Wednesday, July 25, 2018


It's hard to believe it's been ten years since I landed on the motorbike-army streets of Ho Chi Minh City - an experience that introduced me to a world of international friends, a new Vietnamese family, and changed the trajectory of my life.

Sitting in a folding chair on the floor of T and T's 300 square foot home is one of my favorite places to be on this earth; if I'm not there, it's a place I can go in my mind when I need it. In that place, time doesn't exist - there is nowhere pressing to go other than to the rice cake stand, and no pressure to do or be anything other than what you are doing or being at the moment.

With that in mind, here are a few highlights about being in my favorite place in July of 2018:

 - Going with Thanh to the temple where their father's tray of ashes lie (he passed six months ago). She invited me into the "inner" part where we lit incense and identified ourselves to him (it's "Maggie" I  said, because that's what he called me) and then spoke out loud what we wished for ourselves, our family, and the world. Thanh pointed out her brother - the one who has Asperger's and who sets up their fabric stand every morning at 5:30 am - he was sitting outside his father's resting place, just staring inside. Before their father's death he used to just walk around Ho Chi Minh City all day until it was time to come back and put the fabric back in the house. But Thanh says he just comes here now and sits, all day long, instead of walking. He misses his father so much.

- Seeing the vendors. I've heard stories that city officials want to put an end to the street food scene and "upgrade" the city - I saw a lot of "Bellevue-like" evidence of that - high rises, wide, clean sidewalks, and not a vendor in sight in a few newer districts. Also, many markets are being shut down because of claims that food handler's permits are not valid. But for the most part, my market is unchanged...the garlic lady still sells garlic, and the banana lady still sells bananas. When Thanh and I did our first "red carpet" circle around the market, I asked about the Garlic Lady, one of my favorites back in the day. "She has a baby now, and no husband. It's very sad," she told me. But every morning, she and those surrounding her still race to be the first to greet me with "hello!" and are all smiles. I have no idea where they live or their struggles, all I know is that they live with constant joy regardless of their situation in life. One day the Banana Lady - one of the few vendors who lives within the market - invited me into her home. It was maybe 250 square feet and half of it stored her bananas. "I bought this house," she told me in very broken English. "Fifteen thousand," she said, proudly. I didn't know what that meant, exactly, but she was so proud of owning that house. I know the main thing T and T have going for them financially is that their parents own that house, right there in the middle of the market. And I knew it was significant that she invited me in and shared that with me.

- Visit to Nam's family. If you followed my blog from '08 to '10, you were a big fan of my motorbike driver, Nam. He was cool, he was infuriating, he was bossy, he was kind. I called him my "mother." He drove me crazy because he told me what to do all the time. But I loved him. He showed me around the city and taught me to eat certain foods. Well, he died ten days before my last visit in 2012, and I was very, very sad. I had been invited into the family when he drove for me, so his nephew, who lived in the neighborhood with Nam's sister, drove me to Nam's family's house while they were in the midst of a lot of grief. On my last night of this trip, I "dropped by" Nam's sister's house on my way to T and T's. There was a house full of people, and fortunately, Nam's nephew was there, this time with a wife and two babies. He speaks really good English and they all invited me in to sit down and have some iced tea. Nam's sister videoed our whole visit, smiling so widely, saying she couldn't wait to show the video to Nam's daughters (that was translated). Everywhere I went, I felt like royalty.

- Reading to Quang in the mornings. I got up every day at 6, went to the stand, and read to Thuy's son, Quang, out of the English books my mom sent. We would sit on top of the fabric and he would repeat the story after me, pronouncing consonants over and over..."Pig. Puh Puh Puh Puh...Pig". If you have ever heard a Vietnamese child speak a strange language that sounds a lot like English, that's because they are speaking English without consonants. Quang, even though he's only six, can write English sentences in perfect cursive. He goes to English school in the neighborhood twice a week. but he can't speak it at all. I fell completely in love with this kid. Thuy said many times, "I want him to go to America for school when he's fifteen. I want him to have a future." I told her I would look into it, but I don't have the first idea where to start. I told her to get a bank account (they've never had one) and think "scholarships" - but I wasn't sure what else to say at this point. I want him to have a future, too...but, of course it's loaded. The beauty I see in that community, well...what will he find here? Anyway, I digress. I love this kid...

- Teaching Thanh and Truc to swim. It was Thanh's second time on a plane and Truc's first, but submerging in ocean water was a first for both of them. Shea and I taught them to float, and to swim, just a little. It was awesome, truly. Seeing them laugh and splash in the water and Thanh saying, "I have no worries," -- that was definitely one of the best moments. And the fact that that moment was next to moments where we were brought squid, clams, crab and fish right to our lounge chairs...well, what could be better than that?

