Captivated By Culture Travel Blog

Immerse yourself in the culture of every country you visit

Captivated By Culture Travel Blog

May the force be with you in Vietnam

I get to see the new Starwars movie before the rest of the world! I’ve always wanted to attend the first showing of a movie, but for major releases at home in the USA, that usually requires standing in line at quarter to midnight. So now that I’m  in an earlier time zone and the theater is right downstairs from my apartment, I plan to be the first in line. And I don’t even have to go outside. I just take the elevator.There is no showing at midnight, but that’s okay.  Since we are a day ahead here in Vietnam, I still get to see it before anybody in the USA. Oddly, the theater has only 2 showings on opening day and they are both in English with Vietnamese subtitles. Usually the major movies are also offered dubbed in the local language, but not this one. Maybe Starwars is not as popular here in Vietnam as it is in the US?.

 

I’ve arrived at the theater an hour early to secure my spot at the front of the line, but strangely there is no line, so I purchase my ticket and return to my apartment to await start time. The theaters in Vietnam have assigned seats which you choose when purchasing your ticket. Since I was the first to buy a ticket, I will be occupying the best seat in the house: eye level, center. If you are curious about the ticket price, it is $2.50 USD rather than $12-$15 I’d be paying in the states. Popcorn costs less than a dollar but is only sold in small individual bags. In Asia, all food portions are small. That’s probably the reason no one is overweight. Everyone is thin and small. I’m 5’6” and even most of men are shorter than I.

 

It’s just about start time, so I go downstairs to buy my popcorn, and, again, there is no one in line. In fact, the only people in the lobby are two other Americans. And then when the theater opens, its just the three of us. That’s all. In the whole theater, only three of us! It’s almost like a private viewing. What a treat!

 

Speaking of treats, my popcorn held a big surprise. My family has a tradition whereas we don’t begin devouring the popcorn until the actual movie begins. Not the previews. Not the commercials, the actual movie. Imagine this: You are seated all cozy in the theater. You don’t know what to expect since you have never been in a movie theater in Vietnam.  The lights dim signaling the start of the projection. All of a sudden, you hear popping sounds pinging off the wall all around you. It scares you a little bit. You look around and see nothing capable of making that noise. Then the screen lights up and draws your attention to the culprit- little colored bouncing balls. Your are pleased to discover the theater has surround sound. This fact is announced from the screen. A woman’s voice says, ” All …around… you…..” What is next you wonder. Well it’s all pretty basic from then on. A few previews, a few commercials, then that familiar Starwars narration begins to scroll.  Great. Now you can relax, no more surprises or so you think. You settle in and  pop a piece of popcorn into your mouth. Shock!! It’s sweet! You’re expecting the salty, buttery taste that you are accustomed to, but instead, you get sweet! It’s coated with some kind of sugary spray. The sugar is adhered to each piece. There is no getting around it. The two other westerners in the theater begin to laugh. They were waiting for this moment.

 

What are the theaters like in Vietnam? I can only speak for this theater. I’ll try another one later and report back. This particular theater, as well as my apartment, is located in the Pegasus Plaza high rise building which is only 2 years old. My 2 bedroom apartment on the 16th floor is already showing wear, with mold growing behind the wallpapered walls, but the theater shows no sign of wear and is high quality with excellent sound, a spacious lobby, a smoothie bar, fake trees, and a full line of movie theater snacks. It’s also one of the few places in town where you can buy diet pepsi. It’s top notch.

 

The popcorn takes some getting used to, but I embrace the culture and enjoy the Vietnam movie and popcorn experience. I thought the movie was just okay. In my opinion, the writers could have taken a bigger risk. My family and I have been waiting so long for this movie that I immediately wanted to start discussing it on Facebook, but I’ll wait until the whole world has a chance to see it. One of our other traditions is to never spoil the ending of a movie or book. This doesn’t count for predictions. When I was a kid, our family would watch one of those t.v. movies and soon after it began, my father would get a little piece of paper and write his prediction for the ending, then fold the paper and set it next to his cigarettes.  After it ended, he’d unfold the paper and we would all be amazed at how smart he was. Now that I have more experience, I can do it too. Starwars was like that. Quite predictable.

A couple days later I go to view Starwars again and this time I am the ONLY PERSON IN THE THEATER. Everyone else is taking their afternoon siesta. Other than the movie theater, the rest of the town shuts down between 11 and 4. I mean, really, you can’t even get lunch. If you want to have the whole theater to yourself, come to Vietnam and take in a matinee.

