Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Playing Around in Prague

I arrived safe and sound in the beautiful city of Prague. It is so lovely here, every street is cute and cobblestoned, and around every corner is an impressive looking gothic church. It would be so different to live in a city like this - though I think I think that about every non-North American city I visit.

I arrived last night after a pretty easy travel day (thanks to Jerry and business class aeroplan tickets!!) LOVE the business class seats that pretty much recline flat. And the airport lounges with free food and drink. So nice.

Leaving the airport, I took a bus, a subway and a metro to our hotel (easier than it sounds). The hotel is nice and modern, which is basically why I picked it. It's called the Red and Blue Design Hotel, with each room decorated in - you guessed it - red or blue. (We're in a Red room).

After I checked in, it was about 8pm so I headed back out to make sure that I stayed up until a reasonable hour before going to sleep. I walked down the major street near the hotel and checked out the big new shopping center around the subway station. Our hotel isn't in the main part of town, just a little bit away, so there isn't much going on right around it. After peering in a bunch of restaurants and looking at menus, I found a tiny cafe where a cute family was eating, and figured it was a good starting place to have dinner. I ordered smaszeny syr, which is basically battered, fried cheese. Yes, it's like my dream on a plate. It came with potatoes (apparently they could be served many different ways, I ended up with crinkle-cut fries), and mayonesa, which was actually a delicious fresh tartar sauce. Also, I had a nice sparkling raspberry juice. Not bad for about $4USD. I will try to upload a photo of the cheese soon, but you can probably imagine it - it's like a large, rectangular mozzarella stick. I couldn't finish it though, partly psychological (really, should one eat THAT much fried cheese in one sitting?), partly because it was just really filling.

After a quick stop at Tesco (a giant supermarket) for water, it was then back to the hotel to bed. This morning I woke up and had breakfast at the hotel (a decent buffet) and forced myself to go out and walk around. I was actually pretty exhausted from jetlag and the travel, so it was very tempting to just go back to sleep until Donald arrived. But I'm glad I went out, because it was is so enjoyable just walking around this city. Plus (a huge plus), the weather is awesome. It's quite cool right now, mostly sunny and not muggy nor rainy. Perfect sightseeing weather.

I walked from our hotel area (Smichov) up into Mala Strana (the are beneath the Prague castle) and then across the Vltava river via Karlov Most (the famous Charles Bridge) into Stare Mesto (Old Town). I didn't do much stopping/reading the guidebook/picture taking because I knew I'd just be doing it again with Donald.

I had lunch at a reastaurant that seemed a bit "off the beaten path" and had a lot of locals. I ordered a pork noodle dish that had no noodles. Sigh. I don't think Czech food is particularly tasty in general - hearty and filling, yes, but not really nuanced. (Yes, that includes the big slab of fried cheese I happily tucked into last night). And vegetables... hm... where are they? There is often one slice each of tomato and cucumber with your entree but that's about it. Let's hope I am proven wrong over the next couple of days!

I walked back over the Most Legii (a bridge south of the Charles bridge) and back to the hotel, where proceeded to wait for Donald's arrival (i.e., take a nice long nap). Donald came and we set out pretty much immediately for the Nove Mesto area, as we wanted to get tickets for a concert tonight. There is a summer music festival called "PROMS" on, and tonight they were playing Mahler. We go the tickets, then did some sightseeing around the concert hall. We went up the astronomical clock tower (probably the most commonly taken photo in Prague is of the clock), and walked around the Old Town Square. The concert was in the art nouveau Municipal Theater, which was recently renovated and is really quite beautiful. The concert was good, though I always wonder how people can fall asleep to something like Mahler, with all the sudden crescendos and accents.

After the concert we ended up at a microbrewery recommended by our guidebook. I'd gotten it into Donald's head that we should eat pork knuckle, a specialty here that I'd attempted to eat when I was last here 10 years ago. We got some (and picked it clean, all 1700 grams of it), along with some sour cherry beer (not bad!) and the ubiquitous dryish bread that is served here. (Again, bread, not a strong point of the Czech culinary scene.)

By then it was about 11 and we want to get up early tomorrow to tackle the Castle, so we came back to the hotel. Now it's a little studying of Prague history, and bedtime!

I'll try to post some pics tomorrow (I actually brought the camera cord this time...). It's nice to have a (Donald's) laptop and wi-fi! Hope you'll Czech out my upcoming posts! Hehe.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Now it's Eastern Europe or Bust!

Tonight I fly to Frankfurt and then on to Prague tomorrow. Donald joins me on the 7th. We'll spend a few days in Prague, then 1 night in Cesky Crumlov, and then take the night train to Krakow. After 2 days in Krakow, we'll take another night train to meet up with Peggy and Jerry in Budapest on the 15th.

Brian arrives on the 16th, so we'll all have a nice weekend in Budapest before we get on the boat to cruise down the Danube, stopping at several cities/countries and finally ending up in Istanbul for a couple of days. It should be a wonderful trip with a lot of family time! Hopefully we will post while we're away, so keep your peepers peeled!

Living the Life in Hong Kong

After my time in Vietnam, Hong Kong was pretty much 9 days of luxury. Through my dad, I had arranged to stay with my aunt Adele and uncle Bernard (my mom's brother) in their apartment in Jordan, a pretty convenient/touristy area of Kowloon. It turned out however, that their place was quite crowded (my cousin Kelvin had come back for the summer) and so I actually ended up staying in a hotel just a few doors down from them. It was really lovely, because I got to have a lot of privacy and freedom but they were just steps away.

Let's be honest. I spent most of my time eating and shopping. Sometimes with relatives, sometimes on my own. I spent time with aunt Adele, Uncle Bernard and their daughter, Adele (her name is actually Catherine but she likes to go by Adele!), who is 4.5 years old. She is incredibly smart and polite, and it was lovely to meet her. She has a really vivid imagination, and seems to have a strong moral code already. Adele and Bernard are very busy (he is a popular doctor there, and they are putting together a huge charity event) but they graciously made time to see me. We had several meals together, and even spent a day in China (just across the border, in Shenzhen). I was really humbled by their generosity and kindness.

