Getting our Tao on in Vietnam

Escape to Vietnam for colorful cooking lessons, balancing our Yin-Yang & meeting Vietnamese kids teaching us to go with the flow.

Vietnam stamp
Armchair Adventure inside
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Motor bike traffic
Wandering through the colorful chaos of the Ho Chi Minh City street market, I artfully negotiated my way through the throngs of vendors, veggies, flowers, curios, and gadgets looking for essential, last-minute souvenirs. Suddenly a mysterious, magnetic force pulled me into a back-alley shop.
back of envelope
Traffic in Ho Chi Minh city
Wandering through the colorful chaos of the Ho Chi Minh City street market, I artfully negotiated my way past the throngs of vendors, veggies, flowers, curios, and gadgets looking for essential, last-minute souvenirs. Suddenly a mysterious, magnetic force pulled me into a back-alley shop.

Mr. Le’s Silk Emporium. A wall to wall, floor to ceiling, couture-candy story of charmeuse, shantung, and embroidered satin.

While time, money, and luggage space were limited, the decadence of a custom-made kimono at a rock-bottom price would be the crowning keepsake from my weeklong adventure in the Far East. And Mr. Le made an offer no self-respecting diva could refuse.

However— having already burned through most of my shopping budget and one hotel stay left to go before tomorrow’s flight out, hard decisions had to be made.

If the kimono was coming home with me then something else had to give.

At the time, I happily convinced myself that ditching my original lodging plans for a no-frills room in the Ho Chi Minh City red light district was a small sacrifice to make. And in a flurry of tape measures, pins, scissors, and a billowing bolt of fabric, Mr. Le seemed to have my kimono finished as fast as I could say “I’ll take it.”
Chaotic street in Vietnam
But now, looking around my sparsely furnished room in the five-story walk up— the sagging mattress, the stained pillow case, the lingering stench of God-knows-what ground into the carpet, and the cockroaches partying in the bathroom sink— I might have been a bit impulsive.

I can't recall the name of this dive, but the lobby is a dimly lit cement cell that closes up at night behind a corrugated metal cage. The sign over the front desk— “NO GUNS, NO PROSTITUTES”— tells me all I needed to remember.

*Sigh*

But— I am here and the kimono is mine, so I figure I might as well make the best of it. It’s just one night. As long as I keep my shoes on, touch as little as possible, and sleep standing up I could make this work.

I pull my new fashion acquisition out of my bag and slip into the only comfort I can find. Admiring my hazy reflection in the grit-coated wall mirror, I contemplated the juxtaposition of such luxury within such an austere environment. Like the yin and yang, perhaps in every dive there’s a diva— and in every diva there’s a dive.

Through the paper-thin walls I hear giggles from the couple entering the room next door. Ugh.
Ho Chi Minh city from above
I grimace and head toward the window in search of distraction.

Using a pencil, I slide the limp, stained curtain back and crank out the glass pane. Poking my head out, I take in the city view beyond. Narrow streets pulse and surge with thousands of motorbikes, buses, taxis, scooters, bicycles, and intrepid pedestrians making their way through the city’s arteries. Industrious vendors push through the crowds with shoulder poles carrying wares. Haphazardly strung electric wires push the limits of the fire code.

From ground level, the streets of Ho Chi Minh City could be mistaken for utter chaos, but from above it's a mesmerizing, circulatory system. A seemingly effortless ecosystem where everything and everyone operates within the natural order of the universe. Not overthinking, just going with the flow.

The honking, beeping, and buzzing lulls me into a hypnotic trance as the aromatic smell of grilled bun cha pork skewers, fried spring rolls, and exhaust fumes waft up from the alley below.

I pull my kimono a bit tighter, close my eyes, and inhale.

Go with the flow.
Women carrying goods
Business on the go
Cathedral in Vietnam
Cathedral
Rush hour traffic
Crush hour
Electrical wires
Power grid
Temple in Vietnam
Temple
Couple on motor bike
Driving attire
Herbal goods in store
Herbal remedies
Vietnamese architecture
Classic style
Blooming flowers
Pagoda and blossoms
Vietnamese fisherman
Chillin fisherman
House in small town
Hoi An old town
Offerings inside temple
Temple offerings
Electrical wires in trees
Technology among trees
Transportation in Ho Chi Minh
Going with the flow
Smartphone
Taoist temple
Lao Tzu & Taoism
Taoist symbol
Amidst the vibrant, spiritual fusion that imbues Vietnamese culture, one of the most enduring influences is Taoism. Originating in ancient China nearly 2,400 years ago, Taoism was envisioned by Lao Tzu, the sage who penned the Tao Te Ching. The Tao (which means “the way”) is a path to happiness.... continue reading
Ying Yang
Beyond a philosophy– or even a religion– it’s a how-to handbook for achieving a balanced life by finding harmony between Man, Nature, and a Universal Order.

