Wednesday, July 29, 2009

5 things I miss about Korea

Korea is a beautiful part of the world. It's mountainous terrain, gorgeous coastline, modern buildings and wonderful food only touches the surface about what I miss. For those of you thinking about going to Korea on holiday or working there, here are some of my highlights!!

1) The Food

I love food! This isn't restricted to western, oriental or any other kind of food either! However, Korean food offers a variety that, in my opinion, isn't common in many other countries. I don't mean this in terms of which types of restaurants there are, I'm talking about dishes that are staple nourishment in the peninsula. My favourite dishes are generally those containing a substantial amount of meat. Pork, beef or chicken are the most common in SK as Lamb is too expensive. Of the Korean dishes, Galbi, Dakgalbi and Samgapsel are the pick for me. There is also a rich variety of other dishes to :-) As you are probably aware, Kimchi accompanies most meals. Kimchi soup is also a staple among those who live or have been in Korea for any length of time. Then there is Gimbab (rice, meat, some veg wrapped in seaweed) that I compared to our lunchtime favourite...the sandwich! There is also Bibimbap (rice usually fried,vegetables, maybe some meat with hot sauce) and I mustn't forgot Bulgogi (a beef dish) and Jeyukbokkeum (another beef dish). I could go on, but I wont....


2) The Mountains

Ok, the picture below isn't the best but it should give you some idea of what you can see from the mountains. Seoul is surrounded by them (I think about 7 but I may be terribly wrong) and this shot was taken about 1 hour from the capital. You can reach many of the climbs using the subways which is ridiculously convenient, you can also capture some wonderful scenery and they represent a good workout. If you are a serious hiker then you won't break sweat in these mountains, but in other parts of the country (e.g. Seolak Mountain) there are a much bigger challenges for those who fancy it! The advantage of the peaks around the city is that you forget how close you are to the 20 million other people who live in the capital!



3) The Coastline


I don't know an awful lot about coastlines. I come from the coast in England and although it's not the most beautiful site in the world, i find it a wonderful place to think and reflect on life. Although I can't swim and have a healthy respect and fear of the sea, I love being by water. I'm not sure why that it, but there's something about the power of the waves that clears my mind and allows me to see the world and my woes more clearly! When I was in Korea, I only visited the coast 3 times, but each time I vowed to return more frequently....did I?.....No! However, this picture gives you an idea of the stunning bay in the southwest of the penisula. In my opinion, the sea line in Korea is underrated, and depending on whether you go East, South or West (apparently North's not an option - I can't think why) you will enjoy a different experience! The south is the best place for beach bums for those who are interested.



4) The Heated Floors

This one is probably just a quirk of mine! However, there's nothing better than getting out of bed at 5 am in the bitter, bitter cold in Seoul in January and stepping onto heated floors! If you're anything like me, you won't mind the cold too much. However, that all changes when your feet get cold! When my toes are cold, I really hate the world and all things in it! Therefore the lovely, warm, heated floors in Korea ensure that I never have to feel this way inside my own home! I have no idea if there are heated floors in other countries, though I'm pretty sure Japan will have something similar, but I think they're great and it's pretty hard getting used to life without with on a cold winter's day!



5) ATMs / Vending Machines

This might sound a little strange, but you can almost do anything using atms! I was most impressed when I could order something online, print the receipt, take it to the atm and pay it on the atm by entering the appropriate details. This is particularly great as it's not easy for a foreigner get a credit card or buy things online! I also paid all my bills and rent by using a hole in the wall which is amazingly convenient. There are also vending machines everywhere! (Ok, I've heard there are millions in Japan, but I've never been there.) You can buy hot and cold drinks, chocolate, newspapers and books - perfect for the subway ride. Regardless of the fact the books and newspapers are in Hangul, that's not the point!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

When cultures collide

Culture is a funny thing. Differences in customs, traditions and thinking are deeply set within all of our societies. However we never quite appreciate them until we are caught in the midst of circumstances where our own tolerance, understanding and acceptance are called into question. You have probably guessed by now, I've had a few occasions where my patience has been tried, and let me be honest, it's far from easy to deal with.

I don't really respond to conflict well. I like to consider myself as a reflective type, who over analyses the simplest of situations. I listen to what other people are saying and try to understand their point of view and way of thinking. Usually this is very easy as it doesn't often directly impact on my immediate situation, let alone for the rest of my life. Over the past couple of years, I've had to start questioning just how compassionate and tolerant I am of other cultures. When I first went to Korea, I was keen to learn and adapt to the society I found myself in, but more and more recently I've developed a reluctance to embrace the Vietnamese culture as I feel I should and I don't know why.

