Sunday, May 14, 2017

My Last Days of Saigon

Leaving ain't easy, but I'm doing it professionally at this point. Despite my frequent tendency to go away from places and people, it still feels like having a rug yanked out from underneath me. It goes like this:

6 months to go- You've got too much time.

1 month to go- You think you've got more time than you really do.
2 days to go- You didn't get nearly enough of it.

I woke up in a panic this morning, realizing that I would actually be leaving Saigon for good in two days. I had gotten only four hours of sleep and drank one too many beers the night before. The combination of jet lag and hangover made me long for my lumpy, spring mattress, but my stomach was in knots and my mind was racing. Insomnia was in full force. I ran out of my house, grabbed a coffee and asked my neighborhood xe ôm to rush me to the nearest moto rental shop. Whipping through the chaotic streets was one of the best ways to bask in the city. It hit the spot on days like these.

I exchanged money for keys and started off down the crowded Bui Vien hem. My Doremon face mask was soaked with tears before I turned onto the main road. Desperation was a terrible state to drive in, but it was a position that I had found myself in on multiple occasions. The hot wind crashing against my face, and the need to make quick, decisive movements as the city's sights and sounds bled by like colors in a painting, served as a medicine for my aching heart. It was enough stimulation to clear my mind of anything, but the task at hand. 

The city's underwater tunnel dropped me on the opposite side of the river. The District 2 shoreline had become a secret space of mine. Underdeveloped and disconnected from the rest of the city, it was peaceful and hosted a full view of the dramatic, opposing skyline. The muddy riverbank, which usually hosted a string of pop up coffee shops and food carts, was deserted in the oppressive, late afternoon heat. There was only me, crying, and one old man, fishing. I watched him struggle on his line two or three times, only to reel in an empty hook. Each time, we would nod and force a smile towards one another in acknowledgement our mutual frustration with the present moment.

The longer I sat, the more hysterical I became, but the images around me slowly began to lure me into a more meditative state. Tiny, tug boats trudged through the murky river. Their passengers sat along the edges with limbs hanging overboard, trying to catch the breeze. The silent shoreline was such a juxtaposition to the city in the distance. It held so much life within its borders, but yet was so silent from this vantage point. 

These simple, beautifully Vietnamese moments were winding down for me, and that truth hurt me more than I ever realized it would. Exiting Vietnam was proving more difficult than leaving home.

The life you build for yourself matters. Starting from scratch is rejuvinating, and I've undergone significant changes since arriving in Vietnam. I left the US at a critical point in my life. Grief, anger and alienation were commonplace emotions for me at the time of my departure. I have reconstructed the person that I am, and I'm managing to keep it together. I'm not like I used to be. I'm not perfect in this new life, but I am stronger. I'm not so afraid of being a woman. In fact, I find power in it. I learned how to feel comfortable in my own skin, and how to laugh at myself on a regular basis.

It's a strange state of being, because while I'm intrigued by this new mindset, I am not sure if I completely accept the person I have morphed into. Some days, I really think that I was better before Vietnam. I was more selfless, maybe a better friend, and certainly, more open to connection. Now, I rely much more heavily on myself. I better understand my desires and limitations. I place much less value on those relationships that could be consistently and accurately described as a sacrifice. My internal focus is on building myself up. For the first time in my life, I feel that I am directing the course of my life, rather than passively experiencing my existence as it unfolds.  

In exchange, for this new found feeling of independence, I have put much less emphasis on growing roots. I've closed myself off to relationships, out of fear that I could potentially lose this feeling of control. In the past, these connections are what made life so convoluted. It's much more difficult to make a decision for yourself, knowing that it will deeply impact a person to whom you are closely connected. Lately, I wonder if I've become independent to a fault. Maybe, giving this up in order to reconnect will make me feel more balanced.

I'm just like anyone else; all that I want is to be happy. Happiness fluctuates for me, and it always has, but in Vietnam, there were times when I felt unstoppable. On those days I knew that I was finally living the life that I was meant to. I had become the brave, confident and powerful woman that I had always envisioned myself being. Just thinking about it, and knowing that I could lose that, makes my body ache. It's the same desperate feeling of not being able to have someone that you love. I can feel it all over, as tangible as a sickness.

I know that I lose some of my power when I am in Kentucky. I've got baggage there. I'm 26, and 24 of those years were spent in one place. Like all people, I've had hard times over the course of my life, and the tricky thing is, I have come to associate Kentucky with those difficulties. It is the place where they were experienced. I love my home more than anything, but that doesn't make it good for me right now. There are struggles and realities in Kentucky that just don't exist for me in Vietnam, or at least not as strongly. Over time, I began to associate Vietnam with many different things, but healing was a big part of my experience. It gave me the time, and the break that I needed to change myself. 

Now, I'm leaving that behind, and I can hear myself begging and pleading not to do it. This laundry list of uncertainties circulates in my head throughout the day.

"What am I going to do when I get home? Who am I going to be? How can I expect to maintain this new personality there? I don't feel ready. How can this really be ending so soon? Am I expected to go home and stay there forever? Is this me starting my so called, 'real adult life'? What if I can't handle it? What if I never really get out again?"

Those questions are so jolting, but through all of that noise, something, somewhere in the back of my mind keeps saying that going home to Kentucky is the right thing to do. I don't know where that comes from, but it's what I'm going to do. I imagine that when I am asked about Vietnam or my future plans, I won't know what to say, since I can't answer those questions to myself. I feel exactly as I did after completing undergrad. I want to dodge all of the questions and expectations. Really, I just want to keep being myself, while I find a way to integrate this new experience into my life at home.

I keep writing mostly as an attempt to find ways to clarify this to myself, and to my friends and family. I don't feel quite clever or poetic enough to put the thoughts into the right words. The last two years were too big, and too beautiful for me to understand or properly describe to someone who wasn't there. I experienced the majority of this alone. I changed, but no one was there to see it. That makes me feel alone, as if no one will really see the full picture when they are looking at me.

