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kottke.org posts about Vietnam

Vietnam, Population 95 Million, Has Recorded 0 Deaths from Covid-19

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 16, 2020

Several countries have been celebrated for their success in curtailing the Covid-19 pandemic — Iceland, New Zealand, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Taiwan — but Vietnam, a nation of 95 million people that borders China, has recorded only 334 total infections and 0 deaths. 0 deaths. They are currently on a 61-day streak without a single community transmission. (For reference, the US has recorded 2.1 million cases and more than 115,000 deaths with just 3.4 times the population of Vietnam.)

How have they done it? They acted early and aggressively.

Experts say experience dealing with prior pandemics, early implementation of aggressive social distancing policies, strong action from political leaders and the muscle of a one-party authoritarian state have helped Vietnam.

“They had political commitment early on at the highest level,” says John MacArthur, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s country representative in neighboring Thailand. “And that political commitment went from central level all the way down to the hamlet level.”

With experience gained from dealing with the 2003 SARS and 2009 H1N1 pandemics, Vietnam’s government started organizing its response in January — as soon as reports began trickling in from Wuhan, China, where the virus is believed to have originated. The country quickly came up with a variety of tactics, including widespread quarantining and aggressive contact tracing. It has also won praise from the World Health Organization and the CDC for its transparency in dealing with the crisis.

From the BBC:

Vietnam enacted measures other countries would take months to move on, bringing in travel restrictions, closely monitoring and eventually closing the border with China and increasing health checks at borders and other vulnerable places.

Schools were closed for the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of January and remained closed until mid-May. A vast and labour intensive contact tracing operation got under way.

“This is a country that has dealt with a lot of outbreaks in the past,” says Prof Thwaites, from Sars in 2003 to avian influenza in 2010 and large outbreaks of measles and dengue.

“The government and population are very, very used to dealing with infectious diseases and are respectful of them, probably far more so than wealthier countries. They know how to respond to these things.”

By mid-March, Vietnam was sending everyone who entered the country - and anyone within the country who’d had contact with a confirmed case — to quarantine centres for 14 days.

Costs were mostly covered by the government, though accommodation was not necessarily luxurious. One woman who flew home from Australia — considering Vietnam a safer place to be - told BBC News Vietnamese that on their first night they had “only one mat, no pillows, no blankets” and one fan for the hot room.

Forced bussing to quarantine centers in the US, could you even imagine? Better that hundreds of thousands of people die, I guess.

The Vietnamese health system also implemented aggressive contact tracing:

Authorities rigorously traced down the contacts of confirmed coronavirus patients and placed them in a mandatory two-week quarantine.

“We have a very strong system: 63 provincial CDCs (centers for disease control), more than 700 district-level CDCs, and more than 11,000 commune health centers. All of them attribute to contact tracing,” said doctor Pham with the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology.

A confirmed coronavirus patient has to give health authorities an exhaustive list of all the people he or she has met in the past 14 days. Announcements are placed in newspapers and aired on television to inform the public of where and when a coronavirus patient has been, calling on people to go to health authorities for testing if they have also been there at the same time, Pham said.

More from Axios and The Guardian.

Da 5 Bloods, a New Spike Lee Joint

posted by Jason Kottke   May 18, 2020

Spike Lee’s newest film, Da 5 Bloods, is coming to Netflix on June 12 and the trailer, driven by the Chambers Brothers’ psychedelic rock anthem Time Has Come Today, is really compelling.

From Academy Award(R) Winner Spike Lee comes a New Joint: the story of four African-American Vets — Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) — who return to Vietnam. Searching for the remains of their fallen Squad Leader (Chadwick Boseman) and the promise of buried treasure, our heroes, joined by Paul’s concerned son (Jonathan Majors), battle forces of Man and Nature — while confronted by the lasting ravages of The Immorality of The Vietnam War.

Having recently been to Vietnam and done a bit of reading about US veterans retiring there, I’m interested to see how Lee handles that dynamic and portrays the country.

My Trip to Vietnam, Singapore, and Qatar

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 26, 2020

The waterfall at Singapore's Changi airport

For three weeks in late January and early February, I travelled to Asia, spending two weeks in Saigon, a few days in Singapore, and about 48 hours in Doha, Qatar. Here are some of the things I saw and did and ate. Note: this is a long post, maybe the longest thing I’ve posted here in many years. But I think it’s a quick read — pack a snack, stay hydrated, and you’ll be alright.