 

Also opening in the cinema this week is Deadpool. The theater is packed for the opening. I can’t figure out why one movie is so popular but not the other, so I ask my Vietnamese friends. They inform me that space movies are considered to be children’s movies and grown ups are not interested in such nonsense. Hmm…interesting…space movies are considered to be for children, but comic book characters are for adults.  Come to think of it, none of my British and South African friends are here either. Is it just Americans who are so enamored of space movies?

Culture tip: The Vietnamese, when using English to describe watching a movie in a movie theater, it’s referred to as watching a film in a cinema. If you speak British English, you recognize this collocation. Vietnamese students learn British English.  The majority of the teachers are also from UK or South Africa so most of the young people in South East Asian countries learn British phonics and speak English with a British accent. The older people in Vietnam use the American accent due to our presence during the war. As far as I know, Taiwan is the only Asian country where American phonics are currently emphasized. I’ll be going there soon. Taiwan is one of my future destinations

Are you a Starwars fan?


Not all monkeys are worth their weight in gold

You dirty rotten monkeys!  An excursion which was supposed to be a fun group bonding outing to Monkey Island is ending up being less like fun and more like terrorizing. We bonded alright, because we were grabbing onto each other for protection, especially when the monkeys saw us with food. Pat, my best friend here, spotted an ice cream stand on the island and innocently suggested getting one. Well, as soon as the monkeys noticed one in my hand, they began jumping to get at it. I’m sorry, but it’s hot outside and I’m not giving it up!  They were able to get my water bottle though, and as it was being dragged toward the alligator infested swamp, I was still fighting off monkeys and exclaiming, “Pat, I’m gonna get you for this!”

And to think that in the past I paid to let little tourist monkeys climb on me and pick my pocket. Hopefully you still think they are cute, because they can be a fun tourist attraction. My sister just sent me a picture of one standing on her head in Bali. But due to this unfortunate incident, I’m scared of them now.

The remainder of the Vietnam excursion was one of the best of my life. It included a traditional hot-pot lunch on the beach, a ferry ride, dinner at a seafood restaurant, and monkey free ice cream cones back in town. All in all a memorable day in Asia.

Travel tip: Monkey excursions are popular tourist venues in many countries. Be cautious. One girl had her prescription glasses stolen.

Have you ever had a bonding outing go terribly wrong?


How to become popular in Vietnam

The whole point of cultural travel is to meet local people and become involved in their culture. So how do I meet people? Can I really become popular when I don’t even know the language? 

My apartment building, the Pegasus Plaza, has both apartments and offices housed in its two towers which are attached at the pool.  One day when crossing from my condo tower to the office tower, I meet my first local friend, a Malaysian man named Mahasnoor, who invited me to join he and his Vietnamese wife for a glass of wine.  If you want to become popular, take a lesson from Hasno’s wife, Thuc. She brings a pack of Vietnam’s Tiger, Larue or Huda Beer to the pool nightly and holds court, entertaining everyone with her off-beat personality and inviting every passerby to join in the merriment.. She is also tri-lingual, which helps a lot when you are entertaining groups with varying languages. As Hasno’s Vietnamese language is limited, he’s been actively searching for English-speaking friends to join in the fun. It doesn’t take long until I introduce my co-workers to the group, so now there is fun to be had at the pool by all.

Travel tip: Be open to invitations. If a local person invites you to join them in an activity, say yes!

How do you meet local people when you are traveling?


My hotel bed tried to kill me, and other accommodations available in Vietnam

I’ve always dreamt of moonlight dancing in exotic countries and I’m finally realizing my dream. But this is far from the romantic experience I envisioned. I awoke in the middle of the night and here I am dancing to save my life. The hotel bed is so hard that it actually cut off all circulation on my left side. I don’t know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t woke up!  I’ve slept in campgrounds tents that were softer than this thing.

What kind of places do you like to stay in when you visit other cities or countries? Hard beds aside, Vietnam has some excellent choices for accommodation and the prices are unbelievable. Here are the housing choices for a stay in Vietnam: Buy your own luxury condo for $50,000 USD, rent an apartment or condo for $12 a day, or stay in a hotel for a few dollars per night. For $350 USD, I take the luxury 2 bedroom condo for a month. Staying for at least a month is the best way to truly immerse yourself in the culture. My condo is housed on the 15th floor of a brand new high-rise and sports a pool, a commercial gym, restaurants, dance clubs, and a top-notch movie theater. Can you imagine all this for a few hundred a month. So this is what it feels like to live in luxury!

