Saturday, April 5, 2008

Flying Business Class

Flying Business Class on the return flight helped me feel more rested and ready to jump back into my normal schedule. Surprisingly so! Upon returing home I jumped right into work and also made an appointment with my physician to look at these bites on my legs. After taking a vial of blood it was determined that I had a high white count so I began taking an antibiodic to ward off further infection. I will also visit an infectuous diseases doctor in mid-April to make sure everything is in check. Apparently there's a parasite carried by sand fleas that can cause a lot of problems; that's what we're trying to avoid here. By Friday, I was up at 6:30 and at my desk working! Granted, I was in bed early Friday evening but still, I'm much better this time than the last trip. I attribute that to Business Class flying.

Business Class was great but the flight attendants are almost too attentive! I hate to say that but they were a little overly sometimes. And they're heavy on the politeness. Here's what I mean: After eating I nestled in to my seat with my blanket and pillow and closed my eyes thinking they'd just remove my tray and placemat. But rather than take it unnoticed they'd actually WAKE ME UP and ask me if they could take it!? I really don't mean to complain - - it was a great experience to have that service and great seat on that long flight back. With those bug bites and the itchy condition I was in I can't fathom riding in the coach with that A/V box at my feet. I really think I would have gone crazy.

Here's where the price of the ticket is REALLY worth it: the lounge in Taipei and Ho Chi Minh City. I had a great meal, great view, and internet access in HCMC. In Taipei I was able to take a 20 minute shower and have a change of clothes. It was heaven! Had I had a bit longer layover I could have enjoyed what looked like a really good meal of dumplings, fruit, beverages galore, and other snacks. There were a lot of people in that lounge so finding a spot to sit wasn't easy. All I cared about was that shower. It made all the difference on my comfort later in the flight.

The staff in the lounge in Taipei were wonderful. They did their best trying to pronounce my last name so I spoke it out slowly, saying each individual part of it. They repeated with great enunciation and continued to pronounce it clearly and precisely (to a fault) for the rest of the time I was there: over the loud speaker when they called me for the shower, greeting me when I went to get my towels, and saying good-bye to me when I left for my flight. It was a fun exchange.

I doubt I'll ever fly economy class again on that leg of the flight for sure! It was worth the price paid.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Final day and these dang bites

The bites on my legs are sand fleas, I'm convinced of it. They look like sand fleas, feel like sand fleas and I'm sorry to say, ooze like sand fleas. I know exactly from whence they came, too. I've been trying to deny it but it's obvious: they are on my knees down. That's exactly how deep I waded in the South China Sea albeit for just a few seconds - - probably not even a minute. I walked in the sand and picked up shells but then headed straight back for the car. And now because of it I am in misery and look hideous. A long skirt or pants irritates them more, a short skirt or shorts reveals my hideousness and surely must repulse others. There are details I will spare the reader but suffice to say it is horrible. And the swelling...

Because of the irritation my skin is under it was difficult to want to get out of bed or go out anywhere. Plus, I'm hopped up on Benadryl so go between jittery and sleepy. I will take more meds when I sit down on the plane but until then this first aid cream will have to do.

I caught up on blogging this morning and packed. Terry called to say he's across the street at my favorite restaurant (and hang out) with clients so I headed over there. Surprisingly they were still there. Lunch hours are precious thins here and are often extended to well into the afternoon. He said good-bye to the clients and joined me while I ate my meal of beef/garlic, fried spring rolls, papaya juice, coconut juice, and cha da. I relished every bite knowing it will be long time before I have it again. I will miss the food of Vietnam as much as I will miss the people.

We chatted, I paid (em oy, I shouted when I was ready for the check - - just like a local!), and we walked back to Diamond. I zipped up my bags and headed back downstairs so Kiet could load them into the car. Kiet is a great guy. He's reliable and friendly and also speaks some English. He's enjoyable to be around.

I took advantage of the cell phone Terry loaned me on the way to the airport by saying good-bye to people who phoned or whom I dialed. It kept me from crying and thinking about leaving because everyone was so upbeat.

Since I am flying Dynasty Class home I am entitled to lounge services so I'm sitting and watching the planes come and go from all over: Phillipines Air, Vietnam Airlines, and Malaysia Air are in front of me right now.

The immigration guy who stamped my visa and passport was quite the flirt. He indicated I look different in person than my picture shows and I pointed to my curly, wild hair. He said, "I like!" Then stared at me for a few seconds instead of going about his business. "You married?" he asked. When I responded 'no' he said, "Good. When you come back?" I told him maybe someday so he showed me his badge and told me to come back and see him 'right here.' It was funny and a good way to end the trip.

Philisophical dinner

Terry and I drank a beer with Hoe and toasted the trip and life in general. We recalled our time with the fortune teller and re-visited the things she told me. It was fun to remember that together since he was the interpreter. We discussed religion and spirituality and how that impacts everyone's lives around the world. We talked about evolution and creation and other theories. We continued to drink, I continued to itch my now-getting-worse bites on my legs. I can't imagine what would happen if one bit me on the face - - I would be hideous! These things are grotesque.
We discussed Hoe's trip in 4 weeks to the States and what kinds of things we'll do.

I came home and blogged a little bit then went to bed with a Benadryl. One more sleep and then I go home.

Absolute amazement!

What a place this is! Who can say why a person loves a certain place but Vietnam is the place on this earth that I think I love the most. The experiences that I have had here astound me. The connections with people I have made are incredible and plentiful. So many people of so many different varieties! I have meet expatriats from the States, from Scotland, from the Seychelles, from Australia and Ireland. I have met a variety of Vietnamese people and have been invited into their homes - - something many expatriats perhaps have never done. And knowing one person allows me to meet many, many more. For instance, through Terry/Eileen I met Hoe. Through Hoe I met his family, the fortune teller, Son, his family, their extended family, and Son's friends including Binh who in turn introduced me to his son. Through Eileen I met the women at ILV and in turn their husbands and children.

The point is, for me anyway, that we are all the same no matter where we are in the world no matter what our past experiences have been no matter what we hope for our future. We're all just trying to have a good day filled with good experiences. We're curious about each other and want to learn about each others' lives. We laugh at dinner with our friends the exact same way. We joke with one another to establish closeness. We drink beer together and gather for meals together. We are proud of our accomplishments and are happy when someone else shows an interest in us or our lives. We like to be complimented on our personality traits and to know we are appreciated for them. All of that I have felt whilst in Vietnam. It has been an honor to be accepted into so many peoples lives - - this is something I can't explain or describe adequately. I am moved by the warmth I've experienced here and can only hope to be given the opportunity to make someone else's stay in United States as gracious and warm as my experience here has been.

Minh Long Pottery w Paula and Sonja

Kiet drove me to Anh Phu to meet Paula and Sonja for an excursion to the Minh Lanh pottery showroom. We arrived to Paula's and I was awestruck at her and Ib's beautiful home! A dark blue pool in the front yard and bamboo trees all around was the first thing I noticed! It seems to me to be fashioned after a Malaysian theme with dark wood, big fans, marble floors, and warm-colored walls. Very cozy yet huge! Interesting furniture, rugs, artifacts, and paintings are everywhere. I loved it. The warmth of the house pales in comparison to the sparkle and presence of both Paula and her 26 year old daughter Sonja. I connected instantly with Paula the other day and it was the same with Sonja. Straight away I purchased some of Sonja's artwork that was hanging on the wall. The ideas are taken from Vietnamese propaganda books. Sonja has taken liberties with the designs by taking out the guns or other war paraphenalia and replacing them with rice bowls, t-shirts and other things. Very interesting and fun! One says, 'We love Pho!', another shows a guy with the saying 'You want motorbike?' and another shows a soldier with a small t-shirt and it says 'Big size for you!' All things I've heard or said! :-) Very fun! I have them all packed away in my suitcase along with the many purses I purchased.

After a hot cup of tea we headed to Song Bay where the showroom is, about 1 hour away. The views were great from the car as we drove through one village after another - - all connected into one with busy-ness and activity. Arriving at the showroom was amazing - - it's an opulent building with chandeliers, pottery fish, cranes, tea pots, huge planters, etc. I can't describe it as it was so oppulent. Instantly I noticed the large dental clinic occupying the entire top floor! I grabbed the brochures available in the lobby.

We shopped and shopped and I bought and bought - - but I only spent about $40 on everything!!! I bought pasta plates that say 'spicylicious' on them, a fish vase, bowls and vases in plain white stamped IKEA on the bottom (for .40US) and some rice bowls/plates/spoons with lime green polka dots on them! So fun. We ate a delicious meal in the center under an umbrella with a gold fish on the table in a bowl. I drank coconut juice out of the coconut knowing it would be my last for awhile.

The drive back was filled with great communication - - I love these two people and can't wait to see them again in life! We enjoyed a cup of hot coffee and then took off for Diamond where I was dropped off.

Thinking I was going to spend the afternoon blogging and catching up on things I sat down to the computer only to be SMS'd by Debi asking to meet for a drink at Jaspa's so off I went in the taxi! Janice was there from the Seychelles/Hong Kong along with Debi from Vancouver, WA. We drank strawberry daiquris and begged the waiter to make us some spicy salsa and give us chips. We got nachos with the spiciest salsa we have ever had. Even Debi, who knows her salsa, couldn't abide by that spicy concoction! We think we were eating Korean Dorito's. Yum! We also ordered a chocolate pudding cake that was outstanding! I have been craving these things so it was fun.

We sat and talked about life abroad and all that goes along with that. We laughed and ate for a couple of hours and then Janice's husband John joined us, then Debi's husband Frank whom I've met before. Terry SMS'd that he was on his way home so I left and headed back wtih Debi and Frank where they dropped me off at Diamond.

Terry and I headed over to the restaurant across the street and had my last dinner there. We sat under the bamboo (mosquitoes!) and then Hoe joined us.

