Written on a Saturday in mid-February…
I have a routine now. While it’s easy to imagine living in another country as romantic and exotic, each day filled with adventure and memories that will last a lifetime, the fact is, when you have work to do, the adventure necessarily gets set to the side, especially when your work involves a lot of mental energy. You start seeking rhythms and routines that feel familiar and help you get into that work mindset without burning out.
For example, Vietnamese coffee is world-renowned for being extra strong, extra sweet, and served in all sorts of creative ways – with egg, with condensed milk, with coconut milk. There’s even a cafe near campus that sells coffee with black garlic! This is garlic that has been aged at low heat and high humidity for several weeks. Supposedly, it loses the strong flavor of garlic and becomes a bit sweet. Not being huge fan of sipping on garlic cloves, I haven’t tried it yet! I’ve tried several other types of coffee, however, and enjoyed drinking it. But at home I settle for some version of English Breakfast tea. You can only find it in the bigger supermarkets here, since it’s not that popular. But that’s what I drink each morning here.
Likewise, the breakfast staple here is phở, or one of a dizzying array of noodle soups that are sold from roadside stands and cafes every 200 meters along the sidewalk. While I enjoy trying new things, soup for breakfast doesn’t work for me. Especially when I want to jump in and work at my most productive time of the day. So I eat oatmeal or muesli with fruit and yogurt, the same thing I eat at home. I know, it sounds boring. But it helps me wrap my head around class and workshop planning and curriculum development. There’s nothing that will zap creativity like having something unfamiliar, and maybe a little unsettling, in your stomach.
But I also worry that I’ll fall so deeply into a routine with my work, with my computer, on my walks through the neighborhood and on campus, that I’ll stop noticing the things that would warrant at least a 5-minute chat in the hallway of the faculty offices back home. Every time I step outside of my apartment, I see, smell, hear, and experience things that would spark wonder and conversation back home, or, at least an Instagram photo and some memories.
I’m writing this on a Saturday and I decided to take myself out for brunch. No phở though. About a 30 minute walk from my apartment is a cafe on a big farm where you can get fried eggs with organic kale (grown onsite) on multi-grain bread. But the real reason I go are the incredible smoothies. Green Box Coffee is basically a cafe in a greenhouse. You can sit at a table and can hide yourself among the houseplants or hanging cherry tomatoes.
To get to Green Box Coffee, I wind through some quiet roads in a hilly neighborhood, climbing up the hills, I pass large villas with wrought iron gates and big glassy windows. There are also tiny cafes, where one or two middle aged men sit in small plastic chairs and chat with tiny glasses of cà phê sữa (coffee and milk) and a shots of green tea (served everywhere instead of water) on the table in front of them. There are also small convenience stores, with puffed out bags of chips displayed on a stand near the entrance. I feel a little bit like I did while wandering through rural Europe. There are big homes, small cafes, and smaller shops with veggies or fruits displayed artfully under umbrellas. I pass dogs near the entrances of some of these homes. Some of the dogs mill about along the side of the street, but they generally pay me no mind. I wonder how they don’t get hit by the motorbikes that zip through here. They seem to be street smart.
After eating brunch, I do bit of shopping. There’s always bottled water to buy, and today, I needed to stock up on rice and pasta, my staples for homemade dinners. Sometimes I stop by the fruit stand for a fresh pineapple, or the veggie stand, where I can buy produce that isn’t packaged in plastic. This is where I have finally learned to count in Vietnamese, as the vendors tell me how much to pay then hold up their fingers while I fumble around with the slippery paper bills. (And, by the way, I can buy a week’s worth of veggies for the price of a large Honeycrisp apple back home.)
Along the busier roads there are local eateries. Places where you get a plate of rice and tell the server what else you want with it – kind of like a buffet or cafeteria counter. There are stainless steel tables and small red and blue plastic chairs. I’ve been intimidated to try these places, not knowing how they work. Do you pay ahead of time or after eating? Can you sit with other people? What am I eating? Do I need to specify something on the menu, or can I just point? Because, I really don’t understand anything on the menu, or anything that I’m looking at. The Google Translate tells me the menu has things like ‘running noodles’ and ‘whole warehouse fish’. I think the translator might be confused. Somedays, it’s just too much to figure out when I have a lot of work to do. But these are also the things that make life in a new place interesting.
I often walk past these little restaurants in mid-morning or mid-afternoon, and wonder how they keep business afloat. But today, as I walked by just after noon, trying to negotiate the sea of motorbikes that were crowding the sidewalk, it became very clear. Every seat was taken and plates of food were passed around as the smell of grilled chicken and pork wafted up in clouds of smoke that floated down the street.
On my walks I also frequently witness expert displays of how to haul a lot of people and a lot of large things on a motorbike. There are always delivery bikes zipping around. The orange and white ‘Shopee’ bikes are like the US versions of Amazon delivery trucks. But instead of a truck, it’s big box situated on the back of a motorbike. Sometimes there are bags of purchases hanging off the sides that swing out as the bike goes around a corner. There are also ‘Grab’ delivery drivers. Grab is Southeast Asia’s Uber, and they deliver groceries and meals, just like Uber back home. But, of course, on a bike. Produce deliveries to restaurants, packages and clothing, pretty much everything is delivered via bike. Today I saw a bike with a pallet: a 4x4x4 foot block of empty plastic water bottles, wrapped in plastic, attached to the back seat of the bike.
I would really be remiss not to mention the flowers. The hibiscus are always blooming. There are bougainvillea bushes the size of trees with bright purple leaves. Planted in small courtyards, or in large pots behind iron gates, are pots of petunias and clusters of hydrangeas. At the city center, in the place where you can buy an $8 puff jacket at the night market, during the day, is full of plant vendors. All sorts, from tulips and violets to tiny succulents. This is a bit of central Dalat I wish I could transplant back home. I would love to load up on plants.
I don’t want to become numb to all these things. Some of them I only notice because I’ve been here long enough not to worry too much about crossing the street anymore. It just reminds me how the lens through which we view the world is always shifting, colored by all of our past experiences. When we live in a new place, at some point that lens begins to take on the color of the local sunlight.
3 thoughts on “Snapshots from a city walk on a Saturday”
Love your stories. Enjoy!
Wonderful travel log. Enjoy the visit with your dad and Linda.
Thanks so much, Judy! Unfortunately, I can’t work out the logistics to meet up with them, as I would have to take a flight and then hire a car for a multiple hour drive to get to the port…and find a way to get home again before I teach my classes. I’m pretty disappointed. I wish they were in the country for more than 2 days.