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

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Interesting Article on Historic HCMC

I found an interesting article on a part of Saigon that I have not yet been (but will be going soon after reading). Check the link below.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Con Dao Island: A Quiet Escape From The City

I have just returned from Con Dao. While initially I had planned to go diving there, I ended up sightseeing and snorkeling instead.  It was a wonderful experience and was one of the most beautiful places I have been in Vietnam (actually one of the best I've seen in the world).  The secluded island had clean air, beautiful clear turquoise water, lush green vegetation, and scenic vistas.  I would definitely return and hopefully for longer than 3 days next time. 

I flew from Saigon to Con Son (the larges island of the Con Dao island group).  There are 2 flights per day from Saigon and the cost is around 100usd round-trip.  The flight was 40-45 minutes long and is by far the easiest way to get to the island.  The other option is by boat from Vung Tau.  The boat leaves only on certain days and takes between 11 and 13 hours to arrive.  Add to that the 2 hour travel time to Vung Tau from Saigon and you have quite a long trip.  The Con Dao airport is extremely small and accommodates only one aircraft at a time and has a rather scary runway due to its short lenght (the plane slowed to a stop less than 50 meters from the end and the runway ends in the ocean!).  There are no restaurants or even snack stands in the airport.  However, the airport is surrounded by beautiful scenery.

Con Dao Island airport is small but beautiful.

The temperature was 29 degrees when I arrived (84 Fahrenheit) and shortly after arrival 2 or 3 buses came to take different tour groups to their hotels.  I saw very few western people at the airport.  There were no taxis (but motorcycle taxis may be available sometimes) and the only way for me to get to the hotels was with a guy who offered me a free drive if he could show me his hotel.  On the way to the hotel he told me that there were 16 islands that made up Con Dao and he pointed out to me a new town home development from an American backer with prices starting at 2 million usd. 

I arrived at the hotel and liked the beach and the rooms.  There are very few sleeping options in Con Dao and thus they would not move off their price of 55usd per room (add 17 usd if you want a second bed, non negotiable. Note second bed is inflatable).  The hotel was newly built with beautiful wooden rooms and very nice restrooms for Vietnamese hotels.  A scant breakfast was included.  I decided to stay there as the views and the rooms were very nice.  The hotel had 12 rooms and was at 65% occupancy.  The hotel was 1km from the main town and there was a karaoke bar next to us that had traditional Vietnamese music.  I saw a few black squirrels during the day and at night I saw a couple of brightly lit boats night fishing, several bats and a million stars (the population of Con Dao is five to six thousand so light pollution is not a problem).  While the hotel and the surroundings were wonderful, the service was terriable.  I had to ask the front desk 6 times to clean up plates and food garbage they had brought to my room, they did not fix the phone, fix the television or bring extra towels after repeated requests.  The service at the restaurant was sub-par with the waiters and waitresses literally ignoring requests for service and standing at the restaurant bar picking their teeth.  The manager was ineffective and inattentive.  All in all - room: 3.5/5, location: 5/5, food: 2/5, service: 1/5.  However, the room and the location more than compensate for the poor food and service; I would return to the same hotel without a doubt.

Con Dao resort is the perfect place to relax.

Swimming at the hotel was relaxing and was how I spent my first day at the island.  There were no jellyfish, very calm water, and visibility of over 20 feet.  In the morning, fresh fish can be purchased from the fishermen when they come in at the beach shore.  The beach was very quiet and only two or three people are on it at a time.  There are many crabs living in the sand of the beach that dart around when you walk on the shore and the mountains surrounding the beach often had clouds draped over their peaks.   In the morning we enjoyed watching the rain roll in from the distance and found the hour-long storm to be very plesent.  However, there were an astounding number of aggressive sandflies during the day and mosquitoes at night, almost no wind, and very few fish in the water.   While picturesque, the beach of the hotel was not really ideal for prolonged outdoor enjoyment; other locations in Con Dao were much better suited.  

con dao resort has a beautiful and secluded beach.

What I really enjoyed was renting a motorbike and driving around (most of) the main island.  There was almost no one else on the road (a nice change from Saigon!) and the views everywhere were breathtaking. Some of the mountains on Con Son are more than 300m tall so some of the roads can be difficult for a 110cc motorbike to manage.  There is only one gas station on Con Son and it is only open in the evening.  If gas is needed at other times it can be acquired at various local people's houses for around 20,000vnd/L.  It is best to get a map of the island showing all of the various attractions to make getting around easier.  There is a large military presence on the island which means certain areas are restricted.  It also means that the island is very safe.

Scenic panorama showing lakes and mountains of con dao islands

Having a motorbike is great because it gives easy access to all of the attractions of the island.  One must be careful, though, while driving around for sleeping dogs in the road, humpbacked cows randomly crossing the street, and butterfly swarms pelting you in the face.  The list of sights to see on the island is large.  You can make a stop at Cho Con Dao (Con Dao market) for all of your fruit, veggie, meat and miscellaneous goods needs, head over to the Con Dao National Park, see the old prison where over 10,000 people lost their lives,  hike one of the numerous trails around the island, look around the farms, and join the locals on saturday night on the seawall.

part of con dao prison

I took a day trip near the airport for some hiking and snorkeling.  I had heard that there were some easily accessible places to see some nice coral and possibly a natural hot spring.  I arrived and found the place for snorkeling and it was amazing.  The clarity was over 20 feet and the coral was abundant and very colorful.  There were many different fish of various sizes and the currents were almost non-existent. After snorkeling I talked to a local for a while.  He told me that the best snorkeling spots are on the islands that surround Con Son island.  He also told me that the island gets their water from wells and that the electricity (which is subsidized for the residents) never gets blacked out.  I asked him about the springs that I had heard about and he told me how to get there.  I had to go on a short walk through the forest with a few steep climbs.  Upon arrival, I was disappointed to find out that the hot springs were not hot springs, they were just regular springs.  However, the springs were near a beautiful secluded beach and I had a nice snack there without seeing other visitors.

beautiful place for snorkeling and diving in con dao

While I had planned on diving I was turned off from it because of the high cost on Con Dao.  However, ecotourism is supposed to be excellent in Con Dao as there are dolphins, sea cows, sea turtles, coral, many varieties of fish, forests, and various conservation centers around the various islands.  All things considered, Con Dao is an wonderful place to have a vacation and luckily for us Saigonese it is less than an hour away!

I arrived back in Saigon yesterday and was a little sad that the trip was so short.  The plane that I took both to and from Con Dao was made by the Italian-French company Aerei da Trasporto Regionale, model ATR 72 which is a twin turboprop with typical cruising speeds of 300mph or 480kph.  The plane, as configured by Vietnam Airlines, seats 60+ passengers.  Water and moist towels were provided along with incomprehensible English courtesy of the flight attendant. On the brief flight there were several rainbows of great brightness and size.  When we were descending, we flew over my home and then landed in 2 minutes.  That was significantly faster than the hour that it takes to get to the airport by car; traveling by airplane is definitely the way to travel around Saigon!

view of Saigon from the airplane
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