route because the original route had snow on the road and we had to pass through an extra toll. Through this experience we met two Dutch boys who didn’t speak any Chinese, so we helped them out. They’d later follow us to Hanoi.
When we arrived in Lao Cai it was too early to cross the border, so we found a place to eat breakfast and chill until the border opened. Here we met a man who was willing to exchange our RMB for Vietnamese dong. We were crossing on a Sunday and there wouldn’t be any banks open and they also don’t give a good exchange rate for RMB apparently. Btw, US dollars can be used in Vietnam, but after 6 months in China we didn’t have any.
Okay so we walked across the border between China and Vietnam and then took a train to the capital of Hanoi. Thanks to the French influence as soon as we entered the country everyone was trying to sell us fresh baguettes which were awesome. This one boy on the train was particularly persistent even though we already had bread and kept getting in Leo’s space. In China we always take a "hard seat" on a day trip train which is the cheapest ticket but this seat is soft compared with Vietnamese hard seats which were just wooden benches and an 8 hr train ride turned into 12. But it was okay. We shared the experience with the 2 Dutch boys. They said that they had finished high school and their mandatory year in military and decided to travel a bit of the world before heading to university and continuing their life. We met many Europeans like that. Their lives are so different than Americans. First they all have socialized medicine, second many of them have socialized education, and three they all speak English fluently. How many Americans are fluent in 2 languages?
Moving on the Dutch boys came in handy because they knew of a cheap hostel, though they were rich and weren’t as concerned with money as we were. After Vietnam they were heading to New Zealand and were going to buy a car to use down there. Wow, must be nice.
Hanoi was nice. Vietnam is definitely poorer than China, though. We just walked around and visited some museums and such. It was a bit difficult at first with the language barrier but we studied on the train (hello, goodbye, what is this, how much, where is the bathroom, thanks, can it be cheaper, and the numbers 1-10, 100, and 1000). Vietnam is well known for selling copied books, so Leo and Richy bargained for a Vietnamese phrase book in Hanoi. They were very tough bargainers. When we left we said bye to the man and he said “I don’t like you!” since they bought the book for so cheap. But the fact is that he wouldn’t have sold it if he wasn’t making a profit. He just found a group of foreigners he couldn’t rip off is all.
In Hanoi we saw the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh which was strange. It looked like he was sleeping/not real. You must walk through quietly and cannot have your hands in your pockets and must have no electronics. Katie and Richy are trying to make their way through their communist leaders. They have already seen Mao and Lenin. They said Lenin looked the most real, but that is most likely because the Russians are the best at body preservation and actually China and Vietnam send their leaders to Russia to get refurbished or whatever it is called. In Hanoi we first tried the amazing Vietnamese coffee. I wasn’t a coffee drinker before but Vietnam convert anyone over. It is dark and strong and drunk from a small cup. At the bottom of the cup they pour sweetened condensed milk which ties everything together for a nice smooth taste. We also ate comforting warm pho which is best described as noodle soup but better. It has fresh vegetables, noodles, and meat.
Since Vietnam is such a small country we made our way through the entire country. Next we wanted to see Hailong Bay but every brochure made it look like the Asian Cancun which wasn’t what we wanted. So we hop on the frightening overnight train and we are headed to quaint but touristy Hoi An. What’s wrong with this train? Roaches and uncontrollable shaking, but here’s a bit of excitement for ya…our Danish friend from Kunming is back! And he brought two friends with him that he picked up along the way. So five minutes into the train ride and we get a knock on the door and see three European guys and a bottle of vodka because they want to hang. It is Sam, aka Sprinkles as we nicknamed him earlier since we hadn’t had formal introductions, a Scotsman whose name escapes me at this time, and the Swede. Sam it turns out is 19, finished high school and decided to travel a bit on his own before venturing into university life. The Scotsman is 24 and works in Japan and rather hyperactive. And the Swede is 30 decided to take a break and travel a bit and got caught up with these youngsters as he called them. We became closest with the Swede after it was figured that the Danish boy and the Scots were looking to meet some nice girls and Katie and me accompanied by two guys wasn’t enough of a hint that we were taken so they had a try. Discouraged they returned early to their beds and we stayed up with the Swede who made us jealous with all of the many wonderful things their queen does for them, including a free college education which includes money for room and board. We also thoroughly enjoyed listening to his English, particularly of the “j” sound which for him came out as the “y” sound for example, when he mentioned yumping on the train. It was delightful to hear. We took our separate ways and we started the next adventure in Hue.
Hue was a nice city in Vietnam but it rained almost nonstop, so we didn’t last long there. We visited a few historical sites, one being the prison that the French colonialists used to hold the Vietnamese that were opposing them. The treatment of the Vietnamese by the French was terrible, as almost every colonialist is to the people they invade. Later during the American-Vietnam War we were told the American pilots that were shot down were kept there under much better conditions. One such soldier was John McCain whose picture we saw on the wall of the museum.
