Returning to Binh Hoa and Long Xuyen

Wednesday we got breakfast at a new place. It was in the tourist area in Pham Ngu Lao and had a menu in English, French and Vietnamese. We both ordered orange juice that was fresh squeezed and not sweetened. Its natural flavor was delicious and a nice contrast to the MSG overload from the previous night. The food was so so, you really can’t male a tomato omelet too bad or too good.

We headed back to the hotel where I heard from David that he thought he might be contagious and didn’t want to expose us, so he declined a meeting and wished us well. With that we decided to plan our return to binh hoa. Tien heard that her cousin was driving to Saigon and back that evening. At first we thought this would be great, but she changed her mind after hearing that there were many people coming along because it was a bus. She said that because we would be guests it would be a cultural obligation for us to buy food for everybody, which would be fine if it were just a few people in the car, but not with a bus full of people. We decided to get bus tickets instead. She arranged them, we packed our bags, checked out and headed off to the bus stop in a taxi.

The taxi took a route that was unfamiliar, through new, wide streets with overpasses and bridges over a river. It was unlike any roads I’d seen in Saigon. It was modern, something I’d expect to find in Hanoi. It made me happy to see Saigon taking on this sort of project.

We were dropped off at a bus stop that I don’t think we’ve ever been to before. After getting our tickets we had thirty minutes left so we got food and coffee. This may have been the dirtiest bus stop I’ve ever seen, but the food and coffee were delicious.

We boarded our bus and it was very familiar. It’s interesting to be familiar with something when you don’t understand any of the words that are being said there. I doubt I could navigate this bus system myself. Incidentally though, the man sitting next to me spoke English, which may be a first for Vietnamese buses. Tien and I played wurdle until the bus pulled out of the parking lot, which felt like it was pocked with craters. The music went on and tien fell asleep. I wrote this, and now the man on my right and tien on my left are Leaning their heads on my shoulder as I peck away on my iPhone. I wonder if the camera on the iPhone has a wide enough angle to capture this scene…

Our bus stopped at the usual spot to refuel and let us all move our legs, freshen up and get food. Tien and I ordered pho and it was absolutely delicious. This was great not only because I have a head cold, but I have had a long string of mediocre or bad pho for I don’t know how long. Coffee and tea were also nice. We headed off again and got to Binh Hoa after dark.

Mai and Thu met us down the street from Tien’s house with motorbikes and rode us home where the family was waiting. It was really great to see everybody and to be home. Tien and I sat in the living room with her mother and sisters and nieces enjoying each other’s company and catching up on the last few days. I passed out some gifts I had brought from America, jewelry for the ladies and Jelly Bellies for the kids. Tien’s brother said that he was raising frogs. Everybody thought I should take medicine for my cough and that I should eat food, but honestly I wasn’t hungry. Tien warmed some water for me, I took a shower and passed out. It’s amazing how traveling can wear you out sometimes.

I had a good night’s sleep despite that I had to wake up and pee twice during the night. At Tien’s house this isn’t such a simple thing. You have to unlock this huge steel gate and slide it back, which makes a loud screeching metal sound. The day was already warming up and I took a cold shower that felt nice.

Tien’s sister in law was out on the back porch mincing a bunch of tiny fish. I had seen a slap-chop in CA before I left and thought it might be a good gift. I still wonder how it would’ve gone over…

Tien and I went to the market for breakfast and had hu tieu and coffee. Familiar food and familiar faces. Afterwards we went to see Thu’s new house being built. It is a two story brick and cement house at the edge of the market in Binh Hoa, about a city block from Tien’s parents house. Later Tien would show me a rendering of what it will look like and it looks pretty cool. It has an upstairs patio, which I love. Thu found one that is similar but looks different and more to her liking, but the builders say they can’t make changes after they’ve started building.

We headed back through the market and went shopping for fruits and vegetables. This is an open air market with fruits and meats laying out in the open air. There were several fruits that I didn’t recognize. Thu bought one and cut it up for us to eat and it was very delicious. It tasted like a grapefruit but had a much thicker rind. In fact, it did end up being a grapefruit, but not the ones commonly seen in America.