At the end of the day, the flight is booked and I'm going to be on it. There really is no good time to make intercontinental moves. You just have to do it, and wait to see how it all turns out. I read once, that there aren't actually good or bad decisions, only decisions that have outcomes that will take our lives in a particular direction. That idea is comforting in the present moment. This is just another step in the journey. It will have highs and lows just like any other chapter of my life. At the end of it all, I will have changed once again, and that is the one thing that I can count on.

"Oh why, did I go?
I don't know,
Only thing I think to say is,
Get on the train,
Get on the train,
and ride it till you come."
- Sylvan Esso

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?

My potential employer and I sat across from one another in her modest, but non-profit spacious office. The typical exchange of business causal pleasantries had been exhausted, and I had laid out a passionate explanation of my motives for wanting the job. Then she asked, "So, where do you see yourself in five years?"

Now this particular question, and its popularity in job interviews, has always perplexed me. Do employers expect a person in their mid-twenties to have a well-formed answer to it? I assume the correct answer is along the lines of,  

"I see myself learning and growing with this company, hopefully into a supervisory position that will last a lifetime."

Anyone can look at modern day career statistics and know that the average American has not made up our damn minds when it comes to our employment paths. Or, maybe it's just me. Perhaps, I'm less prepared and responsible than others my age, and it is completely irrational to be so bothered by a simple, prophetic question.

I looked at my interviewer, paused, then smiled and said,  


One of the most profound shifts in my thinking since moving abroad, and then returning home, is the way in which I imagine my future. It's not a stagnant plan. It's an opportunity. I can reach back into memory about the way I answered this question when applying for my first professional job. I grossly underestimated my potential. How could I have known that I would not only, decide to ship off to Vietnam, but that it also would have been the best determination of my life to date? That sounded ludicrous two years ago, but it is the truth today.

Giving up everything to start over somewhere new, worked for me. It gave me so many opportunities, changed the way in which I experience the world and reshaped the way in which I see myself. I feel more pragmatic, but less restricted. When I look at the map on the wall in my apartment, those paper countries don't seem like distant dreams any more. They are future potential.

Of course, maybe I won't live abroad again. I will certainly travel, but I could find a dream career and content lifestyle in Kentucky. That reality does not seem impossible. I'm mostly satisfied with where I am at this point in my transition home. Being here is nice, and familiar in a way that I need it to be.

But, I do get frustrated when crossing the street from time to time. Standing at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to flip, I can't help but think about how maddeningly ordered it is. When I walk the streets of my neighborhood, there is no music, no people on their porches, no life aside from chittering squirrels. The peace and quiet I was aching for in Saigon, now comes across as isolating on certain occasions. Sometimes I sit back and think,

"Man, all I've got now are the memories."

My lustful need for an alternative lifestyle is nothing more than a flicker in those moments, but overtime it grows into a flame. It is the cycle of travel, and I have given up on trying to fight it.

So, the truth is that I haven't the faintest idea of where I may find myself in five years. Hell, I'm doing good on my current one year plan. What I do know is that I am here now. I am living my life in Kentucky as it happens to me, and attempting to take as active of a role in its development as I can. My mindset doesn't feel any different that it did in Vietnam. This is just the space I happen to be inhabiting. I will continue to do so, until I find that there is a better way of living. There are a million ways that my next five years could unfold, and so focusing on only one of them feels risky to me.

Opportunity is cyclical, and I am really learning to trust in that idea. As each new chance comes, I'll assess its significance to me, but I worry that too much preparation may leave me wandering what I could have done. It is my openness to opportunity and receptivity to change that will get me where I need to be in five years. Wherever that may be, I'll make it work.

That day, in that small office, I answered the daunting five year question honestly. I was pleased to know that it was the answer they were looking for.

"Easy does it. There is no need to hurry or to force things to happen. 
Everything is occurring in perfect timing."
- Message from the goddess Oonagh

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Day in the Life

The calm, early, dawn stillness is shattered by the shrill sound of a whistle blown forcefully, three times. It's five in the morning, and even the sun is not yet awake. The floorboards of the wooden and tin dormitory begin to creak under the weight of small feet, and the building shifts from their movements. I pull the covers over my head to shield myself from the brisk morning chill, but as the voices began to fill the air, I rise from my mat in defeat and acceptance of the start of a new day.

The children are downstairs, their voices are joined together, singing their usual chorus of morning songs. The older ones are groggy and wrapped in the warmth of their blankets. The younger have already began to roughhouse, much to the disapproval of Auntie who glares at them from the corner of the room. Auntie is the one in charge, and clearly respected by all of the children. She seems to see everything, and her voice can be heard every few minutes throughout the grounds. Once dismissed the children run off to eat their morning rice and dress themselves in their purple, school track suits. A gentle voice reaches out to me,

"Teacher, coffee?"

I sit cross legged on the straw mat to enjoy my three-in-one instant coffee, along with the elders who manage the dormitory and its twenty or thirty inhabitants. Auntie's husband, known as grandfather to the children, begins to ask me about my day in broken English. He is a strong, old man who spends most of his nights awake, completing chores around the property. He blames his inability to sleep on his age. Grandfather's sister still sits in the only bed in the home. She is speaking Karen to an Ipad app that repeats her words back as if they were spoken by a baby. She periodically chuckles from the makeshift bedroom. Auntie chimes in with a raspy command,

"Teacher, eat rice."

Her youngest grandchild cries out from the hammock swinging in the corner. Auntie's daughter appears not a moment later to feed him. Once satisfied, she lowers him to the floor and he begins the tedious task of learning to crawl. Every movement is a satisfying struggle for him as he makes his way for the tin box containing his grandparents' beetle nuts. Grandfather laughs as he moves the box just out of his reach.

At seven-thirty the children make their way down the dirt path towards school, but not before offering a standard Thai greeting to all of the adults in the home. For a few moments it is quiet aside from the scraping of the straw broom against the concrete. I finish my coffee and prepare to meet them in the classroom.

Grandfather's sister and I share the same morning routine. As I brush my teeth I can hear her singing and talking to herself in the next stall over. Her melodies accompany me as I splash a bucket of cold water over myself. Her song is still echoing from the bathroom as I leave for school.

