The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Challenges of Being a Writer in Vietnam

The average tourist visiting Vietnam will probably encounter no significant hurtles in regard to writing, whether for a blog, magazine article or even a guidebook. Despite being a developing country, let alone one with a communist government, travelers will encounter few limitations due to censorship or technology. However, writers who choose to stay in Vietnam for the long-term as expats may experience a unique set of challenges.

I’d already lived in Vietnam for more than a year when the local police suddenly began asking a lot of questions. Unlike other tourists, I didn’t move on to the next stop on the tour bus, and I didn’t work at a resort, bar or teach English like all the backpackers. “Why does he always have a laptop computer with him?” and “What does he write about?” they would ask. All my friends were questioned by the police. They were casual interrogations—nothing too threatening, but they police wanted to know my daily activities, who I met, where I ate, and whether I went to church or a pagoda regularly. My neighbors told me they came by my house while I was out and asked them what I did during the war with America (I hadn’t been born yet), as well as the activities of my family during that time (none of whom fought in the war either). They collected my phone number, email address and monitored me from a distance, but apparently they lost interest after a few weeks. I was a law-abiding guest of the people of Vietnam with no political interests, so I proved to be of no concern.

As long as a writer stays away from political issues, other subject matter doesn’t usually raise eyebrows. Stories about tourism, culture, and entertainment will even be seen as beneficial (presuming that the majority are positive). I’ve interviewed most of the top celebrities in the music industry, and they are always eager for the opportunity to promote their careers in the foreign media. Likewise, resort and bar owners are happy to talk with writers if it means getting their business name in print. If you start interviewing numerous individuals who don’t have obvious business interests however, the situation changes. When I began collecting local folk tales and legends for a future book, my Vietnamese friends warned me to use great discretion. If an American (all white-skinned foreigners are considered “Americans”) begins questioning lots of people in small villages, it raises suspicions and the local police may soon arrive to investigate.

A few years ago many websites were unavailable from within Vietnam. Whether this was due to censorship or a deficiency in technology was not always clear. Emails frequently took more than 2 days to reach recipients outside of the country. Rumors circulated that Vietnam had begun filtering emails and the system was too slow, creating a backlog where emails were delayed or even lost. At present only a rare few websites are now blocked within Vietnam, and those to my knowledge, are all of a highly political nature, whose purpose is to undermine the government. This makes keeping up blogs and travel sites relatively easy.

Internet connections are prevalent in Vietnam, even in small villages. Free wifi was common in hotels and cafes in Vietnam long before it ever was in America. Unlike neighboring China, internet cafes are not temporarily closed during politically sensitive times. The real problem lies with electricity. In rural areas power outages and fluctuations are common. In Mui Ne Beach for example, the power is usually out on Monday and Tuesday during daylight hours. At my house just outside Phan Thiet, I had no electricity at all during daylight hours, and only enough for lights and fans at night. I did nearly all of my computer work in cafes, where I could plug into their outlets, but I always had to be prepared to hop on a motorbike to find a café in the next town, should the lights go out. Conditions vary however, and if you stay in a busy city or large hotel, you may never have a problem. One word of warning—never rely on generator power. The current is too unstable. I’ve damaged a laptop and several cameras that way.

It can be difficult to acquire necessary English-language books and printed research material within Vietnam. Illegal photocopies of current bestsellers and lonely planet guidebooks are sold by street venders everywhere, but only a handful of legitimate used bookstores are located in backpacker areas of Saigon and Hanoi. All books mailed to Vietnam may be inspected and held for translation. While only religious and political materials are usually confiscated or returned to sender, other media may still be held for inspection for weeks or even months. Whether sent by conventional mail or Fedex, my mail always ends up at the provincial post office headquarters, where the same “special taxes” are required to claim the items. I’ve noted that when my Vietnamese friends collect the same sorts of parcels, they are never charged the extra fees.

Certainly learning the language will make your life in Vietnam significantly easier and provide you with a much richer experience to write about. While living in Vietnam and speaking the language may make your pitch for a story more attractive to magazine, newspaper and website editors, this is not necessarily true for guidebook publishers. The popular guidebook publishers have a history of hiring writers who have written guides for other countries or are widely published in periodicals, but few of these writers have ever actually lived in Vietnam or speak the language. All the well-known publishers are owned by larger companies that produce media on a broad range of topics (even Lonely Planet was recently purchased by the BBC) and sometimes they overlook the unique approach necessary to cover each country. They tend to play it safe by choosing writers that they are already familiar with, assuming that they can learn enough about the country as they travel.

