Sunday, March 22, 2015

Thu Thiem Transformation

I've written about an area of the city called Thu Thiem numerous times, as it is one of Saigon's most ambitious long-term projects and an ideal example of where the city's leaders want the metropolis to go. Located on a peninsula directly across the Saigon River from downtown, when I moved here in 2010 there was little to Thu Thiem: it was mostly swamp, with few roads and a community centered on the ferry dock, which linked the area to District 1. Since then a tunnel under the river has been completed, connecting a new highway through Thu Thiem to the rest of the city; the ferry has ceased operations; and almost all of the buildings, with the exception of a couple of religious structures, have been demolished. This is all part of an ambitious plan to build the Thu Thiem New Urban Area, which will become a new economic and residential center (if it ever really comes to fruition).

While some of the grander parts of the plan still seem like a pipe dream, there is a lot of work going on in Thu Thiem, and I can't believe how much it's changed in the time I've been here. It's no longer the quiet, empty space where I taught a couple of friends how to drive on completely deserted roads. One huge development has been under construction for months on filled-in land. I'm not sure what exactly is going in here, but it looks like it will be pretty nice.

 Other areas have been cleared of vegetation and are waiting to be drained and filled, which I'm sure will happen sooner rather than later.

 One of the most striking things to see are the new roads which construction crews are putting in. This will completely alter the map of Thu Thiem and make getting around the peninsula a whole new experience. Currently, with the exception of Mai Chi Tho, the few roads in the area are small and not in the greatest condition. That won't be true for much longer.

This is easier to recognize on Google Maps, where you can see cleared swathes of dirt snaking through the green.
 Another major project is a second bridge to Thu Thiem, this time connecting District 1 via Ton Duc Thang. Work on the bridge is in the very early stages, but once it gets going it will completely transform the parts of the city on either end and further tie each side of the river together.

 What I find most interesting about Thu Thiem is that, beyond the mega-projects and widespread construction, there are still hidden areas which remain untouched and utterly desolate. Take the dirt path right along the river and you eventually reach no man's land. There are no buildings, no shops and, most strikingly, no people. In a city of roughly 10 million it's extremely hard to get away from people, but it's still possible here.
 And that's without even losing sight of the skyline.
For as long as I live here I'll continue to track what's going on in Thu Thiem, as this is where many of Saigon's future ambitions may ultimately succeed or fail.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Beautiful Da Nang Video

Recently a video created by the Vietnam is Awesome Project got a lot of play on social media here, and for good reason. The clip, entitled "Da Nang is Awesome", highlights both the rural and urban sides of the bustling city in central Vietnam. I've always enjoyed Da Nang - it doesn't have the character of Hanoi or Saigon since much of it is fairly new, but it's got beaches and mountains and amazing roads and plenty of good food. Plus it's more relaxed than its big brothers to the north and south, making it great for a visit. Enough of me blabbering on though, just watch the video:
Da Nang is Awesome from Zoomations on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Red Tape Nation

Living in Vietnam is great, and it should be obvious to any reader of this blog that I love the country. There are, of course, huge frustrations that come along with living here, as is true for anywhere in the world. Sometime I get the sense friends back home think I'm on constant holiday, but that's not the case. Possibly the most frustrating aspect of life in Vietnam as an expat - more so than the pollution or the appalling drivers - is the incredible amount of bureaucratic red tape that is encountered any time you try to do something official or make yourself more legitimate as a resident.

I believe much of the dense bureaucracy is a remnant of the hard-core socialist days of the 70s and 80s, before Doi Moi. The more agencies, committees, bureaus and departments there are, the more jobs you can create, even if it the result is a colossal, inefficient Leviathan of a system that is completely unfit for the modern era. Of course, it takes time to transform something with so much inertia, but some of the rules and regulations which remain in place would be laughable if they weren't so infuriating, and certain officials seem to take pleasure in making things as difficult as humanly possible.

