Here's the "Same Same but Different" version of this weekend's story: Katherine and I find six other AIS teachers at the airport heading for Nha Trang. We have no idea that we are all relocating to the same place for Thanksgiving weekend. After hours of waiting and finding out that the flight is cancelled, four of us decide to tough it out and take the train. We know that the weather may be crummy, but we just want to go somewhere. You know how it is~
One of "Team Nha Trang" is a man named Fran. Fran is responsible for starting AIS and he has helped me tremendously since the school year started. He is simply just very, very cool and is probably one of the most intent listening ears I've ever met. He was principal last year but this year his title is "Director of Admissions." He loves the school and the kids more than anyone and the kids know it. Fran and his Vietnamese wife just built a house in Nha Trang and he tries to make it up there most weekends. He knows about the train and tells the three of us that we can stay with them until the morning.
When we arrive at their beautiful ocean -view home, K and I get the fourth floor to ourselves and wake up to a pancake and bacon breakfast. They are having Thanksgiving parties all weekend and invite us to all of them, but for the time being we head to our hotel...a $10 per night spot in an alley right off of the beach with a balcony and ocean view. It's a great spot (beach weather, of course, would have made it perfect). We meet up with our two friends (who had wisely flown in Wed evening) and decide to head to the mud bath/mineral springs spa up in the hills for the (cloudy rainy) day. It's a long, bumpy, steep, puddle-ridden journey to the spa, but it is a fantastic day. We have lunch on a little tiny island that hosts a wood-fire oven and we eat the best pizza since arriving in Vietnam. Then we are led up a steep flight of stairs and get in a freshly-run tub full of warm mud where we relax for twenty minutes. After that we follow a winding path to the mineral springs tub where we relax for another twenty minutes. After soaking in these two tubs, we can enjoy the pool and the waterfalls as long as we want, until we decide we want our hour-long massage. The cost for this day? $15.
The next day we see a Cham temple: the kingdom of Champa flourished between the 2nd to the 15th centuries-- they were semi-piratical and attacked passing trade ships to sustain themselves. They remain a substantial ethnic minority in Vietnam and are mostly known for their architecture; now I want to find much more of it. The temple that we see in Nha Trang was built in 791. It is active; incense burns all day long, and we see women in traditional dresses bringing in trays of fruits as offerings on the altars.
We also see the Long Song Pagoda with these two striking Buddhas: the reclining one is 18 meters long and the sitting one watches over all of Nha Trang at a height of 24 meters. A old toothless man guides us up the stairs (a self-appointed guide) and says, "I love Obama" to me all the way up.
I'm not even at the best part of the weekend yet.
Katherine has to fly back Saturday night because she is in charge of organizing the Terry Fox run for the elementary school. This is definitely not her best part: she is supposed to fly out at 7 pm...however, it's still too stormy, and her flight is cancelled - again. She must take the night train - again, which arrives back in HCMC at 5:20 am. The race begins at 8:30.
Meanwhile, as K is setting up a night of bunking with three Vietnamese men on the same grimy train, I accept the Thanksgiving dinner invitation at Fran's house - along with twenty others. I am among only four Americans in this group; it is fun to watch the wide-eyed wonder of the Vietnamese guests (and their picture taking madness) over the size of the bird. Fran and his wife bought it at a gourmet store in HCMC, and most of their guests have never tried turkey before. Some are a bit hesitant, but after their first bite of turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce, they are sold on the idea. Still, the turkey doesn't stop them from eating the other offering - traditional Vietnamese BBQ pork chops and rice.
Half-way through dinner, I am telling my Norway pumpkin pie story - not the regifting one - but just how difficult it was to find all of the ingredients necessary to make those pies there. Fran's wife overhears me and says, hey, I wanted to make pumpkin pie but I've never made it before. I have canned pumpkin and a graham cracker crust, but I can't figure out how to make the right substitutions.
Well, I am well-trained in pumpkin-pie making (just hoping my parents will understand the canned pumpkin), so I can make the substitutions- like using the heavy Vietnamese French coffee cream instead of condensed milk and nutmeg for ginger and cloves...and those who remain when the pie is done two hours later (a perfect pie eight of us at midnight) are beyond happy over tasting pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving in Vietnam on a stormy beach front night. And the fact that Ann has only banana split ice cream in her freezer- no big deal. Actually, it's a fine combination. The evening turns out to be exactly what Thanksgiving dinner is meant to be - a time to share a meal and friendship. What a great night.
And yet another highlight: the next morning I hire a motorbike driver to take me to an art gallery mentioned in the Lonely Planet before my 11:00 bus to the airport. Long Thanh is an internationally recognized photographer who has shown his work in over 53 exhibitions world-wide. He is known for capturing Vietnam's everyday beauty and contrasts. Long Thanh happens to be at his studio/house when I arrive - I am the only one there. I take in his stunning work and talk with him for quite a while. I finally decide to buy this one:
Here is another one that has been recognized all over the world:
After I make my purchase, the internationally acclaimed photographer says to me, "Would you like a ride back to your hotel?" and so I hop on the back of his very cool motorbike and he drops me off, curbside. On the plane, I am flipping through the Vietnam Airlines Heritage magazine and who is featured in the main article? Long Thanh, of course, Vietnam's beloved photographer.
Yeah, so, the only time I am on the beach is on Saturday morning, when K makes me bring my green tea out to the lounge chairs - chairs that are stacked up under palapas to protect from the rain. She wants to drink her coffee out there. Other than that, no beach, no ocean swimming, no sun. But I bet not one of you feels sorry for me, huh? Especially because, unlike Katherine, I was actually on that easy, clean, 45-minute flight from Nha Trang to HCMC. Easiest flight in the world.
p.s. Katherine, by the way, made it to her race, of course, and I suppose represented her country well with about ten AIS students among approximately 7,000 participants.