Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Laneway

I was in Singapore this past weekend for Laneway, a music festival which features indie rock and electronic acts from around the world. This was my fourth visit to Singapore, though I hadn't been in a few years - I've always enjoyed my time there, as the well-ordered efficiency, normal traffic and amazing public transportation make for a great escape from the unhinged chaos of urban Vietnam.

The one-day festival took place on Saturday, and I went with Natasha and another couple that we are friends with. We stayed in Geylang, a neighborhood I've stayed in a couple of times and am a big fan of. It isn't as sanitized and over-developed as the downtown area, so there is still a fair amount of street life. It is also a prominent red light district (this has nothing to do with me liking it), with sex shops on many blocks and prostitutes working 24-hours. (Oddly enough prostitution is legal in Singapore, and we saw women getting customers at 9 am.) Anyway, the primary reason I love Geylang is the food - cheap Indian and Chinese places are all over the place. To whit, the chicken and cheese murtabak pictured below.
We headed to the festival, which was being held near the Gardens by the Bay behind the incredible Marina Bay Sands, around mid-day. The festival site was small and orderly - it was also brutally hot whenever the sun came out, despite a forecast of 90% chance of thunderstorms. Sweating and sunburn quickly ensued; fortunately it became more cloudy as the afternoon progressed. The festival was fantastic, and the fact that the two main stages were right next to each other meant you barely had to move in order to see almost every act. The lineup included the likes of Big Scary, Battles, Chvrches, Grimes, Beach House and Hermitude - an eclectic mix of acts who put on very good shows.


We returned to Geylang around midnight, sun-weary and hungry. The sidewalks were buzzing with late-night commerce - second-hand electronics, shoes and clothes were for sale, while a crowd of men watched a football match on a wall-mounted TV. I feasted on some Chinese dumplings before passing out. The following morning we pigged out on dim sum before heading to the airport. Changi is consistently ranked as the best airport in the world, and these Star Wars decorations show why.
A few hours later we were back in Saigon, careening through traffic in a taxi like normal.
One more shot of the Marina Bay Sands.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Saigon on Film

Greetings, reader! (At this point I don't think that's a typo.) Somehow we're already over halfway through the first month of 2016. Tet is rapidly approaching, and the Year of the Monkey will arrive on February 8. Saigon hasn't quite geared up into its annual Tet insanity yet, but it surely isn't far off. I haven't been up to much of note lately, hence the lack of blog posts.

However, when I was back in New Orleans last month I finally got around to getting a roll of film I shot last summer developed. I'm still learning on this format, but I really like the look of some of the pictures. (Others didn't come out well due to a lack of lighting.) I have a black and white roll in my camera at the moment, and I plan to shoot the rest of it soon and get it developed shortly thereafter. (If anyone knows of a place here that does reliable scans of film, hit me up.) I hope you enjoy these.










Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Saigon's Food and Drink Revolution - Part 2

I'm heading home on Thursday for three weeks, so this will likely be my last post for a bit. (I know, I know, not that I've been posting much anyway.) I have mixed feelings about visiting the U.S. - it will be great to see friends and family and I'm in a wedding that should be amazing, but I'm becoming increasingly concerned about the state of the country. The news just seems to get more depressing every day, and people don't seem to realize (or care) how insane some of the things that are happening and being said look to the rest of the world. The current trajectory certainly isn't filling me with any desire to move back any time soon. Anyway, I do look forward to eating and drinking well, and in that vein, here is the second part of my posts about Saigon's evolving restaurant scene.

