Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Revisiting Hoi An (again)

Last week I went up to Central Vietnam with two friends, Thinh and Jacqui, and we spent three nights in Hoi An. It was my third time visiting the town, but neither of my friends had never been, and I've always enjoyed that part of the country. I've covered Hoi An in previous posts so I'll just go over the basics: the Old Town is as beautiful as ever, but it has definitely gotten more crowded. There are more hotels, more people, more restaurants, and more shops catering to visitors than the last time I was there a couple of years ago. You also have to pay VND120,000 ($6) to enter the Old Town; the result of a controversial measure passed earlier this year. They haven't quite gotten the ticketing system down though - you only have to pay once during your stay, and every time we walked past a ticket booth afterwards, the attendants just asked if we had tickets instead of actually checking. I guess they trust visitors?



As always there was a ton of great food to be eaten; but one of the saddest moments was when I brought Thinh and Jacqui to a hole-in-the-wall place I discovered on my first trip to Hoi An in 2011. They had served amazing food, but this time I had trouble finding it, even though I remembered the street. I finally realized it had been converted into just another shop selling cliche t-shirts and useless touristy crap. Surely at some point Hoi An is going to be over-saturated with stores offering the exact same shit? Below is one of the best (and cheapest) things we had - grilled pork skewers that you wrapped in rice paper with veggies and peanut sauce. We crushed this place twice.
A highlight of our time in Hoi An was the day we went to the beach. We rented bicycles and pedaled the 6km to the main beach, but it looked a bit crowded so we turned right and headed down the coast road, hoping to find something quieter. We ended up at a dock, not exactly an ideal place to swim. Dejected, we turned around to head back to the main beach. A local spotted us, made a swimming motion, and then pointed down a dirt path next to an abandoned resort. We rode a couple hundred feet and then came upon perfection: a completely deserted beach. There wasn't a soul in sight, the water was clear, and there was a huge sandbar out in the water. The sun was shining, there was a lovely breeze, and we suddenly had our own private beach.


A great afternoon was had by all, with the low point coming when I badly sprained my left ankle after caving to peer pressure and cannonballing from the sand bar into the water.

The following day we motorbiked out to the My Son ruins, which sit in the countryside about an hour outside Hoi An. I've been there before as well, but it's a beautiful drive, and I always enjoy visiting historical sites. Read the second half of this for more on the ruins. Unsurprisingly, they hadn't changed since I was last there, although I had forgotten how many overgrown bomb craters litter the area. (It was bombed heavily by the American military during the war.)


The scenery between Hoi An and My Son is gorgeous:
As was this sunrise Thinh and I woke up early one day to watch:
After a thoroughly enjoyable several days in Hoi An we took a taxi to Da Nang, where we rented motos and headed north for the Hai Van Pass.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why I Moved Back to Vietnam

This is a question I've been asked repeatedly over the past few days, and in many ways the answer is much simpler than the inverse, or why I left Vietnam last year.

When I moved back to New Orleans last October, I had no intention of staying for good. I still wanted to live abroad, but I thought I was done with Vietnam. Eventually I decided that I would've stayed in the U.S. if a good job opportunity had presented itself, but none did. (There was the possibility of working on a senator's re-election campaign, but that reality took far longer than expected to flesh out, and by the time they seemed ready for me I had already booked my flight out.) It's a real shame that there is a distinct dichotomy in America between people who enter the rat race right out of college and people who decide to do something different. My college friends all have steady jobs that they are well compensated for, and I'm often envious of their financial stability. Meanwhile, they are jealous of all the cool shit I've done overseas. There seems to be no middle ground, it's either stay home and build your network or cut all ties and get on a plane.

I briefly looked into working in another country, primarily South Korea or Japan, but in June I realized the easiest thing to do would be to go back to Saigon. As if to confirm this feeling, I had two promising job leads after just a few weeks of looking, in comparison to months of (admittedly half-assed) hunting in the states. Unless you're in a hard-science field or a lawyer, it's probably easier for someone in their 20's to find work overseas than in America.