When you over analyse things as I tend to, it can lead to an internal battle. We've all seen the films where the Devil and Angel appear on the main character shoulders telling him or her what the best course of action should be. Well this is how my world is operating right now. I know what the right thing to do is, and what the correct way of thinking should be (given I'm now in Vietnam) but the core of me is strongly opposing it due to my core Western values. By this I mean the ability to determine the direction and timing of my decisions free from the constraints of tradition and society. This, in my mind, is where the fundamental difference comes between East and West. Don't take this the wrong way. I'm not saying ones' right and the other is wrong. Again, I'm reflecting from a westerner's point of view of the difficulties of fully integrating into a culture that I can understand but not fully accept.

Now, cliche time. I have been blessed with amazing luck throughout my life. I have amazing parents who have always been there to support me. And it's here I want ground this posting. When you have a son and he falls over, what do you do? Do you run over to him, pick him up and cuddle him? Do you run over to him, pick him up and let him try again? Do you sit and watch. Watch your child try to pick himself up. He struggles, but he does it! He now learns that walking is difficult, he will fall over but he can stand again and continue. Option 3 was my parents. They let me live and learn by my decisions. They were always watching for if I couldn't get up on my own or if I needed advice. But largely they left me to my own devices and supported me, even if they didn't necessarily agree with them. With this in mind, I've always chosen my own direction which has lead to being here in Vietnam.

In the East, parents don't tend to opt for option 3. It's option 1. Again, I'm not saying it's right or wrong, just different. It just explains a lot about the culture and in particular, respect for parents and therefore traditions, customs and values.

I've found that most major decisions in this part of the world have to verified and approved by the parents. Whether that be for education, work or love. In contrast, I inform my parents about the decision I made probably a couple of weeks after. The former occurence leads to the situation where a lot of decisions made by the offspring are largely based on what will make their parents happy. Overall, I don't have a problem with this, I think. However, invariably, you have to make decisions which may or may not please the elders. And this is where the Devil and the Angel appears.

Keeping the family happy plays an important part of life here. Of course, most of us don't want to do things that we know will upset our loved ones, but we're also prepared to make those decisions when they come along. And I guess this takes me back to my core western values. We live in an individualistic society where I only really consider what's best for me and those who are immediately affected by actions. My happiness, of course, is the most important thing. I guess this has lead me to become a touch self centred and selfish in my outlook on life. My rationale behind my decisions is based on, primilarly, my happiness and then other factors such as logistics and finances.

In the East, the decision making is a lot more family orientated. Relationships need the approval of parents, kids should take the advice of their parents about subjects of study and thier eventual profession. However, this runs a lot deeper than first appears. Given this respect, many of the old customs have been past down from generation to generation, which has somehow been lost at home. I've never really studied our culture properly to see what customs we used to have but have now been forgotten. I'm sure we must have had rituals on New Year and weddings and funerals which are now long forgotten. I guess that a decreased level of respect or obedience (perhaps stemming from freer, but individualistic, thinking) has lead to customs becoming lost.

This links me back to my conflict. I will shortly be married to a Vietnamese girl. She is equally as lucky as I to come from a happy, loving and thoroughly supportive family. I've been sold on many of the rituals and customs that accompany certain aspects of life. However, I can't change my personality completely. I've accepted what I can accept and I'm trying to understand what seems a little strange and alien to me. Hopefully I've grown as a person and become more rounded and tolerant. There are bound to be times where either my future wife and I disagree and conflict over decisions that we need to make, but thus far they've brought us closer together. Who knows, maybe we'll develop a middle ground which merges parts that we both consider to be the best parts of our upbringing and perspectives.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Think you've got what it takes?

I'm currently sitting at my desk. It's break time and my students are about to write a timed essay for me: 'a letter to the editor'. I'll hand out the lined paper and ask the students to start writing the letter based on the previous hour that we spent going through how to write it. Hopefully I'll receive some really good pieces of work which will massage my ego as an EFL teacher. This brings me the subject of this entry....do you have the ideal characteristics to become a good EFL instructor. I'm not claiming to be a guru here, I just want to pass on some of my experience and thoughts on the desirable characteristics of a TESOL instructor.

1) Thick-skin!

Particularly when teaching lower ability groups, expressions such as 'teacher fat' or 'do you want a cock (coke)' are common. Don't take it personally! If you don't you'll be going home crying more often than not. Always remember that it's that they have a low English level and they are just trying to express themselves with the limited language that they have available to them. You'll also be asked about your salary and other such personal questions. Just remember that you're no longer playing by western rules and it's probably a standard question in your new environment.

2) Patience!

If you teach adults, remember that they've probably been learning English for many years and that the mistakes they make are ingrained into their speech. You will be correcting the same mistakes over and over again. Bare in mind that if you learn something correctly the first time, you'll probably use it and apply it correctly for life. Many of our students, unfortunately, have been taught English erroneously. Their pronunciation, use of plurals and prepositions may be completely off, but never forget that they probably speak a damn site more English than we do their mother tongue! If you can't get over the fact that people won't apply what you teach them first, second or even twentieth time, this isn't the job for you!

3) Honesty!

