Saturday, July 31, 2010

Wait In The Shade

Here's a common site in Vietnam:

(PICTURE: Notice how no bikes are stopped in the bright white areas.)

Whenever Vietnamese approach a traffic light, they'll stop wherever there is shade. The particular picture above is from one of the busier intersections in Hanoi. Although there are usually a hundred bikes waiting to go on a green, everyone there stays far back from the light so that they can relax in the shade for a minute.

It's no secret that most Vietnamese/Asians do not like to get suntanned. What I find hilarious though is that when the sun is not out, people act like their houses are on fire and have to get to the absolute front of the line. However, throw a little sun into the equation and people are more than happy to arrive somewhere ten seconds later as long as they didn't get any unnecessary vitamin D.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Thanh Chuong's Work

Despite thinking Thanh Chuong is an asshole, I can't deny that he is an amazingly talented artist. His paintings are all interesting to say the least.

One thing I do take issue with though is that the pamphlet for the palace says, "All subjects are fair game, and he effortlessly renders them in his personal artistic 'language' that is unmistakably Thanh Chuong." My issue comes with this: All of us immediately said, "His work looks like Picassos," as soon as we saw a couple of paintings. And those that didn't look like Picasso's work, could have easily compared with Matisse's. Look, there's nothing wrong with having influences, just acknowledge them. But again, I guess this should expected from a guy who named a palace after himself and charges Vietnamese an average of two days wages to see how great he is.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A is for Artist, A is for Asshole

(PICTURE: Hi, I'm an Asshole with a capital A.)

This past weekend a few of us took a motorbike trip out to Thanh Chuong Viet Palace, the residence of perhaps Vietnam's most famous painter -- Thanh Chuong.

I had stumbled upon this house/musuem online during the week and immediately knew I wanted to visit it as soon as possible. Thanh Chuong's house is just about 35 kilometers outside of Hanoi which made for a great day trip. The "Palace" looks ancient but in actuality it was built in the last decade.

Here's the first thing you need to know about Than Chuong Viet Palace: It is without a doubt the most expensive museum I've been to in Vietnam. The cost for anyone to enter and see all of the sites is 100,000 VND. Sure this is only $5 or so but it is about $4 more than any other museum for a Vietnamese citizen. If the museum is trying to prove that art is only for the elite, they're doing a good job.

However, the price of entrance wasn't nearly the most appalling thing we encountered during our trip -- that honor goes to the artist himself. While we were walking through the grounds, I spotted the artist giving a tour to two people carrying pretty nice cameras. I didn't want to interrupt the tour so I didn't say anything to Thanh Chuong. Well, about thirty minutes later I found myself in a room with just Huyen and the artist. Here's a word for word conversation of what went down:
Ben: You have a beautiful house.
Thanh Chuong: (Grunt noises)
Ben: Can I ask you a question about lacquer (the medium he paints with)?
Thanh Chuong: (Footstep noises as he walks away)
Ben: Alrighhhhhhttttttyyyyy....

I've lived in Vietnam for over two years and this was without a doubt one of the rudest interactions I have had. You might be saying to yourself, "Maybe he doesn't speak English." Yeah, sure maybe he doesn't. However, Huyen was right next to me to interpret. On top of that, 99% of people I have ever asked questions to in English that don't speak English just smile and motion that they don't understand. This douche bag literally grunted.

I was obviously really put off by this encounter and wanted to share what happened with one of the guys who had come with us that day. I went up to Nate (Nicky's old roommate who is visiting for a week) and told him my story. He laughed and said that he too had tried to say something to the painter and got a disgusted grunt in return.

There are many adjectives to describe artists. For this particular artist, the only adjective that comes to mind is Asshole. I guess this is to be expected of a guy who opens a museum/palace named after himself.

All that said, there is no doubt that the grounds of the museum were beautiful. However, if you're reading this, save yourself the trip and go to another beautiful spot around Hanoi.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


(PICTURE: Frat guy in Hanoi!)

Much to my surprise yesterday, I ended up driving behind a Zeta Beta Tau (or as we used to call them at Syracuse - ZBTools). A few of my best friends from college were in the ZBT fraternity so this post gives me a good opportunity to make fun of them a little bit. A few thoughts came to mind when I saw this guy driving down the street:

First thought: So this is where Goodwill shirts go when nobody wants them.

Second thought: This guy is the first Asian ZBT ever.

Third thought: Fraternities don't exist at Vietnamese universities but they should. In fact, Vietnamese men often epitomize the frat lifestyle. I too was in a fraternity but am way less fratty than the average Vietnamese man.

Fourth thought: I wonder which chapter of ZBT made these great t-shirts with Will Ferrell on them.

Fifth thought: I should start an Old School type fraternity here in Vietnam!

