Thailand: The Beginning

Traveling, much like lack of sleep, can do wild things to the mind. Even the most balanced and kempt person can find themselves altered by this crazy thing we call "travel." Between culture, jet lag, uncertainty, and the nomadic, hermit-crab lifestyle one finds themselves falling into while traveling; the mind goes through a vigorous test of character. When it all comes to a close and you find yourself understanding what the word "structure" means again, that is when all of the highs and lows come together as the glue to bind together an experience that stays with you wherever the rest of your life takes you.

Now that my somewhat sappy, philosophical ramble is out of the way, let's talk about why this blog is here. Emily and I wanted to keep an online account of our travels through Thailand, Southeast Asia, and wherever else we end up. This whole trip stemmed from the curiosity of teaching abroad and the urge to see a part of the world that is in a way, on the other end of the spectrum from Western Culture.

After taking a 13-week, online course, coupled with a 20+ hour teaching practicum, we received our TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certificates. Our college degrees in conjunction with these certificates give us the appropriate credentials to teach English in a foreign country in virtually any teaching category: Public, Private, Corporate, Language Schools, International Schools, Private Tutor, etc.

Having heard many great things about the country, we booked two one-way-tickets to Bangkok, Thailand for February 25, 2012. With the flight booked, the only thing we had planned was a two-night stay at a hotel close to the airport to figure out a slight plan for our holiday before we began to work. After a 17-hour flight to Shanghai, a 3-hour layover, and a 4 hour flight to Bangkok, we found ourselves through customs and on the Bangkok pavement at 3:45am on February 27th (2 days later for you non-Mathletes). This is when the adventure begins...

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Nha Trang, Vietnam: Adventures with Khanh and Elvin

A pack of Craven A’s sits on the tiny table in front of us, surrounded by a group of robust, aromatic Vietnamese Coffees, which stood next to their respective iced green tea partners. We all sit pensively, sipping our coffees and staring out into the Rung Duoc Bay at the sporadic marine activity. The group of Thai men sitting next to us are playing a competitive game of cards – a scene that we are specifically instructed to politely ignore – while the small alleyway that surrounds us provides for a popular means of transportation for many townspeople. At first glance, the skinny pathway seems to serve only as a tranquil, one-way route, but you’d be surprised at the abundance of traffic and the sharp shrills of motorbike horns that fill the area. Constant commotion has become a common nuance to my ears, but this is a rare occasion where these sounds work surprisingly well with the bay and the company that surrounds me. At this time, I have nothing on my mind except what lies right in front of me and all I can do is sit back in my tiny, plastic chair and smirk. Slowly, the smirk hoards my expression, leaving no trace of anything, but sheer satisfaction.

Khanh's vintage Nikon
Iced Java; Iced Green
To our best friends in Nha Trang, thank you for an awesome experience.
            Stiffly stepping down the large, awkwardly-spaced-steps, reiterates the notion that uncomfortable night buses are something I will never get used to. Unlike Thai sleeper buses, the Vietnam version gives you a bed to sleep in, but unless you take on the stature of an oversized child, you may have to adjust your sleeping positions once or twice throughout the night. It is also very important to note that the style of driving is quite different from virtually anywhere else in the world. You may find yourself slowly slip-siding away off into a fantasy-land of dreams. Maybe you’re spending a romantic evening in the Hollywood Hills with Brad Pitt, sipping on wine as he woos you with his handsome features and his boyish attempts at reviving chivalry; it’s even possible that a fire-breathing dragon has kidnapped your loved ones, and justice can only be achieved by slaying the ungodly beast yourself. Right as things start getting good in your dream world – SMACK! – your limp body smashes up against the window as the driver wildly swerves into the other lane, narrowly avoiding a catastrophe. It is near impossible to get a decent night’s sleep when traveling on these overnight buses, but at least they get you where you need to go!

