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
This challenge is about doing something different everyday. It’s about how to stay out of that routine, escape your comfort zone, learn about your surroundings and see what’s actually out there. True, I could do most of these things back in New York. Doing it on a budget wouldn't be too difficult. I lived there on a budget for 24 years. However, I wouldn’t be at the quality of places I’ve been eating and drinking at and I certainly wouldn’t be doing it as frequently.
This brings me to my next point: the things I can have here I’d never be able to have in Western countries. This time I decided to hire a cook for the night. My friend and colleague, Expat Heather, who has 2 nannies (you read that correctly), put me in touch with her cook.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of girls cook for me in my day, but this was the first time I paid one to do it. It’s a much simpler process than going out or even making it myself. I came home, food was already made for me, sat down, watched NFL and took care of myself for a change. It’s important for our own sanity that work doesn’t consume every minute of our lives. Nothing is better after a longs day of work than decompressing on the couch with some quality food.
The dishes were out of this world. I’ve decided to hire her 2x, maybe 3 x a week. Did I mention she cleaned up? And did the food shopping? Curry chicken and potatoes with rice (2 meals), and Beef fried noodles with steamed veggies (2 meals). I wouldn't suggest eating the rice and pasta together, but I just had to have a bit of each. Cost of ingredients $11 dollars. Cost of 2 hours of service: $10, Total Cost $21. Being able to have someone cook and clean for you 3 times a week: Priceless
Soul Burger Restaurant.
I like to think of myself as a burger guy. I usually know when and where to order a burger. I thought I covered them all in Saigon, but these restaurants are trying to outdo the other right as we speak. My colleague Andrew mentioned to me a place called Soul Burger. I had to check it out because I never went there before. In the pouring rain I arrived on a Monday night, only to discover they are closed on Mondays. My burger buds were burning.
I cant stress enough that I am not in this blog thing for the accreditation as a foodie. Even if my mom and my sister are the only viewers of this blog, I’d still be happy. I would also never take a photo of a burger in the US. However, there is a certain joy I get in posting these photos to my Asian friends. This is the equivalent ordering an entire shrimp platter by yourself. And that would be photo worthy.
After checking the website and browsing the menu online I came back with vengeance. I knew I wanted the best burger on the menu and there it was: The James Brown Burger. Loaded with onion rings Cheddar cheese, bbq sauce and homemade coleslaw I knew I was in for a treat. I swallowed my fries with a big bear beer as some good tunes played in the background. Total cost one person: 15 USD.
I have to admit I've been here before. I thought it would qualify as a good entry because I grabbed some great photos. Its a banh mi (sandwich) place right outside my apartment. They are located all over the city. Anyone with a sidewalk can operate one of these. The bread is made fresh daily. They might get that skill from the French colonial era. I don’t know where it comes from, but I have seen a guy on a motorbike with thousands of rolls before #stuffonthebackofbikes.
The lady who operates this stand knows me pretty well by now. I don't like the tumultuous spicy peppers , but I do enjoy the spicy sauce. Add 3 fried eggs, tomato, cucumber basil and you’ve got yourself a great way to power through your day. This meal will fill you up for about 5 hours.
Total cost: $1
I love these noodles. Absolutely one of my favorite meals in Asia. These arms length, white strands of rice noodle are filling and delicious when mixed with some homemade sauce. Almost all the food on the street is home cooked. Usually it’s a small family operating the business serving the everyday “Nguyen.” I’m not a big fan of the cross section of pig leg being thrown into my noodle soup, but that’s my fault for not being clear. What might freak some of you out even more is that it’s mostly just the skin that is ate and you can usually see a few hair follicles on there. I did nibble at it, but it was more tiring to eat than rewarding in flavor. I put it on the side of my plate and the next bowl I got came loaded with shrimp. These street vendors know how to treat their customers. 3 bowls of ‘’Banh canh ghe/tom ‘’and 2 ‘’tra das” total cost: $6
Its places like this that fulfill my desire for something new and my appetite for…. my appetite. Watcha Café, one of the top rated cafes on foody.vn stands down a side street that more likely resembles an alley. This two story Japanese style café is no sight for sore eyes. Simple chairs and blank walls give make it seem abandoned. Except for the fact that the place is packed! I feel like I am back in Japan. You are only there for the goodness that they serve. Someone greets us in Japanese at the door and I am brought upstairs. Im comfortable because Im sitting right in front of the air conditioner. Does life get any better?
