Thursday, August 30, 2012

5-Minute Drills

I am doing daily 5-minute drills this year in grades 7, 8, 11, and 12. It started off with my frustration that kids cannot remember unit circles, even though we had worked on them, explained them, practiced applying them. I was just fed up with them not memorizing the circles. So, instead of feeling frustrated, I decided that during Grade 12 we'd do daily drills of the unit circle at the start of the year. On Day 1, I asked them to take out a piece of scrap paper and to fill out the coordinates of Quadrant I of the unit circle. They failed miserably, so we went over again the hand trick for remembering the coordinates quickly, and I said that at the end of class I'd ask them to do it again. By the end of class, there was much more success (maybe half of the kids were able to get the coordinates correct). I think the immediate feedback helped to motivate them. And then I told them that we'd do the exercise again the next class. And we did, at the beginning and at the end of the next lesson, tagging on to the unit circle basic equations to solve within the range of 0 to 360 degrees. I said that the next time I see them, this'd be a quiz collected for a grade.

In Grade 11 we're doing something similar, but primarily to review older prerequisite skills (such as writing line equations) that I think the kids should already know, and that I only wish to brush up on. We would do the same skill at the start of class, end of class, and next start of class. And then soon we'd have a mini quiz on it also at the start of a class, collected for a grade.

So, a long time ago when I taught middle school for the first time, our school implemented daily quizzes. I kind of hated them, because it was so much grading, even though it was a good practice for the kids. I really like my new 5-minute drills, because I think they are the best of both worlds. The kids still feel the time pressure and the need to be correct, but they're not graded that often and it's less work for me. For my Grade 7 and Grade 8 students, I let them do two problems a day on mini whiteboards. (I got lucky and was gifted a class set, along with markers and erasers, when I sent out a request asking to borrow them.) This is important because in Grades 7 and 8 we are working on basic skills like fractions, percents, equations, etc. The boards are a nice way to quickly check in with all kids on a daily basis, and I can see who is sure of themselves and who is not. Now that I have taught with mini whiteboards, I really don't think I can go back! I love that  kids also write their normally snarky comments on the whiteboards instead of calling them out, so that only I can "hear" those comments. Cuteness. I saw one kid write "DUH!" on his board when another kid made an obvious observation. One day I kept them over the class accidentally (since our school does not have bells), and a kid raised his board that said, "Class ended!" So, they're great for classroom management as well as daily assessment.

I'm still trying all kinds of things this year, but working close to 60 hours this week is taking its toll. Grade 9 is my baby, because this again is a very low class, and this year a bigger group. I will be doing all kinds of experimental things with them, and if it works, I'll share the strategies with y'all. So far, so good. The kids are able to graph linear functions by making tables, and they're able to write linear equations from a table. Not a bad first week for kids who couldn't graph points on Day 1!!! They also go around and check off each other's answers, which I think is so awesome because they need to be building confidence alongside content knowledge.

So, 60 hours-ish this week. A bit rough. But I am loving it!!! I also really love sharing classrooms this year. I teach in about 5 different rooms, and I just love it. Even though I have to carry my supplies everywhere and it's a pain, I am all in other people's spaces and talking to them regularly as a result. It's really nice, because it forces me out of being in the workaholic zone. Anyway, I am hoping that things will calm down soon on the department chair side, so that I can get back to a normal work schedule and re-gain work-life balance.

I hope your years are off to a wonderful start! :) Hi web, goodbye web. See you soon, hopefully.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Wedding Dress Shopping Stress

I am totally stressed out from wedding dress shopping. HOW COULD THIS BE?!
  • I am getting married on the beach. It's going to be over 30 degrees Celsius.
  • I don't want to look back on my wedding day as the day when I sweated off all of my makeup in a sickeningly thick dress!!!
  • Berlin dress shops mostly carry strapless dresses, which means that there are thick underlying corsettes that add invisible layers to the dress. No matter how light a dress looks from the outside, if it's strapless, you are guaranteed to be carrying a fair amount of weight just from the corsette and the cloth. Let's not mention the under skirt that you would have to wear, which adds extra weight and therefore, extra heat.
  • To complicate things, it's the end of the 2012 season, and either I can buy a leftover, likely oversized dress from a store, or I can wait until the END of October to try on new dresses for 2013. That is pushing it too close, considering I am getting married in March 2013.
  • So far, the few people who have seen the photos of the dresses that I've liked, have unequivocally voted for a thick dress in lieu of the light and airy ones. That is not helping me come to a decision.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

