Sunday, December 14, 2014

H2H 2013 film

I mentioned H2H in my last post, and it just so happens that the film of the 2013 ride is now available online. My friend Joe edited it (quite slowly, it would seem), and it came out pretty well, I think. Although it's a bit strange not seeing myself in it, as I filmed almost the entire thing. It's almost like watching the ride through my point of view. Anyway, enjoy!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Busy bee

This has been a very busy month so far, with an early deadline for the magazine thanks to Christmas and a big H2H fundraiser last night. We hosted our annual pub quiz and managed to raise an amazing 23.5 million ($1,100) for the five charities we support! The turnout was huge, with about 120 people packed into the Spotted Cow. For readers who don't know what H2H is, check out the tabs on the top of the page or visit here. I've also set up my personal fundraising page, and I'm aiming to raise $2,500, which I got close to when I rode in 2012 and 2013. If you'd like to make a donation (all of which go towards organizations that work to bring education and healthcare to underprivileged children in Vietnam), please visit Any amount helps, especially in a country where a few dollars can go a long way.

Meanwhile, we're supposed to get hit by the remnants of Typhoon Hagupit, which struck the Philippines last weekend, but right now the weather looks like this.
Guess we'll see what happens tonight.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Building an Island

I was last on Phu Quoc in February of 2012. I was expecting it to be a lot different, but the scale of change since then is breathtaking. For example: when I was there nearly three years ago, the international airport was under construction, while planes still used the tiny, single-runway strip right by the sea. Now, the big airport is open for business while the runway of the old facility has been turned into a road.

After a booking mishap thanks to terrible customer service (avoid B&B Guesthouse), Abbe and I ended up staying in a private bungalow at Mai Spa, a lovely place on Long Beach. The beach was 30 feet from our door, and we looked out onto the verdant garden in the middle of the property.

Perhaps the best part of the stay was THIS FREAKING CUTE PUPPY!
It's so fluffy I'm gonna die!
I'd like to take a second to fully endorse Winston's Burgers, where we had dinner Friday night. Run by an American from San Diego (I assume his name is Winston), this place serves up awesome burgers that could give any competitor in Saigon a run for its money, along with a hearty slice of classic rock from a computer behind the bar. If you're looking for something other than seafood to eat on Phu Quoc, don't miss Winston's.

We rented a motorbike after lunch on Saturday and headed south from Dong Duong on a smooth-as-silk road that hadn't existed last time I was here. Eventually we caught up to the construction of the road and had to detour to the old red dirt road right on the coast, which I remembered from my last trip. This stretch looked much the same, with miles of palm trees and empty, narrow beach, but there were signs of major changes on the way. Huge areas for Mercure and Intercontinental resorts were fenced off, with construction in the early stages. I imagine that dirt road will be paved before those properties open, meaning this stretch of coast won't look so rustic for much longer.

Phu Quoc is famous for its beaches, and I was looking forward to revisiting Bai Sao, on the southeastern side of the island. When I stumbled upon this beach with a couple of friends in 2012 we were stunned - it was almost completely empty, with perfect white sand and crystal-clear water. There was one small restaurant at the entrance to the beach, and that was it.

Now it looks like this.

People obviously have discovered the beach, as it was quite crowded. More depressing than that was the garbage strewn all over the place and general filthiness of the water. What had been paradise less than three years ago was now completely ruined. It's times like this that make me wonder what the real value of tourism is if humans destroy everything they find.

Thoroughly disappointed, we headed back to Long Beach on another huge new road, this time up the east side of the island. It seemed as if all of Phu Quoc was under construction.
Sunset on Long Beach. At least people can't fuck those up.
Sunday brought more exploring, as we cruised up to the northeast edge of the island on a stunning, deserted road that skirts the densely-forested national park. Eventually we reached Bai Thom village, where the pavement ended and red dirt took over again. A few miles on we came across Hon Mot, a tiny island accessible via footbridge. This was more like the stunning scenery we had hoped for at Bai Sao, with clear water stretching all the way to Cambodia, just a little ways north of the island.