Saigon, Vietnam

I flew to Saigon via Doha on Qatar Airways. On my seatback screen, I watched the flight map as we flew a precise path with several course correcting turns that you don’t find in a usual great circle route. We flew over Turkey and Iraq and then out over the Persian Gulf, being very careful not to cross into the airspace of Syria, Iran, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia — an aerial expression of Middle East tensions & alliances.

On my first full day, I arranged to go on a street food tour via motorbike. My guide, a local college student, picked me up at my apartment and, along with another guide & fellow tourist, we ate some bun bo hue (beef noodle soup), banh mì (pork sandwich), bap xao (stir-fried corn), com tam (broken rice w/ pork), drank some tra rau bap (corn silk tea), visited the flower market, and enjoyed a leisurely and engaging chat at a coffee shop. I did a food tour to kick off my time in Mexico City as well and would recommend it as a great way to meet some locals and quickly get the lay of the culinary land, which you can use as a blueprint for the rest of your trip.

Bowl of noodles in Saigon, Vietnam

The food here is off the chain. Street food is generally safe to eat, where all the good stuff is, and a full meal is never more than a few bucks. Some of my favorites were banh mì, bun cha (pork w/ rice noodles), and bo la lot (beef wrapped in lolot leaves).

Before I went, I did a bunch of research on specific places to eat, which turned out to be not so useful because about half of the places I’d flagged had permanently closed. In some cases, not only was the restaurant or food cart gone, whole blocks had been razed to make way for an entirely new buildings. Some of these missing places had just been written about a year or two ago, but the pace of change in Saigon is unimaginably fast. Locals I talked to said it feels like an entirely new city every few years.

Founded by a pair of Japanese expats, Pizza 4P’s makes excellent pizza. The growing chain also makes their own burrata and mozzarella in-house.

Mr. Masuko said he leased an alley-side building in Ho Chi Minh City and invested about $100,000 of his savings into a renovation, kitchen gear and other start-up essentials. He and a Japanese employee, Keinosuke Konuki, taught themselves how to make mozzarella by watching a YouTube video.

I also had one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve ever had at Tomidaya in Little Toyko, a tiny place with only 8 seats at a counter. The shoyu was so good I went back a few days later for tsukemen (which was not quite as good but still very tasty).

Craft beer is growing in popularity in Vietnam and the cocktail scene is well established. The Vietnamese palete tends to run sweeter than in America, so go-to cocktails here used to lean towards the tiki end of the spectrum, but now is more varied. Thanks to my pal Brown, I got to visit the tiny speakeasy tucked away behind a hidden door in The Studio Saigon, where artist/bartender Richie Fawcett served up a couple of delicious drinks, including a barrel-aged whiskey cocktail that he smoked with some Irish peat right in front of us.

The official English name for Vietnam’s largest city is Ho Chi Minh City. But locals still call it Saigon (or Sài Gòn), particularly when referring to the central districts. It’s a bit like how New York or NYC refers just to Manhattan.

The War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes) is a must-visit if you’re in Saigon. It’s an eye-opening look at how the American role in the Vietnam War (which in Vietnam was known as the Resistance War Against America or the American War) was perceived by the Vietnamese. The photographs showing the damage done by Agent Orange and the almost casual brutality against Vietnamese civilians (including women & children) by US soldiers were really hard (but necessary) to look at. John Lennon’s Imagine was playing on a continuous loop in the lobby of the museum.

I ended up being in Vietnam for Tet, the lunar New Year, which in terms of celebratory scale is like Christmas, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s all rolled into one holiday that lasts for several days and reverberates for a few weeks. I hadn’t exactly planned on this timing, but having read about the Tet experience on Legal Nomads, I was prepared.

Families celebrating in Saigon on the first day of Tet

Most of the city was shut down for the holiday — the first day of Tet is a day for family and I saw people spilling out into the alleyways, eating and drinking and laughing — but it wasn’t that hard to find dinner or a place to stop for tea. The only time I really felt the Tet crunch was when I needed to buy a new phone (more on that in a bit) but couldn’t because all of the electronics stores were closed. Most of the time, though, I was thankful for the slightly slower pace and festive atmosphere.

