Adventures in staying legal and the Cu Chi tunnels

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A common way to carry your portable restaurant.
A common way to carry your portable restaurant.

January 21, 2015
For reasons I don’t quite understand, the business manager at the school says she can’t quite complete my work visa before my current tourist visa expires. Hummmm. I’ve gone to a lot of trouble and expense to get documents then get an affidavit for them all. And now there’s “not enough time” to finish the paperwork? This seems suspicious as I was told “no problem” in mid December. This school, as many in Vietnam, simply prefer illegal teachers. It’s a bonus for them—no paperwork to do, the taxes they hold out never need to be paid to the government and illegal workers don’t have any legal standing,

so whatever was promised, even in writing, doesn’t matter. I had really hoped I wasn’t working for one of those schools, but it looks like I may be. To add insult to injury, my tourist visa runs out at the end of January. New visa rules went into affect January1. I’ve looked them over, and they don’t seem to apply to my situation, but the business manager says her contacts don’t want to handle a visa until they know more. “Maybe, next month?” they say. I don’t know the consequences of overstaying a visa, but I don’t want to find out.

In the end, I must have a visa to stay in Việt Nam. That’s the law and it is my responsibility. I don’t feel comfortable relying on the school to work the problem out–they have never been concerned with legalities. I must take care of myself.

So my plan is to see if I can get (at least) a one month tourist visa extension to stay through the end of February. I have Thursday off and will head to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). I also need additional passport pages, and have an appointment at the US Consulate Fri morning. If I had time, I’d get a new passport, but I don’t. (Turned out that I didn’t need to surrender my current passport to get a new one, so while it will take 10 days or so and I have to go back to HCMC to pick it up, I have a new 52 page passport ordered. It’s larger than the usual 28 page one, at no extra charge. It’s been a life long ambition to fill a passport and I’ve just about done it!)

If this doesn’t work and I can’t arrange a visa, I may go to Cambodia for a “border run” and see if that works. It’s something world travelers have done for years. You simply leave the country by the nearest border, then walk back across and get a new visa. There is some risk, of course, and I need more information than I have right now. If I have to go this route, maybe I can get more info in HCMC.

January 22, 2015

Didn’t sleep well last night, with so much on my mind. Up by 6:30a and out the door with clothes for overnight. Grabbed 2 banh mi and hoped a scooter taxi for the bus station, and the #5 Cho Lon-Bien Hoa xe buyt (bus).

As soon as I started on the first sandwich, I realized my first mistake. I’d brought 2 bottles of water from the fridge. I took a swig from the first to find I’d grabbed the rice vodka I bought in DaLat! What a surprise. Glad I had a second bottle that actually contained water! Gave the rice vodka to a grateful man on the bus.

Next I took the #1 bus to Ben Thanh, District 1. Just in case, I needed to get photos—for a possible visa and new passport. It wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought, and I got 6, though expect just to need 2.

The HCMC Notre Dame cathedral at night.
The HCMC Notre Dame cathedral at night.

After visiting the Immigration office, I found that there was much confusion about the new visa laws. Everyone agreed that there did not seem to be any changes with the visa I wanted, but they weren’t sure. So somehow this would take at least three times as much money($300-500 were the quotes I’d been given) and twice as long—possible 2 weeks. I don’t have 2 weeks and that’s an unreasonable price. I inquired at first TourViet and then Saigon Tourist offices before someone offered me a solution—a border run with a tour of Angkor Wat. Of course the total price was more expensive that the visa, but seemed like a sure thing, would only take 3 days and I’d get to see a new country and a place high on my life list of locations. I planned to do the tour while the school was closed during Tet (Lunar New Year), but it’s actually slightly less expensive now.

While I don’t suppose this solution was convenient for the school, it’s what I had to do to stay in the country longer. I texted the info to Khanh (business manager) and asked off for 4 days. (In the end they gave me 5, which will be easier on me).

And with that accomplished, I just had time to jump on a half day tour to Cu Chi Tunnels.

The guide was named Vin. His English was good, which he said he learned in high school. His family has lived in the area for many generations and he was a child during the American War (what we call the Vietnam War).

Vin, our Cu Chi Tunnel tour guide was a wealth of information for our small group.
Vin, our Cu Chi Tunnel tour guide was a wealth of information for our small group.

The tunnels are a vast network of underground passages that plagued the U.S. Military to no end. They are located about 70km (maybe 45 miles) outside downtown HCMC. On the way we pass bright green rice paddies with new growth as well straw colored ones that were recently harvested. Vin explained that most of the rice for the country is grown in the Mekong Delta of Southern Vietnam.

The bright green is young rice.
The bright green is young rice.

We also passed a site I’d seen but didn’t understand: Hammock cafes. These are simple, low cafes, strung with hammocks instead of chairs. They are for weary travelers to use during the heat of the day to nap. Then after a coffee they are back on the road. How civilized! BTW, I’m really getting used to getting up early and then sleeping after lunch. No wonder so many “undeveloped” countries take to this practice.