If you don't know a grammar rule, a spelling or an Americanism, just own up to it and say. Don't be arrogant and assume you know. Our students probably have a far better grasp of the grammar rules than we do and unless you are really clued up on our grammar, it's best not to get involved in a discussion about the uses of the passive past progressive and when it should be used! What we can do best is educate our students about natural English. A grammar book can't teach you the many idioms and peculiar uses of our beautiful language and that's where we come in. Most of the time we don't know why we use language in the way we do, I just reply 'because we do!' and reiterate that if they want to be understood at home, this is the language they need to be using.

4) Flexibility!

And I don't mean being able to put your legs behind your head, although that would be cool! I'm not sure about the EFL scene in Europe, but, unless you're extremely lucky, if you're teaching in Asia you'll probably find yourself working all sorts of weird and wonderful hours! In Korea I started work at 6:45a.m! It's also common to work split shifts with a crazy long break in the middle, so be prepared! You'll probably not get the average 9-5 Monday through Friday gig so you need to be willing to eat at all hours of the day. For the past 2 years my main meal has come at 9:30/10:00p.m. due to my schedule....it's just the way it is!

5) Understanding!

I know this is completely the wrong word for what I'm about to say but it's eluding me at the moment. Our students are generally studying English for a reason. Whether that be for promotion, future studies, relocation abroad or simply to improve a skill as one might with any hobby. We always need to bare their goal in mind and provide them with stepping stones to reach their target. Also, we can become frustrated with a perceived lack of progress and improvement of some our students. However, how must they be feeling? They're trying so hard to correct habits they've had for years and must be infinity more frustrated than we are. I've finally stopped biting my fingernails after 20 years of trying!

So all being said....do you think you've got what it takes?!!?!?!!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Undying Love

Well guys and girls, I've been asked why I haven't written about relationships on my blog yet, so I thought I'd give you an insight into my head and my heart. The thing that has captured my heart is warm, wet and lives in a cup! Yes, you've got it TEA!


For those of you who've known me for a while, or even for a couple of hours where there's been a kettle handy will know that TEA has played an important part of my life since I can remember. I can't remember my first cup and I don't even know if I immediately liked it. Did I take it with sugar? Or was I only drinking it to make me feel older than I really was? For those of you who don't know what I mean, think back to your first beer. Did you really like it? I mean really, I hated beer the first time, but only drank it because I might get drunk and that was supposedly the coolest and best thing you could do at the impressionable young age of XX.

My previous entry talked about my daily routine and only the most unobservant of you won't have noticed that the liquid gold has an essential part in my becoming human in the morning. In fact, without it I'm a quivering wreck! If I'm hungover, all I want is a strong cup of Yorkshire TEA! Failing that, Tetley's will do. If it's cold, I like to cradle my cup and woe betide anyone who tries to prize it from my hands! When I feel upset, happy, confused or exhausted, the brown stuff comes to my rescue and makes the clouds disappear! For God's sake, when Freddie and Swanny completed our first victory at Lords for 75 years, I went to the kitchen, put on a brew and sipped with a satisfied smile on my face.


At it's worst, my addiction was about 20 cups a day. This was approaching my finals at University. My close friend and I had a system where whenever one of our cups was empty, we'd pop on the kettle and refill! I dread to think about how many tea bags we got through in a week, but it was either impressive or sickening depending on your take on it. I guess in the UK I averaged about 12 cups but since I've been abroad it's fallen markedly.

That's not to say my 20 year love affair with TEA is waning, far from it! I'd say it's that my standards have remained high and the availability of good tea in Korea and Vietnam is severely limited. Ok, I could arrange for regular aid packages to be sent across, but I don't overly trust the postal service with something so precious! For example, I'm still waiting for my Christmas present from my parents which I'm lead to believe was sent in December 2007 to arrive! In the East, Lipton Tea is about the only option and although it's better than nothing, I still resent having to drink it! Maybe I'm just a snob, but it's not a patch on Tetley, PG or Yorkshire!

So what's it about Cha that makes it so essential to life? It could be the taste. It could be the warmth. It could even be the instant caffeine buzz that gets me through even the most tiring and trying times. I think it's because (to coin a phrase) it's 'a hug in mug' whenever I need it. It doesn't get jealous. I don't have to remember it's birthday! I'm not required to take it for dinner, or pick it up from work! It's just there, remains faithful and it doesn't ridicule, even when it's totally justified. It doesn't tell you 'I told you so' and just sits there in silence when I'm too tired or mad to talk! To sum up, it's the best friend you could wish for!

So I invite you all! Go to your kettle, put on a brew and even in the darkest and deepest of places remember 'While there's TEA, there's hope!'

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Meet 3 People

I'd like to introduce you to 3 people:


Name: Mark Jones

Age: 22 years old.

City: Southampton, The United Kingdom

Occupation: Trainee Financial Controller

Interests: Cricket, Drinking and listening to live music


Name: Mark Jones

Age: 23 years old.