Sixth thought: Okay, Ben, time to grow up and stop taking pictures while driving a motorbike (especially two days after posting about wearing helmets!).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Sign I've Been Living Here Too Long

Notice anything strange in the picture? No, not my weirdly hairy knuckles. There's something else. Look again...

What you should be noticing is that my pinky fingernail is the only fingernail that isn't trimmed. Last night I trimmed all of my fingernails and a few hours later noticed that I had forgotten my pinky nail. This is a very very Vietnamese thing to do. I've written on my blog twice in the past about how gross I find long fingernails on Vietnamese men. Well, apparently I'm turning into one. Granted my fingernail was still about a half inch shorter than the average Vietnamese guys, but the fact that I subconsciously didn't cut it means I've been living here too long.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Buckle Your Helmets!

Dear Vietnamese Readers,

BUCKLE YOUR HELMETS! Yesterday Huyen and I were driving our motorbike and came upon the worst accident I have seen in Vietnam. I'm going to spare the gory details and just say this: the man was laying on one side of the taxi that hit him and his helmet was on the other side. From my limited CSI skills, it appeared that his helmet had flown off upon impact because it wasn't buckled. Frankly, I don't know if he would have survived the accident if he had a helmet on but I have no doubt his chances would have been much higher.

As far as those in the USA and the rest of the world: Buckle your seat belts.

And to everyone: Keep your seat belts and helmets buckled until your car/motorbike is safely parked. I have a lot of friends in the states who always unbuckle their belts when they are a few blocks from home. Why? I have no idea. People do it here with their helmets too though. I've seen so many people undo their helmets when they are nearing their houses. It's just dangerous especially considering that most accidents happen close to home.

Okay, I had to get that off my chest. Huyen and I will be buying new helmets ASAP.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Master Key

(PICTURE: Me in the tiny locker room.)

Every day when I go to the gym, I'm immediately handed a towel and a key to a locker. Well, the other day I had an epiphany while opening my locker: all the keys look the exact same.

Nobody was in the locker room so I shrugged my shoulders and tried my key on another locker...and it worked. I then tried it on another locker...and it worked on that one too. Yeah, the locker keys are all the exact same. So, as you can imagine, I will no longer be bringing my wallet with me to the gym.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


(PICTURE: This is basically what the edges of the lake look like.)

Huyen and I have been on a great exercise kick recently. Yeah, we're in the "wedding diet" mode with only five months to go before we tie the knot. The other night we went to the lake by our house to run some laps. Although it's a nice scene near the lake, the lake itself is absolutely disgusting. The lake not only has an odor but there are always dead fish floating near the edges. Well, as we were stretching, I noticed a woman who had walked up to the water and dipped a washcloth into it. I asked Huyen what she thought the woman was doing and Huyen said that she was probably washing dishes. I'm pretty sure my eyes bugged out at this point as I said, "Are you serious?" Huyen nodded and left it at that. Well, sure enough, at the end of our run we passed the woman who was selling mia da (sugar cane juice). As far as I could tell, the woman had used the wash cloth with something related to the juice she was selling whether it be dish washing, cleaning the juicer or whatever.

And with that, I'm never ever ever having a drink anywhere near the lake again.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Hillary's In Town

Apparently everyone in America knows that Hillary Clinton is in Hanoi because I got sent a whole bunch of emails yesterday with links to online newspaper stories. I knew that Hillary was gonna be here for two reasons: 1) I read it on CNN last week 2) One of my private students told me that his father was going to have a meeting with her on the 23rd -- yeah, his pops is pretty big time (although not as big time as my dad who met Bill Clinton in '92; some would say without my Dad Clinton couldn't have carried New Jersey...those "some" are my dad and, well, now me).

Anyway, here's my brush with Hillary story from yesterday. Since I knew that Hillary was in town, I wasn't surprised that the streets were LINED with police and army dudes yesterday morning. Seemingly ever guy with a green or tan uniform was standing by the side of the road around 7:30 AM. As I was driving, there was all of a sudden a frantic blowing of whistles by all the officials. I recognized this drill immediately since this is the capital and politicians are often heavily escorted across the city. My gut instinct told me that Hillary was about to pass me so I whipped off my sunglasses and pulled down my face mask. I thought I'd look as American as possible and give Hillary a big thumb's up and smile as she flew by me. After a few seconds the first police patrol car sped by me. Then another. And then another...and then another. Next in line was a luxury car with a red, white and blue flag attached to the antenna...

...but it wasn't our red, white and blue flag. It was North Koreas. Yeah, I got all excited and breathed in some extra exhaust just to see the delegates from North Korea. Out of all the politicians who this caravan could have been escorting, this was the one farthest in ideology from Hillary Clinton.