The array of choices available when you're hungry has changed dramatically since 2010. This is perhaps no more evident than when it comes to burgers. When I moved here, the main place to go for a burger was Black Cat. The burgers were good, but not remarkable. In the past two years, however, places like Con Bo Map, Relish & Sons and Soul Burger have opened, completely altering the burger landscape. These eateries pride themselves on quality, and the last two in particular on creative, craft burger varieties. For example, below is the Quiet American, last month's special at Soul Burger, featuring a beef patty with turkey breast, gravy, cranberry sauce, cheese and more. Such a creation would have been the stuff of dreams not long ago.
Another major addition to the dining scene is Quan Ut Ut, an American-style BBQ joint spread across three floors that has become massively popular with both locals and expats. Featuring home-made sauces and a wide selection of grilled meats cooked out front, this has become the go-to for anyone with a hankering for meat, and should satisfy even the most discerning BBQ connoisseur.
Good steaks have also become easier to find, with a highlight being Stoker, which is run by the same crew behind Relish & Sons and Racha Room (which received a mention in the previous post). After salivating over pictures posted on their Facebook page for weeks I finally had the chance to try Stoker for a friend's birthday, and it blew me away. The menu features premium steaks sourced from high-quality suppliers in Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and they are grilled to perfection.
Appetizers like the grilled bone marrow are a treat as well, as are the excellent cocktails, including New Orleans' own Sazerac. Stoker immediately jumped to the top of my special occasion restaurant list.
Other staples of western cuisine have also improved dramatically recently, including pizza (thanks to ESPY pizza, the first and only place serving East Coast-style pizza by the slice), Mexican (La Fiesta, Khoi Thom and California Burrito) and Italian (Ciao Bella). However, not all of the exciting additions have been restricted to western dishes. One top-secret location (I don't even know where it is) offers Nigerian food, an unknown to most people. I've only had this once, but it was amazing, and certainly not something you would expect to find here.

Excellent sushi is widely available as well, most notably thanks to Sushi Ko in District 4, which offers great rolls and sashimi at criminally low prices. For example, this whole boat costs just 200,000 before 7pm every day.
I've left out a number of deserving restaurants, but the list is too long to include everyone. Saigon's dining scene will only continue to evolve in the coming years, and it's an exciting time be a foodie here. I can't wait to see what comes next.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Saigon's Food and Drink Revolution - Part 1

When I moved to Saigon in 2010 the food and drink scene was good but unremarkable, with the exception of street food, which has always been amazing. There were plenty of Western restaurants, but most served merely acceptable versions of what expats were used to back home. To be sure, there were standouts, but on average what you got was just that - average. Craft beer was nonexistent, as low-APV, low-flavor local lagers like 333, Tiger and Saigon Green/Red dominated menus almost everywhere. 

Over the last couple of years, though, things have changed dramatically. As it has in so many other areas, Saigon is now rushing headlong into the hipster/craft/locavore/artisanal approach to food and drink that has swept through countless other countries, permanently altering restaurants and bars along the way. Below are a few examples of how things have changed when it comes to drinking. The next post will cover food.

The poor quality of local beer has long been a common gripe among expats, with their ridiculously cheap prices only just making up for the bland flavor and utter lack of variety. One of the first companies to start shaking things up was Platinum, which produces a great pale ale that can now be found on tap at an ever-growing clutch of bars and restaurants. 

Things really began to heat up earlier this year when Pasteur Street Brewing opened up. Run largely by Americans, including a brewing team which cut their teeth in Boulder, Pasteur Brewing brought seasonal, creative (and strong) craft beer to Saigon and immediately made waves. Their compact tasting room quickly became the place to go for great beer, and it remains my favorite spot, even if prices are closer to what you would pay back home. Brews like the Passionfruit Wheat Ale, Chocolate Stout, Jasmine IPA and Saigon Saison have blown the doors off of pretty much everything else in town.
While Pasteur Street remains the only brewery with their own tasting room, several other expat-run operations have popped up this year. Several were highlighted at a craft beer fest held at Saigon Outcast last month, an event that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. Fuzzy Logic, Te Te and Phat Rooster all make excellent beers of various styles, and their products are becoming easier to find. 
Bia Craft, an open-front bar/restaurant in District 2, is another major recent addition to the beer scene. They offer varieties of almost every craft beer made here, creating a one-stop spot to try the best stuff in the country, including beer from Pasteur Street. Considering how quickly these breweries have appeared and become very popular, it's hard to guess what the scene will look like in a few years, but craft beer has well and truly arrived in Saigon. About damn time.

