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Travel

A nice musical perk

I went to Hanoi last week for a work trip.  As I’ve said many times, business travel is not vacation travel.  After I returned to Ho Chi Minh City, several people asked me “How was Hanoi?”  “I don’t know,” I replied.  “All I can tell you is how the airport, hotel, and embassy were.  I didn’t get to do anything in Hanoi.”

Although that isn’t totally true.  I had a nice dinner with a co-worker.  And I got a wonderful unexpected benefit.  On Friday evening, in the hotel that I was staying at, a young lady performed on a traditional Vietnamese instrument, and that instrument happens to be almost identical to one of my favorite traditional Chinese instruments.

So I got a little treat.  After several stressful days, it was relaxing to sit and listen to the beautiful music.  It almost felt like a vacation.

Almost.

Yes, that’s exactly what you think it is.

On my way to the airport the other day, I passed this pair of travelers. On the highway.

“Jesus is my seatbelt.”

Remnants or junk?

Last weekend I traveled to a coastal town, and we stumbled on a museum in the making.  A real estate developer has been collecting old vehicles that the U.S. military left in Vietnam after the war.  I think the idea is that they will make a museum as an attraction to lure people to stay in the resort that the company is building.

The process is in the early stages.  They have collected some equipment, but they haven’t done much work on it yet.  So, in all honesty, the site looks less like a museum and more like a junkyard.  Still, there is some interesting stuff.

Sure-fire diet plan

If you’d like to lose 5-10 pounds in only one week, then pay attention, because I have stumbled on a method to drop weight fast.  For the cost of one low-priced meal, you can watch the weight melt away.  It’s as effortless as sitting down.  And sometimes, kneeling.

Here’s how it works: you eat lunch at a restaurant that looks clean, but really isn’t.  Within hours, you will feel the process begin.  An unmistakable feeling of impending loss of matter from your body will start to percolate in your gut.  Before you know it, your body will begin to relieve itself of parts of you that you no longer need.  You will lose 2-3 pounds instantly. And that’s just the start!

As the days go by, you will not be hungry.  Think of the money you’re saving on food, as you lose that weight!  And when you force yourself to eat or drink something, your body will auto-correct for you, reversing your actions as fast as you can say: “Get out of my way! She’s about to blow!”

I’ve gone through this process three times since I’ve been at post, and each time, I’ve been super impressed by the results.  Sure, some people call me “sick,” or “pasty,” or “at death’s door,” but I think they’re just jealous of my slimness. Even the nice nurse at our med unit was so envious that she wanted me to take drugs to counteract my diet plan.  Just to humor her, I took the medicine, but we both knew that it wasn’t really necessary.

Added benefit: drugs!

In short, if you need to take a few days off work, and catch up on your sitting around not wanting to move, then I can recommend this method. I promise that in one short week, you will be thinner.  You will also have a new appreciation for the simple things in life, like not spending half your day in the bathroom.  The benefits of this plan are almost endless.

One word of caution: while you’re on this diet plan, you can’t trust your own farts. ‘Nuff said.

I sampled the local cuisine

Last weekend a group of us went to Dong Thap (Đồng Tháp) province.  The Consulate’s locally-engaged staff organization arranged for us to volunteer at a summer camp for at-risk teenagers.  It was a lot of fun, I got to interact with some young people, and help out with an NGO’s work to prevent human trafficking.

A team of us did a workshop on “soft skills,” which is a buzzword in Vietnam lately.  Schools here focus on academics, but don’t teach life skills like teamwork, communication, interpersonal skills, and professionalism.  The workshop we did combined English practice and communication skills.  Essentially, we played games.  Even though we were playing a game, I explained to the kids that in order to succeed in the game, they had to listen to what each other were saying, and strategize their own communication.  Yes, OK, we played “20 questions.”  Stop judging me.  It was relevant.  Shut up; it was, too.

We also got to do a little culinary exploration.  When I told some of my coworkers that I was going to Dong Thap, they smiled and nodded knowingly.  They asked if I knew anything about the local cuisine.  Of course I didn’t, because I’m an ignorant foreigner who doesn’t know the intricacies of Vietnamese culture.  That seemed to amuse people even more.

So the night after we finished the workshops, we all went to a local beer garden for dinner.  We got a lot of the usual goodies, beer with ice cubes (you get used to it), and then, a big plate of the local cuisine.

Yup, I ate rat.

And unfortunately, it was delicious.

No arguments from me here.

At a coffee shop in Dong Thap Province:

Sometimes, a name is just too hoopin long!

I get it, I totally get it.  There wasn’t enough room on your hoopin’ plate.

Adding personal travel to business travel: win

Taking some of my own advice about business travel, I decided to tack on an extra day to a recent trip.  Totally worth it.

I spent a day in the city of Nha Trang, which is on a beautiful stretch of beach.  It’s a popular vacation spot.  People go swimming and watch the sunrise.

Sunrise on the beach. This is what I’m talking about.

I spent the day catching up on reading, took a long walk, ate some local food, and relaxed.

Yes, there is whiskey in that glass.  I think.  The bar was stingy with the portions of liquor, but the presentation was pretty great. 

…then you must be a caveman.

From the hotel’s safety instructions.

Business travel is not a vacation

Even though I really like visiting other places, and I enjoy meeting up with colleagues from different posts, and it’s fun to be in a new environment, business travel is a different experience from leisure travel.

I my previous career in academia, I traveled a lot for work. Academic conferences are held in different places around the country, so I went to a lot of big and small cities around America (and a couple of times in Canada). But when I was there, I usually saw the inside of hotel conference rooms more than the local sites. I’ve been to most US states, but have probably missed out on what each state has to offer. Business travel is for business, not pleasure.

My recent trip to Thailand was an eye-opener. I spent four days in Bangkok, and this was about all of the city that I saw:

Hi, Bangkok. You look interesting. Wish I could have gotten to know you better.

Don’t misunderstand: the trip was valuable. I learned a lot. The government got very good value for the cost of sending me in the trip. The trip was great for me, professionally. In addition to exchanges with colleagues about our respective experiences and activities at posts, we got some valuable guidance from higher up the hierarchy.

Extra credit if you know what “IO” stands for.

Personally, though, it was disappointing. We spent a lot of time in a dark conference room looking at a screen:

Not only did I not have time to enjoy the city, but I had to leave a little early in order to get back to Vietnam and prepare for my next trip.

This is not the right way to live. If I’m going to have to put up with the nonsense and inconvenience of travel, I should take some time on one side or the other of the trip, and do some touristy stuff.

In case you were wondering, the answer is yes, Vietnamese feet can be just as stinky as American feet can be. Thanks for demonstrating that for me, inconsiderate fellow traveler.

So here’s my resolution: from now on, I’m going to carve out some time for myself every time I travel for business. I’ll pay for my own hotel room, pay the additional air fare as needed. Since I’ve endured the journey, I might as well get some enjoyment out of it. Life’s too short. It’s time to mix in some pleasure to the business. I did that a few times in the past. My wife and I enjoyed a great afternoon scootering around British Columbia while there for a conference several years ago. I’m going to try to do something like that on every trip from now on.

Stay tuned.