Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Saigon: Sticking to the Best

I awoke to a rainy day.  While it cooled the city down a bit, I grumbled because I would be jumping continuously from meeting to meeting for most of the day.  The rain wouldn’t help my packed schedule, where I already had little free time.

Officially, today was the start of a long holiday weekend in Vietnam.  Although called Reunification Day, the celebration actually runs through the weekend.  My counterparts had been gracious enough to stick around to take meetings with me for today.  However, they would all leave for holidays for the balance of the week, so I jammed in as many meetings as possible.  My meetings were in the center of District 1, so I spent most of the day breathlessly zig zagging across the main circle.

Saigon remains a vibrant city, the business center of Vietnam, and District 1 is the center of Saigon.  Bitexco Tower, the city’s tallest building, dominates the skyline and reflects the country’s ambition to become the next Asian economic tiger.

I wouldn’t bet against that ambition.  From what I could gather, the economy remains in pretty good shape, though everyone seems worried about inflation, in contrast to most elsewhere in the world where deflation appears to be the bigger economic threat.  However, new office construction appears to be ongoing at a good clip, including this almost completed blue-hued building I had never noticed before.

Given my limited free time, I stuck with my tried-and-true “best of Saigon” from my past trips, rather than look for new food venues.  For lunch, that meant banh mi.  These delicious freshly baked little baguette sandwiches, filled with barbecued meat and other delicacies, come smothered with a local spicy relish and produce a unique East-West taste combination.   In District 1, no place is better for the stuff than Banh Mi Nhu Lan.  So in between meetings, I stopped by to grab a couple of banh mis, along with a freshly blended fruit juice, all for about $3.

Normally, I would have had a nice picnic lunch at the nearby harbor, but the rain doused those plans.  Instead, I took the food back to my room, where I munched away while admiring, err, looking at the view from my window.  I love Saigon, but overall, it is not as picturesque as much of Vietnam.  In any case, the tasty sandwiches carried me through my afternoon obligations.

When Westerners think of pancakes, we typically imagine those fluffy cakes that we cover with syrup and chomp with bacon for breakfast.   Vietnamese pancakes, by comparison, can be the best of dinner delicacies.  Given that, I sought dinner in my favorite Vietnamese pancake joint, Bahn Xeo 335, which is in District 3.   In this side street foodie stalwart, the makeshift kitchen produces only two dishes (with very little variation) for patrons to devour while sitting in the small outdoor plastic chairs.  If you want something else, they don’t want you here.   I ordered both of them, the spring rolls with fried dried shrimp, and of course, the signature pancakes.

The pancakes resemble a mix between an omelet and a flour tortilla, stuffed with fresh prawns and pork, and then covered with bean sprouts and quickly fried to order.  The basket of assorted fresh leafy greens is critical.  The owner claims to get her vegetables daily from the Mekong Delta.  Maybe, maybe not, but I started with a lettuce leaf, then tore a generous piece of the pancake along with a heaping assortment of fresh basil and other greens, and thus created my own wrap.  For the dip, my concoction involves adding fiery hot pepper paste to the traditional fish sauce.  That first bite of that pancake wrap was heavenly.  So were the subsequent ones.

I stuffed myself on two pancakes, along with an ice cold beer, all of which (together with the spring rolls) made me about $5 poorer.  Oh my, that was satisfying.  There is a reason why Bahn Xeo 335 is among my Saigon favorites.  They even have a “drive in window” for those who want a take away meal.

As an aside, did you notice I was drinking beer with ice and a straw?  Southeast Asia is the only place in the world where I have no problem doing that.  Do what the locals do, right?  And I guess that goes for the vegetables as well.  For the longest time, I avoided fresh veggies in the region because of the perceived potential for contamination from pesticides and whatnot.  And if you rinse the produce as a precaution, you could be exposed to undrinkable water.  At some point in the past, however, I said “screw it” and started eating where and what the locals loved, including street food and fresh vegetables.  As best as I can tell, I have had no ill effects, but the experience opened up a whole new exciting culinary world, and my taste buds are grateful for that.

