Asia · Vietnam

Ho Chi Ming City part 4

Sunday was another great day spent in the city. I got up really early (keep waking up at 6am), had breakfast and got the bus into town. To get to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum (formerly known as Gia Long Palace), I walked past Notre Dame Cathedral where there were LOADS of wedding photos taking place outside. Some of the dresses were incredible. Weddings are a really big deal here and the main road that our road joins has a wedding shop literally every other shop (no exaggeration)… on both sides of the road too.

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One I reached the HCMC Museum, there were more wedding photos taking place. It is the perfect backdrop because the building is absolutely beautiful. The grandiose and history of the building was in a lot of ways much more interesting than the actual exhibitions inside: built in 1886 as a residence for the governor of Cochinchina, temporary residence for Diem in 1962 after his palace suffered an air attack (during which time the underground tunnels were built), home to the museum. The exhibitions are a series of photos, documents, artefacts and information that covers everything for the economy, art, industry, geography, ecology etc of HCMC as well as two rooms upstairs with information related to the Vietnamese struggle against the French and America. Outside there were tanks, helicopters, planes and cars from the American War. It wasn’t as good as the War Remnants Museum but it was a good way to spend a Sunday morning.

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I then went for a wonder and sat down in the park next to Notre Dame to eat some oranges and watch the world go by (literally the world with the 5m motorbikes in HCMC). The park was really busy and after about ten minutes three students came up to me and started speaking to me to practice their English. Everyone is so friendly here and it’s nice that they just come up to you and want to chat about anything and everything.

I caught the bus home, went to the bookshop to buy a few gifts for the boys tomorrow and went to the local market to get lunch. I got a smoothie and a baguette with omelette, salad and the most amazing sauce for… 70p. Epic. You get stared at everywhere in Vietnam but people are particularly curious in local markets so as I was trying to order my baguette (just pointing), an old lady from another stall came up and started talking to me in Vietnamese (I just replied ‘cam on’, ‘cam on’ – thank you) and then peeled a fruit that looked like a small banana but was much sweeter, not sure what it was but tasted pretty good.

I went back to the house, ate my amazing lunch and then did some boring stuff on the Internet (car insurance hunt), had a nap, folded my washing and planned my lesson tomorrow. Right on time at 3pm, some of the local volunteers arrived to take me for coffee. I also invited Kevin, so the six of us went to this really cool cafe within walking distance from PH3. I had coconut ice cream and just drank the ice tea that you are given in most restaurants in the south. It was a great afternoon chatting to the volunteers: we got to find out about Vietnam and the lifestyle here and the they got to practice their English. I told them about the students who came up to me in the park and they said a lot of young people go to the park hoping to meet foreigners to practice their English with.

I grabbed some takeaway Pho Ga on the way back to the house (another bargain, £1) and quickly ate that before some other local volunteers arrived and took me by motorbike to a really cool local night market about 15 minutes drive away. When we got there it was heaving with people (and motorbikes). It’s a really lively market with bright lights and music and crowds. It’s a local market so I was the only Western face there but it meant that the clothes, jewellery, shoes and handbags were really cheap. Also, because it’s for locals, these were the only items for sale.

We had a wonder around and then after about half an hour we went and got some food. There was a limited menu (plus I’d already eaten) but the food was GOOD (it was also packed so it had a great atmosphere, proving that generally if it’s busy it’s good). I ordered ban flan (the flan, ice and coffee flavourings I’ve had before) and asked the girls to order a drink for me. We all got sam bo luong, which has lots of things floating in it (including something that looked like seaweed) but it tasted AMAZING. It is really sweet and the ‘floating things’ can only be compared to jelly sweets. I then tried the girls banh beo (pancake, nuts, chilli sauce, some kind of meat), which didn’t look very appealing but tasted great, if a little spicy. They also ordered bo bia (rice paper wrapped around lettuce, seafood(?) and potentially other ingredients that I didn’t catch as well as a peanut sauce), which were also really good. We then wondered around more of the market and made a few purchases here and there (just one top for me). It was a really lovely evening, it’s so nice to be invited to places that tourists don’t go to as well as get to know the local volunteers better.

