[Preface: 4 years ago I wrote about bootstrapping startups from Vietnam and in recent years we've seen waves of "digital nomads" settling down in Vietnam. The situation for startups in particular in Vietnam has developed rapidly since but it's still a good base for "bootstrappers". The following is one long-term Vietnam expat's view on another trendy digital nomad hotspot.]

Have you heard? Chiang Mai, a city in the north of Thailand, is a top destination for digital nomads. What's a digital nomad? It's those people you see sitting in cafes all day with MacBooks. There are thousands of them in Saigon, at thousands of cafes throughout the city, but mostly around District 1.

When you've been hanging around Bangkok or Saigon, you'll find that Chiang Mai is much quieter. Peaceful. The honking has stopped, and you have space. There's a lot less going on here. And all the travel agencies are encouraging you to trek outside the city where there's even less. This is a small provincial outpost, not a cosmopolitan regional economic hub. But it draws in a ton of tourists.

The heart of the city is the square-shaped Old City, surrounded by a moat, which is still filled with standing water. This area is full of guesthouses and hotels and places for backpackers and tourists to hang out and get their backs rubbed. There are a number of streets in Chiang Mai which could be called "massage districts" due to almost every shop being a massage shop - 100 baht for 30 minutes, 200 baht for an hour. Massage may be the city's main industry. The city as a whole shuts down early, including the Old City. It's the complete opposite of Bangkok's Khaosan Road. But the masseuses stay open until the last bars close. Walking Street is full of white people laying in chairs on the sidewalk getting rubbed down by Thai people until midnight.

Contrast this with Saigon. Saigon is the kind of city that stays up late. There's always someplace to go eat and drink that's open. It's loud and noisy. You can get your massages here too but the masseuses will always be young women, not the aunties (or grannies or sometimes even male masseurs) who pull your limbs in Chiang Mai. So Chiang Mai is good for saving money by not going out, and maybe not dating local women.

Cafes with wifi, air conditioning, power outlets. And coffee. This is the natural habitat of the digital nomad. Chiang Mai's cafes are clustered in the Nimmanhemin / Nimmanheminda neighborhood outside of the Old City. This is a trendy area with shopping and trendy eateries as well as a handful of cafes. It's not a big neighborhood, but it's outside of the tourist circuit. Chiang Mai has a more artsy feel to it per capita / square meter compared to Vietnamese cities, and this street is a mix of hipster and yuppy, although such concepts just don't really apply in Southeast Asia.

Ploen Ruedee Night Market

But another great hangout spot (for white people) in CM with a similar creative-consumption vibe is Ploen Ruedee Night Market, "international food park", by the night market / bazaar. But it and the whole area are closed / dead on Sundays.

I've gotten used to cafes in Saigon having a certain standard of size to accommodate lots of customers, availability of power outlets, free iced tea, and fuss-free wifi. And there are more cafes in Saigon which fit this bill than any other city in Southeast Asia. For people settling in Chiang Mai's Nimmanhemin neighborhood and seeking cafes, it's not hard to find one. But they will be smaller and easily already full, or won't have any power outlets (this is common), or the wifi will be limited. Saigon has more quantity and variety when it comes to cafe styles.

Nimmanhemin cafes

Internet speeds in Chiang Mai can be decent. But a lot of the wireless networks have problems - being oversubscribed, being owned by telecom providers and requiring a subscription from them, being free to guests but only for an hour or two, and you'll only be able to connect to wifi with one device instead of both your laptop and your phone, etc. As cutthroat as Vietnamese businesses are, Saigon wifi providers aren't sophisticated enough to make you pay to access them, ever. A lot of Chiang Mai wifi networks are open as in unencrypted, whereas almost all wifi in Saigon will use WPA, just no login. As a consumer, you don't want to access wifi networks which are open but require logging in with an account tied to your passport or phone number.

