Monday, June 27, 2011

Recap of Week One in Quang Tri

Is it sad that I've only written three blog posts in the two weeks I've been in Vietnam thus far?

We just started our second week in Quang Tri today, and our construction projects have been going smoothly. Our group is split into two teams, which we affectionately call the Restroom Team and the Parking Team. As you might be able to guess, one team is in charge of building a restroom for an elementary school, while the team I belong to is constructing a parking lot for the youth center. It's kind of cute, actually -- when we went out for karaoke Friday night, singing as we walked down the main street in the town, I felt like I was in a Quang Tri rendition of West Side Story, except our "gang" names are much cooler than ones like the Jets and the Sharks.

Jokes aside, construction is quite a challenge. Breakfast is served at 5 am, and we are required to bike to the construction site and start working by 6 am. We work until a little after 10 am, and then we rest and have lunch (and nap, if we're lucky) until 2 pm, when we have to be at the Youth Center to teach English until 4 pm. Dinner is served at 6 pm, and usually at night we have meetings about teaching plans and construction progress. Oh, and at some point during the day we find time to wash our clothes by hand.

But all in all, the work here is very rewarding. I am quite optimistic that I will slim down enough to look decent in an Ao Dai (traditional Vietnamese dress) by the time our time in Quang Tri is over.

The last two posts have been inexorbitantly long, so I think I'll write separate posts about some of the interesting stories that have happened here in the past week. Toodles.

Friday, June 17, 2011

5 Things to Know About Vietnam

[Day 7]
[Location: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)]

First off, my apologies for being such an inconsistent blogger. Despite the fact that I am getting at least seven hours of sleep each day here, I am still ready to keel over and crash onto the bed by around 10 pm. Consequently, whatever free time I've been able to enjoy thus far has mainly been spent towards napping and sleeping.

To make up for the lack of updates, and since I enjoy making lists, I now present to you Five Things to Know about Vietnam:

1. Vietnamese Time = "ish"
Alyce, our super awesome and smiley on-site coordinator, informed us on the first day that the Vietnamese culture tends to have a more flexible attitude toward arranged meeting times. That is, if you arrange to meet with someone at 6 pm, your buddy probably won't show up until half an hour later. We actually watched a documentary about a Vietnam/US theater troupe collaboration that touched on this idea. The analogy someone used in the film is that the Vietnamese are like a soccer player who adjusts the play to his opponent; the idea of scripting the game move by move to be ridiculous. Flexibility is key.

Allison and I suspect we must have been secretly born Vietnamese. Unlike many of the other people in our group who have been getting up naturally at 5 or  6 am, we got over the jet lag very quickly. Excluding the first day, we have been getting up at 7:40 am every morning and barely making it to our 8 am Vietnamese class. Obviously, this will have to change once we start getting up at 4 am for our construction projects in Quang Tri this Monday.

2. One Day's Worth of Food in Saigon < 10.00 US Dollars
Other than the discovery that exchanging 100 US dollars made me an instant millionaire in Vietnam, this is probably the most mind-numbing thing for me thus far. Not only is the food here divine, it is amazingly inexpensive. Street food will usually cost no more than two US dollars. For instance, yesterday I spent approximately 50 cents on steamed pork buns for lunch, and that was 25 cents more than I intended only because I accidentally dropped an entire bun on the ground and had to buy another one.

Although I'm not as "culturally-shocked" here as some of my peers might be -- (my Taiwanese heritage has quite a few overlaps with the Vietnamese culture) -- there are still many Vietnamese dishes that blow my mind. Furthermore, I am becoming addicted to the sinh to (fruit smoothies) here, which you can find almost everywhere in all sorts of flavors. It doesn't help that they cost me about 75 cents each for one. You can't even buy a bottle of water in the States for that sort of price.

3. Turn Your Haggle On.
Even if you're a foreigner with limited grasp of the Vietnamese language, you must haggle for your dignity's sake. Unless, of course, you're perfectly fine with being majorly gypped. Your dignity might appreciate some effort though.

It's not as bad as it sounds. In the wise words of Alyce, "If you're a foreigner and you can speak some Vietnamese, you're pretty much a hotshot." The saleswoman will laugh along, probably because you used the wrong tones and said something horribly atrocious instead, but at the end of the day if you're good-humored about the whole business, they will most likely lower the price for you if you ask reasonably. It's probably in exchange for the great source of entertainment you just provided for them. But really, the Vietnamese are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet.