New Things to Try This Year

I decided this year that I should really put some effort into maintaining my portal page so that I can live by example to show that it can be a useful tool for our department. The initial tinkering was really hairy, because our school uses a free portal software that is quite user-unfriendly, but after a bit of emails back and forth with THE portal lady, I've managed to get all five of my classes up and running with a basic title, an announcements section, and a document section. YAY!

I plan to use this extensively this year, especially because of the printing quota situation. (My friend who used to give me her extra printing quota, is no longer working at our school this year, and anyway I feel that it's too early in the year for me to be begging for copies.) I think it would also provide transparency for parents whose children have special learning needs. So, here we go. All lessons go up on the portal upon finishing the planning, and homework will be posted as well, along with additional resources such as mixed IB practice sets, which I will no longer print out for my whole class. I am still offering lunch-time review sessions this year for my Grade 12 IB students, but I will expect those in attendance to have already printed out and completed the packets on their own prior to coming to see me at lunch, so that I can really focus on helping to address their remaining issues instead of just waiting around for them to try problems.

From a department head's perspective (I am just rambling now), the hierarchical organization of the portal pages is important as well, and our department should align with the other departments' organization of their pages, for example. Fortunately, my colleague had already done some planning with regards to this. Right now, my goal is to just focus on my own pages, and once I get mine really up and running, I will be able to do a demo for my colleagues and to serve as their in-house technical go-to person, should they need some help with customizing their pages. (As it is not always so easy to get in touch with portal people at a moment's notice, with them being in the basement of a different building and us being on the top floor of ours.)

Another thing I am trying with my new "low" Grade 9 group this year is a system of modeling how to take notes. I will, for once, produce my own hand-written notes in advance, word for word, so that I know exactly what they should write down. The notes will be in a two-column format and they will cut a thin incision in the piece of paper and fold half of it back, so that they can use it as a flashcard / non-fancy foldable down the road. I am asking all kids in that class to maintain a binder for me, and the notes I ask them to take will have both bulleted key points (for the verbal learners) and diagrams (for the visual learners), along with the foldable portion (for the more drill-focused learners) and of course worksheets to help solidify and apply the concepts. This will not replace my typical scaffolded worksheets and projects, but it is a way of concretely reinforcing base building blocks for the kids who need that extra help with organizing information. If I am introducing a new concept, for example, we can do all the normal exploratory stuff and then come back to the notes as a whole-class wrap-up discussion. In the long run, I think it will be a superb addition to my overall teaching, but I am starting with this class just to try it out. Anyway, I met my group for the first time today and they were great! I gave them a little chat about our hopes for them to catch up on all the algebra concepts (by lessening the amount of "traditional" geometry I will teach to them this year and replacing it with more focused algebra reinforcement), to assuage their anxiety about being in the "low" class. We will see how it goes this year. I know that, as always, it will probably be challenging (as a starting point, many of these Grade 9's cannot plot given coordinates (x, y) after the summer, as I had feared might be the case...), but I hope that this year will go even better than last year's group, and that I will manage to get more of them caught up by the end of the year!!

Also, it looks like I will be teaching integer operations this year. Any good ideas?? I've never done this before, but I want to start with elevator word problems and then work our way to simple addition / subtraction statements. For multiplication and division, should I use a number line model to explain why there are "rules" like (-)(-) = (+)?? Anything you can send me would be super, and if I change parts of it, I'll re-post to give back to the community. :) xoxx

PS. In a recent middle-school PD, I realized that I am an impulsive do-er as a teacher (and more or less in life in general). These little changes I am trying are not very well-thought out, but I tend to go with the first potential thing I am excited about, and then later learn from my mistakes. Are you like this, too??

