Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Good Morning Vietnam!


A breezy, February afternoon in Nha Trang. (Temp. 32 C/90 F)

In the past three months, I've taken a few weekend trips to favorite spots on the coast and in the mountains. Nha Trang is a town of 300,000 people about 450 km north of HCMC. It's a nice change from the 6.5 million inhabitants of HCMC. However, since the trip takes some 8 hours by bus, I haven't been able to take it with much regularity.

God's awesome display on Lam Bian Mountain near Dalat.

Dalat (1475m) is a quaint town nestled in the lovely mountains of Southern Vietnam. As the air is much cooler than on the coast, it's a suitable climate for growing temparate weather vegetables, fruits, and coffee. I found my heart's delight in a package of sugared, dried mulberries. They were only twenty-five cents for half a pound!

I spent two days in the town and enjoyed hiking and cycling in the surrounding countryside. One afternoon, I biked to Lam Bian mountain and tried hiking to the top. After an hour or so, the trail disappeared into the forest and I opted to return to the main road. It ended up being a wise choice as a massive thunder and lightingstorm soon engulfed the entire mountain. Awesome bolt's of lighting crashed all around and the rain came down in buckets. Soon after it had come, it whisped briskly over the valley below showering it with rain. It was a truly amazing experience to witness the might and beauty of God's creation.

Watching the approaching storm on Lam Bian mountain.

Unfortunately, since all of my trips have been solo ones, I have a serious shortage of photos of myself. It has also been very difficult to post photos here as the interet is often finicky and uploading is not always possible.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Good Morning Vietnam!

Up Before Dawn

Nha Trang at 5:30 am on Independence weekend.

Many mornings this past month, I'd wake up all groggy at 8 am and wander down the stairs to the kitchen for breakfast. The usual greeting at that hour is "chao buoi sang," but for me it'd be a nice warm "LAM BIEN!" ("Lazy!"). I woudn't think getting up at such an early hour would cast me as such, but apparently in Vietnam it does.

I used to think my dad would have the world record as an early riser as he's often up before 6, but in Vietnam he wouldn't even be in contention for a medal. Many nights I wake up at 3 am and see a small figure creep past my bed and out to the porch outside my room. "What on earth is she doing up at this hour?" I ponder for a moment, before my thoughts fade back into dreams. I now know that the small figure is Tim Phong, my host mother, getting ready to play badminton with her friends. It's difficult for me to fathom anyone getting up at 3 for the purpose of recreation.

Early morning Tai Chi on the boardwalk in Nha Trang.

3 hours later...

As I stir in bed, my sleep-crusted eyes make out a new silloette through the frosted window. This time it's Chu Phong bobbing up and down doing the oddest of exercises. For the next twenty minutes I watch him do a routine that combines lifting dumbells with high-speed waddling. I personally find doing laps around a gymnasium to be monotonous, but he amazingly does his running everyday on a porch that's only ten feet long!

My host brother, Anh Tien (left), and family celebrating his 24th birthday.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Good Morning Vietnam!

Taxi Seizure?

A month ago, I experienced a taxi tantrum. But this month, I have managed to experience another taxi adventure--a complete shutdown of the motortaxi driver's brain.

As usual, I made eye contact with a motortaxi driver and made my way across the street to him. As usual, I gave him the directions to where I wanted to go and climbed on the back. But moments later, the most unusual occured. When the driver put the bike in gear, he should have slowly edged his way across the large sidewalk to the street. But instead of aiming for any one of the many large gaps between the trees and poles that lined the street, he veered the wheel straight for a space that was no more than half a meter wide. "You aren't going to try to squeeze us through there, are...?" Before I could even finish the thought, the fellow gunned the throttle and sped us both directly toward a cement telephone pole. "Whoa nelly!" I yelped in my head, "Hit the brake!"

Nope, too late. We barreled into the pole centered slightly to our left. Fortunately for me, I was able to hop off the back of the bike as soon as we made contact. But the old fellow was not so fortunate. I looked on in shock as he ground his head straight into the pole. To make matters worse, instead of braking upon contact, he continued pushing on the throttle. The bike and driver slowly grated themselves across the pole and into the street where the two eventually fell over.

When the driver stood up and picked up the bike, I could see the paint on the front of the bike had been scraped off and the driver's head was bleeding slightly. He appeared to be somewhere in between a daze and unconsciousness. I was wondering how else we could have hit the pole. It had been like aiming for space and hitting the moon.

I kindly gestured that I was going to take a different driver, hoping that he would be understanding as to why. Afterall, how could I trust this guy to take me all the way to District 7 when we couldn't even make it off the sidewalk?

Highlights of the Month

I have work at an English School! For the past year, I had been looking for a consistent job and it appears that I've finally found one! I've been

Teaching an English class at VUS school in District 5
teaching now for a few weeks and the classes are great. Most of my students are between nine and twelve-years-old, but I have one class with five and six-year-olds. The younger children know no English at all, so it is exciting to watch their progress!

I'm also looking to teach classes through a University here. Teaching University students would not only give me additional experience from teaching young adults, but it would provide me with a wonderful opportunity to make Vietnamese friends who are my age.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Good Morning Vietnam!

