Tet – Red Flower Yellow Flower

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Today we bought a big yellow flower and a big red flower. These colourful potted plants are being sold all over Ho Chi Minh City. My assumption was that they are being sold for the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, or Tet, which takes place in a few days time. Because I am totally clueless, I wanted to find out what they were called, why they were significant and what I should do with them, so I asked my Vietnamese friends on Facebook and they told me this:

“The yellow one is chrysanthemum variety. And, The red one is cockscomb flower. They can be alive a month in pots. They need more soil, fertilizer to live longer :-)”

“They look beautiful , Jen . I’m glad that you and Gareth are interested in flowers now  That is an interesting question , Jen . I never think of it . I think The yellow one is Hoa Van Tho ( Chrysanthemum ) which brings longevity and prosperity according to their names in Vietnamese . The red one is Hoa mau ga ( cockscomb flowers ) symbolizes humor, warmth and passion . …”

“Hi Jen, Lunar new year ( Tet) is the most important celebration of vietnamese cultural. The word is shortened form of (Tết nguyên đán) . The yellow one is Chrysanthemum flower ( Called “Hoa Cúc”) the red one is cockscomb flower ( called ” Hoa mào gà”). Most of Vietnamese prepare these flowers and Peach blossom ( in the North of Vietnam) apricot blossom ( in the south of Vietnam) for Tet. On the Tet, Visiting a friends’ home on the first day of new year is called ( Xông nhà), children receive a red envelope containing money from their elders ( this traditional is called “Mừng tuổi”)”

“so beautiful! The yellow one is chrysanthemum. it’s mean ” bring a symbol of life, happiness and fortune as well as adding joy to the home. And, The red one is cockscomb flower. A spring full of dreams and hope . i think so. hihi”

“These flowers always appear in my family at Tet holiday, always. Be honest, I have no idea what the meaning of them are . Every year, mom takes me to the flower market and buy couples of the most beautiful one, bring it home. Simply , we decorate the house, our grandparents graves, and the altars. It’s not because of the meaning anymore, it’s the custom, the tradition. I grow up with it and it’s my turn to bring them flowers home ”

Thank you so much to my Vietnamese friends for teaching me a little about your most treasured celebration.

Chuc Mung Nam Moi!!! – Happy New Year!!!

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Sweet Serendipity and Seafood

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It took us 45 minutes to decide where we were going to eat our dinner. Gareth had been riding at the front, giving my friend Marie a lift on the back of his rented bicycle. I was peddling to the rear. My stomach was howling with hunger but with so many options to choose from, the task of picking a restaurant had become almost impossible.

Eventually, a bold waitress made the decision for us by standing in the road, forcing Gareth to stop. Her place was called Seafood Garden Restaurant, and would be the backdrop to an enchanted encounter.

We sat outside, overlooking the river. Across the other side was the old town of Hoi An; an historic Southeast Asian trading port in Central Vietnam, the yellow façade and dark-wood buildings stood dignified. Paper lanterns were dropped from a nearby footbridge and floated down the slow river, bobbing from the slight waves formed by small fishing boats moving through the pitch black. The deep waters reflected the town’s centuries old ghosts.

The food arrived and soon after so did an older man in his late 40’s who had been sitting a few tables away. He moved next to Gareth and began talking to him. Gareth, as polite as always, engaged him, whilst I chatted with Marie. I heard the man mention tours and then he hurried into the restaurant. I sighed. He returned, placing a couple of red notebooks and a small pile of letters on our table. Out of curiosity I picked up one of the notebooks. Dating back to 2012, every single page was filled with handwritten reviews about this man’s tours. On page one I read the most perfect introduction to the man who I would know later as Mr Trung:

“You might be wondering who this guy is who came to your table and won’t leave you alone… Mr Trung is a very lovely and genuine man… he will take you on a tour of his fishing village a couple of kilometres outside of Hoi An…”

As I flicked through the notebooks, I was humbled. I hadn’t given Mr Trung a chance. I was too quick to jump to conclusions.

I saw that the price of the trip included a sunhat, a pick up from our homestay, bottled water, a visit to a fishing village and a pottery village, fishing by boat on the river, and a cooking class at Mr Trung’s home with his family. It was $17 per person for a 5 hour tour. Possibly a little steep, we had no idea, but we’ve always preferred to give directly to the community. A small deposit was paid for myself and Gareth – Marie was moving on the next day – and we booked in for two days’ time.

At 8:30am sharp, a smiling Mr Trung arrived on his electric pushbike outside the gate. We followed behind him, cycling along the recently harvested rice paddies that bordered our homestay then onward down the quiet main road for the 4km to his fishing village; Thanh Ha.

