Trying to hammer out the details about nails in Vietnam

nail outletHo Chi Minh City, Vietnam; May 2014

“Aren’t the Vietnamese supposed to be completely repulsed by feet?” I asked more myself than my friend Debbie as we wandered down what seemed to be an alley exclusively designated for foot and leg massage outlets in Saigon.

If there was any revulsion, these shopkeepers hid it well with neon signs promoting “foot care,” charts of podiatry pressure points, photos of glistening legs getting the royal oiled treatment and pretty Vietnamese girls in flirty cocktail dresses and stiletto heels handing out discount flyers.

“Well, since they’re not grossed out, do you want to get a foot massage?” Deb asked, shrugging her shoulders.

She clearly wasn’t as upset by the reality that was displayed in front of us on a sign showing a woman’s hand loofahing a customer’s foot, soaking in a golden bowl with lotus flowers floating and swirling around the pampered appendage. lotus flower This bit of news that the Vietnamese not only handle feet, but also that they apparently use their sacred lotus flower petals to caress bunions, corns and fungal colonies was troubling.

I had come, partially, to Vietnam as a travel journalist, exploring stories like American Vietnam War vets who return to Vietnam, propaganda art from the war and the burgeoning nail salon industry.

The nail business angle was a follow up to a story I had done that covered the Vietnamese American domination of the US nail salons. Almost half of all nail technicians in the $7.5 billion dollar American nail salon industry are of Vietnamese heritage. In California, the number is 80 percent. This fascinated me. I thought perhaps tending to toes and fingers was an ancient tradition in Vietnam much like acupuncture in China. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The story came straight out of Hollywood or at least it had a Hollywood connection. Continue reading

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I’d like to make a toast to a post

Book cover Travelers' TalesAs always, when you attend a conference and fill out various forms, you eventually end up on several e-mail and newsletter lists. I went to a travel writing conference in August 2014, so when I opened an e-mail this past October and first scanned it, I thought it was a solicitation to pre-order The Best Travel Writing vol. 10 published by Travelers’ Tales. But then I read the message again and again. 

Dear Stephanie,

We are interested in including your story in our forthcoming book, The Best Travel Writing Volume 10, edited by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger and Sean O’Reilly, to be published in January of 2015.

Enclosed is a copy of a release. If you agree with the terms, please print two copies, then sign and return both copies to me (via email or snail mail). A countersigned copy will be returned to you with your check upon publication.,,,,,

The published book finally came in the mail this month, and I just held it in my hands for several minutes, looking at the front and back covers before I even cracked it open to find my story. I have to say that I had submitted “I Have a Problem with the Blood of a Woman” to a few different publications both print and online a few years ago. And it was rejected each time. So I posted it on Travel Oops back in April, 2013. The response was positive, and it motivated me to submit the story to Travelers’ Tales.

My story

I’m ecstatic to have the story included in the Best Travel Writing anthology. In fact, I thought I might jinx things by talking about it much before I actually saw my story in print. It’s now in print and I’d like to raise a glass to the Word Press Community, travel and my original post. Thank you!

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Taken down by Toddler

My new nemesis, which is actually a blue run.

My new nemesis, which is actually a blue run.

January 13, 2015; Chaffee County, Colorado

Steph, MRI looks pretty bad, see attached. We will do referral to ortho. Keep icing, elevated. Might do better on crutches if you are not already as there is a bone contusion.

This is the e-mail message I received recently from my doctor, Matt, who typically makes me feel neurotic during my regular checkups or my kids’ checkups. In his laid back way, he’ll look at me quizzically and say things like:

— “You have constant headaches? Try drinking more water.”

— “This is some type of viral condition, and it really just needs to run its course.”

— “Sometimes kids throw up for no real medical reason.” — “Yeah, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

My MRI results. I still don't really know how to identify issues, but my ACL is supposed to be in the image and it's not because it's completely torn.

My MRI results. I still don’t really know how to identify issues, but my ACL is supposed to be in the image and it’s not because it’s completely torn.

He’s a very good doctor and has a great sense of humor, but sometimes you feel like a hypochondriac when you leave his office. So the phrase “looks pretty bad,” in his e-mail, indeed, alarmed me. Then I looked at the MRI results of my knee, which stated I had….

  • a complete anterior cruciate ligament tear
  • a tear in the posterior horn of the medial meniscus
  • a bone contusion along the posterior lateral tibial plateau
  • a strain of the lateral collateral ligament

Whoa!! A bone contusion? (which is really just a bruise) That sounds hard core. And all that resulted from a fall on a ski run named…Toddler?

