Day 274: Catching up with Old/New Friends in Da Nang

When I woke up, I could feel that my throat was swollen and I was feeling tired. I ate breakfast at the hotel since it was included with my room. The modern hotel was large and offered a wide spread of breakfast items. I was excited to eat some westernized food like eggs and toast. Like always, I showed up right before breakfast was finished, so I had the place to myself. Because of the 13-hour time difference with my family, they video-called me right before I headed down to eat. 

The only people in the breakfast room were employees cleaning up, so I thought it would be ok if I continued my video call with them. I had been looking for a house to buy in St. Charles, MO that I could move my stuff into and out of storage in Los Angeles and rent it on Airbnb while I was traveling. Unfortunately, I didn’t find a house when I was there in January, so I gave power of attorney to my dad to sign for me. 

My parents and sister looked at two houses that day, but we all agreed not to put in an offer on either. It was really fun video-calling them while I was eating. It felt like they were there with me. We also discovered that adding a hat or sunglasses made it all the more comical. 

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It was time to checkout of my hotel, so I took my luggage into the elevator to get to the lobby. Unsurprisingly, three women on the cleaning crew laughed at my height. It was like “tiny, small, medium, and large.” I left my luggage with the front desk because I had some things to do and people to meet that day before continuing south. 

I ordered a Grab motorbike to take me to a store that appeared to sell supplements. I needed some magnesium because it helps my muscles before bed. The driver pulled up and handed me a helmet. He didn’t speak much English, but he commented on my height. It must be strange for a driver to have a person on the back who is much larger than them. As we pulled away, he adjusted his mirror so that he could see me. He asked where I was from and we briefly chatted on the way to the store. 

The driver couldn’t find the store and pulled over twice to ask for directions. We were in an alleyway with locals who knew the area. They told me to go around the corner to a pharmacy. The driver said he’d wait for me to make sure I could get it there. Using Google translate, I asked for magnesium. They gave me a packet of eight pills for $90,000 dong ($3.80 USD). The woman who helped me find the pharmacy around the corner walked in and confirmed that it was magnesium. People were so friendly and helpful. 

The Grab driver took me back to my hotel and talked to me during the drive; however, I struggled to understand him. When we arrived at my hotel, I gave him extra money for waiting with me at the pharmacy and the ride there and back – $40,000 dong ($1.73 USD). He told me that I was very beautiful and I took a selfie with him. 

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Shortly after, Ben and Berry arrived at my hotel. I met them during the four-day motorbike tour of the Ha Giang Loop in the northern mountains. They just arrived in Da Nang and we had the hotel hold their luggage while we walked to the beach a couple of blocks away.

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The first restaurant we tried to eat at didn’t have prices on the menu. On our way in, we saw many tanks filled with lobsters. We figured that our American dollars would go pretty far and we could get an inexpensive lobster. We were very wrong! We walked around the tanks to see the prices and it was $184 USD for 1 kilo of lobster! We weren’t familiar with kilos, but that was too expensive for us. We quickly left. 

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We walked to a restaurant nearby and sat outside enjoying food, drinks, and good company for the next few hours. Berry and Ben were in their early 30s and worked in Tech and IT in New York before deciding to travel the world for eight months. They were currently in their second month of travel.  

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Berry is from China and moved to Sudan in 8th grade. She lived there until her senior year of high school. Her dad worked for an oil company and she attended an American school with United Nations diplomat’s kids. Berry’s dad worked in a building next to a building Bin Laden had previously been in when it was bombed by the U.S. in the late 90s, shortly before they moved there. Berry remembered thinking that the U.S. was extremely precise; they only destroyed that building. All of the other surrounding buildings were intact. The casualties were spared.

Security was so tight at the school Berry attended that she wasn’t allowed to go home to play with classmates because there were separate vehicles for the United Nations’ kids. They had different badges and security. Berry lived there until September 11th, 2001. Her school was cancelled for a couple of months. The first days after the tragedy, nobody knew who made the attack against Americans in New York, and Sudan was one of the suspected countries. The children of U.S. diplomats were quickly removed. Berry remembers being evacuated because the locals were starting fires and throwing bricks through the windows. 