This place is so popular that by 7:30pm, they had run out of food, and turned away many people who stopped by for a bite.  The owner only buys enough ingredients to be served fresh, rather than stock up and serve lower quality food.   Go sufficiently early if you want to try some.

I thoroughly dig live music.  Charismatic old time Vietnamese crooners ply their traditional trade at Café Soi Da, and it’s worth stopping by for the experience.  But that isn’t my favorite Saigon live music venue, and tonight was only about favorites.  A couple doors down from Café Soi Da is Acoustic Bar.  You can’t miss it as the entrance is decorated by a vertically raised VW Beetle.

I discovered this place by accident a couple years ago, as I caught the rifts of a jamming guitar as I was leaving Café Soi Dai.  The place may be called Acoustic, but they are all about rock and roll.  Tonight, they had removed the tables and chairs for a holiday battle of the bands.  The place was packed to the rafters with happy 20-something year old Vietnamese singing and jumping along to both Vietnamese and Western rock.  On this night, at least, I doubt you could find many over the age of 30, and I counted literally only a handful of Western faces among the sweaty, hopping crowd.

I’m sure I stuck out like a sore thumb, but I stopped giving a crap about stuff like that a long time ago.  And by the time the second band came on with their version of “It’s My Life”, I screamed the lyrics along with enough alcohol-fortified emotion that I quickly became buddies with the bunch around me.  It was like being in a mosh pit, but with polite people.

The bands were ranged from mediocre to amazing, but the audience seemed to love them all.

Just before the main act, there was a break and the MC came up on stage to hold a contest.  He invited 8 members of the audience on stage for a chance to win $100.  The challenge was to pass a sausage to the next person, simply using one’s mouth.  For a successful pass, both parties needed to take and keep a piece of the sausage in their mouth.  With each subsequent pass, of course, the level of “intimacy” increased as more lips were needed for the pass, until at some point, there wasn’t enough sausage to constitute a successful pass.  Those contestants would be eliminated.  The audience hooted and cheered the forced “kissing”, especially on the same-sex sausage passes; it was all in good fun.

The highlight band was a group called “MTV”, which I later discovered is one of the most popular acts in the country.  They have many albums to their credit.  I knew none of their songs, but the tunes were certainly catchy.  Then they broke out into a song that sounded vaguely familiar.  What?  They were singing The Wonder Girls’ “Nobody But You”, but as a Vietnamese ballad?  I had to laugh out loud.  How can you not love a Vietnamese boy band, singing a ballad cover of a Korean girl band’s hit dance song, that was originally designed for an American audience?

I am not sure what time I made it back to my hotel, but by then I suffered from tired legs, hoarse throat, and ringing ears.  It was all worth it.  My Saigon favorites had delivered once again.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Good Evening Saigon!

I first discovered Vietnam over a decade ago, touring Hanoi and several other regions.  It was a fantastic trip.  I was struck by the industriousness and friendliness of a people who lived under a communist regime but behaved as if they were wanton capitalists.  They also arguably (then at least) still bore the scars of long decades of war, but welcomed foreigners with open arms.   It took a while, but I subsequently returned several times looking at some business ventures.   The nation has changed a lot since my first trip, making the journey one of continuous discovery.  Just in the past two years, I used the opportunities to visit Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An, Hue, Nha Trang and, most interestingly, wander deeper into some of the smaller towns and villages in the jungle.  I plan to backfill with posts from those enlightening journeys at some point.

This current trip requires me in HCM for three days to follow up on some earlier business discussions.  That aside, I am extending this visit to explore more of this remarkable country.  I really enjoyed the ocean side city of Nha Trang last year.  This time I will visit Mui Ne which is a five hour drive from Saigon.  After that, I will return to Hanoi for the first time in a decade.  I will also revisit Halong Bay and journey to Sapa for the first time.

Flying out of JFK, I had a three hour layover in Hong Kong.  I find that airport to be among the most efficient in the world, and actually thought about meeting up briefly with some old friends.  I’ve been to Hong Kong many dozens of time in the past, but my last stop was something like five years ago.  I missed my long time acquaintances.