The school is set in the mountains and palm trees. From a distance I can see several children who have chosen to play a game of tag in the courtyard, rather than attend their morning classes. The school secretary bellows announcements over a loud speaker that can be heard throughout the entire village. Dogs wander about the building, searching for food and friendly children.

In the classroom sit twenty young, Karen students, more eager to see their new foreign teacher than they are to study English. There is never a moment of silence in the classroom, and any attempt at discipline is futile. As I teach, little faces begin to gather at every window and doorway in the classroom. More curious students, who decided their time would be best spent outside of their classrooms today. After class, a line of students forms around me, requesting that I write my name on their hands before I leave. I oblige, a bit confused by the request. As I walk through the grounds the students stop to greet me.

"Good morning, teacher," they say with big smiles, although it is now the afternoon.

At the dorm the adults are resting. Grandfather and his sister take an afternoon nap. Auntie spots me from the concrete kitchen and yells out,

"Teacher, eat rice."

I motion at having a full stomach, but I walk towards the kitchen regardless. Here, Auntie and her son's girlfriend are preparing the evening feast of pork, vegetables and rice over the open fire. A family of chicks wanders about the room feeding off of any morsel that falls to the dusty floor. In the back of the building are the pigs, calling out for their evening meal. I go to talk them and grandfather appears, telling me that they will be big enough to eat earlier than expected.

The students begin to trickle home from their day at school. The boys rush to their rooms to change into their best football gear. Most of them are donning hand-me-down cleats that they have yet to grow into. The loose shoes fly through the dust each time someone makes a firm strike on the ball. Some of them opt to just play barefoot.

The youngest boys begin to climb a tree near the makeshift pitch. The smallest positions himself on a thin branch, while the others pull it back and launch him forward like a slingshot. It's the same tree that a boy broke his arm in last week, and their actions will later earn them a quick switch to back of the legs from Auntie. To them, it was well worth it.

In the background of the pickup football match, the girls begin practicing for a dance contest in April. The soft ballad spills into the air from an over sized speaker. They spend hours each night practicing the intricate, synchronized hand movements. Their quest for perfection means that music is paused and restarted from beginning every few seconds. Their laughter can be heard even over the yells of the boys.

The whistle sounds once again. This time it is the call to dinner. As I walk back towards the house I can once again hear Auntie's raspy voice.

"Teacher, eat rice."

We all squat down at the short wooden table to share our meal. I struggle to sit in the squatting form that even the oldest members of the dorm can rise in and out of with ease. Bare hands dive into the helpings of Karen curries. Most of the students also snack on whole tomatoes and cucumbers for extra sustenance. I finish my plate, and Auntie motions to me to get more rice. When I assure her that I've had my fill, she mutters something to her granddaughter in Karen. Paw La Hay translates for me.

"She thinks that you do not eat enough. You are too skinny."

"She wants me to be fat," I joke, as Auntie nods in stoic agreement.

Everyone finishes their food well before me. They empty the remainder of their food into a bucket for the pigs to feast on. I can hear their terrible squealing as Auntie dumps the slop over their heads. The students run out to resume their games before the last light of day slips away.

Around seven-thirty the whistle chimes one last time, signaling for everyone to gather in the main room. The students pass the baby around like a doll. He laughs in excitement from the attention. Babies are quite accustomed to the embrace of an outsider, because to the Karen, it takes a village to raise a child. Auntie yells to me to sit down, although now I can barely make out what she says, due to the large pouch of beetle leaves she is chewing. Red spit drips from her mouth as she yells out commands to the children.

Once again, the same songs of the morning ring out through the dorm. The sound is beautiful, only in the sincerity of it. Most of the children are screaming rather than singing. Once they finish their prays, they begin to roll thin mats and blankets out onto the floor. The ground is once again riddled with tired bodies and the noise of the day surrenders to the call of geckos and the distant barking of dogs.

A few of the older students stay awake watching Thai soap operas. Grandfather listens to a radio show through thick static. The noise is enough to keep me from drifting to sleep so I go into the courtyard, where I am greeted by the house dog. I speak fluently and share a small snack with him. The moon is now high and stars are bright in the mountain sky. From behind me a small voice whispers,

"Goodnight, teacher."

"Even though I, I grew up in the suburbs.
I didn't really grow 'til I learned how so many others live."

- Ben Sollee

Thursday, February 4, 2016

How I Lost My Mind in a Dirty Chinese Bathroom

A certain amount of risk is involved in any backpacking journey, especially one that will extend for four months. Tourism often goes hand in hand with pick pocketing, bizarre illness and slimy scams. The realistic traveler not only willingly accepts these risks, but also budgets for the day they wind up getting robbed or taking a ride to an emergency clinic. In the weeks leading up to my journey I jokingly referred to this risk with friends, but I never expected that it would manifest into reality on only my second day of traveling.

Beijing is a hub for old Chinese culture and world famous sites such as the Great Wall and Forbidden City. On the flip side, Beijing is also world famous for its scams targeting tourists. A fact that I learned the hard way. The most famous of Beijing scams, and the one that got me, is commonly referred to as the tea room scam. In this scam a couple of locals will befriend a foreigner and invite them to tea. After some quality conversation and fragrant Chinese tea you will be served with a bill that could be totaling as much as $1000. For me, it wasn't a tea ceremony that got me, but rather an invitation to a rousing night of karaoke extended by two outgoing, Chinese women.

Internet victim blaming is a sport these days. I'll save you some time and give you a little back story, so that you don't waste a second of your day thinking, "How could she fall for that?" In Vietnam karaoke is king. People love wasting time by belting out sorrowful traditional songs and a Katy Perry jam here and there. Inviting a foreign friend (or perfect stranger) to partake in the fun is completely kosher. Locals have invited me to sing karaoke so many times that I eventually accepted it as a completely normal and safe activity to partake in while living in Asia.