We headed home and took a nap. I couldn’t sleep much so I played Field Runners, which I haven’t played in a long time and not since they upgraded some features. Tien gave me a massage, one of the things I really missed.

That evening we went to Long Xuyen and had dinner on a boat that cruised up and down the river. It was fun, but the boat was really loud and vibrated a lot. Nhi’s spoon kept shaking in her bowl, I guess she had the epicenter of the vibrations below her. I spotted a medkit and felt like I was in a video game.

Killing time in Saigon

On Monday, Tien and I decided to find a new breakfast place. We walked several blocks through the heart of the tourist area at Pham Ngu Lao and found a lot of places that looked overpriced and inauthentic. I honestly don’t like things to be too touristy, so when I see people with color t-shirts from the cities they have visited sitting at a fancy looking restaurant where all the seats face the street, I shy away. We walked down a block with big business offices and came upon a fancy cafe with about 20 motorbikes out front and knew it must be good. This is how I am going to gauge restaurants from now on, by how many motorbikes are out front. If there are few it’s either bad food or for tourists.

After breakfast we again we went looking for meds and found nothing. Tien said she’d call her friend who is a doctor and ask him about it. We walked and talked and went and had smoothies. We, or rather I, talked a lot about music and culture and how I feel like VN is prime for an alternative culture to thrive. I feel like there is a lot of artistic talent here that has no direction and is still tied to the traditions of the culture, and that if there was a cultural icon who broke away from that tradition it would have a huge effect on the direction of the next generations. Music and visual art were my two main points of illustration. The fact that there is no alternative music to speak of and no graffiti in Saigon demonstrate the ties to cultural traditions.

We headed back to the hotel room and did some research online about pharmacies and malaria. I was horrified by the stories of people on Lariam (Mefloquine). The photos and story of the Somalia Affair were enough for me to stay away from that med. Malarone was probably out of the question, but I did find doxycycline and that looked very promising. What was even more promising was learning that Vietnam doesn’t even have much of a malaria problem to begin with, and that’s why it’s so hard to find anti-malarials. Apparently there is only a problem with malaria in the high regions surrounding Laos, and one remote forested region down south. Tien’s doctor friend said this and I didn’t believe it at first, but I found malaria maps online to back it up. I wondered about the american medical system…

Again I napped, and again it was too long. I’ve decided to call off afternoon naps at all costs until I get my sleep schedule well in order. Tien and I woke up just after sunset and went to have dinner. We had pho, and we played a word game that I played with Lila’s son Maks in the car on the way to the airport where you find a word that begins with the last letter of the previous word. Car, Road, Dream, Mellon, Nearby. This was a fun game to play for the word association aspect of it and for the vocabulary aspect for Tien.

After dinner we wandered back to a pirate DVD and Book store we found on my last trip, got some movies. We ate smoothies on the way back to the hotel, then stayed up late watching Minority Report on my laptop.

On Tuesday Tien and I went back to coffee viva for breakfast. We sat in the back next to a bronze statue of a topless girl reclining and arching her back. There was supposed to be a fountain or pond, but it was dry and smelled like fish so we moved. Over breakfast we talked about things we could do on this trip. We considered Ha Tien Beach, Ha Long Bay since she had never been there and Nha Trang since I had never been there. Other countries were also considered but Laos was ruled out with the highlands of Vietnam because of malaria. We also talked about getting me a motorbike license back in Long Xuyen.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a motorbike rental shop and looked at prices. It was $6 a day including helmets, which sounded really appealing. We decided to go plan more at the hotel and come back when we needed the bike. We picked up a pizza for an afternoon snack and went to a park by the hotel to look for a geocache. We found where the cache was but decided not to get it in the broad daylight because of the muggles. Instead we went to the hotel and chilled out for a while and ate our pizza. Tien called her old teacher Tyler about hanging out with him but he was busy that evening. I heard back from David that he was back from Singapore but was sick. He was resting for the rest of the day and would let me know if he was feeling better the next day. So, with nowhere to go we decided to nap.

