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kottke.org posts about Asia 2005

Saigon photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2006

A selection of photos from our week in Saigon:

Photos of Saigon

Here are my posts from the rest of the Asia trip, my photos from Hong Kong, and my photos from Bangkok.

We Work Remotely

Bangkok photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2006

Where does the time go? It’s been more than a month since we got back from Asia, but I haven’t posted my photos from Bangkok or Saigon yet. Time for amends, so with my apologies, here are a collection of photos I took in Bangkok.

Statue at the Grand Palace

Here’s my posts from the rest of the Asia trip and my photos from Hong Kong. Saigon photos tomorrow (hopefully).

Hong Kong photos

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 07, 2005

The Big Buddha, Hong Kong

A small selection of photos from Hong Kong. Photos from Bangkok and Saigon coming soon.

Vietnam wrap-up

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2005

We’re back in the US, but here’s one more post about our time in Vietnam.

1. On our way out to the Mekong Delta, we went through an industrial area, with machine shops, brick-making facilities, and the like. As we drove, we passed a three-wheeled bicycle that you see all over in Vietnam, with a cart in the front over two wheels and the driver over the rear wheel in the back. Lashed to the cart were several steel beams, probably 8-10 of them, each about 2 inches tall and 10 feet long, weight of the whole thing unknown, probably several hundred pounds on three bicycle wheels and a non-existant suspension system. And if that’s not odd enough to imagine, the whole thing was moving at around 30 mph, pushed along by a motorcycle whose driver had his left foot on the bolt of the right front wheel, while the respective drivers of the combined conveyance chatted away with little attention to their Rube Goldberg machine. Wish I’d have gotten a photo of it…it’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen.

2. Even though the streets of Saigon were packed with motorbikes, you saw very few people wearing helmets, and when they did, they tended to be construction helmets that weren’t even strapped to their heads.

3. I got an email from a reader a few days ago wondering why I was referring to Saigon as Saigon rather than its official name of Ho Chi Minh City, the name given to the city 24 hours after it fell to the North Vietnamese. Most of the city’s inhabitants still call it Saigon, so I was following suit. It’s also quicker to say and to type.

4. Cao Dai is a homegrown Vietnamese religion (established in the 1920s) that is an amalgamation of several other religions. On our trip to the Mekong Delta, we visited a Cao Dai temple, which looked like it was designed by Liberace’s interior decorator. Over the altar was a sculpture depicting Buddha, Confucious, Jesus, and Victor Hugo (!!), and I think they were all holding hands or something.

5. On one of the entry forms you need to fill out before arriving in Vietnam, it lists some things that are illegal to import into the country, including:

weapons, ammunition, explosives, military equipment and tools, narcotics, drugs, toxic chemicals, pornographic and subversive materials, firecrackers, children’s toys that have “negative effects on personality development, social order and security,” or cigarettes in excess of the stipulated allowance.

Children’s toys? Negative effects on personality development, social order and security? Bwa?

6. I can’t find too much about it online, but one of the more interesting things we saw in Saigon was the photography exhibit at The War Remnants Museum. The exhibit consists of hundreds of photographs of the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call it the American War) taken by some of the best photojournalists who were working at the time, including Larry Burrows, Henri Huet, Horst Faas, Huynh Thanh My, Robert Capa, and Kyochi Sawada. A powerful and moving record of a tumultuous period in history.

7. Speaking of The War Remnants Museum (which was formerly called The War Crimes Museum and was a little more one-sided in the past), it wasn’t until a couple days after I’d gone that I realized that remnants referred to all of the stuff that the US had left in Vietnam after the long conflict, literally the leftovers of war. Tanks, planes, cars, helicopters, guns, photography, children deformed from the effects of Agent Orange, a population depleted of young men, horrific memories, and, finally, a united Vietnam.