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Prepping for the First Days

I am roughly planning out my first days of the school year, but this year it's complicated because not only do I need to look out for my own classes, but I also need to make sure that the class lists for the department are made, the teaching assignments are equitable, the book checkout will be smooth for all classes, and I am thinking ahead to our next meetings already in terms of what we will need to discuss in relation to changing IB/MYP requirements and how we will look at/analyze our IB results from last year. --So, whew! A lot on my plate! I've barely had time to think about my own students, but tonight I managed to sit down and write out some thoughts. It's not worth planning concretely until my grade-level colleagues agree on how to start out the school year (ie. which topics make sense to come first), so I'll have to wait until after tomorrow's dept meeting and then scramble to get the supplies all ready before the next day, but I am excited about doing Row Game on Day 1 with grades 7 and 8! I'll make modifications to the normal Row Game only in the sense that I'll set up some "review stations" around the room with example problems and explanations. Kids who get stuck on their row game should go over to the tables and try to use the resources provided to review what they don't remember from the year before, thus leaving me free to observe and help diagnose misconceptions. By the end of class, I'll give them the first homework set to further review at home.

Besides that, tomorrow's the first full department meeting I'll be running! I am VERY excited. We've got some big things to do tomorrow, and I hope my colleagues will hear me out on my hopes and visions for our department. Today I had ironed over my first not-easy challenge as dept chair with reasonable success, so I feel pretty good about this moving forward!

By the way, this year I will be teaching all of grades 7, 8, 9, 11, 12 again. I look forward to improving and refining what I did last year. :)

Work relationship tips I'll try to always abide by this year as I tread along in my new position:

  • If an issue is contentious, always talk it over in person rather than discussing it over emails. Emails escalate situations unnecessarily quickly.
  • Within 60 seconds of talking to someone, find something that you can (genuinely) praise them for; this will help them to open up to what you have to say.
  • If you do some casual "pre-talking" to people about their opinions before group meetings, you can help them to trim their thoughts down to key points, and therefore save time during the actual meeting / prevent drawn-out discussions. Most of the time people just want their detailed thoughts to be heard, but it does not have to be by the whole group.
  • In the middle of mediating a conflict, giving someone recognition for something that they do well will help to immediately cool the situation.
  • Ultimately, if you have to make a decision that is unpopular, you should explain the reasoning behind it and model your conviction in action.
  • Early planning and specific, timely communication will both help to avoid avoidable conflicts.
  • My personal relationship with IT, admin, facilities, etc. will have a bearing on my department's relationship with them!! 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My SE Asia Solo Trip! (Part 3: Kuala Lumpur and Singapore)

The decision to fly from Saigon to Kuala Lumpur was a strategic one. I knew that I had to fly out of Singapore (back to Berlin) on August 13, and being a generally cautious/over-early person for flights, I knew I needed to be in Singapore at least a few days early to avoid any last-minute rushing-over-by-land-transport issues. Flying to KL a couple of days before that allows me the flexibility of looking around KL and then casually taking a train or bus to Singapore.

Both in Singapore and in KL I had friends to host me at their homes. It was quite a big contrast in experience, however, despite people having told me that the two cities are similar. In Singapore, my hostess was a friend from college and a native Singaporean, so she regaled me with stories of the island's history, its current politics, and everything in between. She had offered to let me stay at her place, but when I showed up I discovered to my surprise that she still lives with her parents (a very typical Singaporean living situation, as it turns out, because space is a premium), and my room was actually right next to where her parents slept, so I felt pretty bad about imposing upon her whole family!! Anyway, she and her friends took me out to dine at the local spots, showing me the Singaporean way of "food-hopping" during the same meal in order to catch various local foods at the most delicious locations that sell them. (This is real commitment to eating, I think, considering that we had to get into a car in between each location in order to drive to the next place!) Her friends were a friendly and very easy-going bunch, and they tried to introduce me to Singaporean English ("Singlish"), even though I was hopeless at understanding when they would speak Singlish very quickly to one another. :)