The path that circles Hon Mot
With time running down towards our evening flight back to Saigon we hit the road again, this time towards Ganh Dau, a beach on the northwest side of Phu Quoc. After a quick stretch on the paved road we turned onto a 20km stretch of dirt running to the beach. It was rough at times, but as an experienced driver it wasn't much of a challenge.
With three kilometers to go we came over a small, curving rise, and right at the apex the right side of the road was washed out. I couldn't see it until we were right on it, and before I had time to react the front wheel of the bike slammed into the lip of the hole, sending us down on the right side. Abbe managed to come out almost unscathed, but I had ugly scrapes, cuts and road burn on my right ankle, calf, knee, hip, abdomen and elbow. The bike was a little worse for wear, but still running. A local stopped and indicated that we could wash up in town (meanwhile three western tourists drove by without even thinking of asking if we were OK), and after sprinkling water on our wounds we carried on.

A friend had recommended checking out the Peppercorn Resort in Ganh Dau, so I headed straight there. I was in serious pain, and it was obvious something was off with the bike mechanically. We entered the resort and the incredibly friendly owner offered to help as soon as he saw my condition. The setting was absolutely stunning, but as I limped into the ocean to wash my wounds more thoroughly all I could focus on was the searing pain. None of the damage was too deep, but this was the worst I had ever been hurt in a crash in over three years of driving in Vietnam. The staff then took out the first aid kit and treated and wrapped my injuries, going well above the call of duty for someone who wasn't even staying there. The owner, Cho, shared that he had grown up in Saigon and worked with the Australian military during the war. He got the hell out of dodge once the north won, only to return in 1990. He now lives in Australia for most of the year and spends a couple of months back here. His sister owns the resort, but he helps out as well. His concern for my well-being was genuine, and I was floored by the hospitality of the staff. The setting was gorgeous. Peppercorn Resort gets another strong recommendation in my book.

With the bike clearly damaged, Abbe shaken up and me limping, driving back to Dong Duong was out of the question. Mr. Cho called us a taxi and I informed our hotel that we would be returning without their bike. After a ride back down the island I was greeted with more kindness by the staff at Mai Spa, who also seemed quite worried about me and provided more first aid. If you're heading to Phu Quoc check this place out, it's especially great for couples.

A few hours later we were back in Saigon, and I was ruined. Overall this was a good trip, but it certainly had some ups and downs. The pace of development on Phu Quoc is incredible, even by Vietnam standards, and I'm worried it's just going to turn into Phuket, or some other ridiculously overdone island. For the sake of the relatively undiscovered places like Bai Thom and Ganh Dau we found, I hope that doesn't become the case.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Back in District 5

Over the weekend I moved in with a couple of friends in the apartment building I lived in last year, in District 5. I really like this area as it's stuffed with awesome food, and it's way more convenient to get around town than where I was in Binh Thanh. The view west from the 20th floor also means the return of these sunsets:

And the icing on the cake is that I'm now living in the same building as Abbe! It's good to be back.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Moving the General

There's been a theme of change in my posts since returning to Saigon, and there's good reason for that. In the 10 months I was gone a lot happened here, and within the last few months the pace of change has really (really!) picked up, with serious subway construction going on and the closure of Nguyen Hue to create a pedestrian-only boulevard. Soon dozens of trees will be cut down to clear space for another bridge over the river at the foot of Ton Duc Thang, further hastening the ongoing transformation of downtown Saigon.

One more highly visible change will be the removal of the iconic statue of General Tran Nguyen Han in front of Ben Thanh market, one of the city's most-visited spots. General Han helped Emperor Le Loi (whose eponymous street begins at the statue) repel three Mongol invasions and establish the Le Dynasty, which ruled from 1428 to 1788. The mounted general has presided over the huge roundabout in front of the market for decades, and can be seen in this photo I took over four years ago.
However, a huge subway station linking several lines is going to be built underneath this roundabout, radically altering the area, and the statue is in the process of being relocated to a park in District 6. Right now blue scaffolding surrounds the general, and it will be strange to see this empty space once the landmark is completely removed.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

How Quickly Things Change

Since I moved back to Saigon in August there's been an empty storefront on the main street I live near. It's rare to have an open space like this stay that way for long, so I was surprised when it went unfilled month after month. The other night when I went to dinner I noticed workers erecting scaffolding around the ground floor, and by the time I came home this signage was up:
'Sap khai truong' = opening soon
In a matter of hours this went from derelict empty space to future outlet of global fast food chain with no warning. This is also further evidence that the Western chains are expanding their reach well outside of the downtown core, unsurprising considering how willing young Vietnamese are to spend money on their food. I'm moving to District 5 this weekend so I won't be around when this Popeye's opens, but I'm going to make a not-so-bold prediction and guess it does quite well here in Binh Thanh.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mountain Escape

Last weekend I was lucky enough to go on another trip for AsiaLIFE, this time to the beautiful Ana Mandara Villas Resort in Da Lat. Fortunately this one wasn't a solo trip, as I went with Dana, our managing editor (and long-time friend of mine). We took the 'night' bus from Saigon, which actually arrives in Da Lat around 5am, leaving us with a few hours to kill before we could check in. The weather was a welcome relief from Saigon - the cool, fresh air up in the mountains of the Central Highlands was a delight, and I loved being able to wear a sweatshirt. (Also, not sweating constantly is quite nice.)