I also spent some time with my Aunt and Uncle on my dad's side, and my cousin Milly. It was wonderful seeing them too. I have actually seen them quite a bit because they are the parents/sister of my cousin Michael, who lives in LA with his wife Valerie and kids Brian and Sabrina, and whom I spent quite a bit of time with while I lived in LA. In HK, I had some great meals with them (memorable pineapple buns, egg tarts, dim sum, and Thai food) and went up to Victoria peak with my aunt and uncle. (I will talk more about the food when I post photos, I promise!)

I was also able to see a friend from grad school, Mo, and his wife Qiao Bing while I was in HK, which was great. Mo was also a psych grad student at USC, where he met Qiao Bing (a grad student in Social work). She is now a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and he is working on some market analysis for his old advisor's husband. Small world! We had a dinner and a lunch together, and they showed me around the university which is a bit north of the city, on a hill, and quite beautiful. How fun it was to see friends in such a different context!

On my own, I did a little sightseeing - some temples, a nunnery, a pink dolphin boat cruise from Lantau Island. I guess I don't think of HK as much of a sightseeing place, more a center of commercialism. I'm sure that's unfair, and maybe I have some bias because I have been there before (last time was in 2005 for my grandfather's funeral). But don't get me wrong - I was happy to mostly just shop and eat this time around! It was pretty much exactly what I wanted after Vietnam. I'm not sure what it says about me - probably just that I like to shop - but I think in Vietnam because the country is much more poor, I felt funny spending money. In contrast, in HK where every mall has a Louis Vuitton, it felt much more... normal. Expected, even. Not that I spent THAT much money, but it was definitely fun to look! People would ask if I missed Brian or wished he was with me, and I would say, honestly, if he were here (in HK) with me, it would be a much different trip. I.e., not nearly as much shopping (but probably more eating!) and more sightseeing. That wouldn't have been bad at all, but I was really enjoying the trip I was on!

A note about food - I ate well in HK but it was definitely not on the level at which we attacked food in Japan. I guess because I was eating with relatives most of the time, I didn't really seek out specific places or even necessarily types of food. I had lovely Chinese pastries though (bakeries are all over the place, and everything is good!), several dim sum meals, and plenty of street snacks (fried squid tentacles in a paper bag, curry fish ball skewers, and pan fried noodle sheet rolls, to name a few). Oh, and probably the best wonton noodles I've ever had - chewy, toothsome, flavorful. So good.

By the end of my time in HK I was definitely ready to come home, but I also knew that I would miss the life of luxury I had been living! It certainly helped to know that I was coming home to my summer off and that I wouldn't have to go to work anytime soon, but it was a bit of a hard transition! Of course, it has been great reuniting with Brian, continuing to settle in to our new apartment, and seeing Chicago friends. Also, preparing for the next adventure in Eastern Europe!

Thanks for sticking around for the trip report on Vietnam and HK. I'll post when I FINALLY insert photos into the posts.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

One night in Saigon

So obviously I am back in Chicago while I'm writing this - my last couple of days in Vietnam were quick and then I had limited internet access in HK, so I didn't really get a chance to update the bjourn. I'll try to finish up about the trip and then post some photos, so here goes! **Ummmm I am writing this a few hours before my flight to Prague, so it is unlikely that I'll get those photos posted anytime soon. Sigh. At least I hope to finish writing about the trip before I go(HK post next), and then I'll go back and insert photos - hopefully - soon!

I forgot to mention in the last post that, on the way back to my hotel from the opera house in Ha Noi, I stopped in at a popsicle store - not just any popsicle store, but a very popular stall where people were mobbing a few ladies standing behind coolers filled with fruity popsicles. There were actually a couple of storefronts right next to each other, with tons of wrappers and used sticks littering the street in front. Heading home, I was emboldened by the heat, and pulled out a 5000dong note (about 35cents) and joined the fray. I basically just pushed myself into the crowd, smushing in amongst a lot of sticky, sweaty skin, and held out my money hoping one of the ladies would help me. When I made the much-coveted eye contact, I ordered: "mot sue dua" (one coconut). She gave me a taro one and I firmly shook my head. "Khong, sue da". She gave me the right flavor, and I extracted myself from the crowd triumphantly. It melted quite quickly on the way home, but I was pretty proud of myself!

The next day I woke up for my early flight to Saigon, but found that my flight was delayed a few hours. Rescheduled my transfers, then went back to sleep. I got in to Saigon easily, and then went to get my hair permed. I had intended to get a digital perm like what I have been getting (and loving) back in Chicago for the past year or so, but it ended up being...not so great. Let's just say it did not turn out like I had expected nor wanted. It was much cheaper than in the US, but I guess you truly get what you pay for. Anyway, after the perm I called the girls from Habitat - Sengmin and Cathy, and arranged the evening's activities. Sengmin picked me up at my hotel - she is adorable. She's a student in Korea but taking a bit of a break to work for Habitat in Saigon. Cathy is actually a Vancouverite who has been living in Saigon for the last 4 years, freelance writing for various charities. They both came to My Tho with us and worked on the build. I was pretty excited to spend my last night in Saigon with them.