I learned this several years ago when I went through a farcical ordeal to obtain a work permit. I've blocked out most memories of that epic quest, but I can give two examples of the extremely anal rules you must follow at times: I wasn't allowed into the Department of Justice because I was wearing shorts; and after returning to said department in long pants I finished filling out a huge form in blue ink, when part of it had previously been filled out in black ink. I was then told that I had to re-do the whole form in one ink color.

I'm currently going through another, similar bang-your-head-against-the-wall struggle against mountains of red tapes. Unless you work for an English language center or a multinational you get basically no help with any paperwork from your employer. After asking for a contract from Tuoi Tre (yes, just a simple contract saying I work there and for how long) for months, I was finally told last week that they can't give me one since they already have a hard enough time dealing with a foreigner. (I'm the only one in the office.) I'm dumbfounded by this, as a contract is the most basic thing any company should provide to its employees. This isn't a mom-and-pop corner store either, it's the biggest newspaper in the country.

The reason I need a contract (besides wanting actually feel like an employee with rights) is that you need one to bank here. You need a contract to open an account so that the bank knows where your money is coming from. Luckily I never closed my account when I left in 2013, otherwise I'd be up shit creek. Still, every time I go to the bank to deposit money they scold me since the contract they have on file is from the school I stopped working for way back in early 2012. Luckily I recently found an ATM that allows me to deposit cash without having to go to a teller, so I don't have to worry about keeping piles of cash in my room.

So, one problem solved, but last week another appeared. I went to the bank to transfer money to pay rent, and after completing numerous forms and presenting them to the teller I was told, sorry, you can't actually transfer because the signature on the form is different from the one I signed when I opened the account in 2010. I was beside myself. This is 2015, and they are basing identification on signatures. I had my passport with me and all other relevant personal details, but that wasn't good enough. I asked if I could see the original signature and was told no. The teller tried writing the signature out and I then copied her copy, but that wasn't good enough either. Much to my astonishment I was told that they couldn't help me, so please have a nice day. Apparently everyone in Vietnam has the same signature for their whole life.

I've also received no help in obtaining a work permit, which you need to get a one-year visa. A couple of years ago the government introduced a regulation stating you needed five years of experience in your field or a post-graduate degree to be eligible for a work permit. This was part of an effort to crack down on illegal (mostly Chinese) workers, but it also impacted thousands of other people. Once they realized this would kill the ESL industry, since teachers only need a Bachelor's degree, the authorities walked back a bit, but only for English teachers. I've been told I can't get a work permit since I don't meet those requirements, which means I have to shell out increasingly huge amounts of money for visa extensions every three months, and new rules are even making that more difficult.

I realize an American complaining about unreasonable visa and work-related regulations is a bit rich, considering how hard the U.S. makes it for immigrants these days, but I feel like an illegitimate, illegal worker...because I am one. I have no rights if something were to go wrong, and every time I go through passport control here I get glared at since I have at least a dozen Vietnam visas thanks to my inability to get long-term ones. Vietnam claims it wants to be more welcoming to foreigners, but I'm not feeling very welcome at the moment thanks to all of this red tape, and I'm not sure how much longer this will be sustainable for me. I'm now attempting to get a driver's license, which will surely be a task of Odyssean, and possibly even Sisyphean, proportions. Wish me luck.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Tet Nguyen Tieu

While the Tet holiday officially ended well over a week ago, there are a number of significant days which follow in the first month of the lunar new year. One of these is Tet Nguyen Tieu, which falls on the year's first full moon and is largely celebrated by Saigon's remnant Chinese community. On Thursday my friend Vinh and I headed into the narrow, crowded streets of Cho Lon, not too far from my apartment, to check out the festivities.

We had been told to expect streets covered in lanterns and parades, but we quickly realized most of the activity was taking place inside the area's various temples. After driving around for a bit in extremely dense traffic we decided to stop at Truong Tieu Hoc Chinh Nghia, a large complex on Nguyen Trai hidden behind stone walls. A stage had been set up to host lion dances later in the evening, but for now the crowds were flocking to the opulent temple.