So yeah, sorry to disappoint everyone. Despite being perhaps one of the most popular American bloggers in Hanoi, I didn't get a meeting with Hillary. Although if you asked me, she should have met with me since she gave a speech about Human Rights and internet freedoms.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Book Review: A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain

Yup, back to back book reviews.

If you're looking for something great to read, I highly recommend "A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain" by Robert Olen Butler. This collection of short stories -- which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for fiction -- revolves around the theme of Vietnamese Americans living in Louisiana*. To put it simply, the writing is beautiful and the stories are all memorable.

My buddy Jim had given me this book after I asked him if he had anything that was jumping off his shelf. Once I opened the book I couldn't put it down. In fact, after reading the first three short stories I sent Jim a text message that said, "These stories are beautiful. I'm gonna try to read this book slowly so I can really enjoy it." Well, I tried to read it slowly but I finished it in four days.

Put this one on your summer reading list! If you don't believe me, here's a link to the NY Times Book Review about the boook.

* All the stories revolve around Vietnamese Americans except the last two, which I felt were great stories but seemed out of place and didn't go with the work as a whole. Jim later told me that the last two stories ("Salem" and "Missing") were added in later publications.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Book Review: The Stoning of Soraya M.

I just finished reading The Stoning of Soraya M. If you're looking for something utterly disturbing to read, I highly recommend this book. The book details the true story of an Iranian woman named Soraya who was stoned to death for allegedly committing adultery -- a false accusation made upon her by her cheating, wife-beating, evil husband who wanted to divorce her so he could marry a teenage bride. I'm not sure what the worst part of the story was, her having been stoned by her father and sons, or the con-artist Sheik not allowing her body to be buried and thus being eaten by stray dogs.

My friend Lily had left this book at my house almost two years ago when she visited me in Hanoi. I never had the inclination to read it until all of the news reports last week about a woman who was sentenced to be stoned to death in Iran. It's completely mind boggling to me how something like this can still go on in our modern world.

I just googled the book to find a picture for this post and saw that there is a movie based on the book that came out this year. If you don't have time to read the book, check out the movie.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Typhoon That Wasn't

(PICTURE: Hanoi didn't get hit by Conson but Hai Phong did.)

If you've been following the weather news for the last few days, you would have read about Typhoon Conson that hit the Phillipines and China. After it soaked China, it was widely reported by CNN that the storm was headed towards "around Hanoi". CNN wasn't the only news outlet to report this, as I think every Vietnamese newspaper, radio and television station gave the same weather prediction. With the huge floods just two years in the rear-view mirror, Hanoi was in total panic mode to prepare for the incoming typhoon. The supermarkets were busy, the markets were mayhem (the vendors doubled their prices) and seemingly every candle near my house was bought up (we got four).

On Saturday, the winds in Hanoi were ridiculous. I could feel my motorbike drifting every time I was driving down the road. However, there was no rain. On Saturday night, Huyen and I had dinner plans with our friends Dave and Elissa. When Huyen and I fought the winds at 7PM to go to their house, we were one of the few motorbikes on the street. While eating dinner at Dave and Elissa's the wind was absolutely fierce outside, but again, not a drop of rain. After our great meal and a triumphant evening of spades (props to Huyen who just learned the game and was a fantastic partner) we headed home at about 1:30AM. On our way back to our apartment, the skies opened up and absolutely drenched Huyen and me. However, this wasn't the typhoon that was predicted as the news was reporting it would now arrive the next afternoon.

Well, the next day the weather was absolutely beautiful. The best part though was that everyone in the city stayed inside thinking the rain was about to come. It was nice to have the city be so calm for a change. In the end, the typhoon never came and now we've got a fridge full of food.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Mai's America

Mai Nguyen at the Mississippi state line, Credit: Jody Kivort

The other night Huyen and I saw "Mai's America", a documentary about a Vietnamese girl who studies abroad in America and gets placed with a self proclaimed Redneck family in Mississippi. For those of you who have a Netflix account, put it on your list!

If you're a teenager in Vietnam and reading this, DO NOT WATCH THIS FILM BECAUSE IT WILL SCARE THE CRAP OUT OF YOU!!!! My friend Jim -- thinking the film was just about Vietnamese studying abroad -- took two of his students who were about to study abroad to see this film; by the end of the film one no longer wanted to go to America. Jim said that he talked the kid back into going and promised that if he got stuck with a bad family he'd personally come rescue him.

The documentary was shot in 2002 and aired on PBS. Here's the full movie description from PBS's website:

Mai's America is a personal journey that defies all expectations. Mai, a smart, vivacious, and resilient Vietnamese teenager, travels to America for her senior year of high school, shouldering her family's high expectations and her own visions of western-style success. Yet, nothing in Mai's wildest imagination could prepare her for what she finds in rural Mississippi, where encounters with white Pentecostal and black Baptist host-families, a local transvestite, and South Vietnamese immigrants challenge her long-held ideas about America, the concept of freedom, her identity and even her homeland of Vietnam.

