When I first announced that I would be leaving Thailand, some readers thought my next destination would be Vietnam. It's no secret that there's much I like about the land of conical hats and I've long wondered what it might be like to give Vietnam a go.
It is 4 years since I first visited Vietnam, a country that made quite an impression on me – much more so than when I first visited Thailand. Saigon excited me, Hanoi fascinated me and there was a real desire to scratch beneath the surface in a way that simply isn't possible as a visitor staying just a few days.
Just why Vietnam had such an effect on me, I'm still not sure. The sights in Saigon aren't nearly as interesting as in Bangkok and the city is more difficult to get around. The locals aren't gregarious in the way many Thais are and some Vietnamese working in places popular with tourists can be downright rude. Sightseeing, shopping, nightlife or just a quiet escape, Thailand offers a more compelling product. So what's the fascination with Vietnam?
It all started in Saigon. If you're a city boy, how can you not be drawn to it? In all of my travels in South-East Asia, never have I felt the sort of sheer energy you get on the ground in Saigon. From the never-ending stream of motorbikes to the way people charge around doing stuff, Saigon feels like a place on the move.
The traffic in Saigon is all the more frightening with the absence of pedestrian bridges, and you wonder how you will ever cross the road. But first impressions can be deceiving and there is an unmistakable rhythm to it. Riders are conscious of where they are in relation to other riders and pedestrians, and seemingly everyone is on the same page. The you pedestrians can walk out in front of traffic with total confidence that bikes will weave around you goes far beyond courteous driving. There's something about the Vietnamese where they seem to work together and it's not every man for himself – as it is in Thailand.
There's a sort of chic, quasi-modern sophistication in urban Vietnam that you don't see elsewhere in the region, embracing their French colonial period, an appreciation of art but never forgetting their own roots. This gives Saigon's downtown area, at least, an almost sophisticated vibe that is very different from the gaudiness of high-end shopping malls in Bangkok. Where the Thais revel in posing and being seen, the impression I had of the Vietnamese was they simply wanted to enjoy their coffee. It all adds to the feeling that the urban Vietnamese have a sort of depth about them less common elsewhere.
Fine French wines, delicious French pastries, elegantly dressed women who carry themselves with grace, ah, the benefits of being colonised. The Saigonese embrace the best aspects of French culture; where else in the region can you enjoy great coffee and pastries in a salubrious setting at such reasonable prices? Sure, it exists in Bangkok – but you pay for it.
It snows in the far north of Vietnam so you needn't miss the idea of seasons. Wrapping up in Winter clothes and snuggling up under a pile of blankets were things I came to miss in Thailand. In Northern Vietnam you can do just that!
Of course, many of the issues Bangkok faces, so too do Saigon and Hanoi. Air quality is poor and the two major cities of Vietnam actually feel more crowded than Bangkok. They're noisy, and hot for much of the year – although, as mentioned, Hanoi does have a cool season worthy of the word cool.
Live in the region long enough and you know that there is severe corruption region-wide, with the exceptions of Singapore and Hong Kong. That said, those who have lived in both Thailand and Vietnam there tell me that the big difference between corruption in Thailand and corruption in Vietnam is that in Vietnam most expats are left to their own devices and not bothered.
Foreign visitors to Saigon invariably spend their time in District 1 (downtown / the commercial hub and where many of the sights are) and Pham Ngu Lao is towards the western end of the district. It's the city's backpacker area, foreigner red-light area and a local community all rolled in to one. It's a scrimmage that showcases the worst of the city. Spend too much time there and you'll want to escape Saigon.
I couldn't help but feel that the drama, manipulation, attempts at control and general bullshit so common elsewhere was absent. Ignorance from someone who has never dated Vietnamese perhaps, but that was the distinct impression.
The naughty bars for foreigners in Vietnam are dire. There's nothing like the scene there is in Thailand; no-one raves about Vietnam as a destination for naughty boys.
In 2014 I had a night out in Saigon with a Bangkok bar boss. We're spoiled in Bangkok, he kept saying all night, totally unimpressed at what was on offer.