Transportation

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 29, 2005

In rough chronological order**, here are all the modes of transportation we used on our three-week trip to Asia:

Taxi
Bus
Car
Car
Airplane, Embraer
AirTrain
Airplane, Airbus 340
Taxi
MTR (multiple times)
Star Ferry (multiple times)
Ferry
Ferry
Peak tram
Ferry
Bus
Bus
Taxi
Airplane
Taxi
SkyTrain (multiple times)
River taxi (multiple times)
Van
Van
Metro (multiple times)
Canal taxi
Taxi
Taxi
Airplane (Boeing 747)
Taxi
Taxi (multiple times)
Car
Boat
Horse cart
Row boat
Boat
Car
Taxi
Airplane
Taxi
Airplane, Airbus 340
AirTrain
Airplane
Car
Car
Bus
Taxi

For those scoring at home, that’s roughly 12 different forms of transportation. That’s a whole lot of traveling. Here are a few we didn’t make use of:

Tuk tuk
Motorcycle
Motorbike
Cyclos
Long-tail boat

** Where we used something several times over a period of days, I’ve marked the first instance with “multiple times”.

Heading home

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2005

Even though it seems like we just got here, our Asian adventure is drawing to a close. We leave this morning for the eastern seaboard of the United States (via the North Pole, I think). I’ll likely have a few more posts about our time here (including photos) over the next week or so. Posting on Monday and Tuesday will probably be a little shaky as we travel, deal with jet lag, and rediscover bowel movement regularity.

Lunchtime in Saigon

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2005

We had a couple of notable lunches in Saigon. The first was at Quan An Ngon. The owner of this establishment found the best street food vendors in Saigon, offered them a steady wage, and brought them all under one roof to form a restaurant[1]. When you arrive (and after waiting for 10 minutes or more at this busy place) and are shown to your table, you pass the various cooks preparing their street specialties. The waiter was super-quick in taking our order so we didn’t get too good of a look at the menu, but we managed to have an excellent lunch.

A couple of days later, we checked out La Fenetre Soleil (the link is in Japanese, but the photos are good). As you probably know, France ruled Vietnam for about 100 years and the influence can be seen in several aspects of life there. La Fenetre Soleil feels quite French (circa 1940), mostly due to the architecture of the building and the deliberate styling of the proprietors. There are a few tables, but we sat in two ridiculously comfortable stuffed chairs and lunched on banh mi with cold drinks. A very cool place to chill out and have a small meal or a drink…comfortable enough to lounge for hours.

[1] A great idea, BTW. I wonder if such a thing could work in NYC?[2]

[2] Or some other city somewhere else. I live in NYC so I spend a lot of time (publicly and privately) wondering if things I notice elsewhere could work where I live.

Older article in the Economist about eating

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2005

Older article in the Economist about eating in Vietnam. I wonder if the black market food (sea turtle, tiger, bear, porcupine, etc.) is still available.

Meg recaps our daytrip to the Mekong

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 27, 2005

Meg recaps our daytrip to the Mekong Delta. If you go, partake not of the rice and banana wines. Holy antifreeze, Batman!

The walking wounded

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 26, 2005

During our almost-three weeks in Asia, I suffered some gastrointestinal discomfort from too much soda in a bag and then a weird neck injury where I twisted it the wrong way and it just hurt really bad (and now I can’t really look at anything that’s not directly in front of me), while Meg sliced her foot open on some glass and got sick (not the bird flu…probably). All this is in addition to our tired & sore feet from three weeks of hardcore walking.

Then this evening we’re strolling to dinner and I smacked my head into a metal box hanging off of a pole I totally didn’t see (the pole or the box…see my head motion problems above), which actually knocked me off my feet and flat onto my back on the pavement. Luckily, everyone within a 25-foot radius heard/saw this[1] and came right over to see that I was OK (I was), which kinda made it worse because of the embarrassment factor but was also very nice because everyone was so friendly/concerned. The gentleman whose slab of pavement I had horizonatally deposited myself onto produced a tissue and a green liquid of some sort, which I dabbed near-but-not-on the welt on my head just to be polite because of my concern re: the liquid’s antiseptic qualities. After I collected my wits, Meg and the shopkeeper brushed me off, got me standing, and we continued onto dinner, a little slower and more in the middle of the sidewalk. I’ve gotta say, as much as I’ve enjoyed our trip, I’m happy to be heading home to some familiarity.