Mai's father, a successful Hanoi businessman and proud veteran of what the Vietnamese call "the American War," sends Mai to the U.S. as a high school exchange student expecting her to secure admission — and the necessary scholarships — to attend a top-ranked American university. Mai may have arrived in America with the desire to make her family proud, but her journey through the Southern heartland reveals the surprising common bonds that span global boundaries and link Mai to her American counterparts.

It's a tale as old as immigrants coming to America — the clash between dreams and reality. But each generation writes a new chapter of this essential American experience. Relatively privileged in Hanoi, Mai finds herself on a lower rung of the American economic ladder when she lands in Meridian, Mississippi. Her host family, composed of self-described rednecks, proves a challenge to her usually outgoing and upbeat personality. Plagued by unemployment and depression, the family shows little curiosity in their Vietnamese guest. At school, she finds it equally difficult at first to form real bonds.

But Mai is nothing if not persistent. She soon wins the heart of her host grandmother, who expresses an interest in her Vietnamese culture, and finds a worthy mentor in her high school history teacher. During her class, Mai experiences a remarkable revelation about the Vietnam War, when she realizes that the American soldiers she'd grown up thinking of as cruel killers were no different than the boys seated in the desks all around her.

Mai doesn't find genuine friendship, though, until she meets Chris (a.k.a. Christy), an outgoing transvestite nightclub performer with whom she immediately forms a sympathetic attachment. Drawn together by a shared sense of being outsiders, they dance, trade make-up, and have long talks about life and the difficulties of being true to oneself. With Christy providing a boost to her self-confidence, she works up enough courage to change host families, and moves in with a young, African American couple who include Mai in their active social lives.

Mai's window on the world opens even wider when she meets Tommy, an animated South Vietnamese immigrant whose father fought alongside the Americans before fleeing Saigon when Tommy was only three. Children of former enemies, Tommy and Mai engage in spirited conversations about the war and its after-affects. Through Tommy, Mai also meets an expatriate Vietnamese community that clings to the pre-war way of life. When Tommy takes Mai to a South Vietnamese celebration in a nearby town, she feels like an outsider among expatriates from her country. To Mai, they seem to cling to the Vietnamese lifestyle that they knew before the war - a culture vastly different from the Vietnam she grew up in.

Mai with filmmaker Marlo Poras

(PICTURE: Mai with filmmaker Marlo Poras.)

"Mai's story is a wonderful story to have had the opportunity to tell," says filmmaker Marlo Poras. "I think we are able to see a reflection of ourselves in Mai — in her drive, her disappointments, her humor, and her dreams. Her story was nothing I expected, and yet it was incredibly familiar. And for me, it came to be very much about both the value and the cost of the American dream."

Given extraordinary access to Mai's activities and thoughts throughout her stay in the U.S., Marlo Poras has crafted, in Mai's America, a very 21st century take on seeking the American dream.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Cape of Good Hope

(PICTURE: Can you say self-timer shot!)

One of the other highlights of Cape Town was driving to Cape of Good Hope, the south-western most spot on the African continent. It was a beautiful drive down the coast which was quite reminiscent of the PCH in California.

The Cape of Good Hope is part of a national park and we actually saw a zebra and a bunch of ostriches while driving.

(PICTURE: An ostrich taking in sunset.)

For those of you reading this in New York, this point is exactly 12,541 kilometers from New York City. I know that because of this sign:

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Table Mountain

(PICTURE: Me freezing my butt off on the top of Table Mountain.)

When you first arrive in Cape Town, you can't help but notice a bunch of really big mountains. One of the mountains is totally flat on the top, like a table. In fact, it looks so much like a table that it's called Table Mountain.

There are hundreds of different ways to hike Table Mountain. There are "easy" ways and very very very difficult ways. In fact, a couple of days before we hiked the mountain, a teenager died hiking with his parents. Hearing this, the guys and I decided to take one of the easier ways.

We started up the mountain pretty early in the morning and quickly realized that it was freaking freezing. Right before we started to climb, Dave and I met a few people from California who had been planning to hike the mountain but came completely ill equipped -- they were wearing shorts.

Dave, Chris and I made it to the top of the mountain in about an hour and ten minutes. Devin, made it up about ten minutes before us -- the dude was booking it. Some of the interesting things about the climb were:
a) It was really slippery.
b) Did I mention it was cold? It had actually snowed the night before and there were still patches of snow as we climbed.
c) The view was spectacular...until an extremely dense fog came in.

Actually, in regards to "c" above: Table Mountain is notorious for having fog envelop the mountain. They call this fog "The Table Cloth." Check out this picture:

(PICTURE: Moments before you could see the city of Cape Town. Not so much once the fog came in. Also, check out the snow on the ground.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Cape Town vs. Johannesburg

(PICTURE: Leaving Jo'Burg...happily.)

