Before I came to Viet Nam I was full of good intentions to be here while I was here, and not think (which for me necessarily implies worry) about what "will happen to me" when I get back to the big, bad, adult American world...

However, while I would like to hope that I am still fully-absorbed in life in Viet Nam (and I can't really help but fully absorb the recent, continual rain that drips off my helmet as I ride to the office, even when I don my large, yellow poncho) there have been some recent events that have made me unable to not think about the future: my fellow SALTer extended her time in Viet Nam. One of my best friends who has been job-searching for awhile just got a job she's really excited about. Another good friend lost her job.

So, I decided to bow to the inevitable and let myself ponder...at least a little. The experience has proven to be surprising, overwhelming, and--somehow--also encouraging.

I have found myself filled with unprecedented excitement and surprisingly little fear; sometimes I even have trouble sleeping at night because I am filled with so much restless energy. Intentional community, grad. school, New Zealand, joining a running club, mentoring young people, coaching cross country, publishing, starting a bakery, traveling, being a traveling reporter: are these idealized (or shallow) dreams, borne of the things I miss, or are they real passions that I can legitimately pursue and anticipate with excitement?

One part of me always cautions me, saying, “Chill out, Calah, and stop being so stereotypically young and idealistic. Don’t you remember your other goals—the ones where you failed and ended up disappointed?”

The other part poses a quite tantalizing response: “Is it so wrong to have a stereotypically good attitude? Given your history of quaking with fear over the prospect of the future and change and...adult life, maybe a little excitement is a good thing. And maybe life isn't a series of passes and fails, but a journey of discovery and change and...living. Maybe you should stop being so worried about where each step will get you and more focused on bending your knees, because the view from the top (and the ones from the 3rd, 27th and 1000th steps) isn't going anywhere--but you’ll never get see it if you never take a step.”

Or in the (more eloquent) words of Annie Dillard:

It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won't have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

So I guess I haven't gotten anywhere, really. Or nowhere that a logical, realistic thinker would acknowledge as anywhere important. But what I have realized is--to my little world--earth-shattering:

There are a million things against me (I'll just say "US economy" and leave it at that). The next year could be really hard.

But I'm not scared any more.

Maybe this is because I've realized that the fact that I have options at all--let alone good ones--is a big deal. Even if I hate making decisions.

Last Thursday I went on a trip to a province outside of Ha Noi where MCC does some of its projects. At a tiny little clinic without glass in its windows, I met a woman whose name I can't even remember. She is HIV positive, as are her husband and 3(ish) year old daughter (who, by the way, thought Alicia and I were the most terrifying things she had ever seen). We don't know about her other two children, as they are dead, but I can only assume there's a strong possibility that they were also HIV positive. As for her 7-month-along, unborn baby--well, that's the question (for those of you as ignorant as I was, it is possible for a baby such as this to be born HIV negative).

So, as I see it, this woman--whose only hope in life is to raise a healthy child--has this main option: Assuming that, when the baby is born, it tests negative, she can chose to not breast-feed it (which would prevent her from passing HIV through the breast milk). Ok, pretty simple decision--even I could make that one, yeah? Oh wait--except for the minor detail of how on earth this woman will ever manage to afford formula. Sure, maybe she'll get a free bottle or two from the hospital, but seriously.

But that woman is not really the point of this story--if she was, I don't know what the point would be other than to induce depression-- especially considering that I still haven't figured out what the point of me meeting her was, other than depressing. The point isn't even that we should help "people like her," even though it broke my heart not to know how I could. The point of that rather drastic story is this: whether I want them or not, I have options that many people in the world don't have. As someone my age who I don't even know wrote on his blog:

"I keep finding myself lamenting to my friends that we are one of the few generations in history to be burdened with the agonizing choice between good and potentially better options."
And suddenly, my worst fear, namely, being jobless, doesn't seem quite as terrifying.


roughin' it

Life is rough for me here in Viet Nam. Case in point: my last two weekends.

Last weekend:

Friday night: "Sibling Night Out." My two host sister, Ali and her host brother, Hannah and her host brother, Joel (aka--all of our 6'2" Canadian host brother), and I went out. First we went to a great restaurant that we've been eyeing for awhile, called Teeny Pizza--High School Restaurant. Then we went to a cafe that had all kinds of board games, where we introduced our siblings to Jenga and Spoons. I think my sisters enjoyed this, considering how they jabbered for at least 20 minutes non-stop to their mom when we got home. :)

Saturday: Ate snails by Giang Vo Lake with Co Giang, my former Vietnamese teacher, Hannah, and Ali. I learned and promptly forgot how to designate various types of snails in Vietnamese. We brushed up on our Vietnamese by talking about the foreign boy sitting at the table next to us, wondering who he was and what he is doing in Vietnam. Those foreigners--so intriguing.

Sunday: Went to the other international church in order to meet up with an old college acquaintance. That night I went with a group of friends to enjoy chocolate ice cream and listen to a live piano/violin duet at a cafe.

