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.

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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





A Peak into the North and a Leap into Ice

29 01 2010

As if skiing for Christmas wasn’t enough snow, we went back to Gangwando province for more. The MOE (Ministry of Education) organized another adventurous trip to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and Ice Festival. They took us to the DMZ on the east side of the country. The DMZ serves as a dividing line and buffer zone between North and South Korea. It is 2.5 miles wide, which includes the Han River and some land, according to Wikepedia.

We’ve been to the DMZ on the west side, where the U.S. military is based and which is more dangerous because it’s easier for the North Koreans to enter because there aren’t as many mountains as there are on the east side in Gangwando. My good high school friend, Quentin Willard, reminded me of good southern hospitality and took us to Camp Casey, a U.S. Army base where we had Taco Bell! (They have McDonald’s and KFC everywhere in Korea, but not Taco Bell!) He took us to the DMZ, which had an eerie feeling because they had a small amusement park, the tracks for that train that took South Korean workers to the North to work and a few sights and memorials from the war, such a steam locomotive that had hundreds of bullet holes. He also took us to another observatory where we had a clear view of North Korea. Across the Han River, we could see a small village with just a few houses and no lights. This village was definitely a traditional North Korean village where they had no electricity or cars. They lived off of farming and hunting, while they could see the bright lights across the river in South Korea.

The other side of the DMZ was totally different. It’s located at a Korean Army base. It took a long time to get there because there was so much ice and snow. But it was definitely a beautiful scene when we got to the top of the mountain. This part of the DMZ wasn’t as commercialized because not many people go there. The mountains are too hard to get around, which is also the reason why it is not as dangerous as the other side of the DMZ. (So, why are the Americans on the more dangerous side?) The mountains can protect South Korea from the North. Although there are huge mountains on this side, the river is much narrower. Some native teachers, who we went with, said that they saw some North Korean soldiers on the other side. Both sides are definitely worth seeing if you get a chance. But, they also used to do day trips to Pyongyang, North Korea. They recently opened the borders to Americans. That would be an interesting trip. Click here to find out more.

Again, the MOE never ceases to surprise us. Because that was the first weekend of the Ice Festival, there weren’t any hotels in the small downtown area. So, we got lost in the snowy mountains trying to find our “hotel.” We actually stayed in log cabins with 20 other native English teachers. It was a blast! We got up early the next morning because our day was filled with being on ice. We were told that we would go ice fishing and fishing with our bare hands for freshwater mountain trout. They gave us the poles and string, but no bait. They said the fish don’t need the bait. We just had a small fake fish with a hook. It worked for some people who caught a fish. But some of us were just freezing our toes and fingers off. After warming up in a rest area, we had an appointment. There was a lot to see and do at the Ice Festival, including an ice castle, ice sculptures and games on the ice such as ATVing, ice soccer, ice skating, etc. But, we had to hurry because we had an appointment to go fishing with our bare hands! I had just realized that we were supposed to do the polar bear plunge and catch the fish!!! They gave us shorts and a t-shirt and we shakily walked to the pool area where others were sitting down, preparing themselves to be freezing. The announcer tried to warm us up to jumping into the freezing cold water, so he asked someone to dive in! A Korean man dove and then one of the native English teachers dove! He’s SCUBA diver, but the water was freezing cold. He did the count off. Everyone jumped in! But, Randy, two other native teachers and I took a few more seconds to have the courage, but we did it! I didn’t even try to catch a fish with my bare hands because all I wanted to do was get out of the ice cold water. While our toes and bodies are freezing, they led us to a hot foot bath. The water was extremely hot, it took a few minutes for me put my feet in all the way. After a while, we were all fine. Some teachers caught one fish, two fish and even three fish! But, needless to say, bare-hands fishing and polar bear plunging is a one-time experience. Thanks to the MOE, we can check that off of our list of things to do before we die – wait, that wasn’t even on my list!





When in Beijing

28 01 2010

We only had four days off for New Year’s, so we decided to go to Beijing with Kangsan Travel. We were hesitant about spending our vacation with a tour group, but it turned out to be a fun and fulfilling trip. As soon as we got off the plane, our fabulous tour guide, Charley, greeted us at airport. Charley, a Chinese man who had studied English in England, made the tour informative and extremely fun. We were able to do more than we could have done on our own.

Our first meal in China was very appropriate for the frigid weather that we faced. We went to a rustic temple restaurant where we had a traditional Hot Pot. It is commonly known as a Chinese fondue or steamboat. It is a mixture of lamb or pork and a variety of vegetables and is cooked in a hot pot of broth at the table. It’s guaranteed to warm anyone on a cold winter day.

