Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Make Way for the Subway

The most-discussed project in Saigon in recent years has been the subway system. First proposed in 2001, on paper it has grown to a proposed six lines. Considering how common it is for construction projects to take forever to come to fruition here, many were skeptical that the subway would ever become reality. A couple of years ago, though, work began on the above-ground stretch of the first line, which will run from Suoi Tien park east of the city to Ben Thanh market in central District 1. Now, a line of concrete pillars runs for several kilometers along Highway 1 into Binh Thanh District, and a bridge is being built over the river.

Once this work began it became clear that the subway was actually going to happen, although I have a hard time believing the line will open on target in 2017. A few months ago, progress on the system became impossible to ignore, when the intersection of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi streets, one of the prettiest in town, was fenced off. Dozens of trees were removed, and the small parks (including a large statue of Ho Chi Minh) in front of the Opera House and City Hall were demolished. A giant eraser had been taken to one of the most prominent pieces of real estate in the whole city.

This was all done for the subway, as a huge underground station will be built underneath this once-bustling intersection. Traffic in this area is now a nightmare. Saigon's Christmas and Tet decorations were always centered here, and I'm curious to see what will be done as the holiday season approaches. Up until last week I hadn't been able to see what was actually going on behind the blue fence, but while at the Tax Center for the previous post I realized a cafe on the third floor overlooked the intersection. There is obviously a long way to go on the project, and it was jarring to see giant puddles of dirty rainwater where fountains and trees used to stand.
Looking down Le Loi to the Opera House
The old park in front of the Opera House (courtesy of Google)

Looking up Nguyen Hue to City Hall
The former park and since-removed Ho Chi Minh statue (courtesy of Google)
With further plans to completely change the roundabout in front of iconic Ben Thanh market for another underground station, the subway will arguably be the most dramatic transformation of Saigon ever. There is still the question of how many people will actually use the thing when it's finished; and of how well it will hold up, considering Saigon is essentially a swamp that climate change will render even wetter, but I'm all for the project if it eases the ridiculous traffic and provides a real form of public transportation. We'll see what happens in the coming years.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Another One Bites the Dust

It seems like every week another historic building in Saigon is slated to be torn down. I've lost track of the old structures that have been demolished in my time here, and they are inevitably replaced with modern glass and steel towers, many of which have little character.

The latest landmark to face the proverbial wrecking ball is the Saigon Tax Center, the 90 year-old department store located on the corner of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi, which closed permanently yesterday. While the building's modern facade is nothing to write home about (especially towards the end of the year, when the windows are filled with garish Christmas decorations), it has a storied history. (Thanks to the construction of the city's first subway line it is impossible to get a view of the front of the building, so here's one from Google.)

When it opened in 1924, the building was called the Grands Magasins Charner, and it quickly came to be regarded as the finest department store in Indochina, fitting, as Saigon was the crown jewel of the French colony. According to historical accounts, it was the place to shop in the city, and apparently would've been at home in Paris. 

It underwent a number of facelifts (hard to call them improvements, though) and name changes over the years, in line with the dramatic changes the city experienced over the decades. Before closing, it was home to a supermarket, as well as four floors of watches, jewelry, clothing, electronics, and touristy knick-knacks. 

A couple of months ago it was announced that the Tax Center would close at the end of September, and torn down next year to make way for part of a subway station (which I'll discuss in another post) and a skyscraper. Then, yesterday morning, the owners of the buildings suddenly announced that it would actually close at 2pm that day. Vendors had been packing up goods and selling off items at bargain prices for weeks, but now they were completely out of time. I put off a trip to the gym amd hustled over after finishing work at 1 to see what was going on. Since I hadn't expected this to happen so soon I only had my iPhone on me, hence the pictures aren't that great. 

One part of the building that retained the beauty of its glory days is the main entrance.
The rest of the building gave off an eerie, (nearly) post-apocalyptic vibe. The shelves at the supermarket were bare, as were the majority of the electronics and jewelry cases. Some areas were completely deserted, while others were full of workers hurrying to pack up goods to be brought elsewhere. At times I felt like I was in 28 Days Later.






On the clothing floor people swarmed in a feeding frenzy around piles of heavily discounted shirts and shorts.
A lot of people were doing the same thing as me: wandering around taking pictures, remembering one more building with a proud past that will disappear as Saigon marches on towards whatever definition of modernity its leaders aspire to. The big losers in this story are the vendors, as rent in the Tax Center was much cheaper than at other downtown department stores. The developers have offered space at other markets, but way out in Districts 8 and 10, nowhere near their customer base of tourists. It seems they will be another group steamrolled by the tide of development. I'm not saying development isn't necessary, but it certainly hurts people along the way. Farewell, Saigon Tax Center.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Buy-one-get-one oddities

As annoying as they can be, Vietnamese supermarkets are home to one very amusing thing: the bizarre, idiosyncratic products that are included in buy-one-get-one offers. In most countries, such offers consist of two of the same item. Here, however, you can buy mouthwash and get a tupperware container!
My favorite story related to strange BOGO offers comes from a friend who used to live here - she once bought a cell phone from an electronics shop and received a free frying pan. (I guess supermarkets aren't the only businesses that get in on the game.)

