Strike a Pose in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)


Once arriving into the outskirts of Saigon, something didn’t seem right – or it just didn’t seem like the Vietnam we had become accustomed to. It was relatively clean, what little grass existed was green and manicured, and the flow of urban life seemed to be in full swing. Either we were getting thicker skin or things here are actually normal. Our bus dropped us on Bui Vien street, the main hub for backpackers worldwide. We left our bag at the travel agent cum hotelier and walked around looking for a cheap hotel. Of course as soon as we crossed the street, we became fully aware of just how many motorbikes were on the street. It’s a huge game of frogger as you slowly walk across the street and bikes barely swerve around you. An hour had passed and we succumbed to staying at the travel agencies upstairs rooms. This would turn out to be a one night ordeal as the place was more or less disgusting. The plan was to stay in Saigon for three to four days before leaving for Cambodia.

Our friend Zeus from San Francisco had moved to Saigon right around the same time we began our trip. The first evening we met up for some drinks at Stella’s, an ex-pat hang out located on Bui Vien, for some food and drinks. It was great to see a familiar face and we caught up on all happenings before heading out for a night on the town, wrapping everything up late at night at Saigon’s oldest club, Apocalypse Now.

The next day we checked out and moved into Zeus’friends hotel around the corner, Xuan Mai. For a few more dollars a night, we were in complete luxury and the air conditioning worked like magic. The night came quickly and we went out to meet some of the friends Zeus has made since arriving. We started at Xu Bar, a posh, elegant, and expensive bar – even by San Francisco standards – and basically met with the ex-pat community that runs the media show in Saigon. This night ultimately determined that we would be staying in Saigon for much longer than three days. Before the night was out, Erin was pretty much guaranteed a freelance editing job with local ex-pat magazine, AsiaLife. At the bar, we met the magazine’s managing editor, Fiona, it’s photographer, Fred, and contributing stylist, Haydee, amongst many, many others. Everyone is very young and their work is basically their life and they seem to love every second of it. What is really great about their jobs is if they need to write about or take photos a restaurant, they go there, usually at a nice discount. We ate dinner at Wrap n’ Roll, a westernized spin on Vietnamese spring rolls. They bring out all of the ingredients and you wrap your own rolls in rice paper before enjoying. We all finished at Cepage, probably the classiest place we had seen in Saigon, where I drank a Champ George, a mojito-style drink with whiskey instead of rum and basil instead of mint. The secret is to add tons of freshly julienned ginger before muddling. The people we met this night ended up being, much to our enjoyment, the people we would spend the next two weeks with. Saigon carries this “inexplicable” energy to it, but from just a couple days, I would gather it stems from the young and young-at-heart ex-pats who call Saigon home. They work hard, play even harder, and carry an intense passion for the projects and professions they are working on.

Cu Chi Tunnels, the War Museum and the American War

The next morning we hopped a bus tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, a war site turned tourist attraction. The tunnels were built after WWII by Vietnamese and were used extensively while they continuously battled the French, Japanese, and ultimately, the Americans. In Vietnam, the war is called the American War and sometimes the American Invasion. The villagers that called Cu Chi home lived in the tunnels for almost six years, where they ate, slept, went to the bathroom and scuttled back and forth during battles. They slept in coffin-like ditches that they dug deep enough to avoid explosion during bombing but not too deep that the dirt above would cave in and bury them alive. Tunnel doors were covered with leaves as well as traps that were used to capture, maim and kill enemy ground soldiers. Unable to procure iron on their own, they dangerously sawed into unexploded bombs that were dropped by Americans, and melted and pounded the ore into spikes that were later made into an assortment of traps. I could go on and on about the atrocities that took place during this war, but most are already aware. Even the American Secretary of Defense during the war, the former Ford CEO, Robert McNamara, admitted what a mistake that had been made. This got both Erin and I fired up, and unbeknownst to each other, we both started writing scathing insights into our current war. Mine looks like this:

