Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The road story Vietnam

This video, created by two Russian brothers after their 45-day trip to Vietnam, has been shared widely this week, and for good reason. It's beautifully shot and highlights what makes Vietnam so great: the people, the scenery and the adventures you can get into. The various misguided tourism departments may have no clue how to advertise the country, but videos like this do the trick just fine. Enjoy.

The road story Vietnam from Georgy Tarasov on Vimeo.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Winter in Saigon

Wow it's been a long time since I posted.

This has been the most pleasant winter I've ever experienced in Saigon. Since the wet season ended the nights have been wonderfully cool, with the low temperatures sticking around for my drive to work in the morning. There have been a few days where it would've been nice to have a hoody on. The blue-sky days are hot, but not uncomfortably so. I went for a bike ride at 3 yesterday afternoon and felt great.

In fact, this cool weather has been record-breaking. On the morning of the 15th the low temperature hit 59 degrees (15 C), the coldest reading in Saigon in over 20 years. I know that sounds laughably mild to those of you in northern Europe or North America, but for most of the year we rarely see temperatures below 70, so that's pretty damn cold. It's more like Hanoi weather. Plus driving on a motorbike makes things seem even cooler.

As a result everyone is bundling up, with kids decked out in parkas, beanies and mittens, and most adults wearing jackets. I went out for a couple sidewalk beers Friday night and should've worn a sweatshirt. It's delightful. This cool spell has resulted in photo collections like "Working people in Saigon build fires in rare cold" and "Beautiful tropical Ho Chi Minh City in cold weather". (Apparently there has also been an uptick in respiratory illnesses, as people simply aren't used to this.)

Things are forecast to warm up by the time Tet arrives next month, so I'm going to enjoy every last minute of this. Come April it will be long forgotten among the brutal heat. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Craft Beer Comes to Saigon

In the three-plus years I've been writing this blog I've complained about the poor quality of Vietnamese beer countless times. The mass-market stuff here is largely awful - bland, watered down and weak. It's made for rapid-fire drinking, not enjoyment. There are a few exceptions: a handful of 'German' breweries make their own beer, and while it's not amazing it is far better than Tiger or 333. Last year an expat-owned brewing company called Platinum started making beer, and it's good. There's also Fuzzy Logic, a very small-scale operation that you can occasionally find at Saigon Outcast.

Still, there wasn't anything like the craft beers I fell in love with when I was back in the U.S. last year. Then, a couple weeks ago, I heard about the Pasteur Street Brewing Company. An American team is behind this slice of heaven, and they've held their soft opening over the last two weekends. I went Friday night and was hugely impressed.

They had four original craft beers on offer, and for the first time in Vietnam I was looking at a beer menu that wouldn't look out of place in a hip American neighborhood. (They even had an IPA, but it had sold it out by the time I arrived.) The beers are brewed outside of Cu Chi and local ingredients are used - for example, coffee beans from Da Lat. We started off with a tasting flight to see which was best, and I didn't actually care for the first few sips. Then, I realized that's because it was real beer, something I haven't tasted since I left the States in August. The flavors are so much stronger than you usually get here, and it took some getting used to. Once I adjusted, though, I was in love. My personal favorite on the night was the coffee brown, but more flavors are being rotated daily.

 Even though this was a soft opening, the place was doing gangbusters. They ran out of all beer by 9:30. One thing that can unite all expats is disdain for the beer in Vietnam (even though many still guzzle it like it's their job), so Pasteur Street is filling a gaping hole with massive demand at the bottom. Just in case you don't believe me, when I showed up at 7 there were several barflys who had been drinking since they opened at 11am. With a grand opening set for later this month, I think it's safe to say this is already on its way to becoming a new institution in the Saigon drinking scene. The decor is tasteful, although the interior is a bit narrow, and there were great tunes played all night (a very rare thing here). Combine that with amazing beer and I expect to be making frequent visits to this place. I won't even complain about paying $5 for a pint - it's that good.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Vietnam Goes Gay

As of January 1, Vietnam abolished its ban on gay marriage, meaning the country has taken the lead in Southeast Asia (and indeed all of Asia) on gay rights. This doesn't mean same-sex marriage is completely recognized yet by the government, and there are no shared benefits or legal protection in case of disputes, but this is still an incredible move for a country with such a, shall we say, dubious record on other human rights issues.

