Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What a Bargain?

Prices in Vietnam. Bargain or not? Well, that depends a lot on what you're buying. Here are some thoughts based on my limited experience living in Ho Chi Minh City for about two months.

True Bargains

Vietnamese food: A banh mi, not quite a footlong sandwich, but a decent-sized sub packed with meat and veggies costs me 10,000 VND from the banh mi lady at the bus station. That's $.50 US. For a decently satisfying lunch. For $2-$3, a hot meal from a cart, with plastic chairs and tables to eat at for the true HCMC ambiance, consists of rice, two meats (I had grilled chicken and pork today), a hot vegetable, and a cup of cabbage soup. We typically feed all three of us at Vietnamese sit-down restaurants or the Vietnamese booth at the mall foodcourt for around $10-12. That includes three drinks,

Lots of Other Cuisines: We've found some great bargains eating out at Chinese, Thai, Indian, dim sum, Korean, and sushi restaurants. At the Indian place we like, a meal for three that would have easily been over $50 in the US was around $20 here. As you'll see below, this does not apply to every restaurant, but even those that are pricier are still usually cheaper than the US equivalent.

Soda, Coffee, Tea, and Beer: I don't drink much alcohol, but the common beers here run about $1-2 a can, with lots of bars slashing prices for happy hour deals (one place was unlimited beer from 4-7 PM for around $10). A bottle of Coke from a convenience store will run you $.25-$.50, and that same bottle might be $1 or $1.50 from a street vendor or at a restaurant. While it's possible to get prices like that in the US, you really only see them when buying 12-packs of cans at a supermarket. Coffee on the street is around $.50 a cup, and iced tea in a restaurant is about that price as well. Coffee can get expensive in Starbucks-style coffee shops. Vietnamese style coffee is generally a better deal than the European versions.

Books: New books at the bookstores here are quite inexpensive. A manga volume that would be $8-10 in B&N back in the States goes for around $1 here. In the US, you can make up for that price by buying used or bargain-shopping online, and I haven't found any used book dealers here, but the prices in the bookstores are so cheap that I don't feel like I need to seek out alternatives.

Transportation: I pay about $.25 to ride a bus even with two buses each way, it amounts to $1 a day for commuting to/from work. Cab fare into the center of town from where I am is around $5-6. The usual taxi scams do happen here, but cab fares are quite good if you stick with a reputable taxi company. My understanding is that bus, rail, and air transportation within the country and to other countries in the region is pretty reasonable in terms of price. For private transportation, motorbikes are the preferred way of getting around and they are inexpensive to own and operate.

Cell/Internet/Cable/Utilities: All significantly cheaper than the US equivalent. It helps that there are no cell service contracts. Everything is pay-as-you-go here.

Services: Housekeeping and nanny services are, well, let's put it this way: They are affordable on a teacher's salary. We haven't used these kinds of services ourselves, but a number of co-workers we know have hired nannies or housekeepers.

Tourism: The Saigon Skydeck at the Bitexco Financial Tower costs around $10 per person, which is less than half of what you would pay at a similar attraction in the US or Europe. We went on a full-day private guided tour on the Mekong Delta, lunch and fresh-fruit-snack included, for $50 per person for a group of five. Hotel rooms are very reasonable, even in beach/tourist areas. Admission to museums and attractions is quite reasonable.

Slight Bargains

American/Fast Food: A value meal at McDonalds here costs a bit less than the same meal at a US McDonalds. Generally speaking, I spend about $5 here when I eat fast food, whereas I would typically spend $7-8 in the States. But with all of the great Vietnamese food at such good prices, fast food never feels like a bargain here. Restaurants serving American-style comfort food tend to be a bit pricier than other restaurants that we've found here, but again, still a bit less expensive than the same meal would have been in the US.

Rent/Housing: This is a difficult one to quantify, because it can vary so much by region back in the USA. But considering the size of the city, and the fact that we are in a very nice neighborhood, our rent is pretty reasonable.

It Varies

Clothing: Some friends got some custom-tailored garments. It was not cheap, but this was good-quality custom work, and a great deal compared to the same service in the US. There seem to be some great bargains on off-the-rack clothes, but also a lot of stuff selling for pretty much the same price as in the States. Clothes for bigger folks like myself can be harder to find here. I'm not really a clothes-shopping enthusiast, but my impression is that it is possible to do well here if you put in the time and effort.

