Sometimes I feel like I'm in a bad marriage, and Bangkok is my wife. As fun and exciting as she may be, from time to time I find myself looking elsewhere. And when my eyes wander, it is Miss Saigon that grabs my attention. But are Miss Saigon and I compatible? Is she potentially the perfect wife, offering me all that I am looking for and more? Or is she more like a Pattaya hooker – sexy and seductive, but suitable for nothing more than a short-term fling?
This week I escaped to Saigon to spend a little more time with her.
It's been 19 long months since I last visited Saigon, a city that grabbed me from the moment I first stepped foot in it, a city which unlike Bangkok appealed to me from the outset. This jaunt to Saigon was part holiday, part reconnaissance.
For the first few hours I wandered aimlessly, reacquainting myself with her beauty and charm.
Downtown Saigon is a nice mix of older colonial architecture and modern monstrosities, epitomising the contrasts and disparities so common across South-East Asia. Motorbikes buzz around like mosquitoes while the sidewalks are free of people. Scruffy shoeshine boys and beggars sit outside the window of luxury European brand stores. The contrasts are as stark as they are extreme, making Bangkok look almost egalitarian.
Once presided over by the French, that influence continues today, and most charming it is. It transcends such French icons as baguettes and berets and the city is awash with world-class coffee on every corner and lovely architecture. The locals might look much the same as their neighbours across the region, but personality wise they are very different. In these parts, their appreciation for art and antiques is unmatched. Perhaps best of all it is the willingness to fiercely argue a point while still remaining friends without this ridiculous notion of face loss when someone doesn't get their way. If only the French had made it further west.
A car show downtown features classic old cars in mint condition, a sight not commonly seen in Bangkok. In Bangkok few like Facebook postings about anything as old as granddad.
Wandering beyond the downtown area, that which is known as District 1, the influences of the modern Western world have yet to arrive in Saigon. International brand names are conspicuous by their absence, as are signs in English. Even popular tourist attractions often don't have signage or information in English.
In Thailand it's generally easy to get basic stuff done, even if you don't speak the lingo. It's easy to get around. And it's easy to meet women. Bangkok is so easy that those fascinated by Asia invariably choose Thailand as their new home. The net effect is that hordes of not particularly adventurous types who want it all spelled out to them have flooded Thailand.
Vietnam, it has to be said, isn't quite so easy. It's not so easy to get things done and fewer Saigonese speak English. That said, those who do speak it tend to have a greater command than the Thais. Saigon attracts a rather different breed of foreigner to Bangkok.
People seemed more light-hearted this time around, although not nearly as friendly or fun-loving as the Thais. The smiles were more frequent, the touts less pushy.
Saigon isn't merely busy. Even frenetic doesn't seem quite enough. Saigon is totally manic and the Saigonese slow down for no-one. They're driven, determined, hard-working and incredibly industrious. Those who don't share these qualities are left behind. I chuckle to myself thinking about a Thai who found themselves working in Vietnam. Would they be heading for the airport at the end of their first day?
But the city is not without its problems and poverty is everywhere, from homeless oldies to teenagers with rotting teeth that look like a mountain range about to collapse.
What is it with teeth in Vietnam? Where the Thais so often have a truly beautiful smile and a mouthful of pearly whites, I wonder if the Vietnamese disinclination to smiling has anything to do with their teeth. If I was a young Vietnamese and wanted to earn big, I'd study dentistry. The demand for dental work is huge.
I still haven't made my mind up about Vietnamese food. It's good, very good in fact, and with more vegetables and less fried dishes it has to be better for you. But truth be told, not a lot of dishes appeal. The national dish, pho, a kind of beef noodle soup I find rather unexciting. That said, the cooking does seem rather more subtle and the flavours and texture more delicate than Thai food.