[1] The sound that a crowd makes when something strange/bad happens in its vicinity is univerally recognizable no matter the language or culture.

Caught in the rain

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 26, 2005

You know how when everyone knows something you don’t know and after a little bit you get a funny feeling that you know that they know something but you still don’t know what It is and you end up with your palms outstretched and your shoulders slightly hunched generally feeling like a dope while everyone chuckles at your ignorance? Getting caught in a tropical rain storm is like that, except that instead of everyone chuckling at you, you just get massively wet.

I was out walking the other day, heading to the travel agency to arrange our daytrip to the Mekong Delta. People generally don’t walk large distances in Saigon like one might in NYC. The sidewalks are crammed with motorbikes (motorbike parking lots are right on the sidewalk instead of dedicated structures), people selling things, and cracked or otherwise uneven pavement. But old habits die hard, so I was out walking.

All of a sudden, there was a flurry of activity. Motorbikes started driving all over the sidewalks, routing around the traffic jam that had developed in the intersection. The sidewalks cleared. I was a bit too busy trying to negotiate the sidewalks with all the motorbike coming at me and from behind me for me to register that something was afoot — it was only afterwards that I put it all together. Then it started to rain, just a sprinkle at first. A man selling something out of a basket by the side of the road produced a plastic poncho seemingly out of nowhere, slipped it on, covered his basket with a plastic bag, and quickly took off around the corner, leaving his basket there on the street.

And then it really started to rain. Big huge drops falling fast. I looked around and found myself on one of the few streets not lined with awninged shops so I sprinted for cover under a tree. The traffic was as thick as ever, but I noticed that as soon as the rain started, all the motorbike drivers and passengers magically had ponchos on. Stupid prescient locals. Meanwhile, my tree was not up to the task of stopping a torrential downpour. Already soaking, I sprinted for a nearby (thankfully unoccupied) pay telephone, above which was a small awning, just big enough for one skinny kid from Wisconsin.

Ten minutes later, the rain slacked enough for me to run the remaining 100 yards to the travel agency. Dripping like a wet dog all over their floor, the woman asked me, “you get here by taxi or walk?”

“Walk,” I replied.

She shook her head in pity. Turns out there’s another reason why people probably don’t walk much around here.

Another benefit to being in Vietnam is

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 23, 2005

Another benefit to being in Vietnam is that they have pretty good French food here.

Khoi Vinh from Subtraction is currently in

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 23, 2005

Khoi Vinh from Subtraction is currently in Vietnam as well, blogging and taking pictures.

The sounds of Asia

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 23, 2005

Since recording the walk signal sounds in Hong Kong, I’ve been a bit slack in documenting the sounds as I travel around Asia (because frankly the iPod is one more thing I don’t want to lug around with me all day). Stuff I’ve missed:

In lieu of hearing any of those things, check out Quiet American’s field recordings from Vietnam. (via np)

Time magazine profile of Ho Chi Minh (

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 23, 2005

Time magazine profile of Ho Chi Minh (see also his bio from the Communist Party of Vietnam site). We went to a couple of museums in Saigon today and I was curious about his life.

Bangkok wrap-up

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 22, 2005

Wanted to share a few last things from Bangkok while they’re still (relatively) fresh in my head.

1. Green tuk tuks. I read somewhere that a) the locals don’t much care for the tuk tuks (photo) because they’re noisy & polluting and that they’re only still around because tourists use them, and b) supposedly no new tuk tuks are allowed on the street, but that’s more of a guideline than a fast rule. How about this…start regulating tuk tuks like taxis, put a meter in them, stop the unannounced commission-subsidization detours, and require them to be electric (they’re glorified golf carts after all). The crammed streets of Bangkok need more smaller vehicles like tuk tuks, not less, but without the pollution, noise, and the unreliability.

