Thursday, May 30, 2013

Day Chin

Today we got back to our typical schedule with the morning hotel buffet and a bus ride to UEF.  The university events of the day included an abbreviated culture lecture followed by language class.  I love learning about Vietnamese culture because it is so SO different that what we're used to in the states and language class is always fun as we all continue to struggle with pronunciating these strange letter combinations and tones. 

Lunch at the norm! :)

After lunch we had a quick company vist to Navibank.  The presentation given by the company representative on this visit was much different than the others we've been on because the presenter didn't speak English!  There was a translator, but it was still crazy to hear the entire presentation in Vietnamese.

That was all we had planned for the day so we headed back to the hotel, changed out of our business casjh, and hit the town!  We weren't out for long, but today Brooke and I were in need of some Starbucks.  I don't really miss home yet, but I do miss Starbucks...that's pathetic.  We were hoping that since everything is so cheap here Starbucks would be as well!  Nope.  Same price :( but same taste too :)!  We sipped on these real slowly and enjoyed every drop of the coffee and every second of being in by far the coolest Starbucks I've ever been in.

We've all been itching for some Western food so tonight we planned on going to an Italian restaurant called Ciao Bella but when we got there it was closed for renovations.  Instead of taking a cab back to the hotel to find a new dining spot then another cab out to wherever we chose, we decided to just walk around the area to see what we could find.  The group ended up splitting in two and we took different directions.  I feel bad for the kids in the other grop because we stumbled upon another Italian restaurant that was so good.  I had spinach and ricotta ravioli that tasted just like the homemade ravioli my great aunt makes back home.  Best dinner yet (maybe, all the food here is pretty incredible)!

Day Muoi

So today is day ten already!  You can guess how it started so I'll spare you the details of my morning.  No UEF today because we had two company visits (the last two of the entire trip).  

Our first visit was to Saigon Newport Corporation.  Our presenter was a Naval officer as the company is government owned and run by the Vietnam navy.  I was worried that he may be boring and stiff, but he was actually really funny and spoke great English.  The company itself seems to control most of the importing and exporting of Vietnam more specifically the importing and exporting of goods by ship and truck.  The final part of the visit was a tour of the facilities that ended at the top of the control tower.  Here you could see everything from the ships coming in, the goods stacked up, and the Ho Chi Minh City skyline. 

New place for lunch today!  It was a beautiful outdoor restaurant with ponds and walkways to separate eating areas.  The food was pretty good too!!

This afternoon we went to another real estate company, but it was nothing like Phu My Hung. Instead it was basically your classic apartment complex with the basics and a nice pool.  They showed us around the grounds and then inside one of the traditional smaller three bedroom apartments followed by a journey 26 floors up to the penthouse suite which was unfinished but still AMAZING with incredible views.

Tonight for dinner we wanted some more western food so we did some research and found a restaurant called Zest with hundreds of great reviews and a five star rating so we were pumped to eat there.  Upon our arrival at peak dinner time we couldn't help but notice that we were the only people in the restaurant...two floors of tables and we were literally the only ones.  We ignored that fact and continued with night at Zest.  After we ordered our food a man who seemed to be the manager asked if they could take pictures of us with our meals for their Facebook page.  How could we say no to that?  We ate, gave them our contact information, and entitled our evening "The Gang goes to Zest.". The food wasn't incredible, the atmosphere wasn't great per say, but this dinner was too fun.  We were laughing the entire time :)!

Day Tam

Today was a relaxing day.  After breakfast at the hotel, we all met up and rode to a different UEF campus.  This campus was closer to the hotel than the one we typically go to which was nice because we didn't have to spend as much time on the bus.  Here we just brushed up on some Vietnmese in language class for an hour and each had a short, 3 question quiz that was pretty much a no brainer at this point.  We don't know much Vietnamese, but what we have learned seems to be sticking with us which is cool.

