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

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Day Around Phan Thiet

Lost childhood

Happy as though they may seem to be, children don't end up as monks of their own choice. They are sent there for a variety of reasons, stemming from health problems the parents can't afford or because the parents are just too poor to care for the children, or sometimes because the parents believe the children are possessed by a demon and sending them to the pagoda is the only way they know to address the problem.

Ancient Temple Roof Ornamentation

Yet Another New Temple

This massive but of architecture was one of seven new temples I could see under construction or recently built in a 180 degree cityscape in a single neighborhood behind the market. So much for shunning materialism

Ancient Temple Mural of a Ky Lan

Phan Thiet and Muong Mang Seen from the LZ Betty

Entrance to One of Phan Thiets Secret Ancient Temples

Alley Life

Bedtime visitor on the doorstep

Friday, October 24, 2008

Two Things Vietnam and America Both Have in Common

1. They both have party-controlled media.

Regardless of which candidate you support, there is no question that the state of the american news media is profoundly frightening. Never did I imagine I would see a time when the media was directly controlled by political parties just as it is in a communist country. I have been stunned as I sit in Vietnam and watch the media verifiably lie. Likewise I've sat in awe as I watched, listened and read over the internet as the American media sought to destroy private citizens for merely answering tough questions of candidates. SOS American--you are in trouble.

2. They've both had John McCain.

McCain wrote in his memoirs that he was forced to give this propaganda interview against his will. The fact that he is crying in bed with his arms and legs broken lends some credibility.

3 Weddings

Congratulations to...

Thu & Ngoc

Hong Anh & Tho


Mr. and Mrs. Vuong
(Not Pictured)

Thieving Gas Station Attendants

I went to one of the gas stations in Phu Hai (near the bridge, just as you enter Phan Thiet from Mui Ne). The gas was 55,000. I gave the attendant 205,000. Change should be 150. He walks back to the pump and looks away as though we are finished (I am the only customer there). I stare. After a while he walks back to the desk and brings me some change. It is incorrect. I tell him he owes me more. He hands me a bill and smiles. It’s still incorrect. I start yelling at him. The owner, who was sleeping off to the side wakes up. He lies to her and tells her I only gave him 200, trying to hold onto the last bit of change. Little does he know the owner is a friend of mine and I’ve been coming there for 5 years, so the owner told him to return the correct change as I asked.

What’s worse is the attendant at the other station across the street pulled the same thing twice last week. And the station on the hill has done it so many times over the years that I have it posted a warning to tourists. Then in the other direction, the one in Mui Ne village rigs their meter so it’s ridiculous.

The fact that attendants would try cheat me even though they see me every day, suggests they probably try to rob every single tourist that stops. Unfortunately this a problem I often encounter in Vietnam—when you know all the businesses in a certain category are dishonest, which one do you recommend?!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Pho Lau: Bun Bo Hue in Phan Thiet

A new eatery just opened up at 55-57 Tuyen Quang Street in Phan Thiet. It's going to be a real trend setter. It's the first such street-side single-dish eatery to put a special emphasis on the setting--much like the cafes do in Phan Thiet. Normally such eateries are hole-in-the-walls without aesthetic sensibility. If successful, I expect numerous places to open up in the coming months following the same pattern. It's a welcome change.

The restaurant serves Bun Bo Hue in the morning. While I don't like Bun Bo myself (I find it to be bland, I don't like the cuts of meat, and bun noodles are difficult to eat in a soup), I accept that is a personal preference, and what the do--they do well. In the afternoons and evenings I believe they serve hot pot. The restaurant has a perky yellow color scheme and is decorated with bountiful flowers and greenery. Tables have table cloths and fancy cafe-style chairs. It's maticulously clean, and the menus are in English.

If you like Bun Bo, or even if you haven't tried it before, I highly recommend a visit to Pho Lau.