When it comes to capturing the naughty boys' attention, Thailand has it all over Vietnam. What that means is that the mix of expats is rather different to Thailand.
I've never dated a Vietnamese lady but the word is they are choosier than the average Thai women and more conscious of the future. Westerners resident in Vietnam tell me that the idea of a relationship leading to marriage is important for Vietnamese women, and I have heard the odd story about foreign guys misleading Vietnamese women about their intentions, sleeping with them and then trying to cut off contact have been visited by the local police! You don't hear nearly so much about a local sexpat culture, although I don't doubt such exists – but I bet it is nothing like the free-for-all Bangkok has become.
Part of Vietnam's appeal is the mystery. With little in the way of comprehensive online expat resources – Vietnam has nothing on Thailand in this respect – adds to the mystery.
Neither Saigon nor Hanoi has been over-run by foreigners. No doubt the number of foreign residents is on the rise but Bangkok is still the favoured place to live irrespective of whether you're on an expat package, an entrepreneur, a teacher or a digital nomad.
I hope to visit Vietnam again and am keen to see more of the country, but as for it becoming a place I might like to live, I suspect that ultimately the expat experience would end similar to Thailand.
The first time I visited Thailand I had a nice enough time, but after 10 days I'd had enough and was ready to go home. The first time I visited Vietnam I wanted to stick around. I remain intrigued by Vietnam and often find myself day-dreaming about the place. If the unthinkable happened and things went tits up in New Zealand, maybe Vietnam might be an option.
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken of Bangkok's best second-hand bookstore, Dasa Book Cafe on Sukhumvit Road between sois 26 & 28. A lot of readers mistook it for the branch of Asia Books in the Landmark Hotel. In this week's photo there are a few clues if you look closely…
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 – Back in the day.
I once let a girl in Pretty Lady in Nana Plaza choose me. She was not too young and we travelled off the beaten path to Chiang Mai for 3 days, so that covered taking her out. I was clean and prepared to pay 4 nights barfine. Almost as soon as we were off she claimed to have her period, which I did not believe for a minute. She was moody, got in bed fully clothed and moaned all the time. It was not really the girlfriend experience I was looking for, more like a wife experience! No affection as soon as we left, so I decided to make the best of it with and thought 1,000 baht a day would be enough. She demanded 10,000 baht when we returned to Bangkok. After threatening to go and see the mamasan she reluctantly took the 4K and stormed off. That night I took my time in Soi Cowboy and chose a friendly girl from a cowboy-themed bar. When we got back to the hotel the desk person told me to be careful with her. It turned out he was right as she was either nuts, or more likely had taken something so security had to be called to get her ejected. No service from her either. The security man at the hotel asked me if he could get me a lady @ 1,500 baht all night and very sexy. At this point I was ready to try anything as I was about 8K baht down with nothing to show for it. A girl turns up from having just finished work at a massage parlour, was sore all over, did not like her tits touched and complains about being sore elsewhere. Dear God, is this what I came 6,000 miles for?! Luckily, things picked up after that with another one who picked me on New Year's Eve, but only as nobody else wanted to pay the inflated barfine! If I had not met her I don't think I would have ever come back – bad luck, maybe! This was Christmas, 1997, so the idea that the days of the starfish and hard-nosed commercial sex is something new and that 'back in the day' it was all about girls wanting to wash your socks and put the toothpaste on you brush is, I think, selective memories. Prostitution in Thailand has always been hit and miss with a mixture of amazing women, but more often than not very average or poor service. That's been my experience anyway and I always took them to Thai places, concerts, cafes and karaoke bars. Makes little difference and in the end, it's still a gamble. I don't play any longer.
