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October 22, 2011
From Da Lat University Classroom Graffiti

When I first saw the classrooms at the University of Dalat, I was struck by how similar they were to American college classrooms. Sure, there are bench-row desks instead of individual ones, and the building interiors are more concrete and wood than tile and plastic, but the similarities outweighed the differences. Some classrooms even have projectors and media hookups, showing that the 21st century has reached Vietnam.

There was, however, one major difference.

I posted on Facebook a few days ago my discovery of a piece of graffiti inside my desk that reminded me that no matter where you go, things stay very similar. This graffiti was an artist’s crude depiction of genitalia, and reminded me of the scrawling you’d see on bathroom stalls or the large male organ that a member of the Gateway Class of 2006 decided to spraypaint on the side of a brand new school wall. I remember reading about ancient obscene messages discovered by archeologists in the ruins of Pompeii (possibly not work safe), which simply strengthens my argument: if there is a blank surface, someone will write on it.

It seems the students at the University of Dalat have taken this idea to the maximum. The desks in the classrooms here are covered in graffiti. And we’re talking about some intense graffiti. There’s lengthy writing in both Vietnamese and English as well as some fairly impressive art. While graffiti all over desks is to be expected, there is graffiti EVERYWHERE in these rooms. I’m talking about all over the walls, on the windowsills, pretty much anywhere a student could reach there is graffiti.

I decided to take my camera and document some of this amazing graffiti (after the break):

Read more…


Rain and Food

October 10, 2011

I honestly can’t remember the last day here it hasn’t rained, at least a little bit. The rain has been getting worse recently, and it’s become obvious that we’re firmly in the rainy season.

Even a few days into my stay (I’ve been here for over a month, which blows my mind when I think about it), I had realized a very important fact about living here: you need to take your umbrella everywhere. Sunny weather, which used to be at a premium, is now nearly impossible to find.

So what do you do when you find yourself in a place where you’ve got rain all the time but you still need to go out to work, eat, and live your life? Besides compulsively carry an umbrella, you could do like the approximately five bazillion motorbike riders around here and own a plastic poncho that covers you and anything you might happen to be carrying. Life here doesn’t stop in the rain.

But how to deal with rain that’s annoying at best and oppressive at worse? One way to do it is by sitting in a nice cafe or restaurant and simply watching the rain fall. And cold, wet rain is best observed when eating a nice warm food, like lau, known to the rest of the world as hot pot.

The exact mix of spices in the broth of our hot pot tonight was impossible to know, but still irresistible. Just spicy enough to give you the tingle in your mouth after you eat it, it infused the whole meal with a sense of warmth. The best part for my money, however, was the french baguette-style bread, provided for the exact purpose of dipping. Just being able to sit back, enjoy your food, and talk with a friend is the best part of any meal experience, and when one warms you up like this does?

It makes the rain a little more bearable.

Take a Hike!

October 5, 2011

Today I woke up early, got covered in mud, and worried about leeches.

It was a pretty good day.

So my friend and fellow English teacher Theo knew these people in Da Lat who were working on training tour guides for Bidoup Nui Ba National Park, a national park right outside the city. For their “final exam”, the tour guides were giving the project leaders a tour around the park, and Theo was invited to come. He thought he would have to work, and recommended me instead (I don’t actually start officially teaching until tomorrow, but that’s another story). Given that I like parks and like helping and like touring and want to see more of Vietnam, I said “sure” and rolled out of bed at 6:30 (which is usually an unreasonable time for me) and got driven to their association’s Da Lat Headquarters.

The following is important to remember: when I signed up, I had no idea how far away the park was and what we actually would be doing. So when we piled into the cars that would take us to a place I was told was an hour away, I was a little thrown off. When we reached the park and traveled down a ‘road’ that was actually more of a linearly shaped clay/dirt pit (our car struggled a few times, but the greatest thing about Vietnamese drivers is their ability to get you where you need to go, no matter who or what is in the way), I was even more thrown off. But nothing quite threw me off as much as announcing that the tour the guides were being tested was a three-hour hike around the park, and that we’d have to tuck our pants into our socks to protect ourselves from leeches.