I'm grateful I am still connected, and that this neighborhood remains untouched. I can still leave my country and, like Thanh when she's in the ocean, forget my worries about where things are heading. I can be there, just existing, eating, as a part of a community. This place is changing rapidly, but still maintains its purity.

Coming home is always hard, a jolt to my system. My needs seem to increase, everything moves faster, and I get caught right back up in the wheel of assaults from the news.

It's hard to believe they want to be like us, when all I can see is that we need to be more like them.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Shea and Truc

Another unexpected highlight that was destined to be a part of our trip: Truc, who was ten last time I spent time with her, is now 17 and in her last year of high school. Even though Thuy and Thanh practically raised her and her brother, it never occurred to me that she had grown up.

On the first day she and Shea became best friends and spent the next ten days together. In fact, the night before we left for Central Vietnam, Truc texted me how much she was going to miss 'us.' "I want to come with you," she texted me. When I read it out loud, Shea said, "Why not?"

Buying an airline ticket of any kind is out of the question for T and T's family, so the last two times she has traveled with me, her tickets have been purchased for her: once as a gift from my parents, and this time by me. So I said to Shea, "Do you want to split the cost with me?" (around $200), and in Shea style, she answered "yes" before I finished asking the question. That's the kind of person Shea is - she was given a huge gift in this trip, and she did not hesitate to share it. So we went straight over to their house - at 8:00 the night before the flight - and asked Truc to go. Truc was thrilled to say the least - and Thanh was a bit hesitant because Truc would have to fly on a different airline. Truc wasn't scared, though. She even upgraded herself to first class for an extra $5. So she and Shea were able to continue their BFF status and were motorbike partners, swimming partners, jammie partners (bought by Thanh), milk-tea partners, and para-sailing partners. I am a ton of fun, for sure, but I think Shea would have gotten tired of me eventually. I mean, maybe. And Truc is lovely (as is Shea), and I know they will stay in touch. Shea really wants to bring Truc to the states, so we will see where that goes!

And one more word about Shea. Yes, she was a phenomenal traveler. We had our hot, tired and cranky moments (she more than me, haha), but overall, she was a pleasure to have along. Everyone loved her. Thuy and Thanh have adopted her. My former students thought she was cool. Truc would step in front of a train for her.

But here's the thing: yesterday, when I asked her what some of her highlights were, in second place was "food."

Now, I know everyone is not "me" when it comes to passion and palate. But Shea showed very little interest in food, other than pho. Shea could eat pho every meal for the rest of her life and be happy. She was non-plussed by the market for the most part, and while I got up at 6 each morning to explore, taste and hang out with T and T and read to Monkey Boy #2, Shea slept. She did not find every taste fascinating. Now, this doesn't exactly bother me. I can eat on my own for sure. I guess it's more like "pity" for those who don't really "get it." You know? I mean, I like pho and all, but it's just ONE of the tastes here, and it is readily available at home, yes...I know it's not as good. But hey, anyway...I found "food" to be an extremely strange answer!

I will give her credit for this: she is mostly vegetarian, and she did eat a lot of seafood. And she ate chicken a few times, and a little beef. She was sick after each time, but she did it. And that deserves credit!

Shea is going to write about the trip when she gets home, so I will be sure to share it here.

Taste is not really something you can learn. I think you're either born with it or not.

Friday, July 13, 2018

My Other Job

One of my goals in coming to HCMC this time was to fine-tune the Street Food Tour Thanh and I started five years ago. At that time, we drew an old-school map and I hand-wrote descriptions of the food on the back, including pictures. Between Pam and me, we have given this map out to about fifty people who have found the fabric stand and eaten their way through the market with Thanh. It has been a great source of income for her family - she paid for her mother's cataract surgery as well as her father's hospital bills. "I didn't have to borrow," she told me. That's big here.

While Old School is great, we needed to update. So I wanted to make Thanh a website, and was happy to have the mission to take pictures of every single thing we ate. I really should have been a food photographer/writer, as you will see. Thanh researched the food of central Vietnam for our trip to Hoi An and Danang - even though that is not part of the food tour, I was in food picture-taking mode, and had a lot of fun capturing all of it:

Market food (standard tour):

Seafood Feast on the Street of Nguyen Canh Chan (a new offering for Thanh's business):

Hoi An/Da Nang (Central Vietnam):

Thanh's list of things to eat in Central Vietnam:

Food tour anyone?