Travel tip: find a rooftop bar in whatever city you’re in and pop in for a drink around sunset.

I’m always interested in cities where a particular mode of transportation sets the tone for everything else. In much of the US — particularly in places like LA, Dallas, or Raleigh — the car reigns. In Copenhagen and Amsterdam, it’s the bicycle. You could make the argument that in Manhattan, the dance of the streets revolves around the pedestrian. As a city, Saigon is defined by the motorbike. They overwhelm every other mode of transportation here — cars and pedestrians must tailor their movements to the motorbike swarm.

Because of the motorbikes, the process for crossing the street on foot in Saigon is different than in a lot of other places. You basically just wait for any buses (which will absolutely not stop for pedestrians) or cars to go by and then slowly wade out into traffic. Do not make any sudden movements and for god sake don’t run. The motorbike swarm will magically flow around you. It’s suuuuuper unnerving the first few times you do it, but you soon get used to it because the alternative is never ever getting across the street.

The motorbikes make walking around Saigon absolutely exhausting.1 It’s not just crossing the street. You literally have to be on the lookout for them everywhere. They drive up on the sidewalks. They drive into and out of houses and buildings, turning every doorway into a potential intersection. Having to look both ways every few seconds when you’re walking 6 or 8 miles a day around the city really drains the ol’ attention reserves.

Things I saw carried on motorbikes in Saigon, a non-exhaustive list: trees, dogs, tiny babies, ice (for delivery to a drinks cart, the ice block was not even strapped down), a family of five, a dessert cart, an entire toy store, a dried squid shop, and 8 huge bags of clams.

I spent a worthwhile morning exploring the antique shops on Le Cong Kieu street. Many of the shops carried the same sorts of items, so it got a little repetitive after awhile, but the shops with the more unique items were worth the effort.

The hip coffee shops in Saigon look much the same as those in Portland, Brooklyn, Berlin, or Mexico City.

Office in the basement bunker of the Independence Palace in Saigon

Designed by architect Ngô Viết Thụ, the Independence Palace was the home and office of the South Vietnamese President during the Vietnam War. After the North Vietnamese capture of the building effectively ended the war in 1975, the palace was preserved as a historical site, a time capsule of 60s and 70s architecture and interior design. I spent half a day wandering the palace taking photos like crazy. Lots of Accidentally Wes Anderson material there.

The oranges in Asia are green?

An American expat I met in Saigon said that American veterans who fought in Vietnam are now retiring here, a fact which I found to be a) true and b) deeply weird for a number of reasons. Here’s a recent LA Times article on the phenomenon.

Rapid growth in Vietnam and its Southeast Asian neighbors has created a situation that would have been unthinkable in the past: Aging American boomers are living a lifestyle reminiscent of Florida, Nevada and Arizona, but in Vietnam. Monthly expenses here rarely exceed $2,000, even to live in a large unit like Rockhold’s, including the help of a cook and a cleaner. The neighbors are friendly: A majority of Vietnamese were born well after the war ended in 1975, and Rockhold says he has rarely encountered resentment, even when he talks about his service as a combat veteran.

The vast majority of the owners in his apartment building are members of Vietnam’s burgeoning urban middle class; many work in government or in education, and can afford to take vacations abroad. He estimates that no more than 1 in 5 residents in the 25-floor complex are foreigners.

“The Vietnamese were extremely nice to me, especially compared to my own country after I came back from the war,” Rockhold said at a coffee shop recently inside a polished, air-conditioned office tower that also houses a restaurant and cinema.

Small truck full of flowers, Saigon

And last and certainly least, my phone was stolen while I was in Saigon. I’d really hoped that 2020 was going to be the year that I’d avoid making a blunder that would cost me thousands of dollars, but I’d neglected to pay sufficient attention to this bit in the Legal Nomads piece about Tet:

Unfortunately, the city also enters into what is locally known as “stealing season” — a proliferation of petty crimes like phone and purse theft, with the money used toward paying for these Tet gifts. In the weeks leading up to Tet and shortly thereafter, locals would come up to me on the street mimicking someone making off with my bag, a warning to keep an eye on belongings. Several friends found their phones snatched out of their hands in mid-conversation during this time, though no one had any more significant issues (e.g. there were no violence or armed muggings) to report.