Because many guidebook writers are new to Vietnam, this often has the unfortunate result of skewing recommendations in inappropriate directions and grandfathering obvious mistakes over successive editions. Naturally, a writer living in Vietnam has the advantage of being able to visit areas more than once and base reviews on accumulated experience. A writer visiting the country on a singular, short-term research trip will expectedly produce a much more superficial survey of the region, and must rely on others to supplement any deficiencies in their research after they’ve gone back to their home country. A writer who cannot speak the language will rarely take the reader off the well-beaten tourist track.

Every writer struggles to make a living, at least initially. Fortunately the low cost of living in Vietnam makes the struggle easier, as it is possible to live humbly yet comfortably on less than $10US per day. It is unlike that you’ll find opportunities to write for international news organizations like Reuters, Associated Press or CNN, as they tend to contract with local news services or Vietnamese citizens to cut costs and red tape. However, it is possible to write for domestic news services and magazines within Vietnam, but you’ll be paid the meager local rates. When it comes to writing for well-known magazines back in the USA, UK or Australia, the payoff relative to the amount of work involved can actually be much more lucrative than writing guidebooks. Due to the large pool of available writers, the fees paid by most guidebooks publishers have gradually declined, and may only cover the cost of a round-trip ticket and the expenses during research. Here again, as an expat you have an advantage, in theory, because you are already in Vietnam.

Whether you write a guidebook, write for magazines, newspapers, your own book, or a blog, you probably won’t get rich, but it’s unlikely you’ll regret the experience. Vietnam is a country with a rich culture which will offer you a wealth of experiences to draw from for the rest of your life.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Bear's Faith

This great quote by Bear was just brought to my attention from Channel 4 in Brittain:

Interviewer: You have a strong faith - is that important to you when you're out in extreme environments?

Bear: Yes, but my Christian faith is also a big part of my everyday life. I always say that it takes a proud man to say that he needs nothing, and I freely admit that I've needed that faith in my life, and it's been a real backbone for me. But it's not just a support when I'm out there; it's a wonderful thing in really positive moments as well. I remember when I was in the Amazon, in the middle of a really dense bit of rainforest, where no human would have ever been or probably will ever go again, and looking up and seeing at the top of a tree a beautiful bright purple flower, and thinking 'Nobody's ever going to see that flower. That's God's extravagance.' Even though no-one's ever going to see it, he just can't help but create something beautiful.


Bear's Blog

Friday, November 16, 2007

Bear Grylls in Vietnam?

Bear Grylls is one of the newer outdoorsy-travel-adventure tv personalities that I really admire. His survival adventure show Man VS Wild airs on the discovery networks and highlights his struggle to survive after being dropped off in a variety of isolated ecosystems around the globe. The idea is that these are places where a tourist or hiker could potentially get lost, and so he demonstrates skills they (or we) would need to use in order to survive in such a situation.

His new season begins airing this month, and Bear has announced that the new shows will now be 2 hours long instead of just one (which I think is a great idea). Upcoming locations include Patagonia, Siberia, Panama and the Sahara. Bear's Blog: Preparation for Man Vs Wild....

I for one would like to invite Bear to do an episode with us out in Vietnam's Binh Thuan Desert. The are is the driest region in SouthEast Asia. Hazards include of course drought, dehydration and sun stroke, cobras and vipers, scorpions, dry quicksand, sand storms--and if you chose to wander near the old military bases, possible unexploded ordnances (but these have been removed from most other areas). Unique sights (and survival resources) include ancient cham towers and temple ruins from the 8th century, groves of palm trees, boulder-strewn mountains, tropical fruit trees, hidden canyons, giant tasty lizards and hidden oasis. The desert is contained by the sea to the south and east, and mountains to the north and west. I'd love to help with location scouting for the show...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tramping in New Zealand's Abel Tasman

New Zealand is a country renowned for its natural beauty. Fortunately New Zealanders (or kiwis, as they call themselves), have learned to capitalize on this and develop a thriving ecotourism industry that both protects the environment and benefits local communities. Nearly 30% of the land in New Zealand is managed by the department of conservation, which also maintains a highly developed nation-wide system of hiking trails, otherwise known as “tracks.” While these tracks are a big draw for international tourism, they are largely enjoyed by New Zealanders themselves, who have a healthy appetite for outdoor activities in their beautiful country.



Tracks often have both camping sites and huts (cabins). The quality of these facilities run the gamut, ranging from humble clearings to pitch a tent, to cozy bungalows with basic utilities. “Great Walks” (which include 8 trails and 1 navigable river) in the country’s top national parks often have huts with hot showers, flushing toilets, electricity, mattresses, and cooking areas.