Travel tip: Travel with one of those cheap swimming pool air mattresses to place on your bed.

Which accommodation would you choose?


Black Friday shopping in Vietnam

I pull into Bien Hoa, Vietnam and I wonder why the first thing I see is a giant Christmas tree in front of the four story mall, and why are the words BLACK FRIDAY written on the windows?  That’s an American Christmas shopping tradition that occurs on the day after Thanksgiving. Am I in America or Vietnam? I thought this was a communist country. They’re not allowed to have churches or stuff like that over here are they?

Actually, they are. I’ve only been in Vietnam 2 days and already one of my preconceived notions has been debunked! This is the reason I chose immersion travel. I would never have seen this obscure town if I was on a tourist bus in Saigon or Dalat.  Instead, I’m in Bien Hoa, described as a small town of 1,000,000 people outside of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. I’m teaching English here with 16 teachers from USA, UK and South Africa ranging from the ages of 22-65. So, not only do I get to experience this culture, but I get to learn about UK and South Africa too, plus hear my own language spoken in different accents. Here is something I learned already. Look at this word: travel. British English doubles the letter L when conjugating: traveling vs. travelling. traveler vs. traveller. So if you are not from the USA and you think the word looks odd, that’s why. Most of my newly made friends have traveled here alone, some for the first time internationally.

Ben Hoa was the airfield during the Vietnam War. Some of my older friends and relatives were not happy upon hearing the name of this town again. My biggest memory of the war is that my friend’s big brother was killed here. Every time I go to a Vietnam war memorial I run my fingers over his name. Vietnam seems to have forgiven the Americans for their part in the war and if you talk to some of the Americans working and volunteering over here, you will find that many of them are here because of what happened during the war and as Americans, they feel they should give something back.

Here’s some more culture I learned in my 2nd day. Let me give you an example of a typical interaction in Vietnamese culture. My friend, Bao Anh arranged our taxi from HCMC to Bien Hoa. The driver assured her that he knew the hotel location. He didn’t! He dropped us off at our address and left, but it was a private residence, not our hotel. Here’s how the next hour went: The suitcases are marched along the street searching for the correct address. A nice lady who was working at her outdoor food cart takes pity and drives off on her motor bike to find the address. She finds the address and sends me back in the same direction, but it ends up being the same private residence. I trudge back to her shop, where she gives up and places me in another cab, etc.

Culture Tip: What ever questions you ask of a Vietnamese, the answer will be YES.  In Vietnamese culture, it is rude to say no, or “I don’t know how to do something”. Be aware of this so you don’t end up being stranded somewhere…or hopping on a bike without working brakes, or …..the myriad of other problems you will see me encounter when you follow this blog.

What do you know about Vietnam?


What downhill skiers understand about navigating Vietnam traffic

What kind of insanity is this Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam traffic, it’s…it’s….it’s snowskiing.! Yes, that’s it! It’s the black diamond run at the ski resort and the pedestrian trying to cross the street is the snow bunny, you know, the beginning skier who cuts across the path of on-coming skiers. I used to be a ski instructors so I can tell you that it is the responsibility of the skier who is uphill to avoid those in their path. The Vietnamese driver is the uphill skier and the snow bunny is the pedestrian crossing their path. The advanced skiers can recognize the snow bunny in their path and avoid them, but only if the bunny proceeds steadily along a single trajectory, and doesn’t stop, or turn back, or fall. Only this way can the drivers track the bunny’s movement and adjust their own trajectory allowing him to reach his destination unharmed. This works only with advanced skiers, try it on the bunny hill and you’ll be smashed. For this reason, I deem the Vietnamese drivers as the most advanced drivers in the world!  

What is the most frightening traffic you have experienced as a pedestrian? If you haven’t been to Vietnam, I’m guessing that anything you have seen pales in comparison to HCMC or Hanoi. Back in the 1970’s, Asian traffic consisted of bicycles and walking. Maybe you’ve seen old black and white footage of Asian streets filled to the brim with bikes. Those were the calm and quiet times. Read this quote from a National Geographic photographer describing Vietnam’s streets in 1973.  “It was silent. It was all bicycle traffic or people walking, so there wasn’t much on the streets to hear.”

It’s anything but silent now and almost nobody walks anywhere. Those bicycles have been replaced by 40 million loud, roaring, polluting, constantly-horn-honking motorcycles and scooters. This description from Cate Kennedy of the newspaper, The Australian, is a more apt description of what I am experiencing today: “Amid the honking, blaring, shouting, and gesturing, jackhammers will be going about their business, ­endlessly hacking up old concrete to make way for new, exposing pipes in the gutter, water flowing and pooling, the gas bottle heating the boiling oil vibrating and teetering. And all of it threatening, to my bumpkin eyes, to go arse-up in the most cataclysmic way imaginable, every moment”.

