Monday, November 29, 2010

Ben Tre Province, Vietnam

A month ago I took a trip to the coconut capital of Vietnam: Ben Tre province.  The name literally translates as "bamboo landing" which is fitting because of the abundant vegetation in the region.  Ben Tre is an island flanked by two of the main branches of the Tien Giang river in the Mekong Delta (the Tien Giang river itself is one of the two main branches of the Mekong river).  The way to access Ben Tre is by bridge.

The above photo is of the Rach Mieu bridge that connects Tien Giang Province and Ben Tre Province.  It is very large with the towers of the bridge reaching over 115m and enough clearance below to accommodate a 12 story building.

Coconuts are the most famous product of the region, and rightly so.  The region produces over 300,000,000 coconuts annually! Coconuts are used in many things such as wines (above), candies, dried pulp snacks, and more than 50 local dishes.

The coconut "hair" is also collected and used for floor mats (above, preparing to be loaded onto the large boat) and the leaves are collected for use in thatched roofs.  The people of Ben Tre are very conscious about not letting anything go to waste.

The above picture is a very typical scene in Ben Tre of several smaller boats offloading their coconut cargo onto a larger ship.  As the two pictures above show, many of the coconuts (and derivative products) that are produced in the region are loaded onto very large ships for transport.  Many of these ships find their destination in other countries around the world.  

Ben Tre is a nice place to spend a weekend if you are in the south of Vietnam.  It is less than 3 hours by car from Ho Chi Minh City and is quiet and clean.  Boats can be hired there easily; you can spend the day cruising the river and enjoying a quiet afternoon in a relaxing environment.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Texture of Life in Vietnam

After living somewhere for an extended period of time you begin to take many things for granted that would be out of the ordinary to the traveler.  I have tried to bring a few images together to give a feel for the types of things one typically sees around Vietnam.

Below is a homemade fan that I found at a fish shop.  It was made to keep the flies away from the fish at the shop.  How effective it was is debatable.

Phone numbers appearing of all types of surfaces are ubiquitous in Vietnam.  They are glued (as seen below), painted, or hung on almost everything and advertise for all sorts of things.

Another thing that one often sees in Vietnam is people with deftly packed vehicles.  An example is the man below who was making very efficient use of space on his cyclo (Vietnamese bicycle pedicab).

Monday, October 11, 2010

PetroVietnam Tower with Worker

I took this picture from my Vietnamese school in downtown Saigon.  I do not know what the guy was doing hanging around on the (windowless) side of the building.  Still, I thought it made a good shot.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Bao Loc Vietnam: Beautiful Mountain Scenery, Dangerous Mountain Roads

We traveled to Bao Loc for a conference recently and had the chance to do a little sightseeing while we were there.  Bao Loc is on the way to Da Lat from Ho Chi Minh City; it is about 100km away.  There is little to do in the Bao Loc other than enjoying the outdoors and eating at one of only a few restaurants.  However, it is so peaceful and beautiful there that one could easily spend a few days just walking around on the various paths leading to tea or coffee plantations and enjoying the quiet fresh air.  Below is one of the small paths for access to a farm.

Bao Loc is very mountainous and fertile and entire valleys are under production for various agricultural products.  This is just one of many different tea plantations.  

The city hospital is located at the end of a quiet road overlooking the mountains.  

Bao Loc even has a delicious vegetarian restaurant.  The prices were much cheaper than the vegetarian restaurants in Sai Gon and the food was much more delicious.  If you like to eat vegetarian every now and then, this place is worth stopping at on travels to Da Lat or farther.

The only down side to the trip was the number of accidents we saw on the road during our 36 hour round trip.  Below is an overturned trailer truck we saw on the side of the road on the way back to Saigon.  It was not there the day before when going to Bao Loc.

We also saw the unfortunate aftermath of a head-on collision between two smaller trucks.  There were also several motorbike accidents we passed that had occurred recently; one with a police officer measuring the accident seen (possible fatality) and one with a woman burning incense and praying in the center of the road with a picture of someone next to her (certain fatality).  The traffic is very dangerous here.  If you are in Vietnam, drive safely!