I had limited time on my first trip to New Zealand, and with so many tracks to choose from, it was difficult to select where to go hiking (or “tramping” as the activity is called in New Zealand). One stood out from all the others, however. The Abel Tasman National Park is located on the northern coast of New Zealand’s south island. It’s classified as one of the country’s Great Walks, testifying to its renowned natural beauty, ease of hiking, well-manicured trails and convenient camping facilities. The coastal track is relatively easy and can be hiked by almost anyone, contributing to its popularity. The inner tracks are more challenging, though still accessible to most hikers.

The city of Nelson is the major jump-off point for Abel Tasman. On the surface, it may seem that this quiet town exists solely to put backpackers up for the night on their way to
all the surrounding tracks, which also include Leslie-Karamea, D’Urville Valley and the famous Heaphy Track. The town has numerous hostels and outdoor supply stores such as Tasman Bay Backpackers and Alp Sports. However, Nelson is also a major cultural center for the South island’s Northern coast, offering important events such as the Nelson Arts Festival, Winter Music Festival, Taste Nelson Festival, and the Suter International Film Festival.

The trail actually begins in the village of nearby Marahau and ends at a car park in Wainui Bay in the north. It takes 3-5 days to hike the entire track, but single-day hikes are easily arranged for any section of the track due to the availability of numerous water taxi services. The track can be hiked any time of the year, but summer months between December and February are most popular. I hiked the trail in October and found the weather was spectacular and I met relatively few people on the trail (about one couple per hour). As New Zealanders are generally very friends and generous people, I was happy for the times I did have company on the trail.

Most literature indicates that a “Great Walks Pass” is required for Abel Tasman, but this point is misleading to the uninitiated. The pass is only required if you are sleeping at a hut or campsite, and is meant to distinguish between other common passes that can be used on all tracks other than the Great Walks. If you are just doing a day hike, then you don’t need to purchase a pass. If however, you are sleeping at one of the 4 huts or 21 campsites, purchase of the pass and advanced booking is required. Booking season begins July 1, each year.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the park’s forests was not the sights, but rather the sounds. The lively songs of the native birds were entirely alien to me. Kakas (forest parrots), Parakeets, Wekas (flightless birds), Pukeko, Tui and Bellbirds can be seen along the estuaries and in the forest park. I followed squawking Oystercatchers for great lengths on the beaches, and though they complain, they never seem to fly away. Shags (cormorants) and gannets can be seen from the shore as they dive for fish. With few other animals, New Zealand is a bird-watcher’s paradise.

The forest is in the park is dominated by four species and two subspecies of Beech, and also contains Rimu (red pine), Supplejack vines with red berries, Miro (their seeds are a favorite food of the New Zealand Pigeon), Rata and Matai trees. New Zealand forests are famous for their ferns, and the Silver Tree Fern or “Ponga” (the national symbol) and the Crown Fern are also prominent here.

The inland track has numerous strange limestone formations. There are also, unsurprisingly, numerous cave systems with glow worms, cave weta, and bats (New Zealand’s only native mammals other than what lives in the sea). At least one cave in the park is decorated with ancient Mauri carvings. There are also vast sinkholes such as Harwoods Hole, which is the deepest in the southern hemisphere.

The park is an excellent place to catch a glimpse of New Zealand’s marine life. Tonga Island Marine Reserve (adjacent to the park), is accessible by any of the numerous water taxis services, and is home to a colony of Sea Lions. Fur Seals, dolphins and little Blue Penguins can be seen from shore (I saw several of each), although the best way to spot them is from a kayak.

The only nuisance I experienced in the park were the sandflies, which seemed much like black flies at home. Fortunately repellant keeps them away. Non-native possums are known to browse through garbage, so keep food and rubbish packed up at night. The track runs mostly along the water, which means you’ll get the glare of reflected sunlight off the ocean. Add to that the typically thin ozone layer over New Zealand, and you should realize that sunscreen is vital. I received some of the worst sunburns of my life in New Zealand because I forgot to wear it.

Overall, Abel Tasman offered me a very pleasant walk with spectacular views of subtropical forests and golden sandy beaches. No traveler should leave New Zealand without hiking at least one track, and if you only have time for one, I believe it should be Abel Tasman. Not only will you experience one of New Zealand’s most pristine ecosystems for yourself, but you also support the local communities by using their services around the park and encourage their effort to protect treasures like this for future generations.



For More Info

Huts are $25 ($10 off season) and campsites $10 ($7 off season). Book online through the DOC at www.doc.govt.nz, or through the Great Walks Helpdesk Nelson (phone: 546-8210; email: greatwalksbooking@doc.govt.nz) or in person at some visitor centers.