All in all another amazing weekend, especially with regards to eating! I’ve tried lots of new food and met up with my new Vietnamese friends (friends seem to be made instantly here). I’ll be so sad to leave. The young people here (who I’ve had most contact with) are so polite, kind, hard working and driven. I’m so grateful that the people I met today have given up some of their weekend to show me around and talk to me (although it’s crazy that I only met the two girls I went to the night market with on Friday).

Can’t believe I have under 2 weeks left 😦

Weekend facts:
Populations: 87m Vietnam, 10m HCMC
HCMC has 24 districts (bigger than Bangkok)

***

Monday started off normally: woke up at 7am, got ready, had breakfast (fruit and bread) and got the crazy bus to the boys orphanage (got a bruise on my hand from slamming it into the seat in front because the driver broke so hard). However, when we got to the orphanage, the manager (Mr Linh) said he had some bad news. Four of the boys I teach (Minh, Sang, Son and Pho) had been playing outside the front of the house and then asked the housekeeper if they could go out. They all went but only Minh came back and the other boys hadn’t returned. They had been out looking for them but no luck. Also, Minh was really upset but wouldn’t tell anyone what had happened. I was really upset because I was worried about them. I still had the lesson with Tu and Minh, although Minh asked if he could leave after ten minutes (he’d been slumped on his desk and not participating, very unusual for him). The lesson with Tu went well but I was just really concerned about the other boys and felt really helpless because there was nothing I could do.

I went home, had lunch and a long nap. I asked someone to call Mr Linh for an update but they didn’t have any more information. After, I went to the bookshop and the supermarket to get some bits for the boys for when I leave (I got five of each thing, determined that Sang, Son and Pho would return). At 4pm we got the two buses to Thanh Da, the after school class. Monday was a bad day for buses because I got up to get off and the driver decided at the last minute to stop at a red light and because I was wearing my flip flops (absolutely no grip at all) I went flying down the aisle, grabbed something to try and stop myself and got a big gash on my finger. The class was ok, it’s always pretty much the same. Just worked through the pronunciations in the book with the different levels. The teacher then dropped me back on her motorbike and the evening was spent eating and hanging out at the house.

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Every morning, Thao (works for VPV and lives with us, helping with anything we need) goes to the local market at 6am to get our breakfast. On Tuesday me and Taylor decided to go with her for the experience. When we first stepped out the house it was so lovely and cool, I loved it. We wondered around the market and got mango, pineapple and papaya and some baguettes for the house and then we got black rice and white bean sticky rice (traditional Vietnamese breakfast) and some hot soya milk (also really popular in Vietnam as they don’t have dairy in their diet). It was good to go along and see the market in the morning. Also, the roads were relatively busy but the pavements were clear of motorbikes, was lovely. We then went back to the house and enjoyed our breakfast… It was so filling even though we split two of the sticky rice portions between three of us.

For the first time since I got here, I didn’t have a class in the morning. I didn’t want to just hang around the house watching TV or something so I decided to go and experience one of the ‘taking care’ projects. VPV runs teaching English, taking care and work-camp (two weeks building houses etc) projects. In a word, it was… Difficult. We went to a project at a pagoda where VPV volunteers help to play with and take care of orphaned, disabled children. I thought the pagoda was very big and over the top eg loads of ornaments, huge buildings, colours etc, especially considering the very understated area it was located in. When we first arrived, everyone dispersed and I felt a bit lost. There was no direction, just children everywhere.

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The others just went and started playing with the different children but I felt really reluctant and weary because I’ve heard stories of the children hitting and pulling hair and the other week one of the volunteers had to go to the hospital because one of the kids bit him so hard. The children are severely mentally and/or physically disabled and so it’s quite hard to play with them. One of the boys likes to walk around the pagoda so I did that with him for most of the morning, just round and round and round. After about an hour and a half, we fed the children.

One of the boys was strapped in his chair and rocking it really hard and crying and screaming and scratching at his head. I really wanted to go and soothe him but some of the other local volunteers said not to go near him. He stayed like that for about 20 minutes and made some serious cuts in his head before some of the staff took him out the chair and put him in a bed. I don’t know if he was in physical pain or he felt something that he couldn’t express… Either way it was distressing for him and also to watch and not be able to do anything about it (for the second time in two days). I’m glad I went to see the project. I have nothing but respect for the full time staff and I admire the volunteers who go as well because it’s not something that I would be able to do unfortunately.

