They say that you can never recapture the feeling of that first visit to Thailand. The sights, the sounds and the smells can overwhelm the first time visitor. It would be reasonable to think it would be the same when visiting other countries in the region, the first time being the most fun. But that wasn't the case for me with Vietnam. The second time around was even better!
I have just spent a few more days in my favourite city of the moment, Ho Chi Minh City, or as the locals still tend to refer to it, Saigon. I'd been thinking about the place a lot since that first visit and couldn't wait to get back so on the spur of the moment I booked a ticket. I was keen to explore more of the city, to see the sights I missed the first time around, to enjoy the fantastic food and to see if the overwhelmingly positive impressions I had on that first visit would be the same the next time around.
What follows is a brief look at some of the highlights of Saigon, and general thoughts and observations on visiting the city.
This was always going to be a year of travel for me, a year in which I planned to visit various places around the region conspicuously absent from my CV. My next jaunt was supposed to be Myanmar but the photos of a friend who visited recently just didn't inspire me. Just as many readers are keen to escape Farangland to spend a couple of weeks in Thailand each year, I couldn't wait to get back to Saigon.
The attractions of Saigon can be divided into two groups, war-related and non war-related.
The Reunification Palace was the workplace and living quarters of the President of what was South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. When a North Vietnamese tank crashed through its gates in 1975, the Vietnam War ended.
The architecture of the palace has been preserved in all its glory with garish coloured carpets, heavy furniture and ironically, a very stoic, communist feel. From the rotary dial telephones to the ancient communications equipment, everything is in pristine condition and looks like it is in working order. The price of admission includes a 1-hour guided tour with commentary in English. You are free to wander around and explore most of the palace yourself, but I'd do the tour first, get the history and then go roaming.
The War Remnants Museum is a 20-minute walk from Reunification Palace and fills in a lot of gaps if, like me, you're a little sketchy about the background to and the chronology and major events of the Vietnam War.
The museum features weaponry along with some amazing collections of photos from the war, including a powerful and disturbing section on Agent Orange and its (ongoing) effects. The photos from American war correspondent Larry Burrows are particularly compelling and capture every emotion of the war from pain to desperation to joy. Outside the main museum building are weapons of war including tanks, helicopters, planes and ordnance. There's a replica torture chamber with contraptions that are totally inhumane.
While the museum is well put together, some of the claims made about the enemy I just cannot believe but that aside, it's a great way to spend a few hours.
The Cuchi tunnels is one of the extensive tunnel networks used during the war and located about an hour and a half's drive outside Saigon. In Thailand you might make your own way to such an attraction yourself but getting around in Vietnam is not quite so easy and the best way to visit is to book a tour downtown. Tours are ridiculously cheap and start at around $US10, all in.
The grounds where the tunnels are located remind me of Cambodia's killing fields – awkward to reach and in some ways kind of disappointing once you get there. The Cuchi Tunnels is worth checking out, but to be frank, there's really not a lot there. A destroyed tank, a bunch of forest traps, and replica underground bunkers where you learn how the Vietnamese lived and operated underground.
The best part is that you get to go down into a tunnel. Imagine the scene: You're underground, in a tunnel approximately 100 cm high and 70 cm wide. There's almost no light. In front of me was a young English couple. Immediately behind me were two young Irish girls. The young English girl was concerned she was going to get stuck and her English boyfriend was trying to coax her on. She starts panicking, going on about what would happen if she cannot get out and he's trying to placate her. She starts blaming him for them visiting the tunnels. It's all his fault! Behind me was an early '20s Irish girl freaking out. While there are exits every 20 metres or so, there was no way you could get out if the people in front of and behind were having an episode. Passing someone in the tunnels isn't possible. You're underground, it's hot and sticky and you've got people cracking around you. I imagine being chained up in a lunatic asylum in a ward full of nutjobs couldn't be much worse. I was damned happy to get out of there. If you go down, either be the first or the last. Being trapped between people cracking up is freaky.
I personally found the tunnels as an attraction a little underwhelming and like the other war-related attractions, there was a nationalistic undercurrent to the way they were presented. The Vietnamese are very welcoming of foreign visitors, but at the tunnels there's a major dose of propaganda that's at its most fervent in the video room. A short documentary is shown with footage from the tunnels during the war with commentary praising the courage and bravery of the locals. Where it gets a bit much – and remember, I am not American – is that it goes on and on and on about how much the locals loved their life (during the time of war) and how they hate American bullets, hate American planes, and love killing Americans, notwithstanding that everyone knows that life in the tunnels must have been hell for one's general well-being. Over and over and over again you hear the phrase, "Killing Americans, killing Americans, killing Americans". Not killing the enemy, or killing outsiders in their country – remember there were a number of other countries helping the Americans including Australia, New Zealand and Thailand – but killing Americans. It became nauseous.
