Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why Life's a Beach in Bai Tram

So I thought I knew Vietnam. I've been coming for six years. Lived there for two. And seen just about all there is to see.

Just about.

But then this week happened. Rather, Bai Tram happened.

Two days ago, I got in a car in Hoi An and was driven eight, mind-numbing hours down the Vietnamese coastline to a place straight out of a fiction novel. I shit you not. Certainly the lack of a great expectations contributed -- until recently, I had never even heard of Bai Tram, let alone known anything about it.

But I won't be forgetting what I experienced there anytime soon.

Technically, Bai Tram is seven thatched-roof villas fronting a private stretch of beach that extends for a full kilometer and is bookended by giant rock outcroppings. But truthfully it's much more than that.

It's near bustling Quy Nhon but far from it. Guests come here to remove themselves from the rest of the world -- to unplug and unwind. No one is forced to. The lack of any sound but that of nature has a way of sending the message loud and clear. Here's what the property looks like from a spot I was told is called Coconut Hill:

One of my favorite moments was the motorcycle tour I got from the resort's resident manager, Ieks Poppema, a Dutch Dennis Quaid if there ever was one. We went well beyond the gates of Bai Tram, over a long and rickety wooden bridge, past traditional fish farms and along a narrow winding road shaded by palms and lined by beach huts. Here's a look at the bridge, from over Ieks's shoulder:

Halfway across the bridge, we encountered kids on bicycles riding in the opposite direction. They were all wearing the same clothes and big smiles. Clearly, class was dismissed.

But the fun was only just beginning for me. Later the same afternoon, Ieks arranged for a local fisherman and his crew to take us out on this beauty:

We first visited a lobster farmer, who at one point led me underwater so that I could get an up-close look at his livelihood -- colorful Flower Lobster, swimming around in submerged rectangular cages about eight feet below the surface. When reeled up, the cages are covered in barnacles:

From there we cruised over to a coral reef, where we busted out the snorkel gear and surveyed that action. Eventually the skipper said goodbye to us about 50 meters from the shoreline. It was close enough. We could see clear to the bottom -- unusual for Vietnam, even at shallow depths -- and to Bai Tram Beach, as pictured here from under one of the palapas:

And so we swam, and then trudged up to the resort's bar and ordered an ice-cold bottle of Quy Nhon Beer. The perfect ending to a storybook day.

Monday, June 27, 2011

How Jetlag Spurred a Spiritual Experience

If there’s one positive to jetlag it’s that you don’t have to fight getting an early start on the day. Even in the din of a well-draped hotel room, you’re up and at ‘em at an hour you normally don’t see.

That’s always been my experience, at least.

Today was no exception. Despite being comfortably cocooned in my villa at the Sofitel Centara Grand in Hua Hin, and despite being three days into this trip (i.e. far enough removed from the long journey from Salt Lake City to Southeast Asia) the eyes opened and stayed open. My internal clock still has me somewhere over the Pacific, I think.

So I took to the beach, about 100 yards down the orchid-lined footpath between the resort and the Gulf of Thailand.

I’m not a religious person, but this morning’s walk was nothing short of spiritual. First, the sunrise. It was dark when I embarked, but within what seemed like 15 or 20 minutes — hard to say exactly, because I didn’t have my watch or phone — I could sense night giving way. With each step, the sky along the horizon changed — from a dull purple to, eventually, a fiery orange that gave definition and color to the wispy clouds hovering above.

At its most intense level of orange, I sat on a wooden chaise lounge chair — one of hundreds that later today will undoubtedly be occupied by sunbathers — and took in the scene. I shoved my feet into the flour-like sand, inhaled the briny air, and stared at the waves gently rolling in.

Not a couple minutes passed when two figures then converged — one from my right, another from my left — and met probably 20 paces in front of me. Two women. One a Buddhist monk, with shaved head and white robe. The other in hotel housekeeping threads. They spoke for a second, then the maid lay alms in a basket hanging from the monk’s neck. The maid got down on her haunches and into a prayer position. In turn, the monk sang a prayer. The two were silhouetted against that bright orange sky.

“Jetlag,” I thought, “ain’t half bad.”

(This entry was first posted on June 7 at

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Snapped Back: Why a Recent Photo of Saigon's District 2 Sent Me Down Memory Lane

As I get set to return to Asia next Friday, to meet with clients and visit with friends, I'm reminded of August 2007, when I became a resident of Saigon, on a peninsula of District 2 called Thu Thiem.

The reminder is in the form of a photo (see below) snapped recently and shared the other day by Carl Robinson, a former AP correspondent who loves nothing more these days than to share memories, stories and images with the 250-plus-member Google discussion group "Vietnam Old Hacks".

The photo was taken from the observation deck of the new Bitexco Financial Tower, by far the tallest building in Vietnam now at 68 stories high. The frame transports me back in time because of what it shows.

Or, rather, what it doesn't show. And that is so much of what surrounded me when living in Thu Thiem -- miles-long rows of modest houses, restaurants, shops and markets that line Luong Dinh Cua Street, and giant billboards along the Saigon River and next to the little ferry terminal that shuttles motorcyclists and pedestrians between the peninsula and city center.

It's all been ripped up. Where those houses once stood, piles of rubble now do. Where the billboards once towered, a patch of dirt braces itself for what's to come soon -- a new and modern Thu Thiem, exemplified by office complexes and a multi-lane highway.