December 2014, Monarch Mountain, Colorado

Monarch Mountain, looking all pretty and inviting....

Monarch Mountain, looking all pretty and inviting….

On Toddler: A nine-year-old swooshed past me spraying a little glaze of powder as I laid in the snow on my back with my legs up in the air, boots and skis still attached. The little twinge I felt in my left knee moments earlier after I landed was not a welcome sensation. I had done something to it. And next, I did what most other skiers who had only made one run of the day would do. I got up, skied down leaning on my right leg and went right back into the chair lift line. Continue reading

Travel Scoops — Who wants truth in advertising? Australians: “yes”; Americans: “maybe not so much”

Homebaked, fresh bread -- a must for Vegemite

Concentrated yeast extract: aka. Vegemite.

Steph’s note: I’d like to introduce a new feature, “Travel Scoops,” in which I will highlight travel observations, interviews, news and finds. 

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How do cage eggs, scones topped with clotted cream, toast spread with concentrated yeast extract and coffee pressed by a plunger sound for breakfast? To an American, these items sound more like a line-up rejected by the Food and Drug Administration. Many Australians, however, gladly consume these products at “brekkie.” In fact, they may even flashback to childhood while eating some of these comfort foods.

french press with plunger

A French Press.

USA: Glam it up

Americans, instead, go for “farm fresh eggs,” “scones with “Devonshire cream,” and coffee made in a “French Press.” Forget the concentrated yeast extract (Vegemite) altogether. Americans, who, occasionally, are accused of being superficial, want products to have pleasing connotations. Remember, we’re talking about a country where the government has referred to torture as “enhanced interrogation,” and sports organizations admit that athletes use “performance enhancing drugs” rather than steroids. We definitely like things enhanced — or at least glammed up a little. I once worked for a temporary agency that offered me a “paper manipulation” gig. You mean filing?

Dumb ways to Die poster

Australia: Tell it like it is.

Recently, while living in Australia for one year as an exchange teacher, I noticed Australians, on the other hand, are direct and straightforward. They don’t sugar coat anything. After all, this is a nation that labelled Vegemite, its favorite spread, as “concentrated yeast extract;” created boots called “Uggs;” named a popular discount retail outlet, “The Reject Shop;” and promoted train safety with the hugely successful public service campaign dubbed, “Dumb Ways to Die.”

You are what you market.

Essentially, the product names and the marketing messages of a specific country tell us quite a bit about that nation’s personality. In fact, marketing, in general, reflects the tastes, attitudes and values of a nation’s citizens.

For example, since Australians are typically direct and, of course, “no worries,” those character traits influence their marketing strategies. “Australians tell it like it is, and we don’t stand for bullshit,” says my Aussie friend, Amy Frazier, who is a photographer and language arts teacher. “We don’t beat around the bush.” 

toilet

Australia: Time to use the “toilet.”

Straightforward communication is just part of life in Australia where, daily, I heard newscasters announcing which streets were hosting active speed cameras. “Take it easy driving on Cheltenham Parade today. The cameras are on.” Public Service Announcements warning about flu season show snot and mucus spraying full on from convulsing noses and contorted mouths. Additionally, in public places, people ask to use the “toilet” rather than the “bathroom” or “restroom.”

USA: “Toilet” = TMI

While Americans appreciate the truth, we also cringe with too much information. When I taught high school in Adelaide, I was somewhat stunned the first time a student said: “Excuse me, Miss, I need to use the toilet.” Whoa, I don’t really need specific details. For Americans, “toilet” already is implied in “bathroom.” On the contrary, according to Scott Hill, another one of my Australian teacher friends, “When some of my kids say, ‘Can I go to the bathroom,’ I say, ‘What? Are you going to have a shower?”

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Thank you for joining me on my misadventures!

steph kayaking in Halong Bay

Wow. It’s been exhilarating and overwhelming to be freshly pressed on WordPress. I’d like to thank everyone who has stopped by to check out Travel Oops as well as the new followers and the loyal followers who keep coming back. I look forward to checking out your blogs, and I’m honored to take you all on my adventures, especially my misadventures. Thanks again for coming along! Let’s all celebrate travel and laugh together.

Cheers!

Steph

Steph brushing teeth on China Airlines flight 2

 

 

 

Do I Call it a “Homestay?”