Phu Quoc Island

I have not had much time within the last month to make any posts; I have been rather busy here with work, travel, and learning Vietnamese. Sorry. 

I returned earlier this week from a 5 day trip in Phu Quoc Island.  PQ is the largest island in Vietnam (nearly 600 km2) and is actually closer to Cambodia than to Vietnam.  The island is in the process of building an international airport and soon will be able to accomodate large intercontenential airplanes.  However, now PQ has an airport of the same size as Con Dao Island and thus can only handle twin turboprops (a typical example is seen below at the Saigon International Airport).

I stayed at a little hotel about 7km away from the airport.  The motorbike taxis at the airport were fast and cheap (~30.000vnd or 1.50us).  The hotel name was "Beach Club" and rooms could be found for 15usd per night with private bungalows for 20usd daily (each rate goes up by 5usd during the high season, i.e. after the monsoon).  The hotel is run by a English expat named Mike and his Vietnamese wife and has been there for over 6 years.  The staff was helpful and friendly, the location was beautiful, and the food was good.  I would definitely recommend anyone coming to Phu Quoc to spend at least a few nights at the Beach Club.  

Phu Quoc is an island whose inhabitants are fishers and farmers.  The main town (Yuong Dong) has many different things to do; there are several good restaurants and bars (for example, Oasis Restaurant and Bar is a great place for a drink and some food run by an English expat named Stephan).  The main town also has a wonderful night market and many places to buy fresh fish (fishing boats at the center of town seen below).  The main town has other sites of interest such as a Cao Dai pagoda, a bustling city market, several unique coffee shops and snack stands on the water, and even a nightclub.  From Yuong Dong, you can travel north, south or east on the island.  The best beaches are to be found in the South, though.  On your way down south, stop in at Phu Quoc Pearls, a large company where pearls are farmed in the ocean.  The company is under the direction of a friendly kiwi named Grant and his assistant Jerry.  They also plan to have bungalows available for the night soon. 

The roads in Phu Quoc are a bit tricky to navigate with the majority of roads currently unsealed (see below for an example).  Also, the roads can be a bit of a maze.  If you are unfamiliar with driving in Vietnam or do not speak enough Vietnamese to figure out directions, I would recommend having a guide to show you around.  They can be hired on the island very cheaply and should be able to help navigate around easily.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ngã Sáu Church (Joan of Arc Church)

Yet another pink church in Saigon.  This is the Joan of Arc Church and was built from 1922 to 1928.  The church was inaugurated in May 1928 and was dedicated to Jeanne d'Arc (St. Joan of Arc).  A statue of her can be seen above the entrance.  Locally, the church is known as Nga Sau and comes from the 6 streets that "tumble" across one another in front of the church.  The church is located at 116B Hung Vuong Street in District 5.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Inside of University Housing

I recently visited a friend of mine who is a university student here in Ho Chi Minh City.  I took some pictures of the house so that people might have an idea of what the living space is like.  In the picture you can see a ladder leading up to a flat sleeping area that covers the study area (the desk) and the bathroom (the open door).  Clothes are kept above the mini refrigerator and cooking is done in the sitting space (area from where picture is taken).  These entire apartments would fit inside of the bedrooms of most American houses.

See an older post on Saigon student housing.

More Amazing Vietnamese Electrics

I spotted these very low electrical wires the other day while going around the city.

I have been warned several times about the electric wires in the city.  This picture shows just how close you can find yourself next to live wires every day.

Football Overreactions

This post was a draft from a while back.  Sorry that the info is 1 month overdue...

In Vietnam people enjoy football tremendously (soccer to those of us from the States).  Like many countries around the world football is the most popular sport in the country.  As with many soccer-obsessed countries, the world cup is a great time for celebration and watching matches with friends.  However, Vietnam suffers from the same problem that plagues many other football adoring nations: gambling.  Gambling here often goes along with unpredictable consequences such as bankruptcy, loss of valuables, and even loss of one's home. Many football gamblers have gotten into serious financial troubles due to World Cup gambling.