So easy to understand and to hear

I have been told by more than one Vietnamese person that I am easy to understand and to hear. You speak clearly, they say. So many foreigners speak in their throat from what I hear. In a store I helped a clerk with a register problem because she didn't understand what it was saying. Because of our clear communication she was able to fix the problem without contacting her boss so she was thrilled. She asked me questions about myself like where I live and what I do before handing me my stuff and saying 'See you again.' Lan said the same thing. She said she's able to hear the syllables of all my words and makes it so much easier to understand. That's a great compliment and makes me confident that I can communicate here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Lunch and shopping and dinner

I met Debi and Sherry at Jaspa's for lunch. Sherry is the new chairperson of ILV, the women's group formerly chaired by my cousin, Eileen. We talked about living abroad, their experiences of Vietnam, my experiences so far, and laughed a lot. We got to talking about foods we love and had a hankering for peanut butter so ordered some toast and peanut butter. It arrived on a plate, like a beautiful presentation: a jar of peanut butter on a white plate. It was no Jif sandwich but it was yummy. Now I just crave my air-popped corn w a little butter!

It was a great morning and a good way to re-enter Saigon. Debi and I headed off with Kiet, the driver, for Saigon Square to look for purses. It's a great place for "quality" knock-offs and I found 4 purses to buy. In the end I paid 1,300,000 dong or the equivalent of about $80US. A couple are leather, a couple are leather-like. Regardless, that comes out to be $20US apiece so who cares! And they're cute.

To pay for them I had to go to an ATM which was across the street. The clerk took us over there and pointed me toward it. I opened the door to the ATM (like a little outhouse-looking thing) and a guy was standing in there. Debi and I laughed so hard because it was like he was using the toilet and I had just walked in on him. He wasn't but it was like he was. He laughed with us even though I'm not sure he knew what we were laughing about. I pulled out 2,000,000 dong and ran back to collect my bags. Then we went to Saigon Centre, a very fancy version of shopping compared to Saigon Square. It was really fun and we sniffed candles and lotions at a natural spa supply store. I also found a great furniture shop that wasn't inexpensive but really great stuff!! Funky and modern designs that are completely to my taste. Very fun.

Kiet brought me home and I relaxed a little bit. Then I called Son's niece, Lan, whom I had talked to while with him last night. She speaks English very clearly and Son really wanted us to meet so we arranged a meeting for 5:00. I also called Un to see if he could join us but he was at school so I didn't talk to him. Lan arrived and we greeted each other warmly and I felt an immediate connection to her. She's beautiful and very curvy and sexy, not the typical Vietnamese style that I'm used to anyway. Her hair has a permanent curl and we both noticed each other's hair: yours is naturelle, she said. We connected instantly. She just had a baby 2 months ago so we looked at photos on her phone of the little girl. After talking for about 30 minutes her husband Kien stopped by. He's tall, handsome and has a huge smile with sparkling white teeth. His eyes sparkle when he smiles and they're just adorable. He stayed for a few minutes then left again. I got the feeling that he was there just to make sure she was having fun - - I think if she wasn't she would have left with him at that point but she exclaimed to him in English how much she liked me and how much we had in common and so he left saying he'd back in a little while.

Meantime, Lan and I drank tea and juice and talked on and on. It was fun and interesting getting to know a person from another culture. We decided to call Un again and invite him to dinner. It turns out Thu, his mother, was still with him so he asked her if they could join us and they did. Son called a few times throughout the meal with messages to me and to converse with his niece and son. We ordered dish after dish and I was so happy because at last this was my chance to pay someone back for their hospitality! We talked on into the night discussing things like orthodontics, golfing, re-living the weekend we had just spent together, and discussing a potential future in the United States for Un and Ngan and possibly Lan. By the way, the family confirmed that there was no way I could have eaten dog last night - - but then I re-described the experience and they weren't so sure. I'm not so sure!

I secretly asked for the bill which I received to a lot of argument from the others. 775,000 dong was the total or about $40US (for 5 of us). I didn't think I had enough so I was quickly strategizing in my head as to what to do but realized Kien was already negotiating with the waiter in Vietnamese and handing over money to him right under my nose. In the end it was a good thing because I only had 400,000 dong.

We hugged goodbye on the street and said the customary 'see you again' phrase and off I went to Diamond Plaza right across the street. It was definitely my last time to see Un and so we kissed on the cheek and I felt like crying. He's such a great kid. I made it back to the apartment before shedding a few tears. At Lan's suggestion, I emailed Son through Binh and talked about how Un needs braces. "You're a dental professional so he listen to you," Lan said. Hopefully he will be Un suffers from headaches, bruxism, and has crooked teeth to boot with a slight underbite. We'll see. Orthodontics are huge here! That's another change I've noticed since my visit in September - - a lot of people have braces.

Mosquitoes dig me

So I made it all the way until Tuesday before suffering from bug bites and now, on Wednesday the day I depart, I'm riddled with swollen red bites all over my legs causing me to swell and itch. I will take a couple of Benadryl the minute I get on the plane so that I can get some pease from this agony.

Please, please let them be mosquito bites and not sand fleas. Sand fleas are so bad because of the fury they cause inside your skin. This looks and feels like sand fleas but I'm going to choose to believe they are mosquitoes until proven otherwise.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Vung Tau good-bye

I was to be picked up at 7:00 a.m. but I was on the terrace with wet hair ready to go at 6:30. I wanted to enjoy the last views of this place. Son arrived early as well so we sat and looked at the sea for a few minutes before loading my stuff into the car and heading for breakfast. We drove to the Rex Hotel for a buffet breakfast. I'm not good with buffets as I don't eat very much food. But when Son asked, "Buffet?" I nodded yes thinking that was what he wanted me to have. Not knowing if there were other options I just went with it. Now this sounds simple enough but this host was paying for everything for me - - every single thing. There is nothing that I paid for and nothing I wanted for. So when asked to make a split-second decision I just said yes to the buffet.

I loaded up on fruit, French bread, eggs over-easy (swimming in some sort of fat), and juice. He eyed my plate when I sat down with apparent disapproval because I didn't take very much. He told me to go get more after I had eaten a few pieces of fruit. I knew then that he was trying to get me to eat more so he got his money's worth out of the deal. I went in and got more food (yet still steering clear of the limp, pale bacon) as well as a tomato-based broth soup with vegetables and noddle. He taught me again how to eat the soup (chopsticks, soup spoon, scoop food to soup spoon, etc.) but once again I was a miserable failure at it and he laughed and gave up trying. He asked if I wanted more and I said no. He sneered that it's a 'buffet...buffet 1-2-3' and motioned with his hand beyond that as if to say '4-5-6' indicating one goes to a buffet many, many times. So I went back and piled more on my plate then returned only to move it around trying to hide food and make it look like I was eating.

We took more photos, chatted a little, stared off into the garden and pool while drinking tea on that terrace. It was hot and I sweated profusely - - eating spicy soup only accelerates the sweating process. We sat in silence for about 15 minutes then headed for a drive since there was about 45 minutes left before I had to leave. We went to the lighthouse on top of the small mountain and took photos all along the way of the scenery and each other - - and of course, that car. It was quite pretty. We then drove back to the ferry station where he nodded 'yes' as though "yes, it's time to go." He loaded me on to the ferry, talked to the captains and introduced me to the one I didn't know, then packed my stuff under my seat for me and handed me my ticket, shook my hand and said good-bye. I gave him a quick hug and off he went. I was seated in the first class section of the ferry so I had an excellent view in front and beside me. It was very comfortable and I didn't want to go up on top like I had on the way down.

Arriving in Saigon I received an SMS from Debi asking me for coffee/lunch at Jaspa's at 10:00. Perfect timing! It was Monday and I still had a few more days to enjoy this paradise. It made leaving Vung Tau okay knowing I still had a few more days in Saigon.

I think I ate dog last night

Son picked me up and we prepared to leave for a drive then dinner somewhere. The owner of the hotel is a friend of Son's and he was sitting there with 6 other guys having dinner on the terrace. It's a casual situation where one guy cleans the vegetables, someone else cuts the meat, someone cooks, and then they all sit and eat together. Son called me over to them (I tried to avoid them because it was uncomfortable to be around men I didn't know) and said, "One beer, Jane honor." So I joined them at their table while they poured Tiger beer. "No Heineken, okay? Tiger, okay?" Can you imagine if I had said no thank you and walked away? Of course it was okay! So the owner poured my beer then we all clunked our mugs together while they said something to me - - seemed kind and sweet because they all smiled nicely and nodded. I was informed through body language that I needed to POUND IT. So I downed the entire mug of the stuff. It was cold and delicious made only colder by the huge chunk of ice floating in the mug (probably made from unfiltered water). They all yelled, "Yeah!" as I finished it and slammed it on the table then wiped my mouth. They clapped, we said good-bye and off we went.

We drove around for a few hours looking at buildings that were built using the steel he sold to them. We drove to various beaches in far-off towns and the terrain became more and more rustic and agricultural. It was beautiful. We went to the top of one mountain that has a Buddhist Temple/Monestary atop and it was one of the most peaceful and beautiful places I've ever visited. It was similar to Tibet but it was a tropical version with birds, frogs, swamps, and that incredible sea view all around. We drove to huge expanses of open land next to the sea where Son said 'future Vietnam' meaning this is where resorts would be built. 'Resort 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6' he said indicating that there would be 6 resorts there one day. The opportunity for growth here is astounding. We were in Long Hai, Lo Hoc and Loc Son to name a few of the towns. It was nice to get away from the city and all the motorbikes. The beaches are pretty yet there's a lot of trash on some of them. One of them I was on (in spite of my fear for sand fleas) was tricky to walk on for all of the debri and trash. I managed to find a few beautiful seashells and walk in the water a little bit - - it was probably 75-80 degrees!! We took photos of each other near the water as well as photos of his car in various positions against the sea. Funny!! That car is like a member of the family, much more important than the family dog, Lucky.