I can't help thinking that it's really hard to get maximum reward if you're forced to go short-time, which sounds like it's the norm these days. There is too much time pressure when you're with someone who just wants to get things over so she can get to the next customer. To me, the absolute best way to maximise my enjoyment was to arrange a longer term situation. One of the best times was when I picked up a lady from Golden Bar I hit it off with. I met her at the bar early in the day, and I asked her to show me the sights. Not only did she say, "Yes" but she invited her cousin to join us for the day. We went on a tour of Wat Po, the Palace etc., had a meal together, and more. Truly a fabulous experience as there were no time constraints to worry about. It also helped that her English was pretty good. I cut the cousin loose later in the afternoon with a gratuity for her time. We had fun at the hotel and went out later for dinner and dancing, then back to the hotel for a top off. After our third interlude the next morning, I had to remind myself that I hadn't REALLY found a new girlfriend. In 24 hours, I probably spent around 10,000 baht, maybe more, but had two lovely tour guides, saw some of the major tourist sites, laughed more than I thought I would, had nice meals, went dancing at a club and did the nasty three times. Frankly, I don't regret a dime, and think it was a bargain. I couldn't get that kind of attention or enjoyment in the States over that period of time for three times that cost.
The humble satang lives.
With regard to the reader's thoughts on the "The end of the humble satang?", I still get asked for them to pay the bill in supermarkets like Big C and carry a few with me as I hate getting them in change, which Big C still hands out if I don't have my own already.
A hooting success.
Yes, Hooters will be successful and will push the upscaling of Nana. I've never actually been in a Hooters, nor will I go to the one in Nana. When has a legitimate foreign business not run circles around a Thai business? With more non-sex tourists visiting Nana, Cowboy etc, business will adapt to these customers, not the dwindling number of hardcore sex tourists. Gogo bar owners can't blame Hooters and those types of businesses anyway, the Internet was the beginning of the end of the golden era of gogo bars.
International brands and avoiding disappointment.
I think Hooters will succeed not just as a long-term, successful business but, as you suggest, signal the gentrification of Nana. Like Starbucks and other international brands, Hooters promises to deliver a consistent product and service that customers recognise and are more comfortable paying a bit more to avoid disappointment.
Hooters is part of the zoo.
I still don't see Hooters attracting a different or new market. It's basically still part of the zoo, and apparently designed with that in mind. It may help "premiumise" Nana as a sex destination but it won't, by itself, draw a completely new high-end market looking to bash Nana down and turn it into another Thong Lo. Not yet, anyway.
Your revelations about the decline of the pay-for-play sector of Thailand tourism echoes that of what has occurred in the Philippines – Angeles City to be specific. I was fortunate to visit AC when Clark Air Base was still operating. The bar area of Balibago was something of a wild west town. Payment of the barfine guaranteed an all-night stay and plenty of action in the hotel room. Today, use of the word "barfine" is discouraged by bar management who explain that customers pay an "Early Work Release" to allow the girl to exit the bar prior to her rostered finish time. The attitudes of many bargirls today are somewhat different to the bargirls of yesteryear – they do the least possible for the greatest return. Runners have become more commonplace. Bar raids are a common occurrence now and the bar owners / managers are running scared. Those with large amounts invested in AC continually reject assertions that the end is near for the dusty little sin city.
Buy one, get one free.
Thought your readers may wish to know about a 'Buy one get one free' deal at Titanium in Soi 22. I think it runs until 9 PM. It sounds good, right? Well, myself and 3 friends thought so. We ordered a round of drinks, then the second 'free round'. We visited the ice bar upstairs and ordered four shots, then four shots more. When we were ready to leave we asked for the bill and were charged for all 4 rounds! Much debate followed, with predictable results. Apparently you only receive your free drinks when you pay the bill! We opted for 16 beers, took them outside and handed them out to grateful passersby! If anyone plans to take advantage of the offer, ask for the bill after every round!
I have been hearing good things about Bangkok Bunnies these past few weeks. If you haven't stopped by, it's the largest bar in Nana Plaza and takes the space that was previously Pretty Lady / Spellbound / Voodoo. Check it out.