I'm excited because I just got on the bus :)
Top-Bunk is not as cool in motion as it is on land
Emilonious Robinsonious: The Weary, yet Graceful Traveller
            I have to personally thank the group of Vietnamese kids who swam with us on our first day in Nha Trang; if it weren’t for them, we would have been very close to packing up and heading out to our next destination the following day. You see, many places on the Southeast Asia travel circuit have become fallen prey to corporate bullies. These bullies come into pristine, aesthetically mind-warping locations and decide to lay their heads down for the long term. In these places, tourism, although great for the region’s economy, hogs the overall physique and personality of the destination. So, I found myself walking around Nha Trang getting pestered by tour salesmen, bombarded by over-priced restaurant owners, and staring up at a colossal Sheraton. Meanwhile, every food stand in this area selling authentic Vietnamese cuisine was virtually abandoned. Yes, everybody needs to make a living somehow, but it is disheartening when it is at the expense of a culture of people. A bit discouraged, Emily and I decided it was time for a refreshing dip in the waters of the South China Sea – which if you refer to the beginning of this paragraph, was the wisest of choices.

            As we were doggy-paddling around, winding down from the sleepless night and the painful sights of foreigners outweighing the Vietnamese population, we were happy to find a group of Vietnamese boys cheekily swimming closer to us. Intrigued by what appeared to be a white woman in a bikini and an overly skinny, miniature King Kong, they decided to engage. Instead of wasting time attempting meaningless conversation, they decided to show us a trick – a trick that consisted of them sprinting from about 20 feet out on the beach into the water, ending with a precarious, yet impressive flip into the oncoming waves. With these stunning flips, the boys inadvertently entered us into a trick competition. To counter, I decided to go with the Westernly cliché “handstand,” swaying my feet forward and back to jazz up my maneuver a bit. Emily, my partner in crime, decided to go with the “underwater somersault;” some would say this move is also cliché, but when you pull off 7-flips without coming up for air, you impress not only your foreign audience, but the remaining onlookers as well.

            The tricks from both parties loosened things up a bit – we were basically best friends at this point. Competing against each other eventually lost its excitement – now that we were friends and all – so that evolved into a session of friendly swim races. Then once they figured out that compared to their Vietnamese kin, I was practically the tallest man in the world, naturally it was time to see who I could launch into the air the highest. They took turns standing on my shoulders as I elevated my thumbs out of the water for balance and support. With a quick count of 3; 2; 1, I stood up quickly and instantly they were soaring high in the sky, flailing their arms and legs before splashing down into the choppy, blue sea. Although a majority of the jumps were impressive, I was informed that one boy managed a back-flip, which ended up winning the gold medal for the day.

There really is nothing like a little friendly competition against the younger generation. It was also a great reminder about how there will be annoying, plastic people wherever you go, but a majority of people are awesome. To support this claim, on our walk back to our hotel, we were directed to a local area by some random motorbike driver. He asked us if we were lost, and after expressing our somewhat urgent interest to get as far away from this tourist time-lapse as possible, he told us about a great “Bia Hoi” joint a kilometer or so away. Bia Hoi is a local, draft beer, brewed daily in Vietnam. It is a very cheap, light lager, with a low alcohol content (3-4 percent) and no preservatives, making it incredibly important to consume the batch as quickly as possible to ensure freshness. These Bia Hoi establishments can be found scattered all over Vietnam, usually located in local areas. They typically are restaurants that serve local food and therefore attract a local crowd, creating an incredible people-watching atmosphere. The Vietnamese men love to party and will often hang out at these places for hours, resulting in an eatery filled with chain-smoking, beer swilling Vietnamese men, rambling on about who knows what. Talk about an amazing place to be.

