After my holidays in Germany in August, me and one of my mates decided to spend a week in Vietnam. So we've booked a hotel and a flight to Ho-Chi-Minh-City (Saigon) and I finally made my first proper trip to Asia. I did stops in Singapore in the past, but never got out of the airport. One thing I remember though is the unbearable heat - even in the middle of the night - in the smoking area, which is on a rooftop of Singapore airport. So I expected roughly the same from Vietnam.
As we stumbled out of the air-conditioned airport we hit a wall of heat and I wasn't so much surprised but rather concerned. This heat all day can't be good for me.
The heat wasn't our only problem. I was hoping there would be some sort of shuttle bus to the city centre or the hotel and so we went past the cab drivers, which were quite aggressive trying to get a fare. After I realised there wasn't a shuttle bus we took up the offer of the first guy who asked us "Cab? Cab?" before we wasted more time and had to spend more time in the heat. The guy said $30 for the fare to the hotel, which didn't sound like too much. The "cab" was a rubbish car, which apparently had been mended multiple times by apes. A little bit worrying was the fact that it didn't seem to be a proper cab. No meter, no writing on the door, no sign. For a moment I considered the possibility that the guy will drop us in some alley, where some kidnappers are waiting for us. But we were in the middle of the city and the guy seemed to know where he was going and after maybe a 20-minute drive, we arrived at the hotel - no sign of any kidnappers.
The guy at the hotel reception then told us that normally it's no more than $10 to $15 to get from the airport to the hotel. So the "private cab driver" ripped us off... That was the first time, but it wouldn't have been the last time.
Our hotel room was an executive apartment with four bedrooms, three bathrooms, an enormous kitchen and a gigantic living room with dining table, couches and a big-ass TV with a banging stereo. We payed about $70 per night, which for a four-star hotel with pool is not that expensive. You only get a single room in a hostel in Melbourne for that money.
We arrived in the morning, so we still had most of the day ahead of us. So after check-in, we dived into the chaos of Saigon's streets. The heat was unbearable, but I was totally stunned by what I saw. Cars are very expensive in Vietnam due to a 100% import tax, which basically means that you pay the price of the car again in tax if you buy one. The solution? Motorbikes and mopeds! There are almost twice as many 2-wheelers in Saigon as there are people. That's insane considering there are almost eight million people.
The air is full of two-stroke exhausts - that, combined with the heat and some of the smells coming out of some of the shops, was a very unpleasant experience. Walking on the pavement can be tricky. Usually they're full of parked mopeds and people selling food, smokes and souvenirs. When they suddenly stop, you need to cross the road, which at first seemed like mission impossible. There's just too many of these damn mopeds. Fortunately I remembered what Jeremy Clarkson said in the "Top Gear - Vietnam Special". He explained that in order to cross the street in Saigon, you just look straight ahead and walk across.
The astonishing thing is, that this actually works. You just walk across the street, maintaining a constant pace, and the mopeds see you, anticipate where you will be and then just dive left or right in order to avoid you. Because everything is so chaotic, everyone pays attention and no one gets killed.
There are apparently only a few rules on Vietnam's streets. Lights are very rare and a really just a rough indicator, who has the right of way. People drive on the wrong side of the road, on the pavement and you would think that there are thousands of little accidents every day. Our tourist guide on a trip a few days later explained to us that in relation to the amount of vehicles on the road there are actually very few accidents. If traffic is dense, people slow down to walking pace and at this pace it is almost impossible to hit anyone. Everyone looks out for each other and the horn is not used to bully the sleepy granny, who hasn't realised the lights have turned green, but to warn other people that they're next to them or behind them. In the entire 5 days I've only seen one minor accident on one of the motorways.
Thanks to the receptionist in the hotel we were armed with a map with notes where the markets and the bar district are. Some time in the afternoon after walking around in the heat and oxygen-deprived we arrived at one of the bigger markets, where I wanted to look for some t-shirts and souvenirs and maybe an opportunity to get a tailor-made suit for an apple and an egg. Hoping for some air-conditioned place, we found a big hall with really hot and smelly air, which almost made you throw up. It was a mix of fresh fish, chicken, toilets and all kind of other smells, including sweaty humans. There were hundreds of people in narrow aisles and shops on both sides with all different kinds of junk on sale.
Apparently it is very easy to identify me as a tourist and only after a few steps into an aisle I was surrounded by little Vietnamese people who tried to drag me to their merchandise. The pesky retailers, combined with the heat and the terrible smell was the knife on my thread of patience.
