Archive | Vietnam

ChoiBongRo, Where Anyone Can Find a Neighborhood Basketball Court in Vietnam

ChoiBongRo (Small)

Over the past few months, Ha and I have been working on launching ChoiBongRo.com (translated, it means Play Basketball). It’s where people can lookup nearby basketball courts all over Vietnam in both English and Tieng Viet.

Since coming to Vietnam in 2006, I found that it is very difficult to find places to play basketball. Vietnam differs from the United States in that there are very few places to play…anything. Walk around and you will occasionally see kids playing in small cement lots, sometimes accidentally launching balls into busy roads. There are not even many fields (pitches) to play football (soccer), which is easily the most popular sport in Vietnam (volleyball may be second). Almost all the basketball courts in the country are at schools, but they often not well maintained. Universities may have courts, but these are normally crowded. Many others are only available for use by organized teams, and even when available, their booking fees are somewhat expensive for young kids. Thus, it’s hard to imagine how Vietnam can be competitive in sports when youth play spaces are rare all over the country.

Despite all the new real estate developments in the cities, there has not been a similar emphasis on recreational space. Even in large housing developments for upper tier housing, a small play space is added as an afterthought rather than a key feature of the development. Outside the cities, in the provinces, there may be more land space for recreational areas, but these spaces are not being developed for play either. This is making it easier for today’s youth to simply stay home and watch tv or play mobile / iPad games. Because of this and the rise of costs for “real food”, which is promoting consumption of boxed, manufactured, and frozen food, I have no doubt that malnutrition and obesity will be a real challenge to Vietnam over the next twenty years, just as the problem is rising in Western countries today.

ChoiBongRo is a resource that we hope those living in Vietnam will embrace and share their own discoveries to help other current and future basketball players develop their loves for the game. We want to make it easier to go outside and play. Vietnamese youth, both girls and boys, need spaces to work on their games, learn the sport, play pickup basketball, shoot around – just exercise and have fun.

Right now, the website is currently very simple. We have listed some of the main courts in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi, but we need help! As we can get more submissions and user traffic, I hope to find sponsors that will help finance the development of the site (nothing too fancy, just further development and optimization of its WordPress theme. I would love to hear from players what they need to support growing basketball as a sport to understand what should be developed after that). I’ve chosen this map-based theme as it has a responsive layout built in and helps users visually find and browse courts in their geographical area whether they are using a PC, tablet, or mobile phone.

If you love basketball or know someone who does, please share the website with friends so it can be discovered by more people.

Thanks, and remember www.choibongro.com!

Braving Ha Giang by Motorbike [Tourist Guide]

Ha Giang is one of  the secret adventures in Vietnam. It’s a tough one, surely “off the beaten path”, but the trip will take you through some of the best (non-beach / ocean) sights in Vietnam as you make your way through the northern most points in the country, near the China border. It also gives you a great look of true third-world Vietnam. People there are unlikely to make $100 USD a month, and yet still get reminded constantly by government billboards over the roads to pay their taxes. These are not people who are checking their Facebook updates – in fact, I wonder what hopes they have of a life other than having kids at age 16 and struggling to survive.

Needless to say, while you can still get Pho in these areas, don’t expect much of anything else in terms of luxuries.

While you can make the trip through the various mountain passes by bus, it’s much better by motorbike (well, moped) as you can go at your own pace, take a look at things that interest you. It’s about the voyage through the province, not getting to the individual towns (the towns suck). Ha and I went through Ha Giang during late January, when it was quite cold (wind chill + 10 degree Celsius temperature) and one of the days was blanketed by a thick fog, which created tremendous issues with visibility.

If you can read Vietnamese, try out these forums to learn and discuss more: http://www.phuot.vn/forums/161-T%E1%BB%95-ch%E1%BB%A9c-c%C3%A1c-chuy%E1%BA%BFn-%C4%91i-TRONG-N%C6%AF%E1%BB%9AC. Otherwise, check out my advice (and more photos) below (these also have more English information: http://www.travelfish.org/blogs/vietnam/2012/04/10/motorcycling-around-ha-giang/, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/travel/31vietnam-ha-giang.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, and http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/five-days-in-ha-giang-unforgettable.cfm).

Over a 2 Day Trip: (our friend drew us the very useful map below)

In Day 1, you are essentially going to Dong Van.

