A Beautiful Ending to a Short Trip

22 02 2010

Other than all of the heartache and pain that went on in Phu Quoc those many years ago, it is a tropical paradise with the most beautiful beaches and amazing accommodations at the more luxurious places. It’s an island about 15 km south of Cambodia and an hour plane ride from Saigon or two-hour ferry ride from Rach Gia. The seafood is the best here, especially at the Night Market. You can find a meal for two people at local restaurants including the Night Market for less than $5 USD! And any dish you choose will be amazing.

Long Beach on Phu Quoc Island

Of course, poverty still exists here. We visited a family who lives in pretty much a shack. The mother was cooking on the side of the street, while her 1-year-old daughter was playing next to the speeding cars and motorbikes. We walked inside to find her walls filled with paintings that her husband had painted, cement floors and a wooden bed with one sheet on it. Her kitchen was outside by the street. But, regardless of the situation, she and her daughter were happy. She and her husband sell the paintings for reasonable prices. Randy bought a painting for about $7 USD, which probably helped them out a lot, considering that the average family in Vietnam makes about $150 per month.

Apart from the realization of how the majority of Vietnamese live, Phu Quoc is a beautiful island with a large part dedicated as a National Forest. You can find deserted beaches or beaches with many people participating in a variety of water sports. I chose to refresh my SCUBA diving skills. It was my second time diving in an ocean. It felt great to get back in the gear and under the water again. I didn’t have time to finish my certification here, but it’s a great place to do it. The sights underwater weren’t that exciting where I had dived, but the waters weren’t too choppy and the current was pretty calm. The instructors are great and it’s relatively cheap to get certified in Vietnam. Click here to find a list of dive operations and more information about Phu Quoc.

SCUBA flag and the Vietnam flag

Lodging in Phu Quoc is hard to find if you want to find a place online during the peak season (December – February). Also, hotels and resorts will charge more during this time. But many places don’t have web sites, so it might be a better bet to just arrive in Phu Quoc and then find a place to stay.

Phu Quoc was the perfect place to relax. We spent about four hours at the massage salon on the first day! Our hotel didn’t have a massage salon, so we went to Phu Quoc-Saigon Resort to get pampered. Even though this was one of the nicer resorts, we got a great package deal for our manicure, pedicure, spa and sauna, full-body hour-long massage and facial. In the states, we would spend about $400 on something like this, but in Vietnam, you can get a relaxing, refreshing spa treatment for only $36! The women who work here do an excellent job. One lady gave us a manicure and pedicure and facial. And another lady gave us a calming body hour-long massage. We felt like royalty after the four-hour session. But, this wasn’t the last of it. We got another hour-long massage in Saigon for $10! I’m sure there are cheaper places that are just as good, though.

We definitely got star treatment in Vietnam. Although, I was afraid of everyone despising me because I cannot speak Vietnamese, I was wrong. I had only one encounter with someone who was slightly prejudiced, but that happens even in America. As a Vietnamese-American, it was great to visit Vietnam as a tourist. But having a father who didn’t instill in me the Vietnamese culture and a mother who was adopted during the war and deprived of her Vietnamese culture, I feel that it would be even greater to learn more and more about the Vietnamese culture, not only for my generation, but for the next. This is not the last you will hear about Vietnam from us. We will go back soon to discover more about the culture and its people, not only for my sake of knowing more about where my family is from, but for the next generation.

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Attempting to Learn about Vietnam’s Past

21 02 2010

Aside from all of the hustle and bustle of the Saigon, the city has a history that not many know about. Like I said, we learn one side of the story in history class. We learned that the Americans were trying to save the South Vietnamese from becoming a communist country controlled by the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong. But, little did we know how torturous and gruesome war can be, until we went to the War Remnants Museum. The pictures they had on display tell the story of how horrible the war was a how it destroyed parts of Vietnam and its people. They were held in prison camps and exposed to Agent Orange, one of the most dangerous dioxins. The U.S. Army used this dioxin to get rid of the trees and shrubs in rural South Vietnam. Little did they know that it not only caused disabilities among American soldiers, but also thirty years after the war, Vietnamese babies are still being born with physical and mental birth defects. It’s a tragic reality. We actually saw a baby with physical defects that was probably a result of Agent Orange.

Propaganda against the Vietnam War

We also learned about another reality of Phu Quoc Island. Two days before going to the beautiful beach, we learned that the South Vietnamese government with the help of the U.S. Army kept a prison camp on the island, where they would torture and kill the Viet Cong in tiger cages and much more. Tiger cages were a box made of barbed wire. The Viet Cong were forced in these, sometimes three or four people at a time and they would pretty much bleed to death together.

Tiger cages that South Vietnam and the U.S. used to torture the North Vietnamese.

We have to learn these facts through museums and books. The war was really harsh for the Vietnamese, which is the reason why many don’t talk about it. Unfortunately, the younger generation, such as mine, has no idea what the story is behind how we are alive today.





