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

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tighter Block on Facebook In Vietnam as January Approaches

OK, I’m calling it. Yesterday midday I noticed Facebook was suddenly not available, here in Phan Thiet, Vietnam. I couldn’t access it on wifi via a local ISP, nor could I get it on 3G via state-owned Vinaphone cell service (the Facebook iPhone app couldn’t pull it up either). By nightfall, there were complaints about facebook access popping up all over the country—from Saigon to Danang to Hanoi. Not everybody had difficulty accessing facebook—in fact many of my friends still could—but it seemed half of the people I know could not.

This isn't a big surprise. Vietnam started blocking Facebook in September 0f 2009 due to political speech concerns. There was never an official call to block it—but a government memo was leaked. In typical Vietnam fashion, the website block was not across the board—it was left to each ISP to implement on their own. Thus Facebook access varied a lot depending upon your location and service provider, but eventually most ISP’s cut off direct access.

Most of us came up with work-arounds, which included anonymous IP, encrypted servers, a special Google DNS or remote desktop access. Likewise, some service providers eased up the censorship, and after a few weeks it was possible to access Facebook directly on most cell phone services.

The new move—a tighter block on Facebook which circumvents some of the work-arounds, comes just a couple of weeks before the convening on the National Congress of Vietnam’s Communist Party. This only happens once ever several years and is a very big deal because a large portion of the government comes up for re-election. The government becomes concerned about any social elements that could threaten social and political stability during these sessions, and so the clamps tend to come down hard. We don't know for certain if this is the reason for the outage, but it seems highly likely.

Hopefully things will loosen back up after the congress is over. Hopefully the block won’t include other services as well, namely Twitter, Youtube, Blogger and other popular online resources. But there is always the possibility that these could be affected next.

If you are having trouble accessing Facebook it Vietnam, there appears to be a new backdoor available into the website via

Friday, December 24, 2010

Phan Thiet Christmas Light Displays, 2010

Below are some highlights of Phan Thiet's Christmas lights and manger displays this year. These are all from Thanh Hai, the city's largest Catholic neighborhood, and taken with my iphone. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

World Exclusive: Largest & Most Important Archaeological Discovery in Vietnam for a Century

UPDATE: 26 January 2011: Read my CNN story on the Long Wall of Quang Ngai at:

As many of you know, I've been on a research trip for about a month now, traveling across Vietnam to update several guidebooks. I've been fortunate to meet and interview several archaeologists, and Vietnam & Champa history experts along the way. One of the country's top archaeologists and historical scholars recently gave me an interview as well as an exclusive advanced scoop on THE LARGEST AND MOST IMPORTANT ARCHAEOLOGICAL DISCOVERY IN VIETNAM IN A CENTURY. Here I'm just giving a taste--dropping a few hints about what this discovery actually is. I spent the last week locating and surveying it, and despite those many days at the location, I probably managed to see less than 05% of it. Once announced to the world and developed for tourism, this site will change Vietnam's tourism industry forever.

The ruin of this stone fortress is part of the archaeological site, which spans across 2 provinces.

Fortifications at the site are made with a variety of natural materials.

The site involves a diverse set of ethnic groups who still inhabit the area.

My adventure to find the sites involved some danger. Flash flooding washed out bridges.

Heavy rains during the day caused landslides all around me.

 I met fearless natives.

I Made a few other ancient discoveries along the way.

And managed to find a little humor amongst the adventure.

There is a new website for The Long Wall of Quang Ngai.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cham Kate Festival, Phan Rang, Vietnam

The Photos below were taken in Phan Rang - Thap Cham, Vietnam during the Kate Festival last month. The festival is the most important holy day in the Cham calendar and includes both the Cham and the related Rag Lai minorities. I've attended the festival several times, though few other foreigners have witnessed it.

Below are photos of the procession in the first day of the festival, when Rag Lai villagers deliver the ceremonial clothing of the Cham King Po Klong Garai to the Cham people.

