Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

Kristine
I think I CanTho

I think I CanTho

People had warned us that Vietnam had gone the way of Thailand: that is to say overrun with tourists, notably backpackers of the white and dreadlocked variety. This did not sound cool.

There is a huge tourist scene in Vietnam but avoiding that crowd is unbelievably easy. Don’t get on a tour bus. Yes, it’s that ridiculously simple. Just rent your own transport and suddenly you’re in the ‘real’ Vietnam with nary a dreadlock in sight.

Off the tourist trail

According to the map there are highways in Vietnam. The map is wrong. There are one lane roads that run through small towns and over the Mekong canals. It’s the perfect scene for an epic scooter ride. Along the way you can hold snakes! Head to floating markets! Crash your bike! Get pulled over!

I did all of the above.

The Accidental Tour

I booked a one way ticket to MyTho from a local tour company.  No one bothered to tell the driver that I wasn’t booked for the actual tour. Instead of being dropped off in MyTho at the beginning of the day, I was taken down the Mekong river in a boat, rode a horse and visited a bee farm. I also met Serge, a massive Russian man who proposed marriage. Together we held snakes, dined on freshly caught river fish and sang Vietnamese folk songs. I finally escaped the packaged tour madness but not before Serge bought me a coconut  and took my photo several hundred times.

A Mekong Cruise Ship

My Russian stalker

Boat in the mangrove

Snake!

The Crash

The ‘highway’ from MyTho to Vihn Long runs through dozens of idyllic, water-soaked villages. Cafes line the street and houses are built on fragile pieces of land surrounded by canals and rice fields. The scenery was gorgeous, but even more interesting to me was the insane amount of shit that village people manage to carry on the back of their scooters. SUV be damned, all you really need is 2 wheels and a 50cc motor. Perhaps, given the scenery and the crazy motorists, I can be forgiven for taking a ton of pictures.  And if, when taking a picture, I accidentally drove my bike into the subject, I could also be forgiven?

After a day of scooting I hadn’t yet managed the gas and break basics.  I drove my scooter into a coconut farmer and broke the front lights.

Barbed wire Bicycle

I spy a cow

Typical highway scene - a bus, a bike and scooter hauling tons of crap

This crappy picture cost me 12 bucks

Kris and a rice field

No need to actually ride the bike

Mekong Delta

HOW IS THIS CONSIDERED A HIGHWAY BRIDGE?

CanTho and the Floating Market

When you rent a bike in Vietnam you’re meant to have a Vietnamese drivers license. You also need insurance and proof that the bike is yours.  Unfortunately I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t even have a valid US drivers license – it expired in January.  In order to rent a scooter I had to hand over my passport and I wanted it back, so I decided to get the scooter repaired on my own.  Mechanics in Asia operate pretty loosely, they’re usual just a doorway filled with spare parts and a man smoking a cig. I stopped by every ‘repair shop’ I could find, until someone could fix my bike. $15 bucks later it was good as new!

Me and my mechanics

CanTho is most well known for it’s floating market.  Keeping along the ‘I hate tour groups’ theme, I refused to take a tour boat to the market.  Instead I booked the slowest, most labor intensive row boat, manned by a woman with no teeth.  Most people head to the market and are back in 2 hours.  It took us 3 and a half hours. Along the way we broke down four times.

Floating Market

Care for a gourd?

CanTho Floating Market

Kris at the floating market

It ended up being pretty cool since she let me row the boat.

 

Rowing my way home

Scooting back

Perhaps I got a little cocky with my bike.  Sure I had crashed it once and fell over several times while attempting to make sharp turns, but I had learned how to drive in Vietnam – which is saying a lot.  In Vietnam the highways are moderately paved roads full of potholes.  In Vietnam you only pay attention to what’s going on in front of you because it’s perfectly acceptable for oncoming traffic to veer into your ‘lane’. These are some extreme driving conditions.

