Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Vietnam: Day 2-Present, Part VII: Fast Forward

Since I’ve gotten just a couple more than a few months behind in catching up to the present, I’ve decided to write a short summary of the past 5 months…

In January, I started teaching my first class at ILA…(Senior 3s)

The months of February and March were fairly uneventful. I was focused on getting into the flow of work, as well as, daily life in Hanoi.

April was my birthday—not a very exciting one this year…after all, what’s so great about turning 25 for the second time? And there was certainly no beating last year's birthday, which was a month-long event beginning in North America with an MJ themed party (and briefly attended by some of the local police)...

...and ending in South America with an Argentinean Asado!

I did, however, at least go out with a group of friends for a birthday dinner to one of my favorite restaurants. Uncle Ho was there...well, his portrait at least, which was given to me as a gift…

On the 25th, most of the expat community gathered at the American Club for the MAG Music Festival, which was a benefit concert to clean up land mines across Southeast Asia.

And a couple of weeks ago was one of the biggest national holiday weekends in Vietnam. On April 30th, 1975, the North Vietnamese Army invaded Saigon and finally ended the war. The following day, May 1st, was Labor Day. Many Vietnamese and local expats executed escape plans from Hanoi that had been months in the making. Tickets to anywhere were hard to come by if not booked at least a month in advance. And, tourists found themselves having to alter their travel plans or to take the far less desirable seats to work around the mass exodus from the city. The trains were so crowded people were bribing agents to allow them to sleep two per bunk and some were even sleeping in the corridors.

After my own drawn-out drama over arranging train tickets, I reached Sapa in the early morning hours of the 29th. The next morning, my friends and I had plans to trek Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam at 3,143m, which is often referred to as the “Rooftop of Indochina.” Unfortunately, in the end, a number of complications (illness, train tickets, and the weather) brought our group from 11 down to 2.

My new acquaintance (and now friend), Kim, and I reached the summit on the morning of the second day of the climb. The views weren’t spectacular due to the cloudy weather, but the journey was amazing. We trekked through rivers, muddy bamboo forests, and over steep and slippery rocks. We laughed and talked and loved every minute of being on the mountain. A dog we nicknamed, “Fansi,” joined us somewhere along the way, which reminded me of my day hikes in Vermont when I would borrow friends’ dogs to come along with me.

In addition to the Fansipan trek, I had a number of other adventures in Sapa including a couple of motorbike trips, exploring an ancient cave, and a 9km trek to the Red Dzao village of Ta Phin.

Adventures like this truly make me appreciate living in Vietnam and remind me of why I came in the first place. Like anywhere else in the world, it’s easy to become distracted by the daily grind and to lose sight of the bigger picture. Sapa was a well-timed, much needed vacation that renewed my energy and enthusiasm for life in Vietnam.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Vietnam: Day 2-Present, Part VI: December

December was a good month. We moved into the house on December 2nd and, for at least the next year, I finally had a place to call home. After living out of hotels for 3-months it was an enormous weight lifted from my shoulders and the move finally made me feel like I was making progress in relocating to Vietnam. Before finding the house, I was in an obscure place, somewhere between a tourist and an expat. I didn’t feel like I fit into either category and had felt somewhat displaced. The house restored a much needed sense of stability and belonging. I was eager to unpack my bags permanently, but first I had to take one last trip to Saigon.

Since I had decided to travel for a few months prior to settling down, I left most of my things with my friend, John, in Saigon. He was also in my CELTA course and had accepted a job at an International school there. In addition to getting my things and seeing John again, my friend, Sandy, and her husband, Robin, were also in Saigon.

Sandy and I have been friends since 2002. We met in the Republic of Kiribati where we lived and worked for two years as Peace Corps volunteers on tiny, little islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After our return from the Pacific, we kept in touch. We had even lived together in Vermont for a few months in 2005. She and her husband created the non-profit, gap year program, Thinking Beyond Borders, which provides the opportunity for recent high school graduates to work with local NGOs around the world to learn through service about public health, social, economic and environmental issues on a global scale. Coincidentally, the program was working on a sustainable agriculture project in Vietnam for the month of December.

