I live in DC, which is a great place to live and visit. I try to make the most of it. However, I also love to leave my home and see what the world has to offer. Come and join me!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Vegetarian Buddhist Nirvana and Fountain Friends, Thursday 27 March 2008

I had a very brief awakening around 4 but went right back to sleep. I am finally adjusting to the time! The anti-malarial dreams are starting to kick in, though. I haven't had an apocalyptic dream in years (I was raised in a household that believed very much in the apocalypse and the dreams plagued for years and years, even after I moved out) but I dreamt of a reprise of Noah's flood. I was trying to decide to which of two cabins in which I had a share to flee. Also, the anti-malarials apparently bring references from the TV show Friends to all my dreams. Odd.

I had my yogurt, fruit, and bread for breakfast. Yay for yummy breakfast! I hadn't scheduled myself to give any presentations on the last half day, because when the trip was first planned the e-commerce seminar was set to overlap. However, they rescheduled the e-commerce seminar to accommodate me and I had an easy morning. Lunch was more marigolds. These had the flowers included, which I hadn't had before. They were a little like the tender inner leaves of an artichoke.

The minibus on the ride back was a tad rickety and I feared for its power of forward motion, but we arrived without incident. J and S were going back to the Renaissance Riverside hotel, and I was checking into the Majestic Hotel as it was my conference location. It was quite nice, with a complimentary fruit bowl and water. The lovely wooden floors did rather accentuate the endless tapping of high heels above me (I later learned I was below the ballroom, which was being prepped, I can only assume for a wedding). The bathroom was hilariously opulent.

I emailed J and S, as we had planned to go to the market together. Two hours later they still hadn't responded so I set off on my own. The market's location seems evident on the map, but I couldn't quite triangulate myself to the right location. I kept wandering down shady looking (but well-populated) streets that smelled of either sour milk or urine. I later learned that the renownedly stinky durian fruit is experienced by some as sour milk, so that mystery was cleared up. I willed myself, with some success, not to feel uncomfortable. I live in a neighborhood that an outsider might find uncomfortable, but it is not actually dangerous and I just assumed it was the same in Vietnam.

I finally oriented myself to the circle and realized I had to cross it. Here's how you cross the street: you just do it. The traffic never stops, not even for red lights. They will swerve around you (usually), but they won't stop. So you just step out into the road into oncoming traffic. Seriously, without even getting hit it really diminishes your life expectancy because of the sheer strain on your heart. By this time, the market proper was closing so only the outdoor stalls of knockoffs and such were open. I had noticed some purses covered in fabric roses in shop windows. I found one on the street and the asking prices was 100.000 Dong. I talked the girl down to 50.000, around $3.50. I wasn't sure whether this was good or bad, but later I checked out prices on the purses and they were 100.000 everywhere, so think my first bargaining experience was successful.

I also found an alley of food markets, which was full of locals. Here is where they hide all the vegetables! There was also much meat. There were no beans anywhere. They appear just not to be eaten here. I really don't think I could live in Vietnam because I freaking love beans. They are a vegetarian's best friend--a low fat, high fiber source of protein. Well, with that nutrition profile they should be everyone's best friend. As to the side effects, your body's enzyme balance quickly adjusts if you eat a lot of them and they have no ill effects on my digestion system whatsoever.

I had to re-cross the circle to get to the Tin Nghia (Buddhist) Vegetarian Restaurant. I took a break in the park that wedges into the circle, where some sort of aerobics was going on. But it just involved holding your arms above your head and waving them in time to clubby music, and then making a quarter turn and doing the same thing. There were a lot of people participating, but then they all sort of realized that there was not going to be any more to it than the waving of the arms (I, too, kept waiting for the dance portion to kick in) and people started to drop out.

The restaurant is the epitome of a hole-in-the-wall, literally. While it has a metal grate they can close at night, it does not have a wall for a door facing the street. I ordered a spring roll, stir fried mushrooms and snow peas (the latter were DIVINE), and mushrooms and wheat gluten in pepper sauce--actual spicy food! woot!, rice, and a large water. I'm sure this was more food than one person should politely order, but I'd been starving in the provinces all week! I was finally full and only felt semi-gross about it. The total was around 50.000.

I walked back to the hotel along Dong Khoi. I stopped at the little strip of park with a fountain in front of the opera house. It was kid central and the sellers of balloon animals on sticks were cleaning up. I sat at the fountain, which I later noticed was one of those abstract family sculpture things, just enjoying it.

A woman sat next to me and we had a nice conversation. Her English was impressive, though I sometimes had a hard time with her her pronunciation. She asked me if I was married, of course. We turned out to be around the same age. It was a very pleasant encounter. I think she invited me back to her home, but (1) I couldn't really tell, and (2) it felt weird. Thinking back on it, I can see that if I ran across a French speaking tourist in DC who was helping me practice French and seemed nice and normal I might invite her home so I guess it's not that weird. She let me take pictures of her daughter, who loved seeing herself on the camera.