Taxi Tantrum

By noon on Friday February 17, 2006, Jon Fortune and I had finished our first job interview at an English School in District 3. We staggered out into the blazing noon-day sun and hailed a cab. Eager for business from a couple of well-dressed Westerners, the driver patiently waited for us to make our way across the street—quite an experience for visitors to this city. Here the traffic laws are suggestions at best and the only way to cross the street is to take that first step. I paused on the curb for a moment to muster up courage and say a quick prayer before venturing out. "Well, here I go," I thought to myself as I stepped, still praying. Whizzing around us on both sides were bicycles, a handful of cars, and a bizzillion motorbikes some dodging us by less than a meter. I breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the other side, but it would turn out later that crossing the street was the least of our troubles.

I opened the door of the cab and tried to negotiate a price in Vietnamese, but having only been in the country for a day, the few words I could

Across the street from our house in District 10, Ho Chi Minh City.

mumble were about as intelligible as the speech of a one-year-old. “How much?” we finally asked in English. “Wan hunded tausend dong,” he said, clearly trying to shoot the moon. Since 100,000 VND is equivalent to about $7 USD and was about four to five times the price that we had paid to get there from our home in District 10, we naturally replied, “No way!” Jon and I eventually agreed to go by the meter, understanding that we would have him stop immediately if he pulled any monkey business.

We sped away and for the first five minutes the meter remained unchanged at 14,000 dong. Following the meter with one eye and the road with the other, I started to wonder to myself what this guy might be up to. Every taxi meter I had ever seen till then started climbing right from the get go. “Maybe it's broken,” I thought. “If it is, I wonder what he'll try to charge us.” A few moments later, the meter started to move—and very fast. 15,500, 17,000, 18,500, 20,000! Every few seconds the meter jumped to a new price. I glanced over at Jon only to see his face painted with uncertainty about what to do next. “Pull over,” I said firmly. “The meter is fixed,” Jon gestured with his hand.

When we stopped, the driver shamelessly played dumb, even refusing to perform the standard procedure of stopping the meter. By the time I had stepped onto the curb, the fare had soared to 26,000 dong and we hadn't even left District 3! “Ridiculous!” I muttered to myself angrily, wondering if I even owed two pennies to this swindler. I had been in a similar situation some years before in Peru where a driver threatened to leave my sister and me in the middle of a desert if I didn’t pay for gas and double the fare that we had agreed to. I had slithered my way out of that situation with patience and tact, but I also had spoken the language. This situation was different.

I knew that the best thing to do would be to pay an acceptable fare for Jon and I and walk away quickly without giving him a chance to rant. He might follow us for a couple of blocks, but would probably give up before long. As I started to walk away, I peered into the back of the cab only to see Jon sitting there frozen. “Get out! Let’s go!” I beckoned, not getting a response. Jon paid 24,000 VND, far more than the ride had been worth and no more than the fare would have been if the driver had stopped the meter, but it was to no avail. This guy was bent on getting everything he could. I started to walk around the corner, hoping Jon would follow, but by this time the driver had gotten out of the cab and a crowd started to form.

I wasn’t going to leave my friend alone, so I quickly tried to think of a way to extricate us both from the brewing situation. By now, the driver's

My friend Jon Fortune after a big meal with our host parents Mr. and Mrs. Phong.
hand was firmly latched onto Jon’s satchel and he was sputtering away, presumably about how we were taking advantage of him. It didn’t matter; the crowd wouldn’t understand our rebuttal.

In a quick attempt to end this fiasco, I reached into my pocket for what I thought was a lone 10,000 dong bill. I would give it to him and he’d give me the change, right? So I hoped. But to my dismay, the bill I pulled from my pocket was not the red, wrinkled bill I had thought I was reaching for. Instead, the bill I pulled out was a crisp, green 100,000 DONGER!! Stares from all directions suddenly fixed on my pocket. I realized that I had made a bad mistake. I was now surrounded and the greed of this crowd was tangible.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a police officer seated on a motorbike among the crowd, so I calmly tried to demonstrate that I simply wanted change. I really hadn't wanted to involve the police, but this officer appeared to be of a low ranking and I was running out of options. Before I had even finished a sentence, he demanded that I give this driver the money—no change. “No change!” I stammered.

At this point, I concluded that the only way out was to bolt for it. Thankfully, Jon had already rounded the corner, so it was just up to me to make my way out of there. I inched my way back a few feet and began to walk away at a brisk pace. I had almost made it to the corner when I felt a hard yank on my backpack. I turned around to see the driver gripping an open pocket desperately trying to keep me from getting away. “What now,” I thought, wanting to give this guy a good slap on the hand or the face. Reason told me that wasn’t a good idea, so I resorted to a more subtle tactic. Using my nails, I gradually applied pressure to his hand, hoping he might let go. I feared the use of any more force might send this already feisty crowd into an uproar. At last, in one swift jerk, I pulled the bag free from his grip and hurried around the corner and away. “Whew!” I said under my breath. “Thank God.”

Soon I caught up with Jon and we traversed the street together. Every few steps, one of us would look back to make sure the driver hadn’t followed us or dialed a few cronies. We pressed on for a while and didn’t stop to rest until we felt like we had built a safe lead. Minutes later, I stood on a corner and gathered myself slowly, still trying to shake off what had just happened. We had to find out where we were. Wiping the perspiration from my forehead, I lifted my gaze slowly to a tall red building just up the street. It was the school we had just come from. Not only had this guy ripped us off, he had been driving us in circles.

Needless to say, Jon and I have since resorted to taking motorcycle taxis and we’ve also learned how to say some numbers in Vietnamese. We haven’t had any problems since, but it was a good lesson learned. Overall, the people here have been quite nice, however, it will be a long time before I forget what happened that day.

Standing on the corner, I started to take in what all had occured. “This could be a long year here,” I laughed to myself. “Welcome to Vietnam.”