Street Talk: We Ask, What Are You Doing About Sustainability?

By: JK Hobson

We take to the streets to ask the people of Saigon...

What have YOU been doing to make a sustainable difference? 
And how would you like to see Vietnam improve on waste management?

Crystal, South Carolina, USA

“I order bread from a bakery near work and always refuse the plastic bag when they offer it to me. Since then, they’ve switched over to using paper bags as a way to cut back on plastic waste. Although the change is gradual, every little bit helps! 

Street TalkImage source: biobagworld.com

If there were a way to mass produce biodegradable bags affordable enough for the street vendors to buy and use, we would reduce the plastic consumption significantly. 

Also, can we get some public recycling bins up in here? If people had easier access to recycling, they’d do it more often.”

Thao, Quy Nhon, Vietnam

“Everybody wants to see a less polluted, more green Vietnam. The level of awareness towards how urgent it is for us to reduce our waste is nowhere near where it needs to be. To change the mindset, the habit of local Vietnamese people is not easy.

Street TalkImage source: Thao

Vietnamese people are good at remembering things, can easily replicate things, but we are also easy to forget. The government, media and influencers should jump in urgently, with large scale, consistent and lasting campaigns to help educate people and train them to develop their own habits of using less single use plastics.”

Todd, Kansas, USA

“Things I commonly do include refusing plastic bags offered to me and bringing my own bag (when I’m) shopping. I also re-use bottles as much as possible and I always refuse single-use cutlery when I get take out.

Street TalkImage source: Todd

I know packaging is the nature of the game in take-out, but some places just give an insane amount of it so I tend to stop ordering take out from there and just dine in instead.”

Patricia, Portugal 

“I try to buy fruits and vegetables that are not pre-wrapped, I cook my own food from scratch such as yogurt, jam, sauce, juice and chocolate to avoid the packaging. I even make my own natural body products. I haven’t bought shampoo or conditioner or body scrub in years. I’m a teacher, so I give extra stars to my students when they bring reusable water bottles! I also try to buy locally to reduce my carbon footprint. When it comes to clothing and footwear, I get everything tailor made instead of spending on fast fashion.

Street TalkImage source: vietbao.vn

I would love to see less littering, more walking and less driving, as well as a public transportation system that actually works. Also, yearly motorbike checks to make sure their carbon-print is within limits.”

Francesca, Texas, USA

“I use zero plastic in the bathroom and I use dish and laundry soap that is made from organic ingredients. I save all of my plastic waste to use for bottle bricking. I bring my own reusable straws, cutlery and containers everywhere I go and have inspired several people to purchase and bring their own too!

Street TalkImage source: traveloka.com

I would like to see designated places to dispose of recycling, as opposed to the group of street ninjas sorting dirty trash on the side of the road.”

Banner Image source: wildtussah.com


Chinese Medicine: Ancient Hero or Modern Villain?

By: Chris Baker

On a trip to Cat Ba Island a few months ago I got chatting to a very charming and energetic local Vietnamese man who I guessed was around 40 years old. In fact he turned out to be in his mid-50s. I’m sure that you will have had similar experiences of being impressed by Vietnamese people’s ability to delay the ageing process. He put this down to 2 things: eating monkey meat for strength (flexing his impressive muscles to prove this) and drinking snake whisky to maintain a healthy spine.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) tells us that monkey brain can make you more intelligent and tiger penis enhances sexual virility

There was no doubt that this guy was in great physical shape. Monkey, like all meat, contains a lot of protein which helps to build muscle. Coupled with regular exercise this could contribute to staying strong. Drinking snake whisky to keep a healthy back was less easy to explain. I asked more about it. Pointing to his spine he fetched a bottle containing a coiled specimen surrounded by brown liquid. But I was still confused. Where could such a belief stem from? I came up with an explanation on the way back to my hotel - snakes are basically one long spine with a head plonked on the end. The logic being that the snake’s spinal flexibility was absorbed by the whisky and then transferred to the drinker. Using the same thought process, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) tells us that monkey brain can make you more intelligent and tiger penis enhances sexual virility.

Photo by: Victoria Reay

A number of doctors in the UK have slammed the Prince of Wales’ proposal, saying it would add credibility to an unproven pseudoscientific version of medicine

TCM is believed to have originated about 3000 years ago, refined by trial and error to take a basic version of its current form 1,000 years later. It is becoming increasingly popular in the UK, even gaining positive academic attention from Middlesex University (ranked as number 75 in The Guardian’s list of top UK universities for 2013) that now offers a 4-year BSc course in the subject. The study, in partnership with the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, includes placements in UK government-funded hospitals. The Prince of Wales, Britain’s next king, is a keen supporter of alternative medicine and has called for it to be regulated in the same way that mainstream medicine is. So, TCM is backed by significant support, but does that mean that it works? After all, a number of doctors in the UK have slammed the Prince of Wales’ proposal, saying it would add credibility to an unproven pseudoscientific version of medicine.

