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.

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31,562 Practice Sessions

31,562. According to my primary photo editing software (Apple’s Photos for Mac) that’s how many photos I took in 2017. That’s an average of 86 photos every single day but that mean masks a huge range and there are very few “average” days. When I’m traveling I take closer to 300 photos in a typical day. On a regular day here in Saigon I might take just 5-10.

During the roughly 12 years that I’ve had an advanced camera and consciously tried to improve my photography, I’ve spent some time thinking about how we get good at things in life. Photography, cooking, making music, our jobs etc. – with any practical skill, how do we steadily improve from absolutely no ability to the peak level of competence we are able to achieve?

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On the Trail of Phantoms – Photos of Saigon at Night

Has anyone noticed that the characters walking city streets at 2 am are usually not people you would bring home to meet your mother? After law-abiding and tax-paying citizens have gone to bed, cities take on a darker mood and the boundaries of rectitude are relaxed, sometimes by alcohol and other times by just an intoxicated yearning in the human soul. Gone are the fresh faced office workers and smiling shopkeepers who ply the streets by day. Yoga studios, organic grocery stores and other family friendly shops shuttered long ago. The young couples who picnicked in the park that day or drove their children to private school have long ago put their happy but tired tikes to bed.

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Still hunting and gathering (best food photos of the year so far)

Every Day is a Journey is now active on Instagram. If you like the blog’s photos, you can see more of them, more quickly, at @everydayisajourneyblog.

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Thank Buddha for my high metabolism. I think about food all the time and eat 4-5 times a day but still struggle to gain weight. Excessive hyperspazziness no doubt.

I usually take a photo or two of what I eat. As I mentioned in my “best food photos of 2016 post”, no matter how good a street food or restaurant dish tastes getting a good photo is a completely different matter. To start, the light needs to be right (not too harsh, not too dark) or the food won’t look good at all. Dark and moody restaurants may be good for dates but they’re a disaster for food photos (see the typical food photos on TripAdvisor, for example). (Problems with lighting can be fixed to some extent with editing software and I’ve been using Photoshop Elements more and more since I started this blog.)

Attractive presentation is also important. With most of my food photos that doesn’t mean something fussy or high class though; most of what I eat here in Vietnam and in my travels could be called street food – popular, tasty and inexpensive local dishes served simply. Some of these places present their food more attractively than others though and I think this is a critical element of good food photos – after all I got to actually eat all of this delicious food but with this blog all I can offer you are the photos.

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I’m Coming Out

There’s something I’ve kept inside for way too long. Sipping chai at a street side stand in Mumbai with a new Indian friend, I yearned to express this part of my identity, but for some reason I held back. Meeting with friends at the great smoothie and juice shops they have here in Saigon, the same thing – an important part of myself that I just couldn’t get out. At family dinners as well, around when the coffee came I almost got up the courage but I couldn’t…quite… say…it. It’s finally time though to come out of the closet – I like my drinks with no sugar! 

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How to have your camera stolen

In a flash it was gone. The last time I saw my camera was on Lunar New Year’s day 2016. It was speeding away on a Saigon residential street, hanging from the hand of the motorcycle thief who had just robbed me. Saigon and other Vietnamese cities have a really special atmosphere on Lunar New Year’s day and I’d spent all morning and afternoon visiting Vinh Nhiem Pagoda and strolling around the surrounding neighborhood. Beyond losing a valuable personal belonging (about $1,200 USD with the separate lens), I was really happy with the photos I’d taken that day and regretted losing them.

How to have your camera stolen? Or, how should we think and act when bad things happen to us?

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Welcome to Big Joy (Conditions Apply)

Photos of my new neighborhood in Saigon follow the written part of this post. 

Last week I moved to a new serviced apartment, only about ten minutes walk from my previous place and near the same lovely park, which I’ve written about in a few posts. The new building is somewhat dramatically named Big Joy (tag line “Live N Feel”).