For us, it was a little early to get the drinking underway, so we settled for another phenomenal Vietnamese pastime: drinking coffee. Since cafes in Vietnam are comparable in abundance to Starbucks in New York City (although the coffee experience is nothing alike), it is always important to find a coffee shop that is comfortable for you. In this particular day’s case, we stumbled upon a cool, little art café named “Let it Be Café.” Inside, on the wall behind the cash register, lay the lyrics to Paul McCartney’s, “Let it Be,” swiftly painted in cursive. The walls that surround are blotted with various paintings of influential classic rock artists and works, including a portrait of Jimi Hendrix, and the screaming face from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” All of the work is creatively canvassed on the walls of the café, the bricks on the outside section, and the glass on the windows and doors, making for a chilled-out environment to relax while buzzing on a strong cup of filtered, robust java.

Let it Be!
Pink Floyd's "The Wall"
Johnny L

We spent many hours here. If you make it to Nha Trang, Vietnam, you should too!
It wasn’t until we politely told the waitress at the café that she had not misunderstood – we did indeed take our coffee black – that we met Khanh. Evidently impressed with our tolerance for the bold beverage, he came over and began to chat with us. The conversation was comprised of two main elements: Simplicity and Awesomeness. There was no need to fill the conversation with anything mundane or unnecessary – it seemed as if we had already met before and got the whole friendship thing underway. We talked about music, photography, and Vietnam. Since Em and I thoroughly enjoyed cool art; good music; Vietnam; and clearly, strong coffee, it appeared as if we were all destined to be pals. As these thoughts were perusing through my caffeine-filled brain, Khanh asked us if we would like to go “take pictures” with him the following day. Without hesitation, or eye contact between the two of us, we called out, “Yes,” in unison. 

We arrived at the café the following morning at 8:30 AM sharp; it was not an option to show up late to our date with Khanh. Not only did we have to make sure we were on time for our Khanh date, I had to personally make sure I got us there alive. It was the first time I had operated a motorbike in Vietnam and anyone who has seen how the Vietnamese traffic system works will understand it can be a bit unnerving to say the least. From a distance, pandemonium is an accurate word to describe it – it’s a circus. A road with two lanes is crammed with anywhere from 4 to 7 motorbikes all the way across. There are horns honking constantly, people walking across the street paying no mind to the oncoming freak-show, and motorbikes stacked with items making them off-balance and too wide for the road – anything from refrigerators, to cases upon cases of beer, to crates of livestock, to piles of firewood towering over their heads. A bit shaky, but determined, we set out into the concrete jungle.

As I pulled out into the road, I began to realize there was indeed a method behind all of the madness that I saw as a common bystander. It looks like utter chaos, yet when you become a part of it, oddly there is a cadence and harmony to it. Once you find a comfortable speed the rules become quite simple: just drive. Be aware of what and who is around you and only stop if you really need to. Once I slowly realized all of this inside my feeble head, driving a motorbike in Vietnam turned from frantic to fun.

It was a good thing I took to the motorbike quickly because there was no time for a tutorial in Khan’s schedule. After accidentally sleeping in, Khanh and his friend Elvin showed up for our tour around Nha Trang. Friends since they were 12, Elvin and Khanh had an interesting dynamic; Elvin was a bit more vocal than Khanh, but seemed to divert as much attention as he could to his life-long friend. Back in the early years of their friendship, days were spent scouring the land of Nha Trang and scaling mango trees. As they’ve grown older, their knack for adventure still thrives as we drive around the city and watch as they point out fun facts we should take note about.

What a great day it was. We followed Khelvin (Khanh and Elvin) around on their vintage Honda and explored the vast farmland that surrounds Nha Trang. Outside of the Sheratons and nightclub scene lies a virtually unaltered Nha Trang with villagers living their day-to-day lives simply and unfazed. In their world, dinner will not be on the table unless the rice crops are harvested and fish are caught. Everybody has a job whether it’s tending to the farmland, preparing traps for the fish farms, crocheting clothes, or even building something. It’s fascinating – coming from a material culture – to see the happiness and sustainability of a culture that strives on simplicity.

