I opened the shutters of the hotel's window and the cool temps hit me straight away, as cold as any Farangland Winter I've experienced. Looking out over the city's rooftops, I took a long deep breath and felt the cold air fill my lungs. As I exhaled a light mist appeared before my face, disappearing as quickly as it had arrived. I grabbed my mobile, fired Hanoi into the weather app and it confirmed what I thought. For a Bangkok boy used to warm weather year round, 8 degrees Celsius is cold. It was Winter in Hanoi, Vietnam's pretty capital city, and much colder than I am used to.
It took me 14 years of living in Asia before I visited Vietnam. When I finally made it there I was overwhelmed by the place, that first visit rekindling the feelings I had when I first visited Thailand. I was urged to temper my enthusiasm by those who had walked the path before me, who relayed that many get excited by their first visit to Vietnam, but later become disillusioned when scratching below the surface. Don't get too excited by it, they said. Think of it just as a fun holiday. It sounded like a relationship with a bargirl, love at first sight followed, almost inevitably it seems, by disappointment.
The Vietnamese capital is a very different beast from the country's largest city and its economic powerhouse, Saigon. Saigon has an energy and vibrance that surpassed that of Bangkok. Returning to Bangkok from Saigon, the city feels positively slow in comparison.
Hanoi, on the other hand, has a rather different vibe. The seat of government and the administrative capital, the city and its people are much more conservative and initially can come across as stoic. There is an energy, but nothing like the furious, time-is-money energy of Saigon.
The most heavily touristed part of the city is the old quarter, a section of the city that dates back hundreds of years where there were once 36 original streets, each of which had merchants selling primarily one type of product. Some of the original flavour remains and you can find yourself walking down a street where most shops sell books, or lights or temple ornaments.
A commercial district full of shophouses, often merchants peddle their wares downstairs and you may find a colonial style coffee house above. The city's old quarter is a confusing labyrinth of streets and many tourists walk around lost, one hand clutching a map and the other scratching their head!
A large church downtown is a focal point around which tourists and much of the tourist infrastructure is centred. Where Saigon has Pham Ngu Lao, Saigon's equivalent of Khao San Road, Hanoi doesn't receive the same influx of backpackers. A short lane just a stone's throw away from the church has backpacker accommodations and the requisite travel shops.
The small backpacker area offers some quite unreal deals for the budget conscious. A few outlets offered a dorm bed plus free breakfast plus free use of a computer with an internet connection, plus free wi-fi and, get this, free beer, all for $5!
It was in the area surrounding the church on our first morning in town, just a couple of hours after we'd arrived, that we had our first experience of the hospitality of Vietnamese people.
At a small Vietnamese style coffee house where the smallest of seats face the road with a view of St. Joseph's Church, we ordered some of the fabulous Vietnamese coffee – for me one of the reasons to visit the country – adjusted to the temperature about 20 degrees cooler than we had left in Bangkok and soaked up the vibe. At a table behind us a Vietnamese family was tucking in to a scrumptious hot pot. We couldn't help but keep turning around, so good did it smell. The family saw us eyeing it up and suddenly bowls were thrust in our direction. They were filled with vegetables, noodles and chunks of crab meat. One of the male members of the family took the time to extract the meat from the crab and carefully place it in each of our bowls. We were invited not just to sample it, but to join them with space made at the tiny table for us. They didn't speak any English and we spoke as much Vietnamese as we do Urdu or Icelandic, yet there was a common bond between people enjoying a moment of friendship that transcends mere words.
I'm ashamed to say that it crossed my mind that this might be some sort of scam where foreigners are offered food and later presented with an astronomical bill. We were, after all, in the heart of the tourist area. When we did eventually call for the bill it totalled just 40,000 dong ($2), the cost of our coffees. Needless to say, the impression this generosity and friendliness made on us was overwhelming.