So of course, as a solo traveler I was elated at the opportunity to make some friends and put my full vocal range on display. Let me tell you, I was spectacular. I worked my way up from the simple classics like 'Lean on Me' and Abba's 'Chiquitita'. By the time we popped our second bottle of wine I was transformed into a full-on diva, accompanied by my two backup dancers. To us, we were professionals, deserving of a Grammy. To the man at the bar, we were cats slowly dying in an alleyway.

These women were professionals. They had been feeding my ego by swearing to me that I had the voice of an angel. Seriously, they said that. Flashing lights and flowing red wine accompanied with harmonizing, synchronized dance moves and the kind of validating, man bashing that only happens on the sloppiest of ladies nights, had me fooled. They understood me, and literally agreed with every word that poured from my mouth. I genuinely liked these saucy Chinese women... and then the bill came.

I excused to myself to bathroom to panic, and maybe throw up. That two by four, black bathroom became to me what a confessional booth is two an eighty year old Catholic woman. All of the feelings came out to play because those two hours of karaoke and two bottles of wine had totaled $700. Sweat began to bead on my forehead, and the culprits could probably hear me panicking and whispering, "Jesus Christ Katie," from outside of the bathroom door. My first thought was to run, but then I remembered that there were some unusually large men tending the bar and that they would catch me before I even hit the stairs. With my nose inches from the mirror I stared deep into my bulging eyes and had a terrifying, high pitched, full conversation with my level headed self and my more anxiety-prone self.

"You're going to have to pay something. You got played. So just accept it."

"F**k. F**k. F**k. F**k."

"Focus dammit. Think. You can get out of this okay."

"No. No. No. No. No. No."

"This is fine. I'm going to be fine. I'll just talk to them."

"I'm imagining this."

"This is happening, so be real bitch."

"We didn't even drink good wine. At these prices, this should have been the best night of my life. It should have been like a P. Diddy video!"

"You need to go out there."

"Wait. First, steal all of their toilet paper. It's the least they can do."

... uncontrolled laughter...

There was nothing that could be done, so I faced the music. My deceivers so generously offered to split the tab with me (Another lie. My card was charged for $600), and I crept away with my tail between my legs. My head was spinning with ideas on how to realign my budget during the long walk of shame back to the hostel. Any stranger that stepped with in my vicinity was quickly frightened away by the strange white girl muttering obscenities under her breath. I didn't care. I kept trudging on thinking,

"This would have never happened in Vietnam."

Moments like this one will define your perspective on the world, if you allow them. By thinking that Vietnam was exempt from this kind of slide of hand, I opened the door to start blaming it on the character of Chinese people. Would anyone have blamed me if I completely wrote off China for the remainder of my time in country? Probably not, but if I had done that, I would have missed out on so much. I would have missed steaming soup dumplings, quaint traditional restaurants, ancient architecture and cities that are six times larger than the state of Kentucky.

The truth is, China is a wonderful country and the overwhelming amount of the time I spent there was amazing. What happened to me was unfortunate, but those types of scams take place in every corner of the world. I refuse to allow that to dramatically alter my view of the world. That was the first time that I had been seriously scammed since my very first, very green trip to Europe about eight years ago. There were infinite, positive human interactions between these two negative ones. Of course, I still get a little sick to my stomach when I think about how much money I lost that day. However, it would truly be a shame if these overwhelmingly unusual occurrences prompted me into looking for the potentially negative or dangerous qualities in a person prior to assuming the positive.

In the end, I can chalk it up as another valuable life experience and an entertaining story. My advice to everyone is to visit China. Be very aware while you are there, but don't close yourself off to this culture because it's as a bold as the szechuan spices that season the local food.

"That fake Jamaican took every last dime with that scam. It was worth it just to learn some slide of hand." 

- Modest Mouse

Sunday, January 31, 2016

There's Nothing to do in Vientiane

My week long commitment to Vientiane provoked many responses from my counterparts in the hostel, most of which were along the lines of shock and confusion. The overwhelming majority of travelers did not share in my excitement for the sleepy town with just under 1,000,000 people and about just as many temples. Most people actually couldn't wait to get out of Vientiane, citing the lack of things to do as  reason enough to move on to Laos' other well known destinations such as 4,000 Islands and Vang Vien.

Admittedly, I too had my doubts within my first day. I read of various day trips from Vientiane prior to my arrival, but when tour shopping I was met with the same response in every office. "There are no tours in Vientiane." It's almost as if the Laotians themselves are surprised to see so many tourists turn up in the city, and I had a week to kill here.

I started slow, which is my suggestion to anyone visiting Vientiane. When the guidebooks call it a slow-paced city, they mean that it's moving at a glacial pace. On my second day I ordered and finished a local Beer Lao in the same amount of time in took an elderly Laotian woman to creep across the empty one lane road in front of me. So when in Laos, do as the Laotians do and don't burn through the tourism checklist in one backbreaking afternoon.

The first thing you will notice when exploring are the temples. When it comes to extravagant pagodas, Bangkok may have the size, but Vientiane has the numbers. Wandering around the city reveals dozens of elaborately designed temples, most of which don't even turn up in maps or guidebooks. Each one is unique and feels even more stunning than the last. The mosaic designs stretch to the sky. Buddhas have been woven into the entangled masses of tree roots. Saffron robes hang on clotheslines, casting their bold color onto the walls around them. The tarnished gold and silver design of grave sites still shines through the wear of Southeast Asian weather, giving you a look into the deep history of Laos. A visitor can get lost in these places for hours imagining the history of it all, and that is exactly what you need to do. Have a seat, and relax. The monks won't mind. Stare at these amazing buildings until you begin to see them in a different way.

The next big stop in the city is the waterfront area. Along the Mekong river you'll find evidence of the government's attempts to makeover the city. A string of impromptu restaurants overlook the Mekong Beach and a long stretch of flower beds. The beach is nothing more than a result of the receding river during the dry season, but in the evenings it plays host to football matches and first dates for young couples. I found the beach to be an endearing space. It's simple and small town yes, but it shows a bit of the pride and character of the people of Vientiane. It's a communal space that many of the locals frequent on a nightly basis. Young people pose for selfies with bold floral backgrounds, while small gaggles of older women power walk and gossip around them. If you come down around five o'clock, the heat of the day begins to subside and you can bask in a dramatic sunset over Thailand.

