HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Lifestyle differences

Obviously, life in Vietnam is far different from that in the U.S. Some differences are obvious: the motorbike madness of the streets here is unlike anything you'll see in America, the food here is far better and far cheaper than most food in the U.S., etc. Others take some more time to notice.

One of these is the proximity of businesses to houses here. Zoning laws in most American cities keep residential and business areas largely segregated. That is not the case in Saigon. Houses are generally not located on major streets, but are instead tucked away in narrow alleys like the one I live in. While these alleys are quiet, they are still extremely close to the businesses located on the main roads. For example, all I have to do is walk out my gate, take a left, walk 30 feet, take a right, and walk another 20 feet and I'm on one of the best streets in the city (in my humble opinion) for delicious, extremely affordable Vietnamese food. Back in New Orleans, the nearest business is several blocks away from my house. Sometimes here, people actually live on top of restaurants. It's not uncommon to see a family trundle through the dining area to a staircase at the back that leads up to a living area. Within a 5-minute walk of my house there are four bakeries, a movie theater, at least a dozen restaurants, several banks, and numerous clothing stores. That's not uncommon here.

Another difference, and one that can be annoying, is the amount of effort it takes to find out things that are happening in Saigon, or Vietnam in general. There are no English-language news programs, and the only English newspaper is the Viet Nam News, a state-run daily that discusses hilariously named government programs like the "Society, Dynamism, Creativity and Emulation for the Fulfillment of Socio-Economic Development Goals for 2011-2015" campaign, which is run by a man with the deliciously Orwellian title of 'Chairman of the Central Emulation and Award Board'. It's also common to find amusing sentences like this within its pages: "The 11th National Party Congress is a major event for the entire Party, the people and the army, encouraging them all to work to raise the entire Party's leadership and combativeness." What eactly they're combating, I'm not sure. I read that gem on a plane and started laughing out loud, before realizing that I probably shouldn't do that in public.

Much of the information in the paper is focused on such Party actions, while few stories discuss what's going on in the lives of normal people. To be fair, there have been a number of interesting articles discussing crop issues in the Mekong Delta, the environmental costs of Vietnam's growth, and proposals for major national infrastructure projects, for example. However, this is still far different from the U.S., where I can log on to the website of the main newspaper of whatever city I'm in and find all kinds of information. There is never any reporting about crime in Saigon. It's been a safe city for me; I've walked several miles back to my house at 4am with no problem, but several of my friends have had things stolen from them. I also have no idea how common major crimes like murder or assault are. It is illegal to own a firearm in Vietnam, but I'm sure some people have them. The only crime stories I've seen are written when the occasional trans-national heroin ring is busted.

It can be similarly difficult to find out what is going in other parts of the world. We don't get the BBC or CNN, or any of the other big news networks, on TV. The paper only reports major stories. Luckily, I recently found a store that sells current issues of Time and Newsweek for less than 50 cents and, occasionally, The Economist, my favorite magazine. (Yes, I am a nerd.) This cheap discovery has really helped to fill the otherwise gaping news void here.

Another difference, one that favors Vietnam, is the widespread availability of unlicensed movies. There are several stores in Pham Ngu Lao that have shelves full of the latest movies, many of which aren't even on DVD in the U.S. yet. For example, we've recently purchased 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Social Network, and The Fighter for a combined price of about $5. There are hundreds of other movies to choose from, from every genre. Usually they are good quality, but every now and then you find one that is unwatchable. A few months ago everyone in the house really wanted to watch Inception. We bought one copy, only to find that it wasn't an actual release but simply some dude sitting in a theater taping it with a video camera. Plus, the first five minutes were missing. So, we bought another one...but it had the same problem. So did the third and fourth. Oh well. TV shows are equally plentiful and cheap. I bought all five seasons of HBO's masterpiece The Wire for less than $15. The Sopranos, Dexter, Weeds, The West Wing, etc. are all available for a fraction of what you would pay in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the illegal book market isn't quite as exciting as the movie one. There aren't really any English-language bookstores here (boy do I miss Borders and Barnes & Noble), so the only option is to buy the photocopied books that are sold at the DVD stores. While there certainly are some good books around - I've bought several, including Graham Greene's "The Quite American," Anthony Bourdain's "A Cook's Tour," and a few Asian history books - many of them fall into two categories: existential backpacker crap, and depressing accounts of the Vietnam War or the murderous Khmer Rouge in 1970's Cambodia. Not exactly light reading. The upside is that books are also cheap - usually under $5. That being said, pages are sometimes mysteriously missing or poorly printed. One of my books was fine except for the missing 5 pages right in the middle of it.

I've discussed other, major differences in previous posts, but these are a few that people probably don't think about when they wonder what life here is like. Other differences are more pedantic - like the fact that we have a washing machine but not a dryer, and no dishwasher. Hopefully the above discussion shed some more light on what living here is like, although it seems a little scatterbrained to me. Probably because I worked 14 hours this weekend on 10 hours of sleep.

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