Friday, May 10, 2013

High life

I've returned from H2H with a renewed sense of the things that make living in Saigon great. For some unknown reason I seem to be looking at things afresh. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that a few people back home have expressed surprise that I've once again decided to extend my time here. It's tough to describe to someone who hasn't been here, but Saigon is at a nearly perfect crossroad where you can do all kinds of western-style stuff for developing country prices (while still clinging to its unique character, though parts of the city are beginning to look like just another city of chains and tourists).

Allow me to share my Friday. After finishing work at 1 I grabbed street food for lunch (rice, grilled fish and tofu for $1.50) before heading over to the original L'usine to meet up with a group of guys for a planned 'boys day'. In adorable, vaguely homoerotic fashion we browsed the goods in the store section before having a cupcake each. L'usine is famed for its cupcakes, and the red velvet didn't disappoint.

Afterwards we walked over to the Bitexco Tower and headed up to Alto, the recently-opened lounge on the building's 52nd floor. It was 5pm, time for happy hour. I ordered a Peroni, at $3.50 an eye-watering price for Saigon, but in the west an imported beer with this view would force you into bankruptcy. For a while we had the place to ourselves, and we felt like the lords of the city: hundreds of feet higher than almost any other building, with a sweeping view across several districts. And since Alto is connected to the Bitexco's (supposedly non-functional) helipad, we dreamed up Bond-like scenarios of crazy escapes. Eventually the sun faded , and as the city's lights came on we couldn't help but bask in the moment - very few cities offer you an experience like that for such a relatively low price tag.

I had dinner plans so I split and headed out to Tan Binh district for an airport chicken session with two other friends. The chicken was, as usual, amazing, and cost $6. So, an amazing day with a mix of local food and high-end treats for about $15. Even with the insane traffic and frustrating cultural differences, this city has an awful lot going for it.

On a slightly different topic, this morning I came across an amazing tool on The Atlantic's website. NASA, Google, and a few other organizations used 30 year's worth of satellite imagery to create a time-lapse of the entire planet. Go here, scroll down, and you can zoom in anywhere on earth and see what has changed over the last three decades. A number of startling environmental changes are noticeable, but what I find just as interesting (and equally worrying) is the massive growth of a number of cities. If you want your mind blown zoom in on Shanghai, for example, and watch how far it has spread in recent years. Just for fun, here is Saigon in 1984:
 And 2012:
The difference is dramatic. In the first image there is almost nothing directly east of the airport. Now that is one of the city's most densely-populated, overcrowded areas. The city's flashiest areas today, Districts 2 and 7, simply didn't exist in '84. (2 is the area on the tongue-shaped peninsula in the center-right, 7 is at the bottom below that last canal.) Almost the entire frame has been filled in with urbanity. How much farther out will Saigon's development reach in another 30 years?

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