Tag Archives: Random

Bobby Brewers: The Last Picture Show Has Cometh

Update: Since the time of writing, Bobby Brewers’ has begun showing *ahem* up-to-date films.

Backpackers in Saigon have been packing Bobby Brewers‘ movie theater for years, but Vietnam’s lax copyright laws have tightened and put a stranglehold on this staple of the Bui Vien lifestyle.

Alas, at least for the time being, there shall be no more bootleg movies at Bobby Brewers’ Bui Vien outpost.

Two weeks ago, Bobby Brewers retracted its ubiquitous movie flyers mid-week. Since then, the cafe’s theater has been screening stale flicks like Click, Terminator 3 and (I kid you not) Power Rangers. Gone are the recently released bootleg flicks; even the big three Southeast Asia screen gems — Good Morning Vietnam, The Killing Fields and The Quiet American — have been cut.

A call to Bobby Brewers’ home office confirmed that the company has put the kibash on its speakeasy theater for legal reasons. Unsurprising — with four new franchise locations in the works and its charitable work gaining more recognition, the company needs to put forward a more legitimate face.

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Filed under Free Stuff, Ho Chi Minh City, Nightlife, Vietnam

An Israeli Falafel in Saigon

Note: Falafellim is currently closed due to a dispute with the landlord … another great eatery is in limbo thanks to the Saigon’s finicky real estate.

Falafel enthusiasts and vegetarians rejoice! Falafellim is serving up meal-sized falafel pitas here in Saigon. Located on Pham Ngu Lao just off the traffic circle at Ben Thanh Market, this small, attractive falafel bar was opened a few months ago by an Israeli ex-pat. And while most of the foreign fare you sample in Saigon disappoints, these falafel sandwiches are the real deal — packed with delicious fresh ingredients and served with authentic tahini and chili sauce. Falafellim also serves hummus, egg and salad dishes, as well as the falafel baguette (truly, an idea whose time has come).

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Filed under Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, Uncategorized, Vietnam

HCMC Fine Arts Museum

Like many cities blazing the capitalist path in developing nations, Saigon lacks an established cultural apparatus. However, of all the museums in Saigon, the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum might be the one most worth seeing, even if the quality of its collection and exhibition is inconsistent.

Predictably, war paintings and lacquer work are given prominence at the entrances to the east and west corridors on the first floor. However, some of the rural scenes are worth seeing and there’re a few more abstract works towards the end of the corridors. Further down the west corridor is a smattering of collages, paintings and mixed media art by Western artists — most of which relates to the war — and some more modern pieces by Vietnamese artists.

You can see the museum’s collection of Buddhist worship pictures and folk paintings, as well as some impressive statuary, on the second floor. The second floor is also home to temporary exhibits; a large-scale lacquer scene with the artist’s preparatory sketches were on display during a recent visit. Opposite the east wing are remnants from provincial pagodas: incense columns, statuary and wood panels.

The third floor is mostly given over to bronze work, ceramics and the like. A large collection of bronze incense burners is the highlight of the collection.

Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. 97A Pho Duc Chinh Street, District 1, near Ben Thanh Market. Tuesday – Sunday 9 am – 5pm.

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Filed under Culture, Ho Chi Minh City, Museums, Vietnam

International Aid Fuels Saigon Subway

There’s been lots of nay-saying floating around since ground broke on the long-anticipated Ho Chi Minh City metro system this past February. But cynics can’t deny the initial foreign investment is there. Three lines have international support, and two Japanese companies and one French firm are vying for rights to outfit the system with the latest railway technology.

The Japan Bank for International Co-operation will pump $905 million into the already-started first line in the six-line system, which will run from Ben Thanh Market to Suoi Tien Park in Thu Duc District. This flagship line will run underground between three stations in District 1 before emerging to connect the next 11 stations. Completion is set for 2014 to the tune of $2 billion total.

On the same day construction began on Line 1, the German government pledged $86 million to the estimated $1.2 billion price tag on Line 2, which will connect Districts 2 and 12. China Shanghai Corporation for Foreign Economic and Technological Cooperation has stepped in to conduct the feasibility study on a third line following what the Vietnamese government calls inadequate progress on the part of a Russian development consortium.

Over the first six years, the HCMC Urban Railway Authority expects 162,000 commuters to utilize the system, inclusive of six subway and three monorail and/or lightrail lines. The next decade-long phase of development between 2020 and 2030 aims to accommodate 635,000 passengers. 800,000 are anticipated to be riding the rails by 2040.