Ultimately, the main reason I wanted to go back to Vietnam was boredom. I realize that saying I was bored in New Orleans, one of the most vibrant cities in the U.S., seems stupid, but bear with me. To be sure, I had some absolutely great times back home: I saw family and college friends in Pittsburgh (twice); thoroughly explored New York City; went to California for the first time; had a hilariously drunk Mardi Gras; ate loads of amazing food; saw a lot of fantastic live music (Arcade Fire, Jack White, Dr. Dog, Mogwai, The Dear Hunter, The Killers, etc.); and made some wonderful new friends, but I missed the lifestyle of being an expat, especially in Saigon.

I always had a hard time explaining this to people, since almost no one equates Vietnam with being a great place to live. The simplest explanation I could give is that there is so much freedom here. Yes, this is a strange thing to say about a city located in a country run by an authoritarian Communist government, but expats (particularly those from western countries), for better or worse, sit somewhat removed from the bureaucracy of living here. We can arrive at the airport, apply for a three-month visa with every intention of just getting another without leaving the country, work without a work permit, rent a motorbike without a license, and move into a house immediately without signing any paperwork. (It's not always quite that simple, but that's exactly what I've done since arriving on Thursday.)

There is also a much greater sense of optimism in Vietnam; a feeling that the future can still be bright. The U.S. has become depressingly cynical and close-minded; the political climate is sickening and ignorance seems to be celebrated in some quarters. (Again, I'm fully cognizant of the irony of writing this from a single-party state where dissent is swiftly suppressed, but people here learn to work their way around the government instead of just complaining and yelling at the TV all the time.) I hope that my generation of Americans can change this, but it will take time.

Anyway, I'm digressing. I moved back to Vietnam for more excitement, more cultural immersion, more travel, and more opportunity. When I arrived here in 2010 I knew nobody and nothing, and ended up carving out a pretty good life for myself. Instead of looking at my decision to leave last year as a mistake, I'm choosing to consider how much I should be able to accomplish this time around, with a solid network of friends and connections and a healthy knowledge of the country. I don't know how long I'll be here this time, but I'm looking forward to whatever is coming my way.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Returning

After nearly 10 months away, I'm living in Saigon again. A post about why this happened is forthcoming, but I haven't had time to spend much time in front of the computer yet. Since arriving late Thursday night I have quickly inserted myself back into the old routine: tons of street food, a visit to my usual spa, plenty of beer, etc. It's been extremely easy to pick things up where they left off with my friends; at certain points it has felt like I never left. The same banter and wide-ranging conversations are there - for example on Friday I went to an American-style BBQ restaurant with several pals and we ended up having a lengthy, beer-fueled discussion on the validity of suicide as a way to combat depression. Afterwards I went to another friend's house where the Vietnamese government and its relationship with China was a common theme. In other words, it's been a great few days.

Of course the journey over here was a marathon, as always. The trans-Pacific flight was its usual Twilight Zone-esque self, where you can leave America on Wednesday morning and arrive in Japan mid-day Thursday without it ever getting dark, as the plane chased the sun west the entire time. That long flight actually wasn't too bad, as I had an empty seat next to me, although the fact that United was charging $7.99 for beer was ludicrous. To pass the time I employed my time-tested program of watching as many movies as possible, occasionally dozing off and having to rewind. This time I enjoyed the Grand Budapest Hotel, the Lego Movie, Korengal, American Hustle, and an episode of Louie.

