Saigon Got It Goin’ On

I wrote this on a hot and sweaty bus ride to Bangkok before my video app fried.

Saigon

Saigon (officially called Ho Chi Minh City) is the most populous city in Vietnam and had a lot of that same craziness I experienced in Hanoi- insane traffic, shoe cleaning hustles and a ton of street vendors.
There I wandered around the city, explored the Cutchi Tunnels and met back up with the cheeky Brits I did the Hoi Van Pass with.

 

Late Arrival 

After I landed in Saigon, I was thrust into a chaotic taxi situation where people formed a line and then proceeded to completely disregard how lines work and began pushing past each other to try and get a cab. Once I made it through the line, some jabronie tried making me pay him $120k Dong just to get into a cab; since these cabs were metered, I politely told him to take a long walk off a short pier and found myself a driver.

It was about 12:30am when I landed so I didn’t make it to my hostel until almost 2am. The door was locked, the buzzer appeared to be broken and my phone was dead so I resorted to pounding on the door hoping to wake someone up. Just as I began to envision myself spending the night sleeping in some Saigon back alley, a guy opened up and let me in.

Day 1 Wander

After breakfast at my hostel, I hit the streets to wander around to get a feel for the city. Just like Hanoi, the motorbike traffic is insane; it’s a marvel to watch how the traffic seems to flow through itself like water.

At this point, I’m an expert at just walking out into traffic and making my way through the insanity; below is a how to video on crossing the street, Saigon Style:

 

 

Cutchi Tunnels 

On day 2, I toured the Cutchi tunnels, where the Vietcong (the Southern Vietnamese sympathetic to the North Vietnamese) built an eleborate systems of tunnels, miles deep into the ground designed to shield themselves from the American bombers.

There, I got a sense of the conditions the VC lived in for years underground during the war, saw the brutal traps they designed to psychologically scar American troops, shot an M-16 and crawled through 100 meters of recreated tunnels.

As expected, the tour had a very anti-American feel and since I was the only American, our guide seemed to look at me with a smirk every time he explained how the VC were honored based on how many Americans they killed. The tour ends with a good ole fashioned anti-American propaganda film.

M-16

For about $20 USD, I got to unload the clip of an M16. I didn’t think it was possible to look uncool shooting a semi-automatic rifle but the below video is evidence of the contrary. If I could do it over again, I’d lose the timid, uptight posture; not a good look.

 



Down In The Tunnels

The original tunnels are way to narrow for our portly western bodies so wider tunnels were recreated to enable visitors to get a full sense of what life underground would have been like. In short; it must have not been pleasant. I passed a gigantic millipede along the way and was told that during the war, the place was rithing with scorpions and spiders and that the vast majority of the VC were afflicted with stomach parasites. It was also brutally hot since the tunnels were poorly ventilated.

Altogether, the trip made me appreciate what both the Americans and the VC went through during the war and made me very grateful that it’s unlikely I’ll ever have to live in an active warzone.

Back with the Blokes

For my last two nights I met back up with the blokes from Britain, did a pub crawl and got exposed to some Vietnamese nightlife.

Up Next 

Since leaving Saigon, I’ve toured the Mekong River Delta, crossed the boarder into Cambodia to see The Killing Fields, went to see the famous temples near Siem Reip and am currently in the middle of a hellish bus ride to Bangkok.


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Getting Proper For The Purple Tie Stakes

One of the things that Hoi An is known for is its scores of tailors that offer custom clothing at very reasonable prices. Obviously, I had to have a full purple suit made in preparation for The Purple Tie Stakes, hosted by The Michael Mulhall Foundation at Belmont Raceway, September 24th.

Song: “Callin Out” by Lyrics Born

Before I get to the suit, here’s a bit on the origins of The Michael Mulhall Foundation and The Purple Tie Stakes.

The Michael Mulhall Foundation

mulhall flag pic

The Foundation was started to commemorate the life of Michael Mulhall, who sadly passed away in a car accident in 2010 along with Jamie and Paige Malone, while on their way to work at Camp Anchor. Camp Anchor is a program that serves Long Island’s special needs population and since Mike spent so much of his time working as a counselor there, the foundation aims to continue his work by supporting special needs initiatives.

Mike had a big personality, was one of the most open and friendly people I’ve ever met and was a guy who made friends wherever he went; because of these traits, an enormous amount of people were deeply affected by his passing and the foundation is the result of those people coming together to celebrate a short life well lived.