We went out to walk around at dinnertime and had trouble agreeing on a restaurant. Tien eventually pointed to a decent looking place that was Australian themed. I got a big Saigon Red beer and some beef with rice. It was absolutely delicious at first bite, then I was hit by the MSG train. It wasn’t a hint, it was obvious. Fortunately it was in the sauce and I was able to eat a lot of the rice and other tasty bits without it tasting too bad, but my mouth was still tingly afterwards. Tien’s mixed fried rice wasn’t too bad, but I directed us to our now usual smoothie spot for after MSG cleansing. The smoothie shop was conveniently right across from the geocache, which is now the only cache in Saigon. We found it quickly, took a trackable and went back to the hotel. We put on Harry Potter and the half blood prince but fell asleep about thirty minutes in, not because it was a bad movie.

Hanging out with Dat and Trinh

On Sunday, my first morning back in Vietnam, Tien and I went to our old breakfast place. It was OK, but honestly it’s lost its sentimental value with the realization that it’s not that great of a restaurant. It is very convenient though. After breakfast we went back to the hotel room and did some online stuff and fell asleep for a long, long time.

When we woke up, Tien’s friend Trinh and her boyfriend Dat were on their way to visit us with a couple of motorbikes. Tien and I hadn’t eaten dinner yet so when they arrived we went out to find some food. We’d planned on getting pho, but Tien forgot about that and we ended up going to KFC. I was amused by this, expecting their menu to have interesting variations not available in America, but I didn’t see anything that was out of the ordinary. I quizzed Tien on what KFC meant and who that guy was, and she had absolutely no idea. Not much of a surprise there from a girl who didn’t know McDonalds or Starbucks until she went to Malaysia, and this is one of the things I love about her.

After dinner we headed out into the night traffic and instantly got separated from Dat and Trinh. Saigon traffic can be pretty crazy and Tien isn’t used to the big city so she isn’t assertive in her motorbiking. This later lead to us putting more effort into figuring out how to get me a motorbike license in VN. The four of us on two bikes cruised around the city a little bit in rain amounts varying between none and pouring, but it was warm so it wasn’t all that bad. We did get drenched though, and decided to just call it a night.

That night I found it very hard to sleep, most likely from how long I’d slept earlier that day.

Monday morning we woke up and tried to find a place different from the usual place we eat breakfast, but couldn’t find anything before our hunger took priority and we went back there. On our walk we saw a minor motorbike crash. I haven’t seen many traffic accidents here, and none have been bad since people tend to go pretty slowly, but this was the first of two that I saw that day.

Trinh and Dat came back to the hotel and we four headed out to a park where Trinh liked to go a lot when she still had free time, Bình Quoí 1. It was labeled as a tourist park, but was essentially a portrait photographers playground. TT at the fallsThere were barely any tourists there, but what there were plenty of was beautiful girls dressed to the 9′s posing in front of cameras. There were also several couples who were getting their engagement photos taken by professional photography crews, complete with off-cam lighting, props and makeup artists. The park was laid out with paths leading past backdrop after backdrop. A waterfall, a cart, a cyclo, a ruined brick wall, a ruined wall with pillars, a stone with flowers next to a pond, a bench on a lawn, a bamboo swing, a barrel and ladle, a causeway across a pond, a canoe in the pond, water lilies, flowers growing in vines up trees, stone statues, so on and so forth. This made it easy for photographers to play musical backdrops with each other, shuffling from one to the next to put their respective couples into the various scenes. Honestly it was pretty brilliant, and it didn’t cost anything for us to get in either. I assume they made their money off charging professional crews and selling food and water at the eateries that were scattered throughout the campus.

The four of us spent an hour or so walking around and taking photographs, then headed back towards downtown. We stopped on the way back and I got some absolutely terrible spaghetti carbonara while Tien enjoyed delicious vietnamese food. I resolved not to buy anything too culinarily distant from VN food from now on.

On the way home I saw a blind beggar holding a cane and a hat with his eyes rolled back in his head kneeling at the side of the road where hundreds of motorbikes were passing by.

Back near the hotel Tien and I tried to find a pharmacy for my malaria meds but couldn’t find anything. We resolved to find it later and went back inside to take a rest. I fell asleep and didn’t wake up for several hours. My sleeping schedule still hadn’t adjusted yet and it was taking a toll on my daylight hours and my energy.

We went briefly out with Dat and Trinh again to grab some dinner, then they headed home while Tien and I retired to the old Ruby Star.