This raises the question of how exactly these disparate products are selected to be paired up. I imagine there is a secret room in the back of every store where a truck unloads its goods, the staff goes crazy throwing everything into a mixed pile, and then they pull out things at random and put them on the shelves together. Sounds like fun.

Monday, September 22, 2014

I'm still here

I know, I know, I've been neglecting my blogging responsibilities. Blame it on a combination of busy/lazy/binge watching episodes of Louie. I'll have a couple of posts up this week, in the meantime I offer you this video I made using Instagram's Hyperlapse app while on the Cat Lai ferry yesterday.

(I recommend watching in full screen.)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Blasting Back to Da Nang

After a typically fun night out in Hue, we decided to get up early for our drive back to Da Nang in order to avoid the afternoon storms. Since Thinh and Jacqui hadn't been to the city before, we did a bit of drive-by sightseeing around the Citadel, the complex from which the Nguyen dynasty ruled Vietnam.

 With that done we headed back south on Highway 1, hoping to avoid another hellish day of driving. Fortunately the weather was perfect, and once we cleared Hue's sprawl the traffic thinned, allowing us to simply scream down the highway. This was some of the fastest driving I've done here - at times we were hitting 80kph (50mph), which feels like warp speed when you're used to driving in Saigon, where traffic rarely moves faster than 30 or 40kph. It seemed like almost nobody else was going south, and we blew past the few trucks in our way like they weren't even moving. Of course, in the back of my head I was thinking of how horrific an accident would have been at that speed - any distraction, from a chicken on the road to a wobbly kid on a bicycle - could have led to certain death.

The scenery, however, kept me focused. This was the first time I was seeing the mountains between Da Nang and Hue in dry weather, and they were gorgeous. A line of green peaks stretched along the highway to the west, while lush rice paddies fanned out to the East Sea on the left.

 The kilometers fell away in the blink of an eye, and we carved up the two smaller passes that eventually lead to Hai Van.
 We reached Da Nang just two hours after leaving Hue, a trip that had been more than twice as long the previous day. We threw a football around on the beach with Hai Van in the background, and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in Da Nang before our flight back to Saigon.

Da Nang's skyline along the Han River
I've always enjoyed visiting central Vietnam, and this trip was no different. It's hard to go wrong with Hoi An's history and food; Da Nang's beaches, mountains, and wide open roads; and Hue's landmarks and surprisingly lively nightlife. It was now time to get back into the swing of things in Saigon.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Rain Drive

Back in the U.S., I always defended Vietnam whenever someone made a crass dog meat joke or some other stereotypical comment. I would argue that most people have little interest in eating dog, and you don't see it very often. If you don't know Vietnamese it would actually be very difficult to find any trace of a dog meat industry here - the restaurants serving such dishes don't advertise in English. As much as I would like to think that the popularity of dog meat is fading, there is no doubt that a fair number of people still demand it.

There was a truck stop at the bottom of the Hai Van pass, and as I approached it I noticed two trucks - one to the left of the road, the other on the right. I saw that the right truck was full of live pigs and thought nothing of it. Then I looked left and was horrified: dozens of terrified, yelping dogs were packed into stacks of crates on the bed of the truck. There isn't any logic in seeing one type of animal being treated terribly and not reacting; only to react viscerally at the sight of another, but that's just how it is. I've seen dead dogs being butchered before, but seeing this many live ones - and they clearly knew what their fate was - was extremely difficult. A few minutes later, while eating lunch at an open-front eatery in Lang Co, the truck drove past on its way north. The dogs were still howling. I lost the rest of my appetite.

-

After lunch we mounted our bikes for the final 60-ish kilometers to Hue. It was a straight shot up Highway 1, and we thought it would take no more than an hour or so. However, shortly afterwards a light rain began. We weren't prepared for wet weather (all I had was a rain jacket), and we hoped it would pass. However, the sky was darkening in every direction. Heavy rain began a few minutes later so we pulled into a cafe. The highway was in the process of being expanded and there was no shoulder; the prospect of dealing with psychotic bus and truck drivers in pounding rain with no room for error wasn't a pleasant one. The rain slacked off a bit later, so we carried on.

It didn't take long, though, for the intense downpours to resume. We took shelter under a shack and considered our options: Hue wasn't far off, but in weather like this it would take much longer than anticipated. Da Nang was even further away, and there was nowhere nearby to wait things out. Plus, it didn't look like the deluge would be stopping anytime soon. This is where the difference between weather in the north and south is most noticeable: it rains a lot down south, but the storms are usually short and intense; no more than an hour or two. Up north it can rain (or at least drizzle) for days on end. The only real option was to do our best to protect our electronics and passports and continue on the road to Hue.

