April 23, 2009

Hong Kong: The City

Hong Kong is my new favorite city, sorry Florence, Seattle and San Diego you have been replaced. Hong Kong has everything- shopping galore, boating, beaches, quaint little towns, amazing transportation. It's like the New York of Asia and I love it. There are a million ways to get to the same place in Hong Kong- MTR (subway), trolley, bus, taxi and walking (everything you need is walking distance).

Sometimes I can't believe my life over here. One day I am in a third world country like Cambodia and the next I am shopping at Prada in Hong Kong.

I went to Hong Kong for a long weekend and stayed with my sisters friend Mika who is modeling there. The first thing I did when I arrived was left Hong Kong City. I took a bus to the southern part of the island to a town called Stanley. Now I always judge a book by its cover so I did the same here. I went to Stanley because I thought the name was cute so I assumed the town would match and I was right. It was a little town along the water with great waterfront restaurants. Stanley also had a great market where I picked up a cool impressionism-like painting of the city. More than Stanley itself it was the drive to Stanley that made the trip very exiting and totally worth it. Hong Kong was once under British rule so there are many similarities between the two. Hong Kong has double-decker buses which is exactly what I took on the skinny, very curvy road to Stanley. I sat on the second level in the very front so I had quite the view. The drive to Stanley was gorgeous with beaches, sail boats, luxery homes and the ocean.


After Stanley it was back to the big city to walk around and take it all in. I was in shock the first day, Hong Kong was so fancy compared to Vietnam. There are so many international business people hurrying around, stopping for lunch, taking the subway and grabbing a Starbucks. I felt like a fish out of water. The architecture was also amazing- I spent most of my time looking up.

When it started to get dark I took the Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui (TST). The view across Victoria Harbor to Hong Kong City was awesome with all the buildings lit up at night. I was in TST around dinner time, so being in China-ish I decided to eat Chinese. I think I choose the worst Chinese restaurant-  I had 4 won tons floating around in some disgusting noodle soup. I couldn't even finish it. So I ate the won tons and took off to McDonald's. I really did have the best intentions it just ended in a Big Mac meal.

Causeway Bay
The next day I walked around Hong Kong again just soaking up my surroundings. Later that day I took the MTR to Causeway Bay which is another neighborhood. Causeway is definitely where you buy your kitties and puppies. There where animal shops everywhere.

Day three was spent getting lunch with Mika and catching up on The City, The Hills and Gossip Girl. A day well spent, I was on vacation!

April 20, 2009

Vietnam: Traffic Laws

Ho Chi Minh City Traffic Laws:
I have written about the traffic in Ho Chi before but I now feel a little more knowledgeable on the situation we have here.

Motorbikes, cars, bikes, electric bikes, bicycles and buses. They're all here- it’s your job not to hit or be hit by one of them. There are three different types of traffic. 1) rush hour 2) the time right after rush hour and 3) empty roads.

Rush hour always seems to worry people the most but in fact it is one of the easier times to drive. People are moving slowly and you really only have to worry about fender tapping the motorbike infront of you or accidentally putting your leg down to fast and touching a muffler. However, just because it is a bit easier to drive does not mean your internal rage isn't building because at this time of day traffic laws are forgotten and it is hard to adjust to the insanity. Intersections instantly beomce gridlocked which makes me so frustrated and the only way I know how to deal with it is to laugh out load. I don't how this level of gridlock just happens. No one here seems to get that this is not normal.

The time right after rush hour is the most dangerous. There are still lots of people on the roads and a lot going on but it is now mixed with guys driving extremely fast, quickly swerving and dogging anything that comes in their path. This time of driving is mentally exhausting. You have to be clued in every second and every direction.

Empty roads. Let the wind blow through your hair as you drive worry free because you’re cruising. However, this is when the intersections are the most dangerous because no one stops at the red lights, so you have to honk your horn and look both ways when your light is green.

Order and common sense? Ya right!
1. One ways don’t really exist here. I mean they physically do but that doesn’t stop anyone from driving the wrong direction on the road.
2.You would think that a two way would be more organized but nope you still have people driving up your side of the road.
3. Sidewalks are made for walking - not here. Just an extension of the road for when there is traffic. They are also parking lots.
4. Right turns, yield on red. Never.
5. A yellow light means speed up and a red light is for everyone that almost made it through the yellow but didn’t.
6. U-turns. Anywhere, anytime.
7. Left turn traffic signals on major roads. There are none. When the light turns green you have to gun it and try to beat the oncoming traffic before you get stuck and have to slowly work your way across.
8. Parking. Anywhere that is close. Walking for any distance is an outrageous thought here.
9. Bicycles. One bike, one person. Not in Vietnam - one bike, at least 3 people. The more the merry.
10. Transportation of objects. Any size, any weight, anything can fit on a motorbike. Who cares if the driver looks like he is about to keel over... as long as he makes it there in a couple of pieces.
11. Police. Just pay them off. Money can get you far here, even with the law.
12. Motorbike helmets for children? They are so small and fragile, why would they need a helmet?

