Smile :)

When do we smile? When we are happy, when we see a friend, when we are on a road trip enjoying the sunshine and the landscape.

What we always think of as a simple smile turns out to be a lot more than that. Enjoy the article

More to a Smile Than Lips and Teeth

from NY Times where you’ll be given a hint of how “smile” differs from culture to culture 🙂


Does college make you smarter? – NY Times

The good, the bad, and the discussion about American college in the NY Times Opinion Pages:

Does College Make You Smarter?

Reading the opinion pages of newspaper is a great way to improve your English and writing style. Enjoy this double dips where you can also learn about American colleges.

On the other hand, what do you think about Vietnamese colleges? What’s the good and the bad? What you love about our colleges and what you think should be improved?

Happy birthday to Jeff and hello to ESL Podcast blog

I am late for 2 days, so Happy belated birthday to Jeff in ESL Podcast!!! (He is one of my favorite podcasters!)

(For intermediate and advanced learners)

We have learned about ESL Podcast a while ago. Do you know that they also have a blog, the ESL Podcast blog? Apart from some posts with detail information about what we might find in the learning guides (which I believe is really helpful for anyone who wants to learn more about English and American culture), the posts are essentially similar to English Cafe. It is about some topic from the life of an American. They use authentic (of course) American writing style, wording, and idioms. New and interesting words are in bold (so it is really easy to keep track of them) and the explanation is right next to it.

I believe reading their blog will be really beneficial to anyone who is tempting to take an American-based standardized test (TOEFL or SAT for instance). It is also good even if you just want to know more about American culture, learn some more English, or sharpen your English skill like I do now. I will leave their feed on our blog for a while for easy access. You can see it on your left hand side, below the “Recent posts” and above the “Recent comments”.

Happy reading 🙂

The secret power of Youtube and of yourself

So I came across this article from CNN about an interesting TEDtalk: “The secret power of YouTube”. You might still remember that we mentioned about TEDTalk a while ago in this post, and you can always visit their website for more talks at Please note that the talks there are more suitable for advanced learners only. The article, however, can be read with intermediate level.

In the talk, Chris Anderson defined the term crow-accelerated innovation, and he provided the three things he believe needed for such innovation to take off: a “Crowd”, “Light” and “Desire”. It is a notable article and talk, you should definitely try to have a look 😉

Now you might ask, “so what does it have to do with English learning?” Since I can’t practically add anything interesting to the table as his wording is just right, I will simply quote Christ here:

“Crowd: It can be any group, small or large, of people who share a common interest. The bigger the group, the better the chance that it contains real innovators. But successful crowds also depend on lots of other roles like trend-spotters, cheerleaders, commenters, and even skeptics.

Light: You need to be able to see what the very best people in the crowd are capable of. And the amazing thing about the Web is that even when the crowd is in the millions, the best contributors can readily bubble up to the surface — for example, by winning the most views or highest ratings on a website.

Desire: On the Web, this is provided through social recognition. If you can do something innovative and special, you get thousands of people viewing your work and talking about you. It’s intoxicating. And it’s driving hundreds and hundreds of hours of effort from potential innovators across the globe.”

This makes me think of our blog, of the reason why I decided to create this blog, ask for help from others, and why I decided to go back and keep the blog running.

I hope that I can create a bigger CROWD of students who are aware of the importance of learning English, who know how to learn English (as well as other foreign language) effectively and economically.

I have once been struggling with trying to get the best TOEFL test score out of the minimal amount of money my parents could offer me. I have made a number of trials, ranging from learning solely at school (university), at home, go to cheap to expensive learning centers. For the first type (cheapest) I only need to go to class once to decide that it does not worth my time sitting in and getting bored. For the most expensive one I only attend one of their class to realize that they don’t really worth the money I spent. I have also tried online study, and finally go back to self-study with a bunch of books and my cassette player. I realize that everything come down to HOW you learn it. That is the reason I would like to shred a LIGHT to you guys of what I have been able to do (and so you can, too), and asked that my friends help and do the same.

Of course there is that bit of DESIRE in it, that we have an audience, that we help 😉

We all know that we all DESERVE to be able to learn and get better.