We went over to Vincom Center, which is the huge posh shopping center downtown. Cathy and her friend were at Carl's Jr. (Yes, Carl's Jr. It is the first fast food burger place to open in Saigon - possibly the country - and it had just opened a couple of days earlier, so it has been mobbed. I only then realized that there were no McDonald's anywhere that we'd been. Apparently they do not pass the "local needs" test that is required of foreign companies that want to come to Vietnam, so they haven't yet infiltrated the country. Amazing!) Both Cathy and Sengmin talked about the things they miss in Vietnam - fast food, doughnuts, Starbucks, etc. I guess I actually enjoyed this about the country - that every restaurant was a one-off, not a franchised pre-fab. All the food is incredibly fresh, whether you're eating in a fancy, air-conditioned tablecloth restaurant or right on the street on a plastic stool. I can see their point, I guess, that after a while sometimes you just want the not-so-good-for you greasy stuff, or the coffee that you know will taste the same no matter where you are. (Who needs starbucks when you have Cafe Sue Da, the amazingly strong vietnamese coffee served with 2 tablespoons of condensed milk?? Mmmmmm. (On the build some of us wondered why we weren't losing weight. I'm sure it had nothing to do with drinking 2 or 3 of these a day...)

We ate dinner in Japanese cafe in the same building, then spent some time in the supermarket (also in Vincom Center), picking out Vietnamese specialties (coffee, tea, candies) for me to take as gifts. After that, we walked down to the Majestic Hotel and had drinks at a bar overlooking the Saigon river. Quite a nice way to finish my time in Vietnam!

Back to the hotel, I packed up and got ready to move on to Hong Kong. What an amazing 3 and a half weeks. Vietnam can be both beautiful and difficult. I am so glad I went there, but I am not sure that I need to go again (given all the other places in the world I haven't been yet). I am especially proud to have been part of the Habitat team, because I feel like we did some great work and forged some terrific friendships that I look forward to developing. In fact, a great couple (Andrew and Emily) live in Chicago and I hope to get to know them better on our own turf. I hope to see Michal and Basia, two teammates from Warsaw, in Krakow in a couple of weeks. And when I go to LA in September I will call up Farhan and Amin, two more teammates who live there. I guess building houses, and celebrating with dance parties and karaoke are pretty great ways to make new friends!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Having a ball in Ha Noi

**Crazy, I apparently wrote this while I was in Ha Noi, but never got around to publishing it...**

Yesterday (5/29) went really smoothly, which was nice given that we did a lot of travel. The bus/ferry trip from Cat Ba back to Ha Noi was really easy (just like on the way there, but today we weren't all discombubulated because we'd just gotten off the night train. If you ever do that trip, I highly recommend the Thanh Luong bus company - only 180000d/person (about $9 USD) and it's really easy. Don't bother going on a tour just to get to Cat Ba!

We arrived in Ha Noi around noon, and cabbed to my hotel. I had found this hotel through my guidebook and some online searching, and it seems to have been a great find. It's not super cheap but again, I think I am past the backpacker/hostel phase, and I have to admit that I like the details, like good service, king-sized bed, etc. Beth was flying out in the afternoon, so she came with me and stashed her stuff in my room. We went for lunch at a wonderful place called Sohot, which had a really nice decor (lots of floral, damask, pillows, etc.) and actually quite good, seemingly authentic food.

After that it was basically time to say goodbye, so Beth got in a car and off she went to the airport. I was on my own! A strange feeling after 3 weeks of traveling with other people. Before I started on this trip, Beth and I had actually emailed a bit because we both knew the other was going to travel after the Habitat build. I was always too busy and hadn't done any trip planning, so we didn't really have any firm plans to travel together when we started the build. I kept thinking that it would be nice to travel with someone (if they were cool!), but that I would be just fine on my own. I'll just say that I am so so glad that things worked out the way they did. Beth and Casey were great travel partners, and in the end I am relieved that I wasn't on my own. This country has a lot of wonderful qualities, but it can be hard going at times, mostly because of the communication difficulties you encounter everywhere. I think I would have been quite intimidated and lonely had I been alone this past week, even though I think of myself as a fairly smart, intrepid traveler. Since we'd had a great week of travel after the build, though, I felt fine after Beth was gone. I'll miss her of course, but I was looking forward to having another go at Ha Noi.

So after Beth left I headed back out to do some shopping - I haven't really seen much that I want for myself (everything we get in the US is made here anyway, so there's nothing really unique! Kidding, but nothing much has struck my fancy except the big paintings I bought in Saigon). But I wanted to find some things to bring to my relatives that I'm visiting in Hong Kong. There really isn't anything here that they can't get in Hong Kong, so I know it's kind of silly, but it's one of those things you must do, and I didn't have much room in my bag to bring anything from Chicago. So I bought some things for them (and maybe a couple of small things for me ;) ) and walked around the old quarter again.

I bought a ticket to the Water Puppet show at 6:30pm (first class for $3), and had about an hour. I decided to get a snack, and then if I was still hungry after the show I could eat later. Really close to the water puppet theater there was a mob of Vietnamese people sitting on the sidewalk. (Well, on teeny plastic stools). They were all eating the same thing that was being made by a woman with a mobile stand, a small plate of what looked like a salad. The distinct smell of nuoc mam (fish sauce) emanated from their plates. I jumped in, and sat down. Immediately a young woman came up and asked what I wanted. I pointed to the plates of someone near by, and said "mot, mot" meaning, one (pointing to a salad plate), and one (pointing to a fresh spring roll). She ran away and a few minutes later I got my food. The spring roll was great, and the salad was pretty good too! Crunch green papaya, peanuts, nuoc mam, lots of herbs, bean sprouts, and some beef items. There was something like flat, thin beef jerky (I saw the woman snipping it with scissors), pieces that were more like bbq pork, and then some other really chewy ones that I didn't love. It was quite tasty though, and quick, and only 70000d (3.50 USD). I loved sitting right there, almost on the ground, eating with the locals. Other foreigners walked by and commented on how tasty things looked, but I think they were too intimidated so they kept on going. So fun!

The water puppet show was not that great, mostly because of course it was all in Vietnamese. And it had pretty low production values - so most of my laughs were at the fact that I could see the puppeteers' hands pulling back the curtains, etc. It was fun though, and the little kids in the audience seemed to really enjoy it. For $3, as Casey said (he went to it a couple of days before), who can complain?