City: Seoul, South Korea

Occupation: English Teacher, Private Institution

Interests: Running, Drinking and listening to live music


Name: Mark Jones

Age: 25 years old.

City: Saigon, Vietnam

Occupation: English Teacher, International University

Interests: Running, Drinking and blogging

Now these 3 different people may share the same name, even the same job but their daily life is much more different than you might think. So, let me talk you through the daily life of each. Draw your conclusions on which life style you'd prefer....

Mark Jones - aged 22

Beep Beep Beep - This is the joyous sound of my radio alarm clock! Why does it always go off so early in the morning! 6:30. Of course I hit snooze and feel like shit. At 7:00 a.m. my phone alarm starts screaming at me and at which point I decide that my day really does have to start. Half dressed and half in a daze I stagger to the kitchen to make my first cup of tea of the day. If I'm fortunate, I will have ironed a shirt the night before, but that's a rare occurrence so I stoke up the iron and do the necessary while, of course, demolishing my second tea. About 45 minutes after I rise from bed I'm ready and after my 3rd cup of tea I'm safe to attempt the drive to work.

The drive to work is relatively easy. A short 25 minutes on the motorway to Petersfield. I'm a car singer, so I enjoy my self performed concert and roll up to work at about 8:30 and pop the kettle on. As the office junior, I know my place. I fire up the computer and attempt to clear some space on my cluttered desk for my tea. As Norway is an hour ahead, and they start work an hour earlier than we do in the UK, I check my emails and reply to anything that in red. If it's in red it must be important right?

At work I'm left mostly alone to get on with my accounts. Most of the time I'm playing around with invoices and spreadsheets. Occasionally I'll get up to get a round in, or answer the odd call from the Nigerian accountant. However, the day is largely uneventful. I do my work, get stressed because I haven't got a clue where the difference is in my accounts, and where possible I chat on msn messenger which is difficult because of the central location of my desk. I take a short half an hour break to buy a bread roll, cake and some fruit and roll back into the office to continue staring into a computer screen until 5:00 when I jump back into my car and the concert continues!

The traffic on the way home is disearnably heavier than it was on the way, but I patiently wait in line and inch my way up the slip road which is an agonising 3 minutes from my house but takes me 15 minutes to get to. However, safely negotiated, I jump onto my computer to put on some music and chat to people on messenger as in Southampton I have absolutely no social life until my housemate gets home. I wait.... Eventually he gets home, and the first thing (well actually the third after 'Hey' and 'Fancy a brew?') is 'Pub?'.

At about 6:30-7:00ish we're in the pub (which is about 5 minutes from our flat) catching up and having the same conversation about which barmaid is the fittest and kidding ourselves that we actually have a chance with any of them. As the hours drift on, and 8/9 pints later, I get goded that I can't drink as much as him and true to form, I rise to the challenge and suggest continuing to drink at home after closing time (which is 11:00p.m). However, we invariably stop at the burger van to get double cheese burgers and chips before punishing our livers further.

At home we switch on the TV and wait for 2 pints to come on tv. At this point I have a Baileys (or cheap supermarket equivalent) in my hand and promptly fall asleep clutching my drink. My bemused housemate mutters to himself before retiring for the night, leaving me cradling my drink non the wiser. At about 2/3 I wake up, finish my drink, which is remarkably still safe in my hand and stagger to bed to wake up the next day to do it all over again.

Mark Jones - aged 23

Beep Beep Beep - This is the joyous sound of my radio alarm clock! Why does it always go off so early in the morning! 5:00. I'm a zombie. If I wake up great, if I don't I have another 6 alarms programmed 5 minutes apart that should do the trick! Instinctively I put the kettle on before jumping into the shower to wash some life into me. This time I do have ironed shirts so I throw on some clothes and race out the door to catch the subway.

5:45 I'm at the subway station listening to music and hop on the train. After making the necessary change I eventually reach my destination and crawl up the steps onto the street. I stop at my favourite sandwich lady's stand and wait for my egg and salad butty and make my way into school with 20 minutes to prepare for my first class. At about 6:40 the other teachers rock up, all looking like death warmed up, and we all complain that 6:45 is an ungodly hour to start teaching (welcome to Korea) and wait for the dreaded sound of death...the bell for the class to begin.

At 9:45 I'm done. Class taught, students and teachers feeling much more awake after several rounds of caffeine, and the 5:00 a.m. start paling into insignificance (until tomorrow). Happy times. My next class starts at 12:00 so I have enough time to go to the gym which is 2 minutes from work. I get changed and hop onto the running machine to run for 40 minutes and watch the TV which is conveniently placed directly above my treadmill. At about 11:30 I shower and get ready to teach.