Whether or not the metro will coax the Vietnamese away from their motorbikes is yet to be seen, but the potential environmental benefits to this smog-choked city are encouraging.

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Update Saigon: Stay Cheap, Stay Alive

Okay, so things aren’t THAT dire. But heading into my third month living on savings, I’m definitely feeling the crunch in the lead up to that sign-on bonus at ILA. Here’s how I’m staying cheap in Vietnam.

  1. Bia Hoi. Paying $5000 VND (about 33 cents) for a beer sure alleviates (if not obliterates) morning-after guilt. There’re a few bia hoi joints in the backpacker district on Bui Vien, the best of which is right around the corner from Do Quang Dau (I’d give a name, but I don’t think it has one).
  2. Free movies at Bobby Brewers. This western-style coffee shop screens movies back-to-back all day long on its top floor, which features stadium seating couches. Best of all, they don’t even get miffed if you only order a coffee (20,000 VND).
  3. Pho. Because my girlfriend is a vegetarian, I haven’t had much opportunity to get acquainted with Vietnam’s signature beef soup. However, with the misses occupied getting certified to teach English, I’m slowly working my way through the many variations of pho, which go for about 16 – 20,000 VND. Note: Avoid the franchised Pho 24. It’s overpriced and serves weak portions.
  4. Trà Dá. Literally iced green tea. This is consistently the cheapest beverage on the menu: from about $1000 – 6000 VND. It’s amazing how much you save when you’re not forking over 12-20K VND for lunchtime beer.
  5. Pirated Movies Everywhere in Saigon. There are no copyright laws in Vietnam, so DVD shops are ubiquitous and dirt cheap. A good price is 10 – 12,000 VND, and don’t be shy about returning DVDS that skip.

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Filed under Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, Update Saigon, Vietnam

Saigon Sellers Hawk Cookies for a Cause

Walking through the backpacker district in Saigon means shoeing away street vendors hawking everything from hammocks to hashish, not to mention the bevy of poor Vietnamese vying for your heart strings. But there’s one group of street sellers you can feel good about supporting.

Sozo street sellers operate between Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien and are readily identified by their baskets of American-style cookies: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, and white chocolate. Packages of 3 cookies cost 20,000 VND (just over a dollar), the proceeds from which benefit Sozo Centre, a bakery and nonprofit on Bui Vien that provides poor families and disabled Vietnamese with job training, specifically in baking and running a business. Sozo also runs volunteer programs and funds schooling costs for some of the families with whom they work.

So before you brush off the seller who approaches your lunch table, look for the Sozo label. Not only do the cookies support a good cause, they’re tasty and more practical than a hammock.

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Filed under Causes, Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Lazy Schlub Assigned to Weather Channel’s SEA Desk

The rainy season in Vietnam has rolled in right on schedule; we’ve been hit with a series of sodden days. I have yet to witness the more predictable cycle in which it supposedly rains at a predictable time every day.

So when I checked weatherchannel.com to see if Sarah and I would be able to shoot down to My Tho and Ben Tre for a day-long biking trip, I was unsurprised to find a string of thunder cloud icons above every 3-hour time stamp.

However, when I got up this morning to find the forecast for today and tomorrow hadn’t changed, I decided to check the next few days. Turns out the Weather Channel’s way of dealing with weather in Vietnam during the wet season is to slap up a few scattered T-Storm icons and award a 60% chance of humidity across the board.

Who assigned the webmaster’s chiba-huffing cousin to the South East Asia desk?

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The Cu Chi Tunnel Mantra: How Killing Fields Became a Jungle Gym

If any stage of the Cu Chi Tunnels was going to activate my claustrophobia, this was it. I had answered the tour guide’s call for a skinny tourist, but now they were asking too much, this tour guide and military-drab chaperone. Yes, I will pose inside the tunnel entrance with trap door held aloft while fellow tourists snap pictures of me. But actually shimmy into the shoe box-sized hole and seal myself in? No, thank you.

But before I could protest, the military man was shoving me down the hole. I have no problem with enclosed spaces; it’s not being able to move within a confined space the sends me into panic. So as my shoulders brushed the wooden perimeter, the air went out of my chest. Luckily, as I squeezed through a fraction of a second later, I managed to avoid hysteria. I slid the trap door into place and knelt down, twisting my body to test the parameters of this underground vestibule. The fact that I could move calmed me…as did the laughter of Asian tourists above ground.

In fact, only about one tourist per tour group gets the trap door experience at the Cu Chi Tunnels. The rest are shuttled through 100 meters of tunnels that have been widened to accommodate Westerners. The experience, for which the historical site is named, takes place at the end of the tour and lasts about 7 minutes — provided you don’t take one of the escape exits along the way.

The tunnel crawl, along with everything else at Cu Chi, encapsulates the mission of most historical sites in Vietnam laid out by Robert Templer in Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam, which is to mint a “mantra of heroic resistance” as “the single, unifying theme of Vietnamese history.” In doing so, Templer suggests, “Cu Chi compresses the war’s problematic layering of civil, international, ideological and personal conflict into a neat David and Goliath struggle.”

Cu Chi is plotted out in guided stages, and the first hint of Templer’s thesis hits visitors at the introductory documentary stage. But the designation of documentary is generous. Visitors are seated in front of a small television and shown a propaganda film produced during the war. While no gem of cinematography, the film’s narration does manage to spin innumerable rhetorical permutations on the concept of villagers who only wanted peace and blood-thirsty American commandos.

Propaganda is surely more interesting than most video installments at historical sites, but the fact that the film is never referred to as propaganda is what’s a bit surreal. You get the sense that no new documentary on the Cu Chi tunnels has since been produced, or that it was never deemed necessary to create another specifically because this one proved so adequate. The audacity of this possibility gives one the sense of being displaced from time, plucked out of the present and dropped into an alien context where such a film might be considered credible.

This seems to be what Templer means by the compression of problematic layers — only a fraction of Vietnamese probably ever considered such reports credible. I can imagine quite a few tourists walking away from Cu Chi, amused by the simple people who would’ve imbibed such pale imitations of reality.

The life-size dioramas depicting Viet Cong soldiers sharing a canteen, writing letters, and turning scrap metal into useful objects (such as booby traps) only feed the sense of a cobbled together propaganda machine. When the tour guide flips the switch to set the soldiers to work sawing a detonated bomb in half, you just feel a bit embarrassed.

But in fact, these are the same dioramas you find throughout Philadelphia and DC. The Cu Chi dioramas only feel so much like propaganda because (1) you’re coming off the film and (2) you’re viewing a familiar genre that’s being used to illustrate the opposite of what you’re used to it illustrating. Dioramas are supposed to depict Abraham Lincoln brainstorming the Gettysburg Address and Pilgrims shaking hands with Native Americans, not Viet Cong guerillas fashioning bamboo shoots into tiger pit spikes meant to impale American GIs.

But in fact, this cognitive dissonance illustrates something that Brian Eno once wrote about propaganda. On his first trip to Russia, he met a musician whose father had been Brezhnev‘s personal physician. He asked the musician about having lived “completely immersed in propaganda” during the Brezhnev era, to which the musician replied, “Ah, but there is the difference. We knew it was propaganda.”

Similarly, Bruce Chatwin wrote of Bolshevik Russia that “Authoritarian societies love images because they reinforce the chain of command at all levels of the hierarchy.” I wouldn’t be so restrictive. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the instrument of propaganda is a herky-jerky Viet Cong dummy at the Cu Chi Tunnels or a sophisticated Hall of Presidents at Disney World — any monument meant to reinforce an idealized notion of the past, or to make you feel good rather than think, does the work of propaganda. For propagandists, there are simply different shades of indifference to (or contempt for) nuance.

The one aspect of the tour that really caught me by surprise was the working display of ghastly, spiked and barbed traps once used to ensnare American soldiers. Templer mentions in Shadows and Wind that new attractions are constantly being added at Cu Chi, and indeed, since its publication in 1997, some of the attractions he notes have disappeared, replaced by other gimmicks meant to bring to life this spent battleground. One can imagine why the army’s sports and recreation department did away with the trip wire-ignited fireworks — I only wonder how many visiting American and Vietnamese veterans had to suffer this thoughtless ploy.

Still, the row of cordoned-off traps is unexpected. When Americans think of the Vietnam War, they tend to envision unsuspecting soldiers suddenly blown to ribbons by hidden land mines. These iconic weapons, which symbolize the blind terror and paranoia of the war, are burnt into our collective memory by latter-day films and books. Throughout the novel The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien uses the land mine as a unifying motif, revisiting the moment the narrator’s friend is suddenly obliterated by a mine during a game of catch throughout the novel.

In comparison to the traps, which snap and swing closed in horrific variations, the idea of land mines seems merciful. Surely, mines killed and left mutilated thousands of soldiers, but the relative swiftness of their devastation seems less brutal than the idea of the cruder traps and the prolonged agony they might cause before their victims were released. This likely explains why they occupy a less prominent position in the media surrounding the war, as well.

Or it could simply be that these traps weren’t terribly effective. The same can be said for the Cu Chi area as a whole. While the tunnels helped the Viet Cong hold the line and were a source of pride not only for their display of Vietnamese ingenuity but because they were positioned merely 60 kilometers outside Saigon, tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians died in cave-ins within the tunnels.

What’s more, Cu Chi took the brunt of America’s chemical assault — the effects of which continue to cause birth defects and cancer — making it a (barely) living monument to one of the country’s worst military atrocities. Now, visitors laughingly crawl beneath the poisoned landscape through tunnels widened to accommodate their Western frames.

Time has transformed these killing fields into a jungle gym.

For these reasons, Cu Chi is actually tremendously interesting. Like most historical sights, it tells us far less about what actually happened than how we feel about, or choose to remember, what happened.

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Filed under Books, Culture, History, Ideas, Vietnam

The Dune Warriors

Continued from Nam, the Would-be Dune Guide

Our moment had come. The dune kids were scattered and Sarah had a clear path to Flower Pants. While she slipped away, I waded into the crowd of waiting boys who had been trying hyena-like to lure me away from the table throughout breakfast. It was my fault for having told them my name when we first arrived.

“Tom! Tom! You slide. You slide down.”

Now, as I approached, they seized upon me. “Tom, you slide with me,” said a skinny boy with a baseball hat tilted askew. He grabbed my forearm and led me across the street to the sand dunes. The diversion had worked. There, Sarah was waiting with Flower Pants, the sole girl among the dune kids

In addition to a stroll through Fairy Stream and a daybreak visit to the fishing village, most jeep tours of Mui Ne include a stop at the yellow sand dunes. In photographs posted in Internet cafes and restaurants that double as tour agencies, Westerner’s faces light up with glee as they coast down the golden dunes on plastic sheets akin to over-sized place mats. In the background are the carefree children who rent out the sleds.

Had our visit to the dunes been chaperoned by a tour operator, perhaps ours would’ve been such a joyous visit. Instead, we left with photos tainted by piggish greed.

But as we humped the dunes amongst a cavalcade of pre-adolescents, I couldn’t imagine that those bulletin board pictures were inaccurate. Nor could I make sense of what Nam had told us about the dune kids: that they were a pack of ingenuous, depraved sadists whose sole motivation was greed. Indeed, our friend Phoung had met up with us the day before, and when we asked her opinion on the Japanese tourist story, she conceded that it could be true.

But here were the kids, asking me all sorts of questions, pointing to my aviators and chanting, “Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson.” Now that they weren’t swarming around our breakfast table, my distaste for them faded. I looked back. Sarah was smiling with her coterie of kids, too. Still, I steeled myself against their charm. I handed over my sandals to Crooked Hat when he offered only because I could not think of a polite way to say no.

At the top of the hill, one of the boys asked for Sarah’s camera. “I’ll take picture of you,” he said. I looked at Sarah for confirmation, but she was already handing it over.

Crooked Hat kneeled at the apex and poured sand over the mat. “It slides better this way,” he said. He motioned for me to sit down, and once I had, he grabbed hold of the rope connected to the front of the mat. Suddenly, he lunged backwards, took a few steps, and, stepping aside, let me loose.

I fell off balance and the sled came out from under me at the base. As I got up the boy with our camera began scrolling through the photos he’d taken. I’d expected a blurry mess, but in fact, they were incredibly good photos. He even navigated the camera like it was his.

Up at the top, Flower Pants was trying to get something across to Sarah, but had found a chink in her Vietnamese. Frustrated, she sighed and pulled Sarah’s sunglasses down from her forehead over her eyes. It appeared that Flower Pants had more spunk than we gave her credit for.

Sarah came sailing down, and almost before she had stood, each boy was crowing for us to slide with him next. We ignored their calls and instead just sprinted up the hill and chose a couple boys at random. The boys sent us whizzing down in tandem. Again, they called for another side, but we told them we’d had enough.