By the way, my friend is an example of someone who got a scholarship from a big Singaporean company to study abroad. I did not know this previously, but scholars like her (and there were at least a few of them at Cal) get all of their living expenses paid for during their stay in the U.S. as well. Between her undergrad at Cal and masters at Stanford, she said the scholarship was worth about 400,000 Singaporean dollars! Holy smackities. In exchange, scholars commit to going back and working at that company for a number of years after graduation -- in her case, it was 6 years. But, it's really not a bad deal, considering that she still gets paid a full salary and has growth opportunities within the company because of her scholar status. Here is she and her boyfriend, who was another Singaporean scholar to the States. :) The neat thing about these guys is that they're quite Americanized -- more so than typical Singaporeans, I am sure, but after living back in Singapore for 4 to 6 years (depending on the previous commitment), they are also well-integrated back into their homeland and happy to stay there.

In Kuala Lumpur, I stayed with a former colleague who has just started a new job at an international school in the suburbs of KL, so she has been there for just over a month and has not had time to explore the city. On the web I read a lot of conflicting suggestions of what to do in KL, so in the end I just randomly roamed around and enjoyed the city. I did a fair amount of window-shopping, but I also enjoyed their bustling Chinatown, checked out their Central Market from the 1800s, saw their proud Twin Towers, and went up to the Batu Caves with the small but nice Hindu temples. Some of the Hindu statues were huge! And, they were all very colorful.

Here are some other random pictures from KL's Chinatown, which becomes packed with tourists after dark.

KL's colorful street art:

A necklace in a gold shop that simply made me laugh out loud (those are little piglets hanging off of mama pig):

A sign on the elevated train that signals this train car is for women only (probably to protect Muslim women from touching men during rush hour):

And, their famous Twin Towers!

I even had a great reflexology foot massage in Chinatown, which bordered on pain because I requested their "normal strength" and Malaysians like their massages STRONG, apparently! I also took their public busses back to my friend's place in the suburbs, which was an experience in and of itself. The bus went from the urban areas of the city to windy country roads, where there are shacks along the street but you can still see tall metropolitan buildings in the background, and then to really nice suburbs with high-rise apartments with fancy pools. I think KL is an interesting place for a short visit, because it's not yet super modernized. It's going to take some time for them to update their transportation infrastructure, so it was fun to see a city in progress like that.

In Singapore, my focus was all about the food. There are popular hawker centers (food courts) all over the city, where you can order food from various stalls and sit with your friends at numbered tables. Food is payable upon delivery to the table by the stall, and this system allows you to try a bunch of different things during the same meal. (Again, that need for food variety is very Singaporean!) Each meal averages out to be only about 3 USD per person, and the food is soooo-damned-good! My friend took me to Chomp Chomp hawker center, which had a great vibe.

I went by myself to Maxwell hawker center in the Singaporean Chinatown, and to another Hawker Center at "Block 51" on the Old Airport Road. The last one is my favorite! They had amazing chicken rice, which is a dish typical of Singapore; they cook rice using chicken broth, and then serve it with cut-up chicken and hot sauce. When you eat it, the entire dish oozes with flavor, especially the broth-cooked rice. These stalls are so popular that they simply close mid-afternoon after serving up all the chicken and rice prepared previously.

At the Old Airport Road hawker center, there is also a silky tofu dessert stall that is quite famous; the few times I went there, every time, no matter what time of the day/night, there is ALWAYS a line at this stall! People line up to order about 25 of their tofu desserts at a time, to eat and to take home. It is good and silky smooth though.

In the Singaporean Chinatown, I ate foods that I had forgotten even existed, like hand-made Sechuan "Lian Fung" or spicy cold slippery noodles, and I also drank super refreshing sweetened winter-melon tea (available only in SE Asia, sadly).

