Asia · Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City part 3

Tuesday was back to teaching! Went to the local school in the morning and worked on tenses. I played bingo with them last week when we learnt about hobbies and it was a winner so me and Matt played it again this week and it went down really well, even when someone got bingo they wanted to keep playing. I love the class because they’re so enthusiastic and always smiling. My favourite is called Sung who is 21 (although he looks about 15) but is still in school because he had to drop out for a few years due to family issues. He now works as a housekeeper and lives with his boss but uses all his free time to study, especially English which he is really passionate about. Not only is he an extremely hard worker and absolutely dedicated to helping his mum and family in every way, he is also one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. On the way back to the house we picked up our regular smoothies from the local market we walk through (fresh smoothies of your choice for under 50p)… I go so much that the lady now recognises me.

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After lunch, me and Sarah prepared our lesson for the afternoon at VAA and then didn’t really have anything to do so we decided to wonder to the massage place up the road… What an experience. My motto for Vietnam is that you don’t know what’s going on 80% of the time, at this particular massage parlour we didn’t know what was going on 100% of the time! When we arrived we were taken upstairs and given these paper pants and told to get into the shower together to change (obviously we just took turns getting changed in private), we were confused because we just wanted a standard massage but we found out that part of the price included as much time in the sauna as you like before and after. The sauna wasn’t hot enough so it was then imitated that we would go for our massage first and then go into the sauna, which was fine with us because we didn’t really have time to sauna as well. So we were given what looked like prison uniforms to put over our paper pants and then went down to another room, which was actually very relaxing and comfortable. The massage itself was an hour long and was really good. Some of it was Thai style (a little bit of pain and a lot of cracking), some of it was just standard massage with oil and some of it was hot stones… All in all a good mix. We were really impressed with the place until we went to pay. It was advertised as 100,000d (Β£3.50) each but when we got down they had written down 300,000d each (200,000d tip). We were gonna tip them anyway but double the price of the massage was nowhere near what we were thinking. So after some harsh words and a lot of pointing from me (they didn’t speak English, obviously we don’t speak Vietnamese) we ended up paying 150,000d each. Even though it was a great massage and I understand why it happens, I HATE the culture of exploiting Westerners to the MAX (it’s standard for Westerners to be given an initial price that is at least 200% more than Vietnamese people would be given).

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In the afternoon we had a really successful class at VAA. We did lots of games and exercises related to travel, which they really seemed to enjoy (it was also one of the topics they suggested last week). Because it was Sarah’s last lesson some of the students then took us out for some Vietnamese street food. Some of it was gorgeous and some of it was just to try (and never to eat again). We started with banh xeo, which is a fried pancake with prawns and meat (just the prawns for me) and you break it off and put it in rice paper with lettuce and then dip it in chilli sauce. It was really yummy so I would definitely eat it again. We then had what is considered as one of the top ten most disgusting foods in the world (as Vietnamese people seem quite proud to tell me)… Trung vit lon or baby duck egg. It’s basically a duck foetus and is considered a delicacy here. The sauce that it was served in and the yolk bits were ok but I couldn’t get over the thought of what I was eating so I couldn’t enjoy it, but at least I tried it. We then went somewhere else and had fresh spring rolls (which I’ve had a few times before, although these were the best ones I’ve had so far), banh trang tron (shredded rice paper, mango, peanuts, quails egg, dry shrimp and dry chilli – was yummy but spicy) and banh flan (flan and jelly with coffee), which was my favourite dish of the day because of my sweet tooth. It’s extremely sweet how the young people are so willing to give up their time to show you new places and foods, they really want to give you a great experience of Vietnam. One of the girls even offered to take us round the city this Sunday as our personal tour guide so hopefully we can arrange it (it’s so much easier getting around with a local). The evening was just hanging out and cooking/eating pancakes for PANCAKE DAY.

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On Wednesday morning we woke up to torrential rain, which I wasn’t too happy about because I did my washing on Tuesday night and had hung it out to ‘dry’ on the roof… Luckily it was partially covered so it only got a little bit wet. It was also the morning to say goodbye to Sarah, which was quite sad. We then taught at the boys orphanage (my favourite) and again worked on clothes, which they’re getting pretty good at now. At the end is always game time and last week one of the girls gave them a skipping rope, which they seem to have some serious skills with now! They also love fighting (standard boys) so hitting your hands and pretending to shoot you with Lego guns is another favourite.

I then came home for lunch and just lazed around and had a nap between classes. The afternoon was an English lesson with the local volunteers who have really good English so it’s usually just a chat, we talked about different things to do with health. A couple of us went to get our favourite smoothies after class and then the evening was saying goodbye to Steph, watching Vanilla Sky and eating snacks.