Next, we headed to watch a traditional Chinese Acrobatic show. The performers were probably younger than 25 years old. When you go to Beijing be sure to stop by and experience an amazing show that teaches you more about the culture of China.

After a full day of traveling and sightseeing, we still decided to bring in the New Year’s, Beijing style! We partied in one of the hottest nightclubs that Beijing has to offer. VICS Club is located near Worker’s Stadium and is a haven for trendy locals who love to have a good time. It’s like two clubs in one with all kinds of great music. The DJs played hip hop, dance and club music. This was an unforgettable New Year. After 2am we decided to go to the hotel because we needed to get up by 8am to start our first adventure of the New Year by climbing the Great Wall of China. But, we couldn’t go back to Holiday Inn Lido Hotel without a hot dog!

The Great Wall of China

Climbing the Great Wall of China was amazing. Many people live their entire life wanting to make a trip to one of the wonders of the world and we were very excited to check the Great Wall off our list of “Things to do before I die.” The Great Wall of China is one of the cornerstones of Chinese culture. It’s one of the largest military walls in all of history and served to protect the early Chinese empire from hostile enemies. The Great Wall of China has been around for nearly 2000 years and still stands today as a wonderful architectural beauty. The Ming Dynasty built the Great Wall of China. It was built of stone, wood and bricks to keep enemies away. If you get a chance to climb this great wonder of the world, do it! Click here to find out more about the history of the Great Wall of China.

Summer Palace is a famous classic imperial garden with breathtaking views. In the wintertime you can go ice-skating on the frozen lake. The Summer Palace is a must see when you head to Beijing.

Tinanmen Square

Tiananmen Square is the largest city square in the world and it can hold up to 10 million people at one time! It is a symbol of China, as it sits in the center of Beijing and displays the Tinanmen Tower, the Great Hall and Mao Zedong’s memorial. It has been the site of many historical events, among which was a gathering of pro-democracy protesters in 1989. The protest lasted for six weeks after the leader of China who supported economic and political reform passed away. Protesters were mostly students who wanted economic change and democratic reform. The protest ended when hundreds of these protesters were killed by government troops in the streets. Click here to learn more about Tiananmen Square.

Behind Mao Zedong’s memorial laid the Forbidden City. Built in the 15th Century and consisting of 980 surviving buildings, the Forbidden City has been named a World Heritage Site and listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden buildings. The Forbidden City is an amazing and enormous place. We were lucky to see the Forbidden City in snow.

The Forbidden City

But what is even larger than the Forbidden City is the Temple of Heaven. It is the largest group of structures in the country dedicated to rituals that pay homage to heaven. This temple was built specifically for the worship of heaven and prayers for good harvests during the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties. As we walked around I really thought that this name of the temple was very appropriate for this magnificent structure. But another interesting site near the Temple of Heaven wasn’t a structure; it was the park outside of the temple that was filled with elderly people enjoying life. They were singing, dancing, playing music and games. It was amazing to see the joy in these people’s lives with the even the simplest things.

Temple of Heaven

Shopping in China is an adventure in itself. If you don’t know how to bargain, stay home. For example if you’re looking to buy a tea set, the price starts at 500 Chinese Yuan. The game starts by going back and forth. I really enjoyed shopping in China because it involved a lot of acting and body language. After five minutes of going back and forth I was able to buy the same tea set for 50 Chinese Yuan, which is equivalent to $7.30. At the end even though I did a great job bargaining, I accepted that I still got ripped off. Everything in the world is made from China and it is quite amazing to see the people sell their products.

After traveling around the world, China stands out. There is something special about this unique and beautiful country. The food, diversity, culture and people of China are great. With more than 1.3 billion people living in China and 56 different dialects of the Chinese language, I think we have our work cut out for us as Americans. China is on the brinks of being the next superpower nation in the world. We would like to thank Kangsan travel and all of our friends who made this trip very special. Xing Nian Kwai le (Happy New Year)!





Christmas in Korea

25 01 2010

Busan

It’s a little hard to tell that it’s Christmas in Korea. There were a few Christmas lights and Christmas trees in Ulsan, but if you wanted to see a lot of lights and feel the Christmas spirit, you had to go to Busan or Seoul. Kosin (pronounced koshin) University in Busan had their first Christmas Tree Festival where they had millions of lights around the Christian campus.  Kosin University is on Yeongdo island in Busan. Take the subway to Nampodong, where the shopping street is filled with Christmas lights, and jump in a taxi and say Yeongdo, which is the name of the island, and then say Kosin taehakyo, which is the name of the university. You’ll be amazed!