Son announced he was hungry for Vietnam Barbecue. *Yikes* An alarm went off in my head as I immediately thought *dog meat*. When Son said "America barbecue Vietnam barbecue not same-same" I really thought I was going to have dog so mentally began preparing for the experience. We drove back in to Vung Tau and arrived at a simple, open-air building with blue plastic chairs and lots of motorbikes out front. He ordered for us while all the men in the place gawked at me (us) and obviously talked about me whilst pointing, nodding, and laughing. They'd smile at me if our eyes caught so it didn't seem like they were being mean but I have no way of knowing. They definitely leered.

A burner arrived at our table, then a little frying pan-type thing with melting yellow fat, then small rounds of meat arrived on two plates. "Same-same" Son said pointing to the meat. Even though they looked different they were from the same animal, I gathered. I asked what it was but he couldn't say. His son had tipped me off earlier that it would probably be goat so I made a pantomime of 'horns on my head' and Son responded nodding affirmative and adding a bleating sound. So it's goat. Whew. That was even a little freaky to me but I bucked up and ate it - - especially since Son was cooking it with chopsticks at the table and tossing the pieces into the various sauces in front of me. Putting basil in the bowl along with some okra and garlic cloves, the meat was quite tasty. Across the aisle from us was a girl cooking more meat - - an apparently special meat - - on a clay oven. I figured it was for us since Son kept looking over at it checking its progress. It arrived and Son announced, "Son favorite. Number one Vietnam." He tossed only one piece to me and waited until I tried it to see if I liked it or wanted more. "No like?" he said after my first "bite" (I used only my front teeth to grind off a small portion). Actually, it was okay! I said it was good. He tossed another piece in my bowl. I ate it but then decided to stop. Trying it was enough and besides, I wasn't even hungry anymore. It did not taste like chicken.

Sitting over that barbecue in the 93 degree heat made me a sweaty mess. And my hair was damp and curly - - I was a mess and felt awful. Next on the agenda was to go listen to music. There was no way I could do that without a shower so I asked to go back to my hotel to take a shower (pantomiming lathering my hair and washing it, then using imaginary soap to wash my arms). He seemed to understand but I was surprised when we arrived at the Palace Hotel and he said 'massage.' So he signed me up for a VIP massage which included a steam bath. He took the regular massage and off we went, him down the 'male' hall and me down the 'female' hall for our treatment. Once in the room it made sense that he did understand afterall. I took a steam bath, a whirlpool bath, then took a shower with the various acroutements of cosmetics available. It was wonderful! Then I had a massage - - the kind where the girl crawls around on my back and stands on the back, legs, feet, and hands. Amazing!

No music for me; I was exhausted. I think Son was happy when I asked to just go back to my hotel - - he looked tired and didn't fight me when I said I was finished for the evening. So I was back at the hotel by 10:15 or so and was too tired to even read or write in my journal. It was a fun day!

VIP treatment

At 6:10 I received a call from Un announcing his arrival to my hotel for our excercise. "I'm sorry my father is very busy today. He will pick you up at 8:30 for breakfast." So now a word about that 'very busy' comment. That is the catch phrase for everything when someones mind changes and they don't want to do a certain thing. It's a polite way to say no. It's a way to make it sound like it's out of their control but they cannot do something they originally planned. Flat out, it's an excuse. While we were walking I asked Un if his dad gets up early in the mornings and he said very early but not today. Ah! Truth revealed! He slept in.

Un and I exercised by walking up the hill and toward the big Jesus on the top of the hill - - a similar-type miniature statue like the statue in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. A beautiful morning to look at scenery, enjoy the quiet and listen to the waves. It's surprising how many people are out and about at that time of day and earlier. I began to sweat so much and didn't bring a towel so I asked if we could turn around. Un stayed with me, riding his bicycle beside me talking and telling me about the points of interest along the way. At some point I told him I'd just make my way to the hotel and he could go on ahead so he took off like a streak and headed home. I showered then rested until 8:30 when Son and his family picked me up and headed to breakfast, a buffet place that stops serving at 9:00 - - so it was slim pickens.

Mr. Tom met us there. He's the interpreter for the time when Un can't be there so at least we can all communicate. We ate in the huge banquet hall-type restaurant - - it looks like a wedding facility which are so common here. Weddings are held in these huge halls then it moves right in to a reception. During breakfast Catherine (Ngan) called from New Zealand. They handed me the phone and had me talk with their daughter and then evaluate her English ability. It's a big deal for them to know their kids speak clear English. Catherine and I have emailed each other and spoken on the phone before so we "know" each other and are able to communicate quite well.

After breakfast we drove around town. It's strangely European-esque. The mountains, the terraces, the flowering trees, the ocean make it so but in a lesser way. We drove to a place called 'Paradise' which is a beach/carnival/garden/golf course place - - very large and lots of tourists. Flowering trees and bushes all over with bright pinks and oranges - - Lily (my niece) would have loved it as those are her favorite colors. It was strikingly beautiful against the blue sky.

We drove to Chi Linh, a new golf course (turns out it's just a driving range) so we could practice hitting balls. Son wants to learn to golf so we can golf with Terry and Hoe when I come back next time. So he started hitting balls and became quickly frustrated. Frankly, his form was horrible and very wiggly - - like his upper and lower bodies were operating independently of each other. We were all laughing but tried not to. And the sweat! Oh my it was unbelievable. At that point I was thankful they didn't have any left-handed clubs or else I would have been out there doing the same thing! A guy walked up and started talking to him and even in this foreign land I knew immediately that this was the Pro: he's tall, tanned, flashed a big smile with big, straight white teeth, and was dressed to the nines. They all look the same the world over. After a lesson with this guy Son actually did well and was able to hit the ball 100 and 150 yards. After a few bottles of water and many moist serviettes (to wipe the sweat) later Son announced to all of us that this is not good for his health.

We drove next to pick up Un from his studies (studies every day of the week) and then drove to the big mountain. The views are beautiful up there. People stop and stare at Son's car, truly one of the most beautiful cars in Vung Tau, especially when most everyone owns motorbikes and no cars. I can see that a vehicle is definitely a status symbol; much more so than in the States.

We passed a huge flat cement structure that was built into the ground. It looked like the base of a building yet didn't look incomplete so it baffled me. I asked about it and Un said "It's a fortress to protect us against the enemy. We were having problems with the enemy." It took me a split second before I said, "I was the enemy! Me. Us. We were your enemy!" *silence* What a profound realization for me. We were the enemy and today I rode in the car with these four Vietnamese people just one generation later looking at scenery, flowering trees, and laughing together and being treated like a VIP. It hit me like a ton of bricks especially when Son turned around and nodded affirming the fact that he understood what I was saying and thinking. Un said, "I don't want to say who the enemy is but we did have an enemy." To this minute it strikes me so deeply. Here I was with four Vietnamese people and me in this car sightseeing; it was profound.

We enjoyed lunch by the sea - - literally right next to it with water splashing up on the rocks in front of us! We enjoyed seafood galore and again, there was so much food with course after course arriving even after I was satiated. One of the dishes were squid that are flash fried to a crispiness that is unbelievable. No batter, just a tasty crunch. Yum! I was informed that it was a gift from the manager - - a friend of Son's from when Son ran a restaurant (the one that his cousin now lives in on the hill). We drank Heineken (beer of choice due to great marketing strategies by Heineken) and laughed together for a few hours; we all had so much fun and commented on it later. Often Son will speak to someone in Vietnamese and I will completely know what he's saying and will respond before the other person can interpret for me. Why is that!? I have no idea how I can pick that up but it's just an adaptation to the culture and an understanding of the person speaking. It's weird and we all commented about it. It happens with him when I'm talking, too. We talked a lot about visiting the States, Un coming to the States, and what we'll do when I come back again. We'll visit Cambodia and Laos, according to Son. He wants his kids to go there, too, so 'we all go same-same', he said. It probably won't happen but was fun to talk about it.

From 1 until 5 we rested. I slept at my hotel then took a shower and enjoyed the outdoors for a little while until Son picked me up again for the evening.

Vung Tau paradise

The sea view is spectacular. It is the weekend so there are many Vietnamese tourists gathered in Vung Tau to relax and swim. I'm on the main drag since the ocean is there as well as the beach. People are swimming but only the children and foreigners wear swimsuits. Everyone else wears street clothes. Due to my horrible experience with sand fleas 8 years ago when visiting Phan Tiet, Vietnam (another beachside community) I do not go near the water rather admire it from afar. I find this notable since when I visited the fortune teller she told me that I like water but prefer to watch the sea rather than swim in it. When sand fleas are involved I'd have to agree with her. I didn't go anywhere near sand or water that day.

Son and his family came back for me that evening and we went to a place called 'Good Morning, Vietnam' for dinner. It's an Italian place and as guest it was my honor (burden, rather) to order the meal for the evening. Argh, I'm not used to that kind of thing! How do I know what this family likes or doesn't like? So I ordered a pizza at Un's behest and spaghetti because Son suggested maybe I wanted some - - so I figured he was the one that wanted it. One never knows. But what I really wanted was water. It didn't dawn on me to look for water in my mini refrigerator in the room so I went down to the little food stand at the hotel and asked for water. Blank stare. La Vie (a brand of water)? Blankness. Aquafina? Nothing. A pantomime of 'the act of drinking a bottle of water' meant nothing. "Gluck, gluck, gluck" sounds led him to point at liquor in the stand. Frustrated I walked away and decided to wait until dinner. So rather than ordering food or beer at the restaurant all I really wanted was a bottle of cold water. When it arrived I drank it down immediately and ordered another and did the same thing.

