Thursday, November 27, 2014

How Quickly Things Change

Since I moved back to Saigon in August there's been an empty storefront on the main street I live near. It's rare to have an open space like this stay that way for long, so I was surprised when it went unfilled month after month. The other night when I went to dinner I noticed workers erecting scaffolding around the ground floor, and by the time I came home this signage was up:
'Sap khai truong' = opening soon
In a matter of hours this went from derelict empty space to future outlet of global fast food chain with no warning. This is also further evidence that the Western chains are expanding their reach well outside of the downtown core, unsurprising considering how willing young Vietnamese are to spend money on their food. I'm moving to District 5 this weekend so I won't be around when this Popeye's opens, but I'm going to make a not-so-bold prediction and guess it does quite well here in Binh Thanh.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mountain Escape

Last weekend I was lucky enough to go on another trip for AsiaLIFE, this time to the beautiful Ana Mandara Villas Resort in Da Lat. Fortunately this one wasn't a solo trip, as I went with Dana, our managing editor (and long-time friend of mine). We took the 'night' bus from Saigon, which actually arrives in Da Lat around 5am, leaving us with a few hours to kill before we could check in. The weather was a welcome relief from Saigon - the cool, fresh air up in the mountains of the Central Highlands was a delight, and I loved being able to wear a sweatshirt. (Also, not sweating constantly is quite nice.)

The resort sits atop its own hill and is absolutely gorgeous. Mustard-yellow villas are spread around the area, separated by footpaths and countless pine trees. (When the French ruled Vietnam they turned Da Lat into a retreat for the wealthy from Saigon, cutting down the native forests and replanting them with pine.)

We had two nights in one of the villa suites (which go for around $400 per night!), featuring a bedroom, bathroom and living room; wood flooring and two (functioning) fireplaces.
We used the fireplace in the living room both nights, as it got down into the 60s in the evening - which is absolutely frigid when you're used to Saigon, where it never gets below the upper-70s. (FYI, this wasn't some romantic getaway, the angle of the story was celebrating Christmas in Vietnam.)

The resort's restaurant.
We got one lunch and one dinner each, plus the amazing breakfast buffet.
As badly as we wanted to stay in our amazingly comfortable beds all day, there is a ton of stuff to do in the outdoors around Da Lat, so we hiked up Lang Biang mountain, which is just outside of town. It takes a couple of hours and is very manageable, although the last stretch goes up a series of very steep steps that leaves you winded.
Upon arrival at the summit it was very foggy, but it soon cleared and we were treated to fantastic views of the area.

The hike up had been overcast and a bit misty, but the trek back down the mountain was gorgeous, with brilliant sunshine keeping us warm and a brisk breeze whistling through the pines. I love living in Saigon, but you simply have to escape the concrete and get into the outdoors every now and then.

We also made a trip into the center of Da Lat, where the huge market offers a dizzying array of produce grown around the city. The country's strawberries and apples are grown in the area, as are green vegetables like lettuce and cabbage.
Most of the fresh flowers you find in Saigon are also grown in Da Lat.

After a refreshing smoothie on the lake we returned to the resort, and in a depressingly short amount of time we had to board another bus for the bumpy ride back to Saigon. I'd give an arm and a leg to have a couple of months' worth of weather like that.

Monday, November 10, 2014


First off, the good news: the rainy season has FINALLY ended! All praise to the weather gods! (This means that everyone will now switch from bitching about the rain to bitching about the heat.) Thanks to the dry weather I'm finally having some productive afternoons. On Saturday I drove over to the Thu Thiem peninsula in District 2. (I've written about this area before, here and here.) The authorities plan to turn this area into another downtown, an incredibly ambitious plan given its current state. When I moved here in 2010 there was a community in Thu Thiem, but almost all of it has been torn down to make way for future construction. While the future of the area is unclear, for now it provides the best juxtaposition of urban and rural scenery in all of Saigon: the heavily developed central districts on one side of the river, overgrown fields (and even water buffalo) on the other side.

I shot a roll of film on the 35mm camera I came back to Saigon with as well, and I'm hoping I can get some pictures online once I get it developed. Hopefully I didn't screw things up too badly.