Celebrations around the Lunar New Year often focus on luck, with certain actions believed to bring good luck for the entire year. The significance of these rituals goes over the head of foreigners, but it was fascinating to watch anyway. For example, people lined up to rub the belly of the statue in the below picture before ringing the bell around the horse's neck. People also rubbed small-denomination bills on the kylin statues at the entrance to the temple.

Countless other deities and symbols were bowed to and prayed at, while people also stuffed lucky money into receptacles next to the altars. I'll admit I am completely ignorant of what these symbols mean or who these statues are supposed to represent, so if anyone has any insight please share in the comments!

Smoke from candles and incense filled the air as people wished for good tidings in the new year.

Pushing through the huge crowd at the temple left us famished, so we headed to a nearby Chinese restaurant for delicious dumplings and noodles afterward. While Tet Nguyen Tieu wasn't exactly what I had expected, as it sounds like street parades were more common in the past, it was still really cool to see such a traditional celebration taking place far away from the expat bubble of Districts 1 and 2. Even though I live in District 5, I haven't really explored Cho Lon much since I first arrived in 2010. This night made me want to get back out there and find out more about the city's erstwhile Chinatown.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Hanoi Feast

Last night my friend Katie and I were treated to an incredible feast through a company called Plate Culture, which connects people to home cooks around Southeast Asia. We were told to meet Tom at his house way the hell out in Go Vap District - it takes a lot for me to get lost in Saigon, but by the time we arrived I had no idea where we were. (Although we were obviously near the airport, as airliners roared over regularly on their final approach before landing.)

Tom, who is from Hanoi and has lived in Saigon for four years, was a wonderful host. He didn't realize only two people were coming and had cooked enough Hanoi specialties to feed a small army, but we assured him we would do our best. I've been to Hanoi a few times but don't know a whole lot about the city's food, so this was an eye-opening experience. I had never eaten any of the dishes Tom prepared - unfortunately he didn't know the English names for any of them, and I don't know what the Vietnamese names mean, so this won't be particularly helpful. Know that everything was delicious though.
There was a plate of stir-fried pork with carrots, baby corn, beans and succulent pork skin.
 This is nem chua rang, or fried nem chua. (Whatever nem chua is.)

 This is a salad of cha lua and something else we couldn't figure out the word for.
 By the time all of this was on the table (plus boiled chicken and, not pictured, sticky rice with rooster meat) I knew there was no way we'd be able to finish everything. I hate wasting food, especially amazing food, but this was too tall of an order.
And then Tom served up a hearty bowl of soup containing chicken, egg noodles, herbs and more cha lua. It was awesome, and unlike any soup you would have Saigon, but after a few mouthfuls I was about to explode. Fortunately he didn't force us to finish everything, or I would've have been able to walk away from the table. At least I was able to finish the light dessert of lotus seeds placed inside longan, served chilled.
This was one of the best meals I've had in a while, and gives me some dishes to look out for the next time I'm in Hanoi. I enjoyed talking to Tom as well, as he likes living in Saigon but is very proud of where he is from. He talked at length about Hanoi's beauty and way of life and why the food there is better - simpler recipes, fresher ingredients, etc. His descriptions of the food were delightful - the meat used with the sticky rice came from specific roosters that are castrated ("they cut off the cock's balls" in his words) so they won't be distracted by female chickens and can focus on getting fat instead. As the feast digested on the long drive back to District 5 I realized this was an experience I won't forget any time soon.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Chức mừng năm mới!

Or in English, Happy Lunar New Year! Thursday ushered in the Year of the Goat, as signified by this herd of golden goats at the Flower Street here in Saigon.
The atmosphere in the city has been great, with people being extra polite and shouting 'Happy New Year!' at passersby. Families have been out celebrating in their finest ao dai, and the traditional suspension of many laws that comes with the holiday means groups are out on the streets gambling and playing cards. Last night the city was a madhouse, with whatever restaurants that decided to stay open packed out the door and traffic chaos. Driving in the afternoon with just a fraction of the population still in town is glorious, and something I could really get used to.