2. Both the Grand Palace and the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho are worth a look. We happened to go to the Grand Palace on the day they were changing the Emerald Buddha’s clothes (done to celebrate the changing of the seasons), so we didn’t get to see him. But the Reclining Buddha made up for it…I was not prepared for how large he was. Quite impressive.

3. We were lucky to be in Bangkok for the Loy Krathong festival, which is a celebration at the end of the rainy season where you float your worries out onto the water in the form of a floating flower arrangement with candles and incense. But it was largely a bust for us…it rained/torrential downpoured most of the evening, and we didn’t really know where to go in Bangkok to participate/experience the event. I think Loy Krathong might be better experienced on a smaller scale (i.e. not in the big city).

4. On Saturday (which seems like forever-ago from my Wednesday vantage point in another country), we went to check out Chatuchak Weekend Market, which IMO is overrated. It’s a completely overwhelming experience, it’s difficult to find anything (they labelled each section with what could be found there, but they rarely matched reality), and is recommended only for really hardcore shoppers. Check out some of the smaller markets instead; the Suan Lum Night Market near Lumpini Park was a good one that we ran across. For food, check out the Aw Kaw Taw market.

Perhaps a bit more if I remember. (Oh, and I’ve got lots of photos from Hong Kong and Bangkok, but posting them will probably happen when I get home…need a proper monitor for editing and whatnot.)

From eGullet: one week in Saigon, a

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 22, 2005

From eGullet: one week in Saigon, a rambling, verbose, meal by meal report.

Where to go for the top eats

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 22, 2005

Where to go for the top eats in Saigon, including best French, pho, and banh mi.

Pancakes in the dew

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 22, 2005

For our first lunch in Saigon, we met up with Graham from Noodlepie, a Saigon-centric food blog. We cabbed it from our hotel to Quan Co Tam - Banh Canh Trang Bang to have one of his favorite Vietnamese dishes, banh trang phoi suong (literally “rice pancake exposed in the dew (at night)”). Here’s the outlay:

Banh trang phoi suong

It’s a simple dish; just boiled pork wrapped in thin rice paper with an assortment of herbs, pickled onions & carrots, cucumber, and raw bean sprouts. As you can see from the photo (or the much better photos that Graham took on a previous trip), the plate of herbs that they give you is quite impressive and varied; one smelled like lemon, another like fish. All wrapped up and dipped in fish sauce, it’s delicious and simple.

Afterwards we headed to the market, Graham for dinner fixings and us for some browsing around. Before we parted, he treated us to a sugarcane & lemon drink (mia da) and a pennywort smoothie (not as bad as I’d thought for something that tasted like salad through a straw). Thanks for the nice lunch, Graham!

The spoils

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 22, 2005

On our first night in Saigon, we ran across a little shop that offered for sale, among other things, lots of 60s/70s-era Zippo lighters.

Me: How do you suppose they came to have those?
Meg: I don’t want to know.

I was born in 1973 and don’t have much of a connection to the Vietnam War (it’s referred to as the American War or the Resistance War Against America here)…my dad was in the Navy but served before the war really got going and was never sent to Vietnam. But for some Americans, I could see how being here would be difficult.

Update: I’ve been told that the Zippo lighters are fake, made especially for the tourist trade. We read about this in our guidebook, but these looked pretty authentic to me. Regardless, a sobering reminder. (thx adam)

The statue of the Virgin Mary outside

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2005

The statue of the Virgin Mary outside the Notre Dame here in Saigon has apparently been weeping and the locals are flocking to see it. (via np)

Traffic flow

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2005

One of my favorite things to do in new cities is to observe how the traffic works. Traffic in each place has a different feel to it that depends on the culture, physical space, population density, legal situation, and modes of transportation available (and unavailable).

