Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A Month in Vietnam: Part 2

Weather, Health and Well-Being

“First of all, don't make fun of the weather here, and don't say the weather is the same all the time here. Because it's not. In fact, it's two degrees colder today than yesterday.”
  • Lt. Steven Hauk, Good Morning Vietnam

I feel bad for not putting out this next blog sooner, but life seems to have grabbed us by the HOJOs.  Even today, as I was enjoying my Pho ga noodles at a local Viet restaurant, I realize that I am *and have been* ready to move to Saigon, right now, but there are so many things that make the move slow.  I’ll comment more at the end of the blog. Now on to what you all want to hear about:

The Heat

It seems that everybody wants to know about how hot it is.  Our month in Vietnam was during one of the milder parts of the year, so I can share what that was like, and what locals have shared with us.

In the HCMC aka Saigon area, it seems that there are two notable seasons: “Hot and Rainy,” and “Less Hot and No Rain.”  The “Less Hot…” season coincides with Autumn/Winter back here in the US (for the most part).  November-March are mostly sunny, temperatures around 90-95 F at the peak of the day.  The rest of the year, which I haven’t experienced seems to be slightly hotter, much more humid, and with an expected tropical shower every day.  Supposedly the rain is reasonably predictable, and once it is done, the sun comes back out.

What I did notice, and seems to be the case most of the year, is that mornings and evenings are really nice temperature-wise.  It cools off just enough at night that it is quite pleasant to walk around.  The mornings were equally nice, even with the heat, because there is a lot of tree coverage around parks and buildings are tall enough that you can walk in shade pretty easily.

During the hot hours (11am-2pm-ish) a lot of people simply seek shelter indoors with air conditioning.  Many people who are on the street at this time will use a parasol for some shade.  For those who think that this is all just unbearable and think we are crazy for even trying to deal with weather like this, keep in mind that in Pennsylvania, July and August this year (2016) were hotter and more humid than Saigon most of the time.  It is just not as bad as your brain wants to convince you!

One tip will save you from the heat: drink lots of water, and on occasion some coconut water which will give you some of the energy you lose from always being in the sun and sweating!


I am a gym rat.  No, I don’t love it.  In fact, going to gym is one of the most difficult “good” habits I have ever had to force myself into.  I exercise on vacations too, because a few days of missing the gym make the habit too easy to quit when I come back.

Anyway, I am happy to say that I didn’t need to exercise anywhere near as much in Saigon as I did back home!  The main reason? Just walking down the street makes you sweat!  Oh, and our apartment was up three flights of stairs.  No elevator.  Elevators are for chumps.  No, I take that back, I would totally use one if our place had one!

Everything is a toy. Our son on
the public exercise equipment.
So we got a lot of natural exercise, walking and doing stairs!  This combined with the healthy food and lots of water, I found myself maintaining everything quite easily.  Now for the mornings where I needed to do something, the great news is that all the public parks have public gym equipment!  You won’t find fancy touch-screen treadmills and rowing machines, but you will find ellipticals, exercise bikes and other great apparatus.  All free! My son loved playing on them, and the locals smiled watching him try!

Walking, walking, walking!  We did a heap of walking.  I highly recommend it.  The best way to experience everything around you and get familiar with where things are located is to just walk it!  Bottled water is cheap, so don’t fear ($0.35 for a Liter of Dasani), and you are getting your exercise as well ;) Lots of things to see, the streets are VERY dense with shops and markets and too many other things to name.  It certainly is not boring to walk around the city.  One tip however: If you have a small child, think twice about bringing your pram/stroller.  The sidewalks are NOT for walking like they are in the US or Europe.  The “sidewalk” areas in Saigon are for motorbike parking and street food vendors!  Plus they are rocky and uneven.  You will fight your stroller more than it will help you.

Eating Healthy

Eating healthy was pretty easy.  I am a food adventurer, so I always had to try new things.  We also had some Vietnamese friends direct us on great things to try (Thanks Phuong!).  The food is excellent pretty much everywhere.  In America, if you want to eat healthy out at a restaurant, it is a bit difficult.  In Saigon, mostly everything is freshly made with fresh (not preserved) ingredients.

More importantly, the heat and walking directly impact how you eat.  For us, when the temperature makes us hot, we tend to eat less.  The walking burns more calories, and the water makes everything in the body work more efficiently.  Overall we found that we could eat nearly anything we wanted. The portion sizes were smaller, but we were completely satisfied.  Back here it would be a cruel exercise in portion control, but there it just worked, and we didn’t feel guilty when we splurged on something sweet or carby.

Of particular note is the street food. What you might interpret as a "hot dog stand" in NYC or Chicago, these little stands are everywhere in Saigon, and they are full service restaurants. Grab a seat in itty-bitty plastic chairs (that held me just fine), and you will be handed a menu of sometimes 20 or 30 different items which they can prepare for you cheap, fast and fresh.

