Inundated by coffee chains

Coffee good

Hot on the heels of learning that Tully's Coffee from Seattle has opened two outlets in Singapore, I just learned tonight that there's a Trung Nguyen as well (via The Travelling Hungryboy). And only yesterday I was whining on Facebook to a friend that I miss my daily dose of ca phe sua da.

Having said that, I don't think Singapore really needs more coffee chains when it already has Starbucks, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Coffee Club, Gloria Jean's and TCC (I'm sure I've forgotten someone). And the fact that Trung Nguyen doesn't serve ca phe phin (drip coffee) kinda negates the whole point of ordering Vietnamese coffee.

As I was lamenting to Yan Wei last week, what Singapore needs are more indie cafes like Saigon's La Fenetre Soleil.

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Degrees of separation

Thanks to the new friends I made on my travels in Vietnam, I am now:
  • two degrees of separation away from Michael Bolton, via a relation of his I met in Hoi An.
  • three degrees of separation away from Aung San Suu Kyi, via someone who's related to her husband's family, whom I also met in Hoi An.
  • two degrees of separation away from Dustin Nguyen,* via my friend in Ho Chi Minh City.
A less upbeat version: a few minutes ago, I learned I'm three degrees of separation away from the a Singaporean being held hostage in the Mumbai attacks.

Edited to add (November 30): Scratch that. I do know a family member of the poor woman who died in the Mumbai attacks. Which really brings a new cast to it being a "small world".

* Being able to identify Dustin Nguyen is also a good indicator of one's age/generation. I immediately identified him in a portfolio of Vietnam advertising images; my much younger friend Yan Wei had no clue who he was.

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"So what are you doing now?"

That's what a couple of people have asked me since I got back in circulation in Singapore. Some of them thought I'd finished my Lonely Planet writing while I was in Vietnam. To which I shake my head fervently and mention the 65,000 word count I've got to complete by January 9. Sure, some of it got written while I was there, but all the longer texts (i.e. anything longer than 50 words per block of text) still need to be done.

In between writing getting the writing started, I've also initiated the apartment-hunting process. I have until January 21 to relocate. Ideally, I'll be able to wrangle a new place with a move-in date in mid-January, thereby allowing me to complete the Lonely Planet work in peace.


The other thing I've been doing is sneezing regularly. The spates started in Saigon, where I had a slight itchy-eye/sneezy reaction, but it's become full-blown now that I'm home. I wonder if it's the cats or the general air quality. (It's definitely not a cold --- different type of sneezing.)

Tomorrow I'm going to my first Thanksgiving dinner in 11 years. There'll be a roast rack of lamb instead of roast turkey, Caesar salad instead of green beans, and potato au gratin instead of mashed potatoes --- but it's the spirit that counts. Besides, there will be pumpkin pie.

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Settling in

Where's my balloon?

In a cab on my way to a family brunch this morning, I realised how quiet our roads are in Singapore. Just the inevitable engine noise, that's all. I sorta missed the rhythmic honking that's the soundtrack to every thoroughfare in Vietnam.

Later, at brunch, I was giving Packrat my two cents' worth of advice about shepherding junior college students on a fieldtrip around Ho Chi Minh City, and it seemed unreal that three days ago I was plodding around on those pothole-ridden sidewalks and today I was all dressed up for Prego's (in a skirt, Yan Wei!).

Even later, after brunch and the Anime Festival Asia and coffee with friends, I was waiting in a cab line at Marina Square as the monsoonal rain poured down, and I missed how easy it is to get a cab in Vietnam. They're always loitering on street corners, the drivers looking completely uninterested in picking up a fare, but if you approach them they're generally amenable to take you where you need to go. Yes, there are taxis with rigged meters that jump three times as fast as they're supposed to, and some drivers will deliberately take you the long way round --- but hey, at least there are taxis.

I know it sounds like I'm a little hopelessly stuck on a Vietnam loop, and I think it'll take me a bit of time to get things out of my system. But it's also nice to be home: cats, family, friends, food, apartment, Singlish, all.

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One last look for now

Bubbling green goodness

One last lau de (goat hotpot).

Unwinding on my last night in Saigon

One last beer in a friend's office.

Soon enough: home.

