I spent 2021 in Vietnam as an English teacher, and this is the journal I kept to update people on my life. I am keeping it up as a reference for the memories.
Getting to Vietnam was an adventure in itself. To even pass the boarding gate to a Vietnam-bound plane required (and still does at time of writing) a negative result on a RT-PCR test for COVID-19, taken within 72 hours of arrival. I presented this in JFK Airport and went through security as normal. On boarding the plane I was, in a real cultural sense, already out of the United States, with Korean on all of the signs and announcements and a Korean menu for in-flight meals. For lunch I had bibimbap, Korean rice with vegetables and pickled radish. I received gochujang (Korean hot sauce) in a toothpaste-like tube and made a serious mental note not to mix that up with the actual toothpaste. The plane headed northwest over Alaska and Russia and landed in Incheon, South Korea. Here I went through multiple temperature checks, some manned and some automated. (Look at this face-recognizing camera eye and wait for it to give you the green light, then move on.) Then, we landed in Hanoi, went through customs, and were met by the agents who would bring us to quarantine.
Before heading to quarantine I was given full-body personal protective equipment: full-body jumpsuit, slip covers for my shoes, gloves, and goggles. When I was dressed, I was brought across the parking lot to a van which drove me and another passenger to the quarantine hotel. I learned my room number from a posted sign and went up to my room with no further contact. There I disposed of my PPE in a yellow bag reserved for possibly COVID-contaminated items, and set it outside. I changed, showered, and, having travelled for 24 hours straight at this point, fell right asleep. It would not help my jet lag, which was the worst I have ever experienced; three or four days of totally disturbed sleep, unable to fall asleep at night or stay awake during the day, and no real reason or motivation to try. (Really, some motivation not to try, all of my contacts being far off my time zone.) Quarantine was thorough. I was allowed out of my room only the few steps across the hall to get, once a day: drinking water (tap water in Vietnam is not potable), tea (jasmine!), coffee, and toiletries. Three times a day: meals. Always a good quantity of rice along with a rotating menu of Vietnamese fare including octopus, dragonfruit, and plenty of vegetables. I will admit that sometimes I contented myself with just the rice. However, two times during quarantine we had phở for breakfast, which is actually very good. In about the second week of quarantine I got to people-watching; the buildings outside were nondescript and the sky predominantly grey, but I started to see some of the same people out on their roofs, doing repairs, tending flowers, hanging out laundry. Aside from them there was teacher training and a lot of YouTube for entertainment.
I forgot when exactly I was supposed to leave quarantine. It was about 9 at night when I got the call; I hadn't really unpacked much so it didn't take long to get down to the lobby. I received my quarantine completion letter (which the Company had reminded me in no uncertain terms NOT TO LOSE) and got a taxi ride to a non-quarantine hotel. On the way I got my first real sense of the urban Vietnamese streets; thick traffic of motorbikes, propaganda with plenty of communist imagery on the signposts, tiny shops all around. I spotted a stall selling nước mía, sugarcane juice, on the way in. Right after checking into the hotel I went back out on the street and bought myself a cup in celebration of having arrived. Nước mía is a bright green, very sweet and somewhat grassy drink that is very often fresh-pressed through a pair of metal rollers. Places that sell it often have a pile of thoroughly crushed sugarcane out front, not far from the juicer.
In the morning I Zoomed into one more day of training in the morning, and the minute it finished I snapped my computer closed and headed out to see as much of Hanoi as I could before the day was out. I centered my exploration on Ngọc Sơn Temple, a pagoda on an island in the middle of a small lake. The temple serves the local Vietnamese religion; people bring incense to a large burner in front of the building, and inside are piles of food offerings. After this I walked around the lake and looked for a place to sit and use WiFi for a while. I found The Note Café, a coffee shop literally covered in multicolored sticky notes left by travelers through the café. I found notes in English, German, French, Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic, and more, with all kinds of cute and friendly messages. I left my own contribution in Latin, and had cà phê sữa đá, the famous Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk. My experience with coffee here has been much better than in the US; here it is flavorful and not overly bitter at all. I left The Note and did some more exploring around the area, and then found dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant overlooking the lake. I had ginger stewed duck, which was delicious, though bony and difficult to eat with chopsticks. I took a bicycle taxi home, sitting in the covered rear car while the driver pedaled through the chaotic streets in front.