After language class we took a bus tour of Ho Chi Minh City.  We made a few stops on this tour, but the coolest place we visited was the Reunification Palace which was the Presidential Palace where Ho Chi Minh lived.  There weren't any tours ready when we arrived so we were allowed to explore the palace on our own which I prefer.  After walking through the four-story palace and soaking up the beautiful views of the city on the rooftop deck, I stood in front of a fan for about 15 minutes to try to cool of as I waited for the rest of our group to be done.  Not only was this the most interesting stop on the tour, but it was also the last so we headed back to the hotel to have lunch.

We were all excited for this afternoon because we were finally going shopping!  On the way to the first market (a tradtional Vietnamese market in Chinatown) we stopped at a beautiful old Chinese temple.  The architecture was incredible and the hand carvings that decorated the walls were amazing.  After another quick bus ride we arrived at the market.  We walked in and were overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that was jammed into the space.  It was literally piles and piles of fabric, shoes, hats, motorbike helmets, food...basically anything you would ever need to live in Vietnam.  The aisles were so skinny and it was so crowded!  It was a cool experience to walk around, but it was also a little too much for the group so we ended up leaving early.  Still in the mood to shop, however, a few of us got dropped off at the more touristy market on the way back to the hotel.  Here we were able to pick up some of our souvenirs by bargaining in Vietnamese with some vendors.  

Following the short cab ride back to the Victory I took a dip in the pool and got ready for dinner.  We went to a "French" restaurant called TiTi where I had ostrich with barbecue sauce and french fries.  It sure wasn't French food as I know it, but it was delicious! 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Day Bay

Another early day today that began with caphe sua da.  Then we took a taxi from the hotel over to the Saigon River and hopped on a hydrofoil to take us to the South China Sea for a hike followed by a day at the beach.  

When we arrived, we were surrounded by sea and mountains and on these mountains were statues of figures from all different kinds of religions.  There were a few different buddhas, Mary (I think), and definitely Jesus.  Our hike was a 1000 step trek to the large Jesus statue that was located about halfway up the mountain.  The walk was beautiful and as we got higher the surrounding view got better and better.  After reaching the statue and walking around for a while we headed back down for lunch.

The food at lunch was good and the restaurant had a beautiful view.  We ate the usual kinds of food:  beef, chicken, and shrimp then headed for the beach.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect because people kept saying the beach was "alright" and apparently not nearly as beautiful as the other beaches of Vietnam, but it was amazing.  Blue waters and white sand beaches surrounded by mountains...I can't think of anything much more scenic than that.  The water was also warmer than most of the showers I get which was a definite change up from the icy Pacific waters I've grown used to.  This in combination with the fact that it was the usual 100 degrees outside led us all to swimming literally the entire time we were there.  

We headed back to the city (again on the hydrofoil), regrouped back at the hotel, and headed out for dinner.  We didn't have a set plan, but we ended up eating some of the best sushi I've ever had.

I didn't take this picture, but this is Vung Tau.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Day Sau

Today was the best day on this trip thus far!  We woke up nice and early to travel about an hour or so up north to the Cu Chi tunnels.  It was beyond incredible, but before I talk about the tunnels themselves, let me say something about the drive up there.  

I fell asleep for a small portion of the ride, but was awake long enough to notice the drastic changes in scenery as we moved from the densely populated, downtown Ho Chi Minh to the rural areas of Vietnam.  We've been here a week now and up to the moment we left city territories it was hard for me to imagine a war being fought here only 30 years ago.  However, the moment we entered rural Vietnam, I was overwhelmed by the similarities to the pictures I've seen from the the Vietnam War.  Essentially we were surrounded by rice paddies and dense forests.  Basically this picture plus color and minus the troops.

When I chose to come on this trip I expected to see these landscapes, but I didn't expect to see gaps in trees where bombs exploded and stuff like that.  Basically I didn't expect it to feel this real.

When we finallly arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels we watched a video that informed us a little about the history of the site.  The film was littered with anti-American propaganda.  Again, I expected to see and hear some of this, but I wasn't prepared for phrases like "traps we once used to hunt animals were now used to hunt Americans."  I cant remember exactly what any of the other especially shocking things were, but it certainly was a little weird to hear these things; the film was kind of informative, but mostly shocking.  

