Cần Thơ Pizza

My life in Can Tho is a mix between states of manic depression and sky high joy.  There are times when a small bowl of rice, fish, and vegetables will do, and other times when I will have nothing of the sort.  Unlike Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho is not filled to the hilt with foreigners, and by extension, international cuisine.  During the times when America seems a universe away and loneliness creeps into my home, it is food that takes me to a better place, but finding the food that I am used to and love has not been an easy task in this small Mekong Delta city.

I am terribly thankful for the ubiquity of pizza, unhealthy as it may be.  Were it not for this greasy concoction of bread, tomato sauce, cheese, and any variety of vegetables and meats, I am not totally sure that living in Can Tho would be as easy as it has been.  Add in the fact that my stomach no longer fully trusts Vietnamese restaurant food the way that it did several years ago in Can Tho, and pizza has become somewhat of a lifeline.

That said, there are some major differences not only between the Can Tho pizza and the pizza from back home, but also the way that Vietnamese people eat pizza.  The way that pizza joints tell it, when you purchase a pizza you are to expect at the least bread, cheese, tomato sauce, and oregano.  It may be just me, but out of the dozen pizzas that I have consumed in Vietnam over the last few months, not one of them had a suitable amount of tomato sauce.  Truly, the tomato sauce on pizzas in Vietnam appears to act as nothing more than a bread wetter and not a team player with the rest of the ingredients.

Perhaps it is due to this utter lack of tomato sauce spread on top of pizzas in Vietnam that Vietnamese people eat their pizzas with ketchup.  It is absolutely beyond me why anyone in his right mind would voluntarily request tiny ketchup packets with his pizza, but that seems to be the trend here.  Because pizza hasn’t taken hold of Vietnam the way that it has gripped America, I won’t hold it against the locals for eating ketchup with their pies, but my god, the humanity!

Word to the wise: if you ever find yourself in Vietnam for an extended stay and do not wish to leave your home for dinner, simply call up any pizza shop and they will happily deliver.  And it’s not just pizza that they will deliver but lasagna, tiramisu, canned sodas, fried calamari, and even ca phe sua da.  Delivery service in Vietnam, while not as common as other places, is top notch when it comes to bringing you what you want.  Shops at times even pack canned sodas in tiny plastic bags which are filled with ice so that the beverages stay cold on the road.  It’s unbeatable.

I’ve been trying to persuade my family members and friends to come to Vietnam since I first arrived.  Some of them frantically ask me what they will eat when they come here, besides of course the local fare.  I’m happy to report that I have found the silver bullet answer in the form of a pizza pie.

A Vietnamese Birthday

My sister in Can Tho is an integral part of my life in Vietnam. Were it not for the love and and care that her entire family has shown me over the last three years, I would not have returned to this relatively small Mekong Delta city.

She’s an English teacher, my sister, which means that since returning to Can Tho I have spent my fair share of nights at her home both entertaining and conversing with her students. And while the majority of my classroom chats have seemed more like lectures than actual discussions, some of chi Huyen’s students and I have become friends.

This was never more apparent than on Thursday, when a so-proclaimed secret event was organized by chi Huyen’s entire class for me. What I thought would be a simple night of coffee and laughter turned out to be a surprise birthday party for yours truly.

To say that I was shocked is an understatement. My birthday is not for another three weeks, but because I will be in Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang for the better part of two weeks during July, Huyen’s class decided to treat me to my first official birthday gathering in Vietnam.

I was at the same time overjoyed and somewhat confused by the lengths to which my new-found friends went to treat me this week. There was cake, a massive tray of banh xeo, Vietnamese egg rolls, spring rolls, Vietnamese tea, and the obligatory fruit offerings to polish off our feast. The joy was of course for the true southern hospitality that Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta display to foreigners. The confusion, however, was that I didn’t know what was considered normal for a host of a birthday party in Vietnam to do.

Food and party culture in Vietnam is something that I have not yet grown used to. As the “owner” of my home and host of the party, I was expected to begin eating before everyone else, eat quickly and furiously, and spend little time tending to the organization of the party and maintenance of the house. Of course I did the exact opposite, inviting my friends to begin eating before me, cleaning up after them, and talking and observing more than actually eating.

“Why aren’t you eating?” I was asked countless numbers of times. “I can’t eat quickly” was the most honest and simple answer that I gave, but this only made my Vietnamese friends worry that the food was not delicious or that I was not enjoying my time at the party.

