Lauren comes to Nam!

Lauren came out here about a week ago and we've been having such a great time together! It's so nice to have a great friend from back home out visiting in one of the exotic places life brings me to - we've had so much fun exploring new foods, going around town on the motorbike, and just hanging out and seeing what there is to see. I just wanted to post a few photos here, more stories to come later as our adventures continue!

 Riding the moto!

 Delicious avocado smoothie! Who would have thought it could be so tasty!

 One night after a hard rain, the streets of Nha Trang were flooded!!

 Another shot of the flooded streets

 Cooking noodle soup in my apartment

 We woke up at 4:45am to swim during the sunrise

We went to the nearby waterfall and went swimming
Of course, I found a vine to swing off of like Tarzan
Jumping off the vine into the water! Upon trying the risky swing maneuver again, the vine snapped and my landing was much less graceful than the first

Sapa - better than a fairytale

In early August I met a couchsurfer in Nha Trang who stayed at my apartment for a night on his way up to Hanoi. His name was Nic and he was from Paris, France, travelling from Saigon (South Vietnam) to Hanoi (North Vietnam) via motorbike. I was really jealous when I met him because his journey sounded like something I would love to do, and I almost joined him for a couple days as he took off for central Vietnam, but I had to get to work a few days later so it just wasn’t feasible to jump on the back of his motorbike for some adventure. We did, however, agree to meet up two weeks later in Hanoi and take a two week trip through Laos since I was about to have some time off from my project in Nha Trang. The original plan was to go to Sapa, a small mountain town teeming with minority hill tribes, for one night, then back to Hanoi to sell Nic’s motorbike before heading off to Laos. We took the 10 hour night train up to Sapa and from the moment I stepped outside I knew one night was not going to be enough time… Immediately I noticed how relieved I was to breath clean, crisp, cool air after spending so long in hot, humid Nha Trang. It reminded me of home…
The geography in Sapa is breathtaking. A quiet mountain town and home to a great diversity of ethnic minority peoples, Sapa lies in the Hoang Lien Son range of mountains. The highest peak in Indochina, Fan Si Pan, can be seen looming in the background while surrounding landscapes are covered in sloping terraces used for farming rice. Our first day in town, Nic and I rented a motorbike and took to the hills. It was by far the most stunning scenery I’d ever seen as we rode from one tiny mountain village to the next, I was instantly in love with this place. The day flew by, and before I knew it we were supposed to be heading back to Hanoi. I convinced Nic to let me stay another night while he was selling his motorbike in Hanoi, giving me one more day in this paradise.
The next day came and went just as quickly as the first, and I called Nic to see whether he had sold his motorbike. He told me he was having a great time in Hanoi, which was a relief to hear since I really didn’t want to leave Sapa, and we both came to the conclusion that we would stay in our respective places and skip the Laos part of the trip. Thus began a wonderful adventure…
The next day I met some young Hmong teenagers (a local ethnic minority) who lived in a small village 18km outside of town. We chatted and quickly became friends, and they invited me to come stay with them in the village. I couldn’t turn up the opportunity, so I packed my bag and hiked up the 18km to their home, where they graciously cooked a wonderful dinner and showed me where I would be sleeping. The bed was actually quite cozy, in spite of the giant cockroaches that scurried from under the blanket when I scuttled into bed, the water dripping on my head through the night when it rained, and what I suspect were bedbugs after waking up rather itchy… but otherwise, cozy J
I spent the next two weeks living with the villagers, trekking about 30km a day to get from one side of the mountain to the other, working with the buffalo, the rice, and the farming. It was a dream come true for me – a real escape from the modern world and a reality check about what life is really like when you’re not constantly bombarded with the consumerism that has become the life we live today. Every experience was so peaceful, so magical, that it’s impossible to put in words the experience I had up there. It was in many ways life changing, and every day I spent in Sapa left me wondering if some day, I would find myself back there, forgetting about the intricacies of our hustle bustle life in America and living a relaxed, peaceful life in the mountains. It was the first place I’d travelled where I felt a genuine connection, and actually wanted to spend a significant amount of time living. The life people live up there is so REAL. It’s the first time I’ve really experience that… everything they do, everything they own, it’s all so real. Their houses are made from bamboo and mud that they collect in the mountainside. Their tools are made from wood from trees they chop down. They peel strands off the grasses to make fiber, which they use to make their clothes. They are fantastic sewers, and they wear their traditional clothes with such amazing and intricate designs that they sew themselves. They cook on the fire, with pots, pans, and spoons their fathers father made for them. The water comes from the stream and is funneled to each house using a network of bamboo shoots. It’s amazing, truly amazing, to spend time living like this. It had a profound effect on me, and I loved every second of it. Not to mention, the people are all so wonderful, so kind, so caring, always smiling, always laughing, and always friendly. It was like living a dream…
My two weeks in Sapa really flew by. It was an unbelievable place – a really magical experience for me and it will forever be near and dear to my heart. I hope to find myself back in Sapa someday, even if only for a week, a month, a year… who knows!
 Riding through the mountains on our rented motorbike

