Friday, March 14, 2008


(PICTURE: Behind these guys were 1,000 more people on bikes. Better pictures next week when my camera battery isn't dead)

After six weeks of backpacking, and twenty years of having an unexplainable obsession with the country, I've finally stepped foot in Vietnam--and I already love it! I have a countless amount of first impressions which I'll try and quickly rattle off since I've got to go catch a bus to Cambodia (Yes, I'm already leaving the country). So, here's my quick list:

1. #1 isn't about the country but about my Vietnamese best friend Hien. She's amazing. She was waiting at the arrival exit with a 8x10 welcome sign for me. She choose a strong font with a nice backdrop shading which really showed she put some thought into it. We gave each other a big hug and I quickly realized that I was going to feel quite tall in this country--she came up to about the start of my totally awesome, perfectly crafted pectoral muscles. Hien told me that for now on she was going to walk on the sidewalk and I was going to walk on the street to give her a few more inches. However, there's no freaking way I'm walking on the street! Thus point #2...

2. Every person I told that I was going to Vietnam warned me that crossing the street was absolute madness. Jeff Aidekman, hearts player extraordinare, was the first person to give me the tip: "Don't hesitate."  Well, the warnings about the traffic were not exaggerated. In fact, you can't exaggerate what it is like to cross the street. There are literally hundreds of motorbikes flying down the street at you at any given time. They form what appears to be an impenetrable wall. But they aren't just on the street, sometimes they are flying at you on the sidewalk. And they aren't necessarily going in the right direction. I was on a one way street and was nearly run over by a family of four zooming against traffic. It's crazy! I mean IT IS CRAZY! I can't stop giggling every time I need to get from one side of the street to another. It must be some weird psychological defense that has come loose inside of me.  Ryan, the other student taking the TEFL course, said it best, "You have to throw away everything you were taught as a kid when crossing the street in order to make it here." He also added, "Just don't look when you cross the street and you'll be fine." 

3. The food is amazing. Hien has promised to look out for my demanding stomach and has taken the responsibility of making sure I'm well fed. We had lunch and dinner with Languagecorps students and alumni and each time the table was covered with produce that could not have been plucked from the ground more than twelve hours earlier, fish that must have been reeled in that day, and pork that...well, I can't vouch for the pork. 

4. I'm going to become a coffee drinker. Yup, you read that right. I'm into coffee now. I'm survived twenty four years without the brewed bean but times are changing. Hien introduced me to Vietnamese coffee and it is awesome. Basically they take condensed milk and combine it with pure coffee that was poured out of what appeared to be an old coke bottle. They put the whole thing over ice and then charge you a whopping thirty cents. It's the sweetest drink I've ever had and definitely packs a punch. After barely sleeping for a few days it gave me the energy I needed to make it through the afternoon. So in conclusion for #4, an addict has been born. 

5. Ryan and I visited the War Remnants Museum formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes. The images and exhibition were extremely disturbing. I opened up a sign in book that had people's impressions in it. Most people complained that the museum was one-sided. I mean, what did they expect from a place formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes. Even if it is one-sided that doesn't take away from the fact that our country did a lot of bad things in a war that shouldn't have been fought. Walking along the halls one couldn't help think how history was repeating itself in Iraq--how thousands upon thousand upon millions and millions of innocent civilians are affected by war; and specifically wars that should not have been fought. 

6. On a more light hearted note, after not seeing any bugs in China, I'm sitting here with at least three aunts crawling on me. 

7. It's hot as hell here. This means my Gold Bond rations may have to be increased. 

8. Hien is amazing. Did I mention that? She insisted on doing my laundry! 

9. There are lots of creepy old white guys, usually sporting mustaches, walking around this city with young Vietnamese girlfriends. 

10. Despite the American dollar taking a nose dive, this place is cheap! I only had about $20 coming in and told Hien I needed an ATM. She said, "oh, that should last you about two weeks." Even if it lasts me a week I figure I can now live here for four years without ever taking a job. Sorry, Mom and Dad. 