At 13:00, class successfully completed, I have about 4 hours until I need to be on the bus to my next class. What to do? Well, I could go for coffee, prepare for class or try to learn Korean. However, I think I'll choose the easy option, I'll do nothing! So I proceed to waste the next 4 hours pissing around on the internet, annoying my manager and watching dvds.

At 21:00 we eventually finish for the night, feeling exhausted as the split shift is pretty draining. However, I'm hungry now and the inner socialite means that dinner and a beer and/or soju is required. At about 22:30-23:00 I get home and go to bed, dreading the 5:00 sound of doom!

Mark Jones - aged 25

ZZZZ ZZZZ zzzz - I wake up when I naturally regain consciousness. These days it's about 7:30, but how nice it is to wake up of my own accord and I actually feel good! I purposefully go into the kitchen for the morning ritual and hop into the shower, singing or humming the song which is stuck in my head. As my shirts have already been ironed for me I get dressed and contemplate the motorbike ride to University. As my class doesn't begin until 13:00 there's no hurry, but I like to get there early to prepare so I leave home at about 8:30 and am at my desk by about 9:00 via the bakery where I pick up some bread and various cakes.

At work I talk with my coworkers, who help me enormously with my planning, and do some marking. I also play on the internet and wait for 13:00 to come and I teach my class. At 17:40 I leave the building and return home with nothing to complain about, musing over what I should have for dinner. After watching England pommel (I hope I'm not counting my chickens) Australia in the Ashes, I get changed and go for a run. 7km later I return sweaty but satisfied after stretching my legs.

At 22:00 when my housemates return, we go for a quick beer and some tucker before going to bed at about midnight with a full belly.

Simplicity at it's best!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Seoul vs HCMC

My year in Korea shaped my life in a number of ways. Firstly, it cured my anxiety about living and working in Cities. Secondly, it set me on the teaching path, and finally it's left a huge hole in my heart that HCMC is trying to replace....so how's it doing?!

Food

The food in Vietnam isn't actually too bad. I might actually concede that it's pretty good, especially for the price! First of all, foreign food in Nam isn't great and it's over priced which is a little disappointing as variety is the spice of life so they say. However, the local food is tasty. The noodles (with or without water) with vegetables and meat is a staple here, along with rice accompanied with the same duo and it's satisfying. Seafood hotpots are also popular, particularly when eating with friends. Unfortunately for me, most of the seafood comes with the heads still on, and I really can't be bothered deboning food before I eat it. In contrast, Korea has a much larger selection of local foods. Barbequed pork and beef are popular choices for large groups, but all kinds of meat and vegetable dishes are available. On top of the selection, the side dishes at Korean restaurants puts them above most overs in my book. When I first arrived in Seoul I was sure that I'd have to pay for the 6 bowls of food presented in front of me. Fortunately that is all part of the service...happy days! Foreign food is also cooked at a better quality and (comparatively) more reasonable price than Saigon. Sorry HCMC, Seoul opens it's account!

Seoul 1 - 0 HCMC

Transportation


Public transport in Seoul is quite remarkable! The subway runs efficiently, the buses leave regularly and have a wide coverage to all areas of the city and high speed trains take you to any other cities on the peninsula. Failing that, it's easy enough to find a taxi to take you wherever you need to go at a pretty decent rate! So how does HCMC fare? Again, not so great. The only form of public transport are the buses. If you've ever been on a Vietnamese bus, you'll know that I'm not joking when I say that the drivers are crazy! The buses are old and uncomfortable and it's not unusual to have to jump off a moving bus when you arrive at where you want to go to. Most people (who don't drive a motorbike) will take a motorbike taxi, which are both cheap and convenient. Foreigners should be careful not to get ripped off, but to be fair, most of the drivers are decent, honest chaps. Taxi's are also widely available although my advice would be to avoid small, independent cars and stick to the larger firms (it's obvious which and which by looking at the quality of the cabs). Seoul extends its' advantage...

Seoul 2 - 0 HCMC

Pollution

Let's be honest, pollution in both cities is pretty dire. Air pollution is the major issue which I guess originates from Korea recently joining the developed countries and Vietnam being very much in the middle of it's development. I'd say the air is slightly better in Seoul but there's not much in it.

Where the major difference comes is in the sewage system and water pollution. If I'm honest with you, I can't remember pollution of the River Han being a particular problem in Seoul but water pollution is rife in HCMC. With numerous factories located on the banks of the Saigon River, it's only going to get worse until the government takes decent measures to stop it. However, with corruption being what it is, the current situation isn't likely to improve any time soon. Please don't have a go at me, as I know we did exactly the same thing when we were developing, I'm just stating the situation as it is.

Back to Sewage. Here I'd say the advantage lies with HCMC since I've never noticed it as being a problem. On the other hand, (again in my humble opinion backed up with nothing more than my thoughts), Seoul grew very quickly as a city and the sewage system wasn't designed to sustain the number of people it's currently supporting. Occasionally (I'm not saying overly frequently), there is the sweet aroma of waste if you standing close enough to various manholes. Again, don't take it the wrong way, it's not overwhelming or particularly unpleasant and after a while you don't even notice it.