Another important factor in any destination is the food. Laos has some big competition as it is sandwiched between the gastronomic heavy hitters of Thailand and Vietnam. Honestly, who here among us knows the first thing about Laos cuisine? The country may be suffering a bit from middle child syndrome, but that doesn't mean that Laotians can't hold their own in the kitchen.

The first thing that you can expect is a lot of sticky rice. Laotians will mold this ingredient into any shape or form imaginable to fit in a dish. There are many small dishes or snacks available to be shared by the table. Fried seaweed and spicy pickled pork are best when enjoyed with beer. Sticky rice pounded into a paste and stuffed with an endless variety of ingredients can also be found on most street corners. Laotian versions of common Vietnamese soups and sandwiches can also be easily acquired throughout the city.

Another important thing to note is that if you opt to add the chili sauce to your dishes, you will be sweating. Laos is on par with Thailand and far more advanced that Vietnam when it comes to adding spice to dishes. Although Laos and Vietnam are similar in the way that food typically starts mild and is accompanied by warmer add ons, everyone in Laos seems to prefer things hot. Within my first twenty minutes in country I watched wide eyed as the elderly woman next to me scooped six spoonfuls of chili sauce into her soup. With each dip of the spoon her soup turned a deeper shade of red and she laughed more maniacally.

Finally, there are the people. From the moment the immigration officer slapped a visa into my passport without even considering my application (or the fact that I failed to produce the required passport photos), Laos struck me as a place that had the carefree culture of an island despite being completely landlocked. The people are kind, and happy to open their doors to a stranger. On my first night I found myself dining with several Laotians who were eager to test out the local foods on me and also see how much a female English teacher in Vietnam could drink. I taught them some English, although I think they taught me even more Laos. Despite our language barriers they asked me, "Tonight, you feel happy," a dozen times, and once more when I returned the following morning to buy monkey balm for my hangover.

I found this hospitality and genuine excitement in foreigners to be the case throughout the city. Again, most of the locals were quite stunned that I only wanted to visit Vientiane in my week, and even more ecstatic when I told them that I liked it here. In fact several people offered me a free drink for every night I would come to their establishments throughout the week. Just like anyone else in the world, Laotians are proud of their culture whether they always show it or not. They were elated at the opportunity to show me local food and drinks.

Look, I am not promising you that Vientiane will change your life, or that it will be in your top five destinations. Maybe you read this and want to visit Laos or maybe you choose to go somewhere else, but just remember, anymore our lives are moving so quickly around us that we can barely keep up. Holidays are few and far between for the average adult, and when we finally do get a vacation we tend to carry our maddening fast paced lifestyles over into our holidays. We have been infected by FOMO to the point that most of us spend holidays bouncing from destination to destination every other day. We actually return home feeling more exhausted than before we left.

Having the opportunity to live in and love a city like Saigon, a city that often receives harsh criticism on TripAdvisor forums, opened my eyes to something. Over the years I've given up on too many travel destinations too quickly. If a place didn't quite vibe with me at first or if I heard about something that might be a little better down the road, I packed my bags and moved on. In the search for the picture perfect holiday, I likely ended up missing more than I actually saw.

This time I gave myself a few extra days to catch the intricacies that make Vientiane special. I am so glad that I did because it gave me time to eat meals in family homes a few feet away from their beds and old wedding photos. There was time to drink a beer while the elderly couple who served me watched an utterly obscene Lil Jon music video in the background. There was time to become one of the guys with a crew of Laotian men who were highly impressed by my skills behind the handles of a moto. There was time to get lost on the dirt neighborhood roads of the city and then stumble upon some scrumptious barbecue. I am leaving feeling like I got to see a little bit of Laos beyond the hotels and city square. For me, that was absolutely worth a week of my time.

“Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.” — Lawrence Block

Thursday, January 7, 2016

27 Things I Will Miss About Living in Vietnam

Number 27

I Was Big in Asia

Call me egotistical. I really don't care, because everyone likes positive attention and every expat knows what I'm talking about. When I walk into a classroom I'm like Taylor Swift at the Teen Choice Awards, or The Trailer Park Boys in Canada. Last week I felt about as attractive as an old sea hag, but a six year old girl petted my head like a cat and told me how beautiful I was for nearly five minutes. The only other person who tells me I'm beautiful that frequently is my mother. Sorry mom, but it just doesn't carry the same weight as when strangers do it. 

Number 26

The Hipsters

At this stage in the game hispters catch a lot of flack, but I'm here to tell you that hipsters are alive and well in Saigon. They are even a part of what is likely going to be a big social movement in this country. Young people in the city have the numbers and interest in thinking outside of the box. Music, fashion and interest in outside cultures are booming trends with Saigon's hip, young crowd. One of the coolest things that happens in the city is the Dub Step Dance Battle. It attracts Saigon's budding dance talents to face off on a weekly basis. Plus it's free of charge so anyone can join in on the hype. 

Number 25

Sweater Weather

Saigon is desperately hot nine months out of the year. The idea of winter here was at first laughable, but now I live for the December seasonal change. Because if you get going fast enough on your moto between 10pm and 8am, it's sweater weather baby.

Number 24

The Local Wildlife

What do we have in Ho Chi Minh City? A whole lot of rats, roaches, roosters and one seriously bewildered deer. I like the animals of the city and the way they coexist in our daily lives. Chickens, roosters and ducks roam the quieter streets looking for scraps of food. Feral cats lurk in the shadows. Dogs roam around, mostly avoiding humans. The gecko clicking away in my bathroom eats the mosquitoes and wards off roaches. Best of all the rats frolic around the parks like they are actually cute, and in a weird way, they kind of are. 

Number 23

Cause Baby it's Hot Outside

I have really embraced the idea of heating steaming hot soup on steaming hot days. If you sweat enough into your phở you can transport yourself to a transcendental state.