Central to Taoist philosophy is the yin and yang– the paradox of life.
Wholeness is made of complementary opposites. For example, you can’t truly experience happiness without ever suffering grief. You can’t savor silence without enduring noise. You can’t relish victory without knowing defeat. And you can’t appreciate the satisfaction of sailing through a string of green lights without ever being stuck at the reds. Taoism accepts the best and worse parts of life. And when you think about it, without the worst, how would we even recognize the best when we had it?

Taoism also teaches us to chillax within the order of the natural world.
See, no matter how smart we humans may be, Mother Nature doesn’t really need our advice. We don’t need to teach plants how to photosynthesize or bees how to pollinate. Clouds don’t need our instruction on how to condensate. Planets already know how to orbit the sun. They trust that there is a larger system at work and get on with it. And if they’re not micro-managing their role in the universe, maybe we humans should exhale and trust that there is a larger plan for us as well.

In Taoism the goal of life isn’t comfort. It’s growth.
Every difficult, miserable, unfair, and downright crappy moment of our lives is meant to be there. Rather than resisting and saying, “WTH– this isn’t supposed to be happening!” Taoism encourages us to embrace life’s struggles and view them as opportunities to create something better for ourselves. Bill Eckstrom’s TED Talk, The Trap of Comfort, explains how being in discomfort is the only way to sustain growth. Simply put, “What makes you comfortable can ruin you. Only in a state of discomfort can you really grow.”

Most importantly, Taoism reminds us to enjoy life by accepting ourselves and going with the flow.
Of course, silencing our inner control freak is easier said than done. To practice, instead of thinking of all the things you want that you don’t have, think of all the things you don’t want that you don’t have. Your path to happiness awaits.
Navigating Vietnam traffic
Hell on Wheels- a Taoist's Guide to Transcending Rush Hour
Crowded street in Vietnam
You’ve just clocked out of an exhausting day of work and are ready for a relaxing evening of Netflix. But first, you’ve got to get through the bumper-to-bumper-exhaust-fume-spewing-horn-honking-break-riding-daily crush of rush hour traffic. With blood pressure rising and molars clenching, you want to scream at the world– and that guy who refuses to let you merge into his lane.

But before you get your road rage on, maybe it’s time take a lesson from Taoism.... continue reading
When it comes to a Vietnam rush hour– where stoplights are scarce and intersections are a death-defying game of “roundabout roulette”– if two million elbow-to-elbow drivers can go with the flow, so can you.

Just print out Lao Tzu’s words of wisdom, stick them on your dashboard, and turn the next traffic jam into a master class in the art of living. With Lao Tzu riding shotgun, rush hour might become the best hour of your day.
1. “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
No matter how urgent you think you need to get somewhere, the Universe knows exactly what time you need to arrive. Everyone will get where they’re going. Practice living fully in the here and now. Perhaps the Best Podcasts of 2019 will liven up the ride (or even better, listen to the GSD Podcast). Just keep your hands off your phone.
2. “The more expectations you have for your life, the less you will become.””
In every category of life, we can make all the plans we want. But the more we let go of how we think the outcome must be, the happier we’ll be. The proverbial path to a goal isn’t always a straight line. By silencing our inner micro-manager, we open ourselves up to even more exciting outcomes. Just drop expectations and drive.
3. "Be content with what you have. Rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
Practice gratitude. Make a mental list of all things making your commute more enjoyable. A working stereo. A heater if it’s winter.  A/C if it’s summer. Dry roads. You get the idea. Then make a list of all the things that could make your commute worse. A flat tire perhaps? A blizzard? A fender-bender? Feeling grateful yet?
4. “Clay is shaped into a bowl, but it is the empty space that makes it useful.”
Rush hour might feel like the most unproductive part of your day, but it can actually be the ideal opportunity to develop skills you ordinarily wouldn’t make time for. Such as breathing techniques to help you endure even more stressful situations. Try 10 minutes of Box Breathing to transcend your next commute.:
5. “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
When it comes to driving, our egos can cause the greatest danger. We take personal offense to the smallest slights. Our need to be first, fastest, and “right” is a risk to our mental health as well. Practice turning off your ego. Let someone pull in front of you. Wave them in with a friendly smile! And that guy who refuses to let you merge? Take a deep breath and say, “After you, my friend!”
6. “Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river.”
The Taoists believe that the more a person resists the world, the more the world resists back. Practice being calm in the midst of chaos. Let the world flow around you. Perhaps car yoga stretches can help.
7. “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”
If growth comes out of discomfort, there’s nothing like a nice traffic jam to jumpstart you on the road to enlightenment. First, practice noticing all the minor (and major) irritations that seem to be controlling your mood and attitude. Then imagine each of these as your own private tutors there to help you master your emotions. For more ideas, go to zen habits.
8. “If you want to be full, let yourself be empty.”
According to the yin yang of life, you can’t know calm without chaos. Remind yourself that it’s the stress of rush hour (both literal and metaphoric) that allows you to fully appreciate the tranquility of home. Even if just those ten minutes of bliss before you have to start cooking dinner, helping kids with homework. You know the rest.
9. “Respond intelligently, even to unintelligent treatment.”
Don’t let anyone provoke you. Ever. Not the guy honking at you. Not the woman riding your bumper. And definitely not the scary dude flipping you off. Eyes ahead. Breathe deeply. Chill. At all times.
10. “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
Taoists believe that nature moves to its own rhythm— and so does traffic. We’ll get there when we get there, so go with the flow. Enjoy the ride.
Future posts:

Taoist's Guide to Transcending a Colonoscopy

Taoist's Guide to Transcending an IRS Audit

Taoist's Guide to Transcending Cancelled Flights and Lost Luggage
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Where is Somaliland?
"DRINK YOUR TEA SLOWLY AND REVERENTLY, AS IF IT IS THE AXIS ON WHICH THE WORLD REVOLVES– SLOWLY, EVENLY, WITHOUT RUSHING TOWARD THE FUTURE."
-THICH NHAT HANH
World map
Vietnamese dinner
Balancing Act Yin, Yang & the Science of Vietnamese Cooking
Ying and Yang
The Chinese philosophy of yin and yang  陰陽 (literally: "dark-bright" or "negative-positive") centers around the universal paradox of life’s seemingly opposite or contrary forces. From male to female, fire to water, happiness to sadness, expansion to contraction– and even calm to chaos– both yin and yang are always present. And within each light or dark side, there is a small spot of its opposite– meaning that everything good has a little bad lurking inside, and vice versa..... continue reading
Vietnamese spices
Despite this natural struggle for balance, however, once these opposing forces are in harmony, they form a dynamic system in which the whole is far greater than the parts. And thank goodness for that, because apparently everything from social unrest to natural disasters to personal illness, family drama, and even bad juju is due to an imbalance between yin and yang forces. That’s why true Taoists mindfully balance everything in their lives, thereby achieving maximum harmony and bliss.

Even when it comes to cooking, nothing is left to chance. The principles of yin and yang are scientifically incorporated into each dish.

Vietnam’s culinary balancing act begins as the “heating” and “cooling” properties of ingredients are carefully evaluated. For example, duck meat is considered cool, so it’s served in summer with ginger which is considered warm. Chicken– a warm food– is usually eaten in the winter and served with a sour sauce which is considered cool. From there, different spices, colors, and nutrients align in a semi-complex matrix– like the periodic table of the elements– all in convenient groupings of five.
Balancing of Vietnamese food
Five Senses: Dishes must not only be colorful, flavorful, and aromatically alluring, but they must be audibly interesting as well. From crunchy bean sprouts and slurpy broth to rippin’ hot peppers, zesty limes, and heaps of colorful mint, it’s a wake-up call for the senses. Even your chopsticks will feel excited to be part of the action.

Five Elements: Vietnamese cuisine also considers the natural elements of fire, earth, water, metal and wood, while correlating to the five flavors.

Five Flavors: Spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet.

Five Colors: Colors must be a vibrant arrangement of white, green, yellow, red, and black. With white rice noodles, green limes and leafy herbs, golden-yellow pickled vegetables, spicy red peppers, and black peppercorns and fish sauce– ordinary meals become edible mosaics.

Five Nutrients: Dishes include a balance of carbs, water, minerals, protein, and fat.

Five organs: Last, but not least, each taste corresponds with an important digestive organ of the body– gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach, and urinary bladder.

No doubt, Vietnamese food takes the concept of a “balanced diet” to a whole new level. And with its abundance of fresh herbs and vegetables, its low-fat-high-vitamin ratio– and the fact that almost everything is gluten free– it’s arguably one of the healthiest cuisines on the planet.
But best of all, with its finely-calibrated yin and yang forces, eating more Vietnamese food just might help you avert disasters, cure social ills, improve your golf swing, get a raise, and become the most popular person at the party.

What have you got to lose?
“The key to keeping your balance is knowing when you've lost it.”

The Taoists may be experts at creating balance in their lives, but to more equilibrium-challenged folks, creating harmony amidst the chaos of our fast-living-multi-tasking lives can feel daunting. To say the least.