The proscuitto and parmesan pizza was very tasty. And it was fun to eat in the open air restaurant right on the main boulevard with the motorbikes whizzing by. There are far fewer people in Vung Tau with far less honking and chaos. In fact, by the end of the visit if I heard a horn honk I looked because I thought it was someone I knew! What a contrast from Saigon!

At dinner the conversation turned toward Un and the possibility that he would move to the United States and visit and/or live with me. 'Mommy 1 and Mommy 2' Son said about that. I can imagine how excited this family might be at the thought that their son could actually realize a dream and go to the States to study and live with someone they know and trust!

After dinner we drove to the top of the small mountain to the house Son owns overlooking the city. It is a former restaurant with a prime view but a horrible road leading to it. It's a beautiful location for a residence and refurbished could be beautiful. It was marred in a typhoon that hit just over one year ago where 80 people died in the surrounding area. A cousin and her husband live there now along with a bunch of dogs pregnant and just delivered. We had tea on the marble wall and I did the appropriate 'oohing and aahing' as a guest of honor needs to do when being impressed by the host. And it wasn't difficult because it truly was specatcular. It was right below a lighthouse that has been there since 1810 or some such date. It is sparkling white and beautiful!

From the terrace we could see the greyhound track apparently in full swing so we headed there. I had never been so it was really fun and exciting. It was late in the show so we were able to just walk in free and clear. We watched one match and headed home where I was dropped off for the evening. I will be picked up again at 6:00 a.m. supposedly by Son and Un who will ride their bicycles to me and we will all three go for exercise. OK, I'll go. I'm the guest of honor.

Off to Vung Tau

Son and Un picked me up at Diamond Plaza at noon and we took a limo to the ferry. On the way Son said, 'You hungry?' Emphatically I responded 'no' since I had just eaten. I had purposely gone to the restaurant across the street for pho and yoghurt to tide me over until we got to Vung Tau. Evidentally he didn't believe me because all of a sudden we pulled over and Un told me to go with him to get some bread. As we crossed the street I asked what we were doing and Un said we were getting some bread for his father. But what that really meant is that his father asked him to buy bread for me and told him to take me so I can select what I want. This kind of indirect communication is very difficult for me in the United States and even more difficult for me in this country where I don't speak the language. 'No' rarely means 'no' I guess.

I tucked the bread (sandwich) into my bag and thwarted Son's efforts to make me eat it about 3 times over the next hour or so. I never did eat it. The food was prolific so I never felt the need to resort to a Vietnamese deli sandwich.

Arriving at the ferry it was obvious that Son knew the captain as the guy would pinch his arm or comment about the iPod he was listening to and just generally act familiar with him. Is there anyone this man DOESN'T know? Then I was introduced to the captain and I heard the word 'VIP.' Shortly after I was told to get up and follow Son and Un up the vertical stairs to the captain's seat where he drives the boat. It was there we sat for the entire journey, about 1 hour 15 minutes. It was thrilling and refreshing to travel in the open air and sunlight on the Saigon River and finally to the South China Sea where there were outlines of mountains of Long Hai. I was able to look closely at the ships on the river as well as the small family fishing boats that people apparently live on. It was vibrant and exciting.

"Good memory?" Son asked on the ferry. I nodded emphatically - - a very good memory! That seemed to be the entire focus of the trip, that I have a good memory of Vietnam.

Son and Un were talking amongst themselves and Un turned to me and asked what the word in English is for where a river meets the sea. Hm. I couldn't remember and hemmed and hawed. Finally I had to admit that I didn't know. Son said, "Jane English no good!" We all had a laugh about that, including the gruff old captain and his young and adorable captain's assistant.

Vung Tau was really mountainous with a big mountain and a small mountain on it. They excitedly showed me landmarks like their home on the small mountain, their home in the city behind that pink building over there, the front beach, lighthouse, etc. Son grabbed my camera and began taking photos. We took a taxi to their home which was only about 1/4 mile from the ferry station where I looked at all the pictures on the wall, most of them from our trip to Tibet. Many of them have Terry, Eileen, Hoe and me in them and many are blown up to 'maximum' size, as Son says. They're HUGE photographs in frames that hang EVERYWHERE. The maids brought pommellos, yellow watermelon, tea and cold water for us and Un played the piano, including my favorite of his, 'Theme from Love Story.' We took photos of each other in front of the other photos and went to get gas. Now that was an interesting experience.

We drove up to what looked like a house or some other unobtrusive structure. There was a guy in front of us getting gas by way of a big funnel in his tank and a woman carrying large containers of a yellow fluid to his vehicle. I thought he had just run out of gas - - I had no idea there were no "gas stations" in Vung Tau. When the owner of the car walked over to check on the status of the tank-filling with a lit cigarette that's when I spoke up; Un interpretted but Son had already decided to say something and wound his window to yell at the guy. Amazing that this guy came anywhere near. It wouldn't have bothered me so much except for we were about 5 feet away from him. When we were finished getting our gas Son signed a book and off we went. He gets a bill monthly apparently.

"Now we have pho," Son announced so we went to Pho 24, the ubiquitous pho store. We had carrot juice and pho and once again I learned the proper way to eat it - - I always seem to do it wrong and Son always feels the need to push me until I do it right which I never do. It's hard! Spoon in right hand, chopsticks in left, scoop up noodles on to spoon, slide noodles in to mouth with chopsticks then pick up the "food water" (Son's English) with the spoon. Oh, and the arms need to be horizontal to the table, per Son. I was this close to just picking up the bowl and drinking right out of it (like I do at home with my cereal when no one is watching)!

So Son kept telling me that the hotel for me to stay in was free. I said 'thank you' and he said, "No one pay. Free for Son! Owner friend." Of course the owner is friend! Who isn't!? But he added, "Buy towel." I assumed for the beach since it was across the street from the beach. Un confirmed that it was not a beach towel rather a regular bath towel that I had to purchase since there were no towels available. In fact, Son said, "Nothing there for you." That meant no food, no towels, no sheets, nothing. Just a blanket on the mattress and A/C, that's it. "But best sea view!" I kept hearing. When I arrived it was true - - it was incredible and I couldn't believe it! The room was nothing but the view was specatcular and the place was clean and very comfortable so I didn't care. Aromatic flowering trees were outside my room and it was a delight to open the door and walk outside.

Turns out the place was a government officers hotel; all patrons are government officials/police. At least I would be safe, I figured.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Kenny G Christmas music

Breakfast this morning consisted of beef pho, fresh yoghurt w fruit juice, cha da (iced tea) and cha (hot tea) for about $3US. One reason I like this place is because I don't think I've ever seen anyone other than Vietnamese people in there; today was a very large birthday party with flowers galore (looked like funeral flowers, to be honest though) and gifts piled high. I enjoyed the atmosphere, including the Kenny G music 'Little Drummer Boy.' Funny. The music was beautiful and relaxing so I guess it doesn't matter but it was funny.

Traffic laws, shmaffic laws

Say you're driving down the road behind someone going too slowly. Don't get yourself upset, just go around them - - and while you're at it, stay in that left lane for awhile until you want to move over. Let the oncoming traffic figure out how to deal with you; you're driving where you want to drive, darn it! Missed that turn 1/8 of a mile back? Make a U-turn no matter where you are, no matter how fast you're going, no matter how much traffic there is - - it doesn't matter! Go where you want to go, do what you want to do. Making a right turn or a left one for that matter? Go ahead and make it without looking because those drivers need to pay attention and watch where they're going, not you. And those people making the honking? They're not mad they're just letting you know they're there. It's okay. Let it be. Things will work out. You'll get to your destination and prolly in one piece, strangley.

On my first visit I was tense with all the honking, on the second visit I felt fairly comfortable with it. Now? It doesn't faze me in the least, not in the least. Honk on, it doesn't bother me. And while you're at it, drive on the sidewalk if you want to.

Vung Tau weekend

After coffee with Son, Binh, and Binh's 9 year-old son, we decided that a trip out of town was in order so I'm heading off to Vung Tau for the weekend. It is a beach/seaside community that is midium-sized so it will be quite a change of pace from the busy-ness of gigantic Saigon. It's nice to have the opportunity to get away; I'm ready for it. There's a high-speed ferry that will take me there through the South China Sea; it's about a 2 hour endeavor from here to there, start to finish. The computer stays at home; I will take just a small bag filled with clothing. Of course, I've already rammed a weeks' worth of clothes and shoes into that bag 'just in case' as is the way I do things. An SMS from Hoe said they will leave for their hike in Hanoi; an SMS from Terry says he will not hike rather go to the physician. A telephone conversation with Paula changed our plans from Sunday to Tuesday. So all bases are covered and I'm off! But first, I'll eat breakfast at my favorite little garden restaurant across the way and read up on Vung Tau.

Did I mention that the fortune teller told me that I would visit Vung Tau before leaving for home? I thought I had lost my opportunity since I didn't go last weekend but now I'm going!

No flip-flops allowed

I went to listen to music tonight with Son but we were turned away because I was wearing flip-flops with my black dress. It was too much of a hassle to go back to get real shoes so we went to a different venue to listen to Phillipino music and sit outside. Afterward we walked to Pho 24 so Son could eat, then I took a taxi back to Diamond. It's a beautiful night - - perfect for a walk in the coolish breeze but I'll rest up for tomorrow instead. Tomorrow I shop!

Wounded knee x 2

Whilst waiting for Paula in the Diamond lobby I smashed my left knee on the edge of a glass coffee table. So maybe I'm a baby (okay, I am) but OMG did that hurt. So much so that I began to sweat and had to sit down because from past experience when I start to sweat due to pain I'm ready to pass out. The doorman, ('Smiley' as we call him for obvious reasons) felt bad for me and provided the sympathy I wanted and needed but mostly he offered a distraction so that I didn't pass out. Paula came, we greeted one another, then got in her car and headed for Au Parc. Then I realized I had blood dripping down my leg so her driver handed me some Pulppy's (Vietnam's version of the 'Kleenex' only 100x better! I could write a whole chapter on my love for Pulppy) and Paula pulled out a bandaid. All better. No harm done.