The photographer had emerged as the leader, so Sarah got her camera back and squared up with him. She looked in her wallet and found she only had two 100,000 VND bills and a handful of small bills. She handed the boy two of the crisp 100,000 VND bills, and he walked off.

As we began to follow him, the rest of the kids surrounded us and started demanding their share. We told them that we paid the photographer, but they responded that he wasn’t with them. This, we knew, was a crock, but by this time, he had walked over a ridge and out of sight. Desperately clinging to their lie, the kids became downright rotten, calling us liars and cheats. We walked on ignoring their taunts, but then, Crooked Hat hit my last nerve.

“You don’t pay me, so I keep your shoes,” he said.

I kept my eyes averted from Crooked Hat, searching for the appropriate response. What I wanted to do was pick him up and shake him. A ten-year-old had me over the barrel. I didn’t want to get nasty, but I didn’t want to give in to this snotty little brat either. My outrage was stoked by the fact that I knew we’d given above and beyond what most tourists paid. I kept walking until I found a response.

“It’s okay,” I said. “They weren’t very expensive.”

“Okay, fine. You don’t pay me. I keep them.”

“Okay,” I said.

The kids continued to protest, and eventually Sarah gave a boy the handful of small bills, which amounted to less than a dollar. “That’s all I have,” Sarah said, simply wanting to be rid of them. Suddenly, realizing that his bluff had been called, the boy who’d taken the bills gave them back to Sarah, insisting that she buy herself a water. The mood changed like a sudden parting of rain clouds. Crooked Hat handed me my sandals and bid us farewell.

Immediately, we knew what had happened. We’d fallen for a trap they’d probably laid a hundred times. Seeing independent tourists, unaccompanied by a tour group, they’d lulled us to the far end of the dunes where we were hidden from view. We followed. They’d let their friend the photographer take the money and then feigned being ripped off by the alleged free agent. My sandals provided the collateral. Chief among our mistakes, we hadn’t set a price before sliding. My stomach might’ve continued to roil, but I knew we’d allowed ourselves to be duped.

We later found out from Phuong that the going rate is 5000 VND per slide.

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Fire Drill, Saigon Style

We were enjoying the fire drill just fine until the maintenance men started screaming at us. Students and teachers alike had ambled down the stairway at a leisurely pace, but once we reached the ground floor of the ILA building, the blue-shirted Vietnamese jabbed their fingers violently towards the main entrance as a steady column made for the basement garage.

I was happy to escape an afternoon of English Language Acquisition methodology training, so when one of the men locked me in his frantic stare, I heeded his command. But as I rounded the glass-walled reception desk, I noticed that the massive, open frontage was draped in a curtain of water. Outside, there were no fewer than 3 high-powered hoses firing at the building. I stopped dead in my tracks and turned to find everyone behind me staring ahead as well, clearly thinking the same thing: Do they expect us to run through that?

Out came the blue-shirted madmen, keeping up their ruckus. Question answered.

People emerged from the building, drenched to varying degrees, depending on their individual abilities to duck, weave, and keep their footing on the soaked marble steps. Almost everyone turned to stare up at the building. Had an actual fire broke out prior to the scheduled drill? Had they set fire to the building deliberately?

Neither was the case. Unless ILA is given special treatment as Saigon’s premier English-language school, fire drills in Vietnam are not solely staged for building occupants to practice evacuation, but for the fire department to get in some target practice.

Living in a culture far removed from one’s own, specifically one behind the curve on modernization, you quickly learn that while some things are lost in translation, others are lost in adaptation. This occurs in a number of realms.

Take the realm of staple cuisine. As the Vietnamese develop an appetite for American and European fare — the Italian coffee fad is gaining traction — its common for non-tourist restaurants to offer a few staples from Western menus. More than anything, it seems, the dishes are added for a stylish little touch. Sometimes, however, style doesn’t translate into substance, such as when I ordered fish ‘n chips at a nice, mid-range restaurant and received a plate of fish sans chips.

In the case of the fire drill, I don’t mean to suggest that the West is the fountain of all things rational and modern. Nor do I have any special insight into the origin and development of fire safety procedures or their history in Vietnam. But generally, it’s safe to assume that modern procedures travel from modernized spheres to modernizing ones.

And on that note, someone needs to have a sit down with Saigon’s top fire warden.

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