It should come as no surprise that craft cocktails arrived around the same time as craft beer. It used to be that you could only find cocktail menus with the usual suspects on them, but no more. I prefer beer to cocktails, but stylish new joints like Racha Room, Shrine and the rooftop bar at the Novotel Hotel (as well as old haunts like Last Call) have infused Saigon's cocktail scene with some seriously good stuff. Local ingredients and traditions often serve as inspiration for some of the best drinks, such as Last Call's bun bo hue cocktail or any of Racha Room's specialty drinks. Local tipplers no longer have to weather yet another night of Mojitos and Martinis (perfectly good drinks, but they can be repetitive) if they don't want to. Suffice to say, it's a good time to drink in Saigon.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Staycation

This past weekend I finally got to do something I've been wanting to do for years: spend two nights in a nice hotel and pretend to be a tourist. I can't afford four-star hotels back in the US, but they are definitely in reach here when the timing is right. Natasha's birthday provided an appropriate occasion, so I surprised her with a stay at the Liberty Central Riverside on Ton Duc Thang. It was a nice break from daily life and having to drive around - we were able to walk almost everywhere, as central District 1 actually has usable sidewalks. The rooftop pool wasn't bad either, with its cool water and expansive views of Binh Thanh and across the river into District 2.


We also had a bird's-eye view of the Vietcombank Tower, Saigon's newest skyscraper, which just happened to have its grand opening on Saturday. It's a fantastic addition to the skyline and is thankfully free of the garish colored LED lighting that so many developers drape over their high-rises here.

We also ate very well. I love cheap street food as much as anyone else, but some of the best western places in town are near the hotel, so we took full advantage. This enormous omelette from Jaspas was certainly a highlight.
The pollution, noise and congestion of Saigon make it necessary to take regular breaks from the madness, and this was a great way to do it without actually leaving the city.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Monsoon

This has been a relatively mild wet season, at least in comparison to the last couple of years. A recent four-day dry stretch had some thinking the rain might be on its way out, but an afternoon downpour on Sunday had other ideas. Then, yesterday afternoon produced one of the most terrifyingly beautiful storms I've ever seen here. Thankfully I was safe and sound inside for the whole thing, because it looked epic.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Diving & Driving on Lembongan

Finally, it's time for my last post on Indonesia. This was delayed by a four-day trip to Phu Quoc with Natasha and general procrastination. After this it's back to Vietnam posts.

The fast-boat trip from Gili T to Nusa Lembongan, located across the Badung Strait from Bali, was very comfortable thanks to the fairly calm waters. Bali loomed on the right the whole way, with Mount Agung, the tallest volcano on the island, dominating the view. After two hours we pulled into the harbor of Jungut Batu beach, and I was somewhat surprised by how relatively developed this part of the island is. Villas stretched up the hillside to the right, while hotels and restaurants spread to the left and water slides full of day-trippers from Bali sat in the bay.

I got a ride to the Secret Garden Bungalows, which I highly recommend, and headed to a restaurant along the beach for sunset and a beer. This became a routine during my three nights on Lembongan.


The following morning I was up early for more diving, this time with Big Fish Diving. When I arrived at the dive shop they asked if I had a hood or a long-sleeve wetsuit, to which I replied no, I just got certified. But more importantly, why would these be necessary? I assumed the waters around the island would be a similar temperature to the Gilis, which was a balmy 82 F (28 C). Turns out the sea around Lembongan is more like 64 F (18 C), a massive difference. It was explained that the currents come from different places than in the Gilis, which makes sense as the only landmass south of us was Antarctica. I was given a hood, booties and three layers of thicker wetsuits before boarding the boat.

We motored around to the south side of the island to dive off of Nusa Penida, one of the three islands in a group with Lembongan (the third being Nusa Ceningan). After suiting up we entered the water: it was deep blue and incredibly clear, but indeed very cold. It took my breath away at first, but after going under I adjusted somewhat. I also found that peeing in your wetsuit helped provide some warmth. I was nervous about the diving considering the issues I had had on Gili T, but the first dive went flawlessly. My mask fit like a glove and there wasn't much current, but I go through oxygen quickly and had to surface a few minutes before the rest of my group. This turned out to be a good thing, as right when I got to the surface a pod of bottlenose dolphins cruised by, dipping in and out of the water and clicking and chirping at each other. It was an amazing sight, and I couldn't believe I had been so lucky - the rest of the group completely missed them since they were much lower. We had seen a bunch of small stuff during the dive, but the dolphins easily took the cake.