One strange thing I noticed was that the river seemed extremely high. There used to be a motorbike path where I took the below picture, but now it's almost completely covered by water. I'm not sure if this was just a high tide, or a sign of bigger problems in the future. It hasn't rained in four days.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A City of Contrasts

I've written in the past about the jarring contrasts evident in a city flooded with money that still sits inside a developing country. Saigon is home to countless luxury hotels and high-end restaurants, Ferraris and boutiques like Prada and Chanel. It is also home to a huge number of urban poor who eke out an existence on the margins of society: selling lottery tickets, collecting garbage, living in tin shacks along polluted canals. Even after over three years here I'm still occasionally blown away by an image: an old woman shitting in a storm drain in front of the Sheraton; a woman with no legs crawling along a sidewalk outside a dim sum restaurant while tables full of the young rich dine next to their Audis.

The other night I had dinner at a grilled chicken place on a cramped street in Binh Thanh district. While not the most shocking contrast, the scene was illustrative of what I'm talking about: my table sat next to a sewing machine cart, while the super-expensive City Garden apartments buildings lorded over the whole area. I wondered what the people looking down on the neighborhood thought, and what the vendors who are just scraping buy think when they look up at the blue lights atop the towers.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Water World

In my first three years in Saigon, I remember occasional street flooding during the wet season, but it rarely got out of hand. Every year since 2010, though, it seems the monsoon has gotten longer and more extreme. No one seems to have any idea when it will end these days. When I was new to the city the consensus was early/mid-October; now everyone throws up their hands and says "It'll end when it ends." Here we are, almost to November, and the rains show no sign of letting up. We've had a couple of two or three-day dry stretches that hint, tantalizingly, at what is to come, only to have several days of extreme downpours to follow.

What is most different about these storms, though, is the flooding they are causing. Over the last few weeks I've seen stories about severe flooding more days than not. The worst-hit areas always seem to be in the western (Districts 6, 10, 11) and southern (Nha Be, District 7) parts of town, although the district I live in has plenty of issues as well. Somehow downtown seems to escape the brunt of the waters, which is better for the economy I suppose, but the rest of the city is getting hammered.

There are a number of reasons behind the worsening floods: urban development has wiped out natural areas that used to act as drainage basins; garbage suffocates drains and sewers since littering is so common; and the city is literally sinking since so much groundwater is being extracted. It is striking to live in a city that is surrounded by water and sits below sea level yet has no system of dikes or levees. It is completely exposed to the elements. There are major drainage projects going on across the city, but they clearly aren't doing much (or perhaps they are and it would be even worse otherwise). Like the issue of traffic congestion, it seems the city is doing too little, too late and will simply be overwhelmed. Experts are already predicting that a mega-flood like the one that hit Bangkok a couple of years ago is increasingly likely here. This hasn't stopped officials from making ridiculous proclamations though - the Vice Chairman of the city People's Committee recently demanded that the transport department eliminate all flood-prone areas (apparently there are 27) by the end of next year. This is so laughable I have to hope he was drunk when he said it.

It seems that residents of Saigon are going to be dealing with a lot of water for a long time. Here's what that looks like, with photos courtesy of Tuoi Tre.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Grand Weekend

Apologies again for not posting in forever, I'm sure I've lost most of my readers. I started a second job so that's kept me busier, plus I've been spending a lot of time with Abbe, my new girlfriend (no, she's not Vietnamese, as everyone here assumes when a white guy says he has a girlfriend.). Anyway, time for a rare new post!

This past weekend I stayed at The Grand Ho Tram Strip, which is on the coast north of Vung Tau. I was there to cover the grand opening of The Bluffs, a new Greg Norman-designed golf course, which I'll discuss in my next post. I've heard a lot about The Grand over the last few years - it is one of the most ambitious hospitality developments in the country, and many wondered if it would ever actually happen. MGM was the original name behind the project, but when they pulled out a couple of years ago there was a lot of uncertainty. Another developer came through, and the end result is stunning. Although I shouldn't actually say end result, as the project is only halfway done.

The Grand experience begins in Saigon, where a luxury bus picks you up for the 2.5 hour drive to Ho Tram. The ride includes a stretch along the high-speed HCMC - Dau Giay expressway, which is part of an eventual ring road around the city. I appreciated the fact that the bus driver had obviously been instructed not to drive like his compatriots, who act like complete psychopaths on the road.