This weekend:

Saturday: Got up early to skype with an old friend. Went for a bike ride all the way around West Lake (this is my new form of exercise since I've stopped running). That night, I went to see the Hanoi International Theatre Society's production of Beauty and the Beast. I quite enjoyed it. I might have the song Gaston in my head all week...

Today: After church, Hannah, Ali, and I went to Derek and Ana's house to watch The Time Traveller's Wife. We all read the book when we first got to Viet Nam, and have been trying to watch the movie for five months (yes, I've been in Viet Nam for over five months now!). Then, we got invited to stay for supper, after which we made oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and relived our junior high years with a spirited game of MASH (if you don't recall this game, please don't ask...though if you're curious, my destiny may be to write poetry in my mansion in New Zealand with my pet goldfish). Also, we played some indoor soccer with Chase, aka the most adorable child ever (but don't worry, my MASH destiny correctly predicted that I will not have any children...). I think playing soccer with two-year olds is great for my self-esteem. And who knew how fun toy cars could be?


wretched (wet) thoughts

After brushes with death, road rage,
squeaky brakes;
And situations with stubborn locks, I escape the
Wretched, wet world out there.
I Leave shoes askew in the doorway
Under the canopy of my hastily discarded
Plastic cape,
For no one is here to judge if
I creep up shiny, dark stairs in
Sodden socks
To retreive my gift with barely
A smile.
I wrap it in four plastic bags for it's a
Wretched, wet world out there
And if I lost my
Precious package
I'd be distraught for surely
I deserve a pick-up after (I pick up my
fallen bike)
Such a day (I curse).
Slightly crazed I call the other
When I should call me that fore
Front in my head's the thought: what a
Wretched, wet world out there
Where the rain--
brings life, I hear, and wets the dust
or turns it to mud (in my world)--
renders my life so terribly inconvenient,
So wet--
So quickly I forget that
I met yesterday, little older than me,
She'll probably die soon and
her baby...



I am going to preface this post by saying that I don't think I can really communicate how amazing my parents' visit was, so just imagine this:

You have been in a foreign country for 4 months. It is supposedly Christmastime, but doesn't feel like it. Your parents come for a week and you get to show them all your favorite things about your new life, impress them with your horrible language skills, and travel to a couple places you have been wanting to see. Mostly, you just get to be with them. Also, you don't have to pay for anything...

My parents arrived Monday night. I worked that day, but was nearly useless. I was so distracted that I was halfway home when I realized that I had forgotten to wear my helmet--a blatant violation of MCC policy. Ah, well, I'd like to think it helped me to blend in more to the culture--no one wears a helmet when riding a xe dap (bicycle). Fat chance, right? Sorry, I digress. Point is: I was really excited.

Tuesday: Super-condensed tour of Ha Noi--Calah's-life style. As in, we didn't go anywhere touristy--Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum or Museum, Museum of Ethnology, Turtle-Sword Pagoda, etc. Instead, we slept in as long as their jet-lag allowed, then walked around Hoan Kiem Lake (ok, I'll admit it--that's touristy) till we got to a little resataurant (at home we would call this a "hole in the wall"; here we call it "street food") that serves my favorite kind of noodle soup, my van than. Its a very Vietnamese breakfast; Mom and Dad's chopstick ability was less Vietnamese, but their efforts were valient. Or they were very hungry.

Then we made a short trip to The Gioi Publishers, then headed to the MCC office for lunch, where they got to try bun cha, a northern-Vietnamese specialty.

That evening, we had supper at my house, and my parents got to experience a very important component of my Vietnamese life: eating excessive amounts of food regardless of whether you're hungry or not.

Wednesday: A van picked us up at our hotel at 8 am and we began the 3-hour drive to Ha Long Bay. This is one of the places that everyone says you must visit in Viet Nam; in fact, it's one of the 28 finalists of the "New 7 Wonders of Nature" project.

We spent 2 days and one night aboard this boat.

Except for when we stopped to visit a fish farm/village, to kayak, and even...

...to swim! (All the other passengers were quite impressed with us, because the water was freezing.)

Thursday: We got back to Ha Noi just in time to rush to Derek and Ana's house for supper, then to West Lake for the Christmas Eve candlelight service, a joint effort by Ha Noi's two international congregations, where I got to introduce my parents to some of my friends from church. I think they were happy to have some faces to put with the names that constantly came up in our conversations. On the way back to our hotel after the service, I was able to disprove with considerable certitude the statement that I had heard so often: Vietnamese don't celebrate Christmas. Maybe they don't get holidays from work or school; maybe they don't have gift exchanges; maybe Vietnamese Santa Clauses sometimes hold giant beer kegs instead of small children; however, they do honor the occasion with traffic jams such as this one:

We were stuck for an hour, then finally got out of our taxi and walked--or rather, waded through the mob of people filling the entire courtyard in front of the Catholic cathedral--to our hotel.