Nelson accommodations include Tasman Bay Backpackers (phone: 548-7950; www.tasmanbaybackpackers.co.nz; 10 Weka St.) and Nelson Central YHA (phone: 545-9988; yha.nelson@yha.org.nz; 59 Rutherford St.).

The official Abel Tasman Coastal Track Brochure, park map and tidal chart (Abel Tasman has the largest tidal differences in the country) available at the DOC website and Nelson Visitor’s Center will provide you with all the information you need to hike the track. If you are hiking other tracks around the country, you may wish to also purchase Lonely Planet’s “Tramping in New Zealand,” 2006 edition.

Abel Tasman Coachlines (phone: 548-2485; www.abeltasmantravel.co.nz) leaves from Nelson and goes to both ends of the track. Abel Tasman Water Taxi (phone: 528-7497; www.abeltasman4u.co.nz) is among several companies that can pick you up and drop you off at any section of the track.

Updated Note: Peter Jackson's 'The Hobbit' Filmed in the Nelson & Abel Tasman Area in late 2011. For more information on travel in New Zealand, please visit Tourism New Zealand.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

More Press


My site www.muinebeach.net is recommended in yet another new Lonely Planet book; "Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos & the Greater Mekong." It's a first edition--largely a shoestring guide to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, with the addition of Northwestern Thailand and Yunnan Province, China. It's good for people traveling in those areas who are looking to save money and excess weight in their pack from buying books for each country. While the edition does actually cover the areas where I've spent most of my own time, I can't help but wonder if the areas in China and Thailand would either be redundant or unused by most readers. Now that there are direct flights from the USA to Vietnam, this title might have been poorly timed.

I've been in discussion with a well-known publisher about writing a new guidebook for Vietnam. The process has been a little frustrating--after providing them with a nearly 50 page proposal, they've chosen to remain silent for quite some time. Negotiations with another publisher have been much more fruitfull however, so hopefully I'll have a new book on the horizon.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Mattel

I hope I'm not the only one angry about Mattel's admission that they lied to the world when they blamed their recent recalls on lead paint used by manufacturers in China. Mattel has destroyed the business reputation of an entire country and should bare the full consequences. Unfortunately, due to the anti-Chinese bias of much of America's media, we will probably hear very little about this story. Shame on Mattel.

Transitions Abroad


My Transitions Abroad article is now available online HERE.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Featured in the Washington Post

My brother's site, Chengdu Sleeps, a tourism site for the city of Chengdu, China, was referenced in a blog for the Washington Post today. See the article HERE. Chengdu Sleeps is part of a series of tourism sites we manage for China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Now in Transitions Abroad Magazine

I have an article on working in Vietnam on page 50 of this month's issue of Transitions Abroad Magazine. See their website at www.transitionsabroad.com. The magazine is commonly available in Barnes & Noble and Borders book stores in the USA.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Now in Lonely Planet Vietnam 2007


I finally got my hands on the New Lonely Planet Vietnam 2007 (released this month). I was delighted to see that I was credited in the back by name, and my own website www.MuineBeach.net was recommended in the book. I was disappointed to see however that some of the same mistakes (which I pointed out to them) have been carried over from the past 2 or 3 editions, without being corrected.

Overall it’s a good guidebook. This edition is written by Nick Ray, a veteran writer for the region who lives in Cambodia, and two authors who seem to be newcomers to the area, Peter Dragicevich and Regis St. Louis. One has to wonder if Lonely Planet could have written better bios for latter two. When the noteworthy connections to Vietnam listed are that one’s “first taste of Vietnam was in the restaurants of Mebourne and Sydney” or the other read a lot about the country, it’s probably not a great selling point.

As always, Lonely Planet has the best, most durable binding of any guidebook (that's actually one of the many reasons not to buy the cheap, pirated photocopies you find in Vietnam). Surprisingly, it's also one of the lengthiest, yet manages to still be the smallest and lightest due to their choice of paper stock. Unfortunately this has a drawback—because the paper is so thin and the lettering tends to bleed through, the maps are all very difficult to read in this edition.

The book has great expanded sections on Vietnam history and Minorities. Otherwise, the sections unrelated to specific destinations were much more abbreviated than guidebooks from other publishers. This has the advantage of not overwhelming the reader with too much information (a problem with other guides), but it means readers seeking more in-depth background information must consult other texts.

The well-organized restaurants and hotels sections, along with the use of icons in the text, make the sections much easier to skim.

Lonely Planet is the only guide to offer a phrasebook that includes sections for the most common hill tribes (albeit a small section). They are also the only guidebook to offer reasonably correct information on Visas—particularly business visas.