Arriving at The Grand, it was hard not to be impressed. The lush, sprawling grounds and opulent architecture wouldn't look out of place in Las Vegas. I was lucky enough to score an ocean view room in the 541-room hotel tower, which provided a stunning view of sunrise over the East Sea.  
This was easily the nicest room I've ever stayed in, and at $350 a night isn't something I could ever dream of actually paying for. The bed was incredibly comfortable, the bathroom had a shower and bathtub, and there were all sorts of electronic gadgets scattered about. I really didn't want to ever leave.
I also had a view of the two enormous pools between the hotel and the beach.
The pool area features all kinds of seating, including chairs in the water and private cabanas, all surrounded by verdant greenery.

The resort's luxuriant hallways lead to numerous restaurants, bars and shops, as well as the casino and a VIP area that requires an obscene amount of gambling. It is still illegal for Vietnamese to gamble in their own country, so many of the visitors come from Hong Kong and China.

I had access to breakfast and lunch at one of the restaurants each day, and it offered an eye-popping buffet spread of so many dishes I won't even bother mentioning them. Suffice to say I absolutely stuffed myself, making sure I got my money's worth (even though I wasn't spending a single dong). The staff was fantastic as well, by far the most professional and courteous of anywhere I've stayed in the country. Some serious training hours must have been put in before this place opened.

Normally I'm pretty critical of resorts like this, as I don't see the point in flying all the way to a fascinating country like Vietnam only to wall yourself off behind a private gate and amenities that most of the population can't even dream of. I honestly just about forgot I was in Vietnam while staying here. However, when you're confronted with such ambition and luxury in person, it's hard not to be amazed. I have a decent understanding of how hard it can be just to carry out small projects here, thanks to red tape and corruption, so it's fairly shocking that this ever got off the ground. The empty land in the below picture is actually for a second, identical hotel tower, as well as residential  condos and villas. That entire beach, a 2.2 kilometer stretch, is owned by the project. The resort that is already in place is unlike anything I've seen in Vietnam, and if the proposed additions come to fruition it will truly be unique. Now it's back to budget traveling and living for me.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Living Spaces

I recently came across a documentary series by Al Jazeera called 'Rebel Architecture', which profiles several architects from around the world who are fighting to change the way their respective societies think about and imagine the spaces they live in. One of the subjects is Vo Trong Nghia, a Vietnamese architect who has risen to prominence over the last few years thanks to his distinct structures that strive to incorporate natural light and ventilation into their design. He provides a scathing critique of the dominant style of urban Vietnamese residences - 'tube houses' that are narrow and tall, while offering up what he believes are viable alternatives. One of my favorite scenes comes when Nghia visits the potential investors for his proposed 'vertical farming city' - the businesspeople exhibit typical myopia and complain that the buildings are unlike anything Vietnamese are used to. His counter-arguments are fantastic. The 25-minute video is well worth a watch:

This is a topic that is close to my heart, as I've written about green buildings twice for AsiaLIFE, here and here. Since I first moved to Saigon in 2010, it has been impossible not to notice how much worse the environment has gotten. More cars and motorbikes means more exhaust fumes; countless trees have been cut down for construction projects; and development has eaten away at drainage basins and green areas. This past week has included some of the worst rain-caused street flooding I've ever seen here, and that's expected to only get worse in the future. Nghia provides a refreshing view on the need to rethink the way Vietnam is developing. If the investors in the video are any indication, he has an uphill battle ahead of himself, but people are beginning to change their minds here. I have huge respect for this architect, as it's still quite rare to see someone go against the grain in Vietnam. Hopefully more people like him make their voices heard.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Make Way for the Subway

The most-discussed project in Saigon in recent years has been the subway system. First proposed in 2001, on paper it has grown to a proposed six lines. Considering how common it is for construction projects to take forever to come to fruition here, many were skeptical that the subway would ever become reality. A couple of years ago, though, work began on the above-ground stretch of the first line, which will run from Suoi Tien park east of the city to Ben Thanh market in central District 1. Now, a line of concrete pillars runs for several kilometers along Highway 1 into Binh Thanh District, and a bridge is being built over the river.