As fate would have it, our schedules didn’t work out so I just hung out in the Cathay Pacific lounge.  Sitting there, it struck me how much Hong Kong had changed since the handover in 1997.  As to be expected, the city is now dominated (some say overrun) by the mainland Chinese, and many of the colonial British traces have faded greatly.  Pollution is much worse, though not as bad as before the financial crisis.  Prices are much higher, and in my view, the city is a lot less livable than it once was.  I like Hong Kong, but I do not really miss it and was quite fine to journey on to HCM without much ado.

I landed in HCM in the early evening.  It had only been about eight months since my last trip here, but the changes in the city were evident from the moment I landed.  I picked up my visa-on-arrival, cleared customs, and hopped in a taxi in record time.  Usually, there is chaos at the taxi stand outside the airport which I historically avoid by going to the Mai Linh counter in the arrivals area.  No one attended the desk this time.  I was a bit worried, but when I walked outside, discovered that the taxi queue had been reorganized.  I ended up taking a cab company that I had never heard of (and normally I avoid like a plague all taxis that are NOT Vinasun or Mai Linh).  I arrived in my hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao neighborhood without any incident.

After check in, I wandered outside for a drink and quick bite too eat.  The main strip, Bui Vien, had changed noticeably in just these few months.  Many new, quite modern store fronts, ranging from convenience stores to hotels and restaurants, had replaced some of the aging buildings.  Most stark, however, were the outdoor bars.  Drinking $1 beer outside in small plastic chairs, while watching the crowd go by, is a long-tested and traditional past time on the street.  All the plastic chairs were now gone!  In their place, each bar had instead put down uncomfortable looking floor mats.  I suspect that this is a byproduct of new regulations, and the crowds were thus somewhat diminished.  Still, the street remained lively, as backpackers everywhere love cheap beer.

After all that travel (and plenty of in-flight and in-lounge alcohol) I wasn’t in the mood for beer, so I instead opted for fresh mango, pineapple, and banana juice from a friendly side street merchant.  Not bad for $1.25, and quite refreshing in the oppressive Saigon evening heat.

After about 24 hours of door-to-door traveling, I was quite beat.  I grabbed a fast dinner and quickly fell asleep.  I was apprehensive about jetlag, and indeed I awoke at 3 am, but for the most part, had restful sleep until I awoke at 7 am for an early morning meeting.

I had never been to District 7, which is far from downtown Saigon.  Many refer to this area as “Little Korea” as many Korean businesses (and their expats) are based here.   I was meeting with a Korean company to discuss a business venture.  It was a productive meeting, but I was equally stuck by how different District 7 was from the rest of Saigon.  Much less crowded and cooled a bit by many shade trees, the area’s suburban nature seemed very much out of place with the Saigon I knew.   Many of the homes looked very nice, with private gardens and attached garages.

A large park dominated the area.  Many soon-to-marry couples use that venue for their wedding photographs.  The brides looked miserable in the unbearable heat, all made-up and wearing many stifling layers but trying to smile.  Still, they all managed to strike that oh-so-elated pose just as the shutter clicked.  I guess brides are the same everywhere in the world.  The grooms generally didn’t fake it as well.  But maybe that’s the same worldwide also?

The park itself was OK, when using global standards, but was sort of an oasis when compared to the rest of congested HCM.

Just outside the office building was an inflatable duck.  When I say inflatable, I don’t mean a small two seater boat that happy couples can paddle on the river.  What I mean is it was the size of a building and…well, just see for yourself.  Don’t ask, I have no idea.

I was in Vietnam, so I needed to eat pho, among the tastiest noodle soups in the world.  For lunch, I asked my hosts to take me to the best, authentic pho place, and they ended up driving me all the way back to District 1, not far from the backpackers’ district.

When I glanced at the menu, it appeared that the restaurant actually has branches in the USA, although I’m not sure how my Texas friends would react to having the Lone Star State be relegated to nothing more than just another borough of New York City.