I’m okay with hiking, and three hours is actually a fairly short hike (especially with all the stops we took, it was only 3.7 km), but leeches? I looked at my sandals and inwardly groaned. This is something that I should have known about.

So we were off, and the hike started pretty well. The first tour guide taught us about pine trees, which is something that didn’t really grab my attention, because we have several pine trees on my lawn back in America. The only real difference I noticed between American and Vietnamese pines was that Vietnamese pines never seem to have low branches: the branches always seem to start around 10 feet up and congregate near the top, and the trees are far less Christmas tree-shaped for it. More interesting were seeing wild bamboo groves and chestnut trees. What was most interesting, however, were the guides stories about how the indigenous ethnic minorities used the food and land in their daily lives. We learned about medicinal plants, basket weaving, and even the important functions of rocks. For me, this jungle was a day trip. For them, it’s their lives.

What brought me back down to earth was the mud. The trail that we walked on was a dug out one that had been used for cars as well as people. The daily rain in this area made the trail as muddy as could be, and after the first half hour the bottom of my sandals were caked in mud. This made things like “walking downhill” extremely interesting, and I helped my tour guides prepare for the real thing several times by slipping and falling nearly face-first down a muddy hill.

This problem was exacerbated when we reached the stream and climbed up a stream/waterfall’s bank (Mr. Oda, who was my major liason on the trip, helpfully told me that this was when I’d probably get a leech). Here the trail stopped being a dug out trail of any kind and started being more like an animal’s path through the woods, including 80-degree climbs up muddy hills. Oh, and it had started raining, which is something that I had packed for with an umbrella, but not a real rain jacket. However, by this time, the endorphins from hiking and the rush of being in nature drove away any negative feelings I had towards the endeavor, and the beautiful sights of the waterfall were good enough rewards to justify the trip.

After we finished our climb, our hike was over and we returned to the park offices to eat lunch and finish up. The advocators and I offered our comments, advice, and suggestions, and the tour guides passed their final test with flying colors. I was wet, muddy, and exhausted. All in all, a pretty good day.

And I didn’t even get a leech.

But I did get a bunch of pictures!

Family Dinner

September 24, 2011

Tonight, I had an amazing dinner.

I’ve been spending time with the family who runs a store down by the gate to the dormitories. Chi, the daughter, speaks good English and has already helped me out with a bunch of things, especially getting my Vietnamese cell phone and buying more furniture for my room. Her parents, who don’t speak English, are also very nice, teaching me small amounts of Vietnamese whenever they can, providing me a space to hang out in during the day, and cooking delicious meals. Theo, who was here last year, considers them family.

I was considering where I’d go out for dinner tonight when Chi texted me and told me to come down to her house. Theo was already there, and Chen, my friend and a Chinese teacher at the University, joined us. Chi’s mom made an amazing meal: pork, chicken soup, rice, some kind of fish/corn balls, vegetables, all kinds of things. We sat and ate and talked as much as we could, laughing and chatting and sometimes even bickering (playfully, of course) about whatever subject we wanted to.

After dinner, we just chilled over tea. Theo practiced guitar using a quarter as a pick, which prompted a conversation about American currency (Apparently Chi has a few $2 bills, and Asian banks don’t accept old or torn up money for exchange purposes). Chi’s dad told us about his time in the army and the war, which prompted us to look at old family photos. Chi’s sister Nan came back from badminton practice (Badminton is a huge sport in Vietnam and Nan’s a national-caliber player), and laughed at me and Theo: we were watching soccer while Chen was working with Chi and her parents to translate Chinese and Vietnamese words. We argued that we were supporting the Vietnamese national team, and therefore blending with the culture our own way.