Extreme driving conditions!

So with all that well earned confidence, I began to travel a little faster.  And a little faster still. Until I was blaring my horn, letting everyone know that I was passing each and every car on the road. Silly girl.

I was totally caught by a gaggle of cops and their radar gun.

To reiterate: I had no license, no passport, no insurance, and no proof of ownership. I did what any sensible girl would do. I cried.

The cops didn’t speak English, and they certainly didn’t know what to do with me.  On one hand they had complete authority to confiscate my bike and charge me a ton of money to get it back. On the other hand, they had to communicate that to me. It looked like just too much work and after some minor discussion they let me go. God bless the Vietnamese.

Me and my scooter

Those are DOGS on board

Sleeping Buddha

Back to the beginning

The End

I think the trip was a success. I got to see the country without dealing with many tourists. I didn’t kill myself. I even managed to return the bike and retrieve my passport from the scooter lady.

And now I have something to remember my trip to Vietnam.  My new Vietnamese friends tell me that with this exhaust pipe burn, I’m officially Vietnamese.

This hurt so incredibly bad

My souvenir from Vietnam

 

 

Volunteering at a Saigon Orphanage

Volunteering at a Saigon Orphanage

J’adore the children at Thien Phu’oc orphanage in Saigon.

I was hesitant, dare I say nervous, to volunteer at an orphanage in Vietnam.  Not only had I never worked with children with disabilities but I was uncertain about how to volunteer exactly. Should I just call and show up?  Is it ok to barge in and hang out?

Absolutely!  I called Thien Phu’oc orphanage and was told to stop by at anytime. And so I did.

children at saigon orphanage

Tien & her partner in crime Tai

The first day wasn’t easy. It’s hard to face human suffering and on the surface the children appear to be in pain. Many of the children at Thien Phu’oc can not walk, some can not talk and some are impacted by Agent Orange. Upstairs were 16 smaller children who have more severe mental and physical disabilities; they’re not mobile and spend most of the day laying on their bed.

I was so uncertain what I should do, and if my silly back rubs and attempts to smile and chat with the kids were doing any good.

Volunteering at a Saigon Orphanage

Her face lights up when you sit down for a chat

But as I walked downstairs to spend time with the more advanced kids, something really unexpected happened.  One of the older kids piped up, “Hello! Where are you from!”

I was shocked!  The sisters who work at Thien Phu’oc don’t speak much English and here was this kid in a wheelchair speaking perfect English with an American accent! The boy’s name was An and he is AWESOME.

An at orphanage in Vietnam

An is amazing

This small interaction helped to remind me of the advice given to me by my best friend (who is a school psychologist): Try to talk like you would to any kid their “true” age. Their receptive skills are probably much better than you suspect- they understand a lot more than they can verbally communicate.

Talking just happens to be one of my strong suites.

If An can teach himself English then who knows what the other kids can understand! After this I was able to relax and enjoy spending time at the orphanage. Some days we spent time doing physical therapy and other days I read, played ball and just spent time hanging out.

Kris and Nguyen working it out

The kids are utterly fantastic and are absolutely thrilled to spend time with you. And after a few hours I realized that An may be the only person that speaks English, but all the children communicate in their own way: pointing, smiling, motioning with their heads. Even the smaller children upstairs will follow you with their eyes and give you a big smile or nod their head when you sit down. Not only do they communicate with you, they care about and look after each other.

Tai, Phuong, Nguyen and Kris

I was surprised to find myself looking forward to returning. It wasn’t hard to fall in love with some of these smiling faces.

Loving the children at a Saigon orphanage

I have big LOVE for Bac

I highly recommend spending several afternoons at the Thien Phu’oc Orphanage.  Here are the details – just give them a call and head to district 12 on a xe om. It takes 30 minutes to get there and roundtrip cost is about 7 bucks. Free time is from 8am-11:30 and 2:00-4:30 pm.

