Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Obama's Visit

The past few days have been exciting ones for Vietnam, with President Obama landing in Hanoi on Sunday night to begin a three-day visit to the country. The local press reported his every move, and crowds lined the streets of the capital to catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade. The big news from Monday, when Obama met with Vietnamese leadership, was the removal of the decades-long arms embargo the U.S. placed on Vietnam after the war. I'm not going to debate the merits of that decision in this post though - instead I'm just going to focus on what it was like to have the president in town.

Obama was set to arrive in Saigon around 3 pm on Tuesday. The previous night he had had dinner with Anthony Bourdain (who I have a strong man crush on) in Hanoi, causing a social media explosion.
I hadn't seen anything on Twitter about Air Force One landing, but a little before 3 I wandered from my office to Dien Bien Phu Street, which appeared to be the route the motorcade would be taking into District 1. Security and police officers lined the street, and most traffic was blocked. A crowd was already forming along several blocks; in fact, tens of thousands lined the president's entire route into town. (Some even waved American flags, surely a jarring sight for outsiders who haven't been following the country.)
The only time you'll see such a major street this empty.

The crowd was orderly, and people were obviously excited to have something to distract them from work. As the minutes passed by with no sign of any motorcade, we took to jokingly cheering at every motorbike that drove by, much to the confusion of the drivers.

After waiting around for a while a small group of cars came by, but it clearly wasn't the main motorcade. I had to get back to work and figured Obama may have taken a different route, so I returned to my desk. Shortly afterwards I saw a tweet from a photographer showing him deplaning from Air Force One. I hurried back outside, where the small crowd has transformed into a massive one, but the motorcade was just passing by. I could just see the tops of the cars over the heads of 15 rows of people. Oops.

That evening Obama visited a co-working space downtown and spoke with three prominent Vietnamese entrepreneurs. Photos and videos of crowds waving and cheering at The Beast, as the presidential limo is called, flooded Facebook.

After a meeting this morning I headed over to the area near the Gem Center, where Obama was hosting a town hall with members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. I parked at McDonald's and walked across the huge roundabout where Dien Bien Phu heads into Binh Thanh District.

Police were taping off the sidewalk right as I arrived, and Nguyen Binh Khiem Street was closed to everything but cross traffic. I could see the Gem Center a couple of blocks away, and judging by the security presence it appeared the motorcade would be heading our way once the meeting ended. Security guards ordered people off of the roofs of nearby buildings, and eventually police closed the roundabout - one of the most heavily trafficked parts of the city - to vehicles. The atmosphere was convivial, as offices and banks emptied out, clusters of employees huddling together under the threatening sky. There was no work being done on Nguyen Binh Khiem, that's for sure. Locals of all ages pressed against the tape with smartphones at the ready.

Eventually a van pulled up and several Americans got out with a bomb-sniffing dog: a sign on the windshield said "Sweeper 1". The dog sniffed around the corner before getting back in the van and moving on. Finally, after standing around for almost 40 minutes, we could see the motorcade assembling down the street. A wave of excitement rippled through the crowd, and everyone pushed as close as they could to the street. One woman even shouted at a police officer to move since he was blocking her camera angle. Police motorcycles streamed by before the big American vehicles cruised past - SUVs with blacked-out windows, and two copies of The Beast, an armored Cadillac limo. I'm not sure which one Obama was in, but the crowd roared and waved, with whichever hand wasn't holding an iPhone to film the whole thing.

The Beast
The whole thing lasted about 10 seconds, but everyone seemed pleased to have been so close to the President, even if we couldn't actually see him. Chaos ensued as the streets were re-opened and almost an hour of backed up traffic poured forth, but it was pretty cool to have seen the motorcade.

Whatever your opinion of Obama may be, his charisma is undeniable, and he appeared to let his hair down a bit after leaving behind the Party leadership in Hanoi. Vietnamese, especially younger members of the population, adore him, and in his talks in Saigon he emphasized the importance of unrestricted creativity and speech. Government authorities here are notoriously distant and staid, and imagining them even saying "hello" to a member of the public is almost impossible. Meanwhile, at the town hall, Obama was reportedly greeted with rapturous applause before being asked about smoking weed as a youngster and treated to a quick rap by Suboi, the most famous female rapper in Vietnam. One wonders what his appearance will make Vietnamese think when they look back towards their leaders, who still haven't announced what caused the environmental catastrophe in central Vietnam nearly two months after it began. I'll end with this quote from a young Vietnamese man from an AFP story: "I like his behavior, being the most powerful man in the world, but very close to people, not like leaders here," said 22-year-old Tran Huu Duy. "They only wear suits and talk cliches...(they) cannot inspire young people."

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Trying to Make Sense of Vietnam's Fish Kill

It's times like these that I'm glad I no longer work for a state-affiliated news organization. Over the last month an environmental catastrophe has rocked central Vietnam, and the reporting on it has been a perfect illustration of how the state media works to emphasize or suppress certain aspects of a story.