After that I walked around, and had dinner at another place near St. Joseph's Cathedral. Hue beef noodles with some spring rolls. Since Beth, Casey and I had had a lot of "western" or french food recently, I was trying to think if I felt like I'd had enough authentic Vietnamese food. I'm pretty satisfied with what I've had - especially because that's about all we were eating in My Tho during the build. Not a ton of street food, but enough, and I think for the sake of my GI system, it's been the right amount. So I'm quite happy with my eating on the trip (whew!) And of course, Hong Kong is yet to come so the good eats will just continue on.

After dinner I walked around the lake to the Opera House, which was built by French colonialists modeled on the Palais Garnier in Paris. It is quite pretty, and is right in a really busy traffic circle so it was quite the urban scene. Can't wait to post photos of everything.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Totally relaxed in Cat Ba

Our last day in Sa Pa was really foggy and quite rainy - still felt like a relief from the heat of Southern Vietnam! Casey and I went on a "trek" which was really just taking a minibus up to a waterfall, climbing up some stairs (quite a few) around the waterfall, coming down, and going back on the bus to a higher point, the Tram Ton Pass. Unfortunately visibility was about 2 feet from there, so we couldn't do the trekking bit that is supposed to be nice around there. We got back on the bus and headed home! The rest of the day was just running around, getting prepared for our night train back to Ha Noi.

The night train was much better this time, as the a/c was working fine for the most part, and the train was cool when we got on. Thank goodness! We arrived in Ha Noi at 4:50am, where Beth and I parted ways with Casey (sniff sniff). He was staying in Ha Noi for one night and then flying out of Saigon the day after - though he just told me via facebook that his flight to Hong Kong was canceled so he's in Saigon still. Weird! That's the same flight I take on Monday, so I hope it was just a fluke that his was canceled.

After saying goodbye to Casey, Beth and I cabbed over to the Ha Noi bus station and caught the 5:20am bus to Cat Ba. Well, after a couple of bus transfers and one ferry ride, we arrived on Cat Ba Island. This is a big vacation spot for the Vietnamese, and it's quite lovely. Many people like to take boat tours from Ha Noi that go into Ha Long Bay, because there are huge limestone rock formations ("karsts") that rise out of the ocean. I don't think all that many foreigners make it to Cat Ba (a little farther away), but from here you can sail to Ha Long bay or Lan Ha Bay, which also has those formations. We came here mostly because Beth really wanted to do some rock climbing, and convinced me to do it too (!) So we arrived on Cat Ba and, after our little splurge for a nice hotel in Sa Pa, we had every intention of being a bit more frugal. We checked into the Noble House hostel, showered, and even took a nap on the rock hard bed. AFter that though, we grabbed a nice lunch at the Green Mango restaurant, and walked down to Cat Co 3 Beach, which is the home of the Sunrise Resort... big mistake! We had been debating all week about whether we should just stay there, as it is really lush. Once we saw it, we were hooked. It is definitely more expensive than other options here, but it's not that much since, after all, we're in Vietnam. And we asked for and received a deal. Anyway, it's great, there is a semi-private beach, pool, plenty of a/c, and good food.

After moving here the first night, we went back into town to attend a trip planning meeting at Slo Pony, the climbing/touring outfitters here run by Americans. Actually, it is the first and only climbing company in Vietnam, started by someone who went to Beth's university. At the meeting, we found out that several other people were interested in a climbing trip, so we were all set. Then it was off for dinner (yummy fresh crab, and noodles) and back to our paradise for a good night's sleep.

We didn't do much in the morning - I spent a good deal of time on the internet getting my flight back to Saigon, hotel in Saigon, etc.) and then we met up with the climbing group at 12. They bused us out to the site, we had lunch, and then it was up the mountain we go! I've climbed a couple times (literally, twice) and quite liked it, but it was a while ago, so I was pretty nervous. Beth is a monster in terms of all things sporty/outdoors, so she was really amped. I did 3 climbs, and had some trouble with the first (we thought it was the hardest!), but still finished it. The other 2 felt like cake in comparison. The hardest thing is to stop on the way up and get stuck, because it is so hard to keep going. But lots of shouts of encouragement from below were awesome motivation! Anyway, it was a really fun afternoon - and I've got a ton of shin bruises and scrapes to prove it, and the group we went with was pretty cool. Beth did awesome. The guides even set up an advanced climb and she did it without slipping. She's a maniac! [I think I mentioned that she summitted Mt. Fansipan in one day, when usually it's at least a 2 day affair. Her guide didn't even want to take her at first. When she walked in to book him, he said that her skin was so pale, he knew she worked in an office so he didn't think she could make it. I guess guides also don't like to take women... But she did it, and was amazing. We just met a couple who had her guide for a trek a couple of days after. They said he was very impressed with her, and even HE had to take the day after off, because he was so tired! She's legendary in Sa Pa!!]

When we got back into Cat Ba town, we stayed for the next trip planning meeting, where Beth was 'convinced' to go Deep Water Solo climbing. This means that you go out on the water in a kayak or boat, boulder onto a rock, and start climbing. No ropes, no harnesses, nothing. If you fall, you technically should just fall into the water. Pretty awesome, but quite scary!! They got a good group together and that's where she is right now. I of course bowed out because I probably wouldn't even make it onto the rock! Instead I opted for a very nice, relaxing day, which turned out to be amazing. I signed up for a boat tour (wanted to see those karsts!) last night, and this morning it turned out that I was the only one! Luckily there was no minimum so I basically got a private boat tour for 4 hours. I was able to tell the captain that I wanted to sail further than they normally go, not to stop for kayaking (I would totally have done it with another person, but we heard lots of stories of people getting lost/sucked into caves so I wasn't super keen to go at it alone), and to only spend a little time on "Monkey Island." The trip was superb. Lots of sailing, lots of karsts, a little beach time (with a short mountain trek), some monkey sightings, and a trip to a floating fishing operation that was really cool.