Not a soul wanted to touch his or her food before me, and even upon imploring my guests that it is perfectly normal, and sane, for guests to be invited to eat before a house owner in America, I was told that while I am American, I live in Vietnam and should do as they do. The poetic justice was that it wasn’t a week ago that I taught the class about the saying “When in Rome…”

We talked, we laughed, and we ate more than we could stomach. No chairs were used, no knife was presented with which to cut the cake, and the entire birthday party seemed as though it was little more than a gathering of family members. This is, I believe, the heart of social gatherings in Vietnam. Party formality as we see it in America does not exist, and the food, not the conversation, was in our case the driving force behind the night.

I am truly a lucky man. I would have rather been nowhere else last Thursday than in Vietnam with a large group of my sister’s English students and my sister’s family. The majority of locals in this city treat me like an alien, but those who see me as Philip, or “Phi-Lip”, constantly reaffirm the decision that I made to return.

After my birthday party ended, a good friend helped me clean my entire kitchen, and she even mopped the floor to boot. As she scrubbed and I rinsed my dishes, I told her that the party was the nicest thing anyone in Vietnam had done for me in a very long time. Her response was direct, but so simple: “This is the Vietnamese way, Philip.”

Love in Vietnam

Several weeks ago, as I sat in the Bich Duyen hotel lobby chatting with the receptionist, I received a phone call from my father. As has become the weekly routine during my stay in Vietnam, we chatted for a moment and our conversation was filled with lighthearted banter, several gems of fatherly advice, and an “I love you” to end the conversation.

I say those three words before hanging up the phone with anyone in my family. It has become so normal to me now that I hardly even notice, but the look of complete shock washed over my receptionist-friend’s face as soon as I told my father that I loved him. Chanh said that it felt strange to hear me at this age tell one of my parents that I love him. Imagine his surprise when I told him that I also do this with my brother, sister, extended family, and best friends.

Love in Vietnam is shown in different ways than it is shown in America. Back home we are vocal about our feelings towards friends, family, and lovers alike, no matter our age. Here, actions are said to speak far louder than words, and the only circumstances in which I have seen Vietnamese people be so open about their love have involved very small children. Parents and elders alike dote over babies to no end, sniff-kissing them at every given opportunity.

Somewhere along the way from childhood to adulthood, though, Vietnamese people simply stop saying the L word to each other. And it’s not just the lack of spoken affection that I notice but the total avoidance of discussing anything remotely related to one’s feelings for another person.

The paradox that I have not been able to wrap my head around in Vietnam is that while people rarely seem to voice their feelings for their friends and loved ones, the public displays of physical affection between members of the same sex are always on display in this country.

Women hold hands with other women as they stroll down dusk laden streets, and men do much of the same, cupping each other’s wrists while walking and talking. You will rarely see a male and female publicly display affection towards one another in Vietnam, and if they do, they are most likely young.

I grew up receiving affection from not only my family but also my friends, which makes staying in Vietnam a little bit like an affection rehab program. Sometimes I find myself craving for a rub on the back, suffocating hug, or kiss on the cheek from friends and family members. It is after all what I grew up with, and going from feeling like I was surrounded by physical love all the time back home to nothing has been so difficult.

This problem of conflicting displays of love between vastly different cultures is truly one that is not easy to overcome. What I perceive in Vietnam between friends as a complete lack of love is to the Vietnamese as normal as apple pie to Americans. And my ideal level of affection between myself and friends is to the Vietnamese going entirely overboard.

While both ways are fine, my way is what I am used to. So while I live in Vietnam I will need to either find other foreigners who share the same understanding of affection as I do or suck it up and try not to feel so frustrated that I’m not allowed to hug my friends or kiss my Vietnamese family members on the cheeks as I do back home.

During my first ever trip to Vietnam, I spent one evening trying to teach a female friend how to slow dance the way that Americans slow dance. When I brought her body close to mind, she could not stop her face from turning red, her body from trembling, and her palms from sweating.

I had known my friend for nearly six months already and was bewildered. I asked her why on earth she was so nervous to let me show her how to slow dance. Shyly glancing away from me, she responded that this wasn’t normal in Vietnam. Little did I understand at the time how unnatural it really is here.

Miss Universe 2008

The very first time that I watched Caitlin Upton’s famous response during the Miss Teen USA 2007 Q&A round, I knew that I was instantly hooked to beauty pageants for the rest of my life. There was something so marvelous, so dramatic about seeing the young woman go down in flames in front of a live audience, and the resulting media phenomenon surrounding her mistake was no less entertaining.

This morning I booked a room at the Yasaka Saigon Nha Trang Premier Beach Resort from July 11th, 2008 to July 14th, 2008. The reason for doing so was two-fold. First, it has been ages since I truly took a birthday break to smell the roses, and second, the Miss Universe 2008 Pageant is coming to Nha Trang, Vietnam!

