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

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.


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.