Monking Around

I passed a couple of Buddhist monks on the Phu Hai bridge today, on my way into Phan Thiet. I've seen them before. It's rare to see monks walking on foot any more--let alone barefoot--and in their traditional, tattered orange robes. Rare because monks usually ride nice new motorbikes and newer, more "stylish" robes. Of course many of them are supposedly not even monks at all. Vietnam has an epidemic of fake monks, who go around with bald heads and robes, trying to cheat people or prey upon their traditional good will toward monks.

It's hard to tell real ones from fake ones though. This month I've seen more monks than I can remember ever seeing before. They go door to door asking for money, selling soap and incense, or marketing for their customized prayer/chanting services to bless homes and businesses (for profit). Seems to be quite a profitable business. I often hear western neo-Buddhists and Buddha-philes lament that Vietnamese Buddhism is somehow inauthentic in its idiosyncrasies, particularly when compared to Thailand, Cambodia and of course Tibet. Of course this would seem to be a rather biting insult to Vietnamese Buddhists, but then I'm not sure its an accurate assessment. I've heard these inconsistencies, and others--like the monk's tendencies to act as shamanists, with practices and beliefs inconsistent with the tenants of classic Buddhism--are part of Buddhism in every country.

A few weeks ago, one of the top open tour companies operating in Mui Ne (I am omitting their name) took in a rogue monk. Apparently taking in a monk is supposed to bring good luck. Why anyone would want to bring in a rogue clergyman of any religion is beyond me. The fact that they are unaccountable to anyone would seem to be an obvious warning sign. This monk helped around the office and facilities for a few days but became increasingly bossy. Eventually the owner was pulled aside by the employees who complained the monk was going from room to room, pressuring the male employees for sex--saying if they didn't perform, he would tell the boss to fire them (the monk assumed his clergy status made him untouchable). However, when all the male employees complained, it was obvious to the owner why this monk was not living in a pagoda with his colleagues. The owner promptly sent him packing. I guess Buddhists have their own sex scandals too.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Another Evening Without Electricity

As I lay sweating in bed last night I heard the rats running across the ceiling, landing with a thud when they fell off the rafters. Without the benefit of fans (or AC, which I never have) I could hear every little noise, including the sizzle and pop of the mosquitos as they flew too close to the candle flames. I must admit that sound gave me a perverse satisfaction knowing the mosquitos were drawn away from me to their death. I felt a gritty, itching sensation on my back. Was it just sand, or are the bed bugs back? As the candles died down I finished off the bottle of gin. Without the candles, It was the only way I could sleep through the coming onslaught of mosquitos.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why I'm Not Supporting This Week's Tourism Festival

Later in the week is Binh Thuan's annual tourism festival. It's a good idea in theory. It marks the date of one of Phan Thiet's numerous conflicting administrative "founding" anniversaries (110 years), as well as the date when tourists first flocked to Mui Ne 13 years ago to see the solar eclipse--and the resort destination was discovered. It also marks the beginning of busy season. But the problem is the local government's very poor execution of this idea.

The most obvious reason why I'm not supporting the festival is simply because I haven't been asked to. I routinely (as evidenced by a quick glance through the front page of, highlight all the local festivals of my own initiative, but because this tourism festival is contrived entirely by the local government (and has no particular cultural merit), it's rather difficult to even to cover it, since the government typically doesn't release any information until the last minute.

Secondly, the idea that this festival has anything at all to do with tourism seems highly questionable. There are numerous signs--all in Vietnamese (but not English) posted around Phan Thiet as of last night--but only a couple of signs in Mui Ne--and these all in Vietnamese (NOT English)--and as of this evening, they only appear in front of government-owned or affiliated resorts. Other than through, non-English-speaking tourists would never hear about the festival. Local bar and restaurant owners, and most hotel staff know absolutely nothing of the event either.

