Seeking Out Street Food

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I’m dedicating this entire blog post to food. No explanation needed. While this is the first time I have ever been outside of the United States, I am fully aware that the identity of a place is so deeply rooted in food and cooking. Vietnam is no exception to this rule.

The food I have eaten during my semester abroad has not disappointed. I have been constantly full, forcing myself to eat more of the delicious cuisine. Even as I traveled from the South to the North, the changes in food and cooking were noticeable.

Prior to coming to Vietnam, I had never tried Vietnamese food before. People would laugh and tell me that I should have tested it out to make sure I could manage to eat it for the next four months but I proved ’em wrong! No testing was necessary. My first real experience with Vietnamese food was with my homestay family. My host mother, even though she worked a full time job, made time to cook the most amazing dinners ever. And while the month went on, I was able to try different types of traditional dishes each night, as well as improve on my chopstick abilities (which are quite good now). Some of my favorite meals that I have had were at her dinner table.

Once out of the homestay, meals were up to me which put a lot of pressure on making sure that I tried a variety of food. Now I do eat sushi probably two (maybe four times) a week, and my favorite pizza place is a five minute walk from my air bnb, my friends and I force ourselves to go out and explore the street food culture that this country has to offer.

Social media has helped out search for the best street food. There is an Instagram account (Foody Hanoi & Foody Saigon) that will post photos, addresses, prices, and hours of operation for every type of street food imaginable. It has become a game of picking which photo to get to see in real life.

Please admire some photos of my favorite dishes. In four months when this food is not walking distance from my house anymore, I will look back at these photos and shed a tear.

1. Banh mì: bread, cucumber, cilantro, pate, pickled onions and carrots, pork. These would be super common in the morning for breakfast.

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2. BEST AND MOST BEAUTIFUL EGG DISH I’VE EVER CONSUMED: Not lying though I went here for breakfast three days in a row. You would be served a hot skillet with fried eggs, ham pork, green onion, and tofu. It came with a baguette to make your own egg sandwich. Add some chili sauce and you have a 10/10 meal.

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3. Fried Chicken & Tra Da: This fried chicken place was located in the market behind our school and I can confidently say it was the best fried chicken I have ever eaten. Plus the iced tea was a necessity. I’m pretty sure I drank so much of it during my semester abroad my body is now 80% tra da.

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4. Phong Nha Feast: A lot is happening in this photo so let me fill you in. Here we have three different colored sticky rice types. Then a large selection of meat that you then wrap in the rice paper with lettuce, omelette pieces, cucumber, and rice noodles, dipping in the fish sauce when wrapped and ready to consume.

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5. xôi bắp: Sticky rice with corn, sprinkled with coconut, peanuts, mungbean paste, and a little sugar. I loved this dish so much it became a running joke about how much I loved xôi bắp.

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6. Kem Xoi: Yup, ice-cream on top of sticky rice. Add some shredded coconut and you have the best snack to beat the Vietnam heat.

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7. Bun Cha: Below you can see the “Obama Combo” at the famous Bun Cha place where Anthony Bourdain took Barack Obama when he visited Vietnam. The combo comes with the noodle dish, a seafood spring roll, and a beer.

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8. Banh Mi Nuong Muoi: Obsessed with this snack. It is bread covered in a fish sauce glaze and grilled over a charcoal grill. Then it is cut up into slivers and covered with chili sauce, mayo, green onions, and pork floss. Plus the vendor who sells this is a father and his ten year old son.

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9. Banh Da Tron: Noodles, fish, tofu, green onions, chili, and lime in a delicious broth. My host mom always joked that on a super hot day you should eat super hot noodles to cool you down. While it still doesn’t make much sense to me, I follow her instructions.

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10. Elephant Fish: Although it looks a little daunting, eating this fish was so fun. You pull apart the fish with chopsticks and put it on rice paper with lettuce, vegetables, and rice noodles, making your own spring rolls.

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11. Pho: You can’t visit Vietnam without trying the tradition noodle dish.