While in Singapore, I went back to Din Tai Fung, which is a posh Asian soup dumplings chain that you can really only find in SE Asia and Los Angeles. (The one in Los Angeles is not as good, I don't think. I also went to the Din Tai Fung in KL, and that was good!) I am posting the photos so you Chinese people can appreciate this. SO FREAKIN' GOOD! You just cannot get soup dumplings like this in Berlin, even though I think the hole-in-the-wall soup dumpling restaurants that my parents took me to in Shanghai are cheaper and better-tasting than Din Tai Fung.

All in all, I was too happy to wrap up my visit with fine Asian dining. I don't have pictures of the rest of the amazing foods I had tried in Singapore, but I assure you that if Asian food is your thing, Singapore is well worth a visit at some point, simply for its culinary pleasures. It is the multi-cultural hub of SE Asia, that is for sure. And, it's clean and beautiful to walk around in! Here are a few more pics of the city proper:

And, did I mention that you can get a fish massage there? (It freaked me out to think about the fish nibbling on my feet though, so I kept kicking the water non-stop.)

The country is so modern that even their airport bathrooms have touch-screen surveys. :)

Overall, what a joy it was to travel solo through Asia!! I loved every part of it. If you're single, I cannot recommend anything more. GO TRAVELING, and GO ALONE!!! You will grow from it (especially if you go extendedly, more than a few months), and you will meet so many unexpected people, learn to really listen to their stories, and you will have completely random experiences that you could cherish for years to come. Every single person I've met who has been traveling solo for over a few months has said that this was an investment in themselves, and a very worthwhile one that has simply changed them for the better. So, if you are thinking about this, take a risk and just go!!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My SE Asia Solo Trip! (Part 2: Vietnam)

From Bangkok I flew into Hanoi, and I have to say that my first impression of Vietnamese people was already great! Even at the BKK airport, I observed that the ladies were all wearing skirts (reminiscent of Barcelona) and the guys were all very talkative and jolly while waiting for our flight. When I got into my hostel in Hanoi, the owner invited me to family-styled dinner the next day, and was extremely helpful with setting me up with a self-guided walking tour map of the city, telling me where the train station was, and recommending a cruise for Halong Bay. The receptionists I had at the hostel were very cheeky (in a good way), and it was a fun first intro to local Vietnamese people.

Some obligatory tourist pictures from Hanoi:

The city of Hanoi has always held my curiosity, because one of my high school friends who had set out traveling/volunteering through SE Asia had decided to stay there for more than a year. I could only describe the city as vibrant and crazy. The sidewalks are treacherous; there are numerous motorbikes haphazardly parked on the sidewalks, and the pavement would be randomly missing entire chunks of tiles and having dirt and rocks sticking out of the ground. I tripped several times walking along while admiring window displays, before I realized that if I didn't start looking down, I could actually hurt myself walking! Sometimes, randomly you would also see motorbikes riding on the sidewalk (god knows why), and they would honk at you because you're in their way. On the sides of the streets, there are many places to eat and drink, and very uniquely, people sit on tiny stools, very close to the ground, when they stop in these street food establishments. During my daytime roaming I thought it didn't look that comfortable, but at night when I headed out with some other travelers from my hostel, it was actually really fun to sit on the little stools on the curb, only inches away from heavy traffic, and drinking their delicious local brew (costing 10000 VND, or 50 cents USD) in front of one of the mini-mart type of stores. It was actually weird to see full-out pubs in Hanoi, because I think those cater to the Western travelers. At the stools places, a typical "table" shared by multiple people is another small stool; only when we went across the street to grab a second drink did we get upgraded to a low plastic table (still low to the ground, but bigger in area).

After a day in Hanoi, I headed off to a two-day cruise in Halong Bay. I feel that I should mention that I went with a very budget cruise called Fantasea, and had an absolutely terrific time.

Beforehand, I had read sosoSO many things online about choosing a Halong Bay cruise from the many, and in the end I just went with my hostel's recommendation. It was for the best, because apparently all the young and single and fun people decided to choose the same cruise (we are all cheap -- cheaper than people traveling with their families, anyway), and together we had a fantastic time aboard. On the first day, we went to a cheesy cave, canoed in the ocean, hiked a bit, swam, and returned to the boat to enjoy the sunset and have yummy dinner.