Groceries: There are some good deals, but a lot of food at the grocery store sells for about what you would expect to pay in the US. Street vendors and markets are not really a bargain unless you're willing to play the haggling game. While cooking your own food is still cheaper than eating out, the costs are considerably closer here, and we find ourselves eating out a lot more (it helps that we live in a neighborhood full of great restaurants).

Fine Dining: This depends somewhat on your definition of fine dining, but the really expensive cuisine here is expensive by any standards. That being said, we've found plenty of places that, while not four-star or whatever, certainly rank as great culinary experiences and were on the inexpensive side.

Not A Bargain

Electronics: Pretty much expect to pay at least what you would pay in the US, maybe more if it's some hot newly-released gadget.

Toys: Toys are either more expensive than their American counterparts, or are of extremely low quality,

Household Goods/Furniture: Again, pretty much the same price as you'd find in the US. We've had some success with waiting for sales in this category to take advantage of temporare markdowns, but those kinds of deals are common in the US as well.

Overall, the cost of living here is, in fact, significantly lower. The fact that we no longer have a car has also really helped to reduce expenses. There were significan up-front costs associated with getting settled in (the American standard of paying first/last/security to rent an apartment is the standard here too), but now that we are past those we can get a better understanding of what our budget is truly going to be like. We are looking forward to enjoying some of the true bargains we have discovered over here.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

First Convention In Vietnam

We live within walking distance of the Saigon Exhibition & Convention center, here in District 7, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I love the geeky convention scene back in the USA. So I was pretty excited when the opportunity to attend a convention here in Vietnam. And even more excited when I discovered that admission was free.

The event was the International Travel Expo, Ho Chi Minh City, which featured travel and hospitality companies from around Vietnam, most of Southeast Asia, and beyond.

The event is an industry trade show for several days, and then opens to the public on Saturday. We preregistered online, but at-the-door admission was also free and the lines were not long when we arrived in the late morning.

Business was booming inside the exhibit hall, though.

We talked to lots of tour operators, hotel reps, and members of tourism-promoting groups in a number of countries. We picked up plenty of brochures and have started to think about new travel ideas.

There were also some live performances there. This dance group, The Pang Show, was from Korea.

We stayed for about 2 hours, and had a great time.

Now we have plenty of material to look through for future travel planning.

The convention center is a pretty nice facility, and I am looking forward to heading over there for future events. Just like we are look forward to some future traveling, in Vietnam, and beyond.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Current Writing Projects

It's been a while since I've had anything to say about writing on this "Writing and Parenting" blog, which is understandable since we've been a little bit busy lately. Relocating to the other side of the planet tends to have that effect. But that being said, I think I am settled in to the point where it's at least possible to think about writing.

Today, I headed out with the iPad to do some testing of the logistics of possible local writing venues. I try to do most of my writing away from the house. I find it works better that way. Fewer immediate distractions.

So right now, I'm at a Highlands Coffee location a few blocks from our apartment, and I've got a good wifi connection and access to my writers  on Google Docs. I have my keyboard for the iPad. I have a frozen fruity tea drink and a brownie.

This could work. :)

So, here is a rundown of current projects. Titles are all working titles (except things that are part of a series where I've already published something).


Airship Girls and the City in the Clouds

This is my MG dieselpunk novel, and it is my "current" novel project. I did a lot of workshopping of chapters of this with my writers groups back in Massachusetts. About 2/3 of the story is written. It currently needs an outline and then a from-chapter-one rewrite. That will be my big ongoing project as far as writing goes this year. It will be a big step to be able to finish a complete draft of something this size. I've written the 50K goal of Nanowrimo a few times now, but never with a complete beginning/middle/end. Not sure whether the end goal is submission to agents or self-publication (and I'm not currently really worrying about that issue, because the publishing landscape is changing rapidly and I'm concentrating on just finishing the book).

The Great Zombie Plague of 1876

My alternative history zombie western. This is in a very similar place to where Airship Girls is. Half-written and ready for an outline and a rewrite from the beginning. I've decided to back-burner this until I have a complete draft of Airship Girls just because these are both big projects and I'm doing them solo, so it makes sense to tackle one at a time. This is a fun story and I do want to come back to it, but I'm not giving it much thought beyond that right now.