Shopping Madness

19 02 2010

Sixty percent of Vietnam’s population is under the age of 30, according to business-in-asia.com. This interesting fact shows the youthfulness as a country and how Vietnam is one of the fastest developing countries. These characteristics of the third-world country are prevalent in the people. The Vietnamese people are so sincere, helpful, hard-working, kind and open to foreigners. It seems that they are much more accustomed to working with and interacting with foreigners. For example, a lot of the older men know how to speak English very well because they worked with Americans during the war. And a lot of the younger generation knows how to speak English because they interact with tourists from Europe, North America and other parts of the world. Because foreigners usually can’t speak Vietnamese, they communicate with English. I didn’t realize that English is really a language that everyone around the world knows a little bit of and uses even in countries like Vietnam. Surprisingly, the U.S. Dollar is accepted in Vietnam as well.

Vietnamese people will go out of their way to make you happy, especially if they are trying to sell you something and if you’re willing to give them a good price for it. For example, we bought tons of gifts and souvenirs from one lady in Ben Thanh Market. I asked for certain items that she didn’t have, so she went to the next store to get it for me. In addition, Randy bargains like crazy. His strategy is: the more you buy the more of a discount you get, which is true. Walking through Ben Thanh Market is madness. Women will pull you left and right to eat at their place or buy their items. But when we went to An Dong and Binh Tay Markets, there were no foreigners. All of these items are for the wholesale price. Hardly any bargaining can be done here. But, it’s still madness. People are buying things in bulk and lugging it out of the four-story market filled with people.





Good Morning Vietnam

18 02 2010

Being Vietnamese-American and going to Vietnam for the first time was truly a life-time experience, even if it was just for five and a half days. As we went through customs and the airport, we could feel the tropical climate and the hustle and bustle of a city trying to make something for itself. Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City is a city that is rising in tourism and as the world gets to know more of Vietnam’s history and culture, the more people will love it. The first thing that hits you when you leave the airport is the amazing amount of motorbikes! They come in all directions and it seems impossible to cross the streets. But, they’ll just go around you as long as you walk slowly. In addition to the massive number of motorbikes and their courtesy, the people are super nice, sometimes because they want to sell you something, but sometimes just because they are truly sincere and want to help you.

In a city of 7 million people, 3 million motorbikes pack the streets.

As for the food, if there is one word that describes Vietnamese food, it is ‘fresh.’ Everything from the pho, banh mi, seafood, coffee and che is full of flavors like lemongrass, pepper, mint and more. Vietnam’s history is something to discover more and more about, not only because of the war, but because this is where my family is from and where they have some story about the war. In school, we only learned about the Vietnam War, which is what Americans called it. We didn’t learn about the other side of the war that the Vietnamese call the American War. Visiting Saigon and Phu Quoc for the first trip to Vietnam was the right choice because of what we learned. I hope that you enjoy reading the next few posts almost as much as I enjoyed visiting Vietnam.

Like I mentioned, Vietnamese food is FRESH. It is filled with herbs, spices, vegetables, meat or seafood and their staple ingredient – fish sauce (nước mắm). I had fogotten how much I liked Vietnamese food. I didn’t realize how priviledged I was to have that type of food when I was younger, until now. I never knew what I was eating, I just knew that it was good. Now, I know what the food is called, but sometimes I don’t know what it’s made of. So, some of the information I get comes from the Internet.

I loved having pho almost everyday in Vietnam. Pho is a famous dish in Vietnam and around the world. It’s made of rice noodles in a beef broth, with your choice of how much bean sprouts, lime, basil, hoisin and sriacha sauce you’d like. They have chicken and seafood too, but beef (Pho Bo) is the way to go. Another snack or dish that I missed was Banh Mi, which is a baguette filled with thinly sliced carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, mayonaise and meat or tofu. It’s definitely a sandwich that was influnced by the French.

Vietnam's most famous dish, pho

Vietnamese seafood is the best in the world. Korean seafood is different because it usually has a kimchi taste to it. But I prefer Vietnamese seafood, which has more of a fresh, herb and black pepper taste. The best seafood in Vietnam is on Phu Quoc Island. The clams at the Night Market were amazing! The Vietnamese make a dipping sauce with shellfish such as clams, shrimp, prawn, crab and crawfish. The sauce is simply made of black pepper and salt with lime juice. It tastes perfect with shellfish!

Hot pot with baby shark, fresh vegetables and clam at the Night Market in Phu Quoc

Other dishes that are worth trying are Banh Xeo (the Vietnamese version of a crepe filled with fresh vegetables and pork), Bún thịt nướng (Vermicelli with grilled pork or fried spring rolls) and of course spring rolls, fried or fresh. Vietnamese coffee blows away other types of coffee. Its strong taste and sweet condensed milk stirred together and poured in ice make it the perfect drink for a warm morning or sweltering afternoon. But for an even more refreshing drink, try che. Everyone makes their che different. It’s usually made of red or soy bean in a coconut milk and crushed ice. Sometimes, it will have jellies, other fruit or some sort of custard.

But, one of our favorite eating experiences involved a bit of an adventure. Although this ‘restaurant’ is tucked away from District 1 and all of the other restaurants and hotels, this special chef is known for her homemade soups. She was featured on the TV show, “No Reservations,” with Anthony Bourdain. She is known as the “Lunch Lady.” It’s people like her who make the country a better place. She makes her culture speak through her cooking. She’s like a mother or grandmother who spends countless hours preparing a meal from love.