Thursday morning started off quite dramatically with Matt rushing into our room at 7am to tell us Kevin was completely unresponsive again (this happened two weeks ago too) but that he had also been fitting so hard it had woke them up. We know he’s diabetic (from last time) but we weren’t entirely sure what type, how to give him his insulin or whether it was safe to move him. Last time we gave him cola (we didn’t know he was diabetic until after so we thought he was dehydrated) and it worked but we couldn’t get him to drink it this time. Thao (who is Vietnamese and lives in the house with us) called a local hospital for an ambulance but they said they would have to call her back(?!). She then called the international hospital but they needed $500 upfront just to send the ambulance. The paramedics from the local hospital then arrived 50 minutes after Thao called them, which is scary. I will never take the NHS for granted again! Talking to the Americans, Canadians, Australians and Kiwi and our experiences yesterday, we are SO lucky in Britain to have the system we have even though it’s nowhere near perfect.

After some glucose and fluids Kevin was completely fine and even thought it would be a good idea to go to class (he was told he had to stay and rest obviously). The morning was spent at the local school where Sung surpassed even his own selflessness. We were told he wouldn’t be there because his father has throat cancer and had taken a turn for the worse but he arrived ten minutes after the start having been in hospital all night with his father, apologising profusely for being late. He then actively took part in the class and at the end gave everyone sweets and gave the volunteers small key rings as presents. Every time I see him I am in complete awe of him. He is definitely the most inspirational person ever.

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We then went back to the house to have some lunch and prepare for the afternoon. It was a beautiful day in the city: bright blue sky, blazing sunshine and very low humidity (the best bit) but I stayed inside because I don’t want to burn and when the sun is out here it’s lethal, even with sun cream. My afternoon class at VAA went quite well, we discussed things related to school and played some games. In the evening I had dinner at the house and then me, Kat and Steph went to the Rex (fancy hotel in the middle of District 1) rooftop bar. You walk through an arcade of shops to get to the reception, which includes Chanel, Bvulgari, Rolex etc. Even though we dressed up a little bit I still felt out of place walking through. The rooftop was really lovely: it was quaint and pretty (minus the random elephants on either side of the stage) with great views over the city and a live band. The drinks weren’t particularly expensive considering it’s the third nicest hotel in the city (after the Caravelle and the Park Hyatt). There was also a very well received breeze, I could have stayed there for a week. We chatted and drank cocktails and listened to the band and watched the world go by below so it was a really lovely and civilised evening.

This morning was an eventful first bus journey to the boys orphanage. The bus was late because the traffic was unusually heavy this morning and apparently the bus drivers get in trouble for not keep to schedule so the bus driver was shouting and driving like a crazy person. Unfortunately I also found out that sick bags are kept on the bus because the drivers are so bad and people often get ill… You couldn’t make that up! The girl in front of me motioned to the ticket collector to pass her a bag and then just threw up right in front of me… Oh Vietnam! We then had a really good session with the boys, playing bingo and doing alphabet work. We find that although they seem to like competition they only like it when they’re winning and become seriously withdrawn and won’t cooperate if they are losing. But they love games and making up team names etc so it’s quite difficult. I heard a bit more about Huy Sons story (my favourite): he was left at a pagoda by his mother when he was 8 and then spent the next two years in an institution with over 200 other children. Apparently when he went to MAQ8 (where we teach and where the boys now live, about 15 in total give or take) he was extremely withdrawn but they have seen a big improvement in him and his confidence has grown massively. He isn’t great at English but he really wants to learn and always takes an active part in class plus he’s a bit of an underdog amongst the other boys so I give him most of my time. The bus drive home was just as eventful as a woman and the ticket conductor had a shouting match because she was blaming him for missing her stop… Pay more attention love! This afternoon will just be chilling because we have loads planned this weekend and my schedule next week is so busy because there will only be four of us after Wednesday.

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***

Yesterday was our first jam-packed day of exploring the city! We had a bit of a lie in (woken up at 6.30am by some construction down our road, but stayed in bed until 9am… How inconsiderate on a weekend haha) and grabbed some breakfast and then made our way to the Botanical Gardens and Saigon zoo. From my guidebook I assumed it was mostly a botanical garden with a few animals at the back of the park but in actual fact the whole area is scattered with every animal imaginable. I don’t believe in zoos but thought it would be nice to walk around some pretty gardens, which actually didn’t really exist.