I never expected Saigon to remain the way it was when I first set foot on its soil. But I must admit it saddens me some to see it develop as fast as it has.

Especially Thu Thiem. My ride down to the ferry terminal most days came courtesy of a soft-spoken man named Sang (seen here with my bro). We had a hard time conversing, but I was able to discern he lived his entire life in that neighborhood, was married and had a baby. I imagine they've been pushed out, and the thought of that breaks my heart.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Where Dragons Dance in Salt Lake City

Three years ago last week, when Claire and I were living in Saigon, we flew north to Hue, Vietnam's imperial capital, and spent about five days there with my colleague Jim and his family -- wife Thuy, son Cullen and daughter Vivian.

I remember it being cold and rainy in the same way my native Seattle is around this time of year. I also remember how fun it was to be in Hue that week, mainly because it was Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

The streets and markets were crowded with shoppers of all ages on the prowl for things like flowers and cakes and decorations and gifts. Despite the gray skies, there was color -- reds and golds and yellows and greens, everywhere you looked.

We roamed places like the Citadel and Thu Duc's Thomb. We drank cafe sua during the day, and in true locals style, warm beer at night. We munched on Hue specialties, in the homes of Thuy's relatives. We cruised around the wet city on a rented motorbike. We played pool in the lobby of La Residence Hotel. We woke every morning in the Sullivans' spare bedroom to the sound of a dog barking next door.

Yesterday, those memories came flooding back when at Northwest Middle School in Salt Lake City. As in Utah. As in half a world away from Hue. May sound strange, but not when you consider this: Northwest MS is where Utah's Vietnamese community decided to celebrate the Year of the Cat. We got there just past 11 a.m., right before teenagers of Vietnamese heritage slipped into costume and performed a ritualistic dragon dance to the sound of drums and firecrackers.

Inside, we ordered goi cuon (fresh spring rolls) and watched the same kids perform another number, on the auditorium stage this time, as toddlers in the audience took turns handing the dragons little red envelopes -- packets of "lucky money."

As we were leaving, Claire said, "All that's missing is the smell of fish sauce." (Hue produces some pretty strong fish sauce.) And I thought, "And gray skies." Outside, the sky was blue and something in the air made it feel like spring.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What's Cool About Thailand's Oldest Golf Course

Of the 250-odd golf courses in Thailand, one that no one seems to talk about is Royal Hua Hin. The few times I have heard someone mention it, the comment was roughly the same: "It's old and scruffy."

Fine. But if that's the definition of a bad track, I don't think there'd be a waiting list to play the Old Course at St. Andrews. I had to see it for myself.

So on Monday, I made my way from the oldest hotel in Hua Hin (Sofitel Centara Grand) to the oldest golf course in Thailand. It didn't take long. The two properties, built around the same time almost a century ago, are separated by about four blocks and a set of railroad tracks.

At first glance, I wasn't impressed. It was most certainly old. But not in the timeless kind of way. More like the forgot-about-it-30-years-ago kind of way. The clubhouse, with its rust colored wooden beams and furniture, has a '60s feel to it. Looking up the 18th fairway, from behind the green, there was no discernible difference between the fairway and rough. And the rentals were straight out your grandfather's garage.

"This'll be a challenge," I thought.

And it was. But not just because the clubs belonged in a museum. But because there is a maze of trees out there. From most tee boxes, the margin for error is slight -- both the 2nd and 6th offer extremely narrow slots through which to shoot. So does the 9th, which also requires a carry of at least 200 yards in order to clear the topiary and reach the fairway. The 4th is backdropped by a massive outcropping and the 5th is gorgeously framed by trees.

The 10th is a straightaway par-4 if there ever was one, but then the back nine gets good... especially at the par-3 14th, which plays slightly downhill to a false-front green guarded on both sides by bunkers and a majestic temple set in the lush hillside behind it. I didn't get a picture there because my camera died, but it's forever etched in my memory.

The home stretch is what all finishes should be -- a test. The par-3 16th plays at least 210 yards, with traps flanking the front of the green like a pair of nightclub bouncers. And the final two holes aren't just long dogleg left par 4s; they're tricky around the jar, thanks to greens more contoured than a Chihuly sculpture.

Sure, the old track is rough around the edges. But if you're in any way a purist, or find it even slightly compelling that a Scottish engineer was commissioned to design Thailand's first layout, I wouldn't miss it. Here's some footage I did manage to capture during my visit:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Motorcycle Diaries: Khanh Hoa's Coast

Last month I chaperoned a group of Aussie journalists on a trip from south to north Vietnam. When in Nha Trang, I managed to sneak off on motorbike for a couple hours and explore the coastline just north of the city. With my new Samsung Moment in hand, I rolled tape during a pit stop. Video quality isn't ideal, but you get the picture (sort of) ...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sweet Perfume

In Hue, along the banks of the Perfume River, where the French once commissioned the construction of a mansion for its Resident Superieure, I lie poolside, looking up at a silver-streaked September sky.

A tropical breeze gently jostles the palms and frangipanis and orange trees that surround the perimeter.

The sound of traditional Vietnamese music (nha nhac) is faint; it could be coming from the Citadel, just across the river.

Birds chirp.

The pool's salt water filters.

A bus horn blares once, then twice. Five o'clock draws near.

In a month, the rains will come, and that river will rise, maybe even over the banks. Eventually, unfortunately, I will rise, as well.

But not just yet. Like one of Hue's most revered monks once said, 'If you want to live fully, you have to live slowly.' And I'm feeling that.