Hammock cafe!
Hammock cafe!

We also passed by rubber trees, something I’d not seen before.

The Cu Chi Tunnels are located close to Saigon, but were also strategically close to the end of HCMC trail (for easy transportation), the Cambodian border (for easy escape) and the U.S. Military bases near Saigon.

Vin showed us an old black and white propaganda video, made by the Communists. History is truly told by the victors, and America lost this one. The video portrays the young Việt Cong soldiers—both men and women–as heroes defending their homeland. Who can blame them? The Americans are the bad guys. This is not the view of the war I had growing up.

From the brochure for Cu Chi Tunnels. (Ignore the grammar):
“This is a unique architectural structure, a system of deeply underground tunnels having several floors and alleys and branches like spider web more than 250 km long, with places for dining, living, meeting and fighting. This tunnel system embodies the strong will, intelligence, and pride of Cu Chi people, a symbol of revolutionary heroism of Vietnamese people.”

Also, according to the brochure, the complex sees one million visitors a year. Though we did not see it, there is an elaborate temple, martyred soldiers memorial, restaurants and a hotel.

Vin, our guide, said that the tunnels were started under the French occupation, but we’re not in heavy use until the American War. These tunnels are unbelievingly small passages and too tiny for most Americans to pass through. Though some tried, I did not. I feared my hips would never pass!

Pull the wooden lid over you and throw a couple leave on top and no one would ever see this entrance.
Pull the wooden lid over you and throw a couple leave on top and no one would ever see this entrance.
If my hips got into one of these, they'd never come out again. You cannot believe how tiny and cramped these tunnels are. It takes a small, flexible person to get into them. Even in the greatly enlarged one, a person in my party hade a minor panic attack and we had to back out to get him back to the surface.
If my hips got into one of these, they’d never come out again. You cannot believe how tiny and cramped these tunnels are. It takes a small, flexible person to get into them. Even in the greatly enlarged one, a person in my party hade a minor panic attack and we had to back out to get him back to the surface.

Also the passages were heavily booby trapped with no lighting, so VC soldiers had to memorize the system. Only the high commander knew the entire system, from memory, as there were no maps. One tunnel led to a U.S. Base, but took half a day of crawling in darkness to get to. It took the U.S. months to find that the opening was inside the base!

At the time these tunnels were dug, they were in deeply forested jungle. They were dug completely by hand. They came up with an ingenious way to hide the dirt from the tunnels, too. It was dumped into bomb craters!

A simulated death trap opening. As the only American on the tour, Vin twice asked me "no hard feelings?"  But how could I have hard feelings to him?
A simulated death trap opening. As the only American on the tour, Vin twice asked me “no hard feelings?” But how could I have hard feelings to him?
Fall into this and get skewered. If the VC don't shoot you, you'll likely get eaten by large predators or die of infection.
Fall into this and get skewered. If the VC don’t shoot you, you’ll likely get eaten by large predators or die of infection.

The ingenuity and improvements from both sides was interesting. The VC made fake termite hills to hide the ventilation holes needed for the tunnels every 20 to 40 meters. Eventually, US soldiers recognized the shafts and brought in dogs to sniff out the VC. The VC then started using hot pepper powder to confuse the dogs, but it didn’t take long before the sight of a sneezing dog meant the enemy was near. The VC counteracted this by stuffing US uniforms into the ventilation holes, which often fooled the dogs.

 

Vin shows us a fake termite mound, used to hide a ventilation shaft.
Vin shows us a fake termite mound, used to hide a ventilation shaft.

Vin said that there was much secrecy during the war and you couldn’t be sure which side anyone was on. His family had 2 drivers. One for his mother to do shopping and the other for the children to go to school and back. Only after the war did they find that one worked for the CIA. He was sent to a labor camp for “retraining.” The other driver was secretly with the VC and immediately took an important post with the new Communist government. The family didn’t know the secret identities of these men and were quite surprised.

Yes, here's always a gift shop, even in a Communist country!  I got a cool drink and a rest while others shot AK47's and shopped.
Yes, here’s always a gift shop, even in a Communist country! I got a cool drink and a rest while others shot AK47’s and shopped.

There was a shooting range at the tunnels. You could use old AK47’s, but I opted for a cool drink in the shade while others shot their rounds of ammunition.

Ingenuous and terrifying--death traps in the jungle demonstrated. I wouldn't last 15 minutes in a war.
Ingenuous and terrifying–death traps in the jungle demonstrated. I wouldn’t last 15 minutes in a war.