Friday: I had intended for us to have a restful morning before we went to the airport in the afternoon, but when Co Van found out that we didn't have any plans, she offered to take us to breakfast. So, Co Van and Chu Hung picked us up and took us to breakfast at a particularly famous pho (noodle soup, specialty of Ha Noi) shop. Then we went around and saw the essential sights that we had missed on Tuesday--Ho Chi Minh's Museum, Turtle-Sword Pagoda, etc--and took about a million pictures. Each of my two moms kept insisting that the other one get in the pictures with me.
That afternoon we flew to Central Viet Nam and began our (more relaxing) stay in Hoi An, a quaint (touristy) little town well-known for its silk, tailor shops, food, and the nearby beach.

Our stay in Hoi An can be summarized quite briefly--as I'm sure you're glad to hear given the length of this post--as follows:
Eating: Hoi An is in a different part of Viet Nam than Ha Noi, so there were lots of different dishes for me to try, and believe me, I wanted to try them all! This is me eating some kind of sweet, black bean pudding --its name slips my mind--at the market.

Biking to the beach: The beach was about 4 kilometers away, and the bikes were about 4 feet too small for us. But the water was perfect.

Eating: Aside from needing to try all the new dishes, we also had to try all the cool-looking restaurants, a few of which were charity-based--giving us an even better excuse to patronize them. :) This one is called Streets and is like a culinary-arts school for street kids. They are employed, taken care of, educated, and prepared for future jobs in Viet Nam's booming hospitality industry.

Shopping: As I mentioned earlier, Hoi An is known for silk, so my parents did some late Christmas shopping.

Eating: This restaurant was right across from our hotel and was great--delicious and cheap. I think the man who owned it thought all we did was eat. Clearly, he wasn't too far off.

Other than all that, we talked. A lot. More than I thought three introverted people could. In fact, I'm pretty sure we actually talked and laughed more than we ate.
If you want to see more pictures from our trip, check out my parents' three facebook albums:


chuc mung nam moi!

2010 is a big year in Ha Noi--actually, its 1000th big year. Although the official anniversary is in October, if New Years was any indication, the whole year will be as suffused with the event as the typical Vietnamese wedding dress is with glitter...

On the morning of New Year's Eve, I took the bus to the stop at the top of Hoan Kiem Lake, a couple kilometer walk from The Gioi Publishers. Then, I inadvertently but delightedly walked right into a flower festival that was set up along the lake in honor of the anniversary. Fortunately I had some extra time and my camera.
Legend has it that, as the founder of Ha Noi first approached its banks via the Red River, he saw a glittering golden dragon rising from the mist... ...thus the ancient name of Ha Noi: Thang Long, or "Rising Dragon."

And the recurring dragon motifs in its decor. This one, if you can't tell, is made of pineapple. The ones above are constructed primarily of flowers.

Ha Noi seal (thanks wikipedia!)

This one is for all my dutch friends out there. In case you can't read it, the sign says:

"These tulips are a gift from Netherlands to Ha Noi on the occasion of its 1000 years anniversary, presented by the Dutch minister for agriculture, Ms Gerda Verburg."
And I thought I'd have to miss tulip time this year!

After work, my host family picked Ali and me up and we all went to supper at Kitchi Kitchi, a restaurant that lives up to its goofy name. It is an all-you-can-eat buffet that serves lau, a traditional Vietnamese dish that usually entails putting various raw foods to cook in a simmering pot of broth. Kind of like fondue, but with chopsticks. And noodles. Usually a whole group gathers around one large hot pot, but Kitchi Kitchi has created a variation on lau in which each person has her own mini hot pot sunk into the counter in front of her. Additionally--and quite exciting to me when I entered the restaurant--there are conveyor belts running all along the tops of the counters with various food items--veggies, tofu, baby duck eggs, pigeon eggs, meat, fish, noodles, and some mystery items--that you pick off and throw into your pot.

Apparently, pictures aren't allowed (I guess they're afraid someone might copy that cutting-edge technology--the conveyor belt), but I took this one before I knew...

After supper, we went bowling. Cosmic bowling, even. Complete with the ABBA Happy New Year Song--on repeat. We played three games, then left at about 10:30 to go check out the flower festival I had seen earlier in the day. It closed just as we got there, and as Co Van's attempts to use us two foreign girls to get past the security gaurds failed, we left to go...eat more. The food selection suprised me. We had chau, a kind of rice gruel, like oatmeal but with meat instead of sugar..This is where we welcomed 2010 with some confetti and yet another play of ABBA's song. It was a pretty fun night! More than I usually do to celebrate New Years.

I took a moment to look back on where I was at this time last year. It was funny to realize that among all my frenzied ideas of what I might be doing this year, I didn't have the faintest guess that I might be in Viet Nam. In fact, most of the times I had ever thought of the country were probably associated with Forrest Gump.

It makes me chill out a little as I start to think/worry about future plans--they probably won't turn out at all as I expect. That's sometimes a scary thought, but its also pretty exciting!

Happy New Year!

left: the younger of my two host sisters, Nga.
right: my host mom, Co Van. Not to be confused with my other sister. My dad did when he first met her...