The next day I left Hanoi for Ho Chi Minh City, where began a fairly hectic three days of apartment hunting. I found a second floor apartment near my school placement in Gò Vấp District, a fairly un-Anglicized area when compared to central areas like Districts 1, 3, and Binh Thanh.
There was quite a lot of paperwork to be done in the early days, from contract signing to background checks and health insurance. This meant, however, that I had a lot of excuses to explore the busy center of Ho Chi Minh City. District 1 is the source of all the major tourist images of HCMC: Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office are joined via Nguyễn Huệ Walking Street to Bitexco Financial Tower and the Sàigòn River. All along here you can find every kind of restaurant and café; Vietnamese, American, Japanese, et cetera, pressed in alongside international brands and multiple English schools. The area provides some great scenery and plenty of places to sit out and drink tea. Just make sure you find a café that provides you one permanent WiFi password; some places will give you a one-hour access code on your receipt or make you watch periodic ads.
Because of the extremely thorough response that has kept Vietnam nearly COVID-free, schools were closed for several days as I settled in. This allowed me to go hiking with a group I found on Facebook. Dinh Mountain is about two hours outside HCMC; the land is completely flat until the mountain projects suddenly up out of the ground, unlike the rolling landscape of New Hampshire. The hike itself takes about half a day, up a rocky slope and through bamboo forest. At the base of the mountain there are a number of wooden platforms with canopies for shade, surrounding a waterfall of stacked rock pools. We started early in the morning and were back down for lunch.
In March we were finally able to get into the classroom after a period of online teaching. Only one thing needs to be said about this: Teaching English to adults online can be very convenient and rewarding. Teaching English to small children online should only be attempted when there is no other option. As to the classroom life: I was smart and picked an apartment what lies a healthy half hour walk away from my center, so I've had plenty of opportunity to explore my street. Anyone looking for street food is spoiled for choice; bánh mì, phở, cơm tấm (broken rice), and bánh bao (Chinese stuffed buns) are all available between my apartment and center. This is not to mention the larger restaurants and cafés: Pizza, Thai, Hong Kong, and Korean are all available. On a weeknight I like to get a bánh mì and iced chocolate to go, or sit down with pho and tra tac (sweet iced tea with kumquat). On a weekend, when I stay near the center rather than go home between morning and evening classes, I sit down with my computer in a café and get an oolong milk tea. Occasionally I get Hong Kong char siu noodles or Korean kimbap. My coworkers have also shown me other Vietnamese restaurants, where you can get a hotpot or have various meats barbecued to order: organ meats, squid, snails, etc.
Today I went to the Traditional Medicine Museum. It’s a private museum run by a company called FITO that does herbal remedies (and sells their stuff out of the small gift shop). They show you an introductory video about the principles of Vietnamese traditional medicine; a lot of it is kind of like the humoral system in that you have elements that need to be in balance, and these have their associated flavors/colors/emotions, so it was cool to see those similarities. The video did also go on a bit about how traditional & Western medicine can be used together, which is better than the “use this instead of Western medicine” take that I wondered if I’d see. I still kind of wondered if I was going to go through the rest of the museum with Sawbones glasses, but there wasn’t actually a whole lot of information about the cures themselves. It mostly focused on the artifacts; mortars & pestles, grinders, knives, traditional doctors’ clothing, etc. All of that was really cool to see and the building itself is decorated with a lot of woodcarving & traditional decoration.