There was a story here during the middle of the World Cup about a young man who was found drowning in a part of the Saigon River near downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The young man was rescued by some passersby and once he regained consciousness he was taken home.  After talking to the man, it was found out that he had lost so much money from World Cup gambling that he had to borrow money and couldn't pay the debt. Thus, he decided to kill himself to remove the burden from his family. 

He was not the only person who made this kind of decision to die to escape gambling debts. There was another attempted suicide via drowning that happened near the same place in the river during the World Cup. After being rescued, the victim explained that he gambled all of his family’s money away in football pools. He wanted to relieve his guilt for what he had done to his family so he went to the bridge and jumped into the river. 

Not everyone who goes into massive debt take their own lives, though.  I recall reading about someone that lost too much gambling on the Cup. He tricked his colleagues into loaning him thousands of US dollars and dumped the money into bets. Ultimately, he lost all the money and then he fled his life completely.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Can Gio District: Short Weekend Trip

Over the weekend I decided to get out of the city and away from the crowds so I took a day trip to Can Gio, the southernmost district of Saigon.  Can Gio is an island and has a number of secluded beaches.  Although the quality of the beach is not the same as some of the other beach destinations in Vietnam, the quietness and seclusion make it a good destination for people in Saigon who want to escape the noise and crowds of the city.

Can Gio is by far the largest district in Saigon; it covers over 700 km2 (roughly 1/3 the size of all of Ho Chi Minh city).  It is also the least populated of all districts- according to the 2009 census, the district had a population of just over 68,000.  The next least-populated district had almost 100,000 people according to the same census.  This combination of huge area and low population make Can Gio a very quiet and relaxing place for a weekend getaway.  The way to access Can Gio is by ferry which departs from Nha Be district.  The cost is a bit over 1 usd each way for a car (cheaper for motorbikes) and the ferry leaves roughly every 15 minutes during the day time.

The point of departure is nice and has lots of things to see; you can watch Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) ships offloading their chilly treasure, large container ships hauling cargo down the river, high-speed hydrofoils zipping tourists about, and small wooden fishing boats practicing traditional fishing techniques.  The river is a hub of activity.

During the ferry trip I saw part of the Vietnamese Navy.  This is a Soviet Union Tarantul class corvettes armed with 4 SS-N-2 anti-ship missiles (two missile houses visible on side near pilothouse), 1 x 76mm AK-176 main gun (front), and 2 x 30mm AK-630 Gatling Close-In-Weapons-Systems.  Two of these ships were parked along the ferry route to Can Gio.

The resort we picked was called Hon Ngoc (hồn ngọc roughly means "beautiful soul").  It was very quiet and there were few other people there.  The food was excellent as well; everyone with me said that their restaurant really knew how to cook.

Next to Hon Ngoc was a larger resort with more people (and more noise).  The other resort did not impress me much by itself.  They did, though, have a really great building for having large banquets or parties that was built on an the end of a long pier and was very pretty.  

I thought Can Gio was a great place for a short getaway.  However, the one negative thing about my trip there was the return to Saigon from Can Gio.  We arrived at the ferry terminal at 4:30 and did not get on the ferry until 6:30 due to the huge number of people wanting to leave at the same time and lack of ferries to accommodate everyone.  If they only built a bridge...

University Housing

Vietnam National University, Ho Chi Minh City is located in the Thu Duc district of Saigon. VNU-HCM has over 50,000 students and a campus that is the largest university in Vietnam.  Degrees are offered for technology, natural sciences, social and humanity sciences, literature, foreign languages, and business.  The degrees normally take 4 years to complete and the curriculum is structured similar to the curriculum in the States.  However, the student housing is a bit different than the housing in the states.  Below is some of the university run off-campus student apartments.

The entrance to one of the student housing areas.  Notice that there are no lights- I imagine it is scary at night time...

In front of the housing is a very natural green space.  The grass (?) was over 1 meter tall and the entire housing area was surrounded by trees, grass, and shrubs.