October arrival in Saigon

Sunset in JapanMy layover in japan was short and nice. I walked around a bit and Took pictures during sunset, then developed some photos from a photoshoot I did for Rob’s friends last weekend. I didn’t bother with the $6 Internet and before I knew it I was boarding the flight to Saigon.

Vietnamese people are chatty, social people. I really wonder it is they talk about so much. One man dropped a bag out o an overhead bin onto another mans head across the aisle from me then apologized profusely. There were kids running up and down the aisle of the plane, standing on the seat playing with the lights, and a man got out of his seat right as we were about to take off to help a woman with a screaming baby. I couldn’t help but smile at it all, what a show.

I sat next to a couple from Indiana who was on their way to volunteer at a cafe called the masters cup which I took to be a Christian entity. They were nice folks and I talked to the gentleman about traveling in Asia. He mentioned that VN was limiting visas since about a month ago, not giving out more than 30 day visas and for only a single entry. Good thing I’ve still got my 6 month with over 30 days left.  He later said that he had been in Vietnam during the war, which makes him the first American I’d talked to about the war who had actually been in the war and then come back. Regrettably we didn’t get much time to talk about it because I didn’t find this out until the end of the flight.

We taxied forever and I soon drifted off with drams about taxiing to the coast of japan and then floating off across the ocean to Vietnam instead of actually flying there. I woke up briefly for takeoff and then fell asleep to the feelings of the g-force and the many conversations all around, both of which were surprisingly calming. But then, it was 3am so maybe that had something to do with it as well.

I thought I was dreaming when I woke up. On television was a mix between Harry potter, star wars episode 1 and star trek. I wasn’t dreaming though, apparently this is some dreadful new show. I kept anticipating a light saber duel between Spock and Malfoy.

I ordered a glass of wine and it was poured from an opaque plastic bottle you’d expect to find juice in. Meh, it was free so I can’t complain.

We landed late and sat on the plane for a while before heading to the gate.  I breezed through immigration and customs to find my lovely fiancé Tien and her awesome sister Mai waiting for me at the front door.  We eventually found a taxi that would take Mai to the bus stop after dropping Tien and I of at the familiar Ruby Star.

The streets of Saigon were mostly empty due to what must have been a decent rain.  They were wet and shiny and looked clean.  It was great to have my fiancé back after so long apart and so many frustrations with I-129F. Here we were though, back in Saigon.  It was very familiar and it seemed like only yesterday that I had been here.

Heading back to Vietnam

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything, mainly because I haven’t been traveling. Espiritu del solI left Colorado and drove back to San Francisco in mid August, over two months ago. In that time I’ve mainly been focusing on two things: finishing an I-129f petition for Tien and studying and practicing flash photography. Most of that time has been spent sleeping on the floor or couch in Brianna, Lily and Terresina’s living room. I did get a sublet for a few weeks right up on top of twin peaks, and I did stay with some other friend in that time. Some people had suggested that I get a job and an apartment and prepare for Tien’s arrival in the US, but I just didn’t want to do things that way. Instead, once I finished Tien’s petition I decided to go back to Vietnam. So, here I am on Northwest Airlines flight 27 from San Francisco to Tokyo where I have a quick layover before flying to Saigon.

Honestly, the last few months have been difficult personally because my future has been up in the air and it’s been up to me to steer the direction of my life through wide open uncertain circumstances. My fiance is still in Vietnam and probably can’t enter the US for 7 more months. I’ve been wading through the US immigration system pretty much on my own. I have no job and no home of my own. There was the option of starting up a photography business of my own. For a while I didn’t even have a phone, then I realized that was ridiculous and forked over $70 a month for an iPhone plan which was extra great because of tethering. I still don’t have health insurance which led to me skipping an optional vaccination and needing to find malaria meds in VN because I didn’t find the SF Travel Clinic until last night, and I just started planning this trip 3 days ago.

