Have You Heard of Long Xuyên?

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That’s the adorable waffle lady I befriended at the market! One day I stopped by her waffle stand and we ended up having a pretty fun conversation. From then on she would always remember me and I’d also stop by when I have time to say hello. The last time I saw her I told her I was going to leave soon. She asked about America, my sisters, how I could speak Vietnamese so fluently, etc. I found out she’s actually only 26, but she looks older than her actual years. 

Almost every morning and afternoon I would walk through the market with my coworkers to grab breakfast and/or lunch. The market is walking distance from the office and I loved walking through all the fresh produce stands. They sold fish, rice, eggs, and just anything you can imagine, including mice (maybe you didn’t imagine that). Yes, mice. The mice is freshly skinned and cut, as if they were fish. Supposedly their meat is really good, but don’t count on me to try that. 

I always tend to buy fruits, sữa đậu nành (soymilk) and chè (traditional sweet Vietnamese dessert, beverage, or soup like pudding). Chè can be made with a variety of ingredients, including mung beans, jelly, aloe vera, lotus seeds, seaweed, pandan leaf extract, etc. I tried grapefruit chè (I don’t think they have that in California because I’ve never heard of it) for the first time and it’s pretty delicious. 

If you asked me to share one of my favorite memories from Vietnam, it’d definitely have to be grabbing breakfast and/or lunch with the staff and then walking through the market to digest all of our food. Those times were always fun and filled with laughter. It was easy to grab food with everyone because we always stayed in the vicinity and live in the area. We spend so much time together but seriously everyday was a fun day with them.

If the PALS office was not located in Long Xuyên, I don’t think I would’ve ever pinned it on the map as a “go-to” destination because it’s not known as a tourist attraction. It’s the capital city of An Giang province, which is located in the Mekong Delta. I’m so glad I got to live and work in Long Xuyên because it’s less crowded than Saigon and definitely quieter. I wasn’t used to it at first and thought of it as a boring city, but then I began to enjoy the calmness and it was a nice escape from bustling Saigon and the crazy drivers. Long Xuyên is such a cute city and definitely has a very special place in my heart. 

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Family First

Late post: Before I leave for Long Xuyen today and begin my actual volunteer work with PALS, I must finish this post. So here it is:

I always used to say: “I don’t have much family in Vietnam.” I was so wrong and ignorant. 

Family first is a philosophy that most of us tend to live by. Therefore during my first few days here, it only made sense for me to visit all the relatives that I’ve never met nor even knew existed.

The majority of my family here are from my father’s side. The moment they heard I landed they called me nonstop. They love my father dearly since he took care of them all back in the day. “Taking care” of them is an understatement, for he paid for almost everything, bought them cars and houses, and gave his family members (from young to old) so much money. He was very generous and well-liked, sometimes way too generous with his money some would say. This was before he lost all his fortune due to the fall of Saigon and other details that I’d rather not write about since I am currently in the country that brought him down.

My father is the eldest in his family and love his siblings so much, including anyone else that is blood. He instilled the importance of family in my sisters and me. Now that you can get a grasp of how important and respected my father was in his family, it will make more sense when I write about how excited everyone here was when they heard a daughter of his, whom they never met, was coming to Vietnam.

My phone was constantly ringing the moment I landed and I felt so adored and welcomed everywhere I went. I visited one aunt on the same day that I landed and met some cousins who were very sweet. Two days later I was to visit my paternal grandparents’ grave in Tay Ninh, which is about 3 hours away from Saigon. My uncle rented a van and we picked up relatives as we stopped by their homes along the way. Remember, this was my first time meeting them all, so you can imagine the excitement in that van.

According to Vietnamese customs, despite your age, if you were born to an older sibling of your father or mother, your cousins must still address you as chị (older sister). So although I was younger than most of them, but since my father was the eldest, all my cousins were all so respectable and called me chi. It was sort of weird to me and definitely took some time getting used to.

I loved being on the road and seeing the differences between the city and the countryside. At one of the houses, I got to picked some mangoes and ambarella (coc). My relative grew a bunch of other fruits including bananas, jackfruit, mangosteen, guava, and much more. We made a few stops and finally reached my uncle’s restaurant where he made really good duck soup vermicelli. This is my Uncle 7, he is the one that organized this whole trip to visit relatives and made me feel super welcome and safe. He is also a bit more well off than the rest of them.

We finally got to my grandparents’ grave, which was designed, built, and all paid for in the past by my father. It was gorgeous. I am so glad that I can tell my dad how well-rested his parents must be. After that we all went to another relative’s house and this was on a farm with dirt roads, lots of greenery, and a very popular mountain called Núi Bà Đen (Black Virgin Mountain) in the backdrop. Unfortunately I didn’t have much time so I wasn’t able to tour it. That was the last house we stopped at and we all ate and laughed together.Their living conditions are far from modern, and they live a simple life. It was beautiful.

Meeting and getting to know everyone felt so amazing and makes me very humble and grateful. It was brief, but the memories and emotions will last a lifetime. They still call to ask how I am doing and if I need anything, when I feel like I should be asking them that. They are definitely one of the main reasons why I will have to come back to Vietnam, hopefully with my sisters :).

Get on that Motorbike – Saigon


I finally got to tour Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) today!

First, it was surprisingly nice to finally see other tourists in the city. I say this because my apartment is located in District 2, which is actually the newest district (only been built about 10 years ago), industrial, where many locals live, and not a tourist hot spot.