I stopped into a store with this really cool pleated gingham silk skirts. The pleats were gathered so that the yoke of the skirt appeared to be solid and then opened out from there, similar in concept to Vogue 8353. I asked the price and was told "Ninety-five." Only later did I realize this was in USD and was glad they hadn't had my size.

I sat in the hotel lobby and had a "Happy Saigon," some sort of fruity cocktail, while prepping for my conference the next day. A hilariously mournful jazz band played and Russians sat next to me. I was so caught up in it all that I accidentally went to bed late.

You can see all the photos of Saigon, and all photos from this trip if you'd like.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Houses on Stilts and a Bride in a Box, Wednesday 26 March 2008

I woke at 4 and took a melatonin, but it didn't help this time. I laid there for a couple of hours, then got up and did some yoga. A rooster began to crow and workmen began to bang but somehow I fell asleep again.

I brought a yogurt and dragonfruit down to breakfast and was so much happier than I had been with the greasy runny eggs!

The morning program went smoothly, and at lunch we got the Vietnamese food rather than the "special" Western meal. I had tofu and rice to go with my marigolds this time, and it was much better.

During the siesta period we went to the market area to get S some shirts. We had all packed for business attire, but when we got to the conference they told us it would be business casual! I was all set because I could just throw a jacket over the dresses I'd brought for the tourist portion of the trip, and J (the male co-worker) is a casual dresser and I don't think brought any suits anyway. But S had only long sleeve shirts and was dying.

Judging by the fact that this was among the three questions *everyone* asked of me, being married is a huge part of Vietnamese culture. And therefore *getting* married is a big deal and big business in Vietnam. There are bridal stores everywhere and elaborate weddings every night of the week. My first night in HCMC I walked by a restaurant that was having a wedding during the processional. I didn't get to see the bride, but she was preceded by two flower girls in white dresses wearing silver angel wings and tossing white flower petals as they went. The weddings are westernized, but not wholly western. The bridesmaids all seem to wear white, for instance. This confused me the first time I walked by a restaurant with eight "brides" standing outside to greet the guests! I finally figured out these had to be the bridesmaids. Anyway, the bridal stores have these freestanding plexiglass cubes out on the sidewalks that hold a mannequin wearing an elaborate dress to advertise the store. Even though the mannequins are obviously not real people, it still weirded me out somehow to think of a person in a plexiglass box slowly suffocating. I was hoping to get a picture of one, but alas once I was *looking* for one I didn't see any more.

After lunch, unfortunately there was no participation in the practicum I was teaching. It's hard to get people motivated after lunch, no matter what culture you're in! I did a unit on consumer education, which was a little more successful because I passed out consumer ed tchotchkes so people had stuff to play with to help them keep awake. The swag was a huge hit.

We finished the day's session at 5, and were to meet at 6:30 for dinner, so J, S, and I headed down to the river. Although I had gone on the boat tour the first night and been to the waterside restaurant the night before, somehow I had missed the coolest part of the river which was the houses--well, shacks really--built on stilts on the opposite bank. Very photo-oppy. The little kids all stared and said, "Hello!"

We walked along the bank and saw a ferry loading to take people home at the end of their day.

The boats gliding through the river saw their way with eyes painted on the prows.

We crossed the bridge at rush hour just for the death-defyingness of it, and watched a little boy launch a kite from his balcony. It took many tries, but he was persistent and eventually got it up into the air.

Finally, we watched the sun go down over the colonial decay of this French-style building.

At the restaurant, same as the night before, I just wanted stir-fried vegetables and rice rather than the feast that had been ordered for me the night before. Which I got. It was perfect. They also ordered some fried dough in the shape of mushrooms; it was a little sweet and quite good. There is nothing bad about fried dough.

The translator guy sat next to me and was kind of like a really good boyfriend, making my life easier in a totally unobtrusive way by making sure I had the food I'd ordered, my water glass stayed full, that sort of thing. I could get used to that!

There were 11 of us at dinner and it was really nice to socialize with our Vietnamese colleagues. I'd been feeling like we had been missing out on the most rewarding cultural exchange part of the trip, based on what people had described from past experiences of late night karaoke and learning a few of one another's words. We had been pretty segregated for the most part and that had disappointed me.

I was less ready to drop into oblivion at 9 on the dot. I think the day before had been the worst of the jet lag. Day 3 is always the worst jet lag for me, no matter where I am or how much the lag.

You can see all the photos of the Mekong Delta, and all photos from this trip if you'd like.