Don't be fooled by the title of this blog entry -- there is no comparison between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Let me state this very clearly: Cape Town is awesome. Johannesburg sucks.

(PICTURE: A view of Cape Town while hiking Table Mountain.)

Cape Town is a beautiful city with lots of nature, good eats, cool things to do and places to visit. On top of that, it felt safe. The same can't be said for Johannesburg where every house has an eight foot wall with barbed wire and an attack dog in front of it. Evert story I heard of carjackings and robberies was in and around Jo'Burg. In comparison, Cape Town felt like Pleasantville. Actually, a Cape Town taxi driver summed it up best for me: "The problem with Cape Town is that tourists feel safe here so they're not scared to walk." Despite this particular taxi driver's bitterness at not making more money, he was a fair an honest driver. "Fair and honest" are two words I would never use to describe 90% of Jo'Burg taxi drivers who repeatedly tried to rip us off and on one occasion tried to intimidate us into paying an exorbitant amount of money.

Jo'Burg has some nice places but they're all basically malls and promenades. If I wanted to see malls and promenades I could have gone to Los Angeles. That said, if you're going to South Africa you should definitely stop in Jo'Burg. Let me draft an itinerary for you:

Morning: Fly into Jo'burg and go to the apartheid museum. The museum documents the history of apartheid and is a can't miss.

(PICTURE: The guys at the Apartheid Museum.)

Afternoon: Go to Soweto. There's a lot of history in Soweto and it's definitely worth a walk around.

Late Afternoon/Before Evening: Go back to the airport and fly to Cape Town or one of the other nicer cities in South Africa.

I hate to be so negative on Jo'Burg but without a doubt it is the least favorite city I have ever been to...except for maybe Detroit.

I had a great time in South Africa but there was one big problem -- we had to spend wayyyyy too much time in Jo'Burg since most of the games were in and around the city. If you're from Jo'Burg and reading this, I apologize if this offends you. Having lived in Los Angeles for seven years, I can't tell you how many times I annoyingly heard people obnoxiously say, "I could never live here." Well, it's my turn to be annoying and obnoxious: I could never live in Johannesburg.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dancing With The Locals

The other highlight of our excursion was when we pulled up to a house with a bunch of goats in front of it. We all got out of our van and walked between the fenced in goats and a neighboring house. When we got to the neighboring house we immediately started to hear some whistles being blown. Before we knew it, four old ladies came dancing our way:

The ladies grabbed Devin and Chris and led our group around to the back of the house:

Behind the house was a local choir.

The choir sang some traditional songs to us and then began to dance. After they had shown off their moves, they grabbed all of the tourists and had us form a circle. They continued to sing as they pulled one tourist at a time into the middle where the attempted to teach us some local moves. Chris went first and infused some Buffalo hip-hop style into his South African booty shake:

Devin went next and attempted to do a little grinding:

Dave went next and showed off his moves:

The girl Dave danced with though didn't seem so impressed:

(PICTURE: Maybe my favorite photo ever.)

Of course I danced too. However, "engaged guy" must have been written on my face because I found myself being dragged into the middle of the circle by a dude.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Witch Doctor

(PICTURE: The local Witch Doctor.)

In Part 1 of my South Africa series, I'm gonna recount my trip to see an African Witch Doctor:

One of the cooler things we did during our safari was to take a trip to a local village. Sabi Sabi donates a lot of money to a village where the majority of their local workers are from. While visiting the village we went to a small hut and met with an African Witch Doctor.

To communicate with deceased ancestors, the Witch Doctor used a series of different items. Some items you might expect a Witch Doctor to use (lion/impala/rhino bones) and other items you wouldn't (dominoes and dice).

(PICTURE: The Witch Doctor throwing all of his future telling items.)
(PICTURE: The domino has spoken.)

The Witch Doctor would do his thing and begin to explain what the spirits told him. This was translated to us by the Sabi Sabi worker who was in charge of bringing guests to the village. The translator told us that the first thing the Witch Doctor was going to find out was what the score of the South Africa and Mexico game was going to be (remember, we went on this safari before the World Cup began). Well, the Witch Doctor did some chanting and dropped the bones/dice/dominoes on the floor. He quickly glanced over what his ancestors were telling him and decided he didn't like the outcome of the he chanted again and dropped the items once more. Well, the ancestors were stubborn and were still predicting a Mexican win. The Witch Doctor -- clearly a soccer fan -- wasn't ready to accept this and once again dropped the bones/dice/dominoes. The third time was the charm and the spirits predicted a draw between South Africa and Mexico. Personally I'm not a believer in astrology or fortune telling but a couple of days later Bafana Bafana tied Mexico 1-1.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

University Entrance Exams II

After writing yesterday's post, I found this 2007 Time article about Vietnamese entrance exams:

The Stresses of Vietnam's Exam Season

A visitor to Hanoi University this month might be forgiven for thinking the tree-shaded campus was preparing for a riot. Moments after a school bell rings out, there is a grating sound as a tall, metal barricade is rolled into place. Dozens of police and uniformed security officials assume positions guarding the entrances to the campus, and students are searched for mobile phones and other forbidden objects as they enter classroom.