Following the movie, we met our tour guide who showed us a diagram of the tunnels and explained what was done in each area of the tunnel system.  The engineering of these tunnels is truly indredible; it seems like they thought of evey possible scenario and created a solution for the potential problem.  

We started the tour and not even 30 seconds in it was time to enter the first tunnel.  They eased us in to the experience by first showing us a short tunnel with an expanded entrance.  We all went down and were shocked by the tiny spaces.  The tunnels were only a meter high so you literally had to bend in half to travel through the system.  Not only that but it was super hot and very hard to breath (not complaining, just saying).  The second tunnel we went in had the original entrance.  It was so small that when i entered the tunnel my hips and shoulders just fit meaning I'm just about the maximum sized person.  I had read that the tunnels were meant to be just big enough for the Vietnamese shoulders to guarantee few Americans could enter if they found the tunnels but I really didn't think it would be barely side enough for me.  This tunnel was relatively short in length too, as well as the next few tunnels we explored.  Then we came to a tunnel where a disclaimer had to be made before we chose to enter.  We were warned that there would be no chance to exit and that if we don't have the strength to make it through we should sit this one out.  Worried I would miss out on something incredible (which I would have),  I quckly followed the guide into this monstrosity.  It started off like the other tunnels, and of course it was tiny, but we soon started descending deeper and deeper into the ground and slight panic began to strike as my legs were burning from constantly squating and it became increasingly more difficult to breath.  Long story short, I cannot imagine 1. being one of the Vietnamese who lived in the tunnels or 2. being one of the American soldiers who had to enter the tunnels during the war.  After a few more tunnels our tour was over, and we were all filthy and drenched in sweat.

Despite our awful appearance we then visited a Buddhist temple that was near the Cu Chi tunnels.  As we neared the temple you could see inside where a huge bronze statue stood front and center.  I expected this statue to be a Buddha, but when I got inside I realized it was Ho Chi Minh.  It was strange to see a political figure in a religious establishment but I realize that most countries do not have separation of church and state.

Following the temple visit we sat down for lunch at a restaurant right on the Saigon river.  The food was good, but the scenery was incredible.

We headed back to the hotel to rest and relax until dinner time.  That night for dinner a few of us decided we wanted to fend for ourselves and choose a restaurant on our own.  We ended up at a place that served food from Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand so we ordered one dish from 3 of the 5 countries.  Dinner was great.

P.S.  It's so humid right now that there is condensation on the screen of my iPad.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Day Nam

Today did not start with coffee!!!  Instead it started with a stroll around the block and a nice relaxing breakfast before heading off to the university.  

This morning at the university we had our first of a series of culture classes.  The lecture was a little dry to begin with and I was seriously regretting my decision to not have some cafe sua da, but about half way through we started learning some really cool stuff.  After a short break we had a one hour language class in which we learned how to bargain; hopefully I will be able to put this to good use at the market.

Lunch at the reg.  I'm really starting to be a little weirded out by the food at this particular restaurant so I didn't eat much today.

We did not have a company visit this afternoon.  Instead we headed back to the university for some planned fun which I'm not usually about.  But it was actually fun today.  We started by breaking into four teams with both Vietnamese and American students on each team.  Our next task was to come up with a team name and "slogan" (which is what the UEF students were calling a team cheer). We let the Vietnamese students take the lead on this one and they decided our team name was "Blue Dynamite" and our slogan was "you want a piece of me, so come and get it."  Pretty awesome name, even BETTER slogan.  The first competition was a dance competition where each team had 2 minutes to come up with a 1 and a half minute long dance performance (unfortunately you can find a video of this dance on facebook).  This was followed by a series of other classic camp games.  Our team kinda sucked...but it was still so much fun.  Before leaving we had another photo shoot and were given bundles of Vietnamese junk foods for participating.