English is not a goal, but more like a tool. High TOEFL or IELTS scores, however are our goal, and our tool to apply to study abroad. But after that, English come back again as a tool, to communicate and to help us advance in our life, as well as in our work. It burdens me that many of us have hard time to get better at English because of their financial problems. So, if you find us helpful, please, create a bigger CROWD and help your friends by introducing us to them. Spread the word.

The more people know English (or any other language), the more people go study abroad, the better we can help our country to develop. For a bright future of Vietnam 🙂

Reading towards writing – Part 2

In this post I will explain a little more about how to read effectively.

We usually read for information, to answer test questions or just for fun, but forget about many other interesting detail about language from the passage. What I have learned from my junior high and high-school French classes are, always prepare some highlight pens while reading. You may need about 2 different colors, one for new words and the other, interesting expressions. With those highlights, whenever you revisit your previously read article, you’ll see right away what is important. (Don’t highlight my writing, tho, you’ll get plenty of errors 😀 )

Let’s have a look at a message I get from the International Student and Scholar Services of my school about safety Spring Break vacation. As I found no highlight in worpress, I will simply change the characters’ color instead.


Okay, first, before reading, try to think how would you say these in English:

– hậu quả nghiêm trọng

– người có ít kinh nghiệm lái xe

– tai nạn (giao thông) nghiêm trọng

– lái xe cả đêm

– bị thương nặng

– nghe theo lời khuyên (của ai đó)

– đi chơi xa

– đi chơi gần

– ngủ một giấc thật ngon

– buồn ngủ khi đang lái xe

– ngủ trưa

– lái xe khi đang mệt mỏi

– tỉnh táo

– không phóng nhanh (khi lái xe)

– mất khả năng điều khiển (xe cộ)

– chạy xe đúng tốc độ cho phép

– bị văng ra khỏi xe (ô tô, trong một tai nạn)

– đường ướt

– đường trơn trượt (vì có băng)

– chất bạn bè lên xe (ô tô)

– khởi hành (một chuyến đi chơi)

– để ý, nghe theo một lời khuyên

Now read the passage 🙂




March 8. 2008

During school breaks, many international students in the U.S. have the desire to travel to and experience other parts of the U.S. To save money, they often travel by car or van with a group of friends, who split the costs of gas, hotel, etc. While most of these trips are uneventful, some of them have disastrous consequences. Because the students are sometimes inexperienced drivers, are not familiar with the U.S. highway system, may have little experience driving long distances or in winter road conditions, sometimes drive old or poorly maintained cars and even drive through the night to save money, International Student Offices in the U.S. are reporting an increasing number of severe accidents which result in serious injury and even death.

UB international students have been killed in car accidents and have been seriously injured in car crashes during school breaks. In fact, three UB international students were in a very serious car accident during Thanksgiving break two years ago. We would like to prevent future catastrophic accidents so are sending you some tips which we sincerely hope you will take seriously.

1) If you are not an experienced driver, travel by bus, train or plane instead of by car.

2) If you are an experienced driver, but are only accustomed to driving in Buffalo, do not attempt a long road trip. Plan a shorter trip instead. Take frequent breaks during your trip and drive shorter distances each day.

3) Get a good night’s sleep and eat a good breakfast before beginning your trip. If you feel tired, delay your departure so you can rest first.

4) If you feel sleepy at the wheel, stop your car and take a nap or check in to a motel. Do not drive while fatigued. If you are a passenger, stay awake to be sure the driver is alert.

5) Never, ever, ever drink (alcohol) and drive.

6) Do not speed. You can easily lose control of your car if you are driving too fast. Drive only the speed limit.

7) Wear seatbelts at all times. ItR17;s the law for everyone in the car. Seatbelts will also ensure that you are not ejected from the car if there is an accident.

8) Do not drive at night. Above all, do not drive through the night to save hotel money. If you do, you can easily fall asleep at the wheel and have a serious accident.

9) If the road is wet, slow down. If the road is icy, do not continue driving. Check in to a motel instead.

10) Travel with at most one or two friends. Do not rent a van, fill it with friends and classmates, and embark on a trip. Too many international students in the U.S. have died in van crashes. (Such crashes frequently result in multiple deaths.)

We hope that you will have an interesting, enjoyable and SAFE spring break by taking to heart the advice in this message.