I’ve heard horror stories about zoos in South-East Asia and it was strange because some animals seemed well looked after and had adequate space and facilities whereas others such as the elephants, lions and hippos were not kept in great conditions at all. The elephants had nowhere near enough space or vegetation. The lions did not have enough vegetation or any water to dip in. The hippos were the worst off having a tiny area of filthy water with a few plastic bottles floating on top (stupid, ignorant, annoying visitors) and hardly any land to rest on. Other animals had enough space, stimulation, water and vegetation. Also, the whole area is MASSIVE so there isn’t the excuse that they don’t have enough space to expand (maybe its money? Entrance was 12,000d (40p) and although there were lots of people there, they could charge more and improve the facilities).

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One of the most infuriating things was some of the Vietnamese visitors apparently don’t understand that the animals should only be looked at: they were banging on glass and throwing bottles of coke to the orangutans (which caused me and Kat to instinctively say to them ‘What the hell are you doing?’) and taking flash photos really close to the animals faces. So overall we were surprised by the zoo and slightly disappointed by the ‘botanical gardens’, which didn’t really seem to exist.

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We then wondered through town all the way to the backpackers district (about 35 minutes) and had Mexican for lunch. We then walked to Tous Les Jour (standard) and had two pastries each (they’re just too good, please come to England soon). After we made our way to the Saigon River and had a walk along it. It was really lovely because it was so quiet compared to the madness we had just walked from and had a very welcome breeze. The infrastructure and buildings on that side of town are extremely modern and impressive, however it is only on the District 1 side. The other side of the river is comparatively poorer eg landscaping, fancy street lighting and nice walkways on one side, dirt paths on the other. There were lots of people fishing along the District 1 side suggesting that there must be fish in the river, however I thought it definitely looked too dirty for anything to be living in there! We then walked back to the centre through what we can only assume is the business centre of HCMC with lots of glass buildings and fancy restaurants. Our last stop was the Saigon Centre, which is a really nice but small selection of fashion and homeware stores. Kat bought a skirt but I wasn’t tempted by anything (I was just happy to browse and feel the benefits of air conditioning).

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It was a great day (not bad for $10 all in) and I ticked a lot of things off my list of what I wanted to do in the city. Last night was Pho Ga for dinner and a little bit of lesson planning because I have a crazy amount of lessons next week (14 instead of the usual 10) and I’m teaching most of them by myself.

Today was another great but exhausting day, I don’t think I’ve ever walked so far around one city! We got up quite early (aided by the construction noises again) and caught the bus at around 9am to Cho Lon (‘big market’) aka China town, which took about 45 minutes. According to the guidebook, all there is to see in the area is markets and pagodas but we heard they were good so we wanted to take a look. The only indication you get of being in China town is a large, yellow Chinese dragon statue in the middle of a park and a couple of stalls as you head into the area with Chinese lanterns and the like.

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Firstly we went to Binh Tay market, which it is suggested is better for ‘sightseeing’ than actually shopping… Definitely accurate. I’ve never smelt so many different (and often disgusting) smells or seen so many things. There was stuff EVERYWHERE, so much so that we could hardly walk through. There was everything you could imagine and it looked like chaos although most ‘stalls’ we walked past looked like they were doing some sort of stock take so I can only assume its organised chaos. The smells came from a mix of the mountains of food, rubbish, hoards of people and motorbikes… Wasn’t the best. We only stayed for about 10 minutes because it was a little bit overwhelming.

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We then caught a cyclo (another thing checked off my list!) to another market that is supposed to be better for shopping, An Dong. This market was much more organised and when you walked in there were signs telling you what kinds of good were where. There were a couple of things I picked up but the people were completely unwilling to haggle so I became bored. Also the clothes weren’t as nice as what we’d seen elsewhere. One nice thing we noticed about both markets was that sellers weren’t yelling at you and grabbing at you trying to get your attention. We only browsed for about 45 minutes and then caught the bus into District 1. We went for a coffee and cake at the one and only (Tous Les Jours) and then wondered to the backpackers district so I could book my trip to the Mekong Delta next Saturday and so Kat could look for presents. We then went to Saigon Square, which has lots of clothes and electronic stalls and you can actually haggle a little bit.

We were supposed to meet Tu, one of my students from VAA, at 1.30pm outside Ben Thanh market but we waited for half an hour and didn’t see her (I called this morning to confirm and apparently she called the house to find out where I was so not sure what happened there). So me and Kat decided to come back to the house and try out a local vegetarian restaurant, however it was closed when we got back and there aren’t really any other restaurants around us. So we caught a bus to another restaurant, Olive, which was gorgeous. We then tried to catch a bus back, couldn’t find the right bus stop (there are so many one way streets here the buses go different ways to get to town and back) so we decided to walk… And got lost.