This red dragonfruit and banana smoothie was something else. How can it be that blended fresh fruit smoothies in Vietnam are so much better than anywhere else? The vendor insists they don't add sugar or MSG, the latter of which I'm reliably told goes in to most everything in Vietnam. I watched closely as they prepared it and saw no evidence of any additives. Have they been tricky and added something to the water beforehand, perhaps?
Or maybe it's just the natural taste of the streets of Saigon? There is no pretense of hygiene from streetside food vendors, some of who prepare food with a cigarette dangling from their mouth. Cash is handled, noses are picked, groins are scratched and food is prepared, and it all tastes great!
Chopsticks and cutlery sit on tiny stools not designed for the bigger Westerner who is increasingly travelling to Vietnam for the food. A number of foodie tours have started up and some are booked up weeks in advance.
The Vietnamese don't strike me as showy and there's none of the breed of Western consumerism that has swept through Thailand with everyone trying to keep with the Somchais. At the same time you see dozens of young Vietnamese couples getting wedding photos taken in elaborate operations with an entire support crew, fancy gowns and all the best camera and lighting gear. Marriage in Vietnam is said to cost more than in Thailand, yet the Vietnamese don't earn as much as Thais. How can they afford it? Like so much of Asia, Saigon is confusing to outsiders. That's all part of the appeal.
Saigon takes on a new persona after dark, the transformation every bit as dramatic as it is in Bangkok. Neon illuminates the night skies, fresh beer stands are set up on sidewalks and sexy girls in shorts and high heels riding motorbikes approach lone foreign men offering a cure for their loneliness.
The omnipresent vendors don't disappear when the sun goes down; many remain well after dark around popular tourist spots.
Has someone instructed vendors that no means no? Shoeshine boys and cyclo riders aside, sellers now seem to understand the meaning of the word no, their infamous pushiness not seen this time around. Are the days of copied book sellers walking after you down the street trying to make a sale a thing of the past?
On the subject of reading, many Vietnamese have a joy of reading not commonly found in Thailand. Given the long hours the Vietnamese attend school – from 7 AM until anything between 4:00 and 4:45 PM, you'd think they'd read enough to last them a lifetime but no, they have a genuine hunger for knowledge.
Bottled beer can be had for less than 50 cents a bottle. Cocaine, heroin and all manner of hard drugs are offered by shady characters perched on street corners. Massage girls with milky white skin rub shoulders with unshaven, unkempt backpackers. Motorbikes fight their way up and down the narrow lane. Western lesbian couples – of which Saigon has more than its fair share – drool at pretty hookers in the bar next door. Welcome to Pham Ngu Lao, Saigon's backpacker district. A melee day and night, Pham Ngu Lao is Khao San Road on steroids.
Saigon's naughty bars for Westerners are found at either end of District 1 – the main commercial district near the river in the east and all along the backpacker strip in the west. Just as in Bangkok, girls sit around playing on their phones waiting for their next victim. Pretty and free of tramp stamps, some are classically beautiful, much easier on the eye than their Thai sisters in the farang bar areas in Thailand. At the same time there is a hardness about them, they are not sexy like many of the Thais and most bars feel like clip joints. There are reasons why Westerners go to Bangkok to play.
As a Bangkok bar manager holidaying in Saigon said, "We're spoiled in Bangkok, we don't know how good we've got it!"
Unless your taste in femme fatales is to the Asian spec – tall, fair-skinned and voluptuous, Thailand has it all over Vietnam. Naughty boys are advised to stick to Bangkok and Pattaya.
Saigon's naughty bars for Westerners remind me of Pattaya beer bars where the employees are hardly the most attractive of the local populace.
The bars for local men and Koreans are at a whole different level, featuring women more attractive than anything you'll find on Sukhumvit or Silom.
When it comes to women, Vietnam messes with your mind. The local women are conservative, the sluttiness increasingly common in Thailand today doesn't seem to exist, even in progressive Saigon. Casual sex is not at all common, expat residents tell me.