The housing is located 5 minutes from the university so the location is very convenient.  The only drawback is the general sketchiness of the place.  If I were studying at the National University in Saigon I would definitely look for other options.  I am told that the dormitories on campus are nicer.  Hopefully I will have a chance to check them out soon and post some info about them as well.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My Lai Documentry on PBS's "American Experience"

I have recently started a course in Vietnamese and am trying to find a balance between studying, working, and blogging so I haven't really had a chance to publish anything for a while...

That being said, I have recently seen a documentary on PBS that I found to be moving and informative about the killing of hundreds of unarmed people in the village of Sơn Mỹ located the Quang Ngai Province of Vietnam in March 1968.  This event later became known as the My Lai massacre.

The story of the killings and the subsequent cover-up is an interesting narative beginning with the naivety and idealism of the troops, progressing to the hell of war and My Lai and ending in the cover ups and the very slow delivery of (some) justice.  Writer/director/producer Barak Goodman skillfully lays out this interwoven story in his 90 minute documentary “My Lai" for PBS's documentary series "American Experience."

This complex and emotional documentary not only tells the story of American soldiers involved (Charlie Company of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division (the Americal Division)) but also explores the nature of combat and it's psychological toll in Vietnam. The documentary also presents the bad intel that led to the events of My Lai, damning problems in the command hierarchy (leading all the way to a two star general) and the command's cover up, and the following political and judicial repercussions in the US. 

The film consists of archival footage as well as new or never made public material.  For example, the film team obtained home-movie footage of Charlie Company during its training in Hawaii and non-combat deployment as well as film shot in the My Lai area from the helicopter of Hugh Thompson, the American pilot who intervened to save some of the villagers from the massacre (who, along with crew was much later awarded the Soldier's Medal, the highest honor a soldier can receive for an act of valor in a non-combat situation). 

Remarkably, the filmmaker even obtained exclusive interviews with several soldiers from Charlie Company.  In many of the interviews with the solders of Charlie Company, the soldiers seem to be defending their actions.  They cite such reasons as they were following orders, they were given intel that everyone in My Lai was known to be the enemy, and that they could find fault with the system of war more than with themselves.  However, their emotions give an impression of deep personal hurt and remorse.  The filmmaker also obtained interviews with survivors of the massacre in the Quang Ngai Province of Vietnam.  It is painful to hear how they describe the My Lai massacre; many of them were only children at the time and saw their entire families killed.  

The film has been justifiably nominated for three Emmy nominations.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Saigon Working Class

Many of the people in Saigon make a living on less than 5 dollars a day.  However, in Vietnam a meal at a food stall can be had for under 50 cents (and cheaper if cooked at home), brand name clothes (made here for export) can be purchased for a small fraction of the cost overseas, and housing can be found for under a two dollars a day.  Thus, for the working people in Saigon life is manageable. 

The working people here are great and warm.  If you visit them at their home they will go out of their way to make you feel comfortable by providing you with snacks, tea, and hospitality. The interior of a typical working class home is certainly not luxurious.  The homes are very utilitarian- bare bones essentials are all you will find. 

The typical worker does not have the things that a Westerner would think they could not live without (multiple vehicles, heated shower, walk in closets,  kitchen appliances, tens of outfits, art and knick knacks, flat screen jumbo TV 200 channel satellite digital surround sound system, blah blah etc.).  They don't have the things we work so hard to get and they don't seem to care.  Here, friendships and family are very important and free time is spent with both.  In the west, we have replaced personal relationships with relationships through technology.  

However, the younger generation seems keen on adopting a western lifestyle; I imagine that it won't be long before the people here replace meeting friends for coffee with having virtual coffee on their 3G smartphones while texting a tweet and listening to an ipod on their car stereo.  So it goes.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Daily Traffic In Saigon

Daily traffic is something that everyone has to deal with no matter where you live.  However, if you live in Saigon you most likely battle a sea of motorbikes each day as you fight your way from place to place. The following pictures should be very familiar to anyone who has been here.