When we didn’t know where we were we tried to flag down a taxi but they were all full. So we just kept walking because we knew we were generally in the right area. We eventually recognised a supermarket that we were told about when we first arrived and Kat had the map we were given with her so we managed to find our way home after about an hour and a half of walking. No tourists come into this district so people were staring, waving, shouting hello from their motorbikes and giving us the standard Vietnamese peace sign. We got back exhausted and in desperate need of a shower after walking so far in the heat. I then booked my solo trip to Phu Quoc island for four days on my last weekend (EEK), no turning back!

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In the evening some of the local volunteers took us to a really cool coffee restaurant called Blue Coffee. I thought we were walking somewhere but we were actually going by motorbike apparently. Being away makes you do silly things like go on the back of a motorbike with someone you just met wearing a vest top and shorts (although I did wear a helmet). The traffic is crazy and the volunteers try and talk to you as they’re driving… PAY ATTENTION TO THE DAMN ROAD! You don’t go particularly fast but it feels like you’re going fast because of all the craziness around you. The coffee place was really lovely, pretty lighting and music and a water feature etc. We then took a much calmer ride home (less traffic), I did some lesson planning and now is bed time.

***

So this week has been hardcore teaching. I had three classes a day Monday to Wednesday and then yesterday and today I had the usual two (lots of volunteers left last week and this week… Although no-one else seems to have had three classes a day).

Monday was my usual Monday morning at the boys orphanage. We spent our lesson playing lots of games to do with colours and clothes, so I think they pretty much know them all now. The reason I’ve spent quite a few lessons on the same topic is because I found learning languages at school really difficult because we would do a different topic each time. I understand that we were just being prepped for exams and there was a lot to cover, so it’s nice here that there’s no pressure of exams so I can actually teach them something they will remember. I then went back to the house for lunch and a nap and then had a local volunteers class where we just had a general chat like normal… Although for some reason this time it was quite painful and slow, not sure why.

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There were supposed to be three of us teaching in the evening but the two others went out because they hadn’t checked the schedule, so at 4pm one of the VPV employees drove me by motorbike to a new school (for me) called Thanh Da (about 30 minutes away – that’s a lot of time to be scared on a motorbike, especially at rush hour). They run English classes after school for a small fee ($10 per week for two classes). I didn’t have to plan anything for this because there’s a teacher so we just help the kids with pronunciation and because there are about four abilities in the class, our presence means they all get a bit more attention. The kids were sweet but they had been at school all day (7-11am, 1-4pm) so understandably they didn’t have much concentration left. Plus the lessons aren’t massively engaging because they just learn words and a few sentences out of a workbook and then sing a song… Even I was a bit bored. I think there’s some sort of stigma against games in that kids aren’t learning if you’re playing but I think it the best way to keep them engaged. I got back to the house about 7.30pm, had some dinner and an early night.

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Tuesday morning I had an earlier class with the younger kids at the local school I normally teach at. I found them really challenging because they don’t really know any English at all. We just did a few bits and bobs related to the alphabet. There were six in the class, five girls and one boy (age range 9-13 I think, but everyone looks so young here), I think the girls took a liking to me because they kept touching my bracelets and asking the local volunteer to translate questions for them and drew pictures of me on the board and then wanted a photo with me.

I wasn’t on the rota to do my usual class (which is straight after the young ones) but I like them so much I stayed. It was Matt’s last day with them so they sang us songs, gave him a present (Vietnam hat) and a lovely letter, they’re just too sweet. We then walked back to the house (standard smoothie on the way) and had lunch and again I had a nap – the heat is really affecting me. In the afternoon I had my VAA class where we did friends and family. I love planning their lessons because I can do so much with them so every lesson can be different, making it more fun to teach. They’re also really kind and sweet. I saw Tu who I was meant to meet on Sunday and we rearranged for next Tuesday (she’ll pick me up from class so we are definitely both in the same place). In the evening we just hung out at the house.

Wednesday was back to the boys orphanage in the morning. We did transport, which they seemed to be quite good at. At the end of the lesson we played Charades and they LOVED it! They got a bit carried away at one point and were all acting for me to guess and all trying to get my attention at the same time. They lost the idea of everyone guessing, they just liked the acting bit… Especially when we moved from transport to animals.