Berry moved to China for her senior year of high school, but continued to attend an American school. For university, she considered America and Canada because her American diploma would allow her to attend either. Berry chose to attend a university in a rural town in Washington state. I asked Berry what her experience was like in that small town. She said Americans were nice to her. She does remember that some kids were sheltered and were shocked by her food, like seaweed. 

Ben is from Taiwan, but attended high school in Pennsylvania in the U.S. because his parents wanted a better educational system for teaching English. The school was like a boarding school. I can’t imagine what that was like – living in another country alone at that young of an age. During Ben’s first week at the school, the attacks of September 11th hit and the school was closed for a while. 

Ben chose to attend a university in that same rural town that Berry had chosen. He was one year ahead of her in school. The year Berry started attending, she met Ben on her first day of her first class. They started dating and got married. 

I was so impressed by their stories. Moving at such a young age to a foreign country when they were still learning English must have been difficult. I don’t know that I would have handled all of it as well as they have. 

Ben and Berry moved to New York so he could attend graduate school. They stayed there afterwards because of a job. They lived there for ten years and now have their green cards, which aren’t sponsored by their employer. After five years, they can apply to become citizens. They weren’t sure if they wanted to stay in New York after their travels because it’s so crowded and expensive. 

I could relate to Ben and Berry about trip planning, editing videos, and blogging. They were taking some amazing video footage of their trip and vlogging about it. It’s very time-consuming to travel and blog/vlog. I had such a great time with them that we ended up hanging out until 5:30 pm. They were so sweet and fun to be around. I said goodbye to Ben and Berry and we agreed to meet up at my next destination in Hoi An. I ordered a Grab to take me there because it was only a 45-minute drive. 

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It was dark outside when I arrived at my Airbnb at 6:30 pm. It was actually a small hotel with two levels that had a resort style to it. The woman behind the front desk walked me up the stairs to my room. The lock wasn’t working properly, then the air conditioner was barely working, and when I tried to take a shower at 11:30 pm, there wasn’t any hot water.

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The hotel and room were nice, but these issues were bummers. The woman told me that she’d talk to the owner in the morning because all of the rooms were booked that night. I was exhausted, so I had a protein shake for dinner and some free snacks that were available in the room. There was a TV with cable and English channels. I watched the last part of Inside Out and then King Kong: Skull Island while I updated my blog and listened to the rooster crow nextdoor until I was ready for bed. 

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Day 273: International Politics at a Vietnamese Amusement Park

I quickly ate breakfast at my hotel and was in the lobby ready for a tour of Ba Na Hills. A woman in her 30s arrived to pick me up and explained that we needed to walk a little bit to the bus because traffic prevented them from getting to my hotel. I noticed that she was wearing a jacket and a wide brim hat. Ba Na Hills is at the top of a mountain, so I asked her if it was cold there and if I needed to get a jacket. She replied, “No, it’s very warm. Vietnamase women don’t like tan skin. We like white skin, so we cover up. But it’s very warm.”

The bus took our large group to a gondola. We boarded in smaller groups so we could fit into the gondola. Our tour guide told us about life in Vietnam as we rode along the thick, green forest. She said the government is all about the money. The French colonists built Ba Na Hills station at the top of the mountain in 1919. They set limits on what could be built so the environment would be protected. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese government continues to build, destroying the landscape on the mountain. 

Our tour guide continued to explain life in Vietnam. She said University won’t get you a good job. She had a friend who tried to start a career at a hospital after graduating and they told him it would cost $500,000,000 dong ($21,000 USD) and he’d have to work for free for two years. He ended up going to the U.S. and now has a good job. She said, “If you get sick here, do not go to a Vietnamese hospital. You don’t know if the doctor was the best student or was just the richest student. Go to a Korean or European hospital.”

The tour guide explained that tourism has really taken off in Vietnam. If someone speaks English or Chinese, they can make a decent salary. She makes $700 USD a month if she works everyday. I was told the average salary in Vietnam is $200 USD a month, so she was making a lot more money than the average person. 

