Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Con Dao: Vietnam's Last Paradise?

During my travels in Vietnam, I've been struck by how readily developers obliterate beautiful places in the name of tourism, often ruining the very places they are trying to attract people to. Nha Trang, home to a stunning bay surrounded by mountains, is now a wall of high-rise hotels and proposed mega-projects. Ha Long Bay has been terribly polluted by tourism boats, and Phu Quoc is undergoing a transformation that will render it unrecognizable in a few years. I understand tourism is important to the economy, but at what cost?

Fortunately, last week I discovered there is still one largely untouched paradise: the Con Dao archipelago, a collection of 16 mountainous islands about 150 miles south of Saigon. Me and Natasha arrived at the tiny airport on Con Son, the main island, in the morning and had five days in the sun to look forward to.

The weather was beautiful almost the whole time, even though it's the wet season in southern Vietnam. The island is very quiet, with just a couple of stoplights and little in the way of traffic. This was definitely the easiest motorbike driving I've done in Vietnam, as the roads are good and there are few people around to almost run you over.
The main beach in town. Incredibly, it was always this empty.
After lunch at the excellent Bar200 we headed to the other side of the island from town, to Dam Trau Beach, which is at the end of the airport runway, so the twin-engine prop planes which Vietnam Airlines flies to the island occasionally rumbled overhead. Con Son is remarkably undeveloped - there are no high-rises or garish Vinpearl eyesores; no beer clubs blasting Vietdub at 200 decibels; and no backpacker bars full of shaggy gap year kids in 333 singlets. The main road doesn't even completely circle the island, and it's usually hemmed in by rainforest. It's incredible.

There is also a lot of history to Con Dao - it was once an outpost of the British East Indies Company, and the French turned it into a notorious penal colony, the facilities for which the government of South Vietnam gladly used to punish its enemies before the country was reunited in 1975. There are several old prisons and a museum which document this gruesome past, but we focused on beaches and motorbike drives instead.

Dam Trau
The water was crystal clear and the sand largely empty, allowing us to soak up some serious rays in peace and quiet. Well, not until the truckload of army soldiers who were drinking and singing appalling karaoke left early in the afternoon.

The next couple days consisted of similar lazing about in the sun, and one evening we went to dinner at the Six Senses Con Dao, regarded as one of the finest (and most expensive) resorts in the country. (Brad and Angelina stayed here when they visited a few years ago.) The property is stunning, with a private beach and pool and a tasteful wooden design. The dinner at their By The Beach restaurant was incredible, and completely worth the huge tab (the meal cost as much as our four nights of accommodation at Con Dao Camping and five days of motorbike rental combined). If you're planning a trip to Con Dao and can afford a blowout meal, definitely go for it.

The next day we drove to the western side of the island, where the rugged scenery doesn't even look like Vietnam. This area is much more exposed to the wind than around the main beach, which was generally pretty calm.
Finally, on the last day we did one of the many hikes available in Con Dao National Park. The archipelago is very diverse and largely protected (at least on paper), both on land and below the water, with a number of trails and dive sites available. Some of the smaller islands are nesting grounds for sea turtles, and numerous fish species can be found in the area. This trail ran just over a kilometer to the abandoned So Ray plantation, built during the French colonial years.

The highlight of the hike was the wildlife - we had been told to keep an eye out for monkeys and a large species of squirrel, For most of the hike all we saw were birds, bats and some insects, but as we neared the plantation we heard the sound of larger animals in the trees. After looking closely we spotted several black giant squirrels hopping around the branches. Over the next half hour we saw several more in addition to a pair of moneys, and they all kept their distance. This was the first time I had seen such wildlife in nature in Vietnam - other places have monkeys, but they are so used to human contact that they walk right up and steal whatever food you have. I enjoyed having to work to see the animals.
View from the plantation's watchtower
The main market in town.
 Afterwards we drove over to the beautiful Van Son Pagoda, which overlooks the stunning East Sea from the side of a hill.

With time for one last quick drive around the point to the west side of the island, we took in the simply incredible view for a few minutes, and then it was time to reluctantly head back to Saigon and its noise, traffic and pollution.

