Saigon…or is it Ho Chi Minh City?

I last visited Vietnam in 2011, when I spent only a few days in the bustling city of Hanoi, and for my end of term holiday last week, I decided it was about time to return to see more of this densely populated Eastern neighbor.

This time I passed over Hanoi, in favor of its modern southern sister, Ho Chi Minh City.  Among travelers, HCMC doesn’t exactly have a glowing reputation.  Given that neither does Vientiane, a city I love a lot, I knew it was still worth a visit to find out for myself.  And indeed, I found it to be surprisingly pleasant and home to the best massage I’ve ever gotten…which certainly helped my impression.
traffic
traffic
When you mention HCMC, it’s nearly impossible not to make a comment about the traffic.  It is rather incredible.  There are an unbelievable number of vehicles on the road; with over 7.5 million people in the city (more than in the entire country of Laos) it sometimes feels like every one of them owns a motorbike.  At every red light the bikes steadily accumulate, passengers all wearing helmets (impressive, though they are little more than laminated baseball hats), with 1-4 people per bike, perhaps 5 if there are particularly small riders.  But what is most incredible is not the sheer number of vehicles, but the fact that they are generally not locked in a traffic jam, but rather going at a constant fast clip, mere inches from one another.  In the first taxi ride form the airport, we narrowly missed other drivers by a couple of hairs at least four times.  The taxi driver barely blinked, but said “many motobike” in response to my friend Misha and I’s cringes.  By the time we arrived at our guesthouse, I was thoroughly convinced that Vietnamese people have superior reflexes.  Perhaps it’s something special in their pho, or just survival of the fastest?
ho chi minh
Next it was our turn to learn how to navigate the busy streets…on foot.  HCMC seemed to me like quite a livable city—surprisingly green, graced with large, mostly pothole-less sidewalks (a novelty!), and a decent mix of Southeast Asian quirkiness and modern convenience.  But I’m not packing my bags to move there just yet, in part due to the sheer peril and stress of crossing the road.  The key, it seems, is to not look at the oncoming traffic at all if you can: it won’t stop for you.  But if you walk at a steady (this is key, no unpredictable movements), slow pace, it will part around you, as if you’ve introduced a rock into a flowing stream.  If you can’t overcome your nerves, you’re doomed.  And even if you do master this technique, it’s quite draining.
Inside the Ben Thanh market.
Once we managed to cross a few streets, we eventually made it to the covered Bến Thành Market, where you can buy the usual tourist crap, knockoff goods, sequined fabric, coffee made from weasel poop, live eels, or dried sea cucumbers (over $100).  Vietnamese bargaining is much more intense than in Laos, so it was good to start practicing for the rest of the week.  In the end, I did buy candied ginger and the aforementioned sequins, and passed on the sea animals, both dead and alive.
sequins

Dried fruits at the market.

Fresh eels for sale!
It’s nearly impossible to visit HCMC without thinking about the war.  After all, most people still call the city Saigon, although the name was officially changed to Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 after the current government gained power.  As such, we visited the War Remnants Museum, a sobering collection mostly of photographs of the horrors of the Vietnam War.  Some are iconic, many are more unknown, of bodies of the young, or the wreckage of obscure civilian villages.  Living in this part of the world has vividly filled in so many of the gaps of the parts of history quickly glossed over in school growing up (after a long time discussing WWII, most American history classes seemed to nearly run out of time for the many remaining more recent decades).

Saigon's safety seat.

Saigon’s safety seat.

All that was left in our single day in HCMC was a dinner of “Vietnamese tapas”—ie. a sampling of street food.  We nibbled on BBQ beef spring rolls (yum), grizzly fish spring rolls (not yum), deep fried tofu, dried fruits, and garlic butter corn (more to come on Vietnamese food in my next post).  At the end of the day, it was just the perfect time to visit a spa for a late night pedicure ($3) and massage ($8)… Truly the best massage I have ever had (and I’ve sampled a lot in Asia); it released all of that tension from crossing the street.