The Hanoians are less likely to engage you than those in the country's south – who in turn are not nearly as gregarious as many Thais can be – but neither are they the sneering, cold-hearted bores that some who have visited Hanoi before me had led me to believe. Some of the older folk, particularly some of the older men, look at you with such intensity it can be intimidating. The younger folk, while not as openly or friendly as those in Saigon, are not always shy to engage foreigners and relish the chance to practice English with a native speaker.
Still in the area near the church we stumbled on Paris Deli, perhaps best described as a transplant straight out of Paris. While fabulous French food can be found in Bangkok, the word "French" appears to attract sort of unknown luxury goods tax. Good, inexpensive French food in Bangkok? I wish!
The French food in Hanoi is reason enough to visit the city, more so if you're a foodie. Hanoi in Winter could almost pass for Paris in Autumn, right down to the haughty waiters in the French restaurants. The food may be out of this world, but the service is straight out of a Paris bistro – where it's easy to think they hate customers who aren't Francophiles!
On the street outside a French restaurant a sexy Vietnamese girl plays with her pussy. Vietnam may be considerably poorer than Thailand yet animals seem to be much better kept. Cats and dogs are clean, look healthy and dare I say it, seem happy! Not once did we see a stray dog.
But Hanoi is not without its issues. Traffic is bad – not nearly as busy or crazy as Saigon – where the stream of motorcycles seems endless, but it's not a lot better.
The way the locals cross the road takes a couple of days to get used to. Regardless of whether any traffic is coming, you just step out on to the road and walk slowly without changing your speed, trusting drivers and riders to weave around you. Amazingly, it works.
The roads are much noisier in Vietnam than Thailand and the sound of car horns is constant. If you were on the horn as much in Thailand you might find yourself set upon or worse, where such constant beeping at another vehicle is seen as aggressive and highly confrontational.
As night falls, the city's coffee shops fill up with the ubiquitous Highlands Coffee delivering a product so fine that it really should be Hanoi that has a chain of coffee houses worldwide, and not Seattle. Hanoi is coffee culture at its best with unlimited options from comfortable, heated (at this time of year) coffee shops with a full range of coffee, tea and sumptuous cakes and pastries, to outdoor streetside operators brewing coffee right there on the street and serving it to customers who perch on tiny stools on the sidewalk.
While I don't doubt that it exists and it probably wouldn't be too hard to find if you were actually looking, Hanoi is not a centre for naughty nightlife. Not once was asked if I wanted a massage or a lady or any of that nonsense, a pleasant change from Saigon where late at night girls pull up on motorbikes and ask Western men if they're looking for a good time. Unlike the perception many Westerners have of Thailand, prostitution is not seen as part of Vietnam's identity.
Temperatures drop to single digits at night and the locals feel it as much as the visitors. Being so far north, Hanoi sees a wider temperature spread than say Bangkok or Saigon. In Hanoi, Summer is Summer and Winter is Winter.
Hanoi didn't strike me as a city of attractions. In terms of highlights, the city features many museums, plenty of temples and of course, Uncle Ho's Mausoleum. All very good if you wish to learn the history of the city and the country, but the Vietnamese, like most of Asia, just don't do museums well and when it comes to wars against super powers and colonial conquerors, museum exhibits feature a liberal dose of propaganda.
The women of Hanoi love to dress up in Winter coats and while Vietnam lags far behind Thailand in the fashion stakes, when it comes to Winter coats the women make an effort.
And with some of the city's older gentlemen dressed in tailored threads, donning a scarf and sporting a beret, the city has an unmistakable style. The French influence lives on.
There's an argument for visiting Hanoi over Saigon, especially if your wife, girlfriend or mistress will be accompanying you. The city is pretty and its French overtones make for a romantic backdrop. Added to that is that in downtown you often see couples in their full wedding garb. Some are tying the knot and some getting pre-wedding photos taken.
Hanoi makes for a great break from Bangkok. For me, the highlights were negotiating the old quarter, the colonial architecture but more than anything, the culinary experience. The food, particularly the French food, is something else. And the coffee? I've never tasted better.