Compared to my old place, the new room is better in pretty much every possible way. The apartment itself, the building and the neighborhood are all better. The new room has more sunlight and a more modern design. There are even more good food options nearby and the closest convenience store and the park are closer as well. Cost wasn’t a reason for the move but the new place is even less expensive. Better and cheaper. Who doesn’t love that?

Better in every possible way is actually quite surprising. My experience is that with both homes and romantic partners there are almost always compromises  – a mix of things you like and things you don’t. I’ve got plenty of foibles myself, of course – geekiness in the extreme, to start. Plus that potato chip addiction I mentioned in another post. There are of course more.

Back to the new room, perfect in every way would make a really boring movie or blog post so if there wasn’t a catch I wouldn’t be writing this.

Before I signed the contract for the new room I had a difficult, and quite awkward, negotiation with the landlord over one of the articles:

14. Khách đến thăm không được ngủ qua đêm, Khách không được ở lại phòng quá 21:00 giờ.
(It’s not allowed for guest to stay overnight in rented room. Guest must leave room before 21:00).

Readers outside of Vietnam may imagine that this sort of thing is typical but in 1.5 years of living here I’ve never encountered anything like it. I would describe my social life here as healthy and I’ve never had any trouble having guests over.

This issue was a potential deal breaker but happily the negotiation over the contract was by the messaging app Viber, as the discussion would have been much more difficult in person. I find that with difficult conversations there’s huge value in taking a deep breath before blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, and for me at least that’s much easier with texting. Even with synchronous messaging (with both parties in the chat at the same time), there’s time to take a breath, pause and contemplate the best response. Probably you have way better social skills than I do but I would have found this discussion much more difficult in person and there’s a chance it would have ended badly.

By texting with the owner, even if steam was shooting out of my head, I frequently took a deep breath and passed my thoughts (eg, “WTF, dude, are you running a serviced apartment or a religious commune?”) through numerous filters before responding.

As you can see in the excerpt of our chat below the owner presents guests as an issue of building security.

The human brain consists of a relatively new outer layer called the cerebrum and a larger primitive core that isn’t that different from lizards. We have deeply tribal instincts, for example, to be suspicious of outsiders. With most non-human primates and for most of human history, the typical response to an outsider was to kill (males) or rape (females) them. In the context of human history, the Big Joy rules that guests leave their ID card downstairs and leave by 9 pm is actually quite civilized and tolerant!

The idea that outsiders are dangerous is of course not unique to overanxious landlords. Nation states do this as well, for example in the way immigrants are sometimes subjected to arbitrary and excessive surveillance and restrictions in the name of “national security”.

Take for instance the current debate over immigration in the US and parts of Europe. Is it really true that immigrants are a threat to safety and security? Or is this an emotional response based on our primitive suspicion of outsiders? All the evidence I’ve seen suggests that immigrants exhibit criminal behavior at lower rates than native born citizens.

And pointing to a single incident of a crime committed by an immigrant and using that as evidence of the general criminality of immigrants is so deeply flawed on scientific grounds that bright primary school students could probably see through it. While living in Tokyo I once got applause for my karaoke rendition of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns n Roses. Does that make me a rock star?

Is it really true that guests of Big Joy residents are a threat to building security? Are they prone to pillage and plunder while residents cower in their rooms? Or even in the habit of much more minor infractions? There are obviously no academic studies but I’m highly skeptical. The fact is, these serviced apartments are expensive by local standards and it makes no sense that the friends and significant others of the expats who live here represent some dangerous criminal element. Like the anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the US and parts of Europe, I think that the idea that guests are a threat to building security says much more about the primitive and tribal instincts of the human brain than it does about actual risks.

The fact is though, humans are not logical, and life gets easier when we stop expecting them to be. See for example, the brilliant Thinking, Fast and Slow, by the Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

Keeping all this in mind and taking a very deep breath, I returned to the negotiation with the lord of my future land:

His modest compromise on the time was appreciated and at this point I definitely thought we would be able to work something out.