Punspace coworking in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai has a few coworking spaces. For digital nomad noobs and gurus alike. Here you'll find community. Chiang Mai has a small fraction of the population of Bangkok or Saigon. If you "nomad" here, your community will be people just like you, not local people. While Vietnam and Saigon in particular has a community and ecosystem of internet / technology professionals who are not nomads, Chiang Mai does not. Saigon has "real" expats, people sent there by multinational corporations to work there, as well as all the smaller companies who still need or desire to hire foreigners (and not just for teaching English). Saigon is economically diverse, providing both access to a workforce with skills which a business may need, as well as being a market for selling services to. If you are developing products and need developers or marketers you can hire from the millions of young people working in Ho Chi Minh City, and their salary will be affordable to bootstrapping startups. You might even meet investors who fund your project in Saigon. Chiang Mai is more like a resort for internet forum dudes, some who are "killing it" and others who have no idea what they're doing but are keen on experience "Southeast Asia lite". Also, apparently working at Chiang Mai coworking spaces puts you at risk of being rounded up by the immigration police who have recently raided them looking for foreigners working on tourist visas.

There is no "digital nomad visa". And most of us aren't eligible for work visas. Visas are an issue, but the visa situation is better for Westerners in Vietnam than in Thailand. People are frequently denied visas to Thailand which is rare for visitors to Vietnam, although you need to arrange a tourist visa (3 months) before you arrive in Vietnam instead of upon arrival. There are agencies in Chiang Mai explicitly advertising "visa run" services, which you'll have to do after 30 days or so. They take you by bus to a bordering country - Myanmar or Laos. You might be refused at the border returning to Thailand for staying there too long. Thai immigration might deny people who've done multiple consecutive visa runs. Vietnam, despite its bureaucracies and unclear regulations, is much more certain and easier in this regard with no requirement to stay outside the country for months before being allowed back in.

But Thai people are pleasant and friendly. It's the Land of Smiles. Vietnamese people can learn a lot from Thais about attracting global tourists by providing better customer service instead of turning them off through rude behavior (which the Vietnamese person won't realize is rude) and through blatant overcharging or scams. I can't emphasize enough how nice and not rude Thai people are (generalizing). Thai people know how to queue.

Saigon is no nomad paradise. But it still manages to attract all kinds of people who stay for a long time. There are various communities and it's still really cheap. Living here is comfortable. Chiang Mai is also a comfortable place for new nomads. It's open to newbies, and is an "Asia-lite" compared to the edgier environment of Saigon. The digital nomad to local population ratio is quite high. There are more options for employment, entertainment / nightlife, dating, events, diaspora communities, etc. in Saigon, but more choice can also be confusing or distracting. Saigon can be more stressful whereas Chiang Mai promotes stress relief in its scenery, less hectic traffic, and massages. Chiang Mai can be a few degrees less hot compared to the hottest times in lower altitudes. Does "digital nomad" define who you are? Do you need to be a member of a digital nomad community above all other concerns? Then maybe Chiang Mai is sufficient. If you seek more, and want to be exposed to variety, insanity, and unexpected things daily, then start discovering Saigon.

Some other comments:
1. Chiang Mai is a clean city, but there are random poop smells. Saigon has random urine smells (where guys pee on the street).
2. Chiang Mai has an uncomfortable "burning season" from February til April when the air is full of smoke from fires in the surrounding farmland and people leave the city. The smoke in the air is so bad that there are days the planes can't fly in Chiang Mai causing the airport to shut down and stranding anyone trying to leave, so it's best to stay out for that season.
3. Thailand uses Thai script to write their language, a script similar to Khmer, but undecipherable to most foreigners. Signs are often not translated into English. Chiang Mai street names are hard to find. Vietnam is the opposite in that even Vietnamese names can be written and read (letter by letter) by foreigners and every building on every street has its address marked outside making it easy to always know where you are (this mostly works).
4. Chiang Mai is a small and compact city, but increasingly full of cars. The traffic isn't too bad yet but can still back up at intersections. There is basically no bus system or public transit, besides individual trucks. There are also few taxis (making it unreasonable to hail one on the street) but many tuk-tuks.

Hacking Your First Hackathon

Submitted by tomo on June 8, 2013 - 2:13pm

Today I'll be speaking, mentoring, then judging at Keewi's Hack Day event.

Over a decade ago I joined a group of "hackers" in developing an open source ultra-secure UNIX operating system called OpenBSD. As the most secure OS in the world, it was designed to keep out hackers, as in crackers, those seeking unauthorized access to computer systems. But we were also hackers, a type of "artisanal" programmer. OpenBSD hackers are spread across the world and they gather themselves together periodically into one place to be super productive on a common goal over the course of several days. OpenBSD invented the hackathon, even coining the word itself.