Wolfen's Wizard

Collaboration with my occasional comic book co-writer Amy Kaczmarowski. We plotted this out via a freeform roleplaying game and like the story enough that we decided to do a prose version. The complete plot is written, along with much of the dialogue. At some point we're going to start turning our transcripts, which for all intents and purposes form a detailed outline, into prose. When we finally get going on this, we might want to get it out there for readers quickly (once we're both happy with it, of course), so self-publishing might be a consideration here.

Short Stories


This is a fantasy story set in a magical version of medieval Poland. It's one of those stories that plays around with theories and systems of magic a lot, which is something that fantasy authors tend to enjoy doing every now and then. Unlike a lot of my short stories, this story was not written with a specific anthology in mind. It has some specific issues that need to be addressed in the second draft. When I'm happy with it, I'll probably start the process of sending it out to the pro short story markets.

Other Short Stories

I have three other stories "in play" right now. Two were rejected by the original venues I sent them to, and are available to send out again. The other one was accepted to a non-paying market, which has been delayed for quite a while now, to the point that I will probably withdraw it at some point to have it available to send out again. 


My Dandelion Studios comics are all on hold right now. I want to re-start them as webcomics, since I really don't have much ability to sell at conventions from here. Quick update on current work on our four titles:

Zephyr & Reginald: Minions for Hire

Our superhero comedy. Drawn by my (awesome) wife, Gynn Stella. Issue 4 is scripted and is being drawn. 


My military fantasy series. Issue 3 script is high on my writing priority list. 

Perils of Picorna

My MG fantasy cliffhanger serial series, co-written by Amy Kaczmarowski. Issue 3 is about 1/3 drawn, but on hold at the moment.

Kaeli & Rebecca

My high-fantasy series. Issue 2 script needs to be written, but it's below a number of other writing projects on the priority list.

Unpopular Species

My other collaboration with my wife. This is our science/nature zine. We could begin work on issue 6 at any time, but it will probably wait until we have plans to actually return to the show circuit in the US. That could be next summer, or it might not be for a while. In the meantime, we're working on ideas to make the Unpopular Species artwork available on merchandise that can be purchased online.

Blogs, Zines, and Miscellaneous

I have this blog, and I also post to Goodreads as well as many of the usual social media venues.

In addition, I have Comic A Day, which is my comic review blog. I brought a small number of comics with me to Vietnam, and I'll continue to post reviews, hopefully switching over to reviewing some Vietnamese-language manga at some point.

Gynn and I will probably do some print minicomics/zines about our time here, and I may put together the occasional Vietnam-based issue of my occasional zine, Caravan.

So that is where I stand on the various writing projects. I'm looking forward to giving more updates as I find the time to make progress on my writing.

Oh, and the brownie and tea drink were both delicious.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Beginners Guide To The Saigon Bus System (Written By A Beginner)

One of the first things I did after we got settled in here in Ho Chi Minh City was to try to figure public transportation out. I grew up in Boston and lived in the NYC area for six years (two of them without a car), so I am pretty comfortable using public transportation in the US.

Most of my co-workers either own a motorbike, or share cabs for getting around. And these are both good options in Saigon. Motorbikes are by far the most common form of transport, and cabs are prett affordable compared to most other cities. I'm still deciding about whether I'll get a motorbike, but I'm taking my time making the decision. In the meantime, I take the bus.

Since my job started, I've been riding the bus to and from work, and I have also taken buses to a some other destinations. I've got a long way to go before I am an expert (or anything close), but I thought it might be helpful to share what I have learned so far, starting with the real basics.

First of all, the Saigon Bus System is huge. How big, you ask? You can find a map here. Go ahead, take a look.

Yeah, that big.

The good news is that the buses run frequently, and are very inexpensive. A ride costs around $.25 US. The frequency of buses means that I get a seat most of the time, even during rush hour. The buses are generally clean and while I've heard people mention issues of petty crime, I haven't witnessed any problems of that nature.

The main drawback I find is that the system can be a bit daunting, and I have to figure a lot of it out by trial-and-error. The bus maps don't always accurately show current routes, and sometimes a bus will do its pickup at an odd location such as a couple of blocks from the bus station rather than at the station itself. Also, the buses don't generally run at night.