All in all, it was a great time. So many times since coming here I’ve been frustrated by the limited nature of conversations I’ve had with people, meeting them for a bit and getting out the same basic conversation points. Tonight, there was a sense of real community, of honest and open conversation and sharing. It felt like family, and it felt nice.

COMING SOON: English education: What to expect.

Dancing with the (red) Stars

September 22, 2011

“They say the tango tells a story. If that’s true, then yours was a soap opera.” – Some really pretentious judge on Vietnam’s Dancing with the Stars (but not Bước nhảy hoàn vũ, Vietnam’s actual “Dancing with the Stars”)

So I have a TV in my room. With cable. That I barely ever watch.

The number one reason for this, is that, of course, I don’t speak Vietnamese. Most of the channels on Vietnamese cable are, in fact, in this language (There are like 6 VTV channels alone). I do occasionally watch BBC news, but that’s about it for the TV.

But I have seen a fair amount of TV. One of the places that I see it is in the store down by the entrance to the dormitory complex, where the family happily accommodates me and Theo, my friend and fellow English teacher. They more or less became Theo’s adoptive family last year here, and are really nice despite the fact that the parents don’t speak any English. They also have a TV playing at most times, so I’ve watched my fair share of things there. Many restaurants also have tvs in them, so I’ve gotten glimpses of it while going out to eat.

Here’s what I can say about Vietnamese television so far:

-They love Mr. Bean. For some reason it’s playing, like, all the time on Disney Asia.

-Also, you get your choice of many American movie channels, most of which are playing terrible, terrible movies. I’ve seen good chunks of When In Rome and Home Alone 3. Ugh.

-On the other hand, I saw part of a Game of Thones episode. Not something I really expected to cross over.

-Vietnamese people, just like people everywhere else, love their contest TV.  This evening, I saw a good chunk of a Dancing with the Stars-like program (but apparently not the official Vietnamese DWTS). Theo also told me that apparently, Vietnam Idol is a huge thing here. It’s good to know that some things don’t change.

5 things

September 19, 2011

The top five things I’ve thought about during my first week in Vietnam:

1)      The food is really good here. I mean really good. As a fan of spicy food and soupy things, there’s lots of good eating to be had. And as an extra bonus, finding cheap, but good food is not a problem. Pho, an excellent noodle soup, can be found many places for around a dollar, and that’s including the heaping serving of veggies they like to include with it.

2)      People here are pretty nice. Students are always trying to hang out with me and invite me to study groups in order to practice their English. And I haven’t even started teaching yet. People are generally eager to try and help you out if you have a question, even if they don’t speak a lot (or any) English, which can lead to some hilarious complications.

3)      As a six-foot-two white person, I don’t exactly fit in. Especially since the street I live on is in a much less touristy area of Da Lat, I get stares every time I go out. It bothered me a lot the first few days, but now I can just tune it out.

4)      Traffic laws basically don’t exist here. The hundreds (thousands?) of motorbikes on the streets of Da Lat seem to operate on some sort of system built on mutual understanding of their own rules and when to break them (whenever is convenient). And a whole lot of honking.

5)      Everything is really chill here. Especially in Da Lat, it seems like one of the major things to do is just go to coffee houses and hang out. Seems good.

Framstorn and Ooll Rut!

September 15, 2011

So today I was browsing in a bookstore near the market in Da Lat, and after realizing that all the books were in Vietnamese and therefore unreadable, I went to the “media and other stuff” section that is apparently mandatory in all bookstores, even ones over here.

Vietnamese Harry Potter

The adventures of Harry Potter, now in a form I can't read!

Western movies caught my eye, but it took a little browsing to find the real gems of the bookstore: Vietnamese toys. You see, like China, Vietnam seems to have a toy industry based on copying toys from other countries (namely the US and Japan), shoddily making them, and then giving them hilarious names:



This guy is amazing: usually ripoff toys use slightly-related but comprehensible names. But “Framstorners”? That’s an amazing level of ripoff insanity. More after the break: Read more…