It may look like chaos, but it’s organized chaos! Did you get a good look at the precariously balanced bamboo chair in my picture? This is the normal mode of transportation of toddlers, and if that isn’t dangerous, you would be terrified if I revealed how infants are transported. For this reason, Vietnamese drivers are required to be experts. There can be no mistakes!

Culture tip: If you going to Vietnam, consider a motorbike. Contrary to circumstances in 1st world countries, it’s safer than walking.

Chaos theory is alive and well in Asia’s traffic. Have you seen anything similar?


Why you must eat with chopsticks and scissors in Asia

My first impression: Where’s the knife? How am I supposed to cut my food with chop sticks? There must be an art to it because I can’t  figure it out!

In the morning, I am served my first Vietnamese breakfast, cooked by Bao Ahn, the gal who is helping me get settled here in Vietnam. I was enamored of the breakfast of noodles, meat and vegetables and exclaimed, “I could have noodles every day.” Bao Anh began laughing maniacally when she heard this. I don’t know why? She also got quite a kick out of my efforts to use chop sticks to cut the meat, and then swooped in with a pair of scissors.

Culture tip: Practice eating and cutting with chop sticks because forks and spoons are not provided in most restaurants.  Butter knives are unheard of and can’t even be found in the stores. Asians use scissors to cut meat into bite sized morsels, usually before serving.

Why do you think my comment about the noodles was so hilarious?


Live like a king and/or queen by taking this one action

My observation: America is so expensive, especially California where I live. Isn’t there some other place I could go where I don’t  have to work so hard  just to earn enough money to live?

Yes, there are. Lots of them! In fact. almost anyplace other than where you live now. If you want to stretch you travel money, go a second world country or better yet, move there. Think about how much you spend to live where you are now. Housing, food, utilities, medical, taxes and transportation are 10x more expensive in your country than in 90% of the countries throughout the world.  For one month of your current living expenses, you can finance an airline ticket to another country and live there for 3-6 months. Have you heard of medical tourism? Last month, I paid $2200 to have my teeth deep cleaned. That’s a $30 dental bill and 5 months of living expenses in many countries.

If your whole point of traveling is to immerse myself into the culture, whether you need to make money or not, why not teach English while you travel? Teaching local people provides an instant connection to the people and culture. There are lots of ways you can teach, and almost every country is requesting English teachers. Here are some options:

1. You could do private lessons

2. Find a long term contracted job or a temporary substitute job in an English Language Center

3. Work in a public school.

4. Work in an international school

Taking a long term job in an English center or international school has an added bonus because it provides you with a secondary cultural-immersion via your co-teachers from other English speaking countries,

if you need to bring in some income, I’ve done my research and discovered that pay is anywhere from $6 USD per hour in the Americas to $20 USD in South East Asia, $30 USD in Korea and more than $50 USD in parts of the middle east. 

Of all the countries in the world, Vietnam provides the best earnings to living expense ratio,  At $20 per hour in a country whose average monthly wage is $200, you’ll live like a king or queen in an exotic country (rather than a pauper where you are now?)

I decide to get a job in an English center in Vietnam. I could just head over there and look for a job, but I line one up before I go, Next, I rent out my house on a two-year lease, and book my flight.

Do you want to go where you are appreciated? Are finances keeping you from traveling?  Go to www.davesesl.com and you’ll see jobs from all over the world. Depending on where you go it can be insanely easy to get a  job. Many places will hire ANYONE who has a working knowledge of English, whether they are a native English speaker or not. Even if you think your English is not good enough, it is!

And you don’t have to know the native language either.

Vietnam wasn’t even on my radar until my nephew took his high school senior trip there a few years ago. I had no idea that it was becoming a popular tourist destination for Americans.  The USA participated in a war there in the 1960’s and many Vietnamese were none too happy about us being there. I hope they don’t hate me!

Travel tip: Consider teaching in an exotic location. People of all ages are doing this. Are you broke? Many places, especially those in China, will pay for your plane ticket and even provide you with a home. Exotic places throughout the world are constantly hiring. I’ve already started an e-book about working overseas, but until it’s done, just contact me about specific countries. Some places have age limits, and some places have preferences for British English or American English.

Would you ever consider teaching English while you travel?