The Purple Tie Stakes

Mullane PTS Cropped

The Purple Tie Stakes is the foundation’s signature event at Belmont Raceway; multiple pens are rented out near the finish line and are packed with food, drinks, friends and a raffle run by Raffle Master Pat Mullane (pictured above).

As an homage to the colors of Mike’s alma-matter (The University of Scranton) and as the name suggests, the Stakes is a purple themed event. Originally the event was going to be “The Purple Tie Gala,” (a spin on a “Black Tie Gala”) but once the exorbitant costs of a full plate Gala were realized, “The Purple Tie Stakes” was born.

This Suit is Very Purple 

In an attempt to outdo Pat Mullane’s purple blazer, I tried finding a shade that closely matched The University of Scranton’s royal purple. When selecting from the swatches of purple cloth, I must have momentarily forgotten just how purple Scranton purple really is. When I went back for my fitting, I was reminded: it is VERY purple.

In fact, if there is such thing as inappropriately purple, I believe this might be it. None the less, come September 24th, I’ll be ensconced in purple at Belmont and as many have pointed out, if I ever want to go as The Joker for Halloween I’ve got the suit covered.

For more info on The Michael Mulhall Foundation visit www.mulhallfoundation.com or like the Foundation’s Facebook page

Property Hunters: New Hoi An City

New Hoi An City

Song: “Hootchie Cootchie Man,” by Muddy Waters

I’m back in the states but the blog rolls on; picking things up from Hoi An.

My sister casually mentioned wanting to someday own a vacation home in Hoi An and said that I should keep my eye open for potential places while I was out there; on my second day I walked into a real estate firm and got them to take me on a tour of a development called, “New Hoi An City.”

Hardhat Tour

When discussing real estate with the firm’s owner, I omitted the fact that I was currently unemployed, without the means to purchase anything; had I been more forthcoming, they may have been a little less willing to show me around. Not going to lie, I did feel pretty cool throwing on the hardhat and the ID badge walking through the development doing my best to act like I belonged there. It was awesome seeing a project of that scale in action, with over 100 workers on site mixing concrete, taking measurements, welding and doing all the rest of that construction jazz.

The development, scheduled to be completed in December will be a modern community consisting of beachfront apartments surrounding hotels, villas and a shopping center filled with retail shops and restaurants. Here’s what it will look once it’s all finished.

The person I spoke with said that the tenants will consist 70% of wealthy Vietnamese who for the first time, are able to afford second homes; the remaining 30% are available for purchase by foreigners (30% is the limit on foreign ownership in a particular development).

One bedroom apartments start at $2B Dong ($90,000 USD) topping out at $11B Dong ($500,000 USD) for a three bedroom apartment with an ocean view. About half of these had already been sold. There are also 12 villas priced at $1M USD a piece; only 1 had been sold at the time of my visit, mainly because they’re currently beyond the price range of even the wealthiest Vietnamese.

If you believe the person I spoke with, these properties have a good chance of appreciating significantly in value over the next few years given the recent trends in the Vietnamese real estate market; he told me that rental property in 2013 that was going for $150 per square meter is now going for $900 which is a whopping 500% increase. He further speculated that, barring some kind of major political disruption, this trend should continue (although he obviously had an incentive to paint a rosy picture).

Real Estate in a Communist Country

NHC Cropped

Learning about real estate in Vietnam was very interesting and if I was actually a wealthy real estate investor,  I think I would roll the dice on New Hoi An City; the properties are all incredibly cheap and the Vietnamese economy as a whole is moving in the right direction. Despite still being a communist country, the government has been slowly embracing capitalism over the last eight years and has loosened regulations to make the country more attractive to outside investment.

Despite Vietnam’s sunny future, doing business in a communist country has its downsides; mainly that you can’t actually own anything you purchase since all land “belongs to the people” and is managed by the state. Even if you’re a Vietnamese citizen, you don’t own the land you live on but rather, are granted land-use rights by the government.  Up until 2009, if you weren’t born in Vietnam, you couldn’t purchase property in any form until they started allowing foreigners who gained citizenship to buy real estate via a 50 year lease. In 2014, they further relaxed restrictions by allowing anyone granted a Vietnamese passport to lease property.

The whole, “50 year lease” situation represents the major drawback to real estate investment in Vietnam; while these leases can be bought and sold at a profit, they come along with some of the same downsides associated with renting rather than owning. Just like your landlord can make some arbitrary decision, for example raising your rents 20% for absolutely no reason (looking at you Saul the Landlord), the Vietnamese government could unpredictably pass legislation that negatively impacts the value of your property and there would be little you could do about it.The firm’s owner did however speculate that the 50 year lease system would likely be done away with in time.