There was confusion at the two blowjob bars in the sub soi off Sukhumvit soi 8 back in December which were ordered closed, reopened a day or two later, were closed again before things returned to normal. It can be confirmed that it's business as usual at Kasalong and Lolita's except for one thing – the girls sit outside, but they have been warned not to invite passersby inside with their mime of what's in store for the customer.
One of the owners of Heaven Above in Pattaya's Soi Diamond is an Aussie who sees it as his duty that Australia Day is celebrated in Sin City. This Tuesday, January 26th, is Australia Day and a fun night will be had in Heaven Above as Aussie expats and others flock to the bar. There's a double happy hour from 7:30 PM with local spirits and draught beer just 60 baht. There's a free Aussie-style BBQ and there will also be lucky door prizes and drink specials all night. The ladies will be on stage from 8:00 PM.
For Aussies in Bangkok keen to celebrate Australia Day, it's buy 1 get 1 free from 3 PM until close at the Aussie-run and long time popular Aussie hangout, The Office in Sukhumvit soi 33.
Speaking of opening times, a handful of gogo bars in Soi Cowboy open early at around 7 PM and typically include Cowboy 2, Cactus, Shark and Lighthouse. For beer bars opening early, Soi Nana is the place with some open from long before lunch time.
I disagree with those who say Equality – the new umm, err, concept in the space which was once Nana Disco – is dying. How can something die when it was never alive?! How long will it be before management admits what everyone else has said – that the concept is flawed. They ought to be commended for trying something new, but you can't continue to run a venue which attracts so few customers – and when you subtract the boss and his mates who are there to make up numbers, there's hardly anyone left!
Equality is no longer Equality. It has been renamed EQ, and rethemed as a late night club. There is now a 200 baht cover charge which entitles you to an open bar from 11 PM until 1 AM of standard pour drinks and Singha i.e. you have to pay for the good stuff. After 1 AM the 200 baht entry fee remains and you get one free drink. Will EQ still be in business come Songkran?
Don't go pawing the girls at Hooters in Soi Nana. You might get away with it across the road, but not on Hooters. The farang manager explained to the girls on Friday afternoon that they are not to serve alcohol to punters who are intoxicated and any lady who is harassed is to inform him immediately as that sort of behaviour is unacceptable in Hooters. That's refreshing although it might be confusing to some of the girls working there, given where Hooters went about recruitment.
Small numbers of freelancers have been milling around in the shadows of Sukhumvit soi 23, a little further up from Soi Cowboy, near the dodgy massage shops. Amazingly, some have been described as lookers. Where they've come from and whether they'll last very long there remains to be seen – hanging around outside massage houses won't win them any friends from business owners on the soi and I'm not sure what the local constabulary will make of them.
I am of the firm feeling that Soi Cowboy is the best choice of the 3 major red light areas for a night out *if* you're not planning on barfining. For some time now – and this was confirmed on my last trip to Bangkok – Nana is ground zero for sex tourism in Bangkok and there is something of a feeling – very much perpetuated by some of the farang bar bosses – that if you're not there to find a lady, you're not as welcome as a customer who may take a lady away to play. Contrast that with Soi Cowboy where bars have an outdoor area where you can relax and watch the world go by. The feeling in Soi Cowboy is that everyone is welcome, be they a sex tourist, expat, backpacker, Western couple or even Asian tour group led by a flag-carrying leader.
No, Darel did not get 50 million baht for Dollhouse, as he has been telling people. Darel is a nice guy going through difficult times.
The Dirty Doctor would like to draw readers' attention to the derrière of Meow, #40 at Dollhouse, who now has the honour of the best butt in Cowboy, according to the lecherous quack.
A long-time reader from Krabi reports that it is VERY quiet down there considering the time of year.
Who writes the copy for the girls' profiles on Annie's website? Well done to that man!