Dinner tonight was incredible!  As weird as it sounds we went to this amazing burger restaurant where I literally had the best burger I've had in my entire life.  I don't know if it was because I haven't had American food in a week, but this thing was the best.  Perfectly cooked 100% Australian beef patty, avocado, tomato, lettuce, and jalepeno all placed between two pieces of homemade dark rye bread.  Pure deliciousness!!!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Day Bonn

I'm sure you can guess how this blog is going to begin...two cups cafe sua da with our girl followed by a quest to UEF.  This morning at the university we endured a two hour lecture about the Mekong River Delta.  Some of the information was actually pretty interesting though-especially the stuff about how the current deforestation in Cambodia is affecting the farmers in Vietnam.  The lecture was followed by a language class in which we learned how to count.  Language class is getting easier to follow, but actually saying words in Vietnamese is still so difficult.

After saying good bye to the Vietnamese students for the day, we went to lunch at the outdoor shack restaurant we go to everyday.  Sometimes the food here is a little questionable to me, but today it was really good!  It seems like all we've eaten here are variations of beef, shrimp, and other sea food (of course accompanied by a side of rice).  Anyway...this restaurant has a small pond-like feature in the center of the tables stocked with shrimp that you can fish for!  We don't ever have time to do this, but for some reason our guide (kind of guide who is an adorable little 5 foot Vietnamese guy) got the idea in his head that I was dying to fish for some shrimp so he went up to a stranger and asked him if I could borrow his fishing pole.  I felt super uncomfortable because it was a stranger who paid to fish for an hour, but the restaurant was pretty amused by the white girl in business casual shrimp fishing.  I got a bite!!!!!!  But I lost the shrimp because I pulled the rod up too quickly.  :(

After lunch we rode over to Glass Egg Digital Media (the company I researched).  The ride over was a long one and the air conditioning in the bus basically wasn't working so it was ridiculously hot.  This company is a video game outsourcing company that mainly does incredible car graphics.  We met with the CEO, the CFO, and the COO of Glass Egg who gave us a briefing regarding ins and outs of the company and a tour of their workspace.  

Tonight, the students picked us up to go to dinner and karaoke.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but here you actually reserve a private room and sing and eat and whatever in your room with just your friends.  I also didn't know how much I was going to sing, but I think Brooke and I had a microphone at least 90% of the evening.  It was hilarious and so much fun!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Day Three

We knew we had a busy day ahead of us so we decided to start it off right with two cups of cafe sua da at our usjh coffee joint.  I'm addicted to the coffee here and am really starting to develop a dependence on caffeine because of it (which is why I had two or three more glasses of it before 4 o'clock).

Our official day began with two company visits:  one to VSIP (the Vietnam Singapore Industrial Park) and one to II-VI (a manufacturing company that specializes in optics and is located within the industrial park).  We spent the entire morning learning about the VSIP and II-VI, and taking tours of two of the II-VI factories.  

Our "tour guide" was the chief engineer of II-VI in Vietnam, and an ex-pat of the United States which gave us the opportunity to ask a lot of questions about how the company rules and regulations compare to a United States company.  He talked a lot about how these rules are written to protect the worker so it makes it essentially impossible for him to be able to terminate one of his employees.  For example, Vietnamese workers are allowed to have five no call/no shows per month without being fired which is a problem when they all decide not to go into work on the same day.  

We had lunch at a new place today.  It was a Chinese restaurant-the first I've been without General Tso's as the first menu item which was when I knew the food would be nothing like the Chinese food back in Pittsburgh.  It was delicioso! :)

After lunch we ventured to the Eastern International University which is a school that is funded by VSIP.  The students that attended this school had the opportunity to study business, engineering, or nursing. Three of the students there gave us overviews of their programs.  One of the students had an Australian accent when she spoke English because her language instructor is from Australia which I never realized could happen.  I was mind blown!!!  Next we played a game where the American students would explain an American holiday to the Vietnamese students to draw and vice versa.  Our holidays seemed absolutely absurd compared to theirs, but it was really fun.  Last, but certainly not least, we took pictures with the students which was their favorite part.  The students here are such cuties!!!  I'm gonna miss them so much.

That night we decided to explore the city on our own which basically led to us going to the more westernized Vietnamese restaurants and destinations, but it was still so much fun.