Number 22

The Children

I know what a lot of you (especially my coworkers) are thinking, "Katie, that is not what you said last weekend." That is true, but there is more to it than that. Vietnam, like all countries in the world, has a lot of amazing children. There are also some children that I would perpetually prefer to be out sick. For the most part, I genuinely enjoyed my time getting to know the bright future of Vietnam. They are nutty and wild and have a cold, dead obsession with the Minions. They are also bright and incredibly hardworking. 

I also like how much Vietnam loves its children. After living here, I'm not entirely certain that we even like kids back in the States. Think about how so many Americans react to a child making child sounds in a public venue. Do we really think we can silence a child by burning a hole into their parents' heads with our angry eyes? None of that weird social isolation of parents and children exists in Vietnam. If little Phúc wants to run around The Big C shopping center, pretending he is a death lizard sent to destroy the plum fairy race, then he can do that and nobody will ostracize his parents for it. 

Number 21


Who doesn't like a good massage here and there? They range from $2-$15 in Saigon.

Number 20

Au Park's Goat's Cheese Sandwich and Mashed Potatoes

That's it. 

Number 19

Blind Trust

Man, did I get used to hearing, "Katie, don't worry." This necessity was also one of the most frustrating parts of living in a foreign country on many occasions, but I certainly can't say that it didn't make life more exciting. There was the time that a local acquaintance invited us to lunch with his family who only lived one town over from Dalat. In reality we drove for nearly four hours to get that lunch and we didn't get to see any of our planned sights along the way. On the other hand, the family was amazing. Lunch was delicious. And it's also a great story.

Number 18

What does her shirt say?

I'm a crude woman, so you know I just eat this shit up. English language centers are a fairly young venture here in Vietnam. As a result, there are a lot of grammatical mistakes on clothing sporting the language. Even more eye catching is the fact that the idea of what is and isn't considered offensive language has completely been lost in translation. Some of the designs that I remember most:

A penguin with a speech bubble that said, "Fuck, it's cold."
"I stay on my bitches," in big, bold letters
"I don't give shit," again, written in bold, block lettering

Number 17

Bicycle Advertising 

You can hear them coming several minutes before they arrive in your neighborhood and you can hear them going several minutes after they've made their rounds. Mobile vendors outfit their bicycles with loudspeakers that play a very repetitive recording to announce the arrive of fresh bread or fruits in the area. 

Number 16

The Police Don't Give a F**K

I don't mean that Vietnamese cops don't care in the same way that many American police officers seem to not care about basic human rights in their quest for law and order. What I mean is that Vietnamese cops really don't care about anything, except maybe playing Plants vs. Zombies in between accepting traffic bribes. I've evaded many a traffic bribe by either not stopping or just driving away when they aren't looking. They don't care.

Number 15

The Markets

Saigon is home to dozens of open air markets. Inside each of them you will find butchers hacking meat right off the bone, live fish and seafood splashing around metal buckets, the fresh fruit and flowers of the day and of course any other basic household needs. The markets are a hot, fragrant assault on the senses from sunup to sundown. 

Number 14

Karaoke Without Consent

It's inevitable. One moment you will be enjoying your dinner and having rousing conversation, when all of a sudden a man with a meter high speaker strapped to his bicycle rolls up. He then proceeds to sing the loudest version of the saddest Vietnamese song ever written. 

Number 13

My Boss

My boss is awesome and truly one of the things I liked the most about my job. Managing twenty something expat teachers is quite the feat and she has always done so with a great sense of humor and just enough push to get what she needs from us. She is a master of words, and could sell a popsicle to a woman in white gloves on a hot day in Vietnam. She proves this every year by convincing several professional adults to dance in the Teachers' Day pageant. 

Number 12

Teachers' Day

I don't need Disney World. I just need Teachers' Day. Every year VUS invites the entire teaching staff (there are over 1,000 of us) to partake in Vietnamese pageantry at its finest. We feast on the Narnia of buffets and overindulge on free flow wine all while receiving awards in a fashion that would make you think you won the Nobel prize. Finally, we are entertained by our counterparts who were roped into dressing as sea creatures while performing an interpretive mashup of Katy Perry's, 'Roar' and Shakira's, 'Waka Waka'.  

Number 11

Is everybody angry?

Although I never mastered it, or even scratched the surface, I really like the Vietnamese language. I could sit and watch people speak to each other for hours, and even though I didn't understand a word, I could write a story based solely off of the expressions. Everyone puts so much behind their words, that even a simple conversation can seem of epic proportions to the outside observer. Of course, it always helped me determine context when I heard trời ơi thrown in here and there. 

Number 10

The Hospitality

I have to be real. Vietnam does hospitality better than any place that I've been. I'm even from Kentucky, where southern hospitality supposedly reigns supreme, but Vietnam makes southern hospitality look like a swift kick in the ass. It is damn near impossible to eat dinner alone unless you go to a very Western restaurant or lock yourself away in your bedroom. On countless occasions Vietnamese folks have invited me and sometimes friends over to their table to share in revels. They will then proceed to pick up the tab in its entirety regardless of the fit you may throw in retaliation.

My most recent experience with this being on New Years Eve when a family allowed us to join for booze, fried food and some good ole, earsplitting karaoke. Not only did they provide us with an evening of good times, they also threw in beer, whiskey, food, candy and a handful of straight coffee beans to jolt us back to mild coherence. Before we could even offer to chip in for our part, they informed us that they would not be willing to accept anything in return, and that they wanted us to join them in celebrating the Vietnamese new year the following month. Boom.  

Number 9

The Hems

Ho Chi Minh would never be manageable without the unusual peace and quiet of its alleyways. The main streets are where the daily grind happens. The hems are where life happens. In my alleyway you can see everyone and everything they are doing. All of the doors are kept open to welcome the kind breeze that whips between the homes. You can hear the sounds of televisions and radios thumping a combination of heartbreaking, folk music and new aged V pop. You can smell what's for lunch and probably already in the pot for dinner. The neighborhood dogs start to feel like your own, and in some small way you become a part of Vietnamese life. 