Not only might some TCMs not work, a number are known to contain toxic substances such as heavy metals. These could actually cause harm to the patient and complicate the recovery when used alongside effective medicine or speeding up the decline when used alone. Sweet berry is commonly prescribed by herbalists to patients as an anti-rheumatic. Although painful, arthritis is not a life threatening illness. However, methyl salicylate is found in sweet berry and if taken at high enough doses it can be fatal. So, taking too much of what might seem like a harmless holistic medicine could do you serious damage. But take an overdose of the most common modern drugs found in a home’s medicine cupboard and you could die, too. Whilst this is true, we know how much of a modern drug to take because toxicologists test it in clinical trials and the resulting safety information is displayed on the label. TCM products are not regulated so strictly. In the name of safety rather than credibility, perhaps Prince Charles is right in calling for regulations to be tightened on holistic medicine.

 

Photo by: egorgrebnev

During its 3000 year development, TCM has found lots of plants that do have healing powers. Indeed lots of modern medicines, including the world’s most important malaria drug, have been developed from ancient Chinese remedies. We owe a lot to the early herbalists who discovered the medical properties of Chinese sweet wormwood (the plant from which is extracted), particularly given that UNICEF lists malaria as the largest killer of children worldwide.Modern medicine has found the active ingredient and packaged it into handy pill form, thus rendering the previous version redundant. It would be even better if the scientists could synthesis rather than simply isolating it and so end the need for expensive extraction processes. This has been done for acid (UDCA), a chemical used to treat hepatitis C that was developed from TCM. By synthesizing UDCA in the laboratory, pharmacologists have shed the need for the raw material – bear bile.

Bear bile farms are some of the most horrifically cruel places imaginable

Bear bile farms are some of the most horrifically cruel places imaginable. Asiatic black bears (otherwise known as moon bears due to the yellow patterning on their chest) are kept in cages just a little bigger than their bodies for up to 25 years. Often these are “crush cages”, designed to be so short that the bear is pinned to the base thus giving farmers easier access to its gall bladder. Bears are milked for their bile twice a day through a permanently open wound in the abdomen. Apart from the mental trauma inflicted, physical damage includes liver cancer, blindness, necrotic ingrown claws, infected ulcers and missing teeth from either biting the cage bars or because the farmer has removed them to make the bear less dangerous.

Photo by: Matteo X

Bear farms were made illegal in Vietnam in 1992 and China hasn’t issued a license since 1994, but current estimates suggest that there are 12,000 farmed individuals in these two countries alone, with more in Korea and Laos. One might expect that because we can now sythesise the active ingredient found in bear bile demand should be decreasing. In fact, as with the general popularity of TCM, the opposite is true. Bear bile is expensive, costing around US$3,000 per kilogram. With the growing number of rich in Asia, more people can afford it. There’s an element of showing off here, with some of the new social elite taking bile to prevent a hangover, mirroring the increased use of rhino horn for the same reason. It is also claimed to be an aphrodisiac, as so many TCMs are. But for these claims there is no scientific evidence.

But here, efforts are being made... We no longer depend on TCM but a future for endangered species depends on its demise

It seems like an impossible task to change attitudes based upon a belief system that has been part of Asian culture for three millennia. But here, efforts are being made. Vietnam banned massage oil containing bear bile and authorities have acknowledged a need to get rid of the misconception that rhino horn cures cancer. Such steps, if continued, will lead to the eventual demise of this dated discipline. If you want to get stronger, lift weights and drink protein shakes. If you lack sexual virility, consult a legitimate doctor who may prescribe Viagra. We no longer depend on TCM but a future for endangered species depends on its demise.

Header photo by: Spot Us


Weather in Saigon: The Best Time to Visit South Vietnam's Megacity

By: Fabrice Turri

People keep asking me: when is the best time to travel to Saigon? When to visit Vietnam? If you, too, want to know what the climate is like in Ho Chi Minh City before you take the plane, here's all the information you need about the weather in South Vietnam.

