May 24, 2015

Check it Out: The Wayfarer

It was almost a year ago that I first posted about writing for The Wayfarer, an independent travel magazine started by a friend. Since then, we've added a lot more content, and more writers! Our editor, the Sunshine Traveller, has constantly been working on bringing it to life.

I've only written four pieces for the magazine, but you can check them all out here. As expected, the tone is a little more professional than in my blog. We have four writers, and present guest content as well. Here are a few pieces I'd like to recommend!

A beautiful photo set from Brazilian photographer and friend of the magazine Wintemberg Alves.

Sunshine Traveller makes the best of a 24-hour layover in Paris, shares a story and some lovely pictures!

I still think this is one of the best articles I've ever written - I present a few places in Portland to relax, rejuvenate, and indulge.

Follow The Wayfarer for more travel stories and reviews, and definitely let me know if you're interested in submitting a story or photos!

May 19, 2015

Cu Chi Tunnels

I'd never heard about the Củ Chi tunnels before my most recent trip to Vietnam, but they're a popular historical attraction for tourists in Saigon. I think it's best to go with a tour group, as it's a 1.5 hour bumpy drive from downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

After paying admission, the first thing we did was watch a 10-minute video. The black-and-white images gave us a feel for life during the war, when things were so tumultuous on the ground that thousands of people moved beneath it for safety. The tunnels were a base for the Viet Cong, who were soldiers in the South fighting for the North. Because the US military relied heavily on aerial bombing, it was a good strategy to move into the tunnel system.

The tunnels were built before the Vietnam War started, when the communists were fighting French colonial authorities for independence. When they were needed in the Vietnam War, they were expanded and ultimately stretched from the outskirts of Saigon to the Cambodian border. On the tour, we looked at a couple of entrances to the tunnels. They were incredibly small!

A video posted by Victoria (@phoqueenv) on

The tunnels went three stories deep in some areas, and included a water well and a hospital. Air holes allowed the inhabitants to breathe, but they faced struggles with poor ventilation, disease, and flooding. Soldiers and civilians lived in the tunnels for months at a time, only coming out at night for supplies or to fight the enemy.

Air hole

The tunnels served as a hideout, communication and supply system, and offensive center. We looked at a fighting bunker, where Viet Cong soldiers could fire at enemies from the safety of the tunnels. Our tour guide told us that they were able to make the Americans open friendly fire on themselves, since they couldn't tell where the gunfire was coming from at night. The tunnels were also the Viet Cong's base of operations for the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Fighting bunker

My friends were really excited about firing machine guns at the shooting range. For a small fee, you can choose to shoot various weapons like the AK-47, M16, and M30. I didn't participate because I don't really like guns. I'd like to shoot a Glock well, but firing machine guns doesn't sound fun to me, and it doesn't sound like something to do for pleasure. My friends enjoyed it, though.

M30. I hear there's no kickback, so it's very easy to shoot.

We got to see a variety of traps that were used in the war. These made it very difficult for Americans to invade the tunnels - not many men were sent in, as they were so hazardous. The main strategies against the tunnels were finding entrances and filling them with gas, water or hot tar, or "crimping" them with grenades. Both strategies were ineffective because of the tunnels' design, with trapdoors and ventilation systems.

So many spiky traps.
Small traps were strewn in the roads to injure and impede soldiers.
People set up door traps in their homes to protect themselves from invaders. The two parts of the trap are hinged, so if one tried to stop it from the top, the bottom would still swing up.

We saw examples of weapons and the people making them. It was mostly a job for women and weaker people who couldn't fight.

The soldiers wore shoes made from tire rubber. Normal shoes are wider in the front than in the back, but our tour guide told us that the VC made their shoes with the wide part in the back, to leave footprints leading the opposite way. We had to admit, it was a clever strategy.

A centerpiece of the attraction was an American tank, which was taken down by a Vietnamese mine. It was really strange but interesting to hear so much about the war from this side. As they say, history is written by the winners.

We also saw a B-52 crater, a result of American bombing in the area. The bombing was eventually successful, as it exposed areas of the tunnels and caused some portions to cave in. But by that time, the war was almost over and the Americans and South Vietnamese had sustained a lot of losses.

Lastly, we had the opportunity to go through a section of the tunnels. There's an area that was expanded for tourists, with low lights added for safety. It's not something any claustrophobic person should do, that's for sure. We had to crouch and take small steps, and at one point, crab-walk to get through.

Thanks to Mr. Canada there for the photobomb.

At the end of the tunnel, we got to eat some cassava (a.k.a. tapioca), which was the main food the tunnel inhabitants relied and lived on. Then, it was time to go home!