On the way back, Vin shared some insights I hadn’t known:

  • Many of the schools in Vietnam have school uniforms, typically long blue pants with a white sailor shirt. I’d noticed that some students have a red scarf wrapped at the collar, but didn’t think much of it at he time. Vin says the red scarf denotes a future Communist party member.
  • With the crazy traffic, you can imagine there are many accidents involving scooters. Vin says the details of the accident must be solved before the police come. Otherwise the police with take the scooters involved for 4 weeks. The bikes are piled together in a warehouse and always get damaged in the process and the gasoline “mysteriously” disappears. The owners of the bikes have to pay a large fine and they only have one day that they can get the scooter back. If they miss they window, it is lost forever.
  • Vin explained a few additional Vietnamese words to me. I confessed that I’d never be able to wrap my brain around the different honorifics, which are based on relative age to the speaker. I told him I called everyone “ban” which is sort of like friend (it’s not really translatable in English. It means “you” but it’s closer to the Spanish word, amigo). Vin explained the reason for the honorifics. Originally (and still in the countryside) people named children horrible names to scare off Devils and ghosts. A baby might be named “shit” for instance! But once you grow up, you can’t call a grown man Mr Shit! Even now, when seeing a baby, you are supposed to hug and kiss it, but say, “you are so ugly!” To scare off evil.
The little girl waved at me!
The little girl waved at me!
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Will my body ever adjust?

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Remember the guard who wanted to help push me from behind onto the tall stool? This is him. He decided to keep me company while I had my drink.
Remember the guard who wanted to help push me from behind onto the tall stool? This is him. He decided to keep me company while I had my drink.

1/3/2015
“Naturally” the school schedule changed again—three schedules already for January! I had prepared two classes for Friday and Saturday (since I was traveling, I was trying to work ahead) and now that is a total waste. Sigh. Also notice that I have no more 25-45 minute classes. Only 15 minutes, like before.

The new teacher, Mike, is gone. I had no idea he was a short timer here. He is back in Ho Chi Minh City teaching at his old school. I take it this was the plan all along, but no one told me. Or at least it was HIS plan? And, naturally, Mike borrowed money from me, Bob and Marcus. Don’t suppose we will ever see any of that again. No good deed….

1/9/2015
The Grocery store downstairs at the apartment complex seems to have closed. It didn’t carry much, but I could get the occasional cold beer or ice cream after work. (Note: it was closed for a week then opened again, with irregular hours. I can’t figure out the schedule) It opened about the time I got here, so only three months. In October they sent around a survey asking what we’d like in the store. I said peanut butter, butter and wine, but those things didn’t come. No fresh foods. They only carried yogurt for the first month, It’s mostly high priced snack foods, candy, cookies, crackers and instant soup. It’s not much of a loss, but I did like it. On the positive side, it’s probably going to keep me eating healthy.

My milk tea.
My milk tea.

Outside as I write this, there is a training going on for our guards about fire safety. They are practicing using the fire extinguishers, which is good. Nice to see some training going on. In an emergency, it’s good to have practiced, even once!
Just back from the school (to copy my weekend lessons) and the store (Coop Mart) for a few items I can’t get in the neighborhood. I am now several jars of peanut butter, two loaves of bread, a stick of butter, and frozen bao ahead. None of these items are available within walking distance.

What concerns me is that I’m shaky and a little spacy this morning. Didn’t notice it until I left the apartment. Trust me: I’ve had my two cups of coffee, so it isn’t caffeine withdrawal. And a full breakfast with two eggs and lots of veggies with a little cheese, so it shouldn’t be low blood sugar. I swear I’m tired of being sick! And I sweat constantly—literally sweat dropping from my nose. It’s become a normal activity, but it is annoying and I look so awful. And this is the cool season.

While I was at Coop Mart, I went up to the top floor book store. I got a couple books, geared for children, which give words in English and Vietnamese. My learning level is very basic, so this should help. I lost my beloved Vietnamese vocabulary notebook and lost a lot of the words I was working on. Two women befriended me and introduced themselves as English teachers at a center nearby. Their English was quite basic—better than my Vietnamese, though—but not good enough that I would have thought they were teachers! They were NOT impressed with the books I bought. “Dat fur baby,” one said. “In Vietnamese, I am a baby.” Her response was one of surprise, asking why I learned just words and not sentences. “I need words,” I said, simply. And then, in what I suppose was English, I was told I should “NEVA” learn “juss wor” only senTEEN.” Obviously, she is entitled to her (mispronounced) opinion. I don’t agree. Sentences and grammar ARE important, but useless without vocabulary.

Last night I tried a new activity to start off class, one I learned by watching William’s class this week. It requires you to ask and answer a few written questions very fast, but you get to do it several times. My hope is that it gets a lot of speaking practice in a short time and the speed forces you to think in the second language (L2 See? I’m even learning the lingo!) The only problem is that it takes an even number of students, so if there is an odd number, I have to participate, which the kids seem to love. One of the questions was “what year were you born?” They all seemed SHOCKED when I gave my birth year. Every one of them had to ask the question a second time! Most of them were born in 2001. That was shocking to me! I’m sure I must seem ancient to them.