Not a fan of Western women in the bar areas? Ever since Hangover II Soi Cowboy has seen a significant increase in Western female visitors. I personally don't see it as such a big deal – especially as Soi Cowboy is already something of an amusement park. But many of the hardcore naughty boys sure don't like the presence of Western women. Anyway, a Western woman was taken around some of the bars by a reader and they ended up in a blowjob bar. The ladies were very keen to look after her and in the end she relented to their offers and they serviced her in the manner such bars are known for. Maybe the term blowjob bar needs to be renamed to something more all-encompassing? Should there be an increase in Western women visiting the bars in greater numbers and not just looking but actually partaking, wouldn't that send some of the naughty boys in to a furore!
Many bargirls are reluctant to move to a bar in another bar area just as many Thais are nervous about moving to a new neighbourhood – they prefer to stick with that they know and where they feel comfortable. Movements up and down Sukhumvit are common enough but Patpong seems to have a certain perception amongst some girls who may be less likely to move there. Girls working at Patpong should consider their options after one lady who used to work in the Pong moved over to Nana in the hope of making more money. It worked, and when a long-time Stickman correspondent caught up with her this week, as at the 19th she'd been barfined 32 times – and she was not even the top earner in the bar. One lady had already been barfined 40 times by the 19th – not bad when you consider these ladies don't work every day. And when you consider she charges a firm 3,000 baht short time and 5,000 baht long time, she must earn more than some expats do. Nana Plaza really is more of a sex shopping mall than Cowboy or Patpong which tend to attract a much higher percentage of mainstream visitors. What that means is that ladies in Nana Plaza would appear, on average, to be barfined more often and thus earn more.
Yet another reader was stopped by two policeman on a bike in the dreaded Asoke area this week who wished to search his person. When he asked what it was all about, they responded that they were looking for bombs. I have no idea what said reader looks like and whether he meets the profile the local constabulary have of what a bomber looks like, but it sounds like the cops are coming up with any old nonsense in an attempt to justify the search. It's the same location as always – at or just east (i.e. heading in the direction of Emporium) of the Asoke intersection.
Friends in Bangkok tell me that heaps of new restaurants and eateries have been opening in recent months and that seems to be confirmed by the number of new places listed in TripAdvisor for Bangkok with one restaurateur telling me the number jumped in December by 900 – I am not sure whether this jump is month on month or year on year.
For Americans who need to use consular services at your embassy on Wireless Road, take along some extra baht. Apparently prices for services are listed in $US but you can pay in Thai baht or dollars. The embassy has been using the exchange rate of 1USD = 36 baht but an announcement on the website states that as of tomorrow the rate goes up to 37 baht, meaning you'll be paying a little more *if* you use baht.
I know Thailand has never been the land of free speech but nonetheless it's dispiriting that seldom does a week seem to go by without another report of defamation charges pending against someone who made comments on Facebook that in most countries would be considered reasonable feedback and basically innocuous. Posting on Facebook while located in Thailand is like taking a motorbike taxi – others doing so have problems and you know sooner or later that you may too. You have to be careful saying anything remotely negative about any Thai, lest you find yourself facing criminal defamation charges and civil action. Today, many Thais challenge less than complimentary comments made about them on Facebook at the police station or in a lawyer's office rather than respond directly to the comments. I'm all in favour of people protecting their reputation but boy oh boy, this is becoming the theatre of the absurd.
The Thai language school industry in Bangkok is unique in that it is not necessarily the quality of tuition that is the most important factor to students deciding which school to sign up with, but the visa options the school can arrange for them. For a long time referred to as visa mills, many Thai language schools had large numbers of paid-up students, but few teachers and empty classrooms. This was because for many years the ED visa was the choice for those wishing to remain long-term in Thailand until a crackdown on those exploiting the loophole put paid to that. It used to be that the ED visa gave you 90 days on entry to Thailand and trotting along to Immigration every three months got you a further 90 days with no need to leave the country. Today, Immigration at Chaeng Wattana is giving all private language schools in Bangkok – no matter what language you're studying – 60-day extensions. One Thai language school is said to have had their worst 3-month period in many years and I don't doubt other schools are struggling similarly, all of which suggests the crackdown on ED visas has had a major effect on the industry. Even the Walen School no longer uses the high-rent space in Times Square as their flagship branch, a position which gave them fantastic exposure and must have made the owner millions.