Remember them and use them in your sayings 🙂

Have an interesting, enjoyable and safe spring break 🙂

Reading towards writing

Does it sound strange? It should not, at least for me 🙂 . It sounds like “Listening towards speaking”, when I listen to others speaking English, most of the time I’ll try to capture what expressions they are using, such as “roll up and deal with it”, or “Down the hall then take your right” (what we would say is: Go straight down this hallway then turn left). “Way to go” to a good English speaker, tho 🙂

Okay, the phrases above is just good for speaking, and maybe regional terms, too. For writing we have to read quite a lot. Frankly, I’m a super lazy reader. That is the reason why I know how to become good in writing, but never could I produce a nice paragraph 😀

Alright. So what? In books for TOEFL there are plenty of advices about reading. They tell us to read from NYTimes, USAToday, Reader’s Digest, etc. (at least the books I got said so), especially from the Opinion, or Op Ed part… Well I tried it, but I didn’t learn much from those articles. One reason, I’m slow :D. Second reason: those whose writing is published on these popular newspapers/magazines should be very good at formal writing, while I’m too far from that.

Just recently I have found intermediate level articles that I really enjoy reading, learn from, and hopefully you, too. They are school newspapers, where students write for themselves. Their writing should be closer to ours. We have The Spectrum in our school, SUNY at Buffalo. There is also MIT Admission Blogs. And I believe other schools have theirs, too.

To start, I would like to invite you to try one article from The Spectrum, about the controversal right to carry gun in America. Personally I don’t like the idea of allowing citizens to be armed. But the guy support himself really good, and we can learn a lot about writing from his article.


My turn

The right of individuals and students to protect themselves
MARK W. WEBB – UB School of Management Sophomore

In this fair country of ours, it would seem that the majority of the people consider some of our constitutional rights as more important or more sacred than others. For example, no one, except for the die-hard enemies of democracy, would challenge the first amendment rights of citizens to freedom of speech, religion, and the press. On the other hand, a great multitude of individuals and politicians seem to dismiss the Second Amendment, the right of all Americans to keep and bear arms.

Compared to the general public today, our founding fathers felt much differently about this important issue. They understood that people had a right to live, a right to defend their life, and the right to live it as they saw fit. In fact, they felt so strongly about an individual’s rights to this that they said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Even today, I believe many would be hard-pressed to say that an individual is not entitled to such things; so how is it that “we the people” are so lightly surrendering our right to defend our lives?

In the light of such incidents as the recent campus shooting at Northern Illinois University and the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007, people are quick to blame guns and the “obsession” America has with them. Many use such incidents to fuel anti-gun legislation and brainwash and/or force good, law-abiding citizens to relinquish their rights by banning firearms. You may not know it, but there exist a number of so-called “Gun-Free Zones” all across America. These include universities, some government offices, primary and secondary schools, along with many others depending on the state. In fact, you’re most likely in a Gun-Free Zone (UB) while you’re reading this. These zones force law-abiding citizens, with otherwise completely legitimate and official permits to carry concealed firearms for their protection and the protection of others, to leave their legal weapons at home. You may be inclined to think that this is a good thing: “the fewer guns the better, right?” Well, if you’re talking about criminals, yes: the fewer the better – I’m with you; however, if you’re talking about law-abiding citizens who know how to handle a gun safely and properly, then absolutely not. “Gun-Free Zones” and related laws DO NOT stop criminals from carrying out their illegal and murderous acts – they only prevent good law-abiding citizens from defending themselves and others. The murderers of Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, and many others planned to kill the innocent and then themselves; why would they bother obeying a “Gun-Free Zone” if they’re already going to commit murder and don’t plan on living more than a minute or two past their sickening acts anyway?

In the end we must recognize we cannot stop insane people intent on committing insane actions, no matter what laws or legislation are passed. We see shootings at schools because the politicians and the government have disarmed good citizens, and hence offered up a flock of sheep to the slaughter – a place where the likes of Eric Harris, Cho, and Steven Kazmierczak can kill without worrying whether or not their victims are armed. We may feel safe, but campus police and even the regular police are not everywhere at once, and the casualty rates of such shootings prove this. If lawful students/faculty with proper licensing and training sufficient for everywhere outside such zones, could carry their firearms onto campuses, these shootings would be fewer in number and the number of victims would drastically decrease. We should not wait for these killers to finish their work and commit suicide. We should be defending ourselves in kind. All of us have a right to defend our lives, 24/7 and 365 – regardless of what those in Albany say.