Which all becomes perplexing when you receive persistent mildly suggestive physical contact from local women. Waitresses in some restaurants – who most certainly are not available – touch your hand and gently rub your arm while waiting for you to order. University students approach you in parks and ask to practice English and once seated initiate physical contact – and they really are students. What gives?
Online dating is gaining traction in Vietnam and VietnamCupid, Vietnam's equivalent of Thailand's TLL – run by the same company using the same interface, is the most popular site.
Where downtown Bangkok has expat bars, pubs and restaurants on every corner, Saigon is loaded with coffee shops. From international chains to local outfits, coffee is ubiquitous and the Vietnamese version really is something special.
The expat community has a few hideouts and Phatty's, an Aussie-owned sports bar, is the most popular spot. Sport is shown live, there's Western grub at Bangkok prices – making it pricey by Saigon standards – and all in all it's a little oasis for foreigners in the heart of downtown. It's well run with service staff and service levels that put similar Bangkok bars to shame – and their burger is better than anything in Bangkok, even the great Firehouse. The one downside – like almost everywhere in Saigon – is that smoking isn't outlawed making it a hit and run venue for us non-smokers with the checkbin called for before the last morsel is swallowed.
For 95% of Westerners Thailand is probably a better choice, be it as a holiday destination or a new home. Downtown Saigon can be stressful, at times feeling like organised chaos where you're the only one who wasn't given the script. The never-ending stream of motorbikes makes something as simple as crossing the road a worry. People are less friendly, getting around can be a challenge and there's much less to see and do than Bangkok.
But where downtown Bangkok feels like just another international city with a Starbucks on every corner, movies opening the same weekend as the States and more signs in English than Thai, Saigon still feels distinctly like Asia. Vietnam fills me with a sense of adventure.
It's the mysticism of Saigon, and Vietnam in general that attracts me, the exoticness, the secrets waiting to be exposed, the places waiting to be discovered. Thailand had that until I pulled back the curtain and saw the Wizard.
A seething mass of humanity constantly on the move, Saigon has an energy that even Bangkok – the city I once called the New York of South-East Asia – can't compete with. Saigon got under my skin right from the start of my first visit. Nothing has changed and its appeal remains.
Saigon makes a great break from Bangkok. It mightn't be nearly as attraction rich, but the vibe is sufficiently different that just sitting at a streetside cafe drinking the local coffee and watching the world go by is both relaxing and entertaining at the same time.
Relationships can sour over time, our interests change, we get bored, nothing is forever. My marriage with Bangkok isn't bad, but the excitement of the early days seems like a distant memory, the passion long gone.
As great as the temptation is, and as much as I truly believe that Saigon is more me than Bangkok, I'm just not quite ready to replace tom yum goong with pho. Not yet.
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken of the Stock Exchange Building, just a little north of the intersection where Rama 4 and Rachadapisek Roads intersect. There are two prizes each week, a 500 baht voucher to use at Bully's, on Sukhumvit Road between sois 2 and 4 and a 300 baht voucher to use at Sunrise Tacos, Bangkok's original Mexican grill with several branches in Bangkok.
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 and ONLY the first answer emailed counts! You MUST specify which prize you would prefer and failure to specify a prize will disqualify you from being eligible to claim one.
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.
EMAIL OF THE WEEK – Russians, Bogans by another name?
It's with some amusement I read folks complaining about Russians in Pattaya. As one reader said, these are not the well-heeled Muscovites visiting, rather the new middle class from more rural areas who are benefiting from Putin's embrace of capitalism. The question is, are they really any different from the Bogans who have been streaming to Thailand since time began? That $30,000 which barely keeps you above the poverty line in Australia is able to be multiplied many times over in Thailand. Screaming at people in Russian is really no different to screaming in English if the people do not speak said language! I admit I wasn't particularly pleased by the amount of Russians when I visited, but it would be no different to class-less Australians carrying on. In other words, any disruptive, disrespectful behaviour tends to give me the shits, no matter what language you're speaking. I suspect the intolerance afforded to the Russians has more to do with them being clearly different to the English-speaking visitors, many of whom have been more than guilty of behaving in a similar manner.