 The stunning landscape of Sapa

 Fillin' up at the side of the road. Now that's some good quality gasoline!

 Sapa!

 Nic and I at the base of a waterfall, of which there are many in Sapa

Buffalo crossing

 Riding through the mountains

 Hiking - sometimes it got steep!

 This is what it's all about up here... rice

 Vietnamese people are really tallented at finding unique places to nap

 getting dinner ready

 cooking dinner on the fire

 one of the local villagers who invited me to stay with her family

 one of the families I stayed with in Sapa

 Girl in the rice fields

 Waterfall

 Baby!

Taking some villagers around on the motorbike

The kids are really adorable...

 Getting ready for dinner...

 Tending the buffalo

 Met some friends from Hanoi, and we went around for a day

 Friends from Hanoi who I rode around with for a day

 This is what I think of when I think of Vietnam....

 Dinner in  the village

 Cute!

 Even cuter!!!

 A Hmong village girl

 Can you find a better picture to represent Vietnam!?

 One of the adorable children of the family I stayed with

 The kids here are tough...they carry their siblings around on their backs for hours

 Young buffalo herder

 loving it...

really... really loving it.... 

Food!

Vietnamese food is a slice of heaven… the noodle soups are nothing short of amazing! And they’ve easily got the best deserts in the world! I’ve fallen in love with one in particular called chuey nuong (translates to grilled banana) which is a tiny banana covered in sticky rice, then wrapped in banana leaves and grilled on a fire. Then they cut everything up, smother it with coconut milk, peanutes and tapioca! Mmmm it’s the best, and there’s a lady that sells it on the side of the road near my tennis stadium so every day after hitting the ball around I stop by and eat delicious grilled banana. Some days I even catch myself daydreaming about it midway through a serve or point and my tennis game steps up a notch for sure! It’s literally one of the tastiest snacks in the world! And for 5,000VND (about 25 cents) you cant go wrong!
My favorite local 'grilled banana' stand
                                                      Here's what it looks like when prepared
I’ve also recently found a delicious meal called banh can. Sad that I hadn’t tried it during my first five months over here, I eat it almost every day now! Basically they will take rice powder and mix it with water, then pour it into small circular clay pots over a fire and plop a quail egg on top. It’s the closest thing to a pancake that they have over here and when rice and noodles gets old (after 10 months of rice and noodles, when I need my western food fix this does the trick). These little buggers look simple but they sure are tasty! They give you a little bowl of fish sauce and chopped up onion to dip them in and they become so delicious and flavorful!  

                                                     A lady preparing banh can

                     Here's what the ban canh looks like when you eat it and dip it into the sauce
 

 Oh how I will miss the delicious food when I go back to America!

              And of course, I had to include a picture of the famous Vietnamese pho noodles!  This one with an egg inside

                I took some couch sufers I was hosting out to dinner one night, it was a lot of fun!

Halfway home...