Staying here for the Tet holiday has actually been great fun. I've gotten a lot of cycling in, and on New Year's Eve (Wednesday night) I had friends over for drinks and then we watched the fireworks from the roof of my building. The show launched from downtown was even more impressive than the one on January 1st, and as I looked around I spotted eight other displays in various parts of the city, some near and others way in the distance. There isn't as much food available, and yesterday was particularly tough since the delivery website I use was closed, but I've managed to survive. The time off has also given me a chance to catch up on some of the movies I've downloaded recently - since last Friday I've watched The Skeleton Twins, Birdman, Kill the Messenger, Nightcrawler, Source Code, Kick-Ass, The Guest and Rush, in addition to keeping up with my TV shows. Going back to the grind on Monday will be tough.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Saigon in Bloom

On Tuesday I parked in District 1 and wandered through the 23/9 park flower market before making may way to the Ham Nghi Flower Street. The flower street is normally held on Nguyen Hue, but since that thoroughfare is currently a massive construction site the tradition has been moved a few blocks over. This is the most beautiful time of year in Saigon: the skies are clear, the temperatures aren't too hot (yet), and the city is awash in the colors of Tet flowers and ornamental trees. I don't quite understand the significance of the various flowers and plants, but nearly every house has at least two pots of mai flowers placed out front. Some families go all-out and buy trees worth hundreds of thousands of US dollars. Say what you will about Tet being diluted by modern technology and culture, but the tradition of floral decorations is alive and well.

The flower market was bustling with activity, as foreigners ogled and snapped pictures while sellers looked out for potential customers and trucks and motorbikes delivered yet more flowers.

The below picture caught my eye as a good example of how the traditional and the modern mix in Saigon.

Ben Thanh Market is all dolled up for the arrival of the Year of the Goat.
The Flower Street was similar to past years, but with goats thrown in. As usual the beautiful display featured a wide range of visitors, from expats and tourists to families and teenagers taking endless selfies.
Flower Street entrance

model metro train
I'll end this post with a picture I simply got a kick out of.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Accidental Staycation

On Friday I managed to pull off a personal first and missed my flight to Hanoi. I gave myself what should have been plenty of time to get to the airport, but traffic was much worse than usual thanks to the upcoming Tet holiday and I had a moronic taxi driver who took the most congested route possible. By the time I arrived at the terminal my flight was already boarding and they wouldn't let me check in. I was pointed towards a desk where I could get on standby, but after walking over and seeing the amorphous blob of humanity (not a line) throwing I.D. cards and shouting at the overwhelmed VietJet staffer I decided it just wasn't worth it. All flights on all airlines to anywhere in the country are sold out until later in the week, and I would be fighting for a seat with people who were desperate to get to their hometown to visit their family for the first time since last Tet. So I walked back outside, got a taxi, and resigned myself to a week in Saigon off of work.

Which isn't actually that bad. Several friends are staying here as well, and starting tomorrow the traffic should really start to slack off as much of the city's population heads to the countryside. So far I've done a lot of cycling - knocked out 107km (66 miles) on Saturday, followed by a visit to Pasteur Street Brewing, which has rapidly become one of my favorite spots in town.

Vanilla porter and Southern-style biscuits and gravy. So good.
 Today I cranked out another 96km on the bike, heading across the Nha Be to Golden Scorpion with a couple of friends.

 Saigon is a riot of color at the moment, as traditional Tet flowers are on sale on seemingly every corner. (I may wander around tomorrow for some pictures.) The canal that runs by my apartment building is busy with boats that have sailed up from the Mekong Delta crammed with flowers and decorative trees as everyone prepares for the Year of the Goat, which begins on Thursday. In the meantime I plan to continue to take advantage of this unexpected staycation by doing a lot of two things: riding and relaxing.