Kanh's bike
Cow's love puddles
She was very nice and became our best cow friend we've ever met

Check out his big catch on that styrofoam boat he paddled in on
We spent our lunchtime snapping photos, drinking tea, and eating at this nearly indescribable establishment. We walked into the main kitchen area where the proprietary family was going through the motions of their daily lives. The matriarch was caring for their newborn baby, the patriarch was scaling and preparing freshly caught fish from the pond the restaurant stood upon, and the various siblings and cousins were running the “customer service” end of the restaurant. The area was unique, in that it consisted of various bridges and bamboo islands that served as the dining areas for the customers. Each island was in an octagonal shape, well equipped with a chalkboard menu and bamboo matting strewn across the floor for a comfortable dining experience. We spent our time there chatting about Vietnamese and American cultural differences and taking in the awe-inspiring beauty that surrounded us. For lunch, we had a fresh serving (caught from the waters that our bamboo island stood on) of “Jah Kah” with “Mom” Sauce (please keep any snide remarks to yourself). They prepare Cha Ca by mincing up a heaping pile of fish, then pan-frying it into a patty-like form, and then slice it up into bite size pieces. The Mom Sauce was a sweet and satisfying version of fish sauce with sugar. Although it looks a bit odd – taking on an intimidating spongy texture – Cha Ca was a brilliant snack to pair along with our time on the bamboo island.

Khanh (Left) and Elvin (Right)

Our shared Cha Ca
Not a bad spot to eat some lunch

After a bumpy exit, our tires spun their way across the dusty trails leading back to the main road. I alternated my attention from the road to the stunning landscape around me and constantly found myself lost in the moment. Throughout my travels, the people I meet and the culture I encounter have always been the most exciting thing for me. As we pulled to a stop at a railroad crossing, I found myself enclosed by motorbikes. Male riders, female riders, and full families were all waiting along with me as the train was passing by. Throughout the loud clamor of the train against the tracks, it turned into a momentary social gathering. People were smiling, laughing, and chitchatting in their quick, Vietnamese cadence – with nobody showing any urgency to keep moving. Everyone was satisfied with the moment and in turn, embraced it. At that time, I had nothing on my mind except what was right in front of me and all I could do was sit back on my motorbike and smirk. Slowly, the smirk hoarded my expression, leaving no trace of anything, but sheer satisfaction.

Sample from Khanh's cool photo project

Rice working
Buffalo herding

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Can Tho - The Mekong Delta

After Saigon, we decided to head south a bit to visit the Mekong Delta region, to a town called Can Tho ("Can-Tuh"). Since we live along the Mekong ("May-Kong") River in Tha Bo, it's nice to follow it's path throughout Thailand and beyond to see how life across it's waters flourishes. This was a particularly lively and fascinating segment of the Mekong because of the notorious floating markets that thrive throughout the Delta. 

We took the big, orange Phuong Trang bus to Can Tho, which took about 3-3.5 hours (Phuong Trang, operates with FUTA buslines, is a comfortable, reliable, and efficient bus company that we utilized a lot while getting around in the South of 'Nam - I'd recommend it if you're looking to take some trips down that way!). We booked our hilariously tiny hotel room which fit a bed and just enough space to open the door.

We shoved our bags under the bed and asked around for some information on the best way to explore the morning markets. Our hotel arranged for a couple of motorbikes to come pick the two of us up around 4 am the following morning and drive us down to the pier where a nice woman with a small boat was waiting for us with bananas and baguettes. We had the boat to ourselves, just us and our guide, and our snacks and we set off along the river to watch this outstanding commercial practice in action. 