At this time of year it's cold, at least cold for those of us who call Bangkok home. If you want a change of pace from Bangkok, or are keen to embark on a foodie tour and enjoy some of the best French food outside of Paris, Hanoi has much going for it. I'll be back!
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken of the Royal Hotel, just off Rachadamnoen Road and across the road from Sanam Luang. Only a few people got it right. There are two prizes this week, a 300-baht voucher for Sunrise Tacos and a 500-baht voucher for Firehouse in Sukhumvit soi 11, known for its excellent hamburgers.
Terms and conditions: 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! You MUST specify which prize you would like and failure to do so will result in the prize going to the next person to get the photo correct.
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.
How Thailand is perceived in Sweden.
I have a good idea of how Thailand is seen in Sweden. First of all it comes down directly to your social group. If you are educated and work a white collar job, participating in the naughty nightlife is very much a no-no. In that case you need a solid alibi for just visiting Thailand because the suspicion that you're up to no good will always be there and if these suspicions are somehow proven it's a social and professional killer. If you go there to live it would probably be seen positively if you were on a genuine expat package for a known international company or worked with the embassy. But even then it's questionable if it would be a plus on your CV. Handle things right and get the right position and it could be viewed neutrally. But a stint owning a bar or working a low-end job, or even worse, a "sabbatical" year is a definite minus. Going there to work for a local enterprise, even in a good position, would not be a plus. In these circles backpacking is completely OK but a male going alone will be met with suspicion. I know, because I have 10 visits over the last 9 years and have had to be careful to try to maintain my cover stories up to the point of inventing where I have been, usually picking one of the neighbouring countries as my main destination even though I only visited briefly and spent most of my holiday in Thailand. Pattaya cannot be mentioned under any circumstances! Of course I go as a sex tourist and I know some might suspect this fact but I have built a careful cover story including Thailand based friends I visit. "Where are you going?" "Well, I like Asia very much because it's so easy and safe to travel around there. I will be going to Vietnam and plan on starting in Hanoi and then going south by bus. That will be my main destination. Then I have my friend X who lives in Bangkok working for Y so I'll pay him a visit on the way home. Have you visited Vietnam?" Think up that cover story, learn it and stick with it. That's what one needs to do. Or stop being a naughty boy, which is not (yet) an option for me. However, in less educated groups in society and especially in male-dominated blue collar workplaces there is virtually no stigma at all. There you could, in most places, be pretty upfront with what you've been up to. That is, if you plan on remaining in that social position. Myself, I move in both groups so I keep my trap shut and stay with my cover story so there are no rumours – or less rumours and no proof at least.
Respectable Thai ladies tarred with the same brush.
The perception of Thai women living in the UK is a continuing worry for Thai ladies from respectable backgrounds. Once men discover she is Thai they often assume ex-bargirl and up for some action. I never sense that with girls from Malaysia or from Singapore, as they somehow have a reputation for higher morals. Of course, that's a joke as prostitutes are in plentiful supply in both those places. I reckon the biggest problem for respectable Thai women is the gogo bar stigma that has created a false perception and tarred the entire female population with the same brush. Quite sad really, but not surprising when thousands of men keep returning from their Bangkok holidays with sordid tales from the bars. People here in the UK that previously knew nothing of Thailand assume there is sleaze available on every street corner. Sadly, I don't foresee that perception changing any time soon.
Old bargirls getting lucky.
I have kept in contact with some ex-girlfriends who I knew when they were hot 19 – 25-year old gogo dancers. Up until about 3 years ago they were all complaining about not having any luck snaring a husband (they all had Thai husbands, kids and prior relationships with farang) and hoping I would pay them a visit despite not seeing them for over 20 years. But over the past few years all these 40 – 45-year olds have gotten married to retired Europeans and can't believe their luck. I have been told not to phone them when hubbie is in Thailand as they have completely reinvented their pasts (they ended either working lower Sukhumvit or Beach Road) and worked the dating sites (paying someone to write them up good). One even finished with a younger farang guy as there wasn't enough money in the deal. General impression I get from them is that they can't wait for hubbie to die so they can get their hands on the loot and are probably going to help him along the way. If they were in any way genuine I would say good luck to them but it does show how stupid old farang can get.