You can book a half-day tour like this with any travel office in Ho Chi Minh City. I would definitely recommend it, because I saw and learned a lot. It is truly fascinating to hear about the war from the other side, and to hear what kind of factors helped the North Vietnamese win when the South had so many more soldiers, including assistance from the US and other anti-communist forces. The Vietnam War is an important part of Vietnamese and United States history, so I'm really glad I learned more about it.

Cu Chi Tunnels - History
Cu Chi Tunnels - Wikipedia

May 15, 2015

Stay Tuned: Dr. Ken

I'm so happy that Fresh Off the Boat was renewed for a second season! It's such a fun, relatable show, and I've had a good time watching it with my family. It's great that Randall Park and Constance Wu in particular can continue to show off their comedic talent and affable chemistry.

But that's not all the good news for Asian Americans in television. ABC has ordered comedy "Dr. Ken" for this fall, starring Ken Jeong of The Hangover fame. It's based on his own life, since he was an actual medical doctor prior to becoming a full-time actor.

Dr. Ken cast. ABC

Here's the synopsis from ABC: "Doctor turned actor/comedian Ken Jeong (Community, The Hangover), plays Dr. Ken, a brilliant physician with no bedside manner. He is always trying to be a good doctor, as well as a good husband and dad to his two kids. However, these good intentions have a way of driving everyone crazy at both work and at home. Luckily, his therapist wife Allison is just the right partner to keep things sane."

Sounds like a basic but entertaining premise, and it's great to have another Asian family on TV. Check out the official trailer:

What do you think? I'll definitely be checking out the show, but I hope they dial down the laugh track about ten notches. It seems overly forced.

May 8, 2015

Roundup: Nails in the News

Recently, there's been a lot about nail salon employees in the news. As a predominantly Asian industry, and one where 51% of nail technicians in the US are of Vietnamese descent (source: BBC), I think these are really important articles for Pho Across America readers.

How Tippi Hedren made Vietnamese refugees into nail salon magnates - BBC News
This piece was a lot of fun to read. Have you ever wondered why so many Vietnamese do nails? Well, back in the 1970s, actress Tippi Hedren (of Hitchcock's The Birds) visited a refugee camp in northern California and wanted to help them get skills for jobs they could do in America with limited English. She flew in her personal manicurist and recruited a local beauty school to help teach the women how to do manicures, and helped many of them get jobs in southern California. She became the godmother of the nail industry, and many will be forever grateful to her.

But, times have changed.

photo: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

The Price of Nice Nails - New York Times
In a two-part series, Sarah Maslin Nir and her team of contributing reporters investigated New York City's nail industry over 13 months. NYC has more nail salons than any other metropolitan area in the US, and most of its workers are horribly underpaid. At $10.50, the average cost of a manicure in Manhattan is almost half the national average - a clue that someone else is shouldering the cost.
During the nearly three months Ms. Ren worked unpaid in the Long Island nail salon, like many manicurists, she had no idea that it was against the law, or that the $30 day wage her boss finally paid her was also illegally low. As an immigrant, she felt happy to have any work at all, she said, and scared to complain. Furthermore, who would listen?

Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers - New York Times
If barely scraping by wasn't enough, nail technicians suffer from a variety of health issues, a result of exposure to the toxic chemicals in polishes, solvents, and glues. They can't find other jobs, and they can't protect themselves.
The prevalence of respiratory and skin ailments among nail salon workers is widely acknowledged. More uncertain, however, is their risk for direr medical issues. Some of the chemicals in nail products are known to cause cancer; others have been linked to abnormal fetal development, miscarriages and other harm to reproductive health.

After reading the excellent reporting of the last two articles, it's obvious that something needs to change. Nail salon workers are exposed to various poisons for many hours each day, and make hardly any money doing so. There needs to be some sort of crackdown on the illegal pay - or lack of pay, in many cases. Their health situation can be improved with more regulation of cosmetic products, but efforts over the last years have been thwarted by a rich and powerful industry.

Advocates for the health of salon workers have had to look for a more grassroots approach, like the Healthy Nail Salon Campaign, founded in San Francisco in 2010. This program "supports nail salons to adopt workplace practices that protect the health and safety of the nail salon workforce, clients, and the environment." Salons that apply, attend a free training and pass all the requirements are formally recognized as healthy nail salons. Unfortunately, it's substantially active only in San Francisco, and five salons in Santa Monica. While they're certainly safer, I can't find hard evidence that their employees are paid a fair wage.