Breakfast Baguette

River waters get quite muddy in the rainy season

It's way more fun than this picture may seem to indicate
The break of day cruise was cloudy and cool. It is incredible to see how people live in, on, and along the river. Some homes, shops, and restaurants pop up along the riverbanks, while other daringly dart from the shore straight into the river. Our jaws would drop as we drove along looking into homes where the wake of a boat would send rippling waves right through the open back door, sweeping across the exposed, concrete dining room floor, only to ebb back out the same way it came. Then, of course, there were those who lived right on the river itself, converting their commercial market boats to dually serve as their living quarters as well. As we putted along the early morning waters, we watched men emerge groggily from their curtained dwellings, crouch down and grip their toes over the brink where their boats met the misty Mekong air, and brush their teeth - splashing away the foamy lather by reeling up a bucket of the murky river water.

After a short while of observation, soon enough we wound up right in the middle of the morning market. The river deceivingly appeared to narrow as we slipped between the fruit and vegetable vessels that began to gather on either side. Rugged captains toting mounds of either gourds, watermelons, pumpkins, pineapples, papayas, or any other sort of other produce would proudly boast their wares by hoisting a prized sample up their masts. From afar you could spot the salesperson you needed by glancing at their "flag" and float on over to stock up for your restaurant, family, or business. As we gawked at this foreign spectacle, we spotted a zippy little boat which seemed to move at fast-forward speed amidst its larger counterparts. In a split-second this independent and creative vendor spun about in a perfect semi-circle to rest rib-to-rib with our small boat, the charmingly peppy mother/boat-driver and her son, brewing hot coffee for sale, right there in the belly of their boat. 

Watermelon Boat

Boat roof chicken

Not the norm at the market, but he's making it work

Our guide wove us through the market, enjoying the awe with which we regarded what was for her a daily spectacle: simply the way things worked. After leaving the market, we detoured down a smaller segment of the river to a small-scale rice-noodle factory, where we briefly observed the process by which this tasty staple of Vietnamese cuisine is made, but mostly just played with puppies. Then we hopped back on our boat for a tributary escapade through smaller, lesser-traveled channels of the river.

Instead of boats and commerce, we floated alongside jungle-esque greenery and natural solitude. Dodging branches and vines or just letting them brush our shoulders as we passed (or high-fiving them if we crossed them at the proper height), we watched as the sun came out almost as if it had waited all morning for us to get here so that we would not be too distracted by all the other busy happenings in order to appreciate it. The sun had allowed us time to enjoy the market fully in the comfortable cover of the clouds before it finally found us under the verdant roof of river vegetation, blinking through the fingers of the palm leaves, poking holes in the bamboo to spy on us even in the denser regions, and flickering across the meandering waters ahead of us. Admittedly, even with all of these beautiful surroundings, it was hard to stay awake. The warmth from the daylight and the pacified tempo of our boat kept lulling me close to sleep - but I resisted!

Contentedly, we made our sleepy way back to the pier after 4 hours along the rivers of the Mekong Delta. Although it was only 8:30am it felt as though we already had a whole day under our belts -- but we trekked on throughout town to find something to eat, inspired by the idea that within all of these little shops lay ingredients that may have rested on top of a pile on the deck of a boat just before.

**If you are planning on taking a trip to Can Tho to see these famed markets for yourself - I'd recommend making sure to take a small boat run by an independent local, such as the lovely woman in the photo below. We passed a couple of bigger, more touristy boats, but they're large and clunky and impersonal, plus they can't maneuver through the markets as well as a small boat, and wouldn't be able to make it down the smaller canals at all. Some people may stress the importance of "an English speaking guide" but we found that pretty irrelevant and unimportant. Our guide didn't speak English, but was wonderful and kind nonetheless, and we enjoyed ourselves just the same.

Our stay in Can Tho was relatively short, as it was the beginning of our trip and we were excited to start working our way up the country, but we enjoyed our short stay very much. We had some interesting culinary experiences here, and our first taste of Bia Hoi! We inquired at our hotel about some good options for local food. Sometimes this inquiry works out well, and the people you ask may give you their honest personal favorite hot-spots. Other times, they may take one look at you as a foreigner and steer you towards some "safe" spots that they've heard might serve french fries... This time, our accomplice was quite helpful and gave us directions to one of the tastiest places we ate in Vietnam: Babochi! Here they serve something called Bot Chien, which is essentially an open-faced, circular omelette of sorts with scallions and rectangular bits of potato. Before you dig in, make sure to pile on some chopped papaya, ground chili paste, and soy sauce - it is unexpectedly delicious. So that was lunch, and for dinner we went on a search to find a Bia Hoi place.