Next story: Terry SMS'd me (the international term for texting) that he hurt his leg last night and that he was on his way home from Vung Tau to go to the doctor. Normally I can hear and recognize Terry's footsteps/shoes in the hallway but not this time. He hobbled inside and looked in terrible pain. Evidently he hurt his knee from a fall he took last night on a dark sidewalk. Not surprising considering the unevenness of every surface here. The clinic is downstairs so I tagged along just for the experience of it all - - plus there's a dental clinic there so I was hoping to get a look at it (they shut the door in my face as I was nosing around, peering in). The whole process took about 30 minutes: registered, talked to a nurse, met with the physician, wheeled up to X-ray, X-ray taken, another consult with physician, elastic bandage slipped around knee, a prescription of Ibuprofin and some quick instructions, and payment at the front desk of something like $15 and we were off to lunch. Everyone was friendly and spoke English very well - - they even cracked and laughed at jokes. It was a joyful experience.

So I had my bandaid on my left knee and Terry can barely walk with his left knee. Hardly the same but it was still notable. Terry/Hoe and customers went off to Hanoi where, instead of hiking with them tomorrow, Terry will visit a clinic in Hanoi for some physical therapy. Frankly, the health care experience surprised me in a positive way. Quick and easy - - plus a referral for another visit in the city he will visit on business!

The theory behind helmets or lack thereof

Allegedly the theory behind the helmet law (which went into effect 15 December, 2007) is that children's skulls are so soft that it does more harm than good to have a helmet. Plus, there aren't any helmet manufacturers out there to date that make them small enough. It doesn't sound that different from our no-seatbelts-in-buses theory; that somehow it's safer to NOT be buckled in to a tipping/spinning bus with 6 foot ceilings.

Coffee with Paula

Paula is someone Eileen put me in touch with to learn more about the job market in Vietnam. She's actually a former recruiter (for lack of better term). So through email we became fast friends. She's an Australian woman with a quick wit and a masterful command of language. Her emails are a joy to read and often make me laugh out loud. In person this woman is everything and more I expected her to be. We hit it off immediately upon meeting face-to-face. We went to Au Parc for coffee and a chat for about 2 hours. In that length of time we connected more deeply and talked about everything under the sun, much of it revolving around life in Vietnam and its customs. She's a business woman and that's not a group of people I've been able to talk to yet here as most of the women are here because of their husbands and not necessarily on their own volition. I could talk on and on about Paula but to do so would be intrusive to our friendship so suffice to say I have a new friend that will last a long time.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Happy Birthday, Rachel!

March 27th is Rachel's birthday. I have 5 friends who have their birthdays within a one week time period and it's all been while I've been here in Viet Nam.

Pure indulgence hurts!

Yikes I'm achy this morning. I guess you can have too much of a good thing after all! I'm sure I'll get over it but yikes, everything hurts! At least my nails look good...

Pure indulgence

To anyone that hasn't taken a long vacation, longer than one week, make it a priority to do so at least once in life. There's no way I would be this relaxed if I didn't know I had more time left on this trip; I've been here one week tomorrow.

This morning I skipped going to the ladies coffee I planned to attend because I wanted to sit outside, drink coconut juice, and read. So that's what I did. I walked over to the garden cafe across the street and ordered pork in clay pot and rice whilst sitting beneath the bamboo with my book. It was hot and overcast - - just perfect for the late morning. Shortly after getting my food Hoe walked in with two customers; shortly after that, Terry walked in with another customer. So I'm running into people I know quite regularly! They were there on business so I didn't dare interrupt them but Hoe came and sat with me for awhile and we talked about my fortune telling experience yesterday where he was the interpreter. That experience bonded us closer together because there were a lot of personal things discussed as a result of that pesky fortune teller somehow knowing every last detail about my life. Damn her.

After my lunch I walked for awhile then caught a taxi to YKC, the spa I went to in September. This time I decided to do it REALLY big. There's nothing they didn't do! (For those of you who have a hard time with the double negative: they did everything!) I arrived at 1:00; I left at 7:15. Here's what I had done: eyelash tint, two hour massage (includes stone treatment), deep facial (1.5 hours), conditioning shampoo, neck massage, foot massage, head massage, manicure, and pedicure. Grand total: $123 or $129 w $6 tip (appropriate tip amount, maybe even a little high). Realty check: the pedicures I normally get are $70 + 15% tip = $85. It's worth the trip over just to get this spa treatment.

The only ones not required to wear helmets...

...are babies and children. And sometimes there are two or three children on a motorbike.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Can and Cannot

Words used frequently here that I enjoy hearing are: can and cannot. "Can?" someone will ask when they have a question about something. "Cannot" they say when they shake their head 'no'. Much better to use another word rather than no. Also they don't easily understand or interpret trunkated words like can't, don't, won't, etc. So it is best to speak it full-out. I am a sponge here. I want to know everything and experience everything to its fullest. It is a culture bursting at the seams, at the cusp of huge change and development, the land of opportunity. It is not unlike the early days in USA, I imagine. I just can't explain my awe of the place. Cannot.

An interesting day

At 4:00 a.m. I awoke to answer emails - - it's the prime time for such a thing as it's 4:00 p.m. in the States. It still amazes me that I am able to function as normal here, communication wise. Kiet, the driver, picked T and I up and dropped T at work then took me to Hoe's house where I was to meet the fortune teller. Hoe and I spent about 45 minutes in the room overlooking the pool and just chatted about everything going on in my life as well as some of his business ventures and ideas. It was valuable time as Hoe is extremely busy and rarely sits long enough to chat casually like that. After a bit he retreated to his computer and I dug in to my book whilst waiting for Miss Huong, the fortune teller. She was a bit late due to a traffic issue but when she arrived she walked in the room and immediately began talking, expressing what she felt and/or saw around me or about me. Hoe jumped right in interpreting and continued for the next 2 hours while she spoke about me and to me in a chain-cigarette-smoking induced scratchy throated voice and with a piercing tone to her voice. I was her first foreigner, she said. And I told her (through Hoe) that she was my first fortune teller. How she knew about the things she told me I'll never know. I can't even try to figure it out but suffice to say I was astounded and shocked pretty much the entire way through the whole experience. It was enjoyable and surprising and had a profound effect on me for the rest of the day. I scarcely can take it in. It's not something I can even write about.

Hoe asked the fortune teller and I to join him at lunch so we moved into the dining room, the casual dining area, where his 3 cook servants served us a delicious meal: soup, mushrooms in spicy sauce, green vegetable in chili & garlic, and the best pork chunks I have ever had! For dessert we ate mango and pomellos in nuc mom, or chili salt. Yum! It was evident that the fortune teller felt close to me when she stood to fill my empty plate from the other side of the table - - she walked over, picked up my fork and used it to serve more food. Now that I know more about Vietnamese culture, this is a clear sign that there is a closeness between the two people. Hoe was taken by the whole experience. He said, "Here I sit with two ladies from different cultures who are meeting for the first time and I am the interpreter. It is amazing, the world, isn't it?" I have to agree. Wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Starlight Dental Clinic

The Starlight Dental Clinic is one of the largest clinics in Saigon and is located right across the street from Diamond. It is where Eileen will get her implant in May from the dentist that visits only a few days/year. Most of the dentists practicing there are from Bangkok or the UK although there is a staff of Vietnamese dentists there as well. I walked inside and felt at home. Dental offices are dental offices all over the world and this one was not different with the teeth posters all over, brochures from Ultradent, and the tooth-shaped clock. I produced my card for the receptionist and asked her if they use my products. She called an assistant and read my card to her. The assistant asked, "What are your company's product names?" So I said Variolink and Heliomolar not having a clue what the Asian market sells. Note to self: learn which clinical products are sold in Asia. The assistant concluded they didn't use our products. What more could I do or say but 'Okay, thank you' and out I walked. I wished I had at least a sample of Tetric EVO or an OptraDam.

Lunch with Binh

After meeting with the real estate agent I met Binh Nguyen, a friend I met through Son. He met me at Diamond and told me we would eat at a certain resturant that I recognized by name yet can't spell/say here. It's my favorite place to eat as it is a street vendor restaurant with all the vendors gathered around the perimeter of the place. The selection is endless and the food is reliable and delicious. We had so much food that again I was sick afterward. After we received the 6th dish he wondered if he should order more - - it's a real plus to have too much food rather than just enough or not enough. We had the best papaya salad I have ever had! Delicious! Also a great selection of fresh vegetables in a salad-like configuration, lemongrass shrimp on sugarcane, prawns on skewers, spring rolls, and wraps. We drank Saigon beer and sat family style with other guests. It was yummy! Afterward we went to a coffee shop on the park and had a latte and juice. That was where we had a chance to talk about our lives, our business, my visit here, etc. He's a sales rep for Thermo King heating/air conditioning so we talked about distribution and selling. We also discussed plasma televisions because he is in the market for a large one; his current one is only 52" so he wants one that is bigger. Men and their TVs; I guess it's the same all over the world!

"They call us a Third World Country."

Thu and I talked a lot about the development and growth of Viet Nam in general but specifically Saigon. It is so busy and so loud and so active that it can be overwhelming. She reminded me that there is nothing that cannot be purchased here these days: everything is available to most everyone. She added, "I read in the newspaper that they call us a Third World Country. That is demeaning and negative. I hate that. Why do they do that?" I agreed and said I had done some research on the term and that it is quite passe to use that term nowadays rather people use terms like 'developing country' or 'industrialized country' to describe an area. Thu said, "Developing country!? We are already developed!" It's her opinion and I found it interesting. It is true that 'Third World' refers to a country that is generally poor and has a high birthrate but I'm not sure Vietnam still qualifies under those terms. It is definitely a developing country and it is definitely seeking industrialization from an agrarian society. See for yourself, see the link: While there are remnants of an ancient society here and there is poverty there is a lot of money, a ton of development, and technology! I need to come to terms with how to describe this place because it's not easy. I think unless you have travelled aborad to non-English speaking countries it's difficult to understand this kind of place.