I then went home, had lunch and a nap (standard). There was no more news of the boys. In the afternoon I had my class at VAA. It was a much smaller class this week because of exams (only 5 this lesson compared to 8-12 normally) but the theme was environment and it went really well. They had to debate ‘We should take care of our environment’. Both teams did really well but the ‘no’ team were so creative that they won it hands down (eg it’s good that the world is getting hotter because we won’t have to use as much material for clothes).

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After the class, I met Tu and we went to District 1 where we met three of her other friends. I thought we were just going for street food in District 1 but oh no! Tu had bigger plans than that. I literally saw the whole of HCMC by motorbike, was so great. First of all we went over a bridge the connects District 1 and 2, which had THE most amazing views of the skyline. We then went to another District and had street food for dinner. We had an incredible broth type thing (turns out it was something to do with quails) and some crusty baguettes to dip in it as well as chicken feet (kinda pointless, no meat) and chickens heart. When you eat street food, you throw any bones, rubbish etc on the floor, I felt so naughty doing it, was so strange.

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We then motorbiked back to District 1 and got some gorgeous cakes from a bakery (chocolate cheesecake for me) and went to the park by Notre Dame and sat and ate cake and drank the best ice coffee with milk (cafe sua) from an old street vendor lady (who later got in trouble with the police for being there… Apparently it’s not allowed because it encourages littering and because it’s the centre of the city (most tourists) they want it to be as clean as possible). Next was a long drive to District 7. I knew that it was the suburbs of HCMC where all the rich people and foreigners lives but I wasn’t expecting what I saw… You wouldn’t think you were in Vietnam. Apparently Taiwan bought the rights to the land (25 years ago it was all swamp land) for a certain amount of years (50? 100?) and they have made it very exclusive. It’s extremely spacious with lots of low-rise, modern apartments, fancy Western restaurants (no street food here!) and expensive shopping malls.

On the way back to Peace House 3, we came round a corner and saw loads of motorbikes stopped. I then noticed that two men were fighting in the street! There was a motorbike on the floor and Duy (my personal driver for the evening) told me it happens a lot when men knock into each other on their motorbikes… And Vietnamese people are so curious that they all stop to watch. It was a really great evening and I loved seeing all the areas but motorbike. I got home at 11pm, planned my lesson for Wednesday morning and went to sleep.

Yesterday I had my usual class at the boys orphanage. Unfortunately the boys were still missing. The further it got from when they were last seen, the more worried I got (and everyone else). The lesson with Tu and Minh went really well though. Minh was back to his usual self and participated fully in the lesson. Usually we have a local Vietnamese volunteer in the lesson to translate but we didn’t for this lesson. Their English has improved massively even since I’ve been there so we were able to get through the lesson with them completely understanding what I wanted them to do.

On Monday, Tu had said he wanted to play Bingo and learn about fish(?!) so we learnt some new clothes and played bingo, which they loved. And then we did ‘fish’ related activities haha. I got them to do dot-to-dot of a fish and tell me what it was and then colour it in and tell me what colours they were using. They then had to label the basic parts of a fish and then I gave them some pictures of common fish with the English name followed by hangman.

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I briefly went into District 1 and then went back and had lunch and another nap. I also packed for Phu Quoc and got some stuff from the supermarket for the trip. At 4pm we once again left for Thanh Da and had another standard lesson. I got home at 7.15pm and then at 7.30pm, two of the local volunteers from my class came to take me out. I also drove Anh’s motorbike down our street and back… OMG it’s so difficult! I thought it would be really easy but it wasn’t at all. They’re so responsive so when you turn the handle bars a little bit and it goes careering off in that direction. I have a newfound respect for the 5m motorbike drivers in HCMC!

The local volunteers took me and Steph to a really cool yoghurt place (needless to say, I definitely didn’t drive). Sounds weird but was amazing, they literally have every topping and sauce in the world. We worked on English CVs, chatted and just generally hung out… Was fun. Then we went back to the house and Thao gave me some great news… The boys returned to the shelter!!!!!! I was so happy I started crying. I have no idea what happened or anything but I was just so happy they were safe.

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