After that, I came back into town, had lunch (squid cooked with garlic - yum, though they don't really believe in cleaning seafood here so I had to take out the backbone, etc. myself) and came back to the resort. I just got out of a 2 hour massage (yes, 2 hours). It was heavenly. The masseuse was in all sorts of crazy positions - lots of mounting, walking on me, etc. and cracked many things I never even knew could crack. But I came out in a heady fog of bliss. Ahhhhhh.

Tomorrow morning we have one more delicious resort buffet breakfast (seriously, we are truly enjoying this resort) and then it's back on the bus/ferry to Ha Noi. I have one night there, Beth flies out in the afternoon), and then I have one more night in Saigon before I head to Hong Kong.

What a trip this has been! I am glad we followed up the seriously hard work with some seriously hard play. And Vietnam is so affordable, it's been nice to travel pretty comfortably without worrying about pinching pennies.

Oh, funny note - I am keeping track of how many times people say something to the effect of "BUT, you asian?" as in, they don't understand why I am "western" but look like them. (I'm up to 16 now.) It really confuses them. And they also lose interest, because I guess I'm not as exciting as a caucasian or european foreigner. We in North America (and other countries) are so used to being part of a multicultural society, but here, it's really not like that. They don't see many foreigners in general, I guess, and in particular "western" asians? It's really interesting. I've also been asked if I am Korean, Singaporean, and Japanese (not Chinese though!). So the Vietnamese don't seem to be able to distinguish among asians that well, either!

Well... time to sit by the pool and wait for Beth to return. Life is so hard!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Chilling in Sa Pa

Literally, chilling, because it's actually cool here! Not cold really, but very comfortable. We are in the mountains and it's such a refreshing change from the heat of the city.

The night train was a bit of an adventure. The cabin is very small (as expected), and at first the air conditioning wasn't working. Very scary flashbacks to a fateful night train that Paula and I took in Morocco during my Europe trip. Luckily, it started working again and then I felt fine (cold, even) during the rest of the night. The night train got us into Lao Cai at 5am, and then we were shuttled here to Sa Pa by about 7. We had a whole day just wandering around Sa Pa, which Casey calls "quaintly messy Swiss-Vietnamese". It's cute, kind of mountain village like Banff. Beth is doing a one-day summit of Mt. Fansipan (pretty arduous!) today, but yesterday we just wanted to take it easy. However, we ended up trekking around a mountain, which was more up and down than I thought. IT was really cool though, and of course we were rewarded with nice views.

We are staying at a really nice hotel (all three of us in one room!) called Chapa Garden, which is centrally located but a bit off the main road, so it's quite relaxing. We are also eating pretty well, so last night we had dinner in the restaurant of the Victoria Hotel, the fanciest hotel in town. It's still very affordable (I had a local smoked trout appetizer, and pasta with a local mushroom sauce for about $25). There is more French influence up here in the North than in Saigon, so we've had a lot of western food recently. Today I had some pho which was only $1, and pretty darn tasty.

It is definitely relaxing here, which is great. We spend another day here and then head back to Ha Noi (one more night train), where Casey will stay for a day and then head back to Saigon to fly home. Beth and I will go from Ha Noi to Ha Long Bay/Cat Ba island, where we want to do some water stuff (kayaking, touring the limestone caves), and some rock climbing. Then I have one more day in Ha Noi, one day in Saigon, then 9 days in Hong Kong.

It feels like I've been in Vietnam for a lifetime, and yet I still have so much more time on this trip. It's really been wonderful, but I'm certainly starting to miss creature comforts of home and being with Brian. Hong Kong will be great, because it'll just be relaxing and visiting relatives, etc. but I'm sure after a couple of days I'll be itching to go home!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hello from Ha Noi!

Now that the build is over (more on the last of it in a bit), I am traveling on with a couple of my Habitat teammates to points in Northern Vietnam. We flew from Saigon to Ha Noi this morning (on 2 hours of sleep...) and are taking a night train out to Sa Pa this evening... On the move!

So on Friday, we had the house dedications. We went to both houses, the unfinished one first, and heard some speeches, took some photos, and did a lot of crying (well, some of us did...). The owner of the first home cried a lot - I think he has a psychological condition which includes a lot of crying, but he seemed genuinely overcome with emotion at the ceremony. The second homeowner, whom we never really talked to on the site, said some words that really made me emotional, including the fact that we were a part of making his dream come true. The fact that that dream was simply to have a place to live is mindblowing to me. I am so incredibly glad that I took part in this, but it's important to remember that these are only 2 families out of so many that are living in substandard conditions. It's all been a good reminder to me to get back into volunteering, something I did a lot of when I was younger but have really neglected more recently.

After the dedications we had a little break and then took a field trip out to Xuan's (our fixer) aunt's house in the country. She lives on a farm, so we got to see rice paddies (dry at present but will become flooded soon for harvest in July), a pig and piglets, day-old puppies, and chili fields. It was really neat, a true, authentic experience, and Xuan's aunt was so gracious and cute.

Friday night, we had a big celebration for Erika, one of our teammates' birthdays. All build long, we have been eating well but we were in My Tho which is pretty small and less sophisticated than Saigon, so we did it up right in the city. We started out with drinks at a nice place called Temple, and then had dinner at a pretty upscale Vietnamese restaurant. Then we cabbed over to a club called Apocalypse Now and had an insane time on the dance floor. It's been a while since I've been out to a club, so it was really fun to get sweaty and dance the night away. We got back to the hotel about 2am, which was a little rough because my flight to Ha Noi departed at 6:30am...