Vietnam isn't dominated by Buddhism and you may see more churches than temples in Saigon. One temple worth visiting if you're in to religious landmarks is the Emperor Jade Pagoda. Not nearly as dramatic as any of a number of Bangkok temples, nor anywhere near their size, it doesn't suffer the throngs of visitors that temples on the Bangkok tourist trail attract. The days of being able to worship in peace, or just take a photo in the Grand Palace without 100 strangers in the image are long gone. That's not the case at religious sites in Saigon.
The small temple is not much bigger than a medium-sized house and features rooms with intricate carvings, statues with the smell of incense wafting throughout. If temples are your thing or you're a keen photographer, it's worth a look.
The Mekong River empties out into tributaries in a large region to the south of Saigon known as the Mekong Delta. There are many different tour options available to visit the area from day trips to overnight stays lasting a few days. It's a nice way to get out of the city and see a slice of rural Vietnam, even if the places you are taken to are very touristy.
Pham Ngu Lao is Saigon's backpacker lane, a curiously diverse area which seems to have something for everyone. A guesthouse sits next to a restaurant which is next to a naughty boy which is neighbour to a home with four generations! If you like Khao San Road, you'll love it. If you don't, it's still worth a look, and tends to be more happening after dark.
Post offices don't usually make for tourist attractions but the beautiful interior of Saigon's central post office is worth a few minutes. The Notre Dame Cathedral is a stone's throw away and the Reunification Palace less than 10 minutes walk away so there's no reason not to swing by.
I couldn't in all honesty say nightlife is an attraction in Saigon. Bars exist and there is a small number of bars with naughty girls set up primarily for foreigners. There are bars with a name featuring a number such as Bar 49 in the streets surrounding the Sheraton, and another bunch of bars Pham Ngu Lao. There's a reason Vietnam is not on the naughty boys list of places to plunder.
One thing I got totally wrong on my first visit was the impression that the level of English in Saigon exceeds that in Bangkok. It doesn't, not at all and it's not even close. I must have had amazingly good luck on that first trip meeting locals who speak English well. Away from those who deal with tourists the level of English ranges from poor to non-existent. Even taxi drivers – who you'd expect would get tourist traffic – often speak no English at all. Asking them if they speak the international language often results in an immediate and very definite "No!", amazing in a country where seemingly everyone has a desire to make money.
If I had one criticism of Saigon from the perspective of a visitor, it concerns safety. While the central parts of the city feel as safe as Bangkok, the organisation of tours was at times sloppy in ways it wouldn't be in Thailand. Boats pulled up to jetties without any gangway making getting on and off very awkward if you weren't nimble. The lack of information about what to expect and any real warning before entering the Cuchi Tunnels was a concern, especially when people in my tour group started freaking out underground. Don't take this as Stick being politically correct and wanting everything to be sterile and safe like the West, I just felt some things were a little sloppy which struck me as almost unVietnamese.
Using the local currency, dong, can be confusing. At a little under 21,000 dong to $1, you need to think twice about how much something costs. Dollars can be used in some places, but are not as widely accepted as they are next door in Cambodia. You can change Thai baht into dong in Saigon but the rates offered for baht are low. The official rate is around 670 dong to the baht, but most money changers offered around 570. For Bangkok-based expats, change your baht to dollars at Wasu or Super Rich, and then change dollars to dong in Vietnam. While some Bangkok money changers carry dong, the spread is huge, even worse than with the Philippine peso or the Indonesian Ruppiah so don't bother buying any in Bangkok.
If you're travelling on a passport issued by a Western country, a visa is required to enter Vietnam and must be applied for in advance. If you apply at the Embassy of Vietnam in Bangkok, note that they provide the express service by default i.e. you pay a premium for the visa to be processed and available for collection the next day – which you may not require. Express service is 2,300 baht and the standard service takes 3 days and costs 500 baht less.
The mystery shrouding Thailand has been lifted and every layer of the onion has been pulled back. Libraries of material has been written about the country and most everyone has an opinion about the Kingdom. Vietnam has a certain mystery. It's like a woman whose form is alluring, whose movements are graceful, but whose face is obscured from view, you yearn to see more. For me the mystery of Vietnam lingers. I'm keen to see and learn more. I'll be back.
*Where* was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken at the Silom MRT station with the Dusit Thani Hotel in the background! All you have to do is tell me where the photo was taken. There are 2 prizes this week – a 500 baht credit at the Oh My Cod fish and chips restaurant and a 300 baht voucher to use at Sunrise Tacos.