We secured our bikes on a patch of overgrown grass lying hidden down a pathway off the main road, which ran alongside the Thu Bon River. Dozens of family-sized fishing boats rocked in the light wind as Mr Trung gave us a brief history of the area.

We wandered a little down the river bank. The air was warming. Old fishermen and their wives leaned against the steel rail smoking cigarettes, watching our movements with inquisitive stares.

We took the path to the pottery village. Two women; an older lady and a younger girl worked the pottery wheel; the girl kicked the wheel, spinning it with her foot while the lady shaped and molded the clay into teapots and bowls. We were allowed to have a go ourselves but both mine and Gareth’s attempts looked like the handiwork of an over-excited toddler.

After we paid $20 for a pale green tea set, sold to us as made by the hands – and feet – of these women themselves and thought to be a bargain coming from the so-called manufacturer (the same one ended up being much cheaper in town), we moved on to our next stop; a fishing boat. Four of us; Mr Trung, Gareth, me and a fisherman, sat low, paddling through the shallow stream. We came to an enclave and spread out a net by hand, zigzagging as the boat drifted with the current.

By order of Mr Trung, we banged our paddles against the boat with a relentless fervour to scare the fish towards the net. Pulling the fish into the boat was a two-person job. Our fledgling arms ached. The fisherman beamed. He could rest today.

Back on dry land we pushed on to Mr Trung’s home where we met his gentle wife and two children. A table for two was set up, waiting to be dined upon. Mr Trung brought out a cleaned and gutted medium-sized fish. He laid a bowl on the table filled with a selection of spices alongside lemongrass, ginger, onion and garlic, all ground up ready to mix with a pinch of sugar, salt and vegetable oil. We smoothed the savoury paste over the fish, inside and out, wrapped it in a banana leaf and some tinfoil and cooked it over a hot charcoal fire for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, we prepared our own fried pork spring-rolls, and a simple dish of fried noodles with vegetables. The meal was finished with a glass of caphe sua; coffee with sweet condensed milk.

Lunch was more than delicious; a blissful satisfaction swathed us. We needed a nap after all that food, so we said a gracious goodbye, climbed back onto the saddle and hoped that we would never forget how it felt to be this whole again.

You can book a tour with Mr Trung at Viet Space Travel, 625 Hai Ba Trung Street, Hoi An or Seafood Garden Restaurant, 27 Nguyen Phuc Chu, Hoi An where he is available every night of the week.

Mobile: 0935512007

Email: mrtrunghoiantours@yahoo.com.vn

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With Mr Trung and his wife and daughter

MOOC-ing all over the world!

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So many MOOCs, I think I’m gonna faint

Have you ever mooc-ed? I know I have. I did a few moocs at the same time about 6 months ago but they left me drained. After that I casually went through moocs giving them a go for just a few days at a time. When I finally had enough passion to do one to completion, it was such a thrill and after that I wanted more and more moocs. I got to a point where I was doing nothing other than mooc; day-in, day-out. It drove me to the brink of exhaustion and in the end I had to admit that I had a mooc problem and use my last ounce of strength to forcibly stop myself from mooc-ing anymore. It’s been a struggle not having a mooc every night, so I’ve decided I need to mooc again, and NOTHING is going to stop me.

MOOCs, otherwise known as Massive Open Online Courses, are the new wave of online education provided free by top universities and experts and are available to anyone in the world with internet access. Fancy learning how to code your own search engine? There’s a MOOC for that. Want to discover how to protect yourself during a zombie apocalypse? There’s definitely a MOOC for that. Got interests in marketing, tourism, educational data, music composition, nutrition? Yes, yes, yes, yes and, oh yes! Then, as long as you have a name, an email address and a thirst for knowledge, the world of MOOCs is your oyster.

The one and only MOOC that I have actually completed was a Social Psychology course provided by Wellesley College through the site Coursera, an ‘…education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free’. It is a site that is dedicated to empowering individuals who would not ordinarily have access to such high level education and therefore can improve the lives of their families and impact their communities.

I’ve always had a predisposition to all things psych, so one day in September last year, when I saw that the Social Psychology course had already started a couple of days before, I clicked the ‘Join Course’ button (now called the ‘Learn for Free’ button) and, in an instant, I was pulled through a portal that gave me free access to articles, video lectures, discussion forums, advice, textbook chapters and more. It was like a luscious wild meadow of education that I could play and dance in for hours on end. Professor Scott Plous, the main man on the course, is the founder of the Social Psychology Network (SPN) and was generous to the hilt when it came to resources. One week, a random group of students were selected to do a Google Hangout with none other than Professor Phillip Zimbardo who was the director of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment. It was really quite remarkable what Prof Plous was able to pull out the bag for the 100,000+ people signed up to the course from all over the world.

