Learning Vietnamese by Matchbox

An unlikely teaching aid. “Get the lottery results live by mobile phone.” Photo by Bao Quan Nguyen.

Teaching aids come in some varied and unlikely forms on my quest to learn Vietnamese. Two of my favorites are signs and advertisements. Big, bold words and short phrases have a better chance of sticking in my brain—manageable chunks I can decipher and digest. And for someone as slow to learning Vietnamese as I am, the repetition of common signs is a blessing, like roadside flashcards.

Thus, I’ve learned that the ubiquitous signs for “ra xe” mean “car wash.” This is often paired with the conveniently rhyming “sa xe” or “car repair.” Except, in this country “car” refers to a motorbike more often than not.

My trusty vocab book.

My other big language aid is my cousin Quan, who traveled with me to Can Tho.  I tend to pepper him with questions over meals. What does this sign mean? How do you say this? What did you just say to that person? It takes a lot of effort from both parties, but when we’re both feeling up for it, the language exchange is quite fun. When I’m really on top of it, I whip out a little book to write the words down, hoping this will cement the connection in my head.

The spoken language just washes over me in waves of rising and falling tones, which I can’t yet decipher with any consistency. So I cling to the written word, the printed word, as something tangible I can wrap my head around at my own pace. During a visit to a café, I pounced on a matchbox sitting on a nearby table. What luck! What a trove of new words at my disposal! Thanks to Quan, I now know that the matches are high quality, and I can get the lottery results directly on my mobile phone.

Fun language connections sometimes ensue from learning new words. For instance, the bowls of water and flowers made me ask about the word for “float,” which is nổi. That reminded me I had already heard the word in the term “floating market”(ch ni), which we had visited earlier.

And that lead my cousin to tell me about the expression “Ba chìm, by ni,” which literally means “Three (tenths) sinking, seven (tenths) floating.” It’s something you say when someone asks, “How are you?” Kind of like saying “so-so,” but with the relative ratio of bad to good. (You can also switch it around and have “Seven parts sinking and three parts floating,” if things aren’t really going your way.) I’m so tickled by the mathematical preciseness of it. Ratios! In pleasantries!

Artichoke tea!

It wouldn’t be a true Vietnamese coffee shop experience without Vietnamese coffee, so we ordered some. The coffee, which is often served with condensed milk, is incredibly strong and sweet. It’s really delicious, but for someone like me who usually goes easy on caffeine, it can bring on palpitations. So I switched to tea. Quan recommended I try a flavor called “atiso,” which I had never heard of. To my surprise, the tea bag set in front of me read, “artichoke.” The tea had so much sugar that my sweet tooth was singing, and made it hard to tease out the true taste. Something that sugary couldn’t help but be delicious, although I think the flavor would be pretty pleasant on its own. I’d give it a hearty endorsement for the next artichoke festival in Castroville. Why has this not already caught on in a big way?

Amazon Catfish in the Mekong: First FISHBIO blog post

Sailfin armored catfish, far from its native South America.

I’m lucky enough to be blogging for FISHBIO while traveling in Southeast Asia, and my first post went online today! Please check it out!

I wrote about one of the Mekong’s more unusual inhabitants: an ornamental fish imported from South America. Here’s an excerpt:

The last thing you might expect to catch in the Mekong River is a fish from the Amazon—but that’s exactly what can happen now. Researchers from Can Tho University in Vietnam use trawl nets and gills nets to survey fish diversity in the Hau River, a tributary of the Mekong, every other month. A recent survey pulled up two different species of sailfin armored catfishes in the genus Pterygoplichthys. Thanks to the aquarium trade, these natives of South America are now comfortably at home in Southeast Asia, North and Central America, and the Pacific Islands.

Read the full story here!

It’s really quite sobering to see how people can change the species composition and ecology of a natural system by transporting fish all around the world.

First Fish

Since a focus of my trip is, after all, fish, I thought it was worth backtracking to describe my first fish encounter—not at swim, but on a plate. Which is pretty fitting, since mealtime is how I imagine most people associate with fish. Eating is the last link in the chain that truly connects fish, people, and the ocean or rivers.  For better or worse.

On my second day in Saigon, my cousin took me to get some Vietnamese comfort food. Rice, sautéed greens, pickled onions, pork and egg cooked in a clay pot—and salty cooked fish. It was all delicious, but I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of fish I was eating, and where and how it was caught. The little guys had more identifying characteristics than your typical fish fillet, but the salient features I remember were the crunchy skin and the sharp tiny bones. Hopefully my fish ID will improve when I hit the field…more observing, less eating.

A first for me was drinking starfruit juice. It’s so sour, you get a little jar of sugar water to mix in to taste. Quite puckerlicious. And I enjoy the concept of drinking through a reed!

I’ve had a few other gastronomic encounters with fish since then, including at my family’s house. My mom’s cousin put it exactly as I have imagined: “Vietnam has such a long coastline that the people here are used to eating many different types of fish.”

Fish in the river, fish in the sea.  And so much for me to learn.

The “before” shot—straight from the market.

And “after”—cooked with herbs.

Claypot fish—one of my favorite dishes, but this one was only so-so. My grandma’s is better!

A pomfret, or butterfly fish–known as “ca chim” or “bird fish” in Vietnamese for its long pectoral fins (missing here). A special dinner with researchers from Can Tho University. Photo by BảoQuân Nguyễn.

Traffic at Sunset

Glowing clouds and brake lights from the top of Hotel Xoai in Can Tho.

The sunset in Can Tho looked like it was shaping up to be pretty spectacular, so Quan and I headed up to the rooftop bar at our hotel. From that vantage we had a perfect view not just of the sunset and moonrise, but also the rush-hour traffic. They say that the traffic in Can Tho is downright tame compared Saigon, but it’s enough to give you a sense of the rules of the road—or lack thereof.



Rush hour red light backup.

My favorite tactic (in the most incredulous sense) is the method for cutting over to the other side of the street on a motorbike. From the curb, you point yourself head on into oncoming traffic and make your way across to the other side at a diagonal. It’s insane, but I suppose that way you can see what’s coming straight at you.

Oh little bicycle…you should have tried crossing head on:

Red lights seem to create particular backups and headaches for a traffic culture not accustomed to stopping. And if you’re a little green car, apparently you can try to cross over wherever and whenever you want:

Crossing at a crosswalk is its own adventure—no yielding for pedestrians here.  If you keep walking at a steady pace, the motorbike drivers can guess your trajectory and swerve accordingly. But it’s still a stop-and-start ordeal, trying not to get broadsided from either direction.

Here you can experience crossing the street for yourself. Sorry for the camera shake—I was definitely looking at the oncoming traffic and not through the viewfinder!

The rooftop sunset also means I got my own impromptu photo shoot. Thanks, cousin Quan!

Photo by BảoQuân Nguyễn.

White Lotus

Finding something familiar when you are far from home resonates a particularly strong internal chord. Especially when it is something you know and recognize, but have never actually seen before.

I have been studying and practicing Buddhism for the past four years with a group based in San Jose and Santa Cruz. It’s been a challenge trying to find time for cultivation with all the demands and stresses of graduate school and internships. But those worldly pressures are often the very things that drive me to seek out a bigger perspective and a more centered mindset through Buddhism.  I’m hoping that I can start developing more focus with my practice and better integrate it with my everyday life. And I’m hoping to spend a portion of my current trip meditating and contemplating.

Monks’ robes drying.

The many Buddhist temples throughout Vietnam serve as a helpful reminder. Here in Cần Thơ, the most eye-catching has a shiny golden spire, a gleaming, ornate point of light that breaks through the urban skyline.  After spotting this golden temple from afar over the past few days, my cousin and I decided to pay it a visit.

My Buddhist group has a special practice called the white lotus meditation. Essentially, you visualize that your body transforms into dozens of white lotus flowers that gradually bloom, then dissolve.  I’ve seen many pink lotus flowers and could surely picture what a white one looks like. But I was never positive I had actually seen a white lotus—until now. There was something quite special about finding this flower in this place and feeling this particular connection to it.

Though this Khmer temple represents a different branch of Buddhism than the group I belong to, the essence is the same. One of the monks came to talk to me, probably to practice his English. The temple is also a school and some students, like the one pictured with us, are studying subjects like IT, economics, or English. The monk had taken a trip to study in the United States including a visit to San Francisco. It’s fascinating how travel can help two vastly different life paths intersect.

A student (left) and monk (right) from the temple take a photo with me. Photo by Bảo Quân Nguyễn.

Oh, and I was quite taken with this rug. Sort of a flower in its own right.

Hot Pot Alley

If you google “Can Tho,” the city I’m currently visiting, you will find a Wiki Travel page that tells you about “Hot Pot Alley.” Despite the catchy name that smacks of a tourist trap, this place is apparently a well-kept secret.  It really is an alley lined with a half dozen places that all specialize in hot pot dishes.  The entrance is actually right across the street from our hotel, but you’d never know it – the sign just says “Alley 142.”

My cousin and I have visited twice now, sampling two different versions of the local specialty: hot pot with duck.  The staff plunks down your own personal burner and a pot of broth full of hunks of duck, mushrooms, sweet potato, and uh, duck blood (I passed on the latter). Wait for the water to boil and add heaps of tofu, noodles and greens to your liking.

The heat of the weather did make me question the sanity of sitting with my face close to a boiling pot of water and an open flame. But it’s sort of a cleansing sweat, like going to a sauna.

Maybe it’s the off-season, but these back alley restaurants have a decidedly hole-in-the-wall feel, full of locals with not another tourist in sight. I’m not really helping to keep it a secret since I’ve been telling every other tourist I meet about it.  I guess it feels good to think you’ve got the inside scoop on something and fun to share it with others.

I’ve learned that “dô” (pronounced “yo”) is slang for “cheers.”  Definitely a must-learn vocab word for travel to any country!

Dô! Photo by BảoQuân Nguyễn.