A non-vacationy vacation

This is a non-vacationy vacation! My days are filled with normal activies: meeting people for breakfast, looking at apartments with a real estate agent, meeting someone else for lunch, grabbing a few groceries here and there, and getting ready to go out at night. All the while texting various people and talking on the phone or Skype. It's just another day in the life of me in Viet Nam.

I met with Thu this morning outside Diamond Plaza where I'm staying. Whilst waiting for her in the cool breezy air (!) I sat on the granite wall outside the building. The police officer guarding the area (they're everywhere!) stood not 5' from me the whole time while I leaned, swung my feet, and generally relaxed there. Suddenly another officer came so my officer started telling the Vietnamese that they couldn't sit there anymore but allowed me to continue until the other officer made his move to stop me from sitting. Once the other officer approached my officer joined in reprimanding me for sitting there but with a friendly sparkle in his eyes so I knew he was just acting and doing his job. After the other guy left he said, "Sorry." I told him thank you for allowing me to sit there. A nice little connection made that can't hurt.

Thu and I drove a little ways to District 3 to look at the first apartment on the agenda. It was a small building on a quaint and quiet street loaded with restaurants and coffee shops, including a piano bar. While I liked it I feel in comparison to the others I had yet to see it was too far away from the hustle and bustle that I seek. So on to the next one. Driving along a street I noticed a motorbike parking lot that seemed familiar; sure enough it was the one my room looks out over from Diamond. I was recognizing it from the street! Now I really feel like I have a grasp of where I am! The next apartment called HBT is amazing and exactly what I would envision living in if I were to live here: open air lobby, bamboo and other tropical plants in the garden behind a gate, plus it's off of a small alley instead of a busy street. Yet the busy-ness is right around the corner where there is a French market, restaurants and coffee shops nearby!! Plus, it's only 5 blocks from Diamond - - a PERFECT location. Rooms there rarely become available. That is the spot and I knew it instantly. Off we went to a couple other spots with the final being a place called Saigon Domaine which is a modern facility right on the river. It looks like a hotel in Bali with the water, flowering trees and gardens, teak furniture and lounge chairs, boat taxi to take one to the city, flowers floating in pools and fountains. I mean, seriously. This place is like a luxury hotel! And the rooms are nice yet high-risey. At $2,000/month it's a steal for a 1 bedroom so could be considered yet it is very far away from the action that I love. Of course, all this looking is just lighthearted right now but it's fun to see what's available.

My time with Thu was really special. She's a wonderful person and we seem to have a lot in common and had a lot to talk about. We both agreed we'd like to get together again on a personal level. I had to cut our time short as I was meeting my friend Binh for lunch at 12:00.

Monday, March 24, 2008

'First Class' at any cost

In desperation I contacted my travel agent Barbara in Seattle about upgrading me to First Class. Whatever it takes, I told her. She informed me that every single seat has one of those boxes under the seat that plaqued me on the way over. It is in fact the A/V equipment for the individual screens in the seats. She said I could pay an additional sum of money for her to book the seat now or I could take my chances at the aiport that day for 1/3 the price. I could barely respond fast enough, "Book it now!" So it would appear that my problems are solved for my return flight. What a huge relief.

Steak and baked potato

Terry returned from Vung Tau just as I was settling in to their apartment for the remainder of my stay. He announced that Hoe was home a day earlier than we expected and wanted to go out for steak. Yikes, I thought. I can't have steak in VN. But we were going to this restaurant that I had seen the other night that is shaped like a barrel on the outside and it has swinging saloon doors (my favorite!) and the servers all wear red gingham shirts. Maybe I am getting a little weary of Vietnamese food constantly after all. Then again, maybe not, but why not try the steak. That steak was one of the best steaks I have ever had - - ever. It was so flavorful with just the right amount of fat. Yum! And the baked potato! Out of this world. The muscians were wonderful, too: a guitar player for the first part and a pianist/singer the second. Beautiful music made all of us stop and turn around to see who we were listening to. A fun night talking and catching up. Hoe has made an appointment with his fortune teller for me on Wednesday morning. He will send his car to pick me up and take me to his house where the reading will take place; he will be the interpreter. I've asked that he not filter ANYTHING so we can see what she says. It will be interesting!

'Lady Lunch' at Jaspa's

I was invited to attend a going away party for one of Eileen's friends, Roni, an expat heating back to the states. Pennsylvania to be exact. She's a wonderful person whom I met and enjoyed on my last visit. So in Eileen's stead I attended the lunch. Plus, it was a great way for me to 1. find the place by walking, 2. meet people and talk to them about their experience as expats living in VN, and 3. to enjoy the company of people I don't know or don't know well and get a feel for what it's like to have to really put myself out there. It was so much fun. I met so many people that I truly enjoy and hope to see again. Two of these new friends have already texted me so we can plan an outing before I leave.

The restaurant just so happened to be around the corner from the Dong Do so after breakfast I packed up my bags and left them in the lobby then walked over to the restaurant. I was happy because I recognized the street as the one just up from my hotel and I recalled seeing the place the other night whilst out with Terry. So I CAN learn my way around this place afterall! It's the little things that give such satisfaction.

When I got to the restaurant I could tell I was in the right place due to the volumes of women getting out of their cars and taxis. The staff said the 'lady lunch' was upstairs so I headed up hoping to find familiar faces so I wouldn't feel so out of place. No need to feel out of place; everyone treated me like I was part of the group, as though I have been a part of the group forever. The menu at each of the place settings was titled 'Lady Lunch Menu.' 'Lady lunch' just makes me laugh. I like to sing it like Lou Rawls sings 'Lady Love.' :-)

It seems as though since this expat community is transient that people really do form quick bonds with one another. They seize their opportunities because time is so fleeting with people coming and going all the time. We enjoyed a great meal and I gained a lot of valuable information about living and thriving in Saigon. It's great to know that if I ever lived here that this group would be a support system for me.

The real estate market

So let's say I lived in Saigon. I would need to find a place to live, right? So pretending that I might live here one day I set up an appointment with Thu Hoang, a realtor recommendation from Hoe/Terry. She's super easy to talk to and we had a great time together looking at apartments on line. If someone were to live here it would be completely impossible to do so under $2800 or so. Perhaps it could be done with a studio apartment for around $1500 but even that would be difficult. Most complexes have grocery stores underneath and all of them have retail, including office services for people working out of their apartments or who travel, dry cleaners, restaurants, coffee houses, Pho 24 (the famous place for pho), and other such stores. I would imagine as a single person who travels living in this community it would be most important to have the security of these places and to be in a centrally located place like District 1 or 3. Tomorrow morning at 9:00, Thu and I will depart by taxi to visit some of the areas we looked at that piqued my interest. You know, just in case. It never hurts to be prepared in case some day a girl might move here.

Breakfast included

My breakfast has been included at the hotel but today was the only day I took advantage of it and I regret that now. I regret that I didn't take advantage of it every single day. The pho is amazing; so delicious and flavorful, probably the best I've ever had. The cafe sua da (coffee w condensed milk over ice) was delicious as well. The French baquet was light as air and the whole meal was served w three finger-sized bananas bursting with flavor. Yum! And since it was at the top of the hotel, 6th floor, and open air it was breezy and cool with a great view of the river 2 blocks away. The Dong Do is a great place to stay at a great price of $50/night, including the breakfast.

Helmets required

One of the big changes since I was here in September, just 6 months ago, is that everyone wears helmets on their motor bikes. That wasn't the case then. There has been a huge campaign to warn of the problems accidents can cause - - many of the billboards were quite gruesome and provoking. Now it must have moved into law/requirement as everyone has them. Many are creatively designed with designs of animals, paw prints, designs, etc. Just another thing I've noticed...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Tourist Police and other uniformed men

On this blog in Setpember/October 2007 I wrote about the tourist police: men in green who stand on street corners supposedly protecting the tourists or helping them in some way. Today I saw a big truck with a canvas roof that stopped on the corners and these green outfitted men hopped in apparently done for the day (it was 5:00). It's like a big army truck, open in the back w just a canvas stretched over for a roof. It's an interesting concept and I'm not sure what role they really play but there are many of them in this particular area along with apparent police officers (real ones). There are men in white shirts w emblems, the ubiquitous green-clad tourist police, and men in blue shirts w emblems and hats resmebling what I would assume to be 'real' police officers. I'm not sure how to differentiate them all except for the men in green. Oh, then there are men in orange jumpsuits who appear to give tickets to people or call them out on mistakes they make whilst driving. They wear what seems to be a leather lower back brace of some kind - - but they all wear them so it can't be for their backs.

A quiet Easter

After breakfast and a stroll I took the taxi back to Mac Di Buoi (mack de boy), my street for these few days. It's a street I could live on: quaint, active, great shops/food, and in the heart of the city. I rested, read, and took a walk around the city. It is 93 degrees but feels cooler with a nice breeze and a fairly dry air right now. Soon it will be the rainy season and all of that will change to oppressive, damp heat. I ate at Green Leaf Cafe across from Dolce & Gabbana where I enjoyed a pot of Jasmine tea, delicious fried rice w lobster/shrimp and red chili w an egg over easy on top, and cold bottled water. I was able to read my book, 'Water for Elephants' but continued to be distracted by all the people, mostly tourists. Since I have a cell phone I appear to be a local so get asked frequently where a certain restaurant or bar is. Maybe someday I'll know the answers to their questions.