**Babochi is located on 16/4F Nguyen Viet Hong Street in Can Tho. Go there!

In Vietnam they brew a very light local draft beer daily and distribute it to bars throughout the country; it is incredibly cheap (less than 25 cents per 12 oz glass), has no preservatives and is not regulated by any health agency. We set out to find a place to enjoy a glass with some locals. We stumbled upon a small place near some kind of pond-like region of water - the local watering hole. After we sat down and ordered our first Bia Hoi (which for some reason came out in a ginormous tin vessel), Bob got up to use the bathroom.

One of the men working there led him around the corner to show him the restroom, pointing out his array of animals in the back. Although there was no English spoken between them, Bob showed enthusiasm in his collection of fish and frogs and toads, took some photos, and returned to the table. A little later on we decided to order some snacks -- but we had only been in Vietnam a handful of days, and although I thought I had the main food groups under control...that was really not the case. The man who had escorted Bob to the bathroom enthusiastically pointed to one dish on the menu in which I thought I recognized the word for beef in, so we decided to go with his recommendation. This led to a big pile of fried-something on our table. It was like a fishy kind of chicken with bones all in it, but not small fish bones, bigger. I did not like it. I sat there like a sly, cheeky 6-year-old attempted to finagle the food on the plate into formations that would maybe, by some chance, make it appear as though I had eaten some of it. Bob was more of a trooper and stomached a few pieces before eventually giving up as well. At the end of the meal we walked out back by the animals, and Bob glanced in the tanks, noticing that the toad-tank, which previously held four captive amphibian friends, now contained only three. The man had pointed to the item on the menu most likely because he had misinterpreted Bob's enthusiasm for his "pet" display as a hungry lust for toad. Oops.


Minus One

Equals Three

As we were walking around the following evening looking for a good place to eat, a Vietnamese man stood waiting inside a small food place and called out to us as he noticed us glancing at the words on the wall trying to see if we recognized anything. His English was good and he was very friendly. He very excitedly explained that he had met a med student from Germany the previous week as they were both traveling, and she was bringing her group of friends out to enjoy dinner with him at this restaurant. He was thrilled to invite us to eat with them, so they merged some tables together and the 8 of us foreigners sat down to eat with this kind man (who also lived in Thailand for a few years!), his best friend from growing up, and an older gentleman from town as well. The food was amazing, starting off with Banh Xeo - one of our favorite Vietnamese foods. Banh Xeo is like a thin, crispy, savory, fried "pancake"made from rice batter and stuffed with bean sprouts, green onion, and sometimes dried shrimp. There are many regional variations, but they're all amazing as far as we can tell. After that, they assembled the table for two different Hot Pots. Hot Pot just might be the most loved communal food among the Vietnamese and Thais alike. Basically it is a pot of stock that is brought out to the middle of the table with a flame lit underneath to keep things cooking; the raw noodles, meat, and vegetables are brought out on a platter separately, and you add them yourself, spooning out the cooked goods into your individual bowls. They love it! And it is pretty delicious and fun, so we understand. It was a wonderful way to end our stint in Can Tho, surrounded by good company, enormous quantities of delicious Vietnamese foods, and an overall kindness offered entirely by the desire for all of these people to learn something about different cultures and about one another.

Hot Pot!

Raw Stuff!

Banana sticky rice dessert wad
Popular Chess-like game in Vietnam

Balosca Cafe, just down the street from Babochi - great coffee and tea!
That's all Folks! (Don't worry, she's just sleepy we think)