The pace of change is accelerating.
Each year I think it can't change as much as it did the previous year, and each year I'm wrong. Westerners are really in the minority now. We were regularly approached in Pattaya and spoken to first in Russian. Even westerner-owned restaurants, pubs and bars used this tactic. Lots of specific Russian food only restaurants, and even if it was a western-themed food joint, there was at least Russian menus, if not Russian food. We met and talked with a few Russian tourists (mainly couples) and they were very pleasant and interesting. But the way a lot of them on the street act and behave makes them appear to be a rude and arrogant nation and I'm still trying to work out if they really are, or it's just the mannerisms, culture and voice tones that are so different that make us think they are arrogant. The Indians I think are much easier to understand. They are there in groups, and the majority don't really have enough money to splash around as other nationalities seem to.
Even tourists notice the changes.
I first came to Thailand in 2008, the baht was good for me and the old timers were complaining how bad things were then. I guess I just missed the cut off point, the transition. This is my second trip to Thailand this year. Prices have nearly doubled and Thai girls know their stock is up. It just doesn't seem fun anymore. I was never really hardcore but I can tell that years of farangs telling bargirls how much money they can make in the west really caught on. But I'm confused, either they were bluntly trying to rip me off or prices have really gone up? I also noticed how empty a lot of bars were from Patong, Bangkok, to Rawai. Honestly, in Phuket I swore more than 2/3 of the girly bars were empty. You could walk in and have which ever girl you wanted in fact most places you would be the only customer. What I did notice is the increase in the number of women and couples. I think family vacationers don't cause as many problems as single men. All in all I had a great trip but Bangkok and Thailand is changing ultra fast! Bangkok doesn't even seem like Thailand. I did notice how mean the Thai women have become. After years of abuse who could blame them?
The new world.
Owing to the shifting financial fortunes on the planet, in the not-so-distant future it might be fat and balding Thais who travel to the fleshpots of New York, London and Berlin in search of the girlfriend experience and hoping to recapture their lost youth. NYa NYa Plaza, here they come! Will turnabout be viewed as fair play? Will London's lovelies suddenly become cattle herders, needing another grass-fed Angus to help their Yorkshire families make ends meet? Credit the Russians for forsaking the charms of the Isaan gene pool and merely turning Thailand, and Pattaya in particular, into the Sevastopol of the Tropics. Of course the wealthiest amongst the Oligarchs have already found the girlfriend experience in London, but that’s another story. It's unlikely Thais will invade Moscow for the borscht, so Russia needn't expect any quid pro quo. It might be a new day in the rest of the West, however.
New Year's Eve in Pattaya was a debacle with the power cut for more than half an hour just seconds after midnight! Bars and restaurants were plunged in to darkness resulting in throngs of people walking around aimlessly, guided only by the moonlight, some emergency lights and the light from their mobile phone screens. Apparently the cause was an accident, but it's hardly a positive reflection on Pattaya as a tourist destination.
Bangkok is heaving and Soi Nana was packed this weekend. In some ways it was like the old days with Westerners making up perhaps 3/4 of the customers in Nana Plaza. That doesn't explain the change in mix though with more families, and more older couples, many of whom are just looking, having no more than a long, slow drink, watching the comings and goings, taking photos and soaking up the scene. Still, the bar areas are at their best when busy and the more people, generally the better the vibe.
And bar owners confirm it, a few telling me that things are really going well at the moment (which translated means they're absolutely raking it in – and good on them!)