Number 8

The Grandmas

Not that I have anything against the grandpas in Vietnam. There is just something really special about the grandmas that I've encountered here. They've witnessed a lot in their youth, and even more as they passed into the age of patterned pajama suits and lawn chairs. Think about the massive shift in culture that this country and particularly this city have seen. Saigon has dirt roads forty years ago and now over ten million people live among the skyscrapers.The grandma's have been here through it all, and they now posses a tried and tested aura that commands respect. Just beyond that tough outer layer is a smile that will light up the block. Side note: don't be surprised if they can drink a lot.

Number 7

Small Things on Motorbikes

No matter what kind of day you are having, your spirits will instantly be lifted when see a small child, donning a pair of Doraemon sunglasses, and nestled between their parents legs and the handle bars of the bike. The same can be said for dogs on motos. A dog on a moto is like a kids in a candy store, or me at a buffet. Every time they go for a ride, it's the moment of their life, until they experience a new thing and then forget all about it.

Number 6


Mostly I will miss a woman who goes by Sung. She started as a tour guide through Vietnam's most beautiful country side and ended as a life long friend. It was this woman that reignited my love of travel and movement. Her type of courage and toughness is what we need in this world. We clicked. Our hearts were so compatible, but never would have crossed paths if I wasn't fortunate enough to be traveling in Vietnam. That kind of occurrence has and always will always be the only kind of religion that I will ever need. 

Number 5

The Hustle

This is a country wide cultural attribute, but it is no more apparent than in Saigon. If Saigon is Vietnam's beating heart, then it's definitely got a case of hypertension. Powered by coffee and hope, there is always someone in this city awake and working on their future. Whether that future goal is putting food on the table tonight or scoring well on the IELTS exam, someone in Ho Chi Minh is putting in work. 

I've been living in a mecca of human activity. I can feel the energy vibrating off of the cement buildings and going straight through me. Mountains and oceans have moved me, but so has this city. It has revealed to me a reality of human capability that was hidden away in my small region of the world. Like a drug it drew me in, convincing me of a superman like immunity to exhaustion, and then spitting me out into a heap once I finally hit my breaking point. Looking back on it, every moment that I was awake to absorb this city was somehow always worth it.

Number 4

Four Hour Dinners

We just don't have this kind of social gathering in the States. Dinner is another thing for us to accomplish as we power through our daily grinds, complacently switched to autopilot. I want to talk, dammit. I want to share a couple of beers while slowly picking at food and I want to be a part of another person's life. If we can't have that basic time to wind down our days, then what do we have anyways? 

Vietnam has perfected the art of social dining. Everything is family style and you only given a small bowl to scoop your food into. Plus with the addition of chopsticks, it has to go slow! In the mean time you just get closer to your friends and family.

Number 3

The Coffee

After a year on the Vietnamese stuff, nothing in the United States even came close to satisfying my cravings or jet lag. I will forever need my coffees to be topped off with a generous pour of condensed milk and accompanied with a complimentary, endless iced tea. I also fully expect to be able to sit in my cafe chair for the entire afternoon undisturbed, if I so do please. 

Number 2

My Family

Getting your bearings in a new country can be very difficult. I left a stellar support system behind at home, and when I first arrived I was anxious to rebuild socially. A lot of people have since drifted in and out of my life, but what I'm now left with is a family. My family in Vietnam hails from four different continents, and has the vivacious personality to match that kind of scattered background. As differently as our lives may have begun we all have one thing in common; the conventional, modern day lifestyle is probably never going to be us. We are adventurers, never satisfied to end with the last one and always thinking about the next one. It's a personality trait that I used to curse myself for possessing, but not when I'm with this family. When I'm here with them, I don't feel the pressures that I feel at home. I just feel like I can be a person and live a life that I'm content with. 

Number 1

My Moto

Driving in Saigon is hands down the most enthralling activity you can engage in. Plus, it's also one of the most Vietnamese things you can do to acclimate yourself to living here. The traffic only looks like madness from afar. One you are a part of its flow, you understand how it works. You begin to let go of the little things, like getting cut off, and just look ahead of you. You can see life up close and personal from an angle that just isn't achievable from the sidewalks (or lack thereof). 

I have grown to be attached to my bike. I know all of it's sad little shortcomings, but I respect the old girl for getting me to and from every destination without any major objections. Aside from getting to and from places, my bike and I spent a lot of time together purposefully lost. On those days that were lacking in adventure or those nights when I couldn't find the refuge of my bed, I simply had to look to my bike and turn down a road in a direction I've never taken. Driving down the long roads of Vietnam was the most genuine sense of freedom and infinite possibly that I have ever had.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Katie's Favorite Things: Việt Food Số Hai

Clearly one food post was not going to be enough for one of the world's leaders in gastronomy. Honestly, two blogs still won't begin to cover all of my favorite Vietnamese cuisine. I would say that roughly 80% of my best memories in Vietnam involved eating. Việt food is an art form, and a serious topic to address, but with my time here quickly running down, this last foodie post will just have to do.

 Bò Kho

This is one of Vietnam's heartier soup dishes. In fact, it's a good old fashioned beef stew. It's tender, tender beef, carrots, taro or potatoes and onions all stewed together in a rich bone broth that's seasoned with fish sauce and sugar for extra bold flavor. It can be served with noodles or one of the famous Vietnamese baguettes. I always go with the latter of the two because I'm usually stuffed to the brim with noodles out here. I absolutely love this dish because it isn't at all far off in flavor from the familiar comfort food of my mom's pot roast at home. It's the best of both worlds for me, and it really breaks up the monotony of eating brothy, light soups every day. My favorite place to get hot bowl of bò kho is at Phở Quyền, which has multiple locations in Saigon, the most famous being at 323 Phạm Ngũ Lão in District 1.