THE FOOD WAS AMAZING! And the cruise boat rooms had hot showers and real bathrooms; more than I could have hoped for considering it was a budget cruise. That night, we played a fun drinking game called Ring of Fire; since we were all from different countries, it was half in English and half in Danish, and all parts crazy. The next morning, my roommate and I rose up early to do yoga on the deck at sunrise, and it was sooo relaxing! What an amazing experience to be able to see those beautiful islands both at dusk and dawn.

Here, by the way, is a picture representing the sweltering heat of Halong Bay; the "manly" boys from Denmark decided to cave in and buy fans; I had been using a fan which I collected for free in Singapore throughout my trip, and believe me -- in 35 or more degrees of stifling heat (Celsius), you are grateful to have even an ugly tourist fan to use.

After Halong Bay, I took a night train from Hanoi (in the north) to Hoi An (in the middle of the country), that lasted about 14 hours. I was relieved that there were no bed bugs on this train, because I had heard some horror stories from fellow travelers about finding hundreds of bed bugs in the seams of their train mattresses, and I was pretty anxious about this. But, the train I took was great and seemed clean, and there was even a flushable toilet and hot water on board! Once I got to Danang (which is where the train stops), it was a bit of an adventure finding the local bus that would take me to Hoi An. I learned to sign "bus" by drawing a big rectangle and (more importantly) signalling a wide steering wheel. After signing to a few people and writing down "Bus to Hoi An" on a sheet of paper, I managed to find my way to the bus stop (unlike my unlucky Spanish friend, who arrived a day later and was taken for a ride by a motorbike taxi, taken to the middle of nowhere, running into "a mafia guy", and eventually forcing her to pay to go all the way on the motorbike to Hoi An).

I had no idea what to expect in Hoi An when I arrived, but I learned during my short stay there that: It has a nice beach, "the nicest in Vietnam." I went to the beach and thought it was OK. Hoi An has amazing shopping, as I can attest to personally. Westerners flock there to get clothes tailored, apparently, because it has over 600 tailors in town, and some of them (the recommended ones) can make very nice suits for very cheap. I will say that I did not know this going in, but I noticed immediately that each store only has one size for each dress, and if it doesn't fit you perfectly, they offer to make another one to size, for the same price, overnight. A dress runs typically 25 USD, even though you can get it a bit cheaper if you bargain. I bought 3 dresses in Hoi An (I couldn't help it; the shopping was too good). Two of them I am supremely happy with, and one of them not so happy with. What this means is that tailors and shops can differ substantially in quality, and even with multiple fittings prior to pickup, it's still a hit-or-miss when it comes to quality and fit. But, if you can get the right stuff (ie. I had a work dress made, of nice material and design and looks "formal", for 25 USD), it can be very worth it. I also bought some rice-paper paintings and a vintage Vietnamese propaganda poster home.

Hoi An looks something like this, historical, bustling, and quaint:

Speaking of which, in Hoi An I started to learn about the horrible things Americans did during the Vietnam War (besides Agent Orange). In Hoi An I took an amazing bike tour of 3 islands nearby (see pictures below), and because there were only 2 of us on the tour, the tour guide opened up and told us all kinds of things about herself and Vietnam. One of the horrible things I learned is that because American soldiers used to rape Vietnamese women, the old ladies you see today with very black teeth are actually ladies who used very strong chemicals to darken their teeth in order to look unattractive and to protect themselves. Unfortunately, the chemicals stain permanently. Also, in the mountains near Hoi An there were hundreds of land mines, up until 3 years ago when the Vietnamese government finally went in and cleared them all. Up until then, about once a year there would still be innocent deaths from the land mines. In Hoi An, there is a shop just beyond the Japanese covered bridge that sells vintage propaganda posters, and most of them say to kill Americans and to free the country of invaders. The posters were very interesting to see, because they were the other side of the war story, which we didn't learn about in school. I ended up buying a generic Communism propaganda poster that has these huge hands holding a field and machines, and at the bottom it says in Vietnamese: "Labor. Happiness. Abundance."