Can I really be five months in already? Amazing… when I first arrived in Vietnam I thought 10 months sounded like an eternity, and here I am, already halfway through my Fulbright grant.
Things have really picked up lately as I’ve been engaging in a whole bunch of new activities – I’ve started teaching English to a group of university students a couple times a week which has been really fun and introduced me to a lot of new friends, I’ve started playing tennis with a group of old Vietnamese men who don’t speak a word of English, I’ve started waking up at 4:30am to go swimming in the ocean (believe it or not, by 6am it’s already too sunny and hot to be walking around outside in my opinion haha). There’s nothing like pulling through the water as the sun peeks over the horizon and the sky lights up, the feeling is almost enlightening. I’ve also started a new lobster project where I’m co-culturing lobsters with mussels to compare the growth rates and survival with lobsters that are cultured alone. It’s been pretty fascinating because mussels act as filter feeders, so whatever waste or uneaten food is leftover is taken up and recycled rather than sitting at the bottom of the cages and polluting the water. This has been one of my big interests in making the lobster aquaculture industry more sustainable and environmentally friendly for future growth because co-culture is self-sustaining and doesn’t require any new technology or extra labor.
 Aside from work, things in Nha Trang are better than ever. I’m finally establishing a good group of friends (all Vietnamese – some of whom I can even talk into waking up and swimming with me at 5!) and that’s made all the difference. When I first arrived it was a bit of a struggle to keep entertained as I was quite lonely, but lately each day is better than the last as I keep making wonderful connections and meeting new friends. It’s also been extremely helpful to learn some of the language as the majority of Vietnamese people don’t speak English, so they are always surprised to see the giant American boy speaking to them in their native tongue. Even though I only speak a little, it’s amazing how much they open up when they realize that I’m putting an effort to engage in their culture and learn the language rather than keep my American ways and ignore their way of life (which is what almost all the tourists here do, and even the majority of expats who live here). The weather is definitely hot now that it’s summer, but after five months I think I’ve finally learned to cope with the scorching humid days here – finding every bit of shade, even if it’s as small as a street sign, has become second nature.

 Just before swimming one morning, around 5:15am

 Small local fishing village

 Working with the lobsters

 Adult lobster. Here in Vietnam, this guy would sell for about $90!

 Snorkeling

 The shells after molting

 During a recent Fulbright conference in Hue - These are all the Vietnam Fulbrighters including both the students and the scholars.

 Riding the motorbike

 Having fun :)

 Tony came to visit!!!

Lazy day

Setting up the cages for my lobster project

Waterfall!

Life's been pretty busy lately (or maybe I've just been lazy...) so I havn't posted in a while, so I figured I'd talk about my latest adventure! About 45 minutes away from where I'm staying in Nha Trang there is a gorgeous area where you can hike in along side a stream to a big waterfall. I've been seriously missing any kind of outdoor activity (you cant hike anywhere because of the possibility of bumping into unexploded ordinances or landmines) so to finally find a place where I can go on a hike - albeit a mini one - has been a relief! Just if it were a little bit closer to town, but that's ok, I can make the trek in times of desperation. Today I brought my slackline with me and set it up between two trees on opposite sides of the river. It was a great time, but there was a lot of belly flopping into the water below when I would lose my footing, looks like I need more practice than I imagined. The waterfall area is also perfect for jumping into off the high rocks around as it's quite deep, so me and my friends had a blast jumping into the water below :)

it's high!

in the falls

 very beautiful

beautiful area!

taking the plunge!

 tony doing some serious lounging...

 setting up the slackline

 while i slave away and set up the slackline, tony works hard in the hammock

 looks like i put on a few pounds over here....saggggggging into the water!

 belly flop number one....

aaaaaand about to be belly flop number 2

From the north to the south...

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay!!

Fulbright recently had its regional conference in Hanoi, which was an excellent opportunity to meet the other Southeast Asian Fulbrighters and get to know how all the other projects were going. There were about 30 people with projects ranging from studying photovoltaics in Bangkok, gibbons in Laos, public housing in Singapore, the health sector in Malasia, marine protected areas in Indonesia etc… so it was fascinating to learn about everybody’s research.
After the conference I stayed for a couple extra days to go to the famous Ha Long Bay. There I took a 3 day boat tour of the bay which was absolutely gorgeous, although at this time of the year a bit foggy (which in many ways added to the mystique of the boat ride). On the second day, we got to kayak around and it was some of the best kayaking I've ever done. The water was so peaceful and calm, and the huge rock cliffs and fog around us was really awe-inspirning. I love being on the water and that boat trip was a real highlight of my time here so far.

Ha Long Bay
Lady selling fruit to tourists in her boat

Misty and beautiful!

Early morning

Early morning

After returning from Hanoi, there was a great opportunity for me to go down to Saigon to meet with a Fulbright student who’s mom was the president of the Sierra Club and was visiting to go travel around some remote forest areas in southwest Vietnam. I joined them for a couple days and it was a really fascinating trip. Traveling around those regions without some sort of connection would be near impossible, so joining his family was a wonderful way to see these remote areas.

On a boat in the An Giang river

River crossing....

Checkin' out the birds...

This is Saigon at night

Saigon - population 12 million!

Sometimes you really have to squeeze to get through trees!