Unfortunately, at this point we got into a really awkward discussion of the different types of guests:

I have to say, this sort of thing really makes me squirm. If the discussion had been in person, this is probably the point where I would have lost it. Frankly, if I didn’t like the apartment, building and neighborhood as much as I do I would have said no at the first whiff of this nonsense. Given that it’s better in every possible way though, I really felt there was a way to come to an understanding and was highly motivated to try.

About the landlord’s somewhat eye-popping question above (“Do you have many girlfriends?”), one of the cultural differences I notice in Vietnam is that there is little concept of personal space. In shops customers crowd forward, as close to the register as possible. On the traffic clogged streets, motorbikes jostle for position with almost no space between them and even touch sometimes. When you’re a pedestrian they whizz past with only centimeters separating you. The same thing happens in the busy public pool where I swim. While it’s an olympic size pool with lanes well marked (by paint, not physical dividers) no one stays in their lane, and it’s common for other swimmers to brush against you when then pass.

While perhaps most obvious with physical space, I notice this cultural difference with  more conceptual senses of space as well. People who have a western understanding of personal space are not going to ask questions like “Do you have many girlfriends?” or make a point to emphasize:

While I found this discussion super uncomfortable, this cultural difference over the issue of privacy comes up in many, usually more benign ways as well. For example, when you pay for a purchase it’s really common for the shopkeeper to peer into your wallet, not at all with an intent to cheat or steal. They do this because they want to tell you what bills to use so they don’t have to make a lot of change.

I do think the owner’s line of questioning reflects a really big cultural difference over the issues of personal space and privacy but I want to emphasize that this individual is not typical. In over 2.5 years of living in Thailand and Vietnam I’ve never encountered this sort of thing or had any trouble with having guests over.

Somewhat exhausted, I concluded the discussion with the local Taliban commander…errr, my new landlord in this relatively peaceful way:

I try to wield language in clear and illuminating ways and “I understand you” is a bit awkward and unnatural. According to the WordPress statistics I revised the first post on puppets 52 times. Needless to say, text messaging is much faster and more immediate, but in this case the slightly unnatural usage was intentional.

“I understand you” is actually a concept from Japanese, by far my best foreign language. In negotiations it’s common for Japanese to acknowledge the other person’s point of view without expressing either agreement or disagreement with the expression “分かりました” (wakarimashita). This is typically translated as “I understand” but in this particular context of simply acknowledging the other’s point of view, I think that something like “Your point is noted” is much closer to what it means.

I’ve heard lots of foreigners who’ve lived or done business in Japan complain about the way Japanese use “I understand” to note (but not agree or disagree with) their point of view. “Opaque and inscrutable!”, they’ll typically complain. “Why don’t they say what they really mean!” I actually find the Japanese approach really helpful though. The Big Joy owner and I can discuss this point into eternity (pretty much my own personal definition of hell) and we’re never going to agree. There’s just nothing to be gained by me telling him my actual opinion (“WTF, dude, are you running a serviced apartment or a morality police department?”). To my mind it’s just better to negotiate a more flexible agreement on the specifics and note (分かりました), without expressing an opinion, the owner’s point of view.

A strict 9 pm guest curfew would of course be a deal breaker but given that the owner is, to some degree, flexible about the specific times I think that this issue is going to be finessed without any significant problems. First, the owner doesn’t live here and I don’t think I would be comfortable with living in an otherwise perfect apartment if he did. Day and night, the elderly live-in housekeeper looks after the building.

While I do have an active social life in Saigon, at this stage in life I’m not really into swinging from the chandeliers or late night partying of any kind. 10:30 pm is of course a bit stern, and part of me does chafe at this sort of limit, but in practice it’s not going to be a big problem.

Also, when I mentioned this dilemma (perfect apartment, puritanical  landlord) to a couple Vietnamese friends, both of them suggested that if I had a guest stay later, a 50,000 Dong bill would smooth over the problem. Woo hoo, big spender, right? LOL, 50,000 Dong is just a little over 2 USD. In the unlikely event that 50,000 VND wasn’t enough, one friend assured me that 100,000 VND would solve my problem…and probably make a new friend.