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12. Fresh Spring Rolls: Shrimp, pork, cilantro, lettuce, rice noodles all wrapped in rice paper. Dip this in peanut sauce or fish sauce and you won’t be disappointed.

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And while Vietnamese food has made it to the top of my favorite foods list, I can’t say I ate it every day. I indulged in pizza, occasional McDonalds, salads, sandwiches, and a whole lot of sushi.

Vietnam stole my heart for many reasons, but the food will forever be missed.

See you in 16 days America!

EKH

 

A Day in the Life

 

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The view from my classroom

This may seem like a boring blog post, but I felt the need to aimlessly write and what better topic than my daily routine. If you know anything about me, you will know that routines are a big part of my life. I enjoy structure, knowing what I will be doing at every time. Studying abroad has really tested my ability to be comfortable without a program of events. There are many times where I do not have a minute by minute cue-to-cue, but after living in Saigon for a month and a half, routines are starting to be developed. So here is a typical day in the life of myself on my semester abroad.

6:00 AMI wake up, which seems super early to me, but everyone in my host family wakes up at 4:30 am so I am a late sleeper. I have really enjoyed becoming an early bird. The city is so alive early in the morning with the busy markets, people cooking on the sides of the street, and children walking to school. Vietnam has turned me into a morning person.

7:00 am: My host mom buys me a new food to try each morning from the local market next door to my house. Breakfast continues to be my favorite meal in and out of the United States. Some of my favorites include Xôi Bắp (sticky rice with corn), Bún bò Huế (a noodle and beef dish), Phở, and Banh mì (a traditional Vietnamese sandwich). I could dedicate a whole blog post to food, and I probably will, so I’ll spare you the long list.

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My neighborhood in the morning

7:20 am: After breakfast, my host mother or host brother will drive me on their motorbike through the busy streets to my University. I live in District 1 and my school is in District 3. It is about a 10-15 minute motorbike ride, depending on the time of day & traffic. At first riding on the back of a motorbike was terrifying. Look up pictures of Ho Chi Minh City traffic and you will recognize why. Yet, I can honestly say that it is the best part of my day.

7:30-9:00 am: My first class does not start till 9 am but since my host mother works, I leave the house a lot earlier than all of my other classmates. I spent the next hour and a half in a coffee shop. Within walking distance from my school, there’s at least six different coffee shops so every day I can choose another one. I also visit  Đức Phát Bakery and grab a pastry or two. This quiet morning time has become a crucial part of my daily routine. I use it to write, blog, FaceTime home, reflect on experiences of the week, catch up on some homework, and most importantly I use it for prayer. It has become a great way to start my morning.

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Let’s pretend I’m studying when really we all know I’m looking at lunch menus

 

9:00-11:30: LANGUAGE CLASS! While it may be one of the hardest things I have ever had to study before, learning Vietnamese language has been an incredible experience. I am surprising myself on how much I am actually picking up on from studying in a classroom, to using it at my homestay, in the local markets, and in daily interactions with local people. I have learned numbers, pronouns, directions, food, daily phrases, introduction questions, time of day, and a couple other helpful phrases.

11:30-1:30: Lunch break is nice and long and allows us to explore the city finding some hidden gems for good & cheap food. Vietnamese cuisine is like nothing I have ever experienced before. It is AMAZING! (Coming soon: Food Blog Post).

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“Lunch Lady” aka the best meal I’ve gotten here

1:30-3:30: Afternoon class is usually a lecture on one of our topics. I am studying culture, social change, and development at Hao Sen University so many of our afternoon classes are lectures on the American War, economic developmental theories, ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, and a wide range of topics.

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Exploring Saigon

3:30 to Right Before Dinner: This has become my time to explore the city before heading back to my homestay. Whether it is finding a cool cafe to sit in and do homework, going out for drinks with some friends, shopping, or just aimlessly walking down the streets to find a new adventure, Saigon is filled with endless things to do. Vietnam has an app called “GRAB” which serves as an Uber but for motorbikes so at around 5:00 pm, I call for a GRAB motorbike to pick me up and take me back to my homestay for dinner with my family.