So on December 12th, I returned to Saigon. Although I had chosen to live in Hanoi, it felt good to be back in the city where my journey had originally begun. It was now a relatively familiar place to me and landing for the second time felt very different from Day 1. It had been less than 3 months since I had stepped onto Vietnamese soil for the first time; and, in that time, I had completed my CELTA, traveled all over the country, secured a job at ILA and found a home. I had come a long way and was excited to see a friend who has known me through a number of my previous lives. Sandy was with me in Kiribati and Vermont and now we would meet again in Vietnam.

As soon as I exited the airport, I found a motorbike taxi to take me into my former stomping grounds and to one of my favorite restaurants, where I would meet both Sandy and John. It’s always surreal to see a familiar face in an unlikely setting, but Sandy and I adapted quickly, which is always easy to do as long as there’s food, beer and shopping to be had.

After just over 3 months of traveling with the program, she had lost a fairly significant amount of weight and needed to have all of her pants tailored. Luckily for her, I had made myself thoroughly familiar with the tailor shops in Saigon. After dinner, we went for drinks and made plans to do some shopping, tailoring and other errands over the next few days.

I was glad to be able to spend most of my time in Saigon with Sandy; John wasn’t feeling well during my stay and he also had to work. On the 17th, Sandy left for a whirlwind trip to Thailand. And a few days later, John and I left for Hanoi to do some traveling around the north. After a couple of days in Hanoi, we traveled to Ha Long Bay for 3 days and 2 nights along with my housemate’s friend, Cara, who was visiting from Australia. Although it was my second escape to the Bay, it certainly wasn’t any less beautiful or enjoyable. We had timed our Ha Long Bay trip to return to Hanoi on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.

As we were in a taxi on our way home, I switched on my cell phone and less than 2 minutes later, it rang. It was another friend of mine, Erika, who I had also met in the Republic of Kiribati. She was on holiday in Vietnam with her boyfriend. In the weeks prior, we hadn’t done a very good job of coordinating our itineraries via email. I had been under the impression that she was arriving in Hanoi on the following day and was surprised to discover that she was already in the city. I quickly gave them my address and they arrived soon afterwards. Having both Erika and John with me was an amazing gift for Christmas.

We had a Christmas party at the house, which gave me the opportunity to meet and get to know many of my future co-workers at ILA. There was plenty to eat and drink, and we also played the Thieving Secret Santa gift exchange game, which our Vietnamese co-workers especially enjoyed. It was their first exchange of the type and each time a gift was stolen away their reactions were hysterical. Among the gifts were a Santa suit (complete with beard) and a machete!

After Christmas, John and I were planning to go to Sapa together, but luckily I was able to opt-out, guilt-free, since Cara and John got along so well and were happy to be travel companions. I, on the other hand, was happy to stay home and relax for a few days. Not only had I recently traveled to Sapa with Adam, but I was also exhausted from all the events of the month. Staying behind gave me some downtime and the opportunity to process and reflect.

Seeing Sandy and Erika had reminded me of my life in Kiribati. It had certainly been a challenge, but I found myself missing the simplicity of life there. It’s true that while we were living there we joked about minutes often feeling like hours, the days like weeks, and the weeks like months. But, each time we stepped onto our beach-front property, we felt the sand beneath our feet and every breeze that came our way. We were present in even the simplest moments. The other thing about life in Kiribati was that merely being there was enough—at least for the time being. We were stripped of our western clothing, make-up, and material possessions. And, unless we intended to marry a local, dating wasn’t a culturally appropriate option. So finding a relationship was another twenty-something concern that we didn’t have. Living in Kiribati was simply about being you.

Just over four years later and at the end of another year, I found myself living in another foreign country, with significantly different living conditions, yet still searching for the same thing. I am still looking for some kind of peace to settle my fears that life won’t pass me by and; that someday I will become a small part of a greater whole. For as long as I can remember, I have always been acutely aware of the passage of time. I have always felt that it will catch up to me long before I’m ready.