Mother nature treated us to a beautiful sunset over the Mekong Delta on the way back.

Con Dao is easily one of the best destinations I've been to in Vietnam, and I've been almost everywhere. It is quiet, gorgeous, largely untouched and has some great food. It is still largely off the tourist trail since flights to it and accommodation once there are generally more expensive than elsewhere in Vietnam, but surely it will be 'discovered' at some point. I sincerely hope that, whenever that happens, it doesn't go the way of Phu Quoc. Vietnam has a chance here to retain something truly special, and me and Natasha are already figuring out when we can go back for more.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Visa Run From Hell

The hated Vietnamese customs hall.
No man's land between Vietnam and Cambodia.
Since I work here as a freelancer, it appears to be impossible to obtain a Vietnamese work permit and the subsequent year-long visa. As a result I have to get a new visa on a regular basis. One way to do this is to go on a border run to the Cambodian border and back, which I did for the first time last weekend. The process was a complete nightmare, and illustrative of many of the problems with Vietnam’s tourism.

Local media has been full of recent stories lamenting Vietnam’s 12-month run of declining visitor numbers, although there was apparently an uptick in July. Officials, experts and members of the public have weighed in through multiple outlets, with some blaming pollution, scams and a lack of interesting tourism sites for the downward trend. Many, however, pointed to the inconvenient, expensive visa policies of the country, especially given the fact that many neighboring countries offer paid visas on arrival or, in the case of Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, 30 days of free travel. Vietnam has recently waived visa fees for several countries, but the visas are only for 15 days, and the rest of us are still saddled with an infuriatingly bureaucratic and arbitrary process.

I took a public bus to the Moc Bai border gate (2.5 hours, 40,000 dong) with an approval letter for a three-month multiple-entry visa in hand. Walking into the customs hall, I was greeted by the sight of a mass of humanity in front of the exit counters, standing around in an amorphous blob. I overheard several conversations, and it was clear that no one knew what was going on. I stood in what I thought was a line, but after 20 minutes it had gone nowhere.

Eventually I realized that the assistants from the tour buses lined up outside were taking the passports of every passenger up to the front to get stamped, while the passengers waited for their name to be called, sweating in the hot, humid air of the hall. Since I was traveling individually, this was of no use to me. Finally I decided to just walk up to the ‘Way for Foreigners’ counter and hand the stone-faced official my passport. He stamped it immediately, and I had wasted a half hour standing around for nothing. There were no signs explaining this process, and no one to ask for help.

Afterwards I breezed through the entrance and exit procedures on the Cambodian side in about 10 minutes, and a few of the officials there even smiled.

It was time re-enter Vietnam after spending all of five minutes in another country, and the entrance customs hall offered a familiar scene: dozens of people standing around aimlessly while the bus attendants tried to get numerous passports stamped. I knew what to do (or so I thought), so I wallowed through the crowd to the foreigner counter and handed over my passport, visa approval letter and visa fee. A man standing next to the counter said I had to actually buy the visa elsewhere, and he pointed left. Directly at a wall. I had no idea what this meant, but he wasn’t interested in explaining. I went back outside but saw no visa office. After wandering around I asked another official where to go, and he pointed in a slightly less vague direction. I found a cluster of buildings and in a courtyard came across the visa on arrival office. Once again, there was no signage for this, apparently you are supposed to just know it’s hidden back there. This is where the nightmare truly began.

I approached the visa window and handed my relevant documents to the angry-looking official on the other side. He took one look at my approval letter and simply grunted, ‘No!’ My heart sank. I asked why and he just waved his hand. An English-speaking bus guide came up and explained that the official claimed my letter was a photocopy, not the original. I had received this letter directly from the immigration office in Saigon, and it was not a copy, but the official brushed me aside. I was now envisioning a life stuck in between the border posts of Cambodia and Vietnam. I had been nervous in the days leading up to this trip, as I know officials here can decide against things on a whim for no good reason, and my fears now seemed justified. I had no idea what the hell I was going to do if he refused to give me a visa, as I had already entered and exited Cambodia and was pretty sure you can't do it twice in one day.

The same bus guide told me to wait a while so the official could go to lunch, and then try again when he returned. I had no choice at this point, so I sat down in the heat and contemplated a future in international limbo.