Last night I was so excited about my classes when I went into the first one. Thought I had two good lesson plans. The first went fine—lots to keep them busy, both physically and mentally. I felt good–like I’m finally beginning to understand how to teach. But in the second class, Firefly, it didn’t seem like they liked the class much. They didn’t get much from The Sword-fight (scene from The Princess Bride) and only a little from Interjections (music video from Schoolhouse Rock). And at the end of class, Billy, one of my favorite Firefly students, said that I didn’t look good, like I was sick. And I am, but no woman wants to hear she doesn’t look good! (Even if it is true and told by someone who is concerned for your health.) So I came home depressed and went to bed early. Good thing I don’t drink. And the store wasn’t open so I could buy chocolate ice cream. I didn’t sleep well. I could use a nap.

I finally had to ask what this was. It's a bicycle tire, wound with colorful tape. It's basically an advertisement--bicycles and scooters are fixed here.
I finally had to ask what this was. It’s a bicycle tire, wound with colorful tape. It’s basically an advertisement–bicycles and scooters are fixed here.

1/10/15
Oh Joy. Another new schedule for January. That’s 4, and it’s only the tenth of the month. Not likely this is the last one, either. My days off have changed again, so it’s not possible to plan ahead. But my “favorite” is a new teacher training. On SATURDAY nights from 7:30p-9:10p. All the Saturday nights. Of course, we aren’t paid for it and it’s mandatory. This place just keeps getting better.

No idea.....
No idea…..

1/14/15
Had a surprise class observation from Khanh (business manager and common-law-wife of the owner) last night. It was a good class and she conceded that my Teacher Talking Time (TTT) was good and generally said positive things, though in a tone that made me feel I was being chewed out. I’m so confused.

Though I think I am learning and getting better at teaching, my worst classes are WE Intro and WE1 (World English, adults with little to no English skills, the lowest levels). I’ve been asking for help with these classes since the beginning. I need better activities for adults. Specifically I’d like ideas of how to practice vocabulary and structures with this age group without doing kid’s activities. I have issues with getting them to talk at all. I would not be offended if the school would prefer I did not teach Liberty or any early WE classes (that won’t happen). I expect I’ll have another observation by Marcus this week too.

Saturday night, after working all day (first Saturday class is at 7:45a), we were required to sit through a teacher training class until 9:10p). Most of us had to teach the next morning, too. The activities that Marcus shared were fine, but I had trouble following his directions. I didn’t understand most of the exercises until he was through, which makes it hard to take notes. But, IMHO, many of the listening activities will not work here, since the speakers are blown in most classrooms. As a native English speaker, I had extreme trouble with the final listening exercise (the best one)–part of it was the speakers, as well as heavily accented English.  And the teachers were talking non-stop (I’m sure they didn’t want to be there either but they would NEVER want their students to talk so much!). I found the whole thing depressing. I barely got through the meeting without screaming at someone–simply kept my mouth shut and head down. Was glad just to make it to my bed without losing my mind. Went to sleep in a horrible mood and it wasn’t much improved the next morning. If it had not been a day off, I would have simply called in sick for fear of what bad behavior I might exhibit.

I hate working so many days in a row and ending them on such a negative note. I end up spending my days off recovering—physically and mentally. I’m trying to see this experience as “teacher training boot camp.” But it’s loosing it’s charm.

The honeymoon is clearly over. But the adjustment period isn’t.

A very basic public bathroom. You have to fill the red container (a Tide soap bottle) with water from the blue drum and dump it into the toilet because there's no running water in the stall. And most of the doors don't close either. And you get this luxury for 3,000VND (about 15 cents).
A very basic public bathroom. You have to fill the red container (a Tide soap bottle) with water from the blue drum and dump it into the toilet because there’s no running water in the stall. And most of the doors don’t close either. And you get this luxury for 3,000VND (about 15 cents).
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Random thoughts from SE Asia

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Not posted for a bit. Things are changing here and I’m not quite ready to post it all yet, but I’m alive, well and still living in Bien Hoa, Viet Nam. I have been working very hard at becoming a decent English teacher–it’s a more difficult job than you would think and I spend more time preparing classes than giving them. Hope it will all pay off, eventually. At least I think my classes are better than when I started with less lecture from me and more opportunities for my students to practice conversation. In the meantime, a few random thoughts:

Cotton candy—there’s a section of the main road that I pass daily and I swear I smell cotton candy. It’s not every time I go by, but often. Can’t seem to find the source, but what else would smell like cotton candy? It makes me hungry!

imagesDurian–I accidentally bought an ice cream cone. OK, I meant to buy the ice cream. It but said “socola” which I know is chocolate, so how bad could it be? Well, my first bite was not as pleasant as I’d hoped. Once I got past the chocolate coating, the ice cream was….green….and not lime flavored, either. What it turned out to be was durian ice cream coated in chocolate. It’s not the taste. It’s the smell, which is off-putting. The taste is ok. Not my favorite, but the chocolate makes it palatable. I would have preferred vanilla or, well, just about any other flavor on the planet. Durian is a SE Asian fruit and it’s an acquired taste … and smell. It’s banned on public transportation and nice hotels throughout the area. In American, it is only sold in a few ethnic groceries and then frozen solid. I’ve tried the fruit a couple different ways and survived. I decided that this would be just another culinary experience. And this might be the last time I try it, too. Durian ice cream “repeats” on you. And it doesn’t taste so good the second time around.