Two nights ago I took the girls out for dinner as a thank you for being so hospitable and to have one last great time with them before heading out. Yesterday I took care of last minute preparations. One of the things I did was buy a pocket camera to replace the LX3 I had purchased in Saigon last time. I lost the LX3 at Lovefest after drinking a bit too much. I honestly have no idea where I lost it, but I was happy I didn’t lose my D300 instead. The camera I picked up was a $150 Samsung NV24HD. The look is what first caught my eye, then its remarkable interface, then its ability to do 60fps video and lastly its 24mm equivalent lens. A few quick googles showed happy owners so I followed the impulse and bought it. Following impulses is working out pretty good for me.

That night I headed down to Lila’s house to crash there for the night. Will had wrecked one of their cars so like last time I let her them borrow mine. This works out great because they get a car and i don’t have to pay storage costs. Lila and I took Maks to his new school in Palo Alto and then she dropped me off at SFO. My friend Blake is living out in SF now and was flying back to CO for a week, so I met up with him at the airport after checking in for my flight. We caught up on recent life details and future life strategy while he waited in an incredibly long line at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter. I left him still in it when I had to go to the international area.

At the security checkpoint I was happy to see that they had gotten rid of that lame requirement to remove your laptop. The posted signs only said to remove oxygen mask systems, full size DVD players and game systems, but no mention of laptops anywhere. My happiness at not having to unpack my bag was ended with a snide comment from a TSA agent about how I was supposed to remove my laptop for the x-Ray machine. I wished her luck when she said she was going to take it out for me, but thought again about how I needed that luck since I’d be the one repacking my bag. Stupid TSA security theater.

I bought an $8 ham sandwich and a single serving bottle of wine because I’d need to sleep on the plane. International flights may be one of the only legitimate excuses for drinking in the morning. I ate, emailed Tien, canceled my per-month iPhone plan and boarded the plane. We took off ahead of schedule and are looking at a shorter than expected travel time. Maybe I’ll catch sunset in Tokyo. Hopefully it’s not foggy like last time.

My trip was taking the same route I took last time, SF to Tokyo to Saigon. Last time I flew on All Nippon Airways and it was absolutely the best airline experience I’ve ever had. I had tried to get another flight with them, but after searching I found that United and NWA (Delta) were roughly half the cost at $680 round trip. I thought this was a fantastic deal considering I was buying two days in advance, but then I remembered the recent flood that ravaged Hoi An and other coastal towns in that region and it made sense.

Transcontinental flights are already pretty awesome with their in-flight entertainment systems in each seat, typically more room than domestic flights and meals and drinks are included in the ticket price. I wasn’t so sure how delta would stack up against Ana and was a little interested in finding out. 3 hours into my flight I have some results…

The entertainment system for the whole plane crashed shortly after I started using it. The flight attendant on the intercom said it would take 15 minutes to reboot, and it did. A sight that was familiar to me came on the screen: tux the penguin and a bunch of black and white textual technological jargon.

After a few iterations the system eventually stabilized and I was allowed the displeasure of finding innumerable bugs and limitations. The media wasn’t sortable and was not listed alphabetically. When browsing reviews, the “next” function was 4 clicks away while the default was “watch trailer”, which clearly assumes that people intend to watch trailers more than skip to the next review. The media was Aldo incorrectly linked so that clicking Forrest Gump let you watch a Honduran movie called Sin Nombre. There were 4 unhelpful listings for Delta TV that ended up being popular american television shows. The most disheartening thing was their lack of selection, there are only a handful of movies available, nothing for me to watch. The in-flight map showed that we had flown 8500 or so miles shortly after takeoff. This was accompanied by a flat map, not a globe. The “comments” link only let you take a survey and not actually leave comments, which stiles one my personal pet peeves of interface elements that say they do one thing and do something completely different. “Download now” is the worst offense of this kind on the Internet. So, yeah, big fail on the delta entertainment system unless the label it as alpha or maybe beta.

The next test was the meal. It was actually very good, but plastic silverware is wasteful and cheap. They did provide hand towels, coffee, beer and wine though, so that was also nice. All in all, not too bad.

One of the highlights o this trip is meeting up with an old room mate and coworker, David Tran. He’s a Vietnamese Parisian who is on a trip to Saigon to see his family. he’s actually in Singapore right now but will be returning on Monday which gives Tien and I some time to spend in Saigon with each other and her friend Trinh and gives me time to adjust to the time difference, find malarone and get started on that two day lead in before entering malaria infested areas.