In the end, investing in real estate in New Hoi An City or anywhere in Vietnam involves taking a gamble that the government will continue to act rationally and pass legislations that embrace free enterprise. This could be a worthwhile risk because based on my observations, it does seem that the Vietnamese government understands that Communism truly is for the birds and thus, should continue to push for legislation in the right direction.

Up Next

I get myself a custom purple suit for The Purple Tie Stakes, hosted by The Michael Mulhall Foundation September 24th.

 

Bali- Come for the beaches; stay for the extortion 

Bali- Come for the beaches; stay for the extortion 

So for all of you clamoring for another post (my parents and Beeeen), the silence has been due to the app I use to mix my videos frying and basically deleting all of my videos (thanks Splice App- royal botch job). I had my Saigon post all ready to go when this happened so I’m a bit sour about the whole situation at the moment.

My goal was and still is to have a post for each place I’ve visited but in lieu of the Splice debacle, I’m just going to figure out a new video solution when I return so I can complete the blog.

I’m at the tail end of my trip so for now I’ll probably write some random posts when I have some idle time. Currently I’m in a Balinese cab on my way to Ubud to hang out with some monkeys so without further adieu, here’s a story about police extortion in Indonesia.

Bali; Come For the Beaches, Stay for the Extortion 

In the latest installment of, “things that will elicit a sternly worded email from my father,” I rented another motorbike to take from Canngu to Uluwatu to check out a temple. I was going to take a cab but it would have been twelve times as expensive and since Southern Bali is basically one big traffic jam, it would have taken twice as long; bikes are able to take the shoulder and can get around much more easily.

Apparently police corruption is a very common thing in Indonesia because I was prepped on how to handle the situation when I rented the bike. I was told to keep $50,000 Rupiah in my pocket in case I got pulled over and not to take my wallet out under any circumstance.

Sure enough, about twenty minutes into my journey, an officer flags me down despite the fact that I had not violated any kind of traffic law since for the most part, they don’t exist in Southeast Asia. As a white guy, this was the first time I’d been racially profiled for anything since the time in high school I got offered a job at Abercrombie & Fitch without asking for one.

I thought it was a security guard flagging me down so I just kept on driving; a minute later I see the police truck behind me flashing its brights instructing me to pull over. Following the American traffic stop protocol, I wait at my vehicle for the officer to get out of his car and approach; then I see the two officers in the truck waving me over.

When I get to their window, the driver asks me if I had my license on me; that’s when I explained that in preparation for my 6 nights in Bali, I had somehow forgotten to obtain my Indonesian drivers license. He told me that since I was driving without a license, he would have to impound my bike and take me to the courthouse to pay a fine. I asked if I could settle the fine right there and “thankfully” he said that he could make an exception this one time.

He then asked if I had any American dollars; I told him that I did not, which was a lie. He then said that the fine was $500,000 Rupiah. I acted shocked and told him that I only had $50,000 (another lie) and asked him to find it in his corrupt heart to accept that amount and let me on my way. While looking straight ahead, he simply nodded once in approval; I thanked them for their generosity, handed the money to his silent cohort and that was that.

$50,000 is $3.82 USD so this was by no means a devastating loss. In fact, it was actually a fair transaction for all parties involved; for under $4 I got a good story out of it and they got $50,000 Rupiah to do corrupt Indonesian Police things with.

After that, I got caught in a rainstorm on my way to Uluwatu but eventually found the scenic views I was looking for.



Up Next/Update

I made it to Ubud’s “Monkey Forest” and got attacked by a monkey. It was awesome and I’m not saying that sarcastically.

“Stars Collide” Live in Hoi An with Naomi Olive

Hoi An has officially been added to my list of favorite places in the world. If you’ve been keeping track, the updated list is as follows:

  • New York City (Central Park in particular)
  • White Plains (914 waddup)
  • Oscars, Scranton PA (world’s greatest dive bar, allegedly soon to be closed)
  • Hong Kong
  • Hoi An

For me, Hoi An was the Vietnamese sweet spot; all of the natural beauty that the rest of the county hosts with a little less of the craziness of Hanoi and Saigon (which are both awesome cities but will occasionally elevate your blood pressure). I ended up doing 6 nights there and my time spent in Hoi An was another highlight of the trip.