Passengers gives hand signals—I don’t understand how this happens, but when hand signals are given by a motorist, it’s always by the passengers. I’m not talking about left turn signals, I just mean a hand put out to say, “We are moving into your lane illegally, please slow down and let us through.” I guess it’s hard for me to trust the information of someone who isn’t actually controlling the bike or car. But so far, it’s always been right. Still, I feel I take my life in my hands every time I get on the scooter.

Ants—I will never win the battle of the ants, but the daily skirmishes are greatly reduced. When I first arrived, it was thousands of ants to sweep up every morning. Within a month it was a few hundred. Now it’s just a few dozen. Amazing what constant cleaning can do, huh?

The bat—while the ant problem seems to be decreasing, the fruit bat is worse. He’s been visiting us every evening and leaving a “pile” on the utility porch to clean every morning. It’s a hideous, sticky mess of overripe fruit, seeds and feces. Bob got up on a ledge and sprayed the light fixture (that the bat hangs from) with a cleaning solution in the hope that he/she (how could I tell?) will hate the smell and stop visiting. So far it has worked. BTW, being a bat must be the most unsanitary situation. They hang upside down at rest. To have your nether parts above your head and then “go” can’t be pleasant. Gravity being what it is, it must take some serious contortions to keep clean! If there’s anything to this reincarnation thing, I do not want to come back as a bat.

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Coming home is hard to do

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Did I mention this is paradise? Orchids everywhere.....This business wasn't even open and had flowers out front.
Did I mention this is paradise? Orchids everywhere…..This business wasn’t even open and had flowers out front.

I had a wonderful time in Da Lat over the New Year’s. It’s a beautiful city with lovely, cool temperatures. There was even clover—something I’ve missed so much. (Though I didn’t find a 4 leaf clover) While this is a holiday that’s celebrated, this isn’t the big New Year holiday. Tet or Lunar New Year (called Chinese New Year in The States) will be in mid-February and I’m looking forward to the biggest party of the year.

I find that getting to a new place often goes well for me. I prepare. I ask questions. I have a map, a schedule. I’m ready. But I don’t seem to take as much care in my preparations to go back home. The return trip doesn’t always go so well. Like this particular trip.

I took the overnight, sleeping bus from Da Lat. It left at 11p, my reclining seat was open, as it should be. We left Da Lat on time, so it seemed that everything was going swimmingly.

As I got settled in, a man came to check my ticket. I said “I want to go to Bien Hoa” in my best (i.e. poor) Vietnamese. He didn’t understand me, so I said it again. He nodded yes, but his face was unsure. I repeated, “Bien Hoa.” He nodded his head and repeated. I knew the bus had taken on few passengers in Bien Hoa (I may have be the only one getting off there) and that it continued on to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) after. So I set my alarm for about 30 minutes before we should arrive in Bien Hoa. I slept easily, considering the circumstances. Not a deep sleep, but some shut-eye is better than none. When my phone alarm went off, I walked to the front of the bus and said again, “I want to go to Bien Hoa” in Vietnamese. “Yes, yes” in English, came the reply. “You want to go to Bien Hoa?” said a passenger, also in English. “Yes!” excited to find someone who spoke English. He asked the conductor how long until we got to Bien Hoa. “Twenty five minutes,” he replied, again in English. I felt confident that I would be home soon. Dawn was beginning to show and I walked back to my seat.

So I was quite surprised when 15 minutes later I was almost sure I recognized a business that should have been in HCMC, not Bien Hoa. Five minutes after that, we passed the famous Ben Thanh Market in the center of the city and I knew for sure. Yikes! We’d passed Bien Hoa completely! I don’t know if I slept through the stop or if they bypassed the city. I was more than an hour away from where I needed to be with no transportation. It was too early to call someone and besides who could come rescue me?

I admit, I panicked, but only for about a minute. I took a deep breath and started to make a new plan. It was now early dawn. I had money and had been to HCMC before. There was a bus that went from HCMC to Bien Hoa and I’d been told it traveled several times a day. I’d taken it before, so I knew the number. It was almost 6am by now and the sun was coming up. I knew the words for bus and bus station and five. There are always scooter taxis. I could figure it out.

So when I got off the bus, I was in the private tour bus compound. I needed to find the public busses. I thought I was near the Chinese Market, Cho Lon, so I might be able to find my way. I asked for help from the passenger who had spoken English and he apologized—he had thought I meant an area in HCMC. He took me to an employee who spoke a bit of English. I did my best to explain simply that the bus had not let me off in Bien Hoa. I could see he understood and was afraid I would be angry. “OK” I said with a smile. “Today, I want number 5.” I said in Vietnamese. He said, “OK” and took my arm.