In 2005, I was working in an Assisted Living facility for seniors, when a 93-year-old woman said to me, “I never thought that I would be this old. I don’t know why, but I thought that I would be young forever.” In that moment, I saw myself in her and I was reminded again that I don’t want to ever find myself asking what happened? How did I get here? I have continued to believe that as long as I remain true to myself, live life with intention, and choose without regret that things will eventually fall into place. And although I recognize that I have come a long way from where I began, it still doesn’t feel like enough. I can’t help but to wonder what kind of life I will have lived when I get "there."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Vietnam: Day 2-Present, Part V: The House & The People

I spent a couple of rainy days in Danang before heading back to Hanoi. My goal upon my return was to locate housing. I had planned to find a 2-bedroom with my friend, Jess, but I soon realized that the trend for single, expats living in Hanoi is generally to rent a fully furnished, 4 or 5-bedroom house and to split the costs, which is much cheaper than renting a 1 or 2-bedroom apartment. Houses are also easier to find. Also, my friend and classmate in the CELTA course, Zach, had accepted a position at ILA and had begun teaching in the beginning of November. Upon my return to Hanoi, he was still living out of a motel and was interested in finding a place with Jess and I.

We were at a coffee shop, named Puku, meeting to discuss living together and the housing search when we came across an ad hanging from the bulletin board. Puku is popular among foreigners so there are often expat housing ads and other relevant flyers posted there. The ad we saw described a fully furnished house with laundry included and, since it was in the same neighborhood in which Jess was already living, we knew that it was in a good location. We called immediately and Zach and I went to look at it straightaway.

The house had 3 floors, 5-bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a huge kitchen, living room, foyer, 2 balconies and a rooftop terrace, as well as, a yard filled with plants and even a couple of small, fish ponds. It was also ideally located between the Old Quarter and our work and it was a short 3-minute walk to the Botanical Gardens (a place for me to run!). In addition, it’s an older house, which means it has far more character than most of the modern, Vietnamese houses today, which are all pretty much rectangular in shape with one, white room stacked on top of another white room. Their layouts don’t really foster a social atmosphere and also tend to lack a certain warmth and coziness. Our house, on the other hand, is wide and sprawling, with French-style windows and high ceilings. The bedrooms are painted in soft colors, with long, flowing curtains hanging from each window.

Zach and I really liked the house. He had already looked at a number of houses and felt that this was the best one he had seen. The only gliche was that it was 5-bedrooms, which Zach liked because he wanted to keep costs down and to live with a group of others. I worried that Jess wouldn’t be interested, not only with finding other people to live with, but also with actually living with them. Jess had already been living in Hanoi for six-months. She had a boyfriend and her group of friends established, along with her lifestyle. I didn’t think moving into a house with a group of 4 new expats was her ideal scenario.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of saving money on rent and living with other expats since I didn’t really have a friend-base yet. And, prior to my travels with Adam, I had met a couple of others along the way who were also seeking housing. There was Isi, an Austrian who volunteers as a physiotherapist at the Children’s hospital, and Alicia, an Aussie who manages a local hotel. Both had arrived in Hanoi at about the same time as me and were still looking for somewhere to call home. If Jess was in, we had our five.

Unfortunately, as I had anticipated, Jess wasn’t interested in living with 4 other people. I struggled a bit between my original commitment to her and this new housing opportunity. In the end, Jess completely understood my point of view, especially since she would be leaving a full 9-months ahead of me, at which time, I’d either have to move or find a new flat-mate. If I moved into the house, I’d have stability for at least a year. Zach and Alicia were staying indefinitely and Isi was in Hanoi until at least August.

Since Jess opted out, we were still left with one room to fill. And luckily, Alicia’s friend and would-be co-worker, Brendan, was relocating to Hanoi in January. Alicia was willing to put up his portion of the security deposit and rent if we’d be willing to hold the 5th room for him. The housing search turned out to be fairly easy and came together far faster than I had expected, but I also think that we got lucky.

As far as the housemates are concerned, there’s Zach, an American born and bred in Oklahoma (who’s actually the first Oklahoman I’ve ever met outside of Oklahoma). I would describe Zach as the “pillar” of the house. He’s without a doubt the calmest and the most patient among us, and the easiest to talk to about anything I might have going on.

Alicia is probably the opposite of Zach. She’s bubbly and outgoing, ready and willing to talk to anyone and everyone, and is the social butterfly of the group. Prior to moving to Vietnam, Alicia had been living in Scotland, where she met Brendan. They are actually from the same town in Australia, but hadn’t previously met. Brendan had been travelling through Scotland and needed a place to crash for a couple of days. A mutual friend connected him with Alicia. A few days turned into a few months and they’ve been friends ever since.