The African experience is available at Siggy's Beer Bar on Second Road in Pattaya where around 10 as-dark-as-you-can-get ladies frequent the bar each evening. There's a variety of hues and girls of various shapes and sizes, all of which the Thai women find to be a genuine curiosity. In a country where white skin is prized and considered the ultimate measure of beauty and where the darker the skin, the uglier the woman – in the eyes of the Thais – the locals cannot get their head around why a man would want to try chocolate, let alone pay for it!
The Russians are all over Pattaya but it's not the only beach resort where they have become entrenched. Reports from readers visiting Phuket have it that Russians comprise the largest single group of visitors to Phuket by nationality and more and more businesses are catering for them, with signs in Russian popping up all over and more tour operators who only service the Russian market.
In the plaza of Nana, is Voodoo making a play for Japanese customers? Pachinko machines – the Japanese equivalent of poker / slot machines – have been installed in the outdoor bar area. I don't know what the local constabulary will make of it, given their issues with people playing games of chance.
A friend got the shock of his life after flying in to Bangkok on New Year's Day. He was in the taxi after the long flight from Europe and called up the hotel he has stayed at for the last 8 years and told them that he would be there in 20 minutes. "Solly, Mr. Smith, have plomplem", the last words you want to hear when you've just got off a transcontinental flight and have not slept in 36 hours. He had booked a room at the Sukhumvit soi 11 hotel by email with the hotel direct. He had been offered the same price he had paid when he last stayed there, 1,400 baht per night and had emails confirming a room at that price. The operator told him he could have a room, but not at 1,400 baht. Instead, it would cost him a whopping 3,200 baht! Needless to say he went elsewhere. This is a Thai-run hotel which obviously doesn't care about regular customers and is looking to make what they can today with absolutely no thought of tomorrow. There is something to be said for booking hotel rooms using one of the many online hotel reservations companies. You don't need to deal with the hotel staff and your booking is handled by an international company, all of which may give greater peace of mind than dealing direct with the hotel. If you don't already have a favourite company to book with, DirectRooms is excellent and they have a comparison listing the rates of the same hotel at all the major online booking sites so you can get absolutely the best price!
The issue of freelancers undercutting the girls who work in bars for whom a barfine must be paid for them to leave the premises is an issue for bar owners, especially in these times when value for money is so important. While some of the big-name gogos make a fortune, what sort of future do smaller venues have, especially those which struggle to attract the pretty girls and never have anything more than an average line-up. With so many good beer bars at the top of Soi Nana and a great show right out on the street – arguably as interesting as what you see inside the plaza – some customers are sticking to the beer bars and the gogos have a challenge on their hands to get those guys inside.
Steve Bain has published an e-book, "Dating Thai Ladies", with the slogan on the cover, 'find your sweetheart and avoid gold diggers'. I've had a nosy through it and it looks like it could be a fun read, and should certainly be useful to those who have struggled to find the love interest they're so desperate for. It is currently priced at $6.95, and will go up to $9.95 in February.
"You can take the girl out of the bar but you can't take the bar out of the girl" is one of the oldest sayings in Bangkok expat circles. If she stays in the industry too long just how long too long is varies from girl to girl, eventually she is going to flip out. It's just a matter of time. If you've built up a decent Karmic credit, with a bit of luck you won't be the one holding the hot potato when it explodes.
Jake Needham's 6th Southeast Asian novel, The Umbrella Man, was published at the end of December. It's his second story featuring Inspector Samuel Tay of the Singapore CID. Readers have grabbed nearly 100,000 copies of the first Inspector Tay book, the very popular The Ambassador's Wife which I personally enjoyed very much. This time, however, The Umbrella Man will be available only as an e-book. It seems that Jake's print editions have always been published by a company owned by a Singaporean media group, and apparently some ranking people in Singapore expressed the view to Jake's publisher that his books are not sufficiently full of praise for the Lion City. So don't look for Jake's new book at Asia Books or Kinokuniya as his publisher is not releasing a print edition. If you're interested in seeing a sample of the book that pissed off some important people in Singapore, you can browse the opening chapter of The Umbrella Man at Jake's website here. To buy a copy for your e-reader, you can find the Kindle edition here.