Steph doing a shot

Northern Vietnam, near Sapa: May 2014

Sitting in a Hmong living room in remote Northern Vietnam with ten other freshly showered tourists doing shots of rice wine while cellphones charged and Eminem blasted from iPod speakers on the shelf above a cooler containing multiple cans of Coca Cola, bottles of Aquafina and six packs of Tiger beer, I wasn’t sure I could call the scenario a “homestay.”

The idea of a homestay, of course, is to stay with locals to get an idea of their culture and lifestyle. In all fairness, the Hmong family who owned the home was with us. Sa and Hang sat with ramrod straight posture and their one-month-old baby in chairs a bit away from the dinner table, which had become the station for drinking games. Crouched in a fairly well lit corner of the large open room, their 10-year-old daughter did homework by using a plastic chair as a desk.

Her long ponytail flitted back and forth as she divided her attention between her workbook and her answer sheet. Meanwhile, two of the tourists, César, a twenty-something Frenchman who wore a jaunty fedora, and Londoner Richard, otherwise known as “Trini” since he was born in Trinidad, fashioned a plastic two-liter 7-up bottle into a makeshift bong. They resorted to smoking pot since our Li, our 4’ 8” no nonsense Hmong guide – or rather, her elderly mother — couldn’t hook them up with the opium they had requested earlier on the 15 kilometer trek we all took to get here.

water buffalo hub

First Impression: Homestay or Hostel?

I’m not going to lie. After emerging Deet and sweat soaked from the bamboo lined dirt path that wound around multiple coliseums of mountainous rice terraces and intersected with water buffalo hubs, I was surprised, yes, but ultimately, relieved when I first saw a tiled bathroom, complete with a flush toilet and shower near the entrance of the Hmong home we had finally reached.

front area with bathroom

The bathroom opened to a cement patio that extended in the front of the house with several plastic chairs and stools like the kind found on most sidewalks of Vietnam’s cities. The interior of the house offered a dorm-like setup with an open communal space and a ladder leading up to a loft full of wooden bunk beds. Several electrical outlets lined the walls and the fully stocked cooler featured a beer sticker, resembling Pabst Blue Ribbon, emblazoned on the side. Clearly the home had been modified to accommodate several guests who leaned toward Western tastes.

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On an Ao Dai High: Part II

Loan's stall

This story is a continuation of “On an Ao Dai High in Saigon,” and some of the information is repeated for clarity in the new version. 

Hoi An, Vietnam, May 2014 

In a frilly, white top, tight jeans and slip-on kitten heels, Loan hoisted her tiny self up on to a worn wooden shelving unit in her tailoring stall, No. 7 “Cloth Shop.” Like a librarian on a sliding ladder, searching a dusty floor-to-ceiling bookcase, her hands moved from shelf to shelf pulling various reams of silk and cotton fabrics. After lowering herself down like a gymnast, she showed me the selections for closer inspection. Easily a few feet taller than Loan, I felt oafish — like a 1980s burly and brutish East German swimmer named Helga. I doubted whether her Vietnamese measuring tape would even have enough units to assess my broad shoulders.

Loan measruing my biceps

I am Helga. Hear me roar!

Loan whipped out her measuring tape and, surely, released more of the white tailoring strip than was usually necessary. While lifting my arms straight out, I scanned the interior of the Hoi An marketplace, which was crammed with tailoring stalls like Loan’s, a food court and several souvenir stands with lanterns, fans, conical hats, trinkets and inflatable toys. Bored shopkeepers sat on plastic stools, playing cards. Their laughing children instigated a game of tag in the tight confines. A grungy backpacker couple in the tailoring stall next to Loan’s spoke to each other in German while holding a rather shapeless linen dress. The German man, in a grimy, ripped tank top, haggled in English with the Vietnamese tailor over the price of the linen garment.

Meanwhile, Loan gently wrapped the measuring tape around my damp neck, which glistened with a permanent necklace of perspiration. The day had been heinously humid, and I wondered how Vietnamese women could even bear to wear an ao dai, the beautiful traditional high collared, fitted tunic dress with side slits that is sported over silk trousers. The heat, however, would not deter me. I had come to Loan specifically for an ao dai.

But, somehow, I thought a fitting for the elegant dress that symbolized Vietnam and was emblazoned on everything from keychains and magnets to lovely embroidered wall hangings would be more…glamorous. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting.

