This is a story from December 2015.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Perhaps Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, wouldn’t rank high on our list if it hadn’t been for CouchSurfing. The city is chaotic, noisy, and overwhelming.
But staying with Phuoc and his family for four nights made our stay in HCMC memorable. We got along well and spent a lot of time together touring the city, eating local delights, playing card games, cooking together, practicing English, and even doing exercise videos! We wish we lived in the same city as Phuoc because we loved spending time with him.
We were dropped off in District 5 after an overnight bus from the central highlands of Da Lat. According to Google Maps, Phuoc’s home was close, but the whole walking-before-coffee thing wasn’t ideal.
When we eventually made it to his place by catching a local bus, Phuoc met us on the corner and navigated through the back alleys to his home in a residential area. There, we met his parents, grandmother, and his sharp 11-year-old brother, who often beat us in chess.
One of the first things we noticed about Phuoc’s room was the English slang scribbled on his whiteboard. A previous CouchSurfer taught Phuoc some phrases that we would not even dare to type out here, so it caught us by surprise. I warned Phuoc perhaps he shouldn’t say those words to strangers, but some might be okay with close guy friends. He was thankful and took note. Thus the role of conversation English teacher was birthed!
Phuoc must have come a long way because his English is excellent. He was always equipped with a notebook and observant of every word that we spoke.
“Wait… what was that phrase? How do you spell it?”
We became hyper-aware of our speech. Even after not being in an English-speaking country for three years, we still forget that most of the people with whom we converse cannot understand everything we say, especially slang.
It was a pleasure helping such a highly motivated person practice English. His mother gave him a large chunk of change to take English classes, but he secretly went out and used that money to get drinks and chat with foreigners instead. We told him that he’s absolutely smart because he probably learned more from practicing like this rather than sitting in a classroom memorizing vocabulary. We took note because as English teachers, we strive to have students apply their English in real life settings. It’s not easy to do in the classroom though.
Touring with Phuoc
Our four nights in Phuoc’s home were memorable and full of adventure and cultural exchange. He used to be a tour guide, so he took us to the Cu Chi Tunnels and downtown area with thorough explanations. We also visited a few sights in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, such as the eye-opening and powerful War Remnants Museum.
Phuoc truly went out of his way to introduce us to Vietnamese culture. We got street food snacks and ate at many vegetarian restaurants. His mom even cooked us lunch a few times! Nothing like a homecooked meal.
Phuoc truly understands the purpose of CouchSurfing. We spent all of our time together hanging out like old friends. We even practiced taekwondo and did exercise videos. Our days in Saigon might have been spent walking around aimlessly, but instead, we met a new friend.
We love staying with families and learning about the dynamics of many people living harmoniously under one roof. Five people inhabit his home, often switching and sharing beds with each other. There seems to be no such thing as privacy, but they don’t seem to mind.
Phuoc’s parents didn’t speak English, but they always welcomed us with smiles and snacks. His mother kindly prepared some meals for us. The first one consisted of frog legs, something a little too exotic for my tastebuds, but interesting nonetheless. She also made a scrumptious vegetarian meal. Homecooked food is something we don’t get to enjoy often while on the road, so we were more than appreciative for the hospitality.
Brother David is a smiley fifth grader who is just brilliant. His English is quite impressive even though he’s shy about it. He even kicked both of our butts in chess and we have more years of experience playing than he has been alive! Spending time with him was nice — he’s a quirky kid (in a good way).
Phuoc’s grandmother, who sometimes mistook me for her daughter, always spoke to us in Vietnamese and we could only smile and nod back. She has a sad history of being captured and tortured in the war, so she experienced trauma and cannot sleep alone or be in the dark. We wish we could communicate and hear more about her life, but we also would not want her to relive such awful memories.
Never a dull moment
In the evening, Phuoc’s house turns into a pub. Just bring the tiny tables and chairs out into the living room when the sun goes down, and neighbors, sometimes shirtless old men, would come for a beer and snacks. The first night, Phuoc’s former coworkers joined us. We learned how to say “cheers” to your friends (“Yo Mai!”), enjoyed lots of drinks and food, laughs, body language. We even played a game which was a fusion between Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle (no kissing). Silly and innocent.
Our last night in town was spent at a language exchange at The Cube in District 1. It was a great opportunity to meet people from around the world and practice languages, although we mostly spoke English with English learners. A new friend we randomly acquired the day prior in a shake shop, Billy, accompanied us and we got a taste of the nightlife in District 1.
Saying goodbye is never easy, but we especially did not want to leave Phuoc. He became a great new friend, one who we would regularly spend time with if we lived in the same city. That’s one difficult thing about travel: people come and go constantly. But luckily, it’s easy to stay in touch nowadays. There’s always someone to visit somewhere.
Lianne prepared banana crepes and coffee (Phuoc taught some Vietnamese techniques. “Serious” isn’t the appropriate term for how the Vietnamese are toward coffee). Billy and Phuoc then took us (and our bags!) on their scooters and we navigated through murderous traffic.
HCMC is infamous for its motorbike-filled roads, so that short ride was an adrenaline-rushed experience. If you have a brave soul, you must experience riding on a motorbike in HCMC. Wouldn’t recommend driving one yourself, even as an experienced driver, because traffic patterns should be learned for some time. To an outsider, there seems to be no rules, but locals seem to have it down to a science.
At the bus terminal, we embraced and said our goodbyes before moving into our next CouchSurfer’s place in Can Tho, 3.5 hours away. Hope we can meet again some time in the future!
Thank you, Phuoc!
Thank you, Adam, for many of these photos.