The gondola arrived at the top of the mountain at an amusement park. Our tour guide told us to look at our itinerary because we were assigned lunch in different groups. We all split up because we had an hour to explore the park on our own. At the beginning of the park, there was a large rotating ball like you’d see at Universal Studios, only it said “Sun World.” 

There was currently a parade of dancers spinning around the ball and fountain. I stood there confused. They were wearing Disney-like outfits with tennis shoes. There wasn’t a theme and they danced in mis-matched pairs before the show ended. 

I continued wandering around the park and saw an arcade, a walk-through Jurassic Park full of animatronic dinosaurs, and carnival rides. The arcade was free, so I played The Walking Dead. I didn’t have much time, so I spent most of it walking around. The landscaping was beautiful with well-cared for flowers. There was some construction going on among buildings that looked like castles. There were also buddha statues, temples, and classic Asian architecture. I didn’t know what theme the park was going for. 

For lunch, I went to the giant, two-story buffett that was in a German beer garden. The place was packed and food stations were everywhere. After getting some food, I looked for a table to sit down and eat. I wandered through the sea of people like I was back in high school, looking for friendly faces. Most of the tables were large and held at least six people, so I figured my best bet would be to join a table at the end because there were not any empty tables. 

I searched until I found two tall blonde girls who I knew had been on my tour. There was space at their table, so I joined them. They were from Denmark and around 20 years old. They were both taking a gap year between high school and college (which is very common there), but they were into year two, hoping to do three years. Each year, they’d travel for two to three months. 

I asked the girls about their high tax rate because Denmark is often mentioned in U.S. debates regarding government-run programs. The girls admitted that they pay high taxes, but said only the rich pay 50+% and most people pay 27-35%. They like that they’re taken care of by their government. The girls hear horror stories about people not being able to afford healthcare in the U.S. I explained that our healthcare does need a lot of improvement, but cautioned them against thinking that the extreme horror stories are the norm because most people have insurance. 

The girls told me that Denmark is not a socialist country and pointed out that their Prime Minister hates when people refer to them as such. They asked me why Americans don’t want government involved and I explained it’s because we don’t trust the government. We talked about Venezuela because they recently had blackouts and food shortages. One of the reasons that Venezuela is in a bad situation is because the government started working with Cuba. In exchange for Cuba giving Venezuela an army, they give them oil, which has led to corruption. The U.S. has legal bribes in congress (called lobbying), so we feel they’re already too corrupt. Giving them more power would only make the bribes worse. Our country was founded on freedom, so freedom will always be a big deal for us. 

One of the girls told me that the liberal (democratic) party in the U.S. is not what they consider liberal in Denmark. She thought the U.S. seemed to be going in an extreme direction recently. She said, “I would consider myself a feminist as far as equal rights for women, but I wouldn’t dare call myself a feminist because they hate men now. And I don’t hate men.” 

She was surprised that Trump won the presidency and thought he never would. She was in the U.S. a month before our 2016 election and thought it was crazy. Politics were everywhere and she couldn’t understand why Americans can and do spend so much money on our circus-like elections. I agreed with her that there should be caps on the money and time spent on elections. The girl bought a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat in support of Trump because she thought it was “cool, funny, and that he wouldn’t win anyway.”

I enjoyed talking with the girls and getting their perspective on the world and politics. Once lunch was complete, we went our separate ways. I wandered over to the famous Golden Bridge. The bridge is a 490 feet (150 meters) pedestrian bridge on the side of a mountain. It curves outward, so the views are incredible. In addition to being a scenic overlook, it was designed to connect the cable car station to the gardens.

The bridge almost loops back to itself in a complete circle and has two giant hand sculptures appearing to hold it up. Construction of the bridge began in July 2017 and was complete in June 2018. I had seen pictures of it and didn’t realize it was in Vietnam until shortly before I arrived in Da Nang. 