I attended my first hackathon back when I was still in school, which I graduated from over 10 years ago. It was organized by our university's open source club, the only extracurricular activity I was involved in. We got permission to use one of the classrooms overnight and even got funding to buy a couple pizzas and pop. That was it. There were no corporate sponsors. There were no spectators watching us code except for our confused girlfriends. There were no headhunters or suits looking for geeks they could make use of. And there was no prize money because we were just there to see what hacks we could pull off in a night and then show each other.

Nowadays, hackathons are more and more common and are seen by corporations as something they can take advantage of.

Read the rest of this article...

Boulder's big VC investor dude Brad Feld has a house in Kansas City now. He doesn't live there, even for just part of the year, but he owns it. He's letting YOU live there. For free. FREE!!! But should you live in Kansas City (a mid-sized town in the American southwest midwestern state of Missouri) to bootstrap your startup? If the rent is free?

Awhile back I talked about bootstrapping your startup in Ho Chi Minh City on the cheap. And what's better than cheap besides free?

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A Foreigner in Vietnam During Tet

Submitted by tomo on February 1, 2013 - 1:52pm

A Quiet American in a Quiet Vietnam

About two weeks after I first arrived in Saigon, it began: Tet. What a horrible mistake, being in Vietnam right at that time! Tet, being the single Vietnamese holiday that is equivalent to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year in one long week that often stretches to a month for many students as well as laborours. While pre-Tet is a time of high commercial activity, it all comes to a full stop at midnight of the Lunar New Year. Vietnamese people go home. And for Saigon's 10 million or so population, this mostly means going back to places far from metropolitan Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnamese cities are full of economic migrants, young people coming as students or looking for jobs so they can earn money to send home. And Tet is the time of the year, for most economic migrants it's the one and only time of the year, when they return home to their families.

As a company or factory, you don't expect anyone to work during the days of Tet. It doesn't matter if you're a foreign company with orders from foreign countries that need to be filled, by customers that neither know nor care that a "Tet" is happening. If you're lucky, your employees will come back to work after a week, after you've paid them a "13th month" Tet bonus, often equivalent to one month's salary.

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Christmas in Vietnam

Submitted by tomo on December 26, 2012 - 4:15pm

Christmas in Vietnam is stressful. Just kidding. The downtown streets of Saigon get pretty packed as young people crowd in for the various photo opportunities on Le Loi and Nguyen Hue streets. And the whole area around Diamond Plaza and Notre Dame Cathedral is packed right up until Christmas Eve at midnight. Christmas in Vietnam actually ends right after it becomes December 25th. Christmas in Vietnam means Christmas Eve!

One nice thing about celebrating Christmas in Vietnam is that there's no pressure to do Christmas shopping. Forget Black Friday or Cyber Monday. And forget Boxing Day. Buy a gift for somebody if you want. But only do so because you want to, not because you feel obligated, because you expect they will buy you a gift. Because they probably won't.

Only one in 10 Vietnamese people are Christian, although that makes it one of the more Christian Asian countries. So why do you see Christmas decorations everywhere? Why are there giang Christmas trees downtown and Christmas lights hanging all over stores (to be fair, those lights often stay up year round).

Like Halloween and other Western holidays, Christmas is celebrated more and more as Vietnam is more exposed to Western culture. But it's been celebrated in the country for a long time actually. During South Vietnam's brief existence as a Catholic nation, with a war ongoing, it was celebrated. After the war's conclusion, Vietnam, including former South Vietnam and Saigon were impoverished as a result of poor economic policies. There was not much celebration of any kind. Only until after Doi Moi (return to capitalism) did people have money to celebrate things like Christmas again. Nowadays, at least in the cities, young people party in the streets without much care. Celebrating Christmas means going to Mass for Christians and just going outside with friends for everyone else. There might be some drinking and eating (nhau) to go along but you won't find turkey or other traditional Western Christmas dishes.

So there you have it. Christmas in Vietnam comes and goes. People still go to work on the 25th and there's not much to look forward to on New Years either. The big holiday here is Tet, the Lunar New Year.