“Stars Collide”- Live at Soul Kitchen 

One of the things on my bucket list of things to do while I’m out here was to get up on stage somewhere and play guitar. At the Sunflower Hostel I met a girl who told me she was in an all female traveling band and had a guitar; the “all female band” thing turned out to be a BS story but we jammed a bit that night and agreed to meet up the next day to put a few songs together.

Her name is Naomi Olive and she has an amazing voice and is one of the most naturally talented people I’ve ever played with (honorable mention to Chelsea Sules).

Stars Collide 

Naomi came up with some very cool lyrics for the song below in the span of a half hour; the guitar backing is something I made up in college and have been playing for the last 6 years so it was awesome to hear it accompanied with lyrics and great vocals.

We put together three songs that afternoon, found a place that agreed to let us perform and hit the stage that night. In the video, you can see Naomi reading the lyrics from a book she had written them down in that day.

Props to Jo and Bo for expertly snapchatting and recording our performance. Internet where I’m at is too weak to upload the video so check it out on YouTube.

Tracy Chapman Cover- Give Me One Reason

I suggested we cover this song since it’s a relatively simple guitar riff I already knew ; despite never hearing the song before that day, Naomi was able to get it down in about 20 minutes. In the video, you can see her reading the lyrics off her iPhone.

Naomi was so good that we got requests for an encore but unfortunately we didn’t know anymore songs.

Up Next 

A couple nights in Saigon and then the Mekong River Delta.

Hue to Hoi An; Motorbike Posse Takes Out a Pedestrian

Hue to Hoi An; Motorbike Posse Takes Out a Pedestrian

From Phong Nha I took a bus to Hue; an ancient city that was the site of some intense fighting during the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive.

We walked around Hue’s Imperial City, which is partly preserved and partly destroyed from the war, and also walked around an abandoned waterpark.

After two nights and a day in Hue, myself, another American, a girl from Northern Ireland and four Limey Brits drove 90 miles from Hue to Hoi An via the famous Hai Van Pass. Before we made it out of Hue, a pedestrian stepped in front of the Irish girl’s bike and calamity ensued.

Song: “Mannish Boy (Electric)” by Muddy Waters

 

 

Imperial City

Hue is the former capital of Vietnam and the Imperial City was the walled fortress where the reagle mamma-jammas used to live. The majority of it was destroyed in the “Battle of Hue” during the Tet Offensive which was the largest military offensive by the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese against the Americans and South Vietnamese.

You can walk around what remains of it and see some of the American tanks and helicopters left behind; also had a sweet coy fish pond.

Abandoned Amusment Park

Another popular Hue tourist attraction is a waterpark that was partially constructed in 2004 and ultimately abandoned. Once we got there, It was quite eery walking around a place intended for thousands of people left completely empty.

The rides, water slides and amphitheaters are completely overgrown, covered in weeds and graffiti and we were still charged $10K Dong to get in. I’m fairly certain that the person at the gate wasn’t a park official but rather an enterprising, slightly unscrupulous local. Respect the hustle.

90 Miles from Hue to Hoi An

Sorry Mark; didn’t have one with you in it


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I vowed not to ride a motorbike out here because I very much enjoy walking and being alive. I went back on my word and took one out on the very rural roads of Phong Nha; I still told myself that was it for me but once I heard about and saw some pictures of the Hai Van Pass, it was too much to resist.

Obviously I made it safe and sound but riding a motorbike in Southeast Asia is about as dangerous an activity there is  short of playing Russian-roulette in a Vietnamese  gambling den like Christopher Walken in Deerhunter. Everywhere you go, you see tourists wearing road souvenirs in the form of scabs, cuts, bandages and casts; in Phong Nha I encountered two motorists who had just skidded out over the same patch of gravely road, bloody from foot to shoulder.

Despite the risk, I said screw it and hit the road. After surviving, I can say that it was one of the highlights on my trip and it was fun rolling deep with a motorbike squad; everyone looked out for each other and we were like a much lamer version of the Hell’s Angels. The trip however, got off to a rough start.

Megan Hits a Pedestrian

The girl from Belfast, who had never ridden a bike before, decided after taking a 10 minute test spin, that she was up for the trip.

Ten minutes into the trip, we were almost through the busy streets of Hue with the open road in front of us when a pedestrian abruptly steps out into the street, colliding with Megan’s bike; the woman bounced off the bike and hit the ground, snapping off the break handle of the bike in the process; Megan was somehow able to keep herself from falling.

The woman was certainly bruised up but nothing was broken and she was able to walk it off. Despite not being seriously injured, she demanded $200,000 Dong for “medical bills.” This equates to roughly $9 USD so we paid it off to settle the situation. The great thing about Vietnam is that everything is cheap; even the extortion.