So after the flight, we checked into a hotel just to have a place to stash our bags (pretty cheap between three of us). I'm travelling with two Americans, Beth who is an auditor in Sydney, Australia, and Casey, who is the director for the Governor's mansion in Sacramento (meaning he gets to plan parties and talk to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the kitchen). We then walked around the Old Quarter of the city for most of the day, having a nice lunch (smoked salmon eggs benedict, a nice change from all the Vietnamese village food we've been having. Don't get me wrong, I've loved it and will continue to eat it until I leave, but it was nice to have something a little different!) It is just as hot here as in Saigon, so it is pretty exhausting to sightsee, but I'm glad I got some of it done. I will have about 24 hours in Ha Noi later on, so I still have time to do other parts. The old quarter is interesting, as every street is kind of known for a different thing (street names mean things like "Cotton Street" or "Drum skin" though the meanings have changed over time). So we saw a street that had a lot of toy shops, one that had a lot of silk shops, some that had a lot of tin objects, etc. Pretty cool! And with all that stuff going on on the ground level, it can be so easy to forget to look up, but when we did we were rewarded with a lot of neat architecture (french influence, so it kind of looks like New Orleans, with balconies and shutters) and huge, super old trees. The old quarter used to be completely walled in until the mid 19th century, but it's mostly been dismantled save for the West gate, which we were able to see.

Hope to write more later, but now it's time to have some dinner and get ready to sleep on a train!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Last day of building, now it's just fun, fun, fun!

First, happy 2nd year anniversary to us! I wish we could have celebrated it together, but we did talk on the phone and we'll celebrate together soon!

So we have worked 3 more days and finished one of the houses (the plan all along was to finish one, and leave some of the 2nd one for the next Habitat team to finish). It is so exciting! Where once there was just a plot of dirt, we have put up brick walls (stucco'd over), created two rooms, a roof, a veranda, and laid down tile. (Our team decided together to purchase tile for the 2 families - since otherwise it would just have been cement floors in one house, and half cement/half tile in the other.

I have really enjoyed the work. There is something about sweating through your clothes while shoveling rocks or laying bricks that is a refreshing change from the everyday (especially when you're like me, and basically sit at a computer all day). And of course, being able to help provide a home to a family that otherwise was sleeping on a wooden bed, pretty much open to the elements, is pretty amazing. I have mostly been working on one house (which we lovingly call "the Condo" or "Townhouse") where the owners are slightly better off than at the other house. They are getting assistance from Habitat for Humanity and the local government, and will have to pay back a loan for the building cost. I spent a few days at the other site, where the landowner is quite a bit more poor. We call that one the "Lakeside property" because it is right on a teeny pond, where they go to the bathroom AND do their dishes/laundry. (Unlike in North America, land ownership in Vietnam is over 90% - so even if people are very poor they often have a parcel of land, they just may not have the money to actually have a house on that land, so they will live out of doors.) It is really an awesome feeling to be a part of this project, and to see how much of a difference we have made.

Tomorrow is our house dedication day, where we dedicate the houses to the owners. I'm not sure what is involved, but I think it will be emotional for me. Even today, when we had finished work for the day (because the house was pretty much done), I got a little teary. It's not at all a feeling of, "I made this house for these people" but just a happy feeling that because of something I took part in, two families will have a home to live in.

The construction supervisor on our site is pretty awesome, his name is Mr. Chanh and I love him. He is very structured and organized, always has a job for you if you ask, and is a pretty darn good dancer. Today he took me for a ride on his motorbike, which was so much fun. [Everyone has a motorbike here, and traffic is really anarchistic. Everyone goes every which way, there are no stop signs or lights, and it's pretty common to have 2 way traffic in every lane. I haven't seen any accidents, though, so I am sure there is a method to the madness that I can't see.] We also have had a few local workers on our site, and I got to work a lot of with Mr. Yo, who was pretty fun too. He warmed up over the build and started teaching me Vietnamese, so I know the words for mortar, water, paint, dry mortar, and some others.

I wanted to mention something about the food we've been eating. Everything has pretty much been provided by Habitat for the last two weeks, and it's been quite good. Vietnamese food seems to have a lot of overlap with Chinese so it's quite familiar to me. Some of the others on the team are not so used to the "funk" that is fish sauce, which is used in so many things here. Also, the main meat is pork, and I think that is unusual for a lot of Americans. I am loving it though. Also, the fruit here is amazing! Everyday, we get a morning and afternoon fruit break. We've had amazing mangos, dragonfruit, rambutan, "num num hook fruit" (can't remember the vietnamese name, but it tasted like pumpkin pie filling and you had to be careful not to eat the seeds, as they have a hook in them that will shred your insides on the way down), huge lychees, papayas, bong bong (kind of a lychee), watermelons, and pomelos. So good! Such a nice change from boring Chicago winter fruits.

I think we are doing a photo exchange, so I may try to post some photos eventually. There are a lot of sights and sounds here, so much to take in.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Back to work!

Aw man, I just wrote a nice long post and apparently it didn't save...sigh...

We just got back from a weekend trip down the Mekong river. We spent the weekend on little sampan boats, visiting the different islands around My Tho (Unicorn Island, Tortoise Island) and kind of being shuttled between different tourist spots (!) but it was pretty fun. We spent the night in Can Tho, which is about 2 hours away from My Tho, and from there we took a boat out to the floating markets around there. As with all tours we got a hard sell in a lot of places, but it was still really nice to be out on the water. Our hotel in Can Tho was pretty luxurious (they actually air conditioned the lobby! But sadly not the hallways, nor the elevators.) and the spa on the 3rd floor was a bit... full-service. Some of us have been getting massages in the evenings because they're quite cheap, and they've been quite normal, but apparently at this spa there was some inappropriate touching and rubbing, and questions of "do you want massage the baby?" Prostitution seems to be quite the problem in Can Tho (and I'm sure other big cities), even our tourguide seemed to be hinting that he could make arrangements if so desired. Yuck. I've heard plenty about prostitution in Thailand, but it seems to be a problem here in Vietnam as well.