Early last month, thousands of dead fish began washing ashore in north-central Ha Tinh Province, the first hint of a disaster that has since spread over 200 km down the coastline to the Da Nang area. This story didn't gain any traction in the media until later last month, when the scope of what was going on became apparent. All kinds of ocean life, including sea birds who feed on fish, was washing ashore, sometimes already in stages of decomposition. 

Fishermen stopped fishing, and attention centered on a steel mill operated by a Taiwanese company called Formosa. The firm is building Southeast Asia's largest steel plant in the Vung Ang Economic Zone in impoverished Ha Tinh, and divers working on the port connected to the plant reported a sickening plume of chemicals being emitted from a wastewater pipeline which ran from the plant into the sea. There were reports of multiple divers complaining of ailments after swimming near the pipeline, and one was even diagnosed with copper poisoning.

Social media sites, which are very active here, lit up in response to all of this news. Formosa came under withering fire from people around the country, and the company responded with awe-inspiring arrogance. One official stated at a press conference that Vietnam had to either "choose steel, or choose fish." Apparently the country can't have both the environment and an economy. Formosa quickly distanced itself from this incredibly tone-deaf official, but the firm continued to deflect any criticism, though they did claim they would get to the bottom of the issue.

The government eventually stepped in and swore to determine the cause of the mass fish kill, but several officials have shown aptitude for chronic foot-in-mouth disease, as they quickly blamed the disaster on other toxins, or possibly a red tide. State outlets like Tuoi Tre even ran stories showing images of red sea water, but they appear to have been clumsily Photoshopped. (It's difficult to work out what's true and what isn't here, but given how much government-sanctioned environmental destruction I've seen over the years I'm inclined towards skepticism of any official 'explanation'.) 

Suffice to say, none of this has satisfied the people of Vietnam. Last weekend, over the course of the Reunification and May Day holidays, demonstrations were held in several major cities, including Saigon. Crowds marched against Formosa holdings signs saying "I choose fish" in Vietnamese and "Get out Formosa", among other slogans. It appears that the authorities largely allowed these demonstrations to proceed, which doesn't happen very often. Of course, there was absolutely no mention of any such events in the local press. There were, however, videos and images of security forces getting violent with a few protesters, but again it's hard to tell exactly what happened (it also doesn't help that I can't read Vietnamese social media posts).

There are a lot of disparate factors at work in this story - it is obvious that the government, despite its pretty words, has sacrificed the environment for development throughout the country, and this angers many people. Tons of dead fish washing up on beaches in four provinces is a very visceral illustration of this, and people have seized on it. The fact that Formosa is Taiwanese doesn't help, as Taiwan is often lumped in with the intense national antipathy towards China, even though it is a separate country. (During riots in reaction to China placing an oil rig in Vietnamese waters two years ago several Taiwanese factories were damaged.) This is also an issue that the government hasn't been concretely implicated in yet (i.e. bribes or disregard for regulations, though proving any of that would be just about impossible anyway), so officials are likely more willing to let people blow off some steam about it.

Of course, in the end it could be possible that Formosa had nothing to do with the fish kill. The government hasn't released any test results from the area, and they don't actually have any obligation to do so, anyway. But this episode has definitely shaken people. I have several friends who are refusing to eat seafood for now, and people who rely on the sea for a living in central Vietnam must be suffering immense financial losses. 

As a self-described environmentalist, my hope is that this disaster marks the beginning of a shift in how the environment is viewed in Vietnam. Many people do care about the space around them, but social education is poor. Some have noted the irony in protesting against pollution while many people here freely litter on a daily basis, throwing plastic bags into storm drains and leaving food containers on beaches. It's easy to blame a huge corporation with moronic leadership for dumping harmful chemicals into the environment; the harder part will be changing the everyday behavior of people around the country. 

Here are some links if you'd like to read more on this issue:

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Where it All Began

Last weekend I visited Phnom Penh for the first time in well over five years. Cambodia was the first stop on my post-college move to Southeast Asia, where I spent two weeks in a teacher training course before moving on to Vietnam. When I exited the airport in the Cambodian capital in late August 2010, I knew nothing. My knowledge of Vietnam largely consisted of Apocalypse Now and the Top Gear special filmed there, and I was even more ignorant of the country I had just landed in. The Khmer Rouge had done something terrible there a few decades ago - that was the extent of my understanding. Travel was a new concept to me, as I had only left America once (not counting Toronto) and wasn't aware of what went into trying to uncover the ins and outs of a given country. I didn't even know what I would be eating.

I've learned a lot since then. This part of the world is dynamic, diverse, beautiful and hideous. I've learned how to travel, both broadly and deeply, and had utterly incredible experiences, as well as ones that I wouldn't wish on anybody. I've eaten spectacular amounts of amazing food, and a fair bit of pretty weird stuff too. I've scaled an Indonesian volcano and hiked through former opium fields in Myanmar, but my attention had never returned to Vietnam's little neighbor, even though it's just a bus ride away. Granted, this was a forced vacation thanks to visa regulations, but I was excited to see how Phnom Penh had changed in the intervening years.