I did find the layout and style of the book unattractive compared to some of the other guides on the market, especially Rough Guides.

My main complaint, like any expat, I’m sure, is that the guidebook tends to focus on attractions, activities and restaurants catering mainly to foreign tourists. I feel like in many instances it misses the “real” Vietnam. This is a problem with all popular Vietnam guidebooks on the market however. I think this stems from the fact that none, to my knowledge, are written by residents of Vietnam.

Overall, it’s probably still the best guidebook on the market, with an encyclopedic presentation of the country.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Photo Published in Australian & New Zealand Magazine


My photo above of the Pancake Rocks in New Zealand was published this month by Australia & New Zealand Magazine.

Friday, July 27, 2007

My New Album on iTunes!

I'm thrilled to announce that my new album, "Under a Tamarind Tree" is now available on iTunes! The album is a "best of collection" and is being released digital only. It should be available on all popular music download services in the coming weeks. Click the button below to preview and purchase the CD, or songs individually (free iTunes software is required).


Adam Bray - Under a Tamarind Tree

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Streptococcus suis or Pig Flu in Vietnam

According to international news agencies, there has been a new outbreak of Streptococcus suis in Hanoi. This is the virus I mentioned earlier, that was blamed on a hemorrhagic fever that kills victims in less than 24 hours. The disease is airborn and much like ebola. It seems a little fishy that this virus is the cause, as it is common in ever country where pigs are raised in large numbers and doesn't normally have such severe symptoms. Another case apparently just popped up in Hue. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

............update..................

I posted a message on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree with links to several articles about the outbreak, but it was apparently deleted by the moderators within a few hours. It still remains in their search database however, just not in the front where it can be found through browsing.

I debated posting it. I don't want to hurt Vietnam tourism, but I think it's important information - more important than the bird flu ever was. I don't think the LP moderators in Australia are qualified to judge that it's not.

Taking on Coke

Taking on Coke
By Suzanne McGee, MSN Money
view article here

This article is part of a series that MSNBC is doing on China. It discussed a company called Wahaha, which is a softdrink/beverage company that is hugely popular over much of Asia. It dominates the beverage market in China, at least in niches where coke or pepsi don't have a competing product.

As someone who's spent several months in rural China, and nearly 3 years living in S.E. Asia, I thought the premise of the article was silly.

McGee writes, "While Wahaha's milk and yogurt drinks are also on display, its new cola products, Future Cola and Coffee Cola, are nowhere to be seen."

This just doesn’t mesh with my own experience. I bought Future Cola all over Sichuan and Yunnan in 2003. My friends tell me they've been aware of it since at least 2001.

"Wahaha now has 36 subsidiaries in the provinces, producing and distributing everything from Wahaha's bottled water and milk-based drinks to Future Cola. In many of these areas, local residents have never been able to buy Coke's products -- or can't afford them."

This statement doesn't match reality. I've trekked through some of the more remote villages in China and all over S.E. Asia, and I have never seen a place that doesn’t have coke products in stock. Granted, in places like Vietnam, Pepsi is more popular, but you can always find Coke. Coke is most certainly affordable to the average person as well. In fact, the reason why coke does so well in China is because everyone wants to drink the “American” novelty drink, and frankly, future cola tastes bad, it’s too sweet, and it’s always flat.

"It doesn't bother Yang that Future Cola can't be found on the shelves of the big stores in Beijing or Shanghai."

Again, this is silly. The article states later that their products are all over S.E. Asia and even the USA in Asian food stores (I've bought them in these places myself). I've found them all over Beijing as early as 2003.

I'm glad that MSNBC is taking an interest in China, and I'm sure Ms. McGee is very capable at what she does. I wish however, that MSNBC would seek more insight from expat writers and journalists based in Asia for their stories. Please understand, I don’t mean to single out Ms. McGee for the following criticism, as it’s a problem in all the American media. So many of the stories in western media are so superficial and inaccurate because the journalists who are covering them either write them from their offices in New York, or at most make a trivial visit to Beijing for an “official” story without investigating the real story themselves. If they would instead be more open to consulting freelance writers and journalists (I admit, this is a selfish pitch), news stories would have a much greater depth, accuracy and less cultural misunderstanding.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Thoughts from the Thorn Tree

Busy morning on the LP Thorn Tree. I’m reposting some of my comments here.

In response to one of the endless complaints about having cloths made in Hoi An:

I'd never buy cloths made in Hoi An. It's just street after street of shops that exist solely to sell cheap souvenir cloths to backpackers, who they know will take their cloths and leave the country. When Vietnamese deal with foreigners, they never factor in the possibility of a repeat sale (why would they), so the quality is in the toilet. It's not just Hoi An--it's any city that has it's own special product that the tourists really dig. The best way to get really GOOD cloths, is to buy from a tailor in another city, who makes cloths for average Vietnamese people. I do that, and I've been wearing the same cloths every week for 3-4 years, and they are still as good as the day I bought them.