So, how do you take the bus?

Well, you start by finding a bus stop.

Some stops have signs that are pretty clearly marked.

Some bus stops have a full shelter and bench setup.

 But in some cases, the stop is just marked on the street, like this:

The Vietnamese word for bus is xe buýt. It's important to recognize bus stops because the buses don't necessarily stop at every corner, and the will generally not stop for a person trying to flag them down between stops.

 This would also be a good place to mention something that came up in a previous blog entry. The term "bus stop" should not be taken to mean that the bus will actually come to a complete stop. It's more of a "bus-slow-down-sufficiently-for-you-to-jump-on-board".

The buses that I've been on cost either 5,000 or 6,000 VND. The exchange rate is around 20,000 VND to the US dollar, so a ride on the bus will set you back about a quarter.

How you deal with paying depends on the crew arrangement of the bus. Some buses have a two-person crew. Look for someone sitting near the back door of the bus holding packs of tickets and guiding people to seats. If there is a ticket-taker, then you should sit down and the ticket-taker will come to you. If there is not, then you should pay the driver. Watch what the other passengers are doing for cues.

Exact change is a really good idea on the bus. It's less of an issue on a bus with a dedicated ticket-taker, but you still don't want to try to pay with too big a bill. If you're trying to pay the driver, you will probably be handing him money while he has one hand on the steering wheel and the other on the shift. The buses are all standard shift, and the driver is often collecting money and handing out tickets while shifting gears and maneuvering among hundreds of motorbikes on a busy city street. Least can do is to not make the guy try to count out change for you.

When you pay your fare, you will get a ticket.

 Hold onto it. Occasionally a "bus inspector" will get on board at a stop and check everone's ticket to make sure they're paid up. If you buy a ticket and misplace it, you could find yourself kicked off the bus or be made to pay the fare again.

In addition to the bus stops, there are some large bus stations around the city. The one that I change buses at every day is Ben Thanh.

The bus station can be confusing because the locations labeled with bus numbers are not always the correct place to get that bus. The bus station workers will help direct you, and can communicate in English sufficiently to get their point across. Some buses don't actually depart from the station itself. Instead, they have a stop a block or two away. This is just something you need to figure out by asking or by observing the bus that you are looking for. Fortunately, the buses run frequently enough that if you miss getting your bus because you're standing in the wrong part of the station, you shouldn't have to wait too long for another bus on your route. I find generally that you don't have to wait more than 10 minutes for a bus.

When you're on the bus, there is usually some sort of button to alert the driver when you want to get off at the next stop. There are a lot of different buses, with the stop signals in different places, but I find there is almost always one near the back door.

 Some bus etiquette: In Vietnam, the attitude seems to be that no one should stand on the bus unless every possible seat is full. Ticket-takers will usher people into seats, and as soon as seats free up, standing riders are expected to sit. Seats toward the front are marked to be give up for elderly, disabled, etc., but this isn't always perfectly put into practice.

When getting off the bus, people tend to use the back door, but this is not completely consistent.

As mentioned at the beginning of this entry, I'm still a beginner at this, but I've found traveling around Ho Chi Minh City by bus to be reliable and cheap, and it can be fun to look out the window and watch the city while you leave the driving to the Saigon Bus System.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The View From Above: Saigon Skydeck

The tallest and most distinctive building in Ho Chi Minh City is the 68-floor Bitexco Financial Tower. On floor #49 is the Saigon Skydeck, with a 360-degree birds-eye view of the city. Admission is about $10 US, which is pretty good compared to comparable attractions in other cities.

Yesterday I took the Kiddo to have a look at the city from this vantage point. We took the bus in to District 1 and walked from the Ben Thanh bus station.

It's pretty easy to figure out where to go, as the Bitexco Tower is a rather distinctive landmark.

The tower's first four floors house an upscale mall, a movie theater, and a food court where we stopped for lunch, figuring the food at the cafe on the 50th floor would probably be overpriced. Food court proved to be quite good.

The Skydeck has its own entrance, so we headed back out to the street, taking a moment to look up.

From there, it was up the "fastest elevator in Southeast Asia" and up to check out the view.

It was pretty spectacular.

We got a different view of some familiar places.

Ben Thanh Market.