While we were there, though, some other interesting things transpired.
The first was this small restaurant that we just decided on a whim to choose and it turned out to be an internationally known restaurant that was featured on the TV show Globetrekkers and was also featured in Lonely Planet. It was famous because, well obviously the food was amazing! We ate spring rolls that you roll yourself, hot sweet banana pancakes with warm chocolate sauce drizzled over it, and the local beers. This brings me to the second reason for the fame and that is the owner, an older hearing impaired man, had invented the coolest bottle opener ever. It is simply a wooden stick with a screw sticking out the end. Why is this cool? Well imagine 6 bottles lined up in a row with 6 of these simple bottle openers resting along the caps’ edge and this Vietnamese man karate chopping them all open at once. Get ready to be jealous. We ended up returning because the food was delicious, the owner sweet as can be, and most importantly was that it was warm and got us out of the rain. We started off ordering coffee, then we ordered food, beer, more food, and coffee again—we pretty much stayed in his restaurant half the day. This being the case, he took a liking to us and gave each of us a bottle opener for free! I can just see your eyes glistening green with envy. But no worries, when I return to the US in the summer of 2012, you can all have a go with the infamous bottle opener. When we eventually left his cozy abode we were accosted by this man who insisted he treat us to a beer. He wanted to chat with Americans. We hesitated and then decided to agree but be wary. He talked with us of how he had been with the South Vietnamese army during the war and as a result he was given a low job when the North won. He then said he wanted to pray for us at his temple and needed wine to offer at the statue of the god of I forget. It isn’t the god of I forget I just forget what he said. Anyways he convinces us to buy this expensive wine and we will never know if he really prayed or not or whether we were scammed. We would prefer the first but it was difficult to say either way. Naturally this became our topic of conversation the remainder of the trip in Hue.
Next we boarded a day bus (thank you) headed to the quaint but touristy city of Hoi An. In Hoi An we stayed at a cute hotel complete with mosquito nets, free bikes and middle-aged Vietnamese women who kept slapping my butt and pinching Katie A’s cheeks. We hit up the free bikes every day and rode into and around town. We also biked to the nearby beach which was too chilly for swimming but nice for relaxing and listening to the breaking of the waves. Hoi An is famous for their tailored clothing stores. Every other shop you could have something made for you, even full suits. How did we know this? Why the Swede told us! That’s right. Once more we ran into Sprinkles the Dane and his new faithful companion the Swede, but this time the Scotsman has returned to his job in Japan and they’ve picked up another European fellow. We just said hi and they told us of their adventures since we’d last parted ways in the train station at Hue and it was goodbye at last. Or was it?
Part of the adventure in Hoi An included a trip to a nearby city called My Son. My Son was a place in the jungles of Vietnam where there were some ruins and artifacts. Along the way we stopped in this small village and bought Vietnam’s amazing ban mi which are baguette sandwiches with pate that is sold everywhere in the country. When we got to My Son we had ourselves a picnic with the ban mi, oranges and peanut butter and crackers that Katie A and I prepared. It was pretty awesome. At one point the boys decided to lead us on a trek through the jungle which was probably a terrible idea since we aren’t experts on Vietnam’s plants, insects, and wildlife and were most likely risking some sort of disease or attack by venomous creature. But don’t worry moms and Peace Corps medical office—we made it there and back in one piece. Honestly I think Leo and Richie were hoping we’d see a tiger. (rolling of eyes and a sigh, followed by a grin because they are just so goofy you cannot help but enjoy their jest for adventure). On the way back we stopped at a roadside street vendor and ate some pancake things which consist of egg, flour shrimp, and then we wrap it in fresh greens and a spring roll wrap and dip in a spicy sauce. She kept bringing us more and more and we couldn’t stop eating it was so savory. So Hoi An became the first experience we’d had thus far of decent warmth, no rain, and a relaxing atmosphere of reading, biking, and sitting at a beach. We didn’t want to leave but we had high hopes of our continued journey south. We wanted sun, we wanted a beach we could swim in, and if it wasn’t too much to ask we really wanted a tan.
We vowed we’d never ride another overnight bus but this is exactly how we ended up travelling to the next stop—Nha Trang, a mid-sized city with a beach. But being on an overnight bus wasn’t bad enough that when we arrived (late due to traffic) the hotel informed us our reservations had been cancelled. We managed to get in but later. The next day we went next door where we had a cheaper stay and just as nice living space. This second day we hit the beach. It was pleasant and warm. The waves were high and strong, though, so Katie A and I opted to create sand creatures (sea turtle and bird) while Leo and Richy braved the water. They insisted we have a try so we stepped in a bit. Leo tried to encourage me to swim rather than just stand but instead I turned and ran back up. Despite being a native Floridian, I am not the best at swimming.