Regarding the pros and cons of living in Vietnam:

My positives:
- rainy season - everything is green and lush - no tourists
- freedom in my schedule, freedom and ease in my travel - motorbikes are the best!
- food. Lots of variety. I always feel good
- my allergies never bother me in VN
- cost of living
- good scenery/environment
- big fish in a small pond - I'm well-known & popular - I'm a novelty so everyone wants to meet me.

My Negatives:
- dry season - sand storms, drought, everything is dead - too many tourists
- holidays - most of what I'm used to is irrelevant - VN holidays seem boring
- people always trying to scam me. Even people I consider as friends can't seem to get over the $$ signs in their eyes.
- no matter how long I'm here, I'll always be an outsider. Even if I speak the language fluently, get married, have kids, own property, it won't matter.
- lack of reading material, movies and TV
- medical care. When you have a problem, it can be hard to get good treatment in a timely manner
- big fish in a small pond - I have zero privacy - I can’t go anywhere and be alone - I'm unique
- noise, pollution, too many people, no wildlife

Random recommendation on local customs:

- How to greet people you meet: Shaking hands is fine, but girls in the countryside may be shy. Hugging is very uncommon. If you speak any Vietnamese, pronouns are very important. Accept any gifts, business cards or other items with both hands. Always invite people at each stage (please come in, please site down, please try some...)
- How to address the elders: With smiling, bowing and nodding. Always make sure you greet the elders and say goodbye to them explicitly before you leave the room, even if you were not otherwise engaged with them.
- Table manners: Food in Phan Thiet is often spicy. Unlike my experience in China, it seems ok to leave food behind or refuse some items. In general, you can slurp, put your elbows on the table, and spit bones on the floor. Raising the bowl to your lips is fine.
- tipping: If it's an establishment that serves foreigners normally, then you should tip. If foreigners rarely visit, then tipping is not necessary.
- Lineup at the counter: Observe what others are doing around you. If there is a line, stay in it. If it's a mob, then push your way to the front like everyone else.
- haggling: Vietnamese merchants are stubborn. If they don't budge and it seems too expensive, it's better to walk away and try someone else than waste their time and yours.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Banh Bao with Cardboard and Lye

CNN has a new story on their website about steamed buns in China made with cardboard and lye fillings (with pork fat and seasoning for flavor). I’m not terribly surprised. Banh Bao has a bad reputation around Phan Thiet, whether it is true on not. My friends tell me it has rat meat in it. I’ve bitten into plenty with cardboard-like fillings that were just too tough and chewy to be merely pork and quail eggs. The desert variety with beans also seems to end up with an ammonia-sulfurous taste that’s a little alarming. Still, most of the time they are good, and I do buy them a lot in the Phan Thiet market and downtown at night. In Mui Ne a couple of guys also sell them on bicycle carts, much like the ice cream and baguette sellers.

Toxic additives in food are not uncommon. Formaldehyde is a known ingredient in some Vietnamese beers, and borax shows up in some of the pickled meat products. Not long ago there was a scandal in China over chalk in the baby formula. Babies were losing weight and dieing from malnutrition and no one knew why for the longest time.

What bothers me is the unrelenting number of stories CNN and other news agencies with anti-China bias keep throwing out to us about China. I don’t doubt all the stories about dangerous food additives in products—I’ve lived there after all—it’s no big secret. It’s only a revelation to the poor saps in the USA. However, I think it’s unfair to level all these accusations solely at China. The truth is, you’ll find exactly the same issues in any other developing country in the world—whether it’s India, Cambodia, Uganda, Bolivia or France.

Furthermore, you’ll find the same things in the USA if you look hard enough—at the risk of a lawsuit for exposing the truth. Up until very recently, “fiber” in the list of ingredients was a way to disguise a healthy scoop of sawdust. The sad fact is, all foods made in bulk in factories are permitted “acceptable levels” of inedible ingredients.

The hypocrisy bothers me—especially the way we Americans go ape over “all the MSG” in Asian foods, conveniently forgetting it’s in all our foods back home too. We get upset about the MSG shaker on the table with all the other condiments in Vietnam, but we don’t realize MSG is dumped in all our potato chips and vacuum-sealed cupcakes. Even worse, we use known carcinogens like aspartame which deposit deadly formaldehyde in the brain.