I walked across the bridge, admiring the large sculpted hands. The bridge is 16 feet (5 meters) wide, but there were so many people that I was getting frustrated. Everyone seemed to be doing their best to get the perfect Instagram shot. While I enjoyed seeing the bridge, I prefer to avoid major tourist attractions. 

At the end of the bridge, there’s a podium where people can take a picture with the bridge perfectly placed in the background. I met a girl who took my picture and in return I took a picture of her and her boyfriend. They appeared to be in their late 20s and they were from Chile. The girl grew up in Torrance, California, not far from where I lived for 15 years. Before her senior year of high school, she moved to Chile. She attended University there and is now an architect. She and her boyfriend decided to quit their jobs and travel for eight months, but said it would likely end up being longer. They spent six months living in Sydney, Australia. They planned to be back in Chile by October so they could get jobs before the Christmas season (it was currently the third week of March). 

I walked around the park with the couple as we talked. There were some beautiful gardens, statues, and a maze that we walked through. The statue of a white buddha reached into the sky. 

The couple told me about Chile and said it’s the country in South America that is doing the best. A lot of people from other countries are moving there, like Columbia and Venezuela. They’ll work for half the pay as native Chilean people. The couple was frustrated because it was devaluing their work and pay. 

The grounds were beautiful, but there wasn’t much to do other than walk around. Once our time was up, we met back at the gondola station to ride back down the mountain. The girl told me about foreign investments ruining housing markets for locals. I told her that I saw and heard about that affecting Vanvoucer, Canada while I was there. The girl was animated and frustrated about the housing situations around the world by foreign investments, which made our tour guide walk over and ask if everything was ok. We laughed as the girl explained she’s just passionate about the topic. The girl told me that most of her family has moved out of California because while it is pretty, it’s too expensive. She admitted that the schools are better in the U.S. than in Chile. 

The gondola ride gave spectacular views of the surrounding area. The lush, thick forest was all around. Once we got to the bottom, I boarded the van that would take me back to my hotel. The seats were so small, I had to turn to the side so my legs were in the aisle. On the way there, they were in tremendous pain because they were smashed by the seat in front. Thankfully, it was just over an hour bus ride. 

Once I was back at my hotel, I ate dinner on the rooftop bar while enjoying a drink and the view. I didn’t understand why the rooftop bar was always empty when I went there, but I enjoyed the peace and quiet. I wasn’t feeling too well, so I worked on my blog after dinner and went to bed. 

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider 
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Day 272 – No Glitter. No Party: My Introduction to Vietnamese Street Food

After spending a few days in Hue, Vietnam, I continued south to Da Nang. I had arranged for a van company to take me on the two and a half hour drive. At 11:00 am, I received a phone call from the driver, but he didn’t speak English. To communicate, he hung up and texted me instead to let me know that he was outside of my Airbnb.

I walked outside to find a small SUV with two other people inside. My Airbnb hosts helped the driver load my bags in the back. After picking up another single woman, we arrived at a hotel. We were all instructed to get out so we could transfer to a van. While we waited for two more people, they asked me to sign an itinerary that was in Vietnamese. I asked what I was signing, but the language barrier made it impossible for me to know what it said. A young couple on the trip helped to translate, so I signed.

The VIP van had two single seats in the front, two in the middle, and three spaces in the back row that were all on the same seat. They instructed me to get in the very back corner. I asked if I could just have a seat in the middle because I’m so tall. They wouldn’t budge because the seats were assigned in the order of our bookings and I booked last. 

Frustrated, I got in the back seat with two tall europeans next to me. The shorter locals were all in the larger seats that recline. The man in front of me reclined, making it impossible for me to get some writing done. We left 30 minutes late and the ride was so bumpy that I started to get car-sick. I was annoyed and grumpy by the service in Vietnam. 

When we arrived in Da Nang, the driver stopped on a random street. He asked us to get out because apparently this was our drop-off place. I tried to order a Grab, but the location wasn’t registering correctly, so I had to cancel it and order a new one. I stood on the sidewalk with my luggage and fumbled with my phone. Just then, the young couple from the van (who helped translate earlier about the seats) asked me if I needed help. 

