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Travel

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.

Two of my favorite things:

In a bar in Bangkok.

Whiskey and books.

Hungry Trip

On a recent trip to the countryside, we ran into an unexpected problem.  Come dinnertime, we couldn’t find anything to eat! There were no restaurants in the area, just farm houses and small towns.  Even the stores closed up early.

We finally found one “restaurant” that I wouldn’t want to eat at, if I had a choice.  Picture a concrete barn.  But we didn’t have any other options, so we went in and ordered their “specialty” (the only thing the restaurant sells): glutinous rice and duck meat.  The owner of the restaurant looked at us like we were stupid and said: “we’re all out of food.” I guess by 6:00pm or so, restaurants in the area have sold all of the food that they prepared for the day, and that’s it.  And we were stupid for not knowing that.  The owner said she still had a glob of glutinous rice, but no more duck meat.

Better than nothing, we figured.  We asked her to split up the glob into three portions, one for each of us.  I’m not a fan of glutinous rice in the first place, and wasn’t looking forward to eating that for dinner, but I was hungry, and so mentally prepared myself for the worst dinner of the year.

As we walked back to our car, by chance, we saw someone across the street making little “banh xeo” (Vietnamese savory pancakes).  They’re usually much bigger, the side of  large dinner plate.  I’d never seen them made this way before.  We got some of those to add to our feast of lukewarm leftover glutinous rice.

 

Banh Xeo: shrimp, batter, bean sprouts, “served” with a handful of fresh herbs (mint, basil, lettuce) and fish sauce.

This was a dinner that I won’t forget, at least not for a long time.  At least it was cheap.

Is it just me?

Or is this butter NSFW?

The definition of “not worth it.”

If I’m going to pay to use a restroom, it’s reasonable to ask that I don’t get cholera from using it.

Magic Hand Wipes in a Japanese Restaurant

After this experience, I may have to move to Japan.

A week of constrasts

It feels like I’m doing more work out of the office during this tour.  Being able to do work in addition to visa interviews is rewarding.  I like talking to visa applicants, and I think I’m good at it.  But doing that all day, every day, for weeks on end, can become tiring.

For three days last week, I went on an investigation trip into the outer provinces.  This is a different kind of diplomatting.  We sometimes have to check the relationships between U.S. citizens who are married to Vietnamese citizens, and are applying for immigrant status for the spouses.  Most of these cases are legitimate, but there is a lot of fraud as well.  By visiting the homes of the applicants, and interviewing them there, we can determine whether the marriages are real or not.

We were a small team of three: me, a locally-engaged staff member, and a driver.  We drove a LOT over bad country roads.  We typically had to drive from one to two hours between appointments.  By the end of each day, my butt was sore from hitting all of the bumps in the road.  One of the managers told me that we really earn our hardship differential when we go out on these trips.  I agree.

The trip took us west, toward the Cambodian border.  That area is very rural, and is home to some of Vietnam’s 50-odd ethnic minorities.  Most people in this part of the country work in agriculture.

Farm workers

Economically, there just isn’t a lot happening in the countryside.  Here’s the local store:

A busy shopping center.

And in case you’re wondering, here’s a typical gas station bathroom:

Desperation makes one do things that one would not do under ordinary circumstances.

Not only is the countryside spread out and sparsely populated, but the roads are not well marked. Compared to well-organized urban areas, addresses in the provinces seem arbitrary.  We had to stop several times to ask directions.  One time, we asked directions from an old guy who was cooking outside his house.  He started to tell us how to get to the house we were looking for, then he stopped and thought for a moment.  He seemed to figure that it would be more efficient for his to show us himself.  So he walked away from his pot, but kept his spoon in his hand, as he led us down the street to the applicant’s house.

My Impressive Spoon of Direction will lead us to the correct destination.

 

Houses are constructed of wood and brick.  We saw several places in different stages of construction.

Very basic brick construction.

After seeing the low standard of living in the countryside, it isn’t hard to understand why some people would want to leave.  Some people move to the city for work, some people choose to emigrate.

Among the farms and poverty, though, we got to see some interesting regional culture.  A local religion called Cao Dai started in the 1920s in one of the provinces that we visited.  The religion combines characteristics of traditional Chinese religions like Confucianism and Taoism, Buddhism, and even Christianity.  I don’t pretend to understand much about the religion, but their temple is beautiful.  We were allowed inside for a brief visit before the evening service started at 6:00 pm.

Cao Dai temple at twilight

 

Inside the Cao Dai temple

On Friday, we finished our investigations, and returned to Ho Chi Minh City on Friday evening.  The next day was the annual Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

Many Embassies and Consulates have a detachment of Marine Security Guards.  Their official role is to provide security to the grounds and guard the classified information inside post.  Every year, the Marine Corps celebrates its birthday (November 10).  MSGs at posts abroad hold a ball to celebrate, and invite all the diplomats and their families.  It’s like prom for grownups.  People have a “day of beauty” to do their makeup and hair.  The Marine Ball is about the only opportunity that I have to wear my tuxedo.

We went to prom in order to learn how to do this.

I had the privilege of writing the speech for our guest of honor this year.  This was my second speechwriting experience for this tour.  Like most skills, speechwriting takes practice, and like most tasks in the Foreign Service, there are structures and rules.  I forgot some key elements in a standard State Department speech, like acknowledging the guest dignitaries (oops), but the speaker was experienced, and she filled in the parts that I left out.  The speech was well-received (whew!).

This was an interesting week.  My job took me out to the dust and poverty of remote provincial countryside, then back to a night of glitz and dancing in the city, all in a few short days.  This wasn’t a typical week.   My schedule for next week should be business as usual.  It will be nice to calm down and relax by doing some routine work.  Even so, the meaning of “routine” while living abroad is different from in the U.S.