One has to ask why nothing is being printed in English--and why there is no publicity in Mui Ne itself. The answer might come from numerous complaints I received during previous festivals--namely that some locals and tourists were pushed out of events in order to make room for party (government) officials and VIPs from Saigon. This seems like just a way to wine and dine VIPs. That is no way to boost tourism. There's no evidence in fact that this festival has any effect whatsoever on tourism--nor that is helps the local economy in any way.

If the local government changes its approach and makes some obvious changes to actually market this festival to it's alleged target--TOURISTS--then I'll be happy to cover it. But at this time I have no plans to cover the event in any way or post schedules.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Vietnam Government Jails Journalists

AP is reporting two journalists in Hanoi were sentenced to up to seven years in prison for "abusing freedom and democracy." The two journalists covered a corruption scandal at the Transportation Ministry in 2005. They are accused of undisclosed innaccuracies in their reporting. It's a scarry reality check for anyone who writes about Vietnam.

Recently I had my own unwelcome experience with the Vietnam government's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment when I discovered that they plagerizing three of my articles. Unfortunately they did not respond to emails and just hung up on me when I tried to call.

Tourism without Common Sense

I noted today--from reading the Vietnamese (non-English) signs here in Mui Ne that a new hot mineral mud bath center is opening in Mui Ne. How they expect tourists to find it is beyond me. Of course we don't actually have any mud in this part of the province, nor any hot springs for two hours in any direction (let alone enough normal groundwater to go around), so this is a curious venture indeed.

Making as much sense is the Binh Thuan Tourism Festival next week. No advertising of any kind yet--let alone English. In previous years it was simply a way to wine and dine government officials and had really nothing to do with generating tourism.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Hidden Binh Thuan: The Jarai and the Forest

The Jarai (Gia Rai, J'rai, Rai) minority is a matriarchal people closely related to the Cham. Most inhabit the central highlands and partly make up the group of minorities collectively called the Montagnards by the French. The Jarai in the highlands are largely Christian and sided with the Americans during the war, thus like many Vietnamese minorities, they endured a great deal of opression after the war. The Jarai are one of the five most prominent minorities in Binh Thuan Province, after the Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese), Cham, Hoa (ethnic Chinese), and K'ho (Koho). THe Jarai in Binh Thuan Province reside in the mountain foothills north of Phan Thiet.

The Jarai grow mostly corn and rice, unlike their neighbors who grow dragon fruit.

Giant "forest crabs" live in the rivers at the base of the mountains.

A Jarai family prepares lunch after a hard morning working in the forest.

Jarai children and a semi-traditional house.

Jarai harvest timber in the forests. Logging is probably illegal, but their traditional methods seem to cause little harm compared to the wholesale forest destruction caused by their Kinh neighbors when they log with large machinery.

Hiking in the bamboo forest.

Butterflies on my socks

Mountain forests

Friday, October 10, 2008

Dinner on the Roadside

A fruit bat eats dinner tonight--the fruit of a Cay Ban (table tree)--along the sidewalk at the Forest Restaurant. Fruit bats are helpless if they fall to the ground like this when their food is too heavy--they must climb a tree in order to launch back into the air. Never sit under the Ban Tree at night. Their fruit is a favorite of bats, who sit in the branches eating, and constantly drop bits of food on whoever might be sitting below.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Phan Thiet Post Office Keeping Endangered Wildlife on Display

The Binh Thuan provincial post office on Nguyen Tat Thanh Street in Phan Thiet has kept endangered gibbons in small cages for years now. They also keep macaques and protected birds. I've never been certain of the legality of a government office keeping these animals on display--but when it was recently looked into, I found out the gibbon(s) suddenly disappeared. Below are photos from the post office in Phan Thiet, taken earlier this summer.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Fighting Plagiarism in the Vietnamese Government and Local Businesses

I've had to deal with numerous issues of plagiarism lately as I find more and more of my stories and photos printed across the web. Most recently is the Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment, as well as Binh Thuan Tourist (the local government-pseudo-private-enterprise-tourist-agency). It's sad that government offices know so little about their own country that they have to copy the words of a foreign visitor to say anything meaningful. I'm also still in the process of getting over 30 articles of copied stories (plus photos) removed from the local news site, Binh Thuan Today.