Everyone drives in LA and Minneapolis, even if you’re only going a few blocks. In San francisco, pedestrians rule the streets…if a pedestrian steps out into the crosswalk, traffic immediately stops and will stay stopped as long as people are crossing, even if that means the cars are going nowhere, which is great if you’re walking and maddening if you’re driving. In many cities, both in the US and Europe, people will not cross in a crosswalk against the light and will never jaywalk. In many European cities, city streets are narrow and filled with pedestrians, slowing car traffic[1]. US cities are starting to build bike lanes on their streets, following the example of some European cities.

In NYC, cars and pedestrians take turns, depending on who has the right-of-way and the opportunity, with the latter often trumping the former. Cabs comprise much of the traffic and lanes are often a suggestion rather than a rule, more than in other US cities. With few designated bike lanes, cycling can be dangerous in the fast, heavy traffic of Manhattan. So too can cyclers be dangerous; bike messengers will speed right through busy crosswalks with nothing but a whistle to warn you.

In Bangkok, traffic is aggressive, hostile even. If a driver needs a space, he just moves over, no matter if another car is there or not. Being a pedestrian is a dangerous proposition here; traffic will often not stop if you step out into a crosswalk and it’s impossible to cross in some places without the aid of a stoplight or overpass (both of which are rare). More than any other place I’ve been, I didn’t like how the traffic worked in Bangkok, either on foot or in a car.

Traffic in Saigon reminds me a bit of that in Beijing when I visited there in 1996. Lots of communication goes on in traffic here and it makes it flow fairly well. Cars honk to let people know they’re coming over, to warn people they shouldn’t pull in, motorbikes honk when they need to cross traffic, and cars & motorbikes honk at pedestrians when it’s unsafe for them to cross. Traffic moves slow to accommodate cars, the legions of motorbikes (the primary mode of transportation here), and pedestrians all at the same time.[2] Crossing the street involves stepping out, walking slowly, and letting the traffic flow around you. Drivers merging into traffic often don’t even look before pulling out; they know the traffic will flow around them. The system requires a lot of trust, but the slow speed and amount of communication make it manageable.[3]

[1] This is the principle behind traffic calming.

[2] That traffic calming business again.

[3] Not that it’s not scary as hell too. American pedestrians are taught to fear cars (don’t play in the street, look both ways before crossing the street, watch out for drunk drivers) and trusting them to avoid you while you’re basically the frog in Frogger…well, it takes a little getting used to.

Dateline: Saigon

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2005

We’ve arrived safely in Vietnam. Saigon is by far the most European stop on our trip, which makes sense because Thailand was never colonized by a European power[1] and Hong Kong was British and therefore not European[2]. There are cafes, French restaurants, European architecture, public spaces like squares and parks, etc. It feels like Europe here.

And there are a lot of dongs here. The Vietnamese currency is the dong[3]. Our hotel is just off of Dong Khoi. I’ve seen several restaurants and shops with “Dong” in the name. Beavis and Butthead would love it here; I myself have been making culturally insensitive jokes pertaining to the currency and my pants pocket all afternoon.

[1] The only SE Asian country never to have been so colonized.

[2] Hello, angry Brits! Of course you’re European, but you know what I mean. For starters, you’ve got your own breakfast, as opposed to the continental.

[3] The 50,000 & 100,000 dong notes are plastic and see-through in a couple spots. US currency is so not cool.

Mapping Bangkok

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2005

Good maps of Bangkok seem hard to come by. Before we left, we looked in several bookstores and decided on The Rough Guide to Bangkok. We’d never used a Rough Guide before but our usual (excellent) guidebook series, DK Eyewitness Guides, did not have a Bangkok-specific book, only a general Thailand guide. What a mistake…I’ve wanted to throw the RG right into the river about 10 times in the past few days. Meg promises me that once we get home, I can ritually set fire to it and cleanse ourselves of its crappiness.