The key is to start small.”

Just like toddlers take baby steps as they learn to take on the world, when we break down new activities into micro-steps, little by little we create habits. Our habits become behaviors. Our behaviors become beliefs. And the next thing we know, our new beliefs help us shape a whole new identity.

Practice creating more balance in your life with this 10-minute Tasks & Treats activity:

1. Make a 7-day chart with two columns.

2. Each day, in column one, write down one task (that you dislike, dread, or simply tend to put off) that you can complete– or at least put a dent in– in 10 minutes. In column two, write down one treat (that you enjoy but might not make time for) that you can also spend 10 minutes doing.
a. For Tasks, think folding a load of laundry, picking up dog poop in the yard, sweeping the garage, disinfecting the garbage can, vacuuming your car, organizing the coat closet, making a dentist appointment, bagging old clothes to take to recycling, sweeping the sidewalk, or paying the bills. Plan the time and write it in your daily planner. When you’re ready, set a timer and spend exactly 10 minutes working on your task. Don’t worry if you run out of time.

b. For Treats, think watching a sunrise or sunset, meditating, playing a game of solitaire, stopping at a coffee shop for a cappuccino, stretching, making a milkshake, walking around the neighborhood, sitting on the porch, watching funny cat videos, listening to a GSD podcast, playing fetch with the dog (after you cleaned the poop), picking flowers from the garden, earthing, reading a GSD Escape episode 😊. Plan the time and write it in your daily planner. When you’re ready, set a timer and spend exactly 10 minutes enjoying your treat.
3. At the end of the week, look over your chart and reflect on how your yin and yang are balancing out. Feeling any better?
Woman biking
Main Street
Vietnamese family
Four generations
Rural home in Vietnam
Countryside home
Great-grandmother
Proud great-grandma
Plants in Vietnam
Tropical climate
Vietnamese kids
Sweet siblings
Pho
Phabulous pho
Rural home
Heading home
water buffalo
Waiting water buffalo
Vietnamese sisters
Sisterly love
Village in Vietnam
Village life
Looking at pictures
Sharing technology
Smartphone
Street food stand
French Bread, Pho & Vietnam's Franco-Food Fusion
Woman selling bread
The first Franco-Vietnamese relations began back in the 1600s when French traders and missionaries arrived in Vietnam. Two centuries of proselytizing and business dealings later, the French loved Vietnam so much they decided to colonize it– forcing their influence on the Vietnamese people for the next 70 years. Whether they liked it or not. But according to the yin yang philosophy of duality, even the dark side has a spot of light in it... continue reading
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Street food stand
The upside to colonization? French bread.

Despite bread not being much of a thing in noodle-friendly East Asia, the Vietnamese saw a food-fusion opportunity and ran with it. They modified the baguettes with rice flour, loaded them up with crunchy pickled veggies, grilled meat, and savory sauces, and created one of the most beloved fast food dishes on the planet– bánh mì. Even 60 years after the French got the boot, all across Vietnam, millions of people still eat bánh mì sandwiches for breakfast, and French-style bakeries still sell baguettes on nearly every street corner– making it an enterprising and delicious way to stick it to the man.

Another iconic French influence you’ll find in Vietnamese cuisine is a steaming bowl of beef pho. Just like bread, beef was uncommon in Far Eastern fare.  Vietnamese people ate fish, pork, and chicken– saving cattle exclusively for plowing fields and pulling carts. But after the French showed how simmering beef bones with onion, ginger, and spices could transform boring broth into savory soup, many of these beasts of burden ended up in the slow cooker.
Bowl of pho
When Vietnamese cooks discovered that throwing in heaps of greens and herbs, squirts of dipping sauces and spicy pastes, and squeezes of lemon and lime was a food-fusion breakthrough of epic proportion, they cashed in. Today pho is not only a prominent part of Vietnam’s daily diet, it has developed into an international obsession satisfying Vietnamese foodie-cravings worldwide.

But whether you’re in a trendy upscale diner or at a tiny plastic table on the street, be sure to order properly.

Pho is pronounced “fuh” (as in “what the fuh?”)
Thanksgiving pho
Food fusion abounds. No meal is more American than turkey on Thanksgiving, but Andrea Nguyen, cookbook author of ChefSteps and Viet World Kitchen reinvents the domestic leftovers with a Far Eastern flair. Give the recipe a try.
Wood textured Asian textile
"THE MUSIC AND THE SILENCE. ONE CANNOT EXIST WITHOUT THE OTHER."
-LAO TZU
Next week we will be meeting the 85-year-old go-getter changing the lives of children all across Vietnam!

Stay tuned!