The reason for this heightened security on campus? It's exam time, and the authorities are taking extraordinary measures to guard against cheating on high-stakes university-entrance exams. When the testing concludes July 16, a total of 1.8 million would-be scholars will have taken the entry exam in the hope of landing one of only 300,000 spots in colleges nationwide. That pressure gives students an incentive to seek any edge they can. Hanoi's 940-year-old Temple of Literature has been jammed this month with exam-takers burning incense for good luck. Some students eat "lucky meals" of green beans for breakfast on the big day. (The word for bean also means "passing" in Vietnamese.)

Other students, though, seek help from more than green beans: In recent years, entrance-exam fraud has been highly publicized in local media. Last year, two dozen students were caught being fed answers through Bluetooth headsets concealed under wigs. Earlier this month, police busted a ring issuing fake IDs to university students who were to take the test for struggling prospective scholars. The price? $2,500 — more than twice Vietnam's average annual wage. In response to concerns over cheating, authorities have beefed up security, calling in local police and even the Public Security ministry to guard exam sites.

The lengths to which some students have gone to cheat their way into college reflect a wider crisis in Vietnam's higher education system, which hasn't grown fast enough to meet demand from students eager to get ahead in Asia's second-fastest-growing economy.

Nguyen Thu Phuong, 18, has been studying for more than a year for the exams, and was poring over a few last-minute math equations on a bench shortly before testing began. Her mother, anxiously fanning the girl as she studied, once fought for the communist side in the Vietnam War and had recently retired from a state-run factory, but she dreams her daughter can someday work in banking or finance. "It's not like the old days," she said. "If children don't have a university degree, it's really difficult to get a good job."

But relatively few Vietnamese can fulfill the dream of a higher education, which is bad news for its economy. Vietnam currently attracts foreign investment at a rate of nearly $1 billion per month, with investors looking to take advantage both of its low-wage levels and its young and highly literate population. But only 10% of Vietnamese college-aged youths are enrolled in higher education, lagging behind India and China, and less than a quarter of the figure for Thailand. Those numbers don't bode well for Vietnam's ambitions to move into higher-end electronics and outsourcing.

Tom Vallely, director of the Vietnam program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, says the country's universities aren't churning out enough qualified engineers, IT workers and managers. "You are already seeing a skilled-worker shortage," he says.

Even the elite who make it into university find that the centrally controlled curriculum is steeped in "Ho Chi Minh Thought," and lags far behind other schools in Asia. The reforms that have seen a mushrooming of private enterprise in the communist-controlled society have yet to reach its more than 300 universities. Professors' pay and promotion is based on seniority, not merit, and they rarely publish in international journals.

"Vietnam drastically needs education reform," says Adam Sitkoff, director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam. "If you want to compete in the IT sector and you want to attract high-wage, high-growth jobs, you need to have a smart, well-educated workforce."

Vallely, who was recently part of a delegation of U.S. educators that met with Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Trietalong to promote reform, says Vietnam needs a world-class flagship school — the equivalent of India's Institutes of Technology or Tsinghua University in China. Existing schools, he says, need autonomy to build their own curriculum and compete for students. "These kids who do make the cut and go to school are very smart," Vallely says. "They're just not getting much of an education when they get there." And if that doesn't change, Vietnam may only be cheating itself.

Monday, July 12, 2010

University Entrance Exams

(PICTURE: Here's an entrance exam in English. I have no idea when this one is from. However, I looked over Su's and can guarantee that I would have gotten zero correct.)
Vietnamese readers, correct me if I'm wrong about any of this post.

The past two weekends Hanoi has been swarmed with 18-year-old high school students who are hoping to attend university the fall. In order to get into a university, students must take university entrance exams. From what I've gathered, these exams are like the SATs on crack. Unlike in the USA where you have an elaborate application process -- for example a student who scores a 1200 on the SATs could get into a university over someone who scores a 1400 because the 1200 applicant was the President of Key Club or something -- here it all comes down to the score.

Let me point out a few things:
1. There are multiple tests you can take. Su took a two day test that covered three subjects: Physics, Chemistry and Math...or as I like to call them, the subjects I would fail the easiest. Tomorrow is the second round of testing which I believe is Literature, History and Math. Students usually only take one test. Depending on the university they are applying to, certain test are accepted.