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One of the boys, Minh, was very sweet and gave me a teddy bear as a present. I then went to the supermarket, had lunch and had my local volunteer class (no nap today), which went much better than Monday. The local volunteers sign up for 8 classes so this was their last class. I offered to meet them one evening next week so they could continue practising their English and they seemed pretty keen. In the evening I was back at Thanh Da. Although the teachers and lovely and the kids are cute, it’s so boring. And one of the little boys who is 5 is literally impossible to teach… In two lessons he hasn’t learnt 1,2,3,4,5. After the teacher drove me home on her motorbike (with a standard small knock into a bike in front of us at the traffic lights, Vietnamese drivers do NOT like to stop EVER).

Previously there were three different houses owned by VPV (Volunteers for Peace Vietnam, charity I’m volunteering for) for international volunteers (called Peace House 1 (for workcamp), 2 (for carers), 3 (for teaching English)… I am in 3) but on Wednesday the lease ended on PH 2 and they didn’t renew it so they split everyone between PH 1&3. Needless to say, the house was really busy all day. It’s actually better now they’ve merged the groups because you mix with more people and PH 1&3 are really close to each other (PH2 was quite far away).

It was Matt and Dave’s last night so about 12 of us from both the houses went to the backpackers district. We went to our usual place, which we call ‘nans’ (because the lady who serves you looks like your nan) where we sit on the street and drink 10,000d (35p) beers. It’s such a good place because you can just watch the world go by. One guy came along and was eating fire and his snake (?!) and another guy played rock, paper, scissors with one of the boys for a cigar (he lost so he had to pay for it). At about 10pm I got hungry and told Kevin who was sitting next to me (I like to share these things) who seriously replied ‘that stall over the road delivers’. I thought he was joking because this street food stall was about 30m away from where we were sitting. But he signalled for the guy to come over with a menu, I ordered my 70p vegetarian noodles and in about 5 minutes I was eating. Epic. At about 12 we then went to T-bar, which has quite cool live music and dancing but we didn’t stay too long and left at about 12.45. All in all was a really good night and was a great way to meet people from the other house.

Thursday morning it was very difficult to get out of bed. But only due to 4 hours sleep, not due to a hangover because weirdly I don’t seem to get them here (I’m not complaining). I spent the morning at a new school, a girls orphanage that was a MISSION to get to (a one hour bus ride (granted I fell asleep) and a 20 minute walk). I had four girls who knew very basic English, the class was ok but it had been challenging to prepare because I didn’t know the ability level. We then took the longggg trip home (granted fell asleep on the bus again, I’m basically local now) and I didn’t even eat lunch, just fell asleep for two hours.

I woke up ten minutes before I had to leave for VAA, quickly planned my lesson and left. I let them be the teachers this week. One of the topics they suggested at the start was Vietnamese culture so we played a game to begin with, then made a spider diagram of all the things they thought culture includes and then I got them to create a presentation for the class about various aspects of Vietnamese culture. It worked really well because they had to discuss, write and read aloud in English and me and Kevin got to learn a lot more about Vietnamese culture! We then finished with Chinese Whispers, which we played on Monday and although they loved it, it wasn’t very successful because no sentence made it round (abcdefg turned into ‘how are you today?’). Unfortunately no sentence made it round again, so we will try again next time. Predictably, I fell asleep at 10pm and slept all the way through to 7am.

This morning was again spent with the boys. It’s always difficult to teach them on a Friday but they enjoyed all the word games I gave them, especially a transport themed word search. They also appreciated the sweets and the mini cuddly toys. I was very lucky again today and Sang (aka cheeky monkey) gave me a mini statue that is famous in Asia and Huy Son gave me a necklace. He kept saying something when he was giving it to me that I couldn’t figure out. Turned out he was saying ‘head’ because the necklace has an ancient Gods face on it. They are too cute for words. I then went to supermarket, had lunch and then had another local volunteer class. The two girls I had were lovely and the time went really quickly. They have offered to take me to a night market on Sunday, which should be really fun. Tonight will just be chilling because tomorrow we go to the Mekong Delta and have to get up early (yes, ‘we’… I found some friends to go with haha).

Observations:
– There are no McDonald’s or Starbucks anywhere in Vietnam (main fast food = Pizza Hut and Lotteria; coffee shops = hundreds all over the city).
– Men drink and smoke very publicly… This week I saw my first Vietnamese woman smoking in nearly 8 weeks. I have yet to see any drinking.
– Apart from in District 1, which is the tourist district, the pavements are empty of people walking, EVERYONE uses motorbikes to get everywhere and then park on the pavement outside, even if it’s only up the road!
– On buses, people will always get up to allow the elderly and pregnant women to sit down.
– They advertise International Women’s Day (8 March) in lots of shop windows, it is much bigger here than in England where most people haven’t heard of it.

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