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Last day

Quintessential Vietnamese scene

Things I'll be glad not to have to do when this trip is over:
  • Hand-wash any clothes.
  • Carry my laptop with me everywhere I go.
  • Buy drinking water and fret over all the discarded plastic bottles.
  • Plan my water intake and toilet options around the day's itinerary.
  • Back up my text and image files on thumb drives and Gmail almost every night.
  • Point to the handwritten note that says "Toi di viet sacs cho Lonely Planet" whenever I need to explain what I do to a non-English speaker.
Things I'll miss doing:
  • Crossing the road with Zen-like impunity, even during rush hour across six lanes of traffic in central Saigon.
  • Having good coffee available just about everywhere, except at certain hotels or overly-touristed areas.
  • Eating crisp, cheap baguettes.
  • Drinking cheap beer.
  • Encountering people who are are extremely nice and helpful, even when they don't speak any English and haven't a clue what I'm trying to ask of them.

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And on the 50th day of doxycycline ...


I got hit by a wave of nausea after downing the pill without food. Fortunately, the stomach unease was short-lived and I managed to enjoy a couple of caprioskas at Xu afterwards.

Saigon's been a whirlwind of cafes, restaurants and bars --- more good meals and cool joints than I remember from last year. Of course, it also helps to have a friend in town who knows all the cool joints.

Tomorrow is my last full day in Vietnam. It's surreal to think about going home after all this time.

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Last stop

I'm in Dalat (yay!) enjoying the cool weather (yay!) and staying in a hotel with an incredible shower (yay!).

But the hotel has no wifi (boo).

So. I'm guessing there won't be updates for a while. Oh well, miles of cool countryside to bike around in the meantime ...

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Town and country

We knew Buon Ma Thuot was going to be a dusty town because the orangey accumulations on the sides of the road got heavier, not lighter, as we entered the town. We felt the dust sheath our faces and clothes as we tramped all over the town centre for me to get my mapping and hotel visits done. I'm not sure I got all the dust off me last night; our bathroom ran out of hot water so I couldn't have a proper scrub-down.

But the good thing about being in a dusty town is that it makes you grateful for being able to get out of it --- out into villages filled with Vietnam's "other" people (some of the 53 non-Kinh ethnic groups), most of whom didn't bat an eyelid as we peered curiously out of a car or treaded carefully down a path between their longhouse homes. No constant echoes of children's "Hello! Hello!" here, like we had last Sunday while cycling across Cam Kim Island off Hoi An. These few days in the central highlands, it's been mostly bland indifference, which also makes me feel mercifully like less of a tourist.


Jarai village girls

One more day of poking around villages and the countryside tomorrow, then we should be off to the last working stop of my trip.

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Two weeks to go

Choosing Vietnamese cherries

It feels like it was just yesterday that I blogged about being halfway through my trip, and now I'm down to the last two weeks. This is the part where the days start to fly past, I guess.

We've spent the last few days stomping across dusty towns where we're the only tourists in sight and there are no cafes serving "backpacker fare" (mushroom omelettes, French fries/croquettes or banana pancakes). We're surprised if we run across a menu available in English at all.

On the one hand, I've definitely got a touch of travel fatigue and part of me wants to be home, where I can hug my cats and I don't have to handwash anything after I shower at night. On the other hand, I can't quite imagine fitting back into sedate Singapore life after all this on-the-go never-knowing-exactly-where-tomorrow-leads frame of mind.

Mostly I'm pleasantly gratified that after five weeks on the road, countless horror stories from friends and other travellers, and the odd unpleasant encounter on the street --- I still really, really like Vietnam.

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It's so nice to come back to the hotel room and find emails from my dad and G-man letting me know that yes, Obama is the president-elect and the rest of us don't have to quaver in fear at the thought of Vice-President Palin anymore.

I didn't deliberately choose a hotel with wifi in this town (Kon Tum), but now I'm glad I have it.


Going native

Street game in Hoi An

I'm not deliberately trying to be more Vietnamese, but I've started to:
  • Politely touch my left hand to my right forearm when presenting business cards or other things to a Vietnamese person.
  • Look for fish sauce before tucking into any Vietnamese meal.
  • Need a cup of Vietnamese green tea to round off a meal.
  • Wear my slippers/flipflops everywhere.
  • Ride pillion on a motorbike without holding onto anything.
On the flip side, I've also had to buy and wear my first tourist T-shirt. In my own defence, it's a cheap replacement for one of my shirts that's sprung a hole. But still: it's got a dragon and the word "Vietnam" embroidered in gold thread on the front.

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I would blog more, but the wifi connection at my hotel is really spotty.