2. Students can only take a test for one university during round 1. This is where the pressure really starts. Say a student wants to go to Huyen's university -- Foreign Trade University -- well, they're gonna need to get higher than that year's threshold on the test. FTU, is the hardest university in Vietnam to get into, and last year had a bottom score of 28 (to put it into perspective, the university Su is applying to had a bottom score of 17). If a student doesn't get above the threshold then most likely they will NOT GET INTO A UNIVERSITY. Let me repeat that, if a student doesn't get a good enough score then they're probably gonna have to take a year off before they can go to university. (Note: There is a second round of acceptances but I've been told this is a very difficult way to get into a school).

3. Because of #2, students must strategically plan which school to apply to. For example, Su applied to the Transportation University. I'm pretty sure Su has no interest in transportation. However, the school he really wants to go to is highly competitive and hard to get into. I've argued with Huyen that it doesn't make sense for him to aim lower if he has no interest in a career in what a particular school teaches. However, Huyen has told me that it is better to just get into one of the universities and that people can work in an field once they graduate. I guess that is true in America too.

4. Have I mentioned the pressure? The students here are under crazy pressure from their parents to pass the test the first time they take it. As soon as the test was over, someone took their test and published it online. Within an hour all the answers were online and basically every student in the city was comparing their answers to the key online. Huyen, Huyen's sister and seemingly everyone else related to Su knew his score at the same time as he did.

5. Students are not told if the qualified for the school for one month. Su scored an 18 on his test which was higher than the threshold for his school last year. However, Huyen said that often the threshold is raised every year. There's a lot of people biting their fingers in the Nguyen family...actually in probably every Nguyen family around the country.

On a funny note, I dropped off and picked up Su at his test almost every time. Every student was being dropped off and picked up by seemingly their parents. I felt like a) a parent b) everyone was starting at Su wondering why a foreigner was dropping him off at his entrance exam. Okay, maybe it's a had to be there moment.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Su's in town!

(PICTURE: Going up! Su's first elevator ride!)

This past week, Huyen's brother Su (AKA: My future brother-in-law) stayed with me. Su was in Hanoi to take his university entrance exam which I'll blog about tomorrow.

Despite having to share my bed, it was great having Su in town and I imagine for him it was the trip of a lifetime. Imagine if you've been living out in the countryside with no AC, no internet, no ____ and then got to crash at a place in the big city for the first time in your life. In no particular order, here are some of the highlights I imagine Su is telling his friends about right now:

1. Air Conditioning. As I wrote the other day, it is HOT right now. Su would constantly come into my bedroom and beeline for the air-conditioning remote. He would quickly put the AC on at 25 degrees Celsius and usually blast it full power. One afternoon we had a power outage and I could see the flashback to an air-conditionless life in Su's eyes. Thankfully the power came back on within an hour.

2. The Food. For every meal except one, Su got to choose what we ate. Think back to when you were a kid and how awesome it was when you'd get to choose your birthday meal. Well, at least for me it was awesome because I'd always drag my family to places we usually wouldn't eat (Indian food, Sushi, etc.). Su wasn't quite as adventurous as me but he did seem very happy getting to choose whatever he wanted to eat.

3. Watching World Cup. If Su doesn't get into university I'm gonna feel bad about this one. Basically Su loves soccer but hasn't been allowed to watch any of the World Cup because he was studying for his university entrance exams. I made a deal with Su that if he studied all day, we could watch the World Cup at night. He hit the books hard and we got to watch a couple of games together.

4. Su's first massage. Huyen and I took Su to a local foot massage place that we like. Clearly Su had never been pampered like that before.

5. Shopping. We took Su to the supermarket so he could choose a bunch of snack food. While there, he ended up doing some clothes shopping too. I purchased him some hot new threads.

6. Su's first elevator ride. Check out the picture above. The first ride was kind of anti-climatic because it was a windowless elevator. For Su's second ride we took a glass elevator which he seemed to really enjoy.

7. Su's FIRST MOVIE! We took Su to see Toy Story 3. We had our choice to see it in 2-D or 3-D and I choose 2-D. Frankly, I'm not into the whole 3-D thing and I thought he should enjoy a movie like the rest of us have been for the last eight decades. On a side note, Toy Story 3 is AMAZING!

(PICTURE: Huyen and Su at the theatre. There was no backdrop for Toy Story 3 so we used this one for the Twilight film.)

It was great to have Su in town. Although, I did have a little bit of a nervous moment when I asked Su, "Where will you live in the fall when you begin university?" Su's answer, "I will live with you until you are married."

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I'm single!!!!