The only country on the continent that recgonizes same-sex marriage is Israel, and while Vietnam isn't quite there, they have taken a huge step. This progressive move is especially stark when compared to other regional countries - Singapore recently re-affirmed its ban on same-sex marriage and the Philippines is considering one, while Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have strong anti-gay regulations. Even the tourist haven of Thailand hasn't been able to make any progress on gay rights. People in Vietnam do still exhibit anti-gay sentiments, but I've never heard of any serious homophobia here. Surely it exists, as it does everywhere, but what I've seen is more of the teenage-students-poking-fun-at-each-other variety than something more entrenched. All you have to do is notice the way many young Vietnamese men dress and act to see that 'gayness' isn't a very big deal here. (Of course I say this as a straight man, perhaps someone who is gay would have a different perspective.)

There is also the fact that Ted Osius, the well-received new American ambassador to Vietnam, is openly gay and married. It is hoped that his standing will show those who are reluctant to support gay rights that homosexuals are normal people who can be just as successful as heterosexuals.

There's a quote in a Bloomberg story about the issue that perfectly sums up why an officially single-party Communist state would make such a bold move: "The government doesn't have problems with equal marriage," Nguyen said. "It doesn't have to do with the political system. This is determined by public opinion."

This sentiment highlights how the government seems to be operating - when it comes to political issues the leadership is extremely touchy and restrictive (Vietnam has jailed more journalists than just anybody), but on certain social issues that even advanced countries like America still can't get around to, they have taken stunningly progressive steps. Officials don't think the country is ready for full legal recognition of same-sex marriage yet, but at this point it seems like it's only a matter of time. (And I can't help but think of how rich it would be for a country like Vietnam, which most Americans think of as a communist backwater, to get there before the U.S.)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Monday, January 5, 2015

Censored

Anything that is published in Vietnam has to be sent to a censor before it can be released, even publications written by foreigners. People seem surprised when I tell them this sometimes, but unfortunately it's true. We have to send each magazine issue through the censor before we can go to print.

Normally this is something of a formality, as we generally know what lines we can't cross. However, recently the line between what's allowed and what isn't has zig-zagged all over the place. While I was back in the U.S., AsiaLIFE published stories on abortion, drug use and sex shops, and a while back we did a cover story on being gay in Saigon. These all went through largely problem-free.

Last month I had a sentence removed in each of these stories because I referred to politicians (albiet in an abstract way). Annoying, but not a huge deal. Then, for this month's issue, I wrote a story about green space and the impact large infrastructure projects are having on it. This is a topic that has received extensive coverage in the Vietnamese press, and everyone can see with their own eyes what is going on with the construction downtown. Nonetheless the story was fully censored, meaning we couldn't run any of it and had to replace it with ads, leaving me furious. I knew the government was sensitive about this topic since I had considered writing about the subway system but was told no, but I wasn't expecting this. Apparently only the Vietnamese media is allowed to cover this, which makes absolutely no sense. It seems the censor expects people to beieve everything is just peachy even when there are clearly issues you can see for yourself in broad daylight.

One of my colleagues also had to rework much of his story about the aviation industry, which is growing rapidly while experiencing a growing number of safety issues. He was forced to basically write a press release for the industry instead of looking into the tradeoff between growth and safety. Once again this is an issue that has been reported on numerous times in the local press. I guess that's for Vietnamese eyes only. It's this sort of conservative, straight-jacketed type of thinking that will keep Vietnamese media from being taken seriously, as argued in this fascinating New York Times op-ed from the founder of Thanh Nien.    

Luckily I was able to freelance the story elsewhere, so you can read it here: http://thespeaker.co/destroy-rebuild-future-green-space-ho-chi-minh-city/. As you will see it's not even particularly controversial; in fact it's rather positive.

Here is my other story for the month, our cover: http://www.asialifemagazine.com/vietnam/digital-nomads/

Enjoy!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Happy New Year!