Brendan’s a good guy, whose laid-back, caring and fun-loving nature is endearing. At the age of 24, he can sometimes seem quite young, but he also has a side to him that is far more mature than most men his age. It’s the balance between the two that makes Brendan the kind of guy who’s like a brother to everyone. Alicia was in need of a partner to help her in the design and opening of a new hostel. It was Brendan who responded to that need. He gave up his job in Australia, broke up with his girlfriend and arrived in Vietnam a couple of months later. He’s young enough to still possess his sense of adventure, and mature enough to take on a daunting and challenging project with seriousness and a lot of hard work.

Lastly, there’s Isabella, or Isi, as we all call her. I’m tempted to just write that she’s Austrian, but I don’t believe that that would truly do her justice. Initially, Isi gives the impression of being a bit…um, grumpy, but the more I get to know her, the more I realize how kind-hearted and caring she is. It seems strange to refer to Isi as “sweet,” but regardless, she is. Not only does she volunteer at the Children’s Hospital, but she also volunteers her time at an organization that works with street children called, The Blue Dragon. She’s very close with her family and has a niece that she dotes on from thousands of miles away. For the most part, she does her own thing, but has formed a unique and solid relationship with each, individual housemate.

Five different people from 3 different countries, bringing a variety of different experiences from around the world: A typical, expat household in Vietnam.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Vietnam: Day 2-Present, Part IV: Ba Na Mountain

After Adam left, I trudged through the next few days with little enthusiasm for traveling on my own. I made a valiant attempt at exploring a new place solo when I made the journey to Ba Na Mountain, which is outside of Danang.

I had intended to stay in Danang for an evening in order to take some time to decide what to do next. I had read about several options in my guidebook. However, when I arrived in Danang and located my chosen hotel, I discovered that it was closed and under-construction. At the very same moment, a motorbike taxi driver had spotted me and quickly pulled up beside me. “Motorbike? Where are you going?” Hmmmm, I thought to myself, Where am I going? I took the two events combined as a sign that I wasn’t meant to stay in Danang for the evening. And, I suddenly heard myself blurt out, “Ba Na Mountain.”

My experience at Ba Na Mountain was definitely an adventure, but more appropriately classified as a misadventure. It is an old French Hill Station at 1485m above sea level and was used by the French as an escape from the summer heat. The Lonely Planet guidebook says, “Rain usually falls in the section between 700m and 1200m above sea level, but around the hill station itself, the sky is usually clear, the view is spectacular, and the air is fresh and cool.” There is no mention of there being an off-season and, unbeknownst to me, that’s exactly what time of year it was. I would discover that during the off-season, it is often rainy and consumed in dense fog, especially at the top around the hill station itself.

From the base of the mountain, the climb up is so steep and windy that it requires the hiring of a local, who has the skills and a high-powered motorbike, to complete the journey to the hill station. Initially, I thought that I had chosen well. As we ascended, I could see more and more into the valley below and the view was spectacular. But the higher we got, the colder and foggier it got and the less I could see. By the time we arrived at the only hotel, I could barely see five feet in front of me. In addition, I was informed (through mime since no one spoke English) that I was the one and only guest. I pondered the situation. I had chosen poorly.

I was determined to be just as content traveling solo as I was with Adam. I considered what I would’ve done if someone else were with me and I knew that I had to embrace the entire experience by staying for at least one evening. I arranged for the driver to pick me up the next morning at 8am and braced myself for a long, cold, damp evening of being with…me.

I was assigned a room, where I quickly put on a few more layers before heading out to explore. There were stone walkways and staircases surrounding the area, which combined with the approaching nightfall, fog and quiet, created a pretty eerie atmosphere. The first thing I came upon was a monkey in a cage. Well, at least I’m not the only guest, I thought. I continued down a staircase and ended up in a large walled-in open area. In the center sat a stone Buddha, 24-meters high and, even though it was engulfed by fog, it still impressed upon me feelings of awe and wonder. It was amazingly peaceful and I couldn’t help but to feel like I was in some kind of magical, fairytale land. I continued on down more stone staircases and walkways that led through the forest and around the mountaintop until I was too scared to go any further. At which point, I decided to head back to the hotel.