At first this deeply surprised me, that the problem could be solved with such a small amount of money. Perhaps you can think about it this way though – the housekeeper’s salary is likely close to 100,000 VND a day (about 4.50 USD), and quite possibly less as it’s not a full time job. In a country which suffers from vast government corruption, is it not highly likely that this woman would overlook a small infraction in exchange for half to one whole day’s wages?

Actually, I really dislike it when foreigners in developing countries wave their money around as if they were wealthy visiting royals. It was Vietnamese who suggested this though and they both presented it as a “tip” or a small “gift” that would smooth things over, not as something unsavory. I don’t think I would ever make a habit of this but it could be useful in a pinch.

Also, in Saigon, there are endless interesting cafes, bars and enough tasty restaurants and street food to keep you fed for many lifetimes. Given all these options, socializing in my room is not the obvious choice anyway.

And, by the way, the cost of a room in a love hotel in Saigon is between $3-5/hr? Whoa! I beg you, dear reader, don’t get the wrong idea! Morning, afternoon and night I labor to bring you the best content my dork brain and camera can produce. No time for hanky panky. I just happened to notice hourly rates posted on some hotels when I walked past. While prices that low made me weary (will I catch something?), when I actually saw the inside of one (for research purposes only, of course), it was clean and comfortable, though a bit plain (none of the crazy kinkiness you see with this sort of hotel in Japan).

So please don’t imagine anything too frisky, but life in the new apartment (photo immediately below) shouldn’t require joining a monastery or grievous sacrifice of any kind.

“Big Joy” isn’t the actual name of the apartment. After writing an early draft of this post I realized that using the real name would effectively mean revealing my address on the internet. As a way around this I made up a new name that had the same feeling as the real one (a bit campy, melodramatic and slightly odd).

Here are some of my favorite photos of the new neighborhood, all taken on a single afternoon walk after signing the contract.

Neighborhood Vendors

This woman sells simple toys and snacks in front of an elementary school

(Above two photos) This woman is a lottery ticket vendor. Every evening she sets up at this same spot, only about 200 m from my new apartment.

(Above five photos) Motorbike taxi drivers. The one with a green helmet works for a local service called Grab, which is a direct competitor to Uber. In Saigon, both services offer both cars and motorbikes. My local friends rave about Grab but after I installed the app and compared some trips, I found that Uber was cheaper almost all the time.

(Above six photos) Sandwich shops and stands. Vietnamese “banh mi” baguette sandwiches are one of the many influences the French had on Vietnamese cuisine during the long period that Vietnam was a French colony.
A photocopy and printing shop

(Above two photos) In Saigon and other cities in Vietnam, motorbike repairmen sometimes operate right on the sidewalk. For something really simple like adding air to a tire the customer doesn’t even need to get off the motorbike.

Other People

(Above five photos) Interesting neighborhood characters, just hanging out.

 

(Above five photos) These are some of my favorite photos in this series. With this type of street photography timing is really important. I walked by this school just as it was letting out and parents were picking up their children on motorbikes. Twenty minutes earlier or later and these photos would have been impossible.

(Above five photos) A pool hall on my new street.

   

  

 

Churches and Shrines

There are about seven million Catholics in Vietnam, another French influence

Street Scenes

The building in the center of this photo is a large traditional market about 10 minutes walk from my new apartment

Phu Quoc was “okay”, and that’s okay

I’ve been fortunate to travel a lot, and in each new destination I have a tendency to compare it to travel experiences in the past. For instance, while hopping around the beach towns of eastern Uruguay with an old flame from Japan about three years ago, I found myself thinking that the beaches there were nice but that I’d seen much better, including on the Costa Brava north of Barcelona, Spain, where I was living at the time.