First, make your way to Ha Giang by bus (or motorbike). While we went to Ha Giang from Sapa / Lao Cao (8 hour bus), you can also take an overnight bus from Hanoi. In Ha Giang, you can rent a motorbike from this guy (below) at To 7 Phuong Tran Phu (next to his shop is a solid place for Pho and breakfast) for about $8 USD per day – you will want to start in the morning, before 8AM if possible. I am not sure the owner speaks English but he told us he has rented to many foreigners. Rent a motorbike that has gears, not an automatic. You don’t need a super powerful bike, but it’s better to get a lighter, more maneuverable one. We got an automatic, heavier bike, which we really regretted as we had trouble feeling confident on the mountain roads.

From Ha Giang, you are trying to make your way north to Dong Van, which is about 170KM away (100 miles). This does not sound far, but depending on how fearless you are on the road and the weather, it may take you all day to get there. With heavy fog, some rain and tremendous fear in our hearts, Ha and I did not get to Dong Van until 4PM (after leaving around 830AM). This is not a place you want to go driving around when it’s dark.

Do not go faster than a speed with which you are comfortable (as in experience, not daring). Ha and I are fairly comfortable on motorbikes but we both were constantly frightened – the roads are generally OK, but expect blind turns on mountain roads in which you may or may not know if cars / buses are about to run into you. The road is about 1.5 or barely 2 lanes wide; I consider it a one lane road because when you go off the road, you’re falling down thousands of meters. These aren’t gradual declines either – you fall, you die. Most of the way, the road won’t even have a protective barrier.

As you drive and see a turn, honk your horn to warn others that you are coming. Hopefully, the other drivers do the same for you.

During the first 1/3 of the trip you will be seeing a lot of the Mieng river, which produces sights like those at the beginning of this post and below.

After this, it’s a daunting stretch through the mountains. Again, be safe. The roads are fairly simple to follow as there will be continued signs pointing you to Dong Van, but do bring a map – do not expect 3G to work everywhere in the mountains if you are lost. If you know Vietnamese, this is much less of an issue.

Ha and I encountered rain and heavy fog as we made our way through. We fell on this patch of road below (I was driving).

On the way to Dong Van, drop by Lung Cu, the northern-most point in Vietnam. You will see the signs for it once you are about an hour away from Dong Van (30-40 km, 18-25 miles). Make sure that you are at this point before 2PM, or have been comfortable driving faster than 50 km/h (30 mph) – you want to make sure you can get to Dong Van while visibility is still good.

When leaving Lung Cu, there are actually two ways back. You do not want to take the way you took all the way back, but instead take another road to go to Dong Van – it appears half way on the return trip. Worst case, if you cannot find the road, go all the way back to where you started going to Lung Cu, and there will be another sign for Dong Van.

Stay the night in Dong Van. Hotel rates will be around $15 a night. This is a bare bones town, so I would eat dinner early, grab some snacks in case you get hungry, and stay in the hotel.

In Day 2, you will want to go though Meo Vac, a mountain pass which will let you view China and the Nho Que river, and then head back to Ha Giang. From Meo Vac, there is a road back to Ha Giang that’s slightly closer than taking the road you traveled on in Day 1. (If this is confusing, see the map above) However, Ha and I decided to go back on the original road. We actually didn’t go to Lung Cu on Day 1 as we arrived so late, so we did it on Day 2 on the return.

On the road to Meo Vat (look how close this child is to falling off the edge, 2000 meters down – he plays with no hesitation). Below, photos from the way back to Ha Giang.

It really is a very straightforward trip, with a lot of great natural sights. While Ha and I valued the experience, we were so frightened by the actual motorbike riding, it’s unlikely we would ever do it again. That’s not to say that we are particularly brave. Local natives traveled the roads at much greater speeds, often carrying tremendous cargo on their motorbikes as well, but for us, it was our first time and the glancing at the steep drops nearby constantly sapped our confidence.

In case you are curious about any aspect of the trip, please send a comment below!

For more photos and even a few videos, see: http://ispithotfire.smugmug.com/2014/Ha-Giang-Motorbiking-Adventure

To see more Tourist Guides from my travel, see: http://www.ispithotfire.com/tag/tourist-guide/

The Best of Wedding Fun–A Bonanza! [Photos]

I am now married. What seemed to be an impossibility for many years has somehow happened and I have the photos to prove it!