Average rainfall and humidity in Saigon

The climate of South Vietnam is subequatorial, meaning there are high year-round temperatures and two seasons – rainy and dry. So when is the best time of the year to travel to Saigon and Mekong Delta?

The offical dry season lasts from December to April. Temperatures are temperate at first but can climb up to 40°C at the end of April while remaining very humid. The rainy season in turn, which runs from May to November, is characterized by violent but brief showers.

The best time to visit Saigon runs from December to March

In Saigon, the annual average temperature is 27°C and never falls below 15°C. The best time to visit the city runs from December to March when it is dry and sunny. February is the month when it rains the least of the year while March and April are the hottest months with an average of 36 to 38°C.

Average temperature in Saigon through the year

temperature in Saigon thought the year

If you are generally interested in the climate of Vietnam, check out our article about the best time to visit Vietnam. We also have a section about the weather of Hanoi, for those among you who are more into the North. Check it out!

The wettest period is from July to September

It’s not all doom and gloom though, as the rain can bring a welcome drop in temperature. The heaviest rains occur between mid-August and mid-September and many of the streets in the city will be flooded at this time.

Rain in Saigon

Average rainfall and humididy

Average rainfall and humidity in Saigon

This problem is exacerbated by the gradual sinking of the most populous city in Vietnam.

Research has shown that Saigon is slowly sinking due to mass urbanization and excessive pumping of groundwater, with some places sinking up to 20 millimeters per year.

But the greatest threat comes from the coastline. 90% of the Mekong Delta and more than 20% of Ho Chi Minh City will be flooded by 2100 if the sea water level rises 1 meter.

If you don't have the choice about your holiday dates, we still recommend you to come to Vietnam, but you should prefer visiting areas such as Nha Trang where the rain is much lower. 


Top 5 tips to rent a motorbike in Vietnam

By: Vinh Dao

Renting a motorbike is a great opportunity to get off the beaten track and discover Vietnam on your own. That is if you are able to deal with the manic traffic and less than stringent road rules.

There are many places in tourist areas such as Pham Ngu Lao in Ho Chi Minh City and the Old Quarter in Hanoi that rent bikes to foreigners. You will need to fill out a form to rent the bike along with leaving your passport as a deposit and most places offer a selection of manual shift and automatic shift motorbikes. The rentals will also come with a helmet and remember that helmet use is mandatory in Vietnam.

So if you have the intestinal fortitude to get on the open road, we have compiled together a few tips for you to make your experience a bit smoother.

Here are my top 5 tips:

1. Check your bike

Test the your turn signals and lights and take a quick test drive around the block. Finding out that your front brakes are a bit dodgy a mile down the road isn’t ideal so check it out first.When parking in a public lot, don’t lose that ticket. If you lose it, you will need to verify the ownership of the bike, which means contacting the place you rented the bike. Which brings me to number 3.

2. Get the rental agency’s contact details

This could be a lifesaver if your bike breaks down.

3. Make sure your helmet is in good order

If you feel it’s a bit dodgy, request a new one. If they refuse, head down to the next shop.

4. Anticipate your surroundings

Vietnamese drivers don’t really use their wing mirrors so watch out for the traffic ahead of you. Also, slow down through intersections as stopping at a red is more like a guideline as opposed to a rule.


Local insight:
While manual shift bikes go for VND100,000/day (~$5/day), automatics will run you a bit more at around VND120,000/day (~$6/day).

If you need some tips and advices to help you choose the right motorbike for you, you can also read our guide: Tips for Renting or Buying the Right Motorbike in Vietnam.


If you liked this blog, you might like those:

Are you insane enough to drive in Saigon

Top 5 tips for crossing the street in Vietnam

The art of bargaining in Vietnam


We've Been Duped About Vietnam Travel for Too Long

By: Patrick Gaveau

Travel is my field, with 64 countries under my belt. Those who know me well enough would also say that I am a cosmopolitan individual, for good reason.

My dear mum was born and raised in India. My hunting dad lived 45 years across Africa. My beloved grandmother was sent across the globe with her parents and diplomat husband. As a professional athlete, I covered five continents. I also followed two masters degrees in tourism, one in sociology and one in economy.

My research and the consulting work that resulted focused on marketing and sustainable developments for tourism destinations. Upon arriving in Vietnam, I began as a sales and marketing director for a local travel operator. Three years later, we launched the City Pass Saigon Guidebook. Today, Citypassguide.com carries over 100,000 pages of relevant content about Vietnam. So with all that I have learned over the years, let’s clarify the true meaning of travelling in Vietnam.