The guy was on a motorbike and his girlfriend was on the back. I explained I was having difficulty with my Grab driver. The guy used my phone and called the driver to tell him where I was located. They waited with me until the driver arrived and then drove away. They restored my faith in humanity. 

The heat in Da Nang was more bearable than Hue: 97 °F (36 °C) vs. 105 °F (40 °C) in Hue. I arrived at Dylan Hotel Da Nang that I booked on Orbitz and was able to check-in and drop off my bags. The modern hotel had 30+ floors. My room had two double beds, a TV, a desk, and a beautiful bathroom. I was elated to have a shower that had a glass barrier separating the shower from the toilet. 

The rooftop on the hotel had a bar on one side and a pool on the other. After eating some lunch at the empty rooftop bar, I took a nap in the plush bed because I wasn’t feeling very good.

Later, I went to the (still empty) bar to watch the sunset and I had widespread views of the city. The city was much more modern than what I had seen in the northern part of Vietnam. 

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For dinner, I signed up for a street food tour with Exploring DaNang Food Tour. I was the only person signed up that day, so instead of paying $35, I paid $50 so it wouldn’t be cancelled. It would also give me a personalized tour. At 6:00 pm, Diep drove up to my hotel on her motorbike. She was 27 years old, about 5’6”, had straight hair pulled back into a ponytail, and was wearing blue pants with two white stripes on the sides. The sparkly black-brownish shirt that she was wearing said, “No glitter No party.” She was spunky and beautiful.

Diep told me to hop on the back of her motorbike so we could drive to the city center (my hotel was near the beach). I cautiously climbed on the back of the bike and tried to make sure she had enough room. I put my legs on the two small posts sticking out on the sides. I was careful not to let my leg hit the hot exhaust pipe. 

We crossed over a bridge to the city center. I looked to the side and saw a river and a bigger bridge with a giant dragon along it. Riding on the back of the motorbike was great! The cool breeze felt refreshing in the night air. The city seemed cleaner and better-kept than what I had seen in Vietnam. The streets were newer and wider too. Diep told me that the city has grown tremendously in the last five years. They opened the Golden Bridge just outside of Da Nang at Ba Na Hills (it’s the famous bridge with hands holding it up) and it’s brought in a lot more tourism. 

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Diep parked at a market and rushed inside before they closed. We zipped through stalls until we arrived at the one she wanted. She bought me a green juice and a cup with jellies and sugary green beans. I was pleasantly surprised by how good it tasted. I ate the chunks and drank the juice, but Diep warned, “Don’t feel like you need to finish everything. We’ll eat a lot tonight. For some reason, Americans always feel bad wasting food, but trust me, you won’t be able to try everything if you finish all of them.”

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Diep and I chatted as we stood near the stall. She told me that the average salary in Vietnam is $200 USD/month, which isn’t a lot of money. Most of the businesses are run by family members. They have to pay the government to rent the space for a market stall and eventually they’ll pass the business on to other members of their families.

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The market was going to close so we continued to our next destination. During the walk through the streets, Diep told me that Vietnamese eat small snacks throughout the day, which mostly consists of street food. For dinner, they are expected to go home to have dinner with their family. 

We arrived at a street cart where an 80-year-old woman was making Banh Mi Que (Vietnamese baguette with pork liver, chili jam, and dry onion). Diep explained that the woman has been serving these from that food cart for more than 30 years. It was really delicious! 

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As I ate, Diep told me about herself. She attended University to study accounting and she works for the government doing just that during the day. She doesn’t care for it very much and she only makes $150 USD/month working full-time. She taught herself English in three months by watching YouTube videos. She was the second person that I met in Vietnam who told me they learned English in three months from YouTube. Both of them spoke English very well and I was curious as to what videos these were. It also made me realize just how much the American school system is failing us. I took two years of Spanish in high school and two semesters at University, and have never been bi-lingual. 

Diep started to hang out with expats in the area so that she could work on her English. In return for their help, she would take them around to street vendors and show them which foods to eat and how to eat them. One day, someone told her that she should be charging for the food tours. She wasn’t sure at first because she thought her English needed improvement, but people encouraged her by assuring her that it was perfectly fine. Diep started doing food tours in the evening after work a year ago and was slowly building up a fantastic profile on TripAdvisor

Our next stop was for some spring rolls in a small sit-down table down an alleyway. Diep told me about life in Vietnam for women. A woman is expected to cook and clean for her husband and his entire family. They often live with their parents even if they’re married. She said, “If you marry a Vietnamese man, you’ll be a slave to his family, especially if he has a lot of brothers.” 

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Diep told me about her aunt who has been married for 15 years to a man who beats her about once a week. She’s beautiful, but puts up with it because it’s so common there. Diep watches as some young women marry, take care of the kids, and work all day while their husband is having an affair. The wife doesn’t know because she’s too busy taking care of everything. Diep has chosen not to marry a Vietnamese man. She said she’s old for not having been married. Instead, she’s decided to focus on her studies and now her business. She told me, “Then my money is my money. I won’t rely on anybody.” 

I told Diep that I was a manager, but quit my job and sold my house so that I could travel. She was impressed that I gave up a good job and a house. She made me feel proud. I loved that two women in very different circumstances and from different countries could be supportive of each other. 

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Diep told me that as a child, people would tell her that she’s dark and wouldn’t play with her. They’d point and say she’s a farm worker. Finally, as an adult, she realized that she was wearing multiple jackets and face masks to cover her skin and that wasn’t a way to live. Now, she’s confident and doesn’t care. 

I told Diep that I noticed a lot of “whitening” soaps and face creams in Thailand and Vietnam. She explained that their culture values being light-skinned and does crazy things like get a nose job for $2,000 to look more Caucasian. Diep said she could be out with a friend who doesn’t have as pretty a face as she has, but because her skin is whiter, she’ll get all the attention from guys. I told Diep that it was ironic that they do that when Caucasion people go to tanning beds to get darker. We agreed, “I guess we always want to be what we’re not.” She is a natural beauty.

Our next stop was a street vendor that served Che Chuoi Nuong, which is a grilled banana dessert served in coconut milk. It was so tasty, I ate the entire bowl! I noticed that the family still had a decent amount of food left and it was getting late. Diep had told me that they always make everything fresh daily. What do they do with the leftovers? Diep explained that the families will eat it because they have big families and lots of people living together. 

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The next stop was Banh Trang Kep, which is Vietnamese rice paper cracker with pate, beef jerky, and quail eggs arranged like slices of pizza. It was so delicious, it was my favorite food on the tour. Diep kept asking me for feedback, but I didn’t have any suggestions. It was a great tour!

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While I ate my slices, Diep told me that she lost one of her three sisters when she was 14 years old. She was very depressed over it. After a year, she realized that’s not what her sister would want. Life is too short and we have to live it in fulfilling ways, like having great conversations with inspiring people! 

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We hopped on to Diep’s motorbike for our next stop: eel at a sit-down restaurant. I was hesitant to try it, but Diep told me the tumeric sauce makes it easier for newbies. She laughed and laughed at my inability to use chopsticks and how I was weirded out by the eel. We were having such a fun time!

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For the finale, we went to a large outdoor restaurant to eat shrimp and BBQ oysters. Diep got me a beer as well and I was so stuffed, I begged her to help me eat the oysters.

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I told Diep that she’s an entrepreneur and she should feel proud of owning a women-led business. She told me that she doesn’t think she’s an entrepreneur because she doesn’t have any employees. I explained to her that she still had a business, was an innovator, and when her business takes off, she’ll hire employees. We even looked up the definition so she could be certain that she is in fact an entrepreneur. She looked proud of her accomplishments. 

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Diep drove me to my hotel and we hugged goodbye. She told me that she was so fortunate to have met me and that we’re now a part of each other’s stories. I gave her another hug. I’m the one who was fortunate to meet such an incredible soul. 

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