In any case, the pho was a bit more expensive than the competition, because the meal set us back a total of…$4 per person, including a beer.  I can’t vouch whether it was “the most authentic” or “the best”; maybe my hosts were erroneously suspicious of the sensitivity of this foreigner’s stomach.  Regardless, it was yummy and definitely hit the spot.  I sweated profusely because, as in typical fashion, I spiced the broth up more than I should.

After an afternoon of meetings, I went back to my hotel to rest.  During the day, I encountered the usual mix of the busy (and an occasional not so busy) ordinary Saigon folks, and normally I might have been inclined to explore the city some more.  However, jetlag was kicking in and the strong, tasty Vietnamese coffee had failed to drive away the droopy eyelids.

It was after 8 pm when I awoke from my nap.  I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to eat, but I knew I had to try street food.  A couple years ago, I rode in a foodie motorbike tour of Saigon (highly recommended!), and I remembered a particular street where the stalls had been pretty good.  I wasn’t sure that I could find it, but I referred to my notes and gave directions to the cabbie as best I could.

He found it, or at least something close.  There are many great food stalls streets all over Saigon; I don’t trust my ability to distinguish locations.  The first order of business was to get a beverage, and for that, I started with a sugar cane icy, made fresh on the spot.  Looks like this vendor was quite popular, judging from the cane remnants.

After spending 25 cents on my drink, I needed the entrée.  I settled on a Chinese noodle stall.  I watched with fascination as the two old ladies sliced up fresh pork and chicken, adding them to a simmering broth before pouring the entire soup onto some just-fried noodles.  They then added various Chinese dumplings.  I happily slurped away, cooling the outdoor heat (and the in-bowl spice) with my sweet sugar cane icy.  The meal set me back $2, and was delicious.

Some different business associates telephoned me for some post-dinner drinks, but I was too tired.  I went back my hotel, showered (for the fourth time of the day), answered emails, and then drifted off to slumber.

I was certainly back in Saigon.  What a great way to begin my trip.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Around the world thoughts (and a great travel tip)

Yesterday, the night before this around the world trip, I had dinner with a good friend who asked me “Are you excited about your upcoming trip.”  Without much thought, I instinctively replied “Not yet.”  My friend seemed a little puzzled, so I explained that I had been so crazily busy the past few weeks that I hadn’t the time to reflect on the trip itself.

Since I would be abroad for more than 11 weeks (!), a ton of business matters occupied my attention.  Yes, in this age of internet connectivity, I can run my little business from afar.  However, I had never before been away from the office for so long.  Also, from experience, I feared poor internet connections in some of the more remote places.  I tried to resolve as many issues upfront and preplan contingencies.  That took a lot of thought, time and effort.

In addition, the trip planning itself took up much more energy than expected.  I generally eschew travel agents.  Part of the fun of travel, at least for me, is researching and figuring out my own itinerary.  I also tend to get the best results that way, even when dealing with the relatively few competent and experienced agents.  It’s also cheaper.  However, this work can be time consuming, especially when looking at multiple destinations.   Of course, a complex travel itinerary makes the work geometrically more difficult.  This trip ended up very complex.

That is the second point I lamented to my friend:  “I might have bitten off more than I can chew.”  This trip started because I had reasons to be in Southeast Asia in May and in Europe in early June.  I had done a rewarding around the world trip in 2011, so I had a “Eureka” moment of combining the two trips into one and filling it in between with places that I had not been before.  From that simple thought, I sort of got a little insane and added a bit more here and a bit more there, until I ended up with a crazy quilted network of countries.  I am truly excited about each of my destinations, but when looking at it all as one trip, even I have to shake my head.  Was I trying to do too much?  Perhaps.

My natural tendency is always to try to see more rather than less.  Sometimes that ends up with a silly ratio of transit times relative to the amount actually spent exploring the city itself.   I always chide myself, but then sometimes fall into the same traps.  Ultimately, I end up seeing and doing what I wanted, but travel is about the “experience”, not just “seeing stuff.”  So I make an extra effort to interact with locals, really learn something about the country’s culture, and then reflect on what I learned and tasted.  I usually learn something about myself as well.  On that score, I anticipate an eye opening trip.