I suspect that as we get closer and closer to the Beijing Olympics we’ll see more and more negative, hypocritical articles about China from our biased news media.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

SARS, Bird Flu and Hemorrhagic Fever


Civet cat continues to be served in many restaurants in S.E. Asia, despite being the suspected source of SARS

Over the past several years, I’ve been at the heart of several internationally-feared viral outbreaks. 

I was in China during the height of the SARS epidemic in 2003. The outside world was lead to believe that the entire focus of SARS was in Guangdong and Hong Kong, but in fact the epidemic, and the resulting crackdown, spread throughout the country. I was in Sichuan and Yunnan much of the time, and there were rumors that local hospitals were full of patients. Most tourists fled the country by April, and volunteers for groups like the peace corps were evacuated. Traveling between provinces meant quarantine and compulsory health exams, including chest x-rays, blood tests and temperature checks. Public transportation stopped every 30 minutes for sanitation and health check-ups. The purposefulness of the checks was questionable however, as individuals with fevers were often allowed to continue on their travels. There was a complete crackdown on the flow of information, as the internet was shut down for more than a week during the worst part of the epidemic.

The bird flu epidemic stands in complete contrast. I was in Vietnam during the height of America’s hysteria, and while it topped headlines in the US news media, back in Vietnam it had little effect on our lives. For a brief period, restaurants did stop servicing poultry, and some locals briefly modified their diet to limit consumption of chicken or duck, but overall, no one really cared and paid little attention to the news. 

The one thing that really bothered me, was how health officials and the news media told the public that the bird flu was a serious concern, yet it was safe to eat cooked poultry (because heat killed the virus). While this might have been true to a point, it ignored the risk (in theory), that workers faced by handling the live poultry before it found its way to a tourist’s dinner plate.  

During this time, many of my Vietnamese friends went to a traveling health clinic to receive free vaccinations. I was shocked when I asked them what the vaccinations were for, and they told me they didn’t know. I’d never submit to “free medicine” without know exactly what it is—even back home in the USA. I suspect they were receiving experimental vaccines for the bird flu. 

In the end of course, the bird flu turned out to be empty hype. I believe it was a scare-tactic used by healthcare organizations to drum up funding for future programs. The news media was also happy for headlines during an otherwise slow news period. 

About two years ago there was a terrifying outbreak in Sichuan, China, of a little-known virus carried by domestic pigs. It was a hemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola, yet far worse. People who contracted the disease died from internal bleeding in less than 24 hours after coming into contact with humans or pigs affected by the disease. At first the disease spread rapidly. So aggressive were the government’s quarantine measures however, that the virus appeared to burn itself out due to a shortage of available victims. The government’s communication crackdown was also so effective that the story never appeared in the international media, despite the previous obsessions with the bird flu and SARS.

My experience with these outbreaks overseas has taught me several things. First, use common sense, and always practice good hygiene. Even just washing your hands with soapy water periodically makes a big significance. Secondly, don’t believe everything the government or media of any country says without question. There are motives beyond your individual safety, including national pride, preservation of the tourism industry, protection of healthcare agencies, and the prevention of widespread panic.  

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Michael Palin at Tiger Leaping Gorge

I’m doing some background research for a chapter on my trek through the Tiger Leaping Gorge in China. I’m looking for filler information—facts, figures, culture and history—things I might have missed or forgotten. I’m surprised to find that despite being one of China’s greatest tracks, there is very little material out there about it or the surrounding area. Perhaps it’s because it’s such a difficult place to get to, and the hike itself is dangerous in spots.

I am pleased to know however, that veteran traveler Michael Palin (one of my heros, also of Monty Python fame), has not only hiked the gorge, but that I had the privilege of hiking it a few months prior. It’s always nice to beat someone you look up to at a notable accomplishment.

The inn where Palin and I had breakfast, on seperate occasions.

Palin is ever so gracious in that he posts all of his books on his website; allowing registered users to read them free of charge, with the benefits of extra photos and multimedia supplements.

As I was reading his chapter on the gorge, I was amused to find we shared the same sense of vertigo. In his book Himalaya, Palin writes, “Lunch is easily walked off on a thigh-stretchingly steep climb known as the 28 Bends. Trudging upwards in a tight zigzag, I count off each one carefully and still find another 20 left at the end.” He later writes “When I stop on a narrow ledge to look around me, I find myself having to plant my feet very securely, for it feels as if the soaring vertical walls across the gorge are exerting some magnetic force, determined to tear me from my flimsy ledge.”

I remember climbing this stretch all too well, on hands and knees the whole way. It was so steep, and I was so exhausted, that I could not bring myself to stand upright, for fear I would tumble ass over tea kettle over the cliff. Needless to say, along with my numerous spelunking expeditions in college, it was one of the most treacherous hikes I’ve ever done.

