Its that time of year again! The leaves have fallen, snow has dusted the ground and Christmas trees fill the neighbors windows. Oh wait, I am not in New York anymore. It's sweltering hot, motorbikes rule the road and Christmas decorations are thrown up at every major sopping center. But few locals actually celebrate it. In Vietnam, Christmas is more of a shoppers holiday and good reason to take selfies. Oddly enough the streets and malls are decorated from floor to ceiling with holiday cheer, but only 7% of Vietnam's population is catholic. Nonetheless, it is still a lot of fun. More and more kids at younger ages are being exposed to Christmas, not as a religious holiday, but as a fun day that is filled with presents and songs. So when I found out our music teacher wanted to play Christmas songs all week with his band I thought it was a perfect opportunity to show up and show some of my students what Christmas is all about... Santa!
In the blazing sun and smoke filled highways I left my house every morning decked out in a Santa suit. Bikes with children on them nearly cut me off just to wave. Not to mention it was hard to steer with my backpack as my belly. Others drove by like they've seen it all before. In fact, nothing really phases me on a motorbike anymore. #stuffonthebackofbikes.
Upon arrival, teachers all smiled and foreign staff took photos with me. It took a short while for some of the kids to come around. Once the photos started they didn't stop. A few kids snagged a video of me dressed as Santa playing basketball. Though it may not be big in their country, a lot of them will go to America or another Western country to study. If anything, the kids got a kick out of their teacher dressed as Santa. And Mr. Scott did an incredible job getting all the middle school kids to play along. Merry Christmas!!
A few weeks back I attended a professional development called learning 2 in Manila. Teachers gathered from international schools around the world to discuss the possibilities of change in the classroom. "Stop. Rethink. Change." was the mantra. It was there I first learned of a passion project or some may call it Genius hour.
I came back to HCMC, Vietnam and immediately invited my students to start a Passion Project once a week. I promised we'd spend 10-15 minutes a week working on something they love! I never really figured out exactly what the project would be, but the kids just loved the idea.
Whenever I ask my kids to do a big activity, I usually do the project too. For example, we each created a Food waste diary during our unit on the world's food supply. So this time around I was going to do the passion project also. It helps me model and establish good rapport with the kids.
I asked myself "what was my passion?" I loved making videos, I loved travelling and I loved being outdoors. I had to look real hard at my surroundings and history. I thought of my time doing construction with my brother, the massive vegetable garden I grew for 3 years at my mother's house and the landscaping I used to do for a private employer. I loved to get outside and get dirty. I thought, why not grow a garden? The benefits of a school garden are endless. Our rooftop was the perfect space that wasn't being used. Plenty of sunshine (maybe too much) and plenty of kids who would be willing to help.
When I asked these kids how many of them have planted a seed only 1/4 of them raised their hand. I was shocked. I guess this generation grew up with tech and some of them missed the planting a seed class in elementary school. At first it was a struggle to get the idea going, but word started to travel. Science got involved and GIN is planning on creating their own compost.
Students were encouraged to use recyclable bottles to start their seedlings. We planted everything from pumpkin and cucumber to Brussels sprouts and Ghost pepper. We still need to plant broccoli and spinach. Extra credit was given to kids who brought in their own potted plants (not vegetables). Once the seedlings started to grow I was receiving endless requests from the students to have class on the roof.
I just recently purchased a small amount of lumber at a ridiculous price compared to wood in the US (it was actually much more expensive here). I would have loved to find some recyclable stuff. The idea is to make an Urban Garden. This is how it begins.
A couple months back my Assistant Deputy Head asked me, "What if we did an amazing race-type field trip where the kids had to do challenges around the country. Would that be crazy?" My answer was, "Lets do it!" From there she headed the logistics and preparation until the very last day of the trip. Well done Heather (check out her blog) It truly was an incredible trip. With the assistance of EXO Adventures we were able to make it happen.
5 teams, 5 teachers, all on buses, completing physical and psychological challenges for 5 days in Central Vietnam. We produced a very basic itinerary: Fly into Hue, Travel by Bus to Lang Co and then to Hoi An, Fly back to Ho Chi Minh City from Da Nang via Vietjetair.
Everyday the kids were asking us, "Whats next?" But we didn't really know because we were involved in the game too. Surely we had an idea of in order to ensure all the safeguarding practices were met, but we didn't let the kids know what little we knew.
Teachers only encouraged the kids to make decisions, we tried to stand back as much as possible This was so difficult at some points. Once the first clue was given, students broke out in a mad dash and raced for the boats across a river to search for a former tiger and elephant fighting arena. It was a really cool first clue. The next task involved sprinting around the Hue Citadel and completing a series of riddles based on the images and stories of the past. We started to notice heated exchanges between students here and quickly gave a sportsmanship speech to settle things down. Points were tallied and at the end of the week and awards were given out (all the kids got the same award with the exception of one group who had a mid-week foot massage)
Travelling everyday was probably the most difficult job, but students quickly learned they weren't staying in one place for long. Another challenge involved high wire ropes, zip-lines and ruining up big hills. Students had to conquer their fears and work together to finish the tasks. The following day was spent on the Beach in Lang co with a series of mind bending and body twisting tasks in the sand. By this time the teams were really into it and so were the teachers!
