Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Vũng Tàu, Vietnam - "An anchorage swamp" filled with oil

by Saigon Charlie

Well yesterday was a whirlwind to say the least but maybe not as bad as the cyclone hitting Oman and the Arabian Gulf; with some stunned by such a storm due to its extreme rareness. Here on this side of the world, Saigon, I don’t suppose such a storm is possible due to its proximity to the equator at 10 degrees and 46 minutes (10 degrees north or south is SUPPOSE to be typhoon free) but anything can happen I guess.

In all the news coming out of the region about Cyclone Gonu, the obvious concern was its ability to disrupt global oil supplies and its continued march into Iran and the Straights of Hormuz. After what I saw yesterday, one wonders if such a thing could happen here with the oil industry and if they even consider such a thing.

My day was spent exploring the Saigon River down to its mouth where the port of Vung Tau sits. Vung Tau has been around a long time with the Portuguese using it first as an anchorage and from what I saw from all the huge Catholic churches and iconic statues, apparently quite Christian although from looking at the temples/churches there seems to be a ‘marriage’ of sorts between eastern and western beliefs.

Anyway, I am no historian but am very interested on where Vietnam is headed with its infrastructure projects, with a particular eye on oil production. It seems from what I saw on what use to be called a ‘swamp”, that someone is doing extremely well and has BIG plans for this place.

When I write I try to reflect on other places I have been and compare those places to the new place. It the case of what local expats refer to as ‘oil city’, my first vivid comparison was to Hong Kong but not as it is today but as it was from old etchings from the 19th century. One main reason for this is that Vung Tau has two ‘peaks’ that rise from the sea in a similar fashion to the peak in Hong Kong. Up one of these peaks an old ‘palace’ of sorts, which dominates the slopes with cannon sticking out through the tropical trees pointing their guns towards the colonial anchorage. Impressive to say the least.

I use to live in Hong Kong years ago and taking the one and half hour hydrofoil down the winding, freighter filled river, was a ‘déjà vu’ experience as I use to have to ride the same Russian built ferries to go home to Lantau island when Victoria Harbor wasn’t kicking up to much of a fuss. Riding hydrofoils are great….as long as the seas are calm but pay close attention to those ‘barf bags’ in front of you when seas start kicking up!

Anyway, Vung Tau has developed at an obviously rapid pace with modern and very impressive structures everywhere the eye turns. Can't ask for better roads either with traffic surprisingly light unless everyone comes out at night.

The names of “Stock Company’ this and that dominate many of these structures which are positioned next to large and beautiful done hotels and restaurants. It appears that many very large and new seafood restaurants wind around the coast with owners from nations around the world. Yes, all very exceptional.

I even went down to the working yards for their shipbuilding and repair facilities. Wow! …is a great word to describe the intensity of this area with men everywhere stripping, cutting, fitting, repairing and building new, wooden fishing trawlers, and I am not talking about small boats that ply Thai waters.

The men were super friendly and wanted me to take their photos and smiled and waved and were obviously very proud of their handicraft as they should be. Planking for the vessels was made right there in the yards with large diameter logs stacked in various places with men with circular saws cutting and sizing the logs into planks. Quite amazing really to watch this process from raw logs to finished ship planks. Other than the use to electric saws, I suspect much has not changed over the centuries.

My exploration of the area went deeper and deeper into the area and as my time was limited as I needed to get back to Saigon the same day, I headed back to the main hydrofoil ferry dock and with a little time to spare before my 14:30 departure, I had a bit to eat and a beer at what appears to be an expat watering hole called “Ned Kellys”. From the looks of the memorabilia on the walls, this place has been here a long time. Obviously the place to go if you want to meet the local expats.

I highly suggest you choose this as a destination if you visit Saigon, at least for a day excursion if nothing else. If you are here on business, an absolute must see to understand where Vietnam is at and where it is headed!

I wish I could share with the 400 plus photos I took about the island and the trip down and up the Saigon river BUT unfortunately as I was returning back to my hotel taking photos and as I wandered home to my hotel, a couple of blocks from the hotel and right across from the Saigon Bus Station, a couple of young lads who were obviously very skilled at motorcycle ‘grab and run’ hit me as I was aiming my camera at the circle taking photos.

I suspect they followed me from the ferry waiting for the right moment although I have zero evidence of this but in the lightning strike, they did manage to almost pull my arm out of its socket as the strap was wrapped around it...but fortunately I got off with only a cut to my arm....and a pained feeling deep inside for what has otherwise been an amazing journey with a wonderful people.

In 17 years traveling in and out and living in Asia, I have never been robbed violently like that (although brutally assaulted in Cambodia years ago for other reasons); actually, other than a girl who took my digital camera in an Internet café long ago in Phuket, that's been it.

I guess they needed it more than me and I wish them all the best with their new found wealth and prosperity. Karma however is a very, very funny thing and we all end up paying the price; maybe not now, but somewhere, sometime....and maybe not even in this lifetime....

Good night Vietnam!
Saigon Charlie