Terms and conditions: If you wish to claim a prize, you must state a preference for the prize you prefer, or list the prizes you would like in order of preference – failure to do so results in the prize going to the next person to get the photo right. The Oh My Cod prize MUST be claimed within 14 days. The prizes are only available to readers in Thailand at the time of entering and are not transferable. Prize winners cannot claim more than one prize per calendar month. You only have one guess per week!
FROM STICK'S INBOX (These are emails from readers and what is written here was not written by Stick.) Preference may be given to emails which refer to the previous week's column.
Happy to have enjoyed the good old days.
Some good points in your column this week, for which I congratulate you. Firstly, that perennial, the "it used to be better" syndrome. In 1987 I used to be a 6-beer-a-night regular in the Pong, for a look at the shows, followed often by a weave home to Lang Suan, with a stop in a sub-soi on Rajadamri for some economical relief from the late-night service ladies supplementing their income on the building sites there. Now, when I'm in town, I very occasionally have a few beers, strictly look but don't buy, in Cowboy with friends. I'm generally disappointed for the reasons you mention – overpriced, girls not good-looking, poor attitude, and so on. So I count myself lucky to have had all those good years.
The girls have other options today.
I couldn't agree with you more over the sad demise of the quality and attitude of Thai bargirls. I feel this trend began about 15 years ago and you only have to look at the advances made in the infrastructure of Bangkok in the ensuing period to realise it has also become a much richer city. With the exception of a few notorious provinces of Isaan, entering the "trade" is no longer the default poverty trap escape now that other forms of training and employment in tourism, health and beauty care etc. have become far more available. Bars now struggle to recruit and hold on to ladies to man the poles and the result is an increase of fatter and older demoiselles.
For the best-looking girls, you might have to look elsewhere!
You are 100% correct about the ladies in the bar scene or on the game in other venues. They are indeed a sorry looking lot. Their weight has gone up dramatically, their looks have taken a turn for the worse while their services provided has been on a downward spiral for the past few years. For the casual Farang who is on holiday and looking for some adult fun it might not be so noticeable but for long time residents and observers of the bar scene it's downright depressing. Nowadays you have to seek out the pearls and use your acquired knowledge to find that one lady who will take you back to a happier time. My advice to those casual partakers of the adult scene would be to frequent Obsession Bar, Cascade bar, Cockatoo Bar if you want to see some drop dead gorgeous "ladies." Of course these are ladyboy bars but to long term players it's been common knowledge that some of the most beautiful ladies on the game are members of the third sex.
How to recover your lost DTAC SIM.
I just wanted to add a comment to your paragraph about mobile phones not coming back to life. One cool thing in Thailand with DTAC is if you lose your phone and even if it is a pay-as-you-go type of phone, you can actually recover your number and get a new SIM card for 29 baht if you go to the shop. Ridiculously cheap and very convenient and could explain the odd times a phone goes off and comes back online. Not that we don't know the real reason of course…
Discount doesn't extend to foreigners.
The BTS decision to offer a 50% discount to over 60s outside of rush hours, but only to Thais, is yet another example of foreigners being treated as second class citizens. We are always told to accept that we are only guests in their country, but then Thailand treats its guests unfairly. Nothing new there. It's just another example of foreigners having almost no rights in Thailand. As just one further example, my sister lives in Spain and is allowed to vote in local elections. Why not? After all, the decisions reached by the local government affect her as much as the locals. Can you imagine foreign residents in Thailand ever being granted the same privilege?
The national women's volleyball team.
The women's volleyball team has become a force on the world volleyball scene. What is most striking and got my attention is the height of the team vs. the storks from other teams from around the world. 170 cm vs. 190 cm difference in height on the court along with a huge difference in beauty against ugliness. This really makes an impression when the beautiful shrimps of Thailand put down some of the better teams in the world like China two years ago. Tonight they beat Serbia to be among the 6 teams to qualify for the FIVA Grand Prix in China later this summer. As an expat I am very proud of what they have accomplished with far less (vertical) physical assets than the other countries in the world. At 500 baht per seat the arena tonight was sold out so it is good to see that the Thais have something to be really proud of amongst other countries of the world.