It' hard to retell these events day by day because there were so many great things that occurred in between. Students encouraged one another, applauded other teams and showed real respect to everyone involved.
The last day in Hoi An was the final challenge. This was what closely resembled the Amazing Race!
Teams were finding clues on old bridges, interviewing foreigners, locating local dishes and eating them, and interviewing natives to Hoi An on their history. It was incredible to say the least. They all finished in high spirits.
Throughout the week EXO Adventures and our team from ISHCMC American Academy encouraged students to put together a karaoke performance. Well the kids did a great job, but it might have been the teachers that stole the show. We were a surprise act at the end and we performed "Up town funk" by Bruno Mars. I have to compliment the girls on this one for preparing and organizing our dance rehearsals. Andrew and I had a good time, but didn't really do a whole lot.
Upon reaching the airport, none of the students wanted to go home. We talked about their experiences and what they appreciated most about the journey . We only had to give out two band-aids and had one missing ID card. we didn't lose any students and no hospital visits. Mission complete. I can't wait until next year!
One of the best parts of being a teacher is that everyday is different. You never get bored of your job, your constantly busy and students always surprise you with their questions and talents. But another perk is the time off. Being in the hub of South East Asia, you can travel anywhere nearby for really cheap. I can fly round trip to Thailand for the same price of a ticket from NY to DC. Not bad hey? This time I chose Taiwan. I've been putting it off forever, because I always said someday I would work there.
After studying Chinese in Beijing for a year, I gained valuable conversational skills. But 2 + years of being away and those skills started to dwindle, much like my Spanish skills. It was so rewarding to be back in a Mandarin speaking country and refresh that ability. Surprising locals and communicating with people who may have never used English in their life is comical to say the least. There is something about living in a country that doesn't speak your native tongue. Its like each daily task is a challenge. It keeps life interesting. If you want an easy and simple life don't come to Asia. But that moment you learn a new word, or realize what something means, its like being a child all over again.
Have a look at whats going on inside my school and classroom. I absolutely love teaching! Everyday is unique and it never gets boring. The Middle School Basketball Team is undefeated and the kids are all improving their video making skills
I found a great article not too long ago about the best cafes to do work and drink coffee. I decided I'd check to see how accurate they were. The first two were the workshop and Acafe. However, I didn't stick to just one article. I also found great places on rusty compass and some other hungry man site.
Let's start with Acafe located at 27 Ngo Duc Ke, District 1. This place is tucked down a side street next to a Vietnamese school. Warning: do not go here around 5 pm. The road wasn't wide enough for this many bikes and the curb wasn't big enough to park . It was a cool place to chill if I worked nearby, but I wouldn't go out of my way to get there again. I did try a really cool method of making coffee called the "syphon." See the photos above. Not bad prices either. Coffee for 2 boiled in a "crystal ball" 125k ($7)
Next was Workers Cafe located on 15 Huynh Khuong Ninh, District 1. It's next to a Phuc long coffee in case you get lost. The doorway, if you can call it that, had some young kids in security uniforms instructing you where to put your bike. Hike up 3 flights of rickety stairs and you'll find the entrance. The staircase and walls could really use some maintenance and a paint job. One of the beauties of Vietnam is that they don't feel a touch up is necessary on old buildings. They just keep them the way they are. You'll see this a lot with the rust stained yellow buildings around the city.
Open up the doors to Workers Cafe and you'll find yourself at a cross between a bar and a science lab. The servers were in large black aprons that slightly resembled lab coats. This place was awesome. There were electrical outlets for all my devices( a rarity). Though pricey at 75-125k ($4-7)a cup of coffee, I got my WiFi worth.
More recently I checked out a trendy She Cafe. This was by far the sexiest cafe I've been too. I'll return with a greater or equally sexy date in the future. Coffee was delicious and ran about 65k ($3). The thing about this place is that it is packed at night because tourists and locals will try to escape the madness of Nguyen Hue walking street. The downside is they don't have any 3 prong outlets, so I lost my entry and had to retype this (I should have been using google docs).
You don't need a guide or a list of cafes to visit in this city. You can just drive around (don't take your eyes off the road) stop at any corner and you'll find a hidden gem. It never really breaks the bank either because even the pricier places are still less than a Starbucks venti Frappuccino back home. Experience of more cafes are soon to come.
One of the most difficult tasks of my day is figuring out what the eat. The most difficult part of my weekend is figuring out where to go. Being in South East Asia, many amazing destinations are only a few hours away. Usually these flights run between $100-$400 round trip. Sometimes you can even catch a flight with Vietjet for less than a $100! So with a major concert coming up at a really beautiful resort, I was torn between staying local or travelling somewhere for a nice 3 day vacation. I chose to stay local and splurge.