In the grocery store I found some linh chi mushrooms, a traditional medicine of Vietnam! I had to do some searching of the tea section, since (1) it was on the bottom shelf (2) there was no obvious picture on the package (c) the branding was in Vietnamese, in calligraphy (which is a whole other topic; it's really interesting to see how calligraphy in a Latin alphabet is done with a Chinese-style brush). Also luckily, Google Translate was coherent enough that I was able to type out the instructions and get back something understandable. When I type Vietnamese I feel like I'm back in elementary school doing typing tests, because the accented vowels and tone markers are mostly in the number row and I can't keep track of them without a keyboard viewer. Google Translate said to "Take 7 to 10 slices of reishi mushroom, each time, put it in a kettle, pour 1 liter of water, boil for about 10 minutes, drink it instead of tea daily, very healthy". Those 'slices' look like big wood chips unless you look really hard and mentally piece the slices back together into one flat mushroom growth. They have a really nice woody, pu-erh-y smell right out of the bag, and the drink is also a dark pu-erh color once it boils. I had the first sip of it and it is very bitter. I thought that the first would be the worst of it because it was a surprise, and maybe as I drank more of it the taste would grow on me, but no, it really is just bitter all the way through. You can easily imagine being a sick Vietnamese person some centuries ago, drinking it as medicine. I can't imagine trying to choke it down at greater strength, though Wikipedia says it was traditionally "reduced to a simmer, covered, and left for 2 hours ... The process is sometimes repeated to increase the concentration." I don't think I would drink it regularly but it was certainly An Experience of the traditional medicine of Vietnam.
COVID countermeasures have been steadily tightening for a while now. I can no longer even get food delivered from restaurants. Everyone in HCMC is being encouraged to download the Y Tế HCM mobile app, which uses QR codes to register your location at public places.
According to one of my coworkers' counts, we have been out of the classroom, i.e. under some level of COVID precaution, for 12 weeks. Meanwhile, Society for Creative Anachronism events in the US are opening up. I had a feeling this would happen at some point, that I would hit a point where being at home would seem more appealing than being here. I just wish it hadn't happened right around the six month mark. Whenever I felt frustrated/culture-shocked/etc. with Vietnam I told myself that I would only decide how long to stay after 6 months. I hope that social distancing lets up by September, when we have a national holiday off work, but honestly I don't expect it. As soon as we can leave the house I intend to put myself out and find some social activities because that's the main thing keeping me missing home.
Today I got my first shot of the Sinopharm Vero Cell COVID-19 vaccine. The process was overall very streamlined and easy, even with the language barrier. My landlord signed me up and brought me the necessary paperwork, along with a supply of eggs, milk, and noodles that will stretch my meal planning for a while. He told me when my appointment was, and when the time came I went down to a hospital in walking distance from my apartment. On the way, I passed a checkpoint where drivers were stopped before heading out onto the main road leading out of the district. The hospital was not far beyond there.
The vaccination point was set up in a car dealership adjacent to the hospital. I waited along with maybe 50 other people, on socially distanced seats in a parking lot under a collapsible shade. At the head of the line I presented the paperwork from my landlord, got my blood pressure checked, received the shot, and waited in observation for any immediate side effects. Everything was over very quickly and without any issues.
Today we entered a new level of lockdown; residents are not even allowed to leave our homes to go buy food. My landlord messaged me today to ask for my grocery list so he could get food for residents. The government's goal is to have the pandemic under control in HCMC by September 15. One news article called this the 'final battle', which I really hope is going to come true. Over the entire duration of the pandemic Vietnam has now had 369,267 cases, with a total population of about 96 million. Compare that to your local numbers!
Today the lockdown groceries arrived! I received a half chicken that I had to figure out how to butcher. I got a little surprise when I opened up the package and the whole leg reached out at me, scaly foot and all! I'm wondering whether I should go figure out how to prepare and eat a chicken foot. I ate the breast tonight and I still have the leg for tomorrow. Besides that, I got potatoes, eggs, cheese, and more milk.
On the 15th, lockdown was extended through the end of the month. Nevertheless there are signs of improvement; restaurants are open for takeout again and I was recently able to get bún thịt nướng, which literally means "rice noodles (with) grilled meat". I even made a video! I have also been getting some interesting groceries delivered, many of them Korean; Korean sesame buns, which are sweet and chewy, good for breakfast; soju and makgeolli, two kinds of Korean rice wine, the latter stronger than the former; some kind of Thai-branded fish flavored chips; yet more instant shrimp noodles. In other news I have gotten my second vaccine shot, and the news is reporting that tourism may be opening to vaccinated individuals. I'm really interested to see the Củ Chi Tunnels.
I'm posting my HCMC bucket list here to remind myself of the things I have yet to see.
Today I had another COVID test. This time they brought a home test kit to my door and asked me to perform the test myself. It was an interesting experience but not a long one.
