Life on Trần Khánh Dư Road

A tall jacaranda tree across the road from my apartment bloomed thin bright purple flowers all through the spring. The blossoms would carpet the road across from the neighborhood trash bin. It was a nice contrast to the piles of food scraps and plastic bottles that some how end up outside the bin. But one day, a crew came along and took out the whole tree. I almost cried at the sound of the chain saws. I had grown so accustomed to seeing that tree. At least they waited until it had finished blooming.

My view of the jacaranda tree – until they cut it down.
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About the mask and what’s in the air

I’ve been thinking about my lungs lately, especially as we recently passed the third anniversary of the week the world shut-down due to a microscopic lung invader. Don’t worry, I’m not going to preach about COVID. But I’m going to forego the usual travel blog this week to let my science nerd out. If you’re not into this, that’s fine, but I hope you’ll take a moment to at least wonder why millions of people in the world are still wearing masks, and why wearing a mask, for most people, is simply not the big deal that it is in the USA.

No one had to tell me there was a fire near town when I saw this sunset. This sight is all too familiar to a Coloradan.
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Snapshots from a city walk on a Saturday

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.

The rows of greenhouses nestled between houses and villas is becoming a familiar sight on my daily walks.

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.

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Vietnam: One Month In

That’s right. I’ve been in Vietnam for a little over a month. I’ve debated what to share here. There has been a lot to process. But I don’t feel I’m ready to tell a coherent story of my time here yet. I feel like this country is revealing itself me in tiny pieces. Layer upon layer. Not understanding really any of the language means that things tend to be mysterious in a way I haven’t experienced in a long time – not since my first trip to Germany. But even then, the rhythm and intonation of German felt familiar to me, and I picked it up quickly.

I’ve probably mentioned before how I tend to think of things in layers – maybe the byproduct of decades of thinking about how atmospheric models work. Dalat offers lots of vistas where you can watch the sky move in layers.

Here, I feel like a child. Everything I do requires some level of deciphering, some level of conscious effort for activities that come automatically at home, from learning to use the ATM, or my phone, to crossing the street on my own. Food can be especially confusing. I’m starting to realize that the same foods are sold just about everywhere in the city. But I still don’t know what they are. is chicken. Lẩu is some kind of hotpot (but far be it for me to order one on my own – seems like something you do with a group.) Oh – and when I type lau into Google Translate, it tells me that this word means ‘wipe’ or ‘bathe’. Of course, the little symbols above the a make it an entirely different word. You see why I get confused? Or why the staff at a restaurant might look at me funny if I ask for lau gà? Am I really asking for ‘bath chicken’? I don’t know. So, while Google Translate is my friend, it can also lead me down dark alleys.

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Discovering Dalat

When just about everything you see, hear, taste, and smell in a day is new, you miss a lot. Sensory overload happens when your brain is trying to take in more than it can process. Any traveler can experience this, and when you travel outside of your own culture, in a place where you don’t know the language or even what foods to eat, sensory overload can come on fast.

Welcome to Dalat! This city in the central highlands is known for it’s enormous variety of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Strawberries are in season in January, and you can’t walk around town without tripping on a strawberry vendor. Or motorbike (they are always in season).

I have a pretty good idea of when I’m overload. It comes up on me as a sudden fatigue, and a desire to go lay down. I could be walking down a street, a 45-minute walk from my hotel, with many other things on my to-do list, and I will have to make a change of plans. Too much to take in. When I was younger, I would race on to the next new thing, really not taking anything in too deeply. But I’m in a place and at a stage of my life when I want to take in things much more deeply.

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Wet Feet and a Warm Welcome in Vietnam

I didn’t know it was possible to sink into mud up to your knee caps and still pull yourself out again. But mud at the bottom of a fish pond is fully mixed with water, and apparently, walking around in it can stir up the critters who live there (shrimp, in this case), and give you a chance of catching them with a wicker basket.

I did not imagine that learning traditional fishing techniques of the Mekong Delta would be part of our Fulbright orientation. Especially not when it followed two days of meetings with US Consulate officials, including the US General Consul, Susan Burns, and many of her section chiefs. We were briefed on economics, politics, safety and health. We met with representatives from the Public Affairs section, who are very interested in our work here, building ties with Vietnamese universities. It was truly exciting to learn about Vietnam from the perspective of Americans who have been working here.

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Bright Lights, Big City

I felt a bit giddy stumbling onto the little chocolate shop near the Ben Thanh Market in central Ho Chi Minh City. The tiny shop is lined with dozens of brightly packaged bars of varying choco-intensity and flavor, all sourced from a single farm in the Mekong Delta. “This one is my favorite,” says the young woman assisting me finding my own favorites. Using a pair of small tongs, she grabs a small chocolate chunk from the box of chocolate flavors displayed in front of me and drops it into my palm. I pop it into my mouth and feel the cinnamon sting my tongue. “It’s right here,” she points to the bar of cinnamon chocolate on the shelf behind me and I take one and add it to the other bars I was buying.

Bright lights in central Ho Chi Minh City.

“For how long are you in Vietnam?” she asks in her perfect English. I tell her I’m going to live and work in Dalat for the next five months. Her eyes light up, “Oh – I love Dalat! It’s so beautiful! So many flowers – and the pine forests!” She sighs remembering her time there, and I suddenly feel excited and a little less tired than I’ve been.

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Vietnam: The Arrival

It’s really easy to get caught up in visions of international travel that are more fit for cinema than real life. You know what I mean. You might see yourself on the bow of a ship, the wind whipping through your hair as waves splash the hull – and there’s a crescendo of music before cutting away to a view from above, of that same ship crossing emerald blue waters that border some dramatic cliffs or mountains of ice. Sure. Sometimes it’s like that.

But what we tend to forget is that in order to have those magic moments, we basically have to traverse a modern-day version of Dante’s hell. The hours of sitting in a tiny space where your knees get crushed when the person in front of you decides to recline their chair. The attempts to feel human by brushing your teeth in that tiny airplane bathroom, then wondering why there’s so much water on the floor. The bruised shins, twisted shoulders and smashed finger tips you get from trying to haul all your baggage around – and when you’re going to live and actually work in another country for several months, there can be a lot of baggage! Seriously, I wouldn’t pack a blazer for an international trip if I didn’t have to.

Because I didn’t take too many photos on my 30-hour journey, I thought I’d share a glimpse of Ho Chi Minh City at night. The city center has a lot of old buildings, a lot of new buildings, and a lot of traffic.
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Did I mention I’m off to Vietnam?

You know that feeling of just wanting to savor a bit of news for yourself? When you’d rather not shout things out to the world because the world feels noisy enough as it is? While I have posted about my travels over the past several months, I’ve generally not felt like sharing much more on social media. It’s actually a relief when you reach a point where feel you don’t have to share. It’s like you’ve quietly returned to pre-21st century life, when Christmas newsletters were a thing because there was no Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or whatever else there is today.

So, while I may have shared hints of what’s to come, I haven’t broadcasted widely about the news of my Fulbright to Vietnam this coming spring semester. I still meet people who are surprised to hear I am going. Nor have I told many people about the grant I got with a couple of my UNC colleagues from the National Science Foundation (unrelated to the Fulbright work). Both are really very big deals, but these things always feel buried by so many other things going on in the world, and I wasn’t feeling the energy I needed to share the news.

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