Since then, I’ve kept my eye out for other courses I might be interested in and signed up to a number of them. Altogether I’ve started, and not finished, courses in coding, statistics, marketing, life coaching, leadership and tourism analysis. I tried hard to keep up with the weekly demands of the MOOCs (some can be very intense) but in the end I realised that they just weren’t for me. I wasn’t passionate about those subjects the way I am about Social Psychology so I accepted that the best thing for me would be to drop out and wait for one to come along, one that I’d really love.

And it did. Futurelearn, which is the UK’s first MOOC provider (the biggest and oldest sites are based in the US and have been offering MOOC’s for some years now) is currently partnered with 26 top universities, and Lancaster University will soon be offering a Corpus Linguistics: Method, Analysis, Interpretation course through the site, so, like a geeky rabid dog, I just want to bite it and shake it violently I am THAT excited to start. This particular course begins on 27th January, lasts for 8 weeks and suggests that 3 hours of study per week should suffice. It’s absolutely perfect for my nerdy needs.

So, where can YOU start? Well as you can see I have tried out a few different sites that offer MOOCs so below is a list of the main ones that I have come across in the past few months:

Coursera.org

One of the first sites to offer university level MOOCs with a focus primarily on Humanities, Medicine, Biology, Social Sciences, Maths, Business and Computer Science but there are the odd few other Arts based courses too. Courses are completed within a set time-frame and a certificate of accomplishment is provided. For a fee, you can earn a verified certificate.

Futurelearn.com

Wholly owned by the Open University, Futurelearn courses are all pilots and therefore there isn’t as much choice on offer compared to Coursera. Nevertheless, the courses are still high class and the resources provided are excellent. As with Coursera, courses are completed within a set time-frame.

Udacity.com

Courses can be completed at your own pace. There is a focus on Computer Science and some courses on Maths, Physics, Psychology, Design, Business Biology and Data. Udacity courses tend to be much more practical in nature.

Udemy.com

Instructors from all over the world can upload their own courses to be taken for free or for a charge. The options on Udemy are eclectic and less academic than the providers listed above.

Canvas.net

As with Udemy, Canvas offers courses from lecturers and instructors who want to share their courses to a wider audience; some are free and some come with a fee.

edX.org

Governed by MIT and Harvard, edX provide challenging courses using cutting-edge technology. This is the only MOOC provider in the list that I haven’t used yet so I can’t comment too much on what the courses are like.

Wherever you are in the world you can further your education for free. There is nothing stopping you because, I’m assuming, you have internet access otherwise you wouldn’t be able to read this. Give a MOOC a go and if you don’t like it, then quit and do a different one. They can be tremendous fun and, of course, you can meet some like-minded people. You’ve got nothing to lose, other than your social life, but who needs one of those!

A Dream Come True

I usually can’t hold my own water so the last few weeks have been a struggle to hold back and not explode all over WordPress with excitement. But I have some really great news that I want to share with you. And now I can.

In my very first blog post, written in March 2012 when this blog was over on Blogger and called Heading to Hanoi, I said this:

Just like most people we (Gareth and I) found ourselves in jobs that neither of us particularly wanted to do. I have personally had a dream to become a travel writer. Maybe, just maybe, this trip is the key to that dream becoming a reality.

Since then I have traveled as a backpacker through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, finally settling into city life in Saigon as a part-time English teacher and occasional blogger. Last year I met a wonderful woman, also an English teacher and blogger, called Kris Zimmer who invited me to be a contributor to her blog ZUPADream. Although Kris has now left Vietnam and is living in Canada, for her out of sight out of mind is not something she lives by. Kris was generous enough to encourage an editor of Vietnam’s biggest English language lifestyle and travel magazine, Word, to read my posts. So, to cut a long story short, the editor liked my stuff and asked me to write a piece about the HCMC Run event that I took part in on December 8th.

To revert to my Liverpool dialect; I was bloody gobsmacked! I couldn’t believe that little old me would be having my work published in an actual magazine. I have always enjoyed writing, putting the pictures in my head into words on a piece of paper or a computer screen has always come easily. Now, if I work hard and stay determined, writing will be more than a hobby, it will be my career. And that is a dream come true.

Yesterday the January edition hit the streets and with it, my article. I obviously had to get a copy immediately and photograph myself holding it.

My article and I
My article and I

If you would like to read it for yourself then click here and flick through to page 12. It’s called Conquering the Bridge. You will see my name at the end.