If you're still writing your column in 4 years time it may be worth mentioning (if you can remember) as I'm sure more and more of your readers are going to be visiting Phnom Penh and maybe even moving there in the coming years. I know I'm starting to consider it. Anyway, the dry weekend didn't actually make it too difficult to get a drink, but I would advise not visiting during an election in the future. The city really was dead with all Cambodian owned cafes, bars and shops closed as was the central market and at least one bus company. There really was nothing to do, but then again some people like that. The election did make me notice one slightly perturbing thing however. They mark people's fingers with purple ink after they have voted in Cambodia. I'm told this ink will stay on the finger for a least a week, even with the most zealous of scrubbing. So for the duration of my trip everyone had a purple forefinger, well nearly everyone. I went into one of hostess bars on street 136. It was quite early and not busy so I was lucky enough to have a few girls sitting at my table, batting their eyelid listening to my drunken rambling and waiting for me to offer to buy them a drink (not asking mind you). I then noticed one of the girls didn't have a purple finger. "Oh, you forgot to vote", I said to her. One of the other girls then cut in and said "Oh no, she's too young to vote" for which she received a slight elbow from the older girl sat next to her. I looked back at the original girl without the purple finger who smiled shyly and said "I was too busy." I went to several other bars and was quite alarmed at the number of bargirls I saw without purple fingers.
Tom from Stumble Inn has regrettably decided that he will close his doors early in July. This is no doubt due to the excessive hike in the rents on properties at the top of Sukhumvit soi 4. He will be holding a last night party on Saturday July 7th, and would like all past and present customers to drop in to say hi. Not all is lost though. Tom will take over Lucky Luke's beer bar inside the entrance to the plaza on July 1st, and most of Stumble Inn's girls will move over with him on the 8th, following the party at Stumble Inn.
It can be confirmed that there are plans to transplant Strikers Sports Bar to the space that was known as Nana Beer Garden, in the Raja Hotel car park. Aware that foot traffic seems to stop at a certain point on Sukhumvit soi 4, the owner realises that a special effort will be needed to get customers. The owner promises that the new Strikers will be at least as nice as the original – the design is nearly complete and construction should start soon. The new venue will not just be more comfortable, it will be twice the size and have twice as many Brunswick pool tables. They will also increase the compliment of attractive ladies. Strikers has developed a reputation for staff that who are as friendly as they are fun, yet they do not push themselves on customers which the venue does not allow.
It was announced this week by the Deputy Prime Minister that nightlife venues in Sin City cannot remain open beyond 2:30 AM. Whether or not this closing time is actually enforced, however, remains to be seen.
Could the large disco ever so popular with freelancers and naughty boys near the New York Gardens change hands some time soon? A group which has made plenty of acquisitions has been looking at it.
Annie's pool bar, between Sukhumvit sois 2 and 4, has just had their pool tables recovered. The state of the cloth was putting people off playing there before and something has been done about it. So if you're looking for somewhere new to shoot a few frames, try Annie's out.
#26 might be the biggest girl in Tilac, but she has a really pretty face and a gorgeous smile which lights up the bar. She also happens to be proof that big girls can do just fine in the industry. Despite her size, she has done the rounds of various hot spots in the region.
A new Turkish restaurant has opened on Sukhumvit soi 4 called Istanbul, opposite Bus Stop and just down from Hillary II. As a fan of Middle Eastern food, I hope to try it this week.
Proud Englishman Brian of Crossbar is always proud to do his bit to promote old Blighty in Thailand. Crossbar has a new TV system installed which can show 8 UK channels live, including BBC1 and 2, ITV 1, 2 & 4 and Channel 4. Crossbar will be showing the Formula 1 qualifying and race day live without interruption with the BBC commentary. Next week Wimbledon will be shown with the UK commentary and also the Tour de France. There is also a function to be able to show UK TV delayed by 6 or 18 hours so that the likes of Eastenders etc. can be shown soon after it airs back home.
Foreigners often express an interest in donating money to a charity in Thailand and I'm often asked to recommend charities but am never quite sure how to respond. Up until now the one good cause I have recommended is the Bangkok Ambulance run by a community-minded Kiwi I profiled a year or so back. Now I have another good cause to recommend, one which should appeal particularly to animal lovers. Santisook Dogs and Cats in Chiang Mai is run by Khun Fon, an absolutely amazing lady. She is currently building a cat hospital / nursery which is due to be completed in 2 weeks, at a cost of 700,000 baht. So many animals literally owe Khun Fon their life after she has rescued, saved and / or rehabilitated them. One cat was blinded after some low-life gouged its eyes out. Another cat she nursed for many weeks after someone threw hot oil over it. Can you believe there are scum out there who would do this? She does this day in, day out – every day!