He led me outside the enclosure. He took me to the corner and pointed to the ground for me to stand there. (I later saw a sign with words I believe meant bus stop and several bus numbers, including 5) Then he went over to two different men and asked them to help me. They did. When the number five bus came into view, they grabbed my arms and helped me on the bus like a child.

So within 15 minutes of arriving, I was already back on my way to Bien Hoa for the price of 15,000vnd (75 cents). What had seemed impossible just moments before was easy.

By 7:00a I was back in Bien Hoa at the public bus station. At that hour, only a single scooter taxi was available and he didn’t speak English. I wrote the name of the private tour company, FUTA. He said he understood, but asked what seemed an unreasonable price to take me there. But he was the only driver, so I hopped on. He was driving in the right direction and then suddenly began to turn left when I knew we needed to go right. I protested, “Here, here” I said in Vietnamese, pointing to the right. He shook his head no, pointing right. I insisted. He turned right. In a kilometer I pointed to the building, said “here” and added the word “orange” since it was the only orange building in the area. I handed him about half his requested price (which still seemed high to me) for the ride and he smiled and accepted. I wonder where he would have taken me if I hadn’t known the way? Phew!

I retrieved my scooter, drove home and arrived before Bob was even awake. I took a quick shower and gratefully sunk in into my bed for a nap. Ahhhhhh!

1/7/15

Seems I go from one illness to the next. Perhaps this is how it is to move to a new country? New germs, new water and air, new food and weather. But the diarrhea I had was not new. It was worse than what I had hiking the AT, though only about 30 hours (instead of 4 months). Violent, too. I think I lost 5 pounds, without exaggeration! My stomach is actually flatter. This is not a great weight loss idea though. I also had a sore throat and swollen neck glands. Better today I feel much better, naturally, since it is no longer my day off.

On a positive note, I found a pharmacy nearby that sells Imodium. I used all of the anti-diarrhea meds that Bob had given me and was grateful for them. But now I have resupplied.

FUTURE EX-PATS: I can’t stress enough how important it is to bring ALL the medications and personal products you like with you when you go to a new country to live. Toothpaste you can find, but if there is a special hair product or make up you can’t live without, BRING IT. I’ve yet to see these brands in VN: Revlon, L’Oreal, Max Factor or Cover Girl. Medication is especially tricky. It may be cheap and readily available here, IF you can figure out how to buy it. It may not be available at all. The name may well be different or the brand or packaging. The dosage too. Or something you think of as a “common” analgesic may be outlawed here. (In Iceland I couldn’t get Tylenol. It was illegal. And I couldn’t get anything for A head cold without a doctor’s prescription). And most countries don’t have over the counter medications like in the US. A Pharmacist will have to give you something, so you have to be able to speak with them and ask for what you want. And they may not speak English. Be prepared, Scouts!

My latest revelation about VN: it is the land of dust bunnies! Of course every surface gets covered by fine dust. I have to wipe every table, shelf and the refrigerator top every three days or you can write your name in the dirt. With no way to close off the house, the air floats through freely—and frankly, you’d suffocate without that breeze in this heat. The fine particulates (from burning, cooking fires, manufacturing and god-knows-what-all) fall out everywhere in this white on white apartment. I’ve accepted it, begrudgingly. But the dust bunnies are unique. Sweeping isn’t enough. They breed from under the large pieces of furniture that are impossible to move without three men and a small boy to help. Then, right after you’ve swept and mopped, you turn to the still damp floor and them see them creeping out! They’re alive! And I didn’t want a pet! Move a chest of drawers only if you plan to sweep, dust and then wash the floor, walls and back of the chest (there’s 20 minutes of my day I’ll never get back). My bed is queen sized and wedged into a corner of a small room, immovable. The bed frame was built inside the room since it’s larger than the doorway. I try not to think of what’s underneath.  <SHUDDER>

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New year’s day–tour of Da Lat City, Viet Nam

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I had just two days to see the Central Highlands city of Da Lat, and I made the most of it. This second and last day in the city, I checked out of my hotel early, and headed out to a day tour of the area.

Our tour guide had fair English skills and was very sweet.
Our tour guide had fair English skills and was very sweet.
Da Lat has a lake in the center and mountains in the distance. Flowers are planted everywhere. If you have a house on the main street, you are fined for NOT planting flowers, preferably white ones.
Da Lat has a lake in the center and mountains in the distance. Flowers are planted everywhere. If you have a house on the main street, you are fined for NOT planting flowers, preferably white ones.
We started with a drive through the city, including the central roundabout, where traffic was pretty scary.
We started with a drive through the city, including the central roundabout, where traffic was pretty scary.
This is the entrance to the summer palace of the last king of Viet Nam. Bao Dai.
This is the entrance to the summer palace of the last king of Viet Nam, Bao Dai.