A while later the official returned and handed me his phone, with someone who spoke English on the other end. The unknown man asked why I had photocopied my letter, as if this whole thing was my fault. I stated that I had done no such thing, and why did it matter anyway? The form still had the all-important red stamp and the signature of an immigration official. I wasn’t sure where this was going, but the official then randomly decided to actually approve my visa. I handed him $95, the three-month visa price which is posted right next to the office (as ruled by a government decree), and then he demanded another $5 with no explanation. Was this a bribe? Probably, but at this point I didn’t care, although I do wish I had gotten the official’s name so I could try to report him (not that I have any idea how to do that).

I hurried back to the customs hall and went straight to the foreigners counter with my fresh visa, but the official there (who also looked quite unhappy with life) pointed ambiguously into the crowd. I was getting pretty goddamn tired of people pointing at nothing, as if this provided good directions. I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to go, and now there was a man following me around offering to take my passport to the counter to get it stamped. I said no, as this was something simple that I should be able to do myself, but it became clear that it’s impossible for an individual traveler to get their own passport to the counter. I relented, and he demanded $5. I was stunned; after overpaying for my visa I was now paying for a man to walk 10 fucking feet to a counter just because the immigration department can't get it's shit together and create some sort of semi-logical system. Everyone involved in the border process has their mouth to the money trough, and they are shameless in their exploitation of confused visitors. It's pathetic and embarrassing.

Anyway, the annoying man went straight to one of the counters, and my visa was stamped right away. Finally, stamped passport in hand, I headed to the exit of the awful customs hall as quickly as possible. On the way out there was yet another pissed-off looking official, whose job it was to check that every passport had actually been stamped. The front of my passport is rather worn out from use (you can barely even make out the seal of the U.S. on it), and he paused, inspecting it carefully. I felt like punching him, and thought I was about to run into another arbitrary bureaucratic snag. Thankfully he handed it back, and I was soon on the road to Saigon on another public bus (at least that part was straightforward). 

If this process was an advertisement for Vietnam, it was a horrible one. Every Vietnamese official I interacted with seemed miserable, if not downright mean. No one cares if visitors know what is going on, and they seem to have little interest in whether they make it into the country or not. I recently read an article in which a Vietnamese tourism official defended the sector in the country after Thanh Nien published an op-ed stating that Laos and Cambodia are moving ahead of Vietnam in terms of tourism development. The official disagreed and claimed that headlines would be made if a Vietnamese border official took a bribe, which I'm pretty sure happened to me. As usual, high-level officials here seem completely oblivious to the situation on the ground. I love living in Vietnam, but I can’t blame anyone if they don’t want to visit when an experience like this may welcome you.

The view from just inside Cambodia. Bavet, the border town, is full of shitty casinos.
Back into Vietnam.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Close Encounters of the Cow Kind

After taking a hiatus from writing it's time to get back into it, hopefully with fresh creative juices. A lot has changed in the month and a half since I last posted. I no longer work for AsiaLIFE magazine, as it was simply time to move on. I'm working full-time as a copyright editor for a company based in Hong Kong, which means a lot of time in front of the computer, but I can work from anywhere that has wifi. I'm going to Con Dao, one of the few places remaining on my 'must-see' list in Vietnam, for a few days next month, and Indonesia for three weeks in September. I'll also be moving at the end of the month, so more changes are ahead.

One constant is that you never know what you'll run into on any given day in Saigon. I went cycling Sunday morning, and while on the approach road to Phu My Bridge a family of cattle decided to cross the road in front of me. A cow and a calf hopped over the short barrier separating the bike lane from the car lane, but then the bull sauntered out and decided he didn't really feel like jumping the barrier. So he simply stopped and stood in the middle of the lane. I stopped about 10 feet away from him along with a couple of motorbikes. The drivers quickly decided to scoot past him, but when I started to move forward (in my red cycling jersey), he squared up to me and did not look pleased. I stopped again, wondering how long I would have to sit on the windswept road getting stared down by a bull. Eventually another group of motorbikes approached and passed without incident, so I sneaked past with a couple of them and carried on with the remaining (cow-free) ride.
Just another day in Saigon.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Many Bottled Water Brands of Northern Vietnam

I was going through pictures from H2H on my phone the other day and came across the collection of curiously-named bottled water I amassed in the northern part of the country. This was one of the more humorous things I remembered from previous rides - it seems as though every province up north has its own home-grown ripoff of Aquafina. The names are nonsensical and often hilarious. Down south nearly every shop has the real deal, but for whatever reason it's a different story up there. I imagine the company's legal department could have a field day if they came across this. I now present 'The Many Bottled Water Brands of Northern Vietnam.'