So what can you do personally, if you like getting your nails done but care about humans getting hurt in the process? First of all, be aware of the issues and spread awareness. Talk about these articles with your salon-going friends so that people will know a cheap manicure comes with a price. Make an effort to support salons that actually care about their employees and are transparent about it. You can also read this article on Vox that was written in response to the Times series: How to get an ethical manicure: a guide to spotting worker exploitation.

It's hard to say not to support a particular salon - after all, its workers depend on customers to make a living. But if things keep going as is, the only changes we'll see are more people suffering from health complications and exploitation. I know no one came to America for that.

May 5, 2015

The Best Pho in Saigon?

In the home country of phở, who makes it the best? That's a damn good question, and I think best left to the experts: people who actually live there. So when I went to Vietnam with some friends last month, I was really lucky to be with Kevin and An, who are from Saigon and go back quite often.

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City if you must) was familiar to me, but I realized that I didn't know it at all. Almost all the time I've spent in Vietnam has been with my mother's family in more rural Vinh Long. Naturally, I had no idea where to find the best phở in Saigon, but An took us to the only place she'll eat it: Phở Hùng Lạc Phương.

Phở with friends!

Kevin had a friend living there who joined us and he said the exact same thing: for phở, only this place will cut it. We sat at the typical Vietnamese street phở setup, with all the garnishes in a communal basket and trash cans underneath the table. While my initial inclination was to order phở tai nam, I did as the other Vietnamese did and ordered phở with everything.

Somehow, this phở isn't much to look at, but it was excellent. The broth was tasty and the meat delicious, but the thing that always blows me away in real Vietnamese phở is the noodles. They're always fresh, which makes a gigantic difference! Dried noodles that you can buy in packages are the norm in America, and they just can't stand up to the delightful texture of fresh noodles. Slightly wider than the ones we're used to in the US, these are soft and pillowy, with just the right amount of chewiness.

It was fun to eat phở with so many friends, when I'm used to eating alone! An requested little bowls of something I thought was nuoc beo (fatty broth scooped from the top of the pho as it cooks) but wasn't. She describes it as the blood remaining from the raw meat in phở tai, poured into clear broth to the consistency of hot and sour soup, with a raw egg cracked into it. It sounds crazy, but it was basically crack. Its ultra-rich, savory taste was an excellent complement to the phở, enjoyed in sips on the side. It was new to my non-Vietnamese friends as well as myself, and I was getting so distracted that I almost started eating without adding any herbs or bean sprouts! Luckily, I had the presence of mind to pull myself together.

I washed down the meal with cà phê sữa đá, Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk. Vietnamese coffee is quite possibly the strongest coffee in the world, so this was the ideal way to cool down and get energized for the rest of the day!

Phở Hùng Lạc Phương, off Võ Văn Tần, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

May 1, 2015

Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery

Before my Vietnam and Thailand trip officially began, I spent a couple of nights in Hong Kong. Honestly, I'd already experienced everything I wanted in Hong Kong back at the end of 2013. There was some cool stuff to see, but I wasn't impressed with the city. It's not cheap, and the ugly, towering skyscrapers freak me out. But my friend Wayne was on a layover there, so I willingly returned to HK, as we hadn't seen each other since having pho in Boston two years ago.

I was on my own for the second night, and had to do some sightseeing before making my way back to the airport for my flight to Ho Chi Minh City. I thought about going back to the Big Buddha since I liked it so much the first time, but figured I should check out something new instead. After a little research, I decided to visit the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery.

It was a smart idea, because this place is almost magical, and I'm glad I got to spend time here. A short walk from the Sha Tin MTR station, half the experience is walking up to the main temple. The path up the mountain has over 400 stairs, and is lined with golden buddhas, each in a unique pose.

The main level of the temple has a hall, pavilions, various statues, and a pagoda. There's also a vegetarian restaurant, where I was able to relax and rehydrate after all that walking.

I appreciated the location, because it felt good to get a little away from the city. Though there was a handful of tourists present, it was never crowded and this Buddhist temple in the mountains felt secluded, like a hidden treasure.

If you're up for climbing even more stairs, the upper level of the temple has four more halls, more statues, a koi pond, and a tortoise pond. I felt really spiritual and fortunate as I lit incense and said some prayers for myself and my family. It was healing and peaceful, a perfect way to unwind by myself.

There was a lot to see on the grounds here, and smaller temples close by if you want more. When I left here and continued my travels, the peace eventually gave way to chaos, as often happens when traveling with others. But the experience of visiting the temple stayed with me, because I climbed so many steps that I was sore for days. When I went up and down staircases afterward, my thighs and I were groaning in pain, but it was still worth it! Put the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery on your list!