The resort sits atop its own hill and is absolutely gorgeous. Mustard-yellow villas are spread around the area, separated by footpaths and countless pine trees. (When the French ruled Vietnam they turned Da Lat into a retreat for the wealthy from Saigon, cutting down the native forests and replanting them with pine.)

We had two nights in one of the villa suites (which go for around $400 per night!), featuring a bedroom, bathroom and living room; wood flooring and two (functioning) fireplaces.
We used the fireplace in the living room both nights, as it got down into the 60s in the evening - which is absolutely frigid when you're used to Saigon, where it never gets below the upper-70s. (FYI, this wasn't some romantic getaway, the angle of the story was celebrating Christmas in Vietnam.)

The resort's restaurant.
We got one lunch and one dinner each, plus the amazing breakfast buffet.
As badly as we wanted to stay in our amazingly comfortable beds all day, there is a ton of stuff to do in the outdoors around Da Lat, so we hiked up Lang Biang mountain, which is just outside of town. It takes a couple of hours and is very manageable, although the last stretch goes up a series of very steep steps that leaves you winded.
Upon arrival at the summit it was very foggy, but it soon cleared and we were treated to fantastic views of the area.

The hike up had been overcast and a bit misty, but the trek back down the mountain was gorgeous, with brilliant sunshine keeping us warm and a brisk breeze whistling through the pines. I love living in Saigon, but you simply have to escape the concrete and get into the outdoors every now and then.

We also made a trip into the center of Da Lat, where the huge market offers a dizzying array of produce grown around the city. The country's strawberries and apples are grown in the area, as are green vegetables like lettuce and cabbage.
Most of the fresh flowers you find in Saigon are also grown in Da Lat.

After a refreshing smoothie on the lake we returned to the resort, and in a depressingly short amount of time we had to board another bus for the bumpy ride back to Saigon. I'd give an arm and a leg to have a couple of months' worth of weather like that.

Monday, November 10, 2014


First off, the good news: the rainy season has FINALLY ended! All praise to the weather gods! (This means that everyone will now switch from bitching about the rain to bitching about the heat.) Thanks to the dry weather I'm finally having some productive afternoons. On Saturday I drove over to the Thu Thiem peninsula in District 2. (I've written about this area before, here and here.) The authorities plan to turn this area into another downtown, an incredibly ambitious plan given its current state. When I moved here in 2010 there was a community in Thu Thiem, but almost all of it has been torn down to make way for future construction. While the future of the area is unclear, for now it provides the best juxtaposition of urban and rural scenery in all of Saigon: the heavily developed central districts on one side of the river, overgrown fields (and even water buffalo) on the other side.

I shot a roll of film on the 35mm camera I came back to Saigon with as well, and I'm hoping I can get some pictures online once I get it developed. Hopefully I didn't screw things up too badly.

One strange thing I noticed was that the river seemed extremely high. There used to be a motorbike path where I took the below picture, but now it's almost completely covered by water. I'm not sure if this was just a high tide, or a sign of bigger problems in the future. It hasn't rained in four days.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A City of Contrasts

I've written in the past about the jarring contrasts evident in a city flooded with money that still sits inside a developing country. Saigon is home to countless luxury hotels and high-end restaurants, Ferraris and boutiques like Prada and Chanel. It is also home to a huge number of urban poor who eke out an existence on the margins of society: selling lottery tickets, collecting garbage, living in tin shacks along polluted canals. Even after over three years here I'm still occasionally blown away by an image: an old woman shitting in a storm drain in front of the Sheraton; a woman with no legs crawling along a sidewalk outside a dim sum restaurant while tables full of the young rich dine next to their Audis.

The other night I had dinner at a grilled chicken place on a cramped street in Binh Thanh district. While not the most shocking contrast, the scene was illustrative of what I'm talking about: my table sat next to a sewing machine cart, while the super-expensive City Garden apartments buildings lorded over the whole area. I wondered what the people looking down on the neighborhood thought, and what the vendors who are just scraping buy think when they look up at the blue lights atop the towers.