Little did we know that Deadmaus has a relative in the bottled water business.

When in doubt just add a glacier and a bald eagle.
This last picture is something I simply forgot to share: an incredible purse spotted at a shop in the tiny town of Quy Dat, nestled amidst the rice paddies and epic limestone karsts of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Rural Vietnam is chock-full of intriguing wonders, both natural and man-made.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Duck Tacos

My, it's been a while since I last posted. Since returning from H2H late last month I've spent far too much money enjoying the bountiful food and beverage choices of Saigon. A recent favorite discovery was duck tacos at a typical quan way out in District 2. Only served on Tuesdays, this delicious creation is the result of a serendipitous arrangement between the American owner of Saigon Tacos and the Vietnamese family which runs the duck restaurant at 554 Nguyen Thi Dinh. The taco company produces fresh corn-based tortillas every Tuesday, and a bunch are delivered to the ramshackle eatery to be served with their fantastically meaty duck. The tacos come with salsa, chili sauce and refried beans also made by Saigon Tacos, and the staff will even de-bone the duck, which is a huge help. This unexpected fusion is yet another example of the amazing things being done here.

 This is also my last week at AsiaLIFE magazine. On June 1st I'm starting a three-month full-time copyright editing job, which means I'll be working 9-5 for the first time in my life. I'm not exactly sure how interesting this job will be, but if it sucks at least it's only temporary. I'm in the early stages of planning a big trip afterwards, hopefully to Indonesia, Malaysian Borneo and the Philippines, so any recommendations on what to do/see/eat in those places are welcome. I'm going home for a wedding in December, and after that everything is up in the air, so we'll see what happens.

Finally, we're still fundraising for H2H 2015 until the 29th (Friday), so if you'd like to donate it's not too late! As a team we've raised nearly $50,000, which is a new record for H2H. We'd love to hit that number, so please help us get closer by donating here: https://www.justgiving.com/Michael-Tatarski3/. 100% of donated funds go directly towards the charities we support, and every little bit makes a difference.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

H2H 2015 Day 27: We're Coming Home

I wrote the recap of the last day for the team blog and people liked it, so I'm going to repost it here.

This final day of H2H 2015 began earlier than the rest, and even the terrible morning people were up and ready because we all knew what was at the other end: our friends, our own beds and, most importantly, pizza and BBQ.

I had set a different route into the city from past years in order to completely avoid Highway 1, which is harrowing on a bike, but once I explained it to the DHL drivers they were having none of it. This new way would require a ferry crossing, which they said would take hours since holiday traffic was pouring out of Saigon. So much for that, Highway 1 it was - little did I know that a branch of AH17 has been added to the highway, allowing us to go around the worst stretch. Another benefit was that this significantly shortened the route - instead of nearly 100km as proposed by me, we were now facing a trifling 83. We had told everyone to meet us at Cargo Bar in District 4 at 4pm, so with ample time we enjoyed a long breakfast and could take our time on the road.

We rode differently today: the whole team together, with Kim and Damo out front and me at the back (which, I have to admit, was extremely boring), while the DHL van and Mr. Cuong the white van man acted as buffers at either end. The traffic, especially on the AH17 branch, was surprisingly light and completely manageable, much safer than in years past. After an extended water/Revive/Coke break at a roadside cafe we carried on - our first stop on the way into Saigon would be The Boathouse in Thao Dien, where Bekah, Bex and Thea, the injured riders, would meet us for the final leg into the city.

We rejoined Highway 1 in Thu Duc District and began following the metro construction past Suoi Tien. Coming over a rise you could see the unmistakable silhouette of the Bitexco Tower in the hazy distance and a cheer went up - we could see the end of this amazing journey, and it was an exciting moment.