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Using “the force” to cross the street and yielding to Yoda in Vietnam

Line up of scooters

Ho Chi Minh City, May 2014

Ever so cautiously, I put a flip-flop anchored toe in the crosswalk, but yanked it out immediately. It wasn’t time. Instead, I stood, watching the motorscooters swerve in tumultuous tentacles, some revving up the wrong side of the street or even up on the sidewalk itself. As the riders whizzed by, I could’ve easily reached out and pulled down the ever-present facemasks that many of the commuters wore to ward off pollution and the sun. They were that close. So, when is the right time to cross the streets in Saigon?

Starbucks on the corner

During my first few jetlagged hours in Ho Chi Minh City, I wanted to leave my hotel on a mini expedition to find a cup of coffee — never mind that a Starbucks was just across the street. I saw a few promising mom and pop shops, but like Starbucks, they were located on the other side of the death zone. I knew what I had to do.

And it wasn’t jaywalking. I don’t do it. It doesn’t even happen in the small Colorado mountain town where I live. My lack of daring may stem from being the subject of a Teutonic tirade in East Germany. It was during the Cold War and a crumpled old man in a long wool coat and furry hat berated my college friends and me in angry German for crossing a completely empty intersection against a red light. He even shook his cane at us.

The crazy wiring of HCMC

The crazy wiring of HCMC

A traffic light existed at the main intersection of Hai Ba Trung and Dong Du. But after a few minutes of studying the patterns of traffic, I decided the free-for-all of cars, motorscooters, buses and taxis was as much of a twisted, webbed cluster as the intertwined telephone and cable wires that gathered, looped and tangled on the city’s telephone poles located along street corners.

Finally another pedestrian came along as the light turned green. Following in synch with the local, I proceeded. Jerking about while looking right and left at traffic, I flinched as scooters beeped at me and came dangerously close to toppling over my nearly paralyzed body.

I don’t know how, but I made it across the street. The caffeine I had so desperately wanted wasn’t necessary anymore. Surging adrenalin took care of that, and made me more alert than any jolt of java could.

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The Spirit of a Divided Berlin

guard tower

East Germany, April 1989

When East German border guards tromped through the tight train corridor, stopped my study abroad program director and pantomimed the click of a camera, I knew I had messed up. Big time. Standing enough feet away, I pressed close to the passageway window, and inched my camera down into my coat pocket.

Moments earlier, as the train slowly rolled across the border from West Germany into East Germany and communism, I had snapped a picture of a patrol tower. Really bad move. It was 1989, during the Cold War, and I had left the flash on.

After watching the corridor confrontation, I panicked. Clearly, someone in the tower had seen the flash. Would the guards figure out I took the photo? Would they take my camera? Worse, would they take me? Did East Germans send people to Siberia? Could my parents wire a “border crossing fee” to a checkpoint behind the iron curtain?

Ultimately, nothing resulted from my major lapse in judgment. Since it was just seven months before the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, I’m guessing the East German government had more pressing matters than throwing me in a gulag.

East German flag

Realization in East Germany: The photo faux pas confirmed that it didn’t matter that I was an American and guaranteed unalienable rights in the US. I was an American in a communist country, and border guards in East Germany didn’t have to acknowledge my freedom of expression or any other US First Amendment rights.

However, that moment, along with the idea of traveling to a region that was constantly presented to Americans as threatening, dangerous, and essentially evil, enticed me, and I couldn’t wait to see more.

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On an Ao Dai High in Saigon

beautiful woman in Ao Dai

beautiful ao dai woman 1960ishShe was stunning. And, for all practical purposes, I was stalking her. Moving past a lineup of tarnished, stationary yet imposing tanks and helicopters leftover from the Vietnam War, the woman wore a long sleeved neon yellow tunic dress fitted over flowing white trousers that barely revealed the tops of pointy kitten heeled shoes. Although in full 2014 vibrant color, she looked like she came straight from a black and white photo shoot for a 1960s Life magazine pictorial of Saigon.

This was my first up-close sighting of a woman wearing an ao dai, Vietnam’s traditional, elegant high-collared dress with slits up the sides that is typically worn with silk pants.

tank

In the courtyard of Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants museum, I first pretended to be examining a tank, US Army 09A78969, and then moved closer to a wall displaying bold primary colored propaganda posters. I scrutinized one featuring Ho Chi Minh as if I was completely literate in Vietnamese. Really, I was just working up the nerve to ask the woman in the ao dai for a photo.

She was standing with a man who wore a polo shirt, khakis and had a camera dangling from his neck. Since we were at a museum, I assumed he was a tourist and the woman was possibly his guide — especially since she gestured toward the tank while she talked to the polo man. In a quiet moment, I finally approached her and asked if she spoke English.

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