On Friday before the weekend, we had a great day. We spent half a day building (laying more bricks! My bricklaying partner, Beth, and I got a very satisfying "perfect!" from our construction supervisor.) Then we went to a local school. We had pre-arranged this visit, and so people had brought school supplies and small things that we divvied up into packages to give to the kids. We got a nice intro to the school from the principal and some community leaders, and then went into a classroom where there were about 30 kids from several grades. They were so cute! They sang a song for us, and then we sang a song (can you guess which one? Yes, the Hokey Pokey is getting quite some play on this trip) for them. Then we gave out the packages. To be honest, the kids looked a little scared! As it is rude to open gifts in front of the gift giver in many asian cultures, the teachers had told them not to open them. Of course, when we left, they were tearing into them and showing each other. So cute! That was nice, and the teachers seemed to appreciate us coming.

That night (Friday) we celebrated the 50th birthday of one of our teammates. Our fixer, Xuan, arranged for us to have a dance party upstairs in a building that looks like a boat. Or it might have been a real boat, not really sure). I think it must be used for weddings, because we had a DJ, gobo lights, and even a stage. It was pretty awesome.

Tomorrow we are back at the build sites. We build for 3 full days Monday-Wednesday, and then on Thursday we have a house dedication ceremony, where we hand over the keys to the family. One of our houses should be finished, but the other was a bigger project and will probably be finished by the next Habitat team. How satisfying will it be to hand over the keys! It will be really nice to know that I had a hand in providing a family with a better place to live.

If you're interested in a health update, here goes: things have been generally fine except I've had a nasty case of heat rash, ugh. I think I just have to be really careful about the kind of sunscreen I use, and staying out of the sun of course. Stomach stuff has been ok except for recently, so I started taking some cipro (the antibiotic recommended for such issues). Everyone on the trip has been having troubles on and off (we're careful about water, but you never know) so it's funny how open we are about it all. Funny, and gross. Otherwise, I'm a-ok!

Missing home a bit, and of course my husband, but having a really fulfilling, fun time out here. After this week it's on to the next leg of my trip up to Northern Vietnam - more on that to come!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

We have been on our build for 3 days, and it's been amazing. Really hard work, but so satisfying and fun. I am on a team of 14 people, mostly from the US but also France, Korea, and Poland. We are working on two separate houses, about 5km away from each other. The two families that we are building the houses for are very poor, and are basically living on the land without much shelter, functional space, etc. It's really eye opening to think about how much we have, how much I take for granted. Even here, we spend all day on the build site, but we come back to our air-conditioned rooms and running water.

In the past couple of days I have done many things that I've never done before-mixing mortar with a shovel on the ground, laying bricks, tying rebar. It is about 39 degrees celcius, and the humidity is at about 70%. We try not to work in the sun for too long, and take tons of water breaks. At some points, we are sweating so much that it is just running down our necks/backs/legs, like someone is pouring water on us from above.

Last night the local community (we are in a town called My Tho) organized a "cultural exchange" for us. We didn't know what to expect, and it was pretty crazy. There were at least 100 people there, youth and adults, and we sat among them and talked about how we liked their country, etc. There were some speeches and then it basically turned into a karaoke night. We sang the Hokey Pokey to them and they sang all sorts of songs, including a pretty darn good rendition of a Backstreet Boys song.

We have been eating well because our local fixers are making arrangements for us. For lunch we get a box lunch on the build site (e.g. rice, chicken, vegetables) and for dinner we go out. Last night we had really good pho, or beef noodle soup. Delicious!

I need to get going but I will try to write more. I hope everyone is doing well (and keeping cooler than I!)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sunday in Saigon

This is my last day in Saigon (for now, will be flying out of here to Hong Kong so I'll probably spend another day in the city). Most of the Habitat team is here so we all went out today and had some tasty food (sadly, we tried to catch the "lunch lady" of Anthony Bourdain - No Reservations Fame but she wasn't cooking today. We did meet her though!)

It's still very hot but I think I'm acclimating, and just learning that you do not walk anywhere more than a couple of meters! Just grab a taxi, it's super cheap. Unless they scam you and take you out of the way (yes, happened to us, sigh).

Sorry for pictureless updates! I have been taking a few pictures but not as many as other people in the group, and I think we will just have a huge Picasa exchange site later on. There should be some great stuff. Some notables:

- SO MANY motorbikes on the street, and the complete anarchy that is traffic here. No accidents observed yet, though! And some pretty adorable kids riding in their parents laps.
- Fully exposed, probably incredibly dangerous electrical wiring on the streets. My roommate is an electrician and she is just incredulous at it all.
- Good food, so cheap. You can really eat well for next to nothing, it's amazing. I am very sad to be avoiding iced drinks, though, as they look delicious and would provide some much-needed refreshment!
- The Americans bombed the heck out of this country (not that I didn't know that before, but a visit to the War Remnants Museum yesterday sure emphasized it)
- Lots of pretty French colonial architecture
- No bahn mi (vietnamese sandwiches) yet, can you believe it? Soon, soon. It's actually *almost* too hot to be hungry. WHAT?? Yes, it's true. I don't have much of an appetite because of the heat. Sigh again.

I'm off to buy a plane ticket to Hanoi for after the build!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Safe and sound in Saigon

Hi everyone,

Made it to Saigon late last night after a 15hr flight to Hong Kong and another flight from HK to here. It's reallyreallyhot but luckily cool (not cold) drinks are pretty cheap!

Not much time to write but I wanted to let you know I'm fully alive!


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Update and upcoming...