Finally, a very special thanks to my editor, Hannah. Thanks for posting all my blogs the last couple of weeks. Rest assured that there will be plenty of other times I'm gonna need you to post again. i.e. the next ten days. 

Okay, I have to run to get the bus. We're headed to Cambodia to meet up with the new students from Languagecorps Thailand and Cambodia. We're doing two weeks of teacher training and taking a three day field trip to Angkor Wat. It should all be amazing.


For the first time in my six weeks of traveling, I'm leaving a city feeling like there was more to see. Hong Kong had me running around from early morning to late at night every day. Yesterday, along with my new German buddy (first impressions aren't always right. Reiner turned out to be a pretty good guy and actually hadn't left me the morning of the hike. He had gone to do laundry and when he returned I had already left) and a new friend from Ireland named Olive. I had come up with an itinerary for the day that included going to Lantau Island to see the world's largest Buddha, then to take a stroll on a Buddhist wisdom path, eat lunch in a monastery, and then visit Tai-O, an old school fishing village.

When we got to Lantau we took the most traditional form of transportation -- a cable car to the Big Buddha. From quite a distance away we could see the resting bronze statue overlooking the mountains. The title didn't lie. He was big. He was huge. However, there is still one bigger Bud. Yup, you got it—Buddy August. I mean sure the Buddha probably weighs a few hundred more tons than my Dad and might be a few stories taller but when was the last time Buddha was elected to town council? Buddy August 1, Buddha 0.

The walk along the wisdom path taught me many important life lessons. Despite not being able to read Sanskrit, I felt that through osmosis knowledge was flooding into my brain. These were the pillars of the ancients. Words that have inspired monks to strive for purity and divinity their whole lifetimes. Sayings and mantras that couldn't be simply learned by opening a fortune cookie or flipping over a Snapple bottle. These were sayings passed down from generation to generation. Well, that's what I thought until I read the plaque that the wisdom path had been constructed three years ago. Still, I'm sure the rest of that is true. It's not like they built the path to attract tourists. It's not like they'd put aside their morals for modern commercialism. It's not like they'd open up a Starbucks at the base of the Big Buddha…Oh wait, they did. As amazing as the sites at the Big Buddha are, something just felt tainted knowing I could stroll two minutes away and order a tall iced latte.

As far as the lunch at the monastery--worst meal in China. The food was edible but I had envisioned monks feeding me, or at least chowing down next to me. Instead Olive, Reiner and I found ourselves sitting in a cafeteria next door to the monastery being served by a woman who was definitely in the early stages of a severe cold.

Throughout the day Reiner kept referring to me as "Mr. Tour Guide" and "Big Brother." I think the Big Brother reference wasn't Orwellian but rather that I was looking after him and Olive with my well-structured itinerary. After lunch we headed to Tai-O, which was worth the side trip. The small town consists of a street market and houses built on stilts above the water. Olive and I walked around as Reiner took a twenty-five minute boat ride to go see dolphins—a trip that proved fruitless. After strolling the streets and buying some funnel-cake like street food we headed back to our hostel.

As I said in the opening paragraph, there were a lot of things I didn't get to do in Hong Kong. For one, I didn't do the #1 tourist stop, which is a tram ride up to "the peak." It's like it sounds, a high point where you can get a three hundred and sixty degree view of the city. I wanted to take the trip but kept pushing it off. Last night as I rushed through my final Chinese meal I debated on taking the last tram up…but then started to fall asleep at dinner. As they say during Passover, "Next year at the peak."

That said, Hong Kong is amazing but definitely not one of my favorite cities I've visited on this trip. Right now I'm in the mindset of looking for things that are totally different than what I'm used to. Hong Kong feels western. It feels like NYC with a lot more neon signs.

Today I'm flying into Vietnam for just twenty-four hours before headed to Cambodia for ten days. Here I come 'Nam!!!