Now I’m back in Nha Trang getting my lobster project rolling – there is a big international conference taking place here in the next couple days so I’m trying to do all I can to help my Vietnamese colleagues prepare their materials (they find it useful having a native English speaker around) so I’m looking forward to meeting aquaculture specialists from around the world and discussing my project with them!

Destination anywhere

I had a week off during my birthday and was itching to find something exciting to do, and a friend of mine suggested we take a bus and head off to Cambodia. Well, I didnt take much convincing, so I bought a bus ticket for that late night, threw a t-shirt and my camera in my backpack, ran out to the street and bought the lonely planet book and off we went. What a fun trip it was! We arrived in the capital city with no idea where we would sleep or what we wanted to do - walked around for a couple of hours until we found a nice hotel on the river for 10$, then planned for the next couple days. We decided to go to Angkor - the ancient ruins - and then to Sihanoukville, a little beach town in the south. Both places were absolutely amazing. Angkor was nothing shy of magical... to think that these magnificant structures were built over a thousand years ago was simply unbelievable. As impressive a sight as the pyramids, I can imagine. After a day of touring the ruins, we took a long night bus down to the beach for a couple days of sun and surf. It was well worth it. The beaches were stunning. The water was the perfect temperature, the ocean calm as can be, and the sand was irrisistable. And best of all, there were no crowds (like there can be around the beaches here in Nha Trang). Overall it was a quick trip, but I had such a great time that I'm already planning my next one :)

Temples at Angkor

Beautiful sunset along the coast
Gorgeous beaches

Travels to Hue

I spent the last week traveling around Hue, a city about 650km from Nha Trang, with some friends I met. In celebration of the lunar new year, these three friends were heading back to their home town and invited me to come along so I was more than happy to join them and see a different part of the country. The trip started with a grueling 15 hour train ride that left the station at 11pm (but was, of course, delayed 2 hours...making for an even longer night!). Once we arrived, we visited the small village where they were from outside the city of Hue, caught up with family, ate delicious meals, sang some karaoke and went to sleep. The next day we went into the city and visited several pagados and tombs from imperial times. It was fascinating seeing the old architecture and ancient buildings and structures. We had a blast driving around on motor bikes and seeing all there is to see! Then we arranged for a tour up to the Phong Nha caves, about a 5 hour bus ride north from Hue city. The bus picked us up at 6am, then when we got there we took a short boat ride to the caves - they were truly spectacular! What a sight, they must have been 50-100 feet high and filled with stelagtites and stelagmites everywhere! And it was just breathtakingly beautiful. I really enjoyed my time there. What I wasnt looking forward to was the 4 hour bus right back to Hue, but it wasnt all that bad. The next day, we arranged for a bus to take us back to Nha Trang (the train was full because everybody was traveling for the holidays) which would take even longer than the train ride up - about 17 hours by bus! It was quite a jaunt, and the bumpy, congested roads didnt help, but we finally made it back to Nha Trang and now it's time to get back to work :)

the 4 of us at a temple

inside the caves!

on the boat, to the caves!

a beautiful old pagoda

on a cyclo in the city (basically a bicycle taxi)

riding around on motorbikes!

on the train - 15 hour ride to Hue from Nha Trang!

beautiful scenery

Happy lunar new year!

These last two weeks have been jam packed with festivities as the lunar new year (known as Tet in Vietnam) kicked off on January 23rd. Basically it's an excuse to take time off work, party with friends, eat delicious food, and in many Vietnamese cases, drink lots of beer. It's been a really great opportunity for me to meet new people (since nobody's working and everybody is celebrating with family) and get to know my city a little more before getting to work on my project early February.
During my orientation in Saigon, one of the Fulbrighters (Laurel) introduced me to her friend/co-worker Tho who lives in Nha Trang and was going home for Tet. I've been fortunate enough to meet up with Tho and her family several times here in Nha Trang before she goes back to Saigon in a few days. One thing I've learned is that Vietnamese people are very generous and big-hearted - they open up their homes and welcome you into their family, and they are such a friendly people. I've had a wonderful time with Tho's family and it's been almost a daily affair going to their place for at least one meal. The day after Tet, Tho and her family took me and Laurel to Vinpearl island, a small but beautiful island just off the coast of Nha Trang, connected by a cable car! It was the coolest thing being lifted over the sea in a gondola, and it was quite an experience seeing the big blue sea underneath me instead of a blanket of snow!
Many new friends and new experiences over here in Nha Trang, it's been very exciting. Tonight I will go to Hue (another small town about 300km north of Nha Trang) with some friends I met here to visit their hometown for a week. I'm really excited to travel a bit within Vietnam and see more of the country!