These Cham holy men deliver the clothing to Thap Po Klong Garai and adorn the statue of the king.

The procession ends in a pageant of traditional Cham music and dance.

In Cham culture the men usually play the musical instruments, of which there are only a few kinds.

The next day I visited both of the local ancient temple-towers where festivities take place around Phan Rang.

The Champa Kingdom was a contemporary of the ancient Angkor kingdom in Cambodia. Their towers were however made from baked red bricks, instead of laterite blocks like the Khmer.

Cham villagers climbing up to Thap Po Ro Me for the Kate Festival.

Cham leaders at the Kate Festival at Thap Po Klong Garai.

The Cham, unlike the Vietnamese, are a matriarchal society.

The Cham prepare a feast at the temples where they honor and worship the kings.

The modern Cham mostly fall within two religious traditions--the Balamon (Hindu-based) and the Bani (Muslim-based). Both actually celebrate Kate, though most observers at the temples are Balamon.

As with everything on this blog, these photo are copyright Adam Bray and may not be copied or republished anywhere else. Period.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Vietnam cannot have both Bears and bear bile

Ha Noi, November 23th, 2010 – Twenty-two percent of Vietnamese people said that they have used bear bile in the past, according to the findings of the study by Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV) on attitudes associated with bear bile use in Vietnam.
A total of 3,032 people were surveyed in three cities in Vietnam: Hanoi (north), Da Nang (central) and Ho Chi Minh City (south). The participants were randomly selected and interviewed by telephone to analyze the motivation behind bear bile consumption and evaluate demographic differences between respondents in their attitudes toward the use of bear bile.

The survey results suggested that:
·         Bear bile is considered as a magic medicine that can cure a range of health problems including muscle complaints, bruises, digestive problems or even cancer. Bear bile is mainly used to treat specific health problems (73%). Bear bile is also used for general health improvement (24%) and entertainment purposes (14%).

·         Hanoi has a much higher percentage of bear bile users than Da Nang or Ho Chi Minh City.  Thirty-five percent of survey participants in Hanoi claimed that they have used bear bile in the past, while only 16% of those in Ho Chi Minh City and 15% in Da Nang said that they have used bear bile.

·         The percentage of men using bear bile is higher than the percentage of women in all three cities. Almost 1/3 of all male survey participants (29%) claimed to have consumed bear bile in the past compared to 17% of all women surveyed.

·         People with higher education levels (college degree or higher) are more likely to use bear bile than people with lower education levels (high schools or lower levels). Bear bile consumption also rises with age and the use of bear bile is different between age groups.

Vietnam is home to two species of bears, the Asiatic Black bear (Ursus thibetanus) and the Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus). Both species are being pushed to the edge of extinction, mainly due the illegal hunting and trade to support the demand for bear bile used as a traditional form of medicine. Bears are usually captured as cubs in the wild and sold to bear farms where they are raised and used to extract bile from the gall bladder. Currently, there are about 3,500 bears in farms in Vietnam, most of which originated from the wild.  

Vietnam’s bears are in trouble,” says Ms. Vu Thi Quyen, founding director and the author of the report. “Urgent and tough measures are needed to put an end to bear farming and trade in Vietnam.”
Based on the findings from this study, ENV recommends following actions:

·        A long-term and sustained awareness campaign must be carried out in order to dispel the belief that bear bile is a form of magic medicine. The campaign should promote medical alternatives to bear bile (both herbal and western medicine) and highlight its perceived ineffectiveness as reported by former users.

·        Stronger laws and more effective law enforcement are critical to efforts to phase out bear farming and eliminating bear bile consumption.  All unregistered bears discovered by authorities should be confiscated and the owners appropriately punished.

·        Studies should be carried out to identify major wild populations of bears in Vietnam where protection and recovery efforts should be prioritized; an analysis of commercial farming of bears and other endangered species and its impact on species conservation should be conducted.

The results of ENV’s study will help authorities and conservation organizations to develop more effective measures to address bear bile consumption and trade in Vietnam and enhance protection for what may be Vietnam’s last remaining bears in the wild.  