Bún Chả Giò

Move over mì quảng (I can't believe I'm saying this). Over time this dish became my all time favorite meal in Vietnam. For me it's got it all: fried spring rolls (usually pork or vegetarian), noodle and an assortment of fresh lettuces and herbs. Peanuts, pickled veggies and nước chấm (avariety of the fish sauce kingdom) are sprinkled over top to finish off this salad like dish. It's easily accessible all throughout the city and it's typically super cheap. I've never seen it for over ₫50,000 (or $2) but it's usually somewhere in the ₫20,000. There for a while, I got in the habbit of eating this at least five times a week and I could have done more! My favorite place to eat my favorite meal is at one of the stalls in Chợ Phú Nhuận. In fact all of the women in that market are turning out fire from their kitchens so I highly recommend a visit to this market on Phan Đình Phùng just over the bridge.


Okay, this is a very broad topic, but if we are talking about Vietnamese food we have to talk about hot pots. These are the ultimate family style meal in the Nam. They can come with a never ending laundry list of ingredients like crab, beef, fish, squid, chicken, pork and many more options. If you can eat it, it's probably been in a hot pot in Vietnam. Regardless of the style of hot pot you decide on, there will always be a huge pot of broth brought to your table to simmer on a burner right in front of you. Along with the base of the soup you will get a huge platter of fresh veggies, uncooked meats and a few different options for noodles to throw into your bowl. What you do with these ingredients is up to you. You get to make your own soup and serve yourself throughout the night whenever you feel the need to counteract all of the beer that you've likely been drinking. The best part of hot pots is that they are basically bottomless. Any time you've started to get low on broth your server will come along and top you off with another liter of soup. I've had a few good hot pots around Saigon, but I'm partial to the seafood pots at Kent at 648A Trường Sa and the crab pots served at the double decker, open air restaurant on the 436 block of tháng 2 in district 10. 

Sả ớt

Lemongrass (sả) is constantly all up in everybody's food in Vietnam. Not that anyone is complaining, because it's delicious and even more so when paired with Vietnam's famous little red chili peppers (ớt). Don't let their small stature fool you. These lil baby peppers pack a lot of intense heat. Now I always preferred lemongrass tofu, but you can also find it on pork, beef, fish and seafood. This dish has intense, bright flavor that is unmistakable. For the best lemongrass tofu that I've had in Vietnam you can visit the curry lady on the corner of Vo can tan and trung dinh in district 3. Another formidable restaurant with a great atmosphere is Prem Vegetarian Bistro. Lastly, for amazing lemongrass baby clams head back to Kent at 648A Trường Sa.

Bánh Xèo

The bánh xèo is a Vietnamese savory crepe. Inside the rice flour wrapper you will find a smorgasbord of pork, seafood and sprouts. They are delivered to you hot, still sizzling from the pan along with an assortment of lettuce leaves and nước chấm. To take on the massive crepe you have to break into pieces, wrap them in a big lettuce leaf and dip straight into the nước chấm. It's a messy endeavor, but a delicious one. Unfortunately I don't have great advice on where to find the best of the best bánh xèo. When I first moved to Vietnam bánh xèo was the only thing I could say and identify as friendly to eat. I ate it regularly, but I had no sense of directions and typically forgot where I was getting them. Then I got lazy and just resigned to eating them in my neighborhood at Bánh Xèo 46A, the place made famous by Anthony Bourdain. Don't get me wrong their food is pretty good, but it's not great and it's much more expensive than other places around town. But hey, sometimes you just need convenience, right? 

Bia Hơi

In a world where cheap, light beer is king, only one can reign supreme. Bia hơi is a locally brewed beer and sold at the alarming price of ₫4,000 - ₫8,000. No, I didn't leave any zeros out. This beer is about 25 cents. But hold your horses. Don't get too excited about this deal just yet, ya heathens. Sometimes in life it is necessary to ask, "But why is it so cheap?" Bia hơi is so cheap because it's the moonshine of Vietnam. When you are drinking this stuff you have to remember that you litterally have no idea how it was made or where it came from. The alcohol content varies from batch to batch ensuring a Russian roulette kind of a night. Just take my experience in Hanoi, the undisputed bia hơi capital of the country, an the ultimate example. 

A couple of friends and I set out to have a few cheap beers and of course had no trouble stumbling upon a place in Hanoi. We started to feel an unconventional drunkness after a couple of glasses, leading one friend to tap out. Like the masochists we are, my friend Rachel and I decided to have one last glass before turning in for the night. As a result of just three glasses of bia hơi I spent the rest of night suffering from a mild anxiety attack and hot flashes. So drink with caution when you stumble upon this bathtub beer and always remember, bia hơi is scary.

Cà Phê Sữa

Obviously a list of the best Vietnamese foods with no mention of the local's choice of personal gasoline is just bullshit. If you ever read a list of '23 Things You Must Try in Vietnam' and cà phê sữa isn't on it, discard it immediately. So what is cà phê sữa? It's Vietnamese coffee with milk and it's glorious. Vietnam runs on cà phê. It's fueling the whirlwind, sun up to down hustle that keeps this country going. One day I started to wonder just how many coffee shops there might be in Saigon. If you think about the fact that there are around 10 million folks now living in this city, and then take into account not only coffee shops, but also those ladies slinging the good stuff in pajama suits on every street corner of the city... There are probably 5 million coffee vendors here, bare minimum.

In Vietnam, if your hands aren't shaking, it isn't coffee. They serve a kind of coffee concentrate that will wake you hell up for about an hour, cause you crash and then come back beginning for more shortly after. It's a machine, really. The product comes two ways, both of which are served on ice since you know, it's hot every day. You can take it straight up with just sugar. When I say sugar, I mean that you will be chewing on it. Or you can opt for the liquefied sugar option and get the cà phê sữa đá. It's all of the chocolaty goodness of Vietnamese coffee poured over a generous helping of condensed milk. It's literally the best coffee in the world, so just forget about all that stuff coming from Latin America. Drink Vietnamese coffee! 

If there is one thing that I have enjoyed in Vietnam more than anything, it was the food. Any time I was feeling homesick or frustrated a good plate or bowl or glass of something Vietnamese could pretty much always bring me back to just how great my life has been out here. So thank you, to all of the chefs out there in Vietnam! You made this place feel like home for me time and time again. You are masters of the kitchen and I applaud you, because the way to this girl's heart is definitely through her stomach.