I got to my hotel in the evening and went straight up to the roof. I couldn't believe how dramatically the skyline had grown - five years ago I don't remember seeing a building taller than about 10 stories, but the city was now littered with high rises, and many more under construction. Cranes swiveled in every direction, signs that something was going right with the economy in this still extremely impoverished nation.

I was recovering from a bout of severe food poisoning, so I decided to avoid any street food. Wandering around the neighborhood I was struck by the number of Western restaurants with expat involvement. I spotted swish places serving Italian, sushi, French, New York-style pizza, Mediterranean and more, along with accompanying wine bars and craft beer outlets. I couldn't recall anything like that from my two weeks there, but then again I hadn't really ventured beyond my school and the area along the Tonle Sap River. My food memories from Phnom Penh consisted of meals in dingy street stalls that left me hurtling towards a bathroom and sorry excuses for foreign cuisine.
shrimp po-boy with an American Pale Ale
The traffic was also hard to ignore, though the volume is still far behind the teeming madness of Saigon. I do recall noticing random government Lexuses (Lexi?) sailing through the poverty years ago, and while there are still children hawking crap at many intersections, the luxury car market has clearly expanded to some kind of middle class. BMWs, Range Rovers and Mercedes slid by, blocking lanes and sidewalks outside of high-end establishments. Even after so many years in this region I'm still stunned by the contrast between a Porsche in the street and a homeless, wretched family on the sidewalk.

The following day I walked over to AEON mall, a Japanese-owned testament to the Cambodian middle class. Crowds of stylish teenagers and families filled the food court and supermarket, a stall advertising a new high-end apartment building lured in prospective buyers with one of those boxes you stand in and try to grab money out of the air. On the top floor an ice skating rink (yes, real ice) and laser tag arena beckoned. Just like everywhere else I've visited in Asia, the aspirations of the people were on full display - often in the form of 60-inch TVs.

That night I went out with a couple of editors from a website I write for and was confronted with something that hasn't changed at all: the nightlife in Phnom Penh remains awfully sleazy. Several streets near the river are packed to the brim with hostess bars, while tuk-tuk drivers offered everything from drugs and guns to women and, sadly, children. Saigon looks downright wholesome in comparison, and it was off-putting.

On my last morning I wandered around the riverfront, snapping a couple of pictures of the Royal Palace along the way. I had avoided the tourist sites all weekend - I had already visited the monuments to Cambodia's genocidal recent history, the Killing Fields and S-21, in 2010, in addition to the major temples. Cambodia is a bit of a black hole in international news. It's rare to hear much about it, with the exception of the occasional UN tribunal for some member of the murderous Khmer Rouge. As a result I'm not really sure what exactly is going on there politically and economically, but Phnom Penh is clearly a city (not sure about the rest of the country) on the move, as evidenced by the thousands of motorbikes for sale on the road to the airport (yes, the Vietnamese land border is so bad I was flying back just to avoid the dickhead immigration officers there). I don't know if I'll go back to Cambodia, but I'm glad I visited again after all this time, and after all that I've seen and done. I will never call myself an expert on Southeast Asia, but I was able to get a much better sense of the place than that bright-eyed 22 year-old who stumbled, jet-lagged, into the heat in 2010.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Marina Bay Sands

This week I had the incredible opportunity to spend two nights at the mind-blowing Marina Bay Sands hotel in downtown Singapore. I've dreamed of staying there ever since I first visited Singapore way back in 2010 and was awed by the striking complex. Given its very luxurious reputation I never actually thought I'd be able to stay in a room, but I returned this afternoon from a press trip to cover the opening of a museum exhibition (which I'll discuss in another post), which included accommodation at the Sands. I'm going to let the pictures speak for themselves here, as the hotel defies simple explanation with words. Its calling card is the 57th-floor infinity pool, which stretches across the top of the three hotel towers and overlooks the financial district. It is jaw-dropping. The overall architecture ain't too shabby, either. See for yourself.
Gardens by the Bay. In the background are dozens of ships waiting to use the busiest port in the world.

More to come on my fifth visit to Singapore soon.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Tet Flowers on Film

In the weeks leading up to the Tet celebration which took place earlier this month, stretches of the street I live on turned into a huge flower market. Every year, Tet is welcomed with a riot of flowers and plants that signify some auspicious aspect of the approaching Lunar New Year. My building is located on the Kinh Te canal, which connects Saigon to the Mekong Delta, where many of the flowers are grown. Every day I watched from my window as low-slung boats docked along the canal and offloaded tons of flowers at impromptu street-side stalls. The end result was temporarily one of the most beautiful streets in the city, though navigating around all of the shoppers and rubber-neckers was difficult at times. Below is a collection of pictures from a Canon film camera that I took right before Tet.