Monday, December 19, 2005

Glad to be back?

Yeah right.

I’m a little jet-lagged and sore from a ridiculously long flight. I felt like I was in steerage for the first time on a United flight. I came to a real interesting realization; I think it was the same as last time I got back, or maybe it’s a little reverse culture shock, but I’m not glad to be back.

The same problems that I had before I left are still here. I’m not happy to be back, I’m honestly depressed. As I sat in sub-zero temperatures once again waiting for an ‘El’ train to take its time to pull in the station, I finally came to a realization that I may never be happy here in Chicago. I’m not saying that Thailand is the answer. I’m saying that change may be in order for me to have a little slice of happiness.

As for reverse culture shock, I don’t mind being a foreigner in a completely different culture. What did I miss when I was gone? I think the only thing that I craved was a good burrito. Now that I’m back, I’m craving a good bowl of Tom yam gung (hot and spicy soup with shrimp).

I’ll be back updating the blog, so keep an eye for my other observations and photos.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Pink Eye

Fucking pink eye. Sorry for the lax posting here, but haven't really felt up to it and the eyesight in my left eye was real cloudy. Actually, still is a bit at times. I got back to BKK and a couple of my friends here were a bit concerned by the fact that my eye was almost completely red. I said that if it was worse on the next morning that I would go to Bumrungrad Hospital and have it checked out.

Well, I think that all of you know how it worked out the next day. Looked like I wend 2 rounds with Mike Tyson circa 1988. I showered and headed to the hospital. The eye doctor after about 30 seconds of looking at my eyes said that I have an eye infection. Conjunctivitis, I inquired? You got it.

Since then, I've been to the hopsital 3 other times for follow up visits. My eyes are completely cleared up, but I have drops that I need to take every four hours. I guess my doctor appointment on January 9th will be well worth it.

Due to the appointment schedule that I was on, I was Bangkok bound. I played a lot of pool (sometimes with one eye), shopped a little, caught Little Louie Vega and Deep Dish out at the clubs on RCA road. Both of those nights were completely crazy.

I really wanted to get up to Chaing Mai, but it will have to wait until my next trip when ever that will be. I think I'm heading to Germany for the World Cup next summer (Argentina and Netherlands play in Frankfurt in June).

I went shooting yesterday (Thursday the 14th) at a range hosted by the Thai military. I was able to shoot a .38, .45, and a 9mm. It was really fun and completely safe and supervised (ear protection, showing how to load the weapon, etc.)

I can't say that this trip has been completely dissapointing, because the purpose of this trip was to see if I would entertain living in BKK and to relax. Jury is still out, but I am looking forward to coming back home to Chicago (just not 21 degree temps. Its "cold" here by Thai standards about 70-73 degrees) As for relaxation, I think I got my fill with bouts of the runs and pink eye. Boy, I can't wait for work on Monday. I think I'll tell people that I caught pink eye from a chicken.

I'll have more updated next week, I think I owe it to all readers. Later.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Vietnam - Day 3

Saturday, December 1st, HCMC Socialist Republic of Vietnam

I'll have more to report tomorrow or Monday. I arrived in Saigon on Thursday and really am not having a choice time, so I've decided to change my flight and return to BKK.

I got something in my eye a couple days ago and would rather trust the medical staff in BKK. Suffice to say, my left eye is a little puffy and really red. Quite annoying actually.

I did go to the Cu Chi tunnels during the day. After an 1 1/2 hour bone jarring ride in a taxi, I was there. Got to see the tunnels, decided not to cram myself in there. Big plus was the shooting range. $1 per bullet was a great deal to fire off a pistol (which misfired several times) and an M-16. Needed a little ear protection as I forgot how loud guns can actually be.

I'm out of here tomorrow around 3:30 PM, so more to report later...

Friday, December 02, 2005

HCMC Day 2 - And the hits keep on coming...

Well after a suprisingly good night of sleep, I decide to go out on my own and see HCMC. I just don't feel like meeting Gib today. I'll phone her when I get back and see if she can take me back to Ba Ba for a bowl of Pho and a couple beers.