I should have been exhausted by the time I made it to my house in Saigon, but I was so excited to be back I immediately went for food and then played some pool. I'm still adjusting to the time and have been waking up far earlier than I would prefer, but I expect that to end in the next few days. I'm back on a motorbike already, a skill that had not faded in my time away. There have been huge changes to Saigon since I left, but much is the same - the same sounds and traffic; meat grilling in front of open-front restaurants; fresh fruit and vegetables spilling out of markets; people everywhere; the heat and rain. I can't wait to see what this new stint in Vietnam brings.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Oops

Ok, one last really final post. I had some technical difficulties with the first Tumblr page I set up, so here is the new one: http://miketatarski.tumblr.com/. It's the same URL, but if you had already followed the old one you'll need to re-follow this. Hope you enjoy!

Now bye for good.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Signing off

I've made the big decision to put this blog into retirement, as the name is no longer appropriate to where I am. Fear not, though, as I'm still going to write, except I'm switching to a new platform - Tumblr. Follow the link to the new page and find out what you can expect from it: http://miketatarski.tumblr.com/

I'd like to take this final chance to thank everyone who read this - from those who frequently commented, to the silent types who I know enjoyed it as well. When I began this thing over three years ago I never expected it to get anywhere near this popular. I thought the only readers would be my parents and maybe a few family members or close friends, but I've been contacted by people from all over the world. Of course, it helped that I had an amazing city and country to write about. I am very grateful that so many responded well to what I had to say. I hope that continues in the future. Cheers, ya'll.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Road trip!

Time for the first major American travel I've done in years.
I doubt this drive will be as eventful as the motorbiking in Ha Giang I did a couple of months ago, but the great thing about road trips is that something unexpected always happens. Really looking forward to this one.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Transitioning

Today was my most productive day since returning to the U.S. last Thursday evening. I opened a bank account, joined a gym, and got my bicycle (which I flew back with me) into riding condition. Prior to this I had accomplished practically nothing. I'm still in a bit of a daze from leaving Saigon - saying goodbye to some of the most important people in my life and giving up that lifestyle, followed immediately by the mind-bending odyssey that is trans-Pacific travel, left me in a weak state. Plus I barely slept during my madcap last week in Saigon, during which I spent just one out of the final seven nights in my own bed (not necessarily for the reason you're thinking of, there were several all-nighters thrown in). I haven't felt like doing anything social, and for the most part I've kept to myself, listening to music and binging on episodes of "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" to get my travel fix vicariously.

The other day I watched "Lost in Translation" for the first time, which was a terrible idea. It's a great movie, but the isolation and discomfort the characters played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson experience in Tokyo mirror my feelings towards being back in the U.S. It was an unpleasant reminder that I'm caught between two worlds. I had gotten used to living in Vietnam, but everyone expects that, as an American, I will just end up staying here for good. My last three years were an experience that no one here understands. I ordered a beer at a restaurant the other day and the waitress asked for my driver's license. I joked that I hadn't needed it in a while since I had been living abroad, where it is useless, and she scoffed at me. I ran into a neighbor who wondered if living in Vietnam had been "scary". (Mind you, she is elderly and there is no reason the average American would need to know that the country has moved way past the war, but still...) I still want to talk about traveling, where the best places to eat in District 10 are, etc., but here the hot topics are politics (vomit) and the weekend obsessions of college football and the NFL. I still enjoy American sports, but I've been disconnected from them for so long that I have a hard time staying interested for a whole game. I don't mean to sound like I'm hating on Americans, but leaving the melting pot that is any expat community and re-entering the relative homogeneity of a mid-size city is tough. How am I supposed to make fun of British English if there aren't any Brits around?!

Fortunately the food has been amazing. New Orleans is one of the best places in America (or the world) to eat, and I've been taking full advantage of that. Having a fully-stocked kitchen is great as well, I enjoy cooking but didn't have the equipment in Vietnam. (And why would I cook when I could walk down the street and get an amazing meal for $2?) The fall weather is also fantastic; as much as I love Saigon the 365-day heat was tiring. Access to helpful customer service in fluent English is great. The people who helped me out at the bank and gym today were affable and knowledgeable, there was no need for miming and no wondering if they understood my dumbed-down questions.