Our involvement in the Vietnam War led to some of the largest protests in history and yet here we are, 40 years later, still involved in another war. The world as a whole is sick of American involvement and so are the majority of our own citizens. Since the end of of the Vietnam War, we’ve been involved in at least a dozen other conflicts. We’re still bombing and killing innocent people. The middle and lower classes are still losing their sons and daughters in battle and the approval rating for the war is a whopping 19%, only 9% lower than the actual approval of our president. This isn’t a political issue-it doesn’t matter whether you affiliate yourself with Republicans or Democrats-it’s a human issue. Just for one second place yourself in the shoes of someone, anyone, who has lost their child, their husband, their wife, their father or mother, brother, sister or best friend because of a war, then tell me how in the world you could support it. Because they killed us? Who are they? They are the same people who are seeking retaliation for the deaths of their family members by our bombs or bombs we give or sell to our allies. There is no excuse for violence on either end but it is a perpetual cycle that will never end unless we, as the most powerful country in the world, lead the charge and stop all of these senseless wars. Click here for a 90-second clip of the wars the U.S. has been involved in in our history as a nation. Click here to find out how much our current war in Iraq is costing and how each individual tax paying citizen’s local community could benefit from having that money instead. In case you haven’t turned off your television long enough to see which political candidate you’re actually aligned with instead of just voting (or even worse, not voting at all) based upon the logic of “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat,” be sure to check out this site. The future of your country and more importantly, the country you will leave your children and grandchildren, depends on it.

I’m a model, you know what I mean!?

It’s hard to follow up my war rants with the topic of me being a model, but it actually happened so here’s some insight.

Our new friends needed models for the magazine and we agreed to help them out. This led to more, paid, shoots over the following week. The first shoot was for the magazine and Erin and I did it as a favor, waking up very early for a two-hour bus ride to the closest beach, Vung Tau. The theme was sports so Erin did yoga on the beach while I swung a golf club a la Kramer and yes, a hole in one surely ensued. Afterwards, Erin and I hit the tennis court for our last shoot. Overall, it was a fun day and we were treated
to a delicious seafood lunch. Before this, I was never able to imagine exactly how much work and time goes into a photo shoot and by the end of the day I was completely exhausted. The photographer is Fred Wissink and you can check out his gallery here. The magazine has since been released and we are waiting for the final photos to be sent to us by friends before uploading.

Haydee invited Erin and I to come to a paid photo shoot the following day in a studio in Saigon. This shoot was for stock photo powerhouse, Getty Images. The photographer is Adri Berger and his gallery is here. Adri is from the Netherlands so him and I naturally got along well which I think is why I was invited for another shoot the upcoming Wednesday. This was a corporate shoot so everyone was in shirts, pants and ties the entire day. None of these photos have been sent yet but I’ve been promised copies as soon as the “touch ups” are completed. The first part of the day was overhead shots of us in a maze of cardboard boxes followed by different uses of the boxes built around corporate themes such as teamwork, growth, success and overcoming obstacles. More models, including Zeus, showed up for the second half of the day where we all held up a mock-house made of 1″ aluminum tubing. I can already imagine this ending up in a Time article about the downturn in housing, a great ploy for my real estate company! 🙂

The shoot on Wednesday was really fun and again it was a corporate shoot. This time, we stayed in Saigon but it was outdoors. The first shot was of me acting as a “tree-doctor” and I watered a tree and listened to it’s heartbeat with a stethoscope. Adri would set up the scene and tell me to act “like you are caring for a sick patient,” and I would try my best to set my facial expressions and mannerisms accordingly. On the set there was a rain machine that worked sporadically so there were many shots of a group of us under one umbrella looking up at the rain. This also lead to me being completely soaked in one shot where Vy, a local Vietnamese model, was instructed to take a half-filled bucket and splash me through the umbrella. After this, everyone was allowed to go home and an actual Czech model from a local agency was brought in. Her and I finished out the rest of the day using the rain and wind machines and at one point I was instructed to carry her in my arms and “look like a hero.” I can’t even keep a straight face as I type this because this experience will always make me smile. Check out the photos for some good laughs.

In Closing

Overall, Saigon was an amazingly good time but I know that Erin and I were privy to a unique experience because we knew Zeus. Without him, our experience would have been completely different and we are so grateful to him for the inside-looks, spa treatments, introductions, and insanely great parties.  Besides Cu Chi tunnels we really didn’t live the tourist life and were even allowed to use Fiona’s spare bedroom for a week, thus completing our emergence into ex-pat lifestyles. We dined at the greatest restaurants, drank at the swankiest bars, and partied harder than we ever would have at home, and with few exceptions, at a huge discount. As I write this I think more of the friends we made in Saigon rather than the city itself; Fred’s fast-talking Canadian accent and passion for photography, DeGrood’s big smile and extreme yoga-induced flexibility, Haydee’s divine style and humble excellence, and Fiona’s nail-biting travel stories, warmth, and generosity.  I miss them all already and look forward to our return to catch up with our new friends.  Until then, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and then India!

Last days in Vietnam

Still in Saigon, enjoying every last second with new-found friends, I have found some time to post the pics of Vietnam.