Palin and I have similar shots of pack mules navigating around a ridge on the trail. He comments "Have never experienced such vertiginous feelings as I have when sandwiched between the 13,000-foot-high (3960m) walls of the gorge. Soaring verticals seem to create some magnetic force which makes me think I might be able to fly. Fight to resist the urge."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Potty Talk

Everyone knows that in Asia, it’s common to squat and bring your own toilet paper. But what do you do when all you find is a cement slab and a bucket half-full of water?

In Vietnam it’s a common assumption that if you live where you can bury it or wash it away in a stream, then you don’t need indoor plumbing. My friends who live in the dunes around Mui Ne simply direct me up in the hills (by the way, never squat on an incline when you have diarrhea). My friends who live on the ocean-side direct me to the shore. I’ll never forget my first walk along the beach near the Phan Thiet wharf and wondering why so many people were sitting in the mud. My friends that live along the cemetery direct me to “unoccupied” graves. I found that after dark it’s hard to get the thought of ghosts pulling me back into an empty grave with my pants around my ankles.

When I first bought my house and was putting in the bathroom, I decided to put in a traditional squatty potty. I was so accustomed to it by then, that I saw no point in a Western toilet. Squatty potties are easier to clean, good for maintaining lower-body strength, and are better suited to the way the human body is engineered. The bathroom plumbing all worked by gravity, which was cheaper (and since I didn’t have a private well, my only real option), but in the end it was a big mistake because the water pressure wasn’t strong enough most of the time. Even so, my friend helping me was worried I was spending too much money. He tried to convince me that I didn’t need an indoor toilet. He could teach me how to use the stream below his house (he lived behind me), like his family does. Remembering that the stream was barely a trickle that seeped out from the bottom of the hill, I knew that would never work for me. What was worse however, was that the stream-toilet also doubled as the family bathtub and the dish washer.

Toilet paper is always in short supply. In a pinch I’ve found new uses for pages in books I’ve already read, socks, receipts, and low-valued Vietnamese currency when I’m really hard-up. Some people never find what the need. For this reason, never touch ANYTHING in public bathrooms.

Using the toilet is always an adventure in Vietnam, but it can be just as perplexing for my countryside friends when they encounter a western-style toilet. I’ve found a lot of footprints on toilet seats in hotels where someone climbed on top the seat itself and squatted. Eventually they seem to figure it out, but I’ve still not solved the cement slab with that bucket of water.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Cay Trung Ca

A Fish Egg Tree, or Cay Trung Ca in Vietnam, is known as a Jamaican Cherry Tree in much of the world (it’s scientific name is Muntingia calabura). Although I’ve read it’s a native of the American tropics, it’s found frequently lining streets in Vietnam. It’s a small tree with branches that spread out like an umbrella, creating a thick, tightly woven canopy that’s perfect for shade from the sun and shelter from the rain. The flowers are white and quickly producing small, red, edible berries which look like fish eggs. The tree produces fruit perpetually once it is just a few months old. It thrives in poor soil with little moisture, and grows rapidly, even where other plants will not grow at all. For all of these reasons, it is my favorite tree in Vietnam.

Fish Egg Trees grow in many places that have been memorable to me as well. They grow in front of my friend Khiem’s house, where I meet him to drink beer and eat dried squid and stuffed crab at the harbor. They grow in front of the district police station where I always pick a few berries before I go inside to renew my residence permit every month. One grows above the stand in
Mui Ne where I eat banh canh and drink peanut milk with my friends after work. They grow all along the streets and markets of Phan Thiet
, and in front of the home of many of my closest friends.


I planted three in front of my house in the graveyard, where I anxiously watched them grow day by day. The sun baked my house in dry season, making it unbearable in the afternoons. I hoped their bows would absorb some of the heat. The lorries sped by every morning, kicking up dust that settled in my living room. I hoped that they would buffet the filth and save me some cleaning. The mourners on their way to the cemetery every day would peer into my windows and chatter about the strange foreigner living in the cottage. I hoped the trees would finally give me some privacy. The birds and bats nested in the holes in my roof, dropping babies in my shoes. I hoped the trees would provide them with a new home and forget about mine. Even with a new brick wall around my front yard, the neighbors still snuck in at night and stole my orchids and water jars. The trees finally give me a place to hide things out of view. I took great pride in the Fish Egg Trees as they thrived and met all the hopes I had for them.

Fish Egg Trees to me, are a symbol of comfort, the best of my life in Vietnam, and the dreams I’ve had living there.