How to score the best seat on the plane without flying first class

Shanghai airport, was my first glimpse of Chinese characters used in their cultural context. Before this I had only been to places with Roman based letters like English. It seems that you would never be able to read Chinese, but I could actually read some of it because originally I was planning to go to China and I’ve been studying it for several months.

Do you know what that little minx did? She purposely entered the plane last and didn’t even sit in her own seat. I saw her scanning the rows until her eyes landed on a 5 person row with nobody in it and watched her take the middle seat. Very smart that one, she has a whole row to sleep in for this overnight flight. Who needs first class? She obviously knows how to travel. I’m sure she will have some great adventures!

I recognize this seat optimization ploy. I’ve used it myself many times. My theory is that which ever seat you begin in, everyone, including the flight attendants, will assume it is your assigned seat and recognize it as such. The flight attendants probably do know, but they’ve never asked me to move, so why not be as comfortable as possible What is your least desired portion of the travel experience? For me, the worst part about traveling isn’t the plane ride, but the arrival. When arriving at a new location, I get really nervous about what I will encounter, especially if I arrive at night.  I’m hoping that after I travel to more countries, I will feel more confident about arriving in foreign places, especially those where I can’t read the signage, but for now, it was surely comforting knowing that someone would meet me at the airport in Vietnam and take care of me. Before coming, I passed a Skype interview for a job teaching English here. The school that hired me over the internet met me at the airport, and booked the hotel, but you can also hire transfer agents to meet you at the airport.

My primary goal for international travel is to immerse myself in the culture. I decided to take a job because what better way to accomplish this goal. It provides me with an instant connection to the people and to the culture.

If the last couple hours in the airport is any indication, I may not need any type of prearranged introduction to the culture. Already, two people have started up conversations which resulted in me receiving their business card and promises of  “if you need any help…”

Tip: Is fear keeping you from traveling to foreign lands? Transfer agents work inside and outside the airport or train stations to aid you with documents, luggage and even rides to your hotel. Hire someone over the internet for a few dollars. Once ensconced in your hotel, it won’t take long to start feeling comfortable in your new environment, but the initial arrival can be overwhelming.

Can you provide some tips on how to get the best airline seat?


How to travel internationally without leaving your own country

Vietnamese cultural event in Sacramento, USA

My observation:  In my quest to explore the cultures of the world, I really don’t even need to leave the safety and familiarity of my own country. I could just explore the different pockets of culture here on my own soil, or even just stay in my neighborhood and continue to experience the variety of cultures right here on my own block. It would certainly be much less intimidating than going overseas, but you know what? I’m going to do it instead of just talking about it. I’m going to go to the actual countries, and even stay for a while, at least a month in each one, and experience the cultures fully.

My hometown often tops the list of “The most culturally diverse cities in the USA”, so I’ve experienced many different cultures. I decide to begin my travels in Asia because the eastern culture is the most diversified from my own. Our local high school has 14 languages spoken so I have heard Asian tonal languages, but I just can’t understand them. I was debating whether to begin my journey in either Taiwan, Thailand or Vietnam. I finally chose Vietnam because it has a Roman alphabet so I figure it will be easier for me to read and pick up the language. I’ve heard it doesn’t really matter though, that you can get by with English almost anywhere.

Let me tell you a bit about my city of Rancho Cordova, a suburb of Sacramento. The USA is divided into states, and Sacramento is California’s capital city. Many towns have Spanish names because the land belonged to Mexico in the 1800’s. Most of the neighborhoods have a mixture of cultures and languages. On my cul-de-sac of 9 houses, three households are from Ukraine and Russia, one from Mexico, one from Philippines and one from UK. Most of my neighbors were not born in the USA and many do not speak English. America has no official language, so all languages are supported. Rancho Cordova received a designation of “All American City” in 2010. Our claim to fame is that the neighborhoods are culturally and ethnically integrated, as you can see by the description of the households on my block. It’s more common for culturally diverse cities to have culture pockets like in nearby Sacramento where you can visit Little Saigon for example. That’s the neighborhood where I was born. Saigon was the name of the capital of Vietnam until it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the war. At that time, a lot of people from Vietnam moved to this neighborhood and the residents have even erected a sign on the freeway exit that says Little Saigon.  There is all sorts of Vietnamese culture there, including of course, the infamous Vietnamese dish, pho! Can’t wait to get to Asia and try some in the homeland!

Travel tip: Nervous about leaving your country?  Find cultural pockets in your own backyard.

Do you have any cultural areas in your town?