Besides the motorbike ridiculousness, traffic is absurd. There are 7,000,000 to 10,000,000 people living in Saigon which may sound small if you compare the numbers to Mexico City with a population of double but what makes the traffic famous here is that the city itself is fairly small with everyone trying to fit into the same space. Try fitting 7,000,000 people on motorbikes in downtown Seattle. Now, that is what we are dealing with.

April 10, 2009

Vietnam: Da Lat

Da Lat, the city of love and flowers. Yesterday I had the day off from teaching and some friends in Da Lat, Vietnam (6 hours north of Saigon) so I took an overnight bus and arrived there at 5:30am. The first thing I noticed was how cold it was and hilly (there not a single hill in Saigon unless you count the driveway to the parking garage). I only had a day in Da Lat so we made the most it. We did an Easier Rider tour of the countryside stopping off to see the sights. Da Lat was gorgeous with rice fields, green farms for miles, and rolling hills.

The best part of the day was seeing how silk was made. Simple yet so very complicated. Now, we are in Asia so something had to happen out of the ordinary and that it did. During lunch one of our four motorbike drivers decided to drink his weight in alcohol. He tried to convince my friend that he was fine to drive but it was oblivious that he was not when he handed her her helmet and completely missed her hands. He kept saying it was his responsibility to get her back to the city which was rather amusing because of his current state. Luckily the other three, (sober) drivers called a friend and we were on our way. That night I took the overnight bus back to Saigon.

April 8, 2009

Vietnam: Rain, Rain Go Away

The rainy season seems to have sprung whether we expected it or not. Rain and motorbikes are like oil and water. They truly do not go together. It has been raining pretty consistently for the last two weeks in the afternoon, however the mornings can fool the best of us since it is always hot and sunny. It seems to down poor right when I need to drive to class. Last week I was stopped at a stop light while the rain pounded down and the wind picked up so even my hideous poncho was flying all around. I couldn't help myself but burst into laughter. I mean this situation is hilarious. There are thousands of people driving motorbikes and all we can do is throw on a pathetic poncho and gas it. The ponchos don't even have sides, there is only a snap holding together the front and the back. Shoes, pant legs and sleeves become instant sponges.

Last week I was in the teachers lounge when another teacher bursts open the door and yells "Everyone, its raining" (we all knew this because we had all just driven to school which made his choice of words hilarious). His poncho had ripped into shreds while driving so he was soaked down to his nickers. What do you do in a situation like this besides pull out the books and head to class to start teaching. On the same day the air- conditioner was broken, so the classrooms resembled saunas. I started teaching and all I could think about was how I am sure that my sweaty face and discolored shirt was not going unnoticed by my students. As I began to drip onto my class book one of my students said "teacher, you so wet." All I could do was laugh. A truer sentence has never been said. We had a fan on the ceiling that rotated around in a circle so I decided to move the students desks so that I was able to walk around in a circle following the fan breeze. This did not help at all, I just became more distracted and my students laughed at my ridiculousness. So... forget the books, lets play a game. I was not the only one over heating. A few of my students where standing in the doorway (the hall was much cooler) peering into class and another foreign teacher across the hall was in a similar sweaty situation. The theme for that day became- "If you are not wet from the rain, you are wet from your sauna-like classroom."

April 5, 2009

Vietnam: Vietnamese 101. Lesson 1

I have learned a handful of Vietnamese words since moving here. I can order coffee, bottled water, I know my numbers, which is helpful for market shopping. I am master ordering Vietnamese sandwiches with no meet (I had this one bad meet experience so I am vegetarian when it comes to the street sandwiches), and a few other randoms that don't really have a category. It's one thing to know a word and how it's spelled but it's a whole other thing trying to say it so that people understand you. Every vowel has multiple sounds and each sound is rather unpleased to the ear.

After the vowels come the constants, which are usually another unpleasant sound. There are combinations of constants that I can't even begin to figure out how you would say them together. "Like where is the vowel?" (valley girl style). After getting a grip on the alphabet next would be the vocabulary (for me at least, sentence structure may be a lost cause). Many words have multiple meanings, however, it's how you say the word that determines the definition. For example, (and the one that seems to trouble me the most) is the word for ice. If you say it neutrally (no flux in your voice) it means "kick" but if you don't want kick in your coffee you have to raise your voice almost like you are asking a question-- it sounds easy, yes, but it's not. (!!) The word for kick and ice are spelled "da" with different marks over the "a" depending on the word you are trying to say. Now looking at that two letter word it looks like it would be an easy one. Nope, no way, not at all. The "a" does not make an "a" sound that comes naturally to us. There are also words that sound very similar but, again, are not even close to being related in meaning. For example, the words "no" and "rice." Khong- no and com- rice. Looking at those words you would think they sound nothing alike until I inform you that "ong" makes a "om" sound. Now try saying those words again. Tricky, I know. People are probably always wondering why I am talking about rice when there is no food around.

I hope you are starting to catch on... this language is hard and not being a language buff I find it rather difficult (my dad could probably come here for a month and be talking with the locals like he has lived here for years). However, we do have one thing going for us... Vietnamese has English letters (thanks France!)... hats off to those who can read Thai.

With my 1-4 new words a week I am learning at a slow pace, but a pace all the same.