So where am I going in my 11-plus weeks?  The countries are: Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, India, Poland, Germany, Austria, France, Morocco, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Russia.  I will spend the bulk of my time in cities I have never visited, at least as a tourist.   Other than some “formal” days in Ho Chi Minh, Phnom Penh, and Paris, the trip is all about seeing and experiencing new parts of the world.  I have visited many places, but never Sapa, Nepal, Agra (India), Poland, Berlin, Munich, Salzburg, the French country side, Morocco, Scandinavia or St. Petersburg.  I get a little tired just thinking about it, but mostly am just very eager to delve into those locales.

The backbone of my transit is the fantastic One World Explorer Award.  Let me digress a bit and say that I have a pet peeve against the frequent flier programs of many airlines.  They increasingly make award travel restrictive and expensive.  Award seats are often unavailable, and the required mileage escalates every year.  For example, my around the world business class tickets in 2011 through Star Alliance set me back about 220,000 United Airlines miles per ticket as I recall.  With that, we visited New Zealand, Thailand, South Africa/Botswana, Turkey, Italy, and the UK.  That same ticket today would cost 350,000 miles, or 50%+ increase in just three years!

The One World Explorer Award is the exception.  For this trip, I spent just 150k American Airline miles to travel business class on the following itinerary: New York – Ho Chi Minh – Phnom Penh – Kathmandu – Warsaw – Munich – Berlin – Paris – Helsinki – New York.  I figure booking that trip for cash would cost about $10-12,000, so the award ticket is a very good deal.  Here comes the travel tip for those who have read this far without being too bored: you can book a similar deal even if you don’t yet have the miles!  I had enough miles in my account, but if you don’t, you should consider purchasing the extra you need.  American Airlines, for example, periodically runs promotions.  Their current promotion (expires April 30, but they run these periodically) allows you to purchase 91k miles for just $1780.

It takes as little as 130k miles (depending on your destinations) to craft your own customized One World Explorer “around the world ticket".  This means that for $1780 and 39k pre-existing miles, you might might be able to buy that dream airline ticket that otherwise costs you over $10,000!

With that award ticket as my travel backbone, I then separately bought the various short haul airline, train, bus and boat tickets to fill out the rest of my transit.  That all took a fair amount of time and research.  Between being constrained by the backbone of the award ticket, and incrementally adding travel destinations on the fly, my transit is not the most efficient.  I criss-cross countries a couple times.  Oh well, no planning can be perfect.

I also had to book my hotels.  This is where most of my family and friends roll their eyes.  I like cheap accommodations.  I require a hotel room only to sleep.  Thus, as long as it is clean, secure, and in a good location with a friendly service staff, why waste the dollars even if I can afford something a bit more upscale?  Better to save money for more beer!  Having said that, I like to indulge myself on occasion, so randomly may book an outrageously expensive place that, in my judgment at that moment anyway, is worth the price.  I know this juxtaposition makes no sense and that I reek of inconsistency.  So go ahead, roll your eyes, too.

My accommodations for this trip will range from $20 to, umm, $1200 per night.  The former reflects how inexpensive Southeast Asia can be when venturing away from the touristy hotels.  The latter, however, is actually “free”; for those two nights, I am using Hyatt award vouchers that would otherwise expire.  But it is one of the best hotels in the world.  Most of my hotels will be small independent outfits that I found on Tripadvisor, with the occasional multinational chain and a couple hostels thrown in for good measure.  I think they will all be fine.

Packing was difficult.  I like traveling light, preferring not to check bags if possible.  Thank heavens that most of my corporate world has gone “business casual” so I (mostly) no longer have to wear suits.  But pack for 11+ weeks?  I was resigned that I would need a large checked bag.  However, when I considered how often I would transit, I kept cutting things out of my packing list.  For example, my SLR camera sadly will not make this trip and I will instead exclusively rely on my trusty point-and-shoot.  The upshot, however, is that I managed to squeeze everything into my roll-on and an additional small backpack.