Although I really enjoy the area and hotel I will check out tomorrow morning and go to Diamond Plaza where Terry/Eileen live. This area is quite touristy w a predominance of Westerners. It will be great to be back "home" at T/E's and the comfort their home provides mentally and physically.

Easter Sunday in Saigon

I awoke at my usual 6:00 a.m. so it seems like I'm back on a regular schedule. After checking email and making a few Skype calls I met Terry for breakfast. We went to Au Parc, a French pattisserie near the Reunification Palace, park, and Diamond Plaza where Terry and Eileen live. With French music playing on the speakers (music that I own and play regularly at my cabin in the summer) we drank sweet Vietnamese coffee, ate fresh fruit and our breakfast of eggs w avocado and Terry's breakfast of pancakes w strawberries. The place is filled with expats and a few people came in that I have met before at various functions on my last visit! So I'm in a cafe in Ho Chi Minh City seeing people I "know." Then in the taxi on the way home I saw another familiar face on the street strolling on this Easter Sunday morning. I couldn't feel much more at home than I do right now.

WiFi in a developing country

This I cannot believe: I have my own computer with me on this trip and I have immediate and instant internet access at all times. That means I can stay in touch with my customers, my co-workers, my family/friends, and it also means I can contact people I plan to visit this week in Viet Nam. I have Skype on that computer which means I can phone anyone anywhere in the world through my computer headset. So I just telephoned my friend in Canada who was with his friend who just arrived from Malaysia. When Mark answered the phone he thought it was going to be John's wife in Malaysia but it was me in Viet Nam. Malaysia and Viet Nam are hardly places one would think to have internet access or Skype but they do - - the world is so much smaller with this technology! I feel a sense of familiarity with my computer close at hand, so close to home and friends. It's so amazing I had to make note of it.

'When people making the horning'

I say this not to make fun but to smile at the usage of the English language. God knows when I begin using my Vietnamese fluently (whenever that might be) I'll make similar comments, but...

...yesterday when Hoe drove me home to my hotel he made a comment about all the horns honking. He said, "When people making the horning they aren't angry they're just letting people know they are there." I agreed but thought how sweetly phrased it was and wanted to make note.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Day 2: Saigon!

The plan was to meet Terry and his boss, Hoe, (also my friend whom I travelled with to Tibet) for breakfast at 9:15. Terry met me at the Dong Do, my hotel, and we walked a couple of blocks to the restaurant. It turns out that 'The Quiet American' was filmed there as well as a movie about a Vietnamese spy during the war so it's a place of notariety and action. After strong and sweet Vietnamese coffee and beef pho we went to another place for tea and fruit. After discussing politics: Hilary vs. Obama, the US economy, Vietnamese culture and other such things we decided upon a light lunch. 'Light lunch' has no meaning here apparently. We had a big bowl of rice, papaya, fish pot, spinich w garlic, and something else with shrimp in it - - more than I normally eat for any meal! It was wonderful and the outdoor seating in a bamboo garden was like a movie set.

After paying the police and some other people who watched his BMW while it parked illegally on the street we took off to my hotel where Hoe dropped me off to head to a trip with his family to Nha Trang, a beach community about 30 minutes' flight from Saigon. We will meet again on Tuesday night for dinner and a night of partying before he and Terry head out of town again. The hotel doorman must wonder about me due to the amount of various men that have dropped me off: Terry, Binh, Son, and now Hoe. And I've only stayed here one night so far! Those American women, he must think. Little does he know the circumstances.

I caught up on the blog, sent emails, and made some Skype calls before sleeping soundly for 2 hours while the traffic roared outside. Pure bliss to me. Terry picked me up at 6:30, allowing me about 20 minutes to get ready this time! Fortunately I'm low maintenance when it comes to getting ready or I'd be in trouble here! We walked to dinner near the river where I have been before and greatly enjoyed a feast of spinich/garlic, fish pot, rice, spring rolls, shrimp in salt/pepper and mango. Perfection for about $10. After dinner we took a taxi to Sheridan's, an Irish pub with a great band. We listened to music for a few hours and drank far too many beers and talked all night. The band was fantastic but they have no CD to buy. Maybe it's because they just sing other people's songs and not their own; maybe there'd be copyright issues but Asia is full of bootleg CDs - - I wished I had my moving camera so I could record the sound; theses guys were great. A delightful evening! It reminded each of us of a night on my first visit in 2000 when we went to a bar on the beach in Nha Trang and sat until closing time. We had similar conversation only now we're 8 years older and have far more to add to the same stories!

I came home and talked to my 3 year old niece, Lily on the phone who told me all about her pretty butterfly dresses and how there were apple skins on the floor from her apple and that she found all the candy and wondered if I was in Florida? A good way to end the day!


I had received word from Viet Nam prior to my departure that my friend Son would arrange pick-up for me at the airport. With translation issues I didn't really know what that meant so I wondered how it would all come to pass. I envisioned myself looking for him in the sea of people gathered constantly to meet friends/family on these international flights so I was a bit nervous I'd miss him or wouldn't see him. Of course, it's easy for him to spot me since I pretty much stick out like a sore thumb here. Blond curly hair, over 5' tall, and just plain big compared to everyone else. So I exited the plane, walked to the end of the jetway and was met by Son and two guys in uniform. He apparently has friends in very high places as this was the Chief of Police and the "second in command" here to escort me. After a quick greeting I was whisked away foregoing all lines and brought directly to the front of the VIP line where I was quickly welcomed and allowed through the gates. Easy and fast! Usually it takes so long. I felt like royalty!

At the hotel my room was not ready so I couldn't check in - - or take a shower. I begged for a shower somewhere, anywhere so they allowed me to use the maid's closet where there was only cold water (and not towel) so I eagerly welcomed it! It was wonderful and exactly what I needed. But I only had 15 minutes to shower, get dressed, and meet Son again for a pre-arranged lunch with 5 of his friends. With wet hair I ran outside where he waited in his car with his friend Binh who acts as interpreter for me and those that speak only Vietnamese. I was just happy to be there within the 15 minute timeframe! Nevermind that I had wet hair and the same clothes on! Thankfully I thought to change in Taipei.

Lunch was interesting. Jet-lagged, I wasn't hungry and was extremely tired but I happily sat in the room listening to these friends talk. And toast. We toasted no fewer than 50 times during the course of the dinner. Thankfully Binh was there to interpret for me and for them! A few times Son leaned over and pointed at the men and said, 'Very important. Very, very, very important.' So I sat up straighter and wondered what I was doing wrong that he had to keep reminding me who they were. Evidently they are the equivalent of Secret Service officers. One of these men is the #1 man for Secret Service. They are involved with all VIP guests to Ho Chi Minh City, including Presidents Clinton and Bush, Condoleeza Rice and others. One of these 'very important people' offered me to stay at his home in Sapa when I visit there again. Sapa is a town on the border of China that boasts excellent trekking and beautiful mountain vistas. I was there in 2000 and loved the place and the people.

The courses of food and wine kept coming and coming and coming - - just when I thought it was over more came. It seems as though a sign of a good host is food aplenty. If there is no food left over it would appear as though someone had to go without so in this case the wine glass nor the plate was ever allowed to be empty. If my rice bowl sat idle for too long Son would place food from his own plate in my bowl. If I wasn't drinking the rest of my wine I was ordered to place it someone else's cup. If my tea cup reached 1/2 or below, it was filled. After about 15 plates of food - - no kidding - - I was told to place an order for my favorite food. Pressured, I picked crab. The crab came and I was told as the guest of honor I was entitled to eat this crab by myself. What? The thing was huge. I was already full (and tired and weak and dizzy) so I insited Thuy, one of the wives, help me eat it which she graciously did. But, she told me the 'big leg is for you as guest, I take little leg.' Yum, it was all good, but I wasn't feeling good enough to eat a feast. It seemed like the movie 'Babette's Feast' with everyone eating and sucking their food loudly. Under normal circumstances I would have delighted in trying all those new dishes, including the frog meat, but I just couldn't.

One dish I did not order was 'pork prepared as false dog meat.' What would that be, I wonder?

During the course of the meal I was able to understand a few words. One of those words that came up frequently was 'massage.' Then, 'Jane, you like massage?' Hm. How do I answer that at this table full of men? Men that I don't know. If it wasn't for Thuy being there I might have been concerned but at the end of the meal we all piled in to Son's new Accura MDX (around $120,000 VN due to 70% tax on autos) and headed to the spa. Once there I was whisked away by the staff to the female side where I received the most amazing massage of my life. The girl actually stood on my back and dug in with her heels and toes between every vertabrae making cracking sounds I've never heard before. She also crawled on my back using her knees to grind in to my shoulders and spine. It hurt but felt good, I wanted her to stop but wanted her to keep going. It wasn't one of those restful-new-age-music spas. Rather it was the kind you say ooh, ouch, ugh all the time. But then she started on my head and face and I thought this must be what heaven is. Seriously. When she was done after 1 hour I asked for a foot massage so was taken to another room with a bunch of lazy boys where a guy proceeded to knead my legs and feet at a speed and with a vigor I've never seen before. It was like he was some kind of a foot and leg machine that devoured my appendages - - like a wood chipper or meat grinder. I can't even describe it! It was good pain. That's the best way to describe it. I could barely walk out of the place. I drank plain hot water during this massage and had to sit and recouperate a little before leaving. I went to the reception desk to pay for my treatments but was told that it was already taken care of. I never saw any of the other men again except Binh who took me back to my hotel in a taxi. I will see them all again as there is a golf outing I've been invited to attend with them. They will buy me golf clubs for this outing since I am a left-handed golfer.

At the hotel I rested for about 1.5 hours listening to the honking horns and noises outside my room. I have a 2nd floor room with a balcony, a suite with a beautiful sitting area, huge bed, marble and wood floors, high ceilings, and horns/antlers on the walls. ?? The tub is heart shaped and has jets all over for a spa. Very nice and only $45/night, including breakfast. I like the place a lot and the location is wonderful right near Dolce & Gabana, Prada, and the like. Those stores are so out of place here, but it's a tourist area and that's what tourists like, I guess.