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Vang Vieng

I returned from the beach sunned, and with the souvenir of a sea urchin fragment embedded in my foot.  With the final weekend of vacation in January, I visited somewhere new, but much closer to home: Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is at once a notorious and beloved tourist destination.  After Luang Prabang, it is probably the most well-known and popular location for visitors to Laos.  It is both known for its stunning landscape–with craggy karst mountains overlooking the Nam Song River–and its hard-partying-anything-goes reputation.  For years, Vang Vieng has been a magnet for drunk Aussies on spring break (to be stereotypical against someone other than Americans for once…although all nationalities partake in the debauchery).  It’s known as the place where you can drunk buckets of cheap local liquor, enjoy “happy shakes” spiked with your opiate of choice, and float/jump/frolic intoxicated in the Nam Song River.  It’s a double-edged sword: it provides a good livelihood for enterprising locals in tourism, however, at its worst the debauchery is both disrespectful and dangerous.
downtown VV
During the ASEM cleanup, bars along the river were torn down, and a curfew enforced, and by the time I visited Vang Vieng in January, this cleaner face of the town was still preserved.  I had passed through Vang Vieng very briefly in 2011 on my motorbike expedition north, but barely saw anything of the town.  However, in the few hours I was outside getting dinner I clearly remember hoardes of noisy tourists in frat tanks and booty shorts walking barefoot in the roads sporting lewd day-glo body paint and Sharpie scribblings on their body.

roti menu
The Vang Vieng after dark this time was starkly different.  The streets were relatively quiet and fairly deserted, more like Vientiane or Luang Prabang, and the TVs in the Friends cafes (every other business is a restaurant with comfortable cushions and reruns of the sitcom playing on a flatscreen) and Top 40 music at bars faded by midnight.

While this version of Laos’ hedonist haven seemed much more pleasant (I was thankful not to have to watch half-naked falang spilling french fries), many vendors and bar owners bemoaned the fact that it was supposedly “high season” but certainly didn’t seem like it…and that they were forbidden from continuing to sell their liquor buckets.  Supposedly the river tubing experience has also calmed, although I have yet to try it myself.  It’s unclear how permanent the change is–things here often go in waves of strictness and relative laxity.  But hopefully in the end, some sort of happy medium will be reached, which restores the tourism and fun, but with a higher degree of safety and respect.
Vang Vieng landscape
Vang Vieng isn’t just for frolicking falang, it’s also a popular tourist destination for locals, as it’s only a 3-5 hour bus ride from Vientiane, and offers a spectrum of pleasant outdoor activities.  Waterfalls, swimming holes, and caves abound to be explored.

In my short two day visit, I wandered around town, enjoying how relaxed and walkable it is, and strolled the stunning riverside.  I headed out of town to one of the caves, which was surrounded by a well-kept park filled picnicking families and Thai tour groups.  Finally, I made sure to catch a couple episodes of Friends on a couch, and feel unabashedly touristy for a few hours.

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The Lao Nagas

Last year, a Lao rugby team, called the Lao Nagas, traveled to Hong Kong for the first time to compete in the Kowloon 10s tournament and watch the world’s most elite 7s tournament.  The team invited a videographer from Lao New Wave Cinema to join and make a documentary of the event, which has been well-received in both Laos and Hong Kong, and was featured at this year’s Vientianale film festival.

Thanks to the success of last year’s tournament, the team is on their way to Hong Kong for the second time this week, and I invite you to cheer them on by watching the full length documentary, or the 5 minute trailer version on YouTube below, which I edited from the original film last month.

Let’s go Laos, Lao sou sou!

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Koh Mak, Sabai Sabai

bending palm
Wake up to the stifling heat under my mosquito net.  Flip flops on, eat some fruit and yogurt and watch the small sand crabs sketch temporary patterns in the surf.  Towel down, read on the beach.  Quick swim, unsuccessfully try to get a shot of the silvery needle-nosed fish with the underwater camera.  Walk to the only road for a Thai lunch.  Back to the beach.  Shower, walk in the surf at sunset.  Settle in with a pina colada as the sky above the tilting palms morphs from yellow, to orange, to pink, to purple, and finally a starry sapphire.

This tourist-brochure cliche description is a fairly accurate summary of four days spent on the island Koh Mak in December.  After spending 2 years in Southeast Asia, but no time at one of the region’s most popular tourist destinations, the southern Thai islands, I figured it was time to see what all this fuss about sand and sunsets was about.
diving in!
I spent a very commercial Christmas in Bangkok, where holiday spirit is injected into a country that mostly doesn’t celebrate the holiday, in the form of giant over the top glittering decorations in malls, for cosmopolitan Thai shoppers to take Instagram photos (Bangkok is the most Instagrammed place, really).  After we had our fill of the city life, my friend Ilse and I hopped on a bus south, to the seaside city of Trat.  We had opted to check out one of the eastern islands on the Cambodian side of Thailand, rather than the most popular and hard-partying islands of the southern peninsula.

Trat was just a stopover on the way to our island of choice, but turned out to be a surprisingly charming little city itself.  Many middle-sized Thai cities seem to be the same, and I expected another Udon Thani or Phitsanulok, but Trat had a quaintness to it.  In the small area of friendly guesthouses, there were a network of petite thoroughfares, almost remniscent of Europe, with low buildings and roads friendly only for pedestrians and motorbike traffic.  As we whiled away the night wandering these routes and reading guidebooks over pineapple fruit shakes in an agreeable restaurant, I almost wished we had more time to hang out in Trat.
koh mak
But the island was calling, and one choppy and hair-tangling boat ride later, we were lugging our bags onto the dock on Koh Mak. This tiny little plus-sign-shaped island is over-shadowed by its bigger and more famous brother, Koh Chang, which was precisely one reason why we chose it…a small population (only about 400), a small number of tourists, a small island, a massive amount of time for relaxing.

We stayed in a minimalist cabin consisting only of a bed with a mosquito net just a few meters walking from the beach, so most of our time was aptly spent outdoors.  The beaches were not crowded at all, and it was easy to stake out a place in the shade of a palm tree for the day.  We ate all our meals in and by the beach, got massages on the beach, the sound of the calm surf was the soundtrack to the visit (minus the hours between 9-2 every night when the resort reggae bar’s music went into full swing).

Finger pointing the way to a truly weird sculpture garden.

Finger pointing the way to a truly weird sculpture garden.

We left the water’s edge for only one afternoon, when we rented a motorbike to drive around the interior of the island for a few hours.  Passing through small rubber plantations, and the island’s few villages was interesting, but with a total area of only 16 square kilometers (only about 6 square miles), all roads eventually led back the beach.  This biking excursion brought us to the one truly bizarre experience on the island, stumbling upon a strange, surrealist, pornographic statue garden in a local artist’s public backyard.  While gingerly walking along the concrete path, gawking at the statues I got a sudden, unpleasant surprise when one began “urinating” on me.  Out of nowhere, hot, foul-smelling water (from stagnating in the heat…I assume) began spraying out of the crotch of the nearest statue directly on me.  I was lucky enough to have just turned my camera away, but we made a quick exit nonetheless, a bit spooked by the whole concrete garden experience.

nemo and friends
Although the naughty sculptures and days spent on the sand were certainly enjoyable, the true highlight of Koh Mak was my first scuba diving trip.  One of the original reasons we chose the island was because of its good reputation for snorkeling, but after hearing the dive instructors scoff as we reserved a snorkeling trip, we quickly were convinced to go for the “Discover SCUBA” trip instead.  And there was absolutely no comparison.  Once I got the hang of breathing underwater (which I feel is less a technical skill than the ability to calm your brain’s natural instinct to panic when underwater too long, unnaturally breathing thin air), we were off to another surreal environment, where we got up close and personal with clownfish, and anemones, and spindly coral.  Shifting schools of silvery fish drifted like clouds, and 15 meters down it was hard to tell how far we had actually come from the surface.
spotted ray

the depths

(All dive photos are courtesy of dive photographer, Wes Pryor).