With all that finally done, I managed this morning to get myself to the airport and board Cathay Pacific to Asia.  From 40,000 feet in the air, in a flat sleeper seat sipping on Johnny Walker Gold (what no Blue?), I finally could relax and breathe a bit.   My full reply to my friend’s first question (“Are you excited?”) had been “I probably will be once I am on the plane.”  And, yes, I am getting excited now.  I am a bit sad about being away from loved ones for so long, especially with summer break coming up when their times will free up more.  Mostly, though, I am psyched to discover new parts of the world, meet people with whom I would never otherwise interact, and learn a bit more about me.  I feel truly blessed for the opportunity and can’t wait to start.

My friend’s last question echoed something others had inquired recently: “Do you like traveling by yourself?”  That’s a complicated question, isn’t it?  On this trip, I will be meeting colleagues or dear friends in some of my locations, but for the most part, will be by myself.  I rarely get lonely.  I truly enjoy the total freedom of solo travel.  I also really like meeting new people on the road and have always found my solo travels immensely fulfilling.  Having said that, we are all social creatures.  We are meant to share our lives with those close to us.  Blogs and Twitter are but trivial examples of that basic desire.  So that complicated question probably has a very complicated answer, but that’s for next time.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Nashville: Honky Tonk and BBQ

Quite unexpectedly, I was invited by an old friend to come to Nashville, the country music capital of the world.  I have visited here in the past, but for the life of me I can't recall when that was, so it must have been a long time ago.  I don't follow country music, but I do enjoy live bands and love Southern cooking.  I was also getting very sick of the cold New York weather.  So apart from the business opportunity, I didn't need much encouragement to come on down for several days.

The weather was gorgeous (especially compared to north), and perfect for checking out the cityscape.  I found the downtown area to be fairly diverse, with a mixture of trendy office buildings, the strip filled with tourist joints, a so-so riverfront, and some of the expected urban blight.  The city seemed generally clean and safe, though, and deserving of its nickname as the "Athens of the South."

The city's main tourist attractions, apart from the live music venues, include the Country Music Hall of Fame (where the walk of fame was in slight disrepair), the Grand Ole Opry House, and various museums.  I didn't really have time to do the touristy things, other than walking by them such as the war monument.  

I didn't realize that Korean War vets supported Liverpool FC, but I guess the Premier League has fans everywhere.

The people roaming around were also fairly diverse.  Almost all of them, however, were happily enjoying the fair weather that most of us New Yorkers had only been dreaming about this cold winter.

The highlight of Nashville, of course, is the live music.  Just as New Orleans has jazz joints filled with outstanding musicians on every block, Nashville has many, many outstanding country and honky tonk bars.  In the course of several nights (and some days), we got to try a bunch of them, all uniformly playing good fun music.  I have to confess, however, that the dueling pianists jamming to Queen, Bon Jovi, and other classic rock were my favorite.


We had a morning free, and I recalled how much fun I had last year stumbling along on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.  While Jack Daniels technically is not a "bourbon", it is the most popular whiskey in the world, and one I have enjoyed drinking since...well...before I was legally able.  A short drive from Nashville, the visit and tour were well worthwhile, complete with a fun and gruffy tour guide, a statue of Jack "on the Rocks", and of course the smooth sample tasting.  It was a great way to spend a couple of free hours.

The George Dickell distillery is on the way back to Nashville.  I have never tasted their whiskey, but the tour wasn't for more than an hour so we left unfulfilled as we needed to get back.  It's a pretty area, though.

Nashville is yet another reminder that our own country has a thousands of beautiful and interesting towns and places worth visiting and exploring.  It goes without saying that I filled myself with tons of mouth watering barbecue in Nashville.  I love all kinds of BBQ, whether ribs, brisket, beef, pork, or whatever.  I must have eaten it seven times during my stay, and still crave it now.  Talk about comfort food that's filled with love!

Speaking of which, the best fried chicken in the world might be here as well, at the ironically named Loveless Cafe.  That in itself may merit a trip to Music City.

Whether for the food, music, business, or to catch up with an old friend, Nashville is worth checking out.  I managed to do all of them on a single trip.  How lucky was I?