Russian avoids Russians!
I just read that submission about Russian rudeness and me being Russian from Moscow I can, alas, totally confirm it! That's why Russian-free hotels overseas are so popular among Russians! We don't want other Russians near us and I'm not joking!
Russians and other white guys lumped together?
Your correspondent commenting on the behaviour of Russians in Pattaya reminds me of a recent visit. In a seafood restaurant on Walking Street a middle-aged Russian couple ordering plate after plate of food, bottles of wine and a bottle of vodka loudly complained to bemused staff about every dish and every drink. They then spent 5 minutes arguing over the check before stomping out making what I could only assume to be aggressive threats. Fast forward to the following night. Three Russian guys in the back of a songtaew swigging from a bottle of 100 Pipers jumping out close to Walking Street and throwing (not even handing over to the lady in the passenger seat) a 1 US dollar bill. Then totally ignoring her protesting cries. In the hotel I stayed in Jomtien, surrounded at breakfast and around the pool by their grim faces, shouting for 'beer' to the staff at regular intervals. Rude doesn't do it justice. I've native friends in Moscow and their hospitality and friendliness has been second to none every time I've visited. Shame that this element is prolific in Pattaya and as I saw in Pattaya a few months back and depressing if the locals lump us in with this unwelcome Farang element.
Getting around the taxi gate at Departures.
You advised recently that taxis from Suvannaphum's departure area are now almost impossible to get. But I had little problem this morning. It is a matter of holding the revolving gate next to the taxi parking in the right position. In my case, an eager taxi driver held the revolving gate open for me – and then demanded 500 baht for a trip to Sukhumvit. There were several other taxis nearby and the next driver confirmed with a happy smile that he would use the meter; so the trip including highway cost me only 280 baht – excellent value.
The evolution of the species.
What can I say? Is it the general IQ of people coming to Thailand these days? It goes back to forums giving people too much help. I understand it is part of your role, for want of a better word, to give out advice but really, some of these guys deserve everything they get and then some. Imagine if I said I met a girl 3 years ago in Australia (who is 19, by the way) and just saw her again, and she remembered my name. WOW! That must be grounds for getting married, right? What is going on?! A recent reader's submission could be one of the most ridiculous I have read! It makes me wonder how these blokes made it anywhere in life and really makes me ashamed to tell people I live in Thailand as invariably I get grouped in with these knuckleheads. If you wouldn't do it in your own country, or wouldn't even consider it, what in hell makes you think it would be any easier in Thailand with a girl you don't know and can't communicate with, who gets paid to go with you in the first place?!
When perception is reality.
Sometimes I shake my head in disbelief when reading your readers' emails. This week some jerk complains about trying to break his Filipina wife out of the habit of speaking her native language when speaking to her fellow Filipinas. He says he has put up with it far too long! I reckon he should count his blessings that he has found a woman to put up with his being a wanker for the last 30 years. There is a perception in the west that men only go with Asian ladies because they can't get a Western woman. In this case, spot on.
The reality of the roads.
According to the Post, between December 27th and January 1st there were 2891 accidents on Thai roads resulting in 3041 injured and 334 deaths. Down from last year apparently. These are just the reported numbers. It's easy to see why: vehicles reversing down highways or driving the wrong way down the emergency lane. Most motorcyclists driving without helmets; motorbikes with 4 or 5 people on them; people routinely jumping lights or merging onto roads without even glancing right. Foreigners soon adapt to Thai driving norms. They do things they would never dream of doing back home: driving a motorbike for example. First time in their lives and 2 hours without incident they feel they are competent enough to drive without a helmet, or shirt. Hiring a motorbike is the cheapest transport solution on the islands, and so people get about on bikes to late night drinking venues. There are no allocated drivers. The results are predictable. It's hard to find much sympathy in the face of this recklessness until you've met the devastated relative who has just arrived from Europe to collect personal effects and arrange the funeral of a loved one. A few suggestions to improve your safety:
a) Reconsider hiring a bike. Taxis are expensive, but not so much between a group of 4 or 5. Everyone wants a drink. You can do so now without the worry of how to get back.
b) Stay near where you're intending to party. Walk home.
c) Drive like your grandfather when he is wearing a hat.
d) Remember – there is no magical foreigner's dream coat protecting you here.
