How the Other Half Lives

Lunch of noodles and tofu

Maybe we haven’t mentioned it yet, and sometimes we forget, but we are on a bit of a budget. Something a few people have asked, and I’m sure many more have wondered, is: “How can you afford it?” Since neither of us is independently wealthy (well – I know I’m not, and if Michael is he’s not letting on). So the answer is that we saved nearly everything we could for over two years. We were blessed to have low- and no-cost housing for much of this time, and avoided major purchases. We both picked up side jobs when we could manage them – Michael coaching soccer and me consulting. Without the major expenses that we’ve been fortunate to avoid, we saved enough to get us here and hopefully back.

In truth, the cost of traveling here is comparable to our cost of living at home. (The difference is that neither of us is getting paid right now.) Although travel costs are sometimes steep, like for flights, it’s shockingly cheap to survive here. We spent about $2.50 on dinner last night, delicious bowls of Vietnamese pho {a noodle soup with little bits of beef, added herbs, and sometimes bean sprouts (don’t worry, dietitian friends, they boil them here to kill off the bacteria)}.

Mmm... pho bo

Recently, in Hue, we splurged. We’d heard about a place where you could get a traditional Vietnamese meal for much more than we usually spend. But it was a 7-course set menu, recommended by our guidebook, which is sometimes a turn-off in itself. We figured we’d check it out. The atmosphere was glorious, the wait staff attentive, and the food creatively presented. For us it was such a switch: we’re usually sitting in kiddie-sized chairs on the sidewalk over a bowl of soup or noodles or spring rolls, which is super. That’s how they do it here. But this place peeled a tomato in the shape of a rose… And it’s kitschy, yes, but the pineapple cut and decorated to look like  peacock was just too fun to not appreciate.


Any of the set menus would’ve been way too much food, so we selected the smallest one and split it. What an adventure to follow, when our first course of spring rolls was delivered!

Secondly, we had vegetable soup, which was tasty although much like the stuff I make back home. Then we had steamed shrimp, tucked into a wine glass with various unknown garnishes, served with a side of salt/freshly cracked pepper. The kicker here was the red chilies cut to look like tiny fish. Who thinks of this stuff?

Next up was the Hue special pancake, a pastry of sorts stuffed with shrimp, pork, and spices. Following this was more pork and shrimp… but this time it was spooned onto a rice cake. This was when I started to get full and Michael had to pick up my slack, which he did with no trouble.

The star of the show was the grilled beef. Served with lotus-steamed rice, the beef was amazing and as tired as I am of rice, this was delicious.

Finally, dessert. Now, desserts here aren’t exactly like those back home. We’ve had more than one composed of foods you wouldn’t really think of as sweet – like avocado or lima beans. But there was enough sugar in the “green bean formed fruit” to make them strangely enjoyable, if nothing else because they were presented so interestingly.

Is it a tourist trap? Probably. I’m not sure how traditional these foods really were. They definitely didn’t resemble the street foods we typically enjoy. But thankfully there were no tour buses pulling up outside while we were there. This restaurant received very mixed reviews online, but I’m quite happy to say we left entertained, stuffed, and having enjoyed a seven-course meal for a meager (by American standards… ) $12.

Bia Hoi for about $0.18 per glass... Now that fits our budget!

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Fits Like a Glove (For Half of the Travelling Party)

A trip to Vietnam can not be complete without a several day stopover in Hoi An, which seems to be the capital of ‘made to measure’ clothing. Well, maybe not several days, as one day could do. The longer you stay, the more you get made.

She was awesome. Underestimated my size, though...

With a city of over what might be 500 advertised custom tailors, how does one choose the best tailor? First, it seems like the tailors choose you–you cannot walk several yards without the ubiquous call of “you want to see my shop” or “free look”, so at some point in time you get sucked into one.

Brooke gets measured

We read about one shop–Yaly Couture; it was highly recommended by our travel guidebook and we needed a quality shop: Brooke made the decision to make her wedding dress.

(Brooke here. I’ll be adding my comments in italics since Michael may not be privy to my inner monologue. Let me first say that the decision to have my dress made here was a painstaking one. I haven’t even tried on any dresses, nor do I really even know if I want one. But the allure of rock-bottom prices and excitement of the gamble took me in. Back to Michael.)

Needless to say, Yaly’s appearance supported the solid recommendation. Countless attendants, a vast supply of fabrics, and the 300 tailors sewing the ordered clothing above the retail store kept us intrigued.

We perused European catalog after European catalog looking for what appealed to us. We decided to start small; I ordered a white short sleeve casual shirt and Brooke two dresses. If this worked, maybe we would continue doing business with them. With the final measurements taken at 1 p.m., Eva informed us to be back at 4 p.m. A mere three hours would do it.

Sure enough, at 4 p.m., we arrived back to see our fabric molded perfectly into our measurements. The fits could have been better, so we asked for some modifications. The next day arrives and finally, a shirt that really fits me is mine! Brooke again: My dresses were perfect! I loved the silk and they fit them to me exactly as I’d specified. And they did this in mere hours!