Once I was back to the safety of my room, I assured myself that I had made the most of the experience; I had done my best and now it was time to buckle-down until morning. It was probably around 4pm when I crawled beneath the covers, fully-clothed, with You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers. I was prepared to read until it was a reasonable enough time to go to sleep.

Three hours and a hundred or so pages later, there was a knock at my door. It was the old man from reception. He was smiling and excited. He gestured for me to follow him. I quickly put on my shoes and he led me to another room. With a wide grin, he pointed at a German couple that was being shown the room, “Frien,” he said. He was so happy for me that I couldn’t help but to smile and I cannot deny that I did feel a bit of relief at the sight of them.

We introduced ourselves and I went along with them as they were being shown the more expensive rooms available. They were on a prepaid tour and it was those rooms which were included. We walked to another building that was across the courtyard. When we initially saw the room, it appeared as though it was so clean that the floors and staircases gleamed. But as we stepped into it, we realized that it was actually covered in a centimeter of water. The air was so filled with moisture that a layer of condensation had formed, covering every surface. Neither the German couple nor I let on that the accommodations were a bit under par. Suffice it to say, they elected to stay in the building where my room was located.

Later that evening, we laughed together at the absurdity of the entire situation. The Vietnamese had so proudly taken us to the "more expensive" building and had been quite surprised that the couple didn’t choose to stay there. We chatted through the evening, swapping travel stories. They had booked the trip in Germany as a full tour and Ba Na Mountain was part of the itinerary. They just assumed that since they only had a few short weeks, that a professional, Vietnamese tour company would be their best bet as far as making the most of their trip and getting to the best places, easily. It was a fair assumption, but then again, welcome to Vietnam.

Then it was my turn and the woman asked me how I had come to Ba Na Mountain. I told her that I had read about it in my guidebook and, in my experience, hill stations are usually quite pleasant and beautiful. She asked me how I had gotten to the top, and I told her that I had taken a motorbike. A look of astonishment came over her face as she proceeded to express how brave she thought I was for coming on my own. How much of a difference is there between brave and stupid? I wondered.

The next morning, we said our goodbyes and wished each other happy and safe travels. I hopped on the back of my driver’s bike, glad that I had survived the night at Ba Na and looking forward to returning to Danang and civilization.

I guess not all coincidences are signs, but I’m gonna keep looking out for them anyway.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Vietnam: Day 2-Present, Part III: Adam

After my first couple of weeks in Hanoi, my friend, Adam, arrived from Vermont on November 9th. I was excited to see him, but definitely a bit nervous about us being travel companions. Adam was one of the first people I met when I moved to Vermont in 2005 (and one of the first people I told that I was leaving). Over the years, we had gotten to know each other fairly well and had had our good moments and our bad moments. Like most close friends, we knew each other well enough to know that sometimes we’d like to kill each other.

As soon as Adam arrived, we hit the ground running. The morning after his arrival, we were off to the Perfume Pagoda, which is a day trip from Hanoi. The morning after that, we were off to Ha Long Bay for 3 days and 2 nights. On the return boat trip from Ha Long Bay, we decided to head straight to Sa Pa on the night train that same evening. We spent 5 wonderful days in Sa Pa and then took the night train back to Hanoi. Upon our return, we headed for Jess’ place for a quick shower and to repack our bags prior to getting on a plane that afternoon to our final destination together, Hoi An.

With such a fast-paced, packed itinerary, I would have placed my bet on the ‘kill each other’ end of things. Instead, he had been a perfect travel partner for me. He was social and got along well with all the other travelers we met along the way. He wanted to experience as much as possible in 2 weeks, which kept me motivated and saying yes! Yes, to the Thy wedding party we were invited to in Sa Pa. Yes, to renting motorbikes and driving through the countryside. Yes, to staying out too late and drinking too much. Oh yes, to designing my very own custom fit leather boots in Hoi An!

Along with all of the guesthouses, buses, boats, trains, planes, motorbikes and pushbikes, our time together was filled with laughter, good food, good conversation and adventure. His visit meant a lot to me. Even though, at that time, I had only been away for a mere two months, I was missing Vermont and my friends. I was still questioning myself and hadn’t yet made new friends. His mere presence provided me with the connection that I needed between my former life in Vermont and my future life in Vietnam. In the end, I was reminded that the other side of the world really isn’t so far away after all.