Tho, Laurel (another Fulbrighter, based in Saigon and visiting Tho's family for Tet) and Tho's little brother

Tho's father

A view of Nha Trang from the cable car

Riding the cable car to Vinpearl isand

Dinner with Tho and her family during Tet

Vietnamese rice field

Nha Trang = paradise

Well, I think it's safe to say I picked a paradise location for my research here in Vietnam. Nha Trang is regarded by most as the vacation hot spot of the country because of it's key location along the coast, it's stunning beaches, crystal clear ocean, beautiful mountain backdrop and amazingly friendly people. I was surprised by how quickly I fell in love with this place, and I've quickly come to realize why everybody at the Fulbright orientation was jealous about where I was headed for the next ten months. My apartment is about 200 meters from the beach, and centrally located in the 'western' part of town meaning there are a lot of wonderful restaurants and activities for me to do during my time off. I've already got myself a motorbike to cruise the town, and lately I've been spending a lot of my days swimming in the ocean, meeting new friends, giong out to restaurants with my professors and peers, exploring the city for new and exciting things to do, and basically anything else I can think of. Right now is Tet, the Vietnamese new year, so everybody is off work and celebrating. It's perfect because it gives me two weeks to get to know Nha Trang without having to stress about getting my project in order, so I've been having a lot of fun figuring this place out :)

My friend's cats

Boats at the harbor

A fishing boat

One of the islands off the coast

The beach outside my apartment


the city at night

another view of the beach outside my apartment

beautiful place

Final days in Saigon

We had our orientation over the past few days and it was great meeting the other Fulbrighters (who will be spread out all over Vietnam when we leave here) and getting to experience some Vietnamese culture. We took a day trip to the Mekong Delta where we watched how they make fish sauce, rice paper, crafts, and a bunch of other things. The food was great, the people were friendly, and all in all it was a fantastic experience. Other than that, it's been a lot of sitting in lecture halls and listening to a lot of information regarding our stay here in Vietnam and how to make the most of it. I think in this situation, pictures will speak better than words, so I'll put up a bunch here. Now it's off to Nha Trang, my home city for the next ten months! Super excited!

A bunch of meats at the market. Pig ears anyone??

Living the hard life in the Mekong Delta

An artist and his shop (really great work!)

Vietnamese woman makes rice paper

A typical sight in Vietnam

Making these beautiful works of art is very labor intensive! Takes a line of workers several hours just to finish one!

Incredible work

Local Vietnamese spirits may have a snake or scorpion inside...watch out!

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is nothing short of a non-stop hustling bustling city. Everything seems to operate at a hundred miles per hour over here – the streets are packed with motorbikes and cars, people everywhere, persistent honking, thousands of little shops selling this and that… visiting this major city for a few days was an experience in itself. Though not being much of a city person myself, I can gladly say that I am only a couple days away from flying to Nha Trang – the location I will be spending the remainder of my time here in Vietnam.
Despite flying in a few days ago, I am still trying to get over a nasty bout of jetlag. Waking up at 2am and taking long naps during the day probably isn’t helping… anywho it’s been fun exploring this wild city since I’ve arrived. So far I’ve picked up a few things:

Nobody, and I mean nobody, speaks English out here.

Crossing the streets is a dangerous, heart-stopping activity.

My fear of not having enough funds to feed my never ending hunger has been assuaged – to my amazement, I’ve been able to eat myself happy for less than $6 a day! Yay!

Being one of the only white people the locals have ever seen, you get used to being an object of amusement for them.

Being the only person over six feet tall in this country, I must be considered a giant…

Well, more to come soon, I have orientation until the 13th, then it’s off to Nha Trang to work with some lobsters!

Missing everyone back home! Love you guys!

powerlines look pretty messy...

This girl gets it done in heels!

Yummy Pho!

Need some shoes?

Checked in to a hotel and they put me in the 303!

Balloons anyone?

Mini market

Mini Market

Long travels...

After a pretty grueling 36 hours of travel, I've finally made it to Ho Chi Minh City! I'll be here for the next week for orientation, then it's off to Nha Trang to become an official lobstologist! I'll post a better update tomorrow, but right now it's 3am so I'd better be off to bed. Pictures coming soon!