“We need to face a tough choice,” says Ms. Quyen, “Vietnam can’t have wild bears and bear bile too.”

The full results of the study have been compiled in a report, An Analysis of Attitudes and Bear Bile Use in Vietnam (Vietnamese and English version).  ENV wishes to thank the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) for supporting this important study.

Related Links

Bear campaign TV Public Service Announcements
Bear extinction guaranteed PSA:
Younger generation Say “No” PSA:

About Education for Nature - Vietnam

Education for Nature-Vietnam (ENV) was established in 2000 as Vietnam’s first non-governmental organization focused on conservation of nature and the environment through education.  Our mission is to foster greater understanding amongst the Vietnamese public about environmental issues of local, national and global significance, ranging from protection of wildlife and natural ecosystems to climate change. We employ creative and innovative strategies to influence attitudes and behavior, not only highlighting the need to protect Vietnam’s rich natural heritage and the living world around us, but also encouraging greater public participation in achieving this important and challenging task.

ENV’s efforts to protect Vietnam’s endangered bears

ENV has been working for more than five years to end bear farming and trade, carrying out a range of activities including investigations and surveys of bear farms, working with authorities to confiscate illegal bears, and combating consumer crimes such as selling bear bile and products made from bears, ENV’s legislative and policy arm works to build support amongst key government decision-makers and leaders to improve policy and strengthen legislation aimed at protecting Vietnam’s bears, and ensure that current laws are enforced effectively, while ENV’s public awareness and education unit carries out campaigns with the aim of reducing the consumption and use of bear bile and bear products. Recent campaigns have include airing public service announcements on TV and radio, campaigning through the media, billboards and advertising on buses, and public events throughout Vietnam  hosted by ENV’s mobile awareness unit.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Flooding in World Heritage Town of Hoi An, Vietnam

Below are photos from the current rainy season floods in the UNESCO World Heritage Town of Hoi An, in central Vietnam.

The first two are the walking bridge going out to the island.

Riverside street below.

Riverside on the island. The water comes right up into the shops.

Below boats pull right up to shops on the second street in from the river.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Quang Ngai Khanh Van Cham Tower Destroyed?

Reprinting this article here as its gone out of print and I don't want it to be lost. Sad testimony of the state of preservation of historical and archaeological monuments in Vietnam, particularly of the Cham people:

Quang Ngai: Khanh Van Tower may fall
15:56' 10/06/2005 (GMT+7)
Khanh Van tower in Quang Ngai Province is in danger of collapse as workers are taking its foundation soils to fill in reclaimed land for Tinh Phong industrial zone.

Tam Son hill in its current state.
There are 35 relics related to Cham culture in Quang Ngai, among these are 10 deserted and abandoned antique towers. The Khanh Van tower on Tam Son hill, Tinh Tho commune, Son Tinh District is the most intact in its foundation architecture.

In August 1998, archeologists excavated Khanh Van. Technical specifications from the base of the tower, as well as several other findings helped identify that the tower was built in the XI century and ruined by the XVI century.

The foundation is 2m high, each side is 10m, each corner is L shaped 3m each side, 4 ornamental supports, sculpture of leaf and carving of a hermit, the vignette was made refined in the form of saw tooth. The height of the tower is 20m, approximately the height of My Son A1 – a masterpiece of the Cham in drawing and architecture.

The archeologists also discovered a stone altar 1.4m in length, 42cm in width, 34cm in height, with a lot of carvings and engraved pictures.

Recently, when UNESCO proposed the cultural conservation agency to recommend two Cham relics in Quang Ngai, the cultural conservationists started checking the status of Khanh van tower - one of the two top recommended sites. This was when they discovered that one third of the hill had disappeared.

According to Mr. Le Thanh Ha the party secretary of Tinh Tho commune where the historic site is located “…the commune has never received any document to say that Khanh Van was a cultural relic.