Can you make a pink belt? Great.

I get sucked into two other shops and order a winter coat, three dress shirts, trousers, lounge pants, and another casual shirt. See what several days will do to you in Hoi An! How can you not continue to order when a dress shirt costs you $8 or a winter dress coat $40? I loved it–everything fit, it is what I wanted and finished quickly, and I didn’t have to ‘shop’!

(The following is my male account as truly an outsider. I spent my time during her ordeal in the cafe.)

Michael chills while Brooke does the exact opposite of this

But on the other hand, what I thought would be Brooke’s utopia, turned out to be quite stressful. Maybe understandable with a wedding dress being made?!? Brooke’s perspective: No woman should EVER have to go this alone. I must be either incredibly naive or self-important, or both, but a second opinion from a trusted woman is worth its weight in gold. Let the circus begin…

Brooke showed Evy several pictures of what she wanted and told them the modifications for what she envisioned. Come back in 20 hours, they say, for the first fitting. Leave room in the hips, give her buttons, do this/that with the material, she tells them. The picture I showed them was a beautiful dress but slightly fancier than my needs. I asked them to leave off the train, shorten it a smidgen, and leave me a bit of room since I’m down a few pounds right now.

It begins to come together and several hours (maybe four) of fittings produces the final product. However, one problem exists dealing with a different culture in respect to fashion: some things do not translate well, including ‘bustle’, ‘buttons’, and ‘I am not usually this thin; can you leave some room since my wedding is one year away?’. They would agree or just say “can’t”, not really grasping what you what you really want. Here’s what went down. They tell you, “We can make anything.” Then you go for the first fitting and ask them to modify what they’ve made, and sometimes they come back with “Can’t.” So they can’t put buttons down the back like the dress I’ve showed them. But they can try. *Sigh* And now they tell me they can’t make it without a train. “Can’t.” Ok, fine, leave the train. Can you add hooks for a bustle so I’m not dragging the damn thing around? “Busser?” They don’t know bustle.  This is when I realize things aren’t really going like I’d hoped.

There was a time between fittings when I took a nap. I was pretty worried that my dress was going to be a disaster, so naturally I was a bit cranky, nervous, and Michael may have called me Bridezilla a time or five. So I took a snooze, and dreamed they added the buttons down the back, but the top two were huge and the rest were still inappropriately large and it looked ridiculous. File that in the self-fulfilling prophesies category. Here’s Michael again. He’s been waiting patiently all through this debacle.

Unfortunately, with the time crunch and the language barrier, this custom fitting did not turn out as desired. Supposedly it was ‘smashing’ at some point, but the final product still needed some modifications. Nothing else could be done. It was indeed smashing, for about an hour. This was after they took in the sides but before it got so small I could barely stuff myself into it. They think it fits beautifully, these 80-pound women who are all adorably and enviably the size of American pre-teens. I think I can’t eat dessert or anything else for a year.

This was also before they added the buttons, which were not exactly like my nightmare but look like I sewed them there myself… with the dress already on me… blindfolded and drunk. Perhaps you’ve noticed I’m not entirely happy with the buttons. *Cries*

With a call home to Mom, Brooke crosses her fingers that something can be done to ‘salvage’ this custom fitting. My mother is trained as a mental-health counselor and has just retired from teaching third grade. Between these ideal qualifications and the fact that she’s my mother, Mom was uniquely positioned to know exactly what to say. Which she did. “Brooke, really, how important is this dress?” Arrgh… She got me with the big picture. I hadn’t really thought of that. Me: “On a scale of 1-10, it’s like a two.” Then she reminded me that I’d spent only peanuts to have it made and we can sell it/change it/burn it/whatever it later. Here’s Michael again.

Of course, we are going to worry about Brooke’s wedding dress (worry? I’m not going to worry, I’m selling that puppy the second it gets home)….but in the meantime, we will revel in my comfortable clothes, which I find to be quite ‘smashing’ myself, and take the wedding dress drama back to the US shopping malls. Wait until you see him in this stuff! He’s so handsome I *actually* may not let him leave the house. Well, at least maybe Michael can wear tailor-made clothes to our wedding!

Oh well... Let's celebrate anyway!

Posted in life lessons, Vietnam | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Motorcycle Club, Vietnam Style: Easy Riders

As soon as we stepped off our bus upon arrival in Dalat, Vietnam, a man named Rene approached us. Blah, blah, blah, is usually what I hear from these salespeople.

But Rene was different. He is a founding member of the “Easy Rider” motorcycle group. A group of 30 bikers started giving guided motorcycle tours of the Dalat region (and beyond if want more) 18 years ago. The group has expanded to about 80 riders, but Rene was an original. From the reviews, we heard it was an experience that was a must in Dalat.