A huge crowd of motorbikes in Saigon, Vietnam

The traffic problem in Saigon is supposed to be caused by the small percentage of the city's land area that is covered by roads.  Figures for the percentage vary (depending on how you measure it) ranging from 2 to 6 percent.  Either way this is much smaller than the city's targeted goal of 20%.  

This lack of roads inevitably leads to traffic jams.  A professor at the HCM City University of Technology has stated that the level of traffic jams in HCMC exceeds the permitted level by 11 to 23 times. He estimates that economic losses caused by traffic jams are $840 million per year, which is over 5% of the city’s GDP.

Traffic jam of cars and motorbikes in Saigon, Vietnam

Earlier this year, some whiz kids from IBM came to Saigon as part of a corporate outreach program. One of their main goals is to help the city improve the traffic problem.  They will be using software developed 3 years ago for helping traffic in Singapore to model the city and predict when intersections will clog.  Ideally, this will be used to intelligently change light signals or to deploy police to direct traffic.  Hopefully it can be used effectively here and gets implemented quickly.

Cool Motorbikes in Saigon

These are two of the most unique factory built motorbikes I have seen before.  They are from a German based motorcycle company called Sachs, one of the oldest motorcycle manufacturers in the world.  

The first is a naked bike (exposed frame and engine).  It is an enduro (offroad/on-road capable) called the X-Road.  The bike reminds me of a mini version of the Ducati Monster.  

Unique motorbike in Saigon

The second is an interesting design for an underbone (the typical kind of motorbike found in Asia).  Sachs has made an eye-catching naked underbone called the Madass.  Everything  has a custom look to it.  They have even incorporated the gas tank into the frame.  Cool.

Cool motorbike in Saigon

Although I couldn't find price info for the enduro, I've seen a 2 year old used Sachs underbone selling for 3000 USD.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Old Churches in Saigon pt. 2

More of the old churches in Vietnam.  This one is the most famous, the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica.  It was completed 1880.  The total cost of construction at the time was 2,500,000 French francs.   

Exterior view of Saigon Notre-Dame cathedral

In 1960, the Vatican founded Roman Catholic dioceses in Vietnam and assigned archbishops to Hanoi, Huế and Saigon (archbichop's Saigon residence information to come soon). The cathedral was titled Saigon Chief Cathedral. In 1962, Vatican anointed the Saigon Chief Cathedral, conferred it basilique. From this time, this cathedral was called Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. The cathedral is open for public viewing daily.

Interior view of Saigon Notre-Dame cathedral

The entrance to the cathedral has an inscription in Latin.  The translation means "To God, the greatest and best.  Blessed Virgin Mary Immaculate."

Inscription above entrance of Saigon Notre-Dame cathedral

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Old Churches in Saigon

Ever since being here I have made it a point to see various religious buildings in Vietnam as they are often beautiful and elaborate, however I have just now decided that it might be a good idea to record some of these experiences with pictures.  I decided to start my photo collection with an old church near to my home. A Vietnamese friend of mine told me that there are over 5 famous churches in Saigon which are rather old.  This is one of them and is located on the outskirts of HCM city in the Thu Duc district.  I is over 100 years old and was built by the French.  Heaven knows why they painted it pink...

Over 130 year year old church in Thu Duc, Vietnam

I didn't get a chance to go inside of the church (try the Saigon Notre Dame Basilica if you want to see the interior of an old church here) although I did take a tour of the grounds.  The church land is spacious and they have several other small buildings including a school for children which was also supposed to be over 100 years old.  They even have some kind of religious themed rock outside.  It's fenced off so I guess it must be special.

Bizarre prayer rock at Thu Duc church

I am told that the services here can be very popular- I hope to attend one to see for myself!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Amazing Vietnamese Electrics

The system of wiring the power lines in Vietnam is easily the most complicated I've seen in my life.  Vietnam does not have individual transformers (that I have seen so far) to step down the high voltage from the main distribution lines.  Thus, if a new business comes online on a block, a new wire is strung to that individual business from a centrally located transformer that serves several blocks.  The result is something that ends up looking like this:

Man working on collection of confusing electrical wires

I really wouldn't want his job- I have no idea how he figures out which wire goes where.

