Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Traffic in Saigon

Traffic in Vietnam is the typical third world chaos. There seems to be no discernable traffic regulations and many intersections don’t have lights. The most common form of transportation is scooter. Anything that can be balanced on a scooter will be. We saw cages of piglets and chickens, ten foot lengths of rebar, boxed small appliances and entire families on scooters.

If you look carefully at the video, you can see some large parcels on the backs of few scooters. Small children usually stand of the frame of the scooter between the legs of the driver. In the center of the circle were I took this video is a statue and five roads feed into the circle. There are no traffic lights and vehicles from bicycles to buses just merge and weave around each other.

This video was taken in the Cholon section of Saigon near the market. The Cholon district is the city’s Chinatown era and has a long history. In the market, the stalls offer anything and everything at wholesale prices. My wife found a stand selling beaded cell phone ornaments. She bought a couple of dozen at about US$0.50 each. She has seen similar items in the mall for over US$5.00.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Guest Rooms

Alley of guest houses
Originally uploaded by yellojkt.
We stayed at what are considered luxury hotels while in Vietnam. There are a lot of other lodging options. At the other end of the spectrum are guest houses which are very inexpensive. My mother-in-law stays at these places when she visits for a month or two each year.

A guest house building is a narrow midrise building about five stories high. The ground floor is a lobby with offices. A central stair runs up to each floor. At each floor there are two rooms off of the stair. The room is about 10 feet by 15 feet in size (3m by 5m). The room will have two beds and a small window and an air conditioner as well as other amenities such as phone, a refrigerator and television . There is a bathroom which has a sink, toilet and shower head, but not a separate shower stall.

The rooms cost about ten dollars a day and are very popular with European backpackers. Because of this, they are sometimes called backpacker hotels. Travel agents work in this area offering travel arrangements to outlying cities. These agents offer open bus tickets on frequently traveed routes.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Starbucks of Vietnam

Trung Nguyen Coffeeshop
Originally uploaded by yellojkt.
One of the many capitalist innovations that Vietnam is allowing and adopting is franchising. One of the most common chains is Trung Nguyen, a chain of coffee shops. We saw the brown logo of this brand throughout Vietnam, making it the Starbuck of the country. According to this article, there are over 400 of these shops in Vietnam. High tarriffs keep Starbucks and other chains out.

Since French colonial days, coffee has been an important part of the Vietnamese economy and culture. Vietnamese coffee is a very strong espresso style beverage.

One popular method of serving coffee commonly found in Vietnamese restaurants in the United States is iced coffee with condensed milk. Condensed milk is poured into a glass of ice and then a small pot filled with coffee grounds is placed over the glass. Hot water is poured into the pot and when the coffee is finished seeping into the glass, the coffee, milk and ice are stirred.

In any third world country, tourists are warned not to drink the water. In Vietnam, we stuck to bottled water, but ice is just as dangerous.

One morning I saw a local shop preparing their ice for the day. A large block of ice had been delivered to the shop and one of the workers had set it on the dirty sidewalk and was chipping it with a rusty machete. That sight kept me from drinking any beverages that involved ice. I stuck to refrigerated cans of soda and fruit juice.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Badminton Saigon Style

In all of Vietnam, lots of people exercise in the morning and badmintion is a very popular game. On one of my morning walks I came across a park near the Ben Thanh Market in Saigon. People were doing everything from tai chi to aerobics to just walking. The group in the video was playing a very competitive game of badminton. Nearby kids and teenagers were just practicing with rackets but no nets.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Breakfast In The Streets Of Saigon

I tend to be an early riser and the rest of my family doesn't. The twelve hour time zone diiference didn't seem to affect that much. Every morning I would wake up about 6 am and take a walk around the city. The morning commute would begin about 7, but before that the breakfast street vendors would set up.

In Saigon, breakfast means small soup stands being set up on the sidewalks. The women in this picture had one of the bigger operations. Breakfast was eaten wherever you wanted or could find a seat, chair or park bench. Pho is the all-purpose meal in Vietnam, serving as a breakfast as well as a lunch or dinner. A propane stove would heat the soup and the herbs that went along it would be set out along the side.

I have no idea if and how the location of the vendors was regulated or decided. There seemed to be a strong element of squatters rights involved, and many of the stand owners probably lived in the building behind their stand. Nevertheless all the food preparation and cooking was done right on the sidewalk. Dirty dishes are placed in a plastic tub of lukewarm soapy water. The overall cleanliness of the set-up discouraged me from ever giving the sidewalks stands a try.

Wherever outdoor dining occured, cheap plastic furniture was never far behind. These brightly colored children-sized stools, tables and chairs would be grouped around for the owners of the satand as well as the patrons. Plastic furniture is very economical and easily replaced if lost or stole. Even large cafes would use plastic lawn chairs for furniture. It tended to give the sidewalks the look of a badly cared for daycare center.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Fruit Gardens And Hammock Stands

One of the interesting niche businesses in Vietnam is the fruit garden. These are family run areas of a few acres covered with, obviously, fruit trees. Scattered around the gardens are seating areas tables and canopies. You sit down and they bring you fresh coconut to drink, and then you order plates of fruit to snack on. This was where I finally had my durian.

To get to a fruit garden, you take a small boat down a canal to the garden. The canals are lined with furit gardens and the boat driver takes you to the one he has a relationship with. This particular fruit garden was not particulary good. Most of the chairs were broken and we had to move around a few times. the fruits were slow in coming out. The insects were also starting to get thick by mid-morning.

Industrialization has been rough on this industry. Pollution and haze have impacted the quality of the fruit trees so close to Saigon. Also there are now many more types of recreation vying for the leisure market.

On the main highway to the Mekong Delta, we saw a lot of roadside stands that were a similar type of enterprise. Our guide called them "hammock cafes" for good reason. Each stand would have a grove of trees or a large thatched pavillion with rows of hammocks strung up. the patrons would come by and have refreshments or a meal served and then take a nap in the hammock.

It sounded like agreat idea, but I'm not sure it's a business ready for the go-go western world.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Durian Quest

Perhaps one of the most notorious tropical fruits is the durian. Anthony Bourdain in his show Kitchen Confidential went to Vietnam to eat a live beating cobra heart. And a durian. Our guide says the Vietnamese saying about durians are that they "taste like heaven and smell like hell."

The smell is so awful that hotels have rules about guests bringing them to the room. The most common comparison is to dirty diapers.

Durians are actually available in the United States. The Korean run supermarket in my area sells them. Still, I was not leaving Vietnam without eating a durian.

Holding my durian.
Originally uploaded by yellojkt.
The durian is large with a tough spiky skin. The inside is divided into a series of of compartments each with its own pod. The pod contains a seed and the fruit surrounds the seeds. The fruit is sweet and mushy like over-ripe mango. Personally, I didn't find the taste or the smell as extreme in either direction as hyped. My son whose olafactory sense is probably keener than mine did find the smell a little repulsive.

The meat was very sticky and rather messy to eat. This durian was on the small side and it was still nearly a meal all to itself. I was a little underwhelmed with the experience, but perhaps I had built up the legendary durian just a little too much in my mind.

Snake Not On A Plane

Holding a python
Originally uploaded by yellojkt.
While at the honey farm, we had a little time to kill waiting for the rain to die down. They had this big snake in a cage that they let me and my son hold. I think it is some sort of python or other constrictor. My wife wouldn't have anything to do with it.

Eco-tourism is an industry the Mekong Delta area is really hoping catches on. I'm not sure roadside attraction level items like enormous snakes will be enough to keep people coming.