There are obviously some things that have taken some getting used to. A few times I've forgotten that we have a dishwasher, as I'm used to doing that by hand. Every time I cross a one-way street I still constantly look both ways, since traffic in Saigon can come from any direction at any time. Cost of living is an obvious difference. I'm going on a whirlwind road trip from Las Vegas to LA and San Francisco starting Friday, and the other day I booked a night at a hostel (bunk bed ftw!) in Santa Barbara for $34 a night. $34!!!!!! That's easily a night at a 3-star hotel in Vietnam. On that topic, this six-day trip is going to be considerably more expensive than the 3.5 week journey through Ha Giang and Myanmar I took a couple of months ago. Oi.

Perhaps the hardest part of being back so far, though, is the expectation of everyone that I have all of my next moves figured out. I've been asked "so, what are you doing now?" roughly 5,236 times. (Second on that list is "so you're back for good?") I have to explain that well, I've only been back a few days and am just getting over my jet lag, and I really have no idea what I'm doing anyway. I want to continue writing, and I want to move back abroad, preferably Asia, but that's pretty much all I know. One reason I have trouble connecting with people here at times is that so many people have their next five-ten years planned out - job, wife, house, dog, kids, etc. - while I can't even say what I'll be doing in five months. That was the great thing about my group of friends in Saigon - we were all playing things by ear, enjoying the moment. Perhaps not the most financially logical way to live, but it's a lot of fun. That line of thinking doesn't jive with the prescribed American life though, where everyone is supposed to graduate from college and work in an office for 40 years while raising 2.2 kids behind a white picket fence. Occasionally I do envy the stability of that lifestyle, but then I remember that time I watched the sun rise at the southern tip of India or ate jackfruit in the simple home of an old man in Myanmar while he talked about the past. I just want more of that. I guess that's what I need to figure out during this transition period: how do I keep having experiences like that while making enough money to pay off my college loans? That is the challenge.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Final Shots

I'm down to my final 12 hours in Saigon. The past few days have been an emotional rollercoaster that I won't be able to process until I spend some quiet time back in New Orleans. I've been too busy to compose much recently, but I've been meaning to take more pictures of the city for a while. I had a long mental list of areas I wanted to shoot, but I simply ran out of time. I had to do a bunch of running around today and yesterday, so I brought my camera along and got what I could. The weather this morning was beautiful, but by afternoon horrendous downpours had moved in, making my final motorbike drive a soaking wet, miserable one. Fitting for the monsoon season, I suppose.

This city has changed an incredible amount in the three years I've lived here, and will only keep changing as time moves on. Some of these pictures depict iconic locations, others mundane neighborhoods, and the rest areas that are in the middle of changing. I don't doubt that all of these viewpoints will look different whenever I make it back for a visit.

goat feast


















Don't de-bookmark this page yet, either. I still have Vietnam content I'd like to post once I get back to the U.S., and I'm going to share some stuff from America as well. Once I (hopefully) move back abroad in a few months I'll start up a new, name-appropriate blog depending on the city and country. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Down to the Bitter End

I'm down to one week left in Vietnam, and I've been fully embracing the lifestyle of a degenerate since returning from my bike ride last Wednesday. Hence the intermittent blog posts. I'm done working so I don't have any daily responsibilities, though I have tried to keep my gym routine up...with mixed results. In the past five days I've stayed out until the sun came up twice. In a way I guess I'm getting all of this out of my system while I still can - I have a lot of freedom here, as all I have to care about is my own personal welfare. Once I return home next week I'll have to be more mature, and obviously I can't afford nights like that in the U.S. anyway. A couple of weeks ago I felt fine about leaving, but now I want to stay. A sticky family situation awaits, and a few times recently I've nearly broken down crying over seemingly minor things...and I'm not a crier. Fortunately I have a packed social schedule over the next seven days, so that will help keep my mind occupied. Hopefully I won't burn the candle at both ends too hard. (Though the enforced mourning period for the death of General Giap this Saturday and Sunday has ruined some plans. It's funny that the government has chosen to honor his passing by canceling all entertainment events, as usually a death here is followed by three days of karaoke and loud music played through the night, no matter how annoyed the neighbors are.)