HCMC is going to "carefully reopen" from October 1! I realized recently that I never really described here the system for getting groceries delivered, which was a unique experience to this closure. First I ordered my groceries on the app Grab, the all-in-one delivery/rideshare/etc app that is widespread in Vietnam, paying with my bank card. Then I had to go pick them up; during lockdown, delivery drivers could not come directly to homes, but were expected to wait at the single gate in and out of the COVID-free 'green zone' of several alleys. This point is gated and attended by men in camouflage uniforms (soldiers? I'm not sure) who check the credentials of those going in and out. The delivery driver leaves the bag of groceries on a chair just inside the zone, which is provided for completing no-contact deliveries. Then I carry the groceries home.
The city is reopening! I went for a long walk today and ordered frog legs and congee for lunch. I know it's a trope, but they really did taste like chicken. There was a lot of extra sauce (which was only called "Singapore flavor"; deep black brown, heavy with garlic and ginger) which I mixed into the very bland congee along with some green onions. It was a nice lunch.
I had a surprisingly festive Christmas! I had been seeing Christmas decorations going up on my street for the whole week beforehand, and (American!) Christmas music playing from storefronts. On Christmas Eve I waited for the sun to go down, put on my favorite Christmas playlist and went for a walk to see the lights. Vincom Plaza had a huge Christmas tree, and the nearby (Catholic, I think) church was decked out in plenty of bright, flashing lights. One side street in particular had their own lights, and a huge Nativity scene. I feasted on delivery pizza and a big assortment box of cookies. I also developed a new cocktail based on the Cape Codder (vodka, cranberry, and lime): Equal parts soju (Korean rice wine), pomegranate juice, and cold-brewed black tea. I highly recommend it! Of course, play with the ratios depending on the soju; mine was 17% ABV.
I got my booster shot! It was carried out in the same way as the last two. This one, though, was the AstraZeneca vaccine, and it hit me like a train. Headache and shivers kept me up for a large part of the night, but once those passed I had an extremely deep, dreaming sleep until about noon. If anything, I woke up with extra energy for my students (my youngest) and I know the shot did its job!
Unrelated food notes:
Tết (Lunar New Year) has come around again, and all of HCMC is decorated for it! Nguyễn Huệ Street has been covered with a huge flower display, and nearby is a festive market with food, games, gifts, decorations, and calligraphers -- some doing custom work. The whole place has a state fair kind of atmosphere (though I wish American state fairs had calligraphers!). Everywhere there are yellow apricot blossoms, red lanterns, and bánh chưng, boiled sticky rice stuffed with mung beans and pork. I ordered a bánh chưng to try; it is large and rectangular, and sold wrapped in leaves. When unwrapped, the rice is dyed green as it has been boiled inside the leaves for eight hours. It is extremely sticky, and the pork and mung bean filling inside is thick and savory.
Unrelated to Tết, I went out and bought two big pieces of goat leather for bookbinding purposes. Holding onto a big roll of leather in one hand and the seat of a motorbike taxi in the other is... fun.
Today I left Vietnam. I made the decision months ago. Because of COVID, the company was having chronic trouble paying teachers, and when they tried to catch up on late payments they made promises that they did not keep. Repeated strikes by teachers and other staff showed no real changes. By the time I made the decision to leave, many other teachers had already left. Near the end, ten or more young kids could be on one Zoom call at the same time, which did not help teachers or students. I think I would have put up with the COVID lockdown and renewed my contract, if only I felt the company was trustworthy and respected the teachers.
It has been an exciting, fascinating, and challenging year. Despite COVID I was able to experience life and culture in HCMC while also doing plenty of work on personal projects. That isn't to say it wasn't lonely at times. Thank you to all my friends for your constant support and company over messages and calls, especially during the height of lockdown. You keep me insane! :Þ
I left via Singapore and Doha, Qatar. Changi Intl. Airport has some beautiful gardens, though the Changi Jewel and its waterfall are not available to travelers passing through. At Hamad Intl. Airport I got to see some beautiful Arabic calligraphy and also bought a box of tasty dates.
I am back home in New Hampshire now. As to what's next, in the fall I am heading for a grad program in German Translation.