Most people imagine that Vietnam is scenic north to south, overwhelmed with exquisite landscapes and attractions. I challenge these basic ideas, and for me, travel is in fact a lot more than gazing at poorly managed attractions. The traveller is active, he searches for people and experiences, while the tourist is passive and expects interesting things to happen to him.

With passive tourists, there continues to be too many who still sense Vietnam as being so unique, preserved and authentic that it will impart its effects automatically on them, leaving an everlasting impression. They persist in being blind to the realm of a crushing modernity that erases rapidly most traces of a distant past.

When travelling, let's remember that a foreign country is not designed to make us comfortable. It is conceived to make its own people at ease. And trust is that what makes Vietnam a remarkable place to be, is its humanity, first and foremost. We all travel for some sort of fulfillment, right? It is often the result of combined experiences and emotions often filled by the human encounters and its attached simplicity - something common in Vietnam’s daily life. It is an excellent feed for our souls and well-being. Preserving this part of the local culture is essential for the industry and the generations to come.

What is in fact so prized, but unrecognised, is its appealing cuisine. Vietnam is a country with rich cuisine, unique to each region. “Why can’t Vietnam, with its reputation for rich, diverse culinary cuisine, and a plentiful food source, become a kitchen or a food warehouse for the world?” says Philip Kotler. How can we strive to unify the rustic dishes under a single national identity so that the world begins to value Vietnamese cuisine for what it is worth?

Mr. Sang Ly who sponsors the Golden Spoon Awards stated that, “we as a country have not yet properly introduced the world to the versatility of our food. It’s already recognised that other culinary giants like Italy, France, China or Thailand have different types of food per region. Vietnam is very much the same, but I don’t come across many people who know this.” Yes, street food is acclaimed but fine food has a long way to go. And most continue to miss this essential part of the travel experience that makes Vietnam so special.

At Citypassguide.com, we aim to present an authentic voyage of discovery, created with extensive help from local residents and experts. This voyage not only consists of seeking new landscapes, but casting new eyes on the destinations you probably know already. It’s a re-envisioned way of travelling Vietnam.


Understanding the Ecosystem that is Saigon’s Nightlife

By: Sivaraj Pragasm

Some cities around the world are well known for their nightlife culture and history. Berlin is known for its techno clubs and crazy parties, Amsterdam is popular for its trance events, and you can find some of the craziest marathon parties in Ibiza.

Although Asian cities have their fair share of popular events such as the legendary psytrance parties in Goa or the full moon parties in Koh Phangan, it wasn’t until recently that nightlife was established as an institution and a pull factor for tourism for some parts of Asia.

When “nightlife” is mentioned in Southeast Asia, many would point you towards the scene in Bangkok which has blossomed over the years, ranging from the infamous ladies’ bars to franchised international music festivals. However, not many would have realised by now that on the other side of the Southeast Asian peninsula, Vietnam, especially Saigon, is quickly gaining a reputation for providing the region with one of the most diverse nightlife scenes, with an increasing number of international DJs and producers performing live shows of various genres and subgenres in an increasing number of clubs and rooftop bars across the city.

And this is even before mentioning the home-grown, high-energy Vinahouse scene.

But when did it all start?

The evolution of the city’s nightlife scene is as dramatic as the history of the city itself. During the American War, the city saw a sizeable population of foreign journalists residing here as correspondents. They mostly frequented hotel bars, sipping on cocktails while churning out news reports pertaining to the war. Hotel Majestic, The Rex and The Caravelle were some of the most popular with the latter subsequently becoming the unofficial American media headquarters, as described in a journal written by Steve Somerville, a former correspondent for Reuters based in Vietnam.

evolution nightlife in saigonImage source: The Rex Hotel

However, nightlife in that era wasn’t just limited to foreign journalists. Back when Dong Khoi Street was still known as Rue Catinat, and subsequently Tu Do Street, there was a buzz developing in that area. Live music acts dominated stages across the stretch and one of the venues that achieved iconic status among the in-crowd was Tu Do Nightclub, at the junction of the present Dong Khoi and Dong Du Streets.

Tu Do Nightclub was the nightlife institution of that era. The club brought together American and Vietnamese patrons looking for great live music courtesy of legendary performers like Tuan Ngoc and Khanh Ly, among many others.

However, the facade and ceiling of Saigon’s nightlife was blown off unexpectedly in September 1971 when a bomb went off inside the club, killing 15 and injuring 57 others. This sounded the death knell of the music scene and nightlife in the city.