I know I need to finish Japan bjourning (and yes, I will...) but I wanted to write a bit about what's happening over the next little while, because I'm pretty excited about it all. Here are some important points to touch on:

1) We moved apartments (duh!)
We really liked so many things about our old place, but we needed more space and moving northward, closer to Brian's work at Northwestern made a lot of sense given point no. 2, below. We are pretty much settled into the new place, and it's pretty great so far. 2bed/2bath, with garage parking, a balcony, and 2 lovely, ginormous walk-in closets. We'll post photos when things are a bit more set up, like last time. Excitingly, we have room for a dining area in the new place, so it has been nice to "eat like adults" once in a while, though I probably will still prefer sitting on the ground at the coffee table anyway. As my parents always said, I "eat like a beggar" and I am unapologetic about it! Very excited about the balcony too, as I have wanted a grill forever.

2) I got a new job, and even though I accepted the offer before Christmas, I don't start until the fall.
I'll be a management consultant, which is daunting and thrilling at the same time. I'm sure I'll write more about this later, maybe when it becomes "more real," but the process of deciding to leave academia and applying for/getting this job has been a small ordeal. In short, sometime over the last couple of years, I became less and less hopeful and motivated about continuing on the path I was on (toward becoming a professor), and eventually I decided to think about alternatives. I knew of consulting because a few of our friends and family are in the field (via academia, as well as more traditional routes) though I would say not many people in Psychology are very familiar with it. Well, more on that later, but for now let's just say I took a leap and somehow, thankfully, landed on solid ground. I feel really, really lucky. And I have to say that I couldn't have done it without a ton of support - from Brian first and foremost, but also from my advisor, family, friends, etc. Everyone has been so encouraging and helpful, whether it was just listening to me stress about it, or answering my MANY questions about consulting, helping me prep for interviews, or just being excited for me. I am so grateful.

3) I have finished up my postdoc, as of the end of April.
I'd been at UChicago for just over 2.5 years, which seems crazy when I think about it. The actual end of my job wasn't a huge deal, probably because there was such a long lag between my accepting the new job offer in December and leaving last month. My coworkers threw a nice little party, though, and I'll miss them! People keep asking me if I've started the new job yet, and I just laugh and say "no no, not until the fall." A coworker left a couple of weeks before me on a Friday to start a new job the next Monday, so waiting 8 months before starting is pretty strange.

4) I have about 4.5 months off, with lots of craziness planned.
For example, in about 6 hours I board a plane for Vietnam. I love travel, and especially "big trips." When I was applying for jobs, I said to myself (and anyone who would listen, poor Brian) that if I got a job, the first thing I would do was tell my postdoc advisor that I was leaving in April, so that I could have a lot of time off. I didn't really know what I would do with that time, but now it's pretty filled up and I'm excited for it all. Here's a quick rundown:

May to early June: 3 weeks in Vietnam including a Habitat for Humanity build and some solo travelling, then I fly to Hong Kong for 10 days. No, Brian isn't coming with me. I'll miss him of course, and it's too bad I won't get to share the experience with him (especially HK, since I'll be visiting with family over there that we haven't seen in a long time). He deserves a nice long vacation too, but it'll have to wait until later in the summer... Lucky for him, several of our friends are coming into town in May and he'll get to hang out with them!

June: I return from HK on a Wednesday, and on that Friday I fly to New York (where Brian will join me, he'll be at a conference when I get back from Asia) for our friends' marriage celebration. (And what a celebration that'll be, A&J!) The next weekend, I have a "retreat" with the women's organization of the consulting firm I will be joining. Then, finally some time at home until...

July: Early in the month I will head to Prague to visit my friends (who are moving there for a few years, how great is that?!) for about a week, and then join up with my in-laws, Donald and Brian for an Eastern European river cruise that takes us from Budapest through Turkey (our last stop is in Istanbul). Donald and I are hoping to stay in Turkey for a few more days afterward, which would take me into the first week of August. At some point in there I have to do some "pre-work" for my job, which they say is about 100 hours (eeps!) so I'll be lugging a couple of textbooks with me on the cruise. Seriously, they sent me 3 textbooks, on accounting, economics, and finance. Welcome to my new world!

August/September/October: I have a one day orientation for the new firm, and then a break until mid-September when I start a 3-week "mini MBA" course in, I think, Connecticut. After that, I have another break until mid-October when I have another one-week training, and then, presumably, I will actually start working.

Well, those are the brief details (is that an oxymoron?). But as I said, I am getting on a plane for a 15-hour ride in about 6 hours, so I should go and finish packing! I'll try to post a bit from Asia, but I'm not sure what my access will be like, especially for the first 2 weeks while I'm on the Habitat build. Would love to hear from you when I'm away, feel free to comment here or email me!

Happy 23rd Monthaversary!

Sorry for the boring post title, but the day is past and let's face it, I'm out of fun ideas for now :)

Just wanted to make sure everyone knew we are alive. We've been quite busy in fact, moving apartments (from Lakeview to Evanston, if anyone cares or knows their Chicagoland geography) and so on. Follow me to the next post and I'll elaborate...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang

Get it? Happy 22nd 17th!

Fitting, because I am in Ottawa right now visiting my awesome friends the Edwardses, and today I went to the very well done Canadian Museum of Civilization , where there was an exhibit on influential Canadian authors. (Mordecai Richler wrote a kids' book trilogy about Jacob, a boy who had to say everything twice because no one heard him the first time, in case you didn't know.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Happy 21s monthaversary! Just slipping this one in.

I'm a terrible bjourner!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Don't worry Ben, we're alive!

Sigh, I missed the 20th monthaversary post... (I do remember it in person, on the day - at 12:01am, actually - I just forget to post!) I think we'll be phasing this out soon, maybe at the 2 year mark?

Anyway, guess I was a little premature when I said I was baaaaaaack. BUT, time really has freed up for me lately and there are a lot of changes afoot, so I'm hoping to get back into this blogging thing. Soon. I promise.

Happy 20th monthaversary!