xe may convert!

Last week, I got a rare treat: the opportunity to hang out with someone who has known me for more than 7 months! Much to her parents' dismay and my joy, I got to play host to my good friend from college, Ms. Mel Vanden Berg, who braved the hazards of jet-lag, severely lowered bank accounts, and heat-stroke to make her first trip outside the United States a trip to Viet Nam! :).

I realized right away that it was amazing to be with someone who knows me. But I also realized that living in Viet Nam for 7 months just might change a person, too. For instance, I have all these crazy words floating around in my head that make their way into my speech, disguising themselves among my English phrases as though they belong there. But--contrary to popular belief--only a minute percentage of the world's population speaks my variety of Vinglish, and Mel is not one of those people.

However, I knew that, even with my best attempts at speaking proper American English for a week, there were a few Vietnamese words that would slip their way in--they just can't help it anymore. So I figured I'd better teach Mel a few of the most essential words...Like xe may. In my head, a xe may is a xe may is a xe may..."motorbike" just doesn't cut it. What are those little, amazing machines--that any boy will tell you are not, technically speaking, motorcycles (something about the position of the engine...) and that can carry a ever-surprising number of people and cases of beer--that flood the streets of Viet Nam? Xe may. There is just no other correct term. So, I taught Mel the word. Two days later, we rented one for the day, and it didn't take her anything like the whole day to fall in love with this mode of transportation.

I think this was both of our favorite part of our trip to Hue (a city in central Vietnam): riding xe may at our leisure (which might sometimes have been as fast as possible) on this scenic loop between the perfume river and the China Sea:Yep, it was a struggle at times to keep my eyes on the road. But Mel was a very good passenger. She frantically grabbed my waist surprisingly infrequently.

When we got back to Hanoi, we also did a fair amount of driving around on xe may.
Usually in traffic like this:
However, we did managed to detatch ourselves from our xe may and do some other stuff while she was here. While in Hue, we wandered around the "ancient" citadel.

Hue was the royal capital of Vietnam during the time of the fuedal lords and French colonization, and this complex was built during that time, in the mid-1800s. After the revolution, these magnificent old buildings were seen as the vestiges of the "feudal regime" and were allowed to fall into ruin. Only relatively recently have they begun to be restored, and the citadel and its complex of idyllic gardens and temples is now considered a "must-see" in Vietnam.

In Hue, we also treated/subjected ourselves to hour-long beatings at a highly-recommended massage place. Yeah, wikitravel is straight-up wrong sometimes! Fortunately, the experience was theraputic in that we laughed about it all the way home (and it was a long walk!).

When we got back to Hanoi, we went to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum at night--something I've always wanted to do. It is lit up and really pretty, and there are always people milling around the perfectly manicured squares of grass in front of it (notice i said milling around--no one would ever, ever actually step on Uncle Ho's grass).

We ate supper with my host family at my house (sorry, it's hard to get all five storys in one picture, but you get the idea):

We did some really normal things, too--just Vietnam style. Like drink a lot of gorgeously cheap coffee. Another thing Mel got used to quickly (and learned the Vietnamese word for)--caphe nau da. Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk...

We even had a random Calvin XC reunion:

At the beginning of the trip, I asked Mel to point out things that she noticed and thought were crazy, because it's funny to see how many things I have gotten used to. On the first day she noticed that it's quite common to get one's hair cut by the side of the road, like this:

Then there was a funny moment when we were driving xe may on the highway, and I saw a sign that I couldn't figure out. Eventually, I did, though, and was shocked to realize that Viet Nam actually has speed limits--who would have ever guessed?! Mel reminded me that most people wouldn't have guessed--they would have actually assumed this. Oh. Right.

All-in-all, it was a great time. Totally worth the fact that my throat was hoarse from talking so much... :)

Mel, thanks for flying to the other side of the world to see me and then indulging my xe may obsession!


beauty in every season.

I saw the most beautiful thing on my way to work Friday morning:

Real runners.
A team of real runners.

In contrast to the ones I see sometimes--the middle aged men in shiny gray business slacks and scarves, or matching, full-length, swishy warm-up suits and knock-off Converse shoes whose soles look like they give about as much support as a piece of paper lashed to the bottom of your foot--plodding around the lake at walking pace with a trace of the running form.