As post-war Vietnam grappled with economic sanctions and poverty, priorities were shifted towards survival and not much information has been recorded nor revealed about nightlife before the Doi Moi era.

Sowing the seeds

With Doi Moi, Vietnam embraced a free market economy in the late ’80s and early ’90s, effectively marking its growth as a nation. It also saw an increasing number of foreign businesses setting up base here. The city saw the return of establishments catering to music, alcohol and entertainment. One remnant from that generation that is still going strong is Apocalypse Now.

evolution nightlife in saigonImage source: Apocalypse Now

As the 2000s rapidly streamed past us, technology started shrinking things and music production tools got condensed into computer software programs. Young Vietnamese musicians eager to create their own sound began producing their own brand of electronic music designed to give you that extra pump in life and soon enough, Vinahouse was born. Its polarising reach did not stop beer clubs from popping up all across the city, much to the delight of young locals with a penchant for loud music and towers of booze.

Electronic music had, by 2010, become a global trend and Vietnam embraced it wholeheartedly. This also coincided with Saigon’s magnificent economic growth resulting in an increasing number of foreigners living and working here. In what could be seen as a genuine exchange of culture, they brought along their favourite music to the city. Clubs, lounges, bars and rooftop bars started opening across the city, providing a diverse range of music, both mainstream and underground.

According to Dan Bimong, founder of The Observatory, “I started The Observatory with the idea of having a venue where we can invite artists from all around the world that fit with my musical perspective that is clearly focused on a wide range of house, disco, techno and affiliated sounds”.

evolution nightlife in saigonImage source: The Observatory

At the turn of this decade, those genres were still only limited to small parties within common circles, mainly among expats.

“The idea was also to have a place that is fully dedicated to that activity with a decent sound system and a programme with international guests every weekend in order to give the opportunity for the city to see artists that never had the chance to come to play in Vietnam”, he added.

A thriving ecosystem

While clubs like Envy, SkyXX, Kasho and Chill SkyBar serve those who are looking for the mainstream EDM club experience, venues like Lush and Piu Piu go one step further by organising themed events featuring specific genres of music like hip hop and bass music. The Lighthouse and Arcan cater to those who are looking for purely underground electronic music genres like techno, house, drum & bass and psytrance with plenty of independently organised events featuring international DJs.

evolution nightlife in saigonImage source: Arcan

Teams like The Beats Saigon, dOSe, Jetlag, Heart Beat, Techno.vn and many others have been responsible for most of the movement in the city’s underground electronic music scene.

There has also been a massive increase in the number of young Vietnamese DJs and music producers in the city mainly due to a rising level of awareness and interest, with DJ academies run by organisations like Pioneer Music catering to them. This has created a revolving door of talented DJs playing in clubs across the country, performing alongside experienced foreign DJs currently living in Saigon, and even touring the region.

Locally produced music festivals have also brought big-name DJs and producers like Deadmau5, Ferry Corsten, Armin van Buuren, Hardwell and Steve Angello to the city, playing to large crowds.

Beyond the flashing lights and pulsating basslines, other components of nightlife have also started to gain traction here, from speakeasy bars to craft beers. Establishments like Drinking & Healing, Snuffbox and Firkin have provided residents and tourists with bespoke cocktails created by skilled bartenders and mixologists, all accompanied by specially curated music.

evolution nightlife in saigonImage source: Drinking & Healing

Homegrown breweries like Heart of Darkness, East West, Te Te, Winking Seal and at least a dozen others have opened more than just venues for beer aficionados. They have also created a scene that’s slowly gaining global recognition.

How far will it go?

Since nightlife is constantly evolving in Saigon, it has already started playing a significant role in the tourism industry with music lovers from across the continent travelling here to check out the increasingly vibrant nightlife scene in the city.

“We have noticed it at The Observatory while talking to our customers. Almost every weekend, we meet people from Hong Kong, Singapore or Bangkok just to name a few cities, who come here to enjoy our vibrant nightlife. It’s definitely growing, so let’s see what will happen in the next few years”, added Dan Bimong.

From the chaotic backpacker-filled bars of Bui Vien Street to glossy speakeasy bars, EDM clubs and rooftop bars, Saigon’s nightlife can be described as an ecosystem catering to almost everyone—locals as well as foreigners.

evolution nightlife in saigonImage source: zing.vn

However, whether the city’s nightlife evolves into a global institution or not will still heavily depend on factors such as its reputation, safety and security, quality of music, the people to keep it running and of course, the authorities.

But as of now, it’s back to being one of the most vibrant in Southeast Asia.

Banner Image source: shutterstock

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