Code Retreat 2012 - Ho Chi Minh City

Submitted by tomo on December 12, 2012 - 5:08pm

On Saturday December 8th, Ho Chi Minh City along with 200 other cities around the world celebrated a global Code Retreat.

What is a code retreat?

Like a meditation retreat, a code retreat is a time set aside to step out of the daily life and routine in order to get deep into practice. It's a full work day, and everyone attending is giving up their Saturday to do what they are probably paid to do from Monday to Friday. That's dedication to the craft. Not so many people came, partly due to poor advertising.

The code retreat was open to anyone but all attendees were fellow programmers, those with some experience already but who want to improve themselves. Besides myself, there was a motley crew of foreigners - an organizer from Japan, a local software tycoon originally from Spain, a Czech developer. Otherwise, all Vietnamese, including startup developers, university faculty, students, and corporate workers.

The venue was ERC Vietnam, the Singaporean MBA school who, along with two other Singaporean schools in Vietnam, is rumored to have lost its operating license from the Ministry of Education which would force it to close. However, the school was still open as usual. A Toastmasters club was also meeting in the room across the hall. There were scheduled outings for students posted in the elevators to be held at local bars and restaurants.

The coding

There were six sessions lasting about an hour each throughout the day and each session was the same both in format and content. The format was:

15 minutes - pair up with another programmer and discuss the strategy for writing the program - choose a language, maybe a framework, discuss data structures and algorithms
15 minutes - one person "drives" the keyboard, the other "navigates" - pair programming (an extreme programming methodology) where two developers use a single laptop to collaboratively develop software
15 minutes - switch up driver and navigator, although often times only a single person was familiar with the text editor or developing environment or even language and API (some languages heavily depend on libraries and APIs to do simple tasks which are difficult to do in the core language alone)
15 minutes - retrospective and break - we wrote down our learnings on sticky notes and collected them for each other to read and at the end of the day we had a whole day retrospective

What were we writing?

We were implementing Conway's Game of Life. Each pair (each session we picked new partners) wrote the game six times throughout the day, erasing the code they had written at the end of each session. The goal was not to write the game of life, but to get better at writing code by writing the same code over and over, by developing the same software over and over.

Halfway through the day some rules started to be added. First, we had to use TDD (test driven development) methodology (which some people didn't realize was feasible in JavaScript), then OOP (what if someone had chosen Scheme or some other functional language?). This was to encourage us to try new techniques and learn them from each other.

I was an outlier in that I wanted to use languages like Python, JavaScript, or even PHP instead of .Net framework languages. Instead of a massive IDE I was using Vim. In the end, in each session where it was up to me I chose Javascript. There was no need to build a new project from a template and then compile executables before running them. Just open a text file, save as html, and use Chrome as a development environment.

Later, more rules were imposed:
No if statements.
No loops (for, while, etc.).
No functions longer than a few lines (maybe 3 or 5 statements max).

We were encouraged to pick one rule and try to work within its constraints. I decided to apply all the rules!

These rules would be easy to abide by using a functional programming language but they're not impossible to follow in Python or Javascript either. But to replace loops using recursion, one thing I found was that nobody remembered how to write recursive functions and most people didn't even want to try as it was hurting their heads.

After the day was over, I took a look at underscore.js, a utility library for JavaScript which makes functional-like programming in JavaScript much easier.

Here's what I came up with.

<script src="underscore.js"></script>
// row and col are indices into 2d array 'grid', either 'today' or 'tomorrow'
function value(grid, row, col) { return (_.isUndefined(grid[row]) || _.isUndefined(grid[row][col])) ? 0 : grid[row][col]; }
function count_neighbors(grid, row, col) {
    return value(grid, row-1, col-1) + value(grid, row-1, col) + value(grid, row-1, col+1) +
           value(grid, row  , col-1) +                           value(grid, row  , col+1) +
           value(grid, row+1, col-1) + value(grid, row+1, col) + value(grid, row+1, col+1);
function next_state_if(neighbors, state) { return (neighbors == 3) ? 1 : ((neighbors == 2) ? state : 0); }
function next_state(grid, row, col) { return next_state_if(count_neighbors(grid, row, col), grid[row][col]); }
function calculate_tomorrow(today, tomorrow) {
    _.each(today, function (foo, row) {
        _.each(this.today[row], function (foo, col) { this.tomorrow[row][col] = next_state(this.today, row, col); }, this);
    }, {today: today, tomorrow: tomorrow});
// helpers
function copy2d(ary2d) { return _.map(ary2d, function (list) { return list.slice(); }); }
function print_r(ary2d) { console.log(_.map(ary2d, function (list) { return list.join(''); }).join('\n')); }
function random_init() { return _.map(_.range(30), function (list) { return _.map(_.range(30), function (list) { return _.random(1); }); }); }
// demo main loop
var today = random_init();
var tomorrow = random_init();
    calculate_tomorrow(today, tomorrow);
    today = copy2d(tomorrow);
}, 400);