Son's son Son called to invite me to dinner with him and his dad. "Are you free?" he asked. "Yes," I responded. "Okay, we pick you up in 15 minute." Seriously!? I have only 15 minutes to get ready again? But I did it and met the son Son in the lobby. We went to a Chinese restaurant that is the largest in Saigon. I was a spectacle there evidently as I was stared at and pointed at the entire time. We had an enjoyable dinner with young Son talking a lot and practicing his English. He is 14 or 15 years old and lives in Saigon on his own in an apartment at one of his dad's companies. He attends the International School where the education is much better than anything he could get in Vung Tau. His American name is 'Mark' and that is stamped on his school shirt/uniform. His sister attends school in New Zealand and she has adopted the Western name of 'Catherine.' The parents live 1.5 hours away in Vung Tau so young Son is on his own and has been for 3 years. He said when he was in 6th grade he felt sad but now he likes it and is used to it. His parents either visit him or he goes home on weekends. His uncle stays with him sometimes but is responsible to take him to and from school each day. It's an interesting situation but education is so important here that if one has the means to pay for it it becomes a total priority above everything else.

After dropping off young Son, Son and I walked to a place where we could listen to music. But I was so tired that after walking 3 km I went back to my hotel and went to bed instead. I will see Son and his family another day when I am more rested. I slept well through the night in spite of the honking horns and city noises. It's great to be back in Viet Nam!


At dinner Son's son asked which I thought was more important in learning the English language vocabulary or pronunciation or enunciation. An interesting question. We decided probably vocabulary, listening, and understanding. All are importnat.

With his son as interpreter Son said he was forced to go into the army as a young boy then decided to stay there for some time so he was unable to gain English language skills, something he regrets. The son reminded me that 'this country experienced a lot of unrest in the 1970's and 1980's.' Then Son added and his son interpreted: but Vietnamese forgive; we don't hold grudges and we repair bad relationships. We don't let past bad behavior fester in our minds; we move on and grow from it.' It was poignant to me since Son was a young boy in Viet Nam experiencing the war first hand and I was a young girl in the United States watching it on TV and now his son was telling about it as history, in the past. Very poignant. The world is a small place.

Young Son also said he heard that when he goes to the United States to live (his plan) he will not only have to learn English but also 'Mexican.' I reminded him that it's Spanish but thought that was interesting. I said if he lives in California or a southern state it will be beneficial for him but that it isn't necessary. We discussed latin-based languages and how they are fairly similar so that once he learned English learning Spanish wouldn't be so terribly difficult. His sister Catherine is learning Chinese and French, he learns Chinese, English and hopefully Spanish.

Young Son invited me to his home in Vung Tau. "I will play the piano for you there." He plays beautifully and knows I enjoy listening to him play. So sweet. Later at his apartment he told me he would like to live in United States with me while he attends University. 'That's an idea,' I said. We'll have to think about that.

Viet Nam 6 months later

I'm back in Viet Nam after 6 months and it feels great to be back! But getting here this time is not something I could have prepared for. I realize the flight is long and always wonder how that's going to be but this time I had to talk myself through every single second of the journey. The flight to Seattle is 3 hours and 40 minutes. That's a long flight by USA standards. I was the window seat with 3 people so it was cramped. Still, I slept and felt optimistic that I could make it 14 hours to Taipei without any problem. After a 5 hour layover in Seattle (at night, everything closing up) I boarded the COMPLETELY PACKED plane for Taipei. This newer China Airlines plane has smaller seats - - which really means you're just closer to your neighbor. But top that off with the fact that mine had a box of some sort under the seat in front of me (AV box? small heater?) that gave off heat but mostly took up the space my right leg wanted and needed to stretch out. The guy next to me, as nice as he was, smelled like mothballs. It's what the Vietnamese do: they put mothballs everywhere I suppose to keep moths away, but ugh. It stinks! I quickly became accustomed to that odor but couldn't deal with the box under the seat. I managed to sleep for a few blocks of time but nothing like I normally do on these flights. Normally I have good 'seat karma' and am afforded three seats across with just me so I can sprawl out and sleep deeply. Not this time.

Plus, there was an American guy with his Asian wife who was an absolute crazy stereotype of an American. Picture this: red wife beater, baseball cap, belches loudly and often with belch often lasting about 5 seconds (the long, drawn-out kind!!)and a strange habit of saying, "i'mgonnagityou" or "i'llgityou" to his wife CONSTANTLY. ?? It was the strangest thing. He's a loud talker, of course, and seems to like everyone looking at him by saying things loudly like, "They put it in Chinese like I can understand Chinese" on a Chinese airline. Then he'd belch. Then he'd say his "i'mgonnagityou" thing to his wife. So odd. And of course, out of the 40 rows in the plane with 10 seats across, he gets placed directly across the aisle from me.

In Taipei we all complained about our lack of sleep and comfort. My computer quickly picked up an internet connection so I was able to Skype a few people and let them know I had arrived safely. It still amazes me that I can talk to people through my computer without interruption or even a delay. I freshened up and changed clothes so felt somewhat presentable when I landed in Viet Nam. The flight to Viet Nam was mostly empty so I had 3 seats across to myself!! I slept like a baby for almost the entire 3 hours. It was heavenly and much-needed.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A sad good-bye in China

We had breakfast in the Potala room at the hotel where there is a small version, a model, of the Potala in Lhasa (the Dalai Lama's winter residence). It was a sad meal for me because I knew I'd be saying good-bye to everyone and would be on my own for the remainder of the day. So after bringing our luggage downstairs and saying preliminary good byes, the time had come for the official send off. I sobbed like a baby as I said good bye to everyone and even after they were all in the van I stood on the steps of the hotel next to the guard and cried as they drove off putting my head right down in my hands and sobbing. They were in a van with tinted windows so I couldn't see them until someone, probably Hoe or Son, stuck their hand out the window and waved. It was the only way I knew they were in that van - - otherwise I was just waving to nothing but tinted windows. I cried for a good while after they left just because it was a letdown to be away from them, to be finished with the trip, to be on my own.

I headed with a guide and driver to the Panda Research Center in Chengdu, a world-famous place where pandas are rehabilitated and bred that I have heard about even in the States. There are about 1,000 known pandas in the world and 85% of those pandas are in the Chengdu area. SW China and Tibet is the main habitat for the pandas. The Center was about 45 minutes from my hotel. Chengdu is the third largest city in China, Beijing is #1, Shanghai #2. It's a nice enough city from what I saw. It appears as though there is a large ex-pat community because there were a lot of housing districts with names like: Vancouver Gardens, Missouri Hills, Berkeley Garden, etc. And lots of American clubs, one named Camp David.

It was a rainy, damp day which only added to my gloom about leaving behind my friends. I was happy to get to the Panda Center so I could re-focus my thoughts to something fun! I paid a lot of money to hold a giant panda - - a 10 month old. I paid $150US to do it but when else would I be able to do such a thing? That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I was glad to make the donation to the Center. And if pandas are really that endangered then all the more a great opportunity! I had the opportunity to pay $60US to have a picture taken with an adult panda; paying more just seemed more of a value. Plus, the workers took a lot of photos for me with my camera to remember it by. What fun! The giant pandas are very "slumpy" and seem to not even have a backbone at all. They just slouch and cuddle; so fun to hold! It's a feeling I can't describe - - like there's a person inside a bear suit; so human-like. The panda I held was very sweet and would kiss my lips or cheek whenever I established eye contact with it or say 'hi' to it. I still had a sticky face when I arrived at the airport! Evidently the panda was once a ferocious animal that ate meat but they have evolved into gentle, bamboo-eating animals - - I'm not sure why and plan to research that a little more to understand the reasons (which I'm sure are environmental). The Center is laid out really nicely with great walking paths and bamboo forests. Very lush and beautiful. Pandas just lie around living their lives here and it's fun to watch them. There were also some red pandas which is a small panda from Australia; I had never seen or heard of that breed before. They look like a cross between a raccoon and a fox and are very rust in color. I held a red panda, too, but only had to pay $15US for that. It was a cute little thing that kept a bamboo shoot in its left hand while holding its right foot with its right hand while it ate. I held on to its foot (and thus its hand) and it didn't flinch; it's obviously used to being handled by humans and is very comfortable with it. A fun day and good diversion to saying good-bye.

I arrived at the Chengdu airport early, too early to check in for my flight so shopped a little and ate at KFC. I couldn't believe I was ordering a two-piece original recipe meal! And I enjoyed it!! My luggage was grossly overweight but I took Terry's advice and sought out a male agent to check my bags. Terry's assumption is that it's always better for a girl to get her way with a man than with another woman. He turned out to be right! I didn't get charged for the extra kilos. In fact, when I put my luggage on the scale I said, "I know this isn't light but it's all I could do." He said, "That's okay. I ignore!" Nice! Same thing happened in San Francisco when I went through customs and had to re-check my bags; I went to the most friendly guy who also told me that he'd ignore it. After all, I had been on a big international trip! Perfect! Also in San Francisco they never opened my bags! They just waved me through to my connecting flights so clearing customs was a breeze. I slept and talked on the phone for the 4 hour layover. Rhonda was going to come and get me but it was a complicated mess getting re-checked in for my domestic flight and leaving would have thrown a wrench in the whole process. I slept on the 3 hour trip back to MSP and arrived home early Wednesday morning at 7:00 to my cold apartment. I did a little work for the hours that I was awake and then crashed until two a.m. when I woke up wide awake. It will take some time for me to adjust to this life, I'm sure. I suppose it's good to be home...but I sure to miss traveling. It's a passion for me.