Motorbike Accidents Hurt

A friend of mine recently had an accident on his motorbike.  He dumped his bike at about 60km/h while going around a curve in the road.  He is not unique; almost everyone you ask here has been involved in at least one motorcycle accident (many have been in multiple).  Below are some pictures of the aftereffects of the accident.  The first is a large scar he got on his knee.

Scar on Knee from Motorbike Accident in Saigon

The foot got it pretty bad too.

Scars on feet from Motorbike Accident in Saigon

I imagine these scars will stick around for a while.  Drive safe :)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Snake Wine in Vietnam

Here in Vietnam people have an interesting fascination with putting random animals/animal parts in their traditional wine (read liquor- the stuff is generally over 40% alcohol).  Take, for example, this wonderful elixir: Vietnamese snake wine.

Large jar of Vietnamese Snake wine

This large container was nearly 10L of potent magic supposed to increase the sexual prowess of a man. Vietnamese people prefer to use venomous snakes for this drink (the poison of the snake is made harmless by the alcohol) and the drink can be found easily throughout the country.  If snakes aren't your thing, you can try a variety of other creatures instead: bee wine, lizard wine, and seahorse wine to name a few.  Bottoms up!

Airplane Cafe in Saigon

There is a neat coffee shop in Saigon near the airport that has an retired Boeing airplane parked at it.  It is very unique; I would imagine it is the only coffee shop in the world that has a Boeing, and is very impressive to see in person.

Body of Boeing Airplane at Scenic Cafe in Saigon

The cafe is much larger than the pictures suggest; after all it is a full size jet airplane that they have parked here.  Customers can enjoy a Vietnamese style drip coffee while in the shade of the Boeing's massive wings. Cool place!

Wing of Boeing Airplane at Scenic Cafe in Saigon

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Eating Dog Meat

Great article on the politics and ethics of dog meat consumption here. In Vietnam, people eat dog and if I were a carnivore, I'd definitely give it a try.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Twitter Account

I have a new twitter account @AmericanVietnam which will incorporate an adapted Yahoo Pipe that is set up to search various news sources for information on traveling to Vietnam.  I can add/remove sources to the pipe if necessary which will then tweak the content of the twitter feed.  The twitter feed will have both streams related to Vietnam Travel as well as streams from my blog. I will also use it to post anything tweet worthy.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

My Home in Vietnam

I decided to write a post about what my home is like here. At my home in Vietnam we have a factory for manufacturing plastics as well as a small processing plant for some agricultural products.  The house has been built for around 20 years and is rather spacious.  All of the homes in Vietnam are built of brick and cement which makes them very strong structurally.  Also, houses here are not electrically grounded so you should unplug expensive electronics during storms here!

My home in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

This is the garden for the house.  We have several orchids which are very popular in Vietnam. We also have many more at another location.  I would like to rent them to some companies here in Saigon for a small monthly fee.  Do you know anyone who is interested? :)

My garden in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

I was a bit shocked when I first arrived here and found that my room resembled more of a prison than a bed room.  The bedroom door is made of Iron and has bars across the glass (see below).  The window in my room also has bars.  I have gotten used to it now, though;  now I see it as safe and secure.

My room in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

We have a large storage area for our chemicals located nearby the house.  I like the texture of the walls and the generally "used" appearance of the place.  There are even monkeys that live in the trees.  Au naturel.  Also located on this street is a small port which means there are always large trucks barreling down the road.  You do not want to have an accident with these trucks- many people lose their lives here in such accidents.

My warehouse in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Vietnamese coffee shops can be found at random homes along the street.  One I enjoy going to is very near my house and serves good coffee with hot tea for around 0.25usd - a great value.  I enjoy going there and sitting with a Vietnamese friend of mine and practicing English and Vietnamese with him.  It is relatively quiet during the day and a very local setting.  I think I will go have a cup of coffee now!

Quiet coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Shopping list here