Quote of the week comes from a reader, "Confucius say: When in Thailand make appointment with female one hour before actual desired meeting time."
Reader's story of the week is The Legend of Thermae from David Cocksedge.
A young British tourist is shot dead in Koh Phangan and the family ask why his life had to end like this.
Thailand is to declare gun-free zones following the shooting of the British tourist.
The unrest in Thailand's south gets a mention in the UK's Daily Telegraph this week.
An Australian man falls to his death in Phuket.
A young Aussie dies consuming a cocktail in Bali which was made more potent with some nasty shit.
A young Dane gets a court appearance in Phuket after allegedly making a false complaint of assault.
Phuket Tuktuk drivers take drastic action in an attempt to eliminate competition from Russian tour operators.
Ask Sunbelt Asia 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: 1) If a farang buys more than one condo in Thailand, does he need to report or register this with other Thai authorities than the land office such as the Thai tax authorities?
2) How many condos can a farang buy before Thai authorities look at it as a big investment, and maybe demand the owner to have a work permit, because they determine that this is a business?
3) If he owns a lot of condos in different parts of Thailand, and he does not rent out any, does he need to report or pay tax for being an owner?
4) How many condos can a farang own and rent out, without a work permit?
5) If a farang rents out his condo to another farang, short-term or long-term, does he need to report the details of the person staying to the Immigration Department like hotels do? If yes, what will happen to him if he does not report it?
6) Farangs have problems putting the electricity bill in their name. Is it good enough if he shows the blue book with no name inside but just the address which he got when he bought the condo together with the title deed for the condo?
Sunbelt Asia Legal responds: 1 & 2) There is no limitation on the number of condominiums that a foreigner could own or buy, as long as: A) the foreign quotas of that condo building/project has not been exceeded; B) the foreign purchaser brought in the purchasing funds from abroad.
3) There would be the running costs of common property area fees which are charged on a monthly basis and the utilities (water & electricity), meter maintenance fees but taxes would be paid when you sold the condo.
4) The Thai Labour Department has stated no work permit is required.
5) Short answer, no.
6) There must be a meter ownership transfer form made by the person who originally applied for the electric meter. A blue book alone would be insufficient.
Sunbelt Asia Legal can help you in handling condo purchases; determining if the quota has been filled, doing due diligence on the condo management, as well as with lease contracts and registration at the Land Department. Please contact us when you are ready to roll.
Question 2: I am over 50 and legally married to my Thai wife. We live together in New Zealand. We have had a Thai translation of the NZ marriage certificate sighted and verified and stamped in Bangkok by my western embassy (but the marriage has not yet been registered at a Thai Amphur). My question is which type of visa would it be better to apply for – a retirement visa or a marriage visa? The considerations being: Application times and where you would apply from, costs of said visas, duration of visas, reporting issues if required, flexibility of renewal of visa and restrictions on each visa type.
Sunbelt Asia Legal responds: This depends on you and your qualification and whether you would be able to meet with Immigration requirements. How much money can you put in your Thai bank account? Do you intend to work in Thailand afterwards? If yes, then a retirement visa would restrict you from working in Thailand. In most cases, most would prefer the retirement extension as they don't need to bring the wife to Immigration every year and there are fewer documents required although the income requirement is higher. The duration is the same, 1 year, as are the costs and you always need to apply to the Immigration office nearest to where you live. Sunbelt Asia Legal has a large team dedicated to helping people determine which is the best extension for your needs and in applying for and obtaining visa extensions based on marriage, retirement or other qualifications such as supporting a Thai child or based on education.
It's a lighter column news-wise this week with me away for most of the week. I only got out once in Bangkok this week and really didn't see much or find out anything of interest. Usual service returns next week.
Your Bangkok commentator,