So, this mount has long been used to provide earth for construction schemes in the commune and around the district. Recently, the people from Quang Ngai Museum came up and we were informed that the mount is a relic that must be protected.”

The foundations of Khanh Van tower are already on the edge of a hundred meter precipice.

The total area of industrial zone of Tinh Phong, hundreds of hectares, is made from the earth taken from the hill. “It is lucky that the foundations at Tinh are complete, so workers stopped digging at the hill,” Ha said.

The obvious question is why the commune allowed digging around the antique tower in the first place.

Bui Hong Huong, director of the Quang Ngai Museum, said, “The sector had no funding to rank the cultural relics. Because no ranking has been done, no sign or notice was given to the local authority."

Sadly, short of major intervention, the last remaining relic of the Cham culture in Quang Ngai will be demolished when the rainy season comes and the land slides.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Evening at Bobby Chinn's

Had another great dinner at Bobby Chinn's in Hanoi last night. A pleasure to finally meet the man himself as well.

I had the basic set menu (a cute little appetizer, crab-corn-truffle soup, filet mignon, desert sampler platter) plus the quesadillas (a sample or meat and spinach--very tasty--and mango salsa).

I won't tell you hear what I paid--but you can see in upcoming guidebooks for DK Eyewitness, Insight Guides and other good publishers. :)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Help Me Translate This Khmer Artifact in Vietnam

I recently came across this relic in a local shop. It's unusual because the inscription looks like Khmer. As this is coastal Vietnam I don't often come across Khmer script. It could be something old, or it could simply be something a Vietnamese soldier brought back after serving in Cambodia. Unfortunately I don't read Khmer. Can somebody offer a translation? There were 3 inscriptions, pictured below.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hat Boi: Traditional Vietnamese Opera in Phan Thiet

Below are photos taken of Hat Boi (or Hat Bo), a traditional form of Vietnamese opera. The performance was hosted in a local whale temple. Van Thuy Tu is the most famous such temple in Phan Thiet, but there are perhaps a dozen such whale temples in Phan Thiet alone. The temples occupy a similar position in the lives of local fishermen as the old Chinese assembly halls have had for Chinese merchants in Vietnam's port towns. Whale temples always have stages for performances, making them an ideal place to perform these operas.

The announcer and story teller wishes wealth and happiness to the elders of the community, calling them out by name, one by one, with melodramatic ceremony.

The first performer comes singing out in a flamboyant costume, with drummers on either side, and a traditional orchestra just out of view.

Notice his elaborate head dress with peacock and pheasant tail feathers.

The central character is joined by his co-star.

Throughout the performance the audience (mostly male elders in the community), throw bunches of sticks at the performers. I'm unfamiliar with the meaning and ceremony behind this but I suspect this character is a villain and throwing sticks is akin to throwing tomatoes. Boys sit on either side of the stage, continuously cleaning up the sticks.

All photos (as always) copyright 2010 Adam Bray. Photos may not be used or republished without written permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Phan Thiet Barn Owl

Barn owls are seen as evil omens and harbingers of death by the Vietnamese. If they can get their hands on one, many Vietnamese are likely to kill them out of spite. It's a sad thing because of how graceful, shy and beneficial the birds actually are. As everyone knows, these beautiful birds of prey feed on mice and rats, which are in ample supply due to Vietnam's sanitation problems. Barn owls are not afraid to live in cities, and can be seen and heard all over town--if a person is actually paying attention. Barn owls have the largest range of any bird species. The same species is also found in North America and Europe.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Elephant Fragments of a Fragmented Elephant

A privately owned work-elephant that I met recently in my adventures in Ratanakiri, Cambodia.

Curiosity breaks through sad eyes

Every few years the tusks will be trimmed, and the ivory sold across the border in Vietnam.

A life in bondage

He's lucky to have tail hair. Vietnamese & Cambodians pluck elephant tail hair to make good luck rings and amulets, leaving elephants with a very sore nub and nothing to swat the flies.

At least we know he's regular