Hoi An also happened to have a full moon ancestor celebration during my stay there. I bought a candle to release into the canal, and you can see from a distance many floating candles, which matched the beautiful lanterns everywhere. They also lit incense for their ancestors and put them out near the trees and corners of buildings.

During my day-long bike tour to the islands, we passed by a local wedding, visited a noodle-making lady (and her pigs), and rode through ridiculously beautiful rice paddies with water buffaloes and floating bamboo bridges (which had attached toll booths, also made of bamboo!).

We also visited some people who made straw mats, seeing the process of cutting, dying the straws, and finally weaving.

And, the MOST memorably, we visited a lady who weaves circular basket boats, which back during French occupation was a way to evade taxes on boats because they didn't look like boats when the inspectors would come around. Here is me trying to row the basket boat; it is NOT EASY! The old lady made it look mad easy, but you have to row in a C formation in front of the boat, else the boat would just spin in circles instead of moving forward. When I finally finished, the cute old lady was so happy for me. :)

By the way, the basket boat has an advertised capacity of 3 people. But, as it turns out, that probably means 3 small Vietnamese people, and the tour guide said that one time a huge European man had gotten into the boat, and as soon as he sat down, the boat sank so much that it was barely above the water line. As he rowed, water started to come in over the brim, and the boat started to sink halfway through the stream. That's both tragic and funny; never judge yourself by Vietnamese capacity standards, I guess!

All in all, it was a glorious day. We also visited another pearl-inlaying workshop, an ice-making shop, and a fisherman boat-building workshop. It was all very interesting to see how this little community self-sustains in their traditional way of life! And, from that day I made a very lovely friend Tara, whom I hung out with the next morning as well.

My last morning in Hoi An was another early one; I went to check out a Cham temple in the mountains at 5am. We were able to see a gorgeous sunrise en route, and the ruins were empty except for our mini bus. (There are not that many people so eager to wake up so early, I see.) Our tour guide was fantastic -- enthusiastic, funny as hell, and full of knowledge. He kept pointing things out and was genuinely infectious in his joy for the work. He also kept saying, "Same same," which is adorable. (Vietnamese people I guess have this running joke that things are "Same same" when they are in fact totally different. For example, "Guess what my favorite animal is." "Tigers?" "No, hippos. But same same.") It was a very lovely way to wrap up my stay in Hoi An!

After Hoi An, I made a decision to take a night bus to Saigon (aka. Ho Chi Minh City, but Saigon is easier for me to type and say, so I'll stick to that), because I didn't want to press my luck with the bed bugs aboard sleeper trains. Well, these sleeper busses are quite a sight; there are 2 height levels, and 3 rows of beds that recline all the way down. The seats are of plastic cover, so it's less likely to be bed bug-infested, I guess. The ride is quite bumpy, as the busses drive only on local roads (like all Asian long-distance busses I took). Because there are lots of backpackers on these trains, mixed with locals, it has an interesting vibe. As the busses I've taken before, they make pit stops for food and bathroom about every 6 hours, so it's a good idea not to drink too much water if you have a small bladder like me. On the bus, I saw another sunrise, but otherwise it was not very exciting. I think from Hoi An to Saigon was 23 hours, broken up into two legs. (Only I and two other Brits on my bus did both legs consecutively. Most other sane people hopped off at Na Trung or something, for the beach.)

Once in Saigon, I only had 2.5 days. I really wanted to go to the Mekong Delta (a big mistake in hindsight), so I booked a two-day tour to the Mekong, and booked a half-day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. After having come from the north, I was sorely disappointed that the Mekong Delta tour was so touristy -- there were like 50 to 100 tourists at every stop, and every 30 minutes they were asking us to buy stuff. Otherwise, what we saw could have been quite cool. (Visiting a bee far, seeing how coconut candy is made, being rowed in a boat through a jungle canal, and eating tropical fruits.)