I was primarily looking for some t-shirts and almost every shop had the same selection of typical souvenir t-shirts. So I thought the idea is that you go from merchant to merchant until you find one who's desperate enough to agree to the price you're willing to pay. At least that's the theory.
In reality it is a little bit more complicated. First of all I had no idea what price is acceptable or reasonable or how far you can go. I felt like I'm ripping them off after I counter-offered with 100,000 Dong after they've asked for 180,000. We finally agreed on 125,000 and I felt pretty good about it. It was much later, after buying some more for even less - between 90,000 and 120,000 Dong - that I found out that you shouldn't pay more than 50,000 to 60,000 Dong for any t-shirt.
In the evening we went into the bar district. Similar to Germany - or any other free country in the world - in Vietnam it is allowed to consume alcohol on the street. Spending most of my time over the past couple of years in Australia it always feels a bit special to me, to be allowed to drink on the street again. My mate, who so far had never left Australia, did enjoy it as well. There were a lot of people on the streets for a Monday night and apparently the city never sleeps. I believe that due to the constant heat throughout the year and temperatures dropping down to 25 degrees at night, a lot of people just rather do stuff at night and rest during the day in some air-conditioned bedroom.
We spend some time on one of the main tourist miles where you find a lot of groups of Asian girls, posing for group photos. We took up the opportunity and stood next to them in the photo, which they thought was funny, because we were one to three heads taller than them. A little kid saw my mate, who's over six feet and just yelled out "BOOOAAHH".
After some cheap drinks on the street and some cheap laughs we finally made our way into the block with all the bars. My mate wanted to get into one of the so called "hostess bars", which is the Vietnamese equivalent of a strip club, except that you won't see undressed girls since pornography and prostitution are illegal in Vietnam. So you might ask yourself, what's the point then? Hostess bars offer female companions for the night, which basically means they entertain you, make small talk with you, occasionally rub your shoulder or if you're lucky your leg - but not more. In exchange you buy her a drink from time to time. These drinks for the girls are called "lady drinks" and they will cost about three times more than a regular drink. The bar makes some profit and the girls get a commission (and can drink for free).
So that first night we went into one of those hostess bars, where the ladies were waiting at the doorsteps and almost dragged us in like hustlers after we stopped in front of the shop to have a look at them. So we went in, had a few drinks, rarely bought them one and finished early with a bar tab that wasn't excessive.
The next day we decided to relax a bit. We were on holidays after all. We went to the market again and bought some more overpriced t-shirts and gathered information about what day-trips we could make. There are two main attractions around Saigon: the Chu-Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta.
In the early afternoon we went into a district, we hadn't seen before and found a massage salon. You can hardly spend your holidays in Asia without getting a massage. We paid about $30 for roughly one hour of relaxation, which was acceptable. So I could cross off another thing on my bucket list - not a bad day so far.
In the evening we went back into the chaos and had some more drinks on the main tourist mile. After it started raining, we went to a nice rooftop bar, but soon went on for a walk. It was still raining, but it was actually not unpleasant. It was still very hot and the rain cooled us down at least a little bit. After another beer on the street, we finally stumbled across a little bar called "Cloud9", another hostess bar. It was air-conditioned, I could smoke inside and there were two or three girls constantly around us. It was a pleasant atmosphere and we got pretty drunk that night and also ordered a couple of drinks for the girls. The bar tab was pretty expensive, considering we were in Vietnam, but still less than we would've spent in Melbourne to get properly pissed.
You can get a beer for a dollar in any of the shops and vodka raspberry was only two dollars. The hostess bars charged around six or seven dollar for a Jack and Coke, which I think is roughly twice than what "regular" bars charge. So if you choose wisely, you can get pissed for $20. If not, you pay Australian prices.
Winter has finally taken over Australia and it's getting very uncomfortable outside. Every night it gets pretty cold (5°) and most of the day it is raining and there's a cold wind. You can feel a big difference these days when you walk the streets of Melbourne. The otherwise lively city cools down and there's not too much happening. People rather stay at home or at least indoors, the parks are abandoned and there are significantly less venues happening every weekend.
Now this is not as big of a problem as it seems, because most of the time I'm in the office anyway and also I found something to do during cold and rainy winter evenings - something else than going to the pub!
