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


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


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.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Diving the Gilis

After a short boat ride from Bangsal, I was stepping onto the white sand of Gili Trawangan (commonly known as Gili T), one of the three Gili Islands, located in the clears waters just off the northwest coast of Lombok. Motor vehicles are banned on each island, making for a nice contrast to the teeming cities and towns of Southeast Asia.

Gili T is known for two things; partying and scuba diving. I was there for the latter, namely to finally get my Open Water Certification (which allows for dives down to 18 meters), but the busy bars full of scruffy backpackers made it clear that plenty of people were there to get wasted. 

I was still filthy from Rinjani, in addition to being absolutely exhausted, and really didn't feel like staying in the dorm-style hostel I had booked. Since it was already evening I had no choice but to check in, though I quickly booked a private hotel room for the other three nights I had on the island. Gili T has an infamously free-wheeling party scene, with ample booze and easy access to drugs (despite Indonesia's draconian anti-drug laws), but I was in bed by 9 every night. Rock on. 

The island is a strange place, with confusing contradictions all over the place: the small local population is Muslim, like most of the rest of the country, and a huge mosque with a towering minaret dominates the main road, while tanned northern Europeans saunter past in tiny bikinis. Dive shops, which preach conservation and ethical treatment of nature, sit next to outfits offering spear fishing excursions. None of that really mattered though, as my main goal after showering was to find a hamburger - I did, destroyed it, and immediately passed out.

The following morning I was woken up nice and early by the booming call to prayer, after which it was time to start my dive course at the excellent Gili Divers. (Partly owned by Swedes, I couldn't believe how many tall, attractive blondes were constantly passing through.) The course started with a long, cheesy video introducing the basics of diving, followed by a session with the equipment in a pool. That afternoon, much to my surprise, we were taken out for our first real dive - I wasn't expecting that until the next day. 

The weather was perfect and the water incredibly clear, though I was a bit nervous - I'm normally very strong psychologically, but the concept of breathing underwater left me unsettled. I was constantly aware of everything that could go wrong, and it took me a little while to settle down once underwater. There was a strong current which reduced visibility, but seeing the sheer amount of fish down there was an amazing feeling. We often think of the world below the surface as a great unknown, and having the opportunity to see the variety of fish and how they behave was eye-opening. Although I did puke once we got to the surface, probably from coming up too quickly.

Day two of the course began with more pool skills, and my main issue was clearing my mask when it filled with water. I completely freaked out whenever I couldn't see, much to my frustration, as I'm generally pretty calm and collected. We then went for another dive, this time to a site known for sea turtles. We saw several, and things were going well until I felt like I was breathing in water. I kept purging my regulator, which only shot more water into my mouth, and surfaced in a panic. This earned me a sharp rebuke from my instructor, as there were numerous boats in the area that could easily run over a diver who surfaces without warning. That night I was not feeling confident about the course, though a massage and the dessert table at the night market helped a bit. 

The third and final day of the course included two dives. The first was going well until my mask filled with water and I couldn't clear it, and once again went to the surface, even while the assistant instructor signaled for me not to. After returning to the shop I was wondering if I should even continue - it would be a waste of money to quit with one dive left, but at this point I was just trying to get through each dive without fucking up, instead of enjoying the underwater scenery. I talked to my instructor and he said that I had somehow pushed my mask up above my nose, so clearing it wasn't doing anything. It's hard to signal that message though, and in my inexperience I didn't know what was going on. He said he'd keep a close eye on me during the final dive, and we suited up to go.

This time we found a baby white-tip reef shark hiding under some coral, and I felt fine until we got deeper and my mask started to squeeze my face - hard. I couldn't fully open my eyes and signaled to my instructor. He came over, loosened the mask and then reset it on my face. I had to clear it and nearly panicked, but he stayed with me and calmed me down. Once I could see again, I was fine for the remainder of the dive. Basically it all came down to my mask - if it fit well I was fine, if not problems ensued. We returned to Gili T and received our dive cards - I was now certified to dive anywhere for the rest of my life, though the process hadn't exactly been smooth. I celebrated by cycling to the north end of the tiny island to watch the sun set over distant Bali.   
That night I stuffed myself at Gili T's amazing night market one last time, and the next morning it was time to move on to Gili Meno, the next island over. Whereas T greets visitors with a main drag full of bars advertising shot specials and all-night happy hours, Meno features a few cafes around the harbor, and little else. This is the most quiet of the three Gilis, with largely empty beaches and no nightlife to speak of. Meno is also popular as a honeymoon spot, though I didn't realize to such an extent: I only met one other person who was traveling solo over three days on the island; the rest were couples who I could tell were judging me. I wanted a shirt that said, "I have a girlfriend, she just wasn't able to come on this trip. Leave me alone." Fortunately the beauty of the island distracted me from this issue.
My itinerary on Meno was simple: do nothing. My feet were still hurting from the beating they took on Rinjani, and diving was tiring as well, so I looked forward to several days of rest. Every evening I walked to the same bar for sunset. You could hear the bass from Gili T's clubs thumping across the water.
I was staying on the east side of the island and Rinjani dominated the view. Sunrise was incredible. I went snorkeling several times (I've included underwater pictures from a GoPro at the end of the post, though they didn't come out very well.) and saw an amazing variety of fish, as well as a sea turtle. It was like swimming in my own private aquarium. Otherwise I simply relaxed - reading, napping, listening to music. It was paradise, although I really missed Natasha.

