Saturday, June 26, 2010

Getting Around in Vietnam

There are many ways of moving around in this country: rail, bus, car, motorbike, hired driver, plane, hydrofoil, and boat. My preferred method is airplane but due to the high cost of air travel, I usually go with car & driver.  For long distances car and bus are much more comfortable than motorbikes.  Hired drivers are a good way to get around Vietnam.  The cost is relatively cheap and it is more comfortable than a bus.  You also have more freedom to plan your itinerary as you want.  Hydrofoil is a great way to get from Saigon to Vung Tau beach (around 90 minutes away).  This is an excellent day trip and round trip is around 15usd per person.   The many rivers of Vietnam can be explored on slower fishing boats or on high speed boats used for long distances.  With almost 18,000km of waterways to explore in Vietnam, a boating trip should not be missed.

By far the most popular method of transportation in Vietnam is the motorbike.  Motorbikes here are cheap, easy to maintain, and fuel efficient (~100mpg/160kpg).  If you have a problem with your motorbike such as a flat, engine problems, electrical, etc. you can find a mechanic within 1km from you wherever you are in the cities and within 20km on the highway.  In the city, traveling by motorbike is generally much faster than by car because the small size of the bikes allow them to bypass traffic jams with ease.   However, motorbikes are extremely dangerous: the roads are crowded and in poor repair, people often ignore traffic rules, large trucks drive very fast and often in close proximity to the motorbikes, and the helmets here are poor and offer little protection.  Even though dangerous, driving a motorbike in Vietnam is extremely fun.  Below is a sample of the traffic in HCMC to give an idea of the number of motorbikes here.

My recent purchase here was a new underbone- the 135cc Yamaha Exciter (known globally as the t135).  This is about the closest I can get here to a large displacement motorcycle without spending a fortune (motorcycles with engines over 149cc are taxed 100% making them twice the cost of a bike in the states...).  My motorbike has a clutch with gearing set up the same way as a conventional motorcycle- 1st gear is all the way down, neutral above it, 2nd above neutral and so on.  It is a four speed so the top speed is in the neighborhood of 140kph which is plenty fast in Vietnam.

135cc Yamaha t135 Exciter is fast and sporty.

If you come to visit Vietnam I would recommend taking one of the motorcycle taxis around the city.  They are called "xe om" and are about half the price of a regular taxi (note that you should negotiate your fair before you go).  The xe om is a good way to see the city and get a feel for driving a motorbike in Vietnam.  If you are feeling a bit more adventurous you can rent motorbikes here for the day, week, or month and the rates are very reasonable.  Be aware though that national drivers licenses and international drivers licenses are not accepted in Vietnam and one should get a Vietnamese drivers license before driving here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cooking At Home

I often cook at home because I live ~20km outside the center of the city and I get tired of eating the same things at the restaurants around my house. I also like to do my own cooking because I can control (most) of the cleanliness of the food and +plus+ it is much cheaper. I can make a huge plate of noodles and veggies with a bottle of beer at home for ~0.70usd and at the restaurant i will pay ~4usd. The restaurant is still cheep by American standards, but all those small amounts add up to large amounts in the long run.

In Vietnam markets can be found everywhere from a small butcher shop at some random person's house to a guy on a 3 wheel bicycle selling fruits, veggies or jerked seafood.

Freshness spans the gamut from literally just come from someones garden/tree/bush/slaughter to guaranteed to make you sick. You can get some great quality ingredients here but you can also get some great stomachaches too if you are not careful.

Cooking can be unique too- especially outside the city.  We often have flies and mosquitoes swarming you at the kitchen.  This is because many homes here do not have central air conditioning so we keep the house cool by keeping doors and windows open (this alone saves a ton on the electric bill!).  Therefore, cooking usually involves killing many files and mosquitoes before preparing the food and scratching for a while afterwards where the mosquitoes successfully got you.  The frequent massacre of the pests is made a bit easier with the aid of the "bug bat" (see below).  It is essentially a hand held bug zapper. This thing really packs a punch- it will give a person a good shock if the metal part is touched while turned on.  It is much more fun than the conventional fly swatters back home.

Mosquito Bats or Mosquito Zappers are Useful In Vietnam

The thing about using the bug bat is you don't have to wait for the mosquitoes or flies to land to kill them; you can get them mid flight.  This leads to a lot of fencing-like moves with the zapper.  Also, when you are busy with cooking and you are not zapping bugs you need to keep moving around constantly (almost dancing) to avoid being eaten alive by mosquitoes you missed.  I thought this video appropriately shows what it would look like in my kitchen to avoid being bitten while swatting at flies and mosquitoes.  Take care.

Sick Like A Dog

I am under the weather now for the second day.  I have congested head, sore throat and I feel generally terrible.  Seems like a perfect time to talk about health related issues in Vietnam.

When I first arrived here, I did not feel well often and the food disagreed with me.  During this time the WC and I became very good friends.  Within a couple of months I had become fully acclimated to the environment here and feel fine most of the time.

A few pieces of advice for travelers here: bring hand sanitizer and plenty of Imodium, clean chopsticks and bowls with sanitizer and paper napkins (not the wet towelettes found throughout the country; they are supposedly "cleaned" and re-packaged. The paper is more sanitary), and wipe glass bottle tops before drinking (the rims may not be sufficiently clean).  Most of the other things should be common sense.