It was the second day of Tet and I had just gotten off a motorbike taxi in front of a cafe in a tony part of town. I pulled out my phone to check on something quickly and was about 2 seconds away from putting it in my pocket and going into the cafe when a guy on a motorbike rode up onto the sidewalk — a totally normal thing here, so I didn’t think anything of it — and snatched my phone right out of my hand. I swore at the guy and ran after him for about two steps before I realized a) he was already halfway down the block and b) no one within earshot spoke English well enough to help me quickly enough to chase the guy down or flag down a police officer. The phone was gone.

Luckily, I had my iPad in my backpack, so I went into the cafe and deactivated the phone with Find My. For about an hour, I stewed and felt violated & pissed that I had been careless. I’ve had mixed experiences with solo travel — it’s hard sometimes! — so some despondency along those lines crept in too. I posted an Instagram Story about the theft (w/ my iPad) and some kind and wise words from my pals Craig and Stewart got me back on the right track. Stewart in particular reminded me that events like this are “the tax we pay on traveling” and that “maybe we don’t pay it every trip, but it comes around eventually”.

So yeah anyway, that shitbird didn’t ruin my trip — although being without a phone (no maps, no rideshare apps, no texting to coordinate meetups, no translation app) for a couple of days definitely restricted my movements for a couple of days until the electronics stores opened after Tet. That dude’s year may have gotten off to an unlucky start by stealing from someone, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let losing some property set the tone for my year or change my affection for this city and its people.

Singapore

Singapore felt like the future, full stop. And it’s not just the incredible waterfall & tropical forest in the airport or the mid-building gardens in the skyscrapers. Energy-saving escalators ran slowly or not at all until human motion was detected. Infrared temperature scanners like this one were set up at the airport to automatically screen disembarking passengers for coronavirus-related fevers. Public transportation was fast, cheap, and ubiquitous — my train ride from the airport to downtown was ~$1.50. I exited the country via Automated Immigration — a machine scans your passport & thumb and you’re good to go. A vending machine made me a cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice, sealed with a thin plastic lid. A Buddhist temple I went to had self-serve offering kiosks. Everything was incredibly clean and just worked the way you thought it should — you could sense the organization and infrastructure behind every little thing. And did I mention the waterfall at the airport?!

Gardens spilling over from a Singapore hi-rise

Coming from Vietnam, the food in Singapore was going to have to clear a high bar. And it did. Unlike in Saigon, where street food sellers filled any and every possible nook and cranny of the streets, sidewalks, and alleyways, always-on-brand Singapore has organized their street food vendors into communal hawker centers. In these centers, you can get the most delicious food from all around the world — Malay, Indian, Chinese, and Singaporean cuisines are among the most popular. I ended up eating almost all my meals at food centers — I visited Maxwell Food Centre, Chinatown Complex Food Centre, Hong Lim Food Centre, and Tekka Centre.

At the Chinatown Complex Food Centre, I waited in line for about 10-15 minutes to try the soya sauce chicken rice dish (just US$2!) at Hawker Chan, the first hawker stall ever to be awarded a Michelin star. This. Dish. Was. Amazing. I have never had chicken that tender & juicy. A revelation.

The Asian Civilizations Museum and the Singapore National Gallery were both great — definitely worth visiting if you’re in town for more than a day or two.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a marvelous place to spend an afternoon wandering around. I particularly enjoyed the rainforest and the specialty gardens: the Evolution Garden, the Fragrant Garden, and the Healing Garden (full of plants with medicinal uses). (While looking at the website just now, I’m irritated to learn that I missed the Bonsai Garden. Dammit!) The National Orchid Garden was spectacularly beautiful — there’s an entry fee of $5 that’s well worth paying.1

The Atlas Bar is notable for its huge Art Deco space and extensive gin library. You can get a gin martini with gin made in the 1910s (~US$180) or have a G&T using one of their 1300 gins from around the world. Bar Stories was much more minimal and intimate with no cocktail menu at all — you just tell the bartender the flavors and spirits you’re into and they whip something up for you. You can check out some of their creations on Instagram.