4. Do Not Stop or You Will be Roadkill.
When we visited the US Consulate this afternoon, one of the officers told us that each morning she asks the taxi driver to drop her off on the other side of the street so that she has to cross through Saigon traffic. It wakes her up every time.

The trick is, when the swarm of motorbikes and cars dissipates somewhat before the next wave of vehicles, you start walking across the street like the Emperor marching around in his New Clothes. Even though you probably feel just as naked walking straight into incoming traffic, you must show no sign of fear. Motor bikes yield to you, not the other way around (though cars might be a different story).

And whatever you do, you must not stop. Imagine yourself driving your car back at home when a deer walks onto the road and freezes at the sight of your approaching headlights. Same idea.

5. Hello just might be the hardest word.
Unlike the States where asking one's age is a taboo topic akin to asking one's one weight or salary, in Vietnam it is one of the first questions you ask a new acquaintance. Instead of our English pronouns for you/me that make no distinction for gender or age, simply saying "Hello" to someone in Vietnamese will cause your brain to do all sorts of calisthenics.

Here is a typical example of the thought process. Let's say you go to a restaurant and a waitress greets you. You're about to say Chao... but then you stop. Are you supposed to call her chi ("older sister")? Co (younger aunt)? Bac (around your mom's age)? You take a better look at her, but you can't tell how old she is -- even I will admit that Asians often look younger than they actually are. Should you play it safe and call her chi? But since age is revered in this Confucian society, will she be offended if you refer to her with a younger term?

By then, you've probably given up and just smile and nod dumbly as best you can. Nevertheless, the food will be delicious, and when you're done, you can simply say Cam on (thank you) without necessarily going through the same hassle.

Tomorrow morning at 5 am, we depart for Quang Tri. Internet access may be limited, but considering my blogging patterns thus far, we shall see what sort of impact this may have.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Arrival in HCMC

[Day 1]
[Location: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)]

Hello everyone -- Xuan has given me the honor of writing the first post for this blog. At the moment, it is right around the time when the Vietnamese avoid the hottest part of the day by taking naps, but jet lag is really messing around with my circadian rhythm, and somehow I'm still managing to operate on last night's four hours of sleep.

I flew into Ho Chi Minh City from San Francisco, with a transfer in Seoul, Korea. In total, I sat on a plane for about 17.5 hours and went delirious from watching three movies in a row. Surprisingly, the flight attendants on Asiana Airlines mistook me for being Korean, and so there were several instances where I would have to guess what they were asking me. It's kind of funny -- in comparison to all the flight attendants with their pale, flawless skin, I tan easily and will probably be quite their opposite by the time I depart for my return flight in August.

Our intensive Vietnamese classes do not start until Monday, so for now our group has been given plenty of time to relax and recover from jet lag. We are currently staying in guesthouses across the street from HTV in Ho Chi Minh City.

So far, the biggest problem my roommate Allison and I are facing is the family of cockroaches that continue to pop up in our bathroom without warning. To get a sense of our situation, imagine spending a whole day out in the city and returning back to your room intending to wash off of the grime and sweat, except you can't even enjoy properly this shower because you are paranoid that some six-legged peeping tom is going to lunge out at you in your most vulnerable state. For some reasons, the cockroaches don't seem to visit anyone else except us. I guess it's just our charm.

Despite the cockroaches, the guesthouse is pretty nice. All the rooms are air-conditioned, and we figured out how to use the wifi here. Moreover, it really is conveniently located, because everything we'd need is within a ten minute walk away. We had brunch at a noodle shop on a nearby street called 18A, where there are a lot of food stands and restaurants. I have had pho back in the States, but the pho there can hardly compare to what we had here. Unlike the powdered broth they use in the US restaurants, here the broth is cooked overnight.

Tomorrow is our last free day, since Vietnamese classes start on Monday. I actually can't wait to start learning some of the language. When we went to Ben Thanh Market this afternoon, we stopped by a smoothie stand and the only way I could communicate was by pointing at pictures. Body language is useful and all, but not exactly the most effective way of communicating. Our plans for tomorrow are still up in the air, so we'll see what happens then!