Below is en email sent to the govt. ministry today:

Dear Pham Thi My,

I recently browsed your website and was very surprised to find that your ministry had copied my intellectual property. If you would like to print an apology, formally request permission to print the articles, and give me full credit by name (including a link to my website), I would consider the possibility of granting your ministry permission to print the articles. If however, you are unable to do this, please do the following:

Please immediately remove my story which you have copied and posted online at:

It was taken from my website at:

Likewise, please remove your article:

which was taken from:

Also, please remove your article:

which was taken from:

As a member of the WTO, Vietnam is bound by international copyright law, and it is illegal, even for the Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment, to copy copyrighted material without permission.


Adam Bray
Mui Ne, Vietnam

Thursday, October 2, 2008

News from Hanoi, NBC Nightly News: A New Low

NBC Nightly News ran a story from a reporter who went to Hanoi to investigate McCain's claim of torture at the Hanoi Hilton. The story originally was aired on the BBC last July. NBC, you are idiots. You are despicable and irresponsible. I've been to that museum, it's nothing but propaganda. It is laughable that you would use sources here on the ground like that as authoritative.

In an unrelated story, my contacts tell me an AP reporter was beaten in Hanoi last week while photographing a protest by Catholic clergy over the government developing land owned by the church. Such protests are unusually in lowland areas--let alone the national capitol, as well as clashed between the police and foreign reporters.

Writers on the Prowl

My sources tell me ForbesLife Magazine in New York will be running a story on Mui Ne in the next issue (about kiteboarding). Likewise, the Lonely Planet writers are doing their research trip in Vietnam over the next few weeks. I don't understand how 3 writers can cover the whole country in just a few weeks, but perhaps this is just a very light update covering just the basics. They'll miss a lot on such a short schedule.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Cham Minority Celebrates Kate Festival in Phan Rang

I drove up to Phan Rang this week to observe the Kate festival, celebrated by the Cham in Phan Rang. I've been to Phan Rang many times, although most of my time has been spent in the small villages around Phan Rang. The police have recently restricted foreigners from visiting Cham (or any other minority off the beaten track) villages without police permits. The vietnamese government is paranoid the minorities may pose a threat and rebel--spurned by foreign ideology. The Cham are an impoverished, matriarchal society, who once controlled a kingdom for nearly 2000 years, which rivaled both the Vietnamese and Angkor in Cambodia. Through 1500 years of war with the overlords and kings of Vietnam, they have been reduced to a small homeland in Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan province, in the most arid and desolate region of Vietnam.

The Cham have two distinct societies within Vietnam--one influenced strongly by Hinduism, and the other influenced by a watered-down form of islam. They former worship the Hindu god Shiva, mixed with worship and/or reverence for ancient Cham kings and queens, who may be deified to a greater or lesser extent. Ancestor worship and forms of animism may also be practiced.

At the Kate Festival, the Raglai hill people from Tay Ninh (one of the minorities that once formed the ancient Champa kingdom) bring the cloths of the god-king idol and present it to the Cham in Phan Rang. When they arrive, parties are held in all the various villages--a different village hosts a party every day, which go on for up to a month. On the morning of the second day of the festival (this year, Monday, September 29), a ceremony is held at the Cham temple-towers to dress the idol of the god-king, hold religious ceremonies and pray.

This year's Kate festival is thought to be the largest ever--partly attributed to the return of Che Linh, the famous Cham singer who was exiled after the war for supporting the south and writing a song about yearning for the former glory of the Champa kingdom.

Che Linh was allowed to return for the first time since the war although his performances were restricted to folk songs only.

Adam Bray with Che Linh

Cham Elders