We entered District 2 with time to spare and turned off the highway towards The Boathouse, located in the BP Compound. As went through the security gate at the entrance an extremely drunk Vietnamese man decided to crash his motorbike right in the middle of the group. Unfazed we carried on past the expensive villas and it was high-fives all around as we parked our bikes. Rider Damo is friends with Rod, the owner of The Boathouse, and he had arranged a 2 million VND tab for the team. We settled into the leafy riverside environs of the restaurant and enjoyed a few very well-deserved brews along with chips and salsa. We also reunited with the three girls who had returned to Saigon earlier in the ride, and it was great to see them in high spirits.

Anh Thuong, Anh Thang and Chu Cuong, the support drivers, received Hawaiian shirts as a token of our appreciation for their hard work and patience over the month.
After one final team picture, and the first full team shot in over three weeks, it was time to head to Cargo and the grand finale. Bekah and Thea, still unable to ride, went in the van, while Bex bravely mounted her Giant and rode along.

Across the river and through Binh Thanh, entering District 1 and riding along the river - it was strange cycling past skyscrapers and condo towers after several weeks of scruffy towns, herds of cattle and epic natural vistas. After one final regroup at a cafe around the corner from Cargo it was time to finish: Bekah and Thea walked along while we held up traffic to finish as a whole. Rounding onto Nguyen Tat Thanh we could see the crowd of friends and supporters gathered at the entrance to Cargo. It was an emotional moment for everyone and, if you'll allow me to indulge for a minute, an especially important one for me. This was my third H2H, and on the previous two I had experienced muscle strains with five days remaining, leaving me unable to finish either time. This year I had sorted the problem out and cruised through the final days with nary an ache or pain. As much as I love the charity, team-building and leadership aspects of H2H, actually finishing the ride was my top priority this time around, and I was doing just that. I'm not usually one for crying, but I couldn't help it as the crowd cheered for us, we chanted H2H and everyone started hugging each other. We had done it. I was so proud to have co-led such a great group of people to a successful finish. (And shout out to co-leader Chris Rolls, who was an absolute pleasure to ride with. To borrow his own favorite phrase, he's a top man.)

And what friends we have - within seconds of dismounting our bikes we were handed pizza, beer and a bottle of Scotch whiskey with a GoPro attached to it (thanks Matt and Alex!). I could see a whole range of emotions on each rider's face: joy and pride at completing such a daunting physical challenge, elation at seeing friends and loved ones, and perhaps a few twinges of sadness as we all realized something special was coming to an end.

No sadness here though.
It's difficult to sum up something as big and varied as H2H. What I've learned over three rides is that it's a huge undertaking made up of small moments: the smile of a child when you wave back at him; a panorama of utter beauty that flashes by as you rocket downhill at 60kph; the boy in Dong Le who said One Direction sucks; the whole team belting out 'Bohemian Rhapsody' at karaoke in Buon Me Thuot (Ok, I guess that's a 7-minute moment); stretching with the children at the orphanage in Pleiku; Team North America crushing Team England in kickball; talking to coffee farmers next to the hills they harvest; drinking with cops - the list goes on. As time progresses we'll forget parts of the ride; I'm guessing I'm the only person who can still name every town we stopped in. But I think we'll remember these moments, and we'll certainly remember each other and the causes we rode for.

Of course, the star of the show on H2H is always the incredible country of Vietnam. We've all adopted it as our home, some for longer than others, and what it gives back to you on the ride can never be repaid. The countless people who helped is out of pure generosity, the staggering scenery, the food and the roads. H2H wouldn't exist without this place, and I for one am thankful to have the opportunity to see it in such a way. I enjoy Saigon and all of its creature comforts, but the real Vietnam is out there, somewhere on the road, and I miss it already. Until next time.

P.S. We are still fundraising for our charities until the end of this month! We've broken the $45,000 record set by the 2012 team, but we'd love to raise more. I haven't reached my personal target of $2,500 yet, and that would be great if I could. If you'd like to donate please do so here: https://www.justgiving.com/Michael-Tatarski3/