Once this work began it became clear that the subway was actually going to happen, although I have a hard time believing the line will open on target in 2017. A few months ago, progress on the system became impossible to ignore, when the intersection of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi streets, one of the prettiest in town, was fenced off. Dozens of trees were removed, and the small parks (including a large statue of Ho Chi Minh) in front of the Opera House and City Hall were demolished. A giant eraser had been taken to one of the most prominent pieces of real estate in the whole city.

This was all done for the subway, as a huge underground station will be built underneath this once-bustling intersection. Traffic in this area is now a nightmare. Saigon's Christmas and Tet decorations were always centered here, and I'm curious to see what will be done as the holiday season approaches. Up until last week I hadn't been able to see what was actually going on behind the blue fence, but while at the Tax Center for the previous post I realized a cafe on the third floor overlooked the intersection. There is obviously a long way to go on the project, and it was jarring to see giant puddles of dirty rainwater where fountains and trees used to stand.
Looking down Le Loi to the Opera House
The old park in front of the Opera House (courtesy of Google)

Looking up Nguyen Hue to City Hall
The former park and since-removed Ho Chi Minh statue (courtesy of Google)
With further plans to completely change the roundabout in front of iconic Ben Thanh market for another underground station, the subway will arguably be the most dramatic transformation of Saigon ever. There is still the question of how many people will actually use the thing when it's finished; and of how well it will hold up, considering Saigon is essentially a swamp that climate change will render even wetter, but I'm all for the project if it eases the ridiculous traffic and provides a real form of public transportation. We'll see what happens in the coming years.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Another One Bites the Dust

It seems like every week another historic building in Saigon is slated to be torn down. I've lost track of the old structures that have been demolished in my time here, and they are inevitably replaced with modern glass and steel towers, many of which have little character.

The latest landmark to face the proverbial wrecking ball is the Saigon Tax Center, the 90 year-old department store located on the corner of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi, which closed permanently yesterday. While the building's modern facade is nothing to write home about (especially towards the end of the year, when the windows are filled with garish Christmas decorations), it has a storied history. (Thanks to the construction of the city's first subway line it is impossible to get a view of the front of the building, so here's one from Google.)

When it opened in 1924, the building was called the Grands Magasins Charner, and it quickly came to be regarded as the finest department store in Indochina, fitting, as Saigon was the crown jewel of the French colony. According to historical accounts, it was the place to shop in the city, and apparently would've been at home in Paris. 

It underwent a number of facelifts (hard to call them improvements, though) and name changes over the years, in line with the dramatic changes the city experienced over the decades. Before closing, it was home to a supermarket, as well as four floors of watches, jewelry, clothing, electronics, and touristy knick-knacks. 

A couple of months ago it was announced that the Tax Center would close at the end of September, and be torn down next year to make way for part of a subway station (which I'll discuss in another post) and a skyscraper. Then, yesterday morning, the owners of the buildings suddenly announced that it would actually close at 2pm that day. Vendors had been packing up goods and selling off items at bargain prices for weeks, but now they were completely out of time. I put off a trip to the gym and hustled over after finishing work at 1 to see what was going on. Since I hadn't expected this to happen so soon I only had my iPhone on me, hence the pictures aren't that great. 

One part of the building that retained the beauty of its glory days is the main entrance.
The rest of the building gave off an eerie, (nearly) post-apocalyptic vibe. The shelves at the supermarket were bare, as were the majority of the electronics and jewelry cases. Some areas were completely deserted, while others were full of workers hurrying to pack up goods to be brought elsewhere. At times I felt like I was in 28 Days Later.

On the clothing floor people swarmed in a feeding frenzy around piles of heavily discounted shirts and shorts.
A lot of people were doing the same thing as me: wandering around taking pictures, remembering one more building with a proud past that will disappear as Saigon marches on towards whatever definition of modernity its leaders aspire to. The big losers in this story are the vendors, as rent in the Tax Center was much cheaper than at other downtown department stores. The developers have offered space at other markets, but way out in Districts 8 and 10, nowhere near their customer base of tourists. It seems they will be another group steamrolled by the tide of development. I'm not saying development isn't necessary, but it certainly hurts people along the way. Farewell, Saigon Tax Center.