Ho Chi Minh City Slums

Submitted by tomo on October 30, 2012 - 10:17pm

According to an outdated BBC report there is a slum district in Ho Chi Minh City and I live in it. The slum (khu nha o chuot in Vietnamese) is the area around Thi Nghe - Nhieu Loc Canal. The houses here are built along canals where the roads aren't built right next to the canal, giving the houses an opportunity to encroach upon the water.

Before coming to Vietnam I'd visited most of the other Southeast Asian countries and in any of the major cities there were districts that were considered slums. For example, in Manila there is the infamous Tondo.

The surprising thing is that in Ho Chi Minh City there's nowhere that I would especially consider a slum region. The city has some richer and poorer neighborhoods but most of the city is fairly uniformly poor and underdeveloped yet safe and economically thriving. There is no Cabrini Green (Chicago) projects or massively dense and lawless Kowloon (Hong Kong).

Some regional stats:

Access to water in urbanized areas of...
1. Indonesia: 89%
2. Philippines: 93%
3. Vietnam: 99%

Access to sanitation in urbanized areas of...
1. Indonesia: 67%
2. Philippines: 80%
3. Vietnam: 94%

One way to define a slum is a neighborhood where the buildings and land have no clear title of ownership so the people who live on that land and "own" those structures cannot legally defend their property nor is there any way for them to sell or mortgage their property, get loans from a bank to make improvements, or to get some basic services. A problem for people who live in the slums along the canal near my house is that they don't know if or when they will get evicted and then where they could go for the same rent they're paying now or to buy a house for what they would receive in compensation for the low value of their house. They surely couldn't afford anything else not far outside of the city. What they need as replacement is legal affordable housing and most likely that needs to be provided by the government. Often when the government clears neighborhoods, they will build an apartment block somewhere and give the people who lived in the cleared neighborhood an opportunity to live in the new apartment building at a somewhat affordable price.

A broader definition of a slum is where there is a lack of connection to public infrastructure like plumbing for sanitation and receiving clean water for cooking and bathing, electricity, trash collection, telecommunications, and legal status. By that definition I'm not sure there are any large slums in the city. But many of Saigon's canals have become "slumways".

But across the narrow alley from the shanties of these slums are houses with significant investment in them. Building up a home to multiple storeys signals at least some confidence in the sustainable value of their property. The row of shanty houses they face not only don't have the money to build, it's far too risky when the local police could come and tear it all down at any moment. But this shows you can live a meter away from a slum yet still be quite well off and not worried about the property value of your house being affected by the fact that you're right next to a slum.

Should slums be cleared?

From another culture's point of view, slums are unsightly, represent poverty, and should not exist. But hiding poverty isn't the same as reducing it. Plus there's no way to hide all the poverty in Vietnam, considering how poor it is and will be for the foreseeable future. But there are real negative side effects to these slums, such as pollution. One solution might be to decriminalize these homes and tax them minimally, enough to provide communal resources to ensure the homes are built safely and aren't dumping waste into the canals. In fact the people living in these homes should be made responsible for and rewarded for keeping their canals clean.

So are there slums or not?

All the definiting and criteria are confusing. Saying there is or isn't a slum is mostly semantic. You might say all of Vietnam was a slum by most Western standards. Whether there are slums or not in Ho Chi Minh City, anywhere you look in Vietnam you're going to find poor people living with poor infrastructure where the government can basically take land at will.

But if you came here for slum tourism then maybe you should take a bus to Phnom Penh instead and visit the Steung Meanchey garbage dump, a.k.a. Smoky Mountain.