On one of our last days here, we happened upon the Eyewitness Guide for Thailand and while it’s thick and heavy, the Bangkok section would have been perfect for our needs. Argh! Oh well…one of the difficulties in traveling is that you never know what you’re really going to need until you get to where you’re going, and that goes double for maps.

We ended up relying quite a bit on the free SkyTrain/Metro map they give you at the station, as well as a slew of free maps available at our hotel and various other places around town. None of them was very good, but depending on what we were doing, one of them had the appropriate information on it. After all this, I wonder if a good map for Bangkok even exists[1]. The city is so big and sprawling that it’s conceivable that no one has undertaken the effort to map it all.

[1] To its (possible) credit, the RG recommended a Bangkok map called Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok. We found it in a small bookshop on our last full day here, and while we couldn’t properly evaluate it in its wrapper, it looked promising.

Red Bull was originally a Thai energy

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2005

Red Bull was originally a Thai energy drink. I’ve seen the original in the stores here, along with several competing brands.

A huge trove of Hong Kong photos,

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2005

A huge trove of Hong Kong photos, many from the present day, but some dating back to as early as 1840.

An exploration of what the young and

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2005

An exploration of what the young and hip are up to in Bangkok, which is one of the hottest cities in Asia right now. (thx, david)

Speaking pretty

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2005

When you only know a few words of a language, it’s easy to get confused when speaking. Somehow the phrase “tod mon pla” is one of the few Thai phrases that has stuck fast in my head, so much so that I’m afraid I’ll get flustered when somebody greets me with “sa-wat dee kha” that I will answer with “tod mon pla”:

Them: “Hello!”
Me: “Fish cakes.”

Thai also sounds a bit like Klingon to me; it’s all the short one-syllable letter combinations strung together. Any day now, instead of “khawp khun khrap” (which means “thank you”), I’m going to reply with qapla’ (roughly pronounced “kah-pla”, it’s the Klingon word for “success” or “good luck”[1]).

Meanwhile, my fast and loose eating on the streets of Bangkok has finally caught up with me as I’ve been spending a little more time in the bathroom than usual for the past day. I flew too close to the sun on bags of soda, my friends. It’s not bad, but I think I’ll lay off getting ice from places on the street.

[1] qapla’ is the only Klingon word that I know, gleaned from hours of watching ST:TNG on TV in high school and college. I’m a big dork, but not the kind that’s anything approaching fluent in Klingon.

Anna’s Cafe

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2005

Just got back from dinner at Anna’s Cafe (118 Soi Sala Daeng). I had the grilled chicken with garlic and pepper and Meg got tom kah gung (the coconut and galangal soup that we learned how to make in our cooking class, except with shrimp instead of chicken). The reviewers at Fodor’s didn’t like Anna’s, but we thought it was pretty good. Anna’s also seems to be the place in Bangkok to go for your birthday…we heard Happy Birthday sung five different times while we were there.

Lorem ipsum

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 19, 2005

Sorry for the lack of updates…we’ve been having some trouble with the internet and I’ve been wrestling with my email for the past two days (I finally pinned it in the 8th round). If you sent me mail, I think I got it, but expect a slower than normal response…most of it will probably wait until I’m back in the States.

Been doing some reading up on Vietnam (we’re heading there in a couple of days). I’m finding that Wikipedia (Vietnam, Vietnamese cuisine) and WikiTravel (Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City) are good sources for the 50,000 view of things, taken with a grain of salt. The guidebook is better, but it takes a lot longer for you to get the gist. Reading Wikis Pedia and Travel and then the guidebooks seems a good strategy.

Also, we’ve been Flickring photos while we’re in Asia (thank you T-Mobile for finally fixing my International Roaming), check out Meg’s and mine for off-blog goings-on. (Completely off topic, here’s some Flickr photos tagged “comic sans”.)