So who wins? This time I'll award the point to HCMC as I think the Korean government could've done more and be outwardly seen to be doing more to tackle the problems in Seoul.

Seoul 2 - 1 HCMC

Friendliness

This is a difficult one to call. In Korea, I made a lot of wonderful friends that I keep in regular touch with, and I know that we will remain close for many years to come. The process of making friends in SK takes longer than in VN. From my experience in Seoul, starting a conversation and maintaining an interest from someone took some time. Initial encounters didn't always bare the fruits you might expect. However, after a few meetings trust would start to build and pretty soon afterwards you have made a firm friend. I found most Koreans to be extremely warm, generous and understanding individuals once a relationship has been established. This is a little in contrast to HCMC where the front of friendship can be built almost instantly. Obviously this is a great thing for the traveler and tourist to make them feel at home and spend money (oh the cynic in me), but establishing a deeper relationship in my experience so far has been much more difficult. Of course I'm generalising here, and I don't want anyone to feel offended. I'm the sort of person who's not interested in a popularity contest and I'd much rather have a few close friends than 1000's of acquaintances so....HCMC has scored an own goal

Seoul 3 - 1 HCMC

Apartments, buildings and toilet facilities

For me this is a no-brainer. I'm used to my home comforts and whilst the most modern Vietnamese buildings are perfectly (I hate to say it) western, others aren't up to the standards that we are accustomed to at home. Again, I do realise that I'm in a developing country and it's not England. I'm just reflecting on my thoughts and preferences, which is something you don't always learn about until you experience something different. Anyhows, back to the point .... Seoul is in many ways a spectacularly modern city. I never felt uncomfortable there and rarely saw anything that made me think 'what the hell am I doing here?!!'. Also, Korea has the heated floors which are amazing! Seoul, emphatically, takes the spoils here!

Seoul 4 - 1 HCMC

Things to do

If you follow 'facebook', a few weeks back I posted: 'Is there a more boring city than Saigon?' and from time to time I still feel like that. As I've said before, HCMC is a great place to visit but I wouldn't recommend living here if you're after fun and games every moment when you have free time. I enjoy getting involved in sports, learning about culture and generally doing boyish things. In Saigon, getting drunk, meeting friends for coffee and eating are about the only things available. Organised sport isn't that widely available and the heat makes it pretty difficult to become motivated and committed to it on a regular basis. Live music is also pretty sparse. I've taken to writing this blog and doing jigsaws in my free time which I think says it all.

For me, Seoul is a different kettle of fish. Every other weekend I started running in organised 10km running events, I could go to watch live music every week should I so desire and cycling alongside the River was also an option. Bungee jumping, watching baseball games, playing organised football, ice skating, learning traditional archery and climbing one of the various mountains that surround Seoul are all available. Now don't get me wrong, I didn't do all of these things, let alone on a regular basis, but just the fact that are all accessible means I have no excuse for being bored!

Seoul 5 - 1 HCMC

A resounding victory for Seoul and is a sound reflection on my desire to return to Korea when the appropriate moment comes and the right opportunity presents itself. This is not intended to paint a negative picture of Vietnam. Far from it. I merely wish to talk about why Seoul has left a mark with me that is proving very difficult, if not impossible to shake!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

4 Reasons why living in Vietnam isn't so bad

Well I seem to be on somewhat of a role at the moment. I resisted writing a blog for so long that now that I've started one I spend all my free time thinking about what to write about next! I'm certainly not lacking for inspiration right now, so I'll continue to plough on until all of my creative juices have run dry - I hope for all your sakes that it comes soon!

As my housemates will tell you, I've been a little negative about Vietnam recently. I'm not sure why, but I have an inkling it's mostly to do with the heat, lack of decent tea and being out of the UK for Ashes mania! So, to readdress all of my whinging and whining I figured I should write about something positive. So here it comes:

1) Cheap beer and food - let's start with the most important thing first! I kid you not, you can be well fed and watered, with crap beer but good food for about £3/4. We usually go for the local lager with some Chinese style rice, some random beef in a fantastic sauce with bread and some green vegetable that's mixed with way too much garlic, but it's sooooo good! We've found a great local 'Beer Hoi' and we probably eat there about 3 times a week and we're so well known that our glasses are already filled before they hit the table. The lovely waitress also brings our soy sauce without chillies for our housemate ,Will, who has violent reactions to them! Rating 8/10

2) Traffic flow - you'll often hear people complaining about the volume of traffic here, but despite the numbers, the bikes move remarkably well. I haven't been in a substantial traffic jam since I've been here (except for trying to get out of Saigon during a National Holiday - error!). The (apparent) lack of traffic rules are alarming when you first arrive but the traffic does follow vague patterns that are pretty easy to get the hang of after a while. Since motorbikes (or glorified mopeds) are much more mobile and nimble than cars, there aren't the daily gridlocks that we experience at home! Rating 7/10