On the subject of of ‘something sweet’ -- the desserts are good.  They are very VERY good, and they are VERY sweet ;)  Worth doing, but in moderation.

What is next ?

I have so many notes, I will try to write up an “uber blog” and summarize them.  We have been so busy over the last few months making preparations for moving, networking with people from all over southeast Asia, and all the while, working, preparing for graduate school and more.  It has been a LOT.  

As of now, we are planning to relocate to Saigon in December of this year, at which point my blogs, posts, etc. will be more about the “adapting to life in” philosophy rather than “spending a month in” which is totally old news now!

Have specific questions or comments?  Hit me up on twitter @aschwabe or comment here!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Month In Vietnam: Part 1

My wife, youngest son and I spent the month of February in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam. We had never been there before, we didn’t speak vietnamese, and we didn’t know anybody in the country. While many people have commented that this was a “most excellent adventure,” we did a lot of research, had very specific goals in mind, and a very clear purpose for going. This series of articles is being written to document these things, and to share some of what we learned along the way.

Why Saigon?

The United States certainly has its numerous quirks lately, and enough people are talking about moving away to Canada, Costa Rica and other places because of various domestic issues like unemployment, social security, politics or health insurance. Indeed I have a list, albeit a little more specific. I want to be closer to Australia (for business, pleasure, and because we volunteer time in northern Australia with Aboriginal people). Vietnam is certainly closer to Australia than Pennsylvania, but there are many other reasons, both personal and work-related.

Fresh low-cost food - Wow, what a difference! Buy anything at a street vendor, restaurant or grocery store in Vietnam, and you know it is fresh. Fresh fruit and veggies year round, it is always easy to find good quality meals and ingredients for cooking. Did I mention cheap? Many people don’t have kitchens in their homes because eating out is so affordable! A nice Bahn Mi Op La (french bread, fried egg, pate and veggies sandwich) costs about $0.70 and fills you nicely for breakfast.

Affordable Young Talent - one of the things I researched about Saigon is its technology scene, which is solid and growing. A skilled manager can easily hire young, hard-working vietnamese graduates for tech positions at a fraction of the cost of hiring a westerner. The young generation all speak english very well. There are cultural challenges with hiring people in Vietnam, but if you have a manager on the ground there, they are not really any different than having a diverse team in the US.

Friendly, Inviting culture - I can’t express enough how much I have enjoyed meeting people in Vietnam. Much like my trips to Japan and Thailand over the years, the people of Vietnam are SO kind and inviting, even more so than I have experienced before. It is so easy to start conversations with people on the street, in restaurants, or using public transportation. Most of the time you won’t need to make an effort, people will come up to you and ask you where you are from, what you like about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, and sometimes ask to take a selfie with you!

Do you speak Vietnamese? Is being American a problem ?

I did my homework before we went on our trip, so I knew a little about the tech scene, but language and my American citizenship were the two biggest concerns we had. How hard would it be for us to simply function and get around? Would we face the same kind of discrimination against Americans like we experience in Europe?

I am thrilled to report that both of these concerns are total non-issues!

Everybody 35-ish and younger speaks English, or at least understands enough to get by. The older people have enough experience dealing with foreigners that they have their bag of tricks to help communicate. Don’t know the phrase for “how much” in vietnamese? The lady selling dragonfruit may not know English well enough to tell you the answer, but it's easy to pull out a few bills and show you how much the fruit costs. Some even have a calculator and punch in the numbers to show you. Any of you who know me, you know that I strongly encourage those who travel to learn a few phrases of the local language. I feel it is arrogant to expect everybody else in the world to speak my language all the time. Anyway, if you try to say a few simple phrases in Vietnamese, you will get bigger smiles and extra help every time!

On being American -- many times I have traveled through Europe, and even parts of Canada, where people notice you are American (yes, we tend to stick out like sore thumbs…), and treat you poorly as a result. Despite the fact that I consider our family to be very mindful of culture, more so than many other travelers, this still happens to us.  Some spots in the world it is quite dangerous for the locals to know you are from America. The complete opposite is the case for Vietnam -- they love Americans!

I was able to have meaningful conversations with several Vietnamese people about the war with America and their view of America today. Their answer is basically: “Yes we fought America, but we won, so now there is peace and we call them friends.” Wow, we can learn some things from these people. They have moved on. Look at all the problems we STILL deal with in the US with race, sexuality, religion and working class -- all within our own borders! Lots to learn, we have.

Concluding my first article, let me say that Vietnam is an absolutely stunning country. We found the culture, food and people to be equally beautiful. Saigon specifically is an up-and-coming place, for technology and everything else as well. We found a lot of reasons why the world should be looking closer at Vietnam!

Stay tuned for several articles to follow :)