Speaking of learning the language, how do Thais get on communicating with folks from different parts of the country who speak with an accent not familiar to them or even a completely different dialect, when Thais are so fussy about foreigners' use of Thai and precise pronunciation. Thai spoken in Bangkok / central region is different from that in the south which is different again to that in the north-east, the latter of which has a number of regional variances within the greater Isaan region with those in some districts of some provinces speaking different dialects. In the north of the country it is different again. It always irked me in the early days when I made the effort to speak Thai and some folks looked at me like I was a complete imbecile, not understanding a single word when I just had a tone or two wrong.
Quote of the week comes from Peter, "It's getting like North Korea but with prostitutes and ladyboys."
Reader story of the week comes from Mr. Anonymous, "Health Consequences of Working in the Bar Industry".
There is concern from some quarters about the (comparatively young) age of some court judges in Thailand.
The boyfriend of the owner of a Pattaya restaurant is stabbed in the neck over an unpaid bill.
A BBC journalist in Thailand finds himself being sued under the Computer Crimes Act.
Andrew McGregor Marshall talks candidly about democracy in Thailand in an interview with national radio in New Zealand.
Does anyone really think anything will come of the latest crackdown on jet skis in Phuket?
Friends of a Brit found dead in a pool on Ko Tao claim his death was no accident.
A drunken Russian in Pattaya runs through a police checkpoint and collides with a policeman seriously injuring him.
Phuket News reports that bars and other businesses in the heart of Phuket's nightlife area, Bangla Road, are doing it tough this high season.
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: A few years back Sunbelt said that a foreigner renting out a condo did not need a company and a work permit. Would the same thing be true if a foreigner rented out a few motorbikes? How could a foreigner protect themselves if the motorbike was crashed? Can the foreigner get a business visa for this without a work permit? Any help is greatly appreciated.
Sunbelt Legal responds: It is a very different business to rent out motorbikes than to rent out a condo. Renting out motorbikes is a highly visible business and if you are going to be running it you will need a work permit. To do this you will need to form a Thai Limited Company before you can obtain the work permit.
You first need to obtain a non-immigrant B visa overseas but you must be supported by a Thai company. Each Embassy or Consulate has different requirements and many issue only a single-entry 90 day non-B visa while others may require you to show the WP3 form that shows you have applied for a work permit. If you do form a company and apply for a work permit you would then be able to more easily get the non-B visa. Sunbelt Asia has extensive experience in setting up companies, obtaining work permits and non-B visas and can assist you in this process should decide to go ahead.
Insurance companies may or may not provide coverage for rental motorbikes, so you will need to check with them. You may have to consider obtaining a security deposit from the customer instead.
Question 2: I have a 5-year Thai driving licence which is due to expire at the end of February. I am no longer a resident in Thailand but am still a regular visitor. I shall be back in Thailand in February but only on a 30-day visa exemption as a tourist. Is there any way I can renew the licence without a visa? It was a lot of effort to get the licence initially and it seems a waste to lose it!
Sunbelt Legal responds: The regulations at the Land Transportation Department do not specify the type of visa that the holder of a Thai driving license must hold when renewing. The required documents mentioned are:
1. Original driver's license.
2. Original and copy of passport and work permit or a letter of residence issued by your embassy confirming your address.
The applicant will also need to take:
1. A physical test (eye sight, color blindness, brake capability/skills).
2. A one-hour training session.
The regulations do not mention needing a medical certificate but some branches have asked for it on renewal.
From where I'm sitting, Thailand expats' tolerance for bullshit seems to be at an all-time low. In recent times it has become apparent that more expats are speaking out against aspects of life in the country that they're no longer willing to stay quiet about. Letters to the editor, comments on expat forums and social media postings increasingly highlight everything from scams to corruption to the many injustices that have become ingrained are now as much a part of the culture as waiing your elders. Even the Thailand love it or leave it brigade on ThaiVisa are hammering Thailand. Times are changing…
Your Bangkok commentator,