We took the motorbike around Saigon and sightseeing on one of those is hands down far better than being in a taxi. You get wind in your face, 360 degree street view, and so much excitement! Plus, you can literally stop wherever to hop down (to take pics for example), whereas with a car it’s harder to stop since there isn’t much parking space designated for cars in Vietnam. I wish I was able to take more pictures while we were on the streets driving, but it was a bit risky to do so.

I got to see a lot, but I can’t remember all the names of the places. There was some so-called museum for independence, the concert house, the cathedral, cho Ben Thanh, the Saigon River, and the very big mall called Vincom. The mall is very similar to SF’s Union Square mall, and carried a lot of American brands. My favorite was cho Ben Thanh, which was basically a huge indoor mall-like flea market plus supermarket. They had hundreds of stands of souvenirs, clothes, a food court, and just anything else you can think of. It was definitely a popular tourist attraction if you wanted to buy some goodies.

While it rained (it constantly rained on and off all day), we stopped by a coffee shop called Highlands Coffee, which was very modern and offered free wifi (like every other coffee shop here). We ordered a caramel frapp, ca phe sua da (vietnamese iced coffee), two tiramisus, and one banana bread. This all came out to roughly $7 and was so good! This was about the same amount for our breakfast, which was one com tam (broken rice), one bun bo hue (spicy beef vermicelli), and a ca phe sua da. Ahh this makes me not want to buy drinks and food in America ever again…!!

Overall, Saigon central is gorgeous and was designed to attract tourists. Malls are Americanized and streets are clean and wide. There are gorgeous places in Saigon and less nicer places, just like anywhere else you go. Although I briefly got to enjoy some cleanliness and feel less foreign in this country when I got to see many other tourists, I realized that I still enjoyed visiting the rural places and other areas that better reflected the locals. After witnessing the majority of the population living in poverty, it somewhat made me uncomfortable to see how clean and beautiful the tourist hub looked like. Don’t get me wrong, I love the comfort of cleanliness, big modern buildings, and high end fashion malls, but it just didn’t feel right or real.

Saigon is seriously very beautiful though and I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to see it from various viewpoints. Thank you so much to my coworker’s friend for being so patient and kind as my tour guide.

First, Pho

My second day here wasn’t so bad. I woke up at 5am, had nothing to eat and contemplated if I wanted to wait until my uncle got here at noon to eat. I tried to wait it off because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go find food alone. But from my balcony I can see some stands across the street, so I decided eff it, I’m starving. I headed out to look for food at 9am. First place I went to didn’t serve food until lunch time and the rest were all mini drink places and cafes. I didn’t want to venture too far off from my apartment, especially with everyone staring and probably wondering what is this little tourist doing. But then I found a small pho restaurant. “Restaurant” may be too fancy of a term for this place actually, but I’m not sure what else to call it. Any suggestions?

Not bad for a bowl of pho: it costed 25,000 dong (Vietnam currency is the dong). To compare, 20,000 dong is roughly $1.00! It was also pretty good for street pho. I had to stay away from the vegetables (but I love veggies in my pho…) just to be safe to avoid any stomach problems.

Overall, good and cheap pho! And the best part was my stomach was fine all day. First street food meal accomplished!

 

 

Also, for those who were concerned with me sleeping on the couch, worry no more. I saw a lizard on the wall and a humongous (not exaggerating) cockroach by the couch before bed and that completely turned my supposed to be safe couch into terrifying territory. Yikes.

Landed

Waited 22 years for this!

Before I left,  my coworkers told me about  so many airport problems that they had during previous trips to Vietnam. Usually they will scan your luggage and give you a hard time on purpose so that you can bribe them with money to let you go easily. Luckily for me, customs was a breeze. The only annoying factor was the stupid passport guy who kept trying to make me speak Vietnamese, but I shrugged and refused. I felt like a celebrity when I left the airport because there were literally tons of people waiting out front for their guests and loved ones. They just all stare and talk as you walk by – and it was just way too loud and humid for me to take in.

Took a taxi ride from the airport to my apartment in Saigon (the lady who picked me up only had a motorbike, and I was not about to hop on one with all my luggage), and by golly that was when I got to experience the crazy traffic. People don’t drive in their lanes – motorbikes and cars swerve everywhere. Traffic lights are almost nonexistent, but the roads are always filled with cars, buses, taxis, bicycles, and especially motorbikes. It was so scary at first, but started to get sort of fun because really, where else do I get to experience reckless driving without getting pulled over? 😀

Chi Suong was nice enough to help me settle down. I rested a bit then headed to my aunt’s house, which is about 30 mins away from my apartment. I have never met the rest of my dad’s siblings in Vietnam so it was a bit overwhelming with everyone, but definitely nice to finally put names on some faces. I started to feel super jet-lagged so I went home and knocked out at about 9PM.

l feel pretty safe and sound in this apartment since I’m on the 6th floor, and also don’t have to worry about my clothes getting stolen when I hang dry them. Being alone in the apartment scares me a little, so I slept on the couch facing the door instead of my room – laying down was seriously amazing.

I feel super refreshed now that it’s a new day, and I’m looking forward to some mini adventures today! I didn’t take too many pictures on the first day because I was a bit hesitant to whip my camera out on the streets, but here are a few from my living arrangement:

View from my apartment

: view from apt 2 View from apt

 

Toilet and shower in one. I’m just super happy that it’s a toilet that I know how to use!

bathroom

Of course I brought my favorite candy :). Strangely I rarely even eat any in the US, but this just tastes amazing right now.

candy

I promise to take more pictures!