6:30 pm: I usually have dinner with my host mother and my two host brothers at our house. My host mother is a great cook and always prepares an amazing spread. Dinner is a great time to continue learning Vietnamese words and to get more of my questions about the culture answered. My older host brother is very intelligent and loves to discuss elements of Vietnamese culture and tradition with me at dinner. My host mother speaks English very well. We keep a notebook at the dinner table and every night I write down two or three new english words for her to study for that day.

8:30 pm: Dinner is followed by a trip to the local park near my house. My host mom takes me jogging in the park every night. It has become a tradition that I really enjoy. The park at this hour is still very busy. People of all ages hang out here, exercising, dancing, eating food, or just hanging with friends. Plus at this time, the sun is down and the Saigon heat is more bearable.

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Beer & noodles along the Saigon River with my Host Mom

9:30 pm: Some nights I go straight to bed, other nights I will meet up with my friends. Tonight my host mother had bought sun dried squid off the street and we enjoyed a late night snack as we cheered “một, hai, ba, yoo” with our beers. Then it’s off to bed and ready for another amazing day!

While I will always be a type-A person, thriving off detailed schedules and plans, this adventure has forced me to get comfortable with being more easy-going and adapting to whatever is happening around me. I am fortunate to have amazing teachers, program staff, homestay family members, and friends who make each day fun and filled with adventure. Every day here is different and I am thankful for each new experience.

EKH

99 Percent Extraverted & Alone

Guess what day it is, VALENTINE’S DAY! (Well at least in my time zone). I’ve always been a fan of this commercialized holiday. Not because I’ve always had a boy to buy me flowers and chocolate but because I love, love. I think it is fitting that I spend today, writing a blog post on being alone, seeing that I’m 9,000 miles away from everyone I know and Valentine’s day isn’t usually associated with singleness. I’m not talking relationship status. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing this because I am anti-Valentine’s Day, but because in the short 14 days I have been in this city, I have learned to be more comfortable with the idea of being alone.

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There are many differences between suburban small town Connecticut and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, but the big one is that this is my first time ever living in a city. I decided to put myself on a plane for over 22 hours and land in a country on the other side of the world where I knew no one. I knew there were other students who I was going to meet up with, but I didn’t know anything besides their uploaded Facebook profile picture.

While I am never actually alone in this busy city of Saigon, I am alone in an emotional way, being far away from everything that makes me comfortable: my family, my friends, and my school, but this morning, as I walk down the sidewalks looking for a new coffee shop to sit in, I was very comfortable with the idea of being all by myself. I walked down the street with great confidence. I’m okay with finding a place to eat without friends. I’m fine with spending some time in my homestay bedroom just reading and reflecting. I’m content with adventuring without a buddy.

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View from the balcony in my homestay bedroom

The homestay component of my study abroad experience is something that caused me much anxiety but is turning out to be one of the greatest experiences yet. I am living in District One of Ho Chi Minh City with my má (mother), my anh (older brother), and my em trai (younger brother). They are some of the kindest, warm hearted people I have ever met. I am dropped off every day at school, I am fed SO much food, and a fresh smoothie is waiting for me every day after my afternoon class. Their compassion does not go unnoticed. Living in a homestay is a unique study abroad experience because you are not living with another American student. You don’t have the comfort of having an english speaking friend around you at all times. Even though my homestay family’s English is pretty great, language barriers are also a common theme. Being in a homestay has allowed me to have my time alone, but also have my time fully engaged in the culture. I am grateful for both the time spent with my family and the time spent with myself.

I am 99 percent extraverted and 1 percent introverted, constantly surrounding myself with loud people at school, doing things with friends and crowds always. It has been refreshing to be able to motorbike across the city just to find a new hiding place. Last night after dinner of fried eggs and caterpillars, I told my homestay brothers that I would be back in half an hour. I wanted to walk around the district they live in and get a feel for the new view of the city that I am fortunate to get. My older brother was hesitant and asked if I wanted him to accompany me, but I knew that this alone time is an important time for me to process all the new experiences I am encountering.