I am officially done with my freelance editing project at AsiaLife and will hopefully have some pieces of the magazine to post on the site in the near future. To check out the Vietnam pics, click under the photos tab at the top of the page, or simply click here.

Coming next will be info and photos of Cambodia (Angkor Wat, it’s biggest temple) and India!

Vietnam- Part II

The DMZ, Vietnam’s demilitarized zone, divides the North from the South. Tunnels dug during war times to protect Vietnamese people from bombs and ground troops can be found here. After passing through on a sleeper bus, the 1st stop was the beautiful beach at Nha Trang.

Nha Trang

I woke up and looked out the window of the sleeper bus to the sun rising over the rice fields and this beach. The scene enticed us to stay in Nha Trang for a few days, even though the original plan called for us to move on. We did not regret the decision as the white, clean beach spoiled us for 2 days. Sunning from our memory foam beach chairs, we were served fresh pineapple and mango from local vendors. I did not go to 1 museum, art gallery, famous statue or temple. I simply vegged on the beach with my book, The Time Traveler’s Wife, for a much-needed chill-out session.

Incidentally, the American travelers we had met in Cat Ba Island named Travis and Katie had the same idea. After running into them on the beach, we dined together over wine at “Good Morning, Vietnam,” a restaurant run by an Italian chef. This was the 1st time while traveling in Southeast Asia that I have eaten food that is atypical to this area of the world. Needless to say, a salad and calzone never tasted so good chased with red wine.

Da Lat

During a sweaty 5-hour bus ride, we zig zagged our way up to Da Lat, a farming village in the hills known for strawberry fields and coffee plantations. French architecture abounds, transforming the typical Vietnamese feel to a quaint European experience.

After a day of patrolling Da Lat’s French bakeries and flower gardens, we looked at the map and thought it would be a good idea to rent a motorbike to drive to Lake Lak, which seemed only a short distance. After 5.5 hours of driving, we reached the scenic lake and saw an elephant bathing, just in time to turn back around for Da Lat. 200 miles later, eyes bloodshot from all the bugs flying at us, clothes damp due to rain storms, and tail bones bruised from the hard seat, we rolled back into Da Lat. “I don’t think we were supposed to do that,” joked Jason while we scarfed down dinner. We just started cracking up, thinking about the movie, Dumb and Dumber, and how they ride to Colorado on a motorbike for hours. The whole trip had taken us 12 hours- we were really dumb and dumber not knowing the actual distance before setting out.


Motorbikes in Saigon

Above: Motorbikes flood the streets at rush hour in Saigon.

The final destination in Vietnam is Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City. I love it here and have extended my stay by two extra weeks, after being offered a position to do freelance copy editing for an English magazine. I am thankful for this opportunity to diversify my resume and replenish my checking account before moving on to India sometime after May 1.

A friend from San Francisco, Zeus, just moved here in January and has introduced us to many of his friends. Sometimes when we are out at lounges or restaurants with these people, I feel like I am in San Francisco until the bill comes and it’s a fifth of the price! The entertainment scene is amazing, boasting 3 story tapas joints and classy roof deck bars. One night, we randomly spotted a friend from the magazine on our way to dinner and he invited us to join him instead for crab at Quan Ba Chi. The chef at Quan Ba Chi steams a hand-picked crab in a cast iron wok on the street corner outside the restaurant. Then he concocts a reduction sauce using oil, tamarind, and sugar. The sweet sauce is good when soaked in bread and the crab is to die for.

After feasting on the seafood, Geoffrey and wife Thuy, the owners of Black Cat ( a restaurant specializing in a burger weighing one full kilogram and home-made Western style sweets) invited us to come back to the restaurant for a drink. Discovering Geoffrey had owned restaurants in the Bay Area before moving to Vietnam with his wife 6 years ago, we chatted the night away about San Francisco and their current businesses in Saigon.

Here in Saigon, many expats meet for networking at posh restaurants, to discuss entrepreneurial ideas and job opportunities. I am surprised how many US companies are just starting here in Saigon, hiring English speakers right and left for positions people could only dream of in The States. The economy is excellent here and I am guessing Vietnam will be a huge vacation destination and business center in the next few years.

Another industry we have enjoyed learning about is the modeling industry. We have been a part of a corporate shoot for Getty Images and a sportswear shoot for Asia Life. Earning a bit of cash is a bonus and seeing everything that goes into the coordination of these projects is impressive. Who knows where our faces may end up! Scary.

Above: Jason and I after posing for a tennis shoot. The photographer is peaking in behind us.

Above: I get ready for the yoga and aerobic beach shot. CHEESY!