Many medicines that would require a prescription in the States are available here at the pharmacy without prescription.  Therefore practice due diligence when taking medicine from the pharmacy to ensure it will not react with you adversely and that you are comfortable with the safety of the medicine you plan to take.  Also, many medicines are not redially available so bring plenty of required prescription drugs with you (this goes the same for vitamins and supplements).

If you astigmatic and wear contact lenses bring plenty of extra lenses as you will be very hard pressed to find your lenses here (I have astigmatism and I have not yet found an optical shop who carries my lenses- if you know one please tell me!).  This is not true for non-astigmatic contact lens wearers; non-astigmatic contacts can be found here very easily.  Prices are around 10 usd for a pair of disposable lenses (lifetime of lens greater than 2 weeks but unknown).

In HCMC we now have a fantastic hospital known as Nha Thuong Viet Phap or FrancoViet Hospital.  They can perform the same services as the hospitals in the states.  They have foreign trained doctors who all speak English and French and offer outstanding service.  The prices are reasonable by western standards (about 25 usd for a doctor visit) and I have had very good experiences there.  If you are in Saigon and need a doctor, this is the only place I would recommend going.

Hopefully you found the above useful.  I am feeling bad so I'm going to rest now and maybe I'll feel better. Tam biet.

Monday, June 21, 2010


The world cup is underway and is a huge deal in VN. Lucky for us the host location is S. Africa; the games all take place after work hours here (starting around 6pm local time). Every restaurant and coffee shop broadcasts the game and everyone seems to enjoy it. There are posters and flyers for the cup all around HCMC, small printed schedules at coffee shops, people dressed in the uniforms of their favorite teams and even daily newspapers strictly dedicated to world cup.

Here people enjoy watching the world cup with friends either at someones home or while eating at a restaurant. The groups can be huge- as many as 20 friends can be seen watching the cup together each night.

It is so markedly different from the states where we don't give football (soccer) nearly the same attention that the rest of the world does- people here have a passion for the world cup. As an American, I would describe it as a month long super bowl. It is a fun atmosphere and a time for friends to get together and have a good time. Yo!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Back From Travels

Just returned from travels- have visited many areas along the coast from Saigon to Tuy Hoa. Travel in Vietnam is much different than the States- maximum speeds here are less than 100km/h (~60mph) and are often significantly slower.  However, the countryside is lush, colorful and varied (mountains, beaches, plains) so traveling long distances can be enjoyable even with the longer drive times.

On the trip, we stopped in several small beach towns as well as a couple of very developed cities;  Nha Trang was one the large ones.  Nha Trang is the supposed dive capital of Vietnam.  Although I did not dive while there, I did see many dive shops around and the rates were very reasonable (around 40 US dollars for 2 dives and gear rental).  It is definitely a tourist city and Westerners can find all the things they are accustomed to there.  The city itself is beautiful and has many things to do: scuba and snorkel (most popular), take the cable car to Vinpearl island, take a boat cruise of the different islands in Nha Trang bay, take a several hour long mudbath at Thap Ba hotsprings, sample the various local dishes including the seafood and the locally favorite dish Bún cá ("bun ca" means "noodle fish") which is a fish noodle soup first created in Nha Trang.

However, I preferred the smaller cites and found the relative seclusion to be much more relaxing.  One small beach town that I enjoyed had an island about 12km from the shore.  We hired fisherman to take a group of ten of us out to the island and back for 40usd total.  The trip took quite a while (2hr out to island and 1hr15min return as the fishing boats here are not very fast in the ocean) but it was cool to be on an all wooden boat in the ocean.  The fisherman told us that the boats are made using wood planks secured by wooden screws and nails and are made completely watertight using a coating mixture of oil and nail polish.  The boats are produced locally in the small town and can cost a small fortune for Vietnamese people (large boats for 30,000usd to smaller ones priced at 7,000-10,000usd; small boat we took shown below. Note the mountians at very top of picture is mainland).  The life for the fishermen can be difficult and unpredictable; one day they can catch 100kg of fish and the next day they may only catch 3kg. However, like many of the Vietnamese people I have met here, the fishermen and their families were very friendly and jovial people.  Spending the day on the boat and on the island eating in a makeshift house with them was memorable and fun.

Old Style Traditional Vietnamese Fishing Boat

The remote beach town I enjoyed the most had a small hotel on a private beach where I was the only guest.  The beach had pure white sand and clear water (visibility was over 10 feet).   I enjoyed a few beers under a large thatched umbrella while looking on at a large island 5km from the shore. It was spectacularly beautiful and cost only 15 USD per night (see picture below).  I will definitely return; hopefully soon!

Private White Sand Beach in Vietnam Overlooking Island

The natural beauty of this country is amazing.  I can not wait to see more of it!  Coming soon: diving on remote islands - stay tuned!

Chào Thế Giới (Hello World)

This is my first posting of many more to come.

I've been in Vietnam now for over 8 months and have been busy learning the language, the culture and traveling around this magical country.  I hope to inform those unfamiliar with this place about what it is like here and to update those that have been before about how things are today.

I have had a wonderful experience here so far.  Follow along as I encounter more of the beauty and intrigue of this great land.
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