For my first two nights, I stayed in a pod hotel. I opted for a private room and it was perfect. I had just enough space in my room to sleep and change — I was barely there for more than that as I spent most of my time exploring the city. The bathrooms were clean and private — and the showers were great, better than in many American hotels I’ve stayed in. They could do more to dampen the door noise, but other than that, it was really quiet.

The infinity pool on the 58th floor of the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore

For my last night, I splurged on a room at the Marina Bay Sands, aka the hotel with the infinity pool on the 58th floor overlooking the city. Was it worth the price? I don’t know, but the views from the roof were incredible and I did spend a lot of time relaxing by that pool.

Doha, Qatar

Main atrium of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar

On my way home from Singapore, I spent about 48 hours in Doha, Qatar. In retrospect, I maybe should have opted for 2 more days in Singapore. Nothing against Doha, but I just didn’t have the energy to fully explore a third different place/culture in 3 weeks. (Still exploring my limitations…) I did have some great food there — including kofte at a Turkish restaurant and a simple fried halloumi sandwich I’m still thinking about more than a week later. The Museum of Islamic Art was fantastic and deepened my already significant appreciation of Islamic art.

Some miscellaneous thoughts and reflections

I met up with some kottke.org readers in both Saigon and Singapore. Thanks to Brown, Bryan, Joel, Corrie, and the Singapore meetup crew for taking me to some local spots with excellent food & drink, helping me understand a little bit more about Vietnamese & Singaporean culture, and making this solo traveller feel a little less solo. A special thanks to Brown for welcoming me into his home and introducing me to his family. After 20+ years of writing this site, it still blows me away how quickly complete strangers who read kottke.org seem like old friends. ♥

I posted several photos to my Instagram and also compiled Stories from Saigon and Singapore.

I got sick on the last day of the trip, which turned into a full-blown cold when I got home. I dutifully wore my mask on the plane and in telling friends & family about how I was feeling, I felt obliged to text “***NOT*** coronavirus, completely different symptoms!!”

Being in Asia during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak was an interesting experience. I wasn’t worried about contracting the virus — I kept my hands clean & sanitized, wasn’t interacting with anyone who had been to China recently, and wore my mask in the airport and on the airplane. By my last few days in Vietnam, the growing epidemic had the government worried, so people who normally wore masks only while riding motorbikes now wore them all the time in public. I observed that foreign tourists were more likely to wear masks than locals. Many businesses adopted a mandatory mask policy in their offices. Buddhist temples posted signs urging visitors to wear masks.

In the airport on my way to Singapore (and on the flight), every single person was wearing a mask, except for one guy who had no mask and a personal fan blowing air (and all the germs in the vicinity) right into his face. When I got to Singapore, way fewer people were wearing masks in the airport — probably only 50% — even though there were more coronavirus cases in Singapore than in Saigon. As I mentioned above, they had infrared scanners set up checking people for fever. At the Marina Bay Sands, all customers checking in had to have a temperature check with a hand-held thermometer — same if you wanted to use the hotel gym. I also got temp-scanned at one of the museums I went to.

This was my 7th long trip in the past two years and my longest one by more than a week. Despite the benefits of solo travel that I really enjoy, I’ve struggled at times with loneliness and getting a bit overwhelmed by having to figure everything out on my own in unfamiliar places. This trip, aside from a couple hours of stolen phone despair, was struggle-free — or rather the struggle was expected, manageable, and even welcome. Part of it is just practice — I feel like I’ve got the solo travel thing mostly down now. I’ve also had a couple of significant mindset shifts in recent months (like this one about winter weather) that have helped my general outlook. Working full time for two out of the three weeks I was gone helped anchor me to something familiar and provided some structure. And as I mentioned, meeting up with some friendly folks helped too.

And finally to finish up… Whenever I travel abroad, of course I have thoughts about the overall character of the places I go, but they’re based on such an incomplete experience of those places that I’m hesitant to share them. The Saigon metro area has a population of ~13.5 million and I was there for 2 weeks as a tourist, so what the hell could I possibly know about it beyond the superficial? What I mainly tend to come away with is how those places compare to the United States. What freedoms exist in a place like Vietnam vs Singapore vs Qatar vs the United States? How are those freedoms distributed and who do they benefit? And from what authority are those freedoms derived? The more places I go, the less obviously free the US feels to me in many ways, even though our country’s baseline freedom remains high (for some at least).