According to Wikipedia:

“Bảo Đại (lit. “keeper of greatness”, 22 October 1913 – 30 July 1997), born Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy, was the 13th and final emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty, which was the last dynasty of Vietnam.[1] From 1926 to 1945, he was king of Annam. During this period, Annam was a protectorate within French Indochina, covering the central two-thirds of the present-day Vietnam. Bảo Đại ascended the throne in 1932.

The Japanese ousted the Vichy-French administration in March 1945 and then ruled through Bảo Đại. At this time, he renamed his country “Vietnam”. He abdicated in August 1945 when Japan surrendered. He was the chief of state of the State of Vietnam (South Vietnam) from 1949 until 1955. Bảo Đại was criticized for being too closely associated with France and spending much of his time outside of Vietnam. Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm ousted him in a fraudulent referendum vote in 1955.”

The is the palace, faced in simple tile, two stories tall. It was build in the 1930's.
This is the palace, faced in simple tile, two stories tall. It was built in the 1930’s and seemed rather modest to me.
The palace grounds were sculptured beautifully, a real contrast to the rather austere interior. There were also lots of money making ventures outside--small shops selling cool drinks, men dressed as old warriors that you could take a photo with and even a flower strewn cart pulled by a horse.
The palace grounds were sculptured beautifully, a real contrast to the rather austere interior. There were also lots of money making ventures outside–small shops selling cool drinks, men dressed as old warriors that you could take your photo with and even a flower strewn cart pulled by a horse.
You had to wear booties!
You had to wear booties! Aren’t these a fashion statement?
A reception room--because everyone puts orange, peach, blue and purple together.
A reception room–because everyone puts orange, peach, blue and purple together.
Here's the king....
Here’s the king….

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The grounds of the royal summer palace.
The grounds of the royal summer palace.
Sorry for the blurry photo, but the info is quite good, if you can read it.
Sorry for the blurry photo, but the info is quite good, if you can read it.
This is the oldest son's bedroom, done in royal yellow.
This is the oldest son’s bedroom, done in royal yellow.

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Clean, neat, probably ultra-modern in it's day. But not homey.
Clean, neat, probably ultra-modern in it’s day. But not homey.

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"Genever" Convention?
“Genever” Convention?
The view from the moon watching balcony.
The view from the moon watching balcony.

The Da Lat Railway station

The train station didn't really impress me, but everyone else seems to love it. It has not operated, except for a tourist excursion, since the 1970s.
The train station didn’t really impress me, but everyone else seems to love it. It has not operated, except for a tourist excursion, since 1968.
According to Wikipedia: "The architecture of Đà Lạt is dominated by the style of the French colonial period. Đà Lạt Railway Station, built in 1938, was designed in the Art Deco architectural style by French architects Moncet and Reveron, although it incorporates the high, pointed roofs characteristic of the Cao Nguyen communal buildings of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The three gables represent an art deco version of Normandy’s Trouville-Deauville Station.[7] The station’s unique design—with its roofs, arching ceiling, and coloured glass windows—earned it recognition as a national historical monument in 2001"
According to Wikipedia: “The architecture of Đà Lạt is dominated by the style of the French colonial period. Đà Lạt Railway Station, built in 1938, was designed in the Art Deco architectural style by French architects Moncet and Reveron, although it incorporates the high, pointed roofs characteristic of the Cao Nguyen communal buildings of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The three gables represent an art deco version of Normandy’s Trouville-Deauville Station.[7] The station’s unique design—with its roofs, arching ceiling, and coloured glass windows—earned it recognition as a national historical monument in 2001″
High ceiling of the Da Lat Railway station.The windows are painted, but it's chipping away.
High ceiling of the Da Lat Railway station.The windows are painted, but it’s chipping away.
This is the tourist train, which goes just 7km.
This is the tourist train, which goes just 7km, to the nearby tourist trap….I mean village of Trai Mat.

Datanla Waterfall

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The line was simply too long, but if I'd had the time, this would have been the way to see the waterfalls. There's a rollercoaster! You have a hand-break to slow your gravity decent, then a cable that pulls you up. But the wait was over half an hour and this was only a 45 minute stop.
The line was simply too long, but if I’d had the time, this would have been the way to see the waterfalls. There’s a rollercoaster! You have a hand-break to slow your gravity decent, then a cable that pulls you up. But the wait was over half an hour and this was only a 45 minute stop.
The waterfall was very nice--but it would have been nicer without the strenuous walk. And this is coming from someone who hike 1,400+ miles the summer before.
The waterfall was very nice–but it would have been nicer without the strenuous walk. And this is coming from someone who hiked 1,400+ miles just a few months before.
...the waterfall was nice, but not worth the climb down and then up.
…the waterfall was nice, but not worth the climb down and then up. It’s clear that this isn’t the prettiest waterfall in the area, just the most developed. I’d say they understand this commercial, money-making thing.