If Sister Kim Chi isn’t around, you have to ask where the toys are stored (unfortunately they’re not just lying around). They toys are kept in the very front room on the right – just point to the door and someone will give you the key.

Sister Kim Chi at Thien Phu’oc Orphanage
156 / 1, An Phu Dong Ward, District 12,
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Vietnam
Tel / Fax: (84-8) 7195997  0903 949 981  0918 207 660
E-mail: thienphuoc20012004@yahoo.com

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dog

Today I was in the back seat of a car sitting with a stuffed dog on my lap.  I mentioned that this stuffed animal looks just like my dog who I’m really starting to miss.  Our translator, Helen, looked at me like I had two heads.

“This is not a dog!….”(pause to look up the word in English) “This is a TIGER!”

There are other things that are infinitely more confusing, for instance, what could this possibly taste like?

Mexican Tomato Chicken Flavor

From the cover I was hoping it was actually potato with hollandaise sauce topped with a delicious tomato.  (Can you tell that I’m missing american-style brunch?)

Here’s what it tasted like: Tomato and Chicken. I still don’t know what the yellow sauce indicates.

And we’re not exactly sure what we’re supposed to do in this garden:

A relaxing place for visitors to recreate

And did you know that Confucious has his own cruise?

Cruise Terminal of Confucius Temple

Trying really hard in China

South Korea was a blast. The people were warm, friendly and even if most folks didn’t speak English, they smiled, had a laugh at my attempts at Korean and tried to communicate.  Not so much in China.

In fact everything that I really loved about South Korea is totally absent in China: the delicious food, the crazy nightlife and the fun loving people. I’m trying really, really hard not to let China bring me down and I’m not doing a great job.

In Korea respect was a big deal – respect for elders, respect for unspoken rules, and bringing respect onto Korea.  For example, on the subway in Seoul a woman started incessantly poking me and trying to tell me that I had broken a rule by sitting in the “infirm and elderly” section of the train.  Don’t break the subway rules! Koreans themselves prevent foreigners from being ripped off by invoking the “What will the world think of Korea if you overcharge this innocent person” act.  And don’t ever, ever disrespect the bathhouse rules. Jumping into a tub without showering is case for explusion.

So with that in mind, I’m finding China to be the exact opposite. There is no such thing as respect on the road – cars, scooters, bicycles all fight for supremacy and the right to run over pedestrians.  There is no such thing as a safe crosswalk, there is no such thing as a green light, there is no such thing as a sidewalk. These concepts just don’t exist.

It feels like restaurant, store owner, cab driver – everyone – is out to rip you off. It’s demoralizing to pay $30 for a meal worth $5 in the US. Everywhere you walk someone is there to repeatedly poke you, asking you to buy fake watches, purses and iPads. If it’s not the poking people, it’s people screaming at you over a microphone to come into their store – “EVERYTHING 10 RMB!! EVERYTHING!!!”

And then there’s the spitting.  I just can’t handle hearing someone begin to gurgle in the back of their throat, getting their saliva nice and thick, then hawk a massive logie onto the sidewalk.  In fact, this might be OK if it were just outside, but it’s everywhere.  In the train station people are spitting into waste bins, on the train people spit into bags and IN RESTAURANTS people prepare their spit at the table and then walk outside to let it rip.

I’m repulsed.

The repulsion isn’t just the dirty streets, the spitting and the outright deceit – the food is not good 🙁

I was so excited to feast on real Chinese food with exotic names like “two fish dancing at midnight” or “The smell of sunset on a plate”.  In fact I’m eating oil cake covered in oil after being fried in oil – price is only 9 dollars!  When I say everything is covered in oil, I don’t mean like deep fried KFC (which are everywhere btw), I mean oil broth soup or pork with oil sauce.

I’m absolutely frustrated, disappointed and want to crawl into my dumpy hotel room bed and pull the covers over my head.

– Kristine