Seoul

Another way to celebrate Christmas in Korea is Santacon in Seoul. Apparently, Santacon happens in other major cities around the world. I had never heard of it until we moved to Korea. Hundreds of people dressed up in Santa Claus outfits and bar hopped all night. They even had a map of which bars they would go to and at an exact time. But with hundreds of Santas, there was no way that they would all stay together. It was definitely an experience and great to see everyone in the Christmas spirit.

YongPyong

But, the best way to celebrate Christmas in Korea is with the friends you’ve made to be almost like family. We went skiing at Yongpyong Resort in Gangwando province and had a little Christmas celebration of our own. It didn’t quite feel like Christmas until later because we had to catch a 3am bus from Busan to make the 5-hour trek to Yongpyong. We weren’t lucky to have a school that let us off on Christmas Eve. But the odd hours paid off. We received a 40 percent discount on the lift and ski rentals for that day! As we arrived, it definitely felt like Christmas with all of the snow and a few close friends to be around. Although, we missed opening gifts on Christmas morning, we had a nice Christmas dinner in the hostel and a Secret Santa gift party. Another plus to spending time with great people was that we got to see some of the scenes from the first Korean drama that we saw, Winter Sonata. The resort had pictures and cardboard cut outs of the famous drama everywhere, at the bottom and top of the mountain. We missed our families dearly but we’re thankful that we were able to celebrate Christmas with great people at a beautiful place.





Merry Christmas!

23 12 2009

Merry Christmas to all of our family and friends! Thanks for your love and support as we are in Korea. We miss everyone very much, especially during this season. But we are thankful for our new friends here. Best wishes to everyone for the new year! Enjoy the slide show!

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Hanji and more in Andong

22 12 2009

The Ministry of Education (MOE) in Ulsan, South Korea has treated us like royalty. They take care of everything. When we first got here, we had orientation for 10 days that somewhat prepared us for teaching in Korea. But of course, learning to teach is something you have to practice to actually learn how to do it. Since we’ve been in Ulsan, we have been on two overnight trips with the MOE. The MOE pays for everything on these trips. They take care of transportation, food and the hotel room. It’s such a blessing that we get to experience different parts of Korea that hardly any Koreans get to experience themselves.

We went to Andong for our first trip. Andong is a small city in the Gyeongsangbuk-do province. It took about three hours to get there from Ulsan. Andong is known for its traditional paper making factory and for the mask festival, which was canceled this year because of the H1N1 flu. After the bus ride, they provided us with lunch at a bulgogi restaurant.

Then, they took us to the hanji or paper factory where we made our own traditional Korean mask out of paper mache. But, this wasn’t just any kind of paper. This type of paper, that they call hanji, is handmade. It’s such an old tradition that I hope the owners will carry on the art of paper making to the younger generation. Unfortunately, these factories are hard to find these days.

We took a tour of the factory and saw how hard the old men and women (ajoshis and ajummas) work. Hanji is all-natural and made from mulberry bark. It is steamed in water and then two women separate each piece of the bark individually. Another job for the ajummas (old women) is to dry the piece of paper on a hot very piece of metal. Then, the ajoshis (old men) dye the paper with all kinds of beautiful colors.

Old women individually separate each piece of the mulberry bark after it is steamed.

Old women dry the paper with their bare hands on a hot metal structure.

Old men dye the paper many different vibrant colors.

Not only is it beautiful how they make hanji, but fall in Korea is so beautiful! The national tree, the ginkgo biloba, starts changing colors from a vibrant green to a deep yellow. We had the privilege to see the fall season in a traditional folk village called Hahoe village and on our way to Bongjeongsa temple.

Another perk to going on these trips, is that we get to meet and get to know more people in our program. There are two organizations that the MOE is responsible for, EPIK (English Program in Korea) and TALK Scholars. Most of the time TALK Scholars are still taking classes in college. EPIK teachers must have a bachelor’s degree. But people from both organizations are equally great people. Though, I was really surprised to meet a girl from Oklahoma who went to a college near my hometown! She is currently a student at University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS). There is another guy who goes to UAFS as well! And a girl from Conway, Arkansas. This is just proof that the world isn’t as big as it seems and as we try to explore more, we are able to find a taste of home anywhere.