I havent posted any pictures yet because they are all on my camera, but here is a glimpse of the Ho Chi Minh motorbike traffic I talked about on day one.  CRAZY!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Day Two

Eating breakfast in the window seat of our hotel during rush hour is incredible.  I can't help but stare at the crazy motor bike congestion, and the Vietnamese on the bikes are equally infatuated by us.  However, it's only day number two and we're gradually getting used to all the attention we're getting.  After breakfast we went to what has already become our usual coffee place, but today we could say hello and goodbye in Vietnamese which really surprised the cart owner because most visitors to this country don't learn any of the language.  

Off to UEF we went for a presentation regarding the economics of Ho Chi Minh which taught us about the past, present, and hopeful future of this region.  I particularly found it interesting to see how the government plans to decrease motor bike traffic and increase the use of public transportation.  

We had our first company visit today.  It was to a company called Phu My Hung which is located in the very newly developed South Saigon region.  The company has done incredible things in the few years it has been in business as it has completely transformed acres and acres of soggy marshland into one of the wealthiest parts of Ho Chi Minh.  Company officials gave us a briefing about how the company conducts their business and the future of Phu My Hung which was surprisingly unpredictable (at least their future development in Vietnam) because of the uncertainty in government actions when the land they are developing is turned back over to the government of Vietnam in just 30 years.  Following the briefing, we took a short tour around some parts of South Saigon where Phu My Hung has completed a few of their projects then headed back to hotel for the day.

It's hard to believe, but today was both more hot and more humid than it was yesterday so the pool was the first thing everyone did when we got back to the hotel.  I cut my pool time short to walk around the city, and then we met up with the Vietnamese students for dinner.  We went to a roof top Vietnamese barbeque restaurant right in the heart of Ho Chi Minh where we ate goat, beef, and shrimp.  The coolest part about it was that the food was brought to the table raw and we cooked it ourselves, but the most shocking part was that the shrimp (which were skewered) were still alive when the waiters brought them out!!!  However, once I got over the initial shock, I ate the shrimp and it was easily the best I've ever had.

We're doing so much fun stuff here, but at the same time I'm learning so much.  I did a lot of background reading before this trip about Vietnamese culture and beliefs, but I didn't understand what I read until I started experiencing it first hand.  That's all for today.  Xin chao!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Day One

Today started at 6 am with a stroll to the co-op (basically a super wal-mart) in 90 degree weather and 94% humidity.  Walking down a street in Ho Chi Minh is like nothing I've experienced before.  The streets are overflowing with motorbikes going all different directions-some with 3 or 4 people piled on them.  There are stop lights at every corner, but if you don't feel like waiting on one it seems like the normal thing to do is just ride right up onto the side walk and continue your journey.  

After that, we headed to the University of Economics and Finance.  The students there greeted us with dancing and presents, and it was so exciting to see what a university is like here.  After a few introductions, and some embarrassing dancing on my behalf, we headed off to our first language class. Compared to Vietnamese, English is a piece of cake.  Today we covered the very basics like vowel sounds, consonant sounds, "Hello, my name is...", and "Good-bye, see you later."  It took us an entire hour to learn these two sentences and I still can't say them correctly!

By now it was lunch time so we left the university, went to an outdoor restaurant just a little down the road, and back to the hotel for a quick wardrobe change to get ready for our trip to the United States consulate.  I wasn't sure what to expect of this "field trip", but ended up learning a lot about the government relations between the US and Vietnam.

The jet-lag started to really kick in around 4 pm so we took a quick dip in the hotel pool before heading to dinner at Wrap and Roll.  I have never been served so much food in my life.  I was pretty full by the time the fourth or fifth plate of wraps and rolls came out, but it just kept on coming so we kept on eating.  

I was fighting falling asleep the entire bus ride back to the hotel and had full intentions of blogging and heading to bed, but the Vietnamese students met us at the hotel with their motor bikes and sleeping was no longer an option.  I hopped on a bike for the first time and into the congested streets of Ho Chi Minh City.  IT WAS SO MUCH FUN!!!!  We took a trip around the block before sitting down and getting to know each other better over some ice cream.  Now we're back at the hotel and I'm about to head to bed.  Can't wait to see even more tomorrow!