3) Ability to fix anything, anywhere - you could be mistaken for thinking that at a coffin shop you can buy coffins and accessories for when we have to make our exit to this life, but there you'd be mistaken. Down the road, the guy not only specialises in wooden boxes, but he can also fix motorbikes and who knows what else! This is usual for Vietnam. It seems that it's always worth asking someone to try to help you fix things. As Vietnamese life tends to revolve around bikes, everyone seems to know how to fix them. However, if you have electrical problems I don't think it would be a bad call to see if they can repair it. Rating 8/10

4) First up friendliness - in contrast to Korea, the Vietnamese are immediately friendly to strangers. Here, people smile and are full of warmth for foreigners...well...mostly. Of course you have to be wary that they're not trying to sell you something, or entice you into their shop or restaurant. However, it's pretty easy to strike up conversation in a bar or coffee shop. That being said, it's harder to build lasting and meaningful friendships in Nam whereas the friends I've made in Korea will be close friends for life. Rating 6/10

Life in Vietnam does offer a lot of positives. I could go on about the cheap cost of living, the hardworking nature of the people and the pride and love that the Vietnamese feel for their country. It's a wonderful place for foreigners to live in which is easily bourne out by the number of people who come initially to stay a short time, but end up settling here. That being said, I'll still rather be sat at Lords tomorrow with a beer in my hand, waiting for Jimmy to trap Hughes LBW with the first ball of the game!

A trip to Dalat

Dalat is a city that is like nothing else I've seen so far in my short time in Vietnam. I've only been here for 8 months, and to be honest with you, I've mostly been confined to Saigon. However, on the few occasions that I've frequented other parts I can't say that I've been completely impressed or blown away by any part that I've visited....well that was until Dalat.

Rumour has it that during the Vietnam War (American War as it's called here) there was an agreement between all sides that Dalat be left out of the conflict. Word is that the Generals and various officers on both sides had houses, getaways, cottages (or whatever you want to call their lodgings) when they weren't intent on blowing each other to bits. Therefore Dalat has kept many of its French influences and beauty. When I say beauty, particularly when compared to Ho Chi Minh, I really mean it.

Lets start from the beginning. Not so much on a whim, but something that's between a whim and an actual plan, my housemate and I decided to drive to Dalat on our motorbikes. If you've watched Top Gear Vietnam, you will now know that the roads aren't exactly what we've come to expect in the U.K. Anyways, we set out on our 450km journey. Like most travellers, we decided to leave early to avoid the traffic, and true to our word and plan, we actually set out before 6 a.m. The first part of the drive was really easy (apart from the usual tossers that are so frequent on the Vietnamese roads) and not far outside HCMC we turned left (the only turn for the entire journey!) and here the road trip became interesting!

In the distance, we could see mountains and trees and even green stuff which I've been informed is called grass! The sky was perfect and blue, decorated with a few clouds. Sounds good doesn't it. And it was :-) That is until we reached the mountains! Now, I'd never driven on a mountain road before, and apparently they are neither straight, nor safe. That being said the sites were spectacular and ones that I ordinarily would've enjoyed. However, the heavens opened, visibility was next to none and crazy bus drivers deciding that overtaking round blind corners on nothing more than skinny country lanes only added to the excitement. The rain was also coming at an angle which lead me to believe that it was actually an attack on my eyes so I had to wear sunglasses, which wouldn't have been a problem if I could see more than, let's say, 10 metres in front of me!

Needless to say when we stopped for lunch we were both soaked to the skin, but I had the one saving grace....a Thermos with hot tea! Or so I thought. Yep you guessed it (or maybe not) I forgot to boil the kettle, so the tea was stone cold....great.....on to Dalat....11 hours after leaving the house

First finding the hotel. This was easy! A quick call to our friend, a text message with the address and some helpful locals and we found the house shortly after making the final assent into Dalat. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that this town is approximately 1495 metres above see level, our poor bikes! Anyhows, we're here and after a shower and change of clothes.....warmth! After my first post, you may be surprised to hear that I was actually cold! I was too! For some reason, I failed to register that Dalat was indeed a mountain city/town or whatever you want to call it, and that at altitude things are generally a bit colder. That coupled with the rain that we had encountered and the fact that I was a drowned rat by this point meant I was freezing. However, mustn't complain as I must admit, I like the cold!

I could go on with a blow by blow account, which would both be self-indulgent and a waste of time, so that's exactly what I'm going to do....nah only kidding. What I will do is give you 5 reasons to visit Dalat should you ever visit this part of the world.....

1) Waterfalls - I had never seen a waterfall before. Whilst they are certainly not the biggest in the world I found them to be a source of wonder and amazement. I've always respected water and found it to be a good place to think. Not only were they incredible to view, the sheer power of the fall is quite something.