There’s something empowering about walking down a crowded street and knowing no one. It gives you the ability to be whoever you want to be in a new place. I have found that in the process of being alone, I have learned more about myself. Many times, we do not give ourselves credit for our own abilities. It’s a lack of confidence in our strengths and too much focus on our weaknesses. When you spend time with your own mind, you are able to recognize all that you can fully do.

At the end of my freshman year, I was adamant about not studying abroad. I did not want to miss the people at my school that I cared about, but now I am so thankful that I forced myself to focus on me, getting out of my comfort zone, and recognizing all that I can do on my own. I am still always going to be extraverted, enjoying the company of others but I am thankful for the opportunity to get to know myself more as I begin my twenties!

EKH

What I Learned in a Coffee Shop

I told myself I wasn’t going to blog. I was pretty firm on this decision as well. I told myself I would journal so it can be more personal and I don’t have to worry about annoying everyone with my constant posts. While journaling is great for me, I needed a creative way to reflect on this crazy adventure I’m on in a public forum. Sooooo, here we are, “A Semester in Saigon.”

I’ve been in Vietnam for a week now. After a long fourteen hour plane ride to Tokyo, a mad dash to my gate in Japan, and another 6 hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City, I safely arrived at my final destination. This semester is one of many firsts: my first time away from home for this long, my first time 8,738 miles away from my parents, my first time living in a busy city, and my first time ever outside of the United States is now a four month long excursion to Vietnam (Go big or go home, am I right?). I’m not going to lie and say that this transition was smooth, it was filled with lots of anxiety and tears. There have been multiple morning FaceTime calls to my parents where I am in tears about the distance. While the homesickness is definitely alive and present, I am in awe at the strength I did not know I had. I need to remind myself of all that I have accomplished in the little time I have been here. I’ve traveled the busy streets on a motorbike, hiked through the jungle, been on a plane alone, laughed at awkward language barrier conflicts, and met some pretty amazing friends along the journey.

Routines are developing and I am finding the structure very enjoyable. My major type-A personality thrives off of this schedule. Today during out two hour lunch break, after a laundry run, an amazing $1 lunch at a popular local street food venue, and a walk down the busy road, I found myself in a coffee shop catching up on some readings. “The Coffee House” is as close as one can get to a Starbucks. It has the same modern but rustic charm, great coffee, delicious pastries, but a whole lot cheaper.

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I have always been a student who enjoys doing homework in busy places. I enjoy the crowds in our campus coffee shop and although people watching distracts me at times, I tend to be very productive in these settings. Every morning during this past winter break, I found myself in the local Starbucks studying for the LSATs for hours at a time. I would put in my headphones and get to work.

Today, as I sit here with an iced peach tea and tiramisu, I find myself finally feeling at home. I’m across the world in South East Asia, but finding places where I can still find comfort and solace. For the past week, I was having an amazing time. I’ve seen crocodiles in the rainforest, visited temples, “chilled” at some beautiful rooftop bars, tasted the unbelievable street food of the city, but I’ve still been feeling a bit uncomfortable at times. It was a kind of discomfort that I couldn’t put my finger on until right now. I think I was just missing being in my element, and right now, I have started to feel much more at home. I have never been forced so far out of comfort zone before this trip and today, I am able to feel more confident about where I am in this journey. I have my headphones in, my Jesus music playing, and a cool drink to quench the 90 degree heat.

Ultimately, today has been a day of growth & empowerment. After the lessons I learned in the coffee shop, I got the strength to take a motorbike ride to a go to a pho restaurant for dinner alone. For anyone who knows me, I don’t even go to the bathroom alone at college let alone travel through Ho Chi Minh city on the back of a motorbike to eat alone in a restaurant. However, I am feeling fully capable and confident. I want to challenge myself to recognize when I step out of my comfort zone and applaud myself for being comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Stay tuned for more adventure updates & photos. Vietnam is everything & more!

EKH

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