Saigon Street Food - A Virtual Culinary Tour

Submitted by tomo on October 30, 2012 - 9:15pm

Let's set some ground rules: Street food must be eaten on the sidewalk without the option of eating indoors, as many "proper" restaurants also have outdoor seating, even though such "al fresco" appropriations of the street are actually illegal and subject to periodic police inspections where illegally placed plastic chairs and tables are confiscated. For Vietnamese small business owners who don't even rent space inside any buildings, their whole business depends on police not cracking down on them. Perhaps a better solution would be a non-corrupt (haha) registration and hygiene inspection process for street food vendors, then the government could get some tax income, the business owners would have some stability, and the consumers would get some level of food safety. But for now, let's get back to reality.

1. Banh Xeo - often translated as Vietnamese pancakes or Vietnamese crepes. Like pancakes or crepes, a batter is poured into a circular pan to crispen a thin round layer of this "cake" which has toppings like shrimp and pork, bean sprouts, and sometimes mushrooms (but not so much in the street). Banh Xeo Mien Trung is a smaller version. You can try this on Phan Ke Binh Street (near DeciBel) and Ung Van Khiem Street near D2 in Binh Thanh District.

2. Banh Mi Thit - the Vietnamese submarine sandwich / roll. Next to pho, this is probably the most famous Vietnamese dish outside of Vietnam. A French bread roll spread with pate (both foods from the French colonial era) stuffed with some kind of meat, julienned carrots and pickled daikon, cilantro - and some fresh and extremely spicy chili peppers if you don't remember to ask them "khong ot". Vo Van Tan near Cach Mang Thang 8 in District 3 has a popular shop to get some takeaway banh mi thit. Also try Banh Mi Heo Quay, pork with delicious -crispy- fat and skin attached, available on Ngo Tat To Street in Binh Thanh District.

3. Mi Hoanh Thanh - Chinese Won Ton Ramen Noodle Cart. Also seemingly referred to as "van than" in the North Vietnamese dialect. "Mi" refers to ramen noodles and if you think ramen means cheap instant noodles then you need to get schooled. Often these will be served in fancy wooden noodle carts which you can also sit at. The noodles should be fresh, not instant industrially dried noodles. Hoanh Thanh are won ton noodle dumplings. Also try Mi Xa Xiu - "char siu" in Chinese or cha-shu in Japanese. Try it at the corner of Xo Viet Nghe Tinh right after the Thi Nghe Bridge.

4. Banh Khot - Banh Khot is similar to Banh Xeo but thicker with a much smaller diameter. Too similar for me to distinguish is another dish called Banh Canh, not to be confused with the similarly pronounced Banh Canh noodle dish. Like Banh Xeo, after the batter and toppings are fired in their clay vessels they are wrapped by your hands in lettuce or mustard greens and rice paper, topped with fresh herbs, and then dipped in fish sauce.

5. Hu Tiu (Nam Vang), Hu Tiu Go - Hu Tiu (or Hu Tieu) is a kind of noodle. Hu Tiu Nam Vang refers to a version of this noodle dish, which can be eaten in soup or "dry", which should be Khmer - Nam Vang is an old Vietnamese word for Phnom Penh. Hu Tiu Go isn't a flavor of Hu Tiu. Rather it refers to the way it is sold. Go means to knock, and a seller of Hu Tiu Go will push his cart down the street while knocking on wood to let people know he's coming.

6. Banh Trang Tron - A favorite after school snack of Vietnamese girls. A trail mix of rice paper, herbs, chili chopped up and mixed with dried beef or quail eggs and served in a plastic bag with two small sticks to be used like chopsticks.

7. Com Tam - broken rice, a traditional South Vietnamese breakfast as opposed to pho in the North. Using the broken grains of rice served with BBQ pork (suon), sunny-side up egg (op-la), (bi), (cha), and with fish sauce (nuoc mam) dripped over to taste.

8. Xoi - Sticky rice. Can be served with separated chicken as easily as with ripe mango or other sweets. A favorite of mine is Xoi Khuc.

9. Bot Chien - What look like mochi cubes are thrown in a wok and fried with an egg or two into an omelette with fried cubes of... what exactly? Photo attached.

