My Tail, in Two Cities

It’s been a great two years but my time in Saigon has come to an end. Vietnam is a lovely country and I recommend travel there to anyone, but for the last few months I’ve grown weary of the traffic, pollution and general chaos of the city. Vietnamese people are wonderful and I already miss my friends there, but Saigon isn’t a particularly livable city, and recently I sometimes asked myself if I wanted to be living there when I’m 60. When I kept answering “Hell no!” I realized it was time for a change. Just last week I moved back to Bangkok, where I was based before I moved to Saigon. 

Bangkok, Saigon, what’s the difference? If you haven’t traveled in this part of the world it’s easy to imagine that I’ve moved from one crowded and chaotic Southeast Asian city to another. I completely understand that – before I traveled and lived in this part of the world these and other developing Asian cities blended together in my imagination.

In fact though Thailand is 20-30 years further along in economic development than Vietnam. I think that in many ways economic development has been a mixed bag (better medical care but worse diet and more obesity, better transportation and communication networks but more mental illness and social isolation etc.). Even if it were an option, I wouldn’t want to return to a simpler, more primitive time, but I also avoid referring to richer countries as more “advanced”.  There’s no question though that Bangkok is a more livable city. And if I were given only one word to describe why I moved away from Saigon and back to Bangkok that would be it – livability.

Consider, for example, the very different experience of going for a morning walk in the two cities. If you don’t have much time, a stroll around the neighborhood park is a good option. Both in Saigon and here in Bangkok, I chose an apartment near the city’s best park, both for walks and other exercise and for refreshing breaks from the noise of the city. Tao Dan Park near where I lived in Saigon was lovely and one of the best city parks in Vietnam, but here in Bangkok the condominium where I lived in the past and where I found a new room last week is near Lumpini Park, which is an excellent park even by developed country standards and one of my favorite urban parks in the world. It’s also about eight times larger than my local park in Saigon and at about 1 km on a side it’s easy to forget the city while strolling the paths that wind through its lovely woods and lakes. Truth be told, neither city has a lot of green space, but neighborhood parks are a bit like spouses – one really good one is enough.

If you venture out onto the city streets for your walk, you’ll be a lot more comfortable and safer in Bangkok. In Saigon by far the biggest pain is the traffic, which I’m sure almost all locals would agree with. It’s a bit odd for me to complain about the traffic in Saigon because I never drove there but the streets were a pain to navigate as a pedestrian. In most cities where I’ve lived and traveled, walking interesting areas of the city is my favorite thing to do, but Saigon is possibly the least pedestrian friendly city I’ve ever seen. On many of the busier streets, motorbikes drive up on the sidewalks to get around the traffic and honk impatiently for pedestrians to get out of the way. WTF, this is my space!, you might think if this happens to you but this is just something you have to get used to in Saigon and Hanoi. On busier streets and at peak times of day, the sidewalks become in effect just additional lanes of traffic for motorbikes.

Beyond the headache of walking in a stream of motorbike traffic, Saigon sidewalks are full of vendors and merchandise and in spots there is little or no space to pass. And crossing the street in Saigon and other large Vietnamese cities is nerve-wracking and potentially hazardous because there are no lights or signs to stop traffic at many intersections, and you need to walk through the moving traffic. This is so unbelievable to people who haven’t experienced it that I’m going to emphasize – in most places, traffic is never stopped for pedestrians and you need to cross the street by walking – slowly and steadily – through a stream of moving cars and motorbikes.

One of the more quixotic items on my long list of blog post ideas was to do a video of Saigon traffic, in the style of a horror movie (or possibly a disaster film or a comedy). If you haven’t been it’s really hard to imagine what it’s like, but happily plenty of other foreigners have made videos of the experience. Here’s a video from the New York Times website which shows the chaos of a busy Vietnamese street and the harrowing process of crossing it. This video is of Hanoi but the look, feel and experience are similar in Saigon.

Negotiating this sort of traffic every day on foot was the single biggest annoyance of life in Saigon. It just wasn’t fun to walk around there!

Here in Bangkok, on a hour-long walk you might run across 1-2 errant motorcycle taxis up on the sidewalk but those stand out for how rare they are (and also they don’t honk at you to get out of their way because, unlike in Saigon, sidewalks aren’t seen as extra traffic lanes, and driving there is definitely seen as deviant). Just last week, my first back in Bangkok, I saw a prominent road sign announcing 6,000 baht fines (about 200 USD) for driving or parking motorbikes on the sidewalk, and that’s a huge amount of money in Thailand. (While more developed, Thailand is actually a bit cheaper than Vietnam, probably because its government and economy are more efficient and well connected to the outside world.)

Here in Bangkok, as in most developing Asian cities, merchants do set up on the side walk, but it’s more regulated and well policed. “Regulated and policed” can just mean that the police take a bit of cash for allowing it, but nevertheless the sidewalks are a lot more orderly here than in poorer Asian countries like Vietnam and Cambodia. Of course, neither city can compare to the heavenly traffic free pedestrian zones in many European cities but walking Bangkok is much, much easier and more pleasant than Saigon.

