Saigon vs Chiang Mai (winner: CNX)

Chiang Mai, Thailand is one of my favourite places in the world. After arriving yesterday from Saigon, I immediately noticed the stark constast between the two places. Saigon is loud, crazy, bustling, dangerous, a concrete jungle. And hot. Really freaking hot.

Chiang Mai is less of all of that, in every category. It’s not too loud, a little less busy, not very dangerous, and instead of concrete jungle, it kinda feels like the city was built in an actual jungle. There’s trees, greenery, plenty of wats (Buddhist temples) just about everywhere you look. It does gets hot here, and it feels a bit more humid, but it’s worth the tradeoff, in my opinion.

I don’t ever want to go back to Saigon for a long, long time, if ever. This is my 3rd time in Chiang Mai, and I’m falling in love with the place all over again.

Today will be dedicated to finding an apartment and renting a motorbike. I got a horrible haircut in Saigon 2 days ago, so I’m also gonna have to get that fixed soon. (I look like Chet from the movie Weird Science. The only fix at this point is to get it all buzzed off.)

I’m also excited to see all the places that I loved to visit when I was last here 3.5 years ago. It’s really been too long between visits.

Some things have changed. May Kaidee’s is a favorite vegetarian/vegan restaurant that I sought out yesterday, and apparently they moved to a different location. There’s also a new mall which was built on the corner of Nimmanhamen and Huay Kaew Road. I still haven’t been able to check out all my old hangouts yet. A big surprise is seeing all the touristy places which cater to Chinese speakers. I’ve seen way more Chinese on signs and advertistments than I ever remember seeing in the past.

What’s really surprised me the most is that so much hasn’t changed. Kad Suan Kaew mall is still standing, and it still looks like a giant semi-abandoned warehouse. Aum vegetarian restaurant is still exactly where it was by Tae Phae Gate (eastern gate) of the old city, and they’re still serving the same fare (“The One” smoothie w/spirulina was a hit waaay back in 2012, and apparently still is). But now they have quinoa dishes too.

The Wawee coffee on Nimmanhaman Road is still there, as is the Starbucks just down the road and on the other side. But they now serve cold drinks in re-usable cups with a message to “go green”, and some suggested up-cycle ideas (e.g. make the cup into a planter). They still don’t have soy milk though. (Sigh. Some things *never* change.)

I’m most excited to go visit Pun Pun vegetarian restaurant (both locations), which is one of the best places I’ve ever eaten. Thai food really is the best food in the world. And Free Bird Cafe was another favorite, but less dependable. Are they even still around? Gotta find out.

It’s such a crazy juxtaposition, Saigon and Chiang Mai. If you can handle riding a motorbike in Saigon, then you’ll be totally fine in Chiang Mai. Really, you won’t have any problems at all, except maybe getting used to driving on the other side of the road. I don’t even think I could find kombucha in Saigon. I lived there for 3 months and can’t tell you where to get it (ok, I can tell you where you *might* find it). But here I can find it in several places, usually homemade.

Prices seem a bit lower here, for everyday things like bananas and coffee. The city is a bit nicer in general, amenities are higher quality. It’s much less dirty than Saigon. Maybe that’s not a fair comparison as Saigon is a much bigger city, but then again, I couldn’t find too many areas in Saigon where it was very clean, and I visited a lot of different places during my three months there.

The people seem friendlier here. I have a theory about the collective Vietnamese psyche in general, but I’ll save that for later. Truth be told, the food in Vietnam isn’t that great, and it’s really not healthy. They eat white rice most everywhere. If only they could make one small change, and use brown rice instead, I’d have eaten at the small cơm tấm places a lot more. But I don’t want the blood sugar spikes and low fiber content from eating pure white rice, versus brown.

CNX has more Westerners in general, is more touristy, and definitely has more of a health-conscious Western tourist subculture, at least in the old city area. It’s really nice.

In Saigon, I struggled to find any books in English, and when I did, the selection was scarce. There are plenty of book stores in CNX where I can find any type of book imaginable in English. Sure, of course they have Thai books. But they also have a nice selection of English books. (It’s equally easy to find English-language books in Bangkok.) It’s almost impossible in Vietnam. Things like this are what make it so difficult for me to imagine living in Vietnam full-time. Little things, which add up.

Ok, that’s it for now.

Almost Christmas!

Update: After 3 months, I have finally received my refund from JetStar. I still can’t recommend that anyone ever give them any of his/her hard-earned money, though. #worstcompanyever

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on here.