There was a middle aged Vietnamese woman with fruit sitting next to Katie A and Richy when we walked up. When we got close she asks roughly looking at Leo, “are you Leo?” He hesitated and said, “um…ya.” She then picks up a large knife and in the toughest voice she can muster she says, “You give me money or I cut off your banana and make you lady-man.” Appalled by this Leo takes a few steps back and manages to exclaim, “What?!” It turns out that while we were in the water this fruit seller approaches Katie and Richy. In response to her request for them to purchase the fruit Richy says that he didn’t have any money, but that Leo had all of the money. So she was ready when he returned. She kept telling Leo “I kill you! No no I love you. Buy my fruit! I cut off your banana! No money no honey!” This phrase no money no honey is heard throughout Vietnam and unfortunately has to do with the prostitution business in Vietnam which is wide and easily spotted. But in order to save Leo’s banana and because we actually wanted fruit we bought some from the best fruit seller in Vietnam or at least the scariest.
We thought Nha Trang was just good for the beach and great Indian food we enjoyed one night, but oh were we wrong. Thanks to Leo’s research and boyish excitement for arcades and water parks we enjoyed a full day at this really amazing island next to Nha Trang. We took the longest cable car over water to this island owned by a fancy resort and with one ticket we enjoyed a water park (lazy river, slides, wave pool), amusement park (merry-go-round, swings which made us all nauseous, small roller coaster), arcade complete with bumper cars and a riding bull, and an aquarium (with sea turtle, sharks, sting rays and fish). It is the best kept secret in Nha Trang. It wasn’t Disney or anything but was quite enjoyable. It was slightly dangerous considering it is a third world country and they haven’t the same codes as in America but nevertheless we didn’t get too injured from it—just Leo and Richy had their backs slightly cut and rubbed too hard by a steep slide and Richy and I got our throats smashed in a water slide, but it was all in the spirit of fun and well, Peace Corps medical staff never warned us of the dangers of water parks in Vietnam, so really we couldn’t have possibly known. Diarrhea, malaria, STDs? Check. Water parks? I think you forgot it in the medical handbook Peace Corps.
Last but not least is the great city of Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon). It was a bustling city especially this near TET which is the Vietnamese equivalent of Spring Festival or Lunar New Year. The difference is that this year in Vietnam is the year of the Cat whereas China it is the year of the Rabbit and China doesn’t even have a cat on the calendar. For TET, every Vietnamese family will buy beautiful, bold and somewhat expensive flowers, so throughout Ho Chi Minh we saw these brilliantly colored flower markets with orchids, lilies, tulips, dragon fruit and more. Ho Chi Minh also had a huge indoor market with everything from paintings and coffee to knockoff purses and perfume. It was hectic and exciting. Walking through the aisles we were shouted at and pulled towards every corner shop. Everyone had a mission. Mine was to get something for Janice and Mark who gave me money before leaving. Katie A was trying to find a cardigan. Richy wanted coffee. And Leo was trying to track down the items that his sister asked him to try and find. But we worked together as a team and gave each other good bargaining tips and tried to buy together in the hopes of price reduction. It was successful, though slightly difficult when some sellers weren’t in bargaining moods—and by afternoon when it is mid 90s I can’t blame them. We heard that it’s best to arrive in the morning because you can get a good deal because it is considered bad luck for the whole day if you don’t make your first sale.
While in Ho Chi Minh we also took a short boat ride around the river in the city. We picked a great time because it was right as the sun was setting. After that we continued the trend of our entire trip by using the toilets in the nicest hotels we passed. Is this strange? They are the cleanest and they smell nice. In one we visited in Hanoi there were towels to dry the hands rather than paper. Fancy.
During our time in Ho Chi Minh we visited a few museums. The most notable was the War Museum. Outside were many weapons, bombs, and fighter jets and helicopters. Then there was a dedication to the Tiger Cages which was a horror prison used by both the French and South Vietnamese. The prisoners were tortured beyond any scope of reason. The tactics of which are too gruesome to mention but if you are curious I am sure you can find it online. Inside the museum were pictures depicting the atrocities of war.
Great Scott! Is that Sprinkles I see leaving the War Museum?! By golly it is. But this indeed would be the last we’d see of him since our adventure ends in Ho Chi Minh and we are to return to China the following day. Alas, we didn’t even get to say goodbye.
All in all Vietnam was great. The coffee, bread, ban mi, pho, pancakes, spring rolls, and banana pancakes are amazing. The people are friendly, slightly crazy women, and fun. The weather is mostly perfect all year. If you have the chance to visit Vietnam, I’d say you wouldn’t regret it. But I am not sure if I am biased after 7 months in China. Food for thought.