The ensuing 50km to the city became one of the most miserable experiences of my time in Vietnam. The rain didn't let up for a single second. I could barely even keep my eyes open with the heavy raindrops blasting them, so I eventually decided to put my sunglasses on, choosing poor visibility over no visibility. It was freezing; our hands numb and teeth chattering. The aforementioned lack of a shoulder meant trucks and buses came screaming by with inches to spare while washing walls of water over us. Potholes became invisible thanks to standing water, and stretches of flooded road made hydroplaning a real threat. We carried on, jaws clenched, with nowhere to hide and no choice but to soldier on. We neared the city, with lightning cracking across the sky, large vehicles bellowing their ocean-liner horns, the incessant rain pelting our helmets, and suddenly an airliner taking off directly overhead as we drove past Hue's airport; invisible in the deluge. I was nearing sensory overload, and it took all of my experience and instinct not to just go insane. I had already decided that I would get very drunk that night.

Finally, mercifully, we entered the city, and I was able to remember my way around. We entered our hotel like a trio of miserable wet dogs, and in no time our room was covered in soaked clothing. All told, the 100km (62 mile) drive from Da Nang to Hue had taken over five hours. However, we had survived, and the proper thing to do was just laugh about the drive. No point in complaining. Plus, there was much beer to be drunk!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Where Clouds Meet Ocean

The Hai Van Pass was one of the few well-known locations in Vietnam that I hadn't been to yet. The pass traverses the eastern end of the Annamite mountains, where lush, steep hills drop right into the East Sea. These mountains separate the dramatically different climates of northern and southern Vietnam; therefore the area is often shrouded in mist and low clouds. In English, Hai Van translates into "ocean cloud pass". The pass was the dividing line between the ancient Champa and Dai Viet empires; today it serves as the border between Da Nang and Thua Tien-Hue provinces.

The highlight of Hai Van is the 21km road that winds its way up and down the mountains. (The national railway also crosses the pass, hugging the coast the whole time in what must be a spectacular ride.) If you've seen the Top Gear Vietnam special, this is the road they fawned over halfway through the episode. The pass used to be extremely dangerous, as this was the only road connecting Hue and Da Nang, meaning everything from 18-wheelers and tour buses to motorbikes and bicycles used it. Luckily the opening of the Hai Van tunnel in 2005 took almost all large traffic off the pass, turning it into a motorbike's dream. I've already driven the Ma Li Peng pass, one of the most stunning in the world, way up in Ha Giang province, but I still wanted to see what all the fuss was about at Hai Van.

Our van driver found a place where we could rent motos in Da Nang, and as we waited for our bikes a fighter jet roared overhead and out to sea. I had never seen a military plane in Vietnam before - I assume it was flying out to patrol over the disputed island chains in the East Sea that are at the heart of the strained Vietnam-China relations.

With the bikes ready to go, Thinh, Jacqui and I headed north through the city, the cloud-topped mountains looming up ahead. We reached the beginning of the pass and began zigging and zagging our way up, the road following the curves of the geography. Climbing quickly, we were afforded expansive views of Da Nang's skyline, the East Sea, and other sections of the pass. The temperature began to drop, and after a few exhilarating hairpin turns, we were suddenly at the summit.


south towards Da Nang
zoom zoom
The view north looked over Lao Cai and the road down as it sliced through the mountains. An old, bullet-scarred French garrison sits at the top of the pass, along with a string of shops hawking drinks and useless knick-knacks to tourists. A stiff breeze blew through the opening in the pass, and the weather divide between the two halves of the country was distinct: thin clouds struggling to keep sunlight at bay to the south; a number of ominous dark clouds to the north. We scrambled around the ruins of the fort (where a couple was posing for cliched, but admittedly spectactular, wedding photos) for a bit before getting back on the bikes to head down the other side of Hai Van towards Hue.
looking north towards Lao Cai


bullet holes
summit
view from a pillbox
This was an absolute blast, as we rocketed back down to sea level, carving up plenty of tight curves along the way. With the exception of a few cars and bikes we had the road to ourselves and could open the throttle with little concern. (I should also mention the fuel trucks - since flammable materials aren't allowed in the tunnel, the only trucks you see on the pass are those transporting gasoline and fuel tanks. Exactly the sort of vehicles you want to run into at high speed.) In no time we were spat out at the bottom of the pass, where we rejoined the bus and truck traffic on Highway 1 and stopped in Lao Cai for lunch. Hai Van can't compare to Ha Giang in terms of sheer beauty (few places can), but the drive is phenomenal, and lives up to the hype.
a happy camper

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.