10. Banh Cuon - Kind of like a giant round noodle. Banh in Vietnamese can mean many things although it's often translated to cake. It can also mean bread and sometimes the noodle in a noodle dish. Banh Cuon is some kind of batter steamed in a giant circle until it's hard and noodley then topped with something like ground beef (or seafood or chicke and mushrooms if you want to get fancy). Then you add some "cha", herbs, and bean sprouts and pour on the nuoc mam and put it all into your mouth.

11. Bo La Lot - This one almost killed me. Street food is all fun and games until you are vomiting out both ends of your body for 24 hours. This dish of mystery beef wrapped in "lot" leaves and then cooked over coals, then wrapped in rice paper or greens and topped with thinly sliced papaya or unripe bananas and other leaves, can be quite tasty. But take it from me: avoid buying it from the sidewalk sellers on Ton Duc Thang Street right at the beginning of Le Thanh Ton Street.


Nuoc Mia - The quintessential street drink. Sugar cane juice made by running sticks of sugar cane through a press. When I first started drinking this it was availale for 2000 VND/glass but now it's no less than 4000 VND, which still comes out to less than 20 cents.

Sinh To - fruit smoothies. Strawberry, tomato, avacado, custard apple, banana, mango, etc. Go to the Hang Xanh Roundabout (aka The Circle of Death) after midnight if you're bored and thirsty.

Trai Dua - This is not even street food, it's jungle food. In the Mekong Delta, in provinces like Ben Tre, this magical fruit literally grows on trees. Coconuts can be drunk anywhere as long as you have a way to crack them open.

Tra Chanh - This is a street drink but it's not a Saigon street drink. Next time I will write about drinking this lemon tea on the streets of Hanoi.

Vietnamese people love gambling. If there's anything Vietnamese people are famous for it's (in order):

1. Nail salons
2. Pho
3. Gambling
4. Maybe a long off 4th would be: Billiards

The surprising thing is that there aren't really that many nail salons in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese government, probably rightfully so, have decided that Vietnamese people should not be allowed to gamble. But unlike America, where casinos are banned from existing in most cities and states (which is why Las Vegas, a place in the middle of the desert, initially attracts people from across the country), there are actually a lot of casinos legally operating in Ho Chi Minh City - in all, 43 gambling establishments concentrated in Hanoi and Saigon. But local Vietnamese are not allowed to step foot in them except to work inside them. Viet Kieu who have foreign passports can come though. Casinos are inside many of the big 5-star (down to 3-star) hotels like Caravelle, Majestic, New World Hotel, Equatorial Hotel in District 5, Movenpick Hotel in Phu Nhuan, etc. Saigon's casinos are all fairly small and nothing like Vegas (or even Macau). They are usually empty when I randomly check them out - purely for research purposes. They may be completely electronic, including all card games.

As I was saying, Vietnamese people love to gamble. Poor people don't need to beg for money in Vietnam because they can instead sell lottery tickets which everyone buys. Vietnamese people don't consider buying lottery tickets gambling. You can see card games, what they do consider gambling, in action at Tet. For the few days of Tet, every house in Vietnam turns into a casino. Kids are taught how to gamble (but not necessarily how to gamble well) and they gamble away the "lucky money" they receive from parents and other elders. For those few days, people are allowed to concentrate in small alleys and play card games for money and the police don't care.

The rest of the year, Vietnamese who want to bet on cards have another choice: make a run for the border town of Bavet (remember to enable 3G on your Cambodian MetFone account) in Cambodia's Svay Rieng province, just across from Moc Bai, which itself is just outside of Ho Chi Minh City. You can take a Saigon city bus from downtown Ben Thanh Market to Moc Bai and then walk across the border. What you'll be greeted with is a single drag with almost nothing but shabby casino buildings with names like Le Macau. In this area, your phone's Vietnamese sim card will probably still work, people will be fluent in both Khmer and Vietnamese, and stores will accept Vietnamese dong as well as riel or dollars.

Inside a Bavet casino you'll find the standard casino card games like blackjack (or Vietnamese "xi dach" / "xi lac"), poker, baccarat, and slot machines. At the casinos for rich gamblers the food and drinks will be free. You'll also find cock fighting (da ga) inside the casinos! Vietnamese people also love betting on sports and there are also a number of online Vietnamese sites where they can transfer money and bet on football matches. Strangely, these websites are very popular yet aren't blocked by the ISPs...