And the Ben Thanh Bus Station.

The world-famous Majestic Hotel.

Which does not actually look all that majestic from this angle.

(We've been inside it, though, and it is quite lovely).

Here's another of Saigon's famous hotels, the Rex (foreground left), along with Saigon City Hall.

Boats on the Saigon River.

And some views of the city, stretching to the horizon.

 This cluster of buildings includes the Lan Lan 2 Hotel, where we stayed when we first arrived in Vietnam.

The foot-bridge over a branch of the river.

Another view of City Hall.

After making our way down the elevator, we visited some of the sites we had seen from above to check them out at street level.

The Kiddo had a great time checking out the sites through the telescopes (which were free to use, as opposed to the pay versions you find in a lot of attractions).

The foot bridge.

 The Thuong Xa Tax department store.

The Rex Hotel.

 City Hall.

 And here are a couple more views of the Bitexco Tower from the streets.

This was a nice day trip, not too costly, and a good way to experience the city from a different perspective. More photos from the Saigon Skydeck can be found in this Flickr Album, and this album contains pictures from all over Ho Chi Minh City taken this month.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mekong Delta Tour

We've slowly started to see some of the sights in Ho Chi Minh City. Last weekend, we decided to head out of town.

The Mekong Delta tour is one of those prepackaged tourist things that everyone does. That being said, it ended up being pretty awesome.

Some co-workers had passed along the information for an agency that set them up on the tour the previous week. I looked at the options available on their website. There was a one-day tour to see the floating markets, but it left at 6 AM, which I was a bit iffy on after my first week at the new job.

So I ended up going to the agency's office to talk to them in person. In addition to Gynn and the Kiddo, there were two co-workers interested in going. The agency assured me that they could arrange a one-day tour private tour for five, leaving from our neighborhood in District 7 at a time of our choosing. So I decided that we should set out at the more civilized hour of 8 AM.

Our party gathered the next morning and there was some confusion with the guide trying to find our location, but after some back-and-forth, the van arrived and we were off on our first trip through the countryside.

Our guide, Nhi, was awesome, and it turns out that the tour guides are freelancers, so we got her contact information and she is going to be our first go-to person for future travel planning within Vietnam.

It was about a 2- hour drive to the Delta. We made one stop (at the "Mekong Delta Rest Stop"!), before our first actual tourist destination, a Cao Dai temple in the town that would be our river port.

Cao Dai is a relatively new religion in Vietnam that combines elements of Catholicism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. The temple was beautifully decorated.

Outside the temple in the side alley, we were like, "Look! Random dragon!"

As it turns out, the dragon was affixed to this vehicle, which Nhi explained is used in funeral processions.

Which immediately makes Vietnamese funerals way cooler than western ones. Because dragon.

After exploring the temple a bit (and Gynn buying a plant pot at a local shop), we returned to the van and headed to the river port.

We got on a boat and set out among the traffic of the Mekong.

This is a catfish-boat heading down river and out to sea:

We crossed the river and docked at a coconut candy-making place. We were used to this from some of our tours in China. There are always a few stops to give the chance to spend money. That being said, the coconut candy was delicious and not very expensive. We also got coconut rice paper, which is absolutely awesome as a crunchy snack. Here is the rice paper being made:

From there, we rode horse carts through a local village to get a snack of fruit and tea and hear some traditional music.


Next up we were paddled down a narrow canal back to the docking area by these awesome Mekong Delta oarswomen.

From there it was lunch time (the fruit snack and lunch were included in the cost of the tour; which was pretty reasonable at $50 per person). The main course: Elephant-ear fish from the Mekong river!

The server peeled the skin and took the meat off the fish and rolled it with rice paper and vegetables into spring rolls for us. There was tamarind sauce and chili sauce for dipping. The meal also included some deep fried spring rolls and fried rice, all quite delicious.

From there it was time to head back across the river.

We sipped some freshly-cut coconuts on the ride back to the dock and then boarded the van back to HCMC.

This trip definitely had a tourist-package vibe to it, but none of us minded. The scenery and food were lovely, and we had fun the whole day. We missed out on seeing the floating markets (they close at 10 AM, so you really do have to be up at the crack of dawn to catch those), and there is a ton more to see on the Delta, so we well definitely be back there at some point.