Chiang Mai benefits and Bangkok threatens to boil over.
I live in Chiang Mai, and I can say that traffic has been worse than usual the past few weeks, including many Bangkok license plates, and there seem to be a lot of tourists everywhere. I suspect some people are avoiding Bangkok and revising their itinerary to visit places without demonstrations. A friend that works in the hotel industry said bookings are good. There have been a few small anti-government protests in Chiang Mai, but it's generally quiet on the political front.
Girl of the week
Som, coyote dancer, Strikers Sports Bar, Soi Nana.
She dances only on Friday nights, Saturday nights and some other holidays.
The ongoing political protests and the concern over what will happen in Bangkok tomorrow are causing widespread cancellations by those who had intended to visit Bangkok, causing the price of air tickets to Bangkok on some carriers to drop. For those who do visit Bangkok at this time, you might find lower airfares than you'd expect for this time of year. Japan Airlines is one airline which has some particularly good deals on flights from the States to Bangkok which should come as no surprise – Japanese are amongst the most cautious travellers and tend to avoid destinations experiencing any problems. A quick check of Thai Airways website, however, revealed the usual high prices.
It looks like the redevelopment of Sukhumvit soi 7 has started, or the destruction and removal of the remains of existing businesses. The Italian place is shut as are some of the shops. Others are clearly running down stocks and some have already moved.
The recently formed Soi 33 Bar Owners Group has added two new promotions to its initial Tuesday 2 for 1 offering. At participating bars, it's buy 1 get 1 free drink on Tuesdays. Wednesdays are free pizza night and on Thursdays when you buy a bucket of beer you get 5 bottles for the price of 4.
Crossbar will host a pub quiz this coming Tuesday, January 14th. At present Crossbar hosts pub night on the second Tuesday of every month but it is hoped that from next month quiz night will be held on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month.
Everyone knows the best place to watch English football in the Nana area is Stumble Inn. They have all the games covered. They show live Premiership games, English championship games, all the big European leagues, plus the Australian A league. Next Sunday at 11 PM is the clash between Chelsea & Manchester United. Stumble Inn will be giving free 3 litre towers to anyone who can predict the score correctly. There will also be a free buffet at half time in the game. So get on down there and cheer your team on!
Renovations will take place at Lucky Luke's soon. The design shows the balcony bar above extending straight out over the footprint of Lucky Luke's, making it a much bigger and better bar area, and affording the best views in Nana Plaza. This is still in the planning stage at the moment, but if permission is given both projects will be carried out at the same time.
Rumour has it that there may soon be another ladyboy bar in Soi Cowboy. Watch this space, ladyboy lovers!
Several years ago a number of bars started enforcing a barfine system where customers were asked to pay the barfine for a lady even after she had finished her shift or even after she had left the bar and was on her way home. Let's call a spade a spade – this is a con, it's exploitation and it's just plain wrong. It could even, technically, be illegal – but then the whole industry operates in something of a grey zone so we won't go there. The original idea of the barfine was to compensate the bar for the loss of the girl's labour when she left the bar, thus a customer paying a barfine allows an employee to leave their place of work almost makes sense. But insisting a customer pays it after the girl's shift has ended is just plain wrong. Unfortunately protesting this to any bar that enforces such a policy won't get you anywhere and there's no point in putting pressure on the girl as she will simply cop it from the evil mamasan later.