The downside to having a mini-Vegas right across the border of the country's largest and richest city:

Many Vietnamese gamblers are not very successful at it. They borrow money to go to casinos in Cambodia and then lose. When they lose, they either try to borrow more money (loan sharks right there in Bavet are willing to lend losers money) or they find some other way to access money. When they lose all that money then they have to deal with the mafia elements common to any numbers racket. They will be held for ransom. If they have daughters, people will be sent into Vietnam to kidnap the bettor's daughter who will then be sold into prostitution to pay off her father's debt. If they win, they can use their winnings to pay for the favors of the daughter of another past gambler. You can also buy drugs (mostly ecstacy) to ply your short-time lover with.

I guess this is what Hanoi's morality police want to discourage by banning casinos from serving Vietnamese people.

As a tourist or expat living in Vietnam you'll get used to hearing "xe om" (motorbike taxi) guys call for you - by yelling "You!" - at every street corner offering to take you places you probably don't want to go and otherwise offering you drugs and/or prostitutes. And if you're here alone while in Vietnam then it will often make sense (financially) for you to take a xe om instead of a regular tax. If you're with at least two other friends then it makes sense to take a regular taxi instead.

Most people in Vietnam nowadays have their own motorbike so they don't need to take a taxi, whether two- or four-wheeled, but when they do they - even they! - have to haggle with the xe om driver over the price.

How to get a sense of how much it costs to ride a xe om / motorbike taxi?

When trying to figure out a price for a motorbike taxi, keep in mind at least two things. The first is that it should cost about half as much as a regular taxi. The motorbike is not air conditioned and you don't have comfortable seats even though a xe om can slip through traffic quicker (OTOH a taxi will go faster on a clear straightaway). If a regular taxi cost around 12,000 VND/km then a motorbike taxi should be about half that or around 5000 or 6000 VND per kilometer. The glaring difference of course is that a taxi has a meter (if it doesn't, get out immediately!) so you know exactly how far you're traveling whereas the motor bike taxi does not have a meter so you have to kind of gas how far you're traveling and so does he.

Next, to know how much half of the taxi fare is, take a taxi first! You can take the same route by regular taxi once so you know how much that would cost and the halve it. Amazing.

Another thing to keep in mind is if you're a fat Westerner then you probably weigh three times as much as a normal Vietnamese person and even though xe oms don't charge by weight don't be surprised if they take this into account when calculating a price for your journey.


- Make sure the price is clearly agreed upon before you get on the bike. Otherwise there will be an argument when you reach the destination.

- Befriend a local driver near your house and get his mobile phone number (because they all have cell phones). And then anytime you need a trusty driver you can call him up and he will take you home. If you're too drunk to find your way home this can be helpful.

- Another thing to know ahead of time is that often people in Vietnam don't use maps. Instead they will ask around to get the general direction and then when they get closer they will ask again and eventually they will find the place. But they may get lost a few times on the way and hopefully it's not further than they thought in which case they'll bug you for more money. Not that it's your fault.

- Have Google Maps on your smartphone and show them exactly where you want to go because they won't understand your Vietnamese pronunciation of street names. They are much more likely to recognize the street name by seeing it written down rather than hearing you try to pronounce it. This applies to regular taxis as well though. One day we'll all have Androids and this will no longer be an issue.

- If you don't have a map you can also try writing down the name even without the accent marks (called diacritics). It's not your fault that Vietnamese is hard to pronounce at first. P.S. Learning Vietnamese, while difficult compared to learning Spanish, is definitely possible.

- As always when haggling on prices, be prepared to refuse and walk away. This means you should keep in mind the locations of a few other motor bike taxi drivers in case this one says no. So you might walk past the first one you see and not start bartering until the next one you see. Often times they won't agree to take your price until you turn your back to them. Practice showing people your back side a few times.

At the end of the day, though, a lot of xe om drivers outside the touristy areas are trying to earn a meek living and aren't just scheming to rip you off. Know what the approximate going rate is, be prepared to pay it, and don't get upset if he (and sometimes, though very rarely, she) tries to charge a 20% premium for having to make sense of the noises coming out of your mouth or to carry your bonus hundred pounds of weight. Just so long as you're not paying what it would cost to take a taxi.

And there's always the bus. For only 4000 VND you can cross the city in style.

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