A few weeks ago a friend asked me if I know Poker. For years I've been hosting a poker venue in my old student flats kitchen, but for the last two or three years I had to do without this regular treat. Fist of all, moving to Australia totally prevented me from playing with the old gang and after moving out of my student apartment after I've finished my studies we never really found a nice place such as the dirty kitchen, where people spat on the floor and nobody was bothered by it but everyone still felt comfortable.
So this friend of mine here in Australia took me to my first poker venue here in Melbourne. He himself just started a week or so earlier to play in the 888 Poker League. The word "league" might be a little bit misleading though. You would expect that you sign up and then have to play every week in a certain venue. It's not like that though. You can basically show up whenever and wherever you want to any of the million venues in town. Every night there are different pubs and bars that host these tournaments and anyone can join. This requires to join the league, but since it is for free to sign up, I guess nobody is really bothered by that. The tournaments themselves usually cost $11 entrance fee, start around 7:30 pm and usually finish before 10 or 11 pm - of course this depends on how good you play or how early you get kicked out.
Usually there are around 15 - 25 players - sometimes even more. Once there are only nine players left, the final table is played. Where I play winning the tournament usually is worth around $130 to $150, around $70 for second place and $40 for third. The league has a point system and if you play pretty well you get an invite at the end of the month for a big tournament with big bucks - usually around $10.000. So far I've only got one invite for my first month where I've won one tournament and got a couple of 4th/5th places as well. But I didn't go to the tournament. They are usually on a Saturday, start early in the morning, go on until deep into the night and are way outside of the inner city. So a lot of inconvenience for me - especially the getting up early thing...
The good thing though: in Australia poker winnings are tax free!
The first time I won I've got $130 and the second time was $150 and this finances future evenings if you consider you only pay $11 per tournament. In total I don't think I'm making money, but I would say I almost break even.
Regular visitors of my blog might have noticed the poker statistics on the right hand side of the page. I've added every game I've played there since - and not only the weekly $11 tournaments - but also some private games we've done so far (hence the difference between the two mentioned tournament wins and the four in the statistics).
I currently try to make it to a tournament twice a week and what I really like about those games is that the players are not the dicks you would expect in a casino which want to come over arrogant to get you off-balance and make stupid calls. Most of them are actually very likable and they also don't take it too serious. And even the better players simply don't care too much about a faux-pas like a misdeal.
I've been to the Australian F1 Grand Prix for the last two years and always enjoyed it. A lot of horse-power, the smell of petrol and an awesome soundtrack that gives you goose bumps. This year I wasn't sure if I should go, primarily because the weather forecast was very bad and I didn't really want to run through the rain all day. It's exhausting enough to be on the track all day when the sun is shining. But my need for speed still persevered. So in the end I bought my ticket on Saturday night for general admission and went there on a sunny Sunday morning.
On TV I saw parts of the qualifying and how Vettel got screwed by Räikkönen, who stuffed his car into a wall shortly before Vettels fast lap in the deciding 2nd qualifying. That's bad luck, but I don't really care about that. I'm not what you would call a Formula 1 enthusiast, I actually prefer to see the V8 Supercar race, which is much closer racing and a lot shorter too. So now you might be asking, why I titled this blog "Bad luck for Germany" if I'm not interested in Vettels success / bad luck.
I'll get to that. The afternoon was pretty much exactly what I expected. After the awesome V8 race, which was won by a Volvo - in a country where usually Holden and Ford are battling each other for victory.
There was the Porsche Carrera race. For the last two years this was a pretty boring event with cars that actually looked more like road cars than racing cars. This was about as interesting as the Mazda challenge (Mazda - the word that comes to mind when I think about high performance ... not). This year though they had completely new cars from Germany with a lot more power, big rear spoilers and all the racing car goodies. It was actually very enjoyable, although the racing itself wasn't as close as in the V8 race.
Then you have the usual entertainment on the track, which includes car shows and of course the pit chicks. Mans day 3.0 for me. I was a little bit disappointed though, because I couldn't find an exhibition of the new McLaren P1 or the Porsche 918 Spider, the two next generation high performance cars, which will change the rules of the game (hopefully).
But it was still an enjoyable afternoon with fairly good weather. About an hour before the race started, we went to the spot I picked to watch the race. Over the last two years I learned a lot, found a couple of good spots, where you can see the cars close up, but still get some action in terms of overtaking manoeuvres. We also knew the spots, which seemed promising, but turned out to be not that good. On our way to the spot we crossed a field where there were a lot of merchandising shops and some random car exhibitions. Suddenly, while I was looking to my right my friends just shouted "WOOOH", I turned left and BAEM! there it was. I got hit by one of the big sun umbrellas from Red Bull that are usually socketed in the earth. One of them must got lose and because it was quite windy it accelerated and hit me in the face. I dropped my beer... that was my first concern. People asked me if I was okay and besides some minor pain in the arm because of the impact I was okay.