Our last post left off with us in Chiang Mai, Thailand, about to complete our one-month stay in our apartment. Since then, Brittany and went all the way through Malaysia to Singapore via train from Chiang Mai. It was a long, multi-stop journey. We first went from CM to Bangkok, which took about a day (24 hours. We took a sleeper). Trains in Thailand aren’t that great, and stop a lot. For apparently no reason. For hours at a time. After a night’s rest in Bangkok, we took another train to Penang, Malaysia, also on a sleeper.

We found an awesome boutique hostel in Penang called Ryokan. So we decided to stay 4 nights there in total. The food was good. Penang is famous for it’s food. Then we took a train to Kuala Lumpur.

Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, and has everything anyone could want (if you know where to look). Chinatown is nice. There are malls with high-end designer stores (Gucci, Louis Vuitton, etc), as well as inexpensive (almost slummy) open markets with character (look up Chow Kit).

Overall, Malaysia was a big surprise for us. It was wonderful. The people speak English (Malaysia is the former British territory called British Malaya). It’s like a big melange of Muslim, Chinese, Indian and Malay culture. Who almost all speak English, at varying levels. The Malaysian infrastructure is great (especially compared to Thailand).

Anyway, after seeing 4 days of KL, we took the last leg of our train trip to Singapore.

Singapore is a huge city-state (‘state’ in this sense meaning ‘sovereign nation’). It has a lot of nice parks, flora, and almost the same mix of culture as Malaysia. Almost everyone speaks English (even better than in Malaysia). There’s a lot of Chinese influence/culture in Singapore. We found a few tea houses and some nice inexpensive Chinese vegetarian restaurants in Chinatown, which was clearly our favorite place in Singapore. Chinese vegetarian restaurants are almost 100% vegan, actually. We bought some delicious jasmine green tea in a tea shop before we left. Then we took a place to New Zealand.

Oh, and I strongly suggest, no matter who you are, or how much money you’re trying to save, don’t ever fly JetStar. No matter if they’re the only direct flight to your destination or not. Just don’t. We had the most horrible experience with them ever, and almost 2 months later, I’m still trying to get my $1419 NZD (New Zealand Dollars) back from them. From a fully-refundable ticket that I purchased with my own money, for a flight that I will never use. Which I was forced to purchase, or else they wouldn’t let me board my plane to New Zealand.

The only contact numbers you will ever receive from JetStar go to a call center in Manila, where the people there have little power to help you get anything done. I will repeat: Do Not Ever Fly with JetStar, ever.

New Zealand is beautiful. We loved everything about it, except the prices. And the tourism. Everything is so damn expensive there (hostels, food… tours to anything, which are mostly a waste of time and money anyway…).

We saw the movie set where they filmed for Hobbiton/The Shire for LOTR and The Hobbit. It was beautiful. Too bad it’s all just a movie set. They have real vegetable gardens, flowers, roses, trees, a lake, and a fake metal tree on top of Bag-End.

The farmer’s markets were the best we’ve been to. We went to the Saturday market in Tauranga and the Sunday market in Hastings. Hastings was probably my favorite. I think the combination of landscape/climate is what makes the markets so great. And the food. And coffee. Coffee is a big deal in New Zealand. Every small town in NZ has at least one espresso shop. The farmer’s markets even have at least one, sometimes more, espresso stands. Since they can grow just about anything, they have it all. Local lemons/limes/oranges. Local avocados. All types of green vegetables, swiss chard (which they call silverbeet), beets (which they call beetroot), bell peppers (capsicums), zucchini (courgettes), onions.

People in New Zealand have a very pro-NZ, anti-everything-else mentality, so if a farm or business is “100% NZ owner/operated”, then it’s seen as superior, or something. I think they call it pride. I call it nationalism.

Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the south island. (Again. I swear I’ll see it some day.)

Now we’re home. It feels great to be home again. To be able to wear more than just one pair of pants all day, every day. To be able to drive to the store. Or to drive anywhere. It’s nice.

We started eating a lot of winter squash, because it’s now in season. And delicious. I’ve been saving seeds from the organic fruits of heirloom varieties we’ve been eating. We’ve tried several, and we now have our own seed packets made up. The great thing is that most winter squash have about 200 – 250+ seeds in their seed cavities.

For example, I just rinsed and laid out 233 seeds from our most recent squash, the Kabocha (like a little green pumpkin). These 233 were the viable seeds. I threw away the runts and the not-quite-formed seeds. I can’t think of any profession other than farming/gardening (aka agriculture) in which you can get a 233% return in a year.

The end. Ok, bye.