There weren't a lot of items on my schedule to see in Saigon. I wanted to see the reunification palace and the war remnants museum and just see the buzz on the streets. Well, the buzz was constant because of all the motorcycles and scooters, I hailed a taxi to take me to the reunification palace. I had plenty of offers from people to take me on their motorcycle, but after wiping out on a scooter in college (and having to pick rocks out of my back side) and fear of having my back pack pulled away, the taxi was the best and quite a quick option.

The reunification palace:
 Posted by Picasa

I guess I was expecting more when I decided to tour the reunification palace. The building was the home of President Ngo Dinh Diem during the war and was breached in April of 1975 by Northern Vietnamese tanks. Replicas of the tanks are on the grounds of the palace.

During my tour, the large front lawn of the palace was being set up for some type of concert and plenty of musicians and technicians were around doing sound and light checks.

The palace itself was certainly frozen in time. The building was completed in 1966 and reminded me of some of the 60's era buildings on the UW-Madison campus. Access was only granted to certain areas of the building, but you were able to go on all floors, the roof, and the basement where they housed a small museum. The museum was interesting because it did house the flag that flew as the North Vietnamese were storming the palace and the flag that replaced it.

As a history buff, it was interesting to see the perspective of the Vietnamese in this museum. In the museum, you saw the perspective of a country struggling to unify in the wake of French and later American occupation. Among photos taken of significant events during the war, were quotes of Ho Chi Minh and other leaders of the Vietnamese Workers Party. After touring the entire building, I was a bit tired and with the eye issues, needed a rest. I walked out the gates of the palace and decided on my next destination.

Cyclo Fun:

A cyclo is a three wheeled taxi where the passenger sits in the front and the driver is behind. The cyclo can either be motorized through the cannabilazation of a motorcycle or person powered by using a bicycle. I was walking down the street trying to get my bearings and find the war remnants museum when I was approached by a motorcycle driver who offered to take me all around. I wasn't getting on a motorcycle. Not safe enough for me.

As I walked a cyclo driver approached and said he's take me on a tour of the city. I agreed and hopped in the seat making sure to secure my backpack around my leg to prevent theft. The tour was fine, but I screwed up. I forgot to negotiate where we were going to go, how long the tour would be, and most importantly, the cost. I was pissed at my self that I would let this happen and should have stopped and negotiated before going any further. I knew better having traveled in Southeast Asia (Thailand and Cambodia) and my own stupidity would be my undoing here.

No Cyclo fun:

After the tour, the cyclo driver took me to the central market, about a block away from the hotel. Here's where my own stupidity could have avoided the situation. Normally, no that's not right, always when you use these types of services (same as taking a tuk tuk in Thailand), you pre-negotiate cost and destinations. I negotiated destinations and figured that cost would be negligible. Imagine my complete and utter shock when the driver asked for $120 USD. No that's no missprint $120 f'n US dollars. Not being a stranger to negotiating in Asia I decided to see if I could get this down as there was no was in hell I would pay that. I countered with $50, a reasonable fare for his time and effort. He said that he had to work hard as I was very big; I couldn't disagree with that fact and I knew that he did work his ass off taking me around. I cursed at myself endlessly for being so stupid. I could have easily avoided this.

I countered again that $120 was a lot of money and that I would settle for $100 even. $105 was finally agreed upon with me cursing at myself the entire time. The driver was just doing what he had to do. I couldn't begrudge his greed. I should have negotiated the total cost before we started, but being tired and just wanting to cool down stopped me from thinking. I lost another round to the scam artist and was really annoyed with myself.


After getting gouged (I have another word that I'd like to use, but will keep this moderately clean) by the cyclo driver, all I wanted to do was get away from the driver and walk around the market. According to the guidebook I had, if you walk a measured pace across the street, motorcycles and scooters will go around you. Bullshit! I had a motorcycle run right into me. The guy was pissed off and I didn't have much to say except a muted 'sorry' as I go out of the way. Thankfully, no one was injured (well, my pride was) and I was able to laugh it off soon enough.