We signed on. Pick up at 8:30 am and a whole day on the back of the bike. The list of places was extensive and words will be cumbersome. Let the pictures tell the story:

Posted in Transport, Vietnam | 3 Comments

An Underground Network

Away from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and its numerous artifacts of the “Vietnam War” (“American War” to the Vietnamese people), we continued to seek more information. Our day trip took us about 70 km northwest of HCMC to the Cu Chi district and its intriguing network of tunnels utilized from the 1950s until the Vietnam unification in 1975.

Here, the Viet Cong lived in these tunnels for over 20 years. The underground system was over 200 km long, with three levels, and the community was over 16,000 people. Insects, disease, and close living quarters contributed to many casualties.

Our guide offered three questions that we should think about during the tour:

1) How could they cook underground to avoid detection?

2) How did they communicate?

3) How did they use the toilet?

Throughout the tour we saw exhibits showcasing the Viet Cong’s use of booby traps. Looking at these in action, I cringed to think about the possibility of walking into one. We walked past a mangled US tank, bomb craters, and spent US artillery shells.

The memorial park, a huge tourist attraction, has enlarged some exhibit tunnels to allow for larger tourists to go through. We saw firsthand why–one woman went down in a manhole, only to realize that her hips did not come out as easily as she went in. Sadly, she struggled for a solid 10 minutes, only to be freed by several men that had to yank her out–and I mean YANK!

[Luckily], our guide took us to an original tunnel, 50 m in length, and a five minute crawl (1 m x 1 m). We jumped in. It was hot, dark, dirty, and a sense of claustrophobia set in. And the 50 m cramped crawl was excruciating for this man (my thigh muscles really revealed this the day after). Never could I have imagined spending 10 more minutes in there, let alone years!

Reflecting on our experiences in Cu Chi and the numerous museums in HCMC, we began to understand the fortitude and resilency of the Vietnamese people during their many battles with a host of imperialistic powers.

And to answer the questions, they whispered on the 2nd and 3rd levels, cooked in the morning and filtered the smoke out over several rooms/meters, and utilized spent US bombs as toilets, only to dump the waste in the Saigon River later.

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Hope for Orang Utans

While still on Borneo, we heard lots of good things about Sepilock. This is a town that’s barely on the map except for its conservation efforts. Lots of our fellow travelers recommended we stop by, so on our way to Vietnam (by way of Kuala Lumpur) we made the side trip to Sepilock. This was about a six-hour trip by boat and bus to get from Uncle Chang’s to our new home, Paganakan Dii.

It was during the five-hour bus trip that I began to understand the need for an orang utan rehabilitation center. For several years I’ve been hearing about deforestation in Southeast Asia, and avoid foods containing palm oil in my own quiet way of protesting. But never could I have understood the scope of palm oil monoculture until taking this trip across Sabah.

For nearly all of the five hours, while Malaysia’s answer to MTV (back when they played  *music*) blared on the bus’s television, we passed mile after mile after mile of palm plantations. Why is this a problem? Well, for lots of reasons, and many that are far beyond my scope of understanding. But one thing I can wrap my head around is this: when you plow down thousands of miles of forests to plant a single crop, entire ecosystems are displaced and/or destroyed.  I’m not even smart enough to broach the environmental issues that directly impact all of us; but I do know that these peatlands, when plowed, emit powerful greenhouse gases that contribute tremendous carbon emissions.

Ok, Debbie Downer, back to the monkeys. Sepilock Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center is the go-to place to help return displaced, orphaned, or illegally-kept pet orang utans back to the wild. When they receive one of these animals, they’re seen by the staff vet and quarantined until their threat of spreading disease has passed. Depending on their wilderness-readiness stage, the animals then are either placed in a nursery or skip this part and go to Outward Bound School. Some orang utans might have been taken from their mothers before developing survival skills; if so, the skills are taught by staff. Can you imagine a human teaching a monkey how to swing from the trees and forage for food?

In several phases and over sometimes several years, orang utans are weaned back into the wild. This step-by-step process ensures they become less dependent on their human helpers and gradually grow self-sufficient. Finally, after they are deemed ready, orang utans graduate to the jungle. The center at Sepilock is one of only about four in the world.

Over one hundred orang utans have been rehabilitated here through this process. We were able to pop in for feeding time, which allowed us to watch a few early-stage orang utan trainees receive their brunch: vitamin/mineral enriched and fortified milk, and a few bananas.

Where do I go next?

I think we should go that way...

These guys were still pretty small, but you wouldn’t believe their strength and flexibility. Their primary method of transportation is swinging by their unbelievably powerful arms. An adult male orang utan is four times stronger than an average adult human male! The  males can weigh between 110-300 pounds, while the females tip the scales at around 60-110 pounds. Orang utan means “man of the forest” and the forest is definitely where they were designed to live.  Getting close to some of them, it was striking how incredibly human-like they are… or perhaps how orang utan-like we are?

Happy we saw the orang utans!

Posted in life lessons, Malaysia | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments