Archive for Saigon Diary – Page 3

Now Read This…


For three years I haven’t read anything, fiction or non-fiction, that didn’t have something to do with Vietnam. I was looking forward to reading about something or someplace new, but it wasn’t a chore when I got sucked into reading Angie Chau’s book Quiet as They Come. She’s a new and compelling voice. It’s hard to pull away once the Vietnamese bug catches you. Vietnam is a deeply fascinating place and culture. Working there made it even more so. It has a rich and complicated past, a messy, energetic, present, and a hope fueled future. In between, there is the Vietnamese diaspora. That is what Angie Chau writes about – the Vietnamese-American immigrant experience. read more

The World is Flat (at least in Saigon)

The world is flat. The world is small. The world is at our fingertips. We have real-time face to face Skype conversations across the oceans. We “chat” with friends in Europe, Asia and the Americas on a daily basis. We follow the news on the European debt crisis and the air quality in Beijing and we know that all of these things affect us personally.

In Saigon Gucci competes with Pho 24 for our attention. Christian Louboutin sells $700 shoes next door to a counter that sells Rolex knockoffs for under $100. Almost anywhere in the world we can find a more or less homogeneous urban scene. Countries retain their traditions and cultures and on the street the scene can look very indigenous but at the top of the economic ladder, in the center of the largest cities, things start to look very familiar. Brands are global. Half of the world is wearing Nike shoes and baseball caps. Coke and Pepsi are the beverages of choice. Kids in Saigon dream of having their birthday parties at KFC, and there are half a dozen glitzy Vietnamese magazines devoted to fashion and the high life with “golf” in their titles. read more

America in Decline

I often describe myself a short term pessimist and long term optimist. I try to think positively about people and the world. I’ve been traveling almost constantly since 1965 and I’ve seen a lot of changes in the places I’ve lived and visited. I’ve come to think that airports are metaphors for their countries.

Last Wednesday I took the red-eye from Saigon to Seoul, had an 11 hour layover in the airport and then continued on to Seattle. It was midnight when we left Saigon but the Illy espresso bar was open. The cafe was stylishly modern and the clientele a mix of Asian, European, and American types. It could have been anywhere. It’s that way in most international airports these days. I can remember when Tan Son Nhat airport was a couple of one story wooden buildings. Now it’s all glass and marble high rise with luxury brand boutiques and world cuisine. It’s 36 years since the Vietnam War ended and the victorious communist north has fallen in line with the rest of the capitalist consumer world. I wonder what Uncle Ho would think? read more

Kaci’s Birthday

Almost two years ago Marilynn and I chose an espresso place in the heart of Saigon for our morning lattes. We walk the two and a half blocks from the Hotel Rex gym, where we start the day, and we arrive right at 7am when they open the doors. Gloria Jean’s is an Australian chain and it’s hard for a Seattlite to say but I think they make the best tasting lattes on the planet. They are rich, thick, and very strong without being bitter. Tasty and long lasting.

But, the coffee is not the point here. Over the past two years we have made a number of new friends at Gloria Jean’s. The 7am crowd is very loyal and it took several months to break down the barriers but eventually we nodded and smiled and said hello often enough that we were able to start some conversations. The crowd is very eclectic and has changed a little over time: there’s Mike who does micro-loans and venture investing for Dragon Capital, Andrew, the vice provost at RMIT an Australian technology university, Nga, a Vietnamese business owner and single mom to 3 children, David, a San Francisco lawyer who splits his time between the Bay Area and HCMC, and Kaci, an ambitious, attractive, and very smart 28 year old who is starting an Executive MBA program at RMIT in January. Then there is the sidewalk newspaper vendor who saves us the Sat-Sun International Herald Tribune, the motorbike taxi guy right outside the front door who can’t keep his finger out of his nose, and the neighborhood sidewalk restaurant just across the alley. They are all part of our morning. read more

Saigon’s Moveable Feast

It’s been raining here the last two mornings. Normally, mornings are clear and the rain comes later. But these two mornings have highlighted a Saigon phenomenon. Rain or shine, morning in Saigon has a unique feature; it’s the breakfast cart brigade. These are the portable aluminum and glass carts on wheels that set up on sidewalks all over town. There must be 10 between my apartment and my office, a mere two and a half blocks.

The parade starts about 3 or 4am when they leave their overnight storage spots. Most of the carts are pushed by the women who operate them. It looks especially dreary in the rain, but they do it wet or dry. Once they get their spot the carts remain stationary for a few hours. Some of them make morning deliveries. Some of the goods are carried on foot (like those carried by this woman), but most of the activity involves rolling stock.
I don’t know where they keep the carts when they’re not in use. It’s got to be somewhere in their very small living spaces, but it’s hard to imagine. Some are very large. Some are small. Some have fire in the hole. You see the pots hanging from a passenger’s shoulder bar on a motorbike spitting flames and sparks. Some are shiny bright, some are dented and creased from long wear. The vendors themselves often sit on the sidewalk beside the cart waiting for customers. Some sell fresh fruit. Some sell banh mi, the Vietnamese baguette sandwiches. Some sell soft drinks. Some sell pho or noodles. Some sell things that can’t be described.
read more