On to the market:

There was one item that I really wanted to find in Vietnam: snake wine. Snake wine is rice wine with yes you guessed it, a snake in the bottle. There are a bunch of other herbs in the bottle as well and apparently the wine is used for medicinal purposes. I just wanted the bottle for conversation purposes. I walked around the market for about five minutes and came up to a stand that had exactly what I was looking for. Bottle upon bottle were there of all sizes, some with a cobra in it, others with scorpions and if I recall, spiders too. I was after the bottle with the cobra though. Thoughts went through my head on what customs would say when they saw the bottle. I didn't care. I had to have it just to say, "I've got a bottle of rice wine with a dead cobra in it." I know. Completely childish, but still I made a mental note of the stand's location and decided to make my big purchase the next day.

 Posted by Picasa

Fee fie Pho

I called Gib and after apologising for blowing her off told her that I wanted to go back to the bar and have a good meal and a couple beers. All I wanted wass a bowl of Pho. Pho is a soup consisting of noodles, vegetables, and meat. It could be really anything (beef, pork, chicken, seafood), but I decided on beef and was not dissapointed.
 Posted by Picasa

When I was in HCMC the Southeast Asian games were taking place in the Phillipines. That night the city was all abuzz because Vietnam and Malaysia were playing a soccer match. I've seen a country shutdown before due to a soccer match. In 2001, I was in Dublin when they played a world cup qualifying match. The bars were packed and the country lost an entire afternoon's productivity.

The football match was at night so, not much productivity would be lost. Vietnam won the match and everyone went wild. Driving up and down the street on scooters with Vietnamese flags flapping behind; yelling, cheering, just celebrating a win and a finals matchup with Thailand.

After hanging out for a couple hours I decided to take a taxi back to the hotel. I was going to the Cu Chi tunnels and wanted to get an early start. Problem was, everyone in HCMC was celebrating the football win and traffic was not moving. Imagine hundreds, no, thousdands of people on scooters and motorcycles beeping their horns in celebration. Absolutely insane. I got to about a block from the hotel and walked from there.

Outside my hotel room window Posted by Picasa

 Posted by Picasa

My eye was still feeling pretty bad and I resorted to putting ice on it for relief. I was too stubborn to admit it, but I needed to see a doctor. I was going to have to cut my trip short and go back to Bangkok and see how the medical facilities were. I needed to get out of Vietnam.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

HCMC - Saigon Day 1 - Ripped off (Part Two)

Ok, so after being ripped off (my fault completely), moving quickly to another place, and grabbing a beer, I was able to relax and actually enjoy the place I was at.

It was just an alley with a few tables and chairs set up. There was a restaurant attached, but it was busy and hot in both places.

At the tables, there were a bunch of older Americans (I later found out). Yes, they were vets enjoying a beer. I asked one of the guys sitting next to me how Saigon had changed since he was last there. The only difference he said was that we would have been drinking on the roof of the place (to avoid mortar fire), but other than that, no difference in 30 years.

I met a local girl named Gib who asked me if I wanted to go dancing. I decided I didn't have much to lose since the place I was at was closing up. We went to Apocalypse Now bar, one of the more famous nightlife places among tourists and locals. It was just as I expected, hot, sweaty, full of Westerners and locals. I think I was able to stand the place for about two drinks. I told Gib that I wanted a local place where it was a little quieter. She knew of another place, so we went off in a taxi again.

The new place was much better. Real quiet, real local. It was a bia hoi place. A bia hoi place is where the locals drink beer on ice and grab a little bit to eat. I think the name of the place was Ba Ba, but I'm not sure. It was really quiet though and after the loudness of Apocalypse Now, this was a welcome change.

Ba Ba, would be the place where I would be introduced to Vietnamese food. My first was marinated beef and onions. I know, it sounds simple, but served with a little fish sauce and hot peppers, it made the beer go down fast; especially, with the hot peppers. I stayed out way late into the evening and eventually made it back to the hotel waking up the security guards to get me my room key. Gib was going to meet me in the afternoon to show me around HCMC. I was a little wary, but said that I'd phone her in the afternoon when I was ready to go site see.