Remember the victims of “Gun-Free Zones” and use your First Amendment Rights to stand up for the Second Amendment. In this “Gun-Free Zone” at the University of Buffalo, it’s a big step towards the only defense we have in the face of madmen at the moment of truth.

Good Morning, Vietnam … er, Oklahoma

AMERICANS do not like vegetables. At least, it seems that way after almost two months on the road, during which I’ve eaten at countless country cafes and rarely ever encountered anything fresh and green. When I have, it’s been iceberg salads with toupees of flavorless yellow cheese, battered and deep-fried string beans and, inevitably, cole slaw.

Not that the food hasn’t been delicious — like the pulled pork at Blue Mist in Asheboro, N.C., or the patty melt at Spice Water Cafe in Lime Springs, Iowa. But a diet of meat, starch and fat is not what you want when you spend hours a day sitting in a car. Often, as I digested the latest gut bomb, I would wonder if my budget was keeping me away from greener, healthier restaurants. But, no. I rarely glimpsed such places outside big cities and a few hip towns.

And so, with Oklahoma City in my sights, I headed south as fast as I could. I had one thing on my mind: Vietnamese food.

It may come as a surprise that Oklahoma’s capital has a significant Vietnamese population — around 20,000, according to the Vietnamese American Community organization — but such ethnic enclaves are a new American reality. Hmong live in large numbers in Minnesota, for example, while Columbus, Ohio, is home to some 30,000 Somalis. And in each case, the immigrants bring their own cuisines, which often are tasty, full of veggies and inexpensive.

Oklahoma City, however, lay a long way from Nebraska, where I’d just visited Carhenge ( From there, I drove through Kansas, stopping at Greensburg to witness the aftermath of the May 4 tornado. Then I had to drop the car off in Wichita, at Gorges & Company Volvo (3211 North Webb Road, 316-630-0689,, for much-needed repairs; 6,000 miles’ worth of leaks and electrical problems cost a disheartening $855.


It was late on Saturday evening when I finally drove into Oklahoma City and checked into the first place that looked clean, had Wi-Fi and was cheap. The Hospitality Inn (3709 NW 39th Street, 405-942-7730) is a simple motel — two stories arranged around a swimming pool — but it is on the fabled Route 66 and less sketchy than some of the older motels, and the proprietor knocked the price down from $62 a night to $51.25 when I said I’d be staying three days.There was a lot to see, but the real plan was to eat as much Vietnamese food as possible. I knew this would take discipline, so as soon as I woke up Sunday morning, I went jogging. The motel is on a highway, but a few blocks south is Will Rogers Park, several acres of grass, trees and ponds. Ducks and geese and hares had to scurry as I bounded over bridges, through the rose garden and around the arboretum for about 30 minutes. On my way back, I took note of the park’s tennis center and wondered if I could find a partner there later in the day.

Now, however, it was time for breakfast, so I drove through the city, past numerous barbecue joints and root beer stands for the more balanced delights awaiting me in the city’s Asian District, a modest neighborhood of strip malls and slightly run-down houses lining North Classen Boulevard.

I knew exactly what I’d be eating: pho, the beef noodle soup that is considered the national dish of Vietnam. It may seem a strange breakfast, but all over Southeast Asia, it’s common to begin the day with noodle soup.

And that’s how I began at Pho Hoa (901 NW 23rd Street, 405-521-8087), recommended by an Oklahoma-born friend. In the brightly lit room, surrounded by Vietnamese families, I ordered a small bowl. The first bite was heaven, as if my taste buds had been in suspended animation all these weeks. The noodles were thin but firm, the broth redolent of star anise, topped with thin slices of rare flank steak and well-cooked brisket. I garnished it with bean sprouts, basil and ngo gai, a long, lemony leaf known as sawtooth or culantro, then squeezed in some lime juice and mixed it all together. The bean sprouts crunched, and the herbs provided a fresh counterpoint to the hot soup.

When I dipped a slice of flank steak in a little dish of Sriracha chili sauce, I could tell it had been a long time since I’d eaten like this — my tongue, usually able to withstand any assault, from habaneros to bird’s eyes, was on fire. I cooled down with a salted-lime soda, then walked out the door with an iced coffee enriched with condensed milk, having paid only $11.53 for a taste not just of Vietnam but of home. (I lived in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, in 1996 and 1997.)