We ordered two delicious looking drink. A blueberry matcha smoothie and another and matcha ice cream tea. Green tea ice cream is very much an "Asian thing." Though traditional teas are more sought after in China and Japan, there is no shortage of variations for the rest of us. Its the equivalent of our vanilla bean. These were great, but what really got my attention was the dish sitting at the table next to me. ”Chung ta muon Hai cai gia” I think I said we want two of that. Large sugar coated bread, melted with cheese, topped with ice cream and honey. This was to die for! The other, a chocolate covered bread cake with vanil…ahh just look at the photo. Drinks and dessert for 2: $12
I didn’t have a whole lot of time to go searching for a cafe today. The good thing is that there are hidden gems on every corner of this massive city. Plastic chairs and smoothie shops line the busy streets, but if you step down an alley or into some shrubbery, you might find yourself in a place like An cafe off of Thao Dien in district 2. It looks like a parking lot for construction workers from the outside, but inside are large plants, wooden tables, old window shutters and traditional Vietnamese flute playing in the background. It just feels nice to be here.
I needed a quick pick me up and I couldn't resist the deliciousness of a freshly blended coconut smoothie with coffee. I like to think I invented this magnificent combination. Add a banana cake with vanilla ice cream and wow! I hope heaven is this good.
To make things better, I got struck here as it started raining. Its quite the tantric place for a drizzle, but there is no such thing as drizzle in Vietnam. As the trickle of rain on the bamboo leafed ceiling began to grow heavy, I quickly moved my belongings inside and ordered some more food. This storm wasn’t gonna end anytime soon. Puddles of water began to collect nearby and my electronics lay vulnerable at my own expense. You can't hold a restaurant accountable here when something goes wrong. I kind of like it that way.
Lemongrass wrapped with beef and spicy peanut sauce. Total cost for the evening: $9
As my friends and family know, I find it very hard to sit still. I am constantly searching for a new challenge or adventure. I’ve learned that life is too short to become an expert in everything, however, I managed to become pretty good at what I’ve tried (I failed miserably at piano and gave up Kung Fu). In summary, I like to try new things, so I am creating this lifestyle blog. I’ll talks about the challenges I pursue, the jobs I do, adventures I take on, the food I eat and every great thing along the way.
Some people who have really inspired me are Timothy Ferris, Rolf Potts and Tony Robbins. It’s from a combination of their books and my background, that lead me to become a teacher overseas. I am currently on my third year in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I also taught in Beijing, China and one year as a Special Education Aide in New York.
It wasn’t until my recent position as an IT Integrationist at my school, did I find enough motivation to make this blog. I’ve done so much in the past 5 years: obtained a masters degree, earned a special education certification, grew a massive vegetable garden at my childhood home, coached lacrosse and intramural sports, learned Vietnamese and Chinese, learned to drive a motorcycle, taught myself video editing, got my advanced scuba diving certification, significantly improved at surfing and snowboarding, completed a large number of other people’s bucket list activities and traveled across 22+ countries. There is definitely a lot of posts to make up for, so I better get started!
I once tried to eat at a different cafe or restaurant everyday for a month. This was inspired by Timothy Ferriss’ 30 day challenge. I made it about 28 of those 30 days, but often settled for something quick and easy, or something just next door to a place I’ve already been. I bent the rules a little, but it was a very rewarding experience as I got to see more of the city.
I wanted to give this another try. This time really broadening my taste buds and thirst for something new. This might sound easy when travelling, but when you live somewhere it’s even easier to stay in your comfort zone.
For this challenge I’m going to focus on visiting a different place, somewhere I’ve never been before, for 30 days. I have lived in Saigon for 2 years now, so I’ve been to most of the popular places. I probably will continue to eat at these places, but if I do, I won’t count that as a new place. I’ll have to go somewhere else that day. I’m already writing this blog 3 days into when I started this challenge, so let me begin.
In pursuit of great street food (an vat) I came across a write up in AsiaLife Magazine. I was looking for Com binh dan (local rice). When I arrived at the location I realized I already ate there 3 days earlier(I’ll include this post at a later time). I drove a bit further and found some local Vietnamese really enjoying their meal on the side of the busy intersection of Ton That Tong and Bui thi Xuan in District 1. I pulled over and had not one, but two bowls of Bun Bo (beef noodle soup).
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