Rested and recovered after three nights on Meno, I took the short boat trip back to Gili T to get on another boat to Nusa Lembongan, two hours away and just off the south coast of Bali. The solitude of Meno was fantastic, and it was easily the most quiet island I've ever been to (as well as one of the most beautiful), but I would not go back alone. Even the Indonesian woman at the boat ticket office sneered at me when I asked for just one ticket. Give me a break. Anyway, it was time for some more diving once I got to Lembongan, though hopefully this time it would be less eventful.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Climbing Rinjani: Summit and Descent

We woke up at 2, had a light meal, and readied for the final stretch to the summit. Our guide estimated it would take about four hours to get to the top, hopefully just in time for sunrise. The Belgian couple in our group had decided to keep sleeping and skip the summit, as they were already happy with what they had seen, while the Dutch couple had reservations but decided to go for it. It was calm at the campsite, and the sky a clear vault full of brilliant stars. I felt warm in my layers but knew it would be colder once we got onto the ridge leading to the summit.

Sure enough, as soon as we headed up above the tents the wind returned. The going was fairly easy at first, though the path was nothing more than ashy dust, which got kicked up by the few dozen trekkers going towards the top and reduced visibility even more (if possible) in the inky black night. The Dutch couple was struggling and stopping far too often, so they told me and the two British girls to go ahead while they stayed back with the guide. This was fine with us, as stopping so much made it hard to maintain a rhythm or keep your body temperature up. It was also impossible to get lost, as the path was obvious and illuminated by the headlamps of other climbers.

We trudged on through the dust, with nothing to see except the patch of ground lit up by our torches and the distant lights of towns around the island far below. The early stretches of the trail had been cut through rocks that were taller than us, providing shelter from the wind, but after an hour or so the rocks fell away, leaving us completely exposed. At some point the dirt transitioned to extremely loose scree and the angle of ascent increased, and this is where the climbing became hellish. The loose rocks gave way any time you put weight down, meaning that for every step you took, you slid back half the distance you had just covered. Between the awful footing, cutting wind and ever-present dust, things were turning ugly.

We had been making good progress, steadily passing slower groups, but this bogged down everybody. More frequent breaks to rest burning calves became necessary, and any rock that broke the wind became a blessing. My hands and face were cold, but my torso was steaming thanks to the exertion, although anytime we stopped my sweat turned cold in a hurry. The summit was silhouetted against the bright stars, but it didn't seem to be getting any closer, though we were obviously covering some distance.  

After roughly an hour of this I noticed that the sky was beginning to brighten to the east. It was almost imperceptible, but sunrise was coming. We could also tell that the summit was near; our timing looked like it would be perfect. A final wall of rocks just below the peak gave us one last pause from the wind, and we stomped onto the summit as a band of orange and yellow stretched across the eastern horizon. I couldn't completely feel my hands thanks to my thin gloves, snot was running down my face and my legs were on fire, but we had made it to the summit! (Among the first people there that day, actually.) 12,224 feet above sea level, and this was easily the tallest mountain (and only volcano) I've ever climbed. The bulk of the climbing hadn't been too difficult for me, but that last stretch was a nightmare, and I felt a great sense of accomplishment to be at the top.

We caught our breath and looked east, only to be winded again by the breathtaking view.
Once there was enough light I got a picture with one of the signs indicating the height of the peak.
The dramatic geology around the summit spoke of a violent history, and also looked like an excellent stand-in for Mars.
Finally, the sun peaked above the clouds and rose quickly, illuminating Lombok and the waters around it. The wind still packed a punch, but every minute brought stronger rays.
Then, while everyone was staring at the sun, I turned around exclaimed at the incredible view behind us: a shadow of the peak had been cast across the caldera and stretched all the way to the horizon, in something of an alternative cover to Dark Side of the Moon, if Pink Floyd were more outdoorsy. This was one of the most surreal natural images I had ever seen. This also provided a sense of just how far we had climbed, as we had been on the shore of the lake less than 24 hours earlier.
We hung around the peak for about 30 minutes, just taking everything in, until we decided it was too cold and began the descent back to camp.

While the dusty scree of the summit ridge had made for a brutal climb, going down it was a completely different story: we were able to run/slide down the whole thing, kicking up huge clouds of fine dirt along the way and flying past people who were still going up. Now that the sun was out we were also able to see what we had climbed up past: steep slopes feel away from either side of the path, and one would be in serious trouble if they were to slip or trip off the trail. We reached the tents in just an hour and were nice and toasty, rendering most of the cold-weather clothing useless for the rest of the day.

After resting for a bit and feasting on banana pancakes we packed up and took off for the descent down the rest of the volcano towards the village of Sembalun. The sun was burning strong in a mostly clear sky, and the frigid temperatures of the summit were a distant memory. The dusty trail, bone-dry since Lombok was in the middle of the dry season, made for filthy, at times choking, trekking. I tied a bandana around my face and we trudged on as our clothes and exposed skin became caked in a layer of earth.

After lunch the terrain transitioned from pine-filled highlands to a long, sloping savanna of shoulder-high grass. The heat rose as we got closer to sea level, and the last two hours of hiking baked us. Just before reaching Sembalun we re-entered the jungle, where troops of black monkeys swung through the trees. Finally, after 25 km (15.5 miles) of trekking over three days, we reached the end of the trail. I was hot, exhausted and utterly filthy, but it had all been absolutely worth it. The scenery of Rinjani is simply staggering, leaving me with sights and moments that I will certainly never forget. This trip couldn't have gotten off to a better, more epic start.
We were given a ride back to the guesthouse in Senaru, where I finally had a chance to get a glimpse of myself in a mirror: I looked like Alice Cooper, with dirt caked around my eyes and mouth, hair so crusty I could barely run a hand through it. I cleaned what I could in the sink but it was soon time to hop into a van and head to Bangsal, a town on the coast where boats to the Gili Islands depart from. After an amazing four days on Lombok, it was time to head to a completely different destination.