On your morning walk, if you find yourself far away from home and need to arrange transportation you have a lot more options in Bangkok. The city has both an elevated Skytrain system and a subway. While there are only four lines total, I use trains for 90% of the places I need to go in Bangkok (and taxi or Uber for the occasional destination that’s not near a station). And because they are a lot newer the trains here are nicer than those in most American cities! Saigon has no trains whatsoever and from what I hear the nascent urban bus network is so bad that even younger Vietnamese on a strict budget avoid it and take motorbike taxis instead (which cost only $0.50-1.00 USD for a ride to most parts of the city).

Like Saigon, Bangkok also has Uber but taxis are really plentiful and more reliable as well. In Saigon, you’re really rolling your dice with a taxi. To start, they sometimes take foreigners and Vietnamese from out of town a round about way. Also, out of the exotic menagerie of for hire vehicles on the streets, there are only two taxi companies you can trust to give you the standard rate (with the rest essentially surviving on a business model of ripping off tourists and newcomers with their phony fare meters and exorbitant (ie, American) prices). Here in Bangkok taxis are well regulated and you get the same fare and treatment whichever variety you choose.

On your morning walk, you also have a lot more cultural options in Bangkok. In Saigon I can’t think of a museum I would recommend other than the excellent War Museum (dedicated to what is known as the “American War” there). Bangkok has so many museums, galleries and other cultural centers that there are numerous “best of” lists. Families with children can also enjoy Dusit Zoo, one of the best zoos in Asia, as well as Safari World. In Saigon, I sometimes tired of meeting friends at cafes, restaurants or bars because that’s the main thing people do when they go out there. Here in Bangkok there are a lot more cultural institutions and events to enjoy.

If most of your walking involves shopping, you’ll definitely prefer Bangkok. One of the many pleasures of any visit to Thailand is the outdoor night markets they have even in small towns. Here in Bangkok there are so many that you would have a lot of options even on a quiet weeknight. Thai night markets are so fun because they are in many ways a social and cultural experience and buying things is only secondary. People go with their friends or family, and there are often street performers, and always fabulous street food, cooked fresh while you watch. The best of them are as much like festivals as they are markets.

In America or Europe I probably wouldn’t spend time in a shopping mall unless I really needed to buy something there but Bangkok has great malls in even outlying parts of the city and these can be a great way to escape the heat and a good option to meet friends, especially on work nights when many people have less time. (Also, at least in this part of the world, I think malls are a good place for first dates because there’s an extreme anonymity to large Asian cities and a great deal of social distance between strangers, and all this is exacerbated by meeting on Tinder and the like. It’s really important to make the woman feel comfortable and to my mind a popular mall is a good choice.) It’s really interesting that in a wealthy post-industrial society like America hanging out at the shopping mall is probably the last thing the cool kids want to do these days (they spend their time on Instagram and Snapchat instead). But here in Thailand, an emerging economy with rising incomes and aspirations, everyone from teens to singles to families likes to go to the mall, and it’s considered high status to shop there.

A big reason there are a lot more leisure, cultural and shopping opportunities in Bangkok is simply that people here have more money to spend. Just from living in both countries I knew that Thailand was richer and more economically developed but when I googled the actual numbers I was startled to learn that incomes are more than 2.5 times higher here than in Vietnam ($5,600 vs. $2,100 USD per year). Of course, I realize that the Thai figure still seems poor, especially for readers living in wealthy countries but living costs are roughly a tenth of what they are in places like New York or San Francisco, and $6,000/year is a middle class life here, at least for a single person. 

Alas, there’s one thing about Bangkok that’s worse. Ummm….actually it’s better, but in this case better is worse – Thailand has a lot better potato chips, a significant concern for a recovering chip junkie. In Saigon this vice was a lot easier to manage because the only thing available in local stores was Vietnamese brands, which are more heavily processed than my favorite type (real potatoes, fried and simply salted, no gunky added flavors). In Saigon I found chips a lot easier to give up.

Probably because Thailand is much more well connected to the global economy, here in Bangkok you can get most of the same international brands, of anything, not just snacks. Of course, that’s usually really helpful – for example, Apple products are actually cheaper here than in the US because the Thai government refunds consumption tax to foreigners. (Any sort of brand name product generally costs more in Vietnam because of tariffs and other economic friction). But when the imported product is my favorite vice, Lay’s Original flavor, the easy access in Thailand puts me at serious risk of tumbling off the wagon of potato chip moderation. It’s funny, with alcohol I have no problem keeping to one or two drinks no matter how much is around, but with potato chips I’m more likely than not to eat the entire bag, whatever the size. Happily, the portion sizes here (and in Asia in general) are much more reasonable than in the US and I manage my habit by buying just one very small bag at a time.

It occurred to me to compare the two cities from the perspective of a morning walk because walking is one of my favorite things to do, wherever I am in the world. Here are my favorite photos from the first week in Bangkok, all taken on morning walks.

 

Mendicants and Minstrels

 

Lottery Ticket Vendors

 

Other Street Vendors

 

Other People Photos

 

Atmosphere

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