The event took place in the Binh Quoi Tourist Village in Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City, a venue run by SaigonTourist. It’s a big tourist venue (trap), though I had never heard of it until the wedding. It was a big of a rarity for Vietnamese weddings in two ways. The first was that we only had 80 people attend (Vietnamese weddings typically have 200+), so it was a small reception (technically, Ha and I had been married two months earlier according to the government paperwork). We had to plan the wedding on very short notice, so I could not invite people from the US, where I am originally from. The second was that the wedding took place outside – we were able to get a small grassy area by the river, with a cool breeze coming in at sunset.

Overall, I felt that the party was intimate, comfortable, and relaxed.  I hope that the friends and family that were able to attend enjoyed it too!

After the wedding, a small group went to McDonald’s. McDonalds just opened its first franchise in Vietnam two months ago, so Ha and I thought it would be interesting to visit in full wedding garb and check it out. Thankfully, we have a couple of friends who work there who were able to make sure we got through with no problem – it’s stupendously busy as people often have to wait in line outside the doors – going through Vietnam’s first and only motorbike drive-through.

Here are some of my favorite photos from the “Wedding Photos”, the actual wedding, and the McDonald’s trip:

Wedding Photos:

The Actual Wedding:

McDonald’s:

To see all the photos from the various events, please see:

Pre-Wedding “Wedding Photos”, including the fun Thor shots:

http://ispithotfire.smugmug.com/2014/Wedding-photos/

Actual Wedding:

http://ispithotfire.smugmug.com/2014/The-Wedding/

Post-Wedding McDonald’s Vietnam Bonanza:

http://ispithotfire.smugmug.com/2014/A-McDonalds-Vietnam-Wedding-Su/

A Grand Opening Preview of McDonald’s Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City

1555403_796379940389258_976393066_n1794636_796380027055916_230482885_n1002368_796379910389261_1123542956_n

1619514_796380040389248_1421507814_n

Yesterday, Ha and I had the opportunity to eat at the first McDonalds in Vietnam. It’s not open to the public yet, and won’t be until February 8th. But from what I’ve seen, it’s absolutely worth checking out, whether you’re a McDonalds / fast food fan or not. The location is in District (Quan) 1, 2-6 Bis Dien Bien Phu, Puong Da Kao (Ward) in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

It’s complete with McDonalds staple, the drive-through, a first in Vietnam. I didn’t get to try the motorbike drive-through, but I want to. Maybe that sounds weird, but as an American living in Vietnam, I can tell you that McDonalds is completely different from any other restaurant, fast food or otherwise, in Vietnam right now. If you live in Vietnam, it will feel completely misplaced, and that’s a good thing. From the sheer size of the restaurant (don’t worry about parking space) to its great wifi (inside joke for my friend Hai Do) to its children’s playground to its prominent arches sign that you will see from very far away, you feel like you’re in an amusement park in the middle of the city.

Ha and I tried a good number of items, a few of which I’ve never had at any McDonalds. In total, we had:

  1. McRoyal with Cheese (Quarter Pounder – remember Pulp Fiction?)
  2. McPork (not sure if these exists in the USA, it’s not a McRib)
  3. McFlurry
  4. French Fries (they are the same ones you know and love)
  5. Apple Pie
  6. Ice Cream Cone (priced at 10K VND, about $.50)
  7. Chicken Wings (I don’t think they are the same as Mighty Wings in the USA, but they are excellent nonetheless)

Yes, that’s a lot of food and we could not finish everything. Everything was excellently delicious however, and the entire experience was very polished.

h

I can’t wait until I can pick up a Happy Meal toy. But in the mean time, I picked up an adult “toy”, the awesome McDonald’s Vietnam t-shirt shown above. You can pick up your own once it opens. They’re also selling nice travel mugs, a special grand opening pin (got one of those as well; you can see it, albeit not clearly at the bottom of my shirt), and two other shirt options. And because these items are unique to Vietnam, not generic McDonald’s, they make excellent Vietnam souvenirs and gifts if you’re traveling through. (I especially like the French Fry pocket holder shirt, ask about that one)

Get more info on McDonald’s and the Grand Opening through its Facebook Fan Page: https://www.facebook.com/McDonaldsVN