The best part was when we visited, on Day 2, a Vietnamese floating market. After having been to Bangkok, I was particularly curious how this one would differ. IT WAS TOTALLY DIFFERENT! The floating market in the Mekong Delta is actually a wholesaler produce market, and they signify what they sell by sticking one of their products on the top of a long pole and hoisting it up. I got to hang out with an awesome elderly Australian lady for the day; she has traveled the world and was setting out on a 5-month journey, mostly solo. We caved into temptations and bought a fresh pineapple to share, and it was delicious right off the cob.

On Day 2, we also visited a noodle making "factory", which is a much larger-scaled operation than the little noodle-maker we had seen on the bike tour.

When we walked through a local market, we were keeping our eyes peeled for opportunities to try eating a snake, but when we did eventually find them, there didn't seem to be a way to cook them on the spot! When Geoff heard this story, he said that 10 years ago when he took a bus from Laos to China, there was a man next to him carrying a bucket of these water snakes for the entire trip. Amazing.

And, on my last day in Saigon, I had a most excellent visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, during which I asked the tour guide lots of questions about the Vietnam War, and learned that it is going to take Vietnam over 100 years to clean up Agent Orange, if each year it spends 100 million USD in that effort. It's just so sad. We went to a handicapped handicraft workshop, similar to many others around the country, where the government trains disabled people (many of them are results of Agent Orange) to do one step in creating a handicraft that can be sold. To see how the Vietnamese government is trying to help, to know that the American government is responsible for some of these people's physical conditions, and to get an opportunity to buy their handicraft, was something I didn't anticipate going into the Cu Chi tour. I know that history is always told on two sides, but I feel strongly that it is the duty of every American to go at some point to Vietnam, and to ask the difficult questions of what happened.

Here are some pictures of the tunnel, the food the Viet Congs used to eat, and the weapons on showcase there from the American side. At the Cu Chi Tunnels you can also see old booby traps that were placed inside the tunnels so that American soldiers who tried to get in would get trapped. Back then, Americans had the AK47s and machine guns and bombs, and the Vietnamese only had their brains and bamboo-made weapons. Considering this, they did amazingly well in the war! You cannot help but admire their cleverness and resourcefulness when you see the remains of what they made.

At the Cu Chi Tunnels, the tour guide told me that the Vietnamese version of the story is that Americans went in and started the war, due to fears of the domino effect of communism. They say that there was never a full division of North/South Vietnam, much less a civil war, until the Americans went in to set up a puppet government in the South. Even in the South, Viet Congs (communist sympathizers) were about 40% of the population, and the Americans bombed their villages (for example, the area near the Cu Chi Tunnels) daily, and guillotines were used to publicly execute some people who were suspected of being Viet Congs. Living in Germany and thinking about how the U.S. had handled the Vietnamese communist politics very differently from how it had handled the German communist politics during the Cold War, I feel the palpable differences between where those countries are today. I feel strongly that as Americans we are responsible for going to Vietnam to get a local version of the story (whether or not you think it is "true"), because they still refer to us as "The Enemy" when they talk about the past, and it is amazing that they say there is forgiveness and "now everything is OK...", because if someone came over to the U.S. and dumped toxic chemicals all over our land, I can tell you that in 30 years things will not be OK with that country. So, if you get a chance, go to Vietnam, because when they talk about how they felt about us 20 or 30 years ago, you can easily imagine that that might be how Iraqis and Afghans feel about us today.

In the end, I decided that I really loved the Vietnamese people. Everyone I met was so absolutely great and genuine, and they are obviously a very industrious people. One of the tour guides told me that Vietnamese people work 16 hours a day, 360 days a year. I don't doubt it, as you can see shops still open till about midnight, and if you get up early in the morning, they're already up and about. If you want to go to Vietnam, go now before their country gets overrun and spoiled by tourists. I came home full of stories about Vietnam, and I told Geoff that together we have to go back at some point to this absolutely gorgeous country!!!

Next: On to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore!