It has been a lovely, lazy Sunday here in hot and humid Guangzhou. The stormy, sauna-like weather has led us to spend most of this weekend indoors, with occasional outings for brunch and entertainment.
This weekend, we had our first Chinese movie-going experience and saw Wonder Woman at a small theater around the corner from us. We’d previously avoided going to the movies here, because we heard that Chinese movie-goers tend to talk and use their phones through the movies. That said, our weekend plans were seriously hindered by the hot weather and me recovering from some unknown illness, so relaxing at the movies sounded perfect. Surprisingly, no one talked during the movie, likely because the music was so loud and Wonder Woman was so awesome. Most people were as riveted by the movie as Amaury and me, but Amaury was pretty annoyed by the guy sitting next to him who not only used his phone the entire movie, but actually had headphones in…
WONDER WOMAN RULES!
We also throughly enjoyed the Chinese commercials at the beginning that appeared to be narrated by the same man and woman for each one and included suspiciously-familiar music, like Justin Bieber’s “Baby” sung by a Chinese woman over an ad for deodorant. I was a bit disappointed that there were no movie trailers, which were replaced by a message from the Chinese national broadcasting agency that looked very official.
We’re honestly so spoiled for entertainment here, because simply leaving our apartment results in interesting adventures into things that are so new and unfamiliar to us. For example, while walking through a mall this week we ran into a pop-up art auction. Passersby and bystanders, including us, quickly became part of the seated crowd placing bids on various art pieces. Most of the pieces were going for $15-$40, which probably wasn’t the intent of the organizers, since most of the paintings came with ornate frames and were pretty large. We were both really excited by the idea of buying some art through an auction and saw a few beautiful pieces we liked. Our patience paid off and we won this piece of a woman playing a stringed instrument- anyone know what the instrument is actually is? I’m not too sure:
Last weekend, we were blessed with a four day weekend, as Memorial Day and the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival fell on Monday and Tuesday. We had been planning to relax in China after being away in the States and Hong Kong for a while, but the travel itch was too strong. At the last minute, we took a look at the cheapest place we could afford to fly to and settled on a few days in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in Vietnam.
You may remember that we had an amazing trip to Hanoi last September, so we were both excited to return to Vietnam and re-experience its delicious food, kind hospitality, and interesting sights. As usual, we centered our sight-seeing around meals and essentially moved from one eatery to the next, fitting in cultural and touristy spots along the way.
On our first day there, we paid a visit to the War Remnants Museum, which details the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. It’s a hard, but necessary place to visit. The exhibits on the use of chemical weapons were extremely graphic but eye-opening. There was hardly any conversation as tourists made their way around the different displays. What was particularly striking to me was the involvement of major pharmaceutical and chemical companies in the development and sale of atrocious, toxic chemicals like Agent Orange for use against human beings. Of course, I was stunned by the use of those chemicals as weapons at all, but the idea that these companies not only profited off them but still do business today is completely repugnant. I’m looking at you Monsanto.
The next day we went on a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels which included a stop at a factory that employs people handicapped as a result of Agent Orange. Our guide walked us around the tunnels in the new jungle that has grown up in the past few decades. Amaury successfully hid in a tunnel entrance and explored most of the tunnels the guide showed us.
I get horrendously claustrophobic so was proud of myself for making it through one 20 meter tunnel section to see the old living quarters. We found the whole trip very interesting, but also a bit morbid- especially when our guides demonstrated various examples of booby traps to gleefully watching tourists. There was a shooting range where you could pay to practice shooting AK-47’s; we decided to buy corn on the cob instead. We also tried steamed tapioca, which the Viet Cong subsisted on during the war. Amaury was surprised to find that it’s identical to yuca, which is extremely common in the DR. We haven’t been able to find many typical Dominican staples here, like plantains and yuca, but maybe we’ve been asking for the wrong thing.
After a lot of walking around in the heat, we looked up a spa to get massages. Here the favorable exchange rate was definitely our friend. We found a great place complete with relaxing ambience and essential oils that offered a hot stone massage, cucumber facial, and use of their sauna and baths for $24 each. After the relaxing massage I spent a while enjoying the sauna, though in typical Nicola fashion there was the usual comedy of errors. I can’t wear my glasses in spas because they just steam up, so I wandered around very tentatively. The sauna was lovely, but the steam room seemed to be set on “rice cooker” mode so I avoided that. Of course, I made ample use of all the free things including breaking some plastic combs on my hair and trying out all the hair and body products. I’m not sure I did the hot and cold pools right- I sat in the hot pool for a while and then the cold pool and sauna’ed and then repeated. I sort of assumed Amaury was having a similarly lengthy experience in the men’s area, so took my sweet time only to find him waiting patiently in the waiting room wondering where his wife was. Fortunately that gave him time to research restaurant options for dinner.
Ho Chi Minh by night
We had a range of culinary experiences while in Ho Chi Minh, including a four course meal at Red Bean, a Saigon location of our favorite restaurant in Hanoi. My favorite though was a trip to “seafood street,” which Amaury found during his spa wait time. It’s a street south of the river that is lined with restaurants serving seafood and grilled meats. There were a few other adventurous tourists there, but by and large the crowded, outdoor seating was populated with locals. We sat down at a small table with plastic chairs and ordered spicy snails, scallops, and cooked oysters along with ice cold beer. Since we don’t speak any Vietnamese, Amaury copied the names of the first two dishes from an online food blog to show the waiter and then I pointed at a picture of oysters.
Snails in Asia are very different from the garlic doused ones I’ve eaten at French restaurants- here the chef doesn’t hide the snail with seasoning. I’m not sure how best to describe it, but I now feel that I have truly eaten snails. The atmosphere was hot, colorful, smelly, and loud with people yelling to be heard and everyone making a big mess trying to eat seafood with tiny forks and tiny napkins at tiny tables sitting in tiny chairs. To keep the beer cold, the waiters put one huge ice cube in each glass that steamed in the heat and replaced them periodically.
After the seafood restaurant, we wandered down the street to another blog-recommended place that specialized in grilled meats. The waiter put a small tin stove in front of us, and we grilled spicy pork over the hot coals ourselves. As we sat there, four enterprising boys, perhaps high-school age, road up on two motorbikes equipped with a karaoke system and lively outfits. They then did a K-pop inspired dance routine and gave everyone chocolate cookies afterwards for a 50 cent donation.
Unfortunately, South East Asia doesn’t always love me as much as I love it, because on our last day I came down with a bad migraine that kept me in bed for half the day. I think a combination of strange food, hot sun, humid jungle, and one too many dips in the spa hot pool probably did it. On the bright side, it was very relaxing to rest in bed while listening to the torrential downpour outside that happens every afternoon in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Amaury was able to get out and explore a bit by himself.
I was recovered enough by the evening to meet up with two of our dear friends from grad school, who have been living in Saigon for two years. We just caught them a couple weeks before they leave Vietnam, and it was amazing to meet their 5 month old and catch up over a walk through the city and tasty food.
Truthfully, my health hasn’t been all that great lately. I’ve been struggling with regular headaches and migraines, along with a general malaise that makes me feel blah a lot of the time. In an effort to fix my ills, I’ve upped my acupuncture session to once a week and find it helps keep me feel balanced. I see a great acupuncturist who is a favorite with ex-pats- he’s an Australian who studied acupuncture in China. While I would like to see someone local, I’m a bit nervous about the communication barrier and different perspectives on health, so getting to experience acupuncture in China with a Western practitioner has worked out very well for me. As I trust his judgement and have been at my wits end lately about my migraines, I was pretty receptive to his suggestion that I supplement my acupuncture with Chinese herbal medicine.
He wrote out a prescription, or rather a recipe, for the Chinese pharmacist that lists about ten Chinese herbs of varying doses. Then, the pharmacy mashed up all the herbs and boiled them up into a brown liquid. Each dose is about 1.5 cups, which I have to drink lukewarm twice a day on an empty stomach. It tastes like a mix of dirt, bad perfume, and death, but is supposed to nourish my liver and help open up my blood vessels to release more toxins and reduce the tension I feel in my head.
I had a moment of doubt where I thought, “Is this the right thing to do? Could it be dangerous to take some random herbs that I don’t understand?” Then I laughed, because I’m already on two medications for my migraines that are comprised of a bunch of chemicals I don’t understand and that, quite frankly, doctors don’t understand. There’s very little concrete understanding in the medical community of what migraines are and why they happen and most migraine medications are off-label, meaning that they are approved to treat one thing, but doctors use them to treat another, like migraines. Truthfully, I’d rather use homeopathic remedies (even if they’re smelly-dirt-herbs) then continue to put chemicals in my body that doctors don’t understand. After a few days of grumbling, my tummy seems to have accepted the herbs and my acupuncturist said I should start to see some benefits. I otherwise haven’t noticed any side effects. We’ll see. Like everything here, this is an adventure.
Meanwhile, everyone in the ex-pat community seems to be busy. Personally, I’m helping organize two events this week- one is a networking session run by WeConnect International to connect Chinese women entrepreneurs to major corporations; the other is a presentation on the interaction between feminism and LGBTQ communities as part of Pride month. Both have me a little stressed out, because I so want them to be a success. However, when I step back and take a breath, I feel very grateful to get these volunteer opportunities. I hope me sharing some of what I do helps you understand a bit more the kinds of things family members get up to when they accompany a spouse on an overseas assignment.
And then finally, amid all the hustle and bustle, Amaury and I recently decided to launch into a Parks and Rec marathon. It certainly is a breath of fresh air (particularly after watching all of A Handmaid’s Tale in one week). Whenever I feel down, I just ask myself, “What would Leslie Knope do?”