One good thing is that I feel like I haven't missed much in Vietnam, or Saigon. People keep asking if there's anything I feel like I have to do before I leave, and honestly the answer is no. I'm going to eat a lot of cheap Vietnamese food (and Instagram a lot of it) and hang out with the people I need to hang out with, but I've been to just about everywhere I wanted to go (though some more time in the northwest would be great), and I've explored Saigon to a far greater extent than most people I know. I've traveled to something like 25 of the country's 58 provinces and 44 towns or cities. Not too shabby. Still, that doesn't mean it will be any easier to leave.

To finish this post on a more positive note, check out this amazing time-lapse video shot in Saigon.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mission (mostly) Accomplished

I've been back in Saigon after completing my bike ride since Wednesday, dreading the fact that I'm now leaving Vietnam in less than two weeks. The trip was amazing, as well as one of the most physically challenging things I've ever done. Here's a rundown of what happened.

I flew up to Buon Me Thuot, in the Central Highlands, with my friend Andrea last Friday afternoon. Things got off to an inauspicious start when her wallet was stolen from right under our noses while eating dinner at a restaurant. I was nervous as we prepared to set off on Saturday morning for the 50km ride to Lien Son. A quick reminder of why I was doing this: both times I did the H2H ride, I pulled both quads right outside BMT, leaving me unable to complete the last five days of cycling. Even though I'm in fantastic shape I was anxious, but once we passed the spots where I had came up lame in the past I calmed down. The riding was easy, and things went smoothly with the exception of Andrea getting simultaneous flats on both wheels an hour into the ride.

I was carrying the majority of our stuff in two panniers attached to a rack on the back of my bike. With only 12 gears my bike is not made for this, and I was definitely slower than usual. Still, the relatively flat terrain wasn't much of a problem, and the last 10km into Lien Son were great, with a fast downhill leading to a quiet road snaking between rice paddies.
All pictures were taken with my phone, hence the lower quality.


There were two elephants marching down the main road through town as we arrived.
We spent the rest of the day in a family-run restaurant, drinking beer, playing Monopoly Deal, and goofing off with the adorable toddler named Dung who lived there. He didn't want us to leave, and we didn't really want to either.

The next morning was overcast and misty. This was going to be a much more difficult day - 110km to Lam Ha, with three significant climbs along the way. Fortunately the weather improved rapidly once we set off, and it turned out to be a beautiful day with gorgeous scenery. We made good progress, though the hills were rough with the bags on my bike. The first two weren't terrible, however, but by the time we hit the third I was exhausted and felt a cold coming on, as the temperatures were cooler high up on the plateau of the highlands. The final climb seemed never-ending, and by the time we finally started descending into Lam Ha it was almost dark. The sun set shortly after we checked into our hotel, and I was shattered. I now had a sense of just how insane doing this with panniers on my shitty bike was - everything was sore, and even though I was starving I was almost too tired to eat.
I slept like the dead and felt better physically the next day, though I had definitely caught a cold. I'm so used to the 365-day heat in Saigon that I forgot they actually have seasons in other parts of the country, and all I had brought with were t-shirts and shorts. The third day of the ride was 105km to Bao Loc. The weather was perfect, and we were getting some serious tans going. The main problem was a nasty headwind that kicked in a few times, but for the most part the riding was fine. I took my time in the lowest gear on hills (none of which were even close to as big as the previous day), and rolled into town feeling fine. Bao Loc is actually a pretty nice town, with a lake behind the hotel we were staying in. We went down there to play some more Monopoly Deal, and as usual attracted attention from locals. One guy sat down next to me and we started talking in Vietnamese, but I couldn't understand everything he was saying. Eventually he scolded me for not being able to understand him even though I've lived here for over three years. He said he could understand everything I was saying, why couldn't I do the same? I protested that Vietnamese is really hard, and by expat standards I'm pretty damn good at it, and eventually he ambled off. Then a tweaking junkie squatted next to us and started begging for food, money or beer. We immediately left the area. Buzzkill.