My stomach temporarily full, I drove downtown to the Oklahoma City National Memorial, a park dedicated to the victims of Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Two stone arches bracket a reflecting pool, bearing the times “9:01” (before the bombing) and “9:03” (after), and 168 chairs sit in a field of grass to represent those who died.

As I walked in, I heard a teenager ask his mother why McVeigh did it.

“Well, he had something against the government, I guess,” she answered, and they walked out.

If they’d stuck around, they could’ve learned more from Rick Thomas, the National Park Service employee who gave a free orientation under the Survivor Tree, a century-old elm. In the span of 15 minutes, he covered everything from the details of the attack to the ways the memorial tries to address the emotions of everyone affected by the bombing. I left hoping my own city’s 9/11 memorial winds up being, as Doug Kamholz, a reader, wrote of this one, “a worthy balm to the heart.”

After a brief stroll through the area, I returned to the Asian District around 11:30 a.m. in search of banh mi, or Vietnamese sandwiches. And in Oklahoma City, the signal for banh mi is an enormous milk bottle sitting atop a tiny shack on Classen Boulevard. Once, this place sold Braum’s ice cream; now it’s Banh Mi Ba Le (2426 North Classen Boulevard, 405-524-2660), famous as much for its outsize sign as for its warm mini-baguettes stuffed with roast pork, pâté, cha lua (a Vietnamese mortadella), lightly pickled daikon and carrot, cilantro and green chilies. I love them — especially when they cost $1.85. It’s ridiculous how much you get for so little.

It was sort of the opposite at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (1700 NE 63rd Street, 405-478-2250,; entry, $8.50), which readers suggested I visit. It was quite large, with rooms full of saddles, guns, clothing and cowboy art, but it seemed geared toward 10-year-old boys, more interested in perpetuating the romantic myth of the cowboy than in understanding how that myth came to be and what it means for American culture. It was almost as if “Deadwood” and “Unforgiven” never existed.

As I drove away from the museum, I passed yet another barbecue joint, right next door, and wondered if I was missing something in my single-minded devotion to Vietnamese cuisine.

Then I arrived at Banh Cuon Tay Ho (Little Saigon Shopping Center, 2524 North Military Avenue, 405-528-7700) for a midafternoon snack and forgot all about hickory-smoked slabs of meat. The signature dish, banh cuon, is a kind of northern Vietnamese ravioli — warm, thick, soft rice noodles filled with ground pork and mushrooms, and topped with bean sprouts, sliced cucumbers, cha lua and shredded mint. Here it was served with a fried cake of sweet potato and shrimp that was simultaneously salty and sweet, crunchy and creamy. In fact, I think the whole plate contained every known texture and flavor — and for a mere $6.

By now, I needed to work off three meals, so I returned to the park, hoping to find a pick-up tennis partner. I didn’t. (Who but the Frugal Traveler goes to a tennis court alone?) Instead, I swam laps in the Hospitality Inn pool, napped briefly and emerged from the motel — ready to eat again.

Golden Phoenix (2728 North Classen Boulevard, 405-524-3988), recommended by the proprietor of Banh Mi Ba Le, was bustling with families and college students, and with the help of my waitress, who giggled at my poor Vietnamese, I put together a standard southern Vietnamese dinner — the kind of meal I ate every day a decade ago. First, a deep-fried soft-shell crab that dribbled its bubbling green juices into my rice bowl with every bite. Then water spinach stir-fried with garlic, fresh from the wok, the tubular stems crunchy, the leafy bits lush and juicy. A clay pot showed up full of caramelized braised fish, and finally goi ngo sen, a salad of cucumber and young lotus shoots threaded through with rau ram, a diamond-shaped leaf that tastes like cilantro but is spicier and soapier.

I ate — and ate and ate. Soon, I knew, I’d be off to Texas and day after day of beautiful barbecue (mm, burnt ends!), but for now I was crunching through fresh veggies, searing my mouth with chilies and drowning myself in fish sauce — deliriously happy in the heartland of America.

By the time I finished, I’d spent $48 (including a beer, dessert and tip) and barely touched the lotus-shoot salad — it was just too much food. Instead, I had it boxed up to take back to the motel. It wasn’t quite pho, but it would do for breakfast.

Next stop: Texas.