This area is famous for manta ray and mola-mola (sunfish) sightings, as the islands lie on their migratory paths, and the other group on the boat saw both. However, they had advanced certification and could go much deeper, where it is easier to see big fish. We warmed up and had a snack on the boat before moving on to another dive site off of Penida.

I was perfect during this dive as well, and I was learning that as long my mask fit well and didn't leak I had no problem. I was getting better at controlling buoyancy and generally felt more at ease, though I was still blowing through my oxygen quickly. There was a fairly strong current at this site and we once again missed out on the big stuff, as the advanced group spotted more mantas and mola-mola. I was now determined to get my advanced certification at some point in the future. It is amazing how quickly you become spoiled by the number of fish down below, as you start to almost ignore big schools of beautiful fish in the hunt for bigger, rarer species. Still, the dives were beautiful, and were a huge confidence boost after the mishaps during my training course. After returning to Lembongan I cleaned up and returned to my usual sunset spot (yawn).
The following day was my last on the island, and while I could've gone diving again I decided to save money and rent a motorbike instead. After leaving the main tourist area I quickly realized how undeveloped Lembongan actually is, contrary to my first impression: the roads are in bad shape, there is plenty of empty space even on a small island, and parts look very poor. I made my way to the rickety suspension bridge which connects Lembongan to Ceningan, and driving across it sounded like riding on an old wooden rollercoaster. It definitely had something of an Indiana Jones-esque feel to it.

The estuary separating Lembongan and Ceningan.
I tooled around on tiny Ceningan and noticed a sign advertising a cafe called Ceningan Cliffs, with an arrow pointing up a hill. I followed the cratered road past ramshackle houses and around tight turns and eventually reached a peaceful cafe perched on the edge of a hill overlooking giant Nusa Penida and the deep blue channel between the islands. It was an impressive vista, all the more so because of the almost complete lack of human development in sight. Penida can only be reached by boat and is still largely off the tourism map, and it looked like nothing more than a vast expanse of jungle. I could see that a few secluded beaches had buildings here and there, but the nature was overwhelming. A brisk breeze howled through the channel, while strong currents churned the waters below. This was the area I had gone diving in the day before.


I enjoyed the tranquility for a bit and then got back on my scooter to head downhill. It was only then that I realized going down would not be fun - the road was steep and in terrible condition, and the brakes on my bike weren't great. I also didn't have a helmet, and medical care would be a long way away. Even with my experience on a bike this was daunting. I gave it a go, barely stayed in control after hitting a nasty pothole, and decided to just walk the bike the rest of the way down while holding the brake. The locals probably though I was an idiot, but I survived.
After clanking back across the little yellow bridge I headed to the southwest tip of Lembongan and found an area of amazing cliffs, where huge swells rolled in from the deep and smashed into the headlands in eruptions of foam and mist. The island is famous for surfing, and I now understood why.
Small ponds had formed at the edges of the cliffs, where bright green algae bloomed and contrasted with the incredible hues of the ocean. This was scenery unlike anything I had seen before, and I spent a good hour clambering around, watching the waves explode onto the rocks.






Eventually I returned to Jungut Batu via Mushroom Beach, where Bali's Mount Agung loomed in the distance, and packed up for my boat to Bali the next morning.
The ride to Bali took just 30 minutes, and it was then straight into a van to the airport. Driving through Denpasar, the manic hub in Bali's south, was jarring after two weeks spent on a staggeringly beautiful volcano and several stunning islands: traffic was relentless, Western chains littered intersections, and high-rise buildings abounded. After checking in for my flight back to Saigon I had ample time to reflect on the trip. I was actually heading home two weeks earlier than originally planned, as I was supposed to motorbike around Bali, but Lombok, the Gilis and Lembongan had been so amazing and eye-opening that I didn't think the uber-popular, uber-crowded island would be able to live up to what I had already done. (And I really missed Natasha.) Over 14 days of utterly perfect weather I had seen incredible things, both on land and under the sea, and knew that I would be back in Indonesia for more at some point. From the summit of Rinjani to 60 feet below the Badung Strait, the country had completely blown me away.