2) The cable car - Again another first for me. There's something about being suspended from a cable God knows how many metres from safety which makes you feel just that little bit vulnerable! However, the views of the mountains, valleys and scenery was staggering, and this was at a time when visibility was particularly poor! The mind races to think about what I would've been able to see had it been clear, but no doubt I'll be back so fingers crossed!


3) Random fun - Original I know but I think it sounded better than miscellaneous! At the various attractions you can go on small roller coasters, ride an elephant or ostrich, throw spears and do some archery. Whilst it's not quite as good as it first sounds, it's still a lot of fun and I haven't found the same level of fun in HCMC yet.

(That's not a flattering picture!!)

4) The noise (or should I say lack of it) - Dalat is remarkably quiet. The drivers don't honk their horns unnecessarily, people aren't constantly going through your street trying to sell you things and you can find places to relax and collect your thoughts very easily! It's such a change to HCMC where it's impossible to get away from the sound of traffic.

5) It's just nice - Period.


Dalat is the perfect tonic for HCMC. It's like a piece of home in Vietnam. I didn't mention it, but it feels like Europe which is I guess why I enjoyed being there! The weather is similar to home, the buildings are interesting to look at (not the straight lined, built in a hurry buildings of Saigon) and the pace of life is relaxed and peaceful. In my whole 2 days there, I managed to do more and had more fun than I have had accumulated in HCMC. Unfortunately Dalat is only a small city and there are no opportunities to teach English there! However, I do think that if I were to live there it could be a boring place to live. That being said, I'm happy to think of Dalat as a corner of happiness and bliss that I can't wait to return to!


Monday, July 13, 2009

Finally I've caved in!

Well, it's finally happened! I've given in and I'm now officially a blogger. It's a sad and tragic state of affairs that I feel the need to copy a certain James Hendicott in everything he does, but such is life. I hope that he'll forgive me, but knowing him he'll remind me that I'm still countless countries and experiences behind him.....oh well!

Ok to start, like my fellow English teachers who have spent any amount of time abroad, my English has rapidly deteriorated between a mix of 'Konglish' and some hybrid between Vietnamese and English. I'm not sure what they call it out here and to be honest, it's not on my list of things to find out! Anyways, with the remnants of my English, I'll be attempting to post something that's relatively coherent so that my loved ones (and cats) can keep up to date with what has been going on without thinking that something has happened to me because I'm useless at keeping in touch!

On the subject of coherence, which is already lacking, please don't remind me of the following:

1) My English is terrible so there will be frequent mistakes!
2) Directly relating to the afore mentioned, I can't spell and my grammar is shocking. I also frequently miss out words
3) There will probably be long sentences with awful punctuation!
4) I never proof read

Ok, now that's out the way: Vietnam!

Vietnam is somewhat of an enigma for me. Somedays I really enjoy it, and other days I want to drive into the nearest bus! It's a place that has brought out the best and worse in me and I can't say that that's a good thing.....but why?

1) The weather! My God it's hot! 'You should've known that before you flew out' is what you're probably thinking, or speaking out loud in disbelief....but let me explain. There's hot, unpleasant and humid and then there's hot, unpleasant and humid for 24 hours each and everyday! Well, maybe not each and everyday, but I'd say for about 90% of the time. Some of you may know that I'm a keen runner. For someone who's a touch on the porky side, I enjoy running and try to run 3 times a week and I think I don't do too badly for someone with a more than ample frame. However, running at 30 degrees C at 11 p.m. will give you some idea of the difficulties of a wonnabe marathon runner! Also, frequent powercuts at night, disable the one saving grace (you've guessed it - Air Con!) which subsequently turns my room into a sauna (yay).

2) The food! - at first, Vietnamese food is great. Then after a week, you realise, where's the choice?!?! If you want to eat rice and noodles everyday, it's wonderful! If you want to eat poor quality, undercooked, fatty meat...this is your country! Ok, there is seafood on the menu, but for me this isn't filling and seeing the eyes of what I'm eating doesn't really help my appetite. I guess that I was just spoilt in Korea, with a rich variety of culinary delights, so take what I'm saying with a pinch of salt. However, that being said, the fruit out here is pretty good, and will probably be the only food I'll miss when I eventually leave.

3) Paperwork, Corruption and Bribery! Well, as the good old saying goes: if you want something doing, bribe an official and you'll get something done! Here, it's all about the sly money. I wouldn't usually mind, but for some reason it really ticks me off. I know it's the 'foreigner tax' but still....grrrr.....I'll stop there as no doubt I'll devote a whole rant for it in the future!

I could go on....and on.....and on, but for now I'll leave it there. Vietnam is a truly beautiful country with amazing people. I'll talk about that more later, but for now, I'll save the nice side for a separate post as the good side deserves due care and attention and needs to be untarnished by my pet irritants at this moment!!