There was no exact address for her restaurant, which in Vietnam is sometimes outside with plastic chairs and tables and considered street food. But this street food was something different, with full service and the best soup in town. We had a small map that we found online and headed toward the area in search of this legend. As we got closer toward the area we asked a few locals where she was located and they knew exactly who we were talking about. Her stand was tucked away in a small alley. This was definitely off the beaten track. Her customers were everyday locals who crave the “good stuff.” This is the type of place where hardly ever see travelers. As soon as we located her stand, her face lit with a huge smile, welcoming us to sit down and try her food. She is an amazing woman who truly has a gift. Anthony Bourdain said that she was one of his favorite street vendors in Vietnam.

The Lunch Lady's Saturday Special - Banh Canh

She often puts a spin on traditional Vietnamese food making her own unique dish. When we went on a Saturday and she prepared a classic Vietnamese dish called Banh Canh. But instead of a pork-base broth she added her own spin with a crab-based seafood broth. The dish included fish cakes, succulent shrimps, thinly sliced shallots, onions, peppers, and a few quail eggs. Anyone who loves food could see the love that she put into this food.

This was one of the best dishes that we had in Vietnam. We highly recommend trying the Lunch Lady’s soup. If you’re limited on time in Vietnam, make sure you make time for the Lunch Lady. Just make sure that you get there after 11am and before 1pm. For someone being so famous, she charges less than 18,000 VND per plate, which is equivalent to $1 USD. Despite her popularity she refuses to raise her prices.





English Winter Camp 2010

11 02 2010

Winter Camp started immediately after we returned from Beijing. We were not ready for it! Although, we were aware of how many hours we would work and how long the days were going to be, we still needed a vacation after vacation. Instead, we were overwhelmed with three weeks of 12-hour days and what we thought would be chaos. The first day was a total disaster. None of the native English teachers or the Korean teachers knew where to go at what time, even with the “schedule.” But, after a day or two, everything was on track and we loved the students. Randy and I teach at middle schools, where the students are just too cool for school. Teaching fifth grade students at winter camp was such a blessing and gave me more of a desire to teach. The kids were so smart and motivated, even the low level students. There were about 300 students and 44 teachers, including native English and Korean teachers. The students were split into two levels, higher (A) and lower (B). There were 22 classes and my homeroom class ranked 20 out of 22. But that didn’t matter. They were still super smart and motivated!

Shauna's Homeroom Class

The first week, we were required to teach our students a song and they were required to perform the song at the song festival in front of all of the other students! The students performed “Lemon Tree,” “Perhaps,” “Upside Down,” “Don’t Stop Believing” and more. I taught my students “I Gotta Feeling,” by the Black Eyed Peas. We made up a dance and the students had a blast. It was really rewarding to see the students have fun on stage and my class won fourth place!

During the second week, we helped the students prepare for a debate. Debate is a regular class that some students hate. But I had the ‘smarter’ (A Team) students for debate, so it seemed like the students liked it more because they are able to speak English more. Some of the topics were good, such as “Do you agree or disagree with cosmetic surgery?” Some topics were relevant and fun to talk about for the students, such as the Jaebeom Controversy, in which the lead singer of a famous K-Pop band, 2PM, left to go back to America because he was ashamed of what he said about Korea when he first arrived. He said that “Korea is gay.” But as he learned more about Korea, he took back what he said, but was still regretful.

Debate Contest

Debate Contest

But some topics were ridiculous, such as “Do you agree or disagree that short men are losers?” This was just timely because there was of a TV show about a college student who gave her opinion that she wouldn’t date a guy under 5 feet 11 inches. Click here for more about this. This was the topic that my students had to debate. They were required to argue that they agree that “short men are losers.” It’s really horrible that we were required to talk about this. We just had to explain to the students that it’s just a debate that we were required to do and that it does not have to be their actual opinion. The students don’t even debate about topics in Korean, but I think the MOE (Ministry of Education) requires a debate in English just to get the students speaking, which is a good idea, but I think they should have more relevant topics that don’t degrade people. But, my class won the argument and went on to the second round. Although my class didn’t win during the final round, Randy’s class won first place among Team A!

On the last week of camp, the students had to perform a drama. This was the time to let the students shine. At first they were hesitant and shy to act, but after they saw my Korean co-teacher and I acting silly as well, they got excited and more into the acting. Our class performed “Hansel and Gretel.” Watch the video below. They won third place in the competition! It was really great to see the students do their best and very rewarding to see them so happy about it. Also, it was the last night of camp, so we started to say our goodbyes to the students who we had become close to.

Although winter camp consisted of long days and lots of teaching, the weeks went by fast and the students made the time enjoyable. “Hi, Shauna Teacher!” “Hi, Randy Teacher!” “Teacher, Randy’s girlfriend?” “Sticker chusayo (please)!” My teaching skills improved, even though we taught younger students. I learned how to build a better relationship with students and how to teach better with a co-teacher. The long days and lovable children were worth it.

Randy and his students