Mamasan Da will celebrate her birthday this coming Wednesday, July 15th, at popular Pattaya gogo bar Baby Dolls. Food, friendly girls and a fun night is promised.
The long-running, long-suffering FLB Bar on Pattaya's Walking Street is finally going to be put out of its misery this week. A brilliant bar back in the days when the twin towers stood tall over the Big Apple and no Shinawatra had yet to lead Thailand, it has been in gradual decline for, well, what seems like forever. The doors will close for the final time on Wednesday night.
Job Advert: Sunrise Tacos is seeking Thai nationals that are fun and energetic to join the team. We work hard and still have sanuk. We would love new friends to join our growing working family of waitresses, cooks and bartenders. 16,000 baht per month plus tips, service charge and dinner. Lots of fun and memories – be rewarded in showing us your initiative. If you are ready for an unforgettable work experience, send your abbreviated CV and photo to: firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the most common excuses Westerners make for hastily settling down with (sometimes the wrong) Thai woman is because they are worried that they if they don't they won't find another lady like her. It's an attitude that seems to be awfully pervasive in the West where many settle for someone who they have not taken the time to get to know and who perhaps is not suitable – and ultimately it all comes crashing down around them. In the case of Thai women, if this is how you feel, ask yourself one simple question: How long did it take to meet this lady? This is relevant because it won't take any longer to find a replacement. In Thailand you don't have to rush in to things because there are plenty more ladies out there!
Quote of the week, "It's better to die on Walking Street than die neglected in some God-forsaken retirement home back in England."
Reader's story of the week comes from Steve Rosse, "Mirror, Mirror".
Tourists in Phuket are being told to put their shirt on when away from the beach.
A Scots doctor hands over 500,000+ baht to get out of a contrived dodgy situation in Pattaya.
A Brit talks of the struggles of living with the family of this Thai girlfriend in Bangkok.
An American man tries to smuggle a Thai woman from Mexico in to America in a suitcase!
Tourist help centres are going to be set up to help those tourists who may suffer inconvenience due to the Bangkok shutdown.
Westerners are sending older family members to retirement homes in Thailand.
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: I work for a multinational. I am UK-based and pay taxes here, but I am normally a teleworker even in the UK – the team I work in is global, with people based in seven countries across five continents. I can work anywhere I have an internet connection, and in many cases it can be to the company's advantage for me to be able to interact with co-workers in China and Singapore (not to mention Australia and New Zealand) from a base nearer their own time-zones! What are the rules and limitations for teleworking from Thailand? I am not talking about being permanently resident, which I appreciate would require some sort of documentation, but just extending my holidays by a couple of weeks working remotely. I recall reading that I would not be liable for Thai taxation unless I worked there more than six months in the year, but is there a work permit issue involved?
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisers responds: The Labour Department has stated many times that if someone is working online from their home it's very hard for them to catch that person. If they were to knock on the door and the foreigner clicks away from the website that he or she is working on they cannot make a case. If you were going to make a permanent home in Thailand then you should consider starting a legitimate business and Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisors can assist you with that.
Question 2: In Stick's column last week he described how a friend of his had to get a separation agreement to move out a lady he had been living with for a year. Regarding "separation agreements", exactly what are we letting ourselves in for by inviting a young lass to come and live in? What is the legal liability? And what suggestions can they make to minimise the problems?
The great Bangkok shutdown kicks off tomorrow with protesters to take over several major intersections in downtown Bangkok in what could be the start of the largest mass protest Thailand has ever seen. It's been the talk of the town and you won't find anyone who doesn't have a strong opinion. The camera batteries are charged, the lenses cleaned and I have a fresh notepad at the ready. I'll be out there on the streets each day observing, taking photos and I plan to post daily updates. If you're considering visiting Bangkok at this time or simply want to know what it's like on the ground, tune in early evening Bangkok time to the Bangkok protests page. I will strive to get the updates published by 7 PM Bangkok time. Do tune in!
Your Bangkok commentator,