There was a repair shop practically right at the scene of the accident so for roughly $6 USD, they replaced the broken brake handle and we were on our way. After that, it was smooth sailing the entire way.


Elephant Lagoon

It was about 90 degrees that day so we were happy to stop at Elaphant Lagoon where we took a quick dip to cool off.

Hai Van Pass

The views at Hoi Van Pass were just as advertised. It features winding mountain roads overlooking the South China Sea with views of the big city of Da Nang in the distance; we even saw a squad of goats rolling deeper than we were.

During the Vietnam war, or “The American War” as it’s called over, the Hai  Van Pass was referred to as the “Street Without Joy” because it connected the two war torn cities of Hue and Danang. Along the way, you can still see the evidence of what went down.

Military Outpost Covered In Bulletholes


Hoi An
Once we made it to Hoi An, I liked it so much, I stayed for 6 nights. Over the courseof my stay, I got a custom purple suit made for The Purple Tie Stakes hosted by The Michael Mulhall Foundation, met a singer and put together a couple songs and found a bar that let us get up on stage.
Here’s an original we wrote and performed that day called, “Stars Collide.”

Phong Nha: Spe-Lunk Funk

Before coming to Vietnam, I had never heard of Phong Nha; when I was in Hanoi I got an email from my friend Josh whose brother highly recommended it and the next day I met two other travelers who were raving about the place so I decided it was worth a stop. Thanks to the Holsten brothers for the recommendation; Phong Nha was the bees knees.

I did something I vowed not to do before I left America and rented a motor bike, checked out some sweet caves and wandered around the jungle.

Song: “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin



Motor Biking 

For about $5 USD, I rented a bike for the day with my friend Mark who I met during my Halong Bay Vietnamese family vacation. Phong Nha has more cows and buffalo on the road than cars so I figured it was a good place to learn.

We gassed up at a very rudimentary pump and then hit the road to “The Dark Cave.” I was surprised at how quickly I was able to get the hang of it and felt comfortable riding after just a few minutes.

The Dark Cave

I don’t have any pictures because we had to zip line and then swim into the cave but it was a very cool experience. The highlight of the trip was the mudpool at the end of the cave. Due to the density of the mud in the pool, you float effortlessly like a buoy which was both a strange and awesome sensation. After hanging out in the mud, we got to go down a natural mud slide before exiting the cave and cleaning off in the fresh water.


Paradise Cave

On day 2, I talked Mark into doing to 7km trek into Paradise Cave. The cave wasn’t discovered until 2005 and wasn’t open to tourism until 2010 so less than 150,000 people have ever seen the depths of it (the first km however is a tourist zoo).

Mark, myself and three other travelers were led by our guides, Ti and Tu for a 5 hour trek through the cave. Once we got beyond the first km, the cave was pitch black, untouched by sunlight and human beings and dead silent aside from the sound of our own footsteps. At one point Ti had everyone turn off their headlamps and it was so dark you couldn’t see your own hand an inch in front of your face.

Natural Cave Instruments

One of the coolest features of the cave was the natural instruments produced by the stalagmite/stalagtite over the course of 600 Million years.

The walls of one section hung down like drapes and each drape produced a different pitch so you could play them like a set of bongos. At another part of the cave, the stalagmite produced hundreds of little piano keys. We spent a lot of time messing around with both:

At then end of the 7km trek, the cave opens up and presents a visually stunning beam of sunlight accompanied with rain water dripping down from above, seemingly in slow motion. It was definitely one of the more beautiful things I’v ever seen.



Jungle Trek 

On my last day, I wanted to do something casual so I rented a motorbike and headed to the Botanical Garden for what I thought would be a scenic walk. I was quite wrong and it ended up being a strenuous walk through a Vietnamese jungle complete with waterfalls, peacocks, plenty of insects and 90+ degree heat.

Most people go early in the morning to beat the heat so I basically had the entire park to myself which was cool. The only people I encountered were two Swiss girls who were frantically trying to find the exit; they thought it was a good idea to head off into the jungle without bugspray and were absolutely covered in mosquito bites. I had doused myself in 98% DEET so I was able to enjoy my solo trek in the wilderness.

Up Next

I went to Hue and saw where some intense fighting went down during the Vietnam war, walked around an abandoned amusement park and then took a motorbike 75 miles from Hue to Hoi An.

Thanks for all the feedback from everyone back home; as long as you’re all reading my posts, I’ll continue to write them.