Bao Loc is also home to an excellent bo kho restaurant with an unintentionally hilarious name.
The penultimate day was a 70km jaunt to Dinh Quan. We blew through a significant portion thanks to the massive downhill that drops you out of the Central Highlands into the deep south, but progress slowed once we entered Dong Nai Province, where the highway we were on is in absolutely awful condition. Huge stretches of pavement had been removed, even though there was no construction machinery in sight. It was hot, and even though there weren't any significant hills I was tired from pulling the panniers along. We arrived in Dinh Quan, which is little more than a rest stop on QL20, filthy from the dirt and grime of the shitty road. There was one day of riding left, and I was feeling excited about finally getting my revenge on this stretch of road and triumphantly entering Saigon on a bicycle.

The weather the previous four days had been perfect, and we were hoping for more of the same for the final 110km into Saigon. Sadly, this was not to be. A couple of hours after setting off, while still on QL20, the skies opened up. Our panniers were waterproof, but it was raining so hard I couldn't see very well, and once a few 18-wheelers plowed by while sending a tidal wave of floodwater over me I decided it was time to pull over. The storm passed, and we set off again into a comedy of traffic, potholes masked as lakes, and badly paved road surface. Somehow we made it to the junction with Highway 1, which leads into Saigon, without getting a single flat on the horrid road.

As the main artery leading into Vietnam's biggest city Highway 1 is always packed with every kind of vehicle imaginable. Luckily there is a lot of space for bikes on the right shoulder, and things were fine for a while. Then, two more downpours hit, forcing us to wait them out at drink or food stalls. We were badly behind schedule now, and as we neared Bien Hoa (30km away from Saigon) the traffic became extremely dangerous. Huge tour buses were passing other huge tour buses, leaving mere inches between us as they screamed by. Dump trucks simply cruised down the bike lane without a care in the world. SUVs pulled out of businesses on the right side into the traffic lanes without even looking, and the general disregard for human life was simply incomprehensible. Andrea and I were furious, but every time we flipped off a driver and screamed "motherfucker!" they simply smiled and waved. Few things are more infuriating than somebody not registering your anger. I've spent a lot of time on bad roads in horrible traffic here, but this was probably the most harrowing stretch of riding I've been through. One tiny mistake by either us or a bus driver would have meant instant death, or at least serious injury. Yet we were the only people who seemed to care.

With just 15km to go the sky became frighteningly dark, and a monstrous downpour opened up. We stopped at a drink stall, hoping it would end after 30 minutes like the others. An hour later, it was showing no sign of abating. The road was turning into a river, and the stall was even starting to flood. Buses and trucks were still bombing down the road, honking wildly. It was late afternoon, and with friends in Saigon saying it was pouring there as well we made the decision to just call a taxi and have him drive us home. Cycling any further would have been asking for death. I was crushed to have come so close, only to have to pile into a taxi soaked and angered. Once I got home and cleaned up, though, I was proud of what we had done. I had come as close as possible to finally completing those last five H2H days, this is just the wrong time of the year to expect good weather for several days in a row. Physically this was extremely tough, but I did it, and no worse for wear in the end. Any bike expert would probably call me an idiot for riding a route like this on my bike with the equivalent of a small human strapped to the frame, but I know what I'm capable of. Yes, the apocalyptic rain ruined the ending and blew up our plans to have friends greet us at the gate of the Reunification Palace, but that's part and parcel of living in southern Vietnam during the monsoon season. I'm glad we gave it a shot, and I can't wait to get back on the bike.