HCMC - Saigon Day 1 - Ripped off

Thursday, December 1st, 2005 - Saigon, Socialist Republic of Vietnam

My flight out to Saigon was out in the afternoon, so I secided to get to the airport about 3 hours prior just to get everything I needed. I took a taki out in front of the hotel. I hate doing this because the guys that sit here ask for ridiculous sums of money and refuse to use the meter. Knowing the cost to the airport and taking the tollway to Don Muang (about 250-300 B), we negotiated 350B including the tolls (I know I'm bitching about $9 USD, but if you let someone walk over you, they'll continue to do so all the time)

We get to the airport without incident and pull up to departures. I only have 500B and 1,000B notes. Shit. I'm not about to give this guy more than negotiated. A litle fortune smiled on me as the taxi driver behind us had change.

Second bit of good fortune, I didn't make any reservations prior to leaving for HCMC. The guidebook, stated that there would be plenty of places available for good prices. As I was trying to get change I struck up a conversation with a guy that had just returned from Vietnam and gave me the card to a hotel which was around $20 perr night. I decided to use the card and go to the Thanh Long T@n Hotel. (

All this time, my eye has been really bothering me. June and my friend Pae were really concerned and thought that I should go to the hospital. I figured that I just got something in my eye and it would eventually wash out and I would be ok, but it was really red and hurt a bit too.

I checked in with Vietnam airlines with no incident and paid the international departure tax of 500B, got my departure stamp from the Kingdom of Thailand and was off to Vietnam.


Nothing really exciting here to report. Quick flight of about an hour. The food was decent and flight attendants of Vietnam Airlines were very nice and professional. Actually a pretty pleasant flight experience (like Bangkok Airlines).


Tan Son Nhat Airport (a.k.a Saigon Airport) is about 5 miles away from central HCMC and probably hasn't changed much since 4/15/75 (more on this later)


Looking back now, I'm suprised that I was even let into the country. My left eye was so red and wattery the immigration official did give me a look before stamping my passport and letting my into the country. I grabbed my one checked bag, got a taxi to the hotel (165,000 Dong about $10USD).

My first impressions of Vietnam and probably the first thing that anyone would notice were the vast amounts of motorcycles and scooters. Most people can afford either of these, but autos are real expensive. Traffic is everywhere and honking horns is standard when driving.

I checked into the hotel and took the $20 per night room with A/C and satellite tv (which had mostly Thai television along with HBO and Star Movies channel) and headed out for a drink.

I must have walked around for a good half hour before I even found somewhere to drink. I wound up getting into a taxi and went to one of the main streets where tourists are. For the past two weeks, I've been hanging out with mainly Thais and not too many Westerners, so walking into Allez Boo was a bit strange seeing mainly Westerners. It was pretty hot out even though it was 9:30 or so at night, so I ordered a large Tiger Beer, a glass of ice and a large bottle of water (about a liter and a halfe bottle).

I was enjoying my beer on ice when one of the local kids (could have been anywhere from 16-22) asked me if I wanted to play pool. I should have said no, but had been playing pretty well in BKK and decided to give it a shot. Now pay attention, because here's where the story gets good. The kid says how about 20,000 Dong a game (a little over a $1)? I say fine to that, in fact I know he said 20,000 Dong. After losing to first, going double or nothing on the second and getting run off the table (long tables, not bar tables, so I was missing everything on the table), I grab 40,000 Dong and decide to head out.

The kid with all seriousness, says, "No that's 400,000 you owe me." Alright, I know better than to bet in pool against a local (just like I know to not play cards with someone named after a city), but I'm being taken. I calmly, well as calmly as I can, state that we were playing for 20,000 per game and if we were playing for anything higher, I would have not played in the first place.

Now, here's where it gets interesting. I know the whole 'Face' thing in Asia is in play. This guy has lost face, because I've called him out. I'm not so sure why I haven't lost face though. I grab 200,000 Dong, hand it to him and tel him that's all he's getting from me. I then grab my big ass bottle of water, and head out a different exit quickly and duck down an alley where there's a few Westerners.

I'm not afraid of one person who was considerably smaler than me. I'm afraid of six to ten guys jumping me and beating the crap out of me for $12.50. Life is still cheap there. A story was later told to me about a guy that managed a bar that had people selling drugs there. The manager had kicked out a dealer there and some hours later had a cleaver burried in his skull.

I decided to take a seat at this table outside and try to have a relaxing adult beverage. As I approached, a guy asked me if I wanted a table. I asked if they had a pool table. After he said no, I took a seat with my back on the wall facing the street.