But the main observation I came home with after this trip is this: America is a rich country that feels like a poor country. If you look at the investment in and the care put into infrastructure, common areas, and the experience of being in public in places like Singapore, Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin and compare it to American cities, the difference is quite stark. Individual wealth in America is valued over collective wealth and it shows.

I know that’s a bit of a downer to end on, but despite what you see on Instagram, travel is not always fun & games and often provides some potentially tough lessons and perspectives. You might get your phone stolen and come back feeling a little bit less great about your home country. Them’s the breaks, kid — welcome to the world. Thanks for following along as always.

  1. The awful state of repair of many of the city’s sidewalks didn’t help either.

  2. Soon after entering the orchid garden, I got stopped for a short survey and the woman gave me $10 for my time, so I actually ended up making money.

A Last Lesson: Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s Return Home To Vietnam

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 13, 2019

Thich Nhat Hanh became a Buddhist monk in Vietnam in 1942 and became known over the next few decades as a teacher and peace activist during the Vietnam War, at one point urging Martin Luther King Jr. to publicly denounce the war. For his activism, Nhat Hanh was denied entry back into Vietnam for nearly 40 years.

Thich Nhat Hanh Mlk

Now 92 years old, world-renowned as a spiritual leader, and ailing from the aftermath of a stroke he suffered in 2014, Nhat Hanh has returned to his original temple in Vietnam to live out his final days.

The monk’s return to Vietnam to end his life can thus be seen as a message to his disciples. “Thay’s intention is to teach [the idea of] roots and for his students to learn they have roots in Vietnam,” says Thich Chan Phap An, the head of Nhat Hanh’s European Institute of Applied Buddhism. “Spiritually, it’s a very important decision.”

Vox’s Eliza Barclay interviewed Phap Dung, one of Nhat Hanh’s senior disciples, and asked him what his teacher might be trying to say by returning to Vietnam.

He’s definitely coming back to his roots.

He has come back to the place where he grew up as a monk. The message is to remember we don’t come from nowhere. We have roots. We have ancestors. We are part of a lineage or stream.

It’s a beautiful message, to see ourselves as a stream, as a lineage, and it is the deepest teaching in Buddhism: non-self. We are empty of a separate self, and yet at the same time, we are full of our ancestors.

He has emphasized this Vietnamese tradition of ancestral worship as a practice in our community. Worship here means to remember. For him to return to Vietnam is to point out that we are a stream that runs way back to the time of the Buddha in India, beyond even Vietnam and China.

A Journey Along the Mekong

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2019

Niemann Cambodia

National Geographic sent illustrator Christoph Niemann to Cambodia and Vietnam and he returned with this series of drawings and observations. He talked about the trip in this behind-the-scenes video.

In a region with so much natural beauty, ancient architecture, and vibrant culture, travelers can easily get stuck behind their viewfinders — consumed with capturing the most vivid moments for their photo albums and Instagram feeds. But over the years, Niemann has developed a different method of documenting his trips.

“I always drew when I traveled … I draw just to calm down essentially, so I’m not constantly checking my phone,” he says.

Niemann believes that painting and drawing his experiences creates a dialogue between his mind and a place — this process ultimately allows him to turn the lens on himself. “Essentially the drawing is like a visual filter,” he explains. “You take the world — and you take it through the abstraction of your drawing — and you start seeing differently.”

Some my favorite posts I’ve written over the past few years have been about my travel: my western roadtrip, Berlin, Istanbul, the solar eclipse. Aside from the eclipse post (which gives me goosebumps every time I reread it), I hadn’t intended to start writing about travel. Ostensibly these trips are supposed to be vacations, my time off from constantly sifting through culture for observations. But Niemann is right…there’s something about applying the creative process to unfamiliar places that that makes the experience more worthwhile. For me, photographing and taking notes for a later post gives me a much better sense of a place, forces me to pay more attention & be more open, causes me to learn about myself, and produces a written document of my trip that I can go back to and experience again.

Vietnamese people “learn” how to make pho from American recipes

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 14, 2018

From Jenny Yang’s Bad Appetite series, a group of Vietnamese critique questionable recipes for phở from American recipe sites that, for instance, try to substitute daikon radish for the noodles?