I have been to many places in Vietnam, but Nha Trang is not one of them. From the way other travelers tell it, I am in for an absolute delight once I arrive in the city. Nha Trang is seafood heaven and ever since I took beef and pork out of my diet, my cravings for shrimp, scallops and any other variation of seafood have only increased. Add in the fact that my beachfront hotel will be merely inches away from the fresh catches of the day, and I may never return to Can Tho.

As it stands now, most, if not all, of the notable hotels in Nha Trang are booked solid throughout the Miss Universe 2008 weekend. A part of me did want to wait until I actually arrived in Nha Trang to make reservations at a cheaper, more local establishment, but I wasn’t willing to risk not having anywhere to sleep next month in Vietnam’s so called party central. Make no mistake about it: although Nha Trang is a city of only three hundred thousand people, it will be packed to the brim with travelers from all over the world come July.

Miss Universe 2008 is a huge event for Vietnam. Oddly enough, the majority of the locals who I have spoken to about recently selected Miss Vietnam 2008 (Thuy Lam) are utterly appalled that a model just under 170cm would be chosen to compete on an international level. One hundred and seventy seems to be the magic number here, so if you ever tell a short girl that she is beautiful enough to be a model, you will be told that you are out of your mind. I relay this information due to experience with the matter.

Pending any unforeseen disasters with my camera or restrictions on photography at the Miss Universe 2008 pageant, I will be spending a bit of time behind the camera lens when I arrive in Nha Trang. There will be beaches to remember, absolutely beautiful women moments away from pageant immortality, and fish to fry. If you never hear from me again after next month, it will most likely mean that I have died and gone to epicurean heaven in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

The Lonely Planet

Five years ago I lost my virginity underneath the stars and ever since then, stars have held a special place in my heart. No matter where I go or who I am with, when I look up at a blanket of small, bright lights shining down upon my brow, I remember the cool nights of the New York Catskills and wish for a second to have that old memory come back to life.

When I think of that moment, it is not the excitement of the deed or the experience of losing one’s innocence that I hope to relive. It is that brief moment during my lifetime when two lonely travelers came together, underneath a bed of wishes, and loved each other as only travelers know how to love.

A major struggle that I face every single day while in Vietnam is the realization that most of what I do here will be a memory shared with no one else other than myself. Sure, I can take a thousand photographs of my existence in Vietnam, but the snapshots will be cropped, sanitized, cherry picked, and at one angle. There will be no one with whom to share the three hundred and sixty degrees of memories that I will bring home to America, and that at times creates a great deal of sorrow in my heart.

I told a group of Vietnamese students last week that I will be touring Singapore very soon. They asked me with whom will I be traveling, and I said no one. Almost immediately their faces turned dark. One girl in particular questioned me for several minutes about why on earth I would voluntarily choose to travel alone. Travel, she said, was meant to be shared with loved ones. To the Vietnamese mind, it would seem, any other reason for traveling is not a valid reason to travel at all.

Independence is a staple in the American diet. Go to your nearest coffee shop and you will see solo diners reading their favorite books, businessmen cranking out their latest proposals, and students of all stripes sitting alone, digging into their text books. In Vietnam, coffee shops are primarily designed for socializing, and in only the most upscale offerings will you chance upon a solo traveler in search of rest and relaxation.

The same applies to travel throughout Vietnam and neighboring countries. It is unheard of for locals to visit popular tourist destinations alone, and those who do end up leaving Vietnam on their own have a clear purpose, like study. So it makes little sense then to go anywhere alone simply for the sake of seeing something new. I replied to the Vietnamese student that my reason for traveling is to see the world, even if it means that I will likely have to go it alone. That answer didn’t please her.

It is said by locals in Vietnam that a good friend is one who stays home with one’s loved ones even when the opportunity to travel alone to a remarkable place arises. It is not the emergence of new sights and sounds into our lives that should bring us joy, but rather the experience of sharing those sights and sounds with the people who we love most.

Herein lies the dilemma of my relationships in Vietnam. Few of my friends have the means to travel and those who do are too busy to arrange their time around my whims. Some are conservative Vietnamese females who find it ungodly to travel alone with foreign men and others have no interest in seeing some of the places that I would like to see.

I feel as though I am trapped between my burning desire to experience the beautiful world with those who I love and the reality that people do not have time to travel, money to drop everything at home and support this sort of mobility, or a desire to see the places on the map where I would like to go.

My only choice, then, is to go through each day as connected to the world as possible without becoming so attached to those around me that leaving is impossible. And until I find my perfect traveling companion, I will continue to stare up into the dead of night and hope that one day the feeling of connectedness that the stars once gave to me is resurrected.