Ever fancied working in a gogo bar? Does the idea of working in Bangkok's most famous bar area for a good guy who has been around a long time appeal to you? Now is your chance to become a meeter and greeter in a long-running Bangkok gogo bar. The owner – a really good guy who I've known for over a decade – is looking for a meet and greet guy to keep an eye on things in the bar. This is not a manager's role per se but might just be a dream job for many as a meeter and greeter – meaning you have to drink and talk with customers! It would be good if you could speak some Thai and it would also help if you know a lot of people so that you can drag your mates in to the bar. The successful applicant will be required to be in the bar 5 nights a week – and weekends are a must. The salary on offer is 50,000 baht per month. A work permit will be sorted out. Contact the owner direct at: email@example.com.
With Thailand's reputation as a safe destination for tourists taking a couple of serious hits this week (see the news links section below), now would be an ideal time to look at the way the Tourist Police are utilised, the real Tourist Police. I have always thought the idea of having a division of the police force whose specific role was to serve and protect foreign visitors was a tremendous idea. But the truth is, even after all of these years, I'm still not sure what the tourist police actually do. I was always of the belief that the division was made up of officers proficient in English whose role was to assist tourists, but I seldom see Tourist Police officers anywhere these days. There used to always be a Tourist Police van set up at the Silom Road end of Patpong, but I haven't seen it for years. And the odd report I hear is that communication with the Tourist Police can be a challenge if you don't speak Thai. Thailand could look to Saigon where areas and attractions popular with foreign tourists have green-uniformed Tourist Security officers present (see photo below). Imagine if like Saigon, there were a couple of tourist police officers posted near every major tourist attraction in Bangkok from the major temples to shopping centres to nightlife areas. It would instill confidence in visitors, put off the crooks and these officers could be the first point of contact for distressed visitors, or merely provide assistance such as directions. It really would be a win : win situation for both tourists and Thailand if better use was made of the Tourist Police and would be an ideal time to implement such a plan.
Quote of the week comes from the Mad Stockbroker, "Expat life in Thailand is like a penis – simple, relaxed and hanging freely. It's Thai women who make it hard!"
Reader's story of the week comes from Talpan Nyody, "My HIV Story".
An attempted bag snatch goes horribly wrong in Phuket and an Australia tourist is stabbed to death.
It is alleged that a champion Australian kickboxer was savagely attacked in Phuket.
Did the Canadian sisters who died on Thailand's Phi Phi Island last week die of blowfish poisoning?
A Thai hospital refuses to return a Scottish woman's passport after she is unable to pay the bill for treatment.
A topless artist on Thailand's Got Talent sparks outrage by painting on canvas using her bare breasts!
Three Brits were arrested for allegedly running a boiler room scam in Sukhumvit soi 26 this week.
The New York Times profiles Koh Kret, which it refers to as an island refuge in Bangkok.
Ask Sunbelt Legal
Sunbelt Asia's legal department is here to answer your questions relating to legal issues and the law in Thailand. Send any legal questions you may have to me and I will pass them on to Sunbelt Legal and their response will run in a future column. You can contact Sunbelt's legal department directly for all of your legal needs.
Question 1: What is the law regarding financial obligations of a spouse? I am married (registered) to a Thai but we have no jointly-owned assets and our prenuptial agreement specifies that we will never have claim on each other's assets, in any event. So, can a creditor of my wife make claim against any of my assets for a debt she owes? How about if the creditor is the Thailand Revenue Department? Would the same answers apply if the marriage were not registered?
Sunbelt responds: If the debts were incurred before marriage then you would not be liable but a prenuptial agreement covers assets only. If the debts occurred during the marriage, the spouses are deemed co-debtors and will need to repay all the debts to the creditors from the marital assets. If it is a debt from taxes owed to the Revenue Department, then only the debtor is responsible to pay the Revenue Department. If the debtor dies then the estate and its heirs would be liable for the debts. However, if you are not legally married then you have no marital assets and therefore no mutual responsibility for debts incurred.
This column generates a lot of feedback and reading all of the email and corresponding with readers is an enjoyable and often enriching part of running the site. I'm amazed at how many readers of this and other Thailand-centric websites spend what I think can reasonably be called an inordinate amount of time online devouring as much about Thailand as they can. For some, the fascination with Thailand borders on fanatical and I wonder if they are neglecting other parts of their life, placing an almost unhealthy emphasis on the country. That's not to say that Thailand is not exciting or fascinating. I just think it's rash to spend so much time in the cyber world, in dreamland – and not in the real world. Like I have said numerous times, if you've failed to find genuine happiness in the West, don't think it'll be any easier in Thailand. The happiness gene is not activated by changing GPS coordinates. I have to ask the question: Are those who spend hours and hours every day on Thailand-centric websites whose heart appears to be in Thailand while their body remains in Farangland doing themselves any good?
Your Bangkok commentator,