Politely, to not hurt your feelings, I’ll eat it.

The title is wrong. The whole thing, the recipe is fine. You want to eat, whatever, you cook it. Not with that name. Wrong name. Rename it. This one’s “Japanese soup”.

Don’t skip the last third of this. After politely dissing the recipes, Yang’s subjects talk about the importance of food in Vietnamese culture and share stories of how they came to the United States.

See also Koreans Learn to Make Kimchi from Brad at Bon Appetit.

A beautiful pedestrian bridge in Vietnam

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 03, 2018

Ba Na Hills Bridge

This new pedestrian bridge at the Sun World Bà Nà Hills resort near Da Nang, Vietnam is really something else. From Colossal:

The 500-foot bridge rests in two outstretched palms which have been weathered with cracks and moss to give the appearance of age. While walking along the attraction visitors can look out over the sweeping mountains at a height of nearly 4,600 feet above sea level, and take in the beauty of the bright purple Lobelia Chrysanthemum flowers which dot the structure’s perimeter.

Vietnam’s bag men

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2014

In remote areas of Vietnam where there are no bridges across rivers, people are loaded into plastic bags and swum across by men strong enough to brave the current.

(via quora)

A catfish by any other name would taste as good?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 21, 2008

The catfish is the latest Asian import to threaten the USA-produced version.

If Vietnamese growers can be believed, tra may be the most efficient way on earth to make animal protein. It takes three acres of grazing land to grow a single 700-pound cow. That same land, flooded and turned over to channel catfish ponds will generate 25,000 pounds of catfish. But in Vietnam, those three acres will bring in up to 1 million pounds of tra. The question that fish farmers outside of Southeast Asia ask is whether the Vietnamese are competing on a level playing field. And if not, they wonder, are the Vietnamese grabbing up huge swaths of the global white-fish market at the expense of environmental and consumer safety?

Under pressure from the Chinese, the Vietnamese are even trying to cross the tra with the giant Mekong catfish, which grows up to ten feet long and can weigh 1000 pounds.

CBS News report from 1975 detailing the last

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 21, 2008

CBS News report from 1975 detailing the last World Airways flight out of Da Nang near the end of the Vietnam War.

The flight was supposed be for stranded women and children but as soon as the plane landed in Da Nang, it was swamped by South Vietnamese soldiers attempting to flee the oncoming North Vietnamese forces.

There were 260 people aboard a plane which is designed to carry 105. The plane was overloaded by 20,000 pounds. The baggage compartments were loaded with people. Some of the problems during the flight included, the rear stairway remained partially extended for the entire flight, the main wheels would not retract, a hand grenade damage to one of the wings causing fuel loss, and the lower cargo doors were open. The plane had to fly at 10,000 feet because of lack of pressurization thus fuel consumption was three times greater than normal.

In the end, only 5 women and 2 or 3 children made it onboard. That’s some powerful journalism. (thx, brandon)

Eddie Adams, who won a Pulitzer Prize

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2008

Eddie Adams, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his famous photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Viet Cong prisoner, wishes he had never taken the photo.

The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?”

(via times online)

Quick update on MIT professor Seymour Papert,

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 28, 2007

Quick update on MIT professor Seymour Papert, who was struck by a motorbike in Hanoi in Dec 2006. “Prof Papert’s family said that he had been discharged from the hospital in Boston in the US. He is now still undergoing treatment at home. Luckily enough, he will not have any after-effects after the head trauma and now he can speak.”

Update: Here’s a more accurate update on Dr. Papert’s progress, courtesy of his family: “Seymour continues to make steady progress. He is regaining strength, is becoming more physically active, and is regaining speech. On Friday, January 5, he was able to leave Massachusetts General Hospital for a rehabilitation center in Bangor, Maine, closer to his home. His doctors are expecting a long period of gradual improvement, which could take many months.” (thx, artemis)

MIT professor emeritus Seymour Papert was seriously

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 07, 2006

MIT professor emeritus Seymour Papert was seriously injured by a motorbike in Hanoi and is in a coma. Papert developed the Logo programming language, among other things.

Khoi Vinh reports on computer technology in

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2005

Khoi Vinh reports on computer technology in Vietnam. They’re wired for broadband and Windows still dominates.

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.

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.

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)

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.