Saigon/HCMC Vietnam: Guitar Street

by Stax

Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.

A sad story I will now relate. Our beloved guitar is mortally wounded. The wood underpinning the bridge split in half, leaving two of the strings unusable.

We don’t give up on the guitar easily though. We walk a couple of kilometers in 100 degree heat and blazing midday sun from Pham Ngu Lao to Saigon’s “Guitar Street” – a.k.a., Nyugen Thien Thuat.

"Guitar Street" in Ho Chi Minh City. Image courtesy vietnamnet.vn “Guitar Street” in Ho Chi Minh City. Image courtesy vietnamnet.vn

This where most of the stringed instruments have been made by hand, repaired and sold for hundreds of years. If there’s anywhere in Saigon to find out if Beej’s guitar has a chance at survival, it’s here.

But the prognosis is grim. Every shop we go to takes one look and says the same thing: “There is nothing that can be done.”

The bridge is cracked and if they take off the bottom part, the finish will also…

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Saigon/HCMC Vietnam: Pham Ngu Lao-cious

by Beej McKay

23/9 Park in the Dark. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
23/9 Park in the Dark. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

The 23/9 Park across from Pham Ngu Lao street in Saigon’s backpacker district is swarming with activity from 6 am on.

This being a large Vietnamese city where authority is centralized, most of the activity is pretty tightly regulated. The first day we’re there, dozens of organized groups are kicking the shuttlecock around; the next day, everyone – I mean everyone – is rollerblading, and it’s as if the shuttlecock never existed.

The slight oddness is amplified doubly by the fact that we’ve arrived while the entire park is being used as an advertisement for Vietnam’s tourist industry. A garish live concert, as loud as at any arena, is being held at the east end. Vietnamese pop singers extol the wonders of the country’s natural beauty in song while images of waterfalls and beaches are projected on a giant screen behind them.

The singers strain their hardest to get the packed and seated crowd worked up. They dance and sing with tremendous flair and energy. This being a reticent Southeast Asian country, though, and not prone to outward celebratory expression, the pop stars’ raised fists and triumphant smiles at the end of every song occasion no uproar.

No, instead there is dead silence once the music falls silent. Not one spectator betrays any sign that they have just witnessed a performance at all, no matter how slam-bang the spectacle. It makes me feel bad for the performers giving it all, but I’m sure they’re used to it.

Pretty sure this girl was there? Not positive.

The rest of the festival is mostly just booths hawking Malaysian cruises and temple tours and such. The only other highlight occurs when we run across a large group little kids dancing to a  great DJ spinning hardcore hip-hop tracks (think an F-bomb every five seconds) while their parents look on. The DJ is so good, in fact, that Stax and I have a hard time stopping ourselves from joining the kids. The dour expressions of the parents as they stand around put a damper on these inclinations, however.

Despite these peculiar goings-on, the park is very pleasant at most hours and usually full of Vietnamese students  eager to speak English or French with foreigners. Don’t deny yourself this experience – you will get more out of the exchange than the kids themselves probably will.

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Since we returned to Saigon from our mountain retreat in Dalat, we’ve been staying at the Vy Khanh Guesthouse down a maze of  back alleys just off the main street.

Shadows in the back alley. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
Shadows in the back alley. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

Vy is really nice and helpful and her guesthouse is too fancy for what we are paying. She’s also great to talk to, and the setting of her place is pretty awesome.

The alleyways of Pham Ngu Lao. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer
The alleyways of Pham Ngu Lao. Image (c) 2014 Benjamin J Spencer

The steaming narrow alleys of Pham Ngu Lao, jam-packed with guesthouses and family residences and noodle stands and herb shops, wouldn’t be out of place in a movie like “Big Trouble in Little China”. I could easily picture  Lo-Pan and the Storms facing off against their rivals right outside our guesthouse.

Big-trouble-in-little-china-big-trouble-in-little-china-30907475-853-480
Ah, my dear misadventurists…make yourself at home in my Saigon alley. There is nothing to fear!
Why, thank you Lo-Pan! What a nice older gentlema....AHHHHHHHHHHH!
Why, thank you Lo-Pan! What a nice older gentlemAHHHHHHHHHH MAKE HIM STOP

Stax and I waste no time in finding the best Pho and the best fruit and yogurt smoothies in the neighborhood. The stage is set for a very pleasant five days in Saigon before we head  across the border to Phnom Penh. But as soon as I open my guitar case –  for the first time since our bus trip from Da Lat – I realize that not all will go as smoothly as I hope.

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Part Two of Saigon update soon!
To Be Continued…

Vietnam: Coffee! Coffee! Coffee!

Stax gets juiced up in Saigon and lives to tell the tale! Stay tuned for more misadventures from your favorite Misadventurists.

Gypsy. Tramp. Thief.

p20140512-175941Deceptively innocent coffee. Image (c) Stacy Libokmeto

Back in Saigon from Dalat, we’re hanging out at Highlands Coffee, a major coffee shop chain in Vietnam. I’m sitting in front of the large windows on the second floor overlooking the backpacker district at Pham Ngu Lao. We come here for a break from the crowds, wifi, and coffee, of course. Vietnamese coffee or Cà phê sữa đá, is so powerful, it could wake up the dead. I prefer to get it iced, but even the melted ice cubes do little to tone down its strength.

Still, I forget how strong Vietnamese style coffee is, until I take my first sip of the day. The mix of concentrated coffee and sweetened condensed milk hit me hard. Every time. One drop meets my tongue and my brain goes into system overload. Caffeine! Caffeine! Caffeine! Caffeine! my cells scream. Caffeine sprinting through the blood…

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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Welcome to HCMC Part 2

And I never saw Beej again.

Just kidding.

I’m sitting at Highlands Coffee (a major chain in Vietnam), taking big gulps of my Vietnamese style iced coffee (syrupy and strong coffee, sweetened, and then sweetened some more with sweetened condensed milk).

Highlands Coffee Shop in Hcmc
Typical Highlands Coffee. Image courtesy vietnamonline.com

The big gulps serve two purposes. One, I’m thirsty and it’s freaking hot out here. Two, I keep forgetting that ice, while nice on a hot day, can contribute to gastrointestinal dysfunction. I actually say that lightly. As we are traveling through so many countries with so many different levels of disease factors, I’m assuming that I will catch something, I just don’t know when or where. But if I recall correctly, Vietnam is fairly good when it comes to cleanliness and disease control as compared to some of its neighbors.

But I digress. The point is, Ben is on an adventure. And I’m sitting here with nothing to do but lollygag. As you may recall from my previous post, Ben has hopped on the back of a motorbike to chase after a bus and retrieve the camera he loves before it falls into the wrong hands. Such high drama!

I’m hoping they find the bus and the driver. Losing that camera will be a big blow to our budgets if we have to buy another one for our doc shoot.

For now, I will sit in the a/c, drink my iced coffee, think about the cost of a new camera, think about mosquitoes, bide my time, and wait for Ben’s return.

Update: Ben has just returned, big grin on his face, his camera grasped triumphantly in his hands.

He raises his camera case high so I can’t miss it, much like Gollum raises the One Ring after a long and trying separation.

“I got it!” he exclaims.

What a relief.