Or, while wine tasting on the same trip, I’d think, “This is good wine but at $25 a bottle it’s way overpriced. I can find the same level of wine for a quarter of the price in Spain”. Uruguay is known as the Switzerland of South America for a reason. And as long as you avoid staying and eating in the most touristy places, Spain provides excellent value for the money. I found myself asking why I’d traveled all the way from Spain for nice but highly overpriced beaches, food and wine in a really expensive part of South America. (I think maybe it was the beach hopping in South America with an old flame part. I’m a junkie for new experiences.)

More recently, while on a date to an avant-garde dance performance in Saigon, I found myself doing the same thing, thinking that it was okay for an amateur student group but when I was a grad student near New York City I saw world class dance performances for the same price (with a student discount). I noted to my date that having experienced the best makes it harder to enjoy something less.

This habit is really annoying for my companions, and recently I’ve come to realize how much it detracts from my own enjoyment of an experience. Comparing each new destination to a previous ideal beach, mountain, wine or cuisine makes it much harder to completely enjoy new experiences as they come.

As I’ve noted in other posts, I’ve really come around to the Buddhist perspective that our enjoyment and happiness depends mainly on the way we think about our experiences, not on the experiences themselves. And evaluating and ranking is not a good way to savor the time in each new destination. Wherever we are in our travels or in our daily lives is where we are. With an outlook of calm, open acceptance there’s always something to appreciate.

Over time I’ve gotten better at this. Last month I spent three days on Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese island directly south of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand. It’s a great destination for Vietnamese or foreign residents of Vietnam who don’t have a lot of time or money to travel to other beach destinations in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, if you’re looking for great beach recommendations in the region, I can’t give Phu Quoc the highest endorsement. I would point you instead toward some places in Bali or Thailand.

The beach I stayed on in Phu Quoc (Ong Lang) was clean, beautiful and quiet. If you like spending your entire holiday on the beach it’s perfect. As I’ve mentioned in another post though I like to get out and explore. Like many places in Southeast Asia, Phu Quoc has tremendous natural beauty but the island has a big trash problem – there’s no system in place for garbage and locals tend to throw it anywhere they can. When I motorbiked around other parts of the island a lot of the natural beauty was marred by garbage (you can see a bit of this in a couple of the photos below).

On the other hand, almost anywhere in this part of the world you have great weather, friendly people and delicious food. Phu Quoc is famous for its seafood. And the beach itself was quite nice (mainly because the hotels there have a large incentive to keep it clean). The fact is that even second tier islands and beaches in Southeast Asia are actually quite nice. If the alternative was marriage and a mortgage in Kansas, I’d take life on Phu Quoc any day!

Happily, while traveling there, I mostly avoided comparing it unfavorably to the very best beaches and islands I’ve seen in my travels. By savoring the time I was there without evaluating it in comparison to previous destinations, it was a really enjoyable three days.

Here are my favorite photos of my time in Phu Quoc.

People

 

People Selling Things (Markets and Vendors)

(Above two photos) When a nearby elementary school let out, many of the children ran to this small toy store next door. I didn’t see a lot of buying. I think the boys and girls were mostly eyeing what they wanted to buy once they saved up enough allowance. These were simple toys – small dolls, toy cars and marbles, for example. Not a video game console or drone in sight. This is just the sort of local scene I enjoy seeing and capturing in my photos when I travel. It’s a tricky shot technically though because the shop is dark compared to the bright afternoon sun in the background. The solution is to do what’s called “spot metering” and tell the camera to adjust exposure levels for one of the children’s faces. With the children posing for me though I didn’t think I had time to redo my camera’s settings, and the children’s faces came out way too dark (second photo). I was able to salvage it with Photoshop Elements though (first photo) (essentially a lite version of the professional software suite, though it’s much more powerful than I’ll ever need).

 

  

     

 

Island Atmosphere

A beach hut set back from the beach where I stayed
A temple in the main town devoted to fishermen. The blue and white structure on the right is a lighthouse.

(Above three photos) Simple houses in a fishing village I visited

Beaches and Ocean

A fishing village in the main town on the island

(Above two photos) Ong Lang beach where I stayed

Sunsets