A belated Happy New Year to my readers! (All four of you.) There were tons of events to welcome 2015 held here, but along with a few friends I chose to avoid the simply apocalytpic traffic (it truly is impossible describe how awful traffic gets here on holidays - Abbe and I tried to take a short taxi ride around 9pm on NYE and it took 15 minutes to go half a block. The driver told us to just get out and walk) and watch the fireworks from the roof of my apartment complex. Not quite the same as being downtown, but a pretty good view nonetheless.
 I also received this lovely picture from the orphanage outside of Pleiku that H2H suports - if you'd like to donate to the cause please visit https://www.justgiving.com/Michael-Tatarski3/.
Anyway, on to 2015!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Christmas

Another Christmas in Saigon has come and gone. No matter how opulent and omnipresent the decorations get (and the shops and malls try to outdo the previous year every time), I will never get used to it being 85 degrees outside on Christmas morning. I took the 25th and 26th off from work and had the second half of the 24th free, which was a nice  break from the hectic schedule of late. After finishing up at the office Wednesday afternoon I met up with a few friends at The Manor's pool, a great way to start the holiday.
That evening Abbe took me to the A O Show at the Opera House. The performance was a great example of what talented Vietnamese crews can do when they aren't trying to create some hokey crap they think tourists will like. If you're in Saigon, definitely check it out! On the way home we got stuck in the impenetrable Christmas Eve traffic that occurs when 8 million people get out on their motorbikes to look at the lights.

Christmas day centered on the brunch buffet at the New World, where the staff managed to create a new butchering of my last name even though I emailed the reservation with the correct spelling.
The spread, though, was amazing. Sushi, dim sum, veggies, wheels of cheese, the usual sides, all kinds of meat and a mouth-watering dessert selection, all accompanied by endless champagne, eggnog and wine. The only disappointment was the bone-dry turkey, otherwise everything was great. By the time we left I thought I was going to explode, but at least I got my 1.8 million's worth. The rest of the day, obviously, was spent digesting all of that on the couch.
I shall call you the cavity table.

Anyway, a belated Merry Christmas to my readers - I hope you all had a great one!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

No Cars Go

Last Friday our photographer hosted the AsiaLIFE Christmas party at his apartment in District 2. I intended to take the tunnel home afterwards, but wasn't aware that it closes at 10pm. (I have no idea why this is.) As usual there was no signage indicating this on the road leading to the tunnel, so I didn't realize it was shut until I got to the toll booth and a cop was blocking the way.

Therefore I had to go through the undeveloped part of District 2 to get to one of the bridges over the river. I've been in this area numerous times during the day, but it is downright creepy at night. The neighborhood that used to exist here has been demolished, so there are no lights. Much of the road is gravel and it had rained earlier in the night, so I was splashing through mud all over the place. It's amazing how this pitch-black desolation sits right across the river from the bright lights of downtown. At one point I stopped for a pee and it was utterly silent. I couldn't even see where I was pissing it was so dark. I could've easily been in the middle of the jungle, not a couple miles from the center of a city with a population of over 10 million.
The only company I had was an occasional passing motorbike. This was a more interesting drive home than usual, that's for sure.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Sunday rides

Sunday mornings are my only free morning of the week, and instead of sleeping in I use them to get out for long cycles, usually solo but sometimes with a friend. I like riding on Sundays because it is the most quiet day in terms of traffic, and I generally don't have anything to do in the afternoon so I can take as long as I please. After taking a week off from exercise to heal from the motorbike accident I've been hitting the bike and gym hard, as I need to train for H2H and I also want to feel like I deserve the all-you-can-eat-and-drink bonanza that will be my Christmas Day brunch buffet at the New World Hotel.

I generally ride 60-70km on Sundays, although I'm hoping to push that closer 100km in the coming weeks. The hardest part about these rides isn't the distance, it's the heat. Even though it's late December it still gets pretty steamy by mid-day, and if you don't drink a lot you are screwed. My long rides always include climbing over the enormous Phu My bridge and back - far and away the biggest climb in the area. Going up is tough, but going down the other side is a thrill, and the views of the Saigon and Nha Be Rivers are amazing.

Cycling in Saigon can be frustrating at times, but there are some pretty great routes here too.

Here is yesterday's ride as mapped on Strava: http://www.strava.com/activities/231320247#_=_