RELAX, LADIES!!!! I'm not single single. I've just never been married. The second step in getting married abroad is to sign an affidavit declaring that you're single. To make this declaration I had to pay the US Embassy $30. Clearly a lot of Americans have gone through this process because the embassy has a form conveniently already written-up. I merely had to fill in the blanks with my name, Huyen's name and some other biographical information. My favorite part of the form though was this:

In the fill in the blank form I had to circle that, "I love her." I thought it would have been funnier if they had a scale with options: "Circle 1 if you 'like her'. Circle 2 if you 'love her'. Circle 3 if you 'really really really like her'. Circle 4 if you 'Love her soooooooo much'."

So I got my medical test and my affidavit of single status. Next up, a bunch of other forms and hurdles...

Friday, July 9, 2010

I'm Sane!!!!!

It's official -- I'm sane. Well, at least according to the Vietnamese government. Huyen and I are currently immersed in the process of getting legally married in Vietnam. The goal is to get married here and then begin the immigration process to go to the USA. Ideally we'll be legally married in about a month or so and then given the green light to enter America somewhere around December. In a perfect bureaucracy-free world, we'll be able to go back to America shortly after our wedding in December.

Anyway, to get legally married here requires lots of steps. One of the first steps was to take a medical/psychological test at a Hanoi hospital. I'm happy to report that Huyen and I both passed with flying colors. Check out my report:

It's nice to know that I've got no respiratory, cardio-vascular, mental, contagious, hereditary and sexual diseases. I must admit though that I had always thought it took more than listening to someone's heart and taking their blood pressure to come to medical conclusions like these.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Heat Wave

I know there are heat waves all around the world right now and Hanoi is no different. Today it was forty five degrees Celsius or, for us Americans, 113 degrees Fahrenheit. If you think that's bad, it was 116 degrees the day before! Every time I go outside I feel like my exposed skin is on fire. Even worse, when I park my bike out in the open, I then have to sit on the hottest seat ever when it's time to go somewhere. It's so hot that I actually covered my seat with a raincoat this afternoon and found that it had absolutely no affect on stopping my seat from scorching my tush.

So yes, as you can figure out from this posting, I'm back in Hanoi. I got back a week ago and have been extremely busy with teaching, marriage preparations and hosting Huyen's brother for four days. It's been a whirlwind and I can predict with confidence right now, it's probably not gonna stop until the end of the year.

Over the next couple of weeks I'm gonna rotate between what is going on in Vietnam and some flashback posts to the World Cup/South Africa. Stay cool and drink lots of water!!!


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sabi Sabi Soccer

I think these pictures speak for themselves...but in case they don't: I STILL GOT IT!!!!!

(PICTURE: Check out that awesome defense!)

(PICTURE: No, Pele didn't teach me those dribbling skills.)

(PICTURE: Four on one? No problem!)

One of the highlights of my trip to the World Cup in 2006 was playing pick-up soccer in a suburb of Frankfurt. Devin, Chris and I completely dominated a bunch of cocky Germans. Seriously, they couldn't hold a candle to us and it had nothing to do with the fact that they were about eleven years old.

While on our safari, it became pretty obvious that the four of us were soccer fans. Besides the fact that our trip was timed with the World Cup, the conversation of soccer kept coming up. It turned out that the Sabi Sabi employees all played soccer daily. We asked if we could play with them and before we knew it we were teamed up with the Guides in a game against the Trackers. Unlike Germany, we didn't so much dominate this time. Sure, I totally dominated but there's no I in Team, right? We ended up losing the game 2-1.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


I've had a couple of immature posts in the past and this one definitely tops them all. It is nearly impossible to go on a safari and not take a few immature pictures. I've also been encouraged to post these from all the people who have seen them and have found themselves laughing. Also, generally in the past, my immature posts have garnered lots of comments from readers which is always an incentive to post more...

(PICTURE: A five legged Rhino.)

(PICTURE: Close Up.)

On a serious note, the Rhino was showing off to tell us to back the hell away.

(PICTURE: Those aren't two trunks.)

(PICTURE: So you come here often?)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Other Animals

Out in the bush, it's not all about elephants, lions, leopards, buffaloes and rhinos. There's lots of other animals out there:

(PICTURE: My brother's favorite animal.)

(PICTURE: Check out the horns on that guy.)

(PICTURE: Impalas are "the McDonalds" of the bush according to Crimson. Every predator eats them and they have a big M on their tushies.)

(PICTURE: Crimson spotted this guy as we drove home at night.)

(PICTURE: Toys 'R What?)

(PICTURE: Birds of a feather don't always flock together.)

(PICTURE: The animal I'm the most scared of.)

(PICTURE: A hungry hungry hippo.)

(PICTURE: One of the co-stars of The Lion King.)

(PICTURE: This huge bird co-starred in Horton Hears A Who.)

(PICTURE: A wildebeest strutting his stuff.)

I've got many many many more pictures of animals...which you'll eventually see in a montage on my blog. However, this was just a taste. After having been on safari, I'm not sure I can ever go to a zoo again.