The Big Golden Buddha

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I think "Big Golden Buddha" is pretty descriptive.
I think “Big Golden Buddha” is pretty descriptive.
The temple at the Big Golden Buddha.
The temple at the Big Golden Buddha.
The inside was my favorite temple! A riot of color.
The inside was my favorite temple! A riot of color.
I'm sure this is sacrilegious, but this reminds me of a Monty Python film, The Life of Brian. I really have to learn more about Buddhism....
I’m sure this is sacrilegious, but this reminds me of a Monty Python film, The Life of Brian. I really have to learn more about Buddhism….
A monk reads the sign at the Big Golden Buddha
A monk reads the sign at the Big Golden Buddha

La Temple

La Temple: Obviously, I can't read this sign, except that the first word means "temple" and the second word is the name of the temple: La.
La Temple: Obviously, I can’t read this sign, except that the first word means “temple” and the second word is the name of the temple: La.
The temple was quite busy.
The temple was quite busy.
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a monk lights incense in front of the great hall
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I believe this is the women’s quarters. I’ve stopped being surprised by the swastikas, you see them all over Buddhists countries.

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Down the hill from the Temple and Monastery complex was a lake.

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Lunch. I sat with a group of 5 teachers from the Philippines. They had been in VN for 2 years and were deciding on a third.
Lunch. I sat with a group of 5 teachers from the Philippines. They had been in VN for 2 years and were deciding on a third.
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Pork with morning glory vine. I’ve learned that when the menu says “vegetables” this is the one they usually mean. It’s good and they always add lots of garlic.

The Valley of Love is a popular place for honeymooners.

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I can’t quite call this the Niagara Falls of Vietnam, but it is pretty, though kitsch. I’d walked the length of the park to see the “butterfly garden” which I stupidly thought would have actual butterflies. Silly me! They were large, plastic butterflies, located along a winding path to the lake.
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OK, I did love the orchids…..
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I find it interesting that statues and most posters show non-Asian faces–only pasty white westerners–as the example of beauty, is this statue of two young people in love.
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I’m told that when the sit down toilet was introduced into Asia, people standing on the rim and squatting was a huge problem.

image image imageForest of Flowers didn’t turn out to be quite what I had imagined. This was a tourist trap, but at least a pretty one. There were two large warehouse sized rooms–one with mostly fresh flowering plants and the other with artistically dried flowers. The internet calls it a Preserved Flower Showroom, which I prefer.

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Of all the souvenirs, these are the only ones I had to think twice about. But I’d buy them because they are ironic, which is not the idea.
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The photos on the wall are made of dried flowers.

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Last stop, dried fruits of all kinds including tomato, strawberries, mulberries, persimmon and more.
Last stop, dried fruits of all kinds including tomato, strawberries, mulberries, persimmon and more.
A view of the valley
A view of the valley
I kept going back to Ken's hostel because they kept feeding me. Fresh fruit (watermelon and pomelo--similar to grapefruit)  with French pastries and tea.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomelo
At the end of the tour, they dropped me off at the Backpacker Hostel. I kept going back to Ken’s hostel because they kept feeding me. Fresh fruit (watermelon and pomelo–similar to grapefruit) with French pastries and tea. 

So....spa and massage I understand, but Karaoke?
So….spa and massage I understand, but Karaoke? Maybe this is what “full service” means in Asia?
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Night Market: Da Lat, Vietnam

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Most of these photos were taken New Year’s Eve night 2014 (soon to be 2015). This is not a special market, but happens every evening in Da Lat, in the city square. Many of the food vendors are located on the stairs or at the bottom of them. While the city was still decorated for Christmas, there were no special celebrations planned for the New Year that I saw. Of course, I’d been awake for most of the previous 36 hours, so I might not be the best person to judge what was going on. ;-)

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Take a look at the grill. Near the darling child are chicken feet, ready to be cooked.
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This is looking down on the stairway, where most of the food vendors were serving. Lots of seafood, a surprise in the mountains.
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The city was still decorated for Christmas.
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All the food vendors have these tiny, plastic picnic tables with tiny stools, lower than a foot stool. You can sit down, but will you ever be able to get up again?
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Booth after booth, but they all carry the same items. Maybe I’m just a poor shopper?
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She’s making the Vietnamese version of a burrito on rice paper. The ingredients vary, but usually have a tiny bit of meat and some veggies. and toppings that are spicy. The woman will roll it up for you, wrap it in newspaper and hand it to you as a portable snack. They ranged in price from 12,000vnd to 15,000vnd (about 60-75 cents).
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taken from the bottom of the stairs

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Same area, the next morning. Seems there's always food being served and stuff being sold. Almost everything was cheap and of no interest to me, but then I don't keep much stuff. I'm a bad shopper.
Same area, the next morning, taken from the top of the stairs. Seems there’s always food being served and stuff being sold. Almost everything was cheap and of no interest to me, but then I don’t keep much stuff. I’m a bad shopper.
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