These men were wearing tiny running shorts, silky singlets, and racing flats. They were milling around, panting, on the corner of Hoan Kiem Lake under the scowl of their sweatsuit-clad coach, their shimmering skin highlighting the unbelievable fact that their quads had actual muscle definition. Suddenly, as though at the sound of a gun inaudible to anyone but these four men or as though pushed forward by a surge of adrenaline impalpable to the rest of us, they gathered together and surged forward, right hands grasping left wrists for an instant to push their stopwatch buttons before they settled into their pace, their legs nearly in unison as they rounded the corner. The signs were unmistakable; they were doing an interval workout around Hoan Kiem Lake.

I almost swooned...or fell off my bike from shock.

My first thought was: That is beautiful.
my second: Oh please, oh please can I join in your pain?

But, as I mentioned before, I was on my way to work. So I had to allow the momentum I siphoned from their mere presence to propel me through the remaining 5 minutes of my ride to work and content myself with an excited g-chat to Hannah and Ali, who could completely understand my surprise even if they couldn't begin to relate to my passionate longing.

Which is funny because when I first arrived in Viet Nam and was still forcing myself out the door to run nearly every morning, I hated it. I hated the smog and the traffic. The stares. The absurd amount of clothing I was expected to wear in the intense heat and humidity. Or maybe I was just ready for a break. For one of these reasons, or a combination of them all, or maybe the realization that I didn't have to do this for anyone else anymore or that I didn't want to run just out of fear of getting fat, I stopped.

Maybe my body has finally begun to miss the steady stream of endorphins it had become accustomed to receiving during the past 8 years. Or maybe I really do miss running. A lot. It will be interesting to see if I take this same perspective when, at some point in the future I find myself again in a place more suitable for running (or with less excuses not to), or in a place where I can find a group of people like the four beautiful runners at Hoan Kiem Lake have found that can keep my pattering footsteps company, and I excitedly lace up my Asics and step out the door and realize that...it hurts. More than I remembered.

Then we will see if I'm still swooning over the beauty of running, or if my quickened breathing is merely the result of my decreased lung capacity. Then, maybe I will be less quick to judge the people I see trudging along, exercising not because they enjoy it but because they should.

As for now, I guess I will take comfort in the famous verses I read from Ecclesiastes last week: For everything there is a season. And while I sometimes miss the last season and look forward to the next season, I am enjoying this season of life. Even if it means I don't get the personal satisfaction or other people's admiration for being A Runner, and feel slightly less comfortable donning my skimpy running shorts.

Especially since I can now admire the newly-discovered running men in theirs...

Last week I learned a new Vietnamese word: ngắm. It means to look, but is different than the other two words for looking that I already knew; this one is more along the lines of "to admire."

This morning I saw the runners again. Today it was around 70 degrees and lightly misting. What more could a runner ask for--except maybe an olympic-qualifying race to run in such glorious weather? They were wearing (only) tiny, highligher orange shorts. And, yeah, I did ngắm.


cambodia pictures!

Ok, I know it's been awhile, but here it is folks! Photographic evidence of my trip to Cambodia:

Be sure to read the captions. They are why the album took so long for me to post and also help to explain the pictures and our trip! Enjoy. :)


sometimes i forget that "happy monday" doesn't have to be an oxymoron.

This weekend I went on a lovely little over-nighter to Ba Vi Mountain. Highlights included:

1. Learning to drive and practicing driving motor bike!!! Probably my new favorite activity.
2. Discovering the best yogurt that Viet Nam has to offer (this area is famous for milk and yogurt).
3. Our group having our whole hotel to ourself. Seriously, the little village was practically deserted--pure bliss.
4. Fresh air and more natural nature than I have yet encountered in Viet Nam. It was like an oasis for my nature-thirsty soul...

But the ride home was typical of these sorts of excursions--a gradual procession into increasing noise, smog, traffic, and people...

I started to dread Monday.

But Monday came, as it is wont to do, and managed to shine through the Hanoi smog much more brightly than expected. It turned out to be a conglomeration of good things and feelings: it brought an unexpected number of long, loving, newsy emails; it brought an exciting surprise and something to look forward to; it brought gorgeous weather and time to sit outside and read on my lunch break while drinking amazingly cheap Vietnamese iced coffee; it brought that random, good day feeling of thankfulness. Mostly, it brought me to my knees with the realization that I should not spend so much energy dreading things.

Poor Mondays. They really can't help it.