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Hmong New Year

After spending a few days getting acquainted with Phonsavane, I traveled further west in Xieng Kuang Province to Nonghet District, quite close to the border with Vietnam.  I went there to capture some photo and video media for two local organizations running youth leadership development projects, and was also lucky enough to experience Hmong New Year in full-swing.
headwear
The Hmong are an ethnic group who live mostly in the mountainous areas of Laos (as well as in other countries in the region, like China, Vietnam, and Thailand).  They are one of the largest minority groups in Laos.  Following the United States’ “Secret War” in the 1970s, many Hmong fled to the US, which is why there are relatively large communities living in some parts of the States (mostly in the west and midwest) and I met many Hmong Americans back visiting while in Phonsavane.

Hmong is a completely different language from Lao, sounding more to the untrained ear like Chinese than Lao and Thai.  Hmong doesn’t use the Lao alphabet, but rather has a generally accepted Romanized transliteration.  Most of the older people I met could speak Lao, to varying degrees, depending on their education, as children are required to learn Lao at school.  I didn’t pick up that many Hmong phrases, but Nyob Zoo Xyoo Tshiab (Happy New Year) was usually enough to get a smile and greeting.

Hmong New Year is celebrated in November and December each year and brings together families and communities for 3-10 days of celebrations.  Young women dress in their brilliant traditional outfits and young people play pov pob, a ball tossing game, which for older children is a way to socialize and flirt with members of the opposite sex.  Younger girls line up with one another to practice and play, tossing a tennis ball back and forth and catching it nimbly with one hand (or dropping it and running after it, costumes jingling, in the youngest kids’ case).
nonghet
As my car wound through the precarious and quease-inducing mountain roads on the way from Phonsavane to Nonghet I saw brilliantly colored packs of adorable girls playing this game outside their villages, often worrying close to the unpredictable winding road.  Although narrow, these roads are becoming a main highway for massive construction vehicles and overloaded trucks coming from Vietnam, which often hurtle past the small villages flanking the road seemingly without regard to the many farmers and children passing over these routes on foot.
hmong costume
The reality of life in Nonghet is drastically different from the Laos I know in Vientiane.  The main source of income here is agriculture, and people of all ages help their families in the fields.  Houses are Hmong, rather than Lao, style, built to the ground (rather than on stilts), with packed clay floors and cool dark interiors with few windows.  Here in the mountains of Nonghet, the temperature was even colder than in Phonsavane (approximately 50s-60s F), and although the sun heated up the afternoons, evenings were cold, with no protection, except layers, from the chill.

In addition to wearing costumes and playful kids’ games, Hmong New Year, like most holidays, revolves around eating and drinking, and inviting friends and family to the house to wish you well for the new year.  Over the course of the several day festival, people drop in from house to house in the villages for food and a glass of Beerlao or shot of potent lao khao liquor.  While not working, my friend and I stopped by the many houses to which we were invited to be overstuffed with rice, chicken and broths, but unable to politely turn down a request to eat or drink.  In this case, “I just ate at the last house” is not a valid excuse, as everyone wishes to offer their own hospitality for the new year.  Several days afternoon lunch oozed into dinner time and beyond, with hours of straight eating, and I went to bed full, swearing not to eat white rice again (until I was served a plate of it the following day).
meal

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VIRC Highlights

Highlights from the Vientiane International Rugby Championship this past weekend!

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January 28, 2013 · 1:31 pm

Vientiane International Rugby Championship

This weekend Vientiane is hosting its biggest rugby tournament yet–the Vientiane International Rugby Championship.  In my role as designated photographer and videographer I have been preparing several videos to introduce the visiting teams and fans to the country, sport, and Federation.  There are teams touching down in Vientiane today from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the USA (a women’s team with many players from my very own Princeton!) to compete with the Lao teams on Saturday and Sunday.  It’s shaping up to be a fun weekend!  Whether you’ll be involved or not, check out the videos: #1: Welcome to Laos-What is Laos like?  An introduction to the country for the international visitors. #2: What is rugby? An introduction to the sport to local spectators who may not know much about rugby yet. #3: Introducing Lao Rugby

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