Tag Archives: Travel

My Life at the Quan

Photo by Nam Quan for AsiaLIFE

I haven’t been watching which of AsiaLIFE‘s articles have been syndicated on Vietnews too carefully lately, but I just dropped by and saw that the editors picked up my piece on quan nhau: “Living the Quan Life.”

This one was a real bummer to research: head to a few local quans with friends, nosh on the savory grilled fare typical of these joints, wash it down with dirt cheap beer and shoot the shit. (That’s why I get paid the big bucks.)

As my friend Hai explains it, that’s basically nhau. Eat. Drink. Talk. No one element is more important than the other; each one fuels the other two. I go into the culture of nhau in greater detail in the article.

Oh, and I eat pig’s brain.

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Filed under Culture, Food & Drink, Vietnam

Motorbiking the Hai Van Pass

 

Axel_

Axel_

 

At this point, I don’t exactly have a plan. I am winging it.

Having passed over a horde of substandard Honda Dreams, Citis and Wave Alphas — motorbikes that would almost certainly leave me stranded on the Hai Van Pass if they didn’t break down sooner — there is now parked in front of me a gleaming new Yamaha Sirius. But the owner wants my passport.

I can’t explain to him that this is impossible, that I will need my passport to check into a hotel in Danang in a few hours time. That I plan to drive his bike 4 hours southeast of Hue, over the Hai Van Pass, into Danang , then to Hoi An and back would no doubt be a deal breaker.

 So instead I tell him I cannot give him my passport. It is at my hotel. He asks for the hotel’s number. I tell him I need to switch hotels; mine is very bad. I tell him he can have my New York State driver’s license. He looks on the verge of giving me a yes. I tell him I’ll pay him up front for the three days’ rental.

Bingo.

I stop at my hotel, pick up my backpack, get back on the Sirius and just like that I’ve salvaged my trip from the brink of disaster. Just like that, I am headed out of town, bound for the Hai Van Pass.

The road out of Hue is almost exceedingly well marked, if a bit labyrinthine. Every few hundred metres, there’s another sign. This way. That way. Left. Right. Up. Down. Back the other way. It’s a cartoonish route, but it proves dependable and soon I’m on the open road heading west, driving past coastal paddies.

But then the rain starts up. The proceeding hours are a blur. I stop to reposition my rain jacket; multiple configurations lead to the same conclusion: it’s going to be a we ride. About an hour into the drive, my hands are frozen solid. I stop at two large markets to find gloves. No luck. All I get are inquisitive stares and giggles.

From there, things get hazy. I remember a backup where a bridge is being repaired. But other than that, I am just trying my best to make good time, trying to overtake the truck traffic. After a while, 70km per hour feels just fine on the slick roads. I start to accept the discomfort, the aching limbs and numb fingers. The sign to denote you’re leaving a hamlet — the crossed-out skyline — is my only comfort.

 

And then it happens. I’m just outside of the Hai Van Pass. The rain has reduced to a drizzle. The first ascent alone, steep and banking towards the ocean, assures me that the Hai Van Pass will dwarf the two smaller passes I’ve already driven. The experience, I begin to realize, will make all that’s come before worth it.

Thanks to a recently completed tunnel for truck traffic, the Hai Van Pass is nothing short of a motorcyclist’s dream come true. Lanes that likely made for tense trips by bus or truck provide latitude for motorbikes to bank and weave with relative safety. Around every corner, you imagine the summit must be near, but the road continues to climb, the South China Sea below growing more distant, the jungle foliage on the mountainside more verdant.

And then I reach the top. With the mist and cloud cover, the view is non-existant. No worries. I’m eager to get back on the bike. The drive down the mountain proves just as much fun — you’ve got to keep your hand on the break just to keep yourself in check. And not long into the descent, the rain abates altogether. The sun comes out. I take of the stifling raincoat, and continue down the mountain, the sun and wind drying my sodden clothes.

Next stop Danang.

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Filed under Motorbiking, Stories, Vietnam

Jetstar’s Friday Fare Frenzy

With only one true budget air carrier operating in Vietnam — Jetstar Pacific — there’s not often much to report on. But in June Jetstar initiated its Friday Fare Frenzy promotion, offering customers discounted fares on select flights booked between 2 and 5pm every Friday. 

So three weeks into the promotion, what’s the verdict?

A search on Friday, July 10 turned up cheap flights early morning and late night on the HCMC – Danang and Hanoi – Danang routes — 180,000 VND ($10 USD) for one-way Jetsaver Light fares and 230,000 VND ($13) for Jetsaver fares. Danang’s not the most exciting destination, but it does make for a cheap means of skipping over to Hoi An and, for motorbike travelers, puts you just a few miles from the stunning Hai Van Pass. The problem? The flights depart more than 3 months down the line — a booking made on July 10 was good for travel between October 26 and November 12.

The following weekend, however, Jetstar offered a more user-friendly schedule: one-way Jetsaver Light fares for 350,000 VND ($20) between HCMC and Hanoi (October 5 to November 12), and the same price for a HCMC-Vinh route (September 22 to November 12). It’s a bit of a lottery, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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Filed under Jetstar, Vietnam

Jetstar to Launch Saigon – Darwin Route

Out with the old, in with the new. Jetstar is scrapping its thrice-weekly service between Ho Chi Minh City and Sydney, and replacing it with a new Ho Chi Minh City – Darwin route, which will operate five flights a week. The changes will take effect on September.

The schedule change is part of Jetstar’s bigger plans for Darwin. Jetstar is gearing up for more international flights, and is setting up Darwin to handle the increase. The change will also facilitate increased traffic between Darwin and domestic destinations Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. Return flights from these destinations to HCMC and Singapore will pass through Darwin.

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Filed under Australia, Flights, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Painting with Street Children

I stopped by a painting class for disadvantaged youth and street children run by Armed with a Paintbrush to research an article I’m writing about the American nonprofit for AsiaLife HCMC. The good folks at AWAP handed me a paintbrush and let me paint with a gaggle of pre-adolescent artists:

Painting with street children

Painting with street children

Friends from back home will recognize my inspiration: Charlie, the beagle I left behind…

When the AWAP gallery opens next month on Bui Vien Street, conscious-minded art enthusiasts can swing by to purchase paintings created by local youth and to get their hands dirty doing a spot of painting. For the time being, you can peruse AWAP’s paintings currently available at its online store.

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Filed under Causes, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Cutbacks at Qantas

Qantas announced this weekend a series of measures meant to keep out of the red in the face of sky-rocketing global fuel costs. On the chopping block are 22 of its 228 plane strong fleet, as well as Jetstar’s pilot and cabin crew base in Adelaide. The route, however, will remain in service, with flights manned by staff based out of Sydney and Darwin. Some routes will see capacity reductions, but no routes are currently slated to be cut outright.

Despite its most recent fuel woes, Qantas says it will go ahead with plans to replace older crafts with more fuel-efficient A380s and B787s, roll out new customer service initiatives and launch its direct service from Sydney to Buenos Aires in November.

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Filed under Australia, Flights, Transportation

Escape from Saigon: Dong Nay Province Swimming

I was hurtling down the rode in Dong Nay Province, past vast swaths of rice paddy, when it suddenly occurred to me. I  cocked my wrist to accelerate and pulled up alongside Tyler.

“I think I forgot what fresh air smells like.”

Add this experience to the “You know you’ve been in Saigon too long when … ” list.

I’d joined a motorbike caravan to the Golden Scorpion, one of the recreational swimming holes out in Dong Nay Province, about an hour outside of the city. I’d been told there was fresh water and a bridge to be jumped off. What we found was a well-organized riverside park dotted with thatch-roofed cabanas, ringed with water slides and diving platforms. 

The water parks in Dong Nay are no Western wonders, but that’s what makes them so much fun. The water slides were not engineered for comfort, but it’s pretty amusing to watch your friends’ get slapped around the second curve of the too-short slide while you nurse your own bruised hip at the bottom. 

And while life vests are required, safety restrictions are pretty lax. No one scolds you for tipping over your friends rented boat, and the workers don’t intervene when you decide to launch yourself backwards and headlong down a water slide.

For these and many more reasons — including the dirt cheap beer — the trip to Dong Nay is well worth the mind-numbing headache you’ll suffer on return to smog-choked Saigon.

The Golden Scorpion. Entry: 10,000 VND. Life vest rental: 20,000 VND. Boat rental: 15,000 VND. Bottle of Saigon Green: 9000 VND.

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Filed under Getaways, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

An American Spendthrift in London

I was sad to hear that my friend Alex Robertson Textor’s time in London has ended. However, every cloud has its silver lining. Alex has compiled some great dispatches during his time in London over at Spendthrift Shoestring. From guest house suggestions to unheard-of walking tours, Alex’s tips should help you do what Alex does best: crack the surface in no time at all.

Be sure to click through his other UK posts, as well.

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New Beer Bar Quenches Saigon

Beer in Saigon now has its Graceland. While most bars serve the same range of regional beers, the Kool Beer Bar is stocked with over 100 beers from 13 countries.

Located just off the Ben Thanh Market traffic circle, this joint is the best a beer-drinker could hope for in hop-starved Saigon. Glass-doored coolers make it easy to peruse the goods. The menu lists the alcohol content and bottle size of each beer. There’s even a canal packed with ice that runs the length of the bar — just slip your bottle in to keep your brew cool.

And the beer. While the selection is certainly not exhaustive, it’s nonetheless impressive. Prices are a bit steep, but if you stop in between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. you’ll pay 5 – 10k VND less per bottle (a good incentive to start drinking before noon if ever I heard one). The priciest item on the menu is a 750 ml bottle of Duvel with an alcohol content of 8.5%. It’ll set you back 190K VND. A 330 ml bottle of Chimay Blue (120K) tops the tanked chart with an alcohol content of 9.0%.

I stopped in and had a 375 ml bottle of Coopers Pale Ale (70K VND). If it tastes any fresher in Australia, I’d be surprised. I also shared 500 ml bottle of Vietnamese-made Cuong Duong with my girlfriend out of sheer curiosity. That endeavor didn’t go so well.

“It’s not a great beer,” she said, “but it’s a pretty delicious cough syrup.”

Kool Beer Bar, 177 Ham Nghi, District 1

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

Update Saigon: On the Palate

Yikes! This blog has gone bone dry as of late (I blame the Beginner 1 class I just started teaching). Here’s a quick blast to add some meat to my recently skeletal offerings.

  • Just days after I plugged the Vietnamese Vegetarian Restaurant in my Vegetarian Guide to Saigon, the joint assumed a dual identity. This Pham Ngu Lao eatery now sports two signs: Vietnamese Vegetarian Restaurant and Pizza Pasta Lasagna. The latter is meant to advertise its new meat-inclusive menu, courtesy of the new chef. In addition to an array of eponymous dishes, it also features some great meals like the cajun chicken casserole (45K VND), chicken potato paprika burger (32K VND) and pork with cream sauce and mushrooms (45K VND). However, the last two days, the new menu was unavailable at lunch time; either they’re out of ingredients or can’t cut the mustard without the new chef around.
  • Prices have shot up at Falafellim by about a 7000 VND per dish. The falafel pita that used to cost you a cool 32,000 will now set you back 39,000. On the up side, I’ve learned that chowing down on one during a bad hangover produces a sensation relative to your previous condition that I can only describe as taking a massive dose of ecstasy while riding a Unicorn through Candyland.
  • Bobby Brewers on Bui Vien has begun distributing movie leaflets again, although its all-day new movie bootleg fests haven’t yet come off suspension. Recent screenings have offered films in the 2-5-years-old range. Meet the Fockers, anyone?

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