My friend booked a room for all three of us at the Grand Ho Tram Casino and Resort just 2 hours outside of the city. We were given a free shuttle service to the casino and arrived about 10 am. Upon check-in we were greeted by friendly smiles and cheerful attitudes. I don’t think the staff cared that we were going to lose all our money there. I think they genuinely were happy to see us. However, it didn’t take long for that smile to turn to confusion. As it turns out, my friend booked a room for all the previous night and due to the large influx of people for the event there were no more rooms available.
The staff was kind enough to provide us with tickets to the event (around $50 a piece). Even though this epic blunder was on my friend Joe’s shoulders, the hotel still got our money. Keeping our smiles on we gravitated towards the pool and threw back some 80,000 VND ($4) Heinekens. To give you an idea of splurging here, thats bit pricey for Vietnam, but normal for a club. We ended up putting all our belongings at a camp ground nearby and planned on sleeping there. That cost us $15 a piece. I couldn’t think of a worse spot to put these black tents. Positioned directly in the sun and on top of a sand dune, I knew right then and there I wasn’t coming back here at night.
The concert turned out awesome. Even though I haven’t heard Above and Beyond mentioned in the music scene for a few years, the venue lights and theme were all well put together. Most dying bands find their way to Asia, but in this case, a lot of these DJs reemerge here. Its definitely become the new ground for touring.
I’ll cut this short and sum things up. We ended up back in the casino and then scattered among the after parties. I decided it would be a better idea to sleep at the cabanas by the pool as did my friends. This was much more comfortable than those tents. For breakfast I was able to enter the massive buffet and gladly ate the portion for a small family. Sushi, prawns, steak and ice-cream. Asians will eat anything for breakfast I spent the morning in the sun by the pool and put myself on the next bus back to HCMC. The price for parking my bike over night at the KumHo building in d1 was an insane 300,000 VND ($15). Luckily that was exactly how much I had left in my pocket.
Truong is a Vietnamese motorcycle driver (xe om) here in Saigon. Hes 50+ years old and has lived in Vietnam his whole life. I once asked him if he would like me to get him a job. He responded, "Why Bill? I am a free man!" I admire this ideology because it really makes you contemplate the purpose of work. Any other person living the way he lives would have jumped at the opportunity. But wisdom comes with age and this guy seems to have figured out the path he wants in life.
When I first met Truong he was lounging backwards on his motorcycle (something very common for drivers here). As I walked by he said, "Hi, Sir do you need a ride?" He spoke English so clearly it caught me off guard. I didn't need a ride anywhere, but I did need some advice and I did need a friend. He and I now meet once a week to talk politics and women. We go searching for motorcycle deals an browse the markets for manufacturing opportunities. He really has allowed me to see another side of Vietnam. In return I have set him up with a side gig as a tour guide. He makes more money when I set him up with friends visiting town than when he works as a "xe om" all week. Hes taken both my brothers on moto tours and dozens of friends. Hes a genuine man and a true friend.
When I told him I wanted to go fishing he jumped at the opportunity. He was all about it. Took me to a fishing shop for bait, tackle and rods. This place had every type of rod you can imagine. Some gear looked as if it was big enough for a whale. No one who can afford to go whale fishing would be at this shop to begin with. This place is for the locals fishing off the bridges and in the streams of Saigon. Anyhow, I paid for all the goods and he insisted he buy the hats. As poor as this man is, he always insists he pay for something. He often says "Let me be a man Bill," This guy's thoughts belong on T-shirts. Seeing how he lives has taught me a lot about the things I deem necessary in life. We just don't need all the merchandise we own. Knowing this man is proof that money does not equal happiness/
The fishing location was a stocked lake. We ran into these jerks being territorial about where we fished. Some guy said in Vietnamese that we are amateurs and we cant be there. Truong shrugged it off and laughed because we were fishing at a stocked lake. That meant they were amateurs too. There definitely was some racism or "cast-ism" there because Troung is a poor man and they were able to see that. Like most of my fishing ventures, I didn't catch anything. It didn't take long for Troung to say, "this is boring Bill." I agreed. The best part about this place were the waitresses in high heels at 11 am and the bus boys moving from table to table on 1990-style roller blades.
Sometimes in Saigon you just can’t believe your eyes. Its why I chose to live here. Its why I extended my contract and its why I may continue to live here longer. You just can’t make this stuff up. Rainy season is usually pretty consistent in South East Asia. It rains at noon and then again at 5. They even have a name for it “mua lon” which means “big rain.”
This was the worst rain I’ve seen in Saigon since my arrival and by far the worst flooding ive seen in my life. It was complete madness. Draining systems backed up, riverbanks were overflowing, motorbikes stuck up to their handlebars and barefoot kids having a blast in it. As I write this I look out my window and you assume one could travel faster down the road if you had a rowboat
It took me an hour to travel about 3 miles. This included crossing road dividers, having 50% of my body splashed by a public bus, driving on sidewalks and ultimately parking in a different garage and walking home. Probably the best part about this is seeing the people gather on the sidewalk and observe the insanity. The ingenuity of the Vietnamese and their motorbikes make for an always exciting sight