So we continued to move towards the spot and I was touching my upper arm, which began to hurt more and more. My first thought was a muscle contusion, which wouldn't have been surprising considering the impact. Then I realized that whenever I touched my arm it feels a little bit cold. After a couple of meters I decided to check. So I took off my jacket and shirt and saw the damage the umbrella caused. There was a very nasty cut on my upper arm, about two millimeters wide and it seemed quite deep. Luckily it wasn't bleeding that much, but I still decided to get to the nearest medic box to get some patch on it. There everybody who saw the cut was making a disgusted face and I realized that it's probably worse than I thought. Still they patched me up and we went on to the race.
The race itself was excellent. The spot was pretty decent: We had one sharp corner and two bends to watch, which is not bad compared with previous years. It was also the first year we stayed at the same spot for the entire race.
Quite surprisingly this was also the first time we didn't need earplugs, because weirdly the F1 cars were not that loud anymore. I might just get deaf or it's because of the changed exhaust system, where they now have one big exhaust, which produces a deeper note and therefore is not that loud. A colleague who lives right next to Albert Park actually told me that he had to open the window to actually hear the cars - contrary to previous years where he couldn't even have a phone call inside of his apartment with the windows closed. I found this very enjoyable, I prefer the deeper noise over the screaming and deafening F1 engines of the past.
We had a couple of beer and were watching Nico Rosberg win, which was encouraging for me and because the racers were not that loud we could actually understand the commentary and follow the race progress - of course this was supported by the fact that the two leading drivers were the only ones left of their team (after Vettel and Hamilton couldn't be bothered to race anymore). It is always confusing to see two cars that look the same and not knowing who it is.
After the race we went straight out. We didn't go to the winners celebration for two very good reasons. First of all we were way too far away from the pits to actually reach it in time, because the ceremony is directly after the race is over and the drivers come in to the pits. Secondly we had some bad experience last year, where we were actually very close to the podium, but it took us about an hour to get off the track, because everyone wanted to leave and the exits are more like choke points. Also I wasn't really in the mood to stay any longer. So on the way out, while singing the German national anthem for the first time after an Australian GP since I came here, we saw that the trams were already totally crowded and decided to walk back to the city (which is about two kilometers away). I went a little bit further, because I wanted to go to the hospital and see a doctor about my nasty cut. Read more on the next page..
I wish I haven't maligned Qatar Airways so much as I did last week. Last weekend I was on my trip back to Melbourne - again with Qatar - and even though I'm not superstitious, I cannot ignore the bad karma that haunted me that weekend. On my flight to Germany my biggest complaint was a lack of luxury on Doha airport. This time Doha was the least of my problems.
It started in Frankfurt at the airport, where they changed the gate in the last minute which caused a little running around like a headless chicken to not miss my flight. Other than that I had no reason to complain so far. I got my window seat, an empty seat right next to me. All was well in my world.
In Doha I was actually surprised how quick I could get on the next flight to Melbourne. Only one hour transit is unusually quick. On the final flight to Melbourne I also had an empty seat right next to me. On a 14 hour flight this is irreplaceable, because there's nothing worse than rubbing your body against a stranger for such a long time. So I was happy apart from the two kids behind me constantly kicking my seat and coughing in my neck. They were even more sick than I was - so now I got a mixture of a German flue and some Arab kids virus. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. I had to pay my price for my last blog article.
After a so far uneventful flight I woke up after some hours and wanted to check the current location and the estimated arrival. I was quite surprised when I realized we were no longer flying towards Melbourne, but Perth!
Somewhere over the Gibson Desert (at the border between Western Australia and Northern Territory) a little child collapsed on the plane and needed urgent medical support. They supported the girl with some oxygen and the pilot decided to find the nearest airport for an emergency landing to give the child the necessary medical support. As much as this is quite easy in Europe, if you're over Australia it gets a little more complicated. We were three and a half hours away from Melbourne, but even Perth was two hours away. Anyway the pilot headed for Perth, since those 90 minutes can make the difference.
We didn't get further updates on how the journey would continue. Did we had to stay in Perth for the night? Would they just drop the girl and move on? At some point you realize that there's nothing you can do and you just accept your faith and get comfortable with the idea of spending a night in some hotel in Perth.
Eventually we arrived in Perth and they've asked us to stay seated. This was a good sign, since it meant that we're probably reaching Melbourne that night after all. Even though it still took them one hour to get the child off the plane and refill the plane (because they didn't had enough fuel for the detour). By the time we left Perth the sun was going down already, which means it has been dark in Melbourne for quite some time already.
We arrived in Melbourne three hours later in the middle of the night. The good thing about that is that normally immigrations and customs takes FOREVER, while this time there wasn't really a queue anywhere. My only complaint at this point was that they've raised the customs fee for importing tobacco again by $2 a pack (of tobacco). Bastards... Finding a taxi that takes me home also wasn't a problem, because there's no one at the airport except some empty taxis.
On the way home I felt a bit embarrassed, because I was smelling really bad. But the taxi drivers picking up people from the airport are probably used to it. So I was looking forward to a warm shower and going to bed soon. I knew that I had to wait for half an hour or so to get some warm water, because I pulled the fuse from the boiler when I left Australia - there's just no point heating up water for two weeks for no reason at all. So I arrived in the apartment, turned on the fuse, lights go on, the boiler starts making some gurgling noise. All is well to the point where the fuse of the boiler comes out again with a big bang. I was a bit worried, but decided to put it back in, which only resulted in it coming straight out again with a big PUFF.
There was nothing I could do that night, so I went to bed smelling like a pig. I was going to have a shower in the office the next morning. A couple of hours later on my way to the office, I felt embarrassed again on the tram for the really bad smell. I packed fresh clothes and some shower gel, but only realized at the office that I forgot my towel at home. So I had to go back again and it started to feel like a torture.
By now the boiler is working again (they had to replace a couple of pieces and I had to let the water run for about 50 minutes, because it was filled with rusty water). I don't smell that bad any more as well, but the situation with the boiler was just the cherry on top of the banana cake. And for those of you who don't know: I absolutely hate bananas!
A couple of weeks ago I started planning a trip back to Germany. In the past I used to fly Emirates and they are okay. Good on-board service and Dubai airport is a lot of fun and not the worst place to get stranded for a couple of hours. But this time I wanted to fly with Singapore Airline, because people in the office recommended the on-board service and the stop in Singapore. Yes, they are a little bit more expensive, but on a 24h flight it might be worth it to pay a little extra for a little bit more comfort.
So in the end I checked and found a flight, but most of the seats were already reserved - two weeks before the flight - so I bailed out and tried to find the cheapest flight of course. Paying a lot of money for sitting in an overcrowded plane.. no thank you.
I ended up with some tickets for Qatar Airline - almost 400 bucks less than Singapore Airline, which is impressive. On the plane though you realize why it is 400 bucks less! Emirates provides you with a wet towel at the beginning of the flight to get some moisture in your face, which is nice. Qatar provided a box with stupid candies... it felt ridiculous. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The food was a lot worse too.
So after 14h of bad food in an overcrowded plane (because it is so cheap) you arrive in Doha airport in Qatar. On the plane they show you some advertising clip about Doha and Qatar, how it is the same as Dubai - luxurious, friendly and rich. But as soon as you step out of the plane you realize something is wrong. You don't step into the terminal, but on a bus which takes you to the terminal. There you arrive in a mini airport terminal full of stupid duty free shops. Since I was almost starving due to the bad food on board, I decided to find some food there. It's an airport, so there must be some good restaurant somewhere, right? I found one single "restaurant", where I ate a disgusting microwaved club sandwich. To be fair, it was cheap, but as mentioned before: in some situations it's worth it to pay a little extra for some comfort or at least decent food.
Luckily my transit time was very short! So after two or three hours in hell, where by the way drinking beer is illegal, you get back on the bus to drive another 15 minutes to the plane that takes you to Frankfurt. I got a window seat and was not really surprised to see Doha from above: one single construction site - oh and yes: I took a photo with my phone shortly after take-off. The entire inner city with the skyline and everything appeared to be dead. In fact most of the roads didn't even had tarmac on them, but they were just dirt roads. So it appears like they are very far away from doing the 2022 soccer world cup. The airport is crap, the city still under construction and I honestly doubt that a soccer world